Author's Note: The spark for this story came from a tumblr gifset (notaudreyparker [fullstop] tumbler [fullstop] com [/] post [/] 16242825827) although please note that for the purposes of this story, I've shifted the timing of the scene so that instead of taking place during "A Study in Pink" it fits somewhere between "The Blind Banker" and "The Great Game".
Special thanks to croissantkatie for the quick and extremely helpful beta!
*This story can also be found on AO3 and LiveJournal, both under the same screenname that I use here.
The Puzzling Case of Doctor John Watson
"Yeah, but if you were dying, if you were being murdered. In your very last few seconds, what would you say?"
John looked up at Sherlock, the words ringing in his head as he swallowed rapidly, trying desperately to hold the deluge of emotions and memories at bay.
He looked down at his feet and took a breath. "Please, God, let me live." He met Sherlock's penetrating gaze as he said the last word and was pleased to discover that his voice sounded calm and steady - the exact opposite of what he was feeling inside.
Sherlock's face crinkled with derision. "Oh, use your imagination."
The pain hit him then, deep and cutting. It's just Sherlock. He told himself. He didn't mean it, he wasn't thinking. John's leg began to throb, but he ignored it. He needed to respond to Sherlock, and then he needed to go. He needed to leave and get as far away from here as possible.
John met Sherlock's gaze again. "I don't have to."
He watched as his words met their mark. Sherlock's face immediately softened, his eyes filling with genuine regret. John forced himself to look away. He wouldn't, couldn't get sucked in. Not this time. This time he was not going to feel bad for Sherlock. He had no right…
John closed his eyes, composing himself. He needed to get out. Now. Without another word, he turned and walked toward the door, somehow managing not to limp until he was on the landing and out of sight.
"John-" He heard the hint of emotion in Sherlock's voice, but refused to acknowledge it. If he acknowledged it, he'd start to feel bad and if he started to feel bad he'd go back to him and right now, John didn't want to do that. He needed some time. Time to sort out the cacophony of memories, nightmares and pain that were currently threatening to overwhelm him.
Sherlock called his name again and this time John managed to answer. "I need some air. Finish the case." He paused, debating for a moment before adding. "I'll see you later."
With that, John limped down the stairs and launched himself out into the street.
It was raining and within seconds he was drenched, but John didn't care. Instead he walked aimlessly for ages, his limp worsening with each step. Finally, when the rain had soaked through to his skin and he was shivering, he absently hailed a taxi and made his way back to the flat.
"I don't have to."
John's words caused Sherlock to freeze. Shit. He thought to himself as he realised with horror what he'd just done. Shit, shit, shit. You daft idiot. The look of pain on John's face made Sherlock ache and he wanted desperately to fix it, to take back his words and make it better. He hadn't meant to hurt John, and the fact that he was the cause of his flatmate's current pain made him feel ill. What could he say? Was sorry enough? Somehow he didn't think so. John would need a grand gesture probably, possibly tea. Yes, that was good. Tea made people feel better didn't it? Happy to have a plan, Sherlock decided he'd just have to wrap the case up quickly and then he and John could talk and he could fix this. He was about to speak when John abruptly turned, walking from the room.
Sherlock frowned. Okay, so perhaps this was going to require more than tea. "John—" he started, shocked to hear his voice breaking slightly. Frustration was building inside him-this wasn't like him. He wasn't emotional. He didn't care. He was here for the case. That was what mattered. That was all that had ever mattered. Even as he thought it, Sherlock knew he was wrong. John. John mattered more. When had that happened? "John-" he tried again, his voice steadier this time.
"I need some air. Finish the case." John's voice was measured, wooden, wrong. "I'll see you later."
Sherlock wanted to go after him. Wanted to make him understand. To explain that he hadn't meant it, that his brain had been fixated on the case. That all other information had been temporarily deleted. John would get it. He had to understand.
Sherlock took a step toward the door, then paused, listening carefully. Limping. John was limping? Why was he limping again? No, no, no, no, no. This was bad. Really bad.
"Sherlock?" Lestrade's hand on his elbow nearly made him jump out of his skin. What was wrong with him today? Sherlock closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He had a job to do, a case to solve, and the faster he solved it, the sooner he could focus his attention on the puzzling case of Doctor John Watson.
The flat was quiet and dark when John unlocked the door to 221b and slipped inside, sodden and shivering. He peeled off his damp coat, hanging it on the rack before bending down to pull off his soggy shoes. He was half contemplating stripping everything off right there in the entry way and heading directly for the shower when a familiar voice made him jump.
"Geezus! Sherlock, hasn't anyone ever told you that lurking silently in dark rooms is creepy?"
