When Sherlock came back, John went into a shock that was like being underwater. His body felt like it was under siege, was being compressed, being forced in on its own boundaries. Pressure on his lungs, on his ears, a dangerous heaviness on the giving-in strength of his skull, a dull pounding the only sound that he heard, and his sight lined with a shifting blurriness that seemed to fit, in this moment where past and present crashed into each other with the speed of light.
Of course it was just like Sherlock to return from the dead when John had finally got a grip on himself again, and had finally assembled different pieces of his life and had puzzled them into a ground to touch down on, a steadying platform, a floor to the pit of despair he had, at first, in the breathless, sleepless first months after Sherlock's suicide, feared to be bottomless. He had finally been able to peer out over the edge of the hole he had fallen into again, and was back on his feet, scrabbling upright.
And then Sherlock came back, with a light breeziness that he really should have had absolutely no right to, that suggested other places, other lives, other climates. True to form, he was like a hurricane, and he knocked John off his feet, like he'd done since that first moment, when he'd flicked the alien colourfulness of his eyes over John and had enjoyed teasing out everything he could find in the crinkles of John's eyelids and the wrinkles in his jacket, when he had been a swirl of coat and performance and had given John a wink of all things, a thing that he hadn't ever repeated again.
The things that had begun to matter, as soon as anything began to be capable of mattering again – his work, the newness of his flat, Mary and the possibilities that were in her eyes, the hesitant beauty of London in early spring, Greg and Molly with their surprisingly unwavering support, Ian and Sharon and Bill from New Breath and their much-needed harshness and almost clear-cut understanding of such a complex reality – receded from him, small points of light in the shifting fabric of life, of which the stitches unravelled again around Sherlock stepping back into it.
Just like Sherlock. Just like Sherlock to make him lose a grip on everything again.
Sherlock met him on neutral ground; the small, decidedly sad park two blocks from their old flat. John was uncomfortably aware that this was probably to allow John to come and decide in the moment whether he wanted to talk to Sherlock or hide instead. And then he was even more uncomfortably aware of the fact that there was really no way he could know for sure, anymore, because how could he know anything about a man who he hadn't seen in two years, a man who'd been doing things that he was so utterly uninvolved in they might as well never have met.
The text had been, for lack of a better word, earth-shattering. Or maybe world-shattering was more apt, because the earth under his feet didn't suffer one bit, it was as confidently present as ever; Sherlock was many things but an earthquake he only ever was in a proverbial sense. It was just John's earth that shattered, his personal bit of the universe, his roots that had finally tentatively started looking for new underground waters to tap into, and that were now upended, torn loose harshly. So, maybe, life-shattering, even if his body, traitorous as it was, continued beating and breathing and flowing and working hard to keep his borders closed as always.
And it wasn't even because John hadn't suspected. He'd spent a lot of time trying to clear Sherlock's name when he had finally emerged out of the crush of his depression and got tangled in the mania that followed, at first out of a desperate need to gain a sense of identity again (because who was John, if Sherlock wasn't Sherlock? And that was painful enough in itself, that he needed Sherlock to have been who he thought him to be in order for John to be who he thought himself to be), later because there were clues, there were doubts – it was a trick, a magic trick, Sherlock had told him in the phone call that haunted him in his sleep, and after a while he was sure that Sherlock was talking about something else. The jump was the trick. There were clues, he was sure of it. Mike vehemently denied telling Sherlock anything about John before that first meeting, so Sherlock couldn't have known who to research. That night at the pool – and this was speculation, but it felt like evidence – couldn't ever have been performed by anyone; not Moriarty, and more tellingly not Sherlock, because John remembered that look on his face as John had emerged, a blankness that spoke of more shock than he'd ever known Sherlock to display ever after, and he suspected that maybe Sherlock thought for a fleeting moment that John was Moriarty. It made him feel better for having thought for a fleeting moment that maybe Richard Brooks was real; because the faith was stronger the more it was challenged, and that was how he comforted himself now. So he'd suspected. And he'd felt inadequate, unable to pull the facts together without Sherlock's gentle or harsh prodding. It was all over the place, it scattered just as he himself did, trying to do too many things at once just so he would have no energy left to lie awake. He wasn't Sherlock. He never pulled it off; though there was the small, bitter victory of convincing Greg, who put more faith in his gut feeling than John thought he fairly deserved. There was also the strangeness of Molly, who needed no convincing, it seemed, but who had still tried to get him to leave things alone. The zeal with which he tried to solve the puzzle had waned over time, as his life rearranged itself bit by bit, and his anger at Sherlock grew into a more distinct, focused form.
