AN/ Thank you very much to everyone who has reviewed or favourited. I'm eternally grateful. For all you people, here's the last chapter.
He's not the same man John left halfway up a path in Switzerland. Three years of tiredness weigh heavy in his eyes, his skin paler than the usual alabaster, his clothes seeming to shrink his form, not standing up straight, instead, crouching as though he's been standing in torrential rain and the material around him is dragging him down. His hair is shorter, cropped to a military style and left to lengthen over time into something choppy and cut by hand, a smear of curled darkness, and his usually smooth shaved skin has been untended, encouraging the emergence of a dark stubble that follows the contours of his face. John takes these momentary notes, the commentary of differences, folds them over to store somewhere in his heart.
"John" Sherlock says, like it's the first thing he's said in a long time, vowels scraping, tone ragged. The tone isn't the same as it was before; it's more despairing, bone-tired and relieved.
John staggers. The only thing he can do. Breathing normally has up and gone, along with the stability in his legs, and before he buckles he grabs hold of the door frame, leans against it, the only thing bracing him the cane in his hand acting as substitute for his legs. He just stares. His brain hasn't got to any other stage. He stares, his hands making claws around the head of his cane and around the wooden reinforcement of the door frame, but his palms are strangely still, not shaking; taking in the sharper planes of his partner's face, the bones of him forming something as solid as rock, but a glance at his expression telling another story; apprehension, perhaps fear.
And John can't understand these things right now, these concepts that he can't compute or deal with, so he takes in the obvious things, sticks with them, they're comfortable, they're safe; Sherlock's coat is battered, the bottom splattered with flecks of dirt, and it's not sodden and drenched in foaming water like John always imagined it was; there's a loose thread at the sleeve, and that's new, and the haunted look in his eyes, that's new too, and him being alive, that's definitely a big change.
Sherlock's breathing too hard, air forced through thin lips, and John's barely breathing at all. They are both at a stalemate here, time stinging around them.
So John punches him, hard, and it doesn't make sense, the blind violence but then again, it could be the only thing that makes sense in this scenario, because at least there's something predictable in this response, something that follows the laws set down for the action; Sherlock stumbles back a step, hand up to his face, touching the tender spot of a split lip.
"How could you?" John hisses out, and it's brittle, like a pencil pressed too hard against a blank piece of paper until the lead snaps and skitters off under the table onto the floor.
"John, let me – " Sherlock has taken his hand away, blood smudging, breaking up the white of his fingers, is beseeching to him with those lonely eyes, but John cuts him off.
"No, I want you to answer me" he growls, and he straightens, eyes boring deadly into Sherlock – the dead man standing alive and washed-out before him "I want you to tell me exactly what was going through that fucking great brain of yours when you decided it was a brilliant idea to pretend you were dead"
He bites out the words as though every one has done him an injustice, crushes them through his teeth like he's spitting them out from a gun muzzle, barrel flaring, gunpowder an after-taste in the air. There's something nuzzling into the hollows of his chest, a dissonance to the status quo, and it's rampant, lingering on one over-riding emotion. Betrayal.
John is cocooned, bundled in constrictive layers upon layers of emotion, relief and blinding affection meshed in with anger and violence, and it's too much for just one man, so he goes with the spark that blares the loudest, pushing the rest to the back.
He feels betrayed. Because John can see the whole web from the centre outwards, a spiralling construction, a spider's creation of deception and understands now, sees the things hidden under the surface of this fallacy; the lack of a body, the rushed, smoothed memorial service. This was engineered deliberately, with consideration to logistics and method,and Mycroft's involved somewhere and John's going to lay into him when he gets the chance, and oh now, nowit hurts, the gaps in him aren't empty, they're full of screaming aching cells. It's like someone has reached down his throat all the way to his chest, and wrenched and tugged at the walls he built around his heart to keep the grief in, only when the emotion's let out, it warps, tightens at the corners, converts to something else, spitting, sizzling anger on the way out.
Sherlock lied to him.
"I want you to tell me" John repeats.
"It was necessary" Sherlock's gaze flickers down for a second, but rises back up, roaming over the man he sees before him, craving the sight. Like a starving man his gaze is hungry, wanting to touch, ravenous gaze wanting to recall, remember, relive sensations he has been deprived of just the same as John.
"Necessary?" That one word is a whisper, shaking and quivering in fury, torn out from him. John straightens, not even wincing at the ache in his leg, the hand that had clung to the door frame flexing before tucking into his palm, skin over his knuckles whitening, the tendons and bones almost visible underneath. He focuses on Sherlock, pushing back any immediate desires he might have harboured to rush right over to his partner and hold him in both hands, kiss the air out of his lungs, hit him again then press his lips against the bruises to wipe the damage away. Sherlock betrayed him, lied to him, and that hurts, overpowers any impulse he cradles within himself "Necessary?"
