A removed sensation of existing outside time and place pulsed through Sherlock. Listening to the quiet purr of the engine as the car sped back from the tarmac, he tried desperately to remain calm and collected under Mycroft’s knowing gaze. Sherlock found it next to impossible to keep his expression disinterested and flat, and in all honesty, how could he be calm after seeing that face again after so long? Jim’s face, or a distorted version of it, apparently on loop on every TV screen in the country this very moment.
Sherlock had long since made it a strict rule not to think about Jim, and definitely not about the months they’d spent together before he died. All the memories were buried deep inside, locked it away in a hidden, desolate space he never visited. Seeing Jim’s face on the small screen of Mycroft’s phone had brought back everything that happened that day. And the aftermath, all those endless days and nights he hardly had any recollection of, other than a vague impression of their dull nothingness.
Sherlock closed his eyes and focused on keeping his breathing level, trying to avoid arousing any suspicion on Mycroft’s part. Even with his mobile pressed to his ear, muttering orders to someone in a stern, low voice, Sherlock knew nothing would escape his attention. The initial shock and disbelief at Jim’s reappearance had been replaced by anger, rippling through his entire body, red-hot and burning. Mycroft’s presence gave him no other choice than to settle for repeating the words over and over in his mind as opposed to screaming them from the top of his lungs. That ass, that complete fucking asshole! He’s not dead, he’s been alive all this time. I’m going to fucking kill him.
Another emotion threatened to break the surface, infinitely stronger than relief, stronger than anger even. A different kind of warmth; soothing instead of scorching. Sherlock struggled against it, he couldn’t allow himself to go there, just in case he was wrong about Jim being back, or it turned out to be a trick. He knew he wouldn’t survive another fall. In an effort to suppress whatever was building on the inside, he balled his fists together, nails digging painfully into his palms. No one, least of all Mycroft, could know. Not until Sherlock knew what was going on himself.
Time was suspended, row after row of identical looking houses flying by the car window as Sherlock pressed his forehead against the cool glass. Finally, they slowed down and the car pulled up in front of 221B. Mycroft lowered his phone, and gently placed a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. A little reluctantly, Sherlock turned to face him. He didn’t expect the worried eyes that met him, concern etched into every feature of Mycroft’s face. “Be smart, Sherlock. Please, don’t do anything rash,” he implored.
Sherlock’s stomach clenched a little at the uncharacteristic softness in Mycroft’s voice. He averted his eyes without replying, knowing he couldn’t make that promise. The anxiousness to get away from the penetrating gaze was too much. Wordlessly, he unbuckled his seatbelt and slid out of the car. Once outside, Sherlock had to draw on every ounce of willpower he possessed to stay rooted to the spot until the car was out of sight.
The moment the car turned the corner, Sherlock’s feet hit the pavement as if the devil was on his heels. The knowledge, the absolute certainty that Jim would be up there, waiting for him, made his heart pound so hard in his chest that it resonated in his ears, drowning out every other sound of the bustling London morning. In a frenzy, he took the stairs two steps at the time, even that felt too slow. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, his mind caught up with him, making him stop short. He straightened his coat, ruffled his hair and inhaled deeply a few times. No way was he going to let Jim have the satisfaction of seeing him in this breathless, confused state.
About to enter the flat, Sherlock’s hand hesitated on the door handle. A small, sharp twinge of doubt stung him, bringing with it a slight wave of nausea. What if Jim wasn’t there, what if he wasn’t back after all? The bottomless abyss he’d painstakingly worked his way out of opened at his feet again, the boundless darkness pulling at him, threatening to swallow him up. Sherlock knew it was no use reasoning with that voice of panic, he needed to find out one way or the other. Bracing himself, he carefully opened the door and stepped inside.
Jim was standing by the window in the living room, back turned and hands shoved into the pockets of his charcoal suit. His frame looked even more slender and fragile than Sherlock could remember. A pang of emotion hit him hard, and he doubled over, the air forced from his lungs in a strained huff. It felt as if someone had given him a physical punch to the gut. Sherlock didn’t know what to say, where to start. Every single coherent thought was blown from his mind, other than two, small words. Words that made all the difference. He’s alive. He’s alive.
“Jim…” he finally managed. The name felt familiar and safe as it rolled of his tongue, even if he hadn’t uttered it out loud in a very long time.
