A month sees John safely at Baker Street once more. He has several new scars, a limp that is entirely legitimate this time, and a brand-new hospital cane complete with all its steel-plated awkward. There are new nightmares to his roster now, but that doesn’t really seem noteworthy. None of it does, in retrospect. None of it was anything he hadn’t had before, just a repeat performance that wasn’t very good the first time around. Only now there’s no audience. No one there to –
John has done a remarkable job not thinking about anything, and he’s not about to cock-up now, just because the sitting room looks exactly the way it had the night he left for Sarah’s and never got there. The head’s probably still in the refrigerator. It doesn’t matter though, he isn’t hungry anyway, and if he recalls correctly there isn’t even any food in the flat because it hadn’t been his turn to –
John throws a book at the wall. He’s impressed with his restraint.
The noise brings Mrs. Hudson, who looks pale and harried and every bit of her sixty-some-odd years, as though she’s had to relive every one of them since her boys disappeared, and John feels wretched for the poor woman. Wretched that she had no idea, that he hadn’t called, that they’d made her worry so.
That he was the one who came back.
She offers to make him tea.
He says that’d be lovely.
She doesn’t bother mentioning this time that she isn’t his housekeeper, but she does bring some biscuits with a steaming cup of Early Grey, and lets her hand pass carefully and sadly over his scruffy hair before she toddles off down the stairs again, quiet as a church-mouse. He had never understood that phrase, didn’t know why a mouse in a church would be any quieter than a mouse anywhere else. It wasn’t as though mice had any sense of propriety. They didn’t scurry around on tip-toes out of some respect for a house of worship. Perhaps it was some strange implication that the holy presence was so pervasive even mice observed it. John had never been in a church before, so he couldn’t speak from experience. But he still knew what it felt like to be in the presence of something awe-inspiring.
But it was gone now. Up and vanished like a spectre in the night, like a ghostly impression on the wall, and there was no telling when – or if – it would ever come back. God didn’t really have need for a church mouse, after all. A church mouse was still a rodent, and rodents got underfoot. Made things complicated. Made things difficult.
And so John Watson was left behind. With his nightmares and his limp and his scars and his cane, and with Earl Grey and biscuits and a nice jumper in a room that wasn’t even really his because the only thing that made it a home wasn’t there anymore.
He drank his now room-temperature tea and didn’t even bother telling himself it would be fine.
John knew better than to lie to himself.
Lestrade comes by, for reasons John doesn’t quite understand, but he appreciates the gesture nonetheless.
He asks the usual questions: How are things? How are you holding up? Is there anything I can do to help?
John knows in some ways Lestrade might be the only other person who even remotely knows what’s missing from John’s life, but even the DI, for all that he means well, doesn’t quite get it. Hell, John doesn’t really either, he’d never thought to define it before all this mess, and he’s done everything in his power to avoid it nowadays. It remains an unsolved puzzle. And why not? The detective is gone.
Lestrade takes John out to a Chinese restaurant that he’s been to a million times before and hasn’t set foot in in weeks, but he means well, and he’s paying, so John doesn’t say a word and tries to keep his trembling left hand to himself. Lestrade isn’t an idiot, though, regardless of the complaints lobbied against him from certain corners, and halfway through the meal that John can barely even get into his mouth because the food keeps vibrating off his fork, he takes John’s wrist and apologizes.
John feels bad for Lestrade, who’s career looks to be taking a gradual nose-dive, who has bags under his eyes almost as bad as John’s, who’s worn out and worked up and paying for a meal John physically cannot eat, and he thinks that might be the most tragic thing he’s ever heard.
He smiles and says it’s all right. Says he’s sorry instead.
Lestrade looks at him over a bowl of cooling lo mein, looking resigned and maybe even sad, and with a final squeeze to John’s wrist, he relents.
For the rest of the meal they talk about weather and football, even though it’s out of season. When they part outside the restaurant, Lestrade slips John his card, in case he needs anything.
John doesn’t tell him he already has at least seventy-two identical cards in the hollowed-out book on ornithology on the shelf in the sitting room. He thanks the inspector and heads back to Baker Street. But not home.
Nearly three months later, and John realizes he needs an income. Mrs. Hudson has been a saint, but even saints need to pay the utilities, and John can’t stomach living off the good woman anymore. He feels guilty ringing up Sarah after what he put her through, but prospects were limited. He’d of course found her frantic messages on his blog not long after returning to the rooms, and he knew he should respond, let her know he’s alive, at least, but every time he logs into his computer and opens up a new comment box, his mind goes blank, and his eyes sting with weariness, and his fingers rest like lead on the keyboard. He gives up every time.
But he needs work, and she’s the only person he thinks to turn to, so he calls her.
She’s angry. He expected that much. At some point she threatens to hang-up. He wouldn’t have blamed her. Then she cries, and John’s tempted to hang up himself, because he isn’t sure how much of this he can actually take. She gets herself under control, though, after only a moment or two. She finally asks what happened.
He tells her as much as he can. She tells him how sorry she is. She tells him how much she’s worried about him. She asks if there’s anything she can do.
