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the knife I turn inside myself

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“Perhaps it isn’t love when I say you are what I love the most—you are the knife I turn inside myself, this is love. This, my dear, is love.” —Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena

 

 

 

 

——

 

 

For the two weeks leading up to John’s wedding, Sherlock’s hands shake uncontrollably, perpetually, at his sides. It feels like the onset of something larger, something yet to come. It feels like an East Wind, like the harsh breeze before a storm, carding through his hair. Like the fingers of a lover. After John and Mary each say “I do,” the shaking stops.

 

 

 

 

 

New message: Molly Hooper
Hey, haven’t seen you around for a while. There’s a corpse in here with your name on it. I mean, not literally, of course.

New message: D.I. Lestrade
homicide in sussex. victim kept bees. could be interesting you in?

Missed call: Mycroft Holmes
New voicemail

New message: Mycroft Holmes
You have to leave the flat sometime, Sherlock. MH

A week after the wedding, while John and Mary are halfway into their honeymoon on the coast, Sherlock climbs onto the roof of 221 Baker Street and tosses his phone off onto the sidewalk. It is a small pleasure when the idiot passersby startle around where it lands. The pleasure doesn’t last for long.

He doesn’t care how obvious he’s being. If he’s honest with himself, he’s been obvious for a very long time—for entirely too long to try to keep up any kind of façade now. Everyone who is going to notice already has.

 

 

When John comes over after one too many pints at the bar, it is as a married man, two weeks after his honeymoon. Sherlock is in his dressing gown, pajama bottoms, no shirt underneath. He hasn’t seen or heard from John in a month. And then John just shows up at the door, drunk off his arse, wearing only jeans, a button-down, and a light jacket despite it being a harsh London November. Because he knows Sherlock will not turn him away.

John becomes increasingly unsteady as Sherlock lets him in, and over John’s shoulder, Sherlock makes eye contact with a worried-looking Mrs. Hudson, peeking her head out the door of 221a. Sherlock closes the door behind him.

“You knooow…” John slurs, hands grabbing at the collar of Sherlock’s gown for support. Already slipping his own jacket off, sloppily hanging it on the coat rack. When it falls: doesn’t pick it up. “It’s always about you. Don’t know why, ’tis. You. It’s always you, Sherlock Holmes.” John’s tone is bordering on mocking, and Sherlock’s face flushes with regret that John can quote his best man speech even when he’s drunk. Can use it against him, even drunk.

Sherlock doesn’t have time to think about what John means when he says this, because John begins to roll the the edges of Sherlock’s gown between his fingers at a distracting pace.

Slowly, John slips his fingers underneath the material. Not for the first time, John’s hands come in contact with Sherlock’s bare chest. Of course, this has happened before, John cleaning a nasty cut or inspecting a bruise, but this has never happened, John running his fingertips over the planes of Sherlock’s chest like it is cashmere. Drawing a line across his collarbones, another under his ribs.

“John…” Sherlock says, and immediately regrets it. John’s head snaps up like an animal caught in a beam of light. There is something in his eyes, something almost feral… Sherlock wonders exactly how drunk John is right now. (Decides: pretty bloody drunk.)

Sherlock opens his mouth to usher John upstairs into his old bed for some sleep, because this all hurts so much, having him so close. So many times he has imagined scenes like this, John’s quiet touches in the foyer of their flat. The way Sherlock’s stomach would fill with flutters the first time, and then the second time, and still every time after. The way Sherlock’s stomach fills with flutters right now, even as a part of him tries desperately to push the feeling down.

John must sense this potential ending to the night, because his hands return to Sherlock’s gown only to yank it towards himself. Within minutes of entering the flat, John pulls Sherlock flush against him and crashes their lips together, banging their noses, teeth bumping and knocking and clinking against each other.

It is so violent, so hurried, that Sherlock is not offered even a blissful second of fantasy. Cannot even, for just one heartbeat, imagine that this is actually what John wants. That he is who John wants. That John chose him.

Sherlock knows John did not choose him. Right now, he is not even choosing him. The hand yanking at hair on the back of his neck is too rough; John’s kisses are too frantic. Whenever Sherlock imagined this—because of course he imagined this, of course in the deepest throes of torture, when he could feel his skin splitting under the whip, he thought of John cradling his face to keep himself sane—it was never like this. Sherlock imagined John, a soft expression on his face, maybe just getting over the anger at seeing Sherlock alive, maybe just before, just as the haze of impossibility had faded away.

That John, Sherlock’s John, would stroke a fingertip along Sherlock’s clavicle and kiss his brow over and over and over again, sentiment falling from his mouth like rain. That John would run his thumb over Sherlock’s bottom lip and lean into his touch. And Sherlock would laugh, because everything he did—no, don’t think about it, you’re back with him now, you’re safe, he’s safe now—was to return to this.

That John, Sherlock’s John, would realize Sherlock got rid of his chair because looking at its emptiness every night made him want to rip out all of his hair until his scalp was raw and bleeding. That John would know on instinct that Sherlock had called up his former drug dealer the week before, would know what he has stashed under the bathroom sink, in a place the theory of reverse psychology says no one will check. That John would hold Sherlock’s hand against his chest and whisper don’t leave me, ever again. Except that John is not this John, and this John himself has left Sherlock. Like they each get one strike.

So Sherlock stands in 221b and feels the ghost of his John still present in the crevices of the flat. And some other John, some harsh and demanding John, this John, claws at Sherlock’s clothes and sucks small red splotches into his neck. Marks him. Sherlock knows better.

Sherlock pulls away like the sound of a twig snapping. “John, you’re—” he says, and when John tries to kiss him again, Sherlock holds his face back, “—you’re drunk, John, you’re so—we can’t do this, John.”

John ponders him for a moment, then Sherlock’s arms go slack holding his face. “Always wanted to, Sherlock,” he says, and covers Sherlock’s mouth again with his own. “Always wanted to.”

And what is he to say to that?

John unties the ribbon belt on Sherlock’s pajamas and pulls them down. He pushes Sherlock’s robe off his shoulders, lets it pool on the ground beneath them. Palms Sherlock’s erection through his pants, bucks his own into Sherlock’s left hip. When Sherlock’s deft hands come to rest at John’s sides, John doesn’t try to get Sherlock to undress him. At least John offers him this small blessing. Whatever happens tonight, this is the least he can give Sherlock to drain a small bit of his future guilt. Maybe then when it hits him, it won’t be so heavy that Sherlock literally drowns. Maybe it will just feel like drowning.

John undoes his own belt and shimmies out of his jeans, all the while keeping his lips in contact with some part of Sherlock—his neck, down his chest, as John bends over to pull his feet out of his trousers legs. Left only in his pants and a plaid button-down Sherlock has never seen before tonight, John comes up at Sherlock with a renewed force, slotting their lips together even though Sherlock is still a little less than responsive, assaulted by so much newness, immediate regret, crushing longing, inevitability.

Suddenly, Sherlock can feel John walking him backwards. Towards the couch, perhaps. John’s wild kisses and nips at Sherlock’s ear start to slow as he holds Sherlock, one hand at the back of his neck and one hand at the small of his back, and leads him past the couch in fact, all the way to Sherlock’s bedroom.

