A/N- This is the sequel to my 'oneshot', Aftermath. I was amazed by the feedback it got, and for some reason I decided to continue it. I wrote this a few weeks ago, and I've been debating posting it ever since. I finally decided that I might as well.
There'll be one more fic after this to make up an Aftermath 'trilogy'- if people like this one, that is!
Warnings for angst, self harm, suicide, slash and a little bit of AU in regards to John's mental health.
Sherlock knows that John isn't coping well. He hasn't been able to watch over him personally- too dangerous- but walls have ears and governments have associates. Deals with Mycroft and various people with even lower standards than their income allow him to receive weekly updates on John (and Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade). Although, of course, none of the spies or observers or whatever they want to call themselves know what Sherlock knows- things that he remembers most late at night, when the world falls dark and silent and he is alone with the guilt. With razor blades and knives and 'when I need to, I guess'.
At first, John appears to be handling things. He moves out of 221B (sentiment, Mycroft explains. It's probably hard for him to be around the reminders of you. He misses you, for some bizarre reason). He continues with his locum work at the surgery and meets Mrs Hudson in various cafes once a week or so (although never any that he's been to with you, Mycroft points out, twisting the knife a little deeper).
He stops seeing Mrs Hudson after a few months, and Sherlock assumes they're just growing apart. Moving on. John with his life, Mrs Hudson with hers. He chooses to view it as a positive thing.
But then John quits his job, and that's harder to justify. He doesn't run his blog anymore (and Sherlock denies checking it daily, or at all, if anybody asks). Mycroft tells Sherlock casually one afternoon that he's taken to sending John food parcels, as the man hasn't left his flat for over two weeks. He doesn't seem as concerned over this as Sherlock is, and makes several unnecessary and hurtful claims about Sherlock's sanity and oestrogen levels.
It's only when a member of Sherlock's homeless network lets him know that John has just re-entered 221B that he cracks and orders Mycroft to just go and check on him.
"Sherlock," Mycroft sighs, in familiar and absolute older-brother tones, "he's fine. He's grieving. People do. It's probably a good step that he's going back- acceptance and moving on and all that nonsense his therapist sprouts at him. You know we don't have any cameras located inside 221B, and I'm not about to go and barge in to indulge your petty whims."
And so Sherlock calls 999, and tells them that a man had been stabbed inside the abandoned apartment. This is not true in any shape or form, but as Sherlock has been declared legally dead he imagines there's little chance of being charged with making false calls.
Although he's unwilling to admit it to Mycroft, he knows that he is probably over-reacting. But something inside of Sherlock's stomach is tugging at him, spreading rumours of unease and a thousand possibilities. This is ridiculous, he berates himself. The rational explanation is that John is collecting some old things, or visiting Mrs Hudson, or just plain grieving. He expects to find only that Mycroft is annoyed, that the paramedics are annoyed, and that John is fine.
He does not expect John to be admitted to a psychiatric unit three days later.
First, Mycroft invites him around (Mycroft has many houses and flats and hideaways stashed around the country. There is a rather demure bungalow that he is fond of, and Sherlock's flat is only thirty minutes away. This location choice was entirely intentional on Mycroft's part).
He claims it's for 'unimportant reasons'. Sherlock doesn't believe this, but he goes anyway- expecting some kind of lecture for wasting emergency resources and time. Instead, Mycroft informs him in a rather formal and detached manner that John has been admitted to St. Bart's for a suspected drug overdose. Sherlock's initial response is denial, in an irritatingly textbook manner. He insists Mycroft double-checks patient details, because 'John Watson' really is a very common name.
"Sherlock, don't you have things to do that aren't this?" Mycroft begs him, clearly exasperated.
Yes, Sherlock does. He's continued to investigate crimes and help with mysteries. What has always stood still stands; without cases, his brain will rot. These days he's forced to take a much more removed role, though, working with aliases and anonymity. He usually doesn't meet anybody involved or visit the actual crime scene. It's a little less satisfying, but it's the only safe way, and he still solves the case every time. So yes, Sherlock has other things to do, but absolutely no intention of doing them.
