Sherlock Holmes has always thought that love is stupid. It addles the mind; it warps perception. It makes the banal seem profound and the unremarkable exceptional.
What he doesn’t know, what he only learns when he meets John Watson, is that love doesn’t distort perception so much as it sharpens it. Love is what happens when you look and look and finally see.
The human ear is a marvel. As unique as a fingerprint.
Sherlock finds himself completely mesmerised by the tops of John’s ears. The gentle curve of his helix, especially.
They are singular and human and fragile and beautiful, of course.
But what fascinates him is that they are the only part of John’s body that gets sunburnt.
John is blond and British. Logically, he should burn to a crisp if he doesn’t wear sunscreen. Sherlock does. But years under the Afghan sun have rendered John impervious to sunburn.
Except, apparently, for the top of his ears.
They spent the day on Hampstead Heath with Rosie. It was hot, and John slathered all of them with sunscreen, against both Rosie’s and Sherlock’s vocal protest, which John ignored with his usual stubborn equanimity.
Now they’re back at Baker Street, sweaty and sun-kissed, all three of them. John helps Sherlock make dinner while Rosie sits at the kitchen table and disfigures sheet after sheet of paper with brightly coloured crayons. The way she pokes her tongue out while her small fist grasps at the crayon as she draws reminds Sherlock almost painfully of John.
John, who’s standing next to him slicing vegetables, humming absent-mindedly along to the sound of music from Mrs Hudson’s radio drifting up the stairs. The tops of his ears are reddened and the skin is peeling a bit, and Sherlock wants to touch, right there, run his fingers along the ridge and feel the softness of John’s skin under his fingertips.
John looks up and nudges Sherlock absently with his elbow. “What next?” he asks.
Sherlock tries to pretend that he isn’t staring at a small, innocuous piece of skin and says, “Onions, finely chopped.”
He can’t look away. And at the same time he is utterly incapable of expressing, even in the deepest recesses of his mind, why a few inches of reddened, peeling skin encapsulate everything in his life that makes it worth living.
He’s sure that some of the deep-seated longing he feels must show on his face, because John smiles at him, gentle and warm. “You’re getting freckles again,” John says, voice low and fond.
I love you, Sherlock thinks. Do you know how much I love you?
Sherlock has been waiting for the courage to say these words for a long time. He’s getting tired of waiting.
The Sherlock from Before, the Sherlock who hadn’t lost anything yet, who didn’t realise how stupidly he took John’s presence for granted, would dismiss these small moments. Mugs of tea over breakfast, toast crumbs sticking to John’s upper lip. Eyes meeting in darkened alleys, hearts pounding, faces stretched into matching grins. Quiet Sunday afternoons doing nothing in particular in perfect silence for hours.
He didn’t know then, that the silence was perfect because he could hear John breathe.
When he was Away, he’d talk to John. He didn’t realise quite how extensively he’d integrated John into his Mind Palace, but when he’d wandered around in there, he’d meet John everywhere. In the library, reading out some pertinent medical facts. On the roof, pointing at constellations Sherlock thought he’d long since deleted. In the deep vault of Sherlock’s fears and darkest thoughts, lighting a flame, warm and cozy like the Baker Street fireplace. Sitting in his chair in 221B while Sherlock talked about his latest assignment, listening, asking intelligent questions. Breathing.
There was no sudden epiphany. There was never a moment he could pinpoint, this, this was the moment I fell in love with John Watson. It was a done deal before he even realised he was in danger. The lethal wound was inflicted on his self-image of the lonely sociopath possibly at the same time as the bullet pierced Jefferson Hope.
His mind seamlessly integrated the knowledge that he loves John Watson into his operating system, and when Sherlock realised the update was complete - around the time he came back and saw that bloody awful mustache and couldn’t breathe - it was already far too late.
There was a series of realisations, after that, one worse than the other. That horrible homecoming, when he recognised just how badly he’d broken their ... - whatever it was they’d had. John’s wedding, making John’s absence from Baker Street final. Getting shot, any chance of a new equilibrium, gone. John suddenly there again, changing his bandages, helping him shower and dress and sometimes just being the one thing in the world he could hold on to when he was shaking himself apart from morphine withdrawal, knowing all the while that John would leave again.
At the tarmac, when he finally realised that he’d run out of time.