"Moran needed to believe I was no longer a threat" Sherlock doesn't shy away from his gaze for the moment, knowing that this is a penance he has to pay, a forgiveness he needs to work for. "That gave me the leeway required in order to take down the rest of Moriarty's empire"
"Because, of course, it was always about fucking Moriarty" John spits, and he doesn't know if it's possible to hate a dead man even more, but he does, he'd dig up that Irish bastard's grave or dance on it or spit on it; he captured Sherlock's attention in a way that John never could, and the doctor hates him for it. "Did you ever think about me, even once?"
Sherlock's expression goes dark, pained, and it stands out from the pale sheen of his skin "Of course I did."
"And where did I fit into this plan?" John flares up "Huh? Why couldn't you have told me?"
Sherlock's eyes cast down for the first time, at the floor, at his feet, unable to meet John's "I – I couldn't"
"I couldn't keep your precious secret, is that it?"
"I wanted to keep you safe!" Sherlock snaps at John's biting tone, a little bit of the old arrogance coming back, the self-assured sense of being the one in the right, the one who knows best, and that reaction is better than the submissive apologetic missives because it selfishly gives John for fuel for his anger, makes it easier to be furious at Sherlock, allows his rage a larger scope."I didn't want you hurt because of me"
"Well, you failed there, didn't you?" His voice is gradually getting louder, the fury like a compulsion and he's too angry for tears, so just screaming will have to do. And he's not sure whether he's shouting or not, but he's not holding back, not any more, and at the pinnacle of this moment his anger, and hatred – yes, hatred; because it's possible to hate someone and love every inch of them, and John's demonstrating that right now – are blooming within him, his head giddy, blood thrumming.
He feels so alive, burning and incensed, and it would be wonderful if this didn't hurt so much. He wonders if he strikes Sherlock again across soft skin whether it'll leave a mark, a repentance. "You stupid... stupid... Did you not bloody think? I was hurt Sherlock! I've spent three years being hurt, and that was all your doing, you sanctimonious bastard, because you made me think you were dead"
There is nothing eloquent in this moment, and in the ruthless afternoon light illuminating a skeletal slender man who piece by piece has snapped the bones of John's heart under the heels of his palms while trying to save him and restart his heart.
"You think it wasn't hard for me too?" Sherlock snarls back, angles twisted in an emotion made of the mottled shades of anger and frustration and which transcends them both "You think that I didn't regret what I did, that every day I didn't think of calling you up and telling you the truth. Every day, I held that phone in my hand and wanted to call so I could just hear your voice again..."
"But you didn't call, did you?" John's barely standing anymore, his support threatening to give way, and it's the same for every part of him, the stones of his foundations cracking in the right places to hurt him again.
"I know you're angry John, you've every right to be, but just..."
"You're bloody right I'm angry! I'm goddamn furious!" John breathes out again, like there's not enough air, like it's all evaporated out of his pores from the heat of an inner furnace, and this is what will break him if he pushes hard enough "You lied to me..." His tone is a twisted up sliver of metal that's folded to make a dagger, and it's accusatory and selfish, because John isn't thinking about Sherlock at all, at how exhausted he is, how shear willpower is seeming to hold his strings upright; he's thinking about the ashen nights, a resistance in every motion, holding the world back with hands outstretched like a mixed-up invitation, a niche in his carved out chest where the only beat was the rhythm of a waterfall and every one of these is evidence in Sherlock's trial.
"I was trying to keep you safe..."
"I thought you were dead, Sherlock!" John bellows, cutting him off again, and his hands are shaking again, not from the leftover trembling but from blistering, near-blinding fury, tremors skidding over the taut flesh of his skin "For three years!"
He stops, and something inside of him that has weathered too much, is close to crumbling, slumps, and he closes his eyes, blinking back tears that are hedged in the edges of his eyes, voice cut down to barely even a murmur.
"Three years" he repeats, and Sherlock motions to move forward, put his hand out, touch John's arm, before he decides against it. "Just one message. To let me know you were alive. Was that too much to ask? God, I would have waited for you, I would waited... however long it would have taken, I would have been here." John shakes his head, heat draining from his words, leaving them desolate "You had no right, Sherlock, to make that sort of decision without me. Absolutely no right"
"I know" The honesty, the admittance of fault is not anything John had expected, surprising him "And... I'm... I'm so, so, sorry. God, if I could have done this differently I would have."
