John is a very talented man.
He's been practising, you know, all this time. Practicing, honing his skills, talent, art. Perfecting the art of remembering, and of forgetting. It's not a hard art to master.
John is a genius at refusing to remember, adept at avoiding, skilled at circumventing the hole in the earth, the hole in his life. He knows which story-paths to tread, and which ones lead down to the dark and bloody pit. He's gotten wonderful at wandering, walking, with a step that pretends to have purpose. Mary's face always looks so sad. That's not right; talent should be met with awe, shouldn't it? Talent and awe, illumination and reflection, to run and walk, Sherlock and John. Or at least that was how it used to be.
It's raining. It's rained for three years, never stopped -- not like the world; John's been thrown off its surface by the event.
He's just starting to get used to the new shifts; night hours had always meant missing Mary, coming home to her bleary dark-hours face, nothing but a kiss before bed and hospital beckoned them. Now the fact that he's up and awake during daylight hours dazzles him still. It's approaching dusk: the damp clouds have gone charcoal-dark, the sun can't muster up any colour to pierce the sky one last time tonight. He's sad, and he shouldn't be; he thinks of Mary, because if the sun won't shine she always will. God, Mary. Every day she gets more gorgeous, her belly swells greater and six months brings it closer; they still haven't picked a name. They should do that, probably.
He wishes that the thought of Mary and the baby were enough.
He does the shopping on his way home, picks his way through the busy street. It's so busy, so very busy, there's too many people everywhere out in this rain and it's horrible, people bump into him, his bad shoulder. A tall youth jars him hard, and he turns around, no idea what he wants to say to him, but there's a throng of people and he can't tell which person did it and -- and he thinks he saw someone he recognised.
He's stock still, staring at the mass of people walking away from him, because any of those people could have jarred him, jarred his shoulder, jarred his head. He curses himself. This is hardly the first time this has happened to him.
(If you had told him about the tall youth who had hidden himself behind a telephone kiosk, who had pushed up the brim of his hat to rub a brow belonging to a somewhat older man, and had fished out his phone, composed a text, and had stood for several minutes with his thumb hovering over the screen, between 'Send' and 'Delete', John would not have believed you. And if you had told him that the possible recipient was 'John Watson', he'd have laughed. And there'd be no mirth in it at all.)
John has gotten very good at this game.
He doesn't try to breathe properly again until he's on the bus, comfortable. He goes for his mobile, rings Mary. Mary, who is here to stay.
Oh, Jesus, he loves her.
"Something wrong, love?"
"What...? Oh." Then: "Is it?"
She sighs, knows why he's calling. "You on your way home now?" She's always been so good at distracting him. Lovely Mary, like the sun.
"Yeah." He swallows, breathes. Mary's here, it's okay. "Ran errands. Got the shopping, the rest." He's okay: Mary's here and she's gorgeous. "...Condoms. You know. The usual."
"Was that an attempt at seduction?"
She sounds so amused; she's mocking him. He grins. "Dunno. Could be."
"It was shameful."
"Well, sorry. Can't cover three continents every day, you know."
"You're losing your touch, then. I don't want to have to start telling the secretaries about my awkward little cuddly husband, you know. They'd rather have a womanizer. Or a soldier. Definitely a soldier."
"As would you."
"'Course." She hums, and he recognises the sound: she's smiling, to herself, at his existence, lacking more to say. He grins at it; in 30 seconds flat she's turned his mood completely around, sunlight through storm clouds. It'd be nice if he could keep asking her to marry him over and over again. Then she speaks again: "Your dubious purchases aside, did you remember to get olive oil this time?"
"Hey, I remembered last time, too!"
"No, John, you didn't, because canola oil is not olive oil, you dolt. Now answer my question."
"I can't keep track of all of these oils, Mary! For all I know you're going to see this bottle marked 'olive oil' and tell me it's actually... actually rocket fuel, or something."
"Is that a 'yes I got the oil'?"
He sighs. "Yeah."
