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This Is Not A Love Song (Except That It Is)

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John needs to know—and he doesn’t—how Sherlock did it, how he managed thisthis lie.  This miracle. The one he asked for, all those months ago. 

Instead, he pours boiling water into a pot.  Sherlock Holmes is sat in his chair in the next room, and John is making a pot of tea.  It’s all so very normal, civilised, as if nearly two years hadn’t passed between this and the last time.  But he remembers—two sugars and this much milk.  He brings it in and hands Sherlock a cup, his cup (from the back of the cupboard). 

“Thank you,” Sherlock says. His eyes are fixed on John, and John watches as he blows on the surface, takes a sip.

John sits in his own chair, a thousand questions rattling around in the back of his brain but finding the words for none of them.  He sips from his mug, burns his tongue a little.  Finally a question does surface.

He breathes through his nose. “Mycroft?  Has he known all along?”

“John,” Sherlock says, low. 

Sherlock?” John asks, voice a razor’s edge.

“I—” Sherlock pauses, and John knows he won’t speak until he knows exactly what he wants to say.  “No.  Not all along.”

John wonders about the rest.  “What about Lestrade?”

Sherlock looks at him then and lowers his chin, eyes clear, direct.  “I came here first.”

“Right,” John says, letting out the breath he’d been holding.  He sips his tea, watches the tiny ripples as his breath casts them on the surface.  “Good,” he says after setting the mug down.  “That’s—good then.” 

He leans forward, forearms resting on his knees, then sits back again, then crosses his legs, then uncrosses them; he can’t seem to sit still (his skin is crawling).  He can’t control what his face is doing, twitching, twisting, and the word is out of his mouth before he had a moment to actually think it. 

“Why?” he asks, and he’s not sure he knows what the rest of the question even is.

Sherlock sets his cup down, eyes on John, silence stretching so long John begins to wonder if he’s planning on speaking at all, and then he does. 

“That night, at the pool,” he says.  “You were strapped to a bomb, and you—took hold of Moriarty,  essentially offering to—”  For a second, his gaze slips over John’s shoulder, eyes wide with wonder, remembering.  He brings himself back to the present with the tiniest shake of his head.

John clears his throat.  “I remember.”

“John, that day on the rooftop—Moriarty won. He won before I ever climbed those stairs.”  He chuckles then, so soft, barely even a sound at all, hands palm to palm under his chin.  His words are quiet and quick when he says, “I thought I was being clever, I thought—   But, no, he laid the trap, and I—stupid—I didn’t think of…”  Sherlock drops his hands, grips the arms of his chair before suddenly releasing them, and he once again finds John with that piercing, open gaze.  “The choice was so simple, in the end.  My life or yours—and Mrs Hudson’s and Lestrade’s.  Three bullets ready to… It was simple, John.”  Sherlock’s eyes are on him, intensely bright.

“Right,” John says, processing, working through the bits of the story that Sherlock has left off. And in his head, he hears Sherlock’s voice—goodbye, John—watches that damn coat fluttering behind as he fell, the tail of a comet.  It’s so vivid; he has to shut his eyes against the image. 

“Right,” he repeats.  Then, “Two years, Sherlock.  It’s been nearly two years.  Maybe a post card or something?  Greetings from Wherever-the-Fuck, weather’s lovely!  I’m not dead, wish you were here.”  He is looking directly into Sherlock’s face, searching for the answer.

Sherlock straightens, leaning forward. “I returned as quickly as was possible.”  He pauses, lips pursing, and he reaches out.  He hovers his hands, large and warm, over John’s for just a second, pulls them back, and in the shifting air, John can smell cigarettes on his hair and in his clothes (how had he not noticed before).  There are dark circles under his eyes, John sees now—new lines at the corners there and also around his mouth, fading bruises on his left cheekbone, yellow against the pallor.  “John, I need you to believe that.”

John really wishes he could.

=====

When Mary arrives the next evening, John meets her on the street outside. 

“I thought you said we were going to eat at yours,” she says, little line of confusion forming between her brows.

John smiles apologetically, places a hand at the base of her spine and guides them down the street.  “I burnt it,” he says, and the lie is so easy.

They eat at a sushi place they both like.  Inside, it’s crisp and white—white walls, white tables, white chairs, but the light glows soft and warm.  They come here often because it is reliably good and because it feels easy and comfortable. 

John watches Mary as she talks.  She’s telling an animated story of her trip with Tommy to the zoo, and the light finds the apples of her cheeks when she smiles.  Every now and then, she brushes an errant strand of hair from her eyes, tucking it behind her ears. 

He knows he needs to tell her, but how can he even—? Just yesterday he had her set of keys made.  Now they are tucked away in his top desk drawer; it isn’t the right time.  Not anymore.

“Are you all right?” she asks over cappuccino.  She reaches across the table to touch his face, lightly smoothing an imaginary smudge from his cheek.

“What?” John says, a little startled.  “Yeah, I’m fine, I’m—”  He should tell her.  “Good,” he finishes.

“You just seem, I don’t know, a bit weird tonight.”  The concern on her face is genuine, and John feels so guilty, and he doesn’t even really know why, but the weight of it settles like rocks at the bottommost part of his stomach.  He smiles without warning, the tiniest twitch of his mouth.  He is so much more than a bit weird tonight; this whole thing is absolutely ridiculous.

“He came back,” he blurts.  He couldn’t actually keep this from her.

“What?”  She asks, clearly not understanding.

John is shaking his head; he can still hardly believe it himself.  “Sherlock. My old—flatmate.  He, er—came back.”

Mary sits back in her chair, creating as much distance as the space will allow, and she’s looking at him like he’s gone completely mad.  Then, she leans forward again, clasps her hands together on the table.

“Your best friend—that died?” 

“ Yeah, he’s er— He’s apparently not actually…”

“Oh, my god,” she says.  “How is that even possible?” She takes his hand.

John doesn’t know exactly how he did it, isn’t sure he even wants all the details just yet.  The one thing he is certain of is what he tells Mary.  “Sherlock Holmes,” he says, “is capable of just about anything.”

Mary looks away, speaking so softly he’s fairly sure she never intended to say it out loud, “Who would do such a thing?”

John pulls his hand away.

=====

Sherlock is reading the newspaper.  In fact, he has both yesterday’s and today’s paper spread out on the floor in front of him, along with ten different tabs open to online stories on both his and John’s laptop, one on each knee.  Eight deaths—food poisoning they are saying, but something about it isn’t right

He has five different ideas so far.  The tests would be fairly simple to perform, he thinks, staring into the dark fire place, absently drumming fingertips on the arm of his chair, mentally cataloguing supplies and procedure.  He’ll need human tissue samples—stomach and intestine, possibly an esophagus.  If he hurries, he should be able to start tonight.

Molly is the only tech in the lab when he arrives at St. Bart’s.  Her back is to the door, and she’s humming softly to herself, clearing up for the day.  Her hair is shorter, and she’s put on four, no, three and a half pounds since he last saw her.  He supposes this means she’s doing well, hopes so anyway.

“I do hope you remember to put that liver in the cooler before you go,” he says by way of greeting, folding his arms across his chest as he leans casually against the counter. 

Molly starts with a gasp, nearly dropping a tray of test tubes before turning around, but then she is smiling wide, walking toward him.  “Sherlock.  It’s so good to see you,” she says, wrapping her tiny arms around his neck; he is grinning as he hugs her back.  “When did you get back, then?” she asks as she steps back.

“Last night,” he tells her. He truly is glad to see her.

“I hadn’t heard from you since you were in… Germany, was it?”  Her tone, her body language is much easier than before; she isn’t stammering, isn’t trying to flirt with him, much more confident—a friend.

“Mmm, Yes.  Hamburg.” He’d got two cracked ribs and a mild concussion in Hamburg.  He waves a hand dismissively.  “Incredibly dull that time of year.” 

Her face goes suddenly serious.  “It’s done, then?  You’re really back now?”

“It’s done.” 

“That’s—that’s good.”

It is good, in fact.  “Thank you, Molly.” 

The last time he’d been in this lab was just after he’d jumped.  Molly was the only reason the plan could work.  She broke eight different laws to make it happen, and she never so much as hesitated; she is so much stronger than he would have suspected. 

She’d emailed him a week later, telling him that John had been asking her questions.  She’d kept Sherlock’s secret, even when she clearly didn’t want to.  He knew it must have been difficult for her. 

While he was away, she had been his only real link to London (Mycroft doesn’t count, not for that), emailing him once or twice a month to check that he was still alive.  At first, the messages were brief, perfunctory, but as the time stretched out, Sherlock was surprised that he rather looked forward to hearing about Toby the cat and her rambling thoughts on something called Glee.  She had a way of making him surprise even himself—she saw him so much more clearly than he ever saw her.  He knows he owes Molly his life.  He owes Molly John’s life.  “I want to thank you,” he says, “for everything.”

“Have you seen John?” she asks.

“Yes, last night; do keep up.  I need an es—”

She doesn’t let him finish, presses him in the same way her emails sometimes did.  “How was that?” she asks, dark eyes wide and searching.

