Warnings: Language, a touch of gore.
Author's Notes: For those who are unsure, "penne" is a kind of pasta, and a "toque" is a chef's hat. (Proper note from me at the bottom of the chapter)
To Light Another's Path: Chapter Nineteen
The door of 221B closed behind Sherlock, blocking out the world and capturing him and John within the confines of their flat. After the rush and bite of the confrontation with Monroe and Havisham, the peace sounded almost alien – just another evening in London – and Sherlock slumped back, his head pressed against the hard wood as he struggled to sort through the tangled mess of feelings that twisted through his body.
Adrenaline had left him at last, removing the thin veil that obscured the drone of aches and the high, treble sting of split skin from his awareness. Still, it was not the pain that left Sherlock feeling breathless, as if the bruised prison of his ribs were too confined for his heart and lungs. He kept recalling the sound of the gun cracking into John's skull and the dying flicker of consciousness in those blue eyes as he slumped to the floor. For one, sickening second, Sherlock had thought John was dead, and even now the aftershocks of that terror kept stirring along his frame, flaying his nerves and choking his mind with oily, slick shadows.
Desperately, he sought John out with his gaze, taking in the exhausted slump of his shoulders as he shrugged out of his jacket, plucking at the cuff to manipulate it over the bandage on his hand. John was alive, even if the fight with Monroe and Havisham had left more than its fair share of marks.
Other than the obvious hole in his flesh, there was the thunderous blemish of the pistol whip against his temple, one which matched its mate on Sherlock's cheekbone. Another storm-cloud of discomfort lay at his jaw: Monroe's fist gifting its silhouette to John's skin. There would be more, Sherlock knew, beneath the bloodied mess of John's jumper and shirt, and he ached with the urge to find them all – to chart their boundaries and soothe them away.
'Here.' Sherlock stepped forward, undoing the popper on the cuff of John's jacket so that the sleeve would slide off without taking the nurse's careful binding with it. With a few efficient tugs, he swept the offending garment off of John's shoulders, leaving it to fall on the floor before he brushed gentle fingers along John's chin, skirting the edge of the contusion with a whisper of a caress.
John clutched the collar of Sherlock's shirt, strong and capable as he tugged him down and stretched upwards at the same time, making the kiss more of a desperate collision than something loving. For a few seconds, all Sherlock could do was ride it, feeling the surge of John's tongue and the pressure of his mouth – tasting fear and desperation, the faintest copper hint of blood and antiseptic – before he gathered enough of his wits to respond.
Wounds ached, distant blooms of pain like fireworks on a far-off horizon as Sherlock pressed his body to John's: chest and stomach, hips and thighs as if they could somehow fuse. John's quiet moan was as much about relief as pleasure, and Sherlock trembled in response, briefly lost amidst a sea of sensation and sentiment.
Carefully, like a man leading a shy partner in a dance, he slowed the kiss, blunting the frantic edge of it to something tender and promising. At last, they unwillingly parted, heads bent together, breaths shared as they simply stood in the circle of each other's arms.
'I thought they would kill you,' John managed in a gruff voice, the words trembling as he set them free. 'All the time you kept talking – pushing them like a prat – I was just waiting for the gunshot.'
Sherlock shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment and swallowing tightly before leaning back to get a better look at John's rumpled face. 'I was trying to keep the gun aimed at me. Monroe almost shot you where you lay on the floor. Only Havisham's panic stopped him. I had to keep you out of his sights as much as possible.' He glanced down, taking in the bloodied wreck of John's jumper. 'He'd already done you enough damage. Is all this yours?'
John wrinkled his nose at the mess of fractal spatter across the wool, closing his eyes wearily before shrugging his shoulders. 'I don't think so. I did manage to hit Monroe once or twice. Some of it should be his.'
'We could sell it to the Tate Modern,' Sherlock murmured, tracing one particularly interesting arc: an upper-cut causing a wound to the mouth of an opponent.
'I don't think everyone would appreciate your taste in art,' John said, but there was a smile in his voice as he freed himself from Sherlock's arms and plucked at the wool, then lifted a hand to the gash at his temple. It was a small break in the skin, held together with steri-strips, but the bruising around it was significant. There was no way he was going to get the tight collar over his head without aggravating the wound.
'The jumper's beyond saving,' Sherlock promised, gesturing at the rip in one of the cuffs and the stains. 'I'm sure you can buy yourself something else harmless in grey oatmeal in a day or two, but for now...' He picked up a pair of shears off the table: the kind used in accident and emergency to remove motorbike leathers from crash victims. He had borrowed them from the morgue years ago and had never seen fit to take them back. Scissors that could cut through almost anything were too useful to simply return to their rightful home. 'May I?'
John looked surprised that Sherlock had bothered to ask permission, rather than simply slicing the garment away. 'Go for it,' he said with a resigned sigh, tilting his head up and exposing his neck – so utterly trusting – as Sherlock moved the scissors from the collar down to the hem, leaving the wool to bare its threads and shift easily from John's arms.
'You've not exactly escaped unscathed,' John pointed out, reaching for the vee of Sherlock's jacket lapel. 'I think your shirt's had it. You've bled on it.' John's gaze quickly darted around Sherlock's face, a frown gathering on his brow as he failed to find a wound that corresponded to the blemish.
Realisation was like a lightning strike across John's expression, and Sherlock's lips curved at one corner as he saw the veil of weary exhaustion shift. John's fingers, which had been clumsy on his own clothes, suddenly found some element of finesse as he flicked Sherlock's jacket open. He did not even bother to shove it off Sherlock's shoulders before he slid the top four shirt buttons open, parting the fabric to reveal the large dressing taped to Sherlock's chest.
'I didn't notice this,' John managed, brushing a light touch along the edge of the bright white square. He looked devastated, as if letting such a thing pass beneath his notice was a cardinal sin, even in the midst of fighting for his life.
