Actions

Work Header

Skeleton Key

Chapter Text

The woman was an artist. Sherlock didn't need to read it in the callus on her index finger or the mathematical knowledge of symmetry in her gaze. Her joy was written on her skin. The images that stained her flesh must have cost a fortune, acquired over the meagre years of young adulthood she wore like a crown upon her brow. Blonde dreadlocks were caught up from the nape of her neck, exposing the pictures on her back – gifts from past lovers, perhaps, intimate in meaning if not location. Yet it was those on her hands that arrested his attention. He could tell that they were her own work, judging from their similarities with her portfolio displayed on the studio walls – clean lines and bold colours showing her ambidextrous ability.

She was a masterpiece of her own design and making, and it was fascinating to see.

Brown eyes met his over the counter, weighing and measuring, looking and then looking again, which was rare in itself. He knew what she saw in her first glance: arrogance and upper class, intelligence as well, probably, but whatever else she glimpsed worked in his favour, because the smile on her lips made the labrette gleam from where it was nestled beneath the curve of her pout.

'Can I help you?' she asked, and Sherlock allowed himself a fraction of a smirk at the sound of polished vowels and clear consonants completely at odds with the image she presented: a walking dichotomy. It was obvious that this twenty-something young woman relished challenging the assumptions of others.

'I need my tongue pierced. Standard, median line,' he explained without hesitation. 'I've been told you make some of the best custom jewellery in London.'

'You've been told right,' she replied, her rings shining in the bright studio lights as she held out her hand for the design sketch and the relevant funds. Her eyes narrowed speculatively at the simple draught. It was a standard barbell, at least on the outside, but he saw the joy of intrigue light up in her eyes as she examined it closely. 'Clever. I shouldn't have a problem doing this. You won't be able to wear it straight away, though, not until the swelling's gone down. Two, three weeks if you're in a hurry, but I'd recommend six.'

Sherlock nodded in understanding. His research had indicated as much, and this was something to which he had given several days of consideration. Body piercing in general was not something he had contemplated throughout his youth; no more needles touched his skin than it took to push cocaine into his veins. His body was merely transport, and decorating it in any manner beyond clothing had never crossed his mind. Even now, this was not about aesthetic. It was practical. Useful, even, at least once it healed.

'My name's Natasha,' the woman said cheerfully, gesturing through the stark, white lines of her studio towards a room in the back. Even from here, Sherlock could see reassuring clinical steel, and he followed her obligingly as she outlined the procedure and motioned for him to take a seat.

'I'm guessing this is your first piercing?' One eyebrow quirked as Sherlock gave her a frown. 'Believe me, I'm not making small talk. Last thing I want is a fainter on my bench. It happens, and it's embarrassing for everyone. Scares the shit out of me every time.'

'That's unlikely,' Sherlock replied. 'Blood doesn't alarm me, and neither does pain.'

'It's amazing how many blokes I have say that to me and then burst into tears.' Natasha sighed, pulling on some latex gloves before dragging a wheeled cabinet closer to her and opening sealed packages. 'Still, I'll take your word for it. Let's have a look. We need to check this can be done. It's dependent on anatomy.'

Lingual vein placement Sherlock wanted to say, but speech was pointless as he obligingly stuck out his tongue, wincing at the rubber taste of latex as the woman examined the muscular appendage. This was no perfunctory scrutiny. She took her job seriously, and Sherlock could see the quick intelligence in her gaze as she nodded her head.

'Right, I can do it without a problem. I'm sure you've done your research, but I'll tell you about the procedure anyway. Piercings and the unexpected aren't a good combination.' She grinned, clearly unfazed by his demeanour as Sherlock struggled not to roll his eyes. 'The needle will go down through the tongue, and then I'll put the bar in. It may feel awkward for the first couple of hours, until your tongue swells up, that is.'

She demonstrated with her fingers, indicating how much the muscles could expand. 'For at least the first seventy-two hours, you need to keep away from hot drinks, alcohol, cigarettes and solid food. No kissing or oral sex.' She reached out, organising tools as she continued to speak. 'Talking won't be easy either. Your tongue will lose a lot of its dexterity until it's fully healed. Best not to attempt speech, really. Lisping's the least of your worries. I recommend a salt water rinse for the first three days, and then a non-alcoholic antibacterial mouthwash.'

Sherlock nodded. In order to avoid the dentist, he was meticulous about his oral hygiene. However, the tongue piercing might make more regular check-ups a necessity. One of the first things he had done when this idea had unfurled in his head was research the disadvantages. From infection to chipped teeth, the list was considerable, but if he could make this work then they were risks he was willing to take.

'Once the initial swelling's gone down in a week or two, we can put in a standard bar. Were you planning on stretching the hole?'

'I need it to stay open for a few days if the jewellery is missing,' Sherlock replied, watching her nod in understanding.

'Tongues heal quickly, sometimes within a few hours. A wider gauge will reduce the chance of that, but we'll get it done and healed before we consider your options.' She rubbed her hands together, her brow pinching in a frown as she shifted closer. 'The price includes the piercing and aftercare, as well as the jewellery. If you have any questions, even if it's years down the line, come back and I'll help you out. You ready for this?'

Sherlock allowed himself one last moment of thought, a final evaluation of the pros and cons, but his answer came out the same. This was a necessary step. One for which, sometime in the not too distant future, he may even be grateful. 'Yes.'

It really did not take long. The pressure of forceps – fresh, cold steel, obviously sterilised – was a fleeting weight on his tongue. The dive of the needle was a brighter, intrusive kind of pain: momentary resistance and then a smooth slide that made his muscles twitch in response. However, the girl was quick and competent, and before he knew it the bar was in place, slim and alien in the pocket of his mouth.

'That's it,' the woman said with a smile as she peeled of her gloves. 'The swelling will start almost immediately. Putting ice in your mouth and letting it melt will help, as will swallowing ibuprofen if you can. Keep it clean, and if it starts to seem infected, go straight to your GP.'

Automatically, Sherlock went to respond, but he quickly realised the inherent difficulties of speaking. He could vocalise, but getting his tongue to shape the sounds necessary was a feat beyond his capabilities. Instead, he merely gave a quick nod and departed with the thought of getting a cab to Baker Street forefront in his mind.

It was only when he was on the pavement that he realised relaying his instructions to a driver might not work as well as he hoped. If he managed it at all the words would be slurred, and cabbies were suspicious of those too drunk to articulate. Too much chance of vomit on the upholstery. Well, the walk home was brief, and perhaps the motion would keep his mind off the alien presence in his mouth and the hot, heavy feeling of his tongue.

He shut his coat tight around his body to block out the damp chill of late Autumn, taking the same route home as he had to get to the piercing studio and making the most of Mycroft's few-and-far-between black spots. He would not get back without being seen by his brother's network, of course, but hopefully the images would be too disparate for Mycroft to extrapolate where he had been. Annoying his sibling was not Sherlock's intention with his body modification, but the look of horror on Mycroft's face would be an added delight, and he did not want to spoil the surprise.

Within twenty minutes, his key was in the lock of the door to 221, his cheeks were chilled by the frigid touch of the wind, and his tongue had started to ache in earnest. It felt worse than he had expected, not just hard to control but sullen and angry. The thought of putting anything in his mouth, whether it was ice or broth or even just water was distinctly unpleasant. Still, at least he had eaten a full meal last night, at John's insistence, and some breakfast this morning. He could do without food for a while.

Padding up the stairs, he shrugged out of his coat, noticing that John's jacket was missing. Of course, he had said something about dinner with that woman after work. She wouldn't last long, they never did. Over their time together, John had become a masterful self-saboteur. Sherlock's presence was no longer necessary to ensure dates took a nose-dive, though he did add some spice by sending the occasional emergency text.

No, John simply could not bring himself to be serious about any of the women he courted. When it came down to it, Sherlock was still his number one priority. With any luck, that would never change. If it did...

If it did, then Sherlock knew John would be gone. Not quickly, perhaps, but eventually. Someone else would capture him in their orbit, and inch by inch, he would drift, tempted away by the promise of all that he thought he desired. Two point four children (and time was running out for that), a docile wife and a house in the suburbs: normality in all its withered glory.

Deep down, John would hate it, and so would Sherlock.

He tried to imagine it: John no longer in Baker Street. Warm blue eyes no longer alighting on Sherlock's frame with a mixture of concern and that oh-so-well concealed lust, buried since Sherlock's off-hand dismissal all that time ago.

Not his proudest moment, though in his defence he had been pursuing a serial killer at the time.

John's attraction for him was little but an ashy ember now, hidden beneath all the ephemera of what John thought he preferred. Back then, Sherlock had been the same. What he had wanted was peace, solitude and a puzzle to solve. How was he supposed to know that, within a matter of months, he would discover that what he required was Doctor John Watson?

Yet the moment had passed, and now they were in a strange place where they were more essential to one another than either of them could describe. Somehow, they had travelled beyond the arena of sexual gratification and lust without ever having passing through it.

It was ridiculous. The one problem that Sherlock could not solve for fear of sending his entire life up in flames with the effort, because John needed him but he wanted that: normality. That was one thing Sherlock doubted he could ever provide, and if he offered himself to John now there was every chance that he would drive him away for good.

He swallowed tightly at the thought, wincing as his tongue ached and brought his scattered musings back into focus. His eyes felt gritty and his head was beginning to hurt in harmony with his mouth. Sleep was a distant memory thanks to a rather scintillating murder-suicide which, three minutes into examining the scene Sherlock managed to prove was a murder-murder. It had been four days of him and John doing what they did best, and the thought of getting his head down at any point had been frankly absurd.

Now, it was starting to catch up with him, cobwebs of exhaustion inching into the corners of his vision. His bed was calling, and for once Sherlock was happy to answer.

******

Morning light seeped around John's curtains, peeling aside the darkness of the room and dragging him from slumber. For a few moments, blissful ignorance veiled his mind before memory returned, and John let out a heavy sigh as the recollection of his third, and sadly last date with Tina washed over him.

It was not as if he could blame Sherlock for it, not this time. He was the one who kept checking his phone for a message that never came. By the time he and Tina were an hour into their meal, her pretty smile had turned tight-lipped and her eyes were flat with disappointment. She had left him with the bill and an instruction not to call again, since he was obviously committed to someone else.

John sat up, scrubbing a hand over his eyes before reaching for his dressing gown. A quick glance in the mirror showed his reflection. Hair: spiky, dishevelled, and touched with more than a hint of grey. Face: weathered from Afghanistan, lined from laughter and stress. Eyes: dull and tired. Not exactly prime catch material.

Still, he wasn't a bad-looking bloke. No, what made every effort at a relationship doomed to fail from the start was Sherlock, or rather John's obsession with him. No woman could compete, and John couldn't blame them for walking away.

He shook his head, making his bed out of military habit. He had tried to shift his priorities around – to put Sherlock in a box labelled flatmate/best friend and leave him there, but to no avail. Somehow Sherlock had managed to slot himself neatly into a space delineated as “Most important thing in John Watson's life” and then proceeded to make himself comfortable.

Not that he wanted that to change. This, what they had, was good. Very good. Better than John had ever thought he'd have with anyone, least of all a man. It was not just domesticity and cohabitation, but symbiosis. They needed each other, at least, he thought they did, and where did that leave John?

'Idiot,' he grumbled to himself, yanking open his bedroom door and padding down the stairs. This happened every time the woman of the moment became a woman of the past. He found himself returning inexorably to Sherlock and wondering all over again if maybe here, right in front of him, was where he should be concentrating his efforts. He had noticed that Sherlock was attractive the moment he laid eyes on him, but Sherlock's rebuttal had put paid to that. Still, the desire lingered, glowing in John's stomach like a hot coal, too ignored to fan into flames but not dead and cold – not yet.

Sometimes, he considered asking Sherlock if he had changed his mind, letting him know that despite all the women traipsing through his life, John still found himself glancing Sherlock's way with more than friendship in mind. Yet every time the moment felt right, he froze, the words catching in his throat to remain unspoken, and life went on as normal.

Well, as close to normal as anything ever got at 221b.

John stopped in the kitchen, glancing around in puzzled surprise as his thoughts slammed to a halt. Sherlock had already been in his room when John got home from his date last night. It had been early, not even eight o' clock, but he had assumed Sherlock's usual disdain of sleep during a case had taken its toll. Yet now there was no sign of him, and even exhausted beyond all measure Sherlock never stayed in bed this long.

Quickly, John looked around, forcing aside the haze of lingering sleep to observe their flat. It was a mess of case notes and dirty cups, abandoned experiments and paperwork, but that was all fairly normal. There were no obvious signs of a struggle within the confusion. Sherlock's coat was hung up by the door, and it was too cold to be without it, so he was probably still here. Was he ill?

John was just debating whether to knock on Sherlock's bedroom door when the man emerged. His blue dressing gown was draped over his shoulders. Long, soft pyjama pants rested low on his hips, and John caught a glimpse of pale skin at the hem of Sherlock's t-shirt as he rubbed his eyes and stumbled towards the sink to pour himself a glass of water.

'Morning, did you sleep well?' John asked, turning towards the toaster. It was an opening, an invitation for Sherlock to get his deductions about the disastrous date with Tina out of the way. It happened every time, one glance and Sherlock knew every detail. John hated it, but it was routine.

Yet this time, all he got was a faint hum of agreement, a little pulse of sound from Sherlock's throat that made John glance over his shoulder with a frown. Those knowing eyes were trained on him, deductive, even if Sherlock was not giving his conclusions voice, and John had to force his thoughts away from lingering on how good Sherlock looked: comfortable and rumpled.

Sherlock's glass clicked on the kitchen counter as he put it down by the sink and headed for the bathroom without a word, leaving John in confused silence. When they moved in together, Sherlock had warned John that he occasionally did not speak for days on end. In truth, that behaviour had not materialised. Yes, Sherlock huffed and pouted and gave John the silent treatment, but it didn't last long. During a case he would talk regardless of whether there was anyone to hear him or not, musing through the convolutions until he arrived in the bright, glowing epiphany of the answer.

Now John felt – well – ignored. Small talk wasn't Sherlock's thing, but he had at least been expecting to be told about the date-gone-wrong from Sherlock's deductions, rather than merely hummed at and then disregarded.

With a huff, John made himself breakfast, listening to the sounds of the shower and Sherlock brushing his teeth. He noticed that it sounded slightly less vigorous than normal, but didn't give it much thought as Sherlock emerged from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist.

One day, Sherlock would catch John looking. He'd had an excuse lined up since the first week he'd moved in to Baker Street (I'm checking I can't count your ribs, Sherlock) but so far his quick, furtive glances had remained unchallenged. That didn't seem set to change today as Sherlock padded towards his bedroom, giving John a good view of svelte flesh and strong legs – not enough food and too much running after criminals – before he disappeared back into his bedroom.

John checked the clock, relieved to see he still had plenty of time for his own morning routine. Habit had his breakfast devoured, his first cup of tea gone and himself washed and dressed within forty minutes. By the time he began looking around for his shoes, Sherlock was back in the kitchen filling an ice cube tray with water.

'Have you seen my –' John stopped, his expression changing into something concentrated and fierce as he caught sight of Sherlock swallowing two tablets. 'What were they?'

Sherlock looked at him with one eyebrow raised, no doubt reading all of John's suspicions and rolling his eyes as a result before holding up the packet. Ibuprofen.

'Why are you taking those? You should eat something along with them, by the way. They're not good on an empty stomach.'

Sherlock shrugged, pointing towards the fire-hearth where John had left his shoes yesterday before opening the cupboard and removing a tin of soup. John didn't know they even had soup, let alone that Sherlock was happy to eat such a thing for breakfast.

He grabbed his shoes, sitting in his armchair to put them on as he considered his flatmate. He didn't look ill. Pale, maybe, but he was always that colour, and there was a healthy touch of warmth to his cheeks. He wasn't wincing, so no headache, nor limping to suggest a sprain or strain. Sore throat, perhaps?

'Why aren't you talking?' John called out, looking up to see Sherlock watching him as he stirred some broth, warming it in the pan. He didn't bother to beg or plead, merely fixed Sherlock with a hard stare that eventually resulted in his flatmate glancing around for some paper and scribbling on it before passing it to John.

“Tongue piercing. Talking is inadvisable due to swelling. Ibuprofen for same. You're going to be late for work.”

John read it once, then again, glancing up at Sherlock before looking down at the note, a baffled frown weighing heavy on his brow. 'A – a – why?' He blinked, trying to get his head around it. 'You – you have pierced your tongue? Why?'

Sherlock simply turned his back, gesturing meaningfully over his shoulder at the clock.

For a minute, John considered forgetting all about work and badgering Sherlock for some kind of answer, but reason interceded. Sarah was badly understaffed as it was, and the excuse of “Sherlock's done something stupid” had worn thin months ago.

'All right, all right. I'm going. I wish I knew what went on in your head, sometimes.' With a sigh he grabbed his wallet from where he had left it on the table and made his way down the stairs, not noticing until he was at the end of the street that Sherlock's note was still in his hand. The elegant scrawl spelled out the same words as before, and John let his eyes linger on them before slipping it into his pocket.

A tongue piercing. Somehow the concept seemed at odds with all he knew about Sherlock. Not that the man wasn't rebellious, but this was small game on the scale of the things Sherlock did to flout the authority of his brother and the establishment. An act made easier by the fact that, really, they were one and the same. It seemed petty, and John shook the thought aside. No, Sherlock was unlikely to be making some kind of statement about non-conformity. He did that simply by existing.

John pulled out his phone, pecking out a slow message as he walked. Maybe Sherlock couldn't speak, but he could text.

“Is it for an experiment? A case? Mid-life crisis? - JW”

He turned the corner and made his way down into the tube station. His oyster card beeped obligingly, his phone signal dying away as he submitted himself to the heavy, humid press of bodies on the train. Within twenty minutes he was out in the fresh air again, and his phone pinged with an answer.

“Reason isn't relevant. We need milk and more Ibuprofen. - SH”

“Get it yourself. Serve you right for punching a hole in your tongue. - JW”

'“Reason isn't relevant.” What kind of answer is that?' John asked himself as he set his phone to silent and pushed his way into the surgery, giving Sarah a quick good morning before he stepped into his office. It wasn't an answer at all. Sherlock rarely did anything without sound and solid purpose, so why was he being so cagey about it?

With a shake of his head, John sat at his desk. It was going to be a busy day, and he had more important things to think about than Sherlock Holmes and his tongue.

Except the idea kept coming back to him at odd moments, presenting itself to his mind's eye for further viewing as the usual procession of sniffles, rashes and other health miscellanea paraded in front of him. Sherlock Holmes, for reasons unknown, had pierced his tongue. Voluntarily. At least, John assumed it was voluntary. He was hard pushed to imagine what kind of nefarious plot might involve a tongue piercing. A bet, perhaps? Except that Sherlock didn't gamble unless he was sure he was going to win. No, so why?

At lunch time, he checked his phone to find a lone message waiting: two words from Sherlock that brought John's train of thought crashing to a halt, his sandwich halfway to his mouth.

“You disapprove. - SH”

It wasn't even a question, just Sherlock putting forth a statement as if he were laying down the law. John gave it due consideration. Sherlock had a knack for knowing more about a person than they did themselves, and John combed his memory for any indication he had given that piercings were cause for distaste.

No, that wasn't right. John did not really harbour feelings one way or the other about people sticking jewellery through bits of themselves. He wouldn't do it to himself because – he snorted quietly – for God's sake, he would look ridiculous. Besides, he ended up in a fight far too often not to worry about someone ripping it out.

Slowly, with all due care, he typed a single word, smirking to himself as he imagined Sherlock's reaction.

“Wrong. - JW”

He finished his sandwich, not thinking anything of it when his phone remained stubbornly silent. Sherlock never liked to be informed that he was incorrect and had developed the act of sulking to a fine art. John could almost sense his displeasure, even if the man himself was six miles away and on the other side of the river. He could picture him easily, probably not even dressed, perhaps sawing out something vitriolic on the violin or flopped onto the sofa, bored and irritable.

Except now these familiar images held an extra-dimension, a secret, metallic addition that made John frown sightlessly at the medical journals perched on his desk. The Sherlock of today was different from the man he had been yesterday. It was subtle, invisible to anyone unless Sherlock actually stuck his tongue out. If it hadn't been for the fact it was so new, obviously healing and rendering Sherlock speechless as a result, John might never have known. Now his hateful, treacherous mind kept coming back to it again and again with the same question.

Why?

The way he saw it, the disadvantages far outweighed any benefits. Sherlock had already demonstrated that the process was neither painless nor without its inconveniences, and once it was healed he would still have a piece of metal stuck through his tongue. Wouldn't that make things awkward? Eating, drinking, kissing? Not that the latter applied to the untouchable Sherlock Holmes.

Did it?

John frowned, his jaw clenching automatically. Of course, there was one reason he knew of that some people acquired such things. He would have to be living under a rock not to hear the claims of improved oral sex, but he had never bought into it himself. Perhaps the sensation was interesting, but was it really worth the physical cost? Besides, of every possible reason he could think of, that seemed to be the least likely cause for Sherlock's decision.

