The nights are cold here, in the Southern Carpathians, so late in the year. Sherlock shivers beneath the meagre layers of clothing and threadbare blanket he managed to nick in the last village, and tries to focus on anything but the numbness of his toes and the biting wind whipping down the river and under the rickety wooden bridge he’s installed himself beneath for the night.
Rain is coming. Rain that will most likely turn to sleet in the wee hours if the temperature continues to drop.
He has been on the road for two years, and he is exhausted. There has been a litany of unremarkable stops along the way—a modest hostel just outside Paris, an adequate but cold flat in Berlin, a draughty monastery in Tibet, a 200 year old house in St. Petersburg, and for the last four months, village after muddy village in the wettest autumn Serbia has seen in years.
In the beginning there had been purpose to keep driving him, the need to eradicate Moriarty’s far flung network of hackers, thieves, and assassins, to sever every last thread of the vast web he had built up throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. It needed to be done so that John would be safe, so that Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade would be safe, and yes, even so London would be safe. It needed to be done so that Sherlock could go home again without the ever present spectre of Moriarty casting its bleak pall over everything that home had come to mean.
But that was over two years ago, and none of it seems very worthwhile anymore. Whenever he thinks he’s cut off the last limb, his brother is there to inform him of another. He’s almost accepted that he will never see London (John) again—almost. But then there are nights like tonight, when he is weak, and all he can think of is the warmth of the flat they once shared, the crackle of the fire in the hearth, the teasing smile playing at the corner of John’s lips, the boxes of half-eaten Chinese takeaway balanced precariously in their laps. He aches at the memory of it, at the realisation that it is something he may never experience again.
He is going to die here. He is almost sure of that, now. His presence and purpose has been discovered, and he can only run for so long. He’s tired of running. Better to just accept his fate, and have it all over with.
He thinks of John back in London. What would he be doing just now? Sleeping? Perhaps he has given up the bed upstairs and moved into Sherlock’s bigger room and bigger bed on the main floor. Perhaps he is unable to sleep and he is up reading one of the cheap spy thrillers he so favours, or watching some crap thing on the telly. Perhaps he spares Sherlock a thought now and again. Perhaps… But two years is a long time, and Mycroft is never forthcoming with information, only that John is safe, and well, and is nothing for Sherlock to concern himself with.
A rustling in the woods behind him yanks Sherlock out of his head and slams him violently back into his skin. A branch snaps, there is the unmistakable murmur of hushed voices on the wind.
Time to go.
He’s lost track of time. There is pain, and then a day or two of recovery during which the pain peaks and just begins to subside, before he is dragged back in for another interrogation. They don’t hold back. They have nothing to lose but him and he doesn’t seem to be of all that much value.
It rains constantly.
It is always damp.
The cold never abates.
He dreams of the lounge at Baker Street.
When he curls into a tight ball on the icy, concrete floor of his cell and weeps, it is the warmth of the fire and the site of John across from him in his broken down, damask chair that keeps Sherlock from giving up entirely.
They didn’t take his belt. They allow him a fork when they push a plate of cold mućkalica into his cell every two days. They are leaving the door open for him to end it, which means that whatever information they think he has, it is not that essential to them. They’re just toying with him for the sheer pleasure of it.
He could give up. Sometimes he doesn’t know why he doesn’t.
But then he remembers John, and Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade. His death now would make no difference to them, of course. They already think him dead. But it seems wrong somehow, especially when it comes to John, to leave him twice, whether he knows it or not. And so Sherlock fights, he stays, he lives for John.
But still—sometimes he wishes they would take the choice from his hands. Sometimes he wishes they would just kill him and be done with it.
It’s not home, but it’s warm. The backseat of a luxury sedan. Heated. Leather. His brother sitting across from him in some ridiculous Russian military kit, a frown permanently etched on his brow.
“It appears they didn’t feed you much.”
Sherlock doesn’t say anything. If he’s quiet it gives the illusion of anger, or even pettiness, rather than the truth—the reality that if he were to open his mouth in an attempt to reply, all that would come out would be a choked sob, followed by more which he knows would swiftly escalate out of his control. And so he is quiet and still as the sodden countryside races by outside the window, illuminated only by the first grey light of dawn.
He unclips his seatbelt and lays down on the warm leather, turns his back to his brother, and drifts into a fitful sleep in which he dreams of London—the wet streets, the distant, late night hum of traffic, the thick walls of Baker Street insulating him and John from the dangers of the world outside.
It’s November. London is cold and grey, but at least it’s clean, and brisk, and bustling. Sherlock stands on the roof of the SIS building and looks down at Vauxhall Bridge and the Thames. John could be down there, driving past in a cab at this very moment.
Or perhaps he is back at the flat. It is a Saturday. He won’t be working. He likes to do laundry on Saturdays, and go to the shops for food. If Sherlock went to the Sainsbury’s Local, right now, he might see him browsing the produce and trying to decide between the quality yogurt or the store brand.
Sherlock’s weak yet, there are London doctors to see, and tests to be run, and then there is his brother, and his questions, and the hours and hours of paper work… But they aren’t things Sherlock cares about. He wants to go home. He’s waited two and a half years to go home, and finally there is nothing to deter him but the medical and clerical incompetency of her majesty’s government. Well, her majesty’s government be damned.
He’s put in his time.
He’s going home.
The outside of the flat looks the same as he steps out of the cab. Speedy’s is still there. The front door is still painted black, and the knocker is still crooked, telegraphing John’s presence more clearly than anything else possibly could.
Sherlock had been nothing but eagerness on the short drive over, but now that he is here, standing on the pavement and staring up at the windows of the flat (curtains curiously drawn at eleven o’clock in the morning), he suddenly feels uncertain.
Mycroft had warned John, called him well over a week ago from Požarevac (even though Sherlock had wanted it to be a surprise). He hadn’t told Sherlock what John had said, and Sherlock had been too furious to ask, but now he wishes that he had. It never occurred to him that perhaps John might not be happy to see him. Perhaps he is angry. Understandable.
True, John is strong, the doctor and the soldier in him used to death and loss, and it is likely he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and got on with life in very short order after Sherlock left. But still… Necessary though it was, his fake death was a sort of lie, a betrayal of a kind, and John being John, loyal as he is… Well, to him it may be something considered unforgivable.
Sherlock swallows dryly. Should he pop into Speedy’s and grab a coffee and scone as penance? Should he knock on Mrs. Hudson’s door first? Would John have told her? Surely…
He should get coffee and scones. He should. But really, coffee and scones can hardly make up for two years absence, can they?
The front door flies open, startling him, and he is met not with John, as he had hoped (dreaded?), but with a misty-eyed Mrs. Hudson. Her hand shakes as she lifts it to point a finger at him. “I am very angry at you, young man. Very angry, do you understand. Do you have any idea what you’ve put us through?”
“Get in here this instant!” Mrs. Hudson glances towards the heavens. “It’s going to rain again, and I don’t want you tromping wet footprints all over my floors.”
He goes, but mostly because he can smell all the scents of home rushing out the door to meet him at once: ginger biscuits and furniture polish, the slight mustiness that all old buildings in this part of London have, Mrs. Hudson’s light, flowery Lily-Of-The-Valley perfume, and John…
As he steps into the dimness of the foyer, he can smell John everywhere. But not the clean, bright sent of Pear’s shampoo and Palmolive soap, warm wool and fresh brewed tea, no this is the stale, unwashed smell of the sickroom, the unmistakeable reek of alcohol, old newspapers, and unwashed dishes.
Mrs Hudson is still talking, he suddenly realises, and he’s not heard a word. “John?” Out of his lips before he realises, and Mrs. Hudson’s face does something he can’t interpret. Her hand is resting lightly on his forearm, where he has it crossed across his chest, eyes cast up the stairs.
“It’s been a shock. He’s—he’s not been living here, you see. He moved out less than a month after you… He said he couldn’t bear it, but then I insisted he come back last week when your brother called. He’s not—he’s not been himself since you left, and he’s been worse since we got word. I don’t think he’s slept. He just sits up there, in your old chair… I think he’s waiting for you.”
Mrs. Hudson gives his arm a light squeeze. “You and I are going to catch up later, you mark my word, but right now I think he needs to see you more than I do, so off you go. No more stalling.”
Sherlock blinks down at her, suddenly terrified.
She squeezes his arm again. “On you go. You owe it to him, Sherlock. On you go.”
And then she turns around and leaves him standing alone in the foyer, staring up into the dimness beyond. It's started to rain again, and there are no lights on upstairs. John is up there somewhere, sitting alone in the dark.
(he couldn’t bear it)
Sherlock steps forward. The first stair squeaks (still; just as it always has). He freezes, and there is an answering whisper of a sound from upstairs, fabric against leather? John is in his chair, sitting there, waiting. All this time waiting.
Each step feels weighty and impossible, but he makes it, of course he does, because John is waiting, has been waiting for two and a half long years, and when he reaches the top of the stairs, he takes a deep breath, strides forward to the entrance to the lounge, and stops dead, breath caught in his throat.
There is someone in his chair—frozen, glass of scotch in one hand, beard concealing the contours of his drawn, grey face, a new pair of jeans and an old button down shirt hanging from his too-thin frame. He stares straight ahead, doesn’t even bother to look Sherlock’s way, and Sherlock feels ill, lost, desperate to somehow make it all right, even as he realises that something has been broken irreparably, that things may never be alright between them again.
He wants to speak, but there is nothing to say, and they have never really done well with words anyway.
Instead he takes off his coat, folds it in half and lays it atop the haphazard pile of newspapers on the coffee table. He walks across the room, and stands a foot from the arm of his chair, a foot from John’s small, capable hand, gripped white-knuckled around the glass tumbler he’s holding. John doesn’t move, doesn’t blink, doesn’t give even the slightest indication that he is present at all. If not for the fact that Sherlock can see the gentle rise and fall of his chest, he would almost fear the worst.
He takes a step closer, leans down and carefully lifts the glass from John’s hand, sets it on the cluttered, dusty desk, and then comes back around to stand in front of him. John stares at his legs. Perhaps he thinks that he is a ghost, that if he ignores him, he’ll just go away. But Sherlock isn’t going away, not anymore, not ever if John will deem to let him stay.
After a minute more of utter stillness, utter silence, Sherlock drops to his knees on the carpet, trying not to wince at the pain still shooting through his joints with every movement, trying desperately to quell the images that rise, unbidden, of concrete floors, wet, and stained with his own blood and urine. He’s home now. These floors are wood, worn with age, and covered over with soft carpet, faded and stained with tea, and soy sauce, and any number of chemicals Sherlock wasn’t as cautious with as he should have been.
He kneels in front of John, and reaches out, lays a hand on one of John’s knees.
John looks down at it, and Sherlock feels a wave of relief pass through him. There is so much to say, but words are so foreign between them now—with Sherlock a spectre, back from the grave, and John a mere shadow of the man Sherlock had left behind.
And so Sherlock sits back on his heels, slides his hands up John’s thighs, and leans down to rest his head on John’s knee. His chest feels tight, the still raw wounds on his back sting and ache with the pull of his shirt across them, and his eyes burn.
Still John doesn’t move. He doesn’t move.
Perhaps John isn’t really here. Perhaps only his physical body remains, and all that was the John Sherlock knew died that day at Barts. Sherlock feels ill at the thought. He will stay then. He will stay and care for what is left of John, because what else can he do. What else can…?
A hand settles on the top of Sherlock’s head.
He can’t breathe.
John’s fingers stir between the strands of his freshly washed hair. They stir, and then they fist suddenly, an ache against his scalp as his hair is pulled tight and his head eased slowly back.
He meets John’s gaze, unwaveringly. It’s soul crushing, terrifying, but it’s what John deserves—honesty, accountability. This is Sherlock baring his throat. Do with me what you will.
And what John wills, evidently, is just to look. His eyes travel over Sherlock’s face, down the line of this throat, over his chest, and all the rest of what he can see with Sherlock seated before him in such a way. When his eyes finally return to Sherlock’s something has changed. His grip in Sherlock’s curls loosens, he combs a hand once through Sherlock’s hair, and then cups his face for the briefest of moments, pulling away the second Sherlock leans into his touch.
He pushes Sherlock away. It’s not sudden, it’s not rough, but it’s firm. He pushes Sherlock away, and gets to his feet, and then he pauses, looking down at him for a moment before extending his hand.
Sherlock takes it, let’s John pull him to his feet, lets John lead him down the hall to his bedroom, let’s him push him down to sit on the edge of the mattress, let’s him remove his jacket, unbutton his shirt.
He shivers, and John says nothing, just pulls the front of his shirt open with one finger, and frowns at the bruising painting Sherlock’s ribs. He goes around the other side of the bed, crawls across the mattress and settles behind him. When he peels the shirt from Sherlock’s shoulders, Sherlock hears the breath he sucks in, sudden and rough, like he’s been punched in the gut. It’s quiet for a long time, and then John sniffs, tight and determined, and lays a warm hand on the only bit of Sherlock’s shoulder not stitched or bruised.
“They should have done a better job. It will scar.”
“I know.” He relishes in the way John’s fingers curl into the meat of his shoulder at the sound of his voice. He shivers again.
“It is what it is, now. I’ll keep an eye on it.”
John’s hand disappears and lights again at the base of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock jumps, and John’s hand settles, strokes once, up into the hair at his nape, and down again. “You’re home now. You should…”
John’s hand disappears, and Sherlock’s neck feels naked in it’s absence. “You fucking well should be.”
“I kn—I know.” He chokes on the words, has to swallow back the lump rising in his throat.
John sighs, and Sherlock hears him rub a hand across his face. “Rest now. We’ll talk later.”
John sucks in a breath, huffs, in disbelief, no doubt. What right does Sherlock have to be asking anything of him, after all? None. None, and that is why John is leaving, getting up off the bed, coming around to face him.
John pushes past him, and peels back the blankets. They’re dusty, and stale, but they look so inviting Sherlock could cry.
“Trousers off.” And then John is moving across the room to the dresser, fishing through the top drawer, coming back with a white t-shirt. Sherlock steps out of his trousers, leaving them a heap at his feet, and shrugs into the t-shirt John holds out to him.
John nods toward the bed, and Sherlock gets in, obediently.
He watches John pick up his trousers, fold them, and lay them across the chair by the wardrobe, watches him draw the curtains in front of the window, watches him walk to the door, and shut it—still inside.
He walks back to the other side of the bed, pulls off his belt, and toes off his shoes, but leaves the rest of his clothes on as he crawls onto the bed and pulls the bedspread up from the foot of the bed, to cover himself.
He settles. The room is quite and half-dark around them. The patter of the rain outside is a comfort rather than reminder of his own misery, the sound of John’s breathing and the warmth of his body just behind him is an anchor. And when the radiator knocks to life, and the sounds of Mrs. Hudson’s television drifts tinny and muffled from downstairs, it suddenly hits Sherlock full force that he he’s home. This is London. This is his cluttered, dusty, homely flat. This is John Watson, curled at his back, a comfort and a shield. He’s safe.
It’s a flood, quiet and contained, but unquellable, and John, John being John, must sense it, because he draws closer, presses his forehead to the top of Sherlock’s spine, and stays.
“Sleep. I’ll stay. Just sleep.”
When Sherlock’s shoulders shake, John’s arm lifts to settle lightly across his waist, John’s body spoons gently with his, John’s pulse and breathing become guide and template to his own.
“Sleep…” Whispered against his nape.
John is trembling, but he’s staying. John’s voice is rough and raw, but gentle and sure all the same. “It’s okay now. You’re home. It’s okay.”
Please check the tags. Several new tags have been added due to John's grief coming to a head in this chapter, in a pretty dramatic way. If raw grief and grieving, or dissociation are upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to avoid this chapter.
Though this chapter is a bit rough in spots, if you know me and my writing, you know this is heading toward lots of love and healing. Always that. Promise.
“You’re the worst thing to ever happen to me.”
John’s ghost murmurs between Sherlock’s shoulder blades, against scarred flesh. It’s low enough to almost be a whisper. It’s the sort of thing not meant to be heard, but Sherlock does.
It’s not the first time the John in his head has said something of this kind. It’s only true after all. John’s voice—always there, always brutally honest, keeping him centred, keeping him alive: “Cocky. Show off. Machine!”
“You’re the worst thing…” Warm forehead pressing in, an arm tightening around his waist. “And the best.” Hot breath against his nape.
Not a ghost. Not this time.
“Couldn’t do it without you. Tried. Couldn’t.”
He thinks Sherlock is still sleeping. Sherlock lets him.
He stirs a few minutes later, feels the loss when John instantly rolls away. John stays, though. He lets Sherlock wake up slowly, before saying his name, tentative and quiet. Sherlock keeps his eyes closed a moment more, relishing in the way his name sounds filling John’s mouth. Finally, he hums and cranes his neck to glance over his shoulder, instantly regretting it with a hiss.
John sits up, gets up, comes around his side of the bed, and sinks to his knees, takes in every visible inch of Sherlock in slow, thorough examination. “You’re going to feel it in the morning for a long time. Take it slow. I’ll make you breakfast.”
There’s a beam of sun peeking through the curtains, dust motes floating in a swath that cuts the velvet black, and warms Sherlock’s calves where it falls on the bed. It’s more direct light than there had been the day before, when he’d arrived at the shuttered flat. He sees John properly; sees him for the first time.
There are heavy, dark bags beneath his eyes, wrinkles too. The beard he sports is long and unkempt, and his hair is wholly silver. His shoulders lie low, heavy and burdened, and Sherlock wonders why he feels so much when he looks at the shadows, and lines, and furrows, why they seem like the saddest and most beautiful things he’s ever seen.
“John…” His voice is gravelly with sleep and disuse.
John stops at the door to the bedroom. “Mmm?”
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.” It almost seems too intimate the minute it’s out of his mouth, but there’s no taking it back now.
John self-consciously lifts a hand to his beard, smooths his fingers over it, and then up through his limp, unwashed hair, slicking it back. “Some sight.” He grins, but it’s more tentative and sad than the tease he no doubt meant it to me.
Sherlock smiles back. “Better than cold concrete.” And it falls flat, too. A dark, raw reminder of everything that lies between them.
John scratches his neck, and looks away. “You want a fry up?”
“Tea and toast would be better.”
“Yeah. Okay. Tea and toast.”
