Dr. John Watson gave his beard a scratch as he sat in his well-worn armchair, slouched and barefooted with a tray of tea stacked on the side table. His laptop sat in his lap warming two day old jeans with the rust colored cardigan open over the busy plaid of his button down shirt. The room was cool but the fire hot, the soles of his feet perhaps the warmest part of his whole body save for moments when the warm brew coated his throat and spread through his belly. Winter was holding on tight to London and London, like a reluctant lover, seemed just too tired to pull away. John didn't mind. Spring didn't hold the best of memories for him.
221B of Baker Street fame would not have been recognizable to those who had seen it almost three years before. It was the lack of clutter that made the difference. The furniture was the same but arranged slightly differently, seating no longer centered around two individuals sitting apart but rather two or more sitting together. The desk was a proper work area with the bookshelves home to several medical journals. The couch was covered in a cheap upholstery cover to 'lighten up' the room. John had intentionally kept only two things which were iconic to the life he'd lived: the spray painted smiley face and the skull on the mantelpiece. The open bowls of potpourri, the pictures in their frames of black and white urban-scapes, the throws made with the extra soft material which were folded and resting neatly over the arms and backs of the rest of the seating area, those were all Mary. Mary had cleaned, uncluttered, arranged and decorated nearly every surface in John's flat in the year and a half they'd been seeing one another. It was a proper residence now as Mrs. Hudson put it; home to a reputable man of a respectable trade.
John took up his saucer and cup and sipped at the cooling liquid, eyes fixed on his laptop screen. They followed the lines of text spilled out on the white backdrop; another e-mail, further correspondence with a colleague about drug reps and potential case studies, research grants they'd never get and directors who needed their asses kissed. They were the dull types of messages he normally ignored on a Friday night, preferring to start off Monday with a full dose of disappointment than bring down the joy of another week's end. A night out with Mary, dining out or takeaway, a quiet evening in just the two of them, that was how Fridays were meant to be spent. This Friday was different, however. John looked at the clock in the bottom right corner of his task bar, mentally ticking off the time left before his visitor arrived. Not even an hour. Just forty-odd minutes left until he would finally meet his pen pal.
The spare room above, currently purchased by Mycroft for the purpose of storing Sherlock's things, had been arranged into a space more befitting a guest with a twin sized bed and small bedside chest crammed in among the boxes. It had been ages since the room had belonged to John, the space having become akin to a mausoleum in the belief that someday the busy brother would come and sort through Sherlock's personal affects. Instead they remained packed as Mrs. Hudson had packed them, somewhat haphazard and unmarked beyond the vague 'science things' and 'stuff from the table'. As long as it was paid for, Mrs. Hudson was not particular about how the room was used. It was now the only room Mycroft paid for, the courtesy of affording John's rent as well rejected with a resurgence of pride once the depression had ebbed. Despite that, in his head, the room upstairs was always thought of as his own. It would be fine to put up James for a few nights within the mausoleum. Knowing James, he wouldn't have it any other way.
The secret agent was a bit of a Sherlock fanboy; that was how the two of them had started talking in the first place: a discussion on Sherlock and on what came next for John. As much as John wished it weren't so, James was a large part of the reason he had managed to get by that first year. E-mails about foreign travel and espionage were distractions from the daily boredom and loneliness. Texts throughout the day gave him a small boost in knowing someone out there cared. It gave him something to look forward to which was as much akin to hope as could be found in the shadows he'd lost himself in. He always expected the other man to eventually tire of their acquaintance and sign off for good, wishing him well but accepting the fact that a global SIS agent does not need to be leaking information to a normal bloke in London. He never did though. For what it was worth, it seemed to him that James needed a connection to the normal life of an Englishman as much as John needed one to something bigger than himself and his own troubles. And now he was coming here, to Baker Street, on an unprecedented return from his years of constant travel. It was somewhat flattering that more than those he'd left behind, it was John he first wanted to see. Surely it was going to be awkward but with any luck his travels would have been as unusual and interesting as they had been in the past and at least give them something to speak on after cordial greetings.
John's phone gave a trill, light beeping in display; a message. He picked it up and gave it a glance, smiling despite himself.
My cab smells of frying oil. Fancy a chippy for diner?
Perhaps it wouldn't be quite so awkward after-all.
I know a place. A favorite of mine. See you when you get here.
Someday soon, he told himself. When everything was perfect.
