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carrying up his morning tea

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Suffocating off-white walls and stark linoleum, swimming with the smell of antiseptic and bleach and latex. Light that echoes around him, crystallizes and fractures away. The buzz of voices and machines, muffled and distant behind the rush of blood in his head.

His fingers tremble as he dials and he can’t force them steady. Familiar number, even though he hasn’t used it in two years. He isn’t even sure he should be calling it now, but she’d asked. She’d made him promise. He puts the phone to his ear and ignores the routine twinge in his chest.

“Hello?”

There’s an upswing on the end of the greeting that lances through his abdomen and he’s quietly furious at her for making him do this. Static crackles down the line and on the other end is a person that doesn’t know who is calling—no longer has this number programmed into his mobile.

“Hello? Who’s this?”

“John,” he says, and it’s everything he can do to ensure his voice doesn’t tremble along with the rest of him. “It’s me.”

There’s a pause. In the background, he hears the tiny, high-pitched giggle of a toddler. “Sherlock?” John asks. “That you?”

Sherlock tilts his head back and lets the fluorescent lights blind him as he swallows hard. He is not going to do something silly or useless, like cry. “Yeah. Sorry, is this a bad time?” The giggling progresses to shrieking.

John huffs under his breath, exasperated. Sherlock can tell that John's irritation is directed at whatever is happening in the background and not at him, but it drags a rush of memories over him nonetheless. Memories of John, frustrated and angry, clenched fists. “No,” John says, “It’s all right, what’s up?”

He resolves to be efficient. He’s talking to someone who didn’t even save his number, for god's sake. “I’m just calling to let you know,” he starts, matter-of-factly, and then his throat closes up. There isn’t any air in this enormous, extra-wide hospital hallway.

“Sherlock? What’s up? Are you all right?” Concern creeps into John’s voice and that, too, floods him with memories he’d rather not think about. The edge of laughter has gone out of the shrieking in the background, turning into cries of pain or hunger or whatever else it is three-year-olds cry about. He thinks about hanging up.

She made him promise, though. Frail fingers in his, papery skin, her eyes dark and smudged still with Tuesday’s mascara. “Don’t let him read it in the papers,” she had said, scolding rather than imploring. “You call him up and tell him. You tell him everything, Sherlock. You shouldn't be alone.” Tiny among the pillows. Disappearing beneath her beloved olive-and-orange crocheted monstrosity he had brought from home to hide the huge electronic bedframe and clinical sheets and intravenous tubing.

“It’s Mrs Hudson. She’s gone.”

The screaming in the background goes on and on and on.

*

Hemorrhagic stroke event as a result of a cerebral aneurysm. One of the least common causes of stroke and one of the most common causes of death, and that was just like her, really. On the surface, she did seem so very average: silly old lady in kitten heels, filling her day with card games and gossip.

A veneer only, a mask daubed on over adventure and pain and determination and strength and an impossible gift for starting over, layered over before the previous layer had really dried, blending into something unique: a survivor who landed on her own two feet, taking comfort in the very fact that there were things in life that were meaningless.

*

At the bottom of the stairs there lies a tea set.

Sherlock stands in the foyer, staring at the broken porcelain as though the design blossoming over the shards is on the cusp of revealing her secrets to him. Her favourite set. The milk has long since curdled; the entire building smells like sour and rot. The birds on the wallpaper cry out to him, skeletal and morose.

There’s no one else. 221 Baker Street, with the clunky furnace and damp basement flat and creaky fourteenth stair, belongs to him now. There’s an icy loneliness to it that lodges in Sherlock’s sternum, that Mrs Hudson had gone off to her solicitor and put down the name of her only tenant. That she had stood in her kitchen washing her plates with soap to her elbows and thought, it’s got to go to someone. It had better go to him.

The tea set at the bottom of the stairs accuses him. Her favourite set in pieces.

An aneurysm, a stroke, and halfway up the stairs she’d fallen in a clatter, she had fallen, Mrs Hudson, fallen, and the paramedics wouldn’t let him come in the ambulance. Carrying up his morning tea.

Her bad hip had shattered, sharp pieces left under her skin and in her joints, and she’d broken two fingers and her left ankle as well. The bruises had welled up sick and dark, turning her splotchy with the pattern of how she’d struck each stair on the way down.

