He feels it sometimes when he least expects it, nebulous, hard to pinpoint. It always has been hard for him to pin down, impossible to give name to when it first started. It’s always come at the strangest of times, but he’s grown used to its presence on the years, as he’s got older, perhaps a bit wiser.
By now, he knows its name, knows the shape and the feel of it, knows the face it wears; he almost welcomes it, embraces it like a lover. It is bittersweet, but he savors it. He reminds himself that he’s in a good place, that he’s relatively content with his life. He has more than he’d ever thought he would get, and that should be enough. Most of the time, it is enough.
But oh, how he longs. How he wants, with a sharpness sometimes that takes his breath away.
Sherlock Holmes longs.
He no longer denies that he feels it keenly, a welcome, familiar stab low in his gut, a twisting sensation that wears a familiar face. It feels like reaching towards something, someone, stretching, grasping for it but never quite managing to get his fingers around it. He’s at least partly convinced that even if he did, it would flow through his fingers like water. It feels like turning his face towards the sun in the dead of winter, only to feel the biting sting of the wind instead of the sun’s warmth.
It took him a long time to name it, this longing, this desire, to recognize it for what it is and admit to himself its significance. He knows what it means, now. He knows he’ll never have it, have him. He’s never spoken of it, not to anyone. He barely even lets himself think about it, most days.
Not that there aren’t some who recognize it anyway. Mrs Hudson is one; his brother another. He’s OK with Mrs Hudson knowing; she’s never spoken of it, but sometimes she’ll bring him extra biscuits and just sit with him, on those nights when he’s in the flat alone, abandoned. Mycroft has, wisely, not said anything either. He doesn’t even bring it up silently, and Sherlock is strangely grateful, though he knows what Mycroft would say, caring isn’t an advantage, brother, how many times must I tell you?
Irene Adler had seen it immediately, the last time they met, when he was hunting down the last of Moriarty’s web. She had clucked at him and patted his cheek, patronizing. She’d asked if he was worth it.
Sherlock hadn’t even bothered to dignify such a stupid question with an answer.
It’s been years now, since his Return, to life, to John, to Baker St. Sherlock has always thought of the even with the capital letter, even though it’s silly and irrational. John calls it After, when he talks about it at all, when it comes up.
It rarely does anymore. Sherlock is thankful for for that, at least. That he and John have both moved on, moved through. He’s thankful that John forgave him. He’s more thankful for that than he has been for anything else in his entire life.
He’s not sorry for what he did. He’ll never be sorry for that, for doing what needed doing to save John’s life, to save Mrs Hudson and Lestrade, the people he cares about. He refuses to apologize for that. But he understands, at least a little, how it made John feel, and he’s sorry that what he had to do caused that hurt.
John is back at Baker St now. Which is as it should be. It feels like home again, now that John is there again. His jacket hangs on its hook behind the door. His old RAMC mug, a little worse for wear, a little chipped, has its place in the cupboard in the kitchen.
Sherlock spent a long time feeling inexplicably relieved, when John returned to the flat. Relieved, and grateful. He thinks John may be aware of it, but neither of them has ever brought it up. He sleeps better with John in his bed upstairs. He feels safer with John around.
He knows that John noticed the way he sometimes reacts to things, jumping at small noises, more easily startled than he used to be. Sherlock knows he eats more now, has done ever since he returned. He sleeps more too. But he’s still a bit on the thin side, and sometimes the nightmares he still has after all these years leave him with dark circles under his eyes.
John doesn’t bring it up. He doesn’t ask questions or try to make Sherlock feel better. But he sits a little closer on those days. He’s a little quieter. He visits Mrs Hudson and comes back upstairs with cake, or biscuits, or something else sweet for Sherlock to eat. His sweet tooth is still the best way to get him to eat.
It’s a weakness; one that Sherlock has accepted that he has, an easily exploited one. He scowls at John even as he digs in to whatever it is that he’s holding under Sherlock’s nose.
By the time he had Returned, John was married. Sherlock had been… disappointed. Quietly devastated, perhaps. But he couldn’t begrudge John love. Never. He may have hoped that John would-- well, no matter. No use dwelling on might-have-beens.
He had wanted to hate her, rather desperately. Desperately enough that he recognized it in himself. He never quite managed it anyway.
Once John had forgiven him, or at least had got to a point where he could look at Sherlock without wanting to hit him anymore, Sherlock saw more of him than he’d expected, and he found himself grateful for that, grateful to her. He was happy for any amount of time he could get with his best friend. It was almost enough.
They’re divorced now. From what Sherlock has been able to deduce, and from what John told him, it was no one’s fault. The split was amicable, though Sherlock has never figured out why. But then, he’s also never been able to figure out why anyone would give up John Watson, for any reason, ever.