Gently, so as not to hurt John further, Sherlock linked their fingers together, trying to transmit reassurance through a simple touch. It was the act of a second to bend his knees slightly, forcing John to meet his eyes by altering their relative heights. 'It's fine. It barely even needed medical attention: Three nails that didn't penetrate more than a quarter of a centimetre. They didn't have the force required to make an impact on my sternum. Havisham's weapon of choice was alarming, but its range was rather poor.'
The tremor that ran through John's frame was entirely involuntary, and Sherlock watched as he scrubbed at his face, seeing the wince as he touched the bruises and stirred them back to life. 'Where did Havisham get a fucking nail gun anyway?'
'He was putting a cabinet together in the kitchen; I saw it on my way through. It was a simple domestic power-tool put to a more cruel use.' He touched the bandage over John's hand again before shifting his attention to John's shirt, which bore a faint shadow of the same blood spatter that had marked his jumper. 'We need to get this off. I – I need to see that you're all right.'
The confession rasped its way up his throat, shaking in a way that Sherlock knew revealed too much about his current state of mind. Every time he thought of Havisham pulling the trigger or Monroe throwing a punch, a fresh wave of cool sweat bloomed across his skin. Part of him was aware that this yearning was driven by instinct: something more base and animal than his logical mind would normally acknowledge, but it was hard to give a damn when his hands shook with the need to make sure that John would not suffer any long-term ills from the afternoon's assault.
John's smile was tired, but genuine, and he jerked his head towards Sherlock's chest as he fumbled clumsily with his own buttons. 'You too. I was unconscious for a good part of the fight. I need to see what else you're hiding from me.'
Sherlock was faster than John, unimpeded by bandages, and he did as he was told with barely a second thought, shrugging free of his jacket and peeling off his shirt. The cotton whispered over the shallow scratches at his wrists, catching on the raw edges of the deeper ones on his fingertips before it fell to the floor, leaving him standing in his trousers as he stepped forward to help John.
'Will your hand be all right?' he asked quietly. John had not said anything about permanent damage, but the doctor was never particularly forth-coming about his own injuries. 'The nail was not exactly removed by a skilled medical professional.'
John lifted his uninjured hand to trace the edges of the marks that littered one side of Sherlock's ribs; two punches from Monroe and a sharp kick from Havisham. 'It missed the tendons, which is the most important thing. As long as it doesn't get infected, it should be fine. As for removing it, you did a good job. You didn't pivot it, you just pulled. No extra damage done.' His gaze lingered on the evidence of violence dappled on Sherlock's flesh, his face pinched. 'What happened?'
Sherlock finally got John's shirt out of the way, sighing at the additional thin cotton that now impeded his view. It was like a particularly frustrating game of pass-the-parcel. At least the neckline of the t-shirt had seen better days, and it slipped over John's head easily as Sherlock peeled it off to reveal the expanse of John's chest and stomach, mostly unharmed. It seemed Monroe had concentrated his efforts on John's head instead.
His palms moved of their own accord, tracing the soft, slight give of flesh over muscle and mapping out the lines of John's ribs as he gently probed, looking for any secret pains. John just huffed a faint sigh of something like laughter, rolling his shoulders and stepping closer so he could wrap his arms around Sherlock's waist and rest his head on Sherlock's shoulder.
He could hear John taking deep, steady breaths through his nose, drawing in the scent of Sherlock as if his life depended on it. Dimly, he realised John was reassuring himself of Sherlock's welfare as much as he was proving that John would be all right.
In all honesty, both of them had received worse in their time together. Death had been a closer companion, but that was before they had acknowledged what they were to each other. Being lovers did not change the intensity of concern – Sherlock knew he would have been just as afraid for John's well-being if they were still in the realm of friendship – but it did make the threat cut closer to the bone, somehow. It was not that they had more to lose. A death would have been as devastating a week ago as it was today, but there was an extra facet: a heartbreak that could be openly acknowledged rather than hidden away.
'Talk to me?' John asked softly, the words shaping themselves against the sensitive skin of Sherlock's throat and making him draw in a breath at the sensation. Yet the hums of pleasure from his nerves were quickly over-ruled as he sensed uncertainty in John's voice. He did not sound secure and comfortable. Now, when Sherlock stopped looking for injuries and paid attention to John as a whole, he could feel a scythe edge of tension in John's frame, making his shoulders coil and his spine tighten beneath Sherlock's touch.
'You're worried about something,' he stated, frowning to himself as he tried to read John's mood without the visual aid of his expression. 'Something to do with me.' The frown became a scowl as he attempted to understand what was going through John's mind. Had he said the wrong thing, or was it something he had failed to put into words or actions? He had been so intent on making sure that John was all right, but had Sherlock neglected something of John's welfare in his urgency to reassure himself?
'What did I do?' He deliberately kept his words flat, wincing at how cold they sounded, but it was better than the vibrato whine which wanted to tear itself free of his throat.
'Nothing.' John stepped back, looking up into Sherlock's face and clearly seeing a host of information there. Shaking his head, he cupped Sherlock's jaw, mindful of both their injuries as he gave a weak smile. 'I keep worrying you're going to decide this is – we are – that it's a mistake; that's all.'
Sherlock pulled a face, his nose wrinkled and his lips pinched in a moue of distaste which made John laugh, then grunt in pain as his head protested. 'Why would I do that? In what possible way could being with you have become a disadvantage since this morning?'
John's brow was pleated with concern, his mouth shut tight but moving as if he were chewing over his words. 'Some people might think that the fight with Monroe and Havisham demonstrated our attachment was more of a weakness than a strength,' he pointed out softly, drawing his bottom lip in under his top teeth before releasing it again. 'A distraction.'
'We are not "some people",' Sherlock pointed out ruthlessly, resting his hands carefully on top of John's and nudging at John's forehead. 'We had concerns for each others' safety, but how is that any different from what it was a week ago, or a month, or more?'
He felt John slump, as if a great tension had been released. How long had John been dragging that concern around with him? Since walking in the door of Baker Street? Leaving the hospital? Havisham's arrest?
