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Is the flat clean?

     Yes.  Mrs. Hudson had a woman come in.

Floors all hoovered and washed, then?

     Yes.

And all the dangerous stuff up and out of the way?

     Yes.

You’re sure.

     Yes, John.

Okay.  Okay, yeah.  I’ll bring Rosie.

     Really?

Yeah.  I said I would.

You have food in?

     Left over pasta.

No.  It won’t be nice.  I’ll pick up something on the way over.  Any requests?

     If I called and ordered Thai from the place on Marylebone,  could you stop by and pick it up?

Yeah.  Molly still there?

     Yes.

     You’re texting her aren’t you.

     Tedious…

Necessary.

     No.  I’m clean.

And we’re making sure you stay that way.

How are the shakes.

     They’re—there.

Mmm. 

You taking your medicine?

     Yes, John.

Okay, I’m headed out.  Tell Molly I’ll be there in 30 min.

     Why don’t you tell her.  You were just texting her.

Sherlock…

     Fine.


 

“Sorry I made you come all the way down here.  She threw up all over the backseat, and I couldn’t manage her and this…”  John holds out a bag of take-away and Sherlock takes it mindlessly, craning his neck a little to try and see inside the car.  It’s been far too long.  Oh, he’s seen pictures, of course.  Molly has those on her phone, but it’s not the same. 

In the almost three months Mary was on the run, Sherlock felt that he and the miniature Watson had managed to develop a rapport.  But it’s been so long since they’ve seen one another, he supposes she won’t remember him.  She was a remarkably well behaved infant, those few months.  Oddly quiet (as though she sensed something wrong), detached but needy in her own way, keen eyes that always seemed to be gazing inward, and a clearly active mind.  And now—also a propensity to upset stomach, apparently. 

“Fuck.”

“John…”

“She’s a baby, she doesn’t know what I’m saying, and I’ve just got vomit all over this shirt, and her too, and I’ve got a change for her, but nothing for me.  Here, take this too!”  John spins around and shoves a nappy bag at his chest. 

“Well she is almost one, she’s probably starting to pick up words.  I think that…”

“Rosie, Love.  Stop.  Stop for Daddy.”  There’s a rare squeal and then a clatter from inside the car.  “FUCK!”

“John.  Take this.  Let me.”

“Leave it, Sherlock!”

He takes a step back, and watches silently, as John finally manages to wrestle Rosie out of her carseat, both now also covered in water from an empty, lidless sippy cup held fast in one of Rosie’s tiny red fists.   She wiggles and squirms like a fresh-caught fish, and after a rather acrobatic arch backwards, that almost results in John dropping her on the floor of the carpark, she swings back up and hits him hard in the face with the cup. 

Sherlock arches a brow, watches John’s eyes slide shut, watches him take two deep breaths before opening them again and looking down at the pale blue eyes glaring up at him.  “Don’t hit Daddy.  We don’t hit.”  John’s chest is heaving.  Rosie hits him again, on the chin this time, and he grabs her hand. “No.”

“May I hold her?”

“No.  You can hardly hold those bags.  Look at you.  Beside’s she’s covered in vomit.”

Sherlock stares down at his shaking hands.   “Yes.  Of course.  You’re right.  Never mind.”

John just stares.  Rosie reaches for the bag in Sherlock’s hand.  He smiles.

“Food soon, Watson.  You should consider not hitting your Daddy, though.  A very ineffective motivational technique, I’ve found.” 

He looks back up at John, with a smile, but John’s eyes flit away.  He sniffs, juggles Rosie to one hip, and pushes the car door shut with the other, before fumbling for the fob in his pocket, hitting the lock button, and then striding off across the carpark without another word.

It takes a moment for Sherlock’s brain to process ‘move’ and he has to dash a little to catch up.  “There’s left over cake.”

“What?”  John’s voice is tight and he’s walking fast, a good few strides ahead even though his legs are shorter. 

They emerge from the car park into the bright afternoon and rush of lunchtime traffic.  Rosie buries her face in John’s neck, blond curls fluffed out over checked collar.

“Cake.  From yesterday.  I didn’t eat it all.  I thought maybe she might like some for tea.”

“You’re not giving Rosie birthday cake.”

“Why not?  It’s lemon.  She likes lemon.”

“She doesn’t need sugar.  She’s handful enough as it is.”