"Brilliant." The world is wet as it goes by in the window. He's getting close to his stop now; then it's the Tube and a 15-minute walk after that. "You home now?"
"No, still at the school. There's so much paperwork for the new term I need to catch up on, I'm really behind... probably won't be home until later. Eight, maybe? Hopefully not later."
"Really? Jesus. If I had known I wouldn't've --"
"No, forget it. We both really needed that break, anyway. Going to pieces otherwise."
"I'm still sorry."
"I know you are, and I love you."
"Love you too. So, you'll be late?"
"Mm-hmm. Should I get takeaway?"
"Only if you want it, I can feed myself."
"Forage? Like a little wild beast?"
"Oh, shut up."
"And I'm not little."
"Not where it counts, you're not."
"Oh God, stop it, we're both in public."
"And I'm at work."
"Yeah. So stop."
She giggles. "All right. I should go anyway. See you tonight? If you don't crash again."
"Will try. Love you."
"Love you. Bye."
He hangs up; stares at the screen, his contact list. Mary, Dr Howland at the hospital, Mrs Hudson, Harry, Mike Stamford, Murray, Greg Lestrade, and that one number he never got around to deleting.
He deletes it now.
It's dark by the time he gets to his neighbourhood, to their flat. It's between two busy streets, bright purple and golden lights from both sides only barely edging into the darkness on their pavement. He moves to cross to their building, stops. Further down the street, someone's shouting; he approaches, and sees that there's two people arguing. One large, heavy man, shouting at a thinner, wiry woman while she moves around a parked car. She's slamming doors, the boot; she's packing things up inside of it. She's leaving.
He's gotten close enough now to see their faces in the sparse light. She's young, twenties, must be his daughter; he's gotten paunchy with age, but he was probably very handsome when young. She's definitely leaving.
The man's incensed, and spitting. He shouts that she's an ungrateful bitch, and raises his hand.
John tunes out their argument in an instant, rushes forward, fast into the patch of the streetlight; he grabs the man's hand, forces it down. The man struggles, and John holds fast.
"I can hardly blame her for leaving if that's how you treat her," John says, voice flat. "I'll ring the police if you hurt her."
"Who the hell are you to order me around?" The man is a deep red.
"The sort of man who won't walk past when a father's about to hit his girl." The man puffs up, livid, like a fish. John cuts him off: "Sorry, mate, but you should have kept your argument inside if you didn't want anyone to see. Go back inside." The man appears ready to argue anew, but John's holding his mobile up, a clear threat, and this man doesn't want to face the police, John can tell. He won't know until he thinks about it, later, much later, why he knew that fact about a man he'd never met; turns out he did learn something, after all, about deduction.
The man has backed off; John turns to the girl. The light's very poor. "You all right?" She's shaking.
"Yeah... fine. I'm fine. T-thanks. Bloody hell, I didn't expect that."
He stoops to pick up one of her suitcases, help her with it. "So -- flying the coop?"
"Yeah. Dad's being a git, won't shut up about uni. I dropped," she adds, for clarification. He puts her suitcase in the boot. "Thanks. Christ, you really don't need to do this."
"It's fine. Really. Family's always hard to deal with, you know. I get it."
"Did you leave, too?" She extends her arms; he hands a box to her. It's poorly shut with cellotape, has "shoes" scrawled on in black ink.
"No, not exactly: I enlisted. Guess that's the closest thing."
"Oh, I see."
"My sister left, though. Properly. She threw things and everything."
The girl laughs, shaky like on stilts. He puts the last box in the back seat -- boot's full by now -- and opens the driver door for her. She grabs her handbag, extends a hand.
"Thanks for that, I really don't know what to say."
"It's fine. All I want is to help."
"You're very good at it." Their hands part, she gets in, fishes her keys out of her handbag. She's about to rev the engine when she stops, looks up at him. "Oh, I never asked -- what's your name?"
"Er, John. John Watson. I live just down the street."
Her eyes have gone wide. "John Watson? Doctor John Watson?"
"Er, yeah. Um."
"Doctor Watson the blogger?"
