Actions

Work Header

Stood in History

Work Text:

He discovered the ring in John’s sock drawer.

The box had been wedged into the very back corner, hidden by a jumble of half-folded, half-wadded-up socks so utterly disordered that Sherlock was driven mad by simply the knowledge that it existed. But, offensively disorganised though John’s sock drawer was, he’d never found anything hidden in it before.

He didn’t even think about it. As soon as he’d spied the black velvet jewellery box, he was snatching it up and cracking it open. The sight that greeted him left him stunned, breathless.

The ring was a simple band. Fourteen-karat yellow gold, six millimetres in width. There were no gems or adornments of any kind, no engravings. It was plain, traditional, impersonal—it was dull.

It was the most beautiful thing Sherlock had ever seen.

He wiggled it free and held it up as the box fell to the floor with a dull thump. The light glinted in the gold like a flame, or a very small sun. He slipped it onto his finger. (The ring finger, left hand. Obviously.) It was too loose; Sherlock could spin it round and round.

He laughed, a small barely audible huff. Of course John would overestimate his ring size. John who marvelled regularly at the size of Sherlock’s hands. Sometimes whilst he was knelt over a body, chuckling despite all of Scotland Yard goggling at the inappropriateness of it. Sometimes whilst he clung to Sherlock, moaning, his breath warm on Sherlock’s bare shoulder.

John is going to ask me to marry him, Sherlock thought.

A jolt of sentiment, as potent as an electric current. His limbs jerked and shuddered; his mind went white. He blinked and he was on the floor, his bum smarting, his left wrist clutched tightly in his right hand. The ring still glinted beautifully on his finger despite the poor fit.

What, he thought, do I do?

Besides saying yes, obviously, and trying not to appear too eager about it. Although perhaps John would appreciate his eagerness. He admired Sherlock’s enthusiasm, after all, no matter how ill-timed or excessive. Perhaps he’d be charmed if Sherlock thrust the ring box at him as soon as he’d walked through the door, saying ‘Ask. Get down on your knee or whatever it is that people do, and ask so I can say yes and we can get it fitted properly and no one can take it off me, not even the maggots in my casket as they eat my corpse.’

And John would say, with a fondness as thick as marmite in his voice, ‘Of course you’re bringing maggots into my proposal. Don’t know why I expected any different. All right then.’

It would be… good. It would replace their first kiss (which had slid into their second and third and twentieth, Sherlock half on top of John on the sofa while John panted into Sherlock’s mouth and trembled and let Sherlock map the shape of his shoulders beneath his jumper) as Sherlock’s most treasured memory, the one he fetched and clung to when his cravings threatened to best his self-control.

It was what Sherlock wanted to do, but… perhaps not. Sherlock had ruined John’s last proposal, hadn’t he? He wouldn’t interfere with this one. Besides, John would follow through soon enough. He was no more patient than Sherlock, after all.

After wiping his fingerprints from the gold, Sherlock nestled the ring back in its box and hid it beneath John’s socks just as he’d found it.

He floated more than walked towards the living room and collapsed more than sat on the sofa. He gathered his dressing gown around him. It was the green one today—his new favourite, although it was old and worn now. It was the first one that John had touched. Truly touched, not the fleeting brushes and accidental grazes that had nearly driven Sherlock spare. No, John had run his hands along the sleeves and said ‘Jesus, this is even softer than it looks,’ and then allowed Sherlock to envelop him in it, standing right there in the kitchen while the dressing gown fluttered around both of their legs.

There would have to be a wedding, of course. That was the whole point of a proposal. A big wedding? The last one had exhausted John, had made him desperate for an escape. But Mummy would insist on it. Mummy would demand that her son be married in the heights of extravagance, in the presence of all London, Hertfordshire, and most of Essex.

Sherlock would have to teach John to waltz all over again.

Lightheaded, Sherlock brought his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.

John is going to propose to me, he thought, and had to close his eyes, overcome. Behind his eyelids, he saw music notes, John’s feet trodding over his own, John’s rigid determined expression.

Distantly, he heard John’s tread on the stairs. It was slower and heavier than if Sherlock had been with him, leading him. Sherlock lifted his head as the door opened and John entered. He lit up when he saw Sherlock, the same way that Sherlock felt: energised, radiant, the whole world more colourful. A single drop of methylene blue on a microscope slide, enhancing and highlighting: revealing.

Sherlock didn’t hesitate to reach for him, to pull him close, although John was still wearing his jacket and shoes. He smelt of antibacterial soap and latex, and he was warm despite the chill outside.

“Oof!” said John, as Sherlock tugged him into his lap.

He was heavy, heavier than he looked. Dense bones, Sherlock had always suspected. Somehow after all these months, it was still a surprise. Sherlock found the suprasternal notch beneath the layers of John’s jumper and undershirt, and gave it a pointed nuzzle.

“Hello,” John said. There was a smile in his voice. His hands found their way into Sherlock’s hair and began to follow their usual path. Beginning just above Sherlock’s ear, arcing upwards towards his crown, and dropping suddenly to his nape. Sherlock might’ve developed permanent grooves in his scalp from John’s fingers, he’d done this so much. “You’re affectionate today.”

Ask, Sherlock thought. But no. John would have to get up and retrieve the ring from the bedroom. John wouldn’t want to propose without it. He was traditional and a romantic, and it would defeat the purpose of getting the ring to begin with.

“Mm,” Sherlock said.

With both hands splayed along John’s back, he buried his face in John’s neck and bit. Weak but pointed. John jerked once, instincts calling him to fight, but then he melted, moulding himself to Sherlock. He cupped the back of Sherlock’s neck, inviting another gentler nip.

“Ahh,” he murmured. “It’s like that, is it?”

It wasn’t, really, but it was close enough.

*

“Fucking hell. What’s got into you today?” John said. He was laughing, squirming. One leg hitched higher on the bed as though he meant to extricate himself from Sherlock’s grasp, but he seemed to think better of it.

Sherlock didn’t answer, his face buried as it was between John’s arse cheeks. His attention was devoted to John’s hole. Licking the little wrinkled rim, drooling on it, trying to get it wet and loose enough that he could push his tongue inside.

It wasn’t an easy task. When their positions were reversed, Sherlock knew to relax his muscles, to bear down, to let John fuck him with whatever John felt so inclined to put up him. But John was stubborn, in mind and body. He struggled and fought in sex just as in every other aspect of his life—sometimes quite literally. The fresh scratches down Sherlock’s back stung; the bites on his collarbone ached.

When his efforts finally paid off and John’s tight arsehole twitched and loosened, allowing the very tip of Sherlock’s determined tongue to nearly slip inside, John gave a violent full-body shudder and grabbed Sherlock’s hair with enough force that it felt for a moment his whole scalp was on fire.

“God,” John said, sounding blissful. “Oh my fucking god.” He shoved his arse back into Sherlock’s face and wrenched Sherlock’s hair, which hurt so badly that Sherlock could see the pain. Little pinpricks of flame behind his closed eyelids.

He adored this. It was one of the few sexual acts that, in the long history of John’s experience, were solely Sherlock’s. He’d all but run the gamut with women and had even sucked a cock before Sherlock’s—the very idea of which drove Sherlock mad, made him long to tear into himself with his own teeth—but he’d never let anyone but Sherlock put their mouth on his arsehole. (‘Never really been comfortable with anyone else,’ he’d said. Sherlock’s heart had swelled like a blood-soaked sponge and hadn’t shown signs of shrinking since.)

There was also the receiving end of anal intercourse. That was another act that was solely Sherlock’s. Unfortunately, it made Sherlock… weak. Incapable of enjoying John’s particular flavour of roughness, so John always left off and instead became profoundly, devastatingly tender. He would graze his fingertips along Sherlock’s spine and shoulders, squeeze Sherlock’s hips reassuringly with his thighs, and do his best to cradle Sherlock against him, murmuring sentimental nonsense as Sherlock trembled and sobbed and splintered into pieces.

Sherlock tended to babble, like that. About whatever came to mind, be it John’s slick arse or the mating habits of honey bees, and oftentimes he didn’t even realise until afterwards when John (chuckling, endlessly affectionate despite Sherlock’s many shortcomings) said, ‘So, bees?’

Who knew what Sherlock would say now, compromised as he was. Aware that mere feet away, hidden in John’s disastrous sock drawer, was a ring intended for Sherlock’s finger.

Sherlock drew back, despite John’s grip on his hair which grew even more insistent and excruciating before finally letting go. With the back of one hand, he wiped the saliva from his chin, cheeks, and the tip of his nose.

“You,” he said.

John was panting, his upper body lifted and twisted so he could stare right at Sherlock with an expression of such starry-eyed confusion that Sherlock couldn’t help but grin. “What?”

“What’s got into me,” said Sherlock. “You.” He reached for the bedside table and the bottle of lubricant sitting on top of it. “Or you will do shortly, at any rate. Unless you’ve any objections.”

John was already turning onto his back, revealing his thick cock. It was mouth-wateringly hard, the foreskin drawn back. The tip was red and wet. “Me? God no. No objections here.”

Sherlock was quick about it, even more so than usual. To compensate for the hurried preparation, he used an excessive amount of lubricant. But still, it burned. With John’s steadying hands on his waist to assist him, Sherlock sank onto John’s cock with a long, low hiss of pain.

“Easy,” John said. There was a waver in his voice, followed by a guttural groan as he reached and touched where Sherlock was stretched wide around him. His fingers brushed the sore, sensitive rim of Sherlock’s hole. “Take it, uhn. Take it slow.”

As if Sherlock took anything slow. With a snarl, he snatched John’s wrists and pinned them to the mattress on either side of John’s head. He relished the look of surprise on John’s face, which melted into amusement and then glee as Sherlock dug his nails in.

“You little shit,” John said.

There was a tussle then. Playful and short-lived, with John struggling half-heartedly to free himself and Sherlock shifting his weight so that he couldn’t. It ended with John’s hands above his head, twisted so that they were gripping Sherlock’s as Sherlock fucked himself back on John’s cock in short, jabbing thrusts.

John’s jaw went slack, his eyes half-lidded in pleasure. He stared up at Sherlock like Sherlock was the most precious thing in his life: his breath, his bones, the most dangerous weapon he would ever hold.

“Please,” John said. “Please, god.”

Sherlock didn’t know what he was begging for, but it didn’t matter. He squeezed John’s hands and bent to kiss John’s forehead, although it ruined his rhythm and made his arsehole burn anew. “Anything,” he promised. “Anything, it’s yours.”

Another tussle, this one even more short-lived, with Sherlock conceding easily. He was flipped onto his back, John on him and in him. It wasn’t comfortable, the new angle or position, but the discomfort—and John’s glorious gasping moan—was pleasant in its own way. He wound himself around John’s tense, sweat-slick body, pressed his open mouth to John’s shoulder, and bit.

John’s cry was both pained and euphoric, a uniquely John Watson contradiction. His thrusts turned pounding and brutal, scooting them both along the sweaty sheets. He tried to lift himself onto his forearms, to gain leverage, but Sherlock clamped his jaw tighter, keeping him in place. Forcing John’s strong hips and his fiercely powerful thighs to do the work while his upper body went all but limp, ceding to Sherlock’s bite.

“God,” said John, right into Sherlock’s ear. “God, yes.”

From there, Sherlock was aware of nothing but the taste of salt in his mouth and the muted throb of John’s pulse against his tongue, growing stronger as his teeth sank deeper. Blood leaking from the broken capillaries, collecting under the injured tissue. John’s flesh swelling, body struggling to heal—Never, Sherlock thought fiercely. Mine now, please. Stay.

A sudden flood of wetness in his arse startled him, and he came back to himself with a shudder. John’s thrusts were slowing and he was whimpering in Sherlock’s ear. Sherlock abandoned his shoulder, jaw aching as it disengaged. He dropped his head back, letting out a quiet “oh” with every wet pulse of John’s cock in his hole.

