My dearest readers: this is it. The last chapter. Nine months after starting the whole story as some sort of experiment to see whether there are people who would be interested in reading it, I've actually finished it. I'm still very grateful and amazed by the number of fellow Sherlockians who seem to appreciate my work. Thank you very much for all of your alerts and reviews, your kind words, your support and your suggestions. I couldn't have done it without you. .

ATeapotInATempest: Thank you for the great beta work you have done so far! I hope you are all right. Please contact me if you read this.

This chapter is betad by JustBeAQueen. Thank you so much for betaing the remaining chapters. You did a great job!

Nothing else remains to be done for me now but to thank you one last time. You're great. I hope you approve of the end. Please let me know what you think of it. If you like it, please let other people know as well ;-) Enjoy!

By the way, I'm writing a new Sherlock story which I will upload soon. Maybe, you'd like to read it as well? I'd appreciate that very much. See you (hopefully) soon!

Chapter twenty-three

Even if John didn't let Mycroft's visit get to him, it certainly had given him food for thought. He needed to talk to Sherlock. Tonight! Even though he was not sure that he had gathered the courage he needed for addressing this matter, he definitely would not survive another day in this agonizing uncertainty. He felt completely deprived of the innocent touching, tender embraces and kisses that drove him out of his mind; forced to watch from the sofa as Sherlock distanced himself from John, not knowing whether this was due to uncertainty on Sherlock's side or there was another reason.

The matter had to be resolved once and for all.

After Mycroft had gone, John went back and forth, wondering how he could bring up the subject best. At first he briefly considered lighting some candles, pouring wine, and to do the things he normally did when he approached the person of his romantic interest. However, he immediately rejected the idea. Sherlock wasn't just another romantic interest. This was Sherlock, who would not only think the typical romantic gestures as dull and boring, but he would deduce, probably incorrectly, John's attempt at still playing the game. It did not feel right and the alcohol would have done more harm than good. He needed to have his wits about him when he dealt with Sherlock after all. Ultimately, he decided to address the problem directly and contented himself with tea.

Deep in thought, he sipped his tea and wondered about the course of events that might follow. However, he had to be patient for another hour before he heard Mrs. Hudson's door, followed by gentle steps on the stairs, clearly belonging to Sherlock. The detective had apparently taken the backyard for the second time this evening.

Sherlock stooped in the doorway, scrutinizing the room thoroughly. Then he made a grim face. "Mycroft was here," he finally said. "What did he want now?"

John's heart was pounding like mad as he watched his friend carefully. "Irrelevant," he answered evasively. "I'll tell you later. How's Victor?"

He knew that Sherlock saw through the maneuver, but for the moment he said nothing about Mycroft and let John do as he liked. "So far so good," replied the detective. "He and Jones will go on holiday for a few weeks in order to recover. Obviously, the poor bloke still doesn't have nerves of steel," he added blankly.

John held his breath. "Was it hard for you?" he asked, and avoided looking at his friend.

Sherlock raised his head. "What?"

"To say good-bye."

Sherlock looked at him intently. "No," he finally answered. "Why should it?"

"Maybe because you still feel something for him?" John asked cautiously.

Sherlock snorted. "Hardly. Victor is a veritable bundle of nerves. I doubt that he would be a great friend of chopped off heads in the fridge."

"That I can understand very well," John admitted. "Neither am I, because that's disgusting."

Sherlock grinned. "You tolerate it though."

"You see, you can consider yourself lucky," John countered and then continued asking his actual question. "So that chapter is closed?"

"As I told you before John, Victor Trevor is over and done with. I must admit though that it was useful to see him again. Now we both know that the other is alright," Sherlock said with an unfamiliar openness in terms of his emotional life.

