“You... you... you’re not...”
Sherlock cleared his throat and rocked a bit on his heels, unsure of how best to proceed. Getting John to a questionable hotel on the outskirts of nowhere, that had been the easy part. Working up the nerve to step forward and reveal that he wasn’t dead had been moderately more difficult. Staying silent while John processed this fact was anything but simple.
“John, I’m sorry, but if I had come off that roof in any other way then—“
It wasn’t as though the possibility hadn’t occurred to him, but it still caught him by surprise when John’s fist connected with his cheek. Hard.
“What was that for?” Sherlock demanded as he staggered back. He looked up at the face of his colleague, his only friend, and any other words he had died in his throat. Sherlock knew that there was no way this could play out without an emotional outburst on John’s part, but just as with the possibility of violence knowing the odds of it happening didn’t prepare him for the raw fury written in bold across John’s whole body.
“What was that for?” John shouted. “If you’re so bloody clever why don’t you see if you can figure it out? What exactly could you have done in the past few months that could have possibly lead to me forgetting the restraint I normally have when it comes to not decking you?”
Sherlock put aside the unease he felt at John’s choice of phrasing—‘if you’re so clever’, why ‘if’—and focused on getting the facts on the table. The situation needed to be diffused and Sherlock wasn’t sure if he could manage that. He wasn’t very good at diffusing high tempers. Generally his presence had the same effect as throwing petrol on a fire.
He collected his thoughts, planned his words, and tried very hard not to make things worse.
“Moriarty... he cornered me.” Even though it was necessary to say Sherlock was still loath to admit it. “He beat me. He played the public so well, the press...” He grit his teeth and looked to the side. “You were right. About the press turning on me. I didn’t realize the full scope of what that meant then, but now...”
Sherlock saw the directly Moriarty was taking, of course, or he wouldn’t be standing there. That should have counted for a win—he was alive and free to investigate a way to turn this around—but any claim of victory he made rang hollow even inside his own head.
All those months ago when John warned him that the press would turn, Sherlock was sure that it wouldn’t matter to him if it ever did happen. He was less than correct in that assessment. Criticism usually sailed right through him, but as he slunk down the narrow alleys with every newsstand shouting ‘fraud’ and ‘disgraced’ some of the arrows started striking home. His reputation was in tatters and even if he proved that Moriarty wasn’t his invention the damage would never be fully undone.
More than that, he wondered what damage had been done in the minds of those who actually mattered.
“I’m sorry,” Sherlock said helplessly. “I’m sorry.”
The apology did little to pacify John. He turned and took two paces one way, turned and took three in the other, then stopped dead and spun on the other man. “That call, Sherlock. How could you say—how could you?”
“It was... difficult,” Sherlock said quietly, the words. “Making that call was next to impossible, but I had no choice. Moriarty had assassins trained on Mrs. Hudson, on Lestrade... on you.” He closed his eyes and went back to that rooftop. “I knew that he had the recall code and once he realized that I would do anything to get it from him—anything, John—he killed himself. He didn’t have to see the end to know what was going to happen. He knew that he’d already won.”
“So you thought the best thing to do was to call yourself a fake and jump off a building?” John’s voice started out dangerously low and steadily rose in volume. “You thought the best course of action was to make me watch you die?”
“It was the only way. If I didn’t then the three of you would be dead.”
There was something boiling over in John’s dark eyes. “You obviously saw it coming. Otherwise you wouldn’t have everything in place to fool everyone—to fool me. So... you knew, and the great Sherlock Holmes couldn’t figure out another way? Any other way?”
The sarcasm, the accusation, the ‘if’ struck straight to Sherlock’s core. From the rest of the world he could tolerate it. He couldn’t take it from John.
“I didn’t see that part of it coming,” Sherlock snarled. “I knew that my suicide would be the final note in his symphony but I didn’t know how he would guarantee it. All was prepared for me to fake my death as a precaution but I did not know how he would force my hand.” He growled in self-disappointment. “I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t expect it. That’s why he won.”
