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The Hollow Now

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John rounded the corner onto Baker Street at a half-jog. Crowded trains and two fucking station changes, and then he’d spilt his coffee on a woman who’d looked ready to murder him. He’d started to think he’d never get here, but now he was on this familiar street, the crimson awning of Speedy’s just in sight. His heart leapt into his throat.

One minute later, he stood before the door, keys in hand, heart pounding. He hadn’t been sure he’d ever set foot in this building again. He turned the key in the lock and took a steadying breath before stepping into the familiar entryway. It was a moment before his eyes adjusted to the dim light. It looked exactly the same as he remembered: same wallpaper, same table against the far wall, same smells of dust and Mrs. Hudson’s rosy potpourri and a whiff of a harsh chemical cleaner. He glanced up the stairway and panicked for a fleeting moment. Should he have texted Sherlock to confirm that he still lived here? But the key had still been on the ring, and why else would he have kept it if not to… do whatever it was he and Sherlock did together these days.

He climbed the stairs and knocked on the door, and tried to ignore the sudden twisting in his gut. This was real. Real.

“Come in!” he heard in a familiar sing-song voice, and pushed open the door to see Mrs Hudson emerging from the kitchen holding a tray laden with teacups and a steaming pot. She smiled widely at John. “Oh, it’s such a relief to see you back on your feet again! But where is Anna?”

“Erm. Mary took her this morning to the…” John frowned, realizing he had no idea exactly where she was.

“Of course she did, probably for the best.”

“Right.” John stared blankly at her for a moment: did that mean he brought Anna here often?

“I bought more of those biscuits she likes, to help with her teething. I’ll bring them up for you to take with you.”

John heard the words wind past his ears, but they didn’t register. Across the room, Sherlock was sitting in his chair, wrapped up in a dark blue dressing gown and applying rosin to the bow of his violin, as if he’d never been gone at all. He looked up and smiled at John then, and John felt the floor shift beneath his feet.

“Oh, you look a bit pale, dear!” Mrs Hudson said, and John startled, surprised to see her standing so close. “Are you sure you should be out and about so soon?”

“No, I’m fine. Really, I’m just… fine.” He turned back to look at Sherlock again and felt a wave of emotion.

Mrs Hudson patted his arm gently. “You need a nice cuppa. Sherlock said you were coming, so I made enough for the two of you.”

“Yeah, thanks.” He crossed to sit in the chair opposite Sherlock, not quite letting himself sink back into it. Was he dreaming? He squeezed the arms of his chair tightly, until his fingernails dug painfully into the worn leather. The last time he’d sat here… He pushed the thought away and looked up to see Sherlock watching him with a strange expression.

“Oh Sherlock, this mess!” Mrs. Hudson tutted from the kitchen.

“That will be all, Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock said, not looking away from John.

“You need a new flatmate to keep you right. John, perhaps you know someone?”

Mrs Hudson!” There was an edge of tension in Sherlock’s voice now, and John shot him a warning look out of sheer habit. She sighed in mock exasperation, but her footsteps began to recede towards the door. Once it was closed behind her, Sherlock set the violin bow aside. “Are you all right?”

John hesitated for a moment, surprised by the question. Was Sherlock… concerned about him? “Yes. Maybe.”

“Have your memories returned?”

“No. Not at all.” He forced himself to look away from Sherlock, to take in the room around him. It was different, now that he had a moment to look more closely — new bits and bobs, slightly more clutter, and none of his own things. A box of what appeared to be baby toys was pushed up against the fireplace, and a few papers covered with crayon scribbles were tacked up on the wall alongside crime scene photos. John frowned.

Sherlock leaned forward and poured tea into two cups. “Then I imagine you have questions.”

“God, yes.” Where to begin? He’d lain awake for hours the night before, doing nothing but thinking of all the questions he wanted to ask. “I suppose the first question is how?”