He’d gone soft at some point while being fucked, but John’s wet, eager mouth fixed that easily. John was still out of breath, panting through his nose as he sucked Sherlock’s cock, bobbing his head and fucking his own throat like he would expire if he wasn’t filled with Sherlock’s come as soon as possible.

The bruise on his shoulder was already vivid. Deep red and swollen, still darkening as Sherlock watched. There were clear teeth marks, several rows of them from Sherlock having to adjust his bite to compensate for John’s wiggling and thrusting. He couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and brush his fingertips against it. John’s skin was hot, still throbbing dully.

John moaned at the touch, purposely lifted his shoulder into it. There was a flash of memory in Sherlock’s mind. Their third sexual encounter, when John had ducked his head, giggling into Sherlock’s right pectoral, and said, ‘Sorry. Guess we’re each a bit of a masochist, hm?’ And how Sherlock, delirious with pain and pleasure, had thought, You’re perfect. You’re everything. I’ll love you until I die, but instead he’d scoffed and said, ‘Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.’

His arsehole stung terribly, even more so when the first dribble of John’s come leaked out, followed swiftly by the second. At the sensation—sharp and sudden, real—Sherlock wailed and clung to John’s bruised shoulder and came.

Afterwards, Sherlock allowed himself to be arranged, octopus-like, around John. It was John’s preferred post-coital position—Sherlock’s as well, if he was honest. He felt… safe there: holding John, containing him, acting as his support, his protection. As they lay there, sweating and silent but for their heaving breaths, John stroked Sherlock’s lower spine and rested his ear against Sherlock’s sternum—listening to his heartbeat, feeling the steadying expand and collapse of his lungs.

It would’ve been the perfect time for a proposal. The two of them tangled together, aching but euphoric, oxytocin flooding their brains. Sherlock’s come settling in John’s stomach, John’s still seeping from Sherlock’s raw, well-fucked arsehole.

When John pulled away, unwinding Sherlock’s limbs, Sherlock’s first thought was that John must have recognised it as well. He intended to fetch the ring from his drawer and put it on Sherlock’s finger where it belonged. Sherlock’s heartbeat kicked up again. His throat felt tight.

But John only scooted lower on the bed and said, “Got a bit too rough there at the end. Did I hurt you?”

Sherlock’s heart seemed to wither in his chest. He had to swallow before he could answer. “Not really.”

John’s right eyebrow arched.

“Well,” Sherlock amended. “Maybe a bit. Not hurt, that is, just… irritation. Perhaps.”

Knowing what would follow, he flipped over without any coaxing and felt John’s small, strong hands parting his arse cheeks. His hole stung anew at the stretch.

Groaning at the picture he must have made, Sherlock replaced John’s hands with his own. He spread himself wider, let John see how red and sore he was, how open and used.

John wasted no time bending forwards to soothe the hurt with his mouth, pushing his tongue into Sherlock’s loose arsehole easily, licking at his own come.

Sherlock buried his face in the bedsheets and moaned, half in pleasure and half in disappointment. There would be no proposal tonight, he supposed.

Well. That was fine. Another time, then. They had all the time in the world, after all.

*

John spent the better part of the following morning with an icepack on his shoulder, grimacing exaggeratedly every time he caught Sherlock’s eye. And every time, Sherlock felt his ears heat, his chest puff with pride. It was precisely what John was after, he knew. John might accuse Sherlock of being a drama queen, but he was just as bad himself.

It never ceased to amaze him, how well-suited they were. In their thriving on danger, their distaste for the ordinary, their craving for each other’s attention.

Obvious, Sherlock thought. We’re both idiots. We should’ve married years ago.

He couldn’t seem to stop touching John. He paused behind John’s chair and rested his chin on the top of John’s head while waiting for the kettle to boil. He lifted John’s bare feet into his lap while they ate breakfast. He followed John into the en suite—limping slightly—and plastered himself to John’s back in the shower, ignoring the sting of the scratches on his back as he kissed drops of water from John’s nape.

“Seriously,” John said afterwards, attempting to towel his hair dry. He was doing it wrong, making his hair look like a bushy tree branch, so Sherlock swiped the towel and did it for him. “What’s got into you?”

You’re going to ask me to marry you. Sherlock’s limbs felt fluttery at the thought.

It hadn’t even occurred to him. It probably never would have done. The ring, the possibility of marriage, all of it. Sherlock had given up drugs for John. John had given up his lying, pregnant wife for Sherlock. As far as Sherlock had been concerned, that was enough.

As always, John saw what Sherlock couldn’t. He understood what Sherlock would never manage to articulate.

“Nothing at the moment, unfortunately,” said Sherlock, finishing with the towel. Only slightly damp now, John’s hair would dry looking shaggy and windswept but exceedingly attractive. “My doctor has informed me that I’ll need a few days to recover first.”

John peered at himself in the mirror, running a hand through his hair. It ruined the overall effect, but not offensively so, so Sherlock allowed it.

“Sounds like a smart man, your doctor.”

Shrugging, Sherlock hung up the towel to dry. “Smart? Hardly. He isn’t a complete idiot, I’ll grant you, but—”

John swatted at him and they tussled briefly, Sherlock pinning John against the sink while John jammed his fingers into the ticklish spots in Sherlock’s armpits. They were giggling, squirming against each other. Sherlock’s hair, still wet and mostly unmanaged, dripped onto John’s chest and shoulders.

A few drops trickled over John’s bruise, which had darkened to a purplish black and was still puffy despite the icepack. The rows of teeth marks were lovely, reminding Sherlock of rings which reminded him of the ring hidden in John’s drawer.

Sherlock gave up his lighthearted fighting and sagged against John, sighing happily. John would ask him soon. He needed only be patient.

“All right?” said John, voice muffled against Sherlock’s bare chest.

“Yes,” Sherlock said. He ruined John’s hair even further by giving it a little nuzzle. “Brilliant.”

*

A week passed. Clients came, offered him dull cases, and left insulted. Mrs Hudson brought tea and lunch and refused to be insulted no matter what Sherlock said. John spent an alarming amount of time at the surgery he still insisted on working at. Stupidly, in Sherlock’s opinion, although he tried (poorly) to keep that opinion to himself. John needed to do things, to feel productive and useful, and became quite tetchy when Sherlock suggested the surgery was a waste of John’s time and energy—even though it obviously was.

In the meantime, Sherlock researched the history of various marriage traditions and pondered his own name.

It was a delicate business, changing one’s name. Or he assumed it was, in any case. Obviously he didn’t know for sure, as he’d never done it.

He thought he wouldn’t have much minded changing it, though. After all, he’d been Sherlock Holmes for more than forty years. Perhaps a change was in order.

Sherlock Watson.

He said it aloud, then wrote it down by hand on a bit of paper and in a blank document on his computer. He even opened a blank text on his phone and typed SW just to see what it looked like.

It wasn’t offensive, but neither did it flow off the tongue as eloquently as Sherlock Holmes.

John Holmes?

He didn’t even have to say it out loud. The very idea was alarming. John had been John Watson to Sherlock for far too long. A John Watson without a Watson was… no. A very strong no.

A hyphenation, then. But which one? Watson-Holmes or Holmes-Watson?

“Sherlock Watson-Holmes,” Sherlock muttered to himself. “Sherlock Holmes-Watson.”

“Beg your pardon?”

Sherlock jumped, his eyes snapping open. He was in his chair, elbow on each arm and his fingers steepled beneath his chin. John was in the kitchen, drying a mug with a tea towel and staring at Sherlock. His head was cocked curiously. Too far away to have heard Sherlock clearly. Sherlock’s panic receded.

“You just left,” he said. “Why are you here?”

The corner of John’s lip turned up. “Apparently we’ve come full circle. You used to not realise I’d gone and now you don’t realise I’ve come back. I left hours ago, Sherlock. I just got back… ten, maybe fifteen minutes ago.”

Sherlock digested that. The passage of time, the state of his body. He had to urinate, he realised.

“New case?” John asked.

“Yes,” Sherlock said. Then he processed the question, as well as the distinct note of interest in John’s voice, and corrected himself. “No. The website—”

He hadn’t check the website or his email. For all he knew, there were several prospective cases waiting for him. He waved vaguely towards where he thought he’d left his computer, after he’d finished typing Sherlock Watson into—

Oh, he thought. An idea bloomed and grew like a storm cloud until it was all he could see.

“John Watson,” he said. “No. John Hamish Watson.” It was a good name, a deceptively dull and respectable name, but John disliked it. Hated it, even.

“Erm,” said John. “That’s me, yeah. Do you need me for something?”

John H. Watson. JHW. Sherlock sat up, pleased, impressed at his own cleverness. John could be rid of the Hamish that he despised but keep the H. John Holmes-Watson.

He collapsed back into the armchair, which creaked angrily in protest. The chair was dreadfully old, now, but he would be damned if he got rid of it.

Sherlock Holmes-Watson.

That was… that was good. Brilliant. Perfect, even. Wasn’t it? Suddenly he longed for a second opinion, which was ridiculous. Who would he even ask?

“Are you doing an experiment or something?”

Sherlock blinked. John was standing in the entrance to the living room, wiping his hands with the tea towel. The mug he’d been drying was nowhere in sight, and there was a frown of concern on his face.

“Of a sort,” said Sherlock. “Behavioural study. I need my phone.”

John glanced around and spotted Sherlock’s mobile phone on the desk just as Sherlock recalled the last thing he’d used it for.

“No!” He practically shouted it, startling both John and himself. More quietly but no less urgently, he said, “I’ve got it.”

Indeed, the unsent text, saying only SW, was still on the screen. He dismissed it and wrote another.

SWH or SHW? SH

He regretted it as soon as he’d sent it. He and John hadn’t even discussed the issue yet; there was no need to involve other people. He remembered John, months ago now, shaking his head in exasperation and saying, ‘You’re no better than a kid, you know. You don’t know how to wait. You get an inkling of an idea in your head and you have to do it right fucking then, and god help anyone who gets in your way.’

“Will you eat something if I order takeaway?”

Sherlock shook his head, distracted. “I have to urinate.”

“I… Okay. Are you actually going to the loo, or shall I bring you a glass?”

The phone buzzed.

SHW. MH

Sherlock’s shoulders sagged as though they’d been weighted down with cement bricks. He hadn’t even realised they were tense.

Yes. My thoughts exactly. SH

This time, the response was immediate.

You do have good taste on occasion. MH

“Sherlock?” said John.

“Mm?”

“A glass?”

The phone buzzed again.

Congratulations would be a bit premature at this junction, I suspect? MH

“If you must,” Sherlock told John. “From the tap. Room temperature. No ice.”

“What?”

“Please,” Sherlock amended.

Only slightly. SH

He hoped it would be only slightly premature, at least. Sherlock might’ve been accustomed to being several hundred steps ahead of John’s limited mental capabilities, true, but surely this was different.

His phone was silent then. John abandoned him, going back to the kitchen to do… whatever he’d been doing. Something niggled, lightly at first and then persistently, until it was gnawing relentlessly at him like a vulture feasting on a corpse. He blinked and behind his eyelids there was a flash of Mycroft’s ugliest sneer. ‘Caring is not an advantage.’

His fingers were moving even before he was fully aware that he was texting.

Disappointed? SH

Thankfully, Mycroft’s response came swiftly.

Relieved, in fact. MH

That was it. Sherlock’s phone was quiet again, the brief conversation evidently concluded. Not that he’d wanted it to carry on, he supposed. The gnawing was gone, replaced with a little kernel of contentment that blossomed and stretched its branches throughout his torso when he glanced up from his mobile phone to find John approaching with a full glass of water.

He was relieved, giddy, dying to boast that he’d got the name situation sorted. But then he recalled that they hadn’t even begun to sort it, that John hadn’t even broached the subject of marriage and changing names at all. Even though it had been a full week since Sherlock had stumbled upon the ring, even longer since John had bought it.

What could he possibly be waiting for?

You need to be patient, Sherlock reminded himself. Don’t rush him. That’s the worst thing you could do.