He couldn't have done it to please a lover, could he?

John shook his head, trying to cast the idea loose, but it was grimly tenacious, clinging to him as the afternoon's work resumed. He tried to focus on his patients and their ailments, but it was useless. Every time he managed to free himself from the brambles of his own curiosity, something would remind him and send him plunging to be ensnared once more. By the time his paperwork was done he was lost in a morass of confusion, irritable and tense, all because of one stupid, stray thought.

Sherlock didn't have a lover, John knew that. The man prided himself on being married to his work. Besides, you couldn't live with someone and hide the fact you were shagging around. Even if he was going over to someone else's place, John would notice Sherlock's absence.

Memories of him ducking out to the morgue or dashing off with the immortal words: “It's for a case, John!” trailing behind him floated to the surface, and John tugged his jacket on with a little more force than necessary, thrusting his hands in his pockets as he headed for home. This was ridiculous. Even if Sherlock was sleeping with someone, even if he had mutilated himself to spice up his sex life, it was none of John's business. Sherlock had made that clear from day one.

Yet that did not stop the hollow, heavy feeling that had settled in John's gut from twisting uncomfortably as he made his way back to Baker Street. He was being a hypocrite. For God's sake, how many girlfriends had he gone out with in the time he'd known Sherlock? It was mortifying to realise he could be like this, happy enough to conduct his own love-life but bitter at the thought of Sherlock focussing his attention on anyone but him.

Before long he realised he was standing outside the front door of the flat, the gold 221 gleaming at him as he tried to school his features into something bland and unremarkable. Of everything, this hideous confusion of jealousy and hurt was not something he wanted Sherlock to deduce – not when John knew full well he was being ridiculous.

There was no lover for Sherlock to satisfy, and even if there was, when had he ever done anything to make someone else happy? He had occasional moments of thoughtfulness towards John or Mrs Hudson, but that was unlikely to stretch to anything as extreme as body modification.

No, Sherlock had a sensible reason for piercing his tongue, and damn-it, John fully intended to find out what it was.

******

He hated cold soup. He hated ice-cubes, and he was beginning to question the veracity of his original decision. The inconvenience was turning out to have a greater impact than he expected, and Sherlock was less than impressed by the results. He had remained mostly silent for the best part of six days, and God, it was dull. He could talk, if he had to, but successful articulation was rather hit and miss. Hums and grunts to indicate positives and negatives went a long way, but with every passing hour of non-communication, things seemed to get worse.

Not for his tongue, but for John.

The man was sulking. There really was no other word for it. It was not the sprawled melodrama of Sherlock's own moods, but something more stoic and contained. John was rigid and military in his armchair, not relaxed at all, and his lined face was more inclined to scowl than smile. The change in mood aligned precisely with his discovery of Sherlock's tongue piercing. He would have to be blind to miss the correlation.

A thick fugue of silence smothered the flat, broken only by the sound of turning pages and clattering laptop keys. Initially, John had continued to press him for his reasons, his voice low and urgent as if the vagaries of Sherlock's mind mattered to him. Of course, John had never been very good at being kept in the dark, and Sherlock assumed his interest was sheer stubbornness. He held his silence, maintaining through both handwritten notes and texts that his motivation was not relevant.

It was not that John's disapproval, if that was the issue, was of any importance to him, but he did not want John coming to rely on an unfounded theory. It could be dangerous for them both.

However, it seemed his evasion had an unexpected consequence. After an initial twenty-four hours of pestering, of Sherlock grimly not saying a word for fear of embarrassing himself and John's face growing increasingly stormy, the following days had passed in increasing silence. Now, John had not spoken a word since he got up this morning. Sherlock had a good excuse, but he could not for the life of him deduce why John was staring at the British Medical Journal, shoulders rounded and his face miserable.

Sherlock huffed out a pointed sigh, rattling off a reply to an email informing the sender that their missing diamond necklace would be adorning her husband's mistress, and to initiate divorce proceedings. As soon as he hit send, he got to his feet. A few quick strides took him to the bathroom and he shut the door, leaning back against the panel as he flexed his tongue in his mouth. Then, quietly, keeping his voice as low as possible, he ran through the alphabet, testing each phoneme with care.

It was fine until he came across a sibilant, at which point the smooth curve of the ball in his mouth and the lingering swelling of his tongue forced him to lisp, reminding him painfully of when he was eight and missing his two front teeth. S and X were still beyond him, and he closed his eyes as he tried to programme the information into his brain.

Finally satisfied, he made his way back to the living room, looming in front of John's armchair until those blue eyes stopped staring at the page – not actually reading, Sherlock noticed – and lifted to meet his gaze.

'You're annoyed,' Sherlock said bluntly, dissatisfied at having to point out the obvious. 'Why?' He wanted to say more, to challenge John and push at him, but the fewer words said the better. Sibilant sounds were harder to avoid than he had originally imagined.

'Sherlock.' John sighed, shaking his head and trying to hide behind the folio in his hands. 'It's nothing to do with you. I'm just – You know, the break-up with Tina –'

'Wrong,' Sherlock replied, dragging the blue silk dressing-gown tighter around his body before steepling his fingers at his chin. 'You were perfectly fine the morning after your dead-end date, until I gave you that note.'

John glared at him over the cover of his periodical, his jaw tensing in that way it did when Sherlock had backed him into an uncomfortable corner. 'Bad day at work,' he replied at last, a poor attempt at misdirection for which Sherlock did not even spare a response. He merely gave John a look which clearly said “Don't take me for a fool.”

At last, Sherlock huffed out a sigh, realising that perhaps a small slight of hand with the truth might ease some of John's strange ire. 'If I told you I did it for the Work, would you be happier?'

'Did you?' John narrowed his eyes, probably trying to discern honesty from falsehood. 'What kind of case can possibly involve a tongue piercing?'

'Choking,' Sherlock replied immediately. A little too quickly, as it turned out, because John rolled his eyes before getting to his feet, leaving his magazine on the floor beside his empty seat before folding his arms.

'I'd rather you didn't tell me at all than told me a lie, Sherlock.' He sounded tired, weary of his own thoughts, maybe, or simply fed up of Sherlock's behaviour. A dark knot of emotion flickered across his face, confusing in its opacity, and John rolled his shoulders before nudging Sherlock down into the armchair he had just vacated. 'At least you're talking again now. Open up. Let me have a look.'

Warm hands cupped Sherlock's jaw, capable thumbs resting lightly on his cheekbones as John tipped his head back towards the light. For a moment, Sherlock was tempted to keep his mouth closed, but there was a hint of something in John's eyes that suggested such an action would be badly received. Was it John's way of apologising, this concern over his health? He frowned, giving John a hard, thoughtful look as those eyebrows lifted – a hint of a warning to cooperate – before Sherlock swallowed and parted his lips.

The stretch and glide of the muscle was still impeded by the swelling, so he could not extend his tongue out of his mouth as yet, but John did not seem to mind as he bent his knees a fraction to get a better look. It was strangely intimate: John taller than him in their current positions, but for all his deadly potential he was not looming. This was medicinal, although Sherlock was not quite sure if the fractional sweep of John's fingers back and forth over his jaw bone, right next to the tell-tale skitter of Sherlock's pulse, could be defined as completely professional.

It was a fascinating sensation, that subtle skim. If Sherlock concentrated, he could feel the minuscule ridge and furrow of John's fingerprints and a soft, humid warmth seeping from John's flesh into his own with each pass. They had touched before, of course, but not like this. Everything else had always been at the periphery, a hand on a sleeve or steady fingers over a wound. To the casual observer, this could be mistaken for a prelude to a kiss.

Sherlock's mouth was going dry, partly due to the air circulation of each breath, but mostly because every inhale was laden with John's scent: detergent and tea, a faint hint of antiseptic and something else warm and human.

With a huff, he shut his mouth, deciding John had been gifted with plenty of time for his examination. Yet John did not move back immediately. Instead he lingered, his hands still cupping Sherlock's face and his eyes focused on Sherlock's closed lips. It was enough to make the air tighten, twisting into something hotter and expectant as Sherlock's breath hitched in his throat.

It had never been so intense before, this feeling of potential – of a new road opening up to both of them, should they choose to take it – and Sherlock found himself torn. He could feel his body giving him away, all those little, automatic signals of desire exposing themselves in a demand for reciprocity: accelerated heart-rate, reduced blinking interval, pupils probably dilated – just like John's.

Everything felt taut, as if reality were stretched over a rack, straining to split at the seams and unravel around them. The urge to lean up and close the distance was a living thing riding the crests of his muscles, and he swallowed tightly as John's eyes darted up from his mouth to meet his gaze.

Two stumbling, staggering heartbeats – the moment hanging on a precipice of change – and the spell broke.

John snatched his hands away with discouraging speed, letting them fall to his side as he took a step back and cleared his throat, looking anywhere but at Sherlock.

'Looks like the inflammation's starting to go down,' he managed, and to his credit his voice only sounded a little deep and ragged. Yet there was more confusion there than pleasure, locked up in the pinch of his brow and the downward tilt of his mouth. 'You'll need to get a shorter bar before too long. Assuming you're keeping it and this wasn't an experiment about the initial symptoms of a piercing or something. Does it still hurt?'

A typical deflection, an attempt at distance. Was John embarrassed by his reaction, or Sherlock's? Perhaps he should make it more obvious that his dismissal at Angelo's, so long ago now that it was a distant memory, was no longer precisely accurate? Except, no. Perhaps Sherlock often chose to ignore the non-verbal cues that people around him shed like creatures losing their winter coats, but that did not mean he did not understand what he was seeing. Everything about John, from his posture to his expression, shuttered and a little distant, was a mute plea for this train of thought to be abandoned.

Clearly now was not the time to pursue whatever had just happened, though the precise reason for John's reticence was elusive. His break-up with the latest woman was recent, but not unexpected. It did not seem to have disturbed the even keel of John's emotional stability in the slightest. A crisis of sexuality seemed unlikely, not when John had asked with such confident ease about Sherlock's own preferences on their first day of acquaintance.

A mystery then, and one that would have to wait until later to be solved.

'Not really,' Sherlock said at last, absently tugging the lapel of his dressing gown closer around his body. It was tempting to sprawl, but that might make certain biological reactions to John's previous proximity rather noticeable. 'However, I have been taking the full amount of ibuprofen daily.'

'With food?' John asked, and Sherlock would have to be deaf to miss the hint of tremulous gratitude in his voice, poorly disguised behind doctorly concern.

'If you can call cold broth food.' He caught the look on John's face, one that was dotted with liberal sympathy and concern. 'I warmed it, then allowed it to cool again before eating it. Contamination from canned food may be rare, but I dethided not to rithk it.'

The lisp escaped him before he could stop it, and there was a shocked pause as Sherlock shut his eyes in disbelief, a helpless victim to the heat that flared in his cheekbones.

John made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a smothered giggle, and Sherlock opened his eyes to glare. John's hand was pressed hard over his mouth, but his eyes were alight with mirth. Just like that, the tension was gone from the room, shed at the expense of Sherlock's dignity.

'Be quiet,' he ordered, folding his arms in annoyance and straightening his shoulders as John struggled to stifle his laughter.

'You've been deliberately avoiding the letter “s”, haven't you?' John asked. 'Go on, say “sausages”.'

'No, definitely not.' Sherlock got to his feet, trying to hide a smile as he heard John chuckle to himself, clearly amused. It was far better than the past few days of mulish near-silence, and perhaps now John would drop the whole foolish issue of “why” altogether.

He would find out sooner or later. With the lives they led, it was practically inevitable.

Chapter Text

John heaved a sigh, folding his arms as the cold night air clamped around him like a vice. His breath fogged in front of his face, crystalline whorls that drifted up into the clear sky. Autumn had heaved its sodden, gale-swept days ever onwards, and now the first touches of winter were making themselves known. Frost crackled underfoot, and the gloves on his hands did nothing to protect his fingers from the biting chill.

They were in one of the river-side parks, clustered around the corpse of a young man where it lay on the bank of the Thames. Groomed grass pillowed the body's back, and the graceful curve of a weeping willow secluded it from passers-by.

Sherlock was hunkered down at its side, as contained as always. No shivers disturbed his frame, and only the wisp of each breath from between his thoughtfully parted lips indicated that he was in the same place as everyone else, feeling the bite of the brumal air as his mind raced off down a web of deductions.

Abruptly, John realised he was staring at his flatmate's mouth – again. It had been six weeks since Sherlock handed him that note and spent far too long in near-silence, his tongue too swollen to articulate to his own precise standards; surely John should have got used to the idea by now? Yes, Sherlock had pierced his tongue; no, John still had no idea why. His only certainty was that, for some reason, he was inexplicably fascinated by the whole thing.

Not the piercing on its own, which was relatively mundane, but there was something about it being in Sherlock's mouth that made it oddly compelling. John found his thoughts circling back time and again, stuck on a dizzying loop that left his skin feeling too tight over his bones.

Then there was what had happened in the living room.

That was a more forbidden thought, a memory that he kept shying away from because of how it made his body respond. All he had to do was remember Sherlock sitting in the chair that John preferred, head tilted upwards while his eyes turned dark and libertine, and it was as if John's body slammed into top gear. His pulse picked up, his blood sang and his mind fell into a pool of fantasy.

If he concentrated, he could still feel the warmth of Sherlock's jaw against the heels of his hands, the throb of his pulse against sensitive fingertips and the chine of those cheekbones beneath the pads of his thumbs. He could recall the gleam of silver resting on the pink, flexing cushion of Sherlock's tongue and remember wondering, for one breath-taking second, what it would feel like against his own, that strong warmth and startling touch of metal.

He had lingered for too long – had felt the moment switch over from friendly to intimate as easily as taking the next breath. By the time John realised that Sherlock had closed his mouth and that he was staring, helpless and lost, at the curve of Sherlock's lips, it was too late to pretend he had not been entranced.

Then he had made the mistake of meeting Sherlock's gaze.

There were many things John was used to seeing in those bright, sharp eyes, from cool logic to hot, vitriolic rage, but never before had desire made itself so plain. There had been occasional glimmers, once or twice, and long drawn-out moments after a chase that vanished in a blink, but nothing like that.

It had been shocking in its blatancy, so unlike Sherlock that John had felt the chill of panic collide with the rising well of heat within him. The contrast had left John off-balance and abruptly uncertain.

Between the tongue piercing and that sudden, unguarded moment of expression, he felt as if he didn't know the man he lived with quite as well as he had once believed. It was as if someone subtly different had stepped into Sherlock's skin – still him in all essentials but behaving oddly enough to make the world begin to tilt.

Doubt had him stepping back where his body longed to lean forward, common sense over-riding more base desires as he tried to understand what had wrought this discreet change. Since that moment – that almost-kiss – John had found himself falling deeper into an abyss of confusion, baffled by the alteration, however small, in Sherlock's normal behaviour.

'You all right?' Greg's question cut through his thoughts, low and concerned, and John abruptly realised he was scowling down at his own boots as if they were to blame for every atrocity.

'Yeah,' he replied, pasting a weak smile on his face. 'Wishing I was at home in my warm bed, though.'

'Huh, that makes two of us,' Greg agreed, frowning as Sherlock snapped something that made Anderson look like he had swallowed a lemon. 'Not that it looks like there's going to be much chance of that. Not unless Sherlock gets a move on.' He folded his arm, lifting his voice so that it carried the short distance. 'Oi, come on, you've had five minutes.'

Sherlock shot a dark glare across at them before shaking his head. 'John, take a look at this.' His words were clear and unimpeded, the lisp having receded as the swelling reduced. Now, if he didn't know better, John would think Sherlock was no different from the man he had met at Bart's.

Obligingly, he shuffled closer until he could hunker down at Sherlock's side. Normally, he would have already been there, but since that moment in the living room, keeping his distance seemed like the best idea. Sherlock had noticed, of course, because he always did, but if he thought there was anything strange about John's behaviour, he kept it to himself.

'Tell me what's wrong with this picture.' He gestured to the corpse lain out before them, and John suppressed a sigh. He was tired, cold and, this close to Sherlock, easily distracted by the gentle heat he could feel radiating off of him. Its allure made him edge closer, trying to soak up some of the warmth and struggling to ignore the smell of Sherlock's expensive shampoo as it filled his nose.

'Young male, stab wound to the chest.' A clumsy one, John realised. It was almost central, where the broad expanse of the sternum would block the blow, rather than sliding easily between two ribs. 'Deep enough to be cause of death, but –' He frowned, looking down at the icy ground. 'There's not enough blood.'

'Look around his mouth.'

Obligingly, John's gaze shifted, taking in the pallor around ghostly lips. He could see a faintly blue tinge in the skin there. 'Suffocated first, or maybe drugged, then stabbed in the chest?'

'Possibly, but there's no signs of a struggle. No defensive wounds. Besides, how many people do you know who die so neatly?' Sherlock gestured to the body, and John had to admit that as far as they went, this victim had been remarkably passive. His arms were lax at his sides, not akimbo or resisting in any fashion. His clothes were neat and, John noticed, completely clean, but not wet.

'He's not been in the river at all?'

'It was part of the reason why Lestrade called us; the body's too far from the tide-line to have been washed up. What else do you see?'

John shot a sideways glance at Sherlock before looking down at the corpse once more. It took him a moment to pick up other salient points. The clothes hung off the young man's frame, and a closer examination of the ulnar process suggested rapid weight loss. There were also bruises in the crooks of his arms and a frailty about him that spoke more of illness than neglect.

'He was undergoing intense medical treatment for something. Have you been able to ID him?'

That question was directed at Greg, who shook his head. 'We're working on it, but that might help. Any idea what it might have been?'

John bit his lip, reading the story as a doctor, rather than Sherlock's assistant. 'Cancer, possibly. Something with sudden onset, or maybe just not caught in time. A patient like this –' He shook his head, knowing the prognosis of “terminal” when he saw it. 'The odds of survival don't look like they were in his favour.'

'His clothes are his own, old favourites possibly, judging by the amount of wear, and this place...' Sherlock glanced around, taking in a more picturesque area of London's river bank. The view to the other side was lit in the white glow of urban promise, and John felt his train of thought slip onto the same track that Sherlock's currently occupied.

'He came here to die.'

'But – but the knife...' Anderson sputtered, waving at it.

Sherlock reached out a gloved hand, catching the chain around the young man's neck and pulling it free. An ornate cross glimmered in the light from the lamps around the body, swinging in the breeze.

'Suicide is still a sin to some,' Sherlock pointed out, letting the pendant drop. 'This was made to look like a murder, but the evidence points in a different direction. The knife wound is post-mortem. A tox-screen will undoubtedly show a plethora of medications, one of which was probably used for his own euthanasia. He came here with a syringe full, and someone else cleaned up after him, laid him out, shut his eyes...'

He tipped his head to one side, his lips pursed. 'Someone who viewed their assistance as a mercy rather than a crime. If religion is an element then family involvement is unlikely, You might be looking for a good friend. At best you could make a charge of meddling with a corpse, unless you can somehow prove that he was incapable of administering the fatal dose himself.'

'He doesn't look that far gone,' John cut in, 'but the medical records will give you a straight answer.'

'So you really think it's a suicide?' Greg asked, running a hand through his hair and frowning down sadly at the young man.

'Killers don't show this much respect to a corpse. Not usually. Nothing says murder beyond the knife in his chest, which appears to be a superfluous detail – deliberately misleading.' Sherlock straightened up, peeling off the latex gloves. 'The boy was dying; he simply made sure that it was to his own schedule, rather than that of whatever illness had already ravaged him. There's no real crime here.'

With a sigh, John got to his feet, following in Sherlock's wake as he bade Greg farewell. The walk back towards the main road through the river-side park was a short one, but John found himself lost in his thoughts, a silent shadow at Sherlock's side as they headed away from the tranquil, tragic scene and back towards the thud of London's metropolitan pulse.

'He chose his way to die,' Sherlock said quietly. Matter-of-fact, as always; cool logic in the face of John's empathy.

'He can't have been more than twenty-two,' John replied, not bothering to keep his emotion out of his voice. It hurt in ways he could not quite express. He knew life was far from fair, but sometimes that truth was slammed home with too much force. 'In an ideal world, it wasn't a choice he should have had to make at all.'

'In an ideal world no one would die until well into their dotage, or commit any crimes, and I would be out of a job,' Sherlock pointed out, flicking up his coat collar before catching sight of John's expression. Whatever he saw was enough to make him glance away, his breath shivering out of him in a cloud of white before he spoke again. 'You think I should pity him.'

'Don't you?' he asked.

'No.' Sherlock shrugged, staring at the horizon as he hesitated before continuing, 'I respect him for having the intelligence to face his premature death on his own terms. The evidence suggests he was also trying to protect his family from his actions.'

'I – why?' John shoved his hands in his pocket, shoulders rounded and head ducked as he listened to Sherlock lay out the facts like gems.

