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Given In Evidence

Chapter Text

Six months after The Reichenbach Fall

"He's going to get himself killed!"

Sally's profoundly disapproving voice was as strident as usual and Lestrade sighed as he turned to face her.

"Aren't you supposed to be working on the robberies?"

"Aren't you?"

His mouth tightened and he looked back across the street, already dark in the late December afternoon, to where John Watson was suffering the ministrations of a pretty paramedic, his rather battered face regularly illuminated by the flashing lights around them.

"You can't let him carry on like this," Sally insisted again. "It's pure luck he isn't dead already – one of these two had a knife, you know." She waved her arm towards a nearby police car, into which the second aspiring mugger was being packed, along with his dreams of life as a kingpin of crime.

"John can handle himself."

Sally shook her head. "You'd think he'd have settled down a bit, now that the…" She broke off, for once seeming to notice the line before she plunged across it.

"Sherlock's name was cleared," Lestrade reminded her tersely. "Why don't you make yourself useful and do some interviews? Apparently the victim has friends in high places."

"Already done." Sally raised the notebook in her hand. "Sir," she added. She flicked back a page. "The old man's all right, just shaken - he was taking a shortcut through the alley when he got jumped by Beavis and Butt-head." She threw a scathing glance towards the delinquents as the car holding them drove past, then turned back to her notes.

"I've got his statement, plus witness accounts from two shop-keepers and a guy who was selling The Big Issue on the corner. They all say the same – John is a 'good Samaritan', just happened to be passing, right place right time, yadda yadda yadda." She looked up. "Sir, it's happening too often."

Lestrade attempted to brush her off but Sally was as tenacious as ever. Being proven wrong in the past had in no way inhibited her suspicious nature… which was what made her a bloody good officer. Most of the time.

Lestrade sighed again. "He's hardly turned vigilante. He just seems to have a nose for dangerous situations, and no hesitation about getting involved." He met her gaze, putting some authority into his own. "He's not breaking any laws and he's actually doing some good. Leave him alone."

"But, Sir…"

"That's an order, Sergeant. Your interference was far from useful last time and it's not helping him now. Back off."

Sally's mouth twisted mutinously but she subsided a little. "You'll blame yourself if he gets knifed one of these days," she muttered. "It's only a matter of time, the rate he's going."

Lestrade glared at her and she huffed before stomping away. He watched her go, then looked back towards his friend, who now had his jaw thrust out pugnaciously and was adamantly refusing a blanket.

"I'm not saying you're wrong," he murmured once Sally was safely out of earshot. "But right now, I'm pretty sure that living dangerously is the only thing keeping him alive."

oOo

"All right, Billy?" John enquired of the young homeless lad hunched into a temperature-inadequate hoodie, who was waiting for him as he approached 221B a couple of hours later. "Your wrist playing up again? Want me to take a look at it?"

"No, it's fine, Doctor Watson. Much better, thanks." Billy pulled his arm free of the hoodie's front pocket and twisted his hand around, demonstrating a good range of motion, although his fingers were blue with cold.

"What happened to the gloves this time?" John asked resignedly.

Billy shrugged, scuffing the ground with the toe of one well-worn trainer. "There's always someone colder, you know?" He glanced up, his gaze half-apologetic, half-stubborn.

John tried a frown, but it didn't stick. He sighed, eyeing the thin face and bright eyes before him. "I know." He rooted out his keys, then nodded towards the doorway. "Come on up – think I've got a spare pair somewhere about the place. You can wrap your hands round a cuppa while I find them."

"Er…" Billy was regarding him carefully, no doubt taking note of the freshly taped graze across his cheekbone and the darkening bruise at the corner of his jaw. "I'm sorry, Doctor Watson… I can see you're tired, but there's something…"

John was instantly alert. "News?" he demanded. "Some word on Moriarty?"

Billy shook his head. "No. No, I'm sorry, nothing like that. Still no whisper about him at all. It's just… it's odd, I don't know…" He trailed off. "Can you come and see?"

John hesitated. He was weary… so very weary, and sore - the aches going right down to his bones this time. In his mind he pictured a warm bath, a glass of whisky, an armchair by the fire…

An empty armchair across from it.

He waved an arm. "Lead on."

"It was Myra who noticed," Billy said as they made their way down the street and around the corner.

"Myra? 'I sprained my ankle kicking a groper in the nuts' Myra?"

Billy's grin gleamed in the streetlights. "Only one Myra," he agreed. "She's still grateful for you strapping her up after that, by the way."

"I'd have given her a public service award, if I could," John replied. "An elasticated bandage was nothing."

Billy shot him a glance. "It's not nothing to us, Doctor Watson."

"So, where are we going?" John asked quickly, brushing off the sentiment before it could reach him.

"It's not far," Billy promised, heading for a side street. "The house is virtually derelict, it's been standing empty for years. Myra squats there sometimes."

John nodded, following as Billy kept going and eventually ducked around a piece of loose boarding and into the back yard of a rather tumbledown building. John had to squeeze through the gap - he was quite a bit stockier than Billy's slender figure, despite the weight he had lost in recent months.

An unlatched window gave way to a basement with rickety stairs leading upwards. "Second floor," Billy announced, leading the way. "Somebody's been coming here, but Myra's not actually seen them. Made her nervous, though - she's moved on now."

He pushed open a door and John walked through, his gaze falling on the signs of habitation in front of the window – an upturned crate, cigarette ends, a newspaper… He glanced at Billy, who nodded at him to proceed. For a moment, he flashed back to the many times he had been pointed in the direction of random evidence and expected to come up with something useful… or, at least, something not boring. John closed his eyes, the spectre of Sherlock so vivid in his mind that he could almost hear the whisper of coat tails swirling ahead of him, smell that distinctive mix of chemicals and burning impatience...

He exhaled slowly and with deliberation. "Right then." He gritted his jaw, gathering the scattered threads of himself and pulling them in again. "What am I looking at?" It came out a little more abrupt than he had intended but Billy took it in stride, indicating the window.

"The view."

John stepped forward briskly and looked out over the London skyline.

"Lower."

John brought his eyes down to below rooftop level, immediately noting the familiar red awning of Speedy's café. Automatically, his gaze slid up and he could see the windows of 221B, which were dimly illuminated – Mrs Hudson must have left the door to the stairwell open again.

"You see what I mean?" Billy spoke up. "It's just a house which is more or less opposite your house. Could mean nothing - but why has someone been sitting at this window? There's nothing else in here and Myra says the back rooms are warmer." He shrugged. "I'm sorry if I've wasted your time, Doctor Watson, but it's been worrying me."

"No, you did the right thing, Billy." John frowned as he turned slowly around, surveying the rest of the room. He pulled out his torch to supplement the light coming through from the street lamps, then turned back and focused on the area immediately around him, squatting down on his haunches to examine the floor and window ledge, the phrase 'dust is eloquent' echoing in the back of his mind until he blocked it out.

There were a couple of marks on the ledge, he noted, peering more closely at them. Symmetrical and quite distinctively shaped...

Somewhere in his head an alarm bell was ringing, but the association was so unexpected it took him a while to make it.

"I think someone's coming." Billy sounded a little nervous. "Shall I go and see…?"

"Wait." John's voice was quiet but extremely authoritative as he moved forward, taking Billy by one skinny arm and pushing him behind the door. They stood together silently, listening… traffic noise, a distant siren, then a definite creak from the stairs below.

John spoke close to Billy's ear. "If someone comes up here, I want you to stay put until he's in the room, then sneak out behind him. Get out of the house, do you understand?"

"But…"

"Billy." John's hand tightened in warning. "I'm serious. Get out of the house and don't come back. If I'm not home in an hour, get a message to D.I. Lestrade, all right?"

Billy's face screwed up in worry. "Do you know who it is?"

John shook his head. "I don't know who, but I've got a fair idea of..." He broke off as there was another creak, much closer this time. "I need you to do this for me, Billy, all right? Don't let me down."

Billy's eyes were wide and alarmed, but his shoulders straightened and he nodded.

"Good man." With a last squeeze to his shoulder, John released him and backed away into the shadows, running a mental inventory of anything he was carrying which could be used as a weapon. Sadly, the list was not long. He focused on his breathing, a familiar calm descending over him as the door swung wide, although concern for Billy was central in his mind.

The figure that entered was tall, broad-shouldered, and moving with a confident athleticism which spoke of advanced training. 'There would be no shame in…' Ruthlessly John pushed the thought down. He watched with relief as Billy slipped silently out of the door then dismissed the boy from his awareness, concentrating on the intruder who was carrying a holdall and seemed oblivious to his presence.

Heading straight across the room, the man set his bag down on the crate and unzipped it, his moves practised and automatic as he looked out through the window. John waited, wanting to be absolutely sure, but he couldn't leave it too long… As soon as the first part of the disassembled rifle appeared he made his move, exploding from his corner and crashing into the man with the maximum momentum he could build up over such a short distance, his arm swinging the torch he held in a vicious arc.

He had the advantage of surprise, and the man was clearly shocked as he staggered backwards, but his reactions were phenomenally fast… he was already twisting away and John's blow whistled through empty air. He was forced to swerve to avoid the hand grabbing for his wrist, getting in just a single sharp jab before backing off, looking for an opening.

The man grunted and moved forward. "You don't fight like a squatter." His voice was flat and unaccented. Cold. The light from the window fell across John's face and his opponent stopped abruptly. "Well, this is convenient." He sounded amused. "Very obliging of you, I'm sure." He leaned over, setting down the rifle parts onto the crate before straightening up and cracking his knuckles.

John held his position, confident that he was out of reach for the moment. "So, who sent you?" he demanded. "What's this about?"

The man shrugged. "Fulfilling a contract," he said. "Honour amongst thieves, and all that. You understand."

"Not remotely."

"Not my problem." He lunged forward and John was in trouble.

He did his best. Knowing the temptation he constantly fought, he did his absolute best, pulling out every trick he'd ever learned, drawing on all his experience and expertise, fighting with everything he had… but the other man had a good forty pounds on him and all of it muscle, backed up with a level of training which John had seldom encountered before.

The end was inevitable, only the method in doubt, until John finally stumbled, his foot landing on the torch he had dropped at some point and twisting under him as he fell heavily onto his back. His opponent was on him immediately.

John tucked his chin down against the fingers forcing their way around his throat, but he knew it was hopeless. 'No shame in this…' The thought came again, the thought which he had every time, but which the soldier in him could never accept. This time was different. His hands scrabbled across the floor, searching for anything he could use as a weapon, but there was nothing.

His vision was darkening, bright spots of light flashing across his eyes until the man taking his life was nothing but a blur… a conduit… a door opening to the path he had wanted to walk for the last six months. Walk? Hell… run. Strong thumbs reached the ridged cartilage of his larynx and John relaxed, already able to hear Sherlock's voice calling his name.

He smiled, peace descending on him for the first time in far, far too long. He was so tired, so heartsick, so echoingly empty and alone. He let his head fall back in acquiescence as his consciousness at long last slipped blessedly away.

'See you soon…'

Chapter Text

"John! Come on, John…"

'Give me a sodding break' was John's first thought as he found himself being heaved into a sitting position. He was aware that someone was bringing him back, a large hand reaching down over his shoulder from behind and kneading gently against his solar plexus, but he didn't want his mind to clear... right now he was still able to feel Sherlock's presence all around him.

"Come on, John, please."

The pain was agonising, each breath a huge effort, and for long minutes John leaned back against the body supporting him as he gasped for air. Gradually his strength began to return and he was able to focus, seeing his recent opponent lying face down on the floor with the hilt of something deadly protruding from the back of his neck.

'Who on earth...?' John twisted his head around and peered over his shoulder. What he saw could not be there.

He closed his eyes. 'Dreaming,' he decided. 'I'm dreaming.' He didn't want to wake up.

"John!"

He forced his eyes open again. "Am I dead?"

"Far too nearly, you idiot!" The voice was sharp with the anger of profound relief.

He was tipped forwards, then the man moved around, dropping into a crouch beside him and gripping his shoulders.

"We have to move."

John stared at him stupidly.

"John! Look, I know it's a shock, but..."

John held out a hand. The man took it immediately and tugged, but John resisted and he fell forward instead, dropping to his knees. They stared at each other, neither letting go, then John slowly raised his other hand and pushed back the hood which shadowed his rescuer's face. There was no mistaking those cheekbones.

"You're dead." His voice was the merest whisper of a croak.

"Evidently not."

'Hallucinations... lack of oxygen to the brain...' John's thoughts flew to the man who had attacked him, but his eyes refused to follow them.

"We really need to go now, John."

"You're dead. I saw you... I watched you... I... Sherl..." John's vision was blurring again. The man - Sherlock - tried to ease himself away but John couldn't let go. He had one hand holding Sherlock's own and the other clenched around the lowered hood of his sweatshirt, and he couldn't let go.

"Seriously, we have to..."

John pulled him forwards.

There was a moment when Sherlock was tense and awkward against him, but then his free arm came up and John felt long fingers tighten in the fabric of his jacket.

"It's good to see you." His voice was low against the side of John's neck.

He smelled like Sherlock. John had probably never been this close to him before, but he smelled... right. He felt right. Too thin, but solid... He felt...

"Really you?"

Sherlock pulled back a little and grinned at him. "Really me," he promised. "Even without a coat collar to turn up."

John almost laughed, but it threatened to turn into a sob and he bit it back. "Can't believe... survived that fall!" he managed. He pushed Sherlock's head to the side, looking for scars, trying to get his brain to accept what he was seeing.

Sherlock's grin faded. "I..." He frowned. "Come on." He got to his feet as John released him, then pulled John up too. "Can you walk?"

John stared at him, taking in the rather ratty hooded sweatshirt and faded jeans and struggling to tally the image with his memories of his friend. But it was Sherlock. It was Sherlock. It was Sherlock. He nodded. "Course I can walk."

oOo

"Suppose bloody Mycroft set it up," John complained hoarsely an hour later. "Pretending you were dead, I mean. Just the sort of thing that wanker would do."

"Don't try to talk."

John took another painful sip of the tea Sherlock had made him and grinned across their kitchen table. "What, no brother-bashing? Thought you said you'd recovered?"

His smile slipped as his eyes moved over Sherlock again. "Have you recovered? You look all right, you're not limping, your joints seem fine… but that fall… I saw you…" He reached across the table and gripped Sherlock's forearm. "I saw you… I felt…" His fingers moved to Sherlock's wrist and he looked down as he counted the steady beats. The pulse was a little fast but so very much there… John had to force himself to let go. "Sorry." He shrugged apologetically.

"You need to rest your throat."

"I've been talking to myself for six months, you'll just have to put up with it." John hesitated. "Look… we got your name cleared, you know. It wasn't even that hard; Moriarty's story was full of holes and he didn't defend it - seems to have vanished, actually." He leaned forward, gazing at Sherlock earnestly and forcing his voice to last… to get out the words he had to say. "I don't know why you felt you had to do… what you did. But there was no need, honestly - that's never the answer. You have friends, Sherlock – people who'll stand by you no matter what; you don't ever need to…"

"John, please stop talking."

John raised his hands in the air. "Well, you talk then. Obviously, they must have revived you but what happened after that? Where have you been recovering for all this time and how…?" His voice finally gave out and he picked up his tea, waving to indicate that a response was most definitely required.

"I need a shower."

John made a noise of protest.

"I… Look, the text I received after we got home?"

John nodded.

"That was good news. I believe the danger is now over. I can stay… if that's what you want."

John gaped at him. What else would he want? He opened his mouth but Sherlock held up a hand.

"No more talking for you. I am going to shower, and then I will... explain, and after that…" He hesitated. "After that, it's up to you."

He rose to his feet and John frowned in confusion, watching him walk down the corridor and suppressing the urge to follow.

'Well, that was weird.'

He sat for a moment, listening to the sounds of another person in the flat. The other person. In their flat. Feeling slightly foolish he pinched his own arm, then smiled at the resultant 'ouch'.

Rolling his eyes at himself he got up, carrying his tea in one hand and massaging his throat with the other - thankfully the painkillers Sherlock had forced on him as soon as they got home were kicking in and he no longer felt quite so much like a portable bruise. Well, it was either the drugs or the euphoria, one or the other. Probably both. He shook his head at the rather random thoughts firing in his brain – there were a thousand questions vying for his attention but none of them could hold it for long. He kept looking at the knife Sherlock had retrieved from the sniper's neck, which now lay on the kitchen table. Evidence of reality, it drew his gaze repeatedly.

Reassured further by the sound of splashing from the bathroom, he wandered to the living room window and looked out, idly trying to locate the room in the abandoned house where everything had taken such a dramatic turn. A movement from the street caught his eye and he looked down to see Billy shivering by the railings, his thin face relaxing as John gave him a wave. Billy nodded back and half turned to leave, and John suddenly felt bad for not thinking of him sooner - how long had the poor lad been standing out there? He held up a hand in a 'wait!' gesture and set his tea down on the table before heading for the door - pausing to check he could still hear Sherlock - then running quickly down the stairs.

"Why won't you lot ever just ring the bloody doorbell?" he demanded, with a smile to take the sting out of his words.

Billy's eyes widened. "Are you all right, Doctor Watson? You sound awful!"

John shook off the concern. "I'm fine, Billy. Better than fine." His grin could not be contained. He wanted to croak his news to the rooftops but he'd best wait and check with Sherlock first. "You got away all right, then?"

Billy blinked at him and John realised that he must look completely deranged - a bruised and battered man who just couldn't stop smiling.

"I called Mr Wiggins," Billy blurted out. "I know you said to leave it an hour and to go to the police, but I couldn't just… that guy was huge… I shouldn't have left you and now you look… well…" He eyed John worriedly.

John stepped forward and patted him on the shoulder. "You did the right thing." He got stuck between nodding his head in approval and shaking it in ongoing disbelief, the resultant motion making Billy look more nervous than ever.

John tried to control his features, but it was impossible. He laughed, the happiness bursting from him. "To be honest, you could probably confess to eating the last jammie dodger and get away with it right now!"

The tension eased from Billy's frame and he grinned back. "I hoped it would be all right, but Mr Wiggins just hung up on me… then his friend went belting past ten minutes later like a rat out of an aqueduct!"

John chuckled in approval at the Monty Python reference. Billy had taken a beating from a couple of yuppies on Halloween which had led to John dragging him up to the flat for treatment. Ever since seeing the DVD collection, he had started randomly quoting Python to try to make John smile. He'd not had a lot of success with it until now.

"Listen, I've got to get back inside, OK? Do you have somewhere sorted for tonight?" John reached into his pocket, but Billy immediately backed away, holding up his hands.

"I'm fine, Doctor Watson," he insisted. "Not about to start taking your money now, with everything you do for us."

John didn't push it. "You take care, all right? I'll see you soon." He was halfway through the door when something struck him. "Billy!"

The lad trotted back towards him.

"'His friend'?" he queried. "You said 'his friend' belted past you?"

Billy nodded.

"Whose friend did you mean?"

"Um… Mr Wiggins'." Billy's tone had an 'of course' in it.

"From the homeless network?"

Billy nodded again and John frowned. "You've only been in London since the end of June, right?" He got another puzzled nod. "So, how do you know that Sher… that the man who went past you is a friend of Wiggins'?"

Billy looked confused. "Well, maybe 'friend' is the wrong word, but I've seen them together," he explained. "Not often, but every now and then. Thick as thieves, they are."

John stared at him. "Going back how long?"

"Um… nearly as long as I've been here," Billy reported. He frowned in thought. "Back in July, for sure, because it was Phil's birthday and Mr Wiggins gave him two packets of fags and I saw him get them from Siggy."

"Siggy?"

Billy looked a little embarrassed. "It's what I call him in my head – because of the fags, really. He always has them. I asked Mr Wiggins about him one time, but he told me to mind my own bleedin' business."

John reached out a hand to the doorframe as it seemed to quiver around him. "So, you're telling me that… Siggy has been around since July? And he wasn't… I don't know… on crutches, or anything?"

Billy shrugged. "Seemed all right to me. I mean, he kept to himself, never really talked to anyone apart from Mr Wiggins and he only popped up now and then. Sometimes he looked like he might have been in a fight, but never anything serious."

"Right..." John shook his head. "Right."

"You sure you're OK, Doctor Watson? Do you need me to…?"

John dredged up a smile. "Everything's fine, Billy. You get going."

He didn't remember much more until he was tearing back the shower curtain.

oOo

Sherlock had heard the bathroom door bang open, of course, but he chose not to brace himself as he registered John's expression. If there was a punch coming, he would take it.

Slowly, he lowered his arms from where he'd been rinsing the shampoo from his hair – his favoured brand, he had noted, although not the bottle he had left behind.

"Turn around." John described a circle with one finger and Sherlock slowly made a 360 degree rotation as directed, conscious of all the evidence John wasn't finding.

"Not a mark on you," John observed. "Nothing significant, anyway. Certainly nothing six months old that would suggest a fall from a high building."

Sherlock remained silent, giving John time to work through it… which he did.

"Just a magic trick."

Sherlock nodded.

"Right then." John dropped the curtain back into place and walked out.

Sherlock closed his eyes and wished he'd closed them a half second earlier; before he'd seen the look he had just put onto the face of his very best friend.

oOo

It was some ten minutes later when Sherlock returned to the living room, back in his own clothes for the first time in far too long. He had considered wearing just his dressing gown in order to appear more vulnerable, but John might recognise such a deliberate ploy. He opted for a black suit and a dark grey shirt, which seemed suitably regretful attire.

John was sitting in his armchair and Sherlock took his place opposite and debated how to break the ice.

"Moriarty is dead," he started, which certainly got a reaction.

"What? When?"

"Six months ago. Shot himself on Barts' rooftop, not long before you got there."

"I've been looking for him."

"I know."

"So what happened to the body? Nothing in the papers, no one knows any…" John stopped, shaking his head. "Mycroft."

"Mycroft," Sherlock agreed.

"So that whole 'not speaking' thing – which did seem a bit sudden, actually – that was just…"

"A front. Yes." Sherlock tried a small smile. "Although quite a refreshing one."

John didn't smile back. "I blamed him for your death, you know. Nearly hit him at the... at your funeral." He sighed. "Almost wish I had now."

"Why didn't you?"

"Wasn't sure I could stop." John looked away, retreating inside his head, his thoughts clearly unhappy ones.

Sherlock took a deep breath. Time to bite the bullet – if he couldn't gain John's understanding, he had no hope of his forgiveness.

"When Moriarty came here after the trial, I asked him how he intended to do it - to 'burn' me." John was listening, but he didn't seem completely focused.

"He called it the 'final problem'. Said he'd already told me the answer…" In his mind he heard Moriarty's sing-song, 'but did you listen?' "After the girl screamed, and the net tightened around me, I told Lestrade that Moriarty wanted to destroy me inch by inch – I assumed that he was attempting to ruin me professionally and the delivery of that burned gingerbread man seemed like confirmation."

John's gaze began to wander… Sherlock was losing him. He leaned forward.

"But he'd already made it clear in the cab that discrediting me wasn't his 'final problem'." Sherlock allowed his self-disgust to sound in his voice. "I heard, but I didn't listen!"

John turned his head away and Sherlock got up from his chair and squatted down in front of John's, bringing them to eye-level. "John! Are you paying attention? I am trying to explain this to you!"

"No need." John shrugged. "I get it. You decided to fake your death. Not many people could know - I didn't make the inner circle. That's what it boils down to, right?"

"Wrong."

"You didn't trust me."

"Completely wrong."

"If you say so."

"John! You must let me explain… I did it for you!"

That seemed to get through, at least. John's eyes narrowed and Sherlock edged back slightly, rising to his feet.

"You did it… for me?"

How could he get so much anger into such a diminished voice?

"Do you have the slightest idea…?"

Such a fast reaction; feelings so close to the surface. Already John was shaking, his breathing fast and laboured.

"You were my life, Sherlock… my life! It's not as if I had a girlfriend… or my own place… or even a job that didn't involve running around after you. A few locum days a month were hardly a distraction. You were everything."

"I…" Sherlock felt lost. "We only knew each other for eighteen months, and I've been gone for six. I knew it would be hard at first, but you've lived alone here now for a third of the time that we lived here together… I didn't think that you would still…"

"Bastard!" John was up and out of his chair and Sherlock backed away instinctively before remembering that he hadn't been going to do that. He stopped, keeping his hands down and leaving himself open.

John halted abruptly. "You think I'm going to hit you." He looked again. "No… you're going to let me hit you."

Sherlock shifted uncomfortably. "If it will make you feel better."

John croaked out an impression of a laugh, staring at him with an edge of hysteria in his eyes. Then he sat back down, dropping his head and running his hands through his hair. "When you…" He trailed off, then drew a deep breath and looked up again. "When you 'died'," - he raised his hands to make inverted comma signs around the words - "Well…" He swallowed, his gaze sliding away. "Well, you weren't the only one."

Sherlock didn't know what to say. He frowned. "I didn't die, though," he pointed out helpfully. "Shouldn't that be good news?"

John closed his eyes. "This is pointless… you'll never get it." He got to his feet. "I need some…"

"…air," Sherlock finished for him. He studied the grey exhaustion in John's face. "You shouldn't be going out when you're like this – you stay here, I'll go."

"No."

"Just for a few hours…"

"No!" John pointed at Sherlock's chair. "Sit!"

Sherlock sat.

"Stay."

He did that too.

oOo

Sherlock waited an hour, which seemed ample time, and then opened the door which John had slammed on his way out and made his way down the stairs. Well… half way down the stairs.

"Pathetic, eh?" John sniffed as Sherlock sat down beside him, his legs folding awkwardly. "Couldn't actually bring myself to go any further."

Sherlock glanced sideways at him. His face was red and blotchy and he didn't bother to turn it away.

"There were three of you," Sherlock said quietly. "My 'only three friends in the world' - as determined by Moriarty." John seemed resigned to hearing the story now, the fight drained out of him.

"He sent me three 'I.O.U.'s… the apple, which you saw; spray painted letters on the windows opposite Scotland Yard; and fresh graffiti on the corner facing Baker Street." Sherlock twisted so that he was turned more towards John. "Three 'I.O.U.'s; three bullets; three gunmen; three victims… unless…"

John slowly met his gaze, his eyes wide and searching. Eventually, he nodded. "Unless you jumped."

Sherlock watched hopefully as John started to think, some of the distress leaving his face as he frowned in concentration.

"So, the apple… that was here, in our flat. That was me?"

Sherlock nodded rather than giving a verbal response, forcing John to keep looking at him.

"And the others… Lestrade, for the Scotland Yard one?" Sherlock nodded again. "And Mrs Hudson, of course."

"Of course." Sherlock smiled. "So much more than just a landlady."

A brief flash of pleasure crossed John's face. "I knew she meant something to you! It seemed all wrong you being so dismissive in the lab when I thought she'd been shot, but it wasn't that you didn't care, it was just that you… oh." His face fell again as he followed his thoughts through to their conclusion. He shook his head. "Of course. You needed to get rid of me."

"John…" Sherlock raised his arm, unsure whether or not to try offering some physical reassurance. Deciding that John might at least gain some satisfaction from shrugging him off, he tentatively rested a hand on his shoulder, unreasonably glad when it was permitted to remain.

"So, I guess Moriarty tried to burn the heart out of you, after all," John observed after a while. "Oh, is that what he meant, when he said he'd already told you the answer?"

"It would seem so," agreed Sherlock, surprised at the speed at which John had reached a conclusion which had taken Sherlock himself an unacceptable length of time to grasp. "That was the 'final problem' he set for me. Not enough to destroy my life – he wanted to destroy my self-image as a sociopath, to force me to sacrifice myself to save the people I… well…" He shrugged. "You know."

John looked at him oddly. "So when did you work it all out, then? You'd obviously got it set up well in advance."

Sherlock looked away. That was more than enough information to be going on with… best to give John some time before hitting him with the rest of it. "Aren't you worried about the snipers?" he deflected.

"Should I be? I thought you said the danger was over?" John shook his head. "Can't imagine you'd come back before you were sure – although I'm surprised it's taken you six months to track down three gunmen. You used to solve one case in the morning and be climbing the walls for another by mid-afternoon."

Sherlock bristled. "Well, it wasn't that simple. Moriarty's network was vast; I…" He cut himself off - this wasn't the time. "Moran was the last – it was he who attacked you tonight."

"Right."

"He was Moriarty's second in command."

"OK."

"I've been tracking him for months."

"Er… well done."

"He's been my priority target ever since… For a long time."

"So - you got him. Congratulations."

"It was his assignment to shoot you if I didn't kill myself – he was the danger to you all along. He was the one I couldn't find, couldn't trace, couldn't risk discovering the truth."

"Sherlock… I don't know what you want me to say, here." John was slumping rather on the stairs, more of his weight leaning against the hand on his shoulder. "I'm tired. My throat hurts. My whole body hurts, if it comes to that. You've turned my world upside down and I know there's a lot you're not telling me. A lot you'll probably never tell me."

He shifted forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I don't know what to think right now, so I'm just going to stick with the basics. You're alive and that is a very good thing, whatever the implications… the world is always going to be a better place with you in it."

There was an exhausted smile on his face when he turned his head. "I think I'm punch drunk. You'd best ignore me from this point on, because God knows what I'll say." He shrugged. "I kind of want to super-glue my fingers around your wrist so you can't disappear… but I need to sleep."

"All right." Sherlock got to his feet, moving down a couple of stairs so that he wasn't completely looming. He hesitated, then held out his hand.

John looked at it. "I still have questions, even if I'm too tired to ask them."

Sherlock nodded. "I will be here to answer."

John took his hand.

 

Artwork for this chapter:

Illustration by squeegeelicious

 

Chapter Text

"Is this permanent marker?"

Sherlock opened his eyes, but he didn't sit up. It was good to be back on his own sofa again - he'd even managed a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, which was more than he'd had in months.

Held in front of his face was a hand. "It seemed expedient," he replied.

John pulled his hand away and regarded the back of it. "'Not dead, SH'," he read out. He returned his gaze to Sherlock. "Does it strike you as appropriate to write things on people's hands - in permanent ink - while they're sleeping?"

"My apologies." Sherlock pulled his dressing gown more tightly around himself and permitted the development of a slight pout. "I thought you might appreciate a reminder, in case you were disorientated upon waking." He watched out of the corner of his eye as John began to look a little bashful.

"Well, yes…" He ran a finger over the initials on his left hand. "All right, yes, that was..." His mouth tightened. "But, Sherlock - it won't come off!"

Sherlock managed to shrug a shoulder without disturbing the comfortable position he had attained. "Well, I don't know how long it will take you to adjust," he pointed out reasonably. "Simpler than having to write it every night."

John stared at him and Sherlock met his gaze. Eventually, John sighed and shook his head, then turned and headed for the kitchen.

"You're welcome!" Sherlock called after him.

Five minutes later, two mugs were deposited on the coffee table and John settled into the adjacent chair.

"We need to think about Mrs Hudson," he began. "How to break it to her, I mean. She'll be delighted of course," he added quickly. "But it's going to be a shock."

"Quite right, John," Sherlock approved. "Shocked delight is a perfectly apt description."

There was a short silence from the chair. "You've already told her?"

Sherlock swivelled into a sitting position and reached for his tea. "Wiggins contacted me yesterday to warn that there may have been a leak concerning my 'death'… that rumours were spreading."

He took a drink and smiled; John still remembered how he liked his tea. "If word was out, then there was no longer any benefit to your ignorance – but you were with the police at the time, so I came to Baker Street." He shrugged. "Didn't want to use the front door, so I went round the back to Mrs Hudson's."

"What did she say?"

"She assumed I was one of yours at first," Sherlock replied. "Said to try later - but she went to get me a mince pie." He felt a pang of regret; it was a shame about that mince pie… he had a definite fondness for Mrs Hudson's mince pies.

"One of mine?"

"A homeless person in need of patching up," Sherlock explained. "I pushed my hood back before she returned."

"And how did she…?"

Sherlock grimaced. "She fainted."

John's expression appeared to be attempting concern, but there was a definite grin underneath. "At least I didn't do that."

"You were already unconscious," Sherlock pointed out. "And lying down."

He frowned, thinking back to the scene at which he had arrived the night before. "You gave up too easily against Moran," he declared. The moment when John had let his head fall back kept replaying in his mind, it was annoying.

John wouldn't meet his gaze and his neck had flushed red. Sherlock's eyes narrowed.

"So where is Mrs Hudson?" John asked, turning his face away and looking hopefully towards the door. "I would have thought she'd be following you around like a mother hen."

Sherlock snorted. "Went off to her sister's before you got home," he said. "To 'give you boys some privacy for your reunion'." He rolled his eyes.

"Oh, bloody hell."

"Indeed."

"Wait… so you were actually here last night, when I came back after that attempted mugging?"

Sherlock nodded and John gave a huff of realisation.

"So if Billy hadn't intercepted me, I'd just have walked in and found you sitting in your chair..." He shook his head. "I can't imagine that at all."

"Well consider yourself lucky, since I can imagine it all too well. Especially the next part in which Moran shoots you dead through the window."

John looked taken aback. "Oh, right. Yes, of course." His eyes moved to the window, but his gaze was distant. "I suppose that would have been kind of poetic."

'Poetic...?' Sherlock mentally blinked, then firmly pushed the matter from his mind. "Right, let's get cracking. I suggest you consume whatever nourishment you deem a requirement – we're going out in half an hour."

"Going out?" John echoed. "Going out where?"

"On a case, John. What else?"

John set his mug down with a thump. "Just like that – business as usual?"

"I don't see why not." Sherlock deposited his own drink on the table and spread his arms out expressively. "Moriarty is dead and his organisation dissolved. The threat against you has been neutralised and I am back - and as brilliant as ever."

John snorted, but Sherlock let it pass.

"Come on, John," he urged. "No point sitting about when I can finally be myself again!"

"But I…"

"You'll adjust much more easily if we get straight back to normal." He sprang to his feet. "There's been a spate of robberies lately which seem unusual – let's see if we can get a look at the police files."

John did not appear to be poised on the brink of action.

"You can ask questions on the way," Sherlock offered cajolingly, experiencing an odd moment of nostalgia as John gave vent to his 'oh, go on then' sigh.

"So we're headed for…"

"Scotland Yard."

A slow smile spread across John's face. "Well, this should be interesting."

oOo

"So Molly was in on it right from the start?"

John's head was whirling from Sherlock's explanation of his 'magic trick'. He sat back against the seat as their taxi crawled through the traffic, which was typically heavy on such a cold, wet morning.

"It wouldn't have worked without her – she was the 'friend' that Moriarty ignored."

"I thought she was the friend that both of you ignored, to be honest." John remarked. "Except when it suited you, of course." He was thinking back over the way that Molly had avoided him for the last six months and how uncomfortable she had seemed when he'd tried to offer her his sympathies.

His eyes moved back to Sherlock and then skittered away again, as they had done repeatedly since their journey began.

"Is there a problem?" demanded Sherlock. "Normally you look at me much more than this."

"Bit soon for 'normally'; you only came back last night," John objected.

Sherlock just stared at him. John didn't meet his gaze, but he could feel it. He sighed. "Coat."

Sherlock glanced down at what he was wearing. "This is my normal coat," he pointed out.

"Well last time I saw it, it was a fucking shroud," John snapped. He closed his eyes briefly, then turned his head away to look out of the window. "Sorry."

There was silence as the taxi progressed past various rain-blurred landmarks.

"Mycroft had it dropped off late last night." Sherlock's voice was low and almost apologetic. "I've been back in London for a while and it's too recognisable. It's actually the only thing he's been looking after, since you wouldn't let him take anything else."

"It's not that I wouldn't let him," defended John quickly. "He just chose a bad time to call, that's all. I told him to come back when I was less likely to punch him." He shrugged. "I guess he didn't think it was safe yet."

"Why was it a bad time?"

John leaned his head against the window, his eyes picking out raindrops then following their paths down the glass – a habit he had picked up during hours spent not talking to his therapist. Could he say to Sherlock the things he'd never said to Ella? He didn't think so.

"Your stuff is fine, as you've no doubt already seen. Some of it's boxed up, but it's all there. I think Mrs Hudson's even been dusting your room, although I haven't checked."

He glanced round at Sherlock, who was frowning at him. "Look, we just left it, all right? We assumed that Mycroft would be back at some point and we didn't want to deal with it. It was a few weeks before I even moved back into the flat and I guess the time just got away from us. It's not like we had a ceremonial burning, or made it into a shrine or anything - I haven't been sniffing your shirts, or cataloguing your bloody sock index!"

He turned back to the window, seeing Sherlock's reflection mouthing 'sniffing my shirts?' with an expression of such bemusement that he smiled despite himself. "The rent's still paid up for another few months out of that art gallery cheque you signed over. I hadn't thought too much about what I would do when it ran out."

"It wouldn't have run out."

That flicked his head back around. Sherlock offered a small smile, as if he thought John would be pleased to hear that he could have stayed on at the flat indefinitely. Alone. By himself. With months, or even years of 'by himself' stretching out ahead of him. He wondered if there was a 'Stupid Genius of the Year' award. "How long would you have stayed away?"

Sherlock shrugged. "As long as it took."

John nodded, not wanting to contemplate that. If they ever found out who had leaked the news of Sherlock being alive and forced his return, John was going to shake them by the hand before bloody Mycroft got hold of them.

He returned to raindrop watching. After a while Sherlock spoke again, sounding uncharacteristically tentative.

"Would it be better without the scarf?"

John smiled out at the busy streets. "No, Sherlock," he said. "No, you can keep your scarf."

They travelled on in silence.

oOo

"So, did you warn Lestrade?" John asked as they walked quickly through the rain towards Scotland Yard's front entrance.

"Yes, he's expecting us." Sherlock yanked open the door as they reached it and propelled John through ahead of him. "Said he'd leave us to tell the others, though."

John's lip curled in familiar anger as he thought of Donovan – her taunts after Sherlock was arrested, her loud announcements that his suicide proved his guilt, the way she had simply shrugged off her error when it was finally proven – never apologising, never showing any remorse at all. Bitch.

"Are you all right?"

John broke from his reverie to find Sherlock watching him curiously as they waited for the lift. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'm good." He grinned. "Just looking forward to seeing Donovan's face."

Sherlock raised an eyebrow.

"God, no!" John denied quickly. "No, nothing like that - I'd sooner shag you than Donovan!" Sherlock looked a little nonplussed by this news. "She gave me a hard time, that's all," John finished with a shrug.

Sherlock nodded, his expression thoughtful.

The department seemed unusually quiet when they got upstairs and they didn't see anyone they knew – certainly no one who reacted to the sight of a supposedly dead man walking.

"Sensitivity training," Lestrade mumbled in explanation, waving a half-eaten danish as he ushered them into his office. "Anyone not actively on a case has been rounded up and corralled in the basement." He put his pastry down and brushed the crumbs off his fingers. "Good to see you two together again," he said, giving John a slightly sticky handshake and grinning widely. "Seemed all wrong having one without the other."

"Yes, he's back – and eager to work," John agreed, watching as Sherlock avoided the risk of any contact with actual food and headed straight over to the desk, immediately starting to poke around. "Got anything for him?"

"Robberies," Sherlock declared, pouncing on a file and riffling through it. "A series of robberies over the last few weeks."

"Not really your area, is it?" John looked enquiringly at Lestrade, who shrugged ruefully.

"Well, I've not exactly been flavour of the month since…" He grimaced. "Well, you know."

"Oh, don't be like that, Detective Inspector," Sherlock drawled, hitching a hip on the edge of the desk as he studied a series of photographs. "This one might actually be interesting."

He looked up. "Vanishing thieves, John," he explained, waggling his eyebrows in an exaggerated manner. He put the file down and raised both hands, suddenly spreading his fingers wide. "Poof!"

John shook his head at such theatrics, but couldn't help smiling.

After a few more minutes, Sherlock abandoned the file and started pacing up and down the office, the others keeping out of his way by virtue of long experience. "Useless," he complained. "Who did the forensics on those last two scenes? Was it Anderson? I bet it was Anderson. It's a wonder he manages to dress himself." He fumed a little more. "Next time call me before you call that evidence-destroying muppet."

John snorted and Sherlock whirled around. "What?"

"Sorry, I've just not heard you use the word 'muppet' before." He shrugged. "Made me laugh."

Sherlock frowned. "Did I not do it right?" He looked uncertain.

"You did it fine."

Sherlock examined John's face for a moment, then nodded and resumed pacing. "Doesn't seem to be a pattern to the frequency, so no way of telling when they'll strike again."

"One of the boys suggested a lunar cycle?" Lestrade offered. He seemed about to expand on this but Sherlock's eyes were already rolling in disgust.

John was bracing for a torrent of ridicule towards 'the boys', Lestrade and - quite possibly - the moon, when Sherlock abruptly dropped down into the corner chair.

"Are you all right?" John demanded, moving over immediately and taking his wrist. His pulse seemed fine, but he was very pale. "When did you last eat?"

Sherlock wrinkled his nose and didn't answer.

"Got any chocolate hobnobs lurking in that desk, Lestrade?" John requested, knowing the detective's weakness.

"He shouldn't have, he's on a diet," Sherlock spoke first. "I'm fine, John. Don't fuss."

John ignored him. "I'll nip to the vending machine," he said. "Stay put." He pointed sternly at Sherlock, then at Lestrade for added emphasis.

"Crisps, then," requested Sherlock. "Get some…"

"Quavers – I know."

He rooted around in his pocket for change as he strode across the main office. The vending machine was in the corner and John was pushing his coins into the slot when a regrettably familiar voice spoke from behind him.

"'Not dead, SH'… what's that supposed to mean?"

Overriding the initial instinct to cover his hand, John instead finished what he was doing, then pressed the buttons he needed.

"It means what it says." His selection dropped into the tray and he bent to collect it, then turned to face Donovan's disbelieving expression, simultaneously seeing Sherlock suddenly emerge from Lestrade's office across the room.

John hesitated... but all the insults thrown at Sherlock were there in his mind and the opportunity was too good to waste. He focused on Donovan, who was now regarding him pityingly.

"I've seen him," he said earnestly, holding her gaze. "Seen him with my own eyes."

Donovan's mouth fell open.

"He's alive, Sergeant Donovan." He nodded at her, biting the inside of his cheek to keep his face straight. "Sherlock's alive."

"Er, John…" She reached a wary hand towards him, but John side-stepped adroitly.

"I'm not crazy," he swore, as Sherlock glided silently nearer. "I'm telling you the truth. He's here. He's right here."

Donovan took a half step backwards, her hand now held out in a more defensive manner. "I'm going to get the D.I., all right? Just… just stay there." She glanced quickly to either side, but the office was still quiet and no one was paying attention.

"I can see him now," John promised, advancing on her. He dropped his voice to a dramatic whisper. "He's right behind you."

She retreated another step – straight into a solid body.

"Hello, Sally."

Her scream was positively ear-splitting.

oOo

John was still grinning ten minutes later, the three men back in the office as Sherlock ate his Quavers with an air of satisfaction and Lestrade paced up and down complaining about 'childish behaviour'.

"And I'm not actually on a diet at all," he finished to Sherlock. "So you got that wrong."

"Well, you should be." Sherlock lobbed his empty crisp packet at the bin. "My brother is clearly a bad influence."

"Right then," John spoke up quickly – even just in conversation, Mycroft's presence was inevitably disrupting. "Are we done?"

Sherlock got to his feet. "Indeed." He glanced at Lestrade, then at the case files on the desk. "You know where I am when you get another one."

"Yes, I do." Lestrade blew out a breath, then self-consciously sucked in his belly, then obviously realised what he'd done. He sighed. "You are a complete pain in the arse," he told Sherlock, then shook his head. "But I'm glad you're back."

Sherlock was already half way out of the office and John moved to follow.

"John!" Lestrade called his name and he paused in the doorway, watching Sherlock walk away and forcing his feet to stay in place.

"What is it?" Sherlock disappeared round the corner and John glanced irritably at Lestrade. "Look, I have to go…"

Lestrade's face filled with understanding. "Right, yes, of course." He waved John on. "I'll walk with you."

He remained silent until they reached the corner and could both see Sherlock verbally dismembering Anderson in the distance. John's tension eased. "Sorry, what did you want?"

Lestrade shook his head. "Don't apologise to me, for God's sake – that's what I wanted to say to you!" He dropped his gaze and put his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. "I just wanted to say 'sorry' for not keeping up with the pub nights and so on these last couple of months…"

John frowned at him in confusion. It had been Lestrade who had dragged him out for a pint every week or so for the first few months after Sherlock had been… gone. It wasn't as if John had asked for it – indeed, he'd barely noticed when Lestrade had stopped calling.

"No problem," he said, clapping the man on the shoulder. "Maybe we can do it again…" the thought of going off for the evening and leaving Sherlock behind seemed completely unfeasible, "… sometime," he finished with a rather half-hearted smile.

"Sure, sure," Lestrade agreed eagerly. "I just… I didn't know how to act around you once I found out he was alive, you know? It was awkward. I was afraid I'd give him away." He seemed relieved at John's easy acceptance. "I'd best go and soothe Donovan's ruffled feathers. See you soon, all right, John?"

"Yeah, sure." John raised a hand in farewell as Lestrade backed away.

It wasn't a steady hand.

oOo

"You're very quiet."

John raised his head at Sherlock's words, but the man was still focused on his laptop, sitting at the living room table where he'd been working ever since they got home.

"Be glad."

Sherlock looked up sharply and John met his gaze head on.

He got up from his armchair. "Am I the last?"

He could feel Sherlock's pale eyes following him as he marched across the room and then back again.

"The last…?"

John shot him a look. "You know perfectly well what I mean. Am I the last of your… 'colleagues' to know? The only one who didn't, in fact?"

"John, it's not so…"

"Who else knew?" He moved over to the table, gripping the edge and staring down into Sherlock's face. "Who else?"

"John, I only told Lestrade because the assassin targeting him turned out to be on the force. It would have been much more difficult to neutralise him without Lestrade's co-operation."

"Who else?"

Sherlock shifted awkwardly. "I couldn't tell you. You… your grief…" He turned his head, looking out of the window. "I didn't really understand it, but I could see it – and so could anybody who was watching. You saved everybody, John: me, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade… yourself." He glanced back, then quickly away again. "No one could doubt you."

"Who. Else?"

Sherlock looked down. "I didn't tell anyone else."

John's eyes narrowed. "But someone else knew?"

"Well, there was Wiggins, obviously – and a few of his most trusted…"

"Sherlock," John interrupted. "I'm not you, but I can see there's something. Either be a hundred per cent certain that I will never find out, or tell me now."

They stared at each other. Sherlock's gaze was the first to fall. "You won't like it."

John just stood over him, glowering.

Sherlock huffed. "Fine. Irene guessed."

"Irene? Irene, 'The Woman', Irene?"

Sherlock shrugged and John leaned forward over the desk, getting right in his face. "Irene Adler is dead," he said, very slowly and clearly. "I know Mycroft put me up to spinning you some 'Witness Protection' story, but he swore to me that she was dead this time. He was sure. He was absolutely sure."

"Er… no."

John thought back. "He said it would take Sherlock Holmes to fool him."

Sherlock's smirk sneaked around the edges of his carefully blanked expression and John wondered how he'd ever thought this man difficult to read.

"You saved her."

He turned away and walked towards the door, almost tripping over his emotions with every step.

"John…"

"Shut up." He reached the door but didn't open it, half afraid that it was only the familiarity of their flat which was holding him together – that he would turn the handle and find himself disintegrating across London, his atoms escaping the scene of this crime in every direction.

"John…"

Sherlock's voice was closer. John focused on the doorframe, the paintwork blurring before him, flashing into blood-red, then back again.

"So what did she say?" he asked, not looking round. "No, don't tell me, I'm pretty sure I can guess…" He felt sick. Why did he feel sick? "'Let's have dinner'," he quoted angrily. He spun around. "So, did you, Sherlock?" he demanded, taking a step forward. "Were you off having 'dinner' with that amoral cow while I was here being your poster boy for grief? Is that how it worked, your grand plan?"

Sherlock started to shake his head but John ignored him.

"God, I am such an idiot! Assuming you'd just survived the fall… actually trying to talk you out of suicide as an option! Make a note of that one, by the way - that will give Irene a right laugh. You can both have a good old giggle over that."

"Stop it, John, you're being ridiculous."

John could feel his expression turning ugly and Sherlock flinched back, looking suddenly uncertain. "Look, no one is going to be laughing at you," he said quickly. "I had not allowed for the fact that you tend to assume the best of me, and then I…" He spread his hands wide. "I didn't know how to tell you."

John folded his arms across his chest.

Sherlock reached into his pocket and produced his mobile phone, quickly tapping on a few keys. "Irene Adler sent me a single text. I don't know where she found the number, or how she knew to use it."

He held out the phone, turning it so that John could see the screen. It took him an interminable amount of time to focus on it.

"'Tell him you're alive'," he read out.

"That's all she ever sent." Sherlock's voice was unusually wary as he continued. "I didn't reply."

"Or take her advice," observed John. "Assuming she meant me, of course. I suppose she could have been referring to any number of people."

"Of course she meant you. Who else is there?" Sherlock frowned at him. "I don't understand why you're being like this. All my actions have been entirely rational."

He shifted uncomfortably and made an awkward attempt at humour. "People will definitely talk if you get this upset when a woman texts me, John – I didn't think you felt that way about me!"

John stared at him, his mind overwhelmed with hurt, confusion, jealousy and nearly enough anger to outweigh the ongoing devotion which he could still feel underlying everything he was. Down was up, dead was alive, north was south and John couldn't see anything but Sherlock when he closed his eyes.

"Neither did I."


Artwork for this chapter:

Permanent by khorazir

Chapter Text

Sherlock stared moodily into the empty fireplace as he indexed his most recent thoughts and categorised them appropriately – not that there was anything particularly worth saving. He frowned, pulling his legs up onto the seat and wrapping his arms around them as the chill of the early morning crept through his dressing gown.

It had been two weeks now since his return, which meant nearly three since 'The Vanishing Thieves' had struck – they'd never left it so long before. John had theorised that they had stopped out of fear, since the world's only consulting detective was back in business, and Sherlock had given the possibility due consideration before dismissing it. However, it now occurred to him to wonder whether John had been entirely serious in his suggestion or whether he had been, to quote one of his own phrases, 'taking the piss'.

Sherlock's frown deepened. Usually he did not have to guard against such mockery from John, but there was no question that the man was not himself at the moment. There had been no further reference to his odd outburst of jealousy over Irene, but he seemed… smaller? Sherlock shook his head irritably. No, that was a ridiculous choice of word; how could John be any smaller? No, he was… Sherlock pulled up his mental thesaurus.

Smaller… Lesser… Inferior… No. Restart.

Reduced… Diminished… Stop. Diminished.

Associations…

Music: Diminished chords, lacking tonal centre or drive, considered dissonant or unstable… Unstable.

Sherlock got to his feet. An unstable John was not acceptable. He strode to the sofa, but then didn't feel like sitting on it. His own sofa. Things weren't right. For six long months he had been picturing his home and now that he was back it didn't feel at all as he remembered. Sherlock moved to the window, wishing he could see a new case on the horizon. That would help. A new case always made everything better.

oOo

"My girlfriend is too attractive."

Only a few hours later, and it seemed that Sherlock had got his wish. He sat back in his armchair and regarded their new potential client, determined to give him the benefit of his considerable doubt. It wasn't as if they had been flooded with business since his return – the 'Suicide of Fake Genius' headlines had been much larger and more memorable than the 'Detective Reinstated' ones.

John spoke quickly from his seat at the table, no doubt trying to pre-empt a scathing response. "Er… do you want to expand on that, Mr…?"

The man smiled nervously. "Oh – it's Jenkins, Gary Jenkins."

A suitably bland name for a singularly unimposing individual.

"I'm sorry, I know I sound daft…"

No one denied this.

"…but the more I think about it, the more worried I get. I mean, I'm not much to look at…"

No one argued with that either.

"…and I don't have much money, or an exciting job, or anything."

"What do you do, Mr Jenkins?" Sherlock enquired.

"I'm an insurance clerk."

Sherlock's interest level dipped dangerously close to his 'interview terminated' threshold.

"I met Deborah through an internet dating site." Jenkins offered a scrap of paper with a web address and login details, which Sherlock glanced at then held out to the side until John took it from his fingers.

"When she got in touch I was dubious, because she didn't have a photo up, which usually means… well…" He shrugged. "Nothing good, I guess. But I hadn't had many offers and she seemed nice, so I agreed to meet her. Couldn't believe my eyes when she turned up – she's absolutely gorgeous." He leaned to the side, reaching into his trouser pocket to produce a mobile phone. "She doesn't like having her picture taken but I managed to snap a shot when she went to the bar at dinner last night."

He pressed a few buttons then passed the phone to Sherlock. There was a low whistle as John peered at it over his shoulder.

"You are not wrong, Mr Jenkins."

Sherlock angled the phone away from him. The woman was tall and slender with long flame-red hair – wig, he decided immediately – and an admittedly inoffensive profile. He handed the device back.

"Oh, call me 'Gary', please," Jenkins requested. "I figured I'd never hear from her again after that first drink, but we've been dating for two weeks now and then last night…" He trailed off.

"Last night?" John prompted, passing Sherlock his laptop with Gary Jenkins' profile page showing on the screen. His user name was 'RocketMan75'.

"Yes, do please satisfy my flatmate's prurient curiosity," Sherlock invited, his eyes quickly scanning the page. "I'm sure we're all dying to know what happened last night." He produced his most insincere smile, but the clearly dim Gary Jenkins seemed to take it at face value.

"Well, she wants us to go away for the weekend. Together, I mean. Tomorrow, in fact." He shrugged. "Obviously I said 'yes', but then I got to thinking."

"That must have been a tremendous strain," murmured Sherlock sympathetically. John kicked his chair, which he found oddly reassuring.

Gary nodded. "Yes… yes, it has been a strain. I mean, I don't want to be ungrateful, but this kind of thing just doesn't happen, does it? I mean – she's a definite ten… and I'm only a fi…"

Sherlock raised an eyebrow.

"… four, at best," Gary finished. "I mean, she's very nice, but you've got to admit it's peculiar." He spread his hands wide. "Things I don't understand make me nervous."

Sherlock's chair got a warning kick before he'd even opened his mouth that time. He concentrated on the facts. "I'm very glad you brought this to my attention, Mr Jenkins. I shall start work immediately."

He got "Really?" in stereo as both client and flatmate spoke at once. Sherlock turned his head.

"He's absolutely right, John - the attractiveness ratio is entirely disproportionate. This 'Deborah' must certainly have some other motivation."

John sighed. "Looks aren't everything, Sherlock. You might meet someone socially, or in an office environment, say, whose personality just fits you – maybe you're not particularly attracted to them at first, perhaps they're not your usual type, but as time goes by and you get to know them, spend time with them, gradually you realise…" His voice trailed off.

"Yes, but that's not the case here, is it, John?" Sherlock jumped in immediately. "She found him on a dating site - all she'd got to go on were a photograph, an extremely bland résumé and a rather risqué joke about a parrot." He frowned. "Are you all right? You've gone a funny colour."

"Fine. I'm fine." John flapped a hand at him. "You carry on."

Sherlock turned back to their client. "What are your arrangements for tomorrow?"

"She said she'd call round to my place at seven and we could go from there. I don't know where she lives, actually – she's very reserved about herself." He lowered his voice. "That's another thing that worries me – what if she's married?" He shook his head. "Although I'm hardly 'affair' material."

"Indeed." Sherlock contemplated the sweaty palms before him and decided against getting up. "John will see you out. Do nothing for twenty-four hours – I'll be in touch." He focused on the laptop and ignored the resigned snort from over his shoulder.

oOo

"You register a woman's bra size before you notice her eye colour."

John froze in the doorway as he returned from escorting their new client to the door – although why Sherlock had decided to take the case, he had no idea; it didn't seem his kind of thing at all. He raised a hand, pinching the bridge of his nose between fingers and thumb as the words sank in and he grasped their foundation.

"The blush?"

"Made me replay your speech, yes."

John nodded. It seemed that Sherlock had finally decided to deal with the elephant that had been lurking in the room ever since his outburst a fortnight ago. John moved to his armchair and sat down.

Sherlock regarded him over the top of steepled fingers. "You are straight."

"I am practical."

Sherlock frowned.

John sighed. "In normal civilian life, I would predominantly pursue women, yes. But there are other reasons for that and I've been around, Sherlock. One doesn't pick up the kind of nicknames I know you've heard from some of my army mates by being… well… 'straight-laced', for want of a better term."

There was a short silence while Sherlock appeared to ponder that. "So, is this why? This new found... 'attraction', if that's the word - is this why you've been so 'off' since I came back?"

"Not remotely."

Sherlock's frown deepened. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't." John sighed again. "Look, it's not your fault," he promised. "Even leaving any… 'attraction' completely out of it, I've obviously built our friendship up into much more in my head than it ever really was, at least on your side." He shrugged. "Not fair to blame you for that."

"John, I…" Sherlock actually looked quite distressed - he always hated not understanding things.

"It's all right. I know you don't feel things that way. I just… I guess I thought I was different, you know? That I meant more to you." He managed a half smile. "I suppose everyone wants to think they're special – bit daft really."