He texted a quick thank you and an X then hopped up the stairs for one last check to be sure the mausoleum was truly habitable. He'd only been a minute, the check cursory at best, and though he thought he'd heard the front door open, he dismissed it as imagination. Mrs. Hudson was gone for the night and the front door locked tight. All the more reason to be surprised to find a man on the stairs, halfway between the first and second floors with cane in one hand and his hat in the other.
John stood in silence, not at all versed in the art of hiding his alarm. He looked like no burglar he'd ever seen but one usually did not break into someone's home for other reasons.
The stranger was a tall man, very fair of skin and round of face with a heavy beard thickly covering the lower half. He was ginger and bespectacled, wearing a proper suit under the weight of his winter coat. The cane was well-beaten and worn along the bottom fourth, but the handle looked polished, the hat in his other hand thick of brim. A business man--one didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce as much. John breathed out heavily, letting his heart settle back in place rather than pressed against his ribs.
"Did you just pick my front door, James?"
The man's lips parted in a soundless laugh, teeth shown with an approving smile as he nodded with a sheepish tuck of his bearded chin.
John shook his head, strolling into his living room with the sweat of a life remembered but long gone clinging to his brow. "You're lucky I didn't have my gun. I'd have shot you. And then where would Her Majesty's special forces be?" he chided in jest. He heard and felt James follow him into the room, surprised again as he heard the man close the door behind them. He turned, feeling the anxiousness which was permeating the room. Awkward hardly covered it.
"Well, uh.. not much in the way of luggage. Someone bringing it 'round later?"
James ignored the question, eyes searching the room for a moment before coming to rest on John. "May I have a bowl?" the man asked. His voice was muffled and strange, deep but lacking in articulation. John wondered if there wasn't a very good reason indeed for why all their communication had been through writing.
"A bowl? Uh... yeah. Sure." John went to the kitchen and returned with a white ceramic dish, brows arched in curiosity. "What's the bowl for?"
He waited for his friend to take it, but instead watched as the man opened his mouth and withdrew from it large wads of cotton balls which he placed inside the bowl. A tooth ache, oral surgery, a gum disorder; John went over in his mind why someone would fill their mouth with enough cotton to fill a small container as he stood watching the round cheeks turn hollow.
Empty of the needless accompaniments, James took the bowl from his hands and set it down on the table where his hat sat and his cane rested. "Thank you, John," he said, voice deep and rolled in honey.
John's jaw set as he took a step back, fingers trembling at his sides. He forced a deep breath, tried to swallow. There were plenty of reasonable explanations for why a man would chipmunk his cheeks. Plenty of men had deep voices void of gravel.
James's delicate fingers reached up and pushed the head of ginger hair from his crown, a net holding down black waves carefully pinned into place. He pulled out each pin and set them on the table, the net removed and set beside the wig while slightly greasy curls flopped down across his brow.
He was a secret intelligence officer. Of course he'd wear a disguise.
James took his glasses off. From his temple he peeled away at the beard, spirit gum ripping as the mantle fell, cheekbones like the cliffs of Dover no longer masked by accessories and augmentation.
John felt the heat of the fire burning against his calves as he backed up into the fireplace, shaking his head from side to side with his eyes unable to remove themselves from the pale stare. "No," he uttered, unable to think of anything more eloquent than the mantra in his head.
"John," James half whispered, now the very image of Sherlock from the tips of his curls to the pout of his bottom lip.
"No. No." John side stepped, pulling his eyes away as he circled a chair, putting furniture between them and giving something to anchor his fingers around. His knuckles went white with the force of his grip. "No, you're dead. I saw you--I saw you."
"John, I can-"
"No! No, you're dead!"
Sherlock took a step towards him, a motion that only caused John to pull further back. "John, let me ex-"
"You just stay there; stay right where you are! Don't you take another step, do you hear me?"
Sherlock sank into his heels, nodding. "I hear you," he said. His pale blue eyes burned like ice but refused to waver from their stare not at but into John's.
Why was his revolver in another room? There was nothing that would have given John more pleasure in that moment than getting to raise his gun to that chiseled, stoic face. He concentrated on breathing, everything else winding its way further and further out of his control. Sherlock. Sherlock. In his home, in his life, alive, standing like a porcelain copy of himself with all the sense of a china doll. His heart was mad, hot blood pumping like steam from a broiler but extremities numb and cool. He could feel his muscles twitching in his face and hands and knew that somewhere inside his gut was a bottomless, empty pit into which his stomach had fallen. No chair was going to anchor him to this reality, if one could even call the past two minutes real. With rage he hadn't felt in years, John shoved the chair as hard as he could, the red furniture too stubborn to fly but toppling over in a somewhat satisfying way as the rug caught on the legs.
