A Conversation Held with the Lamp Switched Off
Title from A Note by Wislawa Szymborska
Summary: Twenty plus years, three weddings, some funerals, elephants, rats, a wet cat, a very lumpy cake and criminals. Or, John Watson, a life well-lived.
Warnings: Some people die.
Disclaimer: I do not own these characters or this world. I just love it.
AN: A million thanks to juke_box_dive for the beta and for being one of the sweetest people on the planet. Also thanks to mirabile_dictu for posting A Note in her journal and setting off fireworks in my head.
Yes. You can all stop sniggering. I was going to sleep on the floor.
~from the blog of Dr. John H. Watson
It took John a moment to realize he was not in his own bed and a moment more for the memories of the day before to gather themselves together and remind him of the inn with only the one room available. It was still dark.
“Did you find it?”
Sherlock was sitting in a chair with his feet propped up on the windowsill. The moonlight threw strange shadows on his face.
“The note from the husband, John. I asked you for it hours ago.”
“I was asleep.”
Sherlock didn’t respond. John rummaged around on the bedside table until he located his phone. Three in the morning.
“Sherlock, you can share the bed. You should try to get a few hours sleep.”
Sherlock lifted a hand to wave this suggestion away.
“I’m thinking. I need the note.”
John rubbed his eyes and put his bare feet on the cold floorboards. He crossed to Sherlock, dipping his hands into Sherlock’s warm pockets one by one. He found the crumpled bit of paper in the left trouser pocket and put it in Sherlock’s hand.
“You must be freezing.”
Sherlock didn’t have thoughts to spare for the comfort of his body just then. He was studying the note intently. It was clear that he could not be prevailed upon to take refuge under the blankets of the bed so John grabbed Sherlock’s coat from the hook behind the door and laid it over him. Sherlock didn’t look up but he did snuggle into it a bit and John knew that was all the thanks he would get.
He returned to the bed, shivering a little and curling himself into the covers. He stared at Sherlock’s angular profile. The lines of his face were sharp and white in the odd light of the moon. John supposed he would have found that face to be a disconcerting presence by his bedside, in a strange place, in the small hours of the night if he hadn’t known it so well. They comforted him, those austere features, and he studied them until sleep grabbed hold of him once again and dragged him down into the dark.
When he swam up to the light several hours later he was looking at Sherlock’s face again, closer and lit by the pink of sunrise.
Sherlock was shoving John’s feet into a pair of jeans.
“There’s not a moment to lose. Come on. Bring the gun.”
“Tea?” John said without much hope.
“Not now, John.” Sherlock grunted as he tried to shove the jeans up John’s legs. They wouldn’t go and John kicked them off.
“Those are yours. They’ll never fit,” John said to Sherlock’s scowl.
Moments later they were stepping out into the quiet village. Sherlock took off at a run and John followed. It was early spring and delicate, tender things were unfurling in the rising sun. The hills were a hundred shades of green and the birds were flitting to and fro in a mad and noisy frenzy. John kept his eyes on the back of Sherlock’s long coat. That was the view that made his heart sing. It never failed to wake him up, get his blood pumping. It always led him to adventure.
Another night. Another case. They were sitting in a rhododendron bush. John was leaning against Sherlock’s back and Sherlock was leaning against his. After midnight John nodded off several times. The weight of his head falling forward in his sleep kept dragging him back to consciousness. Sherlock was a chatterbox tonight. The sound of the wind would keep anyone from overhearing, even John, who was the only one who was supposed to be listening. Sherlock was facing away from him and the wind snatched his words.
They had been to the circus yesterday (for the case, obviously) and Sherlock had been enchanted with the elephants. Since then it had been all elephants all the time. John leaned his head back to rest on Sherlock’s shoulder. Maybe if it didn’t fall forward he could get just a little bit of sleep. He could feel the vibrations of Sherlock’s deep voice rumbling through him. Just a little nap. Sherlock would wake him if—
It was the rain falling on his upturned face that woke him. John groaned. Surely the night had to end sometime. Surely he wouldn’t be left sitting under a bush in the dark and the mud for all eternity. He thought of home, of his bed, of his wife, Gretchen, snuggled into the sheets. They were appealing thoughts, certainly, but John knew he wouldn’t trade the danger, the excitement, Sherlock’s company, for the comforts of home, no matter how cramped and tired he was.
“How long has it been raining?”
“Quite awhile. The leaves kept us dry for bit.”
“I need to move,” John said. He was stiff and sore and his shoulder ached deeply. Sherlock leaned away from him and John stretched as best he could under the low branches. Sherlock scooted around until he was nestled in some roots.
“Come here, John. You’re cold.”
John hesitated because Sherlock seemed to be indicating that he should sit on Sherlock’s lap. Sherlock, impatient with John’s slow-wittedness, reached out and hauled him close, tucking John between his knees and pressing John’s head back against his chest.
“Can you hear me better?” Sherlock said into his ear. “I didn’t like to shout before.”
Yes. John could hear him. Sherlock began pouring facts about elephants into his ear.
“There’s a mountain of salt in Kenya and the elephants have been coming to it since there first were elephants. They lick it, John. They lick at the salt and bang their tusks against it and they’ve done so for centuries and now there are caves in the mountain from where the salt has been licked away. We’ll go there sometime. You’ll wear shorts, and knee socks, and a jumper with the Union Jack on it, and that checked shirt that you like. You’ll still have it even if we’re eighty when we finally get around to going there.”
John dreamed he was in the cave. The walls were white and translucent and Sherlock was licking at them.
Try it, John. We’ll make it bigger. Come on, let’s see how deep we can go.
John smiled. Sherlock always had to push everything to the limit. Of course he’d try to one-up the elephants. John leaned forward to taste the cave.
