When You're Not Home
The first year without Sherlock was the most difficult.
Well every day without him was difficult, but it was nothing compared to that first year.
During the first two months after Sherlock’s death, reporters had taken to camping outside 221B night and day, hoping to get a reaction from John; for him to say something, or to do something--anything. Lestrade had arranged a police escort for him during those months; it was so bad. John was grateful, but he couldn’t forgive him yet.
Alongside the reporters were fans of John’s blog--fans of Sherlock he should say, since they’d taken to calling themselves Sherlockians. They held up signs that said ‘I Believe in Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Moriarty Was Real’ which John found touching.
Over the next few weeks, the reporters dissipated and left him alone.
Until the first anniversary of Sherlock’s death.
That was the hardest thing to bare.
On the day of the anniversary, John had gotten several invitations to go out. Mike and Lestrade had separately invited him out for a pint, Harry had wanted to visit, Sarah thought a movie would do him good--everyone had wanted to be there for him without actually saying so. They had tried to be so casual about it, which was the worst part of it all. It was like it was wrong to acknowledge the day for what it actually was: the first anniversary of his best friend’s death. And to treat it as if it were just another day when John still saw blood whenever he shut his eyes was just wrong. He declined all their offers.
He wanted to be alone that night.
His heart, however, hurt at the thought of Mrs. Hudson--who’d known Sherlock much longer than he had, and who was like a mother to them both--sitting in her flat alone on such a night. So John went downstairs and invited her up for dinner. She agreed, smiling gratefully. Her eyes looked so sad. She looked so fragile; as if just one puff of air would cause her to shatter to pieces.
They ate just after six, the sun had already gone down by that point. They sat across each other at the dining table in the kitchen, eating in silence. The silence was not one of unease but of a shared grief that had become part of their lives. As they ate, their eyes drifted all over the flat, smiling at each little oddity of Sherlock’s that neither had the heart to throw away. John would glance up every now and then at the yellow spray-painted smiley face and the bullet-holes embedded into the wall. He couldn’t help but shake his head and chuckle at the sight.
It was just after the dishes had been washed and put away that they were seated in the sitting room, drinking tea that they heard the music.
They looked at each other in surprise.
The sound was coming from outside.
They raced to one of the windows, and, peeking behind the curtains down at the darkened streets, they saw it.
There was one man standing just under the window, holding up a boom box like in an eighties’ movie, the title of which was escaping John at the moment. What song he was blasting, John didn’t know; he didn’t care. He was too transfixed at the sight of the thousands of people standing behind boom box man. They were all standing on Baker Street. On the actual street--absolutely no cars could pass through even if they’d wanted to. John shifted his head left and right. The sea of people went in both directions; they were no doubt taking up the sidewalks as well. It was amazing seeing them all crowded against each other on that tiny, narrow street on what was without a doubt a cold night. Many held up signs: ‘R.I.P. Sherlock Holmes’, ‘We Remember You’, ‘Goodbye World’s Greatest Detective’, the ‘I Believe’ ones were there as well. One sign that caught his eye said ‘John Watson is Not Alone’; the not alone was underlined twice to emphasize the point. A good number of posters had Sherlock’s face plastered on them. There was a sea of deerstalkers.
It reminded John of the ending scene in V for Vendetta, where all the people of London donned their Guy Fawkes masks and marched to Parliament together. “There is no possible way he would have been able to remain standing with all those bullets pelting in to him, John,” Sherlock complained in a huff, the sudden memory filling John’s head. “That isn’t the point, Sherlock,” John retorted in frustration. Of all the movies John had shown him, Sherlock had admitted--a bit grudgingly, he might add--that that one was somewhat tolerable to watch.
But the most amazing sight was not the signs, or the deerstalkers, or the boom box guy, or the reporters who were no doubt covering the story, or the thousands of people literally standing outside his doorstep. The most amazing sight was that each and every face outside his window was illuminated by a small, flickering, tiny glow of candle light.
John understood almost immediately.
It was a candlelight vigil.