Through the hazy question marks assaulting his brain, even though he is trying very hard not to, Sherlock is collecting every piece of sensory stimuli hitting him in the face as John works at his shirt’s buttons on the way to the bedroom. Data. By the time they are both left only in soaking underwear, Sherlock has catalogued the taste of John after he’s been at the bar, the feel of John’s two-and-a-half-day stubble on his chin. John’s stiff erection pressed flush against his leg. The smell of sex with John. This is sex, with John.

When they stumble through the threshold, hands and limbs flailing because by now, Sherlock has given in; by now, Sherlock is grabbing and kissing and biting him back, not hard enough to leave marks, but it’s still (a sort of) reciprocation. The impending guilt—far enough away that Sherlock is not physically touching it, but close enough that he can feel its weight—swells.

When they are about to collapse onto Sherlock’s bed, John pulls away suddenly and Sherlock halfway hopes this is the part where he brokenly says, I can’t do this. Because really, neither can Sherlock. But Sherlock also can’t stop, can’t be the one to turn John away when this is all he has. This is all he will ever have. A handful of hours—breadcrumbs in a paper envelope, falling through his fingers like snow. He cannot deny himself this, as much as it will hurt to watch John leave.

To both Sherlock’s relief and his dismay, John is grinning wickedly when he pulls back from Sherlock’s mouth. He flies to the other side of the room to throw open the curtains, welcoming the midnight haze of London into the bedroom with them. Lights twinkle out as far as the skyline stretches. The slightest bit of fog sticks to the windows, reminding Sherlock of the lingering chill in the air outside.

When John returns to Sherlock, he holds his face in his hands like a precious stone. Like something to be protected. Protect me, Sherlock’s entire body begs John. Keep me safe from the rest of the world. Keep me safe from myself. I don’t like who I am without you.

Something dark and heavy lodges deep into the cavity of Sherlock’s chest as he tries desperately to delete the present moment. Works his brain into overdrive. Purging his memory storage. System malfunction.

John’s kisses are increasingly softer than before, feather-tickles on his skin. If Sherlock closes his eyes so tightly that he can see different shades of black, it almost feels romantic. It almost feels like how he imagined it would feel.

“Looking at the city like this always reminds me—” John speaks between kisses, little pecks everywhere across Sherlock’s face, his neck, his chest. “—of our first case, remember?—The sodding cabbie, and you—brilliant, absolutely fucking brilliant, you were—you are—”

John maneuvers them to the bed and falls backwards, sliding Sherlock’s pants down over his ass, his painfully hard erection springing free and slapping his lower stomach as John pulls him to lie on top. In the radically-close future, Sherlock can see the end.

Maybe John will be furiously angry: at himself for fucking up this royally, at Sherlock for letting him. This John yells and throws things against the wall a little too close to Sherlock’s head, and Sherlock imagines Mrs. Hudson downstairs, closing her eyes as she listens, wondering what exactly has happened to her boys.

Maybe John will just be sad, instantly sober, pulling away from Sherlock with come still wet on his abdomen, not looking him in the eyes. This John is silent as he pulls on his clothes and limps out of Sherlock’s bedroom, and Sherlock closes his eyes when he hears the front door open and slowly, quietly click shut.

Either way, whatever will happen, right now finds Sherlock hovering over a panting John, completely naked.

At this point, Sherlock honestly doesn’t know who is taking advantage of whom. Sure, John is the drunk one, but John knows—about Sherlock, about how Sherlock feels, he has to, of course he’s an idiot but no one could be that stupid, Sherlock thinks—and he’s still here.

In a crashing flurry, Sherlock was presented with the one thing he has wanted more than anything ever in his life. Possibly the only thing he has ever wanted, in this way. And how was he to refuse that.

John ducks his head and slips Sherlock’s left nipple into his mouth, pinching it, but Sherlock still has to gulp down a moan. So hard now that it hurts, Sherlock supports his weight by slinking down between John’s legs, rutting his pelvis up into the other man’s. John lets out a long groan, too drunk to care about societal decency in regards to the volume of a neighbor’s sex life.

It only makes Sherlock harder, the guttural noises leaving John like a symphony of moans and strangled explicits. Neither of them are being particularly gentle, but they’re not acting out of anger, either. It feels like desperation, like the dam bursting after years of wear to its walls, after years of erosion and forces pushing against it. It feels like finality, because it is. There is no going back from this, Sherlock thinks, as he feels John’s hand wrap around the base of his cock. In two, three, four pumps, Sherlock is coming all over John’s chest, and John is rasping, “Yeah, yeah, baby, you’re so beautiful, did you know that? So beautiful,” now grasping his own.

Sherlock collapses beside John as John jerks himself off, writhing in the middle of Sherlock’s bed, his own come now on his chest, indistinguishable from Sherlock’s. A few hazy seconds of post-coital bliss blossom in the room, during which Sherlock’s mind is completely blank. But then John rolls over, presses his sticky chest along the length of Sherlock’s side, and slurs, “Always wanted to,” and the guilt finally drops into Sherlock’s belly, full and heavy, like a cannonball.

 

 

There are a million parallel universes out there where Sherlock and John are together, Sherlock thinks. There have to be. He knows there has been talk in certain scientific circles of the “multiverse theory.” Normally, this would be the type of wishful thinking at which Sherlock would scoff and roll his eyes. But now he believes, no doubt. For his sanity, he has no other choice.

It is a small comfort to think that somewhere, Sherlock doesn’t have to feel like he does in this universe. Somewhere, he and John do it differently. Do it right. Are happy.

Somewhere—are happy together.

 

 

In one of these universes, John comes home from the A&E with takeout from their favorite Chinese place. Sherlock is sprawled on the couch, fingers steepled above his nose. He turns to the open door when John steps into the flat and they beam at each other. In one fluid motion, Sherlock gets up, dressing gown fluttering behind him as he strides to John, leaning down to tickle his fingertips along John’s jaw.

Sherlock slants his mouth against John’s, kisses him with feeling, long and deep. Shuts the door behind them, traps John’s body between his own and the wall.

Breathes, “I missed you,” into their joined airspace and feels John’s laugh reverberate through his entire being.

“My shift was only ten hours,” John says, and Sherlock kisses him harder.

“Actually, you were gone for exactly twelve hours and forty-three minutes.”

Sherlock smiles against John’s lips. John dips his head to nibble at Sherlock’s jaw. “You nutter.” John laughs again. “You absolute nutter. I love you,” he says.

In this universe, Sherlock has the courage to say, “I love you too.”

 

 

John is gone by five the next morning. As if Sherlock hadn’t been expecting that. As if Sherlock hadn’t been surprised when John even stayed long enough to clean up their mess. To fall asleep, inches from Sherlock’s fingertips. Look, but don’t touch. Like artwork.

The whole night, of course, Sherlock hadn’t slept. He had wrapped his side of the sheets around himself and turned his back to John, staring out the window and trying to determine the precise moment everything went to hell and exactly whose fault it was.