John nodded, but said nothing. Instead, he raised his eyes to the gift that Mycroft had given him a few weeks ago, still lying gift-wrapped on the mantelpiece. He had often wondered what was in it, but he actually had not yet plucked up the courage to unwrap it. After all, at the time it was given to him, he was not really Sherlock's fiancé, and what he would be in the future still remained to be seen. Mycroft had not commented on this fact, fortunately.

Sherlock's voice brought him back to the present. "By the way, John. Are you trying to deduce the contents of the gift?" he asked doubtfully, then added, "Why didn't you unwrap it, anyway? "

John took a deep breath and finally looked at Sherlock. "We need to talk, Sherlock." He tried to banish any commanding tone out of his voice, but sounding serious about the matter nevertheless. This wasn't about telling him where to get off. Although he originally had intended to do so at the beginning of this whole debacle, but clarifying the situation was far more important to him. This was going to be the declaration.

Thinking about it, John almost wished that he had settled for some alcohol.

"We are talking already," Sherlock remarked and hung his coat on the door.

John smiled nervously. "Um ... this is going to be heart to heart talk then, I think."

Sherlock looked miserable as sin, but nevertheless resigned himself to his fate in silence. He motioned John with a brittle wave of his hand to proceed, slumping unceremoniously into his chair. "What have I done wrong now?"

John stood up with difficulty and under loud protest of the detective - "John, stop it! You need to rest your leg"- and limped over to him. Then, he sat down nervously in his own chair. "Nothing, Sherlock. You did nothing ... and, actually, everything."

Sherlock looked at him blankly.

When John saw his puzzled face, he chuckled humorlessly to himself and buried his face in his hands. If this was going wrong, John had a serious problem. Then, he banished the thought and he called himself to order.

Direct. Quick and easy.

He rubbed his hands briefly over his face, before he raised his head, sighing, and looked Sherlock straight in the eye. "I want ... you."

Sherlock looked at him in surprise. John could see that he was thinking about his words quickly, trying to place them in the proper context. "To do what?" he asked skeptically. Then he wrinkled his nose. "Have you found the eyeballs in the microwave?"

"There are eyeballs again in the microwave? Sherlock, how many times…," John started but quickly thought better of it. "Forget about the eyeballs. We're getting off topic."

"I don't know what you're on about, John." There was a hint of frustration in Sherlock's voice. "I wonder if you could do me the great kindness of considering the possibility of enlightening me?"

John disregarded his sarcasm. "That I want you, Sherlock."

"Yes, John, I'm getting that part. But WHAT do you want me to do? I haven't the faintest idea," Sherlock exclaimed impatiently. Then he stopped midway in the movement and one moment later the expression of impatience on his face changed into understanding. "Oh," he said. Apparently realization had hit him. "Of course…our agreement," he continued whispering, more to himself than to John. "Stupid," he berated himself. "Obvious …Well, err, John, I'll rectify the whole engagement affair first thing in the morning. I, err, sort of forgot about it." He looked quite clearly like a picture of misery.

Alarm bells started ringing in John's head. "No," he answered quickly. "Don't."

Sherlock frowned in bewilderment. "No?"

"Err, no. That won't be necessary… I hope," John replied. "Look, Sherlock, I know this is all new to us and kind of …uhm … unforeseen, but there's no addition to it. I just want you. That's all."

"In what sense?" Sherlock was on guard, still being puzzled.

"Oh, my goodness. Don't play so dumb. Dumb doesn't suit you," John blurted out in frustration. Reluctantly, he abandoned his armchair, knelt down on the floor in front of the detective, placing both hands on either side of his armchair. He tried to ignore the sharp pain in his leg. Their fingers didn't yet touch, but the very proximity sent electric tingles through the back of John's hand. He continued in a softer, more patient voice, keeping in mind, that this was not only the moment he had eagerly anticipated for several days now, but also his declaration of love, which should be uttered tenderly and in Sherlock's case also very carefully, considering his aversion for sentiment.

