A/N: This is the last chapter! I hope you've enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed writing it. :D
John remembers what things were like when he first returned from the war.
He was a proverbial lost soul, wandering the streets of a city he no longer belonged in, weary from battle but aching to go back. He was struggling in deep water, and just as his head went under, Sherlock appeared and pulled him back up to the surface.
He'd thought he was saved, that he'd found a new purpose in life. It had felt so good to dash through the streets of London with its maddest, most brilliant resident by his side. John had felt more alive than he had in years, flush with adventure and the scent of danger on the air.
Now, as he lies on his sister's threadbare sofa—it reeks of whiskey and sick—and stares up at her water-stained ceiling, the pain in his chest is so sharp he can feel it with every beat of his heart. He can't stop picturing Sherlock's face when he told him that he wished he didn't love him. He'd looked at John as if he were a nuisance, an uninvited guest that just wouldn't leave.
John has had his fair share of break ups in his life, and God only knows Sherlock and he weren't together in the first place, but he's never hurt this badly before. It doesn't make sense to him, how he can feel more heartache over someone he admittedly didn't love than all the people he did, but his relationship with Sherlock was always unique.
As he thinks back on their time together, it seems like a cruel joke. Sherlock gave him everything he didn't know he needed only to snatch it away again. He saved him from sinking and then left him to flounder.
John can't help but wonder—in the quiet hours of the night, as his loneliness radiates off of him in waves—if it wouldn't have been better if Sherlock had just let him drown in the first place.
Sherlock tries to imagine what the flat would look like if John didn't live there.
He scans the room from his seat on the sofa, his palms pressed together under his nose. His gaze flits from the folded newspapers on the coffee table to the mugs of tea next to John's partially-buried laptop to the abandoned cane in the umbrella stand by the door. The clutter is all Sherlock's, of course: stacks of case files, the skull, the mutilated remains of a Cluedo board, putrefied spiders and ash specimens.
It's funny, he thinks, how these things mean nothing by themselves, but when placed together they are a portrait of their life together. They speak of all the adventures they've had together and all the days when nothing more exciting happened than take-away and a film night. They are the punctuation in the story of John and Sherlock, the reminders to pause, breathe, think, to remember all the words that came before and race eagerly towards the ones that are yet to come.
Sherlock drifts over to John's armchair and picks up the Union Jack pillow, turning it slowly in his hands.
Trying to imagine the flat without John in it is like trying to imagine a painting with half the colours taken away.
John happens to look out the kitchen window while cooking dinner that night and nearly jumps out of his skin.
Sherlock is in front of Harry's house.
He's just standing there, staring at the front door. His hands are stuffed in the pockets of that ridiculous coat of his, and his blue pyjama bottoms are peeking out at his ankles. Four days without John, and it seems he's forgotten how to dress himself.
From the looks of the bags under his eyes and his sunken cheeks, he's forgotten how to eat and sleep as well. His curls are an unkempt mess, giving him the appearance of a wild thing.
John drops the spoon he's been using to stir spaghetti sauce and leans over the sink, craning his neck for a better look. Sherlock isn't coming up the walkway. He could be a black statue placed in the centre of their garden, he's so still. He looks tentative, like he's not entirely certain where he is or what he's doing. He takes a wavering step forward, and John's heart begins to race.
Just then, Sherlock glances at the window.
They both freeze. John doesn't understand how one look can simultaneously thrill and terrify him.
Sherlock's face vacillates between surprise and uncertainty before he whirls about and stalks resolutely towards the street.
John doesn't realise how hard he's gripping the edge of the sink until he lets go and has to flex his fingers to get the blood flowing again.
The O'Millan trial is tomorrow. I've been called upon to testify. Will you accompany me? – SH
Could be dangerous. – SH
I attempted to make tea this evening. It appears you are not supposed to take the tea leaves out of the bag and dump them in the water. That was decidedly unpleasant. – SH
It's your fault for buying all this bagged tea. I always used loose before you moved in. – SH
John, I'm endeavouring to re-establish communication between us. It would be immensely beneficial to my cause if you would respond. – SH
It's been eight days. Don't you think you're overreacting? – SH
Mrs Hudson brought up sandwiches, but I won't eat them unless you return. – SH
Would it help if I were to apologise? – SH
John. – SH
Please come back. – SH
John does eventually return to Baker Street.
