My first published crossover! And boy was I not expecting it to be these two fandoms haha Anyway this is my first time writing for Sherlock, and it's been a while since I've written for Merlin, so apologies for any OOCness.
Oh! There is a part 2 to this in the works, but I thought I'd publish this piece now, and then you guys can tell me if you think I should publish the second part, too (which is more of a case and focuses on answering the unanswered questions in this bit)
I don't own BBC's Sherlock or Merlin
John is halfway through his speech when the man turns up. His first thought is, 'My god, with cheekbones like that there's absolutely no way he isn't related to Sherlock', closely followed by the second, 'Is that a bloody falcon on his shoulder?', and the combined effect is enough to make him stumble over his words, albeit this time from shock rather than an overdose of emotion.
("Sentiment," Sherlock's voice whispers in his mind and John hastily smothers him with a pillow.)
The birdman is obviously an unexpected guest, if Mycroft's reaction is anything to go by. Nothing short of absolute surprise, and more than a little guilt, flickers across his face so quickly that John's not even 100% sure he saw it at all. He watches as Mycroft's lips move and the birdman's head turns, but that's about as far as their interaction gets because in the next instant the birdman brushes him off and finds a seat in a way that John has only ever seen Sherlock accomplish.
(No, not thinking about that.)
Somehow John manages to plough through to the end of his speech, even as the lump in his throat grows and threatens to asphyxiate him. (And he can't help but wonder if Sherlock would have been delighted that someone had thought to mysteriously drop dead at his funeral, or annoyed that they'd stolen his thunder.) A sombre applause that John only half hears and wholly doesn't think he deserves follows him back to his seat.
The rest of the service carries on in the same way almost every other John has ever attended had. A few more people (Greg, namely), say a few words, there's a heavy sort of atmosphere, and most people in attendance are at least teary-eyed (with the exception of Mycroft, who might start to melt if a single drop of water – tears or otherwise – came into contact with his skin). It's all so lovely, emotional, and picture-perfect, and John knows that Sherlock would have utterly despised it.
Eventually the service comes to a close and the attendees start to leave. But John can't bring himself to get up. There doesn't seem to be much point in it. Where would he go? Back to 221B Baker St to sit in the echoing silence? Maybe, he thinks, if I sit here long enough I'll become one with the grass. That would be good. Grass doesn't care who lives or dies, it doesn't wonder how it was going to pay for groceries or rent when it can't even get off its chair let alone convince itself to go to work. Grass doesn't care if it feels like its life has a purpose or not. Some might say grass has the ideal existence.
John feels a hand on his shoulder and he tears his eyes away from Sherlock's headstone to look up at Mrs Hudson, who had gotten to her feet at some point during his contemplation of grass.
"Are you coming, dear?" she asks. Her eyes are red and puffy from crying, and there's a distinct hitch to her voice that foretells that she might yet start again.
"You go ahead, Mrs Hudson," he tells her, pretending he can't hear the monotone his own voice has reverted to. "I'll catch up. I just need a minute."
Mrs Hudson purses her lips like she wants to say something else but ultimately thinks better of it. She nods her head, offers him a sad smile, and pats his shoulder before following Greg and Molly down the path back to the street. John acknowledges all of this with a detached sort of awareness though he can't help but notice that Sherlock's parents never turned up. He resumes staring at Sherlock's grave. It's a polished black chunk of stone – John can't tell what sort – that stands out against the endless rows of stained grey. Sherlock would have liked it.
He doesn't realise someone has filled Mrs Hudson's vacant chair until an unfamiliar voice murmurs, "It was a nice speech. I'm sorry I missed the start of it."
John might have flinched if he'd had the energy to do so. Instead, he merely turns his head. The birdman is sitting next to him. His eyes, like John's had been, are focused on the headstone, and he's leaning forward in his seat like he intends to jump up again at a moment's notice. His hair is a shade or two darker than Sherlock's had been, but the resemblance between the two is more obvious up close.
The white falcon is still perched on his shoulder, its body pressed against the side of his head, but it has one bright blue eye fixated on John. John somehow gets the impression that his very soul is being scrutinised.
"I'm Merlin," the birdman finally turns to look at him, offering a hand in greeting. John finds he's not the least bit surprised by the unusual name. It seems to be a Holmes family trait, after all.
"John Watson," John returns.
The falcon makes a funny half-screech half-crooning sort of noise, and the birdman – Merlin – gives a twitch of a smile. "This is Aithusa."
John, who doesn't exactly know what is considered polite protocol when meeting a bird, simply says, "Hello, Aithusa."
'Aithusa' ruffles its feathers in a dignified sort of way.
Merlin doesn't even spare the thing a glance. "She likes you," he says.
John's not quite sure how to respond to that so he smiles briefly and turns back to stare Sherlock's name deeper into the polished headstone.
"I want you to know," Merlin continues, still in that same hushed, subdued tone, "that I know exactly what you're going through."
Something in John snaps at that and he whirls around, suddenly angry. "You don't know a damn thing about me!" He spots movement in the corner of his eye. Mycroft is watching them from the last row of seats with narrowed eyes and a sour look on his face like he'd just taken a bite out of a lemon (which, in Mycroft's expressional range, equated to a slight frown and pursed lips).
Merlin doesn't seem perturbed in the slightest by John's outburst. In fact, he just looks sad, and his eyes very, very old. "You feel like Sherlock wasn't the only one who fell that day," he begins. "You feel like you did, too. But unlike him, you never hit the ground. You're still falling, and you don't think you'll ever stop. The world has lost its vibrancy and it feels wrong that it continues on even though to you it stopped a week ago. There's nothing but an empty hollow where your heart used to be, and the loss of it, of him, is also the loss of you."
John stares at him, caught between irritation that this stranger has the gall to presume to know anything of what he's feeling, and shock that it's all been so precisely captured in words. Merlin stares right back with a fierce intensity.
"He dropped you when he jumped, John Watson, and in doing so he broke you."
John remembers a time when such an astute observation had impressed him. Now he just feels annoyed. "Deduce all that, did you?" he bites out, turning away again, but not before he sees the brief, humourless smile slip onto Merlin's face.
"No," Merlin says. "I never was any good at the whole deductions shtick. That was always Mycroft and Sherlock's thing, though not for wont of trying on their part."
Not for the first time, John wonders what the connection is between this strange man and the Holmes brothers. The resemblance between him and Sherlock is enough to make him suspect that they must have been close relatives, but this is the first time John has even so much as heard of him. So cousins, perhaps? There's no way to really know without asking.
"How did you know, then?" John asks, voice softer. He doesn't have the energy to stay angry, and he doesn't think Merlin meant to upset him.
"Because looking at you is like looking in a mirror."
John is a little surprised by the unidentifiable emotion in Merlin's tone – sympathy, maybe – and he gives him his full attention. Now that he's looking for it, he can easily see a deep sadness in the younger man's eyes. It makes him look much older than his twenty-something years.
"Did you have a point to this?" he finds himself asking
"What I was getting at was that I want you to know that you're not alone, and to give you some advice." He pauses, likely for dramatic effect. "Don't wait for time to heal because it doesn't. You can only do that for yourself. And wallowing in your regrets is not the way to do it."
"What is the way to do it?"
Merlin smiles again, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "Not a clue," he says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a piece of scrap paper and a pen. He quickly scrawls down a phone number, which he then passes to John. "But if you figure it out, let me know, yeah?" He gets up without another word and heads for the graveyard's exit, sparing Mycroft only the barest acknowledgment despite the latter's obvious attempts to speak with him.
John gets up too, and immediately Mycroft homes in on him.
"What did he say to you?" he demands.
John musters a light glare. "I don't think that's any of your business," he responds, and follows down the path after Merlin.
Mycroft watches them go with an unreadable expression on his face.
