Chapter 1: Prologue
Once upon a time, in a large country house far from London, before Sherlock decided to confine his reading to anything pertaining to criminology, he used to read stories. Adventure stories, and fairytales – the real fairytales, not the sanitised versions approved by adults – and quests, and pirates on the high seas… he would take himself off with a book and a bag of apples and tuck himself away somewhere: up a tree, or in the attic, or on a curtained window seat in an unused bedroom. By the time he was seven he had known every inch of the estate grounds better than the gardener, and the only one who’d ever been able to find him was Mycroft.
These days, with both of their parents buried years ago, the only one who knows about Sherlock’s old reading habits is Mycroft. He never mentions them, but Sherlock doesn’t imagine for a moment that Mycroft doesn’t look at his younger brother and remember the small adventurer he used to be.
Sherlock could hardly bear to be outdone by his brother, never mind that Mycroft had had seven more years in the world to learn about things. So when Mycroft came home for the long summer holiday at age fifteen and gently told their mother – whose smile never reached her eyes, and hadn’t in years – that his English teacher was so impressed with Mycroft’s performance that he had set him Dante’s Inferno to read over the summer, Sherlock barely waited for Mycroft to finish talking before announcing that he was going to read it too.
He bristled defiantly, just waiting to be told that it was too long, too complicated for him, but Mycroft only looked mildly surprised before saying ‘Alright. I’m sure there’s a copy in the library somewhere. I’ll help you look after lunch, if you like.’
(Sherlock was too triumphant to pay much attention to it at the time, but several years later the thought occured to him that it was probably the quietest summer holiday Mycroft ever had.)
There was indeed a copy of La Divina Commedia in the library, its leather cover faded and cracked.
‘You must be careful with it,’ Mycroft said, cradling it gently to his chest as he climbed ponderously back down the ladder. ‘It’s very old, and you mustn’t take it outside or anywhere dirty. Let me see your hands.’
‘I know,’ Sherlock scowled at Mycroft from under his tangled mop of hair, but presented his palms for inspection. ‘I’m not a baby.’
‘Very well.’ After careful inspection Mycroft deemed Sherlock’s hands clean enough, and he handed over the old volume. ‘Go carefully now.’
Sherlock spent most of that summer indoors or out on the terrace, the book open in front of him and a dictionary at his side for help with the longer words; Mycroft had offered to tell him the meanings but Sherlock had refused, saying he wanted to work it out for himself, and hadn’t missed the approving gleam in Mycroft’s eyes. The book was in Italian, but each page had the English translation on the page facing it and Sherlock worked away at it tenaciously, more grateful for the translation than he would ever admit. The multiple references to various historical figures were rather lost on him, but he read the graphic descriptions of their torments with morbid glee. Although he didn’t understand why, for example, violence was worse than heresy, and why both were apparently worse than greed.
‘It doesn’t make any sense,’ he complained to Mycroft, on a rainy afternoon that found them both in the sitting room, curled up on the sofa and sharing a blanket.
‘Hmm?’ Mycroft looked up from the enormous book he was devouring: Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy.
‘Here.’ Sherlock showed him the pen-and-ink engraving of the circles of hell in the front of the book. ‘Look.’
Mycroft set his book aside and took La Divina Commedia from Sherlock; he was having a growth spurt that summer and his hands were slightly too large, but they turned the old pages delicately.
‘Supposedly the difference is between the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious sins.’ He traced demarcating lines through the illustration with a gentle fingertip. ‘Here. And here.’
‘Hmm.’ This explanation lacked a certain scientific rigour, to Sherlock’s mind, but there was something else as well.
‘And here.’ Sherlock took the book back from Mycroft and turned through the pages carefully until he found the one he wanted: the fifth circle of hell, for those who were angry. He pointed out the lines in question, and Mycroft read: ‘“The sullen lie gurgling beneath the water, withdrawn into a black sulkiness that can find no joy in God or man or the universe.”’ He paused. ‘Yes. And?’
‘Like Mummy?’ Sherlock wanted to know.
‘She’s not sulky, Sherlock,’ Mycroft corrected him gently. ‘She’s sad.’
‘Why?’ Sherlock already knew the answer, or thought he did, but he would rather pretend ignorance than admit he wanted the comfort of hearing Mycroft’s confirmation.
‘She misses Father,’ Mycroft said quietly. ‘Do you remember him much?’
‘A bit.’ Sherlock remembered a tall, quiet man. He remembered parties in the summer, with the large French windows flung wide to accommodate all the guests in the house and on the terrace, and their mother laughing in a bright frock.
‘I don’t believe that sad people go to a special hell when they die,’ Sherlock grumbled. ‘That’s silly.’
‘No,’ Mycroft said quietly. ‘Not when they die. But possibly while they’re still alive.’
Sherlock snorted at this, with youth’s sweet arrogance that it would never find itself in such a place.
‘It’s stupid,’ he announced.
‘Well.’ Mycroft’s mouth twisted. ‘The fourteenth century wasn’t known for its logical approach to mental illness.’
‘I’m going to tell her I think it’s stupid,’ Sherlock decided. ‘Then she won’t need to be worried about it.’
‘No, don’t do that.’ Mycroft rested a hand gently on Sherlock’s hair and Sherlock allowed himself to lean into it, just a fraction. ‘It’s a kind thought, but don’t say that to her.’
Mycroft stretched, marking his place in his book and laying it aside, before saying carelessly: ‘Did I tell you that I’ve worked out how to pick the lock on the attic door?’
Sherlock sat up, medieval psychology forgotten. ‘No! How?’
‘I can show you,’ Mycroft offered, ‘if you want.’
Sherlock was off the sofa before Mycroft could move. ‘Come on!’
In all the ensuing excitement the subject of the Styx, and the damned who were submerged in its mire, was let fall.
Sherlock finished the Inferno, the first third of La Divina Commedia, over the course of the summer, but he didn’t bring the subject up again. That wasn’t to say he forgot about it, though. Like his mother, Sherlock would find in later years that the mire of the Styx was more easily attained than left behind.
Twenty-seven years later
‘John!’ Sherlock bellows at him. ‘John, come on!’
They’re on the deck of the Friesland, which is blazing away like a vision of Hell and John – damn him – is wasting time checking the body of a man on the deck.
Sherlock darts over to him and almost forcibly wrestles John away, blocking him when John tries to return to the corpse.
‘He’s dead, he’s dead! Leave him!’ Sherlock roars at him as John fights like a wild thing to escape.
‘I need to check for a–’
‘No you don’t, he doesn’t have a pulse any more!’ Sherlock shouts into his face. ‘And even if he does, how exactly are you planning to save him? You’re going to have to jump into icy water while fully dressed in the middle of the night; you’re going to have enough of a job to keep yourself afloat, never mind dead weight like him.’
As far as Sherlock is concerned that thug had chosen his fate when he took up with Aylsworth and his gang; he’s not about to risk his life, much less John’s life, for such a man, and John wrests himself free and glares at Sherlock.
‘I’m going to have such words for you back at the flat,’ John snarls, shoving Sherlock none too kindly towards the stern. ‘I fucking well told you to wait for Lestrade but no, you and your massive fucking intellect had to go chasing off–’
‘The police boat is on its way,’ Sherlock says, but John bundles him into a lifejacket and yanks the straps tight until Sherlock gasps reflexively and stops talking.
‘I know the fucking boat is on its way,’ John spits. ‘A bit bloody late now, though. Get over the railing.’
He breaks away to put on his own lifejacket and shouts orders at Sherlock. ‘We need to swim clear of this boat before the whole thing goes up like Guy Fawkes night. Stay out of the centre of the river; if the current catches you you’ll be swept downstream.’
‘I know,’ Sherlock says tightly, looking down into the inky Thames churning in the boat’s wake.
‘It’s going to be cold,’ John says. ‘Try to keep breathing.’
‘I will,’ Sherlock says. ‘John, come on, hurry up.’
John is still fumbling with the fastenings on his lifejacket, but when Sherlock moves to help him John shouts at him.
‘I said get over the railing! We’ve not got long before the petrol tank blows and you need to go.’
‘I’ll be right behind you, but I’m the stronger swimmer and first I want to see you clear of the boat.’
‘Get in there before I come over and fucking throw you in myself!’ John roars at him, and Sherlock scrambles over the railing.
‘I…’ John has his lifejacket on, at last, and he climbs over the railing next to Sherlock. With John so close, suddenly, Sherlock fumbles for words. ‘I’m sorry, you… perhaps we should have–’
‘I know,’ John snaps. ‘God, you and your fucking bright ideas. Now go!’
And with no more than that Sherlock dives off the back of the boat and into the river, trusting that John will follow a few seconds later.
The cold hits like hammer blows to his head, winding icy fingers into his hair and gripping hard, and as he surfaces it snakes down under his collar and clamps tight around his chest. His heart flutters, deep in his ribcage, and his intercostal muscles spasm at the shock of it; for a moment Sherlock can do nothing but gape, struggling frantically to inhale. A wave smacks him in the face and he coughs reflexively, spitting the Thames out of his mouth and wheezing frantically. He’s supposed to be swimming, and he turns his back to the boat and starts kicking but it’s hard, much harder than it should be. The cold is weakening his muscles and he’s going against the current so headway is slow, but the Friesland’s engines are still running full tilt, so if his calculations are correct then even swimming against the current they should still be clear of the blast radius by the time the fire reaches the–
There’s an enormous roar behind him. The world goes orange and a few seconds later debris starts to splash into the water around him; something lands across Sherlock’s back, shoving him under the surface and he gets a mouthful of water when he cries out. The pain is huge and immediate, occupying his whole world, and his back is on fire as he fights his way back to the air. He sees the police boat, closer now, and he tries to cry out, to make himself heard above the roar of the flames. Off to one side he thinks he hears a cry from John but when Sherlock looks over he can’t see him, and the next instant something smacks him hard across the side of his head.
There’s a warm trickle on his temple, washed away the next instant by a cold wavelet but Sherlock keeps struggling, because the police boat is close enough now for him to see Lestrade’s face and hear him shouting.
‘John!’ Sherlock tries to shout. ‘Get John first!’
Surely even an idiot must realise that the person they can’t see is a greater priority than the one they can, who appears to be conscious and making decent efforts to swim, but perhaps they’ve already got John because they turn towards him.
Sherlock’s back is one enormous world of pain; he’s never been so glad in his life to see Lestrade, even when the man snags his lifejacket with a boat hook and heaves, hauling him over the side and onto the deck in an inelegant sprawl of limbs. He lands with a thump that makes his back scream at him but he shoves the feeling to one side in favour of rolling over to scan the small boat.
‘John,’ he says. ‘Where’s John, have you got him?’
Sherlock would be the last person to describe himself as given to flights of fancy, but at the look on Lestrade’s face he could swear that something inside him curls up and dies.
Chapter 2: INFERNO: Limbo
They did find John eventually, floating unconscious on his back with only the lifejacket keeping him face-up. They hauled him aboard to find him bleeding copiously from a head wound, and Sherlock had thundered at the hapless boat pilot to take them upriver to Guy’s Hospital – that stood practically on the banks of the Thames – while Lestrade called ahead to ensure that there was a team waiting. John had been cold as death and Sherlock had knelt by him the whole way there, cradling John’s precious, damaged skull in his hands to stop it being jostled with every judder and thump as the boat roared back up the river, and gritting his teeth against the white-hot pain in his back.
In hospital, Mycroft comes to see them both. They’re not together, John being in the ICU and Sherlock in a general ward, since there’s deemed to be nothing wrong with him barring cuts and bruises – most notably a cut on his scalp that requires stitches, and some bruising to the bone of his left shoulder blade – and a raging gastrointestinal illness from swallowing Thames water. He spends most of his time either huddled around a cardboard bowl, retching, or locked in the toilet; eventually he gets his own private room but Mycroft doesn’t do a thing, it’s purely by dint of the other ward occupants complaining that he’s unfit to be in company.
After a day or so of this there’s nothing left in his body to expel; he’s reduced to dry heaves that leave his stomach muscles sore and jar his shoulder blade horribly, and the staff put him on an IV to drip electrolytes and fluids back into him. It’s annoying but Sherlock can’t summon the energy to protest about it. He’s weak as a newborn kitten; it’s not quite as bad as going through withdrawal had been but it’s a close second, but it doesn’t stop him asking after John.
No-one will tell him anything, they only bleat meaningless admonitions not to worry and at last, in frustration, he decides to go and find out for himself. He carefully extracts his IV, gritting his teeth, and presses a wad of sheet to the tiny puncture mark until it stops bleeding, before shuffling out of bed and down the corridor. They’ve stolen his clothes but Mrs Hudson had been by to drop off a bag of his things, including his pyjamas. It’s the plain grey pair, that look vaguely like some sort of hospital scrubs, enough to let him pass more or less unnoticed as long as he holds his head up and looks like he knows where he’s going. He strides through the corridors, refusing to accept protests from his watery knees, and gets to the reception desk of the ICU before he’s discovered. Mrs Hudson hadn’t thought to bring any sort of footwear, and the woman on the desk takes one look at his bare, pale feet before raising a sardonic eyebrow.
‘Watson,’ Sherlock says, trying for his best commanding tone. ‘John Hamish.’
She refuses to be budged, and Sherlock is drawing himself up for a really spectacular argument that is completely and utterly derailed when he doubles over and retches into her wastepaper bin.
Just to add insult to injury, Sherlock hears familiar footsteps and looks up, with watering eyes and a thin trail of saliva hanging from his lower lip, to see Mycroft emerging from John’s room. How marvellous.
Back in his room, Mycroft lectures him from the foot of the bed while the nurses flutter over him and try to tuck him in, plugging the IV back into his arm.
‘I do wish you’d listen to Dr Watson,’ Mycroft sighs, checking his watch. ‘This might all have been avoided.’
‘Fuck off,’ Sherlock growls from his bed. The knowledge that this is all his fault eats away in his gut like acid: goodness knows he’s been injured enough times in the course of his work to accept it, but it’s unbearable that John should be lying deathly still in the ICU, hooked up to various machines that are keeping a constant watch that he’s still alive.
Sherlock tries to roll away from Mycroft but the IV tugs warningly at his arm and he subsides, settling for turning his face away and closing his eyes. He hears Mycroft inhaling as if to speak, but he stays blessedly silent and there’s only the soft tread of his shoes walking away. Sherlock opens his eyes to see Mycroft approaching the nurse washing her hands at the sink in the corner, and who Sherlock recognises as the leader of the team of fluttery, white-cotton nuisances who never stop poking and prodding him. Mycroft waits courteously until she’s finished before drawing her outside and starting to speak to her.
The door is closed but no matter. Mycroft is angled so that Sherlock can see his face and Sherlock has known how to lip-read since he was seven; Mycroft is saying something about ‘relocating’ and ‘Dr Watson’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’. The nurse’s voice is strident – so strident, its been hammering its way into Sherlock’s ears like a drill – and as she glances over her shoulder Sherlock catches the word ‘disruptive’.
But Mycroft shakes his head. ‘If he’s with Dr Watson, then I promise you he’ll be quiet as a lamb.’
Sherlock closes his eyes and turns his head away again. He doesn’t care to witness the occurrence of yet another thing for which he has to be grateful to his brother; Mycroft is wearing his Look, the one he first developed at age twelve, and Sherlock knows that Mycroft is going to get whatever he wants.
They move him up to John’s room later than day, wheeling him up in a wheelchair as though he hasn’t got two perfectly functional legs. The room isn’t large enough for two full-size beds so they’ve set up a rough cot for him in the corner, and he fusses at them until they move it to the other side of John’s bed. That way Sherlock can lie on his right side and face John: tentative experiments have shown that his stomach is emphatically Not Happy with him lying on his left side, as his internal organs slide over to rest heavily on top of it.
John is in a coma, his chart says, but the doctor who does his rounds tells Sherlock that his signs are excellent.
‘So much of the brain’s functioning and resilience is still poorly understood,’ he says, with a shrug. ‘It’s a marvellous organ; sometimes it can stand up under the most aggressive abuse and sometimes a mere knock is all it takes.’