"Sherlock, I am still wearing your ring, and I have observed that you haven't taken off yours either. If you don't want me to wear your ring any longer, then please tell me so right now. You are too kind as to hurt my feelings wittingly. If you only want friendship and end this … situation, then that's definitely one of the ways. It will be very difficult for me, but I'll try to forget every loving moment we have shared during the case, and you can try to delete these experiences. Our friendship is not at stake, I promise you this. But I need to know what you want."

For now Sherlock said nothing, staring fixedly at John. He was obviously still struggling to process the information.

John saw that it was complex and difficult and really quite impossible to explain his feelings to Sherlock without uttering the dreaded L-word. However, he was also unsure how Sherlock might react if he would use it.

John took a deep breath again, before he decided to take his chance. "You know, at first you overwhelmed me with your idea of the engagement, and the whole story you made up along with it. One moment I was eating my toast and the next moment I had a ring on my finger. I couldn't understand what was happening. At first the acting drove me out of my mind, but then you took my hand and kissed me and we came closer and closer. I began to realize that I feel more than friendship for you, so the last few weeks have been even more difficult for me," he finally said. "I mean, I am a man in his forties, and I simply did not expect to question my sexual identity. I have never been interested in a man before. Please don't take this the wrong way. I've always loved you, in a friendly, brotherly way, but obviously there always had also been something more … I just couldn't see it ... or just didn't want to see that," John explained, reaching for Sherlock's hands and intertwining them with his own. "If you don't have an answer for me right now, that's fine too. Please, just tell me how much time you'll need to figure things out. I really need to know where I stand with you."

"More than friendship?" Sherlock said, partly asking, partly remarking.

"Yes," John affirmed. "Look, Sherlock. I know that all this is very difficult for you, too. But the letter I wrote to you ... I meant every word it said. I know you to the core. There is nothing you could do or say that could drive me away from you. I know exactly what I am committing myself to. You can always count on my love and friendship."

For a while they looked at each other in silence. The seconds ticked away and John became noticeably more nervous. His heart was pounding in his throat. He fervently hoped that his shot wasn't going to backfire…

"I'm not particularly good at this, John, but I want to give it a try," Sherlock said. "I know that I am not an ideal partner, and I could probably enumerate all the disadvantages that a relationship with me entails, but as you have already said, you know me very well. I will most likely either overlook or forget all the things that you deem socially important... But ... I'm willing to try it, John."

John exhaled audibly, relieved. For the first time in weeks he felt as if a burden had fallen from his shoulders. "I'll take whatever you're willing to give." He squeezed Sherlock's hands once more reassuringly before letting go, slowly getting to his feet and sank back into the chair behind him. His leg couldn't bear the pain any longer, and he didn't want to rush Sherlock in this situation, which was undoubtedly equally relieving as difficult for both of them. They would need time to come to terms with these new circumstances and adapt.

Sherlock smiled at him shyly. "You had suspicions during the case. You've been surprised about Victor and you've been curious. Were you shocked, John? Scared? Disgusted? That I have felt all this for him ... and now for you? "

"No, of course not," John replied, shaking his head. "What do you take me for? I am glad that you have not deprived yourself completely from love. I was simply surprised that you have chosen me as Victor's successor, where you could have had anyone. Or at least a lot of people. And I naturally asked myself what happened to 'love is a dangerous disadvantage'. "

"Love is only a dangerous disadvantage if it carries the unwanted chemical defects found in the losing side. But you don't affect my mind in this very unpleasant way, John. You don't meddle with my brain. You stimulate me," Sherlock said with a grin. "You're simply unbeatable as a conductor of light."

John involuntarily thought of Dartmoor and couldn't suppress a smile. This was undoubtedly Sherlock's manner to express his feelings. It would take time to bring him permanently out of his shell. From time to time Sherlock gave him insights, and what John saw pleased him very much. So much so that he gladly invested vast amounts of time and patience in his friend. In the meantime, he would have to put up with the half-humorous, half-cynical tone, which was a sign of familiarity with Sherlock. That was all right. John didn't cherish the illusion that it would be easy.

