N. N. N N N N N.
Sherlock repeats the letter over and over in his mind as though it were a mantra. He’s familiar with the use of mantras in meditation, having tried the practice out himself when he tried to go cold turkey in his early thirties once. It enabled him to enhance his Mind Palace technique and hone in on how best to easily and quickly access certain wings but, other than that, he hadn’t found it very useful - being alone with his own mind was a recipe for disaster, truly. And now, instead of the letter bringing comfort or relief as a mantra should, it brings a wash of emotions, some of them foreign to him. Curiosity, intrigue, motivation; all to be expected, under the circumstances. What he can’t explain, however, is the feeling he keeps trying to bury. Has been trying to bury since he first saw the little mark on John’s chest a couple of days ago. The one that makes his stomach roil and his heart feels heavy and constricted. He feels… hurt. That’s the only word he can find that could possibly match. It doesn’t make any sense to him, but there it is, in all its gory glory. Hurt.
So he deals with it the only way he knows how: push it away, fight it down, obsess over the little things surrounding it to come to the truth instead. Eyes on the puzzle at hand. If his focus lies elsewhere, even if it’s slightly to the left of it instead of at the centre, he never has to face the demons. Never has to actually go to the trouble of slaying them.
He rolls over onto his back, kicking the heavy duvet off his legs. He feels too stifled to be caged in right now, even by something as usually comforting as fabric. Taking his phone of the side table, he checks the time. It’s after one in the morning, but he suspects John will be awake; knows he’s been battling bouts of insomnia lately (undereye bags being the strongest indicator, among other things). His suspicion is confirmed when John answers the phone after only two rings.
“Everything okay?” he asks in lieu of a greeting. Ever on alert. Battle-stations John.
“Yes, fine, I -”
“No. I have a question…”
“A que- What, Sherlock? What question could warrant you ringing me at one in the morning on a work night?” John’s tone is exasperated, but Sherlock knows it’s still fond. Perhaps teasing, even.
“You were awake already,” Sherlock offers defensively.
“Yeah, well, I shouldn’t be,” John sighs. “What’s the question?”
“Can you send a list of the names of all your ex-girlfriends to my email? Preferably in alphabetical order, although you may rather organise them in order of sentiment, in which case I wouldn’t be opposed. In fact, it might be rather more helpful if - ”
“I’m obviously not sending you a list of my girlfriends in any order.”
“Ah. Tomorrow then, when you’ve had more time to -”
“At any time.”
Sherlock is silent, hoping his pout will be audible somehow.
“And if this is about the bloody tattoo again, I told you to leave it, and I mean it,” John practically seethes through the phone and hangs up.
Sherlock is shocked. It isn’t like John to be so abrupt. He normally encourages Sherlock’s little explorations. Sherlock thought that’s one of the things John liked about him - his insatiable curiosity and his willingness to always, always, always hunt for the truth. Maybe he doesn’t appreciate it when it’s directed at him, sure, but he’s never outright refused him like this before. Which only serves to heighten Sherlock’s already-intense curiosity.
As soon as his eyes pop open the next morning, Sherlock reaches for his phone once again. This time, it takes a couple more rings before John picks up.
“This is a more practical time to be ringing,” John says, a little out of breath but not uncheerfully, and Sherlock can tell he’s in a good mood. He’s probably been playing with Rosie. Sherlock can picture it now: John good-naturedly yelling, “I’m gonna catch you,” while Rosie squeals and runs down the corridor. Sherlock has seen them play that little game many times before.
A brief flash of something else crowds over the image, though: John, sweaty, naked, back arched, sheets tousled, someone beneath him. He shakes his head harshly to physically remove the picture somehow.
“Sherlock?” John asks, bringing him back to the present.
This isn’t the time for your masochistic imaginings.
“What is your maternal grandmother’s name?” Sherlock shoots out without preamble.
“Elsie. Goodbye,” John says in a slightly irritated tone.
“Wait wait wait!”
“And your grandfather?”
The line is disconnected before he even finished his sentence.
