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The Imposter

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 “And what about John Watson?” he asks, calculatedly casual. Mycroft has sense enough to act surprised.

“John?”

“Mm,” Sherlock affirms, checking the mirror again, and it seems as if he is displaying his vanity but really he is reminding himself that he has survived. “Have you seen him?”

Mycroft’s reply is sarcastic. “Oh, yes, we meet up every Friday for fish and chips.” His pretty assistant hands Sherlock a file folder and Mycroft’s voice changes pitch and tempo ever-so-slightly as he says, “I kept a weather eye on him at first, of course.”

Sherlock opens the folder. Printed reports and handwritten notes, but on top of it all, a photo of John, standing outside a coffee shop—not one Sherlock recognizes—in an army surplus coat too big for him, holding a brown paper bag in the shape of a fifth of whisky in one hand and in the other, a plastic carrier bag stuffed with what looks like rags. John is uncharacteristically slumped at the shoulders, back rounded, eyes down. He looks terribly small.

“At first?” Sherlock somehow keeps the rising panic out of his throat.

Mycroft’s tone is dire. “You know alcoholism runs in his family. And how he suffered with the aftereffects of his military service.  Once I realized what was happening, I tried to intervene, offer help—“

“You should have told him,” Sherlock accuses, and slaps the folder against Mycroft’s chest so that he is forced to take it or else let it fall.

Mycroft goes on as if Sherlock is not furious, as if he has not even spoken. “He waved me off, and not long after, he just—”

Sherlock’s mind is tracing every possible outcome for John in the wake of his “death,” every fork in the trail a choice between a way on with his life, or. . .

Mycroft finishes, “Vanished.”

“That’s ludicrous.”

“He left the flat, abandoned what few contacts he had—his therapist, acquaintances, former work colleagues—slowly emptied his bank accounts, and then he was gone. There are parts of the world invisible even to me, brother mine.”

Sherlock sees too clearly: John with paltry savings and no source of income; John grieving; John seeking comfort at the bottom of a bottle; John unable to live with the memories at 221B Baker Street; John with no one to turn to; John abandoning hope. What Sherlock does not think about—not yet—is how this is wholly his fault; that he made a grave miscalculation two years ago by keeping John in the dark. He cannot let himself think about this because it will ruin him and right now he must focus on a single mission: he must find John Watson, and bring him home.

*

Jack has been sleeping rough for two weeks, since the weather became bearable outdoors overnight. He avoids the mens’ shelter when he can. Too little sleep, constantly on guard against his meager possessions being robbed, awakened every hour by the sounds of the young ones being fucked—not always by choice—or the gibberish shouts of the mad ones. And the stink of the place—he’d slept in rubbish skips that smelled better. He wakes up beneath a boxwood hedge in a small park, just a strip of green and a few metal benches, a dividing mark in a four-lane road. His hips and shoulder ache with cold (tolerably warm and actually warm are two quite different things). He gives his jaw and cheeks a thorough scratch beneath his beard, then unwraps his tattered sweatshirt from around the plastic carrier bag that has served as his pillow. Inside the bag, all his worldly possessions: a notebook half full of his scrawled notes and lists and unsent letters, two pencils and a pen, pants and socks they dole out new at the shelter once a month, and his pocket knife.

He moves from the ground to a nearby metal bench, folds his sweatshirt. He counts the socks: six. Counts the pants: three. Counts the pencils: two, and the pen: one. He lays each item in a neat pile atop the folded sweatshirt as he goes. Knife: one; open, close, open, close, open, close. Notebook: one. He counts the pages: one-hundred, sixteen. He gave one to the social worker at the shelter last month (two sides, one-hundred, eighteen) and one to young Mouse day before yesterday (two sides, one-hundred, twenty). All accounted for, he tucks the lot back into his bag. Jack reaches inside his coat for a bottle in a paper bag, rinses his stale mouth and swallows with a grimace. In his jeans’ pocket is three pound, eighty.

An hour later he is in a different park, where Mouse is, with her friends Jessie and Mac. They’re good kids. Funny. Young hippie-punks, Jack supposes. The four of them pass around a bottle and a paper bag of last night’s bread from the skip behind a restaurant. Mac pipes up, “Heard Holmes is back, doling out cash.”

Jessie laughs at this. “Yeah, I heard that every few weeks for a year, mate. Don’t hold your breath.”

Jack chews his bread roll thoughtfully. “You know, we were partners,” he says, staring at the sky. “Me and Sherlock Holmes.”

The three kids stare at him for a long, silent moment.

“Mad ol’ git!” Mac guffaws, and playfully punches Jack on the arm. They all laugh, and Jack joins in. “You’re a fuckin’ joker, you are!” The kids shake their heads.

Jack counts the eyelets on Mouse’s black leather boots, one-two-three-four-five-six, one-two-three-four-five-six, one-two-three—

“Here he goes with the numbers, as well,” Jessie teases; Jack did not think he had been counting out loud, and he stops.

“Shut up, you,” Mouse defends. She lays a hand on the threadbare knee of Jack’s jeans, shakes his leg in a friendly way. “You’re aw’right, old man. You’re just fine.”

*

“Dunno,” shrugs the kid—public school boy disowned by his parents when they found out he was dating his polo coach, who of course was married and turned his back on the boy, which is how he ended up for rent by the hour—and hands the photo back to Sherlock. “He looks a bit like this bloke called Jack I ran into a couple times. But Jack’s much older.”

“This picture’s a year old,” Sherlock says, though it’s a meaningless distinction. “Who’s Jack?”

“Quiet, keeps himself to himself. Drinks a bit. And he’s mad.”

Sherlock purses his lips. He gives the kid a handful of photocopies. “Show these around, my number’s there, be in touch if anyone knows anything.” He reaches into his trousers’ pocket, takes a note off the folded stack in his gold money clip. “Here’s fifty. Get a room and a meal. Take a night off. You have a pimp?”

“Naw.”

“Try to keep it that way. Be careful.” He pockets his money, gestures again at the photos of John. “Anything at all—I want to hear it.”

*

Mouse has the newspaper. The rumours about the return of Sherlock Holmes have persisted—if anything, have increased—over the course of the past two weeks. Jack stares at the sky.