He'd been hoping this wouldn't happen. "...Yeah."
"Please don't. I was just a bloke on the internet, that was it. That was the past."
"I... I know. Still, um... it's an honour."
He smiles; it's thin. She looks upset. He feels guilty, gives her a real smile this time, because it's not her fault. She smiles back, hesitant. He really hopes she has a bright future.
"What's your name, then?"
"Well, er, Miss Hunter, I wish you good luck."
She chews on her words. "Thanks." Then, with emphasis: "Thank you, Doctor Watson, for everything."
She revs the engine, and it's loud; John steps back a few paces to watch her go. Violet's hands move to turn the steering wheel. The car goes forward, stops. She looks back.
"If it means anything to you at all, Doctor Watson, anything at all... they were wrong about him. All of them. They were wrong."
She speaks with such conviction that he can't help but stare, wordless. She bites her lip again, begins moving. The car veers out to the main street, with Violet Hunter ready to join the world. John waves after her. Her hand appears in the window briefly before she is swallowed into the electric night.
John stays standing outside her house for a good fifteen minutes before he crosses back to their flat.
The door is key.
It's dark outside the windows, and the corridor is unlit. The flat next to theirs is unoccupied. There's only them, the family on the ground floor, and the old couple above. All is quiet and dark.
The door is key. The door was opened without a key. Look, there: busted open with lockpicks, wood slightly splintered. He touches it; he imagines the wood in pain. His and Mary's flat has been violated, and -- and his gun is trapped inside.
He wonders for a moment at the intruder for having locked it again after opening it, and yet leaving such obvious evidence of it. Is it obvious, though? He knew someone once who'd have said it was.
He unlocks the door, opens it, trying not to telegraph that he's noticed the picking. The flat is dark, only the dim lights from the clocks and electronics illuminating anything. Illumination in darkness, conductors of light; why did he have to do this alone this time?
He turns on the light directly over the mat; it's not strong. He closes the door, locks it, peering still into the darkness. Maybe no-one's here. Or maybe they're waiting to see if he's realised. He tries to stay calm (not actually that hard: adrenaline is doing its job, as it always did, as it would have done always if the world hadn't fallen off its axis) and removes his jacket. He turns, goes to replace it on the hook near the umbrella-stand.
His heart stops.
He wonders if he's going to die, because he can't breathe. Better die than end up brain-damaged; he's getting no oxygen.
He blinks, stares. There's a large, dark, wool Belstaff coat hanging there. It's on his hook, like someone knew which one was his. Someone --
Someone who he hasn't wanted to think about in three years. He'd gotten very good at that. Never good at the forgetting, never good at the not missing. Good at the not thinking.
He'd get taunted for that. Think!, someone would say. Gesticulate, screw his eyes shut, stick up two fingers at the world for never thinking, never seeing -- for forgetting? Maybe. For forgetting things that were important. Was he important?
By god he was, how can you ask that? He was so important. And now he's dead.
Sherlock Holmes is dead.
The light on the desk, between the thin kitchen and the sitting room, comes to life: the chair is occupied. It swivels. Mary had wanted a chair that swivelled, John remembers. He's good at remembering.
The chair is empty. Someone stands, tall, before him; cast in shadow, caught between the light of the lamp and the light of the fixture, between the desk and the door, between life and death. One world and the next. The world that had stopped, spun off its axis, left John in the cold of space without a chance of breath.
Someone -- Oh, God. He can't bear to say the name, not even in his head.
The doorkeys fall out of his hand, his feet feel distant, his back collides with the kitchen wall. He can't stand, can't breathe, can't think. His heart hurts in his chest, like it's breaking. It probably is, because -- because. 'Why', you ask? Oh, for fuck's sake, look! Do you have eyes? It's obvious what's happening! Sherlock Holmes is back from the dead!
Oh god, he said it. He said it.