Jim turned around to face him, moving with exaggerated slowness. He cocked his head sideways, a small, self-satisfied grin playing on his lips as his eyes ran across Sherlock’s face. Sherlock wondered if he was getting better at reading Jim; he had no problem detecting a familiar glow in his eyes. An echo of that gaze that used to be like a drug to him, addicted to knowing he was the sole cause of astonished wonder in Jim’s eyes.
“So, you did miss me, then?” Jim cooed in a low voice, meant to be teasing, but Sherlock detected an undertone of something more profound. His singing lilt made Sherlock’s heart skip a beat, and he realized he’d never been able to do it justice, all those times he’d tried to call it forth in his mind.
They stared at each other for a few seconds in silence, the tension between them growing rapidly. Jim rolled back and forth on his heels, unable to stay still. Probably caused by the same urge that Sherlock was struggling against, the urge to just stride over to the window and let his body do the talking.
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re referring to,” Sherlock uttered as calmly as he could manage, feigning nonchalance. He knew he couldn’t keep that up for long, anger still the prevailing emotion. Anger, and a sense of loss from all the time spent apart swelled in his chest, harder to quell with every second he stared at the man that had wrecked him so impossibly.
Jim crooked an eyebrow, his smile widening into that cheeky grin that Sherlock had missed almost more than anything else. “Come on, I saw you racing up the steps the moment brother dearest disappeared. Admit it, you’re pleased to see me.”
Stalling for time, Sherlock started unbuttoning his coat. He wrenched it off and discarded it carelessly on the floor, before turning back to face Jim. “Pleased? I thought you were dead, I saw you blow your brains out!” Sherlock exploded, his voice growing in intensity with every word. Anger poured out of him like from a bursting dam, finally finding an outlet.
“I waited for you for months. Then I spent years chasing around Europe, pulling at every single thread of your network. Not a single person I talked to could give me any clue whether you were still alive or not. Pleased to see you isn’t quite an accurate description of how I feel right now,” Sherlock scowled, moving a small step closer to Jim.
The sarcastic look disappeared from Jim’s eyes, suddenly replaced by surprise. Finally a gleam of dawning understanding lit them. He stopped rocking back and forth, arrested by Sherlock’s rage.
“Sherlock…” he murmured softly, his face a stiff mask. He didn’t continue, but his gaze never faltered. Sherlock couldn’t help feeling undressed and exposed under his intense scrutiny. He knew he must be the picture of absurdity right now; his chest heaving from laboured breathing after his intense outburst, shouting like a brute. They didn’t shout at each other. Never had. That wasn’t them. Then again, this was an unprecedented occasion; Sherlock didn’t feel bound by the rules of their old game. That game had ended on a rooftop a sunny day years ago.
The bitterness kept spilling out of Sherlock. “All that time, I was sure you were dead. You fucking asshole, you incredible…” he spluttered, at the end of his rope after reliving years of grief in a matter of minutes. The sense of loss and wasted time was suddenly all too much to handle. It wasn’t as much his conscious mind as that primal being somewhere deep inside him, unchained and roaming free now, that drove Sherlock to close the distance between them.
Grabbing an unsuspecting Jim by the arms, Sherlock spun him around and shoved him roughly him up against the wall, pressing his underarm against his throat in a chokehold. A feeling of euphoria soared through him, fuelled by the adrenaline rushing through his veins; it was a remarkable feeling to be in control of something in his life again.
In a flurry, Jim’s hands flew up to the arm at his neck. He didn’t make any attempt to pry it away, just clung to the fabric of Sherlock’s shirt sleeve. His breathing came in small, shallow gasps; drawing as much oxygen as Sherlock’s grip would allow him. There was no trace of panic in Jim’s eyes, and for some reason his passive acceptance of the situation angered Sherlock even more. He applied a little more pressure and glared down at him. “You were dead,” he growled into Jim’s face.
A stifled cough escaped Jim, and he struggled to draw a wheezing breath. “Sherlock, I was playing the game, we both were. I needed to show you just how far you were willing to go, to prove that you are me,” he croaked, his voice strained from the pressure applied to his trachea.
Jim’s eyes shone intensely, like giant, black orbs of liquid fire. “It’s not like you didn’t do everything in your power to beat me. You faked your suicide and kept playing too, didn’t you? And I… I needed more time. I didn’t know how…” Jim stuttered and hesitated, and when his tongue darted out to wet his bottom lip, it was all Sherlock could do to keep from crushing his own lips against Jim’s moist ones.