He turned away from the window. The familiar ache in his stomach settled more solidly than before.
The feeling didn’t leave him.
The second year without Sherlock they didn’t leave him either.
Where once there was gratitude, there was now frustration.
People followed him everywhere. They didn’t leave him alone. They wrote, emailed, and told him about mysteries that needed to be solved pronto (as if he was the one who had solved the mysteries in the first place). When he had refused to help, saying he was out of the crime-solving business, a lot of them went out on their own. Breaking into crime scenes, chasing after criminals--trying to do what Sherlock did. They all got in the Yard’s way; murderers and thieves and other law-breakers got away because of their thoughtless interference.
It made John furious. Didn’t they understand they couldn’t do what Sherlock Holmes did because that was the sort of thing that only Sherlock Holmes could do? Didn’t the words “only one in the world”, and “I invented the job” mean anything to them?
John had tried to use his power to do something; to help Lestrade and the rest of the Yard in some way. He wrote a blogpost addressing the issue. He wrote, in no uncertain terms, that everyone was being ridiculous and bloody stupid going on like this. And that Sherlock would have thought them all idiots for doing something that was so clearly out of their depth. He tried to explain that just because Sherlock had done those things, didn’t mean everyone else should. That was defeating the purpose of being one’s own person.
It didn’t surprise him that nobody listened.
It just disappointed him.
Then people began approaching him on the street dressed as Sherlock.
They styled their hair after him; they copied what he’d written Sherlock had said or did on the blog--they even tried mimicking his mannerisms and followed John everywhere (mistake number one: between the two of them, John had always been the one that followed). Most of them wore deerstalkers. He would only quirk an eyebrow at those ones; he didn’t bother trying to explain that Sherlock had hated his deerstalker and the publicity it got almost as much as the stupid people who continued to wear them. He couldn’t count on both hands how many Dolce and Gabbana suits he saw and the wool coats that followed behind him.
It wasn’t the fact that they constantly reminded him of his best friend; of the man who changed his life, and the way his heart ached when he remembered him that made John angry--at least not all of it anyway.
It was the fact that they were trying to echo Sherlock’s existence, and mimic him, and be him. It was as though they were all trying to fill the Sherlock-sized hole that had been left behind in the world. But in their attempt at doing so, they had already failed: mimicry wasn’t what Sherlock was about.
Sherlock Holmes was his own person. He had an enormous ego, a persona--he had a bloody way of standing out wherever he went because of it. A commanding and attention-grabbing presence was what he was. But that was the point. He didn’t try to copy anyone, or be somebody he wasn’t. Sherlock was just Sherlock.
And that was the thing they just didn’t understand: no one could fill that Sherlock-sized hole in the world except Sherlock.
And he was gone.
The third year without Sherlock was maddening.
John barely slept. He wasn’t eating as much as he should. He didn’t make an effort to see anyone outside of work, save Mrs. Hudson and sometimes Greg. There were bags under his eyes. He didn’t bother with dating. He didn’t see the point. He’d almost completely retreated into his shell. He stopped going to therapy altogether.
He felt as though he was going insane inside of the flat. That the Sherlock-less flat was causing him to go mad.
Truth be told, the day Sherlock Holmes died on that sidewalk, was the day that John Watson stopped living.
But he didn’t like to think about that.
The flat didn’t feel as welcoming as it once did either. It didn’t feel like home anymore.
For John, the sounds of Sherlock and the chaos he would inflict had always meant home.
Prior to That Day whenever John had come back to the flat, he’d stand just for a moment on the stairs leading up to 221B. In doing so he could hear the faint violin notes that floated down to greet him, or smell the unmistakable pungent aroma of embalming fluid underneath the crack of the door to the flat, and that was all John needed to know that he was home. Standing now in the doorway of 221, looking up at the stairs to the flat, John felt like he was anywhere but home. No familiar smells or sounds welcomed him.
Just the quiet.
That was the worst part of coming back to the flat: the deafening silence.
