At first, it's hard to put his finger on it.
Something in the air, prickling at his skin when he's not paying attention.
Something nestled into the comfortable silences of 221B Baker Street.
Something is off with Sherlock.
Of course, there's always something off with Sherlock. John is used to that, and he's used to handling whatever it turns out to be. This is different, though, the way it's slipping through his fingers. He will feel a peculiar tension radiating from his friend, look up to see what the matter is, and it's always at that precise moment that it disappears.
Eventually he works out what it is. Sherlock hides it so skilfully that it takes John weeks to notice: He is looking at John a lot more than he normally does.
John will feel his skin tingle when he's engrossed in a book, and he will become aware of Sherlock sitting stock-still, staring at him from the other side of the room. When he looks up, Sherlock's eyes are already averted.
It makes him self-conscious. After all these years, he respects the capacities of those eyes more than anything else. And after all these years, he has never gotten used to being pinned under them. He still can't look away when they look at him, really look at him. All he can do is stand tall – thank God for his military training – and remind himself to start breathing again when they let him go.
But now, he barely gets to actually see them; all he gets is the creeping feeling of being utterly exposed by them.
“What?” he asks one time when he lifts his head to meet Sherlock's gaze.
“Hmmm?” Sherlock asks down his magazine. John is, yet again, impressed by his acting skills. He wonders if Sherlock ever is as occupied as he appears, or if he just pretends to be so that all the stupid people will leave him the fuck alone.
It's rude, but on the other hand, other people are pretty stupid compared to him. He can hardly be blamed for needing a break now and then.
John contemplates confronting him about the staring. He usually does that when something is off with Sherlock, to make sure it's nothing he should worry about. But he comes to the conclusion that this is quite harmless. This is where the patience from being Sherlock Holmes' flatmate for thirty years comes in handy.
“I am going to move.”
John freezes in the doorway.
Sherlock is standing by the window, back straight under a suit that makes him look far more handsome than anyone has a right to be. All of his considerable mental capacity seems concentrated in his beautiful eyes, invading John's space even from the far side of the living room.
And this is fucking typical, isn't it. Sherlock has thought about how to break this to him, and the way he ultimately chooses is this; blurting it out instead of a greeting the second John comes home from work on a Tuesday.
This is what he's wanted to say for weeks, John realises and suddenly resents himself for not worrying. As if he could take all this for granted.
But of course, John thinks. Sherlock becomes interested in something, and the subject of his interest gets drawn in to him like a magnet. He studies it intently and gives it so much attention that one would almost be fooled into thinking he loves it.
And then he's done and he moves on.
John has never seen him that interested in something for more than a few weeks. The longest interest yet must actually be John himself. He supposes he should feel pride or gratitude or whatever, even if it has finally come to an end.
Sherlock is staring at him as if John is a crime scene to be deduced. John forces himself to nod in interest, but it feels jerky and awkward.
“Where?” he asks, far from the casual he aims for.
“Sussex. I have found a lodge, minimal renovation required-”
“Sussex? You're leaving London?”
“Yes”, Sherlock says and it does painful things to John's stomach. “I'm retiring.”
“Won't that drive you mad?” John says, hoping it doesn't sound too much like he's arguing for Sherlock to stay. He has no right to.
“I think we both know, John, that this phase of our lives has come to an end. We are in no shape to hunt criminals over London rooftops; your speed and your combat skills are and have always been of remarkable use to me, but it seems nonsensical to keep putting such a strain on your heart. And you are the one who complains about me overexerting my hip. On average, we take on one case per month, so taking on none at all will not make that big a difference.”
“I think you'll be bored without it, though”, says John, and adds: “You don't need to worry about my heart”, which is ironic because it feels like it's currently breaking.
“Don't be like that, John, I am simply being practical. As for your concern about my boredom; I have spent the past year studying apiculture, which I am sure you have observed. The lodge has a garden ideal for a bee colony, and I intend to spend my days watching the workings of the bees for myself. I have no doubt this will be as fascinating and intellectually rewarding as watching the criminal world of London.”
John's eyes sting. He looks at Sherlock and he sees it, he really does.
It suits him perfectly; he will stand in his beautiful garden for hours, just watching the bees work, and he will come to understand them in a way nobody has before him. He will keep spreadsheets and learn the exact conditions in which they thrive, and he will set up those conditions around them with such care that anyone would think he loves them.
John suddenly envies him for having found out how he wants to spend the rest of his days.
He also envies the bees, which may be an all-time low for him.
He smiles with trembling lips. “Sounds… well. Good, for you.” He nods once, meeting Sherlock's still piercing gaze, and a tremble in his voice betrays him when he adds: “I'll miss you, though.”