He was suddenly wretched awake by Sherlock picking him up under his arms and setting him on his feet.
“Go round, John! Head him off!”
John shook himself to alertness and then he was off, pounding and slipping through puddles, leaping a low fence and crashing through a hedge before tackling their quarry to the ground. The man put up a fight in the brief seconds before Sherlock arrived. It was long enough to dislocate John’s shoulder. John let out an anguished scream and punched the man in the face with his good arm.
Sherlock had him then and John wiggled himself free. The adrenalin from the chase left him and the pain crashed in. He collapsed into a puddle, clutching at his arm.
“Sherlock. I can’t. Oh, Jesus.”
On some level John knew he was falling spectacularly apart. Shock and pain and the memories of war were rendering him hysterical. He was also on his belly in a rather deep puddle and he couldn’t roll over. He couldn’t move his arm.
Sherlock’s face went hard and dark and his captive began to tremble when Sherlock’s gaze settled on him.
“You hurt him.”
Sherlock dragged the man closer to John by an arm and the back of his neck, flinging him face down into the mud.
“Look at him!”
The man was pleading with Sherlock but Sherlock didn’t seem to hear him. He shoved his face into the puddle and held it there.
“Sherlock, stop. Stop it. I need your help.” John tried to make his voice sound steady, reasonable, sane. He didn’t really manage it but it must have been enough because some of the madness cleared from Sherlock’s eyes and he pulled the man’s head from the water.
“Say you’re sorry,” Sherlock demanded.
The man sputtered and coughed but he managed to get the words out. Sherlock let him go and he took off down the lane in a stumbling run.
Sherlock had dragged him from the puddle and John had promptly passed out from the pain, leaving Sherlock with no choice but to carry him half a mile to the closest house. John woke to another night in another strange bed with Sherlock sitting in another chair by his side.
“Hospital,” Sherlock said.
“Yes, I figured that one out on my own. Did they catch him?”
“Good. Thanks for—you know—saving my life.”
“Yes ,well , I saved you and you saved me back and so forth so I think we should just take it as a matter of course and no thanks needed.”
“Okay,” John said.
“It’s what friends do, John.”
Sherlock leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, a small smile playing about his lips. Sherlock Holmes getting to instruct John Watson on the duties of friendship. John laughed.
John was sleeping in Sherlock’s bed. There were traces of tears on his face and the pillow was damp. Sherlock couldn’t be certain how long he’d been in the flat but it was at least a day. Sherlock had been abroad for two weeks.
When he didn’t wake Sherlock put a hand on John’s hip and shook him gently.
John snuffled and woke, becoming alert when he saw Sherlock’s face.
“No. No danger.”
“Oh.” John’s face rumpled as he remembered why he was in Sherlock’s bed.
“Your wife left you.”
John leaned back against the headboard, bringing the heels of his hands up to press against his eyes.
“Yes. I didn’t know you were away when I came here. Then I just stayed anyway. You don’t mind?”
“Not at all. You belong to 221B, John. You know that.”
John took his hands away from his face and smiled at Sherlock.
“Mrs. Hudson binned my old bed. She said you broke it somehow.”
“Experiment,” Sherlock said quickly.
“Sometimes I wonder if you know what that word means. It seems to cover a lot of sins.”
“I had an elephant up there.”
“I almost believe that.”
Sherlock grinned. “It was young. I was showing it the ways of the world. We’ll get you another. Bed, that is. If you’re staying. You are staying?”
They were quiet for a time. Sherlock fiddled with his gloves and John worried a hole that was growing in the knee of his pyjamas.
“Gretchen left me for Roger. I suppose it’s only fair. I leave her for another man often enough.”
Sherlock looked up sharply.
“Ah! Sorry. I don’t blame you. I’m more than happy to run off with you for every case. She didn’t like it and I didn’t care enough to stop.”
“Tea?” Sherlock said once the silence had drawn out long enough to be sufficiently awkward.
Sherlock went to the sitting room and picked up his violin. John sighed and went to the kitchen to make the tea.
They were home after a short but thrilling case. John was reading and drinking a scotch. Sherlock was playing a triumphant little number on his violin. John smiled at the music and scratched absently at his thigh. It was a good book and a good scotch and Sherlock was sure to be in a fine mood for at least the rest of the evening.
He scratched harder at his thigh, and then a bit at his belly. Maybe they could have a take-away from that new Thai place later. Fucking hell, he was itchy. He must have got bit by something. John set down his book to scratch earnestly at his thigh and belly and then at his arm.
“John? Are you alright?”
John pulled up his shirt. Hives. Lots of hives.
“No. Nope. Help me.”
John was trying to pull off his shirt and scratch at the same time and had managed to get himself stuck in his jumper.
“Christ! Don’t just stand there! Help me!”
Sherlock came over and pulled John’s jumper and shirt over his head.
“You’re allergic to something? What? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was bound to be allergic to one of the toxins you drag me into or out off or bring into the bloody flat.”
Sherlock shrugged off the blame heaped upon his shoulders and went into full mother-hen mode, which was a mode John didn’t even know Sherlock had.
“You need an antihistamine and calamine lotion, John,” he said as if John wasn’t an experienced medical doctor. He hurried off to the loo to get them and John continued stripping. When Sherlock got back John was naked except for his socks and was rubbing his back against the chair and using his hands and one of his feet to scratch feverishly at the rest of him. He looked ridiculous, and vulnerable, and miserable. Sherlock smiled fondly at him as he handed John the pills and a glass of water.
John swallowed them down and sighed with relief as he began rubbing the lotion into his skin.
“Stand up. I’ll do your back.”
The lotion took the urgency out of the itching, allowing John to think rational thoughts again. His first thought was that he was standing in the middle of the room and Sherlock was rubbing lotion into his arse.
