By Candle Beck
The night the aliens came was the first time John understood the extent of his predicament.
He awoke to the sound of his name, which crashed through every layer of his dream like a man fallen out of plane punching through the clouds. Sherlock was shaking him, thin fingers on John's shoulder, ordering him to consciousness.
In the corner of the room, wielding a soft-glowing lavender light, was a foreign biped, a solid yellow-chalk block of skin and an opaque face like a black mirror. An alien! John bolted upright, choking on something that wasn't quite fear (it was never quite fear, never quite how a normal man would have reacted). Sherlock had him by his forearms, hauling him out of bed and into the invaded dark of the room.
Sherlock looked as unearthly as anything else. Pale like nothing John had ever seen, like a piece of marble cutting through an unlit ocean. He was easy to follow, impossible to lose. Some parts of John's mind were still asleep.
They weren't really aliens, if one wanted to be literal (but why would one ever want to be literal?). There were more of them in the hallway, on the stairs, swarming like insects in the main room. John's mind clicked and stuttered-biohazard suits. Geiger counters? There were men behind those unseeing mirrors.
It didn't do much to help his sense of overwhelming bewilderment. Standing on the pavement in his flannel trousers and a T-shirt, guttery London streetlight washed over everything, his bare feet were freezing. John clutched at his arms, said, "What?" and "Sorry, what?" a number of times.
Sherlock was saying something about institutionalised paranoia and a government gone mad with power derived from fear. The men in biohazard suits trickled in and out of their flat, carrying bits of Sherlock's home laboratory bound in thick plastic. Sherlock's bloodless face was alight with outrage, and he paced, his narrow hands flitting through the air.
John watched him raptly, a stuporous dull-eyed look on his face. Sherlock did this to him more often than not-stopped him where he stood. Arrested every fraction of his attention. Dimmed the rest of the world to black and white. John couldn't say why that kept happening.
He was becoming gradually numb. His skin felt bluish. He said Sherlock's name, still learning the feel of it in his mouth, strange and soft and sharp at the end.
Without a hitch in his impassioned anarchistic monologue, Sherlock swept the scarf off his neck and hooked it around John's.
It was an entirely unexpected thing for him to do. The scarf smelled like burnt biscuits and Gauloises, and something bitter and chemical that John couldn't place. He balled up the ends in his hands, pulled to feel the cloth moving against the back of his neck. He was suddenly warmer than he should have been.
In the back of John's mind, a little voice said, trouble.
He ignored it. He had always hated that little voice.
John enquired after the sneaking chemical scent in Sherlock's scarf, and Sherlock told him distractedly, "That would be the mustard gas, most probably."
The surprising thing about that was that John wasn't even very surprised.
So there was this lunatic that John had moved in with.
Sherlock had a jar with human eyes in it (in point of fact, he had three). He had books in sixteen different languages with handwritten notes in the margins. A fleshless skull comprised the core of his inner circle. When he was bored, he synthesised mustard gas.
He was rude and abrupt and callous beyond belief-like a child who hadn't yet learned not to ask why people were in wheelchairs, except Sherlock hadn't yet learned not to ask why people would be upset at catastrophically upsetting things, such as a member of their family dying. But he also poured a cup of tea for someone else when he wasn't actively engaged in appearing magisterial, and he gave up his scarf when John was standing barefoot in the road, and he said, "it's all right, all right now," to shivering trauma victims-small moments, trifles, but wasn't it supposed to be all about the details? Sherlock wasn't a sociopath; there was almost certainly a better diagnosis.
Nobody seemed to like him at all.
John thought Sherlock was fantastic, actually. It was another one of those reactions that normal men obviously weren't supposed to have.
He'd been like this forever. His mother told stories of how he'd been attracted to the road when he was a toddler. Somewhere in his recesses he still cherished the memory, the world-crushing roar of a lorry thundering past only a hand's breadth from his small defenceless body. No tree was too tall for him to climb; no lake was so deep that John Watson couldn't swim down and touch the bottom.
Now that daredevil boy was all grown up. There was a vivid scar on his shoulder where they had dug out the bullet. There was a specific nightmare that woke him up night after night, sunlight and bloody sand and wretched human chaos-nothing to do with aliens. And John wasn't entirely sure 'nightmare' was the proper word for it, either. The language had been failing him left and right recently.