“Yes, of course. I admit I didn’t expect you to follow me onto the roof, as you’re generally more cautious than I am, but—”

“No, no.” John closed his eyes against a sudden well of frustration. “Not the accident. I mean you.” He took a deep breath. “I saw you jump off of Bart’s. I saw your body on the ground. I went to your funeral. I visited your grave and--” He looked up again. “Believe me, I wanted it not to be true, but… the fact that it isn’t… I don’t…” He shook his head, swallowed hard. The grief was still there, he realized, even in this body that had long ago moved past it. A little digging and its edges were exposed, raw and red.

Sherlock’s face softened completely. “Right, of course. Severe retrograde amnesia.” He tilted his head slightly, his gaze raking over John’s face. “You have no memories at all from the last four years?”

“None. It’s as if… the TARDIS dropped me off here or something.” Sherlock squinted at him in confusion and John managed a choked laugh. At least some things hadn’t changed. “Until a few days ago I believed you were dead, so this is all rather a shock.”

“Yes.” The matter-of-fact tone ought to have been infuriating, but it was strangely comforting.

“And I don’t understand how any of this happened.”

“The how is unimportant. I think you’d find the why far more interesting.”

John blinked at him. “Yes. That’s… yes.”

Sherlock handed a cup of tea to John and sat back again. He hesitated a moment more, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. Just as John thought he might burst from the suspense, Sherlock finally spoke. ”Nearly everything that happened was done to defeat Moriarty once and for all. In retrospect, I ought to have included you in the plan. At the time I thought it was best if you were kept out of harm’s way, but…” He hesitated and stroked fingers over his lips, absently. “You are my best friend. I will always regret the pain I caused you. I allowed you to think the worst for two years, and--”

“Two years,” John repeated. It had been only months for him. Living with this pain for two years was difficult to imagine.

“Yes.” Sherlock’s jaw clenched slightly. “I spent most of it undercover in Asia and eastern Europe, hunting down leads and alerting MI6 to the presence and identity of criminals in Moriarty’s network. Some I… neutralized myself. Others were challenging enough that the professionals needed to be called in.”

Two years. John shook his head in disbelief. The thought of Sherlock hiding in plain sight in a world that thought him dead, being a gritty sort of James Bond was nothing short of… He pressed his lips together. Christ. “That’s incredible.”

Sherlock blinked at him. “It… what?”

John slid forward in his seat, elbows on his knees. “You were a spy, then? With disguises and tech gear and fancy weapons?”

Sherlock opened his mouth and closed it again. “Well… yes. I mean, no. It wasn’t quite like… You think it’s incredible?”

“It’s fucking amazing. Jesus, Sherlock, I knew you were brilliant, but I didn’t know you were capable of being a bloody action hero.”

“I wasn’t…” Sherlock looked away for a moment, clearly bewildered. “So you aren’t… angry.”

“Oh.” John pursed his lips. “I was before, wasn’t I? I suppose I ought to be. But…” He looked down at his hands, frowning. Moriarty had to be stopped, and Sherlock was the only one who could have done it. John couldn’t have gone with him. He was an army doctor, not a commando, and certainly not undercover agent material. He would’ve been shit at it, negative help. It would have been a relief to know Sherlock was alive, of course. Perhaps John could have been a contact point in London, do his part from afar? But no, John knew himself better than that. If he’d known Sherlock was out in the world and in constant danger, would he have been able to sit idly at home and do nothing about it?

No. Hell, no.

And even knowing all of this, he — his past/future self — had been very angry at Sherlock for a long time. It was hard to fathom that now, sitting here, when all he could feel was grateful that Sherlock was alive and well.

John looked up again, and the expression on Sherlock’s face was unlike anything he’d ever seen. It was an expression that spoke volumes about the man wearing it, who had seen John’s fury and hurt and had taken it in, had even learned from it. This wasn’t the Sherlock he’d known — this Sherlock was four years older, wiser, better. This Sherlock was capable of remorse and empathy, and so clearly not the machine John had accused him of being with his almost-last words to him.

No, not last.

John couldn’t stop himself then: he set the tea on the table and and rounded it to stand in front of Sherlock. He held out his hand and Sherlock frowned at it, forehead creased with concern.

“John—”

“Just come here, will you?”

