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Take My Breath Away

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When the edge of the curtain flaps up from the sill of the open bedroom window, John can’t be sure if the goose bumps that prickle over the surface of his flushed skin are from the cool late night breeze that drifts in and over the bed—or from the feather light touch of long, pale fingers that sneak below the hem of his shirt where it’s come untucked from his trousers as they trail softly around his waist to settle gently against the warm skin of his back.

The shiver that follows, however, has nothing to do with the wind.

There’s a gentle pressure at John’s side, where one large hand slides over a hip and pushes insistently while the broad palm of the other supports the small of his back as he lets Sherlock press him down flat onto the mattress.

Pale grey eyes hover inches from his own, gazing intently at him in the semi dark of the room, plump lips parted just enough that a huff of air escapes from between them and slides against John’s own mouth like the rush of silk pulled over bare skin, and John inhales sharply at the sensation.  He can feel Sherlock’s breath mingle with his own, taste the hints of cumin and tannin from the half-eaten Indian takeaway growing cold on the coffee table next to the empty bottle of red wine that was knocked to the floor in the haste to make their way here—to this room, to this bed, to this moment.

At which point, it would seem, all haste was forgotten.

As a flat, lean chest presses ever closer to his own splayed out beneath it, John reaches up and sets his fingers against the pale jaw of the man looking down at him, hears the gasp that this simplest of contact elicits, and sucks in another deep breath himself.  He lifts his other hand and softly traces over one dark eyebrow with a fingertip, then pushes his short fingers through the soft curls above it.  John smiles as Sherlock leans into the pressure, his eyes closing and his breath hitching as short nails scratch gently against his scalp. 

Staring up at the face above him, at the pale planes and improbable angles, at the man who has saved him in every possible way a person can be saved, John’s own breath catches in his throat and he feels his chest tighten and begin to heave slightly with each exhalation.  Sherlock opens his eyes and looks at his friend—his best friend—and slowly tips his chin down until his forehead rests softly against John’s.  They stay that way for a long moment, lips just a whisper apart, warm puffs of air mingling as each of them struggles to breathe. 

It’s no wonder they ended up here, really, locked in this breathless moment balanced on the cusp of something new.

They’ve spent years taking each other’s breath away…

*****************

John Watson has no idea why he’s surprised.

The madman he’s chasing had told him this was likely not going to be an ordinary night, spelled it out in no uncertain terms, in fact—in three simple words that left very little doubt as to the possibility for mayhem that he was willingly exposing himself to:

Could be dangerous. –SH

And yet, here he is, a washed up former army doctor without a single exciting prospect just hours ago, panting and breathless and wondering just what the hell he’s gotten himself into as he follows the flapping coattails of a man he barely knows as they scramble up spiral staircases and leap from rooftops and tear through alleyways and stop speeding taxis with nothing but a raised hand—only to find that the person they’ve been chasing down isn’t the man they’re looking for at all.

It’s lunacy.

It’s madness.

It’s amazing.

They stand together at the side of the road, heated breaths curling into steamy wisps in the cool night air, watching the person they just shammed into believing they were the police now speaking to an actual policeman…and pointing in their direction.

Looking at each other in the lamplight, muscles coiled tight and ready to move once again, they survey the scene playing out and share a knowing glance between them.

“Got your breath back?” Sherlock Holmes asks, preparing to run.

“Ready when you are,” John Watson nods, already turning to follow.

*****************

Tearing around the corner, cold night wind scraping at his cheeks as he hurtles through the dark, John catches a glimpse of just the edge of a dark woolen coattail as it disappears into the alley twenty yards ahead. 

Cursing his shorter legs for at least the third time that evening, he reaches deep inside for an extra burst of energy and rushes to catch up to the man sprinting ahead of him who is hot on the heels of the other man sprinting ahead of him.

Rounding the edge of the building he can see the outline of someone just ten yards away, watches the tall shape bend low for a moment, then stand to its full height and pull back a leg—then kick it brutally forward—eliciting a sick thud and followed by a wet cry in its wake.  As he gets closer he sees the silhouette more clearly—registers the broad shoulders, the bulk of a short ski jacket cinched tight over a thick waist, the brim of a flat cap pulled low over the heavy brow. 

Not Sherlock.

John wills his legs to move faster, and within seconds is slamming into the back of the man who was just turning to run. 

Shuffling to his knees and grinding one roughly between the shoulder blades of the larger man below him, John forces him flat onto the dirty pavement, then leans forward to press one forearm, hard, against the back of the man’s neck. 

“Stay down!” he orders, but the man below him continues to fight.

Increasing the pressure against the suspect’s spine while wrestling one muscled arm up and behind his back by the wrist and pulling upward in what he knows from experience is a quite a painful position, John presses his head close to the prone man’s ear and gives him one last warning he hopes the criminal will heed.  “Stay DOWN!”

He doesn’t listen.

Sitting up abruptly, John shifts his weight a bit, flips him over, and pulls his fist back to deliver a crushing blow across his jaw.  The man immediately sags beneath him, mouth dropping open and muscles going slack with unconsciousness.  Shaking his hand and cursing under his breath, John muscles the suspect back over onto his stomach, reaches into his coat pocket for a heavy plastic zip tie, and binds the man’s wrists behind his back with brutal efficiency.  Huffing out a deep breath, John gets to his feet and scans the shadows of the alley behind him. 

A rustle to his right has him closing the space between the prone suspect and the dark pile of limbs barely visible in the sliver of moonlight that shines between the two buildings. 

“Sherlock!” John cries, dropping to his knees and running his fingers over the dark shape of his friend where he lies groaning on the ground.  Finding one slim, Belstaff clad shoulder, John turns Sherlock carefully so that he’s facing up, pale skin stretched over sharp cheekbones illuminated in the scant light.  “Can you hear me?”

“Y—Yes,” Sherlock answers weakly, air hissing between his clenched teeth as he struggles to speak, breath catching sharply as he attempts to sit up.

“Stay still, you idiot,” John tells him gently, cupping a palm under his head where it rests on the cracked cement, other hand slipping beneath Sherlock’s coat and suit jacket to trail firmly over each of his sides from hip to armpit, assessing possible damage.  “I saw him kick you, I don’t feel any obviously broken ribs though.   Did he do anything else?”

“Before…or after…he hit me…with the two-by-four?” Sherlock asks between labored breaths, eyes squinting up at John’s in the meager moonlight.

“Jesus,” John whispers, moving his fingertips gently over Sherlock’s scalp, probing for cuts or irregularities in his skull.  He finds a large lump behind the detective’s right ear, and a quick digital examination doesn’t reveal any bleeding or tears in the skin.  “This is what happens when you take off ahead of me.  You get a goose egg and a hell of a side ache for your trouble.”

“I’m fine…John…just…” Sherlock pants, chest heaving with the effort.

“You’re not, you bloody madman.”

“I…am…” Sherlock insists, shaking his head and struggling to draw in enough breath to chastise his friend.  “He’s getting…away…”

“He isn’t.” John says firmly.  “He’s out cold, and cuffed to boot.”

“Is he?” Sherlock asks, a bit of confusion in his eyes.

“Yeah,” John nods, lifting Sherlock’s shoulders to help him sit against the wall, then shifting to one side and pointing across the way to the prone figure lying face down in the middle of the alley.  “See?”

Sherlock’s eyes glance over the unconscious man, and then flick up to meet John’s, and later that night John will suspect that the short flicker of wonder that passes through them was likely just the reflected shadow of a small cloud passing over the moon—but he’ll be wrong.

“Oh…well….that’s good.” Sherlock says, breathing a bit more evenly now. 

“Well, you were clever enough to slow him down by making your skull such an attractive target, so it was a team effort, really.”

“Agreed,” Sherlock huffs just before a wet cough interrupts the moment and John leans over and hooks his forearms under Sherlock’s armpits and lifts him to sit up a bit straighter, giving his lungs more room to expand in his bruised ribcage.  The sounds of sirens in the distance grow louder, and within moments there are red and blue lights flashing from the mouth of the alley.

“Okay, you," John says, rising from his knees and helping Sherlock to his feet.  “Lestrade and his team will be here any minute, think they can manage without us from here?”

Sherlock opens his mouth to argue, but as he takes in a breath to speak he winces at the pain it causes and John lifts one of the taller man’s long arms and settles it over his compact shoulders, then snakes one of his own arms out and around Sherlock’s waist to grasp a trouser clad hip in his palm.

“I think we’ve done enough tonight,” Sherlock concedes. 

“Good, let’s go back to Baker Street and get you patched up then,” John says, as several pairs of footsteps approach from the street.  “Got your breath back?”

