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carrying up his morning tea

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Suffocating off-white walls and stark linoleum, swimming with the smell of antiseptic and bleach and latex. Light that echoes around him, crystallizes and fractures away. The buzz of voices and machines, muffled and distant behind the rush of blood in his head.

His fingers tremble as he dials and he can’t force them steady. Familiar number, even though he hasn’t used it in two years. He isn’t even sure he should be calling it now, but she’d asked. She’d made him promise. He puts the phone to his ear and ignores the routine twinge in his chest.

“Hello?”

There’s an upswing on the end of the greeting that lances through his abdomen and he’s quietly furious at her for making him do this. Static crackles down the line and on the other end is a person that doesn’t know who is calling—no longer has this number programmed into his mobile.

“Hello? Who’s this?”

“John,” he says, and it’s everything he can do to ensure his voice doesn’t tremble along with the rest of him. “It’s me.”

There’s a pause. In the background, he hears the tiny, high-pitched giggle of a toddler. “Sherlock?” John asks. “That you?”

Sherlock tilts his head back and lets the fluorescent lights blind him as he swallows hard. He is not going to do something silly or useless, like cry. “Yeah. Sorry, is this a bad time?” The giggling progresses to shrieking.

John huffs under his breath, exasperated. Sherlock can tell that John's irritation is directed at whatever is happening in the background and not at him, but it drags a rush of memories over him nonetheless. Memories of John, frustrated and angry, clenched fists. “No,” John says, “It’s all right, what’s up?”

He resolves to be efficient. He’s talking to someone who didn’t even save his number, for god's sake. “I’m just calling to let you know,” he starts, matter-of-factly, and then his throat closes up. There isn’t any air in this enormous, extra-wide hospital hallway.

“Sherlock? What’s up? Are you all right?” Concern creeps into John’s voice and that, too, floods him with memories he’d rather not think about. The edge of laughter has gone out of the shrieking in the background, turning into cries of pain or hunger or whatever else it is three-year-olds cry about. He thinks about hanging up.

She made him promise, though. Frail fingers in his, papery skin, her eyes dark and smudged still with Tuesday’s mascara. “Don’t let him read it in the papers,” she had said, scolding rather than imploring. “You call him up and tell him. You tell him everything, Sherlock. You shouldn't be alone.” Tiny among the pillows. Disappearing beneath her beloved olive-and-orange crocheted monstrosity he had brought from home to hide the huge electronic bedframe and clinical sheets and intravenous tubing.

“It’s Mrs Hudson. She’s gone.”

The screaming in the background goes on and on and on.

*

Hemorrhagic stroke event as a result of a cerebral aneurysm. One of the least common causes of stroke and one of the most common causes of death, and that was just like her, really. On the surface, she did seem so very average: silly old lady in kitten heels, filling her day with card games and gossip.

A veneer only, a mask daubed on over adventure and pain and determination and strength and an impossible gift for starting over, layered over before the previous layer had really dried, blending into something unique: a survivor who landed on her own two feet, taking comfort in the very fact that there were things in life that were meaningless.

*

At the bottom of the stairs there lies a tea set.

Sherlock stands in the foyer, staring at the broken porcelain as though the design blossoming over the shards is on the cusp of revealing her secrets to him. Her favourite set. The milk has long since curdled; the entire building smells like sour and rot. The birds on the wallpaper cry out to him, skeletal and morose.

There’s no one else. 221 Baker Street, with the clunky furnace and damp basement flat and creaky fourteenth stair, belongs to him now. There’s an icy loneliness to it that lodges in Sherlock’s sternum, that Mrs Hudson had gone off to her solicitor and put down the name of her only tenant. That she had stood in her kitchen washing her plates with soap to her elbows and thought, it’s got to go to someone. It had better go to him.

The tea set at the bottom of the stairs accuses him. Her favourite set in pieces.

An aneurysm, a stroke, and halfway up the stairs she’d fallen in a clatter, she had fallen, Mrs Hudson, fallen, and the paramedics wouldn’t let him come in the ambulance. Carrying up his morning tea.

Her bad hip had shattered, sharp pieces left under her skin and in her joints, and she’d broken two fingers and her left ankle as well. The bruises had welled up sick and dark, turning her splotchy with the pattern of how she’d struck each stair on the way down.

He hadn’t even realised until he bullied his way past the A&E nurses that she hadn’t just slipped, hadn’t just lost her balance. Not until he saw her face: her perpetual smile pasted on only one half of her mouth.

The milk left in the dish on the floor is rank with the mortality of a woman he had incorrectly deduced to be invincible.

He leaves her favourite set there, at the bottom of the stairs, like a tiny memorial: this, here, is where it happened.

Where she was lost.

*

There is a picture of the three of them together on her mantel, taken the time they’d had a Christmas thing at John’s insistence. Mrs Hudson is practically falling down with smiling, propped up between them with her delicate arms wrapped around their waists in a clear display of possession. Her boys.

It hasn’t been that way in a long time, really, but it’s still the only picture in her sitting room.

Her flat is achingly empty now, drowning in the bold colours and heavy patterns she loves, still smelling of flour and talcum powder and floral perfume. The knick-knacks and collectibles overflow from the shelves. In the kitchen, there is a recipe for scones stuck to the fridge with a teacup magnet, written out in neat, sloping script. The scones she makes when she thinks he hasn’t eaten enough over the past several days.

Had made. Had thought. That will take some getting used to.

He slides the recipe out from under the magnet as the doorbell rings.

*

“Are you all right?” John asks as Sherlock opens the door. Familiar brow scrunched together, unfamiliar black coat. Hideously familiar clench of Sherlock’s stomach. The silver of John’s hair takes him by surprise, but his eyes, his ocean blue and deep eyes, are still the same.

Sherlock doesn’t want to let John in, because John rang the doorbell and no longer has a key. John will tut over the broken porcelain at the foot of the stairs and want to clean up the mess. John will still fit in the armchair upstairs as though he had never left.

Instead Sherlock stands half-hidden behind the door and says, “You didn’t have to come.”

John peers up at him and does something complicated with his jaw. “I think I did.”

Two years since he’s seen John. Two years. He has never met the child that makes herself so obvious in the faint milk stain on the outside of John’s knee and strand of blonde hair still firmly attached to his shoulder. He doesn’t even know her name, though she was fully eight months old when he last spoke to John.

When Sherlock left, he had reached out and cut the tie all at once. Quick. Simple. But John let the rope fray away, let Sherlock watch as each strand strained and broke one-by-one. John had had less and less free time, more and more responsibilities at home, and a couple of quick drop-ins to Baker Street turned into a handful of texts a week, dwindling down slowly to a few a month, and then after months of less and less spoken between them, there came to be a silence that simply didn’t end.

It was a silence Sherlock was too cautious to reach out into. He couldn’t afford to insist on himself, not when John had made his choice so clear. Not when John’s choice was so readily armed.

It was better this way, balanced like this. Sherlock in 221B with Mrs Hudson. John in suburbia with his wife and child.

And yet somehow Mrs Hudson is dead and John is standing at the door looking expectantly at him. “I’m fine,” Sherlock lies. “I can text you the funeral arrangements, once they’re made.”

“Can I come in?” John interrupts. “I’d rather not do this on the front step.”

He hesitates but John just purses his lips and waits, so Sherlock steps back into the house and starts up the stairs, crossing over her favourite set on the way. John pauses only for a moment, putting together the evidence as to what must have happened, before following. He neither tuts nor fusses and Sherlock is reminded that John used to do that sometimes: surprise him by doing just the right thing at just the right moment.

221B looks nearly the same as it always has, but it’s clear that John notices the differences with a sense of guilty resentment. New pillow on the sofa, different set of chairs by the desk. Mrs Hudson’s olive-and-orange blanket dumped carelessly in Sherlock’s armchair. John stops just over the threshold, his discomfort obvious in parade rest.

“Would you tell me what happened?” John asks after a moment of awkward silence. His voice is gentle and it gives Sherlock a stomach-ache. “On the phone, you didn’t quite . . . manage.”

Sherlock focuses on looking out the window in order to avoid looking directly at John. Navy trousers, brown brogues, new lines around his mouth but not around his eyes. “She had a stroke early Tuesday morning and fell down the stairs. Cerebral aneurysm. She refused any and all possible treatment and died yesterday afternoon.” Sherlock recites the information as impassively as he can manage. John’s blurry reflection in the glass seems to grimace.

“I’m sorry,” John says quietly. “I know how much she meant to you.”

“Carrying up my morning tea,” Sherlock tells the window. He meets the eyes of his own mirror image, gaunt and dark with exhaustion, and turns away from it. “What are you doing here, John?”

John shrugs, looking at the empty grate of the fireplace. “Concerned about you. Wanted to make sure you were all right. Make sure, you know, if you needed anything, somewhere to stay for a few days—”

“I’m fine,” he cuts off, because even the mere suggestion of following John back to his happy little house in the suburbs with his happy little family makes bile rise in his throat. Sitting round the dinner table with John and his wife, watching John try to get his child to eat her peas: an easy domesticity Sherlock had had with John once and had given away.

Sherlock snorts derisively, trying to mask the squeamishness pooling in his esophagus. “You haven’t been in touch for two years, John, there’s no need to start now.”

John lurches forward onto the balls of his feet as he opens his mouth, as if the force of his response is knocking him off balance, but in the next second he lowers back onto his heels and swallows his reaction. When he speaks, his voice is calm. “I want to be. Here, for you. We might not’ve been in touch lately, but. I still care about you and Mrs Hudson, so. I don’t know.” He shrugs again and studies the mantelpiece. “You called so I came.”

Sherlock closes his eyes, blocking out the sight of him. Grey hair, blue eyes, small hands tense against the urge to clench—controlled. John needs to leave now, he decides. John cares and Sherlock doesn’t want to talk about it. He hasn’t got the energy to navigate this conversation with John Watson.

“She asked me to call,” he says. “So I did. That’s all. You didn’t need to come round just because you got a bloody phone call.”

“You shouldn’t be alone, Sherlock.”

Mrs Hudson’s voice echoes John’s, ricocheting through Sherlock’s brain and he has to force himself not to cringe against it. Instead he slips, defensive and automatic, into the formal, nauseatingly polite public school tone that Mycroft uses so successfully to put people off. “Yes, well. Thank you for checking in. As you can see, I am perfectly fine and more than capable of taking care of myself.” He gestures toward the door in obvious dismissal, ignores John’s look of surprise. “I will text you about the funeral arrangements when they are finalised. Thank you for your condolences.”

For a moment Sherlock thinks John’s going to argue with him, but it’s a fledgling fire that suffocates itself into resignation. “I’ll call you,” John promises. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do, Sherlock.”

He hesitates a moment to see if Sherlock is going to respond, then executes a rather military turn and leaves. Sherlock follows him as far as the threshold, and when John pauses on the stairs to look back up at him, he shuts the door.

Two years since he’s seen John, and he still leaves a hole in Sherlock’s chest every time he walks away.

*

He makes tea and toast and an egg, just because no one seems to think he can. He pulls a few tiny hairs from the olive-and-orange atrocity and prepares some slides for later analysis. Eventually he takes a shower and cleans his teeth and settles on the sofa with ITV4 playing something loudly.

(He wishes, quite childishly, that John had insisted, had stayed, taken up space, made noise. Made tea, ordered takeaway, asked about his latest cases, talked about his interesting patients. Laughed a little. Sherlock would have liked to see how different John’s hair would have looked in the light, changing from afternoon into evening into night, now that the grey has overcome the blond.)

The rest of the building is very quiet. That’s expected, of course, but perhaps Sherlock had not realised how very present Mrs Hudson had been. She had come and gone in and out of his flat and in and out of her flat and into and out of London and rustled around in her kitchen or his kitchen and berated him and coddled him and made tea and biscuits and risottos and roasts and the flat had always smelled like she was there.

The smell of the milk from downstairs is reaching the height of its putridity.

*

Sherlock’s mother calls the next morning. When he picks up, she says, “Oh, Sherlock,” in just that gentle voice she used to use when he was ill or hurt. Her tone hitches in the way it always does when she rings in the middle of making tea.

“I’m fine, Mummy,” he tells her, but his face is half squished into the sofa cushions and it comes out mumbled and rough. He can’t be bothered to turn his face far enough to let the words go unimpeded. There isn’t any point anyway, not with her.

“Hardly,” Mummy whispers back, “But I’ll not tell anyone. Did you sleep, dear? Eat? Has Mycroft been by?”

Sherlock shakes his head and then remembers he has to answer out loud. “No, he’s too busy badgering her solicitors,” he says. “I had an egg for dinner last night and I slept,” he checks the light coming in out of the windows, still dusty pink, “for six hours.” He does not insist to her that he can take care of himself because she isn’t asking if he can, she’s asking if he is. Mummy has always been so very careful with her words.

“Do you need anything?” she asks, still whispering a little as though she’s bent over him, gentling the words into his ear. He can nearly feel the touch of her hand to his hair. “Want anything?”

He thinks about it carefully, that distinct difference between the two questions. A very rare situation, this: he needs a few things, and wants a great deal more, but they are not things Mummy nor anyone else can give him.

“I’ll be fine,” he mumbles.

Mummy hums for a moment, thinking. He can see her in his mind’s eye, stirring sugar into her tea. “Do you want us to come down for the funeral?”

“Is it very awful of me,” he says, speaking over her, asking her forgiveness instead of answering her question, and he closes his eyes against the cool leather of the sofa cushion, “to mourn her this way?”

“No, my love,” she soothes, without hesitation, and Sherlock has never felt more guilty for it. “There are parts of you, Sherlock, which I have not been able to understand. But Martha Hudson did, some of those parts, and she loved you. You were her son as much as you are mine, and never mind the biology of it.”

Sherlock rolls over and affixes the phone to his ear properly. “I’ll come home for Christmas this year.”

“You’ll do whatever you like at Christmas,” Mummy declares mildly, “And I’ll love you whether you come or don’t. I’ll talk to you soon, all right? Just get through the day.” He gives his goodbyes and she rings off.

He lays there for just a moment longer, reveling in what Mummy freely admitted but which neither Sherlock nor Mrs Hudson had ever really said. It was strange, really, that the one person who actually had cause to be hurt by the nature of his relationship with Mrs Hudson was the only person who managed to call it what it was.

Not his housekeeper. No, Mrs Hudson, never his housekeeper.

Sherlock gets up. He’s laying a mother to rest this week, and there is plenty to be done today.

*

Mrs Hudson was, underneath that perpetual smile and inclination toward crap telly and celebrity gossip rags, an eminently practical woman. She had written her own funeral plan, arranged down to the last detail, and allocated the requisite funds from her estate. Sherlock only has to sign the papers presented by the funeral director and act as if it does not tear something open in the back of his throat to do so.

Did she think, sitting down in her solicitor’s office, that no one would take the care? That Sherlock would not agonize over which church, which hymns, which flowers? That he would not rather rend his sternum from the ribs in his chest than to see her go with anything less than all the dignity and grace and beauty he could muster?

He really does wish John were here for these sorts of things and he hates himself, a little bit, for that. John is good at this sort of thing. He’s good at what’s expected. He’s good at knowing what the next step is. Sherlock can do this without him just fine, but John—John would be better at it.

(When he calls mid-afternoon, Sherlock sends it to voicemail. When he listens to the message an hour and a half later, it just says, “Don’t forget to clean out her fridge.”

He opens a new text. Thank you. – SH. Hits send. John knows just what to do and doesn’t respond.

Sherlock manages to summarily dispose of everything in the fridge and unplug all her appliances and lamps before he finds her laundry basket in the bathroom, half-filled with dirty clothes and on top, the cardigan she had worn the Monday evening before, and suddenly the reality of never coming back is palpable and absolute and final and he makes it barely halfway up the stairs before he has to sit down and press the heels of his palms into his eyes, gasping for air.)

*

He refuses to wear a tie, but he does wear her favourite shirt: pale blue. Your eyes, she would say. Sherlock takes a seat in the front of the church and puts his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. The minister puts a hand on his shoulder and Sherlock lets him for almost a solid minute.

Mycroft arrives in a somber suit and sits next to him until the first mourner arrives, when he says, utterly earnest, “Shall you or shall I?”

“Please,” Sherlock answers, and without comment, Mycroft gets up and goes to greet people, appropriately solemn and surprisingly heartfelt.

He hears John arrive, hears Mycroft’s greeting. He’s alone and Sherlock resents that; he wishes John had brought his happy little family, because it is beginning to feel like John is just as alone as he is, and it tempts him. It shouldn’t, but it does. Tempts him to look up when John approaches, dark suit and blue shirt just two shades darker than Sherlock’s own, face weary, new haircut, not sleeping well. Tempts him to give a short nod when John gestures at the seat next to him.

Sherlock has always been a bit terrible at resisting temptation.

John sits, just close enough that he feels solid and heavy in the space around Sherlock. The ache in John’s shoulder is dragging it down, his left sitting a full centimetre and a half lower than the right. Sherlock wants to dig his thumbs into the muscle and force the knots to release, smooth out the pain with the palms of his hands. Instead he shifts away, puts a little more space between them.

“It’s lovely,” John says quietly.

“Ought to be, she planned it all. Down to the last detail.”

John hums and crosses his legs. “She always did have a way of getting exactly what she wanted, didn’t she?” She really did. Even now, the last thing she’d asked of him was the last thing he had wanted, but here they are: shoulder to shoulder again, sitting together at Mrs Hudson’s funeral.

Stubborn old woman. Bit manipulative sometimes. But not hard. Never hard.

God, but he had loved her.

His next breath comes in wet and shaky and John puts a hand on his knee. “I’m fine,” Sherlock insists as John’s hand squeezes. “Proper thing to do, isn’t it? Weep at a funeral.”

“She wasn’t really one for propriety,” John tells him, smiling just a little, just enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes.

Sherlock snorts thickly. “Still. It is a funeral. At the very least, we probably shouldn’t giggle.”

John giggles anyway.

*

Sherlock’s eulogy is short and to the point, mostly because he wanted to remember Mrs Hudson for things that were not really the kind of things he wanted to talk about to strangers who had not really known the same woman he had.

Sherlock wanted to remember Mrs Hudson as the woman he had met in Florida, shaking with fear but also determination. He wanted to remember her as someone who had had her love and trust thrown back at her like weapons yet still gave both in spades.

(He wanted to remember her the way she was the night he came back to Baker Street, two years dead, and she had screeched and scolded and made tea and bacon sandwiches and never once, never once, asked for an explanation, and when he had carefully sat down in her kitchen and gave his explanation anyway she listened until he was finished and then stood in her kitchen hugging him for a good five minutes. “I hope this time you manage to outlive me,” she had said, “because I’ve really had enough.”)

He manages not to cry, but only just, and he is horribly aware of his own vulnerability. He focuses on the few familiar faces that stand out like beacons—Lestrade standing along the back wall looking exhausted, probably just stepping in even though he didn’t really have time, Molly Hooper seated near the middle in what is very likely her nicest navy jumper, and even Mr Chatterjee, notably alone.

In the front row, John sits and smiles quietly at Sherlock and if his eyes look a little glossy for a few minutes, at least he is sitting with his back to everyone else. When Sherlock retakes his seat, John takes his trembling fingers into his hand and holds them tightly until the service is over.

*

“I went to go see her in the morgue before they transferred her,” Sherlock tells John on the way to the crematorium. It’s just the two of them in the back of the funeral director’s limousine and there was no discussion about that at all, so probably Mrs Hudson’s detailed funeral plan had included John. Presumptuous meddler, to the last.

“Molly wouldn’t let me in. Said she’d called the night before she died and said not to. Said she’d be in there starkers and I was not to see her like that, and if Molly had any sense of decency she wouldn’t look either.”

John doesn’t say anything, just rubs circles into the back of Sherlock’s hand with his thumb.

“I don’t even know what I wanted,” Sherlock says blankly, staring out the window, and London is bright and deserted.

*

After the short cremation ceremony, the remaining mourners disperse and go home. Mycroft disappears immediately, no doubt to continue harassing solicitors or government offices in settling Mrs Hudson’s estate, which he seems determined to do at excessive and not at all legal speeds. Molly stares at Sherlock for a long time from across the room but ultimately decides not to say anything before she goes. Mrs Hudson had only written at the bottom of the paperwork: Reception – None, so there isn’t one, and it's over.