John brings it to him in bed on a bamboo tray he surely must have had to borrow from Mrs. Hudson. The tea is perfect. The toast is spread liberally with jam, and John brings in a mug for himself as well, crawls back onto the bed, and reads the morning paper, while Sherlock eats. They sit in absolute silence, save for the sound of Sherlock chewing, the soft rustle of the newspaper now-and-again, and the hum of traffic outside.
Mrs. Hudson starts to hoover downstairs. John’s mobile buzzes in his pocket, but he ignores it.
Sherlock wonders, not for the first time since his brother had walked into that Serbian cell two weeks ago, if he’s dreaming. He casts a sidelong glance at John over a slice of toast. His clothes from the day before are wrinkled and clinging to his ribs and shoulders in spots. It underscores his thinness. Sherlock wonders if he were to shave off the beard, would John’s cheeks be hollow and gaunt, too.
He swallows the last of the toast in his hand, and then hands the plate with the other slice across the bed to John.
After a moment, John notices and glances down at it. “I’m good. Finish it up.”
“You should eat.”
A muscle in John’s jaw twitches, he hesitates and swallows once, before nodding and wordlessly taking the toast. He does eat it, though he swallows each bite as though it’s dry as sandpaper and he’s unaccustomed to food tasting like anything but.
When the food is gone, Mrs. Hudson has stopped her hoovering, and the traffic of the morning rush has slowed a little outside, John tosses the paper on the nightstand, and stretches. “You should sleep some more. I’m going to have a bit of a wash, if that’s alright.” He strokes the beard again, as though contemplating it’s demise.
“I’m going to get up.”
“I promised Mrs. Hudson yesterday.”
“Promised her what?”
“That she and I would have a proper chat.”
John stares, brow cocked at an angle that suggests he’s thoroughly confused. “A proper chat?”
“Yes. Apparently she’s missed me, and is quite put out. She wants a word.”
John barks out a laugh, and looks utterly shocked at the sound. When he recovers, he stifles a grin and replies. “You go then. You need help?”
John swallows tightly again. “Yeah. Getting dressed, or…”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah.” He licks his lips. “Okay.”
It takes him nearly twenty minutes to get himself out of bed and dress. He could have indeed used help, it seems. But, the way his heart rate had picked up and his whole body simultaneously slipped into a state of perfect calm when John had wrapped an arm around his waist and buried his face in his nape, earlier, is not something he has the energy or mental space to process. Consequently, allowing John to dress him had seemed unwise. However, it is something that deserves further consideration. He files it away.
Mrs. Hudson has hot scones and tea waiting, and when he mentions that John had already made him toast and tea, she tuts and declares he needs protein then, before soft-boiling two eggs, and insisting he eat them. She is all sharp reprimands, laced through with gentle affection, and pats to the hand, and cup, after cup of warm cocoa, and Sherlock loves her for it.
She tells him about the changes in the neighbourhood. She tells him about her on again/off again relationship with Mr. Chatterjee from the cafe. She tells him about her falling out with her sister, and their subsequent reconciliation, and then she tells him about John.
She tells him how it was the day he had died. She tells him how John had come back to the flat like a ghost, and spent an hour vomiting in the loo, before crawling into Sherlock’s bed and sleeping for three days straight. On the fourth day, he’d got up, and sat in his chair, and stared at Sherlock’s like he was trying to will him back into his rightful place. He wouldn’t respond to requests to eat. He wouldn’t respond at all.
Mrs. Hudson had called Lestrade. Lestrade had called Molly Hooper, and they had both come over and set things to rights as best they could. He was fed, and encouraged to bathe, and change clothes, and he had had the pleasure of one or the other of their company for two days before he got up and announced he was moving out.
No one saw him again until the funeral.
He’d shown up grey-faced, and neatly dressed, and read a eulogy scribbled on the back of a takeaway napkin that was utterly and disturbingly flat. It had taken all of two minutes, and then he had sat down again, and not moved and not spoken through the entirety of the rest of the service. He’d accompanied Mrs. Hudson to the gravesite a few weeks later, and then disappeared for almost two years.
He wouldn’t return calls. He wouldn’t ask for help. Greg would occasionally force a visit, just to be sure he was still alive, hadn’t done himself harm, but he had been lost, utterly lost in all that time, and so Mrs. Hudson had been completely shocked, a few days prior, when he had turned up at the flat and explained everything to her. So shocked, that she had called Lestrade, to call Mycroft, and be sure that what John had told her was the truth. She’d been rather concerned that he’d finally had some sort of total mental break and was simply dreaming the whole scenario up.
“Oh Sherlock, it was a real concern. You see, Molly saw him on the tube one day, a few months back. And apparently he was talking to himself, or—to someone who wasn’t there. She said it was all very discrete, but she could tell, and it had worried her something awful.”
When Sherlock finally makes his way back upstairs, arms burdened with a box of still-warm scones and crocheted afghan Mrs. Hudson had apparently made to distract herself in the months after his death, it is with a mind overflowing the brim with new data. He desperately wants to retreat to the sofa, and the quiet of his mind, to give it all time to sort itself, but John is in the kitchen, washing up the few dishes from their shared breakfast when he reaches the top of the stairs, and Sherlock is immediately distracted.
He’s hunched over the sink in a pair of heather grey joggers and a white t-shirt. His feet are bare. He’s been out of the shower long enough for his hair to dry. It’s gotten long, and he’s not put any product in it, so there is a long fringe grazing his eyebrows. And then there’s the beard. It still exists, but it’s been trimmed within an inch of it’s life—short and neat.
And to top it all off, he’s used whatever he could find in the loo. He smells like Sherlock, and that one, small fact causes something bright and hot to flare up in Sherlock’s centre.
He tears his eyes away, and tosses Mrs. Hudson’s offerings down on the kitchen table, before lowering himself carefully onto a chair.
John glances over his shoulder. “What’s all that then?”
“A peace offering.”
“Shouldn’t you be offering her one?”
“I’d rather have thought the dying to save her life bit would have been enough.”
John has turned back to the washing. The same plate he’s been unnecessarily scrubbing since Sherlock entered the kitchen. “Is that how you see it?”
“Yes… That’s how it was.” He frowns at John’s back. “Mycroft said that he’d explained, that…”
“Yeah, I talked to Mycroft. All a part of some big plan. No choice. You or us. Not sure I believe it.”
Sherlock doesn’t know what to say.
“Thought maybe you just wanted…” John scrubs the plate a little harder. “I don’t know. Maybe you just wanted a break.”
“A break?” Sherlock can hear the tension seeping into his voice. “So you think, what? That this was all just an excuse for a holiday?”
The plate slips from John’s fingers and into the soapy water with a small splash. He braces his hands against the counter, white-knuckled. His voice is ragged when he finally replies. “Well—was it?”
Sherlock thinks of the scars etching the flesh of his back, thinks about the fact that John had seen them only the night before, and he wants to rail, to shout, to walk out, slam the door, and, and…
But then he remembers Mrs. Hudson’s portrait of the last two years, and notices the trembling of John’s hands, his wrists, his arms, his shoulders…
“It wasn’t what I wanted. It was necessary, but it was never what I wanted. And near the end there wasn’t a day went by that I didn’t wish for home.”
“Right.” John is shaking everywhere.
John lifts a wet hand to cover his eyes. He doesn’t say anything. He shakes, and shakes like he’s freezing cold and will never be warm again.
“John, for what it’s worth now, I missed you—every day.” It’s the most they’ve ever said to one another. The most honest Sherlock’s ever been—with anyone. But John is fraying at the seams, slipping, and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to stop that from happening.
It doesn’t go as he expects.
John’s hand drops from his eyes and back to the counter. His knees buckle, and he lets out a sound like a wounded animal, a sound that stops Sherlock’s heart in his chest for a moment, and then sends a rush of adrenaline spiking through his veins. It freezes him where he sits, and he watches, as if in slow motion, as John reaches into the washing up water, and hurls plate, and mug, and tea cup against the tile of the floor, sending little bits of porcelain skittering over the tile, and under the appliances, and when there is nothing else to break, he drops to his knees in the detritus with a long moan, and a whimper, and that is when Sherlock finds his courage and presence of mind once again.
The first thing he notices is the blood.
“John…” As gently as he can. “Let me see.”
John lifts his hands from the floor, and turns them over, stares silently down at the shards of porcelain embedded in his palms, at the blood oozing out to drip down on the floor.
“Oh!” Mrs. Hudson’s squeak from the doorway.
“Mrs. Hudson, I believe we need the medical kit from under the sink in the toilet.”
She hurries away down the hall.
Cheeks wet, eyes full, everything shaking.
“I’m sorry. It’s alright now.”
Mrs. Hudson returns, and they get John to his feet. There is one particularly large shard of a teacup embedded in John’s right knee. Sherlock cuts his pant leg, tears up to the wound, and examines it. His hands are shaking now, too. He’s in no state.
“Call my brother. Tell him to send a doctor.”
Mrs. Hudson nods and scurries away, and Sherlock begins to unroll the gauze from the medical kit and pack it around the shards. “Best let the doctor take these out.”
John remains mute, and when Sherlock looks up at him, his face is blank and his eyes distant.
Sherlock does his best to apply pressure around the wounds without driving the shards deeper.
“Should I tell you what I did while I was away?”
He doesn’t expect an answer, and doesn’t get one. He’s just talking now. Anything to keep John from slipping further.
“I lived in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas for four months. Dead of winter. Freezing cold. It was temple food, of course. Lotus tea, rice, local vegetables in soy sauce. I dreamed of your shepherd’s pie. Do you remember the time we were out of frozen peas, so you went through the bag of mixed veg and picked out all the peas, because you knew I hated the rest? Don’t think I didn’t notice. Or the time I made you help me dissect that pig brain right while you were cooking, and you burnt the risotto, and someone called the fire service, and the flat reeked for two days, and the pot never came clean. You were so angry, do you remember? Said it was your favourite pot. Was it really? I’ll buy you a new one if you promise to make the risotto again. No experiments to interrupt this time. I’ll be good. I promise.”
John blinks, and looks down at Sherlock kneeling between his legs, and then at his bloody, poorly packed palms. “Jesus.”
“There’s a doctor coming.”
“Jesus.” John’s voice and face breaks. “Jesus.” He starts to sob, great wracking things that wring him out, and double him over, and Sherlock feels utterly helpless.
“A doctor is coming,” he repeats stupidly, placing a hand on John’s back, perhaps as more a comfort to himself than anything.
A doctor is coming.
A doctor is coming.
A doctor arrives much quicker than one would imagine one could that time of day in London, and Sherlock is momentarily grateful for his brother’s influence. He lets the man take over. He seems capable. He has steady hands, and an even steadier manner. He speaks low and sure. He gives John a mild sedative. He removes the shards, cleans the cuts, stitches John up. He leaves a prescription for antibiotics and the sedative and instructions for it to be filled immediately. Mrs. Hudson says she was planning on going to the shops anyway.
John is tucked into Sherlock’s bed, and it is only after Sherlock gets to the foyer and is showing the doctor out, that he realises it is the same man that had attended him two days prior at his brother’s office. A personal physician, no doubt.
“He’s in emotional shock. He needs rest. So do you. Sleep. Let that excellent landlady of yours feed you both up. And for god’s sake, don’t leave the flat. The press have caught wind. It will be a madhouse out there soon. Doctor’s orders. Shut yourselves away for at least a week, and then maybe—go on holiday somewhere, until all this blows over.”
John is asleep when Sherlock gets back upstairs, and so he lays still in the artificial dusk of the bedroom, curtains drawn shut, a cocoon against the outside world, and watches John breathe. He aches, physically aches to make it right. But some things can never be made right, and rightly or wrongly he hadn’t known. He hadn’t known that John would be so affected by his prolonged absence. He knows now.
It galls him that his brother had known and purposefully kept it from him. Sherlock was an essential operative, and Mycroft was smart enough to know that the truth would have compromised him. Nothing should ever get in the way of the work, after all.
But Sherlock is tired. He’s bone weary of the work. He’d be perfectly content to not think about any of it for a very long time. And he’s earned that, hasn’t he? He’s earned the right to rest.
Tears seep from the corners of John’s eyes in his sleep, and Sherlock draws a little closer, hopes John can somehow sense his presence, somehow know that he’s safe. He stares down at John’s bandaged hand resting on the edge of the pillow. When he looks back up, John’s eyes are on him.
“Oh. Hello,” because he can think of nothing else, so caught off guard he is by the depth of John’s eyes, the red rims, the way his brow knits in momentary confusion.
“Are you real?” whispered so low Sherlock almost doesn’t catch it.
“A question I’ve been asked more times than I can count.” He smiles.
John just looks worried.
“I’m real,” Sherlock assures him, sobering. “I promise.”
John blinks. “You’ve lied to me before.”
And Sherlock doesn’t know whether he means him or the Sherlock John had kept as companion in his head when Sherlock was dead. It doesn’t matter really.
“Yes. I have. I’m sorry. But, not this time. This time I’m telling you the truth.” He reaches out, and gently lays his fingers over the sliver of bare skin between the bandages wrapping John’s hand, and the blanket covering his arm.
John’s eyes snap to his fingers, and then lift to the bandage on his hand. “Did I do that?”
“There was an accident. broken dishes. It will get better. There was a doctor, a good one. Do you remember?”
John shakes his head, eyes slightly panicked.
“It’s alright. You have some stitches—in your hands and in your right knee. Mrs. Hudson’s gone to the shops. She’ll bring you medicine when she comes back.” John’s breathing has picked up, grown shallow. Sherlock gives his wrist a gentle squeeze. “It’s over. It’s been tended to. You’re meant to sleep. Sleep now.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve been ordered to do the same. We’re both in a state, it seems.”
John seems to consider this for a moment, and then he smiles. It’s soft, and travels all the way to his still wet eyes, and releases a tension in Sherlock’s chest that he didn’t even know had been there.
“Okay. We’d best try then.”
“Yes. Mrs. Hudson will wake us when she gets back.”
“Yeah.” John’s eyes wander over his face. “It really is you?”
“It really is me.”
John nods. “You’re just—different.”
“Mmm…” John’s eyes are already drifting closed again. “I tried not to forget you, but I’d started to, and now…”
“Now I wonder if I remembered you all wrong, or you’ve just changed.”
“Perhaps a little of both.”
John’s breathing evens out, and Sherlock looks down at his hand still draped over John’s frail wrist. It’s wanted. He gives one last gentle squeeze and drifts.
They don’t talk about it again. John seems embarrassed and evasive. He insists on going to work the next day, and comes home at noon. This is repeated three days in a row. On the fourth day he comes home an hour after he leaves. He doesn’t go to work again. Sherlock doesn’t ask.
There is a steadily increasing crowd of reporters outside the flat at all hours. Sherlock contemplates making a statement. His brother tells him not to—not yet. Sherlock acquiesces because he doesn’t have the energy for a row.
One week after the day he came back to John, Sherlock sends an email; an old friend who owes him a favour. Musgrave comes from old money. His family has property all over The Isles. So much, that they can hardly keep track of it. He wants something modest, something out of the way, and something firmly built that can withstand the sorts of winter storms that blow in from the sea this time of year.
Musgrave emails back immediately. He’s seen the news (everyone has). He has more questions than Sherlock cares to answer. He has invitations to a hunting weekend at his lodge outside of Edinburgh. Sherlock’s seen enough blood and suffering. He politely declines, and accepts the invitation to stay for a month (or as long as they like) at a cottage in East Sussex.
“Dad’s predictably let it go. It’s liable to fall into the sea one of these days, but if you don’t mind the risk…”
Sherlock’s whole life has been risk. If the sea swallows he and John alive, who would notice? Who would care? At least they would both go together this time. He’s not leaving John again. He’s decided. Not for anything.
Sherlock packs two bags.
John balks when told they’re leaving London, grumbles about never getting a say, and how some things never change, sniffs, and slams things, and tells Sherlock to pack warm, and bring extra blankets, and ‘oh, don’t forget your favourite tea,’ when it all comes down to it.
They take the train. It’s oddly packed for mid November. John has to share a seat with him. He falls asleep half way to Eastbourne, hunches over in his seat and rests his head on Sherlock’s shoulder, eventually drapes an arm over Sherlock’s lap. It’s oddly endearing. The old lady across the seat from them frowns. Her son’s cheeks flush and his eyes flit away. Sherlock is glad John is sleeping and blissfully unaware.
They rent a car in Eastbourne, and arrive at the cottage near dusk. Musgrave must have told someone they were coming. The cottage has been cleaned. There is fresh wood stacked on the hearth. There is a cold supper in the fridge, and a takeaway menu for the nearest village’s only Thai restaurant. They only deliver Thursday - Saturday. John laughs at this, jokes about just where it is Sherlock’s brought them. But his eyes linger over the soft plaster walls, and the rough hewn beams in the ceiling, and the faded chintzes of the overstuffed sofas, and they soften, the tension he always seems to carry in his shoulders loosens, his step is a little lighter.
“Should I order in?”
“If you like. But don’t get me Pad Thai. You know I hate it.”
John seems tickled at the information, and Sherlock can’t tell why. He carries their bags into the second parlour which has been converted into a master suite, and starts to unpack. John had his stitches out the day before, but his hands are still sore, and Sherlock doesn’t want him carrying heavy things.
He’s over halfway through unpacking both bags, when he realises what he’s assumed. John’s shirts next to his shirts. John’s trousers next to his. He looks down at the neatly folded pile of John’s cotton pants in his left hand, and the stack of his own silk-cotton blend ones in his right.
They haven’t slept apart since Sherlock came home. They don’t talk about it. It’s something that just sort of happened, and it’s kept happening, and so it goes… But this is a new house, and a new bed, and perhaps he shouldn’t have…
“You didn’t need to do that?” John’s standing in the doorway to the room, leaning against the jamb. He has the sleeves of his button down rolled up to the elbow, and a glass of scotch in his hand, scotch Sherlock can only assume came with the house.
“Would you prefer to finish?”
John glances down at Sherlock gripping a pile of his pants, and takes a long, slow pull of whiskey. “Best do. Not sure how I feel about another bloke having his hands all over my pants.”
“Suit yourself.” Sherlock lays the pile on the bed, and goes back to unpacking his own things.
John doesn’t say anything about Sherlock assuming they would share a room. Sherlock doesn’t dare bring it up.
