“Sure,” he answered prosaically, standing to find his own jacket. He was still adjusting to the idea that Sherlock was back, still trying not to jump every morning when he came downstairs to find him laid out on the sofa lost in thought, still trying not to wake-up breathless and confused when he heard the sad strains from Sherlock’s midnight violin sessions. Long ago, John had used his phone to record Sherlock playing- it was one of his own compositions- and when Sherlock was ‘dead’, John would listen to it sometimes, let himself pretend his life was back to ‘normal’ with Sherlock just downstairs playing and thinking, and that his death had been nothing more than a horrible nightmare. Now, it was all a nightmare, and there were times John wasn’t sure which part was more horrifying- being without Sherlock, being led to believe he was dead, or having him here, alive and acting as if nothing had happened, like he’d just popped off to the shops, which would have been its own brand of terrifying, but the point remains.
They sat in silence in the cab on the way to the crime scene. It wasn’t an awkward silence, but it wasn’t the warm quiet they were used to. John wondered if Sherlock even noticed; well, he would notice, that’s what he does, but would he question it or simply throw it out like so much extraneous information? He didn’t like to think about the answer; it always left him moody and irritable.
Once at the scene, Sherlock had sent John off to talk to the witness who found the body, while he inspected the scene and the body itself.
“What did he say?” Sherlock asked when he heard John approaching.
“Alan Mercer, 29, was walking home from seeing his girlfriend two streets up.”
“Useless,” Sherlock snapped, too engrossed in his examination to notice John’s slight flinch.
“He said he saw a lump in the alleyway and came to take a look. Saw the blood and called 999.”
“Idiot, he’s lying. No one would just come to check out a lump in an alley. He was here for another reason.”
“Some people would.” John countered. That dark irritable mood he’d been avoiding was crashing down on him with every flippant word out of Sherlock’s mouth.
Sherlock finally looked away from the body to give John a pointed ‘don’t be stupid’ look. It was gone in a flash as Sherlock returned his attention to the body.
John’s jaw tensed and he tried not to grit his teeth. Closing his small pad, he stuck it and his pen in his jacket and walked off. He couldn’t do this right now, couldn’t pretend everything was just as it was, and that Sherlock hadn’t disappeared from his life for over three years.
“John?” Sherlock called over his shoulder, still focused on the dead body in front of him. “John, what else?”
When the other man didn’t answer, Sherlock whipped around looking for him. John wasn’t there. If it was possible, Sherlock’s normal ghostly pallor lost another three shades.
“Sherlock? What is it?” Lestrade asked, trying to get his attention.
Sherlock tuned the D.I. out and closed his eyes. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. Moriarty’s network had been destroyed and he was home, back in London, with John; only John wasn’t there. He squeezed his eyes tighter trying to ground himself. This had happened too many times when he was gone. Sleep would sneak up on him and the next thing he knew he was at some run-of-the-mill crime scene and he’d turn to talk to John, who wasn’t there. He’d ask Lestrade where John had gone. He’d give Sherlock a sad, apologetic look and tell him that John was dead, killed by a sniper bullet the day Sherlock returned, and then he’d ask if Sherlock was really up to this, being there, working the case. But by that point Sherlock was gone, vision spinning out of control throwing up images of John, blood oozing from the hole in his head, his skull completely blown away, brain matter scattered on the ground. Sherlock did his best not to sleep while he was away, but the memories remained, no matter how hard he tried to delete them.
He opened his eyes and whirled back towards Lestrade and the body. “Which way did he go?” he demanded.
“Which way?” he growled.
“That way.” Lestrade waved his hand in the direction John had walked off.
Sherlock turned on his heels and, resisting the urge to go tearing after him, strode purposefully in the direction his friend had gone.
“Sherlock,” Lestrade called after the retreating figure. “Sherlock, the body!” He tried to keep the annoyance and frustration out of his voice, though he knew full well the man would pick up on it instantly.
To his surprise, Sherlock turned to him and said emphatically, “Not now, Greg.”
The D.I. stared, shocked to the core by Sherlock’s words, more so than he’d been when the man had returned from the dead. Still reeling, he nodded and let Sherlock go.
“What was that about?” Donavon asked, sauntering up behind her boss.
“He called me ‘Greg’.”
Once Sherlock knew the direction John had disappeared in it was easy for him to deduce where he was going. Sherlock navigated the few streets with precision and cut across the too green grounds of the cemetery towards his own grave.
Sure enough, John was there, apparently having a row with his headstone. “-answer me that, will you? What’s… what’s wrong with me? You just waltz back after three years. And what do I do? I take it. I let you. You bastard!” He huffed, clenching and unclenching his fist. “I don’t know what I expected. Not this. I didn’t expect you to change, I’ve never expected that.” He chuckled a dry humourless laugh. “I wouldn’t know what to do if you ever did. Probably assume the world was ending.” Sighing, “It did the last time you did anything outside of your definition of ordinary. I guess that’s why I’m here; I’ve gotten used to talking to you here. Three years, Sherlock. Three years and I had to go on alone. And you can’t even… you won’t tell me anything! You just fly back into our lives like nothing happened, like the last three years didn’t happen. You were dead, Sherlock, dead. Do you have even the slightest idea what that was like for us? What we went through? Do you even care?”
“Of course, I care!” Sherlock exclaimed from behind him as if it was the most obvious thing in the world; to him it was. Everything he’d done, everything he’d gone through was for them, to keep them safe. To keep John safe. And hadn’t that been a revelation- Sherlock Holmes, self-professed sociopath, didn’t just care, he loved.
“Do you?” he asked the headstone angrily. “Do you know how long it took me to be able to go back to Baker Street?”
“Six months and eighteen days,” Sherlock said softly, “and by all accounts you hadn’t meant to.”
John should’ve been upset that Sherlock had known, but he really wasn’t that surprised. Of course he’d have Mycroft watching him, and Mrs. Hudson, too, no doubt. And Sherlock was right, he hadn’t meant to stay that night; he’d only come by to help Mrs. Hudson pack what remained of Sherlock’s things, though he knew that had been a ploy to get him to come by, an offer to claim anything of Sherlock’s that held sentiment for him. He snorted- sentiment. It was all rather blurry after that; he supposed the stress had gotten to him- it took so little to set him off in those early days- but he’d woken up on the sofa with one of Sherlock’s blankets draped over him. After that it had become easier to slowly move his life back into the only place he could remember or even think of calling home. He took a fortifying breath. “Yes, well, we had to live it, Sherlock, every day.”
“I know, John. Don’t you think I know?”
Something wavered in Sherlock’s voice, a small tremor, nothing more, but it was like a cannon in John’s ears. For the first time since he came back, Sherlock sounded less than his perfect clinical self.
“Do you honestly believe these past three years were easy on me?”
John finally turned around to face his friend. He had to force himself not to suck in a breath. Sherlock looked as shaken as his voice sounded. It was a sight he had only seen once before and no matter how much more human it proved Sherlock to be, it was something John had hoped never to see again.
“‘cause they weren’t,” Sherlock continued. “Knowing you were here, that Moriarty’s men were out there waiting. I had to, John.”
At that moment John wanted nothing more than to hold Sherlock and tell him it was okay, that he understood and everything would be alright, but he couldn’t do that, not yet, there were too many unanswered questions, too much anger and frustration to work through. “Why won’t you tell me what happened, where you were, anything? That’s what friends do, Sherlock, they let them in.” He was getting angry again. “Unless, I’m not worth it, then fine. Just… fine.”
“John,” he called, desperation seeping into the word. “I can’t... Not yet. Someday, but not now.”
John didn’t want to hear it. He wanted Sherlock to trust him. To care enough to tell him. John straightened himself and did an almost military turn and began to walk away. He didn’t see the way Sherlock sagged and fell against the tree at his graveside. He didn’t see the shallow panting breaths that came as he watched his one true friend walk away.
John was tucked into his chair in their living room when his phone pinged. He debated checking it for all of two seconds, he was still upset, but if Sherlock needed him, he’d go; although if it was to fetch his phone he might find himself inserting it into an unwelcoming orifice.
“Sherlock, if you w-”
“Not Sherlock, John.”
“Greg. Is everything alright? Sherlock didn’t get into it with Anderson again, did he?”
“No, nothing like that. It’s just, well, have you seen him?”
“Not since earlier. We had a bit of a row.”