Sherlock could feel John fighting the last remnants of sleep as he awoke this morning. Could feel John’s blissful few seconds of confusion before where he was and what had happened nested deep in his brain. As soon as John swung his feet off the bed and stood up, Sherlock heard him utter, “Oh my god, what have I done.” It wasn’t a question.

It is late morning by the time Sherlock finally gets up, sun shining in through the window. There is still fog on the glass. Sherlock digs some clean pants from his drawers and pulls on his pajamas. Makes his way to the kitchen, feels every joint in his body ache as he makes tea, as usual now, for one.

All at once, the guilt floods his system, deductions he should have pieced together last night barreling into him like a fucking avalanche: John, drunk and aggressive. Angry. Two weeks into his marriage. Long enough for a petty argument to have turned into a full-blown fight. You. It’s always you, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock doesn’t understand, doesn’t get why they would be fighting about him—he hadn’t texted John lately, not for cases, not because he was bored. In fact, Sherlock hadn’t talked to John at all since the day of the wedding. Regardless, John and Mary had a fight. About Sherlock. Then John got drunk and cheated on Mary. With Sherlock. Because Sherlock let him.

The first thing he does is throw up, right on the kitchen floor, mainly stomach acid. Then he dry heaves a few times. Breathes, loudly and with much effort.

Sherlock leaves the cuppa on the counter and stumbles into the sitting room, not even making it to the couch before collapsing on the floor with a deep, throbbing pain in his chest unlike anything he’s ever experienced. Unlike death itself, which he has experienced. Self-loathing sweeping over him in waves.

A while later, Mrs. Hudson finally comes to the flat, muttering, “Oh, dear…” as she scoops Sherlock up, helps him lie down on the couch. At this point, he doesn’t really care what kind of state she finds him in. He knows she saw John come in last night and he knows she heard him leave this morning. Anyone could deduce that.

Sherlock yields to her care as he hears her get out the mop, as she fixes more tea and covers him with a blanket, places a warm hand on his back because his brain has run itself into the ground, currently processing nothing. He’s crying. Muttering to himself, Delete. Delete. Hyperventilating. And shaking, and shaking, and shaking.

 

 

In another universe, Mrs. Hudson invites them both over for tea and their usual present exchange on Christmas Day. Sherlock grumbles and John swats at his arm, laughing, because he knows Sherlock isn’t serious.

They swap gifts and for the first time, she has gotten them a joint present. Sherlock opens it before John even has the chance to ask, and holds the thin, rectangular object in his hands delicately.

John peers over to look, breath hinged. He curls a hand at the small of Sherlock’s back and presses against him.

It’s a simple black picture frame. Inside it, the picture shows Sherlock curled in his armchair, head tipped back, eyes closed. John stands behind him, leaning over, one arm wrapped around Sherlock’s neck, held in place by Sherlock’s hands. John’s other arm, bent at the elbow, rests across the back of Sherlock’s shoulders, lips at the crown of his head.

Sherlock remembers that day clearly, Mrs. Hudson fiddling with her camera on the other side of the room, John casually slipping in behind Sherlock on his way to get the tea.

“I just told you boys I was playing with my old camera those weeks ago, but it struck me a while back that you’ve got no pictures of you both around the flat…” Sherlock looks up at her dumbfounded, face breaking into a smile. “Doesn’t seem right, you know.” She beams back at him.

“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock says, really meaning it. John laughs, kisses Sherlock right there on the lips, everyone so filled with love that it tips over the brim of the room.

In this universe, they place the black picture frame on the mantle beside the skull. Although they’ll never admit it to each other, they both look at it at least once a day.

 

 

It’s strange, Sherlock thinks, to be paralyzed by a memory. He doesn’t remember how long it took him to lock away the image of Redbeard laid out in the living room, whimpering, chest heaving, helpless. He could never truly delete it, but eventually, he was able to shove it into a closet in his Mind Palace and slam the door shut.

Three days have passed. Every waking moment Sherlock sees in his mind’s eye John’s face mid-orgasm, hand wrapped around his own cock. It’s enough to drive a man mad. The love itself was enough to drive a man mad, Sherlock knows, the day he first saw John in Bart’s and his heart sputtered then roared back to life, tugging him in the direction of this fascinating new creature. That alone would have brought any other man to his knees. But Sherlock made do, tucked it secretly behind his rib cage, and soldiered on.

That was just emotion. That can be suppressed. His struggle now is that this—the feeling of John’s lips on his, the image of John’s eyelids fluttering closed in pleasure—is a new beast. Memory is too powerful, too influential, so if he can’t delete it, he has to live with it. Find a way to live with it. The thing he has so desperately wanted, achieved, but he didn’t want it achieved this way, he doesn’t want it possibly never achieved again.

He tried drinking, and that helped, a little. It dulled the feeling, but not enough. He knows what will make this tornado of emotion stop. The uncertainty, the guilt, the regret, the longing. He knows how to make the world quiet, if only for a little while. All he needs is a little while, every couple days.

This time will be different. This time he won’t let himself get out of control.

In a flurry, Sherlock rummages through what he has stashed under the bathroom sink. It’s just for a little while, just until he can learn to cope. He’d bought it last week as a safety net, he didn’t really think he’d need it, but—well, a little won't hurt. It will be okay. He’ll keep it under control, this time.

He promises himself. He promises himself.

 

 

John doesn't come back for over a week.

It’s not that bad. Not like it was for the first three days. But after Sherlock made the decision to ruin years’ worth of rehab and sobriety to finally, finally score again, just to grant himself a little peace—well, he’s been coping.

Of course, during this time Sherlock has received no texts from him, no calls or emails or drop-ins. Radio static. And then, like an apparition, John shows up at the lip of 221b, this time not only cold but also sopping wet. And significantly less drunk.

“Whatever you’re deducing about this, Sherlock, just don’t,” he says, pushing his way into the flat, slamming the door behind him. Rounding Sherlock so he can crowd him against the door, arms caging his face. Pulling at Sherlock’s hair until he cannot help but meet John’s kiss. Like by the laws of existence, he is not already required to meet John’s kiss. (He is.)

This time, John tastes like coffee and spearmint toothpaste and chicken casserole, but not liquor. This time, John tastes like domesticity, and Sherlock’s stomach rolls with disgust at this, at John, at himself.

Nevertheless, Sherlock does as he's asked and doesn’t try to deduce where John came from or why he’s here after having obviously eaten dinner at home. Whatever may come, Sherlock lets it happen.

John tells Sherlock he is beautiful and brilliant but still digs his fingernails into Sherlock’s jaw, still bites down too hard on his bottom lip. Sherlock’s hands are less idle than last time, but a part of him still wonders how John could take this for reciprocation. If John needs reciprocation.

It’s not something he wants to think about for very long lest he start to fancy himself the victim. Because he’s not, obviously, a victim. Sherlock accepts this for what it is and knows that, while this is nowhere near what he wants, nowhere near enough, he will take this, what John has offered him. Of course he’ll take whatever John offers him. Always.

