It isn’t until they are exiting the restaurant into the evening drizzle that John realizes they will be parting ways. His heart lurches a bit at that, but he quickly tamps it down. “So, are you staying with Mycroft then?” he asks politely. It’s like he’s following a script, like these are someone else’s words in his mouth, and he feels strange acting this way, but he doesn’t know how one is meant to behave when one’s best friend returns from the dead.
Sherlock is pulling a face at the idea of staying with his brother. “A hotel. It’s a few streets away.”
“Ah,” John says, because he needs to take the tube back to Baker Street, and they’re both standing in the rain just beyond the reach of the restaurant’s awning, and the silence is stretching out and John should really be walking away now, but not a single night since he met Sherlock has he ever gone somewhere with the man and then parted ways like this – 221B was the home they returned to together. Even if Sherlock had a suspect to interrogate while John had a date, and one of them didn’t return until four in the morning, he could always expect to see the detective home eventually, would wake to the door slamming and strains of violin creeping up the stairs.
When the letter arrived, via a brawny courier in a sharp suit that signaled Mycroft’s involvement like a billboard, John’s first thought was that someone was playing a horrible joke. The words read as a sort of white noise, flashing across the page in a distant cacophony that slipped straight through his head. It wasn’t until the third read-through that he started absorbing some of the words shouting at him from the page:
“Well,” John says eventually, rocking back on his heels. “It’s getting late.”
Sherlock doesn’t say anything to this, and his stating the obvious again, John, is unsettling in its absence.
“Right,” he continues. “So I’m headed to the tube station. I’ll see you…” He can’t find a good way to complete that sentence. “I’ll see you,” he says again, more firmly this time, and nods his goodnight before abruptly turning and walking away.
John had stormed outside as soon as this most important fact had penetrated. He was unsurprised to find a black car waiting at the kerb, and simply wrenched open the nearest door himself rather than wait for a minion to invite him for the latest in a series of kidnappings that ought to have ended three years ago but suddenly made a sickening amount of sense. His brief surprise in seeing Mycroft himself sitting just inside quickly dissipated in the face of his mounting anger. The letter, which John found still clenched in his left hand, was rudely shoved in the face of the British Government.
“It’s true,” Mycroft said calmly. “Every word.”
John was a kettle, near screaming from the pressure of boiling. Exerting the last of his self-control, he shut the door, stepped back on the pavement, and strode off without a glance back.
He’d wandered halfway across the city before he felt untangled enough to take another look at the letter. He sat down on a bench, prized his frozen fingers from the folds, smoothed the paper, and read.
The letter was brief, but it was a near faultless representation of Sherlock’s voice, his signature. It asked John for a meeting over dinner at a nice restaurant the following evening. It asked him for a chance to explain.
Later, when he could think a bit more clearly, John wondered what, exactly, Sherlock was afraid of, that he’d chosen such a public location.
John is almost to the end of the street, and the urge to turn his head and look back is almost impossible to refuse. But John Watson has invaded Afghanistan, and is made of sterner stuff – or perhaps not, because as soon as the thought has crossed his mind, he finds himself somehow walking in the wrong direction, heading back towards the restaurant. He keeps his eyes trained on the ground a few meters in front of him, and soon a pair of black dress shoes appears in his path, right where he left them. John swallows.
“You shouldn’t have to stay in a hotel,” he tells the shoes. “Come back to Baker Street with me.”
It isn’t a question, not really, but he can’t help but lift his eyes to Sherlock’s to gauge his response. The detective’s bright eyes, so much more piercing in life than in memory, pick John apart.
He doesn’t realize that he’s still expecting it to be a joke until his best friend sits down across from him, undoubtedly in the flesh, and he has to fight the completely inappropriate urge to laugh.
John knows he should be upset with Sherlock, should be furious, hurt, questioning his own sanity, but instead all he can feel at that moment, with Sherlock’s eyes on his own, is a numb sort of tingly adrenalin relief, a Novocain injection that starts at his fingertips and rushes through his blood vessels to his heart, which beats in a steady, he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive.
