twelve, thirteen, fourteen…

He didn't want to count how many steps there were from the Regent's park Longbridge to 221B.

ninety-five, ninety-six…

But he was counting anyway, so intently focused on an exact figure that he only half-heard the murmured joke about expired milk.

one hundred fifty-five…

Or the thing about the amorous ducks.

two hundred twenty-nine…

Or the murmured apologies that were trying so hard to come behind these other words.

No, John didn't quite hear what Sherlock was saying because the good doctor was trying not to see and so he used Sherlock's old trick, that simple little ruse he employs to busy his mind when it can't yet absorb what's right in front of it.

three hundred and three…

So John counted. He watched their feet on the pavement and he counted the hundreds of steps it took them to go from here to home, and though it helped—it sure did, it really did, yes, yes, yes—John's not as smart as Sherlock, so John kept losing damn count for whole seconds at a time and then he'd have to close his eyes a moment and think and even so, even with all that, it wasn't enough, it wasn't enough, because John could still count something else in his head, a simple count this one, simple and small and easy to track.

One, two, three…four, five, six.

Quicker than quick he'd done that, counted them on the bridge, the six lacerations on Sherlock's face. A military doctor can do that, or maybe it's just this one, tally damage in a blink, the better to focus on blood-loss, infection, healing.

When he left the army John thought he was done with that battlefield reflex but within their first month together Sherlock proved him wrong.

Oh but it wasn't just Sherlock with the cuts and abrasions, the sprains and bruises that needed counting and cursing, John always had his fair share, but somehow the good doctor never tracked those.

One, two, three, four, five, six…

seven?

John counted his footsteps and he counted and he'd continue to count so that he wouldn't think about that other count, about how many more cuts there were on Sherlock's body.

Because John Watson knew, he absolutely knew there were more.

fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

Sherlock often counts the stairs leading up to 221B. The sure and certain knowledge of that never-changing figure is soothing when he needs it, centreing when he needs that, or, as now, something of a calming countdown.

When they entered the flat through its already-open door—John would remark on that later; the same as he'd remark on (and learn the why of) the small black stone Sherlock carried—they both went quiet, any chatter fading quickly to silence.

And then Sherlock started taking off his clothes.

He was unhurried, his motions economical though not leisurely, removing each item in the order most logical.

The coat came first and then the gloves, and right then John began to say something about Sherlock's hands but Sherlock made a soft shushing sound and then, with delicacy and care, tugged the tails of his blue dress shirt from his trousers, unbuttoned and removed it, and it wasn't until he undid belt, then button, then zipper that John stepped close and stilled those hurt hands and then he counted—one…two, one…two—the slow pulse in Sherlock's neck and just like that he knew this wasn't about sex, this was about—

"Triage," Sherlock said.

Because nothing could happen until John knew everything, Sherlock knew that. His good doctor needed to understand the scope of the damage, see it with his own eyes, before anything as precious as normality could return.

And so Sherlock stripped bare, right there in the sitting room, and he stood still and quiet and he let John touch his wounded hands, touch and maybe, just maybe, foolishly count those long fingers to make sure every one of them was there, and motionless and silent he waited patiently while John went to his knees before Sherlock's bandaged knees, and because the air was electric, zinging with unsaid words, Sherlock said the only thing that could have helped John just now, six little words that brought the healer a quick and merciful peace.

"Mrs. Hudson took care of me."

The good doctor let out a little chuffing laugh, pressed his forehead against one long thigh. Yes, good. Thank you Elizabeth. Thank you.

Only when Sherlock shifted, when John realised he was trying to join him down there on the hard floor did John stand and start becoming, well, John.

Tugging Sherlock toward their bedroom the good doctor would do what he always did after Sherlock was tended to by others: He would inspect, admire where appropriate (rare), disparage where necessary (common), and he would do things the way they should be done.