His mouth is open, his legs can't support his whole weight. He's gripping the doorframe so tightly that his fingers are aching, are scraping against the painted wood. He stares. He closes his mouth; opens it again when he thinks he might have something to say, at last. Closes it when he doesn't know what he'd possibly speak, what there might be to articulate. The last time they spoke, the last word Sherlock Holmes had ever said, was his name. The last voice Sherlock had ever heard was John's, screaming for him.
How do you even begin to speak again after something like that? Where does the conversation begin, where did it end? How do you pick up again after it all ended like that, with tears and a horrible crunch and one or both of them bleeding all over the pavement?
John never thought he'd get a chance to speak to Sherlock again. Now that he does, he has no idea what he'd have wanted to say.
His heart is in his ears, impossibly loud. His throat is raw. Sherlock Holmes is standing in his and Mary's flat, cast dark in the dim, dim light.
Wait. John stops. Thinks.
"Were... were you just waiting there in the dark for me to come home?"
Sherlock blinks. This isn't what he expected John to say; it's not what John expected, either. Holy shit, he's losing his mind.
"You were, weren't you? You -- God, you. Never pass up a chance for a dramatic entrance, do you."
Sherlock is silent. He's thinking about what to say; John has blindsided him. John shakes his head, rubs his face. His head hurts. His eyes hurt, his whole being hurts. He's so tired.
He opens his eyes again and looks. Sherlock, always unpredictable. Sherlock -- John reaches out, touches his shoulder. Sherlock looks at the spot where their bodies meet. Sherlock's is solid, bony. Tired. There's a white scar on Sherlock's forehead, over his eyebrow. Sherlock's real, alive.
John's not crazy, is he?
Sherlock's back. Sherlock -- John doesn't know how, but he must have faked his death.
Oh God, the whole thing was a lie. The whole thing. Why would he -- why would he pretend to die, why would he leave, why would he let them say all of those horrible things about him, why -- why did he say all of those horrible things, about himself? Why, Sherlock? Why would he ever do that? Why would he leave John behind?
Why? Why is Sherlock alive?
"You're wondering what happened." Holy shit, he sounds just like John remembers. Deep, calm. It's like nothing ever happened. It's like everything's the same as it had always been. Somehow, that's not okay at all. To collapse time -- to erase the past, erase his pains; that's not okay. Here he stands again, alive, as if things will be the same. As if death can be stared down.
And that's when John punches him.
He realizes as soon as he pulls his hand away that he's broken Sherlock's nose.
"WHAT THE SHITTING FUCK, SHERLOCK?! WHAT THE BLOODY FUCKING HELL?" Sherlock's on the floor, on his bum; John's hit knocked him down. Sherlock fishes in his pocket for a facial tissue to hold to his bloody nose, begins to stand. "NO! DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE STAND UP UNTIL I'M DONE WITH YOU, SHERLOCK HOLMES!" John is irrational. "WHAT THE FUCKING HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? JESUS FUCKING CHRIST I'D HAVE THOUGHT -- I THOUGHT -- YOU WERE DEAD! DEAD ON THE PAVEMENT, YOU JUMPED OFF THE BLOODY FUCKING ROOF, I FUCKING SAW IT, YOU MADE ME WATCH, SHERLOCK! WHAT KIND OF MAN MAKES HIS BEST FRIEND WATCH WHILE HE COMMITS SUICIDE? WHO DOES THAT? WHAT THE SHIT IS WRONG WITH YOU?"
"John -- "
"Shut the fuck up! You don't get to talk right now. You absolute wanker, you bastard, horrible -- monster." Sherlock flinches; John is pleased. He'd picked the insult for the purpose. "You complete git! You -- you told me you were a fake, you made me watch you die, you ran off and let me mourn here for three years without so much as an 'I'm alive"! Do you actually even have feelings, or were you just pretending this whole time? If I bash your head open on the worktop, will there be gears and wires inside?" Thought has left his head; he is living upon instinct, adrenaline-sweet fury. He lunges forward, seizes Sherlock by the hair, lifts and drags him as if he intends to do it. It's an attractive prospect, actually. He's so blind with rage he won't let himself think of the fact that Sherlock's alive, and that the last thing John wants is to kill him. He's so livid that there's a moment where he thinks that you can't be accused of murdering a man who's already died.
