John doesn't know how long he stands there in the sitting room, just staring. It feels like a long time, but it probably isn't. Sherlock isn't one to put up with that sort of thing.
"Sherlock," he says through lips that feel numb. It's the only thing he can think to say. "Sherlock."
He hasn't said it aloud since the funeral. Now he has to force himself not to keep repeating it.
Sherlock sounds exactly the same. He looks almost exactly the same—hair a bit shorter, face a bit thinner, but essentially unchanged. He's looking at John with an extraordinary expression; a mix of intense concentration and something that, on anyone else, John would have called joy.
"Hello," he says back automatically, because that's what you do. He keeps staring, because he can't seem to stop. Then Sherlock's eyebrow goes up and his mouth curves at the corner, and John's world starts turning again.
"Right. Right." John clears his throat. Looks at Sherlock for one more moment, then away, fast. "Okay. So, not dead, then."
"Not dead, no." Sherlock stands in the open doorway, coat and scarf in place, black leather gloves dangling from one hand. He looks as if he's braced for something awful. "I'm, er. Sorry."
"For not being dead?" Another darting glance. John busies himself with collecting the half-empty teacups that have accumulated around the room.
"For letting you think I was," Sherlock clarifies.
"Oh. Right." John aims a brief smile over one shoulder. It feels stiff on his face. "I'm guessing you had a good reason."
"Well, yes." Sherlock's hands are clenching, unclenching, clenching again. "It was the cabbie."
"The …" John nearly turns around at that, but he catches himself in time. "The cabbie? The pink lady's cabbie? What the hell has he got to do with—"
John shuts his mouth with a snap and breathes out slowly through his nose. He watches Sherlock from the corner of his eye: long fingers, white knuckles; clench, unclench. His own hands are perfectly still.
"Are you—should we be talking about this now?" Sherlock asks. "It seems—not good."
He sounds so careful.
He looks at Sherlock finally, and that there: that is open concern; that is warmth; there's a sort of quiet gladness underneath that John aches to see. John looks back, but only long enough to make his point: all is well. They're fine. Sherlock's not dead, and everything is—
For a split second, John can't breathe.
When it passes, he says, "Tell me about the cabbie."
"More than a man, he said." Sherlock's left hand floats into the air between them; he pulls it back before John can flinch. "Moriarty was a spider, remember. He had people he delegated to; people who did the dirty work so he could keep his hands clean. I needed to find them. End it once and for all."
"And what better way to pass undetected than to die a messy public death?" John nods. "Did it work?"
"Naturally." Sherlock has advanced into the room. He's barely out of arm's reach now, watching John closely. "It's all over. Mycroft has been taking the relevant people into custody, and now he'll have my name cleared and we can …" He pauses, swallows. "We can go back to normal."
"Mycroft," John repeats. He stops moving, only long enough to blink. "Mycroft knew?"
"Not all of it. Not until the final stage." Sherlock edges closer. "John—"
"Someone knew. Someone must have helped you with the …" John waves his hand, discovers he can't finish that sentence. "With that. The beginning of it. Not even you could set that up by yourself."
"Molly helped. She can be very resourceful."
"How," John begins, and then thinks about it. "Oh, of course. You needed a—substitute, and she had access. And of course she'd do anything for you." He spins around and takes his armful of teacups into the kitchen. "Remind me never to play poker with her. She never let on even for a second."
"John." Sherlock stands directly in his path, hands out. "It doesn't mean—I wanted to tell you. You were a target—"
"Sherlock, stop. Please. Just stop." John inhales and puts his hand on Sherlock's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "It's fine. Really. You don't have to—look, I'm not thrilled about being in the dark, and I'm not saying you don't have a punch to the face coming to you, but I understand. You can take me through the rationale for the whole thing later." He pauses. "For now, just—welcome back."
Sherlock's rigid stance loosens a bit under John's hand. "Thank you," he says. He smiles, and he's warm and real and very close and John wants to smile back, he wants to, but instead he drops his hand and clears his throat again.
"Right, so. Now what?"
"I … don't know, actually." Sherlock looks surprised at his admission. "Do we—you—still get the papers delivered? I haven't seen one for a while."
"Mrs Hudson took them downstairs before you, um. Arrived," John says. "I'll get them."