The silence of the flat was still unsettling to return to, even after three years of living alone. Without the sounds of Sherlock scrapping away on his violin, or exploding something in the kitchen, or pacing around in a fit of boredom, or firing John’s gun at the wall, it was as though the flat knew that Sherlock didn’t live there anymore. Or rather that Sherlock didn’t live anymore, and because of it was being as unwelcoming as possible.
It was as he was opening the door to the flat, wondering if he should move out of 221 and start over somewhere else after all, that he caught sight of something that rattled his bones and deflated the air from his lungs.
There was a man standing in the middle of his sitting room in front of the sunlight windows. If John hadn’t known better, he’d have said it was Sherlock’s ghost.
The man looked just. Like. Sherlock. Dark mop of hair, tall, lean frame, straight-backed figure--his very essence screamed Sherlock, from the dark wool coat wrapped around his body, down to the pointed shoes on his feet. He looked like Sherlock Holmes.
He turned at the sound of the door opening. John was met by clear glass eyes, a controlled face that held cool indifference; so disciplined were his features. But once he saw John, light seemed to come into his eyes and he released a slow breath. His sharp features softened somewhat, and his back relaxed as though the breath carried away not only carbon dioxide, but a huge weight off his shoulders.
“John,” he said with relief, as though he had been holding his breath for a very, very long time.
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” John exploded in anger, practically throwing the Tesco bags of beans and pasta onto the floor with a bang. His dark blue eyes blazed as he rounded on the man. “When are you people going to leave me the fuck alone?!”
“I--what?” the man asked, brow furrowed in confusion.
“I could deal with the signs,” John continued crossly as he went to the kitchen. “The ‘I Believe in Sherlock Holmes’--those were great; reassuring even. The camping out in front of my flat was a bit much. The dressing up exactly like him, writing me letters and emailing me about mysteries all around the world, coming to my front door or approaching me on the street to enlist my help in solving some crime that was happening was bloody stupid and I still fail to wrap my head around that. But I am not going to stand by and pretend that breaking and entering my flat is bloody all right!!”
The man slowly blinked at John’s outburst.
“Three bloody years I’ve had to deal with this shit!” John reached for his mobile, which was nestled in the pocket of his jeans. “You have two seconds to leave my flat before I call the police.”
“John it really is me,” the man said in a perfect imitation of Sherlock’s deep voice. The sound of it was enough to clench John’s insides and twist painfully. He hadn’t heard that voice outside his head for three years.
John shook his head as he began chuckling in irritation, “Oh that’s good, you know. The voice. Perfect--spot on even. Now get out.”
“John,” the man said again, patiently as he hesitantly inched his way closer to John.
“Don’t,” John broke in harshly, but with as much calm as he could muster, stomping down the violent urge to break the intruder’s face. John stared deep into the man’s eyes, to be sure he understood John’s next words. “I know you miss him. I know that it hurts without him. But I saw him...”
The next word lodged itself in his throat. He squeezed his eyes shut in order to fight the sudden reservoir of tears that threatened to spill behind his eyes. He fought down the very strong compulsion to break and crumple to pieces that travelled up his insides and settled in the back of his throat. After a moment of trying to compose himself, he cleared his throat.
“I saw him die,” John said finally, his voice cracking at the last word, but hoping that the meltdown he’d been close to having went by unnoticed. “And he’s not coming back.” He looked away.
“I know that now,” he whispered, more to himself than to the stranger.
The man stared, transfixed at John. There was a moment of silence as the man regarded him.
John slipped his mobile back into his pocket and let out a slow, shuddering breath.
“Just go.” John whispered at last. “For once, just leave me alone. That’s all I’m asking. Please.”
He was so tired of fighting. What was the point.
John shut his eyes tightly and tried to get his breathing under control. He waited for the sound of the door to open and for the man to leave before allowing himself to truly break down.
“When we first met, I asked Afghanistan or Iraq.”
John reached up slowly and clutched his face in his hands. He groaned inwardly. Of all the people to break into his flat, it had to be a bloody lunatic who actually thought he was Sherlock Holmes. John exhaled a raggedy breath.