“Greg, what’s wrong?”
“He just left.”
“It’s Sherlock, he does that.”
“Not like this, John. He was… different.”
“How d’you mean?” John had a flash of the shaken Sherlock he’d seen in the cemetery.
“He was all agitated when he realized you’d left. I tried to… Well, he just left; looking for you.”
“Yes, well, he found me.”
“John, you don’t understand, I’m worried about him.”
John felt a cold weight settle in his stomach, there were many things one felt towards Sherlock Holmes, and between them he and Lestrade had felt most of them, but the way Lestrade had spoken… “What happened, Greg?”
“That’s it exactly- he called me Greg.”
John froze. Sherlock barely knew other people had first names, let alone would call them by one. Mycroft, himself, Donavon when he was feeling particularly scathing, and occasionally John’s girlfriends, but that was likely because he never paid attention or cared to find out if they had surnames, were the only real exceptions. “Okay. Thanks, Greg. I’ll find him.”
“You know, for a genius you’re a bit of an idiot,” John said conversationally, coming up behind Sherlock.
It made John flinch at the relief Sherlock conveyed in that simple word. If that much of his emotion was showing through, he could only imagine what Sherlock was really feeling and how much that would hurt him. He slid down the tree and sat next to his best friend. “You know. Friends have fights.”
“Oh, yes. Take me, for example, I once had a row with my best friend, and I was so angry, you have no idea, well, you probably do, but it didn’t mean that I stopped caring. He’s still my best friend… and I’d be lost without him.”
“Even after three years?”
“Definitely.” John smiled and looked away. “Come on, let’s go home. And text Greg, he’s worried about you. Gave him a scare calling him by his first name.”
“I did?” he asked curious, more from calling him Greg than from the D.I.’s concern.
“Mmm,” John said as he stood. As they walked out of the cemetery side by side, John reminded Sherlock casually, “I’m still mad.”
“I know,” Sherlock answered, sounding more like himself than he had when John found him.
John shook his head and smiled. However angry he was, he needed Sherlock in his life; nothing felt right without him.
John shrugged. “He says he’s fine, but… he’s Sherlock.”
“He doesn’t look fine,” she said, shaking her head.
John looked over at his flat mate huffing at the files Lestrade had given him, muttering to himself things like ‘Obvious’ and ‘boring’. “I know. But he won’t talk about it.” He turned his attention back to his own cup and Mrs. Hudson. “You know how he is.”
Mrs. Hudson fiddled with her cup. “What about Mycroft?”
John tensed at the name. His last contact with Mycroft had been awkward at best. The man was still nursing a broken nose and rather impressive black eye from the meeting, and John was only sorry he hadn’t gotten another shot in, though he had calmed down quite a bit since then. It didn’t mean that Mycroft hadn’t deserved it. “I’m not sure Mycroft would be the best person to talk to about this.”
“But he’s his brother,” Mrs. Hudson insisted.
“Yes, a brother who helped make us believe he was dead for three years. And that’s about as close to affectionate as I think Mycroft can get.” He sipped his tea. “Besides, it’s not as if he’d want his help.”
There was a snort from the living room.
Both John and Mrs. Hudson looked over at Sherlock.
He scowled at a file, and bit out, “If you must natter about me and my brother dear, could you at least do it quietly, or better yet, somewhere else.”
Mrs. Hudson flushed and looked around as if she thought they should leave. John placed a hand on her wrist to calm her and keep her in place.
“Yes, and you’d still deduce our conversation and be just as arrogant and offended, so we may as well have it here- at home.”
Sherlock sat up straighter and huffed, “I’m not offended.”
John and Mrs. Hudson shared a knowing look.
“Of course not, Sherlock.” John placated, but Sherlock went back to his files and John went back to his tea with Mrs. Hudson.
On the other hand, it gave him a chance to rest. He didn’t dare when John was home. He knew from the last year (or more) that his dreams would disturb the residents of surrounding rooms. Sherlock wasn’t ready for either John or Mrs. Hudson to know about the dreams. Days like this gave him the time to rest, he still had to be careful not to fully sleep, but he could drift; at least then he could pull himself into consciousness before anyone had to know his thoughts. As he let himself rest, visions and memories crept into his brain. He was tired, so, so tired, and there was blood everywhere. Not much of it was his, but it had been messy- he hated it when it was messy.
Despite what most of the Yard thought, Sherlock did not ‘get off’ on killing. In fact, it repulsed him. He remembered the way his stomach would churn and roll unpleasantly at what he’d done, what he’d had to do. At the time he always managed to push the horrible feeling away with the simple thought that he was one step closer to ensuring John’s safety. But it didn’t stop the blood. He didn’t often have to resort to killing, thank God. He twitched on the sofa as he remembered in glorious Technicolor every moment of that particular day. They’d gotten the upper hand on him. Two of them, what they lacked girth they made up for in stealth and ability. It had been pure luck, yet another concept Sherlock hadn’t believed in until his ‘death’, that he’d been able to defeat them. A quick, too loud, snap of neck bone and one of them had gone limp on the ground, dead. His companion seemed to go into a frenzy after his partner had fallen. It was his blood he’d been covered in. In the end, he’d wound up staking the other man like some vampiric monster, a rod of discarded rebar protruding from his chest.
Distantly he heard the front door open and close- Mrs. Hudson from the sound of it with groceries for them as well as her own. He managed to smile despite the memories. She was another reason Sherlock had kept fighting. Yes, John had been his greatest motivator, but Mrs. Hudson was the mother he’d never had, Mummy had been loving in her own way, but never ‘motherly’, not like Mrs. Hudson was to both him and John. He found himself springing up to help her with the bags. “Let me,” he offered taking the bags from her hands. She often jumped when he did this, but she always gave him one of her warm smiles afterward and pretended like it never happened, something else Sherlock was deeply thankful for. He didn’t like to be reminded of how much more ‘human’ he’d become. He supposed it was due to those qualities being what he missed most about his strange and enigmatic family and after fighting for three years to keep that family, he had a new respect for those little actions. Though at times he worried himself- he was actually civil to Anderson last week.
“You don’t have to do that, dear,” Mrs. Hudson told him even as he relieved her of the shopping.
Sherlock gave her a look that said she was being foolish and started up the stairs, leaving her to follow empty handed.
She stopped her protestations and followed him up to the flat. She didn’t understand what had happened to Sherlock to change him like this, and she hoped never to; she didn’t think she’d like the answers. But she would indulge him for as long as he needed to do these little helpful things. If she didn’t know better she’d say it was some kind of penance he thought he owed, but that wasn’t like Sherlock, even the Sherlock that came back to them.
Sherlock breezed into their small kitchen and dropped the bags on a clear section of the table. A quick overview told him which items were meant for them and when Mrs. Hudson entered he was already setting things out on the table.
With a fond smile she began putting the groceries away. Watching Sherlock closely as she did so, she didn’t like how he looked, and she’d seen him in almost every state imaginable, but this- haggard and sad, his eyes puffy and red, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks- worried her. She wouldn’t say anything, that would just upset him. She knew Sherlock well enough to know not to speak of such things, but this was getting ridiculous. Knowing she’d regret it, the part of her that needed to mother over Sherlock and John won out over common sense. “Sherlock, dear, you’re not looking well. Are you sleeping at all?” If she was going to cross this Rubicon, she’d get straight to the point; Sherlock would appreciate that at least.
“I’m sure it will pass, Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock replied calmly.
“Oh, Sherlock,” she huffed and tutted as she put the last of their groceries away.
“I’m fine, I assure you,” he tried again.
She closed the cabinet with a soft thud and turned to look at her mad tenant. “Sherlock Holmes, you are not fine! Not by any stretch of the imagination- even one as grandiose as yours. You are anything but fine. And if no one else will say it then I will!”
A smile tugged at Sherlock’s lips. It felt good to be under Mrs. Hudson’s scrutiny, such as it was; it meant he hadn’t lost her. “Mrs. Hudson-” he began.
“Don’t ‘Mrs. Hudson’, me,” she chastised, then sighed. “You look a sight. I’m surprised that Inspector of yours keeps calling you in, the way you look.”
Sherlock didn’t say anything; he knew she was right and it was only a matter of time before Lestrade stopped calling despite the help he needed.
Mrs. Hudson placed a loving hand on his arm. “You need rest, Sherlock.” She shook her head. “I’ll make you a nice cup of tea, then to bed with you.”