He tells her he needs a job. When she says of course, she sounds like she expected him to say something else. He doesn’t doubt it, but he won’t think of it. His brain is barely functioning and his heart is in a dead-zone. No signal, no incoming calls, no sending messages. He just needs money. Somehow, she seems to understand, and she doesn’t press it. Doesn’t even seem to hold it against him.
He didn’t really deserve her anyway. She was stable and safe and charming and normal and everything he should have wanted, but he had been too sidetracked then to appreciate it, and much too fractured now to handle it. He just needs habit and routine, something to lose himself in, something his brain doesn’t have to concentrate on, so he can focus more energy on not thinking. There was a time when monotony was treacherous for him, made it too likely for thoughts of past horrors to creep up on him and bludgeon him over the head. Danger was, ironically, the cure. But not anymore. He had a familiarity with peril that made it almost nostalgic, made him think of “the good ole days,” and only really seemed to highlight all that he was missing, instead of distracting him from its absence.
He needs the monotony, now, perhaps more than he ever needed the danger. And he needs the money.
It’s a win-win, really.
Funny how he seems to have lost everything that mattered.
John calls Harry, eventually, although he was unlucky on the draw. She’s drunk when she answers the phone, and he gamely puts up with twenty minutes of abuse before telling her to ring him when she’s sober and hangs up.
She’s sober when she calls the next day, apologizing and weeping and telling him how much she loves him. She asks him if he’s all right. She tells him how sorry she is. She asks if there’s anything she can do.
John’s so tired of people asking. The answer, over and over and over, is no. And no one seems to get that. So he doesn’t answer, just lets the line go silent and fuzzy with static, until he hears Harry sigh and her whiskey-roughened voice murmur, “I know, lovey. I know.”
And the worst part is, he thinks she does.
Eventually the experiments have to go. The kitchen is becoming a health-violation, not that it hadn’t been before everything else, but John is steadily becoming more and more at risk of dangerous toxins. And eventually the violin needs to be packed away to save it from time and potential wood-decay. Eventually he dusts, and eventually he hoovers and eventually the skull is put in the closet and books rearranged and papers stored in the filing cabinet. Eventually John closes the door of the second-floor bedroom and doesn’t glance in it anymore. Eventually numbers are deleted from phones and comments deleted from blogs along with emails and old texts and the bookmarked link to a website. Eventually John glances at a calendar he unearths and realizes it’s out of date. The whole thing.
He realizes that, somehow, it’s been over a year. John sits down hard in his armchair like he’s been hit in the solar plexus, all the air rushing out of him and he honestly can’t remember where the time went. Where all those days and weeks and months ended up, and he thinks for one crazy moment that if he were to check in the waste bin he might find it all there. He realizes he can barely remember what he ate for breakfast that day. He can’t remember what he ate for breakfast yesterday. Or the day before that. Or anything else beyond the last twenty-four hours. It’s as if every day John springs into the world anew, with no past, with no history, leaving no mark on anything or anyone to prove he’d ever been there. Meaningless. Pointless. An utter waste. And he knows, knows it like he knows the lines on his face and the bullet holes in his body, that this is exactly how it would have been had Stamford not found him in the park that day, hadn’t taken him to the lab at St. Bart’s and introduced him to the rest of his life. It would have been drab and grey and uneventful and forgotten, in a lonely hotel, or a pensioner’s flat, and no one would have known him at all.
No one knows him now. Not anymore, at least. But still he holds on to this. Doggedly, determinedly, and he isn’t even certain why. He could move. He could find a cheaper flat somewhere else, nowhere near as nice, but at least he would be moving on in his life. Out of this limbo.
But he won’t. And he doesn’t think about it. And the clock ticks by.
Nothing ever happens to him.
His therapist tries to make contact with him, but he won’t respond. He takes his blog down. Stamford calls, Murray calls, Harry calls, Clara calls, but he won’t talk to any of them. He only takes Sarah’s calls because they tend to only be about work – she’s kind enough to realize that concern and empathy are exactly what he doesn’t need, and so she doesn’t try to be a friend. He’s unspeakably grateful for that. He answers when Lestrade calls, and he’s about the only one, because maybe John feels slightly responsible for how hard things have gotten on the DI of late. As though maybe, if he could have just managed not to get kidnapped, if he could have avoided the whole thing, if he would have made sure that goddamn son of a bitch was dead, then none of this would have happened. So he answers Lestrade’s calls, who’s stopped asking if he’s all right, who doesn’t ask if he needs anything, just tells John he’ll be over in half an hour, and he’s there right on the dot to take John for dinner. They do this at least twice a month, maybe three if either one of them has had it particularly rough. But John never calls Lestrade. John doesn’t call anyone.
It’s the third week in a row they’ve done this, and this time they’re in a small Indian place with curry and rice and what John suspects might be duck, when Lestrade finally asks what he seems to always want to ask every time they do this. He waits till John is mostly engaged in his possibly-duck-and-curry before asking, “If you could’ve, would you’ve gone too?”
