If he closes his eyes the skull hasn’t moved from its spot, the desk is a mess and the kitchen’s a blatant offense to sanitation. With his eyes open he’s somewhere else, with no one there at all. He’d tried helping Mrs. Hudson clear 221B, stopped halfway in, a broken beaker in shards at his feet and the sound of it falling ringing in his ears and that was it, he couldn’t, just—
It’s strange not hearing the violin at strange hours of the night, not having to navigate through body parts to get to the milk. Sometimes John turns and says “Sherlock—”, and this isn’t the flat but some new strange space with dull wallpaper, empty shelves; silent, empty, dead.
He gets out. It’s late and he doesn’t call for a cab, wouldn’t, hasn’t in a while, not when he could avoid it. There’s something about the number of things he doesn’t do the way he used to that should be worrying but it’s hard to care, hard to think when his hands start shaking.
He walks until he stops thinking and then he limps back, goes to work, tries his best to drown himself in it.
This is the part where someone says And life goes on, but that’d be a lie. The world’s still going but John, well—
John’s still waiting.
The man who sits next to him has dark eyes, dark hair, a smile like a knife and a beer in his hand; says “You look like shit,” because either he’s never heard of manners or personal space or John looks bad enough that even complete strangers will take pity. The latter might be true, but the first’s not out of the question, what with the considering way the man’s still looking at him.
“What’s it to you?” he says, nursing his own drink and vaguely staring down at the table, the faint meandering lines of its grain, and the other shrugs, easy and casual. Grins. “Nothing at all. But what would your Sherlock say?”
He looks up at that, the name, the tone. His fingers curl, fine tremors through them, only stilling when he’s formed a fist, his eyes hard on the man’s blue. “How—?”
“Oh please, like anyone who pays any attention to the papers doesn’t know who you are. Read your blog too, doctor.” He tips his head, his glass. “Guess everyone else’s too nice to tell you you look like fucking roadkill.”
“Everyone but you, apparently.”
“What can I say—I’m not exactly a nice guy,” he says. His smile says I’m a lot worse.
“Clearly,” John says, and drains his glass. “Was there a point to this, or were you trying to get me to punch you?”
“Would you?” the man asks, like he’s honestly curious, and John says, “Are you offering?”
“Might be,” he says, and John rolls his eyes, pays for his drink and pulls his jacket on, because he’s tired of attracting the weird ones and really it’s too much effort right now to humour him any further.
Except as he walks out he can hear the man behind him, that’s a new one too, and when they’re both outside in the cold he tucks his hands by his side, says “I was serious,” well, it’s not like John didn’t try—
“Nice hook,” the man says. This is sometime after John threw a second punch and he retaliated in kind and everything sort of spiralled downward; now they’re both breathing fast and leaning against some filthy brick wall, looking at each other over the space of the alley, bruised, half-drowned in shadow.
“You’re not half-bad yourself,” John replies, which is an understatement at best, and they both know it. His heart is pounding in his chest in a way he’s missed more than he’d like to admit, and if his hands are still shaking it’s less, not more than earlier.
“Needed that, huh?”
John flexes his hand, tests the fading dull ache in the knuckles. Tries a smile on for size, finds it fits. Funny that. “So did you.”
A short bark of laughter, a flash of teeth. “Obviously.” There’s blood on the side of his face and John considers feeling bad, discards the thought. Brushes himself off best as he can, pushes off the wall. “Well, thank you for this—”
“Sebastian,” he offers over the split lip, the hunter’s grin. “Sebastian Moran.”
“—Moran. Nice meeting you,” which isn’t quite the most ridiculous thing he’s ever said, not after— but close, maybe; turns away. Leaves, can almost picture Moran behind him sarcastically waving. “Be seeing you again, Doctor.”
The cold catches up with him on the way. It’s late. He gets to the door and lays his hand on the knob. Stops. There’s no light in, no one still awake.
Opens, goes in anyway. Here’s to one more night, coming home to no one at all.
He’s lying on his bed wondering when the hell he got bad enough to pick fights with strangers, however willing they were, and grasps aimlessly at an answer or, failing that, sleep. His phone beeps. The screen light shines pallid across the ceiling. It’s three in the morning. He reaches for it, fumbles, almost drops it. There’s one message, which he should have expected.
Be careful. –MH
He types, Do you really need to track my every move?, presses ‘Send’. Closes his eyes, waits, finally manages to fall asleep.
It occurs to him in the morning he shouldn’t have bothered asking. The Holmes rarely deign lower themselves to obvious answers.