“Look, Jack,” Mouse is saying, and he barely hears her because he is counting the words of a song he used to love. “Looks like it’s true, yeh? Sherlock Holmes is back.” She shoves the folded paper across the table. “Says there he faked his death, innit?”

Jack glances at the photo. “That’s not Sherlock Holmes.”

“It is, though. Look close, Jack.”

He shakes his head, hands the paper back to her. “You think I wouldn’t know him? I buried Sherlock Holmes under a black stone with his name on it. I slept on his grave. Looks like him—I’ll give you that—but that’s not him.”

“Then who is it?” Mouse asks, meekly. She looks worried.

Jack just shrugs.

*

Another week passes with nothing useful. Sherlock has demanded Mycroft assign people to review CCTV footage, looking for evidence of John.

“You know, Sherlock, it’s as likely he’s left London as not. And I know you don’t want to hear it, but of course, you’re aware he could be—“

“He’s not dead. And he is in London.”

Sherlock passes Mycroft an envelope, soft at the edges. Inside is a note, in jittery handwriting.

Thanks for sending along the cash; it did help. But I don’t believe in ghosts.

*

The knocker is off-kilter. The door might have been repainted since he’d closed it for the final time; it looks less battered than he remembers. Jack counts the rectangles in the pavement.

And now here he is, the doppelganger. The imposter. Oh, but Jack’s heart aches because he does look like him. Whoever he is, he looks so very much like him. What a trick. How did They do it? He is walking, and his gait is so similar it could almost be true. His suit is dark and cut close to his hips, the way Sherlock always had his suits cut. His hair is shorter than it was, but hair changes. The way he holds his phone, the way he handles his house key, the way he mounts the step, it’s so like Sherlock. It could be him. It really almost could be him. But it can’t be. It isn’t.

His heart aches, it really does, but this is not Sherlock Holmes. Jack will go and visit his grave. Then it is a very long walk back to the park where he sleeps.

*

He does look much older, it’s true—older than he did. Older than he is. He must have spent some of the cash Sherlock forwarded to him to get his hair and beard trimmed; it looks neat but there is an alarming amount of grey. His face and hands and the back of his neck are darkly tanned. All his frown lines are deeper. His clothes are too big; his boots are held together with tape. Sherlock watches him come awake, sitting up on the flattened cardboard box that has kept him off the pavement all night.

“Hello, John.”

John’s gaze lands on Sherlock and his face is impossible to read. John Watson, who never had a flicker of thought, a glimmer of emotion, that didn’t show immediately and plainly on his wide-open face, is blank as a wall.

John clears his throat, ends up coughing. He says not a word, looks down, and starts fiddling with the contents of a plastic shopping bag.

Sherlock waits.

John does not acknowledge him, doesn’t look at him again. After several minutes of arranging and rearranging and counting—under his breath, but aloud—his pencils (three), his clean socks (two), the pages of his notebook (one-hundred, fourteen), John gets to his feet with a mild groan and a grateful stretch. And now, to Sherlock’s utter surprise, he is leaving.

“John.”

John turns, a pale echo of his former soldierly pivot. Everything about him says that he is tired beyond tired. John squares himself to Sherlock, sitting on a park bench with one ankle resting atop the other knee, but he does not look at Sherlock’s face, only at the ground to his left and in front of him.

“You’re not him,” he mutters. “I don’t. I don’t know how. It’s a trick.” He sounds more agitated the longer he speaks, not angry, but protesting, huffing annoyance. “I don’t. I don’t.” He waves one hand in the air; his fingers are shaking as he waves Sherlock away. “You’re not him it’s a trick it’s a trick. I don’t know how They did it but it’s just a trick.”

Sherlock longs to get up, to go to him, to grab him and shake him and smash their mouths together and hold him hard. Sherlock doesn’t move.

“I promise, John. It’s not a trick.”

“I’m called Jack.”

“But you’re not Jack. You’re John Watson.”

“You’re not him. You’re not Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is dead he’s dead he’s dead. You sound like him but—” John is rocking slightly, left to right, and he shakes his finger in Sherlock’s direction—naughty, trying to fool me—but still won’t meet his eyes. “I know you’re not him.”  Sherlock doesn’t know how much longer he can stand it, how much longer he can keep still.

“I’m not asking anything of you, John. I just want to give you some money.” Sherlock goes slowly into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, pulls out an envelope. “And the key to the flat. In Baker Street.”

John huffs hard out his nose, shakes his head tightly, mouth twisting into a disbelieving half-smile, and for just that instant, he is himself again—Sherlock has seen that mannerism before, many times, you’ve got to be kidding.

“I know you probably won’t use it. That’s fine.” Sherlock lays the envelope on the bench beside him. “But you’re always welcome.” He rises steadily to his feet, and despite a stabbing desire to run straight at John, he turns away from him. He walks and walks and doesn’t even hear whether John moves to take the envelope off the bench.

*

Jack waits until he sees the imposter go out, then he lets himself in. He closes the big black door quietly (he was right; it’s been painted) and skips the giveaway stair; the landlady might hear.

The first time, he just stands there in the lounge and looks around, starts at twelve o’clock (the mantel) and lets his eye travel clockwise around the room.  The drapes are open. The desk is still messy; the laptop there is a different one, slimmer, with a bigger screen. The garish wallpaper is the same. He inhales the smell of the place. He leaves.

The next time, he goes into the bedroom (Sherlock’s bedroom, their bedroom) and sits on the edge of the bed, his plastic carrier bag on the floor between his feet, his hands on his knees. Jack thinks about the imposter in the bed, in Sherlock’s bed, on Sherlock’s side of the bed, and he is so like him, so very much like him, but it’s only a trick and this is no longer their home. Jack can only bear it for two minutes, maybe three, before he retreats. He takes an apple from a bowl on the kitchen table on his way out.

Another week passes and Jack’s desperation makes him bold; the mens’ shelter has been backed up endlessly and anyway Jack can’t stand all the checking in and meeting with a social worker and being lectured about the drink, all of it just to get a tepid shower with a bar of soap too small for his hand. He uses the key, skips the giveaway stair, goes straight to the bathroom for a shower. There are clothes—not his, but his sort—folded on the edge of the sink, and shoes lined up neatly beneath it. He wants to refuse them but in the end the idea of putting his filthy things back on his clean body is more than he can stand, and he puts on the new clothes, eyes and nose prickly with gratitude. The steam has loosened his lungs and he coughs and coughs. He combs his hair into place with his fingers, doesn’t linger on his reflection because he looks so little like the self he remembers that too long in the mirror makes him wonder if somehow They have replaced him with an imposter, too.