John forces himself to finish chewing, swallow, set his fork down calmly, even dab his mouth with the napkin. He’s tempted to just get up and leave, but that doesn’t seem right, because even though he has a steady income and no real expenses to speak of – because things have stopped blowing up around the flat – Lestrade still insists on paying for these meals, and it would be rude to just walk out on the man, when most of this trouble could more or less be pinned on him.
And he knows what Lestrade is thinking because he’s thinking it himself: thinking of Semtex and mortar and acrid smoke and the scent of blood in the air and pain, and knowing it wouldn’t stop, no finish line in sight, a cat-and-mouse game that can only end in death with John dragged along like extra luggage. Like a ragdoll, expendable, useable, easily cast aside. He thinks of it often, in fact, one of a few things he isn’t always able to keep at bay, like the nightmares and the suffocating loneliness. And because he thinks of it often, he already knows the answer.
Lestrade doesn’t look surprised, just a little torn, maybe, as if he can’t decide whether he’s amused, comforted, or just saddened. It seems pretty sad to John, and he still hasn’t decided if it’s anything he takes pride in, but it’s true regardless. He would have followed without a second thought, if given the chance to. But he wasn’t.
And he knows that wasn't just an accident.
Some days John can’t decide whether it would be easier to know instead of not know. Would it be easier to know about the peril, about the step-by-step anxiety, or would it be better not to know? Would it be easier if it ended in tragedy, or if he didn’t know? Would it be better if he died, or if John didn’t know? John’s pretty sure if he died it would kill him, but he’s certain that this not-knowing will drive him mad. He can’t decide which he’d prefer. To find out and just waste away, fade out of the grief and into nothingness, or not know and tear his mind apart from the inside out. He sits in the living room, offensively tidy, oppressively still, feels the silence and the solitary press in against him, pound at his head and squeeze his heart in a vice until he thinks he’ll just splinter and it’s worse, because he knows the answer to the question. He knows what would be better. And it’s the one solution he can’t have.
He stares at the empty armchair across from him and ignores the tears. They won’t make him come back.
Several months later sees John Watson on the streets of London, hobbling with blind determination through the city until he finds what he’s looking for. He stares directly into the CCTV camera mounted on the department store across the intersection, features stony and grave, and maybe Mycroft didn’t know John knew Morse Code, but it didn’t matter anyway. John simply grips his cane and begins jabbing the ground with its tip, looking for all the world like a middle-aged cripple waiting impatiently for a bus – all the while very deliberately spelling out the following message:
I know you know where he is. And I know you won’t tell me. So be sure you watch out for him.
He is briefly tempted to tap out, Or I’ll find you, but he knows how utterly ridiculous that is, and more than anything he needs Mycroft to know how serious this is to him, how much John means it. So he refrains from threats and random acts of violence, of dreams of retribution and vengeance, refuses to take the easy way out, because it isn’t about him. It’s never been about him. And now Mycroft knows that too.
The rest is out of John’s hands.
Harry’s hospitalization marks the two-and-a-half year mark, so that John doesn’t even notice it when he runs into A&E only to be told that her liver’s failing. The doctors put in a request for a transplant, but John already knows she won’t be approved. Transplant boards don’t really trust on-again off-again alcoholics with fresh livers. John knows he’s more than paid his dues to his sister over the years, done more for her than anyone else ever did, and far more than she ever did for him, but he still can’t help but feel guilty for all the months of ignored calls. Not that it would have really changed much. If John had been capable of influencing her alcohol use, he may have taken it more to heart, but even in the bad days when he did come running to her every beck and call, it hadn’t changed anything. She still drank the next day, even if he’d had to rush her to hospital for an emergency stomach pump the night before. Listening to her wail and sob about her life and her lost loves hadn’t helped. Being there for her every second that he could possibly spare and hundreds more that he couldn’t hadn’t seemed to leave the slightest bit of an impression on her. She carried on with her life how she saw fit, and no one could ever tell her otherwise. All Watson’s were stubborn by nature, but she’d made a performance piece out of it.
When he sees her all strapped up to machines and tubes down her throat he feels like cradling her in his arms and making it all go away. He should be desensitized by now, but apparently nothing can make you unfeeling when your sibling lies dying before your very eyes. Her eyes were tinged yellow with jaundice, and he knew it would only get worse. He asks her if she wants him to call Clara.
She shakes her head no.
He sits awkwardly on the edge of her bed, hand taking her thinner one, always so thin, she’d always been rubbish taking care of herself. He squeezes her fingers gently.
I don’t want you to die, he tells her, eyes bright and unblinking.
She smiles beatifically and cries. She turns his palm up, tapping lightly across the roughened skin.
I love you.
She’d been the one to teach him Morse Code.
The funeral is the usual affair. Harry is buried in the family plot in Edinburgh where both their parents are, along with the grandparents they’d never gotten a chance to know. People offer condolences. Clara doesn’t speak to him, and he can’t blame her. He hadn’t called. There’s a reception somewhere in town, but John just can’t make himself go. He slips away when no one’s looking and grabs the first train back to London.