Sherlock took a steadying breath and stood and John was momentarily lost in the reality of him: diffused light from the window softening the sharp features of his face, his hair a wild halo, his eyes wide and vividly blue. John felt something clench in his chest, and he stepped forward and pulled Sherlock into an embrace. Sherlock’s entire body stiffened against him, and for a moment, John thought he’d made a horrible mistake, but then Sherlock relaxed and slid his arms around John’s shoulders, pressed his nose into John’s neck. John closed his eyes and held him a moment more, startled by the rightness of it. Sherlock’s arms tightened around him, pulling him even closer, and it was suddenly too much. John took a deep breath and stepped back again.

“Look… I have no idea what’s happened in the last few years. I feel like I’ve been dropped into someone else’s life. All I know right now is that I get a second chance with you, and for that I’m grateful.” He swallowed down the sudden emotion in his throat and took another step backward, ran a hand through his hair.

“I’m grateful as well.” Sherlock’s voice was strained. “More than you know.”

“Good.” John turned to look at their chairs again as an awkward silence stretched about between them. Jesus, had he really punched Sherlock the first time around? He stuffed his hands in his pockets, suddenly desperate for a change of topic. “I just realized I’ve no fucking clue who the current prime minister is.”

Sherlock laughed, and the sound of it resonated in John’s chest. “I’ve deleted it, so I’m no help there.”

John grinned at him, relieved. “So some things haven’t changed.” He crossed to sit in his chair again and sat, feeling lighter than he had done in days. Hell, months. He reached for his teacup again. “You defeated Moriarty in the end, though. Did he really shoot himself in the head?”

Sherlock’s lips pressed together and he looked away. “Some parts of the plan didn’t go exactly the way I’d anticipated.”

“And his network?”

“I thought I’d taken them all out, but Moriarty was even more clever than I’d given him credit for. And that’s what we’ve been working on this last year and a half.”

John felt a pulse of excitement. “Is that how I wound up falling from the roof of a garden shed?”

One corner of Sherlock’s lips turned up. “I didn’t expect you to follow me, especially not after forbidding me from doing it.”

John snorted. “Why am I not surprised that you still ignore the advice of your doctor, after all of these years? I suppose you lost the lead you were following.”

Sherlock sat back and crossed one leg over the other. “No, we continued to work on that while you were in hospital. It was a dead end, as it turns out.”

John blinked. “We?”

“Mary and I. She’s a far better climber than you are. I should’ve brought her along in the first place.”

A familiar heat began to build at the base of John’s skull. “You… took my wife back up on the same roof I’d just fallen off of, while I was in a coma?”

“Yes.” Sherlock shrugged casually, but a second later, his expression changed completely. “Oh. Mary. Yes, that’s…” He took a deep breath and looked down into his tea cup.

“What?”

Sherlock took a very long drink of tea and swallowed audibly. “It was her idea; I just followed her.”

“I’m not about to believe that. How the hell did you rope her into a such a ridiculous stunt?”

“None of it came to anything, so it hardly matters now.”

John clenched his jaw for a moment, considering. “You’re right. It doesn’t. It’s not as if I know a thing about her. She could be a former Olympic gymnast for all I know.” An image filled his mind of Mary leaping from the roof of a garden shed, doing an elaborate set of flips, and then sticking the landing.

Sherlock stared back at him for a moment, and then looked away. “How are things with Mary?”

John snorted. “How the hell should I know? She’s a complete stranger to me. I can see that she is someone I could love, but--”

“You do love her. I suppose it hasn’t been easy, but…” Sherlock trailed off as John’s head snapped back around to look at him, and he picked up his tea cup and feigned great interest in its contents once again.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing.”

“No, you started to say something about my marriage not being easy. What does that mean?” He’d had no indication of trouble in any of his interactions with Mary.

Sherlock sighed. “This is not a conversation you should have with me, John.”

“Why not?”

“Mary is my friend as well. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“Since when do you care about appropriate?”

“We agreed we would all be honest with each other, but your memory loss has altered the parameters. Mary and I haven’t discussed—”

John rubbed a hand over his face. “Jesus, Sherlock! I’m stumbling in the dark here, and you’re worried about boundaries? Have you become a marriage counselor in your spare time?”