When Jack steps out into the flat—he should have guessed—here he is, in Sherlock’s favourite chair, pretending to be busy with his phone. Jack stands frozen at the edge of the lounge, his plastic bag now full to overflowing since he folded his dirty clothes into it.

“If you’d like, you can leave your clothes for Mrs Hudson to wash,” the lookalike offers in Sherlock’s voice—how is it Sherlock’s voice? It’s awful, this trick, it’s cruel to have him talk in Sherlock’s voice that way, breaking Jack’s heart. “You could come back and pick them up next time you visit.”

“No,” Jack answers, and he can only look at the imposter out of the corner of one eye. “Thanks, no.” He starts to count the repeat in the wallpaper, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four, three-two—

“John, I’d like to make a deal with you.”

John makes that half-smiling huff of skepticism again. “Call it a deal. It’s a trick.”

“No.” Sherlock keeps his voice smooth and low. John, in a woven shirt with the creases still folded in, in a soft thin cardigan, sturdy leather shoes, smelling of Sherlock’s own shampoo, even underweight and tan and bearded still manages to be exactly as Sherlock remembers him,  just as Sherlock has longed to see him. Sherlock’s fingers twitch with wanting to touch him. “It’s not a trick. Hear me out.”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“Stay here for a week—you can have your old room upstairs, you can even lock it if you want to—just a week, and let me prove that I’m not trying to trick you.” Sherlock watches John consider this, and vaguely he wishes it were winter so it would be harder for John to say no to a safe place to sleep. John’s left hand is in perpetual motion, fingers rolling and squeezing against his tremor.  Sherlock says, “Please.”

John’s face contorts then, just briefly, and he looks in absolute agony. It puts a stone in Sherlock’s chest. Face settling back into its mild frown, John says, “Why would I— A week.”

“I’ve done all I can at this distance to show you who I am. That I care for you,” Sherlock says carefully. “I just thought that if we spent some time together here—it’s our home, John—maybe then you’ll know it’s really me.”

John licks his lips, twitches his nose in a circle. “Yeah, all right,” he says, but he is turning toward the landing. “Got some things to do though. Today. Right now. I’ll come back.”

“All right,” Sherlock acquiesces, and he still has not moved from his chair, has not even re-crossed his legs, so afraid to spook John, scare him away.

“Yeah, OK.” And John leaves.

*

Sherlock has been reading about paranoia, delusions, delirium tremens. He goes to Mycroft’s office.

“John doesn’t believe I’m Sherlock Holmes. He thinks I’m an imposter, that you—or someone, he only ever says, ‘They’—planted a double, trying to fool him.”

“And has he also told you about the microwave implant aliens sewed into the back of his neck when they abducted him?”

Sherlock glares.

 “Are there things only the two of you would know?” Mycroft redirects, and it is mostly rhetorical.

“Only a few,” Sherlock admits. “You, with your eyes in the skies.”

“You should have drawn the drapes, brother mine.”

Sherlock sits in Mycroft’s office—he’s not sure how long—considering his options.

*

It is nearly midnight when John comes in. Sherlock is lying on his bed, half-reading a book, half-dozing. He adjusts the cuff of his dressing gown to cover a scar. John sets his carrier bag on the kitchen table, gets a glass from the cupboard, runs the tap. A half-minute, the glass set inside the sink, John picks up his bag and Sherlock hears him go up the stairs. John doesn’t shut his door.

Sherlock sets his book aside, turns out his lamp. He has left pyjamas, more clothes, another pair of shoes for John in the upstairs room. He closes his eyes, listens. Muffled thuds above him. Then, to Sherlock’s surprise, John is descending, bare feet on the stairs, no rustle of the ever-present plastic bag. He goes into the bath and shuts the door; there is a hazy glow of light though the door adjoining Sherlock’s bedroom. Water running, splashing. John is washing his face, cleaning his teeth with the toothbrush Sherlock has left by the sink for him.

The door opens, the light dies, and John walks around the bed—sure of himself even in the dark, this was their room, he walked this route every night for over a year—and the mattress dips as he lies down beside Sherlock.

Sherlock holds his breath.

At last, John says, “I know They probably told you I’m a drunk, but I’m not.”

“I’m glad.”

Another long silence. Sherlock can hear his eyelashes smash together when he blinks.

John starts murmuring rhythmically, just lips and breath, counting.

“Can I touch your hand?” Nothing since that awful day has felt so much like dropping, hurtling into thin air.

John clears his throat, coughs a bit, then says, “Yeah, OK.”

Sherlock’s left hand leaves his side, sliding across the mattress, slowly, until he feels the edge of John’s pinky finger. Sherlock slides his own little finger over it, catching it, just lightly. The stone that was earlier in his chest has lodged in his throat and he bites hard on his lips to keep from sobbing out loud.

“Your finger’s bent the same way Sherlock’s was,” John whispers, and sniffles.

Sherlock wants to writhe, wants to howl and claw at his skin. His stomach is sick. A tear rolls hot from the outer corner of his eye into his ear. But he keeps still and silent.

John moves his hand then, and Sherlock wants to shout, don’t go!, but he isn’t withdrawing. John’s hand slides fully beneath Sherlock’s palm, and Sherlock sinks his fingers between John’s. Sherlock has never in his life so longed to collapse to his knees in his gratitude.

“I wish you were him,” John whispers then, and his throat is ragged, and he clears it, but it is still just as raw when he says, “I miss him so much.”

They stay there, with their hands stacked and fingers woven together, for longer than Sherlock can reliably calculate. John sniffs and clears his throat; Sherlock turns his head to wipe tears onto the pillowslip. Neither of them sleeps.

*

Jack spends the first two days just touching things in the flat. He counts the teaspoons in the drainer, the buttons on the imposter’s shirt. He has agreed to let him go on calling him John, and Jack is nearly used to it even though no one has called him that in a very long time. He takes very long showers twice a day. He sits in the familiar old chair and writes in his notebook.