It’s full dark by the time he limps up to the flat. The cane leaves a permanent indent in his hand, the same one Harry had written on, spelled out that last chance, and he could still feel it burned into his skin, forever humming with the words she’d always flung around and hadn’t truly meant until it was much too late. Mrs. Hudson is asleep by now, and no one’s tried to ring him. He’s trained them well. He doesn’t mind. He’s sure Lestrade will be round tomorrow. He’ll have seen in the obituaries, he’ll make the connection, he was good enough to leave it until after the funeral but he won’t let John stew in it for long. Lestrade is worried about him, and John knows it, somehow doesn’t resent it, because again, Lestrade might be the only person who even has an inkling.
The sitting room is still tidy and calm and silent and dark. John doesn’t bother with the lights. Doesn’t bother going to his room, doesn’t bother changing, doesn’t bother with anything. He drops his cane in the walkway and hobbles over to the couch with the bullet-marked smiley face on the wall just above it, sinks down on it with a groan of pain and exhaustion and props his head on the arm rest. He gazes out the window at the brilliant stars and pretends his heart isn’t breaking.
Nothing really changes, and time rolls by as it ever did, without much to mark its passage, no real landmarks for John to latch onto and say, “That was a moment in time.” He goes about his carefully cultivated routine and studiously doesn’t think and continues to ignore phone calls and empty rooms and silence. Sarah and he barely speak anymore, other than to communicate about patients. Everyone but Murray has given up trying to make contact, and Lestrade is still the only one John’s willing to see. Day fades into night and John goes to bed at some disgustingly reasonable hour, and he’s taken to sleeping on the sofa now for as long as his leg and shoulder will put up with. He falls asleep to the winking of the stars and feels hollow.
He doesn’t know when or how, but eventually little differences crop up here and there. Small ones, innocuous and unlooked-for but since nothing’s changed in so long, they’re pretty noticeable. It isn’t much. Just one day he’s sitting in his office, talking to one of his younger patients and he finds he’s cracked a smile. Literally cracked, it feels like plaster ought to be falling off his face at how stiff the muscles are, like they’ve atrophied. He’ll go out for dinner with Lestrade and find himself chuckling a bit. He might have managed to ignore that one if the DI hadn’t dropped his fork with a loud clatter and gawped at him. Mrs. Hudson and he will be watching awful telly dramas and, for once, he won’t feel a pang of remorse because no one’s ruined the ending for him. One out of ten or so nights sees John nightmare free, and he nearly jolts awake in alarm the first time because nothing else has disturbed him, and somehow he finds that disturbing. It’s the sort of irony he’d gotten used to after the Army chucked him out.
He opens the refrigerator to once again find no severed body parts lying in wait to surprise him and manages not to feel nauseated. The violin has stopped reproaching him. The skull no longer looks at him accusingly when he goes for the dust pan. He thinks he might finally be reaching an even keel, or as even as anything is ever going to be when he feels like he’s been lobotomized. Lestrade still calls and takes him for food, but now when the bill comes he grins wryly and says, “Pay up, mate.”
John might even feel . . . not whole, or good, or even okay. He just feels. That seems like a pretty good start to him. He still watches the stars at night, still feels tiny and insignificant and extraneous. Still feels hollow. But it’s less like all his organs have been removed, and more like he just had a lung taken out: he can still function, still process at the staggering level of mediocrity, only he can’t function like he used to. As good as he used to. There’s so much he can’t do anymore, and he doesn’t mean physically. The physical drawbacks barely even make the list of things he feels bereft of. There’s just so much he can’t cope with still, can’t handle or even dare to dwell on. So long as he just keeps his head down, keeps his nose to the grindstone, he can function. He can limp along. He can survive.
But he doesn’t know how much he can live.
There’s a breeze of some sort, and John doesn’t know where it’s coming from. He stretches his feet out slightly, still groggy and sleep-muzzed, trying to figure out where he’s fallen asleep. He doesn’t encounter the cool leather of the sofa’s armrest, and his shoulder is only protesting minimally, and he remembers then that tonight was one of those nights he had to surrender his vigil of the stars and sleep in his actual bed – it had been overcast, anyway. He still doesn’t remember opening the window, though.
There’s a low shuffle, indistinct. The slow, deliberate press of feet on the floorboards and John can’t decide whether he expected this or not. If he’s honest, then not. He’d been nothing but a pet, after all, a tragic side-kick who was rather easily kicked aside and he can’t imagine what sort of leverage he could possibly offer. On the other hand, however, he feels a flicker of relief: if they’re coming for him, that means the game is still on. It’s the most proof he’s gotten in . . . oh God, has it been that long? Three years? It has, hasn’t it? It’s the most proof he’s had in three years that all isn’t lost and he can’t help but feel strangely grateful to this unknown spectre who more likely than not is going to kill him. Kidnap him at the very least, but John doesn’t have much hope for surviving too long if Moriarty really wants him dead. His hand creeps under his pillow, anyway, fingertips sliding across metal and a rubber grip.