Sherlock wastes no time diving into his story, seeming to sense that John lacks the ability to ask for it. He orders food but doesn’t eat it, and glares at their waitress every time she considers approaching.
John has no idea what his own face looks like, what his own reactions are. At some point he picks up his fork only to find his plate already empty. He has no memory of what he’s eaten.
John enters the flat quietly, with Sherlock behind him, and toes off his shoes in the entryway. “I’m going to get ready for bed,” he informs Sherlock (and oh, isn't that a strange feeling, to discuss trivial matters of daily routine with a dead man). “There’re probably -” definitely – “some of your old things in the dresser, you'll need something to sleep in.”
When he emerges from the bathroom, Sherlock is not, in fact, wearing any of his old pyjama bottoms, but a pair of John’s that stops comically short of his ankles. John does not comment, but merely tilts his head to indicate the bathroom’s availability. Sherlock brushes past and shuts the door as John settles himself with a blanket on the sofa.
When Sherlock emerges, John is sitting with his knees pulled up, staring at nothing. At the sound of the door clicking shut, John breaks from his contemplation, and watches as Sherlock seats himself on the opposite end of the sofa.
Then, because he doesn’t have a single thing to say that isn’t how could you, he clicks on the telly to a horrible late-night comedian.
John resists the urge to sneak glances over at Sherlock. It would hardly escape the man’s notice.
They sit in silence for quite some time.
After two rounds of adverts, John can feel his eyes beginning to droop. He shakes himself awake several times over the next ten minutes or so, but he’s exhausted - of course he couldn't sleep last night - and his head keeps lolling about embarrassingly. I should get to bed, he thinks as he nods off.
A bloodstained coat
A familiar phantom that disappears in the morning light -
John wakes with a gasp, completely disoriented. Another dream featuring Sherlock, fairly typical, only this time –
“John,” says a deep voice from near John’s feet, and he nearly falls off the sofa in his resulting spasm.
“Sherlock!” He heaves himself upright. “You… yes… right.” He’s breathing hard, still, and Sherlock is observing him sharply.
John expects a comment about his nightmare, but all he receives is, “You should sleep in your bed. It pains your shoulder to sleep here.”
John doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want to let Sherlock out of his sight, doesn’t want the man to have the chance to deduce the night when, after three months of leaving his former flatmate’s room a completely untouched shrine, John broke down and climbed into Sherlock’s dusty, unchanged sheets and cried. He doesn’t want Sherlock to know that he’s slept in the man's bed nearly every night since.
But of course the bastard already knows, because he effectively pushes John off the couch and in the direction of his old room. “Sleep,” he instructs, before folding himself up into the corner of the sofa and steepling his hands, retreating into his mind. John finds himself too tired to protest and too tired to remind his dead man to get some sleep himself, so he falls into the bed and is out in a second.
When he next wakes, it's with panic tightening his throat once more, fumbling again to locate reality. Sherlock. …Sherlock is alive. That much is real. I met him for dinner. He’s in the flat. He’s in the flat?
John holds his breath to listen, but he can discern no auditory indication that 221B currently holds anyone but himself. The flat is dark; there's no light visible in the cracks around the door. Sherlock? Oh, god, if the whole thing was just a dream, I can’t – I couldn’t –
He climbs out of bed and, quietly as he can, creeps out to the living room. He can’t help but let out a not-so-silent gust of air upon catching sight of the consulting detective, curled just where John left him, illuminated by the flickering light of the muted television. The noise catches Sherlock’s attention, and the man’s head whips toward John.
“Still here,” he says.
John is slightly embarrassed. “Right, well, it’s-"
“You were calling my name,” Sherlock interrupts. “In your sleep. Multiple times.”
The seed of slight embarrassment blossoms into full-blown mortification. “It’s not like I watched you die or anything,” he snaps.
