It's not even past midnight, and here he is.
When John holds it up to the light, the whisky changes colour. It was amber before; now, level with his eye, it's almost dark brown, a swirl of liquid tawny, of the colour that stuck to his fingers when he was 12 and he and Harry collected wax from the one incongruous pine tree their grandfather had managed to grow in his patch of pretend-to-be-Italy English back garden.
He brings it to his mouth and it's gone. It's gone, the thought that connects it to Sherlock; holding Sherlock to the light, he changed, his eyes most of all – blue, he guesses now (because really he can't tell anymore if his memories are all real, if some of them haven't been idealised), but so often a particular kind of silver, a trembling kind of quicksilver as his eyes flicked to and fro, seeing things that no one else did. The whisky disappears down his throat without the sting the first mouthful did – and then the connection to Sherlock breaks, because Sherlock never stopped hurting to think about. John was never desensitised to Sherlock, in the end.
“I'm telling you,” he says, his mouth curling around the sounds, and it sounds as though he's still able to get them across in the form he meant them, which is good because the man sitting next to him, holding a Corona beer, actually seems to be listening, “he was fucking brilliant.”
“Yeah, sounds like it, mate,” the bloke says, easily. John can pick up that there's a bit of pity in the words. He swallows another mouthful of whisky; the other man's treat. John prefers pints, but this is faster, and God, when did that become something that was a point in favour of anything?
“He could look at people,” he finds himself saying, looking closely at the man next to him – a mess of beard and broad chest and shoulders, and a small smile that he can't read right now, “and tell you everything you never even knew about yourself.”
“Yeah,” the bloke agrees. “I read about 'im. In the papers.”
John presses his eyes closed, his hand bringing up the glass without a conscious thought. The burn is easing, his tongue is coming unstuck. “The papers,” he manages, “are shit.”
The bloke's eyes are round and brown. Wrong. Wrong. It's a familiar voice that says it in his head, through the haze, through the fog, and it only makes his hand tighten on his glass. The bloke looks a bit sorry. Not drunk, then, the part of John that's still functioning whispers. A bit of Sherlock that he's tried to make his own; reading people. He can't, mostly, but this time: this man is still able to process that Sherlock Holmes killed himself, and John Watson was there to watch. The silence stretches, and John even manages to understand, a little, because who in their right minds would know anything to say to that? Sorry you had to watch? Or maybe Sorry you were such a crap friend you never even knew what he was thinking of, must have been thinking of for months, to do that? To throw himself off a roof, and to call you, first? If the man were to say that he'd kill him. There's no question. And they both know it.
“Well, mate,” his drinking partner (too short too wide too brown-eyed too straight-haired) says, “it was great talking to you.” And he's gone.
John still has some whisky left, and it swirls too many colours at him, too many nuances, when it's really nothing more than memories liquidified; the death of memories, the let me tuck you in, you'll forget of it hidden in its innocent depths of colour. John scowls at his glass, then slams it back, the faint tingling in his throat an unpleasant reminder that his body still exists.
“– and then he ran across the – mmmuseum without a shecond... thought, and he alm-almost got shot, the fucking bastard – and I couldn't... couldn't help –” and there's a hand on his elbow, a look of half-amusement, of half-pity.
“You should stop drinking, mate,” someone's telling him, someone with a ginger beard.
“But he could – he could have died,” he counters, weakly.
“He didn't,” someone says, not with a ginger beard.
There's a silence. A silence that doesn't exist in pubs. People put their drinks down, pick them up. People chat each other up, there's rejection, there's yeah let's go shag, there's the sweat and tears and beer that mixes, that ends up in particles between the peanuts that he's trying to eat.
“He did,” John whispers, and no one hears but him, though some of it bleeds into the silence.
“Can someone call him a cab?” Ginger Beard is saying, balancing a rather impressive pint, himself, so John says: “Can someone get me the pint that you're having?”
The group that's gathered around him starts to leave; there's some shoulder claps, there's some words, and none of it registers. Least of all the pity.
The bartender is leaning over him. “Watson,” he says, because they know each other that way, know each other by their last names, and it's all a bit too much like the war, so he jerks. “Are you all right?”
“Perfect,” John says, wondering where that word came from.
“You should go home,” the bartender says, and he's too soft, he's not angular enough, he's not the right shade of pale, so it makes no impression.
“Yeah,” John agrees, then finds himself stumbling across the pub to the other side, where people sit curled together in love and hate and half-fights.
“You mind?” he says, is even clear-headed enough to note the way the words slur together.
The other occupant of the table is leaning away into shadow, and he can't focus on him; there are long gloved fingers curled around a glass of red wine. John finds himself staring at the redness against the black shine of the leather gloves.
He gets an obvious shrug in response, the outline of shoulders lifting and falling; whatever, it filters through, and he stumbles into a chair.
“Sorry,” he says then, not even sure why, or what he's doing there. The other figure offers nothing, but, still focused on the glass of wine, John sees the leathered fingers tightening. “I'm not... ushually like thish,” he manages, presses a hand against the pounding point of pulse between his eyes. There's an insane need to apologise, like an acid burn inside his gut, and anyone will do, anyone with a heart that's still beating, that's not rotting into earth.
The silence from the other side of the table is so obvious he even picks it up, through the swirl of wood and scents that is the pub, and he thinks for a second God, I'm fucking pissed.
“Guess you don't... don't care about strangers in pubs,” he slurs, then stifles a hiccough.
His table partner raises a hand; for an impossible, incongruous second, John thinks he's going to punch him. But it's a sign to the bartender; the universal sign for “pints”, a pinky finger lifted, looking a bit ridiculous in the heavy black glove.
“All right,” John groans, “thanksh.” And he feels like he could love this person, who feels his immediate need, his want, his defiled desires. He's not that far gone that he can't appreciate it.
“I used to be all right,” he says, tongue too slow to keep up with the sounds, after the first swig of the new bottle the bartender put in front of him. He didn't miss the eyebrow raised at the stranger, and he didn't miss the half-shrug in response. “Have you –” he hiccoughs again, and the other figure, becoming more sharply lined in the dark that plays against the light, too-bright in John's eyes (and the stranger is this: dark coat dark hair hunched shoulders) seems to wince, “heard... ov him?”
The response is strangely pitched, as though it's a rehearsed answer. “Who?”
“Sh-Sherlock Holmesh,” John says, then spends a moment cursing himself, because being able to say Sherlock's name is new, and it shouldn't be here, it shouldn't be like this, defiled in that way, his tongue catching against his teeth. But it's gone again, that feeling, so soon, because there's nothing left now to mock him for it, no one there to mock him for thinking a name of all things has meaning.
There's a whisper of leather as the hands entwine themselves with each other. “No,” the other person responds, a whisper, barely audible, almost leaning into the light, exposing the tip of a nose, almost translucent, it seems.
“He'sh,” John begins, then has to re-begin, and that's why everything is wrong: “He wash... my – best friend,” and those words make the journey from his synapses to his tongue, because they're all he thinks, now.
“Really,” the man offers, entwined hands resting where his mouth presumably is, too dark to make out. He sounds out of breath.
“Really,” John says emphatically, because if he says it enough, it might be true to Sherlock, even across that boundary, across that frontier of smoke. “Best – best man I've ever mmmet.”
