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Drawn to Stars

Chapter Text

Mid-August 2015

 

“Romantic entanglement, while fulfilling for other people—” 

“—would complete you as a human being.”

Sherlock had set John’s words aside to revisit later; they’d seemed to mean more than he could capture in the heated exchange. John had veered to his text affair before Sherlock could get the words out: it’s you. You made me want to be the man you already thought I was.  

It had escalated: John goading him about Adler, berating himself for failing Mary, collapsing against him in grief and fury. Sherlock couldn’t keep up so he held on, gently stroking John’s neck and once, undetected, pressing his lips into John’s hair.

But after the grief-burst and after the cake, after the awkward but sincere birthday wishes and feigned normalcy—Sherlock comes back to John’s words from before. He plays them over and over, prodding at them until they settle into some kind of sense.

“Romantic entanglement...”—“would complete you as a human being.” 

Oh. His racing brain stutters to a stop, empties out. White silence. In that silence John’s voice echoes: would complete you as a human being.

Of course. He hadn’t realised, but it’s obvious, now. 

John could never love an incomplete human being. Sherlock can stand on the sidelines of John’s life for as long as he likes and John will never see him, never reach for him. (Why would he? When he has any number of complete human beings to choose from?) It isn’t because Sherlock is a man; it’s because Sherlock is defective.

He feels unsteady. No — he revises — sick. It isn’t enough, then, to love someone unconditionally, to live and die for them. It isn’t enough to wait, and sacrifice, to be brilliant or charismatic, to try to live up to someone’s expectations. To their illusions. There was something missing—there always had been. He was incomplete.

There must be something he can do about it. Some way to fill in the missing pieces, to deserve John and to win him. Somehow he has to become complete, completely human.

Romantic entanglement would do it, John had said, adding that Sherlock isn’t capable of understanding how or why. But it’s John who doesn’t understand that Sherlock’s been entangled, for the last five years. Just not enough to be complete, apparently.

Suddenly very tired, he starts making a list of steps to get to this completeness. He’d thought he’d be able to rest from the terror and frenzy and danger of the past hallucinatory weeks, and instead he has a whole new obstacle course to run.

Getting clean is only the first step, and not even the hardest one.

Sherlock knows all about saying no; now he has to meet someone at least moderately interesting, telegraph an attraction he won’t feel, and say yes.

Chapter Text

15 October 2015

 

Of course Sherlock had pinched his own rehab chart: a month of recovery, it had said. That had stretched out to two, of course. Then to three. Irksome: intense drugs use over many weeks didn’t dissipate as quickly as it had done ten years earlier. Neural pathways were scored deeper; the wild swings from nausea to indifference to raging hunger were accelerated, disorienting. 

Performance was everything, Sherlock reminded himself. Feign normalcy. Composure. Control. When he could finally hold a pipette without trembling, shave without cutting himself, text at normal speed—then he might begin to go out again, to NSY, to Barts. The first time would be awkward; everyone would be remembering his last time there, scruffy, shaking and delusional.

Well. He had to face it sometime if he wanted to retrieve his normal life again.

John wasn’t with him in Baker Street, of course, and couldn’t be available for cases had there been any. He had a job to do, a child to bring up. But he brought Watson round, some afternoons, and then Sherlock could take the perfect little armful from John and walk her round the flat, telling her detailed stories about this or that object, lowering his voice so John could relax in his chair, close his eyes for fifteen or twenty minutes. The drone of Sherlock’s voice seemed to soothe both his guests, so he kept it thrumming at low volume, murmuring to Watson about bats, and belfries, and books, and Bluebell the bunny, and bees, concentrating on getting consonants and words into her head, thinking that one day he’d have her say them back to him until she grew bored.

Bored now, she kicks out with her legs and wriggles, threatening to slide out of his arms altogether. Whenever she grows restive like that he’ll pull her blanket off the sofa, spread it on the floor and place two or three toys on it so she can squirm around from one to the other. She can’t yet gather them together; she uses them as destinations, landmarks on her inelegant progress round the blanket.

Today Sherlock lowers himself to the floor and first folds his long legs under him, then stretches them out to cage Watson in, a game she enjoys inordinately. She likes trying to escape, and she whacks his knee or his shin with the flat of her hand, eyes narrowing as she scolds him in words he understands perfectly although she’s just now made them up. He understands them because she’s just like her father in this: when she looks cross she’s at her most affectionate. If she were John she’d be calling him berk, or git, or nutter. Watson swats him and shouts nonsense syllables and eventually giggles.

She’s never dull. Annoying at times, but all babies are, he thinks. Limited cognitive powers. But he likes to watch her discover things, see her shout with delight and clap her hands, just the once. He likes to see her respond to music, whether recordings or his violin. She listens, really listens, and once she’s decided it’s good, or dreadful, the whole street knows it. 

He’s been working on finding the right way to soothe her with the violin when she’s fretful. He’s tried different keys, intervals, tempi, repetitions, ornaments. Different volumes and bow strokes. He hasn’t made a spreadsheet, but since her reactions change according to time of day and proximity to mealtimes, he might have to start one. Having no cases on, none at all, should be deadly dull, but the great empty walls of his mind are filling up with post-its about Watson, about John. So many changes to track.

John isn’t the man he met all those years ago, Sherlock thinks. He has a centre again, an organizing principle to his days, to his heart. Sherlock is both glad and sorry that it’s no longer him. Glad because he failed John—treated him as an audience, then as a responsibility, realizing only too late what John really was. Better that Watson should be his centre, coming first no matter what Sherlock needs. And John does make time for Sherlock—more days than not, most weeks.

But he’s sorry, too, of course he is. Hours and days go by without John, and when he does come, their interaction is mediated by Watson’s presence. Perhaps his desire to have John to himself is selfish, or childish. —But isn’t “romantic entanglement” all about dyadism? Two people apart from the rest of the world? He sighs. He can’t apply logic to emotion, to metaphor. It’s always seemed an excellent reason to avoid both.

At the sigh John looks up. “Problem?”

Sherlock means to answer, but he’s distracted by the way the light from the window touches John’s greying hair. The lines John didn’t have when they met, the worry pouches beneath his eyes. His hair going silver. Sherlock captures the image and files it with a thousand others that catalogue the changes in his — best friend.

John says again, prompting, “Problem?”

Oh. He’s been ignoring conversational cues again. He always has, that’s nothing new. What’s new is that now he has to parse his own behaviours, his words, if he’s ever to figure out where he’s incomplete, and remedy it.

“No. Quite the opposite. I was thinking it’s quiet when Watson tires herself out.” He nods at the little heap of toddler on the blanket, a patch of sunlight on her chubby legs, finally still.

John smiles as if in agreement, then startles. “If she’s too much, Sherlock, you’ve only got to say. I can go—”

No.” Sharply. Too sharply. He gentles his voice, carefully, to add, “I like having her here, awake or asleep. When you feel comfortable leaving her here with me I’ll enjoy that, too.” 

This is manipulative, a bit, but he has to know where John stands on Sherlock’s present status. Several weeks into recovery he hasn’t had a slip, or not one he’d let anyone see—and even then he didn’t use, just thought about it, made a half-hearted plan and then abandoned it. (Even that slip may have been a Pavlovian response to the irksome presence of Wiggins, after all.)

He glances toward John. 

Ah. John’s face has closed off, becoming carefully neutral. Too soon, then. “No hurry, Sherlock. Time enough for that when you...”

Sherlock smiles a bit wryly. He puts his hand on Watson’s back, feels it rise and fall with her shallow breathing.

“When I’m better.” He keeps his tone equally neutral, and sees John’s relief at that. The Sherlock of old would never admit to being tired, or ill, or hungry. Let alone an addict. He’s working now on making occasional concessions—verbal, if not wholehearted—to his humanity. That may be part of what John thinks he lacks, after all: if not humanity, then the humility to acknowledge it.

Oh, but he’s tired of wondering about it. What’s he’s lacking. What John thinks he’s lacking. They may not be the same thing, after all. Sherlock knows how carefully he’s kept his guard up, disguised his heart, and performed his haughty persona. Does John know it, too? “I know you for real,” he’d said once. Did he? 

Sherlock knows how much of his own humanity is merely hidden away, not nonexistent. But if John doesn’t know Sherlock was performing—no, it’s too draining. John can’t be so moronic as to doubt that Sherlock has a heart, or that he gave that heart to John long ago. He may have had kindly reasons for pushing Sherlock into Irene Adler’s arms, or he may be truly ignorant, or he may simply be right: that Sherlock isn’t ready to give him what he needs, and deserves. And now Watson, too: what she needs and deserves.

He chases these notions down in the sunny sitting-room, John and Watson drowsing next to him and farther away than ever.

Procoffeinating Sherlock and Rosie ver1

Chapter Text

15 October 2015

 

When John wakes from a short drowse in his chair in 221b, his heart clutches to see Rosie and Sherlock side by side on the floor. He’s been listening, of course, to the low murmur and the high-pitched squeals, the occasional Shhhhh, and now Rosie’s asleep. She’s contented here. Seeing Sherlock healthier, John is, too.

Sherlock still isn’t back to his proper weight, John thinks, but then again he never really is. He’s always a bit undernourished, whipcord thin even when he hasn’t been abusing his body and brain like a demon. (Angel.) But he looks better, no doubt of that, and the frenzied fast-forward pace of his speedball days has given way to a kind of controlled stillness that John doesn’t know how to read.

Sherlock manic, Sherlock inert—he’s seen the extremes, but nowadays Sherlock seems careful, in a way John hasn’t known before. Isn’t quite sure about. It’s a bit like seeing a twin pop up out of nowhere. These weeks since the end of the Culverton Smith madness Sherlock has been quiet, companionable, neither sunk in gloom nor jittering in shrieking boredom; but the time they spend together isn’t easy, comfortable, the way it used to be. How could it be? John is watching Sherlock, always watching, for any sign of a relapse; and Sherlock seems to have withdrawn from him, just a bit, nothing he could readily put into words. Resents being monitored, maybe?

Fuck it, Watson, he tells himself: the problem’s staring you in the face. You beat the man within an inch of his life. Could’ve killed him. If he’s reserved now it’s not because he resents you distrusting him—it’s because he distrusts you.

Of course he did. John had turned on him like a madman, pummelling and pounding and kicking, God, kicking him as he lay helpless on the floor of the morgue. John can feel his face burn at the memory. “He’s entitled,” Sherlock had said to Smith. “I killed his wife.”

No, it was his own wife who had killed Sherlock, certainly tried to, and John was so ashamed that he’d never asked forgiveness. Never even apologised. Sherlock had been literally killing himself to save John and John’s only thanks had been to batter him hard enough to leave stitches and scars and broken ribs. 

It had taken weeks and weeks of talking with Ella, endless talking (she might say endless silences), before he was ready to broach it with Sherlock. All those hours with Ella, fighting himself and fighting her. Even though he was there of his own accord he’d tried to deflect, evade, and lock her out, but she was calmly implacable. Eventually he’d had to look certain truths in the eye: some truths about Mary, certainly, but mostly about himself. 

Now the quiet in the room has become unbearable: he has to break it. “Sherlock.”

“Hmmm?” Not looking at John. On Rosie’s small back his graceful hand looks enormous.

“There’s something I have to say. And it’s—not easy, so please, just—hear me out.”

Sherlock does look up at that, eyebrows raised, but silent, as requested. John lurches on.

“I owe you—an apology. For attacking you. For hating and blaming you enough to beat you. I am so sorry. You never deserved that. And I was never entitled.”

The last word comes out poisonous and bitter. 

“I was never entitled. When Mary died I shut you out, and when I did see you again I used my fists on you like an enemy, not like my best friend. I hope one day I can explain what was going on in my head. But for now I just have to say. I’m so very sorry. Please, if you can, forgive me.” 

Sherlock has looked away. In the afternoon light his dark hair exaggerates his pallor, the tight hunch of his shoulders. After a moment he looks back at John.

“Of course I forgive you.” A pause. “I hope you’re going to forgive yourself, John.” Another pause. His voice slips from composed to uncertain, lower in pitch and volume. 

“You were entitled.”

The heave of John’s stomach is nearly dizzying. It’s one thing for Sherlock to say such a thing when he was high; that he’s said it in perfect sobriety means that there’s something so wrong in his understanding of who he is, who John is, what John owes him, that John has no idea where to start. 

He wishes Sherlock were closer, not sat on the floor like a gangly adolescent, the light giving his face a glimmer of the boyish lunatic John had met so many changes ago, so much pain ago. In dismay he catches himself staring, blindsided by the old desire he’d never overcome. It propels him across the floor to pull Sherlock up.

Sherlock uncrosses his long legs and surges to his feet, the impetus of John’s tug pulling him in close. And John keeps hold of Sherlock’s hand as he says, “No. No, I really wasn’t.” 

He looks away and ploughs on. “Don’t ever think that I have, or that anyone has, the right to hurt you that way. You never—you always—oh, fuck it. Sherlock: you think you made a mistake that got Mary killed, yeah? Something I’d be right to blame you for. Well, you didn’t. Mary’s past got her killed, and it was always going to.”

John’s looking at Sherlock now, trying to make him see but it’s clear that he doesn’t, he’s stuck in the story where it’s all his fault because it was in his power to make it all go differently.

“It was always going to come out. That’s what Magnussen meant, last Christmas, and he was right. She’d been a hired assassin and no matter what you did or said that night in the aquarium, someone was always going to catch up with her.”

The words are tumbling out, now, and John’s steady left hand is still trapping Sherlock’s, his voice low but intense. Sherlock is staring at Rosie asleep on the floor, his face impassive as he listens, neither reacting nor disengaging. John slides his right hand up to grip Sherlock’s arm above the elbow.

“I was angry at you because I didn’t want—I couldn’t stand—to be angry at her. But beneath it all, I was. She came into our marriage with secrets she never gave me the choice to accept or reject. She brought me back to life after you died, but Sherlock, you can’t build a marriage on secrets and lies. And we had a child, and Mary endangered Rosie, and left her to go do more killing, more damage control. Just like you. Working alone and taking all the risks alone, shutting me out like some kind of useless appendage. A clumsy junior partner.”

He’s saying too much, he knows it, and Sherlock might not understand but he has to, he has to see why John had snapped—

But Sherlock is shaking his head, slowly. “You—you think I’m like Mary that way? Shutting you out?” His voice too is low, steady but laced with an edge of tension and John should have known, should have known, damn it, that he’d latch onto the very thing John hadn’t meant to say: “just like you.”

Loosening his hold on Sherlock’s arm John reaches up to his shoulder and says, “Not like Mary. Never like that. You help people. You help me. In the end I had to face the fact that Mary was always going to protect herself, her life, what she wanted. But I didn’t want to face that, not for a long time, so I took out my anger on you. That, even more than beating you, I hope you can forgive me for. Someday. Not just—paper it over, the way—the way we’ve done in the past. It’s too important to do it wrong again, that way.”

John hopes Sherlock hears what he means: You’re too important to me.

Sherlock’s right hand still hangs at his side, his head still bent, eyes fixed on the floor. An uncomfortable minute passes, then he sighs and lifts his head. John catches his pale stare and his stomach clenches, seeing this silent, motionless turmoil, and he tries again.

“You’re not like Mary. You’re not. You said that I chose her because she was dangerous, like you, but you were wrong that time.”

He gives a tight little laugh. “God knows it doesn’t happen every day, Sherlock, but that time you were wrong. I didn’t choose her at all. She chose me, and I let myself be chosen because I didn’t have anything else, didn’t know what else to do. How else to go on.”

Suddenly John feels exhausted. He’d been too close just now to telling Sherlock everything he’d felt after Barts, and he isn’t ready for that, neither of them is. His voice fails him and he runs down, grinding to a stop. 

He lets his hand drop from Sherlock’s shoulder and immediately misses the hard, bony strength of him, the solidity and warmth and contact. He makes himself drop Sherlock’s hand, stepping back and finding his balance. He’s not sure how to make Sherlock see it wasn’t his fault that John had beaten him, that Mary had died.

But something’s off. Sherlock isn’t moving, isn’t looking back at him, and isn’t talking. He’s trembling, and that is odd. More than odd. There’s a damp sheen on his forehead and he looks grey in the face.

Suddenly Doctor Watson is on duty again and takes over.

“What is it? Are you ill? Tell me.”

Chapter Text

15 October 2015

“What is it? Are you ill? Tell me.” John’s voice is urgent, concerned. Sherlock barely hears it.

He’s appalled. John has just said he’s like Mary, behaves like Mary. That night last year when Sherlock had compared the two of them he hadn’t meant it, it was a diversion meant to stabilize a situation that was spinning out of control. Not knowing yet how dangerous Mary might be, for John’s own safety he’d had to calm him down and reassure Mary while he could still speak. But clearly John thinks it’s true. He must think Mary was more complete, though, she was in love with a husband and then with a daughter, she had an advantage that John was urging on Sherlock. 

His light pajamas and dressing-gown are suddenly too thin to keep him from shivering. Absently he notes that the sun is lower now, no longer streaming in the window, and in the pit of his stomach he feels that metallic weight he always feels when he remembers. When he thinks. He is like Mary. No better than Mary. No more principled, no kinder to John, no more worthy of John. 

John doesn’t know Mary’s past the way Sherlock does; he’s never seen even the whole file on the data stick, let alone Mycroft’s cache of evidence. But then John doesn’t know Sherlock’s past, either. The two and half years away. Every enemy he’d tracked and eliminated in pursuit of Moriarty’s underlings, to keep his own people alive back in London. The mistakes he’d made and the innocents he’d harmed. Failed. Killed. Like the boy in Serbia. 

—No, not Serbia. Before. In Croatia. Sherlock was meant to be getting on an old ferry boat, all diesel stench and cheap white paint peeling over rusted metal plates and bolts, to cross the Adriatic to Italy. He’d been looking forward to Italy. Decent coffee, decent clothes. A decent haircut. But someone had targeted him in his anonymous clothing and greasy mane, his scruffy ginger beard, and he’d never suspected a thing until he felt a bat crash into his skull hard enough to hurt for days, a week.

He’d had little enough on him when he was abducted—nothing more valuable than a fake Australian passport, a cheap low-tech flip phone, and a wallet holding a thin sheaf of business cards, post-its, a few Australian dollars, a tiny photograph of John taken in a booth in 2010, a scrap of paper with some musical notation but no staves. Some stamps, as if he were a tourist who meant to send postcards. An ATM card, also in his assumed name of Joshua Benjamin Travers. A condom. Camouflage only, from a vending machine at a highway rest stop in France. 

Sherlock looked so down-at-heel it beggared belief that anyone would think he’d be worth robbing. Or holding for ransom. He’d thought it had to be a targeted kidnapping: someone had recognised him and tailed him and he’d never noticed. But coincidences do happen; occasionally the universe is lazy. Sherlock had just got unlucky, and a pack of low-rent thugs and thieves abducted him to ship him a few thousand miles away as, basically, a slave.

Once Sherlock had come to in the oily, icy bilge of a cargo ship hold, it had taken him precisely 43 minutes to organize the other eleven men and boys into a ragtag resistance—despite having no language common to all. The plan would have worked, too, but for one generous, confident, daring young man, a boy, really. He’d caught Sherlock’s eye with a conspiratorial glint, tilted his head toward the guard with the gun, and created a diversion that allowed the other captives to jump the man. But not before the guard had slid a knife between the boy’s ribs and into his heart. Sherlock had held the boy up as he died, the light fading from his bright blue eyes, his face and physique and hair so like John’s, what John must’ve looked like twenty years ago.

When the boy’s legs buckled he took Sherlock down with him, both of them hitting the floor with a stunning jolt. He was paralyzed with something like guilt and grief long enough to be taken again, shoved into a truck on landing, and hauled away to Serbia. (What John always, always calls “Fucking Serbia,” thinking only of his aborted mission. If he knew what had happened there before Sherlock had come home, he’d call it much worse.)

Sherlock hadn’t known the boy, hadn’t endangered him or encouraged his risky maneuver. But he hadn’t reacted fast enough either, and the result was the same: the boy died because Sherlock failed him. Bright gold hair, sturdy build, the spirit of fun that made Sherlock himself and John search out adventures and danger in the labyrinth of London. Chasing or escaping from ruthless (if often blessedly inept) criminals. 

The boy hadn’t really looked much like John, Sherlock knew that. But in his eidetic memory the resemblance had grown until he could swear the gallant boy he’d failed so spectacularly had been John. And whenever the memory returned he was powerless with horror and shame, and John was always already dead. Sometimes he thought it was because the boy looked that bit like John that Sherlock had assumed they’d be on the same wavelength, could coordinate without words. But that wasn’t right: it was the boy who’d made that assumption, not Sherlock. The story held him prisoner, but it kept changing shape in his recollection, he couldn’t make it stay still.

A draft slides over Sherlock’s arms and nape just as he becomes aware of John’s voice saying, urgently, “Are you ill?” and putting two firm fingers beneath his jaw to test his pulse.

I need you here, John. I need you alive, your hands steady and calm. If you aren’t alive, then it’s all been for nothing. He needs to say that, needs to talk about Barts, his time away. His failures. How he’d hurt John. What all of it had cost them. 

What comes out instead is, “I’m fine.”

Chapter Text

30 October 2015

In the months after Sherlock nearly crashed and burned, trying to bring me back to life after Mary died, we were carefully rebuilding a friendship that neither of us was sure would survive. Between grief and shame and remorse and desire I hardly knew how to talk to him, how to be around him. 

Sherlock himself was badly compromised by what he’d suffered, what he’d done. I half-expected him to plunge back into his normal / abnormal mode of frenetic activity, but if he was ever tempted to try, he wasn’t up to it. He was unusually subdued. In anyone else I’d have called it depression. Most days Rosie brought him to life much better and faster than I could. 

She was becoming the light of my life at last, after months of guilty ambivalence about being a father at all—and now a single father, at that. I was seeing what a treasure I’d been given, and part of that was down to Sherlock. Without ever having demonstrated any affinity, let alone tenderness, for kids, he took an interest in Rosie’s development and tastes. 

I watched him play the violin for her for a solid hour one day, playing every possible variation on some short Bach piece until he had her perfectly blissed out. He would talk to me very seriously about which toys best promoted cognitive development, and which ones she liked. The word sequences he made up for her were the lullaby of my grateful naps in my chair at Baker Street. He probably didn’t think I was paying attention, sleep-deprived as I was, but I was listening as he introduced Rosie to his world.

For Rosie everything was new and brightly-coloured. She was thrilled by a red phone box, or the yellow happy face, and she made intentional noises that I could almost think were her own invented language. She was particularly drawn to Sherlock. No surprise there; it runs in the family. 

What was surprising was how affectionate he actually was in return. He didn’t often let me see him kiss her hair or her hand, but whenever she was close by he was sure to have a hand on her foot or her back. He took care to wear colours and textures that would stimulate her curiosity. And—alert the press!—he made sure there was nothing in the flat that could hurt her, no experiments or rotting body parts; even the sharp edges of the coffee table he had covered with padded corners.

Still, I didn’t take her over there too often, not while he was going through the worst of detox and recovery. I didn’t want her to become any more attached, at least until I felt more confident he wasn’t going to relapse. I couldn’t forget the drugs lab Wiggins had made of the kitchen in the summer, could see it as if it were still churning out heroin and God knows what else. 

I hated to doubt Sherlock, but I knew very well that being an addict or not isn’t a matter of rational choice or morality or character or willpower. He could relapse without wanting to, and as brilliant as he is, he could keep me from finding out almost indefinitely. The downside of loving a genius: my only recourse is either low cunning, or distance. If Rosie came to need Sherlock the way I’d always done—like a drug—how would I protect her if he let her down, if I had to separate them? She’d suffer without understanding. I couldn’t risk it.

But it was painful to keep away from him, and I texted every day. He always answered, but he didn’t initiate; he seemed determined not to impose. Between visits, when I couldn’t stand not hearing his voice anymore, I’d call. We’d never been much for talking on the phone, though, and it was a poor substitute for seeing him, making him smile, sharing my daughter with him. 

When I couldn’t stand it anymore I’d come back by. If I could find an excuse I’d touch him: take his pulse or his temperature, change a dressing. I was glad my hand was steady, since he had a way of discerning emotional intensity from cues like a tremor or an elevated pulse. Occasionally, to his silent mortification, I checked him for fresh needle tracks. Every day he kept clean I felt my hopes reviving. That Sherlock and I could be us again. That we might even be closer than we had been.

Because from the day I’d finally apologised to him for blaming him for Mary’s death, for cutting him out of my life, for beating the shit out of him, I’d had to face facts: I wasn’t going to be happy with anyone else. I was in love with Sherlock. I had been for—well, since the beginning, if I’m honest. And honest is exactly what I’d never been before. I’d made a play for him that first night at Angelo’s, and he’d politely but firmly turned me down. From that moment on I’d tried to bury that desire, bury it so deep that I didn’t even remember it had existed, so that I could keep that brilliant madman in my life—and stay in his.

Plenty of times it'd made itself felt, of course. When I’d felt so jealous of Irene Adler I could hardly breathe. When I’d tackled him in the restaurant, the night of his return. Neither of us had ever mentioned, ever acknowledged, our mutual and quite unmistakable arousal. When he taught me to dance a waltz for my wedding day, or when we got drunk on my stag night. When I found Janine in the flat and watched him snogging her, cooing at her. I wanted to kill her there and then and shag him senseless.

But I was angry, after he came back. I was so angry, so bitter and hurt that I strangled all that love and desire, warped and stunted it into relentless mateyness and vengeful condescension.

Because I saw that it hurt him, and I was glad: glad to see him suffering as I’d suffered, thinking himself unimportant to me as I knew I’d been unimportant to him. I wasn’t even aware that this was what it was; it took a shamefully long time to realize that I was punishing him, and how cruel I was being to him, and why. It had taken Ella’s relentless, impassive persistence to help me see what I was doing, what I was feeling.

How much of what came after could have been avoided if I’d just gone to him and said: I loved you, how could you do that to me? How could you let me hurt like that for two and half fucking years? And whatever he’d said, I’d have either got over that fury, or got over him. Instead I pretended he was basically nothing to me, until I lost him again. And again. And again.

I was done losing Sherlock. It was time for us to find each other again. As soon as he was well. As soon as I was sure. I was finally willing to risk everything—except for Rosie. For her sake, I had to be sure. So I waited, and I watched. 

Chapter Text

1–14 November 2015 

 

Ever since I finally apologised to him I’d been feeling a lot better about Sherlock, about Sherlock and me in particular. Embarrassed about having waited so long, really. Why had that been so hard to do? Because of all the baggage that came along with the moment I’d snapped, apparently. All the guilt and shame, all the frustration and desire. All the years I’d spent lying about what I wanted, what Sherlock was to me. All the pretence. Well, thank God for Ella. 

But while I hadn’t been honest about any of that baggage, at least I’d told him that the blame I’d directed at him lay with me, and with Mary. So there was one step taken: starting to dismantle the myth of my husbandly devotion, a myth that made me feel like shite and that was keeping Sherlock from ever being able to see what he was to me. What he’d already been for so long.

Things were looking rather good, until one icy evening. November 1st.

I was on my way to Baker Street with Rosie, elated to be spending a couple of hours with Sherlock. It wasn’t “minding” him anymore, either. He seemed mostly out of the woods with regard to the drugs; the rota of friends who’d been sitting with him (“hanging out,” he’d said once, with self-deprecating humour) had been allowed one by one to stand down. No, it was just a visit, and Sherlock was alone at the flat, waiting for us. Or so I thought.

I rounded the corner from Park Road and spotted him on the doorstep of 221B. Not alone: I was horrified to see that vicious little weasel Wiggins with him. Sherlock was standing in the doorway in his at-home clothes, trousers and blue dressing-gown, so, not just getting back from somewhere. Wiggins was looking up at him and talking, a bit agitated, his hand on Sherlock’s arm and his features pinched and pale with the cold.

I stopped dead, accidentally jolting Rosie in my arms, and let the crowd flow around us. On the threshold Sherlock seemed to be seeing Wiggins off, handing him something I didn’t have a clear line of sight on. A small envelope? Bundle of notes? Wiggins thrust whatever it was into his jacket pocket and turned away, walking hurriedly down the street, away from me. Sherlock took a look around, looking for us perhaps but plainly not seeing us. He pulled his robe around him and disappeared behind the glossy black door of 221B. 

Rosie began to fret as I stood there in the crowd. Why was Sherlock seeing his old dealer, enabler, at Baker Street? What was he handing over to that bastard? Money? What the fuck was going on? My cheeks started to burn as I realised how stupidly optimistic I’d been about Sherlock’s recovery. Addiction isn’t a cold. You don’t get over it with bone broth and bed rest.

I couldn’t think of a single innocuous reason for Wiggins to be at 221B at all, let alone collecting a wad of banknotes from Sherlock. Still holding my daughter I turned on my heel and walked away from Baker Street. Texted Sherlock: “Something’s come up, sorry. More later.”

 

* * *

 

I never like going to Mycroft behind Sherlock’s back. In fact I hate it. I hate conspiring, because it gives Sherlock another brick in his “alone protects me” wall. And because I’m on his side, always. And because it gives Mycroft the upper hand in a relationship that’s already fraught.

But the one area where there’s no daylight whatsoever between me and the British Government is what Sherlock likes to call his drugs “use.” 

There was no time to lose. I felt like marching straight over to see Mycroft, but I never knew where he’d be, and dragging Rosie all over London in this weather wasn’t an option. Instead I got us onto the bus heading home, and sent a text.

I was just at 221B. What is Wiggins doing there? JW

I sounded like an informant, and again, I hated it. But nowhere near as much as I hated Wiggins and what he’d helped Sherlock to do to himself.

Hello, John. MH (Supercilious bastard. Using good manners as a bludgeon, as always.)

I take it you’re no longer there? MH

Right, I came away. I’ve got Rosie with me. JW

Did you talk with Sherlock or Wiggins? MH

No. Saw Sherlock hand him something at the door, then he left. JW

There was a significant delay before he answered. So the British Government didn’t like this any better than I did.

That may be quite innocent. MH

Or not. JW

Thank you for telling me. I’ll have the camera feeds checked. MH

Oh, for Christ’s sake. Of course he’s still spying on Sherlock all the hours God sends. No wonder his version of caring makes Sherlock grind his teeth. But still. It could be the most discreet way to find out what the fuck is going on.

Let me know what you find out. JW

Of course, Doctor Watson. MH

Mycroft only types out my name and title when he’s taking the piss, and I resent it as much as Sherlock does. I didn’t answer or sign off.

I got a text later that evening, not especially informative or reassuring.

Surveillance data inconclusive. But no cause for worry. MH

 

* * *

 

8 November

 

I didn’t contact Sherlock again that evening, not even to explain why we hadn’t come. Day after day I got Rosie up and fed and dressed, and got her to daycare. I went to work, practised the dullest kind of medicine as conscientiously as my fractured concentration would allow, picked Rosie up, took her home. And thought about what I’d seen.

And thinking of what I’d seen made me feel dirty and rattled and at some level betrayed. Sherlock was certainly trying to get clean, but at the same time he was seeing Wiggins, and I couldn’t think of a legitimate reason for that. I knew I should just ask him. I can’t take Rosie to 221B if he’s using again; bad enough Wiggins had already drugged her once in utero. But much worse: I can’t trust Sherlock if he’s seeing Wiggins on the sly. And if I asked him he was bound to withdraw, whether the circumstances were innocent or not.

When a week had gone by and we hadn’t spoken, just exchanged a couple of bland and careful texts, I was sick at heart. I missed him. I missed trusting him. I missed looking forward, I missed knowing he was waiting to see us. “Talking” guardedly through text messages was almost as bad as not talking at all. And God, I missed his voice. Amused, or annoyed, or affectionate, or distracted—I missed hearing him talk to me.

With a start I realised I’d been the one to withdraw, not Sherlock. I’d stood him up, and cut him off, and hadn’t even given him the chance to explain whatever was going on that day. Had just assumed he wouldn’t deign to. He must be wondering what was wrong. If he wasn’t using he wouldn’t intrude, wouldn’t ring. I knew that well enough. If he was, he also wouldn’t ring: he’d know that I’d pick up on it.

Enough. I dialed his number. That in itself might ring some alarm bells, as a cold call from me was fairly unusual.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang. I rang off and tried again. Still no answer. Half an hour later I dialed again. This time the call went through.

“— ’Ullo?”

Not Sherlock.

“Who is this?” My voice was stiff: I was furiously sure I knew who it was.

“Doctor Watson. It’s me. Wiggins.” His tone was its usual blend of obsequious and insolent, and I hated it. Hated him.

“Where’s Sherlock? Why are you answering his phone?” Now my tone had gone full-on frigid.

“’E’s out. I’ll tell ’im you rang, yeah?” Wiggins sounded uncertain, but still disingenuous.

That was beyond weird. Sherlock leaving the flat without his phone? He’d sooner go out without his shoes. More likely he was there, but high. Damn it. Well, I wasn’t going to ask this prick for information about Sherlock’s movements.

“His phone will tell him I rang, when he gets back. Anyway, you could tell him to ring me.” I wasn’t being cordial, but I was being a great deal more cordial than I felt. The little shit—in 221B and answering Sherlock’s phone. Sod him.

I rang off, regretting the old phones you could slam down with a satisfying bang. Thought about going round to 221B to make sure Sherlock was ... wasn’t high. To slam him up against the wall if he was, after throwing Wiggins out on his bony arse.

But it was time for Rosie’s dinner, and she was becoming fussy—irritable bouncing, burning cheeks, grumbly noises. It wasn’t fair on her to be in a shite mood. No, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair on her to take her round to 221B when it might be turning into a drugs den again. If I wanted to check in on Sherlock again I’d have to find a sitter right away, or call in sick to work the next morning. It wouldn’t even be a lie. I felt sick enough, God knows.

 

* * *

 

I thought and thought, and stewed and fumed. And in bed, of course, I tossed and turned. That whining, sneaky weasel. What the fuck did it mean, and how was I going to find out? I turned over every option I could think of, from a surreptitious drugs test to a full-on drugs search of the flat to having Mycroft arrest Wiggins and deport him to God knows where. With a sprain. No: a break.

But the hard fact was that Wiggins was a symptom, not the problem. Sherlock was alone and under-occupied, and that was always a dangerous combination. Boredom and isolation. He claimed it threw his brain into frantic overdrive, though I had my own theories. If this hadn’t come up I’d have moved back into 221B with Rosie in a heartbeat, if he’d asked us; but now I couldn’t move in with her for the very reason that Sherlock needed me to: the danger of relapse.

By morning I thought I’d found a solution, the obvious one.

It was time Sherlock went back to work, back to cases with the Met and back to puzzles for private clients. I wasn’t sure why he hadn’t already done the latter, in fact. He certainly didn’t need any permission from me. But Greg had said he wouldn’t call Sherlock in until I gave him the go-ahead, and it was past time I did it. If Sherlock was relapsing, a case might stop that cold, if he was as able to control his drugs “use” as he always claimed. And if he wasn’t using, all the better. He deserved to have his life back. As long as—as long as he took good care of it.

Once I got to the surgery I started to text Greg, then decided to ring instead.

“John, hullo!” He sounded surprisingly relaxed, for being at work. “Glad to hear you! All well?”

“Yeah, great. Things are really ... good. Rosie’s a very easy baby, everyone tells me, I wouldn’t know. But it’s good.” Greg had kids, he wouldn’t need every little detail.

“Haven’t seen her in a couple of months. She must be—what, nine months? My favourite age.”

He sounded nostalgic. Christ, would I sound like that, when Rosie was a few years older? Probably.

“Yeah, almost. Listen, though. I’m calling about Sherlock.” Not exactly a smooth segue, that.

Greg’s voice sharpened. “Everything all right? Please God say yes, John.”

I laughed and reassured him. “God yes, he’s doing well, Greg. I think ... I think it’s time. I think he’s ready to go back to work.”

Greg didn’t try to hide his relief. “Oh thank Christ! We need him back. For our solve rates, if nothing else. —No, just kidding. I’ll be glad to have our genius back on call, if he’s ready and willing.”

I laughed again, relieved myself. “I imagine he’s straining at the leash. But don’t tell him I gave you the green light. Just ring him and ask if he’s available again. I don’t want him to feel ... never mind.”

“No, no, I know. It’s dicey. Smartest man in London did the stupidest thing in the world with the Culverton Smith case. Don’t want to make him feel like the idiot he is, right?”

Greg’s affection for Sherlock hit me right in the ribs. He was rock-solid, and Sherlock and I were lucky to have him in our corner. I thought briefly about bringing up Wiggins, and my concerns. But I decided that telling Mycroft was precaution enough, and Greg would pick up on anything shady without being warned.

“Listen, got to go, patient waiting. Thanks, Greg. Let’s get together soon, yeah? Come over and see the rug rat.” My proposal was as sincere as his acceptance, though God only knew when we’d get around to it.

He rang off and I sat a moment. I felt better, just having done something concrete. Probably the right thing, at that. I knew Sherlock needed Greg’s cases as much as those cases needed him. I’d text him later, see if he’d come over at the weekend. That’d give me a chance to see him out in the world. Dressed for normalcy. For real life. For us.

Chapter Text

15 November to 25 December 2015

 

Sherlock deduced the green light that John must have given Lestrade from the text the DI sent out of the blue one cold mid-November morning. No reference to the long hiatus, no inquiry as to his recovery. No prelude or preamble at all, just the familiar “Something in your line. Can you come?” with an address in Kensington.

Sherlock was ready.

He hadn’t seen much of John and Rosie in the past two weeks; John’s visits seemed to be tapering off as Sherlock got better (“better”?). He didn’t even text daily anymore, and Sherlock wouldn't text him first: if John was giving him a tactful message, he was going to accept and respect it. His place in John’s life was circumscribed now; as the talons of addiction slowly loosened, John seemed to be putting distance between them. Once Sherlock didn’t need his medical attention, John wasn’t proposing contact of a more optional, casual nature. 

Probably he’d started dating again, and wasn’t mentioning it. That was it: he’d met someone he liked, someone who might see Watson as an attraction rather than a liability. As Sherlock did himself, of course, but John was in the market for anyone but him. Perhaps if Sherlock too were to date, and achieve that elusive completion, he might become eligible.

But if he was to encounter an even remotely plausible romantic entanglement, it wasn’t going to happen in seclusion at Baker Street. He saw no one but takeaway delivery boys, not one of whom had struck him as plausible. From his window he hadn’t observed anyone faintly promising, even from a distance. On the contrary. He was beginning to think the male population on display in central London the most dreary specimens he had ever seen. If he had to do this, he’d have to find someone not actively repulsive. Crime scenes weren’t ideal for the purpose, but getting back into the Work was a start at getting back into the world.

Black trousers, raspberry shirt, black suit jacket he’d bought for Wiggins for a case. Now that Sherlock was so thin it fitted him better than his own suits, which hung on him. Socks, shoes. Phone, keys, money, tools, coat. It was already cold enough to need his Belstaff, and the pockets left his hands free. He felt a surge of energy as the street door slammed behind him and he strode into the evening air. Kensington, and in his line? He couldn’t wait.

The cab deposited him in front of a sedate address in stately Fotheringay Crescent, where two unmarked police cars were the only sign of a disturbance. The Met coddling the sensibilities of the well-to-do, Sherlock thought dourly. He bounded up the steps and through a massive and pretentious door, stopping short in the hallway at the sight of Greg Lestrade. 

“Lestrade. Where’s the body? Who called it in?”

“Nice to see you too, Sherlock. Thanks for coming.” Sherlock rolled his eyes at the wry twist of Lestrade’s mouth, and didn’t answer.

“Come through,” Lestrade continued. “Body’s in the kitchen. Pretty unexpected, I have to say.”

It was indeed unexpected, all of it. First of all, the victim was hanging fully clothed from a cargo hook crudely fastened to the kitchen ceiling, in a position which would have been agonizing for a living person: hands bound behind his back by a rope that held all of his weight, dangling from a chain. At the very least the shoulders would have been dislocated, the ligaments and tendons torn beyond mending. The strappado, an ancient torture technique. Excellent for inflicting pain and extracting information, but not a direct cause of death.

Then there was the fact that the victim’s face was familiar. Famous, rather. A politician on the fast track to 10 Downing Street, to judge by the tabloids. Finally, the rather repulsive fact that death must have occurred some time ago: even in the chilly house the smell was overpowering. The housekeeper had found the body after returning from a week’s leave, to prepare for her employer’s re-entry from a vacation on a Greek island. She was being questioned and comforted in the sitting-room, and Donovan and Lestrade had been holding back the scene-of-crimes unit pending Sherlock’s arrival.

With his usual high-intensity focus Sherlock examined the body, its clothing, the rope, the various marks on the floor, snapping out questions to the witless officers and glaring at the slow and uncertain answers. He opened a new mental file and began filling it with every datum and query and hypothesis he could extract from the scene, then asked to speak with the housekeeper. 

From her he learned the arrangements the MP had made for his vacation, the kind of companion he normally took with him, the planned dates of his departure and return. She confirmed that no one had contacted her to mention any change to those plans, or to inquire as to his whereabouts—but it was unlikely, she said, that anyone would. The victim had no immediate family beyond a set of cousins in Lancashire, and the lack of a spouse was the one speed bump on that road to Downing Street. 

 

* * *

 

The investigation turned out to be more of a labyrinth than Sherlock had expected. There was a surfeit of possible motives and suspects, but whoever had done it had been exceedingly careful not to leave unnecessary forensic traces. It took him a solid four weeks of work, not to mention the personnel-hours of Met staff, to trace the string of very slim forensic evidence back to one of those Lancashire cousins, with a long-standing grudge and a newfound interest in the victim’s property, born of learning that the MP had no will and the cousin stood to inherit one-sixth of a decent estate.

Dull. At the very least Sherlock had hoped for some political vendetta or a secret sexual relationship gone horribly wrong. Was there any motivation for murder more banal or soulless than greed?

During the month spent working the Kensington murder Sherlock also took up a handful of private cases that he hoped would tempt John back into the Work. And they might have done, had John not had a couple of minders fall through at a critical moment and been unable to accompany him, given that he staunchly refused to bring Watson to anything involved with crime. Sherlock couldn’t blame him; she was too little yet to learn from crime scenes. (Probably not John’s reason, but more rational than thinking that Sherlock would let her come to harm at one.)

So he took up the Work again, alone. Wiggins was still underfoot, angling to assist and unwilling to take no for an answer. Mycroft’s eyes and ears. The private cases were more quirky than compelling, but they gave him a chance to brush up on interacting with people without John there as a buffer. He kept an eye out for signs of romantic or sexual interest from any human being who did not actively repel him, unbending so far as to flirt once or twice, very subtly and mostly for practice, maintaining plausible deniability. In fact he wasn’t inspired by anyone at all. Yet.

In mid-December the Kensington case closed, with a fair amount of media coverage and several quite dramatic photographs of Sherlock above the fold. The press was driven by the prominence more of the victim than of the consulting detective, but it was a plain and strategic fact that Sherlock’s face was more photogenic than the victim’s, by a good cut.

Still, the visibility of a high-profile murder successfully resolved was useful in generating a small flood of prospective cases for Sherlock to sieve through. He chose carefully, no longer goaded to take any and every case for fear of enduring frantic boredom should he find himself without a puzzle to work on. In any event he did have a puzzle, or at least a project: finding a romantic entanglement. It might even become a plan.

In the weeks before Christmas John stopped by Baker Street once or twice with Watson, and on Christmas Eve Sherlock was invited over to John’s flat along with several other people. He decided to go to his parents in the country instead. He’d already given John and Watson his gifts, to be opened on Christmas morning, and he doubted that watching one of John’s female neighbors flirt with him over eggnog and baby toys would contribute significantly to his happiness. When he’d finally declined, John had seemed disappointed but hadn’t pressed, which in turn had disappointed Sherlock.

It was a quiet holiday, with Mummy clearly keeping a sharp eye out for any repetition of the horrors of the previous Christmas. Daddy was gently affectionate and solicitous with him, and Mycroft surprisingly complimentary about his work on the MP’s murder, deeming the outcome “excellent” (translation: in no way disruptive or inconvenient to himself). Sherlock thought of John, of course, and Watson, far away now and not likely ever to come any closer. 

He wished he’d invited them to come to his parents' home for the day after all. He’d supposed it would be too vivid a reminder of another Christmas, with Watson and no Mary. No Magnussen either, which had to count in the positive column. But still: an immense hole in John and Watson’s life that no Sherlock Holmes could ever fill.  

Chapter Text

December 2015

 

Another Christmas season, my first with my daughter. I was working a few mornings a week, though I didn’t like to hand Rosie over to the daycare. She never minded; she was generally a placid baby, aside from often being awake for hours on end in the nighttime. With my doctor-brain I knew it was good for her to be exposed early to other adults and to kids. With my paranoid dad-brain it killed me to leave her with someone else. 

If Sherlock had been an option I’d have been thrilled, but I was still far from certain that he was completely clean. Whether he was or not, he’d been back at work for weeks now—back to a life of unscheduled time, bouncing unpredictably between crisis and tedium, reflection and furious activity. No room for a baby in that, even if he’d offered.

He didn’t offer. I didn’t ask.

Our daily texts had tapered off to a few times a week; I was almost always unavailable when he invited me on a case, and I always blamed the lack of childcare. What really held me back, though, was the fact that Wiggins was still to be found so often at 221B. And Sherlock never texted me first unless it was about his work. 

—His work. It was our work, once, and as much as I wanted it to be that way again, he seemed if anything to be drifting further out of reach. Rosie was an obstacle, though I hated thinking of her that way: I had to put her safety first. I thought at some level that if Sherlock wanted to reach out to me, to us, he would do it. If he didn’t, it was because he didn’t want to.

Still, I wanted to see him so badly that it actually hurt. I thought about inviting ourselves over to Baker Street for Christmas, spending the holiday with him. Even drafted a text proposing it. Well, I drafted various versions of that text, each one more transparently needy than the last.

Any plans for Christmas? Can Rosie and I come over for Christmas Eve? – Well, that sounded pathetic.

Would you like to borrow a baby and a sleep-deprived dad on Christmas Eve? – Joky-blokey.

I’m so tired I’m about to put Rosie in your Christmas stocking. Watch for us on Christmas Eve.  –Self-pitying.

Get out the takeaway menus, Sherlock, we’re coming over on Christmas Eve. – Breezy, but bossy.

Eventually I realised I was trying to maneuver him into having us, when I could simply invite him.

Come over and cheer us up on Christmas Eve! – Oh God no, that sounded even more pathetic.

You’d be Rosie’s favourite Christmas Eve present if you came over. – Coy and cowardly.

We’ve been missing you. Come over for Christmas Eve. – That’s more honest, at least.

What do you want for dinner on Christmas Eve? – A bit presumptuous.

In fact, it was presumptuous to think that he would want to spend Christmas Eve at ours with just one old friend and a ten-month-old. I decided to invite a few interesting people over so Sherlock wouldn’t feel put on the spot, the object of my thirsty gaze, mine or my daughter’s. I’d ask Greg, of course, and Molly. The Stamfords. Mrs Hudson. She and Sherlock could come together. 

I panicked when I realised I was replicating the guest list of our first—our only—Christmas at Baker Street, so I randomly invited a couple of mums I’d met at Rosie’s daycare. There. That would defuse the emotional intensity of memory lane, and redirect the adults’ attention to the kids, which was appropriate for Christmas.

By the time I’d overthought this ridiculous event organised entirely around Sherlock, I wasn’t even surprised when he politely declined to come at all. He said he’d already be at his parents’ house, but I was sure he must have gone rigid with horror at the guest list, and resolved to stay away at all costs.

In the event it was a cheerful evening, everyone in uncomplicated good spirits and ready to be pleased with their company. Everyone but me. Without my guest of honour it was a hollow kind of ritual and I was relieved when the mothers left, later than babies’ bedtimes but earlier than I'd feared. Rosie’s growing crankiness gave my other guests a tactful hint to do the same, though both Greg and Mike had quite impressive baby-whispering chops and I gave them full marks for staving off a fatigue-induced meltdown. I left the mess in the sitting-room to deal with next morning, and put Rosie to bed.

The next morning was melancholy. I wanted to call Sherlock, but I dreaded finding that he wasn’t at his parents’ house, as he'd said he would be. I didn’t want to know for certain that he'd deliberately avoided me, and I didn’t want him to lie. So I settled for texting him. 

— Happy Christmas, Sherlock. I hope we can get together soon. Love to your parents. A bang on the ear to Mycroft.

It was as close as I could come to saying, I miss you. Let’s end this distance. At least this time I hadn’t hidden behind Rosie.

He texted back immediately, as he usually does.

— Happy Christmas, John. I hope you enjoyed your party. Greetings from everyone here. Kiss Watson for me. SH

For half an hour I pored over those seventeen words. He mentioned my party; I hadn’t. Should I have said “Missed you last night”? He didn’t mention getting together, as I had. Was that deliberate? “Everyone here”? Who was that? Was someone else there with him? Wiggins, there again this year? In what capacity? —Well, Mycroft was there, he’d have an eye out.

He didn’t respond to my jibe about Mycroft. Usually he ate that kind of thing up. It’s hard to parse the emotional subtext of a text message. Why was he still using his initials? Why did the text sound so much like a farewell?

Rosie enjoyed the aftermath of the party even more than she had the party, I think. The coloured bags and balloons and paper were all she needed of Christmas; presents and new toys and clothes were in no way more special than all that cheerful clutter. Except for Sherlock’s present, a large green blanket for the floor like the yellow one at Baker Street, with four small plushy toys to anchor the corners. It was her favourite of all. Well, unless I was projecting. Which I probably was.

His gift for me was beautiful, if not particularly personal. A pair of butter-soft brown leather gloves lined with fur. I couldn’t stop touching them, and in some odd neural short-circuit it was as if I were stroking his skin, and in the fur lining, his hair, which I knew to be much softer than it looked. How was I ever going to get close to Sherlock again? And if I couldn’t, how was I ever going to get over him?  

Chapter Text

1 January 2016 

 

After what had to have been the bleakest in a very long line of bleak New Year’s Eves, Sherlock woke up early on New Year’s morning. He wasn’t hung over, having spent the evening irreproachably and quite tediously playing exercises on the violin, only at midnight allowing himself a proper piece: Auld Lang Syne. For the past several months he hadn’t been satisfied with his technique, and if the moronic tradition of New Year’s resolutions didn’t bore him stupid, would have resolved to practise in a more disciplined and systematic fashion. As it was, he had played scales and études on the violin for three relentless hours, and this time next year would no doubt still be regretting his flabby discipline and frayed technique. 

He spent the day in a dressing-gown and a haze of boredom, his fingertips too sore to play again. Keeping out of trouble was his only accomplishment of the day. But it was something, given the emptiness of a holiday on his own. And when had that become a motive for depression? 

At 4:34 p.m. a text arrived from Lestrade which he decided to take as the reward of virtue, since it was surprisingly promising.