So the goal was the bedroom, though not the bed, it was the loo with its warm water, fresh bandages, and tape. There John would touch delicately and maybe count fingers again, and then wounds, he'd see how many and how far, and he'd rail against himself because certainly he knew, knew this would happen, didn't he? Like so much that had happened in the last three days this too was his fault, the…

"John."

…blame for what Sherlock had done was his…

"John."

…even though in his head John doesn't buy into that bullshit, not really…

"John."

…but he believes it with every bit of his stupid, frantically-beating heart. Oh, he believes a whole messy world of stupid, does John Watson.

John believes every time Sherlock's hurt, every time he's confused by the whole fucking human race, nearly every time they fight or fuss with one another, John's sure, so very sure that if he'd just done something a little different, maybe Sherlock would have…

"Stop."

John stopped. Right in their bedroom doorway, a good dozen feet from the loo and the bright lights he wanted to get Sherlock under so he could count, count, bloody well count his perceived sins—so he could feel the pain of every laceration, every dried daub of blood, and furious with them both, helpless and hurt even as he tried to help heal the hurt and do you know what? Do you know what, what, what?

That just wasn't okay any more. Not one bit of okay, not for Sherlock.

Not that it ever was, not really. Sherlock's always let John tend to him, cosset and care and kiss away bruises, but he's also reassured his husband that there was nothing he could have done, knowing John never believed him but knowing the reassurances helped somewhere, somehow, later.

Well forget that. No reassurances this time because this time there wouldn't be any doctorly kisses, no tender care from the healer's hands, this time no.

It was Sherlock's turn.

Yet as soon as he reached for the buttons of John's collar, quick as a flash John took hold of his husband's wrists. "No."

Again, as before, Sherlock stilled and waited, and again, as before, John counted.

One…two. One…two. One…two.

Sherlock's slow-beating heart was steady and calm. Again this was not about sex, this was about something else entirely.

"Let me take care of you."

John held his breath a moment, and then hung his head.

Oh fuck. Absolute fuck.

John sucks at this, he's always sucked at this, he wishes he didn't but he does and even as Sherlock finished unbuttoning, and even as he was divested of his clothes until they were in a pile on the floor, John gritted his teeth and fisted his hands and actively bit his lips to keep his god damn mouth shut, because John knew they couldn't keep being the same people they'd always been, they had to change eventually, they had to try harder, be better, and so they'd try, yes, all right, he'd let Sherlock do to him what he always does to Sherlock because he knew it helped to help, that it focused, it…

"Hush."

Sherlock put fingertips against John's clamped-closed mouth and pulled John's head against his shoulder. For long seconds John stood iron-spined, was maybe thinking of pulling away because he couldn't do it, no, he couldn't just take, he didn't know how and…and then there it was.

OnetwoOnetwoOnetwo.

The fluttery fast beat of Sherlock's heart, the breath-robbing pound of a man delicately walking a high wire and terribly afraid he'll fall.

Onetwo. Please, please…

Onetwo. Let me…

Onetwo. Take care…

Onetwo. Of you.

John's heartbeat ramped up in sympathy and just like that one man fit himself carefully against another, and right there and in silence began the second age of the marriage of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

They didn't make love.

Curled toward one another on the bed, bare feet rubbing slow over bare feet, they tugged one another close, but it was for words whispered mouth against mouth, it was so they could say instead of do.

There'd be time for doing and being done later.

"Sorrow doesn't ease sorrow. I'll be sorry every day, but it won't undo what's done. Only what I do can do that."

Simple words, the lot of them, yet they sounded like miracles coming from Sherlock's mouth. As if, in three days, the man had learned an entirely new language.

"Your favourite tea right now is that revolting licorice and clove loose leaf stuff you get in Seven Dials."