Moran’s there the next time he walks into the pub. He meets his eyes across the room, tips his head in greeting like a parody of that first time, and that would be it, really, except when John sees the dark line of Moran unfolding to leave he doesn’t think, pays for his own drink, steps outside as well. The cold is like a blow to the face, but not nearly sobering enough.
“Hello again,” Moran drawls over his shoulder, his back straight and turned to John. “Back for more?”
“I could ask the same of you.”
He makes a tutting noise, amused almost. “Oh, doc. What would Sherlock say?”
It’s the most transparent taunt he’s ever heard, but that doesn’t mean it does nothing, Sherlock’s not here and Sherlock’s not—John’s not thinking of that. It’s cold and it’s been a long few days. Lonely days, if he can admit that to himself and he can, he already did once, standing over that gravestone.
“That’s none of your business,” he tells Moran, and swings his fist towards his face because he can, because he’s expecting it, because, just because, it’s something to do with his hands and his body, somewhere they can exist without feeling like they’re borrowing time, stealing someone else’s space.
Moran grins his hunter’s grin, like he understands, and hits back, hard, and that’s all John’s really asking for.
It keeps happening, and he could stop but he won’t; leaves his new flat when he feels like something’s close to break and hopes the other man will be there so John can make bruises and get a few of his own, which isn’t what he needs (because he can’t get that, ever, not again) but gets close, maybe, maybe.
Blood in his mouth and the pain in his shoulder are old friends now, but when he raises his hands to the light, to the window, then look—there’s no tremor, or so very little it doesn’t count. Thinks, Yes, I suppose I do miss the war.
“Are you always this goddamn stupid?” Moran asks, and did he say that aloud? “The war’s still here. Or didn’t your boyfriend teach you anything?”
“He wasn’t—we’re not—” Fuck this, John thinks, and slams Moran into the wall, hard. He should be angry but he’s not, he’s very, very calm. “Sherlock’s dead, didn’t you hear, it’s all a joke—”
He’s got blue eyes boring holes into him and he wants to say go on mate, there’s nothing left for you to hollow but he doesn’t, there’s no need, it’s so obvious. Moran looks down at him, says “Think I’m fucking blind, we both know you don’t believe that for a second” and breaks John’s hold on him, reverses it, and now it’s John with his back to the bricks, a hand too near the throat for comfort and Moran’s face too close, something dark in his eyes. Suddenly there’s a minefield in front of him, danger and shrapnel hidden under the skin, and hell if he hadn’t missed that too, or something like this, but this isn’t who he wants and he can’t, there’s no such thing as war anymore, not for him; there’s just pain, Moran staggering back from a well-placed headbutt, suddenly distance between them.
“Did I break that?” he asks, seeing red on Moran’s fingers, his face, and the man licks the blood off his lips before he nods. Not for the first time, John wonders why he didn’t go away and forget about him the very first second they met, why he’s not leaving right now. Instead of doing just that he says “Good.”, smiles in front of the glare he gets; shows teeth, and that’s—that’s been a while, too.
Perhaps you should try talking to someone, his therapist says, which is laughable at best, though he’s polite enough not to tell her as much.
been seeing anyone lately? Harry asks via text message, because neither of them has been very good with talking in years. He doesn’t answer; knows he should, at least offer a response in the negative and tell her to not bother. It’s another thing he can’t help but put in the Before box, the one that’s brimming to the top next to the Now.
Yes, he wants to say. Yes, I’ve been seeing someone. He can picture the smile, the interest, the give me all the details, a reach for connection which he’d break, in spite of himself, inevitably, trying to work out how to word I’m re-enacting Fight Club every other week-end, it’s great without sounding flippant, how to make it so it wouldn’t require him to explain I think I broke his nose last Friday.
It’s probably for the best he says nothing, in the end.
Here are the things John knows about Sebastian Moran: he used to be military but it probably didn’t go well; he’s used to carrying a gun, using one. He’s got money but he doesn’t show it, much; knows strange people, suspicious ones. He’s more watchful than you’d expect from the shape of his smirk and he prefers to keep his back to the walls, face the exits. He doesn’t miss the war because he doesn’t believe he ever left, or maybe because it followed him; he has a cat’s eye for weakness and zeroes in on blood as it wells up, has a taste for it.
Tastes like gunpowder and metal, the bitter tang and aftertaste of it, too. This John learns on the ninth week, pressed against the door of a rental car, a dull pain throbbing across his ribs and the shadow of a bruise over on Moran’s throat, a souvenir from the time before.