They make it to Sherlock’s bedroom this time before undressing, John’s rain-wet clothes sticking to his body like a second skin. When they’re both naked and under the sheets, John slips his hand behind Sherlock’s balls, finger swiping over his rim.

“Want you closer,” he murmurs into Sherlock’s hairline, and Sherlock has already recognized that it is an impossibility for John to ask of him too much.

Sherlock lets John fuck him into his mattress from behind. For a split second, when John asks Sherlock to stay face-up and he refuses, Sherlock swears he sees something in John’s eyes, the flicker of something, of hurt, of something like longing.

But then John’s cock sliding across the crack of his arse for the first time blurs out all other thoughts, and Sherlock allows his brain to shut down.

After they’re sweaty and exhausted—sprawled out on their backs and breathing heavily, aching pleasantly, Sherlock’s sheets draped unceremoniously over them—John turns to face Sherlock and strokes a hand down his neck. Sherlock closes his eyes. He thinks, I would have told him I love him desperately, hopelessly. Before all of this. I would have told him nothing else in this world matters when he is near.

When John gets out of bed and ambles into the bathroom, Sherlock expects him to clean up and then leave. It’s only nine, after all. There’s still time to get home for bed. But then John comes out of the bathroom and pulls on his pants, damp flannel in his hand. He slips back in between the sheets and smiles hesitantly at Sherlock.

Sherlock holds his hand out for the flannel but instead, John scoots closer and motions for Sherlock to turn around. He swipes it down Sherlock’s back, cleaning off the dried come. Not as a precursor to anything, but innocently, and emotion floods Sherlock’s throat so quickly it feels like a dam breaking. Suddenly he has to hold back a sob.

Like last time, they fall asleep not touching but in the same bed. And when Sherlock awakes the next morning from a dream in which John is taken captive in Brussels and tortured slowly until he dies of shock, Sherlock is alone.

 

 

In another universe, John still has nightmares about desert suns and hospital roofs and Sherlock holds him through every one. When Sherlock dreams about foreign cellars and a solitary life, John holds him back.

 

 

It’s been weeks now. John comes over to 221b some nights, never more often than once a week, and never drunk, save that first night. How peculiar.

He doesn’t accompany Sherlock on cases. He doesn’t ask Sherlock to have dinner with him and Mary. (Sherlock would say no, anyway, so that doesn’t matter.)

Sherlock begs Lestrade daily to send some cold case files his way. Finally, the detective concedes, and Sherlock covers the far wall of 221b’s living room with photographs of evidence, statement transcripts, eyewitness accounts.

There he stands one day, shoulders-back in front of the massive collage, hands gripping his hair at the scalp instead of their usual steeple at his mouth, when a knock comes at the door. Idly, Sherlock wonders if it could be John, then remembers that it is Saturday and John is on call. Sherlock doesn’t know if he’s disappointed or relieved.

As soon as the knock comes, the door is opening, and upon seeing Mycroft’s smug smile, Sherlock decides, even if he didn’t want to see John, he’s disappointed, if only for the fact that now he must endure his brother’s company.

“Hello hello, brother dear. I heard you had weaseled some old files out of Lestrade this week. Always good to know you’re keeping that brain of yours sharp.” Mycroft perches in Sherlock’s armchair, and Sherlock can see his brain drawing in the data around him: specifically, John’s missing chair.

“What do you want, Mycroft?” Sherlock drawls, hoping if his speech is layman enough, Mycroft will leave.

Of course, Mycroft knows Sherlock’s tricks by now. He is hardly phased anymore.

He smiles brightly. “Just wanted to check in on you, see how things are going. You haven’t yet responded to Mummy’s Christmas invitation, though you know how it thrills her so to see you.” Sherlock sneers at Mycroft like a particularly wound-up wild animal.

“You know I’d rather stay at Baker Street. It is so tedious to go all the way out there only to drink wine and make small talk. But you’ll go for the bread pudding, obviously, and eat far too much of it, might I add.”

Mycroft doesn’t even blink. “You know, Sherlock, Christmas is such a pitiful holiday to be alone. Or were you expecting your good doctor to come over the Eve of?” Sherlock’s blood flows cold before momentarily stilling entirely. Judging by Mycroft’s smirk, it must show on his face.

“Did you think I wouldn’t know?” He asks Sherlock. Then, just long enough for Sherlock to recognize it, Mycroft allows a hint of… something else to creep onto his face. A hint of sympathy, or at least pity. But no, not exactly pity, something heavier than that—something that makes him look like the brother Sherlock remembers from the days before he left for uni, the days when Sherlock would get himself beaten up by bullies in grammar school and bigger, older Mycroft would intervene.

Sherlock strides over to sit on the couch facing his brother. The next words spoken are a whisper. “What kind of mess have you two created, baby brother?” Mycroft’s voice is soft. Sherlock fights off the overwhelming urge to close his eyes indulgently against the sound of it.

Just as quickly as the façade had dropped, Mycroft’s cold exterior is back in place. The Ice Man reemerges in 221b as if he had never left. “I am merely suggesting that getting away from London for a week, or even just a couple nights, might do you good. Tell me you will consider it. At least write Mummy back.”

Sherlock hums in agreement. A long moment of silence passes between them, loud with the absence of John’s knee-jerk response to make tea during meetings such as this.

Finally, the silence breaks, and Mycroft exhales like taking a long drag of a cigarette. “Sherlock, I ask you this because I know you better than anyone, and because I always have your best interests at heart.” He pauses. It doesn’t matter. Sherlock knows what’s coming next, anyway. The only logical procession to his last question. The only reason Mycroft would be so blatantly obvious. “Are you using again?”

Sherlock shuts his eyes for a long second and lets shame sweep over him once again. Mycroft is only asking because he already knows the answer, because his CCTV camera have tilted in Sherlock’s direction as he has walked by and caught him meeting up with his dealer in London’s back alleys. Behind the closed lids, Sherlock’s eyes focus in on one word: calm. Mycroft won’t hesitate to put him back into rehab if he proves to be a danger to himself.

Mycroft asks one more question. “What is it you are seeking?” Sherlock could say, Ignorance. He could say, Peace. He could say, I am seeking release from these memories. It’s not fair, that I have to hold them so tightly. That I have to cling to them. I don’t know how to let go.

He could say, I am seeking him, only and always him. Or, The American Beat poets believed taking drugs allowed the user to view other worlds. He could say, I am seeking a world in which he and I belong.

Sherlock says none of this. Has no doubt Mycroft will read it on his face anyway. For questions like these, no response is necessary. Mycroft will determine what to do based on how Sherlock reacts to it. Therefore, Sherlock decides, the best plan of action is to not react.

Opening his eyes, Sherlock fixes him with a pointed stare. “You should probably be leaving, Mycroft,” he says, “It’s getting dark.” Neither mentions that the clock on the wall reads three in the afternoon.

Mycroft sighs. Sherlock knows that this means Mycroft thinks he has won. Let him, Sherlock revels.

Mycroft gives Sherlock a sad smile. Stands, puts on his coat. Grabs his umbrella and lets himself out with the parting call, “Brother mine, don’t I know.”