“Do I even have any hives there?”
“I just want to be certain you’re comfortable!” Sherlock snapped. He grabbed John’s hip to hold him still when John started to turn.
“Sherlock! Sherlock, I’m fine.”
John did pull away and turn around then. It was an ill-considered move. Sherlock winced as he found his face in very close proximity to John’s crotch. He leaned back and handed John a blanket. John was blushing furiously and Sherlock was spattered in pink lotion.
“Oh John, I am sorry. You always seem to be the one that suffers.”
John tried to look dignified in his blanket. “I had to help you home that time you got drugged. Remember you kept singing and showing me all of your scars?”
“We promised never to speak of that night.”
“The one on your hip is pretty. It looks like jellyfish.” John swayed on his feet. The medication was making him drowsy.
“Go up to bed, John.”
John’s eyes grew wide and he shook his head. “You have to stay with me. Make sure my throat doesn’t swell shut in the night.”
Sherlock threw his hands up in alarm. “Is that likely?”
“No. Strong allergic reaction though. Might. Don’t want to die tonight, Sherlock. I feel like I just got you back.”
John staggered a bit and Sherlock scrambled to his feet, tucking John under his arm and leading him to Sherlock’s own bed. John would make a mess of the sheets but Sherlock didn’t trust him on the stairs just then. Plus John was warm and sloppy and slurring and in danger of asphyxiating and Sherlock would have done just about anything for him.
He got John under the covers and ran to get his stethoscope. He curled up behind John on the bed. One hand held the stethoscope pressed against John’s back, the other rested on John’s diaphragm to feel the rise and fall of his breath. He’d know the very second John stopped breathing.
“Not entirely necessary,” John said sleepily.
“I don’t care.”
John smiled and snuggled a little bit closer before he closed his eyes.
After that night John would sometimes wake to the cold press of his stethoscope on his back and the warmth of Sherlock in the bed behind him.
“I’m okay. I can breathe,” he said once. Sherlock didn’t answer him and he never spoke of it so John didn’t either. After all, it was just one in a long list of strange and oddly endearing things Sherlock did.
John had learned many things from living with Sherlock Holmes. He was ashamed to admit that he had learned how to sulk almost as well as Sherlock. It wasn’t that he really liked to sulk but sometimes Sherlock couldn’t parse John’s mood without John resorting to dramatics. Sometimes John needed Sherlock to know he was angry.
That was why half a ham sandwich was sliding gracefully down the wall of the sitting room. John had thrown it there. He’d been aiming for Sherlock’s head but Sherlock had ducked and the sandwich had fallen apart whilst airborne anyway, spraying tomatoes and lettuce across the furniture. Only this hearty bit of the sandwich had held together to land with an unsatisfying soft plop against the wallpaper. John supposed the mustard had been the stabilizing agent.
Sherlock sat up with a look of alarm and surprise.
“Yes!” John allowed himself to roar the word.
“I don’t understand. Your cake was all lumpy. I got a better one.”
“It was supposed to be lumpy! I made it. Mary mentioned that no one ever baked her a birthday cake before so I made her one. Today’s her birthday. I’m meeting her in an hour and I wanted to give her a fucking homemade cake. But you come in, don’t even ask, mind you, and you feed my cake to your rats. Yes, Sherlock. I’m angry.”
“But my one’s from the bakery you like. It’s your favorite.”
John squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t have time to make Sherlock understand and it was pointless anyway.
“Get out, Sherlock. Just leave the flat for an hour, please.”
“John, don’t be…”
John kept his eyes closed until he heard Sherlock shuffle to the door and down the stairs. He would not feel ashamed of his outburst. He had a right to feel angry. Still, he had to try hard to shove away thoughts of Sherlock during Mary’s birthday dinner. He still managed to have a nice time. He laughed a lot when he was with Mary.
He brought her back to the flat for coffee and Sherlock’s stupid bakery cake. The kitchen table had been cleared of all experiments, coffee was brewing, and a ridiculously lumpy cake was sitting on the worktop. Sherlock was lurking, positively lurking, in the doorway of his bedroom.
“This is nice,” John said. Sherlock came to stand properly in the kitchen.
“Happy birthday, Mary. John made you a cake.”
John felt his smile freeze on his face as Mary hugged him. Had Sherlock stolen the cake back from the rats and stuffed it back together? Had he mashed up the bakery cake and covered it with icing? Was it edible? Drugged?
Sherlock leaned in close to John’s ear while Mary pulled out plates and forks.
“Mrs. Hudson helped me bake it. Should be alright. Do you think it’s lumpy enough? I told her it had to be lumpy.”
John squeezed Sherlock’s shoulder in response.
“I’ll leave you two alone.”
“No! You must try John’s cake. Stay, Sherlock. John tells me you have rats. I want to hear all about them.”
Sherlock was only awkward for the first half hour or so. Mary seemed content to listen to him prattle on about rats and then elephants though and Sherlock slowly relaxed. He actually ate an entire slice of cake, declaring the best he’d ever had, and telling John he should bake more often. He launched into a lecture on bees over his second cup of coffee. John cut him off when he threatened to go dig out his old paper on tobacco ash.
“Get the violin instead.”
Sherlock played Happy Birthday before switching over to all of John’s favorites.
Mary spent the night.
John slipped into the hotel room and closed the door quietly behind him.
“I cannot believe you’re here,” he whispered fiercely.
“I know! I tried to get us a connecting room but they wouldn’t switch yours without your consent and I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Sherlock! I’m on my honeymoon.”
“I know, John. I am also on your honeymoon.”
“No. You can’t be on my honeymoon.”
“Why not? I’ve never had one and this is your second. It seems rather unfair that you get to have two and I don’t get any.”
