It's the news coverage that changes everything. His final blog post only gets the news out to its existing readers; but it's the blurry photographs of a rainy funeral and the articles -- humiliating in the Daily Mail's case, sensitive in the Times' -- that gets the word out to London at large. He turns down quite a few requests for interviews, runs up against an entire petition of emails protesting the shutting down of his blog (he brings it back in response, but locks it and hasn't looked at it since), and gets a number of alternatively disturbing and heart-warming calls from strangers full of sympathy and clichéd words of consolation. He wants none of it.
He makes an exception, though, without even realising it, for the lovely woman who sits next to him on the Tube and notices the way he Isn't Looking at the newspaper in the hands of the man across from him, or its the large photograph of Sherlock Holmes and its boldfaced headline: INTERNET DETECTIVE DIES UNDER MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES.
The lovely woman who sits next to him looks from him to his photograph beneath Sherlock's, and turns to fiddling in her handbag. "I'm sorry," she tells him, not softly.
Her name is Mary Morstan.
A week later, they're smiling at each other across a dinner table, and three weeks after that, they're giggling and rolling together in bed, all flesh and warmth and comfort, and Mary doesn't say a thing when John holds her so tightly he leaves bruises. She doesn't say a thing when he gasps awake in the night, tears and heart far too alive, nor does she when she pulls him back beside her and finds his muscles taut and grieving.
After a time, when they've been together long enough and they're both drunk enough and it's been long enough since Then, they talk. Not necessarily about It, but about themselves.
"I could never really hold down a girlfriend with him around," John says, peering into his half-full glass, lost in honest thought. "He'd always end up insulting them, or crashing our dates, or get depressed at the worst times. And if he didn't, they always left anyway, because they all thought we were secretly gay because I didn't want him to start on the drugs again."
Mary laughs softly. Her laughs are usually loud enough to shake the building; but they're tired and drunk and they're talking about Awkward Things, so maybe it's understandable. She looks at him, looks at his face. She sees the sudden bitterness that she's been expecting.
"Guess I won't have any problems dating anymore," John grumbles, pouring himself more whisky.
"Do you miss him?" It seems important.
John takes a breath, and drinks. "Yeah. A lot."
She nods silently. Then, she speaks: "I know this isn't really the same, but when I was twenty-six my boyfriend died. Motorbike accident. We'd been together for seven years, and I was going to propose soon."
"It's alright. Since then I've been engaged twice, married once, and divorced. I can love more than one person, but not in the same ways. It didn't work out between Robert and I because Matt was always there, too; it's not like I could forget him. Robert hated it. He wanted to be the only one. But if Matt had lived, I'd never have spared a glance for Robert."
"And now there's me."
"Yeah. And there's you."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Well, I guess I'm -- I'm trying to say that, I think I understand, about Sherlock, and it's okay. I'm just Mary, I can't compete. And I won't try to. I know what it's like to... for there to be someone else."
"Sherlock and I were never together, you know."
"I know. But you were his only friend, that's got to count for something. Counts for more than sex and empty promises, I reckon."
John looks at her like he's never seen her before, not quite in this light. He looks at her like he loves her more than he's ever before.
"So... is it okay?" she asks, coy, her frankness and introspection gone again beneath her usual mischevious glamour.
He lets her know how okay it is, in the dark, beneath cool crisp sheets and the neon light seeping through the blinds. He holds her, both their limbs warm and relaxed after sex, and buries his nose in her hair -- her curly, dark blonde hair, shooting away from her head like so many beams of sunlight against the dark pillowcase. She smells of spices, and apples, and sweat, and unwashed clothing. She smells like living, sweating, straining flowers in strong soil, and he loves her. He tells her so, and then he proposes.
They've only been together for five months, but they're getting old fast and have abandoned all youthful ideas of the perfect romance. They're done sounding partners out; they have found each other and they're happy to love but not be entirely in love and the sex is good and neither of them have had kids yet and they'd always wanted kids and Mary's almost forty already, so there's really no time to waste. They are married within a month and a half, and it's a quick, perfunctory affair. There's no-one to tell, really, except Mrs Hudson, Mary's boss, and Harry. Though John doesn't tell her for months and gets an earful of tinny screaming over his phone when he finally does.
