The nights are cold here, in the Southern Carpathians, so late in the year. Sherlock shivers beneath the meagre layers of clothing and threadbare blanket he managed to nick in the last village, and tries to focus on anything but the numbness of his toes and the biting wind whipping down the river and under the rickety wooden bridge he’s installed himself beneath for the night.
Rain is coming. Rain that will most likely turn to sleet in the wee hours if the temperature continues to drop.
He has been on the road for two years, and he is exhausted. There has been a litany of unremarkable stops along the way—a modest hostel just outside Paris, an adequate but cold flat in Berlin, a draughty monastery in Tibet, a 200 year old house in St. Petersburg, and for the last four months, village after muddy village in the wettest autumn Serbia has seen in years.
In the beginning there had been purpose to keep driving him, the need to eradicate Moriarty’s far flung network of hackers, thieves, and assassins, to sever every last thread of the vast web he had built up throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. It needed to be done so that John would be safe, so that Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade would be safe, and yes, even so London would be safe. It needed to be done so that Sherlock could go home again without the ever present spectre of Moriarty casting its bleak pall over everything that home had come to mean.
But that was over two years ago, and none of it seems very worthwhile anymore. Whenever he thinks he’s cut off the last limb, his brother is there to inform him of another. He’s almost accepted that he will never see London (John) again—almost. But then there are nights like tonight, when he is weak, and all he can think of is the warmth of the flat they once shared, the crackle of the fire in the hearth, the teasing smile playing at the corner of John’s lips, the boxes of half-eaten Chinese takeaway balanced precariously in their laps. He aches at the memory of it, at the realisation that it is something he may never experience again.
He is going to die here. He is almost sure of that, now. His presence and purpose has been discovered, and he can only run for so long. He’s tired of running. Better to just accept his fate, and have it all over with.
He thinks of John back in London. What would he be doing just now? Sleeping? Perhaps he has given up the bed upstairs and moved into Sherlock’s bigger room and bigger bed on the main floor. Perhaps he is unable to sleep and he is up reading one of the cheap spy thrillers he so favours, or watching some crap thing on the telly. Perhaps he spares Sherlock a thought now and again. Perhaps… But two years is a long time, and Mycroft is never forthcoming with information, only that John is safe, and well, and is nothing for Sherlock to concern himself with.
A rustling in the woods behind him yanks Sherlock out of his head and slams him violently back into his skin. A branch snaps, there is the unmistakable murmur of hushed voices on the wind.
Time to go.
He’s lost track of time. There is pain, and then a day or two of recovery during which the pain peaks and just begins to subside, before he is dragged back in for another interrogation. They don’t hold back. They have nothing to lose but him and he doesn’t seem to be of all that much value.
It rains constantly.
It is always damp.
The cold never abates.
He dreams of the lounge at Baker Street.
When he curls into a tight ball on the icy, concrete floor of his cell and weeps, it is the warmth of the fire and the site of John across from him in his broken down, damask chair that keeps Sherlock from giving up entirely.
They didn’t take his belt. They allow him a fork when they push a plate of cold mućkalica into his cell every two days. They are leaving the door open for him to end it, which means that whatever information they think he has, it is not that essential to them. They’re just toying with him for the sheer pleasure of it.
He could give up. Sometimes he doesn’t know why he doesn’t.
But then he remembers John, and Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade. His death now would make no difference to them, of course. They already think him dead. But it seems wrong somehow, especially when it comes to John, to leave him twice, whether he knows it or not. And so Sherlock fights, he stays, he lives for John.
But still—sometimes he wishes they would take the choice from his hands. Sometimes he wishes they would just kill him and be done with it.
It’s not home, but it’s warm. The backseat of a luxury sedan. Heated. Leather. His brother sitting across from him in some ridiculous Russian military kit, a frown permanently etched on his brow.
“It appears they didn’t feed you much.”