“I got married!”
“Twice. I didn’t come on the first one.”
“You can’t come on any of them.”
“Are you planning on having more?”
“Sherlock, listen carefully, a honeymoon is for a man and his new wife. It is not for a man, his new wife, and the man’s best friend. Mary’s going to—my God -- You have to leave. She can’t see you here.”
Sherlock flung himself into a chair and pouted.
“I thought that since you were in a traveling mood we might pop over to Kenya afterwards, see the elephants.”
“We’re in the Caribbean. We’re not popping over to Africa.”
“I’ll be really well behaved. I’ll get Mary flowers and solve any mysteries that might crop up, you know, she might misplace an earring or something.”
“No. It’s not on. And listen, you will behave around Mary. You will treat her like Mrs. Hudson and Molly. You will do this because you love me and I love her. I love her, Sherlock. I want to fill her up with babies and grow old with her and I’m going to go start doing that right now. I don’t want to see you in the morning. I don’t want to see you until I’m back in London.”
John turned to leave.
“Are we still going to Kenya someday?”
John sighed. “Yes ,Sherlock. When the children are grown we’ll go. Goodbye.”
He left Sherlock sitting in the dark.
John put down the newspaper with a heavy heart. Sherlock wasn’t mentioned by name but it was clear he’d been involved in this latest murder mystery. It had been full of danger and there had been a boat chase down the Thames. John hadn’t been asked to take part.
Mary put her hand over John’s.
“You should call him.”
“He doesn’t want to talk to me. I’ve tried.”
“Try again. He wouldn’t be so jealous if he didn’t love you.”
John stood listening at the door to Sherlock’s hospital room. He ought to have gone in. He needed a moment to collect himself though. It didn’t look good for Sherlock. He was so very weak and nothing was working for him.
“Sherlock, are you awake?” Mary whispered.
“Mary?” Sherlock wheezed. “John’s Mary?”
“Don’t try to talk. Just listen. Listen to me. You can’t die on John. Not again. I won’t be enough for him on my own. You know that. He told me about the honeymoon, Sherlock. How you came and he sent you away. It hurt him to do that and I wouldn’t have made him. I’ll never make him choose between us. I know he’s missed you so all this time. So you need to get better and then you and me and John will go on a honeymoon. The Lake District or anywhere you want to go.”
“Kenya,” Sherlock breathed. “See elephants.”
“That sounds lovely. You have to get better first though. Promise me.”
John heard Sherlock’s promise and then he turned away to hurry down the hall, dashing the tears from his eyes as he went.
John handed Sherlock his violin case. Sherlock coughed a bit as he took out the instrument.
“It’s fortunate I don’t play the flute. We’d have to do without musical accompaniment this year.”
Mary put a cup of tea on the table next to him and a kiss on his cheek.
“It’s good to see you looking better, Sherlock.”
Sherlock smiled up at her.
John heaved a sigh of contentment as he settled into the sofa next to Mrs. Hudson who took his hand in her own and squeezed. Sherlock began to play Auld Lang Syne and John closed his eyes for a moment and let the music wash through him. He was a lucky man. Sherlock was slowly recovering from a nasty fight with pneumonia. He’d been hospitalized in November and had spent the last few weeks in John’s guest room being coddled by both John and Mary. He hadn’t even been that much of a pain in the arse. John thought that was possibly because Sherlock had developed a bit of crush on his wife but John wasn’t going to complain. It was far better than them being at each other’s throats the way Sherlock and Gretchen had been.
They exchanged presents after dinner. Sherlock didn’t say much when he unwrapped the three tickets to Kenya. He swallowed a couple of times and quietly beamed. Sherlock gave them a stethoscope. Mary looked at it in confusion.
“So you can make sure John is breathing,” Sherlock said, as if that cleared everything up.
“I’ll explain later,” John added.
It was well after New Year by the time John and Mary convinced Sherlock he was well enough to go home. In fact, it was March. Sherlock and Mary were in the kitchen at Baker Street discussing custody of John Watson.
“I get him every other weekend then from Friday evening at six until Sunday afternoon. I’ll also need him on Tuesdays.”
John was in the sitting room absolutely not listening but he couldn’t help but ask why Sherlock needed him on Tuesdays. Sherlock looked wounded.
“That’s our movie night, John.”
“No, that’s the night I try to watch a movie and you roll your eyes at me and pick it apart.”
Sherlock turned back to Mary. “It’s fun. On Wednesdays I’ll stay at yours.”
“Okay, but you must not join us in bed in the middle of the night and then act surprised to find us naked and screech like a little girl when you accidently sit in the wet spot.”
John let out a laugh. The memory of that would never not be funny. Sherlock glared at him.
“And you’re buying me a toothbrush and shaving kit and new pyjamas and all that. I’m not packing a case every other weekend,” John said.
Sherlock smiled. “Of course, John.”
It was ten till six on a Friday evening. It was the start of a Sherlock weekend but John was lying in bed, naked. Mary was not yet naked but she was wearing a skirt and didn’t have any knickers on.
“I just want to stay here all weekend and let you have your way with me.”
“Next weekend, love. I already told my sister I’d come visit and you know Sherlock would just come get you.”
John moaned. “Fine, but I’m going to be late. There is no reason he needs me at precisely six o’clock.”
“Oh? Did you have any ideas about how you could use your time?”
John looked up at her with wide, dark eyes. “Please. Please, please, please. You know what I want.”
At ten minutes past six John’s phone buzzed. Mary typed a reply as John didn’t have any hands free.
He’ll be a bit late. Don’t worry.
After that Sherlock texted every five minutes until half-six when the phone rang.
“This might go a bit faster if you stopped interrupting.”
“Let me talk to John.”
“Doing what? I need him. It’s my time.”