Late on the second day, the imposter is on the sofa with his feet on the coffee table (his toes are so like Sherlock’s: impossibly long, with a few wiry hairs on the knuckles of the big toes—how did They make him so much like Sherlock?) and a physics journal in his hands. He looks at Jack and gives a little smile, and Jack holds his gaze for a beat longer than he has since that first time the lookalike showed up in the park, with his envelope and key. The imposter pats his thigh: an invitation.

Something comes unhooked inside of Jack’s chest, Sherlock used to do that, but he is stood there in the lounge, frozen in panic. They know because of the brother’s cameras, the drapes that were nearly always left open. They told him to do it because Sherlock did it.

“No?”

Even though it’s not Sherlock, it looks and sounds and smells and feels so much like him. And the part of Jack that was John just misses him so much, just aches and aches for him, for that bent pinky finger, for that pat on the thigh. Jack goes to the sofa and slowly stretches across it on his side, with his head resting on that warm thigh, with those elegant, long fingers trailing through his hair. The imposter offers John his tablet computer from the nearby side table.

“There’s a Bond film you must have missed.”

Jack takes it, strokes it to life with one finger. It’s been a long time, but it’s mostly the same. “We’ll watch it together?”

“Mm,” the imposter agrees, and sets his journal aside. Jack sets the tablet at an angle on the coffee table.

“See OK?” Jack says.

“Fine.” He keeps stroking his fingertips in languid, endless swirls along Jack’s scalp, and Jack blows a soft, long sigh out his nose. “Not sure about the beard.” A gentle joke, as if he is allowed jokes like this. Sherlock would have hated the beard. More than two days’ stubble and he pouted.

Jack says, “It was just easier.”

The long fingers slide down the back of Jack’s head and come to rest on the back of his neck, edging his shirt collar aside.

Jack hasn’t had a drop to drink in three days. His head aches a bit, and his gut is a wreck but getting better. He really isn’t a drunk, admittedly not for lack of trying. The imposter’s other hand descends briefly to scratch his knee. Something catches Jack’s eye and he bolts upright, first to the edge of the sofa, then up to his feet. He wheels, backing away, pointing an accusing finger at the imposter’s wrist.

“He doesn’t have that scar. Sherlock doesn’t have a scar like that, like you’ve got.”

His hands go up as if in surrender. “John,” he says. His cuffs have slipped down. Both his wrists bear scars all the way around, pink and raw and new.

“John, let me explain.”

“I know every mark on his body,” Jack’s heart is pounding, he let himself be fooled by fingers in his hair, just that, so stupid. “Appendix scar, birth mark on his ankle, five moles on his throat—“

“I have them.” He criss-crosses his arms at his waist, yanks out his shirttails, pulls his shirt up and off. “See?” He points to the appendectomy scar on his belly, bares his throat.

Jack can’t help it; he is counting the moles on his neck. One-two, threefourfive. One-two, threefourfive.

“I was—“ the imposter starts, and presses the heels of his hands against his eyes.

Something occurs to Jack, a flash of memory. “Let me see your eyes,” Jack demands then, gruff and loud.

The hands drop, the horizontal creases appear at the bridge of the nose.

“Let me—“ Jack moves closer, then back again. It’s not proof. He’s so like Sherlock in so many ways, surely They could fake it. But he steps forward again.

The ersatz-Sherlock gets up to kneel on the coffee table, keeps his hands at his sides. “Yes. Please,” he says. “Go ahead, look.”

Jack takes another step closer, and looks hard at the imposter’s eyes. Not into them, just at them, studying, searching, even though it’s not proof.

But there it is.

A childhood injury left Sherlock with a tiny black dot in the iris of his left eye, like a freckle, findable only through cued searching, or intense gazing.

Jack holds the imposter’s face in his hands, fingers digging probably too hard into the back of his scalp. He stares at the dot in the eye and his gut roils because Sherlock Holmes is dead; this is not him because it cannot be him. Jack’s gaze shifts from looking at the eyes, to looking into them, and jesus he looks at me the way Sherlock looked at me when we were at our worst, when he wanted to fix it but didn’t know the words to use, how did They do this, what a trick this is, why would They do this to me when I am already ruined?

He shifts his gaze again and starts to count the imposter’s eyelashes. Onetwothreefourfivesixseven

“John.”

Eightnineteneleven

The imposter grabs him by the wrists and Jack jumps back like he’s been burned.

“I have to go.”

“You promised me a week.”

Jack shakes his head. His left hand is shiver-itching with tremor. He wants a drink.

“Just a week. You’re a man of your word, John Watson, and you promised me a week.”

Jack wants to flee; his bag is upstairs, his notebook and pencils.

“There are things—“ the lookalike sputters, and he has his hands clasped in front of him like he is begging, “There are things only you and I know, and I can prove to you that I’m real—it’s me. John. It’s really me. Just—“ he sits back on his heels, still kneeling on the coffee table. “Just give me time. There’s so much to explain.”

“There’s nothing like that—that only Sherlock and I knew,” Jack protests. “Because of the brother and the cameras and the spying.” He points at the windows. “Because the drapes were always open.”

“You know there are.” Sherlock is holding back; John is nearly ready to accept it, but not quite. Sherlock can see there is a war going on in John’s head, in his heart, and even though his face is still closed off and cloudy, the battle shows in his bright blue eyes. Sherlock will wait him out. He just needs a little more time. Just the week.

Jack tugs at his beard, something to occupy his tremoring hand. “I have to go,” he says again. He looks at the ceiling; his things are upstairs in that other bedroom. “Just for now.”

The imposter acquiesces, moves off the coffee table back onto the sofa. He nods but doesn’t say anything, doesn’t try to meet Jack’s eye.

*

John stays away from the flat the rest of the day, the whole night, most of the next day. Sherlock doesn’t worry because in under ten minutes he has a report from his homeless network about where John is (a park three miles distant), with whom (some teenage runaways), and what he is doing (passing around a bottle, doling out cash from his trousers pocket).

Sherlock texts his brother.

He’s starting to doubt his conviction that I’m an imposter.—SH

Good for you both.

What did he say to you, when he waved you off?—SH

That he wasn’t an alcoholic. That I shouldn’t feel obligated; we weren’t family anymore. Told me to leave him alone.