"There's one thing I don't understand. Why did you insist on us being engaged for real, except for my bad acting abilities?"

Sherlock smiled faintly and his face assumed a sad expression for a moment. "John, you must understand that Victor had really meant a lot to me back then and his breaking up really did hurt," he said in an unusually faltering way of speaking. John did not interrupt him and sat there motionless. He didn't want to divert him unnecessarily or perhaps even stop the flow of words. He saw it as a sign of confidence in him and in their fledgling relationship that he was trying to open up to him and to tell something so personal and painful.

"I was completely overwhelmed by all the negative feelings and had put myself on a very dark path as you know. Heartbreak and boredom are a very dangerous combination. When Victor suddenly showed up on that Monday afternoon four weeks ago, all the stashed-away feelings that I had distanced myself so carefully from also re-emerged," Sherlock said. "I didn't want to open Pandora's box again, but he had stirred my feelings. Not for him, but for you. I was perfectly content with the way things were between us. After all, I did not know what you felt, although I noticed, of course, that the boundaries between us became more and more vague through these months. All afternoon I weighed the pros and cons, and when you came home it quickly became quite clear to me that I couldn't simply block out the emotions again. You remember the fact that we sat together in the living room?"

"It struck me that you were behaving ... somehow peculiar," John replied. That explained at least Sherlock's hours of staring at him that night.

"I had to know, whether you would approve of a relationship or not and how you would react if you were forced to try it with me. I finally decided to use the case to conduct an experiment by Monday evening. I needed to know for sure how you felt about me and I needed to explore my own feelings. I'm sorry, John, but I couldn't just ask you," he said, shrugging. "I thought that a relationship simply wasn't meant for me, and I put the whole thing behind me. I tried it with Victor and it went wrong. Until four weeks ago I was not aware that I saw you this way; that I wanted you ... wanted 'us'. This case simply offered the perfect solution for my little problem. There is nothing like first-hand evidence. Unfortunately, I couldn't draw any firm conclusions, although your signals were hopeful. I know you're a man of your word and, therefore, I did not know whether you really felt something for me or if you simply were standing by our agreement. You know, I never theorize before having collected all the data. Otherwise one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

John might have been angry, and in the face of Sherlock's experiment maybe he should have been angry, but otherwise they probably would never have gotten together. "Neither did I realize it ... and now I can hardly imagine anything else. You are such a remarkable actor, that I myself was also completely insecure whether your affection was part of your role or not. It drove me crazy. The last two days were plain hell, Sherlock," John said with a sigh. "I missed … 'us'."

They exchanged a meaningful look, smiling familiarly at each other.

"But why not just fake a relationship? Why immediately insist on an engagement?" John continued after a moment.

"To begin with, because you really are a terribly bad liar, and if we had faked the whole thing, you'd probably slipped a word involuntarily by exclaiming that you're not actually gay as soon as a pretty lady would have fluttered her eyes at you."

"That is one of the most ridiculous things you've ever said!" John exclaimed.

"Really? Your testosterone level is actually quite obstructive now and then. Maybe you would have removed the ring for the sake of the young lady, said or done anything, and thus given us away. I simply had to prevent such an event. Hence the engagement."

John decided to leave it at that, since he had a sneaking suspicion that the whole thing was quite a testimony to Sherlock's own jealousy. "You said 'to begin with'."

"Maybe in a very unconscious way the ring also had been a kind of reassurance that you are not like Victor and that I may not assume you were leaving me just like that. In addition, it was a visible sign for Victor that I really was over him. In fact I believe that he still felt a little guilty in relation to his departure from my life."

John shook his head. "I must say that you have very strange reasons for putting a ring on my finger."

Sherlock smirked slightly. "I haven't told you yet that I really like that ring on your finger." Obviously Sherlock had recovered a part of his self-confidence that he had shown in the past few weeks on a relationship level.