John never does tell him what led to the divorce. He seems sad about it, for a long time, but never bitter.
Sherlock finds himself sad about it as well. Mary had been a fiercely independent, intelligent woman. Far more intelligent than John, in fact. And fierce, never afraid to stand up for the things she believed it. And she believed passionately in things, and in people. Sherlock had found himself liking her, for no rational reason whatsoever.
She and John still talk. Sometimes they have lunch together, like they’re old friends and not a divorced couple. Sherlock doesn’t understand it, but he keeps that to himself. He tells himself it’s none of his business, John’s love life isn’t any of his business. That’s what one does, for the person one longs for, isn’t it? Keep the opinions one holds that may anger them to oneself, right?
In the end, though, Sherlock is a selfish person. He always has been. And he is ecstatic to have John (mostly) to himself.
Sherlock asked John to move back into the flat at Baker Street shortly after the split. He’d had myriad rational reasons. He’d ordered them from least rational to most, and from least likely to convince John to most, and John hadn’t needed to hear a single one of them. He’d simply looked at Sherlock for a moment after Sherlock said “You should move back in here, John” and said, “Yes, of course.”
Things are different now, of course. How could they be otherwise? As much as Sherlock wanted nothing more than to come home and have things be exactly as they were, he knew all along that wasn’t a possibility. It was a lovely dream to have in the darker moments, though. But their relationship has changed, as he knew it had to. In some ways, it’s less comfortable than it used to be. Sherlock isn’t sure if that’s his fault for faking his death, or his fault for longing for John, or if he’s simply imagining things.
Things are a bit quieter around the flat than they used to be. They’re both older now, perhaps wiser, a bit more mellow. Sherlock doesn’t feel the boredom as keenly as he used to; he’s not sure why, and he doesn’t at all care to analyze what it was about his time away that changed that for him. John is a bit clingy, at times, and Sherlock revels in it, when it happens, though it sometimes comes with haunted looks that Sherlock feels like a stab in the chest (or almost like a stab in the chest, now that he knows from experience what that actually feels like). John is also more distant than he once was, to a certain value of distant. He’s less likely to drop everything to follow Sherlock, he’s more likely to put his foot down and insist on having time of his own that doesn’t involve Sherlock.
Sherlock does his best not to begrudge John that. It doesn’t actually add up to much time, and he tries not to let John know how much it panics him when John is gone for more than a few hours.
Sherlock takes fewer cases than he once had. The work doesn’t consume him the way it once did, just as the boredom doesn’t suck him dry like it once had. His mind is quieter, though no less keen. He can afford to be more selective now, though, and he is. He tries to endanger himself in the course of cases less than he once had, too. Especially when John is with him. He doesn’t like the way John looks at him when he puts himself in danger.
He doesn’t like to think about what it would do to John if he were to actually die, for real this time. So he’s more careful.
John dates, some. Not the way he used to, but some. He seems to have a different attitude towards dating than he did before his marriage. He seems more discerning, most of the women he dates now are a bit older, closer to his own age. He seems more interested in something Sherlock can’t quite name, though his relationships still don’t last very long, so he must not be finding it.
It makes Sherlock ache when he goes on dates. Those are often the times when Mrs. Hudson will show up with biscuits or pie, or some other pudding that she knows Sherlock loves, and sits with him with the telly on, letting him berate the talk show hosts or deride the drama programs. She seems to take particular joy out of the way he yells at the mystery shows, especially Law & Order UK.
Sherlock feels a thousand little aches when John goes on dates, and he knows that Mrs Hudson knows it. He doesn’t care, because she doesn’t make a fuss about it, she just sits with him, and for a while it helps distract him, if it’s an early date and John will be home at a reasonable hour.
But sometimes, when he knows that John won’t be coming home til morning, he goes upstairs to John’s room and curls up in his bed, where he can surround himself with John, with John’s things, with his scent, and he names all of those aches. He takes each one and holds it up while he sits in his Mind Palace and names it, each detail of his longing for John, and he usually dozes off while he’s going through them, and dreams of sharing the bed with its owner.
Which is probably why Sherlock dismisses it as a dream, despite the pang it causes, when John crawls into bed with him, saying “I should’ve known you sleep in my bed when I’m not here, too. It’s certainly never stopped you when I am here, after all.”
Which is only true, Sherlock has a tendency to crawl into John’s bed when he’s had a bad night, or he can’t think, or sometimes just because. It’s only started since his Return, it’s only been since then that he’s willing to acknowledge that need, even if it’s only in the middle of the night, in the dark. John has never objected, not once.
He’s certain he must still be asleep when he wakes up with John a warm line along his back, lips pressed to the nape of his neck. There’s no way this can be real, not this. He wants to sink into it and never leave, though, never leave this bed or let John leave his side.