What did you make of that? John saying you “weren’t family”?—SH

I wrote it off to his delusions, and some misguided affection perhaps.

Sherlock lays his phone aside, drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. He stays that way for quite a long time, until the light through the drapes is at an extreme slant and the air in the flat cools. When John comes in, he has a plastic carrier bag in each hand—dinner. He unpacks it onto the kitchen worktop, white foam containers wafting aromas of turmeric and ginger, jasmine and hot chilies.

Sherlock watches; neither of them has said anything. Back-of-mind deductions flicker briefly through his thoughts: John had only a few obligatory slugs from whatever bottle he’d been seen sharing, hadn’t had a drink since yesterday; he’d given away most of the cash he’d been carrying and spent what was left on this food; he’d slept indoors, but not at the shelter.

John stands there, palms flat on the countertop, head dropped forward on his neck.

Sherlock says, “I thought the food poisoning you had after we ate at Joti Palace put you off Indian food forever.”

“Sherlock likes it.” He corrects himself: “Liked it.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to this. It’s not the most pleasant of memories—John had barely made it up the stairs before vomiting into the kitchen sink, then spent the next 16 hours groaning on the bathroom floor between bouts of violent retching—but it was one of those things that only the two of them would know.

“I do, I like it,” Sherlock says. “Thank you.”

There is another pause; John puts his hand on the cupboard’s pull but doesn’t open it. He blurts, “I need you to kiss me.”

Sherlock’s stomach is suddenly a hollow keg full of frustrated moths. He worries the cuticle of his thumb with the nail of his forefinger but otherwise is still.

John turns toward him, then, ghost of a grin hovering on his lips. “I’ll clean my teeth first.”

Sherlock can’t help but smile. “I’ll do the same.”

John tips his head toward the loo and Sherlock follows him. They crowd together by the sink, not touching, but Sherlock has a full-body memory of so many mornings like this: one shaving, one showering; taking care not to spit the mouthwash on the other’s head; kicking aside wet towels and complaining about the steam on the mirror. They brush and spit, swish, then spit again. It’s so comfortable and so bizarre, all at once, Sherlock feels as if he is standing on slanted ground until John says, “You use three towels when you shower, like he used to. How did They know to tell you that?”

“No one told me, John,” Sherlock says, and he hazards to inch a bit closer so that now they are nearly chest to chest. He looks hard into those bright blue eyes—god how he’s missed them—and his hand is shaking as he reaches up to brush John’s fringe across his forehead. “It’s me.”

A ragged, lump-in-the-throat whisper: “I wish that were true.”

Sherlock’s gaze drops from John’s serious, tormented eyes down to his thin lips, mid-pink and with tiny vertical cracks from too much sun. The silvered ginger hairs above his lip, wanting to curl raucously but mostly well-behaved; beard so thick Sherlock can’t see his chin, the square edge of his jaw that Sherlock used to nuzzle up underneath. John’s tongue flashes out, then in, and his lips stay slightly apart, and shine with fresh moisture.

Sherlock’s hands go to the sides of John’s neck, catch his face and spider around, tilting John upward as he leans in, licking his own lips, ignoring the sick feeling blooming between his heart and his gut—it’s me, John, it’s really me—and his mouth alights on John’s mouth, and he nests their lips together, just so, they were made to fit together this way, you have to believe me. . .

Jack’s hands have balled into tight fists at his sides; he wants to be kissed almost as much as he doesn’t want to be fooled. His heart is hammering; he can hear it in his ears. Sherlock held his face like this, sometimes. Sherlock started his kisses with his bottom lip pressed between John’s lips like this, nearly always. Sherlock smelled like this. Sherlock hummed like this.

Jack lets his mouth open, inviting him inside—this man who is so very much like Sherlock—and Jack wants it to be real, he would lie down in the road if that would make it real, he would skin himself, there is nothing he wouldn’t do to have him back. . .even let himself believe that this imposter whose tongue moves anti-clockwise around his, the way Sherlock’s did, is really him, really his Sherlock.

The lookalike is hesitant, but breaks away, his tongue-tip the last to go, and he still holds Jack’s head in his hands, presses his forehead against Jack’s.

“My one and only One. . .” His voice cracks around it. His body is electric-tense and rigid, as if he is holding himself back from some dangerous advance against Jack.

Sherlock always called him that. When they were alone together. In the dark. In a whisper. “I never believed there was a one and only, one right One, before. But it’s so obvious, John. You’re my One.”

How did They—no. They didn’t. They couldn’t have.

Jack is cracking apart. He is thin ice, and the water beneath is a torrent rushing, breaking through.

“Shh. . .” is all Jack can force out between his lips.

John pushes Sherlock back by the shoulders, looks at him hard, and Sherlock does not shy from it. John’s eyes search, zig-zagging, glistening, frantic.

“Something only we know,” John demands, growling, urgent, so desperate Sherlock thinks he will be crushed by the weight of it. “You have to tell me something—“

“We were married,” Sherlock says in a rush, and again he has the sensation of falling from a great height. “In Devon, near a bridge, on a Monday. Just the two of us making promises to each other. We said we’d get rings but we never did.”

John’s shoulders drop and he lets out a moan as if he is in pain. He closes his eyes.

“Look at me. John. Please.”

John does look at Sherlock then, and—suddenly, miraculously—there it is, John’s wide-open face, completely exposing his agony, his relief, furious anger and absolute shock.

“Remember, there were rabbits—“ Sherlock quickly goes on, willing John to stay with him, to believe him, “—a ridiculous number of rabbits, just one after the next—and we laughed about it and you asked them if they had any reason why these two should not be married.”

“Oh god Sherlock. . .” John gusts out, and now he is completely shattering, his face is going pale, and Sherlock slides his hands down John’s shoulders, the length of his arms—grounding him in his body, in this moment, in the world—and takes him by the hands and guides him into the bedroom. Sherlock presses John’s shoulders lightly to maneuver him to sit, crashes to his knees on the floor in front of him. He lays his hands on John’s thighs, looks up at him desperately.

“You believe me,” he insists, afraid of asking. “It’s really me, John.”

“But,” John murmurs, and his hand finds the hollow where Sherlock’s neck meets his shoulder, gripping tight. “How. . .?” His eyes are getting a bit wild again. Sherlock wraps both hands around John’s hand, kisses his knuckle.

