Inebriation was not, in Sherlock's opinion, a state worth pursuing. He hated it: the hazy fog that coated his mind in cotton wool; the dull and sluggish reflexes. In his less charitable moments, he wondered if it was how normal people felt all the time: slow and stupid. Yet here he was, staggering along with Gregory Lestrade at his side, well over the legal limit and quite enjoying himself.
They were propping each other up, Lestrade's shorter bulk a dead weight as they wove their way towards home. Though, now he considered it, they had not reached any kind of consensus on where "home" was. He thought Lestrade had been attempting to steer them in the direction of Baker Street, but they'd taken a wrong turn a while back, and now Sherlock struggled to care where their wandering feet took them.
It was the case's fault – the fault of the case? That. That was why he was like this. Horrible, confusing, sentimental mess. People being people. But more so. Aggressive, emotional humanity that scraped over Sherlock's temper like barbed wire over exposed nerve.
He'd solved it. Of course he had! Well, with a little help from the Yard, but still. Lestrade had looked in sore need of a drink, jagged and more than a bit unpredictable. It had been sensible to accompany him, sensible to watch out for him, and rude not to have something to drink while they were both in the bar.
Except one glass had turned into many and then closing time had pounced on them like a hungry wolf and here they were.
Where were they again?
'I dunno. I'm following you.'
He blinked over at Lestrade, who stared back, a crooked grin making him look years younger. 'You were sayin' all that out loud. You know that, right?'
'Of course,' Sherlock managed, very much not slurring and resisting the urge to shut one eye and see if it made things stop being quite so... wobbly. 'And you're not following, you're –'
'Helping you stay upright?' He guffawed then, a joyful sound that Sherlock doubted he'd have ever uttered when sober. 'I know. And by the way, my lot? They – they did more than help a little bit. They did all the –' He waved his fingers in the air like a magician preparing for a trick. 'Fiddly bits. Dirty work. That shit.'
'Wrong.' Sherlock wrinkled his nose, steering him towards the high wall that lined the edge of the bridge. 'Stop. Stop. Stay here. Stand there.'
He propped Lestrade against the concrete, ignoring the way he appeared to be giggling at whatever look had taken up residence on Sherlock's face. He'd been going for vague annoyance, but it seemed he'd missed it by a mile. Squinting around, he struggled to get his bearings, his internal map of London glitching in and out, shifting angles and routes before settling on something he could at least pretend was reliable.
'Waterloo Bridge,' he realised at last, with some satisfaction. His brain may be fogged with alcohol, but his feet seemed to know where they were going. 'Heading for your place near Mitre road.'
'And you're the one helping me home because...?' Lestrade hiccupped, scrubbing a hand over his face. 'Christ, I'm hungry.'
'Not far now,' Sherlock promised, reaching out to pull Lestrade upright. 'Not far.'
'Cab?' Lestrade suggested, only to grimace at his own suggestion. 'No, better not. They get dead pissed off if you throw up in the back seat.'
'Speaking from experience?'
'Fraid so.' Lestrade did not look too abashed by the admission, and Sherlock smiled. He could imagine it, Lestrade's mortification and some cabbie yelling his head off. 'Nah, walking's best. We can still do that.'
They could, though only just. Passers-by gave them amused looks as they stumbled across the bridge and along twisting streets towards the little block of flats Lestrade called home. The DI kept up a running commentary of whatever crossed his mind, a garrulous drunk. If Sherlock were sober, he would be annoyed at the ceaseless flux of information. Now, his tolerance was improved by the fact he doubted he'd remember a word of it in the morning.
If he did, it would be like gems amidst the spoil, little facets of Lestrade's life to hoard if required. He made interested noises in the right places and focused on where he was putting his feet.
To say he was the more sober of the two was a blatant lie, but being high-functioning had its advantages. Drunk he may be, but he retained some awareness of his surroundings. It was second nature to steer clear of dark alley mouths and keep to well-lit areas until, at last, they stumbled into Lestrade's building and up the stairs to his utilitarian flat.
It took Greg an age to get his keys in the door. Sherlock leant against the wall, determined to see him safely in before making his departure. Yet before he could so much as take a breath to say farewell, Lestrade man-handled him into the flat and shut the door.
'No,' he said, waving a finger at Sherlock as if he were a misbehaving dog. 'What kind of friend would I be if I let you bugger off back outside, on your own, when you can barely stand up?'
'I'm fine,' Sherlock muttered, except that now he was inside he could feel his grip slipping. Some hindbrain instinct told him he was safe here, and he slumped into a tatty armchair and leant his head back, shutting his eyes so he didn't have to watch the rippling ceiling. 'It's a short walk.'