John offered Sherlock the glass, which Sherlock accepted and nearly sipped from. But then his bladder gave a sudden, pointed cramp and he quickly set the glass down on the desk, which he realised he was still standing beside.

“Not exactly the best timing,” he said. “I really do have to urinate.”

John laughed. His eyes went small, crinkly at the corners, while his lips stretched wide. “Jesus. You’re impossible.” But he said it fondly, going up on his tiptoes to kiss Sherlock’s forehead.

Sherlock’s mind flickered back several months, to when John had berated him for being incapable of waiting and then, afterwards, when Sherlock had penetrated him for the first time. According to John—and to Sherlock’s mortification—Sherlock had regaled him amidst whimpers and wails with the history of Pluto’s designation as a planet. ‘Well, if I ever doubted that you loved me, that would certainly have put an end to it,’ John had said. The first and only time that word had been spoken aloud by either of them.

Sherlock recalled thinking then that it had been worth it—worth the decades of crippling loneliness, the years of confusion and pining and trying and failing to get it right, leaping off a building, being tortured and shot, Serbia, Mary, all of it—to have this.

And now, this infernal waiting for John to just bloody ask already—it was worth that as well.

“What are you waiting for?” John said, grabbing Sherlock’s shoulder and giving him a solid shove towards the kitchen. “Go to the damn loo so you can stop talking about it already.”

Reassured and resolute, Sherlock went.

*

Another week passed, and then another. Sherlock’s patience, a frayed cord at the best of times, was in tatters: an assortment of threads barely entwined any longer. Despite the best of his abilities, he became short and tetchy. In a mood, according to Mrs Hudson. Insufferable, according to John. John whose lips went small and thin, his gaze to the ceiling as though praying for patience, more often than Sherlock could recall in recent years.

Even Lestrade noticed something was amiss. Sherlock’s phone buzzed with a text one evening that simply read: Why aren’t you badgering me for cases?

Sherlock could hardly admit it, could he? Lestrade was in contact with John far more frequently than with Sherlock. In fact, now that he thought about it, it was more likely John had alluded to Sherlock’s dour mood rather than Lestrade deducing on his own.

Busy. SH, he answered, and flopped onto the sofa with his face to the cushion and his feet dangling over the edge. His phone, still in his hand, buzzed again.

With what?

Sherlock let the phone drop to the floor, relishing the vicious thud it made as wood and plastic connected.

He spent a lot of time in his Mind Palace. The Good Mind Palace, as John called it, differentiating it from the times Sherlock had retreated into his own head for a long drug-induced hallucination. The sheer number of arguments that had begun with John pausing beside him and saying, ‘This is… Good Mind Palace, yeah?’—and ended with John storming out, his jacket sleeve flapping about as he tried to shove his arm through it in his anger—was mind-boggling. A testament to John’s bullheadedness and how Sherlock needed to learn to simply let it be, accept that John was perhaps the farthest from rational and predictable that Sherlock had ever encountered.

A lesson that he was attempting to heed even now.

And when he wasn’t in his Mind Palace, Sherlock was often… well.

“You have the worst fucking timing,” John said, a few hours after Lestrade’s text. His tone was aggrieved, but he certainly wasn’t protesting. Rather, he’d settled on his back in the centre of the bed, with Sherlock knelt between his spread legs and undoing the zip on his trousers. “I have to leave in—”

“Four minutes ago, if you wanted to get there by eight,” Sherlock said. “Fortunately, Mike is a very patient man.”

When John’s trousers were open, Sherlock concentrated on getting his pants out of the way. To his delight, John assisted by sitting up and shucking everything below the waist entirely. The trousers, pants, and socks flew over Sherlock’s head and landed somewhere behind him, where they were promptly forgotten.

With John’s legs free to be grabbed and moved however he pleased, Sherlock hauled him closer and draped his thighs over Sherlock’s shoulders. The position made John swear and laugh, but he obligingly lifted his hips so Sherlock could slide his hands beneath them, cupping John’s bum and bringing his hard, thick cock to Sherlock’s lips.

He could’ve gone slow. With oral sex, Sherlock preferred slow, usually. The build-up, the tease—not to mention the few times that he’d succeeded in getting John so worked up that his prick had begun leaking copiously, continuously, and he’d gone perfectly, eerily still under Sherlock’s mouth, just meekly watching with glassy eyes as his cock was toyed with. But somehow, the idea didn’t appeal now, and the alternative—John filling Sherlock’s throat in minutes, leaving Sherlock smouldering in his own arousal for hours—did.

Quick, then—which, in a typical contradictory, John-like fashion, meant slow to start.

He made eye contact as he opened his mouth and let the fat, hooded head of John’s cock to rest on his tongue. He stayed there one second, three, six, allowing John to appreciate the visual. (John, a frequent porn consumer, was very very affected by visuals.) John propped himself up on his elbows to watch, and his expression was dark and hungry.

Sherlock was so focused on maintaining eye contact that he missed the movement of John’s left hand until suddenly it was on his head, giving a gentle push. It remained there, guiding Sherlock’s lips through three languid glides up and down his cock, getting it slick and wet, before he left off and Sherlock took over.

He kept his eyes open and fixed on John’s. He let John see his eyelashes flutter when he took John’s prick into his throat, the same way that his throat muscles fluttered around the girth, struggling to accommodate it. And with every flutter, John’s cock gave a weak throb and a drop of precome smeared on Sherlock’s tongue when he pulled off.

“Fuck,” John said, low and dangerous. “Look at you.”

He touched Sherlock’s bottom lip with his thumb, smeared the saliva along the full length of it and then pushed into Sherlock’s mouth alongside his cock. The stretch was difficult—John’s prick wasn’t long, but it was exceptionally thick—but fortunately, Sherlock had had multiple days in a row of practice now. He accepted it with nothing but a soft, muffled moan and a tender stroke of his tongue.

His throat, so full, tightened in the beginnings of a gag. He exaggerated it, added a heartfelt sniffle, and allowed a few tears to well in his eyes. He felt a flash of triumph—and a pulse of arousal—when John’s whole body shuddered and his mouth opened around a blissful cry.

John was about sex the way that Sherlock was about cases. The ordinary wouldn’t do. It had to be interesting; it had to be thrilling.

I will love you until I rot, Sherlock thought, grateful that his mouth was full lest he say something so insipid and sentimental aloud. He squinted, making the tears in his eyes run over and trickle down his cheeks. John’s thumb slid out with a pop and his hand returned to Sherlock’s head, closing around a patch of hair and making Sherlock moan (and gag) around John’s cock.

“God I fucking adore you,” John said, so similar to what Sherlock had been thinking that Sherlock had to squeeze his eyes shut and sob. “You fucking tart.” John tugged, dragging Sherlock’s lips almost completely off his cock before forcing Sherlock to swallow him again. “That’s it. Take it.

The rhythm went swiftly from languid to quick to brutal. Soon Sherlock wasn’t exaggerating at all. He was gagging, drooling, crying, but no one could mistake his moans for anything but euphoric. John’s grunts went quiet and then stopped. So that he can listen to me, Sherlock knew.

After that, it was over within seconds.

Sherlock sat up with a foul taste in his mouth, a filthy blend of saliva and come on his chin, and drying tear tracks on his cheeks. He felt the hot, insistent throb of arousal, starting at his prick—so hard and desperate in his trousers—and reaching as far as his legs and arms. He rolled himself onto his stomach so that he could feel the sweet pressure of the mattress against his groin.

He wanted to come so badly it hurt.

It was torture, bloody fucking torture, to wave away John’s hands and say, “Go.” It came out as an unintelligible croak. He cleared his throat and said again, “Go.”

“You can’t be serious,” John said, sounding positively scandalised. “Now?

Sherlock turned his head and looked at him. His shirt was dishevelled, his penis wet and limp. Sherlock wanted to suck it some more, slow and gentle until John couldn’t take it anymore and kicked him away.

“Seriously?”

Sherlock nodded. “It—” He couldn’t even begin to explain the appeal. Of being left wanting, being consumed with thoughts of John, or of John’s thoughts never straying far from Sherlock. The words wouldn’t come.

But John, occasionally brilliant John, understood. His expression went so soft, so plainly adoring that Sherlock’s heart swelled in his abused throat. “All right,” John said.

He fetched his trousers, pants, and socks, and stood a moment sorting out each piece of clothing from the tangle. Then, with his head cocked towards Sherlock, his eyes gleaming mischievously, he said, “Text me a photo every now and then?”

Sherlock snorted. “I suspect Mike wouldn’t appreciate that.”

“Please. Have you met him? He’s keen on pretty much everything to do with you and me, innocent or… not.”

Mike was extraordinarily proud of himself for having introduced them, Sherlock mused. He was still thinking about it—remembering that day at Bart’s and John so small and broken, limping into Sherlock’s life—when John kissed his head, sweeping a hand through his mussed hair, and said, “Back later. Photos of your cock or not, text if you need me.”

Then he was gone, bounding out of the flat and down the staircase with a briskness that meant he’d been well-fucked and satisfied.

Now that Sherlock was alone, with nothing to occupy him, his erection began to flag and his arousal to weaken until it was little more than a niggle at the corners of his consciousness, easy enough to ignore. He rolled onto his back, caught a sudden whiff of John’s shampoo mingling with the lingering scent of sweat and semen.

Wiping his chin with the back of his hand—little good that did, it was all but dried now—he sat up and found himself looking at the chest of drawers. John’s chest of drawers that Sherlock had had to make room for, because John had insisted the wardrobe wasn’t big enough for them both.

He hadn’t gone into John’s sock drawer since he’d discovered the ring. It had seemed too pointless, frivolous, to seek it out again, whether it be to admire it or to reassure himself that it was there. But with John gone now and the flat silent…

What could it hurt?

His legs were weak, a little wobbly, as he climbed off the bed. He approached the chest, grasped the handle for John’s sock drawer, and opened it—

—only to slam it shut a second later, feeling as though his heart had grown very still and cold between his lungs.

He opened the drawer again and stared.

The box was there. No longer wedged into the back corner, and although it wasn’t hidden beneath John’s socks, it was still partly covered by a pair of them. As though John had taken it out and then shoved it hastily back.

When? Why? The former question he could deduce if he wanted—it was easy enough to examine the contents of the drawer, compare them with the contents three weeks ago, and factor in what he knew of John’s recent sock history and his particular way of organising (not organising) and hunting through the drawer in search of each day’s socks—but the latter question, and its relation to the first, stopped him.

Fact: John had picked up the ring.

Fact: John had, at some point after picking up the ring, put it back.

Conclusion: John had considered proposing, but ultimately changed his mind.

Sherlock left the ring where it was and stepped back. The chest was wooden and heavy, and the drawer make a thunk as it shut that seemed unnaturally loud in the silent flat. The silent building, really. He couldn’t even hear Mrs Hudson puttering about downstairs. Perhaps she was out or asleep.

He felt… curiously little, in fact. His mind was as quiet and still as the flat, which was… fine. It was good. He would remain rational. He wouldn’t rush to conclusions and fall to pieces over nothing but a bloody ring box in a drawer.

Brushing his palms down his trousers, which were wrinkled and smeared with fluids, Sherlock took another step back and breathed deeply.

Then he went to the living room to think.

*

The sofa didn’t work, nor his armchair, so he lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling with his arms wide. The hard, unforgiving wood against his back, the stretch in his shoulders, was stabilising. Easier to forget the physical, the transient, and sink into his mind.

The long staircase, never-ending doors. Redbeard’s claws clip-clipping. Mycroft tsking at him, reminding him of his stupidity. The dark sprawling corridors, the gaping uncertainty, the madman still chained and locked in the farthest corner. ‘Pain. Heartbreak. Loss.’

You’re being ridiculous, he told himself. Not marrying John would hardly be the end of the world. A month ago, he hadn’t even wanted to. The thought never would have crossed his mind if John hadn’t put it there.