For a moment Sherlock's eyes become even more intense, if possible. John barks a short, unnatural laugh to force the vulnerable moment away.
“Don't really know where I'll go”, he says with attempted lightness, and winces when the panic slips through.
Sherlock averts his gaze for the first time since John entered the room.
“The lodge has two bedrooms”, he tells the rug, his face turning into a scowl and his voice turning grumpy. When John doesn't answer, he adds with an air of irritation: “There would potentially be room for you.”
John clears his throat. “Yeah, I'll visit you, of course.”
Sherlock's scowl deepens and he turns his head towards the window.
“Or you could move with me.”
John is suddenly afraid to breathe. He stares at Sherlock and wishes he would turn back so John could see his expression properly.
“To Sussex?” he asks, not recognising his voice any more.
“The other bedroom has a rather pleasing view”, Sherlock says without turning, his tone dropping impossibly lower. “With a desk in front of it, it would make for an ideal writing spot. You could start working on that book you talk about all the time.”
John's stomach has stopped hurting and has instead begun to flutter. Sherlock twists awkwardly in front of him, probably feeling John's eyes taking him in. The way he squirms in his pristine clothing and striking posture is positively endearing.
“You've thought about this. You're not just… saying this because I…” He doesn't know how he would end the sentence, but it's probably just as well he doesn't.
“I rather hoped you would accept my offer”, Sherlock says formally to the ceiling, but an involuntary swallow gives him away.
“You're really asking me to come with you?” John feels his face starting to smooth out with the beginnings of a smile.
Sherlock moves his head fractionally, glancing at John. “Do you want to?” There are still traces of the scowl in his voice.
“Oh God yes”, John says with emphasis on every word.
Sherlock holds his gaze, and John never tires of this sight; Sherlock's face slowly lighting up with a smile. It's the small and private one, the one he only ever aims at John.
“Come here”, John says and chokes a bit on the words, as he steps forward to put his arms around Sherlock.
Sherlock sways for the fraction of a second, then he lifts his arms and carefully winds them around John's back. He lets out a breath he seems to have been holding, relaxing forward into John's sturdy frame.
John draws back with the most ridiculous smile on his face, his hands clasped at Sherlock's lower back. “We're going to spend the rest of our lives together”, he blurts, before he can review the words and listen for something that will give him away. This certainly has the risk of doing that, but he doesn't even regret it when he sees the softness that Sherlock tries to hide from his eyes.
“That was the general idea.”
They walk along the river. It's a foggy day, chilly in a way that creeps into John's clothing no matter how carefully he wraps it. Sherlock is in his coat, the one he spent months looking for, stubbornly seeking one that was as similar to his old one as possible. He really hasn't changed much; the coat just looks more and more dignified each year. He ages in a classy way, the posh git. Now he stares ahead, seeing God knows what either on this walking path or in his mind palace.
John glances at him once in a while. He does that a lot lately, to be honest.
Sherlock gives nothing away, as usual. Still John keeps glancing.
Because Sherlock looks unreachable in his posh coat and distant gaze, and he has tried so very hard his whole life to maintain this mysterious image of himself, but the thing is, he isn't as unreachable any more.
Because however hard he tried, Sherlock couldn't propose their joined retirement without giving this much away; he wants to keep John.
Forever and ever.
John tries not to think about it in such romantic terms, but finds it's impossible.
He didn't really need his love for this man to grow any deeper, but how could it not? Sherlock, in his brilliance, has not only contemplated how he wants to spend his older years; he has also contemplated how John wants to spend his older years, and then he has found the most beautiful place for them to do it together. John loves the lodge. The first time he saw it he had to be careful not to talk too much, because the lump in his throat threatened to dissolve into tears.
This is ours. Sherlock's and mine.
Two women walk the opposite direction on the path. John steps in closer to Sherlock when they pass by. He is surprised that other people are out on such a gloomy day.
He glances at Sherlock again. Sherlock absent-mindedly lifts his gloved hands to raise his collar even more, eyes narrowing slightly.
John's eyes flicker to his lips and then he quickly, habitually,forces himself to look away.
Sherlock's friendship with John will last longer than his marriage to the work. It's the gesture John has waited for forever.
It scares John more than he would have anticipated.
He never paused to think. He always knew he didn't want to live without Sherlock, so he never thought about leaving. He stayed and he told himself it would all just have to be enough.
He never thought about how it would maybe have to be enough every day for the rest of his life. The rest of his life, staring at cheekbones, the heartache as integrated in his person as his bad shoulder is.
But the spiral of thoughts in John's head, thirty years old, beginning with Married to his work and spinning into something contradictory and unsolvable, now ends with a brand new piece:
He wants to grow old with me.
John glances and lets his gaze linger. He can't do this once they own a lodge together. Of all the chances that have been given to him over the years, this is the very last one.