It's only been half a year since he exited reality. Interacting with his old life in any way is far too dangerous, and getting back in contact with John is certainly not on the cards right now. But it also hadn't been on the cards for John to swallow a bottle of Flurazepam, washed down with vodka and bitterness.
As Mycroft smarms his way through a series of confidential questions to find the state of St Bart's newest patient, Sherlock can't shake the constant, endless images barraging his mind. Images of John shutting the door of 221B behind him and locking it. Of him lining every pill up in order and taking them one by one, sipping at the drink- systematic, ordered, planned. Or of him cramming two, four, five pills at a time into his mouth, drinking straight from the bottle and not thinking about yesterday or later that day and certainly not of tomorrow; conscious only of the hard, bitter pills against his throat.
Sherlock is almost amazed by his mind's creativity. He loses count of the range of ways in which he watches John lose consciousness, the number of variations on the paramedics kicking the door down to find him curled into a loose ball on the floor, eyes closed, life fading. The thoughts will not be calmed by playing violin or pacing or even by smashing every single window in the house.
Mycroft is not pleased about that last one, but he lets it go considering the circumstances. He does not, however, accept Sherlock's insistence that he needs to go to the hospital.
"Are you insane?" he asks rather bluntly. "He's currently unconscious, covered in tubes and being pumped full of activated charcoal. There's no point in you going."
"I want to be there," Sherlock insists, agitated.
"Why? He won't even know you're there."
"That doesn't matter," Sherlock snaps, and Mycroft looks at him in a way Sherlock's never seen before. It's a kind of pity, mixed with realisation. Oh, his brother's eyes seem to say. Oh, you're one of them now. You're a fully-fledged member of the human race. Sherlock feels almost guilty, like he's let their side down. He feels weak, and angry at himself, and completely and totally out of control.
He begins to text a man from his previous case. He is only words away from acquiring large amounts of cocaine when Mycroft materialises. He takes Sherlock by surprise and physically rips the phone from his hand.
"No, Sherlock," he says firmly, tossing the mobile across the room.
"You're not my keeper," Sherlock snarls.
"I have no idea what makes you think that taking drugs is a suitable reaction to this situation," Mycroft retorts. "Especially if we consider the circumstances."
And Sherlock replies with a long stream of curse words which Mycroft absorbs patiently, and when Sherlock makes a sudden lunge for the phone he easily beats him to it. The phone finds its way out the window and shatters against the hard concrete floor. Mycroft makes no apologies.
"It's going to be cocaine or seeing John," Sherlock demands, crossing his arms. Mycroft is reminded of a seven year old trying to reason with the grown-ups. "It's entirely up to you which option I take."
"And if I say neither?"
"Then I will go out of my way to do both."
"I say neither," Mycroft says firmly. "'Your way' just won't be good enough here."
There is little to stop Sherlock from just running for the door when Mycroft isn't looking- he has no issues with fighting his brother, and in fact would relish the chance to do so. But Mycroft has voices that whisper in a thousand ears, and Sherlock has the sneaking suspicion that if he were to go against his brother's wishes, he would not get very far. He certainly wouldn't make it into St. Bart's before a policeman or official stopped him for 'official reasons'.
So instead he is loaded into a secure car, where Mycroft sits by his side at all times. They are driven to Sherlock's flat, and Sherlock is almost amused when he realises his car door is locked. The chauffeur lets him out, and Mycroft fixes Sherlock with a look that suggests running will most likely get him shot with a tranquiliser of some form. Sherlock does not take the chance.
"Why can't I see him?" Sherlock asks the second his front door shuts behind him, openly despising the situation that Mycroft has put him in. "This is ludicrous."
"And putting both you and him in danger wouldn't be? Be rational, Sherlock. There would have to be a million precautions put in place for you to even go near London."
"Then put them in place and after that, we'll go."
"You're a very selfish man, Sherlock."
"I just want-"
'I want' doesn't get."
"Fine. Would you do it, Mycroft?" Mycroft waits patiently, and Sherlock spits out the hated 'please?'