'If religion was a factor, then he would have known that his misdeeds could not be hidden from the judgement of some all-seeing deity. He did not shy away from a perceived sin, so the state of his soul was not his primary concern.' Sherlock sighed, his voice softening. 'It was his family whom he hoped to fool by having a friend help him make it look like a murder. That way, his kin would not be burdened by his actions, which he deemed necessary. Some people still view suicide with great familial shame.'

Sherlock pulled his thick, leather gloves from his pocket, slipping them onto the pale splay of his hands before he continued. 'If I were to pity anyone, it would be the friend who cared enough to help him in his deception, who stood at his side as he killed himself and supported his decision regardless of what they personally stood to lose.'

John felt a lump catch in his throat, tight and awkward. It was all too easy to switch the situation over, to have it not about two strangers, but about the two of them. One dying, pained, desperate to end it, the other lost in a storm of encroaching grief and conflicting care, wanting to help but not wanting what they had together to end.

A shiver wound its way through his frame, harder and more vicious than a tremor from the cold, and John felt Sherlock shift closer to him. Their shoulders touched, a hint of pressure that reminded John that this was real – them in the park, both whole and healthy, not facing anything so grim. Yet a quick glance at Sherlock suggested that he was not alone in his imaginings. There was the faintest pinch of pain in that expression, and John was reminded that, just because Sherlock did not choose to put his empathy on display, it did not mean he was not victim to the same emotions as everyone else.

'You're cold and hungry,' Sherlock murmured, breaking the fragile, aching silence around them. 'Come on. We've not been to Angelo's in a while.'

'Are you eating?' John asked, and, in the twitch of annoyance across Sherlock's face, there was something familiar and comforting, strong enough to help him push his melancholy thoughts aside. 'We've not got a case.'

'Fine,' Sherlock replied at last, managing to inject that single word with a burden of reluctance as he strode out onto the pavement and raised his hand to flag down a taxi.

It was like stepping through the shifting wall of a bubble as reality burst around them once more. London's life pressed down on them both, and John closed his eyes for a moment, his next breath tainted with the bright-clear scent of frost and the leaden tang of car exhaust. When he opened them again, it was to see a cab idling at the kerb, and Sherlock watching him, focussed and inquisitive, as if he were the greatest mystery the city had to offer.

Something plucked at John's heart, making it ache beneath his ribs. Sherlock was an attractive man, but in that moment he was beautiful – tousled hair and bright eyes, pale skin and the wicked blade of his intelligence: everything John wanted.

Yet, all those weeks ago, when the moment had unfurled where he could reach forward and change what they had forever, he had stepped back instead. John had been too confused, too off-balance, too damn scared to make use of it, because the Sherlock Holmes he knew did not pierce his tongue, or look at John with such naked admiration in his eyes.

Did he?

'Are you coming?' Sherlock asked, motioning to the taxi with one hand, his body half-turned back to John once more.

At least that was one question to which John knew the answer. Dragging in a deep breath, he forced himself to smile as he followed Sherlock into the taxi. Perhaps Sherlock's behaviour over the past few weeks had baffled him, but of this there could be no doubt.

Wherever Sherlock went, he would follow. No questions asked.

******

Practice made perfect. The age-old adage caught in Sherlock's mind as he sat cross-legged on the sofa, his gaze unfocussed and the vast majority of his awareness concentrated on the wet glide of his own tongue in his mouth. At last, it was thoroughly healed, and the custom bar was sitting in its rightful place. Now all that remained was mastery of the movement necessary to put it to use.

He narrowed his eyes, keeping his hands clenched behind him and tucked into the small of his back. Fingers would, of course, make it a great deal easier, but if he found himself in the situation to put this to use, then his hands would be restrained.

With a focussed frown, he curled his tongue and used his teeth, then the roof of his mouth. The special fastening made it easier, not a thread like a screw, but a clip system. Natasha, the girl who had made it, had been fascinated by the design. It made accidental loss of the ball less likely, but allowed for quick, relatively easy release with a small amount of directional pressure.

With the tiniest tweak of pain as the bar tilted in place, the ball slipped off and Sherlock spat it out, hearing it bounce away on the floor. He would disinfect it later. Besides, he'd had several made – well-prepared as always.

Now things became more difficult, relying on the constant adaptability of biology rather than any cunning design specifications. It was just as well that John was still out at work. Sherlock dreaded to think what he might make of this latest behaviour.

Honestly, if he had known how John would react to such a simple change in his appearance, Sherlock might have bypassed the idea of piercing his tongue altogether. John's behaviour had exceeded all expectations in ways that Sherlock, much to his frustration, had been unable to predict. He had anticipated some puzzlement over motive, and perhaps a touch of disgust or revulsion, quickly forgotten. Instead, more than anything else, John seemed unsettled.

Even more baffling, it was not a linear uncertainty, borne of a single cause with one, distinct terminus and a straight line between the two. Instead it seemed like a net that caught John in its grasp, rendering him, for some reason, increasingly distant. His withdrawal was subtle, more physical than emotional. Accidental touches happened far less frequently, as if John was more aware of their boundaries than before, and in the past six weeks he had rarely crossed the invisible line that would take his proximity from friendly to intimate.

What Sherlock did not understand was why.

That moment in the chair, all those weeks ago, could have been a turning point. He had felt the potential of it, the fulcrum that could lever them from friends to lovers. However, John had stepped away rather than advance, despite his own obvious, answering desire, and it made no sense

The urge to demand a reason, to understand the cause of John's unexpected retreat, had plagued him ever since, but every time he considered bringing it up he wondered if such a confrontation would be the last nail in the coffin of their friendship. There were already moments of silent strain and unspoken burdens drifted in the air. Voicing his queries could very well push John further away.

However, for all his physical distance, emotionally John was the same as always: loyal, devoted, intense and meaningful. If Sherlock had been the victim of any doubts, John's reaction to the suicide in the park three days ago would have been adequate to put them to rest. He had observed the moment when John's sympathy for the boy had turned into a more personal understanding, when he had switched the situation around and applied it to the two of them. He had seen the nova of agony ignite in those blue eyes and the lines of anguish that threatened to chart themselves into John's weathered face, even as his own heart clenched.

John still cared for him, but where there had once been something free and easy, platonic but for brief, shared moments of desire that went unacknowledged, there was now a stilted, labouring beast of a thing, hobbled by everything that remained unsaid.

With a sigh through his nose, Sherlock shook his head, trying to scatter the disordered mess of his thoughts. It was John's fault; he was the cause of all this circuitous thinking. If only he would behave in the manner that Sherlock predicted, they would not be having any of this difficulty.

Although, he thought with a smile, if John's depths were so easy to read then he would not have caught Sherlock's attention in the first place.

The shift of metal in his mouth focussed his attention, and he gave a faint grunt of approval as he flexed his tongue, lifting it to the roof of his mouth and feeling the jewellery finally begin to slide free. It was a challenging manoeuvre, one that made his tongue cramp and his jaw ache, but finally, awkwardly angled as it was, he had the bar free from its home and clenched neatly between his teeth. Perfect.

The sound of the door opening, followed by John's voice drifting up the stairs, had Sherlock glancing at the threshold of the flat in surprise. His tone was too curt to be addressing Mrs Hudson, and his words carried that slightest edge of rebellious antagonism. Mycroft then.

With a sigh, Sherlock moved his hands, not bothering to look in the mirror as he slid the bar back home and dragged a small plastic bag free from his suit jacket pocket. Three spare fasteners gleamed like stars within its confines, and he realised he would have to get more made. With any luck it would be a worthy investment.

Quickly, he fastened the piercing back in place, feeling it settle comfortably. Strangely, for something that had initially felt so alien, his tongue seemed almost nude without it, even for the briefest of moments. Fascinating, how the body could adapt. Somehow, he had always imagined a piercing would be an irritant – a burden to bear – but now its absence was painfully notable.

Speaking of irritants, Mycroft had left them blessedly alone for the past seven weeks. It had not taken Sherlock long to realise his brother's absence was down to a prolonged series of top-secret conferences – no doubt all those people who occupied “minor positions” in their respective governments eating too much cake as they tried to solve the economic crisis. The peace had been pleasant. Pity it couldn't last.

'I see you enjoyed the cuisine in Geneva,' he said by way of greeting as Mycroft walked into the room. It was a cruel jab, especially since, Sherlock noted with a hint of surprise, he appeared to have lost three pounds. Either that or his tailor was getting better.

'And you're busy as usual, I see,' Mycroft replied, his voice cool as his gaze slid around the apartment, taking in the paperwork and experiments with an unimpressed eye. Yet as soon as he looked at Sherlock, his focus sharpened, and Sherlock watched his older brother – growing more like their father every day, in appearance at least – lift his chin and reveal his perplexity with the tiniest hint of a frown. Good, that meant John had not told him.

Sherlock raised an eyebrow, keeping his face perfectly bland of any other expression. Out of the corner of his eye he could see John watching, probably wondering what Mycroft would say about Sherlock's modification. Possibly hoping that he would have some kind of answer, though that was unlikely. He and Mycroft may think in similar ways, but Mycroft had been behind a desk too long, heavily entrenched in a political sphere. All his guile and cunning went into social interactions. Sherlock put his to a more worthwhile endeavour.

'You look neither unwell to indicate a sore throat, nor bruised to suggest damage to your face from a punch,' Mycroft began, his deductions simple and straightforward. A sure sign of puzzlement. He hated not having the answers, and Sherlock watched his brother's hand tighten on the handle of his umbrella. 'There is no slackness to imply local anaesthetic for dental treatment, nor tension to indicate tooth pain, yet the line of your jaw is fractionally different.'

It was a subtle accusation, but in those few brief sentences Mycroft made it clear that, even now, Sherlock was still his highest priority. The man had been out of the country for almost two months, yet was familiar enough with Sherlock's appearance to recognise such a minuscule difference. Years of watching for signs of drug use and addiction had clearly honed Mycroft's skills of observation to a rapier point, at least where Sherlock was concerned.

A verbal reply seemed like too much effort, so Sherlock stuck out his tongue: an act he had not inflicted on his brother since he himself was four. However, it was more than worth it to see the brief flicker, lightning fast, of shock that flittered across Mycroft's face. Between one heartbeat and the next, it was gone, replaced with tightened lips and the elegantly raised wing of one eyebrow.

'Juvenile,' Mycroft murmured. 'What would Mummy say?'

'You could always tell her and find out,' Sherlock suggested, indifferent. Mummy was used to his behaviour by now, and unlike Mycroft, she usually had enough faith to realise that Sherlock's motives were never quite as inflammatory as they might seem. 'To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of your presence, Mycroft? Your minions could have updated you on my well-being.'

'Does one need a reason to visit one's brother?' Mycroft asked, but it was a thin veil, easily torn aside. Not even John believed it, as evidenced by a faint, ill-restrained sigh. 'I have a job for you.'

'No.'

'Sherlock –' Everything in Mycroft's voice suggested that he did not have time for a tiresome argument, and Sherlock looked at his brother again, carefully picking apart the masks he wore and seeing the strain beneath. Clearly the conferences had not gone well, and in his absence something had come to the fore that demanded an immediate solution. Not a pity-case then, something thrown in Sherlock's direction to keep him entertained. A genuine plea for help, shrouded as always in Mycroft's misdirection and manipulation.

They stared at each other, and Sherlock was tempted to decline out of sheer spite. However, a quick glance at John belayed that idea. He was still standing to one side, arms folded and legs braced as he stared at the floor. Yet his face was set again in the same lines of muted confusion Sherlock had seen far too often over the past few weeks. It chafed at him to see John so doubtful, and it grated on every nerve that somehow, he was to blame.

Maybe a case was just what they needed.

'No file?' he asked, the closest thing to acquiescence that Mycroft would ever get from him, and at least there was some delight to be found in surprising his older brother for the second time in five minutes.

'The issue is sensitive,' Mycroft replied after a moment's hesitation. 'Efforts at quiet containment have failed, and it has reached the point that urgency must over-rule stealth.'

'You have a leak,' Sherlock deduced, seeing the story written all over his brother, from the faint hints in his controlled posture – defensive and betrayed – to the tightness around his eyes indicating exhaustion and annoyance. It may not have been Mycroft personally who had failed, but the sick reflection of it was cast in his face for all to see – if they took the time to observe.

'It is not merely a case of government information being handed to the press: a cause of embarrassment and nothing more. Someone is selling secrets. So far, what has been revealed is –' His fingers shifted on the umbrella handle, a brief skitter of a dance that screamed volumes about Mycroft's discomfort. ' – of no real consequence. Certainly nothing that might impact on national security.'

'But you think it's going to get worse,' John cut in. 'Isn't this the kind of thing you normally handle internally – officially?'

'Too slow,' Sherlock explained, 'and too visible. You think you know who the leak is, but catching them is not as significant as finding the buyer for the information. That's your real target.'

'An official investigation by the British government would lead to strained relations with several of our allies,' Mycroft admitted. 'We need to be certain we are in possession of all the facts before levelling charges of espionage against any of the world's nations.'

Sherlock sighed, reading between the lines with ease. International significance meant diplomats, or possibly relatives of the same. Therein lay a thorny mess of immunity and potential corruption. 'Whom do you suspect? Confederacy with the nation must already be uncomfortable if you have not maintained trusted contacts in their embassy.'

'Argentina,' Mycroft replied, his smile mirthless. 'The mess with the Falklands, you know. Besides, one thing to remember about diplomats is that their loyalty is firstly to themselves, and secondly to their country. “Trusted” is not a word I would apply to any of them.'

The urge to roll his eyes was almost overwhelming, but Sherlock managed to restrain himself. This was precisely why he was so resistant to Mycroft's offers of a job. The contrived intrigues of the political stage held no interest for him. It was not a puzzle but a game with no winner, and what was the point of that?

'I'll need everything you have on both your suspected leak and the members of the Argentinian diplomatic corps. If you haven't put together a file, make one. I'll try and find the identity of the buyer.'

'And proof,' Mycroft added, lifting his chin when Sherlock pulled a face. 'Enough to convince my superiors that official action is necessary. You'll be compensated, naturally.' The umbrella tapped on the floor, just once, a punctuated sound in the calm of the flat. 'Do be careful, Sherlock. One thing that has not made itself clear is the scale of this situation. We have been unable to discern whether it is a personal profiteering racket, or something with roots in more organised criminal elements.'

'So you could be throwing your own brother to the wolves?' John challenged, shifting where he stood.

'I am leaving him in your capable hands, as always, John,' Mycroft replied, cool and crisp. 'I trust you to ensure no harm comes to Sherlock or yourself. It's merely legwork.'

'Of course it is,' Sherlock muttered in reply, allowing sarcasm to underline his words. 'And if we make a mistake? What then? Do you deny all knowledge of our existence?'

'Not exactly.' Mycroft sniffed, but Sherlock caught the flicker of a smile on John's lips, apparently pleased that Sherlock had remembered something from those ghastly films John so enjoyed. 'Assistance will be offered, in an unofficial capacity. However, do try not to get caught, won't you? Starting a war would be dreadfully inconvenient.' Mycroft glanced at his watch before turning away. 'I'll send my assistant over with the relevant documentation. I look forward to hearing what you find. No, don't worry, John. I will show myself out.'

Sherlock watched Mycroft go, hearing the stride of his feet down the stairs and the sound of the door swinging securely back into place. What Mycroft had given him to go on, out loud at least, was inadequate by all standards, but already his mind was beginning to turn, working on the meagre facts and following the silken strands of possibility through to their conclusions.

Dimly, he became aware of John moving around in the kitchen, going through the process of making tea. However, there was no ease in the familiar routine. Instead he could almost hear the vibrato tension resonating through John as if he were a violin string, newly plucked. Every half-step and sweep of his hand was sharp and restrained, and his profile looked painfully tense.

'Problem?' Sherlock asked, moving so that he was standing behind John, right at the precipice of the boundary of personal space. He saw the flinch – John had not heard him move – but it was about surprise rather than threat.

'Not exactly our normal kind of case, is it?' John asked. 'Solving murders is one thing, but this?'

'We've assisted my brother with government matters before,' Sherlock pointed out. 'Besides, regardless of what Mycroft says, this is far more likely to be a matter of personal gain for one of the diplomatic attaché than an international incident.'

'It could still cause one, though.' John poured boiling water into the mugs, letting the tea bags steep. He was staring blankly at the kitchen work surface rather than meeting Sherlock's gaze, his shoulders hunched and unforgiving. Every line of his body screamed his uncertainty, and Sherlock fought against the urge to reach out and touch, to trail his fingers over the hair-dusted nape of John's neck in an effort to soothe. Such a gesture would probably be utterly unwelcome, yet restraint was more of a challenge than Sherlock would have liked.

'All we have to do is identify the buyer. It's easy money,' Sherlock promised, knowing that the simple facts would appeal to John's more practical side. 'It's unusual for you to be so concerned.' There was a healthy dose of truth in those words. John faced down every threat that came their way with a steady hand on his gun and grim determination locked in his expression. This hesitance was uncomfortably abnormal.

'It's not like you to help Mycroft without a fight, either.' The statement was quiet, a barely-there susurration, not quite an accusation but almost. 'I don't – you're not –' John waved a helpless hand before finally meeting his gaze, blue eyes darkened with hurt as he gestured to Sherlock. 'You're not behaving like yourself. Ever since you got that, that thing – everything’s just been...' John trailed off, shaking his head and pursing his lips tight as if he wished he had never spoken in the first place.

'John?'

'Nothing.' John grabbed a spoon, rescuing the teabags and flicking them into the sink with unnecessary force before adding milk to his own tea and leaving Sherlock's sitting on the counter. 'Forget it.'

For a moment, they stared at each other, Sherlock gleaning all he could while John stood, rigid like a creature about to bolt. Yet before he could part his lips, deny John's request and push the issue, a knock at the door cut through the flat. Mycroft's assistant. No doubt she had already compiled a file before Mycroft's meeting with them.

John put down his tea and bolted from the room, leaving Sherlock to glare at the steam that curled innocently from the mug's rim as he baffled through his flatmate's behaviour. Normally, John was an open book, a man of straightforward emotion, cause and effect. Yet this, whatever it was, seemed to have no rhyme or reason. Sherlock felt like he was missing part of the puzzle, blind to something that others might find obvious, and the sensation plagued him relentlessly.

The sound of John's footsteps on the stairs made him glance over at the doorway, seeing him re-emerge with a slim, manilla file in his hands. He held it out, meeting Sherlock's eyes for a second before glancing away again, mute and slumped as if he were weighed down by some inner conflict that Sherlock could not comprehend.

With a huff, Sherlock pursed his lips tight, taking the documents and flicking open the covers. At least this he could understand. The cut and thrust of the criminal mind was straightforward when compared with the mess of John's current temperament.

Perhaps the case would help them to regain their equilibrium. By the time it was done, maybe John would be himself again, reassured and certain in the familiar flush of victory. If not, then Sherlock would have to bend his mind to unravelling the mystery of John's behaviour.

Somehow, for the first time in his life, he doubted he would have much success.

******

The comfortable weight of the Browning nestled against the base of John's spine, the metal warm from his body heat and growing slick from the anxious sweat that dewed his back. His fingers twitched at his side, longing to have the weapon in his grasp, but there was no threat – nothing to shoot – just the lingering tension that had bloomed when Mycroft gave Sherlock this case two days ago and had been growing ever since.

He could not put his finger on what made him so uneasy, though he had his suspicions. Before now, Sherlock had been a known quantity: unpredictable, yes, but someone whom John could rely on one hundred percent.

Now, that had changed. It was stupid, John knew that and berated himself for his behaviour on an hourly basis, but the initial seeds of doubt had grown into a forest, dense and choking. What had been a funny situation, a “Why would you do that?” over a piercing, had become a briar of deep-seated, dank misgivings. With every day that passed, the off-balance feeling had only increased, leaving John flailing around helplessly, two steps behind and fucking useless.

'Focus,' Sherlock whispered, his lips shaping the air next to John's ear. His breath tickled the nape of John's neck, and he could feel the press of Sherlock's body against his as they waited, hunkered down in the shadows outside the Ambassador's residence. The wings of Sherlock's coat were parted, half-hiding the pair of them in their spread, and John closed his eyes for a moment, trying to ground himself in the presence of the known: Sherlock's heat and scent, the slow pace of every breath. At least those fundamentals were unchanged.

In fact, in many ways, the past couple of days had been like a salve to his concerns. Sherlock on a case was quintessential: the Consulting Detective through-and-through. It was familiar in every way, from the bite of his words when interrogating suspects and informants to the brilliant focus of that exquisite mind.

It was only in quieter moments, like this, that John's hesitance returned full force, bringing all its instability with it.

'We need to get to the second-floor. The son's office. That's where we'll find our proof,' Sherlock murmured, pointing out one of the many darkened windows. They were around the back of the grounds, waiting for their moment. The guards had changed forty minutes ago, and their first survey of the perimeter would soon come to an end.

'Are you sure it's empty?' John whispered. 'What about the security system?'

'Unlikely. It's a residence. They're not expecting trouble. Two soldiers and no dogs. It's not exactly the Bank of England.'

'You'd think they'd have more,' John pointed out, taking a steady breath as Sherlock shifted away.