“She has a sweet tooth.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“I can.  She preferred carrots to green beans, and fruit to vegetables when we had her a few months back.  I know she likes lemon, because I used to give her a little taste of lemon curd sometimes.”

A bus roars past as they turn onto Baker St., and Rosie starts to cry.  John silently mouths another string of profanity and starts to bounce her on his hip, which only seems to make matters worse.  It’s the noise, Sherlock wagers, but John doesn’t seem receptive to suggestions at the moment, so he keeps his observations to himself.

The warmth of 221’s entry is a welcome embrace after the brisk walk, and Sherlock rubs his arms a little, relishing in it as he follows John up the stairs. 

John stops at the entrance of the lounge.  “Where’s Molly?”

“She left when you called from the carpark.”

John jerks his head toward the desk.  “What’s that?”

“It’s Cluedo.”

“Why were you playing Cluedo with Molly?”  A muscle jumps in his jaw and he bounces Rosie a few more times with a tight sniff.

“Well, we have to do something.”

John nods once, and then motions across the room.  “Sit.”

“What?”

“Sit down.  I want you to take her.  This is mad.  I have to—try and wash up, and then serve up this food, and…”

“Oh yes.  Right.”  Sherlock strides into the room, deposits the bag of food and nappy bag on the coffee table, and then swans over to flop in his chair.

He waits quietly as John rummages through the nappy bag, pulls out a towel, a container of wipes, and some clean clothes, tosses it on Sherlock’s lap and then waits for Sherlock to cover his trousers with the towel before all but dumping Rosie in it.

“Be back in a minute.”

Sherlock waits for the door to the loo to slam and then stares down at the vomit-smeared, red-faced child balling up handfuls of towel and biting it like she’s willing it’s destruction.  He sighs.

“Stop.  You’re dirty and you need clean clothes, and the sooner you stop, the sooner we can get rid of the towel.  Really I do not know what your father’s obsession is with cheap terry.”

Rosie blinks, stops crying.

“You’re done?  Good.  Clean clothes then.”

She goes still, lets him do what needs to be done, only tearing up once, when Sherlock uses a cold wipe to clean her face.  Once she’s changed he bundles the towel and dirty clothes together and drops them on the floor and then lets her sit up in his lap. 

She’s gotten big.  She should be walking soon.  She’s just started to crawl, according to Molly.  She should also be starting to try to form words.  She does neither.  It’s not a concern as yet, but John has likely been too distracted to notice.

“You’re getting quite big, you know.  I suppose you’ll be off to school before we know it.  Perish the thought.”

She looks up at the neat row of stitches above one eyebrow, at the blood-red sclera.  She reaches up and he leans down.  “Carefully.”

When she touches the stitches she pulls back immediately at the prickle, and looks at her finger a moment, before reaching up again.

“Sherlock, can I borrow a…”

“Mmm?”

Rosie presses a finger against the stitches again and frowns.

Sherlock looks up.  “Can you borrow a…?”  He stops short at the expression on John’s face, something he can’t quite read, when it seems desperately important that he should.

“Shirt,” John manages.

“You’re cold.  Borrow a jumper.  There’s a navy one in the dresser.  Bottom right drawer.”

John nods.

“Are you alright?”

John opens his mouth, like he might say something, but then shuts it again, licks his lips and simply turns and walks away.  Sherlock stares after him as Rosie takes new interest in the scruff along his jaw.

“You’re very inquisitive today,” he murmurs distractedly, eyes still trained on the hall.

She only rubs his cheek in response.

He looks down and smiles.  “We need to make you some toys.  Shapes.  You can do a shape box.  It’s not too early for that.  I’ll think of something, and then when Daddy brings you next time, you’ll have something new.”

“Don’t get her interested in anything.  She has to nap soon.”  John strides back into the room, in the jumper, that though obviously too large, still brings out his eyes in a way that makes Sherlock’s breath catch. 

“She’s interested in everything, aren’t you Watson?”

Rosie starts plucking at the buttons on the front of his shirt.

“Yeah, I know.  It’s getting harder and harder to keep after her now that she’s mobile.  Stella bloody well thinks she’s delayed, but it’s nonsense.  She’s into everything.”

“Yes.  She’s very clever.”

John walks over and snatches up the bag of take away from the coffee table, and heads for the kitchen.  “Not very social though…  Though you seem to do alright with her.  She probably just hates Stella.”

Sherlock snorts.  “I can’t possibly imagine why.  Does that woman ever stop talking?”