When he walks through the door—his bag slung over his shoulder and his hair damp from the rain—the first thing he sees is Sherlock. He's standing in front of the mirror over the mantle, staring at his own reflection. He doesn't turn around when John enters the room. He doesn't move at all except for the subtle shifting of his chest as he breathes. His pale eyes are glassy and removed, as if Sherlock is actually worlds away from their flat in central London.
John watches him, silently debating if he should say something. A simple "Hello" seems insufficient, but he's too knackered to launch into an explanation of why he was gone for so long. He toys briefly with the idea of tossing out a theatrical, "Honey, I'm hoooome" to break the ice but discards it as exhaustion-induced rubbish. Sherlock hasn't so much as glanced in his direction, and John half-wonders if he honestly has no idea he's standing there.
This is ridiculous. John huffs sharply and climbs the stairs to his bedroom. It might take a few days, he assures himself, but he's certain things will grow less awkward with time.
The silence is ultimately broken that evening when John makes tea and Sherlock actually deigns to thank him.
It's slow going, with both of them dancing about each other, but eventually they fall into a semblance of their old, comfortable companionship. They laugh and watch telly and generally give every impression of returning to normal. It's a tremendous relief to them both.
Despite his best efforts, however, John can't entirely ignore the thread of tension that constantly pulls at them. It sits in the back of John's mind like a third, unwelcome tenant in 221B. He knows Sherlock feels it too. He can see it in his strained smiles and tired eyes.
Not a day passes that John doesn't curse the curiosity that made him check Sherlock's wrist in the first place.
He's starting to realise the very real possibility that they might never fully recover. He could lose Sherlock's friendship, and if that happens, he honestly doesn't know what he'll do.
Most of all, he regrets the way Sherlock looks at him now when he thinks John isn't paying attention. His eyes are so ineffably sad, they make John's heart wrench in his chest.
If this continues for much longer, one of them is bound to break. John can't begin to guess which one it will be.
"To John!" a male voice shouts from the back of the room, and two dozen people raise their glasses and chorus, "To John!"
The subject of the toast grins and raises a flute of champagne to his lips. Much as John is typically a beer man, two old mates from Bart's had gifted him with a fairly posh label, and he'd found himself surprisingly enjoying it. John's never had the classiest taste in alcohol, but he could get used to this.
John glances to his right and sees Sarah standing next to him, smiling warmly. He throws an affectionate arm around her shoulders and clinks his glass to hers. "Cheers. I'm having a fantastic time." He scans the conference room and whistles appreciatively. There are balloons of every colour floating in big bunches near the ceiling, several long white tables piled high with food and drink and a laptop set up in the corner with an 80s pop playlist blasting at full volume. "You lot did a great job. I still can't quite believe it."
"Oh, really?" she says in a teasing voice. "I was fairly certain this surprise party wasn't much of a surprise at all."
"Well," John shrugs, "I certainly noticed that people about the surgery were acting a bit odd the past few days, and I might have seen Elizabeth sneaking a cake into the back room and Jacob buying liquor from the corner shop." He winks playfully. "But honestly, I hadn't the faintest."
Sarah rolls her eyes. "You've been spending far too much time with Sherlock. Speaking of which, where is he? We sent him an invitation."
"That was actually your biggest mistake. I was there when he opened it, and he immediately started whinging about how pointless social gatherings are, especially ones that 'celebrate an event most sentient creatures aren't even cognisant enough to appreciate.' That was my first clue I was getting a party."
"Should have known. Well, that's a shame. I've not seen him in ages."
John shrugs. "He doesn't really like parties anyw—"
John staggers as someone—a very solid someone—crashes into him and crushes him into a hug.
"For 'e's a jolly good fello'!" Mike Stamford slurs, raising an entire bottle of champagne in the air. "Jolly good fellooooooo'!" His jacket is unbuttoned, and he's put on one of the ridiculous, pointed party hats that were meant to be a gag.
