Sherlock returns to London on a Tuesday in triumph. He makes the rounds of his associates: Mycroft sighs, Lestrade swears, Molly slaps him, Mrs Hudson cries before hugging him within an inch of his life.
He saves 221B for last, and when he opens the door, John is standing on the staircase, silent and pale, one hand clutched around his cane and the other fisted to hide the shaking.
Mrs Hudson brings up tea and biscuits with one hand, dabs at her eyes with a tissue held in the other. Sherlock remembers to thank her, because John is in the room, and she gives them both kisses on the cheek before she leaves.
“So you’re not dead after all,” John whispers, after the door has closed.
Sherlock has rehearsed this moment a thousand times in the dark of lonely nights, in weary days spent hiding in filthy streets, in delirious hours racked with infection and poisons. His prodigious imagination does not in any way live up -- or down -- to the reality of it: a dimly lit room, a weary John. Sherlock stares. This is hardly the reaction he had expected from John. He had predicted anger, or tears, or shock, but not this grey silence. His chest constricts and refuses to loosen.
“Are you angry with me?”
John tilts his head. “Mycroft already came by, earlier. He said you were doing it to protect me. Is that true?”
Sherlock breathes out. “Yes,” he says, victoriously, "and taking down Moriarty's network was quite the adventure, John, I expect you'll want to blog all about it."
"I suppose I should thank you,” John says instead of responding. “And I’m glad that you’ve -- that you’ve made it back, Sherlock. Very glad.”
He gets up from the sofa, walks up to Sherlock. All the details of the room that Sherlock has committed to memory are overwhelming him, swallowing him whole with their texture and granularity, and in the midst of it all is John, who stands up on his toes and gives Sherlock a very, very chaste kiss on the forehead and a trembling smile. He slowly extends a hand, as if he does not believe his eyes, and very light brushes his fingers over Sherlock's blue scarf, his charcoal greatcoat. Then he pulls away, withdrawing into himself, and takes a step back. "Welcome home, Sherlock" John says quietly, and then turns on his heel and limps up to his bedroom.
The next day John starts looking for a new flat.
The topic never comes up. In any case, one week after his return, Sherlock is lying on the sofa, in the midst of meditating on one hundred and six ways to prevent John from leaving -- pre-emptively bribing movers, hiding John’s belongings, staging a kidnapping, writing to the future landlord that John is a dangerous element and should not be housed -- when John wanders in, holding a mug of tea in one hand and his laptop under the other arm.
“I hope you’re not thinking of ways to prevent me from leaving,” John says, conversationally, as if he were merely discussing the weather.
Sherlock’s back stiffens. He sits up, glaring hatefully at John’s carefully neutral expression.
“Why would I?” he snaps. “I’ve done well enough without you for three years, I certainly don’t need you now.”
“I know you don’t,” John says. He sets his things down. The laptop had been hiding a folded up copy of his new lease. The ink has dried on the dotted line.
Sherlock frowns. “You’re displeased with me.”
“Yes, well deduced that,” John says. “Three years, Sherlock. You made me watch you jump, you made me think you were dead.”
“It worked, so what’s the problem?” Sherlock sits up. “All is well. Moriarty is gone, his network in tatters, I have returned in one piece, and everyone that Moriarty threatened is still alive.”
“I already told you, I’m very grateful for all that,” John says quietly. “I’m glad that you’re back, and that you’re alive, and that you thought you were protecting us.” There is a fascinating play of emotions on his face and Sherlock watches, mesmerized, weighing the hope and fury and sadness inflected in John’s voice.
“Then what’s the matter? I’d say it’s entirely perfect,” Sherlock says, bewildered.
“I know you’d say that. That’s why I’m leaving,” John says, stiffly, and turns away. There are boxes everywhere. Sherlock turns his face to the wall, closes his eyes, and falls asleep breathing in the scent of corrugated cardboard.
John leaves first thing in the morning. Sherlock watches from the couch, in his dressing gown, deducing the workers aloud. Sexual preferences, chemical addictions past and present, being cheated on. Oddly enough, they all ignore him, which mostly just makes him even more irritated.
(He gets a text afterwards from John: I TOLD THEM YOU WERE A MENTAL PATIENT. He barks a laugh before he throws the phone into the fireplace.)
On the third day of John’s absence, Sherlock storms through New Scotland Yard, flings Lestrade’s office door wide open and shouts, “I need work! Give me something juicy, the more bodies the better!”