John closed his eyes for a moment, and the smile that curved his mouth could only be described as grateful. 'I wasn't sure you would see it that way.'
Sherlock turned his head, pressing a soft kiss to John's bandaged palm. 'Do you think things would have happened differently in that apartment if we weren't lovers? You would still have hesitated when Havisham held the nail gun to my head –' Sherlock smiled when he felt John's grip tighten a fraction. 'And I would still have insisted we stay and fight.'
'It's not like we had much choice there,' John pointed out. 'And you were right. Havisham, at least, was already on his way out of the country. If we'd turned away, then there was a good chance the case would have remained unsolved.'
Sherlock was already shaking his head, stepping back and giving John's good hand a quick squeeze. 'It would have been half-solved,' he corrected as he turned away, clumsily hanging up their coats and wincing as his aching ribs protested. 'I would have known enough about Havisham's involvement. Monroe's guilt, however –' He sighed, cuffing one hand through his hair and wincing as another, unnoticed lump on his skull twinged. 'I might never have realised his full role in the whole thing.'
'You had suspicions, though. You did from the start.' John rubbed fitfully at his eyes again, looking bleary and shaken now that Sherlock had left his side. 'I don't think anyone would have guessed exactly what he was doing. It's not even like there was any proof of it.'
'No, it was just there in every word he said to Havisham.' Sherlock sighed, turning back to John and forcing aside the angry, self-loathing spin of his thoughts. There would be time to hash over the aspects of the case later – to try and find the clues he missed – but for now there were more important things to occupy his mind.
John had spent almost every waking moment over the past week taking care of Sherlock, nursing him without fail through the ebb and flow of 'Flu's assault and never leaving his side. Now he wanted to return the favour. Perhaps he could not wipe away the pain that the injuries caused, but he could still bring comfort. It was easy to see the jangling, chaotic, exhausted clash of John's mood, and a simple extrapolation to know what would soothe it. Close proximity offered reassurance, and the warm depths of Sherlock's bed would bring respite.
'Come on,' Sherlock urged quietly, taking John by the shoulders and guiding him through to the bedroom, feeling the smaller man relax back into his grasp as he kicked the door closed in their wake. 'Do you want anything? Something to eat or drink? Do you need tablets?'
John sat on the edge of the bed as meek as anything, no sign of a fight in him as he shook his head and toed off his boots. 'Can you – will you stay with me for a bit?' he asked, and Sherlock could see the need there, half-hidden behind a gentle air of apathy, as if John did not want to force him to linger if he had other places to be.
'I had no intention of being anywhere else,' Sherlock assured him, stripping down to his underwear and inspecting a bruise on the side of his knee that he couldn't recall receiving. There was the pattern of a shoe tread picked out on his pale skin – another kick, then. Havisham's, judging from the smaller size. The man may have been used by Monroe, but there was proof enough that he was vicious in his own right, and Sherlock's faint pity for him was rapidly bleeding into disdain.
With a grunt, he reorganised the pillows, making a little bank against the headboard before settling back against them, half-reclined. His body was tired, but his mind was rapier-sharp and wide-awake. He would find nothing like sleep in the coming hours, but it was sorely obvious that rest was what John needed.
Grabbing one spare pillow, he laid it out so that it rested between his legs and on his stomach before gesturing for John to climb on top of him.
'What about your ribs?' John demanded. 'I'll squash you.'
'Just get in,' Sherlock ordered. 'My chest will be fine. You want to sleep, and I want to hold you without hurting you. This works.'
For a minute, he thought John would argue. The three-way war of doctorly concern, soldierly pride and the simple desire to be as close to Sherlock as possible was written all over the lines of John's expression. In the end it seemed that the latter only managed a narrow victory. 'If it hurts –'
'It won't,' Sherlock promised, grunting slightly when John's weight settled against him, tentative at first, his back to the pillow and his head resting on level with Sherlock's heart. It made it perfectly easy to slide his palms down over John's shoulders and onto his chest, fingers splayed and wandering, idly curious, through the faint sprinkling of body hair across John's skin.
Gradually, he felt John relax, turning his head slightly to press one ear over the steady rhythm of Sherlock's pulse as muscles uncoiled, allowing him to melt back against Sherlock's body. The pillow separated them slightly, but it provided extra cushioning and made sure Sherlock's ribs merely twinged, rather than ached. It also meant John would probably be comfortable enough to go to sleep.
'You didn't answer my question earlier,' John murmured, his voice rumbling through his chest and transmitting through the skin of Sherlock's palms.
'Mmmm?' Sherlock was busy tracing lazy, thoughtful circles around John's left nipple, only stopping when John's palm rested softly over the top of his hand, trapping him.
'What happened while I was knocked out? You clearly kept fighting.' John turned over so his stomach was pressed to the pillow, bestowing another kiss on the square of dressing that hid the three slender, discoloured holes from sight.
Sherlock winced, remembering the boneless slump of John's body and the bright flash of horror-cum-fury that had arced through his body, forcing him into action. 'I went for Monroe, leaving a fair amount of my hair behind in Havisham's grip as I did so, but he was too surprised to hold on or fire the nail gun. I managed to land one good punch on Monroe before he grabbed me.'
The hot splay of a large palm around Sherlock's wrist was a phantom memory, but he clearly recalled the twisted leer on Monroe's expression and the way that the man had purred in his ear as he struggled. His mind had been too full of desperation – the need to break free and get the Browning – anything to make the situation secure so he could check on John.
'We grappled with each other,' he continued at last. 'I ended up facing Havisham with Monroe only partially blocking the shot. We were on the other side of the room from him, over by the window when he pulled the trigger.' He reached down, tracing the adhesive strip at the edge of the dressing before letting his hand fall back to John's shoulder.
John, however, was captivated by the cotton pad, staring at it as if it were a snake waiting to strike. Slowly, his fingers moved to one corner of the tape, pulling at it lightly at first, and then increasing the pressure. 'I want to see,' he said, blunt and firm as Sherlock dropped his hands to his sides. 'I know you say it's nothing, but –' He shrugged his shoulders in a jerky motion and bit his lip, waiting for Sherlock's permission to continue.