Sherlock is lulled to sleep that night by the beeping of John’s heart monitor and the slow, steady rhythm of John’s breaths. He talks to John, feeling foolish at first but persevering until it feels oddly like being back in Baker Street. He’s never let lack of a reply stop him from talking to John, after all, but there’s a vast gulf between John being silent because he’s not there to answer, and John being silent because he can’t.
After a couple of days Sherlock comes off the drip, once he’s shown he can keep down plain boiled water and some sort of disgusting tasteless pap; if ever there was an incentive to get well enough to be discharged then hospital food would be it. Lestrade comes to visit John, and does an entirely unflattering double-take at the sight of Sherlock.
‘Jesus Christ,’ he says, horrified. ‘God, you look like a scarecrow.’
Sherlock glares at him. He’s been avoiding the bathroom mirror, but he hasn’t missed the way his ribs and iliac crests feel starker under his hands.
‘You’re hardly a shining example of health yourself,’ Sherlock says snidely.
The loss of the Friesland and all the documents aboard her means that Lestrade’s case has become infinitely more difficult and painstaking to build; it would be impossible if not for the memory stick Sherlock had snatched up and stuffed deep into his coat pocket before jumping overboard. The creases in Lestrade’s jacket and the traces of stubble on his face speak of nights spent sleeping at the office, and Lestrade rubs a hand over his face and says ‘Point taken. I still look better than you though. When you’re out of here I ought to take you out for a meal. Feed you up a bit so you don’t scare the horses.’
Sherlock’s stomach quivers warningly at the thought of plates of rich, greasy food, and he says quickly ‘That won’t be necessary. I’m sure John would appreciate it, though.’
‘Yeah.’ Lestrade turns his attention to the motionless figure in the bed. ‘How’s he doing?’
Sherlock had been doing the joint-flexing exercises that were necessary to stop John’s muscles atrophying – infinitely more interesting than the physiotherapy exercises they’d given him to ensure his bruised shoulder blade kept a full range of motion as it healed – and he picked up John’s right hand again and resumed his work. The nurses came round to do it daily but he’d watched them until he could replicate their actions perfectly, and surely the touch of familiar hands would be more pleasing to John than cold, clinical ones.
‘Right.’ Lestrade transfers his gaze to Sherlock, entirely too sharp for Sherlock’s liking. ‘And how are you?’
‘Also fine, thank you for your concern.’
Thumb: curl it completely in on itself, hold, and allow to relax. Repeat with index finger. Now the middle finger.
‘He’ll wake up, you know,’ Lestrade says.
‘Yes, thank you for stating the obvious,’ Sherlock says crisply. He finishes John’s fingers and clasps his hand to rotate it firmly on its wrist. So strange, the limpness of a still-living body whose owner was momentarily absent. There was nothing quite like it. ‘Do you have anything further to add? Any more platitudes?’
Sherlock fully expects Lestrade to rub his hand over his face and sigh, as he always does when Sherlock is being obnoxious. But no, this time he’s silent, and Sherlock looks up to find Lestrade watching him thoughtfully.
‘No,’ Lestrade says at last. ‘Nothing more to add. But you know where I am.’
A sharp rejoinder seems like too much effort, when Sherlock is coaxing John’s arm – the one without the IV in it – into the deepest flex it can manage, and Lestrade leaves without further comment.
Later that day Anthea arrives with a large bag, smiles vaguely at him, and departs, leaving the bag at the foot of John’s bed. Sherlock inspects it and finds that it contains some clothes. Suddenly the idea of a shower – a real one, with all the hot water that Baker Street’s old boiler can provide – holds incredible appeal, and once he’s finished John’s exercises then Sherlock dresses, careful of the bandages over the cuts on his torso, and signs himself out of the hospital.
There’s a new phone in there too, since his is now at the bottom of the Thames, and Sherlock grits his teeth and makes a note to transfer the money for it to one of Mycroft’s many accounts. He’ll be damned before he’s beholden to his brother for anything. Perhaps he’ll also send a small token to Mycroft’s office; one of Harrods’ largest and most indulgent chocolate cakes ought to do it.
Mrs Hudson hugs him when she opens the door to him, exclaiming in dismay at how much weight he’s lost. He tolerates her for as long as he can before putting her fluttering hands from him – gently, as she looks alarmingly close to tears – and refuses her invitation to dinner.
‘I’m going straight back,’ he says, and her mouth purses in worry.
‘Of course you are,’ she says. ‘How is he doing?’
From Lestrade or Mycroft, this question would have been ample justification for tearing a strip off them for asking such a stupid thing. But Mrs Hudson’s eyes are faintly pink, and so Sherlock bites his tongue and says gently ‘Very well. The doctors say that his chart looks very promising.’
‘Good, that’s good,’ she says, quickly pressing a fingertip to the outer corner of an eye. ‘And of course he’s young, and very strong.’
Her voice is stuck somewhere between asking him and telling him, and Sherlock says ‘Strong as a carthorse. And stubborn as a mule.’
After all, you invaded Afghanistan.
Sherlock shakes his head to clear the phantom memory and says ‘Mrs Hudson, I really must–’
‘Of course, of course, I’ll not keep you.’ She steps back, with a last pat to his arm. ‘Call me if you need anything, won’t you.’
‘I will,’ Sherlock says, and turns away to the stairs.
His own soap and shampoo make him feel more like himself than he has in days, even though he’s hampered by his attempts to keep the stitches in his scalp mostly dry, and he wipes the condensation from the bathroom mirror with a corner of his towel and shaves. He stares at himself for a long moment when he’s done.
Being so ill has taken resources from him that he didn’t really have to spare, and the bones of his face are starkly visible under his skin. Turning around, he glances cautiously over his shoulder to see that his left shoulder blade is a starburst of colours; he flexes it through the exercises they’d given him and sets his jaw against the twinges of discomfort. His hair is heavy and dark with water, already starting to pull into curls as it begins to dry, but all Sherlock can see is John’s hair, dark with grease from several days of not being washed. It makes him look uncared for, unloved, and after Sherlock has re-applied bandages to the various lacerations on his torso that look as though they still need them he strides out of the bathroom in search of deodorant, clothes, and a bag.
He arrives back at the hospital barely two hours after he left, albeit – thank Christ – as a visitor and not as a patient. He’s also come armed with food: Angelo had been surprised to see Sherlock without John in tow but willing to make him a takeaway box of angel hair pasta once Sherlock explained.
Sherlock’s cot is gone from John’s room but he commandeers a chair and side table from the visitors’ lounge and sets up camp in the corner.
‘Don’t think that lying around here exempts you from being of use to me,’ Sherlock tells John tartly, as he switches his laptop on and hangs his coat on the back of the door. ‘I’ve not checked my website in days; there are bound to be endless posts from idiots bleating about how they think their partners are cheating on them, or how they’ve lost their cats.’
His laptop finishes powering up and Sherlock swiftly logs on.
‘Oh look, here’s a good one.’ He settles himself further into his chair, grunting a little at twinges of discomfort from his various injuries, and begins to read aloud: ‘“Dear Mr Holmes…”’
He goes through all of the posts, his only audience the slow rise and fall of John’s chest under the sheet and blanket, and types out responses to a few.
Sherlock, the John in his head says, just before he hits ‘Send’ on one particularly scathing reply, you can’t say that. Be nice. Sherlock can almost feel John poking his shoulder in reproof, and he glares at John’s body lying in the bed but deletes his reply.
When there’s no more amusement to be had from his website or John’s blog, and Sherlock has ordered a large chocolate gateau from Harrods’ for one Mycroft Holmes – paying extra for same-day delivery – Sherlock pushes his laptop to one side and fishes out his battered copy of Dante’s Inferno to read aloud. Not the one he’d read as a child; Mycroft had bought him a newer copy as a gift when he finished reading it for the first time, and Sherlock finds the ebb and flow of the familiar words soothing.
Mycroft, however, disagrees. He appears that evening just as Sherlock reaches the fifth canto, summoned as though by dark arts, and raises a sardonic eyebrow at Sherlock as he sets a glass of water down at Sherlock’s elbow. Sherlock ignores him but drinks the water, his throat dry from speaking for so long without a break.
‘Really, Sherlock? You think that an account of the journey into the deepest circle of Hell is an encouraging text to read to a coma patient?’
Sherlock narrows his eyes at him. ‘I’d offer to cede the place to you, save that listening to you droning on about affairs of state would probably make him slip further under.’
Mycroft’s mouth actually tilts up at one corner at this, which wasn’t what Sherlock was aiming for at all. ‘I confess that there are moments when it takes me that way also.’
He strolls over and rests his hand on the lump of John’s foot under the blanket; Sherlock spares it a narrow-eyed glance and resists the sudden, possessive urge to pluck it away.
‘You never told him, did you,’ Mycroft says quietly, and Sherlock develops a sudden and profound interest in the wall above John’s head.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I rather think you do.’
Mycroft pats John’s foot absently, before gently nudging it aside to perch on the edge of John’s bed.
‘Caring serves no purpose,’ Sherlock says coldly, abandoning his study of the horrible mint-green paint to glare at Mycroft. ‘You told me that. At Mother’s funeral. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.’
‘And yet.’ Mycroft’s glance takes in Sherlock’s coat on the back of the door, his laptop, the change of clothes visible through the opened zip of his shoulder bag. The discarded box of Angelo’s food that Sherlock brought, and then could only nibble at while his stomach roiled uneasily. ‘Here you are.’
‘I think better aloud,’ Sherlock says. ‘Mrs Hudson took my skull again.’
‘I find myself quite content in my own company,’ Mycroft says, as though Sherlock hasn’t spoken. ‘But it would seem that the same cannot be said of you.’
Sherlock merely glares at him again. ‘I manage perfectly well alone, thank you.’
Mycroft raises an eyebrow but gets up off the bed, straightening his suit fastidiously. ‘Spare me the charade. You forget that I’ve known you almost since you first drew breath.’ He passes behind Sherlock’s chair on his way to the door, and pauses for a moment to rest his hand on the back.
‘Remember that the first circle of hell is limbo,’ he says mildly. ‘Those who, in life, lacked courage to reach for something greater than their everyday condition.’
‘I know,’ Sherlock snarls, turning sharply enough that his shoulder throbs, but Mycroft is already at the door and straightening his cuffs.
‘By the way, my interns would like to thank you for the cake,’ Mycroft says. ‘I believe they now think of you as some sort of benevolent provider of luxury baked goods.’ He smiles thinly. ‘Do drop by my office any time, won’t you. I’m sure they’d love the chance to thank you in person.’
And he leaves before Sherlock can find something to throw.
Alone once more, Sherlock opens the book again and continues to read, slumping down in his chair when his head starts to nod. He tugs the chair close enough that he can kick his socked feet up to rest on John’s bed; at some point the nursing staff come to flutter around him and twitter anxiously about going home to rest, promising to call him should anything change. But he only stares at them mutely, not deigning to respond, until eventually they fall silent and go away.
At last, when his yawns disrupt the flow of his words and his eyelids are too heavy to hold up, Sherlock lets the book slide gently onto the floor and his head loll back against the chair, sinking into sleep gladly.
Sherlock wakes the following morning, and almost immediately wishes he hadn’t. He has a crick in his neck from sleeping in the wretched chair, his shoulder is in knots, and his mouth feels truly disgusting. He levers himself out of the chair, fishes his toiletries bag out of his overnight bag, and disappears in the direction of the nearest toilet. After the application of toothbrush, deodorant, and hairbrush he feels slightly more human and he returns to the room.
‘I hope you’re happy,’ he grumbles at the beep of John’s heart monitor. ‘I feel absolutely dreadful, thanks to you. And you a doctor, too.’
He settles himself in the chair, biting back a groan as his shoulder twinges painfully. ‘I’m going to have to find somewhere to take a shower later, and God only know what that experience will be like.’
The book is still on the floor, left where it had fallen last night, and Sherlock finds the last lines he remembers reading.
‘And don’t imagine that this isn’t massively tedious either,’ he adds sharply. ‘We’re getting to the best parts, you might at least listen to it.’
He begins to read, letting his voice rise and fall with the inflections of the text, and before long he grows absorbed enough in it that he forgets where he is. They could almost be back in Baker Street, with Sherlock reading an interesting article to John, and so when he pauses and John grunts, he merely carries on reading.
A couple of lines later realisation dawns belatedly. John grunted. Sherlock looks up and John makes another noise; his heart rate climbs as his body struggles toward consciousness, and Sherlock moves quickly to stand by his bed, repeating John’s name in a firm, clear voice. John frowns, his eyes still closed. He grunts again – a rough, unintelligible noise – and Sherlock dares to touch his shoulder, hoping that the contact will help.
John’s eyes open, finally, and Sherlock’s heart gives a great bound of joy as John blinks and focuses on him.
‘Just lie still,’ Sherlock says, knowing that John would want information above anything else. ‘You’re fine, just lie still. You’re in hospital and have been in a coma for a few days, but you’re awake now and everything’s going to be fine.’
But the rapid-fire information doesn’t seem to be helping; John looks bewildered.
‘I…’ His voice is rough, scratchy, and Sherlock instantly reaches for the cup of water on the side table and holds it so John can drink.
‘You…’ John looks around, biting his lips. This close his breath is sour from illness but Sherlock has never cared less about anything in his life. He could kiss John to see him awake and sitting up.
‘Do you work here?’ John demands, looking past Sherlock to glance around the room. ‘This doesn’t look like the base hospital; did they transfer me while I was out of it?’
Sherlock can only stare at him, lost for words, and John frowns at him.
‘Who the hell are you?’ he snaps. ‘And what’s wrong with my shoulder, why isn’t it strapped up–’
He starts tugging at the neck of the loose gown he wears, and swears violently when he shoves a hand inside to touch his bad shoulder.
‘What the fuck’s going on? Who are you?’
‘I’m… I…’ Sherlock can’t seem to catch his breath. John looks fierce, as though he’d like nothing better than to shake some answers loose from Sherlock, but they’ve been in some tight spots together and Sherlock knows that look, knows it’s the one John wears when looking scared isn’t an option.
‘I’m…’ he tries again, but he’s delayed too long: John’s heart rate is climbing higher and higher, spiking with panic and disorientation, and Sherlock flings out a hand and hits the red button that will bring the nurses running.
Sherlock steps back, allows them to push their way to the bedside, speaking to John in their too-loud, artificially bright voices as John repeats his demands to know where he is and who’s in charge. And then, in all the uproar, Sherlock quietly collects his belongings and flees.
He hadn’t been prepared for this. John was supposed to wake up and shout at Sherlock for getting them both into such a mess. Sherlock was supposed to apologise, looking suitably chastened, and then distract John with more of the Inferno, which perhaps would lead to Sherlock telling John about the case he’d solved regarding a forgery of an eighteenth-century book, based purely on the fact that the type it was printed in hadn’t been cast until 1890. Doctors always made the worst patients, and John would surely need the distraction.
But this… it felt like part of Sherlock had died, somehow, when John glared at him with nothing but that look of suspicion on his face. Nothing was left of all the little moments of camaraderie, of slowly growing affection, of the occasional – the very occasional – instances where they were both drunk on exhaustion and adrenaline and it seemed almost as though John was going to take it further. He’d stand too close to Sherlock, looking up at him, and Sherlock would force himself not to make a sarcastic remark or turn away or even break John’s gaze, his heart pounding and a strange mix of elation and terror twisting through him.
Until John’s eyes would shift away and he’d turn his back on Sherlock, muttering some nonsense about how tired he was, while disappointment sagged heavy in Sherlock’s chest.
Gone, all gone: meals out after cases, and violin concerts to an audience of one when John couldn’t sleep, and John’s face when Sherlock would make dinner for him (as though all cooking wasn’t chemistry, when it came down to it, and achievable by any idiot who could read). Such memories now only existed in Sherlock’s head, which history had demonstrated wasn’t a good place for warm, nice things, and he wished desperately that he’d paid more attention while the events were happening, had hugged every tiny detail greedily to himself.
