Note: This contains spoilers for The Reichenbach Fall.
"Oh. You're... back." John starts for just a moment before catching himself and the Tesco bag. Grips the plastic. Moves through the entryway. The hall. The sitting room. Six steps to the kitchen. Two steps around the apparition.
Even after three years, he can't bring himself to walk through it.
Bag on table. Sort out groceries, make tea. Keep going. Pretend it isn't there. Breathe.
"John-" It sounds more like Sherlock than it used to. John swallows. He hasn't forgotten that voice, then. Still shaken. Wishing the last words hadn't been goodbyes. Hadn't been desperate. Broken. Always the same film strip behind his eyes.
"It's been a while." Doesn't look up from where he busies himself with the kettle. He can see the apparition in the smooth metal of a kitchen appliance as he sets the kettle on the stove. It's been a while since he's seen the coat, and the ghost has found himself a new scarf that is almost identical to the one Sherlock wore on their first case. Their case. Cases. Their life.
"Can't say I'm surprised. You always decide to show up this time of year." He can't say it. Nothing to do with the weather, the season. The anniversary. It's so close that John can taste the rain on the air and smell the blood on the pavement. Every year, he tries not to count the days; fails.
"Mary wants me to take medication." Matter of fact. No implied feeling either way. Making threats to illusions. Not quite a shining declaration of sanity. "Says I'd be better if I didn't see you every time I turned around." Jealous? No, he'd never suspected that. She worried. Worries. Constantly. Knows his imaginings are few and far between but thinks a daily pill is the answer, all the same. Anti-psychotic. Seeing things that aren't there. Wishing they were. Always wishing, never hoping. Unfilled prescription tucked away in a drawer for the day when this becomes too much.
Still can't look at him. Looks older, even just out of the corner of his eye. John knows that if he looks straight on, if he tries to engage the detective directly, the man will be gone. Vanish. Thin air.
Wants it to last. Needs to see him, hear him.
John's fingers rap on the table for a moment, considering. "I think about you, you know. Every time I hear sirens." Doesn't say they moved here because of the quiet streets. Minimal noise. Very low crime. Just outside London. Mundane little town. Private clinic. Happily married, small-town doctor. No one remembers John Watson: Blogger. A life long gone; a flare in the background like a John-shaped light this average man has to block out. "I weep for London's crime rate. Must be through the roof without you getting underfoot at the Yard." Jokes. Joking makes everything feel better, even when it hurts. Voice doesn't crack, but feels rough around the edges.
Mary should be home within the hour. Needs to get rid of the ghost before she sees him like this. Stuff it back in the closet. Push it down, back into the psyche it's borne from.
"You're not usually quite this insistent." The kettle calls to him. John doesn't realize it's been so long. Lingering silence hypnotized him. Breathing. He could hear Sherlock breathing. In and out, like he used to. Even.
No. Not Sherlock. Ghost. Apparition. Illusion. Coping mechanism. Reminds himself of reality by letting his fingers skirt along the bottom of the kettle. It burns. Feeling. Good. Grounded.
John pours tea, one cup. Cream, no sugar. Took eight months to not pour a second cup, even after he was out of Baker Street. Looks at the detective's reflection again and notes his thin frame, almost gaunt features. Deteriorating. Decomposing. Needs to go. No good to have an imaginary friend at forty.
Tells him so. Addressing him is easier if he can look away. John is sure he's gaining ground, getting the upper hand.
Until he hears the footsteps. Hand on shoulder.
Warmth through a thin layer of cotton.
He drops the teacup, nearly scalding himself. It cracks on the counter and spills. Brown stains on his trousers and plaid button up. Doesn't matter. Heat of an uncomfortable sort is overshadowed by the pressure on his left shoulder. A gentle squeeze. Friendly. Loving. Apologetic.
Spins around and looks directly into the detective's face for the first time since the hospital.
Overwhelmed. Can't be real. He knows there are tricks to dealing with this-to remembering to breathe-but can't remember a single one of them. The illusion has never lasted this long; has never touched him.