Lestrade looks up and sighs from behind several piles of casework and coffee cups. “Nice to see you too, Sherlock. Where’s John, by the way?”
Sherlock narrows his eyes and says, “I see that your ex-wife has moved on from PE teachers to architects.”
“Christ, Sherlock, you could have just said that he abandoned you.” Lestrade crosses his arms and, infuriatingly, doesn’t seem all that ruffled.
Sherlock says, “We were never together in the first place. Are you going to give me a case, or are you trying for the lowest clearance rate in five years?”
Lestrade tosses a file at Sherlock’s head.
He solves six cases in two months.
Somehow, it isn’t the same, even though the criminals are still their usual mixture of impassioned, creative, and yet stupid enough to be caught; the Met is still unfortunately bound to their principles and chained to their desks and bound up in red tape. At first he thinks that perhaps he misses the challenge, the mutual understanding that he’d had with Moriarty, but he doesn’t find himself longing for an archnemesis. There are plenty of cases, and some of them even require some genuine thought to solve, but it feels as though brainwork is no longer enough to satisfy him.
Lestrade, cautiously, suggests press conferences to shore up his controversial figure in the popular media; Sherlock tells Lestrade exactly where the collective Met can shove the press. He makes two new probationary officers cry, gets himself banned from Bart’s, and finally enough complaints pile up about him that Lestrade bodily throws him out of New Scotland Yard.
“Don’t come back until you can behave yourself,” he says, but there’s something odd and pitying in his brown eyes. “Or, until you can bring John with you.”
Only John doesn’t call, doesn’t text, doesn’t ask how he’s doing, doesn’t leave messages with Lestrade or Mrs Hudson or Molly. Sherlock knows where John is living, of course, and Mycroft has more than once offered up surveillance footage, but that’s simply too crude, and besides, Sherlock hadn’t lied when he said that he never begged.
So instead he tries to squash the awful unsettled feeling in his chest by smoking endless cigarettes, and only the knowledge that Lestrade will cut him off in perpetuity if he even so much as goes near anything illicit again prevents him from relieving the boredom with stronger chemicals.
Mycroft comes over one day, surveys the flat, and tuts over the spoilt milk in the fridge, a mouldy loaf of bread on the counter (an experiment, but Sherlock knows that Mycroft knows), the thin coating of dust gathering on the Union Jack pillow. He picks it up, thumb running over a traitorous spot where the blue and red dye has run.
Sherlock is fairly sure that he is only there to make sure Sherlock isn’t living under a bridge -- honestly, put two months’ rent money up your nose once and nobody ever lets you forget it -- but Mycroft looks fairly impressed and then, presumably as a reward, tosses Sherlock three folders containing various cases of national importance.
He sends Mycroft packing, flinging books after him.
In February Sherlock visits Sarah’s surgery in disguise as a safety inspector and finds that John hasn’t been working there for some time. It turns out he has joined the A&E staff of University College Hospital on a part-time basis. Sherlock groans silently. Of course. John needs the excitement, the knife wounds, the possibility that a patient just might try to kill you when you try to pull them off whatever other person they’re beating on.
The salary is commensurate with the position and fairly comfortable. John has moved into a tiny but nicely situated flat in the City of London. It’s bare and almost unfurnished and would be quaint and stylish if John had any sense of those things; instead it is simply a tired-looking flat, where the hot water tap doesn’t always work and the floors creak when Sherlock sets foot on them.
Sherlock walks through the flat, taking in data on his way to his objective.
John has barely unpacked; many of his boxes are still taped shut. Built-in bookshelves remain empty. Bedsheets are badly mussed and sweat-stained from restless nights. The refrigerator holds takeout containers but no alcohol. The medicine cabinet holds unopened pharmacy packets: painkillers, sleeping aids. No girlfriend, not even dates, which is so surprising that Sherlock checks three times to ascertain this. The laptop’s battery is dead and the gun is sitting on top of it in the bedside drawer. Perfect.
It is the work of an afternoon to break the heating elements in the flat. John doesn’t have any electric blankets or space heaters, and his duvet isn’t going to do much against the cold snap that has icicles dripping from buildings, excellent.
Sherlock goes back to 221B and waits.
Three hours later his phone buzzes.
Message From: Lestrade
JFC sherlock you know that breaking and entering is a crime!!!
Message From: Lestrade
the only reason i’m not coming over to arrest you RIGHT NOW is because john is asking me not to
I have no knowledge of what you are referring to.