John goes back to Baker Street to get the last of his things, the stuff he hadn't taken when he went to live with Mary at the beginning, and gives Mrs Hudson a hug, Mary's address (now his, too), and an invitation to Christmas dinner when that comes around. His old landlady dabs at her eyes, not entirely sadly.
When Mary finds the gun that he finally brought with him, she throws her head back and laughs, face shining, breasts heaving, and John wants nothing more than to grasp her thick flesh and watch her sunny hair tumble against the dark sheets again.
They try their best to have children naturally, and after three discouraging miscarriages, they finally conceive a healthy baby, nearly a year after having met. Mary swells joyously, and there are long moments where John forgets about Sherlock Holmes entirely.
While they wait to go in for an ultrasound, John insists the baby will be a boy, and Mary laughs. She suggests they name the baby Sherlock, and John at first doesn't realise that she's joking. Them he suggests they name the baby Hamish, and Mary at first doesn't realise that he's joking. At the memories, John is subdued, and Mary doesn't say anything else.
To John's feigned chagrin, it's a girl, and his face at the news makes Mary burst out into laughter. She teases him about it the whole way home, and he pretends to be annoyed. They spend the rest of the evening on the sofa together, reheated pasta on the table, sorting through lists of possible baby names. John suggests Katherine, Abigail, and Elizabeth. Mary suggests Penelope, Margery, and Hannah.
When she arrives, all blue eyes and solar-bright curls, they call her Phoebe. John looked it up; it seems appropriate. He smiles over her tiny head at Mary; she's pale and tired and beaming in the maternity ward's bed.
When Phoebe's ten months old, and Sherlock's been dead for two years and seven months, Mary gets promoted. She used to be high in the administration of a posh public school near the City, but now she's the headmistress. Her workload increases, but so does her salary. John's new job at the hospital pays well, but he gets restless after a few months at a particular place and keeps quitting job after job. With Mary's new money, they decide to move out of the tiny old flat that used to be just hers and into one built for three people.
It takes them a bit to find one, but they do, and they set about moving just when Phoebe turns one year old. They find she loves the deep, midnight blue walls of her room, and decide they'll let her paint stars on it when she's old enough.
Sherlock Holmes has been dead for almost three years, and John hardly thinks of him anymore.
Sherlock's hair has been dyed too many times to count, he hasn't shaved in a week, and he's about to collapse. But he makes it through the Tube ride -- don't use cabs, more likely to be observed if alone -- and through the walk from the station and even as far as 221 Baker Street's front steps before he leans his head against the wood and holds down the doorbell far longer than necessary.
Mrs Hudson opens it, and screams.
What ensues is deeply painful for Sherlock and extremely wet for Mrs Hudson, as he holds her as she sobs and reprimands him and he wonders why he thought letting her think him dead was ever a good idea. She bats at his arms, and knocks him about the head, and administers a wealth of weak, symbolic blows, and then takes to sobbing again. They stand in her kitchen, and then they're sitting, and she's sniffling and making tea and he's staring at the dirt beneath his nails and thinking about things he hasn't thought about in three years.
Suddenly, he looks up.
"Why hasn't John come down yet? He can't have not heard you."
"Hmm? Oh... Sherlock, dear, John's not here anymore."
Sherlock whirls around, heart suddenly panicked. He reels at the possibility that John could have -- could have -- in his absence.
"Oh, yes, he moved out years ago. He's married now, you know. Lovely girl named Mary, I've never seen him so happy. They have a little girl, I went to visit them for her first birthday a few months ago. Phoebe's her name; she's a perfect little angel, sweet little thing, and she looks just like her father. I was so glad when I'd heard about her, you know, I'd always thought John'd make a great father and here he was still a bach -- oh, Sherlock, dear, what's the matter?"