“It would take an act of god.”  Dishes clatter in the kitchen.  “This food is nearly cold.  I’m going to put it in the oven for a bit.”

“Yes, fine.  I think this one is hungry though. Bring the cake.”

“No cake!”  There is the clattering of pans, and the sound of the oven door slamming shut.  John appears in the doorway.  “No cake, Sherlock.  I’m serious.  She won’t sleep.”  He comes over and sits across from them.  “You know, I hate to admit it, but Stella might have a point.”

“Stella’s an idiot.”

“I’m serious, Sherlock.  Look at her.  I think…”  John swallows tightly, and stares down at his lap.  “It’s mad, but—I think maybe she knows…  I think maybe she misses—I think she misses her, and she’s angry with me.”

“I doubt that,” Sherlock responds as gently as he can.  It’s still new this, John talking about things.  He wasn’t sure if John’s openness two days prior was a one-off, or a sign of things to come.  It appears it was the latter.

“She doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.  Not like when she was first born.  She won’t look at me, smile at me.  She never wants to play.  She’d rather go off on her own, and do her own thing.”

“She’s fine, John.  It’s fine.”  As if on cue, Rosie squirms in his lap in an attempt to get down.  “There’s a box on the floor in the kitchen.  Get it.  She can play for awhile.”

“And just what is in this box?”

“Just old plastic cups Mrs. Hudson was going to bin.  I thought I might use them, but never got around to it.  They’re clean.  She can sort them.”

“Mm…”  John gets Rosie settled and then returns to his chair.  He sighs, and looks around the room.  “They tidied it up rather well in here.”

“Yes.  It’s not been this clean in quite some time.”

“Yeah.”

The silence between them is deafening, interrupted only by the hum of the traffic outside, and the soft click-clunk of the plastic cups Rosie is playing with on the floor beside them.  It is the first time they have been alone together, since Sherlock’s birthday.  It’s only been two days, but it feels huge, important, like there is a precarious bridge stretched out before them both that they need to at least attempt to traverse.  It’s always easier for John if Sherlock starts.

“How have you been?”

John’s eyes snap up to his.  “Oh, you know.  Busy with Rosie.  The surgery’s getting ready to let me go, I think.  They’d be well within their rights.  I’ve…”  He sucks in a breath.  “I’ve not really been all that reliable the last few months.”

Sherlock nods.  “Surely they understand.”

“They don’t know much.”

“Ahh…”

John looks down at Rosie, seemingly desperate for distraction.  He frowns a moment, before the corner of his mouth quirks into a half smile.  “What’s she doing?”

Sherlock looks down at slowly growing row of cups sorted in what appears to be a beginner’s attempt at descending size.  “She’s sorting.  I told you, she’d like those.”

John huffs softly.  “Is that—usual.  I feel I should know this, but—well paediatrics and psychology was never really my area, and I’ve not exactly been the best…”

“You’re asking the wrong person about what’s usual, don’t you think?”  John graces him with a small, fond smile.  “She seems happy enough.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“I’m going to get her a shape box, if that’s alright.  She’s old enough to use one, and I think she would enjoy that.”

“Yeah?”  John smiles at him in earnest.  “You think?  That would be nice, yeah.  I think she would like that.”

“Yes.  She’s very quick.  But then, so are her parents.”

John’s face tightens, and for a moment Sherlock thinks he might be about to break, but he wipes a hand across his face instead, and leans back in his chair, turns his head to watch his daughter.  “Sherlock there’s something…”

And oh, it’s John who will start this time.  New.  Unexpected.  Sherlock waits.

“There are things I need to say.”

“Alright.”

John looks up then, meets his gaze.  It hurts to look at John this way.  There is so much behind his eyes that drowns, and burns, and bleeds.  John is bleeding, slowly, from the inside, and seeing it in his eyes now pains Sherlock almost as much, perhaps more than it does John.  But he can do this much, at least.  He can be brave, can lend John the strength he needs for this.

“I owe you an apology.”  John’s hand balls tight and lips press hard together after he says it.

“Oh?”

John nods.  “Yeah.  I—I’m not actually sure an apology is adequate, but—feels like a start.”

“Alright.”

“Last week.  The morgue.”

Sherlock’s lips part, as realisation dawns.  “John, you weren’t yourself, I wasn’t…”

“No.  Let me say this!”  John is pale.  He almost looks like he might be ill.

Sherlock clamps his mouth shut, and nods.

