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The Slow Burn

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Sherlock always thought there would be a big, dramatic moment.

Deep within his mind palace, he pictured the two of them crashing into each other after an adrenaline-filled chase, their kisses frantic, violent with need. Unable to stop themselves, a wave of lust would carry them past the lines they had so carefully drawn around their relationship. The two of them would fall together at last, finally giving in to the overpowering desire that draws them together.

(Not that Sherlock ever contemplates things like that. Well, almost never. Well, not often. Well, not all the time, and never during daylight hours.)

But...that’s not how it happens.

In the end, the reality of it is nothing like the scenario (not fantasy, God, no; rather more like a hypothesis, yes, let’s call it that) that an ashamed Sherlock carries in his most secret heart.

It is slower. Sweeter. More deliberate.

It is so, so much better than he had ever imagined.

***

Four weeks have passed since Moriarty’s image called Sherlock back from exile, and whoever was behind the message has gone completely to ground. Every afternoon, Sherlock and Mycroft plan, hypothesise, strategise. The web of evidence pinned to the sitting room wall expands daily, but no tangible pattern has emerged, no loose string found to be pulled.

The entire enterprise is in a holding pattern. Sherlock knows that Moriarty lurks somewhere, a grinning, seething cobra, waiting for just the right moment to strike and bury his fangs deep.

Sherlock should be obsessed, consumed, unable to eat or sleep or do anything else but focus on the case in front of him.

But.

Sentiment. Stupid, distracting, frustrating sentiment. Sherlock has been contaminated by it, his mind irrefutably compromised.

Days of work grind by with no change, no new evidence, no new progress. Sherlock loses focus, finds himself distracted in a way he would never have allowed himself three years ago.

While his daytime hours remain dedicated on unraveling the mystery of Moriarty’s return, his evenings are given over to thoughts of another sort altogether.

John.

In his own careful, measured way, John is moving back into Sherlock’s orbit.

(Or maybe John is letting Sherlock move back into his orbit. Whatever. Semantics. Irrelevant.)

Something changed, it seems, some fundamental landscape within John shifted in response to the trauma and betrayal of the past months. Both of them have been demolished, torn apart over and over--and now, slowly, they are rebuilding yet again. Sherlock doesn’t have the emotional tools to ask why or understand the answer, but maybe the miracle of one last chance has resonated with both of them, because even an idiot like Sherlock can see that John is here again, now, present in a way he hasn’t been for the past year and a half.

John comes over every second or third evening after work. He makes tea and brings a cup to Sherlock without asking. He reads medical journals, sitting in his chair in front of the fire, and Sherlock pretends to ignore him half the time.

In truth, though, Sherlock is always, always measuring the slow return of John’s warm, exasperated fondness.

It thaws a deep, secret place in Sherlock’s heart that has been frozen for so very long.

The very presence of John takes up all the oxygen in Sherlock’s lungs, all the space in his brain, all the room in his heart. Some nights (most nights), the specter of Moriarty is completely forgotten as Sherlock steals glances at John’s bent head, at the rich glow of silver hair in the firelight.

I would stop it if I could, he thinks, but he knows it’s a lie. He’s different now, the change in him rooted and grown deep, and he can’t bear the thought of ripping his heart open again to pull it out.

***

“I’m starving,” John announces. “You have anything in?” He places his journal and reading glasses on the side table, stands, stretches his arms over his head until his back cracks once, twice. Sherlock mumbles a vague noise of indifference, pretending not to glance at the pale sliver of belly under the rumpled hem of John’s T-shirt. John pads into the kitchen in sock feet and Sherlock watches him, eyes tracing the outlines of his compact body, savoring his presence, wishing that he could get closer, close enough to touch, close enough to taste.

Sentiment. Sherlock knows now what will kill him, in the end.

And the worst part is this: as long as John is with him until that moment, he doesn’t even particularly mind.

***

They don’t talk about Mary.

John never mentions her, and Sherlock never asks. He knows that as much as John is choosing Sherlock, he is also avoiding Mary, putting deliberate distance between himself and the wife that has become a stranger to him. He gave her forgiveness in words, but his actions tell a different, much more difficult story.

Sherlock tries very, very hard to not feel like a second choice, a fallback position.

Most of the time, he succeeds.

***

Sherlock isn’t taking clients right now. (Nothing exists to tie him to Magnussen’s death, he is officially a free man, but he and Mycroft agreed it was wise to keep a low profile while trying to unravel the Moriarty puzzle.) There is a case, though, that he can’t bear to pass up, a spectacularly ludicrous tale that Sherlock knows John will love.

Case. Could use your assistance. -SH

Thought you weren’t taking cases.

Looks interesting. Missing girlfriend. -SH

Missing girlfriend? How is that interesting? Sounds like a matter for the police, anyway.

He claims girlfriend is a mermaid. -SH

Hmm. Okay. Give me twenty minutes.

There is no mermaid, of course. What they find instead is a gambling addict embezzling money from the family fruit and veg wholesale business, all the while gaslighting a lonely, gullible brother-in-law to distract him from the shady dealings going on right underneath his nose.

But there is a lovely chase across rain-slicked pavement, and John takes an unplanned swim in the Thames to rescue a drowning out-of-work actress in a silicone mermaid costume, and Sherlock saves them both in the nick of time, leaping in to rescue them just before the panicking woman drags John under the dark oily water.

After Lestrade takes their statements (rolling his eyes at the silliness of it all-- Jesus Christ, his face says, the two of you, where do you find these nutters?), Sherlock has to pay double the metered rate to find a cab willing to take them home in their condition, dripping wet and stinking of river mud. John laughs as he sprints to the door of 221B to claim dibs on the first hot shower as Sherlock is still peeling sodden banknotes out of his pocket to pacify an annoyed cabbie.