Sherlock flinched only slightly--a flickering of his lashes, a wince along his cheek. He remained perfectly still otherwise, as promised.
Pressing in on a brain that was running out of control, John dug his fingers into his own hair, pulling at it in frustration; impotent. There were not enough things to break or enough obscenities to utter. Part of him still wanted to try, regardless. Anything would be better than spinning in circles waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He crossed the room quickly, fingers curled into fists at his side as he marched like a good soldier across the tangled rug and stood before the familiar man he'd laid to rest. "I should have known, I guess. A fan of Sherlock's? No one's a bigger fan of you than yourself," he spat with every effort made not to haul off and strike him. "You, you, you were James Sigerson. It's been you the whole time. The whole--Do you have any idea, any at all, what you... What the hell is wrong with you?!"
Sherlock looked down at him patiently. One might have thought he looked remorseful, maybe even sorry, if it weren't for the fact that Sherlock was obviously just as much a machine as John had always feared. The taller man swallowed, Adam's apple dipping before he took a short breath from which to fuel his speech. The fist in his face rushed the air back out of him as he fell against the table.
John shook his hand out. He'd at least managed to exercise some amount of restraint. Now was the hard part: not jumping on him and doing it over again.
With an almost lethargic effort, Sherlock stood back to attention once more. He shook his hair out of his face with a single twitch, fingers touching lightly at his jaw where the fist had collided. He made no effort to strike back. His acceptance was enough to keep the second blow from flying--for now.
"I never wanted to deceive you, John," Sherlock began, this time getting the words clear. "But there were reasons which necessitated such action. Reasons outside of my control. I tried to-"
"You faked your own suicide, Sherlock! A fake five-story dive which you asked me to watch! How 'outside your control' am I supposed to believe that was?!"
"No. Shut up." John grabbed him by the shirt. He was still a very thin man. "You are a sick, twisted, inhuman bastard, Sherlock. Were you laughing at me while I mourned you? Did you find your little stunt amusing? Because I sure as hell didn't!"
Sherlock flinched just slightly at the crack of John's voice. Hurt. Betrayal. Anguish. For once, John believed he didn't have to explain to the sociopath the emotions he was seeing. Sherlock's own eyes reflected several of them. It was enough to make John let go and take a step back, gain distance to assess the man who might as well have been a stranger for all the good his past knowledge of him had served.
He felt a smile part his face, not of joy but mockery. A short chuckle of deprecation erupted from his throat as he shook his head. "The whole bloody time. James Sigerson, international consulting detective. Pretending to die wasn't enough; you had to go and make up a whole 'nother life to mess with me? What could I have possible done to deserve all this?"
"You've got it wrong. I invented James Sigerson to try and help you, not hurt you. Leaving was the last thing I wanted to do and I couldn't--I wasn't strong enough to do it even if it was for the best. I tried to tell you. I asked you. Things had to be this way, John."
"You tried to tell me, hm?" John chortled again. "Oh, really. Funny, I don't remember James ever mentioning to me that he might be someone I might remember."
Sherlock took a deep breath, a cue for the second strike but managing to beat him to the punch. "The timestamp," he said, no more than a brief pause given before he could not help but explain. "Twenty-six letters in the alphabet, twenty-four hours and fifty-nine possible minutes in a standard twenty-four hour electronic timestamp. So long as letters 'y' or 'z' fall as the even letter in a word or phrase, there's no trouble in setting up a sophomoric substitution cipher. Using time means no more than 24 hours has to pass between reception and reply as well making it rather ideal unless what you want to say is 'Sorry'."
John stared at him with unbelieving eyes round and wide as cricket balls. His jaw clenched, the pit in his gut filling up even more with the rock-hard weight of his heart. "You mean to tell me you've been leaving me messages in timestamps for three years?"
"No, just the first three months. If you didn't know when the sequence began, coming at it would produce only random nonsense even if you substituted correctly. O-C-K-H-O-L is gibberish unless you have the first set."
John took several steps back from him, turning away from the depths he found in his eyes to walk back to the other side of the room. The smell of him, the look of him, the mannerisms that were just so Sherlock which he had assumed he'd forgotten, they were all there. Three years had done nothing to change him save for the strange quality to his eyes which reflected far more readily those glimpses of humanity that he'd believed in before. John wrestled with the anger, the sadness, and--God help him--joy he felt at being that close to him once more. He was not ever going to be that stupid again. "You are, without a doubt....the worst person on the face of this planet."
"That's superlative hyperbole."
