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The first time John says it, he’s furious, left hand clenching and unclenching, smiling that vicious little smile. That smile is a weapon and it thrills Sherlock – except, for some reason, when it’s directed at him. Sherlock’s sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, bare chested, the side of his body a long line of blossoming blue and black blood below pale skin.

“Why did. Jesus, Sherlock. I can’t fucking believe… Why do you do this? What were. Did you have to…”

John can never get a full sentence out when he’s this angry and Sherlock bites back a smile as the smaller man stutters and stops and starts again, his lean, upright frame practically vibrating with frustration.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” John finally manages and Sherlock rewards him for successfully vocalising a whole sentence by actually answering.

“I was thinking it would probably be better to catch him before he killed someone else.”

“By throwing yourself into him when he was passing the window? By making sure you both fell two storeys onto solid concrete? That. That was really the best sodding plan your genius brain could come up with?”

“I estimated the distance and our combined weights and calculated that the impact would be enough to cause significant bruising – maybe a couple of broken ribs – but the risk of fatality was minimal. Particularly given I made sure he landed first.”

“Minimal. I’m the bloody doctor, Sherlock. Not you. There’s always a margin of error.”

“Mmm. Thirteen percent.”

“You could have waited. I was right behind you. One flight. I turned the corner just in time to see you go out the window. Do you have any idea what I…”

Sherlock stands and reaches for his shirt. Nothing the dry cleaner will be able to do. Those stains aren’t going to come out. Sighing, he drops the ruined silk into the bathroom bin.

“No, of course you don’t,” John’s saying. “Why do I do this?”

He turns on his heel, that abrupt military swivel, and walks out of the bathroom, leaving Sherlock staring at himself in the mirror as he tries to fix the mad bird's nest that has replaced his usual neat helmet of curls. John doesn’t walk into Sherlock’s bedroom, which he has taken to sharing more often than not over the last six weeks since Sherlock finally stopped pretending not to notice that John had stopped running his eyes up Sherlock’s neck and over his arse reflexively and started doing it when he thought Sherlock wasn’t looking. Instead, John heads towards the kitchen. Tea, then. John is nothing if not predictable in his habits, even if his emotions never quite seem to be what Sherlock is expecting. It isn’t until Sherlock hears John’s feet on the stairs, slow and somehow defeated, that he realises John is going up to his own bedroom.

John has locked the door by the time Sherlock makes it up the stairs behind him. When he doesn’t answer the third barrage of knocks, the third sharp “John!,” said in the tone that usually makes him fall in line with Sherlock’s demands before he even realises he’s doing it, Sherlock takes three steps back to the edge of the small landing and dives forward. The door crashes open under the weight of his body and slams into the wall, rebounding hard into his big toe. He barely notices the injury. It is utterly eclipsed by the blinding pain in his right shoulder, which leaves him stunned and blinking for a moment. Stupid. Should have used the other shoulder. His bruises could definitely have done without the second impact.

John is standing by the bed, bristling.

“What the bloody fuck are you doing?”

“Obvious.”

It takes Sherlock three strides to reach him, one hand coming up to tilt John’s face towards his even as his mouth descends. The contact lasts two seconds, their teeth clashing, before John shoves him off.

“No offense, Sherlock, but I’m not really in the mood.”

Sherlock leans forward, over where John’s palms are splayed warm and unyielding against his bare chest, and licks up the side of his friend’s neck towards his jaw, feeling the rasp of stubble under his tongue. He draws back when John jerks his head away. This isn’t how he usually responds, even when Sherlock has annoyed him. Something is wrong.

“Why not?”

“Why not? Why isn’t seeing more evidence of your death wish a turn on?”

John laughs angrily, a single dry huff of air.

“I don’t have a death wish.”

“Well your self-preservation instincts aren’t looking particularly good.”

“I’ve already told you, I calculated the risk. Pay attention.”

“Oh right, I remember, there was only a thirteen percent chance I’d look out of that window and see your brains splattered across the concrete. Cheers for that. Good calculating there, Sherlock. Really good.”

“Why are you getting so upset?”

“Why am I…? Because I love you and you threw yourself out of a second storey window and made me watch. Because your bloody calculations don’t make you invincible…”

Sherlock freezes. His heart stutters alarmingly and then begins beating much harder and faster than usual. He closes his eyes and wonders why he feels like he’s just shot up. His body is crackling with sudden inexplicable electricity but instead of working better, quicker, more smoothly, his brain has slowed right down. John is still talking, squared up to Sherlock like he wants to punch him, but Sherlock’s mind isn’t working properly. He’s broken.

Sherlock is always aware of time passing. The counting off of seconds, minutes, hours, is something that happens in one small part of his brain. It is as boring – and as unconscious – as breathing. But he isn’t sure how many seconds have passed when he realises that John has stopped talking and is gripping him by the left arm, iron fingers digging into the flesh just above his bicep. Despite his anger, Sherlock notes that John is using his right hand – his non-dominant hand – careful, even in his anger, to touch the side of Sherlock’s body that isn’t bruised.

“Sherlock? Sherlock! What’s wrong?”

Sherlock blinks. John’s face is now worried, as well as angry. Sherlock blinks again. Something is still wrong with his brain. Is this what it’s like to be ordinary? Dear God, it’s intolerable.

“Are you even listening?” John is saying. “Are my concerns really dull enough that you… Right. Look, just. Forget it. I’m going to bed.”

By the time Sherlock’s thoughts starts up again, to his immense relief, flowing along at their usual speed, John is sliding between the sheets. He turns his back on Sherlock and yanks the duvet up, tucking it around his hunched shoulders.

“Turn out the light when you leave.”

