At night, he still thought of it. He still thought of the blood and sweat and tears that belonged to John; all those things like a dying star that he wanted to steal away from him and swallow so it would burst inside him and leave John whole like he used to be. But he couldn't. He was unable to. So he watched John burn. He watched, and Moriarty reached out from beyond the grave to ensure that his promise was kept. A match was struck against the hard flint of his chest, and, for the first time in his life, Sherlock felt his heart smoulder away in a slow burn.
It felt like it was raining, raining all the time, even when he could feel the sun shining. One collectively large, incredibly dark cloud leaving a shadow over him everywhere he went. It was maddening, because he knew exactly what was wrong with him, but he couldn't do one single thing to cure it. Sherlock Holmes always wondered what it meant to die, but every time he woke up in a foreign world that wasn't anywhere near Baker Street or even London for that matter, every time he woke up and was reminded that John was not there, he knew he didn't have to wonder, because he knew what dying felt like. How odd it was, that his "death" was painless, yet being alive hurt so much more.
He didn't sleep much, but then again he never did. He slept easier when John was there, but now John's not there and when he allowed himself to slip into unconsciousness it was John he thought of so he could get some modicum of peace. He imagined John's hands stroking at his hair, brushing his temples, and John's voice as he drones on about nothing because he knows it's just white noise to help Sherlock block out the world.
There was never a time when John Watson didn't help him. That was who John was, that was who he would always be.
At night, he watched. He acknowledged but did not appreciate the irony that John was usually the watchdog of the pair.
He truly expected that, in their adventures, John would learn something, would have gleaned some kind of insight from the detective as to home security, but here he was, staring at that little flickering screen as John fumbled around the kitchen as he fixed his tea at 5:45 exactly, on the dot, precise, as John always did. He was, if anything, consistent and Sherlock was, if anything, as anal-retentive about surveillance as ever before.
It was a childish move; that was for sure. The sour look on Mycroft's face had not been unnoticed, as Mycroft well knew it would be. He knew his brother and therefore he knew the precise reason why he was being asked for such a silly favour. And so, with the words I'll see what I can do, but my power has its limits, I'm just a humble civil servant after all, Sherlock knew his brother acquiesced. He had known when he had dialled Mycroft's number and he had known when Mycroft met him in whatever broken down building they were in that Mycroft would say yes to him.
And so, every night, he chastised John's poor detective skills and every night he watched what John considered to be humdrum activities with the greatest fascination. And every night he thinks of one of their last nights together before Moriarty threatened to have John shot in front of him and Sherlock plummeted off that rooftop and began his three year exile.
Moriarty had called him first.
"I might kill him today." That soft voice, so effective at metamorphosing his blood into a cold lead. "No reason, though. I think I must be bored. Is this what it's like to be you?"
"I know you're there Shirley." He said, turning playful. "You're thinking of a way to talk me down, like I'm about to jump off the ledge. You know there's no way, though, and now you're trying find another way. It's like watching a mouse trying to find its way through the maze."
A pulsing, pounding silence greeted him.
"I could skin him. That would be fun. And you know how I do love a good skinning. I could have you tied to a chair and pry your eyes open and have him strung up all pretty in front of you, like a rack of meat or a present waiting to be open. And I would open him, Sherlock. It would be as simple as slicing a papercut on him and then I would peel it. I would peel and pick and pull until he screamed, and it wouldn't take long for him to start, either."
A long exhale, a sigh, as Jim imagined the scene unfolding in front of him.
"I bet he would try to keep it in at first, don't you? He wouldn't want you to know how much he was suffering, but I would make that cry bloom in his throat, and I would make him scream, just for you. Because everything I do is for you, Sherlock. I would make him scream for you like you've wanted him to all these months. You'd finally know how it sounds. Maybe I'd even fuck him for you, in front of you. But sex is just so dull, isn't it? So…normal."
Sherlock was staring at John, where he sat reading in his chair, unaware and ignorant that Moriarty was now talking in great detail about his hypothetical demise. Hypothetical. And Sherlock would make sure that's all it was.
"You're not that depraved."
"And you aren't goaded into arguments easily." Moriarty answered slyly. "What was it that I said that made you want to play? Was it the skinning of our good doctor, or was the image of me fucking him just too much for you?"
John scratched at his left shoulder, just where his scar was. He had that wound before they met...how many more would he have after Moriarty was done with them?
"I take it from your silence that it could be either," Moriarty continued, "but we both know which one it was, don't we, my darling, dear, deprived Sherlock? Is The Virgin feeling a wittle fwustwated at these new feelings—wait. Wait." It was a hiss, a breath of realisation. When Moriarty spoke next he was nearly giddy. "Don't tell me you love him. No…no. The great Sherlock Holmes, in love?" Moriarty laughs, a clang on cold metal. "I just thought you wanted to fuck him! Oh my god, Sherlock, do you know how beautiful this is? Knowing that you love Doctor John Watson? This is beyond beautiful. This is exquisite. I could get Bess' jewels for you again, as a wedding gift...I'd do that for you, Sherlock, I hope you know that. I really would."
"No, I'm not." He says, so sure of himself and his convictions. "You know, I think I'll round up all your little friends and pick them off one by one. Your landlady first, since there's not much of her to play with. Then that friend of yours, that Detective Inspector Lestrade you work with—"
"He's not my friend."
"Yes he is. You think he's not, but it's quite obvious that he is. Where was I? Oh, right. Our dear Detective Inspector. Little Greggy. But if you don't care that much about him, I suppose I'll get rid of him as quickly as your landlady, which really is a shame because I do so love to play with my food. Then I'll get to your brother. Magnificent, maladjusted Mycroft. He's too proud to cry or scream in front of anyone, even if I was carving my name into where his heart should be. He wouldn't be any fun…" Moriarty's tone was contemplative before it turned accusatory. "What's wrong with you Shirley? Why don't your friends like to play? I'm already disappointed. Maybe I'll leave them for later. But John Watson. Our Doctor. He will be worth the wait."
Sherlock focused on John's right hand as he turned the page, if only to remind himself that John was here, and not in Moriarty's hands.
