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I note a slight tremor in my hands as I tap out the text message I’ve been avoiding all day.  That never happened, before. Now that my mind is plagued with regret—full of noise—my transport seems to be gradually turning on me, too.  I pause, then hit send.

 

I need to speak with you.  SH

 

Short and vague.  Need to pique his interest enough to convince him to see me in person.  It’s been weeks since we’ve even spoken, and I don’t fancy asking for a favour of this magnitude via text message.

 

Working

What do you need

 

There’s that complete lack of enthusiasm I’ve come to expect from him.  At some point we fell entirely out of sync, and I feel like little more than a burden—an obligation—these days.  For months, really—if I’m being honest. Not that honesty has ever been one of my strong suits.

 

Can we meet?  SH

 

I stare intently at the screen where it rests in my shaky hand.  Watch the three tiny dots appear, disappear, appear. I’m unsurprised that he’s struggling to respond.  I didn’t expect this to be easy. The last time we saw one another we certainly couldn’t find the words, and it’s only gotten worse in the months of near silence that followed.

 

Six minutes have gone by, the dots appearing every so often—but still nothing.  Perhaps this is a lost cause. I suppose I could just do this alone. Alone is what I have, these days.  Alone protects me. But I’d rather have him there. My ulterior motives aside, he’d be an indispensable asset on this case.

 

Diner across from clinic

Noon tomorrow

 

I nearly drop the mobile in my haste to respond.  We’ve met there before, many times. Back when we were still capable of conjuring words and speaking them aloud to one another, I would meet him for lunch a few times a week.  But that hasn’t happened in months. Now all we have is useless small talk, awkward silence—and a stubborn determination to avoid what really needs to be said.

 

See you then.  SH

 

 

I stride into the diner at precisely twelve o’clock  with an air of confidence that I do not feel. I haven’t slept—spent the night abusing my violin and pacing around the flat—in fact, I can’t recall the last time I got more than an hour or two at all.  I scan the nearly empty restaurant—there never seems to be anyone here—and see no sign of him. Nevermind. He’ll be here soon. I head straight for our usual booth and settle in to wait.

 

 

“All right?”  I glance up from where my head rests on my forearms, having dropped it at some point out of resignation.  The doe-eyed waiter hovers at my side, looking me up and down. “Your friend running late, then?” I scoff.  Late. It’s nearly half one and I haven’t gotten so much as a text message, let alone the man himself. Should have known he wouldn’t actually come.  It seems as though I’ve well and truly destroyed things between us this time. I’ve spent each of the eighty eight minutes I’ve sat here waiting thinking exactly that.

 

I’m aware that I’ve put him through the wringer over the years—pushed our friendship as far as it (apparently) could go.  And I know that I went too far this time. I should have kept my mouth shut—honesty rarely goes well for me. Thinking back (as I constantly do) I’m not sure what on Earth I was expecting.  Reciprocation? Relief? Anything other than the horrible pressure I placed on him that day and the resulting silence? My phone pings twice. Heart racing, I pick it up.

 

Got caught up

Still there?

 

I consider fleeing.  Having spent the last ninety two minutes pondering our failing friendship and my part in that, I’m not sure I can ask this of him now.  He’ll surely say no. Why do I continuously convince myself that there’s a chance for us? It’s irrational. It’s pathetic, really. I need to just go.

 

I rise from the booth, throwing a fiver on the table to cover the tea I haven’t touched, when the door clangs open, and there he stands.  Our eyes meet, and after a moment of hesitation, he marches across the restaurant.

 

“You were leaving,” he says, a subtle note of accusation in his voice.

 

“No, I—”

 

“You clearly were.  Somewhere else to be?”  What is this, then? He shows up nearly two hours late and is somehow upset with me?   I stare back at him, seeing only tension and dread.  He’s nervous, I suppose. No doubt recalling the last time we were face to face.  I sigh.

 

“Let’s sit, John,” I slide back into the booth.  He hesitates, but does the same. “How have you been?  And Rosie?”

 

“What do you need to speak to me about?”  He asks, tone clipped. “I need to get back,”  Fantastic—let’s add a ticking clock to this already impossible encounter.  Better get right to it, then.

 

“I’m going to America,” I blurt out.  “California,” I watch as this sinks in—his eyebrows first creeping upward and then abruptly furrowing.  Mouth slightly agape.

 

“Sorry, what?”   He looks suddenly mutinous.  Not quite the reaction I was expecting.  Not at all. “So—what—you’re moving to California?   Is this goodbye, then?  Nice knowing you, I’m fucking off to America?”  He’s upset. Why?

 

“No, John,”  I place my hands flat on the table—a weak attempt at demanding his full attention.  “It’s for a case. I’ll be there indefinitely, though. Could be months.”

 

“So why are you telling me?”  He asks, not quite meeting my eyes.  “Why not just go? You do love to disappear,”  That stings, a bit. But he isn’t wrong.

 

“I—ah—actually—I wanted to ask you for a favour,”  At this, his eyes flick back to meet mine.

 

“Oh that’s rich.  Go on then, what is it?  Water your plants while you’re away?  Need me to—”

 

“Come with me,” I cut him off.  He can spew nonsense for hours when he’s angry, and apparently time is in short supply.  He falls silent, lips going still—but his eyes say it all. Complete incredulity. Disbelief with a side of rage.  He stares at me for a long moment, the silence between us growing tense, almost painful. I feel my heart beating wildly in my chest, palms flat on the table, bracing myself for what’s to come.

 

“No,” He says, finally—then stands up and walks right out the door.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The case is seemingly a simple one.  There is an Englishman—Holling Collins—residing in Northern California.  He is apparently up to no good, although details have not been supplied. The client is a secretive bastard.  I’m to insert myself into Mr. Collin’s life somehow—to get close enough to catch a glimpse of whatever crime he’s supposedly guilty of—and report back to my nameless client.

 

I’ve turned down this case no less than seven times in the past year.  I’ve been contacted repeatedly, each time being offered a more exorbitant sum of money.  As if I could be swayed by such a thing. Unimpressed by the complete lack of data, I’ve brushed it off each time.  But now, I’ve really got nothing to lose. After John’s poor reaction to my unplanned confession two months back, this city is rapidly losing its appeal.  It’s as if the colour has been drained from my life, and anything that will take me far away suddenly seems worthwhile.

 

I had hoped that I could convince him to come along.  Hoped that if we got out of London for a bit—and got back to the work—he would see that nothing has to change.  Wanted to show him that it’s fine—all fine—that we can carry on as we’ve always been. But he doesn’t want to see.  Doesn’t want to hear it. And I haven’t found the right words, anyway.

 

And so, I’ll go alone.

 

 

The client has arranged a private flight from Heathrow into San Francisco International in two days time.  No turning back now, I suppose. I pace around the flat, throwing things into a pile by the door that I’ll eventually shove into a suitcase.  My suits already hang in garment bags in the wardrobe, fresh from the dry cleaner.

 

Now that this thing has been set in motion, it’s become painfully clear that I’m dreading the trip.  I’ve traveled for cases before, but never quite so far, and never without John. Well, almost never. Memories of my time running around as a ghost—spending two and a half years taking down the vast network of a man more cruel than any I’ve known since—fill my mind.  I can’t help but wonder: will this feel the same? I really have no idea what I’m walking into. Will it be day after day of fear and isolation? Hiding in plain sight and constantly looking over my shoulder? What am I getting myself into?  

 

My mobile pings from across the room, causing my heart to lurch.  It’s been quiet for the entire forty one hours since John walked out of that diner, leaving me to sit in silence with the noise in my head.  I haven’t tried to contact him—his answer was clear. I scoop up the phone.

 

Do you know what you’re doing?

 

Mycroft.  Brilliant.

 

Piss off.  SH

 

You’re flying blind, brother mine.

 

I suppose you’ve got all the answers, then?  SH

 

Not this time.  And therein lies my concern.

 

I swallow thickly, trying not to dwell on what it means that even Mycroft knows nothing of this mysterious client or the man I’m meant to befriend and take down.  I turn off my mobile, toss it on the coffee table, and curl up on the couch. I need to think. If I’m going to handle this case properly, I must prepare. Must attempt to tune out the rest of the world and work on quieting the noise.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

I jolt awake, sit up quickly and scan the room.  The sun is just beginning to set, meaning I’ve been asleep for nearly six hours.  I suppose it was overdue. Feet on the stairs. Mrs. Hudson? No. Not Mycroft either.  It couldn’t be—

 

A quiet knock.  Timid. Reluctant, almost.  I leap off the couch, stride across the flat and fling open the door.  My gaze locks onto familiar blue eyes and a long, charged moment passes in silence between us.  And then:

 

“You’re really going to do this?”  John. Shifting uneasily on my doorstep.  Fingers fidgeting with the hem of his grey wool jumper.  “What are the odds you’ll go off and get yourself killed?”

 

“Slightly less if you accompany me,”  I suppose I’m playing with fire, immediately suggesting he come along again.  But he is here. Why is he here?

 

“Only slightly?  I’d have thought considerably,”  He attempts a smile. I watch him for a moment.  He hasn’t stopped fidgeting, but he’s holding my gaze.  “Sherlock...” He trails off.

 

“Come in, John,”  I retreat into the kitchen, hoping he’ll follow.  He does. “Tea?” A nod. He leans against the worktop while I start the kettle.  I keep my back to him for as long as I dare, trying to formulate a coherent thought without broadcasting my confusion all over my face.  Can hardly believe he’s here. Is he actually considering accompanying me? Or perhaps he’s here to talk me out of it entirely. But why should he care if I leave?  We don’t see each other anymore. I reach for two cups, and turn to face him at last. He’s watching me, his expression contemplative.

 

“Look,” He accepts the cup of tea that I thrust into his hands.  “I—wanted to say—I regret my reaction,” So he has changed his mind, then?  Regrets saying no?  Wants to know more about the case after all?

 

“I hadn’t really expected you to be able to drop everything and come along—it was—”

 

“No,”  He interrupts, eyes fierce, determined.  I wait. “I regret my reaction—before. To everything you said to me.  I didn’t handle it well,” Oh. So he’s here to clear the air. My misguided words have been haunting him as well.

 

“It’s—I regret that I ever said it,”  I try to ignore the sinking feeling in my gut and my heart trying to break free from my ribcage.  I feel raw, and a bit lost. He shakes his head, looks down.

 

“You shouldn’t have to.  You should be able to tell me anything.  You’re still my best friend, Sherlock, and I shouldn’t have let it get to this point.  It’s just that I—you know that I’m—” He stops himself, meets my eyes again. Lets out a long exhale.  “I can’t.”


He can’t even say it, but I hear him.  Loud and clear. It’s just that I (am not in love with you).  You know that I’m (not gay). I can’t (be with you, the way that you want me to).  We stare at each other in silence.  It seems that once again, we’ve run out of words.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It’s nothing that I didn’t already know.  I knew when I told him, all those months ago.  But I still said it. Some deluded part of me thought that it may be worth saying.  And now here we are, barely able to look at each other. Months of silence—our friendship nearly dissolved entirely.  He can’t help but resent me for saying it aloud. He had to have known—after everything we’ve gone through together, he can read me like a book.  But when I stripped away all plausible deniability, a wall went up between us. Dynamic permanently shifted. Relationship destroyed.

 

When I’d said the words, he’d told me exactly that.  He reacted with fury—told me I’d ruined everything—and promptly left.

 

Now, here he stands.  In my kitchen. Back at 221B for the first time in ages, issuing explanations and expressing his regret.

 

“I’m sorry,”  He says, breaking the silence that has stretched out between us.  An apology, even. It’s more than I’d expected to get. “Do you think—can we go back?  Can you do that?” I don’t know. I’d like to think so. I miss him fiercely, and I want him by my side—but nothing has changed, for me.  I still feel the same.

 

“I don’t want to lose this,” I find myself saying, gesturing from John to myself.  Don’t want to lose what we’ve built together. “It isn’t something I can turn off, though, John,”  He nods, his expression a bit grim. “And I can’t have you pitying me,” At this, he scoffs.

 

“I don’t pity you, Sherlock.  It’s more complicated than that,”  He takes a step toward me, setting his tea carefully on the worktop.  “I wish that things were different. I wish I hadn’t hurt you. I’ve been such a cock,”  A sigh. A shrug. “I’m here because I want to get past it,” He reaches out, his fingers circling my wrist.  I look down at our joined limbs, then back up to meet his eyes. “I’m sorry,” He says, again.

 

“So am I,” I nod once.  Maybe we can fix this after all.  He no longer seems to be repulsed by my unwanted affections.  Perhaps what we had is still here between us, buried beneath everything we haven’t found the words for yet.  He tightens his grip briefly, a slight grin creeping onto his face.

 

“One more thing,” He says, dropping my wrist and leaning back against the worktop.  “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but—I’m coming with you.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“This is mad,” We’re perched on plush white seats, each on one side of the aisle, in the private plane that’s supposedly taking us to San Francisco.  John’s got his chair reclined and is sprawled out, staring dazedly out the window at the clouds below. “Completely bloody barmy.” I ignore him, turning the page of the medical text I brought along to entertain myself.

 

I attempted to interview the staff, to no avail.  They either truly have no information on who chartered this flight or they’ve mastered their collective poker face.  No data to be gleaned. I haven’t managed to learn a thing about our questionable client in the past couple of days, and we’re no less in the dark about this case.  We did question whether we were simply being sent to our death by getting on this plane, but in the end decided that it’s quite unlikely. There are much less expensive ways to eliminate us.

 

And so here we are, miles high—trapped in this small box together, being hurled toward the unknown.  A true mystery. And my best friend at my side.

 

“John,” I watch him slowly crawl out of the daze he’s been in for the last hour—head almost literally in the clouds.  He turns to look at me, giving me a quick smile.

 

“Yeah?”  Things have been a bit strange between us today.  I do feel that we managed to reconnect on some level when we spoke the other day, but he had gone home quickly after that—and we haven’t spoken about anything but trip logistics since.  I didn’t want to bring it up again, lest he change his mind about coming along. He’s already swimming in guilt over leaving Rosie in the care of Mycroft and Lestrade. She’ll be fine, I’ve told him repeatedly.  And she will. They’ve been a large presence in her life for years now, and she’s comfortable staying at their home.  Molly and Mrs. Hudson will be there for her as well. Rosie is an independent and precocious child, and is well used to her father dashing off at a moment’s notice.  She’ll be fine.

 

I watch John for a moment, choosing my words carefully.  I’ve decided to wait until he has nowhere to run off to, to begin a conversation again.  There are still things that need to be said, questions that need to be asked. I’ve thought of little else since that unexpected turn of events in the kitchen of 221B, and I want to understand.

 

“Will you tell me what changed?”  He’ll know what I mean. What happened in those forty seven hours between the diner and Baker Street that brought him from fury to acceptance?  What compelled him to show up at my door that night? To put his life on hold and fly across the world with me? He sighs. He’s been expecting this question.

 

“Indefinitely, is what you said,”  I remember. This is a one-way flight, after all.  “The word got stuck in my head. I thought of how it would be, not knowing when you’d return.  If you’d return at all.  I thought of how it would feel to let you go without telling you that I didn’t mean it.  That you didn’t ruin everything. You didn’t even do anything wrong. And I needed to set aside my own frustrations and make sure you knew that,”  An overwhelming ache in my chest, hearing him speak like this. I didn’t think that we could get back to this place. It took us years—and many shared traumatic experiences—to figure out how to speak openly with one another.  I thought that I had thrown it all away with five little words. “I made that mistake once—let you go without telling you what you meant to me. I learned the hard way that I need you in my life,” My heart sinks, a bit. Right.  I jumped out of his life for over two years. Left him behind with no answers, no explanation.

 

“All right,” I say quietly, swallowing around the lump in my throat.  I don’t trust myself to say more.

 

“Sherlock, listen,” John has positioned his chair upright once more, has turned to face me.  Our eyes lock, and I’m lost. This is the man I love. Warm and loyal as ever—as if the past two months never happened at all.  I had missed him. “I—tend to let my anger get the best of me, however misplaced it may be. You know this,” He swallows, pauses before continuing.  “And—despite how I reacted before, it’s—I—” He shrugs a shoulder, gives me a small smile. “Here I am. You know? This is where I chose to be.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

When we land at San Francisco International at nine o’clock the next morning, we’re immediately ushered into a sleek black car.  I half expect to find my meddlesome brother inside, waiting to whisk us away, back to London where we belong. But when we climb in, we’re alone—the driver hidden away behind a partition.  John and I exchange a look, his eyebrows raised. Well, here we go.

 

We soon find ourselves on the 101, headed North.  I had assumed we’d be residing in the city for the duration of this case, but apparently not.  Now we sit hunched over John’s phone, watching the small dot on the GPS pass by town after town, trying to guess where we may land.  The names on the map mean nothing to me—Novato, San Antonio, Petaluma—just empty white words printed on large green signs.  

 

Two hours have passed by the time we finally exit the freeway onto River Road.  We seem to be in a pretty standard town. Not much to look at. But the car drives on.  We pass a small outdoor market, bustling with people. A ramshackle art gallery. A handful of forgettable restaurants.  We ascend a large hill, and I hear John gasp quietly as we reach the top and find ourselves suddenly amongst the redwoods.  The roads quickly become windier—all sharp turns and steep hills—and on either side, trees. Towering, magnificent redwood trees.  And the light.   It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.  And the smell.   It’s glorious.  Like something from the storybooks I’d rejected as a child.

 

John tears his eyes away from the window long enough to glance over at me, grinning from ear to ear.  My heart leaps at the sight of him like this, and I can’t help but return his smile—can’t even recall the last time I let myself feel joy.  Things have been so bleak, for so long, and now suddenly—hope.

 

We pass many a campground and cabin, a handful of restaurants that sit perched in what looks like the middle of nowhere, and quite a few wineries.  Vast, expansive vineyards covering the hills visible beyond the trees. We are in wine country, after all. It soon becomes clear that we’re in the land of the Russian River, as well.  Every business we catch a glimpse of seems to be named for it, and the road we drive on follows its winding path.

 

The car slows dramatically once we reach a small, bustling town.  It seems that this area is quite a destination in the summertime, as people are wandering around everywhere, many of them carrying giant inflatable tubes—presumably to be used for floating down the river.  We glide through the town centre, the street lined with small breweries, bars, shops—and finally turn onto an inconspicuous road that brings us back to the trees.

 

When we stop five minutes later, it’s outside of a small, solitary cottage.  It looks much like all of the other summer rental properties we passed along the way.  Well kept, painted white, yard full of flora—and sitting right in the midst of the redwood forest.  Immediately I see the appeal. Close enough to town to be practical, and secluded enough to be private.  My stomach drops suddenly at the thought of staying in a place like this with John. The chances of him being extremely uncomfortable living in such close quarters are high, considering the likelihood of there being only one bedroom.

 

“John—” I begin, intending to confront this immediately and suggest that we find something else.

 

“We’ll make it work,”  He says, effectively cutting me off.  He’s clearly seen the concern written all over my face.  “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” It really is.

 

We retrieve our luggage from the (conveniently open) boot, and head inside, glancing out the window as the car drives off the moment we shut the door behind us.  All right, then. I take a second to wonder if they have taxis here, before being promptly distracted by the interior of the cottage. It’s a bit larger than it looks from the outside—high ceilings with wooden beams, packed bookshelves lining the walls, a large sectional sofa and a flatscreen television mounted over an antique credenza.  Decorated tastefully—full of character, bright and warm. We meander into the small kitchen, poke our heads into the loo. Glance at each other a bit awkwardly when we confirm that there is indeed only one bed.

 

“It’s fine,” John says quickly.  “I’ll take the couch. Look at it, it’s massive,”  Do I argue? Insist that he take the bed? Suggest that we alternate?  This is uncomfortable enough as it is. I opt to simply nod once, trying to convey my gratitude with this simple gesture, and hoping to move on from the subject of sleeping arrangements.  John returns my nod, then yawns dramatically. He’s been yawning for hours. It was a long flight, after all, and neither of us were able to sleep much. “Knackered,” He says. “Nap time,” A smirk.

 

I drop my luggage on the floor in the tiny bedroom, too exhausted to deal with it just yet.  Pull off my jacket and toss it on the pile. Kick off my shoes and lie back on the bed. The windows are open, a light breeze blowing cool air into the room.  I ponder the journey we’ve just taken. So far from home, so out of our element. What will come next? I think of John, following me here blindly. Willing to put his life on hold for this.  Will it be worth it? What’s in it for him, really? Financial gain, I suppose. But I know that isn’t why he’s here.

 

I feel lighter and more calm than I have in ages.  And grateful. Relieved. It’s with thoughts of my good fortune drifting steadily through my mind that I fall into sleep, looking forward—for once—to whatever comes next.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

I’m torn from sleep by the sound of tires on gravel.  A car door slamming. Then another. The sun is still shining, and I stumble out of bed to the window, squinting as my eyes adjust to the light.  Two vehicles parked out front—one that appears to be our ride from before, and the other some sort of shiny vintage convertible in a shade of dark burgundy.  There’s not a person in sight, and just as I begin to panic, the black car pulls away and disappears beyond the trees. My phone pings on the nightstand where I left it earlier today, and I scramble to pick it up.

 

For your use, while you’re here.

 

Three dots, another ping.

 

Allow me to welcome you to California.  We’re happy to have you, Mr. Holmes.

 

And nothing else.  Bit creepy. But we’ve been given a car.   And quite a nice one, at that.  A knock at the door.

 

“Sherlock?  Did you get this text as well?  Bit cryptic,” Cryptic? Seems pretty straightforward to me.  I open the door. John’s brow is furrowed, waving his mobile at me.  “Who the bloody hell is Maude?”  I snatch up John’s phone.  One text message, from the same number.  Sent just before mine.

 

Saturday

9:00PM

Rainbow Cattle Co.

Maude awaits your arrival.

 

 

“Should I be concerned that I’m the one being sent mysterious meeting points?”  John mumbles, chewing on a piece of baguette that he found in the well-stocked kitchen.  “How is it that people always contact us so easily? Is there some database of mobile numbers out there that we’re not privy to?”  Probably. Although mine is plastered all over my website, so nothing really surprises me anymore.

 

“The client is well aware that we work as a team.  Obviously they know that you’re here with me,” I respond, glancing down at the newspaper that showed up on our stoop this morning.  I don’t mention that we haven’t actually worked a case together in nearly half a year. Even before I blew everything up between us, we had begun to drift.  He’d been asked to pick up more shifts at the clinic—and had gotten swept up in Rosie’s routine, now that she’s participating in dance classes and art programmes.  But we have been partners in the work for over twelve years now. People expect us to come as a pair, and Dr. Watson was invited in each of the eight emails that I received over the last year, requesting our assistance in California.  I look up at John, sitting across from me at the kitchen table. He’s got a cup of tea in one hand and the baguette in the other.  He brushes a crumb off of his jumper with a pinky finger and then glances up, meeting my eyes. A swooping feeling in my chest. A fluttering in my gut.  Ever present, when he’s nearby. I clear my throat. “Thank you,” I rumble. The words feel foreign on my tongue. They don’t get much use, from me. “For being here.”  He smiles. A real one.

 

“Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

 

 

It’s Friday afternoon, and it seems that we have nowhere to be until tomorrow evening.  In my research over the past week, I’ve found little useful information on our future friend (eventual suspect?) Holling Collins—he seems to be quite adept at flying under the radar.  And we are entirely unsure about this Maude character that we’re going to meet. I did find that Mr. Collins is a mere thirty three years of age, however. Hadn’t seen that coming. We’re practically old men—over a decade older than this person we’re meant to befriend.  I think of myself at that age. Still entirely alone—the world a dark, unfriendly place. I never could have guessed that just one year later, John would come along and light it up.

 

“Oh my God,” I hear him mutter to himself.  I now sit perched on a little bench on the front porch while John walks circles around the car that’s been left for us.  It’s quite—small—now that I’ve seen it up close. Old, but restored. A nice shade of burgundy. And convertible—the top currently down.  “Can you believe this?” He stops his circling and walks over to join me on the bench. I shrug.

 

“Bit tiny, isn’t it?”  He rolls his eyes.

 

“That’s the point, you wanker.  It’s—zippy. Meant to be fun,” He smirks, elbows me lightly.  “When’s the last time you’ve let yourself have fun?” Not sure.  Can’t recall. I glare at him. “Anyway, it’s a Triumph,” He says, getting to his feet.  Raising an eyebrow at my blank stare, he continues. “It’s British.”

 

 

We decide to venture into town and get to know the area we’ll be residing in for the foreseeable future.  As it turns out, Rainbow Cattle Co. is a bar on Main Street, in the heart of the town centre.  A gay bar. John said nothing as we scrolled through their outdated website, and I can’t help but worry that this will not end well.  He’s made it quite clear over the years that he’s uncomfortable with being perceived as homosexual. It happens often—essentially from day one—simply because of the amount of time we’re seen together publicly.  And perhaps also because my inconvenient feelings are on full display.  I’ve never fully learned how to hide them.

 

John insists on driving, which is fine by me, and we head off through the redwoods towards town.  He wasn’t wrong about the car. It is, in fact, fun.   We share a grin as we fly around sharp turns with ease and laugh when we plummet down a steep hill and our stomachs drop.  In moments like this, I can only recall the good times we’ve had—the easy bond that we’ve shared from the start. I often think back and wonder what it was about him that allowed me to let him in so immediately—to show him a side of me that I obstinately hide from the rest of the world.  When I recall how entangled our lives became from the start, it’s easy to forget how off-kilter we’ve become.

 

Once we reach Main Street, we decide to first locate the bar so that we know where we’re going tomorrow evening.  It’s easy enough to spot, tucked amongst the shops and restaurants that line the street—dark wooden siding with a large, neon rainbow on full display.  We pull off to the side of the street and park.

 

“Festive,” John says, glancing at me with a small smile.  I can’t get a read on him—can’t quite tell if it bothers him that we’ll be together at a place like this.  Case aside, it’s all a bit on the nose, walking into a gay bar side by side. He must know that assumptions will be made.  “I’m fine with it, you idiot,” He says, rolling his eyes. “You know that you’ve got a rubbish poker face. I can clearly see that you’ve been worried about this,”  I glare. He’s been adept at reading my facial expressions almost from the start. So perceptive of emotion, a skill that I will never possess. “Are you—um—” He looks down, fidgeting with his t-shirt as he tends to do when he’s uncomfortable.  “It’s not too strange?” He doesn’t meet my eyes. I know what he’s asking. He’s concerned that it will be too difficult for me. Worried that being with him at a place like this will only remind me of what I can never have.

 

“It’s fine,”  I’m not sure that it is.  “It’s for a case,” Is what I say.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

I stand staring down at my bed—hands on hips—at two very different options of apparel I’ve laid out.  On the left, a black suit. My daily getup. Trustworthy attire. Also quite likely to make me stand out like a sore thumb in this town of bikinis and board shorts.  On the right, slim black jeans and a fitted white t-shirt. I know which to choose. Obviously I do. But must I? 

