Fandom: BBC Sherlock
Word count: 5245
Warnings: UST. A somewhat gory crime scene description
A/N: Written for amindaya for the Winter 2014 round of holmestice. I was perhaps not meant to take them together, but se offered both 'magic realism' and 'touch starvation' as prompts, and this is what became of it. Originally posted here.
Also available on AO3.
Summary: John lost his career as a surgeon, his life in the army and his empathy in one fell swoop. He never thought he'd miss the last one so much.
On the days when the ache got to be too much, John went for a ride on the Tube during rush hour with his shirt sleeves rolled up.
Bodies pressed in on all sides as John sidled his way through the train compartment, angling for a space near the centre doors. The tired-eyed faces of seated passengers followed his progress without interest, and John spared a moment to be relieved all over again that he no longer required his cane; this had never worked as well when he'd been obliged to accept some Good Samaritan's offered seat.
A woman in a sleeveless top pushed past him on her way out of the train and John fought back a shiver when her bare shoulder brushed along his arm. It was a fleeting moment of contact, there and gone in a heartbeat, and John sighed in regret when she vanished through the doors. A good start, but not enough. Not by a long shot.
John supposed that he could have got what he needed in any large crowd, but the Tube was by far the easiest place to manage it. The rush hour crowd was focused completely on the promise of home after a long day, and everyone politely ignored the gross violations of personal space and British decency that came from being jammed into a too-full train car.
Here, in the heaving mess of bodies and briefcases and newspapers, John could safely overlap his fingers with those of the person holding the rail beside him, or press his bare wrist against the tantalizing stretch of the arm sticking out from below another man's business jacket. Everyone had to expect a certain amount of physical contact with strangers on the Tube, after all, and there was far too much commotion about for anyone to pay attention to unassuming John Watson and his tentative touches.
Or, more specifically, to notice what was wrong with them.
John found himself a young man in a t-shirt to stand beside and positioned his body so that their arms brushed with every rock and sway of the car. It was the most sustained skin-to-skin contact John had had in months, and he tried to soak up as much comfort from it as he could whilst still keeping a weather eye in case the kid noticed and reacted poorly. It wouldn't have been the first time.
The ironic thing, of course, was that, a year ago, John would have confidently said that empathy was the least important of his six senses. Not only was it perfectly possible to get through the day without needing to know how others were feeling but, as a doctor, he'd been trained to compartmentalize his own emotions as well as those he received from skin-to-skin contact with his patients. He'd always been quite good at it, too. By the time he'd shipped off to Afghanistan, John had his empathy so well conditioned that he hardly even noticed it.
And then one well-placed bullet had adroitly robbed him of his career as a surgeon, his life in the army and his sixth sense all in one go, and John had discovered just how far from forgettable his empathy actually was. Suddenly, his skin became a barrier between him and the rest of the human race, keeping his feelings in and everyone else's out. Gone was the familiar tickle of foreign emotions in the back of his head when he touched someone else, gone too the echo of his own feelings on their face. What should have been a constant, fluid exchange of empathy was now a locked room and the painful memory of what it had been like to be able to feel people as well as see them.
It had been, to John's surprise, the most difficult side effect of his injury to come to terms with.
He missed feeling emotions thrum through a handshake, a kiss, a brush of arm against arm. He missed knowing for certain whether a smile was genuine. He missed not being alone inside his own head, an island in the middle of an endlessly interconnected ocean.
But even more than that, he missed touching people.
John had never been a touchy sort of person. He was British, first and foremost, and, more than that, not overly given to emotional displays at the best of times. But since his… affliction had begun, he'd developed a new appreciation for the simple sensation of another person's skin against his own.
It was one luxury that was thoroughly denied to him now.
Oh, he'd tried it on a handful of times, with some of his mates in the field hospital, a short-lived girlfriend, strangers he met at the shops or down the pub. It never went well.
Because it was unnatural: touch without empathy. The sheer wrongness was so disturbing to both parties that John had never been able to find a way past it.
Christ's sake, even the physical therapist who'd helped him with his PT hadn't been able to hide her distaste whenever her hands on John's skin hadn't been party to a wave of his pain and irritation. And if someone who was employed to help damaged veterans couldn't handle it, how could John expect the average person on the street to understand?
Eventually, John had given up.