'It'd take you more than an hour.' Lestrade's voice sounded faint, and Sherlock realised he'd gone to the little kitchen, where he appeared to be foraging. A moment later he reappeared with various snacks: crisps and sausage rolls and other such fare, as well as a huge glass of water. 'Drink that and eat something,' he ordered around a mouth full of pastry. 'We'll still regret this tomorrow, but it might make it a bit better.'
'I'm regretting it now,' Sherlock groaned. The pall of nausea had yet to encroach, but tiredness came over him in waves.
'We needed it,' Lestrade pointed out, jabbing Sherlock's shoulder with one finger and thrusting the glass of water into his hand. 'That case –'
'Don't,' Sherlock begged, not wanting his mind to return to its endless, anxious ferreting along every avenue of what he could have done differently. Moved faster. Saved one more life...
'Yeah.' Lestrade – Greg... He was Greg like this, no doubt about it, all traces of "Detective Inspector" erased to reveal something vulnerable beneath. 'Yeah, I know.' He shook himself like a dog coming out of water, chasing off the dark thoughts that their night in the pub had forced away by sheer bull-headed will. 'I meant what I said, though. You can't get back to Baker Street by yourself. It's either my couch, or I'm calling someone to take you home.'
'Mycroft or John, your choice.' Greg grinned, wide and unapologetic beneath Sherlock's thunderous glare.
'That's not a choice,' Sherlock sniped. It really wasn't. Mycroft would lord this all over him, smug and insufferable. Even the notion of throwing up in the back of one of his ludicrous cars didn't hold the vindictive appeal it might have in the past.
Still, John had been at the GP surgery all day, working long into the evening. He would be tired. Asleep already, if he had any sense. Though maybe not. Sherlock had noticed John did not tend to sleep so well when he was alone in the flat.
'I'll do it,' he said at last, digging in his pocket for his phone and freeing it on the third, clumsy attempt.
He knew John's number by heart, its digits etched into his mind. Whether he could dial them or not was another matter, and he grudgingly pulled open the address book and selected the correct name. It was only on its second ring when John picked up.
'Sherlock?' John sounded disbelieving, and it occurred to Sherlock that he rarely bothered to call. Text was his usual method. The only other time he had called John was up on Bart's rooftop... Oh.
'Are you all right? What's wrong?'
'I'm at Lestrade's. I need you to come and get me.'
'Why? Are you hurt? What happened?'
'I'm fine. I'm fine.' He cleared his throat, wondering if it was possible to feel any more humiliated. 'I'm just very, very drunk.'
Silence, and oh, how Sherlock wished his fumed mind would wake up and pay attention. Normally he understood John's calm moments. Even if he couldn't see him, he could make an educated guess. Now he could only picture him, standing in the flat they shared again after Sherlock came back from the dead, eight months ago.
Would his head be cocked to one side, baffled, as if John weren't sure he had heard him right? Would his hand be on his hip, his eyes lifted to the ceiling in disbelief? Was he biting his lip, trying not to laugh?
Disbelief, then. 'I'm not repeating myself,' Sherlock pointed out, though it lacked all his normal acerbic strength. To his own ear, it sounded as if he were begging.
'All right. All right. I'll be there soon.' He could hear the sound of cloth: John grabbing his coat, maybe? Impossible to tell. 'Don't even think about trying to get home on your own. Give me half an hour. I’ll take a cab.'
He disconnected the call without another word, leaving Sherlock to stare morosely at his phone. He still could not gauge John's mood. Angry? Appalled? Amused? God, he hated being this stupid, but the alternative – the searing, cutting knife of his own intelligence – was more than he could bear right now. Him and Greg both, judging by the sympathetic look he got from the DI, who threw a packet of crisps at him.
'Eat,' he urged again. 'And if John's in a strop, I’ll just remind him of that time we got plastered on New Years’ and he almost fell in the Thames. He's no saint.'
'The common denominator is you,' Sherlock pointed out. Uncharitable, maybe, but true.
Greg did not take offence; he just pulled a face like a child. 'Yeah, well. I only meant to have a couple tonight. Take the edge off. I didn't mean to drink...' He trailed off, his face going blank. 'However much I drank.'
Sherlock told him, watching the emotions splash across Greg's features in vivid Technicolor.
'Jesus, really?' Greg wet his lips. 'Still, at least I wasn’t on the hard stuff. Not like you.'
Sherlock refrained from pointing out that, while he might have been drinking spirits, he'd had far fewer glasses. In the end though, they had probably achieved a sort of parity. There had been a definite point in the evening when it seemed that the best idea was to buy more booze. If they'd stopped then, it would have been all right. But they hadn't.