Sherlock doesn’t say anything. If he’s quiet it gives the illusion of anger, or even pettiness, rather than the truth—the reality that if he were to open his mouth in an attempt to reply, all that would come out would be a choked sob, followed by more which he knows would swiftly escalate out of his control. And so he is quiet and still as the sodden countryside races by outside the window, illuminated only by the first grey light of dawn.
He unclips his seatbelt and lays down on the warm leather, turns his back to his brother, and drifts into a fitful sleep in which he dreams of London—the wet streets, the distant, late night hum of traffic, the thick walls of Baker Street insulating him and John from the dangers of the world outside.
It’s November. London is cold and grey, but at least it’s clean, and brisk, and bustling. Sherlock stands on the roof of the SIS building and looks down at Vauxhall Bridge and the Thames. John could be down there, driving past in a cab at this very moment.
Or perhaps he is back at the flat. It is a Saturday. He won’t be working. He likes to do laundry on Saturdays, and go to the shops for food. If Sherlock went to the Sainsbury’s Local, right now, he might see him browsing the produce and trying to decide between the quality yogurt or the store brand.
Sherlock’s weak yet, there are London doctors to see, and tests to be run, and then there is his brother, and his questions, and the hours and hours of paper work… But they aren’t things Sherlock cares about. He wants to go home. He’s waited two and a half years to go home, and finally there is nothing to deter him but the medical and clerical incompetency of her majesty’s government. Well, her majesty’s government be damned.
He’s put in his time.
He’s going home.
The outside of the flat looks the same as he steps out of the cab. Speedy’s is still there. The front door is still painted black, and the knocker is still crooked, telegraphing John’s presence more clearly than anything else possibly could.
Sherlock had been nothing but eagerness on the short drive over, but now that he is here, standing on the pavement and staring up at the windows of the flat (curtains curiously drawn at eleven o’clock in the morning), he suddenly feels uncertain.
Mycroft had warned John, called him well over a week ago from Požarevac (even though Sherlock had wanted it to be a surprise). He hadn’t told Sherlock what John had said, and Sherlock had been too furious to ask, but now he wishes that he had. It never occurred to him that perhaps John might not be happy to see him. Perhaps he is angry. Understandable.
True, John is strong, the doctor and the soldier in him used to death and loss, and it is likely he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and got on with life in very short order after Sherlock left. But still… Necessary though it was, his fake death was a sort of lie, a betrayal of a kind, and John being John, loyal as he is… Well, to him it may be something considered unforgivable.
Sherlock swallows dryly. Should he pop into Speedy’s and grab a coffee and scone as penance? Should he knock on Mrs. Hudson’s door first? Would John have told her? Surely…
He should get coffee and scones. He should. But really, coffee and scones can hardly make up for two years absence, can they?
The front door flies open, startling him, and he is met not with John, as he had hoped (dreaded?), but with a misty-eyed Mrs. Hudson. Her hand shakes as she lifts it to point a finger at him. “I am very angry at you, young man. Very angry, do you understand. Do you have any idea what you’ve put us through?”
“Get in here this instant!” Mrs. Hudson glances towards the heavens. “It’s going to rain again, and I don’t want you tromping wet footprints all over my floors.”
He goes, but mostly because he can smell all the scents of home rushing out the door to meet him at once: ginger biscuits and furniture polish, the slight mustiness that all old buildings in this part of London have, Mrs. Hudson’s light, flowery Lily-Of-The-Valley perfume, and John…
As he steps into the dimness of the foyer, he can smell John everywhere. But not the clean, bright sent of Pear’s shampoo and Palmolive soap, warm wool and fresh brewed tea, no this is the stale, unwashed smell of the sickroom, the unmistakeable reek of alcohol, old newspapers, and unwashed dishes.
Mrs Hudson is still talking, he suddenly realises, and he’s not heard a word. “John?” Out of his lips before he realises, and Mrs. Hudson’s face does something he can’t interpret. Her hand is resting lightly on his forearm, where he has it crossed across his chest, eyes cast up the stairs.