"Mike," John wheezes, hunching beneath the weight of his friend, "I think you may have had too much to drink."
"Nonsense!" Mike tips the champagne over John's glass—half filling it and half spilling it on the carpet—before taking a generous swig directly from the bottle. "The pa'ty's only jus' begun!"
Thankfully, John's phone chimes a second later, giving him an excuse to wriggle out of Mike's embrace and check it.
I require your immediate assistance. There's not a moment to waste. – SH
John sighs. He hasn't seen Sherlock all day, but part of him dared to hope the git would at least wish him a happy birthday before ruining his plans.
"It's him, isn't it?" Sarah sidles up next to him, strategically moving away from Mike as he stumbles back and nearly ploughs into a folding chair.
John types a quick reply and smiles sheepishly. "Yeah. I hate to run out on my own party, but he says it's important." He hits send.
Where shall I meet you? Crime scene? NSY?
Sarah can't quite hide her amusement. "He usually does. I figured this might happen. Hold on a mo'."
She disappears into the crowd just as John's phone chimes again.
At our flat, and do be quick about it. – SH
"Here we are!" Sarah says cheerfully as she reappears. She hands him a slab of cling-film-covered birthday cake on a plate.
John takes it and smiles. "You're the best. You know that, yeah?"
She leans in and kisses him softly on the cheek. "Of course, though I do wish you'd been clever enough to work that out while we were dating."
John shuffles from foot to foot. "I knew it, I just . . . ." He sighs. "My priorities aren't always in the right place, I suppose. If you'd told me a year ago that someday I'd consider it normal to leave my own surprise party and go chasing after criminals, I'd have called you mental."
"And yet here we are." Sarah's expression is knowing as she steers him towards the door. "Tell Sherlock I said hi and that he's a very lucky man."
John doesn't bother to stutter a denial. He gives her one last chaste kiss and heads out the door. He expects everyone to protest, but they're either too drunk or too accustomed to Sherlock to pay much mind to his departure.
It takes him two minutes to hail a cab (bloody bastards seem to enjoy driving right past him) and twelve minutes to get to Baker Street. Once he arrives, he throws a handful of notes at the cabby, unlocks the front door to 221B and bounds up the stairs.
"Sherlock!" he calls energetically as he reaches their floor. "I got here as fast as I c—"
He stops dead in his tracks, blinking slowly.
The charred remains of the roast Mrs Hudson brought them yesterday are laid out on their coffee table next to three large, lit candles and an uncorked bottle of red wine. There are more candles sprinkled about the flat, illuminating it in soft, warm light. There are a few more bowls and plates on the coffee table, but he can't make out what they contain. One is filled with some form of brown goo and another almost appears to be full of courgettes, if they were chopped up and then boiled into oblivion.
Sherlock is standing near the mantle with his violin tucked under his chin. He's wearing expertly-tailored black trousers that emphasise his long legs and a tight, silvery-blue dress shirt. He pivots slowly until he's facing John, a small smile tugging at his lips. The candlelight gives his skin a pearlescent tone, and his shirt makes his eye colour practically glow.
John's mouth goes dry for reasons he either can't explain or won't. It takes him an embarrassing ten seconds to collect himself and shake his head as if dispelling a vision.
John is just about to ask him what the hell is going on when Sherlock places his bow delicately to his violin's silver strings.
Slowly, and with more beauty than John would have thought possible, Sherlock plays a sonorous version of a very well-known song: Happy Birthday. His fingers slide through scales and flourishes, adding layers of sound to the melody. He lingers on some notes and just barely flirts with others. John would never have thought it was possible to take such a simple tune and make it so complex, but then he'd never before known a man like Sherlock Holmes.
When he finishes, John sets his cake down and applauds vigorously, his appreciation for the performance overriding his confusion.
"That was wonderful, Sherlock," he says, and then gestures at the table. "Is this for me?"