“Ready when you are,” Sherlock says, and lets John lead him out of the alley and towards home.

*****************

It’s the first word that pops into his head as he struggles to open his eyes, one cheek pressed against the road below him, his jaw aching and sore where it meets the rough stone that grates against his face—the chill transferring instantly to his skin and straight through to the muscle and bone beneath it.

Cold…

He cracks one eyelid open, struggles to focus on the dark rimmed shape at the edge of his vision, a spinning circle swirling silver at the center, moving away quickly—so quickly that he can’t keep his eyes trained on it—can’t lift his head steadily enough to turn his neck to watch whatever it was that just knocked him over, the low grind of a metal chain as it slips over the teeth of the gears on the…

Bicycle?

It’s a bicycle, John realizes suddenly, I’ve been knocked over by a fucking bike—came out of nowhere and ran straight into me while I was crossing the street to get to—Oh God…

Sherlock!

He squints against the pain that rips through his skull, and with a monumental effort lifts his chin to stare across the road at the group of people gathered on the sidewalk outside of the hospital, their arms waving and feet pacing and voices calling and fingers pointing and faces staring…

Staring down.

At the ground.

Clambering to his feet and staggering toward the gathering crowd, he fixes his eyes on the wall of bodies that form a circle around a patch of sidewalk he can’t see through the commotion, and he wishes they would move, damnit!  Stop blocking his view, let him make out the dark shape sprawled out on the pavement, the one he can just barely see through the forest of legs that shift and separate before him. He moves closer, struggling to make out the edge of an elegant, long fingered hand that disappears into a dark sleeve that becomes the curve of a shoulder attached to a white expanse of neck that ends in a mass of ebony curls that glisten where they spill over the pavement, outlined starkly against a spreading pool of red…

His breath catches in his throat, stalls in his lungs as he stumbles forward, voice barely audible when he tries to call out:

“Sherl…Sher…”.

Faces turn to watch him approach, a pair of arms reaching to halt in him place that he swats away roughly, eyes still fixed on the man on the ground, struggling to take in a deep breath and willing all these people to get the hell out of his way

“I’m a doctor, let me come through!” he insists, as hands descend on him from all sides, faces flashing before him as they grasp his shoulders and try to stop him from getting any closer, ignoring his pleas as he shakes his head at them, trying desperately to take in enough air to raise his voice to be heard.  “Let me through, please—he’s my friend.  Please, he’s my friend…”

His knees buckle beneath him, firm fingers attempt to right him as he lets gravity pull him to the ground and he sinks to his knees.  He slips a hand through the grasping limbs that surround him to close his short fingers around a pale wrist, heavy and limp, searching for a pulse he already knows he won’t find.

A surprisingly gentle touch pries his fingers away and he watches the familiar hand slip from his grasp and fall to the ground, palm open and empty and still.  He tries to stand, but he can’t—his legs won’t hold him, and he’s falling…

“Please, let me just…” he slurs, tongue heavy in his mouth now.  A steady arm bands across his chest, easing him down, and he leans over to look around the stranger now blocking his view.  Falling forward, he gasps, chest deflating under the sudden weight of unimaginable grief that presses down on him, pushes the air from his lungs and sends stars across his blurring vision.

He tries to focus his eyes on a crimson streaked face, on still lips barely parted, on open pools of liquid grey-blue that stare sightlessly at the sky—and struggles to form whispered words that are half prayer, half plea. 

“Jesus…no…”

The darkness creeps ever closer, tugging at his eyelids and stealing his breath and pressing his chin down to his chest—and as he watches rough hands lift his best friend’s body from the ground and begin to carry him away, a single thought swirls through John Watson’s mind as he struggles not to pass out:

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t bre…

*****************

The moment the art deco doors swing open he strides purposefully into the room, shrugging his obscenely expensive coat off his shoulders to slide effortlessly down the smooth fabric of his impeccably tailored suit and into the waiting arms of someone who works there, surely.   He slips an elegant hand through the simple knot of the cashmere scarf tied at his throat, slides it off of his neck in one fluid motion, and drops it carelessly off to his side as well, where the same invisible person is waiting to catch it.

He assumes, anyway.

He doesn’t bother to check.

The air is cool and fragrant and filled with sound—the discordant hum of voices, the popping of corks, the tinkle of ice floating against fine crystal, the rattle of flatware on china, the fleet footsteps of servers and busboys and sommeliers as they move in never ending criss-cross paths over the floor, and beneath it all the low thrum that defines the why of it all, that which cannot be heard—nor merely seen—but must be observed.

The man approaching now on his right, for instance, presumably to ask after his reservation and for whom he spares barely a side eyed glance—yet he knows with certainty is an expectant father, thus distracting him with one well-chosen comment suggesting that he may want to call his wife.

Ten seconds in, and the first obstacle already dispatched, he thinks as a smug grin tips up the corners of his mouth.

Not bad.

Eyes flitting over the other employees nearby, he quickly deduces several relevant bits of information to use later to his own advantage as necessary, then looks up to scan the room at large.  His cool grey gaze glides over the patrons seated at the white cloth covered tables seeking out one face in particular, someone he’s not laid eyes on in just over two years, yet he would know immediately in any crowd by the back of his head, or the set of his stance, or the edge of one shoulder, or the shape of an eyebrow just visible over a menu, or by...

…his profile.

In that moment—in the mere fraction of a second it takes him to recognize the set of a jaw, the tilt of a chin, the quick flutter of lashes over tanned cheeks, the press of thin lips to the edge of a glass tipped against them by a strong, steady hand—the world stops

The thundering noise of hundreds of people chatting and chewing and drinking and walking and serving and cleaning and cooking and greeting and a thousand other nonessential noises fade away, superfluous data in comparison to the single point of light now visible in Sherlock’s line of sight:

John.

He freezes in place, lips parting slightly as the air in his lungs escapes through the opening in a long, slow hiss.  He stares at the face whose features are no less familiar to him than they have ever been—only now the image is real.  No longer just memory and dreams and hastily drawn sketches and one small creased photograph he’d managed to keep them from finding even as they stripped him of every other meager possession he’d carried, secreted away and guarded and cherished until an opportune moment arose and he was forced to make his escape without it.  Even then, he saw that face every time he closed his eyes, held the image close and safe and warm when everything else about his existence was anything but.

Every bruise, every scrape, every cut, every burn, every lash, every tear, every scream, every doubt, every despicable act, every cold and lonely night spent conjuring the image of John Watson’s face just to be able to draw enough breath get up again and keep moving—every second he spent away was in service to this moment.

John.

Flesh and blood and bone—and beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully, alive.

There’s a rush of wind in his ears as the world restarts with a flurry of movement and sound and smells as his senses come back on-line. 

He stares at John’s face for a moment longer, then opens his mouth and inhales deeply, filling his lungs and expanding his chest and reminding himself that he’s home.

That it was all worth it.

That he can breathe again.

*****************

Taking the seventeen stairs up to the flat two at a time, John is surprised to find the living room dark and deserted when he throws open the door to 221B.  Fishing his mobile out of his pocket, he taps the screen to life and rereads the series of texts that had arrived in quick succession less than an hour ago

Baker Street.  –SH

Come at once, convenient or not. –SH

Please –SH

He might not have come at all if he’d received only the first two texts.  It was the third that had him dropping his fork mid-meal, pushing back from the table, apologizing hastily (again) to Mary, and racing across town to get here, his mind reeling with imagined scenarios so dire that Sherlock Holmes had no choice but to resort to saying please.

But now that John is here, heart racing in his chest due to a combination of worry and the wild sprint up the stairs, he can’t decide whether the quiet darkness is cause for relief (perhaps Sherlock’s need wasn’t quite so urgent as he let on and the drama queen got bored and left) or cause for panic (perhaps he’s arrived too late and Sherlock is here somewhere, lying cold and still and beyond his help in the darkness…).

John Watson begins to panic.

“Sherlock!” he cries out, his voice slicing through the silence of the room, muscle memory propelling him across the floor to flick on the lamp next to the (his) red armchair and squinting against the sudden light as he scans the room for any sign of the detective.  “Can you hear me?”

“John? “ Comes the reply from somewhere behind him—the deep baritone strangely muffled and strained. 

“Yes, I’m here,” John calls back, spinning to make his way hastily through the kitchen toward the short hall beyond it.  “Where are you?”

“Is anyone else with you?” Sherlock asks, and John has to strain to hear the question clearly.

“No,” he calls back, the note of alarm in his voice rising at the question.  “It’s just me—now where are you?”

“Bathroom,” he hears Sherlock reply, and though John is just a few feet from the door the voice sounds much further away. 