The tone of the conversation is beginning to shift, and Sherlock keeps his tone controlled, drawling, “Better than I expected, to be honest.  He didn’t hit me.  I was sure he would.”

“He should have.  Hit you,” she says, and her lips curl up in the corner, just a little.

“Yes,” he agrees.

She does stammer a bit before speaking again, clearly uncomfortable with what she wants to ask, but too stubborn to leave it alone.  “He’s been seeing someone—a girlfriend.  I, er, I met her actually—pub quiz a couple months back.  She seemed nice.”

“Yes.  Mary.  He told me about her this morning.”  Sherlock had mentioned the pink razor in the bath.  There had also been a second toothbrush—different from John’s brand, a turquoise bath pouf, and a giant bar of purple soap that smelled of violets, not John’s usual choice. 

“They, er, seem fairly serious.”  The pitch of her voice turns up at the end, and Sherlock knows that Molly wants him to say something, to open up. 

He hates that there is some unnamed feeling twisting in his chest when he thinks about John, about John and Mary, about what he left behind (what he had to leave behind) two years ago.  He remembers this morning— John picking up the flat keys that he’d dropped last night, freshly cut, gleaming silver against the dark of the carpet. 

“He’s had keys made for her.  He was going to ask her to move in, but I rather suspect that’s been put on hold, for now.”  He gives her the data, reasons that his face must be less controlled than he intended because the next thing she does is put a hand on his arm.

“He had to move on, Sherlock.  You know that, right?” 

“Of course I know that,” he snaps, stepping back quickly.  That twisting feeling in his chest starts again, but he wills it away, swallows it whole.  He turns away from her, pulls his phone out of his pocket and starts pressing buttons.  “Listen, it is good to see you, but do you have a stomach lining to spare, perhaps an esophagus?”

“I—I’ll see what I’ve got,” she says, and she opens one of the drawers.

=====

Back in the kitchen at Baker Street, Sherlock sets to work.  He moves the bowl of apples to the top of the fridge and unloads boxes of his science equipment (impeccably packed by Mrs Hudson) onto the worktop, then the table.  He doesn’t have everything he needs, but he thinks he can make do well enough. 

The work must be precise, so he focuses his mind in a way he hasn’t needed to in years.  This is a different sort of puzzle than the one he’s just finished, and it feels a bit like taking the first run after recovering from a cold—refreshing and exhausting all at once. 

It takes some practice, but it isn’t long before he’s remembered how to narrow the world down to the cells on the slide, the lines on the dropper, the exact placement of the scalpel’s blade.  There is no brain space left to think about John or about how he is supposed to jump up from pavement he dove into two years ago.  There is no room for regret or longing or duty or sentiment; this is science.

At two a.m., he’s done as much as he can with his current supplies and data, so he allows himself to acknowledge the heaviness of his eyelids and decides to sleep for a few hours.  He takes one last glance through the eyepiece of the microscope, observing the disintegration of the cell structure on the slide, and he jots a note on the pad beside him. 

“Oh, hello.”  The voice comes from nowhere, and he looks up from his work. 

She is pretty, he notices, but John’s girlfriends were almost always pretty.  Her face is clean of make-up, and the odd dent in her hair at the base of her skull tells him that her hair was up for most of the day.  Her eyes are still adjusting to the kitchen light (pupils contracting), and she’s wearing her own dressing gown (John Lewis, £35, last spring).  She has traces of plasticine under her fingernails, but she obviously hasn’t had any children of her own.  He can see by her bare feet that she used to be a dancer (clear signs of ballet through her teens, more recent evidence of character shoes), and her back curves slightly in the upper thoracic region (desk work, long hours reading and/or at a computer).

“Sorry,” she says, getting a glass down from the cupboard—the correct one—she knows the kitchen.  “I forgot anyo—” She stops and shakes her head slightly before holding out her hand, smiling softly.  “I’m Mary Morstan.  You must be Sherlock Holmes.  John’s told me… well, not that much, actually.  Just that you were… but that you’ve come back and—”

He takes her hand and says, “Hello, Mary.”  Then, he leans forward, taking the empty glass she’d been holding in the other.  He fills it with water at the tap, and hands it back to her.  He tries to smile at her; it’s exhausting, as these niceties nearly always are.  But he will try this time—for John. 

She takes a sip and looks about the kitchen, eyes going wide.  Sherlock follows her gaze and allows himself to see what she must—his experiment has taken over the space entirely.  What was militarily tidy mere hours ago is now covered in food samples (a bit of everything from the fridge—articles were unclear whether poison originated from plant or animal bacteria, best to have a wide sample base), Bunsen burner, beakers, slides, papers, and about ten different pens, pencils, and highlighters.  It is a mess.

Her eyebrows knit together as she lifts one of the papers.  Sherlock has to stop himself from snatching it from her hands—his data.  He leans against the counter instead, gripping the lip of it to keep his hands still; he desperately longs for a cigarette.  She sets the piece of paper back where she found it, fidgets a little as she searches for the next part of the conversation.

“So, you really are back, it seems.  John’s ghost,” she says, and the lines on her face are not difficult for Sherlock to read—hesitation mixing with worry and a bit of fear.  Normally, Sherlock would press this, test her, say something inappropriate just to watch her dance, but he reminds himself that he owes it to John, to try.  He’s been away too long; he will lose John entirely if he doesn’t.

“It would seem so, yes.” He says, pulling his hands back from the counter and letting them drop to his sides.  He works very hard to keep the sarcastic edge from his voice. 

She takes another small sip of her water. “It is nice to meet you, Sherlock.”  She smiles tentatively.  “I know John is…”  She shakes her head again, letting her words drop away. 

He says nothing, bowing his head a little. 

She turns to go, but when she reaches the door of the kitchen, she stops there, pauses, and turns around.  She meets his eyes with hers, gaze steady.

“But, for the record,” she says, voice pitched a bit lower, even and firm.  “I love him.  And you—You let him believe that you were dead.  For years.  And I don’t understand why—how anyone could do—”

In the moment, the past two years flash behind his eyes in a whir of fists and guns, of darkened warehouses and hotel walls filled with scraps of information connected by overlapping threads of string, forming a web of corruption that lead straight back to a sniper’s laser on the back of John’s head.  He forgets any sort of self-censorship, brings himself up to full height.  With narrowed eyes, he steps toward her, masking nothing in his voice when he corrects her. “No.  You wouldn’t understand.”  

She looks at him for a moment longer but doesn’t say anything else, nor does he. After she pads up the stairs, he shrugs his coat over his dressing gown and heads downstairs; he will have a cigarette after all.

The air is rather cool at this hour, shifting seasons, summer to autumn.  He watches a plume of smoke as it leaves his mouth on the exhale, floating down Baker Street in a delicate white curl.  When it dissolves into nothing, he takes another drag.

=====

John wakes to Mary’s warm lips on his jaw.  He looks down and smiles at her when she rubs her foot against his calf.

“Morning,” he says, voice slow and sleepy.

“Hi,” she says.  She smiles and kisses him on the mouth, breath a bit stale, but he doesn’t care—his can’t be any better. 

“What time is it?” John asks as he turns toward the clock.  Seven.  Good.  No rush, then.  “I have to be at the surgery at nine.” 

“I better get moving soon.  Want to get some work done for school.  I’ve that meeting with the committee next week.”

“Almost there,” John says, running a hand down the length of her arm.  “Doctor Morstan.”  He laces her fingers through his.

Mary smiles, squeezes his hand in hers before getting up and heading to the bathroom.  John shrugs a dressing gown over his pajama bottoms and pads his way to the kitchen, taps the switch on the kettle. 

Absently, he shifts beakers and petri dishes out of the way, careful not to disturb the contents as he pulls what he needs from the cupboard.  The kettle whistles, and he drops teabags into the pot.  He’s poured the water and placed the kettle back on its base when he sees

He looks about the kitchen, and his smile breaks wide open.  There is food, rotting food, everywhere, and it smells, and there is barely a spare inch on any surface.  The sight of it makes him so happy he could burst. 

“What are you grinning at, Cheshire Cat?” Mary asks as she comes in, clearly pleased at her own silly rhyme.

“Oh, my god.  This,” he says, sweeping the room with his hand, then resting it at the back of his head.  “I just never imagined… I never thought I’d see this again.”   

Mary touches his face and smiles at him, hand lingering before she lets it drop.  John takes what they need into the sitting room because there isn’t a place for them, even at the table.  He sets the tray on the coffee table, and Mary curls up next to him. 

She rests her head at his shoulder.  “I met him, you know,” she says.  “Sherlock.  I met him last night.”

“You did?” John asks, pulling back so he can look at her. “Oh, god,” he says, suddenly worried.  “What did he say?”

She chuckles a little.  “Hello, Mary,” she says, pitching her voice very low and very posh—her impression isn’t spot on, but it’s funny.  “He’s a bit, I don’t know…  Different than how I’d imagined him.  Intense.”

“Well, that’s one word for him,” John says.  Then, he’s smiling over the top of his mug.  “Insufferable git is what my girlfr—people—usually say, so I’d say intense is a step up.”