It's over.

“Come on,” John says, pulling Sherlock into a black car, undoubtedly supplied by Mycroft, which takes them back to Baker Street. The noise of them coming in the door echoes into the vast hollow space. Her favourite tea set at the bottom of the stairs has begun to mould. The flowers in the vase by the chair have gone brittle and dry.

Sherlock doesn’t quite understand how it can feel like it’s over because it will never be over. She will never come back. Baker Street is empty and that’s just going to continue, endlessly.

John pulls and pushes Sherlock up the stairs, and Sherlock lets him because he isn’t sure what else to do now, in all this over-ness. He sinks onto the sofa and John wraps the olive-and-orange blanket around his shoulders and makes him a cup of tea.

“Sherlock?”

“Mm.”

“The broken tea set. Downstairs. Can I clean it up now? Please. It’s turning green. I’ll wash it and leave it on the table for you. I swear, I won’t throw any of it away.”

The blanket smells faintly of roses. He lies down on the sofa, curls around himself. Suddenly the tiny memorial at the foot of the stairs seems irrelevant. “Okay.”

*

Sherlock comes to about an hour later, feeling wrung out. The fog in his head has mostly cleared, though, and he can hear John in the kitchen running the sink. He gets up and goes over to find him washing her favourite set, soapy hands and sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Most of the pieces have been washed and dried, set out in careful rows on the table, the smell of rotting milk and old tea already beginning to dissipate.

For a brief moment the sight makes Sherlock’s chest ache with fondness, but John isn’t here to stay. He’s just dutifully taking care of the things that need taken care of. John’s fulfilling obligations, and then he’ll go back to suburbia with his wife and daughter and Sherlock will be alone again. He wishes suddenly that he were wearing his coat, so he could put his hands in its pockets and wrap it around himself.

“Haven’t you got a family or something to be getting back to?” Sherlock grouses at him, just condescending enough to not sound like he’s dreading it and just analytical enough to not sound angry about it.

John simply continues wiping off the piece of cup he’s holding. He dries it, lines the piece up on the table, and turns to Sherlock. His face is neutral and it’s wrenching, a bit, to see John looking at him so carefully expressionless. “Is that what you want?” he responds quietly, refusing to rise up to the bite of derision in Sherlock’s tone. “For me to leave?”

Sherlock glances away and studies the careful pattern of the tea set laid out on the table. Her favourite set. What is he supposed do with all these pieces? “I don’t need you here.”

“That’s not what I asked.” John leans back against the worktop and crosses his arms, juts his chin out a little bit, challenging him. “I asked what you wanted.” That John can be so achingly familiar and yet at the same time so unknown is asphyxiating. He doesn’t know where John is working, what he does with his free time, what book he’s reading, what he did last weekend, when he last spoke to his sister. He doesn’t know if John still logs into his blog now and then and reads about their old cases. He doesn’t know if John still loves her.

He doesn’t know what John thinks of him, standing in the kitchen after Mrs Hudson’s funeral, desolate and precarious on his feet.

John has never been so blank before and Sherlock wonders if that’s something his wife taught him: how to carry himself with just enough details to not look suspicious. Or maybe life with her has forced him to learn it, reinforced it so strongly in him that he does it unthinkingly now. The idea that she could have changed him so completely turns Sherlock’s stomach.

Sherlock wants John to be himself again, for the rift between them to disappear, for them to be easy and natural with one another instead of tense and foreign. He wants Mrs Hudson to be downstairs, baking with cinnamon and warbling along to the radio off-key. He wants to not feel so lost in the tide, the ebb and flow of other people coming and going, going and coming, in and out of his life as though he were only background noise.

None of these things are things John means when he asks Sherlock what he wants.

“We’re not exactly friends anymore,” Sherlock says scornfully, side-stepping the question and turning it around. “Why are you even here? What is this about, really, that after two years of total silence you suddenly want to come around?”

John sighs. “I don’t really want to fight about this right now,” he tells Sherlock, turning back around to fish another piece of porcelain out of the sink. “Not right after Mrs Hudson’s funeral. Emotions already running high. Not a good time.”

“Well, I don’t want to be your good deed for the week,” Sherlock snaps. “So let’s just have it out and then you can leave and get on with your life.”

John only looks at him for a moment before he sighs again. He puts the porcelain shard back in the sink and wipes his hands on a tea towel. “I didn’t leave, Sherlock, things just got busy.” His face remains clear and impassive and Sherlock can’t decide whether that’s because he’s too afraid to show that he cares or because he really doesn’t care at all, which is infuriating when John has managed to pick up on just the exact part of what Sherlock said that he didn’t want to focus on. “I have a baby. I have a job. Things drifted and I lost track. It’s not like you were putting in the effort either.”

Sherlock considers just stomping away. “Excuse me if I find it difficult to insist on a presence in your life when you are so satisfied without being a presence in mine.”

“Don’t say that,” John admonishes gently, and god, Sherlock just wants John to get mad at him, wants John to yell at him, but John is so gentle and it’s excruciating. “Of course I want to be involved in your life. I’m here, aren’t I? As soon as you called.”

“Thank you, John,” Sherlock near-shouts, sarcastic and fed up. “Thank you for turning up when my landlady died, I really appreciate the lengths you have gone to. Now that you are reasonably assured that I will neither blow myself up nor starve myself to death, you can go in peace, have a good day.” John says nothing, so Sherlock continues. “Or just how long do you plan to stay? Just until things get busy again? Just so long as you can fit me in?” He gestures at the flat around them. “Just so long as you find this interesting?”

“No,” John says, and there it is, that hint of heat that suggests he is about to let this devolve into the argument Sherlock is suddenly desperate to have. John's left fist clenches around itself. “Only for as long as you want me.”

Sherlock throws his hands up. “That’s just it, isn’t it? You say you’ll be here, but you can’t. I will always want you, John, for something, anything, but she’ll need you because the baby has a fever, or because the sink has sprung a leak, or because the bills need sorting, and you don’t get to choose. You've already made your choice. Things. Get. Busy. That’s your life, John, and you can’t sit here and make me half-arsed promises to any part of it.”

“I’d have promised you the whole of it if you hadn’t fucking left!” John roars.

There is a ringing silence; Sherlock’s stomach rises in his throat, bile competing with rage and grief. John shakes his fingers out. “I didn’t want to fight with you about this,” John says, “Not when we’re both on edge already. Neither of us is thinking clearly. Why don’t I, uh, call out for a Chinese or something?”

“What’s her name, John?” Sherlock asks, soft but ruthless, stalking across the kitchen to tower over him, stare down at him. “What’s she called, your daughter?”

John makes a noise in his throat like Sherlock is strangling him. “Leave her out of this.”

“No,” Sherlock refuses. “It’s been two years. You don’t just get to show up and act like it can go back to the way things used to be. Your daughter is almost three years old, John, and I don’t even know her name. Mrs Hudson is dead, and I've been back here twice as long as I was gone. I don’t know what you could want from me. Not anymore.”

John reaches his hands forward, nearly grabbing Sherlock’s shirt but restraining himself at the last moment. “Her name is Adelaide, and I love her, Sherlock, more than anything, but sometimes, sometimes I think if I were choosing between the two of you all over again, I’d be here at Baker Street, and I hate that. I hate it. Every time I saw you, I thought about leaving them.”

John’s eyes are bright and glassy; his voice turns rough. He takes a step forward, invading Sherlock’s personal space as he goes on, and even though Sherlock is taller, John is suddenly the one bearing down, closing in. His hand hovers between them, clenching around itself.

“And I needed to protect myself from you,” John rasps, “because it was so easy for you to just leave, to make decisions that affected our lives without me, for you to just go and take off to god knows where. And for once, for once I had someone who was going to fight to stay with me and damn it if I wanted to go home at night to someone I knew was going to be there.”

His hand finally makes contact with Sherlock, pushing his fist into Sherlock’s chest like it’s keeping him steady. Sherlock wants to cover it with his own but doesn’t dare. He has a thousand things he would like to say but not one of them is going to erase the choice John has already made.

Instead he says evenly, “Adelaide. Pretty name. Has she got your eyes?”

“Yeah,” John chokes out, “Yeah, she has, you stupid bastard,” and John curls his fist into Sherlock’s shirt and pulls him in, pulls him down, pulls Sherlock’s face to his and pulls their mouths together. His cheeks are wet against Sherlock’s and his mouth is hot, and John groans against him like he’s dying.

This is a bad idea, a terrible idea, it's not even really an idea so much as it's just happening, and they’re both grief-stricken over Mrs Hudson and there’s the upheaval of being in the same room again and this isn’t at all a logical, sensible thing to be doing.

But Christ, if John doesn’t kiss exactly the way Sherlock had imagined he would: hard and rough, slick tongue and nibbling teeth. Hands everywhere, rucking his shirt up, callused fingers on Sherlock’s skin. John kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him, and Sherlock can hardly breathe.

“John,” Sherlock gasps as he abandons Sherlock’s mouth to lick up his neck instead. Sherlock stumbles back into the table and John moves with him, slipping a knee between Sherlock’s thighs and rocking his hips. He’s half-hard. “What are you doing?

John runs his hands up Sherlock’s sides and nudges aside his shirt collar to bite down hard on his clavicle and then suck on the spot. “Are you going to stop me?”

Sherlock tips his head back and scrapes his hands across John’s shoulders. Were they not just arguing a moment ago?

“Why should I?” he asks, panting. “I’ve not got anything to lose.”

He’s going to let him. He’s going to let John do this, he already knows. He has denied himself even the fantasy of this for years, and now John is touching him, breathing against him, pressing against him, undeniably aroused. John will regret this and afterwards will leave again, back to his wife and child, John’s eyes, John’s gun. John will leave and Sherlock will let him go, but he’s going to let John do this first.

Sherlock’s not got anything to lose because John isn’t his.

It’s just hormones, after all, isn't it. Shock and adrenaline and grief. Human beings do this sort of thing to each other all the time, crash together and take some element of physicality from each other just to prove they’re still alive. 

John groans again, then recaptures Sherlock’s mouth and delves his tongue along Sherlock’s. In return, Sherlock pours himself down into John, telling him with every kiss and stroke and roll that he wanted this, wanted him, missed him, and it’s filled with despair and anger and hurt.

John bruises Sherlock’s lower lip with his teeth and Sherlock dares to slip his hands up under John’s shirt to revel in the feel of his skin, solid against his palms. John’s body is warm, breathing, alive. Close. He smells like sandalwood and amber, and a little bit like the dish soap he’s been using, and underneath, a bit of sweat and earthiness.

John doesn’t even want this, not really, but Sherlock is going to let him do it anyway. Sherlock’s still going to take whatever John will give him. He’s wanted it for so long, and John never has, and when John leaves after this he’ll leave forever. Whatever bridge John was trying to construct between them is burning down with every scorching touch.

But just as suddenly as he started, John stops. Sherlock almost cries out.

John is panting, lips parted, fingers suddenly so tense they’re biting painfully into Sherlock’s ribs. Half of Sherlock’s shirt buttons are undone, leaving him bared almost down to the navel, and John’s gaze is carefully trained on a spot just barely to the right of the midline, almost where Sherlock's liver would be if he were as exposed as he feels.

Oh. Of course.

The gunshot wound in Sherlock’s chest is no more than a faint ripple of silvery scar tissue, the pinkish hue of healing long since faded into a pale indentation. Sherlock doesn’t really think about it much. Out of all his scars, it’s the best looking—the easiest to ignore.

John can't ignore this.

She's always between them, even when they’re skin to skin.

John takes a breath that sounds like he’s been drowning and he's just managed to break the surface. “Jesus Christ.” He looks up at Sherlock and steps back, steps away, his eyes wide.

Sherlock looks down. Breaking eye contact gives him a chance to steady himself; he needs to close himself off, to not reach forward and pull John back to him. Let John think that he was merely going along, rather than imploding with the strength of his own repressed desires. Let John think that Sherlock is fine, because John needs to think Sherlock is fine so he can leave, and if this is where it ends Sherlock would prefer it end entirely all at once. He carefully begins to slide his buttons back into their respective slots, covering the scar back up again.

“Did you forget?” Sherlock asks quietly. John takes another step away and runs his hands over his face. “It’s all right if you did. It would be natural to repress something like this. After all, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?”

“Don’t be stupid, of course I didn’t forget,” John says uncomfortably, straightening his shirt and then gesturing at Sherlock’s chest. “I just—wasn’t expecting it. The scar, I mean. I forgot there’d be a scar.”

He could tell John that he forgets about the scar sometimes too, because the visible reminder is the least of all the long-term consequences of getting shot in the chest. IVC syndrome, renal complications, chronic pain. It’s not worth mentioning. Barely worth thinking about, when he can manage to put it out of his mind, but it’s forced him to change the way he lives, the way he works. He could tell John all that, but it would only make John feel guilty for something that wasn’t his fault, so he doesn’t say anything at all.

John clears his throat. “I think I should go,” he says.

Sherlock nods. It was never going to end any other way. John will leave and go back home to his bastion of safety and domestic security. Suburbia with wife and child. The fiction of his wife as the cheery clinic nurse, threatened by the vivid reminder of her past transgressions, will reassert itself. The baby with John’s eyes, brilliant giggle, blonde hair, will remind John of the reasons his choices were made.

“Take care of yourself, yeah? If you—if you need anything. You have my number.”

He stays there, half-perched on the edge of the kitchen table, and doesn’t watch John leave.

*

Several hours later, Sherlock remembers that he has to make his own tea.

Chapter Text

The earliest light of dawn is ashen, creeping out of the remnants of the night, lighting smoke into day. Cold floorboards and dirty windowpanes. An in-between space caught in an in-between moment: a gasp in time.

Sunrise bursts over the horizon, staining the rugs, blazing along the books on the shelves and the papers piled around the desk. Ash comes now before the flame. The flat downstairs is empty and the space in the crematory is full.

On the floor of the kitchen, leaning back against a table leg, Sherlock watches the day come to life and wishes the night had lasted forever.

*

The tea set cannot be remade.

Sherlock contemplates the shards laid out on the table, arms crossed protectively over his chest. Neat lines, strict columns. A military precision once smoothed over by the gentle, insistent chaos of 221B that has now been honed back into the same stringent standards of active duty. Sherlock wonders about the implications of those tidy rows and resigns himself to speculation in place of ever understanding.

He did not leave the set at the bottom of the stairs for days because he thought the shattered porcelain would someday be lifted from its grave and put back together again. That’s simply not the way of things.

He had left it there because Mrs Hudson had loved him, and because she had been coming up the stairs like any other morning, and because he’d gotten into a fight with the paramedics when they wouldn’t let him come with her in the ambulance because he wasn’t anybody important, even though—even though—and instead he could only promise as the doors closed behind her, it’ll be fine, you’re going to be fine, I’ll meet you there.

It hadn’t been fine. He should have said it then; he could have. He didn’t. That would mean agreeing that what was about to happen was going to happen.

It happened anyway. 

Sherlock hoped she knew, though. Her brittle, bird-boned hands disappearing into his. Red-rimmed eyes. How do you say goodbye to someone if they don’t yet know their own importance? How can a goodbye at the end of all things mean anything if it can’t mean I love you?

The fragmented roses painted on the porcelain stare up at him from the tabletop in scorn. The paramedics turned him away because he was no one, and at the last moment, he couldn’t prove them wrong. This is the way things are.

John laid out the shards in neat military rows and then left last night with shame burning in his cheeks and his fingerprints burning into Sherlock’s skin. This is the way things are.

Final.

When the roses begin to slip in and out of focus from staring too long, Sherlock turns away from the table and instead goes over to the sink where the dish water has gone cold. He tilts the plug out of the drain and watches the sink empty around the last three unwashed pieces left in the basin. The three remaining pieces of the fractured whole. He fits the plug back into place and turns the tap on as hot as it will go.

When he’s finished, the last three shards slotted into place on the table, he stands with his hands in front of him, red and throbbing, fingers dripping scalding water onto the lino. The light streaming in from outside hurts his eyes.

*

The text comes earlier than Sherlock had expected. Half-eight. Probably John’s first private moment of the day. I’m sorry.

He doesn’t explain exactly what he’s apologising for; he doesn’t have to. Sherlock can read between the lines. I’m sorry for coming back and leaving again. I’m sorry for not saying anything sooner, and for the fact that having said it now won’t change anything. I’m sorry for touching you, for kissing you, for taking what you told me with the way you kissed back, the way you touched back, even though I didn’t really want it.

It takes Sherlock a long time to decide on a reply. He won’t say he’s sorry too because he isn’t. He won’t say it’s fine because it’s not. It’s John having chosen a life with someone else because he couldn’t trust Sherlock to stay, even though Sherlock has stayed and stayed and stayed, long after John had gone. It’s John pulling away at the sight of a scar and going home instead to the woman who put it there.

Eventually, he taps a short message out and hits send. A fitting tribute to the end of their relationship: the falsehoods John had believed and the expectations Sherlock could never quite fulfill.

I know. - SH

*

If things were the way they used to be (a perfectly useless thought to have because in all the multitudes of things that change each and every single day nothing is ever one way in particular for very long and so the concept of ‘the way things used to be’ is itself vague enough to be meaningless) (still, the thought persists) Sherlock would get up, have a cup of tea and maybe a bit of toast, and go down to the cold case file room at New Scotland Yard to continue plodding through the archives.

With the flat echoing around him and John’s texts heavy in his pocket, Sherlock doesn’t know what else to do. He raids the file room for the most obscure cases he can find and sets up in the third floor conference room, scowling at anyone who comes in the door and occasionally sending cryptic text messages to Lestrade, making him guess at which case Sherlock is working on.

Most fun a man can have with a permanent physical limitation notice on file.

It would be better if Sherlock could get out and take control of a crime scene, if he could become immersed in all his senses and lose himself in the immediacy of the deductions, but Sherlock is better at the cold cases than he is at managing the chronic pain that flares and spasms when he pushes himself too far, or, now that Mycroft’s gotten involved, when he gets arrested for trespassing and disturbing a crime scene. Just like the old days when Sherlock had a needle instead of a friend.

All things considered, the cold cases are not such a bad compromise.

Sherlock spreads the files out on the table and wonders what John would think to see him like this, reduced to manila folders and police reports and fluorescent-lit offices. The thought makes him grit his teeth in shame. Of course John would be horrified, of course he would, but it would only make John feel guilty for his choices; it wouldn't change them. John’s capacity for forgiveness apparently knows no bounds. Sherlock knows that first-hand.

It’s Sherlock’s fault anyway, that he's here. His own decisions were the catalyst; this is the bed he made for himself by leaving all those years ago. Trickle-down consequences, all of them his due. Sacrifice at a cost, reminding him every day it wasn’t as selfless as he had let himself believe, and he'd lost so much more than he'd realised. I'd have promised you the whole of it.

He shakes his head to clear his mind and picks up a file at random.

It’s only about an hour after Sherlock sends his first text message to Lestrade that Lestrade finds his way into the conference room, hands in his pockets, looking a little guilty. He flips through the file Sherlock is working on to avoid his eyes when he says, “You know, you’re entitled to another week of bereavement leave.”

Sherlock huffs. “I’m not, actually. Mrs Hudson was neither a family member nor a dependent. She was my landlady.”

“I’m deciding you’re entitled,” Lestrade shoots back. “What are you doing here, Sherlock? Go home. Go be with . . . um.”

Sherlock looks up with false expectancy, mock sincerity. His gut churns in memory of this morning’s messages from John and the perpetual silence he’s here to escape. “With who, Detective Inspector? Who exactly should I go spend the rest of my afternoon and evening with?”

Lestrade clears his throat. “Thought John was around again,” he says, almost too loudly, as though he might’ve been down the hall practicing this conversation in the men’s. “Saw him at the funeral the other day. Isn’t he—?” The question peters out before it fully forms.

“Doctor Watson is a very busy individual, I am assured,” Sherlock returns. He wishes immediately he could have said that a little less hotly. The words and figures on the toxicology report in his hands waver, elusive and unreadable.

Lestrade shuffles his feet but somehow manages to soldier through. “Look, I don’t know what happened between the two of you, when he stopped coming around, but maybe you shouldn’t let whatever it was happen again, you know?”

“Nothing happened,” Sherlock says. Suddenly he is exhausted. He’s here trying to distract himself from this line of thought, not have a conversation about it.