It’s like losing something precious, like seeing his beloved Stradivarius lying in pieces, and for the rest of that day Sherlock drifts around the too-silent flat. Trying to sleep in bed summons memories of John manhandling him into bed when a case had left him almost too tired even to stand; sleeping on the couch reminds him of John throwing cushions at him and ordering him out of his pyjamas while telling him that his hair looked like a rat’s nest. His researches into the bisulphate of baryta hold none of the critical intrigue they did previously, and on the following afternoon Sherlock gives into temptation and hacks into John’s medical records.
He skims them quickly. John seems to be doing well, if one leaves aside the fact that his last clear memory is of getting shot in Afghanistan. Amnesia varies enormously between individuals, Sherlock knows. John’s memories might be triggered by the sight of familiar surroundings or they might be lost forever, although Sherlock obstinately refuses to countenance the idea that John won’t remember Baker Street: his chair, his RAMC mug, the skull on the mantelpiece…
But the thought arrives that John might not want to come back to Baker Street at all, and Sherlock sits back in his chair. Financial straits had forced John to seek a flatmate in the first place; now that he had semi-regular locum work – that could doubtless become more regular if he stopped spending so much time with Sherlock – he was more financially stable. There was certainly no guarantee that John would want to move in with someone he didn’t know, now that he wasn’t under the pressure of a dwindling Army pension.
The realisation drives Sherlock upstairs, to John’s room, where he stands in the doorway and looks around. It’s all exactly as John left it when Sherlock rousted him out of bed to go to the Friesland, even down to the bedclothes that John had flung back haphazardly and the pyjamas he’d torn off and dropped on the floor, while Sherlock had fought to conceal his interest in John’s naked torso. A better man would perhaps have left the room to allow him to dress in privacy, but Sherlock never made any pretensions to being a good man and he stood there and carried on talking while John stripped out of his clothes not six feet away from him.
Now Sherlock sinks down to sit on John’s bed. He tugs the crumpled pillow straight and, on impulse, leans down to find that it smells of John. He presses his face to it, and closes his eyes, swinging his legs up to lie on the bed. In a minute he’ll get up and do something very important, since he has many important demands on his time. But not just yet.
He wakes with a start. The light in the room has changed and it’s clear that it’s now some time in the middle of the night; Sherlock has no idea what time exactly – John always said that a clock-radio was an unnecessary luxury and John’s watch, like its owner, is buried somewhere in the depths of Guy’s Hospital – but it hardly matters. He pulls a fold of duvet over himself, rolls over, and goes back to sleep.
The following morning Mrs Hudson pops up to the flat to see if he wants to come when she visits John later that day.
‘No thank you.’ Sherlock can’t shake the memory of John glaring at him, suspicious and utterly devoid of recognition. ‘I have… well. Things. To do. Important things.’
Mrs Hudson looks sharply at him and Sherlock busies himself with rearranging the clean glassware sitting in the draining rack.
‘If you’re sure,’ she says. ‘I was going to take him some biscuits.’
Such details are important; if anyone has ever deserved nice things it’s John, now, and when Mrs Hudson begins ‘I bought one of those nice assortments from M&S,’ Sherlock is already shaking his head.
‘No, that won’t do. Here.’ He opens a cupboard and pulls out a packet of chocolate HobNobs. ‘These are his favourites, take these instead. Or as well.’
‘That’s kind of you.’ Mrs Hudson smiles at him as she accepts the biscuits thrust imperiously at her. ‘I’ll tell him you sent them.’
‘No, don’t do that.’ Receiving gifts from a total stranger who seems to know you better than you know yourself must be one of the most disconcerting things ever, and Sherlock tries to sound unconcerned as he turns away and says ‘I don’t think there’s any need for that. Just let him think you picked them up yourself.’
She doesn’t say anything further, only looks at him, and Sherlock keeps his attention firmly on the table until he hears her leave.
Mrs Hudson is back that evening, clucking at the mess he’s made – unavoidable, when one is investigating the scatter radius of bags of flour dropped from different heights – and the fact that he’s not made it out of his pyjamas in two days now, before adding ‘You’ll have to get it cleaned up before John sees it tomorrow.’
Another bag of flour drops – this time unintentionally – but lands with a soft, harmless thump on the countertop.
‘John’s coming home tomorrow?’ They can’t let him out so soon, surely.
She shrugs. ‘Apart from the amnesia they say there’s nothing wrong with him, and they think his memories stand a better chance of returning at home. Familiar surroundings, you know.’
‘But it’s not… I’m not…’
Sherlock looks around at the mess in the flat, and runs a hand through his unwashed hair.
‘Well then.’ Mrs Hudson moves toward the door. ‘I’d best leave you to it. I’ve a Hoover downstairs, dear, if you want to borrow it.’
By the time John arrives home the following afternoon Sherlock has cleaned up the flour, changed John’s bed sheets (with hospital corners, just the way John likes them), done two loads of laundry, and attempted to clean the general clutter of the flat before giving it up as a bad job. He puts himself through the shower and dresses in clean pyjama bottoms and his second favourite dressing gown, the one that John always called ‘mouse-coloured’, before lying on the sofa. He presses his palms together to stop himself leaping back up to start tidying again, and makes himself lie still. This sight is one with which John is intimately familiar, and Sherlock tucks his hands under his chin and closes his eyes, in the hope that it might spark a memory.
“This miserable state”, he recites to himself silently, “is borne by the wretched souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
The tick of the clock, the rumbling purr of the old gas boiler, the noise of cars passing one by one in the street outside; all much alike until one of them slows, stops in front of the house. The distant slam of the front door, the murmur of voices, and then–
‘Sherlock!’ Mrs Hudson calls up the stairs. ‘John’s home!’
Sherlock takes a long breath, and forces his voice to be deep and unhurried as he calls ‘That’s fine. Send him up.’
A moment’s silence before the noise of John’s feet on the stairs drifts up to him, and Sherlock closes his eyes and digs his bare toes against the smooth, cool leather of the armrest.
John’s feet reach the top of the stairs; Sherlock opens his eyes, meets John’s gaze, and begins.
‘Afghanistan or Iraq?’
‘The haircut, the way you hold yourself, said military. Your face is tan, but no tan above the wrists, you've been abroad but not sunbathing. The limp was really bad when you walked, but you didn't ask for a chair when you stood, like you'd forgotten about it, so it was at least partly psychosomatic. That said the original circumstances of the injury were traumatic, wounded in action, then. Wounded in action, suntan, Afghanistan or Iraq.’
John sucks in a breath and leans against the doorframe. ‘Afghanistan. But you knew that already.’
‘Yes.’ Sherlock sits up, leans forward. John looks tired and worn, and Sherlock wants to push him into his chair and make him tea. This is his fault; he has to fix this somehow, but he can’t think how. ‘But did you remember any of that?’
John licks his lips, pauses, but shakes his head, and Sherlock sinks back down onto the sofa. It’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong: John, not Sherlock, is the one who’s been cut loose from his memories, but Sherlock has never felt more adrift in his life.
Chapter 3: Anger
John was carefully polite the rest of that afternoon and the morning of the next day; like a stranger, even when Sherlock deliberately didn’t label the butter tub that contained used surgical implements to distinguish it from the one that actually contained butter. He merely exhaled a pointed sigh, and Sherlock hunched over his laptop and typed faster to suppress the tightening sense of failure in his chest.
But in the afternoon Sherlock is roused from meditating on a possible line of enquiry in the Davis case by a shout of ‘Fuck!’ and the sound of breaking crockery. He startles up off the sofa, and looks into the kitchen to see John leaning with both hands on the counter, head sunk between his arms.
‘In the hall cupboard.’ John looks over at him and Sherlock clarifies, ‘The broom and dustpan,’ wondering if John has any inkling at all of how rare it is that he’ll clarify a statement without a snide comment on how people should use their brains.
Sherlock lies back down on the sofa and tries to ignore the rustle of John sweeping up but it’s no use, his concentration is completely shot to hell, and when John goes to put dustpan and brush away Sherlock follows him.
John stows dustpan and brush neatly, closes the cupboard door, and turns. ‘Jesus!’
Sherlock takes a step back. Perhaps he had been standing rather close. ‘What were you upset about?’
‘Nothing,’ John mutters, and at Sherlock’s look he sighs. ‘I have amnesia, Sherlock. I woke up three days ago thinking I was still in Afghanistan. I don't know who the Prime Minister is. I'm going to lose my temper once in a while. It's nothing to do with you.’
Doesn’t John understand? Sherlock is never going to be able to fix this if he doesn’t have enough data to work with. ‘Everything about you has to do with me. And I never know who the Prime Minister is; it's hardly necessary information. Now: what upset you?’
John looks to the side, mouth twisting. A better man would step back, allow John to slip away to make his tea as he so clearly wants to do, but Sherlock stays obstinately where he is until John admits ‘I wanted to make tea, but there wasn't any milk. I thought, all right, I'll just pop out for some milk, then. But then I realised that I didn't know where the closest shop was. Where I could buy milk.’
Did John think he couldn’t just ask this sort of thing? ‘It's not as if you've forgotten how to use the Internet. You can easily look that up. Or ask Mrs. Hudson. Or me.’ Did he really appear so unapproachable, and to John of all people?
But John snaps ‘That’s not the point!’ provoked into outright glaring at Sherlock. ‘The point is that I don't even know which of my keys are which. I don't know where we keep the toilet roll. I didn't even know where my bedroom was.’
‘But you worked it out,’ Sherlock says, trying to sound encouraging in the face of John’s frustration.
Clearly the wrong thing to say, though, as John’s hands bunch into fists. ‘I have this entire life that I don't remember, and it's a bit frustrating, all right? I read my blog, and it's like it happened to someone else. Well, glad he seemed to have loads of fun, because I'm not.’
Even as John complains about everything being unfamiliar, his annoyance makes him look more like himself than he has done since he woke up and Sherlock can’t stop his expression softening into something gentler, more affectionate. ‘You’re not an idiot. You’ll catch up.’
‘Yeah, I suppose so,’ John sighs, shoulders dropping. ‘Excuse me.’
And he edges politely around Sherlock to go off and make his tea. The old John would have gripped Sherlock’s biceps firmly and almost bodily shifted him if he didn’t move quickly enough for John’s liking, but this one merely raises his hands to shape the air between them, trying to guide Sherlock out of the way without actually touching him, and Sherlock steps aside and watches John leave. At least John hadn’t forgotten his temper.
Chapter 4: Greed
In the early days of their acquaintance John’s amazement at Sherlock’s deductions had been in itself an astonishment. Sherlock was used to scowls and suspicion and occasionally being told to fuck off, but someone who marvelled at him and praised him for stating what was surely obvious, and should be observable to anyone with the will to see… this was a rare thing indeed. It caused Sherlock to exaggerate his slight theatrical tendencies until he became almost rabidly fierce about keeping everyone in the dark until the last possible moment, simply for John’s reaction to the grand denouement. It had also, for a time, caused him to take every childish riddle that came his way, purely for the chance to show off in front of John, until he stopped himself. If he had carried on like that then John would have thought all Sherlock was good for was finding stray cats and grandmother’s lost pearls.
After dinner one night Sherlock looks at John across the table and does his best to conceal how his heart pounds as he begins: ‘Your phone was expensive, email-enabled, mp3 player. You were looking for a flatshare, you wouldn't have wasted money on that. It was a gift, then. Scratches, not one, many at a time, it'd been in the same pocket as keys and coins. You didn't strike me as one who'd treat a luxury item like that, so it must have had a previous owner. The engraving on the back said Harry Watson; clearly a family member who'd given you his old phone. Not your father; it was a young man's gadget. Could be a cousin, but you were a war hero who couldn't find a place to live, unlikely you had an extended family, at least not one you're close to.’
Sherlock blows out a breath. Ridiculous to feel nervous, especially over this. ‘Do I need to go on?’
John starts a little. ‘No, no.’
Sherlock looks at John, folds his hands together tightly out of sight under the table. ‘Anything?’
John shakes his head. ‘Doesn’t ring a bell.’
There’s an odd sort of sinking in Sherlock’s stomach, despite the look of fascinated wonder on John’s face, and he pushes his plate away. Ludicrous to expect that the right combination of words would somehow magically unlock something in John’s brain; only fairytales work like that and Sherlock is far too old to believe in such nonsense.
But conjuring up that expression on John’s face isn’t as satisfying as Sherlock thought it would be, and he steeples his hands under his chin and swallows his disappointment. After a while, John gets up and leaves.
Chapter 5: Heresy
‘I think I'll call it The Six Caesars,’ John says happily, as they settle into their seats and a passing waiter drops menus on their table. ‘The Case of the Six Caesars. The Adventure of the Six Caesars? The Mystery of the Six Caesars?’
‘Mmm, best stick to The Six Caesars,’ Sherlock says expansively, nudging his cutlery straight. ‘Keep it short and to the point.’
They had entered Angelo’s without the slightest flicker of recognition from John; it was stupid, stupid that Sherlock kept looking at John every time they went somewhere from Before, waiting for a light of recognition that never came.
But the sting of it is lessened this time: Sherlock is sated and indulgent with the discovery of the famous Borgia pearl, the disappearance of which caused such a scandal last year, and Angelo’s food is very good, especially for two men who’ve gone two days on hurried sandwiches and snatched cups of coffee.
‘So says Mr. I-Shall-Gesture-Vaguely-In-The-Direction-Of-Broken-Streetlamps-Instead-Of-Saying-Something.’
And of course there’s that too: John is starting to trust him, to get some of their old camaraderie back. He smiles at Sherlock as he teases him and Sherlock smiles back, his heart pulling at the seams under a familiar mix of pleasure and sorrow.
‘John!’ Angelo’s voice carries clear across the restaurant. ‘John Watson! It’s so good to see you!’ Sherlock freezes as Angelo pulls John out of his seat and envelops him in an enormous hug. ‘Oh, Sherlock was lost without you. So sad. I thought he would waste away.’
John looks curiously at Sherlock, assimilating this new information about how close they apparently were, and Sherlock takes a breath as realisation hits. He was an idiot not to think of it before; he’d brought John here for the familiar surroundings, but if there was a faster way to plant the idea that he and John had been a couple than subjecting John to Angelo’s own particular type of joie de vivre then Sherlock couldn’t think what it might be.
It would be so easy, a tiny, treacherous voice whispers to him. He’s already started to trust you as he used to, look at him. If you told him it was true, he’d believe you.
The sheer enormity of the idea leaves Sherlock breathless and shaken. He grips the edge of the table to steady himself; he doesn’t know what his face does but Angelo drops John back into his seat and turns to Sherlock, mouth already shaping a comment.
‘John has amnesia,’ Sherlock says quickly.
The diversionary tactic works. ‘Amnesia? You mean… he doesn’t remember?’
‘That’s the definition of amnesia, yes.’ Not one of his best retorts but it serves its purpose; Angelo stares hard at the pair of them before announcing ‘I will bring gnocchi,’ and striding off.
John stares after him ‘Who–’
‘Angelo,’ Sherlock says, aligning the salt and pepper shakers with hands that he doesn’t allow to tremble. ‘I saved him from being convicted for a rather nasty triple murder by proving he was in an entirely different part of town committing a burglary.’
‘Don’t worry, the gnocchi will be on the house.’
John hasn’t yet taken up the new job that Mycroft has arranged for him, and Sherlock knows that his Army pension doesn’t amount to much. The old John wouldn’t have hesitated to ask Sherlock if he could borrow twenty quid, but then the old John wouldn’t have needed to: he’d still be working and wouldn’t have any money woes because Sherlock would never have taken the case involving the wretched, bloody Friesland. This John, however, only touches his wallet more often than he needs to, and says nothing.
‘How does he know me?’
Sherlock waves a hand, encompassing the table, the window, the excellent view of Lauriston Gardens over the road. ‘We had our first dinner here. Right at this very table, as a matter of fact. This window is perfect for viewing the street.’ He demonstrates, swinging his legs up onto the bench. ‘There was a cab chase. It was divine.’ He smiles a little at the memory.
John nods. ‘I left behind my cane.’
Excitement courses hot through Sherlock’s veins. ‘Do you remember?’
‘Oh, no.’ John shakes his head. ‘I… it was on my blog.’
Sherlock sinks back down into his seat, his mouth sour with disappointment.