“He knew... everything – when we met,” John continues, to cross across that depth of nothing. “What I – was, who...”
“He must've got something wrong.” It's a low murmur, and it takes a moment before the words register. There is a bend of body, and a fraction more of a face in the light, long, black-leathered fingers resting against a peculiar chin, before that small stretch of skin is withdrawn and his drinking buddy leans back in his chair. John closes his eyes. Knows he is already too far gone to stop the fantasy from continuing. The light is still too bright in his eyes to catch any sight of anything else; there is the faint outline of a hoodie pulled down over where eyes presumably are. A burst of reality: a hoodie. In a pub. In London. In the world of the living. Get a grip, Watson..
He shakes his head, upsetting his stomach a bit with the movement. “Yeah, but... nothing that – mattered,” he says, and then takes a swig of his bottle to mask how he has to press his eyes closed to fight the onslaught of tears, unexpected, their path eased by the alcohol. “He,” he begins, feeling the stories flipping over themselves inside them, their words so familiar now, so familiar he can even speak them like he is now, “he saw through everything. Drew people out. Baited them. Brilliant.”
“Never felt... Never felt mmore alive,” he manages, then has to stop, has to stop never felt more alive than when I could listen to him, never felt more alive than when I was running after him, never felt more alive than when he looked at me and he seemed to be interested in who I was, what I was because his breath is playing hide and seek in his lungs, and there a is a burn deep inside of him, and nothing stops, and nothing is all right.
But then he still can't help himself: “He sholved mmurder cases – just by looking at the crime scene. Knew – knew all about mmmotivations,” he has to stop to gather himself, “just by putting himself in... shomeone's poshition. He... Fuck.” He sloshes beer onto himself; wet, sticky, cold, and it's a bit of a wake-up call, and a go-to-bed-call at the same time, because God, what is he doing?
“I was going,” John says, unable to stop it, “to... kill myshelf, before I mmmet him. I would have... if he hadn't...”
The stranger is a shift of shadows, a jerk of concealed body, and what is he doing here, exactly?
“He was... washn't ffake,” John spits, and it's what echoes through his dreams, this final bit of sanity, of insanity, of obsession that remains through the haze, through the swirl of pub and smoke and whisky and the way the gloved fingers are long and slender.
“Are you – okay?” John asks, blinking, because he's not sure it's his eyes, if it's the gauze of reality flickering before him, layer upon layer of mediated meaning – is the black-gloved hand holding the glass of wine really trembling so much there is wine spilling over its edge, leaving shiny trails of wetness over the dull gleam of the leather of the gloves, or is he just really far gone, now?
“Yes,” is the gruff response, too-low, too-fast.
“Buy me another,” John says.
“I'd rather not,” is the response, tight, almost a growl, low, and for a moment it almost... but he cuts himself off, still able to do that, at least, because he knows where this ends, and even if he looks for pain nowadays, pain to pierce through his indecision, his apathy, this is too raw.
“Okay,” he breathes, pressing his eyes closed, not unwilling to let it go, this time. There's a part of him that's still fighting this, even though it loses every single day.
He drains the last of his beer. “What'sh... What'sh yer name?” he slurs. As if it matters. As if names have meaning.
“Ted,” is the response.
And then, silence.
“Buy me another,” John repeats, the feeling of it being okay fading as soon as it came, and Ted is silent, a stretch of person in the dark that radiates all of the words he's not saying. “Okay, fine,” John slurs, “I'mmm just a... annoying drunk, anyway.”
And stumbling, he gets to his feet, fingers curled so tightly around the neck of his beer bottle he can feel the glass resisting, feels its struggle between holding itself and shattering into fragments, shards; to mirror some of the people it cuts, even when it's intact.
“You should have – known him,” he stutters, because it's still true, even in this mix of colours and the scent of old beer; everyone should have known Sherlock, though no one could have, and in the end even he couldn't do it, he wasn't special enough, he never saw, he never knew, he never thought about it. Never imagined that this could happen. Never tried to think of ways to stop it. He said: you machine, and then left, and left, and left, and in his dreams he does it over and over again - friends protect people, and then leaving, leaving, leaving, before Sherlock might have said something to him, maybe, in that space where John should have been – the way Sherlock often spoke to him while he wasn't there, and if he tries to think of what, maybe, Sherlock told him then, he can't do anything but open his eyes until they're so air-dried tears have no chance anymore, and head over to the pub.
“Yeah,” is the response, a puff of breath, a strange agreement.
John leaves him to it with a salute with the almost-broken beer bottle.
The bartender calls John a taxi, and from his expression Sherlock can tell it's not the first time. John is draped half over the bar, still hanging onto his beer, and his mouth is moving – though Sherlock doesn't think it's words he's saying, because he's good at lip reading and this amounts to nothing, almost nothing; maybe it's worth it to ignore that John's mouth is regularly shaping his name amidst nonsense sounds, the only points of meaning in a sea of nothingness.
Sherlock looks at the wine in his glass, and wonders why it is he came here; a strange urge, an unquenchable thirst to drink in the sight of London again? Why this pub? Why go to Baker Street and hide, trying to suss out if John was still living there? Why the rush of – almost – euphoria when it turned out he was? Why follow him here? Why the clench in his gut when he realised where John was going?
Why talk to him at all?
It was never going to yield results and yet he couldn't control it.
There is something burning in his chest and it's not the wine. And he can't... he can't parse it, he can't catalogue it; John, who he knows struggles with alcohol, has a strange hatred towards it born mostly out of its hold over Harry – now hanging onto a tender bartender's elbow, being transferred like a package to a cabbie, who looks unconcerned. This isn't John, and it isn't right, and there's more wrong in the world than even he had thought, if John Watson is reduced to this, and he presses his gloves, wet with wine, into his eyes to get the words like a whisper out of his brain – it's because of you.
And if he works a little faster after that, if he lingers a little less, he tells himself it's because there are all the reasons in the world to want to get this over with; and he's not wrong.
It's also not wrong that he dreams of John at night, of that thin mouth, rubbed raw with alcohol, with a tongue that came to lick at his lips in a habit that was suddenly sloppy, not subdued, and of words falling from alcohol-soaked lips, he wash my best friend.
It's not that Sherlock believes in in vino veritas.
It's that he believes in John, and it's that he already knew that he was, really, that he was John's best friend, though he never realised it before, though the past ten months have made it all the more clearer, and have driven home how much the sentiment is reciprocated. When he takes to bed he dreams of John; both of them – the John that sits in their couch with his robe on, inquiring after the health of the hanged dummy dangling from the ceiling, and the John sitting across him, beer a dark spot across his shirt, hair long and looking more grey than sandy in the terrible light of the pub, telling him you should have known him.
He can't help it, sometimes; sometimes he thinks: you shouldn't have known me, because maybe John wouldn't have been that way, then, maybe he would've been another perfectly functioning soul with complexities of his own in a perfectly functioning city with complexities of its own.
Yet, I would have killed myself, before I met him is another part of reality now, and he can't undo it, and that means he has to come back.
