John always finds the crack in the pavement, the one that looks like an arrow. Even in the shadows that gather between the streetlights, even now, at two in the morning, even after all this time, he finds it.
It points directly at the door to 221b. It tells him he's arrived, tells him he's home.
He pauses, sniffs, and shakes his head. He opens and closes his left hand. The knuckles are swollen and bruised, from punching the table at the Landmark. He did it to stop Sherlock. To stop Sherlock from talking. To stop himself, from saying more than he wanted to.
In his right hand, he’s got his first aid kit.
He didn’t want to come here. He tells himself that, again. And yet, here he is. The line of cause and effect is tangled.
In the third restaurant, Sherlock's words
you have missed this
Half hard in his pants, wholly mad with the need to climb inside Sherlock's clothes and never come out again, John smashes Sherlock's nose with his forehead, and leaves.
Two in the morning, outside 221b, John oscillates on the pavement, clutching the first aid kit too tightly. He knows exactly what it means. A love affair. It is. It is.
His life is a ruin. He's a ruin of a man, has been since the day Sherlock died. And now, when he's just about convinced himself that he might someday manage to have something resembling a life, Sherlock is back, and all the old feelings are back, trying to spring to life through John, and ruin him all over again.
He turns away from the door, and walks all the way to the street corner. Sighs. Squeezes the first aid kit. Opens and closes his left hand. Turns back. Searches for the crack in the pavement, the one that looks like an arrow. He finds it. He always does.
The third restaurant. The sensation of his forehead against the soft tissue of Sherlock's nose. Smash. The spurt of blood down Sherlock's upper lip. Wet. Hot.
In the cab, with Mary, John's mind scrambles for purchase, grasping at the life he thought he would have. (Have to settle for, no, don't think it, don't.)
At home, Mary changes into her pyjamas and brushes her teeth. John paces up and down the small length of their bedroom, clenching his hand and trying to breathe and not knowing what to do, not having a clue.
Mary pulls back the covers and climbs into bed. She reaches for the paperback novel she's been reading, a couple of pages at a time, since before they moved in together. ("It's boring. It helps me fall asleep.")
John stares, for longer than he should, at the empty place beside her, the place where he should be, the place where he was, just the night before, before, before. His eye twitches, and he tries to smile, and his lip trembles.
He strips, dropping the jacket and trousers of his best suit to the floor, turning away as he unbuttons the shirt. He keeps the right cuff hidden from Mary until he can ball the shirt up, hiding the blood stain inside it. He hopes she won't notice the smear of blood on the palm of his hand, the dark traces of it under his fingernails. He doesn't want to talk about it.
The blood is Sherlock's.
It happens at the second restaurant.
Who else knew?
He asks the questions blindly, losing himself, already lost. The answers burn him like hot lead, but they don't, ultimately, matter. Whoever Sherlock told, it wasn't John.
John goes blind with the truth: Sherlock didn't trust him. The truth fills his ears until he can't hear what Sherlock is saying any more. He waits until he can't stand the distance between them for one more moment. The pain drives him to attack; the longing drives him to touch.
John springs up onto the table and down into Sherlock's lap. He straddles Sherlock, the two of them tipping over onto the floor, John's left hand at Sherlock's throat, and his right, his right, doing what it shouldn't, slipping up under Sherlock's jacket, finding a gap where the shirt pulls out of his trousers. John does everything in his power to stop himself from pressing his face to Sherlock's neck, but his hand works its way up against the skin of Sherlock's lower back, fingers pressing, palm sliding, wrenching more of Sherlock's shirt free.
He holds Sherlock as he rides him down to the floor. Sherlock groans, and John hears it as a sound of passion, and groans in return, an ache and tremor pulled not so much from his throat, as direct from his groin. "Christ," he says aloud, as more words fill his mouth, trembling on the tip of his tongue.
He bends to hiss into Sherlock's ear, horrible, wonderful things:
go back to Baker Street
give me half an hour to get rid of her
I'll meet you there
the things I'll do the things I'll do to you
just meet me meet me
Before he can speak, Sherlock turns his head, and John's teeth bang into Sherlock's lip, splitting it.