Sherlock looks away. She brings two teacups back to the table and sits, looking at him with all the concern of a mother hen. He takes the tea, dumps milk in it distractedly, and hides within it, unwilling to admit that he'd actually -- foolishly, idiot, stupid -- thought that John would have stayed, would have waited, would have -- that John wouldn't have gone off to have a life without him. He'd never even thought that John might leave, might get married -- why not, most people do -- or might even have children.
He realises that he'd thought nothing would have been changed by his absence.
"I'm sorry," he says, without thinking. Mrs Hudson's the only one to hear it, but he means it for everyone. For her, and for John, who has left him.
"You're absolutely horrid, Sherlock dear."
He smiles at her, genuine and sad. "I mean it."
"I know you do. You've got a lot of apologising to do, to everyone."
He nods, and wonders again what Sherlock three years ago was thinking. Long nights in barns and luggage cars has made him introspective, and long years of running and walking and fighting has made him weary, and maybe even wise. He realises now, sitting in Mrs Hudson's warm, pink kitchen, how much he missed her, how much he missed London, and how much he missed -- his brother. Not that one. He told that one.
He misses the brother who's disappeared and got himself a normal life and won't have anything to do anymore with lonely Sherlock Holmes and his crime scenes. The brother who seems to have finally readjusted to life at home, to being a civilian.
Sherlock wonders how long his presence delayed that process of healing.
He finds the flat the way he left it, more or less, though it's cleaner and neater than it ever was when he used it -- Mycroft's people, no doubt, while his brother held it for him. Aside from the appalling state of order, little has changed.
Except, of course, for the fact that none of John's belongings remain, not even the things Sherlock had thought John might leave. It's as if the man had never lived here, the awkward blank spaces and holes waiting to be filled in the only hints of what used to be.
Sherlock paces, and spends most of his time at Mrs Hudson's, eager to escape the empty flat he used to call home. He is alternatively sulky and verbose at long stretches, and he peppers her with questions about John, and what John has been doing without him. John's old phone number is out of use, there are too many John Watsons in the phonebook, and the surgery where John used to work says Dr JH Watson left them three years ago. She's his only link to his old flatmate.
"Sherlock, love, why don't you just see him yourself?" she asks as she bends over to pick up his mug from the floor where he left it; he springs up to get it for her before she pulls something.
"'Can't'? Dear, I have his -- oh, wait, I don't. I have his old address, but at Phoebe's birthday they said they were moving. He hasn't told me his new address yet, they probably only just got settled."
When previously they had been so joined at the hip, sharing the same space and furniture and belongings and tableware, now -- now John's been swallowed by the vast anonymity of the city, and Sherlock doesn't know where to start looking for him.
"But I have his mobile number, you can call him."
Sherlock balks. "What? No, I -- absolutely not." He'd thought about this, about the possibility of sending John an email that explained everything, but after seeing Mrs Hudson's reaction he's aware that text is probably not the best medium for this. And he hates speaking on the phone.
"Then I can call him, ask for his new address. I can even ask him 'round here for a cuppa. You can see him then, dear, and quit moping. How does that sound?"
It's that suggestion that, a week later, has Sherlock upstairs in his chair -- John's across from his distressingly unused in years -- figeting silently, afraid of even taking a loud breath, when the bell rings and Mrs Hudson lets John Watson in, whose voice Sherlock hasn't heard in three years of hiding.
"This was a bit unexpected. Got lonely all of a sudden?" John jokes. His voice is deeper than Sherlock remembers, and lighter than Sherlock had thought possible. He sounds so happy.
"Well, I hardly get to see you anymore, you can't blame me for missing my boy."
Boy, singular. There's a suspicious lump in Sherlock's throat.
There's a scraping sound as John sits down at her kitchen table, and she bustles in with the teapot. Sherlock is shaking.
For once in his life, Sherlock Holmes is afraid of reproach. Afraid of what reaction he might provoke. He's afraid of John, who doesn't need him. He's afraid that he'll lose John completely, and Sherlock needs him desperately. Everything rides upon this meeting.