“Something had to have—”

Nothing happened,” Sherlock repeats, louder. “Nothing has ever happened.”

The conference room is too warm in the following silence and Sherlock swallows hard.

“Oh,” Lestrade says, and then he repeats himself, softer. “Oh.”

Sherlock puts the report back into its file and shoves it into Lestrade’s chest on his way out the door.

*

He walks until his hands are so cold he can’t feel his fingers, and then he takes a cab to the twenty-four-hour library at University College London. He picks a book off a shelf at random and glares a Comparative Literature student out of a study desk and reads about the haunted places of Britain, castles and pubs, séances and talking spirit boards, all of the hoaxes, all of the tricks, until the light crawling through the windows is faintly amber on the edges.

When he goes home, the flat is freezing. He turns on every light in the house and the telly as well, with the volume turned way up, and then he goes downstairs and drags out a slightly-less-hideous navy and maroon fleece blanket and curls up on Mrs Hudson’s floral sofa, watching the shadows move behind her things as the sun rises. There’s the smell of talcum powder and the sound of the telly through the floorboards and the sense that someone might come and shake him awake in a while.

(His very own ghost story. His very own hoax.)

*

He wakes only about an hour later when his mobile buzzes in his hand. Foggy, half-dreaming, he checks it. You all right?

It’s the kind of text John would have sent years ago, when he was still working at the old surgery, and sometimes their schedules wouldn’t sync up and they’d go a few days without seeing each other. He sinks down into his spot on the sofa and types back, yes fine, the same way he would’ve done. The familiarity slides up against a memory of soft mouth and wet tongue, confusing and hazy.

The mobile buzzes in his hand again, and then again in quick succession. Incoming call. The sofa underneath him seems slightly more real than it did a minute ago and Sherlock frowns at it—Mrs Hudson’s, not his own, he’d forgotten—as he answers. “Hello?”

“Hey,” the voice says softly, “Morning, I—Sorry, I know it’s early.”

Sherlock takes the phone away from his ear and looks down at the name, confirming he really is no longer asleep. “John.” Rolling hips, sturdy waist, a kiss like drowning, lingering on the edges of his consciousness. It feels close, like maybe that was the dream he had just been having. His chest and shoulders hurt from sleeping curled up on his side for too long.

There’s a steadying breath over the line. “Can I come round again today?”

The hesitance in John’s voice, the uncertainty, fits under Sherlock’s ribs alongside the fingerprints John left behind. “No.”

“I just want to explain, you know, I don’t—I want you to understand—”

“I already understand.”

There’s a silence. The background, wherever John is, is quiet. No screaming toddlers, no cheerful wife, no thrum of patients or traffic or motors or pedestrians. Just quiet. Sherlock can hear him breathing, forced steadiness, even enough to be counted out, careful.

“Please,” John says finally, and Sherlock thinks of the last time he heard John plead with him: Sherlock’s own life on the line and John standing on the pavement, Sherlock’s name ringing through the air, guiding him down. “I need to see you. Please.”

He can’t listen to John explain himself. He can’t listen to John justify himself, as if a logical explanation—as if any explanation—could soothe away the chronic pain in his chest. There’s too much scar tissue, overgrown and twisting around his veins, through his muscles. Too many parts of him mangled and mutilated by a bullet and a baby and a decision to absolve the sins carved into Sherlock’s flesh.

He can’t look at John and not think about the things he has denied himself for so long, even in dreams, the things John gave and took, taste and touch and sound and heat, the things John apparently wanted but hadn’t wanted enough.

“It’s fine, John,” Sherlock says, “it doesn’t matter,” and hangs up.

He can still hear the telly playing in the sitting room upstairs. It makes the flat feel like someone else might be home.

*

Mycroft shows up before the morning is out—uninvited, obviously—and paces Sherlock’s rug, fiddles with the stack of mail on the mantelpiece. He prattles on about taxes and fees and costs of inheriting a home, meaningless chatter that goes on too long in the empty spaces. Sherlock ignores him until he slips in, quite casually, “You’ll need to rent out 221A, of course.”

Sherlock, standing in the kitchen and looking over the table still set with the rank and file army of porcelain shards, tightens his jaw so as not to react too quickly. This will have been the whole reason for Mycroft's visit, the whole point he was trying to make through subterfuge and avoidance. Someone else moving in her rooms, someone else baking in her kitchen, someone else downstairs, a stranger in her flat. “No.”

“You don’t have much choice, Sherlock,” Mycroft says, the very voice of reason and textbook rationality, but he hasn’t looked over at the table laid with the broken tea set even once. “The estate was substantial and your trust is still mostly intact, but the monthly expenses are significant. There are some necessary repairs that need to be done, of course.” There’s a sound of ripping paper as he begins opening Sherlock’s mail. “Then there’s the usual bills. Your electric is overdue.”

“Nope. Don’t care.” Standing watch over the pieces of her favourite tea set is apparently too intimate to be witnessed and Sherlock wonders who it is that makes Mycroft’s tea in the mornings. Whether they ever pat his forearm as he shakes out a newspaper, whether they ever cluck their tongues and insist that he finish his breakfast, whether the near-frantic hurry of settling Mrs Hudson’s estate was driven by someone else who smelled like antique roses and baked with cinnamon.

Mycroft clears his throat uncomfortably. “Perhaps in more time,” he says, as if he’s agreeing. He glances at Sherlock out of the corner of his eye and adds, rather carefully, “Perhaps Doctor Watson would be willing to assist you in sorting through some of her personal belongings.”

Sherlock stops the sharp breath in his throat. He will not react. He will not react.

“Doctor Watson is very busy with his family,” Sherlock manages, trying not to grit his teeth. I need to see you, John had said, not four hours ago. Please. Every time I saw you, I thought about leaving them. Sherlock reaches out and turns one of the shards out of order so that it jumbles up its line, disrupting the row, taking the spectre of John out of the room with the awkward angle.

The invocation of John’s family is a necessary reminder for them all: the way things are.

Mycroft makes a considering noise and holds up the envelope with the electric bill in it as he gathers his coat from the chair by the door. “I’ll see that this gets paid this month, then, shall I?”

It should be condescending but instead he says it in the same voice he used to say, my sincerest apologies, barely more than a week ago, and Sherlock doesn’t breathe again until the front door closes downstairs. 

*

He wonders why he stays. He thinks about leaving. He thinks about other cities that fit like too-small t-shirts,  moving around people he didn’t quite know how to read. The strangeness of it all, undercut by the constant low thrum of a name in his blood, calling him home.

You shouldn’t be alone, Sherlock. Two voices overlaid in his mind, both heavy with affection and worry.

He could leave now and never look back, he thinks. If this is the way things are.

*

It's too late. He's already said no.

Still, Sherlock finds himself sitting at the desk and watching the headlights roll over the bookshelves as the cars pass outside, bright bars in the night. His mobile in his palm, index finger hovering over it. His legs, his back, his shoulders are stiff with sitting, with deciding. He’s been here for hours, making this decision. 

The send button weighs a tonne. 

Could use some help this weekend. Sorting through Mrs Hudson’s things. - SH

The reply comes back immediately. It’s three in the morning.

Yes. Yes, definitely. Saturday?

He sets his mobile down and puts his face in his hands, takes a deep breath. He isn’t sure if he is doing the right thing. He isn’t even sure if there is any right thing left to do.

It’s late. It’s far too late. It’s two years too late. It’s five years too late. They’ve missed every opportunity, every chance, and John is texting him at three in the morning from his house in the suburbs, and they should both be asleep but somehow they’re here, tentative and uncertain. It’s three in the morning and nothing has changed except that Sherlock sometimes goes downstairs to sit in a different kind of quiet. Nothing is going to change and they should both be asleep, but he still texts John back. Saturday sounds good. - SH

It feels like leaving a light on in the window. Like tying a yellow ribbon to the front door.

Sherlock leaves the mobile on the kitchen table amid the porcelain wreckage of her favourite set and goes down to the bathroom. Ten minutes later, he hears the faint ding of an incoming text over the sound of the shower.

Forgot what it was like to miss you.

*

Saturday morning, Sherlock slowly, methodically, boxes up the shards.

John washed them; John laid them out. Sherlock doesn’t want him to see them again, to see them still in place, still at attention in his regimental rows. The slowly clearing table makes it seem like he’s ashamed of his grief and he has to stop more than once and run his fingers over the porcelain in reverence. In goodbye. Her favourite set, broken on the stairs. Reduced to rubble. Packed away.

John will be there in just a few hours and Sherlock doesn’t want too many tragedies set out. Doesn’t want too many reminders of the way the fragments rattled when he backed Sherlock into the table and kissed him.

What am I doing, Sherlock thinks at himself in disbelief, but he keeps packing up the tea set until it’s gone.

*

There’s a knock at six minutes past seven.

Sherlock sits on the stairs and looks at the front door, imagining what John might look like on the other side. The glint of his hair in the yellow light of the street lamps. The shadows on his face, where they might catch and gather and grow. Clenching his jaw in grim determination, looking up at the darkened windows upstairs.

He counts out two minutes and goes to open the door. He meant to count out three, but. Well.

John is standing back from the door a little, fringe windswept, black jacket, with a hard, determined smile at the corner of his mouth. In his arms is a large cardboard box with what appears to be several folded up cardboard boxes shoved into it. “Hi,” he says, and Sherlock can hear the apology and the hesitance in his voice.

He can hear the hope, too.

*

John sets the boxes on Mrs Hudson’s kitchen table and just stands for a moment, taking the room in, tapping his fingers against the tabletop. Sherlock watches the memories from his eyes, the nights they’d sat there listening to her gossip and exchanging secret, sarcastic eyebrow raises, mornings they’d come in straight off a stakeout for breakfast as she chattered along a mile a minute, coddling them with extra-milky tea and watching them slowly clear their plates with her hands on her hips in unspoken threat.

“Do you ever hear something,” John asks, his voice low, reminiscent, like he’s not quite fully in the moment, “and the house creaks or something, and you think it’s her?”

Sherlock wants to turn on the light, but there’s something about the dark that seems to cushion the tension around them, smoothing the uncertainty out into something bearable. “It’s the smells, mostly,” Sherlock says quietly. “Hint of cinnamon somewhere. Most of her things smell like baby powder.”

“And rose perfume,” John adds absently, like he can smell it right then. He taps his fingertips across the table one more time and glances over his shoulder at Sherlock. “This is what it was like when you left, you know.”

It catches Sherlock off-guard, because it’s been years and his grief now is only about Mrs Hudson, about the box of shattered tea set in the sitting room, the scone recipe he’s clipped to his own fridge upstairs, the olive-and-orange horror draped across the back of his chair. The sense of expectation that feels like a fist under his sternum when he remembers no one is coming. Mrs Hudson on the night he came back, the night he came home, trembling as she put together bacon sandwiches, you had better outlive me this time, because I’ve really had enough.

It’s been years and this is about Mrs Hudson, but for John it’s still a little bit about him, even now, and it wrenches something dark and bloody in Sherlock's belly. He had given these very same things to them, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade and John, the fallout of remembering suddenly and the ache of never forgetting, not really. It’s been years but he doesn’t think he’ll ever truly be sorry enough, even now with the flat empty and John so far away, just on the other side of the room.

Sherlock doesn’t have anything to say. He turns to the sink and braces himself on the edge, waiting. The boxes on the table are nothing more than a pretense. The silence is dark and deep and Sherlock feels more alone with John here than he’s felt since she left.

“I always think I’m done with you,” John says eventually, with a disbelieving huff in his voice, almost laughter but more painful. “I always think I’ve managed to move on, and then you’re there again, and god, Sherlock, why can’t I just leave it? Why can’t I just forget it?”

He says it but he means you, and Sherlock doesn’t answer because he thought John had, and the idea that maybe he hadn’t sits like too much champagne in his stomach, frothy and sweet, a luxury turned sour by overindulgence.

John steps in next to him, looking out the window over the sink into the back alley and the burgundy darkness, illuminated only here or there by lights wired to the buildings. He feels like a phantom at Sherlock’s elbow, there and not there, the ghost of Baker Street that’s been following Sherlock through the rooms. “It wasn’t like this when you left at all,” Sherlock tells him.

“What was it like, then,” John asks, and this time the blankness in his voice doesn’t read as apathy so much as sorrow, a wistful sort of bone-deep melancholy that has weighed so heavily on him for so long that he doesn’t even notice it anymore.

“I never forgot you weren't coming back,” Sherlock says simply.

Outside, the lights flicker and shine on, but the darkness grows stronger, pressing in.

“I waited for you to come and get me, sometimes,” John says finally, dropping his head to look at both their hands, side by side on Mrs Hudson’s sink. “It was only supposed to be temporary. Just until Addie was born. I thought after a while, there would be a moment that I’d know I could leave them and then . . . I’d come home.”

Addie. A nickname, as well-worn as the particular crease in John’s shirt over his hip where he’d settled a toddler, as well-worn as the plain gold band still sitting on John’s left hand. Sherlock remembers the photo John had texted to him the day she was born, his face full of apprehension and joy, and the eight months that followed, dwindling into silence.

The only part of John’s life that had been temporary when the baby was born was Sherlock’s role in it.

Sherlock doesn’t move. The light in the back alley flickers again. “You didn’t, though.”

“I didn't,” John agrees. In the dark, John turns toward him; his gaze is icy on Sherlock’s skin. “I just kept doing the same things I'd done the day before, and you were barely answering my calls, and it was easy to fall into how much they needed me. You told me she’d saved your life, that we could trust her, and they wanted me, and you . . .”

“That was what you wanted,” Sherlock points out, sure to keep his tone mild and even despite the accusations John laid at him—that Sherlock didn’t need him, didn’t want him. “Your family. Your house, your job. Everything back to normal. I did everything I could so you could have that.”

Next to him John is utterly silent and finally Sherlock turns to face him. “Is that so hard to believe?” he asks, and John’s expression is lost in the shadows. “That I’d do whatever it took so you could be happy?”

There’s a beat, then two, an impregnable pause, and then John steps in close, his brow furrowed, his mouth a pained line.

“Is that what you thought?” John says softly, and Sherlock startles a little at the break in his voice. His eyes gleam, shining back the light from the streetlamps outside in saltwater reflection. “That I was happy? That I didn’t think about you for two years? That I didn’t call because I wasn’t wondering what you were doing, whether you were safe, whether you were okay?” His voice tightens and he takes a breath like it hurts. “I thought about you all the time, Sherlock. I had to delete your number out of my phone so I could stop fucking calling you just for you to not call me back.”

Sherlock looks at him, and looks at him, and hears what John is saying, and all the things John’s not saying, and remembers how John felt under his hands and remembers how he sounded and remembers how he tasted, vibrating groans into Sherlock’s own chest and pushing heat on him like he’d been cold for decades.

“That’s what it was like when I was away,” Sherlock whispers. Anything more than that and he thinks they would both snap, both of them made fragile by distance and responsibilities that won’t go away just because there’s something lingering behind these words. “When I came home.”

“Christ, Sherlock,” John says, and he makes a move like he means to pull Sherlock against him, maybe just to lean into him, maybe to kiss him again, but then something in Sherlock’s face stops him. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

There’s something in his voice that sounds like John thinks he’s found something, like he’s resolved something, and it sets Sherlock’s stomach to quaking.

He closes his eyes and wishes he could kiss John one last time.

He knows why he never said. He knows why there was nothing to say before and it’s the same reason there’s nothing to say now: because he came home and John left. Because John pledged his life to someone else and allowed that pledge to stand while Sherlock bled out in protection of it.

Because it’s not a choice between who John loves more. It’s a choice between who John can live without.

Because the plain gold band on John’s left hand and the last two years speak volumes more than a grief-fueled admission ever could.

“Because it didn't matter. You had already moved on by the time I came back,” Sherlock reminds him. “We had the cases, and that was enough for you, so that was enough for me. For as long as you wanted it.”

John huffs and Sherlock can hear the loss sinking in John's gut as he understands what Sherlock is saying. “If I had known—after the other night, and you kissed me back.” Sherlock doesn't look at him, doesn't falter, doesn't move, and John's voice creaks into something far too close to pleading. “And now we know that—”

“No,” Sherlock cuts off, because he knows what John is going to say and he doesn’t want anyone to say it, ever. “Don’t make me into that, I’m not that. It’s always been a choice between them, or not them. I don’t factor into it. Don’t you see? If you wanted to leave them, you could have, anytime, regardless of what you thought about me, and you didn’t, because you don’t want to lose them more than you want anything else. You love them, John.”

“I love you, too,” John says, quiet and unbearably gentle, as if surprised that Sherlock might not have known such a thing, and Sherlock thinks he’s going to rip at every seam because god, that is so unfair, to say now, when Sherlock can’t say it back.

“But you don’t need me,” Sherlock answers, and then there really isn’t anything left to say at all, the night settling around them as they watch the shadows move through Mrs Hudson’s kitchen as if she’s with them, sighing at them, berating them both.  

*

In the morning, Sherlock lies on the sofa, listening to the silence of the flat against the low, rumbling background of London, cars and lorries and people on the street, birds on the rooftop, wind through the buildings.

The sun shines in and Sherlock feels blank, as if John took all of Sherlock’s misery with him when he left last night, out the front door and across the street and down to the corner until he disappeared around it, Sherlock watching every step this time as he lit a cigarette, sending plumes of smoke after him, wondering if he’d smell the tobacco in his coat collar once he made it home.

The flat still feels empty, but different now, as if even the memories of warm bodies have been forgotten. When he gets up, he skips his usual cup of tea.

Instead he finds his laptop, opens a web browser, and types sussex estate agent into the search bar.

Chapter Text

Wind, crisp and sharp, and sunlight, unforgiving: Sherlock squints at the horizon where it disappears into the hills, cheeks raw in the cold. He is starkly aware of himself as the lone figure on a grey landscape, entirely isolated and exposed, adrift without a protective rise of buildings and press of an anonymous crowd. 

Sussex is a wasteland, he thinks, and determinedly doesn’t look back as he walks down the lane. 

He should like it. It’s quiet here, and calm and clear and everything else he wanted: an ancient cottage with brick and flint façade that’ll be covered with wisteria come summer, lush and half-wild with fruit trees and lavender. Perfect for bees. Inside, the rooms are cosy with age and the insignificance of the lives that have been lived there.

There is a desk that looks out over the garden, perfect for writing. 

Sherlock doesn’t write.

“No,” he tells the estate agent as they get back into her car.

“It’s what you wanted,” the agent says, exasperated. “It has everything, Mr Holmes.”

He doesn’t answer. After a moment she starts up the car and Sherlock watches the hills fly past the window, fields and sheep and low stone walls, postcard picturesque. He clutches his mobile in his hand and checks to make sure it’s not set to silent.

It doesn’t actually have everything. Everything left two years ago and isn’t coming back.

*

The next time Sherlock shows up to New Scotland Yard, no one tells him to leave.

Instead Lestrade creeps into the third-floor conference room like he’s not sure he’s allowed and asks about the files Sherlock has spread out over the table. His offer of help is thick with apology.

The sound of someone else’s voice crowding into Sherlock’s head catches him off-guard, leaves him reeling a little, and he can’t decide whether to grab onto it or push it away. It feels like a confession when he doesn’t meet Lestrade’s eyes, but he hands over a police report and tells him what to look for in a tone that means don’t ask, and Lestrade looks at him, looks and looks, but doesn’t. 

Working alongside someone else is foreign but familiar and it rubs against Sherlock’s skin like static electricity, but the afternoon passes faster than the afternoons usually do, and Sherlock doesn’t ask him to leave.

Together, they manage to tease a common thread out of a series of murders: an unassuming man hiding somewhere on the fringes of each case, not quite mentioned in the police reports but lurking just between the lines until suddenly there’s a name, buried in some interview transcript. The evidence, collected but unconnected by disorganised officers with too many bodies and not enough time, begins to fall into place.

The net tightens as the night wears on. Soon it will become the suspect’s noose. 

Lestrade laughs and orders in a couple of pizzas, high on adrenalin just from the victory of checking and double-checking, confirming and reconfirming, that the pieces fit together. He doesn’t need chasing and running, peering around corners and ducking back when a shot is fired, holding his breath in dark places—the things Sherlock misses the most.

He only needs an answer and an ending and a reassurance: never again.