"I think I'll run my fingers through his hair and make him bleed." Moriarty whispered, quiet excitement bleeding into his voice. "I think I'll touch him where you never will, where you're afraid to, and I'll make you watch until he screams for you to help him. And then…I'll kill him." He was eager now, a deranged kid in a macabre candy shop. "Oh, to see your face when it happens too, that would be incredible. There are a million things I could do to give him a slow death too, to make him feel it, and then I'll untie you both and lock you up so you can cradle his body. In his final moments he'll know, everything will finally click in that little brain of his, and that will just be the icing on the cake for me. It really will. Knowing that, with his dying thoughts, he realises all he could have had, and then he loses everything… it will kill you, won't it?"
Sherlock's hand was white with strain.
"It will kill you, because you know, deep down in that dusty shelf that you never go to, that he would understand that he won the love of the great Sherlock Holmes and yet he did nothing with it, even though he would have. And you know he would have. He would have loved you and cooked you meals and kissed you when he got home and—oh god—he would have even fucked you and you wouldn't have to imagine what that felt like anymore."
"Why are you doing this?"
"You know why."
"I know you're trying to bait me into trying to find you more quickly than I am currently trying to and I know you're using the safety of my landlady, brother, flatmate and colleague as leverage, but I want to know why."
"Why did you answer the phone? Why did you listen to me instead of hanging up? Why do we play this game? You need someone to validate your feelings. If that means I threaten those close to you just so you'll realise their worth to you, so be it. Your fall will be that much sweeter. It's going to taste so good, watching you realise that you've lost not only your friends, but the love of your life. You will be all alone, Sherlock Holmes, with no one to love."
"I don't love, Jim. Love is for people who have nothing better to do with their time than to give their vulnerability to someone else. Love is for idiots."
"Sometimes," Jim's voice was soft again, resigned. "You are just too simple, Sherlock."
And he hung up.
Sherlock sat in stillness, willing his limbs to move as he shut his eyes.
"You should really reconsider giving your number to psychopaths." John said from his chair. John, beautiful, loyal, brave, level-headed John, closed his book and turned to look at Sherlock over the chair. "So, how's Moriarty?"
"What did he want?"
"I—" The image of John, dangling in front of him by his arms, flayed open, bloodied by Moriarty's hand, flashed before him. "He just wanted a friendly chat."
"Friendly? That doesn't sound like him."
There was a pooled tenseness in John's face.
"You want to say something." Sherlock said quietly. "Say it."
"Your opinion on matters concerning Moriarty are never nothing, John. I'm sure you know by now how useful your opinion is to me."
"Is that all I am?" John said suddenly. "Useful?"
"You're feeling underappreciated. Of course you're useful to me, John, you've always been useful and I appreciate you."
John sighed and stood, tossing his book back on the chair as he walked over to get his coat.
"I'm going out. You can ring up Moriarty and then have a nice chat about how it's great not to have friends or be in love and I will just go down to the pub until I can't see straight."
As John walked out of the door, he muttered something in the hall that, propelled by that air from the closing door, floated to Sherlock and settled neatly on the table in front of him.
That struck the match.
Sherlock closed his eyes, thinking back on what could possibly have made John so cross, so suddenly. When he came in from work an hour ago he seemed quite peaceful, so something happened between then and now that made him irritable. He had found a human thumb wired to a potato in the fridge before he made dinner, but that wouldn't faze him anymore, much less make him angry. Angry was a word he didn't usually use when he thought of John. John was irritable, annoyed, cranky or upset, but he was never angry. He never flew into an uncontrollable rage—focus. John breathed a heavy sigh at finding the thumb, he burned his hand on the stove and later slightly tore the wrist of his jumper, all things that would make him briefly, mildly irritated, but nothing that would cause him to leave in such a hurry. After dinner he had done some paperwork then he started his book then Moriarty called and—
The culprits were his answers to Moriarty's taunting, though taken out of context.
"He's not my friend."
"My flatmate and colleague…"
"I don't love, Jim. Love is for people who have nothing better to do with their time than to give their vulnerability to someone else. Love is for idiots."
His first conclusion was Fuck. John knows, his second and far more rational conclusion was John knows, and it makes him upset and his third and most reasonable conclusion was John doesn't know, but from what he's gathered, he thinks I consider him the lowest of acquaintances and wouldn't bother to give him the honour of my friendship, let alone my vulnerability and—oh.
With that oh, with that finite little word, Sherlock realised what he should have known all along, a habit he had formed with matters concerning common sense, a habit that he needed to break as soon as he could.
He was in love with John Watson, that much was clear already, and John Watson was also in love with him, but hadn't acknowledged it until just know, just when Sherlock himself proclaimed that love was for idiots.
John thought he had been rejected.
The heart inside Sherlock Holmes began to smoke.
One night, while John was plainly eating his plain dinner at their plain table and Sherlock watched him with utter fascination from one of the cameras that Mycroft had installed, right where they found the last one on that dusty bookshelf, Sherlock realised that John very well might never recover.
Not in the physical sense of course, since Sherlock had done everything in his power to ensure that John was not injured that day, but emotionally, since psychosomatic injuries were the hardest to cure. He could see the strain in John's bad arm as he ate, could see the constant frown that dragged his face down, could see the slight limp that appeared when John carried his plate to the sink. He had thought that John had gotten rid of all those things since he had moved in, but he knew that he, Sherlock, was the real reason all those things had gone and why they know returned with a bitter vengeance.
Sherlock was not the hugging type, in any sense, since hugging him would be like hugging a mannequin or a body stuck in the throes of rigor mortis, but that did not mean that he did not appreciate the ideaof a hug; two human beings willingly accepting physical touch that in turn triggered a feeling of personal comfort. If he ever hugged anyone in his life, Sherlock would hug John, because, in the simplest and most basic sense, John, more than anyone else, needed a hug. Sherlock assumed he was too proud to travel downstairs and ask Mrs. Hudson for one, but he also knew that John's sense of moral propriety and social rigidity wouldn't allow him to knock on her door and ask their landlady for a hug before going back upstairs without another word.