John who had proposed before. John who had been married before. Unhappily. Dreadfully unhappily. He’d been miserable in a matter of weeks, desperate for an escape. Not long after, he’d discovered that his wife was an assassin, a liar, carrying a child that wasn’t his. Perfectly understandable that he’d be averse to the entire concept of marriage now.

Yet he’d bought the ring. And John was far from frivolous with his money. Any purchase costing more than thirty, maybe forty quid was given a degree of consideration that bordered on absurd.

So-called “cold feet,” perhaps? The prospect of marrying Sherlock, of being legally bound together for a potentially considerable amount of time, might’ve sounded good in theory, but when faced with the reality, perhaps John was shying away from it?

Sherlock was difficult to live with. Between the disregard for social niceties, the body parts in the fridge, the occasionally self-destructive quest to rid himself of boredom, the exasperatingly foul moods—

“Good Mind Palace, yeah?”

Sherlock came back to himself. John was leaning over him, bent forward at the waist with his hands on his knees.

“Sorry,” he said, a tad sheepishly. “It’s a bit habit at this point. I don’t really think you’re….”

“Getting high while you’re out cavorting with Mike Stamford?” Sherlock offered, perfectly amiable. He was hardly about to start an argument now.

“Cavorting? We went to a pub, not an orgy.”

The lamplight glinted off John’s hair in such a way that Sherlock could see the multitude of grey hairs mixed with the blond. Or perhaps it was the other way round? He was more grey than blond these days.

It suited him. Closer to fifty than forty now, John Watson was the most attractive person Sherlock had ever seen.

Sherlock sat up just as John lowered himself to his haunches. He smelt of brown malt, not only his breath but his jumper as well. Probably his skin too. If Sherlock licked his philtrum, he would no doubt taste it.

“Not exactly how I expected to find you,” John said. He was in a pleasant mood, smiling, glowing like a miniature star. “You looked a bit crucifix-y, your arms spread like that.”

Sherlock shook out said arms, which were stiff from being in the position for so long. “Do you know I’ve never encountered a crucifixion. A key feature of this country’s major religion, a frankly superb method of enacting revenge or punishment for wrongdoing, and no one’s taken advantage of it.”

“What are the criminal classes of London coming to?” John said it perfectly plain-faced, but he was teasing. The glimmer of amusement in his eyes indicated as much.

Before John, no one had ever teased Sherlock. The person to come the closest had been Mycroft, but those conversations were little more than sparring matches. Barbed comments and chilling smiles. With John it was soft, warm. Sherlock sometimes imagined himself—although he would never admit it aloud—as a basset hound coming awake under John’s gentle hands, answering John’s teasing smile with something that he hoped was understood even if only on some subconscious level.

No, Sherlock thought, it wasn’t something as paltry as shying away from a lifetime of eyes in the kettle and shouting matches. It was something else. Something… more.

Sherlock considered getting up. He never sat on the floor, not like this—without something occupying his hands or some other substance in the mix. John was surely becoming concerned, perhaps even alarmed, the longer Sherlock kept it up. As if sensing the thought, John carefully transferred himself from his haunches to his backside, and scooted so that he was sitting against the side of his armchair with his knees bent. Pointedly joining Sherlock in his uncharacteristic position.

So like John Watson. Whether a standoff with a wanted criminal or a sulk on the floor, he would see to it that Sherlock was not alone.

As always, in the wake of John’s display of loyalty, Sherlock felt small and inconsequential.

“So, I didn’t get any texts from you,” said John. There was no disappointment or reproach in his tone; it was a simple statement of fact.

Sherlock breathed, scrunching his nose. “Did you really expect to?”

John shrugged one shoulder. There were crumbs on his jumper, Sherlock saw, trapped in the fabric just below his left shoulder like a constellation. He and Mike had shared chips, but John hadn’t partaken of many—if he had, he’d have smelt of them in addition to the malt.

“Not sure. You’re unpredictable at the best of times, but lately you’re….” John always grimaced when he was thinking, as though it hurt. It was hopelessly endearing. “I dunno. Whatever’s worse than unpredictable? No, not worse. I don’t mean it’s been bad. Just… you know.”

He meant the sex, Sherlock suspected. And, as an extension of that, the affection. ‘What’s got into you?’ Fair enough. After the honeymoon bit, or whatever it was called, had passed, the amount of sex in their relationship had dwindled substantially. A development that Sherlock hadn’t previously considered problematic, what with the ease and contentment with which John had settled into it in his relationships with women, particularly Mary.

But, as John had made a point of emphasising at the beginning of their romantic association, Sherlock had always been different to the women John had dated. Perhaps the withering of their sex was a problem? A source of reluctance for John?

“Mm. Shall I make it up to you?” Despite Sherlock’s somewhat dour mood, it was easy to add a flirtatious lilt to his voice, to stretch one leg towards John and coyly drag his toes along John’s socks.

John smiled and stretched out his own legs, succeeding in pinning both of Sherlock’s ankles down with his feet. It was a playful gesture, an affectionate one, and Sherlock’s mood lifted slightly because of it.

“If you want,” John said, still smiling. “Doesn’t really seem like you’re in the mood for it though.”

For John, it was as good as a ‘Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?’ Sherlock peered at him, the precise angle of his smile, the number of crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the state of his shoulders and hands. Easy enough to see that he wasn’t really in the mood either.

Sherlock shrugged, a perfect mime of John’s earlier single-shoulder movement. “Tired, I suppose. I’ve been… preoccupied.”

He had utter faith that John would correctly read the response as a ‘No, not really.’ And sure enough, after a brief pause, John nodded.

“Right. Well. I’m here, if you decide you want to talk about whatever’s preoccupied you.”

John’s voice was level, calm. He was concerned, but not overly much. After all, Sherlock’s mind was often preoccupied with one thing or another. John probably didn’t have the slightest clue that the fault here was his.

No, Sherlock thought sharply. It’s yours. He had snooped; he had jumped to conclusions; he had been utterly, frustratingly himself. If John didn’t want to marry him after all, then Sherlock only had himself to blame.

“Bed?” said John. He gave Sherlock’s calf a gentle knock with his heel.

And, well. It wasn’t as though Sherlock had anything better to do, was it? “All right.”

(They wound up having sex after all. Because John said, “Jesus Christ, Sherlock, could you put your bloody freezing feet anywhere but there?” and Sherlock said, “Anywhere?” and a skirmish of one type or another had played a starring role in their foreplay often enough to incur a sort of Pavlovian response.

It was brief but satisfying, and Sherlock fell into a heavy doze with John’s hair against his lips and the taste of his own come (licked eagerly from John’s mouth) still strong on his tongue.)

*

The smartest thing to do, he realised, was to move on.

He wasn’t supposed to have seen the ring; John would have been angry to know that Sherlock was going through his things, and Sherlock wasn’t exactly keen to alert him. And the ring had been the sole catalyst for the whole nonsense. Without it, Sherlock would never have concerned himself with proposals, marriage, or any of it.

And, really, what did it matter that John had a wedding ring in his sock drawer but no intention of putting it to use? Nothing about John’s behaviour indicated that he was having second thoughts about his romantic and sexual relationship with Sherlock. He initiated and reciprocated gestures of intimacy and affection; his demeanour towards Sherlock was generally pleasant; he exhibited the usual signs of jealousy when other men and women flirted with Sherlock; the two of them didn’t row overly much. In short: there wasn’t a single sign of trouble.

And yet.

It presented quite a puzzle. All available evidence indicated that John Watson was firmly committed to Sherlock Holmes and intended to remain by his side, in their current capacity, for the foreseeable future. Despite this, something about the prospect of marriage was putting him off.

Sherlock had never been able to turn down a good puzzle—certainly not one that affected him personally.

“What is my most attractive quality?” Sherlock asked.

Sitting on the sofa, his bare feet on the coffee table in front of him, he was reading a women’s magazine. Or, rather, the magazine was open in front of him, its cover on full display, although he hadn’t read a word of it. John would assume he was reading it, however, and would attribute Sherlock’s question to its contents.

John wandered in from the kitchen, holding an open milk carton and appearing thoughtful. “Your most attractive quality?”

“In your estimation,” Sherlock said. It was an important addition. After all, John had proved quite exceptional in that he was attracted to qualities that others were repelled by.

“Why?”

Clever, Sherlock thought. There was even an infinitesimal note of suspicion in John’s tone. An inconvenient time for him to be clever, unfortunately. Sherlock lowered the magazine, fluttering its pages enough that John’s gaze was drawn to it. Then he said, “Call it a sudden curiosity.”

John said nothing for a moment, just shuffled his feet and folded the milk carton closed. But Sherlock could see that he was thinking, and waited. Eventually, John said, “Honestly? Probably your brain.”

Sherlock’s disappointment was almost tangible. The last bit of rope slipping over the edge of a building, succumbing to gravity. “That’s not a quality, John. That’s an organ.”

“The way it works, I mean. The rest of us, we get sort of… desensitised to everything around us, I suppose. We don’t really see it anymore. But you do. You always look at the world like you’re seeing it for the first time, like you want to know everything. And when you feel something, you feel all of it, even things that the rest of us take for granted. Does that make sense?”

It didn’t. If anything, Sherlock thought that he was more desensitised than everyone else. That’s why he wasn’t dumbfounded by every slightly clever crime he consulted on. It’s why he was always so bloody bored.

But he only said, “What’s my least attractive quality, then?”

The corner of John’s lips twitched and then quirked into a smirk. “That one’s a little easier. The way you’ll get an idea in your stupidly brilliant brain and just throw yourself into it without giving a single thought about anyone else.”

That made even less sense, so much so that Sherlock couldn’t help but scoff. “Please. You find that attractive. You thrive on having to be on your toes, on rushing into the messes I’ve got us involved in. You like being there to make excuses for me and put everything to rights again.”

John answered with a snort and look that said, Not even fucking close. “Sure. A lot of times it’s exciting, but sometimes it’s annoying. And when it’s annoying? It’s really fucking annoying.”

With that, he turned and disappeared back into the kitchen. Sherlock heard the fridge door open and close, and then the familiar clanging sound of John circling a spoon in a mug of freshly brewed tea.

Frowning, Sherlock laid the magazine facedown on his chest and folded his fingers beneath his chin.

Interesting, he thought. It had told him nothing relevant, but it was interesting nonetheless.

*

When he wasn’t examining himself—there was, after all, only so long he could stand to ponder his own shortcomings and how John felt about all of them—Sherlock spent a lot of time thinking about Mary.

John hadn’t enjoyed being married to Mary. Nor had he, now that Sherlock thought about it, seemed to enjoy being engaged to Mary. He’d often been eager to abandon his fiancée and their wedding planning, and when she was present he had… dimmed, somehow. Like a streetlamp behind a thick haze of fog.

And all that had been before Mary had shot Sherlock. Afterwards… fog or no, John had scarcely had any light in him at all.

Sherlock was pondering this, sitting on the sofa whilst recalling everything he’d known about John and Mary’s relationship, when John came home wearing baggy medical scrubs and smelling faintly of blood.

As well as latex and antibacterial soap, but that was typical of John after a long day at the surgery.

“A patient bled on you,” Sherlock said.

John nodded. He’d picked up the post on his way in; he clutched a small stack of envelopes in one hand as he kicked off his shoes, removed his jacket, and plopped onto the sofa beside Sherlock.

“Some bloke shredded his arm on broken glass. I didn’t ask how,” John said. One by one, each envelope was tossed into a pile on the coffee table. All unimportant, then. “He and his mates were properly pissed—it wasn’t quite noon at this point, mind—and they’d decided to drag him down the street to the nearest GP instead of taking him to the A&E. So I had the glorious task of preventing him from bleeding out in the waiting area until the ambulance arrived.”

He said it dryly, sarcastically. A tedious day of viruses, bacteria, and hypochondria finally interrupted by a genuine emergency—during which John had shined; of that Sherlock had no doubt—and it still hadn’t been enough for John.

Well, of course it hadn’t. John’s thirst for excitement was insatiable. A mere taste wouldn’t have been enough to quench it.

