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Love or What You Will

Chapter Text


Dearest Charles,

  I found a box of this paper at the back of a bureau so I must write to you as I am mourning for my lost innocence. It never looked like living. The doctors despaired of it from the start,  

Soon I am off to Venice to stay with my papa in his palace of sin. I wish you were coming. I wish you were here.  

I am never quite alone. Members of my family keep turning up and collecting luggage and going away again but the white raspberries are ripe.

  I have a good mind not to take Aloysius to Venice. I don’t want him to meet a lot of horrid Italian bears and pick up bad habits.

Love or what you will.

S.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited   


 A sharp rap at the door.

“Come in!”

A man with a shock of black curls falling artlessly over one eye strides into Dr. John Watson’s office, a worn leather bag slung over one shoulder, his slim figure clad in well-fitted slacks and a neatly tucked-in collared shirt.  He has carelessly shoved his sleeves up to his elbows, baring his pale forearms, and his gaze is haughty, eyes scanning John’s office.  John smiles – so this is the infamous Sherlock Holmes. 

“Mr. Holmes?” he asks, rising from his desk and extending a hand in greeting. 

“Sherlock,” the man corrects tightly, his voice about three octaves lower than John had expected for a twenty-eight year old Ph.D student.  He hesitates briefly, glancing down at John’s outstretched hand (as if inspecting it for poison) before taking it quickly yet firmly in his own. 

“Sherlock,” John repeats before retracting his hand warm from the other man’s touch.  He motions to the chair in front of him.  “Please, have a seat,” he offers as he sinks back down into his own chair, the plush leather welcoming him back to its soft embrace.

Sherlock remains standing.  “I suppose you’re the unlucky one I’ve been passed off to, then,” he remarks coolly, gliding over to John’s bookshelf and running a hand over the titles. “What did you do?” he asks over his shoulder, “Lose a bet?  Owe someone a favour?”

Sherlock’s dialogue is rapid-fire and it takes John a moment to adjust to the pace of his speech. “Sorry. What are you talking about?” he asks, eyebrows knit in confusion.

“Me,” says Sherlock simply, casting John a withering glance that seems to say: Keep up.  “I’m not stupid – exceedingly far from it, in fact.  There’s a reason I’ve been assigned to be the TA for a professor who is not in my own department.  The lot of them can’t stand me.”  He says this as if stating a fact – cold and sure.  “They can’t get rid of me because I’m too big of an academic asset to the university and so they have passed me off to you rather than deal with me themselves.  You poor, unfortunate man,” says Sherlock lightly, mockingly, “Stuck with me.”

John is dumbfounded by this speech – he had been utterly unprepared for the man’s sharp tongue despite Molly’s warning – and he hardly even knows where to begin.  “Sherlock, I don’t –”

“Oh, don’t bother reassuring me to the contrary,” he continues, careening over John’s words, “I know it’s true.  And I don’t need someone pretending to like me – I just need someone to give me tasks to do.  That’s all.  The quality of my work is the reason people keep me around and that is perfectly amenable to me.”  Sherlock looks at John, eyes intense and boring into the professor’s. “You do have work for me to do, I presume, Dr. Watson?”

“Of course,” says John, feeling almost affronted that he had to ask.  “What else would I have for you?”

Sherlock stares at him for a half-second longer than is comfortable before he shrugs, looking back at the bookshelves before him.  “Some professors I have worked for in the past have hired me and not given me a scrap of work to do, so that they do not have to interact with me.  They were most likely afraid that I would tear their flimsy arguments and pathetic assignments to shreds.”  Sherlock runs a finger over the spine of John’s coveted first-edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, his expression hard.  “Getting paid for doing nothing is an insult,” he hisses, eyes still fixed on the book, “My brain stagnates without constant stimulation.  I get so bored without a constant supply of work to do.”

John is transfixed – this man with the baritone voice has actually waltzed into his office and is currently giving him nothing less than a soliloquy of Shakespearean intensity, his voice filled with a cold rage reminding John momentarily of the wronged Edmund from King Lear. Clearing his throat, John speaks up. “Well, I promise you won’t be bored,” he affirms, “I have lots of work lined up for you – I know how brilliant you are.”

Sherlock turns to him as if stung.  “Brilliant?” he repeats cautiously, “How do you know?  Why do you think so?” He asks his questions as if interrogating John.

John looks him straight in the eye.  “I know because I looked you up after you were assigned as my TA.  I think so because I’ve read your work – your Honours and MA theses, your papers, your contributions to various scholarly journals, and even your blog.  You’re a brilliant scholar and a leader in your field.  I’m honestly honoured not only to have you at this university, but also to be working with you and I hope that you won’t find the work I give you too mundane in comparison to the cutting edge stuff you’re used to.”

John says all of this straightforwardly, honesty plain in his words.  For a moment, Sherlock looks absolutely bowled over – his expression softening into one of surprise – before his face reverts back a mask of indifference.  He turns back to John’s bookshelf, back straight and mouth set stoically, but glances over at the professor after a moment.  “You really think so?” he asks in a rush, tone attempting nonchalance. 

John cannot help but smile.  “I do,” he affirms, nodding, “You are extraordinary, Mr. Holmes.”

“Sherlock,” the other man corrects reflexively, his voice sounding faraway as he continues to stare at John.

“Sherlock,” John repeats apologetically, still grinning.

There is a moment of silence that passes between them, but – for some reason – it doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as it should.  “It’s very rare that I… receive such accolades,” says Sherlock finally, his gaze skittering away from John’s, “I am thoroughly unused to it.”

“What do people normally say?”

A grin flickers over Sherlock’s mouth and he looks up to catch John’s eye at this.  “Best not to say in polite company,” he quips and John chuckles.  They regard each other like this – both smiling and looking wonderingly at the other – before John clears his throat and stands. 

“Well, for starters, I have a slew of quizzes for you to grade and an annotated bibliography for you to put together for my each of my four upcoming courses,” says John, pushing the bulging file folder on the corner of his desk forward.  “I’ve attached the grading rubric and some sample comments for common mistakes that students tend to make on this introductory assignment.” John opens the file and lifts the top page to show Sherlock the rubric. “If you have any questions about anything, of course, just send me an e-mail.”

Sherlock walks over to cast an appraising eye over the proffered papers. His lower lip juts out ever so slightly in approval. “Thorough,” he notes with a nod and John feels something in his chest spark at what he imagines is rare praise from the man. “The details pertaining to the four courses for which you need annotated bibliographies are in this folder as well, I presume?” he asks without making it sound like a question.

“Yes. Beneath the essays,” says John, flipping through the stack of papers to the bottom to show Sherlock.

The younger man tilts his head to look, nodding again. “When would you like me to finish it all?” Sherlock inquires as he reaches forward to take the folder, long-fingered hands brushing past John’s in the process.

“M-Monday, if that suits you,” says John, hoping the younger man misses the catch in his voice. “I was thinking we could meet at the beginning of every week to go over your progress and chat about what’s coming up next. That way, I should be able to keep you adequately busy.”

Tucking the folder carefully into his bag, Sherlock looks up and addresses John a lopsided smile that looks surprisingly genuine. “I look forward to it, Dr. Watson,” he says, buckling down the flap of his leather bag and readjusting the strap cutting across his chest. “And, should I finish this all earlier than Monday, may I –?”

John chuckles. “Yes, you can e-mail me for more work,” he cuts in, anticipating Sherlock’s request. “I don’t mind delegating more tasks to you. It will certainly make my life a Hell of a lot easier this term.”

“That is what I’m being paid to do,” Sherlock reminds him, deep voice curling around each word.

Smiling, John sits down, threading his fingers together on his desk. “And I have no doubt that you’ll earn every penny of your salary,” he answers with a laugh.

Sherlock waves this off with a impatient gesture, but looks pleased at the compliment nonetheless. “The salary means nothing to me,” he says firmly, “Like I said, it’s all about the work.”

“I know,” John replies, nodding.

A momentary yet comfortable silence falls between them during which they both regard one another, each with a curious glint of something new in their eyes, the air in John’s small office tasting vaguely like promise.

Sherlock is the first to break the silence. “Well, I’m off,” he says suddenly, turning on his heel to open the door. He pauses, however, halfway through the threshold to poke his head back into the office to inform John that, should he wish to find him, his office is number 221, cubicle B in the Chemistry building. “Afternoon!” he calls over his shoulder in farewell.

And, just like that, he is gone.

Chapter Text


Now, you great stanza, you heroic mould,

Bend to my will, for I must give you love:

The weight in the heart that breathes, but cannot move,

Which to endure flesh only makes so bold.

Louise Bogan, “Single Sonnet”


The hustle and bustle of the Student Life Centre at noon is close to deafening and it makes John feel older than he actually is; each sudden cry of laughter feels like a blow to the head while each high-pitched whine of a chair being pulled unceremoniously across the floor grates on every nerve in his body.

“Remind me why we meet here for lunch so often,” drawls John dryly, picking at his wilted salad with limited enthusiasm. “I can barely hear myself think.”

Molly smiles in that way that pushes her cheeks up and makes her look even more girlish than usual. “It’s central and convenient,” she answers around a forkful of beef and broccoli, lifting a hand to cover her mouth apologetically. She swallows and continues. “It’s the perfect meeting place for two star-crossed friends like ourselves. You know, one from the Science side of campus and the other from the Arts side.”

John snorts, his dark mood lifting a bit. It’s almost impossible to be grumpy around Molly with her high and halting voice, her cutesy cardigans, and perfect ponytails. John had immediately clicked with her when they first met at an interdisciplinary faculty event several years ago; her shyness softened something in him and the keenness of her observations never ceased to impress him. On top of everything else, she was bar-none the kindest person he had ever met – a rare find in London where the rush of the city often made it difficult for people to hold onto their gentleness.

“Two faculties both alike in dignity / In fair London-town where we lay our scene,” John recites playfully, “From ancient grudge break to new rivalry, / Where scholar blood makes scholar hands unclean. / From forth the fatal loins of these two faculties / A pair of star-cross’d friends take their lunch.”

Molly laughs, the sound fresh as rain in spring. “That’s brilliant,” she says between giggles. “I look forward to your debut at the Globe, Sir John Olivier.”

John spears a piece of lettuce, chuckling. “Shakespeare’s not really my specialty, but I’d be a poor English prof if I didn’t know the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.”

Molly leans forward, a conspiring gleam in her eyes. “We would be poor Brits if we didn’t know the prologue to Romeo and Juliet,” she quips, quirking a brow, and John laughs.

“As a marker of national identity, knowing our Shakespeare is not the worst,” he comments thoughtfully, chewing on a mouthful of salad. Grabbing a napkin, he wipes away a smear of dressing from his mouth before embarking on a new topic. “The Bard aside, I thought you’d like to know that I met with Sherlock Holmes yesterday,” John says as lightly as possible, his eyes fixated on the cherry tomato currently avoiding his fork. When he looks up, Molly is regarding him with a knowing look in her eye.

“And...?” she prompts, closing up her now-finished box of Chinese takeaway.

“And, well.” John pauses, his left hand flexing underneath the table in involuntary remembrance of Sherlock’s fingers brushing against his. “He was brilliant,” he says truthfully, the words coming out in a bit of a rush. “He was almost exactly as you said he would be, but… more. If that makes sense.”

Molly makes an understanding grimace. “Sherlock Holmes is always more,” she replies simply. “He’s a force of nature, really. Harsh, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and awe-inspiring all at once.”

John cocks his head in approval, eyebrows raised. “Thank you for that sublime description, Edmund Burke,” he teases, but Molly swats at the air in front of her in admonishment.

“I’m serious,” she insists, smiling in spite of herself. “Yes, that was a lame way to put it, but tell me it wasn’t the tiniest bit accurate.”

Sobering, John cannot help but nod. “No, you’re right. It sums him up pretty well,” he admits, thinking back to the man’s whirlwind of an entrance and exit, the rumble of his voice like bottled thunder, the hailstorm intensity of his pale eyes.

And yet, there had been sunshine in his expression when John had called him extraordinary.

Molly sighs, shoulders sinking. “I can’t thank you enough for taking him on as your TA,” she says softly, eyes earnest. “If you hadn’t, no one else would have. I mean that. And then I might have had to take away some of his funding – in Sherlock’s case, his scholarship came with the stipulation that he had to earn a portion of it through teaching assistantships. Even though it’s my job as the Graduate Coordinator, no one was willing to help me look for a position for him because, as you know, not a soul in the Chemistry Department would take him on. And nary a soul in the Biology, or Physics Departments would take him either.”

Exhaling loudly, John leans back in his chair. “He’s pissed off that many people, has he?” he asks, tone bordering on impressed.

She emits a hollow laugh. “Pretty much, yeah. He has quite the reputation on the Science side of campus. He was Dr. Philip Anderson’s TA in his first year and they didn’t get on at all. Apparently, Sherlock kept correcting his mistakes in class and would just start lecturing over him if he thought he could convey more accurate information. He also refused to do a scrap of research for him – said that he wouldn’t dream of wasting his time with something as trivial as Dr. Anderson’s work.”

John emits a bark of laughter at this and Molly frowns at him. “Come on,” exclaims John, “I’ve met that Anderson bloke. He’s a right dickhead and I know you think so, too.”

Molly bites her lip yet nods grudgingly, unable to disagree. “Dickheadedness withstanding, Anderson was furious and stopped giving Sherlock work to do altogether. Sherlock pitched a fit and then Anderson threatened to stop paying him if Sherlock didn’t start behaving and acting like a proper TA, but Sherlock said he didn’t care about the money. He only cared –”

“About the work,” John finishes for her, chuckling. “Sounds familiar.”

“Exactly,” says Molly. “So, Anderson fired him and tried to get Sherlock suspended for academic misconduct, but, according to hearsay, his older brother – some kind of government official who also sits on the board of directors at the university – swooped in and made sure Sherlock was able to keep going in his program.”

John shakes his head wonderingly. “This just keeps getting better and better.”

Molly giggles. “You’re not taking any of this seriously, are you?”

“Oh, I am,” John reassures her. “But you have to admit, it’s a tad dramatic.”

“Everything with Sherlock is,” says Molly matter-of-factly. “Well, obviously word spread of Sherlock’s disastrous first year as a TA, so finding someone who was willing to take him on in his second year was horrible. Still, a newcomer to the department, a Dr. Dimmock took him on and it was the same thing all over again.” John is about to comment that he doesn’t know a Dimmock, but Molly beats him to it. “He quit after his year with Sherlock,” she explains. “He never explicitly said that Sherlock was the reason he quit, but he cited stress as his top reason for leaving, so it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.” She sighs. “So, with his short yet infamous history as a TA, Sherlock was a hard sell this year. On top of all that, almost all the professors in the department know how difficult he is as a student.” Molly leans in confidentially at this and John imitates her. “I heard a rumour,” she whispers, “that in one of Dr. Donovan’s lectures, he group-texted the entire class (her included) to point out every single instance in which she conveyed a piece of information that was either inaccurate, or not accurate enough.”

John has to bite down on his lower lip hard to keep from laughing at this, trying to remain appropriately serious. “How did he get everyone’s numbers?” he asks instead, his voice strained from suppressed laughter.

Molly shrugs. “God knows,” she sighs. “Needless to say, no one was exactly jumping at the opportunity to take him on as a TA this year with all the stories circulating about him. And I can’t say I really blame everyone; he’s nearly impossible to work with and he can say such horrible things,” she murmurs, fiddling with one of the buttons on her cardigan. “But I have a bit of a soft spot for him because I feel like his arrogance has to be a defense mechanisms of some kind.” Molly heaves a great sigh. “He’s a genius – he produces stunning work – but he can be incredibly cruel if you dare to offer advice or anything of the like. I honestly don’t know how his supervisor manages him... Greg is nothing short of a saint.”

“Hang on,” John interrupts, holding up a hand. “Greg – your Greg – is Sherlock’s supervisor?”

Molly colours, shrinking into herself in embarrassment. “He’s not ‘my Greg,’ John,” she murmurs. “Dr. Lestrade and I –”

“Have secretly been in love with one another for years,” he finishes for her, “And I don’t know how much longer it can go on before I lose my mind and lock you both in a room until you both admit how you feel and go on a bloody date once and for all." John shakes his head, chuckling. "Molly, for Christ’s sake, there’s an ongoing pool in the Faculty of Arts betting on when the two of you are going to finally get together.”

Her blush – if possible – deepens at this. “I’ve told you a hundred times, John, that it’s not that simple and – Anyhow, that’s neither here nor there,” she says as firmly as she can with a suddenly squeaky voice. “What I was trying to say is that I have no idea how Greg puts up with all of Sherlock’s condescension. I mean, of course, Sherlock has a reason for being condescending – his mind should be an eighth wonder of the world, really – but I’ve heard the way he talks to Greg and it’s so disrespectful. But Greg’s incredibly patient with him, so that’s probably why Sherlock chose to work with him.”

John mulls this over. “Perhaps Sherlock’s the reason Greg’s gone prematurely grey,” he jokes after a moment, earning him a gentle slap on the hand from Molly.

John,” she half-laughs, half-rebukes, “That’s not nice. He went grey years before Sherlock.” Her face softens into a bit of a wistful expression. “Besides it makes him look sort of dignified, don’t you think?”

Swallowing down the bark of laughter clambering its way up his throat, John struggles to keep a straight face. “I suppose so,” he says as politely as he can.

“Sort of like a silver fox –”

John cannot help it: he bursts out laughing and desperately tries to hide his face behind his hands. “I’m sorry, Molly. I’m sorry,” he breathes out between giggles. “I’m a terrible friend. I shouldn’t laugh.” When he looks up at her again, she gives an indignant huff, but her expression is one of amusement.

“Maybe I should just listen to you and bloody ask him out,” she sighs, shaking her head. “Put you and apparently your entire Faculty out of their misery.”

John reaches across the table to take her hand, expression gentle. “Please do, Molly,” he entreats her, “I know he’ll say yes.”

Her blush returns, this time dusting the tops of her ears. “Well, I don’t know about that, but thank you.” She then removes her hand from John’s to check her watch, making a face as she does so. “Bollocks,” she mutters, “I have a class to teach in about fifteen minutes and still have to make it back to my side of campus.”

“Then that means I have a class to teach in fifteen minutes also,” says John wearily, gathering up his half-eaten lunch and chucking it in the bin near their table. “Same time, same place on Thursday?” he asks, rising from his seat as Molly does the same.

She smiles at John as she does up her jacket. “Sounds good to me,” she says and they fall into stride on their way to the door.

Before they part ways, Molly touches John’s arm. “And please keep me posted on how things go with Sherlock,” she says, “I owe you big time for taking him on. It saves me a ton of paperwork… and guilt.”

“I’ll be sure to keep you posted,” he assures her. “Our first meeting is this coming Monday, so I’m sure I’ll have lots to report.”

Molly snorts. “Oh, you’ll hear from him before then. Trust me,” she says, a knowing gleam in her eyes. With that, she waves goodbye and John watches her walk away, her tartan scarf whipping behind her in the autumn wind. After a moment, John turns and heads down the path leading back toward the Arts Building, his mind awash with thoughts of Sherlock Holmes and his skin abuzz with an electric kind of excitement he cannot fully explain.


