John steps out of the tube, limping slightly, and heads towards the stairs. Ping. His mobile sounds a text message alert as he climbs up and out of the tunnel into the dull cold of the London night. He makes no effort to dig his mobile out of his coat. There was a time when he would have begun scrambling through his layers immediately, he would already have the mobile out in his hand by now, and it would be Sherlock, with some urgent, asinine request. But now, there are no texts worth scrambling for. Whoever it is can wait until he gets home, or until morning, it doesn't matter.
He's exhausted. It's been a long, busy day at the surgery. Which is perfect. No time between patients, no time for proper lunch or tea, no time for anything until he is numb with fatigue and then he can put one foot in front of the other until he is on his sofa, letting the buzzing light of the telly wash over him, until he opens his eyes the next morning to do it again.
300 meters, turn left, 100 meters, left again, 150 meters, turn right, 70 meters and stop. John's mobile rings as he unlocks the door and continues to ring two, three, four, five times as he steps into the lift. He watches the numbers flit above the lift door. It's a nondescript building, newer construction, poor quality, won't last. He can afford the rent with his pension as long as he keeps getting shifts at the surgery, and he has been. He's been picking up as many shifts as he can, covering for other doctors, taking all the holidays, dreading his days off.
Ninth floor, the lift stops with a lurch as if it remembered just in time. The doors slide open and John trudges under flickering fluorescent lights toward his flat at the end of the hall. He steps inside, closes and bolts the door behind him, hangs up his coat, and sets his keys on the table without turning on the light. He can do this because he knows the table is still there, and he also knows his keys will still be there in the morning. Living without Sherlock means things are always where he put them, his laptop doesn't disappear while he's in the loo, small carcasses don't suddenly turn up among the breakfast dishes, his toothbrush is always and only used for teeth.
The light still off, John turns away from the door and toward the sofa, lit by the streetlights from the window. Mid-step, he freezes. There is an armchair facing the sofa, and extending from the armchair, two impossibly long legs.
In one painfully slow motion, the legs uncross and rise from the chair. John swallows and forces himself to look at the rest of the body, which is the body of a dead man. John doesn't believe in ghosts. The face staring at him looks all wrong, pale skin made grotesque by blue and red and green flashing from the street, shadows hollowing out the eyes and cheeks – ghastly, but very much alive.
"Hello John." That voice is unmistakeable. He clenches his fists, bites the inside of his cheek, and reaches behind him to turn on the light. The bluegreen eyes are burning into him. One corner of the mouth starts to twist, tentatively, into a smile. The dead man steps forward, so slowly, as if he's afraid of startling a small animal. "John, it was the only way. I had to fake my –"
Sherlock anticipates the left hook and ducks just in time, but that only brings him closer to the right uppercut, which he doesn't see coming, doesn't expect that blow to throw his face back into the left fist, and his arms are up to block the next blow, but then an elbow drives into his stomach, throwing him to the floor. John is straddling him in an instant, driving his fist down, feeling the satisfying crack of knuckles against cheekbone, bringing his arm back to strike again, but this time he sees a bloodied white face, dark curls, still grey eyes, he knows this too well, that blood streaked across that face, the image that is always floating at the edge of his mind, always threatening to take over, only this time the grey eyes are looking at him and they blink.
John jumps up and staggers back. Sherlock stands, traces his long fingers over his temple and cheek, across his bottom lip, under his chin, quickly inventorying all the places John's fists made contact, and examines his fingers to see the blood he has wiped away. He clears his throat, "Yes, you're upset – "
John turns away.
"John, you must let me explain."
"Shut. Up. Let me think."
Sherlock opens his mouth to suggest that John should stick to what he knows and leave thinking to professionals, but considers that this might not be a good time, and sucks in his breath sharply instead. He notes how John's back tenses in response, and concludes that he's made the correct decision.
John takes four very deep breaths and turns toward the kitchen. "Kitchen" is a generous term. There's a hot plate, a microwave, a minifridge, and a very small sink. It's good for making tea and not much else, but John needs to think, and making tea always helps. He puts the kettle on to boil. He needs to think. About what? He can hear Sherlock breathing behind him. Sherlock is breathing. He needs to think about this: Sherlock being alive, here, in his flat, what the hell is he supposed to do with that? He turns the kettle off and grabs a bottle and a glass from the pantry.
"I'd prefer tea," announces Sherlock casually, perhaps trying a bit too hard.
"Make your own bloody tea," John replies.
