Sherlock, having decided that such petty concerns as utilities and the tax bill was the stuff better deferred to mere mortals, had fucked off to God knows where, leaving John trapped on his mobile with some girl named Claret — clearly, her parents were drunks — from the Westminster council trying to change 221B's single-household status.
"R—aight," she says, finally returning to the line, "so are you and your partner — "
"He's not my partner, he's my flatmate," John clarifies.
" — R—aight," Claret drawls. "Hold please."
John puts his head between his knees in an effort to keep his skull from exploding in a fit of futile rage. He's subjected to an automated voice reminding him gently that he can sort out his council tax on the Westminster City Council's website, which would be fantastic if (a) Sherlock hadn't set his computer with some sort of password that thoroughly amused him and made the screensaver an obnoxious riddle for it written in neon pink Comic Sans, or (b) the Westminster City Council page would load on his mobile. There were moments John seriously debated whether or not he'd come back from Afghanistan with a fuck-awful case of PTSD and that moving in with Sherlock was some sort of cry for help.
He's on iteration three of hearing the website URL and seriously considering hanging himself with Sherlock's spare scarf when his phone beeps for a call on the other line the same time there's an efficient rapping on the door of the flat.
"Hello?" he asks, pressing the talk button and walking gingerly over, closing his hand on the knob. His leg is mostly fine, now, but sometimes he forgets to forget it's psychosomatic and ends up collapsed on the kitchen floor, Mrs. Hudson cooing over him and making emergency calls to Sherlock, who says helpful things like, "Tell him it's literally all in his head, and for God's sake, Mrs. Hudson! Don't fuss so!" This only leads to Mrs. Hudson making John tea and stuffing him with biscuits and reminiscing about her husband, who could be very firm, too.
"Whatever you do," Sherlock instructs over the mobile, "do not open the door."
"Too late for that," John tells him as the door swings open, Mycroft standing on the other side of it looking aloof as usual. "Oh."
"God damn it, Watson," Sherlock cries, with all the drama of a third-string Young Vic applicant. "Do you never follow directions?"
Instead of answering, John hangs up on him. "Mycroft, hello," he says.
Nodding, Mycroft peers into the flat. "May I come in? Or have you not finished rendering it less of an embarrassment?"
John would resent the issue of everybody assuming he was Sherlock's wife, but given that he's spent the two weeks he's lived here organizing books and papers and sorting everything into its proper place, trying to rectify the appalling situation with the kitchen and drafting a list of rules ("Rule the First: No eyeballs in any kitchen equipment — I do not care if they are for an experiment."), he has absolutely no leg, good or psychosomatically bad, to stand on.
"It's about 80 percent," John says demurely, and waves Mycroft in. "Would you like some tea?"
"That would be lovely, yes," Mycroft agrees, accent unbearably posh. He perches himself on the couch John had scavenged from an internet listing a few days ago and that Sherlock had immediately appropriated for his own.
At that point Mycroft's mobile starts ringing, and when he ignores that in favor of reporting to John he takes two sugars and a dollop of milk in his tea, John's mobile starts beeping away, too.
"Persistent bugger, isn't he?" Mycroft says, almost fondly.
"He told me you were his arch-enemy," John volunteers, settling into the armchair, too carefully. He ignores the way Mycroft studies him with the same evident curiosity as his brother.
Taking a sip of the tea — "Mm, lovely." — Mycroft says, "Well, Sherlock has always been inclined toward histrionics." He tips his head toward John's mobile, where it's buzzing across the coffee table, his latest project and the reason for the sandpaper and pot of finish lying across old copies of the Guardian. "Are you going to answer that?"
"Oh, God no," John says.
Mycroft smiles at him. "Dr. Watson, I feel we are going to be the best of friends."
In a way Mycroft remarks later in an extended email exchange is "boringly predictable," Sherlock blows into the house exactly fourteen minutes later, just after Mycroft's exit, attempting to be cooly disinterested but barely concealing psychotic rage.
"Well, did he offer you more money?" Sherlock asks snidely.
John raises an eyebrow and returns his attention to the subject of the kitchen backsplash, and debating what chemical solvent might be used to rescue the tile.
"No, but he did say we would make great friends," he says, easy, and goes digging through the Tesco bag for a wire brush.
Sherlock makes a face like someone's just stuffed a rotting lemon into his mouth, and John chalks it up as a win.