“Mrs. Hudson, there’s really no need.”
“Bed, and that’s the end of it,” she added sternly.
She made them both a warm cup of Indian spiced tea, sweetened to perfection, and watched Sherlock drink his.
Sherlock obediently drank his tea then stretched out on the sofa.
“No you don’t, young man.”
“I assure you, Mrs. Hudson, this is quite sufficient.”
“Sufficient it may be, but you need a good rest in a proper bed. Go on, I’ll see to these,” she said, picking up their dishes. “Off to bed with you.”
Sherlock debated the value of arguing with her. Mrs. Hudson didn’t often put her foot down about anything with him, regardless of how she berated him, but when she did she was a force to be reckoned with. Begrudgingly, he acquiesced.
“That’s a good boy.” She smiled and gathered their cups.
“I am not a boy,” he corrected.
“Of course not, love,” she absently agreed.
Sherlock made a show of going through a stack of papers on the desk, while Mrs. Hudson took care of the dishes, hoping she’d assume he was going to bed once he’d finished with the papers. He knew it was a vain hope; once Mrs. Hudson got an idea in her head it was hard to shake, especially if it involved John or himself.
She turned to Sherlock and made a shooing noise and waved him towards his bedroom.
“Mrs. Hudson, really.” He tried to sound haughty, but he was fairly certain it came out more petulant than anything.
“Don’t mind me, dear. I’m just going to tidy up a bit before I go. You two always running off, it’s a wonder this place is even liveable,” she muttered fondly.
Sherlock understood the meaning behind his landlady’s words- she was staying to make certain he slept. Reluctantly, Sherlock went to his bedroom, dreading the consequences of sleep. But Mrs. Hudson was a stubborn woman, she had to be to put up with him, and he didn’t doubt for a moment that she would come in to check on him if she saw fit. With that in mind he lay down, praying sleep would elude him. Within seconds he was asleep.
Mrs. Hudson busied herself with straightening various piles of papers and books, careful not to disturb things terribly.
When John finally got home, it was to find Mrs. Hudson flipping nervously through a magazine at the kitchen table.
“Oh, John, thank goodness you’re home.”
“Mrs. Hudson,” he greeted, shrugging out of his coat, “is everything alright? Where’s Sherlock?” John was proud of himself for keeping the concern out of his voice, though after three years of pretending everything was okay and that his world wasn’t in a shambles he would hope he could mask a little concern.
“It’s Sherlock.” She could see John stiffen at her words. “He’s in the bedroom,” she added quickly, hoping to reassure John. “I made him. I just couldn’t stand how awful he looked.”
“And he went willingly? You never cease to amaze me, Mrs. Hudson.” Again he was impressed with how calm he sounded.
“Sherlock never does anything he doesn’t want to willingly.” She smiled impishly.
John couldn’t help but return her smile. Somehow they’d managed to get through the past three years together, where every smile had been precious. “Then what’s wrong, Mrs. Hudson?” he asked kindly.
As if on cue, a strained sound that could only be taken as a whimper came from the bedroom.
Mrs. Hudson wrung her hands and looked at the closed bedroom door.
Something in John’s stomach lurched.
“I went in and checked on him the first time…”
“It’s alright, Mrs. Hudson,” he said, even though he knew it wasn’t. After years as an army doctor, he knew the sounds of those dreams you couldn’t wake from, where horrors only imaginable showed themselves with indelible clarity. He’d had them. “You go on. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“You’re sure?” she asked, welcoming the reprieve, but unwilling to just leave when Sherlock was in such obvious distress.
“Mrs. Hudson, you know how he is. Do you think he’s going to want to know someone saw him like this?”
She relaxed a bit; John was right, of course. She smiled shakily and patted his hand. “You’re a good man, John.”
He returned her warm smile and squeezed her hand. “I’ll look after him.”
She nodded and left.
John took a deep breath as he put the kettle on. He needed a moment to gather himself, before he faced what lay behind that closed door. He’d seen all sorts of horrors in his career, but the most haunting were the ones you couldn’t see. And for someone as proud and detached as Sherlock to be captive to those demons was frightening; whatever could shake Sherlock didn’t dwell thinking on. He shut the water off before it could properly begin to boil, having needied the excuse more than the tea. No more sounds had come from Sherlock’s room since that one eerie whine; if John was going to check on him, this was the time. He could see how troubled his sleep was and better judge whether or not to wake him; normally he wouldn’t have considered not waking him; having seen Sherlock, however, he felt that a fitful sleep would be of more use to Sherlock than none at all.
Sherlock was in bed still in his dressing gown, a light throw had been pulled and twisted around his legs- Mrs. Hudson had probably tried to cover him- and the silk of his dressing gown rucked up above his waist, even his pillow was wrapped in the intricate mass. He looked terrible and so un-Sherlock that it frightened John. But he was still fast asleep. After a brief internal debate, John slowly untangled the blanket from Sherlock’s feet, somehow managing not to get kicked by him in the process, and lay it back over him. He wished he could do more for him, but he knew whatever Sherlock was going through wasn’t something he could help with, not until Sherlock wanted his help, if he ever did. He remembered what he told Sherlock in their argument days earlier- ‘friends let people in’- he prayed Sherlock would eventually let him in.
“Sherlock, they’re all good cases,” Lestrade argued.
“It’s been three years,” he scolded. “You’re telling me these are the best you can do?”
Lestrade leaned back in his chair, sighed, and rubbed his hand over his eyes. “No. I’m saying you’ve been gone, traipsing all over Europe and God knows where else for over three years. And as ridiculous as it maybe, I thought you might want to take it easy, readjust.” He shook his head and pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk. He’d started dropping case files in there three years ago. Cases that were strange or interesting or just plain impossible; cases he thought Sherlock might like. For over a year he’d kept expecting Sherlock to waltz through his door with some wild explanation for everything that happened. He had just hidden it better than most. Even once he’d given up hope, he still added files to the drawer. Some he’d go back over, trying to look at them through Sherlock’s eyes, and every now and then he even succeeded, but that could happen with any cold case. Still, he liked to think he had picked up some of the man’s methods.
Sherlock watched as Lestrade pulled handful after handful of files out of his desk. His lips twitched; apparently John wasn’t the only one who hadn’t given up on him. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
Lestrade stopped what he was doing and looked up from the files he was taking out, surprised by the honesty in Sherlock’s voice. He gave Sherlock a small smile and a nod. To say that the Sherlock who stood before him was the same one that left them would be a grave misconception. He was still brilliant and arrogant and utterly impossible, but he was kinder somehow. Lestrade would be lying if he said it wasn’t welcome, but it was still off-putting. He hated to think about what could’ve changed a man like Sherlock that way. Straightening up, he pushed the files across his desk. “There you go. Three years of strange, daunting, and unsolved.”
Sherlock swooped down on the files, gathering them up. “I’ll be in touch,” he called as he strode purposefully out of the D.I.’s office.
Just like that the old Sherlock was back and Lestrade gave a bemused smile at the familiar sight.
“Greg have something good for you I take it.” John commented from his computer, when Sherlock came swirling in, obviously in a better mood than when he’d left.
Sherlock smiled. “It seems the good Inspector has been setting aside cases in hopes of my return from the hereafter.”
“Really?” John sat up. He knew Greg had never lost faith in Sherlock, but he’d never thought he believed Sherlock wasn’t dead or that he would come back. It felt good, even in hindsight, to know he wasn’t alone in those beliefs.
Sherlock didn’t bother to reply, though he knew John was thinking the same thing he himself had thought at the station; instead he threw himself down onto the sofa and began sorting the files on the coffee table by order of interest and complexity.
John sighed, though it was more in contentment than anything else. Sherlock had the look of a kid at Christmas, completely giddy and slightly manic- John had missed that look; Hell, he’d missed everything about Sherlock including the noxious experiments and body parts in the fridge, or in the case of the foot, wedged up between the ice trays and some dodgy looking ham, at least he pretended it was ham. Sherlock made life interesting; everything had been so dull and bland without him. He was just waiting to wake up to tongues in the crisper and he’d finally believe life was getting back to normal. He could only smile at the absurdity and truth of the thought.