'Maybe they did, once. However, if the son is selling secrets then the father is probably also involved. Reduced security means fewer unexpected witnesses.'

John nodded, following in Sherlock's ghostly footsteps. He still wanted the gun in his hand, but he knew the plan. If caught outside the house, they could pretend to be innocent, drunk maybe, lost in one of London's better residential areas. A weapon would make that story look more dubious. It was only once they were inside that their culpability made the risk of being caught with an unlicensed firearm in his hand worthwhile.

He hovered in the shadows, watching Sherlock check the seam of the back door before taking out his picks. At John's raised eyebrow, Sherlock sighed. 'The blueprints said no alarms, but they could be out of date. These houses are specifically designed for the ambassadors by the government, and they are permitted to add their own security measures.'

'Have they?'

Sherlock's shoulders moved in an eloquent shrug. 'Probably not.'

John swore under his breath, but a grin played on his lips, brought to life by the thud of his heart and the tension in his muscles. His hands were rock steady as his gaze swept the grounds, checking and checking again for anything that might pose a threat. Yet the garden was bare of anything unnatural, perfectly sculpted and deserted in the crepuscular gloom. Only the street-lamps beyond the high boundary wall cast any shadows. They were alone.

The click of the tumblers announced the lock's defeat, and John crept in after Sherlock, at last tugging the Browning free as they inched forward. No lights gleamed in the corners to indicate an alarm, and the details of the house were lost in the gloom. Silhouettes of expensive furnishings drifted past as they made their breathless, silent way through the hall and up the stairs. Deep rugs muffled the tread of John's boots, and he wet his lips, keeping himself hunched and hunkered, ready to aim and fire if necessary.

Sherlock's leather gloves gleamed in the sparse illumination as he gestured off to the right, leading the way as if he had lived in this house all his life. Another few seconds with the lock picks made quick work of the office door, and John straightened up as they slipped inside.

'What are we looking for?'

'Any communication to indicate that it's the son selling information, as well as anything that could suggest to whom it is being passed.'

'You don't think his own government's feeling the benefit?'

'According to his bank statements, he is being paid. Argentinian officials are unlikely to offer compensation in such obvious, material terms.' Sherlock checked the desk, sliding free drawers and rifling through their contents before turning to the PC. John kept one eye on the door as he skimmed along shelves, checking between books for hidden sheaves before examining a squat filing cabinet.

Sherlock gave a grunt of surprise, and John glanced over to see him tilt a vial of something towards the meek glow from the window before slipping it into his pocket. 'Heroin I believe. Could be telling.'

John made a mental note to make sure that was removed from Sherlock's person and handed in to the police before he whispered, 'What makes you so sure it's not the ambassador himself selling the information?'

The reply was instantaneous. 'Plausible deniability. Diplomatic immunity will protect both of them from prosecution, but that may be revoked if the Argentinian government are not the ones receiving the leaked documents. I wouldn't be surprised if the father put the idea into the son's head, but the ambassador will want to make sure it can't be tracked to him. His position is too lucrative to be put at risk.'

'Mercenary,' John murmured.

'Par for the course.' Sherlock sucked in a breath, and John saw the glow of the screen bathing his pale skin, making him seem unearthly in the surrounding gloom. 'Got him.'

The sound of the front door made them both jolt, their eyes meeting in a shared moment of horror. 'I thought they weren't coming back for hours?' John hissed, watching Sherlock slot in a USB stick and start to copy the relevant files, his fingers moving with quick competence despite the gloves. 'Mycroft's meant to be keeping them busy at that – that fund-raising thing.'

'Gala,' Sherlock corrected, shaking his head. 'Thousands of guests and, despite what he thinks, Mycroft does not have eyes everywhere. Something must have changed.' He frowned, clearly staring at nothing in particular, and John realised he was listening to the sounds downstairs, attempting to distinguish the level of the threat.

John held his breath, trying to do the same. He could hear the murmur of a voice, one-sided, maybe a phone conversation. The language sounded a bit like Spanish. The sharp tap of footsteps echoed across the bare wood floor of the hall before they were muffled by a rug.

For a moment, John's heart lifted, thinking the odds were in their favour. If whoever was down there was alone... Dread hollowed out his stomach as other, slower strides joined in, walking in the steady rhythm of those employed to always be two paces behind. The echoes made it difficult to distinguish how many there were, and he glanced over to see Sherlock's lips twitch in a grimace.

Whoever was on the phone was becoming angry, their voice growing louder as their ire increased. John braced his feet, keeping his head cocked as he listened to determine whether anyone was approaching them. He and Sherlock had been careful: no lights left on, no doors left open. Only the slack locks in their wake suggested anything was amiss. Perhaps if they were lucky, they would go unnoticed.

His gaze drifted towards the window, but a quick shake of the head from Sherlock scattered any half-formed ideas about jumping from the second storey. Too much chance of injury, probably. So instead they were stuck here, backed into a corner with the only way out blocked by an unknown number of hostiles.

Wonderful.

A flicker from the computer screen made John blink, and he saw Sherlock pull the USB stick free, hiding it from sight as he turned off the computer and moved silently to John's side. Now both of them were standing to the right of the door, tense and waiting as, below them, the scene unfolded by the minute.

'Do you understand what he's saying?' John breathed, shifting his grip on the Browning.

'Some. It seems like Mycroft's leak should have dropped off some more information at the gala tonight, then changed their mind. Wants a meeting elsewhere. He came back here to make a call to the buyer using a secured line.'

The creak of one of the stairs made them both stiffen. John squared his shoulders, tightening his finger on the trigger as he braced himself. How long did they have before they were found? A minute? Less?

'Leave it!' someone ordered, their English flawless in a way that spoke of a private school education on British soil. 'We have places to be.'

Whoever was being spoken to gave no reply. They simply obeyed, which told John all he needed to know. Bodyguard. Anyone involved in house security would have put the integrity of the building first, but whoever was down there had one job, and that was to protect the man who had given the order.

The sound of the front door closing banged through the house before the grumble of a car engine announced their departure. They waited, listening for the hiss of tyres on the gravel driveway to fade before, at last, they were alone.

'It's the son,' Sherlock supplied. 'The father has a strong accent and has smoked a packet a day for the past thirty years.'

'It could be someone else, someone not involved with the family?' John suggested, but Sherlock was already shaking his head. 'How do you know?'

'Too familiar with the layout of this place, and too authoritative to be staff of some description. They were neither hesitant nor stealthy, which means they feel they have a right to be here, so it's one of the ambassador's family, and everyone but the father and son are female.' Sherlock's fingers reached out, tweaking John's cuff in silent urging. 'Come on. We have what we need.'

He followed Sherlock's lead, the gun still out and ready, just in case anyone had stayed behind. However, the house was silent around them, mausoleum-calm as they inched down the stairs and back out the way they had come. The cool night air brushed John's face in welcome, turning the faint line of sweat at his hairline icy as they lingered in the shadows of the house.

Sherlock glanced at his phone, checking the time before giving a nod. Together, they crept forward, clinging to the thicket of gloom amidst the shrubbery as they edged closer to the wall that marked the boundary between the residential garden and the grime of the city beyond.

With every moment, John expected a shout of alarm to disturb the peace, but none came. Instead there was only London's night pressing down around them as they reached the narrow, solid panel of the reinforced steel door set in the wall. It was the same way they had come in – a back entrance secured by pin-code rather than guards. John had not bothered to ask how Sherlock knew the combination, and now he watched as it was repeated, the buttons sinking into place before they could step out onto the pavement.

The click of a gun's safety hammer being snapped back sounded like the bite of a steel trap, agonisingly close to John's ear. Every muscle stiffened, braced to whip around and attack, but the brief kiss of cool metal at his temple held him motionless.

John barely took in the three black-suited men, nor the fourth in contrasting white. Instead his gaze went straight to Sherlock, his heart sinking like a stone at what he saw.

He stood, apparently at ease, his hands spread and empty in the face of one simple threat: a pistol, its safety off and its muzzle pressed to the narrow span of flesh between those pale eyes.

Shit.

Chapter Text

Sherlock clenched his jaw, his hands raised and his palms spread: inevitable surrender. The gun pointing at the bare skin between his brow was a mere annoyance. However, seeing John at his side with the grim, black line of a weapon pressed to the fragile vault of his skull was enough to send a buzzing tide of adrenaline prickling across Sherlock’s flesh, itching and feral.

'Drop it,' a polished voice ordered, the command directed at John. For a split-second, there was hesitation: a brief consideration of possible options, but Sherlock saw the thug push his weapon against John's head in emphasis. Grudgingly, he restored the safety hammer to its home before the Browning's metal form clattered to the pavement.

Quickly, Sherlock took in their captors. There were three bodyguards: the one aiming at John's head was marked by a pitted scar at his cheekbone, another had a poorly-healed broken nose and the third was more slender than his compatriots, sharp-eyed and twitching. Unfortunately, he was the one with the Bersa pistol wavering back and forth in front of Sherlock's face.

They were too ragged to be professional bodyguards, and the next most obvious conclusion filled Sherlock's mind from edge-to-edge: mercenaries. Perhaps he could put that to use. When protection was about money rather than loyalty, corruption was never out of the question.

With a slow blink, he let his gaze slide past the thugs to settle on Marcello Rosso, the ambassador's son. He was elegantly clad in a white tuxedo, not a thread out of place as he fixed Sherlock with a twist of a smile. His dark hair was artfully ruffled, falling over his brow. His skin was tanned by a touch of genetics but he had been too long out of the Argentinian sun, giving his colour an unhealthy, sallow edge. Wealthy, he was obviously educated in England's finest schools, and not as young as Sherlock had expected. The man was probably only a few years Sherlock's junior, and the sharpness of his eyes suggested that there was a mature mind to match. That would make him harder to fool: not ideal.

'The great Sherlock Holmes. I have been expecting some interference from the British government, but I have to admit your presence is a surprise. A bit amateurish, all this, don't you think?' Rosso spread his hands, indicating the residence grounds and the break-in as a whole. 'Empty his pockets.'

Broken-nose stepped forwards, his fingers shifting through Sherlock's clothing with ease, removing his phone, picks and other sundries. The initial hope that the search would be superficial faded as his coat was peeled away, cast aside like so many rags before his jacket and trousers were checked. Hot fingers against his thigh through the lining of his pocket made him twitch, but he kept his face impassive at the clumsy grope that followed, intimate and rough. One of those types.

John was given the same treatment, and Sherlock fought not to let his splayed hands clench into fists as a flicker of a pained snarl crossed John's face. Broken-nose had his predilections, but as distasteful as they were, Sherlock ferreted the gem of knowledge away in his mind. Perhaps it would come in useful, later.

When he was done, both Sherlock and John were left without their coats, and any objects of interest were passed to Rosso. They did not, Sherlock noticed, blank-faced, include the USB stick, which was still safely secreted away in the small compartment sewn in the fold of his jacket collar. Broken-nose had been more intent on concealment around the groin, and the nape of Sherlock's neck had remained unexamined – as he had hoped. It was all very cloak-and-dagger. Mycroft would probably approve.

Rosso glanced at the vial of drugs, tipping the viscous fluid back and forth within its prison. 'This –' he murmured, his full lips stretching in a chilling smile, 'was not what I expected to find on your person, Mr Holmes. I find it hard to believe that you risked an international incident for such paltry evidence of wrongdoing.'

'Should I have been looking for something else?' Sherlock murmured, allowing his gaze to flutter away, checking for security cameras. There were none visible nearby, but Sherlock knew his brother too well to believe that this place was not under surveillance. As unwilling as he was to rely on Mycroft for a rescue attempt – he would be unbearably smug about it – he could feel his options slipping away. He and John were outnumbered and out-gunned, and Rosso's immunity made him confident. As long as he was under the protection of the consulate, he could literally get away with murder.

'Please don't,' Rosso demanded, stepping closer and filling Sherlock's nose with the scent of expensive cologne, a hint of coffee and – interesting – a faint tang of pine resin. 'For a man of your calibre to deliberately misrepresent his intelligence is practically criminal in itself.'

'You seem to know a lot about me.'

The same smile made another appearance, fake and falsely reassuring. 'I make it my business to know key players within this city. Any enterprising individual is wise not to rule you out of the equation. I have to admit, though, that when Beric here,' He gestured to the one with the scar, whose entire focus was on John, 'noticed that the back door was unlocked, I thought I would be facing a British agent, rather than a private detective and his colleague.'

Rosso said that last word with nothing but sharp edges and disdain, and Sherlock felt a chill work its way down his spine. Of the two of them, John was the more expendable in their captors' eyes: little but an extra pair of hands to hold a gun. The temptation to shift and block him from their scrutiny was intense enough to make the muscles in his thighs ache, but he stifled it. To do so would indicate John was potential leverage. It might spare his life, for a while, but it could also make him the target for any persuasive efforts. No, better that Sherlock keep the attention focussed solely on him.

'I doubt a British agent would have been able to uncover the particulars. You were waiting for your contact – female, approximately five-foot seven, black hair, dyed: there's a strand on your lapel where she leaned in to whisper that a new location was necessary.' Sherlock allowed his gaze to flicker, looking beyond the immediate danger and taking in every detail.

'You were at the gala at Kew Gardens, but well outside the specified zone for the festivities, judging by the Wollemi pine sap on your jacket. Those trees are native to New Zealand. Not common in London.' Sherlock's lips twitched as he saw the slack slide of emotion from Rosso's face. Perfect. Perhaps he could not get them to forget John all together, but maybe this would be enough to delay the realisation that he was of little use to them.

'The amber crystals in the vial of heroin speak volumes for the provenance of the drug: part of your payment for the information you're giving to the suppliers. Columbian, not Argentinian. Either members of the Los Rastrojos or Norte De Valle cartels, or what remains of them.'

Sherlock sensed, rather than saw, John's horrified amusement. He could practically hear the man mentally reminding him of the pistols trained on them both. 'I doubt your government will be happy with you. Not exactly patriotic, is it, choosing to benefit yourself?'

Rosso drew in a breath: a sharp, sudden sound through his perfectly capped teeth. Gone was the grin and the confidence. Instead his face had taken on a pale tinge. 'If the officials had proof, I would already have been arrested. You are bluffing.'

'Can you be sure?' Sherlock asked, seeing the way forward become clear. Escape was unlikely, at least here. His and John's best hope was a more concrete hostage situation: one where Rosso was too unsure to kill them outright. 'Are you willing to risk it? I'm not certain who you should fear more, the British government, the Argentinians or the cartels when they find out you've given them nothing of use.' There: a shadow of fear, a glimmer of something dark and uncertain that Sherlock could feed. 'I doubt it will be pleasant.'

'I could kill you now,' Rosso suggested, tipping his head to one side. It should have looked sinister, but the trace of sweat on his upper lip gave away his panic. 'Your insights would get no further.'

Sherlock merely stared at him, his expression one of mocking amusement. 'What then? If either of us vanish, then our employers will know that we were onto something; they'll give you no peace. You won't be able to supply the cartels or gain your drug of choice. How long do you think you'll last before someone, somewhere, decides you're too much of a liability?'

They stood there, a frozen tableau on a quiet London street. A sleek black car with Argentinian flags on the bonnet was parked like a sentinel at the kerb. There was no sound but the hum of London and, in front of him, the loose, shaking rattle of the Bersa in the thin thug's hand. Not fear, Sherlock realised, seeing the pupil dilation, but poor coordination from withdrawal. He was the weak link in the chain, the easy target, but also the most unpredictable.

'Get them out of here!' Rosso snapped, flicking his fingers towards the car. 'Make sure they're secure until you hear otherwise. And Willis? Keep your hands to yourself.' Rosso glanced at Sherlock and John like someone measuring up pieces of meat. 'For now, anyway.'

The one who had groped Sherlock looked dissatisfied at the order, but he grudgingly obeyed. With a quick jab, he slipped the sterling needle of a syringe into John's neck. There was no time to flinch as the scarred one did the same to Sherlock: a sharp, graceless bite followed by the swim of the drug through his bloodstream.

He just had time to see John being man-handled into the vehicle, pitched carelessly onto the back seat like a sack of potatoes, before the world began to darken. His arms and legs did not want to move, and his snarl went unheeded as he was grabbed and dragged, then slammed down on top of John.

Desperately, he attempted to focus his mind – to fight off the chemical storm that crackled through him and think. John's eyes were unfocussed slits, and his breathing sounded ragged. Not unconscious, not yet, but Sherlock doubted it would be long for either of them. He tried to kick, to lash out at something he could punish, but a hard blow to the back of his head was his only reward.

A gush of blood, hot pain, John's slurred shout of alarm.

Darkness.

*****

John grunted as his bad shoulder hit the concrete floor of the makeshift cell. His hands were clamped behind his back in cuffs: solid, brutish things formed of one piece of metal. There was no flex in them, and he clenched his teeth as they pinched the tender skin at his wrists. Still, the pain was barely felt, staved off by the ebbing flow of the drug and the bursting, pulsing rush of adrenaline through his body.

The black car had taken them for miles through city streets. With Sherlock unconscious and bloody on top of him, he had done his best to memorise twists and turns, but his head was too foggy from whatever had been in the syringe – some kind of paralytic, maybe. In the end all of his focus had been driven down to the high, keening litany of fear for Sherlock.

It had been a hard blow, delivered, John suspected, by the man with a broken nose: Willis, who took every opportunity to let his hands wander. John knew the type. It was not about gender or appearance, but power. He liked to have it when others didn't, and he enjoyed making the most of it. John could only hope that the orders from the smarmy git in the white tux would be enough to make him think twice.

Rolling onto his side, he winced as Sherlock was hauled in next to him and dropped like a rag doll onto the thankless stone floor. John bared his teeth, snarling at the two men who stepped into the room. Bodyguard was not the right word for them, for all that they looked the part. Both were probably ex-military, ex-convict types. The one with the scar was Eastern European, if John had to guess. Willis, who was currently kneeling at Sherlock's side with a hungry look on his face, could have been from anywhere. Generic but for the foul gleam in his gaze.

'Leave him alone!' John snapped, not even flinching as bland hazel eyes lifted to meet his own. Slowly, deliberately, the man ran his finger along the column of Sherlock's throat, cupping his hand across the delicate frontage before his grasp flexed tight, digging in enough to bruise and choke Sherlock's next breath.

'Stop, Willis.' The one with the scar – Beric, John remembered – spoke without volume or anger. He sounded bored, his words tilted with a hint of an accent. 'Later.'

Willis glared but relinquished his grip, his eyes turning hard and flat as he straightened up and followed the other one out of the door. It slammed behind them, the bolts on the other side grinding home with sick finality.

John let out the breath locked in his chest, hissing a string of curses as he tried to prop his aching body up on one elbow. The room they were in was utterly bare. No windows, no latrine but for a tiny square drain in the middle of the floor; it was just a box with a solid metal door, cold and forbidding. Light came from a single bulb above their heads, too high to reach even if he stood on Sherlock's shoulders.

Not that such a thing was even possible, not with Sherlock out of it.

Grimly, John edged closer, forcing strangely elastic muscles to work. His legs were still free – maybe next time the door opened he would be coordinated enough to kick someone in the face – but his hands were useless, pinned as they were. Eventually, he managed to get onto his knees, controlled enough to lean over Sherlock and examine the back of his head.

Blood clotted in those dark curls, already drying into a scabbed mess. Good, at least that meant the flow had stopped, but John could still remember the sharp, hard crack of metal against Sherlock's skull. It had not been a little tap, but a powerful blow. At best he could be concussed. At worst...

'God, don't think about that,' John whispered to himself, shutting his eyes and pursing his lips before bending closer, trying to hear Sherlock's breathing. It sounded steady and normal despite Willis' threat. Sherlock was still in his suit jacket, the collar stained with drops of blood and the buttons strained where his hands were pulled behind his back and cuffed, just like John's. He was half on his side, close enough to the recovery position at least, but John would be far happier if Sherlock would open his eyes – would deduce and think and plot their way out of this mess.

'Sherlock, can you hear me?' John whispered, not wanting his voice to carry. He had no idea if their captors were on the other side of the door or somewhere else in the building. He'd caught a glimpse of a shadowy, dis-used factory-space of some kind as they were manhandled through. No doubt if Sherlock had been awake he would have known their location in an instant, but with only John's observations, they had nothing to go on.

Minutes passed, and John forced himself to be grateful for the light above his head. At least he could still see, and he measured out the seconds on the visible throb of a pulse in Sherlock's carotid artery, just above the thumb-print Willis had left behind. The bruise was only red at the moment, but it would darken soon enough, and John found himself glaring at the blemish as if he could will it away. His focus meant he did not notice when Sherlock's heartbeat picked up, or the flutter of those dark eyelashes. It was only when that deep voice caught on a hoarse groan of discomfort that John realised Sherlock was coming around.

'Easy,' he urged, wishing he could reach out and press him back to the floor, or smooth his hair away from his brow, or check that damn skull of his for fractures. Instead he could only watch as Sherlock tried to move his arms and failed, his groan becoming a grunt of annoyance as he took in their situation.

