One day John Watson comes home and finds a dead man in his living room.
He hadn't expected to find said dead man in his living room. Not now, not after seventeen months, one week and two days. That expectation, a hint of hope every time he dragged himself up the stairs to 221B, the possibility that he would one day open that door and simply find him behind it, sitting in his chair, had plagued him for the first six months at the very least. Yet, eventually, it faded until finally he had learned to accept that Sherlock Holmes was well and truly dead and would not be sitting in his chair ever again, folded up like a praying mantis in an expensive suit, like nothing bad at all had ever happened to him. Something bad had happened to him. Sherlock was a dead man and John Watson had not expected finding him in his living room just like this.
He's not sitting in his chair. He's standing by the window, hands in his pockets, looking exactly like he had always done and for what feels like an everlasting moment John thinks he's gone insane.
"Hello John," the dead man says without looking at him, peering out the window. He's not looking at anything in particular - John can tell, the usual focus missing from clear blue eyes. He looks positively glassy.
"You're dead," is all he can manage. He realizes dimly he can't feel his arms or legs and wonders how it is he's not falling over, kept upright only by the tense silence in the room leaning into him.
"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Sherlock drawls. There's a tension to his shoulders.
"What - no. No. I buried you. I visit your grave every fucking week. You're dead."
"Every week? If I recall, it was every day at first."
It's four long strides on short legs and he's at him, one hand fisted in his jacket and the other flying at his face. He's solid enough, for a dead man, oomph-ing and staggering back, the impact a familiar one under John's knuckles. John lets him go and he sags against the windowpane for a moment before straightening himself, shaking his head. "I suppose I deserved that," he mutters and avoids John's eyes.
John clocks him again, same fist, same cheekbone. He wants to do it over and over, one punch for every day, for every night he woke up around 3 AM bathed in sweat as he watched him fall over and over behind closed eyelids, so fragile a figure silhouetted against the sky, the sick lurch that had taken hold of John’s stomach the moment he saw him step off that godforsaken roof and realized it was all over having been a constant presence for so long he'd hardly noticed it was there any more.
He holds himself back. He supposes he has to. It'd be quite something to beat a dead man to death, after all.
"You are dead. I can't even - what the fuck, Sherlock. Do you have any idea, any idea at all what I've been through? I watched you fall."
"You saw what I wanted you to see. It was relatively simple, in the end." He's leaning back against the wall, one hand on his cheek, and still not looking at him.
"Look at me," John breathes. "If you're going to tell me you did this to me, faked your death and left me alone, I want you to look at me."
"Fuck you," John breathes and he turns and he's gone, down the stairs, out the door, down the street. He's not going anywhere in specific. He doesn't care.
When John comes back home, the January cold embedded deeply in his bones and his legs sore from walking down and back up the Thames for six hours straight, the dead man is still in his living room. London has gone dark outside and so has the side of Sherlock's face, an impressive purple under his eye and to the side of his nose. John wonders if he broke something and curses himself for the twinge of sympathy, a familiar feeling of wanting to take care of this infuriating man he decides to blame on his medical background.
He thrusts himself down into his chair, Sherlock sitting across him, staring into their unlit fireplace. Fingers steepled now, long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle. Like nothing had ever happened. Like he’s still alive and has never been anything other than that.
He's skinnier than he used to be. John wouldn’t have imagined that possible before. The suit he's wearing is familiar, one John had kept in Sherlock’s closet all this time together with most his other possessions he couldn’t bear to get rid of. It's too large on him now, the buttons of his shirt no longer battling to keep closed over his narrow chest. Again the twinge. John purses his lips and scowls and forces himself to stay angry.
"I suppose you want me to explain," Sherlock says to the fireplace.
"I don't want to know," John says. "I don't care. I just want you to look at me and tell me, to my face, you faked your death and left me alone."
Sherlock says nothing.
"I suffered," John says, gripping the armrests of his chair to somehow keep himself from jumping Sherlock and pummelling him all over again. "I had to go back into therapy. My limp came back for quite some time. My best friend died and everybody thought he was a fraud and made fun of me for still believing in you. I don't - you put me through that. On purpose."
Sherlock still says nothing.
"Stop staring into the damn fireplace and look at me! Look at me and admit it!" John shouts now, short fingernails digging into the fabric so painfully he thinks he might just snag them right off if Sherlock doesn’t stop avoiding this.
Sherlock looks at him. Seventeen months, one week and two days and a dead man is looking at him with the saddest eyes John has ever seen. The twinge becomes something uncontrollable, something that damn near doubles him over, and he can’t decide whether it makes him want to punch Sherlock again or do something else entirely that he's not quite sure he wants to admit to himself yet.
"Thank you for believing in me," is all Sherlock says.
"Fuck," John breathes and he looks away now, into the fireplace, because why the fuck not anyway.
"I had little choice. I hope you can come to understand that."
John laughs wryly, a fake sound escaping from the very gutters of his lungs, because there is always a choice and Sherlock knows that as well as he does.
