Hey guys! This story is a little stylistically different from my usual. I'm curious as to whether it does anything for anybody - I hope so.
Warning for some mild-ish smut. Nothing too bad, but nothing you'd want to read with your grandmother.
A Note From the Author
This is how it starts.
Here, with a closed door.
First, let me caution you: All these stories start with an end, in one way or another, and they end with a beginning, because human beings love the fancy of the indefinite. We relish in the ability to stare at the horizon and imagine it goes on forever.
But a story is rife with trickery. A story gives us snapshots, safe small windows in time, and lets us believe we have seen the full picture. When we read a story, we dip into a fragment of the whole, a fragment linked from a false beginning to a false end. After all, true lives are trails that meander and loop and do not have tidy rules of causality nor a beginning nor an end; lives do not have a first page or a last page. There was no point before our lives where we were not yet a figment of the universe's imagination. And there will be no point after our lives when the universe will not have been different because of our living.
So be wary, because in a story, the chain is broken. We see a boxed-in mapped-out tied-up package, a relief from the chaos. Things start because they have grown into place there very neatly, pruned by a cultured hand. And they end because of doors that were built to slam shut … and you can imagine what goes on behind them afterward, but little more.
In reality, that's not how the world drags us along.
This story shall start with the end – the end they would have avoided if they could have had their way. And it starts with the realization that some things are broken far beyond repair.
Join me in Scene One. Scene One Hundred. Scene One Too Many. The place: the ever-familiar 221B Baker Street. The men: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Hamish Watson. The smell: that of mild detergent, mold, and something like rotting flesh.
The sound: raised voices.
The sight: terrible.
"As if it weren't plainly apparent from the swelling around your eyes and the dried smudge, no, smear of shaving cream crusted up at the crook of your neck, how on Earth did you think I'd miss that –"
"Oh, bloody well done. So that's that, isn't it? The great Sherlock Holmes has made his observations, so I suppose I should stay quiet now, is that right? You know, you're such a child sometimes, throwing around your talent because you want to crush everyone else into submission by the vastness of your bloody inflated ego –"
"I still find it unbelievable that you thought I'd not notice your lack of sleep, not notice that you've been having nightmares and waking up in the middle of the night for a stroll around the block and attempting to soldier along in the morning as if nothing happened, and now oh brilliant, it's a capital sin not to ask you about it when you've clearly demonstrated that you didn't want to be asked! When you've made visible efforts to conceal – Christ, John, it's plainly contradictory to expect me to coddle you when I know you've been trying to cover this up. I hope you don't believe you're being rational, because if you do, I've been a pretty poor judge of character for the last –"
" – no, shut up, I'm not having this anymore. I've sat here and taken what you've thrown at me since I met you, and I'm done with it. Sherlock, do you hear me? I'm tired of it, I'm tired of this,and I'm tired of you being so bloody awful – sometimes I think it'd have been easier if you'd stayed gone!"
John bites off the end of the word. He didn't mean to say that. He's not sure if he meant it.
Echoes in the wake of his yells glance off the glass, reflect off Sherlock's eyes. There's hurt there, and shock, and dread, but so very little of each. Those eyes would be inscrutable to anyone but John.
John, who can read every twitch in that pale face.
Quiver in the corner of his nose: Disgust and frustration rolled into one, an attempted concealment. Tiny pucker at the edges of his eyes: An attempt to discern my next move. The lower lip: postured forward in preparation for the next blow, the next jab of cruel truth…
Good God, John thinks, I am turning into Sherlock Holmes.
John turns away, swipes the back of his hand across his nose. Considers for a second. "You know, I hoped … well, I hoped it wouldn't come to this, didn't I? But I can't … I just can't."
John doesn't reply, doesn't face him. And it wouldn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce what the stagnant silence means.
"Shite." John looks up at the ceiling. Waits for the tears to trickle back down to his core, locked away until the shadow of night. "Sorry. Right. This is it, then."
"The end, you mean."
"Might be. Yeah."
"Well, John. I hope it is all you envisioned," Sherlock says, and the acerbic bite in his voice cuts like diamond.
"I never wanted … I never … I just thought, that's all."
"In that case, well-deduced."
John stares out the window. Sherlock folds his hands.
"Silly thing, really," Sherlock says, his eyes locked onto the wall. Entranced by the old bullet holes. "To push us over the edge. Absurd, in a way …"
John turns to him. "You know it's not just this one thing that's done it."
"It's a million times. A million things."
"Wrong." Sherlock's eyes snap to his, and ice floods John to the crown of his head. His fists tighten. His tongue dries. "It is and always has been one problem," Sherlock says, "a single issue reiterated and resurrected in a million forms."
"Oh, really? One problem, is it?"
Sherlock tilts his head the slightest bit. "Yes, just one," he says. "Me. It's me, John."
John feels as if he's been smacked in the chest with an iron weight, and for a heartbeat he wants nothing more than to gather Sherlock into his arms, to wrap himself into that felt and starch embrace, to breathe in the most familiar home he's ever had. To erase that curious sadness from Sherlock's face. It's not you, you bloody selfish bastard. How could you help what you are?
But tiredness leaks in and deposes the emotion, filling John with the weakness of resignation. And God, he never thought he would resign himself.
But it's too much. It's so often.
