A/N: This is yet another random idea that popped into my head and came out as a fic. I hope you enjoy it! It will have three chapters, all of which are already written and will be posted weekly.
If you're a fan of teenlock (or kid, parent and unilock), please check out the fan fiction recommendations blog I co-run on tumblr: fuckyeahteenlock dot tumblr dot com. We welcome all pairings (though we're mainly Johnlock).
Warnings: angst, future smut
The marks are a subject of endless fascination for ordinary people.
Women discuss them in low, conspiratorial voices between sips of overpriced cocktails. Men chortle when they spot a new one on a friend's wrist and shove each other playfully, slinging crude jokes in guttural tones. Girls giggle with delight when their first ones blaze onto their white, tender skin. They wear short sleeves despite the bone-aching chill of London's winter so they can bandy them about like blood-coloured jewellery.
Sherlock thinks they're all idiots.
Every morning he wakes and feels a familiar twinge of anxiety, an irrational pang of panic as he sits up in bed and turns his forearms over, his eyes darting quickly from wrist to elbow and back again. His skin is unmarred, of course, except for a handful of scars he earned from experiments gone awry. No new marks have appeared in the night, and logically he knows nothing could have happened to change that.
He can't help the ritual, however. It's a compulsion at this point, comparable to the violin he plays when he needs to organise his thoughts or the skull that always listens attentively. The idea that one day a bright red line—thin and short like a tally mark—might spring up on his arm, never to fade or change, is so anathematic to him, he can't stop the shudder that prickles down his spine.
He's in no danger, he reminds himself as his eyes turn towards his window. London sprawls outward like a grey jungle cat made of stone and shards of glass. The horizon is obscured by the gleaming metal of skyscrapers and the haze of impending rain. Naked trees reach towards the sky with black, bony fingers, and the people on the streets undulate in anonymous waves.
He's in no danger.
John is six years old when he first notices the neat row of red lines on his mum's arm. He's always known they were there, of course—they're so obvious you'd have to be blind to miss them—but the actual realisation of their presence is like a camera lens coming into focus for the first time.
His mum spots him staring and pauses, her hands white with a dusting of flour. Their kitchen is thick with the aroma of pies and the bunches of cinnamon sticks she's arranged on the windowsill.
"What are they?" John asks. He doesn't specify because he doesn't need to.
Honey-brown eyes study him for only a moment before she answers, "They're called Adorations. They appear on your skin when you fall in love."
John smiles, and his cheeks are plump with the roses of childhood. "Then how come I don't have one for you?"
His mother chuckles and kisses him on the forehead, smudging flour affectionately onto the tip of his nose with her thumb. "That's a different kind of love, sweet. Adorations are earned. We didn't have to do anything to love each other with all our hearts."
She hands John a bit of uncooked gingerbread, and he squishes it between his pudgy, pink-tipped fingers. "Will I have one someday?"
"Oh, love, with a heart as big as yours I'm sure you'll have plenty."
It doesn't take Sherlock long to work it out.
He may only be twelve years old, but he's far cleverer than the majority of the adults he knows. Mummy and Father had always been proud of the solitary red lines on their wrists. They were a sign of prudence and fastidiousness of character, his father told him once. They had each carefully evaluated their feelings towards others in their youth and had thus avoided the undesirable consequences of impulsive romance. Then one day they'd found each other, and that had been the end of that. A single line had formed on each of their arms, and they had enjoyed a felicitous union.
That is, until they'd hired a new groundskeeper to mind the extensive garden in the back of Holmes Manor. He was the sort of man they never encountered in their usual society: uneducated and raw, with a voice like cracking rock and thick limbs that were carved with muscle. There was no reason why he should matter in the slightest beyond the state of their azaleas.
Sherlock didn't notice at first when Mummy took to wearing long sleeves even around the house. It was February, and the air was cold enough to bite through marrow. Gradually, however, the truth was etched into the tight lines around his father's mouth and the blue-purple colour that stained the skin beneath his eyes.
Sherlock glanced across the dinner table at Mycroft one evening with a question in his eyes, and his brother slowly shook his head.