 

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Finished 

Dr. Watson, 

Have finished assigned work. Please advise me on what you would like me to tackle next.

SH 

 


 

To: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: RE: Finished

Sherlock,

It’s only Thursday. You’ve really finished everything already?

John 

 


 

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: RE: RE: Finished

Dr. Watson,

Yes. And you promised you would provide me with ample work. What can I do now?

If convenient, send more work along at once. (Even if inconvenient, please do so anyway.) I have the weekend ahead of me and do not wish to be bored.

SH

 


 

To: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: RE: RE: RE: Finished

Sherlock,

Of course I still have more for you to do. Attached is the reading list for the Honours course I’m teaching this semester. If you’re looking for work to do this weekend, read all of the assigned poetry to familiarize yourself with the course content. If you want, read the seven novels as well (yes, seven, I know I’m a cruel prof). We can discuss your thoughts on everything Monday.

John

P.S. But, seriously, take the weekend off. I’m sure you have better things to do than read fifty years’ worth of war and post-war poetry and prose.

 


 

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: RE: RE: RE: RE: Finished

Dr. Watson,

I do not take weekends “off.” As I said, my brain needs constant stimulation.

Surprisingly, the readings for your Honours course are proving themselves sufficient distraction from tedium. Will discuss Monday.

SH

Chapter Text


If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blessed by suns of home.

Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier”


“Why Plath?”

These are Sherlock’s first words to John as he comes barging into his office bright and early Monday morning. He does not knock as he did the first time, simply opens the door without warning and strides into the cramped space, seating himself without preamble on the chair facing John. He sits carelessly, his right ankle perched on his left knee, and his fingers thread together over his chest like clockwork. He fixes John with an intense stare.

“Good morning, Sherlock,” says John pleasantly, amused by the abrupt greeting.

“Well?” the younger man prompts impatiently.

“Why Plath?” John repeats. Sherlock nods. “Well, why do you think I chose her?”

Sherlock’s nose crinkles in distaste. “I asked you, Dr. Watson. I never ask questions to which I already know the answer.”

John chuckles. “I don’t imagine you ask very many, then.”

Something that looks like amusement twitches at the corners of Sherlock’s mouth. “I do not,” he concedes. “So tell me. Pray, do not make me ask again.”

Even though it sounds like a command, John can hear eagerness and hunger in Sherlock’s voice – he genuinely wants to know, wants to learn John’s reasoning.

“I chose Plath because I think that the violence of her language is a perfect representation of post-war literature,” John explains, “Additionally, she uses a proliferation of Holocaust and Nazi Germany imagery in some of her most famous pieces that touches on the intriguingly persistent fascination with World War II.”

Sherlock frowns, taking a moment to absorb John’s explanation. “And yet she uses this imagery to illustrate personal suffering,” he says eventually. “I have always been scared of you,” Sherlock recites, his deep voice curling around Plath’s words, “With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo, / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue. / Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You.” He halts, clearly mulling the excerpt over. "Her father was not German. I looked it up,” Sherlock eventually states, “Therefore, I fail to see why Plath takes the liberty of demonizing him by assigning him a Hitler-esque demeanour.”  

“What does she call him again? A man in black with a Meinkampf look? Pretty damning,” John agrees, watching Sherlock closely. The younger man is intensely present in the discussion – far more so than John would have ever imagined. He would have never dreamed that, of all things, poetry would present something like a challenge to the brilliant Sherlock Holmes. “Plath’s use of this particular of imagery has been up for scholarly debate for a while,” John offers as explanation, “So your questioning of its legitimacy is entirely valid.”

“And she is not Jewish. I looked that up, too.” The crease between Sherlock’s eyes deepens. “Yet, she writes: And the language obscene / An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. / I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew.” Sherlock pauses again. “Is the reappropriation of the Jewish experience to communicate her feelings of abandonment fitting? Is it not… extreme?”

"Do you think it’s a feeling of abandonment Plath is trying to express?” asks John, genuinely curious as to Sherlock’s interpretation of the poem.

If Sherlock is annoyed that John unintentionally avoided his earlier question, he does not look it. Instead, he looks thoughtful at the professor’s new line of inquiry. “Well, she writes about killing herself in order to get back to her father,” Sherlock says after a moment, “And the bitterness that pervades the poem seems to suggest an overall feeling of abandonment. It’s an easy enough deduction to make with the facts presented to the readers.”

John sticks out his lower lip and nods slowly, making a humming noise. “I could see that,” he says. “Personally, I always read “Daddy” as being about closure – what with that powerful final line about being through with her father and all.”

Sherlock’s face that had gradually been easing into something bright and eager as the conversation progressed suddenly shifts into a stony expression. “Are you saying I’m wrong?” he asks, looking as if he is on the verge of being mortally offended.

John stops himself from laughing. “Of course not!” he exclaims, smilingly. “There really aren’t any rights or wrongs when it comes to poetry if you back up your interpretation with some relevant examples from the text – which you did. Very well, mind you. Besides, it’s mostly about what a poem makes you feel. That can never be wrong.”

An expression of mild revulsion steals over Sherlock’s features. “God, that’s frightful,” he says, a cross between pity and fear in his eyes as he regards John. “I should hate not knowing whether I am right or wrong in my deductions and analyses. How can you stand this area of study?”

The laugh John bottled up escapes him and it surprises Sherlock, the younger man starting a bit in his chair. “I find it quite liberating, actually,” he replies after his chuckles subside. “It’s exciting to work in shades of grey instead of black-and-white. That way, I constantly get to rediscover poetry and prose that I thought I had figured out. A student, or a colleague just has to make a passing comment about a writer that can cast a brand new light on his or her work and utterly transform it for me.” John feels his deep love for literature crowd into his chest, making his throat feel tight with pride. “It makes for an environment of endless discovery and I love that. I really do.”

Sherlock watches John closely as he speaks, the look in his eyes undecipherable. “Put like that,” he says, quirking a brow, “our areas of study sound very similar.”

John smiles, huffing out a laugh. “And is that possibility intriguing or abhorrent to you?”

A grin spreads slowly across Sherlock’s mouth. “Intriguing. Most definitely.”

“Glad to hear it,” says John, surprised at how glad he truly is, and the easy happiness he feels at this moment – discussing poetry on a Monday morning with Sherlock Holmes of all people – tastes as bright as lemons on his tongue.

It looks like Sherlock is about to reply when he abruptly frowns, gives his head a little shake, and looks down, hands swiftly opening his bag to produce the file folder from last time. “Forgive me, Dr. Watson,” says Sherlock, voice cool again as he hands John the graded assignments and annotated bibliographies. “I should not be wasting your time with my thoughts on Miss Plath’s poetry. That is not the reason I am here, of course. Here is the work you assigned last week. I believe you will find that everything is in order.”

John flips through the pages marked red with Sherlock’s neat script and casts a quick glance at the detailed bibliographies stapled together neatly at the bottom of the pile. “As I expected, your work is immaculate,” says John, unable to disguise his wonder as he looks everything over again. “Truly. This is excellent. Really, really excellent. Thank you, Sherlock.” When John looks back up, he finds that younger man is already staring at him, a curious expression on his face. “What?”

“Do you realize you do that out loud?”

John would blush, but he has nothing to be embarrassed about. Instead, he laughs. “Sorry,” he says smilingly.

“No, no. It’s… fine,” says Sherlock after a beat, looking as if he doesn’t know whether he should be embarrassed or pleased. The expression is oddly endearing.

“And you weren’t wasting my time earlier,” John says firmly, catching and holding Sherlock’s gaze with his own. “Critical discussions about the pieces I'll be teaching in class this semester are indispensable to me. Talking through the poems and novels I’ve assigned will only help me sharpen and refine my approach before I introduce them to my students. A fresh perspective – and I can’t imagine a fresher perspective than yours – is always appreciated and valued. Especially one born of that mind.”

Sherlock huffs out a breath and looks down, shaking his head. “Dr. Watson,” he says, amusement plain in his voice, “While I’m admittedly flattered by your compliments, it’s all about the work for me. I do not do what I do for the accolades.” Sherlock arranges his face into the picture of aloofness, his chin jutting out proudly. “There is no need for kindness,” he asserts, “I will still produce the same results whether or not you offer praise.”

John’s smile slips a notch at this and he shuffles Sherlock’s work into order before speaking. “I hope you know that all of my praise is freely given,” he says eventually, words careful, “I’m not trying to flatter you to get you to produce stellar work. I know you’ll do that without motivation.” As he speaks, John watches the Sherlock’s face closely for any outward shows of emotion – he sees the younger man’s jaw tighten almost imperceptibly, but he remains otherwise expressionless. “I don’t have any ulterior motives here, Sherlock,” says John gently and this, of all things, produces a clear reaction with something that looks like surprise sparking in his sharp eyes. If possible, Sherlock looks taken aback, lips parting as if the professor punched him in the stomach, and he stares at John as if he’s never seen anything quite like him before.

“You know,” says Sherlock finally, head slightly tilted to one side, “I actually don’t believe that you do.” He looks positively incredulous at this, an undercurrent of glee in his voice.

John frowns. “Well, I don’t,” he reaffirms. “Of course I don’t. I respect you and think you’re extraordinary. I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t think so.”

The grin that splits across Sherlock’s face is so bright that it practically lights up the entire office. For a moment, he doesn’t say anything and John is transfixed by what he assumes to be a rare sight: an unabashedly radiant Sherlock Holmes. “You continue to surprise me, Dr. Watson,” says Sherlock warmly, “It is so refreshing to be surprised.”

John chuckles. He has no idea how a man as ordinary as himself could possible be considered surprising to someone like Sherlock, but he’ll take it as a compliment of the highest order.  “Well, if surprising you keeps you from being bored –”

“It does.”

“Then, I’m happy to help,” continues John without missing a beat despite Sherlock’s interjection. “And in the interest of staving off your boredom, shall I give you your work for this week?”

At this, Sherlock sits up straighter and leans forward in his chair, those keen eyes alight with enthusiasm. “Let’s see it, then,” he prompts, gesturing impatiently with a hand.

Resisting the impulse to roll his eyes at Sherlock’s authoritative tone, John obligingly opens a drawer and pulls out this week’s file folder thick with assignments. “I have some more grading for you to do – I need the first years quizzes and surprise poetry analyses marked for next week.”

“Surprise poetry analyses?”

“I presented my Honours course – the one you did all the readings for – with a poem they had not seen before and got them to produce a written analysis in a half hour. I’d like to assess where their analytical skills are before getting into the thick of the course.”

“Which poem did you choose?”

“Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” Thought it an appropriate first poem to look at for a war and post-war lit course.”

Sherlock purses his lips. “I have never heard of it,” he says coolly. “It was not on the syllabus.”

Perhaps because it is such a well-known poem in his area of specialization, John cannot help but feel a sliver of shock ripple through him that Sherlock does not know it. Nonetheless, he does not let his astonishment show, as the younger man would most likely take John’s surprise as some kind of slight. Besides, Sherlock’s a Chemistry and not an English Major. Why would he know it? “I didn’t put it in the syllabus because I knew I would introduce my students to it through this pop quiz of sorts,” John explains. “We’ll discuss it in class next week when I give them back their assignments.”

Sherlock simply nods. “What else?”

John grins. “Well, I also have a paper I need you to read over and edit for me. I’m looking to submit it to conference, but I need to know it makes sense first.”

“And your paper is included in the file folder?”

“Of course. Just below the two assignments that need grading.”

“Anything else?”

John feels a laugh bite at his tongue, but he quells it. “Did you finish all the readings for my Honours course?”

Strangely, Sherlock looks sheepish at this. “I finished all the poetry and read four of the seven novels, but did not get the chance to read the last three,” he says, as if admitting to a kind of cardinal sin. “Something came up Sunday afternoon,” he offers as explanation, “I would have been able to complete the reading list had I –”

“Jesus, Sherlock!” John exclaims, laughing now. “Don’t apologize for not finishing a semester-long reading list over a weekend. Parade’s End is close to a thousand pages, for God’s sake.”

“No, I finished that one.”

“Christ, really?” John asks incredulously, breaking out into a peal of giggles. Sherlock looks on, regarding John perplexedly. “Which ones didn’t you finish, then?”

“I still have to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Irène Nemirovsky’s Suite française, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited,” he lists off. “They are only roughly 350 pages each, so I will most likely finish them by Wednesday at the latest. And, just to clarify once more, you simply want me to read them, so that we may… discuss them?” The concept still appears to be a foreign one to Sherlock, his voice torn between reluctance and disdain.

“Yes,” John affirms. “And feel free to e-mail me your thoughts as you read. Stream-of-consciousness reader response has always been fascinating to me. I tend to mark up the margins of my books with my reactions.”

Sherlock smiles. “I tend to do the same,” he admits. “Except, I usually write in textbooks to highlight the errors.”

“Of course you do,” says John affectionately, not even bothering to feign surprise.

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitches, but before it can bloom into something more, he looks down at his watch and abruptly rises. “I have taken up my allotted hour,” he says briskly, reaching forward to take this week’s file folder of work. “Time for me to leave you to your work, Dr. Watson.” Sherlock nods and smiles tightly, swiftly tucking the folder into his bag. “I will contact you in regards to my thoughts on the remaining three novels as per your request,” he promises, unnecessarily solemn and firm.

Getting used to Sherlock’s abrupt entrances and exits, John simply smiles and inclines his head in acquiescence. “No rush,” he reassures the younger man, “I know you’ll have them finished before next week.”

“By Wednesday,” Sherlock stresses, pausing in the threshold to turn back and reaffirm his self-imposed deadline. He remains there half-a-second more, smoothing his scarf into place as he seems to absentmindedly gaze at John, something faraway in his usually razor-sharp eyes. Before John can dwell too long on the weight of his gaze, however, Sherlock is gone with a swish of charcoal-grey wool and a brisk “Afternoon!”

John wonders if this is Sherlock’s customary farewell for social situations because it is nowhere near the afternoon – it’s barely even half past nine in the morning. For some reason, this somewhat awkward and very human blunder makes John smile alone in the office that now feels incredibly silent in the wake of Sherlock Holmes.

Chapter Text


Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

 

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

 

Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus”


  

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Brooke

 

Dr. Watson, 

I just finished grading the surprise poetry analyses and read Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” while doing so. I did not like the poem. The glorification of war and the idealization of England was no more than heavy-handed nationalism put to verse. Why is it included in the syllabus? It pales in comparison to work like Plath’s.

SH

 


 

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Novel Progress Report

 

Dr. Watson,

I am currently halfway through Mrs. Dalloway and will move on to Brideshead Revisited later tonight. Finished Suite française earlier today and enjoyed it although I wish to read it in its original language before judging the quality of the translation. Do you have a copy of it in French? As for Woolf and Waugh, I will email you with my thoughts once I have finished with their respective works.

SH

 


  

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Woolf

 

Dr. Watson,

Just completed Mrs. Dalloway and must admit that I am left questioning its presence on the syllabus for your Honours course. I understand, of course, that it is set post-World War I and the character of Septimus Warren Smith is obviously suffering from PTSD; however, those details seem trivial and tangential in the face of what appears to be the main narrative thrust.

The novel left me feeling a bit disoriented, to be perfectly honest, and I cannot tell you if I liked it or not. I have never read anything comparable to it.

SH

 


  

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Sebastian Flyte

 

Dr. Watson,

I am midway through Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and must communicate my interest in the character of Sebastian Flyte (although you most likely gleaned that from the subject line of this e-mail). While I am not trained in literary analysis, I believe that Waugh wishes the reader to interpret Sebastian as homosexual. Is my deduction correct?

Other than Sebastian, I must declare the novel to be a bit of a bore. While Woolf’s style was severely unstructured, at least she had a modicum of it in comparison to Mr. Waugh. His prose is dry and uninteresting. His only success is the character of Sebastian.

SH

 


  

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Disappointed

 

Dr. Watson,

Just finished Brideshead Revisited and must convey my disappointment. Waugh’s treatment of Sebastian was nothing short of lazy writing (alcoholism and a Tunisian monastery?) and Ryder’s storyline became increasingly tedious until I no longer cared whether he lived or died. Waugh’s commentary on religion in post-war England also seemed mind-numbingly simplistic. Is he considered a great novelist? If so, I can’t fathom why.

SH

 


  

To: jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From: sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Done

 

Dr. Watson,

Anyhow, there you have it. I have finished all of the readings for your Honours course and relayed some of my thoughts as requested. I cannot imagine how my opinions could possibly be of any use to you, but it was no trouble. Besides, the reading material was unexpectedly diverting.

SH

 


 

When John wakes up to this slew of e-mails from Sherlock on Wednesday morning, he’s not quite sure how to react. Torn between amusement, wonder, and bewilderment, he reads over Sherlock’s messages again. And then, once more. After this third time, John knows that he could never fit everything he wants to say in response to Sherlock’s thoughts into an e-mail (at least, not an e-mail of a respectable length).

Shutting his laptop, John throws off the covers and rises from bed, stretching his arms above his head and groaning as the tension melts from his muscles. As he goes about getting ready for the day, John’s mind remains fixated on Sherlock’s e-mails.

He sent the last one at 3:29 in the morning, thinks John as he brushes his teeth. Involuntarily, the professor pictures Sherlock, black curls made unrulier by exhaustion falling into his eyes as he pores over Brideshead Revisited by lamplight, angrily scribbling his disdain for Waugh in the margins. The image makes something warm and soft curl in the pit of John’s stomach and he doesn’t quite know what to do with the feeling. Instead of pausing to think on it, he continues his morning routine – eating, dressing, and packing his laptop and notes – before leaving his dingy flat to join the morning rush on the Tube.

John goes about his day as usual and teaches his morning and afternoon classes with habitual friendliness and ease. He hands back the assignments Sherlock marked in his second class and reminds his students of the first major deadline fast approaching. A few nervous students hang back after class to discuss essay topics and concerns while John assures them that he’d be happy to meet with them during his office hours (“They’re listed in the syllabus,” he reminds them with an admirable lack of exasperation in his voice.) He spends the rest of the afternoon and early evening in a departmental meeting and then returns to his office to pack up.

Instead of walking to the nearest Tube stop to head home afterwards, however, John walks across campus to the Baker Chemistry Building. He stops to consult a floor plan in the lobby and then sets off in search of Sherlock’s office. After climbing a flight of stairs and wandering down the long and semi-deserted hallways, John finally comes to the office marked 221B. There are two nameplates on the door: Martha Hudson and Sherlock Holmes.

What had seemed like a good idea this morning now seemed like an unbelievably stupid one. You could have just replied to him over e-mail and have been done with it, John thinks as he berates himself internally. There was no need to come here and speak to him. Christ, for all you know he might not even be in today. Thoughts swirling, John makes to turn away – his legs burning to walk down the hall and out of this building – but the sight of Sherlock’s name on the door stops him. In a rush, John remembers Sherlock’s e-mails – so harsh yet clearly eager to share his opinions – and his hand moves toward the door of its own accord.