Against all the odds, they’d been having fun.
'Thank you,' he rasped, peeling one eye open again to take in Greg’s surprise. 'I'll be cursing you tomorrow morning, but you were right. We both needed this.'
'Yeah, well. I never did get the chance to welcome you back properly,' Greg pointed out, his face softening in a goofy smile. 'London's missed you. We've missed you. Even Anderson, believe it or not.'
Sherlock chuckled, stretching out his feet and wondering if John would mind if he just slept here after all. Greg's couch grew more appealing every moment. 'I'm glad I came back.'
'Did you ever think you wouldn't?'
Sherlock thought of those moments – a cell in Serbia, an alley in Bangkok, a warehouse in Mumbai – where the choice had almost been taking away from him. That was not what Greg was asking though, not really. He wondered if Sherlock had ever considered turning his back on London – remaining gone for good.
His thoughtful silence stretched out, turning Greg's idle curiosity into something sharp. 'Sherlock?'
'I did wonder if I had been away for too long. If there was a place for me to come back to, here,' he confessed at last. After his return, there had been no time to talk about himself. It hadn't been about him. It had been about everyone he'd left behind to grieve.
Perhaps he had good intentions, saving them from snipers, but there were still consequences to his actions. Ones he'd had to face. People hadn't been ready to hear about what he'd experienced back then. Now? Well, Greg at least seemed to care.
'You prat,' he said, fond. 'We kept going, of course we did, but there was always a hole where you'd been. At the Yard. In Molly's lab. Everywhere we were, it felt like you should be there too, and you weren't.'
Greg finally sank onto his sofa with a sigh, reaching for some more crisps and pulling them open. It took Sherlock a moment to realise he was mirroring what Greg was doing, feeding his transport even as his drunken, sentimental mind listened.
'Worse with John though. Far worse. That wasn't just an empty space: it was an open wound. We stuck with him, of course. Me and Mrs H, mostly. Molly did what she could. It got better. Not better. Easier? I dunno. Maybe he just got a bit numb to it in the end.'
Greg sighed, and though his gaze might still be fogged with alcohol, there was a bright gleam to them: courage and frankness found at the bottom of a bottle. 'He's glad you're back. Bloody glad. Anyone with eyes can see that. He moved back into Baker Street and ditched that woman, Mary.'
The scathing edge to Greg's words made Sherlock look up from where he was picking crumbs from the lapel of his Belstaff. 'You never liked her. Why?'
'Too good to be true. So understanding. So gentle. She never seemed to get even a little irritated with John's misery.'
'A good girlfriend, then, surely?'
'Complete and utter bollocks more like. Oh, her mouth smiled and her words were as sweet as anything, but there was always something sharp about her. Something dangerous. And when John ended it? He took me along for moral support, sort of. I mean, I wasn't right there, but I was in the cafe, keeping an eye. I saw it then. How cold she could go.'
'Few people take the termination of a romance with grace,' Sherlock pointed out, but he could not deny Greg's words. He'd spent some time with Mary, but it had been with the constant litany of don't look, don't see going around in his head.
His relationship with John on his return was tenuous at best. Not friendship. Hardly even civil. The last thing he needed was to deduce something in Mary Morstan that couldn't be ignored, so he had turned a deliberate blind eye. Greg, on the other hand... Well, it seemed there was no love lost there.
'He would have married her,' Greg said, looking morose. 'Told me not long before you got back he was thinking about rings. Do you know how hard it is to be supportive as you watch a mate consider making the biggest mistake of his life?' He shook his head, looking sleepy. 'Very. Very hard. Couldn't say anything, could I?'
'Perhaps he wanted to move on?' Sherlock suggested, not bothering to hide how much that thought pained him. 'You can't blame him for seeking something like normalcy. Something like happiness.'
'Yeah "moving on", that's exactly what he was doing.' Sarcasm lay thick in Greg's voice, more chiding than cruel. 'Fooling himself more like.' He sighed, a great gusty thing as he glanced at his watch. Not, Sherlock realised, because he wanted to be rid of him. Instead he wore the pinched expression of someone with something to say, well-aware that his opportunity to do so could soon pass.
'John'll be here any minute,' Greg said, his voice firm like a man bracing himself. 'Look, I've watched the two of you prat about since you came home. Watched all the anger and strife fade, watched it all start to heal, but you two can't go back to the way things used to be. Not any more. Why did you leave in the first place? When you jumped?'
'I told you, there were gunmen...'
'Yeah, yeah. I know,' Greg waved a hand. 'But if it had just been me and Mrs H, would you have made the same choice? Would you still have gone, or would you have risked doing something different?