He hadn’t even realised until he bullied his way past the A&E nurses that she hadn’t just slipped, hadn’t just lost her balance. Not until he saw her face: her perpetual smile pasted on only one half of her mouth.

The milk left in the dish on the floor is rank with the mortality of a woman he had incorrectly deduced to be invincible.

He leaves her favourite set there, at the bottom of the stairs, like a tiny memorial: this, here, is where it happened.

Where she was lost.

*

There is a picture of the three of them together on her mantel, taken the time they’d had a Christmas thing at John’s insistence. Mrs Hudson is practically falling down with smiling, propped up between them with her delicate arms wrapped around their waists in a clear display of possession. Her boys.

It hasn’t been that way in a long time, really, but it’s still the only picture in her sitting room.

Her flat is achingly empty now, drowning in the bold colours and heavy patterns she loves, still smelling of flour and talcum powder and floral perfume. The knick-knacks and collectibles overflow from the shelves. In the kitchen, there is a recipe for scones stuck to the fridge with a teacup magnet, written out in neat, sloping script. The scones she makes when she thinks he hasn’t eaten enough over the past several days.

Had made. Had thought. That will take some getting used to.

He slides the recipe out from under the magnet as the doorbell rings.

*

“Are you all right?” John asks as Sherlock opens the door. Familiar brow scrunched together, unfamiliar black coat. Hideously familiar clench of Sherlock’s stomach. The silver of John’s hair takes him by surprise, but his eyes, his ocean blue and deep eyes, are still the same.

Sherlock doesn’t want to let John in, because John rang the doorbell and no longer has a key. John will tut over the broken porcelain at the foot of the stairs and want to clean up the mess. John will still fit in the armchair upstairs as though he had never left.

Instead Sherlock stands half-hidden behind the door and says, “You didn’t have to come.”

John peers up at him and does something complicated with his jaw. “I think I did.”

Two years since he’s seen John. Two years. He has never met the child that makes herself so obvious in the faint milk stain on the outside of John’s knee and strand of blonde hair still firmly attached to his shoulder. He doesn’t even know her name, though she was fully eight months old when he last spoke to John.

When Sherlock left, he had reached out and cut the tie all at once. Quick. Simple. But John let the rope fray away, let Sherlock watch as each strand strained and broke one-by-one. John had had less and less free time, more and more responsibilities at home, and a couple of quick drop-ins to Baker Street turned into a handful of texts a week, dwindling down slowly to a few a month, and then after months of less and less spoken between them, there came to be a silence that simply didn’t end.

It was a silence Sherlock was too cautious to reach out into. He couldn’t afford to insist on himself, not when John had made his choice so clear. Not when John’s choice was so readily armed.

It was better this way, balanced like this. Sherlock in 221B with Mrs Hudson. John in suburbia with his wife and child.

And yet somehow Mrs Hudson is dead and John is standing at the door looking expectantly at him. “I’m fine,” Sherlock lies. “I can text you the funeral arrangements, once they’re made.”

“Can I come in?” John interrupts. “I’d rather not do this on the front step.”

He hesitates but John just purses his lips and waits, so Sherlock steps back into the house and starts up the stairs, crossing over her favourite set on the way. John pauses only for a moment, putting together the evidence as to what must have happened, before following. He neither tuts nor fusses and Sherlock is reminded that John used to do that sometimes: surprise him by doing just the right thing at just the right moment.

221B looks nearly the same as it always has, but it’s clear that John notices the differences with a sense of guilty resentment. New pillow on the sofa, different set of chairs by the desk. Mrs Hudson’s olive-and-orange blanket dumped carelessly in Sherlock’s armchair. John stops just over the threshold, his discomfort obvious in parade rest.

“Would you tell me what happened?” John asks after a moment of awkward silence. His voice is gentle and it gives Sherlock a stomach-ache. “On the phone, you didn’t quite . . . manage.”

Sherlock focuses on looking out the window in order to avoid looking directly at John. Navy trousers, brown brogues, new lines around his mouth but not around his eyes. “She had a stroke early Tuesday morning and fell down the stairs. Cerebral aneurysm. She refused any and all possible treatment and died yesterday afternoon.” Sherlock recites the information as impassively as he can manage. John’s blurry reflection in the glass seems to grimace.

“I’m sorry,” John says quietly. “I know how much she meant to you.”