— Kensington copycat. Can you come? GL

Eight minutes later he was dressed, out the door, and hailing a cab which deposited him after 23 minutes in front of a dodgy-looking warehouse now strobed with police lights in the early winter dark. He made his way through a crowd of onlookers barred by the crime-scene tape from satisfying their morbid curiosity. Lifting the tape he swooped beneath it, ignoring a couple of members of the press shouting, “Mr Holmes! Sherlock Holmes! Are you here by invitation? What can you tell our viewers?”

Morons. As if he could tell them anything when he’d just arrived, and as if he would tell them anything more than they’d get from the police later—it was as much as Lestrade’s trust was worth.

He entered the place, cavernous and nearly empty but for the circle of police, Met officers, and SOCO surrounding a nude male dangling three feet from the floor. Caucasian, blond, brush-cut, mid-to-late 30’s, works with his hands but indoors, three tattoos, former military—God, there’s a coincidence. Automobile or other vehicle factory. Moonlights as a lorry-driver. 

There were marks on the body not consistent with its current position, which was almost exactly that of the Kensington corpse. The strappado again, though this time the technique didn’t seem to have been used on the man in life. Fortunate for him. The wrists were bound almost identically but with a different kind of rope, an acrylic four-ply often used on cargo vessels.

A memory slithered to the surface: himself immobilised by ropes and chains for the purpose of torture. Sherlock pushed it back under a heavy trap door and triple-locked it in. He took another four minutes to examine the feet, knees, face, and throat of the corpse before greeting Lestrade, who had watched him in silence.

“Lestrade. Who found this one? Who called it in?”

“Happy New Year to you too, Sherlock. Thanks for coming.” 

Sherlock rolled his eyes at the obvious replay and, as in Kensington, didn’t bother to answer. 

Lestrade obliged. “The  owner came by two hours ago to show the property to a prospective tenant. The warehouse is always locked, and when he saw the front door hanging open he called the police, thinking it’d be a robbery or trespass. He waited for them to show up before going in, in case a robbery was actually in progress.” Lestrade made a grimace of being grudgingly impressed—it was rare for a civilian to exercise such common sense. 

“On New Year’s Day? Sounds dodgy.”

With his magnifying glass Sherlock tapped the familiar regimental insignia tattooed on the man’s upper arm. “You’ve identified him?”

“He’s a missing person. David Strong. Works for a Toyota plant up in Durham assembling cars, didn’t come home three nights ago. The tattoos were part of the description his girlfriend gave the police, so when the local bobby called it in to the Met, he turned up in the database right away. Thirty-eight years old, formerly in the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.”

Sherlock rapped out, “The other two tattoos—one’s a girlfriend’s name, but the other’s more interesting. Recent, and I’ve seen it associated with a human trafficking organization.”

Lestrade stiffened and asked, “Where? Here in the U.K.?” Clearly interested.

“No, the Balkans. Croatia. Serbia. But it’s an organization with a long reach, operating at least as far afield as Russia and Ukraine.” Sherlock tried for his usual studied air of utter indifference, but suspected he was not fooling Lestrade. “You should probably—”

“Call Interpol, I know. I’m on it.” 

Lestrade was already hitting a speed-dial number when Sherlock said, tightly, “Mycroft. You need to call Mycroft.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mid-November 2015 – mid-January 2016

 

My life at NSY was never the same without Sherlock. I always missed the great git when he wasn’t around, and not just for the dip in our solve rates. He’d been such a flamboyant part of my work life for so long that his absence couldn’t really pass unnoticed. The years he was away, when we all thought he was dead, were tainted with guilt and regret; the months of detox and recovery he’d spent alone at Baker Street, once after he was shot and again after the Culverton Smith case, were grey and gritty with worry.

One Sunday night in November I got a text from John suggesting it might be time for Sherlock to start back to consulting, and the very next afternoon a quite famous body turned up in Kensington of all places, dead some days and hanging from a cargo hook. If that couldn’t intrigue Sherlock, buck him up a bit, then I didn’t know him at all. I sent him a text, non-committal, didn’t want to emphasize how long it’d been since he’d been in on a case.

He practically beat me to the crime scene. And although it took a month, he solved the case with surprisingly little forensic evidence to go on, no witness testimony, and a mass of possible motives and suspects.

Of course he was all over the papers for that, and rightly so. The way Sherlock thinks really is extraordinary. I’ve often wished I could see it in slow motion, how he gets from A to Z, running multiple scenarios with all their ramifications faster than thought and and ticking each one off when an established fact makes it impossible. Doubling back to verify those established facts in case he’s missed a variable.

No one else can do it, at least no one I’ve ever met. He’d brutalised himself pretty badly in the summer—for John’s sake, always for John. I was relieved to see that he hadn’t damaged that unique mind beyond repair, though his behavior wasn’t what it used to be. Not always a bad thing, honestly, but worrisome all the same. Still, it was good to have him back.

John wasn’t in the picture for the Kensington case, and that probably kept Sherlock a bit subdued—didn’t have anyone to talk to anymore. Anyone who caught his meaning pretty quickly, that is, and was willing to follow him blind until he did. That wasn’t my role; if anything, it’s my job to keep him reined in. I gave John a couple of hints by text while we were working that first strappado case, and got back some frankly evasive answers. But I wasn’t going to give up. The next time I needed Sherlock again, I was going to make sure John was in the loop. Those two weren’t themselves without each other, and if they didn’t know it, well, I did. Sherlock was clean again, he was working again, but he wasn’t happy.

And a damned good thing it turned out to be that he was working again, because barely two weeks after the Kensington case closed, we got a copycat. Like the MP, this victim had been strung up from a metal hook; unlike the MP, it had happened after death. Like the MP, this victim had no immediately visible cause of death; unlike the MP, this victim was stark naked. Obviously he was lacking any form of documentary I.D., but in five minutes flat Sherlock whipped up a profile on him that was so detailed I forgot my resolution not to let him show off, and asked him how he knew all that. By the time he got to “surely you noticed his residual tan is stronger on the right arm than the left,” it was all sounding embarrassingly obvious and he was practically radiating self-satisfaction. 

The victim had three tattoos, and Sherlock not only identified the obvious ones but recognised the third as a kind of member’s mark of a gang operating in the former Eastern bloc. That gave us a head start—we called in Interpol right away, and at Sherlock’s insistence I notified Mycroft Holmes as well.

Turns out it was something really big: the next morning the Chief Constable called me in, told me an Italian copper was flying in to work the case with us. Not a homicide detective, but part of a special team working on the organised crime syndicates behind the massive traffic in refugees, economic migrants, prostitutes, drugs, and slave labourers. That trade was flourishing in Italian ports and inland cities, and it was bringing not just Italy but Europe to its knees.

I wasn’t sure how Sherlock would respond to the Italian cop, or for that matter how I would. The more I thought about it, having anyone on secondment from Rome promised to be a gigantic pain in the arse. I expected, I don’t know, some kind of walking caricature warbling opera tunes and complaining about English food.

But Roberto Zanardi turned out to be a serious asset, as least as far as the case was concerned. He was quiet, not dramatic, and he spoke perfect English—no accent at all, just a few odd word choices sometimes, like he didn’t speak it all the time. That was a huge relief. I’d worried that he’d need an interpreter, and we couldn’t afford either the expense or the security risk. The danger of leaks was too high. The stakes were too high all round.

Not two days after Zanardi came to London Sherlock had already identified the murderer—who had nothing to do with the Kensington case, beyond using it as camouflage. What wasn’t clear was whether we should make an arrest up front, or whether it would be possible to use the crime to get some traction on the larger, international organization that connected the killer and his victim. 

From day one Zanardi was ready to collabourate. He brought information about the Italian situation, about the boats crammed with victims who’d given every penny they could scrape together to get to Italy—only to die on the way or end up in slavery, as workers or criminals or prostitutes. He had a huge mental database of dates, names, numbers, arrests, trials, convictions, acquittals, organised crime connections. He never had to look anything up; he had it all in his head. In that he was like Sherlock.

Well, not only in that. He even looked a little like Sherlock: thin, couple of inches taller, short dark hair already greying, but brown eyes and a beard. He even dressed as well as Sherlock, but that might be the Italian thing. When they met there was a minute or two of cautious evaluation, then they seemed to join forces and they worked really well together. Really well. Truth to tell I hadn’t seen Sherlock click that way with anyone since he met John. And Zanardi—he latched on to Sherlock like a limpet.

Whenever Zanardi wasn’t actively working on the trafficking case he shadowed Sherlock, praised him, touched his arm or his shoulder. And Sherlock let him. I never thought Sherlock could find a partner as compatible as John was. But Zanardi treated Sherlock like any other person—a genius, but not a freak—and Sherlock responded by acting like any other person. Well, more like, anyway.

Seemed like he’d found himself a new assistant. 

Chapter Text

4 January 2016 

 

The first time I saw Sherlock Holmes in person I was determined not to like him and not to give him an inch. I’d been sent to the U.K. on a case of the highest importance, for Italy and for Europe: the humanitarian crisis of a generation. It was an improvised collaboration between two prominent European nations, both facing—not very successfully—the enormous wave of refugee dislocation and the illegal, immoral “business opportunities” that spring up whenever human desperation means there’s money to be made.

That ooze up, rather, like slime, oil, sewage. If the state had only the migrants themselves to channel and help (or refuse to help) we’d never be in such a dire crisis. It’s the jackals, pimps, and vultures, who see human misery as an advantage to themselves, that make the state’s job impossible. They make for a toxic cocktail of human trafficking: perilous sea-crossings in overcrowded vessels unfit to transport even cargo, let alone human beings; smuggling in airless containers by unwitting (—seriously?) lorry drivers; and at the end of it, at best indentured servitude, and at worst, slavery.

It’d been four years since I was assigned to the SCICO, the Central Investigative Service on Organised Crime, and looking back, it seemed like we’d made no concrete progress at all. If anything, the jackals were winning. I’d stood at too many makeshift mortuaries, watched too many gaunt or bloated corpses zipped into body bags, seen too many traffickers get off on a technicality or for lack of evidence. To turn back this tide, we needed to score a massive win. Not only did those bastards have to pay; the price had to be so crippling that their trade no longer looked like sure, fast, easy money.

For the past eighteen months we’d been putting together an airtight case against a loose coalition of smugglers, pimps, and money-launderers. And we’d finally just had a stroke of luck. One of them had murdered an English national on English soil: a different case from the mass deaths of stateless victims in international waters. When the Met team working the case had seen a gang tattoo, Interpol was called in, along with some murky figures in the British government, and the connection was made to our sting operation in Italy.

It was the bizarre “consultant,” who had a very dodgy history and no formal relation to the Met, who had recognised the tattoo, pried the lid off a tin of wriggling maggots, and soon solved the murder. But it was my job to keep the English police from undermining our operation before we had a chance to spring our trap. They’d agreed to put off making an arrest until Interpol and SCICO had everything in place. But that wasn’t going to happen overnight, and I was worried about the loose cannon that the Met seemed to have on board.

I’d looked up the press coverage of a related (actually, unrelated) case, and it was pretty sensational: an MP, torture, and a delayed discovery of the body made for some juicy details for the media. What was most worrying was the amount of attention the press gave the consultant: photographs, front-page coverage, obsequious hyperbole. A flamboyant, self-serving, headline-hunting amateur was the very last thing I needed, when we were finally this close to closing down a nerve centre of the human trafficking network exploiting Italy’s porous, five-thousand mile coastline. So my guard was up and my tolerance was down when I finally met the loose cannon in person.

Flamboyant: check. He swung into the office of DI Lestrade, black winter coat flaring out behind him. The auxiliary “consulting detective” (whatever that means) was tall, just three or four centimeters shorter than me, with too-long black hair, icy blue eyes (icy green? hard to tell), and a haughty expression that set my teeth on edge. He went straight up to Lestrade, who was perched on the corner of his messy desk, and didn’t greet anyone else. From Lestrade’s deferential expression and body language, he couldn’t be counted on to keep the consultant in check. Qui si mette male: Not looking good.

Self-serving: not so fast. Sherlock Holmes brought a mass of observation and detail to the case, including quite a bit that I’d missed. He laid it all out in an accessible sequence, not making Lestrade or his team (or me, hunched unobtrusively in a corner) guess or press for clarification or information. He was clearly on Lestrade’s side, not a rival, and he seemed to take the gravity and scope of the crisis to heart. Not that self-serving, then. And for that matter, not an amateur, either.

Headline-seeking: not at all. The last thing he said before he made to leave was that he didn’t want his name associated with the case in any way. No publicity, no acknowledgement, no hint of involvement. My eyebrows shot up at that, and when the meeting ended I straightened up to introduce myself, in case Lestrade didn’t do it for me (he did). The consultant looked at me indifferently as we shook hands, as though he’d already seen all there was to know about me. And indeed, he already had.

It was clear he wasn’t used to looking up at anyone, and didn’t much like it. It took two or three sentences before he finally turned his attention to me and actually engaged. When he did, he stepped well into my personal space: I felt a sudden rush of heat, and my heart thudded. He was charismatic, gorgeous, and cazzo, he smelled delectable. I felt like I’d been sideswiped by a fast-moving train.

Per carità di dio. Bad enough that my marriage had gone down in flames and my children were barely speaking to me. Now I had to fall, and fall hard, for a man.

Chapter Text

Mid-January 2016

 

It had been good to get back to The Work. Indeed, it had been a lifesaver after the weary parade of days spent mostly inactive and alone. Autumn in a minor key, neither energised nor settled, without event or variation. Plodding. It had been ... endless.

Yet while the autumn had been colourless it had also been oddly placid, lacking the flaying boredom of old. He’d had so much to think about, to speculate on. To review. It had made the passage of time feel subdued. As though he was waiting for something to happen, but couldn’t do anything to trigger it.

He remembers standing in front of the bathroom mirror in late September, taking inventory. The lost weight that wouldn’t come back: his bones too prominent, his skin stretched dull and sallow over hips and collarbones and elbows. The shameful map of needle tracks along his arms. The man in the mirror had looked weak, diminished; he looks better now, especially when groomed for going out.

He regrets the coordination and reflexes lost with muscle mass: he couldn’t run or leap or balance on rooftops now. Most of that would come back, if earlier recoveries—from Serbia, from Mary—were predictive. Presumably as his strength returned and his brain chemistry stabilised, he’d be ready to return to other activities—running, or riding, or fencing. The truth of it was that he’d lost the habit of many of these distractions, absorbed in one overriding obsession.

He remembers the turgidity of the autumn. His mind turning inward on memory, examining and considering and setting aside. Trying to identify and label every pivotal moment he’d missed, every wrong turn he’d taken. How and when he’d lost John again and again. John polite and non-committal now, after all the open exchanges that had given him hope.

 

* * *

 

Those leaden autumn days had dragged by but time played tricks nonetheless, speeding up or fracturing into discontinuous chunks. He’d found himself thinking, How can it be teatime again already? I’ve just dressed. How can it be tomorrow when I haven’t slept? Have John and I texted today? Spoken?

He’d had to rely on his phone’s memory for certainty. It had been hateful. If his brain wasn’t ... didn’t ... if it was permanently—changed, who was he, anymore? What did he have to offer, to John or to anyone else?

Even more hatefully, Mycroft had been aware of it all, even untold. Of the drastically slowed cognition, like slogging through treacle. Of the uneasiness. Of the ... waiting. Of the terror, tamped down.

His horrid brother had seen it all. Had had the gall to say, gently, that he shouldn’t worry: that his brain was undamaged, that the trouble was in his mind. That things would—return. To normal, whatever that was.

Hardest of all had been the daily, inexorable solicitude of Mrs Hudson. She spent the autumn being tactful (and that was hateful too), referring to John as rarely and neutrally as she could, yet patently absorbed with a dynamic she too must find inexplicable. He knew she’d rung John regularly, as part of the Rescue Brigade, reporting and receiving news on his “progress,” her euphemism for detox and recovery, sobriety, abstinence.

She’d clearly noticed that John had stopped coming by; whenever she wanted to, then, she picked up the phone and demanded he bring Watson over for a visit. On the one hand, Sherlock had been glad of any occasion to see them; on the other, her constant interventions blurred the signal, making it hard to know at what intervals John wanted to see him. When he did come, their conversations had become careful again, avoiding any assumptions about the future. They’d contained little ease, and none of the snark that always meant security and stability between them.

As the weeks passed with no return to “normal,” Mrs Hudson had seemed to grow increasingly distressed. Her muttered imprecations targeted, variously, John, Mycroft, and Wiggins, whom she called “that awful boy,” not seeming to realize that he was there in the capacity of gaoler, at Mycroft’s command and on his payroll. Though only a moron could miss that fact. She hadn’t spared Sherlock’s parents, either, never as present as she’d like, or Lestrade, quite blameless but nonetheless regularly castigated sotto voce. In a way it was entertaining, her broad-spectrum disapproval.

But it was all too painful to go into with her. When she’d called him a smackhead she’d stuck him with a label that he utterly rejected. His weeks-long bender had been calculated, intentional, not a foray into uncontrolled addiction; “smackhead” had cut deep into his self-image and he would not, could not, discuss his condition with her, let alone go into John’s reticence and distance. He’d accepted her concern with true appreciation but encouraged nothing beyond the offers of tea, and biscuits, and distraction, and the occasional errand at Tesco’s.

Thankfully he still had his violin and, once he could manage them, his experiments, his research. And, after mid-November, the Work. These had helped sometimes to take his mind off the “Great Matter,” as he called the John conundrum with bitter self-mockery. The Kensington case had made for a most gratifying comeback, shifting his focus and giving him something concrete, solvable, to puzzle over. But when it was over, there he was again, pasting together trivial cases to keep his mind occupied.

 

* * *

 

The contrast between autumn and winter was electrifying. He was alive again, his mind ticking over smoothly like a racing car in perfect condition. When Lestrade had called him in on the copycat case he’d had a spike of hope that it would be equally absorbing, equally distracting. That it probably wasn’t, he’d known as soon as he saw the familiar tattoo on the body. It was clearly an attempt to throw the police off the track, but Sherlock had identified the murderer through the abundant forensic evidence.The universe was rarely lazy, but killers often were.

Lestrade had called Mycroft even before calling Interpol, and Sherlock had been summoned to NSY to brief the team of officers assigned to the suddenly-expanded investigation. High stakes, top secret. Ridiculous to insist on a real-time briefing—but he didn’t have that much on, and the cab was practically waiting for him in front of 221B, so he might as well.

He’d surged into the office to find a wall of people, far too many for the stuffy and overheated space, windows fogged with condensation. Most of them he knew or at least recognised; one man, withdrawn in a corner, was a stranger. 

“Thanks for coming, Sherlock. It’ll really help us to hear your rundown of the crime scene, and whatever you know or suspect about the victim and the murder.” Lestrade was welcoming and appreciative, modeling the behaviour he expected his team to adopt. A far cry from the “freak” days, certainly. Sherlock obliged, reviewing the evidence from the crime scene thoroughly, clearly, and from memory.

As usual Lestrade looked unduly impressed. He shifted on his desk perch and said, “Now, if you please, take us through what you think about any connection to the November killing.”

“Right. First: is there any causal connection between this murder and the November killing? If there is, is the victim’s nephew part of this organization? If so, the nephew is still guilty; if not, he’s not.”

Pause a moment, check comprehension: it wouldn’t do to underestimate the stupid in the room. Attentive nods, including from the stranger in the corner. He went on.

“The nephew has to be questioned, and quickly. But we have to assume that if he’s involved with the second murder he won’t have any reason to tell us so; quite the opposite. So all his digital records have to be examined and cross-referenced against the e-mail and social media trails of the second victim and”—slowing down for emphasis—“of all the known or suspected members of this criminal organization in the U.K.”

The stranger in the corner looked up sharply. Ah. Not stupid, then.

“Actually: all the known or suspected members in the U.K. and throughout Europe, in all Interpol records.”

The stranger gave an almost imperceptible upward jerk of the head, concurring. He seemed completely at ease, but not at home, in Lestrade’s crowded office; his dark eyes were completely focused on Sherlock. It was momentarily disconcerting. 

“But given the press attention given to the first victim, there’s also the possibility that there’s no more connection between the two killings than simple mimicry. In which case the nephew is still guilty, and your cross-searches will be so much wasted effort. But we can’t know unless and until you all do that painstaking work, and do it thoroughly.”

He stepped back and clasped his hands behind his back, waiting. Lestrade began to divide out tasks among his team, his signature good humour somehow as authoritative as another DI’s barked commands might be. When the work was delegated, Sherlock stepped forward again, securing everyone’s attention by lowering the timbre of his voice to its most resonant pitch.

“One last thing. This new case may turn out to be far more important than the first. Let us avoid connecting them in the public imagination. I don’t want to be associated with this new investigation in any way, in any statement official or unofficial from the Met. If asked, I will tell any member of the press that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a case I am not involved in—which would not be a lie. With any luck they won’t remember that I routinely refuse, on the same grounds, to comment on the cases I am involved in.”

The laughter that arose sounded like complicity, not derision. His life had changed: not so long ago he’d been dreading the reception he’d get upon re-entry to the Met. Well, they were still terribly limited, but at least they were cordial about it.

As the agents dispersed Lestrade introduced the stranger, one Roberto Zanardi. Close to, he seemed even taller, his stare even more focused. He was unusually well dressed for a policeman, Sherlock thought, but then he was Italian: attention to presentation was something he’d always appreciated about Italy, along with the music, the coffee. As he shook hands he inventoried the man: early forties, recently divorced, at least two children, perfectly bilingual and bicultural, a British—ah, mother.

“Thanks for what you said about how important this case is. It could be a real breakthrough.” Zanardi spoke calmly, without hyperbole.

“For you? For your work?” It would explain the intense gaze, if so.

“Not for me: for Italy. For Europe. For migrants from Africa to Ukraine.” Zanardi’s voice was earnest but still collected; his speech patterns were familiar, his background smart but not aristocratic. Interesting.

Sherlock took a step closer—and felt more than heard Zanardi’s sharp intake of breath. Oh. This might be better than interesting: it was hopeful .

 

* * *

 

In the cab on the way home he thought about the Italian policeman. The man had certainly been impressed. That wasn’t unusual; what was unusual was that he hadn’t been repellent. Superficially attractive, certainly, though that was irrelevant. But notably intelligent, discreet, and, well, promising.

Though Sherlock would rather have kept well away from this case, he had to wait for the outcome of the cross-searches he’d recommended—it could be that the nephew was, against all odds, innocent. That’s the excuse he gave himself for continuing to interact with Lestrade and his team over the next few days. But he was too honest not to admit that this was a convenient excuse: he was intrigued. Zanardi’s admiration when he’d solved the case was gratifying.

It was refreshing to be admired by someone who didn’t repulse him. It was certainly flattering to be admired with—respectful discretion?—by someone it turns out he’d a lot in common with. Zanardi had the advantage of Sherlock’s long-standing affection, confirmed during the Hiatus, for Italy. For Italian, and for Italian standards of beauty. In addition, Zanardi was far more intelligent than the average person Sherlock met, in any profession. And he turned up quite regularly, fitting comfortably into consultations with Lestrade, which eventually became consultations one-on-one with Sherlock.

Sherlock had found himself staring at the successive layers of fabric—shirt, jacket, overcoat—draped elegantly over Zanardi’s torso by the hand resting in his pocket. Good lines, excellent tweed, fine stripes of pearl grey and charcoal. Well made, well-fitting. Sherlock thought of Via Panisperna in Rome, where tailors still did bespoke work without pretension, fanfare, or extortionate costs. So absent was he that Zanardi had to repeat himself:

“I said, shall we talk it through at the café over on Walcott?”

Sherlock frowned. “Their coffee is abysmal.”

Roberto’s wince conceded, but: “Coffee’s abysmal everywhere here. I stick to tea.”

Sherlock fastened his coat. “A good rule, I suppose. I don’t order tea in Italy, certainly.”

Zanardi’s smile flashed as they set out for the café, their paces evenly matched.

The place was as crowded and noisy as the NSY cafeteria would have been, though fortunately it had far fewer policemen. It was more unique than rare for Sherlock to “have coffee” with anyone, and the last thing he needed was to feel conspicuous while he did.

In the event, though, the crowd and the roar made for a comfortable kind of complicity, hunched over their small table to hear each other. He made it through nearly an hour of conversation without either boredom, or untoward deductions; Zanardi was interesting, didn’t do small talk, but talked as well as listening.

He checked the time and thought he should get back to Baker Street. Just in case. He’d no reason to think John might, but—well, he might. He did, sometimes. He stood to go, shook Zanardi’s hand, and saw the man’s face flush with pleasure when he said they’d probably see each other at NSY later in the week.

And they had done. Probably, Sherlock acknowledged, by design on both sides. Not quite symmetrical: if he’d had to describe it he’d have said he himself was curious, Zanardi fascinated. Over the course of a few more encounters, they grew more and more comfortable working or at least consulting together, and Sherlock felt increasingly at ease. Perhaps it wasn’t so hard to get to know other people. Either they weren’t all morons, or he’d finally met another rare bird. 

Chapter Text

21 January 2016

 

I’d met Lestrade’s team—and Sherlock—at NSY the day I arrived from Italy, and three weeks of complete turmoil followed. Multiple teams of different organizations were working on the joint operation, and I was busy relaying information between all of them and my own department back in Rome. But whenever I could manage it I shadowed Lestrade, because that was the way to see Sherlock, at least at first. I wanted to either confirm this infatuation or get over it. To my uneasiness but also delight, my fascination with him only grew.

It was far from a physical attraction alone, although God knows there was that, overwhelming every other impression made by anyone else. It was his mind that was so completely irresistible. He thought with the speed of light. He observed like a camera, facts and objects freeze-framed in his mind to revisit at any later moment. He combined and recombined data and hypotheses like a computer, but creative, charismatic, exultant. Watching him think was like watching a master musician play an instrument—intoxicating and seductive.

And he was so very beautiful. On more than one occasion I made a fool of myself, when I lost my words or gaped at him in helpless admiration. (I’m not used to being the dullard in the room.) My consolation was that Sherlock didn’t seem to mind, or despise me for it. If anything, more than once he looked quite pleased. That was heartening enough that I got up my courage and asked him to have dinner with me.

I was thrilled when he said yes: exhilarated and terrified at the same time. I’d never had a reason to care whether a man was receptive to me or not. This man, whom I’d seen only a handful of times, absorbed me totally. I thought about him incessantly, and it took all my self-discipline to give the necessary attention to the case which had previously been the most important focus in my life. Still should be, damn it. Frankly I wasn’t sleeping much. Even choosing what to wear on the night had been nerve-wracking: I hadn’t brought much with me when I’d left Rome in a hurry, and I did want to look my best.

I chose a good restaurant, more for the atmosphere than the menu. Italian food was out of the question; I was sure to be distracted by any and every imperfection in the cuisine. So I took him to a dark, quiet, French restaurant for its ambience. I wasn’t subtle, but I didn’t want to be; I wanted to be absolutely transparent. Even then I didn’t quite realize that to Sherlock most people are absolutely transparent, most of the time.

They seated us in a fairly private corner, as I’d made sure to request when I’d reserved. The candle flickering on the table emphasised the planes and angles of his extraordinary face and I found myself gaping again, not listening as closely as I should have. He has the most kissable mouth I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t take my eyes off his upper lip—which, I suddenly realised, wasn’t moving. He was looking at me quizzically. Clearly I’d missed something.

“Sorry, could you repeat? I, uh, got distracted.” My face felt hot.

He looked amused. “I said, I don’t have much of an appetite this evening. I rarely do. Don’t take it personally.”

This gave me a pretext to look him over with an appraising eye, and I liked what I saw. Playing up the Italian I said, “I hope you have someone to look after you.”

Again, not subtle at all. Or honest, since it was my earnest hope that he didn’t have anyone to look after him.

“A minder?” His mouth (my God, that mouth) turned down at the corner.

“Oh, a partner, a significant other, I don’t know.” At NSY I’d heard a lot about John Watson, enough to know that he was probably a rival for Sherlock’s attention. I felt a little flustered trying subtly to investigate a man who seemed to know exactly what I was getting at.

“A boyfriend, you mean? No.” His mouth twisted as he said it.

“Glad to hear it.” Christ, this was getting worse and worse. I’d never been this clumsy in my life: in fact, I’ve always been rather smooth in my advances, mostly because I was generally unconcerned about the outcome. But now I was stuttering, stumbling over my own tongue. Hoping he would attribute it to my living most of my emotional life in another language.

“To be honest, it’s really not my area.” Now he definitely did look sardonic. It floored me that a man that brilliant, and that beautiful, should be either uninterested or unsought. Whoever this John Watson was, he should be shot. But it was an opening, and I seized it.

“It’s never been mine either. I’ll be honest too: I’ve never felt drawn to a man before. But you. The first time I saw you, I knew—I—wanted to be with you.” This was more like it. It was blunt and inelegant, but at least it wasn’t coy. I was being myself, and honestly myself, if not very composed or compelling.

Sherlock looked at me with that strange aquamarine gaze the colour of the seas around the Salento. He was quiet a moment, and then said, “I’ve noticed. You have been rather overt in your admiration.”

“Is that a problem? Have I embarrassed you? If so, I’m truly sorry. I never meant to make you feel ill at ease.” Fantastic, a wonderful start: sexual harassment.

“No, it’s not a problem. It’s flattering, in fact. You seem surprisingly open to the possibility of a—relationship—with a man.” Sherlock talked thoughtfully, and sipped his wine, though he ignored his starter of pâté de foie gras .

“How do you know I’m straight?” False step, I could see that at once. He looked put out, and I frankly didn’t want to know how he knew something as intimate as my sexual identity. History. I hurried to cut him off. “Never mind. You’re right. I am. At least, until now. Does that put you off? That I’d be a beginner? I mean, assuming you’re even open to the idea in the first place.”

Sherlock looked well and truly amused now. He might even have been a little softened by how obviously flustered I was. “No, it doesn’t put me off. Yes, I’m open to the idea. But it’s complicated.”

This sounded like a gentle let-down, so I thought I might as well ask straight out. “Is it your friend, the one everyone talks about? John Watson?”

He was quiet for a moment, his shapely hands clasped tightly. “As I said, it’s complicated. John is my best friend, my former flatmate, my partner, the person I trust most in the world. He’s not my lover. Never has been. And now that he has a child to take care of, I rarely see him.”

From the tension in his voice I could tell there was a minefield here, and I had to ask for guidance in picking my through it.

“What is it, then? I mean, if you want to say. I don’t mean to push.” And I really didn’t. I felt as though I had to take one half-inch step at a time to avoid having him shut down.

He spoke slowly, choosing his words.

“I have little time for or interest in emotions. I have, moreover, limited—experience with a sexual partner. I have a longstanding difficulty with human interaction: I find people easy to read but impossible to deal with. And I’m afraid that my heart, such as it is, belongs to someone else—and has done for so long that I don’t know if I can change that habit. Nor do I really want to enter into any consuming relationship. My work benefits most from stable routines and predictable patterns. And my work has been everything to me.”

Sherlock said most of this without looking at me; he looked down at his hands, over at the window, up at the ceiling, everywhere but at me. Clearly he was conflicted and embarrassed at the revelation he was offering me, and I was touched that he was being this candid. He was so beautiful, and I felt yet another shock of pure lust at the sight of that pale, long neck, those eerie blue-green eyes, that mouth so lush and yet so firmly closed, that cloud of hair that looked like it was made to be touched. But that was just projection; I was the one aching to touch it.

I picked up my fork and poked at my starter, some random collision of soft goat cheese and lavendar confit that didn’t go very well together.—French food. For God’s sake. They never can let just one flavour occupy the spotlight, with some supporting actors propping it up. They always have to serve up a plateful of divas.

Suddenly it came to me that mentally deriding the food at a moment like this was a good sign; it meant that some part of me had found something hopeful in what Sherlock was saying. His heart belonged to someone else. Normally that would be a kiss of death. But in fact I could work with it. It meant he had a heart that loved, at least. And whomever he loved—I still suspected John Watson—I could ask for a chance to try to change that habit. To win him myself.

So I put down my fork, reached over, and took his hand. He startled, and I softened my grasp a little to run my thumb over the inside of his wrist. Sherlock’s response was gratified and certainly encouraging—a soft gasp, then a softer sigh. Responsive, indeed. John Watson deserved un gran calcio in culo, and I hoped I didn’t actually meet the man so I wasn’t tempted to give him that kick in the arse.

I decided to open with Sherlock’s own last words. “I entirely respect that dedication to your work. The operation we’re running now—it’s part of the culmination of years of my own work, and it means the world to me. I don’t want to distract either of us now with a consuming relationship, as you put it. But once we’ve made the arrest, and the dust and the paperwork have settled, I’ll be sent back to Rome. Why don’t you come with me.”

His eyes widened a bit, his brow furrowed, but he didn’t say anything. I hurried on.

“Stay with me. Give me a month to change your mind, change your heart. To win you. See whether we could work out. Be together.”

This was a lot, and I wanted to give Sherlock a chance to say something. He didn’t look put off, just uncertain. So I went on.

“I think we can, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make a go of it. I’m not asking for a commitment now, not even a yes or no to coming to Rome. Just think it over. For now we’ll concentrate on the joint operation, and I’ll try not to tug at your sleeve. But don’t think for a moment that I’ll have lost interest, because every minute I spend in your company makes it clearer to me that you’re what I’ve been looking for all my life.”

Sherlock looked faintly stunned, faintly flushed, and (if I’m not deluding myself) faintly receptive.  

Chapter Text

22 January 2016

 

Sherlock had always treated my morgue at Bart’s as his own, a second office or lab when he wanted one. I used to hope it was because he was interested in me, but even I couldn’t deceive myself for long. Then I thought it was because he was comfortable with me, until I realised I was the only one of us who talked openly. He listened, though. Still, from all the time we’d spent together I thought I knew him fairly well. But he could always surprise me.

It was certainly a surprise—well, a shock—when Sherlock took up with that Italian officer on secondment from Rome. It did sting, a bit, since I’d figured that Sherlock loved one person only, someone I couldn’t replace no matter how hard I might try. But once I saw that particular light come into his eyes, over someone who wasn’t John—that shattered my illusion that it was only one person, one man, I couldn’t compete with. And when I saw Sherlock’s eyes narrow and drop to this Roberto like he was walking cocaine, I had to admit that it wasn’t only one person, his one person, that Sherlock preferred to me.

It was sickening, and I felt the pit of my stomach sink through the floor. But if you love someone you want them to be happy, and I truly did want something to make Sherlock shine again. It’d been so long since I’d seen him laugh, smile, the way he used to, before he faked his death and went away. Because John never forgave him for that, and punished him for it for years. Used me to hurt him, too. Or so it seemed to me.

One day in early January they were in the morgue, Sherlock and this Roberto, pelting me with questions as I tried to examine the Kensington copycat victim. Before I could answer any question Sherlock had already answered it (adding “of course” or “obviously”) and passed on to the next. I could see the amazement building in Roberto Zanardi’s face as Sherlock performed his usual deduction sequence at a dead heat. From a kind of bemused immobility Zanardi shifted into a focused stare of admiration, and Sherlock responded to it with suspicion, then tentative gratification. 

It broke my heart, honestly, to see that he didn’t expect to be admired. Here he was, the most astonishing assortment of knowledge and ability ever assembled in a single human being since Leonardo da Vinci, and he had to brace himself against ridicule from a pack of idiots not fit to wipe his boots. Had to conceal his blazing intellect because he couldn’t always slow it down enough to lay out the pieces patiently for the morons.

But this Italian detective wasn’t a moron. Sherlock saw his genuine wonderment, and flushed. John brings that out in him. Or he used to; it’s been a long time since—well, as Sherlock had put it, John’s “not really in the picture anymore.” So maybe John wasn’t Sherlock’s one and only; maybe he was just the only one who appreciated Sherlock for everything about him—his brilliance, originality, driven intensity, unearthly beauty, even his casual cruelty. The only one besides me, but I’d never hurt Sherlock the way John had.

This new friendship seemed to get more settled and more intense. More than once Roberto came to the morgue with Sherlock, and more than once I saw him slow down, lose his train of thought, stumble over words—despite speaking the best English I’ve ever heard from an Italian. (Later he mentioned his mother was English, so that accounts for it.) It was when Sherlock started talking that Roberto ground to a halt. 

The third time they came in John was there, and he saw it too. Worse, John saw Sherlock look at Roberto the way he used to look at John himself. You could have cut the tension with a knife, and I was so uncomfortable I stepped out for a moment. They must have said something to each other, but I don’t know what. When I came back Roberto tugged Sherlock out of the lab, and John turned to me, his eyebrows raised. No words, just his whole face a pained question-mark.

I wasn’t too articulate myself, just then. I knew I should say say it was only infatuation, one-sided at that. (It wasn’t; by then Sherlock had told me he was flattered, and tempted.) But I also really wanted him to regret what he’d thrown away when he married Mary: a man who’d sacrificed everything for his well-being. I wanted him to suffer for how he’d hurt Sherlock in Culverton Smith’s hospital. I’m not proud of it, but I wanted him to hurt the way I did. I was feeling sour because my little consolation story (“Sherlock couldn’t love me because he loved John forever and unalterably”) had broken down. I was hurt that it was me Sherlock couldn’t love. So I told John the truth, trying to sound casual. 

“They’ve been seeing each other. I think it might be serious. About time, yeah?”

But when I saw John’s face so stricken I was almost sorry, and I backtracked. “I mean, Zanardi certainly looks like he’s in deep. But I’m sure it’s just a passing thing.” As if Sherlock ever did passing things.

But John had seen him grab for Sherlock’s hand, before the door swung shut behind them. 

“What—um,” he got out, before his voice cracked. “What—um, do you think Sherlock—” He stopped there.

“Well, who ever knows, right? But he told me he found it flattering—he may have said seductive—to be wanted like that. I said he always has a trail of admirers drooling after him, men and women. He said that a man who wants another man and isn’t afraid to admit it, isn’t something you find every day. I think he meant Roberto isn’t ashamed of him, or ashamed of wanting him.” I looked at John, meanly hoping he would feel the implied comparison.

And he did. Oh, he did. First he flushed dark red, and then, literally, he went white. “Is—that—what he thinks? That I’m ashamed of him?”

I was disconcerted. I’d been trying to make John worry about competition for his role as trusted assistant; whatever he was feeling now, it seemed far more serious than that. He’d certainly never been this unguarded with me before.

I let his words hang there a moment before I answered. After all, it was Sherlock’s happiness at stake. I’d never forgive myself if my meddling hurt him, or separated him from whatever John was to him, from his best friend. So I waited a beat or two before I said, very quietly, “Well, aren’t you?”

John looked positively sick then, sick and grey. He stared into the middle distance, said two or three disjointed words, and left. A few minutes later I was still trying to figure out his reaction when Sherlock came back in by the main door. 

He asked, pretty sharply, “Where’s John?” 

I answered vaguely, “He left—he thought you’d gone off again, the way you do.”

“Oh, did he? Why would he think that?” His voice went silky, low and knife-edged, as though this were somehow my fault—and I remembered that Sherlock had used me to hurt John too, and suddenly I’d had it with him, I’d had it with both of them, I was done.

I slammed the drawer I’d been holding open. “Heavens, I can’t imagine. Surely not because you and Roberto left without a word to him, holding hands at that?” 

I glared at his gorgeous, furious face, turned on my heel and stalked out of my own morgue. Let them figure it out for themselves. They deserved each other—or they didn’t. Let them find their way out of it or die lonely old men. I didn’t give a damn. 

 

Chapter Text

22 January 2016 

 

I didn’t see Sherlock again until the blue Christmas was over, and weeks into the lonely new year. We seemed to be stuck in long silences interspersed with desultory and sporadic texts. I was still hypervigilant about Sherlock’s state and Wiggins’ bizarre, too-frequent presence in Baker Street; I hadn’t brought Rosie by for weeks, hadn’t seen him at all beyond a couple of short and unsatisfactory video calls. 

It was miserable. And I was in limbo: waiting to tell him something I’d been wanting to say for years, but waiting too to be sure he wasn’t using again. I wanted him back, my partner. The man I loved. Who didn’t seem, from what I could tell, to want me. 

A numbing void was growing between us where there had always, always been understanding and affection and trust. Even at the very worst times—when he came back from the dead, when I married Mary anyway, when I blamed him for her death—there’d always been a connection between us that I’d thought was unbreakable. It was broken now. And the first time I really realised it was when he refused to say my name.

The way Sherlock would say my name had always been one of his most endearing quirks. He said it where another man would say “hello,” or “thank you,” or “sod off.” He had any number of different ways of saying John, and I knew what each one meant: I’m not hungry, don’t be boring, do keep up, that’s irrelevant, not good?, are you coming?, obviously, well done, and a thousand others. It cemented our partnership: his telegraphic communication and my instant understanding of it. And now I longed to hear him say my name, and he didn’t say it anymore. Not even once, in the course of an entire, horrible encounter.

When I finally saw him in the morgue at Bart’s, it was to consult on one of his cases that I wasn’t in on. Well, I wasn’t in on any of his work at the moment; there hadn’t been that much of it yet, after the Culverton Smith fiasco and the long aftermath of recovery. After I’d given Lestrade the go ahead I knew of just one major, clamorous case, which I hadn’t been involved with. So when I’d got the garbled message at work to turn up at Bart’s “quite quickly please,” I was out the door before the nurse had finished talking—in such a hurry I left my phone, where I imagined a series of increasingly irritated messages must be accumulating. 

When I got to the morgue, I found, along with Molly and Sherlock, this eerily Sherlock-like shadow. An Italian copper had been seconded to the Met, and was seemingly joined to Sherlock at the hip. Taller than Sherlock, dark hair shorter than his and shot through with grey, a trim beard, on the slender side like Sherlock, and very poshly dressed. I hated him on sight. 

They were looking at autopsy records when I got there, and I noticed with a shock that Sherlock didn’t really look at me, didn’t acknowledge me. Certainly didn’t introduce me. Molly looked flustered and stepped outside, so I thrust out my hand and introduced myself:

“John Watson. How do you do.” Translation: Who the hell are you.

“Roberto Zanardi. Pleased to meet you.” He pronounced his name in Italian, the rest in perfect English. No warmth there, either. Translation: I didn’t really want to meet you.

“Um—are you—on this case?”

Zanardi needed no translation at all. He glanced at Sherlock and said, “Yes, I’ve come from Rome to liaise with the Met. You?”

His tone was challenging; meanwhile Sherlock was deliberately absenting himself from the conversation, looking ostentatiously through the autopsy files fanned out on the counter, and I felt wrong-footed.

“Me? I was called in. Sherlock, you asked me to come—something you want me to look at?”

Summoned back into the conversation, he looked up and said stonily, “No. It wasn’t I who called you in. Check with Gavin.”

I’d spent years watching Sherlock level an icy gaze on other people, but had never seen it directed at me. I felt my face flush hot. Being shunted off to “Gavin” was just about all I needed after this unsettling encounter. If I hadn’t known Sherlock better, I might have thought that he had indeed called me in just to show off my new and very fit replacement. To make me pay for my absence of the past few weeks. Well, if that’s what it was, I couldn’t blame him. But I hated it.

Without a glance in my direction Sherlock turned to go, Zanardi all but pulling him out the door as Molly came back in. I watched the door close behind them and turned to her: I had to ask, but I couldn’t speak.

She knew what I wanted to say, and answered nervously, “They’ve been seeing each other. I think it might be serious. About time, yeah?”

I must have looked as gutted as I felt, because right away she started to backtrack. “I mean, Zanardi certainly looks like he’s in deep. But I’m sure it’s just a passing thing.”

Sherlock, I wanted to say, didn’t do “passing things.” I’d never seen him look at another man in ... ever. There was Irene Adler, but whatever the hell that was, it wasn’t a passing thing; there was Janine, but that had turned to be a sham. I hadn’t ever seen Sherlock sincerely admire, or encourage admiration in, another man. I thought I might throw up.

“What—um,” well, this was embarrassing, I couldn’t talk, or even make my voice sound natural. 

"What—um, do you think Sherlock —” I couldn’t finish my question.

Molly flushed and looked away, past me. “Well, who ever knows, right? But he told me he found it flattering—seductive—to be wanted like that. And I said that he always has a trail of admirers drooling after him, men and women. He said that a man who wants another man and isn’t afraid to admit it, isn’t something you find every day. I think he meant Roberto isn’t ashamed of him, ashamed of wanting him.” She looked back at me pointedly.

I felt my face flood red-hot for the second time: Sherlock was involved with the Italian bloke, and they—but suddenly I realised what Molly had actually said. “Is—that—what he thinks? That I’m ashamed of him?”

Molly looked at me dubiously, her mouth turned down, and then she asked, “Well, aren’t you?”

Molly thought I was ashamed of Sherlock. Sherlock thought so, too. He thought I was ashamed of him. I’d told myself I was being careful, for Rosie’s sake; but the truth was I’d been a coward, even once I was over the denial. And I’d pushed him into a relationship with another man, because he thought I—I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t see straight. I don’t know what I said to Molly, but I got out of there somehow. I had to do some serious thinking before I could figure out how to put this right. If it wasn’t already too late. 

 

* * * 

 

Did you figure out who called me over to Barts today?  

An hour later he still hadn’t answered. 

What, you’re not answering?  

Sorry, didn’t see your message. SH  

(True enough, the phone hasn’t shown the “seen” icon.) (But the message was short enough to see without even opening it.) (But it was me.) 

I forgot to ask Lestrade, but I imagine he did. SH

Nice. Can’t be arsed to find out why I’d been hauled out of my real job, out of the blue, to be ignored and humiliated at Molly’s morgue. I’d suspect Molly, she’d looked awfully uncomfortable and slid out of the room as soon as she could; but she isn’t cruel. —Is she? 

I wonder why he would, though. I wonder why anyone would.  

True, you haven’t been involved of late. SH

Yes, and I’m sorry about that. I’d like to be again.  

Long pause. Message seen, though. 

Would you? SH

Yes, of course. Nothing seems right when we aren’t working together.  

Well, I can’t say that. Though it’s true. Delete.

Yes, of course. I’m always happier when we’re working together. 

Also a little too plaintive. Also true. Delete. 

Yes, of course.  

There. Emphatic, not imploring. Send.

Good. That’s good. SH

Enigmatic. Or, if he doesn’t send any concrete proposal, then evasive.

Ten minutes. Right. Evasive, then. Time to push the issue.

Let’s get together. We should talk. 

Let’s wait a bit. The case I’m working should wrap up in the next week. SH

Things will settle down then. SH

Again the cold shoulder. This obviously isn’t important to him. Anymore. But maybe, when this case “wraps up,” whatever that means, the Italian copper will bugger off back to Italy and never be seen or heard from again.

Fine. I’ll be here if you need me.

And quick as thought, the predictable if painful reply: 

Why would I need you? SH

Suddenly I can’t breathe. 

Oh, I don’t know. In the past you’ve found my gun handy enough. 

Of course. It was a joke, John. SH

Oh. Right. The time Adler drugged him. We’d laughed about that sedated rebuff. I feel a bit better, if he’s making a joke that means “I always need you.”

Seems there’s nothing I can do at this moment to put anything right. I’ve been waiting in limbo on my own account; now I’m instructed to wait another week, on his. Hoping he’ll call me when it’s time. Hoping he’ll “need me.” 

Chapter Text

The day the case was to be resolved I walked into my office at NSY to find Sherlock sitting at my desk. I hate when he does that, which is why he does it. 

After weeks of tailing, wiretapping, and other forms of electronic surveillance, we finally had an arrest planned—actually a large and complex sting operation, and Zanardi had asked for Sherlock to be there with us. That was fine with me, but if Sherlock was there I wanted John in on it as well. A few days earlier I’d had John summoned to the morgue, when I’d just sent Sherlock there; but I didn’t know the outcome, if they’d seen each other. 

Today Sherlock looked oddly distracted, and his answers were disconnected and vague. Not good: I needed him focused, on this case and only on the case. I let him have a short, sharp earful, and that was enough: he came round and bent his concentration to the hows and whens of the sting. 

But when I asked if he was bringing John—and John’s gun—along, he looked momentarily lost. “No. He has his own life, and other responsibilities. I don’t think we can count on him.” 

It was obviously painful for him to admit that John had other priorities now. John’s replaced him, I thought, but he hasn’t replaced John.

Oh, how wrong I was. No sooner had I thought it than he added, “But of course, we have Roberto. He’s very capable, and unlike John he’s cleared for small arms use. No need to conceal his presence or his actions—that’ll be an advantage.” 

It was the closest I’d ever heard him come to admitting that anything about John could be a disadvantage. 

I must have looked surprised; he said, kind of defensively, “Well, it’s true. Roberto can shoot if it becomes necessary; we always had to cover for John.”

I must have looked even more disconcerted. “But John’ll still be with you, right?”

Sherlock just got up as if I hadn’t spoken, saying, “So we’re to be at the container dock at midnight, in case things get started earlier than planned?”

Just then Zanardi stuck his head in the door and said, “We done here, Sherlock?” the way John used to. And Sherlock stiffened up and ducked his head, awkwardly but still regally.

“We’re done. Let’s go.” I wasn’t worried until I saw Zanardi grab Sherlock’s hand and lead him out the door.

That was worrying. I’d seen John and Sherlock in action dozens of times, and they were rock solid: neither got distracted, and both knew exactly what the other was doing, or would do. I didn’t know anything about how Zanardi would behave in a pinch, or how Sherlock would react to his presence in a dangerous and unpredictable situation. It could put them, us, or the whole operation at risk. This was definitely not good. I wanted the added security of John Watson.

I suspected that Sherlock hadn’t briefed John, hadn’t included him. So later that evening, after eight, I texted John to tell him where and when, adding,

Sherlock wasn’t sure you were in.

No answer. Bad sign: when John gets angry he gets verbal. When he gets angry, though, dead silence. So I added,

Hope you can make it .

Still no answer. Shit.

Just to be sure, I texted Sherlock:

I let John know where and when.

Then, a minute later,

Don’t cock it up.

Was Sherlock sensitive to puns? I hoped so.

Immediately I got an answer.

Meaning? SH

We can’t afford distraction, emotional static, or cross purposes. Damn it, you KNOW what I mean.

He didn’t bother to reply. But he must have texted John not to come, because he never did show. Everything went down smoothly, so smoothly that it felt anticlimactic—despite the satisfaction of an important job well planned and well executed. In addition to catching our murderer we brought in a few small fish in Zanardi’s trafficking case. It looked like they might have to go free, in the interest of protecting that much larger-scale operation that still had weeks, if not months, to play out.

But the whole time I wasn’t comfortable, wondering what the hell John and Sherlock were playing at, whether they were actually on the outs again, and when bloody Zanardi would be heading back to Rome and leaving us all in peace.

Chapter Text

28 January 2016 

 

Sherlock knew he wasn’t really needed for the sting at all. After he’d solved the copycat murder, and Roberto had been called in because of the ongoing Interpol investigation, he’d expected to back out of the case and stay out. The players in the ring had been identified, and sweeping them up in the net had required not Sherlock’s skill set but rather three weeks of massive surveillance and coordination among a set of agencies with different stakes in the outcome. But Roberto, his motive all too clear, had asked him to be there at the dénouement.