John still seemed to have some resemblance of a life, which was good. He still called and met with old friends, there were still nights were he went out, but every night he dutifully returned, and that's wasn't an exaggeration. Every night Sherlock watched and every night that door to their—well, John's—flat opened and every night John walked in, sometimes slightly tipsy, sometimes not, but always alone. Sherlock didn't know whether to feel elation or depression at this. He usually felt depressed, but that wasn't new at all. He wanted John to not be a warzone anymore, to not have that hole where the bullet pierced him burn every night, to not be the devastation after the atomic bomb dropped and burned away everything but shadows, but he was, he was, and Sherlock couldn't change that and, for a rare time in his life, knowledge physically hurt him. John's resemblance of a life was a lonely one, and that was bad, very bad.
After John muttered Idiot, the door closed and he left, Sherlock waited out the night for him to return from whatever pub he had gone to, but of course Sherlock knew exactly where he was because humans were creatures of habit and John even more so. He settled into his chair, fingers curling around the ends like a stone grotesque burying its claws into Notre Dame, and he waited.
While he waited, he planned, as Sherlock was prone to do. He had thirteen scenarios planned for the moment John walked through that door, and was working on three more when, lo and behold, the good Doctor himself entered the flat, or staggered in, rather.
His cardigan was slightly askew and Sherlock could see flakes of peanut shells caught in the fibres, as well as a slightly dark, moist spot on his sleeve where beer had splashed onto it as he drank his way to clumsiness. But he wasn't drunk—John rarely got drunk—he was merely sloshed, as per what usually happened when he ran into a few of his rugby friends. His hair was slightly mused from where his friend had ruffled it and Sherlock felt a tiny jealous needle prick his skin because he had always wondered, in a purely scientific (or so he convinced himself) sense, what John's hair felt like because it looked smooth and soft, even when he had product in it. There was a scuff on John's right shoe at the toes where he had bumped into someone's chair and a thin green thread snagged under the nail of his pointer finger on his right hand from patting them on the shoulder in apology. Under the nail of his other pointer finger there were traces of tobacco leaves, which struck Sherlock the most because he was certain that John didn't smoke much less roll his own fags, proved by his fastidious refusal to give Sherlock any cigarettes of any form, a refusal which Sherlock still held against him. He could take John by the hand and lead him to the chair, pick out a few leaves from his nail on the way and have them under his microscope for analysis before John even knew what was going on, but he knew that would be quite unnecessary.
John only had one foot in the door by the time Sherlock had managed to wrap all of his conclusions about John's night up in a neat package.
"You're not in bed yet?" John asked, shedding his cardigan and hanging it.
"Who did you meet at the pub? Was he a soldier as well?"
John paused, a grin creeping onto his face before he batted it aside. How exactly Sherlock deduced these things, he'd never know, but it was incredible all the same. He'd never get tired of it.
"Yes, Sherlock, I met another soldier. When he was paying I saw a tattoo on his wrist, his division insignia. Thought I'd be friendly since apparently that's not welcome here, and I said hello. We got to talking and it turns out that he was in my sister division in Afghanistan. Honourable discharge."
"Did he tell you his name?"
"Yeah, funnily enough, that's what humans use to introduce themselves to each other."
"His name, John." Sherlock gritted out. He didn't have time for games, not when he harboured that desperate need for his suspicions to be confirmed so he could properly, as John would say, freak out.
"It was—uh—Moran. Sebastian Moran."
Sherlock stood, feeling that cold palpable heart thud madly in his chest.
"Sherlock? What's wrong?"
"What did you talk about?"
"What did we talk about?"
"Yes, that's what I asked!" Sherlock snapped, his fear for John greatly eclipsing any desire for polite formalities.
"We—we talked about the war and our duties in Afghanistan and football…things that normal people talk about in polite conversation." John said as he sat down into his raggedy chair.
"Did you talk about me at all?"
"We discussed things that normal people talk about in polite conversations, and seeing as you're not normal or polite, I didn't mention you. Blimey, Sherlock I didn't think your ego was so big that you thought a stranger should know about you—"
"This isn't a joke, John! When have I ever deliberately joked with you?" Sherlock took a deep calming breath. "Sebastian Moran, former sniper in the Queen's Army, is now a gun for hire, an assassin working out of Moriarty's pocket."
John stilled at the revelation. He realised long ago that he could never truly doubt anything Sherlock said, so he usually took whatever came out of that perfectly shaped cupid's mouth to be gospel truth. He always seemed to pick the oddest and most inappropriate times to think about Sherlock's mouth.
"John." Sherlock's voice brought him back. "John." Sherlock moved down the sofa, peering into John's eyes and everything perfect and beautiful about the man, his voice, the pillar at the top of his nose, the bow of his lips, the piercing grey gaze, everything, they all banded together and smacked John right in the face. "Do you know just how close you were to being killed tonight, all because Moriarty wanted you to be?"
"Do you know," Sherlock went on, "Just how close you were sitting to your assassin? While you were talking with him about bloody rugby he was probably thinking of a hundred ways to slit your throat or shoot you in the heart or in your head and then get away without anyone identifying him."
Before he blurted it out, Sherlock managed to mould Do you know how close I came to losing you into "Do you know how close you came to dying tonight?"
"But that's—that's completely unlike Moriarty." John countered, coming to his senses once he shook his brush with death off. "Moriarty is like you. He always has a reason for whatever he does, he always..." John trailed off at the look on Sherlock's face and realised what he had said. "Oh, dammit, Sherlock, you know I didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry, I just meant you guys think very similarly is all—"
"You could not have Jim Moriarty or myself more wrong than you do in this moment." Sherlock began lowly, fingers clasped together. "You think Jim Moriarty is a man of principle, a man with rules, like me. You think Jim Moriarty is a man of decency and propriety. You think Jim Moriarty is a man, but he is not a man, John, he is a beast. An absolute beast, a monster that lives in the dirty veins of London, a pathogen that snatches cells up and swallows them and turns them into viruses. Jim Moriarty is a cancer, a gangrenous limb that needs to be sliced off before infection can spread."
Sherlock stood and began to pace.
"He could have killed you, tonight. He could have called Moran and told him to get rid of you and he wouldn't even bat an eye, but he didn't. He didn't. Why? He—" Sherlock froze, shutting his eyes.