With a nod of his head, he gave it, watching John steadily peel the tape aside and lift away the dressing to reveal three holes. They looked worse than they felt, black pits amidst dimples of angry purple and red, but he had no doubt they were smaller than John's injury.
'The nails fell out on their own when Monroe slammed me back into the wall.'
'Then what?' John had gone very, very still, looking up from his scrutiny of the wound with narrowed eyes. 'What did he do to you?'
'Nothing, he just held me in place,' Sherlock replied, freeing the dressing from John's fingers and taping it back in place. 'Well – he might have said something, but I was too busy trying to knee him in the groin to pay attention.' Sherlock trailed his fingers down John's spine, unconsciously soothing him with little strums and strafes. The movement made the cuts sting, but it was worth it to feel John's tense strength hum with such power beneath his touch.
'Monroe had dropped the gun, and Havisham had run out of nails,' Sherlock continued. 'You saw the room. It was littered with the things. He wanted to hit me but was frightened of injuring Monroe, so his aim was poor at best. It was only when Havisham picked up the Browning that I ran out of options.'
'That's when they tied us up?' John asked, eventually settling himself back down against Sherlock's chest, his hands brushing like feathers up and down Sherlock's ribs before dropping to settle at the waist of his boxers possessively.
'I was surprised,' Sherlock confessed. 'I thought they were far more likely to kill us and be done with it, but Havisham needed some convincing, and Monroe had to make us secure while he did it. That's about the point where you woke up. You missed ten minutes, if that. Hardly anything.'
'It was enough,' John muttered, his shaky sigh whispering through the air as Sherlock rubbed circles at the nape of John's neck. He brushed through the dichotomous texture of John's hair – blond strands smoother, more fine, those few peppering greys more coarse to the touch. 'What if they killed you while I was unconscious? What if I had woken up to find you dead?'
Clumsy questions fought for dominance in Sherlock's mind, neither sensitive nor particularly intelligent, but he quickly shoved them aside. It was too easy to imagine the reverse being true – too jarring to picture himself returning to consciousness to find John a staring corpse, rather than the living, breathing essential creature he was now. While one fragment of Sherlock wanted to analyse John's fears, to test and catalogue his reactions, another realised that there were some things for which there was no time and place – no experiment needed and no theory to prove.
'You didn't,' he said instead, bending his head awkwardly to try and rest his cheek on John's crown. 'I wasn't. We're all right.'
'I like cases better when they don't end up with more dead bodies than they started with, to be honest,' John said, a faint hint of laughter in his voice. 'I should be grateful it was only Monroe who ended up with a bullet in his head.'
'He got what he deserved.' Nothing in the world could have kept the brutality from Sherlock's voice, and he traced his thumb over the curve of John's ear. 'The courts would never have found him guilty of any wrong-doing besides skimming accounts.'
'You're – angry for what he did to Havisham?' John asked, frowning up at Sherlock in puzzlement.
'No.' Sherlock shook his head, cradling John's body close as he shimmied down the bed and stretched, dragging at his trousers where they lay on the floor and pulling his phone free from the pocket. 'Havisham was a fool for letting himself be led, although perhaps there's something else there – some underlying issue that could work in his favour during trial.' He bit his lip, opening a new message to Lestrade and typing with his thumb as he repositioned himself.
"Get psychiatric evaluation for Havisham before prosecution - SH"
It was not much, but Sherlock saw John's smile as he craned his neck to read the message before Sherlock sent it. 'In the end, Havisham placed his trust in the wrong person, and he was used as a result,' Sherlock explained. 'I just wish there was some evidence. Something to show the world that Monroe was a manipulator – a murderer in his way – not just a petty crook, and definitely not a victim. He used people. I'm beginning to wonder if Lattimer was the only one who saw that.'
'Justice doesn't work by degrees of separation,' John pointed out softly. 'Mostly because you can't prove the influence that people have over others. Monroe never directly hurt either Winters or Lattimer.'
'I know,' Sherlock replied.
'And in the end, he got the ultimate punishment – another murder on Havisham's list.'
'I'd have called it an execution,' Sherlock murmured. 'That's what you do to criminals, isn't it?'
John had gone quiet, his eyelashes casting brief flashes of sensation across Sherlock's skin with every blink, but he could make out a puzzled frown on John's brow, an interesting landscape of furrowed flesh from this angle above him. When he eventually spoke, it was with the careful, tentative pace of a man in a minefield, uncertain whether or not the ground beneath his feet would explode in deadly wrath or remain stable.
'You – you said Havisham was easily led.' He licked his lips, and a flash of hot breath drifted across Sherlock's chest as he waited impatiently for John to continue. When he did, it sounded like the words were dragged out of him: a blade pulled free of a wound to leave him bloody and broken.
'Did you know that he would shoot Monroe? Is that – is that why you kept talking? Were you pushing him so that Monroe would get some kind of punishment?' John levered himself up, a wince dancing across his face as his hand no-doubt protested, but his gaze met Sherlock's without flinching as he sat back on his heels, painfully distant despite being only an arm's length away.
Perhaps some people would be outraged at such an accusation, but while fear trembled along Sherlock's nerves, he knew that John was not voicing an unrealistic notion. More than anyone else, John knew the way Sherlock worked. John knew he had no problem manipulating other people to get what he wanted; the only thing that separated him from Monroe was where they drew the line. There was a vast difference between flirting with Molly for body parts and toying with a lover's jealousy to incite murder.
'I kept talking so that you could escape, and to delay the moment that the gun was turned on us,' Sherlock replied, sitting forward and reaching out for John's shoulder, sweeping over the strong, solid curve. 'I tried to push at Monroe, not Havisham. It was him I was trying to unsettle.' He swallowed nervously, pulling his hand back to scratch at his ear before lifting his chin. 'However, I'm not going to pretend for even a second that I'm sorry Monroe's in the morgue.'