It hadn't been a decision to keep it a secret so much as the only logical solution. There just wasn't any point. It was in his medical file, obviously, and his therapist knew, but it wasn't something that John was in a hurry to divulge. He had more than enough visible scars without showing off the emotional ones.
Something in him was broken for good and he'd better get used to it.
And if that meant spending an hour or two riding the Circle Line and soaking up all the relief he could from brushing against strangers who were too closely packed in to notice that they couldn’t feel his emotions, well, keep calm and carry on, Watson.
John left the Tube two hours later, feeling at once calmer in his skin and vaguely ashamed of himself. He made sure to stop for Chinese on his way home, not because it would fool Sherlock into thinking that that was why he was late, but because it had been a solid week since Sherlock's last 'interesting' case and the man was apparently subsisting on air and misery at present.
Sure enough, John returned home to find the man sprawled facedown across the sofa in an ecstasy of boredom that looked several hours in the making.
"Have you moved at all since I left?" John asked, setting the bags of takeaway on a mostly-clean patch of table.
"Depends," Sherlock said, the word muffled into the cushion. "How long have you been gone?"
John rolled his eyes. "Didn't notice then, I suppose. Hope you're in the mood for Chinese."
Sherlock made a dismissive sound, somehow contriving to flop even deeper into the embrace of the sofa. If he got any more boneless, John suspected that he'd actually begin melding into it.
John started dishing out food for each of them, ignoring Sherlock's conspicuous silence. He gave Sherlock half of what he was having himself, since John had noticed that Sherlock was marginally more likely to eat if his portion was smaller than John's. Which was a distressingly juvenile way to manipulate a genius, but John wasn't about to knock anything that helped him keep Sherlock from fading away entirely.
Sherlock hadn't moved by the time John had everything ready, so John brought the plate to him. "Dare I ask if anything interesting happened today?" he asked, plunking it down on the coffee table. "You can talk and eat, if you like."
"Oh, would you just go away already." One hand flopped towards the table. "And take that with you."
John sighed. "Sherlock. You need to eat."
One side of Sherlock's face appeared through the riotous fall of his curls, distorted by a decidedly mulish scowl. John could just picture a ten-year old Sherlock looking at him with that same expression and an imperious 'shan't'.
"Fine then. You want it moved, you do it yourself." John took his own plate and retreated to his chair, snagging the telly remote on his way past.
Sherlock huffed out an expansive breath which John ignored in favour of cuing up the news, partly in the hopes that it would inspire Sherlock to stop sulking and start verbally eviscerating the newscasters instead. John had long since given up despairing over what he considered an enjoyable night in.
Instead, Sherlock made another noise of exasperation and turned so that his back was to the telly - and, not incidentally, John - and his face was buried in the back of the sofa.
"You might feel better if you eat something," John said, in the tone of voice he used to encourage small children to let him give them their flu jabs.
"Is that your professional opinion, doctor?" Sherlock snarled. No one could make words drip vitriol the way Sherlock Holmes did. "I'm so glad that you're here to tell me what's wrong; clearly your stunning education has been put to excellent use."
It would have been easy to take offense - God knew that most of what Sherlock said to him was easy to take offense to - but beneath the derision there was a hint of genuine distress that had John's irritation thawing despite him.
"I'm just trying to help."
"Well don't." Sherlock curled in tighter to himself, a little ball of isolated misery.
And, god, sometimes John wished he dared walk across the room, fit one hand to the elegant curve of Sherlock's cheek, and feel what it was like to be Sherlock in these moments. Maybe then he'd understand why Sherlock always seemed like the weight of the world had crushed all the life out of him and he'd be able to help. Or at least sympathize.
Not that Sherlock wanted his pity. John rather thought that pity was the last thing that Sherlock wanted from anyone.
It was, of course, a moot point anyway. John couldn't have read Sherlock's emotions if he'd wanted to, and he wasn't entirely convinced that he'd have had the courage to try even if he could.
Because if there was one thing that Sherlock didn't tolerate, it was touching.
If he'd been thinking about it when they'd first met, John would have wondered how long it would take the world's only consulting detective to realize that there was a very specific reason why John was always buttoned up from collar to wrists to toes, no matter the weather. It would only have taken a simple brush of Sherlock's hand against John's cheek or neck or fingers to expose the truth about the careful distance that John kept between himself and the rest of the world. And John had no doubt that once Sherlock knew, everyone else who came into contact with them would know too. Sherlock seemed not to have grasped the concept that some knowledge was better off not shared.