John closes the distance between himself and the hallway entrance to the flat’s single loo, and reaches out quickly to twist the knob and push the door open—but it won’t budge.  He pushes harder and thinks he feels the barrier give a bit under the increased pressure but then it’s pushed back closed again, the smooth wood smacking painfully into his tense knuckles. 

“Sherlock, I can’t open the door.” John says, clenching his jaw and pressing his shoulder to the wood and leaning against it.  He falls forward a bit as the door gives a few inches, and then his feet slide under him on the slick wood floor as the door slams shut again and pushes him back with it.  “I think there’s something blocking it.”

 “Yes, there is,” comes the muted reply.

“What is it?” John asks, palms flat against the door and his ear pressed up to the edge of the jamb. 

“It’s me.”

“You?” John asks, the hint of worry in his voice tipping over into full-fledged panic.  “Are you hurt, Sherlock?  Can you move?”

There’s a short pause.

“Not as such,” Sherlock answers carefully, his voice still sounding further away than it should.  “And yes, I can.”

“Well then move, damn it!”

“I will, but you have to promise me something first.”

“I can promise you that if you’re not hurt now, you certainly will be if you force me to break down this door!”

“I’ll move when you promise me that you’ll behave like a rational adult once I’ve let you in.”

John sighs, his patience wearing thin. “I’m not the one acting irrationally here, Sherlock.”

“Really?” Sherlock asks in what John thinks may be a fairly petulant tone, but he can’t be sure because it still sounds as though his ears are stuffed with cotton wool each time Sherlock speaks.  “A rational person would have remembered that there are two doors to this bathroom and tried the one from the bedroom by now.”

“Good point,” John concedes, then reaches for the bedroom door and throws it open wide.

“WAIT!” Sherlock cries out, the exclamation the loudest sound John has heard from him yet, though it still isn’t as loud as it should be. 

John stills on the threshold of the bedroom and looks back over his shoulder as the door he’d been struggling to budge pops open a few inches with a sharp squeal of old hinges. He turns back toward the crack of light that escapes from the bathroom to spill across the floor, then presses a cautious hand against the smooth wood.

“I’m coming in now, Sherlock.”

“Fine,” Sherlock replies miserably, as the door swings inward easily.

John steps through the open doorway, turns toward the tall figure standing at the sink, stares silently for a long moment, then slowly opens his mouth…

…and giggles.

The figure before him stiffens at the sound, and then cocks a hip and huffs out a muffled but still quite audible sigh of obvious frustration at his friend’s reaction, and the sight of that makes the John’s giggle tip over into a full-fledged laughter, his shoulders shaking with the force of it.

“What. The. Hell, Sherlock?” John  asks, the end of the question swallowed by a fresh round of high pitched giggles.

“It’s for a case,” Sherlock explains haughtily, or as haughtily as one can sound when they’re nearly naked and encased from mid-chest to the top of their head in a viciously tight tube of black satin, lace and tangled ribbon, wild curls emerging from the top along with two pale flailing forearms sticking out of the same opening.

“What case?” John huffs, eyes wide and mouth stretched into a broad grin, pausing to let another long laugh escape then attempting to compose himself and continuing.  “The ‘Case of the Constricting Corset?’ Oh no, wait! I know—the ‘Case of the Murderous Girdle’!”

“Yes, yes, you’re very clever.” Sherlock sighs wearily in John’s general direction, the volume of his voice still muffled by the fabric stretched taut against his hidden face.  “This is a bustier, John.”

“Even better!” John says, backing up to support himself against the bathroom wall and bending over to rest his hands on his knees while laughter continues to consume him.  “I can’t wait to hear all about the ‘Case of the Black Bustier Beheadings’, that one’s sure to be a huge hit on the blog.”

“This isn’t funny, John.” Sherlock says tersely.

“You’ve never been so wrong in all your life,” John replies, laughing merrily as Sherlock huffs out an impatient sigh just as there’s a bright flash of light and the distinctive click and whir from where John is standing.

“Did you just take a photo?” Sherlock demands.

“No,” John denies easily.  “I took two.”

“Delete those! Now!”

“Too late,” John says, and Sherlock can hear the broad grin on his face.  “Already uploaded to the Cloud.  Besides, I’ll need visual evidence for the blog entry.  No one will believe me otherwise.”

“This was a valid scientific experiment, John.” Sherlock admonishes, raising his voice to be heard through the fabric covering his mouth.  “And the victim wasn’t beheaded.  She was found dead of an apparent overdose with her bustier—this exact brand and style—fully hooked and laced beside the body.  I needed to know if it was possible for her to have taken it off herself in that state.”

“I’m no expert on the scientific method, but given the evidence before me I’d have to say—no.”

“Obviously,” Sherlock says, his imperious tone so out of place in his current state that it evokes a fresh wave of laughter from John that makes him nearly double over with the force of it.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Sherlock hisses.

“Oh yes,” John pants through the fresh round of giggles that break free of his throat.  “That’s just perfect.  You would think I’m the ridiculous one this scenario.”

“I texted you for help, John.” Sherlock says quietly, and the laughter bubbling from John’s throat begins to die down at the change in his best friend’s tone.

“You’re right, I’m sorry.  Of course you did.”  John presses his lips together firmly, attempting to get a hold of himself long enough to deal with the situation before him.  He squares his shoulders and tries to view the problem at hand as dispassionately as possible, when a random thought occurs to him.  “How did you manage to text me, anyway?”

There’s a flurry of movement from above the top edge of the bustier, and John looks up to see Sherlock’s mobile phone clutched in the fingers of one pale hand, and the sight of it dangling at the end of an arm protruding toward the ceiling from a tube of shiny black satin and lace is enough to make John lose all composure and break out into a new fit of breathless giggles.

“Are you going to help me or not?” Sherlock demands impatiently.

“Of course I am,” John says, shaking his head fondly. He reaches up and takes the mobile from his fingers and sets it on the edge of the sink, then does a full revolution around Sherlock and considers their options.  “Well I can’t get to the laces, they’re tangled up and pushed inside the garment.”

“Yes, I know that. The knotted ends are digging into my right cheek rather painfully at the moment.”

“All right then,” John suggests, “Why don’t you bend over a bit at the waist, and I’ll grab this top edge and pull while you move backwar—“

“Won’t work," Sherlock says, shaking his head (and thus his entire upper body) in the process.

“Why not?” John asks, puzzled.

“Because there are hooks below the laces, John.   And they’re tangled in my hair.  Rather dreadfully, It would seem.”

John nods. “Ah, that does change things a bit. OK then, I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?” Sherlock asks, a bit of panic entering his tone for the first time since John arrived.

John doesn’t answer, but Sherlock can hear him rummaging around in the kitchen, and catches the sound of a drawer opening and closing before John’s footsteps grow nearer again.

There’s the distinctive metallic swish of scissor blades brushing against each other and Sherlock feels John’s warm fingers press into the skin of his chest and slip below the bottom edge of the bustier. "Hold still."

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asks, a touch of alarm in his voice.

“I’m getting this damn thing off you, like you asked me to.”

“Wait,” Sherlock says, pulling back from John.  “Do you need to cut the bustier to get it off?”

“Yes.” John says calmly. “I think we’ve proven quite conclusively it can’t be removed by conventional means.”

“But, that will ruin it.”

“True,” John concedes.  “But it’s not like you were going to wear it again.”

There’s a short pause while Sherlock considers this.

“Oh my god,” John says, a smile creeping across his face.  “You were going to keep it, weren’t you?”

“Well it was quite expensive, John,"

“I suppose we can avoid cutting it and go down through the top and cut your hair instead,” John offers.

“NO!” Sherlock cries, and John chuckles.

“I thought not, you vain git. But those are the choices here, Sherlock.  The bustier or the curls.  Choose.”

“Oh fine,” Sherlock says with a sigh, his warm breath darkening the cloth stretched over his mouth as he does.  “Cut it off.”

“My pleasure.” John grins, a breathy giggle escaping his lips as he slides the tip of the scissors under the lower edge of the silky lace and begins to slice through the material, sliding the dull side of the blade slowly up the pale expanse of skin and taking extra care over Sherlock’s face to avoid causing any collateral damage, each cut revealing more of his friend inch by inch. 

As the blade finally reaches the top edge of the bustier, Sherlock lets out a long sigh of relief, his warm, humid breath ghosting against John’s face where he’s pressed close to him, lips contorted in concentration as he makes the final snip.  John pulls back to smile at Sherlock, who lowers his arms at last and shakes them out a bit to restore the circulation.  The taller man takes in a few deep breaths, then raises a hand to the back of his head where the garment is still firmly stuck.