He got to his feet. "Cup of tea?" Sherlock didn't answer so John headed for the kitchen, busying himself with the familiar task. He actually felt a little better – his own words reminded him that it was still a thousand times better to have the real Sherlock back than for the rather idealised version John had clung to for six months to be dead.

"You've lost friends before." Sherlock's voice was subdued from the kitchen doorway. John didn't look round. "People you were close to, even."

"Yes, I have." He reached up to the cupboard and took down two mugs.

"Why did you use my shampoo?"

The mugs clattered as they impacted the worktop with a little more force than planned. John took a steadying breath. "No," he said firmly. "No, Sherlock."

"The bottle in the shower is fuller than the one I left behind and it's the new design - they changed the packaging two months ago. You don't use that brand, it's far too 'fancy'."

"Sherlock, I said 'No'." John turned his head and met the frustrated gaze which was trying to unravel him. "Drop it."

Sherlock looked away first. John regarded his unhappy face for a moment and then moved towards the fridge, continuing with his routine as the kettle gradually came to the boil, then clicked off, leaving a silence which seemed too big for the room.

Sherlock broke it. "I told you in Dartmoor that you were my only friend."

"Yes, you did. And that's a memory which I've replayed many times while I thought you were dead." John squashed his teabag against the inside of his mug with a spoon to get the maximum strength out of it. "It's only since you returned that I thought about it a bit more logically... because you must have already got the sugar by then, right? The sugar you thought was drugged."

He decided his teabag had given all it had to give, and scooped it out of the mug after a final squeeze, dumping the bedraggled remains onto a convenient saucer.

"But how could you dope me if we weren't speaking? You had to apologise - and you had to make it good enough that I would drink something you gave me, even though I don't take sugar in my coffee. I would drink it simply because you made it for me." He regarded the dead teabag, then took the saucer over to the bin and tipped it into the rubbish.

"So I got an apology and an ego-boost... and then I drank your supposedly drugged coffee like a little lamb, didn't I? Job well done, really." He sorted out Sherlock's tea and put it on the table, then leaned back against the worktop, cradling his own cup in both hands.

Sherlock seemed disconcerted.

"Look, it's all right," John reassured him. "I'm glad to have you back, OK? You're still my best friend and I'm… well, I'm one of yours."

"What are you talking about?" Sherlock took a step forward into the kitchen. "You are the one with lots of friends, the popular one, the one that everybody likes."

"Don't know about the Chief Superintendent."

"What?" Sherlock waved away the interruption. "You're talking in riddles. In view of later events, perhaps I would no longer describe you as my 'only' friend, but you are outstandingly the most important – surely you must see that?"

"Must I?"

"Of course." Sherlock looked utterly bewildered. John almost felt sorry for him.

"Well, that's it you see - you've put your finger on the problem right there."

"Which is?"

John shrugged. "I don't believe you."

oOo

"I don't know how the hell you got on to this!"

Lestrade loudly announced his arrival the next morning, staggering into the kitchen and dumping two boxes of files onto the table. He looked from John, twisting in his armchair to say 'hello', to Sherlock, who was getting up from the living room table and heading towards him. "Everything all right?"

"Fine." Sherlock reached for the uppermost box and flipped open the lid, immediately diving into the contents.

"New case?" asked John, getting up and offering a bland smile.

Lestrade frowned. Something was off.

"You tell me," he said. "Got a call last night from your man here, wanting unsolved murders for the last few years with a victim named Gary." He patted the boxes. "Narrowed it down a bit by age and limiting to single-victim cases, and these two jumped out."

Sherlock threw a photograph of a very ordinary looking man down onto the table. "Gary Mulligan, found dead in his car on the outskirts of the city two years ago, fatal stab wound to the neck, thought to have been a car-jacking gone wrong." He was running through interview notes as he spoke, his eyes flickering as he speed-read the details.

"Yes!" He glanced up at John. "His mother mentioned he'd recently started dating a 'Debbie' – no one had met her and she was never identified or considered relevant."

John's eyebrows shot up. "Really? That's a bit of a coincidence!" He looked at Lestrade, then at the boxes on the table. "Or not." He shook his head. "How the hell…?"

Sherlock had moved on to the second box and another picture arrived beside the first – again a man who appeared to be the personification of 'nondescript'.

"Gary Benson," Lestrade informed John. "Also found in his car, though stabbed in the chest this time and it was twelve months back – I didn't notice anything about a girlfriend?"

He looked up at Sherlock, who was flicking rapidly through the information and now frowned and shook his head, then thrust a sheet of paper at John.

"Call the sister, would you?"

John nodded and retreated to the living room, pulling his phone out of his pocket as he went. Lestrade looked at Sherlock.

"What's going on?"

Sherlock glanced up at him. "Serial killer. I told you."

Lestrade reached out and put his hand over the file Sherlock was studying, pushing it down onto the table. "I mean with John. Or rather, with you and John."

Sherlock's face assumed a truly remarkable level of blankness. "Catching criminals no longer doing it for you, Lestrade? What is this? CID Oprah?"

Lestrade kept his voice low. "Has he talked to you?"

"He talks to me all the time. We live together."

"I would say, 'You know what I mean,' but I guess it's quite possible that you don't. Has he talked to you? Do you have any understanding of what you put him through?"

Sherlock glared at him. "Give me the file." He tugged on the edge of the papers he was still holding, but Lestrade didn't release them. "And mind your own damn business."

"You weren't here," Lestrade muttered. "I'm the one who had to watch him diving into dangerous situations and caring less about surviving them each time. And I don't need your observational skills to see that he's still not right."

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "If John is broken, then I will fix him. I've done it before. Get off the file."

"Good news!" John walked back into the kitchen, his gaze focused on the notepad in his hand. "The sister says there was a recent girlfriend, although they never met. Can't remember her name, but she thinks it began with a 'D'."

He looked up and blinked. "Everything all right?"

"Fine," Sherlock replied, jerking the file out from under Lestrade's hand and retreating with it to the living room.

Lestrade offered a possibly unconvincing smile. "So, John… want to tell me how he got onto this?"

Five minutes later, they were both standing in front of Sherlock's chair.

"It had to be the name," he said without looking up. "Nothing else could have attracted that woman to that profile – unless she had an affinity for bad jokes about birds, which seemed significantly less likely."

"OK," drawled Lestrade slowly. "I'm not totally convinced, but you've certainly struck lucky. So how...?"

Sherlock jumped to his feet and closed the file he was holding, almost smacking Lestrade in the chest as he thrust it back at him.

"Why would a woman – an attractive woman – approach a man like Gary Jenkins? Can't be his winning personality since a) she's never met him, and b) he doesn't have one. So, why? What's the draw? His photo shows a study in mediocrity – no one sets their heart on a thin mouth above an indeterminate chin. If she wanted blue eyes, there are much bluer available; if she likes a snub nose, there are plenty on the site not adorned with acne scarring."

He moved to the table and turned his laptop around, displaying an image of the man in question. Lestrade had to grant that his description had not been overly harsh.

"So… name. But what's in a name? Who cares about the name of their target? Unless they're in that ridiculous play Mrs Hudson made us sit through – the one with the handbag…" He looked to John, then waved his arm in dismissal. "Never mind."

"'Importance of Being Earnest'," John whispered to Lestrade. "Apology theatre visit with Mrs Hudson last week."

Lestrade grinned. Anyone who could guilt-trip Sherlock Holmes into a social outing had balls of solid steel, in his opinion. He resolved to buy the landlady a bunch of flowers at the earliest opportunity. Or possibly a bullwhip.

Sherlock was off again. "What swindler only wants to cheat people called Gary? No..." He shook his head. "Obsession with a particular name suggests a much darker motive – and if she's doing it now, she may have done it before." He was addressing his words largely to Lestrade but kept glancing towards John, who remained silent.

"Right," murmured Lestrade, thinking about it. "So, if she's intending your client to be her third 'Gary', we can pick her up tonight – when she goes to pick him up."

"And charge her with what? Dating a twit? You're going to need a much bigger jail."

John's lips twitched at that, which Sherlock's smirk suggested he'd noticed.

"Well, we can't just wait until she knifes him!" Lestrade protested.

"No, not at all," Sherlock agreed. "I suggest you go and bug his car, stake out his no-doubt drab apartment, put a stab-vest on him, be 'police-like'." He waved his hands in a 'Go on' motion.

"And what are you going to do?"

Sherlock indicated the boxes in the kitchen. "We will go through the existing evidence and look for anything you can use to convict her."

Lestrade sighed and glanced towards John, who was already pushing up his sleeves and moving into the kitchen. "I'll just go and…"

"No need," Sherlock cut him off. "We'll call you as soon as we find anything. You can talk to John later." He waved an arm towards the door. "Come on – places to go, people to save. Chop chop."

Lestrade still wavered.

"I'll see you out."

Having been encouraged to descend the stairs at something above his usual pace, Lestrade hesitated on the front step, glancing back up the way they'd come. "I feel like I'm leaving a wounded animal in the care of the world's most dangerous carnivore," he said worriedly. "You will…?"

"Go away." Sherlock shut the door in his face.

Lestrade took it as a positive sign.

oOo

"So, where are we going?"

Sherlock glanced round at John's confused looking face as their taxi trundled across London. "Headquarters of 'matchme' dot com," he replied.

"Oh, right." John nodded. "And why are we going there?"

His heart didn't seem to be in the enquiry. Sherlock leaned across and tapped him on the temple. "Think, John! What does this case hinge on?"

"Er…" John's eyebrows rose at the sudden poking, but he didn't pull away. "The name?" He wrinkled his forehead, then his face cleared into something resembling his old enthusiasm. "Which wasn't given on the website!"

Sherlock nodded encouragingly at him. "Keep going."

"So… oh - you think she works there?"

"Well, she could be a hacker, but employee is more likely."

John was smiling at him admiringly and Sherlock allowed himself a moment to bask in it.

It didn't last. "So how come you fobbed off Lestrade with that 'going through the files' story?"

Sherlock just looked at him.

John sighed, but he didn't look surprised – or even, Sherlock was pleased to note, disappointed.

They still had some distance to go and Sherlock soon found himself asking another question. "What are the 'other reasons'?"

"Hmm?" John turned away from his in depth analysis of the window and looked round.

"You said that you 'predominantly pursue women, but there are other reasons for that'," Sherlock quoted. "What 'other reasons'?"

"Oh, no." John shook his head. "If personal stuff is out of bounds, then it's out of bounds – I'm not laying bare the few things you can't deduce for yourself, thank you very much." He looked away again. "This street is one-way enough as it is."

Sherlock frowned. How was he supposed to fix John without having all the information?

He considered his options for a few minutes. "I'm not a virgin."

John's head whipped round as if it were on a bungee cord.

Sherlock shrugged. "I know you've wondered. Well, I'm not. No matter what Moriarty thought."

John looked a little thrown by Moriarty's sudden inclusion in the conversation, but he quite visibly decided not to ask.

"I… dabbled at university," Sherlock continued. "But it was a distraction - a weakness. Not worth my time."

"Dabbled," John echoed unnecessarily. "Right. So no actual relationships?"

Sherlock shrugged again. "Certainly not on my part."

John's expression had 'poor buggers' written all over it. "Men or women?"

"A representative selection."

"Of course. Stupid question, sorry."

"Your turn."

"What?"

"Isn't that how these things work? I showed you mine…"

John bit his lip.

"Is that not the phrase?"

"No. I mean 'yes' – that's the phrase. You got it right." He seemed to be struggling not to laugh.

Sherlock quirked a brow at him.

"Right. Yes. Sorry. Um… What was your question again?" He sobered, answering himself. "Oh, 'other reasons'… right." He grimaced. "I can't believe I'm actually going to tell you this."

Sherlock's attention sharpened. New information about John was always interesting.

John looked at his face. "Oh, God." He closed his eyes for a moment. "OK, right. Fine." He drew a deep breath. "I'm used to taking orders, yes?"

Sherlock nodded. "The army, then me. You enjoy it."

John glared at him. "I put up with it, Sherlock. Not the same thing."

"If you say so."

"I do say so."

"Is this relevant to the issue of your orientation?"

John grimaced. "I… it's connected." He looked away. "When it comes to… personal relationships…"

"You mean sex." Sherlock checked, without quite making it a question. "Oh! It carries over? You like taking orders…"

"No."

"No?"

"Very much 'no'." He glanced back, then away again, the colour rising up his neck.

"Very much… oh." Sherlock frowned. "Like Irene?"

It was unquestionably the wrong thing to say.

By the time they arrived at their destination, Sherlock had been informed in no uncertain terms that a preference for being assertive in the bedroom by no means indicated a desire to inflict pain, a tendency to blackmail, or the inclination to throw in one's lot with a master-criminal. He still hadn't worked out why it made John act straighter than he was, but it was extremely clear that now was not the time to ask.

oOo

"Shh!"

"You shh!"

"John!" Sherlock snapped. "Will you be quiet?" He concentrated on what he was doing until the tumblers clicked into place and Deborah Martin's front door swung open. They were both inside a second later.

Sherlock scanned their surroundings then nodded John towards the desk visible through the open lounge door, himself heading towards the bedroom, where he immediately began to search for anything which wasn't meant to be found.

The head of 'matchme' had been very helpful once Sherlock had flashed one of Lestrade's badges and – he was forced to admit – John had flashed his innocent blue eyes. A quick perusal of the personnel files had soon identified the woman snapped on Gary Jenkins' phone.

"Psst - Sherlock!" John's voice was a low hiss and Sherlock rolled his eyes as he moved to join him, finding the lounge now illuminated by a desk lamp.

"There's no need to resort to sibilance, John. The murderous Ms Martin will be well en route to her third intended victim by now."

"Look at this." John was holding out a framed photograph from a selection on top of the desk. Honestly, didn't people make any effort to hide incriminating evidence any longer? Where was the challenge?

Sherlock took the photo. It showed a younger Deborah Martin, perched on the bonnet of the type of car commonly associated with 'boy racers'. A plain young man had an arm wrapped around her shoulders, keys displayed proudly in his other hand, and the car itself was striped, tinted and modified to the point where the original manufacturer may have struggled to recognise it. A darker strip across the top of the windscreen displayed the names 'Gary' over the driver's side and 'Deb' on the right.

"The original Gary?" John offered.

"Quite likely."

"Wonder what happened to him?"

Sherlock set the picture down and moved to the other end of the large desk, pulling open the uppermost drawer and starting to look through the contents. "I would imagine he dumped her – and after she had done him the huge favour of dating someone less attractive than herself. Clearly a very resentment-inducing offence."

John looked about to respond when the sound of the front door banging caused them both to freeze and he scrambled for the light switch instead, plunging them into darkness.

They waited as heels clicked across the parquet hall, then the door swung open and Deborah Martin appeared in the gap, her face filling with anger as she reached into her handbag.

John was already raising a hand in a calming gesture and starting to speak when she shot him.

Everything stopped. Then John's body started to fall and the world hit fast forward.

- Sherlock's hand on the surface of the desk, arm braced as he vaulted over it.
- Light from the open doorway glinting on metal as it swung towards him.
- Fingers closing around a wrist, crunch of small bones as he forced it upwards.
- Clatter of gun on the hardwood floor.
- Thud of assailant as she followed it down.
- Fabric in his hand as he gripped her collar and pulled head and shoulders up off the floor.
- "Pray he's alive." His voice sounding like nothing on earth.
- Crack of her head as he slammed it back down again.

"Sherlock..."

'Thank God'... Abandoning the unconscious woman, Sherlock reached the side of the desk in three long strides, dropping to his knees next to John, who was trying to sit up, one hand pressed to his side. The stain spreading under his fingers looked black in the dim light, a growing darkness which could suck them both into its depths.

"Lie down, you idiot!" Thrusting one hand under his head for support, Sherlock pushed John back down then scrabbled at his clothing, heaving jumper, shirt and T-shirt up and out of the way. So many layers. Who the hell needed so many fucking layers?

"I think it's just a graze." John was using his 'reassuring' voice, but Sherlock didn't trust it. He reached behind himself, finding the flex of the desk lamp and quickly tracking up until he reached the switch.

Black turned red and punched him in the chest.

"Honestly, Sherlock, I think it's fine." John was trying to sit up again. Sherlock pushed him back down.

"Will you stay still?" Gritting his teeth, he used the edge of John's T-shirt to wipe away some of the blood until he could see, could check, could be absolutely sure that there was no puncture wound, no bullet buried inside John's body and sucking his life away as Sherlock helplessly watched it leave.

He sat back on his heels. "You idiot!"

John propped himself up on one elbow and peered at the wound which ran along the line of one of his ribs. Messy. Painful. Definitely not life-threatening.

"Well, I'm very sorry." He didn't sound it. "How was I to know she'd have a bloody gun?"

Sherlock got to his feet. "Of course she had a gun! Everybody seems to have a gun these days. I don't know what the country's coming to." He pulled out his phone to call Lestrade.

"What is it now, Sherlock?" drawled his brother's voice.

"Mycroft? Why are you answering Lestrade's phone? No, never mind – I don't want to know. Put him on, will you?"

There was a short silence. "What's happened?"

"Just put him…"

"Sherlock, you called me. What has happened?" His voice was urgent.

Sherlock jerked the mobile away from his ear and looked at the display, which was indeed showing 'The Queen'.

He hung up.

oOo

"At least my getting shot distracted Lestrade from the breaking and entering," John pointed out as he settled into his armchair some three hours later. He was pumped full of lidocaine and clearly feeling no pain.

Sherlock wondered if it had affected his eyesight, as he didn't seem to notice that anything was wrong.

"Plus the fact that you'd just caught him another serial killer, of course." He grinned. "That was amazing, Sherlock – that you got all that just from a man saying his girlfriend was too attractive. Absolutely incredible." He nodded firmly. "You are brilliant. I always said so."

Sherlock sat down opposite and regarded him over the top of fingers which he couldn't keep entirely steady.

"I guess it helped too that it was the police who cocked up and got themselves spotted at Gary's flat," John added. "Because if we hadn't been at her place she could have packed up and scarpered long before they tracked her down." He smiled hopefully. "Any chance of a drink?"

"You let her shoot you."

John looked almost comically startled. "What?"

Sherlock sat forward in his chair, aware that the mask he'd managed to maintain through dealings with police and medical staff was starting to blur out of focus now that he was in an environment which registered as 'safe', with a man who triggered his awareness of 'home'. He frowned. Surely those should be the other way round?

"What do you mean?" John repeated.

Sherlock got to his feet. "You have to try harder than this." He looked at John, mentally replaying earlier moments - seeing him tip his head back as Moran's fingers squeezed around his throat, hearing Lestrade's voice warning about him 'caring less about surviving each time', watching him just standing there as Deborah Martin shot him.

He stepped forward, bending over John and gripping his shoulders. "The life we lead: you have to fight to survive it, do you understand me? You can't just let people shoot you like that." His voice sounded strange to his ears.

"But I… but Sherlock, she just shot at me – there wasn't anything I could have…"

Sherlock growled in frustration as his fingers briefly tightened, then he forced himself to move away, heaving in a lungful of the air which suddenly seemed to be in short supply. John wasn't trying hard enough – he gave up against Moran, he let himself get shot, he didn't grasp his own importance… didn't believe that he mattered.

"Sherlock, honestly, I don't understand…"

John had got to his feet. Sherlock turned around and he was just standing there… being so completely essential and not realising it at all.

"I can't lose you." Options ran through his mind and were instantly discarded. He had to prove to John that he had value, make him want to survive... make him determined to survive, but words weren't getting through - after everything that had happened, John simply didn't believe him. He had to do something tangible, provide some kind of evidence, give him something... give him… Oh! Stupid... stupid... obvious...

He strode back across the room, took John's face in his hands, and kissed him.

 

 

Chapter Text

John stumbled back a step at Sherlock's sudden embrace, his mind blanking with shock. Although he had become aware recently that there was another layer to his feelings, he hadn't given it much thought - it was just one more confusion amid all the others churning inside him. He hadn't spent any time imagining… this.

He gripped Sherlock's lapels and shoved him back a little.

"What are you doing?"

"Giving you proof." Sherlock leaned forward and kissed him again and his lips were warm and enticing… they parted slightly and John almost weakened, but it wasn't in his nature to be weak in this. He pulled away.

"Proof of what?"

"That you matter. That you have no reason to be jealous - of Irene Adler or of anyone." He pressed forward once more but John held him off. Sherlock exhaled in frustration, his hands sliding down to John's shoulders. "I would never have become sexually involved with Irene. There is no one else to whom I would offer this."

"This being…?"

Sherlock shrugged. "Me."

John goggled at him. He closed his eyes then opened them again but Sherlock was still right there.

"So let me get this straight," he began. "You are offering to... what? Become 'sexually involved' with me?"

Sherlock nodded in clear approval at this quick understanding of the situation.

"And just how far...? No, never mind that. Let's skip to why, exactly? To prove that I mean more to you than Irene? That's your motivation?"

"Not just Irene. Everybody. Anybody." His fingers were digging in now and John winced at the pressure on his bad shoulder. Sherlock released him immediately but didn't move away. "I want you back."

John frowned in confusion. "I'm right here."

Sherlock shook his head. "No. Because I've worked it out – just now, actually. I thought I'd been dreaming of the flat for six months, but I hadn't, I'd been dreaming of home - and that means you."

John had to fight the sudden urge to sit down.

"You've lost faith. In me, in yourself, in our partnership. That's my fault and I will to do whatever is needed to restore it. You are attracted to me, yes?" He shook his head immediately. "Don't bother to answer – it's obvious now that you've realised it yourself. There we are, then. We lived together for eighteen months. You know that I am not sexually active. So if I give you this, that's evidence, isn't it? Incontrovertible."

John wondered if the drugs taken for his injury were making him feel light-headed. In view of his medical degree, it was an embarrassing number of seconds before he recalled that lidocaine was only a local anaesthetic. That led to the realisation that it wasn't just his head which felt lighter – everything did. He did. A good stone lighter, actually, as the framework of doubts which he'd built up over the last couple of weeks began to dissolve and reform into a much more familiar and welcome structure.

As plans went, Sherlock's proposal was, of course, completely mental. However, as was so often the case with Sherlock, it was also surprisingly effective. Because if he was really prepared to go to such lengths, then John undeniably did matter. The odd feeling of happiness which had begun to creep over him soon after he was shot suddenly made much more sense as he thought back and replayed Sherlock's reaction at the time. His expression as the desk lamp clicked on and revealed the blood: that had been fear… it had been horror… it had been the look on John's face six and a half months before.

Then there had been Mycroft's abrupt appearance at the crime scene, his insistence that his brother was in trouble, and his knowing smirk when he found out what had happened. Not to mention Sherlock's agitation after they got home - his accusation that John wasn't trying hard enough to survive, that he'd allowed himself to be shot; which was complete bollocks, of course, but perhaps not an unreasonable fear given the scene he had witnessed with Moran.

Things were falling into place and John started to feel like himself again for the first time in far too long. OK, so Sherlock may have had more than one reason for his apology in Dartmoor, but the man probably had at least half a dozen reasons for every move he made - that didn't mean they couldn't all be valid.

He drew a deep breath and began to let go of his fears, getting ready to step back and release Sherlock from the hook on which he was prepared to impale himself, but then he paused. He wasn't about to take advantage of Sherlock's ridiculous offer, of course he wasn't, but… the last two weeks had been enormously stressful. And the previous six months had been complete hell. And Sherlock always had the upper hand in just about everything. And surely John deserved some sort of compensation after all he'd been through?

He had ducked his head down to hide his train of thought, but now he raised it. "Are you serious?"

"Almost always. And in this instance, certainly."

"You would really do this… sleep with me just to prove me wrong?"

Sherlock wrinkled his nose. "Does one have to actually sleep?"

John couldn't repress a chuckle as he shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Sherlock. I don't take people to my bed who don't really want to be there and I don't much fancy being bossed around by you in that setting, either." He raised his eyebrows pointedly. "But thanks for the offer."

"So you believe me? We can get back to normal?"

John frowned, adopting an expression of deep thought. "Well… of course, you might have guessed that I would turn you down and worked out that the offer would be enough. It could be a bluff, like the thing with the sugar."

"Oh, for God's sake! Let's just go to bed and have done with it. You want proof – I'll give you proof. I don't care - I trust you."

"I'll take a kiss."

"What?"

"I said, I'll take a kiss. Nothing too serious, nothing that would screw up our friendship, but something to prove that you mean it, that you're not just fooling me again."

"Fine." Sherlock stepped forward and started to lower his head.

"No." John took his arms and held him off. "I said I'll take a kiss."

Sherlock frowned in confusion and John swivelled them around until Sherlock was backed up against the side of his chair, then pushed him down until he was sitting perched on the arm of it. Sherlock tipped his head back automatically and John moved to stand between his legs – not pressed against him, but very much in his space.

Sherlock's expression was bemused and John raised a hand to his jaw and stroked along it from just below his ear until he reached the point where he could drag a thumb across his bottom lip. That seemed like a good idea, so he did it again.

Sherlock was almost going cross-eyed trying to peer down at the hand on his face. "What are you doing?"

"Whatever I like, according to you, so shut it…" He applied the slightest pressure with the thumb still against Sherlock's mouth and lowered his voice. "…until I want you to open it."

Sherlock rolled his eyes at the cheesy line but it wasn't an overly convincing display since John's little finger was pressed against the pulse beating in his throat, which demonstrated a much more interesting reaction. John smiled.

He raised his other hand and started brushing his fingers through the curls which were lying in disarray over Sherlock's forehead, trying to overwrite the visual in his head of blood-streaked dark hair splayed out across a pavement.

Sherlock spoke against the thumb which was still stroking over his lips. "Where should I put my hands?"

'Answers on a postcard, please,' thought John. He glanced down. Sherlock's hands were on either side of his thighs, gripping the arm of the chair on which he was sitting. "You can leave them where they are."

He refocused on what he was doing, allowing his fingertips to stroke over a cheekbone, around an eye socket, really looking at Sherlock's face for the first time since the doubts had crept in and he had started to seem like a stranger. But this was the Sherlock whom John had known for eighteen months, the brilliant, beautiful, impossible man who didn't let anyone in. That he would sit here and allow this...

John waited until the impatience in those inquisitive eyes had become acceptance and then lowered his head, watching Sherlock's eyes fall shut before closing his own.

Soft. So much softer than a man's lips ought to be, especially ones which were constantly used to form such hard, abrasive words. A creature of contrasts this man, this Sherlock.

John kept two fingers on that tell-tale pulse as he sampled each of Sherlock's lips in turn, not sucking on them, not yet, just wrapping his own lips around them and tasting, turning his head slightly from side to side to brush their mouths together until Sherlock started following his movements – probably wanting to get the whole thing over with so he could return to some exciting experiment on mould, John thought with affection. Well, he could wait. John had been waiting for a very long time - not for this, exactly, but for something. For the Sherlock he had lost to return to him.

He tilted his head, his kiss becoming a little stronger, and Sherlock opened to him without prompting but John didn't rush. He knew it would soon be back to 'business as usual' and that was fine, he'd never expected or considered any kind of romantic relationship with Sherlock for a range of reasons, most of which still seemed perfectly sound. But he was damned if he wasn't going to make the most of this.

Carefully he traced along Sherlock's lips with the very tip of his tongue, starting at that cupid's bow, then moving round, his tongue flickering at the corner of Sherlock's mouth before sweeping down and along the plump lower lip which seemed to swell under his touch, pushing forward in an apparent invitation which John couldn't resist. Not that he tried. He took that lip and lavished it with his full attention, his free hand twining into the curls at the back of Sherlock's head as he nipped gently with his teeth and Sherlock let out a startled noise, but immediately stifled it.

John moved on, darting his tongue briefly into Sherlock's mouth and just touching it to his own before focusing on his top lip for a while, definitely sucking now as his hand slid lower, circling down the back of Sherlock's neck until he was reaching under the collar of that tight-fitted shirt… and the heartbeat under his fingers stuttered and jumped.

He raised his head. "Hands."

Sherlock put his hands back on the chair, looking surprised to find that they had moved – as if John had somehow drawn them to grip his waist without their owner's permission.

John nodded, bringing both of his own hands now to cup Sherlock's jaw and tilt his head to the side. Sherlock's eyes closed in anticipation of his approach and his lips were parting even before they were touched. John didn't mess about this time, but Sherlock seemed surprisingly hesitant, his tongue meeting John's almost shyly, then withdrawing again. His reticence sent a pulse of arousal through John which triggered a warning in his brain not to go too far, but it went unheeded.

As Sherlock retreated, John gave chase, deliberately sliding a hand round to the back of his neck and slipping it under his collar again and Sherlock gasped, his hands rising to John's sides once more and John didn't stop them this time, allowing the hold as he took advantage of the gasp to coax Sherlock's tongue into his mouth, tempting and teasing it with darting licks and strokes until he had what he wanted and Sherlock was kissing him back, straining up to follow each time John eased away and pushing into the hand which was cupping his jaw, stroking his face, running through his hair as John got lost in what he was doing, the sensations, the power of it, standing over this man who stood taller than anyone John had ever known, this man who meant everything to him… everything… everything.

He let some of the grief he had suffered seep out into the kiss, taking comfort from the breath mingling with his own, the warmth of the skin under his hands, the heat and taste of Sherlock. Proof of the life that he had longed for, wept for, not wanted to live without. Never wanted to live without.

He kissed Sherlock with all the wonder and amazement that he had felt for him almost since they met, worshipping his mouth as he explored it, bringing all his experience to bear and revelling in Sherlock's response, counting each startled moan, each cut-off gasp, each tightening of fingers over his hipbones as a personal triumph. Then he shared some of his anger, old and new, both from when he thought Sherlock had killed himself and from when he discovered that he had not, sucking almost too hard, nips verging on bites, scraping his teeth over Sherlock's lips until they were swollen and throbbing beneath his own - but still Sherlock didn't pull away, didn't protest, didn't do anything but accept everything John gave him... and any thoughts of why they were actually doing this began to morph into a question of why they hadn't done it long, long ago.

A fleeting concern that Sherlock must be getting uncomfortable with his head tipped back at such an angle brought John to his senses at last, leaving behind an idea which he immediately knew was a step too far… something he shouldn't do… something dangerous. Pulling away from Sherlock's mouth, he pressed a trail of kisses along the side of his jaw until he could nip the lobe of an ear, half expecting a complaint that this wasn't in the deal but Sherlock seemed focused on regaining his breath, swallowing twice before speaking.

"Are we done?"

The words emerged in a voice so huskily tempting that it answered its own question and the challenge in it blasted John's reservations to dust. He stepped to the side and pushed Sherlock's head forward and down, then leaned over and carefully bit the back of his neck... and Sherlock whined, his hands flailing wide before grabbing at John, clutching two handfuls of his jumper and clawing at him, fingers digging in.

John held him there with a hand in his hair while he sucked his way from one vertebra to the next and Sherlock trembled beneath him, his breathing growing harsher and full of little noises which were immediately choked off until at last he spoke again.

"John... please." There was an edge of something almost desperate in his voice and John released him and stepped back.

"Now we're done."

Chapter Text

Sherlock woke the next morning to find himself in an unusual condition. Which he ignored. Obviously. Inconvenient, but it would pass. He stretched out on his back and folded his arms beneath his head. All things considered, he had got off very lightly.

A voice in the back of his head - which sounded suspiciously like John's warm tenor - pointed out that he hadn't 'got off' at all but Sherlock ignored that too. After last night's... his mind shied away from the first few words to present themselves and he settled on 'demonstration', John would hopefully be back to his old self and their normal lives could resume. That would be a huge relief. Sherlock began to plan out his day, deciding to go and have another look at the files on the 'vanishing thieves' if nothing else presented itself.

He moved on to considering more domestic issues, such as how best to convince Mrs Hudson to go out for John's pain medication without subjecting him to another lecture on flatmate care. It would no doubt be a while before John got up... Sherlock's thoughts threatened to derail and he groaned. Could one roll one's eyes at one's own brain? Such mental images were hardly helpful.

He contemplated dealing with the situation 'below stairs', as it were, but decided against it. His usually well-ordered mind had already been thrown into quite enough disarray by the previous evening's... experience. The sooner he put the whole thing behind him and got his libido settled back into dormancy, the better.

Sherlock climbed out of bed and grumpily followed his erection into the bathroom.

oOo

His skin still felt a little chilled from the shower some thirty minutes later as he checked on John, who was sleeping soundly as expected. Sherlock stood over him for a few minutes, just making sure that he was all right. Which he clearly was because he looked no different at all. Completely normal in fact. Unlike Sherlock, who felt distinctly peculiar. He left the room, deciding that he may as well pop down to the chemist's himself. The fresh air might clear his head. It always seemed to work for John - although he, of course, had much less mind to clear.

He'd only made it half way across the danger zone when he was caught.

"Off out, dear?"

Sherlock halted in the middle of the hallway before swivelling slowly on his heel.

"Good morning, Mrs Hudson."

She smiled, but it was still lacking the full warmth of the smiles she used to give him.

"I am going shopping for John," he declared virtuously.

Mrs Hudson looked doubtful. "Are you sure, dear? Because John went shopping yesterday, you know. I distinctly remember him asking me if I wanted anything."

Sherlock absorbed that. "Is there anything you would like from the chemist's, Mrs Hudson?"

Her eyes narrowed immediately. "No more of those nasty chemicals turning my worktops a funny colour, Sherlock Holmes, you promised!"

"I didn't promise, Mrs Hudson, I merely…" Sherlock switched tactics. "John needs some medication. That is why I am going to the chemist's."

Rather than being impressed by this example of flatmate-ly devotion, Mrs Hudson immediately started flapping, wanting to know what was wrong with John, what medicine he needed, how long he had been poorly and what Sherlock was doing about it. The explanation that John was not sick at all but had merely been shot was not well received.

"He didn't get shot at all while you were away," she pointed out. "Not once."

Sherlock wasn't sure how to respond to that so he edged towards the door.

"Sherlock, are you looking after…? Oh, dear." She raised a hand to her face, then stepped forward and awkwardly patted his arm. "I'm sorry, dear. I know you do your best. He just… well, he's not recovering as quickly as I'd hoped, that's all. He still seems very down."

Sherlock scowled. "Well, I'm confident you'll see an improvement in his mood today," he assured her, recalling John's expression as he'd left Sherlock sagging weakly against the furniture the night before. "I predict an air of insufferable smugness."

Mrs Hudson looked a little startled by his tone but she smiled. Sherlock made his escape.

He'd barely taken a pace outside the door when his attention was drawn by an… individual lurking by the railings, who was regarding him with an expression which quickly morphed from hope to disappointment.

She frowned heavily as he drew nearer. "Where's Doctor Watson?"

"And you are…?"

"No friend of yours."

"I can see that." He waited but she just glowered at him, her short bleached hair sticking up indignantly above wide-spaced brown eyes and a stubborn chin. One of John's strays, presumably. He resigned himself to tact.

"Doctor Watson is… indisposed."

She looked worried - but more than that. It wasn't simply concern for John which had her fingers twisting the strap of the rucksack she carried.

"What's the matter with him?"

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. "Why don't you tell me what you want?"

"Why don't you tell me? That's supposed to be your 'thing' isn't it? That you can tell all about someone just by looking at them."

Sherlock's other eyebrow joined the first. "Very well." He glanced over her. "You're waiting for John, but you haven't rung the doorbell, so you're not a friend or a patient - at least, not a paying one."

She flushed, but didn't look away.

"The piercings in your nose and lip are professionally done but you've dyed your own hair. Your clothing was expensive but is well worn - I'd say you've been homeless for less than a year. Possibly since you acquired adult status, since you look to be late teens." Even for Sherlock, it was virtually impossible to accurately assess a woman's age, buried as they often were under half a pound of cosmetics. However, he rarely needed to try - one merely had to gauge whether an over- or an under-estimate would produce the information.

The girl bristled angrily. "I'm twenty-two." She drew herself up to her full height, which must have been around five foot three, at least four inches of which was boot.

Sherlock nodded in acknowledgement, some deep-buried part of himself almost admiring such densely packed belligerence. There was something about her which reminded him of John. Perhaps it was a height thing.

"You're carrying a bag but it's small - too small to contain all your possessions, so you've got a base, probably somewhere you're squatting. It was raining earlier and there's a dry patch on the pavement where you were standing, so you've been here for over an hour, but you don't appear to be injured, so you've come on someone else's behalf - someone for whom you'll stand out in the rain. Someone for whom you'll risk an encounter with me, although you're clearly holding a grudge." His eyes fell to the string of lettered beads around her wrist. "Your name is Myra."

She scowled at him. "And your name is Sherlock Holmes and you don't deserve your friend."

He walked away.

"Tell him Billy is hurt, will you?" she called after him.

Sherlock stopped. Turned back. "I can…"

Myra shook her head. "He won't see you. Won't even come here. Tell Doctor Watson, all right? When he's better." She studied him for a long moment, then nodded sharply and left, throwing her rucksack over one slight shoulder as she clumped off in her ridiculous footwear.

It seemed a long way to the chemist's shop.

oOo

When Sherlock got back to 221B, John was gone.

He didn't worry about it. John was fine. Injured, but fine. He was a grown man, perfectly capable of going where he pleased at any given time. There was no need to be concerned in any way.

Sherlock was still not worrying about it when the downstairs door banged some two hours and twenty-seven minutes later.

There were footsteps on the stairs, then they faltered in the doorway. "You all right?" John asked.

Sherlock couldn't see him as he had coincidentally just rolled over on the sofa so that his back was to the room, but he recognised the sound of a medical bag being set down on the chair.

"Your friend Myra doesn't seem to like me much."

"Ah... no, " John conceded.

Sherlock looked over his shoulder, quickly assessing the rib-favouring angle at which John was leaning. He got to his feet and walked over the coffee table on his way to the kitchen. "How's the patient?"

"Billy? He's all right. Managed to bang up his wrist again, but it will heal - if he can avoid getting beaten up for long enough."

Sherlock assembled what he needed as John began to mumble awkwardly.

"I'm sorry about Myra. And Billy - and any others you might encounter. They're just a bit… well, they saw what I was like, you know? When you were…" He cleared his throat. "Anyway, I've set those two straight."

He looked startled to be presented with a couple of pills and some water but took them, peering doubtfully into the mug in a manner which Sherlock found quite offensive. "Er… thanks."

He downed the pills and offered the mug back but Sherlock ignored it, since it was hardly his place to be running around after John. He retreated to his armchair.

John returned the crockery to its rightful home then settled down into his own seat. He grinned and Sherlock braced for some kind of comment on the previous evening's… events.

"So what are we doing today, then?" John asked brightly.

Sherlock blinked. "Well, since the day's half gone while you've been gallivanting about, despite being in no fit state to do so..."

"Sherlock, I'm fine. Well OK, I'm not 'fine' fine, but I'm all right. I'm definitely up for anything on the agenda." John leaned forward eagerly, but then winced and sat back. "Well, pretty much anything." He offered a rueful smile. "Look, I finally feel like myself again and it's a bloody good feeling. Let's do something!"

Sherlock frowned in consternation. Did John think that just because they'd kissed, the door was now open to other sorts of activities? Because nothing could be further...

"Have you checked the website? I picked up a newspaper on the way back - that might be worth a look. Or we could always just go and pester Lestrade for a bit?"

Oh.

"It's Christmas in a few days so things will probably be quiet." John was still talking. "I hadn't felt much like celebrating up to now, but we can do something if you like? Not another party," he added quickly. "But we could take Mrs Hudson out for dinner, maybe? What do you think?"

Gradually, as the chatter continued through morning coffee and a late breakfast, it began to sink in that John wasn't going to mention it at all. As if kissing Sherlock had not been in any way remarkable for him.

Remarkable... Extraordinary... Singular... Worthy of remark. Sherlock scowled.

Two sulks later he decided that it was for the best. If John didn't think it worth noting, then neither did he. Sherlock settled down with his laptop and determined to put the whole business out of his mind.

He lasted three minutes.

"So, if you like men, why were you never attracted to me before?"

John jumped, almost dropping the newspaper he'd surely had time to read from cover to cover by now, but which was still open at the sports pages. He gaped for a while, then shook his head. "You just can't let anything go, can you? No line of enquiry unfinished." He frowned, eyeing Sherlock warily as he clearly debated his response.

Eventually, he sighed. "Fine. All right, then - I was. For about five minutes, before I got to know you. And you know I was, because you turned me down without even waiting for me to ask. Which I would never have done, by the way, because it's hard to imagine anyone who is less my type than you."

He raised his newspaper again, then glanced over the top of it. "Oh, don't do those eyes."

"What eyes? These are just my eyes."

"No. No, they're not. And those aren't the fake ones either, because for some reason I now seem able to spot the difference." He sighed and folded up his newspaper completely, setting it down next to his chair.

"Look, Sherlock... you're a very attractive man. As you are clearly well aware because you play on it all the time."

Sherlock sniffed.

"But I told you that I don't like taking orders in the bedroom and you do nothing but boss me around all day, so it was pretty clear pretty quickly that there was no point going down that road. And then we became friends and..." He shrugged. "I just never thought about you like that."

"But now you do?"

John sighed again. "I don't know." He rubbed a hand over his face. "Not while you were... gone. Not immediately when you came back. But everything's been such a muddle and then the thing with Irene knowing and I felt jealous and I just... I don't know."

Sherlock filed that away and focused on information still outstanding. "So why do you only date women? For someone's who not entirely straight, you certainly give a good impression - you can barely go a week without announcing that you're not gay."

"I'm not gay."

Sherlock rolled his eyes.

John frowned, then shook his head. "We're all so eager to categorise each other - put everybody into neat little boxes with neat little labels. Real people don't fit in boxes - there are always some bits that won't quite go, or too much space once you're in there." He shrugged. "Why bother? I'm as unique as the next person. I'll take a 'John' shaped box or no box at all."

He waved a hand in Sherlock's direction. "If you choose to be celibate, or whatever you want to call it, then that's your right and I don't have a problem with it." He gave an odd half smile. "We're all individuals."

His tone suggested that he was quoting from something but Sherlock had no desire to ask. He moved on. "So if it's to do with the 'taking orders' issue... Oh! I understand." He nodded. "Women are easier for you to dominate, because you're short."

John bristled like an angry bulldog and sat forward in his chair, knees spread wide and elbows resting on them. "Now you listen to me, you six foot lunatic. I can dominate the fuck out of anyone you care to mention, all right? I didn't hear you putting up much of an argument last night."

Sherlock couldn't help noticing that his pulse rate had just increased significantly, but this hardly seemed the time to worry about it. Anyway, John was still talking.

"And OK, I know you were just doing it as some kind of... I don't know... penance, or something, but still." He raised an arm, pointing sternly at Sherlock's face. "That is not it, do you understand?"

Sherlock nodded. John simmered down.

When it seemed safe to proceed, Sherlock tried again. "So why did you bring up the issue of assertiveness when I asked about your 'other reasons' for sticking to women?"

John squirmed a little. "Well, that's the issue most relevant to you and it was you who was asking."

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "But it's not the general reason?"

"Look, it's personal, all right?"

Sherlock smiled. Better and better.

"You're not going to let this go, are you?"

"Not now that I know there's something to find out, no." Sherlock shrugged. "Sorry." He really wasn't, but it seemed like the thing to say.

John was clearly struggling through some kind of internal debate. Eventually he tipped his head back and sighed at the ceiling, then levelled his gaze again, his pointing finger coming up once more to emphasise his words. "If anything in any way related to male sexual preference appears on your website, then I will shave off your eyebrows in your sleep. Are we clear?"

Sherlock managed not to raise his eyebrows at the threat. "Of course."

"Fine. To be completely honest, I don't really care. Men or women, it's not an issue for me, but I do prefer to..." He coloured and addressed his next words to the fireplace. "Well, I prefer to 'top', for want of a better expression."

Sherlock considered that. "And discussions of who actually gets penetrated are less likely to arise..."

"...with a woman. Yes." John now appeared to be speaking to the skull. "Women are just easier."

"So is this connected with the assertiveness issue? Does being 'on top' equate to being 'in charge'?"

"God, I don't know!" John ran a hand through his hair, turning now to talk to the rug. Sherlock felt like waving to get his attention. "I don't spend hours psycho-analysing my sexuality. I'll try just about anything as long as it's consensual, and I keep what I like and avoid what I don't, all right? It's as simple as that."

"So, in terms of preferring to be the penetrative partner. Is that based on a 'keep what you like' or on an 'avoid what you don't'? Do you actively dislike being penetrated yourself and, if so, how widely have you tested this hypothesis? Have you...?"

"Will you stop saying 'penetrate'?" Finally, John looked directly at him. "It's weird enough having this conversation without you bandying about words which make me think about... things I shouldn't be thinking about!"

Sherlock couldn't keep his eyebrows down this time.

John took a few calming breaths. "Right, that's it," he declared. "This is so far beyond 'not your business', I don't think there's even a term for it. Enough."

He got to his feet. "Look, we're OK, aren't we? Back to normal. You can carry on being your obnoxious self because I know you care in your own way, and I'll get over this 'attraction' thing because it's not what really matters."

He raised a hand, pointing from Sherlock to himself, then back again. "This... what did you call it? This partnership?"

Sherlock nodded.

"Well, it's more important than anything else, right? To me, at least." There was no trace of guile in his expression, he clearly meant every word.

"And to me," Sherlock confirmed.

John's face relaxed. "So, we're fine. No harm done. Nothing has to change." He smiled in what was no doubt supposed to be a reassuring manner. "Cup of tea?"

Sherlock nodded again, absently rubbing the back of his neck as John walked away.

oOo

The next two weeks were hell.

Sherlock lay in bed on a grey January morning and looked back longingly to the days when he could say John's name and then be surprised by his absence. Now it seemed that awareness of John's location was a constant thing, as if some part of his brain… No. Sherlock frowned. No, it wasn't his brain. More like his skin… As if all the hairs on his arms and down the back of his neck were magnetised and John had somehow become north.

How the man remained oblivious was utterly beyond him; Sherlock's behaviour had been bizarre even by his own standards. After an alarmingly strong reaction to simply brushing past each other that first afternoon, he had spent a week avoiding touching John at all - as if personal space had finally found a free slot in his hard drive and had suddenly become something he did now. He had also gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the lack of contact went both ways, sliding away from hands which threatened to rest on his shoulders and waiting until mugs were put down before reaching for them. Christmas Day had been a ludicrous exercise in table circling and making sure that he always had his hands full. John had not appeared to notice.

When, on the morning of the seventh day, he had been forced to resort to masturbation or risk permanent damage, it became clear that Plan A, tentatively titled 'Avoidance', was a complete washout. Plan B had achieved no greater success. Sherlock rolled onto his side, giving his pillow a vicious punch.

The first time he had steeled himself to behave as he used to, leaning over John's shoulder in order to ridicule a blog entry, John had turned his head and his mouth was abruptly only millimetres away. Sherlock had found himself unable to focus on the screen and had been forced to resort to some generic grammar-based scorn which would have been applicable to any of John's writing.

Frowning at the memory, he drew up his knees, gazing blankly at the closed door of his bedroom as other failed attempts at normality presented themselves for his humiliation. He closed his eyes. What was wrong with him?

It had been well over a decade since he'd deleted these emotions and they'd certainly never felt anything like this. He didn't even remember the transition being difficult - he'd simply decided that sex was a waste of time and energy and that was that. After a couple of years it had ceased to be an issue and there had been nothing stronger than the occasional ripple on the surface of his effectively non-existent libido ever since. Until now. Until John. Until that damned kiss which seemed to have reached down into his psyche and grabbed hold of every sexual feeling he'd ever had and dragged them up into the light, each one growing exponentially stronger for every year it had been locked away.

He rolled onto his back again and threw an arm over his eyes, feeling almost desperate in his frustration. There had to be an answer. It was ludicrous for one kiss to have affected him so radically, no matter how fascinating it had been to discover an entirely new John hidden under the one he knew. The fascination, however, had come later - at the time his brain had seemed more than happy to take a back seat and drift for once as John took control and the near-constant buzzing in Sherlock's head had faded to blessed silence.

But John had given as much as he took. Once the initial panic had subsided and they'd had their 'back to normal' talk, it had gradually dawned on Sherlock that he'd seen more with his eyes closed than he had observed from all his watching. Because the grief that John had endured had been there in his kiss and its depth had been staggering.

Sherlock had known what he was doing, up on the roof of Bart's all those months ago. He'd understood that John would be deeply hurt, might never forgive him even if he survived the task he had set himself. But he had never thought that John would suffer as he would have suffered had their roles been reversed; had never believed that he meant as much to John, who had so many friends, as John did to him; hadn't thought it possible that anyone would ever value him so highly.

But he couldn't doubt it now because it had been there. All of it. Everything. All the loss, all the love, all the anger, all of it there and poured out from John into Sherlock… poured out without reserve or hesitation, nothing held back, nothing hidden away.

Even if he could, Sherlock would never delete that. It was an amazing thing to discover with such unequivocal surety that you were the most important person in someone else's life. Especially when that person fulfilled a similar role in your own.

Except that Sherlock was going to screw it up. Because John - open book John, habitual wearer of sleeves with hearts on them - was behaving completely normally. He had admitted his attraction but had immediately demoted it, declaring their friendship to be paramount. Which it was. It definitely was. And Sherlock would never forgive himself if he ruined it. Which he inevitably would at the rate he was going, because surely there were only so many times he could freeze at a casual touch before even John noticed that his flatmate couldn't stop staring at his mouth.

He rolled the other way, launching another attack on his pillow, which again completely failed to be in any way cathartic.

It wasn't even as if there were any decent cases to distract him. Since when did the criminal classes care about 'goodwill to all men'? What the hell were they all doing? Sunning themselves in the bloody Bahamas while Sherlock was here, desperate for a really juicy triple murder and with not so much as a fake suicide to sustain him?

Although, there was always the concern that his professional performance might also be impaired by this issue. He glanced down despairingly. Blood flow constantly going in the wrong direction could not possibly be good for brainwork. The thought led on to consideration of the circumstances of the kiss. Generally he tried not to dwell on his response when John had focused on the back of his neck, but he had been striding around in some agitation beforehand and had then sat down very suddenly. Perhaps alterations in the level of blood flow to the brain affected the skin's sensitivity? Sherlock resolved to test this hypothesis later.

He had to get this under control. He had to. It had only been a kiss. God, he'd been so completely blasé with his offer, thinking he could just give John his body without it affecting his mind, that it would be nothing… but how could he possibly have known? It appalled him now to think what sort of state he would be in had John accepted. If just a kiss could derail him like this, what would sex have done to him?

Sherlock groaned, glancing down again. Not a helpful topic. He tried to backtrack but it was clearly too late. With great reluctance, feeling angry at his body and ashamed of his weakness in being governed by it, he allowed his hand to slip down and under the waistband of his pyjama trousers. The contact made him shiver. He lay still. Was he really going to do this again? A sixth time in seven days, allowing for what had surely been the most uncomfortable and short-lived New Year's Resolution in history. He closed his eyes. What was he doing?

For right now, the answer was all too clear. Sherlock's hand started moving and the battle commenced.

Did he try to clear his mind, or at least think of something other than John and, God forbid, that kiss... involuntary tightening of fingers... first bitten-off moan... which allowed him to keep some measure of self respect, but took much longer? And, if he was honest, inevitably failed in the last few seconds anyway...

...or did he admit defeat right from the start and get it over with, mentally replaying the kiss until John's bite... instinctive arching of neck... tipped him over the edge as it had done on several mornings already?

He could never decide. Sherlock fought the sudden impulse to involve a second hand in the proceedings and frowned. Where had that thought come from? He sighed, picturing himself from above, lying curled under his duvet with his back to the door, shame clear in his posture, hiding away. What would John think if he walked in now and found him like this... thudding of heart as his pulse rate jumped...?

Sherlock froze, confused. A twitch beneath his fingers spurred his hand back into motion and he carried on, wondering at himself.

In his mind, the door opened... gasping too loudly, biting of lip. He mentally stalled - this hadn't happened, what was he thinking? - but was already rolling onto his back. The John in his head quickly moved over him and there was nothing bad in his face. No disgust, no censure. The John in his head stripped him in seconds.

Sherlock kicked the covers away. His left hand obeyed John now, pushing down his pyjamas and exposing himself to his own eyes... making him face what he was doing, the state of his body, the movement of his hand. He looked away. God, he was like an animal - what price his great brain now? 'No...' John's voice was sure. 'No... it's just part of you.' Sherlock tipped his head back, squeezing his eyes tightly closed as John spoke in his ear. 'Give me your hand.'

There was a whimper in the room. Sherlock bent his knee, pulling his leg free of his trousers and placing his foot flat on the bed. The hand that was John's started at his throat and moved slowly down, pausing at his chest... tensing of leg muscles, full body shudder... then sliding further, over prickling skin and quivering belly, through curling hair and growing tension, to where Sherlock's own hand was moving in the now familiar way.

John's hand kept going.

Cupping... rolling... fondling... teasing. Sherlock's toes spasmed against the sheet. He dug in with his heel, his mouth falling open as he panted for breath, his head rolling to the side. He could see John in his mind. All those times they stood so close, opposite each other, John facing him... his vision jumped to the memory of a metal fence, the two of them tethered together on either side of it, no way to escape, but in this fantasy there was no pursuit. John's hand slithered between the bars and into his clothing and there was nothing that he could do. He was helpless, unable to move away as they stared at each other through the railings and John's hand burrowed into the tight confines of his underwear, holding him as he twitched and grew, John smiling all the while, promising that it was all right, that Sherlock could have this, that it was allowed, stroking him as he filled out and urging him forward until they were kissing through the bars and Sherlock was getting closer and closer...

'Lick your finger.'

Oh God... After a long moment, Sherlock raised his hand and sucked the middle finger into his mouth, coating it thoroughly before giving it back. The John in his mind didn't hesitate and Sherlock arched off the bed. 'Oh God, oh God, oh God... John! What are you doing? What am I doing? What am I...?'

'Nothing wrong,' John's voice swore to him. 'Nothing to be ashamed of.' The voice took on a darker tone. 'Go faster.'

Sherlock shook his head even as his hand obeyed. 'I can't, I can't...'

'You can. You will.'

He was trembling. He was seeing John standing in the kitchen, pretending to be angry over something trivial, his expression stern, but voice still warm. He was seeing himself face down on the table, trousers already at mid thigh as John bared him completely, murmuring words of encouragement, vowing that there was no weakness in this. He was feeling strong hands holding him open as a finger squirmed its way inside and he was aware of pleasure.

Pleasure which was building beyond anything he'd experienced. Pleasure which was curling up from his toes, tensing the muscles in his thighs, raising his hips from the bed. Pleasure which was turning his breathing harsh and desperate... and there wasn't enough air in the room, he was going to black out, he was going to... he was going to...

'Let go.'

How anyone slept through the resultant howl was a mystery to rival most that he had solved.

Chapter Text

Muriel bent one leg at the knee and rubbed her foot against the back of her aching calf, once again cursing her new shoes. From there, she moved on to criticising her decision to wear her new shoes to the job which had her standing up all day, and from that point it was a short step to finding fault with the job itself - selling jewellery was not nearly so glamorous as wearing it - and daydreaming of all the things she was going to do once she retired next year. At the moment, these fantasies involved a great deal of sitting down with her feet up.

Her professional smile never wavered as she shifted to the other leg, glancing at the clock between customers to see that she still had another fifteen minutes to go until her lunch break. Always assuming that Sylvia came back on time, of course, which was by no means a certainty. After nearly four decades working in retail, Muriel's attitude to the January sales was one of stoic determination to get through them. At twenty-three years old, Sylvia had a very different approach and was no doubt busy wriggling her skinny hips into another belt with delusions of skirt-hood even as Muriel risked repetitive strain injury from slotting handfuls of well-travelled tenners into the cash register every two minutes.

"And your receipt, Madam. Thank you," she murmured for the hundredth time that day. "May I take that for you, Sir?"

"Everybody stop!"

Muriel jumped as the sudden voice bellowed over the muted hum of conversation in the shop, losing her grip on her latest customer's purchase which fell to the desk in front of her, the box flying open and spilling out its contents. She frowned. Bloody teenagers messing about.

"Do as you're told and no one will get hurt!"

What on earth? The customers blocking her view started to move to the side and Muriel saw the source of the commotion. Two figures were standing just inside the entrance, balaclavas over their heads, each wearing identical long raincoats which covered them almost completely. One of them held… was that a gun? She started to feel sick.

"You!" The man with the gun addressed Geoffrey, who was at the main display counter, his moustache quivering in outrage. "Start filling that." He indicated a khaki holdall which the second robber was holding out, then turned his attention to the half dozen customers. "Non-employees, get behind there." He waved towards the slightly smaller counter where the watches were housed. "On your knees, foreheads to the ground. And be quiet."

He threw a second holdall at Karl, the only other member of staff not out to lunch at the moment, who lowered his hands to catch it, almost fumbling in his panic. "Watches in the bag. One minute." The thug brought both hands to the gun now, his stance becoming even more menacing as he took careful aim at Karl, whose pale eyes grew impossibly bigger behind the thick lenses of his spectacles. "And get all the good ones... or I'll shoot you in the neck."

Muriel's gaze was drawn by a sudden noise from the other thief, but he just stared at the first man for a few seconds before moving to join Geoffrey in ransacking the main counter. When she looked back, the gun was pointing at her.

