The television is on, the sound turned low - just the exact volume for it to be a comfortable, comforting background noise - and Sherlock is concentrating on the email he’s writing to a potential client, but he still registers the soft sounds of the front door opening and closing. His fingers freeze on the keyboard. Mrs Hudson is at home, he knows. The only person, apart from himself, who still has keys is John. It’s nearing midnight; John never comes so late, unless there is a case and Sherlock called him. There is only one possible explanation: something’s wrong.
Sherlock springs up and throws the door open. John is in the middle of the darkened staircase and starts at the sudden burst of light. Sherlock cannot see his face, but he’s standing upright and he’s climbed the stairs at his normal pace, so he cannot be badly hurt, but Sherlock runs down to meet him anyway.
“What happened?” he blurts out, and somehow his hands are on John’s shoulders, on his face, touching him, making sure he’s alright. “Are you hurt?” It would make no sense for John to seek out Sherlock if he was hurt, so of course he isn’t, but knowing that doesn’t make Sherlock panic any less.
John just shakes his head and continues climbing the stairs. Following him, Sherlock notices the slight stiffness in his left leg. The psychosomatic limp doesn’t return unless John is in a lot of emotional pain - like when he got a call that Harry was in hospital with liver failure. Something bad has happened. Was it Mary? John would never seek comfort with Sherlock if he could go to Mary instead. It must be Mary.
John stops in the doorway and turns to Sherlock without looking at him. His face is ashen. He looks ten years older than the last time Sherlock saw him - a little over 52.5 hours ago.
“Can I sleep here tonight?” John asks, his voice hollow, and something in Sherlock’s chest clenches; John should never sound like that, look like that, Sherlock wants to find what’s causing him distress and destroy it immediately, but the only thing he can do is to whisper, “Of course,” since the room upstairs is still John’s, will always be John’s; even when John gets married and moves to the country and forgets about 221b Baker Street and crime fighting and Sherlock, it will still be his.
Sherlock opens his mouth to ask what is going on, but before he has a chance to say anything, John whispers, “Mary and I have broken up.”
A voice in Sherlock’s head sings, I knew she wasn’t good enough for him, well done, another brilliant deduction. Another part of Sherlock doesn’t care about deductions and just wants to find Mary and kill her, because he’d warned her not to hurt John and she did it anyway. The rest of Sherlock doesn’t care about Mary either and only wants John to stop looking like his world has just fallen apart.
He wants to say something, do something, anything, to help, but he doesn’t know what, he’s never been good at this. He doesn’t know how to comfort people. (John, not people. He doesn’t want to comfort other people.) He hesitates, but John doesn’t seem to expect anything from him and enters the living room, sinks to the sofa, hiding his face in his hands.
Sherlock hesitates some more, and then decides to make tea. John always likes tea, under any circumstances. He puts the kettle on and pulls out John’s favourite brand of Earl Gray, and his mind is spinning fast.
Sherlock has only had to go through a breakup once, but he had been expecting it and also getting bored with Victor for some time, so it wasn’t really distressing at all. This was very different. It must have been all Mary’s doing and John couldn’t have suspected anything - it was only a week ago that Sherlock saw him looking at engagement rings (he remembers averting his gaze, pretending not to see, pretending not to care). Mary has broken it off, then, very suddenly, and...
Oh. Sherlock remembers the times in the last few weeks (months?) when Mary deliberately avoided him. Suddenly remembered a prior engagement and ran off. He didn’t really notice it - he and Mary aren’t exactly the best of friends and they only get along because of John, so Sherlock really didn’t mind when instead of dining with John and Mary, he only dined with John. He preferred it that way (he wished it could always be that way). He didn’t care about why Mary wasn’t there if it meant he had John for himself (had the illusion of having John to himself). But Mary had had a reason for avoiding him; that was clear now: she was afraid that what John had missed, Sherlock would notice.
She’s been seeing someone else. Sherlock couldn’t say for how long, but long enough.
Sherlock used to have an above-average opinion of Mary’s intelligence, but it was abundantly clear now that she was an idiot, because who in their right mind would cheat on John? Doesn’t she know that John is the best thing that ever happened to her? That will ever happen to her?
He prepares the tea exactly as John likes it and carries it to the living room. John hasn’t moved. Sherlock sets the mug down on the coffee table in front of John and sits down next to him. John doesn’t react.
“I made you tea,” Sherlock says, and it’s a remarkably stupid thing to say. He wishes he was someone else, someone who could be the friend John deserves, someone who could help him. John makes a muffled sound in response, and doesn’t move.
Sherlock lays a careful hand on John’s shoulder. John doesn’t flinch or shrug him off and Sherlock decides it’s a good sign. Sherlock remembers John rubbing his back to calm him when he was tense and unable to solve a case, he remembers that it helped (though it was perhaps not due to the rubbing itself but to the fact that it was John doing it). Maybe it could help John too.
He moves his hand between John’s shoulder blades and starts drawing small, misshapen circles. He hopes it’s enough to let John know that Sherlock is here for him, always, even if he doesn’t quite know how to say it.
John’s muscles don’t relax under Sherlock’s touch, and Sherlock is not surprised. He knows only too well what it feels like to love someone who doesn’t love you back, but he’s never had a reason to hope his feelings were returned. How much worse must it be, to be allowed to taste the other person’s love and then have it taken away? Sherlock hates that John has to go through it, John, who should be loved by everyone. He hates Mary for inflicting this kind of pain on John. He hates himself for not being able to stop it.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” he asks softly. Is it the right thing to do? Maybe he should rather be trying to take John’s mind off the matter...
John shakes his head and draws a deep, shaky breath. “Later,” he whispers, and it’s barely a word.
“Okay,” Sherlock nods and continues to rub John’s back, even though he can see it’s not helping at all.
“John,” Sherlock says after a while, when John’s breathing doesn’t grow any calmer. “Is there anything I can do?” John always knows what to do in those situations when Sherlock’s at a loss. Sherlock has nobody else to ask.
John lets his hands drop. His eyes are red and wet. Sherlock wants to take him in his arms and hold him close and protect him from the world, but he doesn’t think John would like that.
John shakes his head again.
“I think... I’ll just go to bed. I need to be alone for a while.”
“Of course,” Sherlock agrees immediately and takes his hand away from John’s back. He assumed John came to Baker Street because he wanted Sherlock’s presence, but of course it was only because he has nowhere else to go. He wants to be alone. Sherlock has probably only been making it worse.
“I know where clean sheets are,” John says, without looking at him, and gets up. Sherlock doesn’t know what to say. In the end, he settles for, “Aren’t you going to drink your tea?”
John stops and picks up the mug.
“Thank you,” he breathes, and smiles tightly. It’s the saddest thing Sherlock has ever seen.