"I'm a self-diagnosed sociopath, John. I don't listen to what other people tell me."
John sighed. "Look, Sherlock, I don't want to do this right now."
He could practically hear Sherlock frowning in the darkness. "Do what?"
"THIS!" John raised his voice and gestured rapidly between them before realising that Sherlock couldn't see him. "You know what? Never-mind." John stormed across the room and was half way up the stairs before Sherlock spoke again.
"I'm sorry." He said it so quietly that John was certain he'd misheard it. Sherlock never apologised. Ever.
John's shoulders sagged and he felt some of his anger begin to slip away. "Look, Sherlock, I'm cold, wet, and tired. Can we please talk about this later?"
The lights came on suddenly and John was startled to see that Sherlock was standing at the bottom of the stairs, just feet away from him. His eye caught John's and held his gaze for moment. John inhaled sharply; the intensity of Sherlock's scrutiny speaking volumes and causing him to shudder inexplicably.
"Shower and get changed. I'll make you tea." There was a momentary flash of heat in his eyes that John barely caught before he turned away and strode into the kitchen.
Weary, but feeling marginally better, John limped up the remaining stairs with the intention of doing exactly as Sherlock had suggested.
Within twenty minutes of John's departure, Sherlock had solved the case and Lestrade had left to make an arrest. As soon as Sherlock was alone, he threw himself dramatically into his chair and hugged his knees, fingers peaked in front of his face. He frowned. The usual exhilaration that he felt after solving a case was absent and instead he was uneasy and restless. He leapt out of the chair and started to pace, running through the conversation with John for the umpteenth time since it had happened.
Why did he care so much? Sherlock insulted people all the time, accidentally and on purpose and it had never bothered him before. Why was this different? What was it about this incident that had caused a knot to form inside his chest? John. The thought entered his brain unbidden and Sherlock winced. That was the whole of it, wasn't it? He cared because it was John he had insulted, John he had hurt. Somehow, without precedent, Sherlock had started to care about someone, about John, without even realizing it. He'd only been living with John for three months but already he'd rather gotten used to having him around. He'd melded effortlessly into Sherlock's life and Sherlock enjoyed having him there. John was the only person Sherlock currently considered a friend - in fact he was the only person Sherlock had ever considered a friend and he couldn't lose that.
Sherlock stalked over to the window, staring absently at the grey, wet, street below. He considered going out, trying to find John, but he knew it would be pointless. If John didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be. No, it would be much more efficient to just wait for John to come home. Besides, he'd been limping when he stormed out earlier, so it was unlikely he'd go far.
Convinced that John would return shortly, Sherlock threw himself bodily onto the sofa and gazed up at the ceiling, considering everything.
Then John had come home, and he'd been in a foul mood and Sherlock had tried to apologise but somehow it hadn't gone the way he'd wanted it to. John was still angry, still hurt. At least he'd relaxed slightly and accepted Sherlock's offer of tea after his shower. It wasn't much, but it was a start, and that was something Sherlock could work with.
The kettle clicked off and as he poured the water into the mugs he'd previously set on the counter. He heard John coming back downstairs, his footsteps still uneven as he limped toward the bathroom and the door clicked shut behind him. Sherlock listened for the familiar squeaking of the taps before turning his attention back to the tea, a slight smile set on his face. He knew that the hot water would subdue John's aching muscles and wash away the tension he was holding in his back and shoulders. Sherlock closed his eyes, imagining the droplets of water trickling smoothly over John's skin as they washed away the horrors of his day, of the memories Sherlock's careless words had surely evoked.
Sherlock's thoughts shifted abruptly, involuntarily, as he pictured a hand following the water droplets, comforting and soothing. With a sharp intake of breath Sherlock realised with a start that it was his hand he was picturing touching and comforting John. Interesting. He considered the idea for a moment, deciding that he was all right with it. In fact, if the tightening he felt in his trousers was any indication, he liked the idea-quite a bit, in fact. He was attracted to John, he concluded, vVery interesting indeed.
Smiling, Sherlock finished making John's tea; it was time to make amends.
John stood under the steady stream of warm water, sighing as the tension he'd been holding in his body started to melt away. He was weary and tired and, as he started to relax, the memories he'd been holding at bay since Sherlock's thoughtless comment earlier crashed upon him. The cream-coloured tiles faded from his vision as his brain flooded with disjointed images. His knees buckled, causing him to fall to the floor of the tub, writhing as he relived the moment he'd been shot.
John saw blood on his chest before he even registered the sound of open gunfire that was ringing through his ears.