“It’s been a shock. He’s—he’s not been living here, you see. He moved out less than a month after you… He said he couldn’t bear it, but then I insisted he come back last week when your brother called. He’s not—he’s not been himself since you left, and he’s been worse since we got word. I don’t think he’s slept. He just sits up there, in your old chair… I think he’s waiting for you.”
Mrs. Hudson gives his arm a light squeeze. “You and I are going to catch up later, you mark my word, but right now I think he needs to see you more than I do, so off you go. No more stalling.”
Sherlock blinks down at her, suddenly terrified.
She squeezes his arm again. “On you go. You owe it to him, Sherlock. On you go.”
And then she turns around and leaves him standing alone in the foyer, staring up into the dimness beyond. It's started to rain again, and there are no lights on upstairs. John is up there somewhere, sitting alone in the dark.
(he couldn’t bear it)
Sherlock steps forward. The first stair squeaks (still; just as it always has). He freezes, and there is an answering whisper of a sound from upstairs, fabric against leather? John is in his chair, sitting there, waiting. All this time waiting.
Each step feels weighty and impossible, but he makes it, of course he does, because John is waiting, has been waiting for two and a half long years, and when he reaches the top of the stairs, he takes a deep breath, strides forward to the entrance to the lounge, and stops dead, breath caught in his throat.
There is someone in his chair—frozen, glass of scotch in one hand, beard concealing the contours of his drawn, grey face, a new pair of jeans and an old button down shirt hanging from his too-thin frame. He stares straight ahead, doesn’t even bother to look Sherlock’s way, and Sherlock feels ill, lost, desperate to somehow make it all right, even as he realises that something has been broken irreparably, that things may never be alright between them again.
He wants to speak, but there is nothing to say, and they have never really done well with words anyway.
Instead he takes off his coat, folds it in half and lays it atop the haphazard pile of newspapers on the coffee table. He walks across the room, and stands a foot from the arm of his chair, a foot from John’s small, capable hand, gripped white-knuckled around the glass tumbler he’s holding. John doesn’t move, doesn’t blink, doesn’t give even the slightest indication that he is present at all. If not for the fact that Sherlock can see the gentle rise and fall of his chest, he would almost fear the worst.
He takes a step closer, leans down and carefully lifts the glass from John’s hand, sets it on the cluttered, dusty desk, and then comes back around to stand in front of him. John stares at his legs. Perhaps he thinks that he is a ghost, that if he ignores him, he’ll just go away. But Sherlock isn’t going away, not anymore, not ever if John will deem to let him stay.
After a minute more of utter stillness, utter silence, Sherlock drops to his knees on the carpet, trying not to wince at the pain still shooting through his joints with every movement, trying desperately to quell the images that rise, unbidden, of concrete floors, wet, and stained with his own blood and urine. He’s home now. These floors are wood, worn with age, and covered over with soft carpet, faded and stained with tea, and soy sauce, and any number of chemicals Sherlock wasn’t as cautious with as he should have been.
He kneels in front of John, and reaches out, lays a hand on one of John’s knees.
John looks down at it, and Sherlock feels a wave of relief pass through him. There is so much to say, but words are so foreign between them now—with Sherlock a spectre, back from the grave, and John a mere shadow of the man Sherlock had left behind.
And so Sherlock sits back on his heels, slides his hands up John’s thighs, and leans down to rest his head on John’s knee. His chest feels tight, the still raw wounds on his back sting and ache with the pull of his shirt across them, and his eyes burn.
Still John doesn’t move. He doesn’t move.
Perhaps John isn’t really here. Perhaps only his physical body remains, and all that was the John Sherlock knew died that day at Barts. Sherlock feels ill at the thought. He will stay then. He will stay and care for what is left of John, because what else can he do. What else can…?
A hand settles on the top of Sherlock’s head.
He can’t breathe.
John’s fingers stir between the strands of his freshly washed hair. They stir, and then they fist suddenly, an ache against his scalp as his hair is pulled tight and his head eased slowly back.
He meets John’s gaze, unwaveringly. It’s soul crushing, terrifying, but it’s what John deserves—honesty, accountability. This is Sherlock baring his throat. Do with me what you will.
