The kitchen table is spotless. Sherlock's chemical equipment has been stowed away under the sink. He pulls it out when he needs it, and then he cleans it and puts it away again. There hasn't been a body part in the fridge for weeks now. Those experiments, he saves for the morgue at St. Bart's.
He has thrown away some of his books. The rest are forming neat rows on the dust-free shelves, carefully sorted and stacked away. His case notes sit in labelled boxes, lining the wall of his bedroom. The other bedroom, the one upstairs, is as neat as any soldier could wish for.
The skull has disappeared from the mantel. So has the knife. All the dishes are clean.
Sherlock thinks John would like the changes he's made, if he were around to see them.
"An engagement ring was presented yesterday," Mycroft says from his place on the sofa. He hasn't sat in John's chair since John moved out. Sherlock can't decide whether or not it's meant as a kindness.
Sherlock says nothing.
Mycroft picks at the smooth handle of his umbrella. It should be cause for triumph, his sudden inability to meet Sherlock's gaze.
"I can find you another flatmate, Sherlock," Mycroft says softly.
Sherlock says nothing.
He's not in the habit of stating the obvious.
The nights are too loud without the sounds of John's nightmares.
What sort of idiot, Sherlock wonders, can so utterly fail to notice that he's losing something vital before it has left him? It's not unlike failing to notice that one is bleeding out before one's heart is already stuttering to a stop.
In fact, Sherlock muses, four nicotine patches on his arm as he stares at the ceiling, it might be exactly the same thing.
The next day, he bins what's left of the patches.
John never approved of them, and Sherlock figures that one hopeless addiction is quite enough.
|Meet me at the Criterion. Tomorrow. 8 am? John|
Before John's shift at the clinic, Sherlock notes. His hours are far more regular now. He'll be offered a steady job soon, no doubt.
Sherlock's hands are shaking slightly as he types out his reply. Hateful.
John looks… good. Well-rested. Healthy. Sherlock is used to John looking tired all the time.
He hates that he's used to John looking tired all the time.
"John," he says casually, as if they've last seen each other a handful of hours ago instead of several weeks.
"Sherlock," John replies, and he's smiling.
Did Sherlock's heart always perform that odd little leap when John smiled at him?
"What is it, then?" he asks brusquely. Too brusquely. John's smile dims. Sherlock's heart tightens.
"I need your help," John says, and turns to order Sherlock a coffee. Black. Two sugars. John's hand is shaking slightly as it closes around his own cup. Why is it shaking? John's hand never shakes when he is happy. Isn't he happy?
Sherlock doesn't know what to say. He didn't expect a social call after the way he brushed John off the first few times John called. He didn't expect the way his stomach lurches at the thought of John in trouble, either.
When did his body develop a mind of its own? John needs Sherlock's help. This should be cause for glee, not discomfort.
"Of course you do," he manages. Possibly he even sounds as aloof as he means to.
"Come off it," John says, but he's smiling again.
Sherlock completely fails at not smiling back.
John's case is small, insignificant. Someone has been stealing supplies from the clinic. The surveillance cameras show nothing. No one wants to involve the police.
"People would talk," John says with a sigh. "We can't afford that."
'We,' Sherlock notes. Not 'the clinic.'
"Sarah has the only key to that particular closet," he states. John wouldn't have come to him otherwise. "The two of you couldn't afford her flat on your wages alone."
"Right as always," John says. Is Sherlock imagining that wistful tilt to his mouth?
Sherlock's phone chimes before he can spin his deductions into any sort of theory. Lestrade has a far more interesting crime for him to unravel.
"You'll need to tell me about the other employees," Sherlock says, standing. 'Come to the flat,' he wants to add. 'There's milk in the fridge. I'll make the tea.'
"Sure," John says. "Let's meet here again. Tell me when."
Sherlock isn't reluctant to leave.
He isn't disappointed at all.
He leaves takeout boxes all over the kitchen and living room. If John drops by, so what? Sherlock doesn't need him. John will have to accept that his absence hasn't affected Sherlock in any way.
He cleans up the boxes. If John drops by, he will see that Sherlock is willing and able to make an effort.
John doesn't drop by.