Answering questions John had asked not quite three days ago, Sherlock carefully cupped his husband's face with both hands, listened to his thumbs rasp across the stubble on John's jaw, then almost as softly said, "We got married in 2012, and last week for Angelo's birthday we gave him tickets to see La Bohème. The month before that we gave Greg that ridiculously large curry cookbook. And while you weren't looking I gave him that second, unopened tin of your revolting licorice and clove tea."

At that John giggled a bit, and Sherlock smiled. John giggled a little more and Sherlock grinned. Finally John went boneless and foolish and maybe kind of drunk with a fit of laughing that lasted several blissful minutes.

At the end of it John was growling and sweary. "Fuck you, you beautiful idiot. No fuck it." John arched an arm through the air, batting away every damn thing that irked him, and that was a lot—always has been, always will be.

"You're a damn miracle, Sherlock, and every time I ask you to change I think it's like…well I think it's like caging birds or putting fish into tiny glass tanks. It's like crippling something grander or freer or better because then I'll feel bigger and not as stupid today as I did yesterday."

John sucked in a quick breath, just getting started, "But I'm as dumb as dirt now and forever, an idiot because so what if you're big and I'm small? So the fuck what? And you are Sherlock, you're the biggest thing that ever was, you're—"

Sherlock pressed his thumbs over John's mouth. "No," he said, "absolutely not."

John scowled.

They've had this fight before, the fight to lay claim to who is wrong.

When he first met John the idea that one day Sherlock would argue with the man to take blame for something…well seriously, come on, are you an even bigger idiot than all the other idiots out there?

Yet over the years, as great slowly became good, that is what happened and sometimes the two of them will get so riled with one another for taking responsibility that they won't talk for entire minutes at a time.

"Not this time John, no. You don't get to—"

John mashed his forehead to Sherlock's as if he could push words into that stupid, beautiful brain. "—your letter, your email that you sent…growing up…changing…don't you get it? You shouldn't, you can't, who you are is…it's…it's…"

John clenched his teeth and stopped talking, realised he wasn't going to start again any time soon. Because John was busy trying not to god damn cry. As in had he fucking stopped since all this began?

"…it's too late John. It's too late." Sherlock's thumbs were on the move again, brushing over damp lashes. "Too late to undo terrible things but not too late to do better."

"Sherlock, you don't—"

"Babies, children, I've never known—"

"No, stop. It's—"

"—I've never known the right words to offer you," Sherlock said, his voice no louder but more insistent. "Even when I watched you look and look at a dark-haired baby, even that day when I watched you watching and saw your heart beat slow so sweetly down."

John remembered. It was a few months ago, queuing at Tesco, both of them looking at a father playing with his eight week old infant. Only apparently Sherlock hadn't watched the child, or the father's big fingers drifting gentle over the baby's tiny bud mouth. He'd watched John.

Watched eyes go heavy-lidded and soft, watched a smile flit and fade from John's face. But it wasn't until last night that Sherlock finally realised the heat-lightning of elemental thoughts that must have flashed through his husband's brain, it wasn't until last night that Sherlock Holmes at last understood that in a world where John could choose—and John could choose—the finest man Sherlock knows had chosen a life with him over meeting a fundamental human drive, he'd selected love of a man over love of a child.

And Sherlock finally knew the right words to offer this rare man.

"Children are…" Thumbs again, stroking over cheekbones and beneath eyes. "…they're the better part of you. While they're small, and innocent, and full of hope, they're who you wish you were, who you maybe used to be. When they're tiny, and their voices are sweet, and no one has hurt them yet…they're the good and the fine in us, the soft and kind, and they see and they observe, observe everything. And when they look at a bright yellow dandelion pushing through grey pavement, or a fat brown goose, or they listen to the slow splash of the river over rocks…you see and you hear those things too. You stop and you look and you see the things you've stopped seeing so long ago."