“He’ll be there soon, Sherlock.”
“Let me speak with him.”
Mary held the phone up to John’s ear.
“The take-away is growing cold.”
“Start without me. I’ll heat some up when I arrive.”
“That’s not the point, John.”
“I know. I’ll be there soon, play your violin or, I dunno, have a deep think or something. Stop calling though.”
“What could you possibly be doing that’s so important?”
“I’m fucking my wife, Sherlock. If I don’t get to finish fucking my wife then I am going to be a god-awful miserable bastard all weekend so stop calling, stop texting and I’ll be there in a little while.”
There was silence on the other end of line and John imagined Sherlock working his jaw in and out in that way he had when he was uncomfortable.
“If you’re not here by eight I’m coming to get you,” he said finally and rung off.
“My curfew’s at eight,” John said as Mary took the phone away and set it on the bedside table.
“How many times do you think you can come between now and then? Twice? Three times? Maybe you won’t miss me as much if you come three times.”
“I always miss you.”
Sherlock did show up at eight to collect a very satisfied and somewhat dreamy John.
“I get to keep you for three extra hours on Sunday,” Sherlock said in the cab. “You missed a client stopping by you know.”
“Keep up, John. Sex always makes you so dim-witted. A client.”
“There’s a case?”
“Well, no. Too dull for words.”
“That’s nice? How long were you tied to the bed?”
“Sherlock, I know you can’t help but knowing about my sex life but I prefer not to know that you do.”
“It wasn’t the whole time. You were on your knees for a good bit of it but the marks on your wrists indicate…”
“Red light,” John interrupted and Sherlock shut his mouth with a snap.
It was a technique some parents used with toddlers. In that context it meant danger, stop right away. In Sherlock’s case it meant, cease talking because John is going to punch you in the face in a way that does not care about pretty cheek bones and does not say I love you.
They arrived back at Baker Street feeling somewhat disgruntled with each other. John was bracing himself for an epic Sherlock sulk when they heard Mrs. Hudson’s small cry of dismay. They heard her fall.
Sherlock kicked the door open and allowed John to run into the flat first. Mrs. Hudson was on the kitchen floor, not breathing. John started CPR while Sherlock phoned for an ambulance. Those were some of the longest minutes of John’s life, waiting for help while Sherlock looked on in stony silence.
The hours that followed were a mad, surreal dream. They were back at Baker Street by one in the morning. Sherlock hadn’t spoken a word the entire time.
The house seemed unnaturally quiet and still. Sherlock trudged slowly up the stairs with John following behind. He went straight to his bedroom and got in his bed without bothering to take off his coat. John texted Mary and went to check on Sherlock.
“You’ll get the sheets dirty,” he said as he pulled off Sherlock’s shoes.
Sherlock tugged him down onto the bed, pressing his face into John’s neck and holding him too tightly but the tears didn’t come. John shushed him anyway. He put his fingers in Sherlock’s curls and soothed him, rocking them both back and forth in the bed, trying to soothe himself as much as he wanted to soothe Sherlock. John had never felt closer to Sherlock. He felt like they were two brothers who had just lost their mum.
Sherlock chose that moment to kiss him. It was not a brotherly kiss, it was possessive and urgent, and John surprised himself by allowing it, welcoming it. He let Sherlock press him back into the pillows and take whatever he wanted.
“John. I’m sorry,” Sherlock said when he pulled away. “I know I shouldn’t have.”
“It’s okay,” John said and Sherlock pulled him close again, spooning John from behind and laying the palm of his hand flat on John’s belly to feel his chest rising and falling. “It’s okay, Sherlock,” John said again even though it wasn’t okay. Mrs. Hudson was gone from Baker Street for all time and John really did feel like England might fall, or at least, his little bit of England might falter.
He sighed with relief when Mary let herself into the bedroom near dawn. She crawled into the bed on the other side of Sherlock and reached over him to hold John’s hand.
“I kissed John,” Sherlock said.
Mary squeezed John’s hand. “You can kiss John if he wants you to. He’s hard not to kiss. ”
A cold rain fell on the day of the funeral. Sherlock stood between John and Mary. They each held one of his hands while Mycroft hovered behind them with an umbrella unfurled to catch the rain. It was a small gathering, just them and Molly and Lestrade and Mrs. Turner from next door.
Mary served sandwiches and tea for everyone back at the flat. Sherlock got John alone in the stairwell and kissed him like he’d die if he wasn’t able to feel John’s lips beneath his own. John was rather stunned and rather worried. He wanted Sherlock to talk to him or cry or throw things. John would understand those reactions to grief a bit better.
Mycroft interrupted them. His voice was quiet and gentle. “Sherlock, you have guests. It’s not the best time for this.”
Sherlock pulled his mouth away and leaned his forehead against John’s, panting heavily. John thought the tears might finally come but Sherlock just pressed a last kiss to John’s cheek and returned to the sitting room.
Mycroft stared steadily at John. “I’ll trust you to know what you’re doing, John.”
John didn’t answer him. He smoothed down his clothes and followed Sherlock back inside.
The trip to Kenya was put on hold. Mrs. Hudson had left the house to Sherlock and John and they spent their spare time that spring sorting through her things. They repainted the flat but Sherlock couldn’t bring himself to rent it out and so it sat empty.
The envelope contained several photographs of him and Sherlock kissing in the rain. John remembered that kiss. Sherlock had pulled him into an alley after a successful chase through the city. It was just a kiss and John was not ashamed of it, but the accompanying note made him sweat.
Would Mary’s family be happy to find these published? For a small fee, the choice is yours.