Mary chuckles again before her face goes suddenly very serious.  “Wait,” she says, putting a hand gravely on John’s arm.  “Girlfriends? John Watson, are you implying that you’ve had other girlfriends before we met?  No, no, no.  It simply cannot be—all this time I thought I was the only one.”  She winks at him, nudges him softly with her elbow.

“You are very pretty,” John says.

=====

A week later, John meets Mary for a drink after work.  Today was her last day working with the Forresters; she will need the time to work on clinic hours.  Her eyes are red-rimmed and swollen, blotches of red on her cheeks and high on her forehead. 

“I didn’t think it would be so hard, but John, you should have seen his face when I went.” she says, voice raw.

He sits next to her so he can wrap an arm around her shoulders.  She leans into him, her body fitting next to his.  She’d been dreading this for months, and he knew that this day would be awful for her.  He wishes he could say or do anything to make it better, but he can’t.  So he stays quiet, trying to be supportive in a way that matters.

After a few minutes of silence, he changes the subject to something banal—line work on the Jubilee, trains re-routed.  He makes a joke.  It works, and she is smiling a little. 

“Dinner?” he asks her, and she nods.  He is helping her with her jacket when his phone beeps, text alert.

Scotland Yard.  Come at once. –SH

He quickly fires back, No. Out with Mary.  See you at flat later. He and Sherlock have talked about this, about Mary, about Sherlock respecting his time with her.

Even still, he half expects another text immediately, demanding he come anyway, but there isn’t one.  When they get to the restaurant, he waits until Mary has excused herself to the toilets before checking his phone again.  Sure enough, there is one missed message.

Need bread.  Am back at Baker Street. –SH

He replies, Still out with Mary.  You know where the shops are.

Immediately, his phone beeps.  Busy. Working. -SH

Then you won’t be eating anyway.

He drops the phone back into his jacket pocket when he sees Mary round the corner, ignoring it soundly when it beeps at him again.  He stays with her at her flat, leaves his jacket downstairs by the front door.  In the morning, he checks his phone as he walks back home—ten missed messages.  Despite himself, he smiles as he scrolls through, reading each one.  There is a Sainsbury’s on the way; he can get bread there.

=====

John and Mary are watching Strictly Come Dancing.  Well, Mary is watching; John is ignoring it as he cross-references the diaries of three different murder victims for a case.  He hasn’t seen Sherlock all day, but John knows he’s working with Lestrade at the minute; Greg has texted him about a dozen times begging him to take Sherlock away from Anderson before he kills them both.  Judging from the last message, John might owe Greg a couple of pints next time they go to the pub.

His eyes are starting to blur—lines, letters, and numbers all blending together into one grey mass of nothing at all.  He should put it away, but he feels like he’s almost got it, like if he turns his head at just the right angle, everything will slot into place and the murderer will pop out at him in 3D, like one of those weird art posters from the nineties.  He pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head.  It has to be right here.

His phone beeps, a text from Sherlock. 

“Shit,” he says, and the pieces begin to slot together.  He reads the message once more, gathers his notes to check them again. Of course.  It was all there the whole time.  He fires a text back to Sherlock as fast as his fingers will type.  This?  This is not good.  He has to go.

 “What’s wrong?” Mary asks, but he barely hears her. Sherlock is walking directly into a trap.  He grabs his coat, takes the stairs to his room two at a time; the Browning is under the Christmas jumpers at the bottom of his closet.  Its familiar weight in his hands sets his senses thrumming.  He fits it into the waistband of his trousers at the small of his back, drops an extra magazine into his pocket. 

He’s halfway out the door when Mary steps in front of him. “John,” she says, halting him with a hand on his arm.  She is worried.  He wants to reassure her, but there isn’t time; he can’t wait any longer. 

“I’m so sorry,” he tells her.  “I’ve got to go,” and he does, kissing her cheek on his way out the door.

=====

John is out of shape.  By the time he reaches the address, he’s had to run for all of half a mile, and he is winded.  The breath in and out of his lungs is too much and not enough, his heart is pounding in his chest.  He did better after he’d been invalided, for Christ’s sake.  How did he let this happen?

He hears Sherlock’s voice, drawling and low, before he sees him.  He flattens himself against the side of a building, willing his breathing back to normal.  He takes in a lungful and lets it out slowly, and when he peeks around the corner, he can see.  Sherlock is alive and well, hurling creative insults at the men who’ve got him—one has his hands pinned at his back, the other is pointing a gun at his head.  John swallows the lump that rises in his throat.  For half a beat, he loses himself in it, fights the urge to be sick, but he shakes it off.  Not again.  I will not lose him again.  Not today.

He doesn’t even think about it; it’s automatic, muscle memory.  He quietly retrieves the gun from his waistband, flips the safety switch, and without even a hint of hesitation, he aims and fires.  He doesn’t miss, hitting his target squarely in the shoulder, and the gun, the one that was at Sherlock’s head, drops to the ground as he flies backward. 

Sherlock takes the opportunity to head butt the man holding him with the back of his skull.  The man lets go immediately, cradling his now-broken nose.  Sherlock spins fully around, fist connecting soundly with his cheek, then ducks the returning swing, spinning the other way, putting his full weight behind another hit.

John’s focus narrows to where the gunman is back up on his feet, fingers inches away from his weapon.  John kicks it out of his reach, sending it skittering down the wet pavement.  Then, John kicks him in the head. He has him belly down on the ground in seconds.  John kneels, pins him, takes a sick sort of satisfaction at the muffled sounds he makes as John shoves at his head, grinds his knee into his back—skin against concrete, a strangled groan. 

It isn’t until there are hands physically pushing at him that he realises the police have arrived; Sherlock must have phoned Lestrade before he got there.  He moves out of the way, lets the officer do his job, and his eyes light on Sherlock who is already talking to Lestrade.  There is a trickle of blood dripping from a cut on his cheek, and in that moment, John is so angry.  Rage burns white hot in his belly, radiates out to his feet and hands, and they begin to act on their own again.

He crosses to where Sherlock is, rears back, and punches him in the face.  Sherlock staggers backwards from the force of it, hand coming up to his cheek, but the look on his face is blank.  John rears back again, but Lestrade catches his arms from behind, pulling him away.  John struggles, twists, spits.  “You are a bloody wanker, you know that?” 

He is shouting his throat raw, hurling abuse at Sherlock, and in the minute he means every single word.  The hands on his arms go tighter.  He can feel Lestrade’s breath on his neck when he speaks close to his ear, Calm down, John. Easy, and John slowly lets himself relax enough to be released.  He lifts his head, finds Sherlock’s eyes, and Sherlock still does not flinch away.

“No, Lestrade,” Sherlock says, standing straighter.  “It’s fine.”  He takes a step forward, gaze never wavering, meeting John halfway.

John steps forward, too, right into Sherlock’s personal space.  His hands ball up again, but this time they go right to the lapels of that damn coat, and he wrenches, bringing their faces mere inches apart.    “I swear to god, Sherlock—if you ever do... I swear to god,” and Sherlock says nothing, just stands there, breathing in John’s air, flooding John’s vision, and John is shaking, surrounded.  It is overwhelming, these nameless feelings.  John leans in, forehead against Sherlock’s chest, and it’s just like that for a moment.

John feels it before he can hear it, the rumble in Sherlock’s chest.  The arsehole is bloody laughing, and then John can’t help it—it starts him off, too, and then they are both doubled over, laughing so hard they are groping at their sides, swiping tears out of their eyes. 

=====

Once the danger has gone, the immediate high of a job well done ebbed, Sherlock knows, John will feel it.  In the old days, he would distract him—new case (errands, tasks), extra body parts in the fridge (channel frustration), new experiment to test the way different shoes change a man’s stride (need assistance).  These things acted on John like Sherlock’s nicotine patches; they didn’t eliminate the issue entirely, but they helped. 

But now, Sherlock’s been away for so long, and he doesn’t know (can’t know) if Mary can see the signs:  slight tremor when he butters his toast at breakfast, nearly imperceptible break in his gait when he climbs the stairs.  The physical symptoms will iron themselves out in time, but it is the rest of it that has Sherlock feeling uneasy, so he sits in his chair with his hands steepled, index fingers pressed to his lips as he works out the best way to do this.

It has always been a challenge—to back it up, to explain, what he sees to someone else.  He has never understood, not really, why they can’t see it, too.  He can spot the airline pilot out of a crowd; it’s not his fault that no one else notices the way he walks, holds his shoulders, the pattern of calluses on his left thumb.  It’s the same with John.  There are a million small tells before the nightmares begin.  It’s in the way he holds his spine, the lines in his face, the locking of his jaw as he reads the paper, the dried sweat on his brow and around his tee-shirt collar first thing in the morning. 

The first time it happened, Sherlock didn’t know what to do.  It was in the weeks after the taxi driver case.  John had gone to bed hours before, and Sherlock was working at something at his desk.  Above him, there was a crash and then screaming, like nothing he’d ever heard coming from a man before.  Even muffled by a closed door and the ceiling above him, it was animal. 