"Sherlock? What is it?"
"You were right. He is like me."
"No he's really not Sher-did you…did you just say I was right?"
"Now is not the time, John. I'm having a revelation."
"Care to share with the rest of us lowly mortals?"
"Moriarty didn't kill you tonight because he was sending a message to me." Sherlock turned, looking John square in the eye. "He was telling me that he can kill you whenever and wherever he wants, and there's not a thing I can do to stop him. The only thing in his way is whether he feels like it or not."
"Oh, to see your face when it happens too, that would be incredible…"
And whether Sherlock was there to witness it. That was essential in Moriarty's plan. That was the checkmate. Sherlock had to be there. That was why John was spared tonight. Moriarty had called to savour the last peaceful moments of Sherlock's existence, knowing that he was about to kill John, knowing that he was going to crush Sherlock's heart in his hand, in a fiery implosion. Moriarty had called to—
Sometimes, though he would never admit it to anyone, not even John, Sherlock was astounded by his idiocy, by his blindness. Sometimes, and maybe he would admit this to John one day, he even suspected that some part of his subconscious didn't want to realise too much too quickly, and so it drove his mind around in a circle until it reached a conclusion that he had already known.
Moriarty had called, knowing Sherlock, knowing his pride would get the best of him, knowing that John would misconstrue Sherlock's word and storm out, and then he called Moran and told him to go down to the pub and wait for John, told him to pay with his sleeves rolled up and his tattooed wrist showing so John could see it. And he knew that Sherlock would notice the tobacco and ask John who he had met, and he knew that Sherlock would realise just how far he was willing to take this game.
Moriarty had sent him a message, and Sherlock had gotten it, loud and clear.
He would kill John one day, when he was ready to watch Sherlock burn, but until then he was going to have some fun. He would never let Sherlock forget that every time John went out, he would meet another Moran, another bug caught in Moriarty's web, and Sherlock would know that, with each meeting, John took one more step closer to his own death until finally it was Moriarty himself sitting across from him, ready to kill him, ready to make them both suffer.
With this revelation, Sherlock strode to the door, grabbing his coat and scarf and hastily shrugging them on.
He turned, not realising that John hadn't come to the same conclusions he had, that John was so far away from the same conclusions that he was in an entirely different galaxy. John had heard Sherlock say Moriarty would kill him when he felt like it, and now Sherlock was in a hurry to get out the door. In John's eyes, as far as Sherlock's knowledge extended (he wasn't yet telepathic, but he was looking into it), it looked like Sherlock was jumping ship and leaving John to flounder.
"I will never leave you, John." He said it as a fact, as something that could not be disproven, ever. "I have to go talk to Molly."
He left without another word.
The next day, Sherlock Holmes plummeted off the roof of St. Bart's as John watched him leave, thinking all the while that he could never take anything Sherlock said as fact again. Right before Sherlock hit the ground, right as that damned cyclist swiped John and sent him sprawling, John realised that, as the smell of pavement and blood filled his senses, he was in love with Sherlock Holmes.
There are many different kinds of privacy, Sherlock concluded as he watched John shuffle around the living room, tidying things up before he moved down the hall. Or rather, people had different views of them. There was working privacy, where you sat and you were expected not to be interrupted as long as it was expected of you that you were working. There was home privacy, where you could lock yourself in your bedroom or your bathroom and do whatever your little heart desired and no one would barge in. And there was personal privacy, where you expected that, if you didn't try and pry your way into those hearts filled with the darkest poison, they wouldn't burst like cyanide capsules and embitter you.
Sherlock had managed to nicely compartmentalize all of those areas into his bedroom. His bedroom, where he would work in peace, lock himself in during a tantrum or frustrating case in peace, and be as bitter as he'd like to be when John went out in peace. His bedroom was his church, his mosque, his tabernacle, the place where he could shut his eyes and block the world out and expect absolutely silence.
John had been in his bedroom before, when that Woman had drugged him (he never thought about it if he could help it), but John had never lingered to look around or poke through his stuff, because that was not who John was, and Sherlock appreciated it. He could compartmentalize John all he liked, all day and all night, and it would be an endless Russian-doll scenario. As much as he hated to admit it, John Watson was just as much a mystery to him as the solar system or fruit cake. John Watson was a pan-galactic fruit cake.
But as much as John respected Sherlock and all his eccentricities and privacy issues, John was curious, he was finally answering the call and killing the cat, and Sherlock couldn't stop him.
John was opening the door to his Kaaba, his Holy Sepulchre, his Wailing Wall, and he was not there to stop him. He wasn't there to lay a hand on his doorknob and proclaim to John, as he once did (he only warned once), that his bedroom was infinitely off limits. He wasn't there to stop John's feet from crossing the threshold, he wasn't there to stop John from opening his bedside drawer and finding John's own personally folded, presumed missing striped jumper, and he wasn't there to walk in and find John kneeling in front of his bed, clutching that jumper as if it was the only thing that mattered anymore. The camera's resolution wasn't high enough to show the wetness on John's face, but Sherlock was, if anything, excellent at insight.
It didn't make it hurt any less. If anything, it hurt more.
He wasn't there, and that was the worst thing. That was Moriarty's revenge.
He felt cold iron stoke the coals in his chest.
Mycroft picked up on the first ring, expecting the call ever since he watched John and the landlady leave for the cemetary.
He just left, brother mine.
You'll keep him safe?
I wouldn't have this minor position if I didn't do my job right. When are you leaving?
As soon as I can. There's one place I have to stop by first.
If he sees you, all you've done is for naught—
Don't you think I know that?
There was a sharp venom in his voice before it softened.
Mycroft, Sebastian knows who he is, what he looks like, and he's out for blood.
Really? I would have thought Moriarty blowing his brains out would have sufficed.
Don't be so crass, it doesn't suit you. You know Moriarty had Moran wrapped around his finger.
If he kills John—
But if he tries—
He won't, Sherlock. He doesn't have orders to anymore.
If someone killed me, would you wait for orders to go after them?
Silence. Then, the last words Mycroft spoke to his brother for three years.