Knock-knock-knock.

John waits, heart suddenly pounding in his throat, and he immediately regrets his hand’s recklessness. Was it inappropriate of him to be banging on his TA’s office door at eight o’clock at night to have a conversation about books outside of their official meeting time? God, it even sounded dodgy when put like that inside his head…

As John silently tries to reassure himself that this isn’t some kind of violation of academic conduct, he realizes after about a minute that no one has come to answer the door.

Instinctively, he knocks again, wincing midway through the action. He could have just walked away and put this poorly thought out decision behind him. All he would have to do is go home, open up one of Sherlock’s e-mails, click ‘Reply,’ and –

“For God’s sake,” comes an unmistakable voice from the other side of the door. “Don’t just stand there. Come in! The door’s unlocked.”

John doesn’t need much more of an invitation. Without thinking, he turns the handle and pushes.

The first sight that greets the professor is an astonished Sherlock Holmes staring up at him over his shoulder, clearly caught off guard.

“Dr. Watson,” he says in a voice drained of its earlier irritation. Spinning his chair around to face John fully, he stands quickly and smoothes down his rumpled shirt in a weak effort at looking presentable – it had clearly been a long day of work for the Ph.D. student. John spots three empty cups of coffee on the desk behind Sherlock, the leftovers of a half-eaten takeaway meal, and – was that a box of nicotine patches? “I was not expecting you,” Sherlock says finally and John can’t tell if he is pleased or displeased.

“Yes, yes. Of course you weren’t,” says John half to himself in self-chastisement. “That’s because I should have sent an e-mail earlier today to ask if I could drop in this evening, but obviously... I didn't.” He lets out a bark of self-deprecating laughter at this and shakes his head, deciding in that moment to leave as fast as he can in order to preserve at least a shred of his dignity. “I’m sorry to intrude,” he says, stepping back over the threshold, but Sherlock stops him.

“No need to leave,” says the younger man sharply. “I am unbothered by the visit. I gave you my address in our first meeting, which implicitly extends a sort of open invitation for you to come by whenever you feel an e-mail does not suffice.” Sherlock’s eyes skitter over John and he frowns. “From the lack of papers in your hands, you cannot be here to give me more work.” John opens his mouth, but Sherlock anticipates his question. “You had time between knocks to take something out of your bag to have ready to hand to me or slip under the door,” he says with a wave of his hand. “No, judging by your empty hands, you must be here to impart information in person; however, what could not have been conveyed via e-mail, I don’t –”

“I came to respond to your e-mails in person,” John blurts out, interrupting Sherlock’s train of thought. “Your e-mails from last night, that is. I wanted to discuss your thoughts on Woolf and Waugh in particular, but I’d love to chat Brooke and Némirovsky, too, if you have more to say about them. I just –” John realizes he’s babbling and shuts his mouth before continuing down that path. “A written reply simply didn’t seem sufficient,” he says at last, hoping that this doesn’t sound as crazy to Sherlock as it does to John.

The shock that steals over the younger man’s face is almost theatrical in its intensity.

“You came here to discuss my thoughts on the books?” he asks, his disbelief bordering on distrust. You care that much? the unspoken question in his eyes.

John shrugs helplessly. “I realized as I read through your e-mails that I had too much I wanted to ask you that I would end up writing something close to a novel in response,” he offers as explanation, chuckling at the thought. “So, I thought it would be simpler to pay you a visit and chat, but, in retrospect, I really should have gotten in touch with you ahead of time to let you know I wanted to drop by. Given you some kind of heads-up.”

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitches. “Well, you certainly continue to surprise me, Dr. Watson,” he says with something that sounds (remarkably) like affection. “As I said on Monday, I appreciate that.”

“I can’t imagine much is surprising to you.”

A full smile stretches across Sherlock’s lips. “You imagine correctly,” he says smugly, the pride in his voice oddly endearing. This momentary satisfaction soon melts into a wry expression, however, that pulls his mouth into a horizontal line. “Yet, I must say that I count Woolf’s prose among the few things that managed to surprise me.”

“Woolf’s prose and me apparently,” John reminds him, trying to keep the laugh out of his voice. He only realizes belatedly that this statement could have come across as extremely flirtatious; however, John highly doubts that, despite his brilliance, Sherlock would be particularly perceptive of – let alone receptive to – flirtation.

A slight crease appears between Sherlock’s brows and he regards John with a new curiosity. “Apparently,” he echoes, expression unreadable.

(Perhaps he is more perceptive than John initially gave him credit for.)

Clearing his throat, the professor looks down and then back up at Sherlock to hopefully clear away any awkwardness.

“So tell me about your experience with Woolf,” John says pleasantly, “I’m assuming you’ve never read her before if I’m to go off your e-mail.”

Sherlock snorts and sits down once more, inviting John to do the same with a gesture of his hand. “Of course I’ve never read her before,” he scoffs. “I’ve never read any of the writers you’ve assigned thus far. And, if so, I’ve deleted them.”

“Wait. Hold on. What do you mean ‘deleted them’?”

Sherlock sighs as if he’s had to explain this many times before. “I ensure that my brain strictly retains information that is truly vital to my work. If I have no use for something that seems extraneous, I delete it.”

“So, it’s just… gone. You have no record of it at all?”

“None, whatsoever.”

“And your mind can do that? It can seriously just delete it like a computer?”

Sherlock smiles at the description. “I like to think of my mind as a sort of hard drive – the very core of my being – so your comparison to a computer is particularly apt.”

“So, you like to think of yourself… almost as a machine?”

The younger man’s smile slips a notch. “It certainly makes a lot of things easier,” says Sherlock tightly. He must catch the gleam of concern in John’s face, however, because he brushes off this somewhat grim statement with a nonchalant wave of the hand. “Your Plath likes to think of life as performance,” Sherlock reminds John with a whisper of mirth in his voice. “Take her observation in “Lady Lazarus” for example: It’s the theatrical / Comeback in broad day / To the same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout: / ‘A miracle!’ / That knocks me out.” It is a word-for-word recitation and Sherlock seems to enjoy curling his deep voice around the tercets, that spark of pride back in his eyes. “We all perceive ourselves and the world around us in ways most conducive to our survival."

Something goes cold in John’s chest. “Plath felt like life was a performance because she was depressed and suicidal,” he says carefully, searching Sherlock’s face for any kind of reaction.

He remains impassive. “And I’d say a machine is less likely to develop those sort of tendencies, wouldn’t you?” You’d think he was asking John about the weather simply going by the mildness of his voice, but something in his gaze is hard and the sight makes the chill in John’s chest spread and trickle like ice water through his veins. A thousand questions and concerns rise in his throat and crowd into his mouth, but his tongue feels like sandpaper and he is unable to speak.

Before John can formulate anything in response to Sherlock’s distressing half-admission, however, the younger man abruptly claps his hands together with an air of finality.

“So,” Sherlock says, the hard edge to his gaze disappearing as suddenly as it appeared. “Shall we move on to Woolf?”

The swift transition from serious to casual conversation is jarring and leaves John reeling for a moment. He desperately wants to question Sherlock on his earlier statement – Do you identify with Plath because of her depression? Her suicidal tendencies? Do you think of yourself as a machine to avoid those feelings? – but he gets the definite sense that Sherlock Holmes only reveals what he wants, when he wants. In fact, John would be willing to bet that the fact that Sherlock has even hinted at something personal in the professor’s presence is groundbreaking. Besides, should John press him for details, he feels as if Sherlock would close himself off and look the way he did when he first strode into John’s office a little less than two weeks ago – cold, brittle, and aloof.

And, for some reason, the thought of Sherlock looking at him like that again makes something inside John ache.

“I believe I remember you saying that Woolf’s prose left you feeling a bit disoriented. Is that right?” asks John, conjuring up a smile, and he’s not sure if he imagines this, but it looks as if Sherlock is relieved.

“Indeed,” he says, nodding in agreement. “Undoubtedly the effect of the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode.” John makes an impressed face and Sherlock snorts. “I had to look that up. If I knew it before, I deleted the term. It is irrelevant to my area of study.”

John laughs. “Of course. Not many scientific papers are written in stream-of-consciousness, I expect.”

Sherlock smirks at this. “If so, they are few and far between,” he comments before his smile falls and his expression turns into something contemplative. “I must admit, it was a fascinating read and a brilliant attempt at mimesis,” he says, “It was remarkably like reading what I imagine to be the chaos of an ordinary, disorganized mind.”

John laughs again, the chill in his chest thawing out. “If you think Woolf is chaotic, steer clear of Joyce,” he says between giggles. “Besides, between you and me, Woolf is far superior to Joyce. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Sherlock lets out a chuckle. “I won’t,” he promises. “Now, about the character of Septimus. Is it implied that he and Evans –”

But before Sherlock can finish, the door to the office bangs open and a woman in her mid-sixties (perhaps seventies, but John can’t be sure) sweeps into the room, thin arms laden down with brown takeaway bags.

“Sherlock,” she coos delightedly, her voice worn but warm, “do you have a visitor?”

He smiles despite himself and gestures to John. “Mrs. Hudson, this is Dr. John Watson. He is a professor of English Literature and I am his TA this semester,” he says and John is astonished to hear that Sherlock sounds pleased. “We were just discussing some books for his Honours course.”

Grinning toothily, she shuffles over, her heels clicking on the tile floor. “Hello, Dr. Watson,” she exclaims a tad breathlessly, setting the food down on Sherlock’s desk before turning back to extend a thin hand in greeting. John takes it and is surprised to find her grip strong. “Pleasure to meet you, dear. I’m Martha Hudson – I share the office with Sherlock. I came back to finally finish my degree just last year and Sherlock and I were paired together as officemates.” She looks over at him affectionately. “He’s such a sweet boy. Did he tell you about how he helped me sort out all that trouble with my ex-husband? Terrible man. But Sherlock, bless his heart –”

“A story for another time, Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock cuts in gently, casting a look at John. “I see that you brought supper,” he says, changing the subject. “What did you choose for tonight?”

Mrs. Hudson puts a hand on her hip and looks at John with mock-weariness. “I swear, he treats me like his housekeeper, Dr. Watson,” she sighs. “I pick up his supper, I clean his desk –”

“I do not ask you to do that,” Sherlock interjects, frowning.

“No. You’d forget to feed and clean up after yourself if I didn’t do it,” she scolds, but pats his shoulder before turning away with a swirl of her plum dress to dig into the bags and spread the contents over Sherlock’s desk and hers. “Four orders of fish and chips – they give you so few chips nowadays, I swear – from that place we tried last week and a fresh batch of custard tarts from the bakery across campus,” she announces proudly.

Sherlock swivels his chair around to take in the small feast laid before them. “Excellent choices,” he exclaims and then looks over his shoulder to cast a glance at John. “Have you had dinner yet, Dr. Watson?” 

Mrs. Hudson claps her hands together excitedly at this. “Oh! Do stay for dinner, Dr. Watson,” she cries. “There’s plenty to go around.”

“Yes,” Sherlock agrees, eyes boring deep into John’s. “Are you hungry?” he asks, the slightest note of hope in his voice.

A slow smile spreads across John’s mouth in response.

“Starving,” he confirms and Sherlock’s face breaks into a grin that makes the corners of his eyes crinkle.

Chapter Text


i like my body when it is with your

body. It is so quite new a thing.

Muscles better and nerves more.

i like your body. i like what it does,

i like its hows.

 e. e. cummings, “i like my body when it is with your”


 

Before he knows it, September has become October and John has spent nearly every evening of the past two and a half weeks in office 221B in the Baker Chemistry Building. After he finishes up with his office hours, his teaching, and any meetings he might have in the Arts Building, John slips on his jacket and walks across campus to join Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson for a takeaway supper and a few hours of stimulating conversation. Mrs. Hudson often does not stay long after supper – she usually packs up her things to head home, patting Sherlock affectionately on his head of black curls and smiling kindly at John before leaving – so the two men typically use the remainder of the evening to discuss the texts for John’s Honours course in great detail. But not all the time.

Over curry one night, John makes Sherlock laugh so hard over an anecdote involving Dr. Anderson, food poisoning, and a holiday party that the Ph.D. student nearly spits out his mouthful of food. Another night over meat pies, Sherlock demonstrates what he calls “the science of deduction” – the subject of his dissertation – by describing John’s morning in perfect detail without actually having been there to witness any of the events he lays out in perfect chronology. (“Brilliant! How did you –?” “I can also tell your brother’s a recently divorced alcoholic just by looking at your mobile phone.” “You’re having me on.”) Some nights, John simply reads or writes while Sherlock tinkers with a new experiment or does research for his dissertation and, on these occasions, they simply work side-by-side in a comfortable silence.

They keep their hour-long Monday morning meetings to deal with more business-like matters and go over what Sherlock has done and what John needs to be done next. Sherlock’s efficiency as a TA never wavers – he continues to produce superbly detailed work and grade assignments quickly yet thoroughly, each batch of essays, proposals, or quizzes meticulously marked up with his customary red pen. Thanks to Sherlock’s help, John has never had a smoother beginning to a semester – for once, he does not feel overwhelmed by his workload and he is thrilled to actually have time to dedicate to projects that are entirely his own and have nothing to do with the classes he is teaching. For instance, John finishes a paper for an upcoming conference and even writes a new chapter for the book he’s had on the back-burner for ages.

He is unashamed to admit that it is Sherlock who is unquestionably responsible for this spike in John’s productivity – not only has he alleviated John of many responsibilities in terms of grading, but he has also infused John with a new kind of energy, produced no doubt by Sherlock's seemingly endless questions, insightful comments, and that bright note of eagerness in his voice when they talk.

Apparently, this new energy does not go unnoticed.

“There’s a skip in your step, John,” says Molly shrewdly when they meet for lunch on a crisp October afternoon early in the month. He has kept her apprised of how well things are going with Sherlock, but has been scant on details (namely the fact that they spend more time together than required by contract). Nonetheless, John cannot shake the feeling that Molly knows more than he’s told her – has somehow gleaned something from all he has left unsaid.

“Is there?” he asks mildly, not daring to contradict her. He knows it’s true.

She smiles and looks at him with amusement. “I haven’t seen you this happy in a long time,” she notes thoughtfully, matter-of-factly and the softness in her eyes makes a flame of affection for Molly flare up inside John. As his oldest and closest friend at the university, she has seen him through good times and bad – she was the one who organized a celebratory dinner in his honour when he got tenure and she was the shoulder he cried on when the disaster with Mary happened last year. For a brief, burning moment, John desperately wants to tell her every detail he has omitted about his unlikely friendship with Sherlock, but he stops himself. Is what they have friendship? John’s mind stalls on this. What are they to each other exactly? he wonders absentmindedly, but he abandons this train of thought when he sees that Molly is looking at him expectantly.

“Sorry,” John says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “What were we saying?”

Somehow, Molly’s smile widens and she looks nothing short of thrilled. “I just said that I haven’t seen you this happy in a long time,” she says, eyes sparkling. “And now you prove it by daydreaming. Oh, this is too perfect.”

“I was not daydreaming,” protests John, a half-smile curving his mouth.

“But you were,” says Molly delightedly, clasping her hands together and bringing them to her heart as would a Disney princess. “May I ask about what?” She pauses before raising her eyebrows suggestively. “Or, better yet, about whom?”

John shakes his head, trying to look stern. “Come off it,” he chastises her affectionately. “Do I really need a reason to be in a good mood?”

Molly shrugs her shoulders innocently and sighs, looking down. “Then I suppose it’s just a coincidence that Sherlock has been awfully cheerful these past few weeks, too…” she says, letting her voice trail away, purposefully baiting.

John bites without meaning to. “Sherlock? Cheerful?” he asks despite himself, “How so?”

He could kick himself for asking exactly what Molly wanted him to. Her eyes are on him immediately and her mischievous expression increases tenfold. “You haven't noticed a difference in him?” she asks instead of answering John’s questions. She sounds genuinely curious.

John remembers their first meeting – the initial iciness of Sherlock’s voice that had melted away like snow when John had paid him a simple, sincere compliment – and then thinks of the easy openness in Sherlock’s eyes when he’d offered John the last of his Pad Thai yesterday evening. John realizes that the contrast between Sherlock then and now is a bit jarring, but the transition had happened so gradually and so naturally that it is difficult to remember a time when Sherlock didn’t greet him with a small smile and didn’t share his thoughts on everything from poetry to his work with warmth and enthusiasm.  

“I suppose he’s… a bit more approachable,” says John tentatively. “If that’s what you mean,” he adds after a moment, seeing Molly’s incredulous look.

“A bit?” she repeats, her voice high with surprise. “John, he hasn’t called any of his professors an idiot in weeks, he actually thanked Greg the other day after a meeting, and he even nodded to me when he passed me in the halls the other day.” She imparts these seemingly trivial anecdotes with such emphasis and gravitas that John almost laughs. “Sherlock Holmes nodded to me,” she reiterates, “As in, to greet me. Just to be courteous.” Molly seems so genuinely baffled and semi-distressed by the memory that a chuckle bursts from John.

“Come on, Molly,” he says gently. “That’s all well and good, but it hardly seems reason enough to call Sherlock cheerful. Besides, how could you possibly connect those changes in him to me?”

Molly hesitates a moment before imparting this next piece of information, her mouth adopting its habitual, thoughtful moue. “For the past month, he’s perpetually had his nose in a book – in one of your books,” she says slowly, “He reads in class, he reads in the halls, he even reads while he’s walking and curses anyone who bumps into him within an inch of their life.”

The image of Sherlock wandering around the Chemistry building completely absorbed in a book is undeniably charming – long fingers splayed across the front and back cover, black curls falling into his eyes, eyebrows low on his face in concentration – but John has to push this aside. “What do you mean one of my books?” he asks.

“Well, I’m assuming they’re books for the courses you’re teaching,” says Molly. “I think I saw him reading something that ended in ‘revisited’ the other day… By a woman, I think. Evelyn –”

“Evelyn Waugh – he’s actually a man – and it would have been Brideshead Revisited you saw him reading,” says John reflexively, but he frowns the moment the words leave his mouth. “But Sherlock finished Brideshead weeks ago,” he says, remembering the slew of e-mails he woke up the second week of September. “Is he re-reading it?” John mutters mostly to himself, forgetting Molly’s presence momentarily.

“Well, I know I saw him reading a Sylvia Plath anthology the other day,” she says with confidence, ignoring John’s rhetorical question. “And I also remember a book of poetry by a man with a name all in lower case letters.”

A grin flits across John’s mouth. “He loves Plath,” he says fondly, missing the knowing smile that blooms on Molly’s face at this. “And that would have been e.e. cummings he was reading… But I only assigned one of his poems for my Honours course.” John pauses, mulling this over. “Then again, that would be like Sherlock to do his research and read the whole damn book,” he says, lips quirked in an amused half-smile. He only realizes that he’s said all of this out loud by the way that Molly is looking at him, her gaze making John feel as if he has accidentally let something important slip.