He took the stairs two, three, at a time and didn’t hesitate at the door.  Sherlock crossed the room and placed his hands on John’s shoulders.  The collar of his tee-shirt was soaked through with sweat, dark ring clearly visible in the moonlight.  He had torn the sheet up from the corners; it had twisted and wound about his right ankle like a jungle vine. 

“John!”

John thrashed and bucked and swung, clipping Sherlock in the right shoulder—hard enough to bruise.  Sherlock blocked his next go, pressing a balled fist to the mattress.  He felt slow and helpless and totally out of his depth. 

 “John, wake up! Please!”  He shook harder, got closer.

With a start, John inhaled and woke.  He blinked, gasping, and he locked eyes with Sherlock.  Sherlock didn’t know what to say.  John looked away to the side, clearly embarrassed.  Then, he sat up, clearing his throat, breathing returning to normal. 

“Are you all right?” Sherlock asked, and in the sudden quiet of the room, the words rang like a gong.

“M’fine,” John muttered.  “I …”

“I’ll put the kettle on,” Sherlock said, and he left the room for the kitchen.  John joined him minutes later, and that was that.  Sherlock began to notice the signs, and he also began to formulate the balm: busy work and exercise and late nights over Chinese food that he actually ate to keep John talking.  Vivaldi and Mozart and Badly Drawn Boy. 

Sherlock wonders if Mary has learnt this, if she’s needed to, if she’s able.

=====

John wakes with a start, unsettled and alone in Mary’s bedroom. She is already up, then.  He throws his dressing gown over his shoulders and pads his way to the kitchen. She’s dressed and taking her last bite of toast when he gets to the doorway. 

“Morning,” she says, walking over to place a kiss on his mouth. 

“Good morning,” he says.  “You off?”

“Yeah.  Opening up at the clinic.  Lunch?”

“Yeah,” he says.  “I’m not at the surgery today, so I’ll swing by yours—round noon?”

“Let’s do it,” she says, smiling.  She grabs her bag and keys and kisses him on the cheek when she goes, leaving him to his breakfast.

He decides to go for a run, having renewed his resolve after last week’s case.  His good trainers are at Baker Street, so he finishes quickly and leaves.

Sherlock is in his chair, lost in thought when he arrives, not so much as a twitch of response as John enters and climbs the stairs to his room.  When he gets back downstairs, he gulps down a glass of water and is halfway back out the door when Sherlock turns toward him. 

“Care for company?” he asks, and the question is so unexpected, John can do nothing but boggle. 

“Er, sure.  If you want.  Yeah.” John takes a seat in his chair as Sherlock stands, as if propelled upwards by rockets, and heads in the direction of his bedroom.  When he emerges, he’s clad in a tee shirt and jogging bottoms, wearing trainers that easily cost double what his did. 

“Let’s go,” Sherlock says, and they do.

John is feeling it after the first half mile, but it’s not as horrible as he feared.  Sherlock, however, has barely even broken a sweat.  They haven’t said a word, but it is an easy sort of quiet, like before.  London passes by them in swirls of colour and sound.  The breeze on their faces is cool, and the ground underneath them is solid.  There are moments where their feet hit the pavement in tandem, pounding out a rhythm so strong, it is surprising when one of them breaks it. 

When they go through the door of 221b again, they are both panting and spent, but smiling.

“Jesus,” John says, still getting his breath back.  “I didn’t do nearly enough of that while you were away.”

Sherlock stills, face going serious.  “Nor did I,” he says, and there is a sadness behind his eyes that John is starting to become accustomed to, which is unnerving.  John claps him on the shoulder and shoves him toward the stairs. 

“Now get on,” he says.  “I’ve got to meet Mary soon, and I can’t turn up at her work smelling like a dirty gym sock.”

It doesn’t take him long to dress and make his way to the clinic where Mary is working on her practicum.  He’s been here a handful of times, and the staff seem warm and welcoming, a good fit for Mary.  Tommy Forrester kept her on her toes, but when she comes in from the clinic most nights, she is tired in a different way, and it shows in the little things. 

She is more clipped now, always in a rush, and she is often off in her own thoughts, typing up case notes and researching.  He knows it will get better, that this is just an adjustment, that there are always a few bumps at the start of any new job.  He can tell she worries about it too, so he does his best to reassure her.

They walk to a sandwich shop round the corner, and the day is lovely, all crisp early autumn sunshine.  She goes on a bit about her day, a funny email she got from a friend, and he talks about his morning run.

“Mary,” he says, chuckling.  “You should have seen me—for a minute I thought I might actually choke to death on my own sweat.  And Sherlock, total bastard, is cool as a cucumber, just trotting along like nothing.  Don’t know why I didn’t do more of that—it feels nice.”

“Why the sudden spark, then,” she asks conversationally, taking a bite of her sandwich.

Because he does, because he isn’t used to having to censor himself around her, he just starts talking.  “Thought my lungs were going to explode the other night, you know.  I had to run a bit before I even got to the scene, and then I was almost too knackered to—“  Of course, once he realises what he’s saying, he cuts himself off quickly. 

Mary’s eyebrows go up, and she tilts her head in that way.  He can almost physically watch her mind latching onto the words, and he knows that she won’t let it go.  “What, exactly, did you go and do the other night?”  Her voice is even, but every word is lined with something hard-edged and dangerous. 

John thinks for a second, trying to find a balance—the thing that is the truth without making her worry (or turn this into a full-blown row).  He clears his throat.  “Well, I went to work on a case.”

“And what does that… entail?”

John takes a big bite of his sandwich, and it takes him an age to chew and swallow it properly.

“John?” Mary asks, leaning forward, as if something just occurred to her.  “Why did you go upstairs before leaving?  You didn’t change clothes.  Or shoes.”

John sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose.  “Mary,” he says, and his voice is level, if hushed, not wanting to be overheard by the other patrons.  “I can’t—I just can’t tell you everything about it, all right?  The work can be… dangerous sometimes, but I am trained for that, and usually, I promise, it’s just a bunch of boring paper-shifting and lead-tracking.”

She leans back and shakes her head.  “No,” she says simply.

“What?” John asks, and there is a clip to his own voice now.

Mary takes a breath.  “John, I really don’t want to be one of those women who tells her partner what he can or cannot do, but this?”  She reaches out, brushes his hand with hers.  “I really don’t like it.  What if you got hurt?  What if you got in trouble?  Have you even thought about any of it?”

He huffs out a bitter chuckle.  He wishes he could explain how hard he’s trying:  to make things better with her, to keep this relationship from turning into another disaster in a long line of train-wrecks. Perhaps he should set her on a lunch date with Sarah or Jeanine—they could all bloody well compare notes.  He huffs again at the thought.

“John,” she says, and there is a note of warning in it.

“Of course I have, Mary. I—”  He really wants to find the words that will get him out of this row, will get them actually talking again, so he does his best to soften. “I have thought about it.  I’m staying on at the surgery, and I’m careful about jumping back into Sherlock’s cases, but—I just missed this so much.”  The last sentence rings so true it hurts.  He works his face into a smile, “And I can’t have Sherlock out there, insulting and bating both London’s criminals and police force—all on his own.”

“He seemed to manage just fine on his own for two years,” she bites, clear and mean, and the words do exactly what she intended.

He doesn’t even know how to respond because it’s true.  Of course it’s true.  Sherlock did do just fine for two years, without him.  John wasn’t around to save the day, to smooth out the edges, and Sherlock came back—smoking again, yes, but other than that, largely unchanged. 

“What, exactly, would you like me to say to that?” John asks, and it sounds like a growl.

Mary deflates then, a bit.  She looks down at her half-eaten lunch for a moment.  “I don’t know.”  She takes another beat before looking up. “Would you stop?  If I asked?  If I asked you to stop putting yourself in danger for a man who left you to mourn him, thinking he was dead for two years, would you?” and her face is all hard lines and pleading eyes.

He doesn’t want to shout, doesn’t want to cause a scene, doesn’t want to think about any of this.  He pushes back from the table, stands up, and leaves.

=====

John walks aimlessly for hours.  He alternates between thinking through lunch with Mary and thinking of absolutely nothing at all.  The row was the first real, meaty one they’ve had, and he sets it on a loop, replays every word, every tick, every gesture.  He thinks about what he wants to say when he sees her again. Is he sorry?  Is it worth it not to just say that he is and move on? 

The thing is, is that he feels like she’s thrown a gauntlet.  And, really, the sensible thing to do would be to pick it up, walk to the jeweler’s right now, and turn up on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and ask her to marry him.  That’s where they’re headed anyway, right?  He’s not getting any younger, and she’s amazing.  And he would have done it, ten times over by now, had Sherlock not waltzed out of the grave and back into 221b.

Could he be friends with Sherlock, or just a flatmate—and not follow him on his mad cases?  Could he be content to simply divide the chore list in two and pick up half the shopping and pretend he doesn’t know what happens when Sherlock steps out the front door?  Is it fair to ask Mary to understand why he has to go?  She doesn’t know Sherlock.  If he’s honest with himself, he’ll admit that she doesn’t really know John—not the man he was before, the man he realises he’s becoming again (wants to become again), and that is the saddest thought he’s had.

