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Table For One

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Table For One

 

The same café again. Of course. It’s a Tuesday, mid-afternoon. Apparently that’s the appointed time for this sort of thing.

Tuesday: newspaper (crossword puzzle, too easy for him but he does it gamely as though it’s an assigned duty every afternoon, now that the proper news has been read.) Cup of coffee, black, no sugar. He prefers tea but doesn’t like their tea. They only have one variety, a cheap black blend that comes in a bag and tastes more strongly of paper and tannic acid than it does of tea. John only takes milk in his tea, so there would be no salvaging it with sugar to soften the taste. Coffee it is.

His pen hovers over thirty-two down – living on the edge, John, doing a crossword in ink – but his gaze is fixed on the middle distance. He’s seated in the same general area he always chooses. He has no fixed table, but a preference for the middle of the café along the southern wall. He always faces the window or door (combat training), which makes it easier for me.

I put the binoculars down for a moment and wonder what he’s thinking about. Nothing in particular, it seems. Just that same, blank stare. My phone buzzes in the pocket of my coat. Text from my brother. I read it in annoyance, resenting the interruption.

Stalking him again? How long
do you plan on keeping this up?
Surely it would be easier to just
talk to him.

Delete. “Surely it would be easier to sod off and find something more important to do,” I mutter under my breath. Raise the binoculars again and see that John’s position hasn’t changed. (Why is he just sitting there? I don’t understand.) It was the same way last Tuesday. Just as it was at the restaurant last Thursday. He sat by himself at a table near a wall, facing the door, picking at his food and staring into the space occupying the chair opposite. Eventually he gave up on the meal and went home.

He rarely leaves his flat these days; it has become difficult to gather data when he stays inside all the time. He’s not working, or hasn’t in the past two weeks, it seems. (What is he doing? Why is he moping around like this?)

It’s confusing and I detest feeling confused. The confusion is the reason for my hesitation. (Detest that Mycroft knows that I’m hesitating.) Evidently the situation is not as clear as I had imagined. Had envisioned just letting him know that I was alive and back in London with relative ease, possibly (likely) requiring a painfully long explanation, resulting in some potential anger if I know John Watson (and I believe I do), but ultimately he would be pleased to see me and perhaps we would go out for Chinese. Just like the old days. I’ve missed the old days very much, truth be told. I could go and dine by myself, as I have for the past three years, one month, and two days, but I’ve missed John particularly. I thought he might be married or something by now. Was afraid he might be. Working in a hospital or a nicer clinic. What’s he doing hanging about his flat all the time, or struggling with the Times crossword in the middle of the day?

These questions lead to further questions. If he’s not working, how is he supporting himself? I never thought much about finances before I lived with John but came to realise how much most people do think about all that. He took care of money with us, which meant that I never came to those unpleasant realisations that I seemed to be out of it and had to go to Mycroft. John made it so that there was always money, somehow, and I never had to think about it. He managed all of that: groceries, making sure that there were clean dishes to eat from (he made me wash them often enough; there were bound to be clean dishes when he was so obsessed with dish washing), that we both had clean clothes to wear, that light bulbs got changed and the recycling taken out on the proper day. He complained and he told me what to do in his best military voice (which I always liked somehow, so I obeyed him because it pleased me to do so) and consequently, our lives functioned very well. Correction: life, singular. We shared a life that functioned very well. It suited his need to create order and control his environment, running the flat the way he did. He would come home, set everything in order (or make me do it) and then sit down, content as anything, to pore over the paper or watch truly terrible telly or prod me to cook something (or more often, cook something and then prod me to eat it). He liked being at home, comfortable in his own little domain. And now here he is, wearing a jumper that has seen cleaner days (though it’s still acceptable for public wear, it’s not up to his usual standard), his hair a little too long for his usual preference, drinking bad coffee in a soulless café surrounded by strangers and background noise. I don’t understand.

I meant to speak to him immediately, as soon as I saw him. I’d got his current address from Mycroft (hated asking the favour, but there were too many J Watsons in the phone book to phone them all and his old mobile number was out of service) and thought of going over, but couldn’t decide on the best time of day. Surely he would be at work during the day. And in the evening, what? A blank comes to mind when I try to imagine his social life. He used to see some of his old rugby teammates from uni, but never more frequently than once every two months or so. Stamford, then? They weren’t all that close. Molly? No, she was my acquaintance, not John’s, and the fact that she could hardly remember that he was in the room if I was there, let alone his name, never engendered much fondness from him. Not Harry; that much I know. Nor their parents. No love lost there. Alcoholic father, indifferent mother, no extended family to speak of. Other doctors? Complete blank. Girlfriend, then. I’d assumed. In the end, I’d decided to wait outside for him to leave, starting at eight one morning. It was a long wait. He didn’t exit the flat until close to one in the afternoon, and then it was only to walk slowly to Tesco, limping slightly, using a cane again. I’d thought of running, catching up, calling out to him, but it was the sight of the cane that gave me pause. (Why was he limping? I cured him of that, years ago!) It was… upsetting. I was left feeling so odd at the sight of his cane that I changed my mind about chasing after him, decided to put it off until later.

Since then, I’ve been following him, trying to decide on the best moment for a self-revelation, now awkwardly late. I thought the moment would present itself clearly; so far it hasn’t.

Mycroft has been particularly annoying about it all. Of course he’s seen me following John, crouching in the bushes across the street, lurking under awnings and in shop doorways, waiting for John to emerge from the pharmacy or tube station. His routine varies little; he visits the same café and grocery and newsstand. And sometimes he doesn’t leave his flat for days at a time. (Hate those days; no idea what he’s doing in there, all alone.) No girlfriend, then. (Not sure why this feels like such a relief. At least a girlfriend would be another potential source of information. Still.)

Was disappointed that he moved out of Baker Street. Thought he might have had fond memories of it. Perhaps it wasn’t worth as much to him as I thought? (Will my return be something of a bothersome reminder of a past he’s left behind, then, if he’s moved on so firmly?) The thought gives me pause. Yet he doesn’t seem settled, exactly, in his new life without me. One would have thought he’d have made an entirely fresh start. Have discerned from Mycroft’s surveillance that John has not been in contact with Lestrade since my funeral. (Mycroft was furious when he discovered I’d gained access to his records, but his fury was inconsequential. The data was necessary.) What has he been doing, then?

The need to understand is infuriating. The fact that John is being so difficult to deduce is worse. It’s John. I know him. This shouldn’t be so obscure, not to me. Perhaps the answer, the answer I have been slowly being forced to accept, is that perhaps I don’t know him any more. Or worse, perhaps I never did.

Hate the self-doubt. John was one of the one things I was most looking forward to coming back to. London, cases, local crime, too much tea and takeaway, and in every aspect of it, John. I wanted that back. But John seems to be a shadow of his former self and London seems damp and grey, even the work fading in contrast.

My phone rings in my coat pocket, distracting me. There’s only one person who has the number; haven’t told Lestrade I’m back yet. I wanted to wait until John knew. (This is delaying everything, to my annoyance.) It’s therefore Mycroft. Want to ignore it but if I do, he’ll just send a car. Sigh deeply and answer it as ungraciously as possible. “What do you want?”

Mycroft ignores my rudeness. “You might consider just going in and talking to him. This is becoming ridiculous. Even my staff are embarrassed for you.”

“It’s none of their business!” I snap. “You should discipline them for their indiscretion!”

Mycroft snorts with laughter. “They all think you’re desperately in love with him, you know. They think you can’t work up the nerve.”

This reduces me to speechless outrage. “What? That is utterly, completely uncalled-for. And inaccurate. I’m just waiting for the opportune moment!”

Mycroft is still laughing, meanly. “You’re only confirming it. Honestly, Sherlock, it’s pathetic. It’s been sixteen days. You’re beginning to look like a down-and-out. Go inside and say hello. What’s the worst that could happen?”