When the food arrives it’s surprisingly good. John ordered way more than they needed, and they light a fire, and spread it all out on the floor in front of the hearth, and pull cushions from the sofa to sit on as they eat. They are both hungrier than they realised and the room descends into a comfortable silence, punctuated only by the crackling of the fire, and the sigh of a remarkably calm sea outside.
After John has refilled his plate a second time, and added a log to the fire, he stabs a dumpling with his fork and speaks. “So, were you in Thailand at all?”
It’s the first time they’ve discussed Sherlock’s time away since the morning in the kitchen.
“North Korea, for a few weeks.”
“Berlin, Tibet, Pakistan.”
“Mm, you did get around, didn’t you.”
“Yes. There wasn’t ever much time to settle.”
“That why we’re out here, then?”
“Yeah.” John grabs a spoon and a set of chopsticks, and curls some rice noodles around them. “Thought maybe you got used to moving about and were restless now.”
“I thought we could use a holiday, and I wanted to get us out of London because of the press.”
John nods and stuffs the noodles into his mouth. “Mm, well—“ He swallows. “It’s not bad, this. Homelier than I thought it would be way out here.”
“I believe that the Musgrave family thinks this little more than a shack.”
“Is that who owns it?”
“Yes. Reg was a friend of mine from school.”
John stops chewing, and reaches for the glass of wine at his side. He takes a good sip before setting it down again, and leaning back a little, chopsticks hovering over his bowl of noodles. “A friend?”
Sherlock shrugs. “I say friend, he was in the same college as me. He was—not much liked. We would sometimes meet for coffee. He took a keen interest in my methods of deduction.”
John takes another sip of wine and refills his glass. “He flattered you.”
“Reg was never one for flattery, no. He was—lonely, I think. We got on.”
“On well enough for him to loan you the family seaside cottage at a moment’s notice?”
“He owed me a favour. There was a case. I’ll tell you about it some time. You could—write it down, if you like.”
John cocks a brow, scratches at his chin through his beard and goes back to eating his noodles.
Sherlock uncrosses his legs and stretches his feet out toward the heat of the fire. “Is that staying, then, do you think?”
“Mm?” John hums around a mouthful of Pad Thai.
“The facial hair.”
“What? You don’t like it?”
Sherlock thinks about it. He can’t bring himself to cast a glance John’s way to confirm things. He can feel John’s eyes on him. “It’s different.”
“Different?” He can hear the bemusement in John’s voice. “Good different, or bad different?”
John snorts a laugh through his nose. “Is it now? Not sure that was the look I was going for, but…”
Sherlock can feel his cheeks flaming. There’s nothing for it, then. He braves a glance at John, who looks equal parts charmed and confused.
John grins, and it feels so good to see a smile on his face that Sherlock almost forgets his own inexplicable embarassment.
John shakes his head. “I’ve not said a thing.”
“You’re thinking it.”
“Oh? And just what is it you think I’m thinking?”
And this is Sherlock caught out. He suddenly realises quite clearly that there is something he hopes John is thinking, and that this thing he hopes for flies in the face of all evidence, and all logic. It’s been years, years since he’s felt anything like this, and all those decades ago, he had sworn that he would never let himself feel these sorts of things again. And yet—here he is—helpless in the face of it.
He turns back to the fire. “I’ve eaten enough. Put the rest away.”
John does. He gets to his feet, and gathers the half-empty containers, and doesn’t ask any more questions.
When they go to bed the wind is picking up outside. The windows rattle in their ancient frames, and the wind whistles through the cracks, and Sherlock shivers.
John shifts in the bed beside him. “You cold? There are extra blankets.”
“I’ll get blankets.”
He brings two. A thick quilt, and a heavy woollen thing. Their combined weight is grounding, and Sherlock needs grounding, because John has drawn closer since he climbed back into the bed. “Sounds like a storm blowing in. We might be stuck indoors, and here you are, meant to be getting fresh air and exercise.”
“And you’re meant to rest. Perhaps it’s for the best.”
They lay close together in the dark, staring at the ceiling and listening to the waves roar and thump against the cliffs. John’s arm is pressed against his.
“Before, over supper, I was just--I was trying to make a joke. It fell flat. Won’t happen again.”
“Fine.” It’s the only thing Sherlock can think to say, the only safe thing. He still doesn’t know how to process his responses to John these last couple of weeks. Everything has been different. And John seems to accept it, because he doesn’t say anything more.
John’s breathing slowly evens out, but Sherlock can’t sleep. He lays in the dark and listens to John’s breathing, and wonders why it makes him ache, why it hurts to hear him so still and so vulnerable, why he yearns to somehow pull John inside of himself so that that nothing can ever part them again.
His leaving nearly killed John. It’s something he still can’t fully comprehend. He doesn’t matter to people. Not like that. He never has. But John Watson nearly died because he died. And yes, he’s done what he set out to do, he’s eradicated Moriarty’s network, he’s ensured their mutual safety, so why is it that he doesn’t feel safe enough, safe at all.
John whimpers in his sleep.
“It’s alright.” Sherlock murmurs on instinct.
John stills again.
Outside sleet starts to clatter against the window panes. Tomorrow’s forecast is cold. The world will be encased in ice, no doubt. They won’t be going anywhere. And for the first time Sherlock is anxious at the prospect. They are still tiptoeing around one another, but up until now there have been distractions. To be iced in, with nothing but one another for distraction seems dangerous.
It’s cold. The floor is cold, the food is cold, the fetid water in the bowl beside him has a layer of ice forming over it. He’s cold. Too little food. Too much blood loss. Not enough sleep. Too much exertion. Exhaustion. Anaemia, perhaps. Dehydration, definitely.
He shifts a little, and feels the answering ache in his bones. He mentally catalogues his injuries. He listens. He listens for approaching footsteps, voices. He listens for an approaching fate he cannot avoid.
The footsteps in the corridor are soft, hushed, like the guards (no—guard—there is only one today) is trying to stay quiet. He can hear the murmur of the man’s voice. He’s talking to himself as he approaches. Sherlock hears him say his name. He whispers against the metal door of his cell, words Sherlock cannot catch. Things he doesn’t want to hear.
They will only lead to pain, pain and more pain.
He curls tighter, and covers his ears with his hands. He tries to stop shaking, and can’t, tries to stop crying, and can’t, and when the man is suddenly in his cell, suddenly touching him, he jumps up with a shout of surprise, and scurries across the slippery floor (warm bed) to the corner of the cell (bedroom).
“Sherlock. You’re in Reg’s cottage in East Sussex. The power’s gone out with the storm. You’re okay. It’s just me. It’s just John.”
Sherlock blinks rapidly. The cell around him dissolves into the half dark of a slow-encroaching dawn. It is freezing cold, but neat, and tidy, and homely. No Serbian cell, this, but rather a cottage, just as the soldier (just as John) had said.
John is sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at him where he’s huddled in the corner. There is a furrow of worry between his brows. He holds out his hand. “Come on. We can start a fire. I checked. The chimney seems clear, and there’s still plenty of wood.”
Sherlock sucks in a breath of bracing air to steady himself, and then nods and gets to his feet, climbs back under the covers, shivering violently, even as John gets up and shrugs into a jumper before going about building a fire in the hearth across the room. “Lucky thing them turning this parlour into a bedroom. Nice to have a fireplace in here.”
Sherlock’s teeth chatter.
John fiddles with the kindling, stacks the wood neatly as it catches. “That happened before?” The tone is light, conversational, nothing to indicate the weight and utter mortification of what has just happened. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Happened to me a lot after I got back from A. Sorry I startled you. I’ll be more careful next time.”
Once the flames catch, John stands there for a moment, rubbing his hands over the fire, warming the front of his body, and when he finally crawls back beneath the blankets, he’s like a human bedwarmer. It takes every ounce of self-control Sherlock has to not scoot over and pull him close.
John stares at him. “You cold?”
He nods, teeth still chattering.
“Here, give me your hands.”
Sherlock does, and John sucks in a shocked breath. “Jesus, you’re freezing. Go stand by the fire. Warm up.”
“I’d rather stay here.”
John just shakes his head. “Suit yourself.” He rubs Sherlock’s hands briskly between his. After awhile he stops and pulls them close to his chest, all without once looking Sherlock in the eye.
“When your brother had you checked out, did they…? Was it just a physical exam, or did they…?”
“There was a psychological evaluation, if that’s what you’re trying to ask. It was pointless. I always pass, because I know how to cheat the tests. Convenient for my brother—and her Majesty’s Secret Service.”
John huffs and tilts his chin down, blows warm air through his clasped hands and onto Sherlock’s. “The dreams last for awhile, sometimes. New events can re-trigger them. I still get them now-and-again. Yours might last a long time. It helps to have someone there to bring you back when you wake up, so… Might be best if I stay for awhile.”
Sherlock looks down at his large, trembling hands clasped in John’s small, capable ones, tucked up against his heart, and he realises this is John asking, John telling him he wants this thing they’ve started, he wants it to continue for as long as it can.
“Okay. Good.” John’s thumbs stroke the length of Sherlock’s pinkies. His beard tickles the top of two of Sherlock’s knuckles, and Sherlock has to fight back the urge to flex his fingers upward, to touch, to stroke, to…
He pulls in a quavering breath, and pulls away, rolls over, curls tight.
“Tired.” It’s a lie, but the truth is nothing John wants to hear, and something Sherlock hardly understands himself:
Want to touch.
Need to touch.
Can’t ever do that.
They sleep. When Sherlock wakes, he’s alone in the bed. He can hear John humming in the kitchen. He can smell coffee.
He gets up and goes to the loo, when he returns John is just entering the bedroom with a steaming mug in each hand. “Oh, you’re up.” He hands Sherlock one of the mugs. “Spoke to the neighbour down the lane. She’s the one who set the cottage up for us. She showed me where the firewood’s kept, and brought us some bread. She says the power will likely be out a couple of days.”
John shifts a little, and rubs the back of his neck, and Sherlock takes it all in in a glance, eyes narrowing. “What?”
John puts on his best impression of innocent. “What?”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
John sighs heavily and rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. “See there’s still nothing gets past you…”
John takes a sip of coffee and runs a hand through his hair before replying. “Seems there was some sort of multiple casualty event up the lane. Whatever happened they think it was last night, but they found the victims this morning. One dead, two completely out of their minds. They think some sort of drug overdose, maybe. They were having a dinner party, spending the night playing boardgames and cards. But they’re clean living types, according to Mrs. Roundhay. The village is all abuzz, apparently.”
“Oh no.” John shakes his head. “Don’t you even think about it.”
“Think about what?”
“You know what.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
John grins crookedly. It looks frustrated and fond all at once, and Sherlock wonders why his cheeks suddenly feel hot, and his head light. He takes his coffee and turns, heads back towards the bed. The sleet that had let up earlier is back with a vengeance, and the view from the bedroom’s two small windows is nothing but a dark, angry, rain-washed grey. The room is cold, and bleak save for the golden warmth of the flames in the hearth, and the comforting heat of the mug cupped in his hands.
“I have no intention of going anywhere in this weather. This case is barely a seven. I’ve thought of at least three potential solutions already.”
“Of course you have.” John sounds happy, happier than Sherlock’s heard him in weeks.
Sherlock sets his mug down on the bedside table and crawls back under the inviting weight and warmth of the five blankets John had piled on the bed at some point.
“Well—go on then.”
Sherlock looks up at John who is crawling back into bed with him. “Go on with what?”
“The solution. The ‘who done it’.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “It’s absurdly simple. A dispersant of some sort. Fed through the house’s ventilation system or some equally efficient means.”
John takes another sip of coffee and then shimmies back down beneath the blankets, pulling them up around his chin. “Sure. Okay. But why?”
“Well that would take further investigation, and since my doctor has just ordered me to stay in bed, We are both quite out of luck, it seems.”
John snorts. “First of all, not your doctor. Secondly, I don’t recall issuing any orders.”
“You did. You said,” (and he slips into his best impression of John), “Don’t you even think about it, Sherlock!”
John grins, and looks away. “Mm, maybe.”
It’s slightly awkward, this—John curled under the blankets at his side, hair mussed, blankets tucked under his nose, and Sherlock hovering over him, coffee cup perched precariously on one palm. He would very much like to crawl back down into the inviting warmth of their shared bed, but it’s one thing in the dark, at night, when they are meant to be trying to sleep, and quite another, midmorning in a curtainless room, with no other motivation but the craving of warmth and companionship.
It is something he’s noticed since he came back, his inability to be away from John. Letting him out of his sight is almost physically painful. It causes immediate anxiety, and he can’t help but wonder if John has been feeling the same. He’s rarely far away.
A particularly strong gust of wind sends a wall of sleet clattering against the windowpanes, and he shivers on instinct. John pulls back the covers. “Get back in here. You’ll freeze to death.”
“Unlikely.” But, Sherlock doesn’t wait for any further invitation.
John seems to run hot where he runs cold, and the space John’s been occupying is already a cocoon of inviting warmth. Sherlock’s eyes slip shut the minute he’s tucked back beneath the blankets. “You tired?” John’s voice is low, and soft, and close enough that Sherlock can feel his breath whisper over his lips and nose as he speaks.
“Not really.” He shivers again at his own honesty.
“Oh.” And now John seems uncomfortable, like he’s realised how and where it is they are, and that if they’re not going to sleep they’ll have to do something horrible—like talk.
John rolls away onto his back, and stares at the ceiling.
Sherlock pulls the covers up to cover his nose. “Perhaps it was a bad idea coming all the way out here in the middle of the winter.” He mutters from beneath the blankets.
“No.” And John sounds sincere. “No, I’m glad we came. It’s—it’s nice to have you to myself.”
Sherlock looks over. He can’t help himself. “Is it?”
John sucks in a deep breath, holds it for a moment, and then lets it out again in a rush. “Yeah. Still doesn’t feel real, but… I”m glad we’re here. Don’t really feel like sharing you with Mrs. Hudson, and your brother, and the bloody press.”
“John.” And John finally tears his eyes from the ceiling to glance over at him. “I'm sorry. Clearly apologies at this juncture are insufficient, but… I don’t know what else to do. I just need you to know that I recognise that I miscalculated the effect my absence would have, and I am truly, deeply and sincerely sorry.”
John looks away again, with a sniff.
Sherlock presses his lips shut.
“Don’t. Don’t ruin it.” After a moment of tense silence, John lets out a soft huff. “You don’t get it, do you. You were the one gone, so to you it was just—‘being away’. But for me…” John screws his eyes shut, and sucks in a tight breath through his nose, like he’s in physical pain. “For me, you were dead.” His voice breaks. “I—I watched you die. I watched you jump. I talked you through it on the bloody phone, and I couldn’t… I wasn’t…” He’s gone pale. “Was any of that even real? All the things you said? Or was it just some sort of act?”
“I watched you die, and I thought it was because I wasn’t enough, hadn’t done enough, couldn’t ever be enough. I watched you die!” John rolls away from him, curls tight, and Sherlock doesn’t know what to do. It’s all going exactly as he predicted. It’s what he’s been trying to avoid for weeks. What they’ve both been trying to avoid, he thinks. But now they’re stuck here, in the middle of nowhere, in the most unfortunately timed storm in recorded history, and everything is falling apart.
“Yes. I did. I made you watch me die.”
“Too right you did,” muttered into the down of John’s pillow.
“It was selfish. Will you forgive me?”
John sniffs and stirs a little under the blankets.
“John, will you forgive me for all the hurt I’ve caused you?”
“I’ll think about it.”
It’s something. John’s here, and he’s staying, and he’ll think about it.
He sighs. “What?”
“You were enough—are enough. I am quite lost without you, you know.”
“Flattery won’t work, Sherlock.”
“It’s the truth!” It comes out stronger than he anticipated, and John finally glances over his shoulder, brow furrowed.
“If it was the truth, you would have told me. You would have let me in on the plan. Instead I spent two years thinking I’d failed you, while Molly-fucking-Hooper all but had your personal mobile number!”
“That’s not how it was, and you know…”
“Wasn’t it?!!” He sits up, throws off the blankets, climbs out of bed and starts digging around in his suitcase for something other than the pyjamas and jumper he’s wearing. “You know what, sod this. Sod you and your fucking apologies. This whole thing was probably some sort of joke to you and your brother, you sitting over in Paris, or Islamabad, or Berlin, exchanging stories about poor, pathetic John Watson, can’t hold a job, can’t keep himself together, drinking his life away, grieving his arse of a flatmate like a man grieves his wife, while you were off on some big, bloody adventure, and…”
“JOHN, STOP!” Sherlock is surprised by the volume of his own voice, but John seems unfazed.
“No. You stop. You stop pretending I matter to you. I spent two years thinking you’d killed yourself because I hadn’t seen the signs, because I wasn’t enough, because you thought that I only stuck around for the cases, for ‘The Great Detective’, and I didn’t. It wasn’t that. It was never only that!! Two years, Sherlock! Two years thinking I’d failed you in every way a bloke can fail a friend, and—and now you just want to come home, and go back to the way things were? Well, did it ever occur to you that maybe I don’t? Did it ever occur to you that maybe the way things were wasn’t enough even when we had it?”
Sherlock’s mouth goes dry. His eyes prick. It’s ludicrous. It’s stupid. None of it makes sense. “You were unhappy?”
“Yeah. I was unhappy.”
“You never said.”
“I said it all the fucking time, you just weren’t listening.”
Sherlock is mortified to realise his eyes are full. He swallows, and the tears break free to roll down his cheeks. “I’m sorry…”
And for the first time since the argument began, John looks sorry, too. “Fine. Just—start listening. It’s—it’s not easy for me, this kind of stuff, and I need to—I need you to hear me.”
“Okay. Then listen.”
John stands in the middle of the room and looks around himself as though searching for what comes next.
“It’s cold. I think you should come back over here.”
“Yeah. Probably.” He sighs. “Yeah, probably you’re right.” He reaches down into his suitcase and grabs a pair of socks, and sits on the edge of the bed to put them on before crawling back under the covers. He stares at the ceiling, and Sherlock stares at him, and wonders how it is, in this moment, that John Watson can look eight and eighty all at once, and how it is that Sherlock finds that so intriguing, so fascinating, so utterly appealing, that every cell in his body aches to have, to hold, to shelter and protect, to surrender and to serve.