'Believe me when I say that if there had been any way other than this, I would have taken it without thought,' the letter in his pocket had said, and the words now morph, take on new syntax, new meaning. ' I know you might be angry at me, and you are right to be. And although this is necessary, I am well-aware of the pain it will cause others, especially you. I am so sorry John.'
"John." Sherlock says, and John looks at his partner, and regardless of how much anger is still in him, he sees the cracks of strain appearing, as though Sherlock's about to collapse, his limbs unable to sustain the weight of him anymore in the face of being home; and there's some sort of sick victory in the way a limping man is able to stay standing but a supposedly strong man isn't, but John can't stomach that thought.
"Get inside" he murmurs, the hatred smudged, dissipating to softer tones, and it's not forgiveness, not yet, but at least it's a start.
John makes a cup of tea, because it's a default setting to deal with all disaster. Death, bombs and madmen, even simply a bad day at the surgery; all with a response unit of tea bags and hot water from a screaming kettle, and milk and copious spoonful's of sugar, and he's following the actions he recalls in his memory because he doesn't have to reach in far to find them, doesn't have to think too hard, think too long. He takes out two cups for the first time in a long time, and his calloused hands splash milk into a strong brew, remember the recipe automatically.
When he comes back into the living room, Sherlock's slumped on the sofa, his eyes closed, his breathing feather-light indicative of sleep, and John deposits the cups on the coffee table. The anger is smothered, and so now he'll pick up the pieces like he always does, whether it's shattered glass like stars on the floor or the slumped exhausted man passed out on the sofa.
Leaning down, he tugs off worn shoes and places them neatly to the side, toes pressed against the edge of the furniture. Manoeuvring the man's arms, he peels the coat from limp heavy limbs, the man lying on his back and curling up slightly in the sluggish motions of sleep, and John folds the garment over his arm before with a degree of trepidation, like there are parts of him still waiting to re-emerge from shock, he hangs up the coat next to his own. The scarf is absent, but the basics are there at least.
He finds a coarse tartan blanket in the airing cupboard, and drapes it over Sherlock with something approaching tenderness, gently tucks it in around the sides. Watches him for a moment like he's surveying a myth, standing over him, daring the world to come back and take him, because John wont let them do it again.
He cards his fingers through too-short curls. He needed to be sure.
If this was a film, or a TV show, if their lives were ones played out on a screen, they would have embraced in a heartbeat under a blood red sunset with roses and half-drunk glasses of wine, kissed like they were burning something out of themselves. John would have peppered the side of Sherlock's face like he was trying to devour him, dashing, crushing his body against him like it'd stop time and turn it backwards, clenching a hand in that choppy hair, graceless and raw, tugging at the roots and grounding them both, and Sherlock would find that corner of his mouth that curls in a frowning descent to force his lips against like he was looking to unlock something. There would be marks of vicious ownership dappled purple along the slender column of his throat, and neither would know whose limbs were whose in the tussle, fighting for skin at the curve of the lower back, and skin strained tight across the stomach, becoming fluent in the topography of flesh. And it would be perfect and forgive all crimes and kiss away all blemishes, and they'd both get a happy ever after, and isn't that what everyone wants?
But John Watson is not a character from a movie. He is human, a human man with aches and scars and the varied capacity for love and anger in equal measure, and he needs time above all else.
He goes out to buy milk in the morning, but really it's an excuse to stretch his legs, think. He's been cut away from the city too long, so he allows it's rush to sweep through him, fill him with it's noise till it reaches the other side of his body. His feet take him away and back in a loop to the living room where a vision of memory and flesh turned real is pacing the floor, a frantic worry on his face that evaporates, scatters away into a visible relief taking root when he sees John limp back up the stairs.
"I thought you'd left" Sherlock mumbles, that look in his eyes, the one that wants to touch, to take, to hold again. John simply puts the bags down on the floor, and gives a stretched smile that doesn't give away that he had held the same fears.
"Don't be silly", is all he responds, but that sets Sherlock in some form of ease, not complete, for he loiters, lingers standing as John puts the milk away.
"Lestrade came round" he says finally.
"Oh?" John clamps the fridge door closed, extinguishing the light inside "How did he take your resurrection?"
Sherlock doesn't flinch at the cavalier indifference John's trying to pass off, but he tenses his shoulders as though he'd like to.
"Swore. Loudly. Then he shouted a lot. Threatened to punch me before I told him you got there already" Sherlock fingers absent-mindedly the scabbed over cut marring the pink of his lips, and John feels little regret for his actions.
"He say anything else?"