I growl and hang up on him. Preposterous! His staff are a lot of gossiping school children, not the MI5. They should all be fired. I switch the mobile to silent and debate with myself, aware that somewhere, somehow, Mycroft is watching. Bite my lip, considering it. John turns a page of the newspaper. (Crossword incomplete: abandoned.) Turns two more pages rapidly, not really looking at them, then abruptly folds the newspaper and slowly, stiffly gets to his feet. He’s going to leave. (Maybe now is the moment. No. Not yet. When he leaves.) I watch him pull his jacket on (his old black one with the elbow and shoulder patches) and limp heavily toward the door, his bad leg moving reluctantly after the long period of stillness. The café door opens. This is it. I collapse the binoculars and thrust them into my left coat pocket, move out from under the awning and cross the quiet street. He’s already turned, limping off southward. When I’m six metres away from him, I stop. “John.”

He slows, but doesn’t turn, doesn’t stop. Just a hesitation, then he hunches his shoulders and limps on.

Uncomprehending, I call again. (Surely he heard me the first time?) “John!”

He freezes. I take two large steps, then stop, waiting. Slowly, he turns around. His eyes go wide and I feel my breath solidify in my lungs. He reaches for his chest with the hand not gripping the cane, breathing hard. “No.” He turns around again, to my utter confusion, and keeps walking.

I’m so confused that it takes me a moment to recover, just left behind with my mouth open slightly. (What? What did he mean, ‘no’?) Well. At least he can’t get all that far with his cane and his traditional refusal to take cabs unless I was volunteering to pay, which I always did. Except when I forgot to bring cash, of course. I come to myself and run after him. This time I wait until I’ve caught up, touch his shoulder and say, a touch breathlessly, “John! Wait!”

He stops again, looking so startled that I’m suddenly convinced that he didn’t actually see me the first time, or… didn’t believe it? Those are the only two possibilities. He’s stopped walking again, and doesn’t seem to be breathing. I’m left standing there, my already uncertain confidence about this encounter draining away, waiting for him to say something, anything, just to produce a reaction of some kind. His mouth tightens, tongue darts out to touch his lips, eyebrows furrowed. And then he turns grey and collapses right there in front of me, cane clattering to the pavement beside him.

With a small exclamation of dismay, I drop to my knees. “John!”

He’s fainted. I find his pulse, far too fast for a man of his age and for such a limited amount of physical activity. I shocked him. His heart beat is rapid but weak – startlingly weak, I realise. My expertise in bodies is rather specifically relevant to the dead, not the living, but even a non medical professional could see that his pulse is far too weak. I look up, searching for one of the many hidden cameras I know to be on every street of this nation and probably several others. Now would be a good time to be an interfering busybody, Mycroft, I think with irritation at my brother.

A black car pulls up within the minute, discharging two black-suited agents and a white-jacketed medical sort. They ignore me, lifting John’s prone form and putting him in the backseat of the car. I’m permitted to clamber in after them, holding his wrist. “Hospital,” says one of the agents to the other, and the car moves off.

“Which hospital?” I ask. They don’t respond. “Not St. Bart’s,” I order, though I don’t know if they’ll take anything I say as authority. “Are you sure he needs to go to a hospital?” I add, certain by now that they won’t answer me.

They don’t. But one of the agents has been murmuring into a phone and, frowning, nods his head toward me, saying something else to the driver. They drive past St. Bartholomew’s and follow Holborn toward the Royal London. Better. John hates hospitals regardless and likely won’t be happy to find himself in one. (Not that he looked particularly happy out of one, either. That part still makes me feel helpless and uncertain and feeling uncertain frustrates me in the extreme. This is most uncomfortable.)

He’s put on a stretcher and strapped down, wheeled from the car in through the double doors, down several corridors and into a room. The entire scene has taken on a slightly surreal quality. (This was supposed to be a hello in a café, and now it’s become… this.) They’re having trouble reviving him. They’ve got something clamped to his third finger (ring finger, no ring) to check his oxygen levels, a band around the opposite arm checking blood pressure. Lights in his eyes, pupils contracted into specks. Intravenous needle being connected, blood being drawn. He’s semi-conscious, not resisting any of it. (Not like the irascible fighter I knew. Who is this dull, beige, meek creature, drowning in his own lassitude? Where is the temper and spark, the sarcastic wit, the sharp, dry laugh? The warm, inquiring concern, the smiling gentleness?) I feel hollow, lungs rubbing the wrong way along my ribs from the inside. Worried. I am worried. (Is he going to be all right? Why do the nurses and doctors look so concerned? Even the bloody orderlies look concerned. Wrong. This is all wrong.)

They take off his clothing and dress him in a blue hospital gown. (He’ll hate that.) Finally they leave him alone, sleeping now, the intravenous drip left in place. Someone tells me that he should be all right in a bit, that he’ll probably sleep, that I can stay. “Boyfriend?” she asks, the nurse or whatever she is. (Don’t care. Couldn’t possibly care.) The tone is kindly, accompanied by what’s clearly meant to be a consolatory pat on the shoulder. “I shouldn’t worry too much, seems his blood sugar was a little too low. Has he ever had problems with eating disorders or depression in the past?”

I don’t know. I don’t know any of this. John looks terribly thin, now that the bulky layers of jacket and jumper have been removed. I shrug and get another pat for it, like a dog that needs soothing. (Irritating.)

“That’s all right, then. He’ll be able to go home soon enough.”

I manage to refrain from requesting that she not touch me and she takes herself off at last, leaving me alone with John. He looks dreadful in this light, though the pale green painted walls would hardly be complimentary to anyone. His hair is untidy, possibly unwashed. In the car, I could smell his clothing, far from filthy, but it’s been at least three wearings since having been laundered. I can hardly imagine what the kitchen of his little flat must look like, if he’s let himself out in public in this state. (What has happened to him, to reduce him to this?) As I sit there, watching him, watching the IV bag slowly empty itself into his veins, the answer finally comes to me: I happened to him.

(Is this really all me, though? Could something else have happened? It’s been three years; surely nobody grieves for that long. Is this really about me?)

“Yes.”

The voice startles me, from over my right shoulder. I’m hunched in the visitors’ chair, knees pulled up to my chin, arms holding my shins to my chest. I scowl. “What are you doing here?”

Mycroft walks slowly around the foot of the bed to the only other chair in the room. The sounds from the corridor are dimmer; he’s closed the door completely. He gives me a grim look and sits down across the bed from me. “You’re right,” he says. “The conclusion you’ve just come to. You’re quite correct.”

I can’t look at him. “It’s because of me…” It’s not quite a question, not quite convinced enough to be a statement. (Require confirmation.)

“Yes.” Mycroft hooks his umbrella over one arm of the chair and sets his briefcase down beside him, crossing one knee over the other. “I thought about warning you, but I thought you’d deduce it for yourself.”

“He’s lost weight.”

“A lot of weight.” Mycroft confirms. He pulls out a small notebook and consults it (as though he doesn’t already have it memorised). “Suspected eating disorder, or something like it,” he informs me. “Possibly just depression. Barely eats. Has trouble sleeping. Was prescribed both sleeping aids and anti-depressants and has not filled either prescription. Hasn’t worked since a brief attempt last year.”

I stare at John, his small mouth slightly open, eyelids closed. “How is he staying afloat?”

Can feel Mycroft’s gaze boring into my forehead from here. “How do you think?”

“Army pension?” I try, though I’ve guessed the real answer.

“Hardly. Those pensions are rather meagre.”

Try not to sigh, but it escapes through my nose anyway. “So…” I gesture at John. “All this… has he been like this for three years now?”

“More or less, yes,” Mycroft says quietly. “There have been better times and worse times. He had a phase of going on first dates. Only first dates. He went back to Sarah Sawyer’s clinic for awhile in the first year, then changed to a different one in Lambeth. He was fired from that one when he missed too many days of work, which is also, I presume, why Sawyer encouraged him to leave. There was another one last year in Wandsworth, but he quit of his own accord and started seeing his therapist again.”

John’s chest is rising and falling under the sheet, far too thin. “You should have told me.” My excitement at seeing him again is gone; there’s only the hollowness in my chest and a force I can’t name corroding my guts.