And when it's over, he waits another day, immobile, in the underground room he's renting in Rome, sitting for hours, trying to get loose from himself, trying to unstick himself from the knowledge that there's nothing keeping him here. Trying to unstick himself from his body, that's still spun so tight, so horribly tense, so ready to run at the first sign of danger.
There will be danger where he's going.
He calls Mycroft after 24 hours, when the final flies in Moriarty's web are growing stiff and cold somewhere, and knows that within 2 hours, Mycroft will have him home.
It's four in the afternoon when he arrives in London, and he hopes, he hopes, he hopes...
He hopes that there's still something of John left.
John is still fairly sober; Mrs. Hudson takes his bottles away whenever she comes to clean, and often cries a little at him, for him, hurting for the both of them, taking on the brunt of mourning Sherlock with a clear mind. He's only been at the pub for twenty minutes, so he's still more or less sober – he doesn't dare to keep anything else but a couple of pints in the fridge at the flat.
Sherlock still has his old key (refuses to think of that as sentiment rather than practicality), and has gone to Baker Street first, letting himself into the hallway like a ghost, and while he was there he tried not to feel like there was an apology he should make to the house, as though he's failed it. As though he should have let it know that he was coming back, so it could have prepared. He didn't want Mrs. Hudson to hear him – he can't do that, not yet, he can't face her yet, John has to come first, because John does come first – and there was also the very real sense that he couldn't be there, shouldn't be there. This is what he tore himself loose from, and John still lives there, which is something Sherlock didn't expect; John has grown around what used to be Sherlock's space, and he's painfully aware of how hard it must have been for John to return to 221B on his own. It's one of those things that has only become completely clear to him in stages (a bit like it only became clear after a while how utterly, completely he's done all of this for John) – Molly's stunted letters, Mycroft's short texts, revealing more to Sherlock than they ever would to anyone else, and the growing, huge, horrible knowledge that John wasn't moving on, was mourning him, and was slipping totally out of his own control.
The familiarity of 221B was too much for a bit, and he leaned against the banister until he managed to get something, he doesn't know what, under control again. And then didn't quite understand; it was just a place, just a house. Still the creak of the stairs underfoot made him wince.
He knocked on the upstairs door; there was no response, and in spite of himself he pushed the door open – not unexpectedly, the flat was empty. He stood for a long while, trying to process the details leaping out at him (dust two weeks old washing-up too small for two weeks John only eats every other day smiley face is papered over clumsily John couldn't face it violin case half-hidden under coffee table dust-free John wipes it down regularly but doesn't keep it in plain sight new couch maybe damaged maybe John got rid of it because of sentiment), that speak of a John-without-Sherlock, a John-trying-to-live-here.
To the pub then. He scowls at the living room, as though it is responsible somehow.
And slips away again, good at disappearing, not as good at reappearing, sternly forcing himself not to linger around Mrs. Hudson's door, where he can hear the faint murmur of daytime radio.
He beats his way down to John's pub, the one where he almost gave himself away, where he almost reached out to shake John to awareness, to stop doing this to yourself – turning over in his head what he's about to do; approach a man who's been steadily slipping further into addiction (and God, how he knows what that does, how it distorts everything, every sense of identity, of connectedness), a man who thinks he's dead. Not for the first time there is a flicker of doubt about what he did, about if it was right, about if he couldn't have handled it better – and that's so intolerable he stops for a moment, allows London's stream of passersby flowing past him to restore a sense of normality, to make him feel less like a ghost.
Lingering in front of the door of the pub, trying to peer in through windows designed to keep dysfunctionality in and sunlight out, he wonders for a moment if there's maybe an etiquette to coming back to life that he's disregarding now. If there is a way that would generally be considered proper after the certainly generally regarded improper action of faking one's own death. Does it involve texting a warning? John, I'm alive. Does it involve apologising? John, I really am sorry I had to do this. Does it involve asking to be let into someone's life again, a life that has undoubtedly gone on to grow, because life puts out roots and hangs on, and expands in different directions? John, do you want to see me? Does it involve letting the other person choose the time, the place, the way they allow themselves to be seen? John, tell me where you want to meet and I'll be there.
But John is at the bar, ordering his second lager, and as the door swings to a hesitant close behind Sherlock he can read in John's shoulders that he's considering whisky, already, only held back by the pressures of the hour, that grow flimsier with every passing day. Soon John won't care that it's four in the afternoon; for now, he still does, a little.
John is at the bar and there is no proper way to act. There is no way to act at all, there is only a way to be, and that is Sherlock Holmes, who was John Watson's best friend in a stretch of time that is now faint and glowing both, as though lying beyond some fogged-up window – a stretch of time in which Sherlock Holmes had no idea what that meant, those words, best friend, and even less so what they covered, what reality they spanned. He thinks he knows it now and there is no way to act, there is only you were mine, too, and you will be again, and I will fight for you now in another way than all of the ones that I've tried already.
And he's sure it would not be regarded generally as proper – but that's a thought that slips away and doesn't return, because there is nothing that counts anymore in that moment except the way John's head drops down after his first swig, defeat an almost visible cloud around him – but he goes up to where John is sitting, heart doing an odd impression of an explosion, of trying to leave his body, and says to him (and yes, it's not fair, that that should be the first words, but nothing is, really, and John is sitting there, and none of it's fair): “You are going to stop that right now.”
The moment between the words and John taking note of them is long, and empty, and strangely quiet. And when John does respond, it's not a response, because it's just a hand coming back to wave the words away, as though that can clear the alcohol-saturated air between them, the distinct feel of time stretching itself and snapping back like a rubber.
“John,” Sherlock says.
And this time, there is a tensing of muscles; Sherlock can trace it in John's shoulders, can almost see the words forming themselves in his mind, falling over each other: that voice.
And when he turns around, he does it slowly, as though for him, too, the pub air is oppressive and heavy and clings to him, and there are waves of things that try to keep him in place, to keep him as he is, to keep this moment away.
John Watson, coloured in grey-scales, lips wet and sticky and ashamed with afternoon beer, locks eyes with Sherlock Holmes, last seen with blood running from crack in his head to cracks in the pavement, with life distractedly flowing away without a sense of direction.
“God,” John says.
And it hits home to Sherlock that there was really no way for him to prepare for this moment, though he has been doing just that since the second he came to with the rush of air still echoing in his ear and pain almost a protective blanket over him – and Molly had her hands on his skull, feeling over the ridges and cracks and trying to find which of them were there before and which weren't, and there was fresh wetness on his cheeks and he chose to believe it was blood instead of her tears or maybe even his own.
Sherlock tried to imagine it; he'd prepared for John having a heart attack when he realises who it is he's looking at – and he knows it's not entirely fair, this, this coming up without warning, this overpowering, but nothing is fair, and time is something that he's come to cherish more than he did. He'd prepared for shouting, for hitting, for running away, for saying no, for temporary paralysis, for a need for reanimation.
What he hadn't prepared for is John looking at him for long seconds that strangely read to him as completely breathless, as though everyone else in the world can feel the weight of them, too, and then looking back at his pint. Life resumes at the breaking of the look, the clink of glasses, the bartender's subdued interest in them from behind his bar as he steadily washes pints.
“John,” he says again, and his voice genuinely sounds like it belongs to someone else.
John's head drops down again.
“John,” Sherlock repeats, tells the back of John's head, because this can't be real, this can't be true.
