He stands before the mirror, fiddles with his tie, adjusts his collar and smooths imaginary wrinkles from his coat. The suit is new, the most expensive one he’s ever owned, and while it’s off the rack, it’s been meticulously tailored to fit him. Kate had brought a tailor to his flat, had overseen the entire process, and had not seemed the least bit embarrassed during the over-zealous pinning and pinching and measuring process.
The result is far better than he could have hoped.
He looks good. Good for sixty-three, at least. Good for a widower who’s taken a bullet to the shoulder, who’s living with one kidney and a permanent limp and a cane he’ll never forget because he can’t get out of a bloody chair without it. He’s carrying a few extra pounds around the middle, but what man of his age isn’t? He’s still got his hair, though it can’t even be called salt and pepper anymore. He raises his hand to his upper lip, runs thumb and finger over the mustache he’s worn since Mary died. She’d hated it once, and he’d stayed clean-shaven throughout his marriage. But she’s gone now, and he’s alone. He can do what he wants with his face now, and wear his old, comfortable jumpers, and eat biscuits for breakfast and leave coffee mugs on the bed stand and let the milk go bad in the fridge.
He tries on a smile. He doesn’t smile as often as he used to – hasn’t for quite some time. He doesn’t much like the man he’s become, but doesn’t have the energy to do anything about it at this point in his life. He’s made his choices and lives with the fall-out. Kate’s on her own now, happy in her career, and while she pops in more often than he’d expect her to, he isn’t the fulcrum of her life, and can hardly expect to be.
He checks his mobile for the time – he’s well ahead of schedule – then sighs and looks in the mirror again. He has a sudden, nearly irresistible desire to shave – to get rid of the mustache altogether. Kay tells him he’d look years younger without it, but he’s old and he’s stubborn and he likes how it warms his face in the winter. Not that it’s winter now, but it will be soon enough.
Besides, it’s a statement, one he can hide behind.
He doesn’t leave the flat very often these days. Mired in guilt, in regret, in wrong turns and sorrows, he sits in his chair and reads, stares out the window, limps into the kitchen to make tea and a sandwich, watches far too much telly. He may claim he’s working on a book, but every time he starts, he loses himself in bewildering memories, crushing pain. The flat is quiet without Kate and her friends, without Mary. Without Sherlock bounding up the stairs and bursting in, without Kate screeching his name and hugging his too-long, lanky legs about the knees. Kate comes and goes – brings him groceries, insists he walk to the park with her when the weather is nice and she has enough time to slow to his laboured walking pace. She’s long ago stopped trying to convince him to resume his old life, to see Sherlock. Everyone has. It’s been five years, after all, and even the most persistent, annoying people will eventually give up and move on in the face of extreme stubbornness and unwavering resolve.
The day is mild, not quite sunny, but pleasant and clear. A perfect day for an auspicious occasion for a man who deserves much more than this highest of honours. He waits on the pavement only three minutes, weight shifted to his good leg, before the promised car arrives. It slides up beside him and the driver gets out to open the door. John is proficient at handling himself with the cane, and gets inside with a minimum of fuss. The cane fits neatly beside him in a car of this size, and he holds it in one hand, the gloves Kate insisted he bring clasped tightly in the other. He takes a steadying breath, then slowly turns his head. He hasn’t seen Sherlock in half a decade, but this is no chance meeting, and he is mentally prepared.
“Hello,” he says. His voice catches a bit and he clears his throat.
Sherlock, busy cataloguing him, doesn’t immediately return the greeting. His eyes, quick and bright, wrinkled at the corners, move from offending mustache to impeccably tailored coat to metal cane with worn rubber tip.
“I made one impossible demand – set one non-negotiable condition.” His eyes move from the cane to John’s right leg, studying the angle at which his knee is bent, the relative size of one thigh to the other. “I agreed to attend this ceremony and receive this honour only if you would share the day with me.”
His voice is as it always was. He sounds satisfied, not surprised.
John’s eyes are on Sherlock’s hands where they rest on his thighs.
“Mycroft said you’d come,” continues Sherlock quietly. The tone of his voice is so different now he could be a different person altogether. “I didn’t believe it until you got in the car.”
John shifts in the seat, grunts out an old man’s hmph. “I wasn’t about to let you use me as an excuse to get out of something – something like this.”
Sherlock’s little finger – the one on his left hand – twitches. John jerks his eyes upward and just catches the look of pleasure, of amusement, as it flits across his old friend’s face.
He digs his right hand into his thigh as his left clutches the head of his cane. His shoulders tense and he closes his eyes, slowly releasing a long breath as he realises, too late, the subterfuge.
He’s been had. Quite thoroughly.
And it is with the most profound sense of surprised relief, and not an ounce of betrayal or distress, that he turns to Sherlock and says, shaking his head. “You wanted this. You’d have gone anyway – even if I’d said no.”