Sherlock is barefoot and stripped down to to his wet trousers when John comes out of the bathroom, scrubbed clean and warm and damp. He has a towel wrapped low around his hips, casually unclothed around in a way he’s never been before around Sherlock. Their eyes meet briefly, and there’s something there that Sherlock can’t quite parse.

Defiance, perhaps. Challenge.

John’s pink tongue flicks over his top lip, just briefly. “Can I borrow something to wear?” he asks. Sherlock finds a pair of pyjama bottoms that are slightly too short for him yet still slightly too long for the smaller man, and an old T-shirt of John’s that had long ago ended up in Sherlock’s laundry basket by mistake.

When Sherlock emerges later from the shower, toweling off his (blessedly mud-free) hair, the kettle is on as John texts Mary to explain how his clothes are in the washer and he can’t possibly come home tonight.

Under the warm yellow glow of the kitchen lamp, the thin fabric of the worn T-shirt stretches across the hills and hollows of John’s well-muscled shoulders.

He turns at the sound of Sherlock’s footsteps and smiles, shaking his head. “A mermaid in the Thames. This is one for the blog, absolutely.”

“I know it will be tempting,” says Sherlock, “because you are, well, you, but please try to stay away from dreadful fish puns.”

“Oh, I think I’ll throw in one or two,” says John, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Just for the halibut.”

Sherlock groans. “My friendship with you is the intellectual equivalent of a self-performed icepick lobotomy,” he says, rolling his eyes, but he can’t stop the ridiculous grin that steals across his lips.

John laughs.

Every single thing about right now, Sherlock thinks, is absolutely, utterly, perfectly brilliant.

He wishes they could stay there, in that moment, until the end of time.

***

After that night, John starts coming to Baker Street every evening, without fail.

***

Ostensibly, Sherlock and John are working the Moriarty case. In reality, in between idle speculations on the motives of whoever is behind the video stunt, they eat takeaway and drink wine and lounge in front of the fire.

The baby is due soon. Sherlock never asks. John never offers.

One night John brings Indian from their favorite place. They don’t even pretend to work on the case. Instead they sit on the couch, just a bit closer to each other than best mates probably ought, eating curry and watching Top Gear.

Sherlock takes the last samosa and complains about his cold feet and burrows them under John’s warm denim-clad thigh. John wraps his hand around a bony ankle absently, running his thumb along the hollow behind the medial malleolus.

They stay that way until John falls asleep, still touching Sherlock. When the news comes on at ten, Sherlock nudges him with his bare toes.

“You should go home,” Sherlock says, without much conviction.

John opens his eyes and blinks a few times, but doesn’t get up. He sighs, a small, sleepy sound. He turns his head, looks at Sherlock.

“It’s so hard,” he says quietly. “Going back there, pretending to feel things I don’t really feel.”

“The opposite is even worse,” offers Sherlock, not breaking eye contact.

“It is,” John agrees.

After John sits up to put his shoes back on, he reaches over and brushes his fingertips across Sherlock’s forearm as he says goodnight. Sherlock feels warmth flood into him from the touch, trickling through his veins, pooling low in a place in between his belly and spine, a sensation he never felt before he met this ordinary, extraordinary man.

***

Sherlock knows they are in a holding pattern, circling each other, waiting for something to break the orbit. He feels like he is underwater, holding his breath, unable to surface. He is dying from lack of air, but the suffocation makes him feel dizzy and lightheaded and untethered.

It’s terrible and wonderful at the same time.

***

A few nights later, midway through a bottle of Argentinian Malbec, Sherlock brings out his violin for the first time since Christmas. He starts in safe waters--Mendelssohn, Mozart, familiar pieces that John enjoys--but the red wine loosens the tight reins over his heart, or maybe that’s just an excuse, and Sherlock ventures into deeper waters, an improvisation just for this night, for the warmth of the fire, for the way he feels when John is here with him.

All the things Sherlock doesn’t know how to say pour from the strings and by the time he realizes he’s in over his head it’s far too late to take it back, so he closes his eyes and lets it all go, lets it all out.

The music flows and builds and ebbs and, finally, recedes.

Sherlock lowers the violin and opens his eyes to find John gazing at him, open and vulnerable, all his defenses lowered.

And he sees it. Sherlock observes, finally and at last.

John smiles, something small and private and for him alone, and Sherlock just...he knows. With a heart-stopping certainty, Sherlock suddenly knows.

It feels like falling off the edge of a cliff. It feels like falling off the edge of the world.

It feels like flying.

***

Before she was revealed as a liar and a fraud and a murderer, Mary used to text Sherlock all the time, chatty little notes about this or that inconsequential thing. That all stopped, of course, with the bullet she put in his chest, and he is certain she is relieved not to have to put on the act any longer.

He hasn’t seen or heard a single thing from Mary since they said their goodbyes at the airfield. Sherlock’s words to her that day were sincere--

(Oddly enough, he did have a lingering affection for Mary, does still, his hindbrain somehow holding on to the kindness she showed him, her willingness to touch him and smile at him, and what that says about his deepest nature, his desperate need for love, well, it’s just a little too frightening to contemplate)

--but he knows, now, that hers never were. Everything she ever said to him was a lie.

Sherlock wishes it didn’t hurt, but it does, a little.

The day after he spooled out his heart on the strings of his violin, Sherlock receives a text from John’s semi-estranged wife.

Are you fucking my husband?

No. -SH

Are you planning on fucking my husband?

We are both aware that’s not really up to me. -SH

When you finally do, I would appreciate the courtesy of letting me know.

In the interest of civility, I will take it under advisement. Again, however, not really up to me. -SH

Sherlock sends the final message and puts down his phone, knowing he is not the only one who sees something new and terrifying in John’s fathomless blue eyes.