“You’re wasted there,” Sherlock said.

“Sherlock.” John didn’t look at him, and the warning in his tone didn’t discourage Sherlock more than slightly.

“You know you are. There’s no challenge, no thrill. You’re drowning in boredom, flu, and sinus ailments. You’d be doing everyone a favour if you—”

Sherlock.” It was sharper this time. Less warning, more of a threat.

Sherlock heeded it. He closed his mouth with a purposely audible clack of teeth.

John glanced at him, just a brief flicker of his eyes in Sherlock’s direction while his head tilted to one side in a way that Sherlock was very familiar with. That’s fucking right, you prick, it said. Good boy, it said. Come here, it said.

Sherlock turned and crawled across the sofa cushion towards John. He was welcomed warmly, with John lifting his arm and sitting up straight, making his lap a flat, sturdy pillow for Sherlock’s head. The scrubs were soft and loose, bunching up and slipping about on John’s thighs while Sherlock nudged and nuzzled, getting comfortable. They were too large for John—a spare set given to him when his own clothes had been stained in the man’s blood.

“Well, hello,” John said. His fingers sank into Sherlock’s curls, effortlessly finding their favoured path along his scalp. “Haven’t had you like this for a while.”

No, Sherlock thought, you haven’t. Pity. He arched into the touch. If John had indeed made grooves trailing from Sherlock’s ear to his crown to his nape—unlikely, obviously, but such a lovely, fantastic thought—then Sherlock wanted them as deep as possible. He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply.

The smell of blood was stronger here, although not by much. (His shoes, Sherlock thought. John had cleaned himself and changed his clothes, but not his shoes.) Sherlock couldn’t help but linger on the scent, the associations. Plasma, iron, chains, gunpowder, John… Mary.

Sherlock breathed, going still under John’s hands. “Did you do this with Mary?” he asked.

It was a shot in the dark, and something of a risk. As a general rule, they didn’t discuss Mary. At first it had been too raw, too painful for John, too uncomfortable for Sherlock. Then, eventually, it simply hadn’t mattered any longer. What would have been the point of bringing it up again after they both had been so eager to forget?

John’s fingers stalled just above Sherlock’s nape, massaging in little circular motions.

“No.” He sounded calm but thoughtful. “Never. With her, I never really felt this… well, fond, I suppose.”

Fond. Sherlock read between the lines. You weren’t as comfortable with her. You wouldn’t have arranged your entire life around her. You wouldn’t have killed for her. You wouldn’t have pinkened your knuckles over imagined offences against her.

Aloud, he said, “No?”

John chuckled softly. Perhaps he’d somehow divined the essence of Sherlock’s thoughts. His fingers moved again, swooping back to the area just above Sherlock’s ear. “No. She wasn’t you.”

If Sherlock could have purred—or trilled, or crooned, or whatever else animals did to show contentment—he would have done. As it was, he nuzzled John’s thigh again and hoped that John understood.

“And yet you married her,” he murmured. No resentment, no remorse. It was difficult to harbour negative feelings towards the events that had led to the happiest days of Sherlock’s existence.

John hummed, exchanging fingertips for fingernails and gently scratching Sherlock’s nape. Sherlock’s toes curled in bliss. “I did like her. She didn’t mind that you would always come first.”

Sherlock couldn’t help but correct him. “Didn’t seem to mind.”

John snorted weakly. “Fair enough.”

Mary had minded rather a lot, it turned out. Enough to seek a sexual relationship with another man, and to carry on with it even after being impregnated by him.

“That’s not what this is about, is it?” John asked. “Why you want me to quit so much, that is. Because you think I’m going to meet another Mary?”

It might have been insulting, if John’s clever nails on Sherlock’s sensitive scalp didn’t provide a compelling reason to stifle his indignation. “You just said that I would always come first,” he said instead. “Another Mary isn’t a threat to me.”

Another soft chuckle, breathier this time. John’s hand inched past Sherlock’s nape and dipped down the back of his shirt, scratching along Sherlock’s upper spine. “No.” His voice dripped with tenderness, so much so that Sherlock could practically taste it. “God no. No one’s a threat to you.”

Marry me, Sherlock thought. Sod your cold feet or your second thoughts or whatever else that’s preventing you from fetching the ring from your sock drawer right now and just bloody asking already.

But he said nothing. John’s nails pressed harder, no doubt leaving raised red marks on Sherlock’s shoulder. John probably thought he was being subtle—that Sherlock didn’t hear the invitation as loudly and clearly as if John had shouted it.

He lifted his head, lips parted. John wasted no time filling his mouth with a finger from the hand that wasn’t clawing Sherlock’s back.

Sherlock bit down, not quite enough to hurt, although John tried to yank his hand back as though it had done. Sherlock held firm, and after a moment John mastered his instincts. Then he pushed, sinking his finger deeper into Sherlock’s mouth. When he reached the second knuckle, he had to shove, scraping the bony knot past Sherlock’s clenched teeth.

Sherlock tipped his head back, glancing up and catching the grimace of pain that flickered across John’s features before it melted into a smile. At the crest of Sherlock’s right scapula, John’s nails dug sharply in, delivering a bite of pain in playful retribution.

Sherlock smiled back, although it probably looked deranged—all teeth, with John’s hand sticking out. He closed his lips briefly around John’s finger, giving a soft suck before letting go and drawing back.

“Mary wasn’t me,” he said. “So what am I?”

John’s smile widened and softened. Such a spectacular conundrum, that John could be both the harshest man Sherlock had ever met—all rough edges, sudden drops, and hidden spikes—as well as the softest. “You’re Sherlock Holmes.”

His head tilted towards Sherlock, another pose that Sherlock knew well. You’re mine, it said.

Yes, Sherlock thought. And I’d happily become Sherlock Holmes-Watson if given the opportunity.

He said, “If my tongue isn’t in your arsehole within the next ten minutes, I won’t be responsible for the consequences.”

John laughed. “I’m a bit curious what the consequences would be, but all right. If you insist.”

Sherlock did.

*

The fact was that although John mightn’t have been fond of Mary, he had stayed with her. Or, at least, he had until more details of Mary’s history had been exposed and, most importantly, until he’d learned Mary’s child wasn’t his.

Children. Yet another element falling under the umbrella of normality that Sherlock had never considered.

Nothing about his and John’s lives or personalities were suited for raising children. From Sherlock’s toxic experiments to John’s illegal firearm and Sherlock’s silences to John’s anger. Not to mention the practicalities. Where would they put it? Who would be in charge of taking care of it? For god’s sake, where would they even get it? It was preposterous.

Yet once the thought had occurred to Sherlock, he found it difficult to sweep away with the rest of his discarded theories.

Did John want children? He smiled at them sometimes when he and Sherlock were out. Waved and made little faces and cooed over infants when it was socially expected.

Sherlock spent an entire Saturday morning in his armchair, trying to remember John’s expression when he’d learned of Mary’s pregnancy, but by that point in the reception, Sherlock had been… distracted. Melancholy, bereft. It was little more than a (welcome) blur in his memory.

With a sigh, he gave up trying and stood. John was in the kitchen, seated at the table. He held a full piece of jammy toast between his teeth as he sorted through the pages of yesterday’s Evening Standard.

As soon as Sherlock sat down beside him, he finally bit through his toast, set the remaining portion back on his plate, and swiped his hand twice across his trousers. He had the grace at least to swallow before he spoke. “There’s a murder on page—” He flipped quickly through the pages and made a noise of triumph when he’d found what he was looking for. “There we go. Not a lot of details, but…”

He passed the paper to Sherlock, looking pleased with himself. Sherlock barely glanced at it: Blackwell, woman, blunt trauma, found at home by her husband. Dull. If he weren’t preoccupied, he suspected he’d be terribly insulted that John thought something like this would be worth his time. He thrust the newspaper aside.

“What are your thoughts on children?”

Perhaps not the most casual opening, but Sherlock thought it best to just be out with it. John, however, looked as though Sherlock had just suggested they go abduct a few. His eyes were owl wide.

“Sorry? What about them?”

Sherlock opened his mouth, intending to say something sensible and impersonal, and suddenly words were tumbling out without his permission and certainly against his better judgment. “I don’t want them.”

A burst of panic. A single bacterium feeding, growing, splitting into two, four, eight—building a veritable colony of self-disgust and regret in Sherlock’s mind, particularly when John’s eyes only got wider.

“That is to say,” he added quickly, “that it has recently come to my attention that when two men take up together as we have…. Well, perhaps not exactly—”

“Sherlock.” John rested his hand on Sherlock’s wrist. His fingers were slightly sticky from the jam. “No. Just—” John laughed. It was wry, with a note of disbelief. “—dear fucking god, no. No kids.”

The feeling of relief and reassurance lasted barely a second. “Good,” Sherlock said, a tad awkwardly. “Then we’re in agreement.”

Which meant that Sherlock was back at square one—and now that he was there, he realised how idiotic it was to pursue this line of inquiry to begin with. As though not marrying Sherlock would get John any closer to having children. What on earth had he been thinking?

He felt hopelessly stupid, especially with John staring at him like he was, as though he expected Sherlock to say something more. Offer an explanation, perhaps—which Sherlock certainly wasn’t keen on giving.

Instead, he said, “I quite like dogs.”

He just narrowly stopped himself from flinching. You’re an imbecile, he thought dejectedly. More than four decades of genius, and now you’re proving you’re no more capable of complex thought than a squirrel.

To make matters worse, John clearly didn’t know what to make of him either. “Oh,” he said, still doing a decent impression of an owl. “Erm. Okay. Do you want to get a dog?”

Sherlock barely had to consider it. Being in charge of another living being, one that would almost certainly die before Sherlock, perhaps in only a matter of years depending on its health…. “No,” he said grimly.

“All right.” John nodded once, a touch mechanical, and his eyebrows finally lowered. “This is becoming a very strange conversation.”

It was, and Sherlock was dearly regretting initiating it. “Apologies.”

John sat back in his chair, looking uncertain. “Do you… want to continue having it?”

“No,” Sherlock said, emphatic.

John’s nod this time was more relaxed. “All right.” He retrieved the page that Sherlock had thrown aside, replaced it with the rest of the newspaper, and carried on scanning its contents, apparently content to let Sherlock burn in peace.

Brilliant, Sherlock thought. You cocked that up spectacularly. In part because he wasn’t thinking clearly—obviously he wasn’t thinking clearly—but also because this was John he was dealing with. For all the times that John had played perfectly into Sherlock’s plans, he still occasionally fouled everything up.

It was part of the reason Sherlock had always been so fascinated by him. Somewhere between an abandoned minefield and a live bomb, John Watson was.

If he’d asked Sherlock to marry him, Sherlock would have been the proudest man in all of Europe.

But he hadn’t—and Sherlock suspected that if he didn’t figure out why, it would haunt him for the rest of his life.

*

It had been a month, now.

More than, Sherlock suspected, if he were bothering to monitor the hours, minutes, and seconds that had passed since he’d discovered the ring. Fortunately, he hadn’t yet progressed to such a level of histrionics.

Although he was, according to John, “in rare form” these days.

His mood had in no way been helped by the inexplicable influx of prospective clients with marital difficulties who had made the mistake of seeking out his assistance. A seemingly endless supply of husbands cheating on their wives, wives cheating on their husbands, men lying about their relationship status to their new paramours, women concealing things from their new paramours.

By the time that a young woman sat across from Sherlock detailing her suspicions that her long-time boyfriend was cheating—when the state of her nails said controlling, her handbag said self-absorbed, and the shade of her lipstick said verbally abusive—Sherlock decided he’d had quite enough.

“Well,” John said, when they’d got the worst of the mess cleaned up, “that was a new one. Never had anyone throw my cup of tea at you before.”

“At least it was cold,” said Mrs Hudson, who’d rushed upstairs at the sound of John’s mug crashing to pieces on the floor.

Sherlock said nothing as he flung himself into his armchair, curling his knees to his chest and wrapping his dressing gown around them like a sheet. It was one of his newer dressing gowns, as his favourite green one was now stained with tea.