Sherlock closed his eyes, the better to see. "That's the wonderful every-day miracle, and we all yearn for the miraculous. I understand that now. And though I know you must have looked at that dark-haired baby and wished for a miracle rarer still, a child that's truly ours, yours and mine, wishing the world worked that way, that I worked that way, I know you know it doesn't and so you move on. The world's full of things we can't have, so we best learn to want the things we do. John, you moved on, you made me your miracle, and I undid all of that because…I didn't understand."

Every wound heals in its own way. For John, words are often the best salve for his pains. Words ease, restore, they fill him up in places he didn't know were empty. He needs words more than he needs just about anything. Except the man making them.

"More," he said softly.

Sherlock's heart suddenly drummed so hard and fierce John could see it in the room's muted light. He's afraid, thought the good doctor, afraid he's not saying what I need to hear.

"More," whispered John, knowing that now the words wouldn't come easy, now that Sherlock was afraid. He always lost the words when he was afraid.

"John…" Sherlock hummed the name in the back of his throat.

John closed his eyes and wondered what words he was waiting for, why he thought Sherlock had them, and more importantly, why he deserved them.

"John."

It was a little like keening, low and soft. It was almost the sound of a machine winding up or whirring down, something growing warm or cooling, it was at first unclear if it was something starting or something ending.

"I'll…always strive to be the man you…deserve. But you know there's something missing," Sherlock tapped his wounded hands against John's face. "Sometimes I don't know what's right, or if I do it's not until after, when I see your face. I don't know if they really do that thing, breaking a bone to set it right, but if there's a way…if there's…"

Anyone but John would think Sherlock's tears were for himself.

"…if you can ever figure out how to break me so that I can be set right…"

It was clear now. This was the sound of something trying to end itself, so that something new could begin.

"Shut up."

A quick breath, and Sherlock did.

Once, a long time ago, the Baker Street boys made quiet, unmannered love to one another. It was Sherlock's idea, to see if they could rouse each other by taking John's tendencies to the extreme.

I love you became shut up, yes please became suck this, and so on until they were giggling and swearing and taking turns holding each other down. It ended well.

I bring that up because this was sort of that.

"Shut up, Sherlock. Just shut the hell on up."

The silence went on for awhile and while it did John reflected how rare their silences were, how often Sherlock filled them with ideas, so many, many wonderful ideas…

"I read once that little dogs? We've bred them so small that their tiny brains simply don't have room for all the knowledge they need, the sense of self-preservation that comes standard with other dogs. That's why little dogs rush right up to big ones and bark their fool heads off—they don't know any other way."

John gently placed his hands over Sherlock's. "There's no one like you. There never will be. And the rare part of you, the thing that makes you unlike everyone else? I think it's so damned big that there's just not room for some things in that head of yours. To make you more like me, I'd have to take away some of the magic that makes you. What would the people you save say to that do you think? They wouldn't applaud the addition to the world of one more person who remembers to pick up the milk. They would mourn the loss of the only one on earth that sees a florist's poorly applied lipstick and knows where the woman hid the starving little girl. If anyone needs breaking, it's a tired man who's still learning how rare you are, how fragile, how…sweet."

"You're wrong."

John blinked fast, startled. It wasn't the words, it was their tone. Over the years Sherlock's learned the merits of honey over vinegar and so he's tamed his tart tongue. Except now, just now, it was the old tone, the certain one. The one that knew everyone else was an idiot.

"You're wrong. The world needs the kind of men who remember the milk. It needs men who pick up wayward socks—" John had scooped up a toddler's sock from the pavement one day, spied the mother ten metres distant, ran after her to reunite child with that scrap of clothing. "—who hold the door open, who sing badly so a baby stops crying."

Beneath his own, John could feel Sherlock's hands shaking.

"I've hurt more people than I've helped, John. I'm not blind: I see what I do. What I've done. I say awful things—still, I still do it, but when you're not there, not looking, not listening, did you know that?—and it's because I don't care. Because it's so much easier to get from here to there if I don't have to care."