Just the plain facts, then. John followed Sherlock. He followed him into rooms populated by dead bodies, abattoirs and dungeons, brakeless cabs, the chewed-up banks of the river, all the places where people would be waiting to kill them. Everywhere, really. It seemed only logical. This was a different planet, and Sherlock Holmes knew his way around.
There were many things wrong with John, that was certain enough. More than his exploded shoulder and fake limp and the PTSD from which they kept insisting he was suffering. There was a wire come loose in his brain. It didn't matter that Sherlock would probably get them both killed one of these days. John kept thinking that everything was going to turn out all right.
So. Sherlock was a lunatic and John possibly had a death wish. They got on like a house afire.
John came downstairs and fried up a quick pan of eggs with pepper and cheese. He sat down with Monday's copy of the Guardian, had his fork in hand when his phone buzzed to life with a text.
Do not eat those eggs.
John sighed, and set his fork down. His stomach registered an audible complaint as he took up his phone instead.
What have you done
Less than thirty seconds elapsed before Sherlock's response. Rare poison in the pepper shaker. Ongoing experiment.
That was about right, John thought. There was no point in wondering how Sherlock had known he was having eggs for breakfast at this precise moment, nor that he'd put pepper on them. Maybe he would ask later, if only because Sherlock enjoyed explaining things to him (probably this should have bothered John more than it did). He got up to scrape the deathly food into the bin.
Cold Pop-Tarts instead. The toaster's integrity had been compromised the week before-something about copper coils and a potential coup in Paraguay that John hadn't really followed (he was shit before a cuppa and a biscuit). John ate with one hand as he flipped through the paper, hoping that something would happen today.
And then Sherlock came home, so there was that problem sorted.
Some glorious new mystery was convulsing the great detective's mind. His hands were claws against his sides, pressing briefly to his temples.
"Three dead girls," was what he said first.
John sat up straight. He asked, "How?" and Sherlock began speaking in paragraphs. He began pacing and letting his hands attack the air. Banked action gathered under John's skin; he recognised the look on Sherlock's face.
They were in mortal danger before tea time.
Four levels underground, the pit of a hulking mulitstorey car park in Lambeth, and Sherlock was being throttled again. That seemed to happen to him more than was reasonable, even considering his profession (hobby, obsession, addiction-whatever) and personality.
John shot one of the bad guys in the leg and leapt upon the one that had Sherlock by the throat. He didn't mince words, dug the barrel of his gun into the man's cheek and told him, "Let him go right now."
Adrenaline did strange things to a man (or to John Watson, anyway). He didn't blink and his hands didn't shake. His body hummed but not in a way that showed. Sherlock's face was hyper-detailed before him, cold eyes blown wide and violent colour finally risen to his cheeks. His mouth was open, lips moving-he was trying to tell John something.
John couldn't worry about that. It was an overwhelmingly urgent moment in his life. He screwed the gun barrel into the villain's cheek, skin pressed as thin as a membrane between metal and bone.
Sherlock was released and collapsed on the floor, gasping and coughing and sucking in great bolts of air. John spun the bad guy, wrenched an arm up behind his back and forced him down to his knees, his face to the wall.
"Are you all right?" John demanded of his friend. Sherlock croaked something unintelligible-he sounded like he was coughing up every breath he'd ever taken.
It was short work having the bad guys secured (naturally Sherlock travelled with zip-ties cached away in his voluminous coat along with everything else they could conceivably need), and affixing the tourniquet to the shot man's leg (field work again! John might have been twenty-two years old for a few seconds there), and then he slumped on the wall near where Sherlock was lying spread-eagled on the floor still catching his breath.
Sherlock's throat was red like a warning, a promise that bruising would swiftly follow. The flush hadn't yet faded from his face, and John found himself staring because it was such a rare thing.
"Can you speak?" John asked, thinking about crushed larynxes and the amazing things they were doing with electronic voice boxes these days, all of it relatively abstract because of course Sherlock would be okay-Sherlock Holmes being fundamentally sound had become the given state of the world for John at some point in the recent past. It was odd, but then, much about his life was odd just now.
"With a great deal of eloquence, thank you," Sherlock said, and John didn't bother to stifle his laugh. Sherlock sounded two hundred years old, shrivelled and dry.
"Whatever you say, mate."
"I do say, John, and nobody is interested in your sarca-ack." Sherlock broke off coughing again.
John turned his eyes up to the concrete ceiling, grinning helplessly. Relief and triumph and vaguely hysterical joy and everything else-he was well beyond keeping a straight face.