'I left the cat-flap locked,' she thought, ridiculously. 'Mister Mistoffelees won't be able to get in.' She clamped her mouth shut as the gunman approached.

"I'll have those," he said, indicating with the gun. She looked down, seeing the cufflinks whose purchase she had been about to put through.

"I haven't rung the sale up yet."

He stepped nearer, leering at her. "I think you're missing the point of a robbery, ducky."

Muriel found it very difficult to look away from the gun. And yet, she really didn't want to look at the gun. She forced herself to keep her eyes on his face. Well… his wool. Two hard grey eyes with a sea of black wool around them. It looked itchy.

He cast a quick glance around the rest of the shop and yelled, "Thirty seconds!" then turned back towards her.

"Had a busy morning, then?"

"Very busy." Muriel felt her 'professional chat' smile slide incongruously into place. "January sales. You know how it is."

"Lots of money in that till, I suppose?"

Her smile slipped away. "I…"

"Open it."

Muriel looked down. How did one open the till without ringing through a sale? There was a way, but she couldn't remember. "I think I need to sit down."

"Open it!"

Was it the green button? That looked worth a try. Green for go. She pressed the green button. Nothing happened.

"I'm going to count to three..."

The buttons were getting blurry. How could she find the right button when they were all so blurry?

"One..."

"Leave her alone!" Poor Geoffrey, such a mess being made in his shop, he'd be fussing forever after this.

"Two..."

The gun was looking at her. She didn't want to look at the gun but the gun wouldn't stop looking at her. She squeezed her eyes shut.

"Thr..."

Her hand reached out.

"Not so hard, was it?"

Muriel opened her eyes and found the gunman peering into the drawer as it slid open.

"Put the money in a bag."

Her gaze fell to the empty shelf below. It had been a very busy morning. She looked back at the man. "I don't have any bags."

The gun barrel seemed to take forever as it swung towards the side of her head.

oOo

"We've got another one. Does he want it?"

John stood with the phone to his ear and regarded Sherlock, who was upside down on the sofa. Quite literally upside down. His pyjama-clad legs were stretched up along the wall, toes scratching at the side of the smiley face while his head and shoulders dangled backwards over the edge of the seat cushion and were obscured from view by the coffee table. The position looked extremely precarious and he was sporadically poking himself with an acupuncture needle.

John turned away. "Oh, he wants it, all right."

There was a muffled crash from behind him, but John did not look round. Experience had taught him that injured pride was rarely improved by medical attention. "It's been a bloody long two weeks since that Deborah Martin case and things have been very quiet over the holidays. He's actually managed to drive himself up the wall."

Lestrade's chuckle echoed down the line. "That must make a nice change. Well, get his arse down to Chelsea and I'll try to hold Anderson off until you get here."

John took down the details, then hung up, keeping his back to the room until a sniff indicated that ruffled feathers had been smoothed back into place.

"Your 'vanishing thieves' have struck again."

Sherlock's expression went from grumpy to gleeful.

"Brilliant!" His hands almost closed on John's shoulders in one of his typically excited gestures but he pulled them back. "I'll be dressed in under a minute - are you ready to go?" He was turning away as he spoke.

"Wait!"

Sherlock halted obediently and John advanced towards him, reaching out.

An oddly alarmed expression crossed Sherlock's face and he took a half-pace backwards. "What are you doing?"

"Hold still."

"John, I…"

"Will you stay put?" John grabbed hold of his hip to steady him as he reached around, bemused by the almost panicked reaction. "God, you're so twitchy lately, I don't know what's got into you." He managed to take hold of his target and gave it a sharp tug.

"Ow!"

"Well, it would have been more of a bloody 'Ow' if you'd sat down to put your socks on!" John held up the acupuncture needle. "You must have fallen on it."

Sherlock exhaled slowly. Then he scowled. Then he stalked off to his room, abandoning the offensive implement which had dared to assault his posterior.

oOo

Getting to the crime scene ahead of Anderson appeased him greatly and he shot off, leaving John to settle up for the taxi. By the time he turned around, Sherlock was already sweeping past the young police officer on the door, using his customary 'access all areas' pass of a slight sneer and a profound air of entitlement.

The young man was squaring his shoulders and looking determined to be much more of a challenge regarding further admissions when Lestrade's voice called out from the depths of the jewellery shop.

"He's with me, Greening! Let him in."

"Right you are, Sir." Constable Greening stood back, eyeing John speculatively. John gave him an extremely soldierly nod, wondering if he had 'I shag any man I'm seen with' somehow emblazoned on his person in a manner visible to everyone but him.

Sherlock was zipping about near the main display counter like an angry fly in an invisible bottle. "I'll need to see that film," he instructed Lestrade, and John followed his gaze to a security camera up in the corner of the room. Presumably the bobbing and weaving was to do with sight lines.

"Should have it set up later at The Yard. We're getting hold of the CCTV footage from the street too, although eye witness accounts suggest the usual scenario."

"What's the usual scenario?" asked John, who hadn't paid much attention to the case so far.

"A lorry pulls up in front of the premises just before the thieves strike and blocks off external camera angles," explained Lestrade. "It stays until after they've left."

"Not much of a vanishing act if they're going to and fro in a ruddy great lorry," John pointed out, watching as Sherlock disappeared behind the smaller counter.

"They're not, though," Lestrade replied. "At least, we don't think they are. These are busy London streets - the lorry driver inevitably gets into a shouting match with other road users, often sticking his head out of the window and yelling abuse. People are watching the lorry. If anyone else got in they would notice."

"Into the back then?"

Lestrade shrugged. "Possible, but you'd think someone would have spotted that by now. Plus the lorries are always stolen - this one will no doubt turn up somewhere in an hour or two - and so far only the cabs have been broken into, never any sign of tampering with the container doors."

"Interesting," said John.

"I told you," muttered Sherlock. He was over by the till now, peering at it through his magnifier. "Where's the injured woman?" He looked at Lestrade.

John was surprised - he was sure he'd read that these thieves hadn't caused any casualties. Sherlock caught his look and nodded towards the till.

"Blood spatter. Relatively minor wound, I would say. Probably pistol whipped."

"Muriel Hodgson. She's in the manager's office," Lestrade replied. "But she's pretty shaken - I don't think…"

Sherlock was already gone, disappearing through one of the three visible doorways. Lestrade sighed. "How does he even know where the manager's office is?" he demanded plaintively of John, setting off in pursuit. "Or that it's a woman?"

John shrugged, following him. "He's Sherlock."

Muriel Hodgson didn't look particularly shaken when they arrived. In fact she seemed quite happy, gazing at Sherlock as he towered over her.

"Why did they hit you?"

John got the feeling it wasn't the first time that Sherlock had asked his question.

She smiled up at him. "Lord, you're pretty."

Lestrade snorted and John only kept his face straight with an effort.

Sherlock made an exasperated noise and waved his arm at the attending paramedic in what was presumably a 'fix her!' gesture.

"She's suffering from shock," the man defended. "The head wound seems fairly superficial but we'll be taking her to hospital in a few minutes and you're unlikely to get much sense out of her before then."

Sherlock scowled.

"We can get a statement later," Lestrade pointed out. "Why don't you…?"

"This is significant," Sherlock talked over him. "They've never been violent before, so why now, why her? She doesn't look anything special…"

"Sherlock." John walked forward and put a hand on his arm, but Sherlock jerked it sharply away and turned to Lestrade.

"Why don't you have a go?" he suggested crossly. "Perhaps she won't find an older man so distracting."

John grabbed his arm again, not letting go this time but tugging him to the side of the room. "Look, why don't you take it down a notch?" he suggested quietly. "Just because you're not sleeping well, there's no need to…"

"What do you mean, 'not sleeping well'?" Sherlock demanded, not lowering his voice at all. "I'm sleeping perfectly fine. I don't know what you mean." He frowned. "What do you mean?"

John shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, we thought perhaps you'd been having nightmares." He glanced around, but Lestrade was speaking quietly to Miss Hodgson, who was still eyeing up Sherlock's back view. "OK, this isn't the time or the place, but if you ever want to talk about anything that happened while you were away - if anything's bothering you, you know you can…"

"Bothering me? Why on earth should anything be bothering me? Really, John, I have no idea what you're talking about. And who is 'we'? Have you and Mrs Hudson nothing better to discuss?" He looked most put out.

John held up his hands defensively. "All right, all right, fine. Calm down. It was just with the shouting, especially this morning, we thought…"

"Some of this lot are wanting to leave, Detective Inspector." A blonde constable John hadn't seen before stuck her head round the door, distracting him before he could query the peculiar expression on Sherlock's face.

"Well, too bloody bad," said Lestrade. "Staff room," he told Sherlock. "Six shoppers and two other staff members who were here at the time, plus three more who've since returned from their lunch breaks. Knock yourself out."

Sherlock was off like a rocket, almost barging into the diminutive officer who barely got out of the doorway fast enough.

"Oy!" she yelled after him. "Short doesn't mean invisible!"

John liked her already.

Lestrade sighed. "Constable Ross, see if you can get a statement from Miss Hodgson, will you? Specifically what led to her being attacked."

"Will do, Sir." She nodded, flashing them a grin. She really was very attractive, John decided. He surreptitiously looked her over. Good figure, too. There was certainly no point him mooning over his mad flatmate; it was about time he got back in the game. He returned her smile warmly as he followed Lestrade out of the door.

When they got to the staff room, Sherlock was surrounded.

"…and then the other guy swore at the one with the gun…"

"No he didn't. He started to, but then he…"

"He definitely shouted - you could tell he wasn't happy about the gun guy hitting the woman…"

"I thought he…"

"Shut UP!" Sherlock glared around the group. "Who here was actually present at the time and not face down on the carpet at this point?"

Two men raised their hands like chastened pre-schoolers. Sherlock pointed at the one with the limp moustache. "What happened next?"

"Er… Well, I… That is..."

"Too slow." He redirected his pointing finger to the younger man with the thick spectacles. "You. Karl…" John belatedly noticed the name tags. "Go!" instructed Sherlock.

Karl drew a quick breath. "Well, Geoffrey tried to go to Muriel, but the man pointed the gun at him. He couldn't… there was nothing we could do." He shrugged helplessly. "They made us go and kneel behind the counter with the others." He looked around for confirmation. "Then they left."

"Did anybody actually see them leave?"

Several people exchanged glances. Heads were shaken.

"We were all behind the counters and they told us to keep our heads down and count to fifty," a woman volunteered.

"But… I mean… they must have left, mustn't they?" another woman spoke up. "I mean, they were gone when we'd finished counting."

Sherlock turned to her. "You all finished at the same time?"

She shrank a little under his gaze. "Well, yes."

"They made us count out loud," her neighbour explained. "We ended up in unison."

"Interesting." Sherlock had his hands steepled together and was tapping his index fingers against his mouth.

"Is Muriel all right?" A younger girl in an extremely short skirt wiggled to the front of the group.

"She should be fine," John spoke up reassuringly, subtly enjoying the visual.

"Oh, thank goodness." She gave him a grateful smile. "It would have been me on that till if she hadn't agreed to swap lunches. I feel awful."

"How appropriate," Sherlock snapped, looking her over. He raised an eyebrow at John, with 'Seriously?' written plainly on his features. John offered him a 'So sue me' shrug.

Lestrade stepped in. "And no one has any idea why Miss Hodgson was harmed?"

There was more head shaking.

"He seemed very angry," offered Karl. "In general, I mean. The man with the gun. He was very aggressive. The other one was calmer."

There were nods all round.

"Got it, Sir!"

John turned around as Constable Ross spoke from behind him. She was brandishing a notebook which was snatched from her hand seconds later.

"Oy!"

"Leave it," Lestrade told her, watching as Sherlock skimmed down the page.

He reached the end. "Ridiculous."

He passed the notebook to John, who took it over to Lestrade and they read through Constable Ross's notes together. She had very nice penmanship.

"Sounds like she just wound him up," John commented. "Extreme situation, he was already tense and aggressive - wouldn't take much to push him over the edge."

"I agree," said Lestrade. He looked to Sherlock. "I know it seems like an escalation when there's been no violence before, but I'm not sure it's significant." He shrugged. "Everyone has bad days."

Sherlock was still frowning. "But why would a seemingly innocuous woman give such ridiculous and inflammatory replies to a man holding a gun?"

Lestrade sighed. "People's reactions and responses can be atypical during periods of great emotional stress." He sounded as if he were quoting from the 'sensitivity training' handbook. "She seemed to find you pretty…" His mouth twitched at the word and John bit his lip. "…er… interesting too - I don't suppose that would happen under normal circumstances, either!"

Sherlock stilled, staring at him as his eyes flickered in a way that John recognised. Thoughts were clearly slotting into place. "We need to leave." He put a hand on the small of John's back and gave him a push in the direction of the door. "Text me when you have the video footage," he instructed Lestrade over his shoulder, hustling John out of the room and onwards.

"Where are we going?" John was almost forced into a trot as they burst out onto the pavement.

"Baker Street."

oOo

Sherlock swept into the flat like a tornado, casting coat, scarf and jacket to various surfaces. After a slight pause, he also unfastened the top button of his shirt, then returned to where John was still standing near the door, feeling decidedly perplexed.

"Right. Kiss me again."

John gaped at him. Sherlock frowned. John blinked.

"Please," added Sherlock, in a not at all pleading manner.

John gave his head a shake and closed his eyes but Sherlock was still there when he opened them, looking, if possible, even more impatient.

"Come on, John. I don't see that it should be such a problem - you've done it before and it didn't seem to be an issue for you." His eyes narrowed. "At all."

John went back to the gaping, throwing in a bit of mouthing dumbly for added emphasis.

"Oh, for God's sake!" Sherlock was acquiring a long-suffering air which John couldn't help but feel was wildly misplaced. "Fine - I'll start." He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to John's, withdrawing again almost immediately. He waved his hand. "Now you."

Enough was enough. John gripped Sherlock's upper arms and pushed him backwards until the arm of the sofa hit him in the back of the knees and he sat down on it abruptly.

"Excellent," he congratulated, tipping his head back. "Carry on."

"No, you carry on. Carry on talking, that is - because I'm not a toy, Sherlock. You're playing with fire and you're going to have to explain yourself before I let you do that."

Sherlock scowled and moved as if to get up but John held his gaze and he seemed unable to look away. Gradually, John felt the muscles bunching under his fingers relax. He released his grip and stepped back, folding his arms across his chest. "Go on."

Sherlock was still staring at him, a curious expression on his face. After another moment, he drew a deep breath and appeared to collect himself, then got to his feet and paced across the room.

"Explanation. Right. Fine." He reached the fireplace and turned around. "Emotional stress."

John raised his eyebrows.

"'People's reactions and responses can be atypical during periods of great emotional stress'," Sherlock quoted Lestrade's earlier remark.

John tried out a shrug / eyebrow combo which he'd been keeping in reserve for extreme situations.

"When you kissed me two weeks ago, it was within hours of your being shot, I was… concerned that our partnership was irretrievably damaged, and you seemed to have developed a death wish. In short, I would rank the evening among the top five of my most emotionally stressful experiences."

John wasn't sure what to do with that. "Er… sorry?" he offered.

Sherlock waved a dismissive hand. "So it occurs to me that my subsequent obsession with specific aspects of that event may be founded on the situation rather than on… well… you."

There were quite a few words in that sentence but only one of them stood out to John like a neon sign with a Vegas stripper on each side of it - both of whom were gesticulating enthusiastically. "Obsession?" he echoed.

Sherlock shot him an exasperated look. "How can you not have noticed?" he demanded. "Have I taught you nothing? The week of avoidance? The table circling? The fact that I snapped a pen in half when you read a text over my shoulder?" He shook his head in disgust. "You have the observational skills of a kebab."

"Not really convincing me here."

Sherlock threw up his hands. "Seriously? Nothing has struck you as at all unusual about my behaviour over the past two weeks?"

John decided he'd had enough of lurking by the door and headed for the kitchen. "Quite frankly, Sherlock, your behaviour could be classed as 'unusual' at least seventy per cent of the time." He took the kettle to the sink and started filling it, hearing Sherlock follow him into the room. "And clues that scream at you may barely whisper to the rest of us. Although..." he turned off the tap and set the kettle back on its stand, "...it is actually quite a normal reaction - to assume that something you're self-conscious about is much more noticeable than it is."

He glanced round. Sherlock was standing near the doorway and looking revolted - no doubt at the use of the word 'normal' in conjunction with himself.

John shrugged. "Anyway, I just thought you were in a bad mood, or didn't like me reading over your shoulder or something. Considering how little respect you have for other people's personal space, you can be awfully touchy about your own."

Sherlock huffed and John decided to leave the tea for now, turning and leaning back against the worktop.

"I did wonder earlier, though, now you mention it," he admitted. "With the thing with the needle in your…" He lowered his gaze to where Sherlock had automatically moved his hand and was now rubbing the affected area. John frowned. "Is that bothering you, by the way? Do you want me to take a look at it?"

Sherlock snorted. "And you question my timing!"

John's brain caught up. "Oh, right." He switched his medical mode back onto stand-by and produced a rueful half smile. "Sorry." He considered Sherlock's earlier words. "Anyway, that did make me look back a bit. I thought perhaps you were concerned that I was going to try to molest you or something."

"Molest me?" Sherlock was looking at him very oddly.

John shrugged. "Well, you know. Try to over-step my bounds because of what happened. Put you in an uncomfortable position."

Sherlock's eyes flicked to the kitchen table and appeared to glaze over a little.

"Are you all right?" John took a step towards him. "Look, what's this about, Sherlock? What exactly are you so 'obsessed' over? Because I am not getting this at all. Are you worried that I'm going to do it again? Expect something more from you? Because I..."

"For God's sake, John. I just asked you to do it again!" With a frustrated noise, Sherlock turned away, ruffling his fingers through the hair at the back of his head. "How can you be so... so...?" He waved an irate hand. "So completely blasé about it?" He adopted a mocking tone, which was presumably supposed to be an impression of John's voice. "Oh, I kissed Sherlock, so what? No big deal. Let's just forget about it and move on. Back to bloody normal." It was not one of his better impressions.

He turned back, glaring. "Well, I can't bloody well forget about it and it's driving me mad, so if there's a possibility that my reaction was a one-off thing based on those particular circumstances and nothing more, then I need to know so that I can put the whole mess behind me and stop having these ridiculous..."

He glanced down and John automatically followed his gaze, his mouth falling open as he took in the area at which Sherlock appeared to be directing his scorn. When he looked up again, Sherlock's eyes were closed and he was gritting his teeth.

John instinctively moved towards him. "Hey, it's all right." He reached out and patted Sherlock's arm. "If it means that much to you, then fine. Just... calm down, OK? No need to get so worked up."

Sherlock groaned, rubbing a hand over his eyes. "Worked up," he echoed. "Me!" He sounded disgusted. "I am not accustomed to being 'worked up'."

"No, and I bet that's half the problem," John acknowledged. He sighed. "I shouldn't have kissed you, should I?" He looked away, thinking back to how... healed he had felt afterwards.

"Yes, you should," Sherlock contradicted.

John faced him again.

Sherlock shrugged. "I got you back, didn't I? Worth it, I would say."

John breathed a little easier and smiled at him. "All right, then. Well, if this is what you need to get yourself sorted…" He held out his arms to the sides. "...I'm all yours."

He waited but Sherlock didn't move. "This is me agreeing," John prompted him.

"Er..." Sherlock had dropped his eyes and a blush was rising in his cheeks. "You have to do it."

"Oh." John was a little taken aback, but then he nodded. "Right, I get it - experimental conditions. Keep the parameters the same, that sort of thing."

Sherlock shrugged in apparent agreement but still wouldn't look at him.

John glanced around. The table was mostly clear. Nothing breakable, incendiary or corrosive on there by the looks of it. That would do. "Back up a bit."

Sherlock checked behind him, then did as requested, not completely sitting on the table but perching against the side of it to bring their heads level. John stepped up in front of him and raised a hand to the side of his neck, his thumb stroking soothingly. The pulse rate under his fingers was ridiculously high.

"Relax. I'm not going to bite you." The hackneyed '...unless you want me to' line was on the tip of his tongue but John held it back. Sherlock was already very flushed and the last thing John wanted to do was make him even more self-conscious.

He started to move forward but then hesitated, getting an impatient glare for his trouble. He grimaced apologetically. "Sorry - this is just…" He frowned, trying to define his reservations. "It feels dangerous."

The word seem to put Sherlock at ease and he produced a wry smile. "Never stopped us before."

"That's true, isn't it?" John drew a deep breath. "All right, then. Close your eyes." Sherlock obeyed and John brought up his other hand, cupping Sherlock's face and giving himself an unobserved moment. Then he leaned in and kissed that waiting mouth.

It wasn't like the last time.

John fleetingly wondered if he was supposed to be making it like the last time for the sake of the experiment, but that really didn't seem to be an option because at the first touch of his lips Sherlock drew in a shuddering breath, then both of his hands came up and grabbed hold of whatever they encountered, which happened to be a section of belt, with associated loop, and a large fistful of jumper.

'OK, then,' thought John. He wasn't a control freak. He may not like being dictated to in this area, but he had no problem at all with a bit of give and take. He angled Sherlock's head and kissed him again... and again, lingering longer each time until the kisses blurred together and he wasn't pulling away at all, by which point Sherlock had one long arm wrapped around his waist and the other underneath his jumper and half way up his back. Clearly when Sherlock demanded a kiss he didn't have in mind the sort of display one could get away with in public without risking people either running and screaming or assuming that an orgy was imminent and attempting to join in.

John supposed that technically this was just a kiss, albeit a very handsy one, but it didn't feel like that. It didn't feel like that at all. It felt as if every thrust of Sherlock's tongue was saying 'Take me' and as if the fingers scratching through his shirt were spelling out 'Now'. It felt as if Sherlock were hell bent on acquiring enough information about the inside of his mouth to be able to produce a scale model, and John's body was telling him in no uncertain terms exactly what he should be doing about that.

He started to question the sanity of this decision. He had been turned on by 'The Kiss' - which had virtually acquired Trademark status in his head - two weeks ago, of course he had. He defied anyone to kiss a willing Sherlock Holmes and not get aroused in the process… but it hadn't really been about that, not for him; which was presumably why he'd managed to move on from it without suffering through the nine circles of angst. The Kiss (TM) had restored his friend to him and that was the single most important thing in John's life. After the months of pain followed by weeks of doubt, any other concerns had seemed almost ludicrously irrelevant.

Not so now. Not at all. It was no broken John Watson who was standing in this kitchen with an undeniably gorgeous man wrapped around him and triggering every 'want / take / have' instinct he possessed… and those instincts seemed to have been breeding because the urge to spin Sherlock around, push him down over the table, and simply have at him was beginning to make his palms itch.

He let his hands fall away from Sherlock's face, resisting the desire to run them down the front of his body and instead dropping them straight to his hips, gripping firmly. John tensed his arm muscles as one of Sherlock's hands came up to the back of his head, then he bent his legs slightly and straightened again, lifting Sherlock fully onto the table.

"Oh God." Sherlock's hand slipped to John's shoulder as his head fell back, and John could feel that his answering grin was not entirely tame. He stepped into the space he had made and leaned forward to taste the faint sheen of sweat which was beckoning to him from the base of Sherlock's throat and the hand still splayed out across his back tightened convulsively as Sherlock made another of those noises which he immediately stifled, just as he had repeatedly done the last time.

John bit reprovingly at the side of his neck, sliding a hand around his back and up between his shoulder blades. "Let me hear you."

Sherlock shivered in his arms. "John, I…" His deep voice seemed to be speaking directly to an area of John's body which he was very much trying not to think about. He ran a quick diagnostic but determined that he was still in control. Just.

He worked his way up to Sherlock's ear. "I want to hear you."

Sherlock moaned.

"Good," John praised, sucking the lobe into his mouth, then releasing it. "Louder."

"God, John, I…"

"Louder."

Sherlock shuddered… but he didn't choke off the sounds he made as John's hand worked its way slowly up the back of his neck and into his hair.

John caught a glimpse of wide eyes with huge pupils before they fell closed again as he turned Sherlock's head and took the last moan from his lips, knowing that he would have to stop very soon but unable to resist the lure of that mouth, and Sherlock was kissing him now as if there was nothing more he needed from the world and nowhere else he wanted to be.

His responsiveness was going to John's head. The John Watson who had agreed to this because Sherlock had been distressed and had asked it of him was struggling to hold back the John who instinctively knew that he wasn't going to hear a 'No' from this man, and whose plans regarding the quickest way to strip him were becoming less sub and more dangerously conscious by the moment.

Five seconds, he decided, taking a half step forward and pushing Sherlock slightly off balance so that both his arms tightened around John's body.

Four… he tipped Sherlock further back, wrapping one arm around his torso to help support him.

Three… his other hand moved to the back of Sherlock's neck, rubbing in circles.

Two… he straightened as Sherlock released his mouth on a gasp and arched into the movements of his hand.

One… he pulled Sherlock upright and forced his head down until it rested on his own shoulder, holding it in place as Sherlock tried to pull back to find his mouth again. Sharp teeth nipped the side of his neck in protest.

John kissed his temple but didn't relent. "We have to stop now," he warned, breathing deeply.

Sherlock was still fighting him, but fortunately in a very uncoordinated manner, his hand trying to push at John's body but getting tangled up in his jumper.

"Stop now… or I will have you on this table." The words struck a chord in John's memory and he half smiled, taking hold of Sherlock's shoulders and pushing him back a little so that they could look at each other. "And I don't particularly want you to beg, but I could almost certainly manage the 'twice'." It occurred to him that he had come a long way in terms of confidence to be able to make such a joke about Irene. On the other hand, Sherlock had definitely never turned in her direction anything like the sort of stare he was currently aiming at John, so that didn't hurt.

From John's own perspective, the experiment had been a disaster, taking him from a stage where repeated hitting with the 'friendship stick' had more or less beaten his attraction to Sherlock into submission, to the point where he was going to struggle to look at the man without imagining long legs wrapped around his waist or a pale expanse of back quivering under his hands as he repeatedly…

John concentrated on his breathing and tried to calm himself, which was far from easy with such a picture of wild-eyed dishevelment before him. There was no question that Sherlock had enjoyed the last - John had no idea how long they'd been at it - but who knew what went on in that head? Perhaps he felt he'd got it out of his system now, whatever 'it' was. Maybe he'd obtained as much information as he needed and was ready to move on and get back to his despised 'normal'.

"Well?" John enquired, the low rasp of arousal still clear in his voice.

"Bugger," said Sherlock.

 

Artwork for this chapter:

Pinned by khorazir

Chapter Text

"Not your best idea ever, then."

"It would seem not." Sherlock sat up straighter as John released him, but decided to stay where he was for now. His legs did not feel entirely steady.

He lowered his head, torn between the urge to go to his room and pretend that this had never happened... and the urge to go to his room and re-live it. Emphatically. And possibly more than once. Either way, going to his room was looking like a promising option.

"Don't panic."

He looked up sharply at the smile in John's voice, but there was no mockery in it.

John shrugged. "You look like I feel." He stepped back a couple of paces and blew out a breath, gazing up at the ceiling then back to Sherlock. "All right, let me ask you this: what are you most concerned about, right now?"

"That this will ruin our friendship."

"Right." John nodded. "Me too. Exactly that." He squared his shoulders. "So... we won't let it."

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. "Simple as that?"

"Yes." John seemed to be pulling himself together. "Absolutely." He nodded again, but this was a military nod, not an affirmatory one. "I don't see why we can't get past this if we're honest with each other. Sounds like you've spent the last two weeks hoping I wouldn't find out?"

Sherlock nodded and John spread his arms wide.

"Well - now I know. And guess what? The sky hasn't fallen and the world is still turning." He hesitated, his authoritative stance wavering. "It's supposed to do that. Turn, I mean."

Sherlock rolled his eyes and John raised his hands defensively.

"Sorry, sorry. I just wasn't sure what had survived the 'great astronomy purge' of nineteen-whatever."

Sherlock huffed and slid off the table, resting against it once more.

John frowned. "Where was I?"

"Holding up the sky, apparently."

"Right. So I take it that today's experiment hasn't... er... cured you?"

Sherlock contemplated his elevated heart rate and the way his skin was still tingling in John's direction. "You take it correctly."

"Right. Well, on the basis of 'cards on the table', it seems to have dumped me in the same boat."

Sherlock waded through the metaphors. Then he started to observe. He pushed past memories of a mouth hot and demanding against his own and saw lips being licked nervously under his gaze. He forced down thoughts of what John's hands could do to him and noted that they were flexing - almost twitching towards him, then compulsively clenching into fists. He looked past his own desire... and recognised John's.

"Not so blasé now, right?" John's smile was rueful and Sherlock couldn't help it if his answering smirk was just a tiny bit smug.

John chuckled. "Honestly, your face!" He turned away, clicking on the kettle and beginning the traditional 'English person in need of calming' ritual, which had been seeing a lot of action of late. "There's no need to act like it's some big achievement. The way you respond, you could probably do this to anybody."

Sherlock felt no desire to test this hypothesis but, even if it were true, he seriously doubted that anybody else would be able to do this to him.

He carried the thought through with him into the living room and sat down in his usual chair while John bustled around in the kitchen. It felt strange not to be on guard against giving himself away. Good, he supposed, but he had no idea where they were going to go from here.

"So, we need to think about where we go from here." John walked through from the kitchen and handed Sherlock a mug, then took his own seat opposite.

"Must we?"

"Yes, we must. Otherwise we'll be stuck with awkward conversations where everything sounds like innuendo, and sooner or later we'll end up kissing again and then having ill advised sex in an alleyway."

Sherlock felt it was a little early to be ruling anything out.

John took a mouthful of his tea and settled deeper into his chair. "So correct me if I'm wrong, but we seem to have accidentally kick-started your sex-drive, yes?"

Sherlock grimaced, but nodded.

"So, what do you want to do about it?" John took another drink.

"Other than wank myself into an early grave, you mean?"

John's tea made an unscheduled re-appearance.

Sherlock scowled at the excessive spluttering and wheezing in front of him. "Really, John. I thought you said we should be honest. Is this not what you meant?" He dumped his mug on the table and folded his arms defensively. "How am I supposed to know? It's your fault I've been doing it anyway." He could feel that his lip was developing a pout, but didn't bother to restrain it.

The spluttering died away and John set his tea down next to his seat. "My fault?"

Sherlock shrugged. "Well, of course. Who else am I going to think about? Why, only this morning..."

"Stop!"

Sherlock froze, taken aback by the urgency of John's... well, command really; there was no other word for it. His brows drew together into a frown. Not acceptable. He opened his mouth.

"Don't." John lifted one hand from where it had been gripping the arm of his chair and held it up. "Just give me a minute, all right?"

Sherlock watched with interest as John got up and went into the kitchen. There was the sound of the tap running accompanied by a muttered string of words, only one in ten of which could have been repeated in polite company - not that polite company was something with which they were exactly inundated. When John came back he was wiping his face with a tea towel and the hair along his neckline was wet.

"Right. Sorry about that." He sat down again. "You've no idea how close you just came to having to fight me off again."

It seemed an odd turn of phrase, as Sherlock could not recall having done any such thing in the first place - nor was he at all sure that he would have put any effort into it this time.

John was staring at him. "You know what? I don't think this is a good time to have this conversation." He stood up again. "Hopefully we'll get more developments on the case soon. In the meantime, I am going to have..." he paused, seeming to deliberate before finishing his sentence, "...a shower."

Sherlock studied his body language. "Do you mean a...?"

"Yes. Yes, I do. Yes, that's exactly what I mean. Good deduction. Excellent. Are you happy now?"

Sherlock considered. "What will you think about?" he queried.

"Oh, God." John rubbed a hand over his face and when he dropped it, his expression had changed. He took two steps forward and leaned over Sherlock, who instinctively tipped his head back as John pinned his forearms to the chair and was suddenly right there, mouth brushing his jaw, breath hot on his skin, scent flaring his nostrils, remembered taste making his mouth water. Sherlock made an inarticulate noise as John spoke into his ear.

"I will think about... not stopping." A moment later, he was gone.

Sherlock sat in his chair and waited until his breathing restarted.

Then he went to his room.

oOo

"Well, you two took your time." Lestrade glanced up from his desk as Sherlock and John walked in, both of them looking a little... off. He went back to rooting through the ever-growing stack of files in front of him. "I was beginning to think you weren't coming."

He looked up a moment later when there was no reply.

"Oh, there was no danger of that," Sherlock replied eventually, glancing to where John stood biting his lip. "I see what you mean," he murmured quietly.

John turned to look out of the window. "Yep."

Lestrade decided he didn't want to know. "Right then. Follow me." He led the way to the incident room, where the footage from the earlier robbery was set up.

They all watched the scene in the shop play out, Sherlock nodding in anticipated disappointment when it became clear that the camera angle did not cover the door. The first shocked reactions, just before the thieves appeared on screen, occurred at 1.17 pm and it was only five minutes later that people were creeping out from behind the counters and looking nervously around.

John was standing behind Sherlock's chair and he leaned forward at one point, but was then unable to say what had caught his eye.

The external footage was equally unhelpful. There were two different angles on the shop front, both of which were cut off at 1.16 pm by the arrival of a large white lorry, unmarked apart from a standard amount of London grime. It pulled away at 1.22 pm, revealing a hectic but essentially unchanged scene of shoppers, magazine sellers, more shoppers, a couple of people handing out flyers for what later turned out to be a new nightclub, some particularly determined looking shoppers, and a woman (very obviously) who was spray-painted entirely silver and completely stationary, perched on top of a crate as people scurried around her. Glimpsed occasionally through the crowd was a homeless man sitting with his back to the adjacent office building and accompanied by a dog which seemed to be auditioning for the title 'saddest looking canine'. Lestrade felt it was a shoe-in, as it had later maintained its woebegone expression despite wolfing down half his Toffee Crisp.

As they watched, the pavement devolved into chaos with people bursting out of the jewellery shop, several of them immediately embarking on the sort of hysterics which inevitably convinced people that they didn't want to get involved. The first police car drew up two minutes later.

"So..." Lestrade sat back and swivelled his chair round to face Sherlock. "Any ideas?"

"Naturally," he replied, in his typically superior manner. "Surely you must have some yourself?"

Lestrade sighed. Looked like it was time for another thrilling round of 'Mock the Policeman'. Brilliant. "Well, we'll no doubt try what we've done before, and spend a ridiculous amount of manpower tracking down anyone who walked out from behind either end of that lorry in the last couple of minutes before it pulled away and was carrying anything bulky. So far, we've ambushed half a dozen people who've gone over their credit card limits - although we did strike lucky with a shoplifting ring, which is no doubt why the plug hasn't been pulled on the whole idea."

John indicated the pavement scene, which Sherlock had now rewound to just before the lorry pulled up. "What about the people who were working along that stretch - the magazine sellers, the... er... silver person - did none of them see anything?" He peered closer, leaning over Sherlock and towards the monitor, but the screen suddenly went black.

Sherlock cleared his throat. "Wrong button." He pressed something else and the image reappeared.

Lestrade looked at him curiously before responding to John's question. "We spoke to most of them, although the silver... person had moved on. No one noticed anything odd until after the yelling started - other than the argumentative lorry driver."

"Yes, what about him?" John asked, moving away from Sherlock and round to Lestrade's side of the desk, looking over his shoulder instead as the film played out again.

Lestrade indicated the screen, where the man could now be seen making rude hand gestures out of his window at other drivers. "No shots of his face with his baseball cap pulled down like that. We've got photo-fit descriptions from witnesses at other scenes, but between the hat and the beard we can't even be sure it's the same guy each time."

There was a tap on the door and Constable Greening appeared. "We've found the lorry, Sir. Abandoned like the others."

"Right. Thanks." Lestrade looked to Sherlock as they both got to their feet. "Do you want to…?" He broke off as Sherlock's mobile beeped and he immediately started reading the message, clicking his fingers at the same time.

"Do carry on. Unlike most of your associates I am perfectly capable of reading and listening concurrently." He came to the end of his text and looked up. "Then again, what you were about to say was quite obvious, so don't bother." He turned to John. "We need to be elsewhere."

"What?" John looked quite startled and Sherlock rolled his eyes at him.

"Don't get your hopes up. Wiggins wants to see me."

"My 'hopes' are under control, thank you," John said shortly.

Lestrade looked from one to the other of them and decided, for the second time that day, that he didn't want to know.

"John could come with me to check out the lorry, if you like?" he offered, but John shook his head.

"I doubt he'd find a kebab's perspective on the scene very helpful." He sounded cross.

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "John's coming with me." He winced as there was an odd noise from the man at his side.

Lestrade gave up on the pair of them. "Fine. Well, you two do what you like, I'll be in touch if there are any more developments - assuming you're still interested?"

"Of course." Sherlock was already shepherding John ahead of him through the door, looking rather like an afghan hound doing an impression of a border collie.

oOo

John stared out of the window and simmered gently as their taxi pulled away from Scotland Yard. 'Don't get your hopes up' indeed, the cheeky bugger. He almost wished they were at home so he could demonstrate exactly whose 'hopes' would be getting up the quickest… and staying up until John permitted otherwise. Several interesting scenarios popped into his head until he forced them down with a sigh.

"Why did you stop?"

He looked round at Sherlock's words. "Excuse me?"

"Earlier. You said that you were going to think about not stopping, while you… showered."

Really, his eyebrows were going to get stuck like that one day, John thought meanly.

"So, why did you?" Sherlock finished.

"I'm not following."

Sherlock added in eye rolling to his already manic brow motions, which John found quite hypnotic.

"Your words indicated that you didn't want to stop, and looking back you certainly seemed… interested in proceeding. It must have been obvious even to you that I would not have prevented you from taking things further, so I ask again… why did you stop?"

"Seriously? You're asking the man who I think we've established by now is your best friend, why he didn't take advantage of you?"

Sherlock's nose stuck so far in the air it was a wonder he was able to maintain eye contact. "I'm not a child, John. And, as I've already informed you, I'm not completely inexperienced either. I do not require mollycoddling."

John looked at him curiously. "Did you want things to go further?"

And suddenly the eye contact was gone.

"Not at all. I am merely asking a question and failing to understand your reluctance to provide an answer."

"I'm not reluctant, I just thought it would be obvious."

Sherlock's nostrils flared at the word, but John didn't take it back. Kebab indeed. He'd show him bloody kebab.

"Failing to say 'No' in the heat of the moment is not the same as saying 'Yes' in advance," he explained. "At least, not to me it isn't." He waited until Sherlock looked at him. "You asked me for a kiss, I gave you a kiss. It was a pretty full-on kiss, yes, but technically that was all that it was. You kept your clothes on and I kept my hands out of them."

Sherlock's eyes dilated so quickly he had to blink to maintain his vision.

John tried not to notice. Failing that, he tried not to think about what it meant. Definitely failing that, he tried not to imagine himself taking advantage of the information. Totally failing that… He turned back to face the window.

After two minutes, many deep breaths, and a concerted attempt to visualise autopsy images and also rhubarb, of which he had an irrational fear, he spoke again.

"Look I don't know what your thoughts are and seeing as we're both men, and English ones at that and therefore about as likely to talk about our feelings as we are to suddenly burst into The Macarena at a crime scene, let me just reassure you that I'm not going to do anything, or try anything, unless you specifically ask me to while of sound mind and unclouded judgement. And since we both know that's not going to happen, I suggest that we focus on the case, or whatever it is we're supposed to be focusing on right now." He looked around, concentrating for a moment on their route. "Where are we going, anyway?"

It was a few moments before Sherlock replied. "I know you've heard of Wiggins in connection with the homeless network, but he's not actually homeless himself - he runs a shelter in Putney. I'd asked him to investigate the origin of the rumour about my being alive which led to Moran coming after you. As he wants to see me, I imagine he's found the leak."

oOo

"I haven't found the leak." Wiggins was a tallish man in his late fifties with a thick head of grey hair and the sort of beard which would have John humming the tune to Gimme All Your Lovin' for the rest of the day. Or, if Sherlock was particularly annoying, possibly the week.

"Sorry," Wiggins continued. "I thought after I sent the message that I should have been clearer." He stepped back from the door and waved them both into the hallway of the large old house which had clearly been adapted to suit its present function. John could see a room which seemed to be carpeted entirely in brightly coloured beanbags.

"Sherlock. Nice to see you looking yourself again." Wiggins nodded at him, then turned to John and held out his hand. "And Doctor Watson. Very good to meet you, sir." His handshake was firm and his sharp blue eyes regarded John kindly. "The man behind the legend."

John glanced at Sherlock, who shrugged at him, and Wiggins chuckled. "Oh, I don't mean Sherlock, although you're probably behind him too these days."

There was a faint "Oh, good grief!" from John's side, but Wiggins carried on.

"I'm talking about your own legend, man!" He clapped John on the shoulder. "Half the kids that come through here sing your praises at some point or other. I've heard nothing but good… Oy!"

He was distracted by a young man carrying an armload of cushions across the hall, with a large bowl of popcorn balanced precariously on the top.

"Don't carry those like that, you muppet!"

John's mouth twitched at identifying the source of one of Sherlock's new words and he bit his lip as Wiggins strode off to the rescue.

Sherlock caught his eye and gave him a slightly embarrassed half smile and John grinned back at him… and suddenly they were fine. It was just Sherlock and John, best friends who grinned at each other for no good reason and laughed at things they shouldn't. John relaxed for the first time in hours.

"Er… do you want to come through to the office?"

John blinked as Sherlock turned away, and looked round to where Wiggins was now back and twinkling at them. He led them through another room where a heavily tattooed girl was getting thrashed at table football by an old man whose walking stick hung over the handle which would normally control his goalkeeper. John chuckled and Wiggins followed his gaze.

"You see a wide spectrum somewhere like this," he acknowledged, pushing open a door in the corner and ushering them into his office. "Those two are great friends but not using his goalie is his only concession. He never lets her win."

"Why would he let her win?" asked Sherlock as they sat down.

John and Wiggins looked at each other. "It's a great place, this." John moved the conversation on. "Must keep you busy."

"Oh, it does that," Wiggins agreed. "We've had a good run lately, though - new donations coming in. Homelessness seems to be the 'in' charity at the moment, long may it last."

"Yes, I noticed you'd redecorated," Sherlock commented. "And the new furnishings, of course."

"Makes a nice change to have paint that's actually stuck to the walls," Wiggins agreed, unlocking his desk and pulling open a drawer. "Right then. As I said, I haven't found the leak… but I do have a list of possibilities." He was flicking though paperwork as he spoke.

"Two of those who were in the know eventually admitted to having a conversation in an upstairs room here a few days before the rumours kicked off. One of them mentioned your name and the other told them off and reminded them that it was supposed to be a secret." He rolled his eyes. "Obviously, if they hadn't used the word 'secret', probably no one would have paid any attention, but there you go. 'Muppets 'R' Us' around here half the time." He pulled out a file and set it on his desk.

"It was at this point they noticed the window was open - although why anybody would leave the window open in the middle of winter is another of those unanswerable questions you get with a load of kids in the house - like why leave the TV on when the programme you're watching has finished, and why put an empty cereal box back in the cupboard?"

John began to realise just how much Sherlock must value Wiggins not to have moved him on half a dozen times by now.

"Anyway…" Wiggins produced a sheet of paper at last and John waited for Sherlock to whisk it away from him. He didn't.

"The window was right above the one outside spot which does get a lot of visitors, whatever the weather." Wiggins looked pointedly at Sherlock, who nodded.

"Smokers' bench."

"Exactly. There was no one there when they looked out, but they went down to check and found this." He drew a small bag from the drawer and passed it across. "Didn't tell me until now, of course, but at least they had the sense to keep it."

John looked at the bag, which contained a half-smoked cigarette of - to his eyes - indeterminate brand. Presumably there was something special about it as Sherlock's eyebrows had risen to their 'Oh, interesting' position.

Wiggins handed over the sheet of paper at last. "This is a list of everyone who was signed in at the time. Some of them you know and some will be familiar to Doctor Watson."

Sherlock's eyes were running over the dozen names and he angled the page so that John could see it too.

"Oh, is that my Billy?" John asked. "Never knew his surname."

"Billy Morris. Yes," Wiggins confirmed. "Doesn't mean he was here, though. He's a bugger for signing himself in then swapping out if anyone arrives after we're full and has nowhere else to go."

"So someone could have been here who isn't on the list?" Sherlock asked.

Wiggins shrugged. "It shouldn't happen, but it's possible. Unfortunately I was away that weekend - the potential benefactors were having a fund-raising bash and wanted a speaker and I drew the short straw. There's another one next week, but I've dodged that bullet, thank God. Sister Anne from the church shelter in Lambeth's going to do it."

Sherlock went back to looking at the names, muttering them under his breath. "Vikram, Taj, Jenna, Liam, Millie…"

"That's the girl you just saw," Wiggins interrupted. "'Militant Millicent' I call her - she will literally argue about anything at all. Totally committed to exploring the opposing viewpoint - says it helps to crystallise her vision. Mad as a box of frogs, of course." He shook his head affectionately. "If she's on there, Geoff will be too - that's the old guy."

Sherlock nodded. "Yes." He quickly ran through the rest of the list. "Agata, Martin, Jude, Nilar and Phil…" He looked up. "Is that Scottish Phil?"

"No, the other one."

"Right." He held up the sheet. "Well, obviously some of them are still around. Have any of the others fallen off the radar since it happened?"

"You mean Moran might have got rid of them?" John asked.

"Or paid them off," Sherlock replied. "Someone on this list may no longer be homeless."

"It's hard to say," Wiggins told him. "People come and go, you know? Some of them I've definitely seen, but I'd have to check back through the records for the others. I could ask at a few of the other shelters too?" He held out his hand for the list, but Sherlock passed it to John instead.

"Copy that, would you?"

John reached for his notebook but Wiggins stood up and unlocked a cupboard behind him, throwing open the door with a flourish.

"Ta-da! Courtesy of the R.A.G." He plucked the paper out of John's hand and put it into his shiny new photocopier.

"The R.A.G.?" queried Sherlock.

"'Rich and Guilty'," Wiggins explained. "Well, their official title is the 'Relief Aid Guild', but that's what it boils down to. Which is a big step up from 'Rich and Don't Give a Stuff'."

"Odd place for a photocopier," said John.

Wiggins gave him a resigned smile. "Much as I respect the majority of the people who come through here, there's no benefit in sticking temptation under their noses. Anything not chained down goes in a cupboard."

Copied list safely tucked away, they took their leave. "So what was the thing with the cigarette in the bag?" asked John as they passed Millie and Geoff, who were still locked in fierce competition. "Is it a particular brand or something? Does it give you a clue as to who smoked it?"

"I suppose we might be able to extract some DNA if it came to that," acknowledged Sherlock. "Although there's little point at this stage, with no comparison to be made. But the brand tells us nothing. This is a shelter, John - smokers here will take what they can get. As long as it contains tobacco and they can set one end on fire, that's enough."

"So, why…?"

"Look next to that bench and you'll find nothing that hasn't been smoked right down to the filter. Half a Silk Cut just lying there? No, someone made a quick exit and it had only just happened or some other desperate sod would have picked it up and smoked the rest of it."

He glanced at John as they walked down the steps and a taxi appeared out of nowhere. "Someone was sitting on that bench and heard something they shouldn't, and it was someone who knew exactly where to go with sellable information. That person put your life at risk and I am going to find out who it was." He pulled open the taxi door and waved John inside ahead of himself. "And then I'm going to make them regret it."

oOo

It was later that evening when John settled down at the table in the living room to catch up on his blog. It looked like the 'Three-Gary Deb' write-up had a new comment. He clicked on the link.

"Sherlock," he called through to the kitchen. "Sherlock, do you know what this says?"

"Really, John. Your typing may be execrable, but I did think you had mastered the skill of reading."

John looked up. He rarely bothered to take offence at the insults any more but they were useful as barometers of Sherlock's emotional state. That one had been two levels above baseline sarcasm.

"It's not in English."

"Oh?" Sherlock sounded marginally more interested and came to glance at the screen. Almost immediately he sniffed and moved away again, going round to sit at the other side of the table. "It's Russian. Just generic gushing praise. Nothing exciting."

"You can read Russian?"

Sherlock shrugged.

"Wow."

"Millions of Russian children can do it, John. Hardly a 'wow' achievement, even to someone with your abandoned attitude to random flattery."

John decided to keep his head down. Google Translate could be his best friend for the next five minutes. He was vaguely aware of Sherlock drumming his fingers and giving vent to impatient sighs, but ignored it as he painstakingly composed a reply and converted it to Russian, which he felt would be a nice touch since… Anja had been very kind, hoping that he'd made a good recovery from the shooting and being extremely complimentary about his writing.

"I understand now what you meant about 'the look' being annoying," Sherlock announced, apropos of nothing John could think of.

"Hmm?" he murmured, finally pasting the results of his efforts into the 'reply' box.

"You told me once that I had a 'we both know what's really going on here' look and that you found it annoying."

"Did I? Well, that's certainly true." He regarded his prospective response dubiously. It looked more like an artist's impression of writing than actual words. What if instead of saying, 'Thanks for your good wishes and I'm glad you like the blog', he was actually requesting two fish heads and a map of Denmark?

"John!"

Sherlock smacked his hand down on the table and John jumped, then looked back at his screen. 'Comment sent'. Before he'd checked it. Brilliant.

"If I get fish heads through the post, you can deal with them."

Sherlock stared at him. "Have you been drinking?"

"No, but I'm definitely working up to it." He sat back in his chair. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter."

"Then why are we arguing?"

"Who's arguing?"

John folded his arms. "Well, certainly not me. But you seem to be trying to have an argument all by yourself."

Sherlock scowled and folded his arms to match. "You said this afternoon that we had to talk about it. Then you said it wasn't a good time to talk about it. Then in the taxi you said, 'And since we both know that's not going to happen', for all the world as if we had talked about it and I just hadn't been there for the conversation." He looked most put out.

John tried not to laugh, but it was impossible. "Welcome to my world!"

Sherlock's scowl appeared to be settling in for the night. "It's not the same. This affects us both."

"As do most of your unilateral decisions, as you very well know!" John's chuckles died down. "But fine, by all means let's avoid another debate on appropriate storage for your dermestid beetles."

He sat forward and rubbed the back of his neck. "OK, so this afternoon… Well, I guess I just did what you seem to do and carried on the conversation in my head. I mean, before you threw me off track with your comment about… showering..." he gave Sherlock a pointed look, "…which topic I beg you not to raise again, we were discussing where to go - me from discovering that you can seriously turn me on and you from realising that you can be turned on at all. Right?"

"Ye…s," agreed Sherlock doubtfully.

"But we'd already agreed that we weren't going to let it mess with our friendship, so I guess I took it as given that I would once more try to batten down the hatches, even though it will be much harder…" he paused to allow for their joint eye-rolling, "… this time. And that you would, I don't know - do the same, I suppose."

Sherlock was regarding him rather oddly. "And you see this as the only option?"

John shrugged. "Well, don't take this the wrong way, but I find it…" he desperately sought a synonym for 'hard', "… difficult to imagine you in a romantic relationship, to be honest. I'm sure people would be queuing up if you wanted to," he added quickly. "Well, as long as you didn't talk too much. Or deduce them. Or…" He cleared his throat. "Not the point. Sorry. Anyway, what I meant to say was that I can't see you wanting that." He frowned. "No, actually I don't mean 'want'. There's no reason why you shouldn't want that."

He continued slowly, trying to organise his thoughts and feel his way through ideas which were only half-formed in his mind. "It's more that I can't see you choosing it. I figured you'd see it as a weakness, that you'd feel bad… No. Worse than that… almost ashamed of it. As if it were something that you should be able to master rather than give in to, you know?" He shook his head. "I'm not explaining this well at all."

"No, I…" Sherlock hesitated. "That's actually quite perspicacious of you."

"I'll take your word for it."

"It means insightful."

"Well why the hell can't you just say 'insightful', you insufferable smart-arse?" John asked fondly. "Anyway, I guess we've come to the same conclusion together that I arrived at independently." He pushed back his chair, preparing to get to his feet.

"What about you?" Sherlock had turned his head and was looking out of the window at the darkened sky.

"Oh, I'll be all right. I can live without shagging you - it's living without you that I…" He stopped. That had come out a bit closer to the bone than intended. John regrouped. "What I mean is, I can get sex anywhere…" He paused.

"And?"

"Oh, sorry - I was just leaving room for sarcasm. Right, well yes - sex, romance, cuddles on the sofa, all that stuff I can get, if not exactly anywhere, then certainly from a range of places. But there's only one you, Sherlock. You've said so yourself. The only one in the world. If you think I'm going to screw that up by trying to push you into something which will end in disaster, then you might as well downgrade me from 'idiot' to… er… muppet level, right now."

"Disaster?"

"You know what I mean."

"Humour me."

John sighed. "Well, we're no more suited now than we were before we discovered that we actually fancied each other, are we?"

He expected nose wrinkling at the word 'fancied', but Sherlock kept gazing out of the window, getting up now and walking over to it.

"Funny how everyone's always saying the opposite," he observed.

"Well, people are idiots, right?" John chuckled. "Anyway, I doubt they've got this scenario in mind." He thought back. "Look, I know the physical side has worked out…" He paused. "Give me a stronger word than 'incredibly'."

"Outstandingly."

"Yeah, that'll do." He smiled. "It's worked out outstandingly well for us so far, with you being OK following my lead while it's all relatively new to you; and obviously we're tuned in to each other right now so things like that… er… moment in the taxi can set us off, but let's face it - you have got to be the bossiest bastard in the Northern Hemisphere." He hesitated. "That's…"

"I know what a bloody hemisphere is!"

"Right. Sorry. Anyway, I'm sure it wouldn't be long before you got up to speed and started dictating terms left, right and centre - and that is seriously not going to work for me."

"So, I would need to… submit to you?" Sherlock's voice was so low as to be barely audible.

"God, no! That's exactly the point I'm trying to make: you shouldn't have to do anything you don't want to." John faltered a little, but pushed the words out. "Maybe you'll decide that you do want to explore that side of things and find someone a bit more your level."

Sherlock turned around at last. "My level?"

"Well, you know what I mean."

"You keep using that phrase, despite its clear inaccuracy in the present situation."

John worked that out. "Oh, right. Sorry. I mean someone who can keep up with you."

"You're thinking of Irene."

John grimaced. "I'm trying not to." He allowed her image to form in his mind and shook his head. "No, then. Not Irene - because as charming as she can be, you could never trust her. It would have to be someone…" He stopped, frowning, then got to his feet but kept his distance.

"Look, I really don't want to think about this, because only a few hours ago it could have been me and the concept of anyone else putting their hands on you is actually turning my stomach." He realised that his own hands were clenched into fists and drew a deep breath, deliberately straightening his fingers as he exhaled. "But…" he forced himself to continue. "But if that's what you want, then I wouldn't begrudge you, Sherlock. Not for a second." He closed his eyes, memories flooding his mind which he knew were going to stay with him for a long, long time. "God knows, I can't think how you've kept all that buried for so long. You're so..." he swallowed, "...well, I'd have thought suppressing it would take more energy than it saved, to be honest.

"Anyway, not my business." He held up his hands, trying to clear the images from his brain at the same time. "It should be someone you trust, that's all."

Sherlock's face was unreadable. "That's a very narrow field."

"Sorry." John shrugged and dredged up a half smile. "Bit awkward if I had to shoot them, though."

Sherlock's eyebrows rose. "You'd shoot anyone who… what? Broke my heart? How very… medieval of you."

"I feel a bit like shooting them already and you haven't even met anybody yet," John said ruefully. "Don't worry, I'll get over it."

"Sure?"

"Of course." John pinned on a smile which was much bigger on the outside. "At least now that we both know, it will be easier, right? I won't keep chasing you round the table when you're trying to avoid me."

There was a brief silence during which they both looked at the table, then John cleared his throat. "Right. Well, I think I'll turn in." He took a half step towards Sherlock with no clear idea in mind, but quickly checked it. "OK, then." He picked up his laptop and headed for the door, pausing just before he reached it.

"Unless there's anything you want to add, of course?" he offered. "So far it's just been me talking. Did you have anything you wanted to say?"

Sherlock held his gaze for so long that John almost came back into the room, but he rather feared what might happen if he did. On the face of it, Sherlock looked just as normal and yet there was something almost... vulnerable about him which was hitting John right in the… well. Best not to think about that. He looked away.

"I don't think so, no," Sherlock replied. "Nothing that seems appropriate."

"All right, then. Well, good night."

"Good night, John."

Chapter Text

"I don't want to."

Sherlock regarded the stubborn set of John's shoulders, his mulish expression and the pugnacious angle of his jaw, and reminded himself to be irritated. Or at least to look irritated. Surely he could manage that?

"It's either a dinner jacket or a dog collar. We've already had this discussion." He put his hand on the small of John's back and gave him a push in the direction of the tailor's shop. John dug in his heels. Sherlock removed his hand before it did anything inappropriate.

"That was not a discussion."

"You were in the flat at the time and awake. Those were your two criteria."

"I was in the bath!"

"Your personal hygiene is your own affair." Sherlock assumed an attitude of boredom and endeavoured not to picture John in the bath. His efforts were not met with any notable success.