It's been several months since the funeral, and several weeks since John's seen sunlight. He's down to his last teabag, and has long since run out of anything that could be considered a meal. Part of him knows he's going to have to go grocery shopping (there was no way he'd last more than a few days without tea), but that would involve going outside and he's no longer sure if the sunlight won't actually kill him.
His life, if you could call it that, in the past months has been much like his cupboards; that is to say empty. He lasted about three weeks at Baker St before the silence and his pathetic and miserable existence started to drive him insane. After that he found a tiny studio apartment so he could be pathetic and miserable without the constant reminder of Sherlock hanging over him.
He hasn't been to the clinic since before then. Probably he doesn't even have a job there anymore. It's bad news for his bank account, but somehow John doesn't think he could have successfully treated patients for the common cold and infections without giving away some hint as to the fact that he's dead inside. He can't go back to the clinic, but nor can he continue on the way he's been going. He's already starting to run low on savings to pay for the rent.
Not for the first time, John's eyes drift over to his desk drawer. There's a third option, he knows. He hadn't been brave enough or desperate enough to go through with it the last however many times, but maybe this time will be different.
Before he's even realised what he's doing, he's crossed over to it, pulled it open, and taken up his old Browning. He collapses heavily into the uncomfortable plastic desk chair and stares at it. All he'll have to do is pull the trigger. Just one twitch of one finger and it will all be over. He'll be free.
Assuming that Christian theology is true, John knows that he'll be going to hell. He's killed too many people, committed too many sins, hasn't devoted his life to God; there is just no way he'll ever make it to the pearly gates. This thought, though, doesn't bother him in the slightest. Because even if he manages by some miracle to get into Heaven, Sherlock will have either gotten bored of all the peace and quiet and left voluntarily, or his endless deductions and tendency towards destructive behaviour will have gotten him booted out (assuming he didn't go straight down to begin with). After all, Hell has far more interesting characters (and more crime) to keep the sod amused. And so John doesn't care if he's doomed to eternal damnation, so long as that eternal damnation includes Sherlock Holmes.
He flicks the safety off and presses the barrel of the gun to his temple. Just one twitch, he tells himself. One tiny pull and you can go see Sherlock. But his finger disobeys him and hesitates, and the longer the moment is dragged out the harder it gets.
Without really meaning to, John glances down at the still open drawer. There's a piece of crumpled paper sitting wedged between a couple of loose batteries and a pen. Confused, he picks it up and unfurls it, lowering his gun in the process. The only thing written on the paper is a series of numbers in blue ink. He suddenly remembers that that strange man – Merlin – had given it to him at the funeral. He doesn't know why he's kept it, or why he even brought it with him to his new flat. It had just felt so... wrong to throw it away, and so he'd shoved it in a drawer and forgotten about it.
Merlin had told him to call if he ever found the secret to moving on. John has decidedly not managed that. He wonders if Merlin has. He wonders if talking to someone who really seems to get it will be of any real benefit, even if he hasn't.
What's the point? he asks himself.
He doesn't know. And that's a different answer to the one he always gets to that question, so he grabs his phone, dials the number, and holds it up to his ear.
It rings once, twice, three times...
"Hello, John," Merlin's sleepy voice greets him.
John glances up at the clock on the wall and winces when he realises it's two in the morning. "How did you know it was me?"
"Couple of reasons. Firstly, you're the only person I know of who has this number. Secondly, it's 2am. Mycroft might be an utter prat but even he's never pestered me in the middle of the night."
A small stab of guilt worms its way into his chest. This was a bad idea. "Sorry. I can go if–"
"What? No," Merlin cuts him off. He's starting to sound more awake. "I don't like talking to Mycroft at the best of times, and definitely not at this time of night. Or morning. Whichever. You, on the other hand, are welcome to call whenever you want."
John feels oddly touched by that. But he can't help but wonder, "Why are you avoiding Mycroft?"
"He means well, but he has yet to learn how to keep his nose out of other people's business. That, and I don't much appreciate him reading me like a particularly interesting newspaper article. Sherlock was the same, too."
John can understand that perfectly.
"Now that Sherlock's... uh, now that things have changed a bit," Merlin hastily corrects himself, "maybe I should make an effort to reach out to him... He's got a good poker face but neither of them were as free from 'sentiment' as they liked to believe." A pause. "But enough about Mycroft. How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," John replies automatically. It sounds like a lie to his own ears, and he doubts it has escaped Merlin's attention, either.
"I didn't think doctors were allowed to lie," he replies with just a hint of amusement. "Come on, what's eating you? You wouldn't be calling if you were really fine."
John sighs wearily. For someone who claims to not be good at deducing things, Merlin is very good at observing. Then again, it was a bit unusual to call anyone at 2am, let alone a man you've only met once.
"How long has it been..." He clears his throat and tries again, "How long has it been since you lost..." He pauses, uncertain how to finish. He never did learn the name of Merlin's 'Sherlock'.
Merlin, thankfully, rescues him before he can flounder. "Longer than you'd believe," is the cryptic answer.
"How do you carry on?" John leans forwards, holding his head in his free hand. "It's been less than a year and I just... I can't..."
"Sometimes I wonder that, too," Merlin says after a lengthy pause. "Sometimes it all gets too much and the last of my hope drains away and I feel like I just can't carry on anymore. But I think it's those times that are the most important time to keep hanging on. I guess... I just force myself to carry on. For him. Because I know he wouldn't want me to follow him where he's gone. And it'll never get better if you don't let it.
"Then there's Aithusa," he adds. "She needs me, you know? And the one time I... left... well, she still hasn't forgiven me for leaving her alone."
John hears 'left' but he knows that's not quite what Merlin meant to say. He thinks about Sherlock, and what Sherlock would want. Probably, he'd say something insensitive, but John knows that, after everything they went through, that he wouldn't want him to take his own life. And if there was a Hell waiting for him where he can reunite with Sherlock, he knows he wants to face his best friend without that weakness.
"Distractions, John," Merlin's voice snaps him out of his thoughts. "Distractions are like pain killers. They only work temporarily, but while you've got them you can finally breathe."
"How do I do that?" Because he doesn't think anything could ever distract him from this endless grief.
"For one thing, you've got to get outside – and don't even try to deny it. I know you've been cooping yourself up because that's exactly what I did and we're far more similar than I think either of us realises. Go places. Do things. Talk to people. Keep busy."
Talk to people. When was the last time he's spoken to someone face-to-face? John can't remember.
"Here's an idea: let's go do something tomorrow. There's a really nice little teahouse in the south of London. I'll text you the address, and we'll get breakfast. I'm thinking maybe a late breakfast, though. We're both probably going to be pretty tired."
John blinks, a little caught off guard, but has to admit to himself that getting out of his dingy apartment is a good idea. And Merlin certainly seems nice enough. The distraction will probably do him good. "Um, okay," he says. "What time?"
"Ten-thirty work for you?"
John shrugs even though he knows Merlin won't see it. "Yeah, okay. Ten-thirty then." He pauses. "Oh, and Merlin?"
"This isn't a date."
There's a muffled sort of noise on the other end of the line that John suspects might be a snort. "Don't worry," Merlin says, though it sounds almost sad. "I've already got a girlfriend. Long distance relationship," he adds, almost as an afterthought. "Very long distance."
As it turns out, Merlin was right; they're both quite tired by the time ten-thirty rolls around. As promised, Merlin had texted him the location, and it hadn't taken much effort for John to find it. It's small and quaint, with a distinct homey feel to it, and John decides immediately that he likes it.
Merlin is already there, sitting at a table near the window, but he smiles and stands up when he catches sight of John. The too-big t-shirt, jacket, and red neckerchief he's wearing suit him far better than the formalwear had.
"Hi," John says awkwardly.
"Morning," Merlin returns.