He is utterly undone.
And perhaps he’s always been. Perhaps he’s been since the first moment John Watson walked into Bart’s lab, all military bearing and close-cropped hair, a psychosomatic limp, and a challenging, hungry glint in his eye.
He’s certainly known it since the moment James Moriarty grinned up at him maniacally and threatened John Watson’s life. He’s known it, but it was easy to ignore with John safe in London, under his brother’s weather eye, and Sherlock half a world away with a purpose and a goal.
It’s not so easily ignored now.
They count the day as a lost day. it is spent in bed, dozing off and on, scampering about in the cold, dark kitchen trying to pull together the little food they have into something resembling a meal, and exploring the cottage’s generously stocked bookshelves.
John finds a mediocre spy novel. Sherlock finds a stack of books on beekeeping and apiology, and they huddle near the fire in the keeping room for light and heat.
When it grows dark outside, they retreat to the bedroom again, and lie close in the dark, breathing the same air, sneaking their limbs as close as they dare to share body heat.
John is very quiet. He’s been quiet all day. Sherlock wants to ask why. Is he considering his apology, deciding if forgiveness really is something he can extend? Is he simply embarrassed by his candour before? Sherlock’s fingers itch to bridge the gap between them. It’s fine. It’s all fine. I don’t mind. We can be what we were, again. Whatever it was you needed then, we can be that now.
Sherlock is drifting between awake and asleep when John finally speaks. “When you were gone my therapist asked me to tell her all the things I wished I’d had the chance to tell you.”
Sherlock swallows tightly, comes fully awake in an instant. “Mmm.”
“I couldn’t. The words weren’t for her.”
“And—do you want to say them now?” Anxiety over the pending answer grips his body like a vise.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if you deserve it now.”
The answer stings more than it should. “Ahh.”
John sighs over their hands, his breath fanning Sherlock’s eyelashes and the tiny hairs on the back of his wrist. “No. That’s—that’s not… Jesus, I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s not.”
“John, I… There are things I would like to say, too. If…”
“Yes. No more apologies. Only—the truth of what happened that day. If you want it.”
John sucks in a breath so suddenly it sounds like a gasp, and Sherlock inches a finger across the gap between their hands to hook it hesitantly over one of John’s. John doesn’t pull away.
“Yeah. Okay. I do. I do, so—tell me.”
Sherlock nods. “It was my brother’s plan. They had been tracking the threads of Moriarty’s criminal web for years, without knowing who was at it’s centre. They got lucky when he took an interest in me.
“You don’t know, because I never told you, but I worked for my brother for several years in my early twenties. Worked for the people he answers to. Do you understand?”
“You were what? MI6?”
“Something like that. It didn’t suit. I wanted out. Needed out. I needed very much to get out, so I left. I just walked away one day. Except—you don’t just walk away.”
He hears John swallow dryly in the dark.
“I am most likely still alive because of my brother’s influence. Some sort of a deal was made. But it was a stay of execution, not an acquittal. I owed them. And when the Moriarty situation presented itself, I knew by the time we got to the pool, I knew that I was marching swiftly toward a fate that could not be avoided. I’d been living on borrowed time, and they were about to call in the favour I still owed.”
“I wanted to tell you. You have no idea how much I wanted to… But, I couldn’t have you in the line of fire, do you understand? I couldn’t. And I was concerned that I had, perhaps, already shown my hand, that he may already have guessed your value to me, that he would use that to compromise my position. It’s why I sent you away that day. You weren’t meant to be there, John.”
“Maybe I wanted to be.”
“I know you did. But you couldn’t be.”
“Well, I was.”
“Yes, because you came back. You weren’t supposed to come back.”
“Oh? Yeah. Well, so sorry for caring that you might be in danger. Sorry, for…”
Sherlock slides the whole of his hand over John’s and presses down. “I’m not blaming you.”
John grows quiet.
“It was what it was. But, it made the situation more complicated, especially when I realised that we had miscalculated, and Moriarty potentially had snipers trained on you already. You were there. You were standing right there in that open square, and they could have taken you out at any time, and in that moment I had to make a decision. Believe me when I tell you that it was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. But it was one that had to be made, and I made it. I don’t regret it.”
“Yeah, a bit. Yeah.”
“John, there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep you from harm. Nothing. Even if that meant never seeing you again.”
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe that wasn’t your decision to make?!”
John spits a wry laugh into the darkness.
“I jumped because I had to. I didn’t want to. I had to.”
“And I suppose you had to keep me in the dark for two years while letting everyone else in on the plan, too?”
“It wasn’t everyone else. Molly’s assistance was required because she runs the morgue, and there needed to be a body. There were a small handful of my brother’s people, and two other medical professionals there to attend to any immediate medical needs and stabilise me for transport.”
“Wait? You were injured?”
“I did jump from a four-story building, John. I stayed in London for 10 weeks to recover before being shipped off to the Continent.”
John sits up, and Sherlock shivers as all the heat between them escapes into the frigid room. “So, when I—when I ran over to you, that was really you lying there?”
“Did you? I must have still been unconscious. I believe they dressed me up to look a little more grim than it actually all was. There was a pallet of broken down boxes just outside the hospital’s loading bay. I did my best to land on those. I believe I succeeded, but they must have whisked them away before you reached me.”
“Some bloke on a bicycle knocked me down.”
“Ahh, that must have been one of my brother’s people.”
“Jesus, I thought MI6 was supposed to be—I don’t know—organised. Thought there must have been some gadget, or…”
“I’ve told you, we miscalculated.”
“I though maybe you never jumped at all, and it was just a dummy I saw, or maybe you had a bungee, or…”
“A bungee? Really, John?”
“Oi. It’s not every day someone fakes their suicide. I’m grasping at straws.”
“Are you okay?” John’s voice softens.
“I mean, I know people survive falls like that, but… It can result in some fairly serious injuries, and I just wondered if you’re…”
“Oh, you know, the usual residual pain from a broken bone or two. It’s nothing.”
“They took good care of you then?”
“Of course. The best. They still had need of me.”
John sniffs. He’s angry. He’s angry that Sherlock is disposable to his brother’s people. It’s oddly comforting.
“You do realise that 50% of people who fall that distance, die.”
“I knew how to fall, and how to land. Fortunately there was something to break my fall. I knew my chances were considerably greater than that.”
“John, it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“You could have died!”
John huffs, and looks away, rakes a hand through his hair. “Why? Why, Sherlock? Why would you do that?”
“I’ve told you. They were going to kill you.”
“So you just thought you’d die instead?”
John rubs a hand across his eyes, shakes his head. “People don’t do that.”
“I mean… When I was in Afghanistan, sure you’d do anything to protect your men. Sure, you always realise, on some level, that it could mean you might die, but it’s in the back of your head. It’s not like… You don’t consciously choose to throw yourself in front of a bullet. You don’t stand there, contemplating your own death and walk right into it. No one does that?”
“Do they not?”
John sits there, staring into the dark of the room. After a moment he reaches up and wipes at his eyes with the heels of his hands. Sherlock wonders if he’s crying.
He sucks in a quavering breath. “What about afterwards. Two years. You could have told me. Anything. A single word, that’s all I would have needed.”
“It wasn’t my decision to make. I belonged to them. I did what I was told. My brother would tell me nothing except that you were safe. It had to be enough. It was—until the end.”
Finally, John lies down again. “You’re an idiot.”
This is not at all the response Sherlock had been anticipating.
John lets out a giggle. “You’re a bloody idiot.”
John giggles some more, and more still until his laughter starts to sound like sobs. Finally he sniffs loudly, and rolls away, turning his back on Sherlock, and descending into tense silence.
Sherlock doesn’t know what to do. He lies very still and listens to the storm dying. “I’m sorry.”
“No apologies. You promised. Just stop.”
The sleet outside has stopped, and the wind died, and Sherlock can just hear the softening sigh of the sea through the thick walls.
“You’re an idiot,” John finally says again.
“So you’ve said.”
“I forgive you.”
Sherlock feels all the oxygen go out of his lungs.
“I—I was so angry. I hated you. I hated you for so long, and when I stopped I started hating myself instead, but—I’m glad you’re home.” Wet, and broken. “I forgive you, and I’m glad you’re home.”
Something dark and heavy lifts from Sherlock’s shoulders. He can finally breathe. “Thank you.”
The next morning breaks crisp and crystalline. The world outside is a jewel box of ice, and John is already puttering about the cottage, fires burning warmly, and hot coffee brewing on the hob when Sherlock shuffles out of bed and blinks blearily at the cheery surroundings.
John looks up at him and smiles. “Still no power, but at least the sun is out. Fucking freezing out there, though. Best spend today indoors. It’s supposed to warm up tomorrow.”
Sherlock nods. “Ahh, good. It will give me time to finish that book from yesterday.”
“The bee one?”
“Yes, the bee one.”
“You going to go all provincial on me, then?”
“Mmm… Thought I might do. Gentleman farmer, and all that. ‘Holmes’ & Watson’s Apiary and Detective Agency’.” He winks, and John grins.
“Don’t make us all doddery before our time.”
“Perish the thought, Old Boy.”
John chuckles. “Careful who you call old,” and turns back to the steaming coffee pot.
Sherlock pulls a chair closer to the fire and cracks open the book to the spot he’d left off the afternoon before. John appears a moment later with a cup of coffee and plate of bread and jam with a couple of slices of cheese tucked along side, and pushes them onto the tea table beside Sherlock’s chair. “Mind you eat that.”
Sherlock hums, and dutifully nibbles at the cheese as he scoffs at the wholly illogical advice on segregation of the queen. He’s just moving on to a slice of bread and jam when there is an unexpected knock on the door.
John lets out a long-suffering sigh, and frowns before slamming his coffee mug back on the counter, and going to answer it.
A wave of cold hair cuts through the homely warmth of the room the minute he opens the door, and Sherlock tucks his knees up under his chin with a scowl.
“Oh, Mrs. Roundhay. We’re good for bread, thanks.”
“Thought you could use some more. Always room for more bread, isn’t there Dr. Watson, especially in this weather. It’s good hearty bread. My grandmum’s recipe. It will stick to your bones and keep you warm. It is Watson, isn’t? You wouldn’t happen to be the Dr. Watson.”
“Well, I’m not quite sure what you mean by…”
Sherlock grins from behind his book. “Indeed, he is!” He calls from inside, and imagines the answering look of perturbation on John’s face.
“Oh. Lovely. And that must mean that you’re Sherlock Holmes, Sir…”
Sherlock dares a peek over the top of his book, and can see a very short, round woman bobbing up and down on her feet in an attempt to see past John and into the cottage. But it is their other guest that truly captures his attention. Just behind her, lurking like some corvidian harbinger of doom, stands a ridiculously funereal-looking young man. Obviously, Sherlock is already up and approaching the door by the time John starts to voice his objections.
“Yes, that’s right, but he’s on holiday. Doctor’s orders, and…”
“Hello.” Sherlock graces their housekeeper with one of his most charming smiles, and he can almost feel John rolling his eyes.
“Oh. Hello.” Her already ruddy cheeks flush an even brighter crimson.
John sniffs beside him.
“Perhaps you should come in Mrs. Roundhay, you and…?” Sherlock arches a brow at the man behind her. He’s visibly agitated, and his eyes wander everywhere but to Sherlock’s face.
“This is Mort Tregennis. He lodges in my upstairs rooms. I suppose Dr. Watson told you about our local tragedy?”
“Ah yes. Nasty business, that.”
“Yes, yes. The—the victims...”. She lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “They were Mr. Tregennis’ family.”
John sighs. “Listen, if this is going to be a business call, maybe we should bring it inside.”
“Oh, we don’t mean to trouble you.”
“It seems you already have, Mrs. Roundhay, but since you’re here, perhaps it’s best we do as John says, and come in out of the cold.”
The temperature inside the cottage has regrettably dropped in the short time they’ve stood talking, and John bustles about throwing more wood on the fire, and rearranging the furniture so that Sherlock’s chair is closest to the hearth. He jerks his chin toward it, when Sherlock looks to offer it to one of their guests, and Sherlock cocks a brow but obediently sits where he’s bade.
John takes Sherlock’s cup of now tepid coffee and retreats to the kitchen.
“Now,” Sherlock says the moment their two guests are settled. “What is it we can do for you.”
Mrs. Roundhay presses her hands together and casts a sidelong glance at the young man beside her. “Should I tell them, Dear, or would you like to?”
The rather appropriately named Mort, simply raises a trembling hand to his lips, and chews at the hangnail on his thumb. Fortunately for him, Mrs. Roundhay can talk enough for the two of them, which gives Sherlock the perfect opportunity to observe the man while she prattles.
He’s excessively thin, well-groomed except for nails chewed down to the quick and the dark rings under his eyes. Anxious, obviously. Chronic anxiety, or possibly a guilty conscience. He is well dressed, but his clothes are a few season’s old, they’ve obviously been kept well hung and ventilated, cleaned properly, mended professionally. So, he wants to give off the impression of having money, but is, at least at present, somewhat hard up.
It’s gone quiet. Mrs. Roundhay is looking at him expectantly, and he realises he has no idea what she’s just said. He’s grateful, then, when John appears at his side with a fresh cup of coffee which he presses into his hands, before draping Mrs. Hudson’s mourning afghan over his shoulders, and then moving to stand just behind his chair.
He addresses Tregennis. “So you left them happily playing a game of poker, and then in the morning… And no one knows what caused your sister’s death, or the mental deterioration of your brothers?”
“No, Doctor.” Mrs. Roundhay provides. “The police were all saying drugs, but that’s ridiculous. I’ve known Brenda since she was a little girl, and she is as clean living as you could possibly imagine. She would never have…”
“And what about you?” Sherlock finally turns his attention to their other guest, who up until now has been completely silent.
“Yes, you? What have you to do with all of this?”
“I’ve said. They were my siblings.”
“Who all live together, and yet you let rooms from Mrs. Roundhay just down the lane. Why is that?”
The man’s eyes flit to John, perhaps in search of a little sympathy, finding none, they return to Sherlock with a scowl. “A few years ago my parent’s were killed in a car collision. They owned several businesses in Manchester. We decided to liquidate their assets. There was some—disagreement on how we would split the money amongst ourselves. My siblings invested in the house, and estate up the road. I invested my money elsewhere.
“But we were all still grieving, emotions were high, and we’ve set things to rights since. It’s all water under the bridge now. All’s well that ends well.”
“Ahh, but it hasn’t ended well at all, has it?” Sherlock smiles flatly, and the man goes pale.
Mrs. Roundhay has started to fidget and look nearly distressed as her lodger. “Which is why we are here, Mr. Holmes! If anyone can help us, I believe it to be you.”
“Ah yes.” He claps his hands together, and gets to his feet. “Well, we’d best have a look then, hadn’t we. Come John, we’re going for a stroll.”
“You know what the doctor said!” John attempts to hiss in his ear, as he marches along beside Sherlock in the slippery lane. His legs are shorter and he has to walk twice as quickly. As a result Sherlock isn’t quite sure if the huffing against his neck is due to John’s pique, or the exertion, but either way he’s finding it impossibly distracting.
“As I recall it was something quite similar to what he said to you, and yet here you are.”
“You know I’m not going to let you go on your own, and you never listen to anyone, do you? You always do just exactly what you please! So here I am.”
John’s arm is brushing up against Sherlock’s, and his breath is a warm delicious contrast to the bracing air around them. He’s practically vibrating with irritation, and Sherlock wants to—to—to stop, and swoop down, and kiss him—quite thoroughly. The image of it pops wholly unbidden and fully formed into his mind, so bright, and clear, and vivid that he gasps audibly.
John hears it, of course, close as he is. He frowns. “Here, you alright?”
“You look flushed.”
Sherlock feels his cheeks colour.
“You really do look off. Stop.”
Sherlock does, and hates himself for it. He wants to see what will happen (no he doesn’t!!). He’s eager, aching (terrified!). He feels dizzy.
Mort Tregennis and their housekeeper have stopped a short way ahead and are staring back at them. “Everything alright?” Mrs. Roundhay calls.
“Yes. Fine. Just give us a minute.” John reaches up and presses the back of his hand to Sherlock’s forehead, and then to his cheek. Sherlock’s eyes slide shut and he sways a little on his feet.
John reaches out to gently grasp his arm. “You’re not okay.”
Sherlock forces his eyes open, forces himself to look John in the eye. Every inch of his body is suddenly, achingly aware. He’d all but managed to forget this thing. He’d shut it all off quite effectively. It’s something that rarely troubles him anymore, but now…
“Okay. You don’t want to listen to me, fine. But if you get sick and die, just know that I’m going to kill you.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
It’s forceful, firm, and sounds rather like a promise. Sherlock shivers. “I only need to take a quick look at the house. No doubt the police have already destroyed or whisked off anything truly useful. Won’t be but a moment. Then you can bundle me home, and—do what you want with me.”
John’s face does something strange, and Sherlock wonders, not for the first time on this fine, crisp November morning, just what on earth has gotten into him. John’s brows knit and the corner of his mouth twitches for a moment, before he lets go of Sherlock’s arm and sets off down the lane again. Their clients do the same.
Sherlock has to hurry to catch up. When he falls back in step beside him, John blinks up in the bright morning sun and nudges his arm a little with his shoulder.
Sherlock has no idea what it means, so he simply gives John a quick wink, and turns his attention back to their clients and the glittering scenery around them.
The house does turn out to be a waste of time, the crime scene having already been thoroughly investigated, and the police having destroyed anything useful. The local constabulary also proves most unreceptive to help from ‘some arrogant sod of a London PI’ as they so delicately put it. So, Sherlock gleans what he can by questioning the housekeeper, from perusing the surrounding gardens, and peering through the windows at the room where the horror had been perpetrated.
It is all very unsatisfactory, and by the time he has said his good-byes to their clients, and trudged the mile back to their cottage he is cold, and hungry, and in a foul mood.
“It’s your own fault,” John grumbles as they stumble back into the still-warm cottage. “Sit.” He points at the chair by the hearth, and Sherlock does as he’s told without even taking his coat off. He tucks his knees up under his chin, trying to ignore how stiff and sore he is, and pushes down the almost unbearable craving for a cigarette.
John is crashing around in the kitchen, and Sherlock imagines how he probably looks just then, mouth a straight line, brows a delightful wrinkled V, eyes dark and flashing, as he struggles to hand-light the hob, slams a skillet on top, and adds some butter, cracks some eggs.