“There’s time. I can tell you all of it in time. Just say you believe me.”

“Kiss me again.”

And it is not because John needs more proof. It is because he has been so long without Sherlock—the other half of himself, the One—that he just let it all slide until he had slid himself right into the gutter, surrendered to the wash of grief, all but forgotten his own name. Because who was he without Sherlock? Some lost thing. Some nothing.

He doesn’t wait for Sherlock to rise to meet him, just clamps his palms around Sherlock’s biceps and pulls him up until their mouths meet—harsh and desperate—as if kisses were apologies and recriminations, confessions and testimony. John pulls and pulls, leaning back until he is flat on the bed with the familiar shape of Sherlock settling him into himself, solidifying him. John hears a humming moan from very far away, somehow feels it in his own throat, and now Sherlock is wrapping one long arm around John’s head and saying, “Shhh. . .” against John’s mouth as if John needs comforting, and maybe he does, if that mournful noise came from him.

Sherlock shifts a bit so there is room for expanding chests with hearts inside them hammering as if they will burst through. He slides his head on his neck to brush kisses across John’s mouth, taking sips of John’s breath for his own. He dips his face to nuzzle the tip of his nose into John’s beard, just beside the corner of his mouth, and the smell is familiar although the sensation is novel. John’s hands on his back are very still, only forcing an urgent Down. Closer. Sherlock does his best to comply.

His thigh shifts to settle between John’s thighs, the way it used to. The habits of two bodies that have had time to learn each other: a quirky sort of agreement that this is how we fit together; this is where we belong. Sherlock draws back, finds John’s night-blue eyes still wide open, sweeping, as if he still doesn’t trust what he is seeing. Sherlock litters little kisses on his lips, cheeks, eyelids, the divot beside his nose as he whispers, “What can I do? To make it all right?” He strokes his long, violinist’s fingers down the side of John’s throat.

“Just. . .” John doesn’t know how to answer. Here is Sherlock, with his same unruly eyebrows and his same three—no, four—white hairs in the upper corner of his hairline. His same warmth, same shape, same weight atop and beside him. Same fingers. Same kisses. Sherlock, his miracle, not a trick, saving John from his slide. John drifts his hand across Sherlock’s reassuringly solid back, traces the length of his arm until he has found Sherlock’s hand. Sherlock is pliant, not a moment’s hesitation as John guides his hand upward, holds it between them, thumbs back the shirt cuff.

“Who hurt you?”

John’s voice is dragged out of him across a gravel-lined throat; he barely has breath to force out the rest:

“I’ll kill him.”

Sherlock reclaims ownership of his hand, strokes it down the side of John’s neck. “Shh,” he whispers, and ghosts of kisses alight on John’s cheek and eyebrow. “It’s done. We have time.” John wants to believe that there will be time for explanations, but his brain rebels: Sherlock was dead and time stopped. John is afraid to blink his eyes for fear Sherlock will vanish and the imposter reappear in his place, or worse. John pulls hard at the back of Sherlock’s neck, mashes their open mouths together. This is how desperate I feel; I would eat you alive just to keep you here.

Sherlock answers with thrusting tongue and gasping breaths from the corners of his mouth, a groan that rattles both their bones. When John’s grip on him softens, he draws back and meets John’s eyes, which are wild with a threat to cut John’s mind loose again. Sherlock implores, “John, just be here now. Just stay with me,” he strokes his palm firmly down John’s torso, the mild scratch of his woven button-down shirt a familiar comfort beneath fingertips whose violin-string calluses have softened so much in two years. “You’re safe at home, and so am I.” Sherlock’s nimble fingers go after John’s shirt buttons; he is dizzy with the need for John’s skin—more of his skin, all of his skin, right now, right now, beneath his fingers and palms and lips and naked chest—and Sherlock’s mind is spinning in a way that is familiar, thrilling, electric, but he keeps his voice smooth and low and steady. “Let’s just be here together. Right now. Only right now.”

John nods, gaze a scrambling search of Sherlock’s face. Sherlock can see he still has a doubt, perhaps not even a conscious one, but there it is, and Sherlock resolves to be a blanket for John, to cover and envelop him in here now, to keep him safe, and real, and present. He needs John to believe with his whole being. He needs John. He needs him.

“There are more scars,” Sherlock says quietly. “But I promise I’m all right.”

John swallows hard.

“I promise,” Sherlock repeats.

John nods.

“We’re here now. John.” He doesn’t mean it to sound like an order, John’s name, demanding attention and compliance, but he can hear that it probably does.

John nods again, licks his lips. He’s still nervous;  his hand is tremoring too, though he’s trying to soothe it away, his flattened fingers describing firm circles on Sherlock’s low back. Sherlock has half-opened John’s shirt by now, slides his long palm beneath the button placket and strokes across John’s chest, down his side, can feel his ribs.

“You’re skinny,” Sherlock murmurs, and shifts his body downward to press a kiss to the center of John’s chest, right above his clattering heart.

“I’ve been hungry,” John replies, matter-of-fact, and Sherlock feels something inside himself burst and shatter.

John dips his fingers beneath Sherlock’s belt-line and scrabbles for his shirttails, rucking up the back of his shirt. They make quick work of half-undressing, laughing at the time spent on Sherlock’s cuff-buttons, biting each other’s necks, rushing fingers and moist breath and lips pressing kisses on the familiar and strange geography of each other’s torsos and wrists and throats, inhaling hard the scents of skin and breath and hair.

Sherlock’s teeth are raking, scraping at John’s neck, and John turns his head to dig his nose hard into those sable curls of hair: the absent smell of clean, but deeper and in-between, the sweat of his scalp as his desire rises, dear god it is him, it’s Sherlock, he’s warm and alive and his voice is deep and full of wind, and the span of his hand is cradling John’s head, keeping him present. Here. Now.

John can feel a horror story unfolding beneath his fingertips, gliding them over Sherlock’s back, and his throat thickens and his heart pounds so hard the blood rushing in his ears nearly deafens him. As if he hears it too, Sherlock raises then lowers his body so he is covering more of John, skin to skin, the welcome weight of him reminding John that they are holding each other close, in their own bed, in their own home, and right now their bellies are expanding and contracting together in rhythm, and Sherlock’s mouth is warm and sweet against John’s and he feels panic soaking out of him into the mattress, into the ground.