“Carrying up my morning tea,” Sherlock tells the window. He meets the eyes of his own mirror image, gaunt and dark with exhaustion, and turns away from it. “What are you doing here, John?”

John shrugs, looking at the empty grate of the fireplace. “Concerned about you. Wanted to make sure you were all right. Make sure, you know, if you needed anything, somewhere to stay for a few days—”

“I’m fine,” he cuts off, because even the mere suggestion of following John back to his happy little house in the suburbs with his happy little family makes bile rise in his throat. Sitting round the dinner table with John and his wife, watching John try to get his child to eat her peas: an easy domesticity Sherlock had had with John once and had given away.

Sherlock snorts derisively, trying to mask the squeamishness pooling in his esophagus. “You haven’t been in touch for two years, John, there’s no need to start now.”

John lurches forward onto the balls of his feet as he opens his mouth, as if the force of his response is knocking him off balance, but in the next second he lowers back onto his heels and swallows his reaction. When he speaks, his voice is calm. “I want to be. Here, for you. We might not’ve been in touch lately, but. I still care about you and Mrs Hudson, so. I don’t know.” He shrugs again and studies the mantelpiece. “You called so I came.”

Sherlock closes his eyes, blocking out the sight of him. Grey hair, blue eyes, small hands tense against the urge to clench—controlled. John needs to leave now, he decides. John cares and Sherlock doesn’t want to talk about it. He hasn’t got the energy to navigate this conversation with John Watson.

“She asked me to call,” he says. “So I did. That’s all. You didn’t need to come round just because you got a bloody phone call.”

“You shouldn’t be alone, Sherlock.”

Mrs Hudson’s voice echoes John’s, ricocheting through Sherlock’s brain and he has to force himself not to cringe against it. Instead he slips, defensive and automatic, into the formal, nauseatingly polite public school tone that Mycroft uses so successfully to put people off. “Yes, well. Thank you for checking in. As you can see, I am perfectly fine and more than capable of taking care of myself.” He gestures toward the door in obvious dismissal, ignores John’s look of surprise. “I will text you about the funeral arrangements when they are finalised. Thank you for your condolences.”

For a moment Sherlock thinks John’s going to argue with him, but it’s a fledgling fire that suffocates itself into resignation. “I’ll call you,” John promises. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do, Sherlock.”

He hesitates a moment to see if Sherlock is going to respond, then executes a rather military turn and leaves. Sherlock follows him as far as the threshold, and when John pauses on the stairs to look back up at him, he shuts the door.

Two years since he’s seen John, and he still leaves a hole in Sherlock’s chest every time he walks away.

*

He makes tea and toast and an egg, just because no one seems to think he can. He pulls a few tiny hairs from the olive-and-orange atrocity and prepares some slides for later analysis. Eventually he takes a shower and cleans his teeth and settles on the sofa with ITV4 playing something loudly.

(He wishes, quite childishly, that John had insisted, had stayed, taken up space, made noise. Made tea, ordered takeaway, asked about his latest cases, talked about his interesting patients. Laughed a little. Sherlock would have liked to see how different John’s hair would have looked in the light, changing from afternoon into evening into night, now that the grey has overcome the blond.)

The rest of the building is very quiet. That’s expected, of course, but perhaps Sherlock had not realised how very present Mrs Hudson had been. She had come and gone in and out of his flat and in and out of her flat and into and out of London and rustled around in her kitchen or his kitchen and berated him and coddled him and made tea and biscuits and risottos and roasts and the flat had always smelled like she was there.

The smell of the milk from downstairs is reaching the height of its putridity.

*

Sherlock’s mother calls the next morning. When he picks up, she says, “Oh, Sherlock,” in just that gentle voice she used to use when he was ill or hurt. Her tone hitches in the way it always does when she rings in the middle of making tea.

“I’m fine, Mummy,” he tells her, but his face is half squished into the sofa cushions and it comes out mumbled and rough. He can’t be bothered to turn his face far enough to let the words go unimpeded. There isn’t any point anyway, not with her.

“Hardly,” Mummy whispers back, “But I’ll not tell anyone. Did you sleep, dear? Eat? Has Mycroft been by?”

Sherlock shakes his head and then remembers he has to answer out loud. “No, he’s too busy badgering her solicitors,” he says. “I had an egg for dinner last night and I slept,” he checks the light coming in out of the windows, still dusty pink, “for six hours.” He does not insist to her that he can take care of himself because she isn’t asking if he can, she’s asking if he is. Mummy has always been so very careful with her words.