“And those are just the ones I’ve noticed,” she says, calmly continuing their conversation despite the fact that she is still regarding John with something in her eyes that he cannot quite place. “Therefore,” she declares with a dimpled grin, holding out her hands in a theatrical gesture, “forgive me, but it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together to see that you’re the change in Sherlock.”

John balks at this, simultaneously overwhelmed and made uncomfortable by the weight of this suggestion. “I – I think he’s just really enjoying the poetry,” he stammers and now it is Molly’s turn to laugh.

“Enjoying the poetry?” she echoes, giggle trilling out brightly in the small coffee shop. “Oh, John,” she exclaims, laying her hand on his, “I don’t think you get it.”

“Get what?”

Molly smiles sympathetically, eyes soft. “He’s happy,” she says simply. “And I’ve never seen Sherlock happy before. No one has. Not in the two years he’s been in the department anyway.”

John mouths wordlessly – desperately searching for something to say that will make Molly realize just how outlandish the claim that he is single-handedly responsible for this supposedly monumental change in Sherlock Holmes is – but he cannot think of a single thing to offer as contradiction.

She huffs out a small laugh at John’s speechlessness, cheerily waving away his lack of a reply.

“Whatever it is with you two, it works,” she says. “You’re good for one another.”

Words continuing to fail him, all John can do is beam at her from across the table.

Unfortunately, as John soon discovers, not everyone feels the same as Molly about his relationship with Sherlock.

On the evening before Halloween, John is in his office and packing up in preparation for his walk across campus when he turns around to find a well-dressed man with an umbrella in hand sitting in the chair across from him.

“Christ!” John half-shouts, gripping the corner of his desk to collect himself. He hadn’t heard the man come in and the unexpected sight of him had thrown John’s heart into a frenzy, adrenaline coursing hotly through his veins and pounding under his skin. When John feels composed enough, he looks up at the stranger to give him a piece of his mind. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but you can’t just –”

“Good evening, Dr. Watson,” says the man smoothly, his singsong voice oddly authoritative as it cuts through John’s half-articulated accusation. “So sorry for startling you,” he says without sounding sorry at all, his smile eerily cold. “I’m here on business and don’t plan on staying long.”

Immediately defensive, John feels himself stand up straighter and square his shoulders instinctively as if preparing for a fight. “What sort of business?” he asks coolly.

“Sherlock Holmes,” replies the man as if this much was obvious, eyebrows flicking upward in what looks like mild annoyance at John’s inability to intuit the purpose of his presence. He casts his gaze downward to smooth a nonexistent wrinkle in his tie. “What is the nature of your relationship with him?”

John crosses his arms across his chest. “Sorry, but I don’t think that’s any of your concern.”

The man’s eyes are on John again and that empty smile is back on his mouth. “Oh, but it is,” he says, “I make all things related to Sherlock Holmes my concern. I do worry about him so.”

Frowning, John looks at the stranger through doubtful eyes. “Do you?” he asks, clearly disbelieving.

The man seems to bristle at John’s tone. “I do,” he says firmly, the first break in his seemingly unshakable aloofness. “And, because I worry, I would be willing to offer you –”

John recoils. “I won’t spy on Sherlock for money if that’s what you’re asking,” he spits out, interrupting the intruder before he can finish.

The stranger frowns, tilting his head as if to study John a bit closer. “I haven’t named a sum yet,” he says, sounding a bit puzzled.

“I’m not interested,” says John resolutely.

“But surely –”

“I said,” John says slowly, deliberately, “that I’m not interested.” Each word is weighed and thrown across the room with a cold ferocity.

The man is silent for a moment before he chuckles to himself, the sound light and airy. “A loyal sort of creature, aren’t you?” he muses, leaning back in the chair and regarding John curiously. “And so quickly, too,” he notes with a thoughtful pout. “Should I be extending my congratulations to the happy couple?”

John flushes at this, the man’s teasing tone infuriating him. “Are you done?” he asks, refusing to engage in his purposeful baiting.

The stranger looks a bit impressed by John’s rudeness. “I must say, I’m surprised that Sherlock Holmes of all people has inspired this level of trust in you,” he comments, tone feather-light. He pauses before continuing. “What with that nasty business with your ex-girlfriend... Mary Morstan, was it?”

John freezes, knuckles going white. “How could you possibly –?” But he cuts himself off mid-sentence, refusing to give this man the satisfaction of his curiosity. “You know what? Forget it. I don’t care how you know that – I don’t even care who you are. Just get the Hell out of my office. Now.” John comes around the desk to stand in front of the stranger, glaring down at him. When the man rises from his seat, he towers over John, but the professor does not back down – instead, his jaw juts out in an unspoken challenge.

“Be careful, Dr. Watson,” says the man as he brushes imaginary lint from his suit and leans on his umbrella as one would a cane before continuing, fixing John with his calculating eyes. “You wouldn’t want to repeat your new friend’s mistake and make an enemy of me.”

John cannot help it – he snorts at the melodramatic term. “An enemy?” he repeats derisively. “Do people have those in real life?”

The stranger’s lips curl into something John thinks is supposed to be a smile. “If you’re Sherlock Holmes you do,” he says, “According to him, I’m his greatest enemy.”

“Even better reason for you to leave,” says John, gesturing pointedly to the door. “Out,” he orders, “Before I call the campus police.”

The man chuckles, but bows his head in acquiescence. “Very well, Dr. Watson,” he says, taking a step toward the door. “You’ve said your piece and I’ve said mine. But be careful – being a friend to Sherlock Holmes is often a… difficult sort of business.”

“I think I’ll take my chances.”

A gleam of what John thinks is genuine admiration sparks in the stranger’s eyes, but it is gone before he can be sure. “We’ll be in touch,” says the man and, with that, he is out the door. John listens to the click of his umbrella striking the ground in time with his footsteps growing fainter and fainter until all is silent. Leaning back against his desk, John lets out a deep breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in.

Although his heart is still hammering in his chest and making his body thrum with energy, John feels strangely exhausted from the intense (albeit brief) conversation that just passed between him and the man who appeared out of nowhere. Disquieted, questions swirl in John’s mind: Who the bloody Hell was that? How does he know Sherlock? And how on Earth did he know about Mary? The fact that a man John has never seen in his life before knows so much about him makes a stab of panic burst sharp and explosive in his stomach.

As if on autopilot, John grabs his coat and scarf, dressing quickly, and he all but pelts across campus. The only person he wants to talk to right now is Sherlock.        

When John arrives at office 221B, however, he is shocked to find the door closed. Ever since John has made it a habit of vising in the evenings, Sherlock has taken to leaving the door open for him. Undeterred, John knocks.

“Sherlock?” he calls, knocking frantically. “Sherlock, are you –?”

But before he can finish, the door opens and John is being pulled forcibly inside.

“Sherlock,” John sputters as the younger man closes the door behind them quickly, “What –?”

“Hush,” Sherlock commands, bringing up a stern hand to silence John. His office is plunged in darkness and John can only make out the faintest outline of Sherlock’s face.

“What are you doing?” John whispers, perplexed beyond measure at the newest twist this day has taken.

“Catching a thief,” Sherlock says matter-of-factly and John bites off a laugh.

“I’m serious,” John breathes, amusement thin in his voice.  

The rustle of movement in the darkness of the office makes John think that Sherlock has drawn back in affront at this reply.

“Did I give the impression that I’m not?” Sherlock asks evenly.

John blinks and realizes that Sherlock is actually serious.

“Okay,” says John after a moment, nodding in an attempt to reassure himself that this is all perfectly fine. “Okay, so we’re catching a thief.”

There is a pause. “We?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” whispers John, the adrenaline lingering in his veins from his encounter with the stranger stirring once more and warming his blood.

“You are, but –”

“It’s been a weird night,” John interrupts wearily, hoping that this is explanation enough for his suddenly intense desire to assist Sherlock in whatever the Hell he’s about to do.

“It might be dangerous,” murmurs the younger man in what John thinks is supposed to sound like a challenge, but feels more like incentive.

“Sounds good to me.”

“Really,” whispers Sherlock carefully (though John thinks he can hear the beginning of a smile in his voice). It is not a question.

“Oh, God, yes.”

Chapter Text


Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang up instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this lead, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks – all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.  

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway


 

“That was… the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” John pants as he slumps against the wall of the Baker Chemistry Building, the brick hard and cool against his back. He laughs breathlessly into the night air, doubling over as he tries to catch his breath. Back toward the entrance of the building, John can hear the campus police making their arrest, the lights from their van flashing brightly in the foggy London night. Faintly, he hears barks of command, the shuffle of a minor struggle, and the indignant sounds of protest (“I was put up to this. I didn’t even know his name!”) that are abruptly cut off by doors slamming shut.

“Welcome to my world,” says Sherlock dryly yet John can hear the note of unrepressed elation in his voice.

“I can’t believe you do this in your spare time,” John breathes, looking over at the younger man whose cheeks are still flushed from their mad dash through the hallways of the Chemistry Building in pursuit of the undergrad who had been stealing formaldehyde from the second floor lab since the beginning of term. (Why? John doesn’t think he wants to know.) “That you’re – you’re –” John struggles to finish his sentence. “What are you exactly?” he asks Sherlock, confusion plain on his face as his brain tries to catch up with his body. “A Ph.D. student by day and… some kind of vigilante detective by night?”

A bark of surprised laugher escapes Sherlock and John notes how carefree he sounds – the sound rare, precious. “Consulting detective, actually,” Sherlock corrects. “And the only one in the world,” he adds with pride.

“Of course you are,” says John without thinking, oblivious to the warm glow of his words. Sherlock casts him a hesitant glance.

“These sorts of things happen more frequently than you’d think,” he notes conversationally, “Stolen test scores, missing laptops, office break-ins. All very pedestrian. Petty crime mostly committed by students, but you’d be surprised at how many members of faculty I’ve caught.” John gapes at this, but Sherlock continues, oblivious. “And the campus police are so hopelessly incompetent,” he sighs wearily, “They fail to observe the most obvious details. That’s why they need me.”

“When did this all start?” asks John, enthralled by this part of Sherlock’s life previously unknown to him.         

“My first year. There was a hacker on the loose in the Chemistry Department – meddling with professors’ PowerPoint presentations, tampering with grades, deadlines, and so on – yet no one could divine who it was. The campus police was involved but, unsurprisingly, they were stumped. I took matters into my own hands as a bit of a side project, apprehended the culprit the next day, and solved the case.” Sherlock imparts this information as if he were recounting the last time he ironed his laundry. “I was already unpopular in the department, so I received very little thanks; however, my efficiency caught the attention of Dr. Lestrade. From then on, whenever he heard word of any mysteries the department or the campus police could not solve, he would pass them on to me.”

“So that’s why he’s your supervisor,” says John, the unlikely partnership finally making more sense.

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth quirks. “He’s also decently good at what he does,” he says thoughtfully and John knows that this is high praise indeed (coming from Sherlock Holmes, that is). “Most importantly,” the younger man continues, “he lets me do as I please without much interference.”

John laughs, shaking his head. “Well, it’s a Hell of a hobby,” he says, looking over at Sherlock with admiration and a tinge of envy. “It sure beats boredom, I’ll bet,” he adds, thinking of the younger man’s aversion to any kind of tedium.

“And cocaine, so I’m told,” says Sherlock lightly.

John looks at him in alarm, his ears suddenly filled with a ringing noise.

Sherlock clearly notes John’s distress, for he holds up a reassuring hand. “A thing of the past,” he assures the professor, tone nonchalant – as if he were revealing nothing more than a previous proclivity for jogging, or cross-stitch.

John cannot wrap his head around the thought of Sherlock as a drug addict, muddling his brilliant brain with chemicals, his white forearms black and blue with track marks. “You– You–”

“I said that it’s a thing of the past, Dr. Watson,” Sherlock reiterates, his expression suddenly steely and eyes cold as stone. For a moment, all John can do is gape at him until the younger man’s hard gaze makes him close his mouth and look away.

There is a terrible silence between them that stretches on for what feels like ages, the cool night air rustling the trees that line the perimetre of the Chemistry Building the only sound that can be heard. John’s mind is awash with images of an emaciated Sherlock, his characteristically piercing eyes dull and unfocused, ever-steady fingers trembling for more cocaine. Feeling sick, he pushes these thoughts away with difficulty and makes himself focuses on what Sherlock said: It’s a thing of the past. Staring down at the cobblestone at his feet, John expels a deep breath. He feels shame at his judgmental reaction burning in his belly and prickling on the back of his neck.

“You can call me John, you know,” he says at last, glancing back up at Sherlock with what he hopes look like contrition in his eyes.

“What?”

“No need for formalities like Dr. Watson anymore,” he clarifies, hoping that Sherlock hears his unspoken apology. “Just John is fine.”

Sherlock softens almost immediately, the remoteness in his eyes vanishing.

“Well, John,” he says, the professor’s common name sounding rich and important on Sherlock’s tongue, “you still haven’t told me what happened before you came to see me earlier tonight.”

In the blur of the chase, John had almost forgotten about the strange man with the umbrella.

“Your self-proclaimed greatest enemy came to see me,” says John, distaste welling up in his mouth at the memory. “I was packing up to come meet you and, when I turned around, he was just sitting in my office. I didn’t even hear him come in.”

“Did he offer you money to spy on me?” asks Sherlock, eyes suddenly keen, face inscrutable.

“Yes,” John affirms. “How did you –?”

“And what did you say?”

“I told him to get the Hell out of my office.”

Surprisingly, Sherlock chuckles at this and he looks nothing short of delighted. “Pity. We could have split the money,” he quips.

“Who was he?”

“A very dangerous man who has – quite literally – plagued my very existence from birth.” Sherlock looks nothing short of Shakespearean in pronouncing this dramatic statement – his face a mask of stoic suffering.

“What do you mean?” asks John, hoping the younger man will explain this cryptic reply.

Huffing out a laugh, Sherlock looks over at John and seems to take pity on him. “He’s my brother,” he says at last, mouth contorting into an expression of grudging acceptance.

“That was your brother?” John splutters, unable to comprehend that the man with the high, lilting voice and doughy, freckled face is somehow related to the man standing before him with his cello-deep voice and face that is all sharp angles. John supposes, however, that he should have seen the resemblance in their similar condescending expressions and seemingly shared love of theatrics. Somehow, the fact that John had to go through the shock of the man’s appearance and that oddly threatening conversation without knowing that he was Sherlock’s brother makes him even more irritated at the whole affair. “Well, for Christ’s sake, why didn’t he just say so?” mutters John darkly, throwing his hands up in annoyance.

Sherlock smiles knowingly. “Perhaps it has evaded your notice, but a streak of the dramatic tends to run in the Holmes family,” he says, this display of self-awareness surprising John, “And Mycroft is no exception.”

John is about to respond when he properly registers the name of the other Holmes brother. He freezes, letting the ridiculousness of it sink in, and then promptly doubles over laughing.

“Mycroft. His name is Mycroft,” he wheezes through laughter, one hand clutching at his stomach, the other pressed to the brick wall behind him for support. “Oh, my God. Of course it bloody is.”

“What’s so funny?” asks Sherlock, thoroughly baffled by John’s sudden show of mirth.

John continues to giggle, straightening himself back up and leaning against the wall. “I don’t know,” he croaks, “It’s just that it’s –” He starts to laugh again, motioning to Sherlock to give him a moment. Maybe the utter insanity of the evening he’s just had is catching up to him, but the laughter issuing from his throat tastes so sweet and he feels lighter than air in that moment. “It’s just that it’s such a stupid name,” John manages finally, giggling uncontrollably. He knows it’s just about the daftest explanation for his laughter, but learning that Sherlock’s brother’s name is Mycroft of all things strikes John as unbelievably hilarious.

Suddenly, John hears what he recognizes immediately as the rumble of Sherlock’s chuckle – it starts soft and then builds until he is laughing as heartily as John. They laugh together, backs against the Baker Chemistry Building, looking over at one another through half-closed eyes sparkling with joy. After a few minutes, they quiet into giggles and then lapse into a pleasant silence, weary yet happy smiles perched on their lips. They stare at each other and John only notices then how close they are – he is shoulder-to-shoulder with Sherlock and his face is so near that he notices the colour of Sherlock’s eyes for the first time. They are at once grey and green and blue, a cold fusion of mist and sea and sky. This observation drives something visceral and thrilling clean through John’s chest and he sucks in a quiet breath at their otherworldly quality. His is the kind of beauty that inspires poetry, John thinks fleetingly.

As he looks into Sherlock’s eyes, John also realizes that the younger man is staring back at him just as intently, but his gaze is robbed of its habitual razor sharpness and replaced – if possible – by something small and bright and shy. It is when John feels Sherlock’s shoulder press an infinitesimal amount into his that he realizes with a jolt of panic that his mouth has fallen open and is no more than a foot away from Sherlock’s.

Abruptly clearing his throat, John pulls himself away and smiles in a way he hopes will dispel any awkwardness. He shoves his shaking hands into his pockets (although he’s sure Sherlock has noticed) and is about to say something when Sherlock beats him to it.

“So, John,” says the Ph.D. student smoothly, eyes cool and piercing once more, “you wouldn’t happen to be interested in taking part in this little hobby of mine?” He straightens and readjusts his coat ruffled from the chase. “I could always use a colleague,” he admits with a grin that is so rueful and earnest that John doesn’t think he could say no even if he wanted to.

“Count me in,” he says brightly.

 


 

As the weather grows colder and finals loom closer, Sherlock continues to assist John with his marking while John begins helping Sherlock with his consulting detective business. They still spend the majority of their evenings chatting, working, and eating takeaway in Sherlock’s office, but whenever they have a case, 221B becomes their hideout, their stakeout location, and their post-case site of celebration. After a job well done, John and Sherlock typically slump down in what have become their respective chairs to have a good laugh over tea in Styrofoam cups (Sherlock nicked a kettle for his office from the staff room in his first year).

One evening, however, Sherlock stops John from returning to 221B after successfully closing yet another case. They have just apprehended an MA student who had been cyber stalking and sexually harassing the female professors in the Physics Department – it had taken John everything he had in him not to accidentally trip the bastard down the stairs when handing him over to the campus police – and John is surprised when Sherlock shakes his head in response to his offer to make the tea tonight.

“No?” John asks, confused.

Sherlock hesitates, as if weighing what he is about to say next.

“I’m starving,” he says abruptly, words oddly sharp and slightly anxious. “Could you eat?”

John glances down at his watch. It’s nearly eleven, but he finds that he actually could eat. They hadn’t had the chance to have dinner before embarking on tonight’s chase – the target had deviated from routine and begun his heinous activities earlier than usual. Hating the thought of yet more of his female colleagues being subjected to the student’s misogynist bullshit, John had eagerly set out with Sherlock ahead of schedule to corner the criminal in the computer lab in the basement of the Physics Building.

“What did you have in mind?” asks John cheerfully, “Is anything open at this hour?”

Sherlock seems to relax at John’s acceptance of his invitation. “I know one place that is definitely open,” he says.