When John brings Rosie for a visit the next day, all Sherlock can think about, of course, is the tattoo on John’s chest. Whenever he has a case to solve, nothing else matters. Every other passing detail becomes just that - a detail. Inconsequential. Especially when the case is his substitute for dealing with emotions. He learnt a long time ago that it’s either the needle or the chase - without either, his mind seems to collapse in on itself with the gravity of merely existing.
Sherlock has done some digging into family records posted online here and there. It hadn’t even really required much hacking because once Sherlock knew that John’s grandmother’s name was Elsie, he knew that a family tree he found on some inane blog belonged to a distant relative of John’s.
None of John’s parents or grandparents’ names match the possible initials, though. He also has no mysterious siblings Sherlock doesn’t know about (he checked - one can never be too sure these days) and, as far as he knows, none of his exes match either. Unless…
“Have you ever dated any men?” Sherlock asks suddenly.
John’s head jerks up from his plate. They’re sat at the kitchen table eating some brunch while Rosie happily plays with her dry cereal on the tray of her high chair.
“I know that you may or may not have had multiple sexual partners while in the army - didn’t earn your Three Continents moniker for naught, I suppose - but what I don’t know is how many of these men - if any - were actually your boyfriend at any point in time.”
For almost a solid thirty seconds, the only sound in the room is Rosie’s activities, while John glares at Sherlock. He looks… wild, somehow. Like a feral dog having been caught out. Sherlock senses something in the air shifting, and dangerously so. It’s too late to backpedal now, though - the stupid words are out of his mouth before he’s even thought them through, so he has to stand by it. He holds his chin up in defiance.
“Listen to me carefully, Sherlock,” John says, dark and low, “And listen well. I’m not discussing this. Not with you. And especially not now.”
At that point, John stands up from the table with his plate and almost throws it into the sink. The resulting clash makes Sherlock jump. John stands with his back to Sherlock, facing the sink. He leans on the counter slowly, breathing out steadily. Sherlock knows this particular John. Not well, but well enough to know that he shouldn’t push him any further. Not right now, at least.
“John, I -”
“Nope,” John says with finality. Sherlock closes his mouth with a small click. Even Rosie has gone quiet, sensing the shift in the room.
“I’ll take Rosie to change, shall I?” Sherlock asks softly as he stands up.
He sits back down, eyes wide. John turns around and a little shiver runs down Sherlock’s spine at the sight of him. He’s incensed. He takes a step forward and Sherlock can’t help it; he flinches lightly. At that, John’s expression changes, softens up. He looks regretful.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” John mutters quietly, casting his eyes towards the table between them.
Sherlock doesn’t answer.
“I think we’d better go. Rosie needs to nap soon.”
“She can nap upstairs,” Sherlock mutters, but he knows it’s not going to happen.
John lifts Rosie out of her chair, gathers all of their things and leaves quietly.
It feels as though all the air has been sucked out of the room upon his departure. The tension is still electrifying the atmosphere, and Sherlock’s stomach is in little knots. He knows he crossed a line, but he isn’t quite sure where. It isn’t always easy for him to gauge where in social situations he’s gone wrong, but that’s what John has always helped him with.
What he really feels, above all else, though, is the prevailing sense of unfairness. He has given John all of himself. As much as he was able to give, anyway. And in return? All he’s left with is questions and obfuscations. He often feels as though he has flayed himself wide open for John Watson to inspect, to have, to take. What he’s never realised before this very moment, however, was that he was the only one doing so. The only one giving. The only one pushing and talking and inviting and seeing and worrying and wondering and, yes, loving. Before this very moment, the realisation that John is selfish had never dawned on him before. He’d always seen their relationship as perfectly reciprocal. He the yin to John’s yang somehow. Even when that delicate balance was disturbed by time away and Mary and conflict, somehow there was always the sense that there were two of them - just the two of them against the rest of the world. He thought it was that way and that it’d always be that way. But now he’s sat at the kitchen table at eleven thirty in the morning wondering just how much he has to give before he’s all given out.
He stands up from the table soundlessly and walks to the window in the living room. Just in time to see John clipping Rosie into her carseat in the back of the car. When that’s done, he goes around to the driver’s side and opens the door but, before climbing in, he looks up, as though aware that Sherlock is there. He locks eyes with Sherlock and gives his head a slow, sad shake before looking away and climbing into the car.