So yes, exposure of his disability should have been John's first concern when he'd realized the type of man he was considering sharing a flat with.
Ultimately, of course, John had been too caught up in serial suicides and murderous cabbies to think that far ahead, which turned out to be a good thing since it would have been a complete waste of time.
Because Sherlock had no interest in empathy whatsoever.
Sherlock didn't touch people skin-to-skin. While the rest of the planet was accustomed to tossing out random gestures of affection and connection, and twinning words and emotions in serious situations, Sherlock shunned every possible outlet for his sixth sense. He wore his bespoke suits and dramatic coat like armour and counted on his hauteur and caustic tongue to keep people literally at arm's length.
John would have thought that empathy would be useful for Sherlock's deductions, but Sherlock had blistered the air blue the one time he'd suggested it, so he'd dropped the idea.
Mycroft had all sorts of cryptic little not-clues about Sherlock's disdain for empathy, but John thought that Mycroft was a prat at the best of times and so hadn't even bothered trying to puzzle them out. Sherlock, of course, offered no explanation whatsoever.
But it worked out better for John that Sherlock was like this, all in all, so he was fine with not knowing. He could admit to himself that he was a little jealous of the fact that the lack of human contact didn't seem to bother Sherlock the way it bothered John, but he'd never once been of the impression that Sherlock was normal human being in the first place, so he supposed he could forgive it. Luckily for his pride, he was too stubborn to ask Sherlock how he managed.
Three days after John's sojourn on the Tube found Sherlock still sulking with a vengeance and John determinedly ignoring both his flatmate's angst and the itch of loneliness that was creeping back under his skin.
Sherlock's phone beeped. The laborious process of reclaiming it from the floor took Sherlock several long minutes that John found most entertaining.
"Ugh, finally!" Sherlock said, exploding off the couch in a whirlwind of long limbs, all hints of ennui gone.
John blinked after him as he vanished into his bedroom. "New case?"
"Dismembered bodies!" Sherlock exclaimed when he reemerged, fully dressed and beaming like a maniac. "At least two, according to the pieces they've found so far." He made a blissful little sound. "Dismemberment. Have you ever heard a more wonderful word?"
"One or two," John said, though mildly. Because Sherlock might have been throwing his coat on with an entirely inappropriate amount of glee, but at least it was a better solution to his recent dolor than John's increasingly less idle desires to toss Sherlock out the bloody window. And dismemberment was a new one for them.
John very carefully did not wonder what those bubbles of euphoria would feel like dancing under his own skin. That was never a line of thought that did him any good.
Sherlock frowned at him. "Why are you just sitting there? Hurry up, John!"
"I hardly think they're going anywhere," John said, mostly to be irritating. He set his book down with careful deliberation, stood slowly and wasn't surprised when Sherlock all but wrestled him into his coat the moment he got within grabbing reach.
Sherlock hustled them both down the stairs, summoned a taxi out of thin air, and proceeded to vibrate with excitement all the way to the crime scene.
John stared at the naked curve of Sherlock's neck and felt every millimeter of space between them.
The crime scene looked like a scene out of a horror film. Even John, who'd been part of the response teams for IED sites, found himself breathing shallowly through the thick, heavy tang of blood on the air. The walls and floor were liberally smeared with swathes of drying rust-brown. From his vantage point near the door, John could see an arm, two right legs and a hand with several fingers missing. Christ.
Sherlock, of course, dove right in. He was practically skipping as he went from one body part to the next, careless of the muck coating his shoes while simultaneously keeping the hem of his coat out of the worst of it.
John found a mostly-clean space to stand, hands clasped carefully behind his back as he watched Sherlock dance about like a mad butterfly.
"He's in rare form," Lestrade observed, stepping up beside John. "If I didn't know better, I'd think he was about to burst into song."
John shifted slightly, squaring his chest off against Lestrade and putting his hands more firmly out of reach. Casual touch wasn't something that Lestrade often engaged in at work - he thought it unprofessional - but John wasn't about to take chances.
"I'm just glad he's stopped sulking," John said.