For the first time in a long time, Sherlock thinks about the word justice and what it means. What it means to long dead victims, what it means to their families and friends left behind, left waiting for answers that won’t bring back the way things were before.

He thinks about what it would have meant for himself.

John is probably across town, cleaning up after dinner in his suburban house, reading to his daughter and putting her to bed, settling onto the sofa with an assassin and finding a decent rerun on the telly. Sherlock wonders what justice for himself would have meant for them.

He rolls his neck and stretches, flexing his shoulder blades back until it hurts somewhere unnaturally deep inside his body, and wonders if he was the last shot she ever took.

Sherlock’s mobile sits on the corner of the conference table, carefully clear of any papers or folders that might fall its way. He pretends not to look at it out of the corner of his eye, but it doesn’t ring.

*

He copes. He’s good at coping. He’s good at being alone; he’s just more alone now than he was before. Degrees of the same thing.

Time passes, eventually. He does experiments on Mrs Hudson’s perfumes and reads all her books, stores his takeaway in her fridge. Sleeps on her sofa. Steadfastly ignores the box of folded up boxes shoved into a corner in the kitchen.

He buys scones from Sainsbury’s and doesn’t eat them.

He’s fine because there’s nothing else to be.

*

When her flat begins to smell musty and disused, Sherlock signs the papers to buy the wisteria cottage.

He takes a deep breath and seals the envelope, watching the light in the sitting room shift into the haze of evening, into the dark of night. His phone in his pocket is firm and unmoving, unyielding, convincingly quiet.

Once, when he was young and foolish, there had been a moment when he had realised very suddenly that he might be dying. The phone had been a landline, back then, but he remembers the feel of the plastic against his cheek. He remembers the sound of Mycroft’s voice against his hair as he faded in and out and wondered if he’d survive.

Wondered if he even wanted to.

Last time, Sherlock had been just as foolish but he’d fought, desperately, reaching and gasping and struggling, godplease. He’d tasted death like vinegar on the back of his tongue and swallowed it down, wrenched himself out of a fog and into a heartbeat, into breathing, into surviving: please, god, for him.

Last time, he’d thought he had something to come back for.

They’d let John come in the ambulance with him. They’d let John come, as if they’d known by looking at John that he was someone, someone important, someone vital. Someone Sherlock needed to live.

Living is different than surviving, Sherlock thinks, and the house around him is empty. He rubs an absent hand over his sternum and leaves the envelope on the desk, ready to be mailed out in the morning, and goes downstairs.

*

I never forget what it’s like to miss you. – SH.

Two months to the day after Mrs Hudson’s funeral, he turns his mobile off.

*

“Running away, Sherlock?”

Sherlock stops in the doorway and berates himself for being surprised while Mycroft raises a prying eyebrow, tapping the edge of a thick white envelope against his palm: the same envelope that Sherlock had slipped into a post box on his way to New Scotland Yard that morning.

The envelope that holds his agreement to leave. To let everyone finally be done.

“Moving on,” Sherlock corrects, aiming for flippant but landing closer to resignation. He turns into the kitchen to hide his grimace and resolves to just ignore Mycroft until he goes away. When he starts the kettle, he very pointedly only takes down one mug.

Mycroft waits for about one solid minute for Sherlock to ask what he wants before he starts shifting his weight from side to side, obviously itching to make his point. “You might be interested to know,” he calls out eventually, “that you are not the only person who has been looking at property recently.”

“I imagine there are thousands of people looking at property,” Sherlock replies absently as he reaches for the instant coffee. “And I imagine I’d have an easier time at buying it if you’d stop nicking my post.”

“Ah, but only one of those thousands of people are Doctor John Watson.”

No one has said that name in weeks but Sherlock still feels caught out, as though Mycroft can read each and every guilty thought he’s been trying not to think. “You may find this hard to believe,” he says, a little too primly, “but I don’t actually keep track of what Doctor Watson does with his family.”

“No, I do believe it,” Mycroft throws back, waving the envelope in the air as he comes into the kitchen. “Because if you’d known that John Watson recently let a one-bedroom flat and moved out of his family home, I can’t imagine that you’d be interested in moving to Sussex, of all places.”

Moved out.

He wasn’t supposed to do that. John wasn’t supposed to do that.

Six weeks ago, John had walked out of 221 Baker Street and out of Sherlock’s life and he’d gone home, to the family he loved and cared for and wanted, and Sherlock had sent him, had let him go. Had forgiven him the choice. John was supposed to be happy and whole and loving and loved and he wasn’t supposed to change his mind and choose nothing.

There’s a long pause as Sherlock tries to regain his bearings.

“John called me a few weeks ago,” Mycroft explains, his voice softer and without a trace of his usual oily smirk. “He specifically asked that I not say anything to you about it, but circumstances have changed.” He holds out the envelope with Sherlock’s purchase agreement in it. “I think you should have all the information that might be relevant before you make this decision, Sherlock.”

“He called you,” Sherlock repeats, staring at the envelope. He doesn’t reach out to take it. His mobile is still turned off where it sits heavily in his pocket.

Mycroft pauses, as if trying out to figure out how best to say the next part. Mycroft never struggles to say anything, Sherlock thinks, and the list of things that could have gone wrong since he last saw John comes pouring into the silence: arguments and admissions and things brought to the surface, a waiting deluge of long-buried problems and they all lead back to him, to the lie Sherlock uncovered and the secret Sherlock told and the bullet Sherlock took to the chest.

He stares at the envelope in Mycroft’s hand, at his agreement to leave all this behind, and wonders what else he can do to heal whatever damage he caused by making that phone call, by letting John inside, upstairs, by allowing that selfish hope to grow along his ribcage: you shouldn’t be alone, Sherlock.

Then Mycroft says, “He’s asked for a divorce.”

Everything stops.

*

If you wanted to leave them, you could have.

It’s a choice between them, or not them.

*

I need to see you. I love you.

If I had known.

*

“You can’t let him do this,” Sherlock chokes out, the envelope crumpling in his fingers. He doesn’t remember taking it. “This isn’t—the baby—no.”

“It wasn’t a matter of letting him.” Mycroft hands Sherlock the cup of coffee from the worktop, complete with milk and sugar Sherlock doesn’t remember putting into it. Extra milk, the way Mrs Hudson used to. “He was clear that he meant to do it with or without my help. I gave him a favour, not permission.”

Sherlock shakes his head. He never thought, he never expected—he’d worked so hard to give John back his family, and now John is moving into a flat, alone, and he’d asked Mycroft not to tell Sherlock, to keep it from Sherlock, and Sherlock feels the pit in his stomach grow and grow, swallowing all his organs into fear and apprehension. “She’ll disappear. They both will.”

She’ll disappear and the baby will vanish and none of it would be happening if Sherlock had kept his distance. John would have gone on and on, loving and holding and having, the house in the suburbs and the family he wanted enough not to question, but Sherlock broke the silence and shattered the fiction of a chest unscarred and made himself the martyr and the ghost at their kitchen table some Sunday morning and everything else he had tried so hard not to be.

The need to fix it is hot and immediate and intimate in its familiarity. To smooth over the cracks cobwebbing through John’s life, to undo the destruction caused by the crash-landing phone call he’d made, trembling and searching for something he had already lost, because Mrs Hudson was too still and too quiet and no longer smiling in the other room, and she’d made him promise.

And after everything that has been said and everything that hasn’t, John must have known that Sherlock would try.

So John had asked Mycroft not to tell him.

“She was prepared,” Mycroft goes on quietly, and the pit in Sherlock’s abdomen deepens and darkens and splinters under the pressure of the implications. “And in the end, we wanted the same things: for her to maintain her life here, where John can continue to see the child. They're under heavy surveillance for the time being, of course, but I expect she will honour the deal she made.”

“Even your men aren’t infallible. She could still run.”

“She could,” Mycroft agrees. He takes the crinkled envelope out of Sherlock’s hand and sets it on the table. “That’s the risk John Watson took. Think about that before you decide to send this, Sherlock. I won’t stop it next time.”

*

(“I can’t,” Mycroft had said, perhaps not as apologetically as he could have, looking meaningfully at the bandage across Sherlock’s chest. “There’s no room for negotiation at present.”

“No one else knows about this,” Sherlock had argued, agitated underneath the drowsiness of the medication, and he knew he was begging and he didn’t care if that meant Mycroft had won something, or that he had lost. “She needs it. John needs it. John—the baby—you have to protect her. From everyone.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Sherlock. She’s not a witness, she’s a perpetrator. The only formal protection I could offer her on behalf of the Crown is a prison cell.”)

Formalities. Witness protection schemes. John had taken the baby out for a walk one afternoon and instead of going home, he’d gone to Mycroft’s office and waited for his wife to follow them. The baby was already safely out of sight before she appeared, the message clear: give something to get something. A life in hiding comes with a cost, and it was time for the price to be paid.

Agreements were made. Information was exchanged.

And now, a new name, a new identity, a new history and a new future, and along with it all, divorce papers and a custody order, as though it was just like any other marriage falling apart, as though they were just like anybody else.

*

Mycroft leaves.

Sherlock drinks his coffee and drinks his coffee and drinks his coffee. Makes more coffee and drinks that too.

When he’s shaking too hard to sit still any longer he gets up and wanders around the flat. Stands in the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror, thin reflection wavering in the harsh bald light, inspecting the angles of his jaw. Stands at the window, deducing where passersby are going: first date, doctor’s appointment, business meeting. Everyone is expecting bad news.

He goes upstairs and stands on the landing, fingertips on the doorknob to John’s room. John’s old room. The room that used to be John’s. He’s been in there before. Blue gingham curtains and braided rugs and dust on the bedside table. He doesn’t open the door.

Downstairs he pours himself a glass of water from the kitchen tap and goes in to sit on the floral sofa. The flat doesn’t look like hers anymore. There is no more anticipation in the stale air and the dust accumulating on her knickknacks, like even the wallpaper knows she isn’t coming back.

He drinks his water and waits for the jittering of caffeine along his veins to stop. He’s not supposed to drink coffee anymore.

“Tell me what to do,” he says into the silence. “I don’t—I don't know what to do.”

The room doesn't answer, but the picture of the three of them, happy and together and laughing, is still on her mantelpiece. It’s still the only picture in her sitting room: a relic of the strange nostalgia of someone used to living life in the aftermath. The persistent hope of someone who keeps on loving despite everything, or maybe in spite of it.

Sherlock sets down his glass. He goes upstairs; he puts on his coat and scarf.

He takes out his mobile and turns it back on.

Where is he? – SH

*

John answers the door in socked feet and silver hair and a ratty old cardigan that was ratty and old when he lived at Baker Street. The bags under his eyes are deeper than usual, exaggerated by the low light of the hallway, but he looks up at Sherlock as though he’d been expecting him and Sherlock’s mouth goes dry.

There’s a wide empty space on John’s left ring finger.

The silence in the hallway drags out and Sherlock shifts uncomfortably on the balls of his feet. “Mycroft told me,” he offers, trying to cover his apprehension with a sheepish smile, but John doesn’t smile back and the timid hope in Sherlock’s chest crumbles under John’s gaze, withered and black.

Expecting him, maybe, but not happy to see him. Of course. He hadn’t wanted Sherlock to know, after all.

“Suppose you’d better come in then,” John says finally, opening the door a little further and turning back into the flat, leaving Sherlock in the hall. “Tea?”

John’s flat is not much more than a sagging sofa and a tiny telly with a couple of cabinets and a hot plate shoved into the corner. The whole place smells like fresh paint and old cigarettes and there’s not nearly enough light.

Sherlock stops just inside the door and pulls his coat a little closer around himself, stiff and uneasy. “No, I.” Don’t drink tea anymore. “No, thank you.”

“Coffee, then.” John already has the kettle going. His movements around the tiny kitchenette are stilted, like he’s still trying to remember where everything is—two mugs, instant coffee, milk. “Haven’t got any sugar in at the moment,” he apologises. “You want extra milk instead?”

It’s unbearable: the flat and the niceties and the pretending like John didn’t leave his family because Sherlock suggested he could have, like he didn’t try to keep it from Sherlock so that Sherlock couldn’t fix it. “John,” he begins, softly, uncertain but unable to stop himself. “What are you doing?”

John doesn’t answer for a long minute. When he does, his voice sounds strained behind the attempt to sound casual. “Making coffee. These’ll be done in a minute. Why don’t you have a seat?”

He gestures at the small table with a blue laminate top and cracked vinyl chairs, and Sherlock understands that it isn’t really a suggestion. He slips into one of the seats without taking his coat off, watching John stir milk into the mugs. Watching as John’s shoulders hitch and lower, hitch and then ease, carefully exact in the timing—the smallest betrayal that John isn’t as calm as he looks.

Sherlock counts out the beat and feels the edge of his own anxiety smooth out. Inhale, two three. Exhale, two, three. Breathing in time. Breathing together.

Eventually John must realise he can’t stand there stirring forever. He brings the mugs over, sliding one across the table, and takes the seat opposite. He looks down into his mug instead of at Sherlock, watching his coffee slosh around, and in the yellowing kitchen light he suddenly looks a thousand years old.

“John,” Sherlock starts cautiously, after it becomes clear that John isn’t going to say anything. The words stick in Sherlock’s throat, painfully clumsy, but with John exhausted and somber across the table, they need to be said: another apology, another excusal. (Nothing is ever new.) “I didn’t—I didn’t intend for this to happen. I should have just left well enough alone.”

He hides his nerves behind the lip of his mug. Extra milk is a poor substitute for sugar against the bitterness.

John doesn’t look up, but after another long moment he sighs and shakes his head. “Things weren’t really well enough, actually,” he says. “That’s the thing. I just realised, you know, I wasn’t actually happy, and you were right.” He gives a small, joyless smile. “I hate that, by the way. You’re always right.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything, and eventually John goes on. “I could’ve left, just like you said, but I didn’t. I don’t know why. I’d just settled into it because that’s the way things were. And then it just wasn’t enough anymore.”

Not enough: there’s a gunshot wound in Sherlock’s chest and two years of distance between them and it wasn’t enough. Sherlock gave, and gave, and gave, and in the end, he’d given John the wrong thing.

Sherlock shakes his head to dissipate the rise of irrelevant self-pity. “Your daughter.” He can’t bring himself to speak her name. “The risks—”

“The risks are mine,” John cuts off, finally looking up to meet Sherlock’s eyes, and there’s a steel resolution there behind the exhaustion. “Not anyone else’s.”

Not yours, he means, and this time it’s Sherlock who looks away.

John sighs again and leans in over the table, setting his elbows on the edge. “Look, Sherlock,” he says. “Addie—she’s beautiful, and smart and so full of life, and she deserves a better childhood than I had, okay? Kids are smarter than they look, they can tell when something’s wrong, and that wasn’t—I didn’t—I couldn’t raise her up wondering why I wasn’t happy. And I thought, you know, nothing was going to get better. Nothing was going to change unless I changed it.”

The idea of John, living unhappily in the fiction that Sherlock had written for him, feels like a hook under Sherlock’s sternum, pulling, twisting, trying to get at his heart. He hunches his shoulders to keep everything in place. “You could still lose her though.”

“It’s always been a risk,” he admits, his hands tightening around his mug. “I used to have nightmares about it, that I’d wake up and they’d be gone, just disappeared off in the middle of a feed. I could’ve lost Addie at any time and I’ve. I’ve.” He swallows hard and when he looks back up, Sherlock feels his gaze like a physical blow. “I’ve lost so much already. I thought. I need to figure out what I want before I lose any chance at having it.”

Somewhere in the flat there’s a clock that ticks too loudly. 

Figure it out. As in, he doesn’t know what he wants. As in, he has to look for it, find it, decide on it: something he doesn’t have.

As in, whatever it is, it isn’t the man currently sitting across from him, the one he didn’t even want to know that he was changing his mind, the one burning his tongue on a swallow of coffee, quietly disintegrating.

Sherlock doesn’t answer. Instead he studies the blank space on John’s left ring finger and reminds himself it isn’t even the first time John decided he didn’t want someone he said he loved.

“I just think I need to take my time,” John goes on, in that tone of voice that means he thinks he’s being reasonable (he is being reasonable), and he dips a little in his seat like he’s trying to find Sherlock’s downcast eyes where they’re studying the tabletop. “I think—the last few times. Losing you. Getting married, forgiving her, having Addie. They were all things that happened to me, not things I chose. Do you see?”

It was a choice, though, Sherlock thinks, to forgive and forget and never talk about it. To stay. To delete Sherlock’s number instead of calling. To move into this decrepit flat instead of the room upstairs.

And now John is making a different choice, and he’s still not choosing Sherlock, and it’s not even fair for Sherlock to think these things because Sherlock was the one that had leapt off a roof and Sherlock was the one that didn’t give John a choice so many years ago, back when John would have still chosen him, back when it mattered, and if John hasn’t chosen Sherlock since then, well.

That’s his own fault, isn’t it?

“I understand,” Sherlock says carefully. He puts his mug down on the tabletop. Blue laminate. It’s hideous. He wants to tear it apart. He wants to destroy it.

The clock somewhere ticks on, counting by the seconds as they slip away. “Do you?” John asks.

Sherlock shrugs. “You deserve to choose yourself, John,” he answers, and John nods, and Sherlock rinses his cup and sets it in the sink before he leaves.

*

When he gets home, Sherlock goes straight to her sitting room and turns the picture frame on her mantelpiece face-down.

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains is the truth.

Chapter Text

Looking back, Sherlock isn’t really sure what he expected from a man who waited two years to divorce his murderer and said I love you but nothing else.

Something, he guesses. Anything.

*

He stops turning on the lights.

It’s still dark when Sherlock gets up, the January night stretching long into the waking hours. He showers, cloistered in the dark, and doesn’t think about it. Cleans his teeth, arranges his hair, relies on muscle memory and the greyscale shift of dawn through the shadows. Dresses without looking at himself in the mirror.

On his way out the door, he smooths the crumpled white envelope against the table and tucks it into the inner pocket of his jacket.

The morning is damp with the leftover fog of an overnight rain, and Sherlock walks all the way to New Scotland Yard. It’s a long walk and it takes a long time, and he thinks he should be thinking about whatever it is that he usually thinks about, but instead he doesn’t think about anything. He doesn’t think about the musty flat downstairs or the tiny flat across town. He doesn’t think about the differences between emptied and not yet filled—that blessed distinction between London and Sussex, between 221B and a cottage in the hills.

He walks. Passes several postboxes. Stops for a coffee, considers a pastry. They look dry and crumbly but he buys one anyway and eats it standing on the street corner.

London fills up with people, hustling around him, and it’s like watching them from above. He wonders how their lives might look pinned against his wall, mapped out with yarn. Wonders about their significance to one another, about networks, about degrees removed.

Wonders what happens to the people who slide, vacant and disconnected, out of reach of the next stretch of string.

Across from New Scotland Yard, the last postbox is a judgement in red. He shifts his coffee from one hand to the other so he can reach into his inner pocket, but just as his fingers find the creased edges of the envelope, his mobile buzzes: incoming text.

He stands there for several long, unsteady minutes, hand still tucked inside his coat, trying to decide whether to check it.

He doesn’t, but when he sits at the table in the third-floor conference room with a new stack of files, the envelope in his jacket pocket rustles against the movement: the damning sound of near-exhausted hope, small and thin but persistent against his ribs.

*

Of course the text is from John. Sherlock waits nearly three hours to read it, trying to focus his attention on the autopsy reports in front of him, trying to be realistic about what sort of things John might have to say. His eagerness blooms like an ache in his joints.

Eventually he gets up and locks the door and leans hard against the wall, trying to stop his bones from skittering against one another. One deep breath, and another: berating himself into submission. Then he swipes the message open.

It was good to see you the other night, hope I didn’t put you off. It’s been a long couple of weeks.

Just a polite excusal, nothing more. Virtually meaningless. The sort of thing a person says when a silence has dragged on for too long and become awkward. Sherlock tips his head back against the wall and closes his eyes against the expected swell of disappointment.

And yet: hope I didn’t put you off. It’s half-apology, half-invitation: an attempt to keep a conversation going when the thread of it has died away. Hope you’ll give me another chance.

Hope it was good to see me too.

He reads it again, a third time, a fourth, but whatever answer John might be expecting eludes him and for the first time in months something like irritation sprouts in Sherlock’s chest. It’s not Sherlock who has chances to be giving out. It’s not Sherlock who has things he needs to figure out.