For a moment, John just stared at him, painfully still. Only his eyes moved, sweeping across Sherlock's face and searching for a hint of a lie. He looked as if he wanted to believe him, as if his trust was desperate to ease the way forward, but it still took a few moments for the doubt to fade.
At last, John bowed his head, his shoulders heaving with a deep breath as he pinched the bridge of his nose. 'No, no neither am I. I'm – Sorry – I –'
Sherlock interrupted him by clasping John's forearm and pulling until they were sprawled together again, still propped up by the pillows. His ribs ached at the motion, but Sherlock pushed the pain aside. He was happy to take some discomfort if it meant he could reassure John.
'Don't ever apologise for knowing what I'm like,' he ordered. 'You're the only one who really does.'
'For implying you're someone like Monroe?' John demanded. 'If I know what you're like then I should know better, shouldn't I?'
Sherlock narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at the window, framed as it was by the white fall of the curtains: London's urban decay caught in a glass canvas. 'I am like him.' He hushed John's automatic protest. 'People can be so very easy to push and pull in the right direction. I know I'm capable of killing someone, the same way I know exactly what to say to get you to help me hide the corpse. The difference is that I don't put that knowledge to use. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.'
Silence filled the bedroom then, not tense or accusing, but soft with relief. There was understanding caught within its folds, and when John looked up at Sherlock one eyebrow was raised. 'You know, if I didn't already know that "high-functioning sociopath" thing was crap, you pretty much just gave yourself away with that.'
'Mummy would be pleased,' Sherlock replied in a lethargic voice. The steady skim of his palms around John's shoulders and down his back continued as Sherlock's heartbeat returned to normal: raw alarm fading to something manageable. He was not sure what had shaken him more, the fact that John had read the possibility of him manipulating Havisham to pull the trigger, or the knowledge that, for a few seconds, Sherlock had considered it.
Yet in the end, rattling Monroe had shaken Havisham in equal measure. The gun had been fired, the deed was done, and if he and John had survived as a result, then Sherlock could not bring himself to regret any of what had happened.
'I'm sorry,' John whispered, nestling against him. The brush of his lashes against Sherlock's chest suggested he had closed his eyes, and steadily his weight began to sag into Sherlock's body, pinning him to the bed as the sleepy words spilled forth. 'Not sure I'd care even if you had made Havisham kill Monroe.'
'Yes you would,' Sherlock replied, closing his eyes and forcing himself to relax. 'That's who you are.'
There was no answer, and Sherlock smiled as he glanced down at John's placid profile. Perhaps it was not the best position to sleep in – Sherlock was fairly sure he would have a stiff back within the next two hours, but right now there was nothing in the world that could drag him away from this man.
Beyond the window, London's early evening twilight gave way to true night, pocked as always by the dapple of street-lamps and the flutter of car headlights in the road below. The single bulb Sherlock had switched on cast enough illumination for him to read by, but the ancient treatise on the world's first poisons was not holding his attention as it should. He kept finding himself captivated by the man sleeping against his chest. The pillow had slipped, leaving them skin-to-skin, and he could feel each deep, steady breath and the thud of John's heart like a metronome.
Every hour or so, he made sure John could be woken, letting his eyes find their focus before urging him back to sleep again. This time, though, it seemed like John was coming around by himself. Probably because Sherlock's stomach had started growling, growing increasingly loud as the minutes passed.
He felt John's smile before he saw it. The warm roundness of John's cheek swelled against his chest, and a whisper of a kiss drifted over Sherlock's skin followed by a hot flash of tongue. 'Think you need feeding,' John mumbled, his voice creaking as he stretched and blinked himself awake. 'Did you sleep at all?'
'I'm not tired,' Sherlock replied. 'Besides, someone had to make sure you weren't going to slip into a coma.' He nudged at John's ribs gently, easing his weight away and to the side. 'You need to eat something too, and take some medication. How's your head?'
John sprawled on his back, scratching absently at his bare belly with his uninjured hand as he scowled at the ceiling. 'Better than it was.' He propped himself up on his elbows, and Sherlock could feel the weight of John's gaze up and down his back as he got to his feet, stretching and wincing as his ribs whined at him before reaching for the blue robe. 'You getting take-away?'
Sherlock made a non-committal sound in response, glancing over his shoulder and seeing the consideration in John's face. He was clearly debating whether to follow Sherlock, unwilling to let him out of his sight. Sherlock could share the sentiment, but John looked good lounging there in the nest of Sherlock's sheets. The white fabric was tangled around his waist, giving him a debauched air. For God's sake, Sherlock's bed had never looked so good, utterly transformed by John's presence into something enticing.
Bending over, Sherlock skimmed his hand along John's neck and over his ear, tangling carefully in short, blond hair as he guided John's face upwards. The thin, firm pressure of John's mouth parted languidly, and the moan that caught in his throat was enough to make Sherlock lean unconsciously inwards, straining closer as John's grip wove into his curls, changing the angle and deepening the kiss.
One hand, the one without the bandage, shifted downwards, skimming the edge of Sherlock's robe. Strong fingers pushed it aside, sparking heat across Sherlock's skin as they dropped lower over his boxer shorts to the hardening length trapped in their confines.
'Hmmm,' John purred, breaking back with a grin as his grip curled and squeezed, making Sherlock sway. 'I could get used to this. Maybe I should get a concussion more often.'
'Don't you dare,' Sherlock croaked, trying to drag as much of his mind back together as possible. Amazing, really that John could do this to him, break him apart with so much ease. 'That concussion is the reason you're not putting that to good use.' He looked meaningfully down at his own crotch before glancing back at John. 'I might break you.'
A wicked smile curved John's lips and one eyebrow lifted in a challenge. 'Is that a promise?'
'Don't tempt me,' Sherlock growled, pulling back before John could put his bewitching hands on him again and make him forget all about things such as head injuries, medication and food. With a haughty flick of his robe, he padded out into the kitchen, his dramatic exit rather ruined by the wobble in his step. John's warm laugh followed him out, and he smothered a grin as he tried to focus on anything but the perfect, magnetic pull of his attraction.