Sherlock didn't have to look to know what he would find on Mummy's arm.
The words were never spoken aloud, but they hung in the air like carcinogenic smog. In the years to come, Sherlock would often contemplate if it wouldn't have been kinder if Mummy had simply poisoned her husband. While her skin glowed with the thrill of new love, Father's grew waxen and clung eerily to his skull. The keen intelligence and dignity that were once the cornerstones of his personality faded into lassitude. His back grew stooped beneath an invisible burden, and Sherlock began to wonder if it were possible to die of heartache.
Sherlock had taken to sitting in the wooden chair by his father's bedside and reading to him from the many tomes that filled their family library. Father never so much as glanced at him no matter how he tried to engage him. He sat perfectly still with his hands folded in his lap and stared out the bay windows that overlooked the garden. Mummy spent her afternoons out there, tending the white roses that grew in abundance. Sherlock didn't want to think about what must be going through his father's head as he watched her laugh and raise perfumed blossoms to her nose.
On just such a day, Mycroft entered the room and clicked the door shut quietly behind him. Sherlock paused and glanced up from the book in his hands. Mycroft never visited Father unless he had some business to attend to. Despite the fact that he'd essentially taken charge of the estate—and was currently enrolled at Cambridge on top of everything else—Mycroft still occasionally needed Father's signature on legal documents.
Today, however, his eyes went straight to Sherlock.
"You know this could happen to us, little brother." Mycroft was dressed in a crisp grey suit that made him look much older than he actually was. His hair was slicked back, and his jacket puckered out in front over the belly fat that had been slowly accumulating since Mummy's indiscretion became common knowledge.
Sherlock didn't respond, but he raised a quizzical brow.
"Love, Sherlock, is possibly the most dangerous and unpredictable force in the universe." Mycroft began to slowly unbutton his right cuff, rolling up his sleeve as he went. "It has the power to take the most profound minds and reduce them to smouldering rubble, to shadows of their former glory." His eyes darted to their father, and Sherlock scowled. Even though Mycroft was obviously talking about him, they both knew Father couldn't hear a word. He might as well have been one of the dusty tapestries hanging on the wall.
When Mycroft's sleeve was rolled up to his elbow, he turned his wrist to Sherlock. The skin was smooth and bore not the slightest trace of an Adoration. Sherlock couldn't say if he was surprised or not. Mycroft had never displayed any romantic interest in anyone during secondary school, and it seemed a year of uni had done little to alter that.
"This is the only way to protect your mind," Mycroft said in a deceptively even tone. "It is the only way to prevent your own ruination. You'll rot just like Father if you don't guard your heart against the folly of love." He spat the word out and glared at where it hovered invisibly in the space between them.
Mycroft left as abruptly as he'd appeared, though his warning lingered. The following morning was the first time Sherlock woke in a panic and anxiously checked his arms.
John walks into his first lecture at St Bart's and nearly falls flat on his face. There's a girl—a woman, he should say—sat in the front row who he swears is the most beautiful creature he's ever laid eyes on.
Her hair is golden silk cascading down her back in sheets, and she has the end of a pen pressed delicately between two rows of straight, white teeth. She's gazing off into the distance as she nibbles on the plastic, tapping her slender fingers on the surface of her desk. John can see galaxies in her eyes, and never before has he so desperately wanted to know what someone was thinking. He would give anything, everything, to know just that one thing.
The sudden spark of heat and pain in his left arm makes him drop his books with a dull thud. He clutches his wrist and sucks in a breath, already knowing what's happening beneath the material of his jacket. It's not his first mark, but the sensation is impossible to grow accustomed to. It feels like his veins are itching, squirming like a living thing, and his heart is too big for his chest.
It's rare to have it happen from sight alone, but it's not unheard of.
When the tingling fades and he finally looks up, the woman is watching him. Her rose petal lips are curved up into an unspoken promise.
John takes the seat next to her and only barely works up the nerve to say hello.
If he never sleeps, Sherlock reasons, it can't sneak up on him.