John had been right. Sherlock is exhausted. It occurs to him that perhaps he should apologise, but that might lead to John gloating, and getting ideas, and that just wouldn’t do. On the other hand, he doesn’t want John truly angry. That could result in him refusing to share Sherlock’s bed, or worse yet, deciding he wants to go back to London, and Sherlock had not been exaggerating when he’d told John that he is lost without him. There have been times when he feels as though John is as essential to him as oxygen, that if he were to even go so far as the next village over Sherlock might fly apart, a million tiny particles flung into space, fated to wander frenetic through the cosmos until united with their nucleus once again.
“I’m cooking you a proper breakfast, and you’re eating it!” John calls from the kitchen.
He thinks about the road earlier, about the sudden, urgent need to kiss the anger from John’s lips, to absorb John’s care, and fondness, and concern into his body like water on parched soil. He had wanted to kiss John. John, who cares enough about him to be angry if he doesn’t sleep, or eat, or follow doctor’s orders, John, who has forgiven Sherlock for leaving him, for dying in front of him, for staying away two long years without a single word. John, who by his own admission grieved that absence like a man might grieve his wife.
Sherlock has rolled that confession over and over in his brain since it dropped from John’s lips two nights prior. He’s not certain John even realises he said it. But he did say it. Then again, he’d also said that what he and Sherlock had those 15 months they’d spent together had never been enough, and so Sherlock is left guessing (left aching), and wondering just what it is that John wants, and if John even knows himself.
Sherlock is quite certain he doesn’t know what he wants. His body and certain parts of his traitorous brain seem to have their own ideas, but those are unreliable, should never be heeded, will only, ever lead to pain. What John is to him is too precious a thing to muddy with inconvenient, overwhelming and confusing things like lust.
A plate clatters onto the table beside him, and he jumps. “Eat.” John orders. “I’m going out to chop wood.”
“Your hands,” Sherlock blurts dumbly.
John sighs. “My hands will be fine.”
John sighs again. “Well, you’re in no state to be doing it, so what do you suggest, hmm? Should we just freeze to death?”
“There’s enough wood for the rest of today. We can just go to bed early, and then we won’t need to burn any more.”
John’s face does the same thing it had done earlier on the road. His tongue darts out to moisten his lips, and he rolls his eyes toward the ceiling, before sighing deeply. “Yeah. Fine. But I’m going to remind you you said that at three in morning, when you’re whinging about being cold.”
“I won’t be cold. You’ll be there. You put off enough body heat to warm an entire barracks.”
John’s mouth presses closed, and he nods slowly, and then jerks his chin and turns suddenly toward the hearth, rolling up his sleeves, and reaching down for what little wood they have left.
Sherlock takes the plate from the tea table and starts to eat the fried eggs, and toast John’s miraculously procured. He really was hungry, and it tastes wonderful. He watches John bent over the fireplace, arranging the kindling, working to light it. It catches, and he squats, leans over even more to blow gently at the crackling paper and wood chips, the seat of his trousers straining, forearms flexing as he reaches over and grabs a couple of small logs, sets them carefully in place. He scratches at his beard, and sits back on his heels, watching as the wood catches.
Sherlock is mesmerised by the glow of the flames licking the tips of his eyelashes, painting them pure gold, at the way the skin on John’s bare forearms bursts into gooseflesh as the flames catch, and then smooths again as the warmth begins to spread. He wonders what other parts of John’s body might react to such changes in temperature. Do his nipples peak in the cold, does his scrotum tighten and pull up, seeking the warmth of his body when it’s cold, or drop low, heavy, full and musky in the heat.
His skin prickles, mouth goes dry, abdomen clenches…
“You feeling sick again?” John is on his feet, staring down at him, and Sherlock pulls the plate of half-eaten food over his lap.
“Fine. I keep telling you, I’m fine.”
“Yeah, well you don’t look fine. You look flushed. Maybe I should check your blood pressure.”
“Yes, Sherlock. You’re still recovering, and it’s not just the physical stuff. There’s the… Stress can have an impact.”
“For god sake, stop hovering like a mother hen!” It comes out much harsher than he intends.
John blinks, sniffs. “Right. Yeah. Okay. I’ll just—leave you alone then.”
And then he’s leaving, not even taking the time to shrug into his coat before he walks out the door to the back garden. Sherlock pokes violently at his eggs, willing his body into submission, trying desperately not to panic that’s he’s ruined everything already, before they’ve had even the slightest chance to try again.
After a few minutes the knock of an axe on wood echoes in from the back garden. He gets up and goes to the window, parts the lace curtain with one finger and stares out across the dead lawn. John already has a small pile of split wood on the ground beside him, and he continues to split log after log with one deft blow after another. His hands and forearms are bare, his knuckles and cheeks already pink with cold.
Sherlock lets the curtain drop, and walks over to scoop John’s coat and scarf off the nearby chair, before heading outside.
He knows John can see his approach out of the corner of his eye, but he’s choosing to ignore it. Sherlock stops a few steps away. “It’s cold. Come inside.”
John just goes on chopping.
“You’ll hurt your hands. They’ve only just healed.”
John splits another log.
“John…” Sherlock steps forward and drapes the coat over his shoulders.
John swings the axe one more time, embedding it in the chopping block, before swinging around to face him. His eyes are fierce with anger, but they’re red-rimmed too. “I thought it would be different this time. I thought you’d changed, that I’d changed, but…” He shakes his head. “You’re always telling me I’m an idiot. Seems you’re right.”
“No! I get it. You’d die for me. Great sacrifice. Big hero. I appreciate that, I really do. But, I don’t want a ghost, Sherlock.” His eyes fill and he presses his mouth tight in attempt to swallow down the emotion. “I want my—I want my best friend back. And dying for me is all fine and good, but I—I need you to live.” He turns around, shrugs his arms into the sleeves of the coat Sherlock brought him, and prises the axe out of the chopping block. “And I’m not sure you want to do that, so… That’s that, I guess.”
A jolt of adrenaline surges through Sherlock’s veins. “That’s what?”
John just shrugs, and sets another log on the chopping block.
He chops the log in two. “I can’t do this. I can stand back and just watch you… I’ve done it once. I won’t do it again.”
“So you’re what? Leaving?”
“I don’t know.”
Sherlock goes cold. “Don’t.”
John chops another log.
“John…” He strides forward and grabs his arm before he can pick up another log. “I’m sorry. You were right, I was wrong, I’m sorry.”
John swings around again. “I don’t want your apologies. They don’t mean anything. They’re just words! If you’re sorry, then take care of yourself.”
John’s mouth curls into a wry smile. “I doubt it.”
“I will!” Sherlock repeats with all the sincerity he can manage. “I’m just not—I’m not used to someone caring.”
Something shifts behind John’s eyes.
“Today on the road, when you… I was grateful. I am grateful, John, but I have no… I find myself reacting in unexpected ways.”
John’s tongue darts out, lingers on his bottom lip, and Sherlock’s eyes naturally follow. “Oh.”
He has no idea if John understands him, but… “Yes.”
“But, you’re okay?”
Sherlock thinks about it for a moment. Thinks about how John looks cold, and concerned, and how it makes him want to pull him close. “I think so.”
“Okay.” John whispers it, licks his lips again.
Sherlock’s cheeks inconveniently choose this moment to flush again, and he looks away, down at the pile of wood at John’s feet. When he looks up again John is smiling, soft and fond. “Does this mean you’ll take better care of yourself?”
“And you won’t complain when I remind you?”
He nods again.
“Okay. Okay, let’s go inside, and help me carry some of this wood, will you.”
They gather the wood in silence, return to the house, and stack it by the hearth in silence. John wordlessly takes Sherlock’s plate of half-eaten food, and returns a short while later with a new plate, steaming and warm. Sherlock eats it obediently.
When he finishes John is reading, so he reads too. In the late afternoon they make their way down to the rocky shore, stroll side-by-side and listen to the waves wash over the gravel. They meet no one. John laughs about it, and mentions that it’s only the mad ones who are out strolling the beach in so much cold, and Sherlock’s blood sings at the lightness of his tone, and the way his eyes sparkle while he presses in close for warmth.
When they get home it’s to the discovery of lights burning, and the heat clanking in the radiators. The cottage is warm, and inviting, and John sets about making them cheese toasties, and tomato soup from a tin. And after they’ve eaten, and stood together at the sink, washing up the few dishes they’ve used, John stretches, and declares that he thinks he’s still going to turn in early, like they’d planned.
They go together, and John lets Sherlock examine his hands for injury, and Sherlock let’s John insist on an anti-inflammatory and pain killer for his stiffness and pain, and when Sherlock wakes the next morning to the sound of someone knocking frantically on the cottage door, it’s with his head tucked up under John’s chin, and John’s arm draped over his shoulder, and he’s never cursed an intrusion more.
“Mrs. Roundhay, I’m grateful for your bread, but it’s six in the mor…” John stops mid sentence, and Sherlock hurriedly shrugs into a dressing gown and heads out to the entry to find out why.
“John Watson! I never in a million years would have thought to see you here. Are you…?” She huffs out a laugh. “I had no idea you were Sherlock Holmes’ John Watson.
John rubs at the back of his neck and laughs that high-pitched giggle that is usually reserved for one of Sherlock’s more brilliant or humorous observations, and Sherlock narrows his eyes at the woman at the door as he comes up to stand behind him.
John jumps a little. “Oh. Sherlock. This is Leona St…”
“Sterndale. The war photographer. I know.” He looks her up and down. Her clothes are rumpled, and her hair hastily knotted at the base of her neck. There are dark rings under her eyes. She’s been travelling, and wherever it is she’s just come from, she left in a hurry. “I thought you were in Syria.”
Her mouth drops open, and John sighs beside him. “He’s not a stalker, I swear. It’s—it’s just a thing he does.”
Her eyes snap to John and then back to Sherlock again. “I should be. I’d got all the way to Berlin, and turned back.”
“And why are you here?”
“I heard about the incident with the Tregennises.”
“Sherlock.” John’s donned his warning tone. Sherlock rolls his eyes, but the woman proceeds apparently unaffected.
"I had a text from Mrs. Roundhay just as I arrived at the Henri. I was very close with the Tregennises. They were—practically family.”
“You still haven’t told me why you’re here, at this cottage, at six in the morning.”
John sighs again.
“I heard you were investigating. I need to know what you’ve found out so far.”
“Very little I’m afraid.”
“Well, are you trying?!”
Sherlock cocks a brow, and turns on his heel, heading for the kitchen. “I am on holiday, Ms. Sterndale.” He calls over his shoulder. “I’m meant to be resting. Doctor’s orders. But, yes, when I’m not being forced into convalescence I can assure you that I am very much trying.”
He slips into the bedroom and toes into his trousers, slips a jumper over his head, and dons his coat and scarf just as John sees the woman out with another string of apologies.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” John looks him up and down with a frown as he rushes into the entry.
“Following her, John.” He pushes past him. “I’ll be in need of tea when I get back. And perhaps another of those cheese toasties.”
“I’m not your housekeeper.”
“No.” He turns and stares down at John’s scowl, at his head of still sleep-mussed hair, at the way the t-shirt he’s wearing stretches across his chest, revealing nipples peaked from the cold. “No. You’re a great deal more than that. But I would appreciate it. I won’t be long. I promise.”
Something about his tone seems to reach it’s mark. John’s lips part, the tip of his tongue, appearing for only a moment along the edge of his lower lip, before he sucks in a breath and rubs thumb and forefinger over his brows. “Fine. Fine. Just—remember you said that.”
“I will. Be back soon!” And with that Sherlock dashes out the door.
In the end Leona Sterndale does nothing more interesting than walking to Mrs. Roundhay’s residence, pacing outside it for some time, and then finally returning to another cottage a short way down the lane from the Tregennises’ house. The cottage is quite obviously a residence she owns, or at least uses as a home base when she’s not in the Middle East, but since she does nothing of interest after arriving, Sherlock sends off a few emails to the airline she had been flying and the hotel in Berlin, and then returns home with heavy step.
An entire morning and part of an afternoon spent away from John, is over half a day utterly wasted, in his estimation. When he finally gets back to the cottage, it is quiet and dark. There is no sign of John. He texts him and gets no response. After a few minutes of pacing the kitchen, he sits down and tries not to panic (ridiculous!).
He would not have gone far, seeing as he knew Sherlock would be returning shortly. Sherlock will wait. He stares down at his jeans and the rumpled jumper he’d hastily shrugged into in his rush to go out earlier. It’s meant to be worn over a button-down and it itches, the tag at the back digging into his neck.
Back into his pyjamas, he thinks. It’s not as though he will be going anywhere else that evening, in fact he very much hopes that when John returns they can get back to doing as little as they have been doing the last few evenings. It’s been surprisingly enjoyable.
He’s already through the bedroom door and shrugging out of his jumper when he realises that he’s not alone. John is sound asleep on Sherlock’s pillow, his own tucked between his legs, and his hand disappearing beneath the waistband of his pants which are slung low over one hip. Sherlock takes it all in in a glance, makes his deductions and feels his mouth go dry. He should walk out right now, but he can’t seem to tear his eyes away.
John’s mouth is open, the muscles in his wrist tense, a sign that even in his sleep his fingers still stir, a subconscious echo of the pleasure he had just teased from his body while awake. It is likely he fell asleep immediately after orgasm which means that…
A rush of saliva rushes over Sherlock’s tongue and he swallows again, discards his jumper on the floor, scoops up his pyjamas, and retreats from the room. The cottage’s only other loo is on the first floor, so he retreats there to change, to not think about John’s face, soft, lax, peaceful, pressed into Sherlock’s pillow, to not think about how his pillow will smell of John tonight, to most certainly not think about how he might arrange switching pillows without John noticing, and sleep with his face pressed against the same down that had been tucked up between John’s legs with only a thin layer of cotton between it and John’s…
He sucks in a breath through his nose and scowls down at the swiftly thickening bulge in his own pants. He can remember, exactly, the last time he had been troubled in this way. Well over two years before, waiting for John to come back to their shared room, and their shared bed on a case in Dartmoor. He’d gone and had a cool shower, dealt with it swiftly and efficiently. Tried not to dwell on it again, especially considering all that came a few months later.
But perhaps now…?
He closes the lid to the toilet and sits down on the cold porcelain.
John is certainly not amenable to anything Sherlock’s traitorous brain has been concocting of late. Despite the frustratingly eager signals John sometimes puts off around other men, it is obviously something he has no intention of ever acting on. Sherlock has no chance of exploring this—thing—whatever it is, with the only person, save one unfortunate other, who has ever had this effect on him. It’s all ‘fine, by the way’ until it actually rears it’s ugly head, until it’s focused directly on one, and then—not so fine.
That being said, John is a sexual being. Sherlock knows this. He’s always known it. All those ridiculous girlfriends. Nothing more than a means to an end. But John has been grieving for two years, and now he’s not, and here Sherlock has dragged him out to the back end of nowhere, no outlet. Leona shows up this morning, a very attractive woman, a woman he obviously was acquainted with when in Afghanistan, and it’s only natural he should—have a reaction.
Yes. That is what it was about today, and Sherlock should put it out of his head. Things have been fine, all fine between John and him, and he very much wants it to stay that way. This thing will pass, and if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t, Sherlock will find a way to deal with it. Just as he’s managed to deal with it now.
Taking a deep breath, he does his best to delete any residual images from earlier, and finishes changing. When he comes back downstairs it’s to the sound of pans clanking in the kitchen. Sherlock ties his dressing gown at the waist and wanders into the kitchen, leaning against the wall and watching John spread butter on four pieces of bread.
Oh, so they’re going to ignore it. Fine. Good.
“Nothing of interest. I’ve heard back from the airline and hotel. They confirmed her story. She received a message, checked out early, and let over ten thousand pounds worth of photography equipment ship on ahead of her to Damascus, as there was no time to stop it. That’s something more than friendship. She’s tied to this somehow, but… I just can’t piece it together.”
“Mmm. You want ham on this toastie? Mrs. Roundhay brought us some things from the shops.”
“Maybe she was more than friends with one of them?” John still has his back to him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean maybe there was a love affair.”
“She's married, isn’t she?”
John shrugs and places the two sandwiches he’s been assembling into the skillet. “Mmm, an American defense contractor. They met in Kabul in ’08. She rarely talks about him. You do weird things in a war zone. Maybe she regrets it.”
Sherlock comes in and sits down at the kitchen table. “Mm, perhaps. But if she was secretly involved with one of them, you would think she would be in London where they’re being treated, not all the way out here, lurking about the lanes and meadows.”
“It was just a thought.” John flips the sandwiches, and Sherlock’s stomach growls at the sound of sizzling butter and scent of fried cheese.
“I did walk further than I’d anticipated.”
“Have both of these, I’ll make myself another.”
Sherlock doesn’t argue. He lets John slide both sandwiches onto his plate, cut them at neat angles, and push a small bowl of salad along side. He still hasn’t managed to look Sherlock in the eye, and it’s starting to grow awkward. Sherlock contemplates bringing it up, and is just finishing up his salad and opening his mouth to do so, when John sits down across from him at the table and breaks the silence.
“Sorry about today.”
“When you came home.”
“There’s no need to apologise.”
John nods, takes a bite of sandwich, swallows, and looks up. His cheeks are pink and Sherlock finds it charming. “Thanks.”
Sherlock just nods, and goes back to obediently eating his sandwich.
Y'all, I realised this wasn't rated. I've put a Mature rating on it now, just to be on the safe side where the lovin' is concerned. If you know my stuff you know that the sexy times, on those rare occasions when they happen, are usually more love-making than porn. But, anyway, I hope this doesn't make the rest of it unreadable for anyone. If so, my apologies, and I totally understand.
Additional Warnings: This chapter contains the brief use of a homophobic slur.
“What the fuck are you doing, Holmes?!” A whole hand between his lips and Victor’s. A push to the face that causes him to stumble backwards.
“I—I’m sorry. I thought…”
Victor’s face twists into something that looks half amused and half disgusted. “You thought what?”
And it doesn’t sound like Victor at all. There is none of the playful, fond banter. There is none of the soft awe, or the breathless laughter, none of the comfortable conversation, there is only a sneer, and a rough shove, and words, cruel things he’s never heard come from Victor’s lips before.