“I thought he might improve, seeing you again,” Mycroft said. “To be honest, I was getting worried that you wouldn’t finish in time.”

The implication of his words hits me a moment later, delayed like a bead of water hovering on the surface before being absorbed. Blink and look over him, eyes blazing with something, some unnameable thing. I can’t bring myself to speak, the horror of the realisation roiling through me. Clear my throat, swallow. Still can’t speak.

Mycroft sighs and stands, picking up his things. He comes over and looks at John with me. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Perhaps I should have said. I needed you focused and this would have been rather a significant distraction, I think. He’ll be all right. Take care of him. You’re not going to find another one like him, you realise.”

I pull in on myself and try to tune him out. As if I would want “another one” (another what, precisely? I don’t ask). I just wanted John. John and tea and Baker Street. Mrs Hudson fussing over the state of the fridge, John nicely and relentlessly ordering me to clean up my stacks of paper on the desk and alternately asking what I would be willing to eat for supper. Whose turn it was to get the groceries, or if the reason it was so cold was because I forgot to pay the heating bill like I’d said I would. All of that. I wanted it back. Wasn’t expecting this. John was so solid, so reliable, so… John. I had never expected that this one constant might have shifted in my absence. I’d known the (semi-permanent) risk of some woman whisking him away, but… he’d always come back before. This is unacceptable. Completely unacceptable.

I settle back into my chair, hardly aware that Mycroft has left, and wait for him to wake.

***

It takes another hour, which proves to be an annoyingly large amount of time to be stuck with my own thoughts. But then, finally, John is stirring. The IV bag is empty, so he should have the proper nutrients in his system by now. I watch him intently, blinking, looking around. “John.” (Trying not to be impatient is difficult. Want him to start snapping out of it, though.)

His eyes find me and he blinks a few more times and rubs his eyes and noticing the IV at the same time. This makes his brows contract in irritation, but he’s more distracted by me. “Sherlock?” His voice is scratchy and tired, but sounds strong enough.

“Yes.”

He frowns and pats along the left side of the bed, looking for the controls that will raise it into an upright position. He’s staring at me with a look that seems to be a combination of disbelief and anger. “It was real, then. You’re really here.”

“Yes,” I say again, and manage not to add, obviously.

The frown deepens. “Why am I in a hospital?” Suspicion dawns. “Haven’t been committed, have I?”

A surprised dry laugh escapes me before I’m aware it was going to. “Hardly. You fainted, that’s all.”

The scowl turns on the IV now. “What’s this?”

“IV. Seems you haven’t been eating enough,” I say, making it sound conversational, but I’m privately concerned.

“No,” John states categorically, and removes it. “I’m fine. Sherlock, what the hell are you doing here?”

Now for it. “It’s a long story,” I start. “And one I suspect you’d rather not hear lying in a hospital bed. Do you want to go home?” (“Home” is not what I would call the small, squat building where he lives, but there’s no time to waste on semantics.)

John glares at me. “I certainly am going home, yes. And no, Sherlock.”

It’s my turn to frown. “No? What do you mean? No, what?”

“No, you’re not coming.”

“John.” Try for patience again. “You’re not well. I’m coming with you. I’m going to look after you.”

That does it. His cheeks turn a ferocious shade of red and he pushes the rails away, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Sherlock,” he begins, sounding absolutely apoplectic, “if you think that you can just – fake your death, right in front of me, then disappear for three bloody years and then just announce that you’re back and – coming home with me to look after me – ” these words come with a heavy layer of sarcasm and he stops to actually splutter for a moment or two, in search of the right words to tell me to go and sod myself. (After my lengthy reflections, not unexpected.) “You can think again,” John resumes flatly, face still flaming. “Absolutely not. I don’t want to see you. Ever. Again.”

Expected or not, it’s still frustrating. Feel my patience, tenuous as it was, slip away. “John, don’t be ridiculous,” I say, the edge coming back into my voice. “You’re not – ”

Before I know it, he’s out of bed, fist connecting with the side of my face with impressive force for a man subsisting on bad coffee and at present, a liquid diet. It hurts, rather a lot, but I’m more concerned with the sudden flurry of medical staff in the room, exclaiming generally and trying to calm John down.

“Doctor Watson, please,” a tall nurse says, exuding calm. He extends a cautious hand and puts it on John’s shoulder. “Just take it easy, all right?”

“Don’t touch me!” John snaps. “I’m perfectly healthy, and I’m going home.”

Consternation all round. The nurses are looking at each other, unsure what to do. The tall nurse looks at one of the others, who says, “Is there anyone at home who can keep an eye on you? You’ve been unwell…”

“I don’t need – I am perfectly capable – ”

“I’ll be there with him,” I say, deciding that enough is enough. Any longer and he’ll end up punching someone else. “I’ll look after him. Give him some privacy to get dressed, please.”

They don’t know who I am, but something in my tone convinces them, it seems. They’re nodding and backing out like bad extras in an equally bad film. Alone again, John is breathing hard through his nose and staring at me as though he’d quite like to know where his Sig is. I interrupt before he can speak.

“John. Let’s get you home and you can yell at me there. You don’t want to stay here, do you?” (The please is there, unspoken. Don’t know if he caught it, though. Should I say it out loud? Might as well give it a try.) “Please.”

He glares again. It hasn’t made him feel any more kindly toward me, but it has spurred him into action, which was the goal. He reaches for his jeans and puts them on under his robe, silent and furious. Next it’s the t-shirt and he pulls off the robe still glaring at me, as though daring me to look away. I don’t. (I can’t.) He’s all rib and scar and too-pale skin, collar bones standing out. He is dressing himself with more defiance than I ever thought humanly possible. Vastly prefer this defiance to his earlier meekness. (Better, John. Good.) Now the jumper, and he’s scanning the floor. “Where are my shoes?” he demands.

“I’ll get them.” They were put in the closet. I fetch them as John puts his socks on and wait as he laces up his sturdy brown oxfords. I’m holding his jacket and silently hand it over. “Ready?”

I get a terse nod in response.

On our way out, I make a point of remembering something. “Oh, one moment…” I go back to the closet and fetch his cane, rescued by one of Mycroft’s faceless agents. I hold it out to him, silently gleeful that he was already at the doorway before I pointed out his lack of it, his deduced lack of need for it. He catches everything I’m thinking and jerks it out of my hand, then silently follows me out of the hospital.

In the street I hail a cab and hold the door open for him. When he doesn’t say anything, I give his address and feel his poisonous gaze burning holes through the window at his left. We ride to his flat in silence. I pay, don’t offer to help him out, wait until he’s unlocked the outside door before opening it. The silence is awkward but my determination is too great to be cowed by any amount of awkwardness. He needs me. I’ve deduced that, and as he needs me, I refuse to let him send me away. He can be angry, but I need him to be there, to be John again. He’ll be angry for awhile (possibly a very long while, at this rate), but perhaps I can persuade him to start taking care of himself again. The cut on my face throbs gently. He hasn’t lost his strength, at any rate.

Outside the door to his flat, he stops and sighs. “I’m fine, you know. And I’d rather be on my own.”

“You’re not fine, and I’m coming in,” I inform him placidly.

His face hardens. “I don’t want you here.”

“I don’t care, particularly. I’m coming in.”

“It’s my flat, goddamn it. I’ll say who comes in and who doesn’t.”

I level him with my eyes. “I’m coming in, John. Stop being so stubborn and open the bloody door!”

He stands there, biting his lip and fighting some internal battle as I stand there, unmoved, hands shoved deep into my coat pockets. Finally he sighs. “For the love of – fine, come in if you insist, but I don’t want you here. You’re not welcome.”

“After you, then,” I say, ignoring this.