The files from Lestrade had succeeded in staving off Sherlock’s boredom and were giving his mind ample fodder to occupy it with things other than sleep. Both things he would be eternally grateful for. He might even manage to keep being nice to Sally and Anderson for a few more weeks. The current case seemed simple enough, he was fairly certain the uncle’s ex-wife had done it, but he wanted to be sure and it prolonged his preoccupation. A sample of what had been mislabelled ‘soil’ had been growing in a pot on their windowsill for six days and five hours and should be viable enough for a proper examination. Sherlock stood from the microscope to scrape off a comparison sample of the mould and really you would think people could use their brains when committing a triple homicide and not go stamping about their prize garden beforehand, or at least they could change their shoes; sometimes he despaired for the criminal classes, even when they were being clever they were infinitely stupid. He peeled the film of reddish-brown slime onto the slide and began to roll up his sleeves as he turned back towards his microscope.
His fingers brushed over a slightly raised line of skin and he stopped. His eyes traced the bare edge of the scar. There were others. Not huge glaring streaks over his body, but small tiny lines and pin pricks from shoulder to elbow. The marks of one particularly unorthodox interrogator- he might not have been able to properly break someone, but he knew how to scar them. Lines ran across his skin: one set cut with a rusty blade, others simple knife wounds, all enraged and infected before they could heal, leaving Sherlock fevered and delirious for days. And when one fever broke another set of cuts would appear. The lines were light and silvery when caught in the right light, but they glared like beacons to Sherlock’s eyes.
Over those were the needle marks from slightly more traditional methods; he had lost count of the kinds of drugs and the number of times he’d been jabbed. His longer sleeved dressing gowns served to hide most of the wounds, but he had to be so very careful now. Absently rolling up his sleeves to work had become an almost traitorous movement as had the way his dressing gowns would slip from his shoulder when he was too busy or bored to notice. He felt like every second of the past three years was written on his skin and he hated it. Every time John looked at him, he felt a little more exposed, like another of the closely guarded secrets from his past had been ripped from his traitorous body. It was ridiculous, he knew- the kinds of secrets he hid would take more than a look to discover. Not even Mycroft was that good. Then again, no one knew him as well as John, no one had ever wanted to, and with that kind of knowledge came greater ability to see. The same way an expert in geology could read the history of a region in a sample of rock, he was afraid John could read his history just as easily. His mind squirmed every time; he wondered if this was how other people felt when he looked at them. If anyone noticed, no one asked. But every now and then he would see John staring at him as if he knew- wishful thinking he thought; if John knew it would be easier, but if John knew then he’d discover the rest quickly enough. At least that’s what the voice that kept Sherlock from telling John everything said, and for once in his life he let that voice guide him.
“Sherlock? Sherlock, are you even listening to me?” John asked, expecting the answer, if he even got one, to be ‘no’. He didn’t like the way Sherlock disappeared. It wasn’t something new exactly, Sherlock had always been prone to getting lost in his own head, just as he tended to have conversations with John when he wasn’t there, but there was something about the way Sherlock wasn’t there that bothered him and caused him to push until he got a reaction.
“Yes, of course. I always listen to you, John. You know that.” Sherlock was fairly certain John didn’t know that, but he should, even if that meant Sherlock had to tell him in his own roundabout way.
John was taken aback by Sherlock’s response; he really hadn’t been expecting that. “You do?” he found himself saying.
“John,” he warned, he hated repeating himself.
“Sorry, sorry, I heard you the first time.” He got up and went to the kitchen. “So, Chinese or Angelo’s?”
“Chinese, you always prefer Chinese when you’ve been thinking too much.”
“Of course, how foolish of me not to know that.”
Sherlock made a noise that was close to a chuckle and his lips quirked up.
“Oh, shut up,” John laughed and pulled out his phone to place their usual order. When he hung up he asked, “You want to tell me what’s got you so absorbed?”
Sherlock jerked and turned away from John with a shake of his head. “It’s nothing.”
That got a curious glare from Sherlock.
John walked back into the living room and sat down. “Nothing always causes you to that much distraction. I should have thought of that before- give Sherlock Holmes ‘nothing’ to think about and he’ll be busy for hours. Who knows, maybe it will even save the wall from further abuse.”
“Very funny,” Sherlock said dryly.
“It was ‘nothing’,” John said as he picked at the stack of mail on the small table beside him.
Once again the wheels of Sherlock’s brain ground to a screeching halt. He’d missed this, John, but he hated how disarming the man was. He hated how much John’s playfulness begged him to talk to him. Most of all he hated being tempted this way, this desire he had for John to know and understand was interminable, and it was only offset by his need to protect John even if only from himself and his memories. John didn’t need to know. He didn’t want John to know; the man had been through enough already. That’s what he let himself believe. But there was a part of him that yearned to tell him everything.
John was a veteran; he’d seen so much destruction and the horrors of war and Sherlock was loathe to add his own nightmares to it. It was one thing to drag John into the mundane horrors of London and her own plebeian darkness. It was another to force John into his. He’d done things he wasn’t proud of while he was gone; things that had to be done, but things that would change the way John looked at him. And that was something he couldn’t bear. It was hard enough having John so angry and hurt by his sudden reappearance. He wouldn’t risk losing John completely over the things he’d done to keep him safe.
To keep John safe. He mentally chuckled- it sounded bitter even in his head. Sherlock had a lot of time to think in the past three years, and very early he’d come to realize some very disturbing truths. The most obvious being that, despite his best efforts, he did care about people, or certain people. The second realization had come barrelling down on him on the heels of the first. He loved, was in love with John Watson. That one piece of information had sent him spiralling; of all the things he could’ve imagined happening in his life falling in love was not one of them.
It made him question things about himself he’d always believed. Sociopaths, ‘high functioning’ or otherwise, did not feel. They could mimic feelings and learn acceptable behaviours and responses, but actually suffer from emotions, no. They, he, didn’t have the capacity. Sherlock had never doubted this aspect of himself, ever since he first heard one of his tutors angrily tell his mother that he ‘must be some sort of sociopath’. He’d been confused at first, not understanding, but he did what he always did whenever he discovered a gap in his knowledge- he researched it. What he found seemed to be a perfect fit for his nature and he’d embraced it. It left him able to focus on the important things without all those emotional distractions. It had become an integral part of who he was. If he wasn’t a sociopath, which his feelings for John, and to a lesser extent Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade, seemed to negate, what was he? He certainly wasn’t ‘normal’. Even John had thought he was a machine, unfeeling and emotionless. Three years on and he still didn’t have an answer, all he really knew was he didn’t like having these feelings; they confused him and caused him to doubt.
“Sherlock?” A voice said softly, a warm hand resting on his arm.
The touch caused Sherlock to snap to attention, pulling away roughly from John’s hand and shaking his half-rolled sleeves back down. “I’m fine.” He pushed past John and back to the microscope. He could barely remember what he’d been working on, but anything was better than having to face John when he had that caring look in his eyes, the one that made Sherlock wonder if John cared for him as much as he cared for John. And that was something he definitely was not ready to talk about. “How long before dinner arrives?” he asked, just to have something to say, a change of subject.
John sighed and edged closer to Sherlock and his microscope, leaning back against the table comfortably. “I know you know exactly how long it takes between the time I call and when the doorbell rings,” he said calmly, watching his friend closely.
Sherlock heaved a heavy, exaggerated sighed. “You’re the one who’s always trying to get me to ‘make conversation’,” he bit out, accusingly, and a bit too defensively.
“Yeah.” John nodded his head slowly, looking away and back again. “And you just decided to try it out on me, now.”
Cool opal eyes looked condescendingly at John.
John decided to let Sherlock’s disturbingly lame excuse slide. “Alright. At least you’re trying.” He watched Sherlock for a minute more, trying to work out what had set him off. He knew it was pointless to try to figure out what was going on in his friend’s mind; part of him feared that even Sherlock didn’t know.
“Is there something else?”
For a moment John considered saying, ‘yes’, but just then the doorbell rang. “That’ll be dinner then.”
“Obviously,” Sherlock said, adjusting the focus on the microscope.
“Right.” He pushed himself away from the table. “Clear a spot,” he said as he grabbed his wallet and headed down the stairs. The moment was gone and John knew that by the time he returned Sherlock would be Sherlock again and all traces of the distracted man would be gone.
John ran down the stairs from his bedroom, not quite tripping on the fifth step- after the first week of Sherlock’s screams John had become incredibly adept at navigating his stairs in the dark at speeds he normally reserved for chasing the lunatic across the streets, rooftops, and back alleys of London.