He sits in the armchair, pours himself a double, knocks it down, and closes his eyes. Sherlock decides the tea can wait until John is in the mood to make it for him, and sits on the sofa. Ping. John doesn't move, because the only person who he might like to see a text from is dead, and is sitting in front of him.
John pours another and drinks it a little slower. He is staring at the floor, at Sherlock's feet. This seems safe enough. Just a little at a time. Those shoes are poorer quality than anything he's seen Sherlock wear; in fact they're coming apart at the sole and are covered in mud. John is sure the feet must be cold and wet and in the back of his mind he thinks, Sherlock would never have cold wet feet. His eyes slowly climb up the legs – such ill-fitting trousers, and worn at the knees even? – to the long pale fingers tapping nervously on his thighs. Stained fingernails; he's smoking again. Conscious of the attention, the fingers leap up away and come back together, clasped, below the chin, and then there's the mouth, soft lips pulled tight, worrying the bottom lip. John pauses there. He's not ready to hear the voice again, but this is a dead end, he can't go forward without information.
"Start talking," John says.
Sherlock starts. Moriarty had snipers trained on John, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade, he explains, and was bent on destroying Sherlock, on his suicide, on...
John is trying to listen, but half his brain is still buzzing with anger and confusion and adrenaline, while the other half is drinking in the details of the dead man's face. And now that he's really looking, he sees the eyes are flashing blue with intensity, but they're also slightly bloodshot. He notices the drops of sweat on the forehead and upper lip, and initially attributes it to the fight. But then he thinks, it should not have been that easy to pin Sherlock down. He notices too that Sherlock's speech is off, limping just slightly. John leans forward and reaches his hand inside the collar of Sherlock's coat, beneath his curls at the back of his neck, and finds the skin there so hot he draws his hand back abruptly.
"You have a fever," he says accusingly, the anger in his voice unabated.
"Mm," Sherlock acknowledges, annoyed to be pulled away from his story, which is really quite impressive, he thinks. "Yes, between 39.2 and 39.5 degrees. Anyway, obviously Moriarty was – "
Sherlock pauses, reminds himself, John is upset. He anticipated this, and indeed, John is quite upset, and also stronger and faster than Sherlock remembered and might decide to attack him again. The most efficient strategy will be to allow John to throw his tantrum. That way Sherlock can gather more data about John's irrational response, and then stop it. Humor John.
"Why do you have a fever?"
Sherlock sighs. Humoring John is already tiresome. "Honestly, John, you provoke serious misgivings about the value of a British medical education. The hypothalamus detects pyrogens in the bloodstream and signals the body to produce –"
"Sherlock, why do you have a fever?"
"The infection, obviously," he replies, gesturing vaguely at his torso. He would really like to get back to explaining his ingenious plan.
John grits his teeth. "Infection?"
Sherlock sighs again and begins to take off his overcoat. His life of late has required many compromises, and he hates this coat, a hideous mass-produced thing made of cheap, scratchy material, barely lined and already falling apart. The button on the left cuff fell off four and a half days after he bought it, and the bottom hem began to come undone a week later. It's the second one he's gone through since he left his old coat behind on another man's body.
Sherlock pulls the bottom of his shirt up, revealing his right side. John lets out a groan, half sympathy and half irritation. The wound, stretching from his ribs to just below his armpit, is red and festering, purple here and there, and smells terrible. It's not the worst John has ever seen but it's bad. Clearly Sherlock stitched it up himself. John imagines trying to stitch up his armpit with his non-dominant hand while in pain and shock and has to admit it's impressive under the circumstances, but the end result is not. "Idiot," he hisses and gets up to get his kit.
"Chasing a man in Tottenham," Sherlock explains, leaning back on the sofa and closing his eyes. "I thought I'd take a shortcut. Rooftops. Leapt across to another building and I…" Sherlock clears his throat, follows it with a little grunt. "I misjudged."
Coming back with his kit, John raises an eyebrow. He knows that before, he would have had to take a dig at Sherlock for this. He wouldn't have been able to resist. He opens his mouth to do it, but realizes he has nothing to say. Sherlock being hurt is not funny. Sherlock being alive is not funny.
Sherlock has opened his eyes and is watching John intently, waiting. Surely John will not let this go, it's too easy. But John just kneels on the floor beside him, tells him to lie down on the sofa, and begins cleaning his wound.