The original plan for returning to England involved fucking around being shellshocked and suffering mandatory post-combat counseling and physical therapy to dissect the shattered mosaic of his feelings. Instead, he ends up sharing a flat with Sherlock High-Functioning Sociopath Holmes, somehow stuffed into a suit Harry bought him, and at St. Bart's trying to keep a smile on his face while Dr. Barrie yammers at him.
"We always need qualified doctors, John, that's hardly a concern," Barrie tells him, and John manages a weak smile in return. "The question of course is if you want to come back to us."
John opens his mouth, "Of course," on the tip of his tongue.
Every time he talks to the state-issued shrink who bullies him into keeping what Sherlock assures him is the most agonizingly boring blog in creation, she tells him that one day, if he manages well enough, he'll live his normal life and slip back into the ordinary rhythm of things. Nothing can ever be expected to be exactly the same, but he can come close. He can be fine. He can get up and go to work at Bart's and deflect questions about Afghanistan and maybe date someone nice once his dick can be fucked to get an erection again and possibly life will go on.
Instead, he says, "Let me think about it, then."
Barrie smiles at him, easy and knowing, and he grips John's wrist warmly before saying, "Good. You do that, John," and adding, "Now, tell me about this flatmate of yours."
He gets home at half-four, lets himself into the house and up the stairs, and listens to Sherlock playing gypsy music, the high notes soaring. John loosens his tie and sprawls out on the couch, watching Sherlock's eyes dart around underneath his closed lids as he cradles the violin, draws the bow across the the strings and makes it sing. He hitches his leg up on the arm of the sofa and listens to the trills and wonders and arpeggios and the sound of London traffic outside the windows. He lets himself get pruny in it, in being back home, slipping back into normal, and knows that at least here, at 221B Baker Street, he doesn't have to pretend that's an instant comfort.
For dinner, he maneuvers Sherlock into ordering a Chinese by offhandedly mentioning how Mycroft was so fond of discussing recipes. He steals all the prawn chips and leaves the telly on Would I Lie to You out of sheer bloodymindedness.
"This is the worst show on television," Sherlock declares.
"You don't even own a television; this is probably the first show on television you've watched in years," John points out, stealing the last triangle shrimp toast and inspecting the depths of the plastic container of fried rice.
Apparently deciding that comment wasn't worth a response, Sherlock says, "So, how did it go at Bart's?"
"You're thinking about it, then," Sherlock supplies, and John eats another prawn chip. Sherlock says, "Good," like John's answered where he hasn't, and on the television everybody roars into laughter, the bubbling sound of it filling up the room.
Sherlock doesn't own normal people things, like kitchen equipment or a toaster or a kettle, frames to hang things on the wall or a fucking hoover, for that matter, and John has too much dignity to keep nicking Mrs. Hudson's. Somehow, during one of his regrettable and poorly planned exchanges with Clara — who even though she's divorcing Harry, still pines, and was John's friend long before she was Harry's girlfriend or wife — he accidentally lets slip what dreadful experience setting up house is after having spent so long without concerns like coffee tins and fuses. She seizes onto the subject with grim determination.
Obviously, the threat of mortar fire on the side of a shitty road in Afghanistan and getting shot were pretty awful, but so is being dragged to fucking John Lewis by a posh lesbian with puffy red eyes and a credit card.
"Clara, this really isn't — " John tries, and she interrupts by thrusting an electric kettle in his face.
"John, it's either stock your flat or I return to the empty house we have and look at photographs from our wedding and weep like a colicky baby," Clara tells him, no nonsense. Even her fringe — held back away from her pale face with a striped Alice band — is severe. "Do you want me to sit in the flat and cry?"
The "flat" is a three-story townhouse Clara and Harry had spent three years during their very long courtship gutting and turning into a series of splash pages for Architectural Digest, which they had kindly forwarded to him in a care package during his second tour. There's a sunken garden with eight-foot-high fences and an outdoor fireplace. John has consumed vast quantities of expensive Beaujolais sitting in it and marveling at the complete madness of his life.
He feels himself pulling an awkward smile. "No, Clara, I don't."
"Good," she tells him and rattles the kettle in his face. "What do you think?"
John's eyes almost cross when he looks at it. "I'd prefer one that wasn't quite so…" he searches for a word and concludes with, "avocado green."
"Right," Clara decides, casting the kettle aside like it's betrayed her.
Probably in her head it looks like Harry, John thinks bitterly, but he knows better than to say anything as she marches him down the aisles, searching out kitchen equipment in stainless steel. They acquire a toaster, a kettle, a coffee machine, a food processor — "But, why?" John asks — and a breadmaker — "Seriously, Clara, why?" — when she sees a panini press on sale for half-off, clutches it to her chest, and bursts into tears.