"If he's still alive by then," Mycroft replies bluntly, and he does not leave Sherlock's side for the next twenty-four hours. Sherlock spends the majority of this time shooting patterns into the walls. At first, Mycroft objects, but Sherlock threatens to shoot an entirely different substance into his veins and his brother relents.
Sherlock wishes that Mycroft would argue with him or punch him or shout. He lobs various scathing comments at his brother, who for the most part replies with premeditated and measured phrases. He is busy making an endless string of phone-calls, arguing and persuading and setting up countless safeguards and protections. He isn't expecting gratitude from Sherlock, which is useful as it's certainly not offered. Sherlock has never been good at being patient, and he's certainly never cared for his own safety. Mycroft has to feed him constant reminders that his presence would only endanger those he left to save to get him to stay put; although that doesn't mean that he does so willingly.
"You said caring isn't an advantage," Sherlock says at around five A.M, because Mycroft has made it quite clear that he won't be sleeping while Sherlock isn't. "Yet, here you are. In my apartment, stopping me from leaving or getting drugs. Why? What will you personally gain from this?
"If you're sighted in London, it will undo everything that I've put in place."
"Oh, like what?" Sherlock sneers.
"Like helping you to fake your death, or finding you a flat in the middle of nowhere, or running silly little surveillance missions for you. I've done a lot for you, Sherlock. I've done a damn sight more than I needed to. Don't go ruining all of my hard work and getting yourself or John killed in a rare burst of mawkishness."
"Yes, but why did you do all that?" Mycroft does not reply. "You wouldn't be here at all if there wasn't some element of care involved. You're a hypocrite, that's all. You're an idiotic, hypocritical excuse for a man."
"That's nice to know," Mycroft says mildly, returning to his newspaper and picking up where he left off.
"I mean it."
"I know." Mycroft's phone vibrates and he reads the message, face impassive.
"How is he?"
Mycroft hesitates. "The same."
"That's a lie."
"Yes, it is. He's… worsened. Only slightly, but-"
"So why are we waiting?" Sherlock gets to his feet. "Let's just go now. There's nothing to lose."
"People are working their hardest. It'll only be a few more hours until it's safe."
"Safe. Don't talk to me about safe," Sherlock hisses. "What's the point in protection? He's dying anyway."
"But you aren't. Have some patience."
And now Sherlock has to try to stop his voice from shaking, and he isn't entirely successful. "Mycroft- please."
"I can't, Sherlock."
"If he dies, and I'm not there, I'll never forgive you," Sherlock says quietly.
"I know," Mycroft says sincerely. "But I can live with that. Sometimes to protect people you need to hurt them- you of all people should know that. And I would rather you were hurt by this than killed in London."
"Why?" Sherlock's question is genuine.
"John took care of you when you needed it. I am repaying the favour."
"I don't need taking care of," Sherlock dismisses. And then- "He took care of me? When?"
"The Adler business, over New Year's. And in a thousand other ways before and since."
The reminder of John trying to prevent Sherlock from hurting himself is a horribly painful inversion of the many, many times when he failed to do the same for John. He thinks about razor blades and pill bottles and tries to pretend that it isn't driving him insane.
"This isn't fair. Not on him, not on me, not on anybody."
"Sherlock, you may as well scream about how misunderstood you are and slam your bedroom door for all the good it will do. Stop acting like a teenager."
And this bickering continues on and off until, at 11:21AM, Mycroft receives a call. Sherlock doesn't bother to pretend that he isn't listening in.
"Yes, thank you," Mycroft says, and puts the phone down.
"Yes. They don't know the extent of the damage that's been caused, but he's out of immediate danger."
"Then can we-"
"No. It still isn't safe." Sherlock turns and punches a wall. It leaves a suitable indent, and Mycroft observes him calmly as he curses and shakes his hand. "I've never seen you like this before," he muses.
Sherlock's never seen himself like this before, and the disgrace of such unbridled emotion is starting to affect him. It would be so much more natural to just lock himself inside himself. He doesn't want to show this panic, this frustration, this whatever-the-fuck is happening to his heart and soul and mind. This wait stretches on for millennia, and he really does think that just a little cocaine could help.