 

When I stride out into the living room, I find John seated cross-legged on the couch, his nose in a book.  He glances up when I shut the door behind me.

 

“My God,” He says with a smirk.  “California has changed you.”

 

“I look ridiculous,”  I hate these trousers.  Who decided that denim was an acceptable material for such a thing?  I also brought along a pair of lace-up black leather boots to complete the look.  My feet feel like they’re in a vice grip, having not yet broken them in. I let out an exasperated huff.

 

“You don’t, actually,”  He says, returning to his book.  “It quite suits you,” I stare at him for a moment, waiting for him to continue, to turn the compliment into a jab of some sort.  But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even look up again.

 

We spent the rest of yesterday evening wandering through shops and perusing the small farmer’s market.  We found a taco truck for dinner and walked down to the river to eat. We’ve always done things like this together, but now it’s different.  Now that he knows—without question—what he is to me, we’re never quite comfortable in each other’s presence. I can feel his slight unease whenever we’re alone together—it’s always there.  I just don’t know what to do about it.

 

The drive back to our cottage was a quiet one, each of us lost in our own heads—and when we arrived, I went straight for my bedroom with a quick goodnight.  I had wanted to leave him alone—to give him space. I feel like my presence is a burden on him now, and it didn’t take long to see that in this relatively small cottage he has nowhere to escape to.  Despite his recent change of heart and subsequent kind words, I can sense that we still have much to resolve.

 

This morning was uneventful.  Coffee, shower, and hours spent hiding in my room with my laptop, trying in vain to find even a speck of new information on Mr. Collins.  I also scoured the website and Facebook page of our new favourite gay bar, searching for a hint as to who Maude may be—to no avail. My many failed attempts have left me in a sour mood.  I suppose we’ll just have to go find out for ourselves.

 

Now I drop down onto the couch, as far away from John as the large sectional will allow, let my head fall back and release the breath I’d been holding.  I need to set aside the tension I’m feeling over this situation we’ve found ourselves in. We’re on a case. It doesn’t have to be so difficult. I’ll make sure that John is able to broadcast his heterosexuality far and wide if need be.  We’ll have our story in order—just two mates, out on the town. In the area for the summer. Why? I don’t know. I’ve never been especially adept at fiction. That’s John’s area.

 

“We need a story,” I say to the ceiling, my eyes tracing a wooden beam.  I hear John close his book.

 

“Thought you’d have worked that out,”  He says. I suppose normally I would have done.  But I’ve been too busy tiptoeing around, trying not to add any awkwardness to our already precarious friendship.  Not sure how to explain our presence in such a place. We can’t say that we’re partners. Obviously. Neither of us could handle that.

 

“Nope,” I say, popping the p.   “Haven’t found a plausible reason for two British blokes to end up in a place like this,”

 

“On holiday, I suppose,”  He’s chewing. Speaking with his mouth full of something crunchy.  Typical. I glance down to see him shove another crisp into his mouth.  Roll my eyes. “Maybe we’re from the city. Came up from San Francisco for the summer,”  Sure, why not? My heart isn’t in this. Difficult to be interested in a case when you haven’t been informed of the actual crime.  Hard to focus on anything at all when you’ve developed an ever-present ache in your chest. “And we can just use our names, yeah? No one knows us in America.”

 

“Fine,” I say.  I couldn’t care less.

 

 

“Eat,” We’re seated side by side at the rail on the front patio of a tapas restaurant—just down the street from our final destination.  It’s only eight o’clock, and we’ve still got an hour left of this strained conversation before we can go find Maude. I tear my eyes away from the people on the street I’d been deducing to glare at John.  “Please,” He adds. What does he care? Why must he mother me? I pop an olive into my mouth and return my gaze to the street. “Sherlock—”

 

“Don’t,” I snap, without looking at him.  I’m not even sure why I’m so upset. A black mood has been creeping up on me all day—since last night, really—and I’m taking it out on John.  I’ve been sniping at him all afternoon. It isn’t fair—I know that it isn’t. He’s done nothing wrong. “I’m sorry,” I say, quietly, to the street.

 

Tentative fingers, on the crook of my elbow, where it rests on the narrow table in front of us.  I jerk my arm away in response, not quite able to process such an unexpected touch. John pulls his hand back, and when I turn to face him, he looks wounded.  Offended, perhaps. What was that, then? We never touch. Not really. I was confused enough when he grabbed my wrist in the kitchen of 221B, but at least I could see that coming.  When our eyes meet, though, his expression changes. Whatever he sees on my face has made him drop the affronted look for one of concern. He reaches out again, placing his hand on my forearm.

 

“What is it?”  I don’t know what he’s asking.  I stare back at him, lost in the bottomless blue pools of his eyes.  I feel my heart melt as the affection I’d tossed aside and allowed to be replaced by bitterness comes rushing back in.  The pads of his fingers brush my skin—a sensation entirely foreign to me. Our eyes still locked, I can almost imagine that I see what’s in my heart reflected there.  I convince myself for a moment that it’s coming from him, that he feels something for me too—that I can see it behind the mask that he wears— no.   I won’t do this to myself.  Abruptly I stand up, pulling my arm back and nearly tripping over the heavy stool in my haste to get away.  A horrible scraping sound against the concrete floor as I shove it out of my path and flee, ignoring John’s protests and not looking back.

 

It’s been two days in his presence, and already I’m crumbling.  It was a mistake to invite him. It was a mistake to come here at all.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

This bar is loud.   A flood of pink and blue lights leap across the dance floor where swarms of people chat animatedly, sipping cocktails—few of them actually dancing.  The pop music that’s accosting my ears has a heavy bass that thrums through my body, rattling my bones and provoking what will surely become a piercing headache.  I’ve got to get out of here—need to make this quick.

 

I make a beeline for the bar, ordering a pint of cider from the clearly overwhelmed barman, and weave my way through the crowd to a relatively unoccupied corner of the room near an empty stage.  I observe. I can only assume that Maude will find me, as I have no earthly idea who she is or what she looks like. It’s only half eight—God knows why I chose to come straight here after leaving the restaurant—and I’m fairly certain that the next thirty minutes in this hellscape will be among the worst of my life.

 

I do my best to project an aura that clearly says piss off— glaring determinedly at each of the three men who attempt to chat me up.  Really not in the mood. Really never in the mood.  There’s only one man that I’m interested in chatting with, and I’ve just left him behind for no good reason—treated him poorly all day, really.  It seems I’m unable to tolerate any level of affection from him, now that I know for certain that it will never match my own.

 

I pass the time sipping my cider and studying the crowd, looking for anyone who stands out—straining to listen for an English accent.  Hoping—futilely—to stumble across our mysterious Mr. Collins. At precisely nine o’clock, the music fades. A split second of silence as the crowd turns their attention from their conversations to the stage I’ve been hovering near—and then, a deafening roar of cheers as an abundance of black sequins in four inch heels marches onto the stage.  It appears I’ve managed to stumble into a drag show. All right, then. At least things are getting interesting.

 

An announcer is heard over the screaming crowd:  Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone else—you know her.  You love her. Give it up for Maude! Didn’t see that coming.  Maude struts around the stage as a new pop song begins to play.  Her dark skin—she appears to be of Middle Eastern descent—pairs well with the slate blue wig atop her head.  She expertly lip syncs along to the hateful dance music that floods the room, and when I turn to scan the crowd, it’s clear that they are all enraptured—entirely entranced by her.  This is someone who knows how to command a room.

 

When the show begins to wind down—finally—nearly an hour later, I slink into the back hallway to wait.

 

“Come on in,” Maude says without batting an eye as she rounds the corner and spots me lurking near the dressing room.  “This won’t take long,” I follow her into the small room, walls lined with mirrors, countertops full of makeup and an absurd number of wigs.  My eyes roam over the racks of clothing shoved against the back wall. “Every Saturday,” She says with a smirk, saving me from inquiring about how often she performs.  “Thinking of retiring, though. Been doing this for too damn long,” She rolls her eyes as she yanks the wig from her (bald) head. “Ben,” She says, shaking my hand. I nod.

 

“Sherlock Holmes.  I’ve been told you’d be awaiting my arrival,” I say, meeting her—his?  their? Perhaps I should ask—eyes for the first time. Nearly as tall as I am, voice deep, accent seemingly Californian.  “How shall I refer to you?”

 

“Male pronouns.  Thanks for asking,” He says matter of factly as he unabashedly strips off the sequin dress and pulls on a pair of jeans.  “I was paid handsomely to relay some information to you. Was told I’d find a tall drink of British water lurking around tonight, and here you are.  So you’re looking for Hal?” I raise an eyebrow. Hal? Perhaps I am. Not entirely sure what it is that I’m looking for. Ben notes my confusion and laughs—a deep rumble.  “You look lost.”

 

“Who paid you to pass along this information?”  I don’t know why I’m bothering. He won’t have any answers.  The only thing I’ve learned about my elusive client is that he’s adept at staying hidden in the shadows.

 

“Honey, I don’t know shit,”  No surprise there. “Things have a certain way of happening around here.  You’ll know what I mean soon enough. I found an envelope of cash and clear instructions to take you to Hal.  I’m not about to question it.” I already know what he means. I’ve been blindly following instructions as well.  He pulls a black t-shirt over his head, and nods toward the door. “Let’s go find that pompous son of a bitch.”

 

 

“That’s him,” We’ve halted about four metres from the bar, Ben discreetly indicating a relatively fit ginger-haired man seated amongst a small group in the corner.  The area is roped off, clearly meant for VIPs. Ridiculous. As we push through the lingering crowd toward them, I note—heart plummeting—the man seated to his right.  John.   He’s laughing and chatting jovially with the others—Hal’s hand grasping his shoulder as if they were old friends.  I freeze—Ben looking back questioningly—as John glances up, eyes meeting mine. They widen—surprise, guilt and regret all on full display.  What has he done? And then, a silent plea. Just go with it.   What have you done, John?  

 

“Sherlock Holmes!”  It’s Hal who speaks first, his absurd posh accent immediately setting my blood to boil.  “Holling Collins. You can call me Hal. I’m such an admirer—you must join us.  We’ve just been getting to know your boy.  He’s a charming one, isn’t he?” I say nothing, eyes still locked on John’s.  What is happening here? “How long have you two been together, then?” He continues, turning to John who reluctantly breaks our gaze. 

 

“Oh—uh, what’s it been, eleven years?”  He meets my eyes again. Another plea. Say something.

 

“Twelve,”  I say robotically, allowing myself to be pulled down into the round booth they’re all crammed into.  Ben sits down to my left. I hardly notice as he sets a drink down in front of me—can barely focus on the conversation happening around me.  Entirely preoccupied with thoughts of this ruse we’re going to have to uphold indefinitely. I can hardly stand to be near him without falling apart, and now we must befriend this idiot who believes us to be long term partners?  How will we ever pull this off?

 

“So?”  Someone asks loudly.  I realize with a start that all eyes are on me.

 

“Sorry?”  They all laugh.  I look to John, who’s turned a sickly shade of white.  He’s as uncomfortable as I am. Good. This entire nightmare is his doing.

 

“We were asking what on Earth brought the two of you all the way from London to our humble little town.  John claims you’re on holiday, but surely that can’t be the whole of it. So? Are you on a case or not?”  I roll my eyes. Time to set aside my inner turmoil and play the part I’ve come here to portray.

 

“We do have lives outside of detective work.  Obviously,” Hal grins, his expression challenging.  I’d like to knock him sideways off of his self-assembled pedestal, but I’ve got a job to do.  “This area is glorious in the summertime. Surely you know the appeal, as you’ve chosen to take up permanent residence,”  He shrugs.

 

“It has its charms,”  His eyes linger on my face, looking for signs of deception, no doubt, but he eventually returns his attention to the conversation happening to his right.  I turn to John, who’s watching me cautiously. He looks defeated. Exhausted. I feel no empathy for him, now. He’s managed to make this infinitely more difficult than it ever needed to be.  When Ben rises to fetch another cocktail, I stand, declaring to the group that we really must be going. I shoot John a pointed look, and before anyone can protest, I turn and walk away.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Stop, would you?”  John is scrambling to catch up with me as I stride purposefully to our car.  I don’t want to hear it. He swears under his breath as he trips over something a few feet behind.  “It isn’t my bloody fault—he recognized me, and—”

 

“Not here,” I hiss venomously, turning suddenly and almost colliding with him.  He looks up at me, bewildered. Takes a step back when he sees the fury written across my face.  I can’t help it. I’ve clearly lost control of my emotions—can hardly believe he’s gotten us into this predicament.  And I am painfully aware that I am equally at fault. We never should have come here in the first place. This senseless, infuriating case will surely be the end of us.

 

We walk in silence to the car, John trailing behind.  I go straight for the driver’s seat, and he doesn’t argue.  My heart is in my stomach as we speed—in silence—back to our cottage in the woods.  As soon as he closes the front door behind us, an entire well of frustration that he’s been holding inside comes flooding out in my direction.

 

“What is going on with you?  What is this? It isn’t that big a deal, you bloody idiot,”  He’s shouting, fists balled up tightly at his sides, knuckles white.  “I can see that you blame me for this, you’ve made that astonishingly clear.  You need to tell me what has been going on in that impossibly dense head of yours.  I can’t read your fucking mind.” A surge of anger courses through me at these words.  As if he doesn’t know exactly what I’m upset about. He knows full well why this is a problem for me.  I take a step toward him. He holds his ground, waiting.

 

“You absolute bastard,”  My voice is measured, ruthless.  “You can scream all day about it not being that big a deal , but you’ve failed entirely at considering my thoughts on the matter,”  I can feel myself go cold, merciless. I want to hurt him, as he’s hurt me.  “You’ve put us in an impossible situation. This will destroy us,” His expression turns to one of shock, his face falling, entire demeanor shifting from rage to bewilderment.

 

“Sherlock…”  He looks suddenly small.  Lost. We never speak to each other this way.  “I won’t stand here and let you belittle me because I unknowingly walked into that bastard’s fucking trap,”  His words are defensive, but he sounds defeated. He looks at me now with pleading eyes. “Will you just listen?  It wasn’t intentional. He recognized me—said he was a bloody fan.   I had come looking for you, and he didn’t even give me a moment to breathe—swept me up into his idiotic posse, and as soon as I realized who he was I knew I’d have to play along,”  I say nothing. I’ve shut down. I’ll hear his words—I have no fight left in me, now. “He brought it up. Said he’d heard the rumours over the years. Said I needn’t bother denying it, that us being on holiday together was all the confirmation he needs,”  He shakes his head, backs up and drops down on the sofa, head in hands. “I panicked,” He mumbles. “I never said anything outright—only that we were on holiday—but I didn’t deny it either,” He lifts his head, looks up at me where I stand, boneless. Empty.  “I didn’t think—it didn’t seem like such a big deal, in the moment. I didn’t think of how it would be for you. I’m sorry,” I walk over, sit on the other end of the couch, eyes on the floor below. He asked me just yesterday whether all of this would be too strange for me, and I’d told him it was fine.  It’s for a case, I’d said.  I feel absurd.  Ashamed of my complete overreaction.  “When I saw your face—seeing me with them—I knew I’d buggered it all up.  But we don’t have to—act—any certain way. We don’t have to try to fit any sort of mould,”  I lift my head, meet his eyes. Earnest. Nothing there but concern and a bit of misplaced guilt.

 

“John—” I begin.  But I don’t know how to say what needs to be said.  I feel I owe him an explanation. I want to tell him I am terrified that I will grow to resent him—that playing a role that I so desperately want to be real will only crush me in the moments I’m forced to acknowledge it’s not.  I want to voice aloud that I can’t even let him touch me—to show affection or concern in a way that would be standard in any normal friendship—without falling into a pit of despair. Because I’ve never been touched. Never wanted to be, until him.  Never considered any of this, until him. And now I have to pretend that it’s my reality. But it never will be. He’s watching me, and I wonder how much of this he can read on my face. He’s surprised me repeatedly throughout our time together with his ability to see me for what I am.  But he says nothing. “I’m sorry,” Is the best I can do, for now. “Goodnight.” I stand, walk straight into my room without looking back—then close the door and let myself crumble.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

I lie huddled under the duvet—knees to chest, in the foetal position—wondering how much longer I can avoid venturing out and facing John.  I’ll need to summon the courage soon if my near-bursting bladder has any say in the matter. It’s nearly half ten, and he knows full well that I’ve never slept this late in my life.  Can only imagine what he thinks of me, barricaded behind this door to avoid another conversation—I poke my head out from under the covers when I hear a soft knock.

 

“Sherlock?”  Oh, God. “You don’t have to hide from me, if that’s what you’re doing,”  How does he always know? “Just come out, I’ve made breakfast,” My stomach growls expectantly at the mention of food.  The single olive he convinced me to consume last night was not, surprisingly, enough. I wait another ten minutes so that I can act like it was my own idea, head to the loo, and then shuffle into the kitchen.  John sits at the table, book in hand. He’s set out a plate of toast for me—bacon still simmering on the stove—and when I drop down into a chair to join him, he pours a cup of coffee. Adds a spoon of sugar. Slides it across the table toward me.  “Hey,” He says. I’ve thus far managed to avoid looking directly at him, but now I hesitantly meet his eyes. Warm and open, he watches me while I gather my thoughts. I let out the breath I’d been holding—a long, exasperated exhale—and carefully consider my words.

 

“I’m an idiot,”  Not exactly eloquent, but I think it’s what he needs to hear.  “I’ve been awful,” He’s already shaking his head.

 

“I understand,”  He says, narrowing his eyes at my disbelieving look.  “I really do. You know that we don’t have to go through with this, right?  We can tell the client to fuck off, go back to London. We don’t have to do this if it’s—if it’s too—”  He shrugs, the look in his eyes finishing the thought for him. I’d considered that as well. Considered abandoning the case entirely, going home.  Pretending that last night never happened. Going back to speaking to John a few times a month and watching Rosie grow up through occasional photos sent in text messages and each year’s holiday card.  I know that if we go back now, we won’t ever fix what’s between us. There is simply too much distraction in London—and our recent conflict aside, we’ve been growing apart. I can’t let that happen. Selfish as it may be, John is all I’ve got.  He’s all I’ve ever wanted. And he seems to think that we can pull off this ruse—that it doesn’t have to be such a big ordeal. If there’s a chance that our time spent here can repair our friendship, I have to try.  

 

Plus, I’ve never (willingly) abandoned a case.  Not about to start now.

 

“I’d like to stay,”  I say, watching as he raises his eyebrows slightly.  “If it’s all right with you,” If he wants to go home, I won’t argue.  As desperate as I am to get back to some semblance of normalcy, I won’t force it.  He nods, holding my gaze.

 

“I’d like to stay, too,” Leans forward slightly, wanting to be heard.  “Despite everything, Sherlock, I’m glad to be here. I don’t like how things have been this past year—seeing you less and less.  I’ve missed you, you know,” A tiny burst of affection in my chest. I’ve missed him too—missed this warm, open version of him—more than he will ever know. 

 

 

We’ll be at the Rainbow again tonight, Mr. Holmes.

Hope to see you there.

Perhaps we can sing a duet?  ;)

-Hal

 

I groan, tossing my mobile to John where he lies sprawled on the other end of the couch flipping through channels on the telly.  He reads it, looking up at me with a smirk.

 

“He doesn’t hope to see me there as well?  Interesting,” Tosses back my phone.  “You gave him your number?” I scowl.

 

“Obviously not,”  Clearly he went straight to my website for it, the snake.  And one quick scan of the bar’s Facebook page confirms that it is indeed karaoke night.  “No way we’re going.”

 

“Oh come on,”  He sits up, turning toward me, sitting cross-legged.  “You know we have to. The sooner we befriend this imbecile, the sooner we can learn what he’s up to,”  I sigh. Of course he’s right. Obviously our client knew that he’s an admirer—that he’d latch onto us from the jump.  I’m beginning to understand why they were so persistent in requesting our assistance. Perhaps there was no one else for the job.  I nod in acknowledgment.

 

“Karaoke, though, really?  Not exactly my area,”  Exactly not my area, in fact.  John just smiles, eyes returning to the telly.

 

“I think it could be fun.”

 

 

We sit side by side in our little car—John behind the wheel once more—cruising down a hill toward town.  We’d had a brief, uncomfortable conversation about how this will go now that we’re officially playing partners, and decided that we won’t need to do much beyond having our story straight.  It isn’t as if two people who’ve been together for over a decade are going to be snogging in public on a regular basis, John had said with a smile, in an attempt to ease my mind.  I hadn’t even considered such a thing. But he is correct. And anyway, we really don’t need to convince anyone that we’re together.  Hal is the one who essentially decided for us, when he forced John to acknowledge something that isn’t true, and then promptly announced it to all of the other players in this game.  So we’ll play along—but nothing really needs to change.

 

I had also taken a moment earlier to ask John if he was all right with it.  In all of my anger and blame yesterday, I had failed to see that he wasn’t really given a choice in the matter.  He may have made a mistake when put on the spot, but it isn’t as if he chose this. We’ll be fine, Sherlock.  I trust you, is what he’d said.   And I couldn’t care less what other people think.   Really?  When, then, did he stop being bothered by others’ faulty perceptions of him?  He certainly used to care—quite a bit, actually. If I had a penny for every time I heard the words not gay come out of his mouth—well…

 

If John can set aside his hang-ups for this case, then I can certainly try as well.  I am adept at playing a role, after all—and that’s all this is, in the end.

 

 

We stride into the Rainbow, side by side, at nine twenty-three.  Our eyes are immediately drawn to the stage, where a small woman with short blonde hair is belting out a ballad that I’m not familiar with.  She’s good. Very good, actually. Perhaps this won’t be quite the trainwreck I was imagining.

 

As if to prove me wrong, Hal sidles up out of the shadows to greet us.  He takes my hand, holds on for a beat too long.

 

“Glad you could make it,” His hand shifts to my elbow.  “Hope you don’t mind that I tracked down your mobile number—you ran off last night before I had a chance to say goodbye.”

 

“Not at all,” I respond, smoothly extricating my elbow from his grasp.  “We’d planned on being here anyway,” We hadn’t, obviously. But no part of me wants this man to think that I’m here because he asked me to be.  John clears his throat, drawing Hal’s attention to him for the first time tonight.

 

“And Dr. Watson.  Lovely to see you as well.”

 

“Just John is fine,” He says flatly, sounding a bit put off.  Hadn’t they spent hours together just last night—Hal treating him as if they were old friends?  And now Dr. Watson?   John turns to me.  “Shall we grab a pint?”

 

Pints in hand, we follow Hal back to what appears to be his regular table, behind the rope.  There’s only one other man there tonight—a thin twenty-something with wavy dark brown hair. I recognize him from yesterday, as he was seated on John’s right, looking just as sullen as he does tonight.

 

“Henry,” John nods in greeting as we approach.  Hal slides into the booth next to Henry, and I follow, keeping a fair amount of distance between us.  When John drops down to my right, his shoulder bumps mine, and we share a brief glance. He smiles. Leans in slightly and doesn’t move away when I reach for my pint and our arms brush.  My heart leaps lightly at the contact. I’ve told myself that I’ll need to get used to it—that even if we’re going to be subtle about this, we’ll likely end up in these scenarios—closer than we’ve ever really been, regularly invading one another's personal space.  

 

The problem isn’t that it makes me uncomfortable, it’s that I want more of it.  I want this to be easy for us. I want to be allowed to wrap an arm around him, to pull him in.  And after all of his reassurances today, he’d likely be fine with it for the duration of the case.  But I can’t allow myself to do these things and then never have them again once we’ve returned home.  As much as I want to reach for him, I know that it’ll only hurt more when it’s over.

 

Hal introduces Henry to me as his boyfriend, and then proceeds to blather on for half an hour about where they met (here), how long they’ve been together (eleven months), etcetera, etcetera.  John is well practiced at feigning interest in other peoples’ stories—he is a doctor after all—so I’m barely required to contribute. Just another thing to love about him, really. He’s always been willing to interact with society on my behalf when I need him to.  Henry says nothing. He seems to be a bit checked out, occasionally casting irritated glances at Hal.

 

“What about the two of you?”  He says suddenly—cutting Hal off mid-sentence—the first words he’s spoken all night.  “Tell us your story,” Hal looks briefly mutinous, but recovers quickly, agreeing enthusiastically and giving us the spotlight.

 

“Oh, well—”  John turns to meet my eyes, looking a bit wary.  I smile. I know this story well.

 

“We met through a mutual friend, who knew that we were both in search of a flatmate,” I begin.  As the words leave my lips, I realize that I’ve never actually spoken them aloud. This is a tale that’s been turned over in my mind—dissected and studied—for over a decade, and now someone’s finally asked me to tell it.  “I was in the lab, working on a case, when John walked in. I knew the moment I saw him that we’d be in each other’s lives for a very long time,” I feel him lean on me a bit, though it’s likely just for show. I continue, ignoring my quickening heartbeat.  “We met at the flat the next day, and he fit there, right away. Fit into my life. Each time I revealed something about myself that repels the general public, he accepted it. Accepted me,” John slides his hand into mine, where it rests between us on the bench.  Laces our fingers together as if this were common practice for us. Startled, I look at him. This isn’t for show. They can’t see this. He squeezes my hand, his expression a bit intense. We stare at each other for a moment, then remembering where I am, I clear my throat and continue.  “I was a bit lost—we both were, I think—when we found each other. He changed everything for me,” My audience of two sits silently across from us, on the other side of this round booth. I don’t look at them, can’t look at John either. I hadn’t expected this little trip to our past to bring so much up for me.

 

“It’s just—”  It’s Hal who speaks, his voice jerking me out of my emotional reverie.  “Well, I did a bit of research last night. I like to be informed—you know how that is, don’t you Sherlock?  Anyway—” Where is this headed? What did he find? “Weren’t you married, John?  To a woman, no less?”  My heart sinks.  This isn’t something we talk about.  Little about Mary—or their unfortunate marriage—is worth remembering, and we’ve come to a silent agreement over the years to avoid that particular pain.

 

“I was,” John tightens his grip on my hand.  Strong and reassuring. “It was a bad time. And as I’m sure you know, it was short lived.”

 

“Only because she died.  Am I wrong?”  Hal’s voice is a poor impersonation of innocence.  What is he playing at, exactly? He’s clearly been trying to make John uncomfortable all night.

 

“You are, actually.  It was doomed from the start.  I was only with her because I thought Sherlock was dead for two years—did you come across that in your research?” A good save, but certainly not the truth.  He married her because he loved her. His voice is calm, but his grip on my hand tells another story. He needs this conversation to end.