“Leave me alone,” John says, passing a hand over his brow.
Sherlock feels caught between planes of reality, shades of existence; feels exactly like the ghost John thinks he is.
“John, it's me,” he croaks.
“You're not real,” John says, and he sounds different; different than what Sherlock remembers, and also different than what he heard in the pub when John was drunk and didn't know who Sherlock was. It sounds like it's been rehearsed, this – a quiet accusation to an appartition, someone who can't be hurt, and a soft reminder to himself, who can. Something clenches in Sherlock as he realises that John must have had him appear like this quite often, to have this lack of response.
He comes to stand next to John at the bar, closing his fingers around the edge of it – sticky with spilt beer, scratchy with the rough scribbles of phone numbers jotted down – and tries to remember that John's wrong, that he is, he isn't, he isn't dead.
“I'm real,” he says, manages even to sound balanced and normal, and, well, real – then uncurls his fingers from the support of the bar, and wraps his hand around the top half of John's pint, where John's fingers aren't, where foam sticks against the warming glass. He tugs the drink out of John's grasp without encountering resistance. He tries to suppress the trembling of his fingers between which the traiterous liquid licks up the sides of the glass. “Stop it,” he says to John. It can refer to many things and he's referring to all of them.
And something seems to click into place inside John, and the next thing Sherlock knows is that John has half-fallen of his bar stool, knocking it over – he hangs onto the side of the bar as the stool clangs to silence between them. Sherlock is aware of the now-unconcealed gaze of curiosity burning into him from the barman.
“Wha–” John manages to say, and his eyes widen even further as he looks at Sherlock, really looks, for the first time. “You're –” and then language gets lost somewhere between his brain and his mouth, he only gapes for a moment.
“I –” Sherlock begins to say, but he's cut short as John surges forward and there is the first, incredible press of physical contact between them in twenty months and 4 days, John's hand reaching up to grab his collar, hanging onto it as though he can't keep himself up, his hands pushing warm and alive into Sherlock's throat.
“Sherlock,” John is saying, and instinctively Sherlock puts an arm around him to keep him up, because John is swaying against him, and Sherlock is surprised he can still hear his name over the rush of blood in his ears, his heart doing its own version of stalling and re-starting, trying to catch up to time slowing down.
But then John jerks away, and his face is crumpling into lines – new ones, ones that he didn't have before – track lines of alcohol and anger and tears, and he pushes against Sherlock again, but this time to get him away; and John Watson is strong, and Sherlock Holmes is defenseless in this moment, in which he can't process most of the things lunging at him with the speed of light, and Sherlock stumbles back.
“You – you –” John says, and then his body snaps back, lines tightening, military form, muscles leaping to attention. “You bastard,” he says, and his face is twisted into something ugly, something that's new, that Sherlock has never seen before.
He's prepared for the punch and for its strength, because he knows John's anger is physical, and he knows what John's punches feel like; but he couldn't have prepared for the fact that it feels like his stomach is falling out of him, like the floor is crumbling beneath him – and because he can't see it coming, not really, because his eyes seem to struggle to catch all of the details pressing themselves in on him and John's fist is there before he can register its appraoch, he half-falls under the impact, clanking painfully into the bar stool behind him. John is a looming presence over him.
“Watson,” the barman shouts, and someone is pulling John away. “What the fuck crawled up your arse? Startin' fights at four in the afternoon!”
Sherlock manages to scrabble to an upright position on his knees, his fingers attaching themselves automatically to the growing pain across his cheek and lips, slipping into the trickle of blood pooling in the corner of his mouth, and he looks up at John, who now looks flabbergasted, as though he doesn't understand what he just did. He aggressively shrugs off the hands restraining him, points a finger – miraculously steady – at Sherlock and says: “Don't follow me.” He stalks off, and in the silence that follows the door swings closed slowly, and the man who pulled John away offers Sherlock a hand. He takes it, because he can't think of anything else to do, and allows himself to be pulled to his feet.
“You all right, mate?” the man asks, and he's a normal functioning person with complexities of his own, and there is no one Sherlock needs to talk to less, so he just nods, and avoids eye contact.
“What was that all about?” the barman asks him, frowning – then, he narrows his eyes at Sherlock. “Wait, aren't you that bloke –” he begins, before surprise blooms across his face. “You are,” he says.
Sherlock scowls at him, trying to regain some control over what seems to be a pit of bottomless gravity in his gut. He straightens, winces at the stabs of metallic blood on his tongue as he feels around in his mouth.
“He got you good,” the bartender says, still wide-eyed.
“Yes, thank you,” Sherlock snaps, then spins around to go after John.
“He told you not to follow him,” the barman calls after him.
Sherlock ignores him, simply thinks he also told me to not be dead, and he knows which he's more likely to listen to right now.
For a moment he was afraid John would go to a different pub and continue drinking, but the door to 221B is standing slightly open, and Sherlock can read John just slammed it behind him without taking the care the lock needs to close completely. Something twitches in him as he remembers that John used to nag him over that, over leaving the door open whenever he was seized by a sudden insight that drove him out onto the street, because in silent moments John seemed to recall that it wasn't always all right, the way the two of them craved and followed danger, and he seemed to care about keeping their home a sanctuary in a way that never really occurred to Sherlock.
Mrs. Hudson opens her door when he's inside the hall, and she's pale and her eyes are red-rimmed. John has told her, probably incoherently, probably shouting.
“I'm sorry,” is the first thing Sherlock says to her, for different reasons, and she melts towards him, sniffling into his chest, frail old-lady hands coming up to tangle in his lapels. He hugs her back, a bit awkwardly, almost having forgotten how to do it.
“You terrible, terrible, terrible man,” she hiccoughs.
“I know,” he says, and wonders for a moment at how the words have to fight to make it up his throat. “Mrs. Hudson,” he begins, and she pulls back immediately.
“Of course,” she says, and steps away from the stairs, giving him the space to step onto the first one, which he does.
He turns towards her, seized by a sudden desire to look at her a bit more, towering over her even more generously.
“I will –” he begins, and she sniffs, mouth twisting, a spot of anger beginning to show through her tears.
“Get up there and talk to him, or you're not welcome here anymore,” she says, and there is a small bite in her words, and more affection still. He knows she means it.
John is standing in the kitchen, supporting himself on his hands on the table top, the rest of him collapsed, head dunked, shoulders faltering lines of jumper and human.
Sherlock approaches cautiously, a hand hovering in front of him, and stops when it's almost on John's shoulder. He's reaching out, but can't bring himself to bridge the gap.
“What is wrong with you?” John asks, and his voice is constricted, pulled taut over a surface of things straining to break through.
“Do you want a list?” Sherlock responds tensely, surprised at the sound of his own voice and how it's also twisting around all of the things he wants to say. He pushes forward, and his hand lands on John's shoulder.
John twists away from the touch, and whips around. His face is set in tight lines, and there is water under his eyes, the blue of his eyes blurring into the dark bruise-coloured bags under his eyes.
“Why can't you just...” John bites, then leaves the sentence hanging.
“I can't,” Sherlock responds, because if John is still John and he hopes that he is, John was about to say listen to me for once and leave me alone.