Sherlock, if he were here, would know his whole history by now—but then John wouldn’t even be here, if, if, and he is, kissing a man he barely knows at all because he reminds him of himself, all the dangerous, laughing things brought to the fore. They’re not gentle, they can’t be, and this isn’t all that different from the fighting. Blood still rises under the skin; there’s a distance still—always—but John thinks, his hand curled into fabric, it’s easier when you have two bodies between which to define it.
It’s late and the lights are dim, the air cold. Smoke rises in pale clouds above their heads and John’s leaning back, John’s feeling very tired for no real reason. “What do you want from me, Moran?” he says, because he’s been wondering for a long time and no answer really makes sense.
“Sebastian,” Moran corrects, which isn’t quite an answer. John waits but there’s no sound but for the cars on the street, the few still awake at this time. He breathes, and it rattles on the exhale, unsure of its destination. “Sebastian.”
Moran flicks his cigarette and the ashes fall, and his look doesn’t have the usual edge. The shadows put years on his face. “How?” he says, and John’s not sure he understands. “How what?”
“How do you keep hoping?” he says, like it was obvious, and John shifts, swallows, says “I don’t.”
The smoke trails in ribbons across the air and Moran breathes through it, laughs a jagged little bark of laughter; says “You’re such a shitty liar” and then says nothing else for the rest of the night, looking out in the distance with an angry and strange sort of patience.
He’s at work when he receives the message, Moran dishonourably discharged from service. Recent activities unknown. Possibly criminal. Reconsider association. –MH
John thinks, I guessed—deduced—right, and doesn’t know if he wants to laugh or cry. Deletes the message, instead; carries on.
It’s been ten months and his shoulder only hurts half the time. He hasn’t been to the graveyard again, no longer turns to share a comment with someone who’s not here.
He’s at the shooting range when his phone buzzes in his pocket, and when he checks there’s a single line, Be careful. –MH, which can only mean—
“Sebastian,” he says, without turning, and there’s a sound behind him, half-laughter and half-exasperation. “How did you know?”
John returns to emptying his clip into the target, conscious of the eyes on his back and not really caring. “I could ask the same of you,” he says, can almost hear the shrug behind him. “Your gun wasn’t in the safe. It's not rocket science.”
It’s a good fifteen minutes before he decides he’s had enough, turns to face Sebastian. He’s in shirtsleeves and suit trousers, collar loose and John doesn’t ask what happened to his jeans or where he’s been for the past three weeks or why he’s favouring his left side, ever so slightly, the same way he didn’t comment on how it would even occur for Sebastian to check the gun safe in the first place, because there’s some things he doesn’t need to know.
It’s not that he’s stupid, though if Harry knew a tenth of what’s happening here she’d yell at him so. John knows there’s such a thing as knowing too much, and he knows how to wait, god does he know how to wait. Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer; keep Sebastian Moran as pinned down as you can or he'll allow, because it doesn’t take a genius to see he’s a time bomb, a landmine left forgotten in some field and just waiting for some unsuspecting bastard to step on him and someone’s going to need to be there for damage control when the inevitable explosion comes around.
John likes to think, he’s had some experience with that already.
There’s this alley they walk by sometimes, narrow and dank. Months ago some kid graffitied all over the side of it, over the nonsense signatures and the artless words, something clear and bright. It’s faded now, eaten by wear and filth and rain, but still very readable.
It says MORIARTY WAS REAL and John forces himself to look at it, the way the lamplight down at the corner makes the yellow paint gleam sickly. “You should be happy,” Sebastian says, his voice strangely flat for once as his eyes follow the jerky lines of the letters, the words. He’s cold for the rest of the evening, fingers restless and looking like he wants to pace. When John reaches out his hand he growls, angry and restless, and John’s not been having the greatest day either so he snaps, and they’re wrestling on the floor until John manages to momentarily pin Sebastian down, say “Calm down” to him the way he would a misbehaving dog and there’s such an intensity of resentment in those blue eyes that he almost wants to freeze, might have if he hadn’t once stared down sniper rifles and Semtex. It’s enough for Sebastian to buck him off, pick himself up. “Fuck you,” he bites out, and he’s rubbing at his wrists, his hands, “You’re not the only one waiting for someone else.”
Oh, John thinks. Everything starts making sense, except for how it doesn’t, not exactly; close enough, he thinks now, and it is, and that’s how it works, in the end, distances and a war they can’t help but look for, in hopes that somewhere in there they’ll find the one who should be there.