I'll watch him closely.
One night, John went out, and so Sherlock waited the night for him to come back, as he usually did. But John didn't come back that night, and Sherlock spent the hours declining into his lowest state of being in years.
He knew John would move on eventually. Three years was his cap on waiting, apparently. Three years was enough. John had found someone else, at least for the time being, and Sherlock should be happy, he should be bouncing off the walls in joy, but instead he stared at that monitor with an abstract sadness, with the knowledge that, yes, this really was the end, at least for John.
When John didn't come home the next day, Sherlock began to worry.
Of course he still remembered hsi brother's number.
Mycroft? It's me.
There was the sound of movement, as if Mycroft had straightened up in his chair.
And so the prodigal Magellan returns.
Where is John?
I'm fine, by the way.
Where is he, Mycroft?
Someone disengaged his tracker sometime last night, I'm afraid.
Someone…you put a GPS in him?
Well you told me to look after him, and that was the easiest and least cumbrous option for all involved parties.
And he agreed to that?
Of course he didn't, Sherlock. Don't be daft.
What time last night? Where did he go?
He went down to the pub outside of your flat around seven pm, and then the signal was lost around half past seven.
Well what causes it to be lost?
Numerous things, really. It could be a bad connection, it could be a high speed radio communicating on the same frequencies, it could be a strong, concentrated electro-magnetic pulse, you could even rack it up to faulty electronics…or someone could have taken it out manually.
Removed, ripped, plucked out by hand, yes. All of those options apply here.
I made a promise you once and I don't intend on breaking it. I've already sent someone to take care of it.
It may have been the only time that Sherlock truly meant it, because Mycroft understood him. He understood what John meant, he understood why Sherlock didn't tell him where he was, and he understood why he was not complimented on his recent and substantial weight loss or his promotion or why Sherlock didn't ask how he was. Because he knew that Sherlock knew.
It seemed that it was John's lot in life to make Sherlock worry about him. Hope springs eternal, and so does Sherlock's anxiety.
And Mycroft, clever, brilliant Mycroft, had found a way to communicate to Sherlock John's safety the next morning without the danger and luxury of a phone call. To anyone else, it sounded like a faulty alarm clock or a phone ringer gone rogue, but Sherlock knew better. As soon as he heard the beeps sounding out through their—John's—empty flat, he grabbed the nearest paper and pen and scrawled out the message.
John's safe, passed out at friend's flat. Bad wiring—M.
As long as he would live and as expansive as his phonetic knowledge was, Sherlock would never find a word to describe how he felt the moment he saw John entered that door, roughed up and hungover, but alive and well, despite how he must be feeling.
For the first time in a long time, Sherlock smiled. It was, however, as all things are, short-lived in face of what was to come.
Sherlock found himself outside 221b Baker Street for the first time in three years on a Thursday. He didn't particularly care for Thursdays.
Hesitantly, he slipped his key into the lock and turned, relaxing as he heard it churn the tumblers as they unlocked the door. Why, in three years, would Mrs. Hudson have any reason to change the locks? That was a good sign. It meant no one had tried to attack them, or at least not from the street.
The staircase was the same as always, and he climbed slowly, feeling the creak of the wood under his weight. That door in front of him…John was on the other side. That fact alone made him want to bound up, skipping steps as he went, and throw the door open, but at the same time, it made him want to turn and flee, go back the way he came and continue his purge of Moriarty's underworld, only there was very little web left that he could burn away. He had made sure of that.
He turned the knob and opened the door, but what did he expect to see? John, waiting for him with a hot pot of tea? John, smiling from the chair or dusting their skull like nothing had happened? How odd it was that when John had moved in the skull was his, it was Sherlock's property, but now it is theirs, his and John's, and it didn't even bother him. Did John consider it his now since Sherlock didn't factor into the equation anymore?
Well, whatever he had expected to see, at least, in every scenario, John was there. Now, standing in the middle of their empty flat, John was most definitely not there. Should Sherlock go back downstairs and hide and wait until John returned and then he could bound up the stairs and throw open the door and shock John into cardiac arrest? Or should he sit in his chair (he was quite pleased that John had kept it) and wait in stoic stillness for John to open the door and turn on the lights and see him and then proceed to go into cardiac arrest (all these situations involved John and cardiac arrest, although he knew one of those things was highly improbably since John had a very healthy cardiovascular system)?
And furthermore, what could he possibly say to alleviate three years of unending longing and sorrow? Sorry just wasn't enough for how he felt about abandoning the doctor. Sorry was what a child would say if he drew on the walls (Sherlock knew better than to do that, but Mycroft didn't). Sorry was what you would say to a friend or loved one if you had erred, but sorry was not what you said to a friend and loved one when you deserted them and left them stranded, alone, when you made them think you were dead, and then reappear years later and expect that to melt away all their grief.
Sorry would not cure John Watson's wounds, it would rip them apart.
Any scenario that Sherlock had anticipated was only that: a scenario. He knew that even the most logical daydreams tend to overshoot reality by lightyears. Occasionally, however, very occasionally, they overlap and meet each other with near-impossible precision and what you hoped would happen actually happened.
When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson met once more, this was not one of those moments.
As Sherlock waited for John in that cold, empty flat they used to share (a fact that they would hopefully resume), he could tell, simply from the things John had left out, all that he had been up to for those whole three years. The skull still sat on the mantle, as did his violin, which he was very happy to see, but that meant, along with the unrented room, that John had not forgotten him which was a very great and terrible thing. There was a woman's scarf hanging on the coatrack where Sherlock used to keep his own, but that was no surprise, since he saw this woman, Mary, around the flat nearly every day, yet by John's attitude towards her Sherlock had come to the conclusion that their friendship was platonic, which led to his conclusion of the obvious: she was a lesbian. Despite her constant presence and John's happiness around her, Sherlock knew that, at the end of the day, John was always alone. And, at the end of the day, so was Sherlock. If John still loved him, if he still wanted him after all he had done, then Sherlock would gladly trade anything if it meant he could be alone with John, together.