They meet up twice more. Once for John to describe the clinic staff and when they were hired. Once for Sherlock to inform him that the receptionist is, in fact, Sarah's half-sister from a different mother and carrying a grudge against the daughter of the woman who made her father leave her behind.
"Obviously," he adds because, honestly, the noses were hard to miss. People are so blind.
"That's marvellous," John says, and Sherlock barely stops himself from preening. It shouldn't matter anymore what John thinks. John moved out.
It doesn't matter anymore what John thinks.
"Hardly," Sherlock says, and suddenly, he cannot do this anymore. He can't pretend they're still flatmates, friends, colleagues. Can't pretend that John didn't leave him behind. Can't pretend that he doesn't want John back.
Can't pretend that it doesn't hurt.
"Excuse me," he says, falling back on politeness as the only thing that hasn't betrayed him yet, "I need…"
He doesn't finish the sentence because he doesn't know what he needs; only that it's not here.
"Sherlock!" John calls after him, but Sherlock ignores him.
He's always been spectacularly good at that.
He trashes the flat.
John's not going to come back, so it doesn't matter how many books end up on the floor, spines broken. Sherlock's not going to find it in himself to apologise for the hundred small ways he made sharing a flat – a life – with him a little harder, so it doesn't matter how many test tubes and beakers shatter into a myriad of shards. They're not going to be friends again, so it doesn't matter that the mattress of John's… that the mattress of the bed upstairs bounces and quivers as Sherlock cuts it into ribbons.
It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Sherlock won't let it matter.
He's never felt so helpless as he does when he cleans it all up again. Hope, the one thing that remained inside Pandora's box. The cruellest of evils.
A man could cry, trying not to hope.
"According to surveillance, the engagement ring has been returned," Mycroft says.
"He's moved in with his sister," Mycroft says.
"For goodness' sake, Sherlock, go and offer him a place on the sofa," Mycroft says, exasperated.
Sherlock strikes the violin strings with his bow; a sharp negation.
"You're being foolish," Mycroft warns.
John moved out because Sherlock was impossible to live with and Sarah was sweet and none of them cared about the things that were broken in the process until well after the fact. That was the foolish thing, and it can't be undone. Sherlock isn't going to set himself up for another rejection.
"Go save the country," Sherlock says. "You're uninvited."
Mycroft snorts. "I was never invited in the first place," he points out, unnecessarily, but he does leave Sherlock alone.
Alone, however, is not exactly what Sherlock wants to be.
He's in Manchester, following a trail after three days of work and no sleep at all, when his sense of self-preservation finally leaves him entirely.
|Your key is still in its usual place.|
He's fast asleep in his dingy hotel room when John replies.
|What the hell happened to my mattress? John|
The kitchen table is spotless. Sherlock's chemical equipment has been stowed away under the sink. His books are forming neat rows on the dust-free shelves.
John has put the skull back on the mantel and Sherlock's case notes clutter up a corner of the living room. There's milk in the fridge, and two cups of tea sitting side by side on the coffee table, steaming.
Sherlock stands in the doorway, blinking fast as he takes in John's laptop on the table, John's jacket over the back of John's chair, John's phone next to the skull. He's rather sure he's smiling, but the expression feels decidedly wobbly on his face.
"How was the case?" John asks. His eyes are a tad too bright. He looks nervous.
"We're both too stubborn for our own good," Sherlock states. "Obviously."
"Obviously," John agrees. His hands are folded behind his back, his posture that of perfect parade rest.
"Welcome back," Sherlock says softly.
"Welcome home," John replies. Sherlock has to blink again.
"You're staying, of course," he says, and it's far too close to being a question, but he needs to be sure.
"If you'll have me."
"Only an idiot wouldn't have you," Sherlock says, too quickly, and now it's John's turn to blink. Then he smiles, clear and bright, and it's like a miniature supernova quietly explodes in Sherlock's chest.
"You are an idiot, though," John points out. Stepping closer, and Sherlock's eyes flutter shut well before John's mouth brushes against his own, but not before his fingers clutch at John's indescribably plain jumper.
If Sherlock had a box to keep, he sometimes thinks, John would be the only good thing kept inside.
He's not letting go again.