And what he said (it would've been easier if you'd stayed gone, he can't believe he said that, why did he say that) … certain cuts are too deep.
"I wonder what I'll do," says Sherlock, in that tone of galaxies away.
"After … yeah, I don't know either."
"Then perhaps we should …" Sherlock straightens his slim jacket, fusses around with its corners, because hell if he knows how to finish the sentence. He's waiting for John to finish it for him.
But John doesn't know what to say either. He's staring at the wall, at the clutter accumulating in the corners. He's trying to pull fond memories out from between the floorboards and he's finding only dust.
After a moment's consideration, John looks back up at Sherlock's face, which has become perfectly immobile once more. There's no hope in those eyes – but of course, John would never expect Sherlock to stoop to hope. It is desperation or perfect assurance; the man has no middle ground. Never any room for hope.
John's lips dip open. "Sh …"
He trips on his best friend's name and doesn't bother getting up. The sound lies in the air, a bitter hush.
Sherlock Holmes' eyes close. He draws a deep breath through his nose, then another, and another. The seconds turn into quiet minutes.
"I … John," Sherlock murmurs to the darkness of his eyelids. "I apologize. A million times, I am sorry."
He knows when he opens his eyes again, he will find himself alone.
And there is the shuffle of feet down the steps. The click of the door.
The click redefines 221B Baker Street. It is the home of Sherlock Holmes, now. Sherlock Holmes and his violin, and his mutterings, his neuroses and his frustrations. His tantrums and his childishness, all inflicted on bare walls.
221B Baker Street has left John Watson behind, logged him away in history. If he comes back, it isn't to reconcile. Sometimes reconciliation hurts far too much. Resentment and pain, at least, smear the wound in the comfort of self-absorption.
Of course, after some time, the place starts to glow with the comfort of fond memories. And these memories are many, as is natural for a pair such as Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson. We move now to the age before the ache, before the discontent, where problems manifested themselves only in detail and turned into endearments. The time before the door shut, when the mornings were filled with tea and bare feet.
"Nonsense," Sherlock says. "Lestrade could use a dozen men like you. On a purely functional basis, you serve more purpose than Anderson's entire team combined."
John chuckles, taking a sip of his tea. He instantly tries to hide a grimace, but of course Sherlock notices.
"Something wrong with the tea?"
"Er." John smiles weakly and clears his throat. Somehow Sherlock always forgets that he doesn't take sugar. It's at the point where he almost believes Sherlock's doing it on purpose. "It just tastes a bit … creative. As usual."
"Goodness. That is fascinating." Cocked head, intense stare. "Whether or not you like the food I make, you eat it. This provides me remarkably little incentive to cook well. Do you realize, John, that you would be singularly terrible at classically conditioning a subject?"
"Don't doubt it. There's a reason I'm not a psychologist, or a psychiatrist, or what have you."
"Agreed. Although you do cater to the psychiatrically unique with remarkable adeptness." A smirk lifts the edge of Sherlock's lip. "I refer, of course, to my brother."
"Oh, obviously. Course."
Sherlock slumps back on the sofa, closing his eyes. "Oh, God, I need a little excitement. London is failing me. Lestrade is failing me. Everything is failing me, John."
"Well, no, obviously not you. I hardly rely on you for pulse-pounding stimulation."
An awkward pause. John clears his throat loudly. "I, erm. Sorry, what?"
"You … that was not a reference to the fact that it's been a while since …"
"…ah." John thinks for a second, and then nods. "Right."
"Though it has."
"Been a while." He lifts one dark eyebrow.
John lowers the paper and looks over at Sherlock, a broad square smile forming on his kind face. "Hold on, you want to … but it's the middle of the morning. Don't I have to pull you away from the microscope or a string of intestines or the internet?"
"If you keep speaking, you might," Sherlock says. "Hurry up, before the mood passes."
John stands and strides toward the sofa before his lover can make good on the threat. "Sherlock, if everyone's sexual drive were as fleeting as yours, the human race would die out within three generations."
"Statistically improbab – mm."
John's lips are warm and insistent as always, his fingers eager and callused. Sherlock sits up, kisses back, works on John's bottom lip with his teeth.
Sex and its affiliated activities, he muses, aren't as good as a case. But they're not boring, either, and as much as John teases him with respect to the contrary, Sherlock enjoys John's company more than that of corpses. And it's only a little bit because corpses aren't nearly as complimentary. Mostly it is because corpses have their killer's signature written across them, and though that scribble is always a thrill to interpret, it is a single experience. John's signature is ever-changing, written in his own hand, and Sherlock never tires of reading into him. The man's bewildered looks and his furrowed brows, the deep parallel wrinkles on his forehead when he raises his eyebrows, are code and cipher; his unsubtle sideways glances and the pursed-thin lips and the smiles are key and pattern. So many kinds of smiles, from the proud half-smile to the uncomfortable grin to the warm chuckle of genuine amusement.
Sherlock thinks sometimes that it's not quite fair how much he likes John as a human being. Others – people to whom he's been cruel and cutting without a second thought – are surely as nice as John. There are probably those as dependable and kind as John, those as forgiving and yet firmly loyal as John. Those as awkward, as unfailingly competent.
But they do not have the unique composition that is John. And that, Sherlock supposes, doomed them from the start.
"What're you thinking about?" John murmurs, kissing him more deeply.