“I told you that you had been invalided back to London and that your limp was psychosomatic--” the man started.
But John didn’t let him continue.
“That’s all on the blog!!!” John bellowed whirling around to glare at the man, his hands clenched tightly into fists at his sides. Tears had begun to well up in his eyes again, but John didn’t care. He ignored them, favoring the ignition of searing, hot white anger that had lay dormant in the pit of his stomach for the past three years. “That is all on the bloody blog! I know what I put up there! I know what people can see!!!”
“Yes and you also know what you didn’t put up there, and you know what people don’t see,” the man said sharply yet evenly, eyes fixing on John. His gaze reminded John of a look he had once known very well.
“Last time I was asking,” John said, his voice as hard as steel and his eyes glinting dangerously like light reflected on a knife. “This time I’m telling you. Get. Out.”
“The last time we spoke, before I went onto that roof,” the man carried on, ignoring John’s obvious threat. He shifted closer towards him, fueling the anger inside John. “I said that alone is what I have--that alone protects me.” He stopped speaking. His clear eyed gaze shifted away for a moment, and his brow furrowed briefly. Then his glassy gaze flicked back to John and he held eye contact. “I was wrong,” He emphasized, stressing the importance on the word. “Friends protect people.”
The words were as sudden and as sharp as a slap in the face. John blinked. It felt as if somebody had come with an eraser and wiped away all the anger, grief, madness and deadness inside John, leaving him a clean slate.
“Sher...” The words struggled to get out. John cleared his throat to help them along. “Sherlock?”
Sherlock sighed with relief, hanging his head low. “I am so sorry, John,” he whispered. John knew he meant it. Sherlock never apologized directly.
Of their own accord, tears fell down John’s cheeks.
Somehow during the few moments John had been stunned, Sherlock had slowly shuffled closer toward him. So that when Sherlock raised his head to look back up at him, John could see the glassy, murky eyes that were so unmistakably Sherlock. How could he have thought he was anyone else?
“I am so, so sorry--” Sherlock started again.
“You bastard,” John cut in suddenly, the words tumbling out before he even knew what he was saying.
“I’m sorry,” Sherlock said again, looking away guiltily.
“You utter bastard,” John said again. This time the words felt right.
“Yes,” Sherlock agreed, nodding. He began removing his gloves. He didn’t look at John as he did so.
“You sodding bastard,” John said, something rising up inside him; his voice building up.
“Again, yes,” Sherlock said after a slight pause as though the thought was obvious even to a child.
“You goddamn fucking bastard!” John spat furiously, pushing his arms out until they were pressed firmly against Sherlock’s chest where John gave him a forceful shove.
Sherlock stumbled backward for just a moment, in the middle of undoing his scarf, striking a briefly comedic pose before just catching his footing on his right foot, otherwise he would have collided and fallen onto the coffee table. He stared at John, eyes blown wide with shock.
Evidently that was not the reaction he was expecting from John upon his return from the land of the dead.
John, on the other hand, was breathing heavily as though he’d run cross-country, and the dangerous glare had returned in his eyes.
“You pushed me,” Sherlock said in utter disbelief.
“Why did you fake your death?” John asked, an edge to his voice.
“Why did you push me?” Sherlock asked, his voice rising in irritation.
“Because you fucking faked your death Sherlock!!!” John thundered, his blue eyes scorching hot with fury. John scrubbed a hand over his face. He paced back and forth, his steps quick. He rounded back at Sherlock, pointing an accusatory finger at him, voice rising. “You were dead on the sidewalk, Sherlock. I checked, for a pulse. There was no pulse. There was so...so much fucking blood,” John had to stop. He was hyperventilating. He placed his hands on his thighs and bent forwards slightly, trying to catch his breath.
Sherlock alarmed, could only stand by and watch. “John,” he tried, uncertain what to do. “Are you alright?”
John huffed a laugh. “What do you think?” he said breathlessly.
Sherlock was silent.