He knows an Adoration can form at any time, but when he's awake and alert he's convinced he can thwart them. It's when he sleeps that he's vulnerable, and he must therefore reduce the risk of being caught unawares.
He turns to legal stimulants at first, but it's not long before those fail to satisfy his needs.
He never fully appreciates the irony of blunting his brain with drugs in order to keep it safe.
John isn't sure which is more bewildering: the enemy soldiers shouting at him in a garbled tongue he can't understand or the sheer beating force of the sun on his back. The steadypat pat pat of gunfire bursts in his ears as he bends over a man bleeding out in the sand. His blood is dark and thick like oil as it gushes out of him and drenches the ground. His eyes are wild with fear, and foam is drying into crust at the corners of his mouth. John presses a soaked rag hard to the wound, but nothing he does seems to staunch the hot flow. He can hear footsteps pounding around him, but the world has narrowed to the dark eyes boring into his, silently begging him to save his life.
John glances at the man's arm through the holes in his tattered army fatigues. There are only two marks on it, just under the crook of his elbow. They look pale compared to the vivid colour of his blood.
"Too soon," John whispers in a ragged voice. The man has stopped thrashing in pain, and his eyes are muddied. "You should have had so many more."
John spends a small eternity kneeling in the sand. He thinks about the blood staining his fingers and the gun at his side and the foxholes they all dug this morning, knowing they were really graves. Eventually someone grabs him and hauls him to his feet. He doesn't look to see if it's an enemy or a friend. He feels the twinge of the dozen lines on his left arm and silently thanks anyone who's listening that he's had the chance to love half as much as he has.
When Sherlock first meets John, he knows something is different. He hasn't the faintest clue what that something is, but its presence is akin to electricity sizzling all around him. The moment their eyes lock across the laboratory in Bart's, his skin tingles and the hair on the nape of his neck stands up. The undeniable existence of it perches in the back of Sherlock's mind, taunting him like Rumpelstiltskin as he tries and fails to guess its name.
Sherlock is not surprised when John kills for him mere hours after their initial meeting. The man has displayed an almost self-destructive predilection for saving others that Sherlock would sneer at if it weren't so convenient. A quick chat with Mycroft ensures that John will not be charged with the crime, and Sherlock buys him dinner.
If he checks his arm a bit more frequently than usual, it's not for any particular reason.
"He's the biggest prat I've ever met," John says to Lestrade one evening over pints. They've met up at a pub near NSY under the pretence of watching Man U slaughter Fulham, but they both know what this really is: a chance to whinge about their favourite consulting drama queen.
"No arguments here." Lestrade downs the foamy dregs in the bottom of his glass and signals the bartender for another. "Has he done that thing yet where he leaves dishes in the chairs where you usually sit—"
"—so you have to take them to the sink for him!" John interrupts. "Yes! He does that to me all the time. He knows I'll end up washing them just to keep them from piling up. I've half a mind to dump them on his bed, but then he'd probably sleep in mine, the git."
Lestrade shoots him a sidelong look, but all he says is, "Yeah, he does that to poor Molly with coffee mugs when he stays late at Bart's. Makes my blood boil, watching her clean up after him while he completely ignores her. Sometimes I wonder if he actually is a sociopath."
John swallows a generous gulp of his beer and then taps the glass thoughtfully with a fingernail. "He's not a sociopath; not really, anyway. I know he likes to say that he is, but I think that's his way of protecting himself."
"How does convincing everyone you're a manipulative bastard protect you?"
"Well, if no one ever gets close to you, they can't work out how to hurt you. Sherlock makes sure no one can break his heart by keeping everyone at a distance."
John realises what he's said a moment too late. They fall into an uneasy silence. Talking about feelings while a football match is on violates every man code in the book. Lestrade rubs the back of his head awkwardly and makes a comment about how Fulham's Midfielders must have shown up drunk, they're playing so sloppily.
John quickly agrees, happy to change the subject to something more neutral, and they launch into a detailed discussion of offensive strategy. Several hours and quite a few pints later, John says goodnight to an inebriated Lestrade who in turn gives him a much more enthusiastic hug than he would have received sans alcohol. A ten-minute cab ride leaves John standing in front of 221B Baker Street, and he tiptoes in as quietly as he can to avoid disturbing Mrs Hudson; (she's not taken her herbal soothers in weeks, and frankly everyone wishes she'd go back on them.)