John looks at Merlin's vacant shoulder. "No Aithusa today?"
Merlin grins. "Most people don't much appreciate me bringing her into their shops," he says. "She's outside stretching her wings a bit."
John turns to look out the window as if in doing so he'll be able to spot her, but all he sees are cars and pedestrians.
"So," Merlin says, stepping up to the counter, "know what you're ordering?"
John looks up to study the menu on the wall. It's not as pricey as some places he's been to, but it's not exactly cheap, either. "Probably just some English breakfast tea."
He is, but so is his bank account, and he still has to get groceries later. That, coupled with his lack of any sort of appetite cause him to shrug in a vague sort of way.
Merlin studies him for a long moment before turning to the woman at the register and saying, "Good morning! Can I please get a chai tea, and English breakfast tea, and... um, better make it two full English breakfasts."
"What?" John snaps to attention. "Merlin–"
But Merlin is already handing over a small pile of notes. "My treat," he tells John. "I am the one who dragged you out here, after all."
John isn't happy about it but eventually acquiesces. This time. He gets the feeling that Merlin will be able to out-stubborn him if it comes down to it. So, begrudgingly, he follows Merlin back to the table where they sit and wait for their order.
"Did you know butterflies drink blood?" They've barely seated themselves before Merlin asks this strange question.
John takes a few seconds to process it, mostly to ensure he's heard it correctly. He's pretty sure he has, but he's still completely lost. "What?"
"How weird is it?" Merlin continues, oblivious. "Of all the creatures I would have expected to turn out to be vampiric, butterflies didn't even crack the top ten."
John stares at him. Where did that come from? Against his better judgment, he asks, "What's number one?"
"Not including the obvious ones like leeches, mosquitoes, and vampire bats?" Merlin leans forward, as if he's about to divulge some great universal secret. "Badgers."
"Badgers," John repeats.
"Have you ever seen a badger? They have this shifty look about them like they're plotting the quickest way to get to your arteries."
The conversation carries on in much the same manner, even after a waitress brings them their food. By the time they've finished eating, John is almost certain Merlin's at least a little bit insane. It's only when they get up to leave that he remembers the conversation about distractions and realises that's exactly what Merlin was doing. He's even more surprised when he realises it worked. The hour and a half they'd been sitting there was the best John has felt for a very long time.
But the effects wear off now that he's realised it, and his mood is soured when they step out of the teahouse to find a very familiar far-too-fancy-and-mob-like-to-be-subtle car waiting for them.
John slows to a stop, resigning himself to the inevitable, only for Merlin to grab his upper arm and tug him along with a whispered, "Pretend you didn't see it."
The car pulls away from the curb, only to stop again about one hundred metres down the road. The window rolls down as they approach, revealing 'Anthea', who doesn't bother looking up from her phone.
"I'm afraid I must insist," she says.
"Do me a favour and tell Mycroft that I insist he stop this pointless power-play. There are much easier ways of getting people to cooperate than kidnapping them," Merlin retorts.
Anthea glances up at them briefly. "If you come, you can tell him yourself."
"No thanks," Merlin smiles, and then he's moving gain. John hesitates for a second before following.
"They're not just going to leave because you asked them to," he points out, glancing back over his shoulder. As expected, the car is creeping after them.
"Don't worry, I've had plenty of practice at avoiding capture," Merlin reassures him with a light chuckle. He directs John down a narrow alleyway with a brick wall at the far end, and motions for him to join him in crouching behind a skip.
John reluctantly does so, but all it will take is for Anthea to walk into the alleyway for them to get spotted. It's a terrible hiding place.
Or maybe not, he thinks when, a moment later, Anthea does appear, phone forgotten in one hand as she searches the alley with her eyes in obvious confusion. At one point, she looks directly at them, and John thinks the game of hide and seek is over, but in the next instant she's sighing and holding her phone up to her ear.
"Sir," they hear her say as she retreats from the alleyway. "I'm sorry, sir, but we've lost them."
Merlin waits until they hear the car drive away before he springs to his feet with a laugh.
John gapes at him and the mouth of the alleyway. "How did she not see us?"
"Magic," Merlin wiggles his fingers. He's wearing the first real grin John has seen on him.
"No, really," John presses.
Merlin doesn't say anything, instead turning and walking back out onto the street. "Come on," he calls, "let's get out of here before he spots us on CCTV and sends them back."
It's well into the evening by the time John gets back to his sad little bedsit. After escaping Mycroft, he was dragged sightseeing, of all things. Merlin turned out to be quite the history buff, and he has a way of making it interesting. John suggested he become a teacher, to which Merlin's response was a knowing smile, shrug, and a cryptic, 'I used to teach, but I want to try something new this time. Like flying one of those search and rescue helicopters'.
Merlin also seemed to have a knack for getting into places he probably shouldn't have been allowed to go – like inside White's Gentleman's Club (where they snuck around like a couple of spies and admired the decor). The security at the door didn't even blink in their direction as they'd passed them by. John blamed a connection to Mycroft. Merlin blamed magic.
It was when they'd emerged again from the Club and were heading to the next landmark that Mycroft's henchmen showed up again, and Merlin and John had added a game of cat and mouse to their tour of London. It was completely and utterly ridiculous, but John has to admit that he'd very much enjoyed hiding from and then baiting Mycroft all over London. It reminds him painfully of running around with Sherlock after a criminal now that the adrenaline has left his system, but it had been a nice, fun distraction while it lasted.
(Mycroft had, eventually, given up, at which point John had announced that he needed to go grocery shopping – which had then become another distraction in itself.)
As John walks up the few short steps to his door, he looks down at the small tin Merlin gave him when they'd parted. Apparently it's tea, which Merlin told him was really good for helping you sleep. He thinks back to that moment at two that morning when he'd looked at Merlin's crumpled phone number and asked himself 'What's the point?'. Well, he has an answer now.
There's someone sitting in the plastic desk chair when John unlocks the door. Instinctively, he drops his single bag of groceries to the floor and reaches for his gun, only to remember he'd put it back in the drawer, before his senses catch up with his brain and he realises it's Mycroft.
"How the bloody hell did you–?!" he starts, but quickly cuts himself off. Mycroft could find his way into a welded steel box if he really wanted to. "What are you doing here, Mycroft?"
Mycroft gazes languidly around the small room. "Nice place you've got here, Doctor Watson," he sneers.
"What," John stresses, "do you want?"
Mycroft analyses him for a moment. John thinks he can probably read what kind of tea he's had that morning by the crease on his trousers.
"It has come to my attention," Mycroft begins carefully, getting to his feet, "that you have had... dealings with Merlin. Put quite simply, I want to know why, and what he has told you."
"Is this going to be a recurring theme?" John crosses his arms. "Are you going to interrogate me every time I have any sort of interaction with someone you're related to?"
"Only the ones I worry about."
Whatever retort John was planning dies on his tongue. Both Mycroft and Sherlock have made it quite clear numerous times that 'caring isn't an advantage'. In fact, the only people John will allow himself to believe Mycroft actually cares about are his highly revered 'Mummy', and Sherlock. (Well, cared about in regards to Sherlock, but John isn't going to think about that.) What all of this boils down to, then, is that Merlin must be someone very important to Mycroft to warrant this level of stalkerish attention. The question remains, though: why?
"I remember our first little chat quite clearly, Doctor Watson," Mycroft continues. "I know that any attempts to buy information from you are doomed to failure."
"Then what are you doing here?" John asks. He picks up his bag of groceries and carries them over to the 'kitchen'.
"I'm asking you."
John pauses, one hand on the fridge door and the other holding a carton of milk.
It's the 'please' that makes John turn around again. He doesn't think Mycroft has ever asked nicely for anything in his entire life. The expression of self-disgust on the man's face only serves to strengthen this.