"If we absolutely have to go to this fund-raising thing…"

"We do."

"…then why can't I just wear my suit? If it's smart enough for court, I don't see why…"

"It's a fund-raiser for the homeless, John. The homeless are not actually expected to be in attendance."

John glared at him indignantly. "My suit is not that bad!"

Sherlock wanted to take him home and let him work off his frustration. He pushed the thought down. "Sister Anne from the Lambeth shelter is giving the speech tonight - if you would prefer to pass yourself off as a vicar, you can go with her instead."

"I am not dressing up as a bloody vicar!"

Sherlock just looked at him. Five… four… three… two…

"Fine." There was something reassuringly inevitable about John's capitulation. "I will go and get a 'proper' dinner jacket - suit - whatever." He raised a finger and pointed it at Sherlock. "But you are not coming with me. I don't need to feel any more like a…" he floundered for a moment, "…what they'll assume I am if you're in there, swanning around and treating me like your own personal Ken doll."

"What is a Ken doll?"

"Never mind. I'm going on my own."

"Very well," Sherlock agreed, with the air of one making a great concession.

John's eyes narrowed. "You weren't going to come in anyway, were you?"

Awkward. Although still woefully obtuse in certain areas, John was unquestionably getting better at reading him.

"I have things to do." Things which did not involve sitting on his hands to keep himself under control while John wandered around half dressed.

"What things?"

Sherlock resorted to inscrutability.

John scowled at him in an unfeasibly attractive manner. "Fine." He turned towards the door of the shop and straightened his shoulders. "See you later, then." He took two paces away before he hesitated, not looking round. "What should I…?"

"They're expecting you."

John's back view struggled to convey relief and indignation at the same time, which was moderately entertaining.

"Don't worry about the cost, either. They'll charge it."

That turned him around. "To whom?"

Sherlock quirked a brow.

John sighed. "Does he know?"

"It's less than he spends a month on doughnuts."

"It is not."

Sherlock found that his mouth was twitching and straightened his face. "Fine - if he notices, I'll take one of his tedious cases. Satisfied?"

John smiled at him and Sherlock took an abrupt step backwards. God, this was getting worse, not better. With a short nod, he turned and strode away.

oOo

He ended up in a park. On a bench. There were even ducks. It had come to this.

He stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankle, tucking his chin into the warmth of his new scarf - a darker blue than the one he had discarded after the 'your coat was a shroud' comment. It was very soft. John had chosen well.

John. J.O.H.N. A ridiculously common name. While Sherlock had been away, it had seemed that every second person he met was called 'John'. A host of the wrong Johns, all mocking him wherever he turned, each day of his absence making it less likely that the real John would ever forgive him… until it had seemed that he was working to save something which he had already destroyed.

It hadn't stopped him, though. He would burn out his own heart before he let Moriarty do it; before he let anybody do it. If, as seemed to be the case, he actually had one after all, then it was his and it would not rule him. It would not.

Sherlock lifted his head, the renewed resolve cheering him for the whole of the second that he managed not to acknowledge his current problem. It was a nice second, but it lasted no longer than the usual variety. He shoved his hands into his pockets.

Sex. S.E.X. Something which had no place in his life and had never been very interesting anyway - until it did; until it was. He didn't really understand it. Oh, he understood the mechanics of it and its various functions in society, but he didn't understand… what was it John had said? 'I don't spend hours psycho-analysing my sexuality.' Well, Sherlock had barely spent minutes considering his own - he had simply dismissed it. Sex was pleasant enough in its own way but certainly not essential, not something which needed to be classed together with food and sleep as a factor which he had to allow for. An unnecessary distraction. And nobody in his admittedly limited experience had given him the slightest cause to query his findings. Until now. Until John had… derailed him.

Sherlock shifted on the bench. It was utterly illogical to still be able to feel where John's hands had gripped his hips as they had lifted him onto the table. Ludicrous. He had even examined himself under a forensic light in case of bruising not visible to the naked eye, but there was absolutely nothing. Not a single shred of evidence to show where John's fingers had been - except for the fact that he could still feel them, could have drawn them onto his skin with perfect precision. That must mean something.

Sherlock didn't know what it meant. He glared at a passing duck, which promptly settled down and glared back at him. Marvellous. Sherlock looked the other way. Duck: 1 ; Holmes: 0. He sighed. Had he sunk so low that he could no longer out-face even an aquatic bird?

It was no good. John might be wrong to think that they weren't suited, because Sherlock was increasingly sure that they were frighteningly compatible, but the assumption that a romantic relationship was the last thing he would choose was entirely correct. 'Sex, romance and cuddles on the sofa'… those were the specifics John had quoted. Sounded dreadful. Absolutely awful. Horrible. He threw a few more synonyms at the small dissenting voice in the back of his head and it subsided. For now.

He sighed again, looking around to find that the malevolent duck had now been joined by another, which was standing in such a way as to give the strong impression that if it had hands, they would be on its hips. It was glaring at the first duck, which was still glaring at him. Duck One did not give way. With an unmistakably disgruntled quack, Duck Two plonked itself down onto the grass. Duck One edged over until they were pressed together side by side. Both ducks glared at him. Sherlock contemplated the possibility that he had been driven mad by sexual frustration.

He checked his watch, then got to his feet, deciding to take a circuitous route back to collect John. Anything was better than sitting here anthropomorphising the wildlife. Things would improve in time. They must... or he was going to be risking repetitive strain injury - and to his bowing hand, no less. Not acceptable.

oOo

"So why are we going to this thing, again?"

Sherlock stood back to allow John to precede him into the flat, the garment bag holding his new suit draped over his arm and trailing on the floor. Sherlock whisked it away from him and hung it over the top of the door.

"Could be fun?" he suggested.

John looked at him doubtfully. "Fun," he echoed. "You mean like a…? No." He shook his head. "You don't mean… What do you mean?"

Would John want to go out on a date with him? If he understood Sherlock's complete lack of interest in anyone who wasn't him, would that be something John would want? To date? Did people even go out on dates when they already lived together? What was the point of that? And what was the point of even thinking about this at all when he had already decided - repeatedly - that he didn't want it… didn't want any of it?

Eventually, John gave up waiting for an answer.

"Fine. Perhaps you'll tell me at some point, no doubt when I've just been punched in the nose by someone I didn't know to look out for." He checked his watch. "Right, well I'm going first in the bathroom."

The word 'shower' was currently avoided by unspoken agreement, but it made no difference. They both knew.

"I'll leave you to get on with thinking about whatever it is you're not talking about." He moved to walk past Sherlock but hesitated as he drew level, a touch of concern showing in his expression. "Is it…?" He glanced up at Sherlock's face, then away again. "Are things getting any easier?"

Sherlock swallowed. What to say? Honesty seemed dangerous, but could he really lie? Would it be remotely believable with John standing so close? Already, Sherlock could feel his body trying to relocate itself a foot to the right. "I… not yet," he managed in the end.

John nodded, looking almost pleased then immediately guilty about it. "Well, early days, right?" he said heartily. "It's only been a week, after all." He turned towards Sherlock, raising a hand with clear intent to pat, but then obviously thought better of it and let it fall. "Early days," he repeated.

Sherlock didn't point out that it had, in fact, been three weeks for him. Three weeks since 'The Kiss' which tended to appear in italics in his head. The Kiss which had started this whole thing. "And for you?" he couldn't help asking. John seemed to cope so much better than he did, it was frustrating. Sherlock had caught him looking several times and he had left the room quite abruptly on more than one occasion, but there was never the feeling that John might crack and just push him up against the wall, or... Sherlock shut down that train of thought. It wasn't as if he wanted such a thing to happen. Far from it.

"Not yet," John echoed, his eyes meeting Sherlock's and falling almost immediately to his mouth. He seemed to be getting closer but it wasn't entirely clear who was moving. Sherlock could feel a shift in his internal balance of power; his brain being shouted down by his body which, after so many years' obedient service, was rebelling, was saying 'Enough!'... was recognising what it wanted and seeing no reason why it was constantly denied.

Telling himself to be calm wasn't working. His breathing grew increasingly shallow and his stomach was in knots, their surroundings fading out of his awareness until he could see nothing but John. He swayed on his feet. Retreat… or surrender. He couldn't take that step, needed John to take it for him… from him…

"Sherlock…"

John's voice was so low that it was hard to hear. Sherlock leaned closer, closing his eyes in denial of his action. He could feel John's breath ghosting across the skin of his throat.

"Sherlock, what are we doing?"

Sherlock teetered… wavered… argued with himself. He was so close. So close he could feel it, smell it, taste it… want it. He wanted it so badly and it wouldn't take much. Hardly anything. An inch… maybe two and he could tip John over the edge in the direction they both wanted him to go. He could do it; he knew he could. John might be controlled, but Sherlock could break him… push him too far, tempt him beyond what he could resist… because this went both ways: Sherlock could feel John's desire pulsing through his own veins, a counterpoint to the beat already drumming in his neck, wrists, arms, legs, groin… all the places that wanted to be pressed against or wrapped around the man who was so close… so close… so close he could feel…

"You'd best go." His 'while you still can' was no less audible for being unspoken.

John went.

Brain: 1 ; Body: 0.

oOo

As Sherlock stripped, making his own preparations for the evening, he debated the word 'decision'. It had always seemed a relatively final thing to him prior to this. One made a decision and that was that: the matter was resolved and one moved on. What one did not generally need to do was to re-make the same damned decision every damned day. Sometimes multiple times in a single day. The word dither appeared before him and Sherlock angrily pushed it away. It was replaced by vacillate, which got the same treatment. The shower sprang to life as he glared internally at his thesaurus, threatening to permanently delete irresolute if it dared to put in an appearance.

His first decision post The Kiss had been much easier, because to hide what was happening to him was an instinctive reaction - more of a defence mechanism than a decision, in fact. Sherlock declassified it.

That moved his first actual 'decision' on this issue to a week ago, post Kiss Two - subtitled The Experiment - and it had not taken place until after John had gone off for his 'shower' and Sherlock had... finished in his room, because prior to that John could have said 'Down' and Sherlock would have taken himself off at the knees… which was not a happy realisation, in the circumstances, but one he had been forced to accept.

It was only after his mind had cleared and they proceeded with their day that rationality had sunk back in and he began to think more logically - because there was really no place for this in his life, it wasn't what he wanted. Well… all right, fine. In the privacy of his head it was what he wanted, wanted more desperately with each passing day, but it wasn't what he chose.

Decision One, Version One had therefore taken place that very afternoon: no relationship, no sex. Back to normal, and as soon as possible.

There could be few things more irritating than spending a significant amount of your time contemplating how to let someone down gently, only to have them beat you to the punch and tell you that they didn't want what you had decided not to give them.

Decision One, Version One had been in trouble almost immediately.

Sherlock's thoughts faltered as he realised that they were going to be out in public all evening and he needed to have his wits about him. He bent his head and let the steady stream of water beat down on his shoulders, the relief of, for once, having a half-decent justification for what he was about to do pushing all thoughts of Decision One, Version Seventeen out of his mind. He raised an arm to lean against the wall, knowing that he would need the support. The convenience of the shower for this purpose had not previously occurred to him, but he appreciated the efficiency now that John had brought the option to his attention - not that it seemed an appropriate thing to express gratitude for. At least, he didn't think it was. It was so difficult to tell.

Half an hour later he was in the living room, settling with grim determination on Decision One, Version… He was slightly appalled to realise that he was no longer sure of the number. No matter. This time it was final.

There were footsteps on the stairs and Sherlock steeled himself, checking his appearance one last time in the mirror.

John gave a nervous cough from the doorway. "Do I look all right?"

Sherlock heard him move forward a few paces and briefly closed his eyes. He could do this. Get past this. His willpower was legendary and not about to be obliterated by a short man with a bad shoulder and a fondness for knitwear. He drew in a breath of resolve and turned around.

Well, fuck.

oOo

'I can't do this.'

John was aware that he was staring but he couldn't seem to stop. When he had stood in front of the mirror upstairs, he'd thought he didn't look half bad - scrubbed up quite well, in fact. When it came to a comparison, however, Sherlock in a tailored dinner jacket made him feel like a pudding. A small pudding, uninspiringly presented and a bit past its 'sell-by' date.

On the other hand, this was good. Very good. Because there was no way in hell that this gorgeous creature could possibly be meant for him so there was absolutely no point in thinking about it. All the damned time.

He dredged up a smile. "Ready?" He held on to the smile as he waited for Sherlock's eyes to return far enough north to notice it. At the moment they seemed stuck on his chest. Hmm... John relaxed a fraction. Perhaps he didn't look too shabby after all.

"So, are you ever going to tell me why we're doing this?" he asked a little later, as their taxi made its way through the evening traffic. "Or is getting dressed up just another exercise in torturing each other?"

Sherlock looked rather taken aback but John saw no point in being coy about it - the sly glances were going both ways. If 'mental stripping' counted, the pair of them would have been starkers in seconds.

"We finished the list," Sherlock said. He seemed to think that this concluded his involvement in the explanation process and that John should be able to take it from there.

"The list?" John echoed. "Oh, you mean the list from Wiggins, of people who might have been behind the leak." They'd spent a fair amount of time this last week tracking down everyone on there, all of whom were still in circulation. He frowned, not feeling any wiser.

"What's a good indication as to who leaked something valuable?" Sherlock prompted. "Key word: valuable."

"Um… who benefited, I guess? If it was valuable, then they'd have got something for it."

"And who - or rather what - came into funds at around that time?"

John looked at him blankly. "Everyone on the list is still on the streets," he said. "Although, I suppose that could be a ploy - there might be a secret millionaire among them!"

"I doubt I'm worth that much," Sherlock said, raising a hand to halt John's automatic denial. "You're missing the point."

John frowned in thought. 'Who - or rather what...' Oh! He pictured a brand new photocopier, fresh paint, a room full of new beanbags… "You can't suspect Wiggins, surely?"

"No, of course I don't suspect Wiggins." Sherlock shook his head. "But if we're searching for money, then it was the shelter itself which had a sudden influx. I want a closer look at this 'Relief Aid Guild' and what better opportunity than one of their own benefits? Observe them in their natural habitat."

"Right," said John, who wasn't completely following the logic but was happy to go with it. "What about more practical aspects? This is obviously a posh do and we're not on the guest list - how are we getting in?"

Sherlock's mouth twitched in the manner of a child who has done something it knows it shouldn't but doesn't regret it in the slightest. It was an expression with which John was depressingly familiar.

"Sir Reginald Buttermere," Sherlock announced. "On the board of directors, sure to be invited, but he's found out today that his wife's having an affair, so is unlikely to make it. Fortunately, his nephew can attend in his place."

"And does he actually have a nephew?"

Sherlock shrugged. "He does tonight."

"And is his wife really having an affair?"

Another shrug. "They usually are."

John shook his head, but more out of habit than anything else. The romantic entanglements, or lack thereof, of the rich and privileged were not his business. Anyway, Sherlock was quite capable of arranging a far more unpleasant deterrent for the hapless Sir Reginald. All things considered, the man had probably got off quite lightly. John mentally stood back and looked at his train of thought, wondering if he should be concerned at his increasingly Sherlockian reasoning. He decided not to worry about it.

"What about the vanishing thieves case?" he asked, attempting to keep his mind - and hand - off the long thigh stretched out beside him. "Have you lost interest in that?"

Sherlock threw him a disgruntled look. "Of course not. I am merely prioritising. People who had connections to Moran, and therefore Moriarty's organisation, are much more dangerous than thieves who have caused only a single minor injury." He turned to look out of the window. "I gave Lestrade some tips to help catch them if they strike again."

John was about to ask about the tips when they arrived at the venue and Sherlock was off, John following more slowly and trying not to get too distracted by his back view. They walked into a large foyer where the great and probably not all good were milling about comparing ostentations and John looked around, taking in the scene while Sherlock spun his 'nephew' story to the young man at the door, who was wielding a clipboard as if it contained the access code to The Pearly Gates. It soon became clear that there was a problem.

"But Sir Reginald is already seated," the doorman was protesting. "Together with his… partner."

Awkward. John was just waiting for Sherlock to come up with Plan B when a voice spoke at his side.

"Is that…? It is! Doctor John Watson, as I live and breathe… which I only do thanks to you." A small wiry man of around seventy with salt and pepper hair and an inquisitive nose pounced on John's hand and shook it energetically. He glanced round and called across the foyer. "Barbara! Barbara, come here!"

A plump woman with a sweet face looked over her shoulder from a group some distance away and John's mystery assailant beckoned to her, edging towards her while still maintaining his grip on John's hand. She held up one finger, then turned back and clearly started making her excuses.

"Er… excuse me, Sir," the officious doorman butted in. "Mr Golding, Sir - I don't think he has an invitation."

Golding… John wracked his brain but was sure he'd never had a patient by that name - certainly not one whose life he had saved. He looked to Sherlock and shrugged helplessly. Sherlock's eyebrows moved to the 'just go with it' position.

"What's that?" Mr Golding demanded. "Invitation? Give me that!"

He released John and whipped the clipboard out of the young man's protesting hands, then started patting his pockets. Sherlock proffered a pen.

"Thank you." Mr Golding put the pen to good use, flipping to the bottom of the list and printing 'Doctor John Watson' in bold capitals. He looked up, his gaze sweeping over Sherlock, then winked at John and added 'And Partner'. John bit his lip - that made a refreshing change.

The young man had his clipboard thrust back at him. "But, Mr Golding, you can't just - there won't be enough seats… I mean…" He quailed a little at the look he was getting but didn't give way.

"Fine." Mr Golding reclaimed the clipboard and glanced down it. "Right - Mortimer Snodgrass, he can go. Dreadful skinflint, only joined the board for the publicity, he won't part with a penny. Knock him off." He drew a heavy line through the name, then looked below it. "And that's not his wife, who's a lovely woman and deserves better." He crossed out 'Carmen Delfina'. "There you are. All square."

The doorman looked completely flummoxed and John was trying not to giggle as the sweet-faced woman joined them. Mr Golding turned to her eagerly.

"Barbara - this is the man!" He looked back at the clipboard-clutcher. "You make a note of that name, young man. 'Doctor John Watson' - he goes on the lists, understand? All of the lists. Saved my life."

After a couple more vague goldfish impressions, man and clipboard retreated.

"And partner!" Mr Golding called after him.

John looked round as a gentle hand touched his arm. "It's lovely to meet you, Doctor Watson. My husband has sung your praises many times." Barbara Golding was smiling warmly at him.

"That I have," echoed Mr Golding. "I wanted to thank you in person, of course, but that Detective chap…" He looked to his wife.

"Lestrade," she filled in.

"That's the fellow. He said you wouldn't want a fuss. Said I should leave you be. I was going to send…" He trailed off. "But Barbara said I shouldn't push."

"Now, Albie, we've talked about this. Where are people supposed to keep a boat in London?"

"Wonderful things, boats. Don't you think so, Doctor Watson?"

"Er, yes. Absolutely," agreed John, rather nervous of the triumphant look the man was now directing towards his wife.

"Yes, they're lovely," said Barbara. "But not very practical in a built up area."

"Wind in your hair…" her husband murmured dreamily, then sighed. "Well, what's left of it." He smoothed a hand over his thinning locks, then grinned. "Anyway, here you are. It's providence, that's what it is."

Barbara looked to Sherlock. "Please do forgive us, we're being terribly rude. As you've no doubt gathered, I'm…"

"Barbara Golding, wife of well known entrepreneur and philanthropist Albert Golding, for whose attempted mugging two delinquents, one of them armed, have been in custody since early December. The attack was prevented by a 'good Samaritan', who was never identified in the press." He offered his hand. "Sherlock Holmes, pleased to meet you."

She smiled as she took it. "You must be terribly proud of him."

An odd expression crossed Sherlock's face and he stood there for a moment, still clasping her hand. "Yes," he said finally, his eyes moving to John's. "Yes, I am."

John could feel himself flushing and looked down, clearing his throat. "Right. Yes, well. Glad to see you've recovered so well," he told Mr Golding. "Sorry, I should probably have checked up on you, but things got a bit hectic later, I rather lost track."

"You did quite enough, my lad." Mr Golding patted him heartily on the back, then offered his hand to Sherlock. "You've got a good one here. You hold on to him, that's my advice. Forty-seven years and counting for us, isn't that right, my dear?" He moved to his wife's side. "And still a bit of life in the old dog yet, eh?"

Barbara rolled her eyes. "So, what brings you here tonight, Doctor Watson? Are you involved with the homeless?"

"Er… in a way," said John.

"We're interested in the work of the R.A.G., actually," Sherlock chipped in. "You're on the board aren't you, Mr Golding? Had I known it was you that John rescued, I'd have contacted you sooner."

"Call me Albert," Mr Golding invited, waving a hand to include John. "Can't tell you much, really. Not as much as I should. An old school friend put me up to it. Well known name on the letterhead - gives it a bit of oomph, you know? Seems like a good cause - Barbara likes it, don't you, dear?"

"I do," confirmed his wife. "Our daughter Heather has a friend who was on the streets for a number of years when he was younger. We should do more to help." She cast a fond glance sideways. "Albie just wants to give people boats."

"Nothing wrong with boats. You know where you are with a boat. Chap called Hargreaves runs the show - he'll be here somewhere, bound to be." He started peering around the room but the crowd was thinning out, people making their way into the main hall.

"I think we'd best go through, dear," Barbara suggested. "Won't you join us, gentlemen? I'm sure Albie will be only too happy to rearrange the seating plan - half the people at these affairs drive him batty, anyway."

"Bloody do-gooders," her husband agreed. "Two types in there - do-gooders and people who actually do some good. Hardly ever the same thing."

John looked to Sherlock. "Shall we?"

"After you."

John walked across the foyer, through the doors and round half a dozen tables, all with Sherlock's hand burning at the small of his back.

It was a strange evening.

There had been many times when people had mistaken them for a couple and Sherlock had never once bothered to correct anybody… but neither had he ever played up to it like this. There was nothing desperately overt about his actions, no conspicuous hand holding or long loving gazes, but there was unmistakeable possessiveness in his arm draped over the back of John's chair as he leaned across to talk to Barbara, total familiarity in the way he whisked away John's portion of rhubarb crumble and demanded an alternative. By the time John was watching the rum truffle from next to his coffee cup disappear into Sherlock's mouth, he was feeling completely befuddled… and fighting the urge to go in after the chocolate.

"What are you playing at?" he muttered.

"Shh," Sherlock reproved. "I want to listen to the speeches."

John looked across the room to the raised area where a microphone was set up, seeing a woman preparing to speak who was presumably Sister Anne, since she was plainly dressed and wearing shoes which allowed her feet to remain horizontal.

Sherlock's hand slid onto his knee as the lights went down. John didn't take in much of the speeches.

oOo

"Well, I hope that was worth it." John marched up the stairs and into their flat, feeling distinctly out of sorts. "Did you at least find out what you wanted to know? You disappeared off quickly enough as soon as the lights came up. I didn't see you again for an hour."

"Miss me, did you?"

John looked round sharply but Sherlock had his back turned and was hanging up his coat and scarf.

"Are you going to tell me about it?"

"I expect so." Sherlock pulled off his tie as he turned back around. "But not right now."

John scowled at him, shrugging off his own coat together with his suit jacket, since the flat was warm. He draped them over the back of a chair. "What are you up to?" He shed his tie and dropped it onto the table, unfastening the top two buttons of his shirt. "With the arm and the hand and the knee and the chocolate - I thought we agreed…"

"But we didn't agree, did we, John? You agreed for both of us."

"I don't…"

"You just decided that we weren't compatible and that was that, and I am sick and tired of being the only one who understands that we bloody well are."

John looked at him in confusion, startled at the sudden anger. "What do you mean? I told you what I…"

"Yes, you told me what you needed - and you just assumed that I couldn't give it to you."

"But I…" John shook his head, feeling disorientated. "What - are you offended? It's not so much 'couldn't' as 'wouldn't want to'. I didn't think…"

"Well, try!" Sherlock snapped. "Is it really so impossible to believe that it… we could work? Assuming that it was something we both wanted. Which I'm not saying it is."

"But, I'm not... you don't... " John frowned. "Perhaps you've just got fixated on me because it's so long since you..."

"If somewhere in your head you are likening me to a newly hatched chick which assumes that the first life form it sets eyes on is 'Mother', then I would advise you in the strongest possible terms both to think again and to never articulate the sentiment."

"But you don't want me!"

"Will you stop telling me what I do and do not want? Regardless of whether or not I intend to act on it, I know perfectly well what I want and I'm looking right at it!"

John backed up a step, reaching behind him to find the table and then leaning against it. "But we're not… you can't really want to..."

Sherlock threw his hands up into the air. "How can you not see? At times you know exactly what I need and at others you're almost wilfully blind."

He strode forward and gripped John's shoulders. "Look, throw the switch, or whatever it is you do. It seems to be the only way you see me."

"What are you talking about?"

"You've done it a few times now - suddenly gone from 'What have you done to the table?' fed-up but resigned, to 'Get up on the table!' with no question in your voice."

John closed his eyes, running back over scenes in his mind.

There was an impatient exhale from in front of him. "Oh, for…"

"Wait."

Sherlock subsided immediately. Very immediately. John opened his eyes. He opened his eyes and he saw need. Pure, naked need.

"Oh."

Sherlock let his hands fall. "Yes. 'Oh'." He stepped back. "Do you see now why I am struggling with this? You were right with most of your assumptions. I don't want to change. But you… it's not just physical. You clear my mind - I didn't know anybody could do that."

John folded his arms across his chest and looked at the man in front of him. Not the genius. Not the detective. The man.

"I had a girlfriend once who used to fantasise about getting groped on the Tube," he said.

Sherlock goggled at him.

"She didn't actually want it to happen, you understand. Asked me to role-play it once, just to be sure - nearly dislocated my wrist, even knowing it was me."

"Is this really the time to be disclosing past conquests?"

John ignored him. "The thing was, she'd had a very strict upbringing, I mean seriously. Enjoying sex made her feel guilty. The fantasy gave her the illusion of not being responsible - she could get off and it wasn't her fault."

He pushed away from the table and walked forward. Sherlock backed up. John stopped.

"She liked my taking control."

Sherlock gave him a 'so what?' shrug with a sneer on the side. "She sounds perfect for you."

"No," John denied. "No. She wasn't." He stepped to the right and started to walk around Sherlock, who stayed where he was, his head turning to follow John's progress.

"But you feel a different kind of guilt, don't you? I got halfway last time. You're not hung-up about sex, but you see it as a weakness. You think your brain should be completely autonomous - anything you do for your body is time wasted." He was behind Sherlock now. "You want it, but you don't want to want it - you don't think that you should want it." He stepped closer, stretching up so that his words stirred the short hairs on the back of Sherlock's neck. "But if I take it…"

There was no mistaking the strangled sound which emerged from Sherlock's throat.

"… then the weakness is mine," finished John, taking a pace back and continuing his journey. Sherlock didn't look round this time, keeping his eyes forward as a flush rose up his neck.

"You would be absolved of responsibility." John arrived back at his starting point. "It's a bit like your eating more when I've nagged you into it than you would on your own - you're doing it for me, not for yourself."

He leaned against the table again. "How am I doing?"

Sherlock wouldn't meet his gaze.

"Tell me what you're thinking about, right now," John demanded.

Sherlock's chest was rising and falling too quickly and it took him two attempts to start his answer. "Not…" He swallowed, and lowered his head. "Not stopping you."

John gripped hold of the table edge to keep himself in place. He had to think about this, it was too important not to, but Sherlock's need, now that he recognised it, was hammering relentlessly at his self-control. He forced himself to focus.

"I won't be your guilty secret, Sherlock. I'm not talking about public declarations, but don't make me something you're ashamed of." He followed the thought through to the end. "Or, after a while, you won't want to even look at me and that would…"

"Impossible."

"What?"

Sherlock looked up. "I'm not saying it again." He spun around and strode to the window, looking out over the half-net curtain to the street below.

John watched him for a few minutes while he turned over in his mind everything that had happened, both tonight and over the last few weeks. He thought about his role in Sherlock's life, which many people saw as just giving him what he wanted, but which John knew had always been more. He considered the line between want and need and how far from that line he could walk without losing sight of it. Then he crossed to the light switch and plunged the room into darkness.

"Are you going to bed?"

"Not yet." He moved back towards Sherlock, who was holding himself unnaturally still.

"We always called them 'danger nights'," John said conversationally, stopping a couple of paces behind him. "The nights when you get trapped inside your head, when you're wound up and need an escape - a distraction. The nights when you… indulge."

Sherlock's head tilted very slightly to the side. An invitation to continue.

"I don't know how this might work between us. Clearly you don't want all the trappings, but I'm here. I'm available. I want you, and I can't be worse for you than cocaine. I can give you this if you need it. I can be your danger, Sherlock… if that's what you want."

Sherlock was barely breathing. He seemed to be waiting for John to move.

"But I'm not going to take anything you don't give me. Sound mind and unclouded judgement, remember? You have to choose it for yourself…" He took a last step forward and stopped, his voice lowering.

"…and I'm not going to touch you until you do."


Artwork for this chapter:

It had come to this by khorazir

 

Chapter Text

"You have to choose it for yourself… and I'm not going to touch you until you do."

Sherlock stared straight ahead, seeing his reflected mouth quirk in appreciation. No easy option. Clever.

They both knew what would happen if John's hands reached out. The hands that invaded Sherlock's thoughts, his dreams... and his body every time he allowed the fantasies to take him. There would be no 'choice' if John's hands asked the question. No hesitation, no decision necessary or even possible at this stage.

As it was, he'd been wavering all evening - ever since Barbara Golding had said, 'You must be terribly proud of him' and he had realised that the woman was right, he did feel proud. He just wasn't sure exactly why...

Mycroft didn't have a John. A cold fish, Mycroft. Far more ruthless than Sherlock would ever be. Caring about very few things but supremely controlling about those that made it onto the list. Sherlock had never quite managed to emulate his brother's detachment - there was always something more… flamboyant in his nature. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but Sherlock would choose the sword every time. Let Mycroft sit at his desk, wielding his power and his might… it hadn't got him a John. There may have been a mental raspberry blown at this stage of Sherlock's deliberations.

It had only been as Albert Golding was advising him to 'hold on to' John that it had occurred to Sherlock to wonder if they might already be in a 'relationship' and that he simply hadn't noticed. It was hardly his area of expertise after all. Perhaps a change in their status would not be quite so radical a shift as he had thought? A field trial seemed to be in order - John had not denied the Goldings' assumption they were a couple, so he would have no choice but to play along.

Sherlock had spent the next part of the evening with a portion of his brain devoted to studying the body language of other couples around them and replicating any actions which did not strike him as being overly nauseating. After a while he had stopped watching the other couples and watched John instead. A while after that, he had realised that he was no longer thinking about it at all, he was just doing it… it being sliding his hand onto John's knee at that particular point, it would seem. Too late to back down, Sherlock had brazened it out. He had not taken in as much of the speeches as he had intended. As soon as they were over, he'd slipped away - if he were to do any actual deducing, it would probably be more effective to do it alone, just this once.

By the time they got home, whatever ridiculously numbered version of Decision One he had reached was dead in the water. He knew that Decision Two would need to be based on a more equal understanding of what was - or wasn't - going on between them, but his planning had not proceeded much beyond the 'poke John and see what happens' stage. And now John, in one of his trademarked 'you may be the smartest man I know, but I can still surprise you' moves, had turned the tables on him brilliantly, offering him the perfect justification but not allowing him to fall into it.

It would be so easy if John would just touch him. Sherlock could feel him standing there, waiting as hours' worth of thoughts were compressed into seconds. Just one touch - he could even pretend it was meant as comfort or reassurance and all Sherlock would have to do would be to let it happen.

But John was far too honourable to do that, of course. He had always been incredibly loyal, worrying about the press turning on Sherlock even before it had happened and not wanting the world to believe he was a fraud once it had. At the time, Sherlock had assumed he was concerned from a personal perspective - afraid that he had been taken in as well - but that had unquestionably been wrong. John had never doubted him, never wavered, never lost faith, not for a moment. John cared simply because Sherlock was his…

Sherlock waited for a word to present itself as the ending to that sentence, but none was forthcoming. In fact, the sentence seemed to feel that it had done its bit, promptly packing up the rest of the letters available and sauntering jauntily off, scooping up the ellipsis as it went and leaving only a full stop behind. Sherlock contemplated the full stop with some dismay. He did not want to belong to anybody! Except that he… His thoughts spun as his mental landscape suddenly tilted and he was oddly reminded of a film he had pretended not to love as a child which had shifted from greyscale to colour part way through. He pushed the memory back down and his world righted itself. More or less.

He started summoning words and laying them over the window in front of him. The negative things: all the reasons and reminders which he had been shouting at himself for the last three weeks. His eyes ran down the list. Several of the items had actually just been wiped out by John's offer. Relationship. Romance. The dreaded word Cuddles, the very sound of which inevitably made him cringe, all of those could be deleted, or… actually deleting them was perhaps a little he gave them a strike-through instead. Then he went back and deleted Cuddles. No place for that on a list belonging to a Holmes. Definitely not.

What did that leave? He squinted at the list, almost struggling to read the next word. Sex - in extremely small letters. He overlooked the awareness that he'd forced that one in on principle, it being a reversal of a long-standing decision. Loss of control - well there hadn't exactly been an over-abundance of that about the place lately, anyway. Surrender - but only to John, who he trusted completely. Change... was better than boredom. Danger. Sherlock frowned. Surely that was a 'pro' rather than a 'con'? He ignored it. Addiction… was something he'd beaten before. Power… it was true that he would be giving John a great deal of power over him; did he fear that it would be abused? The answer was such a resounding 'No' that he nearly crossed it off completely.

He read on, the list having long since reached the bottom of the pane and started scrolling up, moving faster and faster to keep pace with him, the reasons becoming increasingly tenuous and his justifications for ignoring them ever more inventive. It was as if he were arguing with himself, wanting desperately to say 'Yes', but just unable to take the step.

The words started to blur and Sherlock blinked, focusing again to see the typeface melting away and reforming into a single line across the centre of the glass.

'You can have this.' It looked like John's writing.

Sherlock stared at it.

"I choose this," he said. "You."

His voice sounded odd but the words were clear. He started to turn.

"Wait."

He stilled, hearing John exhale but unable to see his reflection in the window. There were just his own wide eyes and parted lips, an expression which could have been found in an illustrated dictionary next to the word 'anticipation'.

John's hand settled between his shoulder blades and Sherlock jumped. Even through a shirt and a suit jacket, the contact made him jump. He could feel every finger of that hand, resting in a location which it had touched many times before, but this was the first time it had felt like a brand.

"Relax," John told him.

Sherlock managed a half laugh. "That's difficult when I know what you're going to do."

John's hand slid higher, his other joining it, reaching over Sherlock's shoulders to grip the lapels of his jacket. He stretched up, his voice a low murmur in Sherlock's ear as he eased the jacket away. "You have no idea what I'm going to do."

His words were so bright, Sherlock had to close his eyes. Oh, the joy of not knowing

The jacket was gone. He heard John throw it to a chair.

"Speaking of which, is there anything I shouldn't do?"

A multitude of images flickered through Sherlock's mind like freeze frames from 'Porn: The Highlights', but he didn't see anything which would make him say 'No' to John. He shook his head, then quivered as hands settled on his upper back, their heat blazing through the fine material of his shirt.

"Actually, I find it difficult to imagine you saying 'No' when you're like this," John observed. "You've never been big on boundaries." His thumbs started circling, and Sherlock rolled his shoulders, easing into the deliberate nature of the movement. It felt like an overture... no… before that - like tuning to an 'A' before the concert began. John was giving him the note and Sherlock followed it as it began to travel down his spine.

John spoke quietly. "I'm sure it's obvious but you can say 'No' at any time - either 'stop that' or 'stop completely'."

The movement Sherlock was tracking reached his waist, thumbs sliding from side to side in a holding pattern.

"Tell me you understand."

"I understand," Sherlock confirmed. His voice was getting odder. He reached for his shirt buttons.

"Stop." John stepped right up behind him, his arms stretching around and hands pressing down over Sherlock's own, flattening them against his chest. "I don't think so, do you?"

There was a reproving nip at the back of his shoulder and Sherlock shivered, his reflection displaying puzzlement. "Did you not want to…?"

"Oh, I want to," John promised. "I want to, and I will…" his fingers threaded through Sherlock's own, "...but not just yet."

He started stroking their joined hands slowly down and Sherlock's head fell back, he couldn't help it. John's hands were moving deliberately... purposefully... with complete confidence. This was really happening, John was touching him, John was going to...

"Do you remember what I said to you in the taxi, when we were on our way to see Wiggins?" John asked softly. "I was talking about what constituted a kiss."

Sherlock remembered perfectly well. He remembered everything John said to him. It had been refreshing these past weeks to have new data - the old memories were sadly overused after six months away.

"I said 'You kept your clothes on and I kept my hands out of them'," John continued. "I know you remember, because your reaction was unforgettable." His fingers eased free, hands settling on Sherlock's hips just as they had done a week before. A firm grip, but a perfectly decent one.

"Well, you can keep your clothes on for a little while, this time..." John started.

It was obvious where the sentence was going but Sherlock still held his breath as he waited for the end.

"…but I am not going to keep my hands out of them."

Sherlock's exhale was embarrassingly loud, but John didn't comment on it. He seemed to be following his own train of thought.

"So many times you've asked me to fetch things for you," he murmured. "Things you were too busy or too lazy to get for yourself."

Sherlock had a fleeting… concern - was that the word? - that he was about to be punished in some way, but it soon became clear that John had something entirely different in mind.

"Even retrieving things from your own pockets," he continued, his fingers edging inwards. "Although not usually these ones…" His hands slid into the front pockets of Sherlock's trousers and there was nothing casual about this touch, this wasn't decent, not at all.

Sherlock shuddered, raising one arm to grip the edge of the window frame.

"Next time, maybe I'll check these first," John suggested, with a slight rasp to his voice. "When you're at the lab at Bart's perhaps, watching a crucial reaction through your microscope and you have no hands free."

Sherlock pictured the scene in his mind. Would he be standing, or perched on a lab stool? Standing, he thought. Just as he was now. More or less. He tried not to moan as John's fingers brushed over the front of his thighs through the thin silk of his pocket linings.

"I'd have to be very thorough..."

Thumbs found the lower edge of his boxer shorts and pushed underneath and Sherlock held his breath.

"… be absolutely sure that whatever you'd demanded wasn't in here."

Fingers followed, stroking up along the creases of his groin and the breath was gone, possibly forever.

"You… you wouldn't," he managed; awareness of his surroundings, of background noise, of anything else at all fading out as his entire focus spiralled down to where John was touching him... to where John was going to touch him...

John chuckled, his silk-covered fingers moving back and forth, back and forth… running along the V-shape from Sherlock's hipbones right down to where his torso ended and his legs took over. "No, I wouldn't," he promised, his movements pausing. Then he lowered his voice. "But I could."

Sherlock could feel his body responding; hot, heavy arousal - so strong, so soon. Almost too much.

Not enough.

"And your experiment would take precedence, naturally," John murmured. "You couldn't move away, couldn't use your hands, couldn't do anything to stop me."

The tips of his fingers brushed the sides of an erection which had been building for… years, and Sherlock groaned, shifting his feet wider apart to increase his stability as it became clear that he would soon be having an issue with the concept of 'vertical'.

"I could do whatever I liked," John said, taking advantage of the move to dip one hand down between Sherlock's legs, still through his pocket but inside his underwear, and oh God, this was definitely, absolutely, one hundred percent happening. Sherlock raised his other arm to the window frame, resting more of his weight forward as silky material with John's fingers behind it caressed parts of his body which had been neglected for over a decade and seemed to have spent the time growing extra nerve endings, all of which were tuned to whatever frequency was emanating from the man behind him.

"Perhaps you would complain," John suggested.

Sherlock bloody well doubted it.

"You might protest… ask me what I thought I was doing… demand that I took my hands out of your pockets immediately."

Sherlock couldn't remotely imagine doing anything of the kind.

"And I would do so, of course." John pulled his hands free, then stretched up and nipped apologetically at the back of Sherlock's neck. "I might have intended to tease you for longer, but in the end…"

Sherlock sucked in his stomach to leave more room for the fingers at the fastening of his trousers.

"…I would have to strip you."

There was a rustle of fabric as Sherlock was suddenly bared from the waist down, John having managed to drop his boxers at the same time. Sherlock toed off his shoes and socks and kicked everything aside. Then he waited, still leaning forward with both hands against the window frame, realising that he would look fairly normal from outside, with his shirt still on and the lights turned out so that his lower half was obscured by the net curtain. He folded his arms at the elbow and leaned on them instead, resting them on the sash which ran the width of the window. He waited.

"Do not move." John was gone.

Sherlock didn't move. Well… there may have been a certain amount of twitching, but he could hardly be held accountable for that, he'd had very little control over the thing since John had first kissed him. Thus did Sherlock abdicate responsibility for his nether regions and reassign it to John, who seemed to have a much better understanding of what was going on down there anyway.

"Gorgeous." John's voice sounded from the doorway. "Your shirt would normally keep you decent, but that position does wonders for the view."

Sherlock debated whether to lower his arms.

"Don't even think about lowering your arms." John had crossed the room with great speed and Sherlock felt the brush of fingertips at each side of his hips, just below the level of his shirt. Skin to skin for the first time, but not enough… not nearly enough. He pressed his lips together to hold in the observation. Making demands of John at this time seemed extremely inadvisable.

John's fingers started to slide round to the back, following the line of the shirt's hem at first, but quickly abandoning it in favour of a more comprehensive approach.

Sherlock rested his head down in the crook of his elbow and held back a groan. What was he doing? Standing here, virtually naked in his own living room, completely exposed and vulnerable, getting his arse thoroughly groped by his eternally surprising flatmate who... ohhh... Sherlock's thoughts stuttered as John's hands angled inwards, lifting and separating now as they squeezed and Sherlock bit his own arm and tried not to push himself backwards and further into John's hands, wanting to rock until those fingers slid just a little bit further... especially that one... that one was so close now... so very close to where he wanted to feel it...

"Legs apart."

Sherlock must have been too slow because John's hands dropped down to his inner thighs and pushed until his feet had almost a shoulder's width between them and Sherlock tried to remember that breathing, however boring, was not actually an optional activity.

John moved so that he was standing slightly to the side, his right hand sliding interestingly back up to almost... almost where Sherlock wanted it, while his left arm slipped under the shirt, then seemed to hesitate before simply settling around Sherlock's waist.

"You all right?"

Sherlock raised his head long enough to look round and risk a Level Five 'get on with it' stare.

John snorted. "I'm going to take that as a 'yes'." Both hands moved with sudden purpose, one wrapping around from the front and the other dipping down from behind then curving up between Sherlock's legs, and Sherlock made an unholy noise and desperately locked his knees in an attempt to keep himself upright.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh…" he sank his teeth into his forearm again to shut himself up.

John's hands were… amazing… incredible… fantastic… all the words that John had been showering on Sherlock since first they met, he should get back with interest… avid interest… obsessive, compulsive, desperate interest… Sherlock's internal discourse started to break down and he had to free his mouth simply to drag in some air as John worked on him and surely something had changed since the last time he'd experienced anything along these lines, because nothing, nothing in the world had ever… could ever… possibly feel… anything… remotely… as good… as…

John's right hand moved a few inches backwards and Sherlock's knees gave out.

John caught him around the waist and folded down to the floor with him, sitting back on his heels with Sherlock in his lap, and Sherlock was twisting, trying to turn around, wanting to push John flat and crawl all over him but John wouldn't let him, had a fist knotted in the back of his shirt holding him in place, and Sherlock gripped each side of his own collar at the front and pulled as hard as his trembling muscles would allow, which was pretty damned hard because it would be difficult to find someone more motivated at that moment in time. The noise of tearing fabric was loud but Sherlock could still hear his heart beating over it as he took advantage of the surprise and managed to swivel round, sliding onto his knees so that he was facing John and beside him, but then there was a hand gripping the side of his neck and another in his hair and then John was kissing him and everything else stopped.

Kissing John. Being kissed by John. How had he gone a whole week without this? And two weeks before that? And all his adult life before that? It didn't seem feasible. Sherlock was light headed, his mouth opening immediately, hungrily, kissing back. He raised his arms and pulled John closer, the temptation to push him down creeping in again. Sherlock was bigger, he could…

He felt John's hand at the collar of his shirt, beginning to pull it down and away and that was a definite step in the right direction - get his last remaining item of clothing off and then they could make a start on John's, since he was still shockingly overdressed for the situation. Without breaking the kiss, Sherlock dropped his arms and shrugged the shirt off his shoulders, realising as John tugged it down that the cuffs were still fastened and his hands were too big to slip through. He grunted impatiently and brought his wrist forward... tried to bring his wrist forward.

'What the…?' He pulled away and looked round. John had the shirt half way down his back and the sleeves were pinning his arms at the elbow. "Cuffs, John," he almost snapped in his frustration. "I need to unfasten the cuffs."

"Oh, really?"

Sherlock's head whipped back round and John had an entirely new smile on his face. Sherlock's heart kicked his chest so hard that he gasped.

"I think you're forgetting something," John suggested, his hand keeping hold of the bunched shirt so that Sherlock was effectively immobilised.

For a brief, horrible moment, Sherlock was afraid that he was going to come. He squeezed his eyes closed and pictured Molly's Easter jumper, which had fluffy chicks stitched onto it and was simply the most hideous thing he had ever seen.

"Unless you've changed your mind?" John's voice didn't sound very worried.

Sherlock opened his eyes. No: definitely not worried.

"Perhaps you're not enjoying yourself?" John suggested, his free hand reaching out.

Sherlock watched the hand.

"Maybe you don't like being… helpless."

The hand went out of focus just before settling at the base of his throat. Sherlock swallowed.

"If you want me to stop, you only have to say so."

Sherlock pressed his lips together and said nothing - as emphatically as possible.

"Otherwise, I think I shall just carry on touching you…"

There was the lightest brush of a fingertip over his nipple and Sherlock jumped, almost wrenching his shoulder.

"… wherever…"

The other nipple, and a much firmer contact. Sherlock squirmed as the sensation radiated out across his chest.

"… I like."

John's hand moved south, but it didn't wrap around him this time, just stroked a line from base to tip with one finger. Sherlock was no longer able to keep his mouth shut but there was no danger of a 'stop' emerging from it.

The wandering hand returned to cup his jaw, tipping his head back as John knelt up and leaned over him.

"You're so beautiful."

Sherlock stared up into his face.

"I know you know that, but it's not something I would normally tell you, so I think it's worth mentioning."

John's hand smoothed the hair off his forehead, stroking through the curls, his eyes briefly distant. He spoke almost to himself.

"I missed you so much."

Any reply that Sherlock may have worked up to making was forestalled as John bent and kissed him. Sherlock decided to try and answer that way instead - it had worked the first time they had kissed and he'd learned so much about how John had felt during their separation.

He pictured himself in a succession of grotty rooms, his words trailing off as he looked up and remembered that he was alone, always alone these days. He recalled the constant sensation of eyes on his back because the only eyes he trusted were no longer watching it. He saw again the room in which he had killed Moran, but this was a few days earlier and it was Sherlock who was sitting on the crate, smoking one cigarette after another as he watched John through the window of 221B and tried to tell himself that the sick and empty feeling in his stomach was a combination of nicotine poisoning and poor nutrition.

He kissed John back and thought about being on his own.

John pulled sharply away.

Sherlock blinked in surprise, trying to clear his vision. "What's wrong?" Truly, his voice was getting odder by the minute.

John was staring at his own fingers, which had been stroking over Sherlock's face a moment before. His eyes moved back to Sherlock's and widened even further. "You're asking me that?"

Sherlock shrugged, wishing they could get back to the kissing.

"What were you just thinking about?"

"I…" Sherlock looked away but John brought both hands to cup his face and turned it back around. Sherlock resisted the temptation to shrug off the ruined shirt while he had the chance. He hesitated over his words, but then told himself to stop being ridiculous. "ThatImissedyoutoo." All right, so that had sounded a bit ridiculous, but at least he'd said it - and without having to perform some peculiar dance at a crime scene, or whatever John had suggested on that fateful taxi ride.

It took John a moment, but he got there. "Get that shirt off." He already had half his own buttons undone and was reaching over his shoulder as he sprang to his feet.

Sherlock watched as he pulled both the shirt and one of the T-shirts he obsessively wore underneath everything straight over his head.

"Shirt. Now!" John barked and Sherlock jumped, then started to wriggle free as he was abruptly faced, in a very literal sense, with the evidence of an extremely aroused Captain John Watson, formerly of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. Sherlock had never seen anyone disrobe so quickly, or to such impressive effect. The evidence could only be described as compelling. He realised that his mouth was hanging open and wondered if John might take advantage of that fact.

John, however, clearly had his own ideas in mind. Sherlock had only just wrenched his hand free of the last sleeve, having decided that there was no point worrying about those buttons since the others had already been fired like shotgun pellets across the room, when John took him down. Straight down, in fact, flat onto his back on the floor, although even then John controlled it, one hand cupping the back of Sherlock's head as they landed and the breath rushed out of him.

Almost immediately he was forced to revise an earlier opinion, since he had previously assumed that there was no method by which the experience of kissing John could be improved, it already being so very, very, vastly, enormously, radically, superlatively better than the experience of kissing anyone who wasn't John. Clearly he had theorised ahead of his data because it was now extremely apparent that kissing John while they were both naked added an entirely new dimension, taking the whole thing from 'who is this man and what is he doing to me?' to 'who am I and why aren't we shagging already?'

Recalling that his arms were now free Sherlock put them to use, attempting to pull John down more fully as he was still half kneeling rather than lying flat, which meant that certain key areas were not in contact and Sherlock felt strongly that contact between said areas would very definitely end up being classified as a 'good thing'.

John nipped at his bottom lip, then scooped an arm around his lower back and lifted, which seemed a strange way of going about things but certainly did the job. Sherlock moaned and pressed up further.

John nipped him again. "Legs."

Sherlock was so used to contorting himself into odd positions that he had barely noticed the pull on his thigh muscles, but it was true that his legs were still folded underneath him. He managed to straighten them out and John lay down fully on top of him. Sherlock folded his legs up again - this time around John. And oh, that felt… so much better than 'good'. He wriggled a little and John rocked his hips and Sherlock turned his head to the side, embarrassed to think about what his face must look like.

This seemed to be taken as an invitation to kiss the side of his neck. Maybe it had been an invitation, Sherlock had no idea, but by this point he assumed that John's thoughts on this topic were generally good ones. He arched into the touch, stroking his hands down John's back until he was impeded by his own legs, which he tightened reflexively, not entirely sure whether he was trying to push himself up or to pull John down, but either way it was working - and not just for him judging from the kisses on his neck, which were developing teeth.

John propped himself up on one elbow and slid the other hand down Sherlock's side. All the way down, from the top right down to the… his bottom and Sherlock curved his arms around John's shoulders and held on and… waited.

Never his strong suit. "Are you going to fuck me?"

He got a passing stroke from one finger and immediately imagined two. Or three. Or that squirmy tongue which he must see poking out at least twenty times a day. He suppressed the thought at once - it wasn't helping with his already dubious self-control. The finger returned and he whimpered; but he didn't beg. That was very important. He wasn't going to beg, not for anyone. There was a circling movement and Sherlock remembered John saying after The Experiment kiss that he didn't particularly want him to beg. He tried to work out if that put the begging option back on the table, but it was extremely difficult to concentrate.

John's hand moved away, reaching behind his own back and unlocking Sherlock's ankles. "Legs down," he instructed.

Sherlock considered his options. John raised an eyebrow. Sherlock lowered his legs - unhurriedly, to indicate his displeasure. John ignored the petulance and shifted his own legs to the outside, then sat up and reached across to his trousers, producing a sachet from the pocket. Sherlock frowned at it - it didn't look like a condom. His eyes went from the sachet, which John was tearing open, to his face, which wore an extremely suggestive grin, then back to the sachet, the contents of which John was now squeezing out onto his hand.

"Put your arms up over your head."

"Why?"

"Because I want to see you like that, stretched out and vulnerable."

Sherlock stared at him, the picture already clear in his mind. John bent forward and licked across his nipple.

"I want you to lay back and let me do this to you. I want to give it and I want you to take it."

Sherlock's pupils must have been enormous and he shuddered as John's tongue flicked out again before he sat back up.

"You're not going to…?"

"Not this time, no."

Slowly, Sherlock raised his arms, stretching himself out just as John wanted him. A slick hand wrapped around him and he arched his back as it started to move. Oh God... John was so horribly good at this, better than him, it didn't feel anything like this when he did it... Oh, bloody hell...

John's weight shifted to one side and he tapped Sherlock's opposite thigh. "Up." There was nothing unhurried about Sherlock's obedience this time; he bent his leg at the knee and angled it out to the side as well, just so there was no doubt at all about his profound approval for this plan.

It quickly became apparent that there had been ample lube in the sachet because John's middle finger was right there, circling and then slowly, finally pushing in and Sherlock cried out with the sudden pleasure of it - not just the physical sensation, although that would quickly follow at the rate John was going, but simply the fact of it, the feeling of being stretched and invaded and owned by someone he trusted, someone he could let go with, someone he… ohhh… and that was exactly the right place and Sherlock was going to be chanting to some unspecified deity again in a minute and he put the foot of his bent leg down flat on the floor so that he could push up against it, and…

"John..." Was that even his voice? It sounded as if he were being strangled.

"You really like that." There was pleased approval in John's tone and Sherlock forced his eyes open, wondering when they had closed.

"Told you we were…" he broke off with a moan as John added a second finger, "… compatible," he managed to finish before his head was tipping back again and then there were no more words, they had gone, fled the scene, leaving only noises which would have embarrassed him at any other time but which at least stopped him from blurting out any of the things he hadn't even admitted to himself and certainly wasn't ready to face. And John's other hand was still moving and Sherlock shook and trembled and didn't know what to do with himself or where to focus or what to think about or how to cope with so much... so much... and lasted for around two minutes before his entire body arched up off the floor as he was overtaken by an orgasm which left all those that he'd experienced previously seem unworthy of sharing the same name.

It took him considerably longer than two minutes to recover.

He was vaguely aware of John attending to his own needs and tried to help but he was woefully uncoordinated and John shushed him, so he settled back down, absently recording John's sounds to review later as he drifted, his mind wonderfullly blank and serene.

When he came round, John was kneeling at his side and cleaning him with a damp cloth.

Sherlock watched him, not protesting at some of the more intimate movements, just letting him get on with it.

John looked up at his face. "You all right?" he asked gently. He had his trousers back on, but was still shirtless.

Sherlock nodded.

"I've got your dressing gown. Do you want to...?"

"I think I'll go to bed."

"Come on, then." John offered him a hand and Sherlock took it without protest, accepting also the arm around his waist and then assistance into his pyjamas and into bed.

"Are you... do you want me to stay with you for a while?" John's voice sounded uncertain for the first time in over an hour as he clicked off the light.

Sherlock frowned into the darkness, confused by the answer he wanted to give. He was fine, he was clean and he was almost asleep.

"Why would I want you to stay?"

He felt a hand stroke over his hair as his awareness faded, then John's voice sounded quietly from the door.

"No reason at all."


Artwork for this chapter:

Put your arms up over your head by daysofstorm

 

Chapter Text

"Pass me a pen, would you?"

Sherlock held out his hand, maintaining an air of careful indifference as he sat at the living room table, ostensibly focused on the laptop in front of him.

There was a slight delay, then the pen from the coffee table slapped into his palm.

"Good morning to you, too."

There was no irritation or disappointment in John's voice - just his usual air of indulgent resignation. Sherlock suppressed the urge to look round, and the even odder urge to grab his wrist before he moved away. Such bizarre impulses were quite alarming. One would think that last night's… activities would have resolved the situation, at least for a while, but it was already clear that such an assumption would be entirely wrong.

"Cup of tea?"

"Please." Sherlock's willpower lasted only as long as it was shored up by his pride. The moment he was unobserved, whatever fraction of his attention had been directed at his laptop gave up the pretence and his eyes followed John's progress across the room until he disappeared into the kitchen.

Sherlock found himself on the brink of deciding that his armchair, which had a clear view of the kitchen area, would be more comfortable than his seat at the table. He swore under his breath and stayed put, closing his eyes and thinking back to the moment a few hours earlier when he had woken from a disturbing dream and looked across to the empty half of his bed…

Sherlock mentally hit 'pause', then rewound that last thought and regarded it with something approaching despair.

He'd done it again.

Other half. The proper term was 'other half'. Where had 'empty half' come from? He scowled at the phrase, just as he had scowled at his bed upon waking from the dream in which it hadn't been empty at all.

Shaking off the troubling thoughts, he got to his feet… which led him inexorably in John's direction. He managed to restrict himself to the doorway, leaning against it in a hopefully casual manner.

John glanced round. "You all right?"

Sherlock nodded. John looked at him curiously for a moment, then finished making the tea and put one of the mugs on the table. Sherlock reached for it as John embarked on the serious business of toast preparation, opening the cupboard marked 'Don't even think about it' and surveying his jam collection. Sherlock had never been able to divine any logic behind his selection process but today seemed to call for 'Victoria Plum'.

