The chair was the first thing to go. There were very few of John's personal possessions left in the flat after two years, and while the chair couldn't strictly be considered one of them, it turned out to be the most persistent reminder. So, he banished it to the room at the top of the stairs that soon contained a growing collection of the items John left behind.
He kept the Union Jack pillow and the woolen throw for a few more days because they were handy for his long stretches of deep thought on the sofa. But John's scent clung stubbornly to both, and after a particularly disturbing dream that he attributed to having his nose buried in one and his head covered with the other, he marched them both up the stairs and deposited them on the chair where they belonged.
John's bottle of shampoo had been in the shower for all that time, gathering dust. Sherlock had chosen not to get rid of it because if there was anything he hated more than running out of shampoo, it was shopping. But the first time he tried to use it, the scent brought such a rush of images and sensations that he stepped out from under the running water and dripped all the way to the bin in the kitchen to dispose of it with lather running in his eyes and forming icy rivulets down his back.
John's blindingly dull oatmeal jumper appeared in the freshly laundered clothing that Mrs. Hudson left folded neatly on his bed a few days later. She certainly knew it didn't belong to Sherlock, and that it was not going to fit him as a hand-me-down. Sherlock attributed its presence to his landlady's advancing senility. He placed it on the banished chair and closed John's bedroom door firmly behind him.
Mrs. Hudson came into the flat one afternoon two weeks after the wedding and found him standing in the kitchen staring at a piece of notepaper he'd found in the junk drawer when he was looking for a pencil. Something about what he was doing, or perhaps the look on his face inspired by what he was thinking, made her stop and say, "Oh," in that too-gentle tone that was so obviously filled with sympathy that it spurred him to crumple the paper and toss it in the bin under the sink. It was a shopping list from Before, and hardly worthy of a second glance, let alone the sentimental twaddle she was sure to start babbling if he let her get a word in. So, he insulted her until her eyes narrowed and she went back down the stairs without telling him why she'd interrupted him.
It occurred to him finally that running across these items unexpectedly was a needless distraction, and the simplest solution was to do a thorough search of the flat and eliminate all of the remaining triggers.
He started with the kitchen, opening every drawer and cabinet and pulling out the contents of each. Mugs John used. His ridiculous plastic spoon, the one with the flat bottom and hollow handle that had come with an order of Won Ton soup and which he dug out of the drawer every time thereafter when the meal included soup or stew or anything that was too hot to eat with a metal spoon without burning his tongue. There were chop sticks, too. Absurdly impractical eating utensils that John wielded with a skill he never explained. The two-year-old tea bags joined the spoon and the mugs in a box destined for the bin in the alley along with the currant jam John liked to spread on toast. The toaster followed because any potential usefulness it might have for testing the flammability of various objects would be negated by the mental meanderings it would inspire, and he certainly had no need for its intended function. That was John's area and far too close to actual cooking to be of any interest to Sherlock.
The refrigerator contributed a single bottle of John's favorite beer leftover from an afternoon of wedding planning that had stretched into an evening of reminiscing instigated by Mary Morstan Watson and lubricated by a six pack of beer that she had brought along, probably for the express purpose that it eventually served.
Remembering the reminiscing dredged up the memories themselves and sent him down the stairs into the rain to place the box in the rubbish bin. He encountered Mrs. Hudson who was on her way back from a similar mission. She took one look at the toaster and rescued it. "Mine's not working anymore. I'll take that, if you don't mind." Then she inspected the rest of the contents and looked up at him with humiliating sympathy in her eyes. She took the box away from him and carried it back into the building without a word. He stood in the rain and waited until she would be safely in her flat before he went back inside.
He lost his enthusiasm for the search after that, and sat in front of the fire for the rest of the night feeling restless and irritated with himself.
When he came back from a crime scene the next afternoon, the toaster was back on the counter, and the mugs were in the cabinet. He didn't need to look in the refrigerator.
He wasn't surprised to hear her coming up the stairs a while later. She had a tray with tea and biscuits which she placed on the table next to his chair, then pulled the desk chair over in front of him and sat down.
"I was wrong, Sherlock. You mustn't pay me any mind."
He lifted an eyebrow. "I rarely do."
She made a tutting sound. "You can't chase me off, so just sit there and listen. I told you that marriage changes people, and I was wrong to say that. I was wrong about why my best friend never came round after my wedding. It had nothing to do with me changing, and everything to do with the man I married. She didn't like him, and she didn't trust him. She was right, too, but it was years later before I figured it out. And I was wrong to say that you wouldn't understand because you always live alone. You don't like being alone anymore, and it was thoughtless of me to say that."
He didn't say anything because there was nothing to say, and it had nothing to do with the ache in his throat.
She reached over and rested her hand on his knee. "Sherlock, John misses you, too. You know he would be here in a moment, if you would let him." She hesitated, biting her lip. "He wouldn't want me to say anything, but he called me to ask if you're doing okay. He's worried about you."
The thought of the two of them pitying him was too much. He uncrossed his legs and stood up so abruptly that he startled her. "I would appreciate not being discussed. Don't do it again. Now, if you don't mind, I have work to do." He flounced to the desk and opened his laptop.
Mrs. Hudson didn't move. She just sat there at the edge of his peripheral vision and watched him for a long moment. "You have friends who care about you, Sherlock. They miss you, too. And you can't pretend anymore that you don't know that. You're not the same man who moved in here. John changed you as much as you changed him, and you can't undo that. You need each other, and that's not something to be ashamed of." She got up finally and walked to the door. "Please don't shut us out."
He didn't answer, and he didn't move until he heard her door open and close downstairs. The laptop screen blurred, and he blinked it back into focus. Reduced to tears by a few kind words, but it was a wake-up call even more potent than the humiliating sentiment he had attached to a boxful of miscellaneous junk.
She was wrong. He was exactly the same man who had moved in, but he had let himself be lulled into thinking otherwise. Mycroft was right. He had allowed himself to get involved. It was the greatest blunder of his life, and there was only one way to undo it. Accept the truth, and move on. John's voice would fade. He just needed to apply the appropriate countermeasure.
He closed the laptop, strode to his bedroom and tossed the dressing gown on the bed. A moment later, he was dressed and pulling on his coat as he headed down the stairs. A different memory was stirring now, and his whole body began to tingle with a hunger that had slept for far too long.
A/N - There will be another part to this. Maybe two. But it's not going to stretch into more than three, and it won't take long. Promise. I didn't give Jolie a chance to respond, and I blame that on temporary insanity born of my all-night writing session because this just popped into my head and wouldn't leave. Sevenpercent gets the kudos for this one. Now she needs to go write more Magpie. - Ghyll