Can’t make it too easy, after all.
There’s a trembling breath in the air just then. John frowns. Assassins should really know better than to breathe that loudly. The faint rustle of fabric, a swirl of wind from the open window carries scents into the room: dew on the grass, earth, car exhaust, cologne.
John’s blood freezes, as do his groping hand. He doesn’t know when he opens his eyes, but he’s staring at the far wall, unseeing, everything shrouded in dark and the spectre is steadily moving nearer. He can hear their tread. Wonders why he didn’t recognize it before.
Something cold touches him, just near the carotid artery and he knows that touch, knows those marble fingers anywhere as they press gently, looking for a pulse, trembling like they don’t believe he’s there. John doesn’t blame them. He can’t believe it either.
A shuddering gasp and suddenly the mattress behind John is dipping slightly, weight gradually being lowered on to it, chill closing in on his back through his thin sleeping shirt and John can’t think. Can barely breath, doesn’t blink, afraid the slightest twitch, the smallest movement, will make it all go away. Will make him wake up.
Because he has to be dreaming.
Now there’re puffs of air at his neck, something soft and dry and vaguely quivering just brushing the shell of his ear. A whisper.
He inhales sharply, feels the burn in his chest, the burn in his eyes and he lets it ground him, tries to convince himself that it can’t be real, it can’t after all this time.
“John.” There’s a plea in that voice, roughened and quiet, like it’s hardly there at all. A benediction, almost, and more fingers are skating across his ribs, solid, muscled, real arms wrapping around his front while a cool hand presses against his chest right over where his heart is jack-hammering away. John is panting now, shallow and harsh and he knows he’ll hyperventilate if he carries on like this much longer but it can’t, it can’t –
“Sherlock?” he begs and hopes he won’t hate himself in the morning.
The body behind him shivers all over before pressing in closer, holding him tighter, bundling him up like it never wants to let go.
“You . . . you --”
“I had to, I had to, there wasn’t another way, I didn’t have a choice, I couldn’t bear it if I’d made you come and anything . . . if anything – I couldn’t, John, I simply couldn’t justify it. A move had to be made, he wasn’t ever going to stop, he wasn’t ever going to go easy on me and he would have honored his threat, John, I know he would have, he would have – whenever I wasn’t here, of if I’d only popped round the corner store, he would have — ”
A furrowed brow buries itself between John’s shoulders and the words cut off as the voice threatens to break. John allows himself to blink finally.
“How do I know this isn’t another terribly realistic dream?” he says.
Long fingers sweep through his scruffy hair while something gentle and moist presses against the side of his throat. “Not a dream, John. I swear it’s not a dream,” lips murmur over his skin.
That had never happened in a dream before. John feels a deep shudder down his spine and he’s warm inside and out. His panting ratchets up.
“Sherlock?” More kisses to his shoulder, a slender nose nuzzling into the fabric of his shirt.
“I thought about you constantly. I worried every waking moment that my attempts to spare you would be for nothing, that that bastard would simply snatch you anytime he pleased.” Fingers fanned out over John’s clothed skin, pressing into muscle deliberately, intensely, as slightly chapped lips dragged over the edge of an ear up to his hairline. “I worked in secret, I stayed as hidden as I possibly could, but he was always watching for me, always anticipating that I’d eventually come after him. I had no guarantee that he wouldn’t simply ambush you in the street the very next day just for insurance, I couldn’t know for sure. I demanded Mycroft keep a close eye on you, report to me if it looked like you were in danger but I suspected, in a fit of paranoia, that he’d keep it from me on purpose just to prevent any distractions. I never knew. I never knew and it nearly drove me mad, John.”
When greedy hands gripped at John’s waist and pulled him firmly back against the thin frame behind him, he finally seemed to snap out of his trance. Smaller, blunter hands covered the long nimble ones on his body, stilling their fitful movement while he took what he hoped was a calming breath.
“Sherlock, you . . .” he breathed deep once more, he hadn’t spoken of it, he’d never uttered a word about it, but he couldn’t . . . “Sherlock, you were gone. For three years. I didn’t – I still don’t know why. Why did you disappear? Why didn’t you --” he cursed the tears until the end of his days. “Why didn’t you take me with you?”
Sherlock wriggled his fingers around so he could twine them with John’s, squeezing them urgently.
“You nearly died, John.” His voice sounds haunted, like wind through a crypt. “You had a bomb strapped to you. You had laser sights all over your body. You were bleeding everywhere when I pulled you out of the pool. You offered your life up to buy me an escape. I knew if ever placed in a similar predicament you would react the same way, and likely you wouldn’t have such a fortunate outcome again. And I knew that was not something I could abide. I couldn’t have you reduced to a mere pawn or a liability and I could not have you throw your life away for me.”
John laughs a little hysterically then, feeling Sherlock stiffen behind him and he almost feels bad, because it certainly isn’t an appropriate response.
“It’s a little late for the last bit, anyway.”