“He’s still in a mood, I see,” Mrs Hudson said, not even bothering to lower her voice.

John made a noise in his throat. Probably meant to be noncommittal, but Sherlock could hear the note of agreement in it. He grit his teeth and buried his face in his knees.

“I’ve got it from here, Mrs Hudson,” said John. “Thanks. Sorry we bothered you.”

We did nothing of the sort,” Sherlock said into his dressing gown, but both of them ignored him.

There was the quiet clip of the door being shut, the clack of Mrs Hudson’s low-heeled shoes on the stairs, and then silence.

“Do you want to tell me what that was about?”

Sherlock lifted his chin, peering at John. He’d been dressed for work, sitting on the sofa to tie his shoes when the woman had arrived. Staying for her consultation and to clean up the tea she’d flung—surely he was terribly, terribly late for his shift at the surgery by now.

Sherlock sniffed and looked away. “You were here. Surely you don’t require a re-enactment.”

“Re-enactment, no. Wouldn’t mind an explanation though. All that stuff about the woman’s mother was a bit over-the-top, even for you. You’re usually not quite so, mm… vicious, when people annoy you.”

Vicious. As though Sherlock were a dog that needed muzzling.

Perhaps he did. He and the woman who’d visited that morning, the man who’d come the previous afternoon, the woman before him… all of them, really. They were all simple, stupid creatures continually wounding themselves through problems of their own making.

He saw John’s approaching shadow on the floor and smelt the spicy-fruity combination of John’s aftershave and shampoo. Then the leather arm of his chair creaked and sank beneath John’s weight, and John’s right hand found its way into Sherlock’s hair. He turned his face into his knees, allowing John’s clever fingers to find their usual path along his scalp.

John leaned into him, his side against Sherlock’s shoulder. “I talked to Greg a bit the other day. His team’s at a dead end.”

“‘Greg’?” said Sherlock, his voice muffled considerably by his dressing gown.

“That stopped being amusing about four years ago, you know.”

But as John kept stroking his hair, Sherlock didn’t much care how amusing he was. He closed his eyes, relishing the sensation. Pleasure hummed down his spine and gooseflesh covered his arms. Behind his eyelids, he saw bees emerging from their brood cells, the ground breaking under the heavy blade of a shovel. He pushed into John’s fingertips, digging them deeper into his sensitive scalp.

Keep doing this, he thought, and I won’t even care that you don’t want to marry me.

But of course John couldn’t cooperate for long. His touch lightened, his petting slowed, and then he said, “Christ I’m late. I should go.”

Sherlock’s mood plunged back to its previous low. Not quite the depths of despair, but close enough that Sherlock could see the heavy smog of it in the distance.

“Dull,” he said sulkily. “I don’t know why you insist on working there. Your time would be better spent—”

“So I’ve heard. And you know what I think of that, don’t you?”

John gave a gentle tug, drawing Sherlock’s head back so he could kiss Sherlock’s forehead and then the corner of Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock promptly arched his neck and parted his lips, inviting a proper kiss, but John had already let go and stood.

“I’ll be back at around six or seven. Want me to pick anything up at the shops while I’m out?”

“A lobotomy,” Sherlock said darkly, the first thing that popped into his head.

“Not sure if Tesco sells those round this time of year, but I’ll try my best.”

He hadn’t even missed a beat. Sherlock raised his head to marvel at him—how perfect he was, as good as genetically engineered for Sherlock—and found John shrugging on his coat near the door. His bum looked fantastic in his trousers, the fabric hugging him beautifully.

Sherlock allowed himself a fleeting fantasy—giving John’s arse a grope whilst John pinned him to the wall and ravaged his lips, throat, and collarbones. They’d never been capable of properly shagging against a wall; the difference in their heights worked against them, and what inevitably followed was more giggling and fumbling than fucking. It hadn’t ruined the fantasy, fortunately. Sherlock’s back bruising, rammed repeatedly against the unforgiving wall; John going flint-eyed and dangerous when Sherlock growled, ‘Put your back into it, Watson.’

When Sherlock finally blinked the fantasy away, John was gone and the flat was silent aside from the faint echo of Mrs Hudson’s wireless. Sherlock sighed and swung his legs around, curling up on his side with his face to the chair back.

Perhaps it was typical behaviour: holding onto the ring months prior to proposing. Perhaps it meant nothing at all, just as inconsequential and incomprehensible as John’s tendency to watch football or read contrived mystery novels.

It suddenly occurred to Sherlock that he’d paid little attention to how long the ring had been in John’s drawer. Examining the box for signs of wear or age, investigating the inside of the drawer for new scuffs or changes in dust and lint patterns—none of it had crossed his mind until now.

Brilliant, he thought with a grimace. What a brilliant show of detective work—more than worthy of Scotland Yard.

He threw himself from the armchair, his dressing gown billowing as he marched to the bedroom.

Despite the clean floors and the neatly made bed, the whole room reeked of sex. Sweat, lubricant, ejaculate. The bedsheets, no doubt, were in desperate need of a good wash. The scent, and the thought, made Sherlock grin. Perhaps John could be put off doing the laundry a few more days, until the smell had seeped beyond the bedroom and permeated the entire flat.

Sherlock went to the chest of drawers and paused with his hands on the handles, bracing himself for whatever he might find. The ring box where it had been before, the ring box buried fully again, the ring box disappeared altogether—

It doesn’t matter, he told himself. John still wants to stroke your hair, kiss your forehead, and fuck until the bedroom smells worse than a brothel. The ring doesn’t matter.

He opened the drawer.

Of all the possibilities, Sherlock had not anticipated the ring box being on top of John’s socks—but that was precisely where it was. Plainly in view, atop a haphazard stack of white socks. It was lying on its side, crooked. The sock it rested on was dinted, more so than could be accounted for by the simple weight of the box and its contents. As though it had been thrown onto the sock in a show of frustration.

Frustrated with himself? Or frustrated with Sherlock?

Does it matter? Sherlock felt nauseated, staring at it. He could see the impressions of John’s fingers in the velvet, more vivid than if he’d held it casually. At some point, John had picked up the ring box and become very, very frustrated by it.

Part of Sherlock longed to touch it, to… something. Wipe away the impressions from John’s fingers, turn it onto its proper side, make it look like anything but the source of John’s frustration that it so clearly was.

But he couldn’t, obviously. John might notice, would know immediately that Sherlock had been poking about and found it. The flat would swell with the thick cloud of awkwardness and things left unsaid. Their relationship would suffer.

Sherlock shut the drawer, leaving the box untouched. He felt… muted now, as though he were suspended in water. The room swam around him, seeming faraway.

Well, he thought. Mummy did used to say that if you went searching for something, you mightn’t like what you find.

There was a chime and a buzz from elsewhere in the flat. Sherlock turned and stared into the corridor before his brain finally made sense of the noise.

A text. His mobile phone was in the living room, on the desk.

He went to it. The sensation of his dressing gown, swishing and swaying impressively, was suddenly unbearable. He shrugged it off and left it in the kitchen where it fell.

The text was from Lestrade.

Murder a few days ago in Blackwell. 28yo woman, blunt trauma, slit throat. Interested?

Sherlock stared, somewhere between incredulous and annoyed.

Annoyance won out. He stabbed at the screen with his finger as he replied.

It was the husband. SH

Of course it was. It was always the husband. An unfortunate fact of reality, the darkest corner of the marriage tradition, and Scotland Yard couldn’t even figure that out.

And here Sherlock was. Surrounded by idiots murdering their spouses, cheating on their spouses, lying to their spouses, and John Watson wouldn’t even bloody propose.

Lestrade responded: He’s got an alibi.

Sherlock scoffed. Of course he did. They always bloody did. With thousands of years of precedence and overwhelming statistical likelihood against him, he’d be an idiot to not have an alibi prepared.

Sherlock’s finger flew across the screen.

Then poke holes in it!! For god’s sake, what is your team doing over there? Don’t contact me again unless you can determine beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was where he said he was. SH

After that, the phone was silent and still. Sherlock found he didn’t quite have the energy to walk the three feet between where he stood and the armchair. Instead, he sat on the floor. Then he stretched out on his stomach, his head turned towards the sofa, although his view of it was blocked by the coffee table.

There were cigarette burns on the underside of it. Sherlock scarcely even remembered making them, but he knew that he had. High on cocaine, ecstasy, tobacco, and whatever else, putting out his cigarette on the nearest piece of furniture so he didn’t have to get up, didn’t have to slow his thinking and direct his mind off the path towards brilliance that it had been travelling.

He had spent a lot of time on the floor then, Sherlock recalled.

He’d been sitting on the floor a year ago, cowering without admitting that he was cowering, as John shook a List (scrawled on a week-old receipt, retrieved from the pocket of his suit jacket) and shouted, ‘How many times, Sherlock? How many more times’—and his voice had hitched then, just slightly, but it had spoken to Sherlock even more loudly than his words—‘do I have to tell you I’m here? You can come to me. I’ll be here when—’

Footsteps on the stairs startled Sherlock from his reverie. He’d only just identified them as John’s when the door flung open and John’s boots appeared in Sherlock’s vision. They were newly scuffed. He’d come back to the flat in a hurry, jogging part of the way.

“You’re spending a lot of time on the floor lately,” John said.

Sherlock scrambled into a seated position, throwing a look towards the window. Judging by the angle and degree of the sunlight—

“Yeah,” John said, sounding tired. “I’m early. They… didn’t need me today, turns out.”

Sherlock spun back around and peered at John. His tensed jawline, his flitting eyes. He’d quarrelled with someone. Probably at the surgery, probably over his tardiness. He’d been dismissed for the day.

Sherlock focused on his knuckles. Flushed but not injured. He’d not thrown a punch—pity, as John right after throwing a punch was a magnificent sight indeed—but he’d spent much of the return trip wishing he had done. Which meant that Sherlock had been a subject of the argument. John was rarely incited to violence if Sherlock wasn’t at least peripherally involved.

Warmth bloomed in Sherlock’s abdomen, unwinding like a contented housecat stretching to its full length.

“Don’t,” John said, still sounding dreadfully tired. “No deductions right now. All right?” He turned, slipped off his coat, and hung it on the rack. Its sleeve brushed against the sleeve of Sherlock’s coat, a touch Sherlock could almost feel on his own skin.

Sherlock said nothing, but scooted into a better position to stand. His knees gave a little wobble—he’d been lying inert longer than he’d realised—and he stumbled.

John caught him by the biceps, smiling up at him like he was the light of John’s life, the brightest star in John’s vast galaxy.

Then, before Sherlock could even smile back, John was stepping forwards, closing the small distance between them, and leaning into him. One of his knees slotted between Sherlock’s, his chest pressed against Sherlock’s, and his head bowed and rested against Sherlock’s shoulder.

It was tender, affectionate in a way that John rarely was. He welcomed it from Sherlock, encouraged it even, but almost never initiated it. Not like this.

Sherlock melted, curling around John as best he could. Holding him, shielding him, keeping him. He made sure that John could see nothing but Sherlock’s T-shirt, smell nothing but Sherlock’s detergent and personal products, and hear nothing but Sherlock’s breath and the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.

“Have dinner with me,” John said. The rumble of his vocal cords made Sherlock shiver.

Sherlock swept a hand up John’s back, thinking quickly. Dinner. They often had dinner together. In this context, this wording— “Tonight?”

“Mm.” Another shiver. Sherlock’s limbs jerked helplessly. “Tomorrow?”

Dinner tomorrow. Sherlock was nodding into the top of John’s head, agreeing on instinct, before the implications dawned.

“Ah,” he said, feeling stunned. Defenceless. “Right. Yes. Of course.”

*

Sherlock dressed for dinner with the care and consideration of a man dressing himself for the most important day of his life.

It wasn’t the most important day of his life, obviously—that had already passed along with the remains of a dead cabbie—but it was near enough that he didn’t want to squander it.