“You’re still going, you realise. Your name’s on the list. The car won’t stop until we’re inside the gates and you’d make quite a scene refusing to get out at that point, or footing it back to the gate and coercing the guard to open it.”
John wants to say that he wouldn’t miss this for the world. He wants to say that he’s proud of Sherlock, and honoured by the invitation, conniving and self-serving as it is. He wants to thank Sherlock for not giving up on him, for going to this extent to get him in the same room with him again, in the backseat of a car with tinted windows and luxurious leather seats and a driver who knows his business. He wants to be angry, but he’s not. He wants to cling to the guilt that’s consumed him for so long, to his stubborn resolve that he’s good for no one, that his selfishness has caused enough pain, enough loss. But one glance at Sherlock, one moment spent in the confines of this car with him, one minute being dissected under his scrutinizing gaze, and all resolve fails.
“You look good.” Sherlock pulls at the cuff of his shirt, toys with the silver cufflinks.
John scoffs. Sherlock looks good. He does not. He eases into their old rapport. “Kate helped with the suit.”
“Of course she did. Your daughter has exquisite taste – no idea where she got it. She’s meeting us here – wearing a fascinator of her own design, I’m told. It will be huge for her, you realise. Free nation-wide publicity. Don’t thank me – she already has.” He smiles, and John suddenly envies Kate her time with Sherlock, and doesn’t hate her for her deception, for it’s obvious now that her part in this scheme is deeper than helping with his suit.
She’d always loved Sherlock, and she’d just entered uni when it had all happened – when Mary tried to leave him, when he’d been spending far more time scampering about London with Sherlock than at home, when he’d been her friend and not really her lover (everyone’s friend, no one’s lover). When she’d challenged him at last, asked him to confront it. The unnamed thing. The elephant in the room.
He hadn’t been ready.
He’d been angry – had shouted. Denials and lies, high volume, but he’d not even been able to fool himself with them. He’d grabbed his coat and fled the flat, and she’d come after him, and they’d been arguing on the street corner in the rain, oblivious, when a passing car swerved, skidded into them, leaving Mary dead and John lame and Sherlock as alone and bewildered as John.
He’s less bewildered now, John realises. He’s deduced something, or Kate has and come to him with it.
They don’t speak of it now.
“I take it you didn’t have time to shave?” Sherlock is looking out the opposite window, giving the mustache he hated as much as Mary did a sideways nod.
John turns away to hide his smile. He smooths down his mustache and looks out the window, but doesn’t respond. They ride in silence for several minutes.
“Are you nervous?” John asks at last. They’re getting close, and John is, naturally, nervous himself. He’s about to walk into Buckingham Palace. Sit in a stately room with the King of England.
Sherlock rests his gaze on John a long moment.
“Not so much,” he murmurs at last. “Not anymore.”
He turns his head away again to gaze out the window, and John studies his familiar profile.
He’s not changed. Not changed at all.
The car slows and Sherlock glances at him, sits up straighter, pulls at the fabric of his trousers at his knees. The last time John drove through these gates, the circumstances were quite different. He wasn’t actually dressed for the occasion, but at least he was dressed. Sherlock, on the other hand….
“Mycroft claims they’ve counted the ashtrays,” Sherlock says, reading his mind, as the car is admitted and pulls forward.
John snorts. After all these years, the memory of their first visit to Buckingham Palace still evokes that feeling of camaraderie, of you and me against the world. It is a pivotal moment in the us that was, but never quite was.
Their eyes lock. John lets out a slow breath. That particular ashtray sits on his bed stand. He places his reading glasses in it every night when he closes his book and turns off the light. He didn’t take it with him when he left 221B, but it made its way back to him nonetheless, a birthday gift from Sherlock on his sixtieth. He’d never acknowledged it, but not a day's gone by since that he hasn’t seen it and thought of Sherlock.
The car has stopped, and the driver opens John’s door. He releases another slow breath, and his hand clutches his cane. He nods, a bit of self-encouragement. As he begins the slow scoot and turn toward the door, a hand on his shoulder stills him.
John turns his head, just a fraction, and Sherlock’s hands settle on his shoulders. He brushes something invisible from his lapel, then adjusts John’s tie minutely and smooths down his collar. John is still. He barely breathes. He cannot believe he can feel like this. Breathless and young and on top of his game when he’s spent five years hiding, punishing himself, growing old.
Sherlock drops his hands, and smiles, and John slides carefully out, righting himself with his crutch. He stands there, blinking against the resurgence of the sun, as Sherlock unfolds himself from the car.
Kate is there, beside Mycroft, and there are smiles and handshakes and introductions no one needs. Mycroft looks old, and tired, and extremely grateful that John is here.
Then, as they begin to move into the palace, Sherlock takes John’s arm. Only he doesn’t quite take it – not as one would to help someone with limited mobility – but instead, as if he is the one who needs the support.
As if Sherlock is arriving on John’s arm, and not the other way around.