John closes his eyes and presses the palms of his hands into them for good measure, to fortify the barriers between them even further.
Sherlock knows he has to say it. But it's more than that because he's honestly never felt it this strongly, and it has never felt more necessary, less of a deceit, more of an offering up of himself. “John, I'm sorry,” he says.
“Nice to see you still have some grasp of social conduct,” John says, weirdly calm, from behind the screen of his hands.
“I mean it,” Sherlock says, and his throat feels like a desert.
John takes his hands away. His cheeks are smeared with wetness. He's strangely shiny in the buzz of the kitchen lamp – he's changed it a couple of times (impossible to tell how many, not enough data) since Sherlock went away, but the voltage isn't quite right, and now it sounds as though there are bees living in their kitchen. John's kitchen. Their kitchen. John's kitchen.
“Fuck you,” John spits, hands curling into fists. “Fuck you,” he repeats.
“If it helps –” Sherlock begins.
John cuts him off, half-shouting: “It won't help! Don't say anything that you think will help, or so help me God, I will –”
“If it helps,” Sherlock persists, heart hammering, “I did it all for you.”
John gapes at him for a moment. “God, you bastard!” he shouts, and he moves almost as though to hit Sherlock again, but he reins himself in, and instead claps his arms around himself, as though he needs the extra support. Long moments pass.
“I need a drink,” John finally says, and in his eyes, when he flicks them to Sherlock's, there is defiance, and I fucking dare you.
Sherlock goes over to the fridge and looks into it. There's three bottles of beer.
“We are going to drink this,” he tells John, handing one over, “and that's it.”
John bares his teeth. “You've no right,” he hisses.
“No,” Sherlock admits, and finding it not hard at all, “but that's never stopped me from doing anything.” He sounds a lot more steady than he feels, and he wonders if John can tell, if John can read him – John was never as good at it as Sherlock was, but in the final months he seemed to have developed his own idiosyncratic way of poking through some of Sherlock's moods, gathering things from uncertain data like stance, and pitch of voice, and number of words... But there is time between them now, and alcohol, and death. And life.
And it's Sherlock who pops the caps on the bottles and clinks his bottle to John's and takes the first gulp, wincing slightly at the bitter taste he's never really enjoyed.
“Well, go on then,” he says to John, whose fingers around the neck of his bottle are tight, blotted red and white, as though bone is shining through the translucency of skin.
“Wanker,” John spats.
“Yes,” Sherlock agrees, and tips his bottle back again.
“Think you can just – that you can just –” John sputters, then snaps his mouth shut. Sherlock can see his pulse leaping in his neck even from the more than an arm's length of distance between them. John is furious. He's beyond screaming. He's losing track of the words he could scream.
“Yes,” Sherlock says again, unable to stop himself from slipping further into this dangerous zone, “I'm doing it, aren't I?”
John slams his bottle down on the table so powerfully there is a crack of glass, and a rush of frothy beer that splashes onto the floor, and an unexpected brightness of blood in John's palm. He stares at it, and so does Sherlock. It's a deep cut.
“You need to –” Sherlock begins, is cut off by John's snapped: “You need to shut it.”
“– clean that up, or it'll infect,” Sherlock finishes.
John grabs at Sherlock's throat with his bloodied hand, and there's the smear of sticky warmth between the first skin-on-skin contact they have that's not knuckles cracking against jawbone.
“I'm a doctor,” John says, incongruously, out of rhythm with everything.
“You are,” Sherlock nods, leaning into the firm, half-painful grasp of John's slippery fingers.
“I know when something will infect,” John hisses.
“You do,” Sherlock agrees, voice going a bit unsteadier with John's controlled pressure on his windpipe.
There's a long moment of increasing pressure – increasing pressure of everything, of John's tightening fingers, of Sherlock's lungs, of their eyes locking, of the air straining with the words that are lost.
John lets him go, steps backwards, slips a bit in the puddle of spilled beer, and presses his hands against his forehead. When he removes them, there's the jumbled impression of the lines in his palm in blood. Sherlock gulps at the sight of it.
“Fuck you,” John says, almost conversationally, then disappears into the bathroom to take care of the cut.
Sherlock looks down at his half-empty bottle and at the yellow spill of beer on the floorboards. The light buzzes, undisturbed.
Sherlock has opened the final bottle of beer and put it on the table for John. His own is almost empty. When he runs his fingers over his own throat, they come up red with John's blood.
“You can't stay here,” John says when he comes out of the bathroom, hand bandaged. He's washed his face without care; there's still blood at the roots of his hair and on the bridge of his nose. “I don't want you to.”
Sherlock motions to the bottle with his own. John bares his teeth. “Think you're being funny?” he asks, teeth clenched.
“Oh, yes,” Sherlock says, “this is my idea of a joke. Didn't you know?”
“What does it say,” John breathes, almost too softly for Sherlock to hear, “that I don't actually know that that's not true.”
The silence stretches. John's chest is heaving. Sherlock doesn't know what he's saying, really, but John hasn't punched him again, and he's still standing here, though he can't be sure that's a good thing.
“Drink it,” Sherlock finally says, and is surprised at the heat building up behind his eyes, because this is such a strange moment to cry, really; in the washed-out light that ticks and zooms, with so much distance between them, with John trembling in anger. He blinks, fast, two three four times.
He knows how much it feels like defeat to John to close his fingers around the bottle, and bring it up to his lips.
But John isn't the same anymore, though he's not wholly lost, maybe, not yet, or is that just wishful thinking, it can't be because Sherlock doesn't do wishful thinking, but it's true that John's eyes as he takes the first gulp aren't trained on Sherlock, and then that's just another part of reality, something that he can't undo.
“All right,” Sherlock says when John's empty bottle touches down on the table with the saddest sound imaginable. “And now you're going to go through withdrawal, and you can hit me as many times as you want, but I'm going to stay here through it.”
“No,” John says in a hard push of syllable.
“Yes,” Sherlock says.
“You jumped off a roof,” John says, his voice gaining in volume.
It would have prompted a sarcastic well spotted, John before; now it just makes Sherlock flinch a little.
“You made me watch. You – you called me and you –” John stops to maybe prevent his voice from flickering over the border of shouting again, which is all right, because Sherlock suspects that there is still a lot of shout hiding in this man, this short, stocky, strange, jumpered man, and it won't be long before some of it comes out.
“I am sorry,” he repeats, and it's no less true than it was the first time he said it.
“Well,” John bites, “that's just no fucking use to anyone, is it?”
And it isn't, not yet, so Sherlock says nothing for a while. Then, he says: “Do you want me to call a colleague for some back-up, or will you be able to navigate this yourself?”
John shakes his head, brings his hand down over his eyes, licks his lips, clears his throat, drops into the sofa, shrinks to a smaller space than is him, really. He has never looked more and less like John Watson at the same time before, and Sherlock wants to step forward and take his hands away from his face so he can read what's happening, and try to regain that grasp that he used to have on John, before. The hands over John's eyes are trembling lightly, now.
“You seriously – seriously expect me to just, like that, right now, to just...?” John mumbles.
“It's the only way,” Sherlock says quietly, and by the way John's head snaps up from the cup of his hands to look at him he realises that John must have forgot, in the post-death idealisation that no one is quite exempt from, that Sherlock used to be an addict. He withstands John's look as well as he can, but can't read what is in it.