Expecting a second attack on his person did nothing to stop it. John rushed forward and quickly put the other man in a headlock. After a brief scuffle Sherlock was falling onto his back. He’d barely had a chance to get back the breath that was knocked out of him and John was straddling him and grabbing him by the lapels.
“Damn you and your games you, you soulless, self-absorbed psychopath!” John yelled in his face.
“Right, sorry, you soulless, self-absorbed ‘high-functioning sociopath’,” he growled, punctuating the statement with a good hard shake. “I could maybe, possibly accept that you didn’t have time to let me know what was going on when you were standing on... on that ledge. But after you made me watch you die you kept quiet. Sherlock, it’s been months and you haven’t given me a single sign...”
“I couldn’t. I had to keep my distance until I was sure it was safe to tell you.” Sherlock slid his hands down shaking arms and told himself that he was logical and unattached and that John’s proximity wasn’t distracting. “Safe for... for you...”
John’s eyes were welling. “God, Sherlock, do you have any idea what it’s been like? I couldn’t even go back to my own flat—our flat—because it hurt.” The anger drained, at least in part. “God, Sherlock, it hurt so much. Then I couldn’t leave because however much it hurt being there it hurt less than going somewhere else. And Mrs. Hudson, she needed...” the anger returned. “I found her sitting at the table cradling a jar with a human heart in it. She said that she’d found it in the pantry and that you were always leaving remains with the food even though she was always telling you not to.”
John let go of the other man’s coat. He slumped, looking more defeated than Sherlock had ever seen him. Pain was written in every detail, every deduction, and Sherlock felt his own eyes tear.
After a few deep breaths John was able to finish. “She started sobbing and she didn’t stop for a long, long time.”
Sherlock stared, feeling almost dazed. “Why... why would she—“
“Because she cared about you. Cares.” John shook his head. “Whatever.”
John’s hands still rested on the other man’s shoulders. He slowly turned his wrists and spread his fingers wide, sliding his palms down Sherlock’s chest and the air between them subtly changed. Sherlock remembered the way John would make him shiver, the taste of him, the inexplicable sadness he felt when a reconnaissance run to Baker Street turned up a date picking John up in her car... Sherlock was dead and it was unclear what allegiance was owed him even when he was alive so there was no reason to feel itchy and possessive when she had laid her hand on John’s arm. That’s what he told himself as he clenched his jaw and watched them drive off together.
Sherlock was feeling itchy again. He had no right to the claim but John was his colleague, his best friend, his partner, and no woman in a pale blue Volkswagen was ever going to take that away if he had anything to say about it.
He reached out and slid a hand to the back of John’s head, reveling in the feeling of the short military style against his fingers. It was familiar, and dearly missed, and oh so right. Sherlock pulled John down as he sat up and when their lips came together it felt like home. He cupped John’s cheek and kissed him passionately, all the isolation and longing pouring out in the sparring of their tongues. John responded just as ravenously, at least, he did at first. After a few intense moments something changed and he jerked away. When he leaned back Sherlock tried to follow on instinct and found himself pushed back to the floor with his wrists pinned on either side of his head.
“What are you doing?” John demanded. “What is this, a distraction?”
“I missed that,” Sherlock responded in earnest. His lips still tingled.
John glared. “You really think you can kill yourself, disappear for months, and then waltz back into my life like nothing happened?”
Defiance flashed in Sherlock’s eyes; he had protected John with his faked death, he had protected all the people he had foolishly let get close, there had been no other option to save their lives, and he shouldn’t have to explain the simple logic of it more than once.
John sat there, the tendons in his arms flexing, waiting for his answer.
Annoyance flared. “You’re being completely irrational!” Sherlock shouted. He twisted to the side but John’s hands around his wrists tightened. The way that John had him trapped was starting to make Sherlock feel claustrophobic. He tried to tug his arms free and sent a sharp glare upwards. “Could we continue this conversation like adults? Vertically, if you don’t mind.”