Those horrible months after Mary died, John’s complicated, ugly, angry grief, Sherlock’s helplessness in the face of it, and the realisation that all his best-laid plans had crumbled to nothing and he hadn’t been able to protect John after all. Holding John together with his bare hands and thinking that he would do anything, anything to never have to do this again.
Slowly, slowly, so slowly, so carefully, inching back together, not taking anything for granted, never ever again taking anything for granted, that fragile wonderful exquisite painful lovely heartrending perfection of John Watson, just sitting in his chair and breathing. So careful with each other, always tip-toeing around each other, the certainty they used to have of each other lost.
Slowly, slowly, learning to trust again. Learning to let it show again, how much, how deeply, how irretrievably they belong together. Slowly getting back to solid ground again, re-learning to bicker, to fight without the fear of breaking, to say every thought out loud with the certainty of being understood.
The first time John verbally eviscerated Sherlock for the contents of their fridge - “Toes, Sherlock, seriously! Toes! Just lying there, between the carrots! I nearly bit into one, for fuck’s sake!” - Sherlock was hard pressed not to cry with the sheer, utter, beautiful happiness of a piece of his life he thought he’d lost forever snapping back into place.
There’s music, now, instead of the silence that reigned in 221B when John was gone.
Music is different these days. It used to be Beethoven, heavy and serious, or Mozart, light and natural like breathing, or Locatelli, complex and nearly impossible.
Music is so many things now. Music is Rosie singing the Peppa Pig theme song loudly and falsely as she traipses down the stairs at six in the morning.
Music is the ancient, creaking floorboards of 221B as Sherlock paces, thinking aloud as John listens from his chair, the ancient springs shifting with the uneven distribution of John’s weight as he readjusts his position.
Music is traffic outside their window on a lazy evening, Rosie’s snores over the baby monitor and John’s slow typing, the clinking of test tubes together in counterpoint as Sherlock putters around in the kitchen, the absence of spoken words unnoticed.
Right now, with Sherlock lying on the sofa, fingers steepled under his chin and eyes closed, music is the soft sound of John and Rosie arguing good-naturedly about the appropriate number of stuffed animals allowed to share Rosie’s bed at night. Rosie is taking the ‘all of them’ side of the argument, John is taking the ‘I don’t want you to suffocate under the weight of 20 stuffed animals during the night’ side. They both utterly fail to see the other’s point, and so John finally puts his foot down and uses his third-best Captain Watson voice to let Rosie know that the discussion is over.
The soothing sounds of Rosie’s nightly ritual float slowly through the floorboards and down the staircase. John’s quiet voice, flowing in rising and falling cadences as he reads Rosie’s sleep book. Bedsprings groan as Rosie crawls into bed and John sits on the side of her bed.
The stairs, creaking under John’s feet. Sherlock has learned to read that creaking like a moodboard. Heavy steps - John is tired, long day, weight of the world on his shoulders. Determinedly hitting every step with emphasis on the loudest part - John is angry.
Today, and most days now, a fast, light tread, barely touches the sixth step from below - John is in a good mood, relaxed and content.
“Tea?” John asks from the kitchen.
Sherlock hums a yes. Kettle, cupboard, fridge, cupboard again. Spoons clatter into mugs. A symphony of all of their years together.
Going on nine, now. Soon, it will be ten. Nearly a third of his life. But somehow, the years he’s known John outweigh the years he hasn’t. Maybe it’s because the weight of his heart has changed the density of his body, somehow. He certainly feels more solid these days.
John sets down Sherlock’s tea on the end table. He looks at Sherlock and smiles, then leans down to tuck a strand of hair away from Sherlock’s forehead, a gesture so unthinkingly tender, so self-evidently intimate it makes Sherlock’s breath hitch.
“What are you thinking so hard about?” John asks, warm and fond.
Their eyes meet, and Sherlock suddenly realises he’s done waiting. He reaches out and traces a finger over the soft ridge of John’s left ear. It feels just about as divinely good as he thought it would. “Sunburn,” he says, softly.
John smiles. “Freckles,” he answers, touching his fingers gently to Sherlock’s nose.
Then he leans down at the same time as Sherlock pulls him in, and as their lips meet, Sherlock feels the last of the lonely sociopath persona he so carefully constructed for himself shrivel and die.
Good riddance, he thinks as he looks into John’s eyes, so full of love, and finally, finally sees.