"It is," Sherlock says, setting his violin on John's armchair and striding over. "I researched popular ways to celebrate birthdays on the Internet, and several reputable sites suggested dinner. Unfortunately, my cooking skills have never been the most remarkable." He stoops down to pick up the bowl of what John is now certain is soggy courgettes and eyes it, frowning slightly. "It may be best if we dine out this evening."
John blinks. "You tried to make dinner? Now there's a first. I'm fine with take-away if that's all right." He's debating the virtues of Thai versus Italian when he remembers the text Sherlock sent him. "But what about the case? You said it was important."
"Ah, yes." Sherlock puts the bowl back in its place and heads towards the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, "That was a bit of a ruse of my part. I was merely excited to give you your gift and wanted you to hurry home."
He returns a moment later with a small package wrapped in simple brown paper. He holds it out to John, but the other man can only stare stupidly at it.
"You . . . got me a present?"
"I believe that's rather obvious at this point."
John's brain struggles to wrap itself around the concept. "That's very, well, thoughtful of you."
Sherlock's frown deepens. "Try not to sound so bewildered."
"Right, right." John takes the package and smiles. "Sorry, I'm just surprised. Thank you, Sherlock."
He tears the paper eagerly open, wondering what his mad flatmate could possibly have bought him. It's probably a frog's heart or a new set of test tubes for their kitchen/laboratory.
When he rips the last of the paper away, it takes John a moment to process what he's holding. In his hands is a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and at first he thinks it's new.
Then he realises it's the same one he lent to Sherlock when he twisted his ankle, only it looks as if it's never been handled before. The cover is glossy, and the colours are as bright as if they were just printed. The little scratches and nicks have been mended; even the pages that were falling out have been secured with new binding. It's as if Sherlock has gone back in time and retrieved his favourite childhood story precisely as it was when he first read it. John opens the cover and listens to the satisfying crack as the spine bends for what seems like the first time. His name is still written on the inside in the messy scrawl of a young boy. Holding it now, he feels like he's eight years old again, and his mother has just handed this to him after a thunderstorm left him huddling under his bed. At the time, he'd imagined what he'd do if he had a magic crayon like Harold's. He'd draw a perfect, sunny sky every day and make himself a brave knight who slayed dragons and laughed at monsters. He'd never feared thunderstorms again after that.
Now, as John holds the book that inspired him to make his life what he wanted it to be, a different kind of fear lifts off his shoulders and dissipates into the air.
John is utterly speechless. He knows Sherlock is watching him, waiting for him to say something, but he can't seem to make his voice work.
Eventually, Sherlock says, "Do you like it? I rang in a favour from an old friend who works in book restoration. Well, when I say friend." His tone is so uncertain it snaps John out of his stupour.
"Sherlock," he breathes, raising his eyes to look at the man before him one infinitesimal degree at a time, "you really love me, don't you?"
It's Sherlock's turn to be rendered speechless. His eyes widen in a way that would have been comical had the situation been less tense.
"I mean, I know you do," John continues, gently, cautiously, as if his words are the only thing keeping him balanced on the edge of a blade. "The Adoration made that much obvious, but . . . you ignore your 'transport' so much, I never quite believed it. I thought this was another one of those things you could just force yourself not to need, like eating or sleeping, and at first it seemed I was right, but—" He looks down at the book again and strokes a thumb lovingly over its cover. "But this, this is the most thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me. This is real."
He peers up into Sherlock's unreadable blue eyes and says, "Isn't it?"
Sherlock is quiet for what feels like ages, and John's heart begins to sink in his chest. He may have made a grave miscalculation. They're supposed to be pretending the Adoration doesn't exist, that they're still just flatmates and friends. The problem is John can't decide if it's truly better to pretend than to be honest about his feelings.
"Please," John whispers, his voice steady despite the maelstrom of jumbled emotions raging within him. "Please tell me this is real."
Sherlock hesitates, searching John's face as if it will tell him what to do. He looks as lost as John feels, and it seems entirely possible that he may walk out the door right now.
But then he leans down, achingly slowly, and presses his lips to John's ear.
"It's real," Sherlock whispers, his warm breath tickling against him.
