A/N: I don't need another fandom. I don't. I have all kinds of unfinished stories in all kinds of fandoms. But this wouldn't leave me alone.
Beta: Major thanks to tweedisgood, as always.
The burns heal, mostly. They heal and a couple of weeks later, all anyone can see are dark and shiny patches of skin here and there: smooth, toughened places where the fire flicked over him and kept going. The burns mostly heal and they take the cast off his leg. He throws the crutches away.
"Shouldn't do that," Mrs. Hudson tut-tuts, pulling them out of the dustbin and shoving them back in the closet, behind the late, unlamented Mr. Hudson's fishing tackle. "Might need them someday, dear."
"I'm not planning on getting myself blown up in swimming pools on a regular basis," he snaps, and feels instant regret at the way her face falls.
"Did you plan on it this time?" she asks, quietly. "Did you plan on any of it at all?"
He throws a cushion at her retreating back and it hits the door as it closes behind her. Childish. He's behaving childishly. He can imagine what his flatmate would say if he were here.
By the time the memorial service is held he's walking almost normally again. It's a small affair, the service. No one asks him to speak. No one speaks at all, really. There's no coffin to stare at or to mouth platitudes over. Just a small box of what they found to bury turned to ashes now, and a chaplain who says a few words about a God in whom no one listening believes.
Harry clings to his arm after it's over, asks if she can come round. "He asked me to look in on you," she says, her breath thick with tears and vodka. "He asked me to take care of you once, if anything ever happened."
He shakes her off. He can hear her calling to him as he walks away, but he keeps walking.
Sherlock walks the length and breadth of London that night, in the dark and in the early morning, over streets he knows like other men know their lovers. The guns' salute echoes in his head.
Mycroft calls every day for the first two weeks. It should be touching, but it's nothing so normal. "Obscene as it may seem," his brother finally texts him, "the wheels of government have not stopped turning because a mediocre Army medico was blown to bits. I need you to work. Self-pity is a luxury you cannot afford."
Sherlock has squirreled away money from cases in the three months since he met John. He can afford quite a bit of self-pity. Also a new phone, after he smashes the one he has to bits with a hammer and sends Mycroft its pieces in a box.
It's a futile gesture; he doesn't have the new phone an hour before Mycroft has the number, but the feel of something very expensive shattering soothes him, for a few hours at least.
Lestrade doesn't bother calling, just shows up with tales of kidnapped children, blackmailed lesser royals and, once, a left foot in a tin box. Sherlock takes these cases, every one of them, even the ones so simple they insult his intelligence.
He takes these cases and he works them slowly, methodically, like a paralysis patient learns to walk again. He documents things carefully. The solutions he presents to Lestrade come with lists and charts, written reports, are delivered for all the world as if he worked for the Yard himself.
Possibly, he thinks, if he acts like a normal person he will begin to feel like one. It is something John said once, about coming back from the war.
"The therapist said I should pretend to be normal even if I don't feel normal," he'd said one evening, dozing on the sofa as Sherlock scraped away at the violin, trying to work out how a murderer who weighed 300 pounds had fit down a very small grate into the sewers. "She said people form habits and then those habits begin to feel like ... a life."
"She's an idiot," Sherlock told him, for what felt like the thousandth time.
Now he wakes and sleeps and works, and he hopes each day that he can become someone to whom these things come naturally. He can't go back to the person he was before, after all. The person he was before had John.
That person's life is no longer possible.
They think Moriarty's death — at the end of the most elaborate scheme he's ever planned, involving twenty-three police officers, the electrocution of a pedigree poodle belonging to the Queen's nephew and finally the sharp snap of a sniper's bullet — will bring him back to himself. He can tell they think, Lestrade and Mycroft think, that this will end the endlessness of his days.
He supposes John's therapist would talk about the need for closure. He supposes the first person to mention closure to him will lose a limb, and everyone seems to pick up on this as even Anderson gives him a wide berth at the inquest.
It is three years to the day after John Watson's funeral. There is no closure to be found.
Sherlock stares at Moriarty's slack body in the morgue. Molly, understandably, has taken the day off, and her replacement is too terrified of Sherlock to even enter the room. He stares at Moriarty's closed eyes, at the perfect round hole between them. He wishes he'd been the one to pull the trigger.
Four days later, Sherlock picks up his new phone — fourth one this month, damn his brother — and prepares to delete the umpteenth text from Mycroft.
Mrs. Hudson would have come flying upstairs, to see what that shattering was, and shout at him about her best lamps not being suitable objects on which to take out his frustrations, however understandable those frustrations may be, but just then there is a knock at the door.
Three years, four days, five hours and eight minutes after John Watson's funeral, John Watson shows up alive in 221B Baker Street carrying a filthy green duffel and a bag of candies for Mrs. Hudson, who takes one look at him and faints dead away.
Sherlock hears the thump, the luggage being dropped, the low murmurs and eventual sharp exclamation of joy from downstairs, but he doesn't move. He's read the text from Mycroft and so he's waiting in the chair, facing the door, when John Watson walks through it and stands there and looks at Sherlock like he's the last thing John wants to see, like he's the only thing John wants to see.