There was the name of a pub and a request for a meeting that evening. John knew Mary’s brother and father in particular would not find his habit of kissing Sherlock to be an endearing one but this alone did not account for his trepidation. Any hint of Sherlock being connected with scandal in the media made John queasy. He would not allow Sherlock to be made a target, so he kept the appointment at the pub.
John recognized the man, Charles Milverton, a journalist for a sleazy tabloid and website. He refrained, with no small amount of difficulty, from punching the man in the face. He wrote a cheque for a sum he couldn’t afford and hoped that would be the end of it. He told Mary he lost the money betting on horses.
It was several months before he heard from Milverton again. John knew the blackmail wouldn’t stop, that he should tell Sherlock and Mary. It was just a kiss. The public had been scandalized and titillated by more novel things than that. But it was not something that John wanted to share with the world. It was something that belonged to him and Sherlock and Mary and the idea of the headlines and the speculation on the internet made his stomach twist with fear. It reminded him too vividly of semtex, Sherlock on a rooftop, and a black tombstone.
“You don’t bet on horses, John,” Sherlock said one lazy evening.
John looked up sharply. “Mary told you?”
Sherlock rolled his eyes. He didn’t need to be told when he could snoop, when he could seemingly pluck the thoughts out of John’s head.
“Leave it alone, Sherlock. I’m allowed some secrets.”
Sherlock studied him intently. “Do you need money, John?”
“No. I don’t want to discuss it.”
In the weeks that followed they were busy with cases that even John thought were boring but seemed to pay extravagantly well. John wasn’t fooled but he was grateful.
Things might have gone on like that indefinitely had a young starlet, Eva Blackwell, not shown up at Baker Street one night with a tale of blackmail. Sherlock was thunderously angry on her behalf.
“Leave it to me,” he told her. “Do nothing until you hear from me.”
Eva dried her eyes on her sleeve and threw her arms around Sherlock’s neck. John smiled as Sherlock’s look of surprised bewilderment turned to tenderness. He patted her back reassuringly and sent her on her way.
“Up for a bit of burglary, John?”
They lurked in the park across from Milverton’s flat for a quarter hour until Sherlock was satisfied that no one was in. They crossed the road and John stood on the doorstep, facing the street, pretending to admire the moon while Sherlock picked the lock with ease. Once inside they stood motionless against the door, listening and letting their eyes adjust to the dark.
Sherlock took John’s hand.
“The study is in the back,” he whispered and led John forward, moving slowly through the darkened hallway.
Milverton’s laptop was on the desk and Sherlock set about cracking the password while John checked behind framed photographs until he found the safe. Sherlock rose from his work after a few moments.
“Delete the files, John. I’ll open the safe.”
John worked with vengeful glee for twenty minutes while Sherlock fussed with the safe. He had just got it open and was pocketing a handful of flash drives and papers when they heard the front door of the house open.
John eased the laptop closed. Sherlock righted the frame over the safe and held out his hand. There was no other exit to the room and footsteps were headed their way. Sherlock pulled John behind a set of long draperies. John held his breath as the door to the study opened.
John could see a sliver of the room through a part in the curtains. Milverton sat down in the chair John had just vacated and lit a cigarette. He seemed to be agitated. He blew smoke furiously from his mouth and rubbed his hands into his hair. He took out his phone and appeared to consider making a call before throwing it down onto the desk in agitation. A knock sounded at the front door and Milverton left to answer it. John moved to open the window behind them and make their escape but Sherlock gripped his arm firmly and John stilled just as Milverton returned to the study.
“You’re late,” he said to the woman who trailed in after him.
She was wearing a long coat with the hood drawn up, casting a shadow over her face. She said nothing in reply to Milverton’s complaint. She just stood silently while he lit another cigarette.
“Well? You have something to sell. Let’s see it. I haven’t got all night.”
The woman reached into her pocket but she didn’t bring forth photographs or letters. She held a gun with a silencer. Sherlock threw a protective arm in front of John and grabbed John’s hand while the woman lowered her hood. John didn’t recognize her but Milverton obviously did. He held up his hands.
“We can discuss this,” he said.
“We’ve been discussing this. The discussion is over.”
She unloaded three shots into Milverton’s chest, put the gun back into her coat and hurried from the room. John tore the curtains open but Sherlock restrained him.
“Don’t touch him, John. You’ll leave evidence. We need to get out of here.”
John resisted for a moment. All his training as a doctor and soldier compelled him to rush forward and do what he could for the man, even if he didn’t deserve John’s pity. But he was probably dead already and Sherlock was right. They couldn’t be found here. That would be a scandal neither one of them would recover from.
He followed Sherlock out of the window, making sure to close it carefully behind them.
Lestrade offered Sherlock the case a few days later. Sherlock turned it down, complaining that it was beneath his notice.
“But you know who she was,” John said after Lestrade had left.
“And you’re not going to say?”
“He was blackmailing her son. He committed suicide a week ago. She’s not on a killing spree. She just rid the world of one despicable creature. Do you really think she needs to suffer anymore?”
“No,” John whispered. “God no.”
Mary had been picnicking in the park that summer afternoon with her youngest nephew, Brendan. They often went on outings together the weekends that John spent with Sherlock. Storm clouds gathered and they packed up the picnic and began to drive home. The clouds opened up, a torrential downpour that made driving impossible and Mary pulled over to the side of the road to wait out the storm. They played I Spy while they waited. It was cozy in the car, happy. She never saw the lorry that hit them.
Brendan only had a few bruises but Mary was pronounced dead at the scene.
John let the phone fall to the sofa. He was aware that Sherlock was calling his name, shaking him, growing more anxious and grabbing the phone to shout frantic questions into it. None of it seemed real.
“It should have been me,” Sherlock whispered.
John opened his eyes. Evening was falling. He wasn’t sure what day it was. After the funeral was over they’d gone back to Baker Street and hadn’t left. It had been a couple of days, maybe more, since John had left Sherlock’s bed to do anything other than go to the toilet.