“Still here?” Sherlock breathes against John’s shoulder.

“Yeah.” John’s hand thrusts beneath the waistband of Sherlock’s trousers, sweeps across warm skin beneath, and he kisses the side of Sherlock’s head. “More of you,” he whispers into Sherlock’s hair. “All of you.”

“Mm,” Sherlock replies, and rolls slightly away to unfasten his trousers, urges John to do the same with fingertips on his wrist, on the buckle of his belt. And then they are together, uncovered, entangled, humming and moaning into each other’s mouths. Their legs are slotted together and the air around their bed smells expectant, inviting, and Sherlock is high on it. John’s eyes are distant; he’s wondering about Sherlock’s scars, about Sherlock’s lies, isn’t sure whether to be angry or merely grateful. Sherlock can see all this in seconds' time and he dips his head to catch John’s gaze. “John,” he says again, firm but quiet. “We’re here now. Close your eyes.”

“Sherlock.”

It’s almost a protest but not quite. John closes his eyes and Sherlock kneels over him, straddling his thighs; both their pricks are half-hard but Sherlock needs to keep John from flying apart and away from him. He rests his palms on John’s shoulders, the familiar shiny-smooth and rumpled skin of John’s starburst scar against the heel of his hand. He waits.

“Tell me what you feel,” Sherlock says quietly, and studies John’s face; there are more lines around his eyes and the ones creasing his forehead have deepened. He has new freckles from the sun. Sherlock waits a few more beats and slides his hands slowly, firmly, down John’s torso, fingers pointing at the mattress, palms curved to follow the rippling ribs.

“Those huge fucking hands of yours,” John says quietly, face relaxing into a small smile. “Warm.”

“Good?”

“Very good.” Tension is melting out of him; Sherlock watches John’s fingers soften and curl.

John exhales a great sigh and his whole body seems to sink a bit. He is inside himself, right here in his body, and he can feel Sherlock’s thighs where they are settled across and beside his own, and Sherlock’s strong, sure hands sliding together now, to rest on his low belly. There is nothing else right now but this: his hands, his heat, the smell of him: salty and bright green. And his voice.

“What do you feel now?”

“Just you. The sweat between us.”

Sherlock’s palms glide upward, chasing each other up the center of John’s chest to rest over his heart, and Sherlock’s weight shifts above him.

“Your breath on my face—in my beard a bit,” John says, and his voice is thick, sleepy-sounding. “Kiss me,” he demands, and immediately Sherlock’s lips are against his, Sherlock’s tongue licks his mouth open and pushes in and John hums contentment. He remembers these kisses, these pretty lips, this insistent tongue. Sherlock’s finger taps his chest, taptaptap, and John leaves the memories aside in favour of this kiss, this moment. Only Sherlock would have known he was drifting.

Sherlock breaks the kiss, keeps his hands planted in the center of John’s upper chest as he slides downward. He blows across John’s nipple, stirring the few wiry hairs there.

“Cold,” John says, and the sharp, damp tip of Sherlock’s tongue flicks over John’s nipple. “Jesus!” He gasps, “Lightning.” Sherlock blows again and the shock of cool breath over the damp sheen of saliva instantly hardens John’s nipple. “Pins and needles,” John breathes, and his hands move to find Sherlock’s body—one landing on his back, the other on his opposite shoulder and John lets his palm drift. There is a ropy scar there, like a worm, slicksmooth and tall. John skids past it to shape his fingers over Sherlock’s tricep. “Scar there,” John whispers.

“Yes.”

They let it pass, and Sherlock’s cheek comes to rest on John’s breastbone, then slides forward.

“Stubble.”

Sherlock’s tongue begins a steady lapping motion, rhythm and moisture and heat and pressure on John’s tightened nipple, which grows more sensitive from the attention.

John sucks breath across his teeth. “Feel that all through me. . .god.”

“Good.”

“Feel it in my cock.”

“Mm.”

Sherlock shifts again, surrounds John’s nipple with wet lips, flicks his tongue, starts to suck.

“Jesus that’s making me hard,” John hears himself mutter, and Sherlock’s hand strokes quick and light down the length of John’s body, then reaches between them to wrap long fingers lightly around John’s aching prick. His suction on John’s nipple is relentless, and now with his hand on John’s erection, John’s hips buck and he nearly shouts, grabs for Sherlock’s wrist. “I won’t last,” he warns, half-smiling, fully desperate.

Sherlock’s satisfied grin breaks the seal of his lips and he tilts his face toward John’s. John’s cock is hot and thick in the ring of his fingers but he keeps still.

“We have time,” Sherlock offers. “We can wait you out, go again in a bit, if you want to come now.” He tilts an eyebrow; John’s eyes are still closed.

“I want—“ John’s hips roll vaguely, seeking friction.

Sherlock centers him with a lingering press of lips in the middle of his chest.

“Tell me,” Sherlock says.

“I want to feel you, Sherlock, my god,” John gusts out. “Inside me. On me. Moving in me.”

“I felt that all the way to my cock,” Sherlock tells him, and keeps one hand on John’s arm, their legs still mostly entangled, as he leans up and over to pull the night table drawer open and reach inside for a packet of slick. “John, my One.” He settles the length of his body close by John’s side, multiple points of contact, and rips open the foil with his teeth, spits the corner of the packet over his shoulder. A quick sloppy squish and he rubs his fingers against his thumb, takes John in hand again with firm, slow strokes. John groans. “Do you want to come first?” Sherlock asks, voice even lower now.

“So good. . .so good. . .Kiss me, kiss me again,” John urges, turning his face toward Sherlock who immediately complies, nesting his lips between John’s, pressing, pulling. John breaks the kiss, panting, “Stop, stop, Sherlock. . .”

Sherlock makes a questioning noise, stills his hand. John mutters, “I want you inside me when I come.”

Sherlock nods against the side of John’s face, and rests the back of a hand against the inside of John’s thigh as he raises it up and to the side, planting the sole of his foot on the mattress. Sherlock props his head on his palm, peppers John’s face with kisses as his fingers tickle their way down through the hair of John’s thigh, between his slightly-spread cheeks, and slide down, then down again, spreading slippery across John’s opening before he finds it with the tip of his middle finger and begins to circle, pressing, massaging, not hurried but determined.