John notices he’s sitting on a bench outside of St. Barts only after he looks up to see Molly Hooper smiling down at him.  “Well hello there, John Watson.  Fancy meeting you here.  You and Sherlock coming to invade my lab today, eh?”  She laughs in that goofy little way of hers, cute and sweet with the tiniest hint of a snort at the end.  She looks the same as ever in a jumper with little rainbow hearts on underneath her lab coat.

He smiles back at her, a wan thing, just a twitch of his mouth really.  “Hello, Molly.  No.  I, er… don’t know what Sherlock’s up to, actually.  Was just taking a walk.  Clearing my head, you know.”

She sits down next to him, nudges his shoulder with hers.  “Doing all right, then?” she asks.

He sighs.  “I don’t know,” he says honestly.  He runs his hands through his short hair, smoothing it back from his forehead before pressing it down again. 

“Must be difficult, now Sherlock’s back,” she says.

“Yeah,” he agrees, turns to face her.  “He told me a little about what you did—for him.”

Her face falls, and she begins to stammer, “John, I… I’m really sorry, b-but I, and he…”

“No, Molly,” he says, cutting her off gently.  “I know why you did it.  It’s fine, really.”  He smiles a little more genuinely this time.

She returns it, clearly relieved.  They sit for a moment before she asks, “Do you want to talk about it at all?”

“Not really,” he says, a kneejerk reply, but then he just keeps going.  “It’s Mary.  She—doesn’t understand.”  He chuckles.  “I don’t really know if I understand.”

Molly considers for a minute.  She’s quiet but not dismissive, and John can see her try to put words together in her head, like pieces of a puzzle she’s just learning.  “He never said exactly, but I could tell that it was bad… where he was, what he was doing.  You were the only thing he ever asked about, you know.  In his emails to me while he was away.  I know you—you lost him when he left, but he… he lost you, too.”

“I missed him,” John says. “I think I still do, in a way. It’s as if my body and my mind don’t know how to stop doing this thing that they’d been doing for so long.  When I open the door to the flat and he’s there, or when he sends me a text, or I hear his voice in the other room—every time, every time, it feels new, even if it’s just for half a second.”  It still feels like relief and panic and something else, something so raw, there will never be words for it.  “I hit him in the face a couple of days ago.”

“Good,” She says, smiling.  “He needed it.”

John nods.  “He did.  He really did.”

=====

When he gets back to the flat, it’s late, getting close to dark, and Mary is waiting for him in the sitting room.  She’s in his chair, still in her work clothes, and she stands when he shuts the door.

“John,” she says, and she starts to cry, crossing the room to him.  “I’m sorry,” she says, and he’s moving, too, pulling her into a hug.  She sobs into his shoulder.

“I hate this.  I hate being cross with you,” he mumbles into her hair, lips catching on soft strands before he lifts her chin to kiss her.  He knows that nothing has actually been resolved.  He hasn’t given her an answer, and she hasn’t taken back the question.  But for now, she is warm and solid against his chest, and he feels good about that.

=====

Sherlock knows John and Mary are at the flat when he walks in the door.  They aren’t anywhere downstairs, so he calls out a hello to be polite, so as not to cause alarm later (he is trying).  He makes his way to the kitchen with a file under his arm and a box of beetle larvae.

He’s working cold case for Lestrade.  Even with the most cursory understanding of the information, it strikes him as improbable that given the gestational stage of the larvae collected, temperature of the soil, and time of year, this species would be so near the pupal stage at the crime scene.  He has to hand it to them—the incompetents in forensics are, at the very least consistent, never failing to miss even the simplest of clues. 

Data clearly indicates that the victim had been murdered somewhere with a temperature roughly four degrees warmer and then dumped at the site much later, rendering almost every shred of gathered evidence completely worthless (that’s Anderson, sharp as ever).  He separates and catalogues the larvae into different containers, intending to test their growth under three separate heat lamp and soil settings, fairly straightforward.

Task done, he steps outside for a cigarette, letting his mind wander back to his run with John that morning, back to John’s nightmares.  Despite having an extra cigarette, he is unusually fidgety and restless, unsure about too many things.  He needs something else to help him think.

He finds his violin in his room, case resting in the corner.  He hasn’t touched it in two years.  He flips the latches up, both at once, and bends the top back; the hinges creak a bit.  He can’t help but run the pads of his fingers down the strings before lifting it, nor can he help the smile that is creeping into his face.

It is grossly out of tune, and it takes him nearly half an hour to get it right.  He takes it with him into the sitting room; he wants to play at the window.  The leaves have begun changing in earnest, gold and orange against the white stone of Baker Street, lit now by streetlamps.  He chooses Vivaldi, however on-the-nose it may be.  He’s known it since he was a boy, won’t have to think as hard to make his fingers remember what to do.  He struggles a little at the start, and he’s just through his favourite bit when he notices movement in the corner of his eye. 

John has come in, and he moves to sit on the sofa; he is wearing pajamas.  Sherlock pauses, stilling the bow, but John clears his throat softly and says, “I don’t think I’ve heard you play since you’ve… been back.”  And then, John is looking at him, and he is looking at John, and the world narrows down to only them. 

“I felt it was time,” Sherlock says, and John nods, and the rhythm they have just then feels exactly right.

Mary walks in a moment later, settling next to John on the sofa, also in nightclothes and a dressing gown.  “I didn’t know you played,” she says.

“Yes,” Sherlock says.

“He’s actually very good,” John says.  Sherlock turns back to the window to hide his smile, but he catches Mary looking at him in the reflection. 

“I haven’t played for years,” Sherlock admits.

“Sounds fine to me,” John says.  “But, whatever you lost, it’ll come back to you.”

Sherlock turns back around, twirling the bow with a flourish, and lifts it back to the strings.  He finishes the piece with his eyes closed.  He doesn’t miss a note.

After a brief applause, John stands.  “Tea?”

Both Mary and Sherlock say yes, so John heads off to the kitchen, and it is a full five seconds before John shouts, “Jesus Christ, Sherlock!  Is that beetle larvae?  In the kitchen?”  Then, he answers himself. “Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?  Why wouldn’t we put insect larvae next to the sugar bowl?”

“It’s for a case, John.”  John doesn’t press it again, and Sherlock hears him bustling around with the tea things soon enough.  He takes the moment to speak with Mary.

He doesn’t quite know how to begin, so he just starts.  “His hand has been shaking a little, and he’s favouring his right leg, have you noticed?”

“No,” Mary says flatly, and she is looking at him, as ever, with thinly veiled distaste (more pronounced tonight).

“He has nightmares sometimes,” Sherlock continues.

“Yes,” she says, still guarded.

“Haven’t you noticed that in the days preceding his nightmares, he presents symptoms in his hand and in his leg?”  She says nothing, and he can’t help but turn and mutter, “No, of course you haven’t.” He waves a hand dismissively.

“I’m sorry,” she spits.  “If his leg is bothering him, why did you take him bloody running today?”

Sherlock fights the urge to roll his eyes.  “Exercise helps,” he says, wheeling back toward her, and then he just lays it out, “Exercise and work help the most.  He didn’t have a shift today at the surgery, which might be problematic, but from the looks of things, you two have quite obviously had a shag, so it is possible that he is physically spent enough that tonight won’t be an issue, but do make sure he keeps busy until the symptoms pass.”

Her face is red, from anger and, likely, embarrassment, but Sherlock isn’t concerned with her.

She takes a deep breath before speaking.  “Don’t talk to me like I don’t know him.  It’s you I’ve only just met.  Tell me this, Sherlock—what sort of toll do you think watching his best friend jump off a building took?  Do you know that I met him nearly a year after you’d gone, and what do you think he shouted in his sleep?  ‘Sherlock, no.’”  She steps in close. “Don’t you dare talk to me like I’m fucking new.”

Sherlock steps impossibly closer because the whole thing is growing tiresome, and this is the language she’s choosing to speak at the minute.  He keeps his tone low, keeps an ear out for John.  “And don’t you presume to know anything about it. If you would actually talk to him, or hell, even ask me, you might have sufficient data to pass judgment.  As it stands, you do not have all the data, but I will give you some.  Despite whatever it is that you think you know, I did not leave for my own twisted amusement.  I left because it was absolutely necessary.  I returned the very second it was possible.  So don’t talk to me like you are the only one who— cares for him.”

They are still standing nearly nose to nose when John comes in with a tray of teacups.  “Is everything all right in here?” he asks, setting the tray on the coffee table.

Sherlock backs away first.  “Yes, quite,” he says, picking up one of the cups and taking a sip.  “Thank you, John.”  He carries it with him to the desk where he flips open his laptop and begins entering the preliminary information from his beetle experiment into a spreadsheet.

Mary moves up the stairs to John’s room, and John hesitates, shifting a bit on the balls of his feet for just a moment before climbing the stairs himself.

=====

John doesn’t know what he’s interrupted when he comes in with the tea, but he is sure it’s Sherlock’s fault, sure that he’s said something absolutely out of order.  Mary dismisses herself quickly, leaving John to decide whether to tell off Sherlock or follow Mary.  Sherlock has instantly disengaged, working at his computer, so John reckons it is definitely in his better interest to go after Mary.