He lets go of Sherlock, lets the man lean against his leg. Sherlock's not breathing regularly; he sounds terrified. John watches him, watches Sherlock press the tissue to his bloody nose. Evidence of violence John really did do.
John's voice has fallen to a whisper. "Why, Sherlock? Why?"
"Am I allowed to speak now?"
"Of course, you fucker."
Sherlock is quiet, looks up at him. His eyes are very pale. Were they always that pale? Or is it just the light, the light that's only falling upon his right side, barely touching the dark kitchen they're standing in?
"I -- John. You saw what happened after my... after I left. The papers, everything."
Oh, God, Sherlock's trying to walk him through it. Fuck you, Sherlock. "Yeah?"
"Very neat, wasn't it? Suicide of the accused man pretty much proves his guilt."
"Yes, exactly. Which is why I don't understand. I mean, I figured Moriarty probably put you up to it, put you up to... what you said, but, er. Why'd you play his game?"
"It wasn't a game."
"Oh, really? I thought murder was always a game to you."
Sherlock closes his eyes: affecting impatience to mask hurt. "No, John. And it certanly wasn't when it was... what I mean to say is that, no-one really cares about unknown people who die. I'm not alone in this. I stopped having fun when he upped the stakes."
"'Upped the'...? You mean that debacle at the pool? With -- oh. Is -- is that what you mean?"
"What do you think I mean?"
John shakes his head. "No, Sherlock, you're going to have to come out and say this one. I'm not helping."
Sherlock looks away then, down at the floor. He swallows. "I, er -- I had to jump, to ... to save you. And not just you. Mrs Hudson, Lestrade. You'd all have been shot otherwise. Shot if I lived, shot if I came back without getting rid of them first."
"Terribly convenient, then, that you had a plan, so that you didn't actually have to sacrifice anything." John's still being vicious and he doesn't care. "Don't want to imagine you having to deal with three funerals if you hadn't had a plan."
"John, no. You're being irrational."
"Of course I fucking am, I've just found out my best friend decided to pretend to be dead for a bit of a lark! This is not a rational moment." John gesticulates, his voice sounds raw; Sherlock's watching him with a blank face and sad eyes. John puts his face in his hands, elbows on the worktop. He leans away from Sherlock, doesn't look up. Sherlock's still on the floor.
"No, John -- no. It was not -- no. I wish I hadn't had to do it."
"So do I."
"No, you aren't."
"Why do you say that?"
"You don't apologise. Can't apologise. Not when you really mean it, when you really need to."
"So you think I'm lying?"
"I don't think anything. I want you to shut up."
"But -- "
"No, Sherlock, shut up. You have absolutely no rights right now."
"Not even the right to apologise?"
"I'm sorry, John."
"Stop saying that. I'm not going to forgive you."
"That's okay, you don't have to. I hardly expect you to. But... I hoped you might at least believe I was sorry."
John's rage has dissipated, leaving behind only bitterness, fatigue, and bone-deep melancholy. He doesn't want to look up ever again. Would like to turn around and see Sherlock gone, a vision, fantasy -- leaving only one Sherlock in the world, the dead one in John's head, the one who never betrayed him.
Sherlock's still sitting at his feet, snorting wetly into his tissue. It sounds like it's bleeding a lot. John should tend to it, set the broken bone. He doesn't want to touch it. He'd like to see Sherlock continue with a crooked nose: when people ask him what had happened, the answer would be "I betrayed John Watson's trust and he refrained from killing me", because it’s the truth. It's a nice thought, to think that Sherlock's wrongs could be written on his face for the rest of his life. The life that would be much longer than John had known it to be.
"Sherlock," John begins despite himself.
"I call what you did betrayal, you realise that."
"You lied to me. Multiple times. Why did you -- why did you say what you did? Why didn't you... I mean, you called me. You could have said anything. Could even have said you weren't going to die. Or even just... just said that Moriarty was threatening people again and you had no choice. I didn't tell anyone what you said, I wouldn't; they believed the evidence anyway, without my help. So you didn't need to lie to me to give him the death he wanted."