It did not take long for that familiar brilliance to return, and John felt the tight bands of concern that had clenched around his guts start to slacken. Brain injuries were tricky, but for all that he looked pale and pained, Sherlock went from barely awake to fully conscious without any difficulty. John could practically see the gears of that mighty mind re-engaging and revving up to top speed.

'Tell me everything,' Sherlock demanded, his voice hoarse. Perhaps Willis had applied more pressure than John had realised.

'In a minute,' he promised. 'What hurts? Any blurred vision? Nausea?'

Sherlock sighed, levering himself into a sitting position with one bony elbow. There was no hiding his dizzy sway, but within the space of a few heartbeats, he had shuffled back towards the wall, propping himself up in the vee of the corner and folding his legs. It made him look less strained, and John struggled over to his side, trying not to topple and smash his face against the floor as he attempted to sit.

'I'm fine,' Sherlock said eventually, rolling his eyes and looking as if he regretted the motion when John glared. 'Some disorientation and dizziness. The pain is more percussive than pressurised.'

'That doesn't mean anything,' John pointed out before leaning his head back with a sigh. His muscles were aching now; his neck throbbed where the needle had sunk into it, and his mouth felt pasty and disgusting. 'We need to get you out of here. Get it clean if nothing else.'

'Then start talking,' Sherlock ordered. 'Try not to leave anything out. The smallest detail you were able to observe could aid in our escape.'

John blinked his gritty eyes at the ceiling, hauling in a deep breath of chill, foetid air through his nose before he began to speak, his voice grating over the words. 'We drove for ages. Mostly through the middle of the city from what I could tell. I kept wondering why no one saw into the car, until I remembered the windows were tinted. I tried to remember the turns we took but –' He shook his head, rolling his aching shoulders. 'I was too out of it.'

He closed his eyes, trying to focus on the slow, oozing slide of his hazy memories. 'They didn't say anything. The partition was kept down so that they could watch us, but neither of them spoke a word. The one called Beric drove. He kept struggling with the gears.'

'Used to using an automatic. He's not the normal driver.'

'Does that matter?' John asked, glancing over to see Sherlock shrug. He was moving his jaw a little, as if biting back words, or possibly just thinking, and John looked away again. 'I saw the clock when they dragged us out. Gone midnight. It looks like we're in an old factory or something. Lots of abandoned machinery. That's all I got.'

He expected Sherlock to grill him for more information, or at least say something about the dearth of data, but his brief monologue was met with silence. A minute later, Sherlock turned his head and spat, sending something small and metallic bouncing across the floor before it vanished into the tight angle of the opposite corner.

'What was that?' John asked, wondering if the blow had knocked loose a filling, but no, Sherlock took brilliant care of his teeth, so what –? 'Was that part of your piercing? God, it's not ripped or something, has it?'

Sherlock gave a grunt, neither one of confirmation nor denial, and John forced himself to focus. There was no obvious blood around Sherlock's lips, and he did not look as if his mouth was causing him pain. Instead his eyes were narrowed in concentration, his mouth pressing and flexing.

A minute later, he looked speculatively at the drain. John had no idea what was running through his friend's mind, and he watched as Sherlock tipped his head back before shuffling forward, leaving a space between the wall and his spine. Another quick, dry spit, and John caught the gleam of something bright as it shot up and over Sherlock's crown before disappearing behind him.

'What the hell are you doing?' John asked, wondering if his friend's skull was more damaged than he had first thought.

'Getting us out of here,' Sherlock replied, the smooth flow of his words hushed and intent. Now it was his shoulders that were moving: subtle, uncomfortable little twists that went on for several minutes before, abruptly, there was a metallic clicking sound. Another followed about forty-seconds later, and Sherlock yanked his hands free, pulling his wrists, raw and a little bloody, from the slack-jawed grasp of the loose cuffs.

'What –?' John managed, feeling as if this entire situation was getting away from him. 'How did you –?'

'Turn around,' Sherlock ordered, quickly working on John's restraints. They fell apart more swiftly than Sherlock's, opening like a flower in bloom so that John could peel them away. As soon as he was free, John grabbed Sherlock's hand and stared at the small object captured in between his thumb and forefinger.

Abruptly, he realised what it was, and the entire world snapped back into sharp focus. Not just the cell and their situation, but the man in front of him. The genius, brilliant, breath-taking creature, who never did anything without good reason. It felt like a weight John had not known he'd been carrying around suddenly lifted away.

'A lock pick,' he breathed, turning Sherlock's wrist so that the light gleamed off the pin. It was unmistakably part of the bar that had been through Sherlock's tongue, but rather than a screw thread, this had more obvious crenelations at its tip. When in situ, they would be covered by the ball end of the jewellery, which in turn would be held in place by what looked like an unusual clip fastening system within the thread-ball complex. However, now its ultimate purpose was clear.

'Handcuffs are easy to pick,' Sherlock explained with a shrug, his head ducked close to John's so that their brows were almost touching. 'With enough time it can be done with a paper-clip, hair-grip, anything like that. However, all but the most amateurish captors will empty pockets and remove any potential items that could be put to such use.'

'But how many bother to look inside your mouth?' John murmured, understanding flowing through his mind like ice water, bright and cleansing. 'Amazing.' The praise spilt forth without a thought, as natural as his heartbeat, and he saw the twitch of Sherlock's lips – a little half smile as if he was ashamed of his own pleasure.

'We're not out of here yet,' he pointed out, indicating without words the walls that still hemmed them in and the threat that lingered just beyond the door, waiting to bring pain back into their lives.

Perhaps it should have scared him, but John could only smile. All those stupid, pointless doubts that had accumulated over the past couple of months were fading away, leaving him steady in their wake. Where he had been questioning every single one of Sherlock's actions and motives, he now found only certainty, and John lifted his chin, meeting that pale gaze.

'You'll think of a way to get us out,' he replied, letting his conviction underline his words. 'You always do.'

******

John's faith was absolute, and Sherlock was surprised to feel his own relief. He had not consciously realised that their steady, easy trust had faltered until it reappeared between them, strong and bright. Part of him wanted to question what had happened, to try and understand John in all of his stunning, unexpected complexity, but logic intervened. There would be time to ask questions later, back at Baker Street, but first he had to get them out of here.

Slipping the piercing bar into his pocket, he crept across the floor to retrieve the ball. There was no point leaving it behind when he had the time to recover it. 'You told me what you saw,' he said, keeping his voice low. 'Now what about what you heard; what you could smell? Car engines, exhaust, the river?'

John got to his feet, those capable hands moving over his arms to restore the circulation before he approached. Sherlock took the opportunity to check him over, looking for signs of injury or discomfort, but John seemed unharmed as his fingers wrapped around Sherlock's shoulders. Gentle pressure urged him to turn, and he realised that his head was being treated to a make-shift examination as John began to speak. 'It was raining by the time we arrived. All I could smell was engine oil and dust. Nothing from outside.'

Pain sparked across Sherlock's head, and he could not stifle the faint hiss that escaped him. John's murmured apology was heavy with sincerity, and his hands rested on either side of the wound, not probing or testing, but cradling the curve of Sherlock's brutalised skull as if it were the most precious thing in the world. 'It looks worse than it is, I think. No obvious breaks.' His fingers lingered a moment longer before he stepped away, taking his warmth with him as he cleared his throat. 'So what’s the plan?'

Sherlock pursed his lips, wishing it were that simple. There was the general objective of escape, of course, but there were too many unknowns to form more concrete aims. 'We need to get out of this room,' he replied at last, blunt and to the point as he moved towards the door. 'We can't do anything while we're stuck in here.'

The cool kiss of the metal panel burned as he pressed his ear to the surface, trying to discern anything beyond. At first, he could only make out silence, but then something – the shift of someone's weight, a rustle of fabric – rewarded his concentration. He held up one finger to John, seeing understanding cement his expression.

Stepping back, he closed the distance between them so that he could bend his head and whisper in John's ear, making sure no sound travelled beyond to whoever may be on the other side. 'Just one guard. If we can take him by surprise, then the odds are more in our favour.'

'How are we going to do that?' John hissed, turning to meet Sherlock's gaze, their noses almost brushing. 'There's no lock. It's bolted from the outside.'

'You would need proper picks to undo anything of significant size anyway,' Sherlock explained dismissively, tightening his fingers gently on John's arm. 'Does the door open outwards?'

There was a short silence, and Sherlock knew uncertainty when it painted its portrait across John's face. He was biting his lip, bleaching the pink skin beneath the pressure as he turned to look at the door in question. 'I think it goes both ways,' he said. 'I don't remember which way they opened it. Sorry.'

He shook his head, dismissing the apology. John had probably been too focussed on their captors and Sherlock's unconscious form to take note. 'Never mind. Stand in the middle of the floor, hands behind your back and call out. There's no way they can check what's going on without opening the door. Whoever is on the other side will step into the room when they see you and not me.'

'Where are you going to be?' John asked, scowling and folding his arms. 'And how come I'm the one asking for help? You do it.'

'If you call out, they will assume I am still unconscious, giving us an advantage,' he replied in a whisper as he pressed himself to the wall at the side of the door. 'Play up my head injury; it's a pre-fabricated and believable problem.'

John looked anything but certain, his face fixed in an unhappy mask. 'Whoever it is will have their gun drawn,' he warned. 'These aren't some muggers in an alley, Sherlock.'

'No, they are both ex-military by more than ten years, spending some of the intervening time as mercenaries before finding themselves in their current employment. They have not worked together before,' he murmured, watching John's face as he delivered his deductions. 'The one with the scar is Croation, while the other appears to be British born, with Syrian connections. One has an old injury above his right kidney, judging from the limp and the curvature of his spine. The other a shoulder wound limiting his overarm mobility: weaknesses I can exploit.'

Sherlock scrutinised John in the merciless light from the bulb above their heads. He looked tired and drawn, but for the first time in weeks there was something confident there, bold-faced and content, as if he had found safe harbour on a shifting sea. The drab shadows that had clouded his expression had fled, leaving the stalwart, familiar man Sherlock knew so well in their wake.

John took a deep breath, but he did not argue. Instead, with a faintly dark look in Sherlock's direction, he clasped his hands behind his back in a mimicry of captivity before raising his voice.

'Hey! I need help in here!' he called out. Getting John to act the part of a victim was never going to work, but he managed “angry military doctor” without a problem, convincing to the last. 'You hit him too hard. Your boss is going to come back to nothing but a corpse!'

For a minute, there was no sound of movement from beyond the door, and Sherlock wondered if he had over-estimated their value to their captors. However, eventually the sound of footsteps reached his ears, and his lips curved in a smile as he tensed.

With a rasp, the bolt shot back, and a dark shadow fell into the acid light of the cell. It took little more than a second for human nature to take over when the guard realised he could only see one prisoner. The gun entered first, a slim, lethal shape that gleamed remorselessly, swiftly followed by the man wielding it.

Sherlock struck without hesitation, stabbing rigid fingers into the twisted scar above Beric's kidney. The shock reverberated through his arm, making the small bones in his knuckles and wrists jar against each other, but his pain was minor compared to his target. The man howled, twisting away and giving John the opportunity to join the fray.

Powerful hands slammed down on Beric's thick wrist, numbing his fingers and forcing him to drop his Bersa. It clattered away, out of reach, and the snarl rumbling in the mercenary's throat took on a deeper, more bass note. If he had the chance to throw a punch, he could probably knock either Sherlock or John out with one blow, and they did not have time for that kind of delay.

It was the decision of a split second: dirty fighting, but Sherlock had never cared for the rules. Moving like a snake, he lashed out with his bow-fingers, stabbing them viciously into the sleek spheres of the man's eyes. Fingernails drew blood, and a shocking, visceral cry echoed around the room.

A solid 'thud' heralded the connection of the gun's butt with the thick dome of his skull. Sherlock watched as Beric went down like a felled tree, barely bending at the knees as unconsciousness overwhelmed him.

Without wasting time, Sherlock whipped the handcuffs that had pinned his own arms behind his back from his jacket pocket. He cinched them tight around the man's wrists before scrabbling at the thin, sorry excuse for a tie around their erstwhile guard's throat. In no time at all, he had it pulled across Beric's thin lips, effectively gagging him should he come around and call for help. With any luck, that would buy him and John enough time to escape.

'If anyone heard that noise, they'll come running,' John warned, hovering by the open doorway with the Bersa in his hand. His fingers were less confident on the unfamiliar shape than they would be around the Browning, but Sherlock knew that John would not suffer for having a different pistol. He made a beautiful killer, no matter which weapon rested in his hands, and he would use whatever he had available in the effort to protect them.

'We need to move,' Sherlock replied, motioning for John to proceed before shutting the door to the improvised prison behind them, bolting it firmly in place. 'Which way is out?'

John gestured along the narrow corridor that led away into the dense gloom ahead. One or two fluorescent lamps stuttered fitfully, but most of the bulbs were blown and dead, strips of quicksilver grey in the ceiling. The walls were damp, and small puddles collected in the divots and pits of the worn floor.

'We're underground,' Sherlock murmured. 'A basement level of some kind.' He eyed a large crack in one of the supporting pillars, his mind working fast as he considered their potential location. For all its modern, capitalist pretensions to perfection, London had its fair-share of derelict sites. Narrowing it down by the era of the building – late sixties, judging by the concrete composition and the piping he could see – was simple, but there were still too many possibilities. 'This place was meant for storage. Steel works, perhaps copper. They had to keep the raw materials moderately secure, hence these.'

He gestured to the rooms that pocked the sides of the passageway, their doors closed and bolted, many with padlocks fused shut by twisted knots of corrosion. 'It's been abandoned for considerably more than a decade.' Sherlock scowled, the shallow well of data drying up entirely as they approached a narrow set of stairs. There had been a door at the top, once, but now there was just an open threshold arcing over more dusky twilight.

John gestured for him to hunker down, and the two of them moved up the steps in tandem, trying not to let the slicks of dust rasp beneath their shoes as they peered into the warehouse proper. There was no sign of Willis, nor Rosso and the remaining twitchy bodyguard. However, the leviathans of machinery and forest of steel supports offered plenty of places to hide. A few lights flickered drunkenly amidst the nest of beams above their heads, but they were not enough to chase off anything but the weakest shadows.

'The way out's over there,' John whispered, pointing to the far end where an old, hangar-style door hung, misaligned and bent on its rails. It had been nudged open wide enough to allow a pair of cars through, side-by-side, but all Sherlock could see from here was the thin slice of London beyond. It was a struggle to identify the view, and he breathed a curse as the ache in his head intensified with the effort of simple thought.

'This is too easy,' he muttered, eyeing their escape route with anything but joy. 'Rosso was expecting someone to interfere – he was ready for it: Intelligent enough to empty our pockets and remove our bulkier clothing. The mercenaries did not use ropes or zip-ties, knowing that plastic can be broken with the correct application of strength and that knots can slip. So why leave us with just one guard?'

'Distracted?' John murmured. 'Over-confident? Willis was here. I thought he was going to throttle you while you were out of it, or worse.' That last was added in a low, feral voice, and Sherlock saw John's hands twitch with hemmed in anger. 'God knows where he's got to.'

'He'll be here somewhere, and so will Rosso. Maybe they're not expecting us to get out, but it's stupid to assume they won't have prepared for the possibility –'

Ahead, a pair of lights suddenly burst into life, their halogen beams cutting through the gloom like blades through silk. John and Sherlock reacted instinctively, ducking down behind the looming form of an assembly machine as they heard the distinctive pop of car doors being pushed open.

Peering around the bulk of the conveyor belt that concealed them, Sherlock realised that the vehicle was parked inside the warehouse, nearly invisible amidst the other machinery. It was facing outwards, ready to make a quick get-away perhaps, or waiting for someone. No sound of an engine had marked its arrival, and he wondered how long it had been there.

The roar of another car, its gravelly voice distinct from London's distant city sounds, confirmed Sherlock's suspicions. He watched Rosso lift his head towards the door, narrowing his eyes against the strobe of approaching headlights.

'Go and check on our prisoners,' Rosso ordered, his voice unrestrained by the need for stealth. 'Bring them up here. They need to be dealt with.' The slender thug moved, wordlessly obeying the order. His stride was as twitchy as the rest of him, full of ungainly, sudden movements, but the weapon in his hand was still an ever-present threat. 'Willis?'

'Right here.' The gruff voice came from the doorway, and the red flare of a cigarette caught Sherlock's eye before it fell to the floor and was extinguished. 'I didn't touch 'em.'

'Don't lie,' Rosso said, his words weary and heavy as if he were dealing with a reprobate child. 'Just do your job and keep your mouth shut. My father's reaction may be – unfavourable. Make sure it doesn't end badly.'

The other car revved through the doors, the tyres crunching on the dusty floor as the graunch of the handbrake – rough and brutalised by an angry grasp – clattered in the peace. It harmonised with the sound of running footsteps, and Sherlock turned to see the twitchy thug burst from the stairwell that led to the basement.

He staggered over to Rosso, his conversation hurried and unintelligible, but the message was clear. Their escape had been discovered.

'Shit,' John whispered, shifting uncomfortably at Sherlock's side. 'What now?'

Sherlock shook his head, his eyes darting to the high windows. To reach them they would need to climb the gantries: too exposed and obvious. Yet the door was equally inaccessible, blocked by two cars and Rosso himself.

A glimmer of movement on the other side of the warehouse caught his attention. It was subtle, almost missed as Rosso's father began shouting in Spanish while the bodyguards spread out – waved off to begin their search. However, Sherlock had trained himself to notice things that other people overlooked, and he gave an irritated huff as a rough plan crystallised in his mind.

'I need you to do as I say,' he whispered, resting one hand on John's jaw to stop him from pulling away as he spoke into his ear. Beneath his fingertips, he felt the race of John's pulse: adrenaline, fear and courage all combined. Yet nothing like a question or a denial escaped John's lips. Instead he pulled back, his blue gaze checking Sherlock's face for some hint of a clue. 'Put the gun down, and stand up.'

'What?' John hissed. 'I – Sherlock!'

Nimble fingers caught in his suit jacket as he unfolded himself, lifting his hands in the air and raising his voice: calm, collected and condescending. 'Problem?' he asked, watching Rosso and his father spin around to face him. The shouts of the mercenaries were instantaneous – running feet and fury – all contracting inwards around the nuclei that Sherlock created and, more importantly, making sure all the targets were in one place.

'You'd better know what you're doing,' John whispered, setting the Bersa aside before following suit, his hands behind his head in vulnerable surrender. Within seconds they were being shoved and harried, pushed ever closer to the two vehicles in the middle of the warehouse floor by the forceful pressure of gun barrels against their ribs and snarled, angry threats.

Sherlock kept close to John's side, trying to offer reassurance through proximity. Yet his face was carefully impassive as he measured up the two men in front of him. The family resemblance was striking, though the father's face had given way to the jowly, poisoned appearance of too much good food and fine wine. Still, the same determination was there, the anger, the confidence, and when he spoke his accent was clearly in place.

'Where is it? You downloaded data. Stole information. I shall be lodging a formal complaint.' The older man folded his arms over his chest, yellowing teeth revealed in an ugly snarl.

'Inadvisable,' Sherlock murmured, 'given the nature of the files. They damn you as much as your son. Clearly you thought that the cartels that funded your progression through the diplomatic corps would look upon you favourably if you provided them with the information they wanted. You hoped they would forget just how much you owe them. Somehow I don't think they'll be impressed when you fail to deliver.'

Rosso senior shifted his weight, leaning forward with breath scented of cigars and whisky as he murmured his response. 'Mr Holmes. Always thinking. Perhaps you can puzzle your way out of this one. Give me the files, or I have your little friend shot.'

He gave a nod, and meaty hands forced John to his knees before the muzzle of a gun was pressed against the base of his skull.

The Argentinian continued to speak, his words muted and deceptively soft. 'Is it worth it? All this? Is it worth putting innocent lives at risk just to be right? I wonder why he stays with you when you clearly think so little of him. You're not even looking at him.'

Sherlock swallowed, trying to keep his face expressionless as he heard the hitch in John's breathing. He may be a soldier and a doctor, but that did not mean he could shrug off the sensation of a pistol against his cranium, one short pull of the trigger from oblivion.

Carefully, silently hoping that his faith was not misplaced, Sherlock ghosted his fingers down to the back of his own collar. 'There are more dangerous things here than you. Catch.'

He pitched the USB stick up, letting it soar in a parabola over Rosso's head to be caught in a slender, perfectly manicured hand. Anthea's fingers closed around the evidence as two guns coughed, their silencers forcing civility on their reports. They were perfect shots, flawless in every way. Sherlock felt the air whisper like cut cloth as the bullet sliced past him, making Willis jerk as it struck him between the eyes. A heartbeat later, he fell to join the cooling corpse of his comrade, wiped out as quick as flicking a switch.

'You took your time,' Sherlock snapped, reaching down to help John to his feet.

Mycroft took the USB stick from Anthea as a dozen or so special operatives melted out of the darkness, their weapons trained on the two diplomats. 'I did not wish to interfere until it was absolutely necessary. You seemed to know what you were doing,' He glanced at the father and son with an expression of disdain, 'unlike these two. The evidence should be enough to bring this to a close, and without much inconvenience to either our government or the Argentinians. A success all round.'