“Yeah, you were higher than a kite.  You were off your head.  I’m still—I still don’t know how I feel about that.  I’m angry, Sherlock.  Angry that this keeps being a problem.  You know how things are with my sister.  I—I can’t look after both of you.  I can barely…  Jesus, I can barely even take care of Rosie, right now.”

Sherlock nods.  “I know.”

John’s eyes fill, and he swallows hard, jaw clenching as he turns away and masters himself.  After a moment he continues.  “But after I got that bloody scalpel away from you.  After I got you in line, I…”  His eyes fill again, but this time John doesn’t try to stop it.  “That shouldn’t have happened.  That—it went too far.”  He sucks in a sharp breath, huffs, sniffs and squares his shoulders.  “Sometimes once I start it’s hard to stop again, but—that’s not me.  It’s not…  Or maybe it is.  Maybe that’s the problem, but—it’s not who I want to be.”  John’s voice breaks in the end, and Sherlock nods. 

“I know, John.  I do know that.”

“I don’t know how to do this.  I don’t.  I’ve never been good at this sort of thing, and everything’s—everything’s just so wrong, right now.”

“Yes.”

“That can’t happen again.”

“What can’t?”

“What I did, last week.  H—hitting you like that.  Letting it get out of control.”

“John, you’ve hit me before.  I’ve even asked you to.  I don’t think…”

“You weren’t asking.”  It’s plain, firm, even a little sharp.  Sherlock doesn’t know how to respond, so John continues.  “You didn’t ask.  You didn’t fight back.  You—you said it was okay.  It wasn’t.”

“John, if not for me, Mary…”

“It wasn’t.”  John’s mouth is a firm, tight line.  Eyes like flint.  He is adamant Sherlock accept these words.

“Yes.  I—I see what you mean.”

“Do you?”

“You weren’t yourself.”

John shakes his head.  “Nope.  No.  That’s no excuse.  Listen, I’ve had plenty of time to think about this.  I’ve laid up nights thinking about it.  You start excusing me, and this is going to…  You can’t do that, Sherlock.”

“John, I don’t think anyone would argue that you have been in a very dark, a very difficult place.  I would wager to say that your mind, your ability to control your impulses have been severely compromised.”

“Yeah.  That’s true.  It doesn’t excuse it.”

“I think it explains it.”

John smiles, that wry, angry sort of thing that never quite seems to reach his eyes.  “Yeah, I was a little—off.  I’ve been off.  But I was dead sober, and I knew what I was doing, and I let myself go there.  Don’t let me off the hook for that.”  John’s tone is calm, but he is trembling all over, and Sherlock isn’t even sure he’s aware of it. 

“Alright.  I won’t.  You have my word.” 

John looks relieved.  He stares down at his hands, as though noticing their trembling for the first time, and balls them both into white-knuckled fists.

“Perhaps some tea?”

John barks out a mirthless laugh  “Tea?”

“You seem not—okay.”

“I’m not.  I’m not okay.  And it’s not anything tea can fix, Sherlock.”

“Fair enough.  But maybe it would help—a little?”

John looks utterly lost.

“I’ll make tea.  Play with Rosie.  Show her how to sort by colours.”

Sherlock goes and makes tea.  His hands shake.  He won’t be able to carry it in to them, but he can probably get it to the table (now clean), and manage the food too.

“The food is probably warm.  Do you want to eat in here?”

“Better do it out here, so we can watch Rosie.”  John calls back from the lounge.

“Perhaps I should get a highchair?”  Silence reigns from the lounge, and Sherlock wonders if he’s overstepped.  “If—if you thought…”

John appears in the doorway.

“Sorry,” Sherlock apologises without knowing why.

“For what?”

“It was presumptuous.  I—I just thought that if you thought you might bring Rosie here with some regularity—a highchair would be useful.   I…”

“Yeah.  Yeah, you should.  You should get one.  And we should maybe get some of those bumpers for the table edges.  She’s bound to start walking soon.  A couple of gates too—for the stairs.”

“Alright.”

John nods toward the oven.  “You need help serving that up?”

“I think I can manage.”

“Not so sure,”  John smiles, a small thing, fond, clearly, even if it doesn’t fully reach his eyes, and glances down at Sherlock’s trembling hands.  “You go play with Rosie.  She seems to prefer your company, anyway.  I’ll get the food.”


 

They sit crosslegged on the floor to eat. 