“I’ve seen the flat,” Sherlock murmurs, thumbs rubbing absent circles on John’s hips. “Everything’s tidied up. The skull is gone. My violin’s been put away. It never crossed my mind that you wouldn’t move on with your life.”
John thinks of all the isolation, all the grey vagaries his so-called “life” has become, the drab monotony, the unfulfilling hours piling up until he barely knows what year it is anymore, with nothing but tri-monthly pity dinners and a funeral as the only defining moments in his entire existence anymore. He thinks of the loneliness and the silence and the nights of winking stars on the sofa.
John shifts out of Sherlock’s hold, ignoring the pained noise from behind him as he carefully rolls over so he can finally look this man in the eye. Sherlock looks older. Much older. Lines about his mouth and eyes, deep, purple bags of exhaustion and a sickly pale color all suggesting that Sherlock had been living in his own particular brand of hell all this while. John feels strangely comforted by that.
“I never thought you would return,” John says. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t allow myself to think it. I’d never be able to survive it if I kept on thinking and thinking you’d come back, and you never did. I hoped though. I wanted it. More than anything, I wanted it. I just didn’t let myself think it would ever happen. So then if maybe it didn’t, I wouldn’t have so far to fall. But I never left, Sherlock. I couldn’t ever leave.”
Sherlock blinks at him one second, owlishly, and the next there are hands gripping John on either side of his head and lips crushed against his and he feels wrecked, feels broken apart and torn to pieces and so painfully, horribly glad. Sherlock makes a desperate sound in the back of his throat presses in further, prying John’s mouth open, tongue surging in to taste and tangle and claim. John merely tilts his head back and moans.
At some point he doesn’t have his shirt on, and at some point Sherlock is wrenching his own to shreds, and at some point John’s hands are scrabbling over a lean expanse of smooth back and porcelain skin, fingers digging in, nails biting, and there are teeth all along his throat, suction on his collarbones and he doesn’t bother wondering how they got here. They’d never done this before, and John hadn’t ever really seriously considered it, but now it seems like madness not to. Like it’s the most logical progression. The next necessary step to whatever new insanity they’re moving towards.
But they’re moving there together, together, so John doesn’t really mind.
Slick fingers are scissoring in and out of him while Sherlock sucks a peaked nipple into his mouth like its mana from heaven, John’s hard cock trapped between their shifting bodies. John wraps curly dark strands around his fingers and tugs, breathless and panting, “Sherlock! Sherlock, oh God, please!”
Sherlock moans at that, vibrations traveling through the sensitive flesh still trapped between the detective’s teeth and John throws his head back, writhing up against the man’s incredible heat, heels slipping on the sheets searching for leverage.
“Inside. Need you inside.”
Sherlock yanks his fingers out, John whimpering from the sudden emptiness, too much emptiness, he’d had enough for a lifetime, thanks, but Sherlock rears up that same instant and seizes John’s mouth, teeth and tongue and lips and war, hunting, so deep in John’s throat and he wishes he could suck Sherlock off.
The detective trembles just then like he heard John’s thoughts and pulls away to look him in the eye.
“John,” he whispers, like a prayer, unsteady fingers tracing the edge of one blue eye before leaning down again to press kisses to his brow, both eyelids, the bridge of his nose, his chin, the corner of his mouth. John’s tongue darts out to graze across Sherlock’s swollen bottom lip, good leg coming up to wrap around his narrow waist.
“Now, please, Sherlock. Can’t wait. Don’t make me wait.”
“No more,” Sherlock vows, claims John’s mouth again, briefly. “No more waiting.”
They don’t bother with a condom because frankly, it’s been three bloody years and any that John’d had lying about his room are out of date by now. He is sure he’ll be horrified by this in the morning, but in the here and now, with the wet tip of Sherlock’s prick sliding over his stretched hole, he can’t really give a flying fuck.
Priorities, and all that.
Sherlock doesn’t ask if John’s ready, doesn’t need to, the desperate rolls of his hips is clear as day. Only grips John tightly about the hips, thumbs digging in perfectly shaped bruises as he slowly, agonizingly presses in, and John can’t breathe. Neither of them can, lungs burning and hearts soaring and blood rushing in their ears but it doesn’t seem to drown out John’s long, low groan and Sherlock must hear it, John can feel his cock all the way in him, so full, so full and it twitches slightly, making John gasp and clutch the sheets. They stay perfectly still, absorbed in the feeling, staring into each other’s eyes because it feels like it’s been an eternity. And maybe they still can’t quite believe it.
John’s the first to move, biting his lip as he shifts up against Sherlock’s pelvis and the detective hisses, begins to flex his hips, small motions in and out, and John’s looking down the length of his body wishing he could see what they look like together. Sherlock growls then, grabbing a fistful of hair to jerk his head back, teeth sinking into the exposed neck the same time Sherlock thrusts in sharp. John keens, hands flying up to grasp at bony shoulder-blades, muscles moving and clenching as they set up a rhythm. Sherlock sucks bruises all up and down John’s neck, laves at the network of scar tissue along his left shoulder, nibbles the newer scar on his right arm, kisses reverently the scar just about his right ear and John moans helplessly, jerking his hips up to meet every one of Sherlock’s thrusts.