Being so closely pressed up against Jim, having him completely at his mercy, was more powerful than any artificial drug Sherlock had ever tried. He was still at a loss about how to convey the depths of his despair to Jim. Not even his mind palace had any comfort to offer, the violence of his feelings all too overwhelming. Jim still didn’t struggle, but the sound of a small, involuntary whimper flipped a switch in Sherlock. The madness of what he was doing struck him. In a rush, all the fight went out of him, and anger turned into bone deep exhaustion. He lowered his arm and took a step back, allowing Jim to breathe freely again.
Quietly rubbing his temples in an effort to calm himself, Sherlock watched as Jim slumped weakly back against the wall. Even as those delicate hands he’d missed so much massaged the red spots on his neck, his eyes never left Sherlock’s face. Stepping closer again, all he needed to pin Jim to the wall again was his piercing stare.
“You don’t understand why I’m so mad, do you?” Sherlock demanded. The silence that followed was answer enough, encouraging him to go on. “After months of waiting for any sort of sign, hoping against hope, putting off going through your things as long as I could, I finally did. And you know what I found?”
Jim was unable to hold Sherlock’s fierce gaze, and didn’t offer any reply. He knew. Another surge of anger, more controllable this time, rose in Sherlock’s chest. He jammed his hand down into his pocket, hesitating for a second before he pulled out a small, black box. Jim’s eyes darkened at the sight of it in Sherlock’s hands.
“A ring. A fucking ring. Do you have any…” Sherlock roared, before he reigned himself in, continuing in a softer voice, laced with pain and loss instead of anger. “Do you have any idea what it did to me finding this? A physical reminder of what could have been?”
Jim blinked, tears brimming in his eyes, threatening to spill over at any second. “Everything we could have had,” Jim whispered. Sherlock realized his surprise was genuine; Jim really had no idea what he’d done to him, how much finding the ring had torn him apart. Still, the look of agony on Jim’s face told him that he too knew something of pain.
Sherlock pushed on, driving the knife ever deeper, not quite sure whether it was into his own or Jim’s body he plunged it, which one of them felt it most acutely. The thoughts that poisoned him from within needed out. “I slept with this box under my pillow, I brought it with me when I went around Europe chasing you. Even now, I keep it in the pocket of my coat every day. It is… was my last reminder of you.” His voice died away, the only thing left was the sound of Jim’s breathing, hot against Sherlock’s face. Jim had given up fighting the tears by now, they were running in rapid succession down his cheeks.
“And those nights I could feel the gun in the drawer calling for me, when making the darkness permanent seemed like the only solution, I took out this box and looked at it, turned it over in my hands for hours. Thinking up possible scenarios of how you were going to… propose.” Sherlock spat the last word scornfully, his breaths coming in uneven huffs.
When Jim slowly raised a hand to his face, he didn’t shrug it off. His mind told him he should, but his body didn’t respond. His skin remembered Jim’s touch, Sherlock’s entire being craved it. It felt like coming home.
“I’m sorry, Sherlock. I truly am. I had no idea you’d find it, I was sure your brother would have cleared it away long before you got a hold of it,” Jim mumbled. The tips of his fingers tickled Sherlock’s skin, setting it on fire. A small sigh escaped Sherlock as his eyes fluttered shut.
“I’ve had that ring for so long, if only you knew how many times I wanted to… Had I even for a minute thought you’d want it…” Jim broke off, wrapping his arms around Sherlock’s waist in a tight, desperate grip.
Sherlock leaned his forehead against Jim’s and listened to his voice as it rose and fell, setting a melody to his pain. That such softness could cut deep as a dagger seemed almost against natural laws. But harder than anything, was listening to the pain Jim’s broken voice carried, eclipsing even his own.
Jim’s breathing kicked up a notch. “I thought it was only ever about the game for you, Sherlock. That you just wanted the excitement and the adrenaline, a breathing space from the mind-numbing boredom we’re both trying to escape. I never thought there could be more, that you wanted more. I had to protect myself,” he finished in a whisper, barely audible in the silent room.
A long silence flowed between them, two lost souls clinging to each other, until Sherlock finally opened his eyes and pulled back a little. “You’re right, Jim. It was all about the game. At first. Up until that moment you made me see that we were made for each other. That I am you, just as you are me.”
Sinking back into Jim’s body, Sherlock pressed his face against his neck. Overwhelmed by the closeness, he finally allowed himself to inhale the indescribable scent that was Jim. Spring and fall combined. Spice and something floral all at once. Just uniquely Jim. How he’d ached for it so many nights, futilely pressing Jim’s pillow to his face, any trace of his smell long gone from it.