“As though you have the right to lecture anyone about acting like an adult,” John grumbled. Sherlock found himself holding his breath, worried that John’s respect for him had fallen so much that the man wouldn’t even grant him this, but after a moment he was released. Sherlock slowly got to his feet as John quickly stood and then stormed back and forth.
“Do you have any idea what it’s been like these past few months?” John growled. “I watched you die, Sherlock. I watched you dive off a building after you... after you left me your ‘note’ and...” John rounded on him. “We buried you! Damn it all you insufferable sod we put you in the ground. I put you in the ground.”
“When you decided to keep this from me did you know how long I’d sit there staring at your violin? Did you predict that I would talk to that damn skull for hours at a time? Did...” John shut his eyes tight and his voice wavered. “Did you know that some nights I slept in your bed just to feel close to you one... one last time, and...”
Sometimes it was hard for Sherlock to convince himself that what he said about human interaction was true. Attachment was folly, relationships were a distraction, and he had no use for any of it. But then CIA thugs would rough up Mrs. Hudson and all Sherlock’s brainpower would focus to the single razor point of making a man pay for the blood on his ring. Then Molly would say with absolute certainty that she didn’t count and he wouldn’t know what to say. Then John would be standing there looking so hurt and so lost and Sherlock would tear apart the world to make that pain go away.
Sherlock closed the distance between them and stroked the other man’s face. John closed his eyes and leaned into the touch and the deep set worry in his brows and mouth lessened. The next kiss was slower, softer, and it went on for a few seconds longer than the first before John was pushing Sherlock away.
“Why do you keep doing that?” Sherlock asked in growing frustration.
“Why do you think?”
“I don’t understand what this means,” Sherlock admitted through gritted teeth. “You’re angry—“
“—but there wasn’t any other way to protect you—“
“You could have let on you were still alive!”
“—you slam me into the floor as though you intend to break every bone in my body—“
“You could have told me you were alive when I spent every day dying.”
“—and then you kiss me, and—“
“I couldn’t escape from all those people, those idiots, calling you a fraud.”
“—and then I don’t know—“
“You might not care what they think but I do.”
“—I don’t know if you... if you’ll...”
John had stopped interrupting him so he had no reason not to say it. Sherlock found himself reluctant to put words to the question burning in his mind. He wasn’t sure if he could handle the answer. Sherlock silently told himself that it didn’t matter, that forming relationships with people would only slow him down, but the mantra turned to ash and disintegrated by the third repetition. John wasn’t ‘people’. He was the bright, shining example of what separated Sherlock from Moriarty.
Sherlock swallowed hard. He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked up at the best thing in his life and asked the question even though he dreaded to know the answer.
“I don’t know if... I don’t know if you believed it.” Sherlock looked down at his hands. “I tried my best to make you believe that I was a fraud. It was the best... I don’t know if... I don’t know what your confoundedly erratic behavior means.”
The silence stretched on and on until finally John closed the distance between them. Sherlock’s gaze was still in his lap but John reached out, pulled the scarf loose, and trailed the back of his fingers up and down the other man’s throat on the side of the jugular. Sherlock’s eyelids grew heavy at the touch—John knew how much he liked that—and he didn’t fight it when his chin was tilted up. He could read many things in John’s face, hands, in the turn of his cuffs. Sherlock could read the worry and the rage and the pain but he couldn’t read John as a whole. He didn’t know what the answer would be.
“What do you want from me?” John asked, his voice low. He absently stroked the other man’s jaw with his thumb and Sherlock forcibly imprinted the sensation to his memory. “What do you want me to say?”
He wanted to be forgiven. “I want you to tell me the truth.”
John’s hand’s absent wandering took on definite purpose as he brushed the other man’s lips. Unbidden, a breathy and barely audible, “Yes,” escaped Sherlock. The hand dropped and Sherlock winced at the loss. He’d missed the physical contact just as he’d missed everything else about John, but it wasn’t until he had it back that he realized exactly how much he missed it.