Lestrade gave him a commiserating look. "Bad one, was it?"
"That's putting it mildly. This is the first time he's left the flat since Monday. Don't think he's had more than a couple of cups of tea and a biscuit since our last case ended." John tilted a dry grin at Lestrade. "Was half tempted to go out and murder someone myself, just to get him off the sofa."
Lestrade chuckled. "I know the feeling. Don't let Anderson hear you say that, though; he'll probably get it in his head that too much contact with Sherlock's emotions has infected you."
John felt his smile faltering and fought to keep it pinned to his face. "I know he's not the sharpest tack in the box, but I'd have thought that even Anderson would have noticed that Sherlock doesn't touch people."
Lestrade looked mildly surprised. "Not even you? I'd have thought he'd, I dunno, relax more at home. He's never been all that bothered with personal space where you're concerned."
John shrugged awkwardly. "You know Sherlock. He's not really one for-"
"Human interaction?" Lestrade suggested.
"-feelings," John finished. He considered. "Or human interaction."
"John!" Sherlock called, and John looked over to see the man beckoning imperiously from where he was crouched over what looked like most of a severed head. "Come here!"
"Your master's voice?" Lestrade asked, though good-humouredly.
"Woof," John said in agreement. He sighed. "Nothing like being needed."
"You alright?" Lestrade asked then, and John was discomfited to see concern on his face.
"Yeah, fine," John said, forcing a light, idle tone. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Lestrade wasn't put off. "I know Sherlock's decided he's above basic human needs, but it's not healthy if you're not using your empathy on a regular basis." Lestrade's fingers twitched, as though he was fighting the impulse to reach out.
It was an exercise of will not to flinch away. "Oh, hey no, it's fine. I've got Mrs. Hudson and the people at the surgery. Sherlock's not a problem." John flashed a thin smile, desperate to get off the topic. "Well, not that kind of problem, anyway. How long do you suppose I can ignore him before he yells at me?"
"No time at all," a deep voice interrupted, and John started to see Sherlock standing a few feet away.
John rolled his eyes. "I was coming, Sherlock."
"Not fast enough," Sherlock said, somewhere between irritated and petulant, and god, what was wrong with John that he almost found that endearing? "I need a cause of death."
"Off the top of my head, I'm going to go with dismemberment."
Sherlock gave him a withering look. His hand snapped out and wrapped around John's wrist; John's heart gave an instinctive, sickly thud before the feel of Sherlock's latex glove registered. Not skin-to-skin. Safe.
Of course, as soon as his panic eased, John found his attention snared instead by the strong, confident clasp of Sherlock's grip, those supple fingers long enough to encircle his wrist completely. His heart pounded for a different reason entirely and John had the vaguely hysteric thought that, if Sherlock had been bare-handed, the messy jumble of helpless affection coiling through John's veins would have been a far worse thing to discover than the fact that John's empathy was broken.
"Come along, John!" Sherlock said, obviously in no mood to be deducing the suddenly erratic pulse of his ex-army doctor, which John could only be thankful for. Small blessings.
And if he spent the too-short trip wishing that he could feel the warmth of Sherlock's skin against his, and damn the consequences, well that was no one's business but his own.
If he was being honest with himself, John would admit that he had known that his secret would come to light eventually. He lived with Sherlock Holmes, after all.
John hadn't quite considered how it would happen - he tended not to think about his empathy at all, if he could help it - but, if he had, he probably would have guessed it would be in the context of a case.
But not like this.
"John!" Sherlock barked, gesturing to an alleyway on their left. "Circle round!"
"Got it!" John peeled away from his side and ran down the alleyway while Sherlock continued chasing one Carl Turner, green grocer and dismembering murderer.
John's breath steamed in the air as he ran, puffing in time with the steady burn in his legs. It was at moments like this that he felt most alive, pelting through the rain-slicked night with Sherlock nearby and his gun tucked close, triumphant with the knowledge that, between them, he and Sherlock could accomplish anything.
The alleyway opened onto another wider street, and John shot onto it just in time to see Turner round the corner ahead of him with Sherlock still in hot pursuit. The wide whites of Turner's eyes flashed in the light of the streetlamps when he caught sight of John, and his hand flashed down to his waist.
John didn't have time for finesse.