"If I make you some breakfast, will you eat it?"

"Unlikely," Sherlock decided. At the moment his stomach felt as if it had taken up macramé. He turned his head towards the living room, his gaze moving from the window to the floor as a sense of unreality swept over him.

"You're all right, though?" John's voice was much closer and Sherlock almost spilled his tea as a hand pushed into the hair at his nape. John's thumb ran over the side of his neck and he forcibly resisted the inclination to arch into the contact.

"Hmm… best keep your scarf on if you go out today," John suggested. "I'll be more careful next time." He let his hand fall and stepped back to the worktop, picking up his mug.

Sherlock reminded his heart that neither stopping completely nor suddenly doubling in rate was in any way helpful.

"If that's something you're interested in?" John added diffidently.

Sherlock tried to think past the words 'next time' which were howling through his brain and making the doors rattle.

"You being careful? Not particularly," he managed. He attempted a smile which combined nonchalance with flirtation. John didn't seem sure what to make of the resultant effort. Sherlock wasn't entirely sure what to make of it either. God, this was dreadful.

The toast popped up and John turned away. Sherlock took his mug and forced his reluctant feet back into the living room and over to the window - the other window. He looked out for a few minutes but saw nothing which progressed past his eyes. A dozen naked Irene Adlers doing the can-can would have produced in him only a passing fear that Mycroft would want to get in on the cloning.

"You're sure you don't want any?" John was right next to him again, a piece of toast raised in his hand.

Sherlock looked at the toast. Usually John gave him his own plate when offering him breakfast, but now he was just standing there, holding up a single slice. Was Sherlock supposed to take the toast? Or just bite into it? Was it appropriate now for them to feed each other? What other bizarre rituals may be lurking in the murky depths of these uncharted waters? And how many more clichés could he pack into a single stream of thought?

On the other hand, Victoria Plum was one of his favourites, and it was quite nice to have John looking after him like this. Certainly eating might not be so boring if John were more… personally involved in the process. Sherlock's thoughts went off at something of a tangent.

"I guess not." John turned away and went to sit at the table. Sherlock's stomach went back to the macramé.

"So, business as usual, then?" John sat back in his chair as he washed down the last of his breakfast with a mouthful of tea. Sherlock looked round at him. There was a crumb at the corner of his mouth. Sherlock concentrated on not leaning over the table to lick it off.

"I mean, it seems like you'd prefer everything to be normal… except when you don't." John frowned. "I'm hoping you'll find some way to indicate to me when that happens, otherwise I'm going to end up guessing and probably getting rejected nine times out of ten."

Sherlock felt that this estimate was off by a considerable margin. Then he wondered what sort of indication John might be looking for… and whether a guess could be in any way imminent. John got up and took his plate and mug back through into the kitchen. Sherlock suppressed the urge to follow.

God, what was the matter with him? He turned his back to the room. Perhaps he should have gone to the other window… would that have counted as an 'indication'?

"Well, I think I'll pop out for a bit." John was already shrugging into his jacket and Sherlock listened to the disappointing sound of layers being added rather than taken away. His brain unhelpfully replayed a video of John stripping off the night before. It was not the first time the footage had been aired.

There was warmth at his back. Not touching, but he could feel it. John's voice came from directly behind him.

"All right?"

"Of course."

A hand hovered near his shoulder. Sherlock wasn't entirely sure how he knew that, but it was there.

"I won't be long… just get a bit of fresh air, maybe check up on a couple of things."

"Don't let me keep you."

"See you later then?"

"Obviously."

"OK." The hand touched down for the briefest moment and it took all of Sherlock's internal chaos to stop himself leaning into it. He could still feel its outline as feet clattered down the stairs and he rested his forehead against the glass, watching as John emerged onto the street.

The problem was that he had no idea what he wanted, beyond the obvious. He recalled 'Addiction' appearing on his list of negatives, but surely that would take more than one 'fix'? Anyway, it wasn't just that. He didn't think it was. The dream popped into his head again. The dream in which John had ventured into the empty - fuck it - 'other' side of Sherlock's bed. And not just ventured, but settled… fitted… seemed so overwhelmingly right that waking to find him absent had left Sherlock feeling just as - oh, fucking fine- 'empty' as his bed; a feeling which had nearly frightened the life out of him.

The resultant decision to 'play it cool' had clearly been an idea of almost Andersonian stupidity but once he had started he hadn't known how to stop… and now John was leaving, thinking that Sherlock wanted nothing more from him than the occasional tension-relieving shag.

John was leaving thinking that what had happened wasn't such a big deal.

He was leaving thinking that they would just carry on as normal.

He was leaving…

He was leaving.

Sherlock grabbed his coat.

oOo

Lestrade sighed, tossing aside one file and reaching for the next. Bloody paperwork. If there was one thing he hated…

"Caught them yet?"

He looked up. "Oh, it's you." He shut the file, hiding his relief at the action. Sherlock might be a pain in the arse but at least with him in the building there would be something more interesting than paperwork going on. "No, I bloody haven't. And what have you been doing about it? Not bloody much, if you ask me."

Sherlock's eyes were flicking around the office as if it were a crime scene and Lestrade was unable to stop himself casting a nervous glance over his shoulder. Surely he would have noticed if there was an axe murderer lurking behind his filing cabinet? He didn't see anything out of place.

"You all right?" he asked.

"Of course I'm all right," Sherlock snapped. "Why wouldn't I be all right? I'm perfectly all right."

Lestrade sat back in his chair and stared at him. "Where's John?"

Sherlock stuck his nose in the air, pulling his already tightly wrapped scarf even higher and making sure his collar was suitably flipped. "That's hardly my concern," he said, moving into the room and dropping into one of the seats facing the desk. "Or yours," he added waspishly.

'Uh-oh, trouble in paradise,' thought Lestrade. He held up his hands in a peace-making gesture. "My mistake," he offered apologetically. "It's just that you've virtually been living in each other's pockets since you came back…"

He frowned at an odd noise from the man opposite. Sherlock looked as if he'd swallowed a lemon. "You sure you're all right?" There was no response, so he carried on. "I've not seen either of you on your own until today."

"'Either of you'," Sherlock quoted immediately, apparently shaking off whatever brain-freeze he had suffered. "You've seen John, too." His tone suggested he'd made the deduction of the decade.

Lestrade shrugged. "Sure, he called in earlier, but he didn't stay. No idea where he's got to now." He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk. "Now what about this case? Got anything for me?"

Sherlock sniffed, glancing out through the open office door. "Have you set up the alerts I suggested?"

"Of course." Lestrade flicked through his files and produced a sheet of paper which he pushed across the desk. "You were right about the alarms. Each place that was robbed, there'd been a false alarm somewhere nearby a few days earlier."

"All requiring police attendance, correct?" Sherlock leaned forward and scanned down the list.

Lestrade nodded. "I guess their timings have been a bit good, always seeming to know just how long they'd got. Obvious when you think about it."

"Indeed," Sherlock drawled. "It's a wonder the police force don't employ the tactic more regularly."

"Ha bloody ha." God, he was an insufferable sod. How did John put up with him full time? The man must have the patience of a saint. Lestrade wished he would come back from wherever he'd disappeared off to. "So we're keeping an eye out, but it gets harder the longer we're waiting. Do you have any idea how many false alarms we get in a week?"

Sherlock sat back again, looking profoundly unconcerned.

"Too bloody many, that's what. We can't keep planting a copper near every location indefinitely - it's a question of manpower."

Sherlock seemed equally disinterested in this issue.

Lestrade sighed. "We've flagged up the lorries thing too - any reported stolen, we'll get notified straight away. But that's… I mean, it's good because the thieves usually strike less than twenty-four hours later, but sometimes the lorries aren't reported missing at all. They're often taken from big depots; last time the company didn't even realise they'd lost one until after we'd found it!"

Sherlock gave him a 'not my problem' shrug and got to his feet. Lestrade was wondering why he'd bothered coming in at all when he paused in the doorway.

"Were you able to help John with what he wanted?"

Lestrade frowned at him. "I suppose so," he said. "I told him to try the archives."

"The archives. Of course." Sherlock nodded briefly and turned to leave.

"I'm pretty sure she's working down there this week," Lestrade added, his attention returning reluctantly to the pile of folders on his desk which seemed to be swelling every time he took his eyes off it. He regarded it with suspicion, wondering if Donovan had devised some method of adding to it without him noticing.

"She?"

"Hmm?" He looked up and Sherlock was still hovering.

"Constable Ross," he explained. "That's who John was looking for. Now either make yourself useful or bugger off, will you?"

He turned back to his papers, then raised his head again to say more… but it seemed that Sherlock had already chosen option two.

"And don't go upsetting my team!" Lestrade yelled after his retreating figure.

oOo

John climbed the stairs to the flat feeling no wiser than when he'd left it several hours before. Still, at least he'd had some exercise and managed to get a decent cup of coffee at Scotland Yard, which had previously seemed an impossibility.

He reached the landing and stuck his head into the living room but it was empty so he took the door through to the kitchen. There was no sign of Sherlock here either - no noxious fumes in the air and no dubious compounds munching holes in the worktops. John moved to the window and stood there looking out, his arms folded across his chest, seeing nothing at all.

Sherlock. John hadn't known what to expect from him this morning, but the 'nothing's changed, so don't go taking any bleeding liberties' attitude had certainly been the highest on his list of possibilities.

Sherlock needn't worry. Just because he'd turned out to have an - insanely hot - interest in ceding control in one particular area, that didn't mean John would expect it all the time; or even any of the time. He hadn't been sure he'd get a 'next time' at all before he'd come right out and asked. The thought had knocked him out of the 'doctor' mindset he'd automatically switched into on seeing the marks on Sherlock's neck.

That particular seeing had led to touching… which had been followed by remembering… which had plunged him straight into wanting… and John had backed away before he'd started veering dangerously into taking.

Of course, Sherlock hadn't exactly answered the question - that would be far too easy. Still, he hadn't said 'No' and John had decided to take that as a 'Yes' until specifically informed to the contrary. Because the thought of never having that… never having Sherlock… again was not something he wanted to contemplate. Images from the night before started flashing through his mind and he groaned, unfolding his arms and stepping back a pace to hitch a hip on the corner of the table. He rubbed a hand over his face.

And yet... it wasn't the memory of the sex that was causing the lump in his throat. That had developed earlier while he was still fully dressed, at the moment when he'd realised that Sherlock was weeping without even being aware of it, just before he'd told John that he'd missed him.

That was the point at which John had known he had to get the show on the road, sexually speaking, because otherwise the love he already had for Sherlock was finally going to tip over the edge and then he'd never be able to give it to anyone else. And that would be a shame considering that Sherlock didn't want it… well, not that side of it. The actual sex side he'd seemed pretty keen on.

John closed his eyes. God, it had been amazing… He would never have believed that Sherlock would be like that… could be like that. So unguarded, so open, so… John's thoughts simplified into sense memories and he tipped his head back, part of him aware that it was just as well that Sherlock was out, but most of him filled with such fierce longing that he wanted Sherlock to be right here, right now… and to hell with what might happen. Sherlock was a grown man. He could defend himself if he wanted to…

"What's the matter?"

John nearly toppled over backwards.

"Bloody hell!" He got his balance - physically at least - and stared at Sherlock who had materialised at the side of the fridge, his pale blue dressing gown draped over his clothes. "Where the hell did you spring from? I thought you were out!"

"I was in my room."

John frowned. Sherlock hardly ever used his room during the day. "What's the matter?"

"I asked first."

"Are we twelve?"

"Apparently so."

Sherlock was eyeing him with a type of intensity which John hadn't experienced for a good long while. It was a stripping look, but of a very different kind to those he'd been receiving these last few weeks.

"Are you all right?" he asked, taking an automatic pace forward. Sherlock stepped back. John froze. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"What could be wrong?" Sherlock walked round him and John stayed put, then jumped as a stray curl brushed the side of his face.

"Are you sniffing me?" He turned around but Sherlock had already moved away and was leaning back against the worktop, his arms folded and his face completely expressionless.

"Where have you been?"

"What?" John frowned in confusion. "I went for a walk - I told you. Thought I might follow something up, but it didn't come to anything."

Sherlock inhaled, his chin rising slightly. "That must have been disappointing for you."

John shrugged. "Well, it was a long shot, but I figured it was worth a try." He offered a rueful smile. "Guess I should just leave that side of things to you."

Sherlock's eyebrows rose. Then he frowned and some of the tension in his posture eased. "Care to fill me in?"

"Care to put the kettle on?" If Sherlock was going to be weird, he could bloody well make himself useful while he was at it.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, but he looked significantly happier than he had a minute ago.

"You need to push that button on the…"

"Very funny." Sherlock reached behind himself and flicked the switch, then stepped forward until he was right in John's space and there was definite looming going on. John drew himself up to his full height. This had minimal impact on the situation as regards the looming.

He sighed, having to crane his neck back to meet Sherlock's eyes. "You know when we watched that video footage from the robbery? The one from inside the jeweller's shop?"

Sherlock nodded but didn't seem to feel that he was breaching any optimal distance limit for easy conversation. John took a half step back. Sherlock followed.

"Do you remember that something caught my attention, but then I didn't know what it was?"

Sherlock nodded again. John could smell his… Sherlockness. It was distracting.

"Well, it's been bugging me, that's all." He spread his arms out in an shrug. "So I went to Scotland Yard. I thought that maybe if I watched it again, it might come to me."

"But it didn't?"

"Nope - not a thing. Bloody useless." He reached into his jacket pocket. "She did give me a print-out, but I doubt inspiration will strike from that when it didn't from the video." He unfolded the paper and laid it out on the table, taking the opportunity to sit down and get out of looming range. He looked pointedly towards the chair at right angles to his own but Sherlock took no notice, choosing instead to come and stand behind John and loom over his shoulder - just for a bit of a change, presumably.

"She?"

"Hmm? Oh, Constable Ross," John explained. "She was there at the crime scene last week. You were rude to her." He glanced round, disconcerted to find Sherlock's face only inches from his own. "I realise that doesn't narrow it down much, you probably don't…"

"I know who she is."

"Oh, right. Well, I was going to ask Lestrade, but Donovan caught me on her way out and said if I took him away from his paperwork once she'd finally got him to do some she'd cut my balls off." He sniffed. "I wanted to give her that line you used on Frankland about it being tremendously ambitious of her…" he smiled in remembrance, then sighed, "… but she'd already buggered off." He paused for a moment. "Cow."

Sherlock snorted and John grinned at him, but he was so close… so close. John swallowed and turned back to the image on the paper, smoothing his hand over the creases from where it had been folded in his pocket. Sherlock seemed to feel that he required assistance. John's hand stopped moving. Sherlock's didn't.

"Go on." Sherlock's voice was a rumble in his ear and John's heart started thumping much louder in his chest. Neither of them acknowledged that Sherlock's hand was now completely covering John's, or that their fingers were lacing themselves together.

"What? What, er… Oh, right. Yes. Well, I remembered she was on the case so asked Lestrade where I could find her and she was happy to help - any excuse to get out of archiving, she said."

"You could have asked for Constable Greening." Sherlock's mouth was actually brushing the side of John's neck as he spoke this time.

"Who?"

"The male…" Sherlock trailed off with a slight huff. "Although perhaps I need to worry about them too, knowing what I now know about you."

John swivelled in his seat. "Worry?" he echoed.

Sherlock looked chagrined at having let the word escape. He straightened up, pulling his hand free. John let him go.

"Not a very productive morning, then?" Sherlock spoke more in his normal tone as he pulled out the chair he had spurned earlier and sat down, keeping his eyes on the picture.

John watched his face but he didn't look up. "Well, I did find out where Anderson hides his secret stash of Jamaican Blue Mountain, so the day wasn't a total loss..."

Sherlock looked unimpressed.

"...but no," John agreed, following Sherlock's gaze down to the image of the thieves poised in action, one holding out a canvas bag towards the main counter, the other pointing his gun at the customers. "We still don't know a thing about either of them."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that."

John was grinning even before he raised his head.

Sherlock released a half smirk. "This one…" he indicated the robber holding the gun, "is either from or has spent time in the Midlands, judging from his dialect." He pulled a face. "He addressed the shop assistant as 'ducky'."

"Why the…?" John waved his hand at the sour expression.

"Ducks," Sherlock said darkly. He didn't explain.

"And his name starts with an 'F' sound - could be first or last, or a nickname, but it's what he goes by."

"How can you possibly…?"

"What did the witnesses say? That the other one…" Sherlock poked a finger at the picture of the unarmed offender, "… was upset when he hit the woman, and shouted at him. Some claimed he swore but others said that he only 'started to'. They all agreed on the first word."

John must have looked as blank as he felt.

"Why would he bite back a curse? Even the BBC's censorship policy is not that illogical… What's his thinking? It's all right to carry out an armed robbery as long as you don't swear while you're doing it? Ridiculous!" Sherlock shook his head. "No… the other thief's name is what he started to yell - a much more likely reaction and the reason it was cut off."

John opened his mouth, then closed it again.

"What?" Sherlock looked piqued by the silence.

"I'm trying to think of a variant on 'amazing' that I haven't used before."

It was Sherlock's turn to attempt a sentence, then abandon it. His gaze skittered away and a tide of colour began to rise up his neck. John acquired a fair idea of the method of appreciation he was currently contemplating. Well, not the actual method… but the general theme was transmitting loud and clear. Part of John's brain was already surveying the terrain and assessing options: so far the table was looking good, although the chair he was sitting on had distinct possibilities… as did the worktop… and then there was… He cut himself off. Sherlock was unpredictable - dangerous to assume a 'yes' when it could so easily be 'no'.

He reached out a hand. Sherlock didn't seem to notice until it was cupping his jaw. He hesitated, then turned into it, his eyes slowly rising to meet John's.

John stroked a thumb along his cheekbone. "I'm asking."

Sherlock stared at him as the moment stretched out. John couldn't track all the expressions which crossed his face but he feared that there were too many for a simple answer. It seemed an age before he replied.

"This isn't going to work."

John held himself very still. "Do you mean now?"

"I mean 'at all'."

He hadn't made any attempt to pull away, but John let his hand fall.

"Isn't it a bit soon to be making that decision?"

"It's obvious."

"Not to me."

"This isn't what you want."

"Don't tell me what I want," John warned him. "I want things you've never even heard of."

Sherlock inhaled sharply. "You might be surprised."

"Oh, surprise me." John lifted his chin.

Sherlock blinked, then squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. "Stop it. You're throwing me off track."

"How far off?"

"Not far enough to settle for a quickie on the kitchen table."

John nodded and got to his feet. Then he moved round behind Sherlock's chair.

"How about seeing how long I can make you last… on the kitchen table? That sound 'experimental' enough for you?"

He had spoken into Sherlock's ear and looked down now at the long expanse of neck stretched out before him, his own marks from the night before like blue and purple flags signalling territory already claimed. Already his, clamoured instincts which were fighting his attempts to shove them down. The thought of never tasting Sherlock's skin again was a knife twisting in his gut and as the pulse he was watching picked up speed John was so very tempted to push. He stepped away.

Sherlock brought up both hands and laid them flat on the table, drawing a deep breath and visibly trying to calm himself. "That's why it won't work."

John leaned back against the counter and frowned, unable to see how he'd fucked up already.

Sherlock twisted in his seat and looked round at him. "Because the 'H' might as well stand for 'honourable' rather than 'Hamish'. Sooner or later you're going to start dating again, and then you'll no longer be available to me."

John scoffed. "First of all, I've been dumped by more women than I care to remember for being 'available to you' all the damned time. Secondly, dating is hardly on my mind right now. Thirdly, you're making up problems where none exist and…" He had lost his place.

"Fourthly," Sherlock offered.

"Lastly," John said emphatically, then couldn't think of anything. He fell back on an old favourite. "You're talking bollocks."

"Indeed?" Sherlock stood up and turned around, perching on the table so that they were facing each other. "So if you were in a committed relationship, you'd have no problem still shagging me every now and then when you thought I needed it? Is that right?"

"I…" John floundered for a moment. "What the hell are you talking about, 'a committed relationship'? You are my committed relationship."

"I'm not though, am I? Oh, don't do that face. You know what I mean."

John tried not to do whatever 'face' Sherlock was referring to. Presumably it was one which conveyed a sense of looking down into an abyss and wondering if you were about to get the last shove which would tip you into it. He swallowed.

"Bugger." Sherlock stepped forward and gripped his shoulders. "I don't mean that. Yes, we are still 'Sherlock and John'… 'John and Sherlock'. My apologies - sometimes you impress me to the point where I over-estimate your intelligence."

John immediately replaced the former holder of first place in his 'oddest compliments ever received' category. It wasn't a large grouping and most of the existing entries were also from the man now peering anxiously down at him.

"All right?" Sherlock asked him. John nodded, but Sherlock didn't move away. "I mean that the arrangement you offered me isn't really what you want out of life, is it? You already told me that." He waited, but John had no idea where he was going with this. Sherlock sighed. "'Sex, romance and cuddles on the sofa'," he quoted.

That did ring a bell - John recalled the conversation they'd had after getting back from seeing Wiggins. "That was a week ago - do you remember everything?"

Sherlock ignored the question part of the sentence. "And have your requirements altered in a week? I doubt it. That was an honest statement. You weren't trying to persuade me of anything, it wasn't concerned with specific control or orientation issues, it was a simple list - something I can understand."

One of his hands slid up to John's neck as if afraid that he would try to turn away but John had no intention of going anywhere.

"And what I understand is that I can't give you half a relationship and expect you to stop looking for a whole one," Sherlock finished.

John stared at him. He was right, of course. The thought of living the rest of his life and never actually sleeping with anybody again was a cold and lonely concept. Much as Sherlock was the centre of his world, John would never be happy just being a convenient shag, however close they were in other areas of their lives. Part of him would always want that affection… would shrivel without it.

He imagined someone who would want him to stay with them afterwards - someone he could touch when he wanted to, hug when he needed to… someone who would be at least as likely to ask him for a kiss as they were for a pen. He wanted that. He couldn't deny it.

"Chances are I'll never find it," he pointed out. "I'm not getting any younger and it's difficult to imagine anyone who could put up with our lifestyle. Certainly I'm free now - why go seeking out problems which might never arise?"

Sherlock seemed to have forgotten that his hand was still on John's neck. His thumb was stroking back and forth now and John tried not to react for fear that he would stop if he realised.

"You'll be looking, though," Sherlock observed. "And ten steps ahead is rather my 'style', don't you think?"

"But I don't see why…"

Sherlock dropped his hand. "I can't stand it, John." His voice was suddenly harsh and he stepped back. "I can't stand that you'd be sleeping with me and looking for someone else. That every time a pretty constable turned your head I'd be thinking, 'Is that her? Is she the one?' That I'd then look at you and wonder if our last time was really the last time."

He was breathing deeply and there was a muscle twitching in his jaw. John stared at him. "I can't believe how much thought you've put into this."

"You were out for a number of hours," Sherlock answered obliquely. He cleared his throat and appeared to collect himself. "I'd never be able to work under those conditions. It would be intolerable."

"What if I…?"

"No, John. Swearing off police officers isn't going to hack it."

"But you…"

"No."

John closed his eyes. How had a day which had started off so hopefully managed to turn so completely to shit? He couldn't believe last night was going to be the only time… Images of all the things they hadn't done started flashing through his mind and he wanted to scream in outrage.

He opened his eyes and Sherlock was watching him… standing there with his eyes and his cheekbones and his curls and his neck and his skin… God, so much skin… so much pale, sensitive, incredibly responsive skin… and he'd seen it all, had it stretched out before him… had held Sherlock throbbing in his hand… had reached inside him… had taken him apart and seen him shaking and helpless and now he never… never would again.

"Get away from me." His voice was tight with restraint. "Just back off… please."

"No."

"Sherlock… I can't… "

"Then don't."

John turned his back and gripped the worktop with both hands. "You don't understand."

"Yes, I do." Sherlock stepped right up behind him. "But you don't."

An arm snaked around his waist and John nearly tore away from it, so focused on controlling himself that Sherlock's next words barely registered.

"You see but you don't observe."

"Sherlock, so help me if you start quoting your mumbo-jumbo at me right now I am going to throw you down over that table and make you regret it."

The other arm wrapped around him and Sherlock nipped at his ear. "You're welcome to try, but I can't imagine how you're going to make me regret anything which leads to your throwing me down over the table."

John pushed back from the worktop far enough that he could turn around. Sherlock immediately crowded him back against it and bent to kiss his neck.

"What… what are you doing?" John's confusion managed what his self-control hadn't and a few non-sex-related neurons started firing off in his brain.

"Did we not just agree that it had to be all or nothing?" Sherlock mumbled.

John didn't think he'd ever heard Sherlock mumble before, but then he did seem to be trying to unfasten John's shirt with his teeth, so he supposed that might account for it.

"Really, John - I went through the logic with you step by step."

"You did what, now?" The cognitive brain cells were fighting a losing battle. There was just so much of Sherlock to contend with.

Sherlock raised his head and gave him an exasperated look. "I explained why your 'friends with benefits' suggestion was a non-starter. You were standing right here!" His gaze dropped to John's mouth. "Please try to keep up." He was definitely looming again.

John brought an arm between them and held Sherlock back. "What are you saying? Cut the smart-arse and just tell me."

Sherlock rolled his eyes, then raised a hand and curled it into a loose fist.

He straightened his thumb. "Casual sex between us is not an option."

The index finger was next. "Therefore it's 'all or nothing'."

His middle finger uncurled. "Which means it's 'all'."

He dropped his hand and returned it to John's waist, where it immediately started burrowing under his clothing. "Is that clear enough?"

John stared up at him, feeling as if someone had just dumped his brain in a spin dryer and he was watching it go round. He tried to concentrate.

"OK, I've got 'One'," he agreed - his original suggestion did indeed seem doomed now they'd discussed it.

"And I follow you on 'Two'." Sherlock was a very 'all or nothing' type person.

He raised his eyebrows. "It's with the jump to 'Three' that you've lost me."

"Seriously?" Sherlock gave him a disbelieving look. "Am I an idiot?"

John opened his mouth, but his own attempt to venture into 'smart-arse' territory was cut off before it began. A stray thought flickered, wondering how kisses between the same two people could be so very different, but he didn't worry too much because Sherlock had taken the lead this time and John wanted to see what he would do with it. The answer rather shocked him.

Once Sherlock gathered that he wasn't being pushed back, the hands at John's sides slipped free of his clothing and rose, one cupping his face and one curving around the side of his neck. Sherlock broke the kiss, lifting his head far enough that they could focus on each other, then he bent forward again. He kissed John sweetly, kissed him softly, not pushing into his mouth or fighting for dominance, just tugging gently on his lips and then pulling away… but never far away, never with more than a breath between them, and it was almost… not chaste, there was a flicker of tongue sometimes… but it wasn't aggressive, it wasn't demanding, it didn't ask for anything more than it was already taking.

'This isn't about sex,' John realised, as his own hands rose to mimic Sherlock's posture. 'He's giving me affection.'

The understanding nearly took his legs out from under him. Could Sherlock really mean it? Really want to try a 'proper' relationship? He'd never shown any interest in such a thing before. Surely he couldn't…

Sherlock's fingertips stroked gently across his face and John made a noise that wasn't a million miles away from a whimper.

Lips tracked a line along his jaw and Sherlock's voice was low in his ear. "I know it's a risk for you, but I want to try. Will you let me try?"

John pulled back so that they could look at each other. 'Risk' was right. If he let Sherlock in that far and then he changed his mind…

"Dangerous," murmured Sherlock.

John's lips twitched into a smile. "Now you're just blatantly trying to tempt me."

"Is it working?"

As if there was any real question. John might get burned, but having Sherlock as truly 'his'... Being able to give him the affection which it was increasingly clear was entirely new to him... Some things were worth the flames.

He pushed Sherlock back a pace and stepped to the side.

"This isn't just sex - we're talking about intimacy," he warned. "You're going to find this more difficult."

"I know."

"If I take you to bed, I won't be leaving you there."

Sherlock nodded.

John held out his hand.

Sherlock took it.


Author's Note:

I'm switching to fortnightly updates for the next few chapters because I've got a lot going on in May and early June, so rather than stress myself out I think that would be best.

Next chapter on Monday 14th May - changes / previews on my tumblr as usual. Thanks for reading!

 

Chapter Text

"Are you all right, dear?"

Mrs Hudson paused as she emerged onto Baker Street, not quite pulling the front door closed behind her. "I think Doctor Watson's in if you're needing him."

The petite girl hovering by the railings looked uncertain but then shook her head. "I'll just wait, thanks." She shifted the rucksack on her shoulder, fidgeting a little under Mrs Hudson's scrutiny.

Really, if she took away the piercings and let her hair go back to its natural shade and grew it out a bit, she could be very pretty, Mrs Hudson decided. Might even get away with wearing cerise - not that she looked a very 'cerise' type of person.

"Well, it's already tea-time and it's his programme tonight," she warned. "I doubt he'll be going out again." She thought back over the day. Both the boys had gone out fairly early, although not together for once. Sherlock had returned first and extremely loudly, banging doors and making the most dreadful screeching noises on his violin. Then he'd gone so quiet that she had begun to feel a little worried and it had been a relief when John came home, although there had been outbursts of shouting all afternoon - mostly from Sherlock by the sound of it, but John seemed to have given as good as he got. She hadn't heard a peep out of either of them for at least an hour.

She looked at the girl again. "Why don't you come in? I'm sure Doctor Watson won't mind. What's your name?"

"Myra. But you're obviously going out, I don't want to…"

"Oh, don't worry, dear - I was only popping round the corner for a scratch card. Terrible habit, you're doing me a favour really." She ushered Myra inside and led the way up the stairs. "Yoo-hoo!" She tapped on the open door to the living room but there was no reply - and no boys. "That's funny."

She went through into the kitchen, but there was no sign of life there either. Had they gone off to sulk in their own rooms? Men! She started to worry about what Sherlock might be up to. He'd already been out of sorts earlier and if he'd had a fight with John as well… She peered round the fridge and saw that his bedroom door was closed.

"Why don't you have a sit down?" she suggested to Myra, flapping a hand towards the kitchen chairs. "I'll just be a minute." She padded down the short corridor and tapped gently on Sherlock's door but there was no response. Oh dear. She was surprised at John leaving him if he was in a state. She tapped again. Should she go and get John? But what if Sherlock had taken something? People could choke. Feeling distinctly nervous, she turned the handle and eased open the door, popping her head into the room.

A few seconds later, she was back in the kitchen.

"I'm afraid Doctor Watson isn't where I thought he was," she told Myra, the understatement making her nose twitch. "Can I give him a message?"

Myra already had one foot on the landing, looking uncomfortable and clutching her rucksack in both arms. "No, it's fine," she insisted. "It wasn't anything… I… I'll catch him another day… Bye!" She was gone, a muffled "Thank you!" echoing after her as she clumped down the staircase in her unfeminine boots.

Any surprise Mrs Hudson may have felt at the abrupt departure didn't get much of a look in with all the other emotions jumping up and down at the moment. There was a click from behind her and she turned around. Sherlock had emerged from his bedroom, wearing his pale blue dressing gown and not much else, if she was any judge - which she was. He advanced into the kitchen, closing the door behind him.

Mrs Hudson beamed at him. He grimaced.

"Don't you pull faces at me, Sherlock Holmes!" She kept her voice down - although if John had managed to sleep through both Myra's rather noisy exit and Sherlock extricating himself from such an entangled position, she doubted her words would wake him. "You can't blame me for being happy for you now that you've finally got him to see sense."

Sherlock's eyebrows shot up and he looked at her enquiringly as he settled into one of the kitchen chairs.

"Well, you know what I mean."

"I'm beginning to think that's the most frequently inaccurate statement in the English language." He cast a glance towards the kettle as if it might spring into tea-producing action all by itself.

Mrs Hudson tutted and went to switch it on. "Him carrying on with all those women. Each one looking more like you than the one before and him making less effort every time - he even got the last two mixed up, you know."

Sherlock was looking bemused.

"Oh, yes," she confirmed. "He tried to pacify that teacher by offering to walk her dog, but even I know the dog belonged to…"

"…the one with the nose," finished Sherlock.

"Exactly." She got on with brewing the tea as Sherlock's thoughts simmered behind her.

"So, you're not surprised?" he asked, as she set a mug down in front of him and took the opposite seat. He seemed to actually want to talk, which was an unusual look on him but Mrs Hudson would always do her best for her boys.

"Well, of course I'm surprised. Getting one man to admit to having any feelings at all is like pulling teeth, and you two are both so stubborn I sometimes wondered if you'd ever get there." She sipped her tea as Sherlock ruminated over that.

Eventually, he shook his head. "You're just a romantic."

"I beg your pardon?" Mrs Hudson sniffed. "If there's anyone who knows better than me that the wrong man is worse than no man at all, then I'd like to meet them." Memories of Florida hovered between them and Sherlock ceded the point with a tilt of his chin. Score one for the landlady. Mrs Hudson smiled.

"He asked me once if you'd ever had a relationship," she reported. "How I didn't roll my eyes at him is a wonder, I can tell you."

"When…? No. Why?" Sherlock corrected immediately. He looked doubtful that they were both having the same conversation. "Why would that seem an odd enquiry?"

Mrs Hudson nearly rolled her eyes at him, but he seemed genuinely perplexed so she reached across and patted his arm instead. "Because who else is there for you, apart from him?" she asked gently. "You can hardly stand most people for more than half an hour but you latched on to him like nobody's business." She sat back again. "John's more easy-going, he could probably settle for someone else - and I do mean settle," she emphasised. "But there might be only him that would do for you."

Sherlock frowned. "I was perfectly fine on my own."

"You were not! You were grumpy and you smoked too much and took far too many of those nasty drugs and got evicted from the last three places you rented - and don't tell me you weren't because there's a reason I didn't ask for any references."

He scowled at her. "I meant on my own in this way." He waved a hand vaguely over his state of undress. "Obviously."

She shook her head pityingly. "Sherlock, you haven't been on your own since you met him."

He put his mug down on the table with an unnecessary degree of force. "Mrs Hudson," he declared firmly. "I can positively assure you that recent developments are exactly that… recent. I have in no way been pining for my flatmate for the last two years." He looked most put out.

"Just because you didn't recognise your feelings doesn't mean they weren't there." Mrs Hudson stuck to her guns.

Sherlock blew out an exasperated breath.

Good grief, men were idiots. Just because they weren't - hadn't been, she mentally added with an internal squee - sleeping together, it didn't seem to have occurred to either of them that they'd been completely besotted with each other for ages. Clots.

"Whatever scurrilous thoughts are currently circling under that purple rinse, I can only emphasise that I had never thought about John in this… that way until extremely recently."

"And I bet you're making up for it now, dear."

Sherlock blushed. Score two for the landlady. She patted his arm again.

"Honestly, Sherlock. All that time you were away, you can't tell me you went a single day without thinking about John?"

He sniffed. "That was different. I was concerned about him."

"Of course you were."

Sherlock glared at her. "Because he's my friend."

"No one's denying that," she promised soothingly. "But friends aren't usually as wrapped up in each other as you two. I bet you didn't think about me every day… or your family… or anybody for that matter."

Sherlock was frowning thoughtfully. It felt odd talking to him like this, but he needed… well, a mother really, she supposed. And his own mother was a complete dead loss, in Mrs Hudson's opinion. At least when it came to dealing with a son who was a lot more human than his family seemed to expect - or want - him to be.

She decided that she might as well leave her hand on his arm for more convenient patting. "What are you worried about?"

"Who says I'm worried?"

"Well you looked pretty comfortable…" she nodded towards his bedroom, "…but now you're out here talking to me."

Sherlock quirked one of his odd half smiles in acknowledgement of the deduction.

"Well then?" she prompted.

He looked down at her hand on the sleeve of his dressing gown. "Affection," he managed, after a while. "He needs it and I don't know that I can give it to him."

Mrs Hudson wanted to giggle, but made sure to straighten her face before he looked up. It didn't seem to fool him.

"You can laugh. I'm sure I sound ridiculous." He pulled his arm away, sitting back in his chair.

"Sherlock, you hug me all the time! Kiss my cheek, put an arm round my shoulders…" She shook her head, smiling warmly at him. "I don't think you need to worry about being affectionate."

"But I don't do that with John."

"Well you can start, can't you? Don't you ever want to touch him?"

Sherlock quirked a sardonic brow at her, but if he thought she was going to be embarrassed by a bit of sex talk, then he had a lot to learn. Hopefully John would soon have that - him - in hand. There were giggles in her head again.

"Do you know what I think?" she asked.

"Usually."

She ignored him. "I think you suppress half your impulses, just to be contrary. Let yourself go a bit, that's my advice." She took a sip of her tea. "It's not as if you have to pretend anything. I bet you're spending half your time trying to keep your hands to yourself as it is."

"But that's just..."

"Is it really?" She shook her head at him. "So what's the worst that could happen? You end up having lots of sex? That doesn't sound too bad!" She looked back fondly to an athletic weekend spent with a sailor in a Bed and Breakfast in Skegness a couple of years after she'd worked out that her husband was a complete bastard. "You're bound to be all over each other in the early stages, anyway. It's perfectly natural."

"You mean 'normal'." His tone was disdainful.

"I wish!" she protested. "'Normal' is the everyday stuff - which can be lovely - but this." She sighed dreamily, propping her chin up on her hand. "When your heart beats faster just from thinking about him and your tummy's in knots every time he looks at you…"

"Oh, is that what that is?" Sherlock said, not quite as dryly as he probably intended.

She tutted at him. "This is the good stuff, Sherlock, and it doesn't happen very often - and you're a fool if you don't let yourself enjoy it. And you're a double fool if you spoil it for John." She sighed again. "These are the times you'll look back on when you're old and grey and nodding by the fireplace - or probably arguing over the cocoa, knowing you two."

Sherlock looked startled, but almost immediately shook his head. "I doubt anyone would put up with me for that long."

Mrs Hudson felt her heart turn over. "Oh, Sherlock."

He shrugged at her. "I'll be fine."

"I meant 'Oh, Sherlock, you idiot', not 'Oh, Sherlock, you poor thing'!" She wanted to go and hug him, but he looked even more prickly than usual. "He adores you, you twit. If you can just stop treating your emotions like rabid pit bulls and let them out a bit, he'll never leave you." She shook her head at him. "Didn't you deduce anything while you were away? You must have seen how he was."

"He wasn't limping."

Presumably that meant more to him than it did to her. Mrs Hudson kept quiet.

"I was at the cemetery when you both visited, not too long after…" Sherlock shifted in his seat and looked down at his hands. "I needed to go abroad but I didn't want to leave without seeing…"

She nodded at him encouragingly, not that he was looking. "Go on."

He glanced at her, then away again. "It was obvious that he was upset. That you both were," he amended. "But he didn't have his cane. He wasn't limping." He shrugged. "It seemed that he would be all right."

Mrs Hudson frowned. "I don't really understand about the limping," she admitted. "I remember he had a cane when he first came to look at the flat, but I've not seen it since. And then while you were gone… I kept thinking he must have been hurt, but he always said he was fine." She thought back, remembering uneven footsteps on the stairs and catching him off guard every now and then. "But he still limped when he thought no one could see him."

Sherlock made an odd noise and she looked at him enquiringly. "Is it important? I haven't noticed it since you came back."

"I need to go." His eyes were already on the door that led to John.

"Good boy." Mrs Hudson got to her feet, leaving her half-drunk tea on the table. It seemed like a good time to get that scratch card after all. Perhaps from a shop a little further afield…

oOo

John wasn't at all surprised to wake from his impromptu afternoon nap and find himself alone. Still, he was in Sherlock's bed, stark bollock naked and deliciously shagged out, so that was something.

He rolled onto his back and folded his hands beneath his head, staring up at the ceiling. Sherlock's ceiling. It felt rather as if he'd entered the forbidden zone. He half expected the door to fly open and Sherlock to stride in and demand that he explain his presence.

The door flew open. John couldn't stop himself from jumping. He looked round and Sherlock was standing there in his dressing gown, regarding him as if they hadn't seen each other in months instead of what must have been under an hour.

John felt a little uneasy. "Eviction time?" he suggested, trying a smile.

Sherlock untied his belt and shrugged the dressing gown off his shoulders, letting it fall behind him as he walked forward.

"I guess not…"

He watched as Sherlock raised the edge of the quilt and slid into bed, immediately rolling onto his side so that they were close, but not quite touching.

John twisted to face him. "You all right?"

Sherlock still had that intense look on his face. "Will you answer questions now? Questions that you wouldn't answer before?"

"Like what?" The only question John remembered from 'before' had been concerned with stamina and he thought he'd covered that one pretty comprehensively. Not that he wouldn't be up for another round, of course. Things were perking up already just from the dropping of the dressing gown.

"Like about you using my shampoo - those sorts of questions. Although not actually that one. It was because you missed me, yes?"

It took John a good few seconds to get his head out of Sherlock's trousers, as it were - not that Sherlock was wearing any trousers. Really, not wearing trousers was something he should prioritise. Trousers were definitely over-rated when it came to covering those long legs and that perfect... John's thoughts became much more visual in nature and he drifted happily into a world where trousers simply disintegrated if he looked at them the right way.

His opinion on Sherlock's apparel duly clarified, he attempted some higher brain function.

"You what?"

Sherlock raised a hand and tapped the centre of his forehead. "Get your mind out of... wherever it is." He flushed slightly, which made John want to kiss him. "Focus on my face."

"As if that's going to help."

Sherlock snorted, but he looked pleased. The urge to kiss him showed no sign of abating.

"Well, close your eyes and just listen to my voice then."

"You're making it worse." John felt it only fair to warn him. "I'm literally seconds away from jumping you now." The distance between them was noticeably shrinking.

"John!" Sherlock leaned back, sounding exasperated. "I am trying to have a conversation with you."

John heaved the universal sigh of the sexually frustrated and forced himself to concentrate. Some question about him using Sherlock's shampoo while he was on his own... not a topic he wanted to dwell on.

"I missed you. Yes," he confirmed. "Obviously," he was unable to resist adding.

Sherlock nodded, relaxing slightly as John backed off. Then he frowned. "It's odd to be talking in bed."

"Pillow talk. You've not done this before?"

"When would I?"

"Right." John tried to grasp the concept of 'dabbling' in sex purely as a physical experiment with no emotional connection at all. He found that he couldn't do it… and what was more, that he didn't want to. God knows he'd had his fair share of adventures; he certainly hadn't been 'in love' with everyone he'd slept with over the years, no way, but there'd always been something. Shared laughs, a bit of a giggle, waking up in the morning and arguing over whose idea it had been to involve the strawberry sauce, then having another go while washing the resultant mess off in the shower. Fun.

"Your sex life has been significantly lacking," he decided.

"I'm getting that."

"Well, you don't have to do nought to sixty in a day. We can get dressed if you like?" John was regretful as he made the offer but he didn't want Sherlock to feel uncomfortable. Also, he really enjoyed stripping him - which did tend to require adding clothes in the first place.

"Pointless." Sherlock dismissed the suggestion. "I'll almost certainly want to have sex with you again afterwards, so we may as well stay here."

"You're definitely getting a handle on the romance thing."

Sherlock frowned suspiciously. "Was that a joke?"

"You know what? Not really." John grinned at him. "I think your version of romance will work just fine for me."

The doubtful look remained and John reached out, his hand settling on the side of Sherlock's neck - his long, incredibly beautiful neck, now arching trustingly under blunt fingers.

"Why are you so fascinated with my neck?"

"Oh, it's not just your neck," John promised, but still his hand didn't stray far afield, sliding round to the front and prompting Sherlock's chin to rise so that he could stroke down the full length of that throat. "Although you do have the most gorgeous neck in the history of recorded time."

He felt the bob of Sherlock's Adam's apple as he swallowed. "That seems improbable."

"But not impossible," John countered, leaning forward and pressing his mouth just to the corner of Sherlock's jaw. He let his tongue flick out to taste.

"Tell me about…" Sherlock swallowed again. "Tell me about your psychosomatic limp."

John stilled. Then he turned Sherlock's head and kissed him.

It seemed to go well at first.

"I don't think I like being kissed as a distraction," Sherlock determined, pulling back after a minute or two. "Why don't you want to answer me?"

"How do you mean?" John attempted to dissemble.

Sherlock's intense look had returned. He didn't say anything, but it was an extremely demanding silence.

John shrugged. "When we first met, I had a psychosomatic limp. You cured it. End of story."

"Is that right?" It was Sherlock's hand which reached out this time, his fingers pushing into John's hair as if trying to tease out his thoughts. "I've heard differently."

John summoned up his poker skills and kept his face completely blank, which he could see that Sherlock found frustrating.

"It wouldn't be surprising if a bad shock…" Sherlock started.

"Such as your best friend committing suicide right in front of you?" John snapped, then bit his lip. He did not want to get into this.

Sherlock ignored the interruption. "…might cause the problem to return. Especially if the shock involved the loss of the person who resolved it in the first place."

John pulled away from Sherlock's hand and rolled onto his back. He didn't say anything.

"John…"

"Leave it alone."

"Is this not…?" Sherlock's voice sounded uncertain. "You said intimacy. I thought…"

"Save it. This is just you scenting a mystery."

"Fine." The uncertainty was gone. "But you're wrong." He propped himself up on one elbow. "Or, at least, you're not entirely right. Yes, I would want to know anyway, but if I'm going to tie myself to you then I need all the facts."

John couldn't help his impulsive glance. "Tie yourself to me?"

Sherlock shrugged. "Well, what would you call it?" He waggled his eyebrows. "You can even use actual rope if you like…"

John's lips twitched. They were not the only part of his body thus affected. "Oh, you're going to be a handful."

"I really am." Sherlock was studying him again. "But I'm not going to be distracted."

John turned his head away. "Fine. The limp came back a bit while you were away, all right? That's it."

"That's not 'it'."

"It's as 'it' as you're getting." He rolled onto his side and started to get out of bed.

Sherlock's arm snaked around his mid section and tugged him backwards.

John went very still. "Let go of me."

"Promise you'll stay here."

"Now."

Sherlock let him go.

John threw back the quilt and sat up, swinging his legs round to put his feet on the floor but he didn't move away; just sat there on the side.

"I don't understand." There was a thread of hurt in Sherlock's voice which wasn't faked as the uncertainty had been. John cursed that he could now tell the difference.

"Just leave it be, Sherlock. The psychobabble may insist that everything festers if not analysed to death, but I think that's bollocks: some things will just gradually fade if you leave them alone. Let it go. We're English - we don't have to talk about this stuff."

"I don't even know what 'stuff' we're not talking about!"

John chuckled despite himself. "Then stop worrying about it."

Naturally, Sherlock ignored him. "So, why didn't you use your cane?"

"Maybe it was a pride thing." He didn't think Sherlock would go for it, but it was worth a try.

"No. You're far too practical for that. You used the cane when you needed it before. It's something to do with me."

"Isn't everything?" John rubbed a hand over his face. He absolutely did not want to talk about how he had felt after Sherlock's 'death'. Dealing with his return had been traumatic enough; these feelings could just stay buried where they belonged. On the other hand, he had to say something - perhaps he could just answer the question and leave it at that? Except he was afraid that he wouldn't be able to stop if he started.

He sighed. "You already got it. 'If the shock involved the loss of the person who resolved it in the first place'," he quoted. "Well - you cured the limp. So giving in to it, using the cane again, it was like…"

He hesitated. After a few seconds, a hand settled in the middle of his back.

"…like accepting that I was gone," Sherlock finished softly.

"Close," John acknowledged. He wanted to look round but feared what might be showing on his face. "But more as if you had never been - like deleting you, I suppose."

There was silence for a while as Sherlock presumably absorbed that and John tried to shove his associated horrors back down into their pit.

"There's more, isn't there? What aren't you telling me?"

The hand on John's back started to stroke up and down, rather tentatively at first, but with increasing confidence as he couldn't quite stop himself from leaning into it.

He sighed again. "What do you want from me, Sherlock? Do you want to know that I cried? How will that make you happy? Weakness is not an asset to you. You're the brains… I'm the muscle and the applause, that's my role. Plus coming up with stupid ideas which sometimes put you onto the right track even as you take the piss out of them. That's what you need from me - and now this too, I guess…" He waved a hand towards the bed. "I don't see how talking about my crappy attempts at coping without you are going to help."

There was a short silence. "Well, that's not very fair."

"Fair?" John echoed, a thread of anger creeping in. "That's not a good word, Sherlock. I pushed this down for a reason - don't go digging it up again."

"I thought that I was supposed to be the clueless one? Not much of a relationship if you can't show any weakness, is it? Or a friendship either, come to that."

John glanced round as Sherlock sat up, his hand falling away as he raised his knees under the quilt and wrapped his arms around them.

"Just because you take charge here…" Sherlock nodded at the bed, "…doesn't mean you have to be strong in every aspect of our… personal relationship, does it? I can't see how that will work. I don't want to always be the…" He didn't seem able to find the word he was looking for.

John bristled. "If you're looking to top me already I can tell you that is not going to be happening. I should have known…"

Sherlock cut him off. "I don't want to top you, you idiot, I want to… to comfort you, I suppose. Something like that. I've clearly hurt you in ways I don't understand and you won't explain and is this what it's always going to be like? That I'll screw up, or somebody else will and you'll suffer and I won't ever know how or why or be able to do anything about it? Because I don't like it, John. I don't like it at all. This isn't what I imagine when I think of partnerships - this is not what I would class as 'all'. I don't want the 'good bits' version of you - I'm not looking for 'John Watson: The Highlights'. If it's going to be 'all' then I want all. Everything, John. I want everything, I want…"

"I thought it was my fault!"

The words leapt out of John's mouth like lemmings throwing themselves over the edge and he couldn't stop them, couldn't bring them back, couldn't prevent the rest of them from following.

"You didn't just die, Sherlock. You killed yourself. Not actually, obviously, but I was stupid enough to believe it." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. There was total silence from behind him.

"If I'd thought you'd died fighting Moriarty - even if I'd seen it, if I'd watched the two of you plummet off that roof together, that would have been one thing, but you didn't. You jumped off. You told me you were a fake and seemed to expect me to believe it and then you jumped and I…" He swallowed, blinking furiously but still able to hear the cursed tears in his voice. "I spent six months thinking I'd failed you. Because if you truly thought that I didn't believe in you with everything I am… that I would give up on you so easily… that I didn't know you…" He raised a hand and scrubbed it roughly across his eyes. "Well then I was a pretty poor excuse for a friend… for a man."

"John…" Sherlock's voice was quiet and sounded shocked.

"And it's so stupid because it was all pretend. All that pain, all that guilt… it's nothing. It means nothing. Completely irrelevant, like it doesn't even count and shouldn't hurt any more. You're here. You're fine. It was just a trick. Six months of my life and not a single day when I didn't think of a new way I could have stopped you. Something I could have done or said or shown or proved so that you would have known you had somebody… somebody who would do anything… would follow you anywhere… follow you blindly…" He couldn't see anything.

"John, I didn't think…"

"Of course you didn't." John wiped his eyes again. Both hands this time. "Why would you? Bigger picture, right? I get that. I do get it."

"I had to fake my death." Sherlock sounded defensive. "Moriarty had anticipated a suicide, that seemed the obvious… I knew you'd be upset but how could you possibly, possibly feel responsible? It was entirely through Moriarty's efforts that I was discredited - nothing to do with you, I don't…"

"No one's really responsible for anyone else's life, are they?" John tipped back his head and blew out a breath before continuing. "People might influence us, good or bad, but we all make our own choices in the end. I have a history of PTSD - not your fault if I went off the rails…" There was no point trying to hide his face - every tear track on it would have been deduced by now.

John looked round.

"I have a gun."

Sherlock was pale and his eyes were enormous.

"How would you have felt if I had used it?"

There was a long moment in which Sherlock looked completely blank, then a flash of panic crossed his face and he jack-knifed off the bed and bolted.

John sighed and rested his head in his hands, listening to the sound of retching from the bathroom. That had been a horrible thing to do. After a couple of minutes, he leaned down to pick up his underwear, tugging them on before grabbing Sherlock's pyjama bottoms from under his pillow.

"I'm sorry." He threw Sherlock the clothing and went to the sink, pouring a glass of water as he heard the evidence being flushed away. "I shouldn't have done that."

Sherlock was sitting on the floor when John turned around, long legs sprawled out in front of him, but he had pulled on his trousers.

"Here." John handed him the drink and he rinsed out his mouth a few times, spitting into the toilet before leaning back against the wall, one knee bent with his arm resting on it.

"And you felt like this for six months?" His voice was raspy.

John shrugged and perched on the side of the bathtub, his toes brushing Sherlock's thigh. They sat like that for what seemed a long time.

"I didn't want to live without you." John said, eventually. "Still don't, just so you know. But it was the guilt that crippled me." He rubbed a hand through his hair. "I don't think I would have used the gun, but I can't deny the temptation."

"You'd rather go out fighting."

John glanced at him. "Got it all figured out now, have you?"

"I was right about Moran - you gave up too easily."

"And you're always right."

"Clearly not." Sherlock held out his hand and beckoned imperiously.

"What?"

"Come down here to me."

John raised his eyebrows, but allowed himself to be positioned so that he was sitting in front of Sherlock and leaning back against him.

"I feel weird," he announced.

"That's because you're an idiot."

John felt oddly reassured by the insult. Also possibly by the amount of body contact as Sherlock's legs splayed out at the hip in what seemed an entirely unnatural manner, before folding in again over his own. He was wrapped up still further by arms which stretched far enough to completely encircle him. John started to empathise with the jam in his doughnuts.

"You're the one who was supposed to know how to do this relationship thing," Sherlock pointed out.

"Never said I was any good at it." John tried to shrug, but he didn't really have the range of motion. "Apparently I have trust issues."

"You need me," Sherlock declared.

Perhaps it was more like being the fly in a spider's web, John decided. Such long limbs enfolding him - although spiders presumably didn't nose at their victims' necks quite like this. Did flies even have necks?

"So much for 'John could be happy with a range of people'," Sherlock sounded suspiciously pleased. "Anyone else would let you get away with it - probably wouldn't even realise that you were hiding anything. You need someone you can't fob off."

The nosing was definitely turning into nuzzling and John was running out of analogies.

Sherlock was still busy clarifying his superiority to everyone else on the planet. "I thought your therapist was useless, but if you can keep something from me all this time, then she really had no chance." He pressed impossibly nearer and spoke directly into John's ear. "I am going to be keeping a much closer eye on you from now on."

"Fabulous." John deadpanned to cover how completely stripped he felt.

And it seemed that he could be squeezed tighter after all.

"We should go back to bed now," Sherlock decided.

"You might need to give me a minute, I'm still feeling pretty spacey."

"You can have all the minutes," Sherlock declared blithely. "But I clearly have an apology to make and that seems an appropriate venue."

"No."

"No?" Sherlock managed to twist John far enough around that they could look at each other, without doing anything which could possibly be interpreted as 'releasing' him.

"You can sleep with me for lots of reasons," John told him, starting to feel a bit more like himself. "Desire? Great. Need? Absolutely. Boredom? I can work with. Apology? No."

"I can think of another reason."

John had no idea what to say to that, but thought his heart was probably leaping ahead of Sherlock's brain. He went with, "Um."

"God, we're as bad as each other." Sherlock leaned down until their foreheads were touching. "All right, I won't apologise. But I'm glad that you survived what I put you through. Very glad. Exceptionally glad."

"I didn't say you couldn't apologise!" John protested as Sherlock sprang to his feet in an unfeasibly agile manner for someone who'd been sitting on a hard floor. "Only that you shouldn't use sex to do it."

"Too late," Sherlock told him, reaching down a hand to pull him up. "You had your chance."

John was heaved unceremoniously upright but had barely got his balance when he acquired an unexpected mouthful of collarbone - Sherlock was clearly trying out the hugging thing from the front this time. John hugged him back.

After a few moments he patted Sherlock's shoulder in the universally recognised sign for 'OK, you can let go now'. As it turned out, the language of hugs didn't seem to be one of the many with which Sherlock was conversant.

"I can't bear to think…" Sherlock's voice was very low.

John abandoned his patting in favour of a more soothing stroking motion. "Then don't. I shouldn't have made you. I'm s…"

"Shut up!" Sherlock's arms tightened. "Don't you dare."

John fell silent.

"Don't you dare," Sherlock murmured again. "I can't… I…" His words died away and he buried his face in John's neck.

"Breathing… not actually all that tedious," John pointed out after waiting in vain for his hold to ease.

"Is so."

"OK." He settled in for the duration. "Might be more comfortable lying down, though?" he suggested after another minute.

He could feel Sherlock's smile against his skin.

"Don't let anyone tell you you're not a genius, John."

"It's only really you who does that."

Sherlock pulled away far enough to look down at him. Seconds later, John was rearing back in alarm.

"Don't even think about kissing me until you've brushed your teeth!"


 

Chapter Text

"Time to get up."

Sherlock stood at the side of his bed and watched as the man sleeping in it rolled over onto his back.

John cracked open an eye and yawned widely, looking surprised to see Sherlock fully dressed. "Emergency?" He held out a hand.