His smile was thin as he returned his gaze to Sherlock, gesturing to the parted doors of the warehouse and the night beyond. 'Thank you, Sherlock, John. A car is waiting to take you home.'

'That's it?' John asked, his voice curt as he twitched at Sherlock's side, his fight or flight response evidently still engaged.

'That is it,' Mycroft confirmed, and now there was something serious in his eye: a warning and a promise. 'I don't expect to see anything pertaining to this case on that blog of yours, John. We'll take it from here.'

Sherlock could sense the tension in John's body, wound up to breaking point by covert operations and capture, and now looking for an outlet. While it would have amused him to see Mycroft at the mercy of John's annoyance, his head ached and his stomach was starting to growl from days of deprivation. For once, his brother's idea was sound: Baker Street was the best place for them.

Tweaking John's sleeve in a mute plea to follow him, Sherlock turned away, stepping over the corpse of Willis and heading for the door. Once at the threshold, he glanced back, catching John's eye with a hint of a smile before raising his voice. 'I'll send you my bill, Mycroft.'

His brother merely glanced in his direction, one eyebrow curved in something akin to indulgent amusement before Sherlock turned his back and allowed his attention to return to the man at his side. Checking for injury was automatic, but unlike him, John seemed to have escaped unscathed. Where Sherlock was tempted to shuffle and hunch, John stalked, fierce and feral, almost shaking with indignation at Mycroft's summary dismissal.

Yet beneath that was the softer edge of concern. It smoothed the harsh corners from John's posture and meant that, when Sherlock slowed his pace, John followed, pressing closer to his side in cautious support.

'You all right?'

It was a loaded question, and one Sherlock answered with a nod of his head. Normally, after the rush of the solution and the thrill of success, the completion of a case left him bereft. More often than not, he found himself staring down the barrel of his own boredom, restless and agitated as his mind was abandoned to spin its wheels.

But not this time.

For all that the case was over and that Mycroft had the proof he needed, there were other, more important questions to occupy Sherlock's thoughts, all of which pertained to John. For weeks, Sherlock had watched him struggle, growing increasingly distant and confused while Sherlock stood by, helpless to assist. Now, it was as if all that had been erased, torn aside in the space of a single night.

It should have brought him comfort, this return to the norm, but instead Sherlock found himself both baffled and fascinated. How could John be so changeable, yet so constant? How could one man epitomise stubborn stability and unpredictable actions with so little self-conflict?

Those were mysteries that Sherlock suspected he would never truly solve, but one question, more personal and private than the others, hovered at the forefront of his mind.

Did he really want to reclaim the status-quo, one where John chased his vision of a wife and family while Sherlock pretended to be content with his work?

Did John?

A nervous rush thrilled in his stomach, and Sherlock swallowed tightly as he gathered his resolve. Before the night was out, that was one answer he intended to find: one way or another.

Chapter Text

There was something surreal about stepping back into the flat and finding it unchanged. Logically, John knew they had only been gone for a few hours, but in between the breaking-and-entering, the capture, their escape, the gun to his head and Mycroft's appearance, it felt like an eternity had passed. Yet when Mrs Hudson had let them in, it was clear that their home remained a constant of mugs full of half-drunk tea and leaning piles of paperwork: organised chaos that only Sherlock could divine.

'How did you know Mycroft was there?' John asked as he turned, watching Sherlock shrug free from his coat and hang it up. They had not spoken a word on the ride home, Sherlock's distrustful gaze flickering to the driver more than once. However, John could still feel the echoing warmth of Sherlock's body pressed close to his as if the narrow distance of the vehicle's back seat was too much to bear.

'His minions aren't as invisible as they think they are. The shadows were thicker where they were hiding, and the echoes changed: all signs that we weren't as alone as it appeared.' He shrugged, his expression falling into irritable lines. 'Besides, Mycroft will have had us followed from the moment we accepted the case. He simply chose his moment.'

Sherlock took a deep breath, his fingers moving to brush over the spot on the back of John's head where the muzzle of Willis' gun had pressed, unflinching and deadly. 'Are you all right?'

John blinked, fighting the desire to lean back into the cup of Sherlock's hand. After weeks of twitchy, miserable distance his touch felt like a drug, one which clutched at John's senses and ensnared his mind. After a moment, he managed a smile. 'I would have liked it better if you'd shared the plan, and I’m a bit sick of being treated like your weak spot, but I'm not hurt, unlike you.'

He lifted his hand in a silent gesture, curving his palms over the back of Sherlock's compromised scalp without touching the raw skin there. 'Any more dizziness or nausea?'

'Nothing to cause alarm.' Sherlock moved, his fingers questing through his curls until he touched the matted mess over his occipital bone. His expression of disgust was almost comical, and John nudged his shoulder, urging him towards the bathroom. 'Take a shower, not too hot, to get the blood out of your hair. Then I'll take another look at it. Don't pass out.'

'Unlikely.'

'If you're not out in ten minutes, I'm coming in,' John added, trying to ignore the way his face heated when Sherlock merely raised one, considering eyebrow, a smile curving one corner of his lip. His eyes did not leave John's face as he slowly undid the buttons of his jacket, parting the fabric and shrugging it off to slide lovingly down his arms. Long fingers caught the collar, graceful as always, before he pitched it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.

John did not know what Sherlock was hoping to deduce – dreaded to think what emotion was exposing itself across his face – but it took John far too long to tear his eyes away. He swallowed, huffing a faint sigh as Sherlock turned towards the bathroom. He closed the door behind him, leaving John standing in the kitchen, feeling worn down but light-headed, heavy and buoyant all at once.

Adrenaline's ebb was responsible for the weight lingering in his muscles. Yet the heady, thrilling feeling under his ribs had nothing to do with the case. It was about Sherlock. After standing back and questioning everything for far too long – of letting stupid, silly doubts consume him to the point of paralysis – his confusion had found its solution.

What had seemed like one vastly out-of-character action had resolved itself to be fundamentally Sherlock: ingenious, inventive and perhaps slightly insane. Most people did not go through their lives preparing for inevitable capture, but Sherlock was always accepting of his own existence. However, where John met the danger head on, bulling his way through under his own power, Sherlock fell back on his greatest weapon: his mind. He planned and plotted and theorised circles around everyone else and came up with ideas like this. A lock-pick people would not think to look for, let alone remove.

A whisper of fabric caught John's attention, and he glanced over at Sherlock's jacket. It had slipped free of the sinuous arch of the chair's back. Considering how much it was worth, John doubted the floor was the right place for it. Quickly, he picked it up, feeling the slide of the luxurious cloth beneath his fingertips. Unfortunately, he had captured it up by the hem, and there was a metallic clink as the object of John's thoughts fell onto the tatty linoleum.

The jewellery gleamed at him, innocent and beguiling, and he reached down, catching it between his thumb and forefinger for a closer look. It was a petite thing, covered as it was with the ball that held it in place. Cautiously, John tried to undo it, feeling a brief amount of resistance before it unclipped and came free. What was exposed was a series of blunted ridges. Like Sherlock had said, most things slim and metallic could be used to pick a lock if given to someone with the right skills and patience. However, something in a pocket would probably be removed, and retrieving a potential pick hidden elsewhere while your hands restrained would be nigh on impossible.

This was Sherlock's answer to the problem, and now John realised the movements of his mouth back in the cell had been him working the piercing free from the smooth passage of the hole through his tongue. It could not have been easy, and John's face flushed as he thought of the dexterity involved.

With shaking hands, he put the bar down on the table and reached for the takeaway menus instead, trying to distract himself from considerations of Sherlock's mouth and what he could do with it. Just because he had been crippled by uncertainty these past couple of months did not mean his longing for Sherlock had abated. He was still as fascinating and captivating as always, and the whispering thoughts of what it would be like to have more had only grown louder.

Forcing himself to focus on the menus in his hands, a quiet groan fled his lips as he realised it was so late at night that dawn could not be too far away. Nowhere would be open to deliver at this time, and God knew what they had in the fridge.

'There's some Pad Thai from Tuesday,' Sherlock murmured, and John glanced up to see him in his soft cotton trousers and robe, the silk falling loose down his front and framing his bare chest with rich blue. Water from his curls dripped onto the cloth, creating darker patches where it landed. One or two splashes hit skin instead, carving crystal trails over the ridge of his collarbone until Sherlock brushed them away with the towel in his hand. Of course, he could not dry his hair without aggravating the wound, and John bullied his mind away from its appreciation of the man in front of him and onto more practical matters.

Moving quickly, he retrieved the leftovers from the fridge, putting them in the clean microwave and setting them for a long blast before he pulled the spare first-aid kit down from one of the kitchen cupboards. 'Sit,' he ordered, gesturing to the chair and waiting for Sherlock to oblige. He did so with his usual finesse, one leg tucked up under his body as John pulled out antiseptic and gently parted Sherlock's hair around the lump.

It was a sizeable bruise, angry blue on skin so pallid it was almost silver. The swelling looked tender and pained, but it was already starting to recede. The gash was obvious, a seam of split skin for John's attention. 'I don't think the person you kicked appreciated it very much,' John murmured as he swabbed the injury with a sterile wipe, his apology at Sherlock's soft sound of discomfort coming naturally to his lips. Wet curls coiled around his fingers as he worked, leaving glistening trails of water in their wake as they slid, sinuous and slick, across his skin.

Once he was satisfied that the cut was as clean as it was going to get, John reached for the towel, patting the worst of the moisture from Sherlock's hair without touching the wound. 'I think you can do without hospital, but we'll need to keep an eye on you for a bit,' he mused, moving around so he was facing Sherlock. His pupils were even and responding efficiently, and there was no absence in Sherlock's features. 'Do you want some painkillers?'

'It's not that bad.' Sherlock reached out, snagging John's wrist and examining the raw, red lines that charted its circumference. 'These need cleaning.'

'As do yours,' John pointed out, pulling out the other kitchen chair and setting it down so that he could sit opposite Sherlock, their knees touching. He reached for more antiseptic wipes before cradling Sherlock's hand in his palm and easing away a few stubborn bits of dirt that had survived the shower. 'I suppose I should be grateful they used cuffs – at least we could get out of them thanks to you.'

Warm fingertips rested on the jut of his knuckles, not restraining him, but captivating all the same. When he glanced up, it was easy to see Sherlock's deductive concentration: astute intelligence honing itself to a wicked point – all aimed at him.

'You're relieved,' Sherlock murmured. 'Not about our escape, though that would be the logical source for such an emotion, but about me. Why?'

John bit his lip at the directness of the query. Somehow, he doubted Sherlock had not already worked it out for himself. However, the fact that he was asking for clarification spoke volumes. Normally, Sherlock ploughed straight ahead with his deductions, confident in the knowledge that he was right. Now, it was as if he was not content to voice something he suspected could be off the mark.

'What makes you think that?' John replied, bending his head again and focussing on Sherlock's wrists. He should have known that Sherlock would not let his behaviour over the past few weeks slide. He had been presented with a mystery, and John knew better than to believe he would be happy without the answers. However, he did not want to explain the ridiculous mass of confusion that had sunk into his mind like a lead weight when Sherlock had first pierced his tongue. It was illogical in all aspects. Worse, the whole mess reeked of sentiment, something Sherlock was unlikely to appreciate.

The deflection did not go unnoticed. John could tell by the way Sherlock's lips tightened and his brow drew down into a frown, but surprisingly, he did not push the issue. Instead he straightened his shoulders, his words a merciless flow of facts as he spoke. 'Initially, upon discovering what I had done to my tongue, you were baffled but not unduly disturbed. However, by the time you returned home from work that day, you had become sullen. My repeated refusal to explain my motivations only darkened your mood.'

John pulled his hands back, staring unseeingly at the scrapes on Sherlock's wrists as he heard his initial behaviour laid out in such brutal terms. Already it sounded childish and stupid, but he could still recall the growing storm of confusion that had brewed in the pit of his stomach, constantly fed by the endless supply of “what ifs” his mind conjured for his consideration.

He jolted in surprise when Sherlock gripped his forearm, pushing at John's sleeve to reveal the slender strip of chafed flesh around the base of John's hand. He moved with easy competence, using a clean wipe to banish grime with antiseptic's bite as he continued to explain. 'You grew increasingly distant, physically at least, especially after –'

Now Sherlock paused, clearing his throat before he changed tack. 'You let me treat my own minor injuries where normally you would have assumed the burden yourself. You lingered near Lestrade at crime scenes until I called you over, rather than staying with me – noticeable changes from your standard behaviour, and –'

'Why didn't you just tell me?' John interrupted, plunging on with a question of his own. 'You could have explained the purpose of the bar right from the start, rather than the “reason isn't relevant” bullshit.' He sucked in a ragged breath, jerking his head in a sharp, negative motion. 'For God's sake, Sherlock. I've spent almost two months trying to guess why the hell you'd done something so completely – completely unlike you!' He tried to pull his hand away, but Sherlock tightened his grip in a brief command to stay before returning to his task.

It was not until he had finished cleaning John's right wrist and moved on to the left that he spoke again. 'I didn't know if it would work,' he explained. 'The idea was theoretical, and despite my best efforts at research, there was no documentation to be found. I did not want you to rely on something so untested as a potential way out of a dangerous situation – even subconsciously.'

John sighed, closing his eyes and ducking his head, struggling to reach for his patience. 'Sherlock, I was a soldier. I know the dangers of placing my trust in the wrong thing. Do you honestly think I rely on anything except the gun in my own hand?'

'You rely on me.' Sherlock finished with John's left wrist, his fingers stroking the unblemished skin just below the tattered line the handcuffs had left in their wake. 'Or you used to.' Kaleidoscopic eyes flashed upwards, catching John's gaze in a sudden gleam of comprehension. 'Oh!'

John swallowed, admiring the glow of epiphany on Sherlock's features even as his stomach sank.

'Your trust in me faltered.' Sherlock's expression pinched with surprise, as if he had not foreseen such a reaction. 'You viewed my behaviour as out-of-character – too far departed from my version of normality – and it made you unsure.'

'I – it's –' John sighed, pulling his hands free and propping his elbows on his knees, pressing his face into his palms as if he could hide from Sherlock's all-seeing scrutiny. It sounded terrible, put like that, as if all the time of their acquaintance meant nothing – easily eradicated by the unexpected. 'It wasn't so much about trust. I just didn't understand. It was something I had never imagined you would do, and not knowing why made me wonder if I actually knew you as well as I thought I did.'

'You began to question my actions,' Sherlock murmured, his shoulders dropping in a sigh as if he were chastising himself for not realising it sooner. 'That's why you drew back, that time in the chair, when you –'

Those eyes darted away, and John felt something sultry and tight shiver through his body. He knew exactly what Sherlock was talking about. How could he not? He had been trying to forget how Sherlock looked back then: irises eclipsed by his pupils, his cheeks flushed and his lips parted in acceptance of a caress he could not give and John had been too unsure to take.

'When you wanted to kiss me.'

Quietly said, the words were still shocking in the peace of the flat: a dazzling exposure and a subtle challenge, like he was daring John to deny it.

As if he could. Even now John could feel the heat curling through him, drugging and sensual as he stared at the man in front of him. No doubt desire was still written all over his face, whispering its confession in the staggered sound of every breath. He could almost feel the shift of his pupil as his focus narrowed down to nothing but Sherlock, half-hypnotised by that intense expression.

John blinked, clearing his throat and tearing his eyes away for a split-second before being drawn back again. 'I didn't believe what I was seeing. You looking at me like –' His words died in his throat, stolen away as he realised that the same signs he had noticed all those weeks ago were still there. More guarded now, perhaps, but evident. Back then the exposure of Sherlock’s admiration had been shocking, unexpected in a way that had thrown John's faltering equilibrium even more off-balance. Now, he was beginning to wonder if it had been there all along, and that was simply the first time Sherlock had put his feelings on such blatant display.

'And now?' Sherlock asked, his voice softer and lower – not the cunning artifice of seduction John had heard him use on other, unsuspecting parties – but something a little hoarse and tense: genuine. 'Do you trust me now?'

John swallowed, wetting his lips as he inhaled, smelling the clean fragrance of Sherlock's skin beneath the lingering sharpness of antiseptic around them. He was not sure when they had both leaned in, filling the space between them. Sherlock's knees were pressed around John's own, the chairs bringing them level so that he could see everything written in Sherlock's face.

This close there was no doubting the evidence: a faint flush lingered on sharp cheekbones, and his breathing had turned deeper, more drawn out as it whispered between them. Silver eyes were shaded with tones of blue and grey, becoming little more than a band of colour around the inky pool of Sherlock's pupil.

Wordlessly, John reached out, brushing trembling fingers along Sherlock's jaw and feeling the scrape of stubble. Part of him hissed a warning. This was a precipice, and he was standing right on the edge. Just because he believed what he was seeing in Sherlock's expression – earnest passion, pure and simple – did not mean the other issues had gone away. They could tear one another apart as easily as make each other whole, and what would be left in the aftermath but ruins?

Yet John could not bring himself to heed his fears. He and Sherlock had fit together from the moment they met, and John's heart had never questioned him. It was only the slip and slide of his dubious thoughts that had pulled them apart, and now he had no intention of letting his uncertainties over-rule him again.

Leaning in felt like the only option, and John tried not to falter as he brushed the chastest of kisses against Sherlock's lips. It was a prelude and a promise, one that still gave Sherlock a chance to back away. However, there was no such hesitance as John breathed his reply.

'Yes.'

******

Sherlock's heart thundered beneath his ribs, aching and triumphant as he strained forward, seeking the thin pleasure of John's mouth. The fingers at his jaw tightened as if John was worried he intended to pull away. Sherlock quickly lifted his hand, urging him a fraction closer as he softened his lips, inviting him inside.

Yet John held back, timid still, and Sherlock cursed himself for not seeing his disquiet sooner. Such things, once given root, took time to wither. For all his words, John seemed less than sure. Yet before Sherlock could pull away and offer reassurance, the warm glide of John's tongue swept over his pout and in, tentative and curious.

He meant to stay aware, to catalogue everything, because kissing might not be new to him, but kissing John Watson was another matter entirely. However, it was a hopeless endeavour. John's taste filled his mouth, dragging the vast focus of his mind down to a hazy beam of pleasure. His nerves hummed, resonating as he twined his fingers in John's jumper and angled his head, allowing him deeper.

Abruptly, John twitched back, ignoring Sherlock's quiet keen of protest and breaking away with a wet gasp that shot straight to Sherlock's cock. 'When did you put it back in?' he breathed, blinking rapidly as if trying to clear his vision: gratifying, as was the glow in John's cheeks, but it took Sherlock an embarrassingly long time to realise that John was talking about the bar through his tongue.

'I put a spare in place when I was in the bathroom.' He tipped his head, trying to understand the expression on John's face. He expected dislike, but that did not seem to marry with the hungry look in John's eyes. 'Do you want me to take it out?'

Competent fingers caught in Sherlock's robe, tugging him close again as John's laugh shivered between them. 'God, no. I just didn't expect it. Come here.'

This time they moved with more confidence, heads automatically angled to accommodate as their tongues danced, questing beyond the hard barricade of teeth and inwards to explore the moist warmth of each other. Every stroke was a heady sensation, blooming to fill Sherlock's mind with the most perfect simplicity. For a while, there was nothing but John: his hands, his lips, and the glide of his tongue. More than once he circled the ball in Sherlock's mouth, intrigued. The third time it happened, Sherlock broke back with a huff of laughter, watching John blush.

'Sorry,' he murmured, nearly shifting back before Sherlock gave the jumper in his grasp a hard tug, dragging John out of his chair and down into his lap. After a moment of confusion, John got the message, straddling Sherlock's thighs and groaning aloud as Sherlock lapped up the column of John's throat, tasting salty sweat and musk.

'If I knew you were so intrigued by it, I would have put it to good use earlier,' Sherlock murmured, feeling his voice husk in his chest before John bent his head to steal his breath away again. Now, they were pressed close, the apex of John's thighs over the centre of Sherlock's arousal. Every subtle shift scraped the rough wool of John's jumper over Sherlock's bare chest, making his nipples bud at the attention and rousing deep, rumbling sounds, unbidden, from beneath his ribs.

He tipped back his head to taste the kisses John so happily bestowed. It also meant John could explore his mouth more thoroughly, and gentle tremors took on renewed vigour as those hands joined the fray, sliding beneath the robe to the bare curve of Sherlock's shoulder before skimming down across his chest, igniting sparks wherever he touched.

Sherlock nipped at John's bottom lip as his fingers crept up to John's hips, curving around cool denim and feeling the resistance of strong flanks beneath. It was a matter of instinct to arch his back, groaning as the pressure on his aching erection increased to a teasing friction. A grin flirted over Sherlock's lips as he heard John's answering gasp of appreciation, feeling the hardened ridge, trapped beneath the tight folds of John's jeans, nudging against him.