"Well, stop thinking." John's hands run abreast the frame of Sherlock's shoulders, stripping his robe from the pale skin. One hand slides down his back, plucking every muscle like a harp string, levator scapulae, trapezius, rhomboid, latissimus dorsi. The other trails down his chest. Pectoralis major. Down over his sensitive nipple. Serratus anterior, downward to the transversus abdominis, the obliques … navel. The curve of his hip. Inward, and Sherlock presses toward his touch.
John's mouth lands on the cut of his collarbone. And his hand slips to its target. Finally. Finally.
Sherlock sucks in a breath through his teeth. John's hands are neither elegant nor poetic, much like the man himself. But they are talented and insistent and passionate. His rough fingertips feel like cloth.
Sherlock's nails dig into the material of the sofa. His head knocks back against the arm of the sofa, his curls darting away from his wild eyes. His mind skips a groove in its track, and for a split second his observations have no attachment to each other. They are a sensory rush without meaning, without connotation or interpretation or deduction. Peeling wallpaper. Rumpled rug. Newspaper discarded upside down.
"Ah," he says. "Ah."
"Sherlock," John says. Growls it onto his lips.
He can't find words. One of his feet is hooked around John's back, and his shoulder blades are digging into the sofa, anchoring him as he arches against John's touch.
"Come on," John murmurs, kissing him hard. The fingers of his free hand drag Sherlock's sweaty hair away from his forehead, and that tiny friction pushes him over the edge.
Sherlock sucks in a harsh breath and shudders and his muscles go rigid. "John!"
Five minutes later, he's perfectly composed, perched at the table with his hands steepled under his chin.
"Something wrong?" John says, not looking up from his paper, his cheeks still wearing a ruddy glow. "You're doing your thinking hands."
Sherlock ignores him. Bored bored bored bored.
John folds the paper and crosses his arms. "Sherlock."
"Does this have anything to do with where you went at five this morning?"
Sherlock looks up at John as if he's only just noticed him. Those colored stone eyes flash and his lips spit the clipped syllables. "Explosion across town, four-thirty-four last night. Mile and a half from the Thames, close enough that the river could have been an avenue of access and transport for heavy explosives, far enough for it not to be probable. Minor government official and his wife killed; two children orphaned. Half a wall caved in on the neighbors. Appliance malfunction, supposedly – a spark and a flood of gas. Bang."
"You didn't tell me anything about this." John's tone is accusatory, but the mild indignation fades after a second. "Hold on, was it an appliance that blew up?" John says. "Was something amiss?"
"That is quite obviously the problem, John." John bristles at the patronizing tone, but Sherlock continues without even faltering. "I went to look, went to check, and there was absolutely nothing amiss. A fragment of a dryer burst from the inside, a few scorch marks around an untethered wire … really was just a bad accident. And parentless children screaming when I got there, too. Terrible use of my time." Sherlock gets to his feet, stalks across the room and back again. Over and over. John counts how many times, gets to seventeen before giving up, and resigns himself to watching from his chair, bemused. Sherlock's heels turn on the exact same floorboard each time, so precise that John finds himself almost entranced by the detective's impatient strides.
"I shouldn't have got my hopes up," he finally snaps, coming to a halt. John jerks a little, shaken from his daze.
Sherlock goes on, glaring at the skull on the mantel with venom. "No one's creative enough to do a proper murder these days. No one's got the drive, the patience, the art of it."
"Er. Right, then," John says, getting to his feet. When Sherlock starts glorifying murders, it's time to take preventative measures. "Bite to eat?"
"Eat?" Sherlock says, and from the incredulity packed into the word, John could have suggested that they pop in on Mycroft for a spot of tea.
"Well, what else are you doing?"
Sherlock surprises John by not remaining completely impassive. He actually gives a light sigh, his lips tugging down at the sides. "I am –"
"Whining," John says, tilting his chin up in a challenge. "That's what you're doing, you're whining. And we're going to get Chinese now. Come on."
Sherlock makes no motion to do anything.
John throws Sherlock's coat over the man's slim shoulders, shrugs on his own coat, and takes Sherlock's hand. "Not a request," he says. "Doctor's orders."
The sigh Sherlock lets out this time could level buildings. Damn it, John thinks, he's gone into petulant-child mode. But to his surprise – and more than a touch of relief – Sherlock slips his arms into his coat and heads for the door.
The two men leave the apartment with the taller hoping aloud that someone will try and mug them. The shorter wonders why his companion is never satisfied, and is promptly met with scoffing and derision and largely derogatory observations about everyone around them. A blonde woman gives them a scandalized glance back as the dark-haired man rambles on about her (coming home from a job she's been considering quitting for approximately twenty months, obvious because that's last year's model of coat from a designer, she gave herself a splurge last year because she thought she had other options lined up, but cheap new sneakers means that fell through, and of course the misery's followed up by the customaries: She's kicked a smoking habit but drinks too much, she's grown insecure about stupid physical traits, most ostensibly the size of her upper lip and her thin eyelashes, has attained mild social phobia from aggressive people in the workplace – coworkers or customers, probably both – and as a result she's cycled through a few therapists).
John doesn't like picturing Sherlock walking around speaking to a skull like this. He keeps quiet, a knowing smile tucked away in the corners of his mouth. The knowledge that Sherlock needs him.