It's late evening when Mycroft puts down the phone and looks at Sherlock expectantly. The other man is immediately on his feet, at the door, pulling his coat on as he runs down the staircase.
"It's only for a few minutes," Mycroft explains sternly as the car kicks into life. "That's all we could manage for now. You'll have ten minutes in the room alone with him. If at any point anybody else enters, you are to leave immediately and alert us. Apprehend them first if possible. Don't talk to anybody, and don't be seen. Don't reveal details of where you are to anybody, including John. He's conscious, but only just. We still don't know for sure whether Moriarty has any fanatics stationed to kill on sight, and exploding a hospital isn't something I want on my conscience."
The car ride takes over an hour, and Sherlock is no good at sitting still at the best of times. At one point, Mycroft is driven to take a sleek anti-stress pill which he explains to Sherlock as 'none of your business'. Sherlock can't help but feel it's a little unfair that everybody is allowed to self-medicate but him. The anxiety hasn't lessened, but it's now mingling with an inappropriate eagerness.
He is going to see John again.
They smuggle him in through unusually empty corridors, and his every step is shadowed by three heavily armed men. Mycroft is nothing if not thorough. His brother stops him by the door and explains again that he will have ten minutes. When the guards knock on the door, Sherlock must go with them immediately. John has been on twenty-four hour watch, and peeling the nurse from his side was neither easy nor particularly legal. They have taken enough risks without Sherlock being an idiot and ruining things for all of them.
It is something of a cliché that people seem smaller or more vulnerable in hospital beds, but it's one that's alarmingly true. John is hooked up to machines that Sherlock doesn't bother to try and deduce, because he finds that he doesn't really care. John's eyes are closed, but the steady beep of the heart monitor lets some of the anxiety bound to Sherlock's soul diffuse away. He finds himself awkward, in the corner of the room, and it's all very new. This 'caring' business.
He'd improved the skill through life with John, but it's become much more remote as of late. Observation from a distance, rather than interaction. It's been so easy to see it all as just another case- interpreting behaviour and signs from electronic recordings, assuring all three of what he once called friends are okay. Emotion has not really played a part.
And so, standing at the foot of John's bed, the previous hours of worry, anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, frustration, relief, and a thousand other feelings Sherlock hadn't even known he could truly feel swarm him like wasps. Having fought so hard to get here, his instinct is to run. He has to look away from the man in the bed because compassion is complex and he doesn't know how to try. What is he doing here?
And Sherlock can tell that he really isn't himself right now, because he doesn't even notice when John's eyelids slowly flutter open.
"Sherlock?" he asks, and he somehow sounds both thirty years younger and a hundred years older. Sherlock turns and John tries to sit up in bed, scrabbling for purchase on the sheets. His eyes are wide like he can't quite believe what he's seeing.
"You're an idiot, John," Sherlock manages to get out.
"It's good to see you too," John laughs huskily, but it gives way to a brief coughing fit. He reaches for a glass of water on the side, and Sherlock reads gastric lavage in the way he winces as he swallows. It all feels a little surreal. Middle aged men aren't supposed to lie in hospital beds having their stomachs pumped, are they? John seems out of place here, and Sherlock half wants to tell him to stop being so stupid and to just get up and leave. He'll blog about crimes and Sherlock will carry out experiments using all of their good cutlery, and things will be fine.
"I mean it. A complete and total idiot."
"In every available way-"
"-and then in twelve more."
"Don't go lecturing me," John complains, "when I'm not even sure you're real." Sherlock frowns.
"Real? Of course I'm real. Don't be dull, John."
"Well, you did die."
"Ahh," Sherlock hesitates. "That."
"Yeah, that. So can you see what's got me confused here? You're dead, and gone, and the hallucinations stopped being fun about six months ago, so could you just leave me alone?" John's voice cracks a little. He looks so, so tired. Sherlock moves forwards without thinking about it.
"PTSD, stress, drug side effects," he says from somewhere far away. "I watched you die… so many times. I watched you come back even more. I always believe it," John laughs to himself, like he's embarrassed. "Every single time, for a few moments, I buy it."