“Thank you, John.”

“I live to serve,” John replies with a smile, then reaches up to pull on Sherlock’s shoulder, turning him in place to see how badly the hooks are tangled in his hair.

“Yeah, that’s going to take a bit of time to work free,” he sighs, pointing to the commode and gesturing for Sherlock to sit while he roots around in the medicine cabinet.  Sherlock backs up and flips down the lid of the toilet and lowers himself onto it.  John sets down a tube of hair conditioner and a long, thin  handled comb on the edge of the sink, and Sherlock eyes the items thoughtfully.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Lucky for you, I grew up with an older sister who had loads of long thick hair who found herself with brassiere hooks tangled in it with surprising frequency, ” John says amiably, squeezing a bit of conditioner onto his palm and working it into the hair above and around the hooks.  “This ought to put you off of playing dress up for a while, anyway.”

“It was science, John.  Not dress up.”

“Looks a lot like dress up to me,” John argues, fingers probing to work the dark hair free strand by strand. 

“I already explained that I needed to know if this particular brand and style of bustier could be removed easily while fastened,” Sherlock reminds him.  “Do try and listen the first time.  I dislike repeating myself.”

“And the red pants, and fishnets?” John asks, eyes raking down to take in the thigh high stockings stretched over the long, pale legs, sparse dark hair poking out between the fibers before meeting Sherlock’s gaze again, eyebrows raised.

“She was wearing panties and stockings identical to these when she was found John,” Sherlock replies dismissively, as though John is being very obtuse.  “The experiment wouldn’t have been valid without them.”

“Naturally,” John agrees, trying (and failing) to tamp down the wave of giggles that’s already beginning to spill out.  “I’m surprised you’re not wearing heels as well.”

“That style in my size was a special order item.” Sherlock explains, a note of regret in his voice.  “There wasn’t time.”

John’s bubbling laughter transforms into an official guffaw in response and he has to step away from Sherlock for a moment, leaning against the cool tile wall beside the door and holding his hands over his stomach as he continues to laugh even as Sherlock sighs and rolls his eyes and huffs out his disapproval.  Eventually John’s sides begin to ache, and he reaches up to wipe away the tears of laughter that spill over his eyelids and down his cheeks with the back of his hand.  Still chuckling, he stands up straight and struggles to catch his breath as Sherlock’s gaze catches his own.

“You’re ridiculous, you know.  Brilliant, but ridiculous.” John smiles as he exhales shakily, reaching out and ruffling the curls atop Sherlock’s head fondly, carding his short fingers through the soft strands before cupping his palm at the side of his best friend’s head, quiet laughter still bubbling from his throat as Sherlock leans into the touch.

“You wouldn’t have me any other way.” Sherlock shrugs, his smug tone not quite matching the softness in his eyes.

The moment stretches out between them, John smiling down at the most brilliant man he’s ever met while Sherlock stares up at the most fascinating person he’s ever had the pleasure to know—and for a while they stay that way, neither of them ready to break the silence—until John clears his throat slightly, blowing out a deep breath and taking in another, then drops his hand and reaches for the comb.

“Got your breath back now?” Sherlock asks, annoyed tone undercut by the slight tilt at the corner of his lips.

“I think so, yes.” John says, reaching up to lift a ruined panel of lacey satin out of his way and getting back to the task at hand.  “Ready to get this damn thing off of you once and for all?”

“Ready when you are,” Sherlock replies.

*****************

“My God, John, how on earth do you know so many people?  The pews are nearly filled to capacity,” Sherlock drawls, long fingers drawing apart two panels of the thick curtain that separates the small space outside of the parson’s vestments closet from the adjacent altar and looking through them.  “It’s like a sea of atrocious hats out there—Mrs. Hudson is taking up three full seats with the brim of hers alone.  I imagine it could be seen clearly from space.”

“Mm,” comes the single syllable muffled reply from behind—and, oddly, below him.

Sherlock lets the fabric barrier close and turns around to face John, his eyebrows drawing together in concern when he finds him crouched low on the floor, elbows resting on drawn up knees and short, tan fingers scrubbing absently at the back of his bowed head.

“John,” he asks sharply.  “Are you ill?”

“No, I’m fine.” John says to the floor, voice strained and tight as he shakes his head and draws in a shaky breath, then wobbles slightly on the balls of his feet, one long tail of his morning coat caught beneath the sole of a sleek black shoe shined mirror-bright.  “Just, a bit, I don’t know…”

Sherlock darts forward, closing the space between them in two long strides and falls to his knees in front of his friend.  He can hear John’s labored breathing and watches his shoulders hitch with each strained inhalation, can feel the floor vibrate with the tremors that shake through his whole body and wrack his normally steady hands where they continue their manic carding through the hair above his starched collar, can see the fine sheen of sweat where it gathers at the shorter man’s temples and darkens his hairline.

“It’s all right, John,” Sherlock says softly, tempering the concern in his voice with a calm he doesn’t quite feel.  “It would appear you’re having a minor panic attack, it’s perfectly normal—“

“Is it?” John asks sharply, head snapping up and lips drawing open and closed as he struggles to draw enough breath to continue.  “it’s normal to…feel like this…minutes before…you get married?” John stammers, his speech interrupted by the inability of his laboring lungs to take in enough oxygen.

“According to my research there are several unexpected eleventh hour responses by grooms that are quite similar to the one you’re experiencing,” Sherlock reassures him.  “Interestingly, the most commonly reported one is a marked decrease in foot temperature.”

“Cold…feet…” John pants. 

“I imagine that’s a simple matter of blood flow, John, given the position you’ve folded yourself into.  Let’s get you standing up and the increase in circulation should alleviate that particular symptom.”

“No…” John says, shaking his head and huffing out a laugh at the top of a wheezy breath.  “It’s an… expression...it means…having second…thoughts.”

“Oh,” Sherlock replies, eyes widening in sudden understanding. “Are you having second thoughts, John?”

“I don’t…know…” John says and raises his eyes to meet Sherlock’s, his expression panicked and stricken.  “Am…I…?”

Sherlock narrows his eyes at his friend, one hand lifting automatically and reaching toward his frightened face, his palm stopping just before it cups a tan, clenched jaw.   He stares hard into John’s eyes, into the pools of deep blue, the skin around them etched with stress and worry and growing pale from lack of oxygen, and gently lets his hand fall to rest on one heaving shoulder.  He tightens his fingers and rubs gently at the muscles pulled taut beneath them, feels them hitch with every breath John struggles to take in.  He raises his free hand to John’s other shoulder, and begins to slide his palms gently over the fine fabric in a steady rhythm.

“Listen to me carefully, John,” he begins, pitching his voice low and soft and looking directly into John’s eyes.  “You’re having a panic attack, you’re hyperventilating, and you’re not thinking clearly just now.  Listen to my voice, take a deep breath in—then let it out slowly.  Now another breath in—and now out.”

John locks his eyes on Sherlock’s, his gaze never wavering as he struggles to follow his instructions, taking in a shaky breath…and then trying hard to exhale as he’s told.  After a few repetitions of the pattern, he begins to feel the seizing muscles in his chest ease, and as he concentrates on the low, steady thrum of Sherlock’s voice he finds that after a few minutes his breathing has steadied.

“Very good,” Sherlock says with a smile, fingers squeezing gently at the shoulders beneath them.  “Your respiration rate is nearing normal, your pulse is still a bit high but well out of the range of being worrisome.”

John’s lips curl up slightly at the edges into a smile that doesn’t quite meet his eyes.  He tentatively takes in a deep breath, holds it for a moment, then lets it out slowly from between pursed lips.  Raising his arms slightly, he slides a palm over each of Sherlock’s extended forearms, fingers wrapping around them and squeezing slightly. 

“Thank you,” he whispers, looking up at his friend.

“Any time,” Sherlock replies with a tilt of his head, then raises a knee and begins to stand when John tightens his grip on his arms, holding him in place.  Sherlock lowers himself back onto his knees and looks at John questioningly.

“Am I making a mistake?” John asks, the panic that was in his voice earlier returning slightly as he poses the question. 

“What do you think?” Sherlock asks him, his voice calm and his expression neutral.

“I think,” John says, with a slight hitch in his voice, “that I asked you first.”

Sherlock stares at John for a long moment, letting the silence stretch between them, aware that how he responds in these next few moments will necessarily change both of their lives—regardless of his answer.   He seizes the rare opportunity to look his fill at the denim blue eyes rimmed with honey gold lashes, at the strong brow and the dimpled chin and the searching, lost look that steals over each beloved feature of the face of the man he once jumped off a building to save.   He sacrificed his own desires, his comfort, his very existence for John Watson once.  He’d do it again in a heartbeat.