He looked at his hands, still bloody from the leg of the man he'd come out here to heal, a young man named Tommy. Suddenly frantic he looked around for the boy, finally spotting him on the ground at his feet. Tommy lay still and pale, his eyes closed as blood continued to flow from the wound John had not yet been able to staunch.
More gunshots rang out across the field and John dove for Tommy, his every instinct screaming at him to protect the boy, to fulfil his Hippocratic oath and do no harm.
As John fell hard across the boy's body, several things registered at once. Pain in his chest. Dust and mud and blood everywhere. Gunshots ringing through his ears.
He twisted so he could see his chest and saw the blooming pattern on his shirt as his blood soaked it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized he should apply pressure to it, but the boy moaned then and he focused on him despite the blurring of his vision.
Tommy was still alive, if he worked fast, he could still fix his leg.
John ignored the screaming pain from his shoulder, and slowly shifted his way down to the boy's leg, working as quickly and deliberately as he was able to, applying pressure to the leg wound, even as he began to have difficulty catching his own breath.
There was renewed gunfire and John's vision grew hazy from the dust that was stirred around them.
He pressed harder against Tommy's leg but the bandage just seemed to keep filling with blood. It wasn't until his head started to ache and the world began to spin that he realized it was because most of the blood was his own.
He felt the unconsciousness coming and he panicked, suddenly fearful that he wouldn't survive this. As he took a final, wheezy breath he thought, "Please God, let me live," and passed out.
John blinked, panting and gasping desperately as he tried to catch his breath. The pain in his knees intensified and he focused on it, grasping onto it as a means to pull himself out of the memories. Somewhere, deep in the distance, he heard a voice but it took him several moments to realize it was Sherlock, pounding on the bathroom door.
He was just mustering up the strength to speak when the door burst open and Sherlock hurtled himself through the door his eyes wild.
"John! I'm sorry but I heard -" Sherlock's eyes settled on John keeled over in the tub and the words died on his lips. "John!" He said again, his tone concerned as he rushed over to the tub and turned off the water. "Are you okay?"
John managed to nod. "I think so. Suspect I bruised my knees though."
Sherlock pursed his lips, nodding absently as he scanned the room. Suddenly, John was enveloped in a towel and strong, comforting arms were encircling him, pulling him gently to his feet. Sherlock was astonishingly patient as John clung to him and slowly, carefully, climbed out of the tub. He winced as he moved; his legs were definitely going to be feeling that for a few days.
"John…" Sherlock began, trailing off as though he weren't certain of what else to say. His tone was soft and filled with a level of concern that John had never heard from him before.
Surprised, John turned to look at him and nearly smashed his head against Sherlock's nose. He hadn't realised he was so close. Sherlock didn't seem to notice, instead his eyes bored into John's as though he thought that if he looked hard enough, deep enough, he'd find the answers he was looking for there. Knowing Sherlock, he probably could.
He must have seen something that reassured him at least, because after a moment he relaxed and shifted his gaze. John blinked, certain he was seeing things. Had he hit his head when he'd fallen and not realised? He studied Sherlock again, no; he was definitely staring at John's lips. John's breath quickened again but this time it had nothing to do with memories and everything to do with the way Sherlock was licking his own lips as his eyes remained fixed on John's. Well, this is new. John thought, smiling despite himself.
The movement seemed to rouse Sherlock from his study of John's mouth and he abruptly pulled away.
"Your tea is getting cold," he said before swiftly leaving the room and closing the door behind him.
Sherlock's cheeks were unusually warm as he pulled the bathroom door closed and leaned against it willing his breath to return to a normal rhythm. Had that actually just happened? Had he really almost kissed John? Oh god. Sherlock made his way to the sofa and sank onto it, scrubbing his hands over his face. What was wrong with him? He'd gone in the bathroom after hearing John's cry of anguish and in the end he'd nearly attacked him. Never in his life had Sherlock wanted to kiss anyone more than he'd wanted to kiss John a few moments before and it had taken all of his willpower not to. He wasn't used to feeling so out of control; was this what emotions did to people? If so, Sherlock wasn't sure he liked it.
He heard muted footfalls against the carpet and managed to clear his face of emotion before looking up to smile at John.
"Feel any better?" he asked calmly as he reached for the teacup on the coffee table and offered it to John.
John nodded and settled onto the sofa beside Sherlock, his feet flat on the floor, his back straight - the result of years of military training. He took a few sips of tea before setting his cup down on the coffee table again and turning to face Sherlock.
"I'm sorry about earlier," he began vaguely and Sherlock wasn't sure if he meant the episode in the bathroom or the way he'd stormed out of the crime scene.