Gentle fingers tweaked in his curls, mindful, even now, of the wound on the back of his head. The gesture was a mute request, and Sherlock obeyed without thinking, tilting his head to the side and allowing his eyes to sink closed. John nuzzled at his neck, burning a trail with hot lips and the sweep of his tongue, tasting Sherlock with agonising tenderness as if he were the rarest of delicacies. It felt like John's every touch was lighting all of Sherlock's fuses, turning simple flesh and bone into tormenting incandescence, and the blasted man was still fully-clothed, splayed open over Sherlock's lap yet annoyingly hidden from him.

'You're over-dressed,' Sherlock managed, his usually articulate vocabulary failing him. His fingers plucked at the hem of John's jumper before slipping underneath. He grunted in annoyance at the shirt that blocked his way. 'For God's sake, John!'

He heard John's rumbling laugh, his body jerking as the sharp edge of teeth scraped over the sensitive skin at his pulse. This was not how such things normally went. He was usually the one who took his partner to pieces, revelling in their breakdown as he remained entirely in control. Now it was as if John had tripped all the right switches, and Sherlock could feel his nerves burning brighter with the joy of it.

Yet it was not a reversal of the usual roles – there was nothing like distance in John's actions. Every caress was a reaffirmation, leading Sherlock's own hands in a clumsy dance of reciprocity. Even better, John's body was all but melting against his own, an addictive burden of muscle and flesh. It was unlike anything Sherlock had experienced, and he found himself lost on an ocean of sensation, the pace of his frenetic mind slowing to a heady, throbbing beat of carnal bliss.

Suddenly, a sound cut through the haze, making John freeze above him even as Sherlock's world jolted back into focus. Every breath was coming too hard and fast, and his entire body felt like a giant heartbeat, pinned in the sturdy kitchen chair by John's weight. Trying to concentrate on the realm beyond this tempestuous frontier of the two of them, pressed so close they may as well be joined, was agonising. However, Sherlock recognised the sound of the front door being opened, and Mrs Hudson's gentle tones harmonising with the unctuous smugness of his older brother.

'Mycroft,' John groaned, his tone no longer fervid and longing, but thick with delightful disappointment. 'Bollocks.'

'Wait!' Sherlock grabbed John's waist as he went to move away, holding him in place and nudging his hips upwards. 'You're currently hiding some rather damning evidence.'

The grin that crossed John's lips was full of playful happiness. 'I think me sitting astride your lap is a bit more of a give-away, don't you?' he asked, jerking his head to the nearby kitchen table. 'Just tuck your chair under that.'

'Obvious,' Sherlock mumbled, reluctantly forcing his fingers apart to let him go. Yet John did not stand up immediately. Instead he lingered, a caress trailing along Sherlock's jaw and resting on his lips before he got to his feet, tugging at the confines of his jeans with a wince.

However, something remained in his expression: an additional hint of unease that drove Sherlock to stand up and follow him. He dragged his dressing gown tight in an effort to hide his obvious response to John's warm, willing body before leaning closer, his lips brushing against John's ear as he murmured, 'I’ll help you with that later – if you want?'

It was as much a way out as an invitation – a reminder that it was not too late to turn back. It might hurt them both to do so, but Sherlock would do his best to respect John's wishes, whatever they may be. For his part, he wanted to seize the moment, to hold on and never let go. John, though, may have other ideas.

He held his breath as John glanced back, their noses almost touching as their eyes met in a long, lustful stare. For a moment he could see doubt there, but it took Sherlock less than a handful of seconds to identify its source. John was not unsure of Sherlock himself, but more the state of his injured head – as if he were something delicate and likely to break.

John parted his lips, and Sherlock expected some kind of doctorly protest. However, if such a thing was forthcoming, it was swallowed back, replaced instead with the rough whisper of a single word. 'Promise?'

Sherlock's lips curled in response as he nodded, retreating to drop into another chair at the kitchen table just as Mycroft strode into their flat, his suit immaculate and his face radiating calm, satisfied confidence.

'Bugger off,' Sherlock growled by way of greeting, casting his brother a dark look of disdain. Over by the microwave, he heard John turn a snort of laughter into a cough as he retrieved the steaming dinner and put a full plate in front of Sherlock before handing him a fork. Sherlock blinked at the meal in surprise, realising he had not noticed the appliance announce its job was done. Clearly he had been more pleasantly distracted.

For his part, Mycroft looked nonplussed, his smile sharp as he smothered a sigh. 'I have some items that I believe belong to you: a coat, a jacket, phones, various lock-picks, your keys...' He held up a gleaming key ring in evidence as he gradually set his cargo down on the table like a magician laying out a conjuring trick. 'And one unlicensed firearm. Not the kind of thing you want to leave lying around.'

'They were removed from us,' Sherlock pointed out, 'and you hastened us home before we could retrieve them ourselves.'

'Yes, well, the fewer witnesses the better,' Mycroft replied, his umbrella tip digging into the floor as he leant on it, his focus shifting to John before meeting Sherlock's eyes once more. 'These diplomatic situations are always tricky. We found another mercenary down in the cellar, unconscious and restrained. Your handiwork, I take it?'

'We had to get out somehow,' John retorted with a hard edge to his voice. 'If you'd intervened outside their house, you could have saved us the trouble of being drugged and locked in a storage room. Have you seen what they did to the back of your brother's head?'

Mycroft glanced away from the sharpness of John's demand – as much of an apology as he would ever display. 'The drug was a mild anaesthetic-paralytic agent, and Sherlock has proved over the years to have a remarkably resilient skull.' He tipped his head to one side, his smile taking on a curious tilt. 'Besides, you seem to have dealt with your captivity admirably. How did you manage to get out of the cuffs?'

'A magic trick,' Sherlock muttered around a mouthful of rice, smirking as Mycroft's stiff expression, never flexible to begin with, turned brittle with irritation. He met his brother's scrutiny steadily, neither blinking nor turning away as he watched the steady, thoughtful flow of assumptions and deductions etch their subtle tale across Mycroft's features.

It did not take him long to arrive at the answer – Sherlock's methods no mystery to him after all these years. 'I suspect it was simply a case of being well-prepared, for once. The tongue piercing is some kind of pick: ingenious of you, if somewhat gauche.'

'Elegance comes second to freedom,' Sherlock responded in a bored voice. 'Are you done, or do you have more wisdom to bestow?'

Mycroft drew in a deep breath, reaching into his pocket and removing a slip of paper – a cheque – before passing it to John. 'The diplomat and his son have had their immunity rescinded and can be prosecuted to the full extent of British law. However, we may simply hand them back to the Argentinian government in a show of good faith. No doubt they will be dealt with most efficiently.' He glanced towards the clock on the mantelpiece before meeting Sherlock's eye. 'Nothing of true value has been lost, and we have received further beneficial information on some of the Columbian cartels and their trafficking into the UK.'

'Thanks to our leg-work,' Sherlock pointed out.

'Indeed,' Mycroft replied, and this time his smile was distinctly self-satisfied. 'I have always said there is a job for you in government if you want it, Sherlock.'

'And I have always said I don't.' The response was automatic by now, entrenched by years of repetition. Both he and Mycroft knew that this uneasy, resentful symbiosis they currently had was as close to cooperation as the two of them would get.

'Still, the offer remains.'

The umbrella swung back and forth like a pendulum, and Sherlock debated the relative merits of flicking peas at his brother – anything to get him to leave. However, as soon as the thought crossed his mind, he saw Mycroft glance, with careful consideration, at John and then back to Sherlock, his face taking on that sharp, penetrative quality that Sherlock knew so well.

This time, there was no doubting his brother's expression: surprise, or something like it. Yet in a second, the emotion was gone, replaced by something softer that had no place on Mycroft's round face.

'Or perhaps, for the first time in your life, Sherlock, you have made the better choice,' he murmured at last, turning towards the door. When he spoke again, implication lay heavily on his words. 'Do take very good care of each other, won't you? I'll see myself out.' The tone said it all, speaking of knowledge, a warning and, beneath it all, quiet, cautious approval.

John winced, and the guilty flush on his cheeks was as good as a blurted confession. However, if Mycroft saw it, he dutifully held his tongue, his footsteps departing down the stairs until the door shut quietly in his wake.

'How did he know?' John asked, putting aside his empty plate and scrubbing his hands over his face, his skin still warmed by the receding tide of embarrassment.

'He was guessing,' Sherlock replied, getting to his feet and placing his half-eaten dinner down on the counter before standing in front of John. He tried to read the expression on his face, seeing breathless happiness mingling with a hint of something darker, and Sherlock felt his stomach twist uncomfortably.

If John started something with him, would he want it to be a secret? His very nature was loyal and devoted, but would he always be thinking of that dream of normality: of a wife and children and all that Sherlock could never give him? Would he insist on keeping any relationship they had to the shadows as a result?

'Does it matter if he – if people are aware of the change between us?' The answer was one he could not deduce, and he watched John, hungry for data as the myriad of sentiment smoothed out into something more confident.

'God, no. I just... If you change your mind in a week or two, or get bored, I can do without other people's pity.' John reached up, his thumb wiping at some sauce at the corner of Sherlock's mouth before skating across his pout.

Sherlock moved without thinking, parting his lips and nipping at the pad of flesh before drawing his tongue over the whorls of John's thumbprint: his identity distilled into simple, biological topography. It was beautiful to watch John's reaction, to feel him sway closer as if drawn in and see his pupils unfurl like sails before a full wind. John's body had fallen motionless as if he were entranced by the slow lap of Sherlock's tongue, and a husky noise caught in his throat as Sherlock gave one strong, steady suck before letting go.

He wanted to speak, to say that if either of them was likely to change their mind, it would be John when he realised Sherlock could not be that perfect ideal that he wanted. If anyone was going to decide this was a mistake, it would be John when he came to the conclusion that sharing a bed with Sherlock Holmes did not miraculously make him into a lover of whom a normal person could be proud. Yet those words did not come, and Sherlock bit his lip as he stroked his thumb along John's jaw.

'How could I ever get bored of you?' he murmured eventually, feeling John's shoulders shift in a reluctant shrug.

'I'm just me,' he replied, his words dismissive as if he honestly believed he were a harmless, middle-aged man in a boring jumper, rather than the most mesmerising person Sherlock had ever met. 'Nothing special.'

'You see, but you don't observe,' he replied, wishing there was more he could say to put John's mind at rest. Yet voiced reassurance could only offer so much – a verbal record of intention. Sherlock knew, all too well, how easy such things were to forget in the end.

No, actions spoke louder than words. There were other, better ways to make John understand that this was not something light and transient. What burned between them was no flash in the pan, but something that had simmered steadily from that first moment in Bart's.

Now, at last, its full potential lay before them, waiting to be realised, and Sherlock had no intention of letting the opportunity pass them by.

Between smooth sheets, with soft kisses and the slide of trembling, eager hands, he told John everything he could not put into words. Sherlock knew that, of everyone in the world, John was the one who would listen, and in every caress, every muted, breathless laugh and every kiss returned, he gave Sherlock his reply.

Perhaps they could not have perfection, and maybe forever was not within their reach, but they would strive for both.

Together.

Chapter Text

It had been almost two weeks, John thought as he watched Sherlock work. For nearly a fortnight they had been together, both in bed and out of it, and part of him was still expecting to wake up and realise it was all a dream. Never, when envisioning the prospect of a relationship with Sherlock Holmes, had he pictured something that made so much sense. It was as if he had found his place in the world, the one niche carved to gift him with a perfect fit, and it had been right in front of him all along.

However, just because it was right didn't make it easy. Normally, when he started a relationship with an almost-stranger, it was simple to mould it as it grew. This – a fundamental shift in dynamic between the two of them – meant they'd had to restructure what they had already built together, and it had not been thirteen days of idealistic perfection.

John smiled. Instead it had been real, visceral at times and dramatic as only Sherlock could be. That would settle as they adjusted, but right now John was enjoying it immensely, because between those short, sharp moments of confusion and frustration with each other there were long stretches of something close to domestic bliss.

Perhaps their version of it did not meet normal standards, but John never knew this was something he could have. Nor had he suspected Sherlock was capable of giving it. The man seemed to treat most emotion like a vile by-product of the human condition and ignored it accordingly. John had honestly expected it would be down to him to initiate any and all affection. He was glad to have been wrong.

The man was a genius, and it turned out he was perfectly capable of solving murders and being attentive at the same time. When it came to John and the Work, he had not put one before the other, as John expected, but somehow managed to strike a balance. It wobbled sometimes, but mostly they were held in equilibrium, the two most important things in Sherlock's life.

From anyone else, it might seem like a poor concession, putting their lover and their occupation on equal standing, but John knew this man – this strange, beguiling presence of sharp intelligence – and coming from Sherlock the act was a declaration. He did not simply allow John in, a grudgingly tolerated intruder, but made a conscious effort to give him all the space he had to offer.

It was strange how so much could change beneath the surface, and yet outwardly almost everything stayed the same. They still lived together, still argued over bills and disgusting things on the kitchen table, but now Sherlock's hand tended to strafe up John's spine as they spoke, or long fingers would curl around his hip. He would drape himself over John's back, talking his way through the details of a case as John did the washing up or read a book.

The most beautiful change was the intimacy. Not just in bed – where, oh God it was good, hot and shameless – but everywhere. Sherlock let himself be touched and held, and returned the attention with natural ease as if John was worth treasuring. In those moments, the vast glow of Sherlock's mind was focused down, shone through a lens of affection to gild John with its wealth.

Even now, for all that he looked as if he were concentrating on the corpse in this tiny, central London flat, John could see that a small part of Sherlock's attention remained on him. It was nothing unseemly, nothing anyone from the Yard had picked up on yet, despite the fact they were all standing right there. Still, Sherlock kept his body angled fractionally towards John, and once in a while there would be a quick glance in his direction: natural seeking behaviour – normal in anyone else but somehow more significant when it was Sherlock looking up to check he was still there.

'Why did you need my help with this?' Sherlock asked Lestrade. 'It's barely a two.'

Greg's shoulders slumped and he gave a sigh of irritation. 'You should be grateful I call you in at all,' he groused, though there was not much bite in his words. 'The dinosaur seemed like an interesting twist.'

John's gaze flickered to the plastic model, a T. Rex, all shaped scales and teeth. It lay by the victim's side, its hide dotted with the occasional fleck of blood.

'Anything can be a murder weapon if you try hard enough,' Sherlock replied with his usual chilling indifference. 'She's a collector, obviously.' He waved a hand around at the shelves filled with other models. 'That's Carnegie, 1970s, rare, especially ones like that, which are from a defective dye run.'

'How – ?' Lestrade's question was cut short by Sherlock's impatient gesture with his phone. 'You Googled it.'

'It was bought two weeks ago at a public auction. The bidding went well beyond its recommended value, and I imagine our victim was the winner.' Sherlock turned his phone around so that Lestrade could see the particulars. 'Someone took exception to her purchase, another collector, possibly, but since the model in question was left behind rather than taken, it's more likely to be a significant other who had better things on which to spend their money. Either way, an argument ensued, and the dinosaur was rammed into her mouth.'

'It killed her?' John asked, shifting where he stood and glancing at the plastic toy again.

'No.' Sherlock reached out, his hands stark white beneath the latex that sheathed his fingers, and parted the victim's lips further, revealing the damage within. 'Her jewellery was probably forced down her trachea and she choked to death. The model ripped out her tongue bar.'

Anderson made a dismissive sound, his narrow face taking on a sneer as his gaze acquired a judgemental edge. 'She looks like that kind of girl.'

John glanced up sharply, reading every implication in his tone. He was not the only one giving the Forensics Lead a glare. Lestrade looked fed up, as if he was beginning to realise that all the sensitivity training in the world couldn't change Anderson's bigoted ways, and even Sally's lips were curled in distaste. The one person not looking in the man's direction was Sherlock, who was still examining the body.

Anderson seemed to realise he had said something amiss, because he gave a defensive shrug. 'What? Everyone knows why people do it.'

'Really?' Sherlock asked, his voice indifferent. 'Amaze me.'

'It's – well it's so she can –' he stammered, glancing at Lestrade for help, who merely looked amused by his discomfort. 'So she can give better head,' Anderson blurted at last, glaring in Sherlock's direction as if the disastrous conversation was his fault. 'That's the only reason anyone would pierce their tongue.'

Sherlock made a faint noise in the back of his throat as he stood up, peeling off the gloves. 'Really? I got mine done because I was bored.'

John hastily smothered a bubble of laughter as Sherlock became the target of everyone's attention. At the time he had discovered Sherlock's piercing, the shock had been jarring. Now, seen from the outside, he had to admit it was amusing. Anderson looked nauseated, Sally's expression was locked in a mixture of horror and disbelief, and Lestrade looked exactly like someone's dad – torn between “it's your body and you'll do what you want with it” and a massive, horrified, “why?”

'You haven't...' Sally stuttered, her mouth shutting with an audible clatter of teeth as Sherlock raised an eyebrow and stuck out his tongue, revealing the gleaming silver there.

'The only significance of the girl's tongue piercing is that it killed her,' he continued as if nothing had happened, apparently indifferent to the various looks he was receiving from Lestrade and his team. 'I suspect a lover – probably not male. No condoms, no birth control, but there are dental dams in the bathroom cabinet. Call me if you find anything that could actually be considered interesting.'

He turned away in a dramatic whirl, already striding out of the door and leaving John to shrug his shoulders at the officers from the Yard, trying not to laugh as he followed in Sherlock's wake. The two of them said nothing as they clattered down the stairs, passed various other members of Greg's team and into the street. It was only once they were out of earshot that John made the mistake of meeting Sherlock's eye, and his giggle mixed with Sherlock's deeper, baritone laugh.

'Did you see the look on Anderson's face?' John managed to splutter.

'Serves him right,' Sherlock replied, waving down a cab with an elegantly lifted hand and standing aside to let John in first. 'Only an idiot would make such an ignorant assumption. He is meant to be qualified to consider all the possibilities. I don't know why Lestrade bothers with him.'

John pursed his lips, his amusement dying away as he remembered his own, horrifying suspicion that Sherlock had pierced his tongue for just that reason – to please some unknown lover. 'Do you think it does? Make it better I mean?'

He blushed, and then felt stupid for doing so. For God's sake, it was only this morning that he had been sprawled over Sherlock's back, seated deep in him and drawing out long, ragged moans of pleasure. However, there was something about Sherlock, seemingly innocent and detached from sex at times, that made his surprising wickedness all the more thrilling.

'You could have found out for yourself before now if you weren't so stubborn,' Sherlock pointed out, his voice taking on a petulant tilt that John had heard more than once since he had laid down the law about safe sex. It was the one thing on which he would not be swayed. Between John's active love life, Sherlock's dark past and the amount of time they spent meddling with corpses, infection could not be ruled out, and he would never forgive himself if he gave Sherlock something.

'Cautious,' John corrected, ignoring Sherlock's huff. 'You know it makes sense. It doesn't take much for a piercing to become an open wound again, and your bar might rip any barrier we use.' His words sounded practical and firm to his own ears, but that did not mean John could not feel the prickle of edgy heat rushing through him.

Normally, foolishly, he was less bothered about protection with oral sex. The chances of infection were lower than in a penetrative act, and he appreciated it too much to be as responsible as he should, but Sherlock's piercing did make a difference. The result was that, beyond the occasional, all-too-enticing swipe of his tongue, Sherlock had not yet gone down on John. Not even with a condom in place.

He was not sure if the deprivation was erotic or agonising.

It had been four days ago that they'd discussed mutual exclusivity. John was not the kind of person to consider any alternative, and Sherlock treated most people like furniture rather than sexual creatures, but it still had to be said. A conversation explicitly vocalised – you and me and no-one else.

Blood had been drawn and sent off for testing, and somehow it had only increased the temptation. Knowing, really knowing, that this was not just some brief fling made everything more intense. Hanging on to his resolve had become a painful challenge, especially when Sherlock was so confident that the test results were a meaningless technicality.

The brush of Sherlock's lips against his ear sent a delicate tremor rippling through him, and his eyes lost their focus as his entire being attuned itself to the low husk of Sherlock's voice.

'You're withholding data from me, John: about the way you taste, the way you sound when I swallow around you, the way you come undone...' He ducked his head, pressing hot lips and his moist tongue, humid but for the promising sphere in its centre, to the throb of John's pulse.

Dimly, John was aware of the taxi driver clearing his throat in a pointed way, but he could not bring himself to care as Sherlock lapped and sucked, using the blunt edge of teeth and swirling his tongue in a way that communicated loud and clear where he really wanted his mouth to be.

'Bastard,' John managed to breathe, sounding more worshipful than reproaching, but at the same time something was jittering through his thoughts. For all his pouting, Sherlock had not pressured John to change his mind, but this... This was testing John's self-control far too much, because he wanted that. He wanted everything Sherlock had to offer, and the thought of any of it being off the menu, even for a short while, had only served to increase his fascination. This was a test of his weakening willpower that he did not need. 'We can do anything – anything safe,' he whispered at last. 'The results will be back in a few days, and then –'

John trailed off, because Sherlock's hand had reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled free two white envelopes. One was Sherlock's, its neat form crumpled and unsealed. The other, John realised, was still unbreached, and had his name typed on its blank face, discreet but for the “private and confidential” stamped across the top. The inquisitive sound he made in his throat was pathetic, more a whine than anything else, and he felt the curve of Sherlock's lips against the hollow of his throat.