"He said you were a bloody idiot not to divorce me and leave on the spot" He shuffles his bare feet, and doesn't say any more, but his silence is asking something of John, something too big, something they both need clarification on. Are you going to leave me?, his silence asks, and he ruffles the bristles at the back of his neck and pretends that he hasn't hinged everything on John's answer.
John concentrates on placing things away in the cupboards, but after a moment, turns and meets Sherlock's eyes, smiles fleetingly.
"Good thing I'm an idiot then"
He adds nothing else, but something slots into place here, the foundations laid for a capacity to rebuild a city out of the tattered old skeletons of former citadels. Sherlock's mouth remembers what a smile feels like, and when John presses a cup of tea into his hand, there's a spark in haunted eyes that lights up like a candle flare.
Sherlock sleeps on the sofa at night. In the day, they skirt around each other with small talk and something meaningful lurking back, shying from the light; John fussing about Sherlock's weight, Sherlock lightly commenting that John's looking just as trim these days, even though the word is gaunt and they both know it; two skeletal frames with withered fragile hearts at the centre, starved of affection and closeness for too long. Endless cups of tea are made, above half going cold in their mugs. Some arguments spark up, grievances and apologies and longing mixed into a mess of sound so they can't pick out what means what.
Everything is surface deep, lingering away from the depths of what they both want, but John is not yet ready, needs time, and he's had three years of time, of waiting, but adaptation is a process, not instantaneous. So Sherlock does what he's been doing for the past thousand odd days, what he's become well practised in. He waits, and John's grateful for that.
On the third night John's nightmares are bad. Worse than usual, harsh sweeping things that dig talons into his consciousness; Sherlock leaning backwards, smiling like a cord, faltering as he falls, down, down, the sky and the water and is there a difference anymore, both the colour of ash, colour of gravestones, and there is screaming, shouting his name, and it is animalistic, feral from the shear panic of it, and it takes John a moment to realise that it's coming from him.
John's eyes snap open, the same ritual as always, the panted fractured breathing, sweat sheeting sticky on his skin under his t-shirt, his eyes flicking around an empty room. Except this time, there is someone there in the near-dark of early morning, a ghost standing over him, features etched with concern.
John sits up, propping himself up to meet Sherlock's unflinching gaze.
"Bad?" The baritone is lower in the quiet, and John nods, gathering his thoughts and dusting them free of the landscape of rocks and spray they inhabited before speaking, throat hoarse. He wonders whether he's been shouting in his sleep, and decides that he'd rather not know.
"What was it?" Gimlet eyes bore into him, wanting to know, perhaps wanting to make things better; let me in, those eyes ask of him, let me in and I'll make this right. His words reach out with gnarled crooked fingers, rugged but with all the best intentions, and John can't deny Sherlock, not of anything.
"You" John clears his throat, threading a hand through his hair, sweat still beading, trailing a line down his neck to disperse in the hollow of his throat "You, falling" He doesn't elaborate.
"You have them often?"
"Used to be nearly every night"
"And now?" There is something broken in the light of his partner's gaze, unremittingly honest like light bleeding through a locked door that today has been left open; a self-hatred, an internal disgust that he is the reason, he is the dream that sculpts the shadowy flesh under John's eyes, that his name is the one John wakes up with on his tongue.
John pauses. "Still often." he admits to the man wrapped in shadow before him, the vulnerable line of his shoulders and the curve of his neck the only parts of him touched by the outside moonlight.
Sherlock halts at that, not knowing where else he can go with this, like the hour is too early and he is too cautious to continue. He half turns to retreat back to the sofa, before John speaks again, tired and lonely and unforgivably human, his words tentative, testing the waters.
"Come to bed, Sherlock?"
It's asking something, something too big again, but it's offering as well, give and take, the fragility of humanity of wanting things they have and things they don't, and John's wanted Sherlock for three years and even the three days trailing after them without reaching out, things always in his way; death or anger, only now it's and the sky is dark outside, and there are no monsters that are not claimed by moonlight, and all those things in the way are unimportant.
Sherlock pulls up the duvet to slide in next to John, pressing up against the back of him in an effort to make the minutes stop, just for tonight, and the touch is solid, reassuring. And later they'll progress to remapping and marking out sensations that have been persevered only in memory, there'll be the clash of teeth, concentrating years into one reunion, an all encompassing clarity even as they're breathless.
But for now, Sherlock curls long arms around John, bringing him in closer, and John's fingers trail up before intertwining into the gaps in Sherlock's hand that his fingers were made to fit, and both touches are a little desperate for contact, relaxing when permission is given. There is the soft sigh of air against the nape of John's neck and in the dark, neither of them says a word, not I missed you, not I love you, because it's not necessary, because they both already know.
They can start again tomorrow.