The second he steps through the door, Mary sits on his bed with a sigh.  “Tell me John, because I am missing something here—why are you so completely forgiving of him?  Why did he leave?  I must be missing something because that is one hell of a lie to just… let go.”

John sits next to her and drops his head into his hands, scrubbing them through his hair for a minute.  When he straightens back up again, he starts talking.  He tells her the whole story, as he understands it, from the beginning. 

He starts with the taxi driver and the bombings and the pool.  He moves on to Moriarty’s arrest and trial and to Richard Brooke and the media and police fiasco and what he knows of what came later.  He tells her about the snipers and Moriarty’s trap, about the network of crime Sherlock left to end, to keep him—to keep them all—safe.

It is all so much more overwhelming when he lays it out like this, and by the end, he can hardly bear it, what Sherlock has done.  Saying it all out loud makes it that much more real, slides the all the little pieces together in a way that rubs at that unnamable raw thing inside his chest.  It’s so much simpler to be angry, which he still is for many reasons, but none of them seem to matter all that much at the minute.

Mary looks far away, lost.  He takes her hand.  “Are you all right?”

“I’m such a fool,” she says.  Then, “I should have asked you sooner.”

“I should have told you sooner.”

=====

By November, John is spending most of his nights at Mary’s, so Sherlock is somewhat surprised (pleasantly so) to see John settled in his chair, watching television alone when Sherlock comes in late from the lab.

“There’s leftover curry in the fridge,” John says by way of greeting.  “Had to move the tray of spleens out of the way, but I managed to make it all fit.”  John is looking at him, and Sherlock knows perfectly well that he had agreed to keep his experimental samples contained to the bottom shelf, but that was full of sheep brains, and the spleens would most certainly go off had he just kept them on the counter.

“Thank you.  I’m not hungry,” Sherlock says, taking off his coat and scarf.  He sits in his own chair and watches with John for a bit before a building front explodes on screen.  The shatter pattern of the glass is all wrong.  Sherlock scoffs.

“What?” John asks.

Sherlock reaches over and takes the remote control from the arm of John’s chair. 

“Oi!” John protests, trying to snatch it back, but Sherlock ignores him, turning quickly to aim it at the screen, rewinding a bit before hitting pause.

“See,” Sherlock says, pointing to the screen, where shards of break-away glass were flying out of the windows.  “Just there, do you see?  In an actual explosion—“

John cuts him off when he stands, grabbing Sherlock firmly by the wrist with one hand, and takes back the remote with the other.  His face is in an exaggerated scowl, but there is a trace of humour in the lines of his eyes.  “Can’t you ever just turn it off?  Nobody watches a Chuck Norris film for its scientific accuracy, Sherlock.” 

Sherlock swallows because John has stayed in his personal space, fingers still tight around his wrist, for quite a few seconds longer than he normally would.  Sherlock is becoming distracted by the way John smells, clean bar soap and a trace of spice from his dinner. 

“Obviously,” Sherlock says.  Neither he nor John move for a few more seconds, not until John grins and jabs the blunt end of the remote into Sherlock’s stomach. 

“Yeah, Obviously,” John says, smiling.  Sherlock smiles, too.  John puts his hands on Sherlock’s chest and walks him backwards until his calves bump against the seat of his chair.  John’s touch goes firmer, pressing him down.  “Now sit down and watch Americans set things on wildly-unrealistic fire.  It’s good for the soul.”

=====

John likes that it has become something of a tradition at 221b Baker Street, to have everyone for drinks and nibbles on the night before Christmas Eve.  Inside, it is warm and cheerful, largely thanks to Mrs Hudson turning up yesterday morning with boxes of fairy lights and garland.  The sitting room is full of people:  Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, Molly and her boyfriend, John and Mary, Mike and his wife, and Sherlock, who is amiably playing Christmas carols like he’s actually enjoying himself.  They drink wine and eat to bursting and laugh and pull crackers and wear paper crowns on their heads. 

John’s phone rings at 10:14.  Everyone who would usually ring him is in the room, so he knows even before checking the caller ID.  It’s not from her number, so dread begins to pool in his gut.

“Hello,” he answers, walking through the kitchen into Sherlock’s bedroom.  He needs to escape the noise so he can hear properly.

“May I speak with Mr John Watson, please?” The voice on the other end of the line is a stranger.

“This is John Watson.” 

“Hello, Mr Watson.  My name is April Simms, and I’m a nurse at Finchley Community Hospital.  You are listed as an emergency contact for Harriet Watson, is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s right.  I’m her brother.”  John sinks heavily to sit Sherlock’s bed.

“Harriet was admitted earlier this evening through A&E.  She’s been in a car accident.”  Her voice sounds very far away as she goes into the few details she’ll get to on the phone—Harry had been driving drunk and managed to wrap her car around a light pole.

“Is she—?”  John can’t bear to say it out loud.

“Mr Watson, I think it’s best that you come in—tonight, if you can.  She is alive, but critical.”

“I’ll be there,” John says.  “Thank you.”

“Goodbye,” says April Simms.

John pinches the bridge of his nose.  When he looks up, Sherlock is standing just beside him.  He hadn’t noticed that he’d even come in.  Sherlock presses a few buttons on his mobile and actually brings it to his ear.

It must have only rung once because Sherlock is speaking after only a second or two. 

“John needs a car.  Right now.  Finchley Community Hospital.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Happy Christmas.  Yes.”  He turns to John, “The car will be here in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” John says. Sherlock nods.

Everyone is gone with kisses on the cheek and well-wishes before Mycroft’s car even arrives.  Mary hugs him tight, holding him for a long time.  He assures her that there is nothing for her to do tonight, so she might as well go home.  He sees her into a taxi, gives her cash for the fare.  She’ll see him tomorrow afternoon. 

John thinks bitterly that his sister always had been both the life and the death of any party she attended, eager to get the drinks flowing and unable to stop before things spiraled out of control.  This applied, apparently, even to the ones where she didn’t even turn up (though she was invited).  He hates her so much right now.

Sherlock, of course, climbs into the car behind him.  John doesn’t even bother trying to convince him not to.  And truth be told, Sherlock is the one person on this planet that he wants anywhere near him right now.  They ride in silence, but John can feel the warm weight of Sherlock’s body in the seat next to him the whole way, never quite touching but solid and there none the less.

Once at the hospital, there is paperwork.  Harry is alive but unconscious, her face almost entirely obstructed by gauze and tubes and tape.  What he can see of it is purpled with bruises.  She really did do a number this time.  He pulls up a chair and sits next to her, watching the monitors and the drip, drip, drip of the I.V.  The room smells of antiseptic and generic soap, and Sherlock comes in after a while with an exceptionally awful cup of tea.  John drinks it anyway.  Sherlock pulls in another chair from somewhere and sits next to him, never speaking, but always there.

John wakes in the morning when the shift nurse comes in to check Harry’s vitals and switch out her saline bag.  Sherlock’s chair is empty.  John checks Harry’s chart himself, though he doesn’t really need to.  It won’t tell him anything he doesn’t know already; if she doesn’t come back to consciousness in the next twenty-four hours, she could be in real danger.  He phones Clara to tell her what’s happened.  She is with family in Brighton and won’t be able to come until that evening.

John stands and stretches deeply, then makes his way to the attached bathroom.  He washes his face as best he can in the cramped space and runs a hand along his cheek, inspecting the lines that have somehow managed to deepen over night.  His whiskers scratch audibly against his fingers; he should shave.  The hospital towel is rough and nubby and smells of cheap detergent. 

When he opens the door, Harry is still unconscious, machines softly beeping and hissing and clicking away behind her.  Sherlock comes back with the morning newspaper and another cup.  This time, though, it’s proper coffee—from the Costa that is downstairs next to the gift shop.  He takes it gratefully. 

Sherlock looks as rumpled as he’s ever seen him in public, suit slightly wrinkled, hair frizzing out oddly at the ends, day’s growth of beard patchy on his chin and jaw.  “I’ve let Sarah know that you won’t be making your shift this morning.  She said to take whatever time you need.”

“Thank you,” John says, and he means it.  He’d completely forgotten about work. 

Sherlock sits back down in his chair and flips open the paper, removing the sports section and silently offering it up to John.  He takes it and sits back down himself, and they read for a while.  If John holds the paper close enough to his face, he can almost pretend like he’s at Baker Street as they read and exchange sections back and forth.  Occasionally John will comment or Sherlock will hum or cluck or call some Member of Parliament a moron.  Once the paper has been re-folded and placed atop Harry’s rolling food tray, they slip into silence again. 

Harry takes a turn for the worse mid-morning, monitors beeping frantically as half a dozen people come in to poke and press and work.  It takes more than John’s will to stop him from jumping in, too; it takes Sherlock’s hand on his arm, long fingers holding him steady, Sherlock’s voice saying softly, let them do their jobs, John.  

John and Sherlock are pushed aside as they wheel Harry out, into surgery.  An hour passes, then two.  A doctor comes in to let them know that the surgery has gone well and she’ll be back in the room for recovery soon.