He threw himself forward into a rugby tackle that took Turner down at the knees, and they rolled around on the ground for several minutes, grappling to get the upper hand. Turner was bigger than him, but John was used to that particular disadvantage and he'd had training that Turner clearly had not. He wrestled the man neatly onto his front and dug one knee into Turner's back, catching both arms at the wrists and pinning them flat at his sides.
Caught up in the heady rush of adrenaline and victory, John didn't register the fact that his bare palms were pressed against Turner's skin until Turner froze.
"You don't feel like anything," Turner said, dumbly. And then, more strongly, "what's wrong with you?"
Ice slipped down John's spine. "I…"
"Get off me!" Turner demanded, revulsion plain in his voice. He struggled harder and John tightened his grip automatically, feeling the shudder that racked Turner's body in response.
"Handcuffs?" John asked Sherlock, and was impressed with how level his voice was.
Sherlock handed them over without comment, and John focused on snapping them around Turner's wrists so that he wouldn't have to see the look in Sherlock's eyes. Turner slumped bonelessly into the ground when John let go of his arms; John could feel him cringing away from John's weight slung across his legs too, even though there was no chance of any further skin-to-skin contact.
And then the police were there, late to the game as always, and Turner came to immediate life again.
"Get this psychopath away from me!" he shouted, struggling to get out from under John.
"He's a high functioning sociopath, actually," Lestrade told him, sounding amused. "Or, so he says."
It felt a little bit like being punched in the gut.
Someone stepped forward to take custody of Turner and John clambered away on shaky legs.
Turner did nothing to resist the heavy hands on his arms as they dragged him away, and Lestrade turned to Sherlock, who was staring at him with a strangely intent look. "What have I told you about stealing my handcuffs?"
"Don't know, wasn't listening," Sherlock said, with imperious disdain. "And now that we've done your job for you, as usual, we're leaving."
"Your statements-" Lestrade started.
"Not now, Lestrade. John," Sherlock beckoned, not waiting to see if John was following before he strode off into the night, coat flaring out behind him.
"We'll come by the Yard tomorrow," John promised, for once just as eager to leave as Sherlock was. He felt shaky and paper thin, as though anyone could look straight through him into the dark, ugly places inside.
Sherlock had already flagged down a taxi by the time John caught up; John slid in next to him without a word, leaving Sherlock to direct the cabbie back to Baker Street. He couldn't help the feeling that he'd left a part of himself behind among the puddles and the dirt.
John turned his face to the window, very carefully thinking of nothing at all. He felt Sherlock staring at him as they pulled into traffic and had to breathe a sigh of relief when Sherlock eventually pulled out his mobile and proceeded to ignore him.
It was a very quiet ride home.
By the time they got back to the flat, John felt wrung out and weary right down to his soul.
"Tea?" he asked, as they walked in. It wasn't as reflexive a question as it ought to have been, but one of them had to get on with the business of pretending that everything was fine. And there were very few problems that couldn't be improved by tea.
"For God's sake, John!" Sherlock burst out irritably. "Why on earth would you care about the opinion of a man who cut people into pieces recreationally? I would have thought you'd be pleased to make him suffer with so little effort!"
Half out of his jacket, John stared, struck dumb by one of Sherlock's deductions in a way he hadn't been in months.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, of course I know," Sherlock said, in response to whatever expression was on John's face. "It's painfully obvious. I'm actually rather insulted that you'd think otherwise, when you know that I-"
"Sherlock," John interrupted, calm despite the fact that his pulse was hammering double time. "What are you talking about?"
Sherlock huffed and flung himself into his chair. "You don't have a sense of empathy. Really, John," he added, while John felt the blood drain from his face, "you can't honestly have thought that I wouldn't notice."
"I-" John staggered blindly over to his own chair, needing a bit of stability. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"It wasn't relevant." Sherlock sounded just the slightest bit awkward, and John was reminded forcibly of another case and a quiet 'not good?' that had said so much about Sherlock's fraught relationship with his own empathy.
"Oh. Then… thank you for not telling anyone."
Sherlock waved a dismissive hand. "Dull. It's a medical condition; hardly your fault."
"It can still make people uncomfortable," John pointed out. "You get that, right? You saw what happened with Turner."
"He's a serial killer, John. Not exactly the paragon of positive social relations."