 

 

In another universe, Sherlock and John take a case that leads them to a crackhouse on the wrong side of London. When John catches Sherlock staring absent-mindedly at an anonymous vial of cocaine, he reaches out and tugs Sherlock gently towards the exit, thumb rubbing across the back of Sherlock’s hand. “Let’s go get dinner,” he says, voice soft. “Lestrade’s got it from here.”

Sherlock doesn’t know why everyone is tiptoeing around him this case until John goes to the bathroom at Angelo’s and all at once, Sherlock remembers life without him.

In this universe, John’s pull on Sherlock is so much stronger than any drug’s that Sherlock constantly forgets that cocaine was ever a problem for him at all.

 

 

Lestrade barges into the flat one night, a week before Christmas. Over the course of two months, John has honest-to-God fucked Sherlock three times and kissed him even more. Taken his cock in his hands even more. Has “dropped in,” as Sherlock vaguely refers to John’s visits in his head, even more.

Tonight, the sound of Lestrade’s steps echo up to 221b so late that if Sherlock hadn’t memorized the exact pattern of John’s hateful gait coming up the stairs by now (delete, delete), he would have automatically assumed it was him, again.

Sherlock is lying curled into the back of the couch when Lestrade hooks a hand under his ribcage and pulls him to stand. “Up you go, then. Mrs. Hudson called me. Said you hadn’t left the flat in a bloody week.” Sherlock stands, but won’t look at him.

“I’ve been busy,” he says.

Lestrade laughs humorlessly. “Don’t lie to me, Sherlock. I know you haven’t any cases on.” There is a chill still clinging to the fibers of Lestrade’s heavy coat that Sherlock can feel across the room. December in London, Sherlock thinks bitterly, what a time to be alive.

“I’m not going out with you, Gray,” Sherlock grits out, putting emphasis on the name because he knows it’s incorrect, he just wants Lestrade to leave.

Lestrade shrugs out of his coat and hangs it on the rack neatly. “Greg. And, no, I didn’t expect you to, ’s why I brought the good stuff with me.” Lestrade holds up a bag from Tesco and brings out a bottle of single malt. “Merry bloody Christmas. Figured you could use some of this, mate.” Okay, so maybe Sherlock won’t kick him out.

An hour later finds them at the bottom of Lestrade’s bottle and halfway through some wine Sherlock had stashed in the back of his wardrobe. (Wouldn’t keep it in the bathroom, under the sink, behind the cleaning supplies, of course not.)

Lestrade is slouched in Sherlock’s chair, Sherlock lying on his back across the whole couch, facing away from Lestrade. Lazily, Lestrade tips up the bottle into his mug as wine splashes at his feet. “Aw, fuck me!” He slams the bottle back down on the coffee table.

Beside him, Sherlock flops his head back over the arm of the chair to have a look-see and erupts in a fit of giggles.

“I’d rather not…” Sherlock sniggers, alcohol making him uncharacteristically light. Lestrade gets up and hurries to the kitchen, half-heartedly tries to soak up the wine with a rag. When he’s done, Lestrade fixes Sherlock with a serious stare, and Sherlock sobers, just enough to remember why he’s sitting here, with Lestrade, getting drunk in the living area of a 221b with only one armchair.

Lestrade fumbles over some words that Sherlock can’t even hear before saying, “Y’know, if y’ever need to talk about it, I don’t know exactly what’s been going on, but’m always—”

“I don’t need a bloody therapist,” Sherlock cuts in, flipping forward and sinking so low into the couch that Lestrade can barely see the top of his head over the armrest.

Sherlock can feel Lestrade’s hesitation. Both of them drunk, and Sherlock’s burden so heavy that tension still lingers in the air. “I know, mate, jus’ta thought. It is Christmas.”

“Not yet.” A long silence passes between them. Then Sherlock sighs audibly, like the first gulp of air after a childhood game of who can hold their breath the longest. “I can think about things right now,” he says, very carefully, “and be marginally okay.”

“Is that your way’ve telling me you’re using again?” Sherlock bristles slightly, then reminds himself, But he doesn’t know.

“No. Just a blanket statement. Right now I am thinking, but not so much that I feel the urge to claw off strips of my own skin and fry them for dinner.” Sherlock knows he’s being too open, oversharing, and in the morning he will hate himself. Presently, he hates himself. But the alcohol has made him warm, softened him, and he’s tired of swallowing everything. He’s so tired.

“Jesus,” Lestrade whispers. “Sherlock, what happened to you?” Sherlock curls back into the couch, back into the position he was when Lestrade first came through the door. Internally, he pleads with the forces of the universe, Take me back.

From inside the cat-like ball he has wrapped himself into, Sherlock laughs unconvincingly to hide his trembling, the quiver in his voice. “I spent last Christmas in a shed in the middle of a Russian forest with a backpack carrying a gas camper stove, ten pounds of frozen meat, and a laptop tracking the locations of three targets in Moriarty’s web. The whole time, all I could think was that I have to do this now so that this time next year, I can be with him.” The silence filling the flat could shatter glass.

“He belongs with me,” Sherlock admits into the fabric of the couch, and behind him, he hears Lestrade breathe, “I know.”

 

 

In another universe, Sherlock stares at a tuxedo in his wardrobe and doesn’t think, Into battle. There’s one exactly like it hanging on the other side. A box in his pocket. Hands snaking around his waist from behind, a cheek pressed to the middle of his back, the words, “Married to your work, Jesus Christ. I always knew you were full of shit,” and Sherlock smiles.

In this universe, both of them wear rings on their left hands that John had insisted be silver, even though neither of them knew exactly why.

 

 

Christmas comes and goes. Sherlock has never particularly liked the holiday, the sentimentality of it all usually making him nauseous, but this year he absolutely detests it. The flat looks the same as it always does, of course, no decorations, but Sherlock can picture John and Mary’s place, lit up by a big, artificial tree in the living room, mistletoe hanging over the doorway to the kitchen.

(Sherlock tries not to imagine the two of them caught underneath it, kissing softly. A braver man would have hung some in 221b while John still lived here, just in case. He wonders what that kind of innocence would taste like. That kind of softness. A kiss not leading to anything else, a kiss because a little plant on the ceiling demanded it.)

Sherlock never does get around to responding to Mummy’s invitation, but he stays in London. The eve of, John does not drop in, but he does text. 

New message: John Watson
Merry Christmas!!! Sorry I’ve been pretty AWOL lately—clinic’s been hell. We’ll get together sometime after the holiday rush dies down :)

Sherlock doesn’t know what “get together” means and he doesn’t think about it for too long. Whatever will happen will happen, and maybe that makes Sherlock a selfish prick, but he’s never claimed to be anything else.

The nightmares come nearly every night, so he begins sleeping even less regularly than normal. Sometimes it’s about Serbia, sometimes falling. Sometimes, behind his closed eyes, Mary’s face haunts him, smiling, saying It’s my wedding day!

Oh, how he knows. He relives that entire day over and over and over again in his sleep. Sometimes during the best man speech, he starts coughing up blood. He almost wishes that was how the day had gone.