"You told me you weren't suicidal," Sherlock cuts in, partly because they don't have long and partly because he doesn't think he can cope with this. "You lied."
"No, I didn't."
"No, honestly. I wasn't suicidal then."
"Are you suicidal now?"
"You make it sound like a star sign. 'Are you a suicidal or a Capricorn?'" Sherlock ignores this. He moves on, demanding.
"Well, has this happened before? Before we met?"
"You ask a lot of questions."
"I'd ask less if you stopped avoiding them."
"Oh, fine, if you insist. It's… damn, this is hard to explain."
"Try," Sherlock says, gritting his teeth. The minutes are flicking by far too quickly, and there are things he needs to know. John chooses his words carefully.
"This was the first time that I actually… attempted anything. But there have been a few times- weeks, months- where things have been harder than usual and it starts to seem like the best option. Like before I met you- the real you," John is quick to reinforce, "I was on the edge then."
"Was this my fault?" There, it's out in the air. Sherlock can't steal the words back even if he wants to. He lays his soul flat and waits for judging or mocking, knowing he deserves both. John, however, chooses neither. He doesn't even have to consider the question.
"No. It wasn't," he says, and it is not open for debate. He looks up at Sherlock and their gaze does not break as John speaks. "It was a lot of things. I was alone- like before I met you, but worse."
"Yeah, because now I know what I'm missing out on. Now, I… I have so much more to grieve. Me and Harry don't talk. I haven't forgiven Lestrade or Mycroft, and I won't. Mrs Hudson is too painful and I'm too screwed up to hold down a job. There's nothing left, Sherlock. And I guess it just all got too much one night and I decided… well, it worked for him."
Sherlock doesn't interrupt for once. His eyes are filled with so much sorrow as he looks at John, listening unobtrusively.
"I thought about jumping at first. But I wanted to do it in 221B… I wanted that place to be the last thing I saw. I knew if I jumped, all I'd see would be you bleeding and broken and I didn't want to die with that image. I hoped that if I did it in a happy place, I would go with happy thoughts. Shut up, I know it's stupid."
"No, it isn't," Sherlock says firmly, and he thinks it means something to John though he isn't sure why.
"So I thought about guns or razors," John continues, "but I didn't want to make a mess. Okay, don't argue, that really does sound stupid. But I wanted to keep the flat clean. I didn't want to ruin it. Drugs seemed the obvious option- I'm a doctor, it wasn't hard to get basic sleeping pills."
John is speaking very calmly and matter-of-factly. Sherlock gently pulls the sheet back and, sure enough, John's arm is laced with so many new lines that they're no longer discrete marks. They've converged into a mass of pink and red and pain.
"It wasn't your fault," John emphasises. "None of this. It wasn't."
"It doesn't sound that way," Sherlock says, with what could have been humour once upon a time. He fights to keep his breathing steady, but each cut on John's skin forms a new cut in Sherlock's heart, with every breath that he takes.
"They were my actions, Sherlock. I hold the responsibility here, for everything that I did."
"Don't tell me you're going to say that you couldn't live without me," Sherlock says, with the same shaky laugh from that roof on that day. The same tear slips down his cheek.
"No. No, I could have lived without you. All of that 'young adult fiction'… all of those teenage novels. They've got it wrong, haven't they? It's not about being physically unable to function without somebody. They're confusing emotion with psychiatric illness." John laughs like Sherlock did, and it even tremors in the same place.
"I mean me… and you… that's not what made this happen." He waves a hand around, somehow encompassing the cuts and the drugs and the sadness into one movement of his fingers. "It's not that you leaving made me empty- it's that I was empty already. You… filled something. Gave me something. I don't know what. I could have lived without you, Sherlock, but I just didn't want to."
"Now that does sound more like mental illness," Sherlock murmurs.
"Oh, it is. I don't deny that. Eating a bottle of pills hasn't got a damn thing to do with feelings or relationships . I see a psychiatrist for a reason. No, I don't mean that. It's not about the sad times. It's about the good times… it was always about them."
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't make me want to die, Sherlock. You gave me something to live for. Depression or PTSD or whatever the hell it is only deals with the sadness- it can't touch on all of those stupid, forgettable little moments. Remember the palace, when you stole that ashtray just to make me laugh?" Something twinkles in John's eyes, something that was thought dead and buried.