“When will the symptoms start?” he asks. “Oh, of course,” he answers himself, “they already have. You haven't had enough to drink today. You have a headache, don't you? Are you already nauseous?”
John glowers at him. Sherlock looks back levelly.
“You of all people should know,” John begins, then seems to suddenly get overwhelmed by this, by them, by their kitchen with the people in it. “God,” he squeaks. “You – you of all people – you – you're not dead –”
He almost seems to fall upward from the sofa, as though gravity is reversed for a moment; and what does it mean that Sherlock would understand if it was, right now? John starts forward towards him and it's more like a hug this time, though it's too tight to really pass for affection, and John digs his fingers into Sherlock's back so harshly it stings a little even through his suit jacket and shirt. “God, you fucking bastard,” John sobs into him, actually sobs, and Sherlock is almost surprised to find that his arms are crushed around John so tightly that it's bound to be uncomfortable.
With a jerk John pulls back again, as though becoming aware of what he's doing, and Sherlock allows him to slip away, though everything in him screams at him to keep John trapped inside the circle of his arms.
“I've hated you so much,” John says, sounding as though he can't believe any of it.
“Do you – do you still?” Sherlock asks in spite of himself, and he can't even fool himself and pretend everything in him isn't breathless in anticipation of the answer, pretend it won't destroy him if the answer is yes. It's become clear to him in stages, how much all of this was for John, and if he can't come back to what he tried to save, nothing of it is justified, and nothing of it will ever be okay.
John brings his hands up to press into his eyes again. “I told Greg once,” he says, side-stepping the question neatly, “that if you weren't dead, I'd kill you.”
He lowers his hands. His eyes are blurry with tears, but piercing.
Sherlock swallows. “I understand that,” he says, and it's not even a lie.
“You understand everything,” John says, sounding a bit dazed.
“Incorrect,” Sherlock says, and it doesn't hurt at all to admit.
“I don't – I don't hate you,” John says. Sherlock can tell John's throat is closing up again, that language is catching on all of the obstacles between them, he knows from the sound of John's voice pushing to get through.
It's more than Sherlock deserves, and he'll take what he can get, and there is nothing he can do, really, to stop the relief washing through him to show in his face; he can feel his jaw unclenching and his brows unknitting, and something in John's face changes, too.
“Go to sleep,” he tells John, to bridge the thickening silence between them. “I'd like to tell you things will be better when you wake up, but they won't be.”
John watches him. “You of all people should know that you can't force people into this if they're not ready.”
Sherlock reaches out almost before he knows it, and trails a finger close to John's jaw, not touching. “But you are ready,” he says. “You don't want any of this.”
It's John who bridges the gap, this time, and presses his face into Sherlock's fingers. “Bastard,” he whispers, but most of the acid in the word has evaporated.
John goes to bed; Sherlock's room has become his, which is less unsettling than Sherlock would have expected.
“It's only five,” John sighs as he toes off his shoes and plops down on the double bed that used to be Sherlock's.
“You'll be asleep soon enough,” Sherlock tells him, then takes the shoes and puts them neatly against the wall.
“I hope that when I wake up,” John mumbles, “all of this was a dream.”
Sherlock freezes, then straightens. “We both know that's not true,” he says, but his throat is constricted, and he's sure John can hear.
“You have no idea what I know is true,” John says, sounds a bit sharper again. His eyes are closed; dark blurs in the paleness of his face, stained with tears and addiction and people coming back to life.
It's true. Sherlock doesn't argue. They have all the time in the world to re-learn those things. “You should get comfortable,” he says instead.
“I'm not going to be comfortable in any way,” John says snippily.
“No reason to make it worse,” Sherlock says, and then, feeling as though he may be crossing boundaries here that they haven't even re-established yet, but ignoring that for now, crawls onto the bed with John, leans over him and picks at his jumper.
“Undressing me now, are you?” John says, in a strange tone of voice, and his eyes open. “It's the right time to take advantage of me, I'll give you that.”
“Shut up,” Sherlock says, something hard and prickly and painful pushing behind his eyes. “Do it yourself if you don't want me to.”
John's huff of laughter isn't laughter at all. “There you are again. Thought maybe faking your death would've taught you some manners. Shouldn't have worried about that.” He sits up and tugs his jumper over his head and drops it heavily over the side of the bed, but then sinks back against the pillow without making any move to take anything else off.
Sherlock scowls. “Have it your way,” he says, and starts popping the buttons on John's checked shirt. He resists the temptation to trace the outline of John's scar as it's revealed in curls of rough flesh and shrapnel patterns; he's seen it many times, but he's never felt its textures. Not the time. John isn't uncooperative; he shifts when the shirt is open, lifts his shoulders and then his back so Sherlock can tug it away from him.
“Sherlock,” he says.
There's nothing, just John angling his head to look at him.
“What?” Sherlock asks, stilling in his tugging on John's belt.
“Just looking at you makes me so – furious,” John says, finally, but he doesn't look angry, anymore.
Sherlock allows himself a small smile. “Save that energy for later. You'll need it.”
“I'm going to punch your lights out, I hope you know that,” John says, and doesn't protest when Sherlock tugs his belt loose.
“You already did,” Sherlock mumbles.
“Not nearly hard enough,” John half-snaps. Sherlock looks at him for a moment, looks at John hovering between defeat, relief and anger, and he has to take a couple of conscious breaths to master the strangely overwhelming wave of – of everything, of affection, of relief, of hope, of self-hatred that sweeps through him. He grits his teeth. He will make this better. He will. He will be everything he hasn't been for John these past months, far too many, all counted in lines of chalk in strange hotel rooms in countries where even he didn't speak the language, sometimes – a countdown scattered across the globe, across worlds. He's sitting in 221B Baker Street with John Watson and Sherlock Holmes suddenly realises, with a sharpness that surprises him, that he's done so much wrong, and that he will do anything to get something right, now.
It's an extremely new sort of feeling.
“God, stop that,” John is saying, softly, “can't – that isn't – not now –” Sherlock realises he's referring to Sherlock's hands absently tugging at his trousers.
“Right,” he says, takes his fingers away, trying to make sense of the flush of embarrassment that rises over everything else for a bit.
“Not now,” John breathes, not looking at him, as he kicks off his trousers, and the repetition has Sherlock swallowing. He hadn't dared to hope that the time apart would have led John to some of the same conclusions that it had led him. That had seemed for too much to hope for.
“Where –” he says, then is annoyed at the croak in his voice.
“Wardrobe,” John says, and he already sounds a bit sleepy.
Sherlock tugs out pyjama trousers that he doesn't recognise, and of all things, that's upsetting, these new trousers – a nice pair, dark blue, in a fine material, and it almost makes him cry that John has worn these while Sherlock has never seen them before. He breathes, trying to get himself under control. Hysteria over pyjama trousers and all they can stand symbol for isn't acceptable right now.
He tosses the garments over to the bed, and John cracks open an eye, picks them up and wriggles his legs into them without getting up.