A half hour later, they are sitting in a cosy Italian restaurant named Angelo’s. Apparently, Sherlock knows the owner and John makes the pleasure of Angelo’s acquaintance barely two seconds after they sit down.

“A friend of Sherlock’s is a friend of mine,” says the plump man as he shakes John's hand with an infectious kind of enthusiasm. “He got me off a murder charge, he did,” he announces proudly, looking at Sherlock with somewhat misty eyes.

The consulting detective holds up a semi-modest hand. “No need to get sentimental. All part of the job.”

“Well, whatever you and your date order, it’s on the house,” Angelo declares happily and he claps John on the shoulder, looking down at him with approval. “Why don’t I get you boys a candle?” he says, “Set the mood a bit more.” And before John or Sherlock can say anything, Angelo is gone – no doubt off to search for that candle.

John is about to make a joke to ease the tension, but he catches the apprehensive look in Sherlock’s eyes and decides against it, opting for a smile and silence. Picking up his menu, John decides immediately on the spaghetti. He’s ravenous at this point and it’s the first thing he spots. He’s about to ask Sherlock what he’s going to order, but the younger man speaks first.

“I apologize for Angelo,” he says over his menu, eyes seemingly fixated on a particular dish. “He should not have made assumptions about us, or your sexuality.”

Sherlock sounds so formal and uncomfortable that it makes something go soft in John’s chest, prompting him to be impulsively candid.

“Well, he got half my sexuality right,” he says with a shrug and Sherlock promptly folds his menu to stare at John from across the table.

“What do you mean?”

John huffs out a laugh. “I’m bisexual,” he says simply. “You didn’t deduce that already?”

Sherlock looks flustered for a moment, eyebrows knitting and mouth opening and closing for a few seconds before settling into a firm line.

“I did not have enough data,” he counters thinly. “The only previous relationship you had that I am aware of was with a woman, so forgive me for this oversight.” He sounds sulky and his eyes are so intense that John is tempted to look away.

“Okay,” says John, choosing to push past Sherlock’s sudden black mood, “how do both you and Mycroft know about Mary? Because he brought her up when he came to visit my office.”

“Mycroft knows everything there is to know about everyone who works at the university. Technically, he is on the board of directors but, to be blunt, he is the board of directors,” says Sherlock nonchalantly. “He makes everyone’s business his business with his cameras and his spies and his –” Sherlock stops short at the horrified look on John’s face. “I told you he’s a dangerous man,” he says, the fledgling of a grin beginning on his mouth. “Which is why I am still enormously pleased you told him to piss off.”

John lets out a bark of laughter. “I’m going to pretend like I didn’t just learn I may have invoked the wrath of the most powerful man at the university and ask how you – specifically – know about Mary,” he says, too curious to fret much about Mycroft with his stupid umbrellas and prying cameras. “How did you figure that one out?”

Sherlock grimaces. “Not a particularly stunning deduction on my part,” he says regretfully, “One of the books you lent me had a dedication pertaining to an anniversary that was signed ‘Mary.’ As you do not wear a ring, never mention a wife, have alluded to the solitary burden of paying rent, and never seem to have commitments in the evening, I know that you and this Mary are no longer together.” He lays out his evidence methodically and even though Sherlock doesn’t think it’s a particularly clever deduction, John does. “Why things ended? I can only guess. However, the fact that you kept the book with her dedication suggests that you did not want the relationship to end and might still be –”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” says John, “Because I know where that deduction is going and I don’t want to tell you that you’re wrong.”

Sherlock tilts his head. “Explain,” he commands.

“First of all,” John begins with a chuckle, “I had completely forgotten about that dedication, so I clearly didn’t keep the book for sentimental reasons.” He pauses. “Actually, though – now that you’ve reminded me – I might just rip out that page when I get home tonight. I want every last trace of her out of my life.” John suddenly feels exhausted – he hasn’t spoken about Mary in a long time and he hates that he has to waste his time with Sherlock talking about her. He sighs, running a hand over his face before mustering up a weak smile.

“I’ll keep this as brief as possible,” he assures Sherlock. “For your sake and mine,” he adds wearily, but the consulting detective does not laugh at what John meant to be a stab at humour. Instead, Sherlock simply sits there, face impassive, waiting. John takes a deep breath. “Mary and I were together for less than a year and I, being an idiot, proposed to her after just eight months.” At this, Sherlock quirks a brow and John laughs. “I know, I know. Stupid. Supremely stupid, in fact, because it was about a month later that it all fell apart. A friend of mine mentioned in passing that the he’d seen Mary up in Camden, but when he tried to say hello, she ignored him. I asked her about it – thinking it would be nothing, obviously – but it came out that she’d been living some kind of double life. She had a flat in Camden with another man and they’d apparently been living together for a little over a year. Almost the same amount of time we’d been seeing each other. They even had a bloody cat together.”

John sighs again, this time heavier than the first. “It was only after I found this out that I started realizing just how much of her didn’t add up – fuzzy details about her family, no real friends, disjointed stories about various jobs. And the scariest thing was, when the truth came out, she couldn’t have felt less sorry.” John still remembers her eyes when she’d dispassionately owned up to all her lies – it had been like staring into the eyes of a statue: blank, emotionless. “She was so cold, so blasé about the whole thing. I remember thinking she looked a bit like one of those serial killers you see on the telly,” he admits with a shiver that skitters down his spine. “With all the lying and her lack of remorse, she might very well have been a psychopath. For all I know, her name wasn’t even Mary.”

This new thought hits him hard and fresh and John gets lost for a moment in his time-faded memories of her. He resurfaces when Sherlock clears his throat.

“Needless to say,” John resumes, “the engagement was over and so were we. She moved out over a year ago and I haven’t seen her since, thank God.” With that, John shrugs and laughs humourlessly, wishing there was a glass of water (or better yet, wine) he could reach for. “So there you have it,” he says conclusively, “The full story.”

Sherlock, who had been silent yet raptly attentive the entire time, simply nods. John can tell he’s still processing everything, so he waits for the younger man’s response.

“I am –” Sherlock hesitates. “Truly sorry for all the distress she caused you,” he says gently and, for a minute, John forgets to breathe. Out of all the things Sherlock could have said to him, he had been expecting an expression of compassion the least.

“Thank you,” says John a bit breathlessly and, as he looks at the man sitting across the table, he feels something new and warm and beautiful bloom in the pit of his stomach and crowd into his chest. And it might be a trick of the light, but he feels as if he sees something similar mirrored in Sherlock’s face.

Of course, this is the moment that Angelo chooses to return to take their orders and fulfill his promise of a candle; however, he has also brought along a vase with a single red rose and an expensive looking bottle of chilled white wine. He looks especially proud of himself as he sets everything down, lighting the candle with a practiced flourish.

“Only the best for you, Sherlock,” he murmurs with a wink.

When Angelo leaves to ready their food, John is already pouring a glass of wine for himself and Sherlock, swiftly moving on to pleasanter topics of conversation. That evening, over their dishes beautifully prepared by Angelo, they talk and drink and laugh for hours. They stay until two in the morning, uncaring that they are the only ones left in the restaurant and that they should have been in bed hours ago (both of them have to be back at the university in a little over six hours). They discuss sibling woes, classical music, past cases, the Ph.D. students Sherlock hates the most, their favourite places in London, and, inevitably, the novels and poems for John’s Honours course. Sherlock talks and talks particularly about Sebastian Flyte while John listens, thrilled to hear him recite his favourite quotations by heart.

“He was in love with him, wasn’t he?” Sherlock asks later when they are walking back to their respective flats, “Sebastian with Charles, that is.”

John nods. “I think so, yes. There’s a lot of evidence to support that claim.”

Sherlock looks like he is about to say something, but seems to think better of it and they walk in silence until it is time to part ways.

“Goodnight, John,” he says – voice uncommonly soft – before turning down his street and vanishing into the morning mist.

Chapter Text


Waiting is erotic.

Irène Némirovsky, Suite française


“You have to come to the departmental holiday party next week.”

John barely has the chance to say hello to Molly before these words are out of her mouth. She is practically bouncing on the balls of her feet and sporting a smile so bright that it almost puts the December sun to shame. For some reason, the enormous woolen hat on her head and the great scarf wrapped around her neck that covers up her chin makes her excitement even more endearing (and just that tiny bit comical). Perhaps it is because she looks so small all bundled up in her winter outerwear and her enthusiasm seems bigger than her this way, but John cannot help smiling at her exuberance regardless.

“Molly, I’m not part of the Chemistry Department,” he reminds her, “Therefore, I’m not invited to the departmental holiday party.”

She scoffs at this and her breath mists in the cold air. “Nonsense,” she says, “I’m the Graduate Coordinator of the Chemistry Department and I’m inviting you now. Simple as that.”

John laughs. “Well, I’d love to come as your plus-one,” he says amiably, holding open the door to the Student Life Centre for her. She nods her thanks before scurrying past him into the warmth of the building.

When they are both inside, they set out in search of a table. “Actually, you wouldn’t be my plus-one,” says Molly when they finally sit down and begin peeling off their winter things. “I already have a plus-one.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Although, he’s part of the department, too, so he doesn’t technically qualify as a plus-one, does he?”

John is in the process of divesting himself of his gloves when she says this and he looks up sharply, an incredulous smile already on his lips. “Molly, you’re not saying what I think you’re saying, are you?” he asks slowly, voice rising in anticipation.

Her grin is luminous. “I asked Greg to come to the party with me,” she exclaims in a rush and she sounds so proud of herself that John feels his throat knot unexpectedly with genuine emotion.

“What did I tell you? Knew he’d say yes,” says John, his heart swelling at the sight of Molly’s radiant face. He knows how difficult it would have been for her to pluck up the nerve to ask Greg to be her date to the party and, for a moment, he feels a mysterious pang of longing for an ounce of that same courage.

Molly colours. “Well, there was no way to know for sure, but I’m happy he said yes,” she says. “So, if you still have any ongoing bets in the Faculty of Arts, hopefully they can be settled now.”

John laughs heartily. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to collect my fifty quid at the next faculty meeting,” he says with a wink.

Clearly missing his sarcasm, Molly freezes, her eyes widening. “Please tell me you didn’t bet fifty quid on my love life,” she says with a wince.

“No, no,” John assures her with a smile and a wave of his hand. “I’m only joking. Of course I didn’t place any bets on you and Greg – that would make me a very poor friend.” He pauses and raises a brow. “But I do know some colleagues of mine who will be very pleased to hear that they put their fifty quid in the right place.”

At this, Molly adopts a playful and slightly triumphant look. “Well,” she says airily, “I guess I should tell you that there are quite a few bets being placed on you in the Faculty of Science.” She smiles at John’s shock. “What do you think about that?”

Dumbfounded, John splutters for a moment before finding his words. “Bets?” he manages at last, “On what?”

Molly rolls her eyes. “On you and Sherlock,” she says as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m not only one who’s noticed the change in him. Plus, Dr. Donovan has told anyone who will listen that she can hear the two of you laughing and talking in his office all the time.” At John’s stricken expression, Molly holds up conciliatory hands. “She wasn’t spying – her office is across from his,” she explains.

“Molly,” John says as he shakes his head, “he’s a student. He’s my TA. We can’t – I can’t –”

She addresses him a severely unimpressed look. “John,” she counters, cutting off his weak protests. “Come on. He’s not an undergrad, for God’s sake. He’s a twenty-eight year old Ph.D. student. You’re what? Mid to late thirties?” She makes an inarticulate sound to indicate her supreme unconcern. “That’s nothing. And it’s not like he’s your student.”

“But he works for me.”

“Not for much longer,” Molly reminds him and she looks entirely too mischievous at this before adopting a serious expression. “And even at that, you’re outside his department, so it’s not as if you’re in a real position of power over him or in regards to his degree. You don’t even pay him – the Chemistry Department does.” John opens his mouth to offer another half-hearted objection, but Molly anticipates him. “Yes, you have a say in whether or not we should pay him for a job well done or not, but your monthly reports prove you’re not doing him any favours. You treat him as a respectable professor would an ordinary TA.” She smiles kindly and continues in an even gentler tone than before. “You’re a good person and you’re a professional, John. Everyone knows it. And starting a relationship with Sherlock wouldn’t change that.”

Everything shifts for John in this moment and all he can do in the wake of Molly’s speech is stare at her, speechless. With all his unspoken worries addressed and reasoned away with relative ease, John is suddenly hit with the startlingly, crushingly, achingly real possibility of he and Sherlock as more than colleagues, more than friends – together. For real. All of the feelings he’d been unwilling to label and had unceremoniously shoved out of sight over the course of the last few months burst sharply into focus and John realizes then and there that he’s gone and fallen in love with Sherlock Holmes. Head over heels, in fact.

Some if this must show on his face somehow because Molly reaches across the table to lay a comforting hand on his. “Rumour has it,” she says after allowing John a few moments to collect his thoughts, “that a certain Mr. Holmes will be attending this year’s holiday party.” Her eyes are encouraging.

“Well,” he says after clearing his throat, “unless you’re referring to Mycroft Holmes, it looks like you can count me in.”


This year’s Chemistry Department holiday party is held in the prestigious Doyle Hall, which sits at the heart of campus and is home not only to the university’s principal auditorium, but also to a lavish ballroom meant for hosting only the most important (and most exclusive) events. Looking around the room sparkling with hundreds of candles and made even warmer by the glow of the ornate chandelier glittering above his head, John is reminded yet again of how much more funding is allotted to the Science side of campus. He thinks of the English Department’s “Ugly Holiday Jumper”-themed party he attended just last night at the on-campus pub, the cosy room they’d booked seeming retroactively shabby in comparison to the general splendour currently surrounding John.

Taking another sip of champagne, John surveys the room once more. The air smells of pine and cinnamon – from the wreaths lining the walls and the table full of baked goods, respectively – and everyone looks lovely in their holiday finest. John is glad he decided to wear a jacket and tie tonight because it seems as if all the professors and graduate students made a pact to wear tuxedoes and floor-length gowns and, had he originally put on the turtleneck he’d been sorely tempted to wear tonight for comfort’s sake, he would currently be very much out of place.

It is about a half hour into the party and John has not yet seen Sherlock. He had come close to asking him nearly a thousand times last night in his office if he was planning on coming, but hadn’t found a natural way to work it into the conversation. In the wake of his acceptance of his feelings for Sherlock, John had felt so obvious just sitting next to him. The man could deduce an affair from an unpolished ring and a gambling addiction from dirty fingernails, so it didn’t seem at all implausible that Sherlock would be able to simply look over at John and divine the shift in him that felt so bloody apparent; however, everything had been perfectly ordinary between them last night. They’d eaten Chinese takeaway, talked about which passages John should choose for him upcoming exams, and discussed potential suspects in a new case involving mysterious yet minor explosions in the top floor lab of the Chemistry Building.

Sighing into his drink, John wishes he were in Sherlock’s office right now instead of here. Molly and Greg had gone over to the refreshment table and gotten caught in what looked like a forced conversation with the sinister Dr. Magnussen, leaving John presently stranded alone on the other side of the room. Of course, he knew a few other people milling about the room, but none that he liked enough to actively seek out.

Suddenly, John hears the fledgling strains of music and, looking round, he sees that a string quartet has set up in the far corner of the ballroom. He stares as they ready their instruments – bows drawn tenderly across freshly rosined strings – and, within a few minutes, they have launched into a waltz. Despite the beauty of the sound, John has to stifle a snort. This party couldn’t get any more –

"Pretentious, isn’t it?”

And then Sherlock is there at his side, sharp and striking in his perfectly tailored suit, and John feels as if he might burst from a mixture of joy and relief that tastes far sweeter than the champagne in his glass. The Ph.D. student is looking at him with amusement in his eyes, something warm and intimate in the smile perched crookedly upon his mouth.

John beams at him in turn. “It’s a bit much, yeah,” he agrees, happy to dispense with hellos and dive directly into the typical ebb and flow of their conversations. “Reminds this lowly English professor where he ranks in the scheme of things,” he quips, hoping to make the younger man laugh.

He succeeds, the chuckle that issues from Sherlock’s throat as melodic as the waltz currently winding and weaving its way around the room.

“I typically make it a point to avoid these sorts of things,” he says, wrinkling his nose and gesturing vaguely to the buzz of activity around him, “Makes for a bit too much stupid in one room.” John laughs at that and Sherlock’s haughty expression softens. “But, this year,” he says, gaze flickering to John, “I thought: ‘Why not?’”

“Why not,” John echoes thoughtfully and he wonders fleetingly if Sherlock really does feel something for him, too. Hope nearly splits his chest in two at the thought.

“John! Sherlock!”

John turns to see Molly and Greg coming toward them, drinks and food in hand. Their arms are linked and they look shy and happy and awkward and perfect together (case in point: Greg clearly asked Molly what colour she was going to wear tonight because his tie is too close a shade of yellow to her dress to be coincidence). When they successfully weave their way through the crowd to stand before John and Sherlock, the full extent of Molly’s joy at seeing the pair of them together comes into sharper focus – her eyes are wide with excitement and her smile is big enough to bring out her dimples. Greg also seems to be eyeing them with interest, his expression one of simultaneous curiosity and awe.

“Hello, John,” he says, shaking the professor’s hand warmly. “Good to see you again. And good to see you, Sherlock,” he says earnestly, gravelly voice rising easily above the sound of the music. “First time I think I see you at a department event. ”

Sherlock ignores his comment. “Good evening, Dr. Lestrade,” is all he says in reply.

“How many times have I told you to call me Greg?” asks the grey-haired man laughingly.

John looks over in time to catch Sherlock rolling his eyes. “The name’s too common,” he drawls, “I delete it almost immediately out of boredom.”

Greg snorts. “Greg’s no more common a name than John,” he comments with a knowing smile, “And you never seem to forget that one.” Sherlock blushes at this, looking positively murderous. Greg takes this opportunity to wink discreetly at the English professor.

“Speaking of names,” pipes up Molly, casting Greg a stern look, “there was a student I was speaking to earlier who was really keen on making your acquaintance, Sherlock.” She cranes her neck and scans the room. “He was over by the refreshment table, but I don’t see him there anymore,” she mutters before turning back to the group. “I think he said his name was Jim?” Molly glances over at Greg. “A bit of a nervous bloke, wasn’t he? Seemed really shy.”

“Why would he want to meet me?” asks Sherlock, eyes narrowed.

Molly shrugs mid-sip of her drink and swallows before replying. “Said he was a big fan,” she says, “Must have read an article of yours, or something.”

Sherlock hems distractedly, clearly uninterested. His gaze travels back to the string quartet and he frowns, upper lip lifting slightly in contempt. “They are butchering Strauss,” he mutters sourly. “The ‘Vienna Blood Waltz’ is meant to be allegro moderato, not allegrissimo, for God’s sake.”

The Chemistry professors turn to the Ph.D. student with varying degrees of shock on their faces, but John simply smiles in delight. “I remember you mentioning being a bit of a classical music buff,” he says, their candlelit conversation at Angelo’s coming back to him in snippets. “Why don’t you go over there and show them how it’s done?”