Sherlock swallows, won't look up. He smiles to himself, it's rueful. "Of course you wouldn't have understood. Only you... I should have known better. Only you."
"If you were someone else, anyone, a little less... less faithful, you'd know why. You'd have felt it. But you're you, and I forgot that, and I shouldn't have. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
"Stop saying that."
"Shut up. What didn't I understand?"
"You didn't believe what I said for a second, did you." It's not a question.
"Of course not, how could I?"
Sherlock smiles, laughs; it's dry. "See, that's what I mean. How could I have underestimated you? If you had thought it was true, against all the odds -- after all, it came from my own mouth, by my own admission -- you'd have been... your reaction would have been different. Relieved? Maybe. The feeling of betrayal would have overrode any genuine grief. No use mourning someone who never existed, except to mourn the loss of a fantasy. But you're not like that, you're not sentimental. Practical. It wouldn't have been practical to grieve. But, of course, you wouldn't believe me. God, John, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"Were -- were you trying to... what, trying to convince me to move on? Forget about you? What kind of bullshit idea is that?"
"I was trying to make it hurt less. I failed. I'm sorry."
John stops. For a moment, he's not angry. His head is still in his hands, he still hasn't looked back at Sherlock for long minutes now. For a moment, he thinks of the first night he knew Sherlock. "But, that was ages ago, why'd she still be upset? ... Not good?" There's something badly wired in Sherlock's head -- gears and wires and metal, no feelings -- and John wants to laugh. Because Sherlock is mad. And John's still fucking angry.
"How could you think that was possibly okay? How was any of this okay?"
"It's... not. But there was little else I could do."
"You could have sent me a message or something, told me you were alive."
"Would you have believed it?"
"Then it wasn't worth the potential risk of being found and traced by Moriarty's men, and then you'd all be in danger again. Me, too. But mostly you."
"You could have brought me with you."
"It would have been easy; chain suicides, easy. I was on the brink of really doing it a few times, anyway. Everyone would have believed it -- John Watson kills himself because his best friend is dead and may have never even existed. I'd have followed you, helped you take out the network. I'd have followed you anywhere. Even when there was only one place to go, I wanted to follow. I'd have done, too, if Mary hadn't shown up."
"Oh, is Mary her name?" He's redirecting the conversation, doesn't want to think about John killing himself.
"She's pregnant, right?"
"Yeah. Six months."
"'Inter'--? Sherlock... I couldn't just sit and mourn. I'd gone and sorted out a whole new life for myself, and now -- now you've just come flouncing back in here, expecting it to be all right. It's not, Sherlock. It's not all right. I have a family now, responsibilities: I'm married, I'm going to be a father soon, Sherlock. It's not the same, it's not okay. I'm not the John Watson you knew, not anymore."
"Haven't you lied enough for one lifetime?"
John doesn't look at him. His head is still in his hands, his back stiff and straight and he's very tired. His head hurts, his whole being hurts.
"You have to understand, though -- "
"I don't need to understand anything."
The silence is long and it hurts, like needles. Then, Sherlock tries speech again.
"John, if it's worth anything... I was lucky that I had a plan. But it was never about the plan. If I hadn't... I'd still have done the same thing. It was worth death. I'm sorry that I didn't really do it. It seems you'd have liked that better."
John doesn't speak, doesn't look at him. He wants to scream, hasn't the energy. He's stiff, and his head is in his hands.
Sherlock snorts again into the bloody tissue, stands -- at last -- to dispose of it. He remains standing, in the dark kitchen, tall and awkward and unsure of where to put his hands. John is bent over the worktop, face hidden. He's drawn into himself, not interested in speaking. Sherlock stands there.