"No, no. I'll do it. You make the tea. I've missed the way you make tea."
Sherlock flashes him another smile and slips out into the hallway. His footsteps echo down the stairs and his voice rings out, "Mrs Hudson!" in exactly the same way John's heard a thousand times before. His heart is pounding. It's an effort to breathe evenly. He grips the edge of the sink hard and counts to ten.
Then Mrs Hudson screams, and John is downstairs without any memory of getting there.
Mrs Hudson is clinging to Sherlock and sobbing, trying to speak through her tears and failing. Sherlock looks a bit bemused, and more than a bit touched by his reception. His hands are huge and gentle on her back.
"I take it Mrs Hudson didn't know either," John says after a moment.
"Not as such, no," Sherlock admits.
They look at each other in silence for a moment. John carefully backs away from the scene.
"I'll leave you to it," he says. "Kettle's boiling."
"Won't be long."
Sherlock begins soothing Mrs Hudson in low tones. John turns and walks back upstairs. He can feel Sherlock's eyes on him the whole time.
The afternoon passes quietly for the most part. Word gets round to the Yard fairly quick: Lestrade comes racing over with a shocked and truculent Donovan in tow, and awkward apologies are exchanged all round. John makes a lot of tea and keeps his mouth shut. Sherlock gives him little sideways glances, sharing wordless confidences just like the old days, and John does his best not to react. It's not easy, but he's had plenty of practice in being blank.
They read the papers and order a curry for dinner. John watches telly and Sherlock appropriates his laptop to update his website (a plain black "FAQ" banner that reads: No, I'm not dead. Yes, I am actually a genius. No, I'm not a fraud. Yes, there was actually a Jim Moriarty. No, I didn't kill him. Now can we just get on with it?). It's all very normal and familiar. It's as if Sherlock was never gone.
John holds out for as long as he can and then goes to bed just after nine.
"Okay," Sherlock says when John says good-night. John knows that look. Sherlock's confused and trying to hide it. John pretends he doesn't notice and goes up to his room before Sherlock can say anything else.
Door closed and locked, curtains drawn, sitting on the edge of his bed, John takes a deep, shuddering breath and holds it for thirty seconds. When he exhales, it comes out as a strangled sob.
John claps a hand over his mouth and grits his teeth, but it's no good: this has been building since he turned around and saw Sherlock in the sitting room doorway, and he can't hold it back any longer. He grabs blindly for a pillow and holds it to his face to muffle as much sound as he can. Then he closes his eyes and cries as if his heart were breaking instead of being mended.
It goes on for a while. John wraps his arms around the pillow and buries his face in it until he can't breathe. His body shakes with the force of it, and small choked noises escape him as he undergoes the painful process of becoming a whole person again. Partway through he hears the faint strains of Sherlock's violin playing something soft and ecstatic, and his heart seizes. For a moment he can't move, can't think, can't do anything but feel all the broken pieces of himself knitting back together. He rocks back and forth, taking short shallow breaths until his tears dry up and his pulse begins to slow.
His face is hot and swollen when he raises his head. He's incredibly thirsty. There's silence from the sitting room; the violin has stopped. John fights the urge to rush downstairs and make sure Sherlock's really there. He restrains himself with an effort. If it was a dream, he'll only be disappointed. If it isn't, he'll look like a fool.
"You're worried they're right about me."
"That's why you're so upset. You can't even entertain the possibility that they might be right. You're afraid that you've been taken in as well."
John's feet move without his conscious volition. He's at the door, scrabbling at the lock, and then he's opening it, thinking, I don't care if I'm the world's biggest fool, I have to know. Then the door's open and Sherlock is on the other side with his hand raised as if to knock.
The entire day, it seems to John, has been full of silent confrontations. This is another one: Sherlock poised on another threshold; John steeling himself to bear it, only this time all his defences are shattered. He's still holding his pillow. It's soaking wet. He knows the story his face is telling. There's no way Sherlock could miss it.
John squares his shoulders and lifts his chin. Sherlock blinks down at him once, twice, his mouth working wordlessly, and then:
"Idiot," Sherlock rasps, and he reaches for John and wraps him in an embrace so tight it feels like he might never let go.