 

“Anyway—” I cut in, before Hal can drag this out any further.  “Obviously we’ve both made mistakes over the years. It hasn’t been easy, and we haven’t always been kind to each other,”  I look at John, hoping that he can see my gratitude. “But he’s easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The best man I’ve ever known,”  And that is the truth.

 

Hal stares at me for a moment, seemingly trying to glean some sort of data from my face, then abruptly moves toward the edge of the booth.  “Need the loo,” He says. “Coming?” This is directed at Henry, who sighs, looking deflated. He stands, letting Hal pass, then follows as he disappears into the crowd.  Odd.

 

“Can we get out of here?”  John says as soon as they’re gone.  He doesn’t elaborate, but I can see that he’s feeling overwhelmed.  I nod. He unlinks our hands and slides out of the booth, waiting for me to rise before heading for the exit.  As we walk past the stage, I realize that the man singing is Ben. His voice is lovely—I take a moment to wonder why he lip syncs during his shows.  We wave on our way out, and his words follow us through the door.

 

If you fall, I will catch you—

I will be waiting

Time after time

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Once we’re outside, standing amongst the smokers and the few passersby, John turns to me—his eyes roaming carefully over my face as though he’s attempting to memorize it—then locking on mine once more.  He inhales deeply, takes my hand again. Immediately, my heart begins to race. What is this? “Come on,” He leads me down the street toward our car, parked two blocks down, stopping on the pavement outside the passenger side door.  His eyes bore into mine, and he hesitates before speaking. My stomach drops, dreading what’s coming. “I need to say something. I—” He stops, glancing back the way we came. I follow his gaze, just in time to see Henry jogging after us.  He’s been calling our names. He catches up a moment later.

 

“I’m sorry—I wanted to say—sorry—”  He’s a bit out of breath. “For him.  He’s such an asshole,” He takes a moment to breathe, looking between the two of us.  “Is there any way—I know you don’t really know me—but is there any way I can crash on your couch?”  John and I exchange a confused look. “I live with him,” He shakes his head. “Biggest mistake I ever made.  I can’t stay there tonight.”

 

“There isn’t anyone you can—”

 

“I don’t have any friends left in this town, thanks to him,”  He looks worn down. Like someone who’s been rejected by the world.  He looks like I did, at that age.

 

“All right,”  I say abruptly.  “Come on, then,” I look at John, who seems to read some of this in my expression.  He squeezes my hand, before dropping it.

 

“Okay, yeah,”  He agrees rather quickly, and I wonder if perhaps his doctorly side is concerned for this young person who’s found himself in a questionable situation.  Henry nods his thanks, looking immensely relieved, and the three of us climb into the car.

 

 

By the time we pull into the driveway, I am thoroughly regretting my moment of empathy.  The ride back was largely silent, and my mind is filled with the crushing realization that I’ve just signed John up to share my bed for the night.  Didn’t even discuss it with him, to see if he’s all right with it. Didn’t even consider what it will mean for myself.  I’ve been quite open about my feelings tonight—not holding back at all about what his presence in my life has meant to me—and likely already making him a bit uncomfortable.  And now this? And to have invited this near-stranger into our space? What have I done now?

 

I look up to see John standing next to me, waiting patiently for me to rise out of my spinning thoughts and exit the car.  He opens the door, and I stand.

 

“It’ll be fine,” He says, the look in his eyes reiterating his words of reassurance.  I want to believe him, but I’m stuck in a spiral of doubt. Can’t quite break free from the noise in my head.  We go inside, finding Henry hovering awkwardly in the living room. John must have told him to let himself in while he waited for me outside.  “Help yourself to whatever’s in the kitchen. Blankets are over there,” He points to the perfectly folded pile that he keeps on the end of the couch.  “We’re off to bed—goodnight.” He seems to be in a rush to leave Henry’s presence, and I don’t question it. He had something to say, and his entire demeanor tells me that he still needs to say it.

 

When we shut the door behind us, we’re met with a ringing silence.  The room is small—the queen-sized bed taking up most of it—and it feels as though I’ve just set up and walked into a joke at my own expense.

 

“John…”  I don’t know where to begin.  We stand staring at one another for a lingering moment, until he sighs.  Drops down on the edge of the bed, and looks up at me.

 

“I’d like to talk,”  He says quietly. My stomach drops, as it did just ten minutes ago on the pavement.  He lightly takes my hand and pulls me down to sit by his side. “Can we?” I’m almost afraid to hear it.  Haven’t a single notion what he wants to say. Nevertheless, I nod. “This is difficult—there are things I’ve wanted to say to you for awhile now.  Since before we came here. But I didn’t want to get it wrong,” He swallows thickly, looking down at our joined hands for a beat, then back up to meet my eyes.  “I could never picture it—us. I didn’t see how it could work. I’ve thought about it over the years—of course I have—but it just seemed…” He trails off. “We’ve always had this unspoken thing between us, Sherlock—I know that it’s there—but it seemed like we would be risking too much by confronting it.  And then when you did—you were so sure,”  He drops my hand, kicks off his shoes, pulling his feet up under his knees to sit cross-legged, facing me.  “And it infuriated me. Because I wasn’t there, yet. Didn’t know if I ever would be.” My heart is beating violently, still unsure what he’s trying to say.  “I think I’m getting there,” He blurts out.

 

My mind races, trying to process his words.  In the dark, vulnerable corners of my heart, I had expected this conversation to go in another direction entirely.  Expected him to say this is making me uncomfortable.   Expected to hear I thought that I could do this, but I was wrong.   And now he’s saying—what?  That there may be hope for us, after all?

 

“What are you telling me, John?”  I turn toward him, tucking my legs up under myself, mirroring his position on the bed.  Again, he sighs.

 

“I’m trying to say—I don’t know how far I can go with this.  I don’t know if I can be everything you want me to be,” I don’t want him to be anything he’s not.  I only want him to be with me.  “But I think I’m ready to try.”

 

Heart in my throat, I can’t help but question what I’m hearing.  Why, then, did he essentially cut me out of his life for months?   I had put my heart on the line, and he had made me feel as though I’d irreparably damaged our relationship by doing so.  I can wrap my conflicted head around his initial rage—I, too, am prone to harsh reactions that I later regret—but why did it take so long for him to come around?  To be willing to even speak to me about this? Why did I have to invite him to accompany me across the world, to trigger this conversation?

 

We haven’t looked away from one another—he appears to be waiting for me to respond.  I don’t know what to say. I want to be overjoyed about this. I would love to be the sort of person who can just accept his words at face value.  But I only feel doubt. Brow furrowed, I break eye contact and crawl up the bed and under the duvet. I don’t have the words for this tonight. I need to process everything he’s just unceremoniously dropped into my lap.  I curl up on the edge of the bed, back facing the side that will soon contain John. Perhaps if we can just get through tonight, things will become clear in the morning.

 

John remains seated where I left him for quite a long time.  Minutes tick by until eventually I feel the bed dip behind me as he crawls beneath the sheets.  I’m all too aware of his presence, every fiber of my being on high alert. I won’t be sleeping tonight.  I’ll be lying here thinking of the fact that this is the first time in my life I’ve shared a bed with anyone at all, and of how the circumstances are cosmically cruel.  I’ll be obsessing over his words, turning them over and over in my head, wondering if we’ll even be able to move forward while being crushed by all of the doubt that plagues us.  I’m thinking exactly that, when I feel a light pressure on my right shoulder blade. John’s hand, unsure of its welcome, reaching out. I freeze. Remain curled up on the edge of the bed and wait.  Both hands, now. His palms against the cotton of my t-shirt. Unmoving. Testing the waters, making sure I’m open to this unfamiliar touch. Am I? I haven’t moved away. Haven’t succumbed to my usual tendency to flee at the first sign of affection from him.  I’ve craved this for so long that I can hardly believe it’s happening. Craved closeness, with him. Only that. Only to reach a level of comfort with one another that would allow us to reach out.  

 

He moves his hands down to my ribcage.  Hesitates, then slides one arm between my body and the sheets below, brings the other around to my chest, and pulls me in.  We lie flush together, now, his body curved against mine. He wraps both arms completely around me, holding on tight in a true embrace.  I try to keep up with all of the new sensations that come along with being held like this—try to breathe steadily, but it comes out as a sob, completely overcome by the well of emotion that has risen up within me, forming a lump in my throat and a crack in my heart.  I feel the tears prickle the corners of my eyes before flooding out, unable to be contained, and I curl up even smaller as my chest begins to heave with it. John holds on tighter, his strong arms as much a comfort as they are a source of this new form of agony.

 

“What is it?”  He whispers, his face tucked against my neck.  He sounds genuinely concerned—unsure of what to do next.  He can’t know that this is a situation I’ve never found myself in before.  Has no real way of knowing that no one has ever—not even once—cared for me enough to try to get this close.  I’ve never told him just how alone in the world I was, before him. Someone like John—with his easy warmth and magnetic disposition—won’t be able to fathom reaching this point in life and having no concept of what it feels like to have someone’s arms around you like this—someone you love.  The only person you’ve ever managed to love.  And so I say nothing.  My light sobs continue, along with the deluge of tears that I can’t seem to quell.  I bring my hands up to grasp his, arms crossed in front of me to twine our fingers together where they rest on my sides.  He responds by hitching a denim-clad leg over my hip, pulling me in even closer, and bringing his lips to my ear. “I’m sorry it took me so long to get here,”  His voice is light, barely a whisper. I tighten my grip on his fingers. Perhaps this is what I’ve been waiting to hear. “I don’t know what I’ll be able to give you—if it’ll ever be enough—but we can have this.  I know that I want this,” I want this too. What is it that he thinks he can’t give me? Sex? I don’t need it. I’m essentially indifferent—not opposed, nor convinced that it’s necessary for a functional relationship.  Love? Perhaps he’s afraid he can never match what I feel for him. He likely can’t. He’s the only man I’ve ever cared for—I don’t expect him to have that same kind of devotion. It isn’t normal or healthy, and it’s something I had to accept long ago.  I let go of his hands and turn toward him. He loosens his grip to allow me to shift within the circle of his arms. Our faces now centimeters apart, I can see that his emotions are as close to the surface as my own. Perhaps this experience has been cathartic for him as well.

 

“John—I don’t expect you to—to feel as strongly—”  He shakes his head, and I fall silent, letting the thought die half-formed.

 

“No,”  He says firmly.  “I’ve always loved you, Sherlock.  That’s never been the problem,” I feel a new wave of tears well up and spill over at his words.  I do know that he loves me, on some level. I’ve always been able to feel it. But he’s never said it—not like this.

 

I don't have adequate words for what I’m feeling, so I say nothing, only snake an arm around his waist and hold him a bit tighter.  I shift down and press my cheek to his chest, feel his heartbeat beneath the thin layer of cotton separating our flesh. If this is what he can give me—this invitation into his personal space and affection in the form of physical touch, then I will gladly accept.  If we can have this—can be this for each other—I will never stop contemplating my good fortune.  Breathing in tandem with the rise and fall of his chest, his fingers drifting up and down my back, I slip gradually into a daze.  

 

It feels like relief, lying here with him.  Immense relief and a temporary tonic for our seemingly immutable doubt.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

🅽🅸🅽🅴 🆆🅴🅴🅺🆂 🅴🅰🆁🅻🅸🅴🆁

 

 

Dinner?  SH

 

Rosie’s recital tonight

You could come along

5:00 at the school 

 

I’ll be there.  SH

 

I sigh, dropping my mobile in the top drawer of my desk and slamming it shut.  One more patient and then I can get the hell out of here. Been spending too much bloody time in this room lately—starting to feel trapped by these white walls.  A knock at the door. Here we go again.

 

 

On the tube home, I pull my mobile from my pocket, stare at our brief conversation from an hour ago.  What compelled me to invite him along? We haven’t even seen each other in almost a month. He’s tried, but between the clinic and Rosie, I haven’t had the time.  It’s difficult to ignore the fact that we’ve been drifting more and more over the last year, and it hurts to think about. I try to stay somewhat present in his life—sending occasional photos of her art or ridiculous selfies of us sticking out our tongues, waiting for a dance class to begin.  I meet him for lunch whenever I can get away long enough to inhale a basket of chips and hear about whatever case he’s got on.

 

But it’s hard to hear.  I want to be there—to be a part of it again.  To be partners again. My chest aches when I think of how much I miss running around London with him.  My focus has got to be on Rosie now, though. She’s getting older—more aware and more involved. And more expensive.  I can hardly turn down extra hours when they’re offered. We’ve been barely staying afloat as it is.

 

Home at last, I slump through the front door to find Molly sitting cross-legged on the floor, Rosie at her side, a spread of beads and string laid out in front of them.  I smile at the scene before me. Molly has been such a good friend to her—a reliable female presence in her motherless life. She’s been there from the beginning. Stepping in when Mary died and I was too lost to be any real sort of parent to her—and sticking by us ever since.  She spends her days alone for the most part—has yet to find a partner who she’s willing to commit to—and I think she’s happy to have someone who looks up to her. She picks Rosie up from school most days and brings her here. They’ve always got a project going, but more than that, they speak easily and openly.  She helps her take on each challenge that arises—helps her conquer the things that I am useless at addressing. She is the main reason Rosie has grown up so independent and capable, and for that I am eternally grateful.

 

They glance up when I enter, Rosie jumping up immediately to show me the bracelet she’s been working on.  Spelled out in pastel letters printed on square white beads, is the word O-B-V-I-O-U-S-L-Y. I look at Molly, eyebrows raised.

 

“I only helped her spell it,”  She laughs, hands in the air in a sign of surrender.  “She wanted to make something for Sherlock. I told her he’ll be there tonight.”  I’d texted Molly earlier to see if she would take Rosie home after the recital so that we could go to dinner.  I figured I owe him that, at least. To make some time. And anyway, I miss him.

 

“It’s exactly his style,”  I say, handing it back to Rosie with a grin.  She rolls her eyes. She didn’t learn that from me.

 

 

Wild blonde curls tamed back into a bun, knobbly knees clad in standard pink tights, and fluffy white tutu firmly in place, we waltz through the doors to the school auditorium, where her dance instructor hosts their recitals.  Rosie immediately scans the room, looking for her friends, no doubt, and I try not to be too obvious about seeking out Sherlock. Molly gives me a knowing look when I glance in her direction and I furrow my brow. She’s never quite shut up about us.  Insists there’s something there. She isn’t entirely wrong.

 

“Where is he?”  Rosie asks, pulling on my sleeve.  Apparently we were searching for the same detective.  I shrug.

 

“He’ll be here,”  He will, won’t he?  Would be just like him to get distracted and not show up.  That’s part of the problem, with him. Unreliable even on the best of days.

 

But not today.  I can’t help but smile when he walks through the front doors, weaving through hordes of tiny ballerinas, clutching a small bouquet of three pink peonies.  Rosie runs to him the moment he breaks free from the masses, accepting the bouquet and performing the secret handshake they’d spent a week perfecting last year (just in case you ever need to prove it’s really me).   The idiot.  He pecks Molly on the cheek, then turns to me, smiling widely when our eyes meet at last.

 

“John,”  He nods. “You look well,”  Molly rolls her eyes from behind his right shoulder, then blows a kiss when I shoot her a glare.  She’s tried, many times over the last half-decade, to get me to admit my feelings for him. I know that I’m not fooling anyone, but I also know with certainty that it could never work.  As drawn to him as I’ve always been, I’ve never been romantically interested in men. I just haven’t. There were crushes in my youth—guys that piqued my interest—but it’s always ended there.  Sherlock is different. The attraction between us was instantaneous and has never faded. Our mutual infatuation has kept our friendship alive for over a decade. The balance we’ve struck has allowed us to get through all of the horrors that have been thrown our way.  But it’s never been romantic between us. If we tried to move forward and it failed—as it surely would—that would be it. He certainly wouldn’t be able to handle it, and honestly, neither could I. I love him dearly, and I’m fairly certain the feeling is mutual. That’s always been enough for us.

 

“Hello,” I know that I’m staring.  We do this every time we see each other—lock eyes and hesitate to look away.  I’ve become adept at hiding the fondness I feel for him behind a mask, showing only what he would deem an acceptable level of adoration.  He doesn’t need to see the rest. We’re both torn from our shared reverie when Rosie comes bounding out of the cluster of white tutus she had disappeared into and grabs Sherlock’s hand.

 

“I almost forgot,” She says, trying to hold in a giggle as she slips the beaded bracelet onto his wrist.  A bit taken aback by this sudden appearance, he recovers quickly and lifts his hand to examine the gift. I watch a range of emotions pass over his face—then, slowly, he crouches down to her level.

 

“How did you know?”  He whispers, holding her gaze.  Rosie gives him a disbelieving look—eyebrow raised, hands on hips.

 

“Know what?”  Still, she can’t help but play along.  I laugh internally at his ability to break through her stubbornness and inherent skepticism.

 

“I’ve been looking for a piece like this for years.  Where did you find it?”

 

“I—”  She studies him for a moment, then shoves his shoulder.  “Stop.”   A giggle.  “Idiot,” He smirks, standing as she prances back over to her classmates.  She loves him—is absolutely head over heels for him, really. He was around constantly in the early years, to the point of being almost another parent to her.  The same way Molly and Mrs. Hudson are. And when Mycroft and Greg got together, they too were there for us in a way I never would have guessed possible. We’ve been very lucky.  She’s very loved.

 

 

The recital is as boring as ever—I have no choice but to attend one at least every two months—and once we’ve hugged and congratulated Rosie, thanked Molly and said our goodbyes, we find ourselves standing side by side on the pavement out front.

 

“Dinner, then?”  I turn to face him, hands in pockets.  His expression when he meets my eyes is a bit intense.  He’s been quiet tonight—not that he had a choice, sitting shoulder to shoulder in an auditorium for an hour and a half.  But there’s a question in his gaze. I swallow.

 

“Yes, all right,”  He says, clearing his throat.  We hail a cab and head to Angelo’s.  It’s our old standby, after all—and neither of us has been there in months.

 

“Look who it is!”  Angelo’s customary greeting when we walk through the door.  Our usual table by the window. A candle that we didn’t request.  Nothing ever changes here. I hope it never will.

 

Wine, pasta, conversation.  He tells me about the murder he solved yesterday, and I tell him of an interesting patient I had last week.  Surface level outlines of our very separate lives. I don’t tell him how bored I am, how much I miss working with him, seeing him on a regular basis.  And I don’t question the way he’s been looking at me—something in his eyes, tonight. He’s got something on his mind.

 

I wonder if he’s all right.  I know that he’s prone to bouts of depression—know that his PTSD still affects him in small ways.  I wonder if the distance that’s grown between us has made it worse for him. We always did bring out the best in one another—the worst, I suppose, as well.  I know that I have certainly reverted back to the most basic version of myself without him around.

 

“Sherlock,” I begin, ending a long silence between us, each lost in our own heads.  “What is it?” He doesn’t meet my eyes. He’s been pushing the same piece of ravioli around his plate for nearly half an hour now, staring at it unseeingly.  “Tell me what’s wrong,” At this, he looks up.

 

“Will it always be this way, do you think?”  He says, sounding a million kilometers away. My heart sinks.  I know exactly what he’s asking. He wants to know if there will be an end to this distance between us.  Wants to know if there will be a time when I come back to the work, when we see one another more than once a month.  I don’t have an answer for him. I can’t tell him that I desperately need the money, that I don’t have a choice but to spend my days at the clinic.  If he knows we’re struggling he’ll try to support us. He’s done it before. If I could make my living with him, I would, but Sherlock doesn’t choose cases based on the income they’ll generate—and it never was the most lucrative profession.  I stare back at him, shake my head slightly.

 

“I hope not,”  I say quietly.

 

“But you believe that it will.  That this is how it must be?” What is he getting at?  I don’t know what he wants me to do. It isn’t as if I want this distance any more than he does.  Perhaps I can make more time for him somehow, I don’t know—“I miss you, John,” Bit taken aback by this.  He rarely speaks this way to me—to anyone. He sounds raw—more vulnerable than I’ve seen him in a very long time.

 

“Yeah—yeah, I miss you, too,”  My brow furrowed, now. I’m a bit lost, here.  “Look, I know I haven’t been around much. I’ve just been caught up.  I wish there was a way—” He doesn’t appear to be listening. Has gone back to playing with his fork.  “Sherlock?” Abruptly, he stands.

 

“Need some air,”  And walks out the door.  Without hesitation, I follow.

 

“What is this?”  I’m close to shouting now, rushing to keep up and getting questioning looks from passersby.  “Please, tell me what’s wrong,” I sound desperate. I don’t want him to shut down before he tells me what’s going on with him.  I’m afraid he isn’t doing well and that he’ll do something drastic. It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

“I never thought that this is what would become of us,”  He turns to face me, his voice raised now, too. Emotion seeping through.  “I thought—I thought—” Runs his hands roughly through his hair—a sure sign of frustration—then shakes his head and begins to walk away again.  I want to reach for him, to stop him from turning his back on me—but he’s always been so untouchable.

 

“Stop!”   I try to keep up, but he’s pushed his way through a crowd lingering on the pavement and disappeared.  I shove past them—feeling almost panicked—but when I reach the other side, there he is. He’s stopped—is hovering uncertainly near an empty bus stop—a relatively secluded spot on this otherwise busy street.  “Tell me,” I say firmly. Fucking tell me. I hold my breath. He’s gone back to the drugs, perhaps. Or landed himself in some other precarious situation. It must be something horrible if he’s this bloody resistant to saying it aloud.  He stares back at me for an impossibly long moment, then backs up, drops down on the bench.

 

“I’m in love with you.”




It’s like time just

stops





for a bit.

Mind reeling, spooling outward in slow motion, trying to grasp the words he’s just thrown at me.




And then, all at once, it catches up with me.

I take a step back.  He won’t meet my eyes.  

 

“Sherlock— what?”

 

“I want to be with you, John.  I’m in love with you.”

 

I’d always known he felt something for me.  Of course I did. But this?   I’d thought we had an unspoken agreement.  I had thought we were on the same page.  Where can we possibly go from here?  I feel my blood begin to boil. The fury that’s followed me throughout my life, rearing its ugly head in moments of emotional confusion.  It isn’t the first time I’ve allowed it to be conjured by his actions, his words.

 

“No,” I spit out.  My voice sounds distant, foreign.  Like someone else entirely. Someone unspeakably cruel.  “We can’t. You’ve fucked it. You’ve ruined everything.”

 

“John—”

 

“NO!”   I roar.  I don’t feel in control anymore.  Reacting without thought, now. He looks stricken—devastated—sitting on that lonely bench.  My heart cracks open at the sight of him. I need to get out of here before I make this somehow worse.

 

The last thing I see, as I turn to leave, is the grief—the heartbreak—that distorts his face.  He’s unrecognizable, like this. Fragile and small. I sprint around the corner and nearly fall to the ground with the wave of regret that hits me square in the chest.  Duck into an alleyway and slam my fist into the brick wall in front of me. Staring at the torn flesh, I sink to my knees, consumed by shame—remorse—and finally succumbing to an inescapable flood of tears.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

John is asleep.  He’d held on to me tightly for quite a long time before I felt his grip slacken, his breathing deepen.  At some point I had stopped fighting the waves of tears and just let them flow, soaking his t-shirt where my cheek had come to rest.  Now I lie curled up against him where he’s settled on his back—one arm still wrapped around me—my hand resting tentatively on his abdomen.  

 

I haven’t slept.  Haven’t been able to quiet my mind.  Once the sobs faded and I could breathe again, I began to consider every facet of this new development and what it will mean for us.  I spent the night compiling mental lists of questions that will need to be addressed, playing out all possible scenarios for the future of our relationship, whatever it may become.  I know that I’m getting ahead of myself, but this is the way that I am. I want to know what’s next—need to know what this changes for us. But I’m hesitant to break this temporary calm that we’ve found together.

 

His mobile vibrates in the pocket of the jeans he’d gone to bed in.  A phone call, not a text message. It continues to buzz. He stirs beside me, waking gradually and reflexively pulling the phone from his pocket to glance at it—squinting as his eyes adjust to the yellow morning light.

 

“Greg?”   He mumbles, furrowing his brow, still not quite awake.  “Oh—it’ll be Rosie,” He sets the phone on the nightstand beside him.  Turns to me. “I’ll call her back in a bit,” A yawn. “Hi,” A sleepy smile.  I feel suddenly awkward, a bit tense—curled against his body, in his personal space—awake while he dozed by my side.  “You haven’t slept,” He studies my face, reaches over and smoothes his thumb lightly across the sensitive skin beneath my eye—slightly swollen from all of the tears.  “All right?” 

 

“Yes,” I say, turning my face into his shoulder—hiding, perhaps.  Delaying the conversation that we must soon have. He huffs, quietly.  Amused by my gracelessness. Rolls forward and takes me in his arms, enveloping my body once more.  Immediately I feel the tension begin to fade. I allow myself to relax against him, to slide an arm around his back and clutch him to me—squeeze him, really—to fully return the embrace.  He sighs, face tucked into the crook of my neck, and I shiver at the thrill of his breath against my skin. He seems to need this as much as I do—this physical reassurance. I wonder how much time has passed since he’s been close to someone like this.  A long time, if I’m not mistaken. Quite a few years.

 

“I should call Rosie,” He whispers, lips lightly brushing my neck.  Yes, he should. We’re on our fourth day here and he hasn’t spoken to her once.  I have failed—until now—to consider the sacrifice he’s made to be here with me. He’s an incredible father, and they’re very close.  He must miss her immensely. “Don’t want to move,” I smile against his shoulder. Neither do I.

 

Eventually, we break apart, John grinning at me as he reaches for his mobile.  He rings Greg—a video call—and I watch his face light up when Rosie’s pink cheeks and mop of blonde curls appear on the screen.

 

“Dad!”  I can see from where I lean against the headboard on the other side of the bed that she’s bouncing around.  Thrilled to see her father’s face. I remain out of sight—obviously.

 

“Hello, love,”  John is beaming, “How’s it going?”

 

“Just got back from school.  Greg said I could call you because you would probably be awake by now.  He said the time is different there. But you didn’t pick up. Where’s Sherlock?”  That didn’t take long. She knows that he took a trip with me— for a case —a phrase that she’s grown up hearing repeatedly and stopped questioning long ago.  John smiles.

 

“He’s here,”  Glances at me, raising a shoulder in a halfhearted shrug, then shifts the phone slightly so that we’re both visible on the screen.

 

“Hi, Sherlock,” She babbles animatedly.  “I miss you. Are you in Dad’s bed?” I can’t help but laugh.  I turn to John—he can handle this one.

 

“Ah—yep,”  He says grinning widely at the puzzled look on her face.

 

“Why?”

 

“Why not?”  He responds quickly, still grinning.  She seems to contemplate this for a moment, then shrugs.

 

“Hang on,”  A voice in the background.  “Did I just hear what I think I heard?”  Lestrade’s face appears behind Rosie, squinting at the small screen.  “Oh my God.   Mycroft!  Get in here!”  He disappears. “Babe!”  We hear distantly. John turns to me.

