It takes John over a year to move back into 221B. He’d kept up with the rent (though he knew Mrs. Hudson simply tore up the checks he sent), he even kept everything as it was, for when Sherlock—well he’d kept everything as it was.
He’d spent eighteen months imagining Sherlock walking through the flat door, had imagined all the scenarios, they played out involuntarily, replacing the images of the battlefield that once took up residence in the subconscious places John tried to ignore. Mind Palace, John thinks sometimes, even though it’s more of a prison, forged stronger than iron in the ghost of a slim wrist beneath his fingers and a blood splattered sidewalk.
When it happens, when Sherlock does step through that door it feels like the entirety of John’s life had been leading up to, and ended with that moment. And John just stood there like the biggest prat in the world, in worn pajama pants (Sherlock’s, two sizes too long and pooling at his bare feet, with a piece of half eaten jam covered toast in his hand.
His breakfast falls to the floor and he remembers with a pang what feels like a thousand years before having done the same and Sherlock had questioned whether it had landed butter side down or up. John doesn’t even breathe, he’s fairly certain his body never will again, it’s certainly not going to move.
Then he is, and he doesn’t even know what is happening because surely he’s standing still and the world is simply folding around them. Then John is suddenly aware of Sherlock’s hair clenched in his tight fist, his slender hips cradled beneath John’s stuttering fingers as he scrabbles at the shirt Sherlock is wearing. The world had gone blurry and John realized he was crying.
Sherlock, confused, awkward Sherlock, doesn’t move beneath him but lets John carry on anyway. John can’t let go, if he does Sherlock won’t be there, and this will all be another imagined dream, a vivid hallucination to take up collection with the rest. Because John had spent so much time seeing Sherlock, everywhere.
Perfectly normal, his therapist told him. In every upturned coat collar, every lock of dark curly hair, too bright blue eyes or a deep baritone voice. But it was never Sherlock, and the realization of that was like watching him fall over and over.
He doesn’t think he could survive it again.
“John,” Sherlock’s voice is soft and deep in his ear, and John lets out a stuttering gasping moan at the sound, at the feel of hot breath in his ear. He pulls away and stares into Sherlock’s face before stepping back. “John,” Sherlock repeats.
John takes another step back and before he realizes what he is doing, before the thought becomes a fully-fledged plan in his head he pulls his fist back and punches Sherlock square in the face, sharp cheek bones cutting into his knuckles.
John spends the next fortnight in his room, with the door shut against the sound of Sherlock’s violin. The songs he plays are slow and sorrowful and it’s the perfect accompaniment to the ache settled in John’s chest. Eighteen months of desperately wishing for Sherlock to return, the need to see, to touch, to smell the other man pressing in on every facet of his tortured mind and yet, now, he could hardly stand to be near him.
There was pain and anger and something broken that John didn’t know whether could be fixed or not. Sherlock gave him space, hardly ever ventured up anymore, John could hear him every so often, the creak of the top step underneath his shifting weight, the chinking of a teacup on the small table tray, the shadow of his feet blocking the light from beneath the edge of the door.
There’s no going back to the way it was before, but John is so unsure of where to go from here. He stares at the coat hung from the back of his door and he slips it around himself, like he’s done a hundred times before. He turns the collar up, and wraps it around himself, far too big for his much smaller frame. It smells like cigarettes and whiskey, habits John picked up in Sherlock’s absence.
Three weeks after Sherlock’s return, when Moriarty’s web had been sufficiently taken down, John steps out of his bedroom and trips over the sleeping, prone form of the aforementioned. He jumps to avoid the other man and trips against the edge of the banister, nearly toppling down the stairs.
“Sherlock! What the bloody hell are you doing!?” John shouts, angrily rounding on his flat mate. Sherlock wakes with a start, wielding the bow of his violin like a sword.
“Sleeping,” Sherlock responds, looking around as though a bit confused. John rolls his eyes.
“Well, obviously, but…why are you sleeping outside my door?” John crosses his arms over his chest and waits expectantly. Sherlock looks at him scrutinizing. He jumps to his feet and peers into his face.
“You’re starting to sleep more regularly,” Sherlock tells him. John just stares at him.
“Is there something you actually wanted or would you just like to make pointless observations?” John snaps.
“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says, he steps back. John opens his mouth to respond but his jaw snaps shut at the look that flits across Sherlock’s face. John lets his eyes fall shut and he just shakes his head, every line in his body gone slack, so utterly defeated.
“You were dead,” he manages, breathy and unsure.
“I had to be,” Sherlock says, “you must understand that,” he replies. John shakes his head.
“I don’t have to do anything,” John responds, turning away to walk down the stairs.
“John,” Sherlock starts and John can hear him step forward.
“You were dead!” John shouts, turning suddenly, flying back up the stairs and pushing Sherlock against the wall. “Do you have any idea—?” John manages, shaking his head, eyes brimming with angry tears threatening to spill.
John slackens his grip on Sherlock and shakes his head with a desperate laugh.
“Of course you don’t, because you don’t care about—“but the words die because John knows that isn’t true, and there’s a look in Sherlock’s eyes John hasn’t ever seen before, it’s a look he half recognizes but it fits so odd on Sherlock’s features.
Sherlock breaches the short space between them and then his lips are against John’s, his large hands splayed across John’s hips. Sherlock kisses him with an intensity John associates with the really good cases, frustration and excitement and adrenaline battling for victory.
John is pushed roughly against the landing banister. He pulls away for a moment and looks, imploringly into Sherlock’s face and says…begs,
“No,” Sherlock looks a bit taken aback, his pupils dilated, his lips red and swollen. “Not if this is just some…some daft experiment that you…I can’t…Sherlock,” John says, and he can’t articulate the need for this to be something more than a clever scheme, a manipulation, the testing of a theory. John doesn’t think he could take being nothing more than an intriguing hypothesis.
“John Watson,” Sherlock starts, his voice low, and he presses in closer to John, voice barely above a whisper against his skin, “I was truly lost without my blogger,” and he threads his fingers in John’s and kisses the corner of his mouth.