"Why don't you just talk to him?" John suggests, a little unsettled. "Or if you don't want to do that, there's always your obsession with hidden cameras."
Mycroft's expression shifts into something that might almost be a grimace. "Merlin has made it his business to become as elusive to track down as he possibly can. Unfortunately, he's become quite good at it. Before the funeral, I hadn't seen him at all for nearly a year, and then I discover that he has not only given you a way to contact him, but has come to London simply to spend the day with you." He says 'you' like Sherlock used to say 'sentiment', and John feels the slightest bit insulted. "You are, I fear, my only option."
"He obviously wants to be left alone," John points out. "Why not just give him what he wants?" John knows it's a stupid question the moment he asks it. Like Merlin had said, Mycroft really doesn't understand the concept of privacy as applied to other people.
"You spent all day with him," Mycroft says. "Tell me that not even you managed to miss that depressive air that clings to him like a cloud. I'm worried about what he might do to himself – whether intentionally or not."
John's starting to suspect that the handful of things Merlin has told him over the few hours they've interacted is more than Mycroft knows. It's a powerful position to hold over someone like Mycroft.
"Who is he?" John asks, because he still doesn't know but he's starting to think it might be very important.
Mycroft twirls his umbrella. "Sherrinford Merlin Holmes," he replies. "My youngest brother."
Somehow, John thinks this shouldn't be as much of a shock as it is. There's a definite resemblance between Merlin and Sherlock – he'd noted as much himself at the funeral – and if that wasn't enough, Merlin has certainly dropped a few hints. The surprise still has John leaning heavily on the kitchen bench, however.
"And neither you nor Sherlock ever thought to mention him."
"It was hardly relevant," Mycroft counters.
"Look, Mycroft, I understand your concern," and he did, especially given the way Sherlock had... Nope, not thinking about that, "but I'm not about to tell you anything Merlin wouldn't tell you himself."
Mycroft studies him again, like a bug under a microscope. John refuses to be cowed. "Then what can you tell me?"
John mulls it over. "I don't think you need to worry about him doing anything rash," he settles on. "And maybe if you lay off the whole spy thing and treat him like a human being instead of an experiment or whatever it is you see him as, he might actually give you the time of day."
Mycroft appears to take this in for a moment, before he moves over to the door. "Always a pleasure, Doctor Watson," he says as he leaves, and John gets the distinct impression that he's just been lied to.
John buys himself some time to make sure Mycroft is really gone by dawdling with putting away the few groceries he's bought before grabbing his phone and firing off a quick text.
-Why didn't you tell me you're Mycroft's brother?
The reply comes in less than a minute.
- Sorry, I thought you already knew!
He turned up at your flat, didn't he? Looks like we lose this round. Didn't bother you too much, did he?
John frowns, but eventually decides that it's a fair assumption to make. Sherlock had been John's best friend, after all. It's only fair to suppose that they would have told each other about their families. But then again it was Sherlock, so that sort of countered it, didn't it?
-He was asking about you, actually, he sends back.
-Expected as much. What did you tell him?
-Just that I don't think he needs to worry about you 'leaving' anytime soon, and that he should try treating you like an actual human being.
Merlin's response takes a little longer to come through this time.
-This is how he treats human beings haha It's when he's polite that you need to worry. Sorry that he bothered you L
-I'm used to it.
John's not sure how to reply to that so he doesn't. He makes himself a cup of tea from the tin Merlin gave him, and props himself up against the pillows and headboard of his bed. There's a small, old TV in the corner. He turns it on and settles in to watch a Doctor Who rerun.
That night, he sleeps better than he has for months. He makes a mental note to thank Merlin the next time he talks to him.
They text most days. Their written conversations flow much the same as their verbal ones; that is to say, not really about much at all, but enjoyable nonetheless. John still thinks Merlin's a little insane, but he appreciates his company all the same. It's not like he doesn't have other friends – he knows Greg is worried about him – but his other friends don't really seem to understand that he's not actually made of glass, no matter how he feels, and he certainly doesn't want their pity. Merlin is sympathetic, he's gone through something very similar from the vague hints John has picked up, and so he gets John and what John needs better than the others can.
Still, though, they don't actually talk again until about a month after their day around London. John has tried to keep himself busy, to go places, but there's only so much you can do when you're unemployed and everything reminds you of your dead best friend.
He's run out of groceries again, and the little tin of tea Merlin gave him is now empty. Which is probably why he's having trouble sleeping again.
John wakes up to darkness, coated in sweat and with the remnants of his dream – memory – of Sherlock jumping still at the forefront of his mind. He sucks in a sobbing breath, ignoring the tears leaking from his eyes, and blindly searches his bedside table for his phone.
"Everything alright, John?" Merlin picks up on the second ring.
For several long seconds, it's all John can do to breathe. He doesn't trust his voice to formulate any sort of coherent response.
"John?" Merlin calls softly. No doubt he can hear John's distress.
"Just..." John's voice catches in his throat. "Talk. Please." He needs the distraction. And Merlin is good at that.
There's silence from Merlin for so long that John starts to think maybe the line has gone dead, before, "Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
Embarrassingly, it takes John about five minutes before he realises Merlin has started reading the first Harry Potter book to him. He's not sure if he simply has a copy on hand or he's somehow managed to memorise it (which honestly probably wouldn't be all that surprising given who he's related to), but it's so ridiculous and so not what John expected that something resembling a smile forces its way onto his face. For a long while he simply lays in his bed, tears streaking silently down his face, while Merlin reads (or recites). After about fifteen minutes he's able to manage something like a normal breathing pattern. Another ten after that and he's stopped crying completely. He doesn't mention it, though, and Merlin doesn't stop reading.
That is, until there's a quiet tapping on his door.
John frowns, pulling back his sheets and warily shuffling over to the door. He contemplates pausing to grab his gun but ultimately decides against it. Somehow he doubts that anyone intending to do him any harm would bother to knock, and he's still on the phone to Merlin if all else fails. The tapping comes again, more insistent this time.
Before he can talk himself out of it, John unlocks the door and eases it open a fraction. Some sort of white form, barely two feet tall, forces its way in through the gap, drops a package at John's feet, and makes a noise that's something like a whistled chirp.
"-stretched out his hand at last to take- Oh good, Aithusa's there," Merlin cuts himself off, and John realises that the white thing is, indeed, the falcon in question. Without looking, he gives the door a slight push to close it.
Bemused, John reaches down to pick up the package and, as he straightens, flicks on the light. Aithusa, her job apparently done, waddles off to explore the small room. He gazes down at the package curiously. It's a large snap-lock baggie full of small dried leaves.
"It's a refill for the tin," Merlin explains, as if he can read John's thoughts. "Figured you've probably run out by now."
"Thanks," John says sincerely. Then he smirks, "I didn't realise Aithusa was actually a carrier pigeon."
Across the room, Aithusa's attention darts over to him from where she's made herself comfortable on the bed. If John didn't know any better, he'd say she looks insulted.
Merlin chuckles on the other end of the line. "Don't say that too loudly. She might resent it. And you haven't seen anything quite like the revenge she dishes out if she feels like it's warranted."
John tries to imagine the sorts of things a bird might do for revenge. Chew his furniture, maybe. Or leave a present in his shoes...
"Oh," Merlin's voice brings him back to the present, "and I hope you're not allergic to feathers, because she's pretty intent on staying the night."
'Pretty intent' turns out to be an understatement. John quickly learns the hard way that Aithusa is the most stubborn thing he has ever encountered. At first he tries to get her to leave – he doesn't mind birds but he's not too thrilled with the idea of a rather large, rather well equipped (in terms of sharp claws and an even sharper beak) one so close to him while he sleeps. This does not go the way he envisions it.