“Sherlock? Sherlock?” He began yelling before he even reached the closed door. He knew Sherlock wouldn’t answer him, or if he did it would be to yell and demand that John leave him alone. One day soon, John was going to ignore Sherlock’s abuse and charge into his room and make Sherlock tell him what had him screaming every night- those nights he slept, which seemed to be even fewer than before. Sure enough, Sherlock bellowed for John to leave him in peace. ‘Peace,’ John thought ironically. Peace was the one thing Sherlock had none of right now. It gave John so many sleepless nights wondering what happened in those three long years. The memory of their fight was still fresh in his mind. He’d been so angry and hurt- betrayed. And he’d taken it all out on Sherlock, not that he didn’t deserve it, but he should have thought about it first. John often wondered if he’d handled it differently, if Sherlock wouldn’t keep hiding this from him. He hated this feeling of helplessness. He wasn’t sure how much more he could handle.
He trudged back upstairs to get his dressing gown. He knew he wouldn’t get anymore sleep tonight, he never did when Sherlock had one of his night terrors, John’s own imagination was too vivid, throwing up bright Technicolor images of every conceivable variant, and several not so conceivable ones, of what could possibly shake Sherlock Holmes so badly.
Sherlock sat in his bed, willing the images of his dream away as he listened to John settle into the living room. With John out there he couldn’t leave his room, seeing John would be dangerous when he was like this. He had learnt from experience that in this state he would say things he would regret. So he stayed, trapped in his room with his memories and his mind. It was worse than anything he’d been through while he was away.
“Ah, John, thank you for coming.”
“Well, it’s not like I had much of a choice.”
“John, you always have a choice.”
“Umm, yes, well, coming sort of willingly versus getting picked up by your goons.” He jerked his chin in a half shake of his head. “Not much of a choice there.”
Mycroft inclined his head, conceding the point. After his last encounter with the good doctor he wasn’t prone to arguing with him. He subconsciously clenched his jaw and John chuckled.
Shaking the memory of Mycroft’s stunned face from his mind, he turned serious. “This is about Sherlock.” It was always about Sherlock, but this was different and they both knew it.
“When isn’t it?’ Mycroft said, giving voice to John’s thoughts.
“What do you want, Mycroft?’
“He’s not well.”
“Really?! How’d you come to that astounding conclusion? Was it the fact that he wakes up screaming every time he sleeps, when he sleeps? Or just that he looks like a dead man walking?”
“John, please.” Mycroft’s tone was condescending at best.
John turned angrily as if to walk away then spun around clenching his fist, itching to clock Mycroft again. “You did this to him. You are aware of that? That mammoth brain of yours can comprehend that this is all your doing?”
Mycroft lowered his eyes, watching his umbrella as he absently twisted it on the dusty warehouse floor. “I do. And I understand your frustration.” He raised his eyes back to John, and said in a steady voice, “I don’t expect forgiveness, nor do I seek it. What I do expect is that my brother’s welfare will let us move past my… indiscretions.”
Mycroft rolled his eye dramatically. “For his sake,” he finished.
John sighed. Mycroft knew damn well he’d do anything for Sherlock and there was no use denying it. “Fine. What do you want me to do?”
“Only what you do best. You’re a doctor. You’ve seen this kind of thing. What’s your prognosis, given your patient’s nature?”
“You think I should push him,” John stated simply; it wasn’t as if the thought was foreign to him.
“If anyone can get through to him it’s you, John. We both know it. You have to do something about it.”
“So, what, you just want me to barge into his room and demand answers?”
“If that’s what’s necessary, yes.”
John shook his head, “Unbelievable,” and turned away, this time intent on leaving Mycroft behind like a bad memory.
“He needs you, John. I trust you will do what needs to be done,” Mycroft’s voice trailed after him.
John took his time getting back to Baker street. He had to handle this carefully. Sherlock wouldn’t react well to being openly confronted. John hated to think this way, but his best chance would be to wait for Sherlock to be vulnerable, which meant waiting for another gut-wrenching scream in the night. What’s more, Sherlock would know. He wouldn’t say anything, but he’d know. He’d know his brother had carried John off to some horrid empty building to have a chat and he’d know that Mycroft expected John to do something about the state his brother was in. Mycroft always did that, always expected John to take care of Sherlock, not that John really minded; John just minded Mycroft’s abuse of that knowledge.
“Evening,” John greeted when he entered the flat.
Sherlock looked up from his microscope, cocked his head minutely, and asked, “What did Mycroft want?”
John didn’t bat an eye just grabbed the paper and sat down in his chair. “Same thing he always does.”
“Yes,” came John’s clipped and honest response.
“He shouldn’t be.”
“You tell him that.” John had to smile into the paper knowing the look of bewilderment Sherlock would have on his face.
“John?” Sherlock let the name hang for a moment, pretending to turn his attention back to his slides. “Are you worried?” he finally asked, getting to the crux of the matter.
“I’m not even going to bother answering that, Sherlock.”
“You shouldn’t be,” he lied.
“Hmm,” John hummed in reply.
“John, I’m fine.” Sherlock hoped if he said it enough times it would sound less hollow in his own ears. He knew he wasn’t fine, he was anything but fine. He couldn’t shake the dreams. And if he couldn’t shake the dreams then he couldn’t sleep- he couldn’t let John know. He’d always been good at denying his body lesser things like food and sleep when necessary, but even he had his limits. And it seemed with the lack of true sleep those limits were getting shorter and shorter.
Sherlock’s blood ran cold- icy daggers in his veins that ripped him apart as real as any knife. John stood before him, covered in blood and gore and smiling the most unnatural smile he’d ever seen. He tried to block out the image replacing it with memories of what had really happened to Marcus despite their own gruesomeness. Blood had covered the walls in some childish, almost demonic interpretation of Pollock, sprays and splashes of monotone colour on floor and ceiling; he’d hit an artery, messy. And most importantly, John wasn’t there, he hadn’t done those things, he hadn’t seen them, he didn’t know about the darkness in him. John had been safe, back here at home, in Baker Street when it had happened. This couldn’t be. It was everything he’d fought against. It was why John still didn’t know what had happened, all he’d been forced to do. He wouldn’t let John take on any of his personal horrors. His stomach churned and lurched violently at the thought of getting John sullied by any of his actions, John had been through too much already. But the John in his dream wouldn’t leave; he just stood there smiling manically at him. Sherlock backed away from the nightmarish vision, gravel and refuse crunching and crushing beneath his feet, insisting that this entire re-enactment was real; every smell and sound lending itself to the drama like an expertly executed play. Sherlock heard his own voice, tired and coarse, chanting, ‘No. No, no, no, no! You’re not John. He wasn’t there. He doesn’t know.’ The nightmare John kept smiling, edging closer and closer as if intent on blotting out any sight but his blood covered, smiling face.
“JOHN.” Sherlock shot bolt upright out of bed, John’s name still lingering in the air and on his lips. He waited for the familiar footfalls outside his door, wondering if tonight would be the night he finally broke down and gave John the answers he wanted and ones he didn’t.
“Sherlock?” John’s soft, warm voice asked through the door.
The door muffled his words, but they were still clear in Sherlock’s ears. John’s voice would always be clear to him. He’d kept it with him through everything the past three years. Every word John had spoken to him and the ones that he never did, though he’d wanted to. More than once he’d heard John’s voice in his head, talking to him, bringing his own kind of clarity to impossible situations. Hearing his voice again, getting home to John was the thing that drove him. It was probably why the dreams were so vivid, so terrifying.
The question was stronger now, the knob on his door turning slowly as the door opened casting John’s shadow across his floor.
“I’m fine,” Sherlock snapped. And now that he’d seen and not just heard his friend’s voice, he thought for the moment he was. John was safe, so Sherlock was fine.
“You sure? You didn’t sound fine,” John said, worried as he always was when Sherlock had one of these dreams or whatever they were that caused Sherlock to scream his name.
“Go away!” he hissed. He threw himself back onto his bed and turned away from the reassuring form in the doorway. “Leave me alone,” he growled, though the heat was directed at himself, rather than John.
Sighing, John backed out of the room. “I’m here if you need anything, Sherlock.” He said that every night, every time Sherlock woke screaming in the night.