“You thought that because I tolerate you, it meant I would want to fuck you? You thought I was what? Some sort of fag? God, for a genius you really can be horrifically stupid.
“Christ Jesus Holmes, I swear to god if you start crying I will walk out of here right now, and I will never come back.”
Sherlock bites down hard at the inside of his lip, so hard he can taste blood. “You’re not coming back anyway. Why prolong it.”
And Victor huffs out a laugh, a bitter, pitying sort of thing, as he shakes his head and leaves, and leaves, and leaves, and leaves, and leaves, and leaves… Friendship, the desire for companionship, some scrap of human affection, the tender touch of a caring hand—human failings, all!
(Then why can’t he stop crying?)
But it’s not.
“Don’t have friends.”
‘Yeah, I know. Come on. Just wake up.’
“It’s okay. Wake up, now.”
John hovering over him in the dark, a hand on his upper arm. He squeezes once. “You were dreaming. You okay?” His hand slides down Sherlock’s arm, back up, down to rest in the crook of his elbow.
“Yeah. You okay?”
“Bad dreams again.”
Sherlock realises his cheeks are wet. Crying in his sleep like a witless child. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“It’s fine.” John’s hand is still on his arm. “That’s what I’m here for, remember?” Another squeeze.
But, for how long?
“Hey. Maybe try to sleep some more. The sun won’t be up for hours yet.” John lays down and scoots close. His hand lingers on Sherlock’s arm.
“Yes. Perhaps I should.”
Sherlock sucks in an involuntary breath.
“He someone I need to pay a visit to, hmm?”
“It’s no one.”
“You sure?” There’s something deadly serious and wildly fierce in John’s tone. It makes Sherlock shiver and his heart ache with fondness and gratitude all at once.
“Yes. He’s no one. At least—no one of importance.”
“Ok. Sounded like a bit of a dick to me.”
Sherlock chuckles, soft and low, in spite of himself, and John lets out an answering huff before squeezing his arm one last time and letting go.
“He was... I misunderstood what we were. It’s not a mistake I’ve made since.”
John nods against the pillow. “Because you don’t have friends.”
“Just one,” Sherlock whispers and wonders why.
“Yeah?” John whispers back.
Sherlock nods. “I’m—grateful you’re still here with me, to still have the honour of your companionship. The memory of it is what carried me through all those months away, and I’ve been wondering…”
“If you plan to stay?”
“You mean, share a flat again?”
“I didn’t want to presume.” He can hear the smile in John’s voice. “I’m not going to be much good to you, I’m afraid. I’m a bit hard up for cash at the moment. Not sure if you noticed, but I quit at the surgery before we came out here. I wasn’t any good to them. I hadn’t been any good to them for a long time, and I—I just wanted time to… I don’t know. I didn’t really think it through.”
“I wasn’t asking because I need your money, John.”
“Good, because I don’t have any,” John huffs. “But listen, what I’m really trying to say is that I’m not sure I’m the me you remember. I can come back, but—it’s not going to be the way it was.”
“And that’s not your fault, okay.”
Sherlock doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing.
“I’ve been fucked up for a long time, Sherlock. Since before I met you, and—and you pulled me out of it when I was at my lowest, and thank Christ for that, but I…” He hears John sniff and swallow tightly in the dark. “I still get scared sometimes.”
“So do I.”
“Sometimes I’m scared all the time.”
Sherlock reaches across the space between them, and slips his hand over one of John’s. “I know.”
John turns his hand, palm up, squeezes Sherlock’s hand and then pulls away. “But if—if you’re okay with that, and you still want to put up with me, then…”
“I look forward to putting up with you.”
John giggles, and then bites it off, as though uncomfortable with the sound of his own happiness.
“Do you think it would be something somewhat—permanent?”
“The flat share?”
“And the friendship.”
“This you proposing, then?” John teases, and then falls silent when Sherlock doesn’t banter back.
“I only mean, what will the arrangement be. If you were to want to bring people home, would it be like it was before?”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“What would be different?”
“I don’t have to bring people home.”
“Where would you go to have sex?”
John barks out a laugh. “Umm, their place, I guess. A hotel. I don’t know. To be honest I’ve not really even thought much about dating in over two years. I—I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.”
“But you’ll want sex.”
“Uhh… Maybe. What’s this about? You want to talk about sex, then?”
“No!” It comes out a slightly panicked bark.
The clouds have skittered away from the rising moon outside and there is enough light in the room for him to see John grinning quizzically. “Okay.” He licks his lips. “Yeah. Okay. Whatever you like. I’m just saying, it’s not something you’re going to need to worry about.”
“Alright. Good. Thank you.”
John stirs, tucks the blankets up under his nose. “Right. Well, I’m going to sleep for a bit, so…”
Sherlock lays in the dark and listens to John fall back asleep, thinks about him coming home again, safe and sheltered in his room above Sherlock’s. Or perhaps this thing they’ve started will continue. Perhaps they will share a bed, and he will have this pleasure and this honour every night, to lay in the dark, and listen to John’s breath, to share his warmth, have the constant assurance that he is alive, and in the world, and of all the places he could choose to be, and of all the people he could choose to be with in that world, he chooses to be at Baker Street with Sherlock, for however long it can last.
John hums when he gets up a few hours later. He hums while he dresses, and he hums while he cooks breakfast. He hums when he goes out to split wood, and hums when he comes back in with an armful.
Sherlock lays in bed and listens to him putter about for over an hour. He smiles when he hears John stub his toe on the leg of the sofa, and let out a muttered string of exceptionally creative profanity. He chuckles when he hears him grumble about Sherlock leaving his dressing gowns strewn about. He smiles at the constant stream of humming, and he pretends to be asleep when John slips back into the room and the loo beyond to wash up and brush his teeth. But he sits up with a start when he hears the sound of a car’s tires skid to a stop on the gravel of the drive outside.
John’s head pops out the door of the loo, toothbrush still sticking out of his mouth. “Who’sat?”
“Someone with news. Important news. Hurry up and get dressed!”
I've increased the chapter total from 10 chapters to 12, because I just don't think I can squeeze what's left into 10 and still allow for enough satisfactory post-case lovin'.
“He’s dead! Oh, help! Help me! He’s dead!” Mrs. Roundhay’s normally florid face is deathly pale, eyes wide with horror. She wrings one side of her cardigan in her clammy hands, and trembles everywhere.
Sherlock is happy to let John take over. He places a steadying hand on her arm. “It’s alright, Mrs. Roundhay. We’ll help. Who’s dead.”
It takes Sherlock’s still sleep-lazy brain a moment to realise that she isn’t just restating the obvious in French, but that she is actually referring to her funereal boarder.
Sherlock steps forward and takes her gently by both arms. “Have you called the police?”
“Oh no, I… You were closer. Should I have?”
“No indeed. You did exactly as you should have. Do you think that you could bear to come back to the house with us, tell us what you saw, how you found him.”
“Sherlock.” John warns.
But Mrs. Roundhay nods despite her shock.
“Good. That’s good. Now John and I will just get our coats and we’ll be off.”
When they arrive at the house, Mrs. Roundhay leads them upstairs, and stops before a closed door. “I won’t go in there again.”
“There’s no need. Have you touched anything in the room?”
“I only opened the window. It was so stuffy, and so… I got dizzy, thought I was going to faint. I needed fresh air.”
Sherlock nods. “John, take her downstairs, take care of her, and call the police. I’ll be finished here before they arrive.”
“Yeah, okay.” He places a hand on Mrs. Roundhay’s back and leads her back toward the staircase, but turns and comes back to whisper urgently in Sherlock’s ear. “Be careful. You remember your theory? A dispersant, right? So just—be careful.”
“I will. I promise.”
John doesn’t look entirely convinced, but he goes anyway.
Sherlock takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, and pushes the door open. It’s immediately clear why their housekeeper had been in such a state. The room is still stuffy, even with the window thrown wide and the bracing morning air washing in, and there is an overall atmosphere of what can only be described as oppression.
The unfortunate, fourth Tregennis is lying on the floor beside a tipped-over chair in the corner of the room, limbs drawn up, fingers curled in toward his palms, eyes bulging, wide, and blank. His mouth is twisted in a paroxysm of terror. Sherlock has to tear his eyes away as an uncharacteristic jolt of adrenaline and wave of nausea rushes over him. He screws his eyes shut, and stands still for a moment, bracing himself against the door jamb, telling himself he’s being ridiculous, reminding himself of the symptoms of rigor mortis. The wave of nausea passes, but the pervasive sense of dread remains.
He ignores it, forces himself to breathe, to take in the surroundings. Tregennis is dressed, though it appears he dressed in a hurry. His bed has been slept in, but he’s been dead long enough for rigor mortis to set in, so a death that likely occurred in the wee hours of the morning. There are no signs of a struggle, but given the state of him it is clear that what killed him is likely the same thing that killed his sister, and drove his brothers mad.
Sherlock’s eyes comb the room. There is a small pile of gravel on the window sill. Not likely that Mrs. Roundhay or Tregennis put it there, so likely tossed there from the floor below. Someone trying to get Tregennis’ attention without waking the whole house?
Sherlock races outside, and looks for footprints in the damp soil of the drive, around the windows of the garden. He smiles when he finds exactly what he was hoping for, and then returns to the room, trying to ignore Tregennis’ corpse in the corner, which can offer him nothing more until an autopsy.
There must be a local dispersal point. If it had been through the cottage’s ventilation system, Mrs. Roundhay would have been killed as well. There had been a fire burning in his sibling’s home when they were killed, but no fireplace had been lit in this room last night, despite the cold. Sherlock growls with frustration. There must be SOMETHING!
Perhaps the killer carried the dispersal unit with them, whatever it was? But given the lingering, cloying atmosphere of the room and that reported in the room where the other Tregennis’ died, it is unlikely that the guilty party could have dispersed the substance that close to themselves and escaped unscathed. Unless—perhaps being by an open window, or other means of ventilation weakened the substance enough that they were less harmed?
Of course, there is no way of knowing, because the substance, no matter what it is, is nowhere to be found. Sherlock spins around in the middle of the room taking in every detail again. There has to be something! There has to be…
He stops dead, his eye lighting on a small, white porcelain pod on top of the bookcase beside Tregennis’ overturned chair. There’s a red light blinking on the side of it. An oil diffuser, auto-shutoff feature when the water level gets too low. There just may still be some left.
Sherlock dons his gloves, carefully unscrews the top, and to his great relief finds an oily brown film floating atop the tiny bit of water still remaining. It smells like sandalwood. It may be nothing more than that, but it’s his best bet. Reaching into the breast pocket of his coat, he removes a small glass vial, and tips half the water and oil into it, leaving the other half for the local police, and then races downstairs.
“Mrs. Roundhay, upstairs in Mort’s room there is an oil diffuser. Was it on when you entered the room? Did you turn it on after you found him this morning?”
“No, I--I don’t know.”
“Does it belong to him?”
“It’s mine. I have them in all the rooms. Old house. Gets all mildewy in the Spring. I like to freshen things up.”
“Would you mind very much if I borrowed one?”
“Oh, no. I’ll just…” She gets up and shuffles into the next room, and John cocks a brow at him.
“What’s this all about, then?”
“I’ll tell you when we get home.”
Mrs. Roundhay reappears with a diffuser cupped in her trembling hands, and Sherlock takes it from her. In the distance the sound of sirens cuts through the early morning quiet. “John and I have to leave now. The police will be here, soon. They’ll have some questions for you. Be sure to tell them to check the windowsill and the oil-diffuser in Tregennis’ room, won’t you. And let them know that they’re more than welcome to come to the cottage at any time, and discuss my findings.”
“It was just essential oils. I never…”
“No one’s blaming you, Mrs. Roundhay,” John soothes. “No one at all.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. I’m sorry, I’m just so…”
John motions for her to sit down, pushes a cup of chamomile tea in front of her, and wraps the blanket draped over the chair, back over her shoulders. “Nothing to be sorry about. Just finish your tea. The police will be here soon, and set things to rights, don’t you worry.”
A line of police and emergency vehicles sail past them on the narrow lane as they make their way back to their own cottage. He recognises one of the officers from two days prior by his trademark scowl as he drives past. Sherlock grins cheerily and waves, relishing in the way the man sputters, and turns away in a huff.
“What’s all this with the diffuser then?” John says after the cars have passed. “You think that’s how the killer did it?”
“The killer was most likely Mort Tregennis, and as for the method of dispersal, we shall soon see.”
“Wait, so—what? You’re saying Mort killed his sister, and that this morning was a suicide?”
Sherlock basks in the way John accepts his deductions about Tregennis without demand of further explanation. He could certainly provide one, but it isn’t required with John, and it speaks to John’s renewed trust. “Right on point one, but not quite on the other.”
“Well, tell me!” John sounds like a child at Christmas, eager for Sherlock to show off for him, to wrap it all up and deliver it with a flourish. Sherlock intends to deliver.
“I would rather show you, and it requires one last, small experiment, which I very much hope you will help me with.”
John grins. “Yeah, ‘course.”
Sherlock heads for the kitchen the minute they’re through the door. “In here, I think. We can open the windows and we’ll be close to the door should we need it. Leave your coat on.”
“Wait. What are we doing?”
Sherlock fishes inside his coat pocket and pulls out the small vial, holds it up to the light for John to see.
He frowns, but steps closer. “What is that?”
“I found it in the oil diffuser in Tregennis’ room. It may be nothing more than sandalwood oil, in which case I’ve been wrong about everything, but if it is what I suspect it is…”
“We’re not going to diffuse that here, are we?”
“I thought we might.”
John’s head drops back and he stares up at the ceiling as though begging heavenly entities for strength. “No, Sherlock. If that is the same thing that killed Brenda and Mort Tregennis, then we have no business…”
“It’s quite safe. We’ll open the windows, and stand right here. Most of it will go straight outside.”
“Yeah, and most of it probably got out a cracked window, or open fireplace flue in the case of the other Tregennises too, and yet… Listen, I’ve just come through a two year rough patch, and I’m not especially keen on being permanently driven out of my wits.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It will be fine. Though, if you would rather bow out, I understand.”
John just shakes his head, and draws two chairs up to the console table by the door to the back garden, throws open the window, and cracks the door. “If you think I’m letting you do this alone, then you’re already crazy. Let’s do it then. Go on.”
Sherlock grins, adds some water from the sink, and then hurries over to the table where he empties the contents of the vial into the diffuser, screws the lid back on, and pauses with his finger over the on button.
John sniffs the air. “Does smell like sandalwood.”
“We’ll see. Ready?”
John just shrugs. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“On we go, then.” And with a wink, Sherlock switches the diffuser on.
It takes only seconds for Sherlock to realise he’s made a mistake.
As the mist begins to rise from the diffuser and drift between them, John’s brow wrinkles. “Smells different now?” He sniffs, and then suddenly gasps. Stumbles back, tipping his chair over, and…
Everything goes black.
“I knew you’d fall for it. That’s your weakness – you always want everything to be clever. Now, shall we finish the game? One final act.”
The mist clears. There’s a mild drizzle, there is the smell of wet pavement, and the prickle of anxiety that accompanies a sudden rush of adrenaline, and the dread and shame that comes with knowing that you’ve failed and that everything is about to fall apart.
“Go on. For me, Sherlock. Just die.”
“I would rather forego the pleasure, if you don’t mind all that much.”
“Your friend will die if you don’t.”
“Sherlock!” John’s voice, distant and panicked, floors below in the near-empty square.
“Mm, John. Seems he’s come back for you. That’s the problem with pets, Sherlock. They’re so predictable.”
Jim Moriarty clucks his tongue. “John, John, John. Stupid, loyal, little John. I’ve got my best sniper trained on him right now. There’s no stopping them. Nothing’s gonna prevent them from pulling the trigger.”
“I’m sorry, Little Brother.” Sherlock turns at the sound of his brother’s voice from the other side of the roof. Mycroft strolls across the wet tarmac immaculate in one of his signature three-piece suits, umbrella swinging lazily from one hand. “It really is necessary. Don’t worry. John is a simple little distraction. He’ll get on quite well without you, and there are more important things at stake than your sudden penchant for playing at domesticity. Now be a good boy, and off you pop.”
“SHERLOCK!!” John sounds impossibly closer.
Moriarty grins. “You see. Everyone agrees. Your only friend in the world will die... Unless…”
“I die.” Sherlock turns his glance toward his brother. “And complete your story.” Sherlock walks to the edge of the roof, stares down at John running full speed toward the hospital. He smiles. Turns. “There’s only one problem with that.”
Moriarty’s head cocks to one side, reptilian, intrigued. Mycroft takes a step forward, no doubt reading the whole situation in a glance, as only he can, and moves to stop what’s about to happen next.
Sherlock takes a deep breath. “It’s not your story anymore.”
He walks away from the roof’s edge, away from them both. Jim starts to laugh, a high pitched, almost maniacal thing. His brother reaches out, but he shrugs him off and keeps walking, down flight-after-flight of stairs, through the hospital lobby, out into the street. John sees him, pockets his phone, starts running faster than he already had been.
“John…” He whispers, and starts running too.
The heavens open, and the rain pours down in sheets, surprisingly warm, soaking Sherlock’s hair, running into his eyes, and down his cheeks. He can see the relief in John’s eyes, and the smile spreading across his lips as he reaches him. He’s breathless and panting, as he skids to a halt mere inches away. “Thought I was too late. Thought I’d missed my chance.”
Sherlock steps closer. “I’d say you’re just in time.” He holds out a hand. “Let’s go home.”
John grins. “Yeah. Let’s. I’d like tha…”
It takes a moment for Sherlock’s mind to register the pop for what it is. John looks surprised. He stares down at his chest, where a bloom of red is starting spread through his shirt. He looks back up, meets Sherlock’s eyes, disbelief, and anger, and sorrow all mingling together.
“Sorry.” And then he falls.
“He was never yours. He doesn’t belong to you, Brother. There are rules, and if you won’t play by them, then we have no choice but to take your toy away.”
“You two couldn’t be allowed to continue. You just couldn’t.”
Sherlock looks from his brother, to James Moriarty, and back down to John, laying on the wet pavement, a pool of red swiftly bleeding out into the puddles beneath him. It doesn’t make sense. It’s wrong. It’s all wrong!