"Oh, God, Clara, are you all right?" he asks, trying to pull her up from where she's collapsed against a display of soda machines, her mascara running like black rivers down her ashen cheeks.
"Harry loved panini," Clara wails, clawing at the box.
"Oh, fuck me," John says.
Eventually, an hour later, after a not insignificant amount of assistance from store security, John has relocated Clara from John Lewis to 221B Baker, although he has not managed to remove the panini press or stop her from crying.
He feeds her biscuit after biscuit and liters of tea, and Clara hiccups her grief as she putters around the flat, scrubbing things in misery and rearranging the kitchen while she talks about what an absolute shit Harry is.
"I poured my heart into that house," Clara tells him, wearing neon yellow rubber gloves and down her knees now, scrubbing the tile in the kitchen. "I really wanted to make it a home for us — I thought Harry wanted it, too."
"Harry has always been a twat," John sympathizes, because it's true.
By the time Sherlock gets home from doing whatever Clara is basting a chicken and making roasts. John finds himself trapped in one of those horrible nonverbal conversations with Sherlock that involves a lot of looking helpless.
"As my flatmate seems to be physically incapable of actually telling me why there's a strange woman in my kitchen roasting a chicken, I suppose I shall have to ask," Sherlock says finally, pulling off his scarf. "So — " he narrows his eyes " — Clara, why are you in my kitchen roasting a chicken?"
"You were right about him, John," Clara sighs, and takes the roasties out of the oven. She nods at Sherlock and says, "You — set the table. And don't — " she warns, voice sharp " — bother John, he's been on his bad leg all day."
When Sherlock is laying out forks and knives and glowering daggers at John, he hisses, "Oh, I see we're leveraging our psychosomatic limp then."
John smiles sweetly at him. "I'm really very sore," he lies.
Sherlock slaps a plate down in front of John, and Clara snaps, "Sherlock! Those are new!"
Dinner is fantastic. It's the first day John's been back he's felt back, and he watches Clara and Sherlock snipe cruelly at one another over puddings and double cream and Sherlock's very good sherry and feels at home.
Mycroft sends crates of good wine, framed prints for the walls, rugs, things to feather their nest, and John is careful to sort through for things he wants to keep before he lets Sherlock set them on fire during cozy evenings where Sherlock lectures John on how unendingly stupid people are.
"God, I'm so bored," Sherlock declares one day.
"That's probably the most frightening thing I've ever heard," John says honestly.
Sherlock gives him a dirty look. "I need problems, work."
"In theory," John says, "you could get a job."
"Not my type of work," Sherlock whines.
John's silent for a long time before he says, "Well, Mycroft sent a telescope. We could spy on the neighbors."
Growing up, he'd always had friends who'd come around, and people to eat lunch with. At uni he'd been well-liked enough and when he'd gone to Afghanistan he'd had brothers in arms, but it's been a very long time since John's just had a friend. True, it is terrible that after thirty-odd years he's settled on throwing his chips in with Sherlock Holmes of everyone on Earth, but there is something fantastic about huddling in the dark of their flat, hidden underneath a dark blue sheet off of Sherlock's bed and peering into the windows of the house across the street, laughing like schoolboys.
"That is horrible low-budget pornography," John cackles, because it is. He had access to better smut when he'd been in secondary school.
"I've always found the disparity between the unrealistically symmetrical women in pornography and the generally obese and hirsute men in the same films very fascinating," Sherlock muses, stuffing another jammy dodger in his mouth.
"I've always found it to be a fucking erection killer," John mutters.
Stuffing his fist into the biscuit tin Clara had left them and rooting around, Sherlock says, offhand, "Well, that's of no real consequence to you right now anyway, is it? You can hardly kill an erection that isn't present to begin with."
John considers mortification but decides on resignation instead. "How on Earth could you possibly know that?"
"Firstly, you have dark-colored bedsheets, and although you've lived here for almost two months and have fastidiously laundered your clothing like clockwork and wiped down the counters, you haven't seen it fit to wash the linens, which tells me that you're not doing anything to stain them to begin with. That may mean you're having it off with someone at their flat, but it's unlikely, since every day I come home more and more of this flat looks like it's a spread out of Small But Elegant Apartments Shared by Homosexuals monthly, and you refinished all the cabinets the other week, and watched the finish dry carefully enough that there aren't dust specks, either, moreover — "
"Jesus Christ," John interrupts. "Never mind."
Sherlock is actually silent for a long minute before he says, "Do you want to have an erection?"