Sherlock brings lunch, cold sandwiches and crisps from a shop up the street.  John eats half.  It tastes like cardboard in his mouth. 

When they do wheel Harry back in, she looks almost exactly the same as she did when she left.  John finds himself wondering what it would be like to watch her grow old like this, hair graying and muscles atrophying to nothing while she sleeps forever.  It is too early to let his brain follow this train of thought to its end, but he’s not an idiot.  He knows the odds.

He sighs deeply, resting his head on his folded hands.  Someone passing by might think he was praying, but he isn’t—he’s learned better.  Yes, he is.

Even with his eyes closed, John knows Sherlock has sat next to him.  John is still reeling; his mind doesn’t know where to land.  He cannot help but think that if Harry dies, that’s it—that’s all the family he has left.   He needs to hold onto something solid and real, so he takes Sherlock’s hand without even turning his head.  Sherlock doesn’t quite flinch, doesn’t pull away, but John can feel the muscles in his arm tense briefly before Sherlock fully allows it.

Sherlock’s hand is a large, bony thing, and John holds on tight, like it’s the one thing that is holding him together, keeping him from shattering into a million pieces.  He presses the pad of his thumb against the back of Sherlock’s hand, once, and then he looks over to see Sherlock looking back at him with an intensity that unsettles him.  Sherlock tilts his head to the side, and when he returns the gesture, pressing his own thumb against John’s skin, John feels exposed in a way he doesn’t understand.  He clears his throat and drops Sherlock’s hand, moving so his back is fully lined up against his chair. 

Sherlock starts to stand and go, but John reaches out again, pulling him back by the arm.  “No, stay.  Please.”  Sherlock pauses, then settles back in the chair after a moment. 

When Mary arrives mid-afternoon, she comes in slowly, tentatively.  Sherlock gives him an odd look before he walks out, typing on his mobile phone, leaving them alone. 

Mary has only met Harry a couple of times.  One was good—Harry had been going to her meetings, had got back with Clara.  The other was disastrous, an evening that ended with Harry throwing an entire pan of lasagna against her kitchen wall, sending sauce and shattered glass everywhere. 

Mary places a hand on John’s shoulder and kisses his cheek.  I love you, she says, asks if there’s anything she can do.  No, he tells her.  There is nothing to do.

=====

At the Costa downstairs, Sherlock pays the woman at the till for his cup of coffee before going out for a cigarette.  He finds a relatively quiet place to stand, absently watching people walk by, in and out of the sliding doors at the main entrance.   As he lets the caffeine and nicotine work their way into his system, he doesn’t stop himself from acknowledging the weight of the past months. 

Sitting with John in the hospital has snagged at something inside his own chest, and for the first time, he allows himself to properly consider it—this feeling.  He thinks he’s starting to see things a little more clearly, and he is beginning to understand how it’s connected to the reasons his body reacts the way it does when John is physically near—the impulses to lean closer, to breathe in more deeply.  There is science behind these impulses, nothing more than chemical reactions.  Before, the obvious conclusion had always been that sentiment was fleeting; that the emotions that inevitably surrounded it were changeable, unstable, pointless.  But this time, the feeling is tied to John, and it hasn’t changed; if anything, it has grown stronger.  It isn’t comfortable, but Sherlock decides he won’t—knows he can’t—back away from it this time.

If he is truly, genuinely honest with himself, he knows the name for what he feels. He has known it for a very long time.  He stays outside for long minutes, even after his cigarette is done and his cup is empty before slowly winding his way through the corridors back to Harry’s room. 

In the doorway, he watches Mary as she slides an arm around John’s waist, leaning in close.  John instantly returns her embrace, and the straight line of his spine relaxes a bit as his thumb moves in circles at her shoulder blade.  Sherlock knows the exact moment that John registers Sherlock’s presence.  His body tenses again, shoulders stiffening.  He doesn’t turn around, but he pulls away from Mary, just slightly. 

John is exhausted, ashen-faced and careworn, and Sherlock’s body reacts to this, too, with an uneasy ache in his chest.  Whatever this feeling has become now, it is so far beyond the desire to touch or the need for closeness.  Sherlock is surprised to find that it is beginning to matter less and less what he wants for himself; he resolves to do whatever he must do, so that John can have some peace.

=====

Clara arrives late in the evening, a couple of hours after Mary had gone.  John asks if she’d like him to say, but she says no.  She tells John to go home and have a proper shower and a proper meal, some actual sleep.  She holds Harry’s hand and whispers in her ear, and John feels like he’s intruding. 

From the backseat of Mycroft’s car, Sherlock says, “Lestrade has a case,” breaking their silence.  He looks up, directly into John’s eyes.  “I won’t be back at the hospital, I’m afraid.  I’m going to do this one on my own.  Mycroft will keep the car ready as long as you need it.”

Even with everything else that’s happening, John’s insides lurch unpleasantly at the idea of Sherlock working a proper case without him.  “Are you sure?  I could help some, could use the distraction.”

“Quite.  You need to be available for your sister and Clara.”  Sherlock bites at his lower lip. “And to Mary.”

“What?” John asks.

“John, I think I should work more on my own from here, don’t you?”

John does not want to have this conversation right now.  “What?  No. Where is this coming from?”

Sherlock fixes John with a gaze so intense; it feels like the walls of the car are actually closing in on him.  Sherlock speaks softly. “John.  I need you to let me work on my own

John's chest feels like it’s shrinking, skin too tight around his ribcage.  Is this a break up?   His own words sound strangled when he says, “If that’s… if that’s what you want.”   It feels like a break up.

“Need,” Sherlock corrects, and it’s so quiet. Then, he gives the driver Mary’s address.

=====

Mary kisses him when he arrives, and John excuses himself to take a shower.  His thoughts are still swimming.  Under the spray, his brain feels fuzzy, and the warm water saps any remaining life from his tired muscles.  He collapses naked on the bed and is asleep before his head hits the pillow. 

He dreams of the beach, of warm sun and blue eyes framed with blonde hair.  Laughter.  A violin begins playing Mele Kalikimaka, and it is swallowing up everything, even the sound of the surf.  He feels like he’s floating, light at first, but then drunk and heavy, and then he is drowning in salt water, alone and gasping for air. 

It is light when he wakes up.  He is alone in the bed and cold to his bones, not feeling much more rested than he did last night; that raw, unnamable feeling in his chest feels exactly the same.  He throws on some clothes and makes his way to the kitchen, where Mary is already settled at the little table, in jeans and a jumper.  It’s Christmas Day, he realises.

“Good morning,” he says.  “Is there coffee?”

“Yeah,” Mary says, moving to get it down from the cupboard.   “Happy Christmas.”

John works his features into a smile.  “Happy Christmas.”  He crosses over to kiss her.

“Are we doing presents?” she asks, hesitation in her voice.  “Or do you want to get back to hospital?”

“Yeah, no.  We should do presents. It’s Christmas.”

They exchange gifts, and he helps her with the clasp of the sapphire necklace he got for her.  He can remember picking it out in the shop because it matched her eyes; he couldn’t wait to see her face when she opened it.  But when she smiles at him now, kisses him, thanks him, it is as if he is watching it all on film, like he’s not really there at all. 

He is back at the hospital before lunchtime; Harry’s condition hasn’t changed.  Clara’s eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot, dark circles like bruises underneath.  He sends her home to get some real sleep and some decent food. 

The second chair has been removed, placed back in its proper spot, he reckons.  The room feels bigger now, with just him and Harry.  He switches off the volume on the mounted television, the chatter of it scraping at the insides of his head uncomfortably.  He leaves it to flicker mutely because it gives him something to look at that isn’t a bad work of modern art in mauve and grey or the rhythmic up and down of Harry’s respirator.  He dozes off and on as the evening becomes night, startled awake any time one of the staff comes in to work. 

It just so happens that he is awake at 2:47 in the morning when Harry stirs and shifts on her own, soft moan coming from her throat.  He’s leaning up toward her in an instant.  “Don’t try to talk, Har, you’ve got a tube down your throat to help you breathe.  I’ll get the doctor.” 

Soon, he’s pushed aside again to leave them to their work.  He feels like he’s being swallowed whole by relief.  She’s going to be just fine, just fine.  He’ll be angry with her tomorrow, he decides.

He calls Clara first, unsurprised when she says she’s coming right away, despite the late hour; next he calls Mary, who sounds sleepy but genuinely happy.  It isn’t until after he’s fired off the text to Sherlock that he thinks maybe he shouldn’t have, but he can’t take it back now.

The door to Harry’s room is still shut, so he goes down the corridor to the little waiting room for another horrible cup of tea.  He sits at a table littered with months-old women’s magazines and newspapers from last week.  He picks up one of them, turning pages, stopping when he finds a half-completed crossword puzzle. 

He’s filled in four or five answers when Sherlock walks through the door.  John is surprised to see him, had fully expected him to keep his distance after their conversation yesterday.  John is ecstatic that he didn’t. 

He stands instantly, launching himself forward, wrapping his arms around his friend.  Sherlock’s arms go around him, too, and the wool at Sherlock’s collar smells of expensive shaving cream and cigarette smoke.  Something inside John breaks wide open—relief and anger and gratitude all come tumbling out together in one choked sob, and he pulls Sherlock closer, unable to let go. 