 

 

In another universe, Sherlock met John before the war left his mind pecked thin by blackbirds, and Sherlock is there in the hospital room when he’s rushed home, invalided out of the only kind of bravery he has ever known.

Of course Sherlock knows this, had deduced a long time ago that John went into battle because it made him feel heroic. It made him feel like he mattered. What John doesn’t know is that loving Sherlock is a kind of bravery, too. Possibly a stronger kind. Definitely a harder kind.

“John,” Sherlock says, gripping his hand as John’s eyes struggle open. This is the fifth time this week that John has stirred, only to fall back into his dark nothingness. Sherlock would cross his fingers this time, if he fancied himself a superstitious man. The hand that is not holding John’s: his fingers loop around each other anyway.

John opens his eyes fully and initially doesn’t remember a thing. When Sherlock tells him, recognition drops into the room like a lifted piano. John turns his face into the pillow and sobs violently.

In this universe, Sherlock gets in the bed behind him and curls himself around John, mindful of the massive hole now in his shoulder. He holds on tight, and John lets him. This is another kind of bravery as well.

 

 

True to his word, John “gets together” with Sherlock right after the start of the New Year, on Sherlock’s birthday. It’s nearly ten the night of December 7th when John knocks on the door of 221b, bearing flowers and a sappy smile Sherlock thinks must belong directed at someone else.

“Happy birthday, mate! Like the flowers?” John laughs. The yellow chrysanthemum bouquet bobs in his fist. “I didn’t figure they were really your style, but maybe you can do some sort of experiment using them? Mary picked them out.” Oh, Sherlock already knows. The hidden message behind the flowers—yellow chrysanthemums: gently declining amorous advances—is too coincidental for the flowers to have been John’s idea.

A sharp pang shoots through Sherlock’s chest. So Mary knows. Deep inside, he figures there’s no way she wouldn’t know, she’s too clever—he deduced that from the start. And she’s not doing anything about it, other than sending these flowers, like a subtle command. What either of them should have done from the start. Interesting. It doesn’t make Sherlock feel any better.

John pushes his way through the flat, goes to the kitchen for a vase. “I assume you haven’t eaten,” he calls to Sherlock, still standing by the door, frozen in place.

No, Sherlock hasn’t eaten. No, Sherlock doesn’t want to eat. No, Sherlock doesn’t think he can eat, with John moving about domestically in the flat Sherlock now solely haunts, phantom vibrations making the floorboards creak because John does not move around here, anymore, is not supposed to.

“We could order in,” he hears John say. There’s a rush of water as John fills the vase, a soft whoosh as he slips in the flowers. “Maybe that Thai place? Or I don’t know, are you more feeling some curry?”

Sherlock isn’t feeling much of anything, at all, these days. He’s not using enough for John in his spontaneous bursts of camaraderie to notice, but he’s using enough to take the edge off. He doesn’t feel anything anymore. It could almost be nice.

John comes into the living room holding the vase and flowers. He stacks some books on Sherlock’s desk to make room and sets the flowers in the middle, fluffing them. “Looks all out of sorts, doesn’t it?” he says, and laughs. Sherlock laughs back, to save face. It takes a soldier’s strength, and he knows exactly how much strength a soldier can have.

Walking back over to where Sherlock stands at the door, John smiles hesitantly at him. It makes something catch in Sherlock’s throat because it’s so familiar, but not from anytime Sherlock has seen him recently: it’s familiar like unwarranted déjà vu, like remembrance of a past life. “Want to open my present?” he says. Sherlock doesn’t, desperately. He does.

Before either of them touch, they take it to the bedroom. And this time, Sherlock comes last, arching upwards, releasing a long moan. Like a veteran lover, John swallows him, rogue come dripping from his mouth. Every time they have had sex, Sherlock has always finished first. John has never spent this kind of time with Sherlock, and he especially has never gazed up at Sherlock through this lashes like he is now, smiling gently and loving. Like he loves him. Like he just might love him. Like he might.

John wipes his mouth with his arm and gets the flannel from the bathroom as usual, wiping down Sherlock’s stomach first. Sherlock’s eyes flutter closed. The ever-present ache in Sherlock’s chest expands like a crumbling pothole.

After John moves to wipe down himself, Sherlock falls into his old habit, flipping on his side to face away from John, ready to feign sleep for the next five hours. He feels the bed rise and dip again as John throws the flannel in Sherlock’s dirty clothes bin and returns.

They are still for a total of two minutes and twenty-six seconds, after which Sherlock can no longer ignore the way his skin is crawling like hundreds of ants live beneath its surface. He wiggles around in place, trying to get comfortable without having to turn towards John. Of course, these days, he never turns towards John.

Something has taken root in Sherlock that he doesn’t like, and this time it isn’t sentiment. He has grown used to that. He has accepted that whatever he feels for John Watson (affection adoration loyalty compassion hunger longing lust endearment devotion love love love) will not go away easily. At all, perhaps. But this new feeling, the way John looked up at him for just a brief moment like Sherlock was the entire solar system contained—

Sherlock wants to peel back his skin until all the little ants can scurry free and leave him alone. He wants to take a breath of air without feeling it like a weight in his stomach. Tossing and turning, Sherlock hopes and hopes and hopes that John is already passed out like usual after they have sex, so he doesn’t feel Sherlock’s constant fidgeting and take it for anxiety.

Not two minutes later, while Sherlock is still squirming around his side of the bed, sheets tangled in his legs, he feels a warm palm press to his naked back, fingers ghosting over the scars he received from when he was away and Sherlock wonders why John has never asked about them, and the words, “Shh, it’s okay, Sherlock, shh, I’m here,” even though he isn’t.

 

 

In another universe, Sherlock wraps his stupidly long body around John every night when they slip into bed. He curls himself into a question mark denoting a million inquiries about the reason for existence. John, the parentheses, the semicolon, the ampersand—John, the answer to everything, pulls one of Sherlock’s legs to slip between his own.

In this universe, no matter how hot London gets, they never unravel from each other. But night after night, the question mark loosens to become an exclamation point. The better half of an interrobang.

 

 

Sherlock comes home from Tesco to find a thick manilla envelope at the top of the stairs to 221b. Everything about it screams Mycroft, but still he takes it inside and sits down with it at the kitchen table after putting up the milk.

Inside are surveillance pictures of Sherlock’s two years with MI6 while he was away from London. Sherlock knows what this means. Mycroft has been hinting at it for weeks. He wouldn’t be tracking down Moriarty this time, of course not, but it doesn’t matter who you’re hunting when you just need something to do.

Sherlock has been considering it, as much as he would hate to tell Mycroft yes. It would be a way out. Maybe that makes him a coward, but he’s just so tired.

He rings Mycroft instead of texting him, because, you know, there’s a first time for everything. Mycroft picks up immediately, doesn’t even say hello.

“Six months, probably,” he says, and Sherlock wonder if Mycroft’s CCTV cameras picked up the question rattling around in his head. There’s something behind Mycroft’s voice that Sherlock can’t place, doesn’t think he’s heard ever from his brother, or at least for a very long time.