“If I had stayed dead maybe she wouldn’t be. I’d change it if I could, John.”
John squeezed his eyes shut and gripped Sherlock’s hand.
“Don’t say that. It sounds like a choice. I would never choose between you.”
“I wish you had her still. She was so easy to love. You deserve someone who is easy to love.”
“I’m glad you’re here, Sherlock. I wish I had her when I lost you. I don’t know how to survive this but I know I couldn’t if you weren’t here.” John rolled over to look Sherlock in the eye. “She’d hate this. She’d never forgive me for sulking in bed for half a week.”
“What can I do, John? Give me something to do for you.”
“I want to scatter her ashes someplace. She didn’t say where she wanted to be.”
“We could take her to Kenya. We could finally use those tickets.”
John smiled but he shook his head. “I want her closer than that. I know it’s silly but…”
Sherlock was looking up at him with wide, dark eyes that were full of sorrow.
“I want to kiss you. Do you think she’d mind?” John asked.
Sherlock shook his head. “She understood. I don’t know why. I was such rubbish at sharing you.”
John shrugged. “She loved you. She knew I loved you both.”
“I loved you both. But, John, I loved you more.”
John kissed Sherlock and for the first time it wasn’t urgent and demanding. It wasn’t trying to push grief and worry away. It felt like an acknowledgement of all their grief, like welcoming it in, knowing it would be their companion for the rest of their days, a little reminder that something they loved was missing. It felt better, accepting that. It allowed John to leave the bed, and shower, and eat, and pick up the newspaper.
Two days later when Lestrade barged into their flat to check up on them he found John standing in the kitchen looking thin and grey but bickering with Sherlock over the advisability of keeping a dead bat in the sink.
Sherlock made love to John for the first time after John had been held captive for two days in a basement on the outskirts of London. John had been out of his mind with fright. He remembered Moriarty and how the man’s mad glee had made him so scary. His kidnapper was not filled with glee. He was deadly serious. It didn’t make him less scary.
On the afternoon of the second day he’d wheeled over a tray of medical instruments. John knew what each of those instruments did and he began to thrash against his bonds.
“I’m going to hurt you now,” the man said simply. He picked up a pair of scissors and began to cut off John’s clothes.
Sherlock and Lestrade got to him before the kidnapper could finish cutting off John’s trousers. John wasn’t even scratched except from where he’d struggled against his restraints but he turned into a sobbing mess when Sherlock got him unbound. Lestrade sent the other officers from the room, handed Sherlock a mountain of shock blankets, and went to stand guard by the door while John fell apart in Sherlock’s arms.
After a trip to A&E and a long night’s sleep in the familiar comfort of Sherlock’s bed John woke to the cold press of his stethoscope.
“I’m okay,” he said, laying his hand over Sherlock’s.
“God, John. I was out of my mind. I couldn’t even think. Lestrade practically found you on his own. I couldn’t think.”
“I’m okay,” John said again. Sherlock was kissing him all over his face, and ears and neck.
“It’s not enough, John. I want to—“
Sherlock seemed at a loss for words which John always found amusing. He didn’t feel like laughing though. He pushed Sherlock’s hair back from his face.
“You want to what?”
“I have the strangest urge to undress you.”
“I’ve never wanted that before, from anyone, but I want it now.”
“Go on then,” John said.
Sherlock undressed John with a slow sort of reverence, dropping kisses on each bit of bared skin. John had never had someone look at him so. There was a passion that bordered on worship in Sherlock’s eyes. When he was naked Sherlock sat back to rake his eyes up and down John’s body.
“Now do yours,” John said and Sherlock’s fingers trembled on the buttons of his shirt. John sat up to help, pushing the fabric away from Sherlock’s pale shoulders to press open-mouthed kisses onto them. Sherlock was panting as he pushed John back down onto the pillows and kicked off his trousers. John moaned as Sherlock settled down on top of him, pressing their bodies together. John pushed his hips up, wanting more, and then Sherlock was rutting against him, burying his face in John’s neck and letting out high-pitched needful sounds.
John reached down to grab Sherlock’s bum, press him closer. Sherlock came and lay trembling furiously as John rubbed himself against Sherlock’s thigh until he too came undone.
They lay quietly for some time. John ran his fingers through Sherlock’s hair and enjoyed the heavy heat of Sherlock lying across him too much to protest that he couldn’t breathe properly. When Sherlock finally rolled off him John rolled with him, settling between Sherlock’s spread legs with his head resting on Sherlock’s chest. He trailed his fingers idly through Sherlock’s chest hair and around his nipple.
“If you don’t stop I’m going to do that to you again.”
John smiled. He didn’t stop.
John’s phone proposed to him on a cold, wet morning in October. Sherlock had left before dawn to bother Lestrade, or the homeless, or something. John fished his phone off the bedside table to check the time and the weather forecast. He clicked on his reminder list to see if he had any forgotten appointments or if Sherlock had added anything he needed to pick up anything from the shops.
“Get bread, cheese, twenty meters of copper wire, cage for a small animal, large battery, whiskey. Call Harry back. Please marry me on Thursday next,” his phone sang out.
John had lived with Sherlock too long to be alarmed by the request for wire, cage, and battery. He was rather stunned at the marriage proposal. John, if he had given any thought to the matter, would have supposed that Sherlock would shun marriage as something only ordinary (dull) people did. He certainly shunned traditional forms of proposing.
John sat up in the bed until his shock gave way to amusement. A warm and almost ticklish feeling began to spread in his chest and John laughed aloud and wiggled his feet with joy under the covers. The door to the flat opened and John composed himself with effort.