After a period of being hunched over, John snorted a huge amount of air through his nose and stood up straight. Sherlock watched him, not at all sure what John would do next. John stared back at him.
“I’m going to go,” John began, hands clenching and unclenching against his legs, “and get some air. When I get back, you are going to have a hell of a lot of explaining to do.” John hadn’t taken his coat off, so stomping past Sherlock, he wrenched the door open and started out. But not before turning back to face Sherlock, pointing a threatening finger at him and said, “If you’re not here when I get back, I will hunt you down and shoot you.”
Sherlock looked as though he’d been slapped in the face. “You will not!” He said indignantly.
“Wanna bet?” John said before turning around and taking the steps two at a time.
And walked some more.
He walked for two hours straight, going nowhere in particular; with no end destination in sight. He walked in a blind, white haze of rage. He knew he wouldn’t be able to come to terms with Sherlock being alive properly until after he had cooled down. He was absolutely livid at Sherlock, for being a sodding bastard and putting him through hell and back again, but most of the rage was directed at himself for being so easily taken in by Sherlock.
“Should have known,” he muttered angrily, through gritted teeth. He bloody should have known. It was so obvious. “Of course he faked his death!” He shouted to the heavens, causing more than a few people to look over at him as though he were mad (which he
probably, most definitely was). “Because that’s what Sherlock Holmes does!! He makes an idiot out of you!!!
“And you--youuuuuu,” he continued as he addressed himself, laughing and shaking his head. “You were completely taken in with his act! Goddammit I knew it!!” He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and stomped up and down angrily. More stares. He didn’t care. “I knew it too!! Fucking hell Sherlock!!”
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and continued walking, muttering angrily to himself along the way, looking like a proper madman.
The next time John looked up, he was staring at Sherlock’s gravestone.
He blinked and looked around. He had walked all the way to the cemetery. He frowned. He didn’t remember walking all this way; it was quite a walk from Baker Street. He stared back at Sherlock’s grave. The words on the gravestone stared back at him, mocking him and John frowned in irritation at them.
Fake grave, he thought, staring back down at the lie that had been Sherlock’s suicide.
Which begged the question.
How did Sherlock do it?
John frowned again. He should ask him. He could ask him.
Suddenly the thought that Sherlock wasn’t gone anymore occurred to him. That was when it slowly dawned on John that he could ask Sherlock. The man was at their flat, for God’s sake; he can just turn around and bloody ask him how he faked his death. John, face set in determination, turned around and headed for the direction of home.
He realized that that was the first time he’d thought of 221B as home in a long while.
He also realized that this was the first time in a very, very long time that he referred to the flat as theirs again.
John opened the door to 221, just as he’d done a thousand times before, and stepped inside.
He stood in the threshold a moment, staring up the staircase that led to 221B. He honestly didn’t know what to expect once he’d decide to go up them. He hoped--prayed--that he hadn’t dreamed of Sherlock being alive. That it wasn’t just some horrible, twisted thing his subconscious did to him; that it wasn’t some part of the healing process, but actual living, breathing Sherlock.
He’d never been more afraid of going up a flight of stairs in his entire life.
Carefully he made his way up the stairs, the steps creaked in greeting. But unlike before, this wasn’t an indifferent greeting like it usually was. It was a cheery greeting; a welcome home greeting just like it used to be three years before.
John pushed open the door to 221B, it creaked loudly to announce him. His heart hammered in his chest; he could hear the blood rushing in his ears.
The room was empty.
He didn’t see Sherlock.
He scanned the room. There was absolutely no sign of him in the sitting room. John could do nothing but stay where he was, looking inside their flat.
Sherlock wasn’t there.
Cold realization hit him in the face. He closed his eyes. Sherlock wasn’t anywhere anymore.
He was gone.
His heart stopped beating in his chest. His insides curled into themselves in what he was sure was a fetal position. The cold, numbing sensation was back. Tears prickled the back of his eyes.