Sherlock chuckles and both Molly and Greg look surprised at the sound. “Now, now,” he murmurs playfully, “wouldn’t want to put them out of their jobs.”

“Who are you kidding? You’d get a kick out of that.”

Clearly thrilled at the insinuation, a grin splits across Sherlock’s face. “You’re right,” he agrees, “Their incompetence truly is deserving of some sort of punishment.” He looks across the room at the four musicians thoughtfully. “However,” he continues, “as it’s the holidays, I’m feeling uncommonly charitable this evening.”

John laughs. “How lucky for them,” he quips and Sherlock casts him a fond glance.

It is when Greg clears his throat that John notices the way both he and Molly are looking at them with a suggestive gleam in their eyes. “Well, even if this waltz is apparently being butchered,” says Greg, “it sounds just fine to my ears. Fine enough to ask my date to dance.” He turns to Molly at this who immediately turns an adorable shade of pink. “Would you do me the honour?” he asks, setting his drink down on the table nearest them and extending his now-free hand to her in invitation.

“Oh!” Molly squeaks, “I would love to.” She imitates Greg and places her glass of wine and half-eaten plate of food on the nearby table, smiling at Sherlock and addressing John an encouraging look before allowing herself to be swept onto the dance floor.

“Dr. Lestrade is a terrible dancer,” Sherlock remarks after a few moments and John snorts. It’s true – his movements are clumsy, he keeps glancing down at his feet, and he narrowly avoids stepping on the train of Molly’s dress several times. But she doesn’t seem to mind and the pair of them sway in an amateurish circle, giggling and smiling at one another like they’ve never seen anything quite like the other before.

Seeing his friend so happy makes John regret laughing and he feels something go butter-soft in his chest as he watches the two of them.

“He is,” John agrees, still gazing at them affectionately, “But, then again, who knows how to waltz nowadays?”

He really should have known better than to ask this rhetorical question. “I do,” says Sherlock without missing a beat.

“Of course you do,” says John smilingly, looking away from Molly and Greg and over again at Sherlock. He realizes, of course, that this would be the perfect opportunity for Sherlock to ask him to dance. John feels his heart skip a beat at the thought.

As a result, the next few seconds feel oddly suspended in time – John waits while Sherlock seems to debate what to say in response – and it feels as if they are teetering on the edge of something grand and new and amazing. They can fall back or they can fall forward.

John wonders if the hope blazing in his chest is palpable in his gaze because it seems to disarm the younger man, for when Sherlock finally opens his mouth to say something, he closes it almost as suddenly. His keen eyes regard John with their regular intensity, but it looks as if he is thinking hard about something. At last, he seems to come to a decision and gestures with a flick of his head in the direction of the door.

“Judging from the way you keep loosening your tie and subconsciously looking toward the exit, I know you want to leave as much as I do,” says Sherlock lowly, “So, what do you say? Shall we escape this farce?”

John’s heart speeds up immediately, a thrill at the thought of being alone with Sherlock shivering through his veins.

“Let’s go,” he whispers and Sherlock smiles brilliantly in reply.

Chapter Text


Strange, that from lovely dreamings of the dead

I shall come back to you, who hurt me most.

You may not feel my hand upon your head,

I’ll be so new and inexpert a ghost.

Perhaps you will not know that I am near, –

And that will break my ghostly heart, my dear.

  Dorothy Parker, “I Shall Come Back”


Once they collect their coats from the wood-paneled cloakroom, John and Sherlock waste no time in stepping out into the crisp December night, each inhaling a grateful lungful of air when they do.

“It was bloody sweltering in there,” exclaims John, relishing in the cold breeze on his warm cheeks. “I know it was meant to feel cosy, but did they really need that many candles? Felt more like a séance, for God’s sake.”

Sherlock grins. “No. Nor did they need such a lavish setting for an annual holiday party, but when you receive a generous donation from the board of directors…” He trails off suggestively, voice laden with disdain.

John looks over at him, eyes wide. “No,” he breathes, torn between amusement and exasperation. “Mycroft?”

Sherlock snorts. “Who else? Besides, I believe that he thinks if he keeps throwing money at the Chemistry Department, then they will not think me as much of a burden.”

“Ah,” says John, “The bribery route seems to be a particular favourite of his, doesn’t it?”

Sherlock laughs, his breath fogging in the cool air. “Indeed it does.”

They walk the deserted campus paths, the light of the streetlamps casting the snowy world around them in a soft, golden glow. The crunch of their footsteps and whistle of the winter wind are the only sounds that punctuate their conversation. After a while, though, they drift into silence and are happy to simply walk together without saying a word.

Eventually, they come up to the Arts Building and, hearing the faint chatter of Sherlock’s teeth, John says, “Why don’t we go in to warm up a bit? I can make us a cuppa in my office.”

This is how they come to find themselves about fifteen minutes later with steaming mugs of tea cooling on John’s desk, their winter coats slung gracelessly over a chair. They are the only ones on the floor and the silence makes everything from the light of the lamp on John’s desk to the door they left slightly ajar that much more intimate. They are standing by the bookshelf and Sherlock is asking John about how he has decided to structure his introductory English exam.

“Well, I was thinking about giving them examples of different forms of poetry and asking them to identify what they are, but, frankly, even the sonnet stumps them,” John sighs. “They can barely make heads or tails of a haiku let alone a villanelle. Everything just seems to make their heads spin.”

Sherlock chuckles. “I believe I remember you telling me that the point of the villanelle is to make the reader’s head spin,” he notes, “It is constructed to be dizzying and disorienting and works best when the content reflects the form.”

The fact that Sherlock remembers this seemingly trivial piece of information touches John. “You kept that on the hard drive?” he asks softly, “Didn’t delete it?”

“I have not deleted any of the information you have imparted,” Sherlock replies solemnly and John’s not sure if he meant to say it because a flicker of embarrassment seems to pass over his features, but is gone almost immediately.

“Well, you’re right,” says the professor, kindly ignoring the slight blush dusting the younger man’s cheeks. “That’s the whole point of the villanelle and it can be used so effectively.” Inspiration sparks in John. “Remember Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”? That’s arguably one of the best examples of a villanelle I can think of.”

Of course John knows Sherlock would remember a Plath poem and the small smile that lifts the corners of Sherlock's mouth when John mentions it proves him right.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead,” Sherlock rattles off by memory, that gleam in his eyes when he knows he’s being impressive lighting up his face, “I lift my lids and all is born again. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)”

Chuckling, John meets the younger man’s unspoken challenge and recites the next stanza: “The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, / And arbitrary blackness gallops in: / I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.”

“I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed,” Sherlock continues and his voice takes on a breathless quality at this, “And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)” He concludes the stanza barely above a whisper, his expression suddenly serious and unreadable.

John is caught up now – ensnared in Plath’s words and the intensity of Sherlock’s eyes. “God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade: / Exit seraphim and Satan’s men: / I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead,” he murmurs, only distantly aware of just how much the distance between them has closed.

“I fancied you’d return the way you said,” Sherlock says, words velvet-soft, “But I grow old and I forget your name. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)”

“I should have loved a thunderbird instead; / At least when spring comes they roar back again.” John pauses to draw breath, surprised at how shaky it feels in his throat. “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)”

“I think I made you up inside my head,” Sherlock repeats so quietly that John just catches it – perhaps Sherlock hadn’t meant to say it at all, but the final line of the poem lingers in the air between them and a silence stretches out in which they stare at each other through shuttered eyes, drunk on Plath’s words. John’s mind is strangely blank in this moment and all he can hear is the pounding of his blood and the raggedness of Sherlock’s breathing, their tea completely forgotten.

Then, suddenly, Sherlock is kissing him – hands holding John’s face, body pressed to John’s – and the force of the kiss has them crashing into the bookshelves at John’s back. Inhaling sharply in surprise and a wave of godyesfinally, John grabs the front of Sherlock’s shirt to pull him closer, the feeling of his tall, firm body against John’s so indescribably good.

They grip each other tightly – eye squeezed shut, closed mouths pressed together – and they simply stay like this for a few glorious seconds, as if to cement that this is real, that this is happening. Without making the conscious decision to do so, John moves his mouth over Sherlock’s and the younger man’s lips part in response, a groan tearing from him and rumbling in his chest. John can actually feel the reverberation of Sherlock’s groan tremble against the length of his body and the sound coupled with the sensation of it undoes something in John, the last vestiges of his hesitance breaking with a decisive snap.

Emitting a sort of growl, John grabs Sherlock’s hips and pulls them flush with his own as he kisses him with abandon – all tongue and teeth and moans. Sherlock responds with a desperate sort of eagerness, hands clinging to John’s face moving to fist themselves in the professor’s hair and John sighs at the pull of Sherlock’s fingers. Moving his hands up from Sherlock’s waist, John trails his splayed fingers up the other man’s torso – feeling the lines of his ribs, the tautness of muscle, the slightness of his frame – and then repeats the motion from the small of Sherlock’s back to his shoulder blades. His touch is deliberate, hungry, adoring and Sherlock whimpers at the slow drag of John’s hands up his body, hips canting involuntarily.

When Sherlock scrabbles at John’s tie, everything quickly blurs into a frenzy of want and more and yesyesyes. Fingers in hair, pulling at clothes, clutching at arms; broken sighs, swallowed moans, names whispered against skin; friction and heat and pressure and there, God, there

Suddenly, Sherlock’s hands are gripping his wrists and John has a thrilling vision of the younger man pinning his hands above his head; however, Sherlock does just the opposite and pulls back, abruptly ending the kiss and using his hold on John’s wrists to push himself away and hold the professor in place. As soon as he feels Sherlock withdraw, John moves back instinctively and frees his hands from the other man’s grasp to draw them away as per his silent demand.

Thus, they stand a breadth apart, hands resolutely at their sides and eyes on the ground, their breaths coming rapidly; in fact, the sound of their breathing is the only thing that can be heard inside the small office. The fraction of an inch that now separates their bodies could very well be a vast chasm because that is how it feels to John after his fleeting taste of something scarily close to perfection. Heart still hammering wildly in his chest, John wills his mind to catch up to the present instead of lingering on those too-brief moments when Sherlock was pressed against him and kissing him with undeniable passion. As the fog of desire lifts from his eyes and seeps from his veins, John feels the full weight of Sherlock’s unspoken rejection crashing down around him and crushing the air clean out of his lungs.

Finally daring to look up into Sherlock's eyes, John is surprised to see his despair mirrored tenfold in the lines of the younger man’s face. Still heaving ragged breaths, it looks as if it is taking everything in Sherlock’s power not to crush his mouth to John’s again, his conflicted gaze continuously straying to the professor’s lips and all pretenses of composure abandoned. His hair is a mess – curls falling carelessly into his eyes – and he is trembling from head to foot. A faint glimmer of hope ripples through John at Sherlock’s expression and he opens his mouth to say something, but his throat fails him. Swallowing, he tries again. “Sherlock –” It comes out wrecked and husky and thick with emotion, but he isn’t given the chance to finish as the younger man turns away and cuts him off immediately.

“I can’t do this to you,” he says roughly, sounding as if the words are being unwillingly drawn from him.

“What?” John asks weakly, back still pressed to the bookshelf. He’s not sure he could stand without assistance at this point. “What are you talking about?”

“Me,” Sherlock spits without turning around and it is the first time John has ever heard real anger in his voice. “I’m an addict, John. I cannot do anything in moderation. I will bleed you dry and I will break you – this – us.” He falters and runs a trembling hand through his hair. John watches Sherlock's pale fingers thread through his black curls until he reaches the nape of his neck and he snatches his hand back. “I cannot let that happen,” he says firmly, “I cannot let myself ruin quite possibly the best thing that’s ever happened to me because of my… attraction to you.”

“And mine to you,” John cuts in fiercely, pushing himself off the shelf to stand firmly on his own. “Or did you not notice that your feelings are clearly mutual?”

Sherlock stiffens at this and remains silent for a moment before turning to face John. His face is stricken. “But that’s – You can’t,” he says, a note of fear in his voice and in his eyes.

“What do you mean I can’t?” John demands, half-furious at this assertion, half-terrified at its possible implications. His pulse thrums insistently in his veins and all he can think is: Don’t lose him. For the love of God, don’t lose him.

“Your feelings can’t possibly be mutual,” he says, disbelief plain on his face, etched into the determined set of his mouth.

“And why the fuck not?” John asks indignantly, ready to fight for this – fight for whatever they might have together. He only realizes a moment after the words leave his mouth that this is the first time he has ever seriously cursed in Sherlock’s presence; however, right now, he sincerely could not care less about propriety.

“Because I –” Sherlock cannot finish and he looks so frustrated with himself, hands clenching into almost-fists at his sides. Heaving a sigh, Sherlock looks away for a split second, as if to compose himself, and then looks back at John with a gutting look in his eyes. “Because I care more for you than I should and there is no way – There isn’t even the slightest possibility that you –”

“Feel the same?” John finishes. “Well, you’re wrong because whatever it is that you feel for me, I can guarantee that I feel the same. Sherlock –”

“No,” Sherlock bites out, his voice rising frantically. “John, no. Please. I don’t know how to be anything more to you and I know that if I try I will wreck everything and this will end. I – I cannot have that.” He shakes his head as he collects his coat from the chair and backs away, drawing closer to the door and farther away from John. “Do not give me this chance because I am selfish and I will take it. I will take it and botch it up and then –” He cannot finish, but John hears the unspoken I’ll be alone again and cannot for the life of him find the words to tell Sherlock just how wrong he is. He doesn’t even know where to begin. All John can do is stare at the younger man before him, willing his mind to string together the perfect set of words that will reason away everything Sherlock has just said and show him just how possible it is that John loves him back.

And yet, for a career built on the study of words – beautiful words, rational words, compelling words – there are too many of them crowding into his mouth, his throat, his head to make sense of and he is paralyzed into silence.

(“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” John thinks dully.)

Seeing Sherlock reach for the doorknob, John feels the last threads of hope fray within him and desperation wells up inside him sharp and insistent.

“Don’t go,” he says without thinking, “Please. Sherlock, can’t you –” His voice breaks. “Can’t you at least entertain the possibility of something working between us? Because I’m willing to take that chance. More than willing. You talk about bleeding me dry and taking more than I can give, but you have no idea how much you give me in return. We’re both addicts of a different kind and of course things could get messy and fall apart, but I want to try. God, I want to try. With you.” Seeing Sherlock waver, John takes a cautious step forward.

“And I can’t believe – refuse to believe – that you wouldn’t have kissed me if you didn’t want the same thing,” says John, searching the other man’s face for some kind of sign that his words are having any kind of impact. “I mean, why else would you have done it?” he asks so quietly (so afraid of the answer) that he’s not sure at first if Sherlock heard him.

But then, the worst of his fears is realized as John watches Sherlock adopt the mask of indifference he wore the first time he strode into this office nearly four months ago, his gaze hardening into one of practiced coldness. It’s like watching Sherlock rebuild all the walls John managed to scale in their time spent together in a matter of seconds and the sight is enough to slice through the professor’s heart – quick yet excruciating.

“Human error,” Sherlock replies tightly, slipping into his coat and donning his scarf and gloves. “Forgive my momentary lapse in judgment, Dr. Watson. It will not happen again.”

Feeling as if he has just been punched in the stomach, it takes all of John’s willpower not to give in to the tears burning behind his eyes. Sherlock must see his anguish because his icy expression falters for a split second.

“I would still be glad to proctor and subsequently grade all your exams,” he says and John feels his throat knot. Sherlock hesitates a moment, clearly waiting to see if John will say anything response, but when the professor remains silent, the Ph.D. student turns to leave.

“Sherlock,” John whispers and he knows the younger man hears him because he stills in the threshold. John has nothing else to say – just Sherlock’s name – and that is apparently not enough because a few minutes tick by and Sherlock is gone. 

Chapter Text


If in smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori. 

Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”


True to his word, Sherlock proctors John’s three exams and the professor can barely look at him on any of these occasions. When he is sure Sherlock is not looking, John steals glances at the Ph.D. student as he silently glides down the rows of desks - diligently monitoring the students - and even manages to catch the recognizable thrum of Sherlock's deep voice answering the odd query. When they collect the students’ booklets at the end of each three-hour period, John and Sherlock do so without speaking, taking pains to ensure that their hands do not touch as they sort the exams into alphabetical order.

John always finds the stack of exams in his mailbox the next day – graded and marked up with Sherlock’s signature red pen. They are all, of course, immaculate.

When he has submitted his grades and tied up all other loose ends, John has nothing left to distract him from the pit of emptiness in his stomach that has done nothing but grow in the days that turn into weeks after Sherlock’s rejection. John spends possibly the worst holiday season of his life between joyless drinks with acquaintances, preparing for next semester, a draining Christmas dinner at Harry’s, and a painful New Year’s party at Molly’s full of pitying glances from her and sympathetic pats on the shoulder from Greg. Of course, he forces a smile whenever they ask him how he is, but his mouth feels so heavy that he’s not sure if he manages to convince anyone that he’s fine.

He does not hear from Sherlock once. This shouldn’t surprise him given the nature of their last real conversation; however, John still finds himself checking his e-mail every morning in hopes of seeing Sherlock's name appear in his inbox. (John wants to go back in time and personally murder Alexander Pope for penning the phrase “Hope springs eternal” because it pops into his mind each bloody time he opens his e-mail.)

The new semester starts the second week of January and returning to his office feels like walking into a minefield of memories – almost everything reminds John of Sherlock - thus making it impossible for him to forget just how wrong everything feels. Even though their friendship lasted four months, it changed everything and John’s evenings as well as his Monday mornings now feel woefully empty. John misses discussing his courses with Sherlock, misses his insightful and often surprising perspective on writers and their work, misses their late-night takeaway suppers, misses Mrs. Hudson, misses the wonder of Sherlock's deductions, misses the enthusiasm in his voice when he talks about a new experiment, misses the thrill of chasing criminals around campus in the early hours of the morning, misses the rare sound of Sherlock's laugh... John misses it all. Despite being perfectly fine with the life he led before Sherlock Holmes, he is most certainly not fine with it now.

To use a favourite expression of Sherlock’s, it now feels horribly (frightfully, sickeningly) dull.

It therefore comes as a shock to John when he receives an e-mail from Sherlock mid-way through the month after nearly a month of silence. It reads:

 

To:  jwatson@acdcollege.ac.uk

From:  sholmes@acdcollege.ac.uk

Subject: Help

 

Dr. Watson,

I require your assistance with the analysis of a new piece of evidence in the Chemistry Building explosions case we were working on before the winter holiday. Of course, you are under no obligation to help; however, your aid would be greatly appreciated.

Should you wish to assist me, you may find me at my office this evening.

SH

And even though John pretends to think it over throughout the day, he does not hesitate when the time comes: once classes are over, he pulls on his coat and makes the journey across campus without a moment’s hesitation.

When John arrives at Sherlock's office, however, he knows immediately that something is wrong.