 

“Babe?”   Lets out a bark of laughter.  “Does he call him that all the time?”  He asks Rosie.

 

“Yep,”  She says, oblivious to the childish joy that this knowledge gives John and me.  She doesn’t remember a time before they were Greg and Mycroft —certainly never knew my brother before he became what he is today.  He’s warmer, now. Still completely insufferable, but Lestrade has thawed him, a bit.  Right on cue, his smug face enters the screen, Lestrade back by his side.

 

“Oh my,”   He says, eyebrows raised.  “Well, it’s about time,” I roll my eyes.  I wonder what sort of bet they had going about the supposed inevitability of John and I ending up here.  They’ve both made many little comments over the years, knowing full well how I feel about him. It was obvious to everyone but John.  The fact that Mycroft, of all people, was able to win over the man he’d been pining for—when I was sure that I could never have John—had been a sore spot for me from the start.  I was glad for them—really, I was—but it certainly came as a surprise.

 

“As lovely as this has been,” John chimes in, cutting them off before they can plant any questions in Rosie’s young mind about why this isn’t a perfectly normal occurrence.  “We ought to be going. Rosie—love you—same time tomorrow?” She enthusiastically agrees, and they say their goodbyes. Dropping his mobile unceremoniously back on the nightstand, John turns to me, fixing me with his gaze.  “All right?” He’s asking if I’m okay with them knowing—not that they really know anything.  Their assumptions, no doubt, are far from the truth.  I shrug. We don’t even know what this is, yet.  I’m not bothered by their opinions on our evolving relationship, but I would like to know John’s.  It has to mean something that he didn’t even hesitate to let them see us like this. Side by side, in what is clearly a bed.  Clothed—obviously—but still.

 

“You don’t mind?” 

 

“I don’t, no.  They’re family—they’ll have to know eventually.  Why not now?” Perhaps because he only decided last night that he was even capable of pursuing this with me?  Perhaps because despite our newfound ability to seek comfort in one another, I am still utterly plagued with doubt about his sincerity?  He seems to have forgotten how quickly he’d torn me down when I’d told him I want to be with him two months ago. He seems to expect me to be able to trust easily that this is actually what he wants.  Whatever is written on my face seems to convey at least some of this, because he sighs, grabs for my hand. “I’m not going to change my mind, Sherlock,” Laces our fingers together and grips them tightly.  “I know that it’s new, and that we have much to figure out, but I’ve known for awhile now that I wanted to find my way here.”

 

“All right,”  I say, because I don’t want to argue.  I want to manage my doubts and give him a chance to show me that he wants this.  And anyway, our unexpected houseguest—Henry—is likely awake by now, hovering awkwardly in the living room once more.  And we really ought to get up and attempt to assist him with his unfortunate predicament.

 

 

We find Henry in the kitchen, sitting at the table sipping a cup of coffee and scrolling through his phone.

 

“Morning,”  He says when we shuffle in, still donning last night’s clothes.  He gives us a bit of an odd look, but doesn’t mention it. “Made coffee,”  A nod to the worktop, where a fresh pot awaits our arrival. “Thanks again for letting me stay.  Really,” John heads over to pour us each a cup.

 

“Not a problem,”  Perhaps we should be thanking him.  It was his presence that forced John and I to spend a night in close proximity.  We may not have made such progress at all if either of us had had the option to flee.  

 

“Sleep all right?”  John asks, handing me a coffee and taking a seat at the little table.  I join them, wondering if it’s too soon to begin questioning Henry about the inscrutable Hal.

 

“Comfortable couch you’ve got there,”  Henry responds with a nod. Then hesitates for a moment before continuing.  “He’s not all bad, you know,” It seems they’ve already resolved last night’s drama, then.  Unfortunate. He won’t tell us anything if he’s feeling loyal to the man.

 

“What’s his sudden gripe with me?”  John asks, taking a sip and cringing when he burns his tongue.  “Thought we were getting along fine on Saturday,” Henry sighs, looking between us.

 

“Isn’t it obvious?”  I narrow my eyes. Not remotely.  I’d found it extremely odd that he had given John the cold shoulder, then turned on him entirely by bringing up Mary—something he knows nothing about.  Henry notes our blank expressions, exhales dramatically, then continues. “He wants you,” He directs this at me, his tone matter-of-fact. What?   He goes back to scrolling his phone, typing out a text and hitting send.   “And he always gets what he wants.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“First time for everything,”  John mumbles, scowling and taking another sip of his still-too-hot coffee.  I watch him cringe once again. Why? The temperature? Or the taste?  Feeling suddenly on edge, I take the mug from him, setting it next to my own untouched cup and earning myself a questioning look—then glance back at Henry.

 

“Tell me what you mean by that,”  I say firmly. Everything about this feels suddenly—off.  “He wants me?  Elaborate.  And tell us why you’re here, while you’re at it,” Henry looks up at me, slightly alarmed, tapping away on his mobile once more.  “I’ll have the phone,” I say, holding out my hand. He hesitates, then quickly locks it and hands it over. What’s he hiding, then? 

 

“Start talking,”  John commands, moving swiftly to stand behind me, placing both hands firmly on my shoulders.  Protective. Ready for action. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Captain Watson make an appearance.

 

“Not sure what you mean,”  Henry mutters, slumped in his seat across the table, clearly not believing his own words.

 

“Try again,”  John’s voice is measured—dangerous—as he leans forward, his face beside mine.  Henry studies him, as if weighing his options, then seems to internally crumble as he lets out a resigned sigh.

 

“Look, he sent me here.  Is that what you want to know?  And yeah, you’d probably be wise not to drink that coffee,”  I feel a familiar panic begin to rise in my chest. Always triggered—after the two miserable years as a dead man and my subsequent capture—by the loss of control.  I’ve learned to keep it at bay, over the years—learned how to beat it back and get on with the work. But it’s still often there. John tightens his grip on my shoulders, a reminder that he’s with me.  He has always been able to see when I’m affected by PTSD. He was the first to notice—to call it what it is—and has helped me through many a panic attack in the years after my return. But the panic doesn’t control me anymore.  I rise to my feet, John dropping his hands and moving to stand at my side, fists clenched.

 

“Rohypnol, then?  Ketamine?” Fury in his voice, at the thought of being rendered powerless, helpless at the hands of this man—this kid —who we’d empathized with, who we’d let into our orbit with almost no hesitation.  We’ve both been compromised, drugged— kidnapped, even—so many times as a result of the work.  Will we never learn? Can no one in this world be trusted?  Henry shakes his head, staring at his hands where they lie on the table.

 

“Nothing like that,”  He hesitantly meets my eyes.  “Look, I don’t know anything. He tells me to dump a vial of something into your coffee, and I do it.  That’s how it works with him,”  

 

“And what is meant to happen next?”  I ask, watching him closely for any signs of dishonesty.  He shrugs, looking defeated.

 

“Nothing, as far as I know.  I did this for him once before.  When we first got together. Asked some lady he had pointed out if I could crash on her couch, made coffee in the morning.  She drank it—a lot of it—and I left. Saw her at the Rainbow that same night. She was fine,” He furrows his brow, thinking.  Seemingly trying to recall any details he may have omitted. “Left town about a month later, I think. Nothing weird about that.  Nobody stays here long.” I stare disbelievingly back at him, feeling a subtle rage begin to flow through me, simmering beneath the surface of my skin. 

 

“Did you not consider,”  I begin, fighting to keep my voice even.  “Even for a second—questioning these requests?  Do you just blindly obey this idiot’s every whim?”  He shoots me an incredulous look, his entire demeanor immediately becoming defensive.

 

“As if I have a choice!”  He shouts, jumping abruptly to his feet.  I feel John stand up straighter, shifting forward slightly, ready to defend me if it comes to that.  “I wish I had never met him, but here we are,” He throws his hands carelessly up in the air, lets them fall to his sides.  “He isn’t someone you say no to. He—” He cuts himself off, eyes darting between John and I. “I’m fucked now, though,” Panic in his eyes.  “You were supposed to drink it. Fuck,”   He drops back down on the chair, head in hands.

 

“So tell him we did,”  John’s voice is calm—his doctorly side making a swift reappearance.  He places a hand on my back, and I glance over at him. When he meets my eyes, I see within them a silent plea:  Go along with it.   So I do.

 

“We can help you out of this,” I say.  Perhaps we actually can.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

John closes the door behind Henry and we breathe out a collective sigh of—well not relief, surely.  This thing has only just begun. But the atmosphere feels lighter now that he’s finally gone. As it turns out, he was very interested in hearing what we had to say.  I now have no trouble believing that he feels truly trapped in his relationship with Hal—the man treats him as if he were an imprisoned pet. We listened to him speak for nearly an hour—were given a fair amount of insight into what kind of man Hal really is.  It’s become alarmingly clear that Henry fears for his life.

 

In the end, we suggested he behave as if their little plan went off without a hitch, gave him our mobile numbers in case something goes awry—then called him a cab and sent him on his way.  Considering that he believes he will be made to disappear if Hal learns of his failed mission, we must trust that he’ll follow through with his end of the plan.

 

I wasn’t lying, by the way, he had said as he pulled on his worn canvas trainers.  He wants you.  And he’s persistent.   My stomach had lurched at the thought of being pursued by such a person.  I’m not exactly familiar with being the object of anyone’s desire—quite the opposite—so it’s incredibly daunting to consider fending off such unwanted advances.  John had come to my defense. He isn’t interested, he’d said, hand placed possessively on the small of my back.  Obviously.  You can go ahead and tell him that.   Henry won’t, of course.  He won’t dare be the bearer of such news.  And anyway, if we’re to stay in Hal’s good graces we may need to let him believe he has a chance at whatever it is that he wants from me.

 

Now we stand, eyes locked, in our (finally) empty cottage.  A long, charged moment passes between us before John pushes himself off of the door he’s been leaning on, takes a step forward and slides both arms around my waist—forehead dropping to my sternum.  My heart leaps at the easy intimacy we seem to have found ourselves suddenly capable of. Perhaps now that we’ve broken down this wall, we really will be able to keep this. I drag my fingers up his spine to his shoulders, kneading into the muscle there.  He’s tense. Stressed. His protective side has been conjured, and it tends to keep him on edge. I let my hands drift up his neck, cup his jaw and gently tilt his face to meet my eyes. 

 

“Do you feel all right?”  He did just consume a small amount of whatever was in that vial.  He considers the question, and I watch him take a quick mental inventory of his body.  He nods.

 

“I hardly even sipped it.  Was quite bitter. Thought he was just rubbish at making coffee,” He shakes his head once.  “I’m an idiot,” Neither of us saw it coming. Sentiment is making us soft.

 

“No,”  I say, pulling him close once more.  Slide my arms around his shoulders, rest my cheek against his fine grey hair.  Breathe him in. “John,” I whisper, briefly tightening my hold before letting go.  “You could use a shower.”

 

 

Crouched in front of the cabinet beneath the sink, I rummage for something—anything—sterile to put the drugged coffee in.  The cupboards and drawers of this rental property were devoid of lidded containers—not a jar or thermos to speak of. But—ah.  There we go. A box of plastic sandwich bags. I pour a small amount into one, zip it, then place it inside another. Throw the pot in the sink along with our mugs and half a bottle of dish soap.  Let the steaming water slowly fill the basin.  

 

John shuffles into the kitchen, toweling his hair dry.  He’s sporting socks and a fresh pair of trousers—and an entirely bare torso.  I glance over, and cautiously allow myself to stare. I’ve seen him in various states of undress over the years.  We lived together, after all, and have shared many a hotel room since. But I never let my eyes linger, before. Now they drift to his scar—a faded white map written across his chest—a story of heroism and survival.  I find myself moving toward him. He stares up at me silently as I trace the lines of damaged flesh with the pads of my fingers, letting the tale unfold in my mind—considering each of the unlikely circumstances that had to occur for us to meet at all.  Beginning with this scar. I hear him swallow thickly and realize that I’m probably behaving inappropriately—making him uncomfortable. This likely isn’t something that people do.

 

“Sorry,”  I mutter, backing off a bit and removing my hand from his exposed skin.

 

“No,”  He clears his throat, takes a step toward me.  “It’s fine,” Takes my hand, places it back on his chest, over his pounding heart.  I can’t help but wonder if he’s only allowing this for my benefit. If my hands on his skin will be one of the things he can’t give me.  Perhaps he feels as though he can’t deny me this, after everything he said last night. I step back, drop my hand. Once again I’m filled with doubt.  I won’t be able to go near him without questioning whether my advances are welcome. I absolutely refuse to force him into anything that he isn’t ready for.  His expression is one of confusion, but he doesn’t question me. Squeezes my arm, then heads off to the living room to dig a t-shirt out of his suitcase.

 

I remain still for a moment, feeling lost, a bit hopeless.  I simply have no sense of how this should unfold—virtually no experience with the natural progression of such things.  And I lack the ability to read emotion the way that John can. I mentally shake myself—I’m no good to him if I’m constantly overcome with self-doubt.  I should shower. Clear my head. We have a full day ahead of us, and I’ll need to be present, alert. I let my eyes drift over the bubbles that have gradually formed in the sink.  Eliminating all evidence of attempted defilement, a clean slate—tabula rasa. 

 

Turning off the faucet, I head for the loo.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

We climb into our absurdly small convertible—John and his superior sense of direction taking the wheel—and pull out of the concrete parking ramp of the Santa Rosa Junior College.  Molly had called in a favour with an ex-colleague who’s affiliated with their labs, and we’ve spent most of the day holed up there, attempting to discover what John unknowingly ingested this morning.  The city is but a twenty-six minute drive from our cottage, so it was an extremely convenient trip.

 

Although we’ve yet to identify the substance, it’s been a productive day.  It seems to most closely resemble some sort of chemically manufactured psychedelic—in the same vein as LSD and MDMA—but with a few undeniable differences that have me at a loss.  I’ve forwarded my findings to several contacts in both America and the UK—so we should have second, third and fourth opinions within the week.

 

After much badgering, John has convinced me to seek out sustenance beyond the hallway vending machines—so here we sit, side by side, speeding along the highway in the blinding sunlight.  I glance over and can’t help but smile at the sight of him in his tortoiseshell wayfarers and tight white t-shirt. He’s even acquiring a bit of a tan.   He almost looks like he belongs here, in this bright, buoyant state.  California.   Who could have guessed he’d find a way to look at home here, of all places?  No doubt sensing my lingering gaze, he shoots me a quick grin before returning his eyes to the winding road ahead.

 

We stop at a roadside diner that looks like it’s been there since the dawn of time.  Crumbling stucco walls painted a bright, bubblegum pink, it was hard to miss from the highway.

 

“Perfect,”  he says, as we exit the car.  I linger for a moment—not entirely convinced that we should ingest anything that’s been in this building—but John just grabs my hand and drags me through the door.  We’re led to a large patio out back, and I’m instantly a bit stunned by the view. Rolling hills, as far as the eye can see—distant vineyards and buildings in miniature scattered across the landscape.  It’s all a bit overwhelming. There’s no one else here—we’ve got this corner of the world to ourselves—and as soon as the hostess disappears inside, John turns to me. “Sherlock,” He says quietly, placing his palms flat against my abdomen.  I feel the warmth of his skin through my thin cotton t-shirt, and my heart immediately begins to race. “I’ve been reminded today—I—I’ve been missing this. I’m not sure I realized how much. Even just sitting around a lab with you—” He pauses, slides his hands to my waist.  “I want that back,” His expression is fierce, as if he needs to convince himself that it’s true. “When we get home—whatever I have to do. I want it back,” Of course he can have it back. Why shouldn’t he? I still don’t understand why he walked away from the work in the first place.

 

“John—”  We’re interrupted by our waitress, a bored looking young woman with a pierced lip.  We take a seat at the nearest table and order two Mai Tais. When in Rome, John had said.  Whatever that means.  She takes her leave. “John—will you—can you tell me what happened?”  Was it something I did?   Is what I’d like to ask—is what I’ve been asking myself for over half a year—but I’d rather not put him on the spot.  He sighs, dropping his head back to stare at the sky.

 

“Money,”  He says simply, after a moment’s hesitation.  “I couldn’t work only part time at the clinic and still afford all of Rosie’s classes—and the flat—and everything else that goes along with living in London and raising a child.  That’s all it was,” He lifts his head slowly, watching me through tinted lenses.

 

“I would have—”

 

“I know you would have, Sherlock.  If you’d known, you’d have dropped everything to help us.  But you’ve done so much for us already, I couldn’t ask you again,”  I’m dumbfounded by this response. Money?   He knows that my family has more money than we’ll ever need.  Knows that my parents adore them—would be thrilled to do anything they can for them— “I needed to be realistic.  I can’t let your family support us indefinitely. Everything you did after Mary died—I’ll never forget it, but I needed to stand on my own two feet.”  This is so typical of him. Stubborn as ever, refusing to ask for assistance when he needs it. And why? Because of some sort of misplaced sense of pride?  He watches me as I turn this over in my mind. Sighs again, drops his head—eyes to the sky. “I don’t expect you to understand. You’ve never had to—to worry about it.  Any of it. You’ve got a safety net—you can do whatever you want for a living. Your family has money,”  I roll my eyes. He thinks he’s making a point, but in fact he’s missing it entirely.  The waitress shows up, two Mai Tais in hand. Drops them on the table and disappears without a word when she looks between us and sees the scene she’s just walked into.

 

“What you’re failing to grasp, John, is that you are my family,” I hiss, leaning back in my chair and glaring at him.  “We all see it that way—have for ages— you’re the only one who seems to question it,”  He turns his head toward me, removes his sunglasses, narrows his eyes.  “And it isn’t as if I’ve never had to work for a living, idiot,” I add for good measure.  “You know full well I was cut off for years during the drugs phase,” Not entirely sure I've managed to come across as anything but a privileged wanker, but at least I’ve said my piece.  He continues to stare for an uncomfortably long moment, then abruptly stands, suddenly hovering right in front of me. Hands on my cheeks, he presses his lips to my forehead—sending my stomach through the floor and my heart spinning wildly into the ether—then drops back down in his seat, reaching for a menu.

 

“Shall we order?”  He asks, grinning widely.  “Oh look, they have fish and chips.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Must we?”  I ask for the eleventh time, slamming my car door shut with a dramatic flourish.  John only rolls his eyes and strides down the pavement toward the Rainbow.  Just one drink, he’d said, the first five times.  We need to make an appearance in case he suspects Henry buggered it up, on the sixth.  Each time since has been met with an exasperated eye roll.  I know that he’s right. Henry doesn’t strike me as the most skillful actor, and if Hal suspects even slightly that he failed at spiking our coffee, he may be in serious trouble.  And so, here we are—waltzing through the doors of the nearly empty bar on a Monday evening.

 

I keep finding myself wondering how this case would be going if John hadn’t come along.  I suspect I’d have already been swept up in Hal’s tidal wave, unsure how to navigate this sunny new world.  I’d likely be in a constant state of concern—sure that my refusal to accept his advances would destroy any chance I have at getting a glimpse into whatever it is he’s up to.  And without John’s expressive face by my side, cringing at the bitterness of it all, I’d have certainly drank the bloody coffee. A bloom of warmth in my chest—a surge of gratitude for his presence here—as I follow him to the bar.  He perches on a stool and I stand by his side, sliding an arm around his waist without much thought. He leans easily against me, ordering us two pints of cider from the now-familiar blonde barman.

 

“Hello, you two,”  A deep voice from down the bar.  I glance up. “We haven’t officially met.  I’m Ben,” Of course. Ben. He and John haven’t officially met, as I was too lost in my own panicked thoughts to introduce them on Saturday night.  He approaches, nodding at me and shaking John’s hand.

 

“Nice to meet you,”  John grins, his tone more genuine than it’s been with anyone else we’ve met here thus far.  He must sense something in Ben. “Officially.”

 

“Mind if I join you?”

 

“Please,”  I don’t mind at all.  I liked the man instantly—his matter-of-fact demeanor and his ability to be unapologetically himself.  We could learn a thing or two from him. He pulls up a stool to John’s right, the barman immediately setting what appears to be a gin and tonic down in front of him.

 

“Was hoping I’d run into you, actually.  Do you have plans for the fourth?” The fourth?  Ah, right. Independence Day. Stars and stripes and all of the rest of it.  Such rubbish.

 

“Ah—nope,” John chimes in.  “What is that, then—Thursday?  We’ve got nothing on,” He glances back at me for confirmation.  Obviously we’ve got nothing on. We hardly know what we’re even doing here.  I nod. Ben grins.

 

“Well, we rent this house on the coast every year in Bodega Bay,”  He tilts his head, indicating the barman. “Adam and me, and a few friends.  Two of them just bailed—we wanted to invite you guys if you’re into that sort of thing,”  Adam nods, before hurrying down the bar to refill someone's pint. Unsure what that sort of thing entails, I say nothing—wait for him to elaborate.  John is similarly silent, and Ben laughs at our blank expressions.  “The town gets pretty into it. There’s a boat parade—we grill out and watch it from the beach.  Drinks—you know. Fireworks over the water, of course. It’s fun,” John turns to me.

 

“What do you think?”  He wants to go. My ability to read facial cues may not be nearly as developed as his own, but I can see his eagerness quite clearly.  I smile.

 

“All right,”  Why not? Perhaps we can question them about Hal’s comings and goings while we’re too far away for him to catch a whiff of our inquiries.  Surely getting to know the rest of this town’s characters will be beneficial to the case. John smirks, then spins around on his stool to resume his place leaning easily against me.  Feeling bold, I wrap my arms around his shoulders, let my chin rest on the crown of his head. His hands immediately come up to grip my arms where they lie across his chest.

 

“Fabulous,”  Ben says, watching as we shift around to lean on each other.  “You two are fuckin’ cute, you know?” His finger dances through the air in our general direction.  John lets out a huff of laughter as I scowl. Ben just grins, scribbling his number on a piece of paper and sliding it across the bar in front of John.  “Text me for details,” He says. “I’m getting out of here before your new best friend stops staring from the corner and decides to come over,” He downs the last of his drink, leans over the bar to peck Adam on the lips, and strides out the door.

 

Hal is indeed staring at us from his usual spot in the shadows.  I had almost forgotten we were here with an ulterior motive—was rather enjoying chatting with a friendly face while being allowed to hold John against my chest.  It’s odd to be in a place where such a thing is standard—normal. And even more odd is how quickly we’ve both become comfortable with it. John quietly groans when Hal rises, making a beeline for the stool Ben had vacated a moment ago.  Here we go again.

 

“Boys!”  He exclaims, arms held out as if gesturing toward a game show prize.  “I believe I owe you my gratitude. I so appreciate you giving my Henry a place to stay.  We do have our little spats—I’m sure you understand,”  He sits, uninvited, on the empty barstool beside John, who tightens his grip on my arms.  “Anyway, he said you were the most gracious of hosts. Said the cottage you’re renting is just lovely,”   Lovely.  I wonder how long it’ll be before Hal shows up there uninvited as well.  He snaps his fingers at a stony-faced Adam, who sets a fresh drink down in front of him.  Whiskey, by the smell of his breath as he spits an endless stream of words at us. He does love to hear himself speak.

 

We’ve yet to get a word in ten minutes later, half-listening as Hal goes on about how he practically owns the Rainbow, for all of the money he throws their way.  He clearly doesn’t suspect that Henry failed to drug us, so I allow my mind to wander. I’m deeply distracted by John—his unending warmth against my chest—the pads of his fingers now drifting across my skin where his hands remain resting against my forearms.  I want to get out of here. Want to crawl into bed with him and curl up under the duvet in one another’s arms. If this is all he can ever give me, it’s more than enough. I’m pulled back to the present by John’s voice—the first time he’s attempted to speak since Hal sat down.

 

“Right, well I’m sorry to say that we must be going,”  He gestures at our empty pints. “I promised him we’d only stay for one.  Been a long day. See you around?” Hal looks slightly taken aback—John no doubt interrupted whatever tangent he’d been going off on—but nods, standing to take his leave.

 

“Yes, yes of course,”  John slides off of his stool, backing up immediately and never letting go of my arms.   Hal watches this possessive gesture with a slightly sour look on his face. “I’m here nearly every night—you know where to find me,”  Indeed we do. We’ve found him here three out of the three nights we’ve been in. Time to take a break from the Rainbow, I think.

 

“Goodnight,” I say, reluctantly dropping my arms from John’s shoulders and taking his hand instead.  We say goodbye to Adam, promising to be in touch about Thursday—then leave before Hal decides he has more to say.

 

“Had to get out of there,”  John breathes, the moment we walk out into the cool night air.  “Didn’t think he’d ever shut up,” We share a smile and head for the car hand in hand.  Climb in silently and pull away from the kerb. “The way he was looking at you—” He’s scowling at the road ahead.  Was he looking at me a certain way? I hardly spared him a glance. Had other things on my mind. “Anyway, at least he doesn’t seem to suspect anything.”

 

“No,”  I agree.  “Seems that Henry is a better liar than we’d thought,”  I suppose being irreversibly tied to someone you despise will give you that particular skill set.  The rest of the drive is quiet—once we arrive at the cottage, closing the front door behind us, John turns to me.

 

“I’d like to sleep with you again.  Is that all right?” My heart leaps at his blunt words.  I hadn’t even considered going back to our separate sleeping arrangements.  I’ve been fantasizing all evening about crawling into bed with him tonight—and every night hereafter, if he’ll allow it.

 

“Yes,”  This comes out as little more than a rasp.  I clear my throat. “Obviously,” I say, with a bit more success.  He smiles, then turns to rummage through his luggage for pyjamas. I head for the bedroom to do the same, mind reeling as I strip off my jeans and pull on a pair of silk pyjama bottoms.  I can hardly believe that this began only yesterday. How is it possible that we were able to shift our relationship into this new realm so naturally? It’s as if once I let him in, the dam broke altogether.  John knocks on the partially-ajar door just as I’m pulling a new t-shirt over my head. Respecting my boundaries. He doesn’t know that I wish to tear them all down. I want him to be able to see all of me—literally and figuratively.  He already knows more of me than anyone else has ever cared to. I open the door, eyes lingering on his for a moment, before crawling beneath the covers. He follows.  

 

We meet in the middle, my arms pulling him in.  He rests his cheek on my chest, hand curled comfortably against my ribcage.  My palm rubs circles across his back and I let out a soft sigh, the day’s tension fading as we melt against one another.

 

“Sherlock,”  His voice is quiet, contemplative.  “What is it that you want?” He’s been quite direct tonight.  Not holding back. “From me, I mean,” I know what he meant. I’m hesitant to answer that.  I want whatever he can give me. Anything. All of it. But I refuse to put any more pressure on him than I already have.

 

“This,”  I find myself saying.  “To be with you, John.  This is what I want,” He’s quiet for a moment.