Still, despite his suspicions, the text had been shattering.
Because it had said
Tomorrow 11 A.M., that park near Baker St.
not John or I know this must be strange or even just Hello or I'm back or So I'm alive or I hope to see you there or, though he knew it was irrational to expect from Sherlock, I'm so sorry, please come. Not even that park near Baker St, you know the one. We had coffee there once, because that would have meant something, that would have meant Sherlock had memories of him at all.
Moving as though through oppressive layers of water, he punched the wall of his beautiful, new, un-bulletmarked, Sherlock-less flat until his knuckles bled, and screamed out his rage wordlessly, feeling as though the sound was stolen from him, and he smeared blood on the wall, and when he stepped back at last he realised with the detachment rolling in to save his brain from burning up that he'd have to redo the painting job on the wall.
And he did spend an amount of time hiding that became embarrassing, because he was actually acutely sure that Sherlock knew he was there, squatting ridiculously in a bush, peering around the sad form of tree that manages to survive in London.
But he needed this time, this moment. He was trying to persuade his stomach to go back down into his belly instead of trying to fight its way up into his mouth. He was trying to get his brain to believe his eyes as they rested on the dark, thin figure with its hands in the pockets of its coat.
Sherlock was standing with his back to him, appeared to be watching the entrance of the park – and John wished, irrationally, that he'd look around for John, though he knew that Sherlock wasn't doing that precisely to grant him this moment of alone-ness, even with Sherlock there. He just wanted to see Sherlock's face and have the idea, maybe the illusion, that he was seeing Sherlock without Sherlock seeing him in return, just this once, and in his fantasy that could make the difference in either direction, what he'd find there. But then he remembered Sherlock's face. He didn't even know what it was capable of now, and he'd known it was capable of extraordinary things even before, waxen, mask-like, utterly blank, molded into fakeness so easily, so disgustingly easily.
Sherlock's hair was a few shades lighter and a bit shorter than it had been. He was wearing a new coat. Or, maybe not new, but a different one, though the style was similar. It touched John in a way he hadn't expected, because he'd dreamt about this moment, and a new coat had never factored into it. It felt irrationally unfair. Sherlock was still tall, though, still decidedly tree-like. He was smoking, fast puffs that in anyone else would indicate nerves, and John guessed that shouldn't surprise him, but it did, a bit.
He felt like he was going to throw up.
But time was ticking away, and if there was one thing that he'd become more aware of in the past two years, it was that time slips away and never returns (even if Sherlock standing there seemed to contradict that, but he knew that the years between them would still be there, would have to be scaled somehow), so before he had any kind of feeling that was somehow like I'm ready for this he decided that he would simply never be ready for this, never, and got up and walked up to Sherlock, surprising himself in the process.
And Sherlock turned around before he reached him; he must have been aware of him more intensely than John thought. He was wearing glasses, a wiry, thin frame; he wasn't wearing gloves, a cigarette between the pale shock of his fingers like an exclamation mark; and there was a scar over his right eyebrow that looked new, and, and, and
His mouth was tense, but his eyes were so focused behind the newness, the slight barrier of his glasses, and when they made contact with John's, John felt it like a physical slap in the face, instinctively stopped walking and then, spitting in the face of all of his fantasies of this moment, actually did double over, and threw up.
“Christ,” he heard Sherlock mutter, making his way over to him, and it was the first word he'd heard in that voice in two years, apart from keep your eyes fixed on me playing on a loop in his dreams, and John would have laughed if his breath wasn't being stolen away by the violence of his heaving. After a couple of seconds there was the steady grip of Sherlock's hand in his hair.