Possible sighting of S in France last week. –MH
John’s hand’s shaking again but for once it’s justified, normal, good. Are you sure?
He’s counting down seconds, heartbeats, each dragging like eons until the answer comes, No. Stay put. –MH and then he wants to scream, wants to pack his clothes and his gun and just leave, stop waiting because he’s so tired of this, except it’s probably a false alert, isn’t it, or Mycroft playing his games, it must be, two years eight months fifteen days without a word and now this—
Sebastian’s by the window, smoking. He shoots a sideways look his way, casually asks “Something wrong?” and John shakes his head, No, pockets the phone, finally.
Hours later he takes it out, looks at it. Writes a message to the number he’s never deleted even though he should’ve, that says Are you alive? but really means Please come home.
He waits and waits, but there’s never an answer.
One day he gets back to the flat from a visit to Lestrade and the station, and he realizes he hasn’t seen Sebastian in three months, nearly four, and it’s really not that big a surprise when he look at his emails and there’s something there, just one line, two sentences, that still feel like a punch to the gut: Found him. Be seeing you, doc.
He thinks of the phone in his pocket, of how there’s been no answers or updates. Thinks of Sebastian’s odd brand of patience, that rested not on hope but the quiet certainty of something, its inevitability—I will wait and he will come back, simple and set in stone, as sure as the rising of a bruise after a fight or the cigarette burns lovingly seared on the inside of his wrists, because it must, because otherwise the world stops making sense.
John doesn’t have that certainty, can’t afford it. How do you keep hoping? someone once asked, and he wishes he could answer, Do you really think I have a choice?
Something makes a sound, buzzing and hard, and John flips the phone open, looks at the unknown number, the message, 221B. –SH, forgets how to breathe.
Here are the things John knows about himself: he’s waited three years and he could have waited forever but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t long, that doesn’t mean he isn’t tired. He needs the adrenaline or the war but most of all he needs the man who now stands almost uncertainly in their old kitchen, needs him alive and callous and sometimes cruel but always amazing, always brilliant. John Watson is no hunter, just a soldier, but he’s good at what he does, and now he’s done with the waiting, now he can breathe and put down the burden of living in peacetime, bored out of his mind.
John Watson’s got three years’ worth of grief and anger and habit to work out first though, so when he walks up the stairs and crosses the living room, the doorway he feels his eyes prickle but he doesn’t buckle yet, doesn’t run to Sherlock or hug him or break down and cry. Instead he punches him, avoids the mouth and eyes and cheekbone but knows it’ll still hurt, because that’s the fucking point, and then and only then does he allow himself the relief, the sheer release that comes in culmination to so much hope.
“I deserved that,” Sherlock says, very quietly, and John could kiss him, hurt him, weep all over his shoulder and his expensive scarf and coat but he doesn’t, says only “Yes”, his voice cracking on the word, fragile. Sherlock extends a hand, almost hesitantly, lays it only for a few heartbeats on John’s arm. “I am sorry,” he says, and before John can tell him that’s not enough, that’s nowhere nearly enough he continues, a look in his eyes like he knows, “and I'll let you yell at me all you want later today. But now we have somewhere to be,” he says, lean and bright-eyed and everything John ever wanted, and it's only now he notices the photographs on the table, graffiti and dirty walls, familiar text, MORIARTY WAS REAL.
“Didn’t he—?” he starts asking, before he realizes that everyone had thought the same of Sherlock.
“I’ve been following him around Europe,” Sherlock says, annoyed, tired, but himself, only ever himself, “but he keeps slipping away. Not this time.” Not in Sherlock’s London, John takes that to mean and yes, this is familiar, the look on Sherlock’s face and the slow beat of his own heart inside his chest, calm and certain and ready to follow this man everywhere, anywhere.
“It’s been a while,” Jim Moriarty says, not blinking at the gun John’s got trained on him, arm and hand steady. This feels uncomfortably familiar, and when the red dot appears on his chest it feels like it was always inevitable. He’s already calculating if he could get away from the line of fire, knows Sherlock is doing the same except probably better, when the dot shifts, up, down, up, down. “Seb says ‘hi doc’”, Moriarty laughs, and Sherlock blinks, looks for just a split second over to John.
John says nothing; wonders, briefly, if they’ve found the tracking chips he’s left for Mycroft to track in Sebastian’s myriad phones, and grabs Sherlock by the collar, ducks for cover. A bullet whistles past, like a greeting, and John smiles in spite of himself, pressed against Sherlock’s side; starts to feel like he’s finally come home.