Sherlock pulls back, after a beat, hands still at John’s shoulders.  John looks him in the eye, fully intending on thanking him for coming, but he can’t get the words out because Sherlock is looking back at him, and it should feel normal, but instead, it feels charged.  For one wild second, John’s entire body is thrumming with it.

Sherlock blinks.  “John,” he says, looking like he’s stepped out of a trance.  He backs away suddenly, as if burned.  “I’m sorry,” he says.  “I shouldn’t have come.”  He is gone in a swirl of fabric, leaving John breathless and confused, totally unable to gather his wits as he blindly follows.

When he turns the corner, Mary is there, looking for all the world like she’s been punched in the gut.  The jewels at her throat catch the fluorescent lights with a twinkle, and John feels sick.  Mary practically sprints away.

He knows he should run after her, but he can’t seem to make his feet move.  He doesn’t have the first clue as to what he would say to her if he caught her, and that raw space in his chest is being ripped to shreds, turning the rest of his insides to useless mush.  He staggers back to lean against a wall. 

John is floating, drowning, gasping.  It takes him a minute, but he eventually gets his breathing under control and does the only thing he can think of—he walks back to Harry’s room; he needs to check on his sister.

Clara is already there, and the doctors have taken out Harry’s breathing tube—she’s doing fine on her own.  She is crying and apologizing and crying some more.  John kisses her on the forehead and reminds her to stop talking, to let her vocal chords heal, that they’ll get through this.  Harry is sleeping again after a while.  He hugs Clara, kisses her cheek, and leaves, promising to be back tomorrow.

=====

He takes a taxi to Mary’s in the grey light of early morning.  His thoughts are full of things he doesn’t understand.  

She is sleeping on the sitting room sofa when he arrives.  He tries to be quiet, not wanting to wake her, but she stirs and sits up when he sets his keys on the table.  She is blinking sleepily at him as he takes the seat next to her.  She looks so pretty just then, cheeks pink, eyes blue like the sea.  Her hair is a mess, little halo of frizz visible in the light around her. 

“How is Harry?” she asks, voice flat.

“Recovering,” he says.  “She’s going to be okay.”

“That’s good.”  Then, “How’s Sherlock?”

John doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing.  He can’t look at her just then, so he picks a spot on the opposite wall, a watercolour—flowers in a vase, transparent brushstrokes in green and red, yellow and purple.

Her voice is shaky when she starts speaking again.  “Have you two ever… I mean, are you…?”  She lets the question hang there, in the space between them.

He does look up then, meets her in the eye.  He still can’t find his voice, but he shakes his head no.  He wants to protest, to tell her that the very idea is absurd, that it isn’t like that.  After all, he has said it before, over and over until his throat was raw, to dozens of people who made the exact same assumption; he said it so often that at some point, he stopped even bothering with it.  John realises now: the idea isn’t absurd, not any more.  Maybe it never has been.

She sighs, wrapping her fingers around his.  “If I asked you to move in here with me, to stop seeing him, would you do that?”  He thinks about it so long that she lets go, pulls her hand back into her own lap. 

“I… don’t think I could, no,” he answers honestly.  She turns her head away from him.

“I’m such an idiot,” she says, and then she groans, head falling down into her hands.

He tries to pull her close.  “No, you’re not.  You’re not.  Mary—”

“Don’t,” she says, but the word comes out more like a sob.  She’s pushes him away as she stands.

He grabs her wrist, pulls her back to him.  “Mary, no.  No.  This is real.  I love you. I am in love with you.  I love you,” he says, and he can’t stop, he says it again and again.  He falls to his knees, burying his face in her stomach, clutching at her sides, her arms, her legs—anywhere he can reach.  His he is losing her; it’s like trying to carry the beach in his hands.

She makes a horrible noise, guttural and wet, and she falls to her knees as well. “I know,” she says.  “I know you do.” She kisses him on the mouth; she tastes like salt water.  Then she kisses his cheek, breath warm against his skin, fingers solid at the nape of his neck.  She pulls back, thumbs brushing his cheeks the way she always does.  “I need more than that,” she says.  He hates this. He knows she’s right.

They help each other up, and she crosses the room to where she’s packed a bag, and for a moment, he thinks she’s going to leave.  But—she drops it at his feet.  The bag is for him, their life together neatly packed away.  He lifts the strap and throws it over his shoulder, slips her key off his ring, hands it to her, and leaves.

There is a taxi waiting for him outside. 

“Where to, mate?” the driver asks.

=====

He hasn’t been in Harry’s flat since the night with the lasagna.  The air reeks of stale wine and off rubbish.  He drops the bag at the door and goes to the kitchen, side stepping empty bottles and clothes and take-away containers. 

He pulls a bin liner from the drawer, and he starts dropping the rubbish in.  The bag isn’t half full before plastic around the tips of his fingers is stretching, near to ripping for the weight of the bottles.  His elbow catches on a glass, and it falls to the floor with a crash.  With a frustrated growl, he grabs the stem of another glass and hurls it as hard as he can against the wall.  He finds another and another until all the wine glasses lay about his feet, a million sharp edges glittering in the light.

He suddenly turns, bracing his hands on either side of the sink, shutting his eyes against the mess around him.  He takes a deep breath, in and out, and when he opens his eyes, he turns on the hot tap, lets it run while he goes to find the broom.

He spends hours cleaning, moving from room to room, putting things back in order, and when it is all done, he sinks into a chair in the sitting room.  He doesn’t know what to do now.  He sits for a long time.

He takes his phone from his pocket and hits the buttons until the messaging app is open.  His thumb hovers, because this stupid little message feels like the biggest decision he’s made in a long time.

He types, Mary and I split up.  He looks at it for ages before he taps the little button that says “send.”

The response isn’t immediate, but it doesn’t take long before the phone beeps in his hand.

I’m sorry.  –SH

Staying at Harry’s flat tonight.

Again, he waits a minute or two before the response comes. 

You could come back to Baker Street.  –SH

Not tonight, John sends next. 

Whenever you’re ready.  –SH

=====

John stays at Harry’s for another couple of days.  The quiet gives him some space to think, to breathe, to sort himself out a bit.  He’s never been much for brooding, more of an in-with-both-feet sort, and it doesn’t take him much time before he finds himself in the back of a taxi, heading back to Baker Street.

He is still confused, unsure about what’s next, but he has lost that heavy feeling he’d got accustomed to over the past months.  He pays the driver and then climbs up seventeen steps.  They feel both deeply familiar and brand new under his feet.

He opens the door to find Mrs Hudson in the sitting room with Sherlock.  She is chattering on pleasantly, stopping only when she sees John in the doorway.  Sherlock’s eyes find him, flicker from the bag in his hands, back up to John’s face, and John’s heart rises to his throat.  He does his best to swallow it back down.

“Hello, John dear,” she says.  “Fancy a cuppa, would you?”  But when she looks back and forth between John and Sherlock, she balks a bit, waving her hand toward the door behind her.  “I, er…  I think I left my… downstairs.  I’ll just leave you boys alone, now, shall I?” and she’s gone, just like that.

John drops the bag and walks to where Sherlock is sitting in his chair.  He takes a deep breath and says the only thing he’s been thinking:  “So, how do we do this, then?” He pats the cushion at the back of his chair before sitting in it. “Any ideas, Sherlock?”  He crosses his legs, ankle over knee.

Sherlock’s mouth twitches upwards in the briefest smile.  He inhales sharply.  “Four, so far,” he says, and he sits up straighter, eyes never leaving John.

“Well, I’m glad to hear it, because I haven’t the first clue.”  John is finding it hard to maintain the easy tone of voice he’s working at because every nerve in his body is on bloody fire.

Sherlock looks like he is considering John as he leans forward, elbows on his knees, steepled hands just under his chin.  “Two,” Sherlock says, and he leans forward a bit more, shifting to the edge of his chair.

John uncrosses his legs and leans forward also.  “Yeah?” he asks, and his voice breaks a bit.  His own face twitches then, a smile that he checks by pursing his lips.

They stay like that for a very long time.  John feels like he’s sat on a bowstring, and what he wants, more than anything, is to touch Sherlock.  Sherlock is infuriatingly still, looking like a perfect statue perched on the edge of that leather chair. 

“Still only two?” John asks.

Sherlock hums, and the sound lands deep in John’s belly. 

“Yeah.  Sod this,” John mutters, and he shoots forward, wrapping a hand around the nape of Sherlock’s neck, and there is warm skin under his fingertips.  John guides Sherlock to standing, and Sherlock rests his forehead against John’s. 

John leans forward just a little more, and then he’s pressing his lips against Sherlock’s.  It’s a dry, chaste thing, all closed mouths and pressure, but John likes it.  Even with his eyes closed, everything around him is Sherlock, smell and skin and breath.  And when Sherlock shifts, opening his mouth just enough to turn it into a proper kiss, John feels like it’s the final piece of a puzzle sliding into place.  It’s all so clear to him now—it has always been this.

==END==