The door to 221B is ajar and the lights inside are all off. When John steps over the threshold, he finds the room dark, deserted, and in a state of disarray; papers are strewn across the floor and Sherlock’s desk is even messier than usual with books in a disorderly pile and shards of broken glass scattered across his laptop. When John sees that even Sherlock’s chair has been knocked over, his heart kicks into a truly panicked rhythm, smashing against the confines of his chest like a caged animal. There had obviously been some kind of a struggle and the thought of Sherlock being physically hurt in any way slams into John with the force of a freight train, a spike of nausea making it hard to swallow for a moment.

It is when John turns around to check for more damage, however, that he sees it: written in a painfully neat scrawl in fluorescent green ink on the wall behind the door are words the professor knows like the back of his hand:

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An eCstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yeLling out and stumbling,

And floud’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green seA, I saw him drowning.”

Stumbling backward, John grabs blindly for something – anything – to hold onto, a rush of weakness passing over him and making his knees feel as if they will give way any second. Stepping over broken glass, John finally feels the solidity of the desk beside Sherlock’s press into his back and he leans against it, eyes still fixed on Wilfred Owen’s chilling words. Despite the rushing in his ears, John’s breathing as well as his hands are steady and his mind is startlingly clear in this moment, Find Sherlock the only thought in his head.

Whoever did this has made a big mistake, for instead of frightening John into paralysis, they have lit a fire in his blood.

Tearing his eyes away from the pale green letters shimmering in the darkness, John finds his phone and uses the light of his screen to scan the contents covering the surface of Sherlock’s desk. He sees a floor plan of the Chemistry Building, a page that looks like gibberish with chemical equations crossed out and then circled, and a write-up of all the cases they solved together with arrows criss-crossing between them drawn in that familiar red ink, all the lines converging on the right of the page with only two letters written there: JM. Carefully brushing aside shards of glass, John smoothes out a crumpled sheet of paper to find the same words written on the wall in that same tidy scrawl. When he scans the book on the Ph.D. student’s desk, John is unsurprised to find that it is the sonnet anthology he lent to Sherlock last semester, open to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est.” The excerpt written on the sheet of paper and on the wall is underlined with a hastily scribbled note in the margin that simply reads: “Ask John.”

Resisting the urge to push everything off the desk in frustration, John forces himself to focus. “You see, but you do not observe,” he hears Sherlock say, the memory of his voice coursing through John like liquid warmth. Taking a deep breath, John takes action, deciding to look up what confuses him the most. Entering the chemical equation that Sherlock has circled into his phone, John immediately sees search results for “chemical explosives” populate his screen. This discovery sparks the realization that this all has to do with the Chemistry Building explosions case they had been working on before the winter holidays - the one Sherlock e-mailed him about just this morning.

Everything else seems to slot into place in relatively quick succession after this realization. If this is about the explosives case, then all their previous cases that Sherlock has interconnected have been leading up to this. And whatever (or whoever) JM is must be at the root of it all. Looking over the crumpled note again, John cannot help but think it reads like a threat – especially with the violent imagery of war and death by chlorine gas. Sherlock would have probably received this, looked it up, e-mailed John for his expertise, and then –

And then what?

Turning around to read over the words on the wall, John makes himself concentrate on each line, each word. Why threaten Sherlock twice with the same stanza? Just once on paper would have been enough –

Oh. Oh. John feels ice slide down his spine. Unless the threat on the wall was for him.

Desperation begins to gnaw at John, starting in his fingertips and swiftly moving up his arms. There has to be something he’s missing – something that is right in front of him that will lead him to Sherlock, but he just can’t see it. For all John knows, every moment he wastes could mean pain of some kind for Sherlock and this uncertainty makes a wave of panic rise up inside him. The green words begin to blur on the wall in front him as he reads them over and over, urging his brain to observe instead of see, until –

C L A

Yes. There – in the excerpt, three letters that are typically written in lowercase suddenly jump out at John due to their capitalization. C. L. A. He hadn’t noticed them because of Owen’s capitalized “GAS!” in the first line of the stanza, but upon this re-reading, the letters are suddenly plain as day. Grabbing the poetry anthology from Sherlock’s desk, John checks to make sure, but he is right – the “c” from “ecstasy,” the “l” from “yelling,” and the “a” from “sea” are not capitalized in the original poem. It is a code, a clue. It has to be.

And John knows exactly what it means. 

 


 

In retrospect, John really should have thought through some kind of rescue plan before bursting into Chemistry Lab A both unprepared and unprotected. The only thought on his mind had been of Sherlock, but he should have expected company.

The second John is in the door, his arms are forcibly pinned behind him and a hand is clapped over his mouth. He struggles, but whoever is holding him is strong and seems to have no trouble restraining John.

“Close and lock the door, Sebastian,” says a calm voice lightly tinged with Irish, “Our guest has arrived.”

Moving with his captor to shut the door, the gentle click of the lock informs John that they are now sealed off from the outside world and, when this is done, the voice speaks again: “Now the lights, dear. Do I have to do everything myself?” John cannot be sure if he hears a sigh from behind him, but the man restraining him obliges and the laboratory is soon flooded with light. It is when his eyes adjust to the brightness that John gets his first glimpse of the owner of the oddly singsong voice.

A man just as old – if not younger – than Sherlock stands casually with his hands in his pockets on the other side of the room. No taller than John, he is dressed immaculately in a charcoal suit cut to hug his slender body, his feet clad in shiny leather shoes that probably cost more than what the professor makes in a month. Even though a small smile hangs on his lips, his eyes are as black as his hair and as cold as the January air outside. When he registers John’s eyes on him, he tilts his head to one side, gaze sparking with amusement.

“Jim Moriarty,” he says genially, waggling his fingers in greeting. “Hi!”

John frowns, but his brain flickers in recognition: JM – Jim Moriarty.

Moriarty sighs, casting the man holding John a disappointed look. “Sebastian,” he pouts, “how can Dr. Watson and I get to know one another if you keep that beautiful hand of yours over his mouth?” His eyes shift to John at this to address him a toothy smile. “I’m sure the professor understands that if he calls for help Sherlock will suffer some kind of consequence.”

Then, there is Sherlock’s unmistakable voice and it sounds so weak that it cuts right through John, his heart immediately crowding into his throat as he inhales a sharp, muffled breath through his nose. “John,” is all Sherlock says, the word so faint that John cannot tell where it came from, eyes desperately scanning what he can see of the room, head held in place by Sebastian’s strong hand.

Remembering Moriarty’s implied offer, however, John pushes through the wave of distress produced by Sherlock’s voice to focus on the man in front of him and he blinks in what he hopes looks like acquiescence. Moriarty nods and, to complete his spectacle of benevolence, makes a sweeping kind of gesture with his hand.

Suddenly, John can breathe again and he sucks in great gulps of air as he looks around wildly for Sherlock. When the professor’s eyes lock onto the crumpled form in the corner of the lab, he feels the whole room lurch, white-hot rage surging inside him and burning under his skin. Sherlock’s hands and ankles are bound with cable ties and his lip is split, the sight of scarlet on his mouth making John tremble with hatred for Jim Moriarty and his partner. Sherlock is slumped against the table nearest Moriarty – head of tangled curls leaning onto the wood at his back – but despite the exhaustion in his eyes, Sherlock somehow retains a defiantly stoic expression. Without thinking, John makes to rush to him, but is held back by Sebastian’s ever-firm grip.

Moriarty tuts in disapproval. “Now, now, Dr. Watson,” he chides, expression abruptly morphing into a jovial one. “John. Can I call you John? Sherlock does,” he notes, pausing to mull this over as a nasty grin curves over his mouth. “Actually, I think I’ll stick with Dr. Watson,” he declares when John doesn't respond, “John seems a bit too intimate for me seeing as we’ve only just met.” He speaks lightly, voice warbling between soft and loud in an almost-comical way, but the effect is thoroughly unsettling. His unpredictable face reminds John fleetingly of a chameleon: cold-blooded, inscrutable, and oh-so changeable.

“This may be the first time we’ve met formally,” John grits out, “but I believe Sherlock and I have had the pleasure of dealing with your pawns all last semester.”

“My pawns!” he exclaims delightedly. “Oh, I like that. Does that make Sebastian my king?” He winks at the man behind John. “I’m happy to be the queen – she is the most versatile player on the board, after all.”

“Jim,” says John’s captor and the professor is taken aback by the gruffness of the man’s voice. “Focus, please.”

Moriarty laughs at this, the tinkling sound high yet joyless. “Good thing we have our little pets, don’t we, Sherlock?” he says playfully, nudging the man at his feet with a leather shoe before crouching down beside him. “Always there to keep our brilliant minds on track.”

Sherlock turns his head to face Moriarty, his gaze pure ice. “John Watson is not my pet,” he spits out, lips curling with the words.

“You’re right,” Moriarty agrees solemnly, glancing up at John. “He’s a bit sharper than that, isn’t he? Figured out that little code in the poem all on his own and everything.”

“The whole campus operates on acronyms,” John says dismissively, “Anyone would have been able to figure out that CLA meant Chemistry Lab A. Not so brilliant on your part.”

“Good boy!” cries Moriarty happily. “Did you like the bit with the poetry? Thought it fitting with the little game we’ve been playing.”

“What game?”

“Chess,” replies Moriarty, lowering his voice in mock-seduction. “I send out my pawns and you capture them,” he says, rising to his feet and crossing the room to stand before John. “And so you picked them off one – by – one.” He punctuates each of these words by tapping lightly, mockingly on John’s nose and the professor steels himself to look straight ahead, resisting the urge to flinch. In the background, John hears Sherlock shift and expel a sharp breath. “But now,” Moriarty continues softly, “with all my pieces captured, I thought it high time for the queen and her king to come out to play.”  

“Why?” asks John, still struggling to grasp the point of all his machinations.

Moriarty shrugs carelessly, shoulders clad in expensive material rising and falling. “Just a bit of fun,” he says mildly, “Don’t you ever get bored, Dr. Watson?”

“Not bored enough to facilitate petty crime, set off explosives, and kidnap people,” John answers evenly, gaze boring into Moriarty’s. “Speaking of which, I’m assuming you’ve brought Sherlock and I here for a reason, so let’s get on with it.”

Moriarty glances back at Sherlock, a thoughtful pout on his lips. “I like him. I can see why you keep him around,” he says before turning back to face John, smiling serenely. “I would ‘get on with it,’ as you so aptly put it, but there’s nothing else to get on with.”

John frowns. “What do you mean?”

“This is it,” says Moriarty, throwing his arms out in a theatrical gesture. “Since I didn’t get the chance to meet you both at the holiday party, I decided to throw a little getting-to-know-you event of my own.”

“The holiday party –?” But then John remembers. “Jim. The fan of Sherlock’s that Molly met. That was you.”

Moriarty nods, grin splitting across his face.

“Just so. You whisked him away so quickly that I didn’t get to say hello. I had the best little introduction speech planned, but you both left so early. You must have had something truly stimulating to do that just couldn’t wait,” he says, quirking a suggestive eyebrow, and John feels a traitorous blush rise to his cheeks. To John's horror, Moriarty looks positively thrilled. “Oh, you did! Well, well, well. Who am I to stand in the way of chemistry?” He chuckles to himself, clearly tickled at his pun, and turns away. “I can’t blame you for skipping out on the party in favour of more exciting activities,” he continues, “But now that we’ve properly made each other’s acquaintance, I’m satisfied.”

Adjusting his cufflinks, Moriarty strides over to the door and turns to face the room’s occupants. “Such a pleasure to meet you,” he simpers, “Consider this little gathering as a kind of getting-to-know-you present from me to the both of you. I look forward to your next move, boys.” At this, he looks pointedly at Sherlock and the two stare at each other for a moment that feels long and fraught with tension. Moriarty seems to see what he wants because he looks up after a moment, smiling widely. “Seb, darling, you know what to do,” he says and he turns the handle to leave, but is halted by the sound of Sherlock’s voice.

“We will stop you.”

John has never heard Sherlock’s voice adopt this kind of intensity, this level of determination before. He looks cool yet ferocious, the cut on his lower lip making him appear that much more dangerous.

All Moriarty does, however, is shake his head. “No, you won’t!” he trills cheerily, shutting the door behind him.

The next thing John knows, he is thrown to the floor and he hears the door snap shut a second time. Before he fully realizes what he is doing, John is at Sherlock’s side, shaky hands ghosting over the other man’s cheeks, his shoulders, his chest. “Sherlock,” he gasps, drinking in the sharp angles of the face he hasn’t seen in almost a month, the inky blackness of his hair, the pale beauty of his eyes. “Sherlock, are you okay? What did they do to you?” His eyes flicker to the dried blood on the younger man’s mouth and feels the room lurch around him again.

“John,” says Sherlock urgently, tone firm yet hurried. “By the door, you will find a lever to pull in case of emergency. Sound the alarm. The building needs to be evacuated immediately.”

John feels his blood go cold. “You think –?”

“Most assuredly.”

Springing to his feet, John does as he’s instructed and immediately the shrill cry of the siren splits through the air. He then spins around in search of something sharp, opening cupboards and drawers frantically. He quickly returns to Sherlock with a scalpel.

“Turn around,” he shouts over the alarm and, within seconds, John has freed Sherlock's hands and feet from their bonds. Helping Sherlock to his feet (and trying to ignore the lines of red cutting across the younger man’s wrists), John gets them to the door only to find it locked. John curses aloud – he should have bloody known. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

But then Sherlock is handing him a fire extinguisher and John feels an overwhelming urge to pull him into a hard, open-mouthed kiss. Squashing the impulse, he takes the proffered object and, with a few swift downward strokes, breaks the handle clean off the door.

They are in the stairwell when they feel the explosion rock the building.

Chapter Text


That in effect was love.

 Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End


“I’m not in shock,” Sherlock protests as one of the paramedics wraps a hideously orange blanket around his shoulders.

“Neither am I, really,” says John wearily, pinching the thin fabric between his fingers. “In all honesty, I think the colour might put me into a state of shock rather than ease me out of one.”

Beside him, John hears the low rumble of Sherlock’s chuckle and, despite the ordeal they’ve just been through, John feels lighter than air in that moment. The sound is sunshine on his skin, a symphony to his ears – it tastes as cool and clean as fresh spring water would to a parched throat – and John feels his entire body slowly spark back to life. Despite being covered in blood, bruises, and dust, everything feels right again.

“Well, you’re lucky you made it out of there in one piece,” grumbles the paramedic, looking a bit miffed at their contempt for the shock blankets. “It was a pretty serious gas leak,” she mutters, delicately applying a bandage to the cut above John’s eye. “The university’ll be looking at some serious repairs, if you ask me.”

A heavy silence falls over the group after this and the paramedic is finally able to finish patching up John and Sherlock, setting the Ph.D. student’s broken wrist and applying a salve to the minor burns on the side of the professor’s face before nodding her approval.

“Are we free to go?” asks Sherlock the second she straightens to survey her handiwork.

“That’s not up to me,” she replies and, if she’s at all surprised by his eagerness to leave, she doesn’t show it. “I’ll go and check with one of the officers,” she says, removing her gloves, “They’ll probably want to ask you a few questions first.”

Sherlock sighs. “Fine.”

Heaving a similarly heavy sigh, the paramedic leaves the two men in the back of the ambulance, most likely setting off in search of someone who will relieve her of her patients.

Glancing over at Sherlock, John realizes that this is the first time in nearly a month – excluding their brief reunion following Moriarty’s departure – that they have been alone together. Gaze skittering over Sherlock’s face, John feels his heart swell with new intensity, his throat knotting with a sudden rush of feelings.

Then, Sherlock’s pale eyes meet his and John sucks in a surprised breath, caught out. Looking away hurriedly, he clears his throat.

“It’s a good thing you took the poem seriously,” John says, glancing up to meet Sherlock’s gaze again, “If you hadn’t, we would have died in that explosion.”

Curiously, a look of surprise flits across Sherlock’s features at this, a small crease appearing between his brows. It vanishes as quickly as it appeared, however, and Sherlock responds to John’s observation.

“I do not believe Moriarty would have chosen that particular passage without the intention of bringing it to life,” he says, “Besides, the opening line reads very much like a warning.”

John nods grimly. “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” he recites, a shiver coursing down his spine. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to teach that sonnet again,” mutters John, remembering the heat of the blast and the force with which it knocked him and Sherlock to the ground. The memory of Wilfred Owen’s words shimmering fluorescent green in the darkness of Sherlock’s office surfaces in John’s mind again and he feels a sliver of the choking panic that nearly consumed him at the thought of losing the man in front of him. Swallowing against a suddenly constricted throat, John cannot think of anything else to say and falls silent.

Sherlock holds John’s gaze for a moment longer, eyes searching, before he looks down.

“Are we not… going to discuss what happened?” he asks finally, voice impossibly soft and painfully hesitant.

The unexpected question loosens the knot in John’s throat. “Discuss what exactly?” he asks, “A lot happened in there.” John indicates the building behind them with a shrug of his shoulder and offers Sherlock a tentative grin. “Or did you miss the moment when we were held captive by two madmen and then nearly blown up?”

John’s attempt at humour clearly displeases Sherlock and he scowls over at the professor.

“You know what I’m talking about,” says Sherlock gravely, a glimmer of something that looks like pure, unadulterated misery flashing through his eyes. “Please, do not make light of –” He shakes his head, lowering his gaze again.

“I actually don’t know what you’re talking about,” says John, frowning. He notices then that Sherlock’s good hand is trembling – fingers desperately clutching his left thigh to hide their unsteadiness – and it takes everything in John’s power not to reach out and take Sherlock’s hand in his.

“You–” Sherlock heaves a frustrated sigh, balling his shaking hand into a fist. “What you did– In the stairwell when the second explosion nearly–”

“Oh,” says John, finally clueing in to what Sherlock is having so much trouble articulating. After the two of them had been hurled down the last flight of stairs from the force of the initial blast, John had – in a miraculous moment of foresight – thrown his body across Sherlock’s and held him down to protect him from the second explosion. John remembers it all in a blur: pinning Sherlock beneath him, burying his face into the crook of the other man’s neck, feeling the debris from the second detonation rain down on his back. It had all happened so fast that John hadn’t had time to accord much importance to the moment – he had simply acted on the only thought in his head: Protect Sherlock.

John smiles tightly. “That was nothing.”

Sherlock looks as if John has just struck him, expression torn between disbelief and anger.

“Nothing?” he repeats, voice dangerously low and eyes boring into the professor’s. “John. That was not nothing. What if you–”

“I’m fine,” says John firmly. “I have some terrifying ‘what ifs’ of my own from tonight, but since none of them became a reality, I can’t think about them. And neither should you.”

“What do you mean?”

It is John’s turn to look aghast. “You really have no idea, do you?” he whispers incredulously. “Christ, Sherlock,” he exclaims, shutting his eyes for a split second, “When I saw what they did to your office… What they’d done to you.” John trails off, fingers reaching out to touch Sherlock’s split lip, but aborting the motion quickly. He shakes his head, taking a deep breath to steady himself. “I could kill Moriarty for hurting you,” hisses John, the break in his voice half-rage, half-emotion.