The flat is silent, and silver moonlight spills across the floor like puddles of mercury. John almost dares to hope Sherlock is actually sleeping, but it's more likely he's at Bart's or digging through a skip somewhere. John removes his jacket, hangs it on the coatrack and is just about to set his keys on the coffee table when he glances at his armchair.
He'd left a plate of risotto on the worktop before he met Lestrade in the hopes of tempting Sherlock into consuming actual food. It's now half-eaten and balanced innocently on the Union Jack pillow, looking for all intents and purposes like it's about to watch some telly or curl up with a book.
John smiles despite himself. He will never admit it to Lestrade, but his annoyance at having to clean up after a grown man is often overshadowed by his pride at having got Sherlock to take care of his "transport."
Chuckling fondly, John carries the plate into the kitchen, cocoons it in cling film and sticks it in the fridge.
If he's really lucky, he'll convince Sherlock to eat the rest of it for lunch. Or at the very least to not use it to grow mould cultures.
Sherlock is lying in bed with his palms pressed together beneath his nose. He's still wearing the deep blue suit and polished shoes he'd selected for his appearance as a witness in the Machiate trial. His testimony ensured the life imprisonment of a murderer and paedophile. The satisfaction he feels at bringing the man to justice is counterbalanced by a familiar influx of boredom.
The distraction of a case is bittersweet and fleeting. His mind has reverted to the maelstrom of unbridled thought that typically dominates his cognitive processes. The firing of his synapses is tantamount to bullets ricocheting down axons and myelin sheaths. Half-formed images flicker before his eyes and dissolve into crackling static. London breathes all around him, inhaling lungful after lungful of human life and exhaling plumes of industry. The stars are dying, and so is everything else. His lifespan is seeping out of his pores, and all the king's horses cannot fit Pangea back together again.
Sherlock reaches for his phone before he entirely knows what he's doing.
I envy the quietude of your simple mind. – SH
Half a minute later, he receives a reply.
Just because I'm not as clever as you doesn't mean I'm simple. Now go to sleep.
Sherlock's lips quirk up just slightly, and he taps the reply button.
Is it nice? Being able to ignore the higher cognisant capabilities of your mind and simply fall asleep? – SH
At the moment, I really wouldn't know. And for that matter, why are you texting someone who's currently in the same flat as you? You could just pop upstairs for a chat.
Sherlock doesn't have an answer for that. He mostly attributes it to listlessness, but as always it feels like another word is dancing just beyond his grasp.
The quiet is roaring in his ears, exploding into splintered thoughts like shrapnel. They implant themselves behind his eyes and set his heart to pounding. His senses are overly sharp and vivid: the white walls burn, and sirens shriek in the night. Shadows bleed across the floor as the howling wind swells into a wild crescendo. He can hear and see and smell simply everything. His skin feels like its vibrating, trying to peel right off his bones. Information floods into his brain in a heady cocktail that makes his stomach lurch.
He sends a text without considering the wisdom of his words.
I used to use a syringe to make it quiet. Now I use you. – SH
He hears footsteps moving above him almost immediately. They bound down the stairs and kiss the hardwood floor leading up to his door. John knocks and calls his name. His voice is an IV, dripping with concern.
Sherlock doesn't answer.
He falls asleep to a lullaby of ambulance sirens and knuckles rapping against his door.
John pinches the bridge of his nose and wills himself to calm down. The shattered remains of his favourite tea mug lie in the centre of their kitchen, and he's just spent the better part of a minute working a shard of ceramic out of the tender arch of his foot.
"Why didn't you just clean it up?" he asks, struggling to keep his voice even. He's sat at the table with his leg crossed to elevate his injured foot. The flannel he's pressed to it is only barely helping. Rivulets of blood are trickling down his heel and dribbling onto the floor.
Sherlock, the absolute prick, doesn't even look up from his microscope. "I was busy."