It’s fine, he taps out. He doesn't hit send, but he doesn’t stop back at the postbox on his way home, either, and the envelope ends up in her kitchen, waiting for something else to happen.

*

It’s half-seven in the evening when the doorbell rings. Waiting for Mrs Hudson to answer it feels like free fall when he remembers and he needs an extra moment to catch his breath before he can go downstairs and do it himself.

John in his black coat, John with his tired eyes. He grimaces at the look on Sherlock’s face, but holds up a plastic bag of takeaway as an offering. The scent of Chinese rolls off it: the zing of black pepper beef, the salty sweetness of garlic sauce and broccoli, the crisp fried scent of egg rolls.

“I was going to call,” John says, not quite meeting Sherlock’s eyes, “but this just seemed easier.”

Sherlock wonders if he’ll ever stop hesitating to let John in. They aren’t the men they used to be, after all, and whatever they were before—just the two of us against the rest of the world—they can’t ever be that again.

But John’s forehead creases in a silent plea and although Sherlock might be different than he was before, he still can’t say no to John Watson.

Upstairs, John sets the takeaway on the coffee table while Sherlock goes for plates. He notices John watching after him, leaning over a little beyond the frame of the doorway. Checking whether anything has moved in the last two years, maybe, taking note so he can find them next time.

Next time. Sherlock shakes his head to clear the thought away.  

“I wasn’t really sure,” John says, gesturing at the boxes when Sherlock sets the plates down. “The black pepper beef used to be your favourite, but I, um. I didn’t know. I just got a bit of everything.”

It looks like half the menu has been spread out on the table. Egg rolls and dumplings, fried rice and chow mein, sweet and sour prawns and kung pao vegetables, black pepper beef and chicken with peapods. It’s more food than they could eat together in three days. It would keep Sherlock fed for a week.

John puts his hands on his hips, then rubs the back of his neck, then clears his throat. “Yeah, like I said, I wasn’t sure what you’d like—”

“You didn’t have to do this,” Sherlock says. His abdomen feels hollow and he’s not hungry at all.

“I know,” John says, sounding a little bit as though he was helpless to stop himself. He looks over at Sherlock. “You didn’t text me back yesterday.”

“Sorry, the reception’s terrible at the Yard, I just.” John waits. Raises an eyebrow at Sherlock, looks back down at the food. Sherlock doesn’t finish.

One missed text and John had done—something.

Sherlock had let the conversation end, had given John every opportunity to walk away, and still John held on. Refused to let go. Tried again; tried harder. Coming to 221B (standing, awkward in parade rest, the day after) and taking what care he could (sleeves pushed up to his elbows, soapy forearms) and reaching out (“Can I come by and see you again today?”) and making room (making a choice: not them, not the way they had been).

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say.

“Is this all right?” John asks after a moment. He works his jaw back and forth as though he’s trying to fight back the excuses that want to pour forth. “I, well. I surprised you, I know, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” Sherlock says. He tries for a smile and gestures for the both of them to sit. “Really. Let’s eat.”

Greasy and deep-fried, dunked in thick, sweet sauces, and soy sauce packets drizzled over it all—Sherlock hasn’t eaten food like this in months. It tastes like so many other long ago nights, nights when Sherlock sat next to John on the sofa, when it had felt like they’d always be there. Talking over the telly, stealing food off each other’s plates. Laughing with their shoulders pressed together, feeling it rumble back and forth between them.

They eat quietly, chopsticks scraping across the plates, chasing grains of rice. The silence Sherlock has grown used to prickles in his ears, along the back of his neck, strange and uncomfortable.

He tries not to look at John. John tries not to look at anything.

“I meant what I said,” John starts suddenly, sticking his chopsticks upright in a pile of rice and sitting back. He looks at Sherlock expectantly, but Sherlock doesn’t know what he means. “About you.”

About you. That doesn’t really clarify, but John clearly thinks it ought to have. “Oh.”

“I know I’m still um. Figuring it all out, all right, and everything’s a mess, I know. But I did mean it.” John studies him, too intensely, and Sherlock’s cautious lack of reaction must give him away because John’s face crumples a little in that don’t you get it sort of way, but Sherlock doesn’t and he can only stare back. “About the way I. The way I feel. About you. That’s still true, I mean.”   

Sherlock blinks. Looks down at the prawn he’s holding between his chopsticks and blinks again. “Oh,” he repeats, and tries to decide what he’s supposed to do with a statement like that.  

It’s not that Sherlock doesn’t believe him. It’s just that John has always been more complicated than absolutes and certainties. He lives in flexibility, changing tides; he adapts when he needs to adapt and he can say a thing and mean it, he can want a thing and want it desperately, and still turn away from it if he thinks he has to.

I needed to protect myself from you, John had said, so many weeks ago, and Sherlock had been too blind in his own grief and fury to understand him then. It’s funny how even now they are mirror images of each other, two sides of the same fearful coin.

John nods and gives a weak smile, as though he can read Sherlock’s thoughts. “I know. It’s okay. But, um. Maybe, we could give it another go? Being friends, I mean.”

The thought hangs thick in the air between them, heavy in the back of Sherlock’s eyes. He wants to reach for John but can’t navigate the distance. “Of course we’re friends.”

“We really haven’t been,” John says, soft with truth. “But I think it’d be a good place for us to start.”

Sherlock puts the prawn in his mouth to give himself a moment to collect his voice and then says, “All right,” and after a few moments, John smiles and starts a story about a patient he saw last week that Sherlock would’ve liked.

After all this time, it’s a startlingly small beginning, but it’s enough.

*

Article on varicella outbreaks in today’s Times. – SH

Sherlock sticks a plate of leftovers in the microwave and hits start, fiddling with his mobile as he waits for John to text back. He will. Maybe not right now, maybe not until tomorrow, but eventually he’ll say something, and Sherlock will say something back.

They’re relearning how to do it: conversation. Asking what they want to know, telling what they want to tell. Their texts are tentative, still coloured with hesitancy, toeing the lines of polite inquiry as they each try to find something to say, some reason to contact one another. John sends him picture messages of interesting obituaries from the papers. Sherlock sends back links to articles about new field surgery techniques in Afghanistan.

The conversations move in a stilted, scripted dialogue, but they move.

Every once and a while, uncomfortable reminders of their new realities bleed through: John complaining about the traffic driving out of London to see his daughter, Sherlock asking if John wants any of Mrs Hudson’s pots and pans before he sorts through them. But Sherlock swallows against each unexpected jolt and pushes himself to answer and later, to begin again, and the texts don’t stop. Sherlock pushes and John pushes back, pushes forward, pushes toward, and bit by tiniest bit, the texts become easier to send. The reaching out becomes easier to risk.

Read it – what did you think of their survey? Seemed flawed. I’ve not seen that much more varicella at the clinic than I’m used to seeing.

Sherlock takes the plate out of the microwave and stirs everything around, thinking about it. He pops a piece of broccoli into his mouth and texts back one-handedly. Flawed but not so much so as to completely disregard. We’ve had a few adult cases on the homicide team lately, bit unusual. – SH

Interesting. Any good cases on?

There are some things, though, that Sherlock still doesn’t know how to say, and he ends up not answering until John sends something the next morning about the weather. They’re forecasting snow.

*

The estate agent calls. Calls again. Sherlock lets it go to voicemail, then listens to her hurried messages with a twist in his stomach.

The idea of leaving now, when everything feels so close, seems wrong, seems like giving up—but the idea of staying and waiting and waiting for something to never happen is excruciating. It’s been so long already, agonising days and weeks and months and years of this waiting, of suspecting, of knowing and ignoring, of text messages that keep coming and coming and still only say half of what they mean.

But sometimes, when John texts him, Sherlock laughs.

He doesn’t mean to, but John surprises it out of him, and the sound floats, solid and undeniable, through the flat: hovering over Mrs Hudson’s kitchen table, writing itself into the early morning condensation clouding up the windows, following him, reminding him: the way things could be.

Eventually the agent leaves a voicemail that says the wisteria cottage has sold, and Sherlock doesn’t return John’s next text for two days.

*

Do you mind if I stop by NSY sometime? Greg says you’ve got a room up there now.

Who’s Greg? – SH

*

The warrants have been issued, the team assigned: one of Sherlock’s cold cases has finally come to its long-awaited end. It’s just a matter now of a search and an arrest, an interview, a charge sheet. Moving a file from cold to closed. Calling a family with an answer that probably won’t mean what they’d hoped it would.

Sherlock won’t be on the team. He never is.

It’s enough, he tells himself as he heads down to the first-floor conference room, to do this part: to lead the briefings, explain the cases, the details, the suspects and victims, the who and when and how. It isn’t as though he isn’t involved. It isn’t as though he’s locked up in his tower, hidden away behind the stacks of cold cases, handing out solutions from behind some glass partition.

But he’s got all this stale adrenalin building in his fingertips and nowhere for it to go, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to being left behind.

“Sherlock,” Lestrade calls from behind him, cutting into his thoughts just outside the conference room, jogging a little to catch up to him. “Hey, listen. Before you go in. You should know, there’s, ah. Someone new going to be at this briefing.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Did you really invite an intern, I don’t have time to—”

“No,” Lestrade interrupts, “It’s John.”

For one brief, wishful moment, Sherlock’s mind goes to John Hawthorne from down in accounting, but the trepidation on Lestrade’s face betrays the truth. “John,” Sherlock repeats, a bit stupidly. “John Watson?

Lestrade nods. “He called, asked if there was anything going on he could help with. Said you’d been putting him off. And I thought, you two had been good together, once, and you had been, I dunno, when he was around—”

“He doesn’t know, though,” Sherlock says. “He doesn’t know that I don’t—that I’m not—he doesn’t know how things have changed.”

“Well,” Lestrade answers, not nearly as apologetic as Sherlock thinks he ought to be, “guess it’s time you told him. Give it a chance, Sherlock, he wants to help. Maybe let him.”

And then Lestrade reaches forward and swings open the door and there he is, standing in the conference room like he belongs, wearing a smile like Sherlock hasn’t seen in years: John.  

It probably shouldn’t surprise him, but it does. John always does.

*

Sherlock stands frozen in the doorway, gaping as John turns to face him with eyes bright and curious. The balancing act of everything they haven’t been talking about shivers through Sherlock’s mind, a hundred images of the way things used to be rushing along the tightrope of the way things are, and he can’t move, can’t breathe.

Can’t deduce whether John already knows the secrets Sherlock’s been trying so hard to keep.

At the front of the room, Lestrade gets everyone’s attention and begins a quick introduction. Sherlock doesn’t look at him. John doesn’t look at him. The room is full of static.

Then, as if through a fog: “Sherlock? D’you want to take us through it?”

Sherlock stares blankly at Lestrade’s expectant face, blinking once, twice, before he remembers what he’s supposed to be doing. The details of the case feel awkward and clumsy in his mind as he makes his way forward, old memories welling up and confusing who and what they’re looking for. A murderer, Sherlock thinks as he begins, and he can barely remember which one. A killer that’s gotten away for far too long.

John finds a spot along the back wall, leaning with his arms crossed comfortably in front of him, watching eagerly as Sherlock stumbles through the information. He cracks a smile once or twice, nods along as Sherlock tries to explain the timeline of the crime, the parameters of their search warrants, the likelihood that the suspect will try to run.

He looks happy. Sherlock can’t remember the last time John looked so happy, and he already knows that he is going to ruin it.

That’s what Sherlock does, in John’s life: ruins it.

Sherlock wishes he could have spared John this. He wishes, terribly, that he were still the man he’d been before—the man John is obviously expecting him to be. The man who’d died years ago with the soft hiss of a bullet through a silencer and a truth that needed to be told.

He can never be that man again. Not even for John.

“Just talk to him, yeah?” Lestrade says when the briefing is over, low in Sherlock’s ear. “Sort yourselves out already.”

Sherlock doesn’t answer. He keeps his eyes on his papers while the room empties, shuffling them back into their files, rearranging them, until Lestrade shuts the door behind him. The empty conference room buzzes under the fluorescent lights. Sherlock can hear his own heartbeat thrumming in his ears.

“Never thought I’d see you doing presentations for a bunch of Yarders,” John finally offers with a weak chuckle, awkward and stiff. “Things have gotten a bit more official than I’d expected.”

Sherlock swallows, and when he manages to answer, his voice is more brittle than he’d like. “A lot of things have changed.”

“Yeah, you didn’t really used to be one to wait around for a briefing.” The silent pauses are stifling in the sterile briefing room. “I was going to ask if I could tag along, but it seems I’ve missed something, haven’t I?”

There’s no way to talk around it. There’s no way to avoid it. There’s no way to only say half of what needs to be said. Sherlock takes a deep breath, bracing himself, and says, “It’s not really like that anymore.”

John nods and licks his lips: an anxious tick. “Not like what, exactly?”

“I’m a consultant now.” Sherlock spreads his hands, ta-da!, and forces a laugh, rickety and sour even to his own ears. “Full time and everything. I’m even on the payroll.”

There’s another long silence. Sherlock doesn’t remember John ever being so quiet before. One of the lights flickers overhead; they might as well be standing back on roof and pavement, for all the distance between them.

“Paperwork,” John finally concludes. “You do paperwork. You—I don’t understand. You hate paperwork.” He sounds upset, offended even. “You were always out there, with the—the thrill of the chase, the blood pumping through your veins,” and Sherlock bristles, age-old bitterness knocking loose from his ribs, from deep inside his spine, because those are his words, those are Sherlock’s own words, remembered and thrown back at him, as though he chose to turn away from that life, as though he wanted this, “And now you do paperwork? You’d have done anything for the work—”

“I got shot in the chest, John,” Sherlock interrupts loudly. The words echo around them. “Did you really think there wouldn’t be consequences? Did you really believe me so invincible, that because you forgave her and went home, that it was over?

John huffs and snaps back, readily defensive, “I can’t read your mind, Sherlock, I don’t just know these things when you never say—”

“What did I need to say?” Sherlock demands. “You’re an army doctor with a gunshot wound in your own shoulder, it’s not as though you couldn’t possibly have known—”

“You told me you had recovered, that you were fine, that you—”

“And you believed it because you wanted to believe it—”

John steps forward, his face contorting with something more like fear than anger, his index finger jabbing into the air. “You let me. You said to forgive her, you said to trust her, and I trusted you—”

“I know what I said, I know.” Sherlock takes a deep breath against the accusations, tries to reach for more of the fight that’s been trapped inside him for so long, but it’s like clutching at smoke with no sign of the fire. His fingers are shaking and he realises suddenly that he’s not actually angry at all—he’s just lost.

He’s just lost.

He has no idea where he stands anymore, stuck in this in-between of changing and not changing, and he has no idea what to do or say or even think, no idea what the lines and boundaries and limits are. He has worked so hard to spin a fairy tale for John, to make sure John saw only the magic and none of the cost, but now the spells are breaking, and John is the one breaking them, pressing closer, peering behind the curtain, and Sherlock doesn’t know whether to hide or reveal himself. He has no idea what to do. What he’s allowed. Who he’s supposed to be next.

He says, startled into quiet honesty, “I didn’t want you to know.”

“But why? Didn’t you think it would be important to me? Didn’t you think I would care?” John’s face looks crumpled, stricken and terrible. “Instead you lied. Lied, so that I couldn't help you even if I wanted to. Why?

Sherlock looks back down at his files. He knows exactly why, and he doesn’t know how to say it. Doesn’t even want to say it. Doesn’t want to give that guilt to John, after all the guilt John has already carried.

John says it for him anyway. “You thought if I didn’t know, I’d be happy.”

He closes his eyes. It sounds so small, to hear it said that way. So childishly hopeful. “You were. You were happy.”

“With your murderer,” John breathes, and oh, Sherlock has never heard him call her that before. The truth of it burns, scraping like thorns in Sherlock’s blood to hear it recognised, accepted: that she had killed him, and he’d lived with that secret for John. So John could love her.

“If that’s what it took, then yes. As long as you were happy.”

John shakes his head; his cheeks are red. “I’m not now. I’m really, really not. Knowing you were here, like this—what else? All this time, what else? Are you even okay? Without Mrs Hudson, are you—are you all right?”

Sherlock hardly knows. There are the kidney problems, the IVC problems, the chronic pain. The scars that itch and ache when the weather changes. The way his lungs contract in his chest on days when the wind blows too hard, and never quite release. The prescriptions and restrictions. The doctors. The way it never ends—the way they no longer talk about healing, only about maintenance. The emptiness of 221B and the envelope on the kitchen worktop that wasn’t sent but still hasn’t been thrown away. He never really thinks about whether he’s all right.

Sherlock tries to say, I’m fine, but nothing comes out. He needs to blow his nose. He needs to walk away.

“Just talk to me,” John says. He sounds like there’s something caught in his throat. He’s close enough that if one of them were to reach out, they would touch. Sherlock twists his fingers together. “Damn it, Sherlock, let me help you. What do you need? What do you want?”

He wants everything. He wants anything. He can’t find the words.

“Sherlock. What do you want?

“I don’t know,” Sherlock breathes. “I didn’t think—I just wanted you to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“No,” John insists, “No, not for me, forget about me for a minute.” He steps in again and his hands close gently around Sherlock’s forearms, anchoring him as the wide ocean darkness of John’s eyes searches him for an answer that isn’t coming. He looks like there’s a knife in his gut that turns like a hand-crank with every passing second of silence. “Come on. Don’t you ever think about what you want for yourself? About what would make you happy? Don’t you?”

Sherlock’s mouth opens, closes. He tries take a breath but it doesn’t seem to reach his lungs. The faint hum of the fluorescent lights is deafening in the silence. He doesn’t say no, but John hears it anyway. 

The corners of John’s eyes crinkle in a way that isn’t a smile at all and he pulls back, the heat of his hands slipping away from Sherlock into the abyss between them. “Jesus, Sherlock.” He runs a hand through his hair. Doesn’t look up. “Jesus.”

There isn’t anything else to say and Sherlock can’t keep on standing here, not saying it. He picks up his file folders and brushes past John, leaving him behind, and waits until he’s out in the hall to press the heel of his palm to the ache in his breastbone. It hurts.

Leaving John behind always has.

*

The flat is empty when he gets home because the flat is always empty. He sits on the stairs, contemplating the concept of being in between: of saying something, but not saying enough. Of having John back in his life and yet at arm’s length. Of finding a cottage in Sussex and letting it slip away to someone else.

He feels like he’s in the middle of taking a step and has no idea where he’s going to land.

He wants to land next to John.

But Sherlock is no more than a ghost of himself these days, a faded imitation of a man John Watson once knew propped up with nothing but hollow secrets and an aging wool coat, and John’s horror at Sherlock’s reality solidifies like curdled milk in his stomach.

Maybe there’s not enough left of the way Sherlock used to be for John to want to keep.

He sits on the steps, watching the front door until his back is stiff and his tailbone is sore. His mobile is heavy in his hand, still and silent.

*

It snows, and the world is hushed along with it, like everyone is looking on through a dream. 

Sherlock stays in, wandering between her sitting room and his own, fingertips on the wallpapers and the bannisters like the memories have been built into the very brick and mortar of Baker Street. He stands at the bottom of the stairs and in her kitchen and just outside the bathroom door and remembers.

He remembers when there was life here in 221B.

When there was colour and laughter and long nights sorting papers and early mornings sharing tea, when there were arguments and cold shoulders, standoffish are you all rights asked from across the room and carefully absent reassurances given back. Remembers when he had come home to something, to someone. For someone.

Remembers leaving, too. Putting on his coat quietly, watching the red and blue police lights play along the walls, casting light on all John’s fury and John’s loyalty and John’s fear. The knowledge, building beneath his breastbone like a stone, that John would be coming back alone.

And he remembers coming back, remembers dreaming for himself a fantasy of celebration and firelight and confessions. Remembers finding instead only cold ashes in the grate. The tackiness of dried blood making his shirt stick to his skin. Pillowcases that smelled like must and the traces of John’s aftershave. The oppressive freedom of being able to go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and not having anywhere to go.

She had been there for him, then. Mrs Hudson. Coos and gentle hands. Reminding him that he wasn’t as alone as he felt. Bringing up his morning tea so he wouldn’t wake up to the emptiness. She had been there, even if she didn’t always understand. She had been there, but the paramedics hadn’t let him come in the ambulance.