It can’t be real; he’s wanted it for too long.
It feels real enough, though.
He must do something, make some move, sigh a bit too loudly, startle when he realizes, as he wakes up more, that he’s not actually dreaming, that John really is there, in bed with him, arms around him, lips against the nape of his neck, moving minutely against his skin, making him shiver. He must move or startle or sigh, because John’s arms tighten around him, and his lips move away from Sherlock’s nape, replaced with his forehead, leaning into Sherlock, holding him tight.
That seems pretty unequivocal.
Or at least highly improbable.
Sherlock forces himself to relax, allows himself to relax into John’s embrace, because this may be the only time he has this, and he wants to remember it forever. He doesn’t speak, sure it would ruin the illusion, the tension that swirls through him, low in his gut, the unbearable, sweet longing. He breathes through it, savors it, and etches each moment into his memory, never to be deleted.
John breaks the silence. His voice is low, a murmur, and rough with recent sleep. “How long?”
Sherlock freezes, and in response John just holds him tighter, snuggles closer, nuzzles the back of his neck. It has the effect Sherlock is sure John must be going for, because he relaxes again John almost immediately, despite the question, despite how it makes him feel flayed open, just two simple words, and everything changes.
“I’m sorry?” he replies, feigning ignorance. It sounds forced, unbelievable even to him.
He’s never been able to lie to John.
“Sherlock,” John chides. He pulls Sherlock gently back against him, hand over his heart. Sherlock shuts his eyes and tries to breathe through it, the thumping of his heart, the ache of John’s hand on his chest.
“Tell me,” John goes on. “Please.” His voice is so soft, so gentle, so coaxing, Sherlock wants to lay himself bare, despite the terror the idea of that inspires in him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he whispers. He tries to curl away from John, but John doesn’t let him go.
“You talk in your sleep, Sherlock,” he says, still in that soft, gentle, understanding voice.
That voice hurts. It promises things Sherlock knows will never happen, can never have.
“I do not,” and his voice sounds petulant and indignant even to his own ears, rising in pitch in a way that gives him flashbacks of his childhood fights with Mycroft, although those had involved a lot more foot stomping and hair pulling. He’s fighting John’s embrace again, though everything in him urges him simply to stop, he’s making things worse, he’s making himself obvious and he can’t stop himself.
John doesn’t let go. “You do,” he says, and Sherlock stills, goes limp in his arms. “You have done for years, Sherlock. I got used to it a long time ago, it doesn’t even wake me up most of the time anymore. It’s usually gibberish anyway. Or French, sometimes, although I think you’re usually talking to your grandmother when it’s French. But you were speaking English last night….” John’s voice trails away, and he lifts his head to press his lips against Sherlock’s nape again. “Tell me,” he murmurs against Sherlock’s skin. “Please tell me. How long?”
Sherlock sighs. There’s no hiding from this; it’s the end. “How long since I realized it, or since I actually started to feel that way?”
“There’s a difference?” John sounds genuinely curious. He’s always given Sherlock far more credit than he should.
“John. You know me. Emotional introspection is not my forte; you should be aware of that.”
John chuckles a little; it sends a shiver down Sherlock’s spine. “Both, then.”
Fine. Both. Might as well. “The roof at Barts, and probably when you shot the cabbie for me. Possibly later that week, I’m not entirely sure.” Sherlock takes a deep breath. “You needn’t reciprocate, John.”
He feels John startle against him, and then his arms tighten again, as if in reassurance, though Sherlock can’t tell if John is trying to reassure himself or Sherlock. “You don’t want to know?”
No. I don’t. He’s not sure if he doesn’t want to know because he doesn’t want to risk himself, or if he doesn’t want to risk moving forward, on the slim chance that John feels the same way.
“I do know, John,” he says, voice soft now, to hide the ache that surely must be manifest in it. “I mean that you need not feel obligated to make declarations of sentiment that you don’t feel. I’m happy with the way things are, I am.”
John sighs, an infinitely sad sigh. “The roof at Barts, Sherlock, and probably the pool.”
For a long time, Sherlock isn’t able to speak at all. His mind is blank, a rare feat indeed. John is solid against him, holding him close, murmuring into his neck occasionally, nonsense for the most part.
One thing amongst his litany is clear. “We’ve wasted so much time, Sherlock,” he murmurs, over and over again, sadly. Sherlock can feel the sadness in his voice, for all the time they’ve lost, and it finally starts to sink in, that John isn’t humoring him, that John means what he’s said.
“Oh,” Sherlock finally manages. He turns over in John’s arms, looks at John for a moment, stares at him, and he sees all the things he’s missed. He observes. “Oh.”
John smiles at him.