So close to a kiss, and so far from it. An accident, an accident. John comes up tasting blood and trying, desperately, to taste the phantom of Sherlock’s skin, Sherlock’s mouth on his lips. He fails, and Mary is yelling, and the burly bloke from the next table over pulls him off Sherlock. John looks down and Sherlock's face is all blood and pain and it is wrong, and it is over, and they are both broken, and John knows it.
The cab ride home, with Mary.
After a while she stops talking about how much she likes Sherlock. John is glad for that. Her talk confuses him. He wants her to be on his side. He doesn't know what his side is.
How can you like him? You don't know him.
How can you like him? He's not likeable.
Neither am I. Neither am I.
John's shirt cuff is wet. It's been wet since the second restaurant. He's hidden it, pulled his coat sleeve down to cover it.
Mary falls silent and the cab sluices through the rain and the dark. John ducks his head and pulls up his coat sleeve and he sees the dark stain marking his cuff. It's a lot of blood, more than he can account for. This blood is Sherlock's, but it isn't from any wound John has made.
The shirt is ruined.
John is ruined too, and knows he will stay ruined, unless he can see where the blood came from, unless he can fix it, and the damage he did in anger.
John stands, wearing only his pants and socks, in the middle of the bedroom. Mary watches him over the cover of her boring paperback.
He goes to the laundry bin and pulls out his trousers and shirt from earlier, the ones he wore this afternoon, before he changed into his (best, most optimistic) suit. He puts the clothes on.
“Not coming to bed, then?” Mary asks.
“Hm. Wouldn’t sleep if I did.”
She nods, watching him carefully, head tilted. “Mind if I turn out the light then? I’m knackered.”
He watches her put the book down and reach for the switch, with all the same intensity he would use if he were watching an actual trainwreck. He stands there like an idiot, fist clenching and releasing, as the light goes out.
A light goes out inside him, too, as simple and easy as turning off the lamp. He won't name what's ended, but he knows. He knows. He listens to Mary settle under the covers of the bed.
He moves, a shell of himself, down the stairs to the kitchen, where he fetches the first aid kit down from the top cupboard. It's fully stocked, unused. Mary is careful. There are no experiments in this house, no accidents.
He climbs into the car. In the suburban quiet of a late Friday night, the slam of the door is explosive. He drives all the way into town, singleminded, knowing only that he needs to get there, and he will. He parks the car diagonally across the spot behind Speedy’s, where the delivery van stops each morning.
He walks down the alley and around the corner to Baker Street, searching for the crack in the pavement that looks like an arrow, and finding it.
He stares at the door, knuckles sore, first aid kit in hand.
In a few hours, he’ll have to move the car. He makes a mental note: remember. Don't get so caught up you'll forget.
He immediately forgets.
He blinks, and sniffs. He walks away, loops back. The crack in the pavement points the way home. The arrow inside him, the one made of flame, points there too.
He lets himself in with the key he never gave up. Mrs. Hudson never asked for it, and he never offered.
Inside, the house is quiet. It's the middle of the night. The third stair down from the landing squeaks as John steps onto it, announcing his arrival. No matter.
John feels Sherlock, feels his presence with every nerve ending. He hopes that Sherlock feels him too, knows that he could never stay away.
He can’t breathe. He isn’t good with emotion.
He is good, however, with pushing himself when he feels like he can’t go on. He carries on up the stairs, and moves through the open door to the sitting room.
Sherlock is standing in the kitchen doorway, holding a mug of tea, and wearing only his pyjama bottoms, the ones with the stripes. The soft light of the lamp in the sitting room, the one to the left of the sofa, illuminates Sherlock's skin. He's been in the shower. His hair is still wet, and a faint aroma of the soap he favours lingers in the air, simple and clean, the scent like freshly cut ginger.
John licks his lips.
Sherlock's collarbones stand out more sharply than they did the last time John saw him. His ribs are prominent. He hasn’t eaten well. No one to feed him up, then, these last two years.
John’s breath hitches. Sherlock’s nose is swollen, and his lip is cut. His eyebrows lift and his eyes are shining and wet.
John raises the first aid kit, and shakes it. “I thought I would—” he trails off. “I thought.”
Sherlock blinks, and, still facing John, shuffles two steps to his left, and places the mug of tea on the counter beside the sink. Not showing his back. “You don’t have to.” He looks down, away from John. “You have places to be. People to—”
“No. Please,” John says.