“It’s a complex situation. That’s all I feel entitled to say.”

“That’s reassuring.” John intended to glare at him, but the expression on Sherlock’s face was so serious that he couldn’t manage much more than a glint of annoyance. “You said there was a case?”

“There is, though you remember none of the details now. To be frank, I’m not sure this is a good time to review them.”

“You think I have anything better to do today?” John sank back into the chair and folded his arms over his chest.

Sherlock stared back at him for a long moment, considering. “That doesn’t mean I couldn’t use your assistance, though.” He stood and untied the sash on his dressing gown, and John found his eyes drawn to his long fingers. “There is something you can help me do this morning.” He slid out of the dressing gown and slung it over one shoulder. “Give me ten minutes.”

John found he couldn’t tear his gaze away from the brilliance of Sherlock’s smile. “Absolutely.”

*****

“I’m a bit out of practice with this sort of thing, but if there’s anything you’re expecting me to do here—”

“I recommend the pastries,” Sherlock replied, eyes fixed on the menu.

“Erm… right.” John glanced around the small cafe. It seemed completely ordinary; there was nothing in the 1980s-era decor that even hinted at illegal activities. A dozen customers were seated at small tables, several with laptops and most with shades of hair not typically found in nature. John looked back down at the menu and wondered how the hell ordering a pastry would help.

“Can I get you boys anything?”

“Yes, I believe you can,” Sherlock said, and it was all John could do not to gape at the tone of his voice. He risked a glance up over the top of the menu to see Sherlock smiling up at the server, a reedy young man with a sideswipe of blue hair and a startling number of piercings in his ears. “What would you recommend?”

The server flashed him a sly grin and cocked out one hip. “The regular coffee is shite, but the espresso drinks are good. If you like that sort of thing.”

“I do,” Sherlock replied, his voice dipping low, and John felt his face heat. Sherlock was flirting with the server. Flirting.

“We’ve got some specials that aren’t on the menu, if you’re interested.”

Sherlock leaned back in his seat and gave the server a very clear once-over with his eyes. “Absolutely.”

The server wet his lips and gave John a quick, almost dismissive glance. “What can I get for you and your boyfriend?”

“I’m not his—” John said automatically, and then stopped himself, something twinging in his stomach. “Coffee, black. And a… pastry. Whatever’s fresh.”

The server nodded, though his attention was fully on Sherlock. “And you?”

“Something sweet. Surprise me.”

“Maybe I will.” The server winked and turned away, more swing in his step than was strictly necessary to walk across a coffee shop.

John blinked after him and then turned to stare at Sherlock. He had no idea what to say to that ridiculous display of… ridiculousness. Sherlock looked up at him then, and John felt himself flush even more.

“What the hell was that?” he finally managed.

Sherlock turned to look appreciatively at the server again, who’d chosen that moment to bend over and wipe a spill off the floor. “What do you mean?”

John opened his mouth and closed it again, and looked ceilingward for a long moment. “Were you… flirting with him?”

“I certainly hope so.” Sherlock tugged his phone from his pocket and tapped furiously at the screen.

“Why?”

“Why not?” He didn’t look up from the screen.

John pressed his lips together and leaned forward a bit, lowering his voice to a whisper. “He’s got something to do with the case, then?”

The server appeared tableside with a tray and Sherlock tucked his phone into his pocket again.

“Black coffee and a cinnamon bun,” he said, setting a mug and a small plate before John, “and something sweet and creamy for you, handsome stranger.” He set a tall glass mug topped with a swirl of whipped cream in front of Sherlock, along with a folded piece of paper. “And strictly off the menu, of course.”

“Of course.” Sherlock swiped a bit of the cream from the top of the drink with one finger and sucked it off, and the server gave him a lascivious wink.

It was all John could do to keep his face impassive. He picked up a fork and stabbed it into the cinnamon bun with far more force than he’d intended. The plate slid perilously toward the edge of the table.

“Let me know if you want anything else.”