He’ll do it now.

“I think that Mary loves you, and that you love her.” He tells his friend.  “And love, I think, is rarely a mistake.”

John pulls in a shaky breath and nods, a smile quirking at the corner of his mouth.  Sherlock squeezes his shoulders a final time, then rises to stand and extends a hand to help John up as well.  Once John is on his feet, Sherlock adjusts the groom’s tie where it’s gone a bit crooked, reaches out and gently cards his fingertips through John’s hair where he mussed it earlier, then slides his hands up and over John’s shoulders to smooth the fabric of his jacket.

As the first notes of the processional music sound from the sanctuary, Sherlock lets his hands fall from John’s shoulders, then turns to stand beside his friend, one hand on the curtain in preparation to pull it back so they can step out and take their places at the front of the church.

“Well,” Sherlock says looking over at the groom, and if the smile on his lips is a sad one, John doesn’t seem to notice. “This is it.  Got your breath back?”

“Yes,” John says, returning the smile and squaring his shoulders. “Ready when you are.”

*****************

 “Sherlock!” 

John rushes to the body splayed out on the floor, falling to his knees and quickly surveying the situation as he instinctively throws his arm out to press his fingers into the tender skin just below Sherlock’s jaw as he feels for a pulse that he doesn’t find.

No, not again,” John growls, clasping his hands atop one another and twining his fingers together and placing the heel of his hand over the crisp white fabric rapidly wicking deep red beneath his palm and then presses down, hard—one…two…three…four times.

Sitting up quickly he slides two blood-slick fingers under a pale jaw, lowers his ear close to the ghostly white face below him, then holds his breath and listens—desperately hoping to hear the sound of air slipping in and out of the slightly parted lips, to feel the rush of humid warmth wash over the skin of his cheek…

He takes a deep breath, then leans forward and opens his mouth to cover Sherlock’s, feels the slight shadow of afternoon stubble where it scrapes against the tender skin inside his lips as he forces all the air in his lungs into those of the man below him.

He can feel the rumble of footsteps approaching, hear the jumble of voices that answer as he calls out quickly to them, and lets himself feel the briefest moment of relief before he sits up and locks his arms and continues forcing his best friend’s heart to keep beating.

One…two…three…four…

Breathe, Sherlock! 

Breathe, damn you.

BREATHE…

*****************

The muffled whine stops his reading mid-paragraph.

The strangled whimper raises his eyes from the page.

The choked cry makes him set the book aside.

But it’s the metallic crash and the heavy thud of a body hitting the floor that has him scrambling to his feet and racing down the hall and throwing open the bedroom door.

Light from the kitchen spills over the rumpled, empty sheets, the quilt pulled away from the mattress and dragged down over the far edge of the bed and where a shock of disheveled mahogany curls are just visible atop the shivering pile of blankets huddled in the corner of the darkened room.

Leaning forward to switch on the lamp that sits on the bedside table nearest the door, John hears the ragged breaths being drawn from beneath the dislodged bed linens, a wheezy sob breaking at the top of each labored inhalation.  Padding quickly around the foot of the bed in stocking feet, he doesn’t see the oxygen tank lying on its side until his toe collides with it—when the impressively profane shouting this provokes causes the lump in the corner to startle and John feels a pang of remorse for the outburst. 

“Sherlock?” he asks quietly, stopping briefly to right the heavy pressurized canister and set it back into the rolling cart beside the bed before lowering himself in front of the lanky man gathered into an improbably small heap, mindful to avoid kneeling on the thin plastic tubing that snakes from the oxygen tank up into the tangle of blankets wrapped around his shivering best friend. 

“John!” a strangled voice answers, elegant fingers appearing at the edge of the blankets to claw them away from the pale face beneath them, revealing silver-grey eyes filled with fear. 

“I’m right here,” John tells him, reaching a hand out to settle it on his friend’s shoulder—but before he can make contact Sherlock’s long fingers snap closed around his wrist and tighten painfully.

“You’ve got to run, John!” Sherlock says between panting breaths as he struggles to fill his lungs, eyes darting frantically over John’s features and at some imagined danger behind him. “It’s not safe.  Go, please go!”

“Sherlock, it’s all right—“ John begins, when another pale hand emerges from beneath the blankets and a cold palm grips the side of his neck as the terrified man leans forward and shakes his head emphatically.

“No, you don’t understand,” Sherlock implores, the low baritone voice growing frantic and cut through with a raspy wheezing.  “She has a gun, she doesn’t want you to know—if she thinks I’ve told you she’ll…”

But the rest of the sentence is lost as a cough catches hold and sends a wave of convulsive shudders through the slender shoulders and chest now revealed as the blankets slip away from them with a soft hiss of fabric against skin.  John shuffles forward on his knees and slides his free hand over a bare shoulder and tugs Sherlock close, rubbing soothing circles over the straining muscles of a shivering back.  He presses his palm flat over the space between two sharp shoulder blades and gently coaxes the slumped man to sit up a bit, to give his lungs more space to expand, and the coughing fit begins to subside. 

John closes his eyes and presses a cheek to the side of the Sherlock’s head, dark curls feathering against his lips as he presses his mouth close to his ear.

“She’s not here Sherlock.  It was just a dream, we’re in Baker Street, you’re in your room, I’m right here with you, and we’re safe.”  He repeats the words, this steady stream of assurance that there is no immediate danger, and slowly Sherlock’s vice-like grip on him begins to loosen, the frantic pace of his labored breathing slows to a weak, but steady, wheeze.   Sherlock’s hand slips away from his wrist, fingers moving to tangle weakly in the soft woolen hem of John’s jumper.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock whispers, warm breath spilling over the skin of John’s neck where it’s wet with the terrified tears that still cling to Sherlock’s long eyelashes.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” John says quietly into his best friend’s hair, hand skimming up the back of a long, pale neck to smooth the sleep mussed curls at the back of his head, then slipping down to grip the base of Sherlock’s neck as he pulls away and looks down  at him with a smile.  “Now let’s get you sorted.”

Sherlock nods, wincing a bit as John releases him, his breath hitching noticeably as he slumps back down a bit without the added support.  John slips a hand down to the thin trail of plastic tubing on the floor and slides his fingers up the length of it to find the end tangled beneath the blankets somewhere next to Sherlock’s right hip.  With practiced efficiency he stretches out the line and ensures there are no kinks, checks the nasal terminals to make sure they’re open and clear, then lifts the cannula over Sherlock’s upturned face and settles it properly over each of his ears before gently easing the reservoir into position under his nose and sliding the bolo up beneath his chin to keep it in place.  He turns to the oxygen canister and adjusts the knob at the top a quarter turn, watching the gauge until he’s satisfied it’s set properly. 

Looking back down at his friend, John watches as Sherlock closes his eyes and tips his tired head back to rest against the wall behind him, smoky lashes fanned over pale cheeks that are beginning to pink up a bit as his oxygen starved lungs expand and contract more calmly and regularly than they had been able to just moments ago.  He traces his fingers over the square patch of gauze fixed just below Sherlock’s sternum, at the carefully cut lengths of surgical tape he placed there himself as he dressed the wound earlier tonight after checking the incision over the bullet hole his wife put there.  With a shaky breath, he slides his hand up beneath Sherlock’s jaw, two fingers coming to rest just above the pulse point there as he counts the beats and listens to the steady breaths settle into something less labored and more even.  

After a few minutes, Sherlock opens his eyes and fixes his gaze on John’s.

“I’m sorry,” John whispers.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Sherlock says quietly, raising his hand to rest gently over John’s, then pulling in a long breath and slowly letting it out.

“Got your breath back?” John asks, rising to his feet.

Sherlock gives him a tired nod.

“OK, let’s get you tucked back in,” John says, extending his arm, palms up and open.  “Ready when you are.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath and slides his hands into John’s strong, sure grasp.

*****************

It’s not the wet pair of shoes (brown leather brogues, sensible, size 9), or the ghost of faint wet footprints (one on every other step, nearly dry now), or even the coat hanging next to the door (dark blue wool soaked through to the lining) that catches his attention.

When Sherlock steps through the heavy black door at 221B Baker Street, shaking the rain carelessly from his curls and stripping off his wet scarf to toss it over the bannister, it’s the faint clink of ice cubes against glass floating down from the second floor that he notices first.

John.

A small smile plays across his lips as he strips off his coat and hangs it next to the shorter one already occupying the second hook by the door.  Toeing off his shoes, he quickly runs his fingers through his hair then scales the seventeen stairs two at a time and walks through the open door at the top.