John's first attempt is to just open the door and gesture for her to leave, to which Aithusa responds by staring at him like he's lost his marbles. When, after a minute or so, John realises this isn't going to work, he wraps his arm in a tea-towel and places it near her feet. Blessedly, Aithusa cooperates. But he doesn't even make it to the door before she's changed her mind and flies back over to the bed. John gives up this plan too after his tenth failed attempt.
He resigns himself to the knowledge that he isn't going to win, and decides to compromise. She can stay, he tells her, so long as she sleeps somewhere else. Like the back of the plastic chair. Aithusa doesn't like this idea. She likes the bed. And she isn't averse to fighting to get what she wants. John, ultimately, loses. Merlin, listening in from where John's phone has been placed on the desk on loud-speaker, laughs.
All in all it's another hour before John finally gets back into bed, having finished the cup of tea he's made with the new leaves. He's very hyperaware of the large bird of prey nestled into a make-shift nest of wrinkled blanket at the foot of the bed like some sort of strange looking dog. He tries very, very hard not to move his legs.
He finds sleep comes to him easily, even despite the threat of losing one of his toes, and this time he doesn't dream.
When John emerges from the bathroom the next morning, it's to find Aithusa is no longer the only uninvited guest. She's still there, of course – having relocated from the bed to the desk – but now so is Merlin. It's so unexpected that John simply stands in the bathroom doorway, staring incomprehensibly as Merlin bustles around the tiny row of benches that the real estate agent tried to call a kitchen. Something is sizzling in a frypan, and the flat smells incredibly like bacon.
"Morning!" Merlin calls cheerily, sparing John a quick glance over his shoulder before he returns his attention to whatever it is he's doing.
Cooking, obviously, a voice in the back of John's mind that sounds suspiciously like Sherlock supplies. John tells it to shut up.
His gaze darts quickly to the door, which is closed, as he'd left it, and then back to Merlin. "How did you get in here?"
Merlin looks at him like he's a little bit daft. "Through the front door," he says.
"Yes, but I locked it."
Merlin flips the bacon over in the pan, and it sizzles loudly. "It wasn't when I walked in," he shrugs.
John almost says 'well, obviously' but ultimately decides to just leave well-enough alone. If Mycroft could let himself in, there's no reason Merlin shouldn't be able to. Maybe all he'd had to do was yell 'Mycroft' at it, like some twisted version of 'open sesame'.
With a sigh, he moves to sit on the plastic desk chair. Aithusa turns her head to stare at him for a minute before her attention once again focuses on following Merlin.
"I hope you're hungry," Merlin says a few minutes later as he pulls three plates out of a cupboard and starts dishing up whatever it is he's cooked.
John's still having something of a hard time processing what's going on, and accepts the plate handed to him without comment. Nor does he comment when Merlin places another plate down in front of Aithusa, who wastes no time digging in. It's only when Merlin himself starts eating, leaning against the side of the desk, that John finally snaps out of whatever stupor he's fallen into.
Merlin has made bacon and eggs, and a lot of them. Obviously he must have brought them with him, because John's positive there's absolutely nothing in his fridge. He takes a tentative bite, and is surprised by how good it is. Merlin doesn't really look like someone who can cook, but if there was one thing John has learned over the years it's that looks can be deceiving. And they very much are when it comes to anything Holmes related.
"So you came all the way here, broke into my flat–"
"I didn't break in! Look, nothing's broken!"
"–just to make breakfast?" John asks, pausing between mouthfuls.
"I looked in your fridge," Merlin levels him with a flat look, "and unless you intended to eat the bits of ice clinging to the inside of the freezer, I think it's just as well I did come. When's the last time you went grocery shopping?"
John gives him a look that he hopes makes it very clear that the answer to that is none of Merlin's business. But Merlin simply raises a brow at him.
John heaves a reluctant sigh. "I don't know. A few weeks ago, maybe?"
Merlin nods as if this was exactly what he's expected. "And the last time you went outside?"
"...A few weeks ago?"
"Right." Merlin turns to Aithusa, who is in the middle of swallowing the last of her bacon (was it even healthy to give a bird bacon?). "Aithusa," he says, and Aithusa's attention is immediately on him, "if you wouldn't mind?"
Aithusa finishes her mouthful, turns around, walks to the other end of the desk, and flutters down to the floor. From there, John watches in confused bemusement as she waddles up to his wardrobe and uses her beak to open it, slipping inside. There comes the sound of rummaging for a solid five seconds before John realises that he's just watched a bird climb in amongst his clothes.
"Oi, wait, hang on!" he cries, getting to his feet. He clears the distance between the desk and the wardrobe in two steps and opens the door fully. He makes a grab for Aithusa, who seems to be trying to get to his suitcase, which is under a pile of jumpers at the bottom of the wardrobe, but she shrieks up at him and he retracts his hand as if he's been burned. "Merlin, call off your bloody bird!"
"Nope," Merlin grins, and John is forced to watch as Aithusa gets her beak around the suitcase's handle and starts dragging it out into the room with surprising strength for a bird of her size.
John rubs wearily at his face and turns to Merlin for an explanation.
"Pack your bag, John," he says, sounding far too proud of himself (another Holmes trait). "Time for a holiday!"
After a great deal of protesting, John is forced to go along with Merlin's scheme. He thinks he could have chained himself to his bedpost and Merlin and Aithusa still would have found a way to get him to follow them.
About an hour into their journey (Merlin has hired a rental car, apparently), John decides to just ask the question that's been burning in the back of his mind since they left London.
"Where are we going?"
"Glastonbury," Merlin replies, eyes focused intently on the road.
Glastonbury? "Why Glastonbury?"
"Why not? It gets you out of London, doesn't it? And in Glastonbury we won't have to pay for accommodation."
John frowns, wondering what it was about Glastonbury that means they'll have somewhere to stay for free. Probably, it has something to do with Mycroft's influence. Or even Sherlock's.
He discovers he's very wrong two hours later, when they at last pull up to a white townhouse on the edge of the town. Aithusa is already waiting for them on the doorstep, though John can't figure out how she's managed to get there before them. When asked about it, Merlin just gives a very knowing smile and says 'She's faster than she looks'.
Merlin delays only long enough to pull John's suitcase out of the boot of the rental car, and then to unlock the front door, before he leads the way inside. Aithusa trundles in after them.
John's not too sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn't what he finds. There's a sort of methodless madness to the decor, as if the owner has simply taken bits and pieces from different eras, shoved them all together, and hoped for the best. As Merlin leads him down the hallway and to a set of stairs against the left-hand wall, John takes a peek through each of the open doorways.
The first, on the right, is the lounge room. There are two armchairs that look nearly brand new positioned in front of a fireplace, but they, and a standing lamp, are about the only truly modern things in the room. The coffee table is so old it's faded to a dull grey, the paintings on the walls – most of which are of men in chainmail and armour, although there are a few of medieval-looking women – look like they've been pulled straight out of the Renaissance. Even the TV is old – just a small square thing with large rabbit-ear antennae, though there is a set-top box off to the side.
There next door along is a dining room, though the quick glance John gets is only enough to tell him that the table is either old or very expensive. Probably both.
Merlin doesn't pause at all, instead heading up the stairs with only a glance back at John to say, "I'll show you to the guestroom."
It's the way he says 'the guestroom' – the 'the' – that makes John frown in thought. The way Merlin says it implies that there's another room that is not for guests. Which means that the owner of the house is either around, not around and simply doesn't want anyone staying in their room, or on friendly terms with Merlin.
Merlin stops at the first door they come across once they reach the second story and pushes it open. Much like the lounge room, the guestroom is also a mixture of furniture, ranging from ancient antiques to modern pieces. The bed is decidedly modern, but the side-tables have to be at least a hundred years old. There's a lava-lamp on the right one.