"Really? Why? You bought the rings yourself, didn't you? You've really given a lot of thought to this whole engagement story."

Sherlock crossed his legs and put his fingers together under his chin, looking closely at John. "Because the ring is an official statement. 'No fooling around with this man. Property of Sherlock Holmes ' And yes, I bought them myself," the detective said.

His keen looks gave John goose bumps. In Sherlock's eyes he could see more than the usual curiosity and his thirst for knowledge. Now, there was unmistakably a kind of desire in them. And hunger. Like a predator on the hunt, he thought. These thoughts inevitably led to other thoughts considering bedroom activities, and, even though he knew that the road would inevitably lead them there sooner or later, the thought of it also made him quite nervous. He would need time for this and he would take his time for the sake of them both, and he wanted to make sure that Sherlock knew exactly what he was committing himself to, of course.

John met his gaze. "You're right. I'm not like Victor. I'm not someone who runs away as soon as life isn't kind to him. I will not leave you. But you do know that I'm going to hurt you nevertheless, right?" John asked. "Love is giving someone the power to destroy you, but trusting him not to. But no one can promise you that he'll never hurt you, one time or another, it will inevitably happen. Sooner or later, I will hurt you, just as you will hurt me. The real promise is that the time you spend together, is a compensation for the pain suffered."

"Then it will be worth every second," Sherlock said with a hint of impatience in his voice, rolling his eyes. "John, in the past four weeks I certainly have thought about the consequences of my experiment. And no, I do not see things through rose-coloured glasses all of a sudden. You drive me insane often enough, and you would like to launch me into outer space probably more than once a day. This will not change anything at all."

John, who was accustomed to his friends' behavior, didn't expect that this would change either, just because they were a couple now, and sighed. "I do not doubt it. Just let's take things slow, okay? "

"How slow?" Sherlock asked and at the sight of his friend's impatience John eventually had to smile involuntarily.

"The slowest slow, Sherlock. I like what we have now. I really love you, but please give me some time to get used to it. So please, no quantum leaps for the moment."

Sherlock grimaced and shrugged. "That's up to you ..."

The sight of the pouting detective gave John an idea. It could not hurt to follow up his declaration of love with deeds just to be sure, so his friend would not draw the wrong conclusions from his restraint. "Would it bother you if I were to carry out an experiment of my own now?"

Sherlock looked at him curiously. "Experiment?"

"On you," John added.

"On Me?"

John nodded. "Yes, it's vital, please."

"If you think that is absolutely necessary ... all right. Please proceed."

"Definitely. Would you mind turning out the lights for me?" John asked with an apologetic look at his leg.

Sherlock frowned. "If you insist ...," he finally replied, stood up and walked over to switch off the light.

"Very well," John said as the room was shrouded in darkness. "And now, please sit down again."

When Sherlock had re-established himself in his seat, John hauled himself out of the armchair and positioned himself in front of Sherlock. Then he rested his hands on the armrests of the chair and leaned slowly down to him. With every inch that John closed the gap between them, his heart beat a little faster. The darkness added a complete new dimension to the situation. And though he knew that Sherlock could see exceptionally well in the dark, he knew that the detective could not rely on his sense of sight alone. He would involuntarily be forced to feel, and to surrender to the moment ... He paused and licked his lips in anticipation of the kiss. He heard Sherlock holding his breath. Then, finally, he pressed his lips to his friend's. His kisses slowly wandered along his chin, along his cheek to his ear and back down again. Sherlock gradually relaxed and when John reached his lips again, he felt how Sherlock smiled into the kiss.

"How's your experiment going?" Sherlock asked mischievously when John reluctantly broke apart from him.

"Very well, I think."

"Do you like it?"

"Why don't you just deduce me?" John whispered defiantly.

"You or the experiment?" Sherlock teased him.