'I redirected the samples to a private clinic,' Sherlock murmured as he leaned back, the crests of his cheekbones gorgeously flushed. 'The NHS takes too long, and patience is not one of my strengths.'

That understatement was enough to drag John one step back from the brink, and he tweaked his envelope out of Sherlock's hand before slitting it open. The paper was reassuringly thick and professional; he dreaded to think what Sherlock had paid. However, the information was all there, and John scanned the results before tipping them for Sherlock to see.

'Told you so,' was Sherlock's response as he nudged his own envelope towards John. They could have been photocopies of each other if the personal details weren't different. Both were blissfully free of anything threatening – a clean bill of health – and John clumsily folded them as Sherlock leaned in again, his voice velveteen as he murmured, 'So can I...?'

John's sound of agreement was inarticulate. He did not trust his voice with anything as complex as words, not when he was aching in the confines of his jeans and so finely attuned to the man at his side. They were both still clothed, still decent, mostly, but the air in the taxi felt heavy and hypnotic.

The cabbie must have caught the look on John's face in the rear-view mirror, because he had never known a vehicle to cut through London's traffic so fast. By the time they pulled up outside the flat, John's body was thrumming to the beat of his heart.

Sherlock had not touched him, had not kissed him again, had done nothing but look at John with sharp, predatory hunger, his pupils huge and his eyes dark. They had sat shoulder-to-shoulder, pressed drunkenly against each other and trying so-damn-hard not to reach out. John knew himself well enough to realise that once he did, he wouldn't stop, and he drew the line at getting off in the back seat of a taxi.

Now he all but threw money at the cabbie – generous tip included – and hauled Sherlock, laughing and stumbling, through the front door of Baker Street.

It was so easy to steal those sounds of mirth from Sherlock's full lips, to lick and nip at that enticing mouth before sweeping in for a taste. John flicked the tip of his tongue over the metal dichotomy of the bar before losing himself to the sensuous warmth of the kiss. With the small part of his mind still capable of thought, he wondered if this – being allowed so close and intimate with Sherlock – would become mundane. Would there ever be a time when he could look at this man and not want to touch him?

Cool hands infiltrated John's jacket and slipped up under his jumper, navigating multiple layers with ease before those fingers curved around John's waist, stroking and teasing along the line from ribs to hip. Sherlock's back was pressed against the wall by the front door, his body slumped to reduce the height difference as he clutched John close, kissing back as if there was nothing else in the world that could interest him half as much.

At last, John broke back with a wet noise, dirty and startling in the peace of the hall. He realised that his right hand was tangled in Sherlock's curls while the other clutched at that blue scarf, which was steadily unravelling from the slim column of Sherlock’s throat to reveal a pale stretch of vulnerable flesh. As denouements went, it was almost chaste. Everyone exposed their neck on a daily basis, but there was no-one on earth who could look as naked as Sherlock – fully clothed but for that creamy skin and the drum of his pulse, broadcasting its message of sex for John to see.

His body moved on its own, pushing him up on his toes so that he could drag his tongue from Sherlock's clavicle to his jaw, hearing the corresponding hitch of breath as he carefully bit down. Within a heartbeat, Sherlock tipped his head, eyes closed and lips parted as his gasps took on a sharper edge. No doubt he was fully aware that John's sucking bites were hard enough to leave a mark. It would not be the first one John had left on Sherlock's skin, but the others had been accidental, gifted in the heat of the moment when it was all John could do to hang on tight and ride the storm.

This, though, was more deliberate – a statement to anyone who glanced their way that Sherlock was his to cherish and to pleasure in return. Leaving a mark was satisfying enough, but the noises Sherlock was making – desperate and longing, with nothing like a hint of protest – made a thrill race through John's blood.

'Bed,' Sherlock managed at last, his voice throaty and cracked as John laved his tongue across the bruise he had made. 'Bed. Now.' He grabbed John's hand, pulling him clumsily up the seventeen steps and into the flat as if there was no room in his head for any thought but getting the two of them horizontal.

It should not have made John so smug, but reducing Sherlock to this – monosyllabic with basic need and want – was a powerful thing. The fact that Sherlock could do the same to him, sometimes with nothing but a glance, only made it better. They were happily in each other's power, trusting and lost within their mutual surrender.

Expensive wool and cheap synthetic joined each other on the floor: an unlikely union of Sherlock's Belstaff and John's jacket as they were abandoned in favour of the pursuit of skin-on-skin. There was barely time to kick the front door shut before Sherlock was guiding John backwards, urging him on with feverish, hungry kisses and the eloquent stroke of his hands, touching John everywhere except the heavy centre of his desire.

The bed, which had not stood empty for more than a few hours, welcomed them back with a whisper. The covers were smooth beneath John's back as Sherlock nudged him down to the mattress and crawled on top of him. John's moan caught in his throat as Sherlock straddled his thighs, pressing down heavily on the ridge of his erection.

'Christ,' he whimpered, trying to rein himself in as Sherlock shifted his hips in a slow, aching circle. 'Stop that, or this will be over far too quickly.' The warning sounded weak in John's ears, and he choked off a whine as Sherlock smirked. 'We're still fully dressed!'

'That's easily resolved,' he murmured, grabbing John and pulling him upright, chest-to-chest with Sherlock still straddling his lap, before grasping the hem of his jumper and peeling it back. His shirt soon followed, leaving John's nipples to peak attentively beneath the sweep of Sherlock's thumbs. For a moment, it was all he could do to shut his eyes and relish it – Sherlock's weight over him and his dark head bent to press kisses to John's shoulders, scarred and unblemished both.

Finally, his hands shifted from where they were gripping Sherlock's hips, trailing around and ghosting over the blatant, brazen strain of Sherlock's erection before catching on the buttons of his shirt. Sliding them free took all of John's wavering concentration, and it was too easy to become distracted by the smoothness of Sherlock's skin as it was revealed.

He explored the ridges of Sherlock's svelte muscles, tensed as they were to hold himself balanced over John's lap, mapping those contours which were still so new to him. Shoving the shirt down and off Sherlock's arms, he pressed his palms flat to Sherlock's back, pulling him closer and recapturing his mouth. He leant back without meaning to, dragging Sherlock down with him until they lay across the bed, too lost in each other to care about anything but taste and touch

It was an exquisite kind of torture: slow, sensuous and bordering on painful denial. Even breaths became unsteady pants once more, and when John arched up, pushing his hips into the vee of Sherlock's thighs, Sherlock broke off with a tight noise.

'No,' he rasped, his muscles tensing as he shifted out of range. 'Not, not that, I want –'

Before John could respond, Sherlock had clambered off, leaving him feeling bereft before he heard the thud of shoes and the whisper of Sherlock's trousers being pitched away. Strong fingers on first one ankle, then the other, heralded the dispatch of John's boots. Socks followed, and he sat up again, his voice choking in his throat as Sherlock nuzzled at his fly.

'Oh, God.'

'Not quite,' Sherlock murmured. 'Is this still what you want?'

John couldn't breathe. It was as if his brain had decided that such mundane activities were beneath its control when it could enjoy this instead: Sherlock stripped and on his knees between John's spread thighs, eyes burning and the wet heat of his mouth evident through the thick denim that still separated them.

Eventually, he managed a shuddering gasp and one, brief nod.

It was all that Sherlock had been waiting for, and his eyes took on a considering edge as he glanced up the bed. 'Lean against the headboard,' he instructed, taking advantage of John's mute obedience to drag the zip of his jeans down and unsheathe John's body from both denim and underwear, leaving his erection twitching against his belly as he slumped back. Soft feather pillows cradled his weight, leaving him propped up with his legs parted as Sherlock's fingers drifted towards the heavy burden at their apex.

The wet stripe of Sherlock's tongue against John's leg made him shiver, a huff of laughter escaping his lips as the tickling sensation increased in pressure, becoming something more purposeful. Vaguely, he was aware that there was something very conscious in the movement, as if Sherlock were testing his reactions on a less fragile part of John's body. Somehow the consideration was both endearing and maddening. Legs were interesting, but he wanted Sherlock's mouth somewhere more –

'Oh – !' He bit his lip, stifling the rest of his cry as Sherlock lapped a slow, firm stroke from John's root to his tip. It was no meek little kitten-lick. Sherlock used his tongue like a weapon, bold and strong. John could just feel the curve of the piercing ball against the thin skin, less sensitive away from the head, before Sherlock pulled back and bobbed down, igniting simmering nerves as he went.

John's fingers spasmed in the sheets, clawing at luxurious cotton as his spine tensed in the effort not to writhe. Sherlock's mouth and lips, teeth and tongue – always so quick with sharp words and keen deductions – were calmed to silence as they concentrated on this, not as if it were a chore to complete, but something to savour.

Thought fled, chased off by the sultry drag of Sherlock's mouth over him, challenging, testing and no doubt taking note of every single response: from pleading little noises to the barely restrained movements of John's hips. Even better, like this, half-reclined by still far from on his back, John could take joy in watching Sherlock work. Full lips were stretched around him, elegant fingers curved and squeezed, startlingly white against the dusky skin of John's erection, and the naked sprawl of Sherlock was laid out for him to admire.

Suddenly, Sherlock opened his eyes, meeting John's in an explosive connection as he shifted lower and did something with his tongue. John couldn't follow it, not for the life of him. All he got was a rush of sharper, visceral pleasure, enough to make sparks burn along his nerves and his hips shudder fitfully before Sherlock eased off, dragging him back from the edge and leaving him panting.

'What was – ?' he managed to ask, his voice half an octave lower than normal and rapidly hushed to silence as Sherlock parted his lips, holding John's cock so he could demonstrate. A quick, flickering circle around the head, slick but for the harder sensation of the piercing before he finally came to rest with John's erection seated further back on his tongue and the ball of the bar pushing against the sweet-spot at John's frenulum.

Sherlock raised one eyebrow, no doubt reading the need in John's face with ease before he closed his mouth again, engulfing John in sublime, wet warmth as he began to coax him higher again. Long fingers snagged at his wrists, untangling his death grip on the bed sheets and sliding John's fingers into Sherlock's curls instead.

It took every ounce of willpower John had not to drag at that silken hair. He was tempted to push Sherlock down and his hips up and simply fuck his way to completion, and only the leaden fear of hurting Sherlock kept him even vaguely in control. John's head fell back, his eyes drifting closed as the narrow boundaries of his world tightened down to the erotic symphony of sensation Sherlock was wringing from him with every suck and hum, swipe and tease.

Nimble fingers stroked up John's thighs before cupping and toying with his balls, testing briefly before setting up a swirling, tantalising caress that made John whine and groan in equal measure. Sherlock knew what he was doing – of course he did – it was right there in the scandalous gleam of his eye when John tried to glare at him. He gave John a look that suggested he could keep doing this all day – would continue with his delicious deconstruction until John was begging for it – and damn anything like dignity John might have straight to hell.

Abruptly, John felt one of Sherlock's hands shift, skimming up the bed to grope under the pillows for something. He didn't remove his lips from John – barely ceased in the flow of what he was doing – but the click of the lube cap gave him away.

John shifted, his hips tilting automatically upward, deeper into Sherlock's mouth as he spread his legs wide, making it easier for Sherlock's fingers to slide down and back, cool with gel, to rub in tormenting circles over his hole.

It was a tentative touch, as if asking for permission which John gave as explicitly as he could, his strangled “yes!” echoing back at him. It seemed Sherlock was not content just to make John come, quick and perfunctory. Instead he revelled in every moment as if each responsive shudder was something to be hoarded. John tried to remember another partner who had bent themselves to this act with such obvious delight, but his memory failed him.

Sherlock's finger breached him, and after that initial stretch, John found himself torn between wanting to lunge forward and push back. He could feel the ruddy colour swarming up his chest, mottling his skin as he deserted his efforts to stay quiet and gave a loud, wobbling moan. The bedroom wasn't particularly hot, but sweat was still beading at his temples and dampening his collarbone as Sherlock led him onwards, inching right up to the precipice before pulling back until John wanted to scream.

He did not notice a third finger join the two that Sherlock already had in him, not when Sherlock echoed his wanton sounds, sending delicious vibrations along John's cock. When he glanced down, John could see a pink tinge on the crest of those cheekbones and the tempestuousness darkness of Sherlock's eyes. His movements were growing more hungry and restless, and John's breath caught as he felt Sherlock's hips shifting against the mattress, seeking out friction as if he could not bear to hold himself still any longer.

A flutter over his prostate had John's hips bucking, his head pressing deeper into Sherlock's mouth as his voice broke forth. 'Sherlock. Please – I need to – please!'

Everything clicked into place, the parts of the equation coming together in beautiful harmony. Sherlock's fingers curled at the same moment he hollowed his cheeks, the sleek ball of the piercing sliding over John's glans as Sherlock took him in deep. He tensed in the confines of Sherlock's mouth before the flood of sensation pulled every part of his being taut and the rushing, boiling tide of release nearly snapped him in two.

There was nothing but the inferno of heat and the absolute relief of orgasm. John was not even sure where he finished and Sherlock began anymore. It felt as if his entire outline had been smudged beyond recognition by Sherlock's talented tongue and graceful fingers.

Vaguely, he realised that Sherlock was holding him through it, still sucking and swallowing even as he kept John's hips steady to stop John from choking him. He was also increasingly aware of the rumbling, appreciative noise Sherlock was making in the abyss of his chest: a growling kind of purr as if John had done something delicious.

Inch-by-inch, the world made itself known to him, from the cool kiss of air on his sweat-damp skin to the dry rasp of each breath in his throat. All his nerves felt as if they were still humming, overwhelmed and sensitised in the ebb of his climax.

Sherlock let him go with a pop, making John shudder with lingering delight as Sherlock nuzzled at the inside of his thigh. 'You all right?' he asked, and John could hear the smug tones in his voice, faintly strained at the edges, but still incredibly self-satisfied.

'That,' John husked at last, tightening his fingers where they were still buried in Sherlock's hair, 'is a very stupid question.' He pulled gently, guiding Sherlock up until he could claim that lush mouth, nipping at Sherlock's lips and tasting them both: a salty, heady mix that made them groan in unison. Sherlock's weight was heavy over him, and his erection – steel hard still and dewy at its tip with pre-come – was nudging at John's leg: impossible to ignore.

With a hum of pleasure, John guided Sherlock's hand, still wet with lube, down to his turgid flesh, knitting their fingers together and sliding their joined fists over his length. Sherlock's breath caught, stuttering outwards on a quivering moan as John varied the pressure, making sure Sherlock was slicked from balls to tip.

His body felt smooth and elastic as he pushed at Sherlock's shoulder, rolling them both over in a tangle of limbs. There was just time for John to register Sherlock's keen of confusion before he straddled the cradle of those slender hips, batting Sherlock's hand away and guiding his cock back before John sank down onto him.

A hiss passed John's teeth at the long, steady drag. Thanks to Sherlock's earlier attentions, he was well-lubricated, but it was still a bit of a stretch to accommodate him with ease. However, the faint sparks of pain were quickly fading, chased away by the shocked, helpless noises Sherlock was making. It was not often that John got to surprise him, but right now that long frame was tense, the tendons of Sherlock's neck standing out as he clenched his jaw and threw back his head. Those glorious eyes were clamped shut, and sharp fingertips dug into his hips hard enough to leave bruises.

'Fuck,' John purred, letting out a shivery rush of air at the sight. All the while Sherlock had been teasing John, he had also been tormenting himself. Now, with Sherlock seated inside him, John could feel every shifting motion. His stomach thrilled at the idea of Sherlock so close, not even held apart by the thin barrier of latex a condom would provide. It might not be enough to encourage another erection – he wasn't twenty anymore – but it increased the flutter of sensation that still whispered through him, gentle lapping waves in contrast to the rapidly building typhoon of Sherlock's inevitable peak.

With a grin, John shifted his hips, drawing off a little way before going down again, a low noise of appreciation catching in his throat as Sherlock's hips jerked up to meet him, ragged and arrhythmic. 'Yes, come on, Sherlock,' he murmured, his words falling over themselves as he continued to move, calling forth beautiful, choked sounds from the man beneath him. 'I want to feel you come in me. Please?'

His request was all that was required to take Sherlock from very nearly there to falling and no going back. John felt the swell and pulse of him, his sensitive nerves thrilling as if they'd been primed to receive the signal. Sherlock stiffened, his muscles trembling and jumping as he came and a loud cry forced itself from his throat.

John hummed happily, stroking his palms up Sherlock's sides and feeling the aftershocks as they rippled through his lover. It was a matter of instinct to shift, leaning down to nuzzle at Sherlock's chest and throat. He was so lost in the body beneath him that he did not notice the pressure of Sherlock's hands on his hips. Before he could protest, he was already rolling, eased free of Sherlock's spent erection to lie side-by-side, curled up around each other and both breathless still.

'Okay?' John asked, smirking at Sherlock's rumble of agreement. It would not last long, this brief oasis of bliss, where Sherlock was something akin to calm. Already he could see the traces of ecstasy beginning to fade as Sherlock opened his eyes and met John's gaze with a warm, genuine smile.

'That's a bit of an understatement,' Sherlock murmured, his hand drifting down John's back and over the curve of his arse, his voice taking on a lingering, lustful timbre as he found the wet evidence he had left between John's legs.

'We're going to need a shower.' John sighed. He closed his eyes, hating the idea of abandoning their comfortable bed and the tenderness of Sherlock's arms for the harsh edges of reality. However, he was painfully aware that any movement from him would add to the wet patch of lube and worse already staining the sheets.

A rough noise followed by the swipe of something up between his legs made him jerk in surprise, and he blinked to see Sherlock cleaning him up with tissues before pitching them neatly into the bin. It was weirdly intimate, even more so than the activities that made the mess in the first place. As for the fact it was Sherlock doing it, looking after John before he even bothered attending to himself? That was enough to make something clench in the bloody caverns of John's heart.

'Later.' With a neat flick, Sherlock dragged at the quilt, covering them both before nestling back in at John's side, all sharp edges and vibrant warmth. A proprietary arm over John's waist pulled him closer, and John hummed as Sherlock melted into his answering embrace.

'Was Anderson right? If he was, we'd better make a note of it: one for the history books.'

John frowned to himself, pulling back to look at Sherlock's face. One eye was open, lazily inquisitive, but no further clarification was forthcoming. 'About what?'

'The tongue piercing and its effects on fellatio,' Sherlock replied, almost clinical but for the sensual way he uttered the last word. 'Was it better than the standard fare?'

A chuckle escaped John, gusting between them as he settled back down, a kiss to the tip of his nose making him smile. Maybe Sherlock hoped he would miss the edge of uncertainty in his words – the need for reassurance – as if a frankly mind-blowing orgasm on John's part had not been adequate to tell him all he needed to know.

'Our approach wasn't exactly scientific, you know,' he pointed out, feeling Sherlock's arm tense. 'No control or anything.'

'John –' The warning tone was backed up by the meaningful shift of Sherlock's fingers, resting threateningly over the ticklish spot at his waist.

'Sherlock, for God's sake, I can't remember if I've ever come that hard before in my life,' he murmured, sensing the instant shift in Sherlock’s attitude from faintly nervous to unbearably smug. 'But I don't think Anderson was right. The tongue piercing makes it different, but...' John hesitated, wondering if he really needed to feed Sherlock's already gigantic ego. The truth was that he doubted anyone else could have reduced him to such a mess, no matter what tricks they used.

'But?'

John sighed, pulling back so he could meet Sherlock's eyes before he forced himself to explain. 'But I think it was the fact it was in your tongue that made it so intense.'

Sherlock's hands stopped in their steady path over John's back, faltering before starting once more. He expected Sherlock to look like the cat that got the cream, justifiably superior. Instead, the smile he received was softer, a gentle curve of appreciation that, on anyone else, John could almost believe was grateful. That suspicion was confirmed when Sherlock nudged John's nose with his own, shuffling a little to press a lingering kiss to John's lips.

'Thank you,' he murmured, his fingers drifting around to stroke along the line of John's jaw as he relaxed back into the pillows, his eyes fluttering closed as their shared, steady sighs mingled between them.

Sherlock's quiet gratitude and his pleasured, subtle pride seemed completely at odds with the consulting detective who stalked through London, solving crimes with a flair of genius. However, John knew that the man in his arms had not changed. He was still brilliant and arrogant, rude and astounding in equal measure.

Instead, this was Sherlock in his entirety. Every facet of his being was on display for him, including those that he strove so hard to keep hidden, out of sight and out of mind. Normally, it was obvious that he revealed only a fraction of himself to those who crossed his path. Yet of all the people in the world, John was the one he had chosen – the one he permitted close enough to see what was really there.

John held him tight, feeling the steady rise and fall of every breath, aware how precious it was to be allowed to know this man so utterly: inside and out. Sherlock Holmes was a mystery to many, a blank face and a locked heart, yet John had been given the key.

And he would never let that slip from his grasp.