‘Ah… memories.’ Angelo reappears, setting a large plate of gnocchi in front of John and – Sherlock is darkly amused to see – a plate of pasta primavera in front of him. Clearly he looks as though he hasn’t been eating his vegetables.
‘Oh, one more thing!’ Angelo reaches into his apron pocket and produces a little tea light in a holder. ‘Makes it more romantic. Enjoy!’
John stares at the candle as though he’s never seen such a thing before, and Sherlock quickly forks up a mouthful of food before he can be called upon to account for it. He keeps his eyes on his plate until John starts eating, and only then does he allow himself to relax fractionally.
One of the reasons Sherlock likes Angelo, apart from an attention to detail in his cooking that rivals Sherlock’s own and boundless goodwill towards Sherlock even on days when Sherlock is at his worst, is the fact that the man is a fascinating contradiction. Despite his rather loose views on the rights of property ownership, Angelo is a religious man. He goes to church most Sundays – Roman Catholic, naturally – and on all the major religious festivals, and goes for Sunday lunch at his mother’s at least once a month. He’s read La Divina Commedia, as Sherlock found out one night when he’d turned up famished and exhausted after a case and Angelo had taken one look at him and brought him through to eat in a corner of the kitchen. Angelo knows as well as Sherlock that the sixth circle of hell – the first inside the walled city of Dis – is full of those who in life spoke heresy, who declared things to be other than how the establishment decreed them. The Epicureans, for example, who believed that the soul died with the body and hence that life should be spent in pursuit of luxury.
A false view of Sherlock’s romantic arrangements is the least of the stains on Angelo’s rather grubby conscience but, just this once, Sherlock desperately wants him to be free of it.
He and John eat companionably. The food is, as always, excellent, but Sherlock can’t concentrate on it.
Ask me if I have a boyfriend, he wills John silently, his heart pounding. Just like you did before. Go on. Ask me.
He waits all evening but John doesn’t ask: not in the restaurant, not while they’re pulling their coats on and Angelo is waving away John’s offer to pay, and not in the taxi home. When they finally separate to go to their bedrooms, Sherlock can’t decide if the muddle of emotion in his stomach is relief or disappointment.
Chapter 6: Violence
Several days later, it’s barely past lunchtime and already Sherlock knows that John is going to have a nightmare that night. They’re on their third day with no cases and the signs are all there: the tremor in John’s hand, the restless way he keeps looking out of the window, the long walk that he goes on after lunch and from which he returns looking just as dissatisfied as before he left. John’s body will always speak the truth to Sherlock even when his mouth gives nothing but empty platitudes.
Sherlock returns John’s goodnight gravely when he finally goes to bed – at almost one in the morning; neither of them has done much of anything all day and so neither of them is tired – and then drifts into the kitchen and sits at the table to wait for the sounds of distress from upstairs. John shouldn’t have to wake from dreams of terror to a cold and empty flat.
Thus far, visits to familiar places have failed to elicit any recognition from John; he’ll make references to past cases but, when pressed, admits readily that he got the information from his blog. It seems as though all John’s memories of their time together before the Friesland are gone for good, and while there are some memories that Sherlock is happy for John to lose – such as the time he accidentally melted John’s laptop, and had to buy a replacement and take him to dinner at Simpson’s to make it up to him – he grieves silently for the loss of quiet, companionable post-case dinners, and rainy days spent watching John’s collection of Bond films while Sherlock mocked the improbable plotlines and John shushed him good-naturedly.
Sherlock loses himself in his thoughts, and when John enters the kitchen on soft cat’s feet Sherlock takes a moment to register his presence. Surprising that John’s still awake, surely he ought to have gone to bed by now. But John’s dishevelled pyjamas and the pillow creases on his face tell a different story; Sherlock glances at his watch and is shocked to find he’s lost four hours sitting here.
He sits up, looking at John properly. ‘You had a nightmare.’
‘Yeah.’ John shuffles into the kitchen and fills the kettle slowly, groggily. He sets it to boil and then – without asking whether Sherlock wants tea – gets out two mugs and drops a teabag into each. ‘What?’
Sherlock brushes his fingers across his mouth and finds himself smiling. Silly, really, to be so absurdly pleased by such a small, unconscious gesture. ‘Nothing.’
John had been so quiet; usually his dreams of Afghanistan were noisy things that woke them both up. It’s an impolite question to ask, he knows, especially coming from a man that John has only known for a handful of weeks, but he can’t resist. ‘Tell me. Was it about Afghanistan?’
‘Don’t remember much about it now.’ John sits opposite Sherlock and folds his hands on the table. ‘Wasn't Afghanistan, though. Was about you, I think. And I shot someone.’
Sherlock’s nape tingles with excitement. ‘Really? Why?’
‘I think it was to stop you doing something stupid.’ John closes his eyes and Sherlock studies his face; the corner of his mouth, the tiny cleft in his chin. ‘You were going to take poison.’
‘Ah.’ The kettle boils and switches off, and Sherlock quickly turns his gaze away as John’s eyes open and he gets up. He takes a breath and tries to sound calm and unbothered, as though hope isn’t coiled tightly in his chest. ‘That actually happened, you know.’
Sherlock watches John’s back as John splashes water on the counter. ‘What?’
‘The first night we met. Well, the second, technically. But you were the one who shot the cab driver.’
How intriguing. Perhaps the old John isn’t as gone as all that, and Sherlock leans forward and clasps his hands in front of his chin, watching John hawkishly as he processes this information.
‘So you're telling me that a day after we met, I murdered someone for you?’ John says.
You did, Sherlock thinks, and it was marvellous, but he moderates it to ‘The man was a serial killer. You felt he deserved it.’
John turns back around to fuss with teabags and milk and sugar; Sherlock waits and watches, at first with bated breath and then with growing elation as John doesn’t pause to ask how Sherlock takes his tea but carries on absent-mindedly and mutters ‘I told you that, did I?’
‘You made a joke about it,’ Sherlock murmurs, to the soothing chink of teaspoon in mug as John stirs the tea. ‘We laughed.’
‘Christ.’ John sits back down at the table and slides a mug of tea to Sherlock. His gaze is very far away; Sherlock would bet that he’s worrying about whether this new discovery of his callous dismissal of a man’s death makes him less of a good man. It’s a nonsensical puzzle to consider, when even a moment’s reflection should tell John that the very fact that he’s worrying about it holds the answer.
Sherlock cups his hands around his tea, blows on it, and takes a sip. It’s perfect, it’s utterly perfect, just how he likes it and John always makes it, and Sherlock grips the mug under a sudden rush of emotion. Doubtless the lack of sleep is affecting him, and he looks up at John. ‘You didn’t ask me how I take my tea.’
‘Oh,’ says John. ‘Sorry. Is it–’
‘It’s perfect.’ And Sherlock can’t stop himself smiling at John, at the lingering presence of the other John that he can see behind this new, quieter man, and when John smiles back at him Sherlock wants to kiss him so much he aches with it.
Chapter 7: Fraud
Time passes and, with each new instance of John’s growing trust in Sherlock, Sherlock’s resolve strains further. It makes him short-tempered and irritable, to have his heart’s desire dangled within reach of him on a daily basis but to be forbidden to reach for it. It would be so easy; Sherlock knows just what he would say, how he would look. It would take barely any effort at all, and John would be his, no questions asked.
But the deepest circle of hell is reserved for those who betray the trust placed in them and so, like Tantalus with the fruit hanging eternally just out of reach, Sherlock must be content with looking and not touching. Besides, it’s not at all certain that his feelings are reciprocated.
John never knew – even before the amnesia – that Sherlock keeps a small packet of cocaine carefully hidden behind a loose brick in the old fireplace in his room. There’s an odd sort of comfort to be had from having it there, one that neither John nor Lestrade would understand, as its very availability means that he doesn’t feel the need to seek it out.
There’s no such comfort to be had from John’s constant presence, though, and when Sherlock’s temper starts to unravel after dinner one night he mutters something vague at John, takes his coat, and leaves, hardening his heart against the way the corner of John’s mouth pulls down at being left behind.
It’s cold for the time of year, and the breeze stings his cheeks as he walks. It’s optimistic – foolishly so – to persist in waiting to see if John’s memories will return. Perhaps, in a week or so, Sherlock might make some vague forays into the possibility of John ever seeing Sherlock as a sexual creature, as something to be desired, lusted after. Sherlock doesn’t know how yet: it’ll have to be wonderfully subtle, but fortunately Sherlock is very good indeed at subtle things. There are still all the same objections as there were before: Sherlock has enemies who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt John to get to Sherlock, and Sherlock is absolutely hopeless at interpersonal relationships.
But John could have died on the Friesland (Sherlock hunches his shoulders at the thought, and ducks his chin down into his collar against the cold), and he would have died without knowing that he was loved, adored, that he made Sherlock’s world better simply by existing.
Yet if John says no, from a lack of mutual attraction, or a disinclination to risk spoiling what they have now, or some other well-intentioned reason, then it will be the end of the easy camaraderie between them. Not immediately, no, but John – kind-hearted John – will be careful not to give anything like encouragement to Sherlock, once Sherlock’s intentions are out in the open, and gradually things will become awkward between them. God, John might even end up feeling sorry for Sherlock and Sherlock couldn’t bear to be pitied, especially not by John.
Sherlock makes for home in no better a frame of mind than he’d been in when he set out, and as he turns into Baker Street he sees, on the other side of the street, Sarah Sawyer walking briskly away from 221.
Inside their flat Sherlock finds John clearing away teacups, and he leans against the door as he strips off his gloves and says ‘Rekindling old romances, I see.’
‘What?’ John pauses, glances at him. ‘Oh, no. No, no, no. I don't – I doubt she's interested.’
He carries the cups to the sink, stacking them with deft, careful hands, and Sherlock thinks If she isn’t, she’s even more of a fool than I took her for.
‘She might be. After all, you’re practically a new man.’
John snorts. ‘I have amnesia, Sherlock, that doesn't make me a different person. Whatever it was that made our relationship not work is still there, I just don't remember it.’
Me. I was what made it not work. She doesn’t deserve you, she never did, but if you still wanted her then I’d let you have her. Previously Sherlock had been too taken up with showing how much better he was, how much more brilliant and captivating. But closer knowledge has since shown that John is a good man – possibly the best man Sherlock will ever meet in his life – and he deserves to have what he wants.
‘It’s a second chance,’ Sherlock says quietly, forcing the words out when they want to lie heavy and unmoving in his throat.
Give me a second chance, he wants to say. You were interested in me the first time around – or I thought you were, at least briefly – and like an idiot I turned you away. Ask me again; tell me that it’s fine to have a boyfriend and I’ll tell you about Victor, at uni, although I’ve deleted most of it and we never got beyond kissing anyway. He said I was a terror to be with and he was right, I am, but I’d try, for you. I’d try so hard.
The words – or something like them – are on the tip of Sherlock’s tongue, but John whirls to face him, fists planted combatively on his hips.
‘Why do you care, anyway? It’s none of your business, is it?’
The words shrivel and die in Sherlock’s mouth and he sways backward a little, realising belatedly that his body has been listing unconsciously towards John like a compass needle to magnetic north. ‘Merely taking an interest in your wellbeing.’
‘Anyone would think you were jealous.’
Sherlock could laugh at this. If you only knew.
‘I’m going to bed,’ John declares, and turns away.
He gets halfway up the stairs before Sherlock can’t keep silent any longer. He loathes asking questions and he positively abhors appearing uncertain, but he has to know: ‘But what if she were?’
John turns. ‘What if she were what?’
‘Interested.’ Sherlock’s heart pounds. He rests one hand on the banister, trying to appear casual, and slides the other into his coat pocket to squeeze his gloves tightly. ‘In second chances.’
John sighs. ‘I don’t know.’ He descends the stairs slowly, one step at a time, until he’s standing on the bottom step and looking at Sherlock squarely. ‘Look, what're you on about? Do you want me and Sarah to get back together or something?’
‘No.’ Sherlock can’t look at him, can’t meet John’s open and frank gaze when he has so much to conceal. ‘Nothing. Just an idle thought. Goodnight.’
What a mess, what a complete bloody mess. If Sherlock had only had the spine to say something before all this happened then he wouldn’t be in this situation now, feeling his way forward step by step until John gets annoyed at being pushed too far. It makes him heartsick, and he’s so busy trying to persuade his unwilling feet to turn away and go to bed that he’s completely unprepared when John seizes his collar and leans in to press his mouth against Sherlock’s own.
John’s lips are warm and a little bit chapped. The kiss seems to go on for an eternity and at the same time it’s barely begun before John is pulling back, his face already telegraphing his dismay.
‘John,’ Sherlock says, and John abruptly squeezes his eyes shut and gasps. He sways forward, legs buckling, and Sherlock catches him, holding him and repeating John’s name frantically.
Christ, but John is heavier than he looks, and Sherlock widens his stance to brace him up until John opens his eyes and pulls away to lean heavily on the banister and slur ‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘John,’ Sherlock says, hands fluttering up between them, panicked. It’s all too clear where John’s train of thought has led him. No, no, no, don’t do this, God, don’t tempt me..
‘About us.’ John closes his eyes again. ‘I… we–’
John opens his eyes, searching Sherlock’s face, and eventually he cups Sherlock’s cheek with a hand and presses a dry, chaste kiss to his mouth.
It’s gentle, just as Sherlock has always suspected John would be with his lovers, but nonetheless Sherlock’s knees tremble at the soft brush of lips and his heart leaps up into his throat. John draws back to look at him, a question in his eyes, and Sherlock tries frantically to think.
It goes without saying that a good man would say no at this point, even though John would be mortified at his mistake, but Sherlock stays silent, staring into the gentle grey-blue of John’s eyes, the kind patience of them. If he says no now then John will never ask again and oh God, how is he supposed to think when John is touching his face and his hands are callused and warm and–
I would sell my soul, Sherlock thinks despairingly, closing his eyes and leaning his face into John’s hand, for you to look at me as though I were more to you than just your friend, just once.
And he feels the waters of Cocytus open up beneath him as he whispers ‘Yes.’
If damnation is the price for this then Sherlock will pay it gladly, a hundred times over: John shucks him out of his coat and walks him over to the sofa and shoves him down on it to kiss him until he’s dizzy and breathless. John is heavy and wonderful on top of him, and Sherlock wraps one arm around John’s shoulders and hangs on as John kisses and kisses him.
After a while, when Sherlock’s lips are wet and slightly sensitised from the firm, repeated press of John’s, John murmurs ‘So why didn’t you say something?’
Sherlock blinks at the ceiling. ‘You seemed overwhelmed.’
That much is true; it had been clear to see John was struggling in the aftermath of his return from the hospital.
But John tells him ‘Liar. You’re selfish; try again.’
‘Mmm.’ Sherlock blinks, trying not to let the weight of John’s gaze unsettle him. ‘It seemed... I wasn't going to remind you of promises you didn't remember making.’
John chews on his bottom lip. ‘And why didn't anyone else? Lestrade, or Mrs. Hudson, or–’
‘No-one else knew.’ Oh God, this is untenable, even John is going to work it out eventually, and Sherlock’s arm tightens around John involuntarily. ‘I have a lot of enemies. They wouldn’t hesitate to use you against me.’
‘They already have.’
‘We were just friends, then.’
‘When did this happen, then?’
Sherlock strokes John’s arm, feeling the compact muscle of it, near where he knows Moriarty’s bomb left a burn scar. ‘It was afterwards. We both ended up in hospital, of course. Minor injuries, some burns. The incident... made clear certain things to me.’ He shifts beneath John. ‘But I was uncertain whether you felt the same way. And there was Sarah.’
That, at least, isn’t a lie either.
‘But Sarah broke up with me.’
‘It wasn’t unexpected. I was a large demand on your time.’ Sherlock smiles briefly at the memories of asking for help from John, who would always come. He would arrive cursing, irritable, grumbling, but he always came when Sherlock called.
John leans up on his elbows and frowns at Sherlock, and Sherlock’s heart does a little double-thump as John says ‘That wasn't – did you – no, you know what, it doesn't matter anymore.’
‘Indeed,’ Sherlock says softly. He’s at a loss for what else to say, but thankfully John settles back down.
‘So, Sarah broke up with me. Then what?’