“I will,” Sherlock said, and Jesus, John really hadn’t needed to know his voice could sound like that.

When the server was finally out of earshot, he whispered, “What was that about?”

Sherlock tucked the folded note into a pocket without even looking at it. “I wanted his number.” He lifted the mug to his lips and took a careful sip.

John blinked at him. “His number.”

“Yes. That’s what one normally does when faced with an attractive stranger one would like to shag.”

John snorted a laugh before he could stop himself, and then shook his head and looked down again. “You… you’re interested? In him?” He picked up a knife and tackled the cinnamon bun with it.

“I get bored on occasion.”

“And you…” John stopped and shook his head, unable to finish processing the thought. Cinnamon bun. Focus. He sawed off a large chunk and stuffed it in his mouth to give himself time to think. He chewed and swallowed, and took a sip of the shite coffee. “I thought this wasn’t your… area.”

Sherlock set his mug down again. “You’re generally a much better wingman than this.”

John could only gape at him in response. An image of the two of them watching the crowd at a gay bar filled his mind, and he closed his eyes. He had no idea if that was a product of a vivid imagination or an actual memory.

“So,” he began once he was certain his voice would remain steady, “is this something we do often?”

“Yes.” Sherlock pushed his mug away and winced. “I can’t drink any more of that. Ready to move on?” He stood and crossed to the counter to pay, leaving John staring after him.

After a thoroughly nauseating amount of eyesex with the server over the counter, Sherlock turned to John again and said, “Shall we?” as if none of it had happened at all.

John felt like his head was spinning. Was this normal, then? Did Sherlock actually date people, or was it just casual sex he was interested in? When had this started? And was it just men he was interested in? His mind filled with an image of himself and Mary sitting across a table from Sherlock and the server, the four of them enjoying dinner like… couple friends. He felt nauseated all over again.

Sherlock stalked down the pavement in front of him, hopefully oblivious to John’s inner turmoil. Oh, hell — who was John kidding? Sherlock probably found John’s discomfort highly amusing.

He jogged to catch up. “So did he give you his number, then?”

“Probably.”

“And you’re going to… ring him up?”

“I expect so.” Sherlock stared straight ahead, but the corners of his lips twitched just slightly.

John took a deep breath and released it slowly. “So you… date people.”

“I doubt you’d call it dating.”

“What do you call it?” John asked, and winced almost immediately. “Actually, no, don’t—”

“Fucking, while crude, is perhaps a more appropriate descriptor.”

John groaned. “Jesus, Sherlock.”

Sherlock nearly grinned. “Don’t tell me I’ve offended you.”

“No, no. Fuck no, in fact. It’s just that—” John hesitated a moment before continuing. “I thought you were married to your work.”

“I remain so. However, I’m not always faithful.”

John couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I’m sorry, all right? This is all very new to me. I’ve never thought of you as… like that.”

Sherlock turned to look at him. “Yes, you have.”

“I haven’t. Wait, what do you mean?”

Sherlock looked for a moment as if he were about to make a scathing remark, but stopped himself. He sighed and turned the corner at a faster pace, and John had to jog once again.

“When I say I haven’t,” he continued, panting now, “I mean as of my time. I know that—”

“No, you’ve thought about it before then as well.” Sherlock stopped and looked up at the address of the house they were standing under. He fished the folded paper out of his pocket and read it, and then looked up again. “Here we are.”

John glanced at the paper in Sherlock’s fingers. On it was written a street address and what appeared to be a jumble of nonsense words. He frowned. “What the hell is this?”

“The address of our next lead.” Sherlock took a few steps backward to see further up the building. “But how best to enter?”

John stared at him for a long moment, and then it all clicked in his addled brain. “So he wasn’t… you… Oh, God.”

“Former Homeless Network,” Sherlock said, still frowning up at the roof. “He entered some sort of employment training program and got a job at that cafe, but he remains a good informant.”

John laughed, relief sweeping over him. “You are such a cock sometimes. Jesus, you almost had me.”

Sherlock’s eyes sparkled. ”No, John -- I definitely had you.”

John stuffed his hands in his pockets and grinned.

*****