"Me," John whispered to him.

"You're breathing hard. Your pulse is elevated. You're in a clear state of arousal. Even though I can't see you, I think that your pupils are dilated and have blushed. Your skin is probably pink by now. "

"Thanks for stating that," John groaned in mock indignation.

"I think it's adorable when you're blushing, John. I like to think that you succumb to my charms."

"Interesting. So you get a kick out of the idea that I am subject to your charms," John whispered.

"No," Sherlock replied in a deep voice. "Actually, I get a kick out of you."

When faced with Sherlock's disarming frankness, John involuntarily grinned. Sherlock quickly learned, concerning the flirting. "So, you like this, too."

"Hmm, I'm not yet sure about that," Sherlock replied with feigned uncertainty. "I do not have all the evidence yet."

"I could provide some evidence if you'd like?" John offered.

"That would be appropriate."

The kiss that followed had nothing in common with the kiss they had exchanged minutes before. Sherlock, who intensified the kiss, pulled John further down to him, so that he was forced to let go of the armrests and to support himself with his hands on Sherlock's shoulders in order to keep himself from falling down. Their lips parted and their tongues took up where they had left off at Aldershot. Finally, John also gave himself up to the moment and sat down instinctively on Sherlock's lap, whereupon the detective pulled him even closer and clasped his hips. John's fingers clung to Sherlock's shirt collar, while they explored and caressed each other. Again the kiss deepened and grew more demanding by the minute. John knew he had to do something now or all of his good intentions would go down the pan the very same moment...

Reluctantly he broke away from Sherlock.

At John's retreat Sherlock gave a brief sound of protest.

"Well, how do you like it?" John asked, gasping for breath.

Sherlock sighed. "Apply my methods."

"You're breathing hard. Your pulse is elevated. You're in a clear state of arousal. I think that your pupils are dilated, but unlike me, you're probably not blushing."

"Excellent, John," Sherlock replied and stole another, devoted kiss.

John groaned and pushed the detective gently back with one hand. "Slowly, remember?" he said with difficulty.

"Selective memory," Sherlock pouted.

John laughed softly. "Come on, Casanova. One step at a time. Dinner?"

"Starving!" Sherlock replied with a smile, thinking probably more likely about what he'd like to have for dessert than about the main course.

After dinner they made themselves comfortable on the sofa and both enjoyed their new togetherness. Sherlock, who was lying with his head in John's lap while trying meticulously to not put weight onto the injured leg, had apparently been working on an article about his experiment with the toenails in recent days, which he wished to publish in a journal and was proofreading. John had been careful not to ask about the details and was simply grateful that the detective had continued the experiment in the last few nights in St. Bart's laboratory and not on their kitchen table.

Although John loved their physical closeness, he knew that there were many evenings to come when the detective would be immersed in thoughts and not paying attention to him. John didn't believe that would change just because they were now officially a couple. Sherlock wasn't romantic, and he did not expect that they would walk now constantly holding hands through the streets of London, only because they had practiced the public display of emotions under the pretense of the case several times. Now, they didn't have to fool anyone anymore, and certainly not themselves. Therefore he was glad that Sherlock, who usually appreciated when his personal distance zone was respected, seemed to be not averse to cuddling principally as he was proving just now.

While playing absentmindedly with the dark curls of his friend, he looked raptly at the ring on his finger.

"Why don't you take it off and have a look at the inscription if you are so keenly interested?" Sherlock asked.

John looked at him surprised. "How ..." he began, but then thinking better of it. Instead, he gently took the ring from his finger and held it before his eyes, so that he could read the inscription.

In view of what he read, John looked at Sherlock quizzically. "I thought you don't care about…?"

"Quite the contrary. It has long been one of my axioms," Sherlock replied with a wink.

John smiled sweetly, for the inscription showed him just how much the detective adored him, their life together and the simple things they shared.

The little things are infinitely the most important.