Oh Christ, now he’s going to have to really do it, no more evasions and half-truths. Sherlock takes a deep breath and works up to it gradually. ‘It was after a case.’ He strokes John’s nape gently, hoping his fingertips convey his affection even as he lies to John. ‘The one you so fancifully termed “The Affair of the Amateur Medicant Society”.’
John makes a noise of recognition.
‘We came back to the flat as usual. We were in the sitting room, laughing and congratulating ourselves. I'd never wanted to kiss you so much in my life.’ That also was accurate; Sherlock remembers very clearly sitting next to John, all flushed and grinning, and the twist of want inside him had hurt.
‘So you did.’
Sherlock closes his eyes in despair, where John can’t see, and lies ‘I did. And fortunately for me, you reciprocated.’
He forces himself not to hold his breath after that, and John merely makes a vaguely affirmative noise.
The fine hair at John’s nape is just as soft under Sherlock’s fingers as it had always looked, and Sherlock says ‘John.’
‘Earlier. On the stairs. When you fell. What happened there?’
‘Huh? Oh. Oh, that.’ John wriggles a little on top of Sherlock. ‘I remembered something.’
‘Really?’ Sherlock tries to prop himself up on his elbows, but John’s weight keeps him more or less pinned. ‘What did you remember?’
‘The swimming pool,’ says John. ‘With Muh-Moriarty.’ His face tightens. ‘The look on your face. And. You didn’t run.’
‘Oh.’ Sherlock stares at the ceiling. True, if any memories were going to return then it was surely logical that it would be those that made the greatest impression at the time.
‘Dr Fitzgerald said I'd probably get some memories back,’ says John meditatively. ‘Something about how they probably weren't really gone, just repressed. I don't know. Sounded a bit dodgy, to me.’
But Sherlock is hardly paying attention. Since trying and failing to prop himself up on his elbows he’s been aware of John’s weight on him in a way that makes his heart pound. John’s stomach is pressing down against his groin, one of John’s thighs is shoving between his knees, and Sherlock’s palms dampen even as he tries to work some saliva into his suddenly dry mouth.
He spends precisely ten seconds trying to calm himself before giving up. If he’s only to have this for a while then by God he’s going to take all he can, to sustain him when John is gone, and he lurches up off the couch. John looks deliciously undone, his hair sticking up from Sherlock’s hands running through it, and Sherlock holds out a hand to him. ‘Come on. Let’s go to bed.’
Chapter 8: Lust
John smiles at him, taking his hand, and Sherlock’s stomach flutters. He’s really going to do this, then: they’re going to go to bed, and John is going to strip him naked, and… things get slightly hazy after that point, as Sherlock isn’t precisely sure how one negotiates what’s to be done and to whom. He wouldn’t know, he’s never done this before, and losing his virginity never seemed important up to this point but now he desperately wishes he’d had the foresight to take up one of the offers that had been carelessly tossed his way during his time at uni. At least he’d have some prior experience and wouldn’t be going into this blind, because now of all times he’s supposed to look like he knows what he’s doing.
But perfect idiots manage to do this every day, and so when John halts by the bed and says ‘Do you want to–?’ Sherlock interrupts with ‘Yes, yes please,’ and crowds him down onto the mattress. It doesn’t matter what John was about to say; whatever he wants from Sherlock he can have, and Sherlock tips John onto his back and props himself up on an arm to find John smiling.
‘But you have the advantage,’ John says. ‘I don’t even know what you like.’
Sherlock bends to press a kiss over John’s heart, his good, warm, and above all trusting heart. ‘I like everything about you.’
John laughs briefly, sounding nervous. ‘What, even my scar? Even the amnesia?’
Oh God, if he only knew. ‘Especially the scar. Especially the amnesia.’
John tilts his head back to look at the ceiling, and for once Sherlock can’t even guess what he’s thinking until John says ‘You first, then. Since you know what I like.’
Sherlock stares at John, struggling not to let his dismay show on his face. He’d been hoping for slightly more direction than that, but he quickly recovers and bends down to kiss John’s cheek. People like being kissed by someone they’re attracted to, and receiving other such demonstrations that their desire is reciprocated, and so Sherlock kisses John’s cheeks, the faint smile lines at the corner of his eyes, the warm skin of his forehead, and the vulnerable dip at the bridge of his nose. Sherlock trails kisses along John’s jaw and down his throat, lingering at his Adam’s apple and dipping down to nose along his collarbone. He unbuttons John’s shirt and spreads the sides wide, kissing along John’s chest and stomach, and draws back a little to fumble with John’s belt.
It’s ridiculous to be nervous. It’s not as though Sherlock has never seen another man’s erect penis before – there’s certainly enough Internet pornography out there, if one can get past the distastefulness of the oiled, empty-eyed young men grunting and slapping their flesh together. But this is different: this is John, and Sherlock refuses to mess things up. John is so hard; the thick line of his cock pushes against Sherlock’s knuckles as he draws John’s zip carefully down, and he hooks his fingers into the waistband of John’s jeans and underwear while pretending an assurance he doesn’t feel.
John naked is a gorgeous sight, even with – or perhaps especially because of – the bullet scar on his shoulder, and the long-healed burns from the time he’d tackled Sherlock into the pool when Moriarty’s bomb went off. Sherlock wants to touch every single square inch of him and he thrills at the knowledge that he can, he’s allowed. He refuses to let himself dwell on the fact that such permission is only temporary, and can be withdrawn at any moment. He should make the most of it while he can.
Sherlock makes his way down John’s front, encouraged by the sight of John’s cock lying flushed and hard against his belly and then coaxes John to turn over so he can do the same to John’s back. He works his way from John’s shoulders – compact and strong, just like all of him – down his back and legs all the way to his feet, the same feet that chase after Sherlock and stand squarely at his side and occasionally kick him under the table at NSY when John thinks he’s being too much of an arse. Sherlock presses his thumbs into John’s soles and John moans, shifting a little on the bed.
Sherlock looks at the curve of John’s arse. He’d seen something once, on the Internet, and the recipient had certainly seemed to enjoy it. Will John really let him do anything, even this most intimate of touches? There’s only one way to find out, and so Sherlock slides up the bed, eases John’s buttocks apart, and puts his mouth on him. John yelps and squirms but he doesn’t push Sherlock away, and Sherlock clings to John and licks at him. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing but John doesn’t seem to care, and Sherlock hangs on and continues until John is shivering and gasping.
Sherlock had hoped that John would like it, but what he isn’t prepared for is how much he likes it: it’s wet and sloppy and vaguely illicit, and Sherlock has to shove a hand in his trousers and underwear to shift his erection so that it’s lying upwards along his belly rather than pushed awkwardly to one side. That done, he returns to John, holding him open and thrusting down against the bed a little to ease the ache of his cock.
After a few minutes he stops: John can’t come yet, not when Sherlock hasn’t done half the things to him that he’s been fantasising about, and he pulls away to roll John over. The past several minutes have left John’s cock harder than before, and at the sight of it Sherlock is mildly shocked when his mouth grows wet with saliva. He’s never had another man’s cock in his mouth before but he suddenly, viscerally, wants to, and he grips the base awkwardly and pushes the head into his mouth.
John’s whole body jerks at this, but as Sherlock pulls back John gasps ‘Teeth.’
Sherlock covers his teeth with his lips and tries again, and again, but it’s more difficult than he thought and he gags a couple of times when he tries to slide too deeply on John’s cock.
‘Easy.’ John’s voice is husky as his hand tangles in Sherlock’s hair, carding gently through it. ‘We have all night.’
All night may be all Sherlock has, and he has another attempt before pulling off to try licking at John’s cock instead, settling eventually for tonguing at the head. This works much better for both of them: John’s moans are music to his ears, and the tiny bursts of salt-musk against his tongue leave Sherlock almost panting with lust. His nipples are tight under his shirt and his cock has started to leave sticky-wet smears of precome in his underwear before Sherlock pulls away.
‘I want you to fuck me,’ he says. ‘Please fuck me.’
John opens his eyes, looking dazed. ‘What, right now?’
‘Yes.’ Sherlock firms his voice against the sudden lurch of nerves in his belly and he sits up and starts to unbutton his shirt, biting the inside of his cheek against the discomfort of his trousers pulling tight over his groin.
‘Alright,’ John says. ‘You don’t need to twist my arm, just give me a sec…’ He pulls at the drawer of the bedside table. ‘Lube and condoms, where are the lube and condoms?’
Sherlock throws his shirt on the floor, starts on his trousers, and tries to imbue his voice with confidence. ‘Don’t need them.’
John shuts the drawer with a bang. ‘I have some upstairs.’
Sherlock grabs John’s wrist, stomach churning. ‘Don’t need them.’
It would be uncomfortable to do it with nothing but spit but Sherlock has taught himself to have a very high pain tolerance. And he can’t help thinking that if John leaves then he might not return.
‘Yes we do.’
John shakes off Sherlock’s arm and gets up, and Sherlock turns away to lie face-down on the bed as John’s footsteps retreat. He stops working at his trousers and grips the sheets instead. What if the sight of John’s bedroom triggers a return of some of his memories? Sherlock couldn’t bear to be lying here naked when John storms back in, furious, and he closes his eyes and focuses on his breathing until John’s footsteps return. Even then, he doesn’t relax and uncoil until John is on the bed with him, scattering kisses across his back and rubbing his shoulders and murmuring ‘C’mon, let’s get these off,’ as he tugs at Sherlock’s trousers.
Sherlock exhales shakily and sits up to comply, bracing his hands on the bed and lifting his bum so John can work his trousers and underwear under the curve of his arse and off. It’s such a strange feeling, to be naked and aroused in front of someone else; Sherlock is struck with the most absurd urge to cover himself, and he clutches at John and focuses on taking deep, steadying breaths.
‘God, you’re lovely,’ John murmurs, rubbing his side in an unconsciously soothing gesture. ‘Come on, now.’
He pulls away to turn Sherlock over onto his front but Sherlock resists, clings to him. ‘No, no, I want to see your face.’
‘Alright,’ John says, and Sherlock lies on his back and pulls up his knees, squeezing his eyes shut as his stomach flutters wildly.
The mattress dips under John’s weight as he lies down next to Sherlock, and the next moment John’s mouth settles gently on his shoulder as a slick finger pushes insistently between his buttocks. Sherlock hisses as it slides up inside him – it feels strange, foreign – and John kisses his shoulder and leans up to stroke Sherlock’s hair with his other hand.
‘Hurry up already,’ Sherlock says, before his mouth can betray him, and John smiles fondly at him as he withdraws to push in with two.
Slowly, achingly slowly, John works three fingers into him. Sherlock tries his hardest to relax – if they really had been in a relationship then he’d certainly be used to this – but it doesn’t get any easier until John brushes a spot inside him that causes a throb of pleasure all the way through to the tip of his cock.
‘John,’ he moans, flailing blindly for John, and John’s thumb turns Sherlock’s chin for a kiss as he does it again, and again.
It utterly destroys Sherlock: John’s fingers inside him, John’s mouth on his, and those maddening little tugs of pleasure at each tiny thrust of John’s fingers, and by the time John rolls away to grab a condom Sherlock is shaking, nonsense falling from him.
‘Alright, alright.’ Sherlock opens his eyes to see John kneeling between Sherlock’s spread legs, his hands sliding calmingly along Sherlock’s shivering thighs. ‘I’ve got you.’
Sherlock swallows as John leans forward, one hand reaching down between his legs to hold himself steady, and as John pushes into him he has to close his eyes and bite the inside of his cheek because God, it hurts. Despite John’s careful preparations and soothing words and his own knowledge of the human body Sherlock isn’t prepared for how uncomfortable it is initially, and when John is fully seated he leans all the way down to press his forehead to Sherlock’s shoulder while Sherlock concentrates on breathing and the warm, sweaty expanse of John’s back under his hands.
Surely the human heart wasn’t meant to feel so much all at once; Sherlock can handle any amount of physical discomfort but he can’t cope with this at all and he groans ‘John. Do something.’
‘Alright,’ John breathes, ‘alright.’ He pulls out and Sherlock can’t hold back a small, broken noise, but this time when John pushes in there’s the faintest flicker of the same pleasure he’d felt from John’s fingers. It knocks the breath out of him and he claws at John’s back a little.
‘Okay?’ John wants to know and Sherlock can only nod. He’s okay in the sense that the discomfort is lessening with every deep, shaking breath he takes, but at the same time he’s never been less okay in his life.
‘Am I hurting you?’
John’s voice is warm with concern; he shouldn’t worry, not about Sherlock, and Sherlock says ‘No.’
John doesn’t say anything more, only pushes his face into Sherlock’s neck and inhales. He thrusts again and oh God, that one’s good, and Sherlock whimpers, his knees tightening involuntarily against John’s ribs.
‘Sherlock, open your eyes,’ John gasps. ‘Please. I want to see you. Please.’
Sherlock opens his eyes – impossible to deny John, when he sounds like that – but he can only stare blindly at the ceiling as John thrusts into him again. John does it again, harder this time, and Sherlock’s head tilts back, his eyes falling shut at the surge of pleasure between his legs.
‘John, please,’ he moans, desperate and indistinct. But John – wonderful John – only kisses his chin and slides a hand between them. Sherlock cries out at the first touch of John’s hand on his cock. He’s never felt a hand there other than his own; it ought to feel strange and it does, initially, because John’s grip is verging on too tight and he’s not going quite as fast as Sherlock wants right now. But it’s undeniable that the very lack of expertise is exciting: this isn’t Sherlock, lying here doing this to himself in a solitary bed, this is John, warm and eager and aroused, his hand coaxing Sherlock steadily towards his climax.
Abruptly, having an orgasm in front of someone else – in front of John – feels like the most arousing and exciting thing ever. John certainly wants to see it, if his filthy murmurs in Sherlock’s ear are any indication, and Sherlock’s breathing quickens as he feels his orgasm starting in his inner thighs, his balls. He tries to say John’s name, but John rubs his thumb across the head of Sherlock’s cock and that’s it, he’s there, and he chews frantically on his lip but can’t swallow his noises as he shudders and streaks John’s fingers with come.
John stills as Sherlock comes, and as the waves of pleasure lessen and recede Sherlock gasps for breath. John takes his hand off Sherlock’s cock and starts moving again, and Sherlock nips his tongue between his teeth at the ripples this sets off through his own body. Not a sound escapes him, but all the same John pulls out after a few thrusts and Sherlock hears him strip the condom off and then the slick, wet sounds of John working at himself, the mattress rocking gently.
Sherlock ought to help, he ought to do something, but he can’t even bring himself to look at John right now and after a minute John gasps sharply and stills. Sherlock flings an arm over his eyes as John crawls up the mattress to fish a handkerchief out of the bedside table. His throat is tight, his eyes burning, and he tamps his emotions down fiercely. It wouldn’t do for John to think that he’d done something wrong.
‘Hey.’ John’s hand is gentle on Sherlock’s arm. ‘You alright?’
Sherlock can’t look at him – he doesn’t deserve John’s concern – but John shakes his arm a little. ‘Look at me.’
Impossible to refuse a direct request, and Sherlock emerges from behind his arm. John sucks in a breath as Sherlock looks at him. ‘Did I hurt you?’
How very like John to be more concerned about Sherlock than himself, and Sherlock says ‘No.’
John exhales heavily, obviously relieved, and Sherlock creeps closer to him. The air of his bedroom is cold, suddenly, as though all the icy winds of the second circle are howling across his skin, and Sherlock wants very much for John to hold him close. While John looks flushed and sated, Sherlock is heartsick and vaguely nauseated with himself, and he inches closer until John responds, putting his arms around Sherlock and drawing him closer until Sherlock can hide his face in John’s neck and close his eyes.
To such torment were condemned the carnal sinners, he thinks, who subjugated their reason to their lust.
Chapter 9: Gluttony
After Lestrade has taken the muddy gun away to be processed, and after Sherlock has paid an exorbitant amount to the only cabbie that would take them, perched primly on a plastic bag supplied by the terse driver while John laughed at him all the way home… after Sherlock has been through the shower, he goes into the bedroom and allows John to push him down onto the bed to nose at his throat.