"Abstractly, yes," John admits, still watching their neighbors watching a perfectly hideous man jackhammer a blond woman whose breasts could be used as flotation devices in case of a water landing. "But in practice, I'm not sure."
"I understand," Sherlock says easily, shoving John away from the eyepiece now to take a look. "Takes the pressure off. Returning war veteran, still shattered, but possessing of good looks and now a heroic story, the possibility of romantic attention doubles; having the excuse of erectile dysfunction must be somewhat liberating, really."
John takes the biscuit tin away from him. "When you talk, do you actually hear the shite that's coming out of your mouth?" he asks.
"Do you know," Sherlock says, "Mycroft says the same thing."
John wonders what Sherlock thinks of him, or if Sherlock thinks of him, or if Sherlock has simply incorporated John and Clara's housewares and the new prints on the walls and the telescope and the medical texts into his life without another thought, like an extra leaf slipped into a long tome. He decides the answer's not worth knowing, really, and fishes a chocolate chip cookie out of the tin just in time for Sherlock to seize his elbow in his fist, his jaw dropping in delight.
"John," Sherlock gasps. "This next video has horses."
In the next two months, Sherlock noses in on three more crimes, and John makes a number of half-jokes about how maybe Sherlock just has a crush on Lestrade. That lasts until he comes home to find Sherlock's changed all the locks on him, which would have been even more irritating if John didn't know how to kick down a door like a pro. The betrayed look and accusation of, "Fucking Afghanistan," Sherlock gives him on the other side is pretty fantastic. It gets both of them in trouble with Mrs. Hudson, though, who doesn't mind about the door but more the fact that they're resorting to violence and pettiness so early in their relationship. He and Sherlock exchange a raised eyebrow at "so early," since generally speaking, violence shouldn't have been in any relationship at any time, but then again, the late Mister Hudson had been nicked for a series of double murders, so.
Sherlock also gets hired to write a number of shockingly popular columns for the Guardian about true crime, which John disapproves of since they only encourage him to be mean to anyone who isn't as smart as he is, which is basically everyone except for Mycroft, who Sherlock hates on principle anyway. After the fourth column, Clara emails John to say she's changed her mind about Sherlock. Maybe he's an all right partner — "Flatmate." — after all. Also, is Sherlock interested in writing a book?
He isn't. Which is how John ends up juggling his ex-sister-in-law's renewed career fervor with Harry's increasing despair at being bereft of Clara and the early signs of some more ordinary affection growing like a vine between himself and his flatmate.
"Do you know, I don't know why I put up with you," Sherlock muses one day while Clara is hanging a series of exquisitely framed old newspaper clippings up around the flat — blurry and grainy black and whites of Victorian London police officers, fine reproduction engravings of old pages of the first edition of Gray's Anatomy. She seems to have an entire warm umber and black-and-white theme designed for the flat; John doesn't particularly care, and Sherlock has too much pride to intervene and say he actually likes greens better.
John shrugs and checks on the potatoes. "Probably because I cook and clean."
"You are," Sherlock says, almost fondly, "an exemplary homemaker, Watson."
"Thank you," John returns with dignity, and Sherlock smirks and goes off to pour them all a slug of brandy to get the evening started.
The next day, his therapist's office feels strangely unrestrictive, and when she asks him about his blog, she tells him that he's gone from writing a bullet-point list of daily activities to long narratives about London, about Sherlock, about the names-changed crimes that they fringe around the city.
"You also seem happier," Dr. Bransford tells him, leaning back in her chair.
John cocks one brow at her. "Isn't normal what I'm supposed to be working toward?"
"Normal's a dangerous and subjective word sometimes," she demurs, amused and twirling her pen. She's written improved, on her legal pad. He supposes he must not be that improved if he's still reading her writing upside-down. "Do you think that blowing back into London, moving in with the notorious Sherlock Holmes, and traipsing around with him solving crimes is normal?"
Clearing his throat, John points out, "Well, I haven't really done much crime solving since that first case with the murderous cabbie."
"Oh, it's early days," Bransford dismisses. "I'm sure he'll work up the courage to ask again — but the point is, that's not exactly normal, is it, John?"
His leg starts hurting, his mouth goes tight. "What, so you think I should stop?"
She beams at him, puts the legal pad away. John's four sessions away from finishing his mandatory counseling, and for the first time he's unsure he's not going to make another appointment on his own.
"Not at all, John," she says. "Happy is far, far more important than normal."