He's about four feet away from John, and the gap feels at once very wide and very, very small. It's been years since they've been this close, been able to think of each other in the same air. John won't look at him. Four feet feels so very far, like a chasm. Sherlock's hand begins to come up, drops. He can't fly, can't bridge the abyss. He can't touch or speak to John because he doesn't know how to fix him. John won't look at him, probably hates him, doesn't need him, won't speak to him.
Sherlock looks at him for a very long time. Then, slowly, quietly, he turns, leaves the kitchen. The light near the door hits him again, illumination. He looks at John again; John was always his conductor of light.
John's stiff and silent and this isn't Sherlock's home, anyway, and he was never invited in. So he takes his coat from the hook, John's hook, the one he knew John'd look at, and puts it on. Too hot for gloves. His fingers twitch. A parting handshake would have been nice.
Sherlock opens the door, the one he forced, and steps out into the dark corridor. Dim to dark, no proper light here. Even the lights from the main street are mere pools of colour in the tiny corridor windows; they don't illuminate much of anything.
It's so dark everywhere. Sherlock shuts John's door. It's 10 metres until the staircase.
Inside, John stops. The door's shut, Sherlock's leaving. Good. Fine. Fine? Now Sherlock's going to leave again, just like before. John didn't mourn for three years just for Sherlock to run off again. He wanted Sherlock back, hoped maybe if he prayed he'd get something miraculous, get Sherlock again. He's gotten a miracle. Oh, God, he's gotten a miracle.
"Sherlock!" He goes for the door, fast, tears it open. His heart twitches in his chest when he sees that the hall beyond is empty. He goes still.
"John?" It's fine, Sherlock's just beyond. He walked from the door and now he's further down the hall, John can see him. He's still here. John sags against the doorframe.
"John." Sherlock's still, a dark and tall shape in a coat all-surrounded in darkness. His nose is no longer leaking blood, but he's still nasal and John should really tend to it. Sherlock's waiting for John to say something. What can John possibly say?
"You were leaving."
"Yes. I assumed you wanted me to."
"No, you great git, I don't. I'm not punishing myself for your mistakes by making you leave."
"'Punishing yours--' oh, I see. I...” There’s a protracted pause. “I see you assume that your desire to spend time with me is not reciprocated."
"What?" John's too tired for Sherlockese right now.
"John... I, I missed you."
John doesn't say anything, doesn't want to breathe lest the moment prove unreal.
"You 'missed' me?"
"Yes. It wasn't the same. Without you. Nothing was fun anymore."
"At least you knew I was alive. I missed -- didn't think I'd ever get to see you again."
"Sherlock, I won't forgive you for this, no matter how often you apologise. Ever."
"I don't expect you to. All I want is for you to believe me. Because I am sorry. I am so very, very sorry."
"...I don't think you're sorry enough."
"Maybe not. You'll show me?"
"How sorry I should be? You'll tell me if I'm being Not Good?"
"...Yeah, I guess. It's what I always did."
"And we'll do it now?"
"Of course we will. Or, we'll try. It'll never be the same, though."
"So..." Sherlock hesitates, his fingers twitch. "... are we still friends?"
"Of course. For some mad reason, Sherlock."
Sherlock smiles, small and shy, and extends his hand. John reaches out and grasps it, and there's two arms-lengths between them, and the corridor is very dark and there's just the barest patches of light coming from outside. They shake. And then they just hold on.
Minutes pass. John won't look up, can't. His eyes would betray him. He squeezes Sherlock's hand tighter.
Sherlock watches him, and steps closer. Now they're toe-to-toe, and Sherlock's not at all sure about what he's about to do, if it's okay.
Sherlock discards John's hand and John watches him, confused. Then, Sherlock leans into him, and puts his arms around John Watson's back, burying his face in John's shoulder. John's stiff, and his hands are up, open against air for lack of a better place to go.
"Sherl, what are you -- "
"No, stop." Sherlock's hugging him, and that's weird, and is telling him not to say anything about it, which is actually to be expected. John's not sure which parts of his world have been fixed and which are still falling apart.