He huffs, unlocks the door and goes inside. Without taking his jacket off, he goes and sits down on the only piece of furniture in the sitting room, a beige sofa that has seen better days. The walls are builder’s beige, unadorned. The light fixture is made of tacky, tinted glass from the eighties. There’s a television and a crate that it’s sitting on, and a cheap coffee table between that and the sofa, adorned with a laptop, about three weeks’ worth of newspapers, and a paperback. It’s messy. Pieces of clothing lie draped over the ends of the sofa. There are newspapers and beer bottles on the wall-to-wall carpet. I glance at John, then go into the kitchen, which is worse. Unwashed dishes stacked on both sides of and within the sink. A quick check proves the fridge nearly empty. Half a jar of pasta sauce that has begun to grow interesting colours of mould, two sad-looking oranges, some mayonnaise, a bottle of milk (still good), a single bottle of beer, a dying head of broccoli, and a box of dodgy-looking Chinese takeaway. (I almost laugh: we nearly could have had Chinese tonight, after all.) I go back to the sitting room, where John is steadfastly pretending I’m not there. “It’s horrible,” I announce conversationally. Without rancour.

“Leave, then.”

“Absolutely not.” I study him. “It’s cold in here.”

Shrug.

“I’m turning up the heating.”

“I don’t care.”

I find the thermostat and adjust it. He’s reverting to beige. (Don’t like this.) I go back into the kitchen in search of a chair. This is the saddest part of all: there’s only one chair at the small table. Table for one. (This is terrible. The sight of this forlorn table with its singular chair is so pitiful, so sad. Feel the corners of my mouth drooping in disapproval and something worse, something sadder.) I attempt to drive the feeling away and pick the chair up, carry it out into the sitting room and sit down. “You could shout at me,” I offer, after a small silence.

Another shrug. “What good would that do? Wouldn’t change anything.”

“You might feel better,” I try. “Better out than in and all that.”

“I doubt that very much.” His voice is flat. “There’s almost nothing that could be worse than this. I thought that having you be dead was the worst thing. But I was wrong, evidently.”

Feel my lip twist a little. “My being alive is worse?” (Associated feeling: definitely not good.)

He confirms it. “Yes.” His voice is stony, eyes averted.

I sigh. “Are you hungry?”

“No.”

“Tea?”

“Go to hell.”

I decide to take that as a no. “Fine,” I say, and stand again. I take my coat off and leave it on the chair and go into the kitchen. I might as well start somewhere. First I find the kettle, rinse it out and fill it with water. Plug it in and look for a clean cup. Challenge number two: there aren’t any. I look at the worktop and sigh, then move all of the dirty dishes to the left side of the sink and begin running water. Start with the cups and silverware, if only so that there are spoons and cups by the time the kettle whistles. In the cupboard I find a tin of loose black tea, a dusty, unused tea pot, and a jar of sugar. (John takes milk in tea but drinks coffee black. Always the contradictions: army doctor. Never to be taken at face value. Will I ever stop relearning this lesson about John Watson?) I let the tea steep for a few minutes, starting on the plates and bowls, then pour two cups of tea, add sugar to one and milk to both, and carry John’s out to him. He’s turned on his side, facing the back of the sofa. “Tea,” I say, and retreat to the kitchen again without waiting to see if he’ll drink it. (He won’t if he knows I’m watching.)

People always underestimate John’s temper. I get irritable when I’m bored, probably difficult to live with or be near, but John’s temper is legendary when he loses it. The people who don’t see him when he gets well and truly angry always think him easygoing and relaxed. The truth couldn’t be farther off; John could take down a building in his wrath once he really loses his temper. I’ve only ever managed to provoke his rage a handful of times, and this is far worse. I learned quickly that trying to reason with him when he’s in the heart of it is useless; logic is utterly powerless against his anger. Although I learned slightly less quickly that he also doesn’t want to just be left alone, either. Difficult to navigate. Immensely frustrating. But then, this was expected. I did leave him for three years, let him believe me dead. Some anger is warranted. I can at least help make his flat habitable again, awful as it is. The few times I ever tried to placate him in the past were usually through house work or compliments. Once I told him that a particular blog entry was better-written than its forebears and he took it as an insult to the previous entries rather than the compliment it was. Compliments are definitely not my forte. Best stick to washing up, then.

It’s almost finished. I spend more effort than I’d prefer cleaning out his execrably dirty pots and pans, then drain and wash out the sink and wipe down the worktop. The table is heaped with more newspapers. Does he not recycle? Has he developed a penchant for collecting newspapers? Is this a neurosis I should be concerned about? Shake my head and find a large plastic bag and start collecting the papers. Some of them date back as far as six months. Six months! This is ridiculous. I’m tempted to walk back into the sitting room and retort something about the papers to John, but think better of it. Just clean. It’s so horridly mundane, but it needs doing and order used to make him happy. I don’t know that anything about me could make him happy if he thinks he’d prefer me dead. Bitter thought. I know what he means, though, or think I do: he would prefer me to be dead and have it be true than think that I was living all this while and let him believe the lie. And possibly that I didn’t contact him, made him go without me all this while. Well: I made myself go without him, too. He hasn’t thought of that, has he.

I prefer not to think about it, the whole messy business with Moran and his people. Belfast is calmer now than it used to be during the height of the troubles, but it was unpleasant enough. Would much rather have had John there, only they would have killed him the instant his face came into sniper range. Note to self: in the future, if at all possible, avoid getting involved with people who fancy long-range weaponry. So complicated and so difficult. It’s over now. The newspapers are dispatched in their bag. I think of going to collect the ones in the sitting room but decide to leave John alone as much as possible. Concentrate on the kitchen, then. I clear out the inedible things in the fridge and decide to go shopping tomorrow. There’s a broom in the small cupboard, so I sweep the floor. The small corridor off the kitchen leads to the tiny bathroom and then the only bedroom, with another turn-off leading back to the sitting room. Want to inspect his bedroom but perhaps he would resent this intrusion even more than, well, the rest of my intrusion. The bathroom is moderately clean. I check the time. It’s nearly seven in the evening now. (He must be getting hungry. Even I’m hungry.)

I go back into the kitchen and make a call for takeaway, from the place at the end of Baker Street. Had checked to make sure it was still there, in case he’d wanted to go there tonight. (Should have known it couldn’t have been as easy as that.) I order only things that John particularly likes, and ask Tommy (the owner’s son) if he would mind making a delivery. They don’t normally deliver, but Tommy remembers me ecstatically and agrees at once. Now there’s nothing to do but wait. Or I could dry all of the dishes and put them away. I sigh. Anything would be better than just sitting in the sitting room and looking at John’s uncommunicative back. When that’s finished, however, I finish my cooling tea and make myself go back in, bringing the tea pot in case John drank his and wants another cup.

His tea is untouched. I frown at the cup, take it to the kitchen, empty the cold tea down the sink, add some milk, then return to the sitting room to fill it again. “Tea,” I say for the second time, and set it down.

John doesn’t move. (Is he asleep?) No. His back is far too tense for sleep. “I don’t want tea,” he says, voice slightly muffled by the upholstery.

Despite myself, I find it rather endearing. He’s behaving like a child, though I can acknowledge that he has very valid reasons for being upset. I sigh. “I’d like to explain, if you’d let me. I’m sorry, John.”

There is a long pause. “What?”

Feel my brows come together. “What do you mean, ‘what’? Which part did you miss?”

“The last thing you said.”

“I said that I’m sorry.”

“You never apologise.”

“Well, I am now.”

“I don’t believe you.” It’s delivered in a flat monotone, still muffled.

“It’s nonetheless true. I am sorry. It was never supposed to take that long. And I wish I could have told you, or taken you with me, but it was quite impossible. They would have – ”

“I changed my mind,” John interrupts. “I don’t want to hear it.”

“John, it was necessary, if you would just listen for a moment – ”

“Jesus Christ, stop talking!”