The door clicked closed and Sherlock let out an angry sound that lesser men might call a sob. Apparently tonight was not the night for revelations, something Sherlock both blessed and cursed. He couldn’t, just couldn’t, let John in. It would make it all too real, and neither of them needed that. Things were slowly getting back to normal between them. John’s bitterness had faded almost completely in the face of having Sherlock back, and Sherlock was not ready to risk that on tales of what he’d done. Quietly he cursed Mycroft and his meddling; at least John hadn’t forced the issue, though he knew it was only a matter of time.
John gave a little shrug, more with his head than his shoulders. “He’s Sherlock.”
“Yeah, but how is he?”
John shot a glance at Sherlock still hunched over the body, then back up at Lestrade with a loaded look in his eyes that said more than words could.
The D.I. sighed. He was still shaken by Sherlock’s display weeks before; it was not the kind of thing you easily forgot. “If there’s anything…”
John quirked his lips in a soft smile. “You might regret that.”
Lestrade grew more serious. “No, I won’t.” It was a simple statement of fact, more certain than one of Sherlock’s grand deductions. “John, anything,” he repeated.
“For God’s sake, if you must have this conversation- leave.”
John chuckled and Lestrade straightened himself up subconsciously.
“Thank you,” Sherlock snapped. He spent his life with people talking about him, usually behind his back or in hushed, conspiratorial whispers; it was something he lived with. He knew what Lestrade and John were talking about- namely him- and knew rationally it was nothing like those secret conversations, but for whatever reason it still riled him to think of John in the same light, even erroneously. He knew he was overreacting, being irrational, and was disgusted with himself for it. He took one last look at the pillow next to the body, stood, and began to alternately questioning and spouting deductions at the detective.
“You were a bit short with Lestrade, earlier,” John said conversationally, once they were back at the flat. Sherlock had requested some samples be sent to Bart’s, but they would be awhile in coming and John, at least, preferred to spend the time in the comfort of their own home, rather than the bowels of the hospital. He knew Bart’s would always be a second home of sorts to Sherlock, but he still had trouble being there, after what happened- especially if it involved waiting. It was too much like that day, no matter how cheerful or busy the hospital was. PTSD had strange effects on people. John’s skin began to crawl and it felt like spindly knives were crawling along his spine every time he let Sherlock out of touching distance whenever they were in the hospital; he needed to be able to feel him close by, even if he never took the opportunity to touch. If Sherlock noticed he never said anything. In fact, if it had been anyone else, John would think he went out of his way to make sure he stayed close, but this was Sherlock and demanding that John answer his phone when it was in his pocket or hand him a beaker that was sitting next to his palm was nothing new and John knew better than to romanticise it. Sherlock was just being Sherlock.
“Was I? Hadn’t noticed,” Sherlock said, unconvincingly, tapping away at his phone.
John recognized the too swift, too direct tone, it was the way he answered anything he didn’t want to deal with or didn’t understand. John chuckled quietly to himself. “So… why were you so short with him?” he encouraged.
“Pfft,” Sherlock waved his hand as if waving an imaginary fly out of his vision. “They’re idiots, always are.”
“Of course, that’s why you actually like Greg,” John said, settling back in his chair by the fireplace.
Sherlock hummed. “Well, there’s always the exception.”
John ran his fingers thoughtfully across his mouth, barely concealing a smile. “Hmm,” John agreed. A beat and a half passed in silence. “Are you going to tell me?”
The tapping on Sherlock’s phone stopped. This was yet another conversation he didn’t want to have, but John was tenacious when something got under his skin and he knew his silence on… other matters would only add to his curiosity. He started speaking slowly, with a touch of annoyed admonishment. “Your incessant chatter was disturbing me,” he admitted. No one said he had to explain why it disturbed him.
“Uh-huh,” John said, not mentioning that Sherlock had worked around much more and louder distractions, even Anderson. “Sorry.”
Sherlock grunted and resumed tapping at his phone, considering the matter dropped, if not closed.
John sat back and looked at Sherlock, his mind whirling, trying to put pieces together. He might not have Sherlock’s quick computer of a brain, but he could still extrapolate. It was true, Sherlock preferred to work in silence, but he and Lestrade had always been, if not full exceptions, then at least, tolerable background noise. So it wasn’t their presence that had upset him. Oh. “It was because we were talking about you,” John said matter-of-factly.
Sherlock looked at John over his phone, his eyes stony.
‘Got it in one,’ John thought with no small amount satisfaction, but that lead to a further question- why?
“Yes, John. Brilliant deduction as always,” Sherlock said putting as much icy sarcasm as he could into the words. John was too close; he was always too close. His phone vibrated and he checked the message.
John was already standing, handing Sherlock his coat, and dutifully ignoring his scathing remarks by the time Sherlock had pocketed his phone. It only meant that he had touched on a truth that made Sherlock uncomfortable, probably something that made him feel more human. There were a lot of things that got that reaction from him these days. But now there was work to be done and John was willing to let it slide for the moment; he tucked it away, another piece of the puzzle of the last three years, and another weight against the floodgates that were already strained almost to bursting. Sherlock’s walls were close to crumbling, and John only hoped he was prepared for the oncoming storms. He slipped into his own jacket and followed his friend down the stairs into the chilly London night.
Sherlock looked up from his papers and gave John a quick quirk of his lips. He found himself doing that more and more; he would have been perturbed by it if he wasn’t so relieved to see John every time- a simple reassurance that he’d beaten Moriarty and his network.
John wondered if Sherlock could deduce his thoughts just from that look. He gave a quiet, depreciating chuckle and shook his head, of course he could, if he put his mind to it; the question then became did Sherlock want to. When John turned his attention back to Sherlock, he was engrossed in his files.
As if in answer to John’s thoughts, Sherlock asked, “What’s got you so preoccupied, John?”
“Hmm?” he answered as nonchalantly as he could.
“You haven’t turned the page in over fifteen minutes, you’ve barely looked at the article at all, so something must be on your mind,” Sherlock explained with more calm than he felt. He wondered if John knew he had the upper hand in this situation. It didn’t take the world’s only consulting detective to work out John was thinking about him and the last three years. It was only a matter of what he was thinking about within those parameters. Sherlock doubted it was about his being gone, John tended to tense when that time, when Sherlock had left him alone, was on his mind- years in the military having ingrained a defensive stoicism in him- which meant it was something more specific, something John could distance himself from.
John smiled at him. “You’ve already worked it out; you don’t need me to tell you.”
John looked off as if he was considering Sherlock’s request. He snapped his magazine, determined to read the article this time. “Mmm, no.”
Sherlock set his papers down, weighing the value of taking up John’s challenge to deduce him and his thoughts or letting it lie. He laced his fingers together as he thought on how to proceed; how to answer John’s question without giving too much of himself away. “You’re wondering what I was doing.” Keep it simple and he could remain in control of the conversation.
John met Sherlock’s eyes, giving him a curt nod, neither was going to pretend that the ‘when’ he was referring to was now. “Sharp as ever.”
Sherlock took a deep breath, quelling the desire to leave or change the subject; better still drop it altogether. “John, it’s not-”
“I know, Sherlock, you’ve said.”
“Then why do you insist on dwelling on it?”
“Why? Seriously?” He almost choked on the bitter chuckle he bit back. He knew, knowing Sherlock like he did, he shouldn’t be shocked by anything Sherlock said, especially in regards to emotions, but at times he still surprised him. “Maybe because my best friend disappeared for three years, let me think he was dead, and, God help me, I still care.” ‘…more than I should,’ his mind added wearily.
Sherlock’s brow furrowed and he looked curiously at John, his discomfort momentarily pushed to the side. “Why?”
“Because that’s what friends do.”
Sherlock continued to stare at John with his impenetrable gaze.
“You know what, forget it. And for the record, I wasn’t asking. You want to keep your secrets; that’s fine, but you may want to remember some of us mere mortals do actually care about you.”
Sherlock wanted to apologize, but the words stuck in his throat. Even if he did get them out they would likely give John more cause for concern than comfort. He didn’t want to add yet more strange behaviour to the ever growing list.
In his chair, John let out a heavy breath. Dealing with Sherlock was trying on the best of days, but sometimes, like this, when he’d been so close to learning more, it was even more frustrating. Mainly because it always left him feeling like throwing Sherlock against a wall until he told him everything. For the fifth time he opened up the article he had been failing to read, this time knowing full well he wouldn’t get a word read.