Tomorrow he would be engaged. He would be free to plan a wedding (again), convince John of the benefits of being called Holmes-Watson, and get the damned ring resized so it fit snugly on the appropriate finger.

It’s a good day, he thought, scrutinising his reflection. His crisp white button-down was tight around his chest, the buttons straining. His pressed black trousers were tight around the backside, accentuating (perhaps exaggerating) the full curve of his bottom.

Fuckable, John would call him. Delectable. Tantalising.

Sherlock smirked approvingly and arranged his hair one last time, giving it the artful ruffle that John was most fond of.

He’ll want you desperately. He’d be briefly tempted to forgo dinner and shag on the kitchen table.

John was. Once his lascivious gaze had swept up and down every inch of Sherlock’s frame, he even cast a lingering glance towards the kitchen table as though weighing the possibilities.

Sherlock’s smirk had grown so wide it felt like it nearly split his head in two. He couldn’t resist a preen, going so far as to lean back against the table, his legs parted slightly. A delicious little tease.

“Wow,” John said. He licked his lips. “You look…”

“Fuckable?” Sherlock offered, which made John laugh.

“That’s one word for it, yeah.” He came closer, not quite pinning Sherlock against the table. “Pretty sure that shirt is at least a size too small. Either that or you intentionally shrunk it.”

Sherlock shrugged. “You’re certainly not complaining.” John’s hands were on his chest then, one on each pectoral, skimming down over his nipples, which hardened. Sherlock swayed into the touch with a half-sigh, half-groan. They were, he supposed, very in danger of becoming side-tracked. “Where are we having dinner?”

That brought John back to the point. Clearing his throat and shaking his head as though shooing away his brilliantly filthy imaginings, he stepped back. Sherlock missed his body heat and touch keenly, but reminded himself of the necessity.

“Ah,” John said. “Right. I, erm. Thought that little Italian place just off Marylebone High Street. It’s been there for ages, but we’ve never been. So I thought… I dunno.”

Italian, in John’s little mind, translated to fancy but not intimidatingly so. Not at all like the restaurant where he’d proposed to Mary—upscale and stuffy. He’d been uncomfortable, trying desperately to be someone he wasn’t.

That he knew he needn’t bother with Sherlock was… Sherlock didn’t have words for it. It was the moment when he stopped thinking in notes and chords and started feeling the music swelling in his intestines, lungs, throat, at the same time that he heard it rise from the violin strings beneath his fingers.

Not to mention Marylebone High Street was within walking distance. When dinner was finished, they could be back at the flat in no time at all, fucking on the table or the wall or wherever else they happened to land.

“All right,” Sherlock said.

*

The restaurant was small and, by Sherlock’s standards, unimpressive, appearing more like a shoddy imitation of a bistro than a proper restaurant.

Angelo’s would have been a far better choice, even taking into account the difference in distance from the flat. After all, their first dinner at Angelo’s had marked a beginning, even more exceptional than either of them had imagined. What better place to mark a new chapter? The symmetry would have pleased Sherlock a great deal. That they sat instead in a restaurant utterly devoid of meaning for either of them was—

No, he told himself. He would, as he had so many times before, put his trust in John. Perhaps that the restaurant had no meaning was meaningful in itself, somehow, in John’s odd little mind.

They were seated and given menus. After they’d ordered, Sherlock took a moment to observe John, seated across from him in a dark brown checked shirt. His hair was delicately windswept, his skin glowing in the restaurant’s dim lighting. He looked as though this were any other dinner, any other day. He’d not put the effort into his appearance that Sherlock had. Neither did he appear nervous or uncertain. He was a far cry from the on-edge, wine-guzzling man who had sat across from Mary Morstan, trying to work up the nerve to propose.

Such faith in Sherlock. He knew he had no reason to worry, that he would be neither rejected nor disappointed. Sherlock’s heart—or whatever it was in his chest that was forever brimming with warmth and fondness towards John (Holmes-)Watson—ached at the mere sight of him.

That there wasn’t a visible bulge in any of his pockets, nor any other irregularity in the state of his clothes to indicate a ring or ring box in his possession was… interesting. Either he had mastered a method of concealment unknown to Sherlock (unlikely to the point of preposterous) or he had cleverly left it at home to avoid tipping Sherlock off (unlikely but not too far from the realm that Sherlock had come to expect—John could on occasion prove terribly, terribly inventive).

He only hoped that John hadn’t done something idiotic like conspire with the restaurant staff to surprise Sherlock.

If you put my ring in pasta, John Watson, we’re going to have a great deal of problems, he thought.

But when their food arrived, it was thankfully free of jewellery or any other foreign objects.

“You’re in a good mood tonight,” John said. The wine gave his smile a dreamy, boyish quality. It improved the glow of his skin as well, although unfortunately alcohol rarely made him flush as it did Sherlock.

Sherlock shrugged and lifted his own wine glass for another sip. It wasn’t the best vintage, but neither was it terrible.

“Did Greg finally talk to you?” John asked. “Actually—no, if you had a case, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Not necessarily true,” Sherlock said. “We go to restaurants quite often in the middle of cases.”

John snorted. “Yeah, for the case. Or because I’ve got tired of watching you starve yourself and dragged you to one.”

“I don’t starve myself. Digestion slows—”

“Don’t even start on that. It’s pure rubbish that you’ve deluded yourself into believing. God knows why I still go along with it.”

Because you adore me nearly as much as I do you, Sherlock thought. John was still smiling, his eyes sparkling and beautifully squinty. Sherlock wanted to kiss every tiny wrinkle gathered at the corners.

Wasn’t it time for John to propose already?

To distract himself, Sherlock said, “So now you’re talking to Lestrade about me, are you?”

John laughed, pushing his gnocchi around on his plate. He wasn’t keen on the flavour; he’d be devouring it more quickly if he were. “We’re always talking about you. It’s most of what we talk about, if I’m honest.”

Yes, because I’m your favourite topic of conversation. I’m your constant, your lifeblood, the thing that brings you the most pleasure in life—as you are mine.

“Regardless,” said Sherlock, although his heart—his literal heart, not the whatever-it-was in his heart’s general vicinity—was beginning to flutter like a moth against a lightbulb. “You’re hardly my… my minder.”

Another laugh, louder this time, somewhere between a bark and a guffaw. “Are you serious? Of course I am.”

John dipped his chin, so that—despite their seated positions putting them at similar heights—he was looking up at Sherlock, and—oh. Oh, that look. It was rueful and flirty all at once. Teasing, playful, just a hint of naughty promise to it. I may love you, it said, but don’t imagine that means I won’t hold you down and make you bleed.

Sherlock couldn’t wait any longer. His patience had dwindled weeks ago; he had nothing of it left.

“Why are we here?” he asked. He shoved aside his wine glass, his barely touched plate of lasagne, so there was nothing to distract him, nothing to physically block him from reaching across the table and grasping John’s hands (or throat, or hair) if he needed to.

John’s smile shifted, one corner curving deliciously upwards. Still rueful, still flirty, but also knowing. As though they were sharing an inside joke—and perhaps they were.

“What do you mean?” John asked with an innocence so fabricated that Sherlock rolled his eyes.

“Oh, please. You’re a shameless creature of habit. You don’t suggest new restaurants without a reason. Not to mention you were raised to think of dinners out as special occasions. Therefore, you brought us here for a reason, to say or… or ask something.” The words stuck inexplicably in his throat, although he tried to pretend they hadn’t. “So: say, or ask.”

And there it was: the first indication of nervousness. John dipped his chin even lower, an acknowledgement of the truth of Sherlock’s words, and then reached for his wine, his eyes flitting across everything in the restaurant aside from Sherlock. More discomfort at being put on the spot than anything, though, Sherlock deduced. His John, who could steal the spotlight effortlessly, but would rather linger in Sherlock’s shadow, serving as a fiercely loyal beam of support.

“All right,” John said when he’d swallowed his generous sip. “You’re right, of course. It’s… well, it’s not all that important, all things considering, but I did want to tell you something.”

Tell, not ask. Sherlock tilted his head, curious. As compelling as it would be to have John declare that they were engaged—it was precisely the sort of selfish, brutish behaviour Sherlock liked to encourage in John—it seemed… wrong.

“I’m quitting the surgery,” John said. “Or at least I will do. I typed up my resignation letter this morning.”

He paused, staring at Sherlock expectantly. Hopefully, even. Waiting for Sherlock to be pleased, to… congratulate him, commend him, give him a little clap and a cheer? Sherlock couldn’t fathom, could scarcely think beyond the disappointment that crashed over him like a wave of salt water, stealing his breath and burning his eyes.

He snatched up his wine glass and took a gulp. He remembered John leaning into Sherlock’s embrace, his shoes scuffed, his knuckles pink.

“We went to dinner,” he said, slowly, “because you were fired.”

John jerked, as though startled. “I wasn’t fired. I’m quitting.”

The words weren’t coming. Sherlock’s mind was blank and dark, but he could hardly sit here in silence. He forced them, dragging them down from the darkness to his mouth where they found light. “No. Of course not. But you were strongly advised to resign.”

“I was ‘counselled’ and told I would need to change some of my behaviour, yes.” Gone was John’s expectant, hopeful expression, replaced with a guarded one.

There were still no words in Sherlock’s mind, but now at least they were appearing quickly enough on his tongue. “That’s near enough to a firing, isn’t it? It’s near enough at least that it damaged your pride and angered you. Your boss was unhappy you were late. You blamed me, of course.”

John’s face grew hard, pinched. Offence dripped from his words when he said, “I didn’t blame you.”

Sherlock didn’t care. How could he when John was single-handedly ruining what was meant to be a brilliant evening? “Why not? I am, directly or indirectly, the cause of your objectionable behaviour. Surely your supervisor can see that as well as I. Asking you to correct your behaviour is as good as asking you to choose between your job and me.”

John’s hand, resting innocuously on the table, curled into a fist, albeit a loose one. Still, his voice was measured and calm. “Sure. Well, surprise: I chose you. Since the day I met you, I’ve always chosen you.”

Then why, Sherlock thought, fairly shouting in his own head, thrashing against the walls of his mind in an internal tantrum, won’t you marry me?

“What are you going to do, then?” he asked. “Now that you won’t have a job any longer? Or have you simply plunged us into financial turmoil?”

John’s hand tightened into a proper fist. “Don’t you fucking even,” he said, his voice deathly low. “I’ve seen your bank statements, just this week in fact. We’re far from ‘financial turmoil.’ And you’ve been pestering me to quit for months. Hell, years. And you were right. It’s tedious and it’s disappointing, and—”

“You brought me to dinner,” Sherlock said, tone scathing, “to tell me that I was right? I’m always right. I don’t need dinner to tell me that. And it still doesn’t answer the question of what you intend to do. Do you plan to spend the rest of your days lounging about, hanging on my coattails? Hm? Getting in my way, making yourself a nuisance?”

He was toeing a dangerous line, he knew. The thin, tight line of John’s lips confirmed it. A few more jabs, a few more pointed strikes—

“I was going to write,” John said. The muscles in his arms and shoulders were so rigid they jerked beneath his shirt. “Expand parts of my blog into proper stories, pull them together in a collection.”

Sherlock scoffed. “The only reason anyone reads your blog is that it’s free. Do you honestly expect to find a publisher, much less an audience, willing to pay for your uninspired prose, your overreliance on clichés, your mindless rambl—”

John stood. The violent jolt of his chair backwards, in addition to the sudden pound of his fist on the table, created a clamour so loud that the whole of the restaurant went silent, turning as one to watch them.

John’s eyes were narrowed, his jaw clenched with fury. It was absurd, really, because Sherlock had barely even started. There were a dozen other barbs to throw still, beginning with the fact that John was simply one more in at least two generations of Watsons incapable of maintaining steady employment—

Without a word, John turned and marched out of the restaurant. It was a proper military march, his shoulders set and his spine as straight as a rifle.