“No. No, no, no, NO!”
He drops to his knees, hands everywhere. What to do? What to do?! “JOHN!”
John blinks up at him. There are raindrops falling on his face. Sherlock leans over to shelter him with his body, strokes his hair, his face, smooth and clean-shaven now, and Sherlock realises it seems like lifetimes since he’s properly seen it. He’s missed it so. He pushes his hands over John’s heart and wills it to keep beating.
“It’s okay, Sherlock. Don’t be scared.”
But he can’t breathe, and he can’t be calm, and he can’t not be scared when John is bleeding, when John is dying, when everything in the universe seems to be aligning to take him away in the very moment he’s got him back.
“Sherlock,” John’s hand is on his face. “I’m not scared anymore. I’ve got you. I’m okay. We’re okay.”
“That’s all done now. We’re safe.”
“No.” He can’t stop crying. He’s hopeless, helpless.
“Open your eyes, Sherlock. Open your eyes and see.”
“Oh thank, Christ.” It’s John hovering over him now, bearded, tear-damp cheeks, trembling hands, hands that are touching him—everywhere.
There is a crisp breeze wafting over his damp cheeks, and cold, hard ground beneath his back. They’re in the garden, the windows and back door of the cottage still open and visible over John’s shoulder.
“Going to kill you? Yeah, well spotted.” It’s wet and fond, fierce and awash with relief.
“You’re okay? You’re alive?”
John laughs. “Yeah. Yeah, we’re both alive by some fucking miracle.” John’s hands are carding through his hair, one hand smoothing over his forehead, cupping his cheek, thumb stroking along one cheekbone.
It all comes rushing back in a sickening instant—the case, the dispersant, the experiment. “I’m sorry. It was a stupid risk to take, for myself and doubly so for you, and I—I promised.”
“Yeah, you did.”
John’s eyes are full. “Thought I was too late. Though I was going to lose you again, not get the chance to…”
Sherlock shakes his head.
“I can’t go back to what we were, Sherlock. I can’t do that. I can’t go back to flatmates. I can’t go back to colleagues. I can’t…” John’s face crumples, and he covers his eyes with one hand. “Jesus!”
Sherlock moves to sit up but John pushes him back down against the frozen lawn with a gentle but firm hand. “Don’t you dare move. Don’t you dare. Breathe, idiot. Breathe until your head stops spinning.”
“I know. Shut up.”
“Please don’t leave.”
John’s face pinches into an expression of pain, before he shakes his head. “What?”
“I promised. I broke that promise, and you, very rightly, don’t feel you can continue with this—friendship. I understand, but…”
“What are you on about?”
“You just said—I can’t go back to what we were.”
John sighs. “I’m not going anywhere. Just—stop talking, and—breathe.”
“What did I just say?”
“Thank you. I was an idiot, and you saved me, us, and not for the first time.”
John’s head drops and he flops back onto the lawn beside him. “Too right.” He tilts his head, to look over at him. “You know I want to, right? You know I consider it—an honour, a pleasure, to be here with you, and not just the case. Everything. All of it.”
There is so much Sherlock wants to say, but his head is spinning, and his stomach churning, and there is still wave, after wave of anxiety coursing through his veins. The cool air on his face feels good, the warm, grounding presence of John’s body next to his is a comfort. He pushes closer, and John doesn’t object, so he pushes closer still. When John’s hand lifts, and his fingers weave into Sherlock’s hair, he pushes his face into the crook of John’s neck, and breathes in the scent of him, until his heart calms, and the image of John lying in a pool of his own blood fades from his mind.
“I’m always going to be here, you know” John turns his head and murmurs into Sherlock’s fringe. “I’m not going anywhere, unless you tell me to leave.”
“Why would I ever tell you to leave?”
John just shrugs.
“I wouldn’t. I won’t.”
“Good,” John whispers into his hair. “Because, I don’t think I know how to leave you.”
John holds out his hand. “Up.”
Sherlock takes it, allows himself to be pulled to his feet. He’s still dizzy. The diffuser is most likely still in the cottage, puffing out it’s noxious fumes. He weaves on his feet and John reaches out to steady him, nods toward the garden bench under a nearby pergola. “Sit. I’m going to go in and get the bloody thing.”
Sherlock’s hand shoots out instinctively, grips his wrist. John’s pulse is racing. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I’ll be quick. I’ll hold my breath.”
Sherlock lets him go.
John is as good as his word. He dashes into the cottage and back out again in seconds, and then hurls the offending diffuser into the nearest tangle of brambles. He’s panting when he returns to Sherlock and sits down beside him, and Sherlock finds himself seeking John out, physically assessing him with feather-light touches to his arm, and nape, and crown. It’s illogical and unnecessary, but he can’t seem to stop himself. John lets him.
The morning clouds have parted, and the light rain stopped. The emerging sun is surprisingly warm. John huffs out a sigh. “I hope all that actually proved something.”
Sherlock realises his hand is resting on John’s knee. He removes it. “Indeed it did.”
“Right, so we know the ‘how’ without a shadow of a doubt, but I’m still not sure we know the ‘why’. You going to explain?”
“I’m not sure I’ll have to. Tregennis’ murder of his sister, and attempted murder of his brothers can most likely be attributed to the disagreement over the division of their parent’s assets, and his inability to manage his share. His siblings diversified their investments with a minor foray into real estate. Mort wasn’t so wise. He squandered his money, and then attempted to start his own business with the rest, but it was failing It was obvious by the state of his clothing, and the way he was constantly checking his phone. He likely thought that with his siblings out of the way, their shares would pass to him. He saw an opportunity, took it, and thought he would get away with it, but there was one thing he failed to anticipate, because it was the one thing he could never really understand.”
“And what’s that?”
“Hello…?” The gate creaks open.
“Ah, and here to answer all your questions is Ms. Sterndale.”
Leona Sterndale strides into the garden, and stares at them curiously. “Bit chilly for sitting outdoors, isn’t it?”
Sherlock smiles. “Quite right. Unfortunately, John and I have just had a little sample of your husband’s handiwork, and we’d much rather freeze our fingers and toes then succumb to what the local papers have rather ridiculously been referring to as The Sussex Horror. Did you know that it’s caught the interest of MI5?”
Leona pales. “My husband?”
“Oh, does he not know that you’ve been dipping your fingers into the pot?”
Her cheeks turn scarlet, and she scowls. “It’s—it’s not like that.”
“No? Then just what is it like?”
Fishing into her pocket she pulls out a packet of Egyptian cigarettes, and lights one, taking a deep drag before she replies. “I took it, because he was going to sell it to people who were going to use it in some very—questionable ways.”
“Chemical weaponry—not too far outside the purview of a defence contractors typical skillset.”
“And that makes it alright?”
“No. But you knew that when you married him. It could hardly have come as a surprise.”
“It was a mistake. A silly whim after a week-long drunk in Kabul. And then he wouldn’t let me out of it.”
“So you stole something very important to him. Not so altruistic after all… Did you know what it did.”
“Yes. As I said, it’s why I took it.”
“Mmm… But, I don’t imagine you gave it to Mort Tregennis willingly.”
She looks stricken.
“Please, speak freely Ms. Sterndale. As you may have noticed, we have called you here alone, there are no police present, John and I are your only judge and jury, and I can assure you that though excessively fair in all things, my John does have a strong romantic bent. I suspect he will find you, if not guiltless, at least justified in your actions.”
Her eyes flit from him, to John, and back to him again. “May I sit down.”
Sherlock motions to the chair across from their shared bench. “Of course.”
Once settled, she stares down at her hands, and picks at a hangnail in the corner of her thumb. Her nails have been bitten down to the quick. They were not in such condition on her first visit, and it speaks better than anything else of her level of distress.
“Shall I start us off, then?” Sherlock offers. When she makes no move to reply, he goes on. “You killed Mort Tregennis.”
She sucks in a breath like she’s been punched in the gut, and casts Sherlock such a look of pure, lethal, rage that he feels John shift his weight beside him, tense and ready to spring into action if necessary.
“And what makes you think that?” she spits.
Sherlock smiles. “You have motive. You were halfway to Syria and came back, letting a small fortune’s worth of photography equipment ship on ahead of you to Damascus, where it’s safekeeping could hardly be guaranteed.”
“I’ve told you, the Tregennises were good friends. They were like fa…”
“Family, I know. Though I suspect that one of them was all that and something more besides.”
Leona’s mouth presses into a tight line. She swallows dryly.
Sherlock continues. “The other day, you came here to see if you could discover who I suspected. I refused to answer you. You then went to Mrs. Roundhay’s cottage, waited outside it for some time, and finally returned to your own.”
She scowls. “How do you know that?”
“I followed you.”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“Which is precisely what you may expect to see when I follow you.”
Leona bites her tongue and stares down at her lap.
Sherlock continues. “I imagine you spent a restless night, formulating your approach, plans, which by early morning you were prepared to carry out. You set off for the Roundhay cottage, but not before filling your pocket with some red gravel that was lying beside your garden gate.”
Leona’s head snaps up in shock, but Sherlock just carries on. “You walked the mile to Mrs. Roundhay’s. You walked, and you were wearing the same pair of trainers you are at present. You snuck up to the house through the side hedge, and threw the gravel in your pockets at the window until Tregennis opened it to you.
“He didn’t suspect you, I imagine. He invited you to climb up the lattice on the side of the house, and into his room, where the two of you had a little chat—a short one—during which you paced up and down, and then crawled back out the window, and sat on the roof outside, smoking a cigarette and watching what happened next. Once you were sure he was dead, you left the same way you’d come.”
Leona takes another drag of her cigarette, fingers shaking.
“Well,” Sherlock urges. “I am right, aren’t I?”
She blows a cloud of smoke out slowly. “Yes.” She rubs a hand over her eyes. “Yes, you’re right. And I’d do it again.”
“Why?” John asks, beside him.
She leans back in the chair, snuffs her cigarette out on the arm, and lights another one. “Have you ever been in love?” She looks back and forth between the two of them. “Not infatuation, not fucking, but deep, committed, agonising, real love?”
“Yeah…” he and John say simultaneously. John’s reply is low and almost reverent, and Sherlock wonders, hopes, chastises himself for his stupidity, tries not to worry, and is so distracted by the fact that John is staring at him, that he almost misses what Ms. Sterndale says next.
Leona’s eyes flit over to Sherlock for a brief moment, before returning to John. “Then you know why.” She reaches into her pocket, pulls out her phone, flips through it for a moment and then tosses it onto the small table between them.
Sherlock leans over and looks. “Brenda Tregennis.”
Leona’s eyes fill, and she looks away across the lawn. “We’ve been inseparable since we were kids. After her parents died she—she didn’t handle it well. She pulled away, closed off. She just became like this—machine for awhile, pushed me away at every turn. I just wanted to help, but I felt like my mere presence was an irritant to her, and I—I held on as long as could, but eventually the opportunity to go to Afghanistan came up, and I took it.
“I met Max three months in. American. I should have known better. The marriage was a dare, a whim. It was someone to distract me, to share rooms with, a guaranteed fuck when I was in town. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything. How the hell was I supposed to know he would take it so seriously?!
“Three months after that Bren wrote me. It was this long letter, and—there was so much of her in it. I came home for a break. Came back here to see her, and—it was like nothing had ever come between us—like old times, but—better. I started splitting my time between here and the Middle East. I just wanted to be with her, but Max wouldn’t…”
She takes another drag from her cigarette, taps the ash onto the damp gravel at their feet. “I kept working on him, kept trying to get him to agree. The stuff I stole—it was meant to be used as blackmail, force him into a divorce.
“And you have to believe me when I tell you I have no idea how Mort got his hands on it. He was always a little weasel. He pressured me to date him for years, and then finally outed us to Bren’s parents when we were 18. Thank god they were understanding, but—that’s the kind of person he was. And when Mrs. Roundhay sent me the news, I—I knew it was him. It had to be.
“He’d showed up uninvited a few weeks back said he wanted to see my photos. He must have stolen a little of it then. I—I was stupid. I was just unpacking. I had everything laying out, and I hadn’t been expecting company. He caught me off-guard. He must have seen it, guessed what it might be, and decided to take some and find out. I suspect he knew that any DI who wasn’t completely brainless would link it back to me, given the profession of the man I’m married to. He could kill two birds with one stone.”
John shifts beside him. “So you confronted him.”
“Yes. I climbed up to his room, and I told him I knew what he’d done, and that he was going to die the same way Bren had died, and there wasn’t a bloody thing he could do to stop it. He tried to make a dash for it, but—I had a gun.”
Sherlock cocks a brow.
“I had a gun, and I put the stuff in the diffuser, and I went back out the window, shut it, and sat on the roof, and watched him die. It was…” Her eyes fill again. “It was a terrible death, and I didn’t care. I thought about my Bren dying the same way, and me…” The tears in her eyes spill over, and she wipes them away angrily. “And me not there to stop it, and I watched him die with complete satisfaction, and if that makes me an animal, if it means that I should go to prison, then—go ahead and send me. I don’t care anymore.”
Silence descends on the garden, save for the soft clicking of the oak branches in wind. They sit that way for some time.
“What were your plans,” Sherlock finally asks.
“Oh. Rumours are the Americans are setting up a Joint Task Force to coordinate against Da'esh.” She looks at John. “You know how those things tend to go. I need to be on the ground to document it. Offensives. Airstrikes. The inevitable civilian deaths no one will be willing to admit to.”
John sniffs, and shifts in his seat.
“Then go and do it. I won’t stop you.” He looks over at John, who shakes his head.
Leona looks back and forth between them, as though trying to gauge their sincerity, and then gets to her feet.
“Understand that we have no control over what will happen if MI5 takes a serious interest in this case. Lose yourself in Syria for awhile. That would be my advice.”
She nods. “Thank you,” she whispers, and hurries away the same way she came.
Sherlock sits and watches the breeze swaying in the leafless trees, and appreciates the quiet of the garden, and John’s strong, solid warmth at his side.
“It was the right thing to do,” John interrupts the silence.
Sherlock nods. “Yes. I can’t condemn her for something I would, without hesitation, do myself.”
John is looking at him again. He takes a deep breath. “Can I ask you something?”
Sherlock leans back and lets his eyes slide shut, lets the breeze tickle his eyelashes, and lift the curls from his still clammy forehead. “Mmm.”
“You told her you’d been in love…”
Sherlock feels the pending question jolt through his body like a physical pain. It’s been coming for weeks, this discussion—perhaps for years. Best to get it over with. “Yes.”
“Didn’t think you felt things that way.”
“But you did once.”
“It wasn’t that Victor bloke, was it?”
Sherlock chuckles. “No.” He sits up, opens his eyes, and stares across the garden. “I believe that at the time, I fancied myself in love with him, but I was young, and stupid. You?”
“You told her the same.”
John breathes deep. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I…”
There are dark clouds gathering on the horizon, over the sea. Another winter storm on it’s way. They’ll be stuck indoors again, for at least a couple of days, with nothing but this awkward space between them. Sherlock makes a mental note to never come to Sussex in the winter again.
“What happened to her?” Sherlock finally dares to ask.
“This person you loved.”
John huffs softly. “Well… He was supposed to be a world class genius. Could just look at a person and tell you everything about them: their profession, where they’d just flown in from, how many siblings they had—hell, even things only their therapist knew. Except when he was looking at me and it came down to the really important stuff. Then he—I don’t know… I guess, he just chose to not see.
“Maybe because he genuinely wasn’t interested and it was easier, or maybe—maybe because he was just as scared I as I was; scared to risk so much, scared it wouldn’t be wanted, scared because so much of it was new.”
Sherlock’s heart flips, and he turns.
John smiles, small and crooked. “Yeah, it’s you, you idiot.” His eyes fill. “Wanted to tell you, but then you were gone, and…”
John’s face swims in front of him. “Not because he wasn’t interested.”
John sniffs. “Yeah?” He grins. “Good to know.”
John is looking at him like there is so much more he wants to say, like maybe he knows all the things Sherlock has been thinking and feeling these last few weeks, like maybe he’s been feeling them too, like maybe—maybe he wants to do something about it.
“Your John?” He finally says, and smiles when Sherlock just looks confused. “That’s what you called me.”
“Mm, you told her, you said, ‘My John, is a romantic.’”
“Oh.” His heart aches to consciously say it aloud, to feel the way the endearment fills his mouth, sits full and warm there, like it’s right, like it belongs. “I would imagine that’s up to you.”
“I’ve always been yours. Just didn’t think you wanted me.”
Sherlock can see the courage it takes for him to say it, at how he suddenly looks so small and burdened again, eight and eighty all at once, and he can’t bear the thought of leaving him thinking that he had ever, even for a second, not wanted him in his flat, in his life, in his heart.
He reaches across the space between them, and slips his hand over John’s. John’s breath catches, and so he keeps going, drags the tips of his fingers up his forearm, down again. He hates John’s coat. He hates his long-sleeved, buttoned up shirt. He reaches up to stroke the back of his fingers over his beard, and John’s eyes slide shut.
“I miss your face.”
John laughs once and opens them again. “Yeah?” He murmurs. “Thought it was rugged.”
“Mmm. Nice for a change, but maybe not—all the time.”
“You already telling me how to dress, then?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Yeah, you would.” John’s face is fond, but…
“I miss your face.” He needs him to understand.
John nods like he does. “Okay.” His hand slips over Sherlock’s knee, and when he squeezes Sherlock feels it all the way to the tips of his toes. “Let’s go inside.”
Just one more chapter, and I promise you it will be nothing but lovin'.
The cottage is cold, but the last of the fumes seem to have dissipated John closes the windows just as the wind kicks up outside knocking the garden gate against the fence, and rattling the loose panes in the window over the sink.
“Another storm is coming.”
“Yeah, and it’s already freezing in here. Help me bring some wood into the bedroom. We’ll stockpile in there in case the power goes out again tonight.”
“A wise precaution, yes.”
They take three trips to the woodshed, and by the time they are returning to the cottage the last time, the temperature has dropped considerably, and an icy cold rain has started to fall.
The cottage is growing dark, even though it is only three in the afternoon. The clouds rolling in from the sea are heavy and dark grey, plunging everything into an artificial dusk.
“I’m going to go start a fire in the bedroom. Mind heating up some soup?” John almost looks apologetic.
“Of course not.”