"It's okay," Sherlock told him.
"It's not. What happened earlier, it wasn't your fault, I overreacted."
Sherlock looked up, meeting John's gaze deliberately. "No you didn't."
John's lips quirked at the sides so it appeared as though he were trying not to smile. "I didn't? I stormed out like a five year old throwing a tantrum."
"I admit it was a tad on the dramatic side," Sherlock said with deliberate boredom in his voice, "but you had every reason to be upset with me. I was rude and insensitive and for that I am sorry."
John gaped at him. "You actually sounded sincere."
"Despite what some people think, I am capable of remorse." Sherlock looked away, afraid John would be able to detect Sherlock's newly acknowledged attraction to him.
"Thank you." John said quietly, his voice sounding a bit awed.
Sherlock grinned. John's awe was one of the things he liked best about him. "I hurt you before, would you… um… do you want to talk about it?"
Once again, John gaped at him. "You want to talk about my emotions?"
"I don't want to talk about them, I never do, you know that. But what I said clearly upset you and brought stuff up for you, so if you need to talk about it, then the least I can do is listen."
John reached across the sofa and grasped Sherlock's hand, squeezing gently. The touch sent a shiver up Sherlock's arm that had nothing to do with being cold. He took a deep breath and hoped that John wouldn't look down and notice his reaction. John's grip loosened, but he didn't let go of Sherlock's hand. Instead he shifted, sliding closer to Sherlock as he leaned his head against the back of sofa, closed his eyes and started to talk about Afghanistan.
John felt like he'd been talking forever by the time he opened his eyes and looked at Sherlock again. Much to his surprise, Sherlock was still watching him, listening raptly, not a single sign of boredom evident. John squeezed his hand again, enjoying the warmth of the contact as he took a breath and continued his story. "When I woke up, I was no longer on the battle field. I was in the field hospital and there was a clean bandage over my chest, here."
John placed his free hand over the left side of his chest and was stunned for a moment when Sherlock reached out to place his hand protectively over John's. Touched by Sherlock's obvious concern, John had to compose himself before continuing.
"The doctors were completely baffled when I told them about the aching in my leg. They claimed there was no injury there but I didn't believe them. I think they were beginning to believe I was crazy." He laughed wryly. "It wasn't until a few days after I woke up that it started to make sense. Another soldier came in - the one who'd brought me to Tommy in the first place. He'd witnessed everything before being captured and tortured and had somehow managed to get away. He told me that the boy - he couldn't have been more than 17 - had bled to death while I was passed out on top of him." John closed his eyes again, blinking back tears as renewed guilt flowed through him. If only he'd managed to duck sooner, or work faster, he would have been able to save him. He could have stopped the bleeding, could have…
"John." Sherlock's voice was gentle, gentler than John had ever heard it before. He turned to look at him and was stunned by the emotion he could see stamped clearly across Sherlock's face. John simply stared at him until Sherlock reached out to touch John's cheek. "John, it wasn't your fault."
John shook his head. "If I had only -"
"No." Sherlock was firm, commanding and John immediately stopped protesting. "Listen to me John, the boy's death was unfortunate and tragic but it was not your fault. You did everything you could for him before you were shot; you even protected him when the gunfire broke out. There is no reason to feel guilty about what happened. Feel sad, yes, but not guilty. You did what you could for him and that is all that anyone would ever ask of you."
John nodded. Sherlock's words made sense, but it wasn't that simple to just shed years' worth of guilt. "I know in here that you're right." John tapped the side of his head. "But I think it's going to take me some time to believe it in here." He pressed his hand over his heart and once again Sherlock's hand shadowed his.
"But you will," Sherlock said confidently.
John smiled. "I will."
They sat in companionable silence for a long time after John finished his story, and Sherlock had to try hard to resist pulling John into his arms to comfort him. The need to protect him, to ease his pain was almost overwhelming and Sherlock found himself wondering how to proceed from here. He kept sneaking looks at John, as though staring at him would somehow magically reveal the answers he was seeking. Should he tell John how he was feeling? Would John even want to know? Or would it make him uncomfortable? If he kissed him, would John kiss him back? So many questions and for once Sherlock had no idea how to discover the answers. For a fleeting moment he even considered asking Lestrade for advice but he quickly dismissed the notion - this was private. Besides there would be no use in making a bigger deal out of this than it was, and Lestrade likely wouldn't be interested anyway. No, if Sherlock were to discuss it with anyone, it should be John, and therein lay his dilemma.