He remembers being too afraid to say it when she needed him to, and instead sitting on her sofa late the next night or maybe early that morning and whispering it into the dark like a prayer, like she could still hear him, even though he knew she couldn’t.

Like it mattered anymore, when he knew it didn’t.

He remembers John saying it in the dark of her kitchen, eyes full of watery starlight and hope. He remembers John saying that he’d meant it, and John showing up without knowing whether he’d be allowed in, and John reaching out and John asking to help and John’s hands on his hips and John’s breath in his lungs, John in his chair and John in parade rest and John in the door, John moving forward, John pressing through, finding his place in the in-between and waiting for Sherlock to meet him there.

Sherlock wonders: if he could find that middle place, and say the things John had said and mean them the way John had meant them, would John still hear him?

*

The numbers on John’s door are slightly off-centre. The peephole’s gone foggy with age, and there are too many scratches around the lock (older, created before John’s tenancy but still agonisingly prophetic), and in the otherworldly grey-green cast of the hallway light, the space outside John’s flat seems like a sort of limbo. A purgatory that only exists because John lives in it.

Sherlock hates this place, but he thinks he is beginning to understand it.

“I tried to leave too,” he confesses into the empty hall, trying to build up the momentum in his hands to knock. “There was this little cottage. Sussex Downs. Wisteria all over it. Thought maybe I’d get out, go somewhere else for a while. Signed the paperwork, even, but I, um. Didn’t go.”

That’s what this place is about: trying to disappear, trying to leave everything behind, trying to want to take off and forget about it all, and not being able to. Trying, and not getting all the way there.

Sherlock had just gone downstairs. John had come here.

Into the in-between.

Inside, John might be sitting on that wretched sofa, watching telly, reading a book. Having a nap. It’s nearly half-seven; he might be making dinner, eating at his tiny table as he flips through a newspaper.

He might be standing just there on the other side of the door, inches away, waiting for Sherlock to gather his courage.

Sherlock takes a deep breath and steps forward, raises his hand. The moment draws out, safe and perilous at once, like hovering his hand above John’s heart, rehearsing for the inevitable moment when Sherlock will have to press forward and discover whether the shape of it can still hold him.

“Not really sure if I should be here,” Sherlock says, to excuse his hand as it falls back at his side as a wave of uncertain nausea rises. “But I, um. I wanted to say sorry, for what happened at the Met the other day. I should’ve told you.” He gives a weak, damp laugh. “There have been a lot of things I should have told you over the years, hasn’t there? I keep trying to protect you by not telling you things. Ignorance is bliss, right? But I should know better by now. I do know better by now. Which is why . . . why I’m here. I have one more thing to say.”

He holds his breath but the door stays closed. He wonders if John is even home. Wonders, if he were to knock, if John would answer. If John would listen. If John would want to hear this.

Finally, he takes a breath, takes another, remembers the paramedics in the ambulance saying who are you, sir? and family only, sir, remembers lost chances and idle daydreams and the look on John’s face when he saw Sherlock’s scar, and then he says, very quietly and very carefully, “I want to be with you.”

Nothing happens.

Sherlock is the tiniest bit surprised. There’s not even an echo to ring the words back to him.

So he says it again, “I want to be with you,” stronger this time, trying to continue before it dies away into the silence. “I don’t care how. Or when, even. But I.” Sherlock chokes on his breath a bit, tries again. “I miss you. But I also know that you’re still figuring things out, and that’s fine. You did this for you, and I’m trying not to--to interfere with that, which is why I’m saying all this out here instead of in there. But I thought, you keep trying to come around. And the other day, at the Met, you asked me what I wanted, so I thought. You deserved to know. So, um. There it is. I want to be with you. That’s all.”

And still there’s nothing, the door doesn’t open and John doesn’t come into the light and Sherlock feels impossibly small in the wake of his admission as the door stares back. It feels like a dismissal, indifferent and unimpressed, like Sherlock’s offering could never be enough to tear down the walls between them, and the resolve to knock wrenches suddenly into a need to flee.

Sherlock clears his throat, gives a short nod. “Right. Well. Good night, then,” he manages, not sure what else to say, and takes off back down the hall, eyes on his feet and neck prickling with something like shame.

He’s nearly to the stairwell when he hears a door swing open.

“Sherlock,” John calls. “Sherlock, come back.”

Chapter Text

His first instinct is to run.

Sherlock stops, his heart pounding in his throat and nearly choking him with the surprise of John’s voice behind him. The hallway stretches out at his back, heavy with the weight of all the things John might have heard and might not have heard. The things he might say.

The things he might not want to be said.

I want to be with you.

It’s a long minute before Sherlock can bring himself to turn and look. John looks back, hanging out of his doorway with his weight caught by one hand curled around the frame, eyes wary and uncertain and yet: imploring.

“Sherlock,” he repeats, softly.

His instinct says to run, but he’s been running. He’s been running for weeks and before that, for years; he’s been running since the night at the pool, since the morning on the roof, since the flames of the bonfire and forgiveness of the bomb and the silence of the bullet. Since the tea set shattered at the bottom of the stairs, where they’d once stood, laughing. Since John stepped away, too angry and too tired, I’d have promised you the whole of it if you hadn’t fucking left.

He’s been running, and as he looks back and meets those eyes, those ocean deep and blue eyes, he thinks he’s finally gotten tired.

*

Sherlock’s palms are sweaty in his coat pockets; John’s smile is small with relief and trepidation. The tiny flat feels more lived in than the last time, less neat—a discarded jumper on the back of the sofa, a stack of mail on the counter. The sight of it all makes Sherlock’s mouth run dry.

Maybe he should’ve kept walking. Maybe he should never have come.

Or maybe, he thinks, watching John shake out his hands as he reaches for the kettle, maybe he should have come sooner.

Two mugs, two teabags, and then before Sherlock can say anything, the teabags are exchanged for the canister of instant coffee, as if John remembers. As if he understands the importance of tea and the insignificance of coffee and why Sherlock drinks one but no longer the other. Sherlock misses him so badly it hurts and his heart hammers in his chest, waiting for John to say something. Anything.

John takes his time, though. He’s lost the sense of looking for something as he moves around his kitchen. He’s bought sugar since the last time.

“Decaf,” John says, offering Sherlock one of the mugs. He takes it, watches John’s guarded features trying not to betray the ache of uncertainty underneath. It was only a few months ago that Sherlock couldn’t read him at all. “Come on. Have a seat.”

Sherlock would prefer to stand, to keep the armour of his coat, but John sits at the table and looks up at him as if still expecting him to bolt and he can’t bear it. He puts the cup of coffee down, hangs the coat and scarf over the back of the chair, and sits.

The blue laminate table-top is a veritable ocean between them in the silence.

“So,” John says finally, clearing his throat. He cradles his coffee cup in both hands and doesn’t look up. “Sussex Downs?”

For a moment, it doesn’t fully register, what John’s asking. Then the memory rewinds and Sherlock hears himself as though through a door, thin walls, old construction, louder than he would have thought, and some John-from-fifteen-minutes-ago looks up from the sofa across the room, where a true crime novel has been abandoned on the side table: I tried to leave too. There was a little cottage. Sussex Downs.

Sherlock’s pulse trips into double-time: John heard. John heard everything.

“Thought I’d look into some options,” Sherlock manages, but it sounds strangled. He coughs and tries to smile. “Think my estate agent’s getting sick of me, though.”

John doesn’t smile back. “You’re leaving Baker Street.”

The accusation stings, probably more than it ought to for the thread of truth in it. “I don’t know. It depends.” Depends on how much longer Sherlock can stand the darkness and the quiet; on how much longer Sherlock can wait for something—for this something—to happen. On John, and what he heard, and what he thinks of it.

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “John, I—”

“Did you mean it?” John asks suddenly. “Out there in the hall, did you. Did you mean all of that?”

Sherlock forces himself to look up. John’s eyes are huge and dark. They’re not talking about Sussex anymore. They never really were.

“Yes,” he answers, his breath trembling out in a gust. “I did—I do. Want to be here. To be with you.” When John doesn’t say anything, he adds, very quietly, “I miss you.”

Across the table, John sets down his mug. Adjusts it carefully, the handle pointing toward the kitchen wall, and then turning it around the other way, as if it’s a dousing rod that can tell him whether Sherlock is telling the truth.

“I want that too, you know,” he says.

They stare at each other as the clock ticks out ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Sherlock is half-afraid that if he moves, if he speaks, some spell will break or reality will reverse and John will take it back.

“Do you?” Sherlock asks finally. He can’t help himself. “Still?”

John dips his head and gives a weak, somewhat embarrassed smile to his hands. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure that out, actually. What I want. Thought I had it sorted, and then, after what happened the other day at the Yard, after what you told me—” He looks up and meets Sherlock’s eyes; Sherlock doesn’t dare to look away. “I’m sorry,” he says, voice gone raw and quiet. “I’m sorry I missed it. I guess I looked and didn’t see, I don’t know. Didn’t want to see, maybe.”

The look on John’s face is terrible. Sherlock says, “It’s fine,” to make it go away, but it doesn’t.

“It’s not,” John huffs. “And I know I’ve got things I need to make up for. I know you probably need some time to sort your own things out, and that’s fine, I’ll give you all the time you need, but I can’t—I can’t stop thinking about it. About you. About when I was with you, when we were—what we were. That was the best time of our lives, you know?”

Sherlock knows. When I was with you, when we were—five years have passed since then. Five years: before the suicide and the funeral and the grief, before the wedding that hurt worse than the gunshot that came after it, before the truth and the pain and the scar. Before the baby came; before the mother was lost.

We were so young then , Sherlock thinks.

On the table, John’s hands curl around themselves, coffee abandoned between them. The sight of them, hesitant and holding back, makes Sherlock’s own hands ache. “So yeah. Yes. I still want that,” John says, and he sounds so tired again. He sounds so tired. “I just don’t think it’s my choice to make anymore.”

It’s Sherlock’s.

He stares at John from across the table and watches the quiet vulnerability settle into the features of his face, the question writ into the downturn of his mouth and the pinch at the corner of his eyes. He wears the last two years in lines and creases, and Sherlock wonders if John sees the same changes in his face, too. If John can see, already, how different things are; how very little remains of the way things used to be.

“I want to,” Sherlock says finally. “I want to say the things you said. To mean them the way you meant them. I’m just—” afraid, he thinks, and backtracks, tries again. “It can’t be the way it was, John. I’m not everything you remember anymore. The adventure, the game, is over.”

“The game? Who cares about the game,” John says, brow crumpling. “I was never there because of—of—I don’t know, the cases, or the excitement, or the blog, is that what you thought?”

John reaches forward again; this time, he leaves his hand, outstretched on the blue laminate, as though waiting for Sherlock to take it. “I don’t care about any of that,” John continues, impossibly soft. “I was never in love with the consulting detective. I was in love with you.”

“You—” Sherlock stops and his breath, his train of thought, stops with it. He wonders if he’ll ever get used to hearing that word from John’s mouth. He wonders if he’ll ever forget it.

There are a dozen things he wants to say, but the words stutter and stick in his throat and he can’t force them past the memory of the last two years and the bone-deep loneliness that waits for him still at home: please, I’m sorry, I miss you, I love—I love

“I know it’ll be different,” John says. “We’re both different. But I used to know you better than I knew myself, and I. I want that again. Just to know you. For you to know me.” John takes a deep breath and offers Sherlock that small, rickety smile again. “I miss you too, yeah?”

Sherlock doesn’t realise how badly he wants to reach into that space until he’s already doing it. His fingers tremble in the air between them. John watches them and watches them and doesn’t move away.

His hand is warm under Sherlock’s, and it takes effort to not jump away from it, like some residual part of him expects it to burn. “I’m—trying,” he says, stiltedly, and John blinks, hard, as the corners of his mouth turn down. “I’ll keep trying. I want to know you too.”

John turns his hand over under Sherlock’s and takes hold.

Holds on tight.

*

They finish their coffees, speaking softly over the cups about nothing in particular. The quietness of it is a comfort, like a palm ghosting over a bruise, tender and sweet.

It’s getting late, though, and the hesitant contentment around John’s mouth tugs at all the things Sherlock isn’t ready to say. The still-fading mark around John’s fourth finger pulls him back, uneasy with habitual restraint and the inherent unsteadiness of change. The lingering possibility that the way things are might yet go back to the way things used to be.

“I should go,” he apologises as John puts their mugs in sink. “I’ve got an experiment in the microwave.”

John nods understandingly. Sherlock sees the echo of his own regret in John’s smile, but he doesn’t ask Sherlock to stay. Instead he leans back against the cabinets and watches as Sherlock gathers his coat, a little too far away, hands tucked into his pockets.

“I’ll text you,” Sherlock promises, slowing his fingers as he finishes tying his scarf. The moment feels sticky, like toffee on his fingertips, like he can’t let it go without saying whatever is sitting on the back of his tongue.

But nothing else comes, and the moment drags out.

Then John pushes off the table and crosses the tiny space, stepping in and brushing a quick, dry kiss across Sherlock’s cheek, as though he were trying to do it before he could lose his nerve. “I’ll wait,” he says gently, dropping back, and they both know he doesn’t mean for a text.

Sherlock can feel the blush rising around the imprint of John’s lips. “I know,” he says, and it isn’t until he’s halfway down the street that he realises that he doesn’t just know: he believes it, too.

*

It takes him a few days to figure out the right thing to say, and the longer he waits, the more nervous he gets: is he waiting too long, is he assuming too much, is he ruining it? But everything seems too casual, too insignificant, too pale and small in comparison to the things Sherlock knows he should say, and Sherlock ends up watching his mobile and saying nothing.

He feels like they’re looking at each other from across a Chinese finger trap: caught in a holding pattern from only a hand’s breadth away, unable to pull back, still trying to figure out how to push forward.

But then Sherlock thinks: maybe there are some things he can’t say yet, but that doesn’t mean he can’t say anything.

He taps out, Morning – SH. Lets it sit on his screen until the morning gives way to the afternoon, pulling it up again and again, wondering if John will read his anxiety in the pixels. Hits send.

John texts back right away, Hey, all right?, and Sherlock wonders how long he’s been watching his mobile, too.

*

He doesn’t ask to come back to New Scotland Yard. John sends him terrible jokes and invites him out to coffee in the afternoons, complains about traffic and the price going up on frozen sausages, talks about his daughter and his patients and his abysmal failure to eat anything other than takeaway, but he doesn’t ask, and Sherlock doesn’t offer.

He’s not sure what he’s waiting for, but in between conversations about awful telly and the latest headlines on the Guardian, over cups of coffee in Regent’s Park and, once, a greasy dinner of fish and chips wrapped in paper after John’s shift ran long, Sherlock realises why it feels so important: because John is willing to wait.

Sherlock doesn’t know if anyone’s ever waited for him, like that. Without question, without condition, without turning away and giving up. Just waiting, like a hand cupped around his elbow, holding him steady and giving him time to take the lead.

*

(John doesn’t come back to Baker Street, either, but it’s not the same, because they both know what I want to be with you really means.

The next time John comes to Baker Street, it will be because John is coming home.)

*

The flat downstairs gets emptier and emptier.

It starts with her fridge: clearing out his leftovers, wiping the shelves, cracking the ice loose from its tray over her sink and leaving it to dry on the rack. Unplugging it for the last time. After that, it’s the blankets, folded and stacked carefully on the chair next to Sherlock’s dresser, and then the dishes, the pots and pans, taken to Oxfam, and then the knickknacks and curios, divvied up between the upstairs mantelpiece and the back alley bins.

He tries not to move too many things at once, but the growing emptiness is inevitable. The newly vacant spaces yawn after him, like the flat is settling in for a long, exhausted sleep, tired in the wake of so much life leaving it behind.

Today, it’s the cupboards. Rows of ancient tinned soup and veg, bags of rice and beans, boxes of noodles and jars of sauce: meals she planned and never made. Stale spices, mealy flour. Sherlock bins it all without checking to see if any of it is still good.

Then, materialising from the shadows: a box of tea bags. PG Tips.

There’s a lot of blame Sherlock would like to place on this flimsy little box, on the comfort inherent in an act of unspoken love: bringing up his morning tea. He wonders, sometimes, if she hadn’t been, if she hadn’t fallen, how things would be different. If she’d have been happy to see John back. If he ever would have seen John again at all. If he ever would have stepped forward into the in-between, or if anyone would’ve been waiting there to meet him.

If he ever would’ve managed to say the things he wishes he’d have said, if he only had a little more time.

He leaves behind the cupboards and takes the box upstairs. Fills the kettle, takes down a mug. His heart beats heavily against his breastbone, anxious and thick. He tries not to be reverent about taking out a tea bag, but they smell sweet and familiar and a little stale, like smelling something he’d once known very well from a very long way off, and he can’t help but be gentle.

Steam rises from the water as he pours, reminding him of incorporeality, of phantom visions tutting in dismay at the state of his rug and sliding through the dust on his mantel. The corner of his mouth drifts up on its own accord, and he can hear her reprimand, see here, young man, right before she dissolves into affection and laughter.

He still hasn’t managed to go through the bedroom downstairs, or the bathroom. She left a pair of slippers by the foot of her bed. Her cardigan is still on top of her laundry, waiting. Some day he will have to wash it, to fold it, to put it in a box and take it away, out of the house, where it will become someone else’s. For now, lying where it is, he thinks the ghost of her is still there with it.

It’s something left for her, should she get cold in the winter, in the night, in the rush of time as it passes them both by.

When he finally brings himself to take a sip of tea, it’s lukewarm, and not nearly as bitter as he’d remembered.

*

James Bond is on the telly, blowing something up. Sherlock has curled himself onto the sofa, watching it with tired eyes, his mobile growing heavy in his hands. Across town, John is watching the same thing, texting him at odd intervals with jokes about the villain and sarcastic observations about the realistic limitations of this weapon or that; Sherlock texted his predictions on the ending nearly an hour ago, and they’re both staying up too late to see it, betting the next round of coffee on whether he’s right.

You haven’t lost your touch, after all, John finally sends at ten to midnight, the vibration of the mobile on Sherlock’s chest startling him awake. For a brief moment, Sherlock is surprised that John isn’t actually there, smiling at him from the other end of the sofa; he feels the impression of hands on his wrists and fingers in his hair fading away as he blinks himself out of a dream.

Of course not, he sends back. I’ll demonstrate over coffee tomorrow afternoon, if you like.

Usual time, usual place? See you then.

It’s as close to a goodnight as anyone’s said to Sherlock in years, and maybe it’s that that makes him hesitate, his finger hovering over the lock button. Maybe it’s just how close John feels right now, in a flat on the other side of the city but right here, too, intimate and easy, and maybe it’s just that it’s late and he’s half-asleep and a little bit achy from the sofa, and maybe it’s just that he’s ready and maybe it’s just that he’s tired of not being ready and maybe it’s just that he’ll never be ready and in this instant he knows that it’s okay.

It’s okay because it’s John.

Actually, I could use a set of medical eyes on this case file, if you have the time. Rm 317 at the Yard, at our usual time? – SH

He leaves his mobile on the coffee table and goes downstairs to her sofa, where the cushions are cold and stiff. He turns the sound on her telly way up, another James Bond; must be a marathon. Knits his hands together to keep them from twitching toward his pockets. His stomach floats up underneath his ribs the rest of the night, like riding the crest of a roller coaster, anxious to see what might be waiting for him at the bottom of the drop.

*

Alright, sounds good. Usual time, your place.

(And then, more than three minutes later, like he tried to walk away and came back, like he couldn’t keep it from spilling out: Can’t wait.)

*

Sherlock wipes his palms on his thighs and surveys the table in his conference room, trying not to feel silly. He could’ve just sent these photographs to the forensics laboratories downstairs and asked them to follow up on his suspicions, the way he’s done for the last two years, but then he’d have nothing for John to look at, and that seems sillier yet.

Besides, he doesn’t just want to invite John to stop by; he wants to invite John in.

So he fiddles with the pictures, arranging them until they’re in perfect rows and columns, then he sits at the far end of the table and upends an accordion file onto the table so he’ll be sorting out the papers when John arrives, so he doesn’t look nervous, for god’s sake.