Sherlock swivels just slightly to the left, hitting the knob of tissue inside the doctor, and John yells, fingernails scratching down Sherlock’s back, leaving raised welts as he gasps for breath and urges him on.
“Do it. Right there. Oh God, Sherlock, yes! Oh fuck yes!”
Sherlock snarls, rearing up on his knees, bending John practically in half as the rhythm falls apart and John thrashes against the pillows, mad with pleasure, coming undone.
“John. Oh fuck, John!” he gasps, braced on his hands, watching every spasm of ecstasy across his friend’s face, while John digs fingers into his forearms and just holds on as he is pounded relentlessly into the mattress.
“Ohhhh, Sherlock! Oh fuck me. Fuck. Me. Now. Now now now!”
John pulls Sherlock down on top of him, legs squeezing the detective in a vice, hands pulling frantic at dark hair as he jerks up, rubbing his own leaking cock desperately against Sherlock’s firm stomach, chanting filthy encouragements in his ear until Sherlock snaps completely, pistoning in and out, in and out until John is reduced to wails and incoherent babble, gripping and clawing at any bit of skin he can reach and they are both so close, so close —
“Gonna come. God, Sherlock, gonna come, gonna —”
Sherlock strokes his thumb over John’s cheek, staring at him wide-eyed and breathless.
“Do it. Want to see you. Do it, John.”
And John lets go. Vision whites out, all his muscles clamp down, indescribable bliss rockets through his core and out as he shoots ribbon after ribbon of white onto his own stomach, the feeling of euphoria only lengthened when he feels Sherlock pulse and seize up, hot come flowing inside and John whimpers, delirious with fatigue and afterglow.
He feels like he’s floating.
John comes back to himself long enough to reach out blearily for the body still radiating heat beside him, and hears Sherlock chuckle low, pulling John to rest against his shoulder and curling a slender, powerful arm across his back.
“Sleep, John. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
John looks at him, clumsy fingers brushing over a rough, angular jaw. “Always?”
With a smile and a sigh, he sleeps.
John awakes the next morning to find he hasn’t moved much, which is well enough because he was sure to have had a come apart if he’d not been able to immediately see or lay hands on his new bedmate. He stretches, feeling sore muscles pull, and God he’s missed that, not just the sex but the physical feel of having actually done something. It feels luxuriant and he toasts in the warmth of the body beneath his and the heartbeat just below his cheek.
“I see you’re awake,” a deep voice murmurs then and John simply grins lazy and ridiculous.
“Did you ever actually fall asleep?”
“There were more pressing matters to attend to,” and the body shifts slightly, lips pressing once more to the scar above John’s right ear while a long hand skims idly down his stomach. “I trust you slept well?”
John snorts. “You know I slept well, you great bat, you watched me all night.”
“Open your eyes, John.”
All right, so maybe John’s still a bit leery about this entirely too-good-to-be-true morning after because . . . well, obvious. He tries to stop the barest fluttering in his heart, tiny tendrils of anxiety creeping up, not because he’d slept with his erstwhile flatmate he hadn’t seen in three goddamn years, or even that he’s slept with a man, but rather because there was the knowledge, in some semi-hysterical part of John’s psyche, that this could all still be a dream. A very elaborate dream, mind, a very, very realistic one, but John was an expert on nightmares and all the manifold ways they can crop up to torment the mind, and it really wouldn’t be the most bizarre he’s ever had.
It would, however, be the most painful.
“I’m here, John. I won’t go anywhere. Just please look at me.”
John had never been able to disobey that voice, and he feels weirdly comforted to know he still can’t.
John opens his eyes.
Sherlock is staring back at him, mere inches from his face, and that close with the early morning light peeping in through the window he can see just how much time and worry have left their marks on that once pristine face.
John’s never loved anything more.
“You look awful.”
Sherlock’s expression barely changes but the shadows around his mouth shift a bit, and his eyes are bright.
“And you have never looked better.”
A bubble of laughter bursts inside John’s chest and he feels a bit insane.
“What have you done all this time?”
Sherlock huffs a little, brow creasing with distaste as fingers still mindlessly explore John’s skin, not quite arousing so much as comforting but it could go the other way pretty easily. John suspects that’s rather the point.
“No distracting me, Sherlock. It’s been three years, I deserve something.”
Sherlock waves a hand dismissively before quickly returning it to the ridges of John’s spine. “The whole thing would take hours to go over and would require two nicotine patches and a cup of tea to sort into any semblance of a narrative, neither of which am I disposed to retrieving at this moment.”
John reaches out to lay callused fingertips over Sherlock’s pulse point before sliding up into his mess of hair. “Is it done, at least?”
He tries not to sound like he’s hopelessly begging, and fails.
The detective sighs at that, wandering hands stilling as he gazes at John with something like apology in his pale eyes. “Yes, of course it is, John. I wouldn’t have dared come to you if it weren’t.”
John breathes like he’s only just remembered how to and settles back into Sherlock’s warmth.