 

“And the rest of it?  Everything that romantic relationships generally consist of?  Do you want that?”

 

“What do you want?”  I’d like to know.  He keeps surprising me with his willingness to show affection—even in public—not to mention his complete nonchalance about our families seeing us in bed together.  His recent actions have been in complete contradiction of his stubborn silence the last few months. He lifts his head, chin resting on my chest, and meets my eyes.

 

“As long as I’ve known you, you’ve shown almost no interest in anything like this.  Have—” He cuts himself off. Brings his hand up to brush lightly through my curls.  “You don’t have to answer—but—have you ever been with anyone? The way you respond to—to touch—”  He sighs. “I’m sorry,” Drops his forehead to my sternum.

 

“It’s fine,”  It is. I don’t plan on hiding my past from him.  “I haven’t,” I’d have told him sooner, had he asked.  “And you’re right—I had no interest in any of it before you.  I only want you,” Well, it’s out there now. John doesn’t look up—remains quiet for quite a long time, his fingers pulling gently through my curls.

 

“You have me,”  He says this so softly that I wonder if I’ve heard him correctly.  He lifts his head again to meet my eyes. “Completely. It may take me a bit for—for the rest of it.  But I want all of it. This is—this has been—” He runs his palm down my jaw, traces a cheekbone with the pad of his thumb.  I can hardly believe what I’m hearing—my heart is surely beating a hole through the walls of my chest. “I feel more for you than I knew I was capable of.  However you want me, I’m yours.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Making progress, brother mine?

With the case, of course.

Unless there happens to be something else worth mentioning?

 

I roll my eyes at this idiocy.  Subtle, Mycroft. Fishing for gossip—Lestrade no doubt hovering over his shoulder, waiting with bated breath.  Truly shocking that they’ve made it an entire twenty-four hours without mentioning it.

 

John is perched on the couch, video chatting with Rosie.  I hear their cheerful voices and mingled laughter as I prepare breakfast, smiling to myself each time they burst into giggles.  We woke up this morning tangled up in each other, having fallen asleep curled up together and holding on tight. His words have been rattling around my brain since the moment they slipped from his lips—causing scattered dreams of our mouths meeting at last—of my hands against his skin—and waking thoughts of what comes next.

 

This is where the doubt returns.  I know essentially everything a person can know about sex, without having actually experienced it for themselves.  I’ve studied human anatomy extensively—have a solid understanding of the process behind each—ah—method. And I have worked many a case where sex was the primary motivation for the crime.  I’ve even watched a few—videos. But my knowledge ends with the technical and the criminal. I have no practical experience—obviously—and the likelihood that I will soon make a fool of myself is high.  I’ve never really even been kissed—

 

“Sherlock,” John startles me out of my anxiety-fueled daze when he strolls into the kitchen, mobile held out in front of him.  “Here he is,” He grins at Rosie, leaning against my side and tilting the phone to include me. She’s beaming, bouncing around, blonde curls untamed as ever.

 

“Hello there,” I say, switching off the stove and wiping my hands on a tea towel.  I return her grin. “We didn’t get much of a chance to chat yesterday, did we? Tell me what you’ve been up to,” She does—babbling animatedly about school, the new song in dance class, and how Molly is taking her to Mrs. Hudson’s for dinner tonight.  

 

“I miss you,” She says, her expression turning serious.  She’d said this yesterday, as well. It has been ages since we’ve seen each other—the last time was the night everything blew up between John and myself.  I’d attended her dance recital and then disappeared from her life. Two months must feel like an age to someone so small.

 

“I miss you, too,”  I do. We’ve spent a lot of time together in her eight years of life.  She and John practically lived at 221B after Mary died. Once we got past all of the bitterness and blame—once I got clean and he learned to keep his anger in check—we were like a little family, for awhile.  They always had their own flat and their own obligations, but our lives remained entwined. It was only in the past year that things began to fall apart. “When your dad and I get back we’ll go rollerskating.  All right?” She nods. I used to take her often while John was at the clinic. We’d go in the morning, when there was hardly anyone there, and skate in circles for hours. Well, she would—I’d walk beside her and hold her hand.  And then we’d go to lunch. We developed our own little language—never really having to say much. I’d even taught her a secret handshake—

 

“And to lunch?”  She asks, turning—distracted—as Molly appears at her side.

 

“Of course,”  I respond. “Wherever you like.  Hello, Molly.”

 

“Hi,”  She smiles at John and me, then fixes Rosie with her gaze.  “Ready to go?” Rosie throws us a quick goodbye, then runs off to fetch her trainers.  “What’s this I hear about you two, then?” Molly asks, voice hushed. “Are those idiots only messing with me?”  I roll my eyes. Honestly.

 

“Not sure what you mean,” John says casually, pressing his lips to my cheek and wandering off toward the living room.  The smile that spreads across Molly’s face is genuine, albeit quite smug.

 

“Sherlock,”   She hisses, leaning in.  “Are you—the two of you—you’re—” She’s cut off by the return of Rosie, pulling on her sleeve, impatient to head to Baker Street.  “I’ll be in touch,” She assures me, still grinning. “Talk soon,” And she hangs up the phone.

 

 

I’ve received a response from the American pharmaceutical scientist I’d reached out to for a second opinion.  She agrees that the drug is a psychedelic—most closely resembling lysergic acid diethylamide—but had no luck identifying the unknown components.  Where did you find this?   She’d asked in her email.  It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, which rarely happens in this field.   I can hardly tell her that I found it in my coffee.

 

We spend the day lazing about the cottage—John with his nose in a book and my own eyes glued to my laptop.  There’s little we can do to move forward with the case. Infuriatingly, we need to spend more time with Hal before that will change—and we’ve decided to take a day off from his agonizing aura.  And so the hours tick by, searching fruitlessly for any record of an experimental drug that resembles our sample. It’s exhausting—frustrating—sifting endlessly through records and research archives, only to come up empty handed.  

 

I slam my laptop shut, letting my head drop back.  I glance over at John, unaffected by my mood, lost in another world entirely.  I want him in my world, want his focus on me—so I crawl into his lap, bury my face in his t-shirt—arms snaking around his back to pull him in.  He huffs, carefully placing the book on the couch beside us and running his fingers through my hair. He says nothing, only continues to card through my curls, his other hand coming around to scratch lightly up and down my back.  After a few minutes of this, he slips his hand beneath my shirt, continuing the soft scrape of his fingernails against my skin. It feels incredible—intimate—his cool hand brushing lightly against my flesh. It’s comforting, being held like this.  To be able to turn to him in a moment of frustration and receive only consolation and calm in response—I never dared dream that such a thing was possible for us.

 

It isn’t long before I feel myself slipping away—sinking into sleep within his quieting embrace.  I feel his lips brush my temple as my mind goes offline—it seems I’ve found, in him—at last—a way to silence the noise.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

I should have brought my violin, I think, pacing the living room floor—as I’ve been doing for the last hour and a half.  Should have brought something—anything—to distract me from this useless bloody case in this boring bloody country.  We’ve been cooped up in the cottage for ages.   I’ve made no progress in two days, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is entirely hopeless after all.  What was I thinking, taking a case with no data? No defined crime? I suppose my sole thought on the matter was that I’d like to get out of London—preferably with John at my side.  Mission accomplished—but I hadn’t planned on having no useful information to speak of, a week into the trip. All we’ve got to show for our time here is a test tube of psychedelic coffee and an insufferable bloody narcissist who won’t stop texting me.  

 

Right on cue, my mobile pings from the kitchen table where I left it to charge.  God, is he reading my mind now as well?  I stomp into the kitchen, snatch up the phone.

 

Playing hard to get, then?

Not bothered, love.  I enjoy a challenge.

 

I groan.  Henry wasn’t lying when he’d referred to Hal as persistent.   Despite his front row view of John and I possessively clinging to one another at the bar Monday night, he’d decided to begin a text message campaign for my attention the very next day.  The messages started on Tuesday evening and have yet to relent, forty hours later—and I haven’t responded even once.

 

“Another one?”  John asks, yawning as he shuffles into the kitchen—wet hair and fresh clothes.  God, he’s lovely in his California attire. Tight t-shirts and fitted jeans. If I weren’t in such a strop, I could properly appreciate it.  He squeezes my arm, then flings open the refrigerator, rummaging for something resembling breakfast. “Inviting you to his flat again?” His tone is casual—a bit too casual.  It’s been clear that this bothers him, but he seems hesitant to say so.  It must be odd, having known me for so many years and never once witnessing this sort of attention thrown in my direction—unless you count Irene Adler —and really, I never do.  It’s odd for me, too. I may be flattered if it weren’t coming from such an intolerable tosser.  I hand him my mobile. “Well, you are that,” He says, eyes scanning the screen. “A challenge, I mean,”  He shoots me a grin when I narrow my eyes. I suppose he has a point.

 

 

“Have you got swim trunks?”  John shouts from the bedroom.  I look up at him from where I lie on the couch—he’s sat on the bed, neatly folding a few items of our clothing and packing them into a small duffel bag.  Swim trunks?   He must be joking.  I watch, brow furrowed, as his amused silhouette appears in the doorway.  “I’ll take that as a no,”   He raises an eyebrow at my confusion.  “We’re going to be spending a day by the sea, you idiot.”

 

“And?”  Surely I won’t be expected to swim.   He rolls his eyes.

 

“Nice to have options, is all.  Suppose you could just go in your pants,”  He retreats back to the bedroom to finish packing.  I swallow, mind now filled with anxiety over the eventual inevitability of stripping down to my pants in front of John.  I want him to see me—want him to see all of me.  But my stomach still drops at the thought of being so—exposed.  We’ve yet to move beyond fully-clothed embraces and pecks on the cheek.  He’d said it would take him a bit to be ready for the rest of it—for all of it —and I’m certainly in no hurry.  Was that comment meant to be suggestive?  Is he expecting something to happen between us on this overnight stay in Bodega?  It’s only the Fourth of July—a useless American holiday, not an occasion for romance.  Am I overthinking things entirely? Perhaps I am. Perhaps he was only making an off-handed comment about swimming attire.  “Sherlock,” A hand on my knee. How long has he been sitting there? “Ready to go?”

 

 

It takes us thirty-eight minutes to reach the address Ben had texted.  The drive, I will reluctantly admit, was beautiful. The coastline is quite striking—rocky cliffs and vibrant flora—all framed, of course, by the sprawling sea.  With John behind the wheel of our little convertible—the sea breeze infiltrating our nostrils and ruffling our hair—I’ve nearly forgotten the black mood that’s been looming over my shoulder the past two days.  As it turns out, they’ve rented a modern beach house, right on the water. Bright white, with floor to ceiling windows and an angular roof. Entirely different from our own little cottage, but rather lovely in its own way.  The moment we pull into the driveway, Ben and Adam waltz out the front door to greet us, blue cocktails in hand.

 

“Welcome!”  Adam shouts, his tanned chest on full display as his linen button-down flaps in the breeze.  He looks like a posterboy for California surf culture—a wave of blonde hair and a smile of white teeth.  Ben grins, following him down the front steps, his bald head and brown skin perfectly complementing Adam’s All-American image.  This is the first we’ve seen them in the light of day—they are truly a handsome couple. I realize I’m staring when John places a hand on the small of my back, shaking me back to the present.  I certainly didn’t expect to be so captivated by the two of them. I suppose the only other homosexual couple I’ve spent any amount of time with is Mycroft and Lestrade. And they're, well—this is just—different.  I wonder, now, how John and I look to the outside world. I’ve always thought we fit together rather perfectly. I have a drawer full of newspaper clippings—blurry black and white photos of us, side by side, false smiles in place—to prove it.

 

“Glad you boys could make it!  Come in, grab a drink,” Ben says enthusiastically, nodding toward the house.  “Hugo and Danny just got here. You’ll like them, they’re an easygoing sort, you know?”  I don’t, really. I wouldn’t call anyone in my life easygoing.   Not even John.  Nevertheless, I nod.

 

“Thank you for having us,”  I say as we make our way inside.  The house is minimally decorated—Scandinavian aesthetic—and quite bright.  Large windows line every wall—and visible on the back porch, eyes to the sea, are two men—each of them dark in both hair and complexion.  They appear to be sunbathing. Adam strides out of the kitchen, handing John and I each a cocktail, and we follow him out to the porch.

 

“Gentlemen,”  He says brightly, the two men turning toward us, smiling broadly.  “This is John and Sherlock. This holiday means nothing to them and they’ve still managed to show up,”  John and I share a look, eyebrows raised. Interesting introduction. Americans really are a bit odd.

 

“Ah—hi,”  John says, shaking hands with each of them.  I note immediately that they’re both intimidatingly fit.

 

“Don’t mind Adam,” The shorter of the two says, rolling his eyes.  “He’s bitter that our other friends bailed. They said they refuse to celebrate a country that they’re embarrassed to live in,”  Ah. “I’m Danny.”

 

“Hugo,” A deep rumble.  I swallow when he shakes my hand.  I don’t often take notice of, well, anyone—but this man is unusually magnetic.  His presence is commanding. John seems similarly smitten, his eyes roaming over Hugo’s tattooed biceps, dark skin and neatly groomed beard.  “Hal mentioned you were in Afghanistan,” This snaps him out of it. I watch his face fall. Hal?   Why has Hal been mentioning John at all?  Hugo laughs. “Don’t look so appalled.  That little rat will say anything to anyone who’ll listen.  I’m not generally one of those people—but he did make sure I heard that,”  He smiles at John, who’s gone silent, listening intently. “I spent seven years of my life there with the Marine Corps.  Let’s talk.”

 

 

are you ever going to pick up?

tell me what’s happened!!!

 

I switch off my mobile.  Molly again. She’s called three times since our little video chat reveal on Tuesday.  She wants to know what’s transpired between John and me that’s given him cause to unabashedly plant his lips on my cheek.  I’m not sure what to tell her. Not sure if she’s aware of everything that happened between us ten weeks ago—I certainly never mentioned it.  She must have wondered why we stopped speaking. Likely figured it out for herself—she’s known how I feel about John for many years.

 

Now I sit, watching him from across the room as he chats enthusiastically with Hugo.  I tried, for a moment, to make myself a part of their conversation—but I can’t pretend to know anything about that world or their similar experiences at war.  They’ve been at it for over two hours now, and I’m fighting to keep a black mood at bay. The last thing I need is for this little outing to turn sour. I’d thought John and I would be spending the day together, but I suppose these things happen.  I need to learn to take them in stride. And anyway, I should at least attempt to question these men about Hal.

 

I march out the back door, John not even glancing up as I walk by.  I find Ben, Adam and Danny standing around a charcoal grill, the scent of burgers and bratwurst mingling with the ocean air.  They wave me over, allow me to step into their circle.

 

“Tired of listening to them talk war?”  Danny asks, a knowing look on his face. “I’ve had to accept that I’ll never understand.  It’s a big part of his life that I wasn’t there for. Not easy to come to terms with,” He’s right, it isn’t.  I’ve always been sorry that John and I met so late in life. He has a layered past—so many experiences—so many people that he trusted and loved before he even knew I was out there.  It’s never been easy to think about. He was the first person I ever let in, and it hurts to know that it’s not even remotely the same for him.  And this —war—the Armed Forces in general—is something I can never relate to.  Danny watches me, his face a bit sad. I’m inviting pity. Need to snap out of it.

 

“What did I miss out here, then?”  I ask, clearing my throat. Adam and Ben exchange a glance.

 

“Actually—we were discussing you.  Or—well—” He shrugs, his expression a bit apologetic.  “We were discussing Hal. And theorizing about why I was paid a handsome sum to point him out to you,”  Convenient. They’re already on topic.

 

“We know that you’re a detective.  A famous one, apparently,” Adam adds, hesitantly.  He waits for me to contradict him. When I don’t, he carries on.  “Are you here for him, then? Here investigating the Grove?” The Grove?   I’m suddenly highly interested in this conversation.  I raise an eyebrow.

 

“Anything you’d like to contribute?”  Vague. Probably shouldn't broadcast that I haven’t the faintest what the Grove may be.  

 

“We don’t really know anything.  Only that he’s some sort of mad scientist—a chemist, I think—summoned here from England.  No idea what for,” Ben watches me carefully. I try not to betray the surge of excitement coursing through me.  A chemist, really? Interesting.   “He spends half his time up in Monte Rio,”  A shrug. “That’s the gist of it. As much as he likes to talk, he never says much.”


“But there’s a lot of speculation,”  Danny speaks up. “I’m sure you can imagine.  No one really knows—has ever really known— what goes on at Bohemian Grove.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Tell me what you know about Bohemian Grove.  SH

 

That is a trail you do not want to follow.

You’d be wise to move on.

 

So you’ve been?  SH

Get me in.  SH

 

Impossible.

 

You’ve achieved the impossible many times over.  SH

 

Not this time.



Mycroft is useless, as usual.  If even subtle flattery won’t persuade him to divulge what he knows, I’m afraid I’m at a loss.  I’ve sat perched in a deck chair, nose in my phone for the last hour, reading article after unreliable article about what supposedly occurs at Bohemian Grove.  Conclusion: No one has any bloody idea. The rumours run rampant, however—from satanic ritual and human sacrifice to gay sex romps and elaborate musical productions.  Richard Nixon—a former president of this imbecilic country and an honorary member of the Bohemian Club—referred to the place as the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine.   Needless to say, my interest is piqued.

 

I peel my eyes from my mobile long enough to glance up at John and Hugo.  After everyone had eaten—everyone but me—they’d moved to the beach. Now they sit perched on towels in the sand—still deep in conversation, but suddenly lacking shirts.  I want to be glad for him—glad that he’s found a kindred spirit and is able to reflect on those formative years. But I’m not. My gut has been twisting with resentment all afternoon—fighting the urge to show my possessive side, to tear him away from this blooming friendship.  Insecurity and doubt have crept back in—perhaps they’d never left. I know that it’s irrational—I can’t be the only person that John interacts with—but my patience for being ignored is wearing thin. 

 

“Hey,”  Danny sits down on the chair to my left, handing me a drink and smiling slightly.  “Bit of an introvert, I see. So am I, usually. But these guys get me,” He sips his cocktail, watching me over the top of his glass.  I’m really not in the mood for small talk.  “You two have been together for quite awhile.  Ben said twelve years? Can’t even imagine.”

 

“No,”  I say shortly, suddenly unwilling to uphold this façade.  “We’ve been friends and colleagues for twelve years. The rest of it is—new,”  I watch his eyebrows retreat into his hairline. He sets his drink on the deck by his feet.

 

“So you’re suddenly sleeping together after over a decade of friendship?  That’s—intense.”

 

“No,”  What is wrong with me?  Why am I being so unnecessarily forthright with this stranger?  “It’s not—we haven’t—”

 

“Oh,”   Danny says, clearly a bit surprised.  “So it’s like—you’re like—”

 

“Yes,”  I cut him off.  I know what he’s trying to say.  We’re in deep. I am, at least.

 

“I’m envious, actually.  I mean, I haven’t really seen you guys interact, since my social butterfly of a husband wasted no time stealing him away—but you must have quite a connection,”  He seems genuinely interested in discussing this. I furrow my brow. “I was in love with my childhood best friend. Didn’t work out,” He smiles sadly. “We hooked up once in college and then he never spoke to me again.  Straight, after all,” God. There’s a story I didn’t need to hear.  I watch John, now throwing a football around the beach with the others.  I forget sometimes just how different we are. I believe him when he says that he wants to be with me, but what if he can’t?  What if this thing between us falls apart before it can really begin? What if he, too, is straight after all?   I’ll be devastated.  There will be nothing left of me.

 

I stand abruptly—not entirely sure where my feet are taking me.  I need to get out of here. Need to clear my head. I fly down the steps to the beach, avoiding their game of catch entirely and following the parade of boats on the water along the coastline.  The sun is sinking into the horizon, darkness creeping in and setting the scene for my overdue meltdown. It’s been piling up for days now—the frustration, the noise, the perpetual doubt—weighing me down, making me feel small, insignificant.  

 

I walk until I come across a structure built from driftwood.  These small huts line the beaches in this area—we saw many on our drive out here.  Reminders that someone was there. Evidence of mankind’s ability to disrupt nature.  I crawl through the opening and sit down right in the sand. Pull my knees to my chest and let my forehead rest against them.  My heart aches in a way that’s become familiar these last few months, for the first time in years. Loneliness. Despair, even.  Piled on top of my usual uncertainty. Why am I like this? Why must I isolate myself? This is just another part of me that will make him question everything.  Another reason why I will never be enough.

 

The tears come, as I knew they would, and I don’t try to stop them.  I’ll stay here all night if I have to, curled up tight and letting them fall.  I give myself over to this choked desolation—retreating so far into my own mind that I don’t notice, at first, the cautious fingers on my skin.  

 

I jump, startled, and glance up to see John crouched in front of me, hands hovering uncertainly over my own.  He looks alarmed—clearly afraid that his presence is unwelcome—questioning himself, just as I’ve done all afternoon.  When I reach for him, he drops down beside me, immediately pulling me into his arms. I curl up against his chest—allowing myself to have this—allowing myself to be held.  He won’t understand what’s upset me—he hasn’t done anything wrong. But here he is, offering quiet comfort in my moment of weakness, reminding me that I’m not alone.

 

His hands move up and down my back, relieving my tension, but not quite quieting the doubt.  He’s here, isn’t he? That’s all I’d wanted—all I’d asked of him. Why must I continuously make things more difficult than they need to be?  Why can’t I trust that he’ll stay? I suppose that I don’t see what’s in it for him. I am—and will continue to be—a burden. Will always be this way.  Will always struggle to break free from the static in my mind—

 

“Stop,”   He whispers, lips brushing my temple.  He brings a hand up to my jaw, gently tilting my head to look at him.  “Whatever it is you’ve been telling yourself, stop,” I stare back at him.  How did he know? Perhaps he can feel it.  I have never been able to hide my emotion from him.  Not entirely, at least. The pads of his fingers drift across my cheek, brushing away my uninvited tears.  He tucks an errant curl behind my ear, and I swallow, heart lodged in my throat from these simple gestures.  When we’re close like this, I feel cared for, secure—things I couldn’t have imagined, before him. Even before we had this, he made me feel protected.  Safe. It’s what allowed me—eventually—to fall in love with him.

 

Heart full, I lean forward, pressing my lips to the underside of his jaw.  I haven’t permitted myself to do this—to kiss him—fearing it would make him uncomfortable, would be a step too far.  But the moment is charged—there’s something in the air around us and it feels natural, now, to return the affection that he’s given me.  I let my lips linger, placing a hand over his heart and feeling it race beneath my palm. It feels good to be this close to him, my mouth against his salty skin.  It feels right.  

 

When I lean back, our eyes lock, sending a current shooting down my spine.  It’s as though a spark has ignited between us—setting every atom of our existence aflame.  Something has shifted, for him. I can see it in his blazing eyes. I swallow, watching him watch me—and when at last he leans forward, I meet him halfway.  Carefully, lightly, our lips brush. He hesitates, holding my head between his hands, then kisses me softly— reverently —as I melt beneath his warmth.  

 

He sighs against my skin, lightly caresses my upper lip between his own.  I feel as though I’m unspooling, unraveling—tears of relief stream down my cheeks as intuition takes over and I kiss him in return.  I let myself fall back, pulling him down on top of me, the weight of his body anchoring me to reality—reassuring me that this feeling is real.  When fireworks begin to light up the sky above us, I close my eyes, shutting them out. Each explosion only fuels my affection, my heart swelling within my chest as I pour everything I have—everything that I feel for him into this shattering, transcendent kiss.

 

My hands roam over his body—his tongue tracing mine as we let each other in.  I had no idea that it would feel like this—the rest of the world insignificant, everything that’s been holding me back suddenly irrelevant.  I have never allowed myself to be so unrestrained, so free.   I can feel his love in the pads of his fingers, the curve of his lips.  Can feel everything that we have between us—this precious, inconceivable bond that we share—in the way his body moves against my own.  I slip my hands beneath his shirt, palms gliding over warm skin. He sighs, panting lightly as we break apart to breathe. His lips rest against my cheek—then each eyelid, in turn—before tucking his face into the crook of my neck.  I hold on to him, letting my eyes drift open, staring up at the explosions of light.

 

As the surreality of it all settles over me, I feel as though I’m living someone else’s life—lying in the sand with the man I love, watching the skyrockets light up the night.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Let’s go back,”   John whispers, turning his head to press his lips to my pulse point and sending a chill through my body when his tongue skims my neck.  His words broke a long silence between us—we’ve been lying here for ages in our driftwood sanctuary, covered in sand and clinging to one another.  I’ve never known such contentment—never felt such certainty. But the air is growing cold—and the fireworks had stopped long ago. “Come on,” He rolls off of me, crawling out into the open night and holding out a hand to pull me to my feet.  We take a moment to brush the sand from our clothing before locking eyes for the first time since our mouths first met.

 

Something has fallen into place between us—irreversibly, I think.  A certain confidence in one another that we didn’t have before—I can feel it, and I can see it in his fearless gaze.  Everything that we’ve just communicated through lips and fingertips told us all that we needed to know. We’re in this together, now.  We’re both here because we want to be.

 

I take his hand, and we walk in silence along the moonlit beach, back to our temporary dwelling.  It seems that everyone has gone to sleep—we enter to find a quiet, empty space. Our bag lies outside of a closed door in the hallway, so we push through to our room.  Modest. Clean. I immediately strip to my pants—all prior insecurities dead and buried—throwing my sandy clothes in a pile on the floor and crawling beneath the green plaid duvet.  John watches me, saying nothing—then, slowly, he does the same.  

 

Without hesitation, he slides an arm around my bare waist, pulling me toward him in the centre of the bed.  I weave my fingers through his soft grey hair and let my lips drift close to his. We spend hours—or perhaps minutes—lost in each other, learning this new language that we’ve given one another.  Time halts around us as we lie together, quietly breathing the same air.  

 

When I drift into sleep, it’s with my head on his chest, counting the beats of his heart.  Eyelids growing heavy, his fingers carding gently through my hair, I slip gradually into oblivion. 

 

 

I jerk awake—take in my surroundings.  In bed. With John. The beach house. Right.  A soft knock on the door. Must have been what woke me.

 

“Come in,”  I rumble, voice raspy from sleep.  I clear my throat as Hugo pokes his head in.

 

“Thought you two might like a cup of joe,”  He says, smiling broadly. I lift my head from John’s chest to see him rubbing the sleep out of his eyes—just waking up, then.  “Sorry to wake you. Late night?”

 

“Yep,”  John replies, burying his face in my curls.  “Thanks for the coffee,” He mumbles, wrapping his arms around my body beneath the duvet.

 

“We’re going to breakfast in about an hour if you want to join.  No pressure,” He says, with a wink. He sets the tray of coffee on the bedside table and retreats back into the hall.