His obvious admiration was flattering, if nothing else. Initially Sherlock hadn’t been particularly stirred, though Roberto was certainly the closest thing he’d seen to a potential romantic partner since he’d started ... looking. But the evening at the French restaurant had been appealing—both comfortable and intriguing. A straightforward declaration of interest. —No, of infatuation. An invitation to Rome. A proposition that seemed urgent yet unselfish: to take his time, to wait and see. 

He’d always been able to take his distance from people who fell for him based on his appearance. Beauty is an irrelevant criterion, either too conventional or too subjective to be meaningful. Certainly too superficial. And Roberto wasn’t immediately magnetic in his own right, either; even trying to be open to new prospects, Sherlock hadn’t been able to work up real desire. But Roberto was tenacious. Discreet, but persistent. And unguarded. It was ... disarming, somehow. Winning.

The night of the sting, something shifted.

First it was the two women police officers. He’d overheard them whispering, crouched behind a concrete barrier a few metres off and trying to lie low. He wanted to hiss at them to be quiet; there were already too many of them poorly concealed in the cavernous structure, and it would only take one half-choked giggle to tip off their targets. But then he saw what they were murmuring about.

He followed their gaze and saw Roberto slip into and back out of a slant of light coming in through the high narrow windows. One of them made a careful, soundless whistle, and the other whispered, “Too right. Dead sexy.”

“You know their uniforms are made by Bilotta?” Even sottovoce, the conversation carried clearly in the resonant space.

“Who? Why do you know that? He doesn’t even wear a uniform.”

“I looked it up. Got to thinking about what he’d look like in his uniform. It’s gorgeous. I’m sure he’s got to wear it sometimes.”

“Christ, Nicky, you’re obsessed. Get a cold shower.”

Obviously it wasn’t the first time these two had talked admiringly about Roberto, though they were both far too young for him. And just as obviously, they had no idea he was pursuing Sherlock.

But the image stayed with him: Roberto’s lean figure gliding into the light and out again, kinetic and graceful, expression intent, capably gripping a handgun angled toward the floor. His clothes blue-black in the watery light of the warehouse on the docks. “Dead sexy.” Sherlock was beginning to agree.

He thought of the times Roberto had touched him. Smiled at him. Texted, or called, or shown up where he was. Absented himself without fanfare if Sherlock was busy or needed solitude. He wasn’t invasive or demanding; hesitant, rather.

Roberto’s features were mobile and expressive, and his very discretion showed the traces of a bruising separation. Not recent, but still stinging. His brown eyes were thoughtful, often serious even as he smiled. And his smile, in fact, was appealing enough that Sherlock didn’t mind trying to provoke it.

There were so many things to like about Roberto. He was clever, easy to talk with. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan. Smart. Unusually educated compared to his opposite numbers at NSY. Decent and humane, completely dedicated to taking down a criminal network he considered to be a cancer that was rotting the European Union from the inside.

And now to see him here, at work, completely focused on that task—confident and capable with a gun, dangerous—put him in a new light altogether. Sherlock could see Roberto’s mind working as fast and as fluidly as his body, which was sheer muscle laced with grace. Dead sexy, indeed.

And Roberto wanted him

He hissed a short, sharp, almost audible Shh and the whispering stopped.

 

* * *

 

Another half-hour of cramped, cold crouching (thank God for the Belstaff) before the silence dissipated, and the darkness. Beams from torches converged on the huge room behind the loading dock, and the sounds of footsteps and lowered voices. The meeting time was exactly as surveillance had overheard it, with a large cast of characters. Roberto would be pleased.

Everything had exploded into noise and blinding lights and the amplified boom of an officious DCC intoning that the building was surrounded and that everyone was to freeze and drop their weapons. Did criminals ever actually do that? Did the police expect them to? These didn’t, at any rate; shooting wildly they scattered for the exits, each hoping to escape while the others got stopped. Not really a rational hope when there were literally dozens of agents inside and outside the warehouse.

Those chaotic minutes presented the only real danger, of being shot more by accident or by ricochet than by design. When the dust settled and the lights went up, fifteen men and two women were each in the grip of two agents. Sherlock saw Roberto stride over to one still-struggling man and bend down to say something in his ear. The man jerked his head upward when he heard it, whatever it was, and his look of panic was quite gratifying.

Roberto caught Sherlock’s eye and spun his index finger in the Italian gesture that meant “just a minute.” He walked over to the DCC in charge of coordinating the various units and agencies collaborating on the operation; seeing him busy with the press liaison officer, he handed over a card and came back to Sherlock.

He moved in close enough for Sherlock to feel that his pulse was still elevated, which was ... stimulating.

“That went well.” Roberto’s voice was intent but calm, his breathing coming back under control, and the wry understatement made Sherlock smile.

“Couldn’t have gone better. Seems no one got away and no one was seriously injured.” Sherlock had noted only a couple of smallish bloody smears on the floor, clearly from fists, not firearms.

Roberto smiled too. “They will be. This is huge, you know. What we get from this raid will help us take out a score of major players. This lot won’t be able to inform on them fast enough.”

Sherlock stepped in closer, noting the clean smell of Roberto’s sweat—from exertion, not fear, always different. He surprised himself by letting the back of his wrist trail along Roberto’s flies.

“What did you say to him?” Sherlock’s breath came a little short. Adrenaline, he thought fuzzily.

“Hmmm?” It was clear that Roberto was suddenly no longer focused on his case at all. The thrill Sherlock felt at this was intensified by Roberto’s obvious pleasure, and desire. A certain arousal could come of being ... wanted; Sherlock felt it now, and it was dizzying. Again he moved the back of his wrist along Roberto’s crotch.

“What did you tell him, that man you spoke to?” Meanwhile Sherlock turned his own body at a ninety-degree angle to Roberto’s, to give himself more cover from the others and more leverage for the novel and completely ill-timed stroking he couldn’t seem to stop.

Roberto’s eyelids half closed and his lips opened, his hips moving infinitesimally forward as though independent of his will. The erotic charge of this tiny, helpless thrust slammed into Sherlock with a force he’d never felt with anyone but John, but he and John had certainly never done anything like this, his arousal only ever one-sided.

“You’re ... what you’re ... I ...” Roberto’s voice was faltering along with his words, and he didn’t seem able to move except to brush Sherlock’s flies just as lightly.

Their winter coats were a godsend, concealing their questing hands and the palpable evidence of a wholly mutual arousal. Roberto’s hem at mid-thigh covered Sherlock’s right thumb and two fingers closed loosely around Roberto’s frankly brilliant erection and drawing it up and down, just once, as his own cock throbbed in eager response. Roberto gave a wordless little hum and looked lost.

But apparently he had just enough presence of mind to look about at the many potential observers, because his next words were coherent—more than Sherlock could have guaranteed about himself, at the moment. “I told him, in Roman dialect, that where he’s going there are lots of big, violent men who don’t approve of child sex trafficking.”

Well. That was a mood-killer, thought Sherlock, as his erection flagged and his hand fell away. Just as well. This definitely wasn’t the time or the place.

Even more, he needed to get away and consider, before this escalated into something he hadn’t thought through. He needed to examine how he felt now about Roberto’s proposition. The night’s events made it timely: the Italian authorities wouldn’t leave Roberto in London at state expense any longer than strictly necessary. This potential entanglement was suddenly much more promising than it had been before this evening, but still he needed to think.

Roberto clearly realised the change in Sherlock, who’d stepped away. He looked intently and said, “Can we—go somewhere?”

Even before he’d finished the question Sherlock was shaking his head. “No, not tonight. Tomorrow. Come to the flat tomorrow evening, after seven. I’ll be free then.”

Roberto’s disappointed expression chastened Sherlock, but there was nothing for it. He drew his coat around himself and turned toward the street exit, very much aware of Roberto staring after him. He lengthened his stride and headed toward the nearest boulevard to find a taxi.

Chapter Text

29 January 2016

 

From the day I’d met Sherlock I’d been hearing about John Watson, from everyone who knew them. It was as though they were two halves of the same person, Sherlock-and-John. But for someone so present he was strangely absent, and it was beginning to look as though I would never meet him.

Ultimately I did meet John Watson, not once but twice: first during the run-up, and then the day after we arrested our clutch of criminals in a textbook model of a joint-operations sting.

By the time I finally saw the man, I’d established a working relationship with Sherlock that had its own habits and rhythms. I’d kept my word about not pressing him, and the case was pressing me; but I did keep signaling my interest, and Sherlock became more and more comfortable with that, and with me. The morning after our dinner we were at the morgue at Barts Hospital, looking through the pathologist’s files for another possible victim in this case, and I was feeling fairly comfortable myself. At least, until Watson showed up.

It was immediately clear that he was a rival, and a formidable one. He didn’t look like it at first: on the short side for a Brit, on the shady side of forty, and not especially prepossessing in appearance. But he had a powerful presence that Dr Hooper was certainly deferring to, and between him and Sherlock there was some kind of force field that made them into one unit. It was a strange kind of energy, though, as if they were both positive and negative magnetic poles at once—both attracting and repelling.

The atmosphere was so tense that on an impulse I tugged Sherlock out into the hall just to get away from it for a moment. I wasn’t surprised that he left me a few minutes later to rejoin Watson. That was understandable; he’d said at dinner that he hadn’t seen much of the man of late. It was insensitive on my part to try to keep him away, but jealousy is a bitch.

It was a bitch for John Watson, as well. The evening after the sting operation was successfully concluded I went round to Baker Street at seven. What had happened the previous night, the escalation, the touching: it made me optimistic about what Sherlock would say to my proposition. Proposal. Whatever it was. But I was also careful; despite the unmixed triumph of the operation he’d retreated at once, put me off until tonight. I was eager for an answer, but I didn’t want to push him into a no by being too impatient to wait for a yes.

I found him just heading for the shower. If I’d thought he was mouthwatering in bespoke suits and tailored shirts, I went literally light-headed when I saw him in a plum-coloured dressing gown and nothing at all on underneath. His long legs were more muscular than I’d realised; his slim waist was mouthwatering. He left me in the sitting-room, and I plumped down on the sofa in a kind of stunned heap, thinking of how the silk clung to him and left nothing to the imagination.

I’d just started to imagine him in the shower when I heard the door to the flat open, and straightened up. Suddenly there was John Watson: my rival in the flesh, taking off his coat and hanging it on a hook beside Sherlock’s. Oh, he was more than a rival, I knew that for certain now.

He looked displeased to find me there; his voice was curt and cold as he asked where Sherlock was.

“He’s just gone into the shower. I’m sure he’ll be right out.” I wanted to exaggerate the apparent intimacy of Sherlock leaving me on my own while he showered.

I couldn’t resist putting on a show of being quite at home in the flat, which put Watson visibly out of countenance. I invited him to sit down; I sprawled on the sofa as though I lived there, though in fact it was only my second visit. I’m not proud of it, but I did everything I could to make him feel that there was more between Sherlock and me than there was, than there might ever be. I wasn’t even above talking up the sting operation and how Sherlock had been there with me.

The air got even thicker with hostility and suspicion. I was behaving with ostentatious ease and good humour, making small talk, handing him a glass of wine, listening for the water to stop running. Apparently Watson was listening too, because when it did, he put down his glass carefully and stood up. He took a step toward me and pitched his voice low:

“Treat him well. If you don’t, I will personally rip your head off your shoulders and shove it right the fuck down your throat.”

I didn’t have the presence of mind to answer, though I could have given him an earful: did Watson own Sherlock, that he could make a threat that possessive? I gave him the look my mother gives us when we’ve said something common: an incredulous and pitying stare that is pure condescension. Then I got up and went into the kitchen to remove the temptation to answer him; it could hardly strengthen my case for Sherlock to see me squabbling with his best friend.

Soon Sherlock breezed out of the bathroom, dressed for the evening. He pulled up short when he saw Watson, then smiled stiffly. The smile dimmed under Watson’s glower and gruffness. There was no hiding the fact that Watson was deeply jealous, and Sherlock seemed to find it offensive. Whatever Watson came for, he didn’t broach it; whatever Sherlock wished to say, he couldn’t say it in front of me. Just a few minutes later, distracted and abrupt, he hinted me away. I was disappointed, but reluctantly left them to it.

Chapter Text

29 January 2016

Sherlgrey_Part 1 Ch 19 sm.png

 

This is it, then. The showdown with John that’s been coming for weeks, the pressure building all the more for the silence between them. Sherlock made it clear to Roberto that he should leave; Roberto, ever tactful, did so, promising to check in next morning. Watching him go, Sherlock is still uncertain what answer he’ll give about going to Rome.

When the street door shuts downstairs, Sherlock turns to see John watching him, waiting. “Well? He’s gone: you can say whatever you came to say.”

The tension is electric, and John looks furious and miserable. “Oh, believe me, I will. What was that about last night, Sherlock? Since when do you cut me out of your work with Lestrade? That text you sent—that was utter shite, and you know it.”

Oh. Sherlock had thought it would be easier to send his disinvitation via text, and imagined it would also be easier to receive that way. But clearly John is not in fact satisfied with his casual “No need to disrupt your plans for the evening. We can handle this without you. SH

“No, it was not. You haven’t been here at all since before Christmas, and you haven’t been working this case with me. You haven’t been working any cases with me. You’ve got responsibilities that make it irresponsible of Lestrade to call you and your gun out for a dangerous operation.” 

There. That should spike whatever petulant tantrum John is about to indulge in.

“Fuck yes, I’ve got responsibilities. Toward you too, you wanker.” This is not one of John’s affectionate jibes. Quite the opposite, in fact: he’s pale with anger, and his entire body is rigid with tension.

“For God’s sake. I had half of Scotland Yard and a small army of MI5 looking out for me. Watson only has you.” 

Again. That card should trump anything John can bring to the table, and if it doesn’t, Sherlock has another ready and waiting.

John’s harsh laughter is unexpected. “If you don’t want me around anymore, Sherlock, you can just say, you know. You don’t have to pretend it’s all about my daughter.” 

He’s glaring now, with slitted eyes and incandescent rage.

Sherlock tightens his lips and takes a step toward John. Time for the big guns. “I thought I was fulfilling my own responsibility to your daughter by doing nothing that might deprive her of another parent.” 

It’s a low blow, since John had apologised wholeheartedly for accusing Sherlock of killing Mary. But Sherlock’s too angry now to fight fair, and John’s had this coming, oh yes, he has.

Christ, Sherlock, I know that wasn’t your fault, I was wrong ever to say it was. I thought—tell me if I’m wrong here—I thought you’d forgiven me for saying that. For thinking it. So why are we back to this?” 

John’s voice has dropped, low and shaking. He’s looking at Sherlock as though he can’t believe this is happening again.

“I did forgive you. I do. But you’re her only family, and she’s always going to come first. She has to. You can’t expect Lestrade to expose Watson to losing you.” 

Too late he remembers why that isn’t a winning rationale; and clearly John is thinking the same thing.

“Lestrade was fine with calling me in. He doesn’t think I’m a weak link. Or that having Rosie means I can’t ever be exposed to danger again. Tell me what this is really about, damn it.” 

And oh, that’s rich. John’s implying that he’s misrepresenting his real motivations: John, who can’t even admit that what he’s angry about is not being excluded but being supplanted. John, who’s so very not-gay that he can’t even acknowledge that he’s not afraid for Sherlock, he’s jealous

Because Sherlock has spent this past month encouraging someone else, trying to make himself complete enough—for John. 

And suddenly Sherlock’s finished with the conversation, with the subject. With John. His fury drains into grey depression, and he’s not sure what he even feels anymore for the man in front of him. This is unfamiliar, and hideous. He feels unsteady, as though solid ground had turned to water beneath his feet. 

If John can’t talk candidly, neither can he. Watson it is, then.

“You can’t expect to turn up when you can find a sitter, ready to shoot when you don’t even know at whom. It’s clear we’re not going to be able to work together, now that you have sole guardianship of a vulnerable child. So if we’re going our separate ways, let’s at least part friends.”

Sherlock extends his hand with a gesture meant to convey finality, and dismissal. John looks down at it, then up at him, turns on his heel and leaves. 

 

* * *

 

John is gone. Sherlock pushed him to leave and he left. How could he not know Sherlock expected him to push back, to stay? To insist. To argue, resist. Instead, he’s gone.

If Sherlock closes his eyes he can see John standing there rigid, expression incredulous, furious. But not a hot rage, the kind he always thinks of as John’s. Cold, and remote: Sherlock has never seen him so frozen.

He lies down on the sofa, replaying the scene. Lurches between indifference and pain, until he has to admit that the indifference is a forced denial of the pain. He’d expected John to fight for him. John didn’t, doesn’t, care enough to. He’d turned and left without a word or touch.

Well, sod that, as John himself would say. Sherlock has spent years trying to understand what John wants of him, and to be it. And he’s just failed so comprehensively that he can’t bear to contemplate the prospect of remaining in London with his closest friendship in ruins. On this of all days.

—Chime. It’s John. He’s coming back. No. Not his signal. (Does John even know that Sherlock has given him one?)

He opens the phone. Roberto. No text, just a link to an mp3 file. A song by Paolo Conte: “Via con me.” Come away with me. Minor-key piano chords, light but insistent, open the song. Lyrics half-spoken, half-sung. He listens to the end. It’s—fascinating. Edgy and somehow old-fashioned at the same time. A seduction, a plea.

He listens to it again. Someone, at least, does want him; that’s concretely audible. Conte’s gravelly voice coaxes, “Come away with me. There’s nothing keeping you here.”

Another chime.

Yes? or no? R

An hour later Sherlock sends Roberto a text. A single word.

Yes. SH

 

 

 

Chapter Text

31 January 2016 

 

Dear John,

By the time you read this I’ll have left London for an undetermined period.

It only now registers that this is a Dear John letter. Odd to be leaving you when we’ve never been together, so I have to write what I’ve never had the courage to tell you in person.

When you left Baker Street in December of 2014 to return to Mary, I realised I’d been hoping for a different outcome. Since you know that feelings are not my area, you won’t be surprised at how long it took me to understand I’d been hoping at all, and to recognise it for a futile hope. From our conversation last August it’s clear that it still is futile: you do not care for me that way, and you never will. 

I, on the other hand, have loved you for years. Much longer than I knew, even. When I jumped off the roof of Barts it was precisely because I couldn’t conceive of living in a world that no longer contained you. I didn’t stop to think that inflicting on you a pain that I myself couldn’t endure was a proof of selfishness, not of love; but I honestly never imagined that you would grieve as you did.

When I returned to England I knew what I wanted, but you were with Mary and so very angry with me. (You had every right to be.) I was a coward; before you married I never told you, for fear of losing your friendship once and for all. But afterwards that friendship faltered in any case. And later, when Mary died—by my fault—our friendship actually was lost. So I should have asked you, that November: the outcome couldn’t have been worse than these repeated estrangements and ridiculous hopes.

But while I regret never daring to ask you to choose me, I also know you’d never have done it. I deluded myself into hoping that you could love me that way, if you would only admit it; I was wrong. That isn’t who you are, and you cannot.

Perhaps because I do, too evidently and too intensely; perhaps we love most what we can’t have. Losing you over and over has defeated me. Cocaine dulled the worst of it, but is not exactly sustainable. I got clean and went back to work, but you kept your distance when I started working again. Yet you came round last night to pick a fight about being excluded from a fairly delicate operation you knew too little about to be useful in. How could you have been useful, when I’ve seen you only once since before Christmas and you aren’t available for cases at all?

Last summer you said I will only be a complete human being when I’ve been in a romantic relationship. Recently I’ve become closely acquainted with Roberto Zanardi. I can see that you’re unhappy about it, but I don’t know why: you made your choice, if you ever felt there was a choice to make, and I’ve never contested it. Once again something is deeply wrong between us; our interaction is stilted and painful. What had been from the very first an easy and devoted companionship has become a parody of itself, a simulacrum. I’m at a loss to know how to salvage it, any of it.

Roberto is a fascinating man: intelligent, principled, and undeniably attractive. But most compelling: he accepts his desire for me despite being, like you, not gay. I’d call it brave, but it doesn’t seem to cost him any particular courage to admit that he wants me. That, more than anything else, makes me feel that I could indeed care for him. At any rate he’s my best hope of overcoming what I’ve felt for you for so long. It would be a relief to be able to remember you only as my best friend, without wishing for anything more.

Roberto has asked me to go with him to Rome for a month. I’ve accepted. For a month I’ll be unavailable by phone or e-mail; I won’t read or send texts. If at the end of February I feel that it can work between us, I’ll relocate to Italy. If not—I may return to London, or else remain abroad someplace else. Either way, this is goodbye. “I have been long enough at this play.”

Whatever happens, though, never doubt that I wish you, always, all the joy in the world. Kiss Watson for me, please.

Sherlock

Chapter Text

29–31 January 2016 

London, Rome

 

I’d always imagined that when I told John I’d been in love with him (have been, am still) for years, we would be in the same room. But that was before he’d told me to my face that I was ineligible to love him, or to be loved. 

It was inexpressibly painful. But at least it explained why, even after Mary’s death and our subsequent reconciliation, he continued to stay away. Yet once I’d taken my own distance, to try to remedy my incompleteness, he came roaring back into 221B with a very clear agenda of staking a claim he’d long since relinquished. Though perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’d hurled it away with great force. 

Once I’d have welcomed his very evident jealousy, and eliminated it decisively. But John was responding possessively only because someone else had turned up to threaten his territory: that was offensive. I was repelled. Quite an achievement, that; John had never managed to alienate me even through years of dismissals, some explosive, some tacit. But he managed it that night.

He refused to admit that he’d already walked away. Refused even to shake my hand. On the anniversary of the day I met him, he turned and left the flat without a word. I knew then that it was all over, once and for all, no matter what happened with Roberto. 

And the worst of it was that I no longer cared. An indifference like a numbness permeated both mind and body. John had been the focus of my thoughts and wishes for so long that losing him in this deadening way felt like losing myself.

All night long I wrote to him, trying to be both equable and fair, when in fact I was so angry and desperate that I wrote and discarded many more pages than I finally kept. Toward dawn I decided that what I had, would have to suffice. And writing to him did restore some of my equanimity, even some of my understanding for John. He couldn’t help what he was, if he wasn’t even aware of what I wanted, let alone of what he perhaps wanted. I was desolate to lose him, and Watson as well, but I meant what I told him: I finally had a shot at freeing myself from an obsession that seems to have meant only misery for as long as I can remember.

 

* * * 

 

Two days later I left my letter with Mrs Hudson, directing her to put it into John’s hands if he should come to Baker Street, or to mail it to him in a week if he didn’t. When she took it I felt something odd in my chest, a phantom ache, but I jolted my attention back from what I was leaving to what I was going toward: a trip to Heathrow, a flight to Rome. I was packed and 221B locked up; somehow I had to be ready mentally and physically as well. 

I took my bag downstairs, summoned a taxi, and settled against the straight back of black leather. John would—damn. I had to stop this constantly living in two dimensions. This dual focus on what he was doing at any given time. It was going to take more tiresome effort and concentration than I wished, but it would become a habit, in time: easier after a few weeks than I was finding it now.

Sentiment. Repulsive. This unconscious mental wandering to “where is he,” “has he read it yet,” “will he text”mindless, when I’d deliberately shut off my mobile and placed it in my bag to check. Our evening flight to Fiumicino would leave in 110 minutes and I wasn’t even at Heathrow yet. Roberto would be waiting for me there. He was the one who wanted to take me into his life, not John, and I would acknowledge that with my complete attention.

With some anticipation I left the taxi and entered the terminal. Roberto was indeed there, looking tense, perhaps uncertain. I did not feel uncertain, nor for that matter tense—just fatigued from two days wrestling with emotions, with words. But I was also determined, and curious about how this meeting and the rest of the evening would proceed. Not to mention the rest of the night.

Roberto’s expression of relief was eloquent: so he’d actually doubted I would come. That was only fair; he didn’t know me well, after all. He couldn’t know that once I’ve announced a decision I follow through. It would be irrational to do otherwise. While I had some apprehension I had no misgivings, at least none sufficient to make me change my mind about Roberto and about Rome. I was going to spend the month, and perhaps more, trying to build a rapport with him, and that was that.

A month. One lunar cycle. Why the circling of a pale satellite around the earth should seem a meaningful marker of time is not clear to me, but it’s only one of the many arbitrary correspondences humans make—between the material and the mental, between the physical and the psychological—that mystify me. Roberto should have, at the very minimum, one month.

I’d gone a month without a word to or from John immediately following his wedding. Two months after Mary’s death. Month after weary month in the years after I jumped. But he’d always been with me, on my mind nearly every moment, as present as when he was just upstairs at Baker Street. Now I was evicting him, and if I wasn’t quite sure how to do it—if I’d lost the habit of drawing each breath utterly alone—well, I’d known solitude once, and I would learn it again.

All this was in my mind as Roberto greeted me, took my case from me (odd) and walked with me to check in. We had a moment of awkward annoyance as I insisted on checking my bag. Through two years of traveling light I’d cultivated the habit of carrying nothing, and I wanted to carry nothing with me now.

At last he smiled and said, “so long as we leave together.”

I found it disarming. I made an effort and smiled, raised my hand to brush his elbow, and said, “Of course. How else should we travel?”

Again I felt the waves of emotion rolling off him, nearly tangible, certainly humbling. I turned and started for the security checkpoint, my only anchor to my London life the clothes I was wearing.

Once past security we stepped into the grotesque pantomime of High Street that is London Heathrow. A mammoth, neon-lit emporium with an airport attached. It was disagreeable and disorienting, and I thought of the top-secret flight I’d boarded over a year ago, to take me away from my London life forever. From Mrs Hudson. Lestrade. Molly. My irritating brother and parents. My profession. The flat. —At least this was a choice; that had not been. Suddenly I wished I’d brought my violin.

As we settled in I looked at Roberto, really observed him, for the first time since I’d texted him “yes.” What I saw was very pleasing—obviously . He was lean and fit, long and rangy. Taller than me. His hair, like his beard, was dark brown and already greying, cut rather short—not cropped, like Lestrade, but elegantly and properly cut, enough to look artless without actually being so. It flattered his face, which was fine-featured and kindly in expression. His eyes were brown, his smile a slow curve.

His suit was cut brilliantly: off the rack but off a very good rack, with unmistakably Italian lines. Charcoal grey, with a pearl grey fitted shirt and a rather good tie. He did show to advantage.

The flight attendant eyed us speculatively, but Roberto’s deliberate hand on my leg made him give it up as a lost cause. Flattering. I never ceased feeling flattered by how visibly attentive he was, as though he was not only unembarrassed at being with me, but actually proud. Again I felt a stirring of arousal that came less from desire than from the unfamiliar sensation of being desired, instead of craving. (Regretting, mourning.) I deliberately pursued that arousal. It was what I was there for, after all.

We didn’t talk much on the flight. We smiled, touched lightly. I reflected. But what I thought about wasn’t customary, for me. I thought about what was coming later tonight, how I would respond to it, adapt to it. It’d been years since physical intimacy had been so imminent, so deliberately chosen and undertaken.

For so long I’d chosen to be solitary and composed. And now I was choosing to live in my body rather than above it, to give myself to someone rather than remaining out of reach. It was ... stimulating. I looked at Roberto as his posture relaxed, and on impulse drew my thumbnail up the inside seam along his thigh. His electric response electrified me, which was interesting.

And Roberto smelled good to me. In retrospect, it was when I realised this that I first considered at least trying to respond to his admiration, to enter into a relationship with him. My hypersensitivity to scent has made me reluctant, sometimes, to frequent someone I’d initially found attractive, finding that the chemistry—literally—did not work. I don’t share the repugnance most people have for the smells of mold, decay, and such; they are informative, nothing more. But the scents of human bodies—to those I’m morbidly sensitive.

If what may please most people repulses me—a cologne, a deodorant, a hair product or breath mint—I’m forgiving of anything in a combination of body odours that I find harmonious. The problem is that so few people possess that composite. I’d known at once, with John, when he handed me his phone all those years ago. Is it possible that I fell in love with a scent? —Well, if I did, then I could do it again, and I would. Roberto smelled of Pino Silvestre cologne, with a hint of lavendar and an edge of rosemary—all sharp, clean scents I found subtly pleasing, not off-putting.

His breath hissed inward as my hand again strayed close to his flies, and I was fascinated, eager to explore what might come of having many fewer layers of clothing between us. He smelled good, he felt good—firm but flexible, taut, not brawny—and he looked frankly good enough to eat. I meant to. I whispered that to him for the pleasure of seeing him gasp and swallow.

Oh cazzo,” he hissed—and the penny dropped. I’d not considered that Roberto’s considerable experience of sex had probably been primarily or even entirely in Italian. I decided that would to be the language we would share. The language that would take me outside of myself, outside of my inexperience of sex and arousal and intimacy. I exaggerated the erotic effect of his profanity, leaning into his ear and whispering, “Speak Italian to me, Roberto. I want to hear your words in Italian: authentic, spontaneous. Your own.”

He never looked back. From that moment on the plane Roberto spoke only Italian to me, maybe thinking he could draw me out of other memories and hopes I might have had. We would learn each other’s ways—in and out of bed—entirely in that musical language that could become quite raw with sensation and emotion. And for that night, at least, it worked. I wanted to give him that, something of me untouched by fantasies of John’s expressions or by any words at all that belonged to John. To replace those with words like toccare, volere, leccare, prendere, sfiorare, succhiare, godere.*

Words like amore, if I ever got that far.

We touched down in Rome and retrieved our baggage reasonably quickly, given the late hour. We left the airport and entered a taxi, where we sat in a state of suspended sexual tension that was palpable. I wanted him. I’d never simply wanted anyone before, out of sheer sexual interest—that had never been enough to overcome my intense privacy, let alone my heightened sensory receptiveness. Roberto was an exception in every respect.

When he took me up the stairs to his flat, just outside the enormous wall of the Vatican City, I was so aroused that when he drew me inside I put down my case and pushed him firmly against the heavy old door. I took his jaw in my hands and kissed him, urgently but not ungently.

It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. Every nerve in my body was alight and I actually groaned when his knee pushed my thighs apart. I registered the sensation of leaning slightly up to kiss him, then thrust away the memory of fantasies of kissing John this same way, leaning down. I knew what I did to Roberto, scrambling his brain in the most gratifying fashion, but I’d never expected him to have the same effect on me.

I could see why John pursued this so relentlessly, if this was what he felt with every—and again I thrust the thought away. I was here now, with Roberto, and that was, that had to be, everything and enough.

We were both panting and hard by the time I stepped back, catching my breath and trying to compose myself.

No,” he said. “No. I want you now, like this. I’ve waited for you long enough.”

And he reached for my coat, pulled it off my shoulders, and palmed my erection with a hoarse moan.

 

 

Chapter Text

31 Jan. 2016 

Rome

 

By the time I got Sherlock upstairs to my flat I don’t know which of us was more eager. I could barely control my breathing, but he surprised me by pushing me against the door as soon as it was closed and kissing me hard, intensely. As a first kiss it was even better than I had hoped. Dreamed. His mouth reminded me of things I love to taste: lush red wine, a memory of sage, with a hint of cigarette as a top note. If I did nothing for the rest of the night but kiss him, I thought that would be enough.

But apparently it wouldn’t: suddenly I had my hands all over him and was embarrassed to find myself groaning. I had him in the bedroom before I knew it, pulling off his jacket, his shirt, so that his pale skin gleamed in the half-dark. Tugging at his belt. He was frantic too, and when I got the belt and trousers off him he ground out a low Yes, then took my hand and put it back on his cock. I could feel the heat of him even through his pants—though those came off immediately. My eager hands registered all the different textures of his skin, his inner thighs, his arse, his bollocks, his lower belly. I found the feel of his cock, stiff and silky, and the springy hair around it impossibly arousing. 

Without any experience in seducing a man I was less hesitant than I had expected to be: everything about him made me hungry to touch, and when I alternated a tight grip and soft strokes up and down, he almost collapsed against me. By then he was pulling my clothes off too, nuzzling me wherever my skin appeared, so that I was groaning again with pleasure and desire.

Wait.” I seemed to hear him say it from a long way off; my ears were ringing, our breathing was loud, and he may have had to repeat himself before I registered that he wanted me to stop. Very reluctantly I did stop, and looked a question at him.

Is something wrong?” It still felt odd to speak Italian to him, but he wanted it and I’d seen how responsive he was to it, so I meant to get used to it right away.

He was taking off his socks with a kind of sheepish smile and looking down at my legs, seemingly uncertain. Below the waist I was still completely clothed, and went into the bathroom to take care of that in short order. When I came back out he was holding a box of condoms. I was a little surprised, but didn’t say anything.

The interruption had knocked both of us out of the mood a bit, but just a little and not for long. I smiled—may never have stopped smiling—and pulled him against me, ran my hands over his shoulders and up to his hair. Then I took his face in my hands and kissed him deep and slow. I already loved the taste of him; I loved the feel of his tongue in my mouth too, warm and wet, firm and slender and agile, like the rest of him.

I drew him against me gently, and felt the electric warmth of his erection against mine, and now we were getting hard again in sync. I loved the sensation of his whole frame, long and strong and just fitted against me, a man’s jaw and throat under my mouth, a man’s shoulders and arse under my hands. It was all new to me, but somehow familiar too, as though I’d always been waiting for it without knowing.

I reached past him to turn on the lamp and pulled back to see him in full. He was breathtakingly beautiful, lean and luminous, his hair a dark cloud and his eyes icy grey-green. His face and chest were just a bit flushed and that was gorgeous too, a drift of pink over ivory. 

He was looking me over as well, and for the first time in my adult life I felt physically inadequate: well, of course I did, I had my perfect ideal standing in front of me and I was nothing like him. I could see us in the mirror on the wardrobe and my olive skin looked grey next to his, my chest far too furry, my short beard a mask over my face.

He put a palm on my chest and said, “Whatever you’re thinking is making you frown. Stop thinking."

With so much sensation flooding my brain it was easy to follow that quiet, intense order. I sat down on the side of the bed. I pulled him to me, then down onto the bed, and stretched out beside him and kissed what was left of his frown into a panting grimace. Then he was reaching for me, pulling me on top of him. I pushed him back down and stretched his hands out over his head with my fingers gently circling his wrists. He had taut, compact nipples, a small divot of a scar just to the side of his sternum. Prominent rib cage and collarbones, and a neck that went on forever. 

I kissed my way from his chest up that neck to his jawline—no stubble, he must have shaved just before we left—and captured his beautiful mouth again. Our tongues stroked, our teeth skated gently over lips and jaws, we took turns tasting inside each other’s mouths. I stroked his skin and murmured, “You, your skin, it’s so beautiful.” 

A beat, then he murmured back, “Not everywhere.” I felt it then, the uneven surface of his back, and wondered for a moment before I fell back under the spell of having him here with me. 

I must’ve lost track of time, because when I came back to myself I was holding myself just over him, staring down at him, just slowly rubbing my cock against his, rising and sinking down onto him, feeling his bollocks roll under mine. It made for a bewildering flood of sensations—soft and hard, smooth and rough, wet and dry, intoxicating and maddening, arousing and gratifying. I had to have more, I had to have him now, I had to feel him thrust and release against me.

There was lube in the nightstand; I felt for it and put it in his hand. It was probably the vaguely phallic shape of the plastic bottle that made Sherlock’s mouth quirk up as he squeezed out the slippery liquid and warmed it in his hand before smoothing it over both of us. He has huge hands. They felt like nothing I’d ever experienced before, as he stroked my cock up and down, tightened and let go. 

I lay down on my back and pulled him over me this time, then started thrusting lightly and slowly between us. I loved the way my cock felt, gliding over the loose and silky skin of his balls, and sometimes I pushed between his legs, wanting to feel the tip slide just barely into the crack of his arse; I wanted to go so slow that we could keep going for hours. He gasped and understood, slowing down too. But it was torturous, delirious, and I couldn’t control myself.

I took him lightly with my thumb and two fingers and began to slip and spiral up and down, just the tip of him. His eyes narrowed and he panted out “Roberto” just as I felt him start to spurt and jerk in my hands. I pulled him down and kissed him, and started to come as well, unable to resist the drag and glide of our bollocks, his cries, his hand tightening sweetly around my cock. It was explosive. I wanted to weep, I wanted to laugh—we certainly hadn’t got to the condoms—and I wanted to collapse, and I wanted to hold him, and I wanted to do it again.

 

* * *  

 

We took our time coming down from that, and I held him to me and murmured, “Good?” Whatever else happened I did not want to ask him “if it was good for him too,” but I suppose it’s what I meant.

Very good,” came a somewhat breathy answer. His face was buried in my neck, and I felt him nuzzling the jaw beneath my beard, which was unexpected and rather touching. He sounded uncertain, off-balance. That this was the same man I had met in London—confident, razor-sharp, impatient, imperious—was a delicious surprise. (His arse under my hands was also delicious, if less of a surprise, given how long I’d been eyeing it.)

I whispered, “Shower?

He muttered something back I couldn’t decipher but it sounded like a plea for time, so I went back to stroking him and before I knew it, fell asleep.

 

* * * 

 

We woke up again in the night, of course, and dragged ourselves into the shower, though the resulting cleanliness soon became moot. I couldn’t keep my hands off Sherlock, my mouth either for that matter, and under the rinsing stream I fell to my knees and took him in my mouth.

There too he tasted like heaven, as delectable as he smelled to me the first time I got close to him, in London. There was the lavendar and cedar overlay from my shower gel, but mostly I smelled the musky scent of arousal on him, his cock hard and red, the only part of him responding to me as he kept perfectly still and silent. That was a little unsettling, so I looked up and said, “back to bed?

Sherlock nodded, still silent, but his stare was fascinated and desirous so I thought maybe this was just how he was about sex. Or about sex with a relative stranger. He’d open up, talk to me, as we got to know each other. But sucking his cock was so intoxicating, so thrilling, so novel, that I didn’t feel anything missing, and his responses though subdued were enough to reassure me that this was what he wanted too. 

As I licked and pulled I started to stroke his balls, run a finger along his perineum, and I was thrilled when he couldn’t control himself any longer but started long, slow thrusts, careful with my throat as he caressed my hair with his long fingers. It didn’t take very long before he stiffened and shuddered and came in my mouth—a taste that I vaguely knew but not in that quantity. I tried to disguise the fact that it didn’t taste nearly so good as his skin.

I needn’t have bothered; he was not really what I’d call concentrating on me, completely caught up in an orgasm that I was foolishly proud of having induced. When he was a little more composed I managed to get to my feet and moved in to hold him, bending to kiss his temple. When I reached for my own cock, though, he responded at once, taking me in his large, lovely hand and mimicking the movements I had made earlier. I was so aroused that it didn’t take long before I too was panting and spurting all over us.

 

* * * 

 

When I came to consciousness again I could tell it was just after dawn, though the shutters were mostly closed and little light came in at the window. Sherlock was awake, stretched out beside me on his back and staring up at the ceiling. I curled around him and nuzzled his neck and shoulder with my beard, something he’d liked last night; I called him loving names as I kissed him. Perhaps that seemed too soon for him, because at my words he gently took some distance. 

I tried not to mind. I got out of bed and opened the shutters, which had the effect of making him glow against the pale grey sheets of my large bed. To lighten the tension I asked, “what should I call you, then?

His green gaze looked somewhere between neutral and perplexed as he answered, “Sherlock?

I laughed and said, “Fine. Most people who’re close to me call me Robe’.”

He tried it on. “Robe’. Short for Roberto.

Yes. My mother insisted on names that worked in English as well as Italian, so it’s Robbie in English. Marco and Tommaso and Matteo got Mark and Tommy and Matt, or Matty, which he hates.

And your father agreed?

Oh, no. He wanted names from his side of the family, but mamma vetoed most of them as horrible in English: Tiziano. Claudio. Francesco. When papà proposed Michele and Stefano, she said that Mikey was repulsive, and she would call no son of hers Stevie unless his father’s surname was Wonder.

Though mamma’s timeworn joke fell a bit flat, the family naming lore was defusing the tension that my demonstrativeness had created.

All boys.

I laughed. “All boys. Mamma wanted at least one girl, but she had to settle for daughters-in-law. You?

A brother, Mycroft. And your mother’s right, Mikey is repulsive. Have you met him?

Strange question; how could I have done, when Sherlock hadn’t introduced me to him? “No.

Surprising.

I didn’t know what to make of that, but I let it go. Sherlock's tone suggested that his brother wasn't his favourite topic.

He was looking around at the room; of course, he hadn’t seen anything of the flat when we got in last night, drunk on arousal and pushing into the bedroom. “Is there coffee?

I’ll get it started.”

And with immense reluctance I put on a bathrobe and headed for the kitchen. In a few minutes Sherlock joined me, wrapped in the thin burgundy blanket we’d shuffled off the bed. Taking the caffettiera from the cupboard I felt a thin layer of dust from my weeks of absence; I washed it as Sherlock wandered around my kitchen.

 

 

nightroom final

Chapter Text

1 February 2016

Rome

 

The early morning was quiet in Roberto’s flat, and with the dark wooden shutters over the bedroom windows I couldn’t tell the time even though a church bell was sounding the quarter-hours nearby. Annoying. I didn’t want to get out of bed until Roberto was awake, but I needed the bathroom again. 

When I got back to bed I lay down on my back and after awhile Roberto curled around me, on his side, his right arm curving above my head like a question-mark, his left over my waist. His beard was fascinating, soft and scratchy at the same time, and it felt good on my neck and shoulder. In the night it had felt good everywhere, on my nape, wrists, arse, thighs, cock. I had always preferred the clean-shaven look, but my horizons were broadening with every hour I spent with Roberto. Obviously.

The night had been fully as gratifying as it had promised. Unbelievably, indescribably exhilarating. In my entire adult life I had never been so fully present to my own body. It was disconcerting to recollect that in the night I had sometimes neglected Roberto, unable to lavish on him the same attention he was paying me because I was drunk on sensation, focused entirely on my own pleasure. 

I hadn’t believed that sex really could compete with cocaine in terms of bliss. He was a tender and attentive lover. Lover: the word is complex, and I’m not sure it will ever apply to him or to me.  He called me things in the night that I was not ready for. He did it again in the morning, when he woke up. Talking about names worked like a screen for the discomfort of finding myself in his bed in a flat I don’t even know. —Robe’. That works: a diminutive neither personal to me nor especially intimate. I shall use it.

I trailed after him into the kitchen which was flooded with light, and wandered around it while he made coffee. Photographs everywhere. I made an effort not to mine them for information, not to deduce—but I couldn’t resist finding out something about Roberto’s family life. 

Four sons. I leaned in to squint at a 1970’s-era photograph of a smiling woman with four small boys, two of them blond, two brown-haired, all sitting or lying on a blanket that was spread out for a picnic. Her dark hair seemed to be coiled neatly in a pinned chignon, and she smiled at the camera, one hand on the blanket, the other on her stomach. Most of the boys weren’t looking at the camera; they seemed to be competing for the sandwiches piled on a large plate. 

In the background was a lake and a lone mountain. The colours were washed out and yellowed, and seemed even more so next to the nearby re-take of the same photograph some decades later. To the original five on the blanket were now added spouses, children, three dogs, two mountain bikes, a Land Rover, two vintage Vespa scooters, and almost out of frame, two saddled horses. 

The mother and sons had assumed virtually the same poses as in the original photograph, but her face was sadder. Surrounded by this large and apparently cheerful family, she looked sadder. Something felt off, but it was too early in the morning and I was far too distracted. Certainly Roberto was distracting in the photograph: stretched out with his long legs occupying the foreground, a serious smile on his face too. No doubt about it, he is striking. His brown eyes would be melancholy if they weren’t so often smiling, and his mouth is shapely though his lips are thin and firm.

 

* * *

 

They don’t feel thin when he kisses me. They hadn’t felt thin when they first whispered and moved along my skin, when they paused and pressed against the scar that Mary left in my chest. I’d stiffened when he did it, not wanting that memory pushing in at that moment but unable to avoid it. He’d stroked his hands over my biceps and shoulders, murmuring, as I had done to him, “Shh. Shh. Stop thinking.” Fair enough. 

So I breathed and focused, closing my eyes as Roberto went back to caressing me, until his beard sliding soft on my throat made me sigh with pleasure. I had felt this kind of tactile intensity before, but so long ago that it had fallen out of memory; I had imagined it, but only with—again, a thought I didn’t want, a thought to push away. To stop thinking .

Later Roberto had run his hands and mouth over me again, this time as I lay face down beneath him. By then the room was dark, and I felt his hands hesitate and return to the places on my back that his fingertips had sensed were marked, damaged. This time I was ready, and let him touch while I focused on his fingers. The doors that led to the places where I had got those marks were firmly closed. No monsters roaring out, no poisonous smoke seeping around the edges. Those doors were secure.

Out of the dark his voice had come, quiet and restrained. “Will you tell me about these?

Maybe. Not now.”

But eventually?

Probably.

His first night with me. Roberto’s first touch on my scars, and he’d asked. Discreetly. John had never asked, never once. About what he must have seen in those weeks at 221B after Mary shot me: that my back had been scored with furrows and ribbons and one striking burn. I felt a kind of shame mixed with gratitude: my back looked like the wrack and debris of low tide, but Roberto’s question was not prying, it was solicitous. I probably would tell him. But now it was time to evict John from the moment, lock him out again, and return to the man I’d come to Italy to fall in love with.

 

* * * 

 

After breakfast Roberto had to dress for a half day at work. He looked as reluctant as I felt to get into clothing and out the door, so I left him to unpack and dress, and roamed the flat. It was larger than Baker Street, a cluster of rooms around the narrow hall: sitting-room, kitchen, three bedrooms, one bath, one tiny office carved out of a utility room. Early twentieth century, not luxurious but given the location, expensive. Dark wood trim and white walls.

In the sitting room: a piano. Music for piano and cello still on the stand, but not recently played. (Stop deducing.) A wall of books, fiction, travel, classical literature, scholarly editions. Mostly Italian, but English and French, too. A weary but sturdy sofa that was long enough for a proper sprawl. The photographs in the sitting-room showed a few men who must be Roberto’s brothers, grown, alone or with wives and children. In Italy and on holiday, at family events or playing music or sport. An anniversary photo of his parents. A united family, then. (Stop. Deducing.)

A compact spiral staircase had been added to a corner of the sitting room. I climbed it and discovered an element of luxury after all: an immense terrace furnished with deck chairs, a view in every direction, and a small glass-walled room with a double bed. More than just an element of luxury, in fact; the size of the flat was nearly doubled and one could virtually live out of doors for more than half the year.

Roberto found me up there. He looked at me with some amusement, since I was still wearing only the blanket, and said, “You can see why I can’t give this place up. It was tight when Giulia and the children were living here, not to speak of the dog, but in the warmer season we spent most of our time up here.

I looked around at the view: the walls of the Vatican just across the street, the landmarks of Rome all around, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Victorian-era monument to the unification of Italy. At dawn and dusk it would be particularly fine.

Roberto’s arms were around me and I came back to the present. “Could I stay in the room up here?

He looked startled. “I … hoped you’d sleep in mine.”

I’ve hurt him. “Yes, yes, of course, I mean to. Of course. But when you’re not here, or if I can’t sleep. I often can’t. It would be less invasive than taking one of the family bedrooms.”

I remembered that some response to Roberto’s gesture would be expected, so, jostling to keep the blanket mostly in place, I put my arms around him as well.

That seemed to reassure him. “By all means. Even in February that room can get as hot as a greenhouse, though, unless you shade it carefully. But you’ll find out all the secrets of being comfortable up here.

He managed to make that sound rather suggestive, and I imagined doing what we had done last night up here, on the terrace, in the open air. The thought was alarming, not arousing at all. Whatever else I was going to discover about myself as a sexual person, it was unlikely to be that I like to be observed during the act. John would say that anyone who goes about wrapped in a sheet is an exhibitionist, but for all his vaunted “emotional intelligence” John can be simplistic about human personalities. (Stop. Go away, John.)

Before Roberto left, he held me again and I realised that I’d miscalculated. Living in Rome in the moment was fine as prospects went. I could certainly do it. Cut off from everyone I know, without means of contacting anyone should the temptation strike, was nothing new: I’d done it for months on end, after Barts. I’d intended to concentrate on Roberto, but if Roberto was going to be at work most days, I had to have something to lose myself in. Something that wasn’t melancholy, or cases, or cocaine.

He kissed me and I pulled away, saying slowly, “Robe’, I think it would be best—

He froze and I hurried to finish: “—if I were to find a violin to lease.”

He was already late but he left me the address of his ex-wife’s luthier, not far from the flat.

 

Chapter Text

1–18 February 2016

Rome  

 

My first two weeks back in Rome with Sherlock were a kaleidoscope, a merry-go-round, dizzying and dispersive: I was living two lives, or rather, three.

On the one hand I had my work, with the real consequences of the joint operation successfully concluded in London: new leads at this end, criminal trials pending or in progress to modify with new evidence. New work teams to form and train, which always required more diplomacy than the U.N. Endless paperwork: forms, reports, requests. If I’d stayed at work fourteen hours a day it wouldn’t have been enough, so I didn’t.

Because on the other hand Sherlock was waiting for me at home.

Well, of course he wasn’t literally waiting. He was settling in. Getting to know the city as a resident, not a tourist. Refreshing his (already extraordinary) language skills by pursuing his extensive and idiosyncratic interests. He’d found a place to take fencing lessons—in Italian, of course. He’d begun exploring underground sites in the city, catacombs, sewers, cellars, passageways. To my astonishment he was memorising the street map of Rome, and he seemed to have the underground sites mentally mapped beneath the street names. 

He located a yoga ashram nearby but soon left off going: he said it was too all-or-nothing, so nothing is what he chose. He said he got enough exercise and meditation walking the streets of the city; considering that he never strolled when he could stride, I could believe it. One day he went to the stables in the Villa Borghese and rode a horse over the grounds. That I did regret not seeing. He must be a compelling figure on horseback.

He seemed to like street markets and to loathe supermarkets, though he never explained why. The quality of the food for sale certainly had nothing to do with it, as he was mostly indifferent to what he ate. In the evenings I was home by eight if I could manage it, and made us a quick pasta. Having usually skipped lunch he tended to eat dinner, not always noticing what it was; since I was more interested in what came after, I may have cut a corner or two to get us out of the kitchen and into the bedroom the faster.

Sherlock was no more interested in sleep than he was in food. When I was exhausted from the day and languid from the strenuous evening activities, I was all too happy to stay in bed. He would stay for half an hour or so, as if to respect some mandated post-coital bonding period, but in general he wasn’t especially interactive then: no non-sexual caresses, tactile or verbal.

I could tell that he liked certain parts of me because he lavished so much attention on them in bed: my arse and chest and legs, for example, so fuzzy compared to his own bare, smooth skin; my beard, my hands. My (appreciative) cock. But after the regulation half-hour he usually got up and wandered out, picked up the violin and started playing.