In a way, many stories grow ordinary because of their sameness. A boy falls in love. With money, power, glory, a girl, a boy. And the experience is sobering and transformative.
John Watson is an ordinary man with an extraordinary love.
What is extraordinary about it?
Sherlock's need is a prison with an open door, and John chooses to stay.
But before the blissful calm of two friends settled into love – as settled in or blissful or calm as one Sherlock Holmes could ever be – sits a year of euphoric highs. Their lust is tempered by their desire to be quiet and unmoving in each other's presence, to stare into eyes and appreciate and analyze what's behind those barriers. They run through each other's veins like melted chocolate. They breathe each other, as John never believed Sherlock could, and as Sherlock never believed he himself could. Sherlock's sporadic smiles are more frequent and appear almost manic. John believes he's trying to paint over the loss, paint over the wasted time.
"Time is irrelevant, John," Sherlock says curtly, when the idea is suggested. They are on the sofa, Sherlock's legs stretched down to the armrest, his head in John's lap.
"How's it irrelevant?" John says. "I'm still bloody angry about having lost years with you. Not to mention the thirty-five-odd I spent before meeting you."
Sherlock sighs. "That's nice."
"What you're doing with your thumb."
"Oh." And he immediately stops thumbing the base of Sherlock's neck, as if to be deliberately difficult. "It was years. I still don't understand."
"Ah. Lack of comprehension. A novel sentiment for you, John." John's nail flicks the back of Sherlock's neck, and he winces. "Careful."
"That was intentional."
Sherlock shifts, resting his head further up on John's thigh. "Would you like me to explain?"
"Yeah, that's why I mentioned not understanding, isn't it?" John snorts, shaking his head. "For a detective, you're dull sometimes, aren't you?"
"Oh. In that case." In one smooth rush, Sherlock sits up and turns to John, pinning him under his eyes. "I expected I would be dead long before this, because all the evidence indicates that one as reckless and unhealthy as I am should, by all rights, die before thirty. As such, I find my continued presence on the earth to be an interesting surprise daily. A surprise, and that's all. That's it. I don't waste time worrying about time or appreciating it, mostly because I've learned how to function through my livelihood, and my livelihood comes from the actions of others. The cases, John, are my blood and oxygen, and I can do nothing to make them occur more rapidly. Waiting for the future to fall upon me is something I'm accustomed to. And I'm used to impatience in that respect. But lost time, wasted time, dead time … it's done and gone and there's nothing anyone can do about that, so it's foolish and sentimental to worry about it so posthumously."
And he lies down again. Moves John's hand to his chest, examines the doctor's fingers.
"Pulse," he says immediately. "I've upset you."
"Erm, no, not upset," John says. "Thinking."
Sherlock closes his eyes and does not reply.
"I … look, it … what I meant to say … I'm in love with you, is what that is."
John hasn't said that before.
Sherlock's brain conjures up eighty-six possible responses and weeds them out in order of probable offense. He's left with, "I need you a great deal."
"Need isn't love."
"Isn't it? Hmm." Love. Sherlock spins the word like a coin in his mind. It has a million different faces with each turn. "I don't love," he finally announces. "Not an activity I engage in."
John's fingers go limp in his. Sherlock grips harder in response and opens his eyes, looking up at John's dismayed, almost-disbelieving expression. "No, John, please don't panic. I assure you that you prefer this truth to a hasty I love you murmured in your ear while trying to get you into bed. I assure you that were I to say I loved you, you would find it disingenuous. I assure you that I can do no more than need someone in my life with all of my being and it …"
Without warning, the word chokes, cutting off Sherlock's rich sweet voice. He falters, unsure what to do. The sentence has rocketed away from him into the recesses of his Mind Palace, and now he's busy analysing the look in John's eyes.
At his faltered words, Sherlock can practically see the unwelcome memory barreling into John's mind: the sound of Sherlock's voice cracking and breaking through the telephone. The rooftop. The lie. Memories that hide beyond the mental barrier John's carefully constructed (in what Sherlock has fondly nicknamed his Mind Hut).
John rubs the bags under his eyes and sighs, feeling old. "Christ, Sherlock. You make this bloody difficult, don't you?"
"Would you rather I be predictable?"
Sherlock lets out a smug little chuckle. "Lie."
John's eyes soften. "Sherlock, do you ever feel anything … I dunno. Normal?"
Sherlock lists it off in a lazy slur, as if he prepared the list far ahead of schedule: "Mild satisfaction when you bring me tea. Appreciation when you resist berating me for not speaking to you for days to weeks at a time. Relief when you don't mention that I skip a night's sleep. Amusement when you make jokes – I rather like your jokes, John. Disappointment and irritation when you refuse to purchase groceries or otherwise make yourself useful. Anger when other people are being idiotic."
"All right, yes, I notice you're being very careful and avoiding anything that might actually make you seem human."
"Human." Sherlock lets out a light scoff. "Is that all I am to you?"
John flicks the edge of Sherlock's ear. "You're a nutter."
"Don't worry. It's in the best possible way," Sherlock mumbles, turning so his cheek presses into John's knee.
"Right, that's very reassuring, thanks," John says, but he sounds mollified through the sarcasm. He scrubs one rough hand through Sherlock's silk curls. "As for … well, it's not enough, but I suppose the time we've got is what we've got, then."
He expects Sherlock to pick at the obviousness of the remark, but all he gets is the twitch of the detective's lip to the side. John knows that to be his expression of comfort, affection.