"Not so busy you couldn't break my mug but too busy to spend five minutes cleaning it up?"
John's temper flares despite himself. "You heard me come down the stairs. Why didn't you warn me?"
"I assumed your powers of observation—limited as they are—would be sharp enough to pick up on it. In the future I'll be certain not to assign you even that modicum of credit."
"So, you just left the mess there in the hopes that I would notice it?"
"Well, to be fair, with how little you notice I never had much hope."
John's vision heaves and crackles black around the edges.
"This is bullshit!" he shouts before he can stop himself. Sherlock finally deigns to raise his head and blinks impassively. Somehow, that makes it so much worse. "I cut my foot open on a shard of something you broke, and you're saying it's my fault?"
"You should really learn to watch where you're—"
"No, Sherlock, you should learn to give a fuck about the people around you! It should occur to you that we both live here, we both pay rent and you're not the centre of the fucking universe. Not that you would know anything about the universe, since apparently even the solar system is unimportant in comparison to your massive ego."
Sherlock rolls his eyes. "Must we always return to that? Honestly, your inability to move past the subject is alarming. Or, rather, it would be if you didn't have such a markedly one-track mind. It's no wonder you can't even walk through your own flat without injuring yourself."
John is breathing hard. He knows he should stop talking before he says something he'll regret, but he can't. All he wants to do is punch Sherlock right in his pompous, condescending face. John can see his brain working behind his icy eyes. Sherlock is studying him like he's some sort of beast, one whose primitive behaviour needs to be catalogued and analysed. He obviously doesn't think he's done anything wrong. John is struck by the realisation that nothing he says will convince him otherwise. John is the idiot here, and Sherlock will never see him as anything else.
John just can't stop himself. His vision flashes red three times in rapid succession, and then he's speaking as if he can't control his own lips.
"This is why no one likes you, Sherlock." John's voice is chillingly quiet. His hands clench into white-knuckled fists at his side. "This is why they all hate you and call you a freak. You don't give a fuck about anyone but yourself, and yet you expect everyone to worship you just because you're clever. You can be as intelligent as you want, but that doesn't make you worthwhile. You're an insensitive arsehole, and you've chased away everyone who's ever tried to care about you." John swallows thickly. "Even me. Your precious brain isn't enough to make up for all your faults. You're not worth the effort, Sherlock. It's no wonder you don't have any Adorations on your arm. Who could ever stand you long enough to let you love them?"
As soon as the words leave his mouth, John knows he's gone too far.
Sherlock looks shocked. In a flash of intuition, John understands that he's betrayed some trust he didn't know Sherlock had placed in him.
The room is far too small and devoid of oxygen. The Earth is spinning vertiginously; it's broken from its orbit and is careening off into space.
John's stomach roils; he's going to be sick right here on the hardwood if he doesn't leave immediately.
John stands, wincing when he puts weight on his injured foot. He knows he should stop for his jacket and shoes, but he needs to get out of there now. He darts out of the kitchen, through the sitting room door and pounds down the stairs. When he bursts outside, the cold air doesn't bite as hard as the guilt in the pit of his stomach.
Underneath it all—the shame, the worry, the concern—however, is twisted satisfaction.
Much as he wants to believe he just lost his temper, a quiet part of him deep in his chest thinks Sherlock deserved it.
Sherlock is lying on the sofa when John finally returns. It's only been three hours, but the flat feels cold and unused with only one body in it.
John pauses in the doorway, just barely within it, like he could leave again at any moment. The thought makes Sherlock feel nauseous. John's clothing whispers a story to him: he went to a pub but didn't drink anything. He just sat in the corner and pretended to watch whatever match was playing while he got his temper under control. His fingers are twitching nervously, and he looks more tired than Sherlock has ever seen him.
"I've thought about it," John says, and his tone is as bland as the brown jumper he's wearing, "and I want to apologise. I shouldn't have said what I said, but you just—" He stops and passes a hand over his mouth. "I'm not going to sully my apology by pointing fingers or blaming part of what I did on you. I reacted a certain way, and I'm sorry I did. I hope we can move on."