“All right,” Sherlock says, awkwardly, feeling the front of strength that he was projecting cracking more and more as he looks at John, pale and glowing strangely grey against the sheets. “I'll just –”
“Fuck you if you think you can go away after forcing me into this,” John snaps, opening one eye and managing to pack a lot of power in the half-stare. “You'd better be here to help me through it when I wake up.”
“I was just going to go into the living room,” Sherlock says.
“Well, don't,” John says, harshly.
So Sherlock toes off his own shoes carefully, puts them next to John's, prohibits himself from looking at the way the two pairs sit there together (when did he become attuned to clothes and metaphors that be found in them? Honestly), and sits down on the other side of the bed, the bed that used to be his and is John's now.
“You should get me some water,” John murmurs.
“I will,” Sherlock says, quietly. “Once you're asleep.”
“Considerate,” John hums.
“No, you really don't.”
Sherlock doesn't argue. John's body is relaxing into the mattress; his breath is becoming more steady.
“Tell me something,” John says, drowsily, his eyes till closed.
“To help me drop off.”
Sherlock shifts, is a bit surprised to see what John wants from this; a reassurance that he's still there. “What can I – what do you want me to –”
“Not what happened. I want to be awake for that. Something else.”
Sherlock swallows. Then launches into a soft version of when he met Lestrade. John falls asleep somewhere around the point (slightly smoothed over, to be honest) at which Sherlock spent a night in jail for insulting police personnel and disrupting a criminal investigation.
He hacks into John's computer, but is sure to leave all of John's files unopened – he doesn't know if he's quite been forgiven for anything, and John's always been touchy about Sherlock cracking his passwords. The password is mundane and has nothing to do with Sherlock, and somehow that's comforting and annoying at the same time. Sitting against the headboard, John curled into a sleep next to him that is growing increasingly clammy and twitchy, Sherlock scrolls through webpages on alcohol withdrawal, even though he knows a fair lot about what to expect, and then spends a short while reading through John's blog posts. The lack of them and the terseness of John's prose tells him more than any flood of words could, and he looks next to him, at the way John is working his jaw in his sleep, and shakes his head against the sharp pang of relief and guilt, trying to clear his mind.
The quiet is welcome; there's so much to organise, so much to process, but it's not really working – John is too much of a presence, which he always has been, since the beginning, sometimes stimulating and sometimes enervating Sherlock's thinking, but always so there, so present.
He flicks his eyes over the blanket that he's got ready for when John starts experiencing temperature switches, the large glass of water, the cold cloth to cool John should he need it.
It's not going to be pleasant, and he's going to stick with John through it every step of the way, to try to undo some of the steps that he didn't take with John, some of the pushes he gave him to fall into the direction that he dropped into. To give some counterbalance. To repent, maybe.
John wakes up and immediately brings up a hand to grab Sherlock's knee.
“I can have one paracetamol,” he groans. “Bathroom cupboard.”
Sherlock goes to search for the painkiller, holds it between his fingers like a bomb.
“Do you want some tea?” he asks as he comes back inside the bedroom.
John is a bit shiny with sweat, and a hand is draped over his eyes. “Yeah,” he murmurs, “some cafeïne might help.”
Sherlock hands him the pill and watches the pale shift of John's throat as he forces it down and drains the glass completely, sloshing some of the water over the sheets. Then Sherlock goes into the kitchen and flicks the kettle on, listening to the buzz of the lamp until the water's hot.
“God, you fucker,” John gasps, “I can't believe you're forcing me to do this. So fucking you, Sherlock, to come in here after more than a year and just – just take over again, fuck you, this isn't funny –”
He's a bundle of misery, of muscles relaxing and tensing, the shivers coming in more and more violent bursts.
“I'm just helping,” Sherlock tells him, “you wanted to do this or you wouldn't be doing it.”
John's response is a string of swear words, and it's almost funny to Sherlock how much he's missed John's cursing.
“It hurts,” John forces out, and his face as he angles it towards Sherlock is tight and clenched.
“Cramps,” Sherlock says.
“You fucking wanker,” John half-groans, “don't you think I fucking know what it is?”
“Do you still want to punch me?” Sherlock says.
John shudders through an exceptionally bad bout of shivers, before he looks back up and bites: “I will never stop wanting to punch you.”
“Punch me, then,” Sherlock says, offers up his face above John.
John doesn't, just groans deeply, then does throw out a hand, but it just grabs at Sherlock's side in a tight fist, gathering his shirt and tugging on him.
“'m cold,” John eventually forces out. Sherlock reaches over to tug the blanket back over him, that he'd kicked off in the previous stage, in which he was sweating and hot and clammy.
“Fuck that,” John says, and pulls him in further.
“All right, all right,” Sherlock responds, mouth dry, and draws back the blanket to settle next to John, then pulls it up again. “Happy?” he asks.
“Far from it,” is John's tense reply.
Sherlock waits for a moment; there's still too much space between them for John to really benefit from his body heat, but John doesn't make an attempt to cross it.
So he does, and pulls himself closer to John's side, and, after a second's hesitation, drapes his arm over the tight, shivering lines of John's torso.
“Thanks, you shit,” John almost sighs, and turns his head so his forehead touches Sherlock's nose.
During the night, when dawn is approaching and colours the sky a muddied pink, John grows confused and panicked – he calls out for Sherlock, even though Sherlock is right next to him, and when Sherlock responds, he seems even more out of balance, grasping at him with damp hands, shaking him. It takes Sherlock a while to realise that this isn't new, and it's just new that he's here to respond to his name.
“It's all right, John,” he says, for what seems like the hundredth time, and his dislike for inane platitudes is overtaken by the overpowering, overwhelming desire to make John feel better, to make John really feel that he's here, and he's not a dream, and there is life between them, and if they reach out they will catch something. So he keeps close to John – tangles their fingers together when John jerks awake from sleep and his limbs seem desperate to find something, someone; presses his face against John's chest when John gasps out “heart – palpitations,” and soothes the fever with his own fingers, cooled with water.
“Sherlock,” John says again, for what seems like the hundredth time.
“I'm here,” Sherlock responds.
“Don't leave again,” John says, and his heat against Sherlock is alarming; his body confused, burning up too much, trying to satisfy an urge. There's something John is missing – but it's not Sherlock anymore, and Sherlock wants John to realise that, so he presses his mouth against the side of John's face, against the curve of his temple, that burns beneath his touch.
“No,” he whispers against the heated skin, “don't worry.”
He doesn't know if John will remember any of this, and he doesn't know if he wants him to.
The nausea took longer to manifest itself than Sherlock would have expected, but now it's here. John spends two hours in the bathroom, first throwing up the toast he managed to eat for breakfast, and then all of the water, and then nothing; acid, air, his body clenching around absences.
Sherlock worries about the fact that John isn't holding down any water. He needs to keep hydrated above all.
“If this doesn't pass,” he begins, from the other side of the bathroom door, “you need to go to the emergency room.”
There's no response, so he leans a bit closer to the door, as though that will make John respond.
“Can you hear me?” he asks.
At the lack of response, he pushes open the door. John is a collapsed mess of muscle and shivers and sweat over the loo.
“Thanks,” John wheezes, then takes a minute to gather himself a bit. “Thanks for at least leaving me my dignity.”