I bite back the angry response that rises to the tip of my tongue and subside into frustrated silence. The doorbell buzzes. John doesn’t stir. I sigh again, get up and go to the buzzer. I meet Tommy in the hall where he won’t see John (he wouldn’t want to be seen like this), exchange a brief greeting, pay him and take the food. Back in the flat, I say, without expectation of any kind, “Dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Utterly predictable. “I am,” I say calmly, as though nothing’s the matter. Now I pick up the stack of papers on the coffee table and take them to the kitchen, adding them to the bag with the others, and bring back clean plates and forks, some spoons for serving. I set everything up on the coffee table and serve myself portions of John’s favourite dishes, pull up the singular kitchen chair and begin to eat, facing his back as though this is perfectly normal.

John heaves a sigh that could throw a planet off its rotation. (Planets do revolve, don’t they? He told me once, insisting that I should know. Yes, of course they do. They revolve around the sun, just as the earth does. I know that now. Still don’t see its useful application to my daily life apart from providing my inner monologue with pointless analogies.) “Now you eat,” John says to the sofa, sounding incredibly tetchy. “All those times that I had to practically tie you down and force feed you, now you’re willing to eat. Now that you’ve ruined my life and – ” He stops speaking just as suddenly as he started. I can practically hear his mouth clamp shut.

I wince, my heart is beating a little too quickly over you’ve ruined my life. Force myself to speak without acknowledging it. “Would you like that?” I ask, forcibly keeping my voice even, conversational. “I could tie you down and force feed you, if you’re into that sort of thing. Or you could just eat, since we both know how much better you generally are at remembering to eat than I am.”

This stirs him enough to wrench himself around and glare fiercely at me. “Don’t you dare mock me,” he says, face flushing in anger again. “Don’t even think it. You have no right whatsoever. You have no right to even be here.”

I go still, a fork holding a piece of glazed chicken paused mid-air, plate balanced on my knees. “I know that,” I say quietly. “I know, John. I’m not mocking you. I just want you to eat something. Please.”

He holds my eye for another long moment, perhaps five full seconds, then the glare wavers and falls away. “What is this?”

I gesture loosely at the array. “From the place on the corner of Baker Street.” It never did have a name. Or probably it had one of those ridiculously vague names like “Chinese Restaurant”. We always just referred to it as the place on the corner.

John surveys the offerings with something almost like interest flickering in his eyes. “Was that Tommy who brought it?”

“It was.”

“Thought they didn’t deliver.”

“They did for m – for us.” I watch him, nearly holding my breath. Will he take it? I feel like I’m trying to coax a wild animal that might either run off or decide to attack if I make a wrong move. John does neither, though. He – to my near amazement – picks up a spoon and starts putting some of the honey-glazed chicken onto the other plate. (That was always his favourite, his first choice. It was the first thing I asked for on the phone.) He continues with the chow mein next, then the broccoli. A moment of consideration, then he concedes to an egg roll as well. I carefully make a point of looking only at my own plate and pretending I can’t see him eating. Don’t want to call attention to it lest he get defensive. So we did end up having Chinese together tonight after all, though it couldn’t be more different than what I’d hoped for.

The silence that stretches out between us isn’t exactly comfortable, but it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as it was before, either. For awhile I just eat and watch him carefully. He’s studiously ignoring me, which isn’t precisely fine, but it’s an improvement: he’s eating. When he’s beginning to lose speed, I decide to break the silence. “I’d really like to explain, if you’d let me,” I say.

Resolute shake of the head. “No.”

“It might change how you feel about this.”

He stops chewing, then resumes and finishes his mouthful, swallowing. Eyes fathoms deep into his broccoli, he eventually says, “Right. Because there’s absolutely, guaranteed, some explanation that you could fabricate, that could explain letting your best friend watch you kill yourself, while somehow not ending up dead, despite my having seen your body – and then being off somewhere all this time – ” John’s voice begins to tremble and he abruptly sets his plate down beside him. “No. Sod this. Sod all of this. I can’t believe you. I just – I don’t know why you’re here or what you could possibly want from me now, after all that. I just – I’m done.” Still avoiding my eyes, he gets up. “I’m going to bed. I want you to not be here when I wake up.”

He lets that hover for a moment. I’m still chewing slowly, debating possible responses. Obviously I’m not going to leave. He should have accepted that by now. (It’s not that I’ve underestimated John’s stubbornness, nor his ability to hold a grudge, nor the lengths to which is irrationality can extend when he’s angry, but this is proving more difficult the longer I stay. I will simply have to outlast him, then.) John decides I’m not going to answer and takes himself off to the bedroom. I’m not leaving until we’ve talked – properly – and we’re friends again. He can call the police if he wants. I don’t care. I’ll just have to be as stubborn as he is, until I can persuade him to forgive me.

I package up the leftover Chinese and put it into the newly-cleaned fridge, then shut off the lights. Use his bathroom and go to clear off the rubbish on the sofa, curling up on my side under my coat. It’s simultaneously comforting to be sleeping in a flat where he is again, at last, and nonetheless feels very lonely to have him so metaphorically distant. Almost worse than when I was away. (Beginning to see what he meant, that it would have been better if I had been dead all along. If it turns out that he never forgives me, it might have been better to have never seen him again.)

***

The next day, I wake before he does. I shower in his small bathroom and dress myself in the same clothes I wore the day before (will have to ask Mycroft to bring me some new ones soon). I listen at his bedroom door and determine that he’s still sleeping. (Good. He probably needs to. Unless he sleeps too much. Aren’t both extremes typical symptoms of depression? Too much sleep, or too little? How much is the correct amount? My own sleeping patterns offer little in the way of guidance in the typical adult human male’s sleep requirements. Ironically, John would know. Make a note to self to ask Mycroft to send my laptop as well.) I put my shoes on and decide to go buy some groceries so that I can make breakfast and possibly bully him (nicely) into eating it when he wakes. On second thought, I find the keys to his flat in his jacket pocket, as it’s not likely that he’ll willingly let me back in once I’ve left.

Return an hour later with several bags of groceries and another bag with some things of my own. (Called Mycroft from the store and told him to send a car to drive me back to John’s; I was hardly going to walk with all of this, was I? Plus which it combined purposes, making one less time that I would have to see Mycroft or his minions.)

Experimentally, I buzz his flat from downstairs on the front stoop. It’s about ten-thirty. He must be awake by now. After fifteen seconds the speaker comes on. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, John,” I say.

There’s a pause. “And here I thought you had actually listened and left me alone.”

Pause, not sure how to best respond to this. “I’ve bought some groceries,” I try. “Please let me in.”

“I don’t need your groceries, thank you very much,” John says acidly, and shuts off the speaker.

I sigh and dig out his keys and let myself in. Upstairs, he looks entirely resigned when the keys turns in the lock and I walk in, manoeuvring the grocery bags around the doorway.

“You stole my keys. Of course you did,” he says, sighing deeply. “You have no concept of boundaries, or respecting other people’s wishes, do you.”

“Not particularly,” I say. (What else am I supposed to say?) “Meanwhile, your fridge is empty, now that I’ve got rid of the things that were spoiling. You don’t particularly care for grocery shopping. I thought I’d go and save you the trip.” I lift the bags as (extremely obvious) evidence and offer a smile I don’t feel, one of the ones I generally reserve for public usage when a smile is expected. I wrangle the bags toward the fridge and begin unloading them, arranging things the way John always preferred to have them in the fridge at Baker Street. I can see his point now; definitely simpler without having to avoid the biohazardous material. Since he’s not speaking (but still there, hovering in the edge of the doorway leading to the sitting room), I add, “I’m going to make something to eat. Would you prefer something along the lines of breakfast or is it late enough to move on to lunch?”

“I’m not hungry.” He sounds truculent. (Progress.)

“Wasn’t the question,” I say, still manifestly pleasant.

“Look, Sherlock, you can’t just – erase what you’ve done by buying groceries and washing my dishes and making bloody breakfast. These things in no way compare. You can’t make up for it or make it not have happened just because you’re here again. And I’m not bloody hungry!”

I don’t respond, though I went a bit still for a moment. Resume putting food in the fridge and finally say, an edge of not-quite-patience in my voice, “It’s not about making up for anything. It’s just about getting you to eat. You don’t seem inclined to cook; I’m therefore volunteering. You said ‘breakfast’ just now, so I deduce you’re subconsciously thinking more in terms of breakfast than lunch. You don’t have to eat with me or talk to me. I’ll just prepare something and you can do as you like.”