Merlin puts John's suitcase on the bed and gestures over to a wardrobe that's probably from around the 1950s. "You can put your clothes in there if you want. Make yourself at home." He moves over to the door, easily sidestepping Aithusa. "The next door along is the bathroom, and the one after that is my room. I'm gonna go downstairs and start making lunch. Take as long as you need." With one last cheery smile, he disappears back down the stairs.
Aithusa lingers, watching him. John stares back. After several long moments of nothing, he realises she's just going to sit there and look at him, so he unzips his suitcase and starts putting the few things he's brought with him into the surprisingly spacious wardrobe. He has no idea how long they're going to be there, but he thinks it'll be nicer to not have to rummage every time he needs something.
As soon as he's done, he follows Aithusa down to the kitchen, which is at the very end of the hallway on the lower floor. It's so out of the ordinary that he has to stop for a minute and simply stare, taking it all in. It's probably the most modern room in the house, but there's still a distinct air of old to it. Such as the seemingly endless bunches of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, or the vast assortment of cast-iron cookware, or even the style of the wooden benches. But the oven is brand new, and the microwave can only be a few years old, as with the other appliances littered around the place.
Unlike John, Aithusa doesn't care about the contents of the room beyond Merlin, and she doesn't hesitate to fly up onto the counter. Merlin smiles at her and hands her a piece of meat, which she happily accepts from him.
"Um, whose house is this?" John finally asks, stepping fully into the room.
Merlin looks up at him from where he's putting the finishing touches to a couple of salad sandwiches. "Mine," he says. "Why?"
John blinks. This was Merlin's house? What? "You live here?"
"Last time I checked, yeah."
"Three hours from London."
"By car. Give or take."
"You drove three hours to London just to make breakfast," John asks, though it doesn't sound like a question.
Merlin glances sidelong at Aithusa, as if this was a test and she knew all the answers. "I mean, not just to make breakfast," he shrugs. "Had to pick you up, too."
John can barely comprehend what Merlin's saying. He simply cannot believe that this man that he barely knows would go to all that trouble for him. And the way Merlin says it makes it sound like it wasn't even a minor inconvenience. It's completely baffling.
Merlin hands him a plate with a sandwich on it, a strange, calculating expression on his face. He doesn't give voice to whatever it is he's thinking, and John is left wondering.
There are plenty of touristy things to do in Glastonbury and its surrounds, and Merlin is quite insistent that they succumb to the tourist stereotype. He even goes so far as to take photos on his phone, and more than once John is forced to stand in front of something and pose because Merlin absolutely will not take no for an answer and is not averse to taking terrible photos of John if he refuses to cooperate. They even take one together, with Aithusa as well, in front of the White Spring Temple. It takes them a full week to get through it all, and by the end of it John actually finds himself enjoying it. Being out of London has definitely helped him, he thinks, and Merlin, though a little strange, is good company.
It's not until Merlin mentions taking him back to London that John realises that they still haven't looked at anything related to the King Arthur legends. When he brings it up, Merlin falls oddly silent.
"Do you want to see them?" he asks, not making eye contact.
"We don't have to," John replies carefully. "I just thought if we were doing all the tourist things like you insisted then it would be a bit weird to skip them."
Merlin nods. Aithusa, who had been dozing on a perch across from Merlin's chair, blinks open her eyes and stares at him. "Well we can go and see the Abbey tomorrow before I take you back to London if you want."
John agrees. It doesn't escape his notice that Merlin has completely neglected to say anything about the Tor, but the intense way Aithusa is looking at her owner and the closed off way Merlin is staring at his cup of tea make John hold his tongue.
"They weren't his bones, you know," Merlin suddenly says.
"In the Abbey. They weren't Arthur's bones."
"How do you know?"
Merlin shrugs. "Arthur was cremated in a boat on the Lake of Avalon." He pauses for a second. "They could have been Guinevere's though. But they weren't Arthur's."
Merlin doesn't actually answer the question, and John isn't sure he believes him – how would he know if Arthur had been cremated or not? – but he nods like this all makes a great deal of sense and then the topic is dropped.
Merlin is rather morose as they explore the site of the Abbey, and Aithusa never once leaves her perch on his shoulder. He never mentions what's bothering him. John never asks.
Despite the depressive air that shadows their last day of John's 'holiday', John returns to London feeling rather refreshed, and very grateful that Merlin had thought to drag him away from the constant reminder of Sherlock that London has become. It's almost depressing to return to his sad little flat, its same-era furniture, and its empty cupboards. But he and Merlin decide to meet up fortnightly for tea at the little teahouse Merlin had first taken him to (despite John's protests that it was far too much of a distance for Merlin to make himself travel so frequently), and it's not quite so bad anymore.
They stick to their fortnightly schedule, and John finds himself looking forward to the days when he knows Merlin will be waiting for him. Between those days, they continue to keep in contact – usually texting, but there is the odd occasion when John will call simply because he needs to hear another person's voice and he can't quite bring himself to talk to any of his friends in London, even despite their occasional attempts to contact him. He hasn't spoken to any of them in months, actually, and the longer he leaves it the harder it gets. It's hard, too, when even going just to get groceries reminds him of all the cases he and Sherlock investigated, all the places they went...
"Why don't you leave?" Merlin asks one day. "You're welcome to have the spare bedroom at my place. Maybe getting out of London permanently will do you good."
John is touched but shakes his head. "I can't," he sighs. "It's... I don't want..." he sighs again. "I have friends here, and..." 'And Sherlock was here,' he can't find the strength to say. It's painful, yes, but he thinks it might be worse if he leaves. Because wouldn't that be like running away? Like trying to forget? And if there's one thing John doesn't want to do it's forget.
But Merlin seems to understand perfectly. There's a sad, but sympathetic look on his face, and when he says, "Yeah, I know what you mean," John can't help but wonder if the reason Merlin stays in Glastonbury has anything to do with his own 'Sherlock'.
"When's the last time you talked to any of those friends?" Merlin asks, putting down his cup.
John grimaces. "Too long. It's just become so..."
"Hard?" Merlin finishes for him. At John's nod, he adds, "They were Sherlock's friends too, right? Maybe it's hard for them, too. I think you should at least call Mrs Hudson."
John gives him a flat look. "Just like how you keep in touch with Mycroft?"
Merlin rolls his eyes and groans dramatically.
"He's still been trying to get information out of me, you know. Not as often, but every now and then I'll get a text or a phone call asking about you. I've learned to stop answering the calls."
Merlin takes a long swig of his tea. "Alright," he says, and the cup clatters as he puts it back in its saucer. "I'll make you a deal. I'll call Mycroft if you talk to Mrs Hudson."
It's really not something they should be forced to talk each other into – Mycroft, for all his faults, is still Merlin's brother, and Mrs Hudson is, well, Mrs Hudson – but they both know the pending conversations will be painful, and the knowledge that someone is suffering equally makes it a little bit more bearable.
"Alright, fine, deal," John says.
Without further preamble, Merlin pulls out his phone, fiddles with it for a second, and then holds it up to his ear.
John stares at him. He honestly didn't expect Merlin to call right then and there.
"Hello, Mycroft," he says into the phone. "It's nice to talk to you, too," he rolls his eyes in John's direction, tone laced with sarcasm. "Me? I'm fine. Having a cup of tea actually. ... Oh don't sound so surprised, I know you're watching us. ... Look, I'm sorry I haven't really been in contact for the last... five or so years. I have my own life to deal with, and I have my own problems. Having you constantly breathing down my neck and judging me isn't exactly the sort of thing I look forward to. ... Alright, alright, I'll come to the Christmas party. ... Can I bring a guest? ... Yes. ... Alright, Myc, I'll try to call more often. ... Bye.
"Happy?" Merlin raises a brow at John as he hangs up his phone and slides it back into his pocket.
John's still stunned. "I didn't expect you to call him right now!"