And what John wills, evidently, is just to look. His eyes travel over Sherlock’s face, down the line of this throat, over his chest, and all the rest of what he can see with Sherlock seated before him in such a way. When his eyes finally return to Sherlock’s something has changed. His grip in Sherlock’s curls loosens, he combs a hand once through Sherlock’s hair, and then cups his face for the briefest of moments, pulling away the second Sherlock leans into his touch.
He pushes Sherlock away. It’s not sudden, it’s not rough, but it’s firm. He pushes Sherlock away, and gets to his feet, and then he pauses, looking down at him for a moment before extending his hand.
Sherlock takes it, let’s John pull him to his feet, lets John lead him down the hall to his bedroom, let’s him push him down to sit on the edge of the mattress, let’s him remove his jacket, unbutton his shirt.
He shivers, and John says nothing, just pulls the front of his shirt open with one finger, and frowns at the bruising painting Sherlock’s ribs. He goes around the other side of the bed, crawls across the mattress and settles behind him. When he peels the shirt from Sherlock’s shoulders, Sherlock hears the breath he sucks in, sudden and rough, like he’s been punched in the gut. It’s quiet for a long time, and then John sniffs, tight and determined, and lays a warm hand on the only bit of Sherlock’s shoulder not stitched or bruised.
“They should have done a better job. It will scar.”
“I know.” He relishes in the way John’s fingers curl into the meat of his shoulder at the sound of his voice. He shivers again.
“It is what it is, now. I’ll keep an eye on it.”
John’s hand disappears and lights again at the base of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock jumps, and John’s hand settles, strokes once, up into the hair at his nape, and down again. “You’re home now. You should…”
John’s hand disappears, and Sherlock’s neck feels naked in it’s absence. “You fucking well should be.”
“I kn—I know.” He chokes on the words, has to swallow back the lump rising in his throat.
John sighs, and Sherlock hears him rub a hand across his face. “Rest now. We’ll talk later.”
John sucks in a breath, huffs, in disbelief, no doubt. What right does Sherlock have to be asking anything of him, after all? None. None, and that is why John is leaving, getting up off the bed, coming around to face him.
John pushes past him, and peels back the blankets. They’re dusty, and stale, but they look so inviting Sherlock could cry.
“Trousers off.” And then John is moving across the room to the dresser, fishing through the top drawer, coming back with a white t-shirt. Sherlock steps out of his trousers, leaving them a heap at his feet, and shrugs into the t-shirt John holds out to him.
John nods toward the bed, and Sherlock gets in, obediently.
He watches John pick up his trousers, fold them, and lay them across the chair by the wardrobe, watches him draw the curtains in front of the window, watches him walk to the door, and shut it—still inside.
He walks back to the other side of the bed, pulls off his belt, and toes off his shoes, but leaves the rest of his clothes on as he crawls onto the bed and pulls the bedspread up from the foot of the bed, to cover himself.
He settles. The room is quite and half-dark around them. The patter of the rain outside is a comfort rather than reminder of his own misery, the sound of John’s breathing and the warmth of his body just behind him is an anchor. And when the radiator knocks to life, and the sounds of Mrs. Hudson’s television drifts tinny and muffled from downstairs, it suddenly hits Sherlock full force that he he’s home. This is London. This is his cluttered, dusty, homely flat. This is John Watson, curled at his back, a comfort and a shield. He’s safe.
It’s a flood, quiet and contained, but unquellable, and John, John being John, must sense it, because he draws closer, presses his forehead to the top of Sherlock’s spine, and stays.
“Sleep. I’ll stay. Just sleep.”
When Sherlock’s shoulders shake, John’s arm lifts to settle lightly across his waist, John’s body spoons gently with his, John’s pulse and breathing become guide and template to his own.
“Sleep…” Whispered against his nape.
John is trembling, but he’s staying. John’s voice is rough and raw, but gentle and sure all the same. “It’s okay now. You’re home. It’s okay.”