"No, that's gospel, Sherlock," John turned to him, gesturing wildly. "I would rather see Moriarty come up those stairs after three years than see you."
"Moriarty was a psychopath."
"I know he was! And that's the sort of thing I'd expect from him! You were my friend! Friends don't fake a suicide and run away for three years! Do you have any idea what it was like for me after that? Did you think for even a moment that maybe, maybe this was going to affect me? Three. Years. Sherlock. Fuck you."
It felt good. It felt really good. Watching Sherlock flinch, watching him turn away, watching that face fall and those shoulders slouch, watching every hint of body language Sherlock had ever pointed out to him in one of his self-satisfying tirades of masturbatory gratification, every bit of it felt like it might have the power to resurrect even the most deeply buried pieces of his soul which had broken off and died on the pavement at Bart’s. It felt like justice.
For his part, Sherlock remained quiet for a while. It was hardly his strong suit. With his head bent and eyes half-closed, he began to rattle off once more. "Two years, eight months, twenty-two days, seventeen hours-"
"No, shut up! Don't even start with that like you've consciously kept track because I know you!" John warned.
Sherlock nodded, standing tall once more though every blow still showed as visible in the facade as the rising bruise on his jaw. "I know you do; one hundred percent. I know right now you're not exactly in the mental state from which to reconcile that in being James Sigerson I know everything you've had to deal with in response to my death but perhaps, given time, you will. I know everything you wrote to him--to me--and I was sincere with every reply. If you would give me a chance to explain, I promise you I can do so with as much detail as is required to satiate your curiosity as to why."
He paused, eyes widening. "No?"
"John, I understand-"
"No, Sherlock, I really, really don't think you do understand." John walked to the door of the living room, pulling it open to the stairway's landing. "I'll hear you out but not today. Today I want you gone."
For a moment John thought he'd have to argue with him further, escalate the already tense and violent atmosphere in the room with the retrieval of his revolver. Sherlock's straight-faced frown was a sign of acceptance, however. Slowly but purposefully, the secretive man began to pull back into place the pieces of his disguise. The hairnet went into his pocket but the wig sat just as convincing. The beard was hardly tacky enough to stick but the scarf around his neck helped make up for its shoddy replacement. The glasses framed the look of utter defeat in his ice blue eyes. He left the cotton balls in the bowl and took back up his hat and cane.
Walking slowly with the gait of a wounded creature, Sherlock stepped out of the room, turning on the landing to John just once more. "You have my number if you change your mind. Please tell no one you saw me."
John nodded, curiosity getting the better of him. "Right. Why the disguise? Afraid someone is going to recognize you and blow your precious brains out?"
"No," Sherlock said. "I'm afraid they'll blow out yours."
He walked down the steps, slowly enough to be counting each of them as he descended from the flat they once shared with none of the foresight as had been shown the fall from Bart’s. John watched him, heard his deep voice ringing in his head, felt the pit in his gut become a chasm that deepened and widened with every footfall taken towards the front door.
"Sherlock." It was his own voice but it still startled him slightly. His once-friend turned to look at him, head craned up as it never was when they spoke. John hated himself as he let out a short, shuddering breath. "Eleven. Come 'round eleven. And text me for Christ's sake if you're not coming or you're running late."
A very small, pleased smile pulled at the corners of Sherlock's lips. "I'll be here on the hour."
John almost wouldn't have put it past him to be just that punctual. With slightly more purpose in his step, Sherlock opened the front door and walked back out onto the sidewalk of Baker Street, closing the door behind him with a quiet click.
In and out of his life like a boomerang he was willing to keep throwing over and over and over again. He was an idiot.
John walked to the overturned chair and tangled rug and set his living room back as Mary had designed it, feeling childish and far less impressed with himself than he had at the time. He took back up the laptop from the floor as he sat, his e-mail client for work full-screen but his other e-mail, his personal account, open in the task bar promising no new messages. He pulled it up, glancing at his folders, opening the one simply titled 'James' where two years, six months, five days and four hours of messages were stored.
John opened up the first one he'd ever bothered saving, finding in the body the thread of their correspondence from the very first hello. He opened up notepad and carefully noted the timestamp on each reply, rereading every message he'd sent and received with the new knowledge that it had been Sherlock from the start. He raged, he blushed, he cringed and he stared. He puzzled over the numbers he'd collected and plugged away at them like a bored child in class.
"It's called a Catch 22, I believe. No matter what I do, I will inevitably hurt someone."
"Your friends and loved ones will understand when you finally come home. That's what makes them your friends and loved ones."
S H E R L O C K H O L M E S L I V E S