Sherlock breathed, feeling a burning in his lungs that said he’d been neglecting that particular bodily function during the last minute or so. He was aware of the restaurant’s other occupants still watching him, their waiter standing a short distance away with a woman who was surely his manager, waiting to intervene should Sherlock display violence or try to leave without paying.

With another deep breath, Sherlock reached for his wine glass, although his hands were shaking too badly. Wine sloshed over the rim, spilling onto the leg of his trousers.

Bugger, he thought, and only then did the full weight of the situation dawn. John’s hurt and temper, Sherlock’s hurt and overreaction, the total cock-up of what was meant to be—in both of their minds—a pleasant evening.

The not-heart in his chest felt swollen, angry, leaking pus like a lump of frostbitten skin. He just narrowly stopped himself from baring his teeth and snarling at his own stupidity.

Bloody buggering fuck.

*

When Sherlock got back to the flat, he found John sitting in the centre of the sofa, shoulders drooping. His forehead was in his hands, and he was breathing forcefully enough that Sherlock could hear the air passing into his nostrils.

Sherlock had thought that he was already as broken as he could be tonight, but the sight of John on the sofa splintered all his broken pieces even further.

“Look,” John said as Sherlock eased the front door shut, “just… please. For the love of god, Sherlock—”

Sherlock didn’t stay to hear the rest. He spun on his heels and walked to the bedroom. He didn’t bother taking off his coat or scarf; they could serve as a nice bit of protection if this went poorly.

In the bedroom, he threw open John’s sock drawer and grabbed the ring box, which was still on its side and crooked as he’d found it the previous day.

Then he strode back to the living room, stood in front of John with the coffee table between then, and slammed the box down on top of it.

John’s head jerked up at the bang of the box striking wood. Sherlock stood still, breathing just as hard as John had been moments before. His nostrils were probably flaring. He shoved his hands in his pockets, preparing himself for John to break the silence.

“Ah,” said John. He sounded neither surprised nor embarrassed, just tired. “You did find it.”

“A month ago,” Sherlock confirmed. “More than, now.”

“A month.” There was the surprise Sherlock had been expecting, just before John dropped his head into his hands again. “Jesus.”

Sherlock couldn’t help but ask, “How long have you had it?”

“Longer than a month.” John’s head came up again, and he sat back into the sofa, his hands going to his thighs and rubbing almost self-consciously. “Closer to two, probably. It took you a lot longer than I thought it would.”

Sherlock digested that, remembering the changing positions of the ring box, the signs of frustration. His jaw threatened to drop, but he kept it resolutely shut. “You— I—” Stuttering was not ideal. He shook his head and tried a different tactic. “What were you possibly thinking?”

“Well,” John said grumpily, “that you’re bloody incapable of staying out of my socks for longer than a few weeks, for starters.”

“I stay out of your socks.”

“Really?” John motioned towards the box. “Because you just gave me pretty compelling evidence that you don’t.”

A fair point, Sherlock supposed. He conceded it. “They’re a disaster. I don’t know how you can stand it.”

“What were you thinking?” John said, peering at Sherlock through narrowed eyes. “I thought for certain that the moment you found it you’d, well, do what you just did. Toss it at me and tell me to just ask already.”

Sherlock bristled. The implication that he’d done something wrong when he’d tried to be so patient, so understanding— “Well, you were wrong, obviously. I was waiting for you to rise to the occasion. If I’d wanted to ‘toss it’ at you the moment you walked in the door and tell you to get on with it and wait for you to finish commenting on the maggots—”

“Maggots?”

“Speaking of. For god’s sake, John.” Sherlock removed the ring from the box and put it on his finger. “Look at this.”

Holding his hand out, his wrist bent downwards, he gave it a little wiggle until the ring slipped free, fell to the table, and bounced onto the floor near John’s feet. John immediately knelt to retrieve it, which as far as Sherlock was concerned was the smartest thing he’d done in months.

He continued, “What sort of person gets his intended fiancé’s ring size so spectacularly wrong? You might as well have given it to someone else.”

John sat up, clasping the ring between his thumb and forefinger. His expression was alarmed. “You didn’t think it was meant for someone else, did you?”

Sherlock shot him a look conveying how very, very disappointed he was in John for even thinking something so idiotic, much less voicing it. “Do you think someone of your intelligence could hide even a fleeting affair from me, much less one that had progressed to the point of marriage? But that’s not the point.”

Leaning over the coffee table, Sherlock snatched back the ring and slipped it on his finger. He held his hand up, giving John a clear view of the gap between the width of his finger and size of the ring.

“The point is that you intended to propose with a ring at least two sizes too large—”

“Well, this certainly isn’t going how I planned,” John said dryly. “You’re berating me about the ring and raving about maggots.”

“One comment about maggots,” Sherlock snapped. “That’s hardly ra—”

There was a chime and a buzz in Sherlock’s coat pocket, startling him into a brief silence. A text. He fished out his phone and glanced at the screen.

Lestrade.

Not important. He shoved the phone back in his pocket.

“Fine,” John was saying. “Okay, so you’ve been… what? Just waiting for me to propose?”

Sherlock shrugged one shoulder, glancing away. “More or less.” He was hardly going to admit that he’d been going mad with the waiting, was he? That he’d nearly convinced himself John found him unmarriable for some reason Sherlock had yet to suss out.

When he looked back to John, though, he could see the little rusted gears in John’s head creaking to life.

“Well, that is to say,” Sherlock said quickly, at the same time that John said, “Fucking hell. Come here.”

John stood, motioning that Sherlock should walk around the coffee table. Sherlock knew that he should have resisted, maintained the distance, and insisted he was fine. But then John raised his arms invitingly, and Sherlock’s feet were shuffling round the table without him willing them. He thrust himself into John’s embrace, bending at an uncomfortable angle so that he could lay his forehead against the top of John’s shoulder.

John smelt of garlic and basil. Not the most familiar and John-ish of scents, perhaps, but Sherlock didn’t much care. Especially when John’s short yet strong arms tightened, his palms resting in the centre of Sherlock’s back like the stand of a picture frame, holding him stable.

“All right,” John murmured, low and soft. It was the voice he used when Sherlock had injured, overworked, or generally neglected himself. It made Sherlock want to fold his body into John’s and never come out, a sort of reverse cocoon. “I know we don’t… we don’t really talk about it, but—”

“Don’t.” Sherlock’s tone wasn’t as sharp or waspish as he’d have preferred, owing at least partly to the fact that his face was buried in John’s shirt. “You communicate with your actions, not your words. Your words are rubbish.”

One of John’s hands made a gentle pass up Sherlock’s spine to rub between Sherlock’s shoulders. “Kind of you to say. Still, I think—”

“Don’t do that either. You’re worse at that than you are at communicating with words. Just—” Sherlock breathed, his expanding lungs pressing his back more firmly into John’s hand. “Just ask.”

“Ask?”

Sherlock lifted his head, standing straight again but remaining close. He pressed their foreheads together, staring into John’s gorgeous blue eyes. “Ask.”

For several seconds, they breathed as one, watching each other, shuffling back into sync when they’d spent more than a month so far out of it.

John smiled. “Will you marry me?”

Sherlock let his eyelids flutter shut. The circumstances were less than ideal in numerous ways, but the words—the sound of them in John’s voice—

Yes. It would do. He carefully took down their first kiss as the crowning memory in his Mind Palace and replaced it with this.

“Yes,” he said. He heard the grin in his own voice before he felt it on his lips. “Yes, obviously.”

“Obviously,” John mimicked. His tone was fond, teasing.

Overcome, Sherlock kissed the crinkles at the corner of John’s left eye and then his right, relishing John’s startled giggle. Then he brought their lips together once, briefly, before he drew back. His chest ached and his throat went tight when John rose on his toes to follow him. As they kissed again, John’s fingers found the lower half of their favoured path and traced it from Sherlock’s nape to his crown.

Shivering, Sherlock broke away. He cleared his throat, gathering himself again. “I’m still cross about the ring.”

“We can get it resized,” John said.

“Yes, but yellow gold, John. Really?” He brandished it accusingly.

John wrinkled his nose but didn’t seem otherwise fazed at the sight of a yellow-gold band on Sherlock’s finger. “What’s wrong with yellow gold?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Several things. I have very, very strong feelings about yellow gold.”

“It’s traditional.”

“That’s part of it, yes.”

“You like traditional. In some things, at least. I watched you plan an entire fucking wedding, remember?”

Your wedding,” Sherlock said, but mildly. It was true, he supposed. White gold, platinum—it would be more ambiguous, no matter on which finger he wore it. A yellow-gold band on the ring finger was unmistakeable, undeniable.

Suddenly, he felt compelled to say, “I didn’t mean it. About your blog, the writing… any of it.”

“I know,” John said. He was still stroking Sherlock’s hair, massaging his scalp. “I understand now. You thought I was finally going to propose, and I didn’t. Although why you thought I’d propose to you in a random bloody restaurant is—well. It’s fine. It doesn’t matter now. So you don’t mind if I quit?”

“Mind? Good god, no.”

There was a buzzing noise. Sherlock only realised that it wasn’t his phone this time when John abandoned his hair, stepped back, and reached into the pocket of his trousers.

“A text?” Sherlock said, dumbfounded. “No one ever texts you.”

John shot him a sharp disapproving look.

“Aside from me,” Sherlock amended.

“It’s from Greg.” John held out his phone, the lit screen pointed towards Sherlock. “I think it’s meant for you, actually. Or at least I hope it is.”

Sherlock took the phone, squinting at it.

It was a crime scene photo. Or rather, it was a photo of a crime scene photo. There was a young woman lying on a red patterned rug, dead: her throat slit and her head bashed in. Her limbs were extended, her legs spread.

“Oh,” said Sherlock. He zoomed in, scanning the photo from corner to corner. “Not a domestic dispute at all. That’s ritualistic. Look!” Sherlock brandished the phone, waving it excitedly at John. “Throat slit post-mortem. Position of the body. And look! Her hand—she was holding something when rigour mortis set in.”

“Hm,” John said. He sounded less enthused than Sherlock would’ve liked, but he knew that would come later. John was often several steps behind Sherlock, after all. “Maybe you’ll get your crucifixion after all.”

Sherlock sighed, disgusted. “Ritual murder, John. There’s nothing vengeful or Christian about this.”

He remembered only after he’d dropped the mobile into his coat pocket that it was John’s. It thudded against and then slid neatly into place alongside Sherlock’s own phone.

“That’s mine, you know,” John said, not sounding terribly put out.

“No time,” Sherlock told him, already moving for the coat rack to fetch his—ah, no. He was already wearing his coat and scarf. John’s coat, then. He snatched it and held it open so that John only had to slip his arms into the sleeves. When John didn’t immediately jump to it, he shook the piece of clothing impatiently.

“Let’s go, John. I’ll text Lestrade in the cab. They’ll have moved the body to the morgue by now, but we can still examine it.”

John moved, finally, turning around and letting Sherlock put his coat on for him. “Don’t forget the ring,” he said as he adjusted the collar.

“What?” Sherlock was scarcely paying attention. Shoes. His were still on but John’s were off, sitting by the door. He picked them up and turned around.

John—brilliant John, slow to catch up but efficient once he did—was already seated on the sofa, taking his shoes from Sherlock and slipping them on. “You don’t like it,” he said. “Put it back in the box and we’ll get a new one.”

Sherlock glanced down at his left hand. The gold ring glinted in the lamplight the same as it had the day he’d found it in John’s sock drawer. “It’s mine,” he said.

Shoes on, John stood. His shoulders were set, his body language alert. “It’s too big. ‘At least two sizes,’ wasn’t it? Which is an exaggeration, by the way, but we’ll pretend it wasn’t.”

Sherlock caught and held John’s gaze, ensuring that John understood the weight and truth of his words when he said, “It’s mine.”

John’s expression didn’t change for a long moment, and then he nodded, once. There was a warmth and tenderness in his eyes, fierce and unwavering. “Yeah. Of course it is.”

Sherlock nodded back, satisfied, then turned towards the door. “Good. Then come on. We’ve got a murder to solve.”