 

“Kind of him,” John mutters into my hair, rolling toward me and pulling me close.  I sigh, tilting my head so that we’re face to face. When our eyes meet, I watch him fight—futilely—to keep a smile from creeping into place.  I can’t help but return it. Can’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed by the bond that we share—the single most profound connection I’ve ever known.  We grin at each other for a moment, before he kisses me. Confidently. Without hesitation. Zero concern for our questionable morning breath, nor for the grains of sand that litter the bed we lie in.  “Should we go with them?” He breathes, as we break apart. “Up to you,” Another peck on the lips, his fingernails dragging lightly across my back.

 

“I suppose we should,”  I haven’t even told him what I’ve learned of Bohemian Grove.  Haven’t even mentioned that Hal’s reason for being here—amongst the Redwoods—has been revealed, in part.  These men seem to be somewhat informed on the matter, and I haven’t had a chance to see what Hugo knows. “I should fill you in.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Let me get this straight,”  Ben sits across from me, brow furrowed, in the booth all six of us have managed to squeeze into.  We’ve found ourselves trapped, being questioned over breakfast in this packed diner that they've insisted on visiting.  “It took you twelve years to realize there was something between you?  Bullshit,” Danny had evidently told the rest of them that our long-term romance was a ruse for the case—and they’ve wasted no time asking us about it.  I roll my eyes. It certainly hadn’t taken me twelve years to realize, but what can I say? It took me that long to speak up. It took John even longer.

 

“I’m straight,”  John says, sipping his coffee, unconcerned with the incredulous looks being shot at him.  “I know how it sounds,” He looks at me, shrugging. “There’s always been something between us—it’s been there from day one—but I obviously didn’t see it for what it was.”

 

“So this is—what?  A platonic partnership?  What could have changed between you if you’re straight?”  Ben again. Can’t seem to wrap his head around it. It really isn’t their business, but it’s my own fault for divulging the nature of our relationship last night in a moment of irritated weakness.  And as much as I despise labels in general—John should probably refer to himself as something other than straight.

 

“No,”  He says, sighing heavily and setting down his coffee—clearly annoyed that these men we’ve known for so little time are so interested in our personal life.  But really, it’s always been that way—people have always inquired. There was just nothing to divulge, before. “Look—I don’t know, all right? We’re figuring it out,”  It’s true, we are. He’s made it clear from the beginning that he doesn’t know how far he can go with it. I’d assumed he’d meant sexually—I’m well aware that he’s never been with a man—“But it isn’t platonic, no,”  He grins, grabbing my t-shirt and pulling me into a kiss. I hear the others whooping like idiots around us, but I tune them out—the moment our mouths meet, my focus is on John. I want more of this. Now that we’ve managed to find our way here, I don’t want to part.  Want to hole up in our cottage for days, perfecting this new skill, finding out what we’re actually capable of—but duty calls.

 

“Now then,”  I say, clearing my throat and smoothing out my shirt as we break apart.  “What else can you tell us about Mr. Collins’ connection with Bohemian Grove?”

 

 

Not much, as it turns out.  Apparently Hal moved to town about two and a half years ago, irking everyone almost immediately with his inflated sense of entitlement and inability to shut up.  He seems to spend his days up in Monte Rio and his nights at the Rainbow, getting sozzled on whiskey. Hugo confirmed that he’s mentioned he’s a chemist—our biggest lead thus far.  He’d also commented on the fact that Henry is not the first twink —whatever that means—that he’s taken under his wing.  Apparently he’s had a whole string of live-in boyfriends who don’t seem to question his appalling personality.  When I’d inquired about the whereabouts of the others, I was met with shrugs. Left town, they’d said.  Interesting.

 

“You think he made whatever was in the coffee, then?”  John pulls me from my thoughts with this question—apparently he’d been pondering the case as well.  I do indeed believe that whatever Henry dropped into our coffee was one of Hal’s creations—Ben referred to him yesterday as a mad scientist, after all.  I think it’s clear that whatever he’s up to at the Grove has to do with exactly that.  I watch him for a moment, looking lovely as ever behind the wheel as we drive along the coast back to our cottage.  We’d left shortly after breakfast, with thank yous and promises to attend tomorrow evening’s drag show. Every Saturday, Ben had said, the night we met.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been here for one week.  John and I have come so far.

 

“Yes,” I say, placing my hand on the nape of his neck, fingers drifting through his fine grey hair.  He glances at me, smiling, before returning his eyes to the winding road. “Perhaps—” I’ve hesitated to suggest this, knowing full well that John will not agree.  We’ve only just found this new confidence in what we’ve become to one another, and I don’t want to risk damaging that. But logistically, I have thought it through—and I think our next move is clear.  “Perhaps it’s time we let Hal believe that he can have me.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“It isn’t safe,”  John stomps through the front door, holding it open for me and glaring as I traipse in behind him.  “It would be a reckless, idiotic thing to do. We don’t know what he’s capable of.  We aren’t armed.  We aren’t prepared at all,” He turns to face me, looking tense. He’s grown much more concerned about such things since Rosie entered his life.  Could be dangerous hasn’t worked on him in nearly a decade.  He’d continued to accompany me on cases, of course—and we have had many close calls—but he’s grown more cautious than he was in the early years.  His fatherly side has overridden the soldier, a bit. He has someone to stay alive for, now.

 

“John, we haven’t been prepared for any of this,”  We almost literally flew here blindly, and have been stumbling around ever since.  “And it isn’t as if I want to spend any more time around that imbecile than is absolutely necessary.  If you have a better plan, I’m listening,” He won’t. He never does. He is an idiot, after all. He stares back at me, fists clenched.  Then, pulls his mobile out of his pocket.

 

“I’m calling your brother,”  He says.

 

 

“John?”  Mycroft looks rather puzzled, lifting an eyebrow when he sees both our faces on the screen.  “And Sherlock. To what do I owe—”

 

“Save it, Mycroft,”  John is in a mood that I cannot contend with.  He wouldn’t hear my claims that getting my brother involved was futile.  Didn’t listen when I’d told him he was wasting his time. Whatever it is about this situation with Hal that’s got him all wound up, he’s determined to resolve it.  Mycroft looks a bit taken aback by the interruption, but he’s clearly curious about the nature of this call. He waits for John to continue. “Holling Collins. An alias, surely.  Tell us what you know,” Interesting. He hasn’t mentioned his suspicions. My inability to find even a trace of the man online suggests as much, but we haven’t discussed it. Anyway, I have already attempted—entirely unsuccessfully—to uncover his true identity.

 

“As I’d already told Sherlock before the two of you flew off to America, I don’t know anything,”  He eyes John warily—he’s well aware of his stubborn determination when he gets an idea in his head.

 

“You always know,”  He hisses.  “And I need you to tell us.  You can go ahead and toss whatever secret society bollocks is keeping you quiet,”  Mycroft rolls his eyes. “We’ve got reason to believe Hal is dangerous—violent—and he’s got his eye on Sherlock,”  Is that all this is, then? He thinks I’m going to get hurt?

 

“I told you that you were in over your head,”  He directs this at me, both brows raised now. “You’re worried.   Are things not going to plan?”  He looks between the two of us. “ Oh. You’ve got no earthly idea what you’re doing—that must be terribly difficult for you,” I glare.  He furrows his brow, turns to John.  “Your friend Mr. Collins is backed by some of the most powerful men in the world.  It isn’t difficult for these men to make someone’s entire existence impossible to trace.  Mr. Collins is essentially a ghost,” He sighs, turning to me once more. “Don’t try to break in to Bohemian Grove.  You’ll only end up arrested.  This isn’t Baskerville you’re dealing with, it’s considerably more sinister.”

 

“Sinister, really?”  Bit of a fanciful descriptor.

 

“You know what I mean,”  I don’t, actually. “They won’t tolerate your nonsense.  They’ll know exactly who you are and you will not be able to talk your way out of it.  Don’t be foolish, Sherlock,” He looks at John for a long moment, hesitating. “When you say he’s got his eye on Sherlock—”  John nods, head dropping slightly.  Mycroft sighs. “Stay together, whatever you do.  There is—someone—” A pause. He glances at me, before returning his eyes to John.  “A possible source of information. I’ll look into it and be in touch,” Another nod from John.  What is this, then? It’s like they’re having an entirely separate conversation— a secret language that I’m not privy to.  He’s given me nothing and now John rings him and suddenly there’s a possible source of information?   “The two of you—you’re—well?”  I roll my eyes.

 

“Yes, Mycroft, we’re well,”   Why can’t he just ask if he so desperately wants to know?  

 

“We’ve also decided to be together, in case you were wondering,”  John chimes in with a bit of a smug grin. Mycroft tries to hide his smile beneath another eyeroll, but it isn’t quite successful.  I know that he’s glad for us. He’s grown to care for John, in his own way—and he’s always wanted the best for me.

 

“Happy to hear it,”  A stiff nod. “I must be going.  Business to attend to,” He holds back his mobile to reveal his office at the Diogenes Club—not that it wasn’t immediately obvious where he was from the stain on his lapel.  “I’ll be in touch,” A pointed look at John—and he hangs up.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Don’t look at me like that,”  John drops down on the couch, glancing up at my scowl.  “You know that he and I speak,” I do know. They’ve had their little code words for my many moods since the very start of our acquaintanceship.  It began because they believed I’d spiral out of control and turn back to the drugs. But that hasn’t happened in a long time, now. “I went to see him before I told you I was coming with you.  I wanted to know how much trouble you were getting yourself into. I would have come either way,” He holds out his hand, pulling me down next to him when I take it. “I knew the moment I’d said no that I didn’t mean it.  And Mycroft is generally a good gauge for what sort of situation we’re walking into,”  He isn’t wrong. My brother and his position of power continue to be extremely valuable in what we do.  “He’s been quite worried, but I guess he’d assumed you knew something he didn’t. I haven’t told him we’re a bit lost,”  I sigh, stretching out on the couch and tugging John down beside me. We lie face to face, and I let my hand drift down his arm, then around his waist.

 

“We have a lead,”  We know why Hal is here, and we know that he’s got a string of missing boyfriends.  Ben, Hugo and Danny promised to ask around for their names.

 

“Yeah,”  John nods, tracing my brow with the pads of his fingers.  “I’d texted him this morning saying I was afraid you’d try to break into Bohemian Grove.  Right after you told me what you’d learned. I’m a bit terrified you’ll run off on your own if I disagree—and I will disagree.  Your brother has been there and he won’t say a word, other than warning us to stay away,”  I suppose he’s right. More than a bit annoying that he’s texting Mycroft about it, but John knows me well.  I had considered just marching in—I’m growing impatient with our lack of progress.  He knows that he’s never been able to stop me when I’m determined, and my brother doesn’t have much pull here in America if we do get into a bind.  Plus, it is clear from my research that these men have gone to great lengths to keep outsiders out. Even I can’t outwit an electric fence.

 

“Why are you opposed to using Hal’s advances for our benefit?  It’s the obvious next step,” I knew he wouldn’t like it, but it isn’t as if anything will happen.  It’s simply a way to manipulate him into giving us more data. Isn’t that why we’re here, after all?  The client wanted us to befriend him—to get a glimpse into whatever he’s up to and then take him down.  Whoever they are, they knew that he’d be taken with me. Somehow they were aware that he’s an admirer. John hesitates, brushing my hair back from my forehead.

 

“I don’t want you to be alone with him,”  He slides his hand down to my jaw, fingers brushing my skin as he watches me carefully.  “Sherlock, he’s tried to drug you once already. Nearly succeeded— did succeed, with me—although I have a feeling I wasn’t his intended target,”  His hand moves to the small of my back, pulling me closer. “Henry has made it clear to us that Hal is a violent, vengeful, manipulative man.  We’ve known him all of a week and we’ve already seen some of that. What if he suspects you’re on to him? What if you piss him off? We can’t create a situation where he has a chance to hurt you.  We’ll find another way,” I suspect John can’t help but consider the many times I’ve run off without him. It never does seem to end well, in situations such as this—a memorable example being the day I found myself alone with Moriarty and was forced to jump from a rooftop and disappear for several years.  His concern is genuine, and I love him for it.

 

“All right,”  I say, bringing my hands up to hold his head between them.  I smooth my thumbs over his cheeks, fingers gliding through his hair as I kiss him intently—heart swelling when he responds in earnest.  Mouths open, accepting—tongues gliding, palms roaming. I let myself get lost in it—the taste of him—the feel of his body against mine, of his hands on my skin.  Distantly, I hear my mobile ping from my back pocket, ignoring it to focus on the sensation of John’s tongue on my teeth. Another ping. He groans into my mouth as his fingers move down, down, into my pocket, throwing the phone to the floor.  A buzz from his mobile now. He sighs, resting his forehead against mine as we catch our breath.  

 

“Shit,”   He breathes, pressing his lips to mine again briefly.  “Better check,” I reluctantly agree, rolling over to snatch my mobile off the floor as he digs his out of his jeans.  Five new messages from Mycroft.

 

He has undoubtedly told you by now.

We had agreed it would be best if you didn’t know.

I’ve contacted her, but have received no response.

Will be in touch if anything changes.

I am sorry, Sherlock.

 

Heart racing, I turn my head to stare at John.  What is this? What have they kept from me? Whatever it is, Mycroft thinks that he has undoubtedly revealed their little secret by now.  He’s wrong. John stares back, looking more concerned by the second.  He unlocks his mobile, scanning the screen a bit frantically. When he meets my eyes again, his are comically wide.

 

“Tell me,”  My voice comes out harsh, cold.  I’m not fond of being left in the dark.

 

“Sherlock…”  He trails off, sitting up.  I follow, pulling my legs up under me, waiting.  “It’s—he really doesn’t know anything about the case.  He hasn’t found anything about Hal, or whatever his name really is.  I didn’t think it was relevant.”

 

“The client.  You know who it is,”  Obviously. How is this not relevant?  What possible reason could they have for omitting this crucial piece of data?  Mycroft said her.   He’s contacted her.   “Well?”  John looks remorseful, defeated.  He shakes his head, eyes cast downward, on his fidgeting fingers.

 

“Irene Adler,”  He says quietly, meeting my eyes at last.  “The Woman.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The Woman, really?  I leap from the couch and begin pacing the room.  Need to process this. What have I missed? What does this mean?  It feels like a betrayal—my instinct is to be furious, but I’m only confused.  Why keep this from me? Why should I care if Irene is the one who summoned us here?  She and I haven’t spoken in years —I’d thought perhaps she had gotten herself killed at last.  Our friendship, if you could even call it that, had faded fast.  And all of that aside, why not just ask me outright if she’d required my services?  Too many unanswered questions—I’m clearly missing something—

 

“John,” I snap, startling him when I drop down on the couch, grabbing his shoulders and demanding his full attention.  “You kept this from me. Why?” I need his perspective. Need to know why he and my imbecilic brother believed they were doing me a favour by omitting this rather large detail.  He stares at me blankly.

 

“Sherlock—”  Shakes his head slightly, studying my face.  He’s perplexed by the question—thinks that it should be obvious why they didn’t tell me what they know.  It isn’t obvious. Not to me. “She—I mean, I thought—” What? He’s fumbling over his words. “You loved her.  She broke your heart.”

 

Brow furrowed, I let my hands fall from his shoulders to rest in my own lap.  What?   How has he managed to keep that misguided notion in his head all these years?  I hardly knew her. Admittedly, no one—aside from Moriarty, obviously—had ever caught my attention quite so thoroughly.  I was fascinated by her intellect and how she chose to wield it—her provocative world was so foreign to me, at the time. But the excessive flirtation between us was only part of the game.  She was accustomed to men eating out of the palm of her hand—then turning on them the moment she had something to hold over their heads. But she had failed to seduce me.

 

“Not quite,”  I say, a hint of condescension in my tone.  He’s gotten it all wrong. He knows me better than anyone, and he believes that I’d—what?  Fall to pieces if I’d known that it was Irene behind this infuriating case? That I won’t be able to handle it if she struts back into our lives?  I understand that his motive was to protect me, but he has entirely missed the mark. “You’re the only one who’s ever managed to accomplish that,” His face falls.  I hadn’t intended to sound quite so bitter. We’re in a good place, now. We’re finding our way. But he did break my heart.

 

“I know,”  He says, quietly.  He does know. I don’t need to remind him.  “But she—you—”

 

“Quick wit.  Sharp intellect.  A worthy adversary, and she knew how to play the game,”  He still doesn’t get it. “John, she was an equal. I was bored.  I welcomed the challenge,” She was fun.   Unpredictable.  “I followed her trail of breadcrumbs, found myself in Karachi in time to prevent her untimely demise—and she immediately turned a gun on me and stole my clothing to escape in.  Not my finest moment,” It was quite humiliating. She may never have had me, but she certainly outwitted me that night.  “I spent several more years ignoring her text messages until you encouraged me to respond,”  A pained expression on his face.  He had called me an idiot for not pursuing her, but I had been grappling with the fact that I was falling in love with him, at the time.  Was still trying to accept it.  We had just gotten through the worst year of our lives together—Mary’s death and all of the pain that had followed—and I was coming to terms with my dawning realization that he was the unrequited love of my life.  When he’d enthusiastically insisted I reach out to her, I did. I thought that if I couldn’t have John, I may as well seek out a distraction. It was too difficult to be around him, at the time.

 

“You never saw her again,”  I didn’t. She had quickly grown bored of her plans of seduction once we’d actually begun a conversation.  There was nothing there, on either end. It was obvious, even through our texts. Our entire acquaintanceship had consisted of unanswered dinner invitations with sexual undertones that neither of us had actually felt.  She’s gay.   And obviously, so am I.  “But I remember that time, Sherlock,”  I’m sure that he does. I had shut him out entirely, for weeks.   I never told him why.  “You were more lost than I’d ever seen you.  Completely inconsolable. You wouldn’t see me for ages—you weren’t even taking cases.  I thought something had happened—I thought that she had—”

 

“No,”  I don’t want to hear this—don’t want to revisit that time at all.  “It was you,” He may as well know the truth. “I was falling in love with you.  It’s only ever been you,”  I watch as the realization slowly creeps across his face.  Pieces of the puzzle locking into place.

 

“But—”  He clears his throat, eyes a bit wet.  “For that long?” God, he really never knew.  I suppose it helps to explain his harsh reaction when I’d finally told him.  Yes, for that long. Obviously, for that long. He’s had my heart from the beginning—there was something about him from the start.  But it had grown, over time.

 

“Yes, John,”  I sigh. I’m exhausted.  We’d hardly slept last night, and this conversation is wearing me thin.   I don’t want to think about it anymore. Don’t want to hold onto any bitterness over this bloody case—over a woman who’s had no real significance in my life.  I can’t blame John for misinterpreting things. I had never bothered to correct him—and we’ve shared enough blunt words for now.

 

I stand, holding out my hand.  He takes it without question, following me to the bedroom.  We silently strip to our pants and crawl beneath the sheets, joining in the centre of the bed.  Eyes locked on mine, he runs his palm slowly up my torso—stomach to chest, halting directly over my heart.  I love how this feels—his hands on my body. I love the explosion of senses that happens each time he touches my skin, always accompanied by a pleasant ache in my chest—and in my groin.  I’ve been dutifully ignoring the arousal he sparks in me—willing it away each time we’re close, knowing full well that he isn’t ready for that. He may never be. I’m not sure that I am either—but he has quite an effect on me.  

 

I continue to remind myself that it’s only been a week.  We had our first kiss only last night —the first time in my life that I’ve kissed someone and meant it.  Things are moving unexpectedly quickly, now that we’ve torn down our walls.  

 

Perhaps we’re making up for lost time.

 

 

I wake up in a bit of a daze, face tucked beneath John’s chin.   Must have drifted off quickly. I press my lips to his skin before rolling over, squinting against the sun that still shines through the windows in our room.  I had heard the tell-tale ping of my mobile—I’m certain that’s what woke me. Leaning over the side of the bed, I dig it out of my jeans pocket. One new text message from the very same number that had welcomed us to California one week ago.

 

Let’s have dinner.

 

I sigh—I’d been expecting this.  Clearly she hasn’t changed much. I glance over at John’s sleeping form beside me as I tap out a response.

 

You know where to find us.  SH

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Do you think,”  John begins, his expression ruminative.  “That summoning us here and sticking us in this tiny cottage was her idea of a practical joke?”  He’s leaned against the arm of the couch, toes tucked warmly beneath my thigh, an open book propped against his knees.  It’s been four hours since I’d responded to her rather evocative text message, and we’ve yet to hear back. I’m growing impatient—would like answers to the many questions that continue to pile up in the back of my mind.  Perhaps she did think it would be amusing to place us in a space with only one bed. Or perhaps she’d thought we had already found our way to one another in the decade since she’d seen us last—she had relentlessly pestered John about his supposed infatuation with me, after all.  But she’d had it backwards. She’d gotten it wrong.

 

“I believe that she requires our assistance,”  Though I’m still unsure why she hadn’t revealed herself from the start.  “This location was chosen deliberately—close enough to Hal’s pub of choice to keep an eye on him, but removed enough to not raise much suspicion.  Believable as a holiday destination—a quaint cottage amongst the trees,” I suspect she presumed that Henry would be sent to our residence at some point, and therefore the location would be revealed to our suspect.  I’ve read and reread each of her eight increasingly desperate emails from the last eleven months. Now that I know the voice behind the words, I can see that her concern is sincere. Whatever Hal is up to, it has affected her directly.

 

“Well whatever her reasoning, I’m grateful to her,”  He tosses the book aside, crawling toward me to lie on his back with his head in my lap.  “Should have listened to her back then,” He reaches behind him and closes my laptop, where it sits on the cushion to my left.  “She saw what I hadn’t,” He pushes his hand beneath my shirt, floats his fingertips over a nipple, sending an agonizing jolt of arousal through my body, straight to my groin.  He continues to taunt me with his infuriatingly light touch, tracing a lazy figure eight across my chest.

 

“John,”  He must be aware of the effect this is having on me.  His movements are deliberate—and he knows precisely how concentrated the nerve endings are in this delicate region of flesh.  I’m rapidly growing hard—it doesn’t take much, with him—and it won’t be quite so simple to ignore with his face centimeters away from—I grab his wrist, abruptly halting this languid torment.  He looks up at me, a bit surprised and a bit smug. “What, precisely, are you attempting to do?” He shrugs a shoulder, letting his hand fall to his own chest when I release his wrist.

 

“Too soon?”  He asks, voice a bit nervous.  What does that mean? He knows that he’s allowed to touch me—however he likes, wherever he likes—but if he keeps that up he’s going to get a lot more of a reaction that he’d bargained for.  Unless—that’s—exactly what he’d bargained for—oh.

 

“I—no—but, you—you’d said—”

 

“I know,”  He shifts his body slightly, turning toward me to lie on his side, but still peering up at my face.  He smooths his palm over my stomach—just below my waistline. My heart races dangerously—entire body tensing, skin buzzing as my erection continues to fill, straining against the bloody tight jeans that now define my wardrobe.  Just like that, then? He’s ready to dive head first into this uncharted realm of our relationship that he’s been so apprehensive about? He holds my gaze, watching my reactions as he slowly undoes the button and begins to slide down the zip—I swallow, mind frantically trying to catch up with what’s happening—what’s about to happen.  Are we ready for this?  I don’t know. I want it—of that I am certain.

 

A jolt of panic, head jerking toward the window when the unmistakable sound of tires on gravel accosts my ears.  John abruptly sits up, retracting his hand and glancing at me with wide eyes. We both freeze, staring for a long moment until my phone pings where it sits at my side.  I scrabble to pick it up, hastily unlocking the screen, stomach lurching uneasily when I see the contents. One new text message from our recently identified client.

 

Get in.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Thought she’d come to us,”  John says quietly.  He sits at my side—arm pressed against mine—in the back of the very same dark-windowed, sleek black car that had brought us to this place last weekend.  The charged moment we’d shared in the cottage had died quickly—and my arousal along with it—the instant we were interrupted. We’d collected ourselves and climbed into the backseat without question, blindly accepting our fate once again.

 

“I suppose she can’t resist a bit of drama,”  She certainly does have a flair for the dramatic.  But I suspect there are other reasons for the unannounced change in location.  She can’t risk being seen in the area—she doesn’t want to be found. A ping from my mobile.

 

You’re one to talk.

 

Fabulous.  She’s got eyes on us.  John glances at my phone, eyes going wide—no doubt thinking precisely what I am— she’s bugged the cottage as well.   Why hadn’t I checked?  Absolutely idiotic. I’ve been absurdly preoccupied since the moment we’d arrived.  My usual vigilance and dedication have been completely wiped away by a relentless determination to repair my relationship with John.  Has she been watching our progress? Spying on our arguments and misunderstandings—witnessing each soft, vulnerable moment we’ve shared?

 

“Has she—”  He stops himself, glances around the car—searching for a camera, a microphone.  He won’t find anything.

 

No need to panic.

Surveillance is not my style...

I don’t like to watch.

 

“What do you call this, then?!”  He nearly shouts, throwing his hands up weakly as his eyes scan her words on the screen.

 

Insurance.

 

I can’t help but smile.  She’s wise not to trust us entirely.  Surely she hasn’t forgotten how thoroughly I’d bested her when we’d gone head to head—nearly destroyed her life.  Of course, shortly thereafter I’d saved it—but still. John lets out a huff.

 

“Afraid to say anything, now,”  His eyes roam the dark interior once more.  “Bit creepy, aren’t you?”

 

I see your opinion of me hasn’t changed.

 

I meet John’s eyes, grinning.  It’s true. He seemed to despise her and everything that she stood for, at least at first.  He scoffs.

 

“Actually, I quite admire your foresight,”  He returns my grin. “Knew I’d figure it out eventually, didn’t you?”  His arm snakes through mine, hand coming up to grasp my bicep.

 

My mobile remains silent for a full minute.  John stares at it, waiting with raised eyebrows for another cheeky response.  He looks up at me, shrugging just as another text comes through.

 

We’re being followed.

 

 

“We?”   John asks, peering out the back window at the white SUV at our rear.  We’ve only been on the road for ten minutes, but it’s true—they’ve been there since we’d left the town centre, turning onto River Road directly behind us.  Keeping their distance, but not escaping my notice—nor Irene’s, apparently. I rap twice on the dark partition that separates us from the driver. After a long moment, it comes down.

 

“Should I have mentioned sooner?”  There she sits, polished as ever—lips red, legs neatly crossed—perched unapologetically in the passenger seat, angled toward us.   John gapes. I smile. I’d suspected we’d find her there.

 

“Good to see you,”  I say with a nod. It is.  I bear her no ill will. I let my eyes roam over her lightly lined face, her perfectly coiffed hair and expensive black dress.  She’s made an effort to present herself as we last saw her, but she looks older, now. We all do—obviously—but her previously faultless features are weary.  Disheartened. She returns my nod.