A pause extends itself between them, across the phone wires. Sherlock sighs. “And then what?” More silence follows, exactly fifty-three seconds of it.

Mycroft’s breathing is audible but clipped, as if he is struggling very hard figuring out what to say. “Your loss… would break my heart.”

Sherlock scoffs to cover his surprise. “What the hell am I supposed to say to that?”

“Think hard before you make a decision, brother mine,” Mycroft says. Sherlock is still halfway stunned into silence. “This is a last resort.” With that, the line goes dead, and Sherlock packs the folder back up, places it between two medical texts on the bookshelf that John forgot to take with him. The action feels a touch too sentimental and oddly symbolic. Sherlock tries desperately to roll his eyes.

 

 

In another universe, Sherlock and John disappear together during the reign of Moriarty—no deaths are faked, no ties are cut, no friends are left in the dark. They both go undercover: Sherlock doesn’t like John as a brunette, but it’s a small price to pay. On the other hand, John loves Sherlock in glasses.

They creep through Cairo and Istanbul and Kabul, St. Petersburg and Warsaw and Stockholm, at times chasing Moriarty’s tail, at times Moran’s, at times their own. But come whatever, they are side-by-side—and when Mycroft starts booking them rooms with king beds instead of two queens, neither questions it.

Sherlock knows how dangerous it is to have John with him. He doesn’t dare complicate things during this time, of course not, but both he and John both know what will happen when they finally return home. So for now, waiting out the summer heat in Athens, they curl around each other in the middle of the bed and sleep in their pants, sheet kicked to the floor.

In this universe, John’s chest forms a second skin against Sherlock’s back, and Sherlock can feel him breathing, can feel his heart beating, a steady soon—soon—soon.

 

 

Sherlock spends all morning getting high and all afternoon playing Vivaldi. Violin under his chin, he stares out the window in the sitting room of 221b, contemplating how much more cocaine he needs to get through the night. By five o’clock, his high from the morning has completely worn off and thoughts keep sneaking in between measures like So will this be two years of payback for when I jumped and Would he still do this if he knew.

He’s going to need more than he presently has, he realizes. Shit. Sherlock racks his brain, trying to remember how he’s run out so quickly when he saw his dealer just last week, he gets the same amount every time, he hasn’t been overusing, right?—But the previous week is a blur.

Sherlock can’t afford to score again this week. Surely Mycroft is already suspicious of Sherlock’s depleting bank account, must be thinking Sherlock is losing control, and dropping another hundred and twenty pounds in a week not at Tesco is sure to raise the red flag even higher.

He’s using too much, he knows, but he can’t stop thinking that it is November again and he has let John fuck him into his own mattress six times over the past year and he does not know when this will end. Or if he wants it to end. Because of course he wants it to end; he shoots up every single day just to forget how integral a part of his life John’s infidelity has become—he just doesn’t know if stopping this is worth losing John entirely. At least this way, he has a small portion of John to keep for his own, to guard possessively and sneer the word Mine when people get too close. Even if it is only in his head.

When Sherlock finally puts down his violin, the ringing in his ears he hasn’t been able to shake all year roars like an ocean. As if on cue, there’s a knock at the door, and Sherlock resists the urge to throw himself out the living room window because he’s just so tired, he just wants to rest.

It’s no one but John, he knows. It can’t be anyone but John. He throws open the door. “Hey, mate, just thought I’d—” John’s dialogue breaks off as he moves into the flat and sees Sherlock behind the door, unmoving.

Sherlock knows his eyes must be bloodshot. His skin, pale. John knows the signs of when Sherlock hasn’t been sleeping, when Sherlock is too wrapped up in a case to remember his physical body, his transit. John knows that isn’t what this is.

Sherlock watches his face drain. “Sherlock, are you—high?”

John pushes his way into the flat and looks at Sherlock for a long moment. Sherlock can’t tell if he’s more angry or disappointed or sad. John opens his mouth as if to say something, then seems to decide against it, instead choosing to scrub a hand down his face. Sherlock knows his eyes must be bloodshot. His face, hollow. Pale. How long has it been since John has last seen him. (Five weeks, five days, thirteen hours.) How long has it been since John has really last seen him.

“Sherlock, you…” John attempts.

Sherlock rolls his eyes because at this point, there is nothing left to do. With as much sarcasm as he can muster, he snips, “Yes, John?”

For just a second, John looks hurt, and if he wasn’t on so much cocaine at the present moment, Sherlock’s heart could break in two. But John’s frustration reappears as quickly as it left, and he is panting, “Sherlock, how could—how long…”

Please God, make him leave. I have never had it in me to kick him out. Obviously. Or we wouldn’t even be here. “Would you like for me to fetch a dictionary?” Sherlock drawls. He’s looking for a fight, and they both know it.

“Don’t do this, Sherlock. Don’t fucking shut me out.”

“Oh no, of course not! Because we’ve been completely open with each other for the past year, of course—just the best of mates, right?” John reels back a fist like he’s going to punch Sherlock. Sherlock’s eyebrows hit his hairline. He gets closer to John. “Do it, John, if you really want to. Do it.”

John lets his fist fall, closes his eyes against Sherlock’s voice. Sherlock’s breath is in his face, he’s sure. John exhales, long and heavy. He grabs one of Sherlock’s hands with both of his own.

“You’re shaking, Sherlock,” he whispers, and Sherlock goes limp. His hand shoots electrical currents up his arms and through his body where John is holding it. “This isn’t just the drugs. Tell me what’s going on.”

A wave of cold sweat sweeps over Sherlock as he withdraws his hand from John’s to stop the volts. “I am fine, John, you forget that I did at one point survive before you.”

“Just barely,” John says. Sherlock glares at him.

“I’m fine.”

John doesn’t look convinced. His voice goes low, even though they’re the only two in the flat. “Is this because I haven’t been coming over much lately?”

Stilling completely, Sherlock’s jaw hinges just slightly in condescension as he continues to stare at John. “Because you haven’t been ‘coming over’ much lately? You think that’s my problem?” John shrugs, and Sherlock blows air out of his nose rigidly.

Suddenly he laughs bitterly, clipped and slightly hysterical. If overheard by a passerby: could be mistaken for wailing. “My problem is precisely that you have been ‘coming over,’ as you say, at all!”

Time stops for Sherlock. The clocks halt. Suddenly, it is John’s face frozen in this flat, John in his oatmeal jumper, holding a teacup to his lips so it cuts off the bottom half of his face. John in his armchair, reading the newspaper, eating toast. John standing at the bathroom sink, at the top of the stairs to his room, at the stove. John, preserved in memory. John, innocent and whole.

And then—John, flushed with rage; John, tainted and broken—time restarts. “What, Sherlock?”

John’s voice is still sympathetic but Sherlock only hears pity. I mean, I’m flattered, but—you know, I have a—I didn’t know it was like—I, I’m very flattered, Sherlock.

Sherlock laughs again. “Did you know, John—” he starts, knowing where this will lead, knowing what he is about to disclose, “—that I knew the very moment—the very moment, John!—we met that I would fall crushingly, devastatingly in love with you?” He pauses. Closes his eyes for the briefest of seconds before continuing, softer, voice barely above a whisper, “That I would fall so in love with you that it would ruin me?”