Sherlock stares at John, silent and unreadable. Suddenly weary, John drops his gaze and he stares at his hands smudged with dirt and grime. In the tense, terrifying minutes following the second blast, John and Sherlock had waited in breathless anticipation of a third detonation that would undoubtedly end it all. John recalls the sound of Sherlock’s shuddering breaths in his ear and the post-explosion realization that Sherlock’s hands had somehow entangled themselves in John’s hair in a last-minute attempt at shielding him from serious harm. John doesn’t know how long they stayed like that – eyes shut, ears ringing, hearts hammering – until they realized that it was over. It could have been seconds, or it could have been an hour. Regardless of the time, John has no idea what it was that made him eventually push himself off Sherlock, shrug off the rubble that had accumulated atop him, and help the other man to his feet. Both of them had been covered from head to toe in a film of dust and John remembers feeling the absolutely mad urge to laugh at the sight of Sherlock’s head of black curls made gray by the powdery debris, the desire to pull him into a bruising kiss stronger than ever in that moment.

The sound of Sherlock’s voice brings John back to the present.

“This was Sebastian’s handiwork, actually,” he says, clumsily motioning to the dried blood on his mouth with his bandaged hand, “You should probably know that before murdering the wrong man.”

There is something in Sherlock's voice - something small and almost tentative - that makes John look up only to find those piercing eyes already on him. He cannot be entirely sure, but John thinks he sees a faint glimmer of what looks like hope in Sherlock's gaze and it is enough to make John's pulse kick up a notch. Is he-? No, John cannot jump to conclusions. He must test the waters first and be absolutely certain that Sherlock is saying what John thinks he is saying.

"I'll kill him, too," vows John matter-of-factly, continuing their banter, and this statement makes a shy smile pull at Sherlock's mouth, "They both hurt you in different ways, so the two of them are as good as dead in my books."

It is in this moment that John realizes the enormity of what he is saying – that he would gladly kill (and die) for this man – and he thinks he sees comprehension dawn at last on Sherlock’s face.

“But do remind me to give Jim Moriarty a piece of my mind for ruining Owen’s best poem for me before I kill him,” says John, “The next time we meet –”

“The next time?” echoes Sherlock, voice wavering and eyes shining. Tilting his head as if to get a better look at John, Sherlock leans forward ever so slightly and John feels something important between them shift.  

Heartbeat suddenly in his throat, John feels as if every nerve in his body is on edge – the wings of hope unfurling in his chest and crowding against his rib cage. He ensures that his voice is steady before replying.

“Of course,” says John, smiling. ”You didn’t think I’d let you go after him alone, did you?”

For a second, it looks like Sherlock is on the verge of tears before his face breaks into a watery yet radiant smile.

“John,” he whispers, shaking his head, “You really did mean it all, didn’t you? Everything you said about us – about me – that night in your office.”

John closes his eyes for a moment, overcome with emotion, before opening them to absorb the beautiful expression on Sherlock’s face. He doesn’t want to forget this.

“Every word.”

Sherlock huffs out a shaky, wondrous laugh, staring at John like he’s made of galaxies and stardust instead of flesh and blood. They stay like that for several minutes until Sherlock shifts even closer, his good hand closing gently over John’s. He opens his mouth to speak, but closes it. A small frown knits his brows together as he searches for the perfect thing to say, the concentrated look on his face impossibly endearing. Then, his eyes light up in what John recognizes as inspiration.

“You have absorb’d me,” Sherlock murmurs at last, the tenderness in his eyes nearly splitting John’s chest in two, “I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving.”

A slow smile dawns on John’s face in recognition, the effect of those exquisite words immediate.

“I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion,” John replies, reaching up to brush the backs of his fingers over Sherlock’s cheek in a soft, almost reverential touch. “I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you,” John breathes, holding Sherlock’s gaze as he leans forward. “My Creed is Love,” he says, lips a breadth away from Sherlock’s now, “and you are its only tenet.”

John feels Sherlock gasp, the small intake of breath shiver over his mouth.

“My Love is selfish,” Sherlock whispers, voice taking on a ragged quality as his fingers tighten their grip on John's hand, “I cannot breathe without you.”

Nuzzling his nose against Sherlock’s, John chuckles. “Been brushing up on your Keats, have you?”

But Sherlock doesn’t reply because he’s entirely too busy kissing John. 

Chapter Text


I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,

I love you directly without problems or pride:

I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,

except in this form in which I am not nor are you,

so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,

so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Pablo Neruda, “Sonnet: XVII”


 

Eleven months later

John wakes to the sound of the violin.

“Sherlock,” he mumbles, mouth still heavy from sleep, “Come back to bed.” Rolling over, John blearily opens his eyes to glance at the clock on the nightstand. “Christ. It’s not even half past seven,” he groans, burying his face in his pillow to block out the pink light of dawn spilling in from the window. “Please tell me you have a good reason for subjecting me to Tchaikovsky at this ungodly hour.”

Subjecting you?” purrs Sherlock over the strains of what John recognizes as the ‘Sleeping Beauty Waltz,’ its exquisite rise-and-fall familiar to him now. “I thought you liked Tchaikovsky,” he says, voice morning-soft and impossibly deep.

“I do,” John grumbles into the pillow, “Just not before eight o’clock on a Saturday morning.”

The sound of Sherlock’s laugh mingles beautifully with the music drifting through the air and, in that instant, John no longer cares that it is early and he is tired. Pushing himself up into a sitting position, John leans back against the headboard, sheets pooling at his waist as he stretches his arms above his head and yawns. Meanwhile, Sherlock gazes at John from over his violin, eyes bright and warm as honey. John returns his gaze and smiles over at Sherlock sleepily, drinking in the sight of his boyfriend’s lithe form clad only in a silken dressing robe.

They stay like that until Sherlock finishes the piece, bow singing across the strings in an effortlessly stunning conclusion. John claps politely and Sherlock chuckles, but plays along and bows before setting down his instrument and rejoining John in bed.

“Thought you ought to hear something played properly before tonight,” murmurs Sherlock, sidling up to press his still-smiling mouth to John’s.

They are in no hurry to separate and only do so after a few moments, noses still touching. “God,” John sighs, leaning his forehead into Sherlock’s, “You don’t think they’ve asked that same string quartet back, do you? I’m not sure I can handle that level of pretension again.”

“Or incompetence,” Sherlock adds, “But whether or not the Chemistry Department has hired the same musicians as last year, I know it has received another large donation from the board of directors, so some mediocre form of musical entertainment no doubt awaits us this evening.”

John groans, sinking back down onto his pillow in despair. Sherlock follows suit, his robe slipping to reveal a bare shoulder as he props his head up with one hand and threads his fingers through John’s with the other.

“Bloody Mycroft with his stupid donations,” John mutters, shaking his head, “You do know that he texts me from time to time to ask how everything’s going, don’t you?” The professor heaves a pained sigh. “If I didn’t know it stemmed from some kind of brotherly affection, I’d ignore him.”

“I do wish you would,” pouts Sherlock, the expression on his face entirely too childish for a nearly thirty year-old man, “It would make things so much easier.”

John looks up at his boyfriend wearily, mouth twisted into a wistful expression. “Sherlock, as much as I would like to, I can’t go antagonizing your brother when I’m meant to be sitting next to him at Christmas dinner next week.” 

Sherlock looks appalled. “You will not be sitting next to Mycroft," he sniffs, "I would never allow it.”

John quirks a brow. “So you would willingly sacrifice yourself for me and sit next to him in my stead?”

Sherlock snorts. “Hardly. I’ve arranged the seating plan unbeknownst to Mycroft," he informs John, "You and I will be flanked by my parents while Mycroft is stuck between my two most frightful cousins." Sherlock grins at this, a devious light in his eyes. "It’s fool-proof. And Mummy’s already approved it, so there’s nothing he can do about it now.”

Squeezing Sherlock's hand, John smiles up at him broadly. “And who says chivalry’s dead?” 

Sherlock actually harrumphs at this, nose crinkling in distaste. “Chivalry was a farce to begin with," he drawls, lips pursed primly. "No more than a Mediaeval code of supposed honour based on misogynistic beliefs and sheer stupidity. Let it stay dead.” He pronounces this last statement with a surprising amount of feeling and John cannot help the knowing grin that spreads across his face.

“Someone’s been reading my feminist theory again,” John remarks.

The tips of Sherlock's ears go a bit red at this - caught out - but his chin juts out ever so slightly. “I have to prepare for your upcoming Honours course, don’t I?” he asks, looking endearingly proud.

John laughs. “Technically, no," he admits, "You don’t have to, but the sentiment is very much appreciated." Grinning, John brings Sherlock's hand to his mouth and lays a purposeful kiss on the back of it. "As I’ve said from the beginning, I place exceptionally high value on your opinions.”

Sherlock basks in John’s praise, but his luxuriant smile softens into something a bit gentler when his gaze shifts to their clasped hands, long fingers entwined with short yet strong ones. He hums belatedly in response, the sound low and deep, before lowering his head onto John’s chest and heaving a sigh that can only be described as content.

John feels his heart glow golden at this open display of affection, his free hand coming up to card through Sherlock’s curls still wild from sleep. He presses a kiss to the top of Sherlock’s head before speaking.

“We don’t have to go tonight if you don’t want to, you know,” John murmurs after a minute, fingers still running through Sherlock’s hair. “I could make our apologies to Molly and Greg and we could just stay in.”

John feels Sherlock’s expression shift, the movement of his features whispering across John’s bare chest. “I thought you wanted to go,” he says, tone light.

Chuckling, John ruffles Sherlock’s hair playfully. “I do, but I don’t want to force you if–”

“No,” cuts in Sherlock firmly. “I want to go.”

This surprises John. “You do?”

Sherlock nods before raising himself from John’s chest and sliding his body up until they are practically nose-to-nose.

“I do,” he murmurs and his eyes are so soft that John is momentarily disarmed. “Even though my reasons are embarrassingly sentimental, I rather like the idea of attending the same holiday party we did last year – except, this time, as a couple.” Sherlock colours adorably as he admits this, but his expression remains serious throughout. 

A smile that is half-amusement, half-emotion stumbles over John’s mouth and he brings a hand to tip Sherlock’s chin up slightly before gently brushing his lips with his. Sherlock sighs into the kiss and, even though John has heard the small sound thousands of times before, it never fails to make his heart feel full to bursting in the best possible way. When they part, John’s hand moves to cup Sherlock’s cheek and keep him close. 

“Sentimental or not, I was thinking the same thing myself,” John admits, “Besides, it will be nice not to worry about any more supposed fans of yours lurking by the refreshment table in the sinister hope of meeting you.”

A shadow passes over Sherlock’s face at the mention of Moriarty. “Yes,” he says solemnly, “That’s over now.”

“It is,” John affirms, leaning his forehead into Sherlock’s in what he hopes is a comforting gesture. “I hope he and Sebastian are enjoying prison," he jokes, "I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

Sherlock chuckles, the sound genuine and warm. “I think they’ll be very happy there together,” he says, nudging his nose against John’s teasingly, “The ultimate couples retreat.”

John smirks. “You know what they say: those who go to jail together, stay together.”

“Are you suggesting we plan a holiday?”

A giggle escapes John at this and Sherlock looks thrilled at the sound. “Hardly,” he replies, “I think we’re fine just as we are.”

Something goes soft in Sherlock’s eyes at this and he trails his fingers over John’s cheek, touch fleeting yet tender. “I think so, too.”

They stay silent for a moment, sharing a look that makes the entire world narrow to just the pair of them.

“I love you,” says John simply and he revels in the poignancy of those three words on his tongue – even after all this time. No matter how often he has said this to Sherlock, John feels in his bones that they are the truest words he has ever uttered in his life. 

And, the beauty of it all is that he knows it is the same for Sherlock. John sees it in those pale eyes every time Sherlock says those three words to him. For when he does, it feels as if every star in the sky has aligned for them and everything is exactly as it should be.

“I love you,” says Sherlock – no ‘and’ at the beginning, no ‘too’ at the end to indicate any kind of addition. He loves John without prompting and thus never articulates his feelings as a response.

They stare at one another, smiling softly, as the morning sun pools across their bed in a sheet of gold, skimming its amber brush along the lines of John and Sherlock’s bodies. Then, Sherlock leans forward and slants his mouth over John’s, pressing their bodies together so naturally that it feels akin to muscle memory. They kiss slowly with gentle hands and tongues still warm with sleep until Sherlock pulls John atop him, their legs tangling together as the sheets twist around their hips. The feel of Sherlock pressed beneath him – firm muscle and silky skin – tears a muffled moan from John and he feels Sherlock grin mischievously into the kiss.

“Oh, I see how it is,” John mutters before moving his lips to Sherlock’s neck. On cue, Sherlock emits a quiet whimper the way he always does when John nips at his pulse point, his fingertips suddenly pressed insistently into John’s back. Smiling, John kisses his way up to Sherlock’s ear, tracing the shell with his tongue. Shifting beneath John, Sherlock huffs out a groan that is half-frustration, half-arousal.

“That is entirely unfair,” Sherlock murmurs, voice heavy with desire, and the sound shivers delightfully through John’s blood.

“Unfair?” asks John as he teases Sherlock’s earlobe between his teeth, “How so?”

Instead of answering, Sherlock swiftly reverses their positions so that he is straddling John, long-fingered hands finding John’s and pinning them to the bed. John laughs at the triumphant expression on Sherlock’s face, his blue dressing robe practically hanging off of him at this point.

“Now, how is this fair?” teases John, looking up at Sherlock with amusement in his eyes.

Sherlock shrugs in response, obviously trying to repress the grin twitching at his lips. “I never said that had to play fair,” he replies and John laughs again.

“Of course,” says John evenly, “Well, consider me completely at your mercy.” He heaves a sigh of mock-capitulation. “Do what you will with me, I suppose.”

A wicked gleam sparks in Sherlock’s eyes at this and he hums in appreciation, that lopsided smile John loves so much spread across his face.

“Giving me carte blanche?” Sherlock purrs, leaning in so close that his mouth just brushes over John’s. “Might be dangerous.”

“Since when has that stopped me before?”

Sherlock chuckles. “Point taken,” he says thoughtfully. Patiently, John waits for Sherlock to enact whatever fantasy is currently running through that brilliant brain of his, but minutes tick by and Sherlock does not move. He simply continues to stare down at John, gaze strangely unreadable.

“What is it?” John asks, tone gentle.

The sound of his voice seems to startle Sherlock out of his reverie and he blushes almost instantly.

“I was –” he huffs out an embarrassed laugh. “I was just thinking of Plath.”

The effect is instantaneous – John throws his head back in a fit of giggles, prying his hands from Sherlock’s grasp to press them to his face.

“Oh, God,” John groans between laughter, “What have I created?”

“Hear me out,” Sherlock pouts, an unmistakable undertone of mirth in his voice. At this, John quiets, biting his lip to quell the giggles still tickling his throat and spreading his fingers to look up at Sherlock expectantly. Sherlock’s smile twists into something warm and fond at the sight, but he pushes on. “Just looking at you now, I – I thought of that line of Plath’s where she says: ‘I think I made you up inside my head.’”

Sherlock’s blush deepens at this yet his expression is one of utmost sincerity. John slowly lowers his hands from his face.

“No matter how hard I try to think of a way to put how I feel into my own words, I cannot seem to come up with something better. It encapsulates my feelings for you perfectly because what we have often feels – quite frankly – too good to be true.” Sherlock averts his gaze at this, a shy smile fumbling over his mouth. “In fact, you’ve no idea how often that line runs through my mind when we are together.”

I think I made you up inside my head. 

John remembers the way Sherlock whispered those words right before kissing him for the first time almost exactly one year ago – the pair of them caught up in the dizzying repetition of the villanelle, the stark sensuality of Plath’s language.

I think I made you up inside my head.

How many times has John thought the same thing when looking at Sherlock? How many times over the course of these past eleven months has John wondered what he's ever done to deserve this much happiness? To deserve the heart of this extraordinary, surprising, maddening, brilliant, and heart-stoppingly beautiful man who had been convinced just last year that he was toxic and unlovable?

I think I made you up inside my head.

God, to think that John is the person with whom Sherlock has chosen to share his smile, his laughter, his thoughts, his feelings, his body… It often does feel too good to be true.

“Sherlock,” John begins, his voice wavering with emotion, but Sherlock holds a finger to the other man’s lips.

“No, no,” he interrupts archly, “You laughed earlier when I was attempting to be romantic. It’s too late for whatever conciliatory thing you’re about to say.”

“Oh, love,” says John, taking Sherlock’s face in his hands to bring him closer, “I’m sorry I laughed.” He leans up to lay a soft kiss on the tip of Sherlock’s nose. “What can I do to make it up to you?”

Sherlock looks away coyly and rolls off of John, feigning contemplation. John shifts onto his side so that he is once more face-to-face with Sherlock. Those keen eyes bright with affection bore into John’s and Sherlock grins, tipping his chin forward challengingly.

“Dance with me tonight,” he commands, voice like crushed velvet, “At the party.”

“That’s it? That’s all you want?”

Sherlock quirks a brow. “Are you belittling my request?”

“No,” John murmurs, brushing a wayward curl out of Sherlock’s eyes, “No, not at all.” Suddenly, inspiration sparks and John sits up, tugging on Sherlock’s hand to urge him to do the same. “But why wait until tonight? Why not start making it up to you now?”

Sherlock frowns up at John, perplexed. “You mean, dance now?”

John stands and shrugs. “Why not?”

“There’s no music.”

Grinning, John extends a hand in invitation. “I’ll hum.”

“Please don’t,” says Sherlock wryly. Nonetheless, he takes John’s hand and rises from the bed.

“I’ll sing,” John offers as an alternative, navigating them into a closed hold position – fingers slipping inside Sherlock’s dressing gown to settle between the warm valley of his shoulder blades. In turn, Sherlock takes John’s waist, a slow smile dawning on his face as he takes John’s free hand in his, fingers intertwining reflexively.

“Even worse,” Sherlock murmurs and John rolls his eyes in response.

“We don’t need music then.”

Sherlock sticks out his lower lip thoughtfully. “It’s not really a dance without music.”

“Semantics,” says John dismissively, “Now, are you going to dance with me, or not?”

Chuckling, Sherlock simply straightens in response and obediently leads John into the now-familiar steps of a waltz, the pair of them easing into the triple time rhythm with practiced ease. In the silence of their flat, John and Sherlock dance around the room with only the sounds of their bare feet sticking slightly to the cold floors and the whisper of their clothing for musical accompaniment. Soon, Sherlock leans in, lips whispering past John’s ear, and he begins to hum something low and meandering that John can’t place. Whether it’s an obscure piece of classical music or simply something Sherlock is composing on the spot, it is beautiful and John closes his eyes, heaving a happy sigh.

This moment should feel so simple; they have danced in this room before, have danced together in their pajamas before, and have even danced to the warm and intimate sound of Sherlock humming before. And yet –

And yet it feels like a moment of living, breathing poetry.