Suddenly, words aren't enough. John knows it's foolish and that Sherlock might hate him for it, but the impulse surges into him so strongly he can do nothing to stop it. John sets the book carefully on the table and then grabs Sherlock's face in his hands, kissing him fiercely.
Sherlock makes a soft uumph sound as their mouths crash together, and John jumps at the opportunity to dip his tongue past his parted lips. He tastes like tea and the toothpaste they share. John digs his fingers into his dark curls and kisses him with all the pent-up frustration the past few weeks have built in him. The feeling of warm, soft flesh against his is every bit as perfect as it was when they first kissed, and he presses forward, eagerly seeking more. To his immense surprise, Sherlock kisses him back with alacrity, moulding their bodies together as his tongue darts out to swipe wetly at John's bottom lip.
The kiss is desperate and deep, the proverbial opening of the floodgates. They tear at each other's clothing, desperate to get at the hot skin beneath it. John feels cool air against his chest as Sherlock's nimble fingers make quick work of his button-down shirt. It's wrenched from his shoulders just as his hands find Sherlock's belt and fling it open, yanking it from the loops. There's no time to think; they need this now. Desire, heady and intoxicating, pumps into John's veins, making his head spin with the potency of it.
Sherlock is pressing forward, crowding him backwards until he hits the wall. John can feel Sherlock's thickening cock pressing against his belly, and he cants his hips up until his own presses against a hot thigh.
"Oh God," he groans against soft lips. The friction is too much, but he can feel the heat of Sherlock's body through his trousers, and it makes blood surge into his cock.
"John," Sherlock gasps, "John, I want—" He breaks off when John slides his zip open and shoves a hand into his pants, palming him. He's too lust-addled to put any real finesse into it, but that seems to spur Sherlock on. The man is positively vibrating with pleasure, his head thrown back to expose the creamy length of his neck. John wants to enjoy this, to wring every drop of pleasure from the walking wet dream now clinging to him like he's the only source of gravity in the universe, but he's so aroused he's dizzy. This is not going to be a slow and sensual bout of love-making. They need to get off right fucking now, or surely they'll both burst.
"Just, please, just let me," John babbles, half-incoherent with need, as he pulls himself out of his pants and lines his prick up with Sherlock, "like this. Oh God, Sherlock, yes." John has them both in hand and is stroking them with long, languid pumps. Sherlock is quivering against him, gripping his shoulders so hard it hurts, but John can't bring himself to care. Sherlock is a panting, writhing mass of flesh, moaning like a wanton thing. His voice is so deep and velvety it's obscene. John thinks he could come from the sound of it alone, though the feel of Sherlock's hot, heavy prick rutting against his is a welcome addition. They're slick with sweat and precome, and John moves his hand faster, fisting their cocks tightly. He spasms as his fingers roll over the fat heads of their cocks, the pleasure so sharp it's almost too intense. He feels as though a slight breeze would be enough to make him come right now, but he needs to see Sherlock first.
He slides his now-wet cock out of his hand and focuses solely on Sherlock, pumping him quickly at the base and tugging the foreskin just enough to make the other man shudder. Sherlock's eyes are clenched shut as if he can't bear the sensations coursing through him. His mouth is hanging open, and a gush of half-formed words and desperate moans are pouring freely from him.
Just as John thinks he could watch him like this forever, Sherlock cracks one bleary eye open and says, "John" in a voice so shattered, so utterly wrecked, they both know there's no hope for them left. His orgasm overtakes him, shuddering through the length of his lean body in a way John can only describe as beautiful. The sight sears into John like a physical touch, and even without a hand on his cock, it's enough to send him over the edge.
John doesn't come so much as dissolve into pleasure. He's vaguely aware of warmth and wetness blossoming on his stomach, but his world consists of the dancing black spots clouding his vision and the impossible solidity of the body against him. Sherlock has converted his name into a vibration, and it buzzes just beneath his skin.
It feels like an age passes before John's breathing slows and he can make sense of what he's seeing. Sherlock is resting his forehead on his shoulder, his mouth open as he breathes heavily. They're both half out of their clothes and gleaming with sweat.