“Do you need anything?” she asks, still whispering a little as though she’s bent over him, gentling the words into his ear. He can nearly feel the touch of her hand to his hair. “Want anything?”

He thinks about it carefully, that distinct difference between the two questions. A very rare situation, this: he needs a few things, and wants a great deal more, but they are not things Mummy nor anyone else can give him.

“I’ll be fine,” he mumbles.

Mummy hums for a moment, thinking. He can see her in his mind’s eye, stirring sugar into her tea. “Do you want us to come down for the funeral?”

“Is it very awful of me,” he says, speaking over her, asking her forgiveness instead of answering her question, and he closes his eyes against the cool leather of the sofa cushion, “to mourn her this way?”

“No, my love,” she soothes, without hesitation, and Sherlock has never felt more guilty for it. “There are parts of you, Sherlock, which I have not been able to understand. But Martha Hudson did, some of those parts, and she loved you. You were her son as much as you are mine, and never mind the biology of it.”

Sherlock rolls over and affixes the phone to his ear properly. “I’ll come home for Christmas this year.”

“You’ll do whatever you like at Christmas,” Mummy declares mildly, “And I’ll love you whether you come or don’t. I’ll talk to you soon, all right? Just get through the day.” He gives his goodbyes and she rings off.

He lays there for just a moment longer, reveling in what Mummy freely admitted but which neither Sherlock nor Mrs Hudson had ever really said. It was strange, really, that the one person who actually had cause to be hurt by the nature of his relationship with Mrs Hudson was the only person who managed to call it what it was.

Not his housekeeper. No, Mrs Hudson, never his housekeeper.

Sherlock gets up. He’s laying a mother to rest this week, and there is plenty to be done today.

*

Mrs Hudson was, underneath that perpetual smile and inclination toward crap telly and celebrity gossip rags, an eminently practical woman. She had written her own funeral plan, arranged down to the last detail, and allocated the requisite funds from her estate. Sherlock only has to sign the papers presented by the funeral director and act as if it does not tear something open in the back of his throat to do so.

Did she think, sitting down in her solicitor’s office, that no one would take the care? That Sherlock would not agonize over which church, which hymns, which flowers? That he would not rather rend his sternum from the ribs in his chest than to see her go with anything less than all the dignity and grace and beauty he could muster?

He really does wish John were here for these sorts of things and he hates himself, a little bit, for that. John is good at this sort of thing. He’s good at what’s expected. He’s good at knowing what the next step is. Sherlock can do this without him just fine, but John—John would be better at it.

(When he calls mid-afternoon, Sherlock sends it to voicemail. When he listens to the message an hour and a half later, it just says, “Don’t forget to clean out her fridge.”

He opens a new text. Thank you. – SH. Hits send. John knows just what to do and doesn’t respond.

Sherlock manages to summarily dispose of everything in the fridge and unplug all her appliances and lamps before he finds her laundry basket in the bathroom, half-filled with dirty clothes and on top, the cardigan she had worn the Monday evening before, and suddenly the reality of never coming back is palpable and absolute and final and he makes it barely halfway up the stairs before he has to sit down and press the heels of his palms into his eyes, gasping for air.)

*

He refuses to wear a tie, but he does wear her favourite shirt: pale blue. Your eyes, she would say. Sherlock takes a seat in the front of the church and puts his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. The minister puts a hand on his shoulder and Sherlock lets him for almost a solid minute.

Mycroft arrives in a somber suit and sits next to him until the first mourner arrives, when he says, utterly earnest, “Shall you or shall I?”

“Please,” Sherlock answers, and without comment, Mycroft gets up and goes to greet people, appropriately solemn and surprisingly heartfelt.

He hears John arrive, hears Mycroft’s greeting. He’s alone and Sherlock resents that; he wishes John had brought his happy little family, because it is beginning to feel like John is just as alone as he is, and it tempts him. It shouldn’t, but it does. Tempts him to look up when John approaches, dark suit and blue shirt just two shades darker than Sherlock’s own, face weary, new haircut, not sleeping well. Tempts him to give a short nod when John gestures at the seat next to him.

Sherlock has always been a bit terrible at resisting temptation.