“John,” he said.
“No,” John managed to get out, and then flinched at himself, because that was the last word he had said to Sherlock two years ago, before Sherlock had stopped listening, and it shouldn't have been the first, it had no right to be the first. He retched a couple of times more, his mouth stinging with acid, spattering his trousers with sick, and probably Sherlock's coat, too, and he couldn't care, but then it was over; his stomach sank back down, and his lungs struggled to get reacquainted with air. He spat a last time, wiped his mouth and took some steadying breaths, trying to tell himself he wasn't doing it do avoid looking up at Sherlock. He was shivering, humiliation now foremost in the mesh of emotions he was caught in. “Don't touch me,” he wheezed, but Sherlock either ignored it or didn't hear.
“Are you all right?” Sherlock asked. His hand was still on John's head, a warm pressure of fingers on skull. It was too unreal. It was too real.
“Yes,” John said, because no had no right anymore, it had to be banished at least for a little bit, and it didn't do anything justice, anyway. And then he couldn't put it off anymore, and he straightened up. Sherlock's hand fell away from him.
They stared at each other for a bit, until Sherlock grimaced at the growing tension.
“I didn't think you'd be quite so disgusted to see me again,” he said, voice almost insultingly level.
John had to stop the chuckle because, really, Sherlock hadn't deserved it yet. He hadn't deserved any of it yet, and it was already unfair that Sherlock got to see how much the simple sight of him affected John, and it was even more unfair that he could probably read with precision how much John's heart was hammering, how much he felt like he might have a heart attack soon.
“Well,” Sherlock said at his silence. Then: “Hungry?”
“Just like you to want to get Chinese after I've just thrown up violently,” John said on their walk there, breaking the solidifying, the congealing silence around them, because if he was honest he couldn't stand it, though he liked that he could tell Sherlock couldn't either.
Sherlock flashed a small smile at him, the small smile without teeth, and for a second it was almost like the past two years hadn't happened. “You haven't eaten anything substantial since – since yesterday,” he said, and John knew the hitch had to cover up what he had been going to say, which was since I texted you, “and now you've thrown up all of the tea, too, so you need to eat.”
“Don't know if dim sum is the best option, though,” John said, but Sherlock ignored him, except for, strangely, his hand coming up to touch John's sleeve, curling around the worn leather. It was that, that one small movement, that brought John to suddenly look at him, and see his face again, and to think I'm actually seeing his face again. Belatedly, tears sprang into his eyes and he blinked rapidly to try to dissolve them.
In the two years that Sherlock had been gone the restaurant had been taken over by new owners, but Sherlock informed him the door knob was still quite satisfactory, and he ordered John's favourite, steamed egg dumplings. It was stupid, but that Sherlock remembered, that Sherlock remembered, Sherlock who deleted the solar system because it didn't matter, was somehow so touching that John hid his face behind his hands for a bit, trying not to cry and not entirely succeeding.
Sherlock was looking at him with a startling earnestness when he removed his hands.
“I'm sorry, John,” he said, and that did it, of course, the sob forcing its way out of John's throat was ugly and loud, and he couldn't even help it.
Sherlock looked uncomfortable, but didn't say anything, just reached across the table and curled his hand around John's, and held on as John tried to stifle his crying for a couple of minutes, and then finally got his breathing back under control.
“For what?” he asked when he'd recovered a bit. He hooked a thumb around Sherlock's fingers to keep them in place, because he suddenly, fiercely, needed them there, he needed something to tell him that it wasn't all just an even more cruel joke than it already was.
Sherlock's surprise showed. “What do you mean?”
A big, shuddering breath. “What are you sorry for?” Because he needed him to say it, this time. John couldn't go on filling all the cracks on his own, not about this.
Sherlock cleared his throat. “I, um,” he began, and then seemed to make a decision, “I'm sorry for not contacting you. I'm sorry I had to lie to you.” He looked pained, then pushed on. “I'm also very sorry for what you've been going through.” He looked at John with some anxiety, as though looking for a sign that it was enough. It wasn't, not really, but it was for now, maybe – and John couldn't say that he was entirely sure that anything that could be said, anything that could be put into words would ever really be enough.