Sherlock took it and started to pull him up. "No, but…"

One sharp, balance-stealing tug later, he had an entirely fresh perspective on the scene and a soldier looming over him.

"If it's not an emergency, I can take a minute to say, 'Good morning', can't I?" John had released Sherlock's hand and was now holding his hip instead, keeping him flat on the bed. The utter lack of resistance on Sherlock's part did not seem to have sunk into his sleepy brain - he was clearly working on what appeared to be his new baseline philosophy, which pretty much equated to: 'Sherlock… mine'.

Sherlock looked up at him, still slightly amazed that such blatant possessiveness made him feel warm instead of cold. "We didn't do anything yesterday," he felt compelled to point out, not that he objected to being pinned down by John. Indeed, his lack of objection was verging on enthusiastic.

"Anything work related," he added. It had been a strange day all round, from waking in the morning with another person in his bed for the first time in his life, to drifting around the flat with his reactions pin-balling between what he wanted to do, what he thought he should do, what Mrs Hudson's advice suggested he do and what years of suppressing his instincts told him to do. Most of the afternoon had been spent beginning gestures which never went anywhere and opening his mouth but saying nothing. It had been a relief to be finally dragged down onto the sofa. With his arms full of John, feeling a determined heart beating against his own and inhaling the smell of home, Sherlock had at last begun to process just how much he valued what he had come so close to losing.

The thoughts were in his mind again now as he relaxed under John's hand. "But you can take a minute," he agreed. "You can take…" He hesitated. "…anything you want," he finished slowly, rather surprised at how easily the words came - he'd barely spoken the night before, afraid of descending into an abyss of sentiment from which his self-respect might never recover.

He expected eyebrows and innuendo, but got instead the assessing look of a man whose brain was starting to come on-line. John's gaze lowered, travelling over the length of Sherlock's suit-clad body, right down to where his socked feet were hanging over the edge of the bed.

"This is what you had on the first time I put you to bed," he observed. "Except that this time you're wearing the jacket too."

Sherlock glanced down at himself. John was right - they were the clothes he had been wearing when Irene had drugged him. He'd barely noticed what he had put on this morning - it had been enough of an effort simply getting out of the bed when John was still in it but the reluctance had only made him more determined. Showing some affection was one thing, but this… this feeling that he wanted to be in as much contact with John as possible… and all of the time… Did everyone feel like this at first? During what Mrs Hudson had called 'the early stages'? Or was it a by-product of their circumstances? Surely it couldn't be normal.

"We need to go out," he said. There was such a lack of urgency to his statement, he could almost see the 'eventually' trailing after it.

John looked back at his face. "But not right this minute?" He was already leaning forward.

Sherlock could feel his body responding to the approach and it struck him that such a Pavlovian reaction ought to be more alarming. "I've only just got dressed," he said, on the basis that at least a token protest should be made.

"Noted." John backed off, propping himself up on an elbow once more. He let go of Sherlock's hip.

'Noted'? Sherlock's internal voice echoed in his head, sounding distinctly put out. 'NOTED'? He made no move to take advantage of the unwanted freedom.

"I've actually thought about you in this outfit several times since I started thinking about you," John continued, his free hand rising and smoothing over the lapels of Sherlock's jacket before pushing it back at each side. "I'm sure I can work around your keeping it on." His fingers slid between two shirt buttons to make contact with the bare skin beneath and he glanced down, then back up again. "Well… mostly on."

Sherlock closed his eyes as the tips of John's fingers moved over his chest, anticipating the moment when… ah. He stretched, arching into the attention which was sending sparks of sensation straight down between his legs and wanting more… always more. He looked up. "Are you ever going to do it… me… properly?"

"As opposed to all the improper shagging we've been doing so far?" John chuckled, his hand moving over the shirt now and roaming further afield, all over Sherlock's abdomen and sides.

"You know what I mean."

"I thought you said that phrase was banned? Can't have it both ways."

The wandering hand settled on Sherlock's stomach and started circling, moving out a couple of inches in all directions so that he couldn't guess which way it would go - John was so deliciously unpredictable in this. Sherlock grumbled at the verbal evasion but was already edging himself further up the bed - if the hand wouldn't come to him, then he would go to the hand.

In typical contrary fashion, John took the hint too far and the contact Sherlock wanted dropped down to his thigh. "To answer your question, then… yes, I most certainly am."

He started stroking upwards and Sherlock shifted his legs apart in invitation, wishing he'd worn looser trousers… wishing he owned looser trousers… wishing his trousers would just evaporate when John touched them… and oh. John's hand had arrived.

"It's not been a purposeful omission, really."

Fingers were stroking a lazy pattern along the line of his fly and Sherlock found the contact tantalising but insufficient. He raised his hips from the bed, pushing up into the pressure and John gave him one firm stroke before easing off to compensate. Sherlock's toes curled inside his socks.

"I'm not holding out until you jump through a particular hoop or anything," John continued. "I would have had you over the kitchen table two days ago if you hadn't stopped me."

"Stopped you?" Sherlock was sufficiently outraged to rise up onto his elbows. "I didn't stop you! I asked for more, not less!" He was pushed flat again as John rolled forward to lie across him, his lower half still under the duvet and off to the side.

"Yes, and there's more to this than 'Insert Rod A into Slot B'. I just wanted to take my time, that's all."

The rasp of a zipper was loud in the room and Sherlock stopped breathing as John's hand slid a layer closer. Why had he worn underwear today? What on earth had he been thinking? He resolved to abandon the rest of his boxer shorts at the earliest opportunity - or possibly burn them.

John was stroking more firmly now, making it difficult to focus on his words. "When you said you wanted to try 'all', I couldn't just bend you over the furniture…"

"Yes, you could." The scene had played out in Sherlock's mind so many times that he was sometimes surprised the kitchen table didn't show marks from his fingernails. "You absolutely could. Can," he corrected immediately. He strained up for a kiss but John stayed just out of reach. "You should take what you want."

There was a gleam in John's eye. "As you wish."

Sherlock felt cool air against heated skin as the opening in his boxer shorts was spread wide. He couldn't see John's hand but knew it was hovering… close… so close... He bit his lip.

John lowered his head to Sherlock's ear and his voice was dark. "What I want…" his hand slipped through the gap he had made and headed south, "… is to give you pleasure and watch you take it. I want to see your guard down and your resistance fall. I want to hear the noises you make when your words fail you. I want to make you come and I want to watch while you do."

Sherlock was unable to remain quiescent any longer, his arms reaching out as teeth grazed the side of his neck, but John pulled free and sat up, twisting so that they were at right angles to each other. He grinned the most anticipatory of all his grins, then bent down in the other direction and Sherlock made an inarticulate noise as cold air was replaced by a hot mouth.

He didn't think he'd ever get used to this. He closed his eyes, the sensation intensified by the darkness and sending him off on a fantasy where John had blindfolded him… or perhaps they were on a case, hiding in a space too small for them and John was crouching in front of him for some reason which didn't matter at all and Sherlock would suddenly feel hands at the fastenings of his trousers… and he would try to pull away but there would be nowhere to go, and John's fingers would lower his zipper and tug his underwear aside and Sherlock would protest, of course he would; 'Inappropriate!' he would hiss, but John would press his face forward and that tongue… that incredibly dexterous, agile tongue - Oh, God, yes… yes, just like that - would reach out and scoop Sherlock into his mouth and just hold him there and Sherlock would still be soft - which experience he was dying to try but hadn't yet managed since he could read John so well that he sprang an erection if the man had even a passing thought that wasn't PG rated - and Sherlock would say, 'You can't!' but he would be stiffening already and his hands would be sinking into John's hair and John would start to suck and Sherlock would get harder and harder and he would try to control himself but it would be hopeless because John knew exactly how to silence the protests in his head and Sherlock would groan in defeat and it would be too loud and he would have to be quiet and just take it… just take it… but something was niggling at his awareness, dragging him back to reality, and… and…

"Stop."

John looked up at him. "What's wrong?"

Sherlock's mind was spinning, half of it still getting blown in a too-small imaginary cupboard. He threw out a mental foot and forced the merry-go-round to a standstill.

"You never let me touch you until after I come." He was surprised that this hadn't struck him before - it seemed that frequent orgasms were not good for brainwork. He resolved to buy more nicotine patches. There was no way he was giving up the shagging.

John sat up and shrugged. "I told you: getting you off gets me off. That's what I fantasise about, if you want to know. When I see you in this suit I want to get you out of it. Or at least get parts of you out of it." He flexed the fingers he seemed to be regarding as placeholders for his mouth and Sherlock jumped.

It wasn't a bad jump, but he frowned as his train of thought continued. "It's my recollection that the receiving party can become over-sensitive post orgasm, so it's better if the top comes first, or at least not too long after."

John's eyelid flickered.

Sherlock sat up to face him. "You're never going to fuck me, are you?"

"What? Of course I am!" John still wasn't meeting his gaze and his hand had fallen away.

Sherlock regarded him suspiciously. "But you'll wait, then pull out if you need to. You won't let yourself go." He shrugged off his jacket and threw it aside.

John's eyes followed the jacket.

"I'm not trying to take over - I'm just hot," Sherlock emphasised.

John's eyelid flickered again.

"Take over…" Sherlock repeated. "That's it, isn't it? You're afraid I'll try to take control if you let your guard down. That's why you wait until I'm in a post-orgasmic haze - it's the only time you trust me."

"I trust you."

"In most things."

John looked disconcerted. "I don't…" He stopped. Frowned.

Sherlock waited.

John sighed. "I'm not saying you're wrong, but I honestly hadn't twigged to it." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I guess there's a part of me that's just so used to you barking orders I can't quite believe you're not going to try it here."

"Why keep a Dom and bark yourself?" It was an echo of a barely remembered expression and it wasn't particularly funny, but it broke the tension. A couple of minutes later they were leaning on each other in the middle of the bed, arms around each other's shoulders and heads pressed together, with the occasional giggle still breaking through.

"Next time," John promised, once he'd got his breath back. He sat back far enough to meet Sherlock's gaze. "I'll do it 'properly' next time."

"And come inside me?" Sherlock checked. He hadn't even realised how badly he wanted that, but thinking about it now was like being dipped into overly hot water - he could feel the flush prickling all over his skin.

"Is that what you want?"

"If there's a word which you consider significantly more convincing than 'Yes', then that word," Sherlock told him. "Otherwise, yes."

"If I'd brushed my teeth since I woke up this morning, I would be kissing you now," John said. "Just so you know."

"You're obsessed with brushing teeth. Kiss me anyway." Sherlock made sure that he was optimally positioned for such an activity.

John shook his head. "I'll kiss you… elsewhere. Lie back down."

Sherlock released him reluctantly and flopped back onto the bed.

"Unfasten your trousers."

Promising. It was unlikely that John would backtrack on the clothes front, but the man was full of surprises. Sherlock would take them all. He undid the clasp at his waist.

John tipped his head to one side and regarded him with a critical air which made Sherlock a little nervous. "That shirt is dreadfully crumpled."

The nervousness vanished. Sherlock glanced down. "I'll definitely have to change it before we leave," he agreed. "Trousers too," he pointed out, attempting a diffidence which did not come naturally. "The creases are ruined, they'll certainly need pressing."

John's grin was wide. "Go on, then."

Sherlock stripped in seconds, shedding his socks with the trousers. He'd definitely read somewhere that wearing socks with no trousers was considered unattractive, which was the last thing he wanted to appear at the moment - although John's attention did not currently seem focused that far down. Sherlock's hands hovered over the waistband of his underwear.

John raised an eyebrow and Sherlock sought inspiration.

"These won't go with the clothes I'm going to wear," he tried.

"Nice." John nodded.

Completely naked, Sherlock lay back, an increasingly familiar feeling of anticipation tingling over his skin. There may have been some flagging as they talked, but there was nothing half-mast about his current situation.

"Turn onto your side," John said.

Sherlock rolled over and John threw back the duvet and lay down to join him - join him in the sense that he was also horizontal and on the bed, not join him in the sense that they were face to face. Although face to... er... 'head' would be fair, Sherlock fleetingly thought, busily recording every detail that he had been too endorphinated - was that a word? - to register on previous occasions.

"You all right down there?"

"You're going to let me…?" Sherlock wanted to be absolutely clear.

"Yes."

"Before I've…?"

"Before you've used up your daily quota of ellipses, yes."

Sherlock tried to convey a sense of glaring without actually having to look away from the area which was most definitely holding his attention. He dragged a pillow under his head and threw one down to John. Then he took a firm grip on the matter at hand and curved his body round a fraction further.

"Game on." They were the last words he spoke for a while.

oOo

"So what is this non-emergency thing we need to do?" John asked later that morning. "And pass the shower gel, will you?"

The bottle arrived in his hand, then they traded places as Sherlock tipped his head back under the spray, having to bend his knees slightly to fit since the entire bathroom had been installed - in his oft-stated opinion - by midgets. John knew that it had actually been Mrs Hudson's five foot two nephew, but he never said anything. It made a nice change to be able to use a mirror for shaving without having to stand on tiptoe.

He watched as Sherlock straightened up and slicked his wet hair back from his face before opening his eyes and catching sight of John's expression.

Sherlock's eyebrows rose. "Next time?"

John smiled, but shook his head. "Not yet." He reached out a hand and lightly stroked it over the side of Sherlock's neck. "But you are breathtakingly gorgeous. How did I walk in on you in the shower just a few weeks ago and not think that?"

"Well, I was a bit scrawny." Sherlock glanced down and John followed his gaze to where the concerted efforts of the people he lived with had managed to 'feed him up' a bit.

"You know that's not what I mean."

"I know."

They looked at each other, unspoken words arching like a rainbow between them in the spray, then Sherlock shook his head like a dog, sending water in all directions and the moment was gone.

"So… this non-emergency…" John recalled his original question. "Is it to do with you disappearing off for an hour at the benefit the other night? Leaving me to hear all about the scandal you started, by the way."

"What scandal?" Sherlock stepped out of the shower as John moved to rinse off.

"Sir Reginald Butter-wotsit…" he prompted. "Or whatever his name was - the man whose ticket you tried to swipe by telling him his wife was having an affair. You thought the news would stop him from going."

Sherlock shrugged, wrapping a towel around his waist and grabbing another for John. "That would have been the normal reaction."

"Yeah, well it turns out he'd had been hoping for years that his wife would be unfaithful." John had one foot on the bath mat when a stray bit of soap found its way into his eye. He kept talking, but bracketed his next sentence with pain-relieving curses. "Bollocks! Ow! It turns out he was only too happy to attend the benefit - together with the boyfriend he's been keeping in a flat in Islington for the last eight years. Shit, that stings!"

"Hold still and stop rubbing it." Sherlock's long fingers grabbed his chin and turned his face to the light, dabbing at his eye with the towel.

John chuckled as he finally blinked the soap away. "You're stealing my lines." His vision cleared in time to see Sherlock roll his eyes. "Anyway, the wife turned up soon after you'd disappeared and all hell broke loose."

Sherlock shrugged again, moving the towel away from John's face and securing it around his hips instead. "What do I care who's sleeping with whom?"

"You'll care if you get cited for disinformation. Apparently she'll take him for millions in the divorce, since she wasn't having an affair at all and now has proof that he was."

Sherlock picked up another towel and rubbed it aggressively over his hair, leaving it looking somewhat wild. It was a good look on him. "So, are you interested in what I was doing while you were busy enjoying 'Oprah for the rich and want to be famous'?"

"Of course." John looked up enquiringly.

Sherlock threw the towel at him. "Best get ready then."

oOo

"Are you going to give me a clue?" John asked a short while later, as their taxi progressed to a destination he hadn't been quick enough to catch.

Sherlock threw him a rather distracted glance. "I want to interview the man who runs the Relief Aid Guild - he wasn't actually at the benefit as expected."

"Oh, right." John frowned, trying to remember the name they'd been given. "Mr …"

"Hargreaves," Sherlock told him. "Seems a very elusive man."

"So, what are we thinking?"

"Very different things, I would imagine." The words were terse.

John settled back into his corner and left Sherlock to stew in whatever was bugging him. There was silence for a few minutes.

"Why would someone stay with one person when they wanted to be with another?" Sherlock asked abruptly, then immediately shook his head. "No, don't answer that - it's obvious." He went back to the glowering for a while before bursting into speech once more. "But how can they…?" He broke off. "If they feel like…?" At this rate the taxi would be littered with abandoned sentences.

John tried to work out the problem. "Is this about Sir Wotsit?"

"Not remotely."

John frowned.

"A bit," Sherlock conceded.

John twisted in his seat.

"Never mind." Sherlock pulled his coat collar to a more assertive angle.

John sat and admired his cheekbones for a minute. Then he tried again. "People stay together for all sorts of reasons and they're not always easy decisions," he explained. "If you'd been away for longer I might have been involved with someone and then…"

"Who?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You're thinking of a specific person. Who is it?"

John shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I'm making a general point. If I had got involved with her, then I would have been torn when you came back. Divided loyalties - sometimes there's no right answer."

"Who is her? I saw no one around, you've not mentioned anybody, no one has called…"

"Sherlock! Forget it, it's nothing - just someone who helped with teaching at one of the shelters. It never progressed beyond flirtation." He was tempted to reach out, but they weren't at home and it didn't seem appropriate. "It's nothing," he repeated.

Sherlock scowled. "I was never jealous of your girlfriends."

John kept his face completely straight but couldn't help an inward cheer at the 'was'.

"Although they did take up far too much of your time," Sherlock added.

John chuckled. "They all said the same about you."

Sherlock turned and looked out of the window. "Funny what a difference a word makes."

"What word?" John felt he'd rather lost track of the conversation

"In," said Sherlock. He didn't explain.

oOo

"Yes?"

The receptionist at the Relief Aid Guild didn't seem very charitably inclined. Indeed, the whole place was not at all what John had expected. After the poshness of the benefit, he'd anticipated something fairly flash and upmarket, not a couple of rooms in an old building with uneven floors and a rather haphazard arrangement of rugs.

"We're here to see Mr Hargreaves," Sherlock announced authoritatively. "The appointment was arranged yesterday."

That was news to John.

The receptionist's mouth tightened but she didn't dispute the assertion. "Mr Hargreaves is not in the office at present, I'm afraid you'll have to reschedule." She was a prim looking woman of indeterminate age and she reminded John of the battle-axe who ran one of the surgeries he'd worked at, where patients virtually had to apologise for getting sick before she would give them an appointment.

"Oh, not to worry. We can wait." Sherlock produced one of the 'polite' smiles which John always found a little unsettling. "No doubt he's just popped out for a sandwich or something?" He kept the smile going until the woman folded.

"Er… well, actually he hasn't come in today," she admitted with obvious reluctance.

"Oh, how disappointing." Sherlock pulled a face. "I'll just leave a note for him - is this his office?" He was off before she could protest.

John followed, stopping in the doorway in case he needed to buy some time. He looked around the room, no doubt seeing only a fraction of what Sherlock was taking in as he turned in a slow circle, but John did his best.

There was a messy desk, two low and rather scruffy armchairs and a couple of filing cabinets with framed certificates on top from some accountancy firm - Hargreaves, Morris and Cobb, from what he could make out. The opposite wall was covered in photographs, many of people who looked important or vaguely familiar in the way that people who are occasionally in the news often do. A selection of them showed shelters or similar organisations - Wiggins was in one of them, smiling and holding up an out-sized cheque of the type used for photo opportunities.

"I'll have to ask you to leave." Clearly this battle-axe was a fast mover.

"Won't be a moment!" Sherlock spoke reassuringly. "Pass me a pen, would you, John?"

Doing his best to block the woman's path without being obvious about it, John held one out, but Sherlock fumbled it, knocking it to the floor.

"Whoops!" He dived after it before John could move, following where it had rolled under one of the chairs. "All done!" He sprang to his feet brandishing the pen then swept out, taking John with him via a hand on his back. "So kind of you to help," he called over his shoulder as they left. The battle-axe seemed unimpressed.

"Never known you drop a pen before," John commented as they climbed into a taxi.

"Easiest excuse to look under the chairs. John, we have to find Hargreaves."

"Yes, he does seem a hard man to track down."

"Something happened yesterday."

"How do you mean?"

Sherlock stared at him. "You were there - did nothing strike you? The indents from the chair legs slightly out of place on the rug. The smell of cleaning fluid despite the dust on the filing cabinets. The freshly cracked glass on one of those photographs. Not to mention the fact that Hargreaves didn't turn up to work this morning." He shook his head. "The wall calendar in the outer room showed that the receptionist was on leave yesterday, but there was some sort of altercation in that office."

"Involving Hargreaves? And who else?"

Sherlock reached into his pocket. "These were under the chair, exactly where your pen rolled on that uneven floor. No dust on them."

He tipped four beads into John's hand. They were the type which had a letter printed on each side and John spread them out on his palm, lining them up to make a word.

They spelled out: M.A.R.Y.


Chapter Text

"Mary." John read the name spelled out by the beads in his hand. "Who's Mary?" He looked up enquiringly. "And where does she fit into all this?"

Sherlock slid across the seat of the taxi and picked out two of the beads, his other hand rising beneath John's to hold it steady. "Not Mary." He replaced the letters the other way around.

John stared down at his hand, the beads suddenly familiar as he pictured them strung together and wrapped around a slim wrist. "Myra's bracelet," he recognised. "They're from Myra's bracelet."

Fierce, prickly, abrasive Myra - so determined to hide any weakness that she drove most people away. She'd always reminded him of Sherlock in that respect. John closed his fist around the beads. "We have to go back."

"No point. She's gone."

John's head jerked up. "Gone?"

Sherlock shrugged. "The state of the office indicates a struggle and the smell of cleaning fluid suggests someone was injured. Hargreaves' disappearance is unlikely to be coincidental."

"The police, then - we should call Lestrade." John started to reach for his phone, but Sherlock snagged his wrist.

"And do what? Report a missing homeless person? Waste of time."

John twisted in his seat. "Sherlock…" He didn't know how to explain. "Myra is… Look, I know she was rude to you, but she's incredibly loyal and ridiculously brave for her size. If she's…"

"Sounds familiar."

"What?" John shook his head. "Never mind. If she's in trouble, we have to find her."

Sherlock was regarding him oddly… and still holding on to his wrist. "You're assuming Myra was the victim. For all you know, she could have broken her bracelet attacking Hargreaves with whatever left that dust-free square on the desk."

John gaped at him. "She's less than five feet tall!"

Sherlock arched a brow.

John scowled and tugged his wrist free. "I am not as short as all that! Five foot seven is only an inch…"

The other brow went up.

"…or two," John added begrudgingly, "below the national average. Myra is tiny!"

"Remind me again how you first met her."

"She'd sprained her ankle."

Sherlock gave him a look.

John pulled a face. "The man was a groper - a kick in the nuts was no more than he deserved." He had to acknowledge the point, though. It wasn't an enormous stretch to imagine Myra clunking someone over the head with an ashtray if she'd felt it warranted.

"OK, fine." He frowned. "So, what do we know?" He hesitated, aware that he could probably fit the entirety of his own knowledge into Sherlock's mind palace and still leave room for Wikipedia. "I mean, let's consider the facts."

"By all means." There was a small smile lurking around Sherlock's mouth, but it didn't quite escape.

"Like, what was Myra doing in Hargreaves' office in the first place?" John began. "And who is this Hargreaves person, anyway? He runs the Relief Aid Guild, which you suspected of being involved with the leak about your still being alive, right?"

Sherlock nodded.

John connected the two things. "No." He shook his head. "No - you can't think Myra had anything to do with that. No way."

"You sure?"

"Absolutely." John was completely confident. "Not unless she heard something and let it slip by accident," he amended, just to be safe. "Although there's only half a dozen people she'll speak to at all, so I can't really imagine that happening. I mean, she's not the most sociable…"

He rambled to a halt as it became clear he'd lost his audience - pale eyes were flickering in a familiar 'deduction in progress' way.

"Hmm? Yes - brilliant, John. Wrong, of course, but undoubtedly useful." Sherlock hesitated, then patted John rather awkwardly on the knee. "Well done."

"Right." No point asking, obviously. John ploughed on. "I haven't actually seen Myra since… oh, nearly a month ago," he worked out. "But Mrs Hudson said she'd called round to Baker Street on Sunday, so she must have been all right then."

"But why did she call?" Sherlock interjected. "That's the interesting question."

John shrugged. "Can't have been important or she would have waited, I guess. Anyway, that was two days ago. Then yesterday her bracelet gets broken in Hargreaves' office; no secretary to witness anything, and today Hargreaves doesn't turn up to work."

He looked at Sherlock, who didn't add anything to his summary.

"So what do we do now?" John asked.

"Cherchez la femme," Sherlock replied. "Whichever way you look at it, Myra is involved. She must be somewhere - and someone must know where."

oOo

"What do you mean 'missing'?" Billy's thin face looked worried. They had found him, and several others who knew Myra, at Wiggins' shelter and were now standing in the middle of what John thought of as 'the beanbag room' facing a group of people who were mostly still young enough to get up from the blasted things without requiring hydraulic assistance.

Billy sprang to his feet. "She was fine when she left me yesterday morning."

"Aye-aye," murmured one of the girls, nudging her neighbour suggestively.

Billy flushed. "It's not like that. We're friends."

"Close friends," chipped in one of the others.

"Very close friends," added the first girl, her tattoos quivering as she chuckled. Millie, John remembered from their first visit.

"You don't seem concerned." Sherlock spoke factually rather than critically but Millie bridled anyway, sitting up straighter in her beanbag.

"Myra can look after herself. She doesn't need some lanky coat-swirler chasing after her." She glanced at John. "No offence, Doctor."

John decided to leave that one alone.

Billy ignored the diversion. "We were up all night talking, that's all."

"About?" Sherlock turned away from the aptly nicknamed 'Militant Millicent'.

"What?"

"Did this extended conversation have a particular theme?"

Billy frowned. "That's not…" He shook his head. "She must be all right. She wouldn't…" He fell silent, his frown deepening.

"So no one's seen her since yesterday morning?" John checked, looking round at the room in general. Heads were shaken.

"Why are you here?" The question was addressed to Sherlock and came from a lad John hadn't met before.

"Don't be daft, Vikram - he's here to stick his nose into…"

"Give it a rest, Millie," interrupted a much older man, who John recognised as her table football opponent from their last visit. He had steered clear of the beanbags and was leaning in equal parts against the wall and on the stick in his hand. Millie subsided.

"I mean, what makes you think that Myra is missing rather than just elsewhere?" Vikram continued. "It's an odd assumption to make about a homeless person."

Everyone was watching Sherlock, who turned his head to look at John. The eyes of the room followed his gaze. Sherlock nodded and John reached into his pocket for the beads, then stretched out his palm, swivelling slowly so that everyone could see.

There were various mutterings, then each head turned in Billy's direction.

"She hasn't taken that bracelet off since you gave it to her," Millie pointed out.

His face was pale, but he didn't say anything.

"Where did you find the beads?" Vikram asked.

Sherlock answered obliquely. "Does Myra have any particular connection with the R.A.G., does anyone know?"

There was a variety of headshakes, shrugs and people looking at each other questioningly.

"Well, thank you for your time," Sherlock addressed the room at large. "Please let Mr Wiggins know if you hear anything regarding Myra."

He swept out, propelling John in front of him - out of the room, out of the building, and around the corner. There he stopped and leant back against the wall.

"Er… what are we doing?" John settled next to him.

"Waiting." He was focused on a window opposite, and John noticed that the reflection of the Shelter was clearly visible.

"For?"

"For that." Sherlock darted back the way they'd come and John followed, seeing a figure moving away from the Shelter and heading down the street. He could only see the back view, clad in a generic jeans and hoodie combo, but the walk was familiar.

"Are we following Billy?"

Sherlock didn't answer, his collar turned up and head tucked down.

"Why are we following Billy?" John was having to trot to keep up with Sherlock's long strides since Billy kept breaking into a jog every few paces.

"Because Billy knows where he's going."

John saved his breath and focused on not being left behind, or spotted - not that Billy seemed concerned about that as he didn't look behind himself once.

Around forty minutes later they were in a residential area and Billy turned into the driveway of a detached red brick house and started banging on the door. Sherlock stepped into a convenient bus shelter and watched him.

"Where are we?" hissed John, trying to look like half of a queue, and hoping a Number 37 wouldn't roll up while they were standing there.

"Hargreaves' house, I would imagine," Sherlock replied. "There's no record of his home address on any of the charity documentation, but that seems the obvious conclusion."

"Well it's not obvious to me!" John snapped, feeling confused and disoriented. What was Billy, of all people, doing here? And how did he even know where 'here' was?

Sherlock glanced round at him. "What is the relationship between Billy and Myra?"

John frowned. "Well, they're not a 'couple'," he reported, putting air quotes around the word. "But they're very close."

Sherlock seemed to be waiting for more.

"Close friends, I mean - not close to being a couple," John expanded. "I'm pretty sure Myra's in love with Billy, actually, but she's far too proud to ever tell him."

Sherlock grunted, turning back to look at where Billy was now peering in through the front bay window. "What about him?"

"Billy's more difficult," John admitted. "He cares about everybody - he's something of a crusader. He's very fond of Myra but I think he's a bit intimidated by her, to be honest. I doubt he's got any idea how she feels about him."

He thought about what he'd said. "Oh! If anyone's going to be interested in a charity for the homeless, then Billy's your man. Is that why he knows Hargreaves, then?" He looked towards Sherlock hopefully.

Sherlock's back looked tense. "I… perhaps," he said, without turning around.

"Perhaps?" John queried doubtfully, as Billy disappeared round the back of the house.

Sherlock exhaled. "What's Billy's surname?"

"Um…" John thought back. Wiggins had given it when he produced the list of people who might have been behind the leak. "Morris," he recalled, rather surprised that he'd remembered. "Why?"

"And did you note the names on the accountancy certificates in Hargreaves' office?"

"Er…"

"I'll take that as a 'No'," Sherlock said. "One of them was 'Morris'. Not a particularly unusual name, but in the circumstances I think we can suspect a connection."

"Billy isn't an accountant," John said stupidly.

Sherlock shot him an exasperated glance. "His uncle would be my guess. Possibly father."

"So… what?" John was getting more confused by the minute. "Hargreaves is like a… I don't know… family friend, or something?" He frowned. "But Billy isn't in touch with his family at all - I mean, he's homeless. Would rather be homeless than live at home, in fact." This was making his head ache.

"Seems the house is empty," Sherlock announced and John looked up to see Billy backing towards the pavement. He stood there for a while alternately staring at the house and glancing up and down the street, then turned and walked off, moving at a fraction of his previous pace.

"Shouldn't we go and talk to him?" John prompted. "Find out what's going on?"

"No. We should go home." Sherlock took his arm and headed to the roadside, raising a hand to the taxi which had miraculously appeared. "Chase him now and he'll clam up." The taxi pulled over and they climbed inside.

"If he cares about this girl half as much as you say he does," Sherlock added, settling back into his seat, "he'll come to us."

oOo

Some half an hour later they were back at Baker Street and Sherlock was stretched out on the sofa, thinking hard. This was an unusually difficult situation, with factors he had never had to consider before - including keeping John's inevitable upset to a minimum.

"But what I still don't understand…" John walked out of the kitchen, waving a piece of toast in a crumb-scattering manner, "… is where Myra comes into all this." He held out the last bite of toast in offering, but Sherlock shook his head. John stuffed it into his own mouth. "I mean," he mumbled around what appeared to be raspberry jam, "I suppose if Billy knows Hargreaves, then Myra might too - but why would she fall out with him? And where have either of them got to, now?"

The inevitable outcome of this line of questioning was not going to make John happy - best to defer it until a time when a better solution might be possible. A distraction was required. Sherlock hesitated… but John had used this method so it must be all right. He raised an arm in a beckoning motion. "Come here."

"What for?" John looked doubtful but moved forward, although he stopped much too far away.

Sherlock twisted himself round until he was kneeling on the sofa and then let his gaze settle on John's mouth, which was almost level with his own in this position. "Surely that's obvious?" He stretched out a hand and gripped John's hip, pulling him forward a step. "Am I not permitted to instigate a kiss when I want one?"

"What?" John obeyed the tugging hand but was clearly still far from being on board with the idea. "No… I mean, yes - yes, of course you are, but…"

"Well that's not the impression you're giving."

John looked as if he wasn't sure whether to address this new issue or stick to his theme. "But what about…?"

Sherlock sighed in a pointed manner. "I really think you're taking this 'control' thing too far." He tugged again, and John put both hands restrainingly on his shoulders.

"That's not it at all! We were talking about…"

"Can I have a kiss or not?" Really, despite the fact that he was deliberately distracting John, it wasn't hard to inject some petulance into his tone. What was the benefit of being in a relationship if you couldn't get a kiss when you wanted one? And now he thought about it, he definitely wanted one. Well, perhaps not one

"You can. Of course you can. You always can…"

That was more like it. Easier than expected, in fact.

"…but why right this minute?"

Too easy, clearly. John was wearing his 'You're up to something' face.

Sherlock gathered all the case-related details which he'd been keeping front and centre in his brain and pushed them down a level. Immediately the feelings which had been poking through gaps in his concentration all day swept in to fill the available space, the sudden rush making him briefly dizzy. He was going to have to find a balance between these new desires and his working life because suppressing them even temporarily was making them almost overwhelming. Still, the resultant physical effects certainly helped to support his case at the moment.

"Because I need it..." Sherlock knew he was a bloody good actor, but he could never have sold that line to John without the truth behind it. He could hear the hunger in his voice, sense the tension in his body, feel his heart picking up its pace. The hands on his shoulders wavered.

"...right…" He tightened his arms and John slowly allowed himself to be drawn in.

"...this…" Sherlock breathed the word against a strong jaw line, his hand sliding up into soft hair.

"...minute." Their lips were virtually touching by now and Sherlock didn't wait. He closed the distance, tilting his head so that he could press his mouth to John's and it was like a sudden high… like finding the answer… like opening your eyes after half a year away and realising that you're home. Completely illogical, of course, but there was no point worrying about that now.

He kissed John again… and again, at first still focused on distracting him but ultimately distracting himself in the process… and had it only been hours since the last time? He'd always been proud of his will power, but Sherlock felt that it was reaching new heights lately. Really, he was to be commended for managing to devote even a modicum of his time to any activity which wasn't this - or connected with this. Intimately connected with this.

He had both hands on John's face by this point and it was good - it was so very good - but still it wasn't quite enough. John was kissing him back, but there was hesitance in his response, uncertainty in the grip he had on Sherlock's waist - it was tentative, there was no urgency, no hunger, no… power.

"John…" Sherlock nipped his bottom lip. "John, come on." He touched his tongue to the tiny scrape he had made but then couldn't pull away. Kissing was so ridiculous - what was the point of it? Why did he feel this compulsion to attach himself to John in such a very specific way? Sherlock didn't know. There were many such questions in his head now but for once he was happy not to have the answers. It would clearly take him a long, long time to work out this particular puzzle and perhaps he might never manage it. The thought made him smile.

John took the opportunity to pull slightly away and Sherlock's smile vanished faster than Anderson could muck up a crime scene.

"This isn't like you." John's hands moved up to each side of his neck - no doubt to hold him in place, but there were fingers drifting over the skin at Sherlock's nape and you'd think they were down his trousers for the effect they were having.

Sherlock tipped his head back, mostly from an instinct to arch into the touch, but also aware that baring his throat to John could only help his objective. Objectives. There had definitely been a specific objective originally… or something. He tried to focus.

"How can you tell? I barely recognise myself."

He swallowed and felt John's lips brush his Adam's apple. His neck… John could never resist his neck. Thank God.

"What does that mean?" John's words were slightly blurry as he tracked a path to one side, still not fully committed, but getting more so. Teeth grazed over the fading bite from their first time together and Sherlock acquired a new goal.

"Mark me again."

John's motion ceased; hands, fingers, mouth all halting in place. He didn't press forward, he didn't pull away, there was just his breath hot over the skin in question and a new tension in the air as his uncertainty vanished and restraint took its place. He didn't move, he didn't speak, he didn't give any quantifiable reaction, but Sherlock could feel him make the transition from simply not pushing forward to actively holding himself back.

"Do it." He angled his head to the side, arching his neck further, pushing against John's mouth.

"I shouldn't." John's voice was low but he didn't move away.

"I want it."

"People will see." The words made patterns on Sherlock's skin.

"I want it." He waited a beat. "John!" Demand or plea, what did it matter? This was John - nothing would be used against him.

And… it seemed to be enough. A hand slid up into his hair and tightened and Sherlock swayed forwards, suddenly light-headed.

"Breathe," John instructed and yes… that would explain it. He inhaled as John stepped right up against the sofa and pulled him close, turning his head to the side and down, then holding it against his shoulder. Sherlock waited, trembling, the back of his neck feeling more naked and exposed than any part of him had ever been. It wasn't exactly what he had asked for, but right now he couldn't imagine wanting anything else. He closed his eyes, pressing his face into warmth and solidity and letting himself sink into it… and John's mouth at the base of his hairline was utterly right in a world where almost everything he touched was wrong.

He gasped, trying to track the words which started streaming from his mouth so that he could swallow the ones he didn't want to say, but it was impossible. He closed his teeth around a mouthful of John's shirt and silenced himself, his throat feeling clogged with the effort as the gentle sucking bites progressed down towards the barrier of his collar… and he was shaking, his hands not really embracing John, but rather just holding on - not that he really needed to, because John had him. The hand in his hair was firm; the arm wrapped around him, strong; the body he leant against, steady and grounded.

Sherlock spat out the shirt and drew a breath. "John, I…"

There was a discreet and unmistakable cough from the doorway.

John twisted immediately, turning his back towards Mycroft so that he was shielding Sherlock from view, but his action barely registered. Sherlock was having what he supposed might be described as an 'out of body experience'… seeing himself through his brother's eyes as he had been forced to do once before, after being so comprehensively played by Irene.

A year ago, standing in a plane that would never fly, looking back at the road he had walked and being shown that the rocks he had navigated were actually icebergs with the bulk of each hidden beneath the surface, the ground beneath his feet had been revealed to be water and it had felt like drowning.