"So am I happy like this, then?" he asks, because he's not really sure himself, and he tries not to think about if he's ever known if he was happy. It's such an abstract thing, when any consideration of it had been obscured under a mountain of sand and blood and recrimination. It's hard to mull larger philosophical questions of human existence when holding in a 19-year-old boy's intestines with his hands and trying to keep him conscious by asking about his girlfriend back in Kansas City. How the fuck can he be happy after he's seen that? And even if he is happy, is he allowed to be?
Bransford looks contemplative. "I'm not sure, really," she admits. "But I think you're doing things you want to, that you aren't hurting anybody, that your limp has improved dramatically, and that you seem well. You smile more." She shrugs. "How does anybody quantify happy, anyway?"
When he gets home that night, Lestrade is waiting for him in front of 221B Baker.
"Oh, come on," John says. "There's new Doctor Who on tonight."
Lestrade gives him a poisonous look. "There's also been a murder."
"There's always a murder, bloody everybody is always dying everywhere all over London, we're worse than Detroit," John complains, and wanders past him, into the house, calling out a hello to Mrs. Hudson and starting up the stairs. The ache in his leg is just a twinge now, the memory of hurts. He thinks he should really go steal some money from Sherlock to set them up with a DVR service so Sherlock can stop illegally downloading fucktons of television. John takes off his coat and calls out, "Sherlock! Guess who's here to see you."
The case turns out to be dull according to Sherlock, nothing of any intellectual interest at all, really, but John's not sure he's in agreement. It only takes Sherlock a few minutes at the scene to realize that although the woman may be dead, there must still be a child somewhere, and when they find her, John is the one who carries her to the ambulance and sits with her as they roar through the city to Bart's in the glittery black of London after midnight. She cries and cries but she's alive, and when John hands her over to the capable hands of St. Bart's AE staff he goes up the stairs, winds round the wings until he finds an administrator's office, and leaves a note for Dr. Barrie.
"Oh thank God," Sherlock says, when John tells him the next morning that he's taken a position with Bart's. "If you'd moped around the house decorating it and sanding things and moving all of my stuff any longer I was going to hurl you off of the roof."
"Illegal, Sherlock," John reminds him, because sometimes Sherlock forgets about those sort of things.
Waving a hand, Sherlock says, "As if Lestrade could ever find me. Anyway — I'm pleased to hear you've concluded the wounded, psychologically damaged war veteran portion of your life. We ought to throw you a party."
John raises an eyebrow. "Who would we invite?"
"Surely, you have friends," Sherlock says, making his tea with revolting precision for the revolting hour of half-six in the morning. Sherlock waking up is like turning on a light switch: black and then a sudden burst of awareness, no in-between. He's only ever blurry when he's locked himself in his room with his nicotine patches and drug habit that John imagines he should probably be more concerned about. John's tendency to shrug and think, I've seen worse, is going to become problematic, he just knows it.
"I don't know, really," John says. He did before, but he doesn't really want to talk to all of them now that he's returned. They'd want to know his pain and comfort him and then they'd want him to be normal again, and John's not sure if he'll ever be happy if he's normal again, so better not to risk it, really. "There's Clara."
Sherlock slams down his mug. "Absolutely not. That woman bought sheets for my bed and has drawn up contract for my eventual best-seller."
"You know, new sheets and a steady revenue stream might not be all that egregious, Sherlock," John tells him, stabbing at a giant slab of Weetabix in his bowl and stirring in four overflowing spoonfuls of sugar.
"If you didn't want a party, you might as well have just said," Sherlock sighs. "Fine then — we'll just carry on as usual."
John smiles into his cereal. "Good," he says. "Great."
When John finishes his breakfast he changes into his most comfortable jeans and a pair of hideously expensive trainers Harry had posted to him as a gift, pulls on a jacket, nicks Sherlock's scarf. It's been three years since he's been anybody's ordinary doctor, and he can't imagine himself in a white coat or stitching up footballers or going out for drinks after work but he's willing to give it a go. He moved in with a high-functioning sociopath on a whim and that's worked out all right so far.
He's already on the bus when his phone buzzes.
I'll bring you lunch, Sherlock has texted. I'll need an overview of any potentially gruesome crimes you've espied so far today.
John laughs, out loud and under his breath, not enough to draw anybody's attention.
Take out the rubbish bins, he answers, and turns off his phone.
It's blustery outside, windy and misty one minute and alternately pissing it down the next when the bus pulls up to his stop. John stuffs his hands deep into his pockets — closes his fists around his wallet and mobile — and walks through the hospital doors.