And then Sherlock sits up, pulls John gently to him with an arm around the back. It's poorly timed and unromantic, like Sherlock himself, and John loves it. Loves him.
He leans his head on Sherlock's shoulder, placing a hand on the detective's thigh.
And to his disbelief, Sherlock takes his hand. Folds his fingers into John's.
John wants to pour this moment into a timeproof capsule and follow it in and lock himself up inside it. Freeze them here forever.
He pictures his hand cryogenically frozen to Sherlock's.
His friend would never go that long without a case.
Sherlock is too willing for things to come and go, he thinks.
And he is correct, of course. Sherlock's obsession with the present will undo them time and time again, unravel their patience until they can't stand it. Until the door closes.
But this is the first time he notices it. After all, in a time previous to this euphoric year – previous to the romance – John Watson is rather obsessed with the present himself. How to get Sherlock to stay from day to day. How to keep Sherlock happy every second he's here. How to get Sherlock never to leave again, Jesus Christ, if he does –
Because Sherlock is strangely unassuming, shortly after his return. He spends more time in silence. His features are placid, the largest regular change a slight narrowing of the eyelids as he analyses evidence.
John hates it a little.
And he hates the fact that something's changed. His friend's banter is uneasy and overly formal, not as mean and unfiltered as before. Not at all sociopathic enough for it to feel like he really is speaking to Sherlock Holmes. Christ, the man won't even whine about Mycroft to him. The childlike Sherlock has receded, and it scares John. Is this a permanent change?
The distance feels bizarre, the thin layer of a latex glove. He doesn't know how to fix it. And whenever Sherlock realizes John wants to have a feelings talk (which is often, and recognized with great rapidity), the detective goes to his room and doesn't emerge until his next meal.
One day John has an idea.
"No. Wait. Stop," he says, as Sherlock walks in the door. "Stop right there. I'm going to figure this out." John gets to his feet, flattens the wrinkles in his jeans with his thighs.
Sherlock's brows draw. "What –"
"Quiet," John says, so forcefully that Sherlock falls silent out of sheer bewilderment. After a second, his pale hands slide into the pockets of his long coat, and he lets out half an exasperated sigh.
"All right." John bounces on the balls of his feet, his lips thinning, his brow puckering. "The bottoms of your trousers are wet, and your shoes look rather shiny at the bottom. It hasn't rained since … a week and a half ago, so you were obviously moving through some sort of water off the streets. Your scarf is only half-tied, which you do when you're someplace warm and you want to give your neck some more air. But it's rather chilly out, so … you were inside a building for a significant amount of time."
By this point, Sherlock's faint surprise has faded into a knowing sort of amusement. "Go on."
"I asked you to go and get the groceries and you agreed, which was suspicious, so you probably had another motive. Not that I didn't know that part already." John rubs the back of his neck ruefully. These dots in his mind have no line connecting them. Not for the first time, he envies Sherlock.
Perhaps if he were just arrogant enough, he could do it.
John straightens up and clears his throat, trying to assume a Sherlockian air. He walks closer. "Ah, look, there. You've got a bit of a crease in your neck right where a seatbelt would be. So you didn't take a taxicab, because you never wear seatbelts in … but then what car …" John rubs his chin. "You've been someplace you wouldn't want me to know, someplace you wouldn't text demanding I run and join you."
Sherlock's eyes are almost soft, but when John meets them, a guard slams down over the glimpse of vulnerability. John goes back to his analysis.
"Your coat's got a sort of fold mark, I think, across the middle. So it's been taken off and folded, which you wouldn't do if you were in a public place. But it's not somewhere with a coat rack, obviously. You –" John grins, suddenly, and looks up at Sherlock, stepping away. "I've got it. Mycroft kidnapped you, didn't he? He always takes us to back alleys and sort of dank unpleasant places, those would have water. And you would've gone out to try and avoid him, but of course it didn't work, because Mycroft's got eyes everywhere."
A strange look has come over Sherlock's face. For the first time in months and months, he doesn't erase it under John's scrutiny.
"What?" John says. "Did I get it? Come on, tell me. It was a simple enough guess. Did I get it?"
Sherlock's half-smile fades.
"Oh, come off it, what's that look for?" A tight swell of disappointment surges in John's throat. He thought he could get through to Sherlock, speaking his own language. If he made it a bit of a game. Damn it, though, another failure to add to the list.
Sherlock takes his hands from his pockets and looks across the small apartment. "I'm –"
"Stop," John says. "Don't say you're tired and you're going to bed, I know you never sleep. Don't say you're going to make dinner, it always tastes awful and it gives you an excuse to ignore me. Don't tell me you're going to go off and bury yourself in some medical experiment that's going to need a few hours because the blood needs to congeal properly. Please just give me a minute with you, all right? I'm trying to …"
He exhales and runs a hand through his hair. It's getting long. He needs to cut it. "I don't know, Sherlock. I'm trying. But this – this, everything I've been doing, it's like trying to break down a bloody brick wall with a hammer."
A long pause. Sherlock's eyes don't quite seem focused.
"Are you even listening to me?" Indignance floods John's voice. "Sherlock! Are you even –"
"Yes, I am," comes the reply, though it's strained.
"Well? Any thoughts? Anything to contribute? At all?"