"And that's why I'd rather not watch the few friends I've got react the same way," John said tartly. "It's bad enough from the scum of society."
Sherlock looked almost confused at that. "They won't. Why would they? You're still the same person."
"That doesn't make it any less unnerving." John sighed. "There are certain ways the world is supposed to work, Sherlock. And even if someone knows the truth up here-" he tapped his temple, "-that doesn't make it possible to ignore the sense of wrongness."
"Idiots," Sherlock snorted. He cocked his head at John, assessing. "You suffer for it," he said. It wasn't a question.
"It's… isolating," John admitted, because there was no point dissembling when Sherlock was like this. Better to get it all out now and move on to forgetting this conversation had ever happened as soon as possible. He smiled humourlessly. "Guess I never noticed how nice it is to touch people until I couldn't anymore."
"You can touch me."
John stilled. "What?"
Sherlock shrugged with overdone nonchalance. "You're suffering emotionally because you don't have enough physical human contact in your life. I know the cause of your touch starvation and am not bothered by it, ergo, I am the logical choice for you to get skin-to-skin contact."
"Are you sure?" John asked, because it was a better option than lunging across the intervening space between them and touching every inch of bare skin he could find.
That earned him a narrow look. "Of course I'm sure, don't be stupid. I wouldn't have offered if I wasn't."
"It's, well, everyone else who's touched me since I… lost my empathy found it. Disturbing. I don't want you to-"
"John," Sherlock said. He was smirking just slightly. At what he perceived of as John's idiocy, most likely. "I am not 'everybody'. And I'm more than capable of telling you to stop touching me in the highly unlikely scenario that I change my mind." He leaned forward in his chair and beckoned John to do the same. "Now come here."
"Right." John took a deep breath and reached for Sherlock's hand, the easiest thing to reclaim if he changed his mind. Sherlock let him have it, his eyes fixed on John's face and his body quiescent.
Sherlock's skin was cool and a little chapped - from cold maybe. No, his experiments; John recognized the roughness of regularly sterilized skin. Fascinated by the ability to take his time, John traced his fingers up and down Sherlock's offered skin, lingering over chemical burns and the uneven silk of long-healed scars.
Eventually, though, he had to look up, to see the effect this was having on Sherlock.. "This okay?"
"Of course," Sherlock said, his breathing uneven and his pupils blown wide. John's heart sank.
He started to draw back, apologies collecting on his tongue, and was shocked when Sherlock slotted their fingers together and held on tight.
"It's fine," John said, sure that all of his stupid hopes and dreams were scrawled across his face. He turned his gaze over Sherlock's shoulder. "I understand."
"No, you don't," Sherlock snapped. "You're being ridiculous."
"Look, Sherlock, I know it's unnatural not to be able to feel me. You don't have t-"
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Honestly, John, since when have I ever needed empathy to know what you're feeling?"
It was quite possibly the nicest compliment that John had ever received.
Before he knew it, John was surging across the distance between them to press a grateful, desperate kiss to Sherlock's lips. They were warm and surprisingly soft, and John couldn't feel so much as a hint of Sherlock's emotions through the contact. When he drew back, however, the subtle pleasure in Sherlock's eyes gave the evidence that his touch could not.
"Sorry," John said reflexively, and Sherlock snorted. He hooked a hand around John's neck to pull him in for another kiss, holding nothing back.
John ended up on his knees between Sherlock's spread legs, both of his hands framing Sherlock's face as Sherlock took him apart, inch by glorious inch.
"Really?" John asked, when they finally separated. He stroked his thumb across Sherlock's cheek, unable to stop touching now that he'd started. God, it would destroy him if Sherlock took this back. "This isn't something that's going to get better, Sherlock; my empathy's gone for good."
"Why do you think I dislike empathy in the first place?" Sherlock asked, in the tone of voice that meant he thought that John was being deliberately obtuse. "My mind is more than dynamic enough without someone else's emotions cluttering up the place. Some quiet would be… good," he added awkwardly, and John had to wonder how, strange and broken though they both were, they'd once again managed to be just what each other needed.
John smiled. "Well, alright then," he said, and pulled Sherlock down again. Sherlock responded eagerly and, for perhaps the first time since he'd woken up in the field hospital in Afghanistan, John didn't miss his empathy at all.