“Did you mean it?” John asked, looking at the floor and then back up at the other man. “The phone call. Your ‘note’. Did you mean it?”
Sherlock’s stomach sunk and he couldn’t bring himself to look John in the eye. The phrasing was stacking up against the torturously light touches and while he never dismissed the facts he didn’t want to acknowledge this particular truth.
“I... I knew you’d be safest if you believed... if you didn’t fight them, if you didn’t ask questions, then there would be no reason for the remnants of Moriarty’s network to come after you.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Sherlock dared to look up. John was shaking his head.
“Not the words, Sherlock. I know that was a lie—I told you, no one could pretend to be that much of a jerk twenty-four seven. I want to know if you meant it, the way you said it.”
Sherlock frowned. “What are you...?”
John’s face was a mask, too many emotions swirling to make out any of it. “In your voice I heard... I heard remorse and sorrow and tears and... I just want to know if you meant it.”
“... Yes,” and Sherlock’s voice had never sounded so small.
John rubbed his forehead. “For what, then? Why would you sound like that?”
The disbelief, the doubt, it stung worse than any blow. “I was saying good bye. I didn’t know how long...” he grit his teeth and put words to his biggest fear. “I thought that you would believe what I was saying about perpetrating all those crimes. I thought Moriarty’s performance was excellent and that it would plant doubt in your mind and...” Sherlock shook his head, unable to keep going. “I’m sorry. I’ll just leave you—“
He had started to rise from his seat on the edge of the bed, but John pushed him back down with a hand on his shoulder. Sherlock watched and waited as John sat down next to him. They spent a minute not looking at each other before John grabbed Sherlock’s closest hand and started pulling his glove off.
“John, what are you—“
“Shut up,” was the only reply. The glove was tossed onto the bedside table and then John laid the other man’s hand over his own wrist.
Sherlock shifted the position of his fingers automatically and then realized that was what John wanted. He wanted Sherlock to read his pulse.
“Not for one second,” John said. “I didn’t believe it, any of it, for a single instant. Not when they came to arrest you, not when we met ‘Richard’, and definitely not when you fed me that load of bollocks right before you jumped. Not for a single instant have I ever doubted that you are anything more or less than the most irritating, the most infuriating, and the cleverest man I will ever meet.”
Sherlock still couldn’t read John’s face, but the steady thrum against his fingertips was plain as day. The beat never varied, never faltered, never fluctuated in the slightest.
John smiled wryly. “You don’t have to look so surprised.”
“You’re my best mate. My best friend. You saved my life, Sherlock, you...” John looked to the side, at the other man, and his pulse thrummed a little faster but not in a lie. “You were... do you really think those vultures could change that?”
The foundation of Sherlock’s life was once again solid. “I suppose not.”
John reached up with his free hand and with an easy motion discarded the loosened scarf. He stroked from the underside of Sherlock’s chin down across his throat to his collarbone and up again.
“John, you know what—“ Sherlock clamped his jaw shut.
That was the ‘I know what you want but I like it when you ask for it’ tone and Sherlock was so, so glad that the old tells were surfacing from under the ragged battle armor.
“You know what that does to my heart rate,” Sherlock said. His hand was still on John’s wrist and he could feel that the increase was mutual. He was still wary. “During this exchange anytime I’ve kissed you you’ve pushed me away, so—“
“Maybe you should wait for me to kiss you.”
Sherlock looked into those dark eyes. He didn’t beg—he never begged—but there was a definite urgency to the question he didn’t ask. At last, John threaded both hands in Sherlock’s curly hair and brought their lips together in a passionate clash that didn’t end for a very, very long time. In Sherlock’s most optimistic scenarios he still planned on getting business out of the way before they became reacquainted in this particular area as that was the professional course of action. But as he got his hands under John’s shirt he found he didn’t give a damn about professionalism.