Despite the lack of technical prowess and the fact that they both lasted all of eight minutes, it was easily the best sex John had ever had.
Now that the post-coital glow has faded, however, he knows they need to talk.
"Sherlock," John says quietly. The other man doesn't respond, so he nudges his cheek with his nose. "Sherlock, you don't have to say anything if you don't want to, but there's something I need to say."
Sherlock grunts, which is about as much affirmation as John could have hoped for.
He inhales slowly and takes both of Sherlock's hands in his. "I remember what you said before, about how you didn't want to be in love and that you regretted it. If that's still how you feel, this can be a one-off. I'll never bring it up again. I'm too proud to pine after you if you don't want me. I hate pretending we're just friends, but I'd hate myself even more if I forced you to be with me if you don't want to be."
He pauses, swilling his words about in his mouth. "But . . . can you honestly tell me you regret this?" He waves vaguely at the flat, at the amalgamation of all their time together. "Our friendship? The life we have together? Do you really regret me?"
The silence that falls between them is deafening. John feels like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. His heart is beating even more wildly now than it was before. Sherlock still has his head on John's shoulder, but now his body is rigid with tension.
Gradually, he looks up. His eyes are whirring with some unfathomable emotion. John's never been so afraid of another human being in his life. He's starting to understand why Sherlock avoided falling in love for so many years.
After a long moment, Sherlock lets out a sharp breath, and then a smile ghosts across his lips.
"I could never regret you, John."
The words make something like sunlight burst in his chest. John's momentarily too stunned to respond, and Sherlock takes advantage of his silence to say, "I thought my feelings would fade with time, but now I know there's a reason why Adorations never go away. Love can change, people can part ways and move on, but the ones who make it into our hearts are always in there somewhere. I don't know what I'd do if you weren't in my life anymore. I—" His voice breaks, and for a moment he looks so terrified, John squeezes his hands reassuringly. "I'm terrified of how much you could hurt me if you wanted to, but," he inhales sharply and squares his shoulders, "but I trust you not to. There's no one I feel safer giving my heart to. I know you'll take care of it. I don't regret this, John. I love you."
John's heart lurches strangely in his chest, and for a moment he thinks he's ill. Then his left arm blazes with a sharp burning sensation that is all-too familiar. He jerks it up without letting go of Sherlock's hand, baring their tender flesh. On his left wrist, in a precise mirror image of the one on Sherlock's right, is a new Adoration, glowing like an ember amongst the dark red of his others.
"Sherlock," John mouths, too stunned to form the sounds properly. There's light bubbling beneath his skin and electricity crackling down his spine. He's never felt anything like it before, yet he recognises it instantly. "God, I love you, too. I love you so much."
When he looks up, Sherlock is staring at his wrist with wide, child-like eyes. "I never thought . . . ." he whispers. "I mean, I would have been happy just to have you with me. I never thought you would—"
"Shut up, Sherlock," John says gleefully, tugging the other man closer. He aligns their wrists and presses them together so their Adorations fall perfectly in place. "Shut up, and kiss me."
For once, Sherlock obeys without complaint.
Years later, Sherlock lies on his stomach in bed and watches the steady breathing of the man sleeping next to him. Soft, morning light filters through the window and alights on the body of John Watson like so many fireflies. His face is slack and youthful in sleep, though every now and then his eyes crinkle at the corners as if his dreams are bringing him some hazy delight. It's quite possibly the most beautiful thing Sherlock has ever seen.
He strokes the single line on his wrist, the final proof that Sherlock Holmes has a heart after all. It's as bright and crisp as it was the day it burned into his skin. He'd thought then that it would be the ruin of him, and in many ways it was. The work is no longer the only love in is life, and the many long hours he once spent on experiments and seven-percent solutions have now been replaced with cups of tea and film nights in the flat. He still remembers the life he had before: a life where he'd never had to share any part of himself with anyone else, and he'd convinced himself it was for the best. But now, as the days they've had become memories and the days they will have sprawl invitingly out before them, Sherlock thinks to himself that if all he ever does is ensure John Watson never needs to earn another Adoration, his life will have been a good one.