“I’d like you to leave!” John retorts, the anger back just like that.

I whirl around then, meeting his angry gaze. My control slips for a moment and I’m unable to conceal how stung I am, standing there holding a packet of bacon as though it can somehow save this. (Maybe it’s entirely futile. But still, I argue with myself, stubborn: he has to eat. I can at least ensure that. It may be the only thing I can do. I can’t go hopeless. One of us has to keep it together or this will never get fixed.)

To my surprise, John backs down before I do, dropping his eyes from mine. Without saying anything else, he turns and goes into the sitting room, and from there through the other short corridor and into the bathroom. After a moment or two, I hear the shower running.

This is so difficult. If it were anyone else, I would cut my losses and leave now. (If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.) All I can do is make breakfast. Until he’s willing to hear my apologies and explanations, that’s really all there is to do. I cook. It’s simple but – I hope – eloquent in my remembrance of what he likes best. Two eggs poached medium (poaching eggs was considered posh and ridiculous in his mother’s eyes; fried was good enough for the likes of their family, she would have said. John is rubbish at poaching eggs himself; they always fall apart. I used to poach eggs for him sometimes. Not often. Not often enough.) What sentimentality! The truth is, I do feel hopeless. As though my explanations will be inadequate even when he does decide to listen. Not when: if. Nothing is certain. Focus. Breakfast. Two eggs, poached medium, four strips of bacon (bacon was considered expensive and rationed sparingly in his house), two slices of thick French bread, toasted, butter at something approximating room temperature (had to set it on the range to soften, but it’s close) and a jar of cherry jam. (Aforementioned reasons for preferring a pricier jam.) Pot of Twinings English breakfast, table set. I bring back his one kitchen chair and put it back at the solitary place setting. The eggs are nearly finished. The shower shuts off – perfect timing. I poach two more (hard) and put some more bread in the toaster for him (he hates it when toast has gone cold, so I take the first two slices).

“Breakfast is ready,” I say, just loud enough for him to hear through the bathroom door. “Everything is here on the table. I’ll just be in the other room.”

Silence on the other end. I wait until I hear the doorknob turn, then remove his eggs from the boiling water, drain them and snatch the toast from the toaster. Add the bacon and take my plate hastily out of the room just as he’s emerging from the corridor into the kitchen. I sit down on the sofa and realise I forgot to pour myself a cup of tea. The chair is scraping on the kitchen floor; John is actually sitting down. There’s a long pause as I strain to hear what he’s doing. Then the chair moves again. Footsteps, and he appears in the doorway. I look up at him, bracing myself slightly. “Er,” John says, rubbing at the back of his neck. “You don’t have to stay out here. Except I’ve only got one chair… let me just…” he trails off, then goes back inside and returns with the chair and the jam, which he sets down on the coffee table. Next he brings his plate, the tea, and the butter, and sits down.

I’m amazed. Before I can say anything, he gets up again, and comes back with a cup. He turns the handle of the teapot toward me. “Here,” he says. It’s a little rough, a little sharp, but it’s a beginning. I can’t speak. I pick up the teapot and pour, noticing that my hand is shaking a little. (Preposterous! But true.) He cuts into a poached egg with studied care, and says as though forcing the words out, “Thanks for making breakfast.”

I can only nod in return, but when his eyes flick up to meet mine, I don’t work as hard as I usually do to mask what I’m feeling. I try a very small smile. John holds my gaze for a moment, unsmiling, then drops his eyes to his plate. We eat in silence. It’s something, at least.

Later, after I’ve washed the dishes (again), I take out my laptop. John is sitting on the sofa with his, so I sit on the kitchen chair and balance mine on my knees. Time stretches out. I’m really just occupying myself and giving him time to be ready to hear me out. It’s been perhaps two hours when he finally speaks again. “I see you’ve brought a bag.”

There’s no acid there; it’s just an observation, albeit a pointed one. He’s looking at it. “Yes,” I say. Seems rather obvious, but he wants me to acknowledge it.

“How long are you planning to stay?” There’s a slight edge there.

(Caution required.) I look at him. “I thought, possibly, until you were… better.”

John sighs. “Sherlock, I do not need a nanny.”

All evidence to the contrary. I hold the words in check before they can escape. “You haven’t been well,” I say, aiming to sound gentle. (It mostly sounds clinical and detached. Try again.) “I… I want you to be all right.”

“I’m fine.”

His eyes meet mine: face-off. Cannot back down now. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say firmly, then hear myself add, my voice low, “Never again. I’ll never leave you again.”

John swallows audibly. “I don’t – I can’t believe you.”

“I promise.” My eyes and voice are steady, unwavering.

John looks away, opens his mouth, closes it. He seems to be having trouble breathing. Then – to my dismay (I’d thought we were beginning to talk, thought we were getting somewhere at last), he gets up and all but runs to the bedroom. The door closes noisily behind him and I’m left sitting in my own blankness, wondering what I did to provoke this, now.

The silence in the flat grows and grows until I think it’s going to force my ear drums to implode. I want to scream. It’s so frustrating and I am not a patient person. I can’t concentrate on my email, not with John alone in his room, his door like the Great Wall of China between us. I am shut out, unwelcome, unforgiven. It’s painful. It’s that same hollowness, only now its edges are sharper, gouging me from within. It’s the space where he should be. Where he always was. I don’t know what to call that space; I don’t have the emotional vocabulary to name this. I never needed to speak that language before John. Before now. It’s beginning to coalesce into something nearly visible, nearly comprehensible, but it’s not quite there yet, clarity hovering something just out of range.

After forty-five minutes, I stand and go to his bedroom. Listen at the door. Can hear his breathing, muffled and uneven. (Is he crying? I think he might be. This is unacceptable. Upsetting.) I knock softly. “John?”

He doesn’t respond, but I can feel his awareness of my presence through the door.

I wait a moment. “Please let me come in,” I say, almost plaintively. There’s no response. I try the knob. It’s not locked, probably doesn’t have a lock or he would have. The room is dim despite being afternoon (but it’s overcast outside) and John is lying on top of the blankets on his side, facing away from the door. Definitely crying, can hear it the thickness of his breathing, the looseness of his mucus membranes. Been at it for some time, then. Since he left the sitting room. I did this to him, I remind myself. Feel rather horrible, though what could I have possibly done differently? I have no idea how to respond to this. This is not a situation for which I have precedents or protocols upon which to fall back. Perhaps I should allow my instincts to dictate my responses, just this once.

Instinct, then, prompts me to hold my breath slightly, move to the bed and gingerly place myself with a certain amount of trepidation next to John. (Have never in my life done anything like this before.) I put my hand on his upper arm and press my forehead into his back. “I’m sorry,” I mutter into his jumper. “I’m so sorry, John. So very sorry.”

His breathing gets more jagged, not less. But – to my surprise – he doesn’t turn around and shove me away, he doesn’t begin shouting, doesn’t go for his gun. After awhile he says, sounding congested, “I hate you for doing this to me.”

“I know,” I say awkwardly. “It’s all right.”

“Nothing is all right, Sherlock. Nothing is ever going to be all right again.”

Groan and lean my face harder into the coarse wool of his jumper. “John…” (Am definitely losing the battle of staying resolutely calm and not upset.) Move my arm so that my entire forearm is hooked over his arm now, clutching at him. “If you would just let me tell you why…” I trail off, uncertain. He’s refused several times already; I fail to see how this request would be met with any other response.

I’m correct. “No.” He huddles further into the bedding, as though trying to merge with it – but still doesn’t tell me to leave.

Pause and consider my options. Finally, humbled by his steadfast refusal, my voice emerges low and slightly hoarse. “Do you want me to go?” (I dread hearing him say yes. Instinct, possibly one based on the fear aching in my gut, prompts me to inch closer still, pressing my front into his back.)

There’s a long silence, and then a rather large miracle occurs. “No.”