John ordered steamed broccoli for Rosie, but she refuses to eat it.  Sherlock chuckles as she tosses a piece to the other end of her blanket.

“Don’t encourage her.”

“Told you—sweet tooth.  How is she with textures?  Will she eat banana?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll get her some.”

“You’ll spoil her.  She’s needs her vegetables.”

“She needs to eat, period.  She threw up her breakfast, didn’t she?”  John doesn’t argue, and so Sherlock moves to get up, hissing a little with pain as he twists and put’s weight on his arm, forgetting about his bruised ribs.

John scrambles to his feet.  “Sit.  I’ll get it.”

Rosie throws another piece of broccoli at him as he walks away, and Sherlock fights not to laugh.  “Daddy said no.  Banana’s coming.”

And she does eat it, and John looks half chagrinned, half pleased.

But mostly John looks tired.  He always seems to look tired these days.  It weighs on Sherlock.  Each small line around John’s eyes, the dark bags beneath, the weary droop of his shoulders, the occasional ghost of a limp.  All those feel as though they are Sherlock’s fault, and he doesn’t know how to apologise anymore, how to make it right.  Sometimes he wonders if too much has passed between them these last two years, if the weight of it has cracked the heart of them beyond repair.

“I’m going to put her down to sleep.”

Sherlock’s head snaps up.  “Hmm?”

“Rosie.  Look at her.  She’s falling asleep sitting up, and she finished her banana.”

“Oh.  Do you want me to do it, so you can finish eating?”

John nods down at Sherlock’s full plate.  “Nope.  You need to eat.  Empty plate when I come back, yeah?  You’re getting too thin again.”

“You like me thin.”  The corner of John’s mouth quirks up a little, and Sherlock presses his lips together, stares down at his plate in embarassment.  (where did that come from?)

“I like you healthy.”

Sherlock nods, scoops some rice into his mouth, and looks up with a smile.

John chuckles as he reaches down to scoop up Rosie.  “That’s more like it.  Be back in a bit.”

Sherlock does as ordered, working his way slowly around the food on his plate as he listens to the sound of John setting up the travel crib, changing Rosie’s nappy, the soft tones of his voice talking to her as he does.

He has cleaned his plate by the time John returns to flop back on the floor beside him, and he holds up the empty plate for John’s perusal.

“Ta.”

“You should finish yours, too.  I’m not the only one getting too thin.”

“Yeah, well.  I think I can afford to lose a little ‘round the middle.  Not as young or as active as I used to be.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

But John does eat, and Sherlock is glad. 

“Does she sleep through the night, yet?”

John shakes his head and talks around a mouthful of noodles.  “She’s a night owl.  Would be alright if I didn’t have to be at the surgery so early, but…”

“You can sleep here some nights.”

John stops chewing.

“If you’re getting behind on sleep.  I’m up all night.  I could tend to her.  Let you get caught up.”

John swallows and reaches for the cup tea beside him.  “That going to be permanent then?”

“What?”

John nods in Sherlock’s direction.  “The beard.”

Sherlock lifts a finger to his cheek in confusion.  They’re changing subjects it seems.  “Oh…  No.  Most definitely not.  But…”  He holds up his shaking hands.  “Not the safest endeavour at the moment.  I’ve nothing electric that goes all the way to the skin, I’ve only got a blade.”

“You want me to do it?”  John asks completely casually, between bites of Pad See Ew, as though the offer is an everyday occurrence, as though Sherlock’s heart hasn’t flipped, and his skin prickled, and his breath caught dry in this throat.

“It’s fine.”

“I don’t mind.”  John takes another sip of tea.  His tone is casual, but he has yet to meet Sherlock’s eye.  His gaze is trained intently on the noodles, he’s swirling around his fork.

Sherlock knows he needs to answer.  Too much of a delay and it will seem as though he is nervous, uncomfortable.  It must be a quick decision.    But it mustn’t sound that way, either.  It needs to be…  “Yes!”

John’s eyes snap up from his plate, and it is no wonder, as that single word had come out sounding far more eager (desperate?) than Sherlock had ever intended.  He’s given himself away, there is no denying it.  The parting of John’s lips, the softness that Sherlock doesn’t understand, but that is suddenly and undeniably present in John’s eyes, all point to that single ‘yes’ having shot out into the room like a firework between them. 