Sherlock gives him a sweeping look. He sees the wear around his eyes and strain in his shoulders. John is suffering under Sherlock's care. The friendship is there, but so is the hardship. It's wearing him down, and Sherlock is doing nothing to make it easier.
And he knows it.
John sighs wearily when Sherlock doesn't respond and rubs his eyes. After a moment, he glances out the window. "It's funny."
"What is?" Sherlock's tone is dry, but he can't mask a hint of curiosity. It's unseasonably sunny outside, and the room is flooded with golden light.
"The sky." John chuckles at Sherlock's bewildered expression, and for a moment the tension leaves his face. "It's bluest at the top and grows lighter towards the horizon."
Sherlock hesitates, bemused. "If you wish for me to explain the interaction of UV rays with the Earth's atmosphere that causes this phenomenon, then—"
"No, no, none of that. I've just always found it interesting. I know the reason why it does that, of course, but it still has a certain poetry to it. The sky pales just before it hits the horizon as if it's afraid of joining the Earth. I suppose if you spend that much time high above everything, the idea of coming back down must be terrifying."
For a moment, Sherlock's mind is blank, but then understanding washes over him like cold bath water.
John gives him a small smile before he turns and heads into the kitchen.
Sherlock picks up his violin and scratches out a harsh melody.
A month passes, and John wants to believe things are fixed between Sherlock and him, but there's something niggling in the back of his mind. Something is wrong. Something has changed. He just can't seem to work out what.
It's the quiet that tips him off in the end. 221B Baker Street is practically tranquil these days, and the difference is eerie. John realises Sherlock isn't talking as much as he used to, and at first he thinks he's still angry. He thinks Sherlock is punishing him for their fight, or that he just doesn't want John as a confidante anymore. He begins to wonder if perhaps he did permanent damage to their relationship. The possibility makes his chest clench.
John tries to coax conversation out of Sherlock with interesting plant specimens and articles he clipped from the newspaper. He even goes so far as to offer to bring him to the surgery the next day so he can examine a patient's goiter. Sherlock smiles at the proffered gifts and answers easily enough, but still the silence hangs thickly in the air. John never thought he would miss the sound of gunfire in their sitting room and Sherlock shouting at the telly.
John is just beginning to panic when suddenly it clicks. He's been sleeping through the night for a solid month now. He's rejuvenated and full of energy these days. He can't remember the last time he and Sherlock had a row. How can that be?
The second he realises it, he wonders how the bloody hell he didn't notice sooner.
Sherlock isn't talking as much because he's stopped saying all the things that used to infuriate John. He's stopped shooting the walls, and he's yet to deduce anything nasty about John's girlfriend-of-the-month. It's like he's applied some sort of filter that only lets the ordinary things come out of his mouth, keeping all the bad-but-brilliant trapped in his throat.
John is so startled by the knowledge, he finds himself standing in the kitchen without entirely knowing how he got there. Sherlock is sat by the worktop with his laptop open on the table. John doesn't move, and the unnatural stillness makes Sherlock look up.
"You think you're being kind," John says without preamble. "You're trying to make it easier for me."
"Make what easier?" Sherlock asks, and John knows he doesn't need clarification. He wants to hear John say it.
"This." He gestures vaguely between them. "Us. You've cut out all the things you think I don't like about you."
Sherlock studies him. His eyes are cold, assessing him as if he's one of his experiments, and in a lot of ways John understands that he is. "Problem? I thought you would appreciate my attempt to make this a more enjoyable living experience for you."
"I appreciate you, Sherlock." John can't say why this bothers him so much, but it does. He fumbles for a moment as he tries to think of how to explain himself. "I know I complain sometimes, but I like all your eccentricities. I may not love the body parts stored next to our food, but that's just something that makes you who you are. It's like I told your brother: I'm never bored."
Sherlock's eyes have narrowed. "You do hate those things, though. You're always telling me to stop putting eyeballs in the microwave and winding up Lestrade."