Sherlock arches his neck, letting John mouth kisses under his jaw. He had thought that sex would be like scratching an itch that, once attended to, would cease to prickle and annoy. But instead it seems that it’s more like his erstwhile cocaine addiction: the more he has of John the more he wants. Sherlock wants to gorge himself on John, greedily taking and taking until he’s bloated with it, sleek satisfaction oozing from his pores. Sometimes they’ll be out on a case, or for a walk, or for dinner, and Sherlock will look at John – small and unassuming – and remembered pleasure knocks the breath out of him, makes his guts twist until he’s raw and flayed open with lustful hunger.
It can’t possibly be normal, this sheer, constant want, and Sherlock doesn’t know what to do with it. He’d never intended to give one person so much power over his well-being but now that he has doesn’t know what’s going to become of him when, inevitably, he loses John.
‘I like this,’ John says, his lips moving ticklishly against Sherlock’s skin as Sherlock’s nipples tighten from the scent of John in his nostrils.
Sherlock clasps John’s shoulder. ‘What?’
John moves down to kiss his collarbone and Sherlock parts his legs slightly, to make room for his cock as it starts to firm and lengthen. He’s getting hard already, and from nothing more than a few half-dressed kisses, such is the power of Pavlovian associations. It’s tempting to let it go and turn his attention to John, but Sherlock can’t bear not having his questions answered – especially questions about John, and his likes and dislikes – and he repeats ‘What do you like?’
‘You know that already.’ John rests his chin on Sherlock’s chest and smiles up at him. ‘What do I like?’
God, he shouldn’t have asked, but John is smiling up at him, warm and amused, and Sherlock looks at him carefully before saying ‘You like us, together. You like my hands.’
John hums a little, sounding agreeable, and Sherlock adds ‘You like my voice.’
So far, so obvious, but John only says ‘Who wouldn’t?’ before nosing ticklishly against Sherlock’s belly and smiling at Sherlock’s protesting squirm. He plucks at the belt of Sherlock’s trousers – the ones John had brought him while he stood in the shower and divested himself of his mud-soaked clothes – and his hand nudges deliciously against Sherlock’s half-hard cock. ‘Talk to me then.’
Sherlock ought to tell John how desirable he is, but when he opens his mouth what comes out is ‘We nearly died, on the Friesland. You don’t recall that, of course.’
‘No. That’s why they call it amnesia.’
John tugs Sherlock’s zip down and pulls at his trousers, dropping them on the floor and returning for Sherlock’s briefs.
‘I remember it very clearly,’ says Sherlock. He’s never before regretted his eidetic memory, but he’s coming close. ‘I heard the explosion, saw the flames, and thought to myself that I had never told you.’
It’s true. Bobbing in the water, trying desperately to keep himself afloat while looking in vain for John. Had Sherlock known, standing on the wrong side of the railings of the Friesland, that it was to be the last time he’d ever speak to that particular version of John, he would have found something better to say to him.
‘And then I thought, if I died, at least I would not have a chance to regret it.’
God, what’s wrong with him, why can’t he just tell John how gorgeous he is – the normal light-hearted banter of compliments that lovers apparently engage in and that John now bestows so freely on him – and Sherlock startles at the sudden crush of John’s mouth to his.
‘Did I tell you?’ John demands, but kisses Sherlock before Sherlock can reply. ‘Please tell me I told you.’
There’s nothing that Sherlock can say to that without perjuring himself even more, and John says ‘I love you. I'm saying it right now. I love you too.’
Chapter 10: Heresy
After six weeks – six greedy, glorious weeks of John touching him and kissing him and tugging lightly at Sherlock’s hair as he tells Sherlock to get a haircut – John announces that he’s meeting Lestrade for a pint. Sherlock doesn’t worry overmuch about this; he merely tilts his head back when John approaches him before leaving, demanding a proper kiss in lieu of one pecked on his temple, and waves John vaguely out of the door.
Sherlock is still working when John returns, smiling and smelling faintly of beer, but when John comes to chivvy him to bed he goes. He slept last night and doesn’t, strictly speaking, need to do so again tonight, but John is warm and affectionate and very lovely to curl up with and so Sherlock goes.
In the quiet dark of his bedroom, John moulds himself to Sherlock’s back and Sherlock closes his eyes and commits each detail to memory. Oscar Wilde had known that the only thing worse than not getting what one wants is getting it; usually Sherlock wouldn’t bother making space for details about art and literature, but the words had proved strangely resonant during the last few months of his drug use.
It always seemed incomprehensible that a criminal, having successfully got away scot-free with whatever crime they had committed, would walk into a police station several months later and give themselves up, but Sherlock is starting to get an idea of what might motivate such a thing. It’s like living with the sword of Damocles hanging over him: going to bed every night and wondering whether the next morning will be the one that brings John’s memories with the dawn. Every time John remembers something there are a few knife-edged moments of fear before Sherlock can establish whether it’s something about them – or, to be more accurate, the lack of a ‘them’ – or a story from Mrs Hudson about Mrs Turner’s married ones next door.
John sighs contentedly, and Sherlock clasps the arm John has slung across his chest.
‘I told Greg about us today.’
Sherlock can’t control his catch of breath, the slight tensing of his muscles. ‘Ah.’
The hard point of John’s chin digs into Sherlock’s shoulder as John props his head up. ‘Apparently he knew. Well, he suspected.’
Sherlock had well and truly shown his hand on the police boat and in the hospital after the Friesland; impossible that Lestrade could have failed to see it. ‘He’s not such a terrible detective.’
John sets his teeth against Sherlock’s shoulder and Sherlock’s heart twists painfully with love for him. This is something else he’d not anticipated: this sort of gentle love-play of mock-bites and gripping hands. Apparently his personal space no longer belongs to only him – it’s become theirs, and Sherlock has never relinquished anything so gladly in his life.
‘’You ought to be nicer to him,’ John chides, but without heat. ‘He’s a nice man.’
‘He shows promise.’
Surely this is one of the worst parts of it all. Not only is Sherlock sinking further into the mire with each passing day but he’s taken John – good, kind John, honest and true as an arrow – and made him into a liar. Now that Sherlock has begun this there seems to be no way out; at least Dante’s sinners had an orderly, concentric progression of circles where everyone knew their place, but for Sherlock they seem to have twisted themselves into some sort of dreadful labyrinth where he’ll be condemned to wander forever.
‘I think I’m going to tell everyone,’ John says.
Sherlock cranes his head around, the bottom dropping out of his stomach. ‘Surely not everyone.’
‘Well, I'm hardly going to announce it on the BBC,’ John says, sounding amused. ‘But no, I mean… I'm just not going to hide it. And I'm going to tell Harry. She of all people ought to know about the man in my life.’ He smiles at Sherlock, but Sherlock can’t find an answering smile. ‘I don't want this to be a secret anymore. This is important.’
Sherlock takes a last, long look at him, at John lying there and smiling at him with such pride and such love. It was never going to last forever; he’s been lucky, really, to be able to keep it going as long as he has.
‘Alright,’ Sherlock says.
And, in the back of his mind, a tiny clock starts to count down.
Chapter 11: Fraud
Sherlock finds himself unusually clingy for the next few days; now that the end is in sight he spends as much time with John as he can, memorising the tilt of John’s head as he laughs, the warm weight of his hand in the small of Sherlock’s back, the crumple of his mouth as he comes.
‘You’re very affectionate lately,’ John comments, late one afternoon. ‘Should I be worried that there’s something new and horrible in the fridge that you’ve not told me about?’
Sherlock makes a vaguely derogatory noise as he bends lower over his experiment, and when he goes out for a walk later he’s careful not to invite John along or to linger overlong on the kiss he gives John before he goes.
On the doorstep Sherlock finds himself at a bit of a loss. He doesn’t actually need anything – other than an escape from John’s loving scrutiny – but he pulls his coat around himself and starts to walk. Updating his mental map of London is never a bad thing, and when he passes a new Indian supermarket that’s just opened he ducks inside. He’ll make John curry for dinner, John loves curry and Sherlock is very good indeed at the sort of precise weighing and measuring and heating that this sort of long, slow cooking requires.
Sherlock is in a good mood as he pounds up the stairs to their flat, already imagining John’s face when he eats the curry, but he barely gets in the door before he sees all the familiar signs that indicate that John has not, in fact, been left undisturbed in Sherlock’s absence.
‘Mycroft was here. What did he say?’
‘Nothing. He was just checking up on me, I think.’ John rubs at his face, looking worn and tired, before letting his hands fall. ‘He knows about us, though.’
That bastard. ‘He–’
But John isn’t looking angry, only tired, and Sherlock moderates it to ‘I see.’
Sherlock looks back at the stairs, as though Mycroft is hiding somewhere waiting for his return, until John says ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing.’ Sherlock can’t look at John for a moment and he busies himself with removing coat and scarf. ‘Tell me what he said. Don’t leave anything out.’
John does his best. His memory isn’t as good as Sherlock’s but then no-one – with the exception of the man who was just here – has a memory quite like Sherlock’s. He can’t quite stand up under John’s gentle inspection, though, and while John talks Sherlock disappears into the kitchen, opens the packets of spices he bought, and starts to heat them in oil while getting chicken and vegetables out of the fridge.
Suddenly, John goes abruptly quiet in the sitting room. Sherlock repeats his name a few times and, when there’s no response, darts into the sitting room to kneel in front of John. John is staring off into the distance and utterly unresponsive to Sherlock: his vacant expression is more than a little alarming and Sherlock cups John’s face in his hand and says his name louder. Finally John blinks, gasps, and focuses on Sherlock. John merely stares at him for a long moment, as though he can’t quite remember who Sherlock is, and Sherlock demands fiercely ‘What? What did you remember?’
Perhaps Mycroft’s visit had been the trigger; Sherlock tenses against a push or a blow from John, but John only covers Sherlock’s hand with his own and grins at him.
‘That you can cook. Now you’re going to have to do it all the time, now I know you can. Wanker.’
The curry is easy to prepare, and Sherlock leaves it to sit and bubble as he quickly ducks into his bedroom to call Mycroft. His nerves are frayed to their limit by the constant watching and waiting and he certainly can’t take his bad temper out on John, who hasn’t done anything wrong. His brother, however…
‘Stop interfering,’ Sherlock hisses when Mycroft answers his phone. ‘Just stop it.’
‘Sherlock, have you utterly taken leave of your senses?’ Mycroft demands. ‘You know full well that when I encouraged you to explore the possibility of a relationship with him that this–’
‘It’s none of your business,’ Sherlock snarls. ‘Just… just leave him alone. Leave us alone.’
He means to sound imperious and commanding, but it comes out more like the vexed wail of a put-upon younger sibling, and Sherlock’s ire rises at himself.
‘How do you expect this to end?’ The gentleness in Mycroft’s voice is what does it; Sherlock can tolerate any amount of snide sarcasm but he’s sunk to new depths when Mycroft uses that particular tone with him.
‘Shut up,’ Sherlock says, feeling curiously helpless. ‘Just… shut up.’
Not one of his best comebacks but his throat is tight and his head aches, and he snaps ‘What did you tell him?’
‘I told him to be kind to you.’ Mycroft’s voice is still hatefully warm with sympathy, with pity, and Sherlock hangs up without replying. He scrubs a hand over his face.
In the ten ditches of the malebolge – deep in the eighth circle of hell – the fraudulent are punished in diverse horrible methods. The tenth and final ditch is for the sowers of discord and, as Sherlock heads out to the kitchen to be witty and charming and pleasant to John, he wishes his brother all the way there.
The curry, naturally, is excellent, but even John’s evident pleasure in his first and second helpings can’t pluck Sherlock out of the black mood he’s slipping into. He eats as much as he can while amusing John with stories of cases before they met, and when John shoos him away from the washing up Sherlock goes into the living room to curl up in his chair and distract himself with his violin.
‘I’m going to Harry’s for dinner on Saturday,’ John calls from the kitchen, and Sherlock’s mouth pulls down unhappily.
‘I’d like it if you came.’
Sherlock would do anything for John, anything at all, but he draws the line at being present at the ruin of what’s between them.
‘No.’ He plucks a string, listens to the note it produces. ‘And I don’t think you should go, either.’
John shuts off the water and Sherlock starts a series of scales and arpeggios. But he can’t avoid looking at John forever, especially not with John standing in front of him glaring like that, so at last Sherlock raises his gaze reluctantly to John.
‘Why don’t you want me to visit my sister?’
‘You dislike your sister,’ Sherlock says, in lieu of the real answer. ‘The vast majority of your phone calls end in an argument and put you in a foul mood for the rest of the day.’
‘She’s still my sister. And I think she ought to know about my, my, about you. And I think you ought to be there.’
‘I’m not going,’ says Sherlock, and he turns his attention back to his violin in a transparent show of wondering what to play. Please let that be an end to it, please–
His voice gives him away, cracking slightly in the middle, and John frowns curiously as Sherlock glares mutinously at him.
‘Alright,’ John says slowly. ‘But don’t think you’re getting out of this.’
‘No.’ Fauré’s Pavane, perhaps, and Sherlock raises his bow and begins to play. ‘I don’t think I am.’
Chapter 12: Betrayal
On Friday night Sherlock is careful to be especially nice to John, although it requires walking the fine line between being amiable enough to ensure that their probably-last evening together is a perfect one, and not being so obliging that John’s suspicious instincts are aroused.
Sherlock ensures that they just happen to have the ingredients for John’s favourite dinner in the fridge, with a bottle of wine that John likes but never allows himself to buy because of the price, and during dinner Sherlock forces himself to smile and be witty, as though his heart isn’t heavy with grief.
After dinner he serenades John on the violin while John does the washing up. Sherlock closes his eyes and pours everything he has into his playing: his love for John, his sorrow at their impending separation, his regret at ever setting his feet on the path that brought them to this, until he hears John abandon the washing up and come to lean against the kitchen doorway to listen.
Sherlock finishes, holding the last note before lowering his bow in a graceful swooping arc, and opens his eyes to find John gazing at him in awe.
‘That was beautiful,’ John breathes. ‘I just… wow. You’re amazing, you know?’
‘Thank you.’ Sherlock smiles at him, striving to capture every detail of this moment in his memory, until John frowns slightly.
‘I know that song, though. I mean, it’s familiar, like I’ve heard it before somewhere. Did we go to a concert where they played it? Or is it on one of those CDs of obscure composers you have?’
Sherlock quirks a small smile at him and turns away, packing his violin away gently. ‘No.’
‘I do know it though,’ John persists, coming over to Sherlock. ‘Come on, help me out here. Who’s the composer?’
‘S Holmes,’ Sherlock says, not looking up as he loosens the tension on the bow before laying it in the case, and John’s hand settles in the small of his back.
‘You wrote that?’
It was your birthday present last year, Sherlock thinks, his throat constricting briefly, I wrote it for you, and thought that I was showing too much of myself, but you only called it ‘very nice’ and then wandered off to do something else.
‘What is it?’ John’s hand – warm, strong – grips Sherlock’s elbow, forcing him to straighten up and turning him so that John can see his face. ‘There’s more, isn’t there? What aren’t you telling me?’
‘It’s yours,’ Sherlock says, undone by John’s concern, the small, lovely wrinkle between his brows. ‘I wrote it for you. For your birthday, last year.’
‘Oh.’ John’s face falls guiltily. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t–’
Sherlock is already shaking his head impatiently. ‘Don’t be stupid, it’s not your fault, you–’
‘All the same.’ John puts a hand on Sherlock’s waist and look at him searchingly. ‘That was before we got together, yes? Were you hoping, even then, that I’d… that we might…’
‘Yes.’ Sherlock looks away. ‘But it doesn’t matter now.’
‘Hmm.’ John’s other hand catches his chin and tips his head down for a kiss. ‘Better late than never, I suppose.’
Slowly John unfastens one of Sherlock’s shirt buttons and kisses him again; John’s mouth is soft and clinging and Sherlock clutches stupid handfuls of John’s shirt as his heart starts to pound. It oughtn’t to be possible that a few kisses from John still have the power to reduce him to this: heart racing, breath quickening, face heating at the memory of John’s hands on his body as his cock starts to thicken.