John nodded and some of the tension seemed to bleed from Sherlock's mouth. “Will you tell me?” he quietly asked, after a couple of seconds of silence.
“Yes,” Sherlock said immediately, then looked distinctly distressed for a moment, as though he regretted it, as though it had slipped out before he knew what he was saying. He removed his glasses from his face, and John liked that; it was like one more barrier was vanishing between them.
“Do you really need those?” John inquired casually.
“No,” Sherlock said, glancing at them as though he was seeing them for the first time.
“Then why are you wearing them?”
Sherlock smiled a little, just a little. “It's like with Clark Kent. People forget faces easily, especially if they're just that bit different.”
John couldn't imagine anyone forgetting Sherlock's face, and it took him a moment to realise that he was staring at it, at those austere features, even more pointed than they were two years ago. He realised Sherlock really did need to eat, too. His lungs seemed to have forgotten the concept of drawing in air for a second. He's here. He shook himself out of it, while Sherlock just held his gaze, somewhat uncertainly. He tried to aim for levity: “Referencing popular culture? So you're not actually who I thought you were? Wrong bloke returned from the dead?” And he wondered at himself, at the ease with which he delivered it, as though his stomach wasn't doing somersaults inside him, as though he didn't want to bruise Sherlock into a hug of violence and hold him there just so he could be sure this wasn't a dream.
Sherlock's face performed a strange mix of smile and grimace. “It was something to do.”
“What, read Superman?” Sherlock's mouth twitched. It was an alien thing, an impossible thing to try to imagine, Sherlock reading Superman.
And then John remembered that he had absolutely no clue what Sherlock had been doing these past years, where he'd been, who he'd been with, in what kind of circumstances he had existed, what names he'd had, what he'd looked like, what kind of friends he'd had if any, what kind of enemies, what kind of unimaginable hobbies like reading comic books. “Sherlock,” he said involuntarily, as though his mouth was still getting used to saying it again, in this wholly old and wholly new context of actually saying it to Sherlock.
Sherlock looked at him with a focus that was so intense John had to consciously will himself to keep looking at him.
“John,” Sherlock returned, as though he, too, had to get used to it.
“Can you tell me why?” John said under his breath, so softly he was almost sure Sherlock couldn't have heard, but Sherlock's hand tightened on his.
“He was going to kill you,” he said, flatly. The emotion drained from his face, as though he was putting on a mask. It was something that John had seen many times, but now he wanted to scream at it to go away.
“Moriarty?” His throat was dry.
“Yes, Moriarty, evidently,” Sherlock went on, as though John must have known that all this time, as though John had been there for the realisation. And of course, John had known in a sense, but Sherlock seriously treated it as though it was shared knowledge between them. It was so familiar it hurt.
“And Mrs. Hudson. And Lestrade.” Sherlock's eyes closed for a moment. A muscle was nervously twitching at the corner of his mouth. “He would have had all of you killed if I hadn't jumped.”
God. So you saved all of us. You great fucking wanker, you machine, you emotionless automaton, you, of all people, jump off a building and tell everyone you love that you pulled their legs all their lives just so they could continue living, never knowing what you did for them. It was too much, and John couldn't stand Sherlock's gaze anymore for a moment, and closed his eyes to escape the pressure of it, the otherworldly presence. It was too monumental, it was huge as a universe, it couldn't fit inside John Watson, it couldn't fit inside this dingy Chinese restaurant, London itself couldn't hold this. John felt dizzy. He had to consciously resume breathing, feeling a panic attack lurking at the edges of his consciousness, ready to spring if he allowed it. He focused on the buzz of blood in his ears, willing it to ground him in his body somehow. He was here. With Sherlock.
“John, are you all right?” Sherlock's voice was careful.
Their dumplings arrived. John nodded. He wasn't, of course, but no really had no place in this conversation anymore. Sherlock needed yes, and in spite of himself, John felt himself responding to that need. And of course, it didn't make sense yet; because how had he known, how had he survived, but Sherlock was looking at the food, his face a construction of blankness, and John knew that that was it for now. So he picked up his chopsticks, feeling like a pastiche of a human being.