Hours later, at an almost painfully exact quarter-past three, there’s a rap on the open door, and Sherlock has been so entranced by his file he’s surprised to find he’d lost track of the time. John is leaning on the doorframe with a cautious smile, carefully toeing the threshold until Sherlock invites him in. “Hey.”

Sherlock flushes, wonders how long he’s been standing there. He’s up to his elbows in toxicology reports and documents; the neat rows of photographs have long since been disturbed, reorganised into new groups: by symptoms, first, and by toxicology findings second. John takes in the mess, eyes curious and eager beneath his restraint.

“Murder by allergies ,” Sherlock blurts excitedly, and John’s smile breaks free of its hesitation and glows. It’s the best thing Sherlock’s seen in months.

After that it’s rapid fire: talking over one another, holding up photographs to compare, throwing out theories. John’s rusty but keen, entirely keen, as if the case—now twelve years cold—is as interesting as any midnight stakeout or rooftop chase they’d ever been on, laughing at Sherlock’s jokes, making Sherlock’s cheeks go pink. Sherlock turns to tack a picture to the wall so John won’t notice and tries not to smile to himself.

Lestrade stops by on his way out for the night, surprised to see two silhouettes inside the door. Shakes John’s hand, claps Sherlock on the shoulder. “The whole gang back together again,” he says, “just like the good old days, yeah?”

Sherlock stiffens, suddenly sober with the reminder of how much things have changed. Not really, he thinks, no matter how much we want it to be.

But after Lestrade’s gone back out the door, John busies himself with a pile of photographs and says, without looking up, “Never thought I’d have this again, you know. I just—thanks, for letting me be here.”

Sherlock stares for a moment, taken aback. “Of course,” he finally says, slowly. “I’m. I’m glad you are.”

“Me too.” John looks up at him and smiles, eyes tremendously soft, and when the cleaning crew comes by and surprises them at half-seven, he suggests dinner, like he doesn’t quite want to let the day go. Sherlock says yes.

*

Getting to know each other again; letting themselves be known. It’s not what Sherlock expected, truth be told.

Some things are incredibly easy: telling John about a dream he’d had the night before (cataloguing a sock index the size of the Yard’s evidence storage warehouse), trading stories about horrific patients for ones about disorganised case files. Complaining about condescending older siblings. Becoming familiar with the vibration of a new text inside his pocket; becoming familiar with the expectation of it.

But there are still some things that are so incredibly difficult, so unexpectedly, profoundly painful. John has lived a life without him for two full years, and those two years cling tight to him, as if threatening to draw him back into their fold. Stories about coworkers whose names Sherlock doesn’t recognize, or about places Sherlock has never been, or about a daughter Sherlock has never met, shared shyly, as if John isn’t sure he wants to know: glimpses and hints about a John he will never really know and time he can never get back.

The sense of loss is pervasive and consuming, a black hole that’s settled in Sherlock’s chest.

He knows John sees these glimpses in him, too. Sometimes, when John looks too long, when he goes quiet—Sherlock knows. But he’s kept his secrets so close and for so long, and it’s a battle every time to offer them up, to tear through the routine of holding them close like ripping off a bandage.

But he sees John’s face in the wake of each little glimpse, and he sees the surprise, and gratefulness, and reverence, and he keeps trying. He keeps reaching, offering them up one by one: the very slow packing up of Mrs Hudson’s flat, the narrowing of his work from the great expanse of London down to a windowless third floor conference room of New Scotland Yard. The doctor’s appointments.

That’s the one Sherlock struggles with the most: the doctor’s appointments. The way Sherlock’s body and life and future have all been broken around the path of a bullet. The way Sherlock’s commitment to John’s happiness has been writ large on to prescription pads and physical limitation notices. The way Sherlock can’t hide any of it in vague, complicated medical terminology, and how even the most complex statement of fact flays him open and exposes the soft fleshy core of him.

It’s hard, it’s so hard, but John watches him carefully and takes each of his offerings in turn, like trembling birds into his hands, and doesn’t turn away.

They talk about Mrs Hudson, too, of course. They talk about her all the time. Sherlock tells John about meeting her, strung out and sweating half to death in the Florida heat, the fear he’d been able to see but not understand until he’d managed to come down from the high. He tells John about Frank Hudson, and the determined look in Mrs Hudson’s eye as Frank went to his death, and the way she’d collapsed against Sherlock when it was done, saying, it’s over, it’s over, as though she’d been afraid to believe it ever could be. John tells him, haltingly, with a lowered voice, about her sitting with him in 221B the day of Sherlock’s funeral, and the way she hadn’t let him see her cry.

Sherlock didn’t realise he had so much to say until he had someone to say it to. And if there are still some things he doesn’t say, John only looks at him with patience in his eyes, and doesn’t seem to mind.

*

I love— Sherlock thinks, watching John order their usual coffees. He turns as he waits for the bloke to stir in the cream and sugar, catches Sherlock’s eye across the cafe and smiles. I love—

*

“I’m famished,” John says, setting aside an autopsy report. He’s been there for an hour, maybe two—probably three, actually. Got off his shift early, he’d said, and come to pass the afternoon, and it makes something in Sherlock’s chest glow and grin with the pleasure of it. “Let’s do pizza.”

“Mm.” Sherlock flips through another set of photographs, considering. He doesn’t much like pizza, but he does like the extravagantly messy way John eats it. Could be worth it. Sausage and mushrooms, extra cheese: guilty pleasure. His cardiologist would kill him. “Did you see this picture of the blood spatter? It almost makes it look like the point of origin was over by the loo door, instead of by the kitchen.”

“Not pizza,” John amends, giving Sherlock a lazy once over. Remembered about the cardiologist, then. “Is that Greek place still there, you know, that one just off Marylebone Road?

Mm. Lamb souvla, maybe dolmades for a shared starter. Much more tempting. “If the spatter origin was by the loo door, it would’ve been the goddaughter, not the uncle. Was her clothing collected for spatter analysis? Check that report there.”

John rolls his eyes as he reaches for the report, but then Sherlock’s mobile rings, buried somewhere in his coat where it’s slung over the back of a chair, and John changes directions to rifle through coat pockets instead of paperwork. Sherlock watches from the corner of his eye, breathless, and wonders if John is even aware of himself right now. “Seriously, Sherlock. It’s waited fourteen years, it can wait until tomorrow. Dinner can’t wait nearly that long.” He finds the mobile, swipes to answer it. “Hello?”

Sherlock goes back to the photographs, pulse thrumming, and tries to focus on the direction of the blowback spatter. It can’t have originated by the kitchen, he decides, and John says, “No, this is John Watson. He’s—not available.”

There, the hitch: John’s realised. He looks at Sherlock with a flush rising hotly in his neck and horror in his eyes, and almost immediately ducks his head and looks away. “Mhmm. Oh, yeah.” There’s a pause as he listens, and the tightness in his shoulders continues to ratchet up. “Right, yeah. I’ll let him know. Thanks.”

“Lestrade?” Sherlock asks, wondering if he should say something. Perhaps if he just acts like it was a natural thing to do, the tension will dissipate naturally? He flips distractedly to the next photo and turns it upside down to get a better look: no, definitely not the kitchen. But was it really the loo, or was there a third person? Who could’ve been the third person?

John shifts on his feet; apprehension drips down Sherlock’s spine. “No, um. It was your estate agent.”

“Oh.” Unimportant. He forgets it instantly and instead focuses on John, staying on his feet instead of sitting back down, even widening his stance. An ache starts in the insides of Sherlock’s elbows. It was just an old habit, for John to answer his phone, at the very worst no more than rude and at best an indication that they were moving forward, and he can’t understand why it seems to matter so much. They’d been doing so well. They’d been doing so well, and Sherlock has no idea what to do.

The next picture has moved on from the hallway to the front parlor; the investigators hadn’t taken enough photographs. Sherlock stares down at it and doesn’t really see it at all. He swallows. “Anyway, the report?”

*

By the time Sherlock puts down the crime scene photos and shuffles John down into a cab—the Greek place, after all—the space between them feels cold and isolating. John sits as close to the door as possible and stares out the window, and Sherlock wonders if this is what it was like in the beginning, when John had knocked on the door and asked to come up, with John so untouchable and so far away.

“I didn’t know you still had an estate agent.”

Sherlock looks over, startled and a little bit astonished. John doesn’t look away from the window; his jaw is clenched. “Yes,” he answers, confused. “I thought I told you that. Sussex Downs?”

John is quiet for another moment. “You said you’d found a cottage.”

There’s something in John’s voice that Sherlock doesn’t like. Something that sounds like he’s bracing himself for an impact, like he’s poking at some proverbial bear and waiting for the attack. Like he’s afraid of what Sherlock might say but he’s forcing himself to hear it anyway. “I think I also said it went to someone else, though, didn’t I? It did.”

“And you’re.” John clears his throat, looks down at his hands in his lap. “You’re still looking.”

And Sherlock suddenly remembers the way John’s expression had changed upstairs, the hitch in his breath, the dread in his eyes. Not when he realised he’d answered the phone: when he realised who was calling.

He’d got it wrong. Sherlock had got it all wrong.

Guilt blooms in his gut, sour and unsteady. “John,” he breathes.

“I just didn’t expect you to still be looking, that’s all,” John says quickly, trying to sound casual, but it’s a poor mask for defensiveness and hurt, and he stumbles over his words, trying to correct it. “No, I mean. I didn’t know you were. No, I mean, I just.” He goes back to looking out the window, his defences lining up along his shoulders like an old stone guard. “I just didn’t realise you were still looking at places.”

“It’s not like that,” Sherlock flounders, trying to explain, trying to make it okay. “It’s just, you know, with Baker Street being empty—” That’s not what he wants to say. He tries again. “I’m just—”

“Don’t leave,” John says abruptly.

He finally turns to Sherlock, eyes too bright and too big and too wide in the dark of the cab, and Sherlock stares back, speechless and dazed. “What?”

John takes a deep breath—Sherlock is reminded of years ago, of John sitting at his kitchen table, hands folded, face earnest, look, Sherlock, this is the biggest and most important day of my life—and says, quietly, deliberately, “I’m asking you, straightforwardly, not to leave.”

“I’m not—”

“You have an estate agent,” John interrupts, exasperation creeping into his tone, don’t even try to deny it, Sherlock. “She had another cottage for you, one just like the last, she said. It’s an escape route, isn’t it? A safety net, or as good as. That if this goes, you know, tits up, if something happens—you’d have an out.”

Sherlock’s stomach tightens and turns, and he knows, all at once, that cutting edge in John’s voice is sharp because it’s the truth: that he’s been keeping an option, making a plan, giving himself the key to walk away from all of this, from John and all this progress and all this hope. That he may not take the calls, but he still listens to the voicemails. That he may have slowed and looked the other way, but he still hasn’t stopped running.

Every possible denial feels like an admission on his tongue. He can’t think of anything to say.

“I know we’re—we’re still working on things,” John says as the cab rolls to a stop in front of the restaurant, his voice is strained and thick. “But please don’t leave, Sherlock. I want you to stay. I’m asking you to stay.”

Sherlock meets his eyes and tries to commit them to memory: oil black in the dark, and shining with discomfort and uncertainty. He never wants to forget them: to forget that he is capable of making them look this way. “All right,” Sherlock says. “I’ll stay.”

*

Dinner is quiet and awkward, the both of them trying to work their way back to something normal. They’re unsteady, off-kilter under the reminder of how tenuous this all is—that they haven’t made any promises to one another, that they haven’t made any permanent plans, that either of them could still turn their back and walk away, once and for all, and leave the other behind—but they try.

After dinner, they walk back up to the main road to catch a cab. John moves the tiniest bit closer, letting their shoulders brush once or twice, and when Sherlock dares to glance over, there’s a suggestion of a smile on his mouth, like a peace offering. Sherlock smiles back.

“Guess this is it,” John says, when they reach the corner.

“Thanks for coming by today,” Sherlock says. They both shift on their feet. He wants to promise to call his estate agent tomorrow and fire her, but isn’t sure if he should bring it up again.

“Yeah,” John answers. “Yeah, it was. Nice.” He steps in and reaches to adjust the scarf around Sherlock’s neck. “Supposed to snow again tonight. Been cold, this winter.” He looks up; he’s so close that Sherlock can just barely smell the faint remnants of his aftershave. They stand there for a long minute, John with one hand smoothing down the folds of Sherlock’s scarf, eyes unblinking and intense.

Then John’s gaze drops to his mouth, and Sherlock can’t stop himself.

He looks away.

“All right,” John says softly, after a pause. He takes a step back. “All right.”

“I’m not saying no,” Sherlock tries to explain. He feels twisted round, too tenuous and insecure and at fault. He still hasn’t completed the errant thought that takes up so much space in his head—I love—I love —and for all that he wants it, for all that he dreams about it, it feels muddled and complicated and uncertain, and he can’t. “I’m just saying—not yet.”

“It’s okay,” John says, and he smiles like he’s trying very hard to mean it. “Look, Sherlock, I know you’re still figuring it out. I shouldn’t have pressed. You can have all the time and space you need. I don’t—don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says helplessly.

“Don’t be.” He steps up to the kerb, looks down the road for a cab. “We want to get it right, yeah? I can wait until it’s right.” A taxi rolls to a stop beside him. “You want this one?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “No, you take it. You’ve got farther to go.”

John hesitates, but finally opens the door and slides in. At the last second, Sherlock darts forward and catches the door. “I meant it though, John. I won’t leave. I know I’m still—I’m not—I need time. But I’m not leaving, okay?”

John’s face softens, his smile going a little more toward genuine again. He leans forward to put his hand over Sherlock’s where it’s holding the door open. “Okay.”

Sherlock stands on the corner and watches as the cab pulls away. It starts to snow.

*

Sherlock goes home. Thinks about John. About the welling black of his eyes, about the embarrassed huff of his breath and the clench of his hands. Whether he’s okay. Sherlock wonders if John ever thinks about him; he knows that he must, but has a hard time imagining it. He wonders if John ever wishes he were someone else, somewhere else.

If John ever wishes he were here, instead.

But John isn’t here, and the images of his cramped, lonely flat burn disconcertingly at the edges of Sherlock’s mind: John’s coat hanging on a strange hook, John’s shoes lined up by a strange door. The true crime novel with a tissue marking John’s spot, still abandoned on the coffee table. A single unfamiliar cereal bowl sitting in the sink.

He sits in his chair in the dark, fingertips pressed to his lips as he considers them: the signs of a life settled in, the signs of an intention to stay. They are the markers of John’s acceptance that he is, alone in that bleak and dreary space, at home.

It feels unnatural and perverse, like some fundamental law of the universe has failed.

He sits, and he stews on the memories of John’s things filling up space that doesn’t need filling, of John’s attempt to embrace a flat that doesn’t embrace him back. It seems impossible that John might stay in such a space when there’s so much space here that would accept him. When there’s so much space here that needs him, that John can be needed in.

He thinks about the space between them tonight, about the way it had narrowed until it was only their breath and the scent of John’s aftershave between them. He’d smelled familiar. Sherlock closes his eyes.

He wonders what he’s waiting for.

When Sherlock opens his eyes again, it’s well after midnight but he doesn’t—he can’t—care. It can’t wait another minute. He flies out of his chair and back into his coat, his scarf, shoving his fingers into his gloves as he rushes down the stairs, his heart bruising itself against his chest. He needs to go. He needs to see John.

He needs to rewrite the look in John’s eyes: the heartbreak and hesitance, the question of whether he will ever be able to lean in again, of whether Sherlock will ever lean back. He needs to rewrite the tension in John’s hands and the flush in his ears, to take out the holding back and the uncertainty as to whether he’s wanted. He needs to rewrite the distance between them.

He needs to rewrite the end, to write out the separate cabs, to write out the goodbyes. To write in what he’s been waiting for: himself.

Because John has said the words and said them in so many different ways, and Sherlock knows what they mean, and believes that John means them. That John has always meant them. That he will always mean them.

And Sherlock finally understands, with all his conviction and all his trust and all his faith, he understands that he means them that way, too.

He’s been afraid, and suddenly he isn’t anymore.

He has no idea what he’s going to say except that he’ll say everything, and hope it’s enough to bring John home.

*

Sherlock barrels out the door of 221B and onto the pavement, a rush of cold air biting into his lungs. It’s snowed, and the streetlamps stain the night in gold and garnet; Baker Street glows like a sunrise, utterly still, strangely silent. Sherlock looks down the road and bites his lip, considering where he might catch a cab at this hour, but when he turns to look down to the other end, it suddenly doesn’t matter anymore, because there, standing on the corner with surprise and guilt on his face, is John.

John.

The pavement widens like a canyon, a gulf, and Sherlock can hardly breathe. John is here, and he’s walking toward Sherlock, each stride stepping over years of silence and doubt, and without knowing how, Sherlock moves forward to meet him.

“Hi,” John says, looking up at the dark windows of 221B. “Ah. I was going to knock. I think. I’m sorry, I know it’s late, I just . . .” He trails off, shrugs, looks back at Sherlock. His face is calm in the glow of the streetlights.

Sherlock takes a deep breath. He means to say I love you, and I need you, and I miss you, but what comes out is simply, “Come home.”

John smiles like he’s heard everything anyway and his eyes glitter and his voice is suddenly a bit rough. “Yeah,” he breathes. “Yeah, okay. Home.” He doesn’t look at 221B. He looks at Sherlock.

Sherlock kisses him.

The light behind Sherlock’s eyelids make it look like the night is on fire and John kisses him back, firm and solid and sure, bringing two hands up to cup Sherlock’s face and holding him, entirely certain and unbearably gentle. He kisses Sherlock like he means it. He kisses Sherlock like he’s never meant anything else.

“I love you,” Sherlock finally manages, pulling back to watch John’s face as he says it. It’s relief and joy and a bone-deep tiredness finally slipping under the covers, put to rest; it’s disbelief and affirmation and wonder, as though John had always known and just didn’t realise it until he’d heard it said. John huffs and closes his eyes and kisses Sherlock again, a little harder, like the words both wound and heal something deep inside him at the same instant.

“I love you,” Sherlock repeats, half-laugh and half-sob, “I’m so sorry, I love you. I love you,” and John kisses the confession back to him with a sigh and a slow, delicate press and a smile Sherlock can feel against the corner of his mouth.

“I love you, too,” John whispers into his mouth. “I’m home.”

*

It’s another long couple of minutes before they make it back into the house.

Sherlock finally breaks away, taking John by the hands and pressing his lips briefly to John’s knuckles before leading him across the pavement. There’s a brief fumbling with the key and then they slip inside, bubbling and cautious, shushing each other out of a habit that makes Sherlock pause at the bottom of the stairs and look down the hall, wishing she could have interrupted a kiss just once, if that would have made her happy.

Behind him, John seems to understand, and he wraps his arms around Sherlock’s waist and presses a kiss to the back of Sherlock’s shoulder. “I’m sorry it took me so long,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you or for Mrs Hudson. I’m sorry I wasn’t there at the end.”

Sherlock leans his weight back into John a little, letting the warmth of his body seep through his coat. “I’m sorry, too,” he manages, “for never telling you I wanted you to be.”

John squeezes him one last time and comes around in front of Sherlock, his smile saddened but still in place. “We sorted it,” he says, studying Sherlock’s face. “We’re okay, for now, yeah?”

Sherlock nods, and John reaches up and strokes along Sherlock’s jaw, reverent, careful, before kissing him again. It’s soft and brief and barely there, brushes of breath and forgiveness, devotion and acceptance, apology and reassurance.

No one has ever touched Sherlock this way and it burns. “They wouldn’t let me come in the ambulance,” he says. “And then she died, and I never—I couldn’t—”

“She loved you,” John says with a hush. “She knew.”

Sherlock sniffs and closes his eyes, takes a moment to remember. Her perpetual smile; her hand in his. He hopes so. He thinks she did.

“Come upstairs,” he says finally, croaky and hoarse. “Come home.”

John brushes his fingers over Sherlock’s cheeks, kisses him one more time. When he says, “Okay. Let’s go home,” he says it with his eyes closed, like he’s memorising it. Let’s go home.

They move up the stairs, John’s hand on Sherlock’s waist as though he can’t stand not to be touching him. At the landing, they stop, and kiss, and breathe, and as Sherlock turns to keep going up, John leans over the rail and calls back down, “Goodnight, Mrs Hudson.”

Sherlock almost thinks he hears her, like she’s calling to them from too far away. Goodnight.