Somehow Sherlock’s touch seems different, less unendingly curious and more reverent, like he’s touching art. John can’t manage such questing caresses, can only manage to press his hands against Sherlock’s ribs and hold on, so unbelievably, unspeakably happy.
“I would much rather hear about all you’ve gotten up to in my absence,” is the next query, slightly teasing but genuinely interested.
John can’t help the little cynical scoff. It’s a ludicrous assumption, that he’d done anything the past three years.
But Sherlock asked, and John can’t refuse.
“I did locum work to pay the rent,” he begins tonelessly. “I straightened up the rooms. Had to throw the head out before toxins became an issue. I put the skull in the closet because I felt like it was staring at me. I put your violin away because I was afraid something might happen to it. I took the blog down, I didn’t talk to people much, I had dinner with Lestrade nearly once a week, and —”
He almost mentions Harry and his throat closes up. He swallows with a hard click and glares at Sherlock’s collarbone to try and frighten off the impending sting in his eyes.
Somehow, and it really isn’t that much of a surprise, Sherlock knows.
“I had heard about that,” he says gently. “Not long ago. Mycroft sent me a message to that affect. I was honestly surprised he’d deigned to keep me abreast of such things.”
John feels his edges splintering again and Sherlock just holds him closer, holds him tighter.
“I wanted to return then. I wanted to drop the whole thing and come back. I couldn’t, though. I was so close to drawing the net and then we’d be rid of him, for good, and after everything that he’d put us through I couldn’t justify passing on that opportunity to be done with the thing for once and all. But I hurried, as much as I possibly could, as much as I was able when he was always looking for me. The moment it was done, I came back to you.”
John nods against Sherlock’s chest, thinking words might elude him at the moment. He loves this man more than he can ever say, and was it any wonder he hadn’t been able to function without him? It did little for John’s sense of self-worth, but that didn’t seem all that important just now.
Hands clasped his face, pulling him back enough to look into Sherlock’s deathly serious expression.
“I love you entirely. You are wonderful and brave and loyal and I cannot live without you. I eternally regret that I ever had to find that out this way, but I am eternally grateful it was this and not a more permanent way. You’re gorgeous.”
It was said with much passion but no hysteria, dry and almost clinically romantic, couched in terms of mere fact in a tone that was indisputable.
If John ever thought he couldn’t love Sherlock more than he already did, he was proven wrong.
“I assume you’ve already deduced that I love you too?” John asks.
Sherlock grins slightly. “Even if I hadn’t already it was a bit of a moot point. You do talk in your sleep.”
John smacks the other man lightly on the chest, muttering, “Bastard,” before gripping him by the back of the neck and pulling him into another deep, luxurious kiss. Sherlock seems determined to lick every single one of John’s molars, which would be more interesting if he’d brushed his teeth, but Sherlock merely hums with approval and slides his hand through John’s hair again. They eventually break apart, staring at each other out of glazed, hooded eyes.
And then a thought occurs.
“Sherlock, did you climb in through my window?”
“Of course. Old habits. I’ve become somewhat unaccustomed to just strolling through the front door.”
John chuckles. “Madman,” before slanting his mouth over his lovers once more.
There is a flurry of movement from downstairs and John suddenly remembers their landlady. Their landlady. Not just his anymore. He feels distinctly lightheaded.
“Come on,” he says, pulling away and finally moving out of Sherlock’s clutches as he rises from the bed, completely ignoring the detective’s growl of annoyance. “It’s time we got up anyway. I’m sure Mrs. Hudson will be happy to see you. You’ve got three years worth of unpaid rent to make good on.”
John fishes around the foreign clutter of his room for some clothes to throw on, aware that Sherlock was still sulking unmoving on the bed.
“We should probably ring Lestrade, too,” he says and he does up his trousers. “He’ll be relieved to hear your services are available again.”
Sherlock’s face darkens. “Yes, Lestrade. What was that about you dining with him weekly?”
John smirks as he pulls his stripped jumper over his head. “Oh, you know. I’d gotten used to a certain lifestyle of eating dinners out with dashing men. Old habits, you see.”
Sherlock snarls something about “I’ll show you old habits,” as he makes a swipe for John’s arse but the doctor is too quick, sidestepping him by an inch and darting out through the bedroom door, taking the stairs at a well-practiced hobble and almost tripping the rest of the way to the landing when he realizes he’s cackling.
Mrs. Hudson is in their kitchen, making a pot of tea. He swoops over and gives her a resounding kiss on the cheek. She smiles at him, a bit hesitantly, and asks if he’s all right.
He brightly tell her he’s never been better.
She looks doubtful right up until Sherlock comes flouncing into the room with disheveled hair and a flurry of satin dressing gown that he must have deduced the location of in seconds and gone to retrieve — it had been in John’s room, not a difficult leap.
John barely manages to catch her when she faints.
Sherlock looks on, bemused.
“I’ve always wondered if my mere presence could render someone unconscious. I suppose that mystery’s been solved.”
It’s pure madness, and John savors every moment of it.
He’s finally home.