John’s tongue presses between his lips, curls over his bottom one, leaving it moist and pink.  He nods.  “Okay.”  He whispers it (why does he whisper?)  “Kitchen, though, not the loo.  We’ll wake up Rosie.”  He finds his voice again, but his tone is still low and calm.

Sherlock’s hands are shaking so badly he can’t hold the cup of tea in his hand.  he sets it down.

“You want to do it now?”

Whenever you’re ready,’ Sherlock means to say, but only realises once John continues to look at him, intently, brows retreating toward his hairline, that he has said nothing at all.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then.  You want to get the stuff you usually use?  I’ll just use a bowl for rinsing.”

Sherlock manages a nod somehow and moves to get up, but John is scrambling to his feet ahead of him, again.  “Hang on.  I’m going to help you.”  And then John’s arms are reaching down and Sherlock is staring.  “Please.  Let me help you.” 

John’s face does that thing it does in rare moments when ghosts creep in around the edges.  Sherlock sees a different John then.  Perhaps the boy John was once.  Soft at the centre, but already full of fight, and anger, and desperation over how much, how very much everything is always, only his fault. 

John’s mouth is a hard line, downturned at the corners, but his eyes… His eyes are red-rimmed, haunted, soft, and sad, and desperate.  He is laid bare for the briefest of moments before it all fades behind a forced smile, and a strong, supportive lift, and a hand that slides slowly (subconsciously?) down the length of Sherlock’s arm just before John turns and heads into the kitchen.


 

Sherlock takes his time gathering what he needs from the loo.  He pokes his head into the bedroom on his way back out.  Rosie is already sound asleep. 

When he gets back to the kitchen, John is standing in parade rest in front of the kitchen window, staring out at the slow-fading afternoon.  He turns when Sherlock sets the things on the table.

“You going to be okay sitting in that hard chair?  Your ribs,” John explains when Sherlock just blinks.

“Oh.  Yes.  It’s fine.”

“Let me see.”

“No!  It’s—it’s fine.”

There must be something wrong in his tone, because John retreats, holds his hands up and takes a small step back.  “Or not.  Yeah.  It’s—it’s okay.  That’s fine.  I’m not your doctor, you’re right.  You don’t have to.”

Sherlock frowns.  “It’s fine.  They’re fine.  Just a little bruised.  John, what…?”

“I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Alright.”

“Just, umm…  If you still want me to…”  He holds up the razor in his hand.  “Just sit, I guess.”

And so Sherlock does.

There is a bowl of steaming water already sitting on the table, and John drops a flannel in it, wrings it out, steps toward Sherlock, and presses it against the stubble.  “Too hot?”

“No.  It’s nice.”

“Okay.”

He sits very still, stares at John’s chest as he drapes a towel around Sherlock’s shoulders, rubs shaving lotion over his cheeks, along the line of his jaw, under his chin.  And then John takes the razor, swishes it about in the water once, and starts to shave.

The clock above the refrigerator ticks loud in the close silence.  The condenser in the fridge hums to life.  The bins clatter in the alley (a stray cat no doubt).  John breathes calmly, in and out, like he’s thinking about it, like it’s an effort.

“Did I ever tell you about the time my mum had to go to the hospital?”  John cups his hand over the top of Sherlock’s head and eases it to one side, to have better access to the hinge of his jaw.

“Mmm…?  I don’t think so.”  Of course he doesn’t.  John never speaks of his parents.  Is very careful to never speak of his parents.

“I was nine.  She had three broken ribs, a black eye, a broken finger.”

Sherlock says nothing.

“I went with her in the ambulance.  And I sat in the A&E, and listened to her tell the officer making out the report that she’d fallen off her bike on the way to the shops and hit her face on the kerb, somehow managed to drag herself home to call the ambulance.  It was a lie, but it was mum, so…  You know…  I kept quiet.” 

John tilts Sherlock’s head gently to the other side, and then continues.  “On the way home in the cab she says to me, ‘He doesn’t mean it, Johnny.  It’s embarrassing for a man like your dad, being out of work this long.  And he’s only out a job at all, because I needed him home too much.  I knew that, and I pushed the point.  Shouldn’t have done.  I know better.  So it’s my fault, really, you see?  You don’t tell anyone, okay.’”

John presses a palm to Sherlock’s forehead, and eases his head back, sliding the razor under his chin and down his throat, stopping just above his adam’s apple.  “Wasn’t her fault.”

Sherlock fights the urge to swallow.  He waits until John lifts the razor.  “No.”