Now, kneeling on his sofa, face hidden from the last person on earth he would have chosen to witness this scene, Sherlock let his arms fall to his sides, and everything which had happened between himself and John rewound in his memory, right back to that first kiss.

~~~

In his mind, he was standing in the middle of his own living room, regarding a frozen tableau of himself and John as they had been on that night - the night when John had got himself shot and Sherlock had been desperate not to lose him. The kiss was technically over by this point, he recognised. The other Sherlock's head was down and John was bent over him, mouth pressed to the back of his neck.

"Seems to be a thing with you."

Sherlock jumped and looked to his right. "Oh, bloody hell!" He half turned away, blowing out an exasperated breath. "My subconscious hates me."

The imaginary, but no less irritating, Mycroft sniffed. "No need to be vulgar. I don't want to be here, I'm sure." He nodded towards the figures in front of them. "Shall we?"

"If we must."

Mycroft waved his arm and the scene sprang to life.

"Now we're done," the John they were watching declared, pulling away and leaving the room.

Mycroft nodded to where the Sherlock of four weeks ago was sagging weakly against the furniture. "Odd that a man of John's experience could look at that and not realise what effect he had had."

"Shut up, Mycroft."

The scene jumped to the next day: Sherlock determined to reject a physical relationship… and John making it plain that he wasn't going to ask; Sherlock clearly piqued, his pride dented.

Mycroft quirked a brow. "Textbook," he murmured. Sherlock frowned and flicked ahead, fast forwarding through two weeks of increasing frustration and odd behaviour… with John apparently missing all of it.

"Was he really so oblivious?" whispered Mycroft's voice again. "Or just biding his time?"

The playback slowed, reaching a jeweller's shop - a crime scene. John ogling a girl in a short skirt and Sherlock not liking it - not liking it at all. Then back to Baker Street and another kiss - Sherlock having to ask for it… John calling a halt too soon.

Later that day, and Sherlock deciding for a second time not to take things further… and again John ruling out the possibility before he'd had the chance to decline.

"That's a military man for you," Mycroft observed. "Sticks to a successful strategy."

"No." Sherlock's frown had deepened, but he shook his head. "He didn't know we were compatible."

"Really?" Mycroft clicked his fingers, bringing up a freeze-frame from earlier in the first kiss… Sherlock sitting on the arm of his chair, head tipped right back, the tendons of his neck standing out as he strained up to John's mouth, fingers clutching at his waist.

A flick of Mycroft's wrist and they were in the kitchen two weeks later: John finally agreeing to another kiss and Sherlock admitting that it wasn't enough - telling him he had to lead. There were more snapshots but Sherlock looked away.

"And he still didn't recognise that you have a submissive streak as wide as he is tall?" Mycroft's tone was heavy with scepticism. "Even you had worked it out by that point."

Forward again… Saturday night… the night… John stripping off his dinner jacket and taking control, offering what Sherlock wanted - offering a seemingly ideal solution…

Sherlock skipped ahead. Even an imaginary brother had no place watching that.

Sunday morning: John behaving normally, reinforcing that they could keep things casual… and then going to meet Constable Ross. Sherlock forced to face what 'casual' would actually mean…

"Timing?" prompted Mycroft. "He's led you down this path."

Fast forward to now… moments ago, Sherlock leaning weakly against John, his concentration shot, oblivious even to someone standing in the doorway.

Cuddling on the sofa.

"Exactly where he wanted you..."


 

Chapter Text

"Your timing is execrable as always, Mycroft. What on earth do you want now?"

Sherlock rose to his feet on the sofa, then stepped around John and onto the coffee table and then down onto the floor, straightening his jacket and sweeping up his violin as he moved towards his armchair. He didn't look at his brother.

"My apologies." There was nothing to be read from Mycroft's tone. "I had merely become a little… concerned about you." He moved towards John's chair. "May I?"

Sherlock ignored him, tuning his violin with ferocious concentration. This had been the one area, the one area, in which his control had outweighed his brother's. Sherlock's abstinence, his ability to rise above the physical demands of his body… in this one thing he had been strong where the more sybaritic Mycroft was weak. And the occasional taunts about his lack of experience had shown how much it rankled. Oh, how Mycroft must be laughing now, to have caught him... not just indulging, but practically begging for it.

"I'll put the kettle on." John retreated into the kitchen. Sherlock ignored him, too.

Mycroft sat down.

For a few minutes the flat was filled with plucking strings, rattling teacups and rising tension.

"I see now, of course, why a relatively simple case seems to have been giving you such trouble." Mycroft launched back into speech just as John walked through from the kitchen with a drink in each hand. "Thank you, John. Very kind."

Sherlock jerked his head towards the table behind him and heard the chink as John deposited his tea. Always the proper cups and saucers for Mycroft. 'Fit for a queen,' Sherlock had said the last time, and John had laughed. Had he been laughing all along, these last few weeks?

Sherlock hadn't intended to turn around, but suddenly he was looking at John and thinking of Irene. Thinking of being played by someone clever enough to manipulate him. Would knowing him well enough enable a lesser intelligence to achieve the same result? There were areas where his understanding was weak, he knew that. John knew it too. Sherlock tended to look to John for guidance in these areas and they both knew that. Had John been guiding him in a specific direction all this time? And if so, for what purpose?

"What do you mean, Mycroft?" It was John's 'talk plain bloody English' voice and Sherlock managed a smirk as he looked down the length of his bow, delaying the point when he would have to face the smug lump of superiority which he could feel swelling in the other chair every moment that he sat here squirming.

Mycroft took a sip of his tea, replacing the cup very delicately in the saucer. "One does not achieve greatness without certain… sacrifices, John. I'm sure you understand."

"No, actually. I don't." The belligerence had gone up a notch and Sherlock had a sudden vision of the Chief Superintendent holding his bleeding nose and mentally substituted Mycroft in his place. It was a nice picture.

Mycroft seemed to be getting the same vibe and his voice took on a more placatory tone as he turned in his seat to address John, who was standing with his arms folded in the middle of the room. Sherlock took the opportunity to rake a quick glance over his brother; the latest diet had clearly crashed and burned. As consolations went, it was inadequate.

"Achieving the sort of results of which Sherlock is capable requires a great deal of focus and… detachment," Mycroft observed. "Distractions will, inevitably…" There was a pause as he pretended to consider his next phrase. "Well… distract him," he finished, his rueful shrug obviously fake even via Sherlock's peripheral vision. How he must be loving this - rubbing Sherlock's nose in his weakness, suggesting that it would impair him.

"He's not a machine!" John's words drew Sherlock's attention as nothing else might have managed.

No, he wasn't a machine. But the coolly dispassionate man who had sent John away before going to meet Moriarty was a far cry from the lust-addled creature he had become. He got to his feet, laying his violin down on the table before steeling himself and turning to face his brother.

"We'll wish you good afternoon, Mycroft. Lots of 'relatively simple' cases to be getting on with."

Mycroft set his half-drunk tea aside and rose from his chair, his height advantage seeming more pronounced than usual. He had probably got lifts for his shoes.

"Well, it's nice to see you happy, at least," he remarked mendaciously. "I do hope that sentiment…" the word dripped from his mouth like the syrup he was so disgustingly fond of, "…will not prove too costly."

Sherlock went to stand by the door, making sure it was open wide enough for an over-inflated sense of importance to fit through and Mycroft departed at last, raising his umbrella in sardonic salute, his mouth already twitching with mirth as he passed by. Sherlock kept his gaze averted and would have given a month's supply of nicotine patches to delete the flush from his cheeks.

The silence left behind felt as if it was trying to crawl down his throat. Sherlock pushed the door closed and walked towards the window, changing course at the last moment and moving to stand in front of the fireplace instead. He felt all tangled up, emotions spilling messily in his brain and making him want to rinse it clean. Mycroft's presence had brought with it a world of hidden agendas and secret motivations, and Sherlock's insecurities were slithering out of the basement and tunnelling through his mind, trailing with them a mental slideshow of recent images, each more potentially humiliating than the last.

"Well, that was awkward." John patted him on the back en route to collecting Mycroft's abandoned crockery. Sherlock found it a struggle not to flinch away.

He looked at the mantelpiece, remembering Irene leaving her gift-wrapped phone there for him to find. Irene - who, however things had turned out in the end, had made a fool of him. He closed his eyes. John was no Irene and never would be. John would not manipulate him like that, would never…

'You tricked him,' warned the dark voice in his head. 'You made him believe you were dead.' Sherlock turned away from the words. That was different - he'd had to do it. John understood. 'But you made sure he was the last to know.' The sly tone came back from a different direction. 'You humiliated him.'

No. Sherlock shook his head. This was ludicrous. John wouldn't seek to revenge himself. He wasn't cruel. No.

'A lesson?' prompted the insecurity in the basement. 'Emotional manipulation: the down side? God knows you've used it on him plenty of times.' There seemed to be more than one voice now and they were dragging out anything he'd been unable to delete but had pushed down far enough that he didn't have to look at it. 'Remember Baskerville? The lab? Remember what Mycroft said when he found out?'

Sherlock remembered only too well, since the discussion had been so acrimonious they hadn't spoken again until after he was 'dead'. Perhaps he should have considered John's PTSD beforehand, but it hadn't turned out to be a factor. Mycroft's, "Don't break your toys, Sherlock," had been completely unwarranted. John wasn't a toy. Sherlock didn't treat him like a toy. He didn't.

'A pawn, then?' suggested a voice. Sherlock pressed the heels of his hands over his eyes. John would not, absolutely would not have deliberately played him as some kind of elaborate 'lesson'. He was a better man than that… a better man than him… a better man than… any other. Sherlock faced down the dissenting voices with the strength of complete conviction and gradually… very gradually… they quieted.

He took several deep breaths as the world began to right itself.

'So he did it with good intentions?'

Sherlock groaned, his hands sliding round to his temples.

oOo

John hesitated in the kitchen doorway, taken aback by the sight of Sherlock apparently trying to stop his head from exploding.

"Er… You all right?" he asked.

There was no response. "Sherlock?"

Sherlock jumped as if he'd only just realised that somebody was actually speaking to him. "Fine. I'm fine."

He didn't sound it. He dropped his hands and half turned towards his chair, but then stopped and moved to the kitchen instead, keeping well clear of John as he passed.

"We should maybe start shutting the door, eh?" John suggested, following. He supposed it was to be expected that Sherlock would be out of sorts - that must have been embarrassing for him. No doubt he was busy working out some reason why the whole thing was John's fault.

Sherlock opened one of the cupboards.

"Might make him think twice about dropping in again, though?" John offered, trying to keep his tone bright.

Sherlock shut the cupboard decisively and moved on to the next.

"That would be something, at least."

Another cupboard and Sherlock seemed to have found what he was looking for.

John's eyebrows rose. "Er… what are you doing?"

Sherlock glanced around the kitchen, then grabbed a glass from the draining board. The bottle in his hand clattered slightly against the rim as he part-filled it.

"Look, I know it wasn't exactly ideal, your brother walking in on us like that, but…" John took a careful pace forwards.

"Don't touch me." Sherlock knocked back the shot and slammed the glass back down on the worktop.

John halted in place, re-evaluating what he had assumed was just the usual sibling horn clashing. "Look… just… calm down, all right?"

Sherlock refilled his glass but he didn't pick it back up, instead gripping the edge of the counter with both hands. John couldn't see his expression but his back view screamed, 'Tension: Keep Out'.

"Don't you think you're over-reacting?" John sidled around to the left.

Sherlock took another drink. John took the bottle.

"Surely you're not thinking he's right? I mean… this… us… it hasn't slowed you down, has it? You don't seem any less focused to me." He set the bottle down as unobtrusively as possible.

"I could have solved this case weeks ago." Sherlock's tone was borderline aggressive but he didn't turn around.

"What?" John frowned. "This thing with Myra and Hargreaves and the R.A.G.? How could you possibly…?"

There was silence for a few moments, then Sherlock started speaking, his words fired out in staccato bursts. "How many homeless people do you know who own a mobile phone they use for calls, John? Not exactly top of the list when you're choosing whether to prioritise eating or avoiding hypothermia. But your friend Billy has one and why is that, hmm?" He stopped abruptly, then picked up his glass and strode jerkily into the living room.

"What?" John walked after him, feeling completely thrown. "I mean… what?"

Sherlock was in front of his chair but he didn't sit down, moving instead to stand in front of the fireplace again.

"I've never seen Billy with a phone," John told him, following so that he could at least try to see Sherlock's face in the mirror, but his head was lowered as he stared down into his whisky. "What makes you think…?"

"Because the night you were attacked by Moran, he called Wiggins… who called me. There are no public telephones in that area and there was no time. He has a phone. With credit on it. Which is odd. Which makes him worthy of a second look. But I dismissed it. And do you know why?"

He finally met John's reflected gaze.

"Because he used it to save your life, that's why. Sentiment, do you see?" He looked away again, raising his glass, although thankfully taking a smaller sip this time.

"OK," John said slowly, struggling to get his head around this new information. "I don't see how Billy having a phone makes such a difference, but I do see that you're upset, so let's focus on that, all right?"

Sherlock didn't even try to deny the charge, which boosted John's concern up from 'strop of the week' to 'this is serious'. He mentally shelved the 'Billy' diversion for now and studied the man in front of him.

"So is this what's got you so worked up - the suggestion that our relationship is a distraction? Is that what you're afraid of?" He kept his voice low and non-accusatory, but Sherlock still nearly bit his head off.

"I am not afraid!" He banged his glass down on the mantelpiece.

"Yeah, right." John recalled that the 'softly, softly' approach hadn't got him very far last time and promptly ditched it. "Well, let's look at the evidence, shall we? Use your methods. Because you're drinking spirits, which you hardly ever do, your hand is shaking, and you won't look at me for more than a second at a time. Not to mention the aggression and the pushing me away. Because there must be a reason - and there was no giant hound in the flat last time I checked."

Sherlock made a scornful noise.

"Oh, I know… it wasn't the hound. I remember what you told me. It was doubt. Not being able to trust your own senses. So what are you doubting this time? What on earth matters so bloody much that it's got you into this state?"

Sherlock turned to face him and John's rant trailed off. He stared until Sherlock spun away and vanished in the direction of his bedroom. The slamming of the door should have been louder than the turning of the key in the lock - but somehow it wasn't.

oOo

Sherlock lay on his bed and waited for the 'bang' of the front door. If ever there was a 'need some air' situation, this must be it - John was probably halfway across the hall already.

There was a bang. He rolled over onto his side and pressed his face into the pillow.

"Sherlock, you open this door or God help me I'm going to break it down!"

Sherlock's head jerked round to look over his shoulder.

There was another bang. "I mean it!"

Well, that was unexpected. The dressing gown hanging on the back of his bedroom door was quivering under the impact.

"I'm going to count to three."

No one had ever pursued Sherlock when he was like this, and why would they? What kind of fool tries to corner a venomous sociopath?

"One."

Even John had always left him well alone until the worst of a black mood had passed.

"Two."

Was he serious? Surely he wouldn't…

"Three!" The crash was concurrent with the number. Serious, then.

Sherlock whipped his head back around so that he was facing away from the door. "Mrs Hudson will take that out of our rent, you know." He supposed he should be angry at John for invading his privacy but his wires were so crossed at the moment that it felt weirdly more like relief.

"I think Mrs Hudson will side with me on this one." John had moved into the room but he was keeping his distance.

"Oh, so we have 'sides' now?" Sherlock could hear the snideness in his voice. He was in a mess. He knew he was in a mess. He suspected the mess was of his own making, but he didn't know how to unravel it.

"Well, since you just gave me a look I haven't seen since I was wrapped in semtex and you thought I was Moriarty, then yes, it seems we do - although I'm not sure whose side you're on because it doesn't seem to be your own."

Sherlock didn't know what to say.

"What the hell is going on? Is this whole freak-out because Mycroft walked in on us? Because I'm really not seeing how that is my fault."

Sherlock could picture John doing his 'trying to hang on to my temper' face, but he didn't turn around. What if John wasn't doing that face at all? What if he was doing a completely different face? What did his 'which of Sherlock's buttons should I push next?' face look like? Would it be familiar?

"If you want to keep things private then that's fine, I'm not about to invest in an 'I've shagged Sherlock' T-Shirt, but you must have realised that Mycroft would work it out? And sooner rather than later, knowing him." John sounded increasingly frustrated. "Not to mention that less than an hour ago you were demanding that I 'mark' you!"

Sherlock squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't want to think about that. How had John done this to him?

"God… Did you just not think this through at all? Is that it, Sherlock? Bloody look at me, will you?" He was advancing towards the bed.

Sherlock shot off the other side. "Isn't that what you wanted?" He turned and glared, hoping that his ferocity would serve as a deterrent because he had no idea what would happen if John touched him, but it would almost certainly be hideously embarrassing.

"What I what?"

"To push me into emotional reactions, rather than considered ones? To stop me from thinking?"

"Are you high?" John started to make his way around the bottom of the bed. "What is this, Sherlock? It's not as if I twisted your arm… you're the one who went all 'All or Nothing' on me."

He was getting closer. Sherlock took his glare up a level but it seemed that John was done being intimidated by a pair of heavily drawn brows and he kept advancing, his hand already beginning to rise towards Sherlock's face… or perhaps his shoulder, or his arm, or his chest … what did it matter? Sherlock's heart was racing and he was starting to feel light-headed. He stepped back, almost tripping over his feet.

"Stop." He could hear the panicked edge in his voice and John froze as if he'd walked into an invisible wall. They stared at each other.

"Sit down," John instructed abruptly. "You're hyperventilating."

"What?" Things were starting to look a little fuzzy around the edges. He took his eyes off John and tried to focus on the chest of drawers, but it moved when he raised an arm to lean on it. He blinked and tried again but it wouldn't stay still.

"Oh, for God's sake!" John took two paces forward and grabbed him by the shoulders, pushing him down onto the edge of the bed.

"Get off me." Sherlock tried to shove him away with the hand that hadn't already curled desperately into his jumper.

John ignored him. "Shut your mouth, if you can manage that," he commanded. "Breathe through your nose. Slowly." Sherlock's flailing hand was captured and pressed over his abdomen. "Try to push your hand out with your breath, then your breath out with your hand. Keep your chest still. One breath every five seconds."

Sherlock closed his eyes. Things were still spinning, inside his head as well as out. He had been on a fairground ride once, as a child. The 'wonder waltzer', it had been called, part of a travelling fair which he had been refused permission to attend although it was so close that he could hear the raucous noise of it (even at seven years old, he would not have called it music) from his bedroom window and it had looked interesting, so he had sneaked out. The spinning had made him feel sick and he remembered the disorientation… flashes of faces in the other cars, mouths wide and teeth glinting, and some were laughing and some were screaming and they all looked the same, and now his mind was whirling faster and there were scarlet lips calling him 'Junior' and there were raised brows over sneers of disdain and the noise was getting louder until he wanted to cover his ears and he felt like he was choking, like he was lost, had lost… was losing… and he could hear his own voice asking, 'Do you ever wonder if there's something wrong with us?'... 'wrong with us'... 'wrong with us'... and then everything... stopped.

oOo

"… and out. Breathe from your stomach. That's it. Good."

John knelt on the floor, one hand holding Sherlock's in place over his abdomen and the other monitoring the pulse in his neck. Being medically needed was keeping his own fears temporarily at bay, but he was thankful when the racing beat beneath his fingers began to slow and the agitated breathing smoothed out to something closer to normal. Sherlock opened his eyes.

"Back with us, are you?" Relief made John's words a little abrupt. "How do you feel?"

"Better." Sherlock appeared to notice that he had a hand virtually embedded in John's jumper and pulled it free. "Thank you, Doctor."

John let his own hands fall away and sat back on his haunches. "So, what was that all about?"

No answer was immediately forthcoming and he began to wonder if Sherlock still hadn't grasped that not communicating was no longer an option. You'd think that kicking out the lock on his door would be sufficiently convincing, but perhaps not? John assumed an expression which hopefully conveyed his willingness to step up this particular game, and Sherlock gave a resigned sigh.

"I had something of a… glitch."

"A glitch?" John's tone had been aiming for 'dubious', but it over-shot by a considerable margin.

Sherlock pulled a face. "Mycroft's untimely arrival sparked a train of thought which attempted to cast doubt upon your motivations over recent weeks."

"Oh, right." John nodded, then got to his feet and moved to sit on the side of the bed, pulling up a knee and half twisting around to face the source of his confusion. "OK, I'm sitting comfortably. Now can I have that again in English, please?"

He had to wait several long seconds for a reply.

"It was suggested…"

"By?" John interrupted.

Sherlock shifted uncomfortably. "By some residual uncertainty over what happened with Irene Adler, I would imagine," he said at last, keeping his face forward.

John's eyebrows rose. He couldn't remember Sherlock ever admitting to uncertainty before. "So no one actually suggested anything?" he asked. One never knew with the Holmes brothers - they often seemed to have entire conversations which looked like no more than a series of sneers, so he might easily have missed something. "It was all in your head, I mean?"

"Yes." Sherlock confirmed. "Although," he added with an irritated quirk to his mouth, "it did take the form of Mycroft at first."

"Bloody hell." John frowned in sympathy. It was bad enough having Mycroft in the room - he certainly wouldn't want that superior attitude in his head. "No wonder you freaked out."

Sherlock glanced at John, then away again. "Anyway, it… he… posited that you had deliberately engineered our relationship, pushing me into courses of action which I would otherwise not have taken - manipulating me, in other words." John drew a breath, but Sherlock answered before he could ask. "Dangling the threat of Constable Ross under my nose at the opportune moment, for example."

John didn't even know where to start with that one and his first words emerged as nothing more than a splutter of protest.

Sherlock held up a hand. "Don't bother; I do now recognise the impossibility of such an accusation. You could not have known that I would follow you to Scotland Yard that day, and it was Lestrade's phrasing which planted the idea in my mind rather than any action on your part. The timing was clearly unfortunate rather than scheduled."

"So you… what? You were thinking that I had tricked you somehow?" John became aware that his mouth was hanging open and tried to close it, but there was too much surprise still in the way.

Sherlock looked very uncomfortable, his hand half moving towards John before he pulled it back again. "I... am sorry," he managed eventually. "I realise it must be hurtful that I doubted you, however briefly, when you have always maintained such faith in me, but I…"

"No." John shook his head. "No, that's not… No." God knows he'd tried to get one over on Sherlock a few times, but he'd never come anywhere close to managing it. There was suddenly a grin trying to emerge. "I think I'm flattered, actually."

Sherlock's expression soured.

The grin subsided. "But I don't get why it would cause you to have a…" He assumed that Sherlock wouldn't take kindly to the words 'panic attack', so just flapped his arm a bit instead.

"It was a contradiction," Sherlock said. "I do trust you. I always have. You are incapable of deceiving me and you rarely bother to try, and certainly never for anything morally suspect." He shrugged. "I was trying to convince myself of something I knew to be false."

"Why?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Why would you do that?" John repeated.

He just got a blank look. "Never mind." John considered what had happened. "So this… 'contradiction' caused some kind of... system failure and you what? Rebooted?"

Sherlock rolled his eyes.

"You started it," John protested, not for the first time. "You're the one who came up with that 'hard drive' analogy. Don't blame me if I run with it."

"Fine. If you insist on beating me to death with my own metaphor then yes, something like that."

John thought about that for a minute, then frowned. "I don't buy it," he declared. "For one thing, I don't think you would have such an extreme reaction as a result of doubting anything other than yourself, and for another I don't see why it would even occur to you to think… Oh!" He sat up straighter, gazing off to the side as he realised that he'd been right earlier on - Sherlock had been busy working out a reason why the whole thing was his fault.

"It's true, what you always say," Sherlock muttered balefully. "Sudden revelations are annoying."

John blinked and turned to look at him. "No, I mean I get it," he explained. "I get why you tried to make me the bad guy - why you tried to convince yourself that I'd pushed you into it. You were embarrassed." He shrugged, spreading his hands wide. "Mycroft walked in on us and you were embarrassed and angry and you blamed me because if it wasn't for me you wouldn't have been in that situation - you wouldn't be having these feelings and you wouldn't have got caught by your brother doing something you still seem to feel like you shouldn't be doing."

Sherlock frowned.

"It's completely understandable and an entirely natural reaction," John assured him.

For once Sherlock looked pleased to be described by words which equated to 'normal'. "It is?"

"Yes." John nodded firmly. "If you're fifteen."

Sherlock scowled and turned away, moving as if to get up. John grabbed his arm.

"Sherlock, this is juvenile! It's a teenage cliché - the whirlwind romance and everything is wonderful until peer pressure kicks in and you get cold feet." He blanched, realising that he was thinking of 'Grease' and had just cast himself as Sandy.

"My feet are perfectly temperate, thank you." Sherlock tugged his arm free. "Coming to one's senses is an entirely different matter."

John didn't like the sound of that. He didn't like the sound of that at all. He tried to make eye contact, but Sherlock's gaze slid away, the irritation evaporating from his expression in a way which set all the wrong alarm bells ringing. John thought back over his words from earlier. 'Dangling the threat of Constable Ross at the opportune moment,' he recalled. Suddenly that made a horrible kind of sense.

"You were jealous."

Sherlock's lips pursed at the word, but he didn't deny it.

"That's why you came up with 'All or Nothing'," John realised. He ran through that whole conversation again in his mind, then twisted round and rested his elbows on his knees. "Shit."

Sherlock's hand tentatively patted his back. He shrugged it off.

"I should have known it was too easy. Nothing worth having is ever that easy - and certainly not with you. I was right before: you didn't think it through. You didn't think it through at all." He turned to look at Sherlock, who had a very odd expression on his face. It took John a while to recognise it as regret. "You just jumped into this, didn't you?"

Sherlock inclined his head.

"And now you want to jump out again."

It wasn't a question but Sherlock answered it anyway.

"I can't give you what you deserve, John."

"Is that right?" John could feel his temper rising, which was good because the alternative would be a lot soggier and infinitely more humiliating.

"I'm not capable of the level of emotional involvement that you need."

"Oh, really?" Did Sherlock truly believe this bullshit?

"The work comes first with me and it always will."

"Of course it does. I knew the time you let that burglar get away because you thought he'd stabbed me was just a one-off. I'm sure next time you'll leave me to bleed out while you catch the bad guy."

Sherlock grimaced. "Don't be obtuse. A personal relationship is a weakness I can't afford."

"Oh, absolutely," John agreed. "Just think - if we'd been a couple before, Moriarty might have used me to pressure you or something, instead of realising that you were far too uncaring to ever sacrifice yourself for a friend."

The grimace turned into a full on scowl. "Sarcasm really does not become you, John."

John jumped to his feet. "Well, it's either that or smacking you over the head or attempting to shag you through the mattress - take your bloody pick!"

It took Sherlock several moments to answer and he did so with colour in his cheeks. "Then by all means, do be as sarcastic as you like."

Which, of course, took sarcasm right off the table. "What are you so afraid of?" John demanded. "Being human? That you're not quite the sociopath you aspire to be? That you're capable of emotions and that sometimes they're stronger than you? Because newsflash, mate - everyone knows. You're not like bloody Mycroft and you never will be and the sooner you accept that and stop trying to pretend you're above it all and immune to…"

He trailed off at the look on Sherlock's face. That was it. That was what had sent him into a flat spin when Mycroft walked in - the sudden, sharp realisation of how far he had travelled from his perception of himself. A perception which had been drummed into him throughout his childhood and reinforced regularly ever since. Sherlock had seen himself through Mycroft's eyes, had seen himself indulging in what he had always taken to be weakness and succumbing to emotional needs which he wasn't ready to admit to having. The dichotomy had triggered his panic attack and now he was backtracking to his 'safe' zone as fast as his designer footwear could carry him.

There was a big part of John that wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled. The one thing... John's one request, before they'd even progressed beyond kissing: 'Don't make me something you're ashamed of,' he had asked... and that was exactly what Sherlock had done. John wanted to yell at him and make him see... but an emotional approach clearly wasn't going to get him anywhere right now and right now was when he had to act, before Sherlock had backed away so far that he was unreachable. John threw his rant into reverse.

"You know what? Forget all that." He waved a hand to dissipate his words. "We'll take 'relationship' back out of the equation, that's fine." He stepped forward until Sherlock had to tip his head back to look at him. "So it's 'Plan A' then, right?"

"Plan A?" echoed Sherlock, appearing rather thrown by the sudden volte-face, not to mention the proximity.

"We're friends," John affirmed.

"Of course," Sherlock agreed.

"Friends who are sexually compatible."

"Well, yes..."

"Extremely sexually compatible."

"Yes, but..."

"Which takes us to the 'Friends who sleep together' scenario."

Sherlock swallowed, which looked bloody enticing from the angle John was watching it - or possibly any angle. "I thought the term was 'Friends with benefits'?" he queried.

"Sleeping together is a benefit," John pointed out. "Unless you dislike sleeping with me, of course?" He knew that wasn't true, since he'd woken more than once to find Sherlock looking at him as if he never wanted the other side of his bed to be empty again.

"Er... no, I... No."

"I mean, we wouldn't want the sexual frustration to become a distraction, like it did before. That might interfere with the work."

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. "Now you're trying to manipulate me."

"I'm not lying, though, am I?" John took a half step closer. "Look, I promise not to get more emotionally invested than I already am, OK?" That was easy since it would be virtually impossible, short of him turning into a Time Lord and suddenly having an extra heart to deal with the overflow. "And, as you've just said, emotional involvement isn't your area, so it shouldn't be a problem for you, right?"

"I..."

"And I'll have a lot more time to assist you, of course, if I'm not constantly having to look elsewhere for..."

"For?"

Sherlock's expression was conflicted, but giving him some way to rationalise what he wanted was clearly being effective. If John could get him to agree to this, they would be OK, he was sure. Maybe they wouldn't call it what it was. Maybe Sherlock would never be able to accept that he soaked up affection like the most absorbent kitchen towel on the market, but John was a patient man. He bent down so that Sherlock had to lean back on his hands to maintain eye contact.

"You know what for..." he murmured, dipping his head a little further to speak directly into Sherlock's ear. "We talked about it only this morning." He rejoiced at the hiss of a sharply indrawn breath and moved to the other side, almost brushing against Sherlock's jaw as he passed. "I think I've held back from taking you 'properly' because I knew that something wasn't right," he admitted truthfully. "But if there's no 'relationship' to worry about, then there's nothing holding me back and I may as well take..." he knocked Sherlock's arms away so that he fell back onto the bed, "...what..." John was over him immediately, braced by a hand on either side of his chest, "...I want," he finished, staring down into wide eyes.

The doorbell rang.

John spared a split second to mentally run through half a dozen entries from the 'extra hardcore obscene' list of swear words which he kept in reserve, then he pushed himself smartly upright and offered Sherlock his hand.

"Two rings," he observed, his tone all business.

"Nervous pressure on the first, more determined on the second," Sherlock agreed, taking his hand to rise, then smoothing down his clothes.

They looked at each other and spoke in unison.

"Billy."

Chapter Text

"You have to help me!"

John folded his arms and adjusted his stance to a more comfortable position as Billy burst out, yet again, with one of his two key phrases.

"If anything happens to Myra..."

And there went the other one. The lad had been pacing up and down the living room ever since he arrived and John was starting to feel as if they'd all got stuck in some sort of time loop. It wasn't that he lacked sympathy for Billy's agitation or that he himself wasn't concerned about Myra, but they didn't seem to be getting anywhere and if they absolutely had to have a period of their lives on repeat, there were a good many three minute intervals he'd choose over this one.

A prime contender involving Sherlock with his head hanging backwards off the edge of the bed caused John's eyes to glaze over a bit, and he had to remind himself not to snap at Billy just because his timing was on a par with… well… actually John was struggling to come up with a comparative. He couldn't think of anything as bad as potentially being on the brink of shagging Sherlock Holmes and then having to stop. No doubt such scenarios existed in the grander scheme of things, but John's dick was stuck on that one. He sighed.

"Why don't you sit down?" His own verbal contribution to the ongoing repetition was ignored just as it had been every previous time. Indeed, Billy barely seemed to register his words. John glanced across to Sherlock, who was standing in front of the fireplace and seemed oddly unwilling to intervene. Time to break the cycle.

"I'll put the kettle on." Perhaps a cup of tea would settle Billy down to the point of coherency. It was worth a try. He turned and headed for the kitchen but Billy just followed him and started pacing there instead, immediately getting in the way.

After two failed attempts to reach the sink, and aware of Sherlock lurking in the doorway, John dumped the kettle he was unable to fill and yanked out a chair, adjusting his tone to army levels.

"Sit!"

Movement in the corner of his eye had him looking round just as Sherlock pulled his hand back from the opposite chair. John raised a brow, and Sherlock grimaced... but followed it up with a rueful half smile. Something in John's chest eased as he smiled back.

"Please…" Billy's voice broke the moment and John turned to see him sitting as directed and looking marginally more capable of useful speech.

"OK, then." John took the seat at right angles to him. "What's all this about, Billy? You obviously know more than we do…" there was a snort from the doorway but he ignored it, "…so let's have it. What's going on?"

"I…" Billy seemed to have no idea where to start and Sherlock wasn't jumping in as he normally would. Fine. John rolled his shoulders and settled in for the long haul.

"What do you know about what's happened to Myra?" he asked.

"Nothing!" Billy moaned, resting his elbows on the table and thrusting both hands into his mousy hair. "And I can't find Uncle Jason, either."

"Uncle Jason?" He must mean Hargreaves. John glanced up and mouthed the name at Sherlock, who nodded.

"Well, he's not really my uncle," Billy said absently, still tugging on his hair. "We just always called him that." Score one for Sherlock's 'family friend' assessment, John acknowledged.

"So why would Myra be involved in some kind of 'altercation' with him?" he asked, recalling Sherlock's words after their visit to the Relief Aid Guild. "Or at least why was she in his office? That's where we found the beads."

Billy moaned again, putting both hands over his face.

John's patience was becoming more finite by the second. "Look, if you want our help, you're going to have to give us something to go on." He sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.

There was a mumbled string of words from the scrawny figure in front of him, but they didn't survive the journey to John's ears.

"You what?"

Billy sat up a little straighter and slid his hands round to his temples. "Myra came to see me." He kept his head down, not looking at either of them. "On Sunday night. We… we argued." His voice sounded choked and he sniffed a couple of times.

John dug out a half-full pack of tissues from the back pocket of his jeans and put it on the table. "What about?"

Billy shot him an agonised glance then grabbed for the tissues. "She'd got something. I don't know how. But she got hold of something on Sunday afternoon and she guessed… well, I don't suppose 'guess' is the word, but she knew…" He trailed off and blew his nose. The process went on for some time, during which no further information was forthcoming.

Clearly interviewing was not John's area. He threw another questioning look at Sherlock but got only blankness in return, which struck him as distinctly peculiar. Either Sherlock was so bored with the case that he had simply lost interest… or… or he already knew whatever Billy was making such a piss-poor effort at telling them. The realisation must have been clear on his face because Sherlock gave him a small nod.

"Why?" John asked him quietly, as Billy's determined nose-blowing continued. "Why keep silent?" He couldn't think of any reason why the flat wasn't ringing with deductions already.

"Confession beats admission," Sherlock replied. John felt no wiser, but a 'Huh?' look didn't gain him any further explanation. He turned back to Billy.

"Right. Enough of this. Cards on the table, right now. What did Myra have? What was it that set this whole thing off?"

With a last sniff and some fairly heavy-duty blinking, Billy stuffed the tissue up his sleeve and raised his head. "Can I have the beads?" There was a wobble in his voice, but the hand he held out was steady. "From Myra's bracelet. Please can I have them?"

After a quick shrug of agreement from Sherlock, John checked his pockets, relieved to find that the beads hadn't gone astray during earlier… activities. He dropped them into Billy's palm one by one: M.Y.R.A.

Billy briefly shut his eyes and a flicker of something crossed his face… not calm, exactly, John decided, more like resolve. He closed his hand around the beads and drew a deep breath, then reached into the front pocket of his hoodie and produced a piece of paper which was folded into four and rather dog-eared. His fingers tightened around it for a moment, then he set it down on the table.

In view of Sherlock's words, John resisted the impulse to take the paper, instead waiting until Billy unfolded it himself - somewhat awkwardly with only one hand as he seemed unwilling to let go of the beads. He smoothed it out as best he could then pushed it towards John, who was surprised to find that he recognised it immediately.

It was the freeze-frame image from the surveillance video, printed out for him by Constable Ross on Sunday morning and which he had brought back with him to Baker Street. He turned it around, his eyes running over the familiar scene from the jeweller's shop, one of the thieves holding out a canvas bag towards the man at the counter while the other pointed a gun at the customers.

"Well, I can tell you where she got this." He looked up at Billy, then turned to Sherlock. "We must have left it on the table, I guess. Did you notice it was missing?"

"Not immediately," Sherlock replied, which probably meant that he'd deduced its absence rather than observed it. Between the amount of crap he piled up around the place, Mrs Hudson's occasional attempts at tidying, and John's sporadic 'that's not milk in the milk carton' outbursts of temper during which he tended to aggressively straighten everything into piles, no one would generally jump to the conclusion that something had been 'taken' just because it had moved.

Billy no longer seemed interested in the picture's provenance, but was gripping the edge of the table with his free hand while the other squeezed tightly around Myra's beads, his knuckles almost ludicrously prominent. He was so young, John thought. Had he ever been that young? He supposed he must have been. Billy's joints looked too big and bony for a frame that hadn't quite caught up with them, and living on the streets he'd never filled out. John watched as he closed his eyes again, his jaw tight and teeth biting into his lip.

"What did Myra guess?" John asked gently. "Or know? Why is this picture so important?"

Billy's face screwed up, then he sucked in a deep breath and slowly let it out again, sitting up straighter as he exhaled. He pulled the hand which held the beads closer into his chest and stretched out the other towards the photo, coming to rest with his finger over the image of the unarmed robber.

"It's important…" He swallowed, then raised his eyes to meet John's gaze. "Because that's me."

oOo

Sherlock occupied the inevitable 'minute of spluttering' by making a mug of tea, which was something he did actually know how to do despite regular and sarcastic suggestions to the contrary. He had anticipated that Billy's duplicity, however it was revealed, would come as a great shock to John, and provision of tea had long headed his 'minimise distress' agenda. No doubt social niceties required that he also make some for Billy, but Sherlock was damned if he was going to. People who upset John did not get tea. He didn't make any for himself either.

By the time he had finished, the worst of the intermingled disbelief and confirmations was over. He put the mug onto the table next to John and took a seat across from Billy.

"She must know you very well," he observed, nodded towards the image Myra had identified. "John got nothing beyond a vague sense of familiarity, even from the video."

Billy's eyes welled up and he reached for the tissues again. "She does."

John banged his hand down on the table. "It's your wrist!" he exclaimed, waving at the picture and nearly knocking his tea onto the floor. "The way you're holding out that bag - there's something awkward about it. That's what caught my attention when we watched the video. It's your bad wrist." He sat back with the smile of one who's solved a long-niggling puzzle. The smile didn't last and he soon sat forward again, reaching for his mug but then hesitating before pushing it across the table to Billy instead, along with the sugar bowl. Sherlock absolutely did not pout.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Billy asked, after blowing his nose again. "I've just told you I'm a criminal."

John frowned, rubbing a hand across his forehead. "I know, but I can't really relate this…" he indicated Billy's tatty clothing and general air of poverty, "…to this." His gaze fell to the photo again and Sherlock watched his frown deepen as his eyes moved to the gun the other robber was aiming at innocent civilians. "Why, Billy? Why would you…?"

"Oh, come on, John, it's obvious." Sherlock pushed his chair back and got to his feet. "You're the one who called him a 'crusader'. He's not doing it for the money - the boy thinks he's Robin Hood!"

"Robin…" John echoed, as Sherlock rummaged around in a cupboard which he felt should definitely contain more than just toast-appropriate food products.

"Steal from the rich, give to the poor," he prompted. "Isn't that how it goes? An unusual motivator, but not unheard of." He gave up on the cupboards and moved to the piled-up sink, a little surprised to find that he was actually willing to rinse something.

"No one was supposed to get hurt," Billy emphasised. "Uncle Jason promised. They weren't even real guns!"

Sherlock caught the doubtful look John threw over his shoulder and returned it with interest, but neither of them commented.

"Uncle Jason had set up this charity - the R.A.G.," Billy went on, seeming eager to explain now that he'd got his confession out of the way. "It was supposed to help the homeless, but nobody cared. He couldn't get any support, no one was interested." He stirred sugar into John's tea with agitated vigour. "And these jewellery shops… I mean… jewellery!" There was anger in his tone now. "People are starving… people are freezing to death on the same streets these toffs walk down on their way to buy another useless trinket they'll forget as soon as something shinier comes along. And they don't even see us, you know? It's like we're invisible to them. As if we're dogs… or… or pigeons - just some pest that London's infested with. Not people. Not real."

"Have we got any biscuits?" John twisted round to ask. Sherlock would have ignored the request had he not been standing right next to the tin. He thumped it down onto the table with crumb-inducing force and went back to what he was doing.

"Whose idea was it?" John asked gently, once his prescription of two calming custard creams had been consumed. "And how did it work?"

"Uncle Jason used to be an accountant," Billy said, taking a mouthful of not his tea just as Sherlock put a second mug down on the table, gripping the top and twisting it so that the handle bumped the back of John's fingers in an extremely pointed manner. John took the tea without a word but the smile he offered was warm. Sherlock gave him a brief nod and sat down again.

"He said it would be easy," Billy explained. "The money from the jewellers' could go to the homeless shelters, but look as if it had come from the R.A.G. - simple."

"So it was Hargreaves' idea," John determined. He seemed cheered at first, but then sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "But to just go along with something like this, Billy - I'm surprised at you, I really am."

Even Sherlock could hear the 'disappointed in' where the 'surprised at' appeared. He hated it when John used that tone with him. Billy seemed similarly affected.

"I didn't, at first," he defended. "I said it was wrong - plus I didn't think we'd get away with it, but Uncle Jason and…" He stopped talking abruptly.

Sherlock felt no need to wait this time - Billy had confessed, which would hopefully go some way towards ameliorating his sentence, and Sherlock's daily ration of patience had expired so long ago it was now at least a month in deficit.

"Phil," he said, tapping his finger over the picture of the man with the gun. "Not Scottish Phil," he pre-empted John's question. "The other one - he's from Derby, hence finding 'ducky' an acceptable form of address."

Billy was gaping at him, which was nice - but irrelevant. "How did you get together?" Sherlock asked. "Where did Phil come into it?"

"He was with me when we first ran into Uncle Jason." It didn't seem to occur to him to deny Sherlock's assertion, which at least showed some modicum of intelligence - or possibly extreme stupidity, one or the other. "He's not particularly popular, isn't Phil, but he was always all right with me. At least, until…" His eyes strayed to the image on the table, which also showed the shop assistant who had later been knocked unconscious.

"Until he started getting violent," Sherlock filled in.

"But what changed your mind, Billy?" John asked. "Just being convinced that you could get away with it? I don't see…"

"I said 'No'," Billy insisted. "I said 'No' for ages… but then another shelter got closed down, and Myra was squatting more often and I know she can look after herself but I couldn't help worrying, and then…" his gaze fell to his wrist and he flexed his fingers, "…and then I had a bit of a run in with a couple of society types."

He looked up at John, who nodded. "I remember. A pair of yuppies on their way home from a Halloween party, I think you said? You were lucky that wrist wasn't broken."

"I didn't feel very lucky." Billy scowled. "It wasn't just the beating, it was the things they said - their attitude. They didn't have the slightest fear that they'd get punished, they said nobody cared if someone on the streets got a kicking, or if a homeless woman got… got…" His face was screwing up again as his voice rose.

John reached out and patted his shoulder. "All right, we get the idea."

Billy dashed a hand across his eyes.

"So that tipped the scales?" John asked.

Billy ducked his head. "We did the first one a week later - as soon as I'd recovered enough." He pulled the sleeve of his hoodie over his hand and wiped his face with it, then got to his feet. "Look, I know you have to turn me in, I get that, but please… help me find Myra. She hasn't done anything wrong, she doesn't deserve…" He started pacing back and forth again in a manner which Sherlock found distinctly irritating.

John caught him on the next pass. "Sit down." One sharp tug and Billy's skinny rump was back in its chair. "Finish your tea." His tone brooked no argument and Billy didn't attempt one, picking up his mug and sipping obediently. "Right," John said. "Personally I want to quiz you on the 'vanishing' aspect, but no doubt Sherlock's already worked that out…"

Sherlock prepared an 'obviously' expression but John didn't even look round, which he supposed was a compliment - although it didn't entirely feel like one.

"Vanishing's easy when you're already invisible," Billy explained, somewhat bitterly. "We'd always be there well in advance. I usually did the Big Issue thing because that justified having a bag - just a few magazines in the top and our gear underneath. Sometimes I borrowed a dog for Phil and he would just be sat there with a couple of carriers." He curled his lip. "No one ever looked too closely in case they caught some hideous 'homeless disease'."

"Tea," John prompted and Billy took another calming drink before continuing.

"We went for lunch times - least staff inside and most shoppers outside. As soon as the lorry arrived and blocked off the CCTV we'd put our balaclavas on - rolled up so they looked like beanies - and the coats, then we were in… pulling down the hats as we walked through the door." He shrugged. "It was easy."

"And you'd be out before the fuss started and right back where you'd been - with the loot under the magazines or in the bags," John followed it through. "So while the police were focusing on people who left while the lorry was blocking the cameras… you waited until it had gone and then just walked away."

"Pretty much," Billy confirmed. "Although we didn't rush off - Phil's actually been interviewed as a witness more than once. Last time he gave his name as 'Jerry Baskin'." He managed a half smile as John rolled his eyes. Sherlock presumed the name was meaningful in some no doubt entirely trivial manner.

"What about Myra?" Sherlock had heard enough of explanations he had long since deduced. "Did you know she was going to see Hargreaves?"

"Absolutely not!" Billy shook his head emphatically. "I told her to stay out of it."

"Well that would do it," murmured John.

"She wanted me to leave," Billy went on. "Leave London, I mean. She said we should go away - that she had friends in Edinburgh."

"We?" John queried.

Billy blushed.

"How much did you tell her?" Sherlock interrupted this potential foray into love's young dream before it became too nausea inducing.

"What?" Billy blinked. "Er… well… everything, I suppose." He shrugged. "I didn't mean to, but she's pretty smart…" A rueful expression disappeared behind his mug as he raised it. "…and kind of insistent." He tipped his head back as he drained the last of his tea, missing Sherlock's frown.

John didn't miss it. "So Myra presumably went to see your uncle at his office yesterday," he summarised, after throwing Sherlock a worried glance, "and neither of them has been seen or heard from since. Is that right?"

Billy set his empty mug back down on the table and nodded unhappily. "I've tried everywhere. I can't think what's happened to them."

"Who else do you know?" Sherlock asked. Billy gave him a blank look, so he expanded. "Hargreaves obviously has other contacts - he's got to be fencing what you steal, for a start - so, who else do you know?"

"No one," Billy shook his head. "Not really. I mean, there's Mikhail, who drives the lorries, but I don't know anything about him - Uncle Jason said it was safer that way."

"Not knowing anything is unlikely," Sherlock said. "Although, in your case…" His opinion of Billy's intelligence had deteriorated significantly. John kicked him under the table.

"Well, I've seen him on jobs, of course," Billy confirmed. "But he's always just shouting out of his window to make sure everyone's looking at him instead of us. And I've seen him dropping Uncle Jason off a few times."

"Car?" Sherlock demanded.

After another blank look, Billy turned to John.

"He means, 'what type of car?'" John clarified. "Any chance of a licence plate, for example?"

"Oh," Billy nodded.

Sherlock pulled out his phone, ready to type in the details.

"No," said Billy.

Sherlock reminded himself that this person had saved John's life.

"No car?" John queried.

"No… I mean, yes," Billy agreed.

It occurred to Sherlock that there must be some sort of statute of limitations on gratitude.

"Yes, there were cars, but I don't remember any licence plates," Billy managed to explain himself at last. "They were always different ones."

"Different licence plates?" John persevered. Really, Sherlock decided, the man was remarkable. If there were awards for 'extreme patience' as there seemed to be for 'extreme sports', John would surely reign supreme.

"Different cars," said Billy.

Sherlock had had enough. "So we have a man named Mikhail who has, or has access to, a variety of cars. Used or new?" he checked.

"Used," Billy replied. "Various ages and types. Oh, and he has a scar, if that helps," he added. "I mean, I can't think how it will because I still don't know his surname or where he lives or anything else, but he has a scar on his forehead - it looks like that wobbly line out of Doctor Who, the one on Amy's bedroom wall."

Sherlock consoled himself with the thought of how much pleasure he would take in deleting this entire conversation.

"Around six feet tall, fairly heavy build, dark hair, beard, and he's got a London accent," Billy reeled off more helpfully, after a wince that suggested John had kicked him under the table.

"Right." Sherlock started a series of texts, running some basic searches at the same time. "Garage or used car dealership seems the most likely. Should have something soon." He glanced up at Billy. "Go and have a shower."

There was a short silence as he returned his attention to his phone, then John made his 'explanation required' throat-clearing noise.

"It will be at least half an hour before we get an address and they'll smell him coming a mile off," Sherlock said without looking up. "Give him some of the clothes I wore undercover - bottom shelf in my wardrobe. They can't fit any less well than what he's wearing at the moment."

He tuned out the ensuing activity. When he next raised his head, he could hear the shower running and John was standing by the kitchen window with his back to the room. Sherlock got to his feet and made his way around the table, slowing to a halt still half a step away.

"What do you want to do?" he asked quietly.

"About Billy or about us?" John asked. His voice sounded tired and strained, and the urge to reach out to him had Sherlock rocking forward onto his toes.

"The former," he replied, shoving down the emotional response. "Take him with us, leave him here, or call Lestrade now? Your choice."

"What do you mean, 'leave him here'?" John asked, turning around with confusion on his face - among other emotions which Sherlock shied away from identifying.

"Well, if we don't turn him in, we'll have to go now or he'll follow us."

"Ah." John nodded. "That's why you sent him for a shower."

"It's your call," Sherlock reiterated. Billy had saved John's life. That would tip any scale that Sherlock could think of. A few robberies barely shifted the balance at all.

"Take him with us, then," John determined.

"All right." Sherlock would rather it were just the two of them, but the boy might be useful, so there was that.

John turned away again, folding his arms across his chest. Well… his arms weren't so much folded as they were wrapped around himself. Sherlock became aware that he didn't feel entirely well.

He couldn't give John what he needed. He couldn't. Just because some sexually-awakened part of him wanted to, that wasn't enough. His cool and rational mindset had been restored and was comforting in its familiarity. Everything was simpler, facts rinsed clean of emotion, black and white. And yet... and yet more than ever his isolating detachment felt like a veneer... like a suit which he had been attempting to grow into for most of his life but which had never quite fitted.

John bent his head, raising a hand to his face and Sherlock's stomach twisted painfully.

"I'm sorry," he offered.

There was a muffled snort from the figure in front of him, followed by a decade of silence, then, "I don't know if I can do this."

"This?" Sherlock repeated.

"Give you what you want while you pretend you don't really want it," John expanded. He gave a brief imitation of a laugh. "It's not quite the same as pushing you to eat, after all."

"Can't we just go back to how we were?" Sherlock suggested. "Before all this started?"

John sighed. "I don't know, Sherlock - can we?" He turned to the side and leaned back against the worktop. "I know you could. Hell would freeze over before you made the first move, I do realise that."

Sherlock half smiled as he settled against the table. He did have some control over himself - it was nice to have that recognised.

"But it's not just you, is it?" John continued. "Do you really think I could keep my hands off you... day after day... night after night, living together in such close proximity? Do you? Because I'm not sure. I'm not sure at all."

"What are you talking about?" Sherlock frowned in confusion. "You'd never force me - the idea's preposterous."

John laughed in his face. "Have you really no understanding of the way you respond to me? Before a week was out I'd barely have to breathe on you." He looked Sherlock up and down. "Even now, I could have you bent over that table and begging me to take you in under two minutes, I absolutely guarantee."

The flush felt as if it was burning right down to his bones. "You wouldn't..." Sherlock could hear the tremble in his voice.

"Deny it," John challenged.

Sherlock's eyes fell. "You wouldn't use that against me. You wouldn't act against my will. I know you."

"Maybe you do," John conceded. "But if we're talking about 'your will', then which part of it should I listen to? Do I believe the hand that's pushing me away, or the one that's desperately clinging onto my jumper?"

"I..."

"You want this as much as I do; you've just got this 'thing' about it being a weakness." John rubbed a hand over his face again. "I thought I could handle that, I thought that knowing how you felt would be enough, even if you could never admit it, but right now..." He shook his head.

Sherlock swallowed as they both heard the shower shut off and the rattle of the curtain. "So where do we go from here?"

"I don't know," said John. He looked at the floor for a long moment, then pushed away from the worktop, his chin rising as his shoulders went back. His spine stiffened, his jaw tensed and he looked Sherlock straight in the eye. "But I'm not giving you up without a fight."

Underneath the veneer, below the conscious and uppermost level of his mind, down where the black and white was shot through with the most glorious Technicolor, Sherlock smiled.


Author's Note

Apologies for the slower updates lately - I've got some other things on the go, plus it's the school holidays so the house is completely infested with children!

 

Chapter Text

"You're standing on my foot!"

John tried to produce maximum 'stop doing that!' force at minimum volume, since the reason why they were currently squeezed between two storage units on a used car lot was still within earshot.

Sherlock didn't respond but the breath he huffed into the chilly night air formed a particularly irritated looking cloud. He did shift his position though, taking the pressure off John's toes... and giving him a face full of scarf instead. John spluttered as quietly as possible.

"Is he gone?" Billy's whisper came from further into the gap behind them. There was more room back there but John was unwilling to give up his vantage point and Sherlock clearly felt the same. John was also, if the truth be told, not totally hating having Sherlock plastered up against his front, although bearing in mind their situation he was doing his best not to think about it. He shivered and tried to shove his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

"Do you mind!" Sherlock hissed, propping an arm up on the wall beside John's head and levering himself as far backwards as possible, which wasn't at all far in their current situation.

"My hands are cold."

"Well that hardly seems an appropriate method of warming them!"

John took a moment to roll his eyes, since the nearby streetlights provided just enough illumination to make the gesture worthwhile. Then he stuck his head out of the gap to check on the tank in human form whom they were avoiding, and who was now meandering between the cars in an apparently aimless manner. He turned in their direction and John sharply pulled his head back in.

"Maybe we should just ask him?" Billy suggested, blithely ignoring the fact that Sherlock had picked the lock on the gate to get them this far. "I mean, we can't even be sure that this is Mikhail's…"

John shot him a quelling glare, although having to deliver it while peering over Sherlock's arm may have diluted the effect. He mimed zipping his lips shut to emphasise the issue and they waited in silence as the heavy footsteps drew nearer, stopping every few paces. Perhaps the tank-man was looking for something?

John concentrated on trying not to let his teeth chatter too loudly, which was difficult when the wind seemed to think their hiding place was a short cut from the Arctic. He brought his hands up in front of his face and breathed on them. With a faint snort, Sherlock pulled his coat open with his free hand then leaned in again, letting it swing forwards to cover them both. He brought his mouth to John's ear.

"Can't risk a frozen trigger finger."

John smiled and slipped both arms under Sherlock's coat to wrap around him. It wasn't really a hug... but it was close enough to warm him more than the proximity itself could account for.

Naturally the oversized brute chose this moment to discover the concept of decisive action and marched off in the opposite direction. John dredged up some of the words from his 'Even more extra obscene words' list and mentally threw them after him, visualising each one as a maximally offensive brick.

"Come on." Sherlock was off, leading the way towards the single illuminated structure - a portacabin in the corner of the yard, which was where they'd originally been headed when the hug-interrupting wanker had suddenly emerged from it. John could hear a gruff baritone raised in complaint as they approached.

"Well, if you'd got rid of it last night, you could have been away by now!"

Billy made a 'thumbs up' sign as they reached the end of the building. "That's Mikhail," he declared, darting around the corner before John could stop him. Pausing only to give vent to an accusatory glare, Sherlock disappeared after him. Clearly any and all of Billy's actions had been designated as John's responsibility.

With a resigned sigh, he followed the others and found them peering in through the nearest window. A hand emerged from the next one along, tapping ash from the end of a cigarette.

"I told you." The answering voice was calm and level. "There was a bomb scare, they were stopping random cars."

"So you just checked into a Travelodge and slept through the night," Mikhail spoke again. "You're a cool bastard, Jason, I'll give you that." There was grudging respect in his tone.

John had been edging forwards, but went into reverse as Sherlock headed back towards him, propelling Billy in the same direction via a fistful of his jacket. Sherlock's other hand was already reaching for his phone.

"Who are you calling?" Billy demanded, pulling free as they rounded the corner.

"Clearly, no one." Sherlock's thumbs were a blur as they moved over the keys, completely focused on what he was doing. His face as Billy managed to snatch the phone away was a study in outraged chagrin.

"Texting, then," Billy corrected, turning his back and peering at the screen. "Who's Lestrade?"

Sherlock looked as if only the concept of an undignified scuffle was holding him back. He thrust out a hand in John's direction. "Phone!"

"Wait!" Billy wheeled back around, also raising a hand to John, but his was palm-out in a clear 'stop' request. "What about Myra? Just because we've found Uncle Jason..."

"Just how much of an idiot are you?" Sherlock demanded. "And no, I'm not looking for a numerical value."

John made 'shush'-ing gestures, but neither of them took a damned bit of notice.

"You can't call the police!" Billy insisted. "Not before we've found Myra. I won't let you!" He threw Sherlock's phone away into the darkness, where it clattered against something metallic before hitting the ground with a 'not designed for this' crunch. John got another glare for that one.

"The case is solved," Sherlock said coldly. "There are four men in there…"

"Three, actually," came Mikhail's voice from behind him.

The words coincided with an extremely recognisable 'click' and John's hand twitched automatically towards the gun tucked into the back of his jeans. Sherlock had his head half turned and was slowly raising his hands, until a shove sent him staggering forwards. There was maybe a half-second in which John could act and he could almost certainly take the man out in that time… but anything less than a kill-shot risked retaliation and he could already see a barrel pointing straight at the back of Sherlock's head. No option at all. He raised both arms to catch Sherlock as he crashed into him, taking the opportunity to back them both a couple of steps further away from the man whose most defining feature was the gun in his hand.

Mikhail's gaze swept quickly over the three of them, but his aim remained steady on Sherlock. "What's going on, Billy?"

"I asked them to help me," Billy explained, waving a hand to where Sherlock was taking his time to untangle himself from John's arms and John was futilely trying to twist them both around so that he was blocking Mikhail's line of sight - and as usual cursing the fact that he couldn't shield Sherlock's head without the aid of a kick-stool. "I couldn't find Uncle Jason, and I think my friend Myra was with him. I didn't know what else to do!"

Mikhail managed to roll his eyes without losing sight of his target.

"Handcuffs," he addressed Sherlock, who was now at John's side.

Sherlock said nothing, but John could guess at his derisive expression from the tightening of their assailant's jaw. Mikhail narrowed his eyes for a moment, then he smirked. John watched as the barrel of the gun swung round to point at him instead.

"Handcuffs," Mikhail repeated. "Or whatever equivalent is carried by Sherlock bleedin' Holmes."

A minute later, they were being shepherded after Billy into the portacabin, John's hands raised above his head and Sherlock's secured behind his back with his own cuffs. Well, technically John doubted they were his own, but he'd produced them from somewhere in his coat and they looked like regulation police issue rather than fakes which might spring helpfully open at a useful moment... such as now.

"Billy, my boy," the voice they'd heard earlier proclaimed, and John could now see that it belonged to a stocky man whose face looked curiously flat - as if he'd walked into a patio window and it had just stayed like that. He was leaning back against a desk at the far end of the long room, with a flunkey standing either side of him. A glance told John that they were both armed. "What on earth are you doing here?" he asked.

Billy had rushed towards his 'uncle' but stopped only half way down the room as Hargreaves raised his hand.

"And in such illustrious company," he continued. "Although one would really expect a consulting detective to grasp that noise travels both ways through an open window."

If Sherlock bristled any harder, John would be able to use him as a clothes brush.

"He's looking for someone called 'Myra'," Mikhail spoke from behind them.

"Myra?" Hargreaves echoed thoughtfully. "I don't think I know a 'Myra'." He looked around at the others. "Anyone?"

The flunkies shook their heads. Billy launched into a convoluted explanation regarding the beads, during which Hargreaves maintained his magnanimous smile.

"I'm sorry, my boy, but I really can't help you - I wasn't in the office at all yesterday. In fact, we've been rather busy here." His gaze ran over Sherlock and John. "How did you find 'here', by the way?"

"Hardly difficult." Sherlock spoke disdainfully. "One of your thugs is rather… distinctive."

"Hmm," Hargreaves acknowledged. "We really must do something about that scar, Mikhail - extend it, perhaps?" His chilly tone was at odds with his pleasant smile. "No matter." He turned his head away, looking absently at the desk he was leaning against. "Get rid of them."

John tensed, but it seemed that Mikhail was being instructed to deal with them elsewhere and those were better odds than they faced at the moment. He held his position, glad it didn't seem to have occurred to them to frisk a doctor.

"What? No!" Billy's head was swivelling between them and his uncle. "What do you mean?" He backed towards Sherlock and John. "You can't hurt them, they're my friends!"

"So many friends you have, Billy." Hargreaves' fake smile reappeared. "Magazine sellers happy to give up their pitch for the day if it's you that's asking… people who let you borrow their dogs… you're invaluable, really."

He folded his arms. "But it seems that every silver lining has a cloud." He jerked his chin in Mikhail's direction and John felt Sherlock lurch towards the door as he was shoved from behind. John followed, aware of Mikhail ready to bring up the rear and fleetingly considering blocking the exit long enough for Sherlock to get away.

"Don't," Sherlock hissed, even as John dismissed the idea. John smiled to himself. Together then. That was fine with him. His smile vanished as he felt a tug on the back of his belt. He spun around, but it was too late…

"Stop… stop it!" Billy demanded, John's gun held in his shaking hand and his aim veering wildly between Hargreaves on one side of him and Mikhail on the other. Well… 'aim' wasn't really the word; a stray shot could have taken out just about anyone in the room. Hargreaves slowly straightened from his perch on the desk, one hand raised in a 'settle down' gesture.

"Now then, my dear boy, I'm afraid you must have misunderstood me." He signalled to Mikhail, who reluctantly lowered his weapon. "Naturally we don't want to hurt anyone, haven't we said that all along?" His tone was brimming over with 'reasonable adult' vibes. It made John want to punch him.

"But we can't have your friends raising the alarm before we've had the chance to make some plans, now can we? After all, we may know that our motives have been entirely altruistic, but we can hardly expect the police to take that view."

John extended a hand and edged forwards. "Give me the gun, Billy," he said quietly. "Before you take someone's head off."

"No." Billy shook his head, his arm wavering even more erratically as he did so. "You…" he waggled the gun at Mikhail, "…go over there," the waggling moved towards Hargreaves, whose flunkies were looking distinctly nervous. "And throw that gun out of the window," he added.

"Billy, what are you doing?" John tried again as Mikhail, after a nod from Hargreaves, did as instructed. He wondered whether to point out that the flunkies were also armed, but Sherlock couldn't possibly have missed it and he hadn't said anything, so John kept quiet.

"He was going to phone the police before," Billy indicated Sherlock, although thankfully with a nod rather than the weapon. "He doesn't care about finding Myra, he only cares about the case. Well… and you," he added. "He obviously cares about you. But I need to find Myra."

"Finding Myra is irrelevant," Sherlock announced. John wanted to punch him. "It's entirely obvious…"

"It's obvious that our charity work must come to an end," Hargreaves interrupted. "Which is a shame, but at least we've done some good."

He took a pace forward, a smile oozing across his face. "Why don't you come with me, Billy?" he suggested. "We can keep our heads down for a few days while I make some enquiries about your young lady, then make a fresh start once we've found her. I'm sure she can't be far." He indicated the flunkies. "They can keep an eye on your friends until we're safely away."

"Oh for God's sake!" Sherlock exclaimed, advancing to John's side. "Surely you're not still swallowing this twaddle?"

"Twaddle?" Billy echoed, his eyes staying on Hargreaves.

"What percentage of the robbery proceeds do you really think made it to the shelters?" Sherlock demanded, bringing Billy's focus in his direction. "Not a penny more than was needed to cover the money-laundering, I guarantee."

"What?" Billy shook his head. "No, that's not true. Is it, Uncle?" He turned back to Hargreaves.

"Of course not!" Hargreaves promised heartily. "Naturally there were some expenses - I can see how a quick glance at the books might be confusing to the untrained eye." He directed an apparently benevolent smile in Sherlock's direction. "But any expert could tell you…"

"That it's a big fat con," Sherlock finished. "He used you. Where else would he find such a convenient combination of 'popular' and 'stupid'?"

"Could you not have gone with 'naive'?" John muttered, fighting the impulse to kick his ankle. "Can we never have any common sense in among the genius?"

"No." Billy's head shaking became more agitated. "No, you're wrong." The gun was wavering away from Hargreaves now and heading in a direction John found utterly unacceptable. He stepped in front of Sherlock and tried to make himself as large as possible.

"It's to help people!" Billy's eyes were wide as they met John's at last. "To help people!" He was insistent beyond all reason, which was an attitude John had encountered before. If someone was persuaded to do something they knew to be wrong for the sake of a 'cause', then they had to keep believing in that cause… they had to… because the alternative was completely unthinkable. They became complicit in their own deception, pushing down doubts before they'd even surfaced.

"But what made you to go along with it?" Sherlock was relentless. "What was the final straw?"

John glanced over his shoulder, wondering where this was going.

"Getting beaten up by a pair of apparent yuppies who said all the right things?" Sherlock continued, his questions sounding more like statements every time. "Did that never strike you as a little… coincidental?"

"Let's go, Billy. We're leaving." Hargreaves moved quickly forwards and John debated just going for the gun.

"Oh!" Sherlock's trademark 'deduction' alert caught everyone's attention just as Billy's ingrained behaviour seemed about to make him obey his uncle. He raised the gun he had begun to lower and Hargreaves stopped again.