Sherlock shook with rage against the machine…oh yes, the machine, the machine, the machine. John watched for precisely three seconds as the stupid genius ground gear against gear, as his heart revved high and his breathing came fast and then John said, "I thought I told you to shut up."

Rare grey eyes went soft and just like that Sherlock Holmes went still.

"You think you're telling me something I don't know? Of course you're a tosser. Still. But you're still awful at maths, too. Remember that time Greg asked us to bring two dozen fairy cakes to that party and you counted them out two damn times and still brought only twenty three?"

John laughed and placed both hands over Sherlock's heart, as if he could slow its beating. "So forgive me if I don't agree with your figures. You've helped far more people than you've hurt, if by hurt you mean pissed off a little. People get over that shit, Sherlock. They move on from sarcasm. But it's not so easy to move on from murder, or worse, abuse, torture. If you've saved even one soul from that misery you've earned the right to call the rest of us idiots for the rest of your life."

Words work. That's why we use them. But sometimes they need more, just a little more, so when John saw the flicker in Sherlock's eyes, the loose connection that wouldn't let him fully hear what he heard, John crawled on top of him and soft and slow and tentative the good detective slid arms around his husband, while that husband put his mouth against peppery curls laced with salt, a grin in his voice. "You've earned everything you have, Sherlock Holmes. And you've earned the very best thing there is. You've earned me."

The love was mannered. And it was slow.

It wasn't about sex right away, it was about remembering why licking Sherlock under the arm makes him whisper stop yet lift his arm higher. It was about smelling John's hair and then his neck and then back again, a fine little feedback loop indulged in for awhile.

It was about watching their fingers weave gently together as they both took hold of John. It was for closing eyes the better to hear soft moans, it was for a shifting when Sherlock knew John was near—"Wait, wait"—and for swallowing everything, all of it, then wishing there were more, more John, always more…

And then it was for staying there, a little sticky, a little wet, warm cheek to warm belly and maybe it was for wishing he really could delete things, simple as a mouse click, because then he'd eradicate the sure and certain knowledge that he had taken them to the edge of what they could—

"Oh will you never, never listen you foolish man?"

The words rumbled like low thunder, followed with the lightning skitter of laughter. "I keep telling you to shut up but you don't. Instead you think too loud, you think such silly things."

John shifted, tugged, turned, until they were again side-by-side and looking at each other. He licked his palm with cinematic slowness because Sherlock liked that, and when he was good and wet he slid his hand between Sherlock's legs.

"Nothing can end this. Nothing can end us. We're ever and always Sherlock, do you hear me?"

Quick strokes, slow strokes, over and over, another beautiful loop, and before long Sherlock was coming, and nodding yes, yes, I hear.

"Say it love."

Still breathless, Sherlock pressed forehead to forehead and whispered, "Ever and always."

"Yes."

"Ever and always."

"Yes."

"Ever," said one man, and the other replied, "Always."

I'm the skull on the mantle (or sometimes the side-table, the work bench, or in the bed (don't ask)), so I've been there for all of it, every moment.

I've listened to them cry and laugh and moan. I've refereed arguments, and accidentally started a few. I've seen my boys naked, I've heard them sing. They are mine and I am theirs and so you can believe me when I tell you three times this one very important thing…

They live happily ever after.

They live happily ever after.

They live happily ever after.

This time, yes.

THE END

I know many of you didn't want to read this…and yet you read it anyway and shared your thoughts. And such beautiful thoughts they were, thank you for that. I know there's at least one issue unresolved (John and Phoebe). Originally I wrote a fluffy ending for this story but decided not to publish it because this is the ending I far prefer. I did eventually publish the "deleted scene" elsewhere, so if you want a bit of an epilogue (think of it as a DVD extra), it's at tinyurl dot com slash Forgiveness12, or just go to chapter 40 in "Bits, Pieces, and Drabbles." Meanwhile I'd be grateful if again you shared your thoughts. And remember: They live happily ever after!