"Well, yes," John replies in an exasperated voice, "but I didn't mean—"
"You didn't mean what, John? You didn't mean it all those times you told me what to do or how to behave? You told me to change every day, and now that I have, you're still not happy." Sherlock's eyes are a mixture of frost and snapping fangs. There's a challenge in them and no small amount of anger, but there's also a deep wound that John can't believe he never noticed before. "You can't have both."
John is a complete idiot.
"Sherlock," John's voice is barely more than a whisper, "I'm so sorry. I had no idea you thought that. I want you to be yourself."
"You don't like me when I'm myself."
"God, no, I didn't mean—" He sighs and scrubs a hand over his eyes. "I liked you just the way you were."
Sherlock is quiet for a long time. He's scrutinising him as if searching for signs of insincerity. John fights the desire to squirm beneath the force of his gaze.
"I mean it," John continues. "You're one of my best mates, and even if you frustrate me sometimes, nothing you do is going to change that. You're one of the most unique, interesting people I know, and I wouldn't trade my life with you for anything."
After a pause, Sherlock smiles faintly, and John feels something loosen in his chest. "All right. I'll go back to how I was." His smile turns into a smirk. "Really though, there's no need to be so maudlin about it. For a moment I thought you might actually cry."
"You're a dick," John replies good-naturedly. "And that's just how I like you." He starts to go back to the sitting room, but then he stops and turns around. "Sherlock, why did you do it?"
"Change. Was it really just to teach me a lesson?"
Sherlock considers him for a long moment before he finally clears his throat and answers, "I had every intention of making the alteration to my behaviour permanent. I didn't think you would insist I return to my prior ways."
"But why?" John is even more confused now than he was before. "Why would you do that?"
Sherlock looks like he's chewing his words before he says them. "I was concerned you would seek an alternative living arrangement if I didn't make your current one more palatable. I didn't want you to leave."
Two emotions are warring in John's chest. Part of him is touched by the gesture, and another part is overwhelmed with guilt. Sometimes he forgets how human Sherlock can be.
"I'm not going to leave, Sherlock. Not ever, if you don't want me to. I promise."
Sherlock wordlessly turns back to his laptop, and John watches his fingers fly across the keyboard. The skin on his wrist twinges faintly, as if in preparation for a touch, but the feeling fades so quickly it doesn't register.
Sherlock is bedridden, and it's misery of the acutest sort.
It was a slight miscalculation, but he's furious with himself for making it. If he'd remembered to account for the pothole that recently formed on the corner of North Gower Street, he wouldn't have twisted his ankle whilst chasing down a bond forger, and he subsequently wouldn't be dying of boredom. His stark white ceiling mocks him with its plainness, refusing to produce something interesting for him to study as he stares up at it. His arms are folded over his bare chest, and his pyjama bottoms are rolled up to his knees. If he were to glance down, he'd be able to count his ribs through his thin skin and see the sharp jut of his hip bones. His swollen, purple ankle is tightly wrapped with bandages.
Even if John hadn't confined him to bed rest, the pain is too acute for him to ignore. Every attempt at putting weight on his injured ankle results in him crumpling to the floor and howling ignominiously. His transport has failed him once again, and now he's left to simmer in the frenzy of his consciousness. Thoughts scream behind his eyes and bubble up into the back of his throat, choking him as they expand until no air is left in his lungs. He loathes this, having nothing to do, nothing to focus on. He doesn't merely like the work; he needs the work. He needs a conduit to channel his energy, and right now it's all just building in the pressure cooker beneath his skin. He can feel the press of it now, threatening to burst him like an over-inflated balloon.
There's a knock at the door, and John opens it without waiting for him to respond.
Sherlock's eyes flicker to him, and in one sweep he takes in every detail: John's been wearing the same jumper for three days (multiple tea stains of varying freshness), he ate a salmon butty for lunch (crumbs, hint of ketchup at his sleeve), Sarah isn't returning his phone calls and he's so exhausted he's nearly asleep on his feet (one is causing the other, could easily go either way).
"I brought you some books," John says in a close approximation of a cheerful tone. He stifles a yawn and smiles. "I figured you must be bored."
"Your assessment is an almost painful understatement," Sherlock rejoins, and John laughs.