Sherlock's hand is at the back of his neck, gentle, curled. There's another hand on John's back. It's a nice hug, if a little awkward. Sherlock's hugging him; John wants to reciprocate, has to reciprocate because three years is too long. His hands come up, find places along Sherlock's body. One comes back to his own chest, curls around Sherlock's shoulder in the front. The other is on Sherlock's back, against the black wool. Sherlock's grip tightens; John imagines Sherlock staring ahead, letting his limbs do the weeping for him. Sherlock's holding him very hard. John's eyes feel wet.
His hand's at his mouth, then, covering his broken breaths. He's not going to cry, he's going to breathe, he'll be fine. Sherlock's here, Sherlock's okay, Sherlock's back. The world can turn again. John can breathe air. He's not going to cry.
In the end, he doesn't. Neither of them do. But they can't speak, either, and their throats are hard to breathe through, so swollen with three years of swallowed tears. Neither of them will ever mention these ragged breaths, or the hug, or their moment of weakness. They will pretend that they were ever stone-solid men, never reduced to tears, feeble emotions, at a reunion. They will pretend that being apart wasn't painful. John looks at the ceiling, the faint patches of light there. Oh God, he's gotten a miracle. He's not going to cry.
He breaks away, then, and steps back. His hands are back at his sides; he feels awkward. Sherlock is looking away. There's a huge gap between them again.
It's then that they meet eyes and stare, and then break down into giggles because that's the only sane response to Sherlock and John back together again that will ever grace the earth. It's John that admonishes him for giggling in the corridor, Sherlock who comments that no-one's around. The lights are still vague and the building still full of darkness. But Sherlock's back, they're back. They keep laughing. They're bent over double with the weight of years and of reunion.
Later that night, hours later, Mary finally makes it home. She doesn't notice the broken wood, and it's not until she's put the takeaway into the fridge that she notices anything else. She steps out of the kitchen, and she sees them. Only three lights are on, one table lamp in the sitting room, but she can see them.
John, lying awkwardly in an armchair, asleep. He does that a lot. It's endearing. There's no point in trying to wake him or get him to move, he won't budge.
Another man, lying on the sofa. Stretched out, long limbs everywhere, arms folded over his chest like a baby's. His face is turned towards her; he looks young and blank in sleep, but she can still recognise that face. She's seen it pinched, half-hidden, or looking sidelong at John with consternation and affection and pride. Her brain gives a weird lurch.
As quietly as she can, she goes to the little office, roots around in the closet until she finds her box. She opens it; it's a box with a big book inside, a scrapbook. It's her scrapbook of Sherlock Holmes. Newspaper clippings, photos, her own summaries of the stories John told her. He doesn't know about the scrapbook, he'd think it odd and it'd hurt too much, so she hasn't told him. But she never met the man herself, has no memories to banish, and finds herself wondering often what it would be like to see them together, in life. The Sherlock stories are one of the few things that really seem to make John come alive; she always liked him best when he told them.
There, she finds the photo she was thinking of. Front-page photo, from that thing about the painting of the waterfall; the case that John said was their big break. The one that led to the end. It's the best photo of them she's found so far. Sherlock's looking at John, and John's looking at Sherlock -- like it was meant to be that way.
She takes it, goes back to the sitting room. Holds up the photo, looks back and forth from it to the sleeping man. It's definitely Sherlock. It's Sherlock. Sherlock. So he's not dead. How?
She's sure they'll tell her when they wake up again; John won't be able to contain himself. But, for now, she watches them, both unaware. John sleeps easier when Sherlock's in the room, she notices. He probably does everything easier, better, when Sherlock's there. Sherlock himself is still and relaxed, not at all like the strung-out manic insomniac that John always said he was. Both of them: calmer, happier. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, back together again.
"Look at you two," she whispers. "Just look at you."
She certainly does. But they're the sort of men who haven't done so, and never will. So when they wake up, she won't tell them that they look like puzzle pieces, unfinished if alone. She won't tell them that they look like little boys worn out after a long game of detective and mastermind. She won't tell them that they ought to have been born brothers.
She will not say anything, and then their adventures can begin. Anew.