“Three years ago, John,” Sherlock says, as if John is being ridiculous for holding this against him after all this time.
“And yet here you are,” John says coldly. “Alive, and in this flat, and it’s like those three years might as well have never even happened! THREE YEARS, Sherlock!” A dam has broken; he’s outright bellowing now, and probably giving poor Mrs. Hudson a fright – John wonders wildly for a moment whether Sherlock’s told her yet, whether she got a letter too, he never even thought to ask – “You were DEAD and it was like I was too and it turns out it was all a LIE except it wasn’t, it wasn’t, because the amount of pain I felt was very, very REAL!” He gasps out a breath and wants to sink into the floor when it shakes. He is not crying. “I can't believe you could just leave me like that,” he whispers, so his voice doesn’t have a chance to crack, and swipes an angry hand over his eyes. "You mad… mad fucker."
When he looks up again, Sherlock is wide-eyed, watching him with a distinctly alarmed look on his face. John wishes he looked less surprised and more guilty, and immediately hates himself for the thought. The snipers. Yes.
“I…” Sherlock clears his throat. “I can leave.”
“No!” John cries, too quickly. “No, you don’t need to – you can’t...” He’s left himself without a way to finish his sentence again, so he abandons the words to fend for themselves.
Silence falls, then - Sherlock, on the couch, regarding John, and John, standing just outside his (Sherlock’s) bedroom door, regarding the floor.
John startles slightly when Sherlock abruptly stands and stalks towards him, a determined look on his face. Suddenly, John has six feet of consulting detective crowding up against him, invading his personal space and forcing him to retreat into the bedroom. His neck cricks as he tilts it up, trying to read Sherlock’s intent, but the madman simply keeps pushing forwards, herding the doctor back until the backs of his legs hit the bed, and then leaning over him until he succumbs to gravity and his personal bubble with an ungraceful huff.
However, no sooner has John landed on the bed than Sherlock is once again in his space, pushing at his legs in a way that is more of an annoying suggestion than an actual application of force, getting John to swing them up on the bed, and then getting John to scoot up until his head is actually against a pillow and he’s under the sheet. John entertains the ridiculous thought that Sherlock is tucking him into bed.
This notion lasts only a moment, until the detective himself has suddenly joined John in bed. “Sherlock-“ John starts, but the man is wriggling around, getting himself situated, and John chooses not to speak over the rustling of the sheets. Finally, Sherlock is lying on his back next to John with a pillow under his head. John regards him through narrowed eyes.
Sherlock turns his head to look back at John, pale eyes gleaming in the dim light slipping between the curtains. After a moment, Sherlock reaches out and places a warm hand on John’s hip, tugging until John rolls on his side to face him. Sherlock then switches his grip for John’s arm, which he actually does manhandle. John allows this, because Sherlock is draping John’s arm over his warm torso as he insinuates his free arm underneath John’s neck. He finally settles John’s palm over his heart and covers it with his own hand. “Sleep,” he commands again.
John can feel the beat, steady beneath his hand, playing the same rhythm as his own. Alive, alive, alive.
He takes his first deep breath in three years.
John is slowly starting to fall into unconsciousness when the deep voice rumbles beneath his palm. “I’m not ever going to apologize,” Sherlock says quietly.
John merely sniffs in response and sticks his nose into Sherlock’s armpit. He feels the arm Sherlock has curled against his back tighten briefly. The heartbeat underneath his hand marches on, alive, alive, alive.
Somewhere in the distance, church bells are calling out the hour. Alive, they ring.
“What kind of fool thinks love’s a prison or a handicap/
And only says goodbye?
Sinking fast in the rocky waters off Alcatraz/
His friends said suicide/
The only one that’s left to trust/
My faithless heart wasted us/
I had a dream you died/
And I just want to be with you tonight/
Mission bells were ringing, somewhere higher/
I let you get away.”
“Mission Bells,” Matt Nathanson