John heads for the loo off the bedroom, and Sherlock pulls down a tin of tomato soup, and sets to making toast. He tries to ignore the sound of the water in the shower switching on, tries not to think about what it might mean, John showering—what he might be expecting. He tries not to think about what John must look like standing in the stream of warm water, sighing in relief as he slicks his hair back with one hand and dips the other down to…
Sherlock completely loses track of time. When John finally strolls back into the kitchen several minutes later, Sherlock is just ladling the soup into bowls and spreading the toast generously with butter.
“Not much, but warm at lea…” He stops short when he looks up, and sees John standing in the doorway in his pyjamas, clean shaven, a crooked grin on his face.
He shrugs at Sherlock’s questioning gaze. “You said you missed my face.”
Sherlock can’t take his eyes off of him. He’s changed, it’s true—nasolabial folds are deeper, corners of the mouth starting to draw down, flesh under the chin softening. But the jawline is still strong, he can see the cleft in his chin again, and most importantly it’s John—his John, the one so familiar and dear it aches deep inside him like an old wound.
John grins. “Hi.” He reaches up and rubs his cheek. “Feel a little naked.”
And Sherlock wants to tell him he’s not nearly naked enough, but can read John’s body language well enough (hesitant, anxious, and a little insecure) to know that now is not the time.
“You look…” Sherlock sets the ladle down on the counter, and moves toward him, stopping mere inches away. “Like you.”
“That a good thing?”
“Yes.” He takes a step closer, can feel the warmth of John’s freshly washed body radiating out, drawing him closer still. “Oh yes.”
He dips down, pushes down the instinctual rush of anxiety, the fear. He wants this.
John meets him half way, and he isn’t sure what he’d expected, but it is safe to say that the chaste, tender kiss John presses to the corner of his mouth was not it. It’s pleasant. He would never turn it away, and perhaps it is the right first step, because he suddenly realises that he’s trembling. His hands are resting lightly on John’s shoulders (which is most certainly not where they should be, is it?), and they are trembling.
John pulls back a little. “You okay?” It’s whispered against his lips, and Sherlock realises he needs to open his eyes. He does.
John’s eyes roam over every inch of his face. He’s deducing. “Sure?”
“Can we do that again, do you think?”
Sherlock nods, and John smiles. “Good.” He steps closer, lifts his hands to cup Sherlock’s face, to slide up his nape, to cradle the back of his head and guide it gently down to his. This time John presses his lips fully against Sherlock’s, pulls back, and dips in again, anointing his lips with the softest kisses, tender, tentative, careful, and Sherlock isn’t sure who they’re being careful for. It’s not how he imagined it, this. Not better Not worse, just—different.
He expected he would be more lost in the moment, but instead he is distracted, hyperaware of everything: the smell of John’s shaving cream still on his skin, the softness of John’s t-shirt beneath his fingertips, the way John’s eyelashes are tickling his, the dryness of John’s lips and the contrast of the wet heat at the seam of his mouth, the way his own heart is racing with furious anxiety at all the unknowns. It’s not like his fantasies. He has no control over how this will go. Anything could happen.
John must sense it, the way his brain is whirring away a thousand miles a second. He pulls back, and looks up at him, brow furrowed. “You really okay?”
And oh the weight and importance in that one question, and oh how incapable Sherlock feels of properly answering it. He opens his mouth, desperate that John not feel he doesn’t want this, doesn’t want him, but nothing will come, and John looks even more worried. He reaches up and rubs at the back of his neck, takes another step away. Sherlock panics.
“We can slow down. Or we—we don’t have to do this at all.”
“I started it.” Sherlock blurts in reminder.
“Doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind.” He glances over at the cooling soup and toast on the counter. “Maybe… Can we sit down, eat, talk about it.”
“What’s there to talk about.” Sherlock sounds defensive, petulant, even to his own ears. He’s not. He’s—mortified, angry at himself. It’s embarrassing, inching up on 40, and never having—being this way about it even now. Victor had been quite right, quite right. He has no idea what he’s doing, or how to read the situation. All his deductive skills seem utterly useless here. He’s failing, and he’s going to lose John, just like…
“What you want.” John is talking again. “What we both want. What’s okay, what’s not okay. How we’re going to…” John shakes his head and pinches at his brow. “Christ Sherlock, you know we’re both pants at saying things, and this is important to me. I don’t—I don’t want to put you in a position where you feel…” And after more silence. “Hey…”
Sherlock blinks, realises that John has finished talking and he has been standing in the middle of the kitchen frozen. “Yes. I…”
John takes a deep breath. “Yeah, see, this isn’t okay. Sit down. We’ll eat, and we’ll—figure it out.”
There is instant relief in that, John taking control of the situation, deciding what they’ll do. He lets out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. “Yes. Alright.”
“Okay. Sit.” John motions to the chair pulled out at the table, and Sherlock does as bade while John finishes plating the toast and then brings it over to the table and sits down next to him. They eat in silence for several minutes, before John finally speaks. “I’m going to ask you something, and you have to promise me you’ll be honest.”
John takes another mouthful of soup, before setting his spoon down, and sitting back in his chair. “Have you ever been with someone before?”
“You mean a relationship?”
“I mean sex.”
Sherlock feels his cheeks flare.
John nods. “I’m going to take that as a ‘no’. Am I right?”
“I don’t see why it matters.”
“It doesn’t. Not in the way you’re thinking. But it does when it comes to how we choose to go about all this.”
“I was fine. You were the one who stopped.”
John’s mouth parts, one brow cocking. “You weren’t okay.”
“Or so you seem to think.”
He huffs and turns away.
“I’m not going to get into a row over this, so whatever this is you’re doing, you can just stop.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“How many men have you fucked?”
There’s silence from across the table, and Sherlock finally dares a glance. John is sitting back in his chair, chewing the inside of his cheek. He sniffs. “What’s gotten into you?”
John reaches out and picks up a piece of toast off his plate. He looks at it for a moment, and then tosses it back down. “I don’t care, Sherlock. I don’t care if you’ve never been with anyone. And yeah, tit-for-tat, my experience is fairly minimal, but what’s really worrying me here is the fact that you don’t seem to want to talk about this. I’m not going to do this if you can’t talk to me. Oh, and for the record, I don’t see you as a fuck.” He spits the word out like it tastes bitter in his mouth.
What had happened in the garden earlier, what had happened between them in the kitchen only moments before, all of it is something Sherlock could only hope and dream of up to now. He’s wanted, oh how he’s wanted, but it was a dream, a fantasy, nothing he ever thought might actually materialise. And now here they are, and he’s terrified, and it’s stupid, and childish, and he has no idea how to go about making it right, because he has no idea how to—be, what he thinks John is asking him to be.
“How many,” Sherlock insists with a pout.
John sniffs again. “Okay, If that’s what you want right now, I’ll… I got off with a bloke at a party in uni. Hot and heavy, until things got too intense, and I—I walked out.”
Sherlock sits up, suddenly interested now that the attention is off of him. “You changed your mind?”
“In the army I would sometimes have a wank with some of the other lads.”
Sherlock leans forward in his chair.
“And when you were gone… Once when things were really bad, I—I met up with a bloke, and he did what he’d agreed to do, and then left when I got—weird about it…”
“Umm…” Sherlock watches John’s Adam’s apple bob, as he swallows down his discomfort. “Emotional. Just… Well, it wasn’t what either of us had signed up for, didn’t end well, so he left. But as a general rule, with those who’ve meant something, those I really cared about… I’ve never crossed that line.”
Sherlock fights off an uncharacteristic rush of jealousy, at the thought of this strange man who put his hands (his mouth? his cock?) so easily on (in?) John, when Sherlock is sitting here being offered everything, and is only paralysed, useless. It bothers him. It bothers him, which he realises it quite ridiculous. John is permitted to have other people, and when Sherlock was gone, if there was someone who might have given him even a few moments of comfort, who is Sherlock to object?
“But, you’ve never made love to a man.”
John’s face softens. He shakes his head. “Not sure I’ve ever made love to anyone.”
“But, I want to—with you.”
Sherlock feels his cheeks go warm, and John looks charmed. “Can I ask you something else?”
“You never having been with someone, was that because of lack of opportunity, or because you weren’t interested.”
Sherlock thinks about it. “I don’t know.”
John nods, thoughtful. “Okay.” He’s finished his soup. He stacks his bowl with Sherlock’s, gets up and takes them to the sink. “There’s a fire going in the bedroom. You want to take this in there? Might be warmer.”
Sherlock gets up, and follows in John’s wake. There is sleet pelting against the windows now, and the room is bleak and grey, but the fire is burning bright and warm, and the bed has been turned down, and John is crawling in, clean, and ruffled, and soft from his wash.
Sherlock aches. He aches to crawl up and under, his head against John’s chest, blankets pulled up like a cocoon, sheltering them from the cool air of the room. “I’ll change.”
“Okay.” John smiles up at him from the bed, and Sherlock grabs his pyjamas out of the dresser, and retreats to the loo where he changes in a rush, and then returns to the bedroom, fastidiously hanging up his clothes, before crawling into bed.
It’s better there. A place he and John have already eked out for themselves one quiet, velvet-dark, chaste but intimate night at a time. John’s eyes are searching him the moment his head hits the pillow. After a moment his hand finds Sherlock’s under the blankets.
“This is ridiculous.”
“You’re ridiculous. Come here.”
Sherlock goes because the thought of not accepting the offer is utterly unfathomable. It takes them a few seconds to get their limbs sorted, and find a position that feels comfortable, but Sherlock likes laying with his cheek against John’s good shoulder, John’s arm slung over his ribs, his face pressed into John’s chest.
“This person you were with when I was away…”
“He wasn’t anyone. It didn’t mean anything, okay.”
John huffs into his hair. “I don’t know. Sometimes you just do things. I—I was lonely. I just kept wondering if—if I’d been braver, would things have been different, you know. If I’d stopped letting things that happened years ago get in the way of what I wanted now, if I’d just told you…”
“So you sought out a stranger for sex?”
“Yeah. Was just a blowie, but…” John sounds impossibly young and slightly ashamed of himself, and Sherlock doesn’t want that. He slides his hand up to press against John’s heart through the thin cotton of his t-shirt.
“And it was emotional for you?”
“Yeah…” whispered, tight, like maybe just the memory of it is hard enough.
John is quiet for a long time, so long Sherlock wonders if he is just going to choose to ignore the question. Finally he sucks in a breath and lets it out with a shiver. “I wanted it to be you. Knew it never could be, but I—I wanted the fantasy of it, just once, something to keep me going, and…” John’s voice breaks. “It couldn’t ever be what I really wanted, could it? Not with you gone, not like that, clicking on some bloke’s profile because he had dark curls, and ice blue eyes, and…” John huffs wetly into his hair, and Sherlock looks up, pushes up, and pulls John against his chest.
“No. Understandable to want to try, but not the same, I imagine.”
“Christ, I’m so glad you’re home,” John breathes into his neck.
Sherlock strokes his hair, relishes in the feeling of his clean-shaven cheek, warm against his chest. “I’m sorry about before, in the kitchen,” he murmurs. “I need you to know how much I want you, John. I—I just find myself horribly ill-equipped to…”
“It’s okay. I mean it, Sherlock. It’s okay. We’ll figure it out.”
“I have thought about it. Even since we’ve been here, I…”
“Yeah?” John sounds pleased rather than offended, so he continues.
“Mmm. There have been times when I’ve found myself quite—overwhelmed with how much I want you.”
“Yeah?” John pulls back and looks up at him. “Even an old man like me, eh?”
Sherlock scowls. “Nonsense.”
John’s lower lashes are still damp, his eyes still red-rimmed, and Sherlock wants to… He wants to.. He shifts downward a little and presses his lips to one of John’s closed eye-lids, and then the other.
John’s arm stirs around him, his hand splaying over Sherlock’s back, pulling their bodies closer. And so Sherlock kisses his forehead too, each brow, his temple, his cheeks, the tip of his nose. John’s eyes are closed, but he smiles at that. And so Sherlock continues, kisses each corner of his mouth, just as John had kissed his earlier in the kitchen, and then presses his lips, soft and full against John’s, feels John’s lips part beneath his, feels their breath mingle and John melt against him, and somehow it is easy this time, easy to open to him, to let John’s tongue slide between the seam of his lips, fill him, taste him. It’s slow, and lazy, and absolutely heady. He loses all track of time, and when John finally pulls away, looking as drunk as Sherlock feels, he thinks that perhaps it all might be alright between them after all.
“Okay?” John murmurs.
“Mmm,” Sherlock hums in reply.
John is half-hard against his thigh, and he is too. It’s a slow simmering heat, and Sherlock finds he doesn’t want to let it fade. Not just yet.
“What do you like?” John traces a hand down his spine.
“I don’t know. I like this.”
John presses up and kisses him again, deep and slow.
“We can try things, yeah?” John whispers against his lips. “Might be fun, that.”
“Yes.” Sherlock inches his fingers beneath the hem of John’s t-shirt, presses them to the soft, warm flesh either side of the base of his spine, strokes there with his thumb. John’s hips move slightly. He throbs against Sherlock’s thigh, and Sherlock’s skin tingles. It’s heady this, the way that John’s body responds to him.
John is toying with the stretched out neck of Sherlock’s t-shirt. He pulls it down slightly, and traces a finger down the space between his pectorals, fingers the sparse hair there. Sherlock shivers.
He dips down and presses his lips to Sherlock’s collarbone, strings pearls of kisses along it, sighs against his skin, moves up his neck. John’s lips are warm and careful, but they feel like a brand against the sensitive skin of Sherlock’s neck, send sympathetic surges of pleasure racing through his veins to pool molten and warm in his belly. He sucks in a breath, let’s it out with a gentle uhh of pleasure, and John huffs against his neck, in response, kisses him again, let’s tongue join lips.
Sherlock’s cock takes a decided interest, filling out to strain against his pyjamas. He’s twined close enough to John that he knows he must feel it, and sure enough, after a moment John breaks away with a moan and rocks against Sherlock’s thigh, his hands knotting into fists in the thin cotton of Sherlock’s T-shirt. His lips travel to behind Sherlock’s ear, and his weight shifts just enough for Sherlock to feel the full, thick weight of him, how much he wants this.
“You okay?” he pants against the shell of Sherlock’s ear, and Sherlock is, of course he is, better than.
“Oh yes…” He reaches out for John’s head, tilts his own, and swipes his lips messily over his cheek, against his temple, nuzzles at the hair over his ear. John whimpers, and it sends another surge of desire straight to Sherlock’s core.
John’s arms are slipping around him, holding on tight, and he’s rutting against Sherlock’s body like he can’t get close enough, can’t ever get close enough. “Christ Sherlock. God, I—I need—I need…”
“Good.” Sherlock rumbles in his ear, and it seems to break something open inside of John. He moans, his hands suddenly everywhere, almost frantic, groaning softly, sucking in a breath through clenched teeth anytime a new wave of pleasure grips him. It’s a revelation, this: John’s desire for him, to be so wanted. No one has ever even liked Sherlock before. Usually he is tolerated, and that’s all, but John has been surprising him since the moment they met, and so it still goes…
Sherlock knows John well enough to know he must be getting close, and there’s something rather intoxicating in that, the thought that what John feels for him, his voice, his body, his touch, has reduced John to this, his John who is usually so buttoned up, so restrained and careful, is coming apart in his arms, and so quickly, too. It will all be over soon, and he still wants to…
He slides one hand from John’s back, around to rest against his hip, just pressing the tips of his fingers between their two bodies. “I want to touch you.” He inches his fingers beneath the waistband of John’s pyjamas. “Please, John. Let me touch you.”
John lifts his hips to give Sherlock access, even as he drunkenly shakes his head. “Not going to last if you…”
But Sherlock’s already found what he’s looking for, the heavy, throbbing weight of John’s cock. It’s thick, and hot, and fits in the cup of his palm perfectly. John hisses, and when he closes his fingers around it and gives a tentative pull, John grunts like he’s been punched in the gut. “I—I can’t…”
“I know.” Sherlock pitches his voice a little low, a little wicked. John has always been responsive to his voice, but he’s learning that when they are like this it’s something more, something altogether new. He pulls again, slow and teasing, It’s awkward with their bodies so close together and no lubrication, but there isn’t time for that, and it’s not needed, it seems, as John moans loud and begins to rut into the circle of his hand.
“Go—god. Oh god…”
Sherlock smirks and presses his face into John’s neck, sucks hard, moans deep against his flesh, and feels John go rigid in his arms, his cock plump and spill in warm ribbons over his hand, as John cries out silently, open mouth pressed to Sherlock’s chest. When it finally passes, he collapses against him panting hard. “Sorry. God, I’m…”
“Perfect,” Sherlock finishes for him. “You’re perfect.”
“But you…” John fumbles between their bodies, but Sherlock catches his wrist gently in his free hand.
John nods, and drops his face to his chest again. “Okay. Yeah, okay…”
Outside the wind is howling. The small lamp beside the bed flickers. Sherlock draws his hand from between their bodies, wipes it mindlessly on the coverlet, and savours the weight of John in his arms. He’s falling asleep, Sherlock can tell by the evening of his breath, and the way he grows heavier atop him with every passing minute.
The lamp finally goes out, but the fire continues to crackle and pop in the hearth, John breathes, calm and close. It’s warm, and homely, and Sherlock realises he hasn’t felt this safe in almost two and a half years.
“I love you,” he says low and sure into the quiet room.
John stirs against his chest. “Luff you too…” mouthed sloppily against his side. He smiles, and reaches down to card his fingers through his hair.
He wonders what the the next day will bring, or the next one, what it might be like to have John touch him the way he had just touched John. Perhaps it will still send anxiety coursing through his veins, or perhaps it won’t. Perhaps John will find different ways to touch him, ways that make him feel the way he does right now, safe beneath the weight of Johns’ body, with the comfort of John’s breath against his skin, the feather-light brush of John’s hair beneath his chin, and his hand splayed small and warm over his heart.
As John says, they will figure it out. He has no doubt of that now. And if there’s one thing he knows for sure, it’s that this sense of home they’ve been building, almost from the moment he got back will only deepen.
They’ve always been home to one another.
They always will be.
Thank you all for coming on this journey with me. I think this is the longest fic I've ever actually finished. It was incredibly cathartic, and I couldn't have done it without all your support and love. I'm so blessed in my readers.