John reached a trembling hand up to wipe away the tears. His hand rested in front of his eyes, not bothering to wipe away tears that were falling. He kept his hand there. As if his not seeing the empty room would somehow keep him from seeing the truth.
The door slammed downstairs, footsteps bounded up the staircase quickly; the steps creaked with the movement behind him.
“That was tedious,” said an all-too-familiar voice behind him, somewhat breathless. “I thought for sure I would beat you here.”
John didn’t take his hand away from his eyes.
A gust of wind brushed past him in a flurry of motion. “I would have beaten you here, had that clerk at checkout not been an absolute imbecile,” the voice spat out; John could hear the sneer in his tone. “And the woman in front of me wouldn’t make up her bloody mind. Do I take the spear mint gum or the peppermint? Inspid people! It’s amazing you’ve kept some semblance of sanity after doing the shopping, John.”
John took a deep shuddering breath.
He lifted his hand away from his eyes.
And there was Sherlock.
Sherlock, in all his infuriating, brilliant glory with his unkept hair, bad attitude, sharp cheekbones and sheer genius, was there in their sitting room: throwing his coat over the couch and undoing his scarf as he’d done hundreds of dozens of times before and going on about God knows what as if he’d been there all along instead of dead for the past three years.
Sherlock, his flatmate, his best friend, was alive. He was home. He was--
--He was staring at him expectantly.
John blinked. He’d missed something.
“Sorry,” he said, his hand lowering to his side. He swallowed the unshed tears. “What did you say?”
“I said I hope you’re not going to make good on your threat,” Sherlock repeated with some agitation. He lifted a gallon of milk from the coffee table. “I noticed you had none in the fridge. So I went out and got some.” He looked down at the floor, embarrassed by the sentiment no doubt.
John blinked again. “A peace offering?” he ventured.
“Somewhat, yes,” Sherlock replied, shifting uncomfortably. He added quietly, “I also needed it for some experiments. Do you know where my equipment has gone?”
John shook his head. Laughter and sheer joy bubbled up inside him. He couldn’t help the smile that made itself at home again on his face. “You do realize it’s going to take more than milk to get me to forgive you, right?”
Sherlock bristled. The thought evidently hadn’t occurred to him. “It is?”
“Oh yeah.” John said, shutting the door behind him. He shrugged out of his coat before hanging it on the peg behind the door. “From now on, you are going to clean up after yourself, buy all the groceries, and you are definitely--definitely--going to be doing the dishes for the rest of your natural life. Are we clear?”
Sherlock pouted petulantly. John never realized how much he’d missed those. He supposed it was just one of those things you didn’t know you’d miss until after it was gone.
Sherlock groaned in defeat. “Oh fine,” he said in exasperation, rolling his eyes at the unfairness of it all.
As Sherlock grumbled to himself, John went into the kitchen and made tea. He felt he deserved a good cuppa after the day he’d had and Sherlock looked like he needed one too. As the kettel boiled, he moved about in the kitchen, he found that not only had Sherlock bought milk, but he'd also put the rest of John's earlier purchases into their proper places. The sight forced another smile to tug on his lips. It wouldn't be enough to completely forgive Sherlock, but it was a good start.
He came back into the sitting room, two steaming mugs in hand and just stared at Sherlock. He was sitting in his chair, tuning his violin, an activity that, from the look of Sherlock’s face, required all of his concentration. The scene was comforting and beautifully familiar to John: it looked as though not a day had gone by since they last saw each other. Some strange semblance of normalcy. John shook his head and smiled a small smile.
“Okay,” John said, handing Sherlock his mug. Sherlock took it without complaint; John was sure that this was Sherlock's way of trying to get back on his good side. Good to know he could still get Sherlock to think about these things.
He sat in his own chair opposite Sherlock. The consulting detective was looking back at him, waiting. John was fine with that. He was tired of being the one to wait. He toed off his shoes and settled more comfortably into his chair, lacing his fingers around his warm mug. “Now,” he said, staring at Sherlock, sure that his own eyes looked rapt and ready for a good story.
“Start at the beginning.”