He counts to fifty-three before Sherlock says anything. And the reply surprises him. "Deduce something else."
"Something else, please."
"Well, I … what else is there to –"
Sherlock swipes up the remote and turns on the telly, unveiling one of those hidden-camera shows. "Go. Him. Black shirt."
John's eyes linger on Sherlock for a second. There's a sort of glint in his friend's eye.
John's not sure this experiment is turning out the way he intended.
"Er, all right, then. Black shirt." John folds his arms. "He's young. Young-ish. Got too much grease in his hair, so he's either insecure about his looks or just doesn't have much of a sense of hygiene. But he's well-dressed enough, so not the insecurity, maybe."
"Good. Good." John can't ignore Sherlock's stare from his peripherals. But it doesn't look like the my-aren't-you-a-fascinating-specimen stare. So what … why …
John rocks back on his heels as the camera zooms in. "He's got pale hands, clipped nails, so I suppose he might do something important with his hands. An instrument?" He turns away. "Sherlock, why are you –"
Then Sherlock's index finger lands on his open mouth, and something inside his chest jumps, kicking his heart into overdrive.
"Not good of you, John," Sherlock says.
"What isn't – mf –"
Sherlock thinks for a while, unsure of how to proceed from here. He could express any number of foolish notions that would all sound equally alien from him. John would think he's gone bloody mad.
"Why did you think this would work?" he asks, taking his finger from John's face. He folds his hands behind his back, where they can do less damage.
"Well, you'll hardly even give me the time these days, so I had to get your attention somehow, didn't I. And I figured, since you're so bloody obsessed with yourself, if I acted like –" John cuts himself off. "What I meant … I thought maybe if I tried to put you at ease, or … maybe you'd talk …"
Unhappiness and humiliation flood John's expression. "Forget it. I'm gonna go … I'll go."
Sherlock experiences a moment of alarmingly real distress. "John," he says, before John's taken two steps. "Stop."
John turns. Sherlock weighs his options carefully, but finds he doesn't know what to say. So he says, "I don't know what to say." And the admission feels strange. Someone else's words from his tongue. Sherlock Holmes always knows what to say, after all, even if it isn't appropriate or acceptable.
"That's okay, that's fine." John fiddles with the edge of his jacket. "Look, I could ask you some questions, maybe? Would that be good? Better?"
Sherlock nods stiffly. The smile John gives him – genuine, relieved – is worth his compliance.
"Right. So you've been acting off for the last few months. If there was something that happened during the … after the … you can talk about it, you know? You can…" John gesticulates awkwardly.
Sherlock can hardly keep the suspicion off his face. John's not a complete moron; how can he not understand it's been for his own good? The reason John was so upset the first time was because he fell into that trap of caring. The obvious solution: Reduce friendship to acquaintanceship. Slowly, gradually, so John accepts it. But the man's been pushing against Sherlock's walls unrelentingly. Sherlock doesn't understand why John can't see the clear advantage in distancing himself.
"I saw your book," Sherlock says.
"'Typically, there's a defensible and personality-based logic behind a lie. The liar believes he or she has no choice, or that this choice is infinitely better than the alternative. It's important to try and look at this from his or her perspective so –"
"That book was in my room, behind my nightstand."
Sherlock doesn't reply. He walks to the window and picks up his violin.
"Don't go into my room, Sherlock. Do you not understand the concept of privacy? At all?"
"Well, I think it's definitely my business when you're purchasing a book called When They Lie and the only person you associate with on a regular basis is me."
"Hold on a second – I associate with everyone at work."
"Sarah is chronically honest; it's had an adverse impact on nearly every relationship in her life. That man who runs phone calls is one of the ones you nod to in the mornings and salute to when you leave, and he's also too dull to tell a lie to anyone's face and get away with it. The other doctor is unfriendly to you because of your lack of dedication to your workplace and never speaks to you. You'd have no reason to analyse any of their claims."
"Well, how about Lestrade, I –"
"You see him only in the context of me, and he has about as much deceit in his body as your average house pet."
"Your brother, then. He's –"
Sherlock barks out a laugh. "John, you're denying it when the clearest evidence is that you hid the bloody book from me."
"Right. Okay. I'm worried. All right? I am worried about –" John waves a hand in Sherlock's general direction. " – this. You. Happy now?"
"Exceedingly," Sherlock says drily.
"Why are you so offended about that, anyway? Are you trying to tell me you haven't been covering something up? Because that's just a bloody lie."
"How do you know?"
"Tell me how you know, John," Sherlock says, his voice almost menacing. John holds his ground. Stupid, really, that Sherlock Holmes should try to intimidate him when he faced a million scarier things in the war.
"What, you want me to deduce this as well? Fine. It's because you're so bloody quiet it's like Irene Adler's gone and died again, you've stopped ordering me around, and you don't make awful comments about everyone within sight. And when we're doing a case, you're subdued, there's this look on your face like you're hardly even enjoying it. I've been around you long enough to know the difference, Sherlock." He pauses and blinks a couple times as he realizes. "What are you doing? Why are you so …" close to me?
"Would you like me to tell you why this is not good?"
"All right. You'll excuse me, then, but –" He takes another step forward and all of a sudden John has to tilt his head up to see Sherlock properly. Christ, but he's tall, and for some reason the proximity slams a lock over the back of John's throat. The world has frozen; John is anchored to the wood floor. "You're right," Sherlock says.