 

“Apologies for the theatrics,”  A small smirk. “I’d planned on taking you to my current residence, but as it took them no time at all to locate me—”  Her eyes flick over to our pursuers. “We won’t be stopping. No matter,” She turns to John with a warm smile. “We can speak here.  So tell me, have you two been enjoying your holiday?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Explain,”  John is no longer amused.  “Why request Sherlock’s help if you weren’t even planning on revealing yourself?”  Irene quirks an eyebrow at his choice in phrasing. John glares, his expression obstinate.  “Don’t. I’m not speaking in innuendo. This really isn’t a joke,” She studies him for a moment with her percipient gaze.

 

“Why didn’t you reveal me?”  She challenges, though her tone has no bite.  “You’ve known all along, thanks to that seemingly omniscient brother of his,”  She continues to watch John, her eyes carrying a certain light. She recognizes something in him.  Empathizes. Her expression softens, but he only glares. “You thought you were protecting his heart,”  She sighs.

 

“Moving along,”  I say firmly, unlinking my arm from John’s and sliding it instead around his back.  I feel him relax against me, the tension of a moment ago gradually dissipating—clearly glad for the change in subject.  Irene tracks this movement, her eyes flicking to my hand where it rests on John’s shoulder. I squeeze. “Care to tell us who’s on our tail?”  I nod toward the rear window, where the SUV is still distantly trailing behind. 

 

“It seems I’ve upset the wrong people,”  She says, with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes.  “It isn’t the first time—surely won’t be the last,” She’s avoiding specifics.  Why?

 

“Irene,”  I warn, in the tone I use with Lestrade when I need him to stop rambling and get to the point.  Her eyes have drifted down to her hands, where she picks absentmindedly at a shiny red fingernail.  When she meets my gaze again, the mask has dropped.

 

“You wouldn’t have come,”  She swallows, glancing at John, then back to meet my eyes.  “If you’d known it was me, you wouldn’t be here,” I’ve already considered this, and she is incorrect.  I’m here because London had lost its appeal. I came here to escape my colourless life for a bit, and as a desperate attempt to catch John’s attention—to try one last time to find our way back to one another.  If he hadn’t agreed, the case was meant to be a distraction—and she’s always been a decent distraction. 

 

“I’m here for my own reasons,”  I tighten my grip on John’s shoulder.  “I would have accepted the case either way,” John knows why I’m here.  It’s the same for him. We’re here for each other. Irene nods, smiling a bit sadly.  “But we’re willing to help.”

 

 

“Max Arden, Kyle Brooks, Finn Calloway,” We’ve been driving for nearly forty minutes now—not in circles, per se, but we’ve remained within a ten kilometer radius of our cottage.  Whoever is interested in tracking down Irene certainly knows by now that we’re aware of their presence. But they haven’t relented, nor have they attempted to stop us. “Philip—Eisley?  Eishold?” Irene pinches the bridge of her nose, head bowed in thought. “Something like that,” The men who have gone missing— left town —after the unfortunate experience of a courtship with Mr. Collins.

 

“You knew them, then?”  John asks, his voice once again holding its usual warmth.  Irene has spent the last half hour explaining what, exactly, she’s doing here.  As it turns out, there’s quite a market for her— services —in this area of California.  Specifically, the members of the Bohemian Club—the world’s wealthiest, most powerful men—who spend much of their time at the Grove and often seek out entertainment in the surrounding towns.  She’s spent the last six years here, earning herself a loyal following—and, I would assume, a small fortune.

 

“Only Max,”  She responds with a sigh.  “He was one of mine,” He worked for her, then.  Trained with her. “I wasn’t aware of Holling Collins until Max began to see him regularly.  I saw the signs. The abuse. I tried to stop it,” She’s long since given up on trying to hide her distress.  The desperation I saw in her emails was genuine. But I still feel as though we’re missing something—some crucial piece of data.  “But Mr. Collins had some sort of hold over him. I—” She inhales slowly, eyes returning to her hands. “I thought I’d—you know—I thought that I could threaten him.  These men are extremely protective of their reputations. It’s the reason I’m able to maintain control in what I do.”

 

“Blackmail,”  I nod. No surprise there.  I haven’t forgotten that this is exactly the sort of thing she’s built her career on.  It was the reason we were introduced to her in the first place, all those years ago.  

 

“Obviously, my attempts were futile.  Max disappeared. Holling made his own threats, and I went into hiding.  He’s continued to use other young men to do whatever it was he was doing—is still doing, as far as I know—and over time, each of them disappeared as well,”  I suppose she’s been in hiding for around two years, then. Can hardly fathom why she’d stay in the area—clearly we’re still not getting the entire story, and I can’t help but recall something Henry had said, when he’d sat in our kitchen and told a similar tale.  

 

“Who else?”  I ask, watching her eyes go a bit wide.  He’d said there was a woman— some lady —whose sofa he’d slept on and whose coffee he’d drugged.  Said she’d left town shortly thereafter, and all of this had occurred eleven months ago, when he’d first met Hal.  I can see the uncertainty behind Irene’s eyes as she decides how to respond. She glances at John and then down at her lap before letting out the breath she’d been holding and shaking her head.


“Isla Mae Salinger,” Her voice breaks a bit as she recites the name.  “I hadn’t planned on— shit,”   She admonishes herself under her breath.  Frustrated. Why? I observe as she looks away, wiping each eye with graceful fingers.  “It’s been nearly a year, now. I reached out to you then—when I’d realized I was in over my head,”  This woman meant something to her. I hadn’t thought her capable of such sentiment, though I suppose that’s hardly fair—all things considered.  “She was—” A small shrug, a long pause as she lifts her head to meet my eyes. “She was mine.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“You love her,”  John says, voice hushed, gentle.  He hadn’t thought her capable either.  Wasn’t expecting to be confronted with this wounded bird—this lost, empty version of the woman we’d once known.  And he can’t help but feel for her. Ever the empath, my John.

 

“Yes,”  She doesn’t meet his eyes, now glancing out the window at the vineyards, the rolling green hills.  “For a long time I’d hoped—thought perhaps I could locate her, or that you would. I’d hoped you’d come sooner, but I don’t blame you for that.  I went about it all wrong. I see that now,”

 

“We can still find her,”  John says firmly. “We’re here now,”  I slide my hand down his arm, back up again.  Confident, hopeful—so sure that we can still fix this.  He doesn’t see what I do. She smiles sadly, gaze still fixed on the landscape as it passes by.

 

“I’m afraid not,”  We’re too late. “She’s gone,”  We should have come sooner—why hadn’t I realized it was her voice behind all of those desperate emails?  Why couldn’t I see?   “I’m sure of it,”  John stares at her, willing her to look at him, but she doesn’t.

 

“How?”  I can’t help but ask.  A body, then? A note? Any sort of tangible trail that we can follow?  There must be proof—Irene is no idiot. When she looks up, her expression is open, if a bit bemused.

 

“I can feel it,”  She looks at John, then back to meet my questioning gaze.  “Her absence. Wouldn’t you?”

 

 

The white SUV had relented once we’d reached the town centre, no doubt returning to their previous position, awaiting Irene’s departure.  She’s planned for it. There’s another identical black car waiting at our cottage when we arrive. They only want to know where I keep their secrets, she’d said.  Insurance.  The only reason I’m still alive.   Obviously.  She’s always chosen to live her life this way, clutching on to the secrets of those who wish to do her harm.

 

She had gotten into the second car and taken off in the other direction, while the first went back the way we’d come.  A solid enough plan, when dealing with idiots. These men have the means to do whatever is necessary to take her down, and yet they’ve resorted to following her in circles and being fooled by the oldest trick in the book.  No doubt, she has shown her superior intellect over the last two years—made it clear that she’s got some sort of failsafe in place. It’s why they went after Isla—her lover, her heart—and continue to keep their distance. They’re playing the long game.

 

The sun has set, and I feel only relief to be back behind the closed door of our cottage, with no one to answer to but John.  I feel a bit unsettled by our reunion with Irene. She is not the person she once was. Changed irreversibly by love—and utterly broken by the loss of it.  

 

John had gone to the loo when we’d arrived back—and now he walks out purposefully, grabbing my hand and pulling me toward the couch.  He pushes me down onto the cushions and crawls right into my lap, straddling my thighs. His arms snake around my neck, cheek resting against mine.  He’s startled me, a bit. His movements are intentional, deliberate—he’s got something on his mind. My arms gather him in, winding around the small of his back.  He sighs, breath hot against my jaw.

 

“I love you,”   He whispers against my skin, lightly kisses my cheek.  “I want you,”   Desperation in his hushed voice, and suddenly I fail to breathe.  Heart lodged in my throat, flesh humming—each individual nerve on high alert.  “I want you.  Right now,”   I feel as though I’m melting under the heat of him.  Picture my bones in a puddle on the floor, having seeped out through my pores and leaving me lifeless, ruined.  He’s surrounding me—molded around my body and invading my mind. I can feel his erection growing, pressing heavily against my stomach, unrelenting.  My mind whirls, trying to catch up with this overwhelming input of sensation. His tone is confident, sure. He wants this. Wants me.   What does that mean?  We haven’t discussed it.  If I’m being honest, I’m ready for anything—anything at all, whatever he can give me.  

 

I push gently at his waist, encouraging him to let go.  I want to see his face—want to understand where this is coming from.  Is he as unsettled by Irene as I am? Shaken into action by the undeniable evidence of lost love?  He loosens his grip on my neck, leaning back and sliding his hands to my nape, fingers brushing through the curls there.  When we lock eyes, I understand. Unsettled, indeed. His face is vulnerable, open—earnest as ever. His actions are fueled by emotion, not some sort of inexorable lust.

 

“Yes,”   I breathe.  Yes to anything, to everything.  “Yes,” I say, again, and I kiss him.

 

 

We’ve managed to relocate to the bedroom—jeans, t-shirts, pants forming a trail across the floor.  No damnable fabric separates us now—no barriers between us, only skin. John has broken free of my lips long enough to retrieve a bottle of lubricant from his luggage, causing my heart to skitter across the room in anticipation.  We’re really doing this—we’ve made it here at last. I lie on my stomach, watching as he crawls into bed beside me, kneeling over me and setting the small bottle on the bedside table. His eyes roam over my body, then his hands do the same.  Palms brushing firmly across my back, then lower—sweeping over my skin, mapping each crease, each curve—each part of me that he hasn’t allowed himself to seek. I close my eyes, basking in this profound intimacy—allowing myself to feel it, to give myself over to him completely.

 

The mattress shifts as John lies down beside me.  His lips on mine, his tongue, his warm breath. I roll on my side to face him and we move toward one another as if propelled by some force outside of ourselves.  Or inside, perhaps. A better metaphor: magnetic.   His hands migrate down my abdomen until without hesitation, he grips my erection—stroking firmly, slowly.  I gasp into his mouth, eyes flying open. I’d known this was coming—of course I had—but I wasn’t prepared.  Couldn’t have known that his hands were capable of communicating more than mere words ever could. Couldn’t have prepared myself for this heady combination of overwhelming affection and physical pleasure that is now threatening to stop my heart.  He breaks the kiss, studying my face as his hands continue to move—one keeping a firm, steady rhythm along my shaft, the other gently tracing my jawline. A question in his eyes: All right?   The idiot.  Can’t he see?  Never better.

 

I push him back, climb on top of him, watching as his eyes go dark.  He likes this—being dominated. I’m surprised. Delighted. I let my fingers drift over his chest, thumbs circling his nipples, feeling them peak beneath my relentless touch.  He stares up at me, panting quietly, a startled moan escaping as I run my palm over his (leaking) cock.

 

Sudden doubt.  A crippling wave of uncertainty.  Why? Oh. I’m entirely out of my depth.  Now that I’ve found myself in control, I’m rapidly losing my nerve.  John watches me falter, sees my hesitation as my hands slow and then stop.  He stares up at me, breathing steadily, then pulls me down against his body.  Lips on my temple, my forehead. Hands once again sweeping over my back—shoulders to tailbone—and I will myself to relax.

 

“Too much?”  He whispers, his lips now on my cheek.  How to explain? Not too much, never too much.  Perhaps not enough. I lift my head, meet his mouth.  A slow kiss, deep, raw. An unfiltered response— more take control, John.   He sighs, eyes closed.  Mouth wet on my neck. Arm stretched, fingers grasping for the bedside table, returning with the bottle of lube in hand.  I sit up, watch him intently. Show me what to do.   Show me what comes next.  He hands me the bottle—why?—pushes lightly on my hip.  When I rise to my knees, he rolls over beneath me. “Slowly,”   He breathes.  Oh.

 

I shift back, spread his legs and kneel between them.  Can I do this? I can do this. God, I want to do this.  A finger coated in lubricant, a deep breath. I firmly circle the (tight) muscle until he exhales—tension fading—allowing me in.  Lightly, slowly. In and then out. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.   A second finger at his command.  More lube, more stretch, more heat.  I can barely keep my head above the cloud of lust that’s slowly smothering me.  John squirms and moans beneath me, around me. When I (finally) brush his prostate, he shouts out, reaching back for my (free) hand and grasping it tightly.

 

“Sherlock,”  The sound of my name on his lascivious tongue has me desperate, yearning, wanting this, wanting more.  “Go on,”   He breathes.  “Don’t hold back.”

 

Oh, God.  Oh, God.   I sit forward—heart racing, erection slick and straining—hovering and hesitating.  When I line us up, he lifts his hips in encouragement, so I hold my breath and push gently in.  A gasp— two gasps—and a breathless moan as I slide, cautiously, into the tight heat of his body.  

 

“John,”   Barely a breath, but he hears me, he understands.  Tugs on my wrist until I collapse against his back.  I let my lips linger at the top of his spine, tasting salt, taking time.  We breathe in tandem, unmoving, adjusting—each trying hopelessly to grasp this raw intensity.  I roll my hips slightly and feel him shudder beneath my chest. Lift my pelvis—immense pressure, immense pleasure as I push steadily back in.  Again, repeat, again, again. The sounds slipping from John’s lips hang in the air around us—heavy, hot, rapturous, profound.   I let them fuel me, surround me—bury my face in his neck and let go.  Don’t hold back.

 

Arms twisted around his, our fingers twined together, I drive into his body—hard and fast.  Sweat-slicked skin sliding, unrestrained desire coiling, the clap of our flesh as my hips furiously snap.

 

I feel my rhythm begin to falter—nearly there, can’t hold out much longer—John beneath me in a constant breathy moan.  Teeth against his shoulder, bite down (soft, not hard)—still, he tenses, goes rigid, cries out as he comes. His body spasming beneath me, around me.  A new intensity of pressure, inescapable, surrounds me. I gasp, push in hard— hold —and erupt with a shout.  Vision fades to white, a haze of sensation, twitching hips and an unfathomable connection.  Tripping toward the edge, fumbling, tumbling—I hold onto John and let myself fall.

 

 

“Sherlock,”  A whisper.  I sigh, turning my head to the sound of John’s voice.  I’ve slipped out of him and slid off of him, making a mess of the bed in the process.  No matter. Now I lie at his side, trailing my fingers over his hip—more content than I’d thought myself capable of.  Our mouths connect, a lazy kiss. “Do you think we’d feel it?  If one of us—if we—do you think we’d know?” He’s thinking of Irene again.  Of what she's lost and how hollow it's left her. It’s a romantic notion, to believe that you can feel someone’s absence—that it’s possible to share a bond so strong that the moment the other leaves this life, you simply know.   “No proof, and yet she’s given up.  She’s let go.”

 

“You believed me dead,”  For over two years. We don’t speak of that time anymore.

 

“Yes,”  I needed him to believe it, and he did.  He pulls me in, arms circling my waist, face buried warmly in the crook of my neck.  I sigh, resting my chin on his head and holding him tightly in return. “But I never let you go.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Long fingers on the small of my back, the soft sounds of steady breathing.  Watching me? Probably. Observing, deducing. I wonder what he sees. I’ve always wondered what he sees in me.

 

I let my eyelids drift open, smile at the sight that greets me.  Not observing, not at all. Still fast asleep. God, he’s lovely like this.  Soft and trusting, wild curls framing his untroubled face.  Absolutely bloody beautiful. I have to swallow around the lump in my throat, breathe through the ache in my chest—both present fairly frequently, as of this past week.  It sure didn’t take long for me to trip over the cliff I’ve been standing on for all these years and fall hopelessly in love with him. Hard to believe I’d ever thought him cold and untouchable—this warm, tactile creature in front of me tells a different story entirely.  Not sure I’ll ever fully forgive myself for walking away when he handed me his heart—for taking so long to be anything but angry with him.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to confront my own demons—my idiotic, irrational insecurities—and the certainty he had shown me that day had caused me to shut right down.  He knew what we could become, and I couldn’t face it. Walls up, distance in place. Outrage where there should have been warmth. And God forbid I actually consider his words—set aside the preconceived notions I had adopted long ago and reconsider our dynamic, our connection.  It took the thought of losing him— indefinitely, as he’d said—to bring me around.  But it still breaks my heart—intensifies that persistent ache—when I think of how long it took me to really see him.

 

“Can hear you thinking,”  He rumbles, voice deep from sleep, eyes still shut tight.  I grin, slide closer. Press my mouth to his chest, his throat.  Let my tongue linger on the warm skin of his neck, caress his pulse point with my lips.  He loves this. Tips his head back and sighs.

 

I think of last night, of the roles I’d chosen for us in the moment.  I hadn’t planned on taking things so far, so fast. Barely twenty four hours had passed since our very first kiss, and I skipped about ten steps in between.  Had planned to take things slowly—to be certain that he wanted this sort of physical intimacy. He’s never had it before, never had anyone.  But my heart—and the rest of my body—only wanted to make up for lost time.  Wanted to show him exactly how much he is loved. So I let him have me.

 

I shouldn’t be surprised that it was so bloody good—I shouldn’t be, but I am.  I’d expected there to be more of a mental barrier surrounding the fact that he is very much a man.  Thought it would take me ages to overcome it. But, alas—wrong again. And as it turns out, what I feel for him seems to defy such trivialities, now that I’ve let myself feel it.  I am constantly aware of the bond we have—in my inordinately romantic mind’s eye I picture our hearts connected by tiny threads, being pulled tighter and tighter as we’ve gradually let each other in.  The threads are barely visible, now. Soon we’ll be so closely bound that I won’t know where he ends and I begin. Perhaps we already are.

 

He moans softly as I suck harder on his neck, so I hitch a leg over his hip, our evident erections lightly brushing.  He gasps, I sigh. Shift my hips a bit, line us up. I have some idea of how this goes—it’s hardly difficult to work it out—but the sensations themselves are new.  A small thrill, these previously forbidden acts. A whole new world. Push my pelvis up, slide against him, sensitive flesh and fervent friction. He mirrors my movements and seeks out my mouth.  A hard kiss, a series of shouts. We pant in unison, rutting furiously against one another—needy, urgent—my fingers tangled in his hair as his firmly grasp my bum, desperately seeking more contact.  We come almost in parallel, each crying out—my breath on his cheek and my name on his tongue. Euphoria, bliss, as I grip him tightly, smiling to myself like a fool. 

 

He follows me to the shower—both filthier than ever—climbs right in after me and washes my hair with his own shampoo.  Standing close beneath the steaming water, he kisses me thoroughly, mapping my body with his curious hands. I grin (again) against his lips, feeling light—nearly giddy—relishing his newfound confidence, this easy intimacy, as the last remaining evidence of our eager affection swirls gradually down the drain.

 

 

“John,”  His voice from the kitchen, summoning me.  Typical. I’d heard his mobile ping a minute ago, was ready to be torn from my half-slumber on this absurdly comfortable couch.  I sigh, rolling over and dragging myself upright. Shuffle into the kitchen to find him perched at the table, laptop in front of him, mobile in hand.

 

“Hi,”  I linger behind him, slip my arms under his, palms flat against his chest.  Rest my chin on his shoulder and press my lips briefly to his cheek. “What is it?”  He sighs, leans into me. Holds up his phone.



And the unlabeled component?  SH

 

Unidentified.

It’s an additive that seems to extend the length of time the drug remains in the system.

Extends it dramatically, from what I can tell.

Your mystery substance is essentially a low dose of LSD that will remain in effect for...months?

Longer?

Hard to say.

I’ve seen nothing like it before.



I glance at his laptop, study the open email containing neatly labeled diagrams of complex chemical formulas that mean nothing to me.

 

“My contact in London,”  He explains, setting his mobile on the table.  I step back, dragging a chair over beside him. Sit down and lean in.  “Look,” Scrolls down in the email, clicking a link to an article in a scientific journal I’ve never heard of titled Internal Transmission/Internal Integration: Personality Alteration and Effects on the Mind.  He points to the date. January of 2010. My mind automatically jumps back to where I was at that time—recently returned from Afghanistan and ready to leave this world. Heart swells when I recall our first meeting—when Sherlock showed up and transformed my life.  Pulled me back from the metaphorical edge and gave me something to live for. His finger drifts to the author’s name. Silas Moran. I’m lost—clearly he sees some significance in these pieces of information. As ever, I’m ten steps behind. He clicks on another open tab, apparently he’s found his way into the police database again.  There, on the page, beside the name Silas Moran, is a picture of a man who is unmistakably Hal.   A bit younger, but definitely him.

 

“You’ve identified him,”  Finally. He must be thrilled, though he doesn’t look it.  Maybe now we can begin to wrap up this bloody case, to find some peace for Irene.  “What does Mycroft have to say?” He meets my eyes, expression grim. Opens up another tab.  Another name, another face. Sebastian Moran. “His brother, then?” They do look quite alike.  I scan the page. This man is dead. Date of death is February of 2012. Another mental jump. ”That was—he died when—”  When Sherlock was gone. Several months after he lept out of my life and left me in ruins. What am I meant to see here? I’m growing a bit frustrated.  Wish he would just tell me what he clearly already knows.

 

“I killed him,”  He says, watching my face carefully.  “I shot him in the head,” I can only stare, trying hopelessly to digest this statement.

 

“I—what?”  Maybe I’m missing something.

 

“Moran.  Sebastian, that is.  Moriarty’s right hand man and one of the assassins assigned to take your life if I hadn’t jumped.  I killed him,” I continue to stare. I have known for a long time now why he did it, but he’s never spoken of his time away.  I tried, when he first got back, but things were strained between us. He’d handled his return about as poorly as he possibly could have—all manipulation and a refusal to acknowledge what he’d done to me.  And I had been no better, resorting to unnecessary violence and my unfortunate tendency towards rage. Each attempt to talk had failed miserably—and on top of everything, Mary was always there, hovering around and making it all considerably worse.  I swallow. He’s still watching me closely, waiting for a reaction. I suppose I had known that he’s taken lives. It shouldn’t feel like such a surprise. But it’s difficult to grasp now that I know this gentle, warm side of him so intimately. I forget, sometimes, all that we’ve been through—how far we’ve come.  ”John—”

 

“All right,”  I say, because it is.  I understand—of course I do.  It’s just one of the many things he’s done to save me.  “You shot Hal’s brother. What do we do now?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

He can’t know.  Can he? No. Impossible.  No one there to witness it, and I was careful—couldn’t possibly have traced his brother’s death back to me.  But he could suspect—and he almost certainly does, if he knows anything about the task Moriarty had given Moran.  He’ll be well aware of the lengths I’ll go— have gone —to preserve John’s life. 

 

I look at him now, seated beside me, waiting patiently for a response.  What do we do now?  An excellent question.  I suppose we carry on, letting Hal believe that we’re oblivious to his alias, that we remain in the dark about his apparent experimentation at the Grove and his familial ties to Sebastian.  He surely never believed that we were here on holiday—knew from the start that only a case could tear us away from our beloved London.  It’s true, in part. Clearly he knows us better than the average admirer—he’s made that quite clear.  And he is no idiot. He was a mere twenty years old when he’d written that article—still a student, most likely—and his theories were far ahead of their time even then.  A proper genius. Does he believe that we’re here for him, then? Is he aware that we were summoned by Irene? Irene

 

I stand abruptly, chair screeching across the hardwood floor as I shove it out of the way.  Begin pacing the kitchen. Think. Think.  Irene —she knows more than she has led us to believe.  She must.   She had consulted with Moriarty—worked with him—she had to have been aware of Sebastian Moran.  Silas too, then? If not, it would be quite a coincidence that they each left London for this specific area of California.  Are they somehow involved? Has she been lying from the start?

 

“John,”  I spin around, stopping in front of him where he remains seated, watching me.  Grab his shoulders, slide my hands up to cup his jaw. Need him to center me, to put things into focus.  He stares, unbothered by my anxious pacing and abrupt halt. Calm, steadfast. A reassuring presence. My Polaris, my Northern Star.  God, look at me—waxing poetic. Mustn’t ever say such things aloud. He doesn’t need to know that I’d spent an afternoon last month (missing him, acutely aware of his absence and feeling uncharacteristically romantic) studying the intricacies of the galaxy.  I’ll let him go on believing that I can’t be bothered with such nonsense, will take my knowledge of the solar system—and each of the one hundred billion stars—to the grave. Focus.   I let my hands drop from his face, sit back down beside him.  “I believe Ms. Adler knows more than she’s letting on.”

 

 

You’ve been misbehaving.  SH

 

Have I?  Do tell.

 

Silas Moran.  Go on, enlighten us.  SH



It’s been a full four minutes, the three little dots appearing and reappearing twice.  John stands at my side as we wait in anticipation for a response that may never come. He wasn’t surprised by my revelation.  Evidently his newfound compassion for her situation hasn’t made him trust her any more than he ever has.

 

“I think it’s true, though, Sherlock,”  He stops staring at my mobile long enough to meet my eyes.  “Isla. All of it. She hadn’t planned on telling us that. You’d caught her off guard,”  True enough. She hadn’t expected me to ask who else?   To inquire about the woman that Henry had mentioned.  Whatever her plan is, that hadn’t been part of it. And apparently, we weren’t meant to find Hal’s— Silas’ —true identity either. 

 

I’ll send a car.



A response, at last.  She wants to speak, face to face.  Why?



No, I don’t think so.  We’ll meet on our terms this time.  SH

 

And what are your terms?



I look at John.  Obviously we can’t trust her—cannot demand that she come here.  We’re currently residing in a location of her choosing, and if she is up to no good, she’ll have the upper hand.  I did, however, spend the morning sweeping the cottage for bugs, finding nothing at all.  It seems she had been sincere about her distaste for surveillance. But we don’t know the area, are not aware of any safe space here.  No neutral ground to meet her on. We’ll need to think on it—will need to devise an infallible plan.

 

We’ll be in touch.  SH

 

 

“Ben’s show tonight,”  John says offhandedly, his fingers lightly massaging my scalp.  I lie stretched out on the couch with my head in his lap—a new favourite position for getting lost in thought—hands steepled beneath my chin.  I had forgotten that we’d promised to attend. It feels as though we’ve lived several lifetimes in the past forty eight hours. John and I have certainly managed to grow significantly in two days’ time.