I’d directed him to Giulia’s violin-maker to lease a violin, and in the time it took him to play one piece to establish his skill level Benedetto had decided to loan him, free of charge, an early eighteenth-century Italian instrument. No fancy maker’s name, but to my ear at least an excellent sound. So he was always playing. He must’ve seen the sheet music for cello and piano and worked out that I was the pianist, but he never suggested playing together and that was fine with me. It’d been years since I’d played with Giulia, and Sherlock was far too good a musician for me to start again now with him. But I loved to hear him. 

His repertoire was immense, and he said that the instrument was leading him back in time, that his dramatic nineteenth-century go-to pieces sounded thin and tinny on this violin, so he played more and more baroque pieces, Bach, and the Italians. But sometimes he played plaintive old folk tunes, and sometimes sharp, jagged-edged songs by LP or Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. He always stopped by ten, when I’d told him that quiet hours begin.

 

* * * 

 

Sherlock was the best part of every night and every day, and I wanted him with a constant ache I hadn’t felt in twenty years. Discovering sex with him was like discovering it again for the first time: I was what I can only call obsessed. When we weren’t together I was counting the hours until we were; when we were together—every sense, every nerve ending, every thought and desire were fixed on him. He was everything I found beautiful and desirable: brilliance, grace, control, self-sufficiency, wrapped up in a gorgeous physical form I could never touch or taste enough.

That first night we were both unable to last more than a few minutes, too desperate with arousal to do more than touch, seize, stroke, rut, thrust, come. Indeed, it was days before we could start to take our time, pull back from an imminent climax and discover what pleased the other. I remembered this from a long time ago: the shift from pursuing self-gratification in the presence of a lover, to an intoxicating feedback loop of pleasure given and received, deferred and delayed, rekindled and redoubled.

I’d initially doubted my ability to satisfy Sherlock, who I imagined must have had more experience with men than I (since I had none, that was guaranteed). But he told me he’d never cared enough about sex to pursue experience "beyond the most basic level." Whatever that meant. So I left off feeling self-conscious and simply explored, and so did he.

We’d exchanged the requisite clean test results, which was reassuring if not arousing. So the box of condoms he’d pulled out of his suitcase sat in the nightstand drawer unused and unsought. I explored every square millimeter of him, every part I could reach, tasted and stroked and lipped until he was pleading, “Don’t stop, don’t stop,” and I indeed never wanted to stop. One night I turned him over onto his stomach, thrust a pillow beneath his hips and then another, parted his legs and began to stroke his arse, his balls, his perineum, until his quiet hums and sighs became more intense and he began to writhe and rut, pushing back against my hands and forward into the pillows beneath him. That was my cue.

I parted his cheeks and slowly, tenderly, lowered my face between them and rubbed, gently, until he growled, “Robe’, please,” so I knew he was ready. I drew the flat of my tongue all around his scrotum and up his perineum, then dotted the tip of it soft and quick against his arsehole, making him gasp with the near-miss of it. I did that over and over, taking a different route each time, now kissing the mound of his cheeks, now licking along the curve where his arse met his thigh, now sucking a kiss randomly along his perineum. By then he was squirming desperately, and finally, instead of darting in and just pressing my tongue to his hole for an instant, I thrust it in as far as I could, and he nearly howled until he choked himself off in mortification.

I withdrew and rested my cheek against his arse, panting, “Please, Sherlock. Let me hear you. Let go.

He didn’t answer, trembling and pushing into the pillows, and I decided it was time. I slid my hand under his hipbone and grasped his leaking cock, and as I slowly stroked him I thrust into him with my tongue, in and out, again and again, until he came with a muffled groan. 

 

* * * * *

 

Later when I woke up and Sherlock wasn’t there—again—I sighed and stretched, and tried not to feel hard done by. He’d been honest about his solitary habits, his preference for privacy. When we were together, after all, he was fully present, a curious and attentive lover, and without question a giving one. He did try; and when he was tired out with trying, he left the bed to be on his own. It wasn’t personal, however personal it felt to wake up alone and know that I wasn’t welcome to go up and join him in the exposed rooftop bedroom.

I had to get ready for work, so since I couldn’t curl up around a lanky, sleepy, gorgeous man, I rolled out of bed and went to shower. The hot water was very welcome, sluicing off the stickiness of sweat and ejaculate, leaving me feeling energised and optimistic. It wasn’t just a question of ask and have, my father always said. You have to court a partner, he’d said: to all of us, all his sons, without distinction. One morning, shortly after Sherlock arrived, I was thinking as I made the coffee of what would court him.

He’d said he liked dancing; I was an enthusiastic if low-frills dancer. So I looked through the CDs and cued up the song I’d sent him in London: Paolo Conte, “Via con me.” Seductive but ironic. I left a note for Sherlock to find when he came down later in the morning: “Let’s dance to this tonight. —R

That worked so well that I started doing it most mornings, and we had a dance or two most evenings. A week later I picked out another Conte, one I was fairly sure he’d know: “Sotto le stelle del jazz.” When it got warmer we could dance outside, under the jazz stars; for now the sitting-room would do.

Sherlock’s IT ban meant that it was pointless to try to reach him during the day. He wouldn’t answer the land line and would use no other device for the time being, so I’d resigned myself to the uncertainty of when and where we’d be together again. I gathered my coat and gloves, and left for work.

On the way home, after an endless and seemingly pointless day, I stopped by the produce stand for dinner ingredients. Score: early asparagus from down south. I went through my slim mental file of recipes, knowing it had to be either risotto with asparagus—a dish I’d once wowed Giulia with—or pasta with asparagus. Just as well it takes time to make the broth and prepare the risotto, as Sherlock wasn’t in when I got home. He’d left a note, though.

            Another Conte: good choice. Back around 8. —S

My breath tightened. I could all but hear that low voice, and it made my knees buckle.

White apron, white wine. White tablecloth, napkins. Green candles, green salad. My timing was improving: I heard him bounding up the stairs in that peculiarly weightless fashion of his, heard the door open just as I was setting the risotto to rest for a few minutes before serving.

I was so glad to see him—God, it had been almost twenty hours—that I took him by the shoulders, by the waist, kissing him and murmuring words I didn’t seem able to contain. He responded willingly, putting one hand on my cheek and the other on the back of my head, letting me kiss the chill of the outdoors off him as I took off his coat. I pulled back and asked if I could have this dance. He smiled and held out his hand.

I drew him into the sitting room and put on the music. As we danced, he unwound. We laughed. I thought I hadn’t seen him this relaxed and open since—well, ever, really. And it was incredibly arousing. The languid, nostalgic melody, Conte’s rough, low voice, Sherlock’s lithe, hard form just an inch away from me. How could this be so sexy? I’ve had him, for God’s sake, we’ve spent hours in bed learning to take and give pleasure with each other, how could simply dancing together give me such a rush—not to mention such a raging hard-on?

His lean grace, his blend of scents, the dark hair tickling behind my ear, the incredible taste of his mouth. The way we pursued and evaded each other in the dance. It was so natural, so easy. I stepped in closer and pushed my erection against his, pulling him to me by his hips, growling that I needed him now, now. We ended up eating the risotto overdone and cold.

 

* * * 


But there was also my third life: the family. My children still lived in Rome, with their mother, but before I went to London they’d been spending every other weekend with me. Their bedrooms were mostly unchanged except for the gradual migration of their clothing and electronics to her flat down the hill. 

When Sherlock had asked to put his things in the glass room on the terrace, after my initial disappointment it had honestly been a relief. Both Chiara, a gentle but private seventeen-year-old, and Luca, at fourteen boisterous but insecure, would have been hurt to find their bedroom reassigned. I tried to tamp down the thought of the cleaning lady—I’d have more plausible deniability if Sherlock clearly had his own sleeping space.

I hadn’t let any of the family in on my recent change of status, and when I spoke to them on the phone I tended to wander up to the terrace for privacy. Sherlock never trailed along or listened in. Indeed, he tended to absent himself whenever I had a personal call, with Giulia, with Luca or Chiara, with Mummy or Papà, or with one of my brothers. He vanished particularly fast when the call was in English. 

It wasn’t that I was ashamed of Sherlock. Not in the least. But it was going to be delicate, introducing a male partner into my family with no such precedent in my life—and particularly delicate for the children. Adolescence is hard enough without the homophobic scorn of their peer group.

The evening after Sherlock’s arrival I’d returned home to another vigorous, deliriously exhilarating encounter. Drained, I’d got up and gone into the kitchen for a glass of prosecco—it was refreshing and we were both so thirsty. Sherlock, distractingly appealing in pajama bottoms, lounged in the doorway, then detached himself from the doorframe and went to peer at one of the photographs on the wall. It was a standard-issue Happy Families shot, Giulia and I in the middle, Luca and Chiara on either side, Luca holding the leash of our (mostly) German shepherd Maia. Ben Nevis was in the background, and we were all wearing rain gear.

That was two summers ago, before Giulia left,” I said neutrally. I was proud of how serene I sounded. “Our last holiday together in the U.K. Luca and Chiara were twelve and fifteen.

Was it—unexpected?” Sherlock’s voice was quiet, and I knew he meant our divorce.

Oh, I suppose it shouldn’t have been. Giulia has her own work—she teaches Latin and Greek in a classics high school—but it isn’t nearly as all-consuming as mine. She’d done most of the parenting in the last few years, to be honest, and when I came up for air it was to find her telling me that she couldn’t wait any longer for me to be a husband and father. She’d found someone else, though she said she hadn’t been looking, and she was moving out.

This attempt at a neutral summary did no justice to the sharp agony of finding that through my own neglect I had lost my wife, my family.

Do you miss her? Do you miss family life, complete with dog?” Something was sad under the surface of Sherlock’s tone, and it set something in me to aching too.

I miss my children.” My voice now was much less neutral.

He reached for me then and put his arms around me, a gesture I would come to realise was not typical, and stroked my back for a moment. “I’m sorry.

Thank you.” It was an awkward moment, but I appreciated the attempt at consolation. Sherlock wasn’t demonstrative, but when it counted, he made an effort. And because it was rare, it had its effect.

In the event I ended up putting the children off for their mid-month weekend. They weren’t bothered, though I’d been away for so long, and although it was unfair of me I felt a little wounded that they weren’t more eager to come over. But I joined them at their mother’s for a leisurely Sunday lunch instead, and they were so affectionate that I felt reassured. I decided I could introduce them once Sherlock had decided to stay, and make it up to them then.

 

 

Chapter Text

1–18 February

Rome 

 

Moving into Roberto’s flat had been easy, that first morning. Needing to get to work, Roberto had gone quickly through the logistics. Keys. Phone numbers. Map. Meeting time and place. Things to know about the flat. Dull. (Was everyday life always dull? Was it always going to be dull? Had it been dull moving into 221B?) (Stop.)

Life without a mobile is ... different. If a piece of information is missing, Sherlock looks it up in a book or lets it go. This is not an option he’s accustomed to, but it doesn’t feel like a deprivation;  it feels like a choice. The information he was constantly feeding into his brain: is it fuel for a fire? Would suspending it make the fire burn out? Or would it burn hotter for being smaller? (Is the analogy useful at all? Not scientific, so probably not.) 

He usually has a physical map of Rome spread out on the kitchen table. His knowledge of the city is thus determined by what is contained in that image and in his memory. What lies beyond the map’s area—the exurbs, the countryside—may as well not exist. He doesn’t go there (hic dracones). 

Every day he commits to memory a portion of the map. At its centre is the flat he can barely remember reaching that first night, dazed by arousal and distracted by nerves. The morning after his arrival he’d had no recollection of what the place looked like from the outside. Now each day after he dresses he checks the map again, and sets out to explore his new home.

 

* * *

 

The Rome he explores isn’t, for the most part, the Rome of mass tourism. If he’s ever to work in this city he has to know it as he knows London: its neighbourhoods and their inhabitants, the rhythms of the activities legal and illegal that characterise them. He reads the city section of all the newspapers, of all political stripes. He learns the names of the politically ascendant, the financially influential, the criminally dominant—and the overlap between them.

He walks through the neighbourhoods he’s chosen as his sample set, walks through them at different times of the day, watches the changing light and crowds and traffic, talks with shopkeepers and residents and loiterers and petty criminals. Sometimes, even, with the tourists. He avoids the northern district where Roberto’s office is located; the thought of seeming to cling makes him shudder. He concentrates on Trastevere, the Testaccio, the Esquilino.

It’s draining. Thinking in Italian, for example. He listens to the speech patterns of different classes and picks which to imitate, which to avoid. He wants to avoid sounding incompetent, but he will almost certainly never sound Roman. He works on imitating the way Italian men around him walk, navigate the sidewalks, encounter others at crowded doors or bars or markets. He doesn’t want to assimilate, merely to be able to camouflage himself should he need to. 

He can sit for an hour on a bench and watch the way people occupy space and negotiate other bodies within it. In his own persona he usually takes up a great deal of it, between his decisive gestures and his flaring coat; he practices slowing his movements, bringing his limbs in toward his core. He’s imitating no particular man, but the habits of a population accustomed to close quarters and thus neither averse to close contact nor insistent on occupying more space than necessary.

He himself is averse, he thinks, to close contact. When he moves in it’s nearly always for effect: to intimidate, disconcert, or seduce. He takes no particular pleasure in the proximity of his fellows: some repel him; only a few people in his life has he ever wanted to move closer to. His reclusive habits are less a function of being a misfit (there was that, of course) than of that hypersensitivity to the touch and scent of others. He thinks of the previous nights, with Roberto, whose touch and scent he quite likes, but within ... boundaries. Contexts. Limits.

 

* * *

 

They’d had a gratifying time in bed the night before, Roberto touching him in ways and in places that Sherlock had never imagined he could find so pleasurable. And as always, he stayed in Roberto’s arms after, for at least half an hour; it was only polite. But it was a night he felt both jangled and in need of solitude, and Roberto had fallen heavily asleep with his hand possessing Sherlock’s wrist. It made it impossible to slip away, or even to shift into a more comfortable position until he could leave altogether. He concentrated on relaxing. He could do this. It was only for a little while.

This was fine, he thought. Roberto’s knee touching his left thigh was good, really. Wrist, thigh. His focus narrowed to these points of contact. Not too much; not too intrusive. Enough for confirmation, consolation. Nothing demanding. Just comfortable contiguity. He could handle it.

Without warning, though, Roberto whirled around in the bed, flinging himself onto his right side and sweeping Sherlock into his arms, pulling him flush against a chest full of soft hair. Between his face being crushed into Roberto’s left pectoral, and a mouthful of curly chest hair, this was emphatically not good. Now Roberto’s arm lay heavily over his waist and held him close, and the knee thrust between Sherlock’s thighs gave him the smallest, the tiniest, shudder of claustrophobia.

Which in no time at all had crept up from a 1 on the anxiety scale to a 2. Maybe a 3. Pulling his head back the inch or two that Roberto’s iron arm allowed, Sherlock drew in a controlled breath, held it three seconds, released it slowly. Emptying his lungs, he waited another five seconds. But the needle crept up. 4. Decidedly, a 4.

Moving as slowly as he could manage, he pulled his right knee back from Roberto’s. 5. This was becoming intolerable. Awake, Roberto was affectionate, discreetly so; asleep, he was invasive, possessive. Sherlock felt trapped, unwilling to awaken him, less from consideration than from anxiety that a discussion might result. In the dark it was so much more likely that words would come out, creating confrontations that waking life with its urgencies and distractions made it easier to evade.

6. Coward. If Roberto awoke, what’s the worst that could happen? He could whisper, again, “Love.” Or “I love you.” Nothing that hadn’t happened before. And Sherlock had managed to distract him with a deliberate touch, a suggestive kiss. Tonight—what was different? 7. Unbearable. He had to get away.

His back, the burning itch of a scar he couldn’t reach. He couldn’t stand to lie still one more second, he had to twist, to shift, let at least the scratchy linens of Roberto’s bed relieve the torturous itching. He needed the vitamin E oil. Roberto’s hands massaging it into his back were among the few touches Sherlock welcomed outside of bed.

He bit—no, gnawed—the inside of his cheek. The spot on his lower lip, on the left, where he always chewed. Invisibly: he’d made sure in the mirror.

Tried to compose in his head. Surely he could do that, in silence and stillness. But the sounds pulsed through his body, through his veins, pushing against his bones, his joints. He couldn’t stop the pain, no it was just an itch, no it was agony.

His heart was pounding now, his breath coming faster, harder, ragged. What had been a light perspiration had cooled, thickened into a clammy slick over his skin. Over his scalp, leaving his hair lank and sweaty.

He lifted Roberto’s arm, dead weight as it was, from his waist. But something in Roberto’s very stillness told that him that they were both awake, now. Another spike of anguish. 8. Sherlock lifted the covers and withdrew as silently as he could. Essential to preserve the illusion, at least, that he thought Roberto was still sleeping. They needn’t speak if Sherlock pretended to protect Roberto’s sleep, unbroken. His own heart was on the verge of exploding, pounding out of his chest, his skin crawled with his own sweat and Roberto’s soft body hair, his breath—never unpleasant, quite the opposite, but too much there.

Lowering the sheets again over Roberto, Sherlock backed away from the bed and gained the door with a sigh of relief. He slipped through the chilly hall, stepping into the bathroom and taking a moment to calm his breathing. Turned on the light. 7 now? 7. The light gleamed on his skin with its sheen of sweat. 

He reached into the shower, turned on the water. A hot shower would help, then the rooftop and the violin. Not the bow; too late, now. Pizzicato. The city lights, the black sky tinged with orange from the street lamps. The glass walls of the bedroom. He could think, there. Think about this worrying ... episode. Would this have happened with John? If he’d ever slept with John, would this aversion have followed?

He stepped in and let the water sluice over his sticky, clammy skin. His heart began to slow as he kept his breathing regular. The rosemary-scented shampoo felt good in his hair, already longer than he liked, but he wasn’t ready to entrust it to a new stylist. He stood under the pounding hot water longer than he usually allowed himself. 

Once on the roof, he pulled his bathrobe tight and knotted the belt. It was freezing cold up here, but he felt more comfortable, clean and for awhile at least, warm through. 

He picked up the violin and narrowed his focus. John. If he had ever experienced John’s caresses, could they have provoked the same unease, physical and psychic? Contact —possessiveness —skin —breath —sweat—body hair—need, silent need, too much need, too much love. Could all those things have made him pull away from John with the same—call it distaste—that he had just felt with Roberto? When he wasn’t lost in lust himself, reaching for John, would he have felt the same wincing reluctance to be touched, to be wanted, by John?

He plucked quietly at the strings, the notes climbing a minor scale, calling to mind John in all the incarnations he had known and desired. John boyish and grinning, reborn the night he’d shot Jeff Hope. John broken and old, when Sherlock had come back to interrupt his proposal at the Landmark. John golden, expansive, grinning. When had John last looked at him with unshadowed affection, relaxed and comfortable?

Once again, he pushed John to the door of the mind palace and closed it behind him.

 

Procoffeinating bench final

 

 

Chapter Text

29 January–15 February 2016

Intermezzo: London

Camillo 1978 John finds Sherlock's letter

 

For two days after my visit to 221B I fumed and agonised by turns. 

I’d gone to see Sherlock in the first place because I’d been furious at being dismissed. Again. In a potentially dangerous situation, for fuck’s sake. His airy text had been so deliberately dismissive that I’d barely slept that night, between chewing on the insult and fending off the worry that he was undefended. The morning after the sting I texted Greg as early as I decently could: I needed intel. 

— How’d it go last night? JW

— Really well. We arrested about 15 or so. 

Well, that was a relief, at least. But only for 1.5 seconds: once the anxiety vanished it left twice as much room for rage. 

— Oh yeah? Any fireworks? JW

Instant reply: 

— No, went off smooth as silk. I was tucked up in bed by four. 

Another rush of rage. Had Sherlock also been “tucked up in bed by four”? 

— Glad to hear it. Sorry I wasn’t there. JW

— Yeah, you didn’t answer, so I didn’t count on you. 

— Sherlock texted me not to come. JW

Interval. I could hear Lestrade’s gears grinding from here.

— Well, he’s pretty careful of your well-being, now. 

— Now? JW

— You know what I mean. 

— Yeah, I do. Thanks, Greg. JW

Now that I knew Sherlock was safe I was livid. The working day was utter shit and another bad night’s sleep would ensue if I didn’t get to 221B as soon as possible. 

I hadn’t been at all ready to find Zanardi in easy possession of the sitting room while Sherlock showered, let alone ready for what came afterwards. Shades of the nauseating day Janine had slipped out of Sherlock’s bedroom, lorded it over me in the kitchen and then joined him in the bathroom, his deep rolling chuckle echoing in the hallway. But this was clearly a crisis—not a feint, as Janine had been. As soon as Zanardi had left I’d lost my temper, we’d shouted and sniped at each other, and Sherlock had essentially severed our friendship.

On that day, of all days.

Afterwards, though, as I replayed the horrible scene in 221B, my rage dissipated back into worry. I couldn’t afford to sit on my arse and wait for Sherlock to change his mind about having shown me the door. I had to see him again, and this time I had to exert a great deal more self-control. 

So two days later, January 31st, I took Rosie to her biggest fans Sarah and Julian, and went back to Baker Street. 

I didn’t know what I’d find when I got there. For all I knew Zanardi was still ensconced in the flat, wearing one of Sherlock’s dressing-gowns and a gloating smirk. Or worse. All I did know was that doing nothing wasn’t an option. For years Sherlock had left the door open for me to come back to 221B, and in return got only my open hostility and serial cruelty. I was finally ready to walk in, if he'd have me. 

But when I got to Baker Street no light showed in the windows. I should’ve texted first, but this was far too important for a text. Gritting my teeth against the idea of finding Zanardi there, I let myself in—quietly, to avoid an encounter with Mrs Hudson. Though I knew what I wanted to say to Sherlock, I didn’t know what to say to her at this point; and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what she might say to me. 

But the flat was locked, dark, suspiciously tidy. Ominously empty. Sherlock’s violin case lay in its usual place on the bookcase, but nothing else about 221B looked usual. When Mrs Hudson came up and silently handed me an ivory envelope with Sherlock’s handwriting on it, my first thought was that he had gone away again on a mission for the British Government. It felt like some horrible joke.

Nothing like as horrible as when I read Sherlock’s letter, though. When I read that he had loved me all along: that I could have had what I wanted if I’d only had the courage to admit it—to myself, to him—to ask for it, take it. Sherlock had loved me. He still did, it seemed—but he was determined to delete it. I’d finally beaten out of him any desire to be with me. Any hope of it. 

He seemed to think his very desire for me made him undesirable to me—desire I hadn’t known about, so he was dead wrong on both counts—and that if I’d thought him unattainable I’d have loved him. Well, I had thought him unattainable, and I did love him, want him, past telling. We never knew, either of us. This was pitiable and laughable at the same time. My years of pining were mirrored by years of pining on his part. Pointless, needless pain.

At this point I wished he had gone off on a mission without me. What he’d done was far worse: he’d left me, gone to Rome with his bloody admirer Roberto Zanardi. 

 

* * *

 

I’d left Sherlock over and over again since he came back from the dead, but when he left for Italy I thought I might actually die of it. The first sentence of his letter brought me to my knees and I didn’t have a coherent thought again for three days. It seemed that losing him was all I knew how to do; loving the man made no difference, I kept losing him over and over. I’d failed him, lost him, mourned him, got him back, rejected him, neglected him, and now I’d driven him away, almost certainly forever. It was worse than getting shot. Worse than realising I was finished as a surgeon. 

What followed was three days of utter despair.

I somehow managed to arrange to leave Rosie in London with Sarah and Julian, to borrow their cottage up on the Norfolk coast. I wept. I cursed, and I raged. In that house on the windy strand where no one could hear me, I couldn’t bear to hear myself. 

What had happened seemed both fair and monstrously unfair.

Fair: Sherlock had done to me only what I’d done to him, left me behind for someone who seemed likely to treat him better than I had. Monstrously unfair: I’d come to Baker Street ready to offer him what I had, the good and the bad, and ask him to give me a chance to ... deserve him, I suppose. And bloody Zanardi had beat me to it. 

Fair: I’d never leveled with Sherlock, never acknowledged what and who I really wanted. To add insult to injury I’d goaded him to take up with Irene Adler. Unfair: I was turning myself inside out trying to find every goddamned way this was unfair. 

But after those first days of grief and shock and solitude, I felt something shift in my gut. It’s like when you’ve been deathly ill and you realise you’ve been getting better, so gradually you didn’t notice. It was when I realised that it’d been worse when Sherlock had jumped. As searing as it was when he left for Italy, it’d been far worse when I thought he’d killed himself. He was alive in the world; he might still come back.

I had to sit tight and hope. Respect his terms. Spend Zanardi’s “probation” month trying to make the time pass, keep the dread tamped down, and most of all, keep the jealousy suffocated.

That was the most painful part. I knew I was right for Sherlock, that I could make him happy. I could remember when we were happy, though never in any romantic or sexual sense. I’d no right to object to his new lover, but by God it was agony to imagine them together—and I couldn’t stop myself doing it. The images flooded over me like a choking tide. Sherlock was mine. But he was in someone else’s bed, in someone else’s arms, concentrating on forgetting me. It was flaying me alive. 

But the days passed, a week, ten days. And I tried to give my blessing to Sherlock’s happiness, to think of him with love, to hope that this other man was making him happy in every way I hadn’t. Love wants for the beloved, Molly once told me, and after all she’s right. 

Sherlock had learned that long ago, I had to admit; he’d learned it when neither Mary nor I had managed to. I tried to hold on to that lesson now. I wanted Sherlock for my own, yes, but even more than that I wanted him happy, so I focused on that. But in secret, in secret even from myself, I hoped. I hoped.

I had two reasons for that stubborn, if occasionally wilting, hope. First, he’d chosen me. I’m average-looking, smarter than average but nowhere near Sherlock’s league, and obviously of less than average sensitivity. But Sherlock, for reasons that were never very clear to me, had chosen me and he’d never swerved. 

I suited him. He could not only endure my company but enjoy it. I almost never set his teeth on edge as so many other people did. It helped him think, talking things through with me. He trusted me, let me see him in the deepest confusion, without the mask of infallibility that he used to protect himself from the world. And he was faithful to his choices. He never varied in his clothing, his hair rituals, his eating habits, his patterns (that only seemed patternless). So there was that.

My other reason for hoping: Sherlock was uprooted. Transplanted. He might be distracted for a while by the alien beauty of Rome, but he couldn’t settle there, not for the long term. I wasn’t above seizing on the advantage that our city could lend me: London was the sprawling, secret siren that Sherlock knew intimately and craved infinitely. No doubt Rome had everything a city could offer, and probably a lot that London never could; but it wasn’t his city, and it never could be. London was his, and mine. Ours.

The time passed. Well. I hope I never have to live through anything like that again. The nights were grueling: when Rosie was asleep the silences stretched out taut and bottomless. The days were spent at work or with her, the nights I spent alone, knowing that Sherlock was … not. 

A couple of nights when she cried I went to her room and took her in my arms, rocked her in the glider rocker and hummed to her, let us both fall asleep there. It wasn’t a good habit to get into, but it helped me to hold her, to feel her sleepy little bulk and smell her clean baby hair. It anchored me in the here and now, and helped me stop imagining nights of passion in the Eternal Sodding City.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

19 February 2016

Rome 

 

On Friday evening I left work a little later than usual, eager to get home to Sherlock. Got ambushed on my way out by a colleague who had no pressure of time, apparently, and self-evidently no Sherlock to hurry home to. Yet her case was important to her, and I owed her a favour, to be called in from a petty bureaucrat whose purpose in life seemed to be to hold up an investigation until his importance had been acknowledged and venerated.

How, I wondered, could a country function this way? Why could we not collaborate on the simple yet powerful basis that we are on the same side? 

Not for the first time I reflected on the peculiar Italian-ness of Italy, cast into sharp relief by my being half-English. Italy was irrevocably different from Anglophone lands. But if there was more sense of a shared purpose in my mother’s country, a collective identity, Italy did have all the virtues of her defects: her own unmistakable advantages. Italy insisted on what was due to the individual; to the beautiful; to the excellent; to the singular; to the here and now. And at the moment, Italy was insisting that the suppliant be helped.

All the time I’d been in London I’d longed for Italy. The dreary coffee of London, served in unutterably foul polystyrene cups. The tame queuing of Londoners, resigned to never going first. The painful “cuisines” of the U.K., never authentic, always badly reproduced. (“Spagbol.” Che schifo.) And in Italy I always longed for English order, cooperation, patience. “Mustn’t grumble.” Italy and England pulled at me like the steps of two very different dances, and I danced each one like a man wishing and waiting to start the other.

And now: Valentina’s shy approach. My impatience, masked. Her feigned nonchalance as she asked if I had time for an aperitivo. My receptiveness, expansive air of leisure, equally feigned. It would be rude to admit directly to having pressing business elsewhere. I had to seem to be the master of my fate, wholly at ease, comfortably in charge of my time, even with a heart pounding with eagerness to race straight home and strip every article of clothing from Sherlock’s lean frame. 

I visualised his milky-white skin emerging from the silks and woolens he affected, and my welcoming smile grew strained; I saw from Valentina’s embarrassment that I had let the mask slip.

Pinning my gracious and unruffled persona back in place, I took her arm above the elbow and guided her to the bar next door, watching in my mind’s eye as Sherlock put on his clothes again, a smile both seductive and mocking on his beautiful, mobile face. No one would understand better than he the need to pursue a case, I thought. No one better than he this network of obligation, of favours given and banked against a future need. 

Still, the Sherlock of my imagination, slipping his blue scarf around his neck, pulling on his coat and gloves, prepares to go out in search of more available entertainment on the streets of Rome. I sigh as the street door of my apartment building shuts behind him with a solid thump, the gate with an echoing clang. He looks back at me, pale and unsmiling. God, how I want him. He walks away.

Valentina was here with me: not an imaginary companion, but a colleague-almost-friend in need of my attention and my help. She was tall, pale, with curly black hair that was short for a woman, long if she were a man. Her eyes, though, so dark brown as to be almost black and sparkling in the cold; her cheeks ruddy as Sherlock’s never were; her skin olive and minimally made up. 

How much more exciting this obligatory aperitivo would be if she were Sherlock, consulting with me on a case, wanting my opinion, needing my intervention. His eyes sparkling as hers now were, his hand resting on my forearm as hers were. His brain racing at top speed as hers was, racing through the possible scenarios, discarding the random and the improbable. Unwinding the scarf from his neck, running his hand through his curls, summoning the waiter to order—God, no—another prosecco. Suddenly I had to make a call. Sherlock, I suddenly panicked, would not wait. Clumsily, I excused myself.

He’d refused the mobile I’d offered for his use; that had surprised me, given how wedded to it he had seemed to be in London. He explained that he was on leave from that profession and that life, that he wanted to be present to his surroundings. In almost three weeks he’d not wavered in that, and while I talked or texted he read a book, or looked out over the rooftops or just once, memorably, seduced me away from my conversation with experimental little touches that had me shaking and hard within minutes. He never answered my home phone, but he’d hear the message I left, if he weren’t up on the roof. I had to try.

Sherlock. Sherlock. If you’re there, please pick up.”

No answer. I sighed.

I’m detained, helping a colleague with a minor ... problem. I’ll be home in an hour. Please wait for me.

I paused, and when I spoke again my voice had gone hoarse. “I’ve got plans for tonight.

He was insatiably curious, I knew, and that alone might keep him at home until I got there. In my imagination he looks at the phone as it records my voice, his brows arching; intrigued, he takes off the coat again and picks up the violin.

I rang off and went back inside the bar to Valentina, who was looking more hopeful than when she’d accosted me so tentatively outside of headquarters. Perhaps she’d just needed a listening ear—or an ear she thought was listening, since I wasn’t entirely sure I’d caught even a rough outline of her case and its details. I’d retained only the call I needed to make the next morning, to press a lab director who owed me a favour to fast-track a blood sample analysis for Valentina, to save her precious time and pointless floundering. 

The rhythm of the conversation slowed, shifted into the familiar formalities of gratitude, obligation, and farewell. In my mind’s eye Sherlock, standing upstairs in the glassed-in rooftop guestroom, looks up and lowers the violin, sets it carefully down before beginning again the slow and deliberate undressing that has me hard by the time he’s got to the buttons at his wrists. It looked like tonight I would again fail to take him out to see Rome, to be seen by Rome.

Yet I longed to take him out. By night my city was intoxicating, gorgeous, majestic, intimate, and I wanted her to seduce Sherlock, seduce him into staying forever. And I wanted Rome to marvel at Sherlock, at his lithe and muscled physique, his assured and balletic stride, his compelling face. Embarrassing though it is to admit, I wanted to show him off. I wanted to flaunt this dazzling man as I would once have flaunted a woman, before I’d known that there was such a thing in the world as the unique and heartstopping beauty of Sherlock Holmes. 

I wanted that night out with him, wanted to see him marvel at my city that was ancient when London was young, wanted to see his eyes open wide and register the magnetic mystery that was Rome. But somehow every single evening that desire was outpaced by the shivering want that took over the minute I saw him. The minute I let myself think of him. Remember him. Remember our last night of lovemaking, and the taste of him.

Not only hard now but incoherent, babbling, I bundled Valentina into a taxi that would take her out to her God-forsaken suburb. Courtesy didn’t extend to driving her there myself, flesh and blood couldn’t stand it. I was already drowning in the confluence of here, now, there, then, soon, him , his pale skin shimmering in the night, the pale flower opening to my grasp and thrust, his perfect mouth opening to me, to my tongue, to my fingers, to my cock. I’d never been so little my own master, so caught up in another person, so submerged in a sea of sensation, and shipwreck was sweet to me in that sea.

The key rattled in my hand as I opened the door to the flat and registered with relief his heavy coat hanging by the hall door, his scarf and gloves. Violin music soared overhead, the last half-hour before I’d told Sherlock he had to stop playing, for the sake of the neighbours. One day soon I’d confess that it wasn’t the neighbours I was protecting, but my own pleasure. I wanted him undistracted during the night hours, I wanted his attention on me, I wanted his hands on me, his cock, his mouth. I wanted all of him.

At ten I wandered up the spiral staircase trying to look self-possessed, a glass of frizzante in my hand. He was loosening the bow, putting away the instrument, looking as I’d imagined him, though the shirt that framed his throat was white, not the aubergine colour of my erotic vision. He looked passive, expectant but not particularly energised by my arrival, and suddenly I decided that I was going to take him out after all. I didn’t want him to feel like a live-in convenience, waiting for me to finish my real life and come home to take possession of him, whether he would or no. I was going to show him Rome after all. By an almost full moon.

“Tonight I’m taking you out to see Rome by moonlight. Can’t guarantee I won’t take you into a dark corner, if you’re up for it.

He looked, as always, amenable. Amenable but not impassioned. He rarely looked that, even when we were at our most desperately entangled, thrusting. At those times, he looked intent. Attentive. Completely involved, but not impassioned. I didn’t think he loved me, yet. And if he didn’t, I was going to make him. Give him a reason to do so. Two weeks of Rome with me absent all day long, exhausted at night, sleep-deprived and nearly stupid with it—that wasn’t the way to court Sherlock Holmes. It seemed I’d forgot the lesson of my divorce: that putting my work first and foremost had dissolved my family. Now I had to show Sherlock Rome at her best, and myself at my very best.

 

Chapter Text

19 February 2016

Rome 

 

Roberto had come home in what I’d initially thought was a promising state of arousal, but he surprised me: instead of a late dinner or an immediate retreat to bed, he proposed a night walk through Rome, by moonlight. The night was crisp and cold, the sky clear, with an almost-full moon rising unnaturally large at the skyline. 

I’d spent most of my days walking the length and breadth of the city, but an evening walk in the company of someone who knew it both personally and professionally was appealing. The prospect of an expert guide was quite enough to distract me from the energetic encounter in bed that I’d thought he intended, when he came up the stairs looking intent and desirous. One thing or the other, I didn’t particularly mind.

Roberto wrapped my scarf around my neck, smoothed my coat over my shoulders, handed me my gloves. Oddly, being dressed by him was far less enjoyable than being undressed by him: I felt boxed in, as though he were wrapping me up for presentation. But it was a fleeting annoyance and I suppressed it. 

We left the flat and turned up the Viale del Vaticano, turned right and headed down the steep hill by a long, broad stairway. In a few minutes we reached the Tiber, crossed the river and paused on the bridge to watch the moonlight on the water. 

I thought of the thousands of full moons the city had seen, the hundreds of millions of souls who had watched them. How layered was this city, and how little I could know of it compared to how intimately I knew London.

Knowing a place and a language is never enough. What I know of England is deeply rooted in knowing English down to my bones, it is true, but I can only observe, extrapolate, deduce the way I do in England because of the million nonverbal cues that I lacked in Rome. Social relations, conventions of behavior and dress, objects, bonds, ways of performing the self. 

As we walked it hit me that I was never going to be able to work in Italy, never. I was hamstrung by the unbending foreignness of my experience, and by the irrelevance of so much of my knowledge. While I was away, after Barts, I’d lived this partial and unsuccessful immersion in enough places that I should have known that transplanting myself to Rome could never work. I wasn’t myself there, not the world’s only consulting detective, and I never could be.

I should have seen this in London, from the beginning. Probably I did see it, but repressed the knowledge in favour of other concerns: putting distance between myself and John, learning the language of my own body, mapping the expanse of pleasures that I had never risked experiencing before. Becoming a “complete human being.” 

Was the exchange worth it? In the long run, probably not. Was I gaining enough to balance what I had lost? Certainly not. I was able to live as I was living in Rome only because I knew it to be temporary. One month. I’d written to John that at some point I’d know whether this different life was sustainable. At that moment, watching the moonlight on the river, I felt the balance begin to shift back toward London, back toward my real life, what was left of it. This would be difficult to broach, and I already disliked the idea of Roberto’s unhappiness—if indeed he would be unhappy. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I turned away from the water and saw him observing me. He took my hand, but soon I released his and put both hands in my pockets, smiling to soften the distancing effect. He looked back at me unsmiling.

The walk was surreal. Rome in the moonlight was another dimension of time, flooded with silence and a chill white light. We walked through Piazza Navona, the ghosts of spectators and tourists thronging its elegant oval, and moved quickly through small and winding streets toward the Pantheon. Roberto told me that the entire building would be unlighted for fifteen minutes when the moon reached the oculus, and moonlight would be the only source of illumination in the ancient structure, where perfect cube meets perfect sphere. He checked his watch and said that we had time to visit a fountain first.

I followed, perplexed. “It’s not like the thousand other fountains of Rome,” he clarified. “And usually it’s swarming with tourists. But in this season, with the restoration just finished—we’ve got a chance.

The fountain of Trevi was indeed magnificent, if not to my taste. It was backed by an imposing palazzo and featured an immense assemblage of statuary, restored to a brilliant white and lavish in its curvature and mobility. The light from inside the basin met the streetlights and the effect was submarine, deep blue, unearthly. 

But what captivated me was a half-hidden conceit in the far right corner, where the structure had been made to look as though it were collapsing.  The architect had designed the corner crumbling, threatening the wall with it, the crushing weight of the building poised to destroy the entire sculptural display of the fountain. It was a game, a joke, by the architect or the builder, but like a skull slipped obliquely into a painting, it was a reminder of mortality and contingency. The failure of our grand designs.

Roberto saw me staring fixedly at this sly reminder of human limitation. He took my arm and tugged, smiling. “Let’s go. We should be inside the Pantheon when the moon reaches the oculus, to get the full effect of it.

I let him steer me back to the Pantheon square, surprised to see that in the short time we’d been admiring the Trevi fountain in near solitude, the piazza had filled with a heaving mass of humanity. Roberto pushed his way confidently to the left door, produced his badge, and got us into the building before the lights first dimmed and then darkened entirely. The disappointed groans from the crowd outside who had not gained entrance were suddenly muted as the great bronze doors swung shut. 

The building was full but the silence was impressive, as everyone concentrated on adapting their vision to the darkness inside. A perfect opportunity for a murder, I thought. I said as much to Roberto, but I could feel and hear that he was not amused. John would have understood. He would have smiled, looked down at the ground, and been unable to suppress a giggle. He never could.

When the thinnest edge of the moon breached the curve of the oculus, a gasp went up. The flood of light from that initial crescent was astonishing. As always during a collective observation of some spectacle, the improvised fellowship of admiration made total strangers speak to each other, touch an elbow or a shoulder, to show or share some aspect of the event. You see it with an eclipse, a meteor shower. The northern lights. 

The light increased exponentially inside the temple as the moon sailed slowly into the oculus and illuminated the faces below. It was solemn, this combination of the timeless and the natural on the one hand, of the ancient and the architectural on the other. Our ancestors built a receptacle for the gifts of their gods—water, light, air—and eighteen hundred years later a thousand fortunate descendants gathered them in. I memorised the flawless arc of the moonlight moving around the coffered ceiling of the dome, to keep it in my mind palace for permanent recall.

I turned back to look at Roberto, giving an unforced smile, and saw him smile too, in some relief. Had he doubted I would find this sight impressive, thrilling even?

You like it, then? ”—so yes, he had doubted.

Immensely. It’s an unforgettable sight. Thank you.” He smiled again, then clasped my back to his chest, still smiling, laying his head on my shoulder. After a few moments more of admiring the shadows and light inside the temple, he caught my hand and drew me toward the door.

The rest of the walk was pleasant, if inevitably anticlimactic after the moonlit Pantheon. We walked along the Corso up to the Campidoglio, climbing the steps to the statue of Marcus Aurelius. We crossed the square to an overlook to see the moonlight flooding the dark Forum, making its white marble vestiges gleam. 

We were the focus of a great deal more attention than I was accustomed to in London. This was in part because Italians have no scruples about overtly inspecting each other, and in part also because we looked like something of a matched set. Roberto was insistent about touching my hand, my arm, my elbow, my shoulder, the small of my back, and once, as he backed me up against a pillar, my cock. 

It was at once stimulating and intrusive, and I wondered when the latter sensation had crept in. It would be unfair to push Roberto away now, when I had encouraged him so unequivocally to push into my space. I willed myself to be still and neutral, not to pull back or repossess my hand or the space around me.

After three hours of wandering we turned back for home. We hailed a taxi and sat, silent and weary, until we reached his front door. Once in bed we had sex, lazily and without urgency, Roberto kissing me deeply, intensely, while he murmured words of love into my skin and my mouth. Words I did not deserve, and received with unease because I hadn’t yet managed to fan my fondness into actual love. Once I’d thought it might come. It might yet. 

But even before it was full, the moon was on the wane. I felt that I’d rounded a cape, somehow, and was homeward bound.

 

Procoffeinating Pantheon A

Chapter Text

20 February 2016

Rome 

 

Sherlock and I slept late the next morning, waking when the Saturday sun was already high. I’d already been awake for some time, in fact, stroking and caressing the beautiful man who was sleeping next to me in utter abandon, something he almost never did. I was working on waking him slowly to affection and to pleasure. He captured one of my caressing hands and carried it to his mouth, caught two fingers and drew them inside, his tongue gliding over my knuckles and fingertips. It wasn’t a seductive move, though; his eyes were still closed, and I could swear he was mostly asleep.

After a few minutes of this I sighed, stretched, and slung a leg out of the bed, remembering the call I had to make on Valentina’s behalf. It was almost ten, already a little late for the purpose, so in conscience I couldn’t put it off. To my surprise Sherlock caught my arm. 

“Where are you going?”

I smiled. It was nice to be detained. Unusual. “I have to call and get a lab director to fast-track some tests for a colleague.

Hm. Coffee then?

Ah, I should have known it was cream-pot love.” It felt good to say the word, even if it wasn’t true. Sherlock pulled the covers back up almost over his head, and I went into the salotto to make the call. 

After plying, flattering, and chivvying the lab director into moving Valentina’s sample analysis to the top of his list, I wandered into the kitchen and reached for the Bialetti. I didn’t need to concentrate to make the coffee, the lush black liquid that English speakers call espresso, to every Italian simply caffè. I took a tiny cup in to Sherlock, sprawled in the bed with an arm flung back over his head, his chest with its dramatic scar exposed, a reef of pale coral in a sea of milk. He looked like a marble statue: wounded faun, perhaps, or sleeping hermaphrodite.

He opened his eyes when I drew near with the gently steaming tazzina. He stretched and sat up to breathe it in, leaning his forearms on his splayed knees to drink.

What’s the plan?

Well, I got the next week off.

Sherlock’s eyes widened. “The next week. What are we going to do? Stay here?

“I’m going to carry you off. You deserve a trip to the mountains, a trip around Lazio. I’ll take you to meet my parents.”

His eyes narrowed. “Oh yes? Do you think that’s a good idea? Will they be … welcoming?

I sighed. “To you, certainly. To what I have to tell them about me, about us I couldn’t tell you. We’ll see, I suppose.

Sherlock’s expression was momentarily disconcerted. “Robe’. I don’t know if I’m ready yet for that kind of a visit to your parents. We’re still getting to know each other. Your parents’ expectations seem to me a considerable weight to add.” 

In all honesty, I was relieved. What my parents were going to say to this otherworldly siren I had no idea. Let alone what my children would say. I took Sherlock by the wrist as I rose, pulling him along into the shower.

The plans I’d made were eminently undemanding. The following weekend we’d start a driving vacation through the mountainous region to the south of Rome, stopping where we felt like stopping, exploring where we were inspired to explore, eating and sleeping and making love as our appetites dictated. A low-key, low-stakes week, a hiatus from the frenetic pace of work life in Rome, or the intensity and near-frenzy of the weeks preceding our departure from London. 

What would come of it, I couldn’t tell. I was beginning to feel a depression of my spirits and my hopes, though I couldn’t have said precisely why. If anything, our walk last night, waking up with Sherlock in my bed this morning, made me feel as though we were gelling in a way we hadn’t yet done. 

 

* * *

 

We stayed in all day, me catching up on family calls and work, listening to Sherlock play. We stayed close, companionably reading together. Ordering in a pizza for lunch. Early in the evening I went into the kitchen and started a Veneto recipe: risi e bisi, rice and peas. I wanted to have another go at an impressive meal, since we had the time and he seemed to be napping on the sofa, though his hands looked oddly prayerful. When I’d set the preparation to rest before serving I turned around and saw that Sherlock seemed now to have other plans.

His smile was secret, private, but luminous as he led me to the bedroom, still the only discreet place in the flat. His large hands tugged my shirt off and stroked my back, unbuttoned my trousers and pulled them down, stroking my legs and arse as he did. Sinking to his knees fluidly and oh God smelling me, he took me in his mouth, starting gentle but getting rough and urgent. 

And I had wanted to seduce him—! But there was no way I could make myself stop while Sherlock was doing that to me, so I braced myself wide-stance and rocked gently forward and back, restraining my impulse to thrust hard and take, my hands in his hair, trying not to grip or tug. If there’s anything in the world more beautiful than he is, I haven’t seen it, and I’ve seen every marble statue in Rome. I kept my fingers loose and tender in his hair, and he brought his own hands to my arse and drew me in deeper as I cried out and came and came. I was dizzy, and tried not to stagger or pant as I came down, tried to stay composed, wry, even with tears behind my eyes.

The rice’ll be ruined,” I said, with careful regret and a small laugh. “And I’d got fresh peas too. Pity.

From the corner of my eye I saw Sherlock stiffen, down at my feet. He didn’t freeze, exactly, but his smile was visibly fading. He wiped his mouth, stood up.

Peas.” His tone was odd. —Of course it was, I’d left him completely unsatisfied, and started talking about dinner of all things.

Don’t you like them? I promise, I’m quite competent at this recipe. Thought you might be hungry from whatever you’ve got up to today.” 

I promised myself I’d make this up to him, and moved my hands to his cock.

He stepped back, though. “No, it’s fine. Peas are fine. I’m sure I’ll like it. And if I wasn’t hungry before, I am now.” 

He seemed to be returning to normal, and I felt my tension drain away again.

Let me feed you, then, and we’ll get back to—what we were doing.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

20 February 2016

Rome  

 

Roberto’s dinner was fine. The rice wasn’t spoiled, and the peas were a bright, sweet green in which taste and scent and colour blended in a vivid memory that I hadn’t even been aware I was harbouring. As we ate we talked in a desultory fashion, Roberto periodically touching my wrist, my fingers, caressing my neck, leaning over and kissing me. I realised I did none of this to him. What we did together was sex, and dancing.

How we got from normal life into sex and back out again was something I hadn’t given any thought to. After a long day of relative solitude, when I saw him again I was either aroused or I wasn’t. If I wasn’t, it didn’t take much to get me interested. What I wasn’t craving, I realised, was intimacy for its own sake. Affection—given or received. Touch. I didn’t want to sleep entangled, I didn’t want to wake up in his arms. In his bed. It wasn’t Roberto’s fault I wasn’t there yet. Perhaps it takes practice.

I did try, with Roberto. Once while he was cooking I came up behind him at the stove, wrapped my arms around his waist and lowered my head to his shoulder. Not quite comfortable; leaned my forehead against Roberto’s spine, then. I wanted my arms to feel full, I wanted to feel full. I only felt empty. This wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t completeness; romantic entanglement hadn't completed me at all. John was wrong.

But Roberto sounded happy, singing a lilting jazz tune with no particular rhythm, his pleasant singing voice humming through my skull as my ear lay over his shoulder-blade. He was singing insouciantly about a lover leaving him and leaving him bereft, but sounding too cheerful to be really feeling it.

 

Quello che basta all’altra gente non mi darà       What’s enough for other people won’t give me

nemmeno l’ombra della perduta felicità             even the shadow of my lost happiness

E se domani, e sottolineo se,                             and if tomorrow, emphasis on the “if”—

all’improvviso, perdessi te,                                all of a sudden, I were to lose you—

avrei perduto il mondo intero, non solo te         I’d be losing the whole world, not only you

 

He leaned back into my arms, smiling and nuzzling my temple as he stirred the sauce he was making. After a moment he put down the spoon, twisted in my arms and grasped my waist, danced me into the next room and over to the CD player where he cued up a song and pulled me into a jazzy two-step.

This part of life with Roberto was so easy, pleasant and brisk, un-fraught, just two people enjoying each other’s company: in sync, in step. Even sex was like that: we were compatible. He was attentive and generous. But when it was over, when I got self-conscious and Roberto got needy (terrible word, and terribly unfair), the tension settled over and between us, getting worse the more we tried to deny its presence.

What Roberto and I had been doing before dinner—we hadn’t got back to it, despite his promise. Not his fault. I’d had a memory avalanche and couldn’t fight my way out of it; sense memories, snatches of conversations, and along with these, an emotional jolt I couldn’t shake. John was everywhere around me tonight, even in things I’d never done with him, like dancing—intimately, unguardedly—and in touches I’d never permitted myself.

How often I’d have liked to touch John. Intimately, not necessarily sexually. Straighten his collar, rucked partway under a jumper. Touch his elbow, his hand. Roberto touched me that way. If I’d rather he didn’t, at least I understood why he did: we weren’t just sex, for him. 