"Yes, yes, I know how you are when you aren't stuck in one place. This must be agony."
He pads over and pauses for only a moment before sitting down near Sherlock's hips. He tips five books onto the bed, and Sherlock glances at them impassively. There are two of John's old medical texts, a copy of Asimov's The Naked Sun, a chemistry periodical and one thing more. Sherlock stares at it, blinking slowly like a cat as he raises himself up on his elbows.
John notices where he's looking and picks up the fifth book. He's watching Sherlock's face, clearly uncertain as to how to interpret his expression.
John is holding a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon.
It takes several seconds before Sherlock's throat stops tightening and he can speak. He asks a single question. "Why?"
"I rang Mycroft. He said it was your favourite when you were a kid." John hands him the book, and Sherlock silently takes it. "Whenever I feel ill, I read the books I loved back then. It's strangely comforting, like coming home after a long holiday. I thought you might like to give it a go."
"You didn't get this from a library," Sherlock says slowly. "Or a bookstore." He can see the book's long history in its dog-eared pages. "This is your personal copy. You've had it for years. I can tell from the scratches and cracked spine that you've read it a hundred times."
John smiles softly, and the warm affection in his eyes burns Sherlock's skin in a way he can't explain. "You're right, of course. It was my favourite book when I was growing up as well. It's a bit beat up, and some of the pages are falling out, but it still reads like it used to."
Sherlock can tell he's unnerving John with how hard he's staring, but he doesn't care. "This book has been around the world and back. You took this to Afghanistan with you." For once, it's not a deduction. It's something he can just feel.
The hand John places on Sherlock's shoulder is excruciatingly intimate. "I did. It probably sounds silly to you—I know how you feel about sentiment—but it was a great comfort to me." His smile grows like a crowning sun at dawn. "Keep in mind, I'm only lending it to you. I expect it back in one piece, and you're not to experiment on it. No analysing the glue they used to bind books half a century ago, you barmy bastard. All right?"
Sherlock doesn't say anything because he can't. This shouldn't mean anything to him, and really it doesn't. His brain is eerily quiet as he turns the book over in his hands. He knows it's nothing but a trinket, yet his heart is shrieking out his pulse in frenetic staccato. He remembers Harold and his purple crayon. He was an industrious little boy who was dissatisfied with his world, so he drew a new one. He solved problems using ingenuity and the power of his mind, and Sherlock always admired him, even when he grew up and left such childish fancy behind him.
What strikes him now, however, is an image of John as a young man, a brave soldier—crusted with blood and sand—crouching in trenches to avoid faceless enemies he must both kill and heal, and all the while he clutches a worn children's book to his heart and comforts himself with memories of a home he may never see again.
Sherlock has received many gifts in his life, from people he's helped and relatives he's never even met. Some of them were so lavish he could have sold them and lived comfortably on the profit for years.
No one has ever given him a gift like this before.
"Thank you," he whispers so softly, he's inaudible.
When he looks up, John is gone, and somehow night has fallen outside his window. His brain stays quiet as he lies back down.
He falls asleep more easily than he has in years.
It is sleep, in the end, that is his downfall.
It seems Sherlock wasn't being paranoid after all.
Sherlock jolts awake, and for a moment his brain can't make sense of what's happening. His body thinks it's falling, and there's sharp, searing pain, but that makes sense, he remembers, because of his ankle, but then why is the pain in two places at once—
The realisation shocks through him like lightning. He bolts up in bed and glances at the spot below his right wrist where his skin is smouldering, burning, scorching straight down to the bone. Though he's never felt anything like it before, he knows what it is before his eyes even focus.
The Adoration is bright orange like a glowing ember as it blazes onto his skin. It quickly darkens to holly red, and the odd, searing pain fades away. It's no longer than a few centimetres, but its rich colour makes it look like a fresh wound. He might have taken a razor blade and carved it into his flesh.
At first, Sherlock is so stunned he can only stare. Then he starts to laugh, his voice tinny and nearly hysterical.
It seems he needed to fall asleep to realise he was doing a different kind of falling.