Actions

Work Header

Your Visible Ghost

Work Text:

Found anything?

John presses ‘send’ and waits, staring at his phone. After a moment, he decides that Sherlock clearly still isn’t feeling communicative, and shoves it back into his pocket. He should probably be annoyed at Sherlock for buggering off without a moment’s notice—leaving him to fend off Donovan’s helpful advice all on his own—but today he actually thinks a breather might be a good idea. After this morning—well.

It’s not as if he’s even really done anything to be embarrassed about. It was just… a little odd. That was all. He’d been standing in the kitchen, holding a mug of decomposing toes and trying to decide whether fungus-free crockery was worth the inevitable Incredible Sulk if he threw them out, when it had hit him and he’d set the mug down with a groan.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he’d muttered, more to himself than anyone else. “I’m his bloody wife.”

That was when Mrs Hudson took it upon herself to materialise beside him, give him a reassuring pat on the arm, and say, “He feels the same way about you, you know, dear. Most people wouldn’t notice, but I can tell.”

John had been so startled it hadn’t even occurred to him to point out that he very much doubted that that was the case. Surely being married to someone meant occasionally cleaning the bathroom even if nothing had exploded in it recently, and maybe not leaving petri dishes of mould on top of the cheese when you’d already been shouted at about it twice.

Mrs Hudson had winked at him and gone to put the kettle on before he regained his voice.

“I don’t—” he said, “it’s not like—” And then he’d trailed off, because there wasn’t any point lying about it, really, was there? It had to be obvious. He was just lucky that Sherlock was usually too wrapped up in some experiment or case or something that posed an actual puzzle to take notice of his flatmate’s stupid, inappropriate feelings. “I don’t think so,” he’d sighed, at last, before turning to leave the kitchen.

He didn’t know how long Sherlock had been standing in the doorway, or how much he’d heard. All he knew for certain was that if Lestrade hadn’t picked that exact moment to text, there would have been Much Awkwardness All Round.

And he really shouldn’t be dwelling on it. Awkward or not, it’d be easier for him to brush the whole thing under the carpet if he could be out there with Sherlock right now, chasing suspects and trying to follow his brilliant, insane leaps of logic and laughing as they lose their breath running straight towards danger. He could pretend to have forgotten all about it, and Sherlock might even take the hint. In fact, it’s entirely possible Sherlock’s deleted it already.

Except that, now he lets himself think about it, what really struck him as odd earlier was the way Sherlock had been looking at him in the second before his text alert bleeped. He hadn’t rolled his eyes or snorted with derision, hadn’t looked the least bit contemptuous. Just… thoughtful. Which was definitely weird, and now it almost makes John wonder—

Lestrade pokes his head around the office door. “Any word from His Nibs?”

John shakes his head, and his phone chooses that moment to beep with a text message.

Oh yes. Your’s?

It’s Sherlock’s number, but even in just three words, it doesn’t sound like him. He always signs his texts, for one thing, and for another, apostrophes are one of the few things he doesn’t routinely abuse. John frowns.

“Well?” Lestrade prods.

His phone beeps again. “Ah,” he says. “Video message.” That should clear things up. “Must be important if he’s not being cryptic.”

Lestrade takes the chair next to him and peers at the phone. John presses ‘play.’

The hand holding the cameraphone is unsteady, and the lighting in the—wherever Sherlock is—is rubbish, so it takes John a moment to make sense of the fuzzy shapes on the screen before him, to figure out what’s going on.

When he does, the bottom drops out of his world.

 

* * *

 

This is nothing.

A banal definition of madness: doing the same thing twice and expecting the outcome to be different. Still, he keeps on repeating it inside his head, as though doing so might make it true.

This is nothing.

Sherlock’s been unconscious less than twenty minutes, more than ten. Long enough for him to have been dragged further into the building—concrete floor against his cheek, no daylight, basement—for his clothes to have been stripped off (God, seriously ?) and his hands secured behind his back. Rope, not handcuffs, so they don’t have access to much in the way of stolen military or police supplies. As he thought: this gang isn’t big-time yet, and they’re trying to make up for it with brutality, to gain a reputation. At least one genuine psychopath heading it up, though he’d been unable to decide, earlier, whether a moderately clever show-off or a ruthlessly ambitious fool. He’d been almost certain it was the latter. The red scarf that led him to the location: sloppy, or so it seemed, until he was taken by surprise. The psychopath is clever enough to have worked out someone’s been hunting him, then, if not clever enough to worry about who. Still, Sherlock’s slightly disgusted at himself for having walked into the trap. (Wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been uncharacteristically, infuriatingly distracted, if he hadn’t been alone.) The thugs, the threat implicit in his current position: thoroughly unimaginative. Anyone with real brains would at least want to talk to him. They would try to outwit and evade; he’d have to work, if only for a moment, to pin them down. This is as good as an admission of guilt. Disappointing.

(That’s all.)

This is nothing.

He keeps his eyes closed so as not to betray his return to consciousness—military trick, John mentioned it months ago, seemed worth saving. (John. Shouldn’t have left John at the Yard, stupid, a course of action determined as much by sentiment as by sense. The need to be apart from someone in order to determine how one will behave towards them. How one feels. He’s getting weak. John has made him weak.)

Swish of heavy fabric, jangle of keys. Someone is going through his coat pockets. Mental catalogue of the contents: Metropolitan Police ID, name of Gregory Lestrade (unlikely to fool even these idiots at the moment); front door and flat keys, which Sherlock is supposed to own; keys to Lestrade’s office and the surgery John works at, which he isn’t; phone. Phone with GPS tracking, luckily. How long before John or Lestrade realises something’s amiss and traces him? Could be hours; he hopes not. Current situation is undignified and uncomfortable, and will no doubt soon grow tedious. Being threatened does nothing for him. What he wouldn’t give for a good marksman at his side right now. John wouldn’t hesitate; he’s sure of it. (John.)

Perhaps that thought causes the tell-tale flutter of his eyelids. He curses it immediately, because then they’re on him. He’s dragged to his feet and shoved forwards, head snapping instinctively to one side. His cheek slams into something wooden and polished; a table-top.

He supposes he may as well open his eyes.

“Well,” says a voice behind him, “what have we here?” Its owner circles the table, and Sherlock glares up at him. The lights in here—fluorescent tubes ranged along the ceiling, less than half of them working properly—are poor, but this has to be him, the psychopath, the one who thinks he’s so much cleverer than he is. Everything about him—clothes, watch, haircut—is obviously expensive. There’s a scar running across his right cheek, and, since he could clearly afford corrective surgery, he’s chosen to keep it there. Which means he thinks it makes him frightening. Pathetic. He’s holding the stolen ID up to the light, and grinning like Jim Moriarty at a massacre.

If only it really were Moriarty. This might be marginally less embarrassing, then.

Nothing else. Definitely not frightening. Raised pulse and adrenaline levels just an instinctive response to a potentially dangerous scenario. This is nothing.

“Don’t look much like a copper, does he?” says the man.

Sherlock can’t hold back his response; it’s involuntary. “Excellent deduction,” he snaps—which gets his head slammed into the table by someone he can’t see—and is relieved to hear his voice come out steady.

Why shouldn’t it? This is nothing.

The man chuckles. It makes his scar twist like a mouth. But this is good—he’s performing, which means he’ll engage. Sherlock might be able to talk his way out of this before he even needs the Met’s help.

“Looks like some interfering little cunt who doesn’t know what’s good for him,” the man says. “And you know what we do with those, don’t you, boys? We make sure they never come around here bothering us again, and neither do their friends.”

“You’re going to kill me? Really?” Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “That’s dull.”

“Maybe later.” The man pulls up a chair, and sits down. He spreads his hands. “All yours, boys.”

That’s when the reality of Sherlock’s situation settles on him in ways it didn’t, earlier. He remembers the state of those bodies; he catalogued them in minute detail inside his head. Until this point, he’s been merely aware that he’s naked; now, he feels it.

“Then bargain with me,” he says. God, he hates to do it, but he’s not above invoking Mycroft if the situation calls for it, which is starting to seem more possible than expected. “I have some very powerful relatives. This is probably a wonderful opportunity for you.”

The man’s smile is like a shutter snapping closed. “Nah.” He leans back in his chair. “Sue me, I enjoy a show.”

Sherlock shivers. (Cold. Just the cold.) Another face appears in front of his own. Grinning; faint smell of halitosis. Its owner is brandishing Sherlock’s phone.

“Smile,” he says. “You’re on camera.”

“And you’re nowhere near as funny as you think you are.”

The man backhands him casually across the face. The laziness of it is insulting, worse somehow than the sting. These men think they have all the time in the world. Not even entertaining the possibility that they have not already won.

A series of soft clicks. The man has switched off camera mode, at least for now; he’s scrolling, presumably through Sherlock’s text messages.

“Question is,” the man is saying, “who do we send the warning to? Boss? Mum and Dad? Missus—oh, hello.” He grins again. “Who’s this John, then?”

Outrage, hot and unexpected, catches in his throat. “You sound awfully pleased with yourself, so why don’t you work it out?”

But no, that was the wrong thing to say; it sounds like a challenge. Should’ve said nobody, or a friend, or even the truth: I’m not actually sure. Contempt is the best defence mechanism he has, though, always leaping readily to the fore. It’ll be the death of him one day; he’s been told that many times.

(John. Lestrade. Somebody. Be quick for once, be here. Please.)

“‘John, where are you?’ ‘John, get milk.’ ‘John, I need your help.’” The man smirks. “Ooh, it’s love. Should’ve figured you for a queer. Watch out, boys, he’ll probably enjoy this.”

Sherlock can’t help himself, then. Even bound, outnumbered, helpless as he is, the impulse to lash out is irresistible. He focuses his attention on the man holding his phone, takes in the wedding ring he’s wearing on the wrong finger, the aftershave that’s too young for him, the fading smell of hair-gel that he isn’t wearing, the—no, don’t look away, ignore the rising bile—unmistakable bulge in his trousers.

“Your wife knows you fuck rent boys,” he spits, turns his head to get a look at the next of the men surrounding him. “You—you’ve lost someone, sibling maybe, possibly a child. You think it was your fault. It was. And you—”

The seated man claps his hands, a director cutting a scene. “Enough,” he says.

And they’re on him, then: pinning him down; holding him firmly in place. There’s a hand over Sherlock’s mouth, thick fingers forced between his teeth (tobacco, sweat, dirt), and he bites and kicks out uselessly though he hasn’t a chance—instinct, fight-or-flight, startling, how quickly he has degenerated, and no. Stop this. Panic will not save him. He can’t fight his way out of this; there are too many of them. What he needs to do is survive it.

He stills, breathes in as steadily as he can. Impressions, fragmenting: the man with his phone, holding it up again, filming. The clink of a belt buckle. A knee between his thighs, forcing his legs apart. Oh, God. This is really happening?

(Oh, God. This is really happening.)

He does what he can to centre himself inside his head. This is just physical, he reminds himself. He’s been injured on cases innumerable times. Really, this is no different. The significance accorded to the act of rape is culturally conferred, accorded by a social context which Sherlock has always viewed with an outsider’s detachment. He faces physical discomfort, the risk of being stabbed, shot, or otherwise killed, with regularity. This can be no worse. This is nothing.

His stomach does not roil at the sound of the man behind him spitting on his palm; he doesn’t tremble. It doesn’t matter that his brain will not cease noting every nuance of pain as the man pushes into him and begins to thrust, grunting obscenely; that it hurts so much more than he could have anticipated, that it is like being torn apart. This is nothing.

It doesn’t matter that John is going to see this. Each of them has seen the other injured before and this is no different. He should be relieved; at least, now, help will be on its way. And then he’ll be fine.This is nothing.

There are no hot tears threatening to spill from behind his eyelids. No voice inside his head calling him a liar, insisting that this is definitely something—for hasn’t he thought about doing it, willingly, with John, and didn’t it seem to matter immensely then? It doesn’t feel as though something is being stolen from him. This is nothing.

This is nothing.

 

* * *

 

John knows this moment. The oh-shit moment, the finding-out-the-worst moment. He’s seen it from the outside a hundred times, in Barts and in the war, been through a couple of his own—the first time Harry walked out of rehab, before he’d learnt to predict her failures and grit his teeth against them; the words ‘honourable discharge’—and he knows that however prepared you think you are, however many warnings you have faithfully repeated inside your head, they will never really protect you. "It was never going to be good news at her age." "Well, what did you expect when you joined the army?" "Could be dangerous."

He knows it, and still he’s paralysed, all his thoughts seeming to come from somewhere outside himself. He can’t process this. It’s a blankness that feels like freefall, and for this moment there's nothing he can do but stare numbly at the phone in his hand.

Lestrade snaps him out of it. His shock wears off before John’s, and in a second he’s on his feet and out of the office, yelling:

“I need a trace on this message. Donovan, get a team ready to go.” She looks up from her coffee, blinking. “Now.” Then he steps back inside the office and holds out his hand, face apologetic. “I’m gonna need that, John. Sorry.”

John stares at the outstretched hand for a second before he catches up with the world, and it explodes into life again. There’s a commotion outside. He swallows. His throat is dry.

“John.”

“Sure. Sorry.” He drops the phone into Lestrade’s upturned palm. Then he drops his head, presses the heels of his hands against his eyes, tries to suppress what’s rising up inside him. Not numbness, now. The cold burn of a killing rage.

Which won’t help Sherlock. His gun might, if only he had it. He has to think, stay calm. His fingernails dig into his scalp.

It feels like hours before Donovan pushes open the office door and throws his jacket at him.

“We’ve got a location,” she says. “Should be able to get there inside half an hour. Come on.”

She might as well have said a day, or a week, John thinks, but he’s already up, shoving his arms clumsily through the sleeves as he walks. As though she’s read his thoughts, she turns and gives him a sympathetic look, which is more sickening for not being faked. “There’s a chance he’ll still be alive,” she says. John just nods and gets into the car.

He sees Lestrade hesitate a moment before holding his phone out to him. “They’ve sent another message. It’s your phone, I thought—well, it should be up to you if you want to see it first.”

John nods, and takes it from him.

“You can’t delete them,” Lestrade warns him. “They’re evidence.”

“Do I look fucking stupid?” he says, and Lestrade has the decency to shut up, not to say anything when he presses play and watches Sherlock struggle and snarl and finally whimper, and doesn’t know what to do with his eyes, because it seems like a betrayal to look and a betrayal not to.

The text messages start again. Slut. Whore. I can see what you see in him now. Such a good little cocksucker. Bet you love this, don’t you?

He will kill them. He doesn’t need a gun, he’ll use his bare hands, he will burn them to ash just with how much he hates them.

Lestrade’s eyes flick anxiously towards him with every beep. Sally mutters “Fucking hell, fucking hell,” under her breath. Anderson just sits there looking green around the gills. The silence in the car is thick and heavy.

“You don’t have to watch them,” Sally says, when the next video comes through. “Maybe you should—”

“Yes, I do,” is all he says, and she falls silent. His hand trembles as he presses ‘play’. What he doesn’t say: I won’t abandon him.

He hears his name on the recording this time. “Why the long face?” says somebody—must be the man holding the phone. It’s loud and mocking. “Bet you don’t mind so much when John does this.” And they keep saying it, and they show him the result, and John—who has seen men blown apart on the field of battle, and done nothing but set his jaw and try his best to stitch them back together—feels his guts turn, and has to lean out of the car window because he’s so certain he’s going to be sick.

The worst part is the expression on Sherlock’s face. There’s no fight and no defiance left in it now. His eyes are squeezed tight shut, and he tries to turn his face away from the camera, as if in shame. A large hand grasps him by the chin and holds him still.

John feels as though it’s him Sherlock doesn’t want to look at.

 

* * *

 

This is nothing.

This is just the body, and bodies are nothing. Bags of blood and organs, nerves, involuntary responses, always ready to break, to spatter and seep. Traitorous: leaking tears and semen in response to stimuli, however unwanted, however struggled against.

(But that’s a lie, isn’t it? Not just the body. The stimulus: John’s name. The traitor: Sherlock’s mind. The thoughts he has hoarded carefully out of sight these past months, imaginings, barely admitted even to himself, drawn from the quiet moments before sleep. And they saw. They know.)

“Never had a bit of rough before, have you?” croons a voice in his ear. “Your John’s a gentleman, I bet. Bet he gives you a reach-around. Bet he sucks you off before he fucks you, all gentle-like…”

And it goes on, and on, and on. His reactions splinter into a mess of contradictions. He wants to stop them from ever saying John’s name again, wants to cut out their tongues so that they can sully no more of what is his—but then the temptation to escape, to slip away from this into dream, to dissolve into a world of private fantasy—

His world is fragmenting. Dissociation: regarded by psychiatrists as a coping mechanism for trauma, frequently associated with amnesia surrounding the traumatic event. (Oh. If only.) He’s long since lost track of his surroundings. Brief panic, attempt to focus on external details—a footstep, timbre of a voice, scrape of a chair—but there is only this. A hand between his legs; hot-breathed whisper close to his face; involuntary hardening of his penis in response; catch of a sob in his throat. And pain—pain that has become background and white noise, the stuff and substance of his existence. All that he experiences.

Perhaps he will not have long left to experience anything at all. Test the thought—not yet far gone enough for it to be tempting. He keeps hoping, if only he could stop hoping, if only he knew quite what he’s hoping for—perhaps John has forgotten to switch on his ringtone; perhaps the signal is poor—this is a basement, after all—and the police have been unable to trace the call; perhaps no one is coming for him at all—

How did they get inside his head? Fight it. Remember: this is nothing.

Or let them; let them take it all. Easier, maybe, if Sherlock Holmes could cease to exist, if there could be nothing left inside this mess of bruised and bleeding flesh, no mind here to betray itself—

This is nothing.

He hurts. That’s all there is.

Nothing.

 

* * *

 

The last video arrives five minutes before they do. John barely even registers what’s going on, this time. Maybe his brain is tuning it out because he just can’t stand it, but all he can see is Sherlock, laid out in the middle of the screen. How still he is.

He tries to remind himself that playing dead is a survival strategy. It could just be self-preservation. Sherlock undoubtedly knows that help is on its way, and perhaps he’s just doing his best to avoid more serious injury until they get there.

But it looks like defeat.

 

* * *

 

—thing.

Nothing.

Fragments.

Sirens. Voices. Raised voices. Panic. Footsteps.

Too far gone to count them, but a lot of footsteps.

The man between his legs pulling out abruptly, sickening wet sound, something warm trickling down the back of Sherlock’s thigh. The man fumbling with his fly. And running. The men are running—

And he’s left here, still bent over the table, naked and bound and scrabbling for purchase on the concrete floor with bare feet, legs too weak to hold him upright—

So much noise. Hurts him. More footsteps. Running the other way. Into the basement. Won’t open his eyes. Can’t. The thought of seeing them, of seeing them see him, like this: unbearable. People. Movement echoing all around him.

Then there are hands on his shoulders, and he flinches instinctively, and a voice—hoarser and more broken than he’s ever heard it—says: “Sorry, I’m sorry.” And he’s being lowered, with infinite care, to the ground—

“—coat, give me his coat.”

—and covered up against the cold and their eyes, (all those eyes, oh God, the thought of it) and then the voice again, very close, very quiet, shaky:

“I’ve got you. It’s over. It’s over.”

John.

And then—blessedly for real this time—nothing.

 

* * *

 

“Here you go.”

John lifts his head from his hands, and sees Lestrade proffering a Costa Coffee cup.

“You look half dead,” he explains. “Didn’t know if you took sugar, so I put one in. Hope that’s alright.”

John opens his mouth to say thanks. No sound comes out. He clears his throat, and tries again. “That’s fine,” he says. “That’s—thanks.” He takes the cup. Lestrade sits on the plastic chair opposite him, absently prying the lid off his own coffee. He doesn’t make any move to actually drink it, though—just looks at John speculatively, as though he’s not quite sure how to say what he’s going to say next.

Then John remembers, and fishes in his jacket pocket for his phone.

“You’re going to want this, aren’t you? That’s okay.” He holds it out between thumb and forefinger, abruptly deciding that actually, he’d quite like to never see the fucking thing again.

“Our department won’t be dealing with it,” Lestrade begins, but then he catches John’s look and just takes the phone. “I’ll pass it on. They’ll probably hang on to it until he decides if he wants to press charges.”

Christ. He hasn’t even thought about that yet. He’d been in such turmoil on the car journey, sick with worry and his head buzzing with a rage that he was sure would lead him to murder—and then, the moment he’d seen Sherlock, it had all dissipated, replaced by something so much worse. The cold horror of helplessness; the certainty that, even though Sherlock was still alive and breathing, they had been too late to save him. He still did what little he could, of course, but it was so very little. And now all he can do is wait and count the minutes until he’s allowed to be near Sherlock again; make desperate, impossible promises inside his head. John will never leave his side again, he’ll shut out the world and everyone in it—

As if that were possible. As if it could ever make up for his not being there when Sherlock needed it most.

He takes a swig of his coffee. The combination of bitterness and sugar is enough to make him start feeling sick again.

Out loud, he says, “That’s alright. I’ll probably just get a new one, to be honest.” Then he feels faintly disgusted with himself for sounding so casual, so banal, as if he’s just dropped it in the sink or something.

Lestrade is still giving him this troubled sort of look. Then he sighs, and says: “As a police officer, I should probably encourage him to go ahead with it.” He pauses. “As a mate, though—well. I reckon we’ve got enough on those involved to put them away for a good long time without his testimony. Don’t think we’ll have much trouble doing that, either.”

At that, John looks up.

“Had a phone call from an interested party.”

Ah. Mycroft.

“Might be easier on him,” Lestrade adds, at length. “That’s all.”

Understatement of the fucking century, John thinks. Getting Sherlock to admit that he’s a bit tired is an uphill struggle. To imagine him talking to strangers about something that’s caused him pain is—well, no, actually, John can’t imagine it at all.

“Yeah, you might be right,” he says. “I’ll—” Then he stops. What was he going to say? I’ll talk to him? Will he?

The appearance of the nurse is a welcome interruption.

“You can see him now,” she says.

John nods, on his feet before he’s even aware of what he’s doing. “Is he—?”

“Awake, but still a little disoriented. He doesn’t seem keen to talk to anybody at the moment. It was suggested that some time with you might help.”

Suggested by who? Mycroft again, no doubt. John just hopes that he can actually help, now that it’s expected of him. He’s not at all sure of it.

He’s not sure what to expect, either. ‘Disoriented,’ the nurse said, and all he can picture is Sherlock in one of his moods, wild-eyed and shouting and pacing. But the room is quiet.

Sherlock’s eyes are closed, and his breathing is steady. He doesn’t respond to John’s whispered “Hey,” and he doesn’t move or open his eyes when John crosses the room and takes the chair beside his bed.

He is so very still. His cuts and bruises—the ones John can see—have been cleaned up, but they still stand out rudely on his skin. Marks of vandalism, John thinks. Sherlock is always pale, but right now he looks almost see-through. Like a paper lantern that has gone out.

Instinctively, John reaches out to take his hand. Then he remembers how Sherlock flinched, earlier, at John’s hand on his shoulder, and with a flicker of pain, he draws back. At last, he settles for resting his hand on the bedcovers, inches away from Sherlock’s own, and hoping that the soft pressure will remind Sherlock that he’s not alone.

 

* * *

 

“When can we go home?”

John blinks his way back to full awareness. He’s been sitting at Sherlock’s bedside for—he glances at his watch—just over half an hour now, and this is the first time he’s spoken. John realises he’s been on the verge of dozing off, and is sort of surprised at his ability to do so—even with the adrenaline of the rescue long since worn off and fatigue beginning to set in—with Sherlock still lying there, drawn and silent.

Sherlock’s voice is low and rough. It sounds tattered, like the rest of him. He still hasn’t opened his eyes.

But he knows John’s here. Wherever he’s been hiding inside his head, he’s coming out of it far enough to acknowledge him. John doesn’t know if that’s a good thing.

He doesn’t say that out loud, though, just leans forward and murmurs, “Sherlock. You’re—”

“You’re not answering me, John.”

John sits back in his chair, inordinately relieved that Sherlock sounds at least slightly like his usual self. Though honestly, John wouldn’t want to be stuck in an unfamiliar hospital bed, either, especially after—

He swallows. “They’ll want to keep you in ‘til sometime tomorrow, at least, I expect. Swabs for evidence, if you want to press charges.” He risks a glance at Sherlock’s face as he says that, but there’s no change in Sherlock’s expression. “Lestrade needs a statement for the murder investigation. You’ll need tests—there’ll probably be someone coming around to take bloods before long. Maybe PEP. You’re at a pretty high risk for HIV infection. The meds have to be taken soon after possible exposure. Shouldn’t be long.” Easier to speak doctor, as far as that’s concerned. The thought that Sherlock might still be in danger, that what’s happened might still be able to hurt him and keep doing so, threatens to light the murderous spark inside him again, and everything that John wants to say is an incoherent jumble of bastards fucking bastards fucking scum don’t deserve to live I’ll kill them myself I’ll kill them I will

John swallows. “So, yeah. Don’t really know. Sorry.”

A single nod is all the response he gets before Sherlock lapses back into silence and stays there. By the time the nurse turns up—a different one this time, bearing water and a paper cup of pills—any relief he might have felt earlier has drained away.

Sherlock manoeuvres himself into a sitting position with a sharp hiss of pain. John winces inwardly—and apparently outwardly, too, because the next thing he hears is an impatient “Oh God, stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop looking at me like that. I’m not an invalid, John, I’m just—”

“Yeah,” he replies, quickly. “Right. Sorry.”

Sherlock swallows the pills, and doesn’t complain when the first nurse returns to take blood samples. He doesn’t say much at all beyond the odd “yes” or “no” or “fine”, in fact, and he doesn’t look at John once. The nurse leaves, and he falls silent once more.

 

* * *

 

John’s dozing in his chair again by the time the police doctor (no one they know, thank Christ) turns up and turfs him out of the room. She’s gentle, apologetic—the sort of person Sherlock would demolish in seconds, on a normal day—and he’s halfway to a protest before he catches Sherlock’s eye. Sherlock’s expression is still blank in a way that makes John’s insides feel knotted up, but Sherlock shakes his head and says, “It’s fine,” so John steps outside.

He’s planning on waiting. It might not take long, since he doesn’t know if Sherlock will even want to be examined—and besides, the habit of hanging around as damage control isn’t an easy one to shake off. But for every minute he spends hovering in the corridor, the air seems to grow thicker and the helplessness of not knowing what’s going on gets stronger, making his fingers twitch and the worries he’s managed to keep tamped down in Sherlock’s presence buzz endlessly around in his skull. At length, he takes a breath and starts for the main entrance, figuring that a bit of cool—if not exactly fresh—air might at least help clear his head.

As he leans against the wall outside, hands shoved in his jacket pockets, he sees Lestrade approaching the entrance. Donovan’s with him, so this isn’t a social visit—but it’s she who breaks away and turns toward John, while Lestrade heads inside, presumably to take Sherlock’s statement.

She digs in her coat pocket for a packet of cigarettes, and offers it to him. He gives her a look.

“Doctor, remember?”

She half-smiles. “‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ isn’t that the BMA’s motto?”

John musters a laugh as she lights her cigarette and leans against the wall beside him, taking a drag and watching the smoke dissipate above her own head. After a moment, she looks at him sideways.

“Are you alright?” she says.

“Why are you asking me that?”

For a moment, she just stares off into space, and John isn’t sure he’s going to get an answer. Then, “It happened to a mate of mine,” she says. “At uni. We were at the union bar—end of term, everyone was pissed—and she went off with this bloke. They were going for a spliff, supposedly.” She taps her cigarette against the wall, knocking ash onto the ground. “Thing is, the bloke who did it—he’d sleazed on every single girl in our friendship group, sometime or another. He did it to me, once, and I just thought—well, there’s no point making a fuss. We’d been chatting for a while, I was single, maybe he’d got the wrong idea. After all, no one else seemed bothered by him. All of us knew he was a creep and all of us were too polite to say so until he hurt someone.”

John frowns at her, not honestly sure that he wants to hear this, or how it’s supposed to help. He already knows that what happened to Sherlock happens to people every day, everywhere. Doesn’t do anything to make it seem smaller, less awful.

But Donovan doesn’t catch his eye, just keeps talking. “I felt like shit,” she says. “So much that I couldn’t look her in the eye without seeing my own fuck-up. We drifted apart, for a bit, and—” She breaks off for another drag, pained little half-smile around her cigarette. “Later, she said—she thought I blamed her. That people looked at her and didn’t see her anymore, just a victim or a stupid slag. Should’ve been helping, and—” She sighs. “Feel like shit, by all means. You’re entitled. But don’t beat yourself up for not being there. It doesn’t help anyone.”

This is different, John wants to say. I should’ve stopped it. And Sherlock doesn’t care what people think about him—

But then he remembers Sherlock’s voice, the anger in it. Stop looking at me like that.

“Better go and find your boss, hadn’t you?” he says, instead.

Donovan stubs out her cigarette, and says, “See you,” before she walks away. There’s no rancour in her voice, just sympathy, and John feels sick.

 

* * *

 

“She wanted to refer me to a crisis centre. Said I should see a therapist.”

“Yeah?” John says, cautiously. “What did you say?”

“I don’t want to see anyone.” Sherlock’s eyes are closed. He looks very tired. “I want to go home.”

“Soon,” John says, “I hope.”

And sure enough, a little while later, a new doctor nods and scribbles a few notes and says that yes, they’re fine to leave now, since after all Mr Holmes does have his own personal physician at home. She says this with a small smile at John, and he blinks and wonders who told her, since he certainly hasn’t mentioned his occupation.

A bag of Sherlock’s clothes has materialised beside the bed sometime during John’s absence. The invisible hand of Mycroft again, no doubt.

Sure enough, there’s a black car waiting for them outside. Sherlock doesn’t even roll his eyes or complain about Mycroft being an interfering tosser. He rests his head against the window and closes his eyes again, like he’s trying to shut out the world.

John has never wanted to hug anyone so badly in his life. Nor has he ever been so certain that it would be a terrible idea.

There’s a white prescription bag sitting on the table in 221B, but the flat is otherwise undisturbed. John puts the kettle on. Sherlock goes straight to his room without saying anything and shuts the door.

After a moment, John flops down on the sofa and waits. He’s not quite sure what kind of a reaction he’s waiting for, but he waits.

The kettle boils, and Sherlock still hasn’t come out. John makes two mugs of tea, carries one over to Sherlock’s bedroom door, and knocks.

No response. He knocks again.

“Go away.”

John sighs deeply, but he’s pretty sure that invading Sherlock’s privacy is the last thing he should do right now.

“Okay,” he says. “I’ve made you a cuppa. I’ll just leave it here by the door, alright? Careful you don’t knock it over.”

He sits back down and grabs yesterday’s paper off the coffee table, figuring that since Sherlock obviously doesn’t want to be fussed over right now, all he can do is try to be as normal as possible. But the headlines are all too depressing—so many of them are about people getting hurt, and he just can’t face any more of that right now—and he cares even less than usual about how Arsenal are doing and who’s being booted off The X Factor. Eventually he sticks the telly on for a bit of background noise and gives up.

Sometime later—hours, at a guess; it’s dark, and the news has finished—John finds his eyelids beginning to droop. Sherlock is still in his room. There’s no light coming from beneath the door. John allows himself to hope that maybe he’s actually getting some sleep.

The mug of tea is still on the floor outside. John empties it down the sink before he goes to bed.

 

* * *

 

When he comes downstairs in the morning, Sherlock is already awake. He’s sitting at the table, barefoot but dressed, staring at some unidentifiable gunk in the bottom of a glass beaker, and—as John discovers when he attempts to take a shower—he’s used up all the hot water. John decides against yelling at him, all things considered.

“What are you doing?” he asks, while he’s waiting for his toast to pop up.

Sherlock does his I can’t believe I have to share a planet with you people look and says, “An experiment. Obviously.” Then he goes back to staring.

He doesn’t reply when John asks him what he’s testing, or—later—whether he needs anything from Tesco. But long periods of uncommunicative silence are normal, for their value of normal, and at least Sherlock is willing to be in the same room as another person again now. Anything is better than yesterday’s near-catatonia. So John shrugs and tries to ignore the fixed, hunted expression on Sherlock’s face, telling himself that anyone would look a little hollow-eyed on the kind of hours Sherlock keeps, and lets himself out to get the shopping as if everything’s the same as always.

It lasts until he gets back from the supermarket. When he does, Sherlock’s lying on the sofa, one arm across his eyes. The experiment, such as it was, has been abandoned—there are bits of paper with Sherlock’s writing on them balled up on the floor around the table, and the beaker is on its side, something the approximate colour and consistency of Thames mud seeping onto the table-top.

John takes a cautious step forward. “Sherlock?” He doesn’t bother trying to keep the worry out of his voice. Sherlock doesn’t look at him. He’s starting to expect that, which scares him.

“Lestrade phoned,” Sherlock says dully.

“Okay.” John sets the shopping bags down, and perches gingerly on the arm of the sofa nearest Sherlock’s feet. He can’t imagine that Lestrade was asking for Sherlock’s input on a case so soon after—after yesterday. He was probably just checking in, which is entirely understandable, even if sympathy isn’t what Sherlock wants right now. “You can’t blame him for wanting to know how you are,” he offers. “I expect he just—”

He’s cut off by what might be a snort of bitter laughter. “Yes. Lestrade was deeply concerned for my wellbeing, and even went so far as to suggest that the rest of his team hoped I would feel better soon.” Sherlock’s lips thin. “He also regretted to tell me that he’s under rather a lot of pressure from his superiors after yesterday’s incident.” Sherlock moves his arm to look up at John, and John sees that his hand is trembling. “They’ve suggested that his frequent use of a consultant ought to be rather less frequent. We’re going to have to ‘lie low for a while.’”

“Oh.” John exhales heavily. “No cases?”

“No cases. For at least a month; possibly longer. He’s really sorry, apparently.”

“Sherlock—”

“I may have hung up on him a little.”

John feels a smile tug, momentarily, at the corners of his mouth. But it’s almost painful to hear, that little echo of normality when Sherlock sounds so bitter and so lost and there’s nothing that John can do to help him. A few days’ rest, yeah, that might be a good idea, but weeks with nothing to occupy his brain? That would drive Sherlock up the wall at the best of times. John can’t even imagine what he’ll do with nothing to take his mind off—

He takes a deep breath.

“Sorry, mate,” he says. He gets up. “Cuppa?”

Sherlock doesn’t reply. John decides to take that as a ‘yes,’ retrieves the shopping bags from the floor, and makes for the kitchen.

“John,” he hears, halfway through the door. He spins round immediately. Sherlock looks at him and then sighs. “It’s nothing,” he says, and covers his eyes with his arm again.

“Sherlock. If you want to—”

“I don’t.”

“Well, that’s fine. But if you—” John trails off as his eye catches the untouched pharmacy bag on the table, and his heart sinks. Please, God, he thinks. Don’t let him be difficult. Not about this. He keeps his voice level and gentle as he can. “You haven’t taken your meds.”

Sherlock turns his head and shoots a glare at the packet. “Awful side effects. I’ve been reading about them.”

“There are things you can take to help with those, they gave you some at the hospital yesterday. And anyway.” John drops the carrier bags, and scrubs a hand across his eyes. “Really, Sherlock? Worse than being dead? Or chronically ill for the rest of your life?” And a tiny, selfish part of him is so angry at Sherlock for making him act like a doctor instead of a friend when all he wants to be is kind. “We don’t know anything about those men, their histories—the risk is too high for you to piss about like this.”

He recognizes the mutinous expression dawning on Sherlock’s face, but this is too important for him to be childish about and John really, really needs him to see that, so he ploughs on. “I’m serious. I don’t want to lose you because you couldn’t be bothered to take some pills.” He looks Sherlock in the eyes, hoping that sincerity will do the trick even if his words aren’t having much effect. “Please.”

Sherlock glowers at him, but he snatches the bag up off the table before stalking out of the room.

“At least have an anti-sickness pill as well,” John adds, but Sherlock has already shut himself in his room and locked the door.

Great. John pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling the beginnings of a headache throb behind his eyes. He tries to remind himself that he doesn’t exactly have much choice here. If Sherlock isn’t going to look out for his own wellbeing, someone has to. But he still can’t help feeling like he’s just gone and made things worse.

 

* * *

 

Later. Curled on the bathroom floor, Sherlock keeps his eyes shut and tries—as he hasn’t done since childhood—to think himself into nothingness. To make his mind disappear.

Side-effects commonly associated with tenofovir/emtricitabine and lopinavir, used in HIV post-exposure prophylaxis: dizziness, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, headache, insomnia, weakness. Sherlock currently feels as though he’s suffering from most of them. He’s cold. He hurts, all over, inside and out. Eyes hot from sleeplessness. Sourness of bile in the back of his throat, aftertaste of the body’s attempt to vomit after 48 hours without food. Every sensation needles at him, pins him to what happened yesterday afternoon, to pain and helplessness and violation. And when he tries to hide away inside his head he remembers, and he’s thrown straight back into the flesh: aching muscles and torn skin and chafed wrists. Memories; indelible. All of the labyrinthine corridors and vast spaces that he knows his mind contains are closed to him. There is only this.

How unexpected, this frailty of body and mind. How simple a thing it has taken to undo him. (How like an ordinary person. Conclusion: humiliating.)

There’s a tap at the bathroom door. John. Sherlock can’t stand the sadness with which John keeps looking at him, now; he wants to break things and threaten violence and shout at the top of his voice just to make it go away.

Pity: a black and leaden thing. John’s admiration for him will crumble away under its weight if he doesn’t root it out, he knows. That regard has withstood irritation, incomprehension, worry, anger, but pity—pity is a killer.

“Piss off,” he croaks.

John doesn’t move from outside the door. Then, after a moment: “You must be freezing in there. Mrs Hudson said the heating was on the blink again. Why don’t you come and lie down on the sofa? I’ll find you a bowl if you think you’re going to chuck up again.”

Sensible John. Gentle, kind, caring John—and the gentler and kinder and more caring he is, the more certain Sherlock feels that he is losing him.

“Are you deaf? Piss off and leave me alone.”

A sigh, and then John’s footsteps retreat from the door. Sherlock’s shoulders sag with relief.

A moment later, though, they’re back, and Sherlock hears the door open. He whips his head around, glaring—what part of ‘piss off and leave me alone’ does John not understand?—but all John does is shrug. He’s holding a blanket and one of the pillows off Sherlock’s bed. “If you’re going to insist on staying here,” he says, “you might as well get comfortable.”

He drops the pillow on the floor and drapes the blanket over Sherlock’s shoulders. Movements hesitant: he’s trying to avoid touching Sherlock any more than necessary.

(He’s glad of it. He wants to scream. He wants to lean into John’s hands—to soak up a little of their warmth and keep it for himself, to prove John wrong for thinking him so broken.)

(But he’s not wrong.)

John closes the door behind him when he leaves. Sherlock stays where he is. After a moment, he pulls the blanket around himself a little more tightly.

He must have fallen asleep after that, he supposes, because he finds himself starting out of shadowy dreams sometime in the late afternoon—about half past four, judging by the light.

The blanket has been pulled up over him. There’s a glass of water on the floor nearby, an anti-emetic and a packet of ibuprofen beside it. He doesn’t feel quite the resentment that he ought.

(Conclusion: pathetic.)

John knocks on the door again a little while later, bearing yet another cup of tea. This time Sherlock takes it.

(Pathetic.)

 

* * *

 

Sherlock remembers to take his meds after that. He doesn’t look happy about it—which John can understand, because he can’t exactly remember to take them without remembering why he has to take them—but he doesn’t complain, and if he’s still feeling ill, he doesn’t mention it. He doesn’t really do much, to be honest.

He lies on the sofa for two days straight and doesn’t bother getting dressed. Doesn’t shout or call John over to pass him things that are two feet away, doesn’t touch his violin or any of his experiments, doesn’t pick up his phone to nag Lestrade to change his mind. John makes extra cups of tea and plates of food and leaves them on the table, and mostly the tea disappears and the food doesn’t. Most of the time, Sherlock just stares into space, so still and quiet it’s like he’s barely there, and John feels as though he’s sharing a flat with Sherlock’s ghost instead of Sherlock himself. The presence that normally fills every corner of 221B even when Sherlock isn’t home is faded almost to nothing.

Then John wonders whether that’s actually the case, or if he’s just reading things into Sherlock’s silence that aren’t there because he can’t stop worrying. He has even less of a handle than usual on what might be going on inside Sherlock’s head, because so many of the things that would be symptoms of depression in anyone else are also just symptoms of Sherlock.

He does glare daggers when John nags him to go to bed or at least have some toast. But a couple of times, in the seconds after John snaps him out of his reverie, there’s a flicker of something other than annoyance in his expression. So John carries on nagging, and just hopes Sherlock realises that “Get some sleep” means I’ll still be here when you wake up, I won’t leave you, and “Want anything from the Chinese?” means Anything you need, I’ll do it, anything I’ve got, you can have it, and “Oi, Ground Control to Major Holmes,” means Please be okay, I need you. And all of it means I love you, I love you, I love you.

Four nights after they get back from the hospital, John gets up for a glass of water and finds Sherlock actually sleeping. He’s on the couch in his pyjamas, which is nothing new, and he doesn’t react when John walks through the living room, which is nothing new either. But his eyes are screwed shut and his face twisted as though in pain. John hovers uncertainly by the sofa for a moment, not quite able to decide which is worse—waking up somebody who’s probably been averaging two hours a night in the aftermath of a major trauma, or leaving Sherlock to the nightmare he’s obviously having.

Then Sherlock makes this strangled, helpless little noise in the back of his throat, and makes John’s mind up for him.

John perches on the arm of the sofa, and pats Sherlock on the shoulder. He doesn’t wake up. This time, John shakes him. Just gently—Christ, even laying a finger on him feels wrong—but it’s enough. Sherlock’s eyes snap open. After a moment, the sleepy haze clears from them, and he’s actually looking at John for the first time in what feels like forever.

John just looks back at him for a minute. Then his brain supplies that his hand is still resting on Sherlock’s shoulder, and he snatches it back.

“Shit,” he says. “Sorry. I just—well, you were having a bad dream, or at least that’s what it looked like, and I thought…”

He trails off, because Sherlock is regarding him thoughtfully and John can see the cogs turning and he guesses that the best course of action is just to shut up and wait.

But all Sherlock says is, “Don’t think. Not your area.” Then—quite deliberately—he reaches up, takes hold of John’s hand, and places it back where it was. John stares at it.

“John.”

“Yes?”

“Do remember to breathe.”

“Um. Okay?”

Sherlock doesn’t say anything else after that, and John can’t exactly think of anything to say that seems appropriate, either. So he just sits there, perched awkwardly on the arm of the sofa, until Sherlock’s eyelids have drifted closed again and his breathing has evened out.

He’s warm beneath John’s fingertips. John dares to hope that maybe, at last, he’s somehow helping.

 

* * *

 

Morning. Daylight and traffic noise levels indicate approximately 8 AM. He has slept through the night—through necessity rather than desire; the body imposing its dictates once again—and now his limbs feel leaden and sluggish, the inside of his mind hollow and light, both of them unbearably slow.

No John.

Blink; concentrate; remember. The last thing he recalls: being shaken out of dreams where he was helpless and hurt again, and where he didn’t cry out because he knew no one was coming. Because they were already there and they were staring and they knew and he felt ashamed, and that was unexpected, wasn’t it? He didn’t have much experience with shame, didn’t know what to do with it, and it should have been interesting because it was new but he’d just wanted to run away and then—

And then there had been John.

John’s hand on his shoulder, solid and warm; John snatching it back as though caught doing something he shouldn’t. As though he thought Sherlock too fragile to be touched.

(—and he might be right, that’s the worst part, he might be right and Sherlock doesn’t know and not knowing is unacceptable and he’ll have to do something about that just so he can stop thinking about it and—)

He remembers taking John’s hand and replacing it, watching John’s expression carefully all the while. (Confused frown, but no protest.) Wondering how long it would take for John to move. (Long enough for him to sink back into sleep, obviously.) It was certainly a test—that much he knows—but now he has no idea what to do with the result. That’s new, too, and he’s already certain he doesn’t like it.

Did John pass? Did he?

Inconclusive. Not enough data. Unacceptable.

John’s frequent, irritating (necessary) reminders about food and medicine and sleep: overly solicitous? The behaviour of a doctor toward a patient, a carer toward an invalid? Or just the same patient concern he’s come to expect from his flatmate (partner, friend, words frankly inadequate)? Just John?

The soft, sad expression with which John regards him—in brief, surreptitious sideways glances, for long moments when he thinks that Sherlock isn’t looking: pity? Something else? Something more?

The relationship between pity and disgust: not something with which Sherlock has much first-hand experience. Neither emotion would serve him well in his line of work, so he has learned well to suppress them both.

But they’re intimately entangled. Anyone with half a functioning brain knows that. Biological in origin. Disgust: a survival mechanism, keeping us away from things likely to be harmful—venomous creatures, poisonous substances, the sick. And pity: a dirty evolutionary trick, really, ensuring care and therefore survival for the most vulnerable of the species. They don’t just intersect; they’re practically conjoined. We fear contamination even as we open our arms. It’s why people buy copies of the Big Issue without ever looking the vendor in the eye; why turning on the waterworks is such an effective tool for gathering evidence. A few sniffles, and the suspect’s concentration on whatever lie he or she may have been telling wavers. Getting rid of him becomes priority number one.

Pity and disgust: rare to find one without the other.

John is rare. How rare is he?

Sherlock knows what John felt for him, before all this. Not the precise intensity of the feelings, or when they started (though he has a few theories), but their nature and exactly where they were headed—that’s obvious.

(He wouldn’t have minded. Might even have welcomed it, might have found the inclination to face this thing head-on and try—)

He doesn’t know how they will have changed, how far the sight of his humiliation will have warped them. (And it will have done. It could hardly be otherwise.) He thinks that knowing the precise degree to which he is ruined in John’s eyes might actually be worse than ignorance.

But the prospect of an emotional disturbance has never been enough to stop Sherlock Holmes finding out what he needs to know. His curiosity is still stronger than his fear. That much of himself he still has.

(—and if there is anything else in the back of his mind, any ridiculous notion about gentle hands and comfort and warmth, any stupid, stupid hope, it’s nothing, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter—)

 

* * *

 

John pads up the stairs to his bedroom towelling his hair dry, then groans when he registers the overflowing laundry basket. He’s been meaning to do it, and it’s not as if he’s done much lately except sit around the flat giving Sherlock worried looks, but he just keeps forgetting. He'll do it today, though; hasn't got much choice, he's down to his last pair of socks, and his only clean jumper is lying around somewhere in the living room. Still, he reckons he can be excused for being a bit distracted.

After last night, though, he feels as though the cloud of worry that’s been hanging over him has lifted a tiny bit. It wasn’t exactly much—a touch, a few words, though that’s as much as they’ve managed in days—but somehow, it seemed like progress.

Eventually, he locates a serviceable pair of jeans, turns around, and then starts in fright, because how long has his bedroom door been open, and how long has Sherlock been standing in the doorway?

“Jesus,” he says, but he can’t help smiling, because Sherlock is up and about and apparently wants to speak to him, and that has to be good, right? “Sherlock, can you not do that? You’re going to give me a heart attack one of these days. You know what, it’s actually pretty unfair of someone with your love of dramatic exits and stomping around to be good at stealth-sneaking too…”

At length, John registers that he’s rambling and shuts up, because Sherlock is still just standing there and looking at him.

“Um… Sherlock?” he asks, after a second. “Are you—was there something you wanted? That can’t wait until I’ve got dressed?”

“Hmm.” Sherlock takes a step forward, and he’s looking at John so intently that John feels like a specimen trapped under glass, dissected by the steely focus of those eyes. “Yes,” Sherlock is saying. “Yes. In fact, your being dressed would be a distinct disadvantage for what I have in mind.”

John just stares at him. And Sherlock advances on him, deft fingers moving to the top button of his shirt and working it open, and then the next, and—Christ, John has watched Sherlock’s hands and thought about this dozens of times, but never like this, this is too soon and too strange and definitely not right and—

And Sherlock is practically on top of him. John actually takes a step back, holding up both of his hands. “Whoa there,” he manages, “hang on a minute. Sherlock. What the fuck is going on?”

“Don’t be obtuse, John.”

“It’s a bit hard not to be when you’re confusing the shit out of me.”

“You have romantic feelings for me.” Well, he can’t exactly argue with that one. “I’ve come to suspect that the reverse may also be true. There’s no logical reason we shouldn’t act on them.”

Sherlock’s gaze and his voice are perfectly level, so much so that anyone other than John could be forgiven for thinking nothing’s wrong at all. His shirt is hanging open now. John can see the bruises fading on his skin. Christ, does Sherlock have any idea what he looks like right now? How much John just wants to pull him into an embrace, hold him close and stroke his hair and promise him that everything’s going to be okay—as if it could possibly be true?

John doesn’t do any of that. Can’t. He’s too afraid—of hurting Sherlock, of giving the wrong impression and encouraging him—so he just drops his arms back to his sides and stands there, paralysed.

Sherlock takes another step. His stride is longer and he’s standing very close to John now, close enough to kiss him, and he leans down and—

“No.”

“John?” Sherlock’s voice cracks on his name, and for the briefest moment he looks stricken. John wants to reach out to him and say that he’s sorry, he’ll do anything Sherlock wants—and then the walls go up, and Sherlock’s expression changes.

He steps back, away from John.

“It’s fine,” he says. “I understand.”

“Really?”

“Of course. That was inappropriate. I understand.”

Oh God, oh fuck, this is bad. Sherlock doesn’t give a shit about inappropriate, he never has, and he’s never felt the need to pretend for John before. “Sherlock.” John holds out a hand. “Look, why don’t you just sit down? Let’s talk about this, okay, let’s just—”

“There’s no need.” He smiles, and it’s like a light going out. Then, again: “It’s fine.” He turns on the spot, and leaves the room.

John gets dressed in a hurry after that. He leaves his hair to dry as it will, deciding he doesn’t care about the cold, and pulls on his jacket.

When he sticks his head into the living room, Sherlock gives him a brief nod of acknowledgement, but says nothing. He still has that awful, bland, shut-off expression on his face.

“Right then,” John says. “I’m off out. See you in a bit.”

He doesn’t quite know where he’s planning to go, or who he’s going to talk to. When one of Mycroft’s cars rolls up outside the door, he’s honestly quite glad to have the decision taken out of his hands.

 

* * *

 

He almost finds himself hoping that Mycroft will be annoying. That he’ll raise his eyebrows and tap his umbrella and come over all coolly supercilious, like actually giving a shit is something he can delegate, and John can pretend not to see through the act and relieve a bit of frustration by telling him to fuck off. It does occur to him that under normal circumstances that might not be the wisest thing to do, but God knows he needs to rage against something, and telling the British Government to fuck off seems marginally less unwise than putting his fist through a window. Marginally.

Most of him is angry at the world for letting this happen to Sherlock and at the sick bastards who did it. Part of him is angry at Sherlock for being so damn difficult to help.

The rest of him hates the second part a little.

But for once, Mycroft doesn’t drag him out to some deserted building in the middle of nowhere, or keep him waiting until lunchtime. Instead, he just nods politely when John walks into the office, says, “Have a seat, Doctor Watson,” and leans forward across his desk, doing that steepled-fingers thing that John has come to associate so automatically with Sherlock that it’s slightly disconcerting on anybody else.

“Yes?” John says, after a moment. “What do you want, Mycroft?”

“I thought I should keep you informed.” There’s a slim white folder on the desk. He slides it toward John. “The… perpetrators. James Thomas. Lee—”

“Don’t.”

“Mmm?”

John shoves the folder away. “Don’t tell me their names. Don’t show me who they are. Unless you think you can get me off six charges of murder.”

Mycroft takes back the folder without comment. “The evidence linking them to the series of murders my brother was investigating before his unfortunate… accident—”

Accident?” John’s on his feet before he knows what he’s doing, because Mycroft sounds so conversational and delicate, like he’s spinning a government scandal for the papers, not talking about his brother who’s locked away in some personal hell inside his skull where no one can reach him. “Jesus fucking—fuck, Mycroft. He didn’t fall over and twist his ankle, he got raped, and now he’s—”

“Yes, Doctor Watson, I am aware of that.” Mycroft’s lips have thinned, and he pins John with his version of the patented Holmes family you’re a moron stare—except that where Sherlock in one of his moods is steely, Mycroft is like reinforced titanium. Then he sighs. “Sit down.”

John does.

“As I was saying,” Mycroft continues, after a moment, “the evidence linking these men to the murders is incontrovertible. Trial will be merely a formality. They won’t be seeing the outside of a prison any time soon.” A brief, unpleasant smile. “Or any time, in fact. Each of them is, of course, also guilty of a number of other, shall we say… unsavoury crimes. If that fact should become common knowledge, well, I doubt that anyone will be sympathetic enough to put much effort into discovering the source of the rumours.”

He pauses. John wonders if this is supposed to be making him feel better. A number of other unsavoury crimes. He wonders how many other people they’ve hurt.

Then he decides that, actually, if they have to suffer even a tenth of what they’ve made Sherlock suffer—well, yes, that will make him feel better. He doesn’t even wonder what that says about him.

“I’ll trust you to pass on the news at an appropriate moment,” Mycroft says, after a minute.

“Yeah.” John nods. “Course.” Then he frowns. “But you could’ve just phoned to tell me that. Mrs Hudson’s got a landline. What did you need to drag me into your office for?”

Oh. There’s the you’re a moron look again. “John.” Mycroft squeezes his eyes closed momentarily, and John thinks that’s the closest thing to an actual emotion he’s ever seen from him. “How is he?”

“Honestly?” John feels his shoulders sag. “I don’t know.”

“You likely know better than anyone else.” Mycroft tilts his head to one side. “’And now he’s—’ something. That’s what you said earlier. And now he’s what, John?”

John sighs. “He’s hardly spoken to me since he got out of the hospital. Or to anyone else. He just sits there. And it’s not like that thing he normally does, where his body’s in the room but his brain’s on, I don’t know, Jupiter or something, it’s like he’s trapped in there. And I don’t know how to get him out. Like I said, he doesn’t even speak to me most of the time. And then this morning he tried—” He breaks off, uncertain. Sherlock would kill him for telling Mycroft about that, he knows, but he’s frankly desperate and there’s no one else on the planet who might know what’s going on inside Sherlock’s head. And really, he’s probably fucked things up royally already. It can’t make things much worse.

“Tried what?” Mycroft prods.

“To shag me, Jesus bastard Christ.” He exhales hard. “I really, I just, I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. Sorry.”

“Ah,” is all that Mycroft says, with this little frown, as if John’s just told him that the bakery’s all out of cream buns and he’ll have to have a scone instead. Then: “I see.”

“You see?” John can feel the anger starting to bubble up in him again. If he’s told Mycroft about this and he’s not even getting any advice for his trouble he will be really fucking livid. “Well, what do you see, Mycroft? Because I don’t see, and this really isn’t helping.” He hears himself waver a little at the end there, voice threatening to undermine him, sliding past ‘sharp’ and into ‘pleading’.

Oh, God. Fuck it.

“Please?” he says.

Mycroft considers him for a moment. “My brother has little, if any, experience in matters of the heart, Doctor Watson. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have one.”

More talking-round-in-circles. Wonderful. “Really. Thanks. I hadn’t worked that one out.”

“On the contrary. I suspect you’re probably more aware of the fact than he is. Or, at least, more willing to be aware of it.”

“Look, I know it’s probably genetic or something, but could we just try not to be cryptic about this? Please?”

Mycroft goes as on as though John hasn’t said anything. “You’re aware, of course, that Sherlock considers himself… above the common mass of humanity. He’s rarely bothered to be circumspect with his views on that score.”

“If by that you mean he’s got no don’t-say-things-that-will-get-you-punched filter, then yeah,” John says. Then he remembers Sherlock’s face on those awful videos, him snarling something at one of the men that John hadn’t been able make out and getting a heavy-handed clout to the cheek in return, and his sneer faltering and finally fading, and feels sick.

“Quite,” says Mycroft. He doesn't smile, for which John is grateful. “He does like to believe that he’s a purely cerebral creature. He likely feels that any crime against his person ought not to affect him, since it is, after all, merely a vehicle for his mind; that he ought to be above such… ordinary concerns.”

“Right.” John scrubs at his eyes. “So what you’re saying is, he feels like he shouldn’t be feeling awful—which probably isn’t making him feel any less awful—and his way of proving that he’s fine is trying to get my pants off.”

“You’ve lived with my brother for some time, now. You know as well as I do that when unsettled, he’s not always quite as rational as he would have us believe. The idea of being seen as a victim is unlikely to sit well with him.”

“Okay. Well.” That makes as much sense as anything Sherlock ever does, he supposes. Not that he knows what to do about it. “So what do you suggest?”

“I can’t decide your course of action for you, Doctor Watson.”

John decides against questioning that statement.

“You were right, I think, in not taking his behaviour this morning at face value. However.” Here, Mycroft eyes him sternly. “Don’t make the mistake of waiting for him to come to you. Sherlock has long adopted a stance of wilful ignorance towards his own emotions. I doubt that he’s in any position to change for the better now.” John thinks he actually sees the stern expression waver for a nanosecond, but that could just be a trick of the light. “Don’t let him think that he’s alone.”

John is pretty sure that it's a bit late for that. Knowing it fills him half with rage and half with cold, helpless, awful despair, but he says nothing. What good could it do?

Mycroft has stopped talking, and is just looking at him. Belatedly, John realises he’s being dismissed. He gets to his feet.

“Doctor Watson,” Mycroft says, just before he reaches the door. John turns to face him. “There is one piece of advice I will give you.”

That tone of voice, John recognises. Finally, something he can make sense of in all of this—not that it’s exactly much comfort right now.

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to give me the ‘hurt him and I’ll kill you’ talk,” he says. “I’m a big brother too, remember?” He resists the urge to rub his temples; he’s starting to get a headache. “I just wish I could promise not to and know it wasn't a lie.”
Suddenly and briefly, Mycroft looks very weary. “Honestly,” he says, “I’m more worried about his hurting himself.”

He closes his eyes.

“Go home, John.”

 

* * *

 

John manages to persuade Anthea-or-whatever-her-name-is-today to drop him off a ten-minute walk from Baker Street. His head is whirling and in the car he still feels like he’s being scrutinised. He just needs a few minutes to be alone and think without anybody analysing him.

Everything Mycroft said sounded so simple and obvious, and made John want to kick himself for not having worked it out. But then Mycroft has years of experience on him—and only has to deal with Sherlock remotely. It seems unfair that he gets to come out with all the clever conclusions and sound like he knows what he’s talking about, while John is the one who has to try and help. And John thinks he’d be entirely justified in resenting that. Only he can’t, because all he wants in the world is to see Sherlock be Sherlock again, and he actually thinks he’d lie down in front of a moving train if somebody told him it would help.

If only it were that simple.

He stops off in a newsagent’s on the way back to the flat, buys a two-pinter of milk and a paper. Not that Sherlock won’t be able to tell him where he’s been in two seconds flat, of course. If Sherlock is even speaking to him at the moment. He can’t have been gone more than a couple of hours, even allowing for London traffic. Must be about lunchtime, although John's not hungry.

He wonders whether Sherlock will still have his expressionless mask in place, whether he will have retreated back behind his wall of silence.

Although it’s a pretty gloomy day, John can’t see any lights on in the flat. He unlocks the door with his pulse beginning to quicken. There’s no sign of life in Mrs Hudson’s flat either—she must be out—and shit, this is the first time Sherlock’s been properly on his own since he got out of hospital, isn’t it? And after this morning John wouldn’t be even remotely surprised if he went and did something really stupid, and if anyone can go out and find drugs or life-threatening situations or something else dangerous and thoroughly illegal to do at one in the afternoon—

By the time John reaches the top of the staircase, he’s taking them two at a time.

None of the lights in the flat are on. Neither is the telly. It’s quiet.

Oh, God.

He hears a muffled sob from the direction of the sofa.

John is across the room and beside it before he's even noticed his feet are moving.

Sherlock is curled up on the sofa like he does when he’s having a strop, back turned on the rest of the room. He’s gone quiet at the sound of John’s footsteps, but his shoulders are still shaking, and his face is buried in something beige and woolly. John realises that it’s his jumper, the one he left on the back of his armchair last night. He’d actually thought he couldn’t feel any worse, but he does.

Christ. What’s he supposed to do? Slightly hysterically, his brain calls up what Mycroft said about Sherlock not wanting to be seen as a victim, and Normal, he thinks, just be normal.

“If you’re going to get snot on my clothes, I will have to start making you do the laundry once in a while.” He keeps his voice as light and gentle as he can.

Sherlock doesn’t say anything, and John sighs inwardly.

“Mycroft wanted to talk to me,” he tries, instead, after a moment.

“I know.” Sherlock’s voice is muffled, quiet. “One of his drivers collected you. Engine noise. It’s very distinctive.” He sniffs. “No doubt so you could both fuss over me like a troublesome child at a parent-teacher evening. If both of you would just mind your own business—”

“Sherlock.” John’s voice comes out a touch harsher than intended, but it has the effect of stopping Sherlock in his verbal tracks. He pauses; steadies himself. “If what happens to my best friend is none of my business,” he goes on, more softly, “I really don’t know what is. People are allowed to care about you, aren’t they?”

He’s left himself wide open for a sarky retort right there, he knows, but he doesn’t get one. He isn’t sure whether to take that as a good sign or a bad one.

“Besides,” he adds, rather lamely, when Sherlock still hasn’t replied a moment later, “you’re a troublesome adult, not a troublesome child, and believe me, that’s much worse.”

Sherlock rolls over to look at him, then, and instead of the expected glare, his expression is just so lost and so empty, and John feels a hollow open up right at his heart.

“Don’t, John,” says Sherlock.

“Don’t?”

“Don’t act as though this morning never happened. Don’t pretend we can just—carry on.” He sounds exhausted. Hopeless. And even though John knows that going along with—with whatever was in Sherlock’s head this morning—would’ve been a disaster, he can’t help feeling like it’s his fault.

“I’m sorry,” he sighs, Sherlock gives a tiny shake of his head, and John sinks to his knees beside the sofa. He wants to stay close to Sherlock and reassure him, and he thinks that he ought to stay far away for fear of causing any more damage. He doesn’t know what to do so he just looks at Sherlock helplessly.

“Why should you be?” Sherlock says. “I should have known better.”

John frowns. “Better than what?”

“Than to expect—” He breaks off, swallows. “You saw everything, John. It’s only natural that your feelings toward me have changed. I should simply have accepted the fact and not allowed myself to think otherwise. Not—not been stupid.” His voice turns venomous. Only John knows the venom isn't really directed at him and, fucking hell, he actually wishes it was.

Sherlock closes his eyes. When he turns his face away John has to struggle not to reach out and stop him.

“Sherlock,” he says. “Really. You honestly think—what, that because I saw what they did to you I don’t respect you anymore? You think I’m that disloyal?”

A sigh. “You’re human, John.”

John steels himself. “And so are you, and guess what, I already knew that.”

At that, Sherlock actually turns back to face him, eyes open.

“Please, just listen to me. You know how you’re always on at me to pay attention, well, just for a minute, just give me a chance.” John takes a deep breath, and when Sherlock doesn’t show any sign of being about to interrupt him, he goes on: “Okay, so you bleed when someone cuts you. Not as much or the same way as the rest of us, maybe, but you do. You’re not a computer, even if sometimes it seems like you wish you were. And that doesn’t change anything, that’s why I—why you mean so much to me. Seeing you get hurt breaks my fucking heart, Sherlock, but it doesn’t mean that I see you any differently.” He bites his lip. “Honestly, I think that’s just you projecting.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow. “Don’t try to tell me what I think,” he spits—because of course anger’s more comfortable than admitting that he might be wrong or afraid—but there's hardly any force behind it. He still sounds so tired. John holds up his hands placatingly, anyway.

“Okay, okay,” he says. “But—just let me tell you what I think?”

After a moment, Sherlock nods.

“Like you said,” John goes on, “I saw everything. I know they hurt you. I know they used me to hurt you. And I just—I didn’t want to make things any worse.” He swallows. “Rape in the military happens, Sherlock. I know people don’t always react how you’d expect, or even how they expect. They think they’re fine and then something sets them off, and that makes it even harder for them to get better. There’s nothing wrong with taking a bit of time to recover, Jesus Christ. And—and just because I don’t want to hurt you doesn’t mean I think you’re, I don’t know, broken. It doesn’t mean I think you’re not you any more.” He pauses for breath; tries to gauge Sherlock’s reaction. He can’t, so he ploughs on. “I still think you’re amazing. I still think you’re an insufferable twat.” I still love you, he thinks, but doesn’t say, because that would be too much for both of them right now. “And I know you probably still won’t listen to anything I say, but maybe you should, I don’t know, consider the possibility that someone caring about you isn’t a bad thing?”

He’s aware that his voice is rising to a desperate pitch, so he shuts up.

Sherlock doesn’t look angry any more. He doesn’t—well, he actually looks utterly bewildered, and John thinks dimly that if this were any other situation he’d want to grab his phone and take a picture just for proof. But right now all he wants is to get through to Sherlock, and he still doesn’t know whether he has.

His hand trembles as he reaches out. He hardly dares to breathe, and he really doesn’t know if this is a good idea. Sherlock’s cheeks are still hot and damp from crying. John trails his thumb down one, brushing away tears that have already stopped.

Sherlock doesn’t flinch. “What do you expect me to say, John?” he says, after a moment.

John shrugs. “I don’t know. You don’t have to say anything. Just—just let people be kind to you? Try, please?”

He doesn’t get an answer to his question, exactly. But when Sherlock closes his eyes and turns minutely into his touch, John can’t help feeling a tiny flicker of hope.

They stay like that until John’s knees start to protest and he gets pins and needles in his left foot. Sherlock, without opening his eyes, says: “You’re uncomfortable. You should move.”

“It’s alright,” John says, and then wonders if Sherlock is trying to hint that he wants to be left alone again. Not that hinting is Sherlock’s style, under normal circumstances, but nothing about the way things are right now is normal.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sherlock opens his eyes long enough to give John the you’re a moron look and wriggles upright on the couch. It takes John a moment to realise he’s being invited rather than dismissed.

Funny; he’s never felt so nervous about sitting on his own sofa before.

He gets gingerly to his feet, grimaces at the cramp in his muscles, and sits down.

Don’t make the mistake of waiting for him to come to you, Mycroft said—but it’s been years since he and Sherlock shared a house. Perhaps he’s forgotten just how much like taming a wild animal living with his brother can actually be. Wild and—lest John forget—currently still wounded. So he just sits there; tries to smooth the lines of tension out of his body by sheer force of will. And after a moment, he realises Sherlock has opened his eyes and is studying him. John looks round to face him fully.

Sherlock’s drawn his knees up in front of him. He’s drumming on them with his fingers as though he’s not quite sure what to do with all his limbs.

“It’s alright,” John, says, again. “If you want—well, you know.” He actually isn’t quite sure he knows himself whether he means If you want me to fuck off (which isn’t alright, not really) or If you want me to never leave again (which probably shouldn’t be, but is.)

Sherlock doesn’t say anything, just keeps looking at him.

“Or—or if you don’t,” he adds, weakly. “That’s fine too.”

After a moment, Sherlock gives a nod. He still doesn’t reply, though, and at length John has to look away. He can feel the silence turning awkward, and he grabs the remote and switches on the telly just to break it.

But after a few minutes of trying to concentrate on “My Parents Never Told Me I Was Adopted – And Now I’m Engaged To My Sister!” he feels a warm weight settle against his side. His heart skips, but outwardly all he does is turn his head to give Sherlock what he hopes is a reassuring smile, and gently slide an arm around his shoulders.

Sherlock doesn’t shrug it off. And then he sort of sinks against John a little further, and eventually ends up with his head in John’s lap, pillowed on John’s crumpled, slightly-damp and definitely-in-need-of-washing beige jumper. Like a cat that wants to be stroked, and John can’t resist the urge to reach down and run his fingers through those dark curls. His hands are unsteady (great, he can hit a target dead-on from the next building, but he can’t manage this) until Sherlock gives this soft little hum of something that John optimistically takes for contentment, and actually doesn’t seem to mind.

And they stay there, hardly moving, except that when John catches a tangle with his fingers, Sherlock takes his hand and traps it between both of his own and doesn’t let it go. And a couple of times he even looks up to make disparaging remarks at the telly. And when John remembers, halfway through the afternoon, that he hasn’t eaten and gets up to make toast, sighing, “Don’t suppose I can tempt you,” in the tone of one who already knows the answer will be no, Sherlock waits a moment and then says, “I’ll have jam on mine,” and goes back to staring at the TV with more intentness than Jeremy Kyle can possibly merit.

When John hands him a plate, he makes a face and says, “Ugh, raspberry,” and John informs him that the Tesco Metro round the corner has a fine and varied selection of jams on its shelves, and Sherlock is welcome to choose any one he’d like should he actually, you know, go there.

Sherlock rolls his eyes, but he eats most of a slice with minimal complaining, and even deigns to pick at a couple of spring rolls when John decides to order in for tea.

They gravitate towards one another as though it’s inevitable, unconscious—only John is aware of every touch, every breath, every look. Of how Sherlock is warm and human beneath his fingers, not cold and glacial, and of every momentary hesitation, every tremble, every unreadable flicker that crosses his face. Of the fact that, although he seems to want this, it’s not easy for him. Everything they have here, now, in this room, is still fragile.

But when they end up curled together on the sofa again after dark, and Sherlock is enumerating, with just the barest trace of his usual irritation, the various reasons why wanting to watch Top Gear makes John an idiot of the first water (though apparently not too much of an idiot to use as a pillow)—well, he thinks their world might slowly be becoming a place they can live in again.

 

* * *

 

It’s early—only half ten or so—when John finds himself yawning. But then today has left him with rather more on his plate than he expected when he got up this morning. Not that that’s not a good thing, for whatever value of ‘good’ they’re working with at the moment, but it’s no surprise that his brain seems to have decided it’s had enough and wants to go to bed.

He yawns again, and Sherlock shifts onto his back to look at John.

“Don’t stay up on my account,” Sherlock says. “Get some sleep, if you’re tired.”

His face is expressionless, but it’s not exactly like him to be concerned about putting John out. The fact he’s even thinking about it probably means he wants John to stay more than he’s willing to let on.

John thinks he might be starting to work this thing out.

“What about you?” he says. “You should try to catch a few hours. When was the last time you even went to bed?”

“I’m fine here.”

“Will you sleep?”

“Will you stop fussing if I say ‘yes’? Honestly, John, I don’t see what you’re so bothered about. I’ve gone without for longer, before now.”

“Yes, I remember. I also remember Lestrade having to help me get you into the taxi. Hauling you around the place is not easy, believe me. Too much limb.”

Sherlock arches an eyebrow. “You should have seen me before we met. I’m sure Lestrade could provide you with a few anecdotes.”

John decides to ignore that. He’s going to have to offer, since Sherlock clearly isn’t up to asking for anything just yet. Not that John can blame him, really—even though things feel about a hundred times less awkward than they did this morning, it’s only been a matter of hours. The equilibrium they seem to have reached is still precarious. John’s afraid, really, to push it even this far.

Still. Needs must. “Would it help if I was there?” he asks. Then he remembers the state Sherlock’s bedroom was in last time he saw it. “Or—if you came in with me?”

Sherlock looks at him, consideringly.

“Just to sleep,” he adds, immediately. “Some people find it does. Helps them. To relax.”

The considering look turns opaque, and then it’s replaced by a hint of a frown. “I wouldn’t know. I doubt I’m the most relaxing person to share a bed with.”

John shrugs. “You fidget less when you read. Bring a book or something. If you want.”

“Mmm.” Sherlock doesn’t show any sign of moving, though. After a moment, John carefully disentangles himself and disappears into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

When he comes back through the living room to head up the stairs, Sherlock is still frowning, eyes fixed on the empty air above his face.

John isn’t exactly sure how to proceed. He’s extended the invitation, and feels like it’s still hanging in the air, even though Sherlock still hasn’t shown any sign of moving off the sofa by the time John gets to his room. In the end, he just turns on his bedside lamp, switches the overhead light off and changes into the pair of pyjamas stuffed at the back of his bottom drawer. He prefers to sleep in his boxers, but that seems like too much intimacy right now. He gets under the covers, and waits.

And that sense of waiting, of course, means he can’t get to sleep. He can’t stop yawning, either, but however tightly he closes his eyes, and however hard he tries not to listen out for movement in the flat—for any indication of what Sherlock is doing, downstairs—he just ends up lying rigidly on his back. His heartbeat feels just a touch faster than it should, the warm dimness in his room vibrating with something that’s part expectancy, part worry.

He doesn’t think the suggestion was too much. He won’t let himself start thinking that he’s fucked everything up again. Not yet.

Then John hears footsteps on the stairs, and when he opens his eyes, there is a shadow in his doorway.

Sherlock is carrying a book—a heavy-looking one—and he’s using both hands to hold it in front of him, like a shield. And he’s sort of… hovering. Uncertain; unreadable, too. Until John shifts across to the far side of the bed, and smiles the most ordinary, least nervous smile he can manage, and says, “Alright?”

A beat, and then Sherlock says, “Of course.”

He doesn’t bother to get undressed, just stretches out atop the covers on his stomach and props himself up on his elbows to read.

“You’re sure the light won’t keep you awake?” he asks, and John rolls his eyes.

“Army, Sherlock, remember? I’ve slept in much worse than this, believe me.” John rolls onto his side, and looks up into Sherlock’s face, which is close enough to his that he’s suddenly aware he’d have difficulty explaining this away to anyone who happened to walk in on them. Yes, okay, they’ve been sitting pressed close together all day, but something about the situation and the dim lighting makes it suddenly more noticeable.

Apparently the noticing shows on his face, because Sherlock is looking at him intently. “John,” he begins, uncharacteristically soft, “if you’d prefer…”

“No, I wouldn’t prefer.” John reaches up to brush Sherlock’s cheek with his thumb again, then lets his hand drop back to his side “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t mean it. It’s fine.” He risks a tiny smile. “Now stop pretending you’ve grown a considerate streak and read your—whatever it is you’ve got there, will you?”

Sherlock raises an eyebrow, but then turns back to his book.

The page he’s studying looks to be covered in—chemical formulae? One of his old uni textbooks, maybe? Not most people’s idea of light reading, but then Sherlock was never likely to bring Dan Brown or JK Rowling to bed with him, was he? Really, this is one of the lesser oddities John’s encountered from him.

Catching him looking, Sherlock gives John a yes, and? look. John just shakes his head. Then he closes his eyes, and turns over.

“Night, Sherlock,” he says.

 

* * *

 

John wakes up, once, sometime in the small hours. Sherlock’s asleep, head pillowed right on top of the open textbook.

In the lamplight, John can make out some of the scrawl in the margins. Sherlock’s handwriting, if a little loopier and more flamboyant than it is now. Headmaster, says one of the notes. TOOTHPASTE! says another. No doubt they mean something too important and complex for John’s ordinary mind to grasp—or at least, they did, to Sherlock’s undergraduate self.

Sherlock’s hand is resting on the pillow, inches from John’s face. Soft and open in sleep, all those elegant lines relaxed.

John resists the urge to press it to his lips. Maybe one day, though, they’ll both be strong enough for him to give in.

 

* * *

 

When John wakes up in the morning, Sherlock’s already gone, and his side of the bed is cold. That’s not unexpected. He’s never been much of a one for lie-ins, unless you count crashing out all day after seventy-two hours running on empty and then emerging like a bear with a sore head at 4 PM, which John doesn’t.

He’s sitting up on the sofa, legs crossed in front of him, curls still damp from the shower and slowly soaking the collar of his shirt. He’s clutching a cup of tea—which he’s apparently made himself, because Mrs Hudson would definitely never use a chipped mug—in one hand, and jabbing at John’s laptop with the other.

“Anything interesting?” John asks, leaning over to peer at the website homepage. Sherlock snorts.

“Two wives having affairs, at least one of whom I frankly don’t blame. One stolen family heirloom which isn’t—the aunt’s in her nineties, she’s forgetful, it’s almost certainly down the back of her dressing table. One City trader who’s been accused of fraud and just can’t understand why someone would want to set him up like this—except for the fact he’s guilty, of course. Dull, dull, dull.”

John grins at the acerbic note in Sherlock’s voice, and thinks that he could put up with all the complaining in the world if it means having Sherlock back. Having him feel safe enough to come out of that lonely mental cell where he’s been walling himself up and look some small part of the world in the eyes again. Not that he’s going to tell Sherlock that, of course. He could put up with it, but he’s not a complete sucker for punishment.

He boils the kettle for coffee, switches on the news, and heads for his armchair. Then Sherlock gives him this mild look, head tilted. It’s not exactly questioning, but not exactly not, and John only hesitates a second before joining him on the sofa instead.

And that’s how things stay. For a little while, at least. They just hang around in the flat, not doing much. Sometimes Sherlock insults the TV and John’s intelligence and that of the people writing in to his website. John grumbles about Sherlock’s apparent inability to put his mugs in the sink or fetch in the milk, and how he’d really quite like the chance to use his own laptop at some point today. Other times, Sherlock goes quiet and still, looking off into some far distance in his mind. All John can do, then, is curl up beside him, encircle him in gentle arms and listen to his breathing and say nothing. Just stay there until whatever has hold of Sherlock releases him and he sinks back into John’s embrace, closing his eyes.

He doesn’t tell John what he’s thinking, and John doesn’t ask.

Aside from Sherlock’s occasional lapses into haunted silence, though, things are kind of, almost, normal. And kind of completely different, the boundaries of their friendship having undergone some subtle but unmistakable shift. It’s not just the cuddling, even—it’s the sense that he’s what Sherlock needs most in the world, and vice versa, and absolutely nothing there is new at all except that it’s been admitted now, and it can’t be escaped from. It almost feels as though they’ve managed to drift into an actual relationship without talking about it. Okay, and without any of the kissing or sex, but John is still pretty sure that ‘I’m not gay’ doesn’t hold much water any more regardless. John finds that he’s surprisingly… alright with that. Okay, they’ll probably have to have some sort of talk about it sooner or later, but for now? He’s content to go with things as they are, at least until something happens to disturb their equilibrium.

Inevitably, ‘until’ is the operative word.

Sherlock sleeps in his bed again that night, and the night after that, and that’s when it starts to go wrong.

It’s late—small hours, not quite yet greying towards dawn—when Sherlock shudders awake, dredging John up out of the depths with him. John’s mind is fogged, and he blinks his way back to awareness slowly.

It takes him a moment to register that Sherlock is lying stiffly on his back, limbs rigid, eyes wide open, gulping in great, shuddering breaths as if he’s just been saved from drowning. When John turns to look at him, he goes still.

“Sherlock?”

“I’m fine.” His voice is hoarse and scratchy; a threadbare remnant of its usual self. He swallows. “I’m fine,” he says, again.

John frowns, but does his best to keep his own voice steady, his tone mild. “It’s okay,” he says. “So you had a nightmare. That’s understandable, it’s—you don’t need to pretend.”

“John, it’s nothing.” There is a hint of a plea there, this time, and John lets it drop. He reaches over to place a reassuring hand on top of Sherlock’s own, and Sherlock trembles minutely under his touch but doesn’t push him away.

After a moment, he threads his fingers through John’s and rolls over to bury his face in the pillow, taking John’s arm with him. So John just curls around him as best he can until sleep takes them both back again, and thinks about pressing kisses between his shoulder blades and doesn’t.

And that’s okay, too, that’s fine, except that in the morning, he wakes up with a hard-on.

Which is nothing out of the ordinary—happens to most blokes—except that today, Sherlock is still fast asleep beside him, and he’s acutely aware of the way that his erection is pressed into the side of Sherlock’s thigh, and of the fact that it’s not going away. And he feels nonsensically, stupidly guilty, and very glad of the fact that they’re both in pyjamas. And when he moves to extricate himself, and Sherlock shifts and makes a sleepy ‘mmf’ sound, John’s heart stutters frantically into his throat until Sherlock’s face relaxes and John is sure he’s sound asleep again.

He picks his way carefully across the floor, avoiding all the creaky bits of floorboard, and down the stairs to the bathroom. It occurs to him that he’s acting like an embarrassed teenager and he feels faintly ridiculous. Still, better safe than sorry, and all that. He’ll just take care of this in the shower, and hopefully Sherlock will stay asleep, and then they can just go about their day as normal.

He turns on the water, strips off his clothes as he’s waiting for it to warm up, and steps under. Settles on Kelly Brook for a mental image—real girl, nice soft curves, not model-skinny and boyish, nothing likely to turn his mind in inappropriate directions—but even so, her limbs keep turning pale and gangly, her tan to white near-translucence, and he doesn’t dare try to picture her face because he just knows what will happen.

Biting off a moan of frustration, he gives his cock one sharp, final tug and gives up, contemplating just turning the temperature dial to the cold end to get rid of his problem the quick way. He grits his teeth, opens his eyes—

—and nearly has a heart attack.

Jesus, Sherlock!” he sputters, grabbing for a towel. “What the fuck?! Can’t you at least knock or something?”

He mustn’t have heard Sherlock’s footsteps over the water, it’s loud in his ears—what’s he even doing in here anyway—oh, meds, of course—Christ, how long has he been—

Sherlock looks at him. There is a flicker of—what? confusion? pain?—in his eyes before his expression closes itself off. John can actually see the shutters come down. And then he turns on his heel and flees.

John groans, and presses his forehead against the wall tiles. At least his original problem’s disappeared. The slow churn of worry starting in his gut has killed any residue of arousal stone dead.

Well, his brain supplies, that was awkward, and he tries to stick with that thought because awkward is less scary than some of the alternatives.

But it’s worse than awkward. Sherlock doesn’t speak to him for the rest of the day.

 

* * *

 

So. John crept away and hid from him. Possibilities: John desires him and considers him too fragile to deal with the knowledge. John is repulsed by him (and considers him too fragile to deal with the knowledge.) Equally likely. Neither appeals.

Sherlock pulls the blade of the kitchen knife—the one he carelessly abandoned in a bedroom drawer after an experiment weeks ago (John’s already bought a new one and keeps complaining that it doesn’t chop right)—out of the top of his bedside table, then jams it in again. A series of small, parallel marks has already been gouged into the surface of the wood. Splintered in places. (Mrs Hudson will complain. He’ll offer to pay for a new one and she’ll be secretly pleased; gift from her sister, she thinks it’s ugly.) He makes another. The thud of it is rhythmic. Calming.

He can’t get rid of what happened to him. Can’t delete it. He’s tried, repeatedly; he knows what he’ll get. This file is in use by another application and cannot be deleted. Please close the file and try again.

Nothing works. So his imagery turns violent. He imagines finding the precise location of the incident inside his brain; excising the offending portion with scalpel and tweezers. Or if he could cut himself open and pull out his heart—like a forsaken lover in some sentimental fairytale—would that work? Restore him to factory settings? Stop it from mattering?

People (John) would still know. Still look at him with pity. He’d need to stop caring about that, too. It shouldn’t be so hard.

It shouldn’t be so hard.

He glares at his bedroom door. John hasn’t knocked; hasn’t yelled at him to stop the noise. (Tiptoeing around him. Pitying. Repulsed?) But he hasn’t left the flat, either. He’ll be sitting in his armchair, pretending to read or to watch one of those mindless programmes Sherlock has been tolerating for the sake of his proximity (weak, needy, stupid) for the past three days. Sherlock already knows what his expression will be. Mild and open. If Sherlock stepped into the living room now, he’d fold his newspaper, mute the television, look up slowly, careful not to press too hard. He’d say “Hi,” or “Fancy a cuppa?” before starting in with the “You alright?” His voice would be mild, too. Reasonable; as if to throw into relief how unreasonable Sherlock is being, how badly broken he is.

He’s not broken. Why can’t John just see that?

(Why can’t he just be that?)

It’s getting dark. Sherlock will have to get up to switch the light on, soon. He’ll have to leave his room to get water and take his third tablet of the day. John hasn’t moved all day, except from living room to kitchen and back. He considers, briefly, waiting until John’s gone to bed before he emerges—but John won’t just go to bed, will he? He’ll feel that he has to do something, come knocking on the door with apologies and questions. Better to venture out of his own volition than to wait to be fussed over like a sick child.

Well, then. He jams the knife into the tabletop one final time, presses his eyes momentarily closed. Then he pulls his dressing-gown around himself more tightly, and opens the door.

He ignores the mild, open look, the rustle of the newspaper, the worried “Hey,” (all so obvious, so obvious and why do they hurt?) and stalks straight through to the kitchen, grabbing a glass off the worktop without pausing to check its cleanliness.

“I was going to put some pasta on in a bit,” is the next attempt, when he passes back through the living room. “Shall I make you some?”

“No.”

He yanks the bathroom light cord hard enough that it twangs, fills his water glass, swallows the tablet. Glares at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. (Dark under-eye circles, unshaven, noticeable pallor, prominence of cheekbones increased; clear signs of a lack of food and sleep and a surfeit of stress. His image looks so pitiable, it’s not helping, it’s—)

John’s face in the mirror behind him.

“Sherlock—”

“I’m fine.” He slams the glass down abruptly. “I’m fine, and I can assure you I won’t be repeating any of the mistakes I’ve made over the last three days, so would you please just leave me alone?”

John deflates visibly. But then he looks into the mirror—at Sherlock’s ghostly, traitorous reflection and not his own—and squares his shoulders.

“Fine,” says. “If you’ll just tell me one thing first.” Edge in his voice this time; one that makes Sherlock still and turn to face him despite himself.

“What?”

“I think I at least deserve to know what the fuck I’ve done wrong, don’t you?” Quiet, but the edge is still there. Anger? Perhaps; even John’s patience isn’t infinite, after all.

But good, this is good, he’d rather fight this out than be patronised, be told I understand and it’s nothing personal and I just don’t think we should in some awful, gentle, doctorly tone of voice while John looks at him the way he looks at murder victims.

“Who were you thinking about?” he snaps, before he can change his mind. John’s face clouds, which just doubles the urge to lash out. “Don’t play at being stupider than you are. You know what I mean.”

“Bloody hell, Sherlock, I’m not telling you that!” John’s eyebrows have shot up; he’s starting to flush. “That’s really not the sort of thing you ask your—”

He cuts himself off, and Sherlock does nothing to suppress his sneer.

It’s not the sort of thing you ask your flatmate, or your friend. Is it the sort of thing you ask a romantic partner? He doesn’t actually know. (Is that where they have been heading? Is that what he wants, wanted, could want?)

Uncertainty and nervousness are plain to see on John’s face. So is the exact second that he makes up his mind. He swallows; his knuckles are white.

“You,” he admits, and Sherlock’s heart beats faster and don’t listen to it, don’t analyse it, it means nothing, nothing, nothing.

“I find that hard to believe,” he says, and doesn’t doesn’t doesn’t feel sick at how John’s gaze leaves his face and sinks to the ground.

For a moment, it appears he isn’t going to say anything more. He’ll give up and Sherlock can leave the room and escape this. At least he hasn’t said ‘I’m sorry.’ Then:

“Why?”

“I was right beside you. You chose to leave and masturbate in the shower.”

John sighs aloud; scrubs a hand down his face. Looks back up. “Sherlock. That’s not how this works, and I really hope you don’t think I’m that sort of person. Just because you were there and I’m—attracted to you—that doesn’t give me the right to, you know. Try anything.”

“Even though I’d previously made my wishes perfectly clear?”

“Yes, even though. If they even were your wishes, really, I mean you’re—”

“Damaged goods, yes, thank you, I know.” He aims for flat and cold; the undercurrent of vehemence in his voice is a surprise.

John blinks, twice in quick succession, and just looks at him. He goes quiet again, for a moment, and when he speaks his voice is hushed; shocked, almost. (Shouldn’t be. He ought to know.)

“Sherlock,” he says. “No. No, no.” His whole body is rigid; he’s restraining himself from moving closer. “You’re not goods. You’re you. Why would you think I…” He breaks off, shakes his head. Another try: “The other day. When you tried to… ‘make your wishes clear.’ Your face, you didn’t look like anybody else who’s ever come on to me. You looked more like you were, I don’t know, on your way to the dentist’s. Somewhere you knew you had to go but didn’t really want to. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if even you knew what you wanted.” Exhale. “I didn’t want to risk fucking anything up. Yeah, okay, I’ve gone and done that anyway, but—that’s all it was. Is.”

Sherlock doesn’t reply. (Doesn’t believe him, can’t believe him, wants to wants to wants to no—)

“Even if I were the jealous type,” John goes on, “which, for the record, I’m not, I’d be a complete hypocrite—why the fuck would I blame you for something you had no choice in? It’d make more sense for me to be jealous of the people you’ve willingly—”

The words fall off abruptly.

Penny tumbling through the air.

Mycroft must have said something. Mycroft, with his odious concern and his interfering. He doesn’t have much experience with relationships, Doctor Watson, you’ll need to make allowances for him, God, he can hear it now.

“Oh,” John says, and it’s just a breath, stricken. “Sherlock.”

Penny, meet floor. Well done, John.

“Oh, spare me.” Sherlock folds his arms around himself tightly.

“What?”

“The tears for my precious lost innocence, I assure you it wasn’t.” The words come out dripping with venom. Good. Better that people look at him and see a poisonous snake than the quivering prey animal that is crouched beneath his skin. He will get rid of it, he will hunt it down and flay it himself, he can’t be that, he won’t—

John puts his head on one side. Concerned; questioning. “And you’re okay with losing it like—that?” Bald question; soft voice. Trying to be kind with it. (Don’t be kind with this, please.)

“Virginity has no objective value, John. The importance attached to it is a vestige of outmoded social conventions. Honestly, I would’ve thought you’d understand that. In what way does it make what happened to me any worse?”

John holds up his hands. “Okay, okay, I’m not saying that what they did to you would be okay if you were the sort of person who shagged around, bloody hell. I’m just—” Deep breath. “You don’t have to be the purity police to be upset that something that should’ve been your choice got taken away from you.”

Don’t. Don’t.

“Is it compulsory? Being upset?”

“Sherlock?”

“Would that be better, if I broke down and wept abjectly on your shoulder? Would you feel validated then?”

John ignores the dig. Doesn’t mention, either, that that—sans shoulder—is precisely what he caught Sherlock doing the other day. He could do, Sherlock can see him remembering it, but he won’t bring it up now, won’t use it to hurt him. He’s too good to do that. (Stop it.)

“Well, what would be better? What would help, Sherlock? Please, just tell me.”

All this kindness, all this seeing through perfectly good, carefully constructed layers of defence, he can’t stand it. Fight it; it’s all he has. “Perhaps if you’d just fuck me—”

“Sherlock.” John’s eyes. Sad. Sad and kind. “That’s never going to happen.”

Sinking feeling in pit of stomach. Unexpected. (But not really.) He’s suspected the repulsion; has been pushing John away to avoid having it confirmed.

“Then what, exactly, has the point of all this been?” His voice vibrates with rage. (Nothing else. Not pain. No incipient heat behind his eyes to remind him how pathetic he is, how pitiable. No.) He waves a hand to indicate the space between them. “All this pseudo-romantic behaviour, this intimacy, this ‘I don’t see you any differently’.” He keeps his voice icy. “Did it make you feel better? Is that it? At least you’d done something for the poor victim?”

John just shakes his head. “Sherlock. You’ve got to stop putting thoughts in my head.” And then he does take that step closer—just the one. His hands have softened; no longer balled into fists. “That’s not how I feel about you. And I wish to God it wasn’t how you felt about yourself. The reason it’s never going to happen is that just fucking is what you do with people you meet out on the piss and don’t plan on ever seeing again. You are the most important thing in my world. I’m not promising anything, and I’m not—” He swallows. “I’m not ruling anything out, but whatever happens with us, it can’t be just anything.”

Oh. Oh.

Sherlock grasps for a coherent thought but there are none. There’s just confusion, and fear, and—

“See, I’m not trying to—to take care of you out of the goodness of my heart.” John blinks again, rapidly. He’s getting nervous. Sherlock should say something. Can’t. “You know what, this is me being selfish. You’ve let me get used to a world with amazing in it, when everything used to be just grey and shit. I’m spoiled now. And the amazing is you, and I’m not willing to live without that. I’m not losing you.” He takes a deep breath. “I mean, if that’s alright with you. If you can. Let me. Take care of you.”

—hope.

And then John does take that step forward. Sherlock finds himself sinking (humiliating, utterly, should surely struggle against it more forcibly?) and has to sit down on the side of the bath to steady himself. John is next to him in an instant. He looks up. (Should push John away. Should say something, anything, to make it stop.)

(Doesn’t want to.)

(He’s ruined.)

“Sherlock.” A note of urgency in his voice, but it’s steady. A voice he might have used on injured soldiers, once, to keep them from falling out of consciousness. A voice for emergencies. (John thinks this is an emergency.) “Sherlock.”

He nods, once.

Apparently, it’s enough. John’s hands are on his shoulders. One of them slides up to nestle in his hair.

“You do know,” John says, after a long pause, “there actually aren’t any emotion police who are going to jump out and arrest you if you admit you’re not fine, right?” The hand stroking his hair pauses to tap one finger against his head. “Except maybe in here.”

Sherlock smiles, faint and painful. (But safe, because no one can see it.) “And how do you suggest I stop them, John?” John presses closer until Sherlock’s head is resting against his middle.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But—” Another tap. “You build palaces, in here. You catch murderers. You see things no one else can. I’m sure a few little imaginary coppers shouldn’t be too much for you.” The tremor in his voice could be from laughter or from nerves, and Sherlock just can’t any more, he can’t, he has to give in. He puts his arms around John’s waist and buries his face in John’s jumper, and John gives a sigh that comes right from the bottom of his chest and stays there with him.

It’s a long while before they move. Once, Sherlock hears John murmur something into his hair, under his breath.

It sounds like, “I would have taken care of you.”

Was he supposed to hear it? He isn’t sure. He holds on a little more tightly, anyway.

 

* * *

 

Late that night, John wakes to find Sherlock sitting up in bed, staring at him. He shifts when he sees that John’s awake.

“John,” he says, quietly. “I—”

John hugs him fiercely before he can finish. “If you say ‘thank you,’” he says, “if you suggest that I’m here out of some sense of obligation, or for any reason other than that you are the best and most important thing in my world, then so help me, I will piss in your tea.”

“You buy PG Tips, I don’t see what difference it would make.”

“Git,” John says. His voice comes out pitched a touch too high, almost hysterical with relief, but he can’t bring himself to care. Sherlock’s answering smile is weak and watery, but it’s a real one, and John never wants to let him go.

 

* * *

 

A couple of weeks later, John gets a text.

Since ninety percent of his texts are case-related demands from Sherlock—with the remainder being guilt-prompted catch-up messages from Harry, and the occasional drinks invitation from Mike—the message itself is surprising enough. Even more surprising is that it’s from Lestrade. Too soon for them to be allowed anywhere near the Met’s cases, surely? He opens it.

Going to be in your neck of the woods tonight. Fancy a pint?

It doesn’t take Sherlock to figure out that it’s an excuse to check up on them. Lestrade’s a good bloke, solid, but John doesn’t exactly socialise with him outside of cases.

He’s almost tempted to say yes, though. Not that he wants to spend time talking about what happened—fuck, no—but not having to worry about hiding it, hiding his anger; that would be something. Still. Not his pain to discuss, not really. Not his decision. And the thought of leaving Sherlock alone still occasions a nervous twist in his guts, a brief, insane desire to lock the door and close the curtains and shut out the world, keep both of them safe forever.

Safe at home isn’t what he wants. Not really. It’s not what they do, not who they are. It’s just—

“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Sherlock is scowling at him. “Go. I’m sure I can last one evening without flinging myself out of the window in despair.”

John shakes his head, is on the verge of saying, no, it’s okay, but Sherlock’s glare stops him. And he might actually have a point. John knows that the world’s not going to end while he’s out having a beer, but it still bloody well feels like it might.

Sherlock might not be the only one who’s been looking at the world askew. And letting that carry on—well, it’d be like letting them win, wouldn’t it?

You’re on, he texts back. 8 in the Castle?

“While you’re there,” Sherlock says, “do try to remind Lestrade of his division’s staggering incompetence and the fact that I’m just sitting here.”

“Look, if you want to come—”

“I can’t think of anything more tedious.”

 

* * *

 

For the first pint and a half, they chat about nothing, really: the football; the cuts and how much harder they’re going to make Lestrade’s job; what a bag of bollocks the last series of Red Dwarf was. Only, then, John finds himself staring into his drink, shoulders slumping.

Lestrade goes quiet, obviously deciding that the world can manage without hearing whatever it was he was about to say on the subject of Dave’s programming schedule.

“I’m so fucking angry,” John says, at last. “Really. I mean, things are better than they were, but sometimes.” He swallows. “Sometimes I want to kill something.”

“Have you told him?”

“Don’t think he needs an exploding flatmate to deal with on top of everything else right now.” The thing is, Sherlock doesn’t deal with things. He reasons them out of existence, or he ignores them. That’s half the problem, and John doesn’t want to add to it.

“Suppose not,” Lestrade concedes. “Don’t know if a support group’s your thing, either?”

“Not really.” He’s thought about it, but there’s something about the idea of joining a group—a community defined by trauma—that doesn’t quite sit right with him. It would feel like acknowledging something as broken, and it’s not. (They’re not.)

“Fair enough. If you ever need to get out, though—give us a call, alright? I know you want to be there for him, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to let him drive you mad.” Lestrade gets up, and plucks John’s empty pint glass out of his hands. “Here, I’ll get you another.”

John smiles up at him, faintly. “Cheers.”

And he means it.

Still, when he gets home and finds Sherlock sprawled on the sofa, making narky notes in the margins of John’s BMJ, he feels his heart expand a little with relief.

Sherlock sits up to make room for him without looking up from the journal. John sits, leaning into him half-consciously—seeking warmth and solidity. A reminder that his world hasn’t ended; it’s still sitting right here.

 

* * *

 

“I’m back.” John plonks his carton of chips down on the table, as far as possible from the end where Sherlock is doing something unspeakable to a severed ear. Yes, it’s a heartening sight—Sherlock acting like something close to his old self, engaging with something outside of his own skull—but that doesn’t mean he wants it anywhere near his lunch. “And I got you your disgusting energy drink. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can drink these things.”

Sherlock holds out his hand for the can. “The taste is hardly the point, John.”

“Yes, because you really need help not sleeping. That stuff is not good for you. I’d make you a list of reasons why, only I expect you’d take it as the basis for your next experiment.” He clatters around the kitchen, finally managing to locate a clean (he hopes) knife and fork. “Where’s the vinegar?”

“I used it.”

John pokes his head out of the kitchen. “You used a whole bottle of malt vinegar? What for?”

“Science, obviously.”

“The same science you’re doing now?” Then John stops short, and holds up a hand. “Actually, don’t tell me. If there were severed body parts involved, I don’t want to know. It’ll put me right off my food.”

 

Molly turned up earlier this morning, bearing a small collection of what she cheerfully referred to as ‘offcuts’ from the morgue in a cooler. If that didn’t cheer Sherlock up—it’s still hard to tell what he’s feeling most of the time; he’s making progress, he hasn’t had a personality transplant—it certainly kept him busy for most of the morning. Busy enough that, when John announced he was off to the chippy, he’d just waved an impatient hand and said, “Caffeine. Red Bull, not Coke,” and then gone back to whatever he was doing.

As far as Molly’s concerned, he’s got ‘flu. She’d actually brought Lemsip with her, too, saying, “These new ones are quite good, I thought maybe you’d want to try them.” When Sherlock summarily ignored her in favour of the deceased and dismembered, she’d frowned at John in confusion.

“Are you sure he’s really ill?” she’d asked. “He seems alright.” John had felt momentarily sick, not knowing how to answer, and then she’d gone on: “I don’t know, I suppose I just always thought he’d think he was above man-flu.”

John had to grin at that, even as his insides ached at just how far off the mark she was.

 

He heads downstairs to beg condiments from Mrs Hudson, and ends up having to trade a promise to get her shopping this afternoon for some salt and vinegar. That’s okay; he’s cooking tonight, so he needs to go, anyway. Sherlock’s appetite seems to have improved a little since he finished his meds (which, okay, in his case means slightly less scowling at his plate like a bratty teenager than usual, but John will take what he can get) and John intends to take full advantage of the opportunity to make him eat a decent meal or two.

He sits back down at the table—God, he’s starving, he got up too late for breakfast—

Oh. Didn’t he have more chips than that?

John actually finds himself blinking in astonishment. Then he looks at Sherlock.

“I thought you were too engrossed in the life of the mind for pedestrian things like lunch,” he accuses.

Looking thoroughly unrepentant, Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Honestly, John. I take your advice, and you complain about it. Remind me not to listen to you in future.”

“As if you ever do.” John shakes his head. Sherlock just raises an eyebrow and sips primly at his Red Bull. And that’s daft, isn’t it, Red Bull isn’t something you’re supposed to sip primly, only Sherlock never does anything like he’s supposed to.

Except that sometimes, now, he does listen to John, when it’s important. When it’s late at night and he’s in the throes of a bad dream, and needs to be pulled out; when he’s been staring vacantly into space, at nothing, for too long, and needs John’s voice and John’s hands to revive him. And that, surely, is about as close to ‘how it’s supposed to be’ as they can hope for right now.

Suddenly John wants, very badly, to kiss him.

Then he flushes, and wonders just how obvious that thought is on his face.

Quite obvious, apparently, because Sherlock goes still. And lays his right hand on the table, stretched out halfway towards John, and waits. John feels his pulse quicken—the background hum of nervousness he feels every time he touches Sherlock, because it would be so fucking awful if he pushed too far, got things wrong—but he does his best to ignore it. Instead he reaches out and takes Sherlock’s hand, gently runs the pad of his thumb across the knuckles, and raises it to his lips, watching Sherlock’s face all the time.

He gets a small, opaque smile in return, and Sherlock squeezes his hand briefly before letting go. “Your chips are getting cold,” he says.

John smiles back.

Then he remembers the severed ear, and thinks, Oh, that was a bit unhygienic, wasn’t it?

Then he decides he doesn’t care.

 

* * *

 

Sherlock blinks as he wakes. Daylight filtering in between the blinds. Traffic noise, car horns, pedestrian chatter; London on a busy weekday at 8:30. Clank of pipes in the walls as decades-old central heating struggles to function. Mrs Hudson’s kettle boiling for her second cup of tea. The walls: blank, familiar. John’s room. John’s possessions, ranged neatly on shelves or stacked in corners, in sober contrast to his own sprawling system of organisation (taken always, by outside eyes, for chaos.)

Warm body curled into his side; face pressed to the juncture of neck and shoulder. John.

Inventory. It helps. Reminds him where he is. (Here, home, not alone, John.) (Not coming round on a concrete floor or in a hospital bed.)

One day, perhaps, the solid weight of John sleeping beside him will be the only marker he needs.

He isn’t sure how he feels about this. He knows that he feels something. Thinks that John would, perhaps, tell him that’s enough.

 

* * *

 

It’s music that pulls John out of sleep, a little while later, and his heart skips when he wakes up enough to realise it’s a violin. He hasn’t heard Sherlock play since—since before.

The tune isn’t one he recognises, but it’s something slow and contemplative. At a stretch, he might even say… peaceful?

He pulls on his dressing gown and slippers, and pads down into the living room. Sherlock’s sitting in the window, already dressed. He glances in John’s direction, but doesn’t stop playing, and after a moment he turns to look out of the window, surveying Baker Street as if he owns it.

He might have looked cold or distant, like this, once. John might’ve been intimidated. What he feels now, though, is something much more overwhelming. He knows exactly how vulnerable this man is—and how much stronger than even he knows. How broken, and how not. Sometimes he feels like he might overflow just with knowing that, or burst like an over-filled balloon.

“John?” The music stops, abruptly. “You’re gawping. What is it?”

“Hmm? Oh.” He shakes his head. “Nothing. Just. You. You’re—you.”

Sherlock glances down at himself as if to make certain before doing the you’re an idiot look. “So it would appear.” He lifts his bow again, and John heads into the kitchen to forage for breakfast.

He hears the text alert while he’s contemplating exactly how much mould it’s permissible to cut off the bread before you have to consign it to the bin. Sherlock’s phone, not his. And a moment later Sherlock is in the doorway, saying, “Breakfast will have to wait, John, get dressed,” and he’s grinning. Excitement is visible in his eager stance, in every little movement of his hands. It’s the first time John’s seen that in what feels like centuries, and it is the best thing in the whole fucking world.

“Lestrade?” he asks, daring to let himself hope.

“Five weeks without me? He’s completely at sea. Of course it’s Lestrade, and why are you still standing there?”

John’s not thick. He knows that being distracted with a case isn’t the same as being okay. This isn’t going to be a magic fix. Things are better, but it still feels like one step forward, two steps back a lot of the time. There are shit days; a lot of shit days. But both of them have had enough misery to last a lifetime in recent weeks, and damn it, just for now, he’s going to let himself be happy about this for as long as Sherlock is.

 

* * *

 

In the cab, he looks down in surprise when Sherlock reaches over and takes his hand.

“People will talk,” he says, and it’s not a joke anymore now that there’s something to talk about. He doesn’t let go, though.

“That’s the idea,” Sherlock says, quietly, eyes dead ahead, and John gets it then. Give them something else to talk about. Lestrade’s the only person from the Yard who’s been in touch, recently; the last time most of them saw Sherlock he was—

He pushes the thought away, and squeezes Sherlock’s hand more tightly, just hoping that Sherlock knows what language he’s speaking, that it gets across everything he wants to say.

Anything you need, I’m here. I know I couldn’t keep you safe if I tried, and you’d hate me if I did, but I can promise that wherever you go, I’m coming with you. Like it should be. Me and you, running straight into danger, together.