How ridiculous that it was the peas that brought all this to mind. They brought John and Baker Street rushing back, though it had been at least a year—maybe several—since John had cooked something similar for me. 

I’d been able to distract myself with Roberto, with Rome, and the novelty of not being bored without cases or cocaine. But a single sense memory had cracked the door open again, and now I was fighting off memories of John’s presence, his voice, scent, sounds, as though my weeks of moratorium hadn’t happened at all. I was at the mercy of my craving for John, my homesickness so acute that I nearly gave up and went upstairs to the roof to let the violin howl for me.

When we’d finished eating—I’d eaten less than usual—I took a book to the plush velveteen sofa in the sitting room and pretended to read. Roberto, realising that I was abstracted, went off to take a shower and pottered about with his laptop until midnight, when he announced he was for bed, and looked at me with a query.

I’ll be there in a moment. I’ll just clean my teeth.” He nodded and went down the hall.

In the bathroom the air was steamy, full of the scent of Roberto’s soap. This time I didn’t breathe it in, I pushed it away, instead chasing a memory that I had quite successfully shut out since I’d left John that letter. That letter. I wondered, this time deliberately, what he had thought of it. Had he been repelled? Pitying? Regretful? Had he said again, “Not gay”? “For God’s sake, Sherlock. I’m not gay.” I could imagine him horrified, curious, surprised. Probably not surprised that I loved him, only surprised that I admitted it, and very surprised that I was leaving for Italy, possibly forever. 

I wished I’d been able to say goodbye to him, that I had a different parting to remember than John walking away from my outstretched hand. I wished too I’d had a chance to say goodbye to Watson, though that wasn’t rational: she wouldn’t understand or remember. Saying goodbye to both of them at once would probably have finished me, and the chances of seeing her without John were vanishingly small.

The thing is, Watson is an amazingly consoling little armful. And she smells like John. Like apricots—John smells like dried apricots, I don’t know why. I’d never been able to track that scent down to a soap or shampoo or shaving product. It was a simple, faint aura crossed with the smell of mown grass in the summer, a hayloft in winter. And Watson smells faintly of the same thing. Shared genetic material? Or something more proximate, like shared laundry detergent?

I finished cleaning my teeth and went along to Roberto’s room, with some reluctance. I was no longer even slightly aroused, and my thoughts were so far from here and from him that I didn’t want to lie there while he coiled around me, his soft beard tickling my shoulder, feeling the soft hair of his chest, his legs. He was an immensely pleasant presence, physically, but I wasn’t up to being present to him, or even pretending to be. But that wasn’t fair to him, and I determined to be normal, if not encouraging. When he fell asleep I could return to my thoughts, or, with any luck, fall asleep myself. I needed to sleep.

When I’d given all the non-verbal signals I could and Roberto had tactfully retreated into sleep, the sensory loop in my head spun into frenzy. I didn’t just see John, I heard him, smelled him, all but felt him, years and years of John, real memories, daydreams, erotic fantasies, hideous memories of times when he was furious with me, moments when I wanted him and nearly hated him for not knowing or not caring, certainly hated myself for not being sure which, for not knowing how to extinguish my emotions and my desires. 

Desires. I hadn’t wanted anyone, ever, the way I wanted John, from the day I met him, and all that was spinning in my brain was John, infuriating, tranquil, amused, annoyed, devastated.

 

Chapter Text

20 February 2016

Intermezzo: London

 

In the third endless week after Sherlock left it finally occurred to me to wonder whether this absence of his was entirely his own doing. So the next morning I went round to the Diogenes Club to ask Mycroft whether he’d had any hand in this wholly uncharacteristic flight of Sherlock’s. This romance of Sherlock’s. His eyebrows raised a fraction, and he said gently, “No, John. I give you my word. I would never do that, even in the direst need.”

The gentleness was weird, the oath was bizarre, but Mycroft ruling out any stratagem at all that might fast-track his own ends was downright ominous. If he was so adamant about this it had to mean one of two things: either I’d found his limit at last, or he actually had done it and was lying to my face. 

I tended to believe the former. It stung a bit that the gentleness probably meant pity. Mycroft thought I was grasping at straws—looking for any way I could invent for Sherlock not to have actually fallen in love with someone else and left me. I wondered whether Sherlock had hurt like this when I’d left him. Well, he’d injected himself with cocaine, hadn’t he. Over and over.

I came back to myself realizing Mycroft was still talking, holding out a tablet. “The usual surveillance. I thought you might want to see for yourself. That he’s well.”

My turn to raise my eyebrows, and then I frowned. “You’re having Sherlock watched? In Rome? If he’s not doing any undercover work for you—why would you do that?”

Mycroft was flustered enough to look away. “Well, it’s been a volatile time, hasn’t it. Being away from—London—has never been particularly healthy for him, these past years. I worried that the dislocation might ... interrupt his recovery. ”

“And you’re sure it hasn’t?” He only tipped his head, the way he does when he thinks I’m being thick, but refrains from saying so out of politeness. (Sherlock never refrains.)

Unsteady as I was feeling, though, I was gratified that Mycroft seemed to think me a steadying influence on Sherlock, wrong though he was about that. I opened the tablet, hoping—don’t know what I was hoping to see. Sherlock and Zanardi rowing in public?

The first photo showed Sherlock alone on a public bench. It was sunny but, to judge by the passersby and his own clothing, cold and breezy. His hair was a ruffled dark halo. His knees were spread a bit, canted higher than his hips, the bench too low for his long legs. Who was he waiting for? He was staring down at his own gloved hands. Not observing, not deducing. I felt an ache under my ribs. So far away.

Procoffeinating bench final

The next photo was dark, and it took me a few seconds to understand what I was seeing: Sherlock was standing in a crowd in a grand curved hall, staring up at the light pouring down from him. Zanardi was standing at his back, arms wrapped all over him, smiling into his left shoulder. Damn him.

Procoffeinating Pantheon B

The third photo: a room at night, a bed seen from ceiling height. Sherlock lying on his back, staring up nearly into the camera’s eye; Zanardi stretched out on his side, head tucked over Sherlock’s shoulder, left arm over Sherlock’s bare chest, left leg resting on Sherlock's thigh. I wish I hadn’t seen Sherlock’s stare: the illusion of his eyes looking straight at me, sombre and expressionless.

nightroom final

I didn’t want to see any more of this. Sherlock wasn’t aware of being watched and photographed; it was stalkerish. And I didn’t want to see any more scenes of physical contact, if I’m honest. I dreaded what lay behind those images: gestures more erotic, maybe, a connection more intimate. An expression on Sherlock’s face that was more happy.

Like a gut punch it hit me that these weren't photographs; they were stills from recordings. Worse than stalkerish: voyeuristic, and God only knows what the actual videos showed. I breathed deep to tamp down panic, then shoved the tablet back at Mycroft.

“Don’t show me anything more. He—deserves his privacy.”

Mycroft’s lips twitched in annoyance, and he sighed ostentatiously. “As if he ever respected yours. And he certainly expects me to keep an eye on him.”

“That’s irrelevant. Even if Sherlock knew he was under surveillance, he never expected you to show these to me.” My voice was tight and I imagined Mycroft knew very well the real reason I didn’t want to see any more.

As if to prove that he did indeed know, he executed a perfect Sherlockian eye-roll. “Only to relieve your anxiety. My brother is not on a mission and he is not, to my knowledge, in any danger. If circumstances were different I would say he could not have taken up with a more decent or more reliable man.” 

I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t want Mycroft to tell me what “circumstances” he meant, and I certainly didn’t want to have a conversation with him about feelings I hadn’t even told Sherlock about. Instead I asked whether, since he had an agent in place, he could get a letter from me to his brother. We left it that I’d let him know when his driver could pick up a letter at my house for him to have couriered to Rome.

That night I wrote to Sherlock. It took me the whole night to draft and correct and recopy the letter, and as usual I couldn’t stop imagining what he was doing in the hours I was pouring my heart out to him. I had to write; if I didn’t, then even if Sherlock came home he wouldn’t get in touch with me. He’d said in his letter he was saying goodbye, no matter what came of his experiment in Rome. I had to give him a reason to contact me when he came home. If. If he came home.

Chapter Text

21 February 2016 

Rome

 

John.

The name jarred me awake, breaking in on me in a multitude of forms. I heard the sound of it, spoken—oddly—in my own voice, my lowest and most deliberate register. I saw and smelled it, in some kind of synaesthetic blur of scent and blue light. Most of all I felt it, in a flush and shiver that made no kind of sense but nonetheless spread slowly all over my skin—John’s presence, John’s touch, as though he were, impossibly, in the room.

I shook my head, dizzy, and opened my eyes. Of course John was not there. Roberto was, though, and pressed up against my back with an arm flung over me. My chest still hurt under the pressure, and perhaps it was this that had roused me. But why did I sense so strongly the feeling, the presence, of John?

It was precisely twenty-one days since I had deliberately allowed John into my conscious mind. Since leaving London, I’d held hard to my promise to give my full attention to Roberto. This had taken far more effort than I’d expected; for so long John had occupied so much of my time, concentration, and emotions, that the moratorium had required a nearly constant effort of will. The only place I found it easy not to think of John, in fact, was in bed with Roberto. 

But the days had passed, and the rigid discipline of excluding him had begun to score new neural pathways, or so I’d thought—but now here John was again, pouring in through every cell of my body despite the concrete and competing figure at my side. 

Time to reflect. Weigh the data so far. I’d had three weeks—pleasant days, filled with novelty and discovery, and on the whole they had been serene. I’d not been bored. In recent years my other visits to Italy had been for urgent assignments that filled my hours and my thoughts—danger and high stakes. But now there was only myself. And Roberto. The only Work was myself. 

I’d been rather surprised so far with my ability to “live in the present,” as the loathsome cliché has it: to have no project but exploring the city, improving my stamina, walking, playing the violin, reading in Italian, even eating. I’d gained a kilo, and I was stronger. I’d stopped in a tailor’s shop, tempted by the window-display of fabrics not found in London. Somewhat to my surprise the saleswoman, discreetly elegant, turned out to be the tailor.

I gather you make men’s shirts to order? ” 

She politely refrained from rolling her eyes, but was mollified by my quick apology and apparently by my Italian, which was getting more convincing by the day.

How long does it take? Would you show me all the colours you have to hand?

She pulled down rolls and swatches of linen blends and silks in mouth-watering colours: sea-glass green, a dazzling blue I’d never seen, and some jacquards in black and winter red, pearl grey and turquoise, coal-grey and silver. I took off my jacket for her to take measurements; her tape measure was already at my shoulders, but I waved her away so I could take off my shirt as well. 

Her eyes widened at that, but she didn’t make me explain why I wanted them so closely fitted. They widened even more when she saw the scars; professional and discreet, she didn’t mention them. She simply nodded and promised the shirts for the end of the month. 

There was so much to like about Rome, so much to do. I’d even had three fencing lessons. It was an exertion I could control, and it was practice in strategy, speed, agility, and precision—practice that never comes amiss, even though I didn’t often need to defend myself from a criminal wielding a sword. Though of course it wasn’t unheard of.

But all this activity was the filler between the nights spent with Roberto. Coming to know and appreciate him, trying to love him. And here I was increasingly uneasy. The sex, certainly—the sex was revelatory, and I doubted I was ever going to be so cavalier about it again. The intensity of sensation far exceeded what I’d ever imagined feeling for someone whom I knew so little. Sex with Roberto dissipated a great deal of melancholy, even insecurity. He so patently loved to look at me, to touch and please me. Clearly I wasn’t a freak to him. 

We’d met before he had much knowledge of my reputation; he’d formed his own opinion, and disregarded the rumours and jibes when they did not correspond to his experience. He’d said he’d fallen in love with me almost at once, so of course his judgment couldn’t be impartial. But he treated me like a man, not an oddity, and what’s more, like a man worth turning his entire existence upside-down for. His sexual history didn’t stop him. No fear of what everyone in his life would say. I could never express my gratitude to him for this immediate allegiance; in all my life I’d only known one other like it, and that had not, in the end, been this complete.

I owed Roberto everything I could give him. But as the days and nights went by, it was becoming clear that I couldn’t will myself to feel more for him than I did. Physical intimacy wasn’t bringing emotion in its wake. Roberto’s experience in our bed was more consuming than mine, to judge by his words, his convulsive embraces, his deep stillness afterwards, and his way of plastering himself to me so that every inch of us was connected. It was—touching, at best. I was gratified, and tried to be responsive and engaged. But what he was patently feeling, I did not feel. 

And now John was palpably here with us, in this room. I’d woken up with him sliding along my nerve endings, filling my visual field, humming in my ear. It made me remember how every touch, and every word, of John’s was for me charged with love and desire. His smallest gesture moved me; his most casual act aroused me.

It wasn’t this way with Roberto. I would wake with him entwined around me, his cock hard against my hip bone or my arse, and I would decide to be interested. To be welcoming. With John, all my effort had been to rein in response, conceal interest, until he should give me anything like encouragement. Was it as banal as this—that prohibition sparked desire, and permission doused it? Again I wondered: if John and I had ever been together, would I have been this unmoved with him after the novelty wore off?

I tried to visualise being indifferent to whether or not John was touching me, was in the flat when I got home, was talking to me or cross with me. I tried to imagine being polite or impatient if John reached to kiss me, or if he buried his face in my neck and tried to go back to sleep. The warmth I felt at just the idea of John burrowing close made it absurd, ludicrous. When John was close to me everything had always felt both settled and thrilling. He centred me, and freed me to take chances. Nothing—no one—in my life has ever affected me like John Watson.

Here, a thousand miles away from John, I could smell him. I knew that what filled my nose was Roberto’s subtle blend of lavendar and cedar. The sharper citrus of his shampoo. But the ghost scent that filled my brain when I let myself think of John was of hay newly cut, apricots, a comforting summer smell. Or the clean, sharp, dangerous smell of his sweat when we’d been running. 

Two autumns ago, in those weeks when everything had seemed possible and I had only to recover from being shot, I’d dreamed of shoving my nose into every crevice he would allow me to. I’d been trying to absorb Roberto’s smell in that same immediate, overwhelming fashion. It hadn’t worked. It would never work.

And finally, lying here in the pale expanse of this alien bed, I realised why: I’d been trying to choose Roberto. Tried to put him in John’s place, the place John vacated when he returned to Mary, pushed me away, pushed me at Irene. But I was never going to be able to replace John, because I’d never deliberately chosen him. When I met him, he overpowered me without any conscious thought or choice on my part. He’d walked undramatically, unequivocally, and implacably into my head and my heart, and simply never left. More than a meeting, it was than a recognition. 

Everything that I am responded to everything that he is: compact, controlled, composed—and at the same time tired, despondent, perhaps at the end of his hope. All this I saw before I let my gaze run over his posture, his cane, phone, haircut, tan lines. From the moment I looked up from the microscope and saw him standing there, I knew him for my own. 

If only I’d understood what I recognised, I’d not only have set out to win him, as I did; I’d have let him woo me. Instead I backpedalled, and performed the chilly “married to my work” monologue that John never ever forgot. Because he is discreet. Because he doesn’t presume. He never knew he was my—was mine. And even though I’ve tried, I cannot let him go.

With Roberto—none of this. He chose me, and I let myself be chosen. And I will still try, to love him. Where has my imaginary “one and only” got me, anyway? Bitter unhappiness; a suicidal relapse into drugs; cold-blooded murder. I’d come to hate it all—not John, but the wretched fool I had become, longing for him.

I would change. I could change, and I would. If it didn’t work with Roberto, I would return to London and start my life again. Perhaps rewiring my own hard drive: instead of simply replacing John, I could learn to live in London as I was living in Rome, without the frenzy of the Work. In Rome I lived in a calmer, if anesthetised, equilibrium. It was a notable relief that I could live without the Work after all; if I could do it in Rome, why not in London?

As I thought of a solitary life in London, Robert began to stir beside me, making the pleased, affectionate noises that I could not make and would not feign. Instead I ran my hand over the arm pushing in on my breastbone, let it drop down to his (beautiful) hip, and looked back to meet his eyes, sleepy but desirous and fond. I knew I should want to, but it felt like an effort. I pushed down the thought that in fact I’d already decided. Ten days to go. I couldn’t have John, I couldn’t want Roberto, and this interlude was now almost certainly a formality. I was marking time.

Chapter Text

21 February 2016

Intermezzo: London

 

Dear Sherlock,

I’ve been staring at this blank page for a long time now. Don’t know where to go next. You might not read this for weeks and maybe it isn’t fair to try to make you read it at all. You’ve moved on. 

I don’t know how many times I moved on from you—yet I never did. It never worked. From the first day I saw you I was tugged into your orbit: just like you said in your letter, it was easy, inevitable. Devoted. You didn’t want me, though, not then. You were right, of course—I was sounding you out that first evening at Angelo’s. But you made me backtrack and I never dared to bring it up again. I thought you didn’t want it. And you didn’t.

That’s fair, isn’t it? You didn’t want it, before you left; you didn’t want it while you were away; you didn’t want it when you came back. If you did, I certainly couldn’t tell. It’s when you saw me with someone else, someone serious, that you finally started to want me, or so you wrote.   

In your letter you wrote that you only realised you'd been hoping I would stay, when I left you to go back to Mary. Just a few hours afterwards you shot Magnussen in the head. Is that why you shot him? I wonder now if it was. What you said that night always sounded so stilted to me. “Give Mary my love. Tell her she’s safe now.” Rehearsed. God knows I’ve heard your voice saying those words in my head a thousand times, no matter what the doctored recordings say now. Did you commit murder (suicide?) because I went back to her?

Is that how love works? You’ve done everything for me, for my well-being, my family. You sacrificed so much. And now you’ve gone away again from the life you love, the people who care about you, the Work, London, even your violin. You loved me to the edge of your own destruction, while you thought I didn’t want you. 

That day in 221B after the Culverton Smith case. You were so subdued. I was sick with guilt about what I’d done to Mary, and what I’d done to you. But I only talked about failing Mary; didn’t even mention all the ways I’d failed you. (Ignoring you after the wedding. Leaving you after she shot you. Pushing you away after she was killed. Beating you to a pulp in the morgue. Trying to walk away from you afterwards, because I was so ashamed.) There you were, sitting in your chair, so frail, stitches in your face from my fists, broken ribs that I kicked, and I didn’t even apologise, not that day. Instead I cried for my own sorry arse and my own losses, things I lost that were never even real.

I’ve always talked to you in code, Sherlock. It was code when I said, “So you’re unattached, like me.” It was code when I said, “You’re my best friend.” It was code when I said that romantic entanglement would complete you as a human being. What I meant was, entanglement with me. With me. And that wasn’t even true: you’ve always been a complete human being. (The best and the wisest man I’ve ever known, even when you’re a complete dick and a madman.)

As for why I kept jabbing you about Irene Adler: I think I wanted you to contradict me, tell me you were never going to be with her, that she’d never be the person who inspired you to be your best self. I wanted you to say "It’s you, John." Because I was too cowardly to say "Sherlock, it’s you."

I’ve been much too afraid all my life about the things that really counted. You, for instance. Everyone could see you were the most important thing in the world to me. You were my universe, but I wasn’t yours, and that terrified me.

Rosie terrifies me too: always, but especially after Mary died. (Remember: she died because of choices she made. It was never your fault.) Rosie depends on me completely, and I’m afraid of that too. I’m afraid I’ll fail her; I know I’ll fail her. All parents do, and my track record in particular isn’t good. I can only try, and now I have to, because I’m all she’s got. If I kept you at arm’s length even after we reconciled, I’m sorry. I’ve been afraid of the drugs, afraid of what they would mean for Rosie. That snake Wiggins was hanging around Baker Street—what else could that mean, but drugs and a relapse? And just when it seemed you were out of it, healthy and working again, and I’d decided I had to try, because you would try for my sake and hers—you were gone.

I know I’m stalling. There’s a lot I need to say. If you come back to London, I’ll say it in person, if you let me. But you won’t even know to get in touch if I don’t say something to you now. So here goes.

I love you. After all these years of lying to you and everyone else: I love you. I want you. I want to be with you, and I want you to be with us. You love Rosie already, and she’s the best part of me. I’ve never wanted anything so much, and if you come back to me, to us, I’ll show you that you’re my universe, you and Rosie. If you decide not to stay in Rome, please: give me a chance. I promise you won’t be sorry.

Those first eighteen months in 221B—they were magic, and we won’t get them back. We grew up, Sherlock. But if it hasn’t worked out with you and Zanardi, perhaps we can be together now. You’re all I want. Let me show you. 

If you’ve decided your new relationship is for the long term, then I’ll do my damnedest to be happy for you both. You deserve someone who’ll treat you like the brilliant, miraculous man you are. If Zanardi does that, and he can make you happy, then I wish you—well, you know what I wish for you. Obviously.

Be well. Eat, please. Sleep. Know that you’re on my mind every minute of every day, and everywhere I look I see you. Of course I kiss Rosie for you, every day.

Yours,

John

P.S. I don’t know how to get this to you so I’m going to turn to the British government. Please don’t hold it against me; I’ve got no other options.

 

 

Chapter Text

22 Feb. 2016

Rome 

Sherlock’s Monday is free, like all the days. Unstructured time has always made him unproductive, but this month has been chosen for this: free of contacts, commitments, cases. The effect is different than when Sherlock was in London between cases, abroad between missions. He’s never had this: empty time he can fill as he chooses, without feeling the desperate need for stimulation or distraction. For a challenge or cocaine. 

Roberto has gone off to the office late, not seeming to mind this in the least since Sherlock had made it worth his while. Last night they hadn’t been in synch for either sex or sleeping. Sherlock had gone upstairs onto the roof to watch the moon cross the sky over the city—muted but never silent—and Roberto had gone into the shower and then to bed. He’d seemed gratified to find Sherlock with him in the morning.

Showered and dressed, Sherlock has done another random assault on a museum. The Palazzo Braschi, it turns out, has far from adequate security. He could remove any of the smaller pieces with ease, were he so inclined. He targets a bookshop in the Campo de’ Fiori and another tailor off of Via Panisperna. To his secret gratification he can now pass for Italian, if not Roman, for very brief encounters at least. 

His travels through the city are nearly random; he tests his knowledge of Rome, criss-crossing the city by its back streets and always looking up, ignoring both the shops at street level and the stares of Romans and tourists. Finding himself outside the instrument-maker’s shop, he thinks about the violin; he knows now it will have to be returned. The luthier had said he would need it back by the end of the month; Sherlock doesn’t want to make Roberto return it. 

He turns into the shop and announces that he’ll be bringing it back in the morning. Before they leave for Ciociaria, certainly. It is a beauty, he says, but perhaps more suited to a baroque player than to his own more intense style. He knows that the luthier has mentally replaced intense with florid, showy, Romantic. He doesn’t mind.

On his way back to the flat he veers into a gelateria. This he will miss, he thinks: the best ice cream in the world. Chocolate, pistachio, stracciatella. Perhaps just as well, since the hollow between his hipbones is a little shallower and he doesn’t want to give Mycroft ammunition to use in their eternal contest. He’ll return to the flat and play that extraordinary instrument again, while he still has it. Legrenzi, perhaps. Corelli. Stradella.

 

* * *

 

The long afternoon dims into evening and Sherlock is entirely absent, or rather entirely present to the music. The instrument is captivating in a way that his experiment with sexual pleasure has been captivating, but it asks nothing of him, only his attention and his time. It gives no hint that what he is giving is not quite enough, that something more (caresses? declarations? endearments?) is required. The violin waits for him not like a lover but like a dancer, and when he picks it up they are off, with no hesitation or misunderstanding. This, he feels, is completeness, though not the completeness he came to Rome for. He listens for the effects of his touch, he corrects, he learns.

He reaches out to the instrument without the reticence he feels about reaching for Roberto. Perhaps he was not meant, after all, to be a complete human being. Perhaps he was meant to be as he is: an observer, an analyst, someone who helps when complete human beings run aground and bring him their puzzles and problems. Is that so unworthy? He listens to the patterns that he and the violin make, the logic and the beauty, the rigour and the poignancy, and thinks that perhaps John didn’t understand that Sherlock was in his own way already complete. And as always when John enters his mind, he shuts this thought down and buries it deep.

In the evening the doorbell rings. Sherlock doesn’t answer, since Roberto wouldn’t ring his own bell; no one else is looking for him, and whoever wants Roberto will be disappointed whether Sherlock answers or no. But the doorbell rings again, and again, and again. Finally someone else in the building buzzes the pestilent caller in, and after a few seconds a knocking begins at Roberto’s door. 

Sherlock recognises that the knocking isn’t going to stop any more than the ringing had. He lowers the violin from his shoulder and wipes his forehead before pulling the door open brusquely to signal his displeasure. A black leather-clad courier stands outside the door, holding a helmet under her left arm. Her right hand holds out an envelope.

Signor Holmes.” Although she pronounces it Olmess she seems capable, confident. As though, unlike an ordinary courier, she’s been briefed as to his appearance as well as his location. Sherlock doesn’t respond but she keeps her arm outstretched, confirming his deduction that this is one of Mycroft’s minions, not a commercial driver. Somali mother, he thinks. Italian father. Raised and educated in Milan. No, Pavia. Came to Rome for—irrelevant. He rolls his eyes ostentatiously and sighs, reaching for the envelope.

If you would just sign, please.” Odd. Sherlock could have sworn Mycroft had had cameras planted around the flat, certainly over the front door, cameras that would confirm delivery. But he puts down the bow to sign the receipt. She flashes a quick smile in lieu of thanks, turns and heads down the stairs at a trot.

Places to go, Sherlock thinks. Other victims of Mycroft’s to torment. She’s forgotten before the door closes.

Back in the salotto he glares at the A4 envelope and considers whether he should open it. It’s light, and he can feel a smaller envelope inside. If Mycroft bothered to have it sent, it’s probably important. But if it really needed his immediate attention, it would have something more urgent than his name and Roberto’s address written on the outer envelope. He decides to compromise: open this one and decide about the other based on whatever other clues he might find. Some ridiculous MI6 code. A skull and crossbones. “Eyes only.” He sets the violin and the bow on the piano bench and tears open the mailer.

The long white business envelope reveals nothing—just his first name and, in the corner, Mycroft’s initials. Pompous git. Too busy and important even to sign his whole name. The Mycroft he had glimpsed a couple of months ago—off-balance, contrite, emotional—had disappeared again behind the mask. Sherlock isn’t sure that’s a bad thing; it had been more unsettling to see Mycroft uncertain than to be uncertain himself. The uneasy equilibrium between them is not something he wants to disturb further, not even for the pleasure of besting Mycroft. He needs something to lean against, to push against, especially now that—enough. Some discipline, for God’s sake.

He can feel two sheets in the envelope, no more. One cover sheet, single-sided. One inside sheet. He lifts the envelope to his nose: Mycroft’s signature cologne, the smell of the Diogenes Club furniture polish, a faint whiff of a menthol cigarette. But something else, too. Something fresh, green. 

No. He’s not going to open this. He still has a week before he has to make a decision, and if this communication is so urgent Mycroft will find another way to bring it to his attention. Until then, no messages from London, no contacts from anyone there.

Sherlock takes the long white envelope into his bedroom and buries it in the top drawer with his socks and pants. Let it sit there and emit bursts of radioactivity for all he cares. He doesn’t care, indeed. He doesn’t.

Chapter Text

23–28 Feb. 2016 

Lazio

 

Driving south from Rome with Sherlock, I felt my spirits and hopes lifting again. Just a few days earlier, I’d begun to feel defeated. But perhaps it was just that Sherlock had been feeling like a convenience, and me taking the time to focus on him had been just what was needed. A change of pace, of place.

I had no plan, and that seemed to be the right approach. Sherlock was open to every idea I broached for our days, whether a stay in a hilltop town strangely frozen in time with its seven (seven) excellent pastry-shops, or a three-hour walk through the forest to Subiaco, with its underground frescoes. He’d listened with apparent interest as I’d told him about a similar, smaller set of frescoes in a humbler church near our country house. He was equally agreeable whether we spent hours in the car, or walking in the woods, or exploring archaeological sites.

He seemed particularly open to every idea for our nights. We’d hit a kind of stride in our lovemaking. Not a plateau—far from it; but I felt more free to propose new possibilities, and Sherlock seemed to feel somewhat more free to try them. Perhaps it was just being away from the city, with the weight of human expectation and judgment all around us; perhaps it was being removed from the everyday. But I kept coming back to the fact that I didn’t have to go to work every morning, leaving Sherlock to his own devices.

I was thinking again that he might begin to love me. Our physical compatibility was incredible; and now that I had days and nights of uninterrupted time, our emotional compatibility could grow as well. He was certainly incredibly responsive, and to quite surprising stimuli.

One night we’d had stayed in a rustic bed-and-breakfast halfway up a mountain without anyone else nearby. The agriturismo had been recommended to me by an acquaintance in Anagni—with the caveat that it was heated only by a wood stove. I was undaunted; I’d lots of experience getting a country house comfortable with wood. And the prospect of being somewhere completely isolated, where we couldn’t be overheard in bed, was magnetic: Sherlock might feel able to let down his guard a bit.

He’d liked the place at once, prowling around and examining the books while I got the fire going. I could never have predicted the rush of lust on his face at the smell of the wood fire; his pupils dilated and he moved in on me with a hungry look. We tugged each other’s clothes off in the still-icy house, threw them down on the old wooden farm table by the woodstove, and somehow I found myself thrusting, rutting, standing in the V of Sherlock’s legs as he leaned back against the table, panting and cupping my arse in his lovely hands.

I took us both in hand, red and rock-hard; when we grunted in unison, we laughed at the sound, but secretly I loved it. By now Sherlock was mostly seated on the table, only the tips of his toes touching the floor, and I was supporting myself with one hand on the table while the other worked our cocks in exquisite slow motion.

Fuck, yes, Robe’, touch me, touch me there,” Sherlock was panting, gusts of breath blowing into my mouth, my ear. And I was happy to obey, caressing his balls, making him groan with strokes to his perineum firm enough to stimulate his prostate, alternating fast and slow jerks to his gorgeous, eager cock. But I didn’t want it to end quickly. We were finding our balance, and by varying the pace we could stay at peak sensitivity without tipping over into orgasm, and that delicate control, God, it was beautiful. As beautiful as Sherlock.

The flush creeping up his chest and along his neck, his half-closed eyes looking down at our two cocks, my hand pleasuring us both, Sherlock’s pulling me in, his smoky, subsonic voice urging, more, faster, now . He begged, I slowed down; I let go of our erections and took a step back moving one hand to Sherlock’s left nipple and lowering my mouth to the other. As Sherlock jerked I raised my other hand to his mouth, placing my first two fingers gently between his lips until he began to tongue and suck at them. I groaned, pulled back altogether and tugged him off the table. I turned him gently around and slotted my erect cock between those perfect, gorgeous arse-cheeks. So close. So close.

I found myself saying it. “I can’t stand it, Sherlock, you’re so fucking beautiful, I want you, I want you, now, can I have you, please say yes.”

But he didn’t answer, though he thrust his arse back into me, clenching around my aching cock in a way that seemed at least to encourage me to do more of what I was doing. I felt incandescent, ready to explode. I’d never felt anything so transcendently erotic; my physical desire and my emotional yearning were beyond anything I’d ever known.

What I will always remember is the sensation of bending Sherlock down over the wooden farm table and thrusting between his thighs, trailing my impossibly hard cock over his sack, caressing his bollocks, drawing back on the balls of my feet and pressing the tip of my cock teasingly onto, not yet into, his gorgeous and oh-so-tempting hole. I pressed between his thighs, in and out along his perineum, as he panted.

I couldn’t stop myself, I begged. “Please, please, I can’t, I have to, now, I can’t wait.”

But he didn’t say yes. Craving to bury myself to the hilt inside him, I nonetheless held back, concentrating on his pleasure, hoping that at this rate it wouldn’t be long before we could breach that last barrier. Then I’d be able to dip, then press, then plunge into Sherlock. The thought was dizzying enough to make me come, as I shouted the house down and we both ruined two perfectly good sets of clothes.

 

* * *

 

I loved it that he had felt more uninhibited, free to demand, during sex; I wished that during sex, during orgasm, Sherlock could also be more audible and more affectionate, in words and gestures. He still didn’t respond to my tender words and touches in kind, though sometimes he did kiss, and stroke, and smile; he seemed less uncomfortable receiving that kind of intimacy than he had at first.

Only natural; I’d come on too strong. Sherlock had said he’d not been involved with a lover, so it wasn’t surprising he’d drawn back a bit from that intensity. But sometimes he’d go cool or move away, even as he stayed in the bed. Here though there was no rooftop with its warm greenhouse to withdraw to, and I never found him retreated into an armchair—after all it was freezing, in the mountains, in February.

After the night in that isolated farmhouse with its evocative smell of woodsmoke and its unforgettable kitchen table, I realised I was overlooking another isolated farmhouse—one I knew intimately, one we could occupy for one night or several, depending on how we felt. We weren’t thirty kilometers from the family house near Cassino where my father had grown up, and where our childhood holidays had been partly spent. The idea of taking Sherlock to that house, to my own room in that house—as an adult, a man loving another man—had an erotic charge I didn’t quite understand.

I mentioned the idea to him in the car and nearly seized at his reaction: his long fingers opening my flies and dipping into my pants to grasp my cock, his forefinger running gently over the slit. My vision went blurry and I had to grab the steering wheel and right the vehicle as it swerved over the centre line.

Christ, Sherlock! You might warn me! ” I spluttered as I pulled the car off to the right shoulder and turned off the ignition.

Sherlock in profile smiled a small, tight, secret smile: “Where’s the fun in that? ” before turning to me, leaning over and licking a filthy stripe up my neck to my right ear and jawline, while he stroked my cock up and down in a slight spiral. Before I could do more than pant and thrust my hips forward in the driver’s seat to give better access, though, Sherlock had drawn out my flushed and aching cock, lowered his head and taken it into his mouth.

I’d seen enough cars parked on the side of the road with the driver’s head flung back and his torso sprawled out slack to know exactly what I looked like to anyone driving past. And I didn’t care, I didn’t give a single fuck, with Sherlock’s miraculous tongue teasing my cock, the incredible heat inside his mouth sucking me boneless, his head bobbing in my lap where I could stroke his hair as I got closer, closer, and finally exploded, spurting twice, three times, until I collapsed in place and Sherlock lifted his head and cleaned up a bit.

It was heaven. But it was also unnerving, how Sherlock shifted from ordinary conversation to full-on and very hot sex, without passing through tentativeness or tenderness. It was uncomfortable to be the one longing for more affection, angling for it. Because words were pressing at me, words I knew I couldn’t afford to say aloud because saying them would not merely confirm their truth but make them true.

I’d fought against those words that were pushing their way out in response to the increasing absent-mindedness with which Sherlock received my caresses, my compliments, my proposals for each day. I’d clamped down on them ferociously, disguised them with smiles both fond and seductive, replaced them with their equivalents—phrases like “What are you thinking? ” and “Where were you, just now? ” 

But when Sherlock received, unresponsive, the tenth or the hundredth caress or kiss or endearment—I knew the words would eventually force themselves past my strict guard, out into the increasingly tense air: “Sherlock. I’m losing you.” So I kept trying to lure him into intimacy through sex.

I texted my mother to say I’d be going to the house for a night or two. At first I was disappointed when she answered that she’d be there herself while my father was away at a medical conference; but then I thought that this might be a good way to introduce Sherlock to her. It had to happen sometime, and when better than when she was on her own? She’s always been most herself in the country; I love the house too, and wanted to see Sherlock in it. It might be just the low-pressure environment for a first meeting—no other family members around and no one to perform to or for.

We arranged to meet at her favourite restaurant outside Cassino—I never miss an opportunity to eat there either—and to drive to the house afterwards, in two cars. Sherlock seemed fine with the arrangement, if not enthusiastic.

Chapter Text

28 February 2016

Lazio

 

Roberto shows Sherlock into the restaurant at seven, an absurdly early dinner hour for Italians; but the owner, accustomed to tourists with odd schedules and welcoming Roberto warmly, seats them in the mostly empty dining room. The restaurant has an incomparable view: halfway up a mountain, with a wall of glass facing west. Lights glitter in the valley below and jagged mountains loom in the dark beyond. Usually a vista like this means indifferent food; Roberto assures Sherlock that this place is the exception to the rule.

Mare e monti: seafood and mountain specialities, mushrooms, cheeses, meats. Even you will enjoy this menu, love.

At the endearment Sherlock winces internally—perhaps also visibly, given the stiffening of Roberto’s shoulders. Or perhaps it’s just that his mother has arrived: the family resemblance is striking, and Sherlock would have recognised her from the family photographs in Scotland even before Roberto rose to kiss her on one cheek and then hugged her affectionately.

Mamma. How are you.”

At this question, in Italian, Signora Elena Zanardi, née Helen Graham, looked frankly surprised. Clearly not the language they usually speak together, then. But Sherlock is not going to contest Roberto’s choice: for this encounter it suits him to shelter behind a foreign language. He no longer wonders that “meeting the family” is a cause of universal dread.

“Robbie, darling, I’m well. How are you? And you must be Sherlock.” She answers her son in English, seizes Sherlock’s shoulders enthusiastically and kisses both his cheeks with perhaps more emphasis than a first meeting would normally merit. She’s nearly his own height, and her jaw-length hair, mostly grey, is trimly cut and styled. She wears makeup and a well-cut suit of a deep raspberry raw silk.

Very well, and you? ” Sherlock takes his cue from Roberto, though they hadn’t discussed language, and Elena’s brows shoot up. She continues in Italian, though, responding to Sherlock with the same formal pronoun that he’s chosen as suitable for a lover’s mother. 

His reserve gradually intensifies as the evening goes on; Roberto, increasingly uncomfortable, tries to ease him into behaving more naturally by a series of intimate expressions and gestures which only highlight Sherlock’s lack of warmth. A hand on his forearm, an awkward endearment, a solicitation to confirm a future plan that Sherlock seems to have forgot or undervalued. 

The arrival of the various courses helps to keep the conversation afloat, at least between Roberto and Elena, since Sherlock is rarely inspired to relish a dish, let alone talk about it. Still, he uses the pretext of eating and exploring the tastes—genuinely very fine—of the starters, the pasta, and the wine, to keep his reticence from standing out too plainly. Or so he imagines.

But evidently he’s underestimated a mother’s laser eye for a child’s potential partner. He’d have had to try considerably harder than he’s been doing to deflect her attention, and Elena’s reluctant formality hardens to near-rigidity as the meal wears on. Her questions are more pointed than even her son can welcome, and more than once “Robbie” reroutes the conversation, trying to spare Sherlock unease or Elena an open snub. It’s an uncomfortable experience, and it’s something of a relief all round when the dining room fills up with local residents and the noise level spikes.

Over the secondo, an exquisite and complex fish dish with local greens and a fennel sauce, Elena seems to want to start over. She smiles warmly and says, “Come now, Sherlock, no more formality, and please, call me Elena.” He smiles back as if appreciative of the gesture, but goes on as formally as before. He flatters himself that he’s being conversable, but there’s no flow to the topics, no ease: he feels himself interrogated, and resents being expected to play the part of besotted new boyfriend.

The meal—delicious, but too long—concludes with a caffè and a liqueur. Roberto looks relieved, but nowhere near so relieved as Sherlock feels. They have two cars to drive to the family’s country house, and Elena’s barely opened her mouth to invite Sherlock to ride with her when Roberto asks if he would mind driving. Sherlock, who knows to a milliliter how much Roberto’s had to drink, appreciates being rescued from a more private, and thus more uncomfortable, interrogation.

As Roberto starts the car, Sherlock half-expects a candidly annoyed “What was that about? ” He’s actually prepared an answer blaming fatigue, nerves, anything that would lead Roberto off the track of Sherlock’s increasing indifference—regretful, remorseful, but inexorable indifference—to the month’s experiment. The fact that Roberto makes no such objection, asks for no explanation, makes it clear that he already knows. That it pains him, and to some degree mortifies him. Sherlock knows himself to have been culpably careless with Roberto’s feelings, but it is utterly beyond him to keep up the behaviors of their first three weeks in Rome.

They reach the house after ten, too late to light a fire, and it’s cold and damp enough that the sitting-room is unwelcoming. They turn on heat in the bedrooms, using electric mattress-warmers to dry and warm the beds, and have a last digestivo before turning in. Elena digs out towels and dressing-gowns for Robbie and Sherlock, and gives them one last thoughtful look before heading along the corridor to her own room.

In bed they settle into one of their usual positions with Sherlock staring at the ceiling and Roberto curled around him. They say nothing at all, the silence louder than the uproar in the restaurant. Roberto caresses Sherlock’s shoulder and neck with a tentativeness that makes Sherlock feel guilty, and then irritable; to cover this he makes a distracted, appreciative humming sound, but turns to face the wall. Eventually they fall asleep.

When they wake Sherlock forestalls talk with fast, urgent, and (to Roberto, obviously reassuring) morning sex. The kisses he scatters over Sherlock’s throat and shoulders, his affectionate caresses, and his hesitant “I love you” are actively painful, and Sherlock wonders how much more of it he can stand before he bolts for the car and flees.

How could he have thought he could improvise this degree of intimacy, just because he’d found Roberto attractive? How could he have thought he could be ready to change everything about himself? If this is what John meant would complete him as a human being, he wants no part of it. It is false, it’s futile, and it is hurting a very good man.

 

* * *

 

Breakfast is no better. The chilly warmth continues between Elena and Sherlock, and Roberto is visibly ill at ease when Elena says soothingly, “Really, Sherlock, you mustn’t be so stubborn. Any friend of Robbie’s would call me Elena, or Helen. You’re making me feel like his grandmother instead of his mother.

But Sherlock only smiles vaguely and lets the silence lengthen out until Roberto feels obliged to say something conciliatory. “Mamma, you’re always saying people aren’t formal enough anymore. And now you’ve met someone who is, you won’t let the poor man be.” He touches Sherlock lightly on the sleeve. It would perhaps have been a better save, had Sherlock not simply looked at the hand on his arm with detached interest.

The clock chimes loudly behind them, and Elena looks up quickly. “Oh, darling, look, it’s already 9:30. I promised Annarita that you’d look in on her before ten—do be a dear and run over. She’d be wretched if she had to leave for the hospital before she got a chance to see you.

Roberto huffs and looks chagrined. He squeezes Sherlock’s arm, stands up, and reaches into his pocket for his keys. “I should only be half an hour, forty minutes at most. When I get back we’ll have a walk, shall we, and then we’ll set out again after lunch.

Sherlock smiles more warmly this time, and says, “I do want to see those frescoes in the church you mentioned.” What he thinks, however, is more like “Even those tedious frescoes would be better than another hour of this.”

 

* * *

 

The conversation very quickly goes south, as Elena explicitly calls Sherlock on his caginess.

“You cannot keep me at arm’s length by insisting we speak Italian. I brought up sons in Italian. It’s the language of my family. You will not avoid having an honest conversation with me by avoiding our mother tongue.”

He sighs and gives in, finally answering in English.

“When in Rome, Signora Zanardi. I was merely trying to respect both facets of Roberto’s upbringing. I’m sorry if I’ve got us off on the wrong foot, but it’s really for him to decide whether or not I make him happy. If I do, then you should be happy too.” 

Sherlock hears his own voice at its most chilly, its most pretentious and dismissive, and for a moment he hates himself. He isn’t being honest with this woman—but why?

Her face reflects her pained frustration with his formality and evasiveness. She serves him back the formality, but is absolutely not the evasiveness. “But you’re not making my son happy, Mr Holmes. In fact, you are making him very unhappy.”

“You’ll forgive my indiscretion in noting that he seems happy enough in bed, Signora Zanardi.” 

Sherlock’s voice is dry, but he is more uncomfortable with this conversation than he’s willing to show. Defending his treatment of her son by vaunting his own prowess in bed is not, by any stretch, what his own mother would regard as edifying.

Again Elena refuses to be discomfited: “I am delighted to hear it, Mr Holmes. But you’ll forgive my noting that happiness in bed is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a good relationship. Perhaps you are a generous and energetic lover; I hope for everyone’s sake that you are. But you have not been generous with Robbie in my presence. I’ve never seen my son so uncertain that his partner even notices his presence, let alone relishes it. I’ve never seen him have to angle for attention or tenderness before. And I do not like it.” 

She snaps the last words out crisply, then shuts her lips firmly.

Sherlock is disconcerted: with every exchange this relentless woman forces him a step further back, puts him further in the wrong. He had not, he thinks, reduced Roberto to begging for attention or caresses. He’s been as giving as he can, within the limits of their respective feelings: he hasn’t wanted to imply more than he feels, or to give Roberto hope that this month will stretch out into months or years. The proposition had been Roberto’s, after all: a month to win his heart. And Sherlock has done his level best to give Roberto all his attention, all his effort. He has.

“Signora Zanardi, I will not explain myself to you. Not everyone is equally demonstrative. Roberto knows what is usual with me; you do not. Perhaps you’ve been accustomed to seeing your son only with women.”

Elena’s eyebrows arch in exaggerated displeasure, and she gives an incredulous crack of laughter. 

“Mr Holmes. I trust you are not suggesting that I’ve taken a dislike to you because you’re a man. I assure you I’m no homophobe; I’d welcome any man who truly cherished Robbie. His brother is gay, after all. Was gay.”

“Oh, did he change his mind?” Sherlock says sardonically. The best defense is a good—

“He died.” Elena’s voice is flat, and she rises and turns away. 

This conversation has now officially gone so far awry that it can literally get no worse. He, of all people, failed to notice that there was another son, a gay son, and that that son was dead. Aside from the obvious regret at turning the knife in a terrible wound, there is the mortification of being so distracted by emotional static that he’s missed this far-from-negligible circumstance. Why in the world had Roberto never mentioned his fourth brother—a gay brother—a brother who had died ?

When Sherlock finally speaks again his voice comes out very subdued. “I am so sorry. Truly. I didn’t know, or I never would have said what I did.”

From gazing out the window, Elena turns back into the salotto and smiles, only a little wearily. 

“I know that, of course I do. Robbie may not have mentioned Jamie for reasons of his own, but I prefer to speak of him. Never to mention him is like never having had him. After he died everyone seemed to think it kinder not to talk about him. It wasn’t.”

“How did he die?” From what she’s just said, Sherlock gathered that Elena won’t mind the question.

“One of those terrible, pointless deaths after a night out clubbing. Jamie was in a car that was hit by a young man who’d had too much to drink. A head-on collision on a country road. The only survivor was the intoxicated driver. I will never stop hating him for it.”

Sherlock has stood up, wishing he could be anywhere else, but this at least he can speak to. 

“Perhaps his survival is also his penance. To be responsible for so much loss and sorrow would surely be enough to make a man hate his own life.”

He makes as if to go, but Elena, though momentarily distracted, is not finished. 

“Mr Holmes. I don’t mean to make you the villain of the piece. Clearly you are a kind man and an intelligent one, or Robbie would never have brought you home—to Italy, or to me. I only ask you to be very sure of what it is you want. If you want Robbie, if you love him, then have him: I will literally rejoice.” 

She runs both hands through her hair in apparent frustration, and lets go an impotent puff of air.  

“But be good to him. Be loving to him, because he deserves that and God knows he’s had little enough of it, of late. But if you’re not sure, or you already know that he’s not what you want, then for God’s sake let him go. He’ll recover faster from a clean break than from the slow death of a love affair like this one.”

Having got this out she stares at him steadily, not unkindly but very seriously. Sherlock can imagine his own mother saying much the same thing to anyone who—well, that had never happened, nor was it likely to. He senses something else he doesn’t care to examine too closely: that in other circumstances, he would have liked Elena Zanardi, and she might even have liked him.

 

* * *

 

When Roberto returns he and Sherlock load their bags into the car and head back toward the highway. The silence in the car is taut, brittle. Finally Sherlock, still ill at ease about his gaffe, asks about Jamie.

Robe’, why didn’t you ever mention your brother Jamie? There are no photos of him in your flat. I wish I’d known: I said something your mother must have found deliberately cruel.

Roberto sighs and apologises for having kept from Sherlock a loss so central, still so present and painful. For miles and miles he talks about his brother, and Sherlock thinks he’s trying to make it up to Jamie that he’s kept his life invisible to a man he’s lived with for weeks. “Robbie” reveals more than he realises, when he describes the ambivalence he’d felt years ago when Jamie had come out to his family.

I didn’t think less of him, of course. But I did wonder about myself. Jamie had gone out with girls, slept with one, I know ... never mind. But I wondered whether Mark and I might be gay too. For a long time it kept me from ... you know. Being honest with myself. I didn’t want to look too closely at how I felt about...

Sherlock looks at Roberto’s profile, considering. It’s not like Roberto to not finish sentences, search for words like this. He listens as Roberto talks around his fears and denial of bisexuality, years of trying to suppress part of himself to maintain his self-image and the clarity of his contours, his outline, as he put it, in a society not entirely at ease with such ambiguity. It had all come to a head when he'd met Sherlock.

As Roberto speaks he periodically places a hand on Sherlock's leg, forearm, cheek, as though trying to gauge his response—or to placate him? The latter possibility is somewhat unnerving. Placate him for what? If Roberto is bisexual—and he clearly is, it now seems—had he been afraid Sherlock would be less impressed by his own infatuation, and willingness to act on it?

Suddenly Sherlock is monumentally tired, and longs for a puzzle that has no emotional component. This is like walking through treacle in cement overshoes, and again he wants no part of it.

They don’t talk about this, naturally. If either had been adept at such conversations, neither would have reached the other only after and through the ruin of every nearer tie. They turn away from words, focus only on their journey back through the south of Lazio. They will not go to Naples now, with its glittering bay and sky; they are headed back to Rome.

Chapter Text

28 February 2016

Rome

 

The excruciatingly tense holiday over, they returned to the flat in Rome. By late evening Roberto seemed exhausted and Sherlock, unable even to try to console him, felt more withdrawn than ever. He didn’t want to be so distant, but somehow the more Roberto pressed, the more Roberto suffered, the more Sherlock held back. It had become intolerable, as the trial period drew to a close, and Roberto’s quiet desperation had subsided into quiet resignation. 

It was, quite simply, not good. But Sherlock had no earthly idea what he was going to do about it: whether he would stay on in Rome, and if so, where he would stay; if not, where he would go next. Either way, preparing to pack seemed inevitable.

Shortly before 11, he took Mycroft’s letter from the drawer where he had relegated it the week before. He opened the envelope and took a few seconds to identify the fine writing paper, the lush ink, even the pen his insufferable brother had written with. Status: urgent; eyes only. The uncharacteristic medium for such a message made him curious, but he didn’t want to give Mycroft the moral advantage of reading with eager haste. The cover sheet was succinct yet predictably pompous:

It has not escaped my attention, little brother, that you have taken every step to be incommunicado by electronic means. I have respected your wishes, despite knowing your location (as you are surely aware) and overseeing your well-being by the usual methods. John Watson, however, has asked me to relay a letter to you. It is my hope, since I am taking the trouble to courier it over to your unlikely perch outside the walls of the Vatican, that you will suspend your self-imposed isolation long enough to read this very old-fashioned communication.