A package by the front door caught his eye, and he frowned at the Harrod's logo on the side before striding over and peering at the contents. There were high quality honeys and jams, a squat, plain brown box half-hidden amidst the padding, and a dossier with government details on its cover: Mycroft.
A note with Sherlock's name on it was lying in pride of place, and he snatched it free, scowling at his brother's elegant handwriting as if it were a bizarre, primitive cypher.
It seems that congratulations are in order. I knew you would get there eventually. Take good care of Doctor Watson. I know he will never fail you.
Sherlock rolled his eyes, pitching the note towards the bin before pulling free the plain container and lifting the lid, raising one eyebrow. Mycroft normally gave gifts of sweet things, something Sherlock would object to if he weren't so fond of honey, but the glistening jars now seemed like a cover for something far more worthy.
Turning back to the bedroom, he ambled through the door and put the box down at John's side. 'Mycroft's been around. He left this for you.'
John looked at it doubtfully, probably weighing the likelihood of whether it was something pleasant or deadly inside. Technically, it was both, but Sherlock simply shook his head. 'It won't bite. I already checked.'
He hovered on the threshold as John removed the lid, the frown melting away into a knowing grin as he pulled the Browning free of its confines. It was not the same one Havisham had used to shoot Monroe, but nor was it shining and new. It was a serviceable weapon, one that looked like it had seen its fair share of battle, and it was clear even from a distance that it fit into John's grip like a matching puzzle piece.
'It's amazing what a minor official in the British government can do,' John said, turning the gun over in his palms, learning its lines anew before he noticed something written on a slip of paper at the bottom of the box. He pulled it out, reading it with one eyebrow raised before holding it out for Sherlock to see.
"Look after him, John."
'Do you think that means I don't have to suffer "the talk" with him?' John asked hopefully, putting the pistol away and leaning over to slide it under Sherlock's bed before slumping back into the pillows.
'Maybe. He'll be disgustingly smug when we see him next.'
'Then perhaps we should be grateful he's leaving us in peace, for now at least.' John glanced across the dim room at Sherlock, his head cocked to the side. 'Are you all right?'
Sherlock blinked, dragging himself away from vague thoughts of how best to irritate his brother at their next meeting and smiling at John. 'Yes, I'm fine. Dinner.'
Whirling back out to the kitchen, he gave the contents of the fridge a critical look. The food John had purchased who knew how many days ago while Sherlock lay on the brink of fever was passing its prime. However, there were some strips of steak that still looked good, and he quickly considered his options before gathering together ingredients.
He was tempted by the thought of take-away. It was easier and less mess, but everything he could think of – all their usual favourites – held no appeal. Besides, he was hungry now, and who knew how long delivery would take?
Reaching for the frying pan, he checked it was clean before setting it on the hob. He moved without really thinking, chopping the slightly withered onion and the vaguely damp mushrooms and adding them to the melted butter. Pasta was set to boil and the meat added along with some spices, releasing a tender, succulent scent that made his stomach growl anew.
It reminded him of late nights before John, doing this: times when even the most loyal provider of free food would have turned him away and his transport's howls of complaint could not be ignored. He had cooked things in an effort to prevent food poisoning, not caring how it tasted. It was not that he did not know the chemistry of flavour and texture – there was something scientific about the perfect meal: chemical compounds artistically arranged – but the act of it bored him with its predictability.
Mummy would probably imply that meant he was not pushing the horizons of his cuisine, but there was no mystery to be found in the bottom of a frying pan, not unless it had been used as a murder weapon.
Turning around to grab a can of evaporated milk, he flipped the pan lightly, shifting the contents around with a sharp flick of his wrist to prevent them burning. Moving the skillet off the heat, he counted to thirty: just enough time to let the pan cool before he added the thick liquid. Proper dairy cream would be better, but unless the milk had performed non-toxic miracles, they didn't have any.
Strong arms around his waist made him twitch, and he looked over his shoulder to see John staring at what he was doing.
'You're cooking,' he said, giving Sherlock a quick, questioning look. 'I've lived with you for more than a year. I didn't think you knew what a frying pan was for.'
'I don't normally bother,' Sherlock replied, pulling a face as John grabbed a fork and stabbed a piece of meat. 'Can't you wait five minutes?'
'Checking it's edible,' John said without a hint of apology, dripping some creamy sauce on Sherlock's dressing gown as he blew on the strip of steak to cool it down. 'Bearing in mind I once caught you making tea in a beaker that you had used for blood samples only an hour before.'
'I washed it beforehand,' Sherlock pointed out, watching John's face change from somewhat doubting to surprised delight as he chewed. Sherlock rolled his eyes, checking the pasta was done before draining the water away. Quickly, he stirred the penne into the meal, which was still cooking in the frying pan, before doling it out into dishes and pressing one into John's waiting grasp.
'It's basic Stroganoff,' he explained. 'Quick, easy, and one of the few meals I can be bothered to put together. Don't expect me to turn into some culinary master just because you've discovered I am capable.'
John was already chewing his first mouthful, his expression torn between a threatening glare and something far more flatteringly rapturous. 'All this time we've been eating take-away,' he said after he swallowed, 'and I could have been having stuff like this. Why didn't you tell me you could cook?'
'Dull,' Sherlock provided, a grin tilting his lips as he reached out to wipe some sauce from John's cheek before grabbing his own bowl. 'Mummy likes to cook. She taught Mycroft and I enough to survive. Mycroft's too busy, and I have more interesting things to mix in containers than ingredients.'
'Like blood and acid?' John asked, sinking into one of the chairs at the kitchen table as he continued to eat with every sign of enjoyment. Sherlock had to admit that this – preparing a meal for someone else and seeing their appreciation – was a previously unexplored facet of the whole process. He was not about to put on a toque and devote himself to culinary art, but perhaps he could be persuaded to cook more than twice a year if it meant experiencing such enthusiasm from John.