John wants to touch him. Reaches out. Face cupped in palm. More warm sparks under his fingers. His knees are threatening to crumble under him as those eyes-ethereal, like an angel-bore into him. Searching. Permission? For what.
Arms wrap around him. Full-body contact and the chest against his own heaves. Can't breathe. Afraid that if he breathes, Sherlock will stop for good. Blood pounds away in his ears as his body responds in turn, arms around Sherlock. Fingers stroking tweed. Everything in the world condenses into this-the most accurately sculpted daydream.
Damn it all. He buries his face in Sherlock's neck and breathes, open-mouthed. Lips against the skin just below his ear, nose pressed to curls. His imagination has outdone itself. The breath against his own ear is hot; panting. The invisible man in his arms is almost heavy.
"John," he says, and John can feel the sound in every inch of them that touch. "John, I... I don't expect you to take this lightly." Arms tighten around him, and rightly so. John's knees are shaking with his effort to remain standing. Warmth, words, weight. It doesn't add up. Too many of his senses are working against him. It's never been like this before.
"John. John, can you hear me?" Starts to pull away. John pulls him closer, gripping the raised collar on that damnable coat with shaking fingers. Too much. Still too little. This will all be over far too soon. "I'm here, John." A strong hand on the small of his back, holding him close. Fingers on the back of his neck, skin on skin. Comfort. Never Sherlock's area; perfected in this small gesture. "I'm here."
"You're not." John's voice breaks at the admission. His body is warring with his mind. Physical pain, a bodily reaction to the anticipation of loss. Always loss. But pleasure-points of contact over his skin, through his clothes. A battle of hormones and chemicals in his brain; fight or flight or surrender.
"I am, John. I'm here. I fought so hard to be here, John." The steady repetition of his name on those lips shatters something. The ghost tries to fade away, loosening his grip. John pulls when he knows he should be pushing. "I'm not going anywhere." That voice. A promise. A lie. John never thought this man would stop lying to him; he's being proven right. "John, look at me."
Again with those eyes. It's hard to convince himself that he's looking at dead air. He stops wanting to. Gives up; lets his body take control, logic be damned. Presses upwards with a searching mouth, ready to find himself in a heap on the floor. He deserves it. Expects it.
Doesn't expect to feel warm lips against his own, just as desperate. No dream prepared him for this. Heat. More warmth. Need. Flesh and bone and breath, all here. Present. Not in the past, not in a dream.
But he can't be. It's not possible.
"John." Whispered repetition of his name, ghosting across his cheeks, his eyelids, his jaw. John's hands drop to the lapels on the other man's coat and he wheezes each breath with a heave of his chest. Can't be. Any minute now. Waking up. That tugging in his stomach is the sensation of waking. Has to be. Only explanation of all the facts. Still, there is something in his arms. A selfish urge to keep; to protect his mind's projection forever, no matter the cost. His reputation, his sanity, his life. All worth it for this.
"John." No deductions, no scathing accusations. Just his name and encased explanations, like these are words that have piled up. Every use of his name that couldn't pass the other man's lips in these years. Even though he's pressed against him, even though he can feel every breath-it's not enough.
But it's real. It has to be. It's never been like this before.
"Sherlock." John swallows the last of his doubt. Buckles forward, clutches, sobs. Arms envelop him like a human shock blanket. He has so many questions. Hows and whys and an unending stream of curses that he wants to release on his friend. Wants to punch him so hard, his hand is actually tingling in anticipation of connection. The bastard. Brilliant, insufferable bastard.
He wraps his arms around him, tugs him closer.
Right now, Sherlock's got him. He caught him in the way John couldn't.
Everything has been moving inexorably toward this. And it's more than either of them could ever ask for. They're a tightly-knit mass in the center of the kitchen, all coats and limbs and shuddering breath. Two best friends who have always been questionably more. Now, there is no question more important than: "Sherlock?" through tight-lidded eyes.
"I'm here, John." Arms tighten almost imperceptibly, but John relaxes. "I'm not going anywhere. I've got you."
And while Sherlock Holmes has lied to John Watson an almost infinite number of times, just this once, John believes him unconditionally. He has to. Wants to.