There’s a fire blazing in the grate, flames licking up over the edge of dry logs that haven’t been burning long enough yet to char.  Sherlock looks over to the man seated in the red chair beside the fireplace, eyes raking over the damp hair standing up a bit at the back, over the familiar features lit in profile by the light from the fire, and opens his mouth to say hello…but the greeting dies in his throat as John turns to look at him, blue eyes narrowed and jaw set tightly.

“Well, well, well.  You’re alive.”

“It does seem that way,” Sherlock teases, quirking a grin at his friend.

“Never can be too sure when it comes to you,” John says, pleasant tone at odds with the steely stare he directs at the taller man.  “I’ve learned not to assume.”

Sherlock freezes in place for a moment, surprise flashing briefly over his angular features before he affects an impassive expression.  John looks away and raises the glass of amber liquid in his hand to his lips and takes a long sip.  Crossing the space between them, Sherlock unfastens the button of his suit coat with two long fingers and slides the jacket from his shoulders, tossing it over the arm of his leather chair before he sinks down into it.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” John says pleasantly, eyes scanning the room.

Sherlock stares at him for a moment, then turns to look around the sitting room before tilting his head and looking at John with a confused expression.

“It hasn’t changed in the last week, John.”

“Sure it has,” John argues, gesturing toward the wall over the couch with his arm, liquid sloshing up to the rim of the glass in his hand as he does.  “There are three new bullet holes just over there.  Experiment, or were you just bored?”

“Bit of both,” Sherlock answers with a shrug.

“Naturally,” John replies, looking down at the space between their feet.  “And the rug’s been cleaned—I had no idea there were stripes in the pattern.”

“There was a bit of an incident with a pint of squid ink on Tuesday,” Sherlock confesses.

“Oh, I bet Mrs. Hudson loved that.”

“Words of anger were exchanged,” Sherlock admits.  “Or at least I think they were words, things got a bit shrill there at the end so it’s difficult to say for sure.”

John shrugs. “Well, I think it looks nice. Gives the room a whole new air.  Hardly recognized the place when I walked in.”

“You remembered where the Scotch was, though.” Sherlock says lightly, and John stares at him for a beat.

That was exactly where I left it.” He lifts his glass for another sip.  “Good to know that some things never change.”

“John,” Sherlock begins carefully, voice pitched low and tense.  “Is there someth—”

“Interesting case, I assume?” John interrupts, looking across at the man sitting opposite and quirking a brow.

“Marginally,” Sherlock says with a shrug.  “A six.  Seven if I’m being generous. ”

“Sounded interesting, when you texted me about it earlier, I mean. I was just finishing up with my last patient.  I could have joined you, just like you’d asked.  Would have, too, if you’d bothered to text me back when I told you as much.”

“Ah, yes.  Unfortunately my reception is a bit touchy at the bottom of the Thames, which is where my phone is at this very moment,” Sherlock explains.  “Went over the railing when the murderer attempted to throw me off Lambeth bridge.”

“And you couldn’t borrow someone’s phone to tell me that?”

“The suspect was in custody shortly thereafter.” Sherlock tells him.  “The two hours of statements and paperwork that followed down at the yard were quite riveting, I’ll admit, but hardly a two man job.”

“That’s not the point, Sherlock.”

“Then what exactly is the point, John?”

John presses his lips together tightly, huffs out a sigh through his nose and takes another drink then continues.  “I’m surprised Mycroft didn’t messenger a new mobile to you within minutes.”

“Now that you mention it,” says Sherlock, eyebrows lifting in agreement, “so am I.  Been nearly three hours now, he’s slipping.”

As if on cue, the sharp sound of the doorbell cuts through the air.  Sherlock stands and goes downstairs to answer the door, returning moments later with two large manila envelopes and plopping back down into his chair, shrugging at John’s questioning look.

“Anthea,” he drawls, rolling his eyes and tearing open the first envelope to retrieve the new iPhone tucked inside and pressing the power button.  “Chubby git timed that a bit too perfectly, wouldn’t you say?  I just swept the flat for bugs on Monday.  Must have missed one.”

There’s a soft chime as the mobile's screen comes to life, and a moment later the text alert sounds.

*ping*

Sherlock looks down at his phone just as the next alert sounds.

*ping*

And then another.

*ping*

Then one more.

*ping*

Eyes scanning the screen, Sherlock knits his eyebrows and looks up at John to see a pink tinge creeping over tanned cheeks.

“How many texts did you send?” Sherlock asks.

“Four I think,” John says.

*ping*

“Maybe five,” he admits, quirking a shoulder and staring down into his drink.

Sherlock looks over the messages, forehead creasing more deeply with each one he reads.

“John, I’m sorry if I worried you—”

“Nevermind,” John says, shaking his head and staring down at his feet.  “It doesn’t matter.”

“Clearly,” Sherlock begins, leaning forward a bit in his chair, “I think it does.”

“Well you’re wrong,” John says, an air of finality in his voice that he punctuates with a stiff nod.  When Sherlock opens his mouth to continue speaking John points to the second envelope in his hand.  “What’s in that one?”

Sherlock looks at him for a moment longer, eyes raking over the familiar face, registering each new line and crease around John’s eyes, then he looks down at the item in question and quirks a brow in surprise.

“It’s for you,” Sherlock tells him, turning it over in his hands.

“Oh, good," John says, a note of surprise in his voice.  “I’ve been wanting to upgrade my mobile, I hope it’s the new iPhone.”

“I don’t think so,” Sherlock says, regarding the parcel suspiciously.

“Neither do I, Sherlock.  That was a joke.” John shakes his head.  “Well, give it here.”

Sherlock tightens his grip on it for a second longer, then places the envelope into his friend’s outstretched hand.  He watches John unwind the red string from the fastener, lift the flap, reach in and pull out the sheaf of papers inside, then scan the printed words on the page.  John’s shoulders stiffen slightly, and Sherlock hears him suck in a short breath between barely parted lips.

In the silent minutes that follow, John’s eyes travel over the print, flipping to the second page when he finishes the first.  Sherlock stays very still, eyes fixed on John’s face, and after a long moment a pair of dark blue eyes raise to meet his silver grey gaze.

“Got a pen?” John asks quietly.

Sherlock reaches into the breast pocket of his suit jacket draped over the arm of the chair and retrieves a silver barreled montblanc, then reaches out to place it in John’s outstretched fingers.  John pulls off the cap, sets the document down on the arm of the chair, and scratches out his signature on the bottom of the first page.  And then on the bottom of the second.  And then the third, stopping to squint at the small print for a moment before adding the date and his initials where required.  Capping the pen, he hands it back to Sherlock.

“Thanks,” John says, straightening the pages and shoving them back into the envelope and retying the flap before setting it carefully on the small table beside his chair.  “Well, that was easy.”

“I didn’t realize he’d be sending them here tonight, John.”

“Just as well he did, though, isn’t it?” John says lightly.  “Best to get it over with, and if he’d sent them round to my house I’d have used a cheap biro fished out of the junk drawer—and something as important as my divorce papers  deserved to be signed with a much fancier pen, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Has she contacted you at all?” Sherlock asks quietly.

“Not a word.”

“Mycroft has contacts keeping watch all over the world. There’s been no sign of her.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s much easier for her to blend into the crowd and disappear now that she’s shed the fake belly.” John says, getting to his feet and tucking the envelope under his arm. “It’s better this way, really.  Only one signature needed to divorce someone who never really existed.   Much more convenient.”

He turns to walk toward the door and Sherlock stands and follows, catching up to John and stepping to block his path.

“John, wait—you don’t have to go.”

“I do,” John says tightly. 

“You don’t,” Sherlock insists, thinking quickly.  “Are you hungry? I thought we could order takeaway, maybe something from—”

“I’m not in the mood for pity, Sherlock,” John says through clenched teeth.

“Well, I was actually thinking Thai, but I’m open to suggestions.”

“I suggest that you get out of my way.”

“I don’t think it’s wise for you to be alone just now.”

“Oh really? That’s a new attitude for you,” John sneers.  “Leaving me alone is kind of a specialty of yours.”

Sherlock sucks in a sharp breath and looks down at John, dark lashes blinking rapidly.

“Oh don’t give me that look,” John says with a weary sigh.  “You know exactly what I mean.”

Sherlock hesitates for a moment. “No, I don’t.”

“The hell you don’t!” John shouts, and Sherlock flinches a bit at the exclamation.  “You’ve been leaving me alone since the first night we met!  You dragged me to a crime scene and then disappeared without a word, left me on my own—in bloody Brixton—without so much as a tenner for cab fare!”