He stands. Mrs Hudson offers John a biscuit.
Sherlock goes to the stairs, tread cat-quiet, and looks down them. The fourth and ninth ones creak badly. The thirteenth one squeaks. He'll have to avoid all of them.
John takes the biscuit, and then takes another. He sticks the second one in his tea and watches Mrs Hudson sip hers with a strange expression on her face.
"What is it?"
There's a knock on the doorframe.
John turns to look, knowing the beaded curtain will hide whoever's outside. Mrs Hudson seems to know who it is, though, and may have even been expecting it.
"Come in, Sherlock dear."
There's a moment where John's brain turns off at the mention of that name, and then another one where the door opens and the curtains part and Sherlock Holmes steps through, looking tired and battered and sad and John just gapes.
"Hello," Sherlock says, and smiles. It's real, and tentative. He's breathing rather quickly. He notices immediately their positions in the room: same that they were that night that Mrs Hudson was attacked by the Americans and John told her to go on a bit of a holiday. Sherlock remembers what he said, and then he doesn't remember it. He remembers instead what's far more important.
"Shame on you, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes leave Baker Street? England would fall."
He'd meant it theatrically at the time, but now he's sincere. For the only part of England that matters now is what's within this room, and what's within this room has been torn apart with all the violence of flesh upon asphalt and Sherlock doesn't know if it can be fixed together again.
John closes his mouth, and he sits back. When he speaks, his voice is soft and steady. "Why didn't you tell me?", he asks, and sounds calm. Sherlock knows, though, through prolonged exposure, that this is his voice when he's angry.
"Because -- I was in disguise, Moriarty's men couldn't know I was alive. I thought that, if I told you, you might reveal me -- "
"Shut up and tell me the truth," John's voice still hasn't increased in volume. Sherlock's mouth closes with a snap.
"I -- "
"There's got to be a truth, isn't there? There's got to be some reason. A damned bloody good reason. There had better be."
Sherlock can't think of anything. There were reasons, at the time, but now he's forgotten them. And John is furious at him, he can tell.
"Punch me. You're angry, you want to anyway. So do it." He offers his cheek.
Sherlock doesn't even have time to inhale before his cheek is exploding and the tile is at his back, slapping him, and he's on the floor with immediate bruises and John's standing over him, panting.
"Do you want me to do it again?" John asks, voice coming out fast, his composure broken by the weight of years and of sudden anger and of reawakened adrenalin. "I'd like to. I can hit you into a pulp, until I know you're sorry --"
"John!" Mrs Hudson cries.
"I don't know why I ever put up with you, Sherlock, you're a completely insufferable git. Insensitive, unthinking, uncaring, stupid, I don't know why I never just left -- "
Sherlock doesn't mention that John did. That would require mentioning that Sherlock did, first.
"They told me you couldn't care, couldn't have friends properly, and I wouldn't believe them -- I should have, you were right, you're no hero at all, Sherlock Holmes -- "
Sherlock closes his eyes, still lying on the floor, regretting everything.
"-- you should have just stayed away, at least in my memories you were a halfway decent person, and I could excuse the time you drugged me for a lark and scared me half to death and all the times you left me behind and the times you were horrible but now you're here and I don't think I've ever hated you more."
Sherlock doesn't open his eyes. Mrs Hudson is crying.
"Fuck it, Sherlock, I hate you so much, and I am so fucking glad you're alive." John's voice breaks on the last phrase.
Sherlock's eyes fly open just as John kneels and grabs him, pulling him into a rough and painful embrace. John's fingers dig into Sherlock's back, and Sherlock's hands are suddenly lying lamely against John's shoulders, wanting to hold on but utterly bewildered as to where to go. John looks straight ahead behind Sherlock, and he crooks an elbow against Sherlock's neck, holding him there. Sherlock thinks me might be crushed to death within John's arms.
It's intensely painful, and Sherlock doesn't ever want John to let go.