Somehow, while they'd been talking, John had ended up right next to him, his thigh pressed against Sherlock's, his shoulder brushing against his arm, John's hand still resting a top his. Sherlock was finding it extremely distracting so he took a deep breath and indulged himself by speculating on what would happen if he were to lean forward and kiss John. Would his lips be as soft as they looked? Or would they be firm, commanding? Would he taste of tea and mint toothpaste as Sherlock suspected? Would John kiss him back? Would he moan into Sherlock's mouth and part his lips, inviting Sherlock to explore further? Sherlock was becoming uncomfortably aware of his arousal when John spoke, his voice slightly amused.
"If you're that curious, why don't you just kiss me and find out?"
Sherlock's eyes widened. "How did you know?"
John laughed and glanced down at Sherlock's lap. "A bit obvious, don't you think?"
Sherlock felt his cheeks flush. "I —"
"Besides," John continued, his gaze unguarded as he met Sherlock's eyes. "You've been staring at my lips since the bathroom."
"You noticed that?" Sherlock winced.
John laughed again and the sound was beautiful. "I'm more observant than you give me credit for, Sherlock."
Sherlock shrugged, though secretly he was pleased John had noticed. "You've had an excellent role model."
"Brilliant, more like." John grinned, his eyes bright with promise and all at once Sherlock knew with certainty that John would kiss him back.
"Enough talking," Sherlock said dismissively, feigning boredom. He placed a hand on John's jaw, angling his head toward him before dropping his own to kiss him.
John's lips were even softer than Sherlock had imagined, and he moaned as John kissed him back, pressing his mouth firmly against Sherlock's, his tongue prodding between his lips, demanding entrance. Sherlock complied and was rewarded with the most thorough and delightful exploration of his mouth that he'd ever experienced. (Not that he'd had much experience with kissing, mostly it had been limited to research for cases or experiments in college). Sherlock allowed John to control the kiss for a few moments, relishing in the skill with which John's tongue danced over every inch of his mouth. Finally, when Sherlock was certain he would burst if he didn't do some exploration of his own, he broke the kiss, briefly noting the desire reflected in John's eyes, before gently pushing John backward so he was lying on the sofa. Shifting to straddle John's lap, Sherlock dipped his head again. John parted his lips in welcome and Sherlock took the invitation, plunging his tongue into the sweet depths of John's mouth. Sherlock smiled against John's lips - he'd been correct about the tea and mint.
John moaned, his arms wrapping around Sherlock's shoulders, pulling him closer. Sherlock's kiss was surprisingly patient and tender despite the demanding nature of his prodding and John had never felt so thoroughly kissed in his life. His mind was whirring, even as his heart raced with the thrill of what was happening; and the anticipation of what was likely going to happen. John had been fighting his attraction to Sherlock for months now, certain that his affection would not ever be returned. Never in his life had he been more delighted to be wrong.
After John had noticed Sherlock staring at his mouth in the bathroom earlier, he had convinced himself that he'd misinterpreted what he'd seen, that he had merely seen what he wanted to see. But when he spotted Sherlock's arousal after their heart to heart, he started to think that maybe, just maybe he'd been wrong about Sherlock. So he'd taken a risk and challenged Sherlock to kiss him. Unbelievably it had worked. The reality of kissing Sherlock was even better than his best fantasies and John felt certain that he would be perfectly content to keep kissing him for eternity. Which was why he nearly whimpered when Sherlock suddenly stopped kissing him and rose from the sofa.
He needn't have worried though, for a second later Sherlock was grasping his hand and pulling him to his feet as well. As soon as John was standing, Sherlock pulled him into his arms and kissed him again. It was light and brief but filled with promise. Sherlock broke the kiss but kept his mouth close to John's as he spoke.
"Bedroom," he said, his voice low, and breathless.
"I thought you'd never ask." John smiled and pressed his lips to Sherlock's again. "Mine though," he added as an afterthought, "Last I checked there were experiments scattered all over your bed."
Sherlock threw back his head and laughed, the sound more gleeful than John had ever heard from him. "You make a good point, John. What would I ever do without you?" Sherlock started to lead them up the steps, pushing John in front of him.
John stopped walking and turned to face Sherlock, his expression serious. "If I have my way you'll never have to find out."
Sherlock gazed at him, the intensity of it so staggering that John found himself having to catch his breath. Sherlock climbed the remaining steps until he was one stair below John and their height was almost level. Without saying a word, his intent was clear and when he kissed John again it was infused with thoughts and feelings that Sherlock wasn't yet ready to voice, but John understood them all the same. His eyes shining with emotion and filled with promise, John took Sherlock's hand in his and, without limping, led him up the stairs to his bedroom where they proceeded to continue to communicate without using any words at all.