Sherlock blinked, slow and stupid. The question came at him from nowhere, leaving him feeling exposed, and his wits were too dull to consider offering anything but the truth. 'Probably.'
'Exactly. You did what you did because losing John was more of a risk than losing the rest of us.'
'He's my best friend,' Sherlock pointed out, hating how the words sounded strained and thin. 'Was my best friend.'
'Is.' Greg's loud voice seem ed to bounce around his apartment, and he threw a screwed up crisp packet in Sherlock's direction. It missed by a long shot, and he snorted in amusement. 'Is your best friend, and you’re his. Why else do you think he was so pissed off and prickly when you got home? Why do you think he stayed that way for bloody months, while at the same time hauling all his stuff back to Baker Street? He had his own place. He didn't need to share again, but you asked and he was there in a heartbeat.'
Sherlock's lips parted, but the excuses flitting around his head failed to rally into anything sensible. 'What are you trying to say? You said we couldn't go back to how things were before. We were best friends, then, as well.'
'It's not enough. Not on its own. Not now. You died for him. He grieved for you. You came back and he ditched his girlfriend because the one person he actually wants to spend the rest of his life with wasn't dead after all.'
Greg lifted his chin, those dark eyes flashing as if he feared he'd said far too much but couldn't stop now. 'You need to work out what you want to do about that. Both of you. If you keep doing what you're doing, pretending nothing's changed, it's going to blow up in your faces.'
Greg leaned back against the sofa, resting a hand over his brow as if trying to quash a blooming headache. Sherlock felt the same way, a dull pounding beginning in his temples and thudding through his veins.
'Look, I'm not saying you need to declare your undying love to get John to stay or anything. I'm just saying the two of you need to be on the same page. If all you want is friendship, then John should know that. If you want more, he should know that too.'
'I'd be happy enough with friendship,' Sherlock murmured through numb lips. He had not realised they – he – had been so obvious. So blatant that even Greg could see it.
'Would you? Or would you spend your life wondering if you could have had more? Would you stand up as Best Man as John marries someone else?' Greg looked pained, as if the notion hurt to consider. 'You already took your so-called secret to the grave once, Sherlock. Don't do it a second time.'
'How can you know what I feel when I don't even know myself?'
'It's written all over your face.' Greg said it without hesitation or mercy, and Sherlock tried to hide the flinch that shot across his features. 'And John's no better. Before you jumped, I thought you two would figure it out, but now?' He shook his head, his frown tempered by a smile. 'I'd be a crap friend if I didn't say something.'
Sherlock stared, his voice lost somewhere in the great hollow drum of his chest. His heart had consumed it, drowning it beneath its sudden, thunderous pulse. Had Greg mentioned this same thing to John, at some unknown point? Had he issued the same almost-challenge? Had John responded, or was he the sole target of this dubious, terrifying, glorious honesty?
A knock on the door shattered the peace, and Greg raised an eyebrow in Sherlock's direction before hauling himself to his feet with a groan. 'There he is, now,' he said, holding out his hand to Sherlock. 'Come on, let's get you home. And for fuck's sake don't say anything about this tonight, will you? If you're going to, then wait until you’re sober, until there's no excuse to pretend it never happened, yeah?'
'I – yes.' Sherlock swallowed, staggering his way upright and wincing as the room dipped. 'Thank you. I think.'
'Hah, well at least you bloody listened.' Greg shrugged, tottering over to his front door and pulling it open. 'He's all yours!' he said to John, his grin wide and bright.
'Jesus, how much have you both had?' John raised an eyebrow. His faint disapproval vanished beneath a smile as Greg and Sherlock pulled identical, regretful faces. 'Too much, I'm guessing. You,' He pointed at Greg, 'drink plenty of water and get to bed.'
'Yes, sir,' Greg grinned, throwing a rough salute in John's direction. 'You should get this one home.' He clapped Sherlock's shoulder.
'Yeah, I can see that. Sherlock, you ready?'
He blinked at John, waiting so patiently, so openly, looking much like the same John he had left behind all those years ago. Now, with Greg's advice ringing in his ears, his simple question seemed like so much more.
He couldn't say anything, not right now, with Greg there watching them and the alcohol surging through his veins. Still, in that moment, Sherlock considered the possibility of it: of more than friendship. More than what they'd ever had before.
'Yes,' he murmured, reaching out to grab John's sleeve between questing fingers, feeling as if, somehow, he was agreeing to far more than simply returning home to Baker Street. 'I'm ready.'
And a possible future, one that Sherlock had considered beyond his reach, opened up before them.