Beautiful night, was the thought that flashed through John's mind, and then he thought that that was mad because they were four storeys underground, tonnes of stone between them and the sky. There was an article he'd read once about being in the space capsule, where the view of the planets and stars was actually terrible-very small windows, if John was remembering correctly, and borderless oceans of dark.
But still, every astronaut they interviewed had said that it was beautiful up there.
Not so mad, then. John grabbed Sherlock's forearm as Sherlock grabbed his, and pulled the detective onto his feet. They were necessarily close to each other for a moment. In the background the shot man was moaning and crying softly in pain; it was only mildly distracting.
Wild ideas ran in John's mind-impossible things. He wanted to flatten his palms against Sherlock's ruined throat, stick his hands in buckets of ice first so that it might do some good. He wanted to check him for other injuries, open his coat and jacket and shirt in search of broken ribs. He wanted to know the shape of Sherlock's bones under his skin.
John was staring again. Still. Always. On and on.
It was some kind of miracle too, this strange kinder planet-Sherlock was staring back.
Oh, but days passed.
John was certain that something had happened between them-a particular look had been traded, a critical acknowledgement. That moment in the multistorey just before Scotland Yard had arrived, the two of them staring at each other from too close and that tension in the air like a bowstring drawn taut-if John recognised it, then obviously Sherlock had as well.
But Sherlock said nothing. Not with the Yard there, not in the cab they took back to Baker Street, not when John laid out liquor and biscuits and tea and they ate sitting across from each other, their feet close under the table. John stole little glances, little hitches of breath. He chewed on the inside of his lip.
Nothing. There was typical conversation (typical for Sherlock, anyway; the Knights of Templar and tribal cannibalism in New Guinea had both played featured roles), typical clink of cup and saucer, typical desiccated London sunlight slinking down the window. Everything interesting had already happened today.
Sherlock received a text and vanished into his bedroom. John sat at the table for a few minutes longer, thinking about distance on a cosmic scale, thinking that empty space was the only thing separating the two of them.
And then days passed. Sherlock picked up a new case and commenced recklessly dashing about again. Sometimes he took John along with him (never asking, "busy, mate?" always, "come along now, no time for your coat"). Sometimes he was just gone, and John was stranded. Marooned.
It was a discomforting feeling. John's least favourite thing to be was expendable, not missed. He drifted about the flat, loosely tethered by a black mood and sore eyes from staying up too late on the computer. He hurled idle abuse at Sherlock's polished skull.
When Sherlock returned, it was like he brought gravity in with him. John snapped back into himself, his feet firmly on the ground. There was oxygen here, and sunlight. He could breathe without thinking about it. In his head ran a lovely little chorus: home at last, home at last.
It was ridiculous, the strain John Watson was under just now. It was absolutely beyond comprehension, these ghastly changes that Sherlock Holmes had wrought in him.
Tossing the door shut behind him, Sherlock said with eyes agleam, "A ginger-haired child and a ninth century Carolingian manuscript have gone missing."
That was pretty obscure even for the world's only consulting detective. It sounded like the set-up to history's weirdest joke.
It established the tone for the night. Nothing that happened made much sense. John followed Sherlock to the British Museum, where the tourists clutched their cameras and the portraits scowled, and then to the steam-hot back kitchen of a curry restaurant where John bolted some naan whilst Sherlock was doing whatever it was he did, and then to what appeared to be an actual real-life opium den. John experienced another not-so-surprising sense of surprise in meeting the high number of languid addicts who knew Sherlock Holmes by name.
But that was only trivia, precious data. The big picture was a black hole still. John was distracted by all these stupid tiny snapshots: Sherlock's hands hidden like weapons in his pockets; meaningless sirens a block over; half-bowl moon tipped on its side. Just after midnight, for approximately nine minutes Sherlock had a small white feather caught in the controlled wreck of his hair. Pointless things like that.
Sherlock solved the case before dawn, with all the attendant drama and flourish, the clipped expository monologue dripping with contempt for the benefit of the police. John had been of absolutely no use whatsoever, a clumsy bystander for the most part, and he knew it.
In the cab on the way home, he touched his forehead to the window glass and wondered why the hell Sherlock was keeping him around.
"Variety, I suppose," Sherlock told him.
John started. "Beg pardon?"
"The reason I tolerate your company. Solitude has its charms, of course, but man does not live by bread alone."
"There is no such thing as mind-reading, John."
"Then-stop doing that."