“I didn’t intend to—”

“I know you didn’t, not that time.” John concedes.  “But you damn well meant to when you jumped from that roof and buggered off for two years—two years, Sherlock!  And when you shot that bastard Magnussen and got yourself sent away on some suicide mission as penance and left me with her.  And you did it again just tonight, you ask me for my help on a dangerous case and then bloody disappear without a word for hours.

“I’ve explained about that,” Sherlock starts.

“I’m tired of your explanations.  Do you know what I thought, when you didn’t answer me today?  What ran through my mind when I came up those stairs to a dark, empty flat?” John asks, a flush rising up his neck as he clenches his jaw and pulls in a deep breath through his nose.  “I thought you were dead.  Again.  That you’d been hurt or killed on the case, or maybe you’d come up with some new reason that I’d be better off without you—some explanation that you’d be happy to share with me should you show up alive eventually.”

“I didn’t think—”

“That’s right, you didn’t.  You didn’t think of me at all.”  John says, chest hitching as he drags in ragged breaths and his throat tightens with the tears he refuses to let fall, as he turns away from Sherlock and paces across the floor past the couch. “You never do, Sherlock.  Do I mean so little you?”

“You mean everything to me,” Sherlock says quietly, his voice stricken.

“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it,” John snarls, spinning around to face him again. “I had no idea where you were today, Sherlock.  Whether or not you were safe—or if you were ever coming back.”

“Of course I was coming back,” Sherlock insists.

“How the hell was I supposed to know that?” John demands, throwing up his hands. 

“Because I always do, John.”

“And that’s just it, Sherlock!” John shouts, voice crackling with anger.  “You always come back—until the day you don’t.  And I wake up every day afraid that today is that day.  Every time we say good bye, every time I watch you walk away, every time that door downstairs shuts behind me and I crawl into bed in that empty fucking house across town I wonder if this is the time you leave for good.  How am I ever supposed to be sure that each time I leave this flat it isn’t for the very last time?”

“You could move back in,” Sherlock says earnestly, crossing to stand in front of John.

“And do what?” John asks, shaking his head and huffing out a frustrated sigh.  “Trail after you like some lovesick puppy, begging for your attention and being thankful for whatever scraps of it you throw my way?  Solve crimes at your side and make you cups of tea and argue over what to watch on the telly and remind you to eat and listen to you play the violin and hope that if you ever have to leave again that you’ll trust me enough to take me with you this time?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says simply, nodding his head.

“Just like that?” John demands, shaking his head and biting at his lower lip.  “After everything that’s happened, you expect me to just pack up and come back here?  To risk everything—my heart, my sanity, my life?

Yes,” Sherlock repeats, eyes wide and open and focused on John.

Why, Sherlock?”  John pleads, a soft sob catching in his throat.  

“Because that’s what we do for the people we love.”

John stills, feet frozen to the floor, eyes blinking rapidly at Sherlock as the taller man stares down at him, the vulnerability in the mercurial eyes making his chest ache.

“What…what do you mean by that?” John asks quietly.

“I think you know exactly what I mean,” Sherlock replies, holding John’s gaze with a determined stare.

John is silent for a long moment, then sucks in a shallow breath and regards Sherlock suspiciously, head tilted and lips pressed tightly together, staring into silvery green eyes that are open and guileless and filled with something warm and true and ancient. The realization is like a punch to his stomach and he nearly doubles over from the blow.

“But…” John begins, pausing to shake his head slightly.  “You don’t feel that way about anyone, especially not me.”

“John Watson,” Sherlock says softly.  “As ever, you see—but you do not observe.”

“But, you never said…”

“You’re right.  I never said,” Sherlock says with a weary sigh, stepping forward and looking directly into his eyes.  “But I gave voice to my love for you in a thousand other ways, John.  In the equivalent of words abundant enough to fill entire libraries and in letters large enough to fill the sky.  In countless moments and declarations and in the seemingly endless combinations that twenty six letters can be arranged and strung together in—I spoke them all.  Only you couldn’t hear it because you were too busy listening for a single, very specific phrase.  Waiting for me to try and explain something that runs beneath my skin at depths that cannot possibly be expressed in just eight letters, in three common syllables that are spoken thousands—millions of times each and every day by people who cannot imagine how inadequate those three words are at even coming close to what I feel for you.” 

John feels the breath leave his chest, hears it hiss between his teeth as it exits through his lips, pushed from his body by the force of Sherlock’s declaration. Stars fire over his field of vision and he tries to remember how to breathe—to cool his throat and fill his lungs and clear his mind and…oh god—oh god, he can’t breathe…

“John,” Sherlock says gently, his large hands cupping the shorter man’s shoulders and easing him back to sit on the couch, one broad palm sliding down to rest between tense shoulder blades and pressing him forward at the waist as he settles next to him on the sofa, whispering calmly, reminding him to inhale and exhale, eventually heaving his own sigh of relief as John’s breathing begins to normalize at last.  He continues to rub soft circles over his back until John blows out a long breath and shakes his head at the ground.

“Well, that was embarrassing.” John sighs, breath still hitching slightly as Sherlock’s hand slides down his back and away to settle in the scant space between them on the couch.

“For you?”  Sherlock asks quietly, as they sit side by side, both facing forward. “Or for me?”

John smiles out into the room, tipping his head and considering, then slides his hand out of his lap and over Sherlock’s where it rests beside him.  Sherlock stays very still for a moment, then turns his hand beneath John’s and twines their fingers together.

“I didn’t know,” John says softly, eyes still fixed on the fire across the room.

“That’s because you’re an idiot,” Sherlock replies, staring into the flames as well, and he smiles when John chuckles beside him.

“True,” John agrees amiably, his breathing even and steady.  “So what happens now?”

 “That depends,” Sherlock says, then turns his head to look at him. “What do you want, John?”

John turns his face toward Sherlock’s, and takes a deep breath.

“I want to come home.”

Sherlock stares at him for a long moment, eyes narrowed and forehead creased, and John returns the look, willing his own gaze to be as open and bare and honest as Sherlock’s had been just moments ago.  A few seconds later, Sherlock sucks in a soft breath and his face relaxes into a smile.

“Good.  That’s…good.” The detective's eyes are soft and relieved as he regards his doctor.  “Let’s go and get your things.”

“What, right now?” John asks, a surprised chuckle escaping over his lips as Sherlock gives his fingers a tight squeeze then releases his hand and bounds up from the couch.

“No time like the present,” Sherlock replies, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet and extending his arm toward John in invitation.  “Got your breath back?”

John stares up at Sherlock’s face, then down at the open palm and slightly curled fingers of the offered hand, then reaches up and slides his own into it.

“Ready when you are.”

*****************

The curtains are billowing in the soft breeze that blows in through Sherlock’s bedroom window, and the cool night air is filled with the hushed sounds of the city, the steady patter of rain, and the sweet, soft breaths that pass between them in the darkness.

Dark curls tumble from Sherlock’s forehead to fall lightly over John’s, skin slick with sweat where they’re pressed together from knees to foreheads, clothes long since shed after short, tan fingers worked miles of shirt buttons free of their holes, and long, pale fingers slid wool and cotton up and over and away. Two pairs of trousers lie discarded in a heap of fine wool and worn denim on the floor, grey cotton y-fronts and posh black boxer briefs balled up and forgotten in the tangle of sheets around their feet, and four socks are presently somewhere they likely shouldn’t be, flung to the four winds in the haste to remove the last barrier between them.

There’s nothing between them now.

Turning his head as full lips mouth wetly at the tender skin beneath his jaw, John pants breathlessly as Sherlock slides a second slick finger next to the one already buried deep inside him. 

“All right?”  Sherlock asks softly, tipping his chin up to look at John in the scant light, voice pitched low and deep as he nuzzles their noses together gently.

“Yeah,” John says with a nod, pressing his eyes closed to fan honey colored lashes over flushed, tan cheeks.  He drags in a sharp breath as the second fingertip breaches his tight opening, back arching as Sherlock slides both fingers slowly into him.  “Oh god, Sherlock, it’s…”

“Shhh,” Sherlock soothes, sliding his mouth lightly over John’s parted lips, breath ghosting over the tender stubble-burned skin around them.  “Just relax, I’ve got you.”

John opens his eyes and looks up at Sherlock, gaze desperate and searching—and when their eyes meet, it’s as if a switch flips, the tension in John’s muscles easing almost immediately and he huffs out a long, slow breath and melts back against the mattress.  Sherlock’s face breaks into a slow grin, and when John mirrors the expression he swoops down and presses their lips together—chasing the taste of that smile, licking his way into John’s mouth and working his fingers deep inside his arse until he’s gasping for air again beneath him.