“When you just disappeared, you punched a black hole into my existence that I couldn’t mend. I never even got to say goodbye. Death doesn’t let you say goodbye,” Sherlock mumbled, his voice muffled against Jim’s neck. “And now you’re here, and it’s not a dream. Tell me it’s not a dream this time,” he pleaded desperately.
All he got for a reply was a small sound from somewhere inside Jim’s chest. The exquisite feeling of small hands running up his back made Sherlock shiver, tangible evidence that this was in fact reality. Jim’s hands reached his neck, then came to a rest, cradling the back of his head. He tangled his fingers through Sherlock’s messy curls, tracing small, soothing circles with his thumbs. “Sherlock, dearest,” Jim breathed into his ear, ”how can I ever…?”
Braking free of his embrace, Sherlock pulled back. Jim’s eyes were flaring with a depth he’d rarely seen before. The decision bloomed within Sherlock. In mere seconds, a seed took root and grew in what used to be barren soil.
Slowly, Sherlock sank to his knees, the polished, small box still in his hands. The box that had meant life and death to him, that had been both a lifeline to the real world and a tether around his neck, chaining him to his own personal purgatory forever.
For all its wear and tear, it opened smoothly to reveal a slim, unadorned silver band. When Sherlock leaned back to look up into his face, a subdued, but startled gasp from Jim broke the solemn silence that had descended upon them. He flattened his palms against the wall for support, a violent tremor passing though his body. His eyes met Sherlock’s in a stare that could encompass both hate and love in its intensity.
“Jim, you better fucking agree to marry me,” Sherlock half chocked, half laughed as he held out the box with one hand, dabbing impatiently at his eyes with the other.
Jim’s face cracked into a rare, heartfelt smile, the first true smile Sherlock had seen since his return. How soothing that smile was to the frantic, agonizing energy that roamed his body. Sherlock wanted it never to fade. And it didn’t fade, even as Jim sank to his knees as well, drawing level with Sherlock.
“How could I refuse such a beautiful proposal? So help me god, anyone who tries to stop me from marrying you, will find themselves at the end of a sniper’s aim,” Jim chuckled breathlessly.
The dark undertone in his voice gave Sherlock an inkling that nothing much had changed since they last saw each other, and an exhilarating thrill ran down his spine. A sensation dearly missed, one he hadn’t experienced since last in the presence of the man now pressing his lips ever so softly against his own.
After seconds that spanned eternities, their lips broke apart, but their eyes stayed locked. They were drinking each other in, feeding off one another’s presence. After so much time apart, their separate, lonely journeys were finally coming full circle. “I need to tell you what I never did when I should have,” Sherlock whispered. “I love you, Jim. I’m lost without you.”
Jim stared at him, marvelling at his words. It looked like he was fighting tears again, betrayed by his glistening eyelashes. “It’s only ever been you, Sherlock,” he mumbled, his lips gently grazing Sherlock’s hairline. “Always. I’ll love you always.”
When Jim withdrew, Sherlock had to pull himself together to be able to tear his eyes from his face. With trembling fingers, he plucked the ring from the velvet cushion it rested on. Carefully, almost reverently, he grabbed Jim’s left hand, just holding onto it for a few seconds. It was cold and delicate, just the way he remembered. There was a vibration in the air around them, or maybe it came from somewhere inside Sherlock; it was hard to tell when the entire room was spinning.
Locking eyes with Jim again, Sherlock slid the ring onto his finger. It was a little too big, and easily found its rightful place. Sherlock couldn’t help his heart from thundering into overdrive when he saw Jim’s hand shaking faintly as stretched his fingers, turning his hand over to behold the visible evidence that they were not halves anymore, but a whole.
“I could get used to this thing, I guess,” Jim shrugged, an air of mock casualness in his tone and body language. Lowering his hand, he grabbed Sherlock’s shirt collars in a firm grip. “And now you better kiss me properly. I’ve been waiting for years.”
Sherlock didn’t need asking twice. His hands found their way to Jim’s body, reacquainting himself with the half of him that had been missing for so long. I’m gonna marry the shit out of this man, was the last thing that ran through his mind before pure instinct took the reigns, and he lost himself to soft lips and demanding hands.
It occured to Sherlock that there was immense beauty in the idea that they had all the time they wanted, all the time they needed to find their bearings again. And it wasn’t a dream or a drug induced fantasy. Not this time. He had the real thing now.