When Sherlock turns his head, the balance of everything tilts in the fraction of a second.Sherlock stops dead on the path and his expression changes impossibly fast. His face becomes so bare that John can see everything in it. Desperation, understanding, longing, all shining through a thick veil of fear.
John should have known; the confession wouldn't be more difficult than saying the one name that always occupies his mind. Sherlock already knows what John is about to say, so John doesn't. Instead he moves closer.
Sherlock's panting breaths brush his face.
“John, you'd better mean it.”
A mixture of relief and anger hits John when he understands. They have both been glancing. They have both been aching. They have done it for as long as there has been a them. He grabs Sherlock's lapels and his voice is fierce when he answers:
“I've loved you for thirty years, you bastard.”
Sherlock's lips are enough to drive the chill out of his seams and make the fog in the air feel mild. John inhales through his nose and the scent is so sweet he feels his forehead wrinkle, pressing his mouth more firmly onto the softness of Sherlock's.
It ends with a tremble across Sherlock's lips. John opens his eyes, catching a glimpse of Sherlock's wrinkled forehead before the man quickly ducks his head to try to hide a sob against John's jacket.
“John”, he breathes. John holds him closer, hands in his hair, adoring the way Sherlock's silver-streaked curls slide around his fingers. Sherlock's face is mashed into his shoulder when he whispers, so silently that John is unsure he's meant to hear it at all: “I love you.”
John tilts his head back and closes his eyes, the back of his eyelids bright from the grey sky. “And I love you”, he murmurs, a small smile forming on his lips. “Course I do.”
Sherlock sniffs and makes another sound, sob or laughter. “I love you”, he repeats. “I love you”, as if he is trying to voice every time he wanted to say it but thought he couldn't.
“My God”, John murmurs. “Sherlock…”
“I love you I love you”, Sherlock whispers into John's shoulder.
John puts his lips against Sherlock's temple, and Sherlock raises his head to meet his mouth. His cheek feels wet under John's nose. Sherlock cups the back of John's head with his leather-clad hands and John loses every concept of limits for outside snogging.
When they hear steps coming close to them, with a laughter and a chorus of acclamations, they break apart, resting their foreheads against one another.
“Sorry boys, carry on!” someone cheerfully shouts, and the steps go away.
John glances up at Sherlock to find him looking back. When their eyes meet, they start to giggle the way they always do. Only this time, John feels Sherlock's body shake with it in his arms. This time, he gets to muffle it with a kiss. The chuckles in Sherlock's chest break off with a short whine, and then he stops breathing until John lets his mouth go.
“I love you”, Sherlock says again. For a moment John is speechless watching his entire face crinkled up with the most radiant smile.
“God, have you hidden this the whole time?”
“You never asked to have it.”
“I was about to. Every bloody day.”
Another accidental laugh escapes Sherlock and he presses a trembling kiss against the tip of John's nose. It almost breaks John's fragile heart.
Sherlock draws in a huge breath through his nose, shaking his head briskly, composing his tear-streaked face. When he speaks again, his voice is dry and detached.
“We should get married before we move. Once we are in Sussex, we will have so much to do, and register offices will not be as easily accessible for us as they currently are.”
John blinks at him. He has never gotten used to Sherlock's way of leaping ahead in conversations, assuming everyone else has made the exact same connections and associations that he has.
“Get married?” John repeats.
“Obviously”, Sherlock frowns.
And John doesn't mean to laugh, but he can't seem to stop it. He is so damn happy that tears are leaking from his eyes, and he buries his face in Sherlock's ridiculous collar as if muffling the sounds will mean Sherlock won't notice. He feels Sherlock's hands on his shoulders, hesitantly still.
“Not good?” Sherlock finally asks.
“No, very good”, John gasps and forces himself to breathe. He looks up at Sherlock's wary eyes. “It's obvious we should get married. Right away.”
“That's what I said.”
“Yeah.” John puts his palm against Sherlock's cheek, feeling his own eyes beam into Sherlock's. “You want to marry me.”
The frown doesn't exactly disappear, but it changes into another type; one of aching devotion.
“I do”, he says quietly.
John finds he doesn't have the words to tell Sherlock what he needs him to know. Instead he slowly leans in. He revels in the anticipation on Sherlock's face, the way he holds perfectly still, waiting for whatever John intends to do.
John closes his eyes and presses his lips against Sherlock's, lightly, sweetly, slowly.
When he lets go he lingers with the tip of his nose against Sherlock's, and he breathes in the gush of air leaving Sherlock's parting lips.
“We're going to spend the rest of our lives together”, John whispers, stroking Sherlock's cheek with his thumb.
“That was the general idea”, Sherlock murmurs.