John sits, just close enough that he feels solid and heavy in the space around Sherlock. The ache in John’s shoulder is dragging it down, his left sitting a full centimetre and a half lower than the right. Sherlock wants to dig his thumbs into the muscle and force the knots to release, smooth out the pain with the palms of his hands. Instead he shifts away, puts a little more space between them.

“It’s lovely,” John says quietly.

“Ought to be, she planned it all. Down to the last detail.”

John hums and crosses his legs. “She always did have a way of getting exactly what she wanted, didn’t she?” She really did. Even now, the last thing she’d asked of him was the last thing he had wanted, but here they are: shoulder to shoulder again, sitting together at Mrs Hudson’s funeral.

Stubborn old woman. Bit manipulative sometimes. But not hard. Never hard.

God, but he had loved her.

His next breath comes in wet and shaky and John puts a hand on his knee. “I’m fine,” Sherlock insists as John’s hand squeezes. “Proper thing to do, isn’t it? Weep at a funeral.”

“She wasn’t really one for propriety,” John tells him, smiling just a little, just enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes.

Sherlock snorts thickly. “Still. It is a funeral. At the very least, we probably shouldn’t giggle.”

John giggles anyway.

*

Sherlock’s eulogy is short and to the point, mostly because he wanted to remember Mrs Hudson for things that were not really the kind of things he wanted to talk about to strangers who had not really known the same woman he had.

Sherlock wanted to remember Mrs Hudson as the woman he had met in Florida, shaking with fear but also determination. He wanted to remember her as someone who had had her love and trust thrown back at her like weapons yet still gave both in spades.

(He wanted to remember her the way she was the night he came back to Baker Street, two years dead, and she had screeched and scolded and made tea and bacon sandwiches and never once, never once, asked for an explanation, and when he had carefully sat down in her kitchen and gave his explanation anyway she listened until he was finished and then stood in her kitchen hugging him for a good five minutes. “I hope this time you manage to outlive me,” she had said, “because I’ve really had enough.”)

He manages not to cry, but only just, and he is horribly aware of his own vulnerability. He focuses on the few familiar faces that stand out like beacons—Lestrade standing along the back wall looking exhausted, probably just stepping in even though he didn’t really have time, Molly Hooper seated near the middle in what is very likely her nicest navy jumper, and even Mr Chatterjee, notably alone.

In the front row, John sits and smiles quietly at Sherlock and if his eyes look a little glossy for a few minutes, at least he is sitting with his back to everyone else. When Sherlock retakes his seat, John takes his trembling fingers into his hand and holds them tightly until the service is over.

*

“I went to go see her in the morgue before they transferred her,” Sherlock tells John on the way to the crematorium. It’s just the two of them in the back of the funeral director’s limousine and there was no discussion about that at all, so probably Mrs Hudson’s detailed funeral plan had included John. Presumptuous meddler, to the last.

“Molly wouldn’t let me in. Said she’d called the night before she died and said not to. Said she’d be in there starkers and I was not to see her like that, and if Molly had any sense of decency she wouldn’t look either.”

John doesn’t say anything, just rubs circles into the back of Sherlock’s hand with his thumb.

“I don’t even know what I wanted,” Sherlock says blankly, staring out the window, and London is bright and deserted.

*

After the short cremation ceremony, the remaining mourners disperse and go home. Mycroft disappears immediately, no doubt to continue harassing solicitors or government offices in settling Mrs Hudson’s estate, which he seems determined to do at excessive and not at all legal speeds. Molly stares at Sherlock for a long time from across the room but ultimately decides not to say anything before she goes. Mrs Hudson had only written at the bottom of the paperwork: Reception – None, so there isn’t one, and it's over.

It's over.

“Come on,” John says, pulling Sherlock into a black car, undoubtedly supplied by Mycroft, which takes them back to Baker Street. The noise of them coming in the door echoes into the vast hollow space. Her favourite tea set at the bottom of the stairs has begun to mould. The flowers in the vase by the chair have gone brittle and dry.

Sherlock doesn’t quite understand how it can feel like it’s over because it will never be over. She will never come back. Baker Street is empty and that’s just going to continue, endlessly.

John pulls and pushes Sherlock up the stairs, and Sherlock lets him because he isn’t sure what else to do now, in all this over-ness. He sinks onto the sofa and John wraps the olive-and-orange blanket around his shoulders and makes him a cup of tea.

“Sherlock?”

“Mm.”