Message From: Lestrade
do you know how many things i can charge you with
Message From: Lestrade
starting with wrongful BEING A BLOODY GIT
Put John on the phone.
Message From: Lestrade
he says he doesn’t have anything to say to you.
Sherlock narrows his eyes.
Three days later John comes by the flat.
Sherlock has prepared: two mugs of tea on the coffee table, bag of takeaway from Angelo’s on the stove, a bottle of wine pilfered from a diplomatic pouch chilling in the refrigerator starting at seven; John’s shift typically ends at six and it would take him about an hour and a half to get to Baker Street. He passes the time playing on his violin and determinedly not looking out the window.
At quarter-past seven someone leans on the doorbell. Twice. Sherlock takes the stairs down two at a time and opens the door. John, cane in hand, very nearly falls into Sherlock’s arms but braces himself against the wall instead. Silently they make their way back up the stairs. Sherlock opens the door, John stomps in, and collapses on the sofa.
“I got sacked today,” John says.
“Sorry to hear that,” Sherlock says, and plucks at the E string.
“I lost my job,” John says through gritted teeth, “because some arsehole sent a copy of my Army psych evaluations to my supervisor.”
Sherlock mock-gasps and sets his violin aside. “How terrible. Did he read it?”
“Yes, and now the entire staff thinks that I’m a bloody headcase.”
“They’re right, you are. But more to the point, his reading of the documents, which were certainly not procured by legal means, constitutes a gross violation of your privacy,” Sherlock says, eyebrows raised. “He ought not to have read it, but then, he’s a nosy bastard, isn’t he? Perhaps he ought to be reported for such unacceptable behaviour.”
“I’m sure he already has been,” John says dryly. “And what about the informant?”
“Who cares about him?” Sherlock shrugs. “It’s you that I’m concerned about, John.”
“Spare me your games,” John snaps. “You’re not concerned about me.”
Sherlock says, “Of course I am. I’m concerned regarding whether you still be able to make the rent at your new flat now that you’re out of work.”
John breathes out shakily and sets his face in his hands. “No. No, I won’t. At least not until I find another job. Maybe Lestrade will put me up while I look for a new place.”
“Or you could move back in here with me,” Sherlock says in a rush. “I haven’t touched your room since you left. I haven’t even done experiments in there.” John’s wide-eyed look of surprise shows he knows just how much that admission means. “Come back, John.”
John sucks in a breath. His cheeks flush and Sherlock can see the muscles twitch under his shirtsleeves, and automatically tenses to duck a punch. John hits quite hard, but his words hit harder. “You have a lot of nerve. I lost my job because of you. I moved out because of you in the first place! What makes you think I’d want to go through all that again? It hurt enough the first time!”
He lashes out with the cane and sweeps the two cups of tea off the table. There is the crash of ceramic and the softer splash of water.
Sherlock grabs the cane and yanks.
“Look at you,” he snaps. “You were miserable living like that. You’re still miserable. I can change that. I’ve done you a favour.”
“Fuck off, that’s not for you to decide! That’s never been --”
John lets go of the cane. It’s wholly unexpected, and Sherlock staggers backwards, off balance for a second. John takes advantage of the moment to close the gap between them with three solid steps, and throws a punch that sends Sherlock crashing into the couch, knocking over his stack of books, two mugs, and his skull.
His face feels like it might actually have a fracture. Sherlock sways as he sits up and through the ringing in his head he can only hear the sound of John’s ragged breathing.
“Was this why you came?” Sherlock says softly.
“I came to ask you to leave me the fuck alone,” John grits out. “Punching you, that was just a bonus.”
“Wrong,” Sherlock says, getting up and going to the kitchen, fetching the food and wine. “You could have told me all that in a text. Or through Lestrade, or even my brother, who would have relished acting as courier for such a message. But you came in person; much more difficult emotionally as well as physically -- sit down before you fall down, John -- and you already said your goodbye the first time, so you didn’t come to tell me off, at least, not only.”
John sits, surveying the mess he’s made of the room.
“You wanted to come back,” Sherlock says, making his second trip, this time loaded down with plates and glasses and silverware. He begins serving, taking calculated glances at John. “No. You want, at this very moment, to come back.”
“Fuck you very much,” John says.
“I don’t put out before dinner,” Sherlock deadpans, and hands John a plate of mushroom ravioli.