The tea John had poured into his mug was still cooling, so John left in a hurry, possibly for a medical emergency, possibly for something else. His laptop was on the counter, shut, so he had been looking at something before he ran out. His cane rested against the wall underneath the coatrack, but Sherlock didn't want to acknowledge that John might be needing it again and simply accepted that John had taken it out once long ago and forgotten to put it up. All of Sherlock's experiments were packed neatly away in a corner of the kitchen, all the boxes labelled and organised. He had watched John pack up his things, he had watched John clean out the fridge of all his experiments, and he had watched John come upon that potato wired to a thumb, gingerly pick it up and head for the trash bin before he thought twice, turned around, and put it back in the fridge. Though he appreciated the gesture more than he should have, Sherlock knew John would curse his name when he had to throw out the decomposing thumb and solanum out the next week, and he was proven correct.
Suddenly Sherlock was flooded with hundreds of words for what he could call himself, but all he could settle on was:
He stood and rushed to the door, throwing it open and closed before bounding down the stairs.
He chose the worst moments to realise his greatest errors.
He couldn't stop the cameras from catching his face earlier that day.
He hadn't meant to be a hero that day either, but as John had sponged some genius off of Sherlock in their time together, so had Sherlock absorbed John's sense of goodness, if only a miniscule amount.
It had been outside St. Bart's, proving that not only was fate cruel, it also had a sense of humour. Sherlock had just arrived back in London, his nose not yet immune the grimy smell as it once was, and he was even on his way to Baker Street because if he was going to see anyone after his exile, it was going to be John if he had any say in it. Some news station had sent a reporter to cover a story outside the hospital, probably about some new strain of the common cold or some other boring and tedious tale, but the reporter had stepped slightly off the curb during a live broadcast and Sherlock, passing by, merely took a moment to right her before moving on.
He was an idiot. An utter idiot. It hadn't occurred to him because, once again, he proved that geniuses don't pay attention to matters that held no worth to them, such as the solar system or fruitcake or a news broadcast about something trivial like a cold. It hadn't occurred to him that people would be watching the live broadcast and that maybe one of those people was John, who obviously had an interest in new strains of the common cold since he would have to treat it.
Sherlock was back outside of St. Bart's, as alive and well as he ever was, his eyes scanning the street for any sign of his doctor, any sign of John, when he finally saw him. After three years of wondering if he was forgetting what John looked like (because the camera's image was often grainy), of what John smelled like (because obviously cameras didn't have olfactory sensors), of what John's smile or his frown or his laugh were like (he would like to have a nice chat with Mycroft one day on the quality of his surveillance cameras), he spotted John in the crowd.
Finally, after more than a thousand days, he saw John Watson once more, long enough to last him a thousand lifetimes, and he was worried that it would be the last time.
"John!" That sandy blonde head wove through the crowd ahead of him, unaware of what was happening. A man turned to Sherlock as he passed and Sherlock irately yelled "No, not you, you idiot!"
Too many people, too many, and that was what Moran had been waiting for. He was going to fulfil Moriarty's last request, that John be killed where Sherlock Holmes could see it and he was going to do it because Moriarty was to Sebastian Moran what Sherlock was to John Watson, an invaluable man he held in the highest regard, whom he would gladly die for, whom he would gladly put his military skills to good use with, and whom he would avenge if given the chance. John had offered his life for Sherlock's at the pool that night they met Moriarty, and now it was simply Moran's turn, although it came to him too late.
He had not come all this way, had not put himself through hell and exile, to lose John before he found him again. Moran would certainly not be the force that took John away from him because he wasn't worth a million John Watsons, even if he tried.
He grasped the fabric of John's cardigan, the smell of him invading Sherlock's senses, as he pulled the doctor down, off the curb and into the gutter right as the sound of a bullet pierced the crowd. In the chaos of the rushing crowd, as he covered John's body with his own, kneeled uncomfortably over the curb, Sherlock could see the gunman being tackled down much more harshly than he had taken John down (he had been sure not to hurt John more than the situation called for). The man's head snapped back and Sherlock felt a rush of dread and admiration. That man was not Sebastian Moran, but he had most certainly been hired by him judging by the same tattoo he and Moran shared. Moran was clever, cleverer than Sherlock had given him credit for, and now…now the game was back on and Sherlock would win without a doubt this time.
John groaned from under him and Sherlock drew back, blocking the sun from John's face. As John looked up at him with great blue eyes in his great, perfect confused face, Sherlock felt a fantastic and beautiful friction in his heart as it scraped against his flint chest, a beast awakening from its long and terrible hibernation.
"Wh—Sherlock? Am I dead?" John said, looking around in confusion. "I mean...everything looks the same, but you're here, so...so, okay...okay. I'm dead. I'm alright with that if you're here—"
"No, John, you're not dead, and neither am I for that matter. You are, however, kneeling in dirty water in a very busy street, and I would feel much better if you were sitting in our flat where it's safe and, in general sense of the word, clean. So, if you don't mind, that's where I'm going to take you now."
The two now sat at the tiny table that they had crammed into the kitchen so long ago, before the schism split the gulf between them and that bitter black longing poured in until it overflowed. Two mugs of hot tea were in front of either of them, but only one actually drank it.
"I know how you felt, John. I felt the same way." Sherlock says quietly, staring at John with an infinite sadness that makes John's chest ache like there's a festering, rusting bullet lodged in it.
John opens his mouth, wanting to tell the man in front of him how wrong he was, and that he'd never know, never, about how John felt all those days and months and years. That bottomless pit, that rush of wind in his ears every night in those first few months that made him wake so violently, sweating and crying, feeling the most vulnerable he'd ever been, and in a state far worse than after he'd been shot and discharged. Sherlock would never know, and John wants to tell him so badly.
But he doesn't, because that's not who John is. He's a non-complainer, a man who suffers through hell and comes back stronger each time and doesn't tell anyone, not a single soul, of how he managed to climb his way out and return, even if it felt like someone had slashed open his chest and his heart tumbled out, catching under his feet before it was ripped out in his desperate attempt to escape; he had left it where it fell if he meant he could feel something again. When he saw the news that day, he had to run back to where he left it and hurriedly sew it back in, but in his haste he had placed it in backwards and it was twisting in on itself in an attempt to right the wrong and it was wrong, it was all wrong, wrong, wrong, and it would never be right again, yet still he hoped. Still he dreamed, and he thinks that might be all he has or will ever have in this life again.