‘Come on.’ John pulls back slightly, with a last gentle nip to Sherlock’s lower lip that startles a moan out of him. ‘Let’s go to bed, and I’ll show you how marvellous I thought it was.’
Despite Sherlock’s intentions, an evening of good food and wine followed by slow, positively knee-shaking sex means that Sherlock falls asleep soon after they’re done, wrapped around John.
He wakes early the following morning but instead of getting up he just lies there, one arm slung carelessly over John’s waist, breathing in the smell at his nape until John stirs and mutters.
‘Wha’ time is it?’
‘Quarter past nine,’ Sherlock murmurs, who has been watching the sliver of sky visible between curtains steadily lightening.
John grunts an acknowledgement and reaches behind himself to pet vaguely at Sherlock’s hair. He inhales a deep breath and stretches, clearly waking himself up preparatory to getting up, but when John rolls onto his back Sherlock curls closer and puts his head on John’s shoulder, wrapping an arm around John’s waist.
‘Hello.’ John’s hand settles on Sherlock’s hair again. John sounds surprised and no wonder; if Sherlock isn’t already up by the time John wakes then he’s at least on his phone, and not inclined to linger unnecessarily. But this morning Sherlock wants to keep John here with him, soft and warm and affectionate, and he closes his eyes and tightens his arm as John strokes his hair some more.
‘You don’t want to get up?’
Sherlock merely tightens his hold further in lieu of stating the obvious, and John shifts in his grasp.
‘I’m afraid that I need to get up.’
‘Not for hours yet,’ Sherlock says, and John shifts again.
‘Um, no, right now, actually.’
Sherlock tenses his muscles and resists when John tries to lift Sherlock’s arm away from his waist, until John exclaims in exasperation ‘Only for a minute, Sherlock! I’ll be right back but I really, seriously have to piss.’
Sherlock removes his arm and flings himself onto his other side, turning his back on John, and hears John muttering to himself as he tugs on enough clothes to be decent before leaving. Sherlock rolls back over and buries his face in John’s pillow once he’s gone.
It smells like John, and Sherlock nuzzles it and inhales and wonders what the hell John is doing that’s taking so long, he should be back by now. It could be that he’s remembered about them and he’s not coming back; the chances are small that recall will now be triggered by surroundings he’s already seen dozens of times since coming home from the hospital, but not impossible–
‘I think the timer on the heating’s gone off again,’ John says, one foot prodding the door shut behind him. He sets a plate and a mug down on the bedside table and strips his clothes off before sliding under the covers again, and Sherlock reaches for him. ‘It’s a bit nippy out there.’
John’s feet are cold and Sherlock catches one between his own warmer ones; he tries to pull John down so Sherlock can put his head back on John’s shoulder but John resists, propping a pillow up against the headboard and half-sitting up against it.
‘D’you want some toast?’
Thwarted, Sherlock rests his head on the slope of John’s stomach and skates his palm over John’s ribs. The skin is smooth, the arches of bone as deceptively delicate as the ceiling vaults of a cathedral, and at John’s ticklish squirm Sherlock moves his hand lower, to touch John’s hipbone. His iliac crest is hard under the softness of his skin and Sherlock runs his thumb along it, greedy for the implicit permission to touch, this evidence that John’s personal space now extends to also enclose Sherlock.
Sherlock slides his hand over to trail the backs of his fingers along John’s penis, lying small and vulnerable against his thigh, but at this John inhales and reaches down under the covers to shift Sherlock’s hand lower, to rest on his thigh.
Sherlock stirs restively atop John, who calms him with a hand in his hair.
‘Don’t be like that: I’m just not used to someone groping me while I’m trying to eat my toast. Bit of an odd feeling.’
Sherlock stirs again; John murmurs ‘Here,’ and the next instant there’s a bite-sized piece of toast crust in front of his mouth. Sherlock leans forward to take it, chewing meditatively, and John tucks an errant curl behind his ear approvingly.
John gives him a few moments before his hand is back with another morsel of toast for Sherlock, and another, and after the third piece of crust Sherlock braces himself up on an elbow to grumble ‘At least give me something other than crusts.’
John’s eyes crinkle at him and he holds out his toast for Sherlock to bite, even as he says ‘But you should eat your crusts, they’re good for you. Makes your hair curl, you know.’
Sherlock glares at him, but admits to himself that the effect is probably spoiled when he sinks back down to nuzzle into the warm softness of John’s belly again.
John tugs the hair at his nape affectionately. ‘Although I’m starting to think your childhood might have been all crusts.’
With Sherlock’s ear pressed to John’s stomach, John’s voice echoes oddly in his head; Sherlock doesn’t reply to this and a short while later John shifts and stretches to put his plate down.
‘Tea?’ John offers, and Sherlock debates for a moment before deciding that yes, he does want tea, and he leans back up. John holds it for him while he drinks, and Sherlock lies back down to rest on John again. He’s warm, his stomach full, and he closes his eyes and drifts pleasantly until John sets his mug to one side.
‘Right,’ John says, his hands cradling Sherlock’s head and his thumbs massaging tiny, toe-curling circles into Sherlock’s scalp. ‘I’m all yours. What d’you want to do? Is there an experiment or something you need my help with?’
Sherlock shakes his head.
‘Okay. Um.’ John shifts a little. ‘Do you want to have sex?’
Sherlock shakes his head again. His inner thighs are still the slightest bit sore from John keeping his legs splayed wide as he fucked Sherlock last night; he’s sated, at least for the moment, and at John’s offer there’s only a mild flicker of interest rather than the gnawing, all-consuming hunger of the past several weeks.
‘Alright then.’ John sounds surprised, but not displeased. ‘We’ll just… lie here, then. Together.’
And Sherlock merely closes his eyes and rests a leg across John’s and holds on tight.
I wouldn’t have given up any of this, he thinks, even though I know how it’s going to end. I would rather have had a few months as your lover than a lifetime as only your friend.
Towards lunchtime John grows restless and eventually chivvies Sherlock out of bed and through the shower and into clothes, and they go out for lunch in Speedy’s café. It’s clear to see that John expects Sherlock to refuse and so, just to be contrary, Sherlock dresses smartly and combs his hair into the artful disorder that always prompts John’s fingers to mess it further, and sweeps the café door open for John like an emperor’s guard.
John gives him a dry look at this but makes no comment, and Sherlock sits demurely, eats lunch, and murmurs deductions about the café’s other customers until John has to bite his lip to control his amusement.
‘Come on, you,’ John says at last, fishing out his wallet to drop some notes on the table. ‘Stop teasing me before I end up laughing at some poor sod. You’re amazing, you know very well you are, but now I’ve got an idea of my own that I think you’ll find pretty amazing also.’
Sherlock knows that glint in John’s eye, and he follows John docilely out of the café and up the stairs to their flat and into the bedroom.
‘Now then,’ John says, turning to him and hooking a finger into Sherlock’s belt to pull him close. ‘Since we’ve nothing planned this afternoon…’
Sherlock can’t get out of his clothes fast enough, and John crowds him down onto the mattress and pushes Sherlock’s knees apart and puts his mouth on Sherlock, sucking him and teasing him until Sherlock grabs a pillow and presses his face into it and just wails with pleasure.
They lie together for a long time afterwards in sweaty, half-drowsing silence, until at last John stirs and murmurs to Sherlock that he needs to leave if he’s to be on time at Harry’s. Sherlock tightens his hold momentarily before forcing himself to relax, to allow John to unwind his arms and get up and kiss Sherlock’s forehead, as though this isn’t very likely the last time they’ll ever lie together like that.
Sherlock lingers in bed while John showers and dresses, and John comes to sit on the edge of the bed and peel the covers away from Sherlock’s face and throat.
‘Are you feeling okay?’ he asks, with his dearly familiar look of concern. He touches Sherlock’s flushed cheek. ‘You don’t seem yourself.’
‘I’m fine,’ Sherlock says, forcing himself to sound unconcerned. ‘Nothing’s wrong.’
‘Hmm.’ John’s hand moves down and he tucks two fingers under Sherlock’s jaw, feigning a caress as he subtly checks Sherlock’s pulse. But subtle by John’s standards is as clear as a message in The Times personal ads to Sherlock, and he catches John’s wrist and kisses his palm before pushing John’s hand away.
‘Go on, be off with you,’ he mock-grumbles, but wraps an arm around John when John snorts at him and leans down to kiss him goodbye.
John tastes of mint toothpaste and smells of his shower gel, and Sherlock nuzzles his face into John’s shoulder and inhales deeply, wanting to imprint the scent of John’s clean skin on his brain.
‘I love you,’ he murmurs against John’s throat. He hadn’t intended John to hear but concern has obviously sharpened John’s hearing for he draws back.
‘I love you too,’ he says. ‘Sherlock, are you sure you’re okay?’
‘Can’t I be affectionate without you thinking I must be ill?’ Sherlock demands and John’s face crumples guiltily.
‘No, I mean yes, I mean.’ John blows out a breath. ‘Of course you can. Sorry.’
‘If you don’t leave soon you’ll not have time to stop at the Sainsbury’s near Harry’s flat to buy a baguette,’ Sherlock says, all careless brilliance.
It works. John’s concern vanishes and his mouth falls open. ‘How on earth did you know that was my plan?’
‘That would be telling,’ Sherlock says smugly, burrowing back under the blankets, and John makes an amused noise as he gets up, with a last fond pat to Sherlock’s stomach.
‘I’ll see you later, then, and you can explain it to me.’
Sherlock grunts in reply, and John leaves. If John returns from Harry’s in the same equable frame of mind then Sherlock will gladly tell him that, as well as anything else John demands of him.
After the front door closes behind John, Sherlock stays in bed for a long time, wallowing in the comfort of John’s scent on his pillow, before making himself get up. If John returns from Harry’s in the sort of towering temper that Sherlock suspects he will, he’s going to want to leave immediately. And who could blame him?
John is usually a rigorously efficient packer, thanks to the Army, but in this instance he might be too distracted to remember everything he needs and so Sherlock knots a dressing gown around himself and, with a heavy heart, gets out John’s overnight bag from John’s old wardrobe upstairs. He puts a pair of trousers in the bottom of the bag, with John’s four favourite shirts laid lightly on top so they won’t crease. In go five pairs of socks and four of underwear, the chargers for his mobile and laptop, and his toiletries bag. Sherlock fetches John’s laptop from the living room – pausing to update the antivirus software, which John never bothers to do – and a new sleep T-shirt out of John’s side of the chest of drawers, selfishly deciding to keep the one stuffed under the pillow on John’s side of the bed that smells like him.
When Sherlock is finished he places the bag in his wardrobe and leaves the door open a crack, just enough to look natural. He’s suddenly aware of how very cold he feels; clearly John is right in saying that the heating is on the blink and Sherlock goes to take a shower. He turns the water up as hot as he can stand it and sinks down to sit on the floor of the shower, hiding his face against his drawn-up knees and pretending that the wetness on his cheeks is only water.
Later, Sherlock sits in front of the television, a documentary about poisonous snakes of southeast Asia playing soothingly while he stares unseeingly at the screen. He’s put on his oldest, favourite pyjamas and his blue dressing gown but he’s still cold, and eventually he goes to dig out an old tartan blanket to wrap around himself.
There might be a grim sort of comfort in the knowledge that the deception would soon be over if, in fact, Sherlock could be certain that it would soon all be over. As it is there’s an outside chance that John might not tell Harry, or that his conviction may be enough to convince her that they’ve been together all along. John’s relationship with his sister is something of a fluctuating, imprecise quantity and it gnaws at Sherlock like a splinter under his skin. Hope is never crueller than when it’s uncertain.
Sherlock pulls his knees up to his chest and concentrates on the television: not thinking of the affection in John’s voice as he took his leave of Sherlock, or anticipating John’s return, but focusing solely on the here and now.
He’s not very successful, though, and when he finally hears John’s footsteps on the stars his heart begins a nervous tattoo against his ribs. John’s footsteps indicate that he’s annoyed but even so Sherlock must go carefully; John is often annoyed after phone calls or visits to Harry, if he thinks she’s been drinking again, and so Sherlock deliberately doesn’t stir as John enters.
But there’s no kiss for his forehead, no inquiry as to what he’s watching, and John doesn’t sit on the sofa and leave space for Sherlock at his side.
Instead he just stands there, looking faintly ill, and says ‘Sherlock.’
John sits heavily in the other armchair, looking down at his hands. John must know by now, he must do; if it were anything else he would have confided it to Sherlock already, but all the same it’s a struggle for Sherlock to clear his throat and force the words out.
‘She told you. About us.’
‘About how there was no us,’ John says. ‘Yes.’
Sherlock looks back at the television, where a swamp adder is gliding silently through some undergrowth. Abruptly he wishes that this whole conversation was over and done. There’s no possible outcome that doesn’t end with John leaving but Sherlock would give anything for it to be done quickly, like ripping off a plaster. Not this slow, drawn-out evisceration.
John gets up and turns the television off, standing in front of it with his arms crossed. Sherlock can’t look at him. His stomach flutters nauseously.
‘You lied to me,’ says John, his voice hard. Sherlock has heard that particular tone directed at criminals and NSY officers whose snide mutters of ‘Freak’ have been a little too audible for John’s liking, but he’s never heard it directed at him. ‘And it wasn’t just… this was not just any lie, Sherlock. You took advantage of my medical condition, which is horrendous, by the way, and took advantage of me. And that… that’s just… that’s beyond fucked up. That was wrong. And you had to have known that it was wrong, don’t give me this high-functioning sociopath bullshit.’
Good God, there hasn’t been a single moment of the past months that Sherlock hasn’t known himself for the worst sort of person. But telling John this won’t do anything to help and so Sherlock stays silent.
‘So how much of this was a lie? Huh? Did you lie to me about… about our favourite Chinese restaurant? About all your disguises? About–’
If John carries on down this track he’s going to finish by concluding that Sherlock doesn’t even love him but merely did this on a lark, and Sherlock couldn’t bear that. If there’s one thing he’s still certain of it’s that he’ll never love another living soul as much as he does John.
‘When you tell a lie, the world of your lie must be as concrete and complete as the world of the truth.’ Sherlock gets to his feet, unwinding the blanket and dropping it onto the chair behind him. ‘Thus, when you construct a lie, it’s better to keep as many of the details as true as possible, so that there is less to remember when you’re questioned.’
‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean?’ John snarls. ‘Don’t give me riddles, I can’t–’
‘It means I never lied to you about anything important!’
‘Fucking… what do you mean important, as if lying to me about an entire relationship doesn’t mean anything–’
Sherlock seizes John’s hand. All his calm logic seems to be deserting him, and he clutches at John and says ‘You kissed me. Then. On the stairs. You kissed me.’
If John hadn’t offered then Sherlock wouldn’t have tried to coerce him no matter how much he wanted John; if Sherlock believes nothing else about his own morals, he has to hang onto that. True, the ongoing deception had come from Sherlock, but the first move had come from John.
John yanks his hand out of both of Sherlock’s. ‘Don’t blame this on me, don’t make this about me–’
‘It’s about you! It’s always been about you!’ Sherlock’s every waking thought has been for John, for weeks now, and seeing John’s hands curl into fists Sherlock tries desperately to make John understand. ‘You presented me with my heart’s fondest wish, and you expected me to resist? Why do I need to be perfect in order to satisfy you? I’m not a saint–’
‘That doesn’t require a saint!’ John shouts. ‘That only requires a good person!’
‘Well, I’m not one of those, either!’ Sherlock snarls at him, maddened, and grabs John’s shirtfront to kiss him. It’s desperate and frantic and horrible, and for a moment John kisses him back before he rears back and punches Sherlock in the face.
John doesn’t pull his punch in the slightest and Sherlock staggers back a few steps from the force of it, one hand flying to his face and the other bracing himself on the back of the chair so he doesn’t fall. He looks over at John who’s pale and shocked, his hands trembling.
‘Fuck. You,’ John says. ‘You think that makes it okay, like you can just–’
‘I’m not a good man.’ John had always had a misguided view of Sherlock, even before the Friesland; usually it inspired odd sensations of wanting to live up to John’s regard for him, but perhaps it’s time John faced the truth about him.