Sherlock slumps and eyes the corridor to his room, as if hoping he can still get away, maybe put on a shirt, hide whatever it is he has to hide.
“Please.” John puts the first aid kit down on the coffee table. “I’m not angry. I’m sorry for earlier. I just.”
“Not your fault. You had a bit of a shock.” Sherlock’s smirk is barely there.
John nods. He inhales sharply. Sherlock's hair is mussed, his skin luminous. There's a crust of blood beneath his nose. His lip is torn, where John's teeth hit it.
In John's dreams, the good ones, Sherlock is only hurt, not dead. John goes to him where he lies on the sidewalk, daubs the blood, applies bandages, and Sherlock springs back to life, leaping up from the sidewalk, only a little the worse for the fall.
This is no dream. This is no dream.
John goes to Sherlock, and takes his wrist in his hand. Warm. Sherlock is warm, his forearm firm under John’s fingers. He pulls Sherlock into the sitting room. He fetches a chair from the desk. He guides Sherlock to it, and sets him down sideways on it.
He takes a deep breath before he moves behind Sherlock to take a look.
The pale expanse of Sherlock’s back is lacerated, deep cuts in the skin overlaying long red welts. A thin wash of blood, drying now, runs from the higher, horizontal cut. Another trickles from the end of the lower wound, which starts at his left kidney and ends above his right hip. Whip marks.
"Oh." It's more a sigh than a word, the only sound in the room.
Sherlock’s head comes up. He talks to John over his shoulder.
“Unappealing, I know. I tried to deal with it myself, but I could only find two old plasters in the medicine cabinet. They wouldn’t stick, and I couldn’t reach.”
All John can think about is the way he pushed Sherlock down to the ground. Twice. The slap of Sherlock's back as he hit the floor at the Landmark. The back of the chair, at the second restaurant, striking the higher of the two lacerations as they went down together, John's fingers digging into the skin, his shirt cuff soaked in blood, probably from the lower wound.
"Where were you?" John tries to say. The words come out as a dry wheeze. "What happened?"
Sherlock doesn't answer.
John digs in the kit for gauze, tape, and antiseptic gel, and ends up dumping the whole thing out on the table. He goes to the bathroom and gets a clean flannel, runs it under warm water.
Everything hurts. He watches the water soak the cloth. Forward, Watson, he thinks. Just keep moving forward.
Sherlock still sits in the chair when John returns to the sitting room. “You don’t have to worry,” he says. “I’d planned to sleep on a towel. I’ll be fine.”
John makes a tutting noise, and uses the corner of the flannel to wipe away blood from the larger of the two open wounds.
Sherlock must have washed a lot of blood down the drain. The cuts are oozing now, but they were bleeding freely earlier. Blood must have soaked into his shirt, the lining of his jacket. John cleans the remainder away, gently, and fights the urge to bend down and press his lips to Sherlock's neck.
There will be scars.
John feels, as he always does, the tightness in his shoulder, where his own scar sits, a reminder of his own battles, the place where death marked him. Sherlock has always carried his wounds on the inside. John knows this. Now there is a map, a series of lines on the surface, a topography of Sherlock's suffering that John can study. John shivers. He vows, quietly to himself, that he’ll learn their meaning. He’ll come to understand each one, and what it means to Sherlock, to both of them.
Sherlock lowers his head as John pulls on latex gloves and coats two of his fingertips in antibiotic gel. He smooths the gel over the open wounds. His hands are gentle. He can be gentle. He regrets that he isn’t always.
He uses tape and gauze from the kit to cover everything up. When he's done, he straightens, and peels off the gloves.
“There.” His voice is failing him. His voice always fails him. He yelled his way through the earlier part of the evening; now he can barely talk at all.
He places a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. Not thinking. Doing. He rubs his thumb over the muscle there. It’s bunched. John’s fault. Sherlock took the landing for both of them, twice.
He thinks of the roof of Bart's, the fall. Three times.
Sherlock will be sore tomorrow, if he isn't now. John smooths the muscle with his thumb. He lifts his hand and strokes across the uninjured skin of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock sighs.
“You have somewhere to be,” Sherlock tells him.