He asked just one more question: “Is it over now?”
“Yes,” Sherlock said, and then repeated, as though he'd only just discovered the word: “yes.”
And it was nothing like what John had envisioned – he didn't get to punch Sherlock in the face, he didn't get to scream, he didn't get to say do you even have any idea, he didn't get to walk out, he didn't get to have Sherlock follow him for once, he didn't get to crush Sherlock in a hug that was meant both to pain and to love, he didn't get to be strong, he didn't get to see Sherlock cry for once, he didn't get to tell Sherlock anything about himself, he didn't get to hear any of the real whys. But how they were there, how two years seemed to have receded into background noise somehow, how it insanely felt almost exactly as before, how they ate steamed egg dumplings that were so delicious even Sherlock was making appreciative noises, and how Sherlock hadn't pulled his hand from John's at all, even after John's thumb had released his fingers, how he was clumsily eating with his chopsticks in his left hand, and how it seemed that maybe he needed John's hand to hang onto, too – it was more than enough. For now.
“Where do you live now?” John said as they lingered on the doorstep of the restaurant, slightly awkwardly. Sherlock seemed as unwilling to leave as he was.
“Mycroft's got me checked into a posh hotel somewhere in the centre,” Sherlock responded with a grimace.
“Mycroft?” John asked, taken aback.
“Yes,” Sherlock said, slowly, “he's been... he's been helping me out.”
“He knew? All this time?” The fucker. The absolute wanker.
“Yes.” Sherlock seemed to know what he was thinking, and he frowned. “He's a prat, John, but I quite strongly asked him not to tell you.”
“Okay,” John said, though there was the beginning of anger blooming in his chest; anger, that had been notably absent until now, because Sherlock's presence, his face, his voice, in the end had only just made him want to be in his presence again, but if he knew himself this anger would manifest itself at one point. Not now, though.
After a pause, Sherlock asked, carefully, “Where are you living?”
“Flat in Southwark,” John mumbled.
The silence seemed meaningful. “Would you...” Sherlock said, then stopped for a bit. “If we can find something again, would you maybe –”
“Yes,” John said, too quickly, without thinking because it didn't require any thinking, he said it, though he shouldn't have, because his flat was wonderful, and Mary had been wanting to move in with him, and he had been wanting her to, but that only occurred to him after he said yes, and after Sherlock's face folded into a genuine smile, and relief was actually readable on his face, and he couldn't seem to stop his hands from coming to rest on John's shoulders, and, well. It was far too early, John didn't understand anything yet, didn't know if he would, ever, didn't know if he could live with Sherlock again, didn't know if he could learn to be around something again that he'd had to work at for two years to unlearn. But it was the way it was. He couldn't help himself, like he never had when it came to Sherlock.
The fabric of life remolding itself around Sherlock.
“Great,” Sherlock said, then amended, “I mean, good. Fine. We'll find something. I'll... I'll be in touch.”
“So will I,” John said, and Sherlock squeezed his shoulders.
On the walk home, which passed in somewhat of a daze, he remembered that he hadn't wanted any of it, that his life had finally been going in the right direction, and that he had come here with the intention of telling Sherlock that he couldn't do it.
He touched his face, as though trying to make sure it was still there.
Apparently he could do it. And something in him had decided that without consulting the rest of him; it was that part that had always come whenever Sherlock called, that had ignored all of his instincts that he was allowing Sherlock too much control for common sense, that didn't care about common sense one way or the other. He swore quietly, and stopped short in the middle of the sidewalk for a moment, trying to identify the teeming ball of emotion in his chest, and found that he couldn't isolate anything, and couldn't handle anything, so he just took a breath and filed it away for later; like he'd done so often in Afghanistan.
When Mary texted him to ask where he was, he remembered that they'd had a date.
She opened the door for him, smile immediately slipping off her face when she looked at him. He couldn't answer any of her questions, and just fell into her, numb, into her reassuring solidity, the earthiness of her that made his body feel less like an alien territory, that made him feel less like smoke, less like he had been wiped away by Sherlock's eyes.