Leaning back on the counter, he tucked into his own dinner, briefly enjoying the hint of paprika and the thick creamy sauce. It was a good meal, but tantalising his taste-buds was never really the point of eating. All he wanted to do was silence his demanding stomach.
A comfortable silence settled over the kitchen, both he and John too busy eating to speak, and before long their bowls were empty. 'That was brilliant,' John said with a grin, as earnestly as if Sherlock had just solved a complicated triple murder right before his eyes. 'Can't believe you've been holding out on me.'
'It didn't seem relevant,' Sherlock explained. 'We get free food all over London, and we don't have to wash up afterwards. ' He threw a look of disdain at the dirty pans before turning his back, focussing instead on the paper bag that John had brought home from the hospital. Opening it up, he took in the contents: packets of pills and shrink-wrapped dressings for treating John's wound.
'Take these,' he instructed, shaking out a painkiller and an antibiotic. 'How often are you meant to change the bandage?'
'At least once in the morning and once at night,' John replied, glancing down at his hand and picking at the cloth wrapped around it. 'Normally I'd leave it a bit longer, but punctures are difficult. It's easy to drag infection down into the wound.'
With a faint sigh, he accepted the glass of water Sherlock got for him and downed the tablets, chasing them with one last lick of sauce that he gleaned from the dish with his fingertip. The taste was awarded with an appreciative hum, and Sherlock realised he was staring, his thoughts temporarily derailed by the innocent seductiveness of watching John lick his own finger.
'Stop it,' he warned, his voice a deep rumble that made John's eyes darken as Sherlock took the bowl away from him and turned back to the kitchen table. It was still relatively clean and free from experiments, as he had not had the chance to get any under-way since his recovery. It would be fine to use as a work surface while treating John's hand, at least for a while.
Carefully, he laid out everything they would need before moving to the sink, scrubbing his hands as thoroughly as he could without deepening the cuts on his fingertips. At last he decided they were clean enough and turned back, reaching for John's injured arm. 'Tell me what to do?' he asked, pinching carefully at the bandage and spooling it free.
Inch by inch, John's skin was revealed, dark blues and blacks mottling their way across tendons and knuckles. Sherlock winced in sympathy, feeling a fresh, bright fury at both Havisham and Monroe before he eased away the dressing. The wound itself was almost minor in comparison to the marks around it: a ragged, deep hole amidst tempestuous hues.
'Antiseptic,' John said, holding out the sealed wipe for Sherlock to undo. 'Then dry it and bandage it again. Easy enough.'
'But difficult to do by yourself,' Sherlock added, manipulating each finger of John's hand with the lightest of touches and watching the tendons shift. He dabbed at the puncture wound with the antiseptic wipe, keeping his grip secure and comforting as John hissed in pain. 'Sorry.'
'No, it's got to be done,' John replied, the words ground out through his clenched teeth as Sherlock soaked away the excess fluid and opened a clean dressing and bandage. 'Start at my wrist to anchor it in place, and then move up my hand.'
Sherlock did as John instructed, watching the angry colours of the injury steadily vanish beneath the clean white swathe of the bandage. He pressed a touch to the bare edge of John's palm, unconsciously moving in tiny, soothing spirals before he finished up and threw away the soiled dressing.
'Thanks,' John said with a smile. 'Not just for this, but for dinner and –' He gestured towards the bedroom in mute indication of their nest and the comfort it offered. 'I, uh, I needed all this.'
'So did I,' Sherlock promised, smirking as he belatedly noticed that John was wearing Sherlock's red robe. The sleeves were rolled up to expose his forearms and the hem fluttered close to his ankles. It looked ridiculous and brilliant all at once.
'You know it won't be like this after every case?' Sherlock asked, watching John's face carefully for any signs of disappointment. 'Don't you?'
John nodded, giving Sherlock a crooked grin as he reached out to catch his wrist and pull Sherlock closer. 'I know. To be honest, I wasn't expecting this much. I thought you'd be off reading the case file or looking for the next puzzle to solve, and that's fine.' John tightened his grip as if he could instil Sherlock's faith with mere physical contact. 'I don't know what I can do to make you believe me, but I mean it when I say I don't want you to change. I want what you want, whether that's rooftop chases, violin at three in the morning, or sharing a bed. All right?'
Warmth coiled under Sherlock's ribs, making the next breath come a little easier as he nodded his head in mute acknowledgement. John was right, it was hard to believe that anyone could be content to take the precious little that Sherlock had to offer. Yet John had always been different, breathing "amazing" where other people spat "freak", and it only made Sherlock want him more.
He glanced towards the bedroom, thinking longingly of returning to sheets scented of him and John, of warm arms and warmer kisses. However, before he could suggest they retreat, a knock on the door downstairs echoed through the flat.
A quick glance at the clock made him frown, and he exchanged a glance with John as Mrs Hudson twittered a welcome. He would recognise Lestrade's footsteps anywhere, and he raised an eyebrow in John's direction. He was not concerned if the DI saw him in his robe, but John might feel differently about being found draped in Sherlock's spare and not much else.
'Go on,' John urged, tugging the belt tighter around his body. 'It's not like he doesn't know we're together anyway.'
Sherlock pulled the front door open before the knock came, watching Lestrade sway on the threshold in surprise. He looked like a man whose night had gone from bad to worse. Yet there was a hint of a smile on his lips as he took in the sight of Sherlock and John. 'I hate to interrupt,' he said with a flicker of a grin, 'but I need to talk to you.'
'You can't honestly have come over here at nine at night for my statement?' John asked in disbelief.
Sherlock watched Lestrade shake his head and lean against the door-frame, running his hand through his hair. 'No, no. Havisham confessed to everything,' he told them. 'All of it: Winters, Lattimer, Monroe... the lot. I'll still need to get your side of things, but it can wait.'
'Is he getting a psychiatric evaluation?' Sherlock asked, waiting for Lestrade to nod his head. 'Do you think it will do him any good?'