"About what?" John croaks out.
"I am rather self-obsessed. As a narcissist and a sociopath, one of the few things I will confess to caring about is myself."
"What are you getting at?" John's not sure what's going on, and his lack of comprehension isn't aided by the fact that Sherlock's so uncomfortably close. John feels his cheeks tingling with heat. Is this really necessary for the topic at hand?
But he doesn't have the heart to move away. (Or the desire to, but John chooses to ignore that particular piece of information, because Sherlock doesn't work like that, can't work like that.)
"Caring, John," Sherlock says, and folds down the collar of his coat absentmindedly. "Caring."
John stares for a minute. Then, "Nope. Still not getting it."
Then Sherlock's leaning down. Pressing his forehead to John's. Staring hard, infinitely perceptive pupils rimmed with those strangely blue-green irises.
John is quite sure he isn't breathing.
"Sherlock," he says. "Sherlock, what are you …"
Sherlock tilts his head ever so slightly, his eyes creasing in concentration. John can tell he won't say a word.
The space between them shrinks. The mingling stir of their breath grows noticeable.
It occurs to John that Sherlock is going to kiss him, and as this thought processes, he wonders why he didn't realize it when their skin first touched. For a moment he wonders if he's as dull as he often feels around Sherlock. But then the lines connect in his mind, and he lets it all out in one whispered rush. "You've been acting off because you've been trying not to care, haven't you, and because you care about yourself so much, it's not good when I act like you, because it's appealing and attractive to you, so you start to care."
"Close." The tip of Sherlock's nose brushes John's cheek. He's long since resigned himself to caring about John. All he really wanted was for John to escape the same fate – caring for him in return. "It's dangerous," he murmurs, a baritone rustle. "Closeness."
The words crackle and play over John's skin. He realizes his palms are hot and filmed with sweat. "Er."
"Would you stop trying?" Sherlock asks, pulling back. And John can breathe again.
"If I kept ignoring you. Would it do any good? Would you stop all … all this?"
John's eyes brighten, widen. He understands. "Oh. Oh. Sherlock, you idiot – I can't just turn the fact that I care for you on and off."
The words ring and echo in Sherlock's ears. I care for you I care for you I care for you. In that case, if it's already done – if John's chance for escape has already passed –
Sherlock puts a hand on John's shoulder, leans down, and presses his lips hard to John's.
It's a strange thing to notice, but it's quiet. Sherlock never quite considered the auditory aspect of kissing, of intimacy. Besides the small noises of sliding skin, of shifting cloth, of pulsing blood, there is nothing except the press of still air. John's hand slides around Sherlock's waist to the small of his back and curves his lean body inward until it's lined up perfectly. No separation. No air. Nothing except John's body.
Sherlock stumbles a little, but John's hand keeps him steady, and he leans in more forcefully. His fingers curl up in John's sweater.
Sherlock breaks the kiss for half a second to whisper, "Do you understand yet?"
For once, John ignores his words. He pulls Sherlock down by the collar and they kiss again.
And this is the turning point. For afterward follows the euphoria, the settle-down, the agitation, the disappointment, the end – where before they had tensed breaths, bafflement, curiosity … misery. Mostly misery. Because look closely: In the month or two immediately after Sherlock returns from the dead, nothing is really the same. John has adjusted to an empty house and an injured heart, and a scar the size of England lies over the memories he had. With that sort of wound, the healing process is not as simple as Sherlock's return yielding a swell of joy, appreciation, relief. John must tear that scar open again to make it disintegrate. And the pain is just as awful the second time.
He had his delusions for those years that he might see Sherlock again, but that was all he thought they were. Delusions. Now he must check himself when he sees Sherlock. Must always remind himself that he is not, in fact, going mad.
You cannot expect the world to pause in your absence. You cannot leave and return the same day with years in-between.
Sherlock has never felt the acute spike of guilt before, but sometimes when John is sitting at the table, simply looking at him, he does feels a pinprick of it. Blame. Anguish. The compulsion to compose, or to escape.
He wonders what it was like for John, not knowing for so long.
He will never know, because John will not tell him. But the truth is that they are the worst years of John's life.
Coffee for breakfast and grey porridge for dinner. Flat skies throughout the day and a ring from Lestrade but it's nothing exciting. Waiting and hoping and relapsing and failing and at least it's not as bad as it was right afterward,
because in the days immediately after the Fall, John has nightmares.
He would never presume to have nightmares about what might've happened to make Sherlock kill himself, or what might have happened to make Moriarty do the same. After all, for John's mind to walk through the process of making those sorts of deductions would be a slow and agonizing limp. He does not, will not, subject himself to that. No – not even in the deepest levels of his subconscious, the levels that still hold out some hope.
He does not have nightmares about the Fall.
He does not have nightmares about the blood.
But he does have nightmares about the crack in Sherlock's voice.
John heard it so many times before that day – but it was always disingenuous, a quaver in that smooth voice driven to exact results from some poor victim of sympathy. And only John could tell it was false.
But over the telephone, he knew it was real.
The crack in the voice of a shattered man.
When John closes his eyes, he sees Sherlock's lips forming words. He doesn't know which words they are, but the warm blanket of Sherlock's voice is nowhere to be heard. All that comes out is that broken half-second of emotion. The glimpse, the sliver of humanity the crack affords him.