There was no longer a knowing and a not knowing. There was only a quiet acknowledgement, a flutter in the vast expanses, of whom he has chosen to earn his love. He knows, he knows very well what he feels, thank you, and he won't trouble anyone with it because no one needs to know but the one person he doesn't want to know.
John is a non-complainer until the end.
"I'd say you don't know what it felt like," John begins quietly after that finite silence, turning his eyes up to his friend. "But I know that would be incredibly self-pitying, and more importantly it would be incredibly wrong because I know you felt exactly as I did."
Sherlock says nothing, which all but confirms John's suspicions.
"I'm not mad, at least, not anymore." John says, knowing full well the difference between what Sherlock needs to hear and what he wants to or doesn't, as well as that they must be said anyways. "I mean, how can you be mad about something you don't really understand? But I did understand, or I think I do, now."
Sherlock takes a slow sip of his tea and John nearly smirks because it's decaffeinated and he knows how much hate Sherlock reserves for decaffeinated, non-nicotine substances.
"You had to go. I had to remain here. It was simple, Sherlock. It was so simple. But," John's eyes close. "But it hurt so much—so much more than I thought it could."
"John—" Sherlock interrupts, his voice quite and hoarse as he looks up, but John keeps going, needing to explain to this man before him just what had happened to him. He needed him to know and wanted him to understand.
"I promised if I wouldn't fall apart, I would remember everything. You would come back if I kept myself together, in one piece."
"But that wasn't healthy for me to think that, so I tried not to, but I still felt it, like you try to forget about a healing wound but you still know it's there, and then one day you bang it on the coffee table or on a corner of the counter and you feel it tear open all over again. I bled every day, every day the wound opened a little more. I don't think I have much left in me to lose."
"You don't have anything to worry about anymore." Sherlock says and John looks up, hoping to hear a comforting word or too. "What you just described is medically impossible, but in the metaphorical sense that was quite poetic."
The kitchen is silent before John starts to chuckle and Sherlock smiles, although he didn't mean his words to be humorous.
There are no tears or hugs or kisses. They are both too raw for that, too naked and bare before the other and the uncomfortable self-consciousness hasn't completely left them yet.
So, life resumes for the pair, but it's heavy with mud and dirt and sadness, something easily repairable but impossible to address. The solution is simple enough, when one side is stronger than the other it's a checkmate, but, in this case, when two sides are too frightened to move, it's simply a stalemate.
Sherlock moved back in, or rather he just started sleeping at their flat again since all of his things had never left. He and John do not mope because they are not the type, but the move around each other like two planets that share the same orbit and have to shift apart so one can pass. But neither of them want to pass and that is where they are now, an incontrovertible state of non-being, that area between two similar magnetic poles as they hover before one another, about to reject each other and fly apart.
They do not ignore one another because they were not those types of friends before the incident, and they are not those types of friends afterwards. They know exactly what they are, and they don't want to put a name on it. They still talk and laugh together and solve cases as they once did, but they tentatively step over that bottomless puddle that they are afraid to step in. John is afraid of drowning, and Sherlock knows that if they just took that one step that their heads would remain above water and they could keep each other afloat. That puddle is not as deep as they think it is, but they are afraid to find out how far the bottom really is.
It takes one case, one lead, one chase and the one and only Thames to break them out of their black orbital life.
John dashes over the sand, finding that wherever he is, be it London or Qurya, the sand is still the same and he is still a soldier, as he will always be. There's no distinction to be made when sand is flying in your face and it spills into your shoes, no oh, well it's softer here or there's blood in this one. Gritty, coarse, unrefined, and it gets in his face whatever continent he's on.
The figure in front of him makes a mad dash through the banks of the Thames, right to the water, and John knows that he won't hesitate to jump in and swim for it, but then again, neither will John. Sherlock is in hot pursuit of both of them but that damn coat is slowing him down. John's already shed his jumper, running in the winter weather in a thin thermal, but it doesn't matter because his heart is racing like it used to and his blood is pumping and he feels alive again. Soldiers weren't meant for sidelines. They were meant for war and adrenaline and a canned existence that could explode at any minute and that's why it was so precious and bloody and so very instant. Instant action, instant gratification, instant glory.
But John doesn't want any of that. He wants simple things, like a peaceful flat and hot tea and a nice warm jumper on a winter morning and he wanted that to include his on-again, off-again, on-again flatmate. Hopefully, after this chase ends, he can go home and have every simple thing he wanted.
The runner turns around just as he reaches the edge of the water and John sees him for the first time in that one second.
He's a child, a boy, certainly not past seventeen, but he has the face of an adult that's been continuously trampled by the world, clubbed and beaten to sleep every night by circumstance. John sees all this, and he feels for the boy because that could very well have been him, and he sees the boy toss his rucksack into the river and he sees the boy raise his gun and aim at him as he dashes after that precious rucksack, although it's more what's in it that counts. As John arcs up and dives into the water, he sees Sherlock reach the boy just as he fires. But Sherlock can't stop him in time and he has fired, a stray bullet from a stray gun from a stray boy.
John thinks it's hit him right where that first bullet did so many years ago, but further evaluation tells him that it only clipped the underside of his arm, certainly nothing fatal even though it feels like he's burned himself, and he continues his mad swim to the rucksack, flowing away from him in the current. The water is cold and piercing, but not unbearable, and John knows he may very much have hell to pay afterwards as he fights off the cold he's quite likely to get. Water foams and curls around him, a man trapped in the pulse of the river as he chases a cancerous cell through its chilled veins. As his fingers close around a strap he feels that rough texture, knows the rucksack must be from an army surplus store, and the irony that this rucksack could very well have been his one day if he hadn't been shot is not lost on him as he pushes up for air, his lungs burning as much as his arm.
With a great gasp, John Watson breathes in fresh air.