Sherlock smiled, that decimating boyish smile that made something close up warm and tight in John's chest. Most of these trials and travails were worth it, to be subject to that sort of smile from Sherlock Holmes.
"It's so easy sometimes," Sherlock confided, leaning towards John. Their knees pressed together and Sherlock didn't seem to notice (though that was impossible). "Your face broadcasts quite clearly to me, you know."
John nodded. "Yes, I'd say that's been firmly established."
"Odd, really. I might have expected it to have lost any claim on my attention by now," Sherlock said.
John blinked, momentarily thrown. "My face?"
"Anything I'm obliged to study with such unflinching regularity. Yes, your face. You, as a general category."
Sherlock flicked his hand to indicate John as a general category. John's pulse was racing, his eyes locked on Sherlock's face because if he was taking the piss, John would fucking well kill him. It had already been a difficult week.
"I don't know how you've managed to capture my interest without being particularly interesting yourself, but there you are," Sherlock told him, cheerful with the low-level mania that occasionally followed on successful cases.
It took John a moment to parse out whether that was a good thing or bad. "Thank you?"
"Don't mention it, old boy. After all, who knows how long it will last? Ah, here we are."
They'd arrived, Baker Street and their own door. Sherlock swept ahead, leaving John to pay for the cab with money he'd nicked from the detective's wallet earlier, because it was just simpler that way.
Inside it smelled like overbrewed tea and old fires and still faintly of mustard gas underneath it all (that may have been psychological, John was willing to concede). Sherlock was already draped across the sofa, his body a long subtle curve.
John closed his hand in the fabric of his coat but didn't move to take it off. He was shivering with anticipation, adrenaline, vicious hope-anything but fear.
"So you know everything about me, then," John said. He squeezed his hand tighter, the zipper scoring his palm.
Sherlock slanted a parlous look at him. "I should say so."
"No mystery at all?"
"Apologies, John, but no. This can't have come as a surprise to you?"
"No," John said, the beating heart in his throat making his voice thick. "How could I hope to keep anything concealed from the great Sherlock Holmes?"
And then, as if on a dare, his eyes darted to the steep colourless line of Sherlock's throat disappearing into his shirt. John lingered there for too long a moment, daydreaming. Sherlock made a small sound that was not quite shock, more amused than anything else.
"Oh, well done," Sherlock said on a rough low breath.
John's gaze jerked back up, his face stinging hot all of a sudden. There was a crack as his eyes met Sherlock's that John felt in every corner of his body, every single hair standing on end.
Sherlock swung his legs out and sat up. He gave John the slightest twist of a smile, more a goad than anything else. "Come on, then."
John found himself a step forward without having thought about it. He stopped his feet and swallowed hard. "What?"
"Come here, and take off your coat already."
A hand raised in imperial command, a tilt of Sherlock's head and a dark thing passing through his eyes-John went over there. His coat he left in a crumpled heap on the carpet. Standing over Sherlock, seeing his head tipped back and his alien eyes so pretty in the lamplight, John became dizzy, enraptured past all logic.
Sherlock rested his hand on John's hip, long fingers hooking in his belt.
"There is no mystery here, John," Sherlock told him, half-smiling at the very idea. He tugged John yet closer. "You should bore me but you don't-sex was almost certainly going to have a part in it."
John laughed, a wild little scrap torn out of him. He closed his hand on Sherlock's shoulder because suddenly he could-he was allowed. Not to mention, he was concerned that his legs weren't going to hold him up much longer. He pressed his weight on Sherlock, felt his friend's muscles tense in support, saw the pleased shape his mouth made.
"All right, now-" Sherlock started to say, but John knew how to do this part, at the very least, knew how to recognise a moment for what it was, and so he leaned down and kissed Sherlock square on. John cupped a hand around the nape of his neck to get the angle right, fingers buried in Sherlock's hair.
And that was wonderful. Hot and too anxious, too fast, Sherlock kissing him over and over and John couldn't breathe (no air up here), but that was all right. This was a better thing to do than breathing.
Some minutes later, and John had been pulled over Sherlock's body, his knees against either hip and his hands still lost in the chaos of Sherlock's hair (increasingly difficult to disengage, John was finding). John was bare to the waist and Sherlock's shirt had five buttons undone, half-dragged off his shoulders.
Sherlock pulled his mouth away from John's collarbone. He was panting, his eyes blown black. His face was streaked with flush.
"It's going to end poorly, you know," Sherlock told him, and stole a hard kiss from John's mouth.