"Better to get it over with. Like pulling off a bandaid," Merlin laughs. The smile slips a little. "I do care about him, you know," he says, suddenly serious. "It's just easier, in the end, if I distance myself. It still hurts, but not as much. I'm not used to having siblings. I didn't think it would be worse."
John's not entirely sure what Merlin means by any of this, but before he has the chance to ask about it, Merlin's smile is back in place, albeit a little strained, and he cheerily asks when John plans on contacting Mrs Hudson.
He ends up going the next day. There are a lot of tears, and a fair bit of yelling on Mrs Hudson's part, but in the end he's glad he let Merlin talk him into it. He's missed Mrs Hudson, and she's missed him. Like Merlin, John promises her that he'll stay in better contact this time.
He knows he still has a lot of people that he needs to make his absence up to, but this is, at least, a start. As he walks towards the Tube station, he pulls out his phone and sends a text to Greg.
-You free this weekend? Want to get a pint?
The reply comes almost instantly.
-Sure, mate! I look forward to it
It still hurts, and he knows it's still going to hurt when he sees Greg – probably more than it did with Mrs Hudson. It'll probably never stop hurting. But John's starting to realise that even if it feels like he doesn't, he still has a life. And he needs to remember how to live it. For Sherlock, if not for himself. Because he knows that's what Sherlock would have wanted.
Getting back into contact with the people he was closest to is a start. Getting a job might be the next step, if for no other reason that he doesn't think he can afford not to for much longer. And with each step he takes he knows it'll get easier. Maybe he'll even finish typing up those few cases for his blog that he never finished.
It's a start, John tells himself.
John startles into wakefulness to find it's still dark out. For a long moment, he simply lies there, staring at the ceiling, trying to work out what's woken him. A second later his phone gives a shrill cry and he suddenly has an answer to his question.
He grabs it in an instant, taking a second to realise that it's the middle of the night and that the caller is Merlin, before he presses 'answer' and holds it to his ear. "Merlin?"
There's nothing but silence on the other end.
"Merlin?" John tries again. "Hello?"
John pulls the phone away just long enough to ensure that the call is still connected. It is. "Merlin? Are you there? Is everything alright?"
A furious screech assaults John's ear and he winces, pulling the phone away from his ear slightly. The screech dies off and is instead replaced by a brief clatter and then a distant but distinctly distraught sounding, "Sorry! I'm sorry. I won't. I promised you I wouldn't."
"I don't know why I still have it! Don't look at me like that!"
"What's that...? Aithusa!" There's another loud clatter and then, finally, "John?"
"Merlin, what on earth is going on?" John demands.
"Um... I think Aithusa might have called you," Merlin replies, and it's much easier to hear the emotion in his voice, even through his obvious attempts to conceal it.
"Your bird called me."
"She's not–" A sigh. "She... She's smart. Smarter than a bird."
"Are you alright?" John asks, even though he knows the true answer to that is a definite 'no'. Whatever's going on, it's not good.
"I'm fine," comes the immediate response, and John doesn't need Aithusa's responding shriek to know it's a lie.
"Merlin, what's wrong?"
There's a long silence. John checks that the line is still connected again. It still is.
"No... No I don't think I really am alright," Merlin eventually says, and whatever composure he'd been managing practically crumples in on itself like a collapsing wall. "It's just all so hard and I can't... I can't keep doing this. All these years and I'm... I'm still... I'm always waiting! It's never going to end, is it? It's just going to keep on happening and I'm going to keep losing people and it's never going to end and I can't even die!"
It's obvious now that Merlin is crying but John doesn't mention it. Sometimes crying is all you can do, and there's no way John will fault Merlin for something that he himself has done so many times over the last year.
"I tried!" Merlin continues, words shaking and breathing heavy. "I found the sword and I tried and it worked but then it didn't and I'm still here and I'm still waiting. How long do I have to wait? How much more do I have to suffer?! Another two-thousand years?!"
"Merlin, Merlin, slow down," John says as calmly as he can. It's unnerving to hear Merlin sounding the way John usually feels. He's seen him morose before, but never anything like this. "Take a deep breath."
There's a static-y sort of noise that tells John that Merlin has done as he asked.
"Now, why don't you start from the beginning?"
Merlin's voice, when it comes again, is a little steadier, but still nowhere near what John would call 'okay'. "Kilgharrah told me he'd 'rise again' and he hasn't. Over two-thousand years later and I'm still here, still alone, still waiting... I'm tired, John."
"Merlin, what are you talking about?" John sits up, brow furrowed deeply. He knows people don't often make a lot of sense when they're upset, but Merlin has taken that to a whole new level.
"Tomorrow's the anniversary," Merlin says quietly.
John almost asks 'what anniversary' but then it hits him. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Merlin's 'Sherlock's death. A deep mixture of grief and sympathy washes over John and he has to blink back a few tears that start to form. Because he knows exactly how Merlin is feeling.
"Alright," he swallows. "Alright. Let's visit him, then."
A beat of silence, then, "What?"
"Your... friend. Your friend. Let's visit him."
"We can't," Merlin whispers.
"There's nothing left to visit."
An odd chill goes down John's spine. "There must be somewhere. If not his... grave, then a place he liked to go, or the place where they held the funeral."
"It was just us. J-Just me and Kilgharrah as witnesses. There was no one else."
"Where did you go?" John asks, his tone unconsciously dropping to match Merlin's.
It's a long trip to Glastonbury when your only option is public transport. John catches the earliest train from Paddington station. Just over three hours later, he arrives in Glastonbury, and from there walks to where he remembers Merlin's townhouse is. It's after nine by the time John reaches it, and when he knocks he's not overly surprised when there's no answer. A tiny bit annoyed, but not surprised. At least he knows where Merlin will be.
And he proves himself correct when he reaches the edge of the Tor to see Merlin sitting on the grass, Aithusa pressed against him. John moves to sit beside him without a word.
They're not the only people there, even given how early into the day it is, but the tourists give them a wide berth, mostly sticking to the path and not going anywhere near where they're sitting, as if they can feel the sadness rolling off Merlin in waves. John understands now why Merlin avoided this place when John was last here.
"There used to be a lake here. It was beautiful," Merlin says, not looking at him. "But that was a long time ago. It's long gone now."
John says nothing. He doesn't know what to say, what would be appropriate. He wonders if maybe Merlin just wants to talk uninterrupted, and so he lets him.
But for ten long minutes Merlin says nothing. He simply stares out at the grass stretching before them, eyes distant as if what he's seeing is not what's in front of him. John follows his gaze, but this place holds no significance for him, so all he sees is grass.
"I thought I could save him," Merlin eventually whispers, and John suspects he's talking to himself more than anything. "I thought, if I could get him here, he could be saved. The water... or, or Freya..."
Once again John feels himself getting lost. He doesn't know who Freya is, and there's certainly no water. Like Merlin said, the lake dried up a very long time ago.
A sad smile crosses Merlin's face and he finally tears his eyes away from the view. He absently strokes Aithusa's back with one hand. Without warning, he stands up, grabbing a wooden box about a foot long and a shovel that John didn't realise were there. Aithusa takes to the sky as he starts walking up towards the tower, and John is quick to follow him.
It's as if Merlin has cast some sort of spell on the tourists; whenever they get close to any of them, the tourists suddenly start moving in the opposite direction. Even when they reach the tower, the people who are admiring it and taking photos suddenly walk away, almost looking dazed. It's all a bit unnerving, but Merlin acts like he doesn't even notice, and John doesn't voice it.
He says nothing still when Merlin puts the box down carefully and starts digging up the grass at the very centre of the ruins. When he's made a hole a good few metres deep, he gently puts the box in it, and then covers it again, even going so far as to replace the patch of grass he lifted. By the time he's done, it's barely even noticeable that anything has changed.