Relief floods through me in waves. Immense caution still required, however. “Okay.” Have no idea what this means; doubt spreads itself confusingly through my thoughts. (He doesn’t want me to talk, but he doesn’t want me to leave, either? Does that mean this is all right, the way I’m pressed against him like this? (Does he like it?) Is he still undecided? Normally I would have at least seven theories by now, but this leaves me at an utter loss.)

The silence becomes very long. We’re lying on his bed, him facing the window, his back to me. His back is still trembling; I believe he’s still crying to himself, privately, in a way that specifically means I’m not to comment on it or share in it or be permitted to understand it – but he hasn’t tried to make me leave. I hold onto this and lie there with my arm not quite around him. Wonder what would happen if I tried that? Very subtly I let my thumb move back and forth a little over his upper arm. The very smallest of signals of physicalised affection.

“Why, then?”

His voice stirs me out of my own thoughts with a jolt, a streak of hope flashing around the edges of my vision. I take a moment to choose my words, careful to select a wording that will be concise (testing his patience would not be wise at the moment, I realise). “There were snipers. Three of them. One for you, one for Mrs Hudson, and one for Lestrade. The only way his people were to not go through with their assassinations was if Moriarty called them off, or if I was seen jumping off that roof. Moriarty shot himself, so I had no choice. You weren’t supposed to be there, but since you were, I had to make you believe it. It was the only way to keep you safe. Molly and the homeless network helped me, and afterward I went to find the assassins to make sure that they wouldn’t complete their missions in revenge for Moriarty. I thought they might blame me. I couldn’t take the chance, John. But it took much, much longer than I thought. I had hoped… well, it wasn’t realistic, but I had hoped it wouldn’t take longer than a few weeks. Instead, it took me three years. I’m sorry, John. I… I had no idea it would be so… so difficult for you. And I’m sorry for lying to you.”

He’s silent for a long time, thinking so loudly I can practically hear the synapses in his brain connecting, shifting, reorganising. “And the call about Mrs Hudson – that was you. I knew that.”

“Yes. I didn’t want you to have to see it. But you know me too well; you figured it out and came back too soon.”

“Not soon enough,” John says, his voice and hunched shoulders full of bitterness. “I thought I could have stopped it. I thought if I had only said the right thing, been more supportive or something, I could have made you believe that I would never believe the lies Moriarty was spreading about you. I thought that if I could have made sure you knew that people cared about you, that people would stand by you, you would know that you would survive whatever was going to happen. I’ve lived with that for three years, thinking I hadn’t cared enough, that I should have told you that I did. Instead I called you a machine and left you, and I should have known better.”

“John!” I’m shocked by this, shocked that he could have possibly blamed himself, of all people. I don’t want to believe it, but I do. This explains – this. How he ended up like this. “Oh, God. No. Never, John. I always knew that you cared. When you made it so hard to convince you that I was a fraud – I knew then. And I couldn’t just let some psychotic dog of Moriarty’s pick you off the pavement. I couldn’t let them get to you. And I… I can’t do without you. My friend. My you.” I do it now, put my arm around his front and pull him closer, suddenly feeling inexplicably and fiercely… something. Something very intense.

John says something like my name, half-gulped through a partial sob and twists himself around to face me. His eyes are dark and wet, cheeks tracked with tears. “You knew that?” he demands, mouth working, chin trembling. “You knew that I cared – how I felt – and you still jumped?”

He seems to be missing the point a bit. “Obviously,” I say, but without the bite. “John…”

“You knew, and you still let me think you were dead all this time – while you were off – ” He stops, choking on the words.

I haven’t moved my arm, leaving my hand resting on his side. It’s beginning to feel quite awkward now that he’s looking at me. (Rather want to retract it, withdraw into myself.) “Off saving your life,” I say, stiff now. “I didn’t have the best of times doing it, either, if it’s any comfort. I never wanted to leave you, you know.”

“Is that supposed to be your way of telling me that you care about me, too?” John wants to know, an incredulous edge of disbelief underscoring the words.

I open my mouth, realise I don’t know what to say, and close it again. Then – “Yes, I suppose it is,” I say.

“How?” he demands. “How do you care?”

(This is precisely what I lack the vocabulary to describe. I loathe this helpless, pinned-down feeling. However I understand quite clearly that not answering would be disastrous at this point. Everything hinges on what I say next.) I attempt to breathe, find some sort of words to offer him as evidence. “You’re… everything,” I say stupidly. “Nothing means anything without you. I want you all the time. I want to do everything with you.” I’m fumbling, making a complete hash of this. “In the work, at home – I want to eat with you, sit in the sitting room with you, watch you build fires in winter. All that. Everything is boring and meaningless without you.” I finally stop, out of inane things to say, none of which really put words to that hollow, sharp-edged space of missing-John-ness in my chest. I don’t know what else to say that wouldn’t be even more stupid than what I’ve just said.

John stares at me for a long moment, the air charged. (Rather badly want to take my arm back but am afraid to move, somehow.) And then he lunges at me. It’s a messy, awkward-as-arse kiss, too hard and too unexpected to be anything other than startling (and I am quite startled by it), but it’s over before I’ve had a chance to react with anything other than shock. My eyes are wide open, breath and heart rate elevated significantly. John glares at me. “Did you mean all that? That I’m everything to you?”

“Of course I meant it,” I say uncertainly, licking my lips self-consciously.

“Then kiss back, you arsehole.”

He moves in again, a little less violently but no less insistently, and this time I find myself reacting on instinct, with no conscious forethought about it. His mouth is demanding, so I silently give myself over to it, to placate him. (Could not have possibly predicted that it would go this way… but it’s not unwelcome.) His lips close around my bottom lip, firmly enough that it’s suddenly and rather intensely pleasurable, and as his tongue pushes into my mouth I find myself thinking, no, not unwelcome at all. My tongue makes an advance of its own, tentatively touching his, and the entire nature of the kiss stops being quite as forceful, as though John has realised that I’m not going to flee because of it. I can’t quite explain it, but our mouths melt together and suddenly he’s much closer to me, an arm thrown over my back as mine folds itself over him. (Should I be fleeing this? Should I have been properly horrified, or better, tolerated it for a moment for niceness’ sake and then gently detached him and reiterated the married-to-my-work line? It worked that first night; he never broached the subject again. To this day I remain uncertain about whether or not he was actually suggesting that, but he certainly never mentioned it again, and seemed to move on quickly enough. Was that all an act? Or – the truth of this thought resonates even as I think it – was it a slow-blossoming kernel of something that never fully materialised, something that was always there in potential but never made real? Yes. As it evidently was for me.)

Either way, I’m not fleeing by any account. When presented with this immutable fact, the other half of my brain quietly forces me to admit that I’m not only not fleeing, I’m enjoying it rather a lot. (Thought that I didn’t do these sorts of things. Then again, I also thought I didn’t do flatmates until the day I met John. He changes everything, like an unknown chemical substance that alters any solution, forms new bonds where previously unexpected, a wildcard that leaves no molecule unaltered from its original state.) He’s moving his hands up and down my back and when I open my eyes (was not aware that I had closed them; is this some sort of primitive biological urge? Why?), I see that his forehead is furrowed in some sort of intense expression that I’m at a loss to identify. (Sentiment. No: sentiment is trite, pointless. This is neither trite nor pointless. It’s the everything I just claimed; he is everything. And I want this.) He relinquishes my mouth at last, my lips feeling decidedly bruised which I somehow don’t mind in the slightest. He opens his eyes, lips parted, breathing hard. He looks rather as though he doesn’t know what to say. (Neither do I, to be quite frank. New territory, this.) His face works, trying to decide on words. “Was – was it always like that?” he asks, sounding a touch dazed. (Odd, given that it was he who launched himself at me.)

The uncertainty makes me a bit sharp. “Like what?”

He shrugs minutely. “Like this, with us. I thought I…”

He’s not going to finish, biting his lip and looking rather uncertain for a man who just took possession of my mouth as though it belonged to him. “You thought you were the only one who…” It’s my turn to trail off.