“The broken tea set. Downstairs. Can I clean it up now? Please. It’s turning green. I’ll wash it and leave it on the table for you. I swear, I won’t throw any of it away.”

The blanket smells faintly of roses. He lies down on the sofa, curls around himself. Suddenly the tiny memorial at the foot of the stairs seems irrelevant. “Okay.”

*

Sherlock comes to about an hour later, feeling wrung out. The fog in his head has mostly cleared, though, and he can hear John in the kitchen running the sink. He gets up and goes over to find him washing her favourite set, soapy hands and sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Most of the pieces have been washed and dried, set out in careful rows on the table, the smell of rotting milk and old tea already beginning to dissipate.

For a brief moment the sight makes Sherlock’s chest ache with fondness, but John isn’t here to stay. He’s just dutifully taking care of the things that need taken care of. John’s fulfilling obligations, and then he’ll go back to suburbia with his wife and daughter and Sherlock will be alone again. He wishes suddenly that he were wearing his coat, so he could put his hands in its pockets and wrap it around himself.

“Haven’t you got a family or something to be getting back to?” Sherlock grouses at him, just condescending enough to not sound like he’s dreading it and just analytical enough to not sound angry about it.

John simply continues wiping off the piece of cup he’s holding. He dries it, lines the piece up on the table, and turns to Sherlock. His face is neutral and it’s wrenching, a bit, to see John looking at him so carefully expressionless. “Is that what you want?” he responds quietly, refusing to rise up to the bite of derision in Sherlock’s tone. “For me to leave?”

Sherlock glances away and studies the careful pattern of the tea set laid out on the table. Her favourite set. What is he supposed do with all these pieces? “I don’t need you here.”

“That’s not what I asked.” John leans back against the worktop and crosses his arms, juts his chin out a little bit, challenging him. “I asked what you wanted.” That John can be so achingly familiar and yet at the same time so unknown is asphyxiating. He doesn’t know where John is working, what he does with his free time, what book he’s reading, what he did last weekend, when he last spoke to his sister. He doesn’t know if John still logs into his blog now and then and reads about their old cases. He doesn’t know if John still loves her.

He doesn’t know what John thinks of him, standing in the kitchen after Mrs Hudson’s funeral, desolate and precarious on his feet.

John has never been so blank before and Sherlock wonders if that’s something his wife taught him: how to carry himself with just enough details to not look suspicious. Or maybe life with her has forced him to learn it, reinforced it so strongly in him that he does it unthinkingly now. The idea that she could have changed him so completely turns Sherlock’s stomach.

Sherlock wants John to be himself again, for the rift between them to disappear, for them to be easy and natural with one another instead of tense and foreign. He wants Mrs Hudson to be downstairs, baking with cinnamon and warbling along to the radio off-key. He wants to not feel so lost in the tide, the ebb and flow of other people coming and going, going and coming, in and out of his life as though he were only background noise.

None of these things are things John means when he asks Sherlock what he wants.

“We’re not exactly friends anymore,” Sherlock says scornfully, side-stepping the question and turning it around. “Why are you even here? What is this about, really, that after two years of total silence you suddenly want to come around?”

John sighs. “I don’t really want to fight about this right now,” he tells Sherlock, turning back around to fish another piece of porcelain out of the sink. “Not right after Mrs Hudson’s funeral. Emotions already running high. Not a good time.”

“Well, I don’t want to be your good deed for the week,” Sherlock snaps. “So let’s just have it out and then you can leave and get on with your life.”

John only looks at him for a moment before he sighs again. He puts the porcelain shard back in the sink and wipes his hands on a tea towel. “I didn’t leave, Sherlock, things just got busy.” His face remains clear and impassive and Sherlock can’t decide whether that’s because he’s too afraid to show that he cares or because he really doesn’t care at all, which is infuriating when John has managed to pick up on just the exact part of what Sherlock said that he didn’t want to focus on. “I have a baby. I have a job. Things drifted and I lost track. It’s not like you were putting in the effort either.”

Sherlock considers just stomping away. “Excuse me if I find it difficult to insist on a presence in your life when you are so satisfied without being a presence in mine.”

“Don’t say that,” John admonishes gently, and god, Sherlock just wants John to get mad at him, wants John to yell at him, but John is so gentle and it’s excruciating. “Of course I want to be involved in your life. I’m here, aren’t I? As soon as you called.”