‘I won’t apologise,’ Sherlock says. His jaw is starting to throb. ‘I wouldn’t give any of those days back, even though I knew they’d end with this one.’
John backs away. ‘I’m leaving.’
Sherlock sinks back down to sit in his chair as John goes into their room, although it’s back to being only Sherlock’s room now. John finds the bag in the bottom of the wardrobe, where Sherlock left it, and he doesn’t look at Sherlock as he storms back through the living room, out the door, and down the stairs.
Chapter 13: Anger
The days following John’s departure are icy-grey and soulless.
Sherlock retreats to his bedroom in the immediate aftermath and curls up in bed for the rest of the evening, trying desperately to escape into sleep. But sleeping with John the past week has ensured that he’s well-rested, and his treacherous body keeps him lying awake and staring at the ceiling, recalling John’s look of betrayal in distressingly perfect detail.
At last, when he’s seriously considering making use of the small packet behind the loose brick in his fireplace, he gets up and goes to the bathroom. In the aftermath of his return from Afghanistan John had been prescribed sleeping pills; he hadn’t liked them and sure enough the little bottle is still sitting in a corner of the mirrored cabinet above the sink. Sherlock swallows a tablet dry, studiously avoiding his own gaze in the mirror, and goes to bed, finally finding blessed oblivion.
Mycroft comes to see him first.
It’s the following morning and Sherlock hasn’t made it out of bed when he hears a familiar tread on the stairs, and after a few moments a weight settles on the bed down by his feet. Sherlock stays silent and keeps his eyes closed, hoping that Mycroft will – for once in his life – take the hint without Sherlock needing to go through the tedious rigmarole of indicating that his presence is not required. There are a few moments of breathless silence before something lands with a thump on the pillow by Sherlock’s head. He peels the sheet away from his face enough to retrieve the lighter and packet of cigarettes, unwrap the cellophane, and flick the box open.
The first draw is delicious, the smoke stinging his throat perfectly, and Sherlock holds it until his lungs start to protest, exhaling in a great rush. Smoking in bed; such a disgusting habit, John would be furious. And that thought makes Sherlock take another draw at it, closing his eyes at the dizzying rush of nicotine.
‘“Nessun maggior dolore,”’ Mycorft says softly, putting a hand on Sherlock’s foot under the blankets, ‘“che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.”’
‘Shut up,’ Sherlock says on an exhale of smoke, still keeping his back turned to his brother. ‘Spare me your moralising, just say “I told you so” and piss off. Or better still, stay silent and fuck off.’
He’s deliberately vulgar, but Mycroft stays.
‘He has a quick temper,’ Mycroft says. The tip of his umbrella scuffs against the floor, at the edge of Sherlock’s hearing. ‘But also a kind heart. Give him time to cool off, and perhaps–’
Sherlock pulls his foot away from Mycroft’s hand, and extends an arm behind himself to tap the cigarette ash onto the floor. ‘I didn’t realise you’d added unnecessary cruelty to your list of sterling personal qualities.’
Mycroft exhales a tiny sigh through his nose. ‘As always, Sherlock, you delight in misunderstanding. I simply meant–’
‘Don’t.’ Sherlock’s voice wobbles a little. Indistinguishable to anyone else but clear as day to Mycroft and he buries his face in the pillow as his eyes start to sting. ‘Go away.’ Sherlock clears his throat, firms his voice. ‘For the love of God, go away.’
Mycroft hesitates for a long moment, as though he wants to speak again, and Sherlock silently vows that if he does then Sherlock will kick him, cigarettes or no cigarettes. But Mycroft stays mercifully silent, and finally gets up and leaves with no further comment.
Mrs Hudson comes up to see him later that day; Sherlock hears her steps in the living room, light and hesitant, before she calls his name. He stays silent. He’s never let her go unanswered before, even if all he does is grunt unhelpfully from his sprawl on the sofa while she frets about the state of the flat. But, just this once, please let her assume that he’s out; Sherlock can’t face her well-meaning sympathy any more than he could tolerate Mycroft’s.
In the end, it’s Lestrade who succeeds in getting him out of bed. He drops by the flat two days after John leaves – entirely expected, since Sherlock had hung up on his call earlier that day. Sherlock knows who it is as soon as he starts to climb the stairs: his steps are heavier than Mrs Hudson’s, more aggressive than Mycroft’s serpentine glide.
‘Sherlock?’ Lestrade calls in the living room.
Sherlock doesn’t answer. Lestrade doesn’t repeat his call, but the next instant Sherlock’s mobile rings. He curses and grabs at it to silence it but the damage is done, and a second later his bedroom door opens.
‘Sherlock, why in hell aren’t you answering your– Christ.’
Lestrade begins coughing before he’s half a dozen steps into the room. Sherlock supposes that the atmosphere is a little thick; he’d got one of his homeless network to bring him more cigarettes when Mycroft’s were gone. Lestrade flings open the window and sticks his head out to gulp some fresh air before coming over to the bed and poking Sherlock in the middle of his back.
‘Are you ill?’
Sherlock twitches, like a horse trying to dislodge an irritating fly from its coat. ‘No.’
‘Why aren’t you answering your phone? What’s with the smoking? And where’s John?’
‘Gone? What the hell does that even… Here, turn over and look at me.’ Lestrade pulls hard at Sherlock’s shoulder and Sherlock flops over onto his back. ‘Gone as in gone to the shops, or–’
‘Gone as in gone.’
Sherlock’s breath is foul from too many cigarettes and not enough water, his hair unwashed. He must look an absolute fright, but he really can’t summon the energy to care.
‘He can’t be just gone,’ Lestrade says stupidly. Ignoring what’s in front of his eyes, as always, and Sherlock turns back over in lieu of arguing with such idiocy.
But he doesn’t get very far before Lestrade grabs his shoulder again.
‘Hey, no, wait a minute. Look, there’s a case.’
‘Obviously,’ Sherlock can’t help muttering. He may be sunk deep in the freezing slush of utter misery but he’s not dead. ‘You’d hardly have come here just to pass the time of day.’
‘No, you’re right, I suppose I wouldn’t.’ Lestrade’s voice is rueful. ‘Although now I’m wondering if I should have. What happened?’
Sherlock closes his eyes and doesn’t answer, and after a few moments Lestrade sighs.
‘Alright, fine. But this case… Sherlock, if I could afford to leave you be then I would but God help me, I need you there.’
Sherlock rolls away and puts his face in John’s pillow. Barring John’s return, there’s no earthly reason for him to leave this bed, until Lestrade starts describing the case and what his team have done so far. A locked room mystery, and not only that but the third in a series, and Lestrade hasn’t finished the recitation of Anderson’s incompetencies before Sherlock flings back the covers and snarls ‘Oh for fuck’s sake, it’s obvious. Has no-one thought of checking her shoes?’
‘No,’ Lestrade says, looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. ‘Why would we do that?’
‘You’re doing this deliberately. Good God, no-one could really be such an idiot,’ Sherlock growls.
‘You’d best come and show us the error of our ways, then,’ Lestrade says, as Sherlock sits up and glares at him with eyes that feel dry and slightly bloodshot. ‘Come on, get yourself into the shower. And for God’s sake, brush your teeth.’
He bullies Sherlock up the stairs and into the bathroom, and when Sherlock comes back downstairs to get dressed – still slightly shaky from too many cigarettes and too little food, but at least cleaner – Lestrade presses a mug of coffee and some biscuits into his hands.
‘Here, drink this while you dress. And order a Sainsbury’s delivery or something; you’ve nothing in the cupboards.’
The coffee is strong enough to make Sherlock’s toes curl appreciatively, and he quickly dresses while Lestrade recites the key facts of the case at him through his bedroom door.
‘Right.’ Sherlock leaves his bedroom. It feels profoundly wrong to be doing this without John, and he shrugs into his coat and puts on his scarf while trying to ignore the conspicuously empty space at his side.
‘You’ll do, I suppose.’ Lestrade looks at him critically, waiting by the door. ‘Although if you were a horse I’d send you to the knacker’s yard. You should get some fresh air, and try sleeping once in a while.’
Sherlock only glares at him, unable to summon the enthusiasm for a response, and Lestrade says quietly ‘Look, whatever it was, I’m sure it’ll pass. John’s a good bloke, he’s not the sort to–’
‘Don’t,’ Sherlock bites out, pushing past Lestrade to start down the stairs. ‘Just don’t.’
The crime scene is, if anything, even worse. Sherlock is braced for sneers from Lestrade’s team when they see that he’s alone, but the reality is far more dreadful: pity. There are no snide comments, only a glance past his shoulder to look for John, and then a second, closer look at his face, and finally a thick, awkward silence.
Their pity is even more hateful than their mockery, and after a bare ten minutes with the body Sherlock is no longer able to bear the glances cast his way and the whispering and he snaps ‘I’m leaving.’
‘What?’ Lestrade stares at him, shocked. ‘You can’t, you’ve only just got here–’
Sherlock stands, drawing his coat around him, and Lestrade begins ‘Sherlock–’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, shut up! I’ve already given you more than enough to go on; look at the bloodstains on the floor beneath the rug, man! It’s an odd sort of blood pool that soaks into the rug in one corner and then stains the floor in another corner entirely, wouldn’t you say?’
And he turns his back and stalks off before Lestrade can voice any further protest.
Back at Baker Street, Sherlock sheds his suit and shirt and puts his pyjamas back on. One day, presumably, he’ll have to get up and pick up the pieces of his life and carry on solving cases without John. He did it alone before and he can do it again, although it will be harder now he knows what he’s missing; after all, a fish doesn’t know it’s in water.
One day. But not today.
Sherlock draws the curtains against the obscenely bright sunshine outside, and crawls back into bed.
After a week Sherlock starts to wonder whether he should box up the rest of John’s clothes. John is hardly going to return himself to collect them, surely he’ll send Harry instead. And the less she has to do when she gets here, the less Sherlock will have to listen to her anger at what he’s done. But he can’t quite bring himself to remove John’s things from their shared wardrobe and so they sit there, soft cardigans snugged up companionably against Sherlock’s crisp dress shirts.
Sherlock migrates from his bed to the sofa, and pokes listlessly at the forum posts on his website. They’re all so terribly tedious, although if John were here he’d doubtless prod Sherlock into taking one or two of them on for compassion’s sake.
Come on, Sherlock, he’d say, his eyes very blue and his chest warm against Sherlock’s back as he read over Sherlock’s shoulder. Look at this one here, it’s her grandmother’s necklace. Sentimental value.
And Sherlock would huff and sigh but agree, just to see John smile approvingly at him.
When Sherlock hears the faint noise of John’s footsteps on the stairs he honestly thinks he’s imagining them. Until they get louder and closer, and then suddenly John is standing in the living room.
Sherlock staggers to his feet, staring at him. ‘John.’
Could it… might it possibly be that John has calmed down and is ready to…
‘I, ah.’ John holds up his empty bag, the bag that Sherlock had completely failed to notice in his greedy examination of John’s face and clothes. ‘I came to get some more of my things.’
Ridiculous to have thought that perhaps John might be inclined to listen to anything Sherlock has to say, and Sherlock sinks back down to sit on the sofa. ‘Oh. Of course.’
Disappointment roars in his ears, and he doesn’t pay attention when John takes a couple of steps forward and says something. John’s silence indicates that a response is required and Sherlock lifts his head and gives him a blank look until John repeats himself: ‘You, er, you packed this bag for me, didn't you? Earlier.’
Why does John want to go over the memory of that horrible evening? Sherlock only nods and looks down at his hands, dangling between his knees.
‘Um. Why?’ John says.
‘I thought you'd want to leave quickly.’
‘Well, thanks,’ says John. ‘It was thoughtful of you.’
Sherlock only bows his head, and John turns away to Sherlock’s bedroom. The noises of him moving around – of him packing – are audible in the front room, and Sherlock curls himself tightly into a corner of the couch. John’s posture had been a little stiff; sleeping on Harry’s sofa was clearly paining his back and shoulder. How much longer would John be able to cope with it… a week? A fortnight? Then he’d start to look for a place of his own. He’d start to go out with a nice woman, someone pretty and calm and as utterly unlike Sherlock as it was possible to be. It wasn’t too late for children; John would make a wonderful father.
And Sherlock would stay here, left behind in Baker Street with his memories of how he’d ruined the best thing he ever had.
John’s steps come out to the sitting room but Sherlock doesn’t uncurl to face him. He can’t bring himself to watch as John says his goodbyes.
‘Well.’ There’s a rustle of clothing as John hefts the bag over his shoulder. His good shoulder, presumably; his bad shoulder is surely too sore to bear any weight. ‘Goodbye, then.’
Sherlock doesn’t stir. His throat is tight and he has the strange fancy that he’ll shatter into pieces if he moves, but as John turns to go some corner of Sherlock’s hindbrain galvanises him off the sofa and to his feet without conscious thought.
John turns, looking startled.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sherlock stumbles desperately.
‘I thought you weren't going to apologise,’ says John.
‘I’m not,’ Sherlock insists. ‘I’m only sorry that I didn't say something earlier. Before.’
If Sherlock died tomorrow then that would be the single biggest regret of his life: had he only had the courage to speak out earlier, before the Friesland, then all this might have been avoided.
‘Why didn’t you?’
Sherlock can’t look at John, even now giving Sherlock the benefit of the doubt. Anyone else wouldn’t even need to ask; it’s clear that Sherlock is far from being anyone’s ideal romantic prospect.
‘It didn’t seem likely that anything would come of it.’
John is silent for a long moment, and Sherlock looks at him. John’s beloved face is lined and tired-looking, and Sherlock notes each little detail and stores it in his memory, since he won’t be there to watch the patch of grey in John’s hair thicken and spread, or the laughter lines around his eyes grow deeper with the years.
John’s hand tightens on the strap of his bag. ‘You could say something now.’
Sherlock is struck dumb. Could it really be that simple? He’s gone over their parting words a hundred times in the last week, wondering if he could have said something that would have made John stay. It can’t be as simple as merely…
‘Please,’ says John.
‘Don’t go,’ Sherlock blurts. He’s standing on the coffee table and abruptly he stumbles down off it and closer to John. He hesitates before touching John; he’s forfeited that right and so Sherlock merely stands in front of him, hands clutching uselessly at each other like a penitent who’s renounced all hope of forgiveness or redemption. ‘Stay. I would… I would like it. That. We don't have to, have to do any of those things anymore, it can go back to the way it was before, that was fine, just…’ Just the thought of seeing John in 221B once more – making tea and watching his Bond films and teasing Sherlock over his ignorance of popular culture – renders Sherlock a babbling idiot, and he finishes uselessly ‘Please,’ with his heart in his throat.
John sighs and Sherlock flinches. He’s disappointed John; clearly such sentiments aren’t enough, how foolish to think that they might–
‘I hate you so much,’ John says, and before Sherlock can agree that yes, John has every right to do so, John walks over to him and takes Sherlock in his arms.
It’s utterly shocking, and for a long moment Sherlock can only stand stiff and frozen. It’s as though his body has forgotten how to be held by John, after only a week’s absence, and it’s only when John squeezes him tighter that Sherlock’s arms come up to hold him back. It makes no sense that, after all that’s happened, Sherlock’s heart picks this moment to feel as though it’s cracking in half, and it’s all he can do to keep upright and keep breathing.
John says nothing, merely holds Sherlock and pats his back gently, and for a long time there’s no sound in their sitting room except Sherlock’s ragged breaths.
Chapter 14: PURGATORIO
‘I’m still quite upset with you.’
Sherlock says nothing.
They had stood there for long minutes before Sherlock began to sway and John had said ‘God, lie down before you fall down, Sherlock, you look like a ghost,’ and guided them both over to the sofa.
Now they lie there, John on his back and Sherlock curled into John’s side with his face pressed to John’s warm, solid shoulder and clutching greedy handfuls of John’s shirt. He wants to crack John open, to crawl inside his ribcage and make a nest next to his heart and never, ever leave.
He can’t tell John that, though. John is still angry with him and so Sherlock only says tentatively ‘I love you.’
His voice is still thick with suppressed emotion, and John sighs, squeezes him comfortingly. ‘I know.’