John's nightmares are filled with fear. Posthumous fear, as if he can ever match the terror his best friend must have experienced in those final plummeting moments.
And when he wakes up, it's as if someone has taken a crowbar and smashed it into his leg. And it's as if someone has let off twin shotgun blasts in his ears, crippling him, disorienting him. There are screams and sweat and his sheets are fingers clutching to every inch of his soaking skin.
Ms. Hudson rushes in sometimes, but she can do little else than watch him curl up there on the mattress. She says soothing phrases every so often, a "There, there, dear," or an "It's all right, John," but her voice is a withered leaf, dried-out and lifeless. Empty of conviction.
For a while, John speaks to the wall. Orders it around, as Sherlock might have done to him.
"Make the tea."
"Didn't you hear me, I said pass me that pencil."
"Answer my phone."
And after thirty-seven hours, he's doubled his thirty-seven years. He's hunched over and ancient. The crystals of his eyes are resigned rather than jagged and ragged and raw.
John Watson has nightmares about being alone.
But six years afterward, when he walks through the door of 221B Baker Street and shuts it behind him, he does not have nightmares anymore.
Was it really just fear? Was it really just need that made him stay?
He convinces himself it was, because that makes the separation easier. The bizarre feeling of a flat to himself. Waking up, going to work, no cases, no interruptions, no sleepless nights. You never loved Sherlock Holmes, he tells himself. You were so scared of being alone, John.
He lets himself reminisce freely, but only about one thing. The night Sherlock came back, drenched – as may have been expected – in equal quantities rain, sweat, and blood. The way John's throat closed – he couldn't say a word for two days – and the way he stitched Sherlock's bicep together with fingers shaking so badly he stabbed the man four different times. (Mercifully, he said nothing in complaint.)
John reminds himself of the punctured-lungs-can't-breathe-frozen-muscles-can't-move feeling of seeing Sherlock again. And he reminds himself that to return to 221B would be like doing that once more.
He's quit Sherlock Holmes cold turkey and he's doing brilliantly.
But five months after he moved his things out, he's out walking at night.
He hears sirens.
We must end with this: that John Hamish Watson approaches the sound of trouble and finds it; that John Hamish Watson sees Sherlock Holmes' face for the first time in five months and it wrenches like a twist to the hand; that Sherlock Holmes stares at him and the officers standing around can do little more but wait for the eye contact to cease.
That the corpse on the pavement looks significantly more alive than Sherlock.
That John kneels by the corpse on the pavement, takes its hand, and says, "He's not been dead long."
Lestrade holds his breath. Even Donovan and Anderson hold their breath. When Sherlock opens his mouth, something unspeakably horrible could come out. Your presence is not required, or This investigation doesn't need one more idiot, or the simple but ever-injurious Leave. And the police know any one of the above is a likely response, because they have had the delightful experience of going through Sherlock's mourning period, with all the vitriol, denial, and childish moping that it entailed.
They are all shocked when he does not tell John to leave. And even more shocked that he does not simply accept John's presence without question.
He opens his mouth, and the word drips from his lips like a somniloquist's prayer. Cracks right down the middle. "J – John."
John is stunned that Sherlock would move his mind from the case so far as to say his name. And the crack in his voice … his nightmares. John can't think, can't do anything but let the tempest roar in his chest.
He realizes he's a bloody idiot.
Living in a state of Sherlocklessness when he feared it for so long – and of his own free will? Idiocy.
The end would never be the end. Sherlock is as indelible as a brand on his skin, and their story could not simply stop, trail off, die where it lies.
The knowledge rings like a gong in his heart, vibrating to the tips of his toes. You loved – love – Sherlock. You will never let him go.
"You're here," Sherlock murmurs. "Why."
"Heard the sirens," John says.
"That's not why you're here. That's what indicated that you might find us here. Why are you here?"
"Looking for trouble. And you, I s'pose."
The police officers gather together further from the body, affording John and Sherlock the smallest of privacies.
"Why?" Sherlock says, sitting back on his heels. His voice is oddly soft.
"I was curious."
"I guess I … er, just wanted to see if I still –"
"I'm in love with you, John," Sherlock says shortly.
The whole of London must hear the ringing silence that follows. The officers are no longer feigning conversation. They stare unabashedly.
But all John can do is flounder in Sherlock's ready gaze, a stare sheathed by the night and hooded in shadow.
" … right. Okay, then." John takes his hands from his pockets; wrings them; folds them. "And I –"
"I know. I wouldn't have said that if I thought it wasn't returned."
"Course." John looks down at where his knees kiss asphalt. "So what shall we … what do we …"
Sherlock indicates the corpse lying conspicuously beside them. "Shall we?"
And the matched pair return to the place they never should have left.
So shuts the door on perhaps some of the least unique events of John Watson's and Sherlock Holmes' lives. After all, love has been told a million ways and a million times. How could a broken heart compare to the unveiling of an international smuggling ring exacted by brilliant deduction alone? How could the reunion of two best friends be more novel than a man driven to the brink of insanity by fear stimulus technology? How could things like smiles, affection, quiet words, sex, first kisses, calm close nights possibly rank atop cases of international significance?
They cannot. And yet, undeniably, they are far more important.
Thank you very much for reading! Please do leave a review, I'd love to hear from you.