John doesn't ask, but Sherlock continues anyway. "Hit a fence on the way down, metal one, rather jagged." He looks down at John, whose eyes are narrowed in concentration and anger, and sees him grind his teeth slightly. "No, John, I will not go to hospital. I am still dead and need to remain that way for the time being. The hospital is far more dangerous than the wound or the infection."
John is silent. He has so many questions but right now, he is focused on the wound, the infection, the fever, the things he understands.
"When's the last time you ate, Sherlock?"
"Had a little something on Tuesday."
John grunts. "Last time you slept?"
"Sleep's boring. Been busy."
"I can see that. When."
It's not a question, it's an order, and Sherlock takes exception to that. Humoring John is becoming extremely dull. Besides, why isn't John acting even a little bit glad to see him? Of course this is a shock, but he is acting stupider than usual, and he is about to tell him that, but then considers that it is good to have someone else tending to his wound. It hurts like hell, but he knows John is being as gentle as he can be, and he appreciates that. "Yesterday," he lies.
Sherlock snorts. "You don't know that."
"Yeah, actually, I do." Sherlock opens his mouth to argue, but a sudden pain shoots through his side and he draws his breath in sharply. John glances up, then turns his attention back to the wound. He notes how Sherlock's ribs are sticking out, almost grotesquely. Has he been eating at all? His hand brushes accidentally across a smaller scar on Sherlock's chest. Knife fight, smugglers, Tilbury. John had been busy freeing their human cargo while Sherlock engaged two, then three of them, and would've got a lot worse than this scratch if John hadn't returned just in time with his Browning. He remembers fixing up that wound too, just like this on the sofa on Baker Street. He mentally inventories all the scars he knows on Sherlock's torso, arms, legs – the ones he knows intimately, having cleaned and stitched and monitored them himself, and the ones that predate him, that he's never touched.
He remembers standing in Bart's, afterwards, trying to explain to Molly Hooper that he had to see the body. Not that he didn't believe. He'd felt Sherlock's wrist himself, he didn't need proof. What he needed was to see the body, to take stock of the damage in a way he could understand. It had to have broken several bones in the impact. John needed to know how many and which ones. He needed to know where the blood came from, where exactly the skull had burst open. He needed to know how the body had landed, what hit first. (Sherlock would have known just from glimpsing how it lay on the sidewalk.) He needed to see the scars he knew best, the evidence of the times he had helped this body instead of standing by watching it fall. But Molly had stood firm. He'd never imagined she had it in her. He begged, pleaded, ended up on his knees, and then he drew himself up and got loud, pushed his chest against her and his mouth an inch from her face and yelled like a sergeant, and she didn't even flinch. He hated her. John has never hit a woman (drunken brawls with Harry don't count) but it scares him how badly he'd wanted to throw her up against the wall, crush his forearm against her windpipe, and watch fear take over her face. But he dug his fingernails into his own palms and didn't touch her, and it wasn't fear on her face, it was sadness or more likely pity and finally John gave up. And never saw the body.
He pauses, staring at the body in front of him. The festering wound. The knife scar. The pale skin. The blue veins. He counts out the rise and fall of Sherlock's breath.
"It was a cadaver," Sherlock says quietly. "Molly found –"
John can't hear this yet. He pops a thermometer into Sherlock's mouth and silently orders him to keep it in, glaring at him like a superior officer to a new recruit. Sherlock smiles. He's fond of that look, thinks of it as John's army face, and he has missed it terribly. John doesn't smile back. Sherlock is about to spit the thermometer out, to ratchet that glare up to the next level, when he remembers that he is humoring John. Besides, he is suddenly exhausted. He closes his eyes. Why is he so tired? He shouldn't be so tired, he napped on Wednesday. He remembers tea and thinks yes, a cup of tea would help him reorient himself, and yes he can make his own tea and he can make a cup for John too, John would like that, he'd be surprised but pleased, he takes it with milk but no sugar, and Sherlock thinks that the two of them drinking tea together might make John nostalgic, might trigger some chemical reaction so that he can calm down and be just a little bit happy to have Sherlock back. Yes, tea will help. Sherlock starts to get up. Instantly a hand appears out of nowhere, solid against his chest and pushing him right back into the sofa. Everything floats for a moment. A phone rings and rings and he wonders why John won't answer it, that's not like him. He vaguely notices the thermometer leaving his mouth and hears John grunt in annoyance.
"I was right then?," Sherlock mumbles.
"39.4," John replies. Sherlock smirks.
John's voice, gruff and angry – still angry? – is far away: "Sleep."
Humor John, Sherlock reminds himself. And he does.