"I still have it, you know. I've kept it. I'll always keep it, because when I look at it it's like you're there and everything's just… better, somehow. It doesn't hurt so much. When I think of you, it makes me smile. It makes the world so bright and so beautiful, and that's what it's about. That's what love is, Sherlock," John says softly, and Sherlock's cold, iced over heart shatters into a million untraceable pieces. And he really has no idea what to say to make this situation alright in any way at all, so instead he reaches over and ever so softly brushes his lips against John's. John replies in a similarly wordless fashion.
Sherlock lets his head drop against John's chest. The other man curls one cut up, tube pierced arm over Sherlock's shoulders in a way that's almost protective. Sherlock closes his eyes. This emotion, this care- it hurts. God, how it hurts. It had been so much easier to be alone, conscious of only his work and himself. But he doesn't even consider going back.
It's not from a misplaced sense of duty towards the man breathing steadily underneath him; it's as simple as John put it. There is more to life now, to Sherlock himself- more than he had ever known existed. To leave John and London and the real world behind is no longer an option for him. He cannot go back now he knows what he will be leaving behind.
But he is going to have to go, just for a while. He doesn't know for how long, and he doesn't know how to tell John because he's still struggling to accept that he actually meant something to this man. That he still does, that he always will.
"I'll come back," Sherlock promises, a solemn oath to the wall because he cannot look John in the eyes right now. John's hand is ghosting through his hair in an entirely new way which feels utterly familiar and Sherlock is only just holding together as it is. "I mean it. It might not be soon- it won't be soon enough- but I will."
"I always will."
"I know," John says again.
"I have to go soon," he says hoarsely. "I can't stay."
"I know," John says one final time. "You never do." Sherlock manages to look at him properly, confused, and John's face is contorted into a sad acceptance.
"You're not real," John says softly. "I always… I always want to believe. It's always dreams, or hallucinations, or flashbacks. Every single time."
"No, no, don't. It's okay. I forgive you," John reaches out a frantic hand and touches it to Sherlock's face, trying to prove he isn't angry. "It's not your fault. You didn't want to die. None of this is your fault, none of it. So shut up, okay? Don't be an idiot about this." He lets Sherlock go. "You aren't real, but that's okay." He's still trying to reassure Sherlock. From his hospital bed, he is still trying to protect him. And that is all the prompt that Sherlock that needs to say what he has to. To make this as easy for John as it can possibly be.
"No," Sherlock whispers back, and he isn't even trying to hide the tears anymore. "No, I'm not real."
John nods, and offers him a final sad smile. And then the signal comes and armed men are in the room and there are no more words to say. They steer Sherlock out and into the waiting car, where Mycroft's driver stamps on the accelerator before the door has even closed. Sherlock registers Mycroft sat across from him, but makes no acknowledgement of his presence. Nearly twenty minutes have passed before Mycroft even moves.
He pushes a single tissue towards Sherlock, who has still not wiped his tears away, because do to so means he must accept that they were there in the first place. Sherlock briskly pushes the material across his cheeks and crumples it as though there's nothing wrong. Mycroft does not pry any further, and Sherlock feels a rare rush of affection for his brother. There are only two people in the world who really understand the way in which he works. Sherlock himself is neither.
"What happens now?" he eventually asks.
"I imagine he'll be admitted somewhere," Mycroft replies steadily. "A psychiatric hospital of some description. To get him some medication if nothing else, and to ensure that he actually takes it. Voluntarily admission is preferable, but they'll section him against his will if necessary. I can-" Mycroft swallows, uncharacteristically unsure. "I could… get that dropped, if you wanted. He could leave that hospital free within twenty-four hours."
Sherlock shakes his head. "Do the opposite," he says bluntly.
"You want me to make surehe's taken in?"
"Yes," he confirms. "He needs the help, Mycroft. He won't like accepting it, but he doesn't have a choice. You need to get him that help."
"I'll see what I can do."
"Do your best."
"Of course." Mycroft hesitