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Safe Distance

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John woke to find himself being semi-smothered, a heap of curls filling his nose and mouth with an air of expensive shampoo and hair product.   He tried not to tense, and tried not to relax too obviously either, because here he was at skin-to-skin range with the world's most observant man.

John had known sleeping with Sherlock was a mistake since the first night. 

He was fairly sure he'd managed not to give himself away yet, mostly because when it came to sex Sherlock Holmes' deductive genius was let down by his lack of data.  By the time Sherlock's brain got properly calibrated, John reckoned he'd have finally settled in and accepted the situation.   

He blamed all those months of aching grief when he'd wanted anything, everything of Sherlock so badly that he'd let ten minutes go by just staring at a bad photo on his mobile, or looking through the meaningless scribbles in one of those pocket notebooks Sherlock chiefly used as dramatic props.  So when Sherlock had suddenly been there again, John had been primed:  Once the first shock and anger had gone, all he'd wanted was to wallow in careless brilliance and stormy moods and bad manners.  He hadn't known any better; somehow he'd never been taught the appropriate way to act when your best friend came back from the dead.  And they'd ended up like this.

Sherlock apparently enjoyed sprawling on top of John so much that he'd forgotten his stated opinion that sleeping was a waste of time.  This time he seemed to have spent the entire night.  He had a case on, for heaven's sake, but here he was.  

John Watson had always been the sort of bloke who preferred to go home after sex with a girlfriend, so he could sleep comfortably alone in his own bed.  Sleeping with another person was hot and uncomfortable and resulted in waking up every twenty minutes with an elbow in the ribs or a wheezing snore in your ear. 

Sherlock radiated heat.  Sherlock was lanky and hard with muscle and bone.  Sherlock in bed was like a heavy duvet stuffed with hat racks.  A duvet that crawled back on top of you whenever you managed to slip out from under during the night, usually making a little satisfied huffing sound as it resettled. 

So there was nowhere John could go to just get some space, no way to just get some air for a minute. 

John hoped he'd learn to sleep through it all soon, because god knew he needed his rest if he was going to cope with the sex.  John had been straight all his life.  He'd managed, so far, to get through sex with Sherlock without completely panicking or descending into humiliating impotence, but he knew he owed that much success again to Sherlock's mostly-complete inexperience. 

Sherlock, meanwhile, had apparently taken out his mint-condition libido from whatever box he'd been storing it in for thirty-odd years, and discovered that it not only still worked but ran like a bloody bullet train. 

He was interested.  Sherlock was suddenly interested in sex the way he was interested in forensic chemistry.  It was early days, but John could see the trajectory Sherlock's inventive, inquisitive, reckless mind was taking.  John had seen him on the internet, absorbing vocabulary and theory.  And the videos.  Before long he was going to stop tinkering with foreplay and start insisting on something more sophisticated than frottage under the blankets or a handjob.

Before long Sherlock was going to at least want the lights on, and expect John to be able to look at Sherlock's cock and touch it at the same time and then John was doomed, because John was a sexually experienced, mature man, except when it came to homosexuality, where he was apparently stalled at the stage of shame-faced pubescent experimentation.

Sherlock's head rose from where it had been pressed to the side of John's neck and in close-up he saw those long silvery eyes blink.  Then Sherlock kissed him. 

No good morning, no hello, no hopping off to brush away night-sour breath.  All right, he'd said Sherlock was free to kiss him when he felt like, as long as they were alone, but really!

Sherlock now seemed to regard John's mouth more or less as he regarded John's phone: his to use whenever he felt like.  Like the appropriation of his phone, John was no longer even surprised.  So John just cupped the back of Sherlock's head and kissed back -- sleep made Sherlock's mouth hot and moist and wanton, almost overripe -- until Sherlock rolled away. 

So, there was Sherlock, the complex shapes of his pale chest and shoulders visible above the sheet, and John had kissed that skin and stroked it and held that body close and still he couldn't bring himself to think Sherlock was attractive without wanting to add a hasty for a bloke, to the thought.

Sherlock stretching was absurdly cinematic; he rolled his shoulders with flair, arched with élan, and delivered a BAFTA-worthy yawn, his bony face stretching, skin rucking up under his long chin.  John smiled a little in amusement at dramatics that had to be at least partly designed for himself as audience.  Finally Sherlock, giving the yawn a quick encore, got up and wandered out of the room, shrugging into his dressing gown. 

He didn't bother to call back, "Up, John! We're going to the morgue." until he was already thudding down the stairs.

John lay there a moment longer, not sure how to feel.  Sherlock's morning routine lately had involved appropriating John's cock for his own use as well.  John had been expecting the pattern to continue.  He had the beginnings of a pavlovian erection already.    

Apparently the case was starting to get more traction in Sherlock's brain.  Or possibly any trip to the morgue was more interesting than sex.  Which was a relief, obviously.

John pulled himself out of bed, went down, and had filled the kettle and switched it on by the time Sherlock was out of the bathroom.  He had brushed his teeth, John noticed.  "Have your shower first," John offered. 

Sherlock made a small sound of assent, then bent for another kiss.  John put a hand on his shoulder.  "You've brushed your teeth.  I'm still awful."

Sherlock backed off.  "I don't mind that," he said.  And he probably really didn't. Caring about morning breath was just too depressingly middle-class.

The kettle clicked for attention.  "Shower," John said.  And then he bobbed up and kissed Sherlock briefly.  Sherlock's mouth was cool with mint.  He tasted nice.

When he pulled back, Sherlock gave him an appraising look.  John had the feeling he was about to be appropriated after all, as an aid to either hygiene or masturbation, probably both.  He turned and started getting down mugs.  "When's Molly expecting us?"

Sherlock made a noncommittal noise.  If Molly Hooper had given him a specific time to come by the morgue, he'd have disregarded it and still swanned in when he was ready. But, attention back on the case, he went for his shower alone.

John made a cuppa for himself and conscientiously waited a bit before starting one for Sherlock, though he knew the man would take his tepid and stewed and with the bag still in, without blinking.

As soon as he smelled the bread starting to toast, John was abruptly ravenous.  In fact, he was gasping for a fried slice, eggs, and sausage.

He ate his toast dry, and put in two more slices for Sherlock.  The new regime had been prompted by the unavoidable comparison between his physique and Sherlock's.  It was absurd.  He was reasonably fit, and he'd never once even thought about this in bed with a girl, but Sherlock's concave stomach had started feeling like a rebuke.  He had enough trouble keeping his confidence in bed with the man as things were; if he didn't keep his weight down, he was doomed. 

Feeling very slightly like a saboteur even though Sherlock really needed all the calories John could give him, John put jam on both Sherlock's slices, and was tossing the second tea bag away just as Sherlock came out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam.  He had a towel, but instead of covering himself with it he was rubbing vigorously at his dark hair, helping it squeeze itself back into curls against the weight of water.

"Have you left me any hot water?" John called.

Other than the actual fact of their sleeping together, and sleeping together, one of the very few changes was that now Sherlock seemed to go out of his way to dress with his door open, in full view of the kitchen.  And, come to think of it, to come out of the bathroom and walk naked through the hall despite  the other door that opened straight on his bedroom.  John hoped it wasn't meant to be seductive, because it definitely wasn't.  He mostly found it embarrassing. 

Sherlock dropped his towel carelessly, not answering John's question, and bent over the chest of drawers to get his pants.  Was that deliberate?  That nearly had to be deliberate.  Less than a week out of his virginity, and Sherlock was doing the bending-over-naked thing at eight in the morning.

John went into the shower, thinking that if the water were cold that might be no bad thing in the circumstances.  In the event, the hot water didn't run out until he was just about to turn the taps off anyway.  The trouble with living with -- sleeping with -- a genius was you never quite knew if he'd done some trick of personal observation and prediction to work things out perfectly or if he just had the luck of the devil.



Sherlock spent the cab ride to Barts Hospital playing with his tablet computer, a new toy roughly the size of a paperback book.  He was updating something on his poncy website and pausing periodically to swap to some kind of chat.  In the chat he was pretending to be a normal person.  John could tell because his face went sort of bland and pleasant while his spidery fingers tapped out his messages, and then when he swapped back out of the chat it melted away into a more typical sneer.  John rather suspected Sherlock didn't know he was doing it and he found the whole thing stupidly pleasing.

When they reached Barts Sherlock swept out of the cab without a look back.  John, left to pay, glared at Sherlock's back but couldn't work up too much actual irritation.  This was the first time Sherlock had done that since he'd come home but it had been Sherlock's standard behaviour for a long time — mind already in the morgue, assuming John would simply follow along, there when wanted like any of Sherlock's other mobile devices.  By all reports, he'd talk to John, sometimes at length, even if John weren't there.   The weird thing was, John had never seen him do it; Sherlock didn't keep lecturing DI Lestrade about casework or making demands on Molly or hectoring his brother Mycroft when they weren't there.

John didn't pause to look at the pavement outside the hospital where Sherlock had died — pretended to kill himself, lied to John with the blood in his hair and the way his body lay still and pale on the pavement.  He'd never made a shrine of the place when he'd believed it was real, and it was even more pointless to go looking there again now.

Since it had apparently slipped Sherlock's mind for the moment that John was with him, John decided not to be, at least briefly, and went up to stick his head in at Mike Stamford's office. 

Stamford had his glasses off, reading paperwork, but he put them on and grinned when John tapped at the door.

After saying hello, John stalled hard, looking at Mike's cheerful, round-jawed face, no idea what he did and didn't want to say.

Of all the people John knew, Mike was the one it would be easiest to . . . no there was no getting around it: come out to about Sherlock.  Mike Stamford had introduced them, and so occupied the unusual point of overlap between the normal world John had lived in once and the heightened, mad world of Sherlock, where there were archenemies and people came back from the dead and John Watson slept with a man.

Mike and Sherlock got on reasonably well; probably because Mike was fairly brilliant himself.  He had none of Sherlock's showy genius; it would take knowing him a while before you realised.  Back in training, John had once picked up a novel Mike was reading at the cafeteria table, to make fun of him for reading highbrow stuff like Umberto Eco, and discovered the book wasn't a translation.   There was a novel on the top of the shelf behind Mike's desk now.  The cover was in Chinese or Japanese, or something.   He presumably pulled it out to fill the odd spare moment between writing one textbook and editing another.  All when he wasn't actually practising or teaching medicine.

Mike and John got on very well, mostly because Mike was one of the most genuinely kind and accepting blokes John had ever met. 

Whenever John's sister Harry met one of John's friends, she made a policy of loudly berating them on some point of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or other malediction.  If they didn't come out with something off their own bat, she'd deliberately provoke it.  The first time she'd met Mike, he'd evaded all but one of her verbal traps, and sprung the last in her face by going on about Eddie Izzard's probably empowering, but, really,  problematic use of the phrase Male Lesbian.  Harry, denied her rightful prey, had the next day given John a right bollocking for . . .  well, he wasn't entirely sure, but it was somehow related to laughing at the wrong point in a Catherine Tate sketch.

So, if John told Mike he'd started sleeping with Sherlock, Mike would, John was sure, respond with exactly the right blend of congratulation and knowing concern.  Maybe that was why he couldn't bring himself to say anything; it would be a bit disturbing to come out to someone who had so much less of a problem with John's new relationship than John himself did.

So they talked about Mike's daughter Carrie, and Mike told his newest Idiot Student story, and then John went down to see if Sherlock had noticed he'd gone yet.

He found Sherlock in the lab downstairs, and as he stepped through the door and saw Sherlock sitting between the two lab counters, suddenly he was sweating.  He hadn't been to this room since that day, two years ago, when he'd stood just here, at the door --

And he'd said --

And the next time he'd seen him, Sherlock had --

"Stamford's taken over Park's students then,"  Sherlock commented.

"Uh," John said weakly.  "Didn't mention it."

"Otherwise he'd have bought you coffee.  He always buys you coffee unless he's got a student with him or he's overloaded with someone else's work."

"Oh," John said.

Molly came in the doors just behind him.  "Hello, John."

John smiled at her.  "Molly.  How's Toby?"  At this moment, and for the first time in his life, he genuinely longed to hear Molly prattle about her cat.  Every other possible topic was simply too much to think about at the moment.  He wanted to get out of here, go outside where he could breathe.

"Oh, he's in disgrace.  Pee'd on my pillow when I worked late on Monday.  I've got the bodies out -- "

And with that Sherlock was out the doors between them, leaving John and Molly to trail after him down the hall. 

Molly first uncovered Marie Gibson, the murdered mother.  When John had first seen her, lying on her floor, she had been grotesque, face and throat swollen by the anaphylaxis that had killed her.  Gravity had pulled the fluid downward in her corpse and her face was recognisable now. 

"Exactly what you'd expect," Molly said.  "Heart practically empty, terrible edema in the throat -- "

"High serum tryptase," Sherlock chimed in, "Et cetera, et cetera.  Peanut butter?"

"You were right," Molly said, a little bit of that old starry eyed look back on her face.  "Most of the capsule had broken down in the stomach acid, but there was a trace of peanut butter, and none of the medication that should've been there."

Sherlock nodded.  "Now the son."  He handed John the tablet.  On screen were the pages of a document, laid out in a grid of thumbnail images.  Most were text, but several were colour pictures of a crime scene. 

The son was the suicide -- if Russian roulette counted as suicide.  This was DI Dimmock's case file, John realised, the one Dimmock had bluntly refused to give Sherlock.  John had only been the distraction, when Sherlock was pinching it; John hadn't actually looked at the stolen documents yet.  So actually committing the crime started . . . now.

John tapped the first picture and it opened out to fill the screen, showing a small home office, man's body on the floor between the desk and the chair he had clearly been sitting in.  Sherlock was likely to quiz him later, mostly for his own amusement, so John did his best to notice details.  Expensive gear -- two big flat computer monitors on the desk, top-end stereo system on the shelf behind, high-quality clothes, especially the shoes.  The revolver had probably been knocked those few inches away when the lax hand hit the carpet.  Splatter on the monitors, stereo, back of the chair.

John swiped with his finger to flip to the next page, slightly proud that he'd remembered to do it that way rather than return to the grid to tap the next one. 

The picture slid into view, bright and clear on the tablet's little screen.  It was a closer shot; head and shoulders picture of the dead man, the suicide.

In the picture, the suicide was thin, cheekbones and jaw prominent.

In the picture, the suicide's dark hair had fallen in his face. 

In the picture, there was blood on the suicide's pale face.

Molly uncovered the corpse.  He'd been kept in the much colder area used for long term storage, and cold seemed to come off him.  His clean bloodless skin was nearly white.

He was very slim.  Above the sheet John could see the complex shapes of the bones and muscles in his bare pale shoulders and chest.

This wasn't --

He couldn't —

He needed some fucking air.

He felt as if he took a step backward, so that he was watching from behind his eyes, watching as if from the other side of a screen.   Everything had gone muted and unreal.  He was not at Barts. 

There was no suicide. 

No blood streaking a pale face. 

Not happening.

Sherlock's voice, saying something, which was bound to be clever.  John tilted his head and smiled as he listened, because that was what John Watson always did.  But it all felt like a dream, or something happening on the telly. He wasn't really doing these things, they were happening by remote.  It was fine, just a matter of getting through this.

John Watson was like a fictional character.  A good one.  He knew John Watson well, cared about him.  And Sherlock Holmes too, and Molly.  He was interested to see what they would do.  From a distance.  From outside.  As long as none of this was happening to him.  As long as he had some space to breathe.

" . . . his feet." Sherlock finished, corner of his mouth set in a smirk.

By remote, John Watson shook his head and grinned.

By remote, John Watson said, "I'll never get tired of watching you do that."

Sherlock's lips pressed briefly harder together, which meant he was suppressing the expression that showed how much he enjoyed praise.  That was good to see, that was lovely, like a film with a happy ending.

This time it took until they were in the cab, out of Barts and away, before John settled back, felt properly back in his body.  Sherlock sat subjecting the rest of the case file to a narrow-eyed glare, fingers swift and sure on the little screen.  John was here, and his life was raw and real again. It was the worst episode he'd had since Sherlock's return to the living.

The very first few times had been five years ago, while he was recovering from being shot and realising that they'd kept his blood in but let his career, his whole life, bleed out.

Never in combat.  There had been many times in Afghanistan when he had ceased to exist as anything but a floating perception that scanned for threats and performed operation after operation.  But at those times he had felt he was pressed intimately up against a harsher, brighter, more real world than usual. 

This other feeling, when the world became a fiction on the other side of a screen, felt like the exact opposite of that utter alertness and immersion in the moment. 

Sherlock had brought back that urgent, glorious battlefield reality.  And then he'd died and taken it away again. 

It had been strange, since he'd come back, to learn that this disconnected unreal feeling could co-exist with Sherlock. 

But it was just a feeling.  It came and went, and it hadn't affected anything; Sherlock hadn't even noticed.

"What did you see, in the case file, John?" Sherlock asked.  "Something clearly made an impression."

All right, possibly Sherlock had noticed something.

"Um, he was doing well.  He was what, a professional gambler, right?  Pricey toys.  Clothes nearly as poncey as yours.  Then, the angle; looked like he kept the gun right at his head.  People going to shoot themselves in the head — bloke did it my first tour —  a lot of times they'll pull up or a bit aside, think better of it even as they're pulling the trigger.  He didn't."

"And from all that you deduce?"

"Quest for worldly goods is ultimately unsatisfactory sort of thing?" John suggested.

Sherlock's mouth quirked in amused annoyance.  "Anything about the woman?"

John frowned.  "Nothing new.  I just keep thinking -- she was taking no chances about her allergy, those extra epi injectors in the house, and she checked all her food.  And yet when she started to feel ill, she went for the phone first instead of the shot of epi."

Sherlock was now giving John the narrow-eyed look, as if he suspected John of hiding something or making a joke.

"Just panic and confusion, I suppose," John said lamely.

Sherlock gave a little huff and stopped staring.  "For a moment there, I actually thought you'd cracked it."

John couldn't help but smile.  "You've cracked it, you mean.  Go on."

"Grace Gibson did it."

John's face fell.  "Didn't we know that already?"

"No, no, no.  Grace Gibson didn't kill her mother-in-law.  That was suicide.  She killed her husband -- that was murder."