"For safe-keeping," Merlin says, looking at John for the first time. What he's safe-keeping, or what he's safe-keeping it from is never mentioned. But Aithusa looks satisfied as she sits on Merlin's shoulder and lets him carry her back down towards the town. John's not sure what to make of any of this, but he follows anyway, because Merlin is grieving and he deserves support. Even if the support John can give him feels inadequate.
Merlin leads him back to the townhouse, and they enter without a word. Merlin makes a beeline for the lounge room, where he rotates his armchair to face the portrait wall, sits down, and just stares. John stands just in from the doorway, studying the carefully closed off expression on his friend's face, and then turns to examine the pictures.
The most prominent ones, as he noted in the past, are the ones that look very old. In the very centre of the wall is a gold-framed oil painting of a regal looking man in chainmail, his red cloak slipping over one shoulder, and an elaborate sword the point of which is resting against the ground and the pommel in his hands. He looks only a few years older than Merlin. To the left of this painting are several similar ones, although instead of the golden-haired man they are of different men, all wearing that same chainmail, and all with swords somewhere on their person, albeit nowhere near as decorated as the first one's. To the right of the golden-haired man are a few ladies dressed in medieval garb: a dark skinned woman in an extravagant purple dress, and a kind-eyed woman standing before a lake framed by white mountains.
There are others, too, like an elderly man, and a middle-aged woman who bears a resemblance to Merlin, as well as an assortment of others, all fitting to that medieval style. There's even a dragon. Scattered around these paintings, though, are different ones. There are paintings of people from later centuries, and even some black and white photos right at the edges of the wall. Many of the people in these are dressed in military garb, but not all of them, and there are a few women, too, smiling towards the camera.
John has no idea what any of it means, and he doesn't understand the significance of Merlin coming here to stare at them straight after visiting the site where his friend died (or was buried; John still doesn't quite understand that, either). He feels like Sherlock would have been able to take one look at the wall and know everything. But John is no Sherlock.
It's when he moves to sit in the other armchair that he spots it. Right on the very far edge of the wall (the only place there was any room left) is the only colour photo amongst the lot. John feels his breath catch in his throat.
It's not a photo John recognises. In it, Sherlock is sprawled across a couch, in what John came to know as his usual 'sitting around' attire of shirt and dress pants with a dressing gown thrown over the top. He's looking towards the camera, and somehow manages to give off the air of someone annoyed but still willing to humour the one taking the photo. John suspects it might have been Merlin.
It's a blatant clue to deciphering the wall and John's brain frantically works, trying to tie all the pieces together. He knows Sherlock is dead (Not thinking about it), and he knows that the people in the black and white photos must either be dead or very, very old. The people in the portraits, if they ever existed at all, were definitely long gone. So is it a wall of people who have died? Like a memory wall? Judging from the absolute despair in Merlin's eyes as he looks at it, these people must have all been very important to him. But John is still struggling to make sense of it. Merlin is too young to have known any of them except Sherlock.
So what does it all mean? And if it is a memory wall, why is there a painting of a dragon? It's a mystery John thinks only Sherlock could solve, and only Merlin can answer, but Sherlock is well beyond reach to be consulted, and he doesn't dare ask Merlin for an explanation.
He realises he's still standing in the middle of the room and continues his aborted trek to the chair. They sit there for hours, no one making a sound; not even Aithusa. In fact, in the whole time, John thinks she was the stillest of all of them. John holds respectful silence. Merlin mourns. John stays, and if all he can offer is his presence, it's better than nothing.
December creeps up on them and John starts to wonder what he's going to do this year. In the past he was always with Sherlock on Christmas. This will be the first one without him. Thanks to the deal with Merlin some months ago, he has been in regular, even if infrequent, contact with Mrs Hudson, Greg, and Molly, and so he thinks maybe this year they should all get together, though he will have to request somewhere other than Baker Street. There are still too many painful memories there. And he'll have to visit Sherlock, too. But that goes without saying.
It's at one of his and Merlin's tea-meet-ups that he finds himself with something else to factor in, though.
"So I agreed to go to the family Christmas party," Merlin begins awkwardly.
John remembers. It was an interesting phone call, and he only heard one side of it.
"And Mycroft said I was allowed to bring a plus one. Did you want to come?"
John blinks. He was being invited to a Holmes Christmas party? That sounded... painful. In more ways than one. Some of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because Merlin chuckles and says,
"It's honestly not quite as bad as you're probably thinking. Mycroft and Sherlock were always the problematic ones. My folks are pretty normal, actually. I think they'd like to meet you, anyway. You meant a lot to Sherlock, from what I hear."
John turns to look out the teahouse's window so Merlin won't see the tears that spring to his eyes. Of course he knew that Sherlock had cared about him – he proved it in his own, weird way more than once – but to hear it acknowledged was equally touching and difficult. Clearing his throat, he says, "Forgive me if I don't quite believe that anyone in your family could possibly be 'normal'."
It's Merlin's turn to look away, twirling his teaspoon in his tea. He smiles, but John can't help but think there's something incredibly sad about it. "Well," he says at length, "the Mr and Mrs of the Holmes family are exactly what you would picture a regular older couple to be like: a little forgetful, well-meaning if a bit overbearing at times, and eager to fill anyone who walks into their house with as much food as physically possible."
"In that case, I'd better come," John grins. "Can't leave you to face force-feeding on your own." Though he thinks Merlin could definitely use some force-feeding. He looks like a string bean in clothes. "Besides, I think I need to see this 'regular older couple' for myself."
He makes time for his other friends, too, though, who end up throwing a Christmas party on the 24th instead. Molly's apartment is a little cramped, but they have a great time, and even go and visit Sherlock, to whom they make a toast. And when Merlin comes to pick him up for the Holmes' party, he gets the opportunity to introduce them all.
Despite what he thought, John finds he doesn't regret going. Mycroft and Merlin's parents are so normal that John can't even fathom how they could have produced two children like Mycroft and Sherlock, or even one like Merlin (who is closer to what people would call 'normal' than his older brothers, but still strange enough to be an outlier). They're thrilled to see him, and even more so to see Merlin, who, if John is interpreting things correctly, hasn't been to one of their Christmas parties since before John returned from Afghanistan. Even Mycroft, for once, doesn't look like someone spat in his tea, though he keeps side-eying Aithusa as if expecting her to attack at any given moment. John can't quite say that he enjoys himself, but he certainly doesn't have a bad time.
They keep to this routine for two years. Every fortnight, Merlin comes up to London and they have tea, except on the few rare occasions that John decides to make the trip to Glastonbury instead. At Christmastime, Merlin is invited to the little get-togethers that John's friends throw, and then the next day John joins him at his family's gathering. He's always welcome at the Holmes' house, and when Mrs Holmes starts calling him during the year to check up on him, he starts to feel like he's unwittingly been adopted into their family.
On anniversaries, they're always there for each other as support. They visit Sherlock more frequently than Merlin's still unnamed lost friend, but John makes sure they still go to Glastonbury Tor more than once a year. Those are hard days, but he thinks they help in the long run.
John even goes back to the clinic. Sarah is thrilled to see him after so long, and happily gives him his job back, which is far more than John thinks he deserves. But he's grateful.
He's putting his life back together one piece at a time, and with every piece he puts into place again he finds it hurts just that little bit less. The pain is still there, of course, and if Merlin is any indicator it's never going to go away, but it becomes bearable, and he thinks he'll be able to carry on. For Sherlock. For Merlin. For his friends. For himself.
So it is that, a little more than two years after Sherlock jumped, John goes to visit Mrs Hudson at Baker Street, and the two of them decide to go up to 221B. It's the final piece left to put in place.
Mrs Hudson unlocks the door. But whatever they intended to do, neither of them are prepared for the figure sitting in Sherlock's chair.