Sherlock came in and crawled onto the bed to lie on his belly. He had raindrops in his hair and his skin was rosy and he smelled like frost.
“John, please,” Sherlock took his hand and kissed the knuckles and then the palm. “Please, please, please, say yes.”
“You are a twit. You need to ask me properly.”
“You didn’t. You don’t add marriage to the shopping list. I’m not entirely sure I’m not engaged to my phone.”
Sherlock smiled. “So you are engaged?”
John sighed in his long-suffering way but his heart wasn’t really in it. His fingers were threading into Sherlock’s hair and Sherlock was leaning into his hands like a cat that wanted to be stroked. John wrapped a hand around the back of Sherlock’s neck.
“Kiss me, you idiot.”
Sherlock did not want wedding rings. He wanted tattoos.
“Not matching. You get something that makes you think of me and I’ll get something that makes me think of you and it will be a surprise.”
The ceremony was small. It was just the two of them, the woman who married them, and a violinist in a small, disused chapel on an old estate. The chapel hadn’t a roof, just some old rafters, and birds that cooed contentedly when the music played. A raindrop fell on John’s nose as the proceedings drew to a close and Sherlock leaned forward to kiss it away.
Afterwards they drove to the tattoo parlor. John had spent the last days agonizing over what he should get and wondering what image Sherlock was planning on. Sherlock had been adamant that they get images and not words. The tattoos also had to be small, no more than two square inches. They wouldn’t reveal them until the scabs had gone away and they were really apart of them.
So they were home from their ‘honeymoon’ (tracking down an art forger in Edinburgh) before they were ready for the reveal. John had got his on his hip and Sherlock’s was on his shoulder. They lay in bed and Sherlock opened John’s trousers to peel the bandage from his hip.
“What is it, John?”
“It’s a baby dragon.”
John looked down at his hip.
“It’s supposed to be.”
“I thought it was a wet cat with leaves stuck to it.”
“Why am I a baby dragon?”
Now that it came to explaining it John felt rather silly.
“It’s just—I wanted something that was a bit untamed, and exotic, and exciting. Something that has an air of danger and thrill about it. Everyone’s afraid of dragons, but if I had a baby dragon and loved it just right, it would trust me. Only me. And everyone would think I was mad to go about with a dragon but I’d know they were wrong.” John swallowed hard and took Sherlock’s hand is own. “A little dragon is fierce but it still has some vulnerability, some need of comfort and care. It would be beautiful and unique and mine alone. It would be the most amazing thing to have ever happened to me. Even if it was somewhat hazardous to live with, on occasion.”
Sherlock’s Adam’s apple was working too hard and his eyes were bright. He kissed John to make him close his eyes. John allowed it for a moment before leaning away.
“We’re married. I’m the one that gets to see you turn into a soppy mess over baby dragons.”
“It still looks like a wet cat but I like being your dragon.”
“It’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Let’s see yours then.”
Sherlock offered John his shoulder and John held his breath while he pulled the bandage aside. It was a simple geometric shape, a tall pentagon, like a house, but bisected by two lines forming the shape of the letter T or a cross. There was a dark blot were the front door should be.
“Tell me about it.”
Sherlock shrugged. “You’re my home, John. That’s the pentagon, the cross is because I wanted a symbol of faith, because, you know, you never doubted me. Not even when you should have.”
“And the wonky blot?”
Sherlock huffed irritably. “It’s supposed to be a heart. My heart, in my home. You’re the only one that really believed I had one. You keep it safe. That tattoo artist was really not very talented.”
John hushed him with a kiss.
“It’s fine. It’s perfectly imperfect. Just like us.”
Sherlock lost his look of irritation.
“Shall we finish removing your trousers?”
“Yes,” John said. Sherlock pushed him back into the pillows and John lifted his face to kiss his dragon. Sherlock leaned down to meet his heart’s home.
It was, perhaps, the return of John’s limp that got Sherlock to start thinking about retirement. They were both getting too old to be running around London and Sherlock found that crimes didn’t hold his attention the way they once did. More and more he enjoyed an evening in, reading or tinkering with experiments, or trying to make John blush.
John started thinking about a house in the country when Sherlock thought it was a good idea to let a colony of bees move into his old bedroom upstairs, and when he couldn’t make Sherlock understand that the renters downstairs could hear Sherlock’s more enthusiastic efforts to make him blush.
Most of their friends had left London. Lestrade had retired the year before. Molly was married. Even Mycroft was not as active as he once was. It was beginning to feel as if the city had moved on without them.
John found a cottage that was close enough to the city to allow for day trips. The silence at night was strange.
“If all goes according to plan I’ll die in this bed,” Sherlock said after they had christened it.
John giggled. “I never would have bet on it. I thought we’d both be shot, or strangled, or poisoned. I can’t actually believe we survived all that.”
“It was fun. Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy yourself.”
“I’ll do it all again, even the hard parts, if I can always have this ending.”
“We never got to Kenya.”
“We could still go. I’m not planning on kicking off just yet.”
“Don’t. I have to go first, John. You must know that.”
John did know. He wouldn’t be able to deal with the worry of leaving Sherlock behind. If he had his way he’d have one more great grief to suffer through before he was allowed to rest. He rolled toward Sherlock, seeking out kisses and comfort. Sherlock gave both gladly.
“Let’s not go there. It couldn’t be everything I thought it would be. I’d rather keep it a dream.”
It was a good dream. It was a dream John adopted for his own in the brief time he was left to wander the cottage alone. He dreamed of it during his empty waking hours and one night his eyes fell closed and his tea cup fell from his hand and he saw the salt mountain with the cave opening stretched in front him vividly. Sherlock and Mary were waiting there. They were holding hands and waiting for him. They were smiling and beckoning him on into the translucent walls and white light of the cave.