Sherlock frowns. “I'll take the sarcasm as a sign that you're not quite dying yet,” he says, tensely. He crouches down, something hot playing in his chest, and without thinking smooths a hand over John's hair; damp, sticky. John makes a small sound at the contact. “There is nothing undignified,” Sherlock tells him, wondering at himself, “about fighting this.”
John's laugh is bitter and small.
“You're doing well,” Sherlock says, burying his fingers further in John's sandy hair.
“Yeah, I'm not a mess at all,” John breathes, but his head pushes back into the touch.
In the silence that follows, Sherlock experimentally rubs the pads of his fingertips over John's scalp, and John presses up to it, so he becomes a bit more bold and connects his palm to John's head, sliding it over the textures of the skull under his fingers, that hides so many thoughts and loves and hates and hurts.
“Vomiting over?” he finally asks, tracking the movement of his own hand with his eyes.
“For now,” John says weakly.
“You should try to have some water.”
“Yeah,” John agrees quietly.
And his weight is grateful, and tangible, and miraculously there as he leans on Sherlock as they hobble back to the living room.
Sherlock is glad there is no real delirium, no real hallucinations, though John stares at him every time he jerks from agitated sleep and seems to think at times that he's imagining Sherlock.
But he's clearer again after a while, and angry.
“I can't believe you did this to me,” he snaps as Sherlock drapes the wet cloth over his forehead again.
“There were times when I couldn't believe it,” Sherlock says evenly, catching the excess water trickling down John's temple with his fingers.
“I – fuck – I grieved you, Sherlock,” John says, eyes fluttering closed, his lashes damp.
Sherlock is about to say I grieved you too but holds back, because he can see that it's not the same by a long shot, and it surprises him, the intensity with which he wants to spare John that.
There is a while of quiet, of John just breathing, radiating heat, limbs exhausted, a silent weight next to Sherlock.
Then the tremors start again, the cramps in his abdomen, the plays of muscle in his thighs and arms. Sherlock puts his hand against them when he can, not because he can stop them that way, but to give something of a counterweight, an anchor, and John doesn't protest, so he doesn't stop.
“I don't know if I can do this,” John says after a while, even his teeth chattering now.
“Are you cold?” Sherlock asks.
“I can't do this,” John says.
“You can,” Sherlock responds immediately. “You can.”
“Why?” John says around mouthfuls of shiver.
“Because,” Sherlock says, slotting his fingers into the curve in John's neck that melts downward into his collar bone, “you are a soldier, and you'd just lost track of your war for a bit.”
John is silent for a moment. Even his body seems to go stiller.
“Are you my war?” he finally asks, eyes opening to look at Sherlock, shiny and bloodshot.
Sherlock drops a kiss to John's cheek, and there is no pretense that it is not a kiss.
“I know that you are mine,” he says, breathes against the flushed skin.
John's eyes are wavering, but focus on him as far as they can. “I think I –” John begins, but Sherlock shushes him.
“Save your energy,” he says. “It's only day one.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” John whispers, and some of the moment is lost, but Sherlock knows it isn't lost, really – it's just got put out of sight for a bit, and they'll find it again, if they look for it.
John sleeps through most of the night. Sherlock doesn't, and tries to justify his decision to put his head to John's chest and listen to his heartbeat; until he recognises, in an unremarkable moment in the dark, the street light steady and unwavering, that the medical necessity is far less greater than his own need for it, and the moment in which he tells himself that that's not wrong is another kind of peculiar, but he accepts it, because he's here now, and he's not leaving again if he can ever help it.
Day two is a hellish stretch of migraine and cramping; John shouts at Sherlock to leave him alone whenever Sherlock tries to touch him, and when he doesn't touch him, John pleads for his hands to soothe some of the pain. Sherlock alternates between the two, and scribbles everything down in the file he's now keeping on John's detoxification, and wonders in a quiet moment how much of that is for experimental purposes, and how much of it is to have a tangible reminder that he was here when this happened.
“Put your hand over my eyes,” John groans.
Sherlock does, trying not to exert too much pressure, allowing his long fingers to lightly skim John's lashes and the sticky surface of his warm skin.
“Yes,” John says, “darkness. Good,” and he goes a bit stiller under Sherlock's hand, his mouth untangling a bit, his jaw unlocking.
He's sleeping again ten minutes later.
After another eighteen hours, the immediate symptoms break somewhat, and John looks at Sherlock from where he's lying in a tangle of sheets, eyes clear, pale, full of shadows, alive, himself.
“Well,” he says, voice thick and croaky, “that was fun.”
“Glad to see you emerging,” Sherlock says, closing his hands around the curve of John's jaws. Belatedly, he realises that there is no reason to do this anymore, with John's core temperature restored to normality, but John is looking at him intently, and there is something in his eyes, and Sherlock isn't uncurling his fingers.
“It's not over,” John whispers.
“None of it is,” Sherlock agrees.
The withdrawal isn't over, that's for sure – the next 24 hours will have John falling back into what he has seemed to emerge from; new dangers, new corners to turn, and days after, there will still be symptoms, flaring hotly at times, and weeks after, he will still be caught by nausea and migraines, and years later, there will still be the desire to fill that small hole in him that will never fully get filled by anything else and that will pull at him with more strength whenever he feels himself slipping from who he wants to be. The siren call will never completely fade into silence.
Sherlock knows all about that, but he isn't sure that's what John means.
“You and I need to have a lot of talks,” John sighs, and he's John Watson, and he manages to sound menacing even with his face cupped in Sherlock Holmes' hands, looking pale and worn out, smelling of vomit and sweat and the peculiar smells of the lack of alcohol in a body that has grown used to it.
“A lot,” Sherlock agrees, dragging his thumb over the stubble on John's throat.
“What you did was – the worst thing anyone could ever do to anyone else,” John says, eyes slipping closed under the touch.
Sherlock hums. It's not untrue, though there are lots of other truths about it, as well.
“But Sherlock,” John says, and opens his eyes. “Thank you.” For coming back. For doing this with me. For holding your fingers to my pulse right now.
Sherlock swallows. “Yes,” he says, doesn't know what else to offer. Says, instead of all of the things he wants to: “I'll get you some tea.”
John's smile is small but genuine. As Sherlock watches his face, John's tongue comes out to lick at his lipped, chapped, dry. “Yeah,” he says.
Sherlock gently unsticks his fingers from John's throat, then gets off the bed to go make the tea.
“Sherlock,” John says, before he reaches the door. Sherlock turns around, expectantly. “You're, um... I think you might be –” John is a little flushed, and it's not withdrawal this time, Sherlock thinks. “I think you're my war, too.”
His hand on the doorknob is tight and clammy, and he's Sherlock Holmes, and he doesn't know what he's doing, and how he can make things right, because he's done so much wrong and there's so much debt unpaid, and his brain is screaming for a bit, but muscle memory is worth something after all, and before he knows it he's let go of the door, and is somehow with John on the bed again, and John's lips are salty and not at all soft – there's tears and sweat and the harshness of days of his teeth working at his lips to manage the pain, but it's John, and he laughs into the kiss, incredulously, impossibly, and Sherlock's hair is between John's fingers, and there's sunlight falling through the window, and they're alive, not ghosts, they're tangible, they can touch, and maybe this, Sherlock thinks vaguely, is the first step to getting something right.