"I begged you not to be dead. I stood at your grave and begged for a miracle. This isn't a miracle, Sherlock, it's an outright lie." His voice goes and he hates himself for it. He'll be damned before he is going to let himself break down in front of Sherlock, not for this. The walls go up and he locks the feeling away.
"My dear John, I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected."
John looks at him, dumb-founded. He had expected perhaps everything, but not that. Sherlock looks like he actually means it too, his face around the blooming bruise positively earnest all of a sudden.
"Where the hell did you go, anyway?" John forces out from between his teeth, skating around all thousand apologies skilfully. He doesn't want apologies and most certainly not a thousand of them. He's not sure what he wants, but 'sorry' isn't on the list, not even close. Sherlock can take his apologies and stick them, to be honest.
"America, for a while. New York. Didn't like it much. The Ukraine after that, for quite some time."
He laughs at that, picturing for just a moment Sherlock in the Ukraine, an odd British duck in an unfamiliar eastern European pond. Still it's not quite that funny, mental pictures like that, when you're talking to a dead man, and his laugh withers in his throat and grows into something sour. "Why are you back now? Why now?"
"Why not now?"
Simple, really. Why? Why not.
"Does anyone else know? That you're here?”
"Molly Hooper. Other than that, not yet. Managed to avoid Mrs. Hudson coming up and haven't spoken to anyone else yet. You... you first. You got to know first."
"After Molly, apparently. Molly Hooper? Are you serious?"
"She's known all this time. She was vital to the success of my plan."
John can't even say anything to that, the whole idea so bizarre he can't even find proper words to comment on it with. It's like Sherlock saying he survived the fall because aliens buzzed him into their spaceship halfway down, just that level of downright wacky. He remembers Molly's tears at Sherlock's funeral and suddenly hates her with an intensity he finds unsettling within himself.
"Why couldn't I know?" he asks and sounds more harsh than he intends but that's all right.
"Vital to the success of my plan," Sherlock repeats tonelessly and his eyes wander back to the fireplace for a moment before snapping back to John, like he remembers it's what John wants him to do. John says nothing, holds his gaze in a way he knows will make Sherlock uncomfortable.
"I am sorry. For. Keeping you in the dark," Sherlock tries. John still doesn't want apologies.
Sherlock chews on his words, looking every bit like a nervous puppy unsure how to please his new owner but desperately trying to find a way to do so. John can almost see the cogs turning in his mind, just digging away, trying to figure out how to placate him. It's not a good look for him. Sherlock is not the type who does his best to please and John doesn’t know what to make of him trying now. He wonders if Sherlock changed during his death. He wonders if he has. He can’t say for sure and it’s not a thought he likes.
"What happens now?" Sherlock finally asks and John can't help himself - he laughs. For real this time, a laugh that flies up and out of him and suddenly he realizes just how ridiculous the entire situation is.
"I have no idea," he hiccups, leaning forward and covering his eyes with the palms of his hands. "Jesus, Sherlock, I haven't the foggiest. There's not exactly a manual for this, 'what to do when your dead friends show up in your living room’." He hinges on hysterics and allows himself to teeter there, on the edge of it, stuck somewhere between tears and laughter in a place he finds annoyingly familiar. It was always right there, with Sherlock, constantly tumbling into situations so absurd you could just allow yourself to go either way. Always that touch of insanity, of sheer wanton stupidity for the sake of proving some mad point.
Sherlock chuckles, once, a deep rumble accompanied by an upward twitching of the corner of his mouth, not sure whether John would allow him to laugh along just yet. John wipes his hands down his face, laughter dying down to an exasperated giggle. "Jesus, Sherlock. Jesus Christ."
He stands and moves to Sherlock, discontent with the wary flinch he gives him but settles on ignoring it. He places his fingertips on Sherlock’s face and tilts it upwards, into the faint lamp light, and inspects the bruise. He prods the bone with his fingers, checking for a fracture. Sherlock winces but doesn’t make a sound and John pokes it an extra time for good measure. His skin is warm under his fingers, pale and purple and blue, and there’s a smallish scar on his temple that wasn’t there before. John touches it and wonders if it was the fall that caused it, or something else that happened to him during those months. He wonders if there are more like this one. He wants to find them and catalogue them in order of how badly they would have hurt because he, John, he had hurt and had nothing to show for it at all. Unthinkingly he pushes both hands into Sherlock’s hair and feels for bumps, ridges, anything to prove that this man might have somehow survived falling off a hospital.
Sherlock stares up at him and John meets his eyes. He wants to be defiant but can’t and for the briefest of moments he can barely breathe. "You’re alive," he says quietly. He feels Sherlock’s fingers at his elbow, barely touching the pilling fabric of his jumper, and something gives way and he leans forward, his forehead ending up on Sherlock’s bony shoulder. Sherlock’s fingers curl around his elbow like he’s something precious and for the first time in all his 39 years John Watson experiences just what it feels like to have your heart shatter to tiny pieces, scattering across your ribcage, and then bounce right back into one whole piece again.
"I’m alive," Sherlock says. John realizes what it is he wants. He smiles at Sherlock’s shoulder and closes his eyes.