"Don't, why would you say that? Terrible," John muttered. He wanted to lick Sherlock's throat and so he did, salt taste and soap and just brilliant.
"It's only rational," Sherlock said. His fingers were at work on John's belt and trousers. "The single constant fact underlying all of existence is that nothing lasts."
John was having some trouble keeping up. His forehead was leaning sweat-slick against Sherlock's, and he stared down at Sherlock's hand opening his trousers, pale fingers slipping inside so easily. John gasped and shivered as Sherlock took hold of him. He opened his mouth on Sherlock's cheek, clasped him very tight about the shoulders.
"It's the most sadistic curse God could have conceived," Sherlock continued, his voice hoarse and ruined, distracted by sharp intakes of breath as John moved atop him. "Our basic awareness that someday we'll be dead. Someday even our bones will be gone, even the world itself. Nothing lasts."
"Shut up," John said. He twisted his fingers in Sherlock's hair, tight enough for lines of pain to draw across his forehead.
"Why?" Sherlock asked as if honestly curious. John shook his head, unable to think. Sherlock's hand on him never paused, just perfect and tight and fast and there was never any air.
He kissed Sherlock deeply. Sherlock groaned into his mouth, thin arm around John's back keeping him pressed close.
John broke away. "Because you're wrong," he managed, "wrong wrong wrong," mumbled against Sherlock's mouth, the clean planes of his face. They shifted together on the sofa, Sherlock arching up and John bearing down.
"Wrong," John whispered into Sherlock's ear, and felt his shiver, the stutter of his hand in John's trousers.
"Stop saying that," Sherlock ordered, breathless. "You're not even-making an argument."
"No?" John said. A particularly good stroke had him muffling a moan into Sherlock's throat, pleasure suffusing his body. He drew his tongue across the desperate pulse under Sherlock's skin. "Pay closer attention."
And John kissed him again, putting everything into it, all he was and all he had. He was sure that even a mind like Sherlock's would grasp it eventually.
Then there was the meteor that came in through the window at Baker Street.
It was a Sunday, roast chicken day for the neighbours, and John was sitting at the table with his laptop open, rosemary and thyme lending a medieval sense to the air. He listened to his stomach growl, debating whether or not to have a snack. Sherlock was at his lab in the kitchen, tinkering away and never looking more like a cartoon character bent on world domination. John watched him out of the corner of his eye, stupidly endeared to how stupidly endearing Sherlock looked in his little chemist goggles.
And the window exploded. Fire cartwheeled in and burst into a million flaming bits on the carpet. John shouted and shoved back from the table, his cheek stinging, neatly incised by a piece of glass. A bit of blood rolled down his face and under the shelf of his jaw.
Meteors, was what John was thinking, an apocalyptic scene from some imbecilic American action movie playing in his mind-cities destroyed, bridges on fire. The sky was falling, the carpet was on fire, how exciting.
John snatched up his coat to bat the flames, and Sherlock leapt into the room with a large flask of liquid that made a sizzling white foam upon coming into contact with extreme heat. It was all horribly toxic, no doubt.
Fire vanquished, coat and carpet both irreparable, John glared at his filthy hands and asked, "What the bloody fuck?"
Sherlock was poking at the charred mess on the carpet, nudging out the broken glass pieces. "Molotov cocktail. These shards, they're from a bottle of cheap rum, Green Crow brand. Ah, here's the rag."
John moved swiftly out of range of the window. Then he went back to take Sherlock's arm and pull him out of range as well. Sherlock made only token protests, allowing John to lead them into the relative safety of the hallway.
"Who, who is throwing Molotov cocktails at us?" John asked, feeling the concrete thud of his heart in his chest, his fingertips beginning to tingle.
"Someone paid to, most likely," Sherlock said. "You're bleeding."
"Yeah." John pulled the sleeve of his jumper over his hand and pressed the clothed fist to his face. "It's fine."
Sherlock put his fingers around John's wrist and pulled his hand away, studying the cut on John's face.
"It suits you," Sherlock said.
John smiled at him reflexively. Sherlock dragged his thumb across the soft inside of John's wrist, and smiled back.
"Someone is trying to kill us, John," Sherlock told him as if it were another grand secret to be kept between the two of them. "This is turning out to be a lovely day."
And then Sherlock was whirling away, dashing into the flat to examine the evidence again, and John was left leaning against the wall with blood on his face and a giddy grin, thinking that the sky might still be falling out there and then, like a bolt out of the blue:
let it come.