“Who felt something like this,” John says quietly. He touches my face. “I had no idea, you utter twat. Why couldn’t you have said? A long time ago?”

(Because I didn’t precisely know, myself? Can’t say this. It would ruin everything.) “I don’t know,” I say instead. “But you – this is what you wanted?”

He nods. “I didn’t quite realise. Sometimes, I thought… but it never… I don’t know. I’m still angry at you, you know.”

“Yes.” This I definitely know. “It’s entirely justified.”

He makes a slightly exasperated sound. “How long would you have stayed? You brought a bag. How long would you have waited for me to start talking to you again?”

I smile. “Long enough to have bought a second kitchen chair.”

A touch of genuine fondness comes over his face. “I knew it. I knew I wasn’t going to win a contest of wills with you.”

“John,” I say, very seriously, ignoring his newfound levity. “I’ve been worried about you. I’ve been following you for the past two weeks and two days. I… I had to know that you were going to be all right.”

He stares at me. “Two weeks? Why didn’t you talk to me sooner?”

“Because I was… I hadn’t expected you to be the way you were,” I say, rather inarticulately. “It was troubling. I didn’t know how to approach you.”

Now he frowns. “So you only came to talk to me because you thought I looked like shit?”

“You did look like shit. And no. You know that’s not why.” I can feel the stubborn frown lines gathering at the bridge of my nose. Why must he always be so deliberately obtuse, forcing me to say things so explicitly?

“Then why?”

He’s going to make me say it. I don’t even know what it is. So I choose something that I think will please him. God knows little else I’ve done lately has pleased him. “Because I missed you. Because I wanted to be with you. Because I’ll always want to be with you.” As the words leave my mouth, however, it occurs to me that there’s nothing feigned about it. It’s completely true.

John is searching my face intently, looking for any trace of the act (he does rather know my methods, after all; this is justified). Evidently he doesn’t find anything not to his liking, because he smiles. It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile since my return and the effect is – heart-stopping. Earth-shattering. Overwhelming. (Oh, God. I’m not going to go to pieces, am I?) He leans over and kisses me before anything horridly emotional can happen to me and I sink into it in private relief. It goes on for some time, not that I’m complaining. When he releases me again (though his fingers are still tangled in the hair at the back of my neck), he licks his lips and says, just above a whisper, “You really want me? Like… this? Not just as mates?”

I can only nod; I’m not sure I’m capable of speech at the moment.

“You’re sure?” John looks unsure of himself, but so fiercely hopeful at the same time that I force my voice into functioning again.

“Yes,” I say firmly. “I really want this. You. I want you.”

“Then fucking have me,” John says roughly, and before I can answer his mouth is on mine again, as rough as his voice. His hands are pushing at my clothing, pulling my shirt out of my trousers, touching my bare skin. It sends a bolt of want through my body, so potent that I stop breathing, and suddenly I know for certain that I want to do everything with him, everything that there is for two people to do with and to each other. It’s been a very long time since I’ve done anything like this – since university, to be precise – and I suspect I’m vastly less knowledgeable in this field than he is, so I concede the lead to him. There is a tightening in my trousers that I’d all but forgotten could happen, accompanied by a desire to be much, much closer to him.

Should I communicate this? Yes, I rather think. I wedge a knee between his and get my thigh between his (unresisting) legs, move it up toward his pelvis. Contact proves that I’m not alone in my condition. My move seems to have confirmed something for him; John growls and pushes me onto my back, holding me down with his arms and hips. I can feel him through both layers of clothing. He’s wearing one of those many horrid jumpers he owns and I drag it off him, hauling it over his head with possibly less gentleness than I could have employed. He’s not complaining; his mouth is ravaging mine, body grinding down onto mine and it feels in every way like a miracle. That I could be capable of feeling this, both physically and otherwise, the cavity in my chest slowly filling with an ocean of John and so much emotion that I may drown from within, that John could actually want it, too – that he could have forgiven me sufficiently to let me have this, do this with him. I suppose I knew somehow, somewhere, all along. From the moment I pressed my face into his jumper on the bed, I must have known that I wanted this.

His small, sturdy, capable hands are fighting with the zip of my trousers and my anticipation is more impatience than cautionary hesitation. I distract myself by getting his trousers shoved down around his thighs and lift myself to allow him to do the same, at last. We’re touching through our pants now and the sensation of just this, not even skin-to-skin, is already provoking such pleasurable response from my body that I’m half-afraid I’ll go off like an improperly-opened bottle of champagne. John is bracing his weight on one hand, but the rest of it is heavy on me, heavy in a way I didn’t know I was craving. It’s sweet and feels somehow familiar. He is so achingly familiar, the scent of his skin, his hair, every part of his face and body. I knew it all – all except the part of him that’s pushing hard against me. “Please,” I hear myself say, too invested to care about how needy it sounds. “Get these out of the way. I need – ”

John pauses, lowers his mouth to mine. I think he’s going to kiss me, but he stops millimetres away. “What do you need?” he asks, voice low and dangerous and seductive as all hell. I arch up for the kiss but he pulls away, insistent on a response.

I’m breathy and almost whining. “I need to touch you. Without – ” I claw at his pants, trying to push them over his arse.

“Yes. Oh God, yes.” John groans and lets me have his mouth at last, as four hands scrabble at all of the offending material. At last we’re touching, his penis twitching and pushing against mine and it doesn’t even matter that my pants are bunched awkwardly around my body, not even all the way down in the back, the elastic pulling tightly under my testicles, and he’s rutting against me. He’s mercifully let go the need to verbalise all of this, small moans and hard exhalations falling from his mouth against mine as we rub ourselves together. I want to do everything with him – I want to touch him with my hands and lips and tongue, I want to be inside him, want his fingers and tongue and penis inside me in every way possible. For the moment, this is going to suffice quite well, I rather think; my very thoughts are becoming incoherent with the need for release, everything tightening within me as we frot together. John’s breath hitches (relief; I’m about to come and I would hate to do it much before he does).

“Yes, do it, come on,” I mutter through clenched teeth, fingers digging into his arse to pull him as hard against myself as I can get him. It works; John gasps, brows contracting as though in pain and then he’s spasming against me, hot release on my skin. The sounds he makes as he comes are so painfully arousing that I follow not two seconds later, hearing my own voice grating in my throat in a drawn-out, wordless exhalation. His muscles relax, the arm supporting him giving way and he lets himself go loose against me, face buried in my shoulder.

“God, Sherlock.” John is emotional, sounding almost close to weeping again. His hand comes up blindly to touch my face, my mouth.

I’m breathing hard, closing my lips over his fingers. Too spent and too emotional to say anything. Several minutes pass this way, and all I can think is how glad I am that he decided to do this, how much I wish we had done this years ago. How close I came to having lost the chance for it entirely, permanently. The concept is coalescing properly; I think I know what this is called now. It doesn’t need a name. It’s this. With John. “I’ll never leave you again,” I say again at last, breaking the hazy, contented silence that had settled around us.

John lifts his head from my shoulder and looks down at me. “If you do, I’ll kill you myself,” he says matter-of-factly. “I mean that, Sherlock. Don’t ever leave me again. I understand, or I’m starting to – but really. Don’t ever leave me again.”

“You have my word,” I say, and he kisses me. And kisses me again, then again, and again. (Definitely being overwhelmed by this feeling, but somehow it seems all right.)

After a bit, John pulls away. “You hate this flat, don’t you?” he says.

(No use prevaricating, and little point in doing so.) “Yes. It’s horrible.”

“Glad you didn’t unpack, then.” John rolls away from me, but before I can protest the loss, he holds out a hand to pull me up. Once I’m standing he kisses me again, before either of us have rearranged our clothing properly. “I don’t know or care where you’re living now. But take me there?”

I bend forward and press my lips to his forehead. I haven’t had a chance to tell him yet that Mycroft has kept Baker Street empty for me – for us, rather. “Yes,” I murmur, lips against his face. “Let’s go home.”