 

“You’d like to go?”  I’ll leave it up to him.  It isn’t as if we have anything better to do—I’ve spent the afternoon attempting to formulate a plan of action, and have thus far come up with nothing.   Hateful.  So difficult to scheme on foreign turf.

 

“Actually, I was thinking we should talk to Ben—see what he knows about Irene,”  His fingers stop their exploration of my skull and I glance up at him, belatedly registering what he’s just said.  “I mean she’s obviously aware of him, she paid him to point Hal out to you, yeah? Maybe their awareness is mutual,”  I could kiss him. He’s a genius.


“John—”   Abruptly, I sit—then do kiss him, if only briefly.  Why hadn’t I thought of it? Ben hadn’t known who had left the note, but now we do.  And the chances that he’s crossed paths with Irene are quite high, considering she’d trusted him to follow through without question.  “You’re brilliant,” I jump to my feet, heading for the door to grab my boots. He remains seated, arms crossed, eyebrows raised. “Truly,”  I smirk, hurriedly pulling them on, eyes fixed on John. “I am lost without you. Let’s go!”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Well fuck me, it’s my two favorite Englishmen,”  Ben grins at our reflection in the mirror as we stride into his dressing room.  It’s only half six and the Rainbow is nearly empty. After a quick word with Adam about Ben’s whereabouts, we were told we’d find him here putting on his face. “Don’t get a big head about it,”  He adds with a smirk, gaze returning to the makeup he’s been expertly applying.  “Your only competition is Hal.”

 

“An honour, nevertheless,”  John grins, dropping down into a light pink velvet armchair in the corner.  “And your favourite English woman?   Who might that be?”  A tone of nonchalance, but Ben knows better—subtlety has never been John’s forte.  He sets down the brush in his hand and turns to face him.

 

“What are you asking me?”  He says, perching on the stool behind him and crossing his arms.

 

“Irene Adler,”  I say bluntly, watching him for signs of recognition.  He knows her, that much is clear. I watch both of his perfectly plucked eyebrows creep up his forehead.  “Friend of yours?”

 

“Maybe,”  He looks a bit confused by the question.  “Does she have something to do with all this?”

 

“She’s the reason we’re here,”  John sits up straight on his velvet throne, crossing his legs, ankle to knee.  “Asked for our help, but hasn’t been telling us the whole story. Hoped you might have some insight.”

 

“Why would I?”

 

“She chose you to introduce us to Hal—to be our first link to the case she brought us here to solve.  Clearly she trusts you,” I let John speak—he’s always been undeniably better at this—questioning those involved with a case.  I tend to turn even the most informal conversation into an interrogation with little effort. He’s well practiced at gaining data without losing trust.

 

“Oh God, it was Irene?  Should have known that tricky bitch would be involved with this,”  He smiles. “She must have known I could use the cash.”

 

“Sorry, tricky bitch?”   I can hardly get the words out.  Honestly, the language they choose to employ here—vulgar.  Ineloquent.

 

“It’s a term of endearment, honey,”  Ben’s still smiling. “She’s a friend.  So she’s got you looking into Hal? I’ve never even seen them interact,”  Interesting. “She dated my friend Isla for ever.   For years.   They were in love—like— madly.   I’ve never seen two people so smitten.  Besides the two of you,” He winks. I roll my eyes.  Idiot.

 

“What’s the story with Isla?  Irene seems to think she’s—ah—gone,”  John stumbles over his words a bit, apparently unwilling to say dead.   Unwilling to be the bearer of such a dark theory.

 

“She’s a flighty one.  Has always been a free spirit.  I know that Irene was driving her up the wall toward the end—apparently she’d convinced herself that someone was after her.  She’s always seemed a little paranoid—I guess considering what she does for a living and the people she deals with, it’s understandable,”  He sighs. “Isla took off last summer—can’t remember exactly when. She didn’t tell anyone she was going, but I know she had wanted out.”

 

“Have you heard from her since she left?”  John asks Ben, glancing at me. He looks concerned—no doubt imagining a scenario where Isla has indeed left Irene, allowing her to believe she’s dead.  It occurs to me now that his empathy toward her may have something to do with our history.  He knows precisely what it’s like to lose the person you’re closest to, only to find that they’ve been out in the world the entire time.  He’d made sure I understood what that was like for him—what thinking me dead for several years had done to him. I feel ill even considering it, now.

 

“Isla?  No, but we’ve never really kept in touch when she’s off on her travels.  I just hang with her when she’s here, you know?  She’s on Instagram though,”  He fishes his mobile from his pocket, pulls up her profile. “Just posted yesterday,”  He hands John the phone and I perch on the arm of his chair as he scrolls through her many photos.  Most of them are images of California landscapes, posted at least every couple of weeks. Could have been anywhere—taken at any time.  Few pictures of actual people, but that seems to be her social media modus operandi, going back years: photos of nature. Though there are exceptions.  He opens a group picture—taken here, at the Rainbow—posted just over a year ago. Adam and Ben sit side by side on the bartop, leaning on one another and smirking at the camera.  Standing beside them, trying futilely to fight the grin on her face, is a casually dressed Irene, wrapped in the arms of a petite woman with long, wavy blonde hair, maybe thirty five years old.  She’s wearing jeans and a crochet bikini top, lips pressed to Irene’s cheek. I’m honestly a bit stunned—Irene looks— content.   And seeing them captured in this moment, I believe I understand.  Isla brought a certain warmth to her decidedly austere life. Filled her world with colour—something I’ve experienced myself.

 

“Wow,”  John says, staring at the photo, brow slightly furrowed.  “She’s beautiful,” He glances up at me. “But I never would have imagined this is who Irene would choose to love,”  Ben lets out a huff of laughter, shaking his head.

 

“It was hardly a choice.  Never really is though, is it?”  I suppose not. Perhaps Irene had fallen victim to the same sort of inexplicable human connection that John and myself have found.  Despite my frigid nature and his attraction to females, here we are. I look at him now, a warm presence at my side—let my fingers drift through his soft silver hair, coming to rest on the back of his neck.  He smiles to himself, leans against me, winds an arm around the small of my back. If I lost him now, I’d be ruined. If this is what Irene had found in Isla—if this is what she’s lost—

 

“Oh,”  I stand abruptly, spinning in a slow circle—perhaps—”Call her,”  I blurt out, glancing around to find them both staring at me, confused.  Always ten steps behind. “Isla. Call her,” John looks at Ben, who shrugs.  I watch as he scrolls through the contacts list, locates her name and hits call.   Speakerphone—one ring, two—no answer.  Perhaps I was wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.  Three rings—I’d thought that if she’d seen his name on the screen—a friend, an ally, reaching out—

 

“Hello?  Ben?” Ah.  Got her. Hypothesis confirmed.  Four wide eyes on me and a long, stunned silence.

 

“Hello Irene,”  I say with a smirk.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

A sigh.

 

“I should have realized,”  She sounds exhausted. “I’m losing my edge, clearly.”

 

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,”  I can’t help but feel a bit smug.  “We still haven’t the faintest idea what it is that you’re up to,”  But we know that she’s got Isla’s phone—that she’s been maintaining her social media presence with bland photos of the California coastline for nearly a year.  And I can chance a guess at why. “Meet us at the Rainbow, will you? Surely you can manage to elude your stalkers long enough to slip in through the back,” She remains silent for a long moment.

 

“Fine,”  Her tone is clipped.  Unimpressed by my clumsily chosen meeting place.  It’s good enough—we’ll be able to speak here, hopefully uninterrupted, and she won’t be able to play any of her little tricks—at least not easily.  “One hour,” She says, then abruptly hangs up.

 

“Why the bloody hell does Irene have Isla’s mobile?”  John is on his feet, now—walking in circles, shaking his head.  “Has anything she’s said to us been true?  So she—she—what then?” He’s angry.  Doesn’t like being manipulated, having his emotional intelligence used against him.  “She’s behind her disappearance somehow? I can’t make sense of this,” But I can.

 

“John,”  I grab for his hand, and he stops his pacing, glares at me defiantly.  “Let’s go have a pint—we’ll know soon enough. And anyway, Ben must get ready,”  Ben hasn’t said a word since the call—has been sitting in silence, seemingly lost in thought.  At the sound of his name, he looks up.

 

“Right,”  He mumbles distractedly, glancing around at the elaborate spread of makeup on the long worktop beside him.  “Yeah—I should...” He trails off, reaching for the brush he’d abandoned earlier.

 

“I suppose we’ll see you in a bit, then,”  John says unenthusiastically, swinging the door open.  Still nearly two hours until Ben’s performance. Good. He can be present for our chat with Irene.  She’ll be more likely to behave, if there’s a relatively neutral party in the room. Or she’ll find a way to kidnap us all and sell us to the highest bidder.  However she plays it, we’ll have answers soon.

 

 

Halfway down the empty hallway, John stops, squeezing my hand and pulling me around to face him.  He says nothing, only wraps his arms tightly around my waist, his cheek against my neck. My arms automatically return the embrace, though I’m truly confused by his timing.

 

“John,”  He hasn’t moved.  Still holding on tight.  “What is this?” He sighs, breath warm against my skin.

 

“It’s a hug, Sherlock,”  Obviously. “Needed it,” He remains silent for another long moment, then steps back, studies my (still perplexed) face.  “I don’t know which way is up right now. You’re my constant. You know?” I swallow. I do know. We’ve always been that for each other—and now we have this, too.  I nod, press my lips to his temple. Staying close, I slide a hand over his shoulder and begin to walk. He winds an arm around my waist and we continue on.

 

“I believe she’s playing both sides,”  I say quietly. I won’t keep him in the dark if it’s only making him feel disconcerted—unsure of what’s real, what’s true.  No dramatic reveal is worth that. “I believe that we’re here because Silas Moran demanded Irene find a way to get us to California—but I seriously doubt he’d anticipated that she’d make him the subject of our investigation,”  We’ve stopped outside the door to the main room, just beside the stage.  “I believe that he suspects me for the death of his brother, and that ultimately, he wants vengeance,”  I’ve no real idea, however, why he’s bothering to play this game—why he’s attempted (futilely) to befriend us, to declare himself a fan —to proclaim that he wants me .   Perhaps he’s bored.  I’ve learned in my lifetime just how dangerous boredom can be.

 

“And Isla?”  He asks, turning to face me once more.  “What do you make of that?” The concern is evident in his voice.  Ben has confirmed that she is indeed very real, and she has been gone—where, we don’t know—for nearly a year.


“She was abducted, I assume.  Irene was given the mobile as proof of that.  I don’t know why they took her, but I do know exactly what I’d have done in Irene’s situation—if it were you,”  I want him to understand, to make the connection. I have done what she’s doing.  I have cast everything else aside for him—done whatever it took to save him.  Lied, manipulated, killed.   Apparently my actions all those years ago are what inspired this entire predicament.  I watch the realization creep across his face. “Anything, John. Whatever it takes. I believe that she’ll do the same.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

John and I sit side by side at the far end of the bar—as much distance between us and Moran’s usual table as we could manage.  He isn’t here, as far as I can tell. Still, I’d rather not take the chance of running into him just yet.

 

“Get what you needed from my bewitching boyfriend?”  Adam arrives, grinning and setting two pints of cider down in front of us.  “Was it about the case?” Of course he’s curious. We hadn’t given him any details when we’d asked him for Ben’s location earlier.  Now we know that he’s a friend of Irene’s as well—has spent quite a lot of time with her and Isla over the past few years. Perhaps—

 

“Adam,”  I begin, attempting to sound casual.  “Are you aware of any relationship between Irene Adler and Mr. Collins?”  I see John glance at me out of the corner of my eye. Surprised, no doubt, by the blunt question.  Adam stares.

 

“Irene?  You know her?”  I nod, hoping he’ll move along without requiring an explanation.  “I’ve seen them together, yeah. It’s been awhile, but yeah,” He narrows his eyes.  “Why?”

 

“It’s important,”  John jumps in. “We’ll explain later.  Where? Any idea what was said between them?”

 

“Here.  Only a few times, and always near bar-close, when the place is almost empty.  I don’t know what they talked about, I try to stay as far away from Hal as possible.  He’s a fucking creep. And he doesn’t tip,” He scowls. “Never asked Irene about it. I figured it was—you know,”  His voice is hushed now, and he hesitates, glancing around to be sure no one is listening in. “A drug deal. Or whatever.  I don’t know—I’m not part of that world.”

 

“Hal deals drugs?”  John asks quietly, meeting my eye.  Interesting.   Adam raises an eyebrow.

 

“Well, yeah.  Thought that was—I mean, isn’t that why you’re interested in him?  Why you were asking about his involvement at the Grove?” I suppose so.  But it hadn’t occurred to me that he was selling to the general public. Why?  Surely he doesn’t need the money.

 

“Is this a common occurrence?  Does he have regular customers?”  Or is he using the entire population as his personal lab rats?  Just how many people have left town after dealing with this man?

 

“I don’t know, okay?  I don’t see everything that happens here,”  We’re losing him—he wants out of this conversation.  I meet John’s eye. Take over.   He does.

 

“All right, don’t worry about it,”  Smiles. Shrugs. “This has been very helpful, actually.  Thanks, Adam,” He pays for our pints, tipping generously.  Turns toward me as Adam retreats down the bar. “Sherlock—”

 

“I know,”  Confirmation that Irene knows Moran.  He clearly has some sort of hold over her if she’s doing his bidding by summoning us here.  Irene is a lot of things, but she isn’t unnecessarily cruel—she only does what’s in her best interest.  Looks out for herself. And, it would seem, for Isla—it must kill her that she’s failed to protect her.  I wonder if she truly believes her to be dead.  Why keep up appearances? What is the point?

 

“Do you think—Sherlock, what do you think he’s selling?”  John whispers, leaning in, brow furrowing. “What if it’s—I mean, he could have half the town on his little mind control concoction,”  I stare at him.

 

“Mind control?”  Interesting choice of words.  Obviously it had occurred to me that Moran may be attempting something of the sort with his seemingly experimental psychedelic potions, but John and I haven’t discussed it.  I’ve read through the article that he’d written as a student several times, and it’s all theoretical—pseudoscience. Despite the innovative genius behind his words, I had written it off instantly as the ramblings of youth—intelligent ramblings, but implausible twaddle nevertheless.  Anyway, it would take more than a lingering dose of LSD to control anyone’s mind, let alone the collective psyche of an entire town. “What makes you say that?”

 

“Why else would he have spiked our coffee with LSD?”  He raises an eyebrow. I wait for him to continue. “Sherlock—based on what we know about Bohemian Grove—about the type of men who are members of that club—”  He tilts his head, both brows raised now. Thinks this is obvious, that it doesn’t require explanation. Evidently it does—I’m not entirely following. He sighs.  “Extremely wealthy, power-hungry men. World leaders. What other reason would they have for bringing someone like Moran into their circle? He’s a man of science, a chemist who’s spent over a decade studying the effect these drugs have on the human psyche—a bloody genius, you said so yourself,”  I did say that. He is a bloody genius. I feel the corners of my mouth pull down into a frown. I have been so focused on Moran as an (insufferable, inscrutable) individual, that I’ve failed to really consider the organization he’s a part of. I’d thought Personality Alteration and Effects on the Mind sounded ridiculous in the context of an old article in a lesser-known scientific journal, but if he’s been hired by these men of means…

 

I have forgotten how insightful John can be—seeing the big picture when I cannot.  I’ve gotten so used to working alone in the past six months, I’ve kept much of my theorizing to myself.  But here he is, my conductor of light, illuminating a path I had walked right by.

 

“You believe this is all part of something larger,”  He nods. So he believes we’ve stumbled into a conspiracy of sorts—not just one selfish, murderous imbecile, but an entire community of them.  Each intent on—what? World domination? Ridiculous. But as I stare back at John, things are beginning to click into place. The disappearances, the excessive secrecy, the many rumours surrounding the Grove.  I exhale slowly, allowing myself to get lost in the pools of his eyes as I consider these factors that probably should have been obvious. I was blind to it, was hoping we were nearing the end. I am ready for this case to conclude, to be allowed to put all my focus on John—on us —for a while.  My mobile pings, startling me back to reality.  I glance at it, where it lies on the bartop. A text message from Mycroft.  Sighing, I unlock the screen.

 

Silas Moran?  Why have you not informed me of your findings?  You’re being careless, Sherlock.

 

I glance at John, whose eyes are scanning the screen.  How does Mycroft suddenly know?  We’ve only just learned of Moran’s true identity this morning—I hadn’t told him because he is the last thing on my mind.  What can he do from London, anyway? Useless.

 

You’re in over your head.

 

I roll my eyes.  We’re often in over our heads.  We thrive this way, it’s what we do.  Though it’s true that I’ve been distracted—my priorities have shifted, now that John has let me in.

 

Your point?  SH

 

You’re a target.  This is personal.

Consider returning home.

 

I scoff.  He must be joking.  Surely he’s aware that this is bigger than me, as John pointed out—Moran’s desire for vengeance is barely relevant, in the grand scheme of things.  And anyway, it’s hardly the first time I’ve been a target. Has he forgotten everything we’d gone through with Moriarty? Perhaps he’s fearing a repeat of that particular nightmare.  But this is exactly his area, this clandestine world of power and privilege—yet he chooses to lecture rather than assist. John takes my hand, where it rests on my knee. Weaves our fingers together and looks at me, his expression tense.

 

“He isn’t wrong.  It’s becoming more and more clear that we really don’t know what is going on here.  You have my full support—whatever you decide, I’m here. And I do think that this is bigger than we realize—but Sherlock, it is personal,”  I know that it is.  I killed the man’s brother.  I look at John now, studying the lines on his face, the worry there.  Some of them are permanent, etched into his skin from years of grief, of concern—much of it caused by me.  Does he want to go home? Has he changed his mind, now that he knows who we’re dealing with and what I’ve done?  He’s watching me right back, eyes flicking over my own features. After a long moment, he sighs. Drops my hand and places both of his palms on my cheeks instead, the pads of his fingers drifting over my temples.  He closes his eyes and kisses me, right in the middle of this increasingly loud bar. I let slip a low moan from the back of my throat—he’s surprised me. Always flipping my expectations on their head, contradicting past versions of himself.  Perhaps that’s growth. His lips are still on mine, and my hands find their way to his thighs, seeking to steady myself. When he breaks away, he remains close. I let my nose trace his cheekbone, press a kiss to the corner of his mouth. Another sigh.  “I’m worried,” He breathes.

 

“What’s changed?”  I ask quietly. He lets his eyes drift open, one hand moving to tuck a curl behind my ear.

 

“Everything,”  He says. “We can’t trust anyone here—loyalty aside, they could be compromised.  We don’t know what Moran is capable of—and he’s almost certainly brought you here for revenge.  I want to help Irene—I believe that she has gotten caught up in something she didn’t mean to find—but what can we do?”  I rest my forehead against his. His concerns are all valid. I don’t especially want to risk our lives for whatever this is either—but walking away isn’t something that we do.  I believe that we can handle it, if we stick together. I pull back, glancing at my mobile once more. It’s been forty five minutes since we left Ben’s dressing room.

 

“We can speak with her,”  I say, standing and taking his hand once more.  For now, that’s what we can do.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Neon pink waves, cascading down his back and ending at his (cinched) waist.  A short, glittery dress in a similarly offensive shade. Heels that make me question whether he’ll be able to remain upright for any substantial amount of time.

 

“Good God,” I let slip as we sidle into Ben’s dressing room.  He smirks at me in the mirror he stands before, touching up his (admittedly remarkable) makeup.  John laughs, grinning at Ben from where he stands by my side.

 

“Impressive,”  He says, whistling quietly.  Ben turns to face us, leaning back against the worktop containing his vast array of supplies.

 

“I know,”  A wink. I roll my eyes, though I quite admire the confidence.  Seems he’s perked up since we saw him last. “Been chatting with my man, I hear.  You’ve got him on edge,” Ah yes. Naturally, Adam wasted no time texting Ben about our impromptu interrogation.  “He’s worried he spilled a little too much information about our girl. Says you ambushed him,” He directs this at me, though his tone is lighthearted—teasing, not accusatory.

 

“Yes, well,”  I shrug. “I’m not exactly known for subtlety,”  He grins.

 

“Oh?  What are you known for?”

 

“Arrogance,”  I spin around, caught a bit (only a bit) off guard as Irene strides in, stilettos clicking lightly against the linoleum floor.  John moves to stand in front of me. Protective. Defensive. A swell of tenderness blooms behind my ribcage and I take a step closer, wrapping my fingers around his wrist.  She raises both of her fastidiously tweezed brows at his response to her sudden presence, but carries on. “As well as an astounding lack of tact,” She meets my eye, the corner of her mouth tugging upward slightly.  “Inimitable genius. Staggering beauty,” Her gaze drifts over my body and I can’t help but huff in annoyance. She’s putting on a show. “Hi, sweetie,” She walks straight over to Ben, wraps her arms around him. He pulls her in and I watch, confounded by the genuine affection between them.  They stand in a comfortable embrace, and when they part, Irene remains close, Ben’s arm wrapped tightly around her waist. He says nothing, just stands at her side in a clear display of solidarity, waiting to see how things play out.

 

“Irene,”  John nods, his tone caught somewhere between empathetic and irritated.  I watch as she studies him, sharp eyes roving across his face—no doubt effortlessly reading each emotion present there.  She seems to relax slightly, leaning against Ben, arms crossed in front of her. She sighs.

 

“You’ve got questions.  Go on, then,” Straight to the point.  I’ve always liked that about her, despite her incessant need to play games.

 

“Silas Moran,”  I say, holding her gaze.  She stares right back, lets the name hang between us for a moment, then stands up straight, not straying from Ben’s orbit.

 

“As I’m sure you’ve deduced, we go back ages—met him in London through Jim.  He supplied me with certain—substances,” She pauses.  Glances at John, then back to meet my eye. “The very substances I used to incapacitate you, once upon a time.  You remember,” Vague memories of waking disoriented, in my own bed, flicker across my mind’s eye. Calling out for John.  She’d injected me with something—apparently the creation of a young Silas Moran—and made her escape. “He was only a student then—bright eyed and eager to impress.  He’d quickly caught Jim’s eye—in more ways than one. They were a precious little pair, for a while. I was unaware of the changes Jim had inspired in him. Though I shouldn’t have been surprised,”  She sighs, glances down at the floor. Crosses one ankle in front of the other. “I was playing for the wrong side,” At this, she looks up, meets my eye. Regret swims, unconcealed, in the bright grey pools of her irises.

 

“What on earth brought you to that conclusion?”  I find myself asking, taken aback by her candid words.  It’s unlike her to show so much of herself—or, well—at least emotionally.

 

“You, Sherlock,”  I freeze—a deer caught in the proverbial headlights.  Not entirely sure I’ve heard her call me solely by my first name before.  Sounds a bit—odd. Casual. Has she truly let her guard down or is this part of her game?  What could I have possibly done to make her doubt her own overly-confident actions?  I watch in stunned silence as her eyebrows once again creep up her forehead.  “You had set aside my manipulations, my betrayal—didn’t hesitate to step in and spare my life,”  She’s staring intently, pinning me in place with her fiery gaze. John turns his hand, winding our fingers together, and squeezes.  Irene watches this small action, hesitating for a moment. “I haven’t forgotten, you know. I owe you my life. And even before all that, you’d made an impression on me.  I saw how you cared for him, and I wanted a piece of it,” She pauses, still staring at our joined hands. A small smile appears and then fades just as quickly. “Once I’d gone, I’d observed from afar as Jim destroyed your reputation—he always was a bit much.   And when I’d read that you took your own life—”  She cuts herself off, swallowing thickly, her throat doing a complicated dance as her eyes drift back to John.  “Well. I suppose I’d spent a good amount of time after that wondering what the bloody hell I was doing. So when you came back, I reached out again.  Imagine my surprise when you eventually reached back,” A sad smile. “I’m sorry I never did figure out how to be your friend. I moved around for years, doing what I do— misbehaving, though I was more than a bit lost.  When I landed here, I met—met Isla—” She inhales slowly, Ben’s grip tightening around her waist as John resolutely squeezes my fingers.  “At last I had a reason to stay in one place. And my past indiscretions were clearer than ever. Still are,” I fight to keep my features in check, expression neutral.  I am entirely dumbfounded by these blunt revelations. Evidently my actions have had a profound effect on her—improbable as that may be—while I’d hardly spared her a thought.  I feel almost—ashamed. Almost.

 

“And now?”  It’s John who speaks up first.  His voice is steady, determined to understand.  “Who’s side are you on now?”

 

“Her own,”  I supply coolly.  It’s true, after all.  She’s playing Moran just as she’s been playing us.  She brought us here under his orders, and directed us toward him as an act of rebellion.  Perhaps the only card she had left to play.

 

“As I said,”  She’s addressing John, peering at him unwaveringly and unapologetically.  “I was playing for the wrong side. I won’t make that mistake again.”

 

“So—what?”  He’s angry now.  She’s managed to ruffle his feathers.  I loosen my grip on his hand, moving instead to squeeze his shoulder.  He leans back into the touch, a bit of tension leaving the muscles beneath my palm, but he isn’t finished asking questions.  “Your plan was to sit back and watch the three of us destroy each other?”

 

“Hardly,”  She scoffs, though a sliver of unease shows in her guarded expression.  “I didn’t have a choice, John.”

 

“Where is Isla, Irene?”  He shoots back, clearly growing impatient.  “How does she factor into all this? Why are you answering her mobile?”  Irene’s expression hardens instantly.  Eyes narrowing at the sound of her long gone lover’s name.  Ben shifts slightly, clearly a bit uncomfortable. He’s been silent thus far, but I’m certain he’s been wondering the same thing since we’d made the call an hour ago.  Irene says nothing, only glares daggers at John. A long, heavy moment passes between the four of us in this little room. I—for once—haven’t got a clue what to say. Now that she’s in front of us—now that she has spoken of lessons learned and solemn regret, I have no real answers.  No solid data, and no grand reveal.

 

“Answer him,”  Finally. Silence broken.  Ben steps away from Irene, turning to face her.  His voice is soft but firm, clear that he’s not inviting argument.  “Where is she?”

 

“Ben,”  She nearly whispers, face crumpling, walls crumbling, at the sound of his voice.  I watch on helplessly as she tries and fails to fight the tears that have now spilled over to stream down her cheeks.  “It was my fault,” She breathes.

 

“What was?”  His tone is sharper now, his usually calm demeanor cracking, bits of panic showing through.  “Tell me.” Irene is sobbing now, standing slumped in abject misery, hands over her mouth. I spare a second to glance at John, whose face reflects her pain.  I pull him closer and he leans against my side, arm winding around my waist, eyes never leaving Irene.


“They took her,”  She gasps, looking up at last, eyes locking directly on mine.  “Because I’d refused to give them you.”