Sherlock turns out the light. Then he peels off his filthy trousers, ignoring the throbbing pain in his side and shoulder, and crawls in behind John. He debates touching the stiff, silent form in front of him and decides against it.

“John? John. John!”

“Go to bed, Sherlock. Your bed.”

John’s voice is very calm and very quiet. He doesn’t move.

“I – I’m sorry.”

The words taste foreign. Sherlock abhors apologising. He never does anything he doesn’t mean to do and therefore he never does anything he wants to apologise for. But John is normal – in this particular way, at least – and he likes apologies. And John is also angry and that was an unintended side-effect of what Sherlock decided to do, so maybe an apology is appropriate. He waits.

John lies still for a few seconds longer and then shuffles over onto his back, turning his head on the pillow so that he can meet Sherlock’s eyes. His face is bathed in a faint orange glow from the street lamp outside the window, covered with the thin white curtain that was there when John moved in and that he – accustomed to sleeping in much less tranquil circumstances – has never bothered to replace.

“You – Sherlock bloody Holmes – are saying sorry.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t that what people do?”

John sighs but his mouth curves upwards at the corners. Sherlock knows that smile. It’s the reluctant version of the soft smile, the one John uses when he calls Sherlock an idiot.

“Most of us, occasionally, yeah,” he says.

This time, when Sherlock leans in, John doesn’t push him away. Sherlock closes his eyes and focuses on John’s soft mouth and his warm body, calling up his mental index of all the things most likely to make John moan.

John drifts off to sleep, twenty five minutes later, tucked into Sherlock’s side with one warm hand lying heavy on Sherlock’s bare, bruised chest. Sherlock lies awake, breathing in the scent of sweat and sex and thinking about the three words that had briefly derailed his brain.

People have said it before. Of course they have. People are idiots. So full of sentiment and so determined to smear their own illogical emotions all over other people, as though feelings are viral particles and if they only exude enough they’re bound to be catching. Three – no, four – people have told Sherlock they loved him, mostly during sex, when people seem almost pathologically incapable of shutting up and focusing on the enjoyable physical sensations that are the entire point of the exercise. One man Sherlock had picked up in a gay club near Soho and hooked up with between cases for close to three months – longer than normal, that had been his mistake – had even interrupted a rather nice blow job to say it. He’d got quite upset when Sherlock had rolled his eyes and urged him to focus. So why didn’t Sherlock want to roll his eyes when John said it? Is it because they’re colleagues? Flatmates? Friends? No. Stupid. Why would that change anything? It doesn’t make sense.

Sherlock isn’t interested in sentiment so it must be something to do with John. The thing about John is he’s a paradox. Not just in the obvious doctor/soldier, healer/killer way that every idiot can see. It’s his mind that interestingly contradictory. He’s morally rigid in a way that should be boring but isn’t because when he decides the circumstances warrant it he’ll shoot a man in cold blood and crack a joke afterwards. He adheres to social conventions, at least on the surface, and smooths Sherlock’s way with uptight inspectors and witless witnesses but he doesn’t try to change Sherlock – in fact he likes it when Sherlock is rude. He hides it well but Sherlock sees everything and he doesn’t miss the way John often has to hide a smile when Sherlock says what they’re both thinking. John is a realist – he invaded Afghanistan, of course he’s a realist. But he’s also oddly romantic. He may not believe in heroes but he believes in heroism. For some reason Sherlock, who knows better, finds that strangely endearing.

Sherlock runs through twenty three possible explanations for his own illogical reaction and checks his mind palace for anything relevant that he might have indexed on sex and sentiment and John. None of it clarifies anything. By the time Sherlock decides that it can’t hurt to allow himself two to four hours of sleep before he begins the search for a new case, he is no closer to solving the puzzle. He needs more data. Easy enough. He’ll just make John say it again.

*

It takes Sherlock longer than it should to figure out how to engineer a repeat. John likes it when Sherlock makes an effort to be considerate, so he tries doing nice things. The sorts of things a normal boyfriend would do. He makes John a cup of tea and brings it to him in bed, which for some reason results in more suspicion than gratitude, even though when Sherlock sees the look on John’s face he remembers to reassure him that the tea has not been drugged or otherwise tampered with. In no way is this a repeat of the Baskerville incident, he adds, when John face doesn’t soften. He resists the urge to call John an idiot in front of Lestrade and his team three cases in a row – a record. John is so busy being dazzled by Sherlock’s deductions, the final two flung over his shoulder as takes off, coat flying, after a suspect, that he doesn’t even seem to notice what an effort Sherlock is making. 

At the next crime scene, he tries to slow the speed of his deductions so that John can interject. John likes to feel useful and he likes teasing Sherlock. It’s one of things that makes him unique. Everyone else treats Sherlock like he’s an alien – even Lestrade, who is perfectly willing to set boundaries for Sherlock to ride roughshod over when it suits him, treats him like he doesn’t have a sense of humour. Maybe he’s never noticed it – he is appalling unobservant for a detective, after all. But right from the first night they met, John has laughed with Sherlock and – even more surprisingly – laughed at him. He admires Sherlock’s genius but takes a gleeful delight in any evidence of fallibility. He likes it when Sherlock gets something wrong, when he is forced to guess, when he throws out a deduction that is based on a faulty premise and John gets to be the one to explain what it is he’s missed, to clear away the blockages until Sherlock’s mind can resume flowing along fast-moving channels of logic until the solution becomes clear. His plan should have worked. It’s obvious that John relishes being able to explain what Sherlock’s missed about the nuances of the long-running feud between their client and her brother. But he doesn’t make any declarations of sentiment.

Next, Sherlock tries implementing a deduction he’s made about something John wants but will never ask for. He waits until they get home after a particularly invigorating chase to push the shorter man up against the wall just inside their front door, whispering exactly what he plans to do to him as he pins him roughly with one hand on his uninjured shoulder and undoes his belt with the other. John reacts even better than Sherlock had expected to being stripped naked, trussed up in the handcuffs Sherlock has stolen from Donovan and bent double over the back of the sofa, Sherlock standing behind him gripping the handcuff chain for leverage as he fucks him, still fully dressed and still wearing his coat. But while it’s happening, John is too busy swearing and gasping incoherently to say much of anything and when it’s over, all he says is, “Sherlock, please tell me that when you nicked these cuffs you remembered to steal the key?” Even after Sherlock has unlocked him and is briskly rubbing away the red marks on his wrists, John only grins at him and says, “I’m fine. Jesus, that was... You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days,” and for some reason Sherlock finds himself grinning back, even though his plan has failed.

It takes him weeks to realise that he’s approaching it wrong. John hadn’t been pleased or grateful when he’d said it. He hadn’t been impressed with Sherlock’s brilliance or basking in a post-orgasmic haze. He’d been angry. Luckily, Sherlock makes John angry quite a lot – though almost always accidentally. It shouldn’t hard to do it on purpose. When John comes back from a shift and goes upstairs to change his clothes, Sherlock waits. Then the shouting starts, right on schedule.

“Why the fuck is there a severed leg in my fucking bed?” Sherlock hears as John’s footsteps pound down the stairs.

“Experiment,” he says.

“In my fucking bed.”

“I needed to know how much liquid a standard double mattress would absorb from a man’s leg if it were severed post-mortem, frozen and then left to defrost.”

“You put a leg in my cunting bed, Sherlock.”

“It had to be yours. Think, John. Yours is a double. Mine’s a king.”

John is gratifyingly – though irrationally – furious. After all, he sleeps in Sherlock’s bed most of the time now anyway and Sherlock really does need to measure the size of the stain, a man’s alibi depends on it. But John doesn’t say the words again. He just shouts at Sherlock, his face red and his left hand clenching and unclenching at his side. He rants about boundaries and respect and biohazards and Sherlock’s bloody disgusting experiments and then slams out of the flat. He doesn’t take his phone so he’s gone to the park or to the pub, not to seek out Bill or Mike or Lestrade. Won’t be gone long, then. Sherlock lies down on the sofa to recalculate. He’s missing something. It annoys him more than it should that he doesn’t know what it is.

When John finally does say it, Sherlock isn’t expecting it. In fact, Sherlock is on the floor of the bathroom, his skin grey and his stomach empty but still roiling and twisting like it’s trying to claw its way out of his mouth.

“You said it was an experiment! Not a fucking suicide attempt!” John is ranting. His own face is pale, his eyes red. Having thrown up in the shower while Sherlock was sprawled over the cold tiles, collapsed beside the toilet, John seems to have recovered much more quickly than Sherlock, whose head is pounding and who cannot process the feeling of fear and despair that still has him in its grip. It’s like the worst come-down of his life, after the worst high.

“You were there too,” he manages to say, his voice raw. “If anything it would have been a murder-suicide.”

“Not helping, Sherlock.”

John slides down until he’s slumped against the wall and puts his head in his hands. Sherlock knows exactly how he feels. That had not gone as expected. He’d found the drug at the crime scene and taken it before Lestrade’s team could bag it up – not that they were in any danger of deducing its existence, let alone finding it. Only Sherlock had even realised that it had to have been some sort of gas or smoke that had killed their victim and left her two brothers delirious with laughter and wracked with hallucinations that showed no signs of wearing off. He’d spotted a wooden incense burner with the end of what looked a joss stick stuck in it and known immediately that he’d found the solution. It was too red, too lumpy – clearly homemade. He’d swiped it when Lestrade was distracted, wrapped it in a tissue and put it in his coat pocket. He’d sent John off to interview the third brother – unnecessary but it would keep him busy for an hour or two – and run all the tests he could think of on it at Bart’s. He’d learned nothing except that it was some sort of organic vegetable or root matter mixed with a rudimentary charcoal and sawdust burning agent. He still didn’t understand how it worked. So when he got home, he told John he had almost cracked the case – true, after all, as the answer was in his pocket – and asked if he wanted to watch the experiment. It wasn’t like he could have known what would happen. The victim had been inhaling the stuff for hours – how on earth was he to have deduced that it would have such a drastic effect in a matter of seconds?

It had been John who had thrown the remains of a cup of tea over the burning drug and wrestled Sherlock out of the kitchen into the hall, slamming the door and half-dragging him to the bathroom. Sherlock had been leaning over the stuff when he’d set it alight and had inhaled a lung full of the smoke immediately. Maybe one of the experiments he’d run had destabilised it because the stick had burned like a sparkler, crackling madly as it filled the room with toxic smoke quicker than he would have thought possible. If John hadn’t moved as quickly as he had, they’d both be as dead as their murder victim. Sherlock doesn’t particularly want to remember the thoughts that went through his mind as he lay on the bathroom floor listening to John swearing between bouts of retching. Whatever the drug is, it’s clearly not recreational. No one would pay to experience that.

John is muttering to himself behind his hands and Sherlock notes the pallor of his skin and the slump of his shoulders. He has moved out of active combat mode and into survival mode. He’s trying not to succumb to a panic attack. Sherlock is surprised by the feeling of guilt that suffuses him at the deduction. Guilt is a useless emotion and one he rarely feels. Must be another after-effect of the drug.

“You’re okay,” he says, using the soothing tone he adopts with hysteric clients.

John’s shoulders are shaking and for a moment Sherlock thinks he’s hyperventilating after all. Or perhaps sobbing. Then he realises that it’s laughter.

“John?”

“Well, I’m alive. No thanks to you.”

John drags both hands down his face and clasps them in front of his bent knees. He’s angry again. Very angry.

“You’re angry,” Sherlock says.

“Forget it. It’s fine.”

“It’s obviously not fine.”

John says nothing.

“Are you angry because I put you in danger?”

John throws his head back so hard that it smacks against the tiles. The impact makes a hollow thudding sound and Sherlock fights the urge to lean forward and grip John’s delicate skull between his hands, to hold it still so that John can’t do that again.

“I know you don’t want to hurt me. I saw your face at the pool,” John says in his careful voice. “It’s not about me, Sherlock. I’m a soldier. I don’t mind danger. I like it, you know that. When there’s a reason for it. But you could have killed us. Both of us. And for what? You did not need to conduct that experiment. You didn’t need to test the drug to solve the case. You solved it at the crime scene, didn’t you?”

Sherlock looks away but John’s not really asking. He already knows.

“It was the brother. Obvious. Even Lestrade would have got there eventually,” Sherlock concedes. “But it’s not enough to know who did it. I needed to know how.”

“You knew how.”

“I knew what he used. I didn’t know how it worked. I ran lots of tests at Bart’s before I lit it, John. But I needed to know what it felt like so that I could understand its effects.”

“No. You didn’t. You did not need to know what it felt like. You’d already seen its fucking effects. You’ve never stabbed yourself in the chest but you accept that as a cause of death. You’ve never hung yourself or shot yourself in the head or jumped off a building. Once you figured out it was a drug you just couldn’t resist knowing how the high felt, could you? Even if it killed you. It’s not my safety you don’t care about, it’s your own. It could have sent us both mad, for fuck’s sake. Did you even think about that?”

“Of course I thought about it!”

Sherlock’s head is still pounding but he forces himself to straighten up and lean forward, using his height to tower over John, even while seated.

“Don’t be so dull. You’re not this boring, John. They were breathing it in for minutes, possibly hours. We were exposed for seconds. We’re perfectly fine and you know it. You’re a doctor. So why are you getting so irate? What business of yours is it what I do with my brain?”

“What business of mine? I’m sorry. I forgot I’m just a convenient stooge to make you tea and pay half the rent and occasionally point a gun at someone for you. Never mind the fact that I love you. I should just let you embark on suicidal experiments that serve no possible purpose other than satisfying your fucking insatiable curiosity.”

Sherlock becomes aware that his heart is beating fast again. Is it the aftereffects of the poison, whatever it was? Increased heart rate and sweating – normal side-effects of vomiting. But it’s been a few minutes since the nausea wore off.

He blocks out the sound of John’s voice as he tries to pinpoint what’s happening to him. This is John’s fault. It has to be. What is it about John that makes him react like this to such a pedestrian display of sentiment?

“Sherlock? Are you okay?”

“Fine.”

“You’re blinking a lot.”

“Yes.”

“Right. Well.”

Sherlock thinks about John’s voice saying those words. Angry but honest. John is almost always honest – with Sherlock, anyway. He must mean it then. Think he means it, at least. John isn’t always very good at identifying his emotions. He smiles when he’s angry. He may well have misidentified his feelings. Sentiment. This is why Sherlock steers clear of it. It’s the dust on the lens. The contaminant in the test tube. It compromises the integrity of his deductions.

He’s not sure how much time has passed when he realises that John is no longer in the bathroom. He replays the familiar sounds he’s been ignoring for the last few minutes. John is in the kitchen. He hears the slide of the cutlery drawer and the clink of metal on china. Tea. Obvious.

He gets to his feet, wincing at the stab of pain behind his eyes, washes his mouth out thoroughly, examining the strange grey hue of his skin in the mirror, and staggers down the hallway. John has his back to the door. He is staring down at the two mugs in front of him. The smoke has dissipated – luckily the window had been open when Sherlock conducted the experiment – but there is a strange heavy smell in the air, metallic and alien. The remains of the poison are still on the table, soggy and black in a small puddle of cold tea.

“Here.”

John presses a mug into Sherlock’s hand as he makes his way past. Forgiven, then. He settles into his armchair and Sherlock slowly crosses the room and settles down in his own chair.

“Drink that and then call Lestrade,” John says, as he picks up the thriller he’s left on the arm of his chair, its splayed pages putting unacceptable strain on the spine. Sherlock would remind him what an abominable way that is to treat a book were the novel not complete drivel. Unworthy of the paper it’s written on. Detective novels. How can John stand to read them? And why does Sherlock find his interest in them strangely appealing?

By the time Sherlock has finished his tea and texted Lestrade to tell him to hunt down the third brother, he’s figured out the common trigger. Both times John had said it he’s been angry. But not angry like he is when Sherlock experiments on him without his permission or scares off one of his girlfriends or leaves him to get an ASBO. Angry the way he is when he thinks Sherlock has done something reckless. Simple, then. He’ll need to risk his life again – or make John think he has. He sips a second cup of tea which has appeared beside him as he runs through scenarios. At least it won’t be boring.

*

The third time is easy to engineer. The perfect case falls into Sherlock’s lap like a strange gift. The young woman who brings it to him, Helen Stoner, is an academic, he can tell by her coat cuffs and her shoes. She’s evidently terrified but she’s also clear and concise and interesting – a woman used to lecturing, her intrinsic confidence undermined by some trauma. Connected to the case, it has to be. He watches the way she tugs at the long sleeves of her silk blouse as she tells them about her suspicions involving her step-father, a plastic surgeon who has had the care of both his step-daughters since their teenage years. Despite her age and their evident animosity, she still lives with her step-father in the family home. Strange. Old-fashioned. There’s plenty there she’s not saying, evidently. She talks of his violence and how he is hated by everyone in the village, his trips abroad in his younger days to India and China and his fascination with tropical snakes, which he keeps in large vivaria set all around his bedroom. She is clearly terrified of the man. Not just her words but every flicker of her eyelid and nervous flutter of her hands confirms it.

John is making sympathetic noises as she describes the death of her sister but Sherlock is paying attention to more important things than her feelings. Like the way she is keeping her wrists hidden – bruising there, clearly, that she doesn’t want them to see – and the words she uses. Abusive step-father. Wants to intimidate her into surrendering her claim to the family property.

“Boring. Can't help you,” he says, and she stutters to a halt in the middle of a sentence, looking questioningly at John, as though he’s responsible for the interruption. Perhaps she thinks he’s operating Sherlock like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

“How you haven't figured out that it's...”

Sherlock stops. He’s missed something. Something important. Honestly, why do none of their clients ever explain anything properly?

She’s already standing up to leave but he needs her to stay.

“Wait. The ‘speckled band,’ you said. Why speckled?”

She just stares at him. John clears his throat. A warning. Sherlock resists the urge to roll his eyes.

“Describe the room for me. Exactly. Be precise. You said there was some kind of vent above the bed?”

When she’s finished, he rubs his hands.

“Oh yes. Very nice. This could be perfect.”

“Perfect?”

“Sherlock.”

The client and John speak at the same moment, her tone outraged, John’s the one he uses when he thinks Sherlock’s being rude in a way he doesn’t find amusing. 

“Yes. Perfect. It’s exactly what I need,” Sherlock says, springing to his feet.

It takes him ninety seconds to slide his phone into his jacket pocket and put his coat on and then he’s out of the front door, John rushing after him. Annoyingly, he has to wait at the bottom of the stairs for their client to catch up, as he’s forgotten to ask for her address, but then the three of them are on their way to Stoke Moran and Sherlock’s more excited than he’s been in ages.

It’s a brilliant case. Sherlock gets to do a night-time stake out and there’s a mad plastic surgeon with a poker and a paralytic designed to mimic the effects of snake venom. The bit with the snake doesn’t go quite as planned, admittedly. But in the end, Sherlock’s lying on the floor clutching the twin puncture marks on his ankle and groaning with pain that’s only partly feigned and John is crouching over him, fingers pressed to his throat so hard it hurts as he tries to take Sherlock’s pulse while speaking so frantically that Sherlock’s certain he can’t possibly be counting at the same time.

“Sherlock, please, don’t do this. I love you too much. You can’t die. You can’t. Don’t you dare... Jesus. Just. Hold on, okay?”

“I’m fine,” Sherlock says, or tries to say. It’s difficult to speak with John’s fingers jammed under his jaw and he’s feeling a bit thrown by John’s declaration, even though eliciting it was the entire point of taking the case.

“Jesus,” John exhales. “Jesus. That fucking thing bit you. How poisonous is it, Sherlock? I know you know what species it was.”

“Venomous,” Sherlock says, managing to prise John’s fingers away from his neck.

“What?”

“Snakes are venomous. They inject venom via a bite. Poison is ingested.”

“What?”

Sherlock just looks at him and slowly John’s look of panic turns to irritation.

“So you’re fine then,” he says.

“I told you.”

Sherlock struggles to his feet and forces himself to place equal weight on the ankle that still feels as though someone has stuck two hot needles right through the skin and into the bone. The snake wasn’t venomous but it turns out its bite is still decidedly unpleasant. Worth it though, Sherlock thinks, ruthlessly suppressing a smile.

“Sherlock for fuck’s sake –” John begins but then Sherlock kisses him and he abandons whatever he was saying in favour of verifying Sherlock’s continuing aliveness with his tongue.

By the time Lestrade arrives to take control of the crime scene, Dr Roylott has stopped pretending to be dead and John has secured his wrists just a shade too tightly with a plastic twist tie to prevent him attempting to brain anyone again. His face has turned such a vivid shade of puce that Sherlock is half-convinced he’s going to have a heart attack before he can be taken into custody but their client has stopped sobbing hysterically and seems ready to give a statement. As Lestrade’s team mill around, messing up the crime scene, Anderson glares at Sherlock and keeps repeating as loudly as he can that Sherlock’s wasting all of their time, the women’s sister wasn’t murdered four years ago, it had been an accidental death. Some sort of fit. He’d been in charge of the forensics himself. Sherlock rolls his eyes and contemplates stealing Lestrade’s cigarettes.

The case has achieved its aims – John reacted exactly as he was supposed to and Sherlock will have plenty of time to analyse his own reaction later – but Sherlock still likes this part. Showing off, John calls it, but if he doesn’t explain his deductions the police will never figure it out for themselves, even with the solution in front of them. Can't work backwards, let alone forwards. The state of the British police force is a tragedy, really. Except for Sherlock personally, of course, for whom it's a bit of a boon.

He lays out the backstory to the case quickly, setting the scene for the murder of the sister, but half his mind is still on John as he strides up and down the room talking fifteen percent more quickly and twenty percent more loudly every time Lestrade tries to interrupt.

“So Dr Roylott, you created a fake crime scene that successfully fooled Anderson. Congratulations. You're officially smarter than one of the stupidest men in London,” he says, just before Anderson punches him.

Lucky Anderson is as inept a boxer as he is a forensics expert – and Sherlock uses the term sarcastically. Sherlock is rubbing his jaw more for effect than because he’s in any actual pain as Lestrade cuts the plastic binding Roylott's wrists and replaces it with handcuffs, rolling his eyes at Sherlock in a transparent attempt to hide the fact that he’s as amused as he is exasperated.

John walks over to stand at Sherlock’s side.

“Ready to go?” 

There’s something wrong with his voice. It’s oddly flat. He should be fighting a bout of inappropriate giggling by now. He loves it when Sherlock goads Anderson into doing something stupid.

When they get home, John waits until Sherlock has hung up his coat and sunk down on the sofa before he speaks.

“You knew the crime scene was faked from the beginning, didn’t you?” he says. “You knew it wasn’t a snake that killed the sister.”

“Well done, John. Knew you'd get there eventually.”

Sherlock knows John is angry but he’s not entirely sure why. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to explain or apologise. The case is over. All he wants is a few hours alone to go into his mind palace and analyse his small collection of John-saying-I-love-you data.

“For God’s sake,” John says. “Do you have to do this every bloody time, you drama queen?”

“What?”

“You knew exactly what was going to happen and you still let yourself get bitten. So what if the snake wasn’t poisonous?”

“Veno –”

Sherlock actually stops talking under the weight of John’s glare.

“You still could have been hurt. Why couldn’t you just have told me what was going to happen? I could have helped. Made sure you weren’t bitten.”

“I don’t need your help. I'm a junkie who solves murders for kicks, John, not one of your little girlfriends.”

“Don't. Just don’t,” says John. He sounds tired. “I know who you are. I know and I’m not asking you to change. Not really. You can steal my gun and put body parts in my bed and goad me into doing whatever you want, within reason, but you will not put yourself in unnecessary danger anymore. I mean it, Sherlock. I can’t spend my life thinking you’re going to be snatched away from me. I just. I don’t know if I can live with your death wish.”

“Oh for god’s sake. This again?” Sherlock drawls. John’s irrationality is infuriating. “You’re the one who joined the army. You’re the one who has an intermittent tremor that’s triggered by not being in danger. If anyone here has a death wish, it’s you.”

John looks down at the floor. When he looks back up, his face makes Sherlock’s heart do something strange.

“I did, maybe,” he says. “Yes, a bit. For a little while. But not anymore. Not now I’m with you.”

“I don't either! Not anymore.”

John is still, staring at him.

Sherlock sighs as dramatically as he can.

“I knew the snake wasn’t venomous. You thought the sister was killed by a snake bite and they missed it at autopsy? Honestly, John. Anderson’s an idiot but the chances that the forensic pathologist would miss something like that are minuscule. No, it was obviously the step-father who killed her. Paralysed her with some sort of drug from his practice, something that wouldn’t raise alarm on the toxicology report, and then suffocated her, most likely. Child’s play. You can’t train snakes to do your bidding. They’re famously intractable. Anyway, there’s no such thing as a swamp adder, John. It was clearly an eastern hognose – a puff adder, to use one of its many colloquial names. There are at least six points of difference between the eastern hognose and the Indian cobra, which it most closely resembles, despite the way they both flatten their necks when threatened.”

John just looks at him. His ability to stay silent is one of his most irritating qualities. Sherlock knows how to use silence to his advantage but very few people know how to turn it back on him.

“I don’t have a death wish,” he says at last, quietly. “I don’t want to go anywhere you can’t come with me.”

He’s slightly appalled at himself but then John steps forward and they’re kissing and Sherlock regrets nothing. In Sherlock’s room, clothes discarded on the floor, Sherlock works John open with his tongue, enjoying his gasps, the familiar involuntary swearing, and then slides inside him, slower than usual. John is panting quietly beneath him and when he comes he says it again, whispers it against the side of Sherlock’s face like a secret, and Sherlock’s heart does something strange, swelling in his chest like it’s been injected with saline solution and is expanding to twice its usual side. He buries his face in John’s neck and comes silently with the sound of John’s words echoing in his ear.

When John kisses him softly on the shoulder and slides off the bed to go and take a shower, Sherlock lies back and thinks. He wants to say it, he discovers. Just once, to know what saying it would feel like. After all, people say it all the time, let three little words dictate the direction of their whole lives and alter their behaviour. It’s nonsense, obviously. He’s always known that. It’s not like he hasn’t said it before, when he felt it was necessary or useful. People get so worked up about these things. But maybe saying it to John would be different? It would be an interesting experiment just to say it once, to himself, as though John were listening.

He waits until he hears the shower start up and then presses his face into John’s pillow and says it, letting the fabric soak up his words like water. “I love you, John.” Afterwards, the pillow looks exactly the same but Sherlock can’t shake the feeling – illogical, ridiculous – that it’s different.

When John comes back, Sherlock is curled up on his side, facing the wall. He waits until John has switched the light off and climbed into bed to roll over and press his body up against John’s bare back, warm and slightly damp from the shower.

“Good night,” John murmurs, and Sherlock grunts and wraps one long arm around John’s chest, nestling his hand under John’s chin.

He wants to press himself even closer, to keep tugging John’s small body nearer and nearer his chest until they merge into a single organism, all their atoms and molecules mingling until they are too entangled to ever be separated. It’s an illogical thought and not one he’s ever had before but for some reason it appeals to him. He tightens his arm around John’s chest, tugging him closer, so that every inch of his bare back is blanketed with Sherlock’s chest, and hears a small grunt of satisfaction. John’s eyes are closed, Sherlock knows without looking. He is already drifting into sleep.

“The Pauli exclusion principle,” Sherlock mutters to himself.

“What?”

John’s voice is sleepy, the muttered word a reflex rather than a real question.

“Two identical fermions cannot simultaneously occupy the same quantum state within the same quantum system.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s the second law of physics, John.”

“I know that, but why are you muttering about it now, you nutter?”

“Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time,” Sherlock says. He pushes his nose into the curve of John’s neck, where his hairline slants up towards the shell of his ear, and inhales.

“Is this for a case?”

John’s voice is still sleepy but now it’s faintly amused, as though Sherlock is engaged in one of his more scathing personal deductions – the ones he likes to throw at Donovan and Anderson when they’re being particularly insufferable. The ones John pretends he doesn’t enjoy but that always make him want to smile.

“No. Go to sleep John.”

“Okay,” John says easily. He takes hold of Sherlock’s forearm, still wrapped around his chest, and tugs it tighter around him, wriggling his hips backwards slightly so that the smooth warm curves of his bum nestle even more snugly against Sherlock’s hips and the sleepy flesh of his cock.

Sherlock sighs and closes his eyes. The laws of physics are inconvenient sometimes. But maybe after all it’s nicer this way.

*

The fourth time John doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say much of anything. He’s too busy trying to staunch Sherlock’s blood with his jacket.

Sherlock meant it when he told John that he doesn’t have a death wish and he’s not trying to make John angry anymore, so it’s not a calculation but a misstep, a tiny error of judgement, which leads to disaster. Sherlock miscalculates a step and trips ungracefully over the edge of a Turkish rug as he’s drawing back from the knife-wielding murderer whose husband Sherlock has just deduced is lying in pieces under the floorboards on which they stand. She catches him in the sternum with the tip of the blade and draws it all the way across the right side of his chest to his shoulder before John tackles her and she thuds to the ground under his weight, the knife skittering away under the sofa where Sherlock must remember to tell Lestrade to look for it later.

Sherlock ends up in hospital and John sits by his bedside all night, pale and old under the lights. When they get home, the next afternoon, he helps Sherlock to the sofa and slumps down in his own chair, folded in on himself like crushed origami.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he says.

He’s not looking at Sherlock and that’s wrong. He should be glaring, full of tension, larger and stronger, not smaller and weaker. He should be telling Sherlock he loves him, not what? Breaking up with him? Is that what's happening here? Sherlock feels sick, all of a sudden. 

“John?”

“I’m sorry. I thought I could handle it, but. It’s. You’re not going to change – and I. I don’t really want you to. Not most of the time. But I can’t watch you keep throwing yourself into danger until one day you don’t get out of it.”

“I always get out of it.”

“So far. Fuck, Sherlock. You ended up in hospital. You needed almost forty stitches. They were on the verge of giving you a blood transfusion, for god’s sake. You’d already solved the case. Why did you have to taunt her like that? It’s like you’re trying to get yourself killed.”

“I’m not! I wasn’t meant to get hurt. I miscalculated.”

“Miscalculated what? You know as well as I do that if you call an unhinged killer holding a knife one of the stupidest people in Britain they’re likely to take a swing at you. I mean, if you called a random bloke down the pub one of the stupidest people in Britain in that tone of voice he’d have a swing at you too but at least he probably wouldn’t be holding an enormous bloody knife at the time.”

“I tripped,” Sherlock admits, almost under his breath.

“What?”

“I stumbled when I was about to dodge her and I wasn’t quick enough.”

It’s embarrassing and for a moment Sherlock is furious that John has made him admit it. Sherlock doesn’t trip. He’s trained in dance and fencing and mixed martial arts. He doesn’t stumble over carpets. 

John is staring at him as though he’s speaking another language.

“You tripped,” he says. “Okay. And what about… What about last time, with the snake? Or the time before that, with the poison? What about when you went out of the window and I thought your brains were strewn across the pavement?”

“That was different,” Sherlock says, exasperated. “Those were deliberate. Anyway, last time you were supposed to get angry. This time was an accident. I didn’t mean to end up in hospital. I hate hospitals. They won’t even give me morphine anymore since Mycroft –”

“I was supposed to get angry,” John interrupts him. His voice is staccato and tightly controlled. “Why the fuck. Would you want me. To be angry, Sherlock? Hmm?”

John’s neck is so tense that his tendons are showing and he’s struggling for control, taking deep breaths to bracket each set of words, squeezed painfully out of his mouth like juice from a dried up lemon.

“When you’re worried about me you get angry, and when you get angry you –”

“I what?”

Sherlock’s not an idiot. He knows how to keep unwanted things from showing on his face but John must see a flicker of something because his voice is softer when he repeats himself.

“What, Sherlock? What do I do?”

“You tell me how you feel.”

“I tell you how I feel all the time. You just don’t pay attention.”

“No. Not like that. You said…”

John is staring at him and Sherlock drops his eyes.

“You said you loved me.”

John is silent. Sherlock waits, staring at the trousers John bought him to wear home from the hospital, horrible soft cotton things with a drawstring waist, obviously provided by one of Mycroft’s minions. John should have spoken by now. But still he says nothing. Sherlock doesn’t look up.

A hand touches his chin and exerts gentle pressure. Against his better judgement, he allows John to angle his face upwards until their eyes meet.

“You don’t have to make me angry for me to say that. You – Sherlock, you idiot. Only you. You’re insane. Are you saying you…? Of course you did. You engineered all this. Why?”

“You only said it when you were angry – and only when I did something dangerous.”

“Because I thought you didn’t want me to say it! Sentiment. All that. Not your area. I assumed you would hate it. You never said it back.”

Sherlock drops his eyes again but he moves forward a little into the press of John’s hand, which has migrated to the side of his neck, warm and steady.

“Come on,” John sighs and takes his hand.