*

221B, in the dark: John crosses the threshold tentatively, the same way he did the very first time, seven years ago. He takes a deep breath and looks around the room, measuring out the space and wondering if he still fits there. Sherlock can see him pausing on the things that are different, seeking out the comfort from the things that are still the same. His eyes catch on the box marked Mrs H tea set where it sits by the desk and then moves on, respectful and understanding.

Sherlock holds himself back, hanging up his things. He takes John’s jacket as well and hangs it next to his; it fits perfectly on its peg.

They drift around each other for a moment, suddenly both a little less certain than they were downstairs. This is a space they have shared already, a space they are going to share again—it’s more intimate, more personal and important than a mere moment exchanged on the pavement outside, and Sherlock isn’t sure what rules apply, what next steps he has to choose from.

(He remembers desperate kisses against the kitchen table, things he would’ve given without being sure they were even wanted, the instant that the scar in his chest was uncovered and the way John jerked away, and he hesitates.)

“It’s good to be back,” John says, his hand on the back of the chair that’s always been his. He gives a small, decisive nod to the room. “Back home.”

Sherlock wants to reach for him again, wants to feel his heartbeat, wants to smell the scent of his skin as the scent of the flat seeps into it. Instead he shoves his hands into his trouser pockets and tries not to stare. “It’s good to have you.”

Across the room John’s gaze lands on Sherlock and stays. “You do, you know. Have me. If you want. Whatever you want, I mean.”

Sherlock wants everything.

There are a million things he wants to say, just now. A million things they need to say. The details and logistics and if-thens and what-nows , the sorting out of what it means to have and to want and to stay, of trying to smooth out the skips in the tracks where they’re no longer in sync. The confessions that are crowding up against their lungs. The questions, the apologies. The stories about who they were and who they are and who they might yet want to be.

He thinks, perhaps, they should start at the beginning.

Sherlock takes a step forward, a step toward. John doesn’t look away. “I play the violin when I’m thinking.”

A smile begins at the corner of John’s mouth. It’s gorgeous. “Sometimes,” he responds, taking a step toward Sherlock, “I don’t talk for days on end.”

Sherlock’s own smile feels like a tremble on his mouth, uncertain of itself, like it’s not been properly moored down. “You remembered.”

John nods. “I remember everything about you.”

Sherlock takes another step. “It won’t be the way you remember, though,” he warns quietly. “We can’t go back to the way things were. There are no more clients. Nothing for a blog. Nothing for the boredom but experiments and bad telly, and the pain—I’m not allowed narcotics.”

“I have a three-year-old,” John returns. “And a job I have to be at every day, and an ex-wife I know you’ll want to avoid. So I know we’re not going back. I don’t even want to go back.” He takes another step in, his gaze unwavering. “I want to go forward. I want to go anywhere I can be with you.”

Mrs Hudson had said, all those months ago, looking at Sherlock with smudged eyes and trembling hands, you shouldn’t be alone, Sherlock. Sherlock’s chest feels for a moment like it’s caving in on itself, like he’s going to crumble under the weight of the memory, because this is what she had wanted for him, in the hushed tones of a mother’s last wish: a second coat on the pegs. A pair of shoes next to his. A hand in the dark.

John, standing on the other side of the sitting room, face open and raw and giving, looking at Sherlock without ambiguity or regret or fear: you are not alone. You have me.

It’s only a few more steps across the living room and a split second of pushing through the familiar hesitancy to take John’s hand in his, to slide his hand around the back of John’s neck, to press their mouths together. And John responds, gives, leans into him, curls his free hand into the lapel of Sherlock’s jacket, kisses back: you have me.

It’s different than it was downstairs, than it was outside. Slower but deeper, tender but relentless with intention. The taste of John’s mouth and the huff of his breath and the very slight tremble in his frame, the groan in his throat and the touch of his tongue against Sherlock’s lower lip.

You have me, John has said, and Sherlock wants.

“John,” Sherlock chokes out, unsure what he means, unsure what he’s trying to say, but trying desperately to put the words in order. “John.”

John pulls back, out of breath. Rests his forehead against Sherlock’s, nuzzles their noses together. “Sherlock,” he says, eyes closed, mouth soft, and it sounds like I know.

*

Later, much later, after they’ve kissed their way through the sitting room to the kitchen, after cups of hot coffee to warm up their fingers from having been stood out in the cold, and kisses to explore the bitter taste of it from someone else’s mouth, after jostling each other at the bathroom sink and smiling at each other in the mirror through mouths full of toothpaste, Sherlock pauses. One hand rests on the handle of his bedroom door, the other has tangled with John’s fingers. He pauses, and looks back, and John looks up at him with a smile gone gentle around his eyes. Sherlock leans down and kisses him again, this time with a question in his mouth.

John takes the kiss, and when he draws back Sherlock can tell by the look in his eye that he understood. He draws in a shaky, disbelieving breath. “You want?”

“Everything,” Sherlock says, and if the edge of a plea makes its way into his voice, it can’t be helped. Not now, not standing here before his bedroom door hand-in-hand. “I want everything. I’m tired of pretending that I don’t.”

For a moment, John stands, breathing hard and staring up at Sherlock the way he’s done a million times before in the middle of a case, in the middle of a deduction, in the middle of that first night years and years ago with an unidentified bullet in a cabbie’s chest and John’s hands firmly stuck in his pockets, and the understanding of how long and how far and how much lights like kindling in Sherlock’s stomach: John said, you have me, and he meant, you always have.

Even when Sherlock didn’t know it. Even when John didn’t. You always have.

Finally, just when Sherlock thinks he’ll never be able to breathe again, John reaches down past Sherlock’s hip and puts his hand over Sherlock’s on the door handle.

“I want that too,” he says, and the latch clicks open.

*

They leave the lights off.

Urgency sends sparks up Sherlock’s spine, tingling at the base of his skull as they stumble together through the door frame, kissing again, hard and fast, John’s hands rucking up Sherlock’s shirt to dip beneath. Everything seems closer and faster and Sherlock’s stomach clenches, chest tight and throat full with the finally of having John here, and only here, and only with him.

John draws back to look up at him, cheeks flushed, lips pink with kissing, and Sherlock sways toward him, unable to stop himself, grazing a kiss along his cheek on his way back to John’s mouth. “Sherlock.” John’s hands on his neck, on his ribs, on his hips. John surging against him, pressing into him, licking into his mouth and holding the base of his skull like he’s protecting something precious. “Sherlock.”

The buttons of John’s cardigan are cool to Sherlock’s fingertips; the buttons of his shirt are warm. Sherlock can barely catch his breath. “All right?” he asks, and John huffs, an airy laugh that lands warm and soft on his cheek.

“Yeah,” John says. “God, yeah. Here—let me—”

Sherlock lets him, and for a minute there are far too many hands in the way, far too many elbows, too many buttons and fingers and why are there so many shirts, Christ, and John doesn’t stop kissing him, doesn’t stop pressing forward, and Sherlock’s head spins.

Then: the shush of fabric falling. The heat of skin under his palm. Sherlock opens his eyes.

John’s scar is a wretched web, stretching over his left shoulder in the pocks and gnarls of infection. His chest is flushed in obvious arousal, making the lines of the scar vibrant in contrast. Sherlock traces along it, imagines the path of the bullet pushing through, muscle and bone and flesh giving way. It’s horrible. It’s magnificent. It’s strength, and power, and overcoming, a whorl of anger and pain that brought John here.

“I’m going to look,” John says softly, pulling Sherlock out of his reverie. His shirt has been unbuttoned, too, but the two sides of it still hang perfectly side by side, the tiny strip of skin between them practically invisible in the shadows of the night. John’s hands have come to rest over Sherlock’s hips, waiting. He looks up: asking permission. “I want to look.”

Sherlock nods.

Slowly, the curtains of his shirt part, and it’s there, same as it always is, just a little to the right of the midline: a small, round, silvery-white scar. It seems too small to have carried all the weight it’s carried these last few years. It seems like it should’ve been no more than a blip on the radar, and instead it nearly destroyed them.

Sherlock startles a little at the touch of John’s fingertips, his breath catching in his throat. John doesn’t seem to notice; he stares, eyes hard around the corners and mouth drawn down. He brushes a thumb over it, like he could wipe it away.

“They don’t match,” Sherlock says. It feels like it matters but he’s not sure why. “Our scars, they don’t match.”

“No,” John agrees, “they don’t.”

And then he puts his hand over it, a blessing and an atonement in the press of his palm, and pulls Sherlock to him. Kisses him, fiercely and slowly and purposefully, and then looks at him with determination and finds his other scars, the older scars. Scars that are no more than nightmares now, kicking at old memories in the dark; scars that still ache and itch when it rains. John touches each one, draws their lines across Sherlock’s skin like he can heal them just by knowing, at last, that they are there. Presses kisses to the underside of Sherlock’s jaw, to the crest of his shoulder, to the planes of his chest. Sherlock breathes against his temple, his collarbone, and tries not to drown.

“Is this okay?” John asks. His fingers follow the line of one scar down, down to where it dips past Sherlock’s waistband. Sherlock feels like he’s breaking into a sweat just at the thought of John’s hand finishing out the line, following it down to where he knows it curves over his inner thigh and ends.

“Yes,” he manages, “but here.” He steps aside, sits on the edge of the bed to fumble with his shoes and socks. John giggles, high and giddy, and toes off his own shoes, strips off his socks, his belt. Sherlock stands again and undoes the clasp on his trousers, and then, suddenly shy, turns to face the wall to shimmy out of them, leaving him in just his pants with his prick heavy and hard and obvious, terribly exposed.

It’s been nearly three years since the bullet: since Sherlock’s first physical limitation notice. He looks down at the soft paunch of his belly and tries not to cover himself with his arms.

“Sherlock,” John says. Fingertips at the small of his back. A kiss, soft and damp between his shoulder blades. “Can you look at me?”

He takes one more steadying breath, then two, and turns. John’s clothes are in a tidy pile underneath the windowsill. John’s hand strokes down Sherlock’s cheek, watching him, waiting for his tiny, nearly imperceptible nod before leaning in to kiss him again, folding Sherlock into his arms, chest to chest, skin to skin. Heat against heat.

An answering hardness.

Sherlock goes dizzy under the onslaught of sensation: John’s mouth, John’s breath, John’s hands, chest, hips, stomach, thighs. There are sounds, and smells, and tastes, and details, John’s skin up close, like adjusting a microscope lens into focus and suddenly Sherlock can see all of him, all the layers of him. Tiny discolourations and ancient old nicks, twists of muscle and sinew. John’s history like a far away background, the storied foundations of his present: the stretch of his torso, the stance of his legs, the swing of his wrists. Sherlock loves him. Sherlock loves him. Sherlock loves every tiny bit of him.

The bed rises up behind them, and Sherlock pulls John down to meet it. The duvet is cool and almost coarse in comparison to the ready silk of John’s skin, to the calluses and dry patches, to the chapped edge of his bottom lip and the hot, velvety skin of his cock against the inside of Sherlock’s thigh.

John laughs, all warmth and breathless affection. “All right?” he asks, tonguing at some secret spot under Sherlock’s left ear. He seems to know how to find all kinds of places on Sherlock that Sherlock never knew existed: there, and the inside of his wrist, and the crook of his elbow (and the crook of his elbow, and the crook of his elbow), and the space on his side just below where his ribcage ends. John knows them all.

Sherlock’s hips jump and buck of their own accord; John’s weight against him is a glorious, heady insinuation. “Yes,” he says. His voice sounds foreign to his own ears. “Yes, god. Are you?”

John grins against his skin. “Better than all right,” he murmurs, finding Sherlock’s pulse point and laving his tongue over it, finding the soft spaces behind Sherlock’s clavicle, finding a tightened nipple, finding the quivering expanse of Sherlock’s belly around his navel. The sensitive line just above the waistband of his pants. Sherlock’s hands scramble over his shoulders and pet at his sides, at the backs of his thighs, trying and failing to focus as John blows cool against his skin.

“Take them off,” Sherlock says, chest heaving, as John slips his thumb under the waistband to smooth over delicate skin and crinkly hair. He reaches down a hand to help, wriggling his hips and pawing at the fabric. “John. Take them off.”

John leans down and presses a hot, damp kiss to the curve of Sherlock’s cock underneath the cotton, then another, then another. “Hips,” he says, tapping Sherlock’s side, and Sherlock lifts, and he slides the pants down until they get tangled and trapped just above Sherlock’s knees. Sherlock growls in frustration and John giggles, pressing affectionate kisses to Sherlock’s shifting hips before sliding over so he can tug them down, and Sherlock finally manages to kick them off from around his ankle.

“Finally,” he exhales, and he tugs John back into a kiss, tinged with John’s laughter, messy and sweet. John goes, slipping back into place over Sherlock’s body, holding him to the bed so he doesn’t float away.

“You’re lovely,” John says, kissing the tip of his nose, the underside of his jaw. He braces himself over Sherlock, uses one hand to brush back the curls that are sticking to his forehead as he very gently slips a knee between Sherlock’s thighs, parting them. He doesn’t look away from the flush on Sherlock’s cheeks, from the shine of his eyes, and bites off a grunt in the back of his throat as he lowers his hips, slots his cock, sticky and unyielding, alongside Sherlock’s. Sherlock can feel his thighs trembling with the effort to stay still. “Is this all right?”

It’s more than all right, Sherlock tries to say, it’s perfect, but he can only manage a weak, shaky breath and a nod and a hand clutching at John’s hip, keeping him in place. The shower of sparks that have been going up and down his spine seem to solidify, briefly, before melting into liquid gold at the base of his spine, hot and insistent and now, now, now.

Everything seems to happen all at once, then, and yet very slowly: the flex and flush of muscle, the roll of sweat over the curve of John’s shoulders. The smear of kisses; the pant of words, hushed and humid, spilling into the slowly disappearing spaces between them. The rhythm and the rush of adrenalin, swelling and soaring. The smell of musk and the taste of salt. The nip of teeth, the touch of tongues. The sound of a moan, a whimper, a plea. The wet smear of pre-come and the rough grip of John’s hand on both their cocks, keeping them aligned, thrusting into and against, thrusting along and thrusting back and rolling, rocking, straining and building, and building, and building

Then there’s a single, crystalline moment of clarity, and from one second to the next, Sherlock can feel John’s heartbeat, beating against him, in John’s thighs, in John’s neck, in his armpits, in the pulse-pulse-pulse of his prick. It feels like a kiss against his skin, a steady drum of promise and blood and life, and then suddenly Sherlock is there.

His orgasm is like a wildfire, sweeping through; his body almost wrenching out of John’s hold as he twists and stiffens and cries out into John’s mouth. John groans, and grunts, and strokes Sherlock through it, holding him down with one strong hand at his hip until he falls back into the bed, John wrapping an arm around his shoulders to keep him close, “Oh, my god, Sherlock,” and then it’s John’s hips pressing, John’s hands tightening, John’s whimper as his hand moves faster over himself, John’s exhale like he’s been punched in the solar plexus as he comes, hot and sticky over Sherlock’s belly.

For a while Sherlock floats, an ember on the wind, more wide-eyed dreaming than waking as his breathing slows, as the tremble in his limbs eases into the heaviness of satisfaction. John draws circles over Sherlock’s chest, lays kisses down the lines of his collarbones, whispers words Sherlock’s can’t quite understand into the hollows and curves of his body. It makes him feel warm, and quiet, and sheltered, protected in the aftermath of a natural rewrite of what it means to be himself.

Of what it meant, all that time, to be alone. Of what it means now to be together.

He blinks into the dark, mind foggy and blank, until finally John sighs a sleepy, contented little sigh, and pulls him over, dirty stomach and all, gently directing his head to settle on John’s good shoulder. John hums. The night closes in around them, and Sherlock lets himself drift through the details, collecting minutia like bits of sea glass, drops of colour tumbled smooth by the churn and tumult of life: the steady thump of John’s heart in Sherlock’s ears. The slow back and forth of his fingers over Sherlock’s shoulders.

The quiet shaking of something fragile and new, unfurling between them.

*

The dark feels different with John in it: thick, like safekeeping. Warm, like the light is hovering just behind the horizon, hidden but not gone.

After, after their stomachs have been wiped clean and glasses of water shared, Sherlock curls onto his side, rubbing his cheek into the pillowcase where he can watch John’s expression from the sanctuary of feather down. Two fingers glide, soft and curious, over the bare skin of Sherlock’s wrist; John’s touch is not heavy enough to feel Sherlock’s pulse, but he thinks John probably knows the beat of him anyway.

“Do you really think this will work?” he whispers.

John’s fingers slow, and then stop. “Do I think what will work?”

Sherlock twists, rolls over to look up at the ceiling. He’s laid here a thousand times before, watching this ceiling, watching the light track over it. It seems so very far away tonight. “We’ve never—in all this time. We never before. It’s never worked.”

It’s really the silences that decide the nature of the dark, Sherlock decides. He can no longer hear John breathing—it stretches the dark out thin again, into something shivery and crisp.

Then John looms, shifting up onto one arm to balance over Sherlock, to stare down at him, and he is anger and fear and crumpled brow all writ over with tenderness, with crushing devotion. He inhales, hard, and takes the breath from Sherlock’s chest with the ache of it.

“No,” he says. His voice is a thunderbolt. “No, I. Sherlock. I would not have come here tonight if I thought I might ever leave again.”

There is something hot growing behind the line of Sherlock’s eyelids, making the ceiling waver. He closes his eyes against it. “I think we haven’t expected a lot of things that have happened in our lives, John.”

“Let me be clear, then.” The thunder rolls, then cracks with the strength of certainty, of determination. His fingers are perfectly steady on the lines of Sherlock’s cheekbones. “I’m not here because this is happening to us. I’m here because I’m fighting for this.”

“But why should we expect that we can win now?” His heart is trying to escape his throat; his cheeks are too hot. “Why this time, when every time before we’ve lost?”

John presses his lips to Sherlock’s forehead. His voice gentles into rain. “Because before I thought I would have been doing it alone, and I’m not. You’re not. It’s not me or you, each on our own.” His thumbs sweep over Sherlock’s cheekbones, warm and reverent. “I’m not fighting against you for this, Sherlock. We’re fighting together.”

And all at once, Sherlock understands the overwhelming sensation of knowing a truth as soon as it is heard. Of faith, not struggled for but illuminated before him for the taking, of a conviction borne not because he has eliminated the impossible but because anything else is impossible. Sherlock understands, finally, that as long as he has been reaching, John has been reaching back. That he does not have to span the entire, endless distance on his own. He never has.

The reach is over. John has met him halfway.

They have found each other, not turning back into what they were but moving forward into everything they can be. Half one and half the other, woven together into something new and yet still themselves: two wholes, converging in the centre of a Venn diagram.

In the in-between.

He finds John’s mouth behind the safety of his clenched eyelids. He tastes like saltwater. He tastes like tomorrow.

“I love you,” John whispers against him. “I’m not going to let that go now.”

Sherlock swallows hard against the habit of disbelief, swallows and swallows and swallows. “Yes,” he says, and lets John gentle him through.

*

Sherlock wakes the next morning to the soft clink of a teaspoon against the inside of a mug and the squeak of bare feet against the kitchen lino, and suddenly his ribcage feels too small for his lungs, his heart beating too close to his breastbone. It’s been five years since Sherlock’s heard those sounds: the sounds of John at home.

He closes his eyes and listens until the sounds move down the hall and John slips in through the bedroom door.

“Morning,” John says softly, barely more than a smile and a breath, setting a mug that smells like PG Tips on the bedside table. He hesitates, shifting back and forth on his feet, before quickly leaning in to kiss Sherlock’s temple. “You all right?”

Sherlock slips his hand over John’s elbow to keep him close, so he can’t melt away and hide. Tips his nose up into John’s hairline and finds the corner of John’s mouth with his own. It would feel like a dream but for the taste of sleep on his tongue and the heat of the bed, still too warm where two bodies have been pressed too close together.

“Yeah,” Sherlock manages, around an unexpected tightness in his throat. “All right.”

*

Mornings are different, after that: soft and messy and serene in turn, with warm hands and kisses edged with laughter, with two mugs set out for tea and a familiar picture frame set out on the mantelpiece. Hazy with old remembrances. Bright with the pinprick of new revelations breaking through.

A little less predictable. A little more hopeful.

Sherlock looks forward to them.