“Wasn’t yours.”

And Sherlock does look at John then, forces himself to meet his gaze, because it seems like maybe the most important thing he has ever done for him, the most valuable thing he will ever give.

John’s whole face is tight, and hard, and cold.  He’s walled himself in so tight.  Sherlock wonders who he’s trying to protect more, himself or Sherlock.  “It’s why I told Greg what I’d done.  I told him everything.  But—I don’t think he understood.”

“He knows you.”

John smiles bitterly, and shakes his head.  “No.  He doesn’t…  Nobody does.”

“John.  I know why you don’t talk about your parents.  I’ve always known.”  A muscle in John’s jaw jumps, and he sucks in a shaking breath.  Sherlock continues anyway.  “I understand.  Not my fault.  I—I accept that.  I accept your apology.” 

John sniffs, and turns, razor hovering over the bowl for a moment, before he releases it, let’s it disappear beneath the foam on the surface.  He takes a deep breath.  Another.  Another.  Finally, he walks away, over to the sink, hand on the counter, like it’s the only thing holding him up.

“John,”  Sherlock watches his grip on the counter tighten, the tension in his body grow.  “You’re not your father.”

John’s head dips and he brings a hand to his eyes.

Taking the flannel from the table, Sherlock wipes the rest of the shaving foam from his face and gets up from the table, but John’s hand shoots out behind him in warning and Sherlock stops.  He can see John’s shoulders tense and jerk with sobs he’s trying to hard to keep in.

“You’re a good father to Rosie.  You’re doing the best you can.”

John spins around, eyes wild and red.  “No I’m not!” spat out in a whisper.  “I am not.  I’m hardly holding down my job, she spends more nights away from me than she does with!  When I’m not at work, or with Rosie, I’m drunk or contemplating the barrel of a…”  He stops short, sucking in a deep breath, and then another, and another.

“Breathe.”

But John’s gotten himself too far down the well at this point, and he’s drowning.  Sherlock’s learned to recognise the signs over the years.  He takes a tentative step toward him.  “You’re alright.  Breathe, John.  Breathe with me.  In…  Out…  In…  Out…”  Sherlock takes another step, and another, and another, until he’s close enough to wrap John up in his arms like he had just two days before, and wonder of wonder John lets him—again.  “Synch your breathing with mine.”

John’s arms stay limp at his sides.  He never takes comfort.  He will accept it like this, but he can’t seem to reach for it.  It’s aches some place deep in Sherlock, and he doesn’t quite understand why.  It aches, and it has to—it is what it is—but god it’s near unbearable at times.

“Every—one…”

“Hmm…?  Don’t try to talk right now.”

“Everyone,”  John huffs against Sherlock’s chest.

“Everyone?”

“Better off—without me.”

And then Sherlock can’t breathe.  He stops.  He shouldn’t.  John needs his breath right now.  But the world has stopped spinning, and everything is flying apart.

“No,” he manages.

John shakes his head, and then nods.  He moves to pull away, but then stays.  His knees buckle, and he reaches out for the counter beside him to steady himself.  He’s trembling, unravelling.

“I wouldn’t be.  I’m not.  John…”  Sherlock pulls back a little, looks down at the down-turned head, at John’s whole body ramrod straight, shivering, shaking, like it’s taking every last ounce of his not inconsiderable strength to hold back the tsunami of whatever it is he’s holding inside.  He is standing at the edge of a precipice, and he needs to know.  He needs to know what Sherlock already knows, what he thought John did too, but he doesn’t, he doesn’t, and oh how insufferable that is.  “John…”

John just shakes his head.

“John.  Look at me.”

And he does.  And when he does it’s finally john—raw, and vulnerable, and naked.

“I’m better off with you.”

John blinks rapidly, tears slipping out to run down his cheeks, unchecked.

Sherlock smiles softly.  “I’m better off with you,” he repeats.   “I’ve always been.  Your blog—your blog when I came back, you remember?  ‘Sherlock lives’, means ‘John Watson lives’.”

John sucks in a breath, his eyes spilling again.  He nods.

“It goes both ways, you know.  I’m lost without you.  I thought you knew.”  John reels and Sherlock reaches out, on instinct, hand to his arm to steady him.  “I thought you knew.  I’m sorry.”  His hand slips from John’s arm again, but he stays close.  “You told me once, that you’re not good at this sort of thing—words.  I’m not either.  Not really.  We’re a bit of a mess, you and I.”