There's a black glove on John's left hand. Sherlock looks right; yes, he's managed to compensate with his right, even typing from the slight calluses on the tips of his fingers, muscles in that shoulder slightly more developed, and he's thinner, at least half a stone, there's more gray at his temples, his shoes say he's been in Thailand and his bag says he's been in Canada and shut your stupid brain off, you incredible git, he's here, he's in front of you, he's standing right there ...
It isn't a question. "Mycroft texted me about an hour ago. Something about how seeing my former flatmate, who I'd finally managed to convince myself was quite dead, alive again would be a bit of a shock so here's fair warning. Considerate, that.
"If he hadn't told me, I might be hitting you right now. You really ought to send him something in thanks. A note. Perhaps some flowers."
"If you knew, you know why," John says.
"As to that," Sherlock says slowly, "I would very much like to hear your explanation."
The words come out in a rush, and John takes two steps forward, toward Sherlock, his hands extended as if to open his arms. "You knew why. After the pool, he was going to keep using me against you. He was going to keep using me against you and it was going to keep working, and I couldn't allow that, I couldn't let it happen, there was only one thing to do and that was to remove myself from the equation."
Is that what he thinks this is?
John seems to be taking his silence, his utterly baffled silence, as some kind of condemnation, and his tone becomes frantic.
"He would have used any weakness against you, and I couldn't, I absolutely couldn't, have you hurt. But I didn't plan it, Sherlock, I swear to you ... I just ... we were in separate hospitals, they didn't even know if you were going to wake up at all, so when I did, it seemed the best way to ... and yes, your brother helped me, but it wasn't his idea, just the mechanics of it because I couldn't carry it off myself, had no money for it, but it was my idea, and I'm sorry. I couldn't have you hurt. I couldn't ... it wasn't possible for me to have you hurt. It wasn't ... not you, all right? This seemed the best way. Until you could end it."
There are other questions he could ask, but he knows the answers curse this mind of his he'd like to hear them in John's voice, he knows the answers: He can deny and deceive but not where John is concerned. Where John is concerned Sherlock could not deceive a five-year-old for a lollipop, and his vicious sense of justice would never have stomached hurting Harry or Sarah this way, so this was the only way it could have gone.
And yet. And yet the last three years burn in his memory. Three years in which he woke and slept and worked and none of it mattered at all.
They've been staring at each other in silence for a while and he can tell John's almost ready to turn and go. There is still, however, one question to which Sherlock discovers he cannot deduce even the beginnings of an answer.
"How did I not know?"
John offers explanations, brief and useless. You were in shock. You were injured, unconscious, drugged. You had been pushing yourself so hard you were half on the way to collapse before a building fell on you. You woke in such a haze you'd have believed anything Mycroft told you. You would have believed him if he said he'd usurped the throne while you were in that coma and now demanded to be called Your Majesty and brought tributes in the form of the heads of his enemies, you were ...
"Irrelevant," he replies, and something in his voice is beyond his control because it bends, nearly breaks. "How did I not know?"
John can't look at him. Sherlock is staring at the top of his head, the side of his face, everywhere as John's gaze takes in everything in the room but the person speaking to him.
"How did I not know you were capable of this?"
He means the deception. He means three years of silence. He means colluding with Sherlock's own brother, and when he gets his hands on Mycroft Sherlock is going to kill him, and he means returning now, as though they hadn't buried pieces of John and said words over them.
"What would you have done differently?" John asks, a flicker of anger Sherlock cannot understand in the words. "Put yourself in my place."
Sherlock takes a moment, does just that. Puts himself in the place of a post-traumatic Army veteran with an eccentric new friend being chased by a madman, and bites out, "Imagining myself in your place, I would at least have done you the credit of assuming you trustworthy. Whatever the risk to you, I would have assumed you capable of bearing it in service to the goals.
"I would have told you —" and then his voice does give out, because it comes clear to him, a blot of paint on a canvas in which he can see a lie and the truth at once. Put yourself in my place. He had. He had run a simulation as seamless and elegant as any mathematic proof, a simulation of two colleagues in pursuit of a criminal.
He'd left out one variable.
You loved me.
To have done this to me and to yourself, spending this in the service of my safety, to have made absolutely sure, you must have loved me.
He asks it again, and this time means something completely different. "How did I not know?"
"You saw," John whispers, and the words sound scorched, like the dragging of a rope before it breaks into friction fire. "But you didn't observe."
Sherlock very nearly tackles him to the ground. He's aware that he's crushing John's bad shoulder, aware that it likely hurts, aware that John's hands are in his hair, aware that neither of them will ever admit to tears, and aware all the things they're thinking now — I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, oh God do you know the things I was driven to without you, do you know how many times I tried to write to tell you, do you know what I promised the world if it would give you back to me, would send you back to me, do you know how sorry I am, how I've wanted — will become like a fever dream the moment they break apart, will dissolve in the breaking.