Slowly the grating noise became an almost rhythmic background as he paced the same path crushing the offending refuse into silence. Something snapped sharply under his feet and he fell to the floor. A rotten, decaying bone lay in front of him; putrefying muscle and sinew clinging to it, like some twisted party favour. He tried to back away scrambling across the floor heedless of glass and needles, only to be stopped by the firm jab of bone at his back. He looked around him, at the floor now covered in jutting bits of broken and dismembered bone. He swallowed back a scream, it would be of no use; the house was empty and the only occupants lifeless and unable to appreciate the terror they’d caused. There were heads bobbing about like crests of waves on a perverted sea of corpse flesh. The faces, ones he’d only seen in passing, crime scene photos, morgue slabs, still warm only just having left the world of the living, yet somehow burnt with photo precision into his brain. There was no way to save these people, for most there never had been. Even Sherlock Holmes had limits. At least the heads weren’t talking, some nights they did that, or eyed him with accusatory glares through swollen, distended eyeballs dangling along lifeless cheeks.
He tried to wake up, he always tried. It was like being stuck on some ceaseless loop of nightmarish memories and hallucinations. A merry-go-round you couldn’t get off, and he knew he’d stay caught going ‘round and ‘round until something in him broke, breaking through his closed off subconscious until his screams called John down and into his room, yet again. It was a vicious cycle and he didn’t know how much longer either of them could stand it.
Sherlock’s eyes snapped open, taking in the familiar ceiling, trying to catch his ragged breath. It had been a dream, just a dream, one of the numerous ones he’d had since his return. Though in truth that was a lie; he’d been having the dreams almost since he left. They’d changed of course. What started out as half memories of John’s face, of the hurt that radiated from him, of the pain he knew he’d caused, turned to desperation and highlights of the horrors of the things he had seen- John almost always taking centre stage in his memories. Tonight, thankfully, John had not been the focal point, but even among the dreams without John in the leading role it had been one of the worst.
He closed his eyes and listened. The flat was quiet. For a moment he thought he was still dreaming, afraid that if he got up to check he’d find no trace of John as if he hadn’t been there in years, as if Moriarty had won, as if Sherlock couldn’t save him. He steadied himself, reminding himself that John was fine, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade, too. He was in fact in Baker Street and had been for nearly two months. Climbing out of bed, he slipped into his dressing gown and went into the living room. A quick look around reaffirmed what he already knew, still he went to the stairs leading up to John’s bedroom and, after a moment’s hesitation, began to climb them. There was no light coming from under the door and he silently turned the handle. It was only after he opened the door that his heart finally slowed and his nerves began to relax. John was in bed, asleep. Sherlock closed the door and quickly returned downstairs. John might be asleep but he was a military man and Sherlock knew it wouldn’t take much to rouse him and he doubted he’d take well to waking to find Sherlock hovering over him. Downstairs, he picked up his violin and moved to the window. Outside it was calm, the air held the slightest chill and a light wind whistled softly along the window pane. He sighed and pulled the instrument to his chin and began playing- soft, almost mournful, notes that somehow together held him comfortably. There would be no more sleep tonight, thankfully.
John waited until he heard Sherlock settle in downstairs, the soft strands from his violin winding their way up to him, before he dared to open his eyes. The notes were mournful in a way that he’d rarely heard from Sherlock. He supposed it was a way that he could allow himself to let the visions that plagued his nights come to the surface and escape. He toyed with going down to check on him, but quickly decided against it. If Sherlock knew he’d heard him, it was likely that he would become even more guarded, and John didn’t want to run the risk of taking this one outlet from him, so he stayed in bed listening to the most heart-wrenching music he’d ever heard and wishing Sherlock would let him be there for him; maybe it was time.
It took almost an hour, each minute drawn out to seem interminably long, before it finally happened. The scream. Sherlock’s voice was deep and rough, thick with sleep, but John’s name was still clear and unmistakeable. That was John’s cue. He was up and at Sherlock’s door before another sound escaped his room. Sherlock seldom cried out more than once, the effort of forcing his voice into function usually enough to jar him into full consciousness, but on occasion John had caught little aftershocks of sound, words sometimes murmured in the bare moments before wakefulness, sometimes chastising himself for calling out. He didn’t knock. He didn’t breathe. He just took the handle and pushed open the door, allowing his silhouette to be outlined by the light from their living room.
Sherlock looked at the apparition in his doorway and rubbed his eyes wearily. He quickly dispelled ideas that he was still dreaming despite John’s near instantaneous appearance. John had been waiting. He realized what that meant, he’d finally run out of time. A small part of him sagged in relief that this fight was finally over, just as another recoiled at exactly what that meant.
“Haven’t you ever heard of privacy, John? At the very least one could hope the art of knocking shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for you,” Sherlock barked, snappishly, bringing John once again to mind of an injured animal on the defensive- pained and scared and pushing away the one person who could help.
With the practised calm of a wartime surgeon, John replied, “Of course it isn’t,” and made no move to leave.
Sherlock ground down on his teeth, how dare John be so insufferably calm? He wasn’t ready for this, he wasn’t sure he ever would be. “Well then- get out!” he roared.
Pointedly ignoring his friend’s protests, John moved into the room, stopping next to the bed with his arms folded across his chest. “Sherlock, this has to stop.”
“Agreed. Now, leave!”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes, as haunting as they were haunted, and glared.
John shook off the disturbing effect. “Not until you talk to me.”
“Good evening. How’s the weather? Bit cool for my tastes,” he rattled off in quick succession. “There, we’ve talked. Happy?”
And there it was, more pronounced whenever John was trying to sooth or coax Sherlock into something, that warmth that had carved its way into Sherlock’s brain and caused his breath and heart to be ripped from him night after night. His mind threw up its walls like a steel door slamming down- NO, he wasn’t going to break, not now. Not now.
He must’ve screwed his eyes shut because he felt the bed dip and a weight settle next to him.
“Sherlock,” John whispered, gently placing a hand on Sherlock’s bowed head. “You can tell me. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
“I can’t. Don’t you see. I can’t. If I tell you it will make it real, really real.”
The panic in Sherlock’s face and quiver in his words scared John, scared him more than watching him fall to his death. “Sherlock, Sherlock. Whatever it is, we can deal with it. You’re home, you’re safe; anything else we can get through.” The way Sherlock was acting just made every single horror he’d managed to imagine his friend having gone through that much more vivid, more likely- it was killing him.
Sherlock’s tear-filled eyes pleaded with John to just go and leave him or maybe they begged him to stay; he didn’t know anymore. All he knew was that John was here, too close. Too bloody close. He had to go, he had to get John away from him before his body and voice betrayed him.
“Sherlock, you might as well tell me. I’m not leaving you like this for another night.” John sighed and ran his fingers through Sherlock’s hair. “You can think of it as my own selfish reasons, if it helps. You know I can’t sleep after one of your night terrors.”
Sherlock’s head snapped up at that. John wasn’t supposed to know that, they were just nightmares as far as he knew.
“Oh, don’t give me that. I’m a doctor. A doctor with intimate experience with PTSD, I know the difference between a night mare and a night terror. I know what it’s like to not be able to escape the images in your mind as they go ‘round and ‘round building until they literally burst out of you. And I’ve heard enough to know that’s what these are.”
“No, I’ll leave that to you. And don’t try to change the subject, it’s beneath you- it’s boring.”
John chuckled. “If there’s one thing you’ve taught me, which, let’s be honest, you’ve taught me a lot more than one thing. But, if there’s one thing you taught me, it’s that everything’s fair if it gets the data you need.”
A wry chuckle came from the once again bowed head.
They sat in silence for a while, John stroking Sherlock’s hair as the other man’s breathing began to slow. If not for the tension still in his body, John would have entertained the possibility that Sherlock was dozing. As it was he moved to sit closer to Sherlock, pushing himself up to lean back against the headboard. He hoped he could at least ease Sherlock back against the pillows even if he refused to talk- John was not going to leave Sherlock alone tonight, whether Sherlock liked it or not.
Almost subconsciously it seemed, Sherlock shuffled back to press himself against John’s side. Just when John thought he’d lost Sherlock to pure adrenaline exhaustion, the words came. Quiet and small, nothing like the boisterous and confident sounds his friend usually made, but words nonetheless. “They were wrong,” Sherlock whispered into John’s shoulder. “I don’t like leaving the bodies.”