By now, John has completely stilled, mouth slightly gaping. Sherlock can see the pieces connecting in John’s head. He laughs, this time with less malice, more desperation.

“Because I did. I knew. And I could have turned you down, you see, I could have lived here by myself, I never needed a flat share—but I brought you here. I brought you here knowing full well what was going to happen, and look at us now.” Sherlock’s wild smile drops to an inquisitive, but no less manic, frown. He threads both hands into his hair and yanks at it, throwing his dark curls in all directions, cocks his head to the side. “I let it happen, John. Wonder why I did that?”

John looks at him in disbelief, scrubs a hand over his face and paces around in a circle for a few seconds. Sherlock is completely, emotionally wrecked. Could collapse in a heap. Should probably collapse in a heap, to keep him from saying anything else.

When he finally stops pacing, John releases a labored breath and stares at the floor for a heartbeat, two, three—before speaking, face still turned down.

“This is. This, just. Why did you never tell me, Sherlock, all these years and you never…” Something inside of Sherlock deflates slightly. He hangs on John’s words as they come forcefully, strangled. “I haven’t… Sherlock, how can you not know? How did you not deduce it?” John has the grace to look truly and properly disappointed, then continues speaking: “I have never—loved anyone… the way I love you.”

Sherlock thinks for a moment about sneering at that before he realizes John isn’t mocking him, before he realizes John is actually, truly and properly, disappointed, truly and properly sad, that he is crying, slightly. The world tilts. Anger empties out of Sherlock like water down a drain. For a moment, he is completely hollow and unfeeling.

Of course, there were hints; this was not the first time something had made Sherlock ponder whether his tragic love could actually be requited. But this confession is bigger than that. This is enormous.

And John might be telling the truth. “I didn’t know how to give her up. You were gone—” John looks up at Sherlock now and Sherlock meets his eyes. John squeezes his shut like he’s in pain. “You were gone, Sherlock, and then you came back, and I was scared.”

Anger subsided, the old, familiar guilt drops itself into the hollowness Sherlock’s chest, solid and heavy. “John, I am—” John holds up a hand, halting Sherlock’s apology.

“I know you are. But Sherlock, if I had gone back to you, if I had given Mary up for you, and you had bloody left again… I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. She was stable. But you are…”

Sherlock’s chest clinches. “John—”

“Everything, to me, you’re everything. I couldn’t let myself accept that.”

The bottom drops out of Sherlock’s stomach. He presses his eyes closed, balls his hands into fists. Tight. “John, listen to me.” Sherlock looks at him. “I will not leave you again. I swear to it, John, never again.”

John huffs out a laugh. Unconvincing, even to himself. “What am I supposed to say to that now, Sherlock?” There is no answer to this, so Sherlock looks away. “I’ve a wife now. I made vows. You’re everything, Sherlock, you’re bloody everything—but you’re not everything. Not anymore.”

If if were anyone else standing in front of him, Sherlock would have pointed out the obvious contradiction in that sentence, that everything cannot be divided, that dividing everything actually negates the literal definition of the word—but Sherlock keeps quiet. Because in his own way, John is eloquent. Sherlock has known John for long enough to know that on some level, what he has said makes sense. And Sherlock cannot argue with it.

“I didn’t know how to give you up, either. That’s why I’ve been doing this, you know. It’s no excuse, but that’s why. After the first time, it was just… I couldn’t stay away. I thought I could have both, but that’s not fair to either of you, is it.” Sherlock does not breathe.

John, however, takes large, full breaths, one after the other. Looks at the ground, the skull, the smiley face still graffitied on the wall. Anywhere but at Sherlock.

“So, this,” John says, motioning between them with his hands. Sherlock nods.

“This.”

John looks back at Sherlock. They’re still standing fairly close together, and if Sherlock didn’t fear breaking the semi-peace that has wrapped them up, he would move back, if only because no matter how physically close they have been in the past year, for some reason this feels the most intimate.

John sighs before continuing. “This is ripping you up, isn’t it?” Sherlock knows right before he looks away that John would need that as confirmation, nothing more.

“Right,” John says, and clasps his hands on the top of his head. He walks backwards away from Sherlock, then bends over at the waist, stretching. “Brilliant, that is. Right brilliant.”

Sherlock falters. “John, I—” John stands back up and Sherlock realizes he honestly has nothing to say.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” John whispers. “I’m so sorry.” He doesn’t move forward. Doesn’t take Sherlock’s cheek in his hands, doesn’t grip Sherlock’s fingers with his. Instead, he offers Sherlock a sad smile: all the guilt Sherlock has bottled up over the past year, the heaviness in his chest, the things he could have done differently—reflected back to him. A mutual pain.

In this universe, Sherlock knows that’s the only lasting thing they’ll share. He tries, desperately, to convince himself that it’s enough.

But this universe isn’t how it’s supposed to be. This was never how it was supposed to be, in any universe. Mycroft’s voice, eleven months in the past, bellows in Sherlock’s ears: What kind of mess have you two created, baby brother?

 

 

In another universe, the year is 2054 and life in Sussex is absolutely beautiful, even when Sherlock’s hands and knees start to shake so much that he has to give up his bees. He sells the hive to a man a few cottages down who swears to take care of them. The next day, Sherlock sulks in bed and refuses, even for John, to get up.

So when John comes back into the bedroom carrying a wooden tray of toast drizzled with honey, tea exactly the way Sherlock likes it, and a purple iris from his flower garden (They’ll be good for your bees, Sherlock, he had said a lifetime ago) in a glass bottle, Sherlock cannot help but brighten, if only a bit. John sets the tray down on the bed and climbs in beside Sherlock, careful so that nothing tips over. He nuzzles the wiry, grey hair behind Sherlock’s left ear and Sherlock smiles.

“Van Eyck will be so good to them, you know that.” Sherlock can feel John’s breath by his ear, can feel the wrinkles in John’s cheeks and chin rubbing over Sherlock’s neck. He nods.

Things have changed a lot in almost 40 years, Sherlock thinks. He tells himself that it’s just age making him sentimental, even if he knows loving John Watson was still his weak spot even when he was young.

They’ve both greyed significantly. Sherlock can count the laughter lines around John’s eyes like rings in a tree stump. He does, sometimes, when John is asleep on his back because on nights when the arthritis is especially bad, his hips won’t let him lie on his side. These are the nights that Sherlock ghosts his fingers over John’s knotty hip bones, sliding up his flannel shirt just enough that he can feel the skin underneath, spotted and rough with age.

They eat breakfast in bed and spill toast crumbs into the sheet. After it’s all gone, after they have drained their tea and the flower is safe and sound on Sherlock’s nightstand, John hooks an arm around Sherlock and draws him to his chest.

In this universe, Sherlock has had a lifetime of moments like this. And yet, when John drops little kisses onto his forehead, eyebrows, cheekbones, when John strokes a fingertip down the contours of his chest, Sherlock’s stomach still fills with flutters as if it is the very first time.