Sherlock follows him upstairs, preoccupied with the feel of John’s short fingers threaded through his longer ones. When they reach John’s bedroom, Sherlock stands still and silent, letting John undress him and urge him onto the bed while he removes his own clothes.

“I’m still cross with you,” John says, climbing in beside Sherlock and then moving over to brace himself on top of the detective, looking down into his face. “I want to give you what you want. But I can’t do that if you never ask for it.”

Sherlock swallows and nods, his hair brushing against John’s forehead. He closes his eyes.

"We're going to have to be very careful," John says, above him. "Don't want to tear your stitches."

Sherlock nods and stays very still as John presses a kiss to each of his eyelids, gentle, and then says it, close to Sherlock’s lips, his breath ghosting over them. Sherlock hears himself make a helpless sound, keeps his eyes tightly closed as he lets the words wash over him.

John says it again when Sherlock is almost too far gone to hear him, his head thrown back, mind carefully focused on nothing but the slow drag of John around him. John is above him, rocking gently, looking down at Sherlock’s face, hands tangled in his hair, and he whispers it again and again as he moves, sending ripples of pleasure through Sherlock’s body until the sound of John’s voice and the feel of him become one and Sherlock gasps and bucks upwards into John’s warmth. The sharp bolt of pain as his stiches tighten and pull only seems to intensify his orgasm as he comes in great spasms that shake his whole body. John keeps murmuring as the hand he’s using to stroke himself speeds up. His words muddle up and jumble together until all Sherlock can make out is “love” and his own name as John clenches hard around Sherlock's softening cock and comes with a groan that sounds as much like pain as pleasure, striping warm semen across Sherlock’s bare chest.

John is gasping into his neck, slumped atop him, careful not to put too much pressure on Sherlock's stiches. Sherlock’s heart is thrumming, racing like he’s just injected too much cocaine. He closes his eyes and focuses on counting the beats, blocking everything but numbers from his mind. He waits until his breathing slows, falling into a quiet rhythm, until John shifts and let out a long contented breath and Sherlock slides out of him on a rush of warm fluid. Before John can move away, Sherlock places one large hand on the back of his neck and stops him.

“John, I – I do,” he says.

“I know you do.”

John raises himself on his arms above Sherlock, looking down into his face. His expression is very serious.

“No more,” he says. “Promise me. No more jumping in front of cars or out of windows. No more inhaling or shooting or otherwise ingesting unknown toxins. No more playing with snakes or knives or fucking chainsaws. I’m not saying you can’t do your job. I’m not trying to change who you are. I’m not asking you never to get hurt again or not to put yourself in some danger when it’s really necessary. I’m just asking you to be a bit more careful. I don’t care who you’re trying to capture or whether you think they might escape. I know you’re clever enough to think of other ways. And if you can’t think of one, you let them go – temporarily – and we’ll think of one together. Promise me. Okay? I don’t ask you to do that, usually. I never ask, but I need you to promise me, this time, about this one thing.”

Sherlock doesn’t make promises. Not to Lestrade, not to Mycroft, not even to Mrs Hudson. But this one doesn’t seem so terrible. All he’s promising, after all, is not to make John angry on purpose anymore. And not to do anything that might mean that John can’t stay with him. It’s not like he wants John to be angry. Or gone.

“Fine,” he says, in his long-suffering voice. “I promise you the next time I’m chasing down a suspect I won’t get myself stabbed or get hit by a car or jump of a roof. At least without informing you first.”

“Thank you.”

Instead of rolling to one side, John levers himself forward to press a soft kiss into Sherlock’s hair, just over his forehead. He reaches over the side of the bed for the horrible hospital trousers, wipes them both clean and lies back down atop Sherlock’s body, resting his head into the dip of Sherlock’s shoulder, just above his heart.

“You don’t seem very surprised,” Sherlock murmurs after a moment, running his fingers down the knobs of John’s spine.

“Mmmm?”

“That I – about what I said.”

John starts shaking atop him and it takes Sherlock a moment to realise he’s laughing softly. Sherlock huffs and stills his fingers.

“You mean what you almost said?” John manages.

“Yes,” he snaps.

“I was surprised you said it.”

“But not surprised that I feel it. Why?”

John wriggles a little bit until Sherlock resumes running his fingers across the smooth skin of his back, feeling the shift in texture where the bullet exited his body, just missing his left scapula.

“Because I know you. I know you think sentiment isn’t your area, but you feel things more deeply than anyone else I know.”

“I do not!”

John gives another little huff of laughter, warm breath gusting across Sherlock’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I know, high-functioning sociopath,” he says. “Only you’re not. That’s not even a thing. I’ve done the research.”

Sherlock’s hand stills again. He’s not sure whose heartbeat he can feel but it’s steady and strong, just like John.

He spreads his whole hand across John’s upper back, feeling the minute shift of muscles under his fingers and palm.

“No one else has,” he says.

“Yeah, Sherlock. I know.”

They fall silent and Sherlock thinks John might be falling asleep on top of him.

“So why didn’t you say anything? Didn’t you want me to tell you?

“Not if you didn’t want to. I know how you feel about me. I also know that you’re smart. I knew you’d get there without my help.”

“What made you so sure?”

“When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” John says, as though reciting something.

“That’s a fallacy,” Sherlock says, running his fingers up John’s neck and into his surprisingly soft hair.

“You said it, genius.”

“When?”

“In Dartmoor.”

“Oh that. I was scared. And drunk. And drugged!”

John tilts his head slightly so that he can press a half-kiss to Sherlock’s collar bone.

“Go to sleep, you idiot,” he whispers.

And somehow, despite the myriad possible responses running through his mind, Sherlock does.