“Thank you, John,” Sherlock near-shouts, sarcastic and fed up. “Thank you for turning up when my landlady died, I really appreciate the lengths you have gone to. Now that you are reasonably assured that I will neither blow myself up nor starve myself to death, you can go in peace, have a good day.” John says nothing, so Sherlock continues. “Or just how long do you plan to stay? Just until things get busy again? Just so long as you can fit me in?” He gestures at the flat around them. “Just so long as you find this interesting?”

“No,” John says, and there it is, that hint of heat that suggests he is about to let this devolve into the argument Sherlock is suddenly desperate to have. John's left fist clenches around itself. “Only for as long as you want me.”

Sherlock throws his hands up. “That’s just it, isn’t it? You say you’ll be here, but you can’t. I will always want you, John, for something, anything, but she’ll need you because the baby has a fever, or because the sink has sprung a leak, or because the bills need sorting, and you don’t get to choose. You've already made your choice. Things. Get. Busy. That’s your life, John, and you can’t sit here and make me half-arsed promises to any part of it.”

“I’d have promised you the whole of it if you hadn’t fucking left!” John roars.

There is a ringing silence; Sherlock’s stomach rises in his throat, bile competing with rage and grief. John shakes his fingers out. “I didn’t want to fight with you about this,” John says, “Not when we’re both on edge already. Neither of us is thinking clearly. Why don’t I, uh, call out for a Chinese or something?”

“What’s her name, John?” Sherlock asks, soft but ruthless, stalking across the kitchen to tower over him, stare down at him. “What’s she called, your daughter?”

John makes a noise in his throat like Sherlock is strangling him. “Leave her out of this.”

“No,” Sherlock refuses. “It’s been two years. You don’t just get to show up and act like it can go back to the way things used to be. Your daughter is almost three years old, John, and I don’t even know her name. Mrs Hudson is dead, and I've been back here twice as long as I was gone. I don’t know what you could want from me. Not anymore.”

John reaches his hands forward, nearly grabbing Sherlock’s shirt but restraining himself at the last moment. “Her name is Adelaide, and I love her, Sherlock, more than anything, but sometimes, sometimes I think if I were choosing between the two of you all over again, I’d be here at Baker Street, and I hate that. I hate it. Every time I saw you, I thought about leaving them.”

John’s eyes are bright and glassy; his voice turns rough. He takes a step forward, invading Sherlock’s personal space as he goes on, and even though Sherlock is taller, John is suddenly the one bearing down, closing in. His hand hovers between them, clenching around itself.

“And I needed to protect myself from you,” John rasps, “because it was so easy for you to just leave, to make decisions that affected our lives without me, for you to just go and take off to god knows where. And for once, for once I had someone who was going to fight to stay with me and damn it if I wanted to go home at night to someone I knew was going to be there.”

His hand finally makes contact with Sherlock, pushing his fist into Sherlock’s chest like it’s keeping him steady. Sherlock wants to cover it with his own but doesn’t dare. He has a thousand things he would like to say but not one of them is going to erase the choice John has already made.

Instead he says evenly, “Adelaide. Pretty name. Has she got your eyes?”

“Yeah,” John chokes out, “Yeah, she has, you stupid bastard,” and John curls his fist into Sherlock’s shirt and pulls him in, pulls him down, pulls Sherlock’s face to his and pulls their mouths together. His cheeks are wet against Sherlock’s and his mouth is hot, and John groans against him like he’s dying.

This is a bad idea, a terrible idea, it's not even really an idea so much as it's just happening, and they’re both grief-stricken over Mrs Hudson and there’s the upheaval of being in the same room again and this isn’t at all a logical, sensible thing to be doing.

But Christ, if John doesn’t kiss exactly the way Sherlock had imagined he would: hard and rough, slick tongue and nibbling teeth. Hands everywhere, rucking his shirt up, callused fingers on Sherlock’s skin. John kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, and Sherlock can hardly breathe.

“John,” Sherlock gasps as he abandons Sherlock’s mouth to lick up his neck instead. Sherlock stumbles back into the table and John moves with him, slipping a knee between Sherlock’s thighs and rocking his hips. He’s half-hard. “What are you doing?

John runs his hands up Sherlock’s sides and nudges aside his shirt collar to bite down hard on his clavicle and then suck on the spot. “Are you going to stop me?”