“I can’t wait long,” Sherlock admits against John’s parted lips, and licks them. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Yeah,” John sighs, and pulls Sherlock by the shoulder into a deep kiss. “Yeah.”

Sherlock’s finger presses, twists—spreading the slick—slides deeper inside, and John catches his breath. They go on kissing, and Sherlock grunts out a laugh. “Really not sure about the beard,” he jokes gently, and John rubs his chin against Sherlock’s cheek. Sherlock hums a bit, adds another finger, and John’s eyes come open in pleasant shock. Their gazes meet and Sherlock intones, “Tell me what you feel.”

“You, just you.” John shakes his head a bit, catches Sherlock’s plump lower lip between his own.

“Do I need to use a condom?” Sherlock asks quietly.

John draws his head back, searches Sherlock’s face. “No,” he says, but hesitantly, and Sherlock can see his brain starting to whir again; it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder if Sherlock had been with anyone. Of course it hadn’t.

Quickly, in a low, soothing voice, Sherlock says, “No,” and smiles gently. “No, we’re fine. Stay with me now, John; close your eyes and tell me what you feel.”

John settles, shuts his eyes. Sherlock nuzzles his nose around the shell of John’s ear. His fingers slip easily in and out now, and John is rising vaguely to meet him, so he adds a third, sucking in his breath at the way John opens to him so willingly, even after so long apart.

“I love you,” Sherlock whispers, just breath and no voice because he is so close. “Feels good?”

“Mmm. . .Yeah.” John nods, and his tongue slips out to moisten lips dried by his gusting breath. “I need you. . .need you. . .” his fingers scrabble at Sherlock’s arm, around his back, trying to tug Sherlock onto his chest. “I need the. . .”

“Shh. . .Be here now,” Sherlock soothes.

“I need you to weigh me down,” John says, breathy edge of panic in his voice, but he keeps his eyes closed, tries to stay present—in bed with his Sherlock, who had died, left him to his slide, Sherlock who was dead. . . “I need you—“

Sherlock quickly adjusts their positions, settles his long body straight and flat all along the length of John’s, lifts up on one hand so he can look down into John’s face. John clutches at his back, fingers digging in, palms pressing him closer, closer, drawing the solid weight of Sherlock’s body onto him, to steady him.

“Look here, look at me, my One, my John,” Sherlock croons, and John does look at him, at his silver-green eyes, at the five moles on his neck.

“Sherlock,” John gasps, feels tears pricking at the backs of his eyelids, a lump rising in his throat. “I need you now now now. Sherlock.” He chokes on the lump and there are tears sliding down into his ears.

“Shh, John, hush now,” Sherlock lowers his face to nestle against John’s neck, wraps one long arm around John’s head. “I love you so much. I—“ John feels the rounded head of Sherlock’s cock against his opening, then. “—missed you so much. John. John.” Sherlock’s lips are moving, warm and wet, against the side of John’s throat, and John closes his eyes.

Sherlock pushes into him at last and John lets out a long, low, keening moan. His arms are clamped around Sherlock’s back, pulling him closer, closer.

“John.  .  .John.  .  .My John. My One.” Sherlock is gasping against John’s neck as he slowly rocks into him. “God, I can’t. . .John. . .”

John’s prick is trapped between their bellies; John loosens his grip on Sherlock’s back enough to give himself space, sloppily licks his palm, takes himself in hand.

“Tell me,” Sherlock groans. “Tell me what you—“

“You’re inside me,” John replies immediately, his voice so heavy he can barely lift it out of his chest. “You’re fucking me, you’re inside me, you’re holding me, your breath is. Ahh. Hot. On my neck.” John strokes himself desperately, and Sherlock’s pace quickens.

John is still weeping, breath heaving out in sobs now. “God my cock is so. Hot. Hard. You feel so. Oh. Good inside me.”

Sherlock’s mouth comes open against John’s throat, his tongue swipes messily, his breath gusts in hot wet bursts. “John, Oh. . .”

John plants his feet on the mattress, jerks his hips up to meet Sherlock’s thrusts. “Oh god how—“ John gasps, and sobs, and comes, and Sherlock whines and goes tense and still. John swears he can feel the warmth of Sherlock’s cum washing into him. He dips and turns his head, searching for Sherlock’s mouth. “Kiss me,” he demands once more. “Kiss me. Sherlock. How are you here? Are you real?”

Sherlock scrambles to meet him, opens his lips against John’s mouth, keeps his arm curved around John’s head, chest to John’s chest, weighing him down. Sherlock murmurs into the kiss. “I’m here. We’re here together. We’re safe. I love you. John. We’re home.”

*

They settle into a sticky, sweaty tangle, and it is several long minutes before John’s grip loosens on Sherlock’s back, his upper arm, his thighs between John’s thighs. Sherlock strokes wide, long-fingered palms over John’s arm, his chest, his hair, smoothing out his edges and keeping him safely tethered to the present. They doze, still wrapped up together, and when they awaken it is the dead of night and they roll and stretch against each other, humming, yawning.

They make love again and it is urgent—clutching and grunting and muttering demands—far less tender but somehow just as necessary. When it is over and their breath is still heaving, John’s panting devolves into sobs that absolutely wrack him—he shudders head to foot, wails unabashedly—overwhelmed,  relieved, angry, full of renewed grief, lost. Sherlock holds him through it, whispers to him, gentles him, and eventually John is completely wrung out and sinks limply into the pillow, his head tucked under Sherlock’s chin, with aching eyes and exhausted muscles.

Sherlock says quietly. “When we get out of this bed, we’re going straight out to get those rings. It’s long overdue.” He tangles his fingers up with John’s. “Then straight to the registry office.”

John says, “This is impossible.”

“We’ll sort it out.”

“There’s so much,” John laments. “My head’s not right. And what happened to you?”

Sherlock tips John’s chin up with his forefinger, narrows his eyes in that way that lets John know he is determined and earnest. “We have time. I promise, John, that I will never leave you again.” John’s eyes scan his face intently, searching for verification. “Do you believe me?”

The corner of John’s mouth tics up. “I’m starting to.”