With that one gunshot, Sherlock thinks that he has lost John after all, which wasn't fair for many, many reasons, but mainly Sherlock thinks it's unfair because, as much as he hates to admit it, if John were to die, he would rather it be by Sebastian Moran himself, and not by some stupid, scrawny street git who works for him.
In that moment Sherlock's brain swells and shrieks with anger, calling for blood blood blood because look what he did to John, John's been shot, and he's underwater and that bullet could have caught him anywhere and he could be drowning. In his anger, and he will never quite understand why it only rears its head in matters pertaining to John and John's safety (although, yes, he really does understand why, but doesn't like to acknowledge it), he knocks the scrawny street git out cold with one simple long pinch to his subclavian artery and rushes to the water.
He wrenches off his coat and scarf, fully intent on diving after John and pulling him out, when John breaks the surface, gasping for air and holding the rucksack in one hand. There is blood in the water around him. Sherlock splashes into the water, nearly tripping over a rock lodged in the sand, and helps John halfway out, his eyes running in a full sprint over him before concluding that the bullet merely grazed the lower half of John's right bicep and that he would very certainly survive.
"I got it." John smiles, handing him the rucksack, but Sherlock tosses it aside because why should he bother his hands with it when this perfect man is in front of him, wounded, and so proud that he got what they came for.
Sherlock wraps his arms around John tightly, gratefully, and John stiffens for a moment before throwing his arms around Sherlock . Sherlock's heart must be going at an inhuman speed as they kneel in the sand and water, an unconscious teenager a few feet behind them and the cold wind nipping at their wet clothes, but it feels like they're warm and it feels like they're safe and it feels like they're alive.
There are many things Sherlock wants to say to John, but all that's coming out is his name, a steady stream of "Johnjohnjohn..." like water trickling down rocks that have been smoothed by the current. Somewhere between two utterances of John's name, Sherlock finds that the phrase I love you, I love you so much has wedged itself to the point where there's no dislodging it and Sherlock would much rather it stay there than take it back. He draws back and kisses John's forehead, his temple, his eyelids and the philtral dimple between his perfect mouth and his perfect nose. He gets gritty wet sand in his mouth, but what does that matter? The phrase I love you is said once more before he feels a strong hand at his chest and he's pushed away to look at John.
"Sherlock, I—no. I can't."
As he turns away, Sherlock has the deadening feeling that he must have missed something, he must have been blind but may be didn't want to see. There was someone else. But all the theories didn't suit the facts; the facts just suited the theories. Why had John kept all of his things if there was someone else? Why was it Sherlock that he expected to see if he died and not this other person?
"Honestly, Sherlock," John laughed, but his eyes were sad, they were abjectly lonely and if he never looked at Sherlock again like that as long as they lived, Sherlock would die a happy man. "What did you expect? That I'd welcome you back like nothing happened and then we'd skip off into the sunset?"
"I thought if you knew I loved you it would be different."
"It doesn't work like that!" John says, scrambling out of the sand and Sherlock follows.
"Why doesn't it? Why shouldn't it? It's a straightforward problem, John! We are two human beings in love, one of the wickedest and greatest things to happen to anyone in their lives. Why can't we just accept it? Why can't you?"
"Because you haven't had it taken from you." John could have yelled, he could have screamed in frustration, but he says it as a fact, because he knows that Sherlock has never had anything taken from him simply because he doesn't care enough about it when it's gone. John wipes river water from his face and continues. "That day at St. Bart's, I had everything taken from me and what's worse is that as you were falling I realised what exactly everything was to me—I realised—"
He can't say it. It's not that he doesn't want to, he simply can't. He is physically unable. Sherlock thinks this vocal handicap is simply psychosomatic, but John is not in the mood to be corrected and for once Sherlock doesn't want to correct him. He doesn't feel the need to feel superior in this moment, on the contrary, he feels quite inferior.
There are many ways he can treat John in this instant, but he knows above all else that he can't treat John like a piece of glass. For one thing, John is a human being, not glass, and for the other, to connote that John is anything as breakable and fragile as glass would be insulting. John is quietly strong, quietly noble and he is quietly flawed, like everyone, but he is beautiful because of it.
John is beautiful to him, and he realised that long ago, sometime between breakfast and dinner on a chilly November morning, when they knew who Moriarty was but not what he was, when John walked into the flat and his hair was askew slightly from the wind and Sherlock just stared at him like he normally did and it hit him just how beautiful John was. How beautiful he was when he asked if there was milk left for tea and how beautiful he was when he stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast with groggy eyes and bad breath and how beautiful he was when he stared up at Sherlock that day outside of St. Bart's and how beautiful his voice was when he told Sherlock what they both certainly already knew, that he was clever. It was so simple, that you could, so plain and perfect, because, of the millions of things he could have said, he chose the one thing that he should have.
Now, John is standing before him, covered with river water and sand and silt, and John is still just as beautiful as he ever was.
"You're right, John." Sherlock says quietly. "And you should savour hearing that because I don't say it often. But you're right. I didn't have it taken from me at St. Bart's. I lost it, yes, but I was not robbed of it like you were because I knew what I was giving away. So, you may be right, but you're also wrong. Would you like to know why?"
"Sherlock, now's not the time—"
"You're wrong because on another day outside of St. Bart's, I had it given back to me. I had it placed in my arms and you know what? I'm never going to let it go, not even if someone has to pry it out of my cold, dead, hands. Because I'll die clutching at it if it's the last thing I do."
"I don't want to be there when you do." John says, looking up at him. Sherlock thinks, after years of pondering, that this may be what heartbreak feels like, but he could never have anticipated how it felt like John had, in one swipe, gutted him, left him breathless, left him utterly bereft of any feeling at all. He would no longer ponder on the subject of heartbreak, because if it felt like this, he never wanted to feel it again.
"I don't want to be there when you do," John repeats, "because I can't see you dead again."
The dregs and remnants that remain inside Sherlock stir like a wind into embers.
"You will never see me dead again, John. I promise."
"You can't promise me that. We all die, one day."
"I'll promise you whatever I damn well please. When we're old and grey and I'm about to go, I'll blindfold you and you can't take it off until the funeral's over and done with. So there, you will never see me dead again."
It isn't another beginning. It's picking up where they left off.