'Not in a traditional sense. He's lucid and logical, with no obvious tells of serious mental issues. Maybe if they can find some evidence of something that makes him more easy to manipulate than others, it might reduce his sentence by a year or two, but that's a big maybe.'
Lestrade shook his head as if he were trying to pitch away the buzz of his thoughts, rubbing a hand across his brow. 'Actually, the reason I came over is that I could use your help. We had a murder about five days ago, gruesome, but nothing we couldn't handle.' He shrugged, the lines around his eyes deepening as he winced. 'We thought we'd caught the guy, but we've just had two more corpses turn up the same way. Dissected and packaged up in ice-cream containers.'
'A serial killer?' Sherlock asked.
'An escalating one,' Lestrade confirmed. 'And we've got the wrong man. Think you're up to it?'
Sherlock almost agreed without thinking, his mind already off and racing, but the thought of John pulled him up short. He would never hold Sherlock back – never insist he stay at home when the Work was calling – but if he went tonight then John would accompany him.
A quick glance showed him that John was already looking towards the bedroom, probably thinking of clothes and a gun and London's cold night air. He was already prepared to follow wherever Sherlock led despite a concussion and worse.
Yet he did not want to drag John out into the harsh edges of the city again, not so soon after a narrow escape – mere hours after returning from the hospital bloodied and pained. The Work demanded his attention, but it was John who needed it.
A compromise, then.
'I'm not in a fit state for crawling all over a crime-scene,' he stated flatly, thinking fast. It was only a partial lie. If it weren't for John he would ignore his ribs, but the two of them were hardly at their best. 'Bring over the case-files tomorrow. All of them. I'll take a look and see if I can catch your killer. Anderson's not on forensics, he's on holiday with his wife, so there's a chance the photographs will be intelligible for a change.'
He expected an argument from Lestrade, a desperate plea in the name of justice or something trite. What he was not prepared for was the fleeting but blatant approval that crossed the DI's face, as if he could read every thought in Sherlock's skull and was pleased with what he saw.
'You sure?' he asked, and there was a hint of something clever in that tired voice: another little unspoken test. 'We've not had one like this for a while.'
Sherlock pursed his lips, his mind dancing from blood, particulates, puzzles, murder to John, safe, warm, home, but in the end his choice was obvious. There would always be more crime, more hate and killing. Perhaps not like this one, but there would always be a mystery to solve. John was less of a certainty – love a far more rare occurrence in Sherlock's life – and something to be treasured as a result. He could leave any day, whereas the Work would never be complete.
'I'm sure,' he said firmly. 'Get some sleep, Lestrade, if you can. I'll look at the case first thing tomorrow.'
The DI nodded, his shoulders straightening as he eased his weight upright. 'All right, Sherlock, thanks. I'll be here in the morning. Sleep well, you two.' With a crooked grin, he turned and trotted back down the stairs with a heavy tread.
Sherlock heard his farewell to Mrs Hudson and, a minute later, the rev of the car engine as Lestrade pulled away, off to try and make sense of the latest brutality. He expected to feel frustrated, restrained somehow by his own refusal, but to his surprise there was not even the faintest hint of guilt.
He had made the right decision.
Turning to look at John, he realised he was the subject of intense scrutiny, not hard or calculating, but amazed, as if he had done something beyond belief. John's blue eyes were wide, the lines of weariness faded now and the corners of his lips tilted in a smile as he stepped closer. 'I thought you said your ribs didn't hurt.'
'They don't. Not enough to put me off a crime scene, anyway. It just seemed like the best excuse.'
'So, why aren't we –?' John gestured to the door, blinking in surprise as Sherlock closed the last of the distance between them, his fingers hovering above the gash on John's head before dropping to trace the thin line of John's mouth.
'The case doesn't need me. Not right now. You do.' Sherlock swallowed, licking his lips as he stared into John's eyes, seeing so much emotion there that he could never begin to name it all. 'I need you. This. Here.' He gestured vaguely to Baker Street, their home, their sanctuary. 'Whatever's out there can wait until tomorrow.'
It was not much, as declarations went, but everything from the deepening lines at the corner of John's eyes to the blissful tilt of his lips made it seem like something far more. He heard the words Sherlock said, and he knew what they meant. He gave them no deeper implication than Sherlock intended, and no less credit than they deserved.
'Thank you,' John murmured, his happiness making him look ten years younger as he stretched up to capture Sherlock's mouth with his own. His hands traced the column of Sherlock's throat and the sweep of his shoulders as if he were trying to memorise the moment forever, and all Sherlock could do was lose himself, allowing the rest of the world to fade away – inconsequential for a time.
He had always worried that one day, the Work would lose its appeal. He feared that the crimes would become mundane and repetitive and the thrill would fade. Then John had turned up in his life, a mystery disguised as a very ordinary man, and they had fallen into one another's orbits as if it was the way they were meant to be.
Now he stood here, his body singing, his mind diamond-bright and calm as he licked at John's lips and pressed his way inside, feeling the threads of his existence unravel and weave themselves into something new – something better.
There would always be the Work, not the challenger to their strength but the glue that held them together, but now there was more to life than the next crime. What he and John were to one another – what they had come to share – was the greatest mystery, and Sherlock's heart thrilled at the thought of spending the rest of his days trying to solve it.
The road that lay ahead of them may be dark and unknown, but, together, he and John could light one another's path.
Author's Note II: I cannot leave you all without thanking everyone for reading. It's been great to have you along for the ride. Special thanks go out to all those who have commented (anonymously or not!), favourited the story, given me kudos etc. I fully intend to keep writing in this fandom and will be concentrating on Electric Pink Hand Grenade. To stay in touch with previews and ideas of future Sherlock stories, the best place is my tumblr (beautifulfic tumblr com)
I'm hoping to do another one shot or two in this universe. If there's anything you would like to see then let me know. I can't guarantee it will be written, but I'll definitely keep it in mind.
Thank you again, everyone. It's been both a pleasure and an honour to meet you.