M

Of course, he even knows about the rooftop room, the nosy, pompous— 

He set aside Mycroft’s stuffy (condescending, sneering—) page with a hand he was disconcerted to see was unsteady. John seems to have needed him, and he wasn’t there. Dear God, let it not be Watson

 

Dear Sherlock,

I’ve been staring at this blank page for a long time now. Don’t know where to go next. You might not read this for weeks and maybe it isn’t fair to try to make you read it at all. You’ve moved on. 

Sherlock’s gut twisted. Of course he’d moved on. John had insisted he do so. Had thrown him to Irene like a table scrap. Dismissed him as incomplete. How could he not move on?

I don’t know how many times I moved on from you—yet I never did. It never worked. From the first day I saw you I was tugged into your orbit: just like you said, it was easy, inevitable. Devoted. You didn’t want me, though, not then. You were right, of course, that I was sounding you out that first evening at Angelo’s. But you made me backtrack and I never dared to bring it up again. I thought you didn’t want it. And you didn’t.

He would never presume. He was always trying to respect my terms. “Your way, Sherlock. Always. Your way.” If only he’d said, “You can’t blame a bloke for trying.”

That’s fair, isn’t it? You didn’t want it, before you left; you didn’t want it while you were away; you didn’t want it when you came back. If you did, I certainly couldn’t tell. It’s when you saw me with someone else, someone serious, that you finally started to want me, or so you wrote.   

Of course I did, always. I wanted it when we lived together, I just didn’t know I did. I only left in the first place because I wanted him so badly that he wasn’t ever going to be safe with me. And the only reason I drew a mustache on my upper lip that horrible night was that he had a ring on the table for her and I panicked.

In your letter you wrote that you didn’t know you were hoping I would stay until Christmas, when I left Baker Street to go back to Mary. Just a few hours afterwards you shot Magnussen in the head. Is that why you shot him? I wonder now if it was. What you said that night always sounded so stilted to me. “Give Mary my love. Tell her she’s safe now.” Rehearsed. God knows I’ve heard your voice saying those words in my head a thousand times, no matter what the doctored recordings say now. Did you commit murder (suicide?) because I went back to her?

Christmas Day. Christmas Day. I thought he’d gone back to her because of the baby. He did it because I gave him no sign. I understood nothing. I thought there were files, files I could extract. I didn’t kill Magnussen because John went back to her; I killed him so that John could have Mary, his life with Mary.  

Is that how love works, Sherlock? You’ve done everything for me, for my well-being, my family. You sacrificed so much. And now you’ve gone away again from the life you love, the people who care about you, the Work, London, even your violin. You loved me to the edge of your own destruction, while you thought I didn’t want you. 

He wanted me. He did. I should have known. He was so strange on the tarmac, so rigid, so cold. I should have known.

That day in 221B, after the Culverton Smith case. You were so subdued. I was sick with guilt about what I’d done to Mary, and what I’d done to you. But I only talked about failing Mary; didn’t even mention all the ways I’d failed you. (Ignoring you after the wedding. Leaving you after she shot you. Pushing you away after she was killed. Beating you to a pulp in the morgue. Trying to walk away from you afterwards, because I was so ashamed.) There you were, sitting in your chair, so frail, stitches in your face from my fists, broken ribs that I kicked, and I didn’t even apologise, not that day. Instead I cried for my own sorry arse and my own losses, things I lost that were never even real.

So he did regret it. Regret all those things. He knew. I thought he was too caught up in grief for Mary to remember, but he listed them, every one. Almost.   

I’ve always talked to you in code, Sherlock. It was code when I said, “So you’re unattached, like me.” It was code when I said, “You’re my best friend.” It was code when I said that romantic entanglement would complete you as a human being. What I meant was, entanglement with me. With me. And that wasn’t even true: you’ve always been a complete human being. (The best and the wisest man I’ve ever known, even when you’re a complete dick and a madman.)

As for why I kept jabbing you about Irene Adler: I think I wanted you to contradict me, tell me you were never going to be with Irene, that she’d never be the person who inspired you to be your best self. I wanted you to say “It’s you, John.” Because I was too cowardly to tell you: “Sherlock, it’s you.”

Of course John would never be direct. He would think I could figure out any code. But I couldn’t, and I left. It’s me, he says. He counted on me to understand, and instead I left him.  

I’ve been much too afraid all my life about the things that really counted. You, for instance. Everyone could see you were the most important thing in the world to me. You were my universe, but I wasn’t yours, and that terrified me.

John was afraid of how much he loved me. Afraid I didn’t love him in equal measure. Who’s the moron now? If I’d shown him. (No, told him. God knows I showed him.) If I’d stayed, John would have been my first real lover, not—

Rosie terrifies me too: always, but especially after Mary died. (Remember: she died because of choices she made. It was never your fault.) Rosie depends on me completely, and I’m afraid of that too. I’m afraid I’ll fail her; I know I’ll fail her. All parents do, and my track record in particular isn’t good. I can only try, and now I have to, because I’m all she’s got. If I kept you at arm’s length even after we reconciled, I’m sorry. I’ve been afraid of the drugs, afraid of what they would mean for Rosie. That snake Wiggins was hanging around Baker Street—what else could that mean, but drugs and a relapse? And just when it seemed you were out of it, healthy and working again, and I’d decided I had to try, because you would try for my sake and hers—you were gone.

He thought I was using. He thought Wiggins was there to supply me. If he’d only asked. Mycroft, if not me. He thought he couldn’t trust me with Watson.

I know I’m stalling. There’s a lot I need to say. If you come back to London, I’ll go into it in person, if you let me. But you won’t even know to get in touch with me if I don’t say something to you now. So here goes.

I love you. After all these years of lying to you and everyone else: I love you. I want you. I want to be with you, and I want you to be with us. You love Rosie already, and she’s the best part of me. I’ve never wanted anything so much, and if you come back to me, to us, I’ll show you that you’re my universe, you and Rosie. If you decide not to stay in Rome, please: give me a chance. I promise you won’t be sorry.

Those first eighteen months in 221B—they were magic, and we won’t get them back. We grew up, Sherlock. But if it hasn’t worked out with you and Zanardi, perhaps we can be together now. You’re all I want. Let me show you. 

John loves me. He wrote it. Twice. He’s making me promises. Realistic promises. We’re not what we were then, and he has a daughter. Whom he will risk sharing with me.

If you’ve decided your new relationship is for the long term, then I’ll do my damnedest to be happy for you both. You deserve someone who’ll treat you like the brilliant, miraculous man you are. If Zanardi does that, and he can make you happy, then I wish you—well, you know what I wish for you. Obviously .

Be well. Eat, please. Sleep. Know that you’re on my mind every minute of every day. And of course I kiss Rosie for you, every day.

Yours,

John

P.S. I don’t know how to get this to you so I’m going to turn to the British government. Please don’t hold it against me; I’ve got no other options.

  

* * *

 

This was beyond anything he’d dared to hope. As the letter unfolded he’d grasped and responded to details here and there, but the overall picture left him disbelieving and powerless. He had to read it again to be sure he wasn’t fabricating a scenario out of his fondest wishes.

At some level beneath conscious thought he was grateful that Roberto was in the other room, withdrawn and morose; the discussion that was looming was going to be painful in any case, but for Roberto to see the incredulous elation that must be pouring off him would exacerbate the rejection. On his second reading the letter still said the same thing, and indeed on the third. He’d drained it for information and implication, for tone and emotion, and now there was nothing for it but to ring Mycroft and ask when he’d last seen John.

He frowned. Mycroft would be smarmy, superior, force him to admit that he’d had the letter for a whole week without reading it. He would gloat. Still, the need to know was racing through him like a drug withdrawal; he flung out of the kitchen to drag the suitcase out of Roberto’s wardrobe. He dug out his mobile, turned it on and tapped in the passcode. 167 texts. (How was that even possible?)

Almost at once he heard the distinctive ping he had set for John’s texts. His stomach lurched and he felt faintly dizzy, off-balance. So much for “out of sight, out of mind;” replacing John hadn’t worked, at all. Sherlock had known that for weeks, but the letter—was from a week ago. Faced with real-time contact from John he felt his heart begin to thud. He opened the text with a hand now far more unsteady than when he'd opened the letter.

— I miss you.

And Sherlock, who believed in nothing he could not see and test and prove, felt his entire brain light up with thank god thank god thank god thank god thank god but he could form no other coherent thought. Ping.

— I miss you.

One side of his mouth dipped down in the small smile that was reserved for John. John had not written him off, given up, in these days of silence. He was still waiting. Though perhaps the second text had been an accidental re-send, a finger slip or a technical hitch in the mobile service. John wasn’t being emotional —Ping.

— And, let me add, I miss you.

Though the kitchen was warm his hands were icy, his cheeks were burning, his legs were boneless. He sat down heavily, as gracelessly as he had ever collapsed, and was staring at the phone when Roberto came in. Sherlock looked up at him silently for a few seconds, then cleared his throat.

Roberto.”

 

 

Chapter Text

2 March 2016

Rome

 

You’ve left, and I want you back. You’ve left, and I want to write you. In our language, yours and mine, the one we made together. I want to write whatever will make you come back. But I don't know what that could be. R

 

I knew I couldn’t have you, not really. As much as I wanted you, you weren’t—I wasn’t what you wanted. R

 

You never promised, you just said you’d try. I knew you were trying. I thought I could win you, but even then I knew you were trying. R

 

My skin feels raw and stings everywhere. I can’t—how does anyone— R

 

Will you write me? From London? At least to say you’ve got back. R

 


Never mind. I’m not going to do this. It will burden you and shame me. I couldn’t make you want me the way I’ve always wanted you, and now I have to find the strength to let you go. R

 

 

Chapter Text

Feb 29–2 March 2016

Rome, Bologna

 

February 29, 11:14 p.m.

— I miss you. JW

February 29, 11:016 p.m.

— I miss you. JW

February 29, 11:17 p.m.

— And, let me add, I miss you. JW

 

March 1, 11:17 p.m.

— Who are you and what are you doing with John Watson’s phone? SH

— Ha ha. JW

— Hello, John. SH

— Hello, Sherlock. Where are you? JW

— Still in Italy. Just back from holiday. SH

— Holiday? You? JW

— I won’t be trying THAT again. SH

— Too bad I missed it, then. JW

— You could come. You’d make it less dull. SH

— And do what? JW

— Take you and your man to lunch? JW

— Or try not to hear as you shag each other into the mattress? JW

— Indelicate, John. SH

— And, may I add, not applicable. SH

— Which part? Lunch, man, or shag? JW

— All of it. SH

— You’ve lots of news. JW

— Come and catch up. SH

— Why would I do that? JW

— Italy’s extraordinary. Scenery, antiquities, food. You’d love it. SH

— You hate all those things. JW

— Indifference is not hatred, John. Be precise. SH

— Point remains. Why are you there? JW

— I told you. I came with Roberto. SH

— Who’s now “not applicable”? JW

— I do hate to repeat myself. SH

— So you’ve sacked him? JW

— Yes. SH

— Why? JW

— Ask me when, instead. SH

— Okay, when? JW

— Ten minutes after I saw your texts. SH

 

March 2, 2015 8:26 p.m.

— You stopped answering. SH

— Was it cause and effect? or coincidence? JW

— That you stopped answering? You tell me. SH

— That you sacked him 10 minutes after getting my texts. JW

— Coincidence? Please, John. SH

— “The universe is rarely so lazy.” I know. JW

— You read my letter. JW

— Obviously. SH

— Well? JW

— And you read mine. SH

— Obviously. JW

— Well? SH

— Well, what? JW

— What next? Will you come? SH

— Will you make it worth my while? JW

— Depends. What would it take? SH

— What are you offering? JW

— Besides art, food, and landscape? SH

— Right. Got those at home. JW

— Oh, please. I’ve seen England. SH

— I’ve not seen Italy. JW

— Trust me. SH

— Trust you. JW

— You used to. SH

— You used to give me reason to. JW

— I really didn’t. Keeping you in the dark. Experimenting on you. Manipulating you. Taking you for granted. SH

— You don’t have to sound so proud of it. JW

— Believe me, I’m not. SH

— Anyway, it wasn’t all bad. You always took care of me afterwards. JW

— That was you taking care of me. SH

— Right. I fixed your psychosomatic limp. I gave you a purpose. I gave you a home. Right. JW

— You gave me a friend. Shared my purpose. Made me a home. Believed I wasn’t a freak. SH

— You aren’t. You’re a genius, not a freak. JW

— And you cared about my wellbeing. SH

— Same. JW

— You laughed with me, not at me. SH

— Most of the time, anyway. SH

— We laugh at the same things, true. JW

— You taught me to care. SH

— About? JW

— People. Their suffering. Doing the right thing. You taught me I could care about it even if I couldn’t fix it. SH

— To quote my best friend: Sentiment. JW

— To quote mine: Sentiment is not the same as sentimentality. SH

— I miss you. JW

— So you said. SH

— Repetition dull? JW

— No. You were saying you missed me? SH

— Enormously. Painfully. JW

— Then why aren’t you here? SH

— Maybe I am. JW

— ? SH

— I might or might not be on a train to Bologna right now. JW

— Don’t play with me. SH

— I’m not the practical joker. JW

— When would such a train arrive? SH

— 21:19. JW

— Btollosmt. SH

— I’m no expert but that doesn’t look like Italian. JW

— Hands shaking. SH

— Mine too. JW

— No, your tremor’s been gone for years, or didn’t you notice? SH

— Git. I noticed. JW

— Tell me this isn’t a joke. SH

— No joke. JW

— Less than half an hour. SH

— I’ll be looking for you on the platform. JW

— I may or may not get there in time. SH

— So jump the barriers. I know you can. JW

— When I see you SH

— What? When you see me what? JW

— I’m going to kiss you. SH

— Just writing that took all the courage I have. SH

— I’ve been the coward. We can talk about that after. JW

— After what? SH

— After we’ve kissed for a few days. JW

— Now my mouth is watering, too. SH

— Makes two of us. JW

— Anything else? SH

— ? JW

— Anything on your agenda besides kissing? SH

— Plenty. But we’ll start by getting the kissing right. JW

— BLOODY TRAFFIC JAM SH

— Calm down. I’ll wait. JW

— Can’t. I need to see you. SH

— Are we going to get it right, finally? JW

— Cautiously optimistic. SH

— Well, don’t screw it up. JW

— How? SH

— Don’t drug me, don’t lie to me, and don’t leave me. And when you see me, kiss me. JW

— And you: don’t love somebody else more than me. SH

— WHAT THE FUCK? JW 

— WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK, SHERLOCK? WHO RAN OFF TO FUCKING ITALY WITH GEORGE FUCKING CLOONEY? JW

— You ran off to suburbia with ... oh, never mind. SH

— Ancient history, and I can’t change it. JW

— So is GFC. Ever since you texted me. SH

— They’ve just announced Bologna. You’ve got 4 minutes. JW

— I’ve been here for 10. Long enough to catch my breath after a 1-km sprint. SH

— I’m going to make sure you lose it again. and again. and again. JW

— Please. Please. SH

— That’s right, beg for mercy—TWICE. JW

— I’m not begging for mercy. I’m begging you to take my breath away. SH

— You may never get it back. JW

— So long as I get you back. SH

— You’ll never lose me again. Get used to it. JW

 

* * *

 

2 March 2016 9:24 p.m.

— Where are you? WHERE ARE YOU? SH

— No need to get shouty. JW

— Who’s always telling me to look up? JW

— How did you get up there? SH

— There’s a lift. Get up here. JW

— WHY are you up there? SH

— I need to see you away from the crowd. JW

— Stay where you are. SH

— Not going anywhere. JW

 

 

Chapter Text

2 March 2016

Bologna 

 

Katharina W Sherlock

Reading John’s last texts Sherlock spins around, his coat fanning out behind him, looks up across sixty feet of vertical space and finally sees him. John’s eyes are wide and intent; his white face in the penumbra of the station is unsmiling but eager. A second of hesitation and Sherlock is racing for the escalator, leaping up the high steps to gain five seconds against the clattering mechanism. As the slotted metal steps flatten out he lunges, bulleting into John’s chest and pulling him in hard until John’s arms lift and circle Sherlock’s waist. 

Along the walkway over the tracks and platforms there’s no one to watch them when time stops, when Sherlock surges into John’s space and his stillness. After a moment he pulls back to cup John’s cheeks in his gloved hands, searching that beloved face for every nuance. What he sees makes his heart shift in his chest and his tense mouth crack into a smile. For a moment he can’t speak, watching John and seeing his own elation mirrored there. Then: breathe in. John’s summer scent makes his knees buckle. Breathe John in, nuzzle his temple, ear, hairline. Darker, more intense than the familiar, superficial scent. 

John’s mouth. No words, only a hum, a suppressed groan. His voice: “I was promised kisses.”

— “Idiot.

He stands there motionless, in relief and disbelief, John’s hands on his lower back. His own hands slide from John’s face to his arms to his hips. The Belstaff muffles every sensation but the solid, tangible presence Sherlock now finally holds close. John reaches up to draw Sherlock’s neck down and bring their mouths together. Softly at first, then more firmly, surely, their tongues meeting and gliding.

Sherlock can feel his own heart pounding, his breath coming short, his cold lips warming under John’s. The kiss is intoxicating: they pause and sip gently, then surge together again, entering and being entered.

Eventually he draws back and says simply, “You’re here.”

“I’m here. I’ll never leave. Don’t you, either.”

No more words come now, none but the name Sherlock has been longing to say, has always loved to say, and he’s kissing John’s beautiful mouth again with the hunger of months, years, of hopeless desire. No kiss has ever felt like this. 

He pulls away yet again to stare, still panting at the force of it.

“You’re really here.” That he repeats himself unawares, let alone something so obvious, is embarrassing proof that he’s overwhelmed.

John smiles and repeats, “Never leaving. Thought I’d lost you for good this time.” He looks down, then up again. “That was more like dying than getting shot ever was. Then when you didn’t answer my texts Monday night—”

“I’m sorry, sorry, I’ll tell you about it later, for now just let me look at you. —No, never mind, kiss me again.” Minutes go by and Sherlock can hear the next fast train coming into the station beneath them, a cacophony of whistle and brakes and echoing loudspeaker announcements. Still they stand there suspended over the station, as though being together will not survive coming back to earth, leaving this bubble and going—

“Where?” John asks, between kisses.

“Where what?” says Sherlock, dazed, kissing his way along the side of John’s jawbone, up his cheek to his temple, pausing in his hair.

John huffed, almost amused, almost impatient. “Obvious: where are we going? Where’re you staying here? I want to get you alone, you know. This is all very well, but I really want to be alone with you.”

Sherlock thinks uncertainly of the smallish room on the top floor of the Settimo Cielo, with its skylight and the window overlooking the hidden canal. Is it large enough? Is the bed large enough?

“I have a hotel room ten minutes away. If you don’t like it, we can change.”

John laughs a little: “Did you book yourself in at the Hotel Opulentia? It’s fine if you did—it’s all fine. In a car. Under a bridge. I don’t care. Just get me somewhere I can have you to myself.”

Sherlock feels his cheeks grow hot, but addresses the less suggestive question. “No, I chose a hotel thinking of you, though I didn’t dare hope you’d come. Or come so soon.” He tries to recover his nonchalance. “You’ll see. It’s to your scale.”

John laughs again and punches his upper arm, not ungently. “Tell me later about my scale.” Putting his arm around Sherlock’s waist, he picks up a small case in his right hand and steers Sherlock toward the escalator. They hold each other as they descend onto the platform and follow the tunnel to the station exit.

John’s only been in Italy long enough to get from the Rome airport to Bologna, and he’s staring intently, still holding Sherlock around the waist. They cross a busy boulevard to a square, John looking up at the white globes lighting the city park which Sherlock had crossed on the run, dodging its population of shady characters. Now he guides John into a quiet street that takes them toward the city centre, John still silently observing the elegant forms of the arcaded sidewalks and massive street doors.

Sherlock begins to wonder. Is John thinking of his stay in this absurdly beautiful country? Of his attempted abandonment of John? Is Roberto here after all, walking beside them? In John’s place that’s what he’d be thinking of. His spirits flag as the silence draws out. He adds a new worry, wondering whether John is self-conscious about being attached to him so visibly. He’d wanted to see Sherlock away from the crowd, after all.

But John’s looking at him now, saying, “Sherlock, this is bloody fantastic,” pointing with his chin at the nocturnal city around them. There are people out walking, all staring, but more at their clothing than their embrace. Sherlock ignores the attention: they’re welcome to gape at the man beside him, he understands the temptation, is proud to be the one holding him. He’d be staring himself, but for now he revels in the warmth of John’s tight arm around him, publicly possessive.

He steers John left to cross the main avenue, chic and far too crowded to walk together, then quickly right into a calmer, smaller street and left again to their hotel. It’s small and comfortable, by no means luxurious, and the cheerful night clerk welcomes them with the warm singsong burr of the local accent. John hands over his documents, and the woman’s matter-of-factness reminds Sherlock that of all people, hotel staff are the least likely to be shocked by two men who patently can’t keep their hands off each other.

Sherlock’s small touches are the intimate but not sexual gestures of a new lover, the spontaneous caresses he’d come to doubt he’d ever want to make. Now he can’t stop himself. The silver-blond of John’s hair, his sharp profile, the marveling blue of his eyes when he looks up—everything makes Sherlock want to touch him. They haven’t done more than snog in a railway station and walk a kilometre joined at the hip, but Sherlock is almost sure they finally understand one another.

They take the tiny elevator to the top floor, and Sherlock wrestles open its awkward door to unlock the room opposite and pull John in.

“I see what you mean about scale.” There’s only a couple of metres of floor all around than the bed, yet somehow they’d managed to squeeze in a writing desk, armoire, and television.

Sherlock looks up at the high ceiling with its skylight that lifts the room out of its modest footprint, and the wide window on one wall that overlooks the wholly unexpected canal. They hadn’t passed any water on the way over, but below them a wide canal with foaming water makes a soothing hush through the cracked window.

As John opens his case, Sherlock steps into the bathroom to wash his hands, to compose himself. Then he steps behind John and circles him in his arms again. He can’t resist it, he’s craved this for longer than he can remember. John looks up and back with a fond smile and clasps his forearms in small, perfect hands. They look out at the water another moment before John turns around and Sherlock feels the rake and scrape of electricity low in his belly, and knows from John’s growl and throb that he feels the same. Enough. Enough, now. They’re here together, and ready. They will have each other. And then they will talk.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

2 March 2016

Bologna  

 

For now, though, there was no talking. Sounds, some words, but no sentences, certainly no sequences of thoughts. Sensation, and emotion, and a driving desire that left no room at all for coherence. John reached for Sherlock’s lapels and slid the jacket off his shoulders at the same time as Sherlock pulled John’s belt through the buckle and then opened his trousers. Their movements were too urgent to be anything like seamless, and after a moment of getting in each other’s way, the jacket somehow kicked under the bed and the belt halfway through the loops, each turned to pulling off his own clothing, two shirts disappearing almost simultaneously.

A pause followed as they stared at each other for the first time in this way. They’d seen each other unclothed any number of times for reasons utilitarian or medical or domestic, and if they’d looked, it had been covert. Now there was no need for to be surreptitious: John stared at Sherlock as hungrily and curiously as Sherlock stared at John, then they reached for each other again and began to touch, exploring and caressing, gasping and shivering.

John could see that Sherlock’s ribs and hipbones were infinitesimally less prominent and thought, Point to Zanardi, the bastard got him to eat. He evicted that unwelcome distraction by taking Sherlock in his arms and kissing tenderly across chest, nipples, and throat, murmuring words he couldn’t swear made any sense.

Sherlock began by looking his fill at John’s miraculous scar, the cataclysm that had brought him, unmoored and adrift, to London and to him. After all these years he could kiss John’s scar with lips and tongue, sending up silent thanks for it, marveling at its patternless perfection in John’s perfect skin. Without that fractured beauty he would never have found John. When he could focus he realised that John was sighing, little vocalizations he’d never thought he’d provoke or hear, of desire and disbelief and exhilaration.

They realised at the same time that they were still partly dressed, and Sherlock stepped away and opened his own flies. Black pants and trousers came away at the same time, and he bent to pull off his socks, taking the opportunity to look up and see John from a different angle. Saliva flooded his mouth as he saw John’s cock spring free of his own pants, heavy and full and thick as he had imagined it from years of secretive observation and speculation. (A disastrous “He always walks like that” had once burst out of him in a display of drug-induced disinhibition, and Mary, he knew, had not missed it.)

His sharp intake of breath made John’s head snap up, and just like that, each was staring wide-eyed at the visible evidence of the other’s desire with no pretense of looking at anything or anyone else. Sherlock straightened slowly, John took a step toward him and reached for him, murmuring, “beautiful, so beautiful, I’ve...” but unable to finish the thought. “John, you...” was as far as Sherlock got before he simply reached out and grasped.

John’s forceful exhale and Sherlock’s sharp gasp came at the same time as John pulled Sherlock flush to himself and they just stood there a moment, feeling endless inches of warm skin and muscle and bone and blissful erection , unwilling to break the full-body contact long enough to move to the bed. It was a meeting and an exploration, a culmination and a beginning, and as urgently as they wanted each other, they didn’t want to miss a moment as everything that had kept them apart fell away and they could know each other. Absence, misunderstanding, syncopation, and what John privately called sheer bloody cowardice were melting away, as the separate countries bounded by their skin were shifting into what they were always meant to be.

Sherlock’s hand was still between them, holding John’s cock, almost motionless as his fingers trailed tiny but galvanising shocks that kept John breathless. He put his hand on Sherlock’s hipbone and then lifted his face, holding Sherlock’s gaze as he shifted his own hand to Sherlock’s erection, watching as Sherlock’s eyelids squeezed shut and his head fell back.

The immensity of so much touch, craved for so long, was shattering. John stepped back a few inches, afraid he was going to embarrass himself spectacularly before they ever got any further. Sherlock’s growl was unmistakably disapproving; he moved forward to bring them flush against each other again, and somehow managed to wet his hand and seize both of their cocks between them, tightly joined as they were.

The sensation electrified John, who found his hands running up and down Sherlock’s back and arse, grasping and clutching as he kissed Sherlock’s mouth, tasting his breath, licking and sucking his lips and tongue. This had never felt so good, never with anyone, and Sherlock was groaning “Perfect, you’re perfect,” as he began to stroke their cocks together hard but slow.

John’s knees buckled and an electric heat started in his lower abdomen, ran along the backs of his thighs, his balls, as his hips bucked into Sherlock’s and his tongue thrust and retreated. Neither could wait any longer, Sherlock’s strokes grew faster and then frantic, their cries grew louder though still muffled by frenzied kisses. It was fast and rough, a desperate claiming with no technique and certainly no self-control, and embarrassingly fast Sherlock was coming in his own hand, over John’s cock, with a raucous shout. The intensity of it and the beauty of Sherlock’s half-closed eyes pulled John’s own orgasm from him.

They were still standing, if tremulous and unsteady, when they came to themselves a minute or two later, clutching each other and murmuring, “you beauty,” “oh, God,” “that was,” “I, I,” and other such articulate and complex phrases that had them both grinning. The same awe, infatuation, and humour that each had felt from their first meeting kept them there for long minutes before John murmured a wordless “hmmm?” and propelled them to the bed, inches away. They fell on it, graceless, grateful, hands and arms still locked, Sherlock on his left side, John on his right, staring at each other.

After a moment Sherlock said, “John.” And John knew what it meant, as he always did know: “what was that,” “I knew it would be like that,” “I never knew it could be like that,” “I’ve wanted you for so long,” “thank God you’re here,” “I can’t be without you again,” “I’m going to make sure you’re happy,” “don’t ever go.” He remembered with a chill when Sherlock had stopped saying his name, how broken they were and out of step, how near they’d come to losing each other once and for all.

“Sherlock,” he said now, and Sherlock knew what it meant, as he always had known: “we’re this now,” “we were always supposed to be,” “I’m going to make you happy too,” “thank God you’re here, with me,” “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”

John lifted his left hand and stroked Sherlock’s hair, as he’d always wanted to do, and Sherlock lay there and hummed and smiled, the way he’d always wanted to do. It was simple, and perfect; the two of them becoming them. The release of sexual tension, powerful though that had been, was far exceeded by the release of emotional tension. Neither meaning to or fighting it, within minutes both had drifted into sleep, John’s left hand in Sherlock’s hair, his right hand in Sherlock’s, breathing each other in.

Chapter Text

March 2–3 2016

Bologna 

 

I came to consciousness thinking, “Sherlock and I made love.” That was bizarre, if only because it’s not how I’d normally put it; I might use the phrase out loud if I were trying for a romantic effect, but what comes to mind spontaneously would be “shagged” or “had sex.” But after that astonishing episode—clumsy and over too fast, but incredibly hot and incredibly moving—all I could think of is that we’d made love. And I wasn’t ever going back: making love to Sherlock—no, with Sherlock—was the single best thing I’d ever experienced with anyone.

He was hunched up against me with his head nearly under my arm. Past the cloud of his dark hair I could see, if I moved carefully, his shoulder and scapula. I was right: they were indeed slightly more rounded than the last time I had seen him. In light of his eternal war on food,* I had to admit that the month in Rome had fed him up. (Again, the jagged knife-edge of jealousy.) As for his war on sleep, that remained to be seen; but the current position was encouraging.

Still, just a minute or so later I felt and heard him shifting, then he pulled back and in the dim light I saw his beautiful mouth curved in a smile. That faded, though, and he looked more sombre, more like his usual expression. He ran his hand up over my arm and shoulder, resting it on the back of my neck.

“John. You have questions. So do I. —Who goes first?” Christ, how I’d missed that voice.

I bent down and kissed his collarbones—really must do this regularly, that lovely blend of soft skin and hard bone—and then kissed my way up to his Adam’s apple. Oh, that too needs regular attention. When I think how many times I’ve been stunned just by the sight of his throat. 

But his question, about questions... he was right. I had a thousand.

“I do.” Firmly. “I feel very selfish at the minute: there are things I’ve been aching to know.” As he nodded I burrowed down into his neck, looking for a position where I could hear but not see him, in case his expression revealed something I wasn’t aching to know.

He craned his neck over me and kissed the top of my head. I could get used to that, I thought. He can do that standing in the kitchen, in the shower, over my chair, anytime and anywhere. (Tell him later.) 

“Of course. Not an infinite number, though. Twenty is the canonical number. And there are some I won’t answer.”

I thought about that. “Fair enough. But I get twenty questions answered. Questions you don’t answer don’t count.” 

He gave his low chuckle at this negotiation and nodded, kissing my hair again. Funny, I never expected him to be this tender.

I decided to start with an easy one. “Did he take you to work and to crime scenes?”

He wasn’t expecting that one. Probably seemed a bit random. But I wanted, no, needed, to know what his life here had been like for the past month.

“Well, he’s not Lestrade, he’s a different kind of policeman. He’s in the Guardia di Finanza, not the ordinary police, certainly not homicide. His area is organised crime, international crimes like smuggling and human trafficking. He was only involved in the London murder because the victim was one of the targets in a large-scale sting operation. So no, I didn’t accompany him to crime scenes, and I didn’t shadow him at work. I saw him afterwards.

“I spent the days walking around the city or reading and thinking in his flat. Then last week he took some leave time, and we traveled around the south of Lazio a bit, as far as Cassino.”

I wondered whether I should worry that he was so meticulous in his answers. If only lies have detail, as he used to say, was he being deliberately evasive? Distracting me from something? I set that thought aside; we’d had enough distrust. And I’d come to Italy determined to keep a tight leash on the jealousy that’d been torturing me all month.

I stroked along his left arm in a way that I hoped was reassuring and pleasant, and then asked another innocuous question: “What did you like best about living in Rome?”

I felt his smile against my hair, and he said, “The roof of the flat, absolutely. The individual rooms are quite small, but there’s a rooftop terrace full of plants, with a glassed-in guest room. Even in February it was comfortably warm during the day, and I spent a lot of time looking out over the city. The walls of a convent were a stone’s throw away. Dawn and the sunsets were lovely. Quanto sei bella Roma, prima sera, and all that.” And as if he too were trying for reassuring, he lifted his left hand and cupped my head, cradling it to his shoulder and stroking my hair. It was easy to lose my train of thought. 

“What’s that mean? That’s not one of my twenty, by the way.” 

How beautiful you are, Rome, in the early evening. An old song. Anna Magnani. Languid melody, very wandering.” Sherlock’s got a beautiful singing voice. If I asked, he’d let me hear it. Another time.

“Here’s a real question: what language did you speak with him?” For some reason this was important to me. Zanardi spoke fluent and native English, of course, but I needed to know whether I should imagine Sherlock speaking it with him.

He hesitated just a beat before he said, “Italian, invariably. From the moment we left London. Even when he wanted to default to English, as the language we met in, the language he was brought up speaking at home. I wanted a different tongue from ours, yours and mine.” His hand moved slowly up and down my arm as he said it, with what I thought was trepidation in his tone.

I jerked as I felt a sickening rush of anger. It was a different tongue from mine, all right. Goddamn it, it hadn’t been my tongue in Sherlock’s mouth for the past month. But I went ahead and bit that tongue: it wasn’t his fault that it had all happened, not really. And I wasn’t going to ruin our first night together, nor any other for that matter. So I tried to relax my tense muscles and frame a question based on the answers I had so far.

“So you were there, without your work, or his; without your surroundings; without your violin; without your language, even. How was that meant to tell you—either of you—whether you could be partners in the long term, if you were cut off from everything that makes you who you are?”

There was a sting in the question, but I didn’t mean it unkindly. I just thought this was one of those emotional valences that Sherlock, being Sherlock, hadn’t thought through.

I was wrong. His answer made my chest tight. “But I was sick of who I really am, John. Sick to death of myself. The person who knew me best in the world was so sick of me he left me for my murderer and pushed me at the Woman. Clear signs that who I am was unlovable, that I had to change. I tried to change. It seems I can’t.” He sighed, shivering a little and pulling the blanket up over our shoulders.

Well, we didn’t talk for some time after that. I couldn’t find words strong enough to tell him how sorry I was to have made him think that, how wrong he was that I wished him to be different. I had tears on my face that he kissed away. He didn’t; I suspected the hurt went too deep for an easy release. It seemed a good idea to spend the rest of my days making it clear to him that I love, without reservation, who he really is.

When I’d gotten a grip I asked, “How did it go with his friends and family?”

He shifted, I think a little uneasily. “I didn’t meet them, not really. His friends—he seems to work most of the time, which he said accounted for the divorce. His children are adolescents, and he was worried about traumatising them, so soon after.”

In the dimness I could just make out his smile. “But I met his mother out in the wilds of Lazio. I think he’d been waiting to see how things went with her before springing me on his family, or putting the pressure of them on us. His mother was ferocious, and she wasn’t wrong to be. She could see that I wasn’t making him happy, that I wasn’t engaged enough, and she told me so. It was a scalding encounter. But she wasn’t wrong to make me feel it.”

After the wave of relief that he hadn’t been “engaged enough,” I felt one of sadness that I hadn’t any family to show Sherlock off to, or to make Sherlock behave for, besides Harry. And their relationship was one of casual dislike, spiking into antipathy whenever Harry remembered his faked death or Sherlock thought of her drinking.

Trust Zanardi to be perfect even in the family line, I thought.  They were probably all tall, dark, and handsome, damn them. Even the children. Too fragile to be told their father had jumped the fence. Sod the lot of them. 

And yet again I had to rein in my possessive hostility. I was determined not to inflict it on Sherlock: we had too many things to settle, and I didn’t want to spoil one minute of this, or say something I’d regret. Get over rough ground as light as you can, Watson.

“Did you like it that he’s taller than you?” Sherlock probably wondered at the abrupt change of topic and tone—there was laughter in my voice.

God no, I hated it, it’s why I left.” That made me laugh out loud: something we’d always had together, from that very first evening at 221B.

“Did he make you laugh?” My voice had tightened and Sherlock’s hold on me tightened as well. I’m sure he could tell I found the thought of them laughing together far more threatening than Zanardi’s ridiculous height, or his posh family, or his Roman rooftop love nest.

“What, did he make me laugh on purpose? Not always. He’s a mix of the English and the Italian, and sometimes that made me laugh, but it was rather one-sided. He’s more often funny accidentally than on purpose, perhaps. Paradoxically it brought you to mind: you’ve never asked me ‘what do you mean?’ or ‘what’s so funny?’ And for the record, though you should not let it go to your head, no one can make me laugh the way you can.”

This was frankly a relief. The companionship we’ve always had is precious to me. I hated being jealous but it was inevitable, and I probed it like a sore tooth, looking for areas in which Zanardi was more compatible with Sherlock than I was. “Is there something he does that you wish I did? Something about him you love more than the way I am?”

Before the last word was out Sherlock was kissing my mouth, answering the question without speaking, for a very long time. His kiss was both tender and firm, and his tongue caressed mine with a meaning I couldn’t mistake. For a long time this chased all thought from my mind: for so long I’d thought we’d never have this, ever. So we kissed, held each other, kissed again.

But I really did want to know, so I pulled back and said, “Well?” 

“There’s nothing about you I wish were different, John. You’re perfect for me just as you are. For so long I was convinced that I’d never have the chance to love you, to tell you I loved you. To hold you and touch you, here” (and here his large hand brushed my waist and slid around to the small of my back) “and kiss you, like this” (and here he kissed, of all places, the edges of both my eyelids).

“But you fell in love with Zanardi.” This was the hardest sequence of words I’d ever said aloud, and it wouldn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to notice that, given the hoarse timbre of my voice.

His own voice was equally unsteady. “I didn’t fall in love with him. I was ... aroused by the idea of someone falling in love with me. That got me only so far, no further. Something was pushing me away from it. From him. Because I was already... taken. I always have been.”

This was both a relief to hear, and salt in the wound. “I just wish to hell I’d told you. I’ll never stop regretting that.”

“So should I have done. I didn’t dare.” He sounded more himself now that we’d got over this hurdle.

Trying to comfort him I said, “You had more reason. I announced a dozen times that you didn’t have a hope in hell. And I was lying, every time.”

“Only a dozen?” He gave a small smile. “You underestimate yourself.” 

Groan. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. You must wish I was different in that way, at least.”

“Not even in that way. I’ll never understand it, but you seem to have been made for me. It’s you who must wish me different, not the other way round.”

It seemed I’d never get to the end of Sherlock’s extravagant forgiveness. But I still had to push at this, like a wound it felt bizarrely good to press.

“Still, you tried to love someone different. I understand why, and I’m sorry I drove you to it. But—well, when did you realise you weren’t going to be able to love him?” I felt Sherlock’s heartbeat speed up under my ear, and my own heart sank. He must be emotionally attached, then. Certainly he was silent for a long time. When he spoke, his voice seemed to have dropped an octave.

“Very early on, but I wouldn’t admit it. I thought it was just nerves, the process of transition. I woke up in Rome the first day and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ But the first night in Rome, the first time we—it was certainly involving, and gratifying, but it wasn’t—it didn’t take long before I knew it was going to be a very long month.

“Yet I was committed to trying, determined to re-hardwire my brain, and my heart. We found a rhythm, a modus vivendi, and we were—good together. But by the end of the second week I knew for certain, unequivocally and unalterably, that the experiment was not going to succeed.” As he talked Sherlock kept his hands drifting all over my body, over my face, my chest (that’s when I realised he was doing some heart rate checking of his own).

I might not have dared to bring up the sex, but he’d touched on it himself, and I decided I could only try. After all, he hadn’t refused to answer any of my questions yet.

“What was it like, making love with him?” This was the heart of it, after all. I’d lost—no, thrown away—my chance to be Sherlock’s first serious lover, the one who introduced him to the absolute bloody miracle of physical love. No matter what happened between us now, and going by what had already happened it was going to be frankly spectacular, I’d never stop regretting that. 

When I asked that question, he stilled. Completely. His heart didn’t, though. It raced under my cheek and I felt my face getting hot and red. His voice came out a little reserved. “I don’t want to talk about that. Truly. It was sex, John. Vigorous. Instructive. But private. And ultimately, irrelevant to you and me. And if you would accept some friendly advice—I’ve had a great deal of practice in this area—don’t think on it. That way madness lies. It happened. It ended. We’re together now.”

Now my own heart was beating slow and sad. If he’d talked about it, I’d have felt as though it were less important. That he did something so uncharacteristic as to actually respect someone else’s privacy, or his own privacy with someone else, made it look horribly like he was more attached to Zanardi than I had started to let myself hope. He warned me off kindly, and I had to remember that despite being impossibly, even comically, invasive himself, he had never failed to respect the privacy of my sex life. I backed off.

“Did you sleep together?”

Eyeroll.

“No, I mean sleep, in the same bed.”

Sherlock shifted uncomfortably—from shame? Or just embarrassment at talking with me about this intimacy, even nonsexual? “I tried. I’m not—in the habit, you know, of sharing a bed with anyone, for any length of time. I couldn’t always manage to stay. Afterward.”

Before I could even wonder whether he might be the same with me, he added almost curtly, “I don’t want to talk about this. About any of it. Anything I say, you might apply to yourself. To you and me. And it wouldn’t be the same. I’d rather... start fresh. It’s completely different with you.”

That was remarkably insightful of him, but then, he is a clever man. I wasn’t quite ready to be as pragmatic as he was, though. There were still things I had to know. “So no asking about lovemaking between you, then. How about this: When you were with him, did you ever think of me?”

His hands resumed their steady skimming. “Not lovemaking, John. I just said. Sex. And no, when I was with him I didn’t think about you. I did try my best never to think about you, though it didn’t work. It was always afterwards that I thought about you, wondering what it would be like with you, how it would be different, whether I’d feel the same, the same urge to withdraw. I was curious with Roberto. And I was certainly interested in him sexually. No question.”

Dear God, that hurt. It almost cut off my breath. It brought back my first sight of him in the train station, seeing how he moved differently, looking somehow both more centred and more connected, more at home in his own frame. Zanardi had done that, not me. My face burned at the thought of it.

“But I was desperate about you. Still, I was in Rome to try to free myself from you, detach you from my mind, and I wasn’t going to accomplish that by fantasising about you while I was with him.”

“You wanted to delete me.” Not a question. A statement. I stroked his long calf with my foot, trying to make a joke of this painful thought, trying to make this whole hideous moment pass.

“Yes. — No. I wanted to overwrite you. I could never delete you, John. I can delete facts, you know. Events, trivia. Not emotions. Not people, and certainly not you. I wanted to detach the uncontrollable emotions I felt for you, from... you. To redirect them. To care for you no more than you seemed to care for me. I thought the best way to do that was to put someone else in your place. For completeness

“The problem was, I couldn’t manage it at all. All this desire, and affection, and longing, I couldn’t uproot even after everything. Even after you went back to Mary, after she shot me. That was the one cruel thing I ever saw you do, and I’m still bewildered at how much it hurts.” He eased his shoulder out from under my head and turned away on his left side, making an S-curve of his body. I slid up against him and tucked my right hand against his heart. It certainly wasn’t the one cruel thing I’ve done, but still:

“Crueler than a faked suicide and two years of silence?” It came out in a whisper, because I too was still perplexed at how much that hurt.

“That’s never going to go away, is it.” His voice was exhausted and sad.

“No. It isn’t. It’ll always be there, Sherlock.” I deliberately lightened my tone, and kept stroking the place where Mary’s bullet went into him. “Sorry to say, that stain doesn’t seem to be coming out. —We’ll talk about that down the road. Not tonight.”

He sighed but seemed reassured, muttered something grumbly about mixed metaphors, and went on. 

“I found I could live more happily loving you, even without hope of return, than trying to life a life far from where I’d been happy with you. At least in London I’d be able to think of you, remember you, without the distraction of another person tugging at me, and the sensation of mistreating him.”

I wondered what in the world he meant. In what way had he felt he was mistreating Zanardi? It didn’t seem as though I could ask, though. He’d shut me down. I let my hand wander down to his navel, the lovely soft hair trailing down from it. Diverted, at the last centimetre, to his sharp hipbone.

“Sometimes Roberto’s very presence kept me from seeing you clearly—in my head, in my memory. The Mind Palace. I couldn’t feel you near—but I’d come to Italy not to feel you near. How do people bear this kind of turmoil, John? This emotional ... shipwreck. I needed you, and I could only withdraw from Roberto. ‘I’m losing you,’ he said. I wanted to say, ‘I was never yours to lose. I was wrong to let you think I ever might be.’”

Everything Sherlock said, so slowly and so painfully, twisted in my gut. I knew exactly how he felt, exactly what the mix of guilt and desire and regret tasted like, how it tainted a relationship. I’d known the full weight of the remorse that loving Sherlock had made me feel, lying next to Mary, thinking of him. If he’d felt that weight, I didn’t want to know any more right now. Maybe later. I’d keep those questions for later.

“When did you get my letter? I mean, when did you read it?” I had to know whether he’d sacked Zanardi the moment he’d read it, or whether he’d sat for days and days on everything I’d written him, to finish out his month in Rome. Jealousy is indeed the cruelest emotion I’ve ever experienced, and I was so sickeningly sorry for all the times Sherlock had felt it on my account.

As if he heard me thinking—God, how often he did seem to hear exactly what I was thinking—he turned back around to face me, and kissed my forehead, cheek, jawline, until I was warmed again and reached up to take his beautiful face in my hands and kiss his mouth. That upper lip I’d stared at for years. I shifted and turned on the tiny reading lamp, just to see it better.

“I got the delivery of it late on February 22nd. It was in a cover envelope with Mycroft’s writing on it. Delivered with his usual dramatic flourish” (I hid a smile) “by a courier I wasn’t even going to open the door to. Just the words ‘eyes only’ irked me to the point that I buried it under my socks and went back to playing.”

I sighed. It was a relief, a twist of anxiety I’d been trying to ignore. So Sherlock hadn’t even known it was a letter from me when he'd got it and discarded it. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if he’d opened and read it the night it arrived.

“And you read it—?”

“Two nights ago. Minutes before you texted. When I read it I felt alive again. For the first time in months... years, really. I nearly broke an ankle racing to find my phone and turn it on, to see if you’d text. And you did. That’s when I told Roberto that this experiment was over.” The rush of relief in his voice—as though he were reliving that moment again.

I was meanly glad that he kept referring to the past month as an experiment.

“You said you went back to playing after the delivery. You did have a violin, then?”

He hummed an emphatic affirmative. “I’d have gone mad without it. I knew that the first morning. So Roberto sent me to an instrument maker who loaned me a very fine violin, from 1700 or so. I played so much I got decent calluses back, and I played music I didn’t, couldn’t, associate with you.”

He glanced away, apparently uncomfortable again. I took his left hand in mine and rubbed along the fingertips. So that was the source of the delicious roughness I’d felt when he stroked my skin. He must’ve been playing a lot.

I brought his fingertips to my mouth and kissed them one by one. Slowly. And tasted. “Maybe you’ll play it for me too, then. I’d love to hear you play again. New music.”

When I looked up he was giving the crooked smile that’s always made my heart jerk sideways, the one where he knows exactly what I mean. I pulled him close and kissed it right off his face. His rough fingertips running up and down my tricep again raised gooseflesh: waves of delight, both soothing and arousing.

“Just one more, then. What ... things ... would you want to import to 221B?”

“Things?” There it was, in the lamplight: the furrow between his brows. Must kiss that regularly, too.

“Things. Objects, habits, activities, routines, anything. Special additions to your sock index? Sexy new colour of shirt? Any new foods?” I kept it light, but Sherlock saw through me.

“Why are you asking this, John? What’s your point?”

 “You want me to be honest?”

“Emphatically. Yes. Very much so.”

“Okay, then. I want to not be the jealous, possessive sod you have to walk on eggshells around. Want you not to have to avoid Italian ice cream, or coffee, or dinner at Angelo’s. I want you to be completely at ease with me on, well, any topic.” If I’d been standing I’d have shuffled, I was that ill at ease myself.

“That’ll take some doing. But. I appreciate it all the same. Yes, there are some ‘things’ I’d like to bring back from Italy. Gelato and coffee, certainly. Time without the mobile. That was a revelation. Other ... times I’ve been in blackout mode it was for security purposes, and it was always a sacrifice. While I was away. This time it was—interesting—to think in a different way, without the internet. Just books, papers, the Mind Palace.”

Never thought I’d hear him say that. Well, live and learn. Maybe later I’d ask why; for the moment I was just grateful he’d said “think in a different way,” not “feel,” which would imply that he’d spent the month plunged in a bath of physical sensation. Though no doubt he had.

Somehow this was all much harder than I expected. Like pouring alcohol on an abrasion. I didn’t want Zanardi in my head the first night I had Sherlock in my arms. But there he was.

As if Sherlock sensed it, he pushed me over, gently, onto my back, pulling himself over me and making me look him straight in the eye. “I don’t mind,” he said. “Whatever we do, however we live. Under a bridge, as you said. Surrounded by pink and purple plastic baby toys. I don’t care, as long as it’s with you, and Watson. —I’ve missed her. More than I let myself realise. I may not be able to be a full-time parent proxy, but I don’t want to do without her, either.”

I nodded, knowing we’d be talking about Rosie sooner or later, and for now I had just one more question about Zanardi. “What did you tell him, the night you read my letter?”

He literally shuddered. “It was horrible. He knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any less hideous. I had to explain that I’d never been candid about who it was I was devoted to before I met him—but he’d already known, it was obvious every time you and I were together. He said he hoped I was going to be happy, that you were going to make me happy. —In fact, he gave me something for you.”

He reached down and flailed to find the pocket of his jacket, still halfway under the bed (and how it had got there was one hell of a memory). He handed over a small cream-coloured card in an envelope.

I took it from him. “Did you read it?”

“Of course I did.” He said it impatiently, unabashedly, and accompanied it by one of his best eye-rolls. “I must say, though, it doesn’t sound like him.”

I pulled the card out of its envelope, but I knew well enough what it would say: Treat him well. If you don’t, I will personally pull your head off your shoulders and shove it right the fuck down your throat.

I glanced up at him, and cleared my throat. “Um. Yes. Well. He might have been ... quoting.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened with actual surprise—don’t see that very often, I thought—before he started laughing, his belly shaking as his laughter grew louder and louder, and of course that set me off too. We crowed and howled until we lost our breath, and then giggled our way back to relative calm.

“Is that what you went to Rome to do to him?”

“Going to answer that another time, thanks.” I was still chortling as I said it. 

The tension was broken. It was reassuring, somehow, and I didn’t feel the need to drag any more personal information from Sherlock about his month with Zanardi. I’d needed to hear some of it, and more was sure to come out directly or indirectly, but for now I didn’t want to press him or to sound ... needy. Not on our first night together.