With a twist of his wrist, Sherlock sweeps the pads of his fingers up and over the soft bundle of nerves he’s  purposely avoided until now, and quirks a satisfied grin when a surprised cry bursts from John’s lips, hips bucking wildly sending his heels skittering frantically over the rumpled bedclothes.

“Now?” John asks, a note of desperation in his voice as his fingertips pause to dig roughly where they’re traveling in frenetic paths up and down the miles of pale skin on Sherlock’s back.

“Not yet,” Sherlock purrs, pressing soft kisses over the creased forehead and cheeks and chuckling softly at John’s plaintive whine of protest.  “I don’t want to rush this.”

And just as John sighs heavily and nods his agreement, Sherlock slides his fingers nearly out of John’s slick, stretched opening, and slips a third next to them before plunging slowly back in.

John gasps at the addition, neck arching and head thrown back—and when he opens his mouth to cry out, the sound gets stuck in his throat while sparks of light flare across his vision as talented fingers press firmly over his prostate sending shivers of electricity up and down his spine.  It’s exquisite and surprising and too much and not enough all at once, this steady pressure on the most secret of places within him. 

 “Now, Sherlock?” John pleads, opening his eyes and seeking out his face, craning his neck up to bite at the lips smiling smugly down at him.  “Please…please?”

“Yes,” Sherlock growls, pupils blown wide, eyes nearly black as they regard John hungrily.  “Now.”

John sighs in relief, then inhales sharply when Sherlock presses a bruising kiss to his mouth then sits up  and slowly slips his fingers out.   John stares up at him then, all lean lines and pale skin and wild curls and flushed cheeks and marvels, again, at what his life has become.  This man—this ridiculous, difficult, brilliant, impossible man—loves him. 

Sherlock Holmes loves him.

And John Watson loves him back.

He watches as Sherlock tips the bottle of lubricant onto his fingers, then snaps the cap shut, tosses it aside and begins coating his hard cock—slicking the thick shaft and the leaking head with the lube until it glistens in the low light of the bedside lamp.  John looks at it hungrily and spreads his thighs wide, as Sherlock slides his slick palm from his own prick and closes it around John’s where it lies flushed and hard and straining against his belly.  John gasps softly at the contact, his eyes trained on Sherlock’s as strong fingers stroke him firmly.

“Ready?” Sherlock asks, gaze searching John’s for any hint of reticence. 

“I’m ready,” John says, because he is

He hadn’t been, not at first.  Not when this thing between them was so new, and he was feeling his way through the inevitable identity crisis (that frankly he’d expected to be much more intense than it actually was) that came with falling in love (and into bed) with Sherlock Holmes.   But as strange as he thought it might be, it just…wasn’t.  There was skin, and slick, and sweat , and lips, and fingers, and tongues—and the feel of a hard cock in his hand or between his lips had been different, sure, but not bad.  Not bad at all. 

But the first time he’d slid his cock into the tight, velvet heat of Sherlock’s arse—had felt the press and pull of muscles clenched around him—he knew there would never be a day when he wouldn’t want that, wouldn’t crave it, wouldn’t spend all afternoon thinking about wrapping his fingers around sharp hipbones and biting into the soft flesh above a pale shoulder blade as he emptied himself deep inside of him.  He’d thought about what it might feel like, though, the other way around.  He’d asked Sherlock if it was something he wanted—and the detective had eyed him thoughtfully for a long moment and then shrugged a shoulder and said “When you’re ready, let me know.”

So John did.

Earlier tonight, in fact, over a second glass of wine and plate of chicken tikka masala that were both promptly forgotten in the wake of the pronouncement.

Staring up at Sherlock now, John knows that he was right: He’s ready.  Ready to be taken, to be consumed, to be as close to Sherlock as any two people can possibly be to one another.  Ready to give everything he has to the man who sacrificed everything for him.

“OK,” Sherlock says softly, his voice trembling ever so slightly as he guides the head of his cock between John’s glistening cheeks and lines them up.  “Just breathe.”

As Sherlock nudges forward, John does as he’s told and takes in a slow, shaky breath as Sherlock leans over and presses himself into John in one long, slick slide.  When Sherlock lowers himself to press their stomachs together, John wraps his strong thighs around Sherlock’s slim hips and stares up at the man staring down at him, and smiles.

Sherlock looks at him, eyes full of wonder, then sucks in a shallow breath—and tries to speak, lips struggling to form the words.

“I…John, I…I…”

“I know,” John says, lifting his neck and pressing their mouths together, whispering against Sherlock’s lips.  “I love you too.”

Sherlock exhales deeply, then lunges forward to capture John’s mouth, the kiss deep, and wet, and positively filthy with intent.   He pulls his hips back slowly, slipping out of John a few inches before deliberately pushing back into him.  He swallows the gasp this motion causes and repeats it, enjoying the delicious sounds he wrings from John’s throat with each and every thrust.  He sets a steady pace, tipping his hips slightly so that the velvety head of his cock rubs relentlessly over John’s prostate,  the skin of his stomach stroking John’s erection where it lies trapped between them. 

John tightens his legs around Sherlock and slides the palms of his hands around the trim waist to the round swell of his arse and squeezes, encouraging him to fill him more deeply, and then gasping when Sherlock complies.   When Sherlock trails wet kisses over his cheek, and jaw, then buries his face in his neck, John closes his eyes and lets the sensations wash over him, lets himself be completely distracted and enveloped by the experience—and when he hears the series of breathless moans that break the silence in the room, it takes him a moment to realize that they’re coming from his own mouth.  There’s an intense pressure in his groin, a tightness behind his bollocks that spreads out into tendrils of electric pleasure that crackle across his pelvis and wash up his spine and all at once he’s coming—his orgasm crashing over him and he’s drowning in it, gasping for breath as each wave crests and consumes him, each one more powerful than the last, pulling him further and further down, a distant voice rumbling against his throat—and it shouts his name just as there’s a pool of hot, wet warmth spreading within him…

John’s breath comes back in rush and all of a sudden he’s panting and groaning and practically sobbing Sherlock’s name, over and over until it’s a just hoarse whisper slipping from his lips.  His arms are clasped around the shaking man in his arms, fingers no doubt digging bruises into fair skin below them, and hot humid breaths are ghosting over the skin of his neck and shoulder.  John relaxes the fingers of one hand and rubs his palm firmly up his lover’s back, swiping at the wet skin and coming to rest over a shoulder blade as they both struggle to breathe.

After a long moment, Sherlock presses up onto one elbow and lifts a hip, his cock slipping wetly out of John—making them both gasp—and he falls to one side and rolls onto his back.  He reaches blindly beside him to find John’s hand and press it into his own before weaving their fingers together and squeezing tightly.

They lie there side by side, muscles trembling and chests heaving, sweat-slick skin cooling in the slight breeze that blows in through the window.  After a few minutes the panting has calmed to sighing and Sherlock feels John shiver slightly beside him.  He sits up and reaches down to grasp the edge of the duvet and then drags it up over them both, releasing John’s hand to slide an arm behind his neck and under his shoulders as John turns toward him and tucks himself up against Sherlock’s side.  They fidget a bit, snuggling down into the blankets and arranging limbs just so until they’re pressed together comfortably, then rest in peaceful silence for a long while until Sherlock’s chest is rising and falling slowly, and John’s breaths are soft and even against Sherlock’s collarbone.

Sherlock trails the palm of one hand gently up and down John’s spine, and John drags the tips of his fingers repeatedly through the sparse hairs scattered over Sherlock’s chest. 

“That,” John says softly against Sherlock’s skin, “was amazing.”

“You think so?” Sherlock asks, and John can hear the smug satisfaction in his voice.

“You know it was,” he teases, nodding against Sherlock’s shoulder pressing a kiss to his chest.   “Absolutely brilliant—and before you ask: Yes.  I do know I’m saying that out loud.”

John smiles as Sherlock’s throaty chuckle rumbles through his chest, vibrating up through his cheek where it rests against him. 

“I do have one question, though.” John says, pressing up on his elbow and sliding a palm down to rest at Sherlock’s hip.

“Oh?” Sherlock replies, turning his head and raising an eyebrow as he looks at John.  “What is it?”

“How long before we can do it again?” John asks, a mischievous grin quirking at the corner of his mouth as he slides his hand between Sherlock’s legs and wraps it around his soft cock—and feels it twitch slightly his hand.

Sherlock’s lashes flutter against his cheeks, dark smudges over white skin tinged with the slightest hint of pink, as he begins to harden under the gentle, insistent stroke of John’s fingers.

“Got your breath back?” Sherlock asks him, a twinkle in his eye.

“Ready when you are,” John says, just before he kisses him.

~the end~

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