"Oh, that's too good." Sherlock sounded positively gleeful as he swirled out from behind John and strode straight past Billy, moving with more grace than a man with his hands cuffed behind himself should really be able to manage. "Too good," he said again, leaning down to sneer the words in Hargreaves' face.

"Think about the men who attacked you," he instructed Billy, turning his back on the undoubtedly violent man he'd just thoroughly pissed off with an insouciance which John found both familiar and highly infuriating. "Picture their faces."

"What?" Billy sounded confused, but he was listening.

"Their faces," Sherlock repeated, approaching him then twirling round again to nod towards the two men who had been flanking Hargreaves right from the start, and at whom John had barely glanced beyond assessing them as 'armed but not particularly dangerous'.

Billy's mouth fell open as his gaze followed the direction of Sherlock's nod. "No," he said. It was far from the first time he'd used the term, but this rendition lacked the certainty of his previous denials and it was clear that his conviction was wavering. He looked from one man to the other, the frown growing on his face. "No, it can't be... Uncle Jason… no…" He was backing towards John now, moving away from the rest of the gang.

"Give me the gun and I'll give you Myra."

Hargreaves' words hung heavily in the air as their implications radiated outwards and everyone seemed to freeze in place.

"You've got Myra?" Billy sounded as if he had been pushed almost too far, his voice high and strained.

"Give me the gun." Hargreaves held out a hand.

"Where is she?"

"The gun."

"No!" Billy waved it at him instead, and John noted the flunkies surreptitiously reaching into their jackets. He rose slightly onto the balls of his feet, praying that Sherlock wouldn't do anything too insane.

"You've been lying to me all along!" Billy cried. "I can't believe… How could you do that?" His eyes were wide and he was trembling. He brought up his other hand to help hold the gun steady.

"Where is she?" he demanded again.

"Close." Hargreaves' voice was cold, with no trace of his 'kindly uncle' persona remaining. "Give me the gun and you'll be with her in under five minutes."

Billy lurched forwards, as if even the promise of a reunion was enough of a magnet to draw him in.

"Don't," Sherlock said warningly.

"Is he lying?" Billy asked him desperately. "I know you can tell. Is he lying about Myra?"

Sherlock pulled a face. "No," he admitted. "But…"

Whatever he had been about to say was cut off as the door started to swing open. "Er, Boss…" The massive figure of the man who had been roaming outside earlier appeared in the gap, presumably addressing Mikhail, although it was hard to be sure since his head was down and he was staring awkwardly at his feet. "Er... which car did you say the body was in?"

There were around four seconds of silence… and then all hell broke loose.

John dived for Billy as he let out a howl which started in agony and ended in rage.

Sherlock took Hargreaves to the floor as the single bullet Billy managed to fire flashed through the space he left behind.

The flunkies pulled their weapons, then appeared to wonder what to do with them.

Mikhail opened his mouth… but didn't get out a word before being interrupted by a loudhailer from outside as lights suddenly flooded the windows.

"This is the police. You are surrounded. Exit the building with your hands over your heads."

 

 

oOo

Ten minutes later, John was sitting on the tailgate of an ambulance, a blanket around his shoulders and a lump in his throat. It had taken three officers to subdue Billy after John released him - the boy was utterly distraught. John had tried to stay with him at first, but he seemed oblivious to anything but his own grief - a scenario with which John was all too familiar. When they pulled him away, John had let him go.

He rubbed a hand over his face, wishing he could wipe away some of his thoughts as he heard Billy's cries echoing from the other ambulance where an attempt was being made to sedate him. Myra. Tiny, vibrant, fierce Myra, who had gone to challenge an 'uncle' and instead met the man underneath. Her loss was a terrible sadness, but it was John's empathy that was choking him now. Impossible to listen to the sound of Billy's pain and not find a comparative which made his stomach churn with nausea.

"Here's your phone." Sherlock's voice was quiet as his shoes appeared in John's eye line. It was as much as John could do not to simply drag him forward and hold on.

"John?"

Oh, right. His phone. He still didn't entirely trust himself not to reach for the phone and grab the man instead.

"Keep it," he offered. "For now, at least." Sherlock must have lifted it when Mikhail had first shoved him forward… and then managed to text Lestrade while his hands were cuffed and out of sight.

"Should I… we… find her?" Sherlock asked, and John closed his eyes, his face still safely hidden behind his hand. There was little he felt less like doing than embarking on a treasure hunt with a dead friend at the end of it. He wanted to go home and he wanted to take Sherlock with him and he wanted to push him down onto the sofa and he wanted to crawl on top and he wanted to just keep him… But Sherlock wasn't his to keep.

And wasn't this just brilliant? John despaired inside his head. Here he was, wallowing in self-pity because the most important thing in his life didn't rank him as highly in return, while poor Myra lay dead and cold in one of a hundred or more car boots somewhere in this godforsaken place and Billy's sobs were barely beginning to quieten.

"Should I…?" Sherlock started again.

"Let's go." John got to his feet, shrugging off the blanket and wishing that his sentiment would go with it. Perhaps Sherlock was right; perhaps it was better to live without emotions. Oh, God, he felt horrible, upset about one thing but fighting back tears over another. He gritted his jaw.

"Are you…?"

"Lead on." He waved an arm to indicate the large array of vehicles before them. He didn't look at Sherlock. Couldn't look at Sherlock. But he would follow him.

The next... he had no idea how many minutes... passed in something of a blur. Lestrade joined them, bringing a car key retrieved from the big guy and confirming that neither Hargreaves nor the others would say a word until they'd seen a solicitor… and then they were off; Sherlock muttering deductions about the make and age based on something to do with the key design, and likely locations since Hargreaves must have driven it there that day. John let it all wash over him, keeping the swirling coat in view and not meeting the frequent glances. Lestrade tried to talk to him a couple of times but Sherlock shut him up.

They were near the far edge of the yard when the coat stopped. John stopped with it.

"This one." Sherlock already had the key in the lock and John felt his world come sharply back into focus as the boot flew open and a combination of moonlight and street lighting joined forces to reveal… a carpet.

He blinked and looked again. Perhaps a rug rather than a carpet, judging from the tassels along the rolled up end - mostly dark, but with a splash of pale yellow showing as Lestrade's torch illuminated it more clearly. Sherlock reached in and gripped the far edge of the rug with both gloved hands, pulling it back and then letting it fall over the lip of the boot so that it hung down towards the ground and they could all see that the yellow wasn't really 'yellow' at all… but blonde.

She looked so small. Always had done, of course, but even more so now. Like a child who'd curled up in a really good spot for 'hide and seek' and fallen asleep before she was found. Lestrade moved the beam from his torch up over the back of her head… and the illusion was shattered.

John turned away, closing his eyes against the vision of blonde matted with dark red. He wanted… he wanted… he wanted comfort from a man who would never take it in return.

A hand brushed his shoulder and he shrugged it off, stumbling away into the relative darkness. God, he had to keep it together, at least until he was alone. As he probably always would be, because there could only be Sherlock for him now. All lines crossed. All bridges burning. Anyone else would be an echo after this.

"What can I do?" Sherlock's voice followed him into the shadows.

John shook his head.

"John, please…"

"Leave it, Sherlock. Just give me some space."

Lestrade was already talking into his radio and John had only minutes to get himself under control. Right now it felt like the job would take hours… if he ever managed it. Everything was so confused in his head: grief over Myra, sympathy for Billy, the fear which someone else's loss of a loved one inevitably engendered in him… all tangled up with the tumultuous events of the last few days.

"I can't." Sherlock's hand was back on his shoulder but this time tugging him around. "I can't, John. Don't ask me to."

John stared at him... and was so tempted. One word and he could be back in Sherlock's arms... and in his bed before the night was out, it would be easy. Another relationship founded on all the wrong reasons but God, he wanted it so much... He pulled free. "You want to be my friend? Then back off when I need you to, OK?"

"You can't shut me out."

"Yes, I can," John contradicted. "Yes, I can, Sherlock. You don't have the right to push me - you gave it up, remember? You didn't want it." There was an obvious 'me' where the 'it' appeared, but he said the right word.

Sherlock's face was a study in frustration. "You need me."

"What I need is for you to give me a minute, all right? Just…" he looked around desperately. "Just… go over there." He pointed towards where Lestrade seemed to be winding up his radio conversation.

"I don't want to."

"You don't want to." The anger was a welcome stopper on John's weaker emotions. "And it always has to be about you. Of course it does."

"I mean, I can't." Sherlock was looking increasingly agitated. "You... your pain. It's screaming at me."

"God, you idiot!" Suddenly, John wanted to thump him. How could such a genius have so little understanding of his own emotions? "Why can't you ever use some of that bloody perception on yourself?!"

"What do you...?"

"John?" Lestrade's rather hesitant call turned both their heads. John sucked in some deep breaths. He clearly wasn't going to get any private 'pull yourself together' time, so he'd just have to make the best of it.

"Doctor!"

It was the tone as much as the word, but John was running... quickly reaching Lestrade where he stood staring into the open car boot.

"What is it? Oof!" He lurched a step closer than he'd intended to go as Sherlock ran into the back of him.

"Sorry." Sherlock steadied himself with a hand on John's hip, which he somehow neglected to remove. John didn't call him on it.

"Check her, will you?" Lestrade asked tightly.

"Check her?" John steeled himself to look at Myra's body again. No change. Obviously, no change.

"I… just check her! I can't feel a pulse myself, but I could have sworn…" He looked extremely shaken.

"All right." As far as he could, John pushed 'Myra' to the back of his mind and pulled on 'medical professional'. He stepped forward, not complaining as Sherlock moved with him.

Skin cold, but then so was his own - fingers numb and useless. He picked Sherlock's hand off his hip and stripped the glove from it. Sherlock understood immediately and reached down to Myra's wrist. After a few seconds, he shook his head.

"Wait," John told him. A hypothermic person's heart rate might be very slow. "Give it a full minute."

They all waited. And they all jumped when Sherlock did, some fifteen seconds later.

"My God!" Lestrade's voice was hushed. He collected himself, reaching for his radio. "Get an ambulance down here! Right now, do you hear me? Right now!"

 

 

oOo

It was almost dawn by the time John and Sherlock got back to Baker Street.

Myra was in the hospital, still unconscious, but at least alive. Billy had been so overwhelmed by the news that it had taken John several attempts to convey to him the possibility that he might have sustained a whiplash injury at some unspecified point in the evening. Once the message got through and the young man was clutching his neck in a reasonably convincing manner, John had wasted no time in slapping a cervical collar on him and recommending that he be taken to hospital rather than immediately into custody. Lestrade had rolled his eyes but nodded his head, and Billy's ambulance had set off only minutes behind his sweetheart's.

Sherlock, meanwhile, had taken it upon himself to convey the glad tidings to Hargreaves, whose reaction seemed to be all that he had hoped for judging from the smug look on his face when he returned to John's side, where he had stuck determinedly ever since.

With a huge sigh of relief, John collapsed into his armchair, lacking even the energy to contemplate tea. He idly wondered if there was an emotion he hadn't experienced in the last twenty-four hours, but couldn't think of one off-hand.

"Here."

His nose recognised the whisky before his half open eyes spotted the glass held in front of his face. "Thanks."

The spirit slipped soothingly down his throat and settled in his far-too-empty stomach. He supposed he should get something to eat. John tipped his head back and closed his eyes. Yeah… that wasn't going to happen.

"You should go to bed."

"Yep," John agreed. "I'll get right on that." He shifted deeper into his chair as Sherlock sat down opposite. "Any minute now…"

There was silence for a while and John was at least eighty per cent asleep when Sherlock's voice jerked him back into consciousness.

"What did you mean, before?"

It was an uncomfortable feeling, being snapped back like that. "Huh?" was the best response he could manage.

"You said that I should try turning my perception on myself."

"Oh, right." John yawned widely. "Ask me tomorrow..."

Some semblance of awareness raised a hand with a red flag in it.

"...Or not..."

The flag started waving.

"...Just forget it, eh?"

The hand threw down the flag and made a gesture of exasperation.

"I'm asking you now," Sherlock said.

"Nope. No good." John gave vent to another dislocation-risking yawn. "No one wants to hear the truth about themselves..." he cricked his neck, then settled back down, "...least of all you."

The words 'spectacularly ignorant' drifted through his mind, possibly spelled out in semaphore by the flag-waver.

"I thought you always stressed the importance of being honest?"

There was a trap in there; John could sense it even without the desperate signage going on in his head. "You shouldn't ask me stuff when I'm this out of it."

There was a short silence. "Shouldn't as in 'I'll regret it', or shouldn't as in 'you'll be angry with me if I do'?"

John tried to follow that one but it was beyond him.

"Tell me something true, John." Sherlock's voice sounded nearer and John cracked open one eye to see him leaning forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. He sat back at once. "If you can, of course." His tone was nonchalant but it didn't fool John. Not for one minute. Something true...

"Mycroft will never give you what you want from him." That should do it. The 'M' word was usually a conversation-killer. Then John could go to sleep in peace.

"And what do I want from him?"

Damn.

"Respect?" John suggested, managing half a shrug. Maybe a quarter. "For him to see you as an equal?" He yawned again. "I don't know. This stupid rivalry thing... which of you can be the most detached... the most 'Spock'-y. It's ridiculous. Although, I suppose in a way... pretty normal."

"Normal?"

"He's your big brother," John offered, rousing slightly at Sherlock's tone. It made him think of a Monty Python sketch, which promptly adapted itself in his head: It's spelled 'normal', but it's pronounced 'most hideous insult known to man'.

"It's natural that you've grown up thinking you should be like him," he explained.

"I do not...!" The sharp words stirred John from his semi-sleepy state and he blinked owlishly across the room. Sherlock was glaring at him.

"You all right?" John wondered if he was supposed to do something. Sherlock's face smoothed into blankness. John decided staying put would be fine. He was well on his way back to a whisky-assisted dreamland when Sherlock spoke again.

"So you don't think Mycroft and I are alike?"

"God, no!" John nearly snorted himself off his cushion. "Can't imagine Mycroft jumping around yelling 'It's Christmas!' at the news of an exciting coup coming up." John's imagination immediately proved him wrong, which was a rather disturbing visual.

"You have such joy in you. He's like... like a disapproving dowager!" He sniggered, remembering the play they'd taken Mrs Hudson to see. Truly, Mycroft would make a wonderful Lady Bracknell, although John wasn't so sure where he'd stand on the issue of handbags. Not that he wanted to know. Far from it.

"Hmm."

A gentle 'thud' warned John that he'd dropped his glass on the carpet. He decided not to worry about it. The whisky was long gone, anyway.

"You should go to bed."

A crack about Sherlock repeating himself was wandering around somewhere, but it emerged as a grunt.

"Come on. Up you get. You'll be in agony tomorrow if you sleep in that chair."

"Today," John observed into Sherlock's shoulder, which seemed to be in his face for some reason. "I've already climbed at least seventeen-hundred steps to get this far, I'm not climbing any more. Oy!" he protested, finding himself suddenly and disconcertingly vertical.

"Do you want me to carry you?"

That woke him up. "No, I do not want you to bloody carry me!"

"Well, stop being an idiot."

Grumbling gently, John allowed himself to be shepherded... up to a point. "This is your room."

"You're on great form, today. Really, John. I can barely keep up with you."

"I don't think..."

"Clearly."

John remained stubbornly in the doorway. He was confused enough without getting into sleeping arrangements.

Sherlock walked around him, pulling back one side of the duvet. "Look: no stairs!" he said, waving towards the bed as if he were displaying a prize on one of the cheesy game-shows John secretly quite enjoyed.

Perhaps not so secretly. He sighed. Sherlock beckoned to him and he gave in. "No funny business, though," he warned, kicking off his trainers.

Sherlock sniffed, puttering around the room for a few minutes as John fumbled his way down to T-shirt and underwear, then fell into bed. The duvet was being pulled up over him before he'd had a chance to reach for it.

"You're exhausted."

John attempted a 'no shit' expression, but knew it wasn't his best work. "What will happen with Myra and Billy?" He hadn't really planned the question; he just wasn't ready for Sherlock to leave.

"What do you want me to say?"

John curled onto his side, not exactly patting the bed in front of him, but smoothing it down in an 'Oh, look at this seating area!' sort of way. "Something nice."

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure bedtime stories are really my thing." But he sat down in the space John had made.

"Best case scenario, then?"

Sherlock shrugged. "Myra makes a full recovery. Billy gets a suspended sentence in exchange for testifying against Hargreaves and the rest." He hesitated then produced a slightly sardonic smile. "And they both live happily ever after."

"Your telling lacks conviction," John complained. "D'you not think they deserve it?"

"Do you?"

"Of course," John yawned, feeling himself slipping away from the conversation. He closed his eyes. "Everyone has the right to be happy." He thought of Hargreaves and co... and all the other criminals they'd put away. "Well, almost everyone." They tended to see the dark side, but people were generally good. He did believe that.

"Even me?" The words were so quiet, John had to reach out with his hand to catch them.

"Especially you, Sherlock." He smiled as he drifted off, long fingers wrapped around his own. "Especially you."

 

Artwork for this chapter:

Red Flag by JadenFlame

 

Chapter Text

"You could be right."

John stirred slightly, not entirely sure of what he'd heard, but aware that something had reached down through the last few layers of sleep and poked his consciousness right in the 'Huh?'

He opened his eyes, slowly blinking Sherlock's bedroom into focus. The light sneaking around the edges of the curtains looked noon-ish, so he must have slept the whole morning.

"What did you say?" he mumbled, rolling over onto his back.

There was a profound lack of reply from the tall figure sitting against the headboard beside him.

"Sherlock?" John queried, twisting round further and propping himself up on one elbow. He took in more details as his brain trundled into second gear. Sherlock was on top of the covers and fully dressed, with the exception of his shoes and socks - mmm, toes… John's thought processes threatened to stall.

"I'm up here." Sherlock's voice was desert dry.

John shifted into third gear. "So, what did you say?" he asked again, edging back so that he could more easily look up into a face which now bore a slight flush. He bit back a smile. This was one of several factors which made Sherlock so deliciously easy to seduce - John had only to think of what he wanted to do to him and Sherlock couldn't help but read it; by the time thoughts became actions he was half way there already.

"And I don't mean the 'up here' thing," he qualified, as Sherlock's mouth opened in a suspiciously facetious manner. "What did you say before that?"

Sherlock appeared to take a sudden interest in his ceiling. "You were supposed to be asleep."

John waited. He was pretty sure he'd already been half-awake when the declaration was made, and there was no way Sherlock would have missed that. It was as if he didn't know how to instigate a discussion, so was trying to provoke one.

"I… may have suggested that there could be a possibility that you might not always be entirely wrong about everything," he announced.

John raised his eyebrows. "Contingencies on 'three for the price of two' this week, are they?"

The ceiling was abandoned in favour of the chest of drawers.

John sighed. If he could only reach out and grab Sherlock around the middle, it would be easy to just cuddle the truth out of him - because Sherlock could sneer all he liked but he couldn't hide how utterly starved he was for physical affection. There was always a moment just before he pushed into it when he almost seemed to freeze, as if his body was so unused to being touched that it had no idea how to deal with it.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the kind of relationship which would entitle John to do that. Also, he seriously needed to go to the bathroom.

"Back in a minute."

By the time he returned, Sherlock was gone. John quickly tugged on his jeans and set about tracking him down. If Sherlock was wavering, then John wanted to make sure that he landed on the side of the fence which led to happiness. And orgasms. Lots and lots of orgasms.

The search wasn't particularly challenging - Sherlock was sitting at the kitchen table. Well, 'looking about to bolt from' might have been more accurate, but he was there. John leaned back against the worktop opposite and studied him. They needed to discuss this properly - it was no good just falling into something again, because another reversal like the last one might finish him off, he had to learn from his mistakes. It was time to put their cards on the table. He took a couple of deep breaths, then pulled out the chair in front of him and sat down.

"Talk to me," he invited.

"I checked with the hospital," Sherlock offered. "Myra's awake and doing well." He shrugged. "Thought you'd want to know."

"That was very considerate of you," John acknowledged. Sherlock looked vaguely offended at the term. "But it's not what I meant."

Sherlock shifted uncomfortably. "Must we talk about it? If I acknowledge that some of your points may have a certain amount of validity, can we not just try…"

"No." John cut him off. "There is no 'try'."

Sherlock eyed him suspiciously. "That's a quote, isn't it?" he demanded. "I can tell by your ears."

John refused to feel self-conscious about his ears. Nor was he going to get into the philosophy of Yoda. "You don't get to 'try' again, Sherlock… because you don't try hard enough. You let me down."

"I…"

"You hurt me."

Sherlock looked away. "I'm sorry."

"I know you are," John agreed. "But that doesn't mean you won't do it again." He shook his head. "Look, I could witter on all day about 'being your own person' and 'people are not possessions' and all that kind of thing - which I completely agree with, as it happens - but when it comes right down to it, I pretty much want to grab you by a fistful of your hair and drag you off to my cave."

Sherlock's eyebrows rose in tandem with the hand moving protectively towards his curls.

John gave him a rueful shrug. "Sorry. But I'm sick to death of playing games and trying to second-guess each other. The truth is I'm in love with you. Completely and permanently. But I'm not going to throw my heart on the floor for you to jump on whenever you feel like it."

"I wouldn't…"

"You did."

Sherlock fell silent.

"So, if we do this," John went on after a moment, "then we do it properly, the whole shebang. I'm yours, you're mine, we're together and that is that." He nodded decisively. "For the rest of my days, anyway - I guess you can do what you like after I'm gone."

"Not acceptable," Sherlock announced immediately.

John's heart sank. He was almost tempted just to take whatever Sherlock was willing to offer, no matter what experience told him about a clean break hurting less in the long run. Who cared about the long run, anyway? He didn't even know how long his run might be.

"You are not allowed to die before I do; it's out of the question."

John exhaled his relief, then frowned. "Um..." He scratched his head. "Not really the…"

"…point you were making," Sherlock finished, looking rather chagrined. It seemed that sudden declarations threw him rather off his game. "Right." He surveyed the window for a while, then cleared his throat. "So what exactly would this 'shebang' thing entail?"

Data. Information. Of course Sherlock would want that. John attempted to organise his thoughts while simultaneously trying to keep his hopes from zipping off into the stratosphere.

"Sleeping together," he said. He was pretty sure Sherlock loved that - might as well lead with a winner.

"Um, do you mean that in a euphemistic sense, or…?"

"No euphemisms allowed in this conversation," John told him. "I mean it in the sense that I'd rather get the crap kicked out of me every night by you dreaming up some new baritsu move than I would sleep without you."

"Right." Sherlock was looking increasingly dazed by this deluge of devotion.

"But sex too, of course," John added.

"Of course."

There was a short silence as this topic received due contemplation. John tried to get back on track.

"Touching," he announced.

"Er, are we still on…?"

"No," John shook his head. "Not necessarily sexual - just physical contact." He laid his hand palm up on the table.

Sherlock slowly stretched out his own to meet it. John tried to ignore the sensation fizzing up his arm and focus on Sherlock, who seemed to be feeling a similar awareness if the way he was looking at their joined hands was any indication.

"I stop myself a dozen times a day," John said softly. "I don't want to do that any more."

"Mrs Hudson said that I suppressed my impulses towards you," Sherlock admitted. "She told me I should let myself go a bit."

"Very wise woman, Mrs Hudson," John offered, with a smile.

"You would say that."

"So would you, if she was standing here."

Sherlock acknowledged the point with a tilt of his head.

"Oh, the work!" John couldn't believe he hadn't established that one before anything else. "Cases come first, naturally," he clarified quickly. "When you're working, I'd follow you the way I always have - always will, if you let me."

Sherlock relaxed a fraction. "Go on."

John frowned, wondering what else to say. It was true that he disliked being bossed around in the bedroom, but beyond that he was fairly easy. Sherlock liked it, though. He liked it very much - but how far that was based on his reluctance to admit to having such needs at all, John didn't know; they pretty much had to work it out as they went along.

"Well, any and all of this is open to negotiation, of course," he established. "I should have said that sooner. I can tell you what I envisage, but nothing's set in stone, all right?"

"Do get on with it."

John grinned. "OK, well a crack like that would probably earn you some kind of retaliation, for a start."

"Retaliation?" Sherlock's eyes widened.

John shrugged. "Well, depending on the situation, of course. I'm not going to suddenly pounce on you in the middle of Scotland Yard or anything."

Sherlock swallowed as he clearly worked through the implications of that one. Then he frowned. "If you're suggesting that I'd have to be polite to you all the time, then I…"

He was interrupted by John's snort of laughter. "Polite!" he exclaimed, raising his free hand to cover his mouth. "You!" The word burst through his fingers and he abruptly had two free hands again as Sherlock pulled away, looking peeved.

"Sorry." John managed to bring his chortling under control. He beckoned with the hand still lying on the table. "Give it back."

Sherlock sniffed.

"Give it back."

Sherlock gave it back. John stroked a thumb approvingly over the inside of his wrist.

"Look, as much as I may nag you about the state of the kitchen, or using my gun to wreak vengeance on the furnishings, I don't actually want to change you." He paused, considering why Sherlock's behaviour sometimes affected him the way it did. "I guess it's kind of like flirting, actually - or your version of it, anyway. I mean, usually it's just you being rude because you can't be arsed to be civil, but sometimes it's like you're trying to provoke a reaction." He grinned, sudden and hungry. "And it makes me want to give you one."

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Obviously the euphemism ban does not extend to innuendo."

John shrugged, unrepentant.

Sherlock regarded him consideringly. "And what if I don't want it? At that particular time, I mean," he added quickly.

"Then you say 'No'." John shrugged again. "That's always an option." Although he actually found it difficult to imagine Sherlock rejecting a physical approach. It was his head that gave him the problems; his body was only too happy to take what it wanted. John wondered if he realised that. "Do you think you'd say 'No' to me very often?"

Sherlock gave him his best 'smart-arse' smirk. "No."

John smiled back, but it didn't last. He drew a deep breath. Crunch time. "And will you say 'No' to me now?"

Sherlock's smirk slowly faded.

The traffic noise from Baker Street… the tinny warble of a neighbour's radio… the faint humming of the fridge, all faded with it. John waited.

It took too long.

He looked down at Sherlock's hand in his own… and started to let it go.

"It was at the morgue." Sherlock spoke jerkily and his fingers tightened around John's with a force which would have made him wince had he not been so incredibly relieved by the pressure.

"The morgue?" he murmured as Sherlock seemed to be having difficulty continuing, his head down and his face pale even by his normal standards of translucency.

"When I should have realised."

"Go on," John prompted.

Sherlock glanced at his face then away again. John could see the muscles of his other arm working as if he was digging his fingernails into his leg under the table.

"There was a family. Three people. Crying. Sobbing, in fact." He curled his lip. "I scorned them."

John couldn't help his wince this time and Sherlock glanced his way again.

"Oh, not to their faces - I didn't speak to them. I was talking to Mycroft."

John nodded, recognising now which night Sherlock meant.

"I asked him if he thought there was something wrong with us. Because we didn't care like other people - we were above all that, do you see?"

"Yes," John confirmed. He'd seen for ages, he'd just despaired that Sherlock ever would.

Sherlock grimaced. "Empathy has never been my strong suit. It failed to occur to me how easy it is to dismiss emotions one has never experienced." He shifted in his seat and John wondered if he would find this easier if he was on the move. He gently pulled his hand free and Sherlock gave him a small nod, then stood and walked to the window.

"What you said last night about my being different to Mycroft…" He broke off and looked over his shoulder, his normal manner briefly reasserting itself, "…we'll ignore the 'thinking I should be like him' part, which is clearly ludicrous."

John nodded as meekly as possible. Sherlock glared, then obviously remembered what he was supposed to be doing. He cleared his throat and turned away again.

"Well, it called to mind that exchange," he continued. "And it is clear to me now that the sense of superiority I felt at the time was completely unwarranted." He paused and bowed his head before continuing. "Had it been your body I'd had to identify, I would have been no better than they." He sounded pained. "Worse, probably. Certainly more destructive."

He shook himself, then turned and started pacing across the room, ruffling the fingers of one hand through the hair at the back of his head. "When we were friends and no more than that, I could rationalise it because we worked so well together."

He seemed to reach some sort of optimal swivelling point and headed back the other way. "Even the coolest mind would have had to acknowledge the logic of our partnership."

He arrived at the window again and looked round, as if to make sure John was following. "Our attachment stretched my perception of myself, but didn't break it."

It wasn't a question but John nodded anyway.

"But this..." Sherlock's pacing took him to the living room doorway and he came to a stop. "There is no logic for this, no rationalisation possible..."

John could only see his back view, but it seemed to be struggling. He got to his feet and walked round so that he was in front. Sherlock's gaze was darting all over the place and he was giving off the sort of vibes that John got from him just before a deduction - a sense that absolutely anything could happen.

"The man I thought I was could never feel this... much."

He hesitated, wide eyes settling on John's face at last and John was afraid to move… afraid to breathe… afraid to do anything that might stop him now. He waited.

"But I do feel it," Sherlock said.

He was suddenly an unacceptable distance away.

"Is that a 'Yes'?" John asked, holding himself back... because he wouldn't survive this again, he had to be sure.

Sherlock blinked, looking briefly confused. "Ask me that thing you said earlier - the shebang thing."

"Shebang thing?" John was edging closer despite himself. It must be a 'Yes', it had to be. Sherlock wouldn't be cruel - if he was going to back off, he would have backed off by now.

"You know…" Sherlock was edging too. "I'm yours, you're mine… "

"…we're together and that is that," John managed to finish the quote, struggling to think past the euphoria beginning to flood his system.

"Yes, that," Sherlock agreed. He nodded. "Let's do that."

John's brakes failed. He lurched forwards, gripping Sherlock's hips and pushing him back against the end of the table. "Are you...?"

"Of course I'm sure!" Sherlock snapped, but it had no bite and John's hands were already on his face and not even trying to hide their possessiveness, stroking over his cheekbones, curving around his jaw. "Only a fool would... oh!"

His words slipped into a gasp as John's fingers pushed up under his chin and ran down his neck, spreading his collar wide.

"...would ignore..."

John leaned in, because just stroking that skin could never be enough.

"...such irrefutable..."

Just one button, John decided. Sherlock was still talking, but a single button couldn't be that big a deal.

"...irref...Ahh..." Sherlock moaned as the button made way for teeth. "...ignore the evidence," he managed to finish.

Two buttons were really better than one, John rationalised. One button was barely even noticeable.

"If the facts don't fit... God, John, what are you doing?"

Two buttons were definitely noticeable, John was forced to acknowledge. Might as well do the lot.

"…don't fit the theory..." Sherlock gasped for breath.

John was rather amazed that he was still talking at all, but then he did always have to have the last word.

"…then the theory..."

Go for the belt, or focus on the chest? John debated. It was like being faced with the most delicious 'all you can eat' buffet imaginable and not knowing where to start.

"…theory is wrong."

John made his decision, returning his hands to Sherlock's face and pulling back far enough that he could focus on it. "You are the most brilliant…" He leaned in and pressed a kiss to the corner of Sherlock's mouth, "…gorgeous…" he kissed the other corner.

"…incredible…" a kiss to a cheekbone this time.

"…man I've ever met…" and one on the forehead.

"…and I utterly adore you…" the nose.

"…but I really…" almost the mouth instead of the cheek that time as Sherlock anticipated his move.

"…really, need to kiss you now…"

"Technically, you're already…" Sherlock started.

"… and I don't want to do it here."

Sherlock looked almost comically disappointed. He was already leaning back against the table, but now he put both hands on the edge and boosted himself onto it, wearing an expression which plainly said, 'but… TABLE!'

John smiled at him. "We'll get to the table, I promise you. But not this time." This time was special.

Sherlock pouted.

John stepped back. "Bedroom."

Sherlock folded his arms.

John folded his own and very deliberately started to picture a scene: Sherlock's knuckles standing out white against the wood of his headboard, his curly head tipped forward to display the possessive mark sucked into the base of his neck, his long back quivering in time with the regular, rhythmic, relentless…

Sherlock got off the table.

John grinned and followed him, finding his shirt abandoned on the floor in the doorway. He picked it up.

Sherlock was standing near the bed with his back turned, wearing only his trousers with - John was aware from earlier hip-gripping activities - close-fitting boxers beneath.

"I wanted to do that," he remarked pleasantly, walking around Sherlock and holding up the shirt to illustrate his point. It was taking a huge amount of willpower not to just tackle him to the bed, but John would do his best.

Sherlock shot him a sideways look as he drew level, the dim light filtering around the still closed curtains displaying both the stubborn cant to his chin, and the eager pulse racing below it.

"You know how much I like to explore as I reveal," John continued, moving in front of Sherlock and raising a hand towards his exposed chest. Sherlock swayed closer, his nipple peaking as it strained to reach the fingertips hovering over it. "Shame," John observed, letting his hand fall.

There was a low mutter as he continued his journey, circling around until he was behind Sherlock again. "Did you say something?" he enquired politely, letting his face relax now that he was out of view. His eyes seemed to be intent on trying to dissolve Sherlock's trousers with the force of their gaze alone and it was incredibly difficult to maintain even this minimal distance. He wanted… he wanted…

"No." Sherlock's low-voiced denial barely impacted John's thoughts. "No, I didn't say anything."

"Good," John approved absently. "That's good." He looked down at the shirt in his hands. He had been contemplating using it to bind Sherlock's wrists, but suddenly he didn't want to. His breathing quickened and Sherlock shifted in front of him.

"John?"

John dropped the shirt to the floor.

"John... are you all right?"

He didn't want to be 'in control' this time.

"John?"

He wanted to let go.

"What is it?"

He never let go.

"John?"

Never.

Sherlock began to turn around.

He moved slowly and John had time to get his 'game face' back on, he really did. But somehow, it wasn't happening. He watched with an almost sick feeling in his stomach as Sherlock emerged from his passive state, fully alert after one slow blink. All-seeing eyes roved over John and he flexed his shoulders inside his T-shirt, making sure he was still wearing it and not as totally naked as he felt.

"You're different," Sherlock decided.

"Yes."

"You're afraid."

John looked down. "Yes."

Sherlock's hand pushed his chin up again. "You don't want to play games."

"I…" John didn't know how to explain that usually he'd be fine with it. He loved having 'Sherlock the untouchable' standing before him in his posh clothes and being able to touch… being able to peel them off him piece by piece and take that big brain off-line.

"Not this time," Sherlock deduced. He raised his other hand so that he was holding John's face in both, and John could feel him pulling back the layers. "Oh!" he exclaimed softly. "Yes. Yes, John. Let it go." He stepped closer. "No control." One hand slid into the hair at the back of John's head. "I want that. Give me that."

John hesitated.

Sherlock's eyes had still been flickering with thought but now they stopped, fixed on John's uncertain gaze. He stroked his thumb over a cheekbone. "Trust me."

John stared up at him, feeling stripped and exposed and… God, so alive. More alive than he'd ever been. He sucked in a breath, and let his exhale take the last of his defences out with it. "Yes."

Sherlock's grin had a manic edge. "I'm all yours." He pulled a face. "Quite literally, it would seem. I hadn't thought…"

John tackled him to the bed.

Sherlock's delighted gasp disappeared into John's mouth before his back had even fully made contact with the duvet and John distantly thought that he should probably adjust their positions, make sure that Sherlock was comfortable, take off their clothes…

He didn't do any of those things.

He brought both hands up to Sherlock's face and kissed him as if his mouth contained the secrets to life, the universe, and everything - which, as far as John was concerned, it pretty much did.

The air he eventually had to come up for, he couldn't retain, expending it in a disjointed string of words which he pressed into the skin of Sherlock's face, neck, chest… anywhere he could reach, sometimes registering the tail end of a 'gorgeous' or an 'amazing' as it drifted past his ears, with the occasional 'mad bastard' reassuring him that he hadn't entirely lost his mind.

Sherlock was wriggling beneath him, trying to shift them towards the pillows and John pushed up onto one hand and his knees, then thrust his free arm under Sherlock's hips and lifted, helping him move further up the bed to where he wanted to be.

"Oh…" Sherlock's hands clenched in the material of John's top and he caught his breath, his pupils crowding out the pale beauty of his irises as he stared up at John, who was taking a moment just in awe at the sight of him.

"Clothes," Sherlock muttered. He had seemed on the verge of tugging John down but now his hands went into reverse, trying to push him up higher and get at the hem of his T-shirt. "Off!" he insisted.

It wasn't that John was trying to be contrary, but he was struggling to focus beyond the fact that Sherlock's mouth was moving and that his lips were pink, and that they were perfect, and that they were right there… He lowered his head again because whatever Sherlock was saying, it wasn't 'No', and Sherlock made a frustrated noise but still lifted to meet him.

John felt hands working the T-shirt higher along his torso as they kissed and kept his body propped up, obeying prompts to shift his weight onto one arm and then the other as Sherlock tugged the opposing sleeve free, then reluctantly pulling back as the top was whipped off his head and thrown clear.

Sherlock was reaching for him but John sat up, suddenly needing to see. He took in the flushed skin, parted lips, dark hair sprawled out across the pillowcase, and his heart seemed to expand in his chest until it was taking up so much room that he could hardly breathe.

"Can I have you?" he whispered. "Truly?"

Sherlock opened his mouth on a glib retort and John watched as he recognised the question and released his words unspoken. He swallowed, his hand rising to John's chest, now as bare as his own. "Yes." His hand slid up and around John's neck, trying to pull him down again. "Yes."

John allowed himself to be drawn forward but shifted his hips back at the same time, placing his hands on either side of Sherlock's torso and letting them take his weight. He lowered his head and pressed a kiss directly over Sherlock's heart.

"Yes," Sherlock said again.

John slid south, rubbing his face over Sherlock's abdomen as he went, sometimes kissing, sometimes grazing with his teeth, trying to pull the scent of Sherlock's skin so deeply into his lungs that it would always be accessible, there whenever he needed it.

"Yes…" Sherlock was arching under him and John didn't stop at his waistband, moving down to press his mouth and nose against fabric which was tight and straining over the desperation beneath, and Sherlock's next "Yes" was broken and breathless, his hands clutching at the bedding as if trying to tether himself in place.

John dropped onto his elbows, his forearms stretching far enough across Sherlock's narrow hips to reach the fastenings of his trousers, which he opened blind, not hesitating until he had his fingers tucked into the top of Sherlock's underwear. There he waited for a last choked out affirmative before peeling them back, pushing them down, getting them far enough out of the way that he could fall back on his prize with a hunger which had always been there but held in check, tamped down, controlled... always controlled.

"John... John... God..." Sherlock's voice had an almost panicked edge and John reached up a hand to him, not looking up, not seeing anything, and Sherlock took his hand, gripping it tightly as John forgot everything that wasn't the heavy weight of Sherlock on his tongue, the taste of him in his mouth, the shocked moans and half formed words which were streaming down over his shoulders and back until his attention was snagged by a "Stop!" and an "In me... John, John, John... In me, please!" and he threw himself onto his back and pulled his hand free of Sherlock's grasp to scrabble at his remaining clothes, pushing them down, kicking them off, leaving himself as naked as Sherlock was trying to be, but he still had one leg caught in his trousers when John rolled onto his knees and ripped them free.

"Oh, God…" Sherlock fell back against the bed and John dived right back in to where he'd been, but this time he was between Sherlock's legs instead of straddling them and he pushed under Sherlock's knees and spread them wide, then slid both hands up the backs of his thighs, lifting and holding them open as he sank down because he didn't just want to fuck Sherlock, he wanted to devour him… to suck and bite and lick and eat and any other words which could be applied to one person's desperate need to consume another person, to take them and keep them… and keep them... and keep them.

By the time he raised his head, Sherlock was a wreck… and as ready as John could make him.

"Condom," John demanded. "And lube." Both were on the bedside table, but Sherlock's long limbs were flailing uselessly and John could see that it would be quicker to get them himself… and 'quicker' might not be his usual goal but right now he had to be inside, he had to be. He swarmed up Sherlock's body and kissed him as his hand groped towards the table, which might add a couple of seconds onto his time but if there was an opportunity to kiss Sherlock then John was always going to take it. Always, always. And from now on, he would be able to do just that…

The thought cut through the haze of his desire and for a moment he felt completely overwhelmed. He broke away from Sherlock's mouth and pressed into his neck instead, breathing deeply.

"John?" Sherlock's voice was raw as he pulled back from the brink John had driven him to. "What… are you all right?"

John nodded. "I'm good." He buried his face deeper, blinking back tears even as his smile burst free; an emotional rainbow painted across Sherlock's pale skin.

"You really are." Sherlock seemed to be aiming for levity, but he didn't make it. John raised his head.

"Too good for me, no doubt," Sherlock acknowledged, still breathlessly. "But it doesn't matter, does it?"

"What…?"

"We're beyond that now, aren't we?" Sherlock was starting to focus. "That's what you meant?"

"I…" John wasn't sure what he was getting at.

"Which of us is more intelligent…"

As if there could ever be any doubt.

"Who is the better person…"

Sherlock didn't seem to think that one was in question either.

"It's irrelevant," he continued. "To us, I mean." He raised his eyebrows interrogatively. "'We're together and that is that'," he quoted. "That's what you said."

"It is," John confirmed.

"Well then."

Well then. John wasn't entirely sure if this was a declaration of undying devotion on Sherlock's part, or an announcement that he had no intention of trying to improve his behaviour since John was going to love him anyway… but he didn't care.

"Together," he agreed, sitting back on his heels. "Now pass me a condom, would you?"

He'd already managed to grab the lube, and he put it to good use while Sherlock was twisting obediently towards the table, even though he knew that doing so would cut Sherlock's strings… which it did.

"Condom," he prompted again as Sherlock sprawled half on his side, the arm he had raised towards the table thrown up over his eyes and his body arching in all directions from the point where John had two fingers knuckle-deep inside him.

John pushed in a little further. "Condom," he repeated, finding what he was looking for and rubbing delicate circles against it.

"Yes… I… God…" Sherlock stretched his arm back out, grabbing wildly and knocking half the packets onto the floor.

"Do you want me to stop?" John asked in his kindest tone, enjoying the brief restoration of his control despite knowing it would be short-lived. "I can stop if you want me to."

Sherlock shot him a murderous glare which quickly turned triumphant. "Condom!" he declared, rolling back with his trophy clenched tightly in one fist. He waved it at John. "Now, now, now!"

John grinned at him. Sherlock's version of dominance in the bedroom… really assertive begging. God, he was perfect.

"You're perfect."

Sherlock waved his fist again.

"You do it," John told him. He had no intention of removing his fingers until he was ready to replace them and was already able to feel his control kicking up its heels and heading for the hills. He let it go, his vision darkening as Sherlock complied, working quickly in his eagerness, not messing about, and John's awareness of what he was about to do brought every cell in his body to attention and pointed them all in the same direction until he couldn't focus on anything else… until there wasn't anything else… until it took a strength dragged up from the most basic rule in his psyche to pause, to stop, to ask

"Yes?" His voice was shot to hell and he guided a long, long leg up over his good shoulder and moved forward as he pulled his fingers free and waited… waited…

"Yes!" The leg was trembling. "Yes, yes, of course yes! Why even ask such a ridiculous…?"

And he was there.

And Sherlock was staring up at him and John was staring back and if there was anything he'd ever wanted as much as this, then he couldn't imagine what it was, because this was… Sherlock. Beautiful, brilliant, Sherlock. Brighter than the sun, sharper than a blade… who had taken a broken man and saved him… and John breathed in through his mouth, and he started to move, and Sherlock moved with him, pushing himself up as John drove down, accepting John into his body as he had accepted him into his life. Accepted… welcomed… needed… and John felt as if this was his gift… to fill the needs Sherlock had never acknowledged having, hadn't realised he wanted, had struggled to accept that he deserved.

"Sherlock… Sherlock, stay with me." He didn't mean to say it. He leaned his weight on one arm and dropped his hand down to make sure that Sherlock was keeping pace with him right now… right here in this moment… but he'd meant 'always' and they both knew it.

"Think I'm ahead of you, actually," Sherlock gasped, trying now to push himself in two directions at once, fresh shudders breaking out over his body with every thrust of John's hips and stroke of his hand until his shaking was a continuous tremor and he threw one of his own hands up to brace against the headboard and that… looked good. That looked very good. That looked… a bit too good, in fact, because John… was… losing it.

"I can't… I can't…"

"Yes, you can!" Sherlock insisted, tightening his muscles and squeezing John's world down to the point where they were joined and nothing else. "Give me this," he demanded, and John closed his eyes but Sherlock's voice followed him into the darkness. "You're mine now," he said. "Trust me. Give me this."

And John could not deny him… never had… never would… not of anything he really wanted, and Sherlock wanted this, wanted John… and John was his and always had been.

He cried out as he came, face screwed up, eyes shut, releasing his hold on Sherlock and falling forward onto both elbows, still trying to hold himself up but Sherlock pulled him down, wrapping arms and legs around him and murmuring nonsense into his hair as John shuddered and shook and truly surrendered himself for the first time in his life, and when he recovered enough to open his eyes, the world was just as he had left it and yet not the same at all, and Sherlock was gazing at him with pride amid the desire in his eyes and John reached down between their bodies and eased himself free, then wrapped that hand around Sherlock and pushed the other into his hair and kissed him, and kissed him, and kissed him until Sherlock broke away to arch under John's hand, his head tipped back so far that John could read 'yours' written across the taut angle of his throat… and he didn't deserve it… no one could deserve it… but he would never let it go.

 

Chapter Text

"What are you doing?"

It was later. Several hours later. Sherlock stood in the kitchen doorway and glowered at the man who was very much not in his bed.

John jumped and looked round from where he'd been reaching into the crockery cupboard. "Oh, sorry," he said, offering a smile which Sherlock felt wasn't nearly as apologetic as the circumstances warranted. "Didn't mean to wake you." He raised the plate in his hand. "It's way past lunch time."

"Lunch time?" Sherlock managed to squeeze a paragraph's worth of disdain into a two-word phrase. That was the excuse John was going with? Pitiful. And he'd got dressed again, which was both unnecessary and inappropriate. Sherlock took his glowering up a level.

John's smile turned a little wary. "Er… well, closer to tea-time, actually," he defended. He set the plate down on the counter and moved towards Sherlock, who adopted a casual attitude and prepared to allow himself to be slightly mollified.

It seemed, however, that it was not he who represented the room's chief attraction. John stopped a foot short of his assumed target and started rooting through the fridge.

Sherlock swept his dressing gown around himself and stalked to the nearest chair.

"I haven't eaten for nearly twenty-four hours," John declared, as if that were some kind of record-breaking feat. "And I doubt you have either, unless you snuck out for breakfast while I was asleep this morning." He glanced around. "Which you obviously didn't," he continued, extracting what Sherlock recognised as component parts of a sandwich.

"How do you know?"

John snorted as he carried his trophies back to the worktop. "Yeah, like I'm going to give away your 'I'm starving but ignoring it' tells."

Infuriating man. Sherlock stuck his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankle.

"You'll feel better after some food," John promised, laying out his ingredients.

Sherlock folded his arms. He must have fallen asleep almost immediately after… before, and he had woken with a vast array of John-less bed stretched out before him. He hadn't liked it. He hadn't liked it at all. He had taken the plunge, he had made the commitment, yet still there was no John in the clearly John-shaped space beside him, and now the man was on the other side of the kitchen, cutting a tomato into perfectly regimented slices - and really, who took that much care over a bloody tomato? - and Sherlock wasn't sure exactly what it was that he wanted, but he was damned sure it wasn't food.

"I'm not hungry."

John ignored him, picking up a kitchen knife and attacking a loaf of bread in a manner which seemed expressly designed to draw attention to his hands. Strong hands. Capable hands. Hands which were in entirely the wrong place and doing completely the wrong things. Sherlock glared at them. The one holding the knife should properly be in his hair - that much was obvious. As for the other… he waited for various erotic scenarios to present themselves, but they kept slipping away and he was left with pictures of an arm wrapped around his waist - his clothed waist. What was that about? He blinked.

In front of him, John finished hacking the bread into compliance and set the blade down. Sherlock had witnessed enough sandwich assemblies to know what came next, and he waited in high dudgeon for John to reach for the butter pot.

John did not reach for the butter pot.

He stood there with his back turned and indecision crawling all over him. "You're upset," he said eventually, without turning around.

Sherlock immediately tried to push down his irrational, and frankly somewhat nauseating, feelings but then remembered he wasn't supposed to do that. He certainly wasn't about to admit to being 'upset', though. Horrible word. He crossed his ankles the other way.

"And it's not because I disturbed you," John continued.

"Why would it be?" Strange idea. Not that he was admitting to being 'upset' in the first place, of course. Not at all.

John turned around and looked at him. "I'm an idiot."

If he thought Sherlock was going to argue with that one, he'd got involved with the wrong genius.

"Come here," John instructed.

Sherlock raised his chin. What was he - a dog? He wasn't going to 'heel' just because John told him to. He ignored the part of his brain which observed that there was nothing he wanted more than to go over there, so if he was a dog he was a particularly stupid one.

Fortunately for his pride, John didn't ask again. "I'm sorry," he said, walking round to Sherlock's side. "I was really hungry and you seemed to be fast asleep. I honestly intended to come straight back to bed."

Sherlock sniffed. "You're fully dressed," he pointed out, still facing resolutely forward.

"Not fully," John replied, the eyebrow wiggle so clear in his voice that Sherlock was unable to resist looking up. "Couldn't find my pants," John admitted. "My dressing gown's upstairs and I'd look ridiculous in yours. It's like Euston Station around here half the time - didn't want to shock Mrs Hudson."

"It would take more than…"

"You know what I mean," John interrupted. He raised a rather tentative hand, which Sherlock watched out of the corner of his eye. It descended onto his shoulder. He absolutely did not lean into it in any way whatsoever.

"Am I forgiven?" John asked.

Sherlock shrugged - which obviously did not count as 'leaning'. "You acted reasonably," he conceded. "Forgiveness is irrelevant."

John's hand migrated to the side of his neck. There may have been a small degree of arching, but that was clearly an entirely different matter.

"Then you won't mind having lunch, will you?"

Any (minimal) arching activity promptly ceased and Sherlock scowled. "Your logic is…"

John kissed him.

"…acceptable," Sherlock decided. It had been a very good kiss. He would not be at all averse to another one.

John kissed him again, but pulled away far too quickly. "Lunch," he declared. "Then we can go back to bed." He held out a hand.

Sherlock regarded it. "I do not cook," he pointed out. That was clearly John's area.

"I know," John agreed. "But you're too far away over here."

It took Sherlock an unfeasible amount of energy to keep the smile off his face and he was forced to think of something annoying. He cast a resentful glance towards the breadboard as he got to his feet. "I would have thought that, at times like these, sex would come before sandwiches," he grumbled. Except that he wasn't grumbling, of course. He was just stating a fact.

John chuckled. "Well, if I don't get something to eat, there won't be much more 'coming' going on, I can promise you that."

Sherlock considered the point.

"Stamina?" John murmured, winding an arm around his waist.

Sherlock made some quick calculations. "We're going to need a bigger plate."

 

oOo

They still hadn't made it back to bed over an hour later, but Sherlock was finding that he didn't mind. He was lying on the sofa, a bit squashed with John on there too, but Sherlock had never suffered from claustrophobia and was actually concluding that a little bit of squashing was a surprisingly good thing. He supposed he should have worked that out earlier in view of his preference for restrictive clothing - not that he was wearing anything restrictive at the moment, as he'd never progressed beyond his dressing gown.

"How long are we going to stay on here?" He raised his head a couple of inches off John's chest so that he could look up at him, decided it was too far, and put it back down again.

John was audibly smiling as he replied. "Bored, are you?"

"No." Sherlock denied honestly. He wasn't bored… why wasn't he? John's hand ran through his hair again, which Sherlock was finding ridiculously pleasurable. He kept trying not to push into the hand with too much abandon, but feared that he was failing hopelessly. The lapse did not concern him as much as he would have anticipated.

"You shouldn't have made me eat that last sandwich," John complained. "I feel like I could nod off."

Sherlock frowned. "I was hoping you'd need it." Obviously there would have to be experimentation to establish the optimum sandwich level. "Didn't you sleep after… before?" How much sleep did one man need, for God's sake?

"Er… not really." There was something odd in John's voice.

Sherlock reeled in all the brain cells that were currently lying on their backs with their legs in the air and called them to attention. "Either you slept or you didn't. Which is it?"

"Didn't, then."

"Why not?" John had been out all night and had only slept for a few hours this morning. Combine that with the typical behaviour of the post-orgasmic male and he should have been out like a light. He certainly had been, Sherlock reflected, with something like annoyance.

John shrugged, his hand ceasing its stroking. Sherlock nudged into it before he'd thought to stop himself; Mrs Hudson would be proud. Perhaps this whole business would be simpler than anticipated. Shaking off the instinct to pretend had to be easier than pretending in the first place, surely?

"I was thinking."

"No wonder you're tired."

"Ha ha." John's hand tightened in his hair and tipped his head back far enough that his mouth was within kissing range. Sherlock adjusted to the new arrangement with enthusiasm. If this was how John intended to 'retaliate' to rudeness, then Sherlock was envisaging a joyfully offensive future.

He was released too soon, although John must have been straining his neck to reach down, so Sherlock generously did not complain.

"Well?" he prompted, when John didn't seem to be approaching anything resembling an answer.

John sighed. "You have no idea, do you?"

Sherlock felt that was rather unfair since only one of them seemed to be aware of what they were talking about, and it certainly wasn't him. John started stroking through his hair again and Sherlock gave up on the 'not pushing into the hand' concept and focused on not making embarrassingly contented noises. That didn't go much better.

"You went to sleep, I cleaned you up, you curled into me, and I spent three hours staring at you and thinking how incredibly lucky I was and that if anyone tried to take you away from me again I would shoot them in the head before they had a chance to so much as touch you. Does that answer your question?"

Sherlock wondered if it was inappropriate to be quite so turned on by such a potentially murderous statement. Happily, it struck him that 'appropriate' had never been a key feature of their association, so he felt no hesitation about wriggling up the sofa and applying himself to John's mouth with an eagerness which bordered on desperation.

It was wonderful, of course, but… he made a slightly dissatisfied noise and John twisted them around so that instead of being on top, Sherlock was pressed up against the back of the sofa with John pinning him in place and that… oh, that was so very much better. So good, in fact, that it was several long minutes before he could bear to pull back far enough to ask about the rest of John's speech.

"You spent three hours staring at me?"

John raised an eyebrow. "Not good?"

"No, I… No, it's fine." Sherlock shrugged, letting the shameless usurpation of his phrase and mannerism go unchallenged. "I don't mind you looking at me." John made a noise which Sherlock chose not to interpret as a derisive snort. "But why?" he asked. "Surely even you would be able to observe everything you needed to see in a lesser time period than that."

"True," John agreed. "If I'd been observing you."

"But you said…"

"I was just looking. Looking and thinking - some pretty violent thoughts towards anyone who has or might hurt you, I'll admit, but also more general stuff… about the future, that kind of thing."

"The future?" Sherlock echoed. He wasn't generally given to considering the future much beyond the next case - but then, it had never looked so vivid before.

John's hand brushed his temple. "What you'll look like when your hair is grey." He grinned. "What if you get f…"

"I will not get fat!" Sherlock interrupted. He poked John in the mid-section. "If anything, it's you who…"

John giggled. And retaliated. The situation devolved into something of a tussle and other appendages inevitably got involved in the poking. Sherlock ended up flat on his back with a short but extremely solid figure on top of him, a situation which he found entirely acceptable. It was only when John's hand ran down the side of his body and curved around his bare hip that he realised his dressing gown had fallen open and was trailing to the floor.

"You know…" John started, then hesitated. He propped himself up on his other hand. "You can always just ask for what you want," he said, with a small smile. "Or not even ask - just make a move. You're quick enough to make demands for anything work related and you are entitled to affection… whatever you've grown up believing."

Sherlock wrinkled his nose.

"Like before, in the kitchen," John persevered. "I'm not always going to interpret the 'Idiot!' glare correctly - if you'd opened with 'Come back to bed', I would have caught on much faster."

"I…"

There were footsteps on the stairs.

Sherlock groaned.

"What is it… oh." John cut off his question at the distinctive rapping of an over-priced umbrella against the door which they had, for once, remembered to shut.

But not, it would seem, to lock.

"Good afternoon, Mycroft," Sherlock drawled, not bothering to tip his head back far enough to get the benefit of a no doubt snooty expression. "Has your 'My brother is unacceptably happy' alarm gone off again?"

He waited for John to get off him, but John wasn't moving. Why wasn't John moving? Oh… obvious. Sherlock almost smiled. Protecting his modesty. As if Sherlock gave two hoots about that. He tapped the side of John's leg. "Off."

John obeyed, but managed to pull the edge of Sherlock's dressing gown up and over him as he got to his feet, then stood there bristling like an unhappy bulldog. Sherlock shot him a quizzical glance as he swung his legs round to the floor and sat up, retying his belt more securely in the process. The tiny muscles around John's eyes and mouth all tightened, then he turned and retreated across the room. Sherlock's eyes followed his progress with some confusion.

"Really, Sherlock, where do you get these ideas?" Mycroft enquired, gliding to a point in front of the sofa and looking down his not inconsiderable nose.

Sherlock tried to look around him, but there was a lifetime's supply of profiteroles in the way. He stood up.

"I bring news, in fact," Mycroft announced. "Which may be of particular interest to your…" He trailed off significantly, half turning to indicate John, who was standing at the far window.

John did not look round. Only the side of his face was visible, but his jaw was clenched and he was clearly contemplating something far bleaker than the view of Baker Street.

'He thinks I'm going to change my mind again.' The realisation burst in Sherlock's brain like a grenade, levelling all other considerations in its path. He brushed past his irritatingly ubiquitous brother and headed straight for the man who he no longer considered an entirely separate entity.

"Checking for signs of the Royal Coach?" he asked loudly as he arrived at the window and peered out over John's shoulder. He reached down with the arm hidden from Mycroft's view and grabbed a hand which bore a tremor he could kick himself for, squeezing it tightly. Mycroft would know, of course, but hopefully John would not realise that. Sherlock was aware that he would be embarrassed by this display of emotion. "Together," he murmured under his breath.

John's exhale was more like a gasp but no one gave any sign of having noticed. At least Mycroft could be trusted to be diplomatic. He had better be - or he could stick his next requirement for 'legwork' straight up his…

"Our sources indicate that Jason Hargreaves is a significantly bigger fish than was first realised," Mycroft announced.

Sherlock gave John's hand one last squeeze. "All right?" he asked quietly.

"Yes."

Mycroft cleared his throat. "It was he who notified Moran that Sherlock was still alive."

That got John's attention and he started to turn around. "How…?"

"Phil," Sherlock explained, releasing his hold as John moved a few steps away, still looking a little shaken, but no longer brittle. "The other thief. He was the smoker on the bench."

"Indeed," Mycroft confirmed, strolling across the room. "It seems this Hargreaves fellow has some rather interesting connections. May I?" He indicated John's chair and raised an eyebrow in Sherlock's direction.

Sherlock nodded towards John. Mycroft rerouted his eyebrow.

"What?" John looked confused. "Oh, right. Yes. Of course." He flapped a hand.

Sherlock walked around him and settled into his own armchair as Mycroft sat down. After a moment's hesitation, John came and perched on the arm of it and Sherlock experienced a very strange… almost premonition - although not actually a 'premonition' of course, since that would be ridiculous - but a feeling of complete surety, however unwarranted, that this was only the first of many times that they would sit like this; he and John against the world. Well… the government, at least. He covered his smile with steepled fingers.

"He could certainly be very useful…" Mycroft went on, "…provided we have sufficient hold over him, of course."

Oh, that was clever. That was very clever. "Such as a witness who could put him away for life," Sherlock agreed.

"I think two witnesses are better than one, don't you?" Mycroft suggested. "The young lady in the hospital presented the case quite forcefully, considering her condition." He produced a smile that looked almost impressed. "Very resilient character."

"So…" John was using his 'hopeful but afraid to assume' tone. "So what does that mean, then? Billy doesn't go to jail?"

"Billy doesn't go to jail," Mycroft confirmed. "He goes into the Witness Protection Programme, as does Myra."

"Oh, that's… that's good." The level of relief in John's voice did not really go with his word choice, but he always did seem to save his best superlatives for Sherlock alone. "That's very good," he added. Sherlock smirked.

John's brain was clearly still ticking over. "But won't they have to be separate?" he asked. "For security, I mean?" His romantic sensibilities seemed saddened at the thought.

"That would be the normal course of events, yes," Mycroft agreed. "But it was pointed out by the young lady that Billy Morris has 'the common sense of a garden ornament'..." the quote marks were clear, "...and would only get into trouble on his own. In view of recent events, it was a difficult argument to counter."

Sherlock certainly wouldn't argue with it; he'd come close to throttling the boy more than once.

"So, they'll be relocated together," Mycroft finished. "New identities, jobs, accommodation, everything. Once they are out of hospital, of course. Young Mr Morris seems to be suffering from whiplash at present." For a startled second, Sherlock almost thought he was going to wink, but the moment passed.

John coughed. "Right." He glanced round at Sherlock with an 'Is that it?' look on his face. Sherlock nodded. John stood up and Mycroft followed suit.

They were halfway to the door when John's steps slowed. "Why are you doing this?"

"I beg your pardon?" Mycroft halted with him.

"I mean… it doesn't really seem your thing," John explained. "Jewellery thieves. Setting up my friends… if it was Sherlock, I'd think he was doing it for me, but…"

"No. Sentiment would rarely be a factor in my decisions, John, you are quite right." The glance Mycroft threw across the room to him didn't seem quite as 'superior' as Sherlock would have expected. "Although I admit I am favourably disposed towards someone so uniquely positioned with regard to my brother."

It was obvious from John's startled expression that he was contemplating an entirely different position to the 'keeping him safe' implication which Mycroft had intended.

Sherlock suppressed a snort as a faint blush stained his brother's cheeks.

"You know how I worry about him," Mycroft attempted to clarify.

John's eyes widened further. No doubt he would work it out later when his brain was not reeling from quite so much activity, but for now the list of 'Areas of Sherlock's life in which his brother takes an inappropriate interest' appeared to gain an entry for 'sexual satisfaction'.

Sherlock had to bite his lip. This was easily the best day of his life so far - and it wasn't even over.

Mycroft had resorted to scrutinising his umbrella for a few moments, but when he spoke again his voice was serious, leeching any humour from the room. "James Moriarty was a blight on this country's landscape." He raised his head. "The heart of his 'web' may have been destroyed…" he nodded to Sherlock, "…but already the threads are knitting back together. This Hargreaves will be useful." His smile was chilling. "I shall ensure it."

John showed him out and Sherlock got to his feet, turning from his position by the fireplace as he heard the door close, and lock this time. He wondered if John would be interested in his deductions regarding the timings of The Vanishing Thieves' strikes.

John did not look as if such deductions were at the forefront of his mind. He took several paces forward and stopped in the middle of the room.

"So… not as worried about what your brother thinks any more, then?"

Sherlock shrugged. "Beyond family, Mycroft's strongest emotional connection is to the dessert trolley - and that will certainly never love him back. It's as you said - in some areas at least, we are not alike. There is no point valuing his opinion on something he cannot comprehend." He smiled, wishing John had not stopped quite so far away. "Anyway, we're together now, aren't we? Can't go back from that." Not that he wanted to. Ever.

John had a very odd expression on his face. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Opened it. Closed it. Eventually he seemed to steel himself and asked, "Love him back?"

It was clearly a quote… Sherlock rewound his words. Ah. Suddenly his heart decided to launch an escape bid from his chest.

"You do realise you've never actually told me…" John started.

"Obvious," Sherlock decreed. Because it was. Why else would he put himself through all this self-analysis? Change his life so drastically? It was obvious. There was no need to be sentimental about it. He told his heart to settle down.

"All right." John nodded, the edge of disappointment in his smile so slim that it was barely visible. "Let's get these dishes into the sink, then we can go back to bed, eh?" He picked up the plate they'd used earlier and nodded towards the mantelpiece, which held a couple of abandoned mugs. "Grab those, would you?" He turned and headed towards the kitchen.

Sherlock watched him go. 'Coward' he berated himself. It wasn't even one of the smaller voices he associated variously with his subconscious, his reasoning, his logic… it was his own voice, rich and full, all the component parts in one accord. Everything he was. 'Coward!' it said again.

"I love you!" It was too fast, rushing out before his inhibitions could catch it; blurted at John's back as he crossed the threshold with a plate in his hands.

John turned around.

He deserved more. Sherlock raced through his memories. What did John want from him? What could he give? How could he show…?

"Table?" he said.

It was only a single word.

But it wasn't a hint, however thinly veiled. It wasn't an attempt at distraction. It was an honest request from a man who finally believed that he could make one for something that was an entirely human need... and that it didn't make him weak.

Who knew that he could love.

And that there was nothing wrong with him.

John smiled.

"I thought you'd never ask."

 

THE END


PODFIC

I am very happy to report that the wonderful erica_schall is recording a podfic of this story. In view of its ridiculous length, this will obviously take her some time, but I'll add a link to my index once it's available and put a note on my tumblr.

THANKS

Forever and unlimited thanks to my incredibly patient Beta and friend Ariane DeVere - not only could I not have done it without her, I wouldn't even have wanted to.

Huge thanks also for the endless love and support from the group of friends and fellow ficcers who have stayed in my house, eaten my ice-cream and (with varying degrees of success) taken on my kids at foosball. Sherlock has given me many things, but nothing more valuable than the friendship of these women: Atlin MerrickAriane DevereAnarionMirith Griffin and Staceuo. I adore you all.

Finally, I know there are a lot of people who don't read a fic until it's finished - and I can't blame them at all, I virtually never read Works In Progress myself; we've no doubt all been let down by an 'addictive but abandoned' story at some point in our fan fiction travels.

However, it's the readers who DO come out and offer encouragement and advice along the way that make sure the WIPs get finished in the first place, so if you've read this story after it's completed and (hopefully!) enjoyed it, please join me in giving a hearty shout out to (on this site):

Pat_is_fannish, sra_danvers, Nghthwk8, paoolinka, Crystalized, Mildly_Neurotic, saki_san, LadyGinger, equals_eleven_squared, sethra2000, Squeegeelicious, gemini_melia, emmadelosnardos, khorazir, XistentialAngst, CharlieBravoWhiskey, syncsister, Keebler, kamerer220, Geneva, Celia, Nos, magialuna, snogandagrope, rozyczka, youcantsaymylastname, Lavellington, Makani, Winter_of_our_Discontent, kete, Kay_Morgan and thevisual. If I've missed anyone, then please forgive me - I want to post this before I get any greyer!

 

Thanks for reading!

Verity, xxx


ARTWORK

Cover Art by xistentialangst

Cover Art by toviv

Chapter 2: Illustration by squeegeelicious

Chapter 3: Permanent by khorazir

Chapter 7: Pinned by khorazir

Chapter 9: It had come to this by khorazir

Chapter 10: Put your arms up over your head by daysofstorm

Chapter 17: Red Flag by JadenFlame

 

TRANSLATIONS

Chinese, by ulliviacnshsj

French, by Falyla

German, by nina66

Korean, by PasserbyNo3

Russian, by beispielllos

Spanish, by moniiica3