Sherlock tips his head back and scrapes his hands across John’s shoulders. Were they not just arguing a moment ago?

“Why should I?” he asks, panting. “I’ve not got anything to lose.”

He’s going to let him. He’s going to let John do this, he already knows. He has denied himself even the fantasy of this for years, and now John is touching him, breathing against him, pressing against him, undeniably aroused. John will regret this and afterwards will leave again, back to his wife and child, John’s eyes, John’s gun. John will leave and Sherlock will let him go, but he’s going to let John do this first.

Sherlock’s not got anything to lose because John isn’t his.

It’s just hormones, after all, isn't it. Shock and adrenaline and grief. Human beings do this sort of thing to each other all the time, crash together and take some element of physicality from each other just to prove they’re still alive. 

John groans again, then recaptures Sherlock’s mouth and delves his tongue along Sherlock’s. In return, Sherlock pours himself down into John, telling him with every kiss and stroke and roll that he wanted this, wanted him, missed him, and it’s filled with despair and anger and hurt.

John bruises Sherlock’s lower lip with his teeth and Sherlock dares to slip his hands up under John’s shirt to revel in the feel of his skin, solid against his palms. John’s body is warm, breathing, alive. Close. He smells like sandalwood and amber, and a little bit like the dish soap he’s been using, and underneath, a bit of sweat and earthiness.

John doesn’t even want this, not really, but Sherlock is going to let him do it anyway. Sherlock’s still going to take whatever John will give him. He’s wanted it for so long, and John never has, and when John leaves after this he’ll leave forever. Whatever bridge John was trying to construct between them is burning down with every scorching touch.

But just as suddenly as he started, John stops. Sherlock almost cries out.

John is panting, lips parted, fingers suddenly so tense they’re biting painfully into Sherlock’s ribs. Half of Sherlock’s shirt buttons are undone, leaving him bared almost down to the navel, and John’s gaze is carefully trained on a spot just barely to the right of the midline, almost where Sherlock's liver would be if he were as exposed as he feels.

Oh. Of course.

The gunshot wound in Sherlock’s chest is no more than a faint ripple of silvery scar tissue, the pinkish hue of healing long since faded into a pale indentation. Sherlock doesn’t really think about it much. Out of all his scars, it’s the best looking—the easiest to ignore.

John can't ignore this.

She's always between them, even when they’re skin to skin.

John takes a breath that sounds like he’s been drowning and he's just managed to break the surface. “Jesus Christ.” He looks up at Sherlock and steps back, steps away, his eyes wide.

Sherlock looks down. Breaking eye contact gives him a chance to steady himself; he needs to close himself off, to not reach forward and pull John back to him. Let John think that he was merely going along, rather than imploding with the strength of his own repressed desires. Let John think that Sherlock is fine, because John needs to think Sherlock is fine so he can leave, and if this is where it ends Sherlock would prefer it end entirely all at once. He carefully begins to slide his buttons back into their respective slots, covering the scar back up again.

“Did you forget?” Sherlock asks quietly. John takes another step away and runs his hands over his face. “It’s all right if you did. It would be natural to repress something like this. After all, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?”

“Don’t be stupid, of course I didn’t forget,” John says uncomfortably, straightening his shirt and then gesturing at Sherlock’s chest. “I just—wasn’t expecting it. The scar, I mean. I forgot there’d be a scar.”

He could tell John that he forgets about the scar sometimes too, because the visible reminder is the least of all the long-term consequences of getting shot in the chest. IVC syndrome, renal complications, chronic pain. It’s not worth mentioning. Barely worth thinking about, when he can manage to put it out of his mind, but it’s forced him to change the way he lives, the way he works. He could tell John all that, but it would only make John feel guilty for something that wasn’t his fault, so he doesn’t say anything at all.

John clears his throat. “I think I should go,” he says.

Sherlock nods. It was never going to end any other way. John will leave and go back home to his bastion of safety and domestic security. Suburbia with wife and child. The fiction of his wife as the cheery clinic nurse, threatened by the vivid reminder of her past transgressions, will reassert itself. The baby with John’s eyes, brilliant giggle, blonde hair, will remind John of the reasons his choices were made.

“Take care of yourself, yeah? If you—if you need anything. You have my number.”

He stays there, half-perched on the edge of the kitchen table, and doesn’t watch John leave.

*

Several hours later, Sherlock remembers that he has to make his own tea.