John huffs out a small quavering breath and the corner of his mouth twitches a little.

Sherlock gifts him a crooked smile in return.  “But if we never manage to say the majority of what needs saying, there is one thing…  There is one thing, John, that I have always meant to say, and never could.  I’d like to right that now, if—if that’s alright.”

John’s eyes fill again, “No jokes, okay.”

“No, John.  No jokes.”

John nods.

Sherlock takes a deep breath.  “You have been the best part of my life.  The only thing that has ever made it worth preserving, worth persevering.  And I know, I see now that you have never realised how much you mean to me, how essential you are to me.  I’ve failed you in that regard.  And I’m sorry.”

John looks stunned.

“You are my best friend.  I have missed you, every day, every hour, every minute we have been apart.  And you will always have a home here.  I will always value you, love you, need you, prefer you… There isn’t anyone else.  There’s never been anyone else, John.  Wipe that whole, ridiculous idea from head.  It’s just you.  It’s always been you.  It will always be you.”

John is pale, but the trembling has stopped, his breathing calmed.  He is, perhaps, in shock, Sherlock realises.  But it’s out now, and there’s no taking it back.  He wouldn’t want to.  It was true, after all, and a weight has lifted from him, too, just in the saying of it.

John takes a deep breath.  He takes a step forward.  He’s close enough that Sherlock can feel the warmth of his body radiating between them.  And then John’s hand has found his.  It’s small, and ice cold, and it wraps around the side of Sherlock’s palm, squeezes, thumb tracing lazy trails over the back of his hand.  John’s forehead presses to Sherlock’s chest, just under his chin.  He shivers once, and then stills.

Sherlock reaches tentatively around to rest a hand at the small of John’s back, and John steps closer.  His hands may be cold, but his body is burning, and he drops Sherlock’s hand, and wraps both arms around his waist, carefully pulling him closer still.

They stay like that for what seems like hours (more likely minutes), and it is John who finally breaks the silence.  “Always you.  Me too.  It’s always been you.” 

He finally pulls away, stares down at the floor beneath their feet.  “I loved her—in the beginning—I think.  And I tried to make it work, to be who I was supposed to be.”  He shakes his head, looks up.  Something’s changed behind his eyes.  “But it couldn’t last.  It wasn’t real.  It’s not who I really am.  And I think—I think I invented this—maybe she helped—but I invented this her that was never her.  And she made me see a me I never was, and I—feel so mixed up, Sherlock.  I feel like I don’t know what’s real anymore.”

Sherlock nods.

John’s chest heaves.  “But, I think, this…”  He glances around them, at the tidy, homely little flat, baby things spread out on floor, microscope, retorts and beakers sitting on the counter, John’s things slowly migrating back into their rightful places.  “This is real.”

“Yes.”

“You’re real.”

Sherlock smiles.  “Yes.”

“And this…”  John reaches out and takes his hand again.  “This has always been the most real thing in my life.”  John is staring down at their clasped hands, very still.  “I love you.”

John states it so plainly, so matter-of-fact.  It sucks the oxygen from Sherlock’s lungs.

John looks up.  “I do.  I don’t know what that changes, if it has to change anything, or if it will.  I don’t know anything anymore.  But, I needed you to know.”  He nods, his eyes soft as takes in what Sherlock assumes must be his very stricken expression.  “I need you to know you’re not alone in that.  I need you too.  I love you.  I want you.  I want this, whatever this is, whatever it’s going to become.  I want it.  I need it.”

“Alright.”

“I’ve got work to do, Sherlock.  I’m not the man I want to be, but I’m trying.”

Sherlock nods, eyes full.  “I know.”

“I’m going to keep trying, until I get it right.  For you.  For Rosie.”

“Yes.  Me too.”

A door slams the floor below, and the sound of Mrs. Hudson’s humming floats up the stairs.  John squeezes Sherlock’s hand once more, and lets it go.  “We should finish this shave.  You’re only three quarters done.”

“Mmm…  Yes.”

“Yeah.  Okay.  Sit down then, and we’ll finish.”  John heads for the table, and dips his finger in the water.  “Gone cold.  I’ll get fresh.”  There is a lightness in his step that wasn’t there before. 

“John…”

“Mmm?”

“You are a good man.”

John bites at the inside of his cheek and nods.  “I think that of the two of us, you might just be the better one.  But I’m trying.  I’m trying…”

“I know.”