Sherlock knew what Donavon said behind his back, what she’d said to John the first time they met, that one day he’d be the one leaving a trail of bodies. It was just one of the reasons it had been so easy for her to believe Moriarty’s twisted tale. But he also knew now that he did have that darkness in him. In all of his cases, all the times his life and the life of others had been threatened, he’d never killed. Maimed and broken when necessary, but never killed.
John had noticed of course. Even back when they had first met, Donovan had said Sherlock would leave bodies, but it was he who had made a kill shot not twelve hours later leaving a very dead serial killer on the floor of an empty classroom, and it was Sherlock who had worried about him.
John’s mouth went dry as he resisted the urge to pull Sherlock into a hug and tell him that he knew, had always known they were wrong, but he knew Sherlock wouldn’t appreciate it. Still he found himself whispering, “I know.”
“They deserved it. I know they did, Mycroft knew they did. I’d do it again, but I won’t ever like it.”
“It’s okay. We all do things we’d rather not when people we care about are on the line.”
Sherlock quieted once again, letting himself enjoy the feel of John next to him. Of John’s steady breathing. Of his hand rubbing slowly over his arm.
“Are you going to tell me how you got these?” He traced a set of barely there lines around Sherlock’s bicep.
“Should I tell you what I think?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Sherlock told him.
“Then tell me. I’ve seen a lot, Sherlock, and I don’t need to imagine most of the things that could have caused these.”
“It was in Ukraine about two years ago, I… it seems I lost a couple of months there. He liked the cutting. He fancied himself a doctor of sorts, studying the effects of viruses and infection first hand. He was rather good at his craft.”
John stifled a growl.
“John? You know I don’t associate you with him just because of a self-given title.”
John pulled Sherlock a little closer.
They both took a few moments to simply breathe. Sherlock adjusting to having finally let that secret fall. John taking in the enormity of what he’d learnt. Once he’d calmed, he felt out another set of scars fresher, and deeper. Needles if he wasn’t mistaken.
“They’re not mine, if that’s what you’re wondering.” He shuddered at the memory; the forced detox had been worse than any torture- drugs warring in his system, demanding things his body couldn’t offer and playing havoc with his mind. He often wondered if his mind had been irrevocably damaged by it, if that was why the nightmares were so real, and why he couldn’t escape them. But that would have been easy. That would have been something he could explain, something rational; much less messy than the truth. He supposed he should be a little thankful for the experience. It had been the image of John’s death playing before his eyes, in ever increasingly vivid and terrible ways, that had spurred him into action, forcing him to fight through the delirium and drug spawned phantoms. And it had been the information he’d garnered from his captors that had finally brought him home.
John gave a sad little smile and squeezed Sherlock’s arm where he’d been circling the marks. “I wasn’t.”
“When I… left… I had to. I had to find the men he had here, watching you. Mycroft handled them; he said it would be too messy if he let me deal with them.”
John smiled softly at the hint of sourness in Sherlock’s voice. It was comforting to hear his disdain for Mycroft coming through, although he suspected the bitterness was more from being denied his prey than their ever-growing brotherly feud.
“But there were more. So many more.” A lonely sadness softened the words.
John spent the next few hours, well into dawn, listening to Sherlock, and pulling him closer with every horror and every tale of how he came close to truly losing the man he loved- a knife wound in a back ally in Lisbon, a near miss with a bullet in Pilsen, being captured following up leads in Rivne (the cuts on his arms) and again more recently in Satu Mare, countless other encounters that could’ve and should’ve resulted in his death- until Sherlock’s head rested on his chest, just above John’s heart, and his arm was wrapped defensively around John as if making sure he was there and would stay there.
Finally, the words stopped. Three years of stored up fear and tension later and Sherlock was a boneless mess in his arms. John’s fingers were almost raw with the continual combing through Sherlock’s hair, but he wasn’t about to stop. His chin rested on Sherlock’s head, occasionally turning to rub his cheek against the soft hair. It was only when Sherlock moved the arm held protectively around his waist to touch his cheek, a meek, “I’m sorry,” on his lips, that John even realized he was crying. He’d almost lost Sherlock so many times over the last years and he would never have known. It was strange that the thought hurt him so much considering he’d thought the man dead at the time already, but it did.
“I…” Sherlock started.
“I know,” John breathed quietly. “But you’re home.”
“Home.” Sherlock played with the word in his mind, taking in all the connotations and repercussions of the word- theidea. Sherlock knew the power of an idea, it was what lead him to his ‘death’ and separation from John for three long, painful years in the first place.
John chuckled softly. “Yes, Sherlock, home- that place where the people you care about most are; where the people who love you are.”
“Where you are,” Sherlock whispered into John’s jumper, exhausted and losing the battle for consciousness.
“Yes.” John placed a kiss on the top of Sherlock’s head. “Where you are,” he agreed.
When John woke up it was late afternoon and he was alone. A light blanket had been thrown over him at some point- probably by Sherlock when he got up. He silently chastised himself for sleeping through it, but last night had been trying for both of them, emotions that had been festering much longer than the few months Sherlock had been back brought to the surface and exposed. John stretched as he sat up; muscles stiff from sleep and the death-grip he’d had on Sherlock when he’d finally fallen asleep pulled themselves out with a satisfying ache. Last night, this morning had been interesting to say the least. After Sherlock had fallen asleep, John had lain awake thinking and taking it all in. John knew what it cost Sherlock to confess those things; he knew how much they’d weighed on him, too. These weren’t the things that would be driven away by one night of restful sleep- not that Sherlock’s sleep had been particularly restful, John knew of two instances before he’d allowed himself to sleep and another that had woken him, but there were no screams and a few softly spoken words and a gentle tightening of his arms, which Sherlock invariably duplicated seemed to be enough to calm him- or by simply being exposed, but it was a start.
He wasn’t sure what to expect, how Sherlock would react to everything that had happened last night, but from the other room he could hear Sherlock playing his violin. It was soft and beautiful. There was still pain in those notes, but there was hope, too. Maybe it was wishful thinking on his part, but the more he listen the more vivid the impression became. It gave him hope.
He was smiling when he entered the kitchen, stopping to put the kettle on and pull two mugs down from the cupboard. He wanted to make sure Sherlock knew nothing had changed, well, nothing had changed for the worse. Realistically, he knew the idea was a futile one. Sherlock read people as a part of his living and John wasn’t just people.
Sherlock’s music died down and faded out completely by the time the water was ready and he’d folded himself into one end of the sofa.
John came over and set one of the mugs on the table in front of Sherlock, expecting nothing more than the ghost of a reaction as Sherlock seemed to be on his way to one of his thinking sessions. John sometimes wondered if he’d even notice if the flat was on fire when he got like that.
Instead, Sherlock grabbed John’s wrist lightly and said, “Thank you.”
John smiled and twisted his hand around until he could squeeze Sherlock’s arm reassuringly. He turned to go to his chair by the fireplace and leave Sherlock to his thoughts.
Sherlock’s hand tightened around John’s wrist and tugged gently at him.
Wordlessly, John set his tea on the table and sat next to Sherlock on the sofa. He turned and studied Sherlock. He was still pale, he was always pale, but his eyes were clear and the dark circles a little lighter, and he wore his pale blue dressing gown, the fabric worn soft with age until it seemed more a smooth comforting cotton than fine silk. He looked down to where their hands lay, still holding onto each other, and couldn’t help but smile.
“Oh, don’t look so pleased with yourself.” Sherlock chided in a soft, affectionate voice when he finally spoke.
John let out a breathy snort and shook his head. His eyes once again travelled down to their hands and he gave Sherlock’s wrist another affectionate squeeze, a gentle reminder of John’s presence and the turn their relationship was on the cusp of taking.
Sherlock’s lips curled into a quick smile. “It won’t be easy. I won’t be easy,” he said solemnly.
John chuckled. “Nothing ever is with you,” he pointed out.
Sherlock smiled again, quick, but full of mirth. Sherlock hadn’t smiled like that since he came back and John virtually basked in the warmth of it. “Thank you,” he said warmly, mimicking Sherlock’s earlier words “-for telling me; you didn’t have to.”
“Yes, I did and we both know it,” Sherlock said honestly.
John gave a small nod. “Yeah.” He nodded at the cup on the table. “Drink your tea.”