John reaches out with his left hand, takes it, immediately drops it. The plate goes crashing to the table, splattering semolina and sauce everywhere, including all over his clothes. He stays like that, his entire body frozen for a moment, except for his hand that won’t stop shaking, no matter how much he looks at his fingers with hurt and betrayal and shame.
Sherlock goes into his bedroom and comes back out with his bathrobe. Wordlessly he offers it as he scans over John’s form: average of three hours’ sleep a night over the last week, hasn’t changed shirt in a day, last sexual encounter was on Saturday, called sister yesterday, and over all of it, he is desperately, terribly, terminally bored.
John stares at the robe and finally he takes it, cradling the fabric, holding it clear of his stained clothing, protecting the blue silk as if it’s the most fragile thing in the world.
“I’m right, aren’t I,” Sherlock says.
“Fine, yes,” John huffs, setting the robe aside and taking a glassful of wine, followed by a long swallow. “I hated that job. Hated the flat. Hated all of it.”
“Then come back,” Sherlock says in a rush, “we had an excellent arrangement, and I don’t understand why you saw fit to interrupt it --”
John holds up his free hand, looking dangerously close to punching Sherlock again. “Me? Sherlock, I'm not the one who fucked off for three years and then came back and tried to pretend that everything’s the same!”
Sherlock tries not to shout. “I was trying to protect you, John.”
“Yes, I know, and I’m grateful that you spared us from those bullets,” John says. “But I’m not stupid, you know. Setting up your fall, your supposed corpse, your funds, all the rest of it, that had to have taken a while. So you had some time to think through it all, surely, in that great big brain of yours. You must have thought of other choices. But you chose to pretend that you were dead to all of us.” He stares into his wineglass.
Sherlock blinks. “What would you have rather I done?”
“Oh, let’s see.” John shrugs and takes another drink. “I would have happily faked my death along with yours, you know. You’re not the only one that can live rough.”
Sherlock says, measuring each word the way he measures out chemical reagents, “The creation of two fake deaths is significantly more difficult than the creation of one. I was uncertain of what was the optimal choice, so I simply chose the simplest solution, which was to go it alone.”
“Sherlock,” John says, “for three years, you asked and I came. Hell, half the time you didn’t ask, you just demanded, and I came.” He sets down his glass. “But then when it counted the most, you didn’t ask.”
“I was unsure of your answer,” Sherlock says. “And had you refused, my telling you would have rendered my own fake death impossible with regards to you.”
John says quietly, “I threw myself in a semtex jacket at a madman for you. You knew that I would die for you, Sherlock, but you didn’t know if I would live for you?”
“I don’t understand why that would upset you,” Sherlock says.
“I know you don’t understand,” John says, in the voice he had always used whenever Sherlock said something less than charitable or appropriate: resignation and fondness together. Sherlock doesn’t think he can withstand not hearing that voice again. John gets up off the couch, faces Sherlock, and his eyes are unbearably kind. “That’s why I can’t stay.”
“But I want to understand,” Sherlock says, slowly, and it is a revelation to him, data and signals and patterns emerging out of what had previously been incomprehensible noise in his head.
Apparently it’s a revelation to John as well; he freezes and asks, apprehensive in a way that Sherlock has never seen before, not even when they were facing down a murderer or Mycroft:
Sherlock blinks, momentarily taken aback. He searches himself and only finds the most agitating discomfort at the unoccupied space in the flat, all the spots where John used to be, the lacunae in his consciousness and awareness of self that John once filled. He realizes with a start that his concept of himself has gone from Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, detective and blogger, and going back feels wrong, and awful, and achingly empty.
“I find that I cannot live without you,” he says. “And if I had to do it again, I would take you with me. Three years was a long time and I do not wish to ever be apart from you again. John, I find that I --”
He’s cut off when John places two hands on either side of Sherlock’s face, and gently kisses him. John’s lips are dry and soft, his mouth tastes of very good wine, his callused hands are warm and perfectly steady, and for a moment those sensations drown out Sherlock’s entire universe.
“I love you too, you git,” John whispers into Sherlock’s lips, “and that’s why.”
The world turns sweet and heavy and giddy all at once, like honey, and he thinks, oh.
John is in his arms and in his world and he is himself again -- he is more himself than he has ever been before, Sherlock thinks as he returns John’s kiss with his own.
“So you’ll stay, then?” he murmurs.
“Always,” John says, as the tightness falls away from Sherlock’s heart, the negative spaces in his world fill to overflowing with a new and brilliant light, and he knows that they are home.