So I just said: “I don’t know how people stand it, Sherlock. I wasn’t able to. But you need to know that I love you, that keeping away from you was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ll never be able to apologise enough for it.”

He didn’t answer, or move. I bent down and kissed him, whispered to him, held him. I wanted him but needed to think about what he'd told me, and from his stillness I thought he might feel the same. So I shifted us so we were both on our sides with me behind him, my knees tucked into his, my arm over his waist. I felt a rush of gratitude that we could still connect the way we always had, even in this new incarnation, entwined and touching from head to toe, all filters down.

We might sleep, or we might not; either way, the sky wasn’t yet lightening above us and we had hours yet before it would.

 

 

Chapter Text

3 Mar. 2016

Bologna 

 

I wake in the middle of the night and John’s gone. His side of the bed is cool, even. I know what leaving a lover’s bed in the middle of the night means. The conversation about Roberto had been too hard. Painful. How could it not be?

He’s gone out. Stupid. Stupid. I should have shut down those questions altogether.

A rhombus of lighter grey opens on the floor and he’s there. It’s all right. No. It’s miraculous.

As he walks back into the dim glow from the skylight his hair is silver. A breath of cold air moves over my skin as he pulls the covers back. I sit up, dizzy with the realisation that he’s come back, that when he climbs into bed he’s going to kiss me.

All the times I’d dreamed of this. All the times. The mattress dips under him and John is here, taking me in his arms and the musk of his skin is overlaid with a strong scent of soap. His skin is chilled and his hair’s a bit damp around his face as I run my fingers through it. He doesn’t speak as he lowers himself slowly into the bed, and he reaches for me. When I pull him in close he says quietly, “I woke you.”

“Missing you woke me.” And it’s true, though more unguarded than I mean to be. It just slips out. I’m still sleepy, but I can tell something about him is different.

“What did you do?” Relief that he hasn’t left makes me sound a bit more disgruntled than I am. If I’ve missed the chance to shower with John, though, I will be cross.

He runs his cheek over mine, and then I feel it: smooth and soft, without the stubble he’d had at the station. In the middle of the night, he’s shaved. “Why?”

I feel him grinning against my face as he murmurs, “You like your doctors clean-shaven?”

“They don’t have to do it twice a day, John.” I try to sound superior but I’m not fooling him; his voice is fond, not annoyed.

“Trying to be considerate, then. You’ll have stubble rash, else.”

I run my hand over my own jaw and mouth. Indeed there’s a bit of a burn, but not enough to cause this midnight hygiene mania. “Well, don’t do it again. My face isn’t that tender.”

In an instant his voice goes from fond to ravenous. “I wasn’t thinking of your face.”

And just like that my heart is pounding. Whatever John has in mind, I want. I want without knowing what it is. But first I have to give him something, and there’s no way to do it without utterly killing the mood.

He lays me down again on the bed, looks me up and down in the dim light and sighs, “God, Sherlock. Jesus God. How are you this beautiful?”

As usual he has it wrong, so I tell him. The novelty of telling him something like this is explosive. “You’re the one who’s beautiful,” I say, as I run my hands over his shoulders and biceps, his dazzling scar and his muscled forearms, his chest and his taut, peaked nipples.

“I’m really not. But that’s not the point. I want to look at you for the rest of my life.” John’s words, his voice, so caressing.

“Not only look, I trust.” I badly want to feel my freshly smooth doctor on whatever part of me he’s shaved for.

Again his voice goes raw with desire. “No, not only look.”

“Then I have something else for you.”

There’s no smooth way to negotiate this part, so I don’t try. I turn up the lamp and reach again for my maltreated jacket, pulling out the test result and handing it to John. I’d rousted Roberto’s moonlighting lab director out of bed early on Tuesday morning and spent 500 euros to get it done fast and privately and in English. I’d wanted John to know I was clean. At least, as recently as it was possible to ascertain.

His mouth quirks upward as he scans the results. He hands the form back, saying, “I didn’t need to see this. You’d only agree to what was safe.”

John’s trust is breathtaking, after all the times I abused it, on a case or on a whim. Damn it, I feel weak enough to cry, and lean in to kiss him.

“I want you. I want you in my mouth. Say I can.” When I hear his raw, urgent words I’m suddenly hard as a rock. This is one of my longest-lived fantasies: for John to come into my bedroom while I’m half-asleep, ask to suck my cock, and wait for my response before he puts a hand on me, there or anywhere else. And here he is, waiting for my answer. Trembling, both of us.

Why are you still talking? ” is all I can grit out, and John gives a little bark of laughter before kissing his way down my torso, sliding down the bed and nuzzling his smooth face into my thighs, my groin, making everything spark and tingle, my bollocks, my cock. I can’t help but buck up into him, trying not to thrust too hard, chasing that sensation and that emotion of John, caressing my erection and about to take me into his mouth.

It’s good that he doesn’t do it all at once or I might explode in a helpless orgasm, unable to hold it all in. Instead he approaches the head of my cock and lips at it delicately, as if he were taking the first taste of some unfamiliar dessert, then humming as it apparently meets with his approval. He draws his tongue along the edge of the frenulum and I jerk back, thinking I won’t last another second if he keeps doing this.

He’s startled: “Sorry, did I—?”

“No, no, it’s perfect, it’s just, I—” can’t talk anymore because John, reassured, has plunged down over my entire cock and I have to circle the base in the tightest grip I can manage. John pulls away again and looks up, incredulous and tender, giving me some respite from the surge of pleasure that I can barely stand but want so very badly.

He doesn’t seem to need any further reassurance, lowering his head to thrust his face between my thighs so that his freshly shaven chin and jaw glide smoothly up and then down along my bollocks. When he takes one between his teeth, then into his mouth, and then the other, I hear myself make a startled sound that I absolutely cannot control. It’s ... perfect. I’ve always known that with John it would be. It’s far better than my longstanding fantasy.

My hands are in his hair, fingers caressing his ears, trying not to press him closer to me but the temptation is immense. I splay my thighs open now so he can reach everywhere he wants to, and he’s back to mouthing along my cock, nosing the frenulum, fingering my bollocks and perineum, and I can only take a few strokes in and out of his mouth before I have lost all control, the friction and shudders and gasps and thrusts, mine and his, are bringing on my orgasm faster than I can hope to stop it, and I come in John’s mouth with tears in my eyes and clutching his head and nape.

Tremors and aftershocks keep washing over me, and indeed I can barely breathe. I reach for John and pull him up to me, I might be speaking but I have no idea what words. It doesn’t matter, he’s answering “yes, yes, love, always,” and that has to be good, doesn’t it? He pulls into me, every part of us connected, and I breathe him in again and again, the scent of desire, of musk, of my own self, covering the hotel soap.

The intensity of the sensation is exponentially increased because it’s John, because I love him, because he’d been so long out of reach. It had never felt a tenth this overwhelming with Roberto. From very far away an unwelcome thought is inching its way forward: is this intensity also destined to fade—dissipate—disappear as access to John becomes commonplace?

I push it away, being able to touch John can never become commonplace, and anyway I’ve been neglecting him horribly, he must be at least as desperate as I was. I reach for him with more conscious intent only to find that he can, apparently, multitask: he too is slick and softening, and apparently too sensitive to take any more stimulation. He shifts and mutters, “No, wait, just for a minute,” and I’m hoping I haven’t ruined everything by being so selfish a lover on our very first night.

I move the flat of my hands over his back, relishing the contented “ahhhhh” he sighs, and bend my head to kiss his shoulder, his neck, his ear. I can’t get enough of smelling him. Every bit of skin I can reach, I caress. With every bit of myself. When I’ve memorised all the points of contact, synchronised our breathing, whispered his name and received no answer, I drift into sleep.  

 

* * * 

 

When dawn comes we’re still in the same position. Perhaps we didn’t move at all, haven’t moved for hours. Since after we'd made love and John had come back to bed. —Is that even possible? Wouldn’t some limb have fallen asleep, trapped under the weight of someone else? Wouldn’t something have cramped? Wouldn’t the feeling of confinement—oh.

This is nothing like sharing a bed with Roberto, nothing at all. Here I feel like a box perfectly latched, a ribbon neatly tied. Every part of me in comfortable stasis. And though I’m trying not to wake John, I’m not tense or claustrophobic. I only want to stay here, right here, until he wakes, holding him and breathing him in. If this is what Roberto had felt—

“You’re awake. What penny just dropped?”

His voice is sleepy and soft-edged. No sign of Captain Watson at all, just my blond-to-grey sleepy John, my—I have no words for this. “Penny?”

“You had a revelation. I heard you gasp.” He’s smiling, I hear it in his voice.

“Yes. I realised: I am happy like this. Perfectly content. I never want to move again. And it was ... it wasn’t ... like this. In Rome.” Damn. Stop mentioning him. John would stiffen, how could he not resent—

But the reply, when it comes, is equable. Deliberately so, and I appreciate the effort. “Of course you’re happy. We’re meant to be this way with each other.”

Tactfully he’s backed away from my oafish comparison. Good sexual etiquette? Eagerness to avoid a pitfall? Whatever it was, I’m grateful. I don’t want a third person there with us, even if I conjured him myself.

“You like sleeping all tangled up?” I look down at our hands, clasped so tightly I can’t really tell which fingers are whose.

“Oh, yes. Oh, yes. With you. I thought about it a lot. Knew you’d be a cuddler. Couldn’t not be, with those icy feet and soft fabrics and posh sheets. Knew you’d be ... tactile.”

Not a sexy word, “tactile.” Not at all. Clinical, rather. Scientific. Why then does it start my hands roving over his arms and chest, my whole body reaching for his? All these firsts; I know which I want next. I bend around and kiss him, softly then more firmly, opening his mouth to my curious tongue. I memorise the different textures, the rough drag of his taste buds, the slick, smooth softness of the underside of John’s perfect tongue.

He doesn’t resist at all, as I half-thought he might, with some nonsensical protest about needing to clean his teeth. I’ve dreamed for years, literal years, of what he would taste like first thing in the morning, and it’s better than I had ever dared to speculate. An edge of sleep. A warm scent of—mint? Pull back. “You cheated. You cleaned your teeth.”

A crack of laughter. “Of course I did. It’s what people do. That’s definitely being a considerate lover. Or so I—oi, what are you doing?”

I’ve slid the fingers of my right hand under his left arm and stroked his armpit, hard enough to tickle him, but more importantly to make my fingers smell of him. His sleepy sweat, the tang of arousal. He goes rigid with embarrassment when I bring my fingers to my nose and breathe deep, despite my evident pleasure when I catch his scent.

“Don’t do that, for God’s sake.”

“But I love it, John. I love the way you smell. I always have. And I’ve missed it so much. You’ll just have to get used to it.”

“Mad wanker,” he muttered. I feel relieved laughter bubbling up and I clear my throat, trying to suppress it, but without the smallest success. I start to laugh full out, my chest heaving and gasping, tears actually sliding out the corners of my eyes from the absurdity of his exaggerated truculence. It must have something to do with the heightened emotion, because instead of subsiding my laughter becomes more and more uncontrollable, until John too is reluctantly grinning and starting to chuckle. He leans down and licks the tears away from my eyes, so it’s my turn to protest.

“Sauce for the goose,” he says cheerfully. “Be warned, I’m going to lick you every chance I get, whether it’s the right time or not. Like every time I see your neck bare.”

“It’ll always be the right time. Anyway, don’t brush your teeth again. Unless you’ve eaten raw onions.”

John’s still chuckling. “You have a very, very distant aftertaste of cigarettes, you know. If you like kissing so much you can stop that right the fuck now.”

“Doesn’t seem too great a sacrifice.” He may not be able to make out what I’m saying, as I’m holding his entire ear delicately inside my mouth when I say it. But he sighs anyway, and as I release his ear I let my breath trail out over the tiny hairs along the top.

“Kiss me again.” Urgently.

I feign boredom. “Oh very well, Doctor Needy, if I must.”

“That’s rich, coming from Mister High-Maintenance.”

And between foolish grins and barbless barbs and rising heat, and gripped muscles, we go back to what we were doing, until John realises he's going to need some sustenance before the breakfast-room closes.

 

 

Chapter Text

3 March 2016

Bologna   

 

After a dizzying shower left Sherlock and me weak in the knees and grinning loopily at each other, we got dressed—not very fast, to be honest, and not very efficiently. I couldn’t look away from him, his pale skin so lightly dusted with hair that he might have been a marble statue come to life. When I saw his lips purse satirically I realised that I hadn’t moved for several seconds, had frozen mid-gesture to watch those long slim feet pad over to the suitcase, his lean frame bending to retrieve fresh pants and socks. I had to gulp back saliva at the sight.

His eyebrows quirked and I came to myself, then laughed. “I’ll never get tired of looking at you, you know. You’re just ... just stunning.”

At this Sherlock flushed for perhaps the tenth time that morning. (Didn’t that Italian moron tell him how beautiful he is?)

“I’m happy you think so.” His light green eyes—green for sure, this morning—took in my thickening cock, my intent stare, and he said, unsteadily, “I don’t think we’re going to have time for breakfast, John. Or work. Or acquaintances. Or hobbies. Or commitments of any kind. All I want is to touch you all over.”

My cock bobbed cooperatively but my stomach made an inelegant protesting sound, an undeniable anticlimax, and Sherlock gave an equally inelegant snort of laughter. I said tartly, “You may not believe in eating, but it’s been 24 hours since my last hot meal—and no, I do not count what you are clearly thinking of.”

That only made him laugh harder, but he went back to dressing and we got down to the empty breakfast room just before ten.

There was no full English to be had, of course, but I heaped a plate full of rolls, butter, jam, honey, ham, cheese, and even hard-boiled eggs and yogurt. Sherlock looked at it all with incredulous disdain and fetched two cappuccinos from the hotel bar, placing one minuscule buttery croissant on his plate with ostentatious restraint. I looked at the lonely little pastry and then tucked eagerly into my own feast, pinning one of Sherlock’s ankles between my own.

“Bologna’s meant to be famous for its cuisine, you know. I hope I’m going to get some of that fantastic food and art and landscape you promised, not just cold breakfasts in a hotel.”

Sherlock wiped his fingers fastidiously and said, coolly, “I’ve planned you a day that will satisfy all your demands, John.”

“Planned me a day? You haven’t been out of my sight for more than two minutes. When could you have looked at a map or guidebook and ‘planned me a day’?”

I put another piece of buttered roll in my mouth and caressed his thigh under the table. He shivered and smiled, then hid the smile under a frown.

“Surely you don’t imagine I need to consult a map, let alone a guidebook.” He said the word with the revulsion he usually reserved for American beer, or Mycroft.

“I memorised the map of the city centre, and my list of things you will like includes the university’s historical anatomy theatre, its collection of wax anatomical models, the outdoor food market, the astronomical meridian line in the city basilica, and the museum of music. And one or two other surprises.”

My mouth must have fallen open a bit, since Sherlock looked away and said repressively, “I don’t recall, John, that you ever used to chew with your mouth open. I do hope this isn’t a result of our changed status. If it is, I trust it won’t be permanent.”

I collected myself and started chewing again, running a thumbnail higher up Sherlock’s thigh and over his flies. I was rewarded with a ragged sigh as he pushed up into my hand.

“You memorised the street map of Bologna.”

“Yes, of course. Only the historic centre, though.” Sherlock looked regretful, as though he really should have included the city outside the walls and all the suburbs.

“Street names and all.”

“Of course. What use would it be otherwise? —What is it, John? What?”

“It’s just—you. You. Are. Sheer bloody brilliance, on top of being sex on legs. I never get tired of it. I never get to the end of what you can do. I will never get tired of watching you think.”

Sherlock looked as nonplussed as if I’d said I loved to watch paint dry. He shrugged and went back to eating his miniature croissant and putting too much sugar in his cappuccino, but I had to make him see.

“What you do is still and always amazing. In the time it takes me to even see something, you—you see, you note, categorise, catalogue everything, so well you can review it all later. You extrapolate, hypothesise, weigh evidence, decide between alternatives, in the blink of an eye. It’s humbling, how fast and sure you are, how enormous the bank of information you have stored in that gigantic brain of yours.”

Sherlock didn’t look pleased, the way he used to do when I admired him. Instead, he sighed. “So, freakish after all.”

Before I knew it my hand shot out and grabbed him by the nape. “Never. Never doubt that I am so very proud of you, of your extraordinary abilities, how you use them every single day to help people. How you used them to help me. To save me.” With no thanks for it but a split lip, and later, a shattered chest. A scarred brow.

I stopped for a moment, my voice unsteady. Sherlock’s cheeks were reddening and my eyes were stinging. To lighten the moment I added, “And let me just add that I’ve always found it incredibly hot.”

That graceful, goofy smile started at the corner of his mouth, dipping downward before lifting into the elated grin I loved so much. I let my hand wander down from his neck where I’d gripped him, around to his collarbone and then lightly down his chest to his rib cage. I lowered my voice. “When you smile like that—do you know what it does to me?”

I’d reduced him to silence, which was no small feat. I felt his heartbeat speed up and his breathing go quick and shallow. He was so responsive. How could I ever have thought him so detached, so indifferent to me? “I’d seen,” all right, but I sure as hell had not observed.

Sherlock was visibly searching for words—my daft genius, always so glib when sure of himself, was inarticulate and blushing over the simple truth that I admired him and wanted him. Well, it had taken me years, but I would never again let him wonder what I felt for him.

My own heartbeat wasn’t exactly steady either as I let my fingers wander over the trim curve of his waist, slipping my fingers under his waistband, eliciting something between a gasp and a sigh.

“You may have planned me a day, but it isn’t for today, is it? You didn’t tame your hair. You knew exactly where we’d be going after breakfast, and it isn’t out of doors.”

“An actual deduction, John. I’m impressed.” He tried to sound superior and detached, but I wasn’t fooled—he was very interested.

“Berk.” He leaned toward me and the long line of his neck really was irresistible, it always was, so I leaned over and trailed my lips and tongue up it, learning the length of it, the contours, the tendons and Adam’s apple and the warm junction of his neck and his sharply-drawn jaw.

I kissed, sucked, and nipped my way along his jawline and then found his beautiful mouth again—and began to plunder it as though we were alone in the world rather than sitting at a tiny, rather uncomfortable, breakfast table with two scandalised but sympathetic hotel staff smiling uncertainly a few metres away.

Sherlock pulled back, his eyes gone a bright viridian and his cheeks a high pink. He had, perhaps, an ingrained habit of being inconspicuous while abroad, or maybe he was just well and truly off-balance given how fast our breakfast conversation had escalated.

Upstairs, John,” he murmured urgently, and I had to agree, I wanted him in my arms and considerably less clothed, so I could touch and kiss every part of him I could reach. I took a last swallow of cappuccino and stood up gingerly, painfully hard and relieved that the lift was only a few metres off. Sherlock looked wrecked, and so must I; but the little German family that stepped out of the lift looked oblivious and indifferent, and I remembered that indeed most people did not observe.

Sherlock gave me that same smile again as the lift doors closed, agreeing only somewhat breathlessly, “Correct, John. They did not observe.”

Given how often Sherlock knew exactly what I was thinking, it was almost incredible that he’d misread me so deeply and so long. But then we’d both hid so much from each other.

Now wasn’t the time to think of that: now was the time to take him to bed, to take our time, to tell over the ways I loved and wanted him, to tell him without words. I let my hand drift down to his gorgeous arse, cupped the left cheek and squeezed it hard, and in the mirrored wall of the lift I saw the flush deepen on his face as he swallowed hard and turned to cover my erection with his own hand. He let loose a small moan when he felt the proof of my arousal, and so did I when he began to run his thumb up and down under the seam, whimpering (he would later deny this) at the throb and leap of my response. God, I wanted him.

Figured it couldn’t hurt to tell him. “God, I want you,” I growled, knowing the words were redundant but determined to say them anyway. If he smirked, at least it would be a happy smirk.

The rather slow lift finally lurched to the top floor and we set some kind of record to our own door. Once through it, though, time slowed down again. We hadn’t dressed for going out, so undressing him went rather quickly, the buttons on his white shirt slipping open as I ran my fingers over the skin beneath them, caressing his nipples and bending my head to take first one, then the other, between my lips and tonguing them, already hard, into perfect warm pearls, the hitch in his breathing telling me he loved it.

He couldn’t love it more than I did. It’d taken us so long to get here, and six years of unconfessed desire had flamed out into a conflagration that left no alternative but to stroke him, hold him, kiss and bite him, grip and thrust and retreat, until not just the space but the distinction between us became as diaphanous as mist and he felt what I felt, I responded as he responded, and we were finally beyond separation and beyond difference.

I’d never experienced anything like this in all my life, and I whispered that to him, “only you, Sherlock,” “and “yes, like that,” and “I’m yours, only yours,” and, gritted out desperately, "mine." All this while stroking his beautiful ribboned back, cupping and stroking his bollocks, loving the high, tight density of them in my palm, circling his gorgeous cock with my fist, feeling him do the same to me, sparks building in my field of vision, a kind of icy-hot shower starting low in my gut and building to an explosion.

 

* * * 

 

Eventually we do leave the hotel, late for lunch even by Italian standards. We try the legendary “Diana” and agree it deserves its reputation; Sherlock eats enough to make up for his absurd mini-croissant, though not enough to compete with me.

Shave or no shave he’s endearingly pink, his lips revealingly swollen. Seeing him dressed, outdoors, by daylight, I’m again caught off balance at the sheer relief of finding him—looking younger, happier, than I remember seeing him in years. I can’t help but wonder how much of this is us, and how much is Zanardi. I shake off that thought, take Sherlock’s hand and entwine our fingers. I don’t care whether it’s ordinary in Italy or outrageous, I want his hand in mine. 

It’s a lovely city to walk through, mile after mile of high arcades, a few streets of posh designer windows with eye-popping prices, many more streets of workaday shops, agencies, clubs, schools, university buildings. More churches than I can imagine any city of this size could possibly need. I stop counting after 29. The broad expanses of stuccoed walls are the colours of autumn, capturing the thin winter sun and warming my imagination if not my hands.

We talk about Rosie, mostly. I also catch Sherlock up on our London friends, particularly Mrs Hudson. Anytime the conversation veers into waters too deep or murky, we change the topic; it’ll all come up soon enough, that's certain, now. After all, Sherlock hasn’t asked his questions yet.

Lunch is long forgotten when we buy roasted chestnuts from a seller on the street, and walk on; when next we look at our watches we buy an ice cream to share, squabbling over the flavours. When it’s gone, Sherlock buys another for himself. His war on food seems to be as dead as his war on sleep. Unless it’s just a truce.

It’s been dark for an hour when we head back toward the restaurant we’ve picked out, in the neighborhood behind the cathedral. Pedestrian traffic seems to concentrate in the busy main street; as soon as we turn into the narrow side streets we’re alone. In the last half hour we’ve been talking less, looking at each other more; at least I catch him looking at me every time I glance up.

“Do we have to eat dinner, John? Are you hungry?”

Ah. Truce over, then. I look away to hide my rueful grin.

“No, of course not. Six chestnuts and half an ice cream should hold me.” He’s too intent to clock the faint sarcasm. 

“Good. Let’s go back to the room.” Windblown and pink-cheeked from the cold, Sherlock doesn’t look as though he wants an early night, I think. Shame.

Near the hotel he swerves into a whisky bar and a few minutes later fetches up at the counter with a bottle and, apparently, two glasses. When he’s paid I know there’s another reckoning due.

 

 

Chapter Text

3–4 March 2016

Bologna  

 

John had agreed to forgo dinner, more graciously than he would have when we first met. Our last trip up in the elevator had been eager and desperate and endless; this time we were both quiet, not touching, and tension did seem to be mounting. But then John looked at me with his open, affectionate smile and it subsided again. A bit.

The room had been made miraculously tidy again after our morning spent tearing it apart. The silver sheen of the coverlet, now smooth over the bed—I could all but see it heaped on the floor, and the sheets whipped up like whitecaps, and John naked and straining under me. I could smell him on my own skin, even after we’d showered. And always I could replay his voice in the night, whispers and murmurs and the occasional moan.

John had said, “I don’t know how people stand it, Sherlock. I wasn’t able to. But you have to know that I love you, that keeping away from you was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ll never be able to apologise enough for it.”

We took off our coats. I opened the bottle while he rinsed the glasses. I poured half an inch into each, and John took his to the bed while I settled into the small armchair. The whisky smelled exquisite, intensely smoky like the wood fires in Lazio, or Baker Street. The accompanying stab of lust, though—that was purely for John.

I looked at his expression, still tender but also pained. I tried to smile, looked for words to get us started, but all I could say was “My turn.”

He winced. He’d known my questions were going to be harder than his, more painful; after all, he’d texted me and I’d come, immediately. I’d gone back on my decision to leave him permanently. When the trial period was up, after reading only John’s letter and three short and identical texts, I’d come; there was still a lot I needed to know.

After all this time, all this uncertainty, I had no idea where to start. Whatever thread I tugged at would bring all the rest in its wake; what if I ruined it all by starting the wrong way? He’d already said so much in his letter, that now I chose from it almost at random.

Why did you keep your distance in the autumn? I felt like I’d fallen off your speed-dial. If I texted you, you answered hours later, if at all. When I asked you to come on cases you always refused. Even Mrs Hudson couldn’t get you and Watson to Baker Street. I. I missed you. Both. You wrote that it was because of the drugs, that they were a danger to Watson. Is that really it? All it was?”

John tightened his arms around his knees a moment, then relaxed. “Isn’t that enough? Rosie was already very attached to you, you know. She didn’t, doesn’t, act around anyone else the way she does with you. If I’d let her grow around you like a vine, and you’d gone back to using, losing you would have hurt her far more than never knowing you would have.”

I assumed he was projecting, and said so. “Is that how you felt about it yourself? That losing me was worse than never having known me?”

“Yes. This is going to sound terrible, and stupid, but it killed me that I wasn’t enough reason for you to stay away from drugs. I know addiction, Sherlock, and I know love isn’t enough; I know drugs aren’t something to do or refrain from doing for the people you love. But it still seemed to me that you could do better, if the stakes were high enough; and if you weren't, it's because they weren't high enough. I wasn't. And there was Wiggins always hanging around the flat, answering your damn phone even.”

I imagined caressing John’s weary face, feeling the slight stubble on his chin and cheek, rubbing my thumb against the corner of his mouth. That I could do all of this was almost enough to distract me from his narrative. But this required an answer.

“By then Wiggins was there as Mycroft’s proxy, John. I wish you’d asked him, if not me. That bloated bureaucrat managed to get Wiggins on his side, probably paying him more money than he's ever seen before. And there’s no gaoler more implacable than a former ally.”

A pause as John took this in. 

Then he said, slowly, “That evening in November when I didn’t show up at the flat. I actually did. I was nearly there, and I saw you at the door giving Wiggins what looked like a wad of banknotes. What did I misconstrue?” 

I remembered that evening, the sharp disappointment at John’s text saying he wasn’t coming, the icy chill in the air. It was early in the year for it to be that cold.

“I gave him money to give to members of the network who were sleeping rough that night. Not to buy cocaine, for God’s sake. And anyway, as for motivation to get clean—the stakes were always high enough, from the beginning. The drugs were only ever for a case. Magnussen. And afterwards, for ... a precaution.”

John’s head snapped up. “In what way, a precaution?” His voice was sharp.

He wasn’t going to let me get away with vagueness, then. “Mary. She had to see me as erratic, no threat to her. You loved her, John, and I tried to, for your sake. But I was under no illusion: if she’d thought me a threat to her secret she’d have shot me again without a second thought. —Worse. For all I knew then, she might have killed you.”

“I understand that. I do. After she shot you the first time. But the weeks and weeks of being high off your tits last summer—that was after Mary died, and that’s not on her.”

I hadn’t realised I’d been holding my breath until I let it out with a sigh. So John was able to acknowledge the complexity, the precariousness, of Mary’s performance.

“Did you think that what I told you was an excuse? It wasn’t. I had to get you back into the land of the living somehow. For Watson’s sake. For yours. For mine, too, yes, and for the Culverton Smith case. But what Mary said was dead—sorry, spot on. That you wouldn’t ask for help, but you wouldn’t refuse to give it, either. So I had to be visibly more out of control than you’d ever seen me. —Don’t think I enjoyed it. What I gave up in ratiocination was far more valuable to me than being high.”

John shifted on the bed and said, “Sherlock, one day we’re going to talk properly about all of that, yes, and about the Fall, too. But I really don’t want to spend this night with all the blood and muck of our past.”

For so long I’d been desperately, despairingly jealous of Mary, and this description of her role in his life was a balm on a wound. But it wasn’t only Mary I’d been jealous of. “Were you seeing someone else in the autumn? Is that why you were never available?”

What? God, no. Where did you get that idea? Honestly, Sherlock. For someone who can tell what a bloke’s been doing by looking at his shirt cuffs—how could you ever have thought I was seeing someone? The only thing I ever had on my cuffs was Rosie’s sick!”

His voice was somewhere between disconcerted and laughing, as though he truly hadn’t seen that question coming. My reputation for omniscience was taking a beating. But at least he hadn’t been dating one of the mums from Rosie’s daycare. I didn’t want to mention the hideous Christmas I’d spent, regretting the previous one and resenting John for inviting me to his flat with all of our friends and a new (if imaginary) love interest.

To hide my agitation I opted for haughtiness. “I’m asking the questions now. I still have quite a few.”

His last answer made me decide to move from the small chair to the bed. I wanted more contact with him. I stood and poured us each another dram, then took off my jacket, then my shirt.

John was instantly alert, looking at me with that hungry expression that made me shiver every time, then taking off only his own shirt. Following my lead. He lay down flat; I stretched out on top of him, and was instantly dizzy with the sensation of his torso against my own. He grasped my upper arms and reversed our positions so that it was I who was supine on the bed, John was looking down at me with such tenderness that I felt my eyes sting.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune: after all these years, John Watson was looking down at me with unmasked love. I struggled to find my train of thought again, and asked, slowly,

“What did you come to Baker Street for, that night?”

He grimaced, knowing exactly which night I meant. Before answering he dipped his head down and kissed both my collarbones. It felt surprisingly... good. I’d never thought of them as particularly sensitive, but his smooth lips and his stubble made a distracting contrast. Because it was John the sensation was overwhelming.

“I was jealous. I was already ... sick with it. I’d just worked up the nerve to approach you when I found out from Molly that you were seeing Zanardi.” He deliberately said the name like an English one. 

“And when you cut me out of the operation the previous night I was furious and even more jealous. I wanted to find you alone and ask you to give me a chance, but there he was. I was obviously too late. He was all but living there. I got so angry, I just gave up on what I’d come to say.”

The bitterness in John’s voice was understandable, but it still stung. He was jealous of a rival for my attention for practically the first time. (I discounted the implausible Adler, and Janine.) I, by contrast, had lived with that feeling practically since we met.

“Did you even remember what day it was?” I hated it when my voice went reedy. It was such a humiliating tell.

He gave a convulsive jerk in my arms. “Of course I did. Christ, Sherlock. It was the luckiest day of my life. Until it wasn’t. You ... I never thought you’d send me away. As though I were nothing to you if I couldn’t be your partner. Colleague.”

My turn to wince. That'll come up later, John. “So you wouldn’t shake my hand.”

“To tell you goodbye? Fuck, no. Not even close. But afterwards... when I came back. Mrs Hudson gave me your letter.” By now John too was rigid with tension. I wanted to tell him it was his own behavior that night that had made me resolve to accept Roberto’s proposal, but the same time it seemed cruel to do so. He was already miserable.

Instead I moved on, stroking his lower back as I did so. “What did you do when you read it?”

He was quiet for a long time. “I got Rosie sorted and took off for a house on the Norfolk coast. It belongs to her minders, so I had it to myself.” That wasn’t what I'd meant, but I understood why he began with Watson. 

“I couldn’t function. It was like ... when I was shot. I had to be alone, get far away from everyone.” The grief in his voice brought me to tears, almost to nausea. I pulled him down to my chest and stroked his back, hid my face in the crook of his neck. There were no words from either of us, for a long while. He lay on top of me breathing deeply, and I could feel him trying to master himself.

“Where’s Watson now? With the same people?” (Do you think you can trust me with her at least as much as them?  was the subtext, but John might not hear that.)

“Yeah. You remember Sarah Sawyer. She and her partner have been seeing a lot of Rosie. They’ve been trying to get pregnant, and Sarah calls Rosie her practice baby.” He murmured this while nuzzling into my hair, still forcing himself to breathe deeply and regularly.

Well. A consulting detective with a drug habit is no competition for a respectable physician with maternity in her future. I’d probably feel the same, in John’s place. But I wasn’t in John’s place, and I wanted to do something horrible to Sarah Sawyer. Trivial, but horrible. Shave off that mane of hair, for example.

“Mmmmm. I’m glad she’s with a doctor. You probably are, too.”

“What I’m glad of is that she’s with someone who let me hare off to Italy without any clear idea of when I’d be back. Sarah’s a good friend. She took a week of holiday time to do this for me. I owe her a lot.” (Damn it.)

While John was shaming me about Sarah, his hands were cupping my face, his fingers moving in my hair. He shifted off of me and onto his back, tugging me on top of him again and beginning to caress my back. Our cocks were trapped between us, my knee between his knees, and his nails stroking my back so softly I almost purred. I did purr. Mortifying. I wondered if this was a new sensation to John, and asked another question I'd been brooding about:

“Have you ever—done this—before? With a man?” His hands slowed, but didn’t stop. His left hand went back into the hair at the back of my head, and I hummed again, but at the same time it was my turn to grow rigid with anxiety at the answer.

“No.” Short.

“No?” Encouraging.

“No.” Shorter, if that were possible.

“You always told the world you were not gay. You never gave any sign that you thought of yourself as bisexual. Well, none except the way you looked at me. But you say you were fully decided when you came to 221B on January 29th.” 

“Yes.” John’s discomfort at this topic was intensifying, not dissipating. 

“May I ask when you realised, or accepted, that if you were not gay, you were not-exactly-straight either?” 

He was silent for half a minute, then sighed, “It’s a more than fair question. I’d occasionally been idly curious about some bloke or another” (aha, I knew it, I knew there was a reason John was so touchy about his not-gay status) “but almost never comfortable enough to act on it. It was just so much easier—in medicine, in the army—to date women, and be friends with men. Well, with one exception.” 

I knew who that was, and I didn’t want him in the room tonight. Maybe some other year. Some other decade. I'd be ready to learn more about James Sholto’s hold on John’s heart, when I could be more confident about my own.

“Anything to add to that? Anything I should know?” Cautious.

“No, and no. I never felt any urgent need to follow up on it. Until you, Mister Married-to-my-work.”

Well, that distracted me from my righteous indignation, for certain. Everything that had happened to us in the last six years came from that stupid, stupid, stupid answer I gave John that first night at Angelo’s. Because I was rattled, because I was afraid of what I felt, afraid that the intensity of it would scare John off. I couldn’t answer so instead I kissed him, breaking off to trace his mouth with my hand, slipping two fingers inside, melting as he sucked at them. At this rate we’d never finish with my questions.

John kept trailing his fingertips up and down the ruined map of my back. It brought to mind Roberto tending those scars—they might be a little less ugly, now. “Why did you never ask me before? About the scars. About my two years away.”

His hand stopped, abruptly. He was quiet. “I was too angry with you. I asked Mycroft, instead.”

My head whipped back so fast I felt it start to throb. “What—why? Why did you go to Mycroft? When?”

“About the scars: after you were shot, and I saw them. About your time away: much earlier. After the bonfire night. Something about that whole night didn’t make sense to me. When I came to, the way you were looking at me, holding my face in your hands. I almost knew, then. ‘Fire exposes our priorities.’ You, just back after so long. The kidnapping. Mary shrieking. The skip code. It was all too... weird not to be part of some Mycroft web or other.” John’s hands were motionless on my lower back until he returned to caressing my skin gently, raising gooseflesh.

I’d done it again. Underestimated John Watson. “What did he tell you?”

“I’ll go into all that... another time. Let’s try to get through the more—recent—stuff first.”

His voice went a shade darker. “I did ask him where I could find the people who did that to you. But they were already dead, so.”

That melted something in me I hadn’t been aware had been frozen. He’d had been ready to make them pay. (If Mycroft hadn’t already eliminated them, John might have forgiven me sooner. Food for thought.)

“Did you ask him anything about Mary?” Reserved. This was always going to be a no-go zone between us, until we actually hashed it out. But as John had said, perhaps not tonight, not all of it, tonight.

“Not explicitly. I did ask whether there was anything I should know, something it would be safer for you if I knew. I didn’t mention her name, but I imagine the second-smartest man in London knew what I was getting at.”

I hid a smile. Second-smartest. Take that, you bloated banana.

“When you married her, were you in love with her? Or—keeping a promise? Or punishing me?” From the grim tone of my voice John must have known that while I hated to ask him this, I hated even more not knowing. He took his time answering, and finally said,

“Could I give you a rain check on that one too? It’s all part of the... suicide, and after. It may be the most important thing we have to talk about, but there’s so much in the more recent past that we need to clear up.”

I knew what he meant: talking about my leap from Barts now might actually break us. He was right. We needed to stabilise ourselves before we reached that far back. Concentrate on the nearer past, then.

“You said you went to Mycroft to get your letter to me. What did you tell him?”

John flushed at the question. I imagine he was expecting it, but he still looked full of dread. “I asked whether he had anything to do with your departure. Whether you were in Rome on some kind of a mission for him. He said no to both.”

This wasn't enough to make John look so shaken. “Is that all?”

“No, there’s more. And you’re not going to like it. Mycroft showed me some surveillance photos of you. One of them, no, two of them, were fairly ... private. I refused to look at the rest.”

I jerked in fury and betrayal, pushed back from him, knelt with my knees on either side of him. “Private, how? How private, John? I can believe anything of Mycroft, but I can’t believe you went along with it.”  

What had he seen? My face was flaming, remembering some of what there was for Mycroft’s filthy little cameras to capture. “What did you see?”

“Nothing terribly intimate, really. Please... trust me.” He captured my hands. “In one, you were sitting on a park bench, looking down at your hands. Thinking, by the look of it. I stopped after the third, told him you wouldn’t expect or want me to see any of them at all.”

“Damned right. That’s ... sordid.” I didn’t want, really didn’t want, to know what other scenes John had seen. It was humiliating even to think of it. “What was Mycroft playing at? What did he want to accomplish?”

“Your guess—sorry, sorry, deduction—is as good as mine. It certainly turned a knife in the wound. But somehow it didn’t feel ill-intentioned. Maybe he meant it to be motivational. If so, it worked.”

“Your letter.” I wouldn’t put it past Mycroft to maneuver John into making a move, if he thought it an essential course of action for his own goals. What Mycroft’s goals in this could be, I would think over later. Perhaps he’d been inconvenienced by my absence from London.

“Yes. I’d read yours a hundred times by then, but hadn’t been able to make myself write my own. It felt ... stupid to offer you what little I had to offer, when you were in the middle of a new relationship. In Rome. Without an infant, or a complicated history, or any of the rest of it. Then I realised that if I didn’t get in touch with you it wouldn’t matter what you decided about Zanardi: you’d said goodbye, and I couldn’t count on you contacting me ever again. So I got busy.”

“And got no answer.” I concentrated on keeping my voice neutral. My stomach was sour with outrage that Mycroft had shown John photographs of me and Roberto together. Doing God knows what. It was utterly unfair to John, to imprint images in his mind that would likely be indelible. To Roberto, to expose him to the gaze of total strangers. But none of this was John’s fault, so I tried to compose myself and save my fury for my hellbeast of a brother.

“No. You didn’t answer. But I gave myself until the end of the month, or a few days beyond, before I’d let myself despair.”

I’d seen what John in despair looked like. The photographs, at least. I hated that I’d prompted it, and more than once. But I tried for a lighter tone.

“You had a schedule for despair? That sounds very... organised.”

“Well, I tried to keep it under control. I had to fend it off constantly. Mornings were the worst. When I woke up, before I’d remember. There was this horrible darkness at the edge of my consciousness. Then I’d remember: you were gone. And this wave of panic would well up. Sheer panic. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t face the day.

“But I’d hear Rosie gurgling to herself in her cot. Before she gets properly awake and impatient, she babbles. I’d listen a moment, and think, You have to keep it together. You’re needed. She’s got no one but you.

“And she can—almost always. Make me smile. So I’d dance her into the kitchen and sing her an old song. ‘Smile though your heart is aching.’”

That brought back a pain so raw I actually gasped. “Ah. I almost put that on the playlist for your wedding reception. Decided it was too...”

“Bleak? unsuitable for a celebration?”

“Revealing.” Here my voice wasn’t so controlled, and John leaned up and kissed me long and tenderly. As though he were trying to make up for that nightmarish, agonising time.

“Oh, God, love. You planned our wedding, I still can’t believe it. You put more into it than we did. Into the marriage, too, for that matter. I only realised it when it was finally over.” His voice was as shaky as mine.

“When did you know that it was over?” He’s asked something similar, earlier, so I thought this was a fair question, even though we weren't meant to be discussing Mary tonight. (My voice was still not quite my own.)

At this he moved, sat up with his back against the headboard, and pulled me into his arms, onto his chest. I looked up at him for a moment, then realised that he didn’t want me looking at him when he said the next bit. So I laid my head on his chest as he had done with me, and listened as his voice thrummed under my ear.

“It was one of those nights when Rosie wouldn’t settle. You know—well, you don’t know, but it happens, it happened. And I was carrying on a flirtation by text, you know that. Mary was asleep for once. She was always so tired. I know now it’s because she could never really relax, never rest. After Rosie was born it was worse, if anything. Even before she knew there was someone out there trying to find her, she was always afraid her past was going to catch up with her.”

Mary was no fool. It was indeed always going to catch up with her, just as John had said in his letter. As for the exhaustion of constant watchfulness, constant performance—I knew that particular kind of weariness very well. He didn’t seem to need an answer, so I just listened as his voice echoed in his chest.

“She was torn, I think, between wanting Rosie’s crib in our room where we could keep her safe, and having her in the next room. For—well, you know. Rebuilding intimacy. She didn’t know that I’d already checked out of the marriage. I didn’t even know it myself. I didn’t know much about myself, at that point. I was lost.”

So were we all. And now I pulled John’s hand into mine and laced our fingers together. I could spare some sympathy for Mary, trying to get John’s wandering attention, and for John, unable to respond to her.

“I wasn’t even that aware how frightened she was. She never talked about it. I mean, she’d tried to put away this other identity, and be the Mary I knew. (Well. The Mary I thought I knew.) So she couldn’t always be looking over her shoulder: she didn’t want to be reminding me of it, after all.

“So. One night I was lying there listening to Rosie’s occasional grizzle. I didn’t want to get up if I didn’t have to. Not just because I wanted rest myself, you know. But it’s counterproductive, responding every time. She’d just learn to wait us out. Wait me out. So I was listening for signs that she was up for the long term before I got up. And while I was lying there it was as though some kind of light went on and I realised: this whole thing was going nowhere. Because it was always you I was thinking of.”

How could I react to that? All that time ago—before Mary ran, before she died, before John had cut me out and beaten me, before all the drugs—all that time ago, John knew that the marriage was over because it was me that he wanted. And with that knowledge he’d done nothing, absolutely nothing.

“But you did love her when you went back to her, after she shot me. It’s why I made the decision to take Magnussen out permanently. He didn’t have files, but he had a gigantic microphone. He didn’t have to prove it, remember? He only had to print it. Given what he knew, and given that his knowledge existed only in his head, there was literally no other way to guarantee he wouldn’t leak it to anyone she had harmed in the past. Whereas once he was dead, and no documentation anywhere, your ... life together was ... safeguarded. For good.”

His convulsive hold tightened. “You killed him because you thought she was what I wanted? Oh, God, Sherlock. It wasn’t because of what he did to me that night?” His voice was as raw as I’ve ever heard it. It had never occurred to me that John might think I’d murdered Magnussen in cold blood because the man had flicked his face.

“No. I wouldn’t insult your intelligence by thinking that humiliating you would scar you for life if you weren’t instantly avenged.” 

This was risky, though. John has a much more touchy sense of masculine honour than I do, or at least, he has it about different things—control, domination, virility. I can only be humiliated by being out-thought, out-maneuvered. Not outgunned or overpowered, that was just mathematics.

John pulled me up to look me in the eye, dead serious. “Sherlock. Please. Let’s talk about all that later. Back in London. I promise.”

Why? Because it’s like an earthquake, it’s making things shudder and shift, and that is dangerous. Il momento è delicato.

Yet his hands were steady in mine, and groping for a different topic I asked, “Have you noticed? Your hands never tremble now. You could go back to surgery.”

He looked struck, as though he hadn’t made the connection. “Maybe I could. God knows general practice is boring beyond belief. —So you don’t want me working with you?”

“Of course I do. I don’t just want you in the Work, I need you. But you’re also a gifted surgeon. You could go back to operating part-time, have the best of both worlds.”

He was quiet a moment, his expression considering. Then he shook it off and went back to kissing me, a choice I heartily approved. Aleatory and incoherent as my questioning was, it had given me a great deal to think about, for good and ill. For tonight it was enough. 

 

 

Chapter Text

6 March 2016    

Bologna

 

I felt myself swimming upwards out of sleep, but slowly and reluctantly. I’d been having the best dream of my life, didn’t want to interrupt it. Even though I was coming awake anyway, with Sherlock flush up against me, I still squeezed my eyes shut and tried to submerge again.

Couldn’t do it. The good thing was that I felt the sweetness of the dream still with me, around me. I felt his warm, strong frame in my arms, his arm over mine, his breath on the hand I was resting on his chest, the soft uneven skin between his shoulder blades under my lips as I kissed my way gently over his back.

It was real. Against all odds, it was real. I eased my thigh between his, and started to stroke his chest as gently as I could, wanting to touch but not wake him. He was solid and still, so silent I wanted to check his heartbeat again, but his skin was warm and soft to the touch. My hand wandered over the muscles of his chest, his nipples, his collarbones. When I heard him draw a sharp breath I hesitated, then whispered, “This all right?”

His hand seized mine and brought it to his mouth, and he nuzzled my palm and knuckles and fingers. “Miles better than all right.”

But his body was tense, growing tenser even, and I wanted to see his face, kiss his mouth. I wanted the rigidity to melt away again, back into the fluid conformity of the two of us touching everywhere, our limbs in easy interlock. I lifted my right hand to his face, ran it over his jaw and throat, felt the slight stubble I knew he was going to shave the second he got up. Best feel it now, then. I was running my fingertips slowly over his right ear and into his hair when I heard him gasp.

“What is it, love? What?”

For a moment he didn’t say anything, then he murmured, “John.”

If anything could have melted me more thoroughly than what we’d been doing, it was that. Hearing him say my name again in that subsonic, velvet voice, to mean you, this, here, us, more, please, I need you.

What I’d taken for tension was instead a very welcome arousal. Who knows how long he’d been lying there awake and rigid with desire, trying not to wake me up.

I shifted up, nearly sitting, taking his shoulders and turning him toward me, arching my right leg over him to rest my knee beside his hip, pinning him to the bed. His cock was hard and hot and already wet, pushing eagerly into my bollocks while my own lay flush on his pale skin. I pushed away every other thought as I bent down to kiss him, tangling my fingers in his and pinning his hands back against the mattress.

The man I’d wanted so much, had lost, had tried so hard to give up to another man, was spread out under me and straining, thrusting against me. It was the fiercest joy I could have imagined, and nothing about this moment could be taken for granted. I’d so nearly lost it all, for good.

I shifted and rubbed against him, completely taken up in the sensation of his erection on my bollocks, but listening to the sounds of unmistakable pleasure he was making, sometimes murmurs, sometimes exclamations, sometimes my name.

It took so little to overwhelm me: the scent of him, being able to touch him everywhere, seeing his expression shuttle between aching desire and bliss. I'd never imagined that basically grinding against each other could reduce me to panting incoherence; it was hardly the height of erotic technique, after all. But the longer we did it, the more my focus narrowed to only that contact and that motion, that push and pull, as though what we were doing was kissing, just not with our mouths.

That thought made me realise the two weren't mutually exclusive, and I bent back down and captured his mouth, trailed kisses over his face, his ears. Before, it had felt like he was much closer to climax than I was; but kissing his temple, his eyes, his impossibly shapely mouth, his sinuous tongue, brought me to the edge so that we came, if not simultaneously, at least together.

I don’t know what I said to him, I never did hear my own words, I was listening to his voice, that gorgeous liquid cello tone that filled my head and my chest. But when our breathing calmed and pounding hearts slowed, and I opened my eyes and saw him by the light coming in from the skylight I saw, as clearly as though he’d spoken, that something was wrong. Disconcerting, that, when I’d thought everything was perfect.

“Hey.” I whispered into his hair. “What is it?”

He shook his head unhappily, and tried to look away, but I wasn’t having it. We’d had too much misery from not talking, and we had to learn to do things differently.

“No, please. Please. Tell me.”

“What if...” he started, and fell silent. I waited a couple of seconds and said,

“What if what?”

“What if it doesn’t last?” He was in such evident distress that my immediate temptation to laugh disappeared quickly.

“What if what doesn’t last?” I thought I knew, but again, best not assume.

“This. This... bliss. What if it disappears, just because we can have each other?”

I considered. It wasn’t an unreasonable question. God knows, people are fickle and quickly sated. I tried to pick my way through the apprehension that was jagged in his voice.

“Do you mean, will I stop wanting you? Because I’ve wanted you for years, years, Sherlock, and I don’t think I’ll get jaded soon, if ever, at having you. Or do you mean, will you stop wanting me? That one I can’t venture a guess on.”

The way his hands grabbed my shoulders, urgently and hard, was its own denial. I said, “Tell me, then.”

He started and stopped a couple of times, and then, “I don’t know. This. This is so perfect, it’s what I’ve dreamed of always, what I never, ever, thought I would have with you. What if it slips away? What’s more fatal to desire than—satisfaction?”

I jerked, an automatic dismissal ready, then stopped. Thought for a moment. I loved a man who couldn’t experience emotion or sensation without ratiocination. Without anxiety, for that matter. He’d been alone for so long, and I’d hurt him so deeply. I couldn’t afford not to hear him now, just because I thought he was being the tiniest bit premature in burying our happiness.

“I don’t know, love. I don’t. I only know I’ve wanted you this way from the day I met you, and maybe it will fade, certainly it’ll ease, it’s not human to live in a constant state of elation. But even if it does, when it does, we’ll still love each other the way we always have, and we’ll still have had this. I, for one, won’t have any regrets.

“And I will never—no, listen to me—never want to start over again with someone else. You’re my future, as you’ve been my every waking moment since January 29th, 2010. Please don’t make yourself unhappy now, thinking about what might happen someday. For now, let’s just love each other. We’ve waited long enough.”

I kept my voice equable, my hand smoothing up and down over his bare chest, looking at his frankly adorable chin in profile, hoping that what I’d said was reassurance enough. I was trying hard not to jab myself with the thought that what Sherlock was afraid of was that he would stop wanting me, stop loving me. It had become a stupid habit, always choosing the most painful interpretation, and it hadn’t got me or us very far in all these years. He had the right to be unsettled—just days ago he was in bed with someone else, after all. (Agony to have a visual to attach to that knowledge.)

He didn’t answer, but his hand settled over mine, and his breathing slowed down. Ages later, as we were drifting back into sleep, I heard him whisper “Okay.”

 

* * * 

 

When I wake up, who knows how much later, it’s to Sherlock in a completely different mood. No reserve, no doubt, no disquiet. He seems ... transformed from before.

“You.” His voice curls around my ear as his tongue traces almost imperceptibly around it. “Fascinate.” His breath raises chills on my barely dampened skin. “Me.” There’s a half-laugh in his voice as he nuzzles into my hair and ruffles it. “Every part of you, every inch of your skin. Everything you do to me, every word you say.”

Between the onslaught of physical and emotional stimulation I hiss in almost unbearable pleasure. Now it’s not just his mouth and nose on my skin; he’s trailing his fingers slowly, lightly, along my shoulder blades, over my shoulders and down my arms, now rubbing firmly into my biceps, then flattening out again over my forearms.

“I want to know all of you. I’ve wanted it for so long... wanted you.” I can’t quite get the words out, but I want him to understand, want him to hear me all the more because I’m almost speechless.

“You saw me watching you for years, and didn’t know how much I wanted you.” His voice is somewhere between amused, and unbelieving. Despite my absorption in what he is doing, I snort.

“Pot. Kettle.” Ah, so original and articulate, I hear him think. So why do I fascinate him—and how can that be true?

“But I at least tried to tell you. Time after time. You wouldn’t hear me, see me. You’d be on the way out the door, following—well, not me. So I gave up. And just—watched.”

“But I tried to tell you, too, Sherlock. Dozens of times. Hundreds.” Now his stroking hands have come to a stop, tightening on my own, then relaxing, resting there.

“Did you?” Some other note has entered his voice, something I can’t quite place. Doubt? Sadness? He returns his mouth to my ear and again I’m unbearably aroused, feeling the blood rush to my cheeks and my ears, tingling there strangely like a bee sting. He must know what this is doing to me. My heart is pounding inside my chest, my breath is coming shorter and my mouth is dry.

“I did. I tried. You... wouldn’t listen. You even—well, pushed me away. Until you went away yourself.” My voice sounds strangled now and tight, nothing like his low, calm murmur, so quiet and controlled.

“But I came back. For you. And when I did—you shut me out. How was I supposed to know?”

I can’t think. I can’t remember anything, can’t find any words. His soft breath on my ears, in my hair. His cool fingers moving to my chest now, tracing my pectoral muscles, curling under them, flattening out over my rib cage, holding me to him. I know what he’s doing, now. In some dim corner of my lust-fogged brain I can sense him keeping his own control while robbing me of mine. Why? Why can’t we slide together into this delicious, dizzying chasm together—neither of us observing, neither of us observed? No one granting, no one begging. I would beg, now. I would.

“Touch me. Oh, God—just touch me, please. You’re driving me mad.”

His voice shifts again, darkens, deepens. “Oh, I will. I will. That’s all I want. As long as you want it too.”

Wha—well, of all the—consent? Explicit? Is that what he’s on about? For God’s sake, doesn’t he know I’ve waited years for him to hold me like this, touch me? I can say it if I have to. Anything, but he must not stop.

“I do. I do. I said.” I'm proud of myself for keeping my voice relatively steady, despite my ragged breathing. But the price is two-word sentences, monosyllabic at that.

“Say it again. Tell me what you want me to do.”

Well, who knew he actually has a sadistic streak?

I huff out a laugh. “I think you know. I know you do. The world’s most observant man.”

“I want to hear you say it. Please. I’ve wanted to hear you say it ... for so long.” His words are pleading, but his tone is commanding. Git. He knows I’ll always do what he wants when he says it in that low rumble.

So I tell him. I gather my wits and my courage and tell him, steadily and unsteadily, fluently and haltingly, what I want him to do to me—what I want to do to him. What I'm going to do to him. And by the time I'm out of words, he's out of calm, out of breath. After that there are no more words for a while, from either of us. Signs. Low groans. Urgent. Tender. Some laughter. He’s the one person I’ve always been able to laugh with, from the beginning, even before and long after I knew that I wanted him in that way. I find myself thinking that lovemaking without laughter is incomplete.

Meanwhile we're getting more and more tightly wound, fending off, heading off climax; every time we come to the tipping point or close to the edge, he backs off. Decelerates. By the fourth time he's eased us back from orgasm I think my nerves are going to come through my skin, that the next touch or stimulus will make me explode. I'm going to embarrass myself if we don’t just get on with it. When I’d fantasised about holding Sherlock at last I had never imagined this glacial speed, this suffocating desire. I’d imagined explosive, uncivil, urgent. Never this...control.

It hits me suddenly that this is what he’s learned in the past month. I’ve lost the chance to have his spontaneous, unguarded need, at least after our first, uninhibited reunion. He’s learned to dominate it. I gasp, and somehow he knows it isn’t like my other gasps so far. Not arousal: realisation, and despair.

“What.” He’s gone still, his voice drops yet again.

“Nothing.” I'm so desolate I can’t talk.

“There was something. Or you’d have answered ‘What?’ back. What is it? Why did you... where did you go?” He's going to keep pressing. I have to answer.

“Regrets. The ... nothing, just, regrets.” I am trying to learn candour, but honesty may not always be the best policy.

He’s silent, and then takes his arm from under my neck, lifts his weight from my torso, untangles our legs, without a word. He lifts himself off and sits back against the headboard. It’s all tense now, careful and silent. I’ve ruined everything.

“Come back here. I’m not—” I try for control myself, now. Some warmth. Humour. “I’m not done with you.”

In the dim glow from the skylight I can make out the pallour of his face, as he looks sideways at me. He's leaning forward, his knees drawn up, his forearms braced on them. Unsmiling.

“Maybe not.” His voice is odd. A hitch. 

“What does that mean? There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. I never will be done with you.”

I take his left hand and bring it to my mouth, leaving soft kisses all along the back of it, turning it over, kissing his palm. I hear him sigh. Not desire, though. Confusion, maybe. Disbelief.

“If you won’t tell me why you stopped—I’ve spent so long guessing, guessing wrong. And I hate to guess. Please.”

He's as close to imploring as I’ve ever heard him. But I am absolutely sure that this is the wrong time to tell him: it’s too soon, it’ll seem like an accusation, it’ll keep Zanardi in our bed forever.

“I promise I’ll tell you. But not now—please, let’s just be together. No one else, just us, here, together. Finally. Desperate for each other at the same time, no games.”

My voice is relaxed now, confident, though almost wheedling. A beat. Another. Then it’s obvious from the relaxation of tension that I’ve won him over. He opens his arms, waits while I move into them and lie back against him. We’ll be fine. I have to control this. I have to learn not to punish him, or myself, for what I regret. I have to.

 

* * * 

 

A bit later, though, I come back to something that had been niggling at me. “You said you tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen.”

“Hmm? So?” His voice in my ear is lush and faraway.

“Well, but when did you try to tell me? Besides when it was too late, I mean, at the wedding.” I rake my fingernail along his backbone and his shiver is gratifying.

“When I played.” Well, that’s clear as mud.

“When—what? When you played?” Come on, Sherlock, explain this. I don’t understand.

“Yes, yes. Do keep up.” He seems to be catching up himself.

“Well, what about it? What are you saying?” —Wrong tack. He stiffens, withdraws, without a change of expression or position, but it’s tangible. “Sorry. I’m listening.”

He’s still a bit distant, but he’s making an effort, I can feel it.

“When I picked up the violin, I didn’t always want to play.” It sounds like the beginning of an explanation, but he stops there. So I pick up.

“Um—I know that. You didn’t always play. Sometimes you strummed or sawed or shrieked. Well, made it shriek.” Playing the violin at all hours should definitely have been on his list of things flatmates should know about each other before moving in.

“Yes. It wasn’t just expression. Random. It was—emotion.” Oh. When he’d made his way through those tangled and terrible sounds he’d been working through the labyrinth of desire, anxiety, reflection. That’s more self-examination than I’d expected.

“So: you were feeling, when you did those horrible things to your violin. When you were mourning Irene Adler.” Even saying her name makes me wince, but I try to keep my tone steady.

“John.” Sternly. “I did not mourn Irene Adler. For one thing, she wasn’t dead. For another, I didn’t miss her. Once and for all: I was mourning you.” For someone who’s talking about mourning he sounds mightily annoyed, to be honest.

“Hang on. I wasn’t dead, either. I was right there. How could you be mourning me?” I’ll never get to the end of the mystery of Sherlock, I swear. If he’s afraid I’ll ever get bored of him, well, that isn’t going to happen.

“She told you that you and I were a couple, despite your being not gay. You knew I’d heard it. The next move was yours to make. I could hardly pressure you, you know. Borderline sexual harassment.” His voice shuttles between mortified and furious.

And suddenly I'm alight, elated, so massively relieved that the picture I’d created of Sherlock yearning for Irene Adler bore no resemblance to the truth. Those months of misery were on my account.

If I’d known, though, would I have had the courage to open up to him? Probably not. If I hadn’t loved him, I could have told him I wanted him. If I hadn’t wanted him, I could have told him I loved him. Both together—it was just too overwhelming a risk of rejection.

He’s going on without me, though. “I was mourning what I’d hoped might come of her ... revelation. Provocation. But also. When I stroked the curves of the instrument I sometimes imagined I was touching you.”

“Cheeky.” It’s a nice thought, though. I’ll have to revisit it. Ask him to.

“Not like that.” He’s impatient, but cool again. “Your face. Your wrist bone.”

“My wrist bone?” Once again Sherlock surprises me. My fantasies about him have always tended to be much more ... predictable, I suppose. That upper lip. That glorious arse. Oh, I’m a shallow man.

“You can’t imagine how many hours I’ve spent thinking about your wrist bone, John.” He lifts my hand cautiously, brings it to his mouth, slides his lower lip along my wrist. And just like that, my wrist is an erogenous zone to the power of ten. I try to keep focused, keep my voice calm.

“And when you wailed and howled on your violin?” I’m not exaggerating, either—the way he brutalised that instrument sometimes was equaled only by the way it brutalised my ears and brain.

“I think now that I was in more pain than I could bear. I had to let it out somehow. At some level I hoped you might understand what it meant, without my having to say. To let down my guard. And risk ... everything.” But even as he’s saying this he’s refusing to let down his guard.  Is he afraid I’ll—laugh? Gain the upper hand?

If he is, shame on me. But I remind myself that we’d both been cutting with each other, and some defensiveness was natural. Mine, strangely enough, has been directed toward Zanardi alone. The bastard had seen what I hadn’t—that is, what I had in Sherlock—and he hadn’t hesitated to take advantage of my blindness, my cowardice. And I’ve been resenting the hell out of him for it, despite trying not to.

But now that Sherlock is back in my sight—I can’t feel defensive toward him. Just glad. No, ecstatic. But he’s still a little—wary. Yes, that. He’s uncertain. 

“I know. I mean, I understand. I was afraid of that, too. Afraid of what it might—break.” Even remembering that fear is chilling. 

“But everything was already broken. What did we have to lose?” His voice is despondent. 

“Appearances, I suppose.” I’m casting about, a bit. It had been much more than that. 

“Appearances?” Sherlock is honestly puzzled.

“I’d spent a long time performing, and I’d have had to admit that it was all a pretence.”

I beg him silently to understand what I mean: that I’d been pretending to be an unequivocally straight man, to be better at human relations than he was, to care about him only as a mate.

Long silence. Then: “I could say the same.”

I know he means that he’d been pretending to care about no one at all. To be a brain without a heart, a brain able to completely dominate his “transport.”

“You could.” I can’t help how fond it sounds.

“But for a long time I didn’t know I was pretending. Or I was pretending to myself, as well as to you.” His tone is marveling, a little, as if he were discovering the truth of this in the saying of it.

“I wish—” I stop, uncertain whether to say it at all.

What ?” Imperious, a bit, but with a hint of entreaty.

“I wish it hadn’t taken losing you to know how much I always wanted you.” There. I’ve said it, in a rush.

Silence again. “When?” When Sherlock goes monosyllabic, I get nervous.

“When you were dead. When you were shot. When you left for Rome.” I hope he doesn’t press for details. Those things happened very far apart, after all. And I should have added, “When you thought Irene was dead.”

But he’s quiet, now. For a long time. Then: “Drawn to stars.”

“What?” I have no idea what that means, but it certainly seems to mean something to him.

“Nothing. —Perhaps it’s because I lost you—you lost me—that we wanted each other.” I look up sharp at that. In expression and voice he seems to be trying for neutral, but what I hear is desolate, the same fear that having each other, we would no longer want each other.

“It’s water under the bridge now,” he says, coolly again, as though the conversation were over, and inconsequential in any case. And when he takes me into his arms, lowers himself onto me, covers my mouth with his, brings every sense alive with his fingers—well, it is over.

 

Johix John & Sherlock in bed

 

Chapter Text

6 March 2016

Bologna

 

Lying there in the half-light between sleep and waking, pulse gradually calming after yet another spectacular orgasm, I remember something Sherlock had said awhile back: that he’d been trying to choose Zanardi. I know what that’s like. I’d been trying to choose Mary for months, for years. When I’d already found the love of my life.

How trite that sounds. There’s a howling abyss between simple words like “the love of my life” and the immensity of what Sherlock is to me. The intricacy and force and exhilaration of it—and how immediately he became it. Almost the first moment I saw him, heard him. But he left me, and I’d been angry at him for so long that I hadn’t even known anymore how to love him without hating him too.

Ella had helped me see that I’d been angry that he’d killed himself, before I had a chance to help him, to tell him I loved him (something I didn’t admit to her). But my grief was far greater than my anger.

Then when I found out he hadn’t died—that he’d left me there to suffer for years, to the edge of self-destruction—the anger exploded into a supernova of rage. Nothing he said or did could ever convince me to trust him again, to open up to him as my dearest friend. I kept a wall between us and topped it with glass shards. If he tried to come close I made sure I hurt him, sniping at him, mocking him, and punishing him.

Mary aided and abetted, of course. She knew what he’d been to me, even if Sherlock himself didn’t; she knew she could have been out of my life the day I forgave him. So she kept up a stealth campaign of derision, undermining Sherlock at every turn and making sure to belittle his intelligence and his emotional maturity to my face.

I fell for it, of course. My ego was flattened along with my heart. I thought if I ever gave Sherlock a chance to hurt me again, it’d kill me. Mary was part of my armour against him, against my own stubborn longing to be close to him again; and when I walked back into Sherlock’s flat to work the Magnussen case with him, she shot him. Not to protect herself from exposure—not really. To protect herself from losing me to him.

There. I’ve said it. Mary wasn’t distraught, and she didn’t fire a “surgical” shot. She wanted him dead and me tied to her forever. Why she wanted it, I don’t know. She didn’t have much respect for me, or much care for my feelings. But she wanted it. She wanted me broken again, clinging to her and to our child as the only certain thing in my life, the only people I truly loved. Mary couldn’t share.

In looking back I can see that Sherlock could share. Did share. He cared more about me than about his own happiness, his own life. He hadn’t just shared—he’d ceded. If only he’d given me any kind of a say—but what would I have said? He’d lost my trust; I was back where I started, with Sherlock unwilling to explain further his fake suicide stunt and his two years of playing dead, and me unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. Going back to Mary. Sending him off to Serbia with a reluctant and chilly handshake.

After Rosie was born, we were more divided than ever. When Mary and I weren’t locking him out, he closed ranks with Mary and locked me out. Told me she was better at the Work than I was. Well, she was cleverer, no question, but that wasn’t the point. Sherlock had always worked well with me precisely because I wasn’t in his league, had a different point of view.

The day he told me that—I was gutted. After all we’ve been to each other, as the cliché goes. He chose Mary, and they both mocked me. What was that about? I never really had a chance to ask. Perhaps he meant it. Perhaps he thought it was so obviously a joke that I’d never be wounded by it.

He was wrong. It hurt like hell that they preferred each other’s company that day to mine, reduced me to the status of a child-minder or a dog. It was always Mary’s style of humour—the slice-and-dice teasing that left no self-respect standing—but it was never Sherlock’s. Ours. 

All this is in my mind when I whisper, “I wish you’d told me.” Immediately I’m conscious that he could say the same to me.

He’s quiet a moment. Then: “I’ve always been afraid to let go, you know, to show you how important you are to me. I’ve always been afraid you’d be ... repelled. Or that you’d ridicule me. Patronise me.”

I’m stroking his hair, running my fingers down to his jawline. Trying to reassure him. “Why would I do that? I would never want to hurt you. Diminish you.”

A flash of something unexpected registers in his incredulous huff. I hurry to investigate. “What? What’s that sound mean?”

His glance cuts away obliquely and he shakes his head, once. “Nothing. Of course you wouldn’t.”

That isn’t going to cut it. “No, I wish you’d tell me. What do you—what are you thinking of?”

Be careful what you wish for, they say.

Ten minutes later I'm silent, only stroking Sherlock’s tense back steadily, slowly. “Colleague.” “Spectacularly ignorant.” “Annoying dick.” “Machine.” “Drama queen.” From the man who routinely called me “idiot,” demeaned me to our acquaintance, mocked my love life and my writing—it was unexpected that these words had hurt him. But they had. These, and a hundred others.

I stop my hand, consider a moment. “I need to go out.”

“Don’t.” One arm tightens around me.

“I just need a moment.” His grip loosens and his arms fall away.

I’m untangling myself from him, trying to get up from the bed, when a thought hits me. “Just—while I’m out, don’t go anywhere. Don’t leave. Don’t disappear.” Don't score, I am thinking. I don’t know if he hears that subtext.

“I’m not the one leaving, John.” He sounds petulant, but that’s a coverup for genuine anxiety, I know that by now.

“I’m not leaving either. Promise. Being here wrapped around you is just too distracting, and you’ve given me something to think about. That means I have to actually think about it. I need to take it in.” I try to keep my tone light. It isn’t his fault that I haven’t sensed any of this, and I don’t want him to sit here and stew while I think my way through it.

“Then I’m sorry I told you. I’ve ruined everything.” He still sounds rattled, almost despairing.

I touch his shoulder again, gave it a squeeze. God, I love being able to touch him. “No. You’ll see. When I get back.”

Sherlock hurtles himself onto his other side in the bed, tucking his head down. He doesn’t move while I dress. His expression, both thunderous and uncertain, comes with me as I close the door, take the slow elevator down, and finally pull the street door closed behind me.

 

* * * 

 

It’d been one of those disorienting moments when something you think you understand is jerked completely sideways. You think you’re looking at a giraffe and suddenly it’s a chair in profile. I’d been lying there stewing about the way Mary and Sherlock—separately and together—had mocked me, and never once thought I’d been doing the same to him.

He’d listed so many examples, and I’d even remembered most of them. When I think about it, I can remember some other times I’d taken the piss at Sherlock’s expense. But it always felt like ... mocking up, somehow. I could laugh at him because he was so far above ridicule. It hadn’t felt the same when he and Mary mocked me.

It’s late and the streets are almost deserted, just the occasional student cycling home late, or a cheerful group of them streeling home a bit the worse for wear, talking too loudly and echoing in the porticoes. I’m glad of the quiet, I have to think what to say to Sherlock, how to apologise to him, how to broach my own feelings of being derided and belittled. If I even need to. Because by figuring out my own casual cruelty—mocking up—I’ve figured out his own. He felt at a disadvantage, loving me and not being loved. Or so he thought. God, what a cock-up.

The arcades I walk down feel even colder than the streets and piazzas; they channel an icy draft of wind, and the darkness hides the mellow colours that lent the city warmth by day. It’s hard to believe it’ll be spring in a couple of weeks. It’s going to be our best spring ever. His, and mine, and Rosie’s.

I head back to the hotel.

 

* * * 

 

I close the room door firmly so he’ll hear me, asleep or awake. He hasn’t moved, apparently, in the hour or so since I left, and the bedside lamp is still on, low.

I must’ve brought in a draught of cold air, because he shivers and huddles up tighter in the covers. I sit on the edge of the bed in the crescent between his knees and his bent head, and lean down and kiss his face and hair. Contritely. Lovingly. Over and over, until he straightens his neck and meets my eye, not speaking.

“Those things I wrote. On the blog. I only put them in to balance the moony things I said. “Charismatic.’ ‘Fascinating.’ ‘Like a drug.’ I’m sorry. I was embarrassed to be so—” His eyes narrow and I can’t find my words.

“To be so what ?” His voice is still tight, suspicious.

“Infatuated. Juvenile.” The words are coming now, all right. “Besotted. Transparent. Everyone could see how I felt about you, how much I wanted you. I was embarrassed about it.”

“Embarrassed to be in my orbit.” He doesn’t say it accusingly. Bleakly, rather.

“God, no. No , Sherlock. I was proud as Lucifer to be the one you chose to put up with. The one who got to follow you around. Just sometimes I was embarrassed to be so obvious.” By now I’m leaning on his side, half-lying on him, my forehead on his temple, nudging his cheekbone with my nose. I want him to smile. To look at me.

“Asperger’s. That really hurt.” I remember that moment as clearly as if it were yesterday: in Grimpen village. I’d said it to Greg as though it was a clinical fact, as though he and I were part of Sherlock’s care team. I wince in contrition.

“I’m so sorry, love. But to be fair. You were the one with the loud self-diagnosis of sociopathy.” I nudge his cheek again, trying to get him to look up. Not working.

“No one laughs at sociopaths.”

More a gasp than a wince, this time. How had I got him so badly wrong? He certainly did care what other people thought of him, at least if it was me.

“I didn’t know it hurt you. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.” I stop trying to make Sherlock look up, to jolly him or fast-forward him into harmony again. It’s important I get this right. A real apology, and a real change of behavior to give it substance.

“Only. If you did that now—” Stopped, started again. Voice lower, more measured. “I couldn’t bear it, now.” 

I feel my heart crack, a bit. I’d hurt him in ways I’d never imagined. “I won’t. You’ll see.”

“You might. Force of habit.” But his voice is already relaxing, and so is his posture. I can feel him easing up and letting go. I pull him up to sitting position and put my arms around him and hold him tight.

“New habits. I’m going to stop strangers on the street and tell them how lucky I am to have you in my arms, in my bed. In my life. In Rosie’s life. You’ll see.”

 

 

Chapter Text

9 March 2016

Bologna and London

 

The days and nights with Sherlock in Bologna had been the most extraordinary of my life, a time out of time. From the moment I’d seen his pale face in the dark station, every minute we’d spent together had surpassed every secret hope I’d ever had. Sentimental as that sounds.

For years, for so long, when I’d dreamed of holding him, talking to him, loving him and making love to him, I’d always suspected I was being unrealistic. Ridiculously optimistic. As though I had a Sherlock doll in my head I could position any way I wanted, make say or do anything I wanted—all the while expecting the real Sherlock to disappoint me.

He did anything but. We were in sync on every level: emotionally, in the expression and experience of loving each other. Talking was harmonious, if sometimes painful and always difficult; and how much we communicated without words, how much came in through skin, through breath. Physically, certainly. My God: every time we made love it was exponentially better than the last time, in the beats and reprises of desire, arousal, fulfillment.

But even just walking together in the city was like finally walking without my cane, without a limp. Everything we did or saw or tried to see: no disagreement, and most surprisingly, no petulance or boredom on his part. I’d expected him to flag in his enthusiasm for our time together and start itching for a puzzle. I’d expected him to disappoint me.

Again, he did anything but. He was attentive and generous. He made sure I had whatever he thought would make me happy, whether meals (regular, delicious) or stimulation (in bed, out of bed), or gratification. He translated; facilitated; took care of everything, and never let me feel dull or stupid because of my complete lack of Italian. He looked pleased when I tried out simple phrases in public. He held my hand, touched my arm or back, and after he’d made sure I was comfortable with that, he kissed me. Who’d taken my Sherlock—who could be so insensitive and imperious—and left this fond, attentive model in his place?

The nights were intoxicating. So were the days, as the Italian schedule of rest after lunch gave us an ironclad excuse for going back to the hotel as soon as we’d eaten. The afternoons were far more luminous than in London, and the mellow light in the room, the deepening shadows slipping along the walls, gave another intensity to the sheer stunning beauty of Sherlock in love, Sherlock in orgasm. I could watch him, feel him, listen to him, forever.

That voice. I’d dreamed of it for so long, mourned when I’d lost him. Now I could hear that gorgeous baritone in every tone and colour, laughing and rasping, cursing and imploring, and—Sherlock being Sherlock—occasionally demanding and commanding. For myself I’d never been particularly inhibited in bed, but with Sherlock I felt freer than I ever had, more spontaneous. It was ... transformative. And, I trusted, contagious.

Our conversations were the other half of the understanding we were building together. Even the hard ones were helping us to see how adamantly we’d always loved each other and how much we always would. He asked questions I couldn’t always answer, and was unexpectedly patient when I asked for time to think them over. Like when I’d acknowledged I was bisexual, and what that meant for my feelings for him, which I’d fought and denied for so long.

Once I’d stopped asking about his Italian man he answered all my questions; and every word we exchanged strengthened my determination to make us permanent. Whatever it took. I couldn’t go back to a world without loving Sherlock, without him loving me.

We were circling around being ready to go home to London, to 221B and to Rosie. Somehow. I didn’t want to face the question of where we were going to live. If Sherlock wanted us with him, I figured he’d let me know in the most unequivocal (well, demanding) way possible, and for my part I felt ready to move us over to Baker Street. But I didn’t want to make that decision for him. It’s no joke to make over your life and your work and your flat to accommodate the needs of an infant.

I didn’t want him to try and fail, either. The disruption to Rosie would be too much if I moved her twice, into and out of his orbit; and if we couldn’t succeed at living together, it would put a dent in the foundation of our own relationship, his and mine.

I didn’t realise that he was also thinking it was almost time to go home. He mentioned that I must miss Rosie, and I did, of course; but I knew she was fine, checked in on her twice a day. I was cherishing this never-to-be-repeated beginning with Sherlock in this glowing Italian city, where every wall was some shade of yellow, orange, or cinnabar. I didn’t even bring up going home, but on the Tuesday he came back to the hotel with a pastry and plane tickets for the next day.

It’s fair to say, I was impressed. He was putting Rosie first, and me; he seemed eager to start our life together, our real life. He asked, with a nonchalance I could see right through, whether I would come back to 221B and bring Rosie with me. (Not demanding at all, in fact. No pressure, only openness.)

I said, “It’s a big move, Sherlock. Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few weeks? let us settle in together? before we set up a nursery, and a schedule, and try to integrate us, with Rosie.”

The Sherlock I’d had in my mind for years would have frozen, or pouted, or accused me of doubting him.

The Sherlock in front of me was restrained and reasonable, acknowledging the potential drawbacks and listing the advantages of moving ahead. In the end, with his hand in my hair, his lush voice murmuring in my ear, all he had to say was, “What if I sleep at your flat, then, until you decide. I’d rather not sleep without you—ever again, actually.”

I was taken aback, though thrilled; never thought he’d offer to leave 221B to even sleep over at mine, let alone move in. I mulled over the possibility, visualising Sherlock standing barefoot in pajamas and dressing-gown in my drab kitchen, and found the idea incongruous but also somehow right.

When I didn’t answer he said, “Of course I can wait, if you think it best. But I’ll text you every twelve seconds and insist you send me photos of your cock.”

This was so uncharacteristic that again I had the unnerving impulse to ask, “who are you, and what’ve you done with Sherlock?”

Instead I laughed at the idea of compulsory dick pics, leaned in to breathe in his amazing scent, and said instead, “Let’s get back to London, collect Rosie, and spend a couple of nights at my flat deciding how to go on. Does that work for you? Or are you too eager to get back to 221B?”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow and said, “I just said. My own preference would be to not spend another night apart, John. Returning to 221B without you would be a very grey homecoming. But you decide. Watson’s our priority.”

We were stretched out on the bed, the bed I’d never be able to forget, and Sherlock was trailing the callused fingers of his left hand down my face and chest. I gave a contented shiver, and a sigh, and nodded.

Late the next afternoon we took a flight to Heathrow, and two hours after touchdown we were walking into the Bromley flat. Half an hour later Sherlock was saying something awkward but oddly kind about Sarah’s hair, as Julian handed me baby things from the car. I thanked both of them for taking such excellent care of Rosie, who was fidgeting and squealing and gabbling in Sherlock’s arms. I closed the door behind Sarah and Julian and turned back to see the love of my life charming the other love of my life, and thought that nothing now could really go wrong.

 

 

Chapter Text

9–16 March 2016
London

 

Our days in John’s Bromley flat were a study in beige. I kept scanning the drapes, upholstery, cushions, “art” on the walls, carpeting (unpleasant), looking for some flash of contrast to the relentless neutrals. The flat was unnaturally empty, nothing left lying on the end tables, no cheerful confusion in the bookshelves. Even the books were bland colours, and all but arranged by size. (Did she buy them in bulk at Ikea?) The occasional note of burgundy, a sober colour in itself, positively blazed next to the four hundred variations on sand, twine, écru, tan, and bone. The horrible suspicion arose that Watson's tastes might be shaped for life.

The first evening we put in her cot, though, I found her toy box full of primary and princess colours. She’d had her elephant with her, but she was pathetically cheered to be reunited with her purple dinosaur, and yellow duckling, and the rest of the plushy menagerie. She spent an hour cuddling with John, and even with me. When I held her again I was too moved to say much but “Watson,” and “there you are,” over and over as though I’d been searching for her for months. After John bathed her she settled down into a dozy kind of haze, looking at him and saying “Da,” and at me, saying “Ba.” Which was a little eerie, when I thought about it.

Our first night in John’s flat was strange, no question. I’d expected Mary’s bed to be alien, even hostile. I stretched out on the sofa (buff) with a pair of pillows (bisque) and a woolen blanket (cream, with magnolia highlights). To my surprise the sofa was welcoming and comfortable—long, wide, soft but not sagging, with support but no springs. 221B was going to have to upgrade. When John had unpacked a bit and washed up he came down, reached out a hand and asked, “Are you coming?” I’d have followed him into the bathtub (wheat) to sleep, if he asked it with that quirk to his eyebrow .

But he drew me into the guest room—should have known he’d be sensitive to my reluctance to go anywhere near their bed. He’d already laid out towels (birch) for me; he showed me to the shower, then went in to undress and get into bed. I hadn’t showered alone from the morning after he got to Bologna. I wondered whether this meant that we were going to be more circumspect, in this house and with Watson asleep next door.

Circumspect we were not. John had the baby monitor by the bed but Watson was, is, an admirable sleeper, and we never woke her despite some quite audible exertion. Perhaps John knew I needed reassurance; he certainly gave it in spades. The last thing I remember is him heaving and thrusting over me, holding my hands down on either side of my head, gasping, nearly sobbing, my name over and over and then collapsing on me when we both came.

 

* * *

 

In the morning I realised I needed to call Mrs Hudson. I’d phoned her from Bologna and told her about me and John, holding the phone at arm’s length while she whooped and wittered and chortled “I knew it.” But I hadn’t told her I wouldn’t be coming straight home to the flat. So after some insincere mea culpas and tart reassurances, I fixed a time to go to the flat and take her out for lunch. John would be at work, Watson at daycare. That was just as well: not only for consistency’s sake, but because I had a great deal to see to in a short time.

I’d forgot, in the past week, that I hadn’t only been missing John. Hudders met me at her door in classic floral dress and fluttery demeanour, and before I knew what I was doing I’d whisked her into a fond hug. She blushed and fussed and hugged, then swatted my arm with disconcerted fondness. It wasn’t long before she'd turned the conversation around to Roberto, and to John. I warned her that she wasn’t going to get much detail out of me, but next to Mrs Hudson I am a rank amateur at interrogation. What I didn’t say, she deduced; what I wouldn’t answer, she confirmed.

I turned the topic to her favourites, asking if she would be amenable to having John and Watson live with me in 221B. At this she went, predictably, into high gear, listing all the things I would need to change, provide, organise, adapt, to make the flat ready for Watson. I’d already done a fair bit back in the autumn, but there was a great deal more to face, and it sounded frankly tedious. Nothing for it but to ring the abominable Mycroft, endure his oily and insincere congratulations, and have him turn his minions loose on the task.

Kissing Mrs Hudson a firm goodbye to let her know not to accompany me, I went upstairs, dialling Mycroft as I climbed the seventeen steps. Wished I’d waited to come back until John could accompany me. But I wanted the flat to look dazzling and Watson-ready when he did come.

“Mycroft.”

“Little brother.”

Oh, God, was that what it was going to be, then. Patronising and all-seeing.

“I won’t give you any updates, as no doubt you already know everything.” Gritting my teeth.

“Not everything. Just enough to say welcome back, well done, and I’m happy for you.” Though the words were cordial, his tone retained his usual careful, and feigned, aloofness.

“Yes, well. Thank you. But not for showing surveillance photographs to John.” My voice was as acerbic as I could make it without yielding the high ground of equally feigned indifference.

“Tactless, I grant you. Effective, though.” Damn him.

“That’s what John thought you would say.” Score. John saw right through you, you bloated babboon.

“I’m sure you phoned with something more urgent than my indiscretion, Sherlock. Do please get on with it, as there’s a potential disaster looming in the United States.”

“Do tell. —No, on the other hand, don’t. I’ve very little time to make Baker Street a suitable residence for a one-year-old, brother mine. Can you help?” It galled me to ask, so I tried for light irony.

“It’s the least I can do.” Yes, damn you, it is.

“Upstairs room: clear it all out. Pale yellow walls, not lemon, not chrome. Sprinkler system, smoke alarm, carbon monoxide detector. Move in an excellent single bed and nightstand.” (You’re not sleeping there with anyone else, John Watson.) “A proper cot, the best. A dresser. Changing-table. Rocking chair. Toy chest. No need for toys. A bookshelf. Printer’s tray, painted white. Paint the floor white, too. Blue throw rug, one of those braided ones. Cheerful colours for the furniture.”

Mycroft would know better than anyone how closely I was replicating the nursery of our childhood, and he would know better than to mention it. In Italy I’d collected things for Watson here and there, and had them sent back here. Toys. A mobile, carved in wood, where a little white and yellow boat would glide back and forth on blue waves over the crib. Tiny things for the shadow box, for when she was bigger. I’d meant to find a way to get them to her despite what had happened with John.

Mycroft didn’t need to take notes, nor would he be dealing with this himself. But he assumed the tone of a man harassed, and sighed, “How long?”

“Three days. Two would be better.” I was grateful, as Mycroft would know no matter how curt I sounded. He’d been guilty and frightened about me for years now, never at ease unless John and I were on terms. Now he might even be able to take a vacation, though God only knows what Mycroft might find restful.

 

* * *

 

We were home within days, once the upstairs room was finished. It was perfect. Watson had, almost certainly, no memory of her visits to 221B the previous year, but she settled in placidly, probably helped by having been shuttled about so often in her first year. As soon as John was out I walked her around the sitting room again, murmuring all the “B” words. All she said was “Ba,” however. Still no proper words, beyond “Da,” “more,” and “no.”

It was fascinating watching John and Watson together, and unsettling but thrilling to begin to be part of their routines and their rhythms. If I’d thought he and I could finally breathe again, however, our uneasy sleep proved me wrong. Sometimes we were awake for all the best reasons; sometimes we had nightmares, and once on the same night, seemingly unrelated to anything that had happened during the day.

John was holding me, murmuring patiently as my wild heartbeat slowed, smoothing my sweat-drenched hair out of my face. He asked if I wanted to tell him what I’d dreamed. It wasn’t one of the secret nightmares, of past torture or grief, so I told him. It was all so present, so terrifyingly clear, that I didn’t have to reach to remember any of it.

“We were on a coach. Or maybe it was a train. I’d taken off my shoes and was drowsing on your shoulder even though I knew our stop was coming up, and you were awake and alert. There weren’t many people in our car, or coach, and we weren’t in England. It looked like the American west, something vast and bright and arid. The carriage slowed and you sprang into action, grabbed our cases and said this was our stop, where we’d left our car.”

I’d thought I was over the immediate effect of the dream; my pulse said otherwise, the tightness in my throat. I felt overheated and unpleasantly damp, but I needed him close, so I didn’t pull away.

“But my shoes weren’t there, they’d slid away and I had to go looking under all the seats to find them, and the coach pulled away again and you were gone. It didn’t seem too serious, I knew I could get out at the next stop and you would drive there and pick me up. But I was rattled anyway. I found my shoes, collected my things and got off at the next stop.”

Getting out of that indeterminate vehicle was pure terror, yet I couldn’t find the words to say so, or why.

John was silent, letting me find my words: he knows better than anyone what nightmares do to scramble language. Dreams are mostly images, after all. And emotion. Impression. Words only come in as dialogue. A nightmare is a horror film without a voiceover; if there were one, they wouldn’t be so paralysing.

“It was utterly dry, I could feel the air leaching the moisture out of my skin, and a wind was rising. There was no one there, just a dilapidated plastic structure to give some shelter from the wind, none from the sun, and the windblown sand had blasted it into opacity.

“Now the visibility was getting worse, but I could make out a couple walking toward the shelter, through the red sand. As they got closer I tried to ask them ‘Where is this?’ or ‘Where are we?’ but the words wouldn’t come out, I couldn’t breathe, and the wind was blowing so hard it was pushing me along the accumulated sand on the roadway as though I were dune-surfing.”

But by now my voice was tense, as tense as my muscles.

“It sounds ridiculous, but I was terrified. I tried to shout your name, but the wind blew sand into my throat and I knew I was going to die without seeing you again. Ridiculous.”

The near-certainty that I’d lost John for good, in a lonely and unmoored wasteland—it didn’t need decoding. It was all too literal.

John’s arms relaxed, he was stroking my shoulder blades slowly, rhythmically. I wondered if that’s how he calmed his daughter when she was fretful. (He’s a fantastic father, knows instantly what to do, doesn’t have to deduce from tells and symptoms.) John hummed softly, and stroked my hair.

“I’ll tell you mine, and then we can both relax. We were in the countryside, standing outside a barn that had a wall missing. Inside there were stalls with children in them, little wizened things with sad faces, and outside there were three or four quite big boys heaving rocks at them. One of them kept aiming at this one little chap, and hit him several times. I was just opening my mouth to roar something at him, ‘Oi,’ or some such, when you shouted me awake.”

I lay quiet, considering. Still stiff as a plank. Considering. If my nightmare was all too transparent, where I was lost in a wilderness without him as the world became uncontrollable, his was equally so, where he had to save a helpless child and I was apparently useless in the endeavor.

But it wasn’t very dramatic, and it wasn’t real. These were only our fears, quashed down deep by day and bubbling up by night. They were so obvious that quite unexpectedly I started to laugh. And in that way when something strikes me funny and I’m helpless against it, my giggle was going more and more high-pitched and breathless, my body relaxing into John’s as I held him and laughed and laughed into his hair. John began to get indignant.

“It’s not funny, you know. Not funny at all. That poor kid. He was already the runt of the litter, and they were all locked up in that barn with the brutes outside armed with rocks and bricks—”

I sobered up quickly, or tried to, though some hiccoughing giggles still came out. “But don’t you see, John. Of course. Of course your nightmare would be that you couldn’t rescue a child and I wasn’t helping, and mine would be that I needed you and couldn’t find you. —Selfish. Selfish.”

He calmed down and smiled, and kissed me, and said, “You’re not selfish, Sherlock. Not when it counts. When I used to say you were, I was, well, wrong. You aren’t. You’ve never been anything but generous with me, and Rosie, and. Mary. Even when we didn’t deserve it. —Now, let’s take a quick shower, wash the nightmares away.”

I didn’t want to get out of bed at all, but I also felt slick and repulsive. Shower it was, and then back into bed to show John everything I’d not yet found the words to say. Someday I might.

 

 

Chapter Text

16–22 March 2016

221B Baker Street

 

When we finally talk about my leap off the roof of Barts it isn’t planned, as our conversations in Bologna were. It comes about as naturally and peaceably as waking.

It’s an at-home morning, a couple of hours before the time Watson’s been waking up, or rather before she usually starts burbling and then grizzling.

I wake up on my back with John plastered to my side. Our hands clasped loosely. His face buried in my neck. His cock pressing against my hip. (If I were to turn to face him it would be pressed into my belly; mine, just as hard, would be between his thighs.) The scent of his hair and his breath, the sound of his quiet breathing. He’s warm, always so warm. His left knee is bent over mine, and the sole of his foot is flat against my calf. There isn’t another centimetre of us that could be touching and still it isn’t enough.

So I do turn to face him, bury my face in his chest, bring him flush against me with my right hand at his back, breathe in the scent of his neck, taste the slight salt on his skin. John was right: we should always have been this way with each other. And I’d been wrong: afraid for so long to let him see how much I loved him, afraid to lose him. When he calls me an idiot, he’s right there, too. What he should be calling me, is coward. He never will, so I do.

He starts to wake, I can sense it, feel the small twitches that become deliberate, all but hear his mind coming to consciousness. And then—oh, yes—hear my favourite greeting, in his sleep-rough voice.

“Sherlock.”

It’s full of wonder. I understand that. I’m filled with it, myself. By now closeness is both our default and a thrill. In Bologna I’d been afraid that something we might say would separate us instantly, and I was careful, we both were. That fear has retreated. What we have now—what we always should have had—feels unbreakable, though we still have a long road ahead of us. 

We still have the fall to talk through, and my absence, and my clownish return and all that came after. As we always should have done, without hiding or manipulation or violence.

Somehow John’s already there with me. How does he do that? It’s uncanny. We’re kissing as hungrily as if it’s been years, not hours, since we last did so, and suddenly John pulls back and says,

“When you came back alive from being dead, this is all I wanted. I couldn’t admit it then. Who gets that miracle, a return from the dead? I thought I was furious. How could I misunderstand my own feelings that badly?”

And just like that, it’s time.

 

* * *  

 

It was grueling. John made me tell all the things I never wanted or dared to explain to him. Exactly none of it put me in a flattering light. Especially my own superficiality and hubris, thinking Moriarty wanted to play games with me for a challenge—when all he wanted was to conquer, to kill, to rule a criminal empire.

I had to tell him how Moriarty had bested me, left me no moves. Why I had no choice but to jump; the snipers waiting to kill him, Lestrade, and Mrs Hudson. Why I couldn’t let him in on it, why I had to get him away from Barts. It didn’t appease him. He hated being protected, like a dependent, he said. A subordinate.

I could feel him breaking apart in my arms. All those years of distance and rancour and distrust. I could’ve avoided it all if I’d just talked to John like a peer. Looking back it seems I’d preferred being his idol to being his equal or his friend.

If I’d thought that talking about the Fall now was safe, just a cleanup operation, I was wrong. I’d never be finished being wrong, it seemed. John was breaking and I couldn’t help. Every word I said was hurting him more, and I could lose him still. After being so warm in sleep he was cold, his skin all gooseflesh, his face a mask of suppressed anger and sorrow.

It got worse, if anything, as we talked. He asked why I couldn’t let him know afterwards, couldn’t give him even one discreet, unmistakable signal that would have let him realise, wait. At least hope. And the reason I couldn’t do it made no sense to me either anymore, so I couldn’t explain it. It wasn’t what I’d said back then, that he was such a poor actor that anyone watching him would know the truth.

But John was lost in the details, telling me any number of ways I could have alerted him. A song on the radio dedicated to him. A message in a fortune cookie. An ad in the personals, a tip off from one of the homeless network, for God’s sake. Instead: over two years of silence, of distance, letting him die slowly, untargeted by any sniper while I blithely chased criminals across the world.

That I corrected, trying to keep my voice calm.

“It was never an adventure, John. It was nothing but transience, and regret, and homesickness and solitude. Tedium, and terror. Longing. It was exile.”

When he finally wept, his chest heaving, I held him and kissed his hair, knowing that if we could survive this at all it would be by letting all of it out at last. His sense of betrayal, his belief that he hadn’t mattered, that his sorrow hadn’t mattered. When he was all I cared or thought about, while I was away. I cared so much I cauterised the “sentiment” by cutting off information about him from Mycroft, who was instructed to tell me only if John was injured, or worse.

“I know. You’ve said.” John shifted again, turning his head again into my chest, into my shoulder. His voice was bitter, as it always was when he talked about my supposed suicide. I couldn’t blame him; I’d admitted that by saving his life I’d caused him the kind of pain I was too cowardly to risk for myself.

Why did you stay away?

I murmured, “Moriarty’s crime syndicate was so large, so powerful, and I had to stay under their radar. I was afraid for you. I had to make sure you were going to be alive even if it meant I’d never have you with me again, never have your trust or your friendship again.”

He didn’t answer, and I brushed my left hand up and down his back. “John. John. I am so sorry. I should have done everything differently, from the day I jumped to the night I came back.”

After a few seconds he made me tell him about that too, my comic turn as a waiter unappreciated as he geared himself up to ask Mary to marry him: “And that ridiculous waiter impersonation?”

“You had a ring on the table for her, and I blanked. I couldn’t think of anything but how to make my reappearance into a magic trick, something so unexpected that you’d be too blown away to realise how gutted I was.”

John breathed against my shoulder, then kissed the skin there, drew his tongue against the muscle, and I shiver. This was tricky ground: if he asked me about Mary now, I absolutely could not lie or deflect. I urgently hoped he wouldn’t.

“Oh, I was blown away, all right. But not like I used to be, all admiration and amazement. I never felt so irrelevant and worthless in my life. As if nothing I’d gone through mattered to you; it was all a huge joke. And you’re telling me that was never true.”

It took all the willpower I had not to weep; I’d wept at Barts, when I’d hurt John. This wasn’t about me: it was about apologising to John, not making him comfort me. But when I thought about the prison in Serbia, the beatings and torture, and when it ended, feeling relief only because I could finally go home to John—it wasn’t all a huge joke. That too had to come out.

He was still stroking my shoulder, so softly. “Your skin is so beautiful.” His voice didn’t rise above a whisper.

“Not everywhere.” I was pleased at how placid I sounded. I didn’t feel it.

“Tell me now. What they did to you.”

Now: everything I’d never wanted him to know. The stupid, sadistic, stinking gaoler; the dank, freezing prison; never being clean, and once losing control over my very bowels and bladder; hunger, and thirst, and endless pain; the terror that they’d eventually redirect their brutal bludgeoning to my head, injure my brain. 

Mycroft watching, not intervening until I’d got rid of my gaoler myself; waiting until he’d seen me degraded to the very lowest point before he revealed himself. John’s often wondered, once he stopped blaming Mycroft for my supposed death, what I hold against my brother. Well, now he knew.

The forced hospitalization in Switzerland, the implacable and incorruptible nurses who wouldn’t let me near a phone or an anaesthetic. Two weeks of pain barely dulled by non-prescription anti-inflammatories, for God’s sake, because of my “history,” as Mycroft kept calling it when he deigned to check in by phone from London. Two weeks of endless debriefing with Mycroft’s humourless minions while the more visible injuries healed and bruises faded.

As I talked about this part I was wrapped around John, touching every part of him that I could reach, my ear pressed over his chest, listening as I always did to his breath and his heartbeat. He was utterly still. I think he knew much of it. Perhaps he had asked Mycroft at some point; I didn’t inquire. But when I related my return to London, retrieving my identity and my appearance, setting out to the restaurant to find him, he grew agitated again, shifting and taking jerky breaths. He cut off my account, saying roughly,

“When I tackled you to the floor—split your lip—bloodied your nose—were you still injured? In pain? Were your wounds still open?”

I didn’t answer, and that was answer enough.

Christ, Sherlock”—his cry as anguished as the night I shattered a man's skull in front of him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault. It was mine.” I kept my voice as neutral as I could, but I hated, hated, seeing him suffer so much now over what was so long past.

“You were hurt, and I hurt you again. Just getting in practice for beating you up in the morgue, then.” His words were bitter, but his voice was defeated. 

This wasn’t cleansing or cathartic; this was dangerous. I’d wanted John to see that this was my fault, all of it; instead John was convincing himself that it was his fault, and that he didn’t deserve my forgiveness.

Deflect. “Stop it, John. You couldn’t know what I wouldn’t tell you. I wasn’t ready to let you know. Not about the torture, not about the drugs.”

Success. He zeroed in on the drugs, he’d obviously been anxious about what he (and Mycroft) called my addiction.

“Did you use when you were away?” His voice was tight, as though he were expecting me to say the worst—or to lie. I took a deep breath and told him the truth.

“Only twice, maybe three times. Many more times I wished I could, but it was never safe to be high.” That wasn’t much of a reassurance, I could tell. But it was honest.

“Why did you when you came back, then?” As I’d expected, he sounded no less tense.

Ah. This wasn’t going to be much easier. But candour was essential. I turned my head and kissed his chest, his nipple hardening under my lips.

“After I came back I discovered I had ... a different relationship to solitude. Well, to be honest: I was more subject to loneliness. For eighteen months I’d had a compatible and affectionate companion, nearly constantly. Away from London I couldn’t be anything but solitary. It was a matter of survival.

“But when I came home I was lonely in a way I’d never been before. There was an absence there'd never been before. Loneliness, not boredom, became my horror. That’d been unexpected; the cocaine was a response. A reprieve.”

John jerked out of my arms and into the bathroom, pulling the door firmly shut behind him. I’d have to wait, then. I put my hands over my face and thought. If John had felt even a tenth of that loneliness, when he’d thought me dead—horrible thought. My doing. All my doing. Not Moriarty’s. Who could wonder that he didn’t let me back in?

I could see where this was going, though. Loneliness. Estrangement. Drugs. Mary.

He opened the door and stood there in the early morning light, then turned away again. I got up and moved behind him, pulling him tight to my chest, bending my head down over his shoulder, left hand on his scar, right hand on his heart.

“You were standing right here all this time, holding the door wide open. And I. Didn’t see it.” He choked out.

“You didn’t see me. ” I kept my voice gentle, then lipped along his neck and jaw, feeling his heart under my hand and against my chest.

“Oh, I saw you. Sometimes, I swear, you were all I saw. I just didn’t see you... clearly.” His voice was low and rough.  

“What did you see?” Now my own heart was pounding again, as John confirmed that he had never stopped caring.

“I knew what you were to me. It just never occurred to me that I might be that to you.” And I’d thought I’d been so transparent that he’d been repelled by how very badly I wanted him, needed him.

“Ah. Same.” And here was the crux of it: how the biggest brain and the biggest heart in London had managed to misread each other, year after endless year. John shifted onto his back foot and leaned against me. A simple gesture, but from him so revealing of trust, of confidence.

“What do we do now?” he said, turning his face to mine, his mouth to mine, lowering his voice as he drew near my ear.

You, stop blaming yourself. You said it yourself, John, in your letter: we grew up. Every decision you ever made led you to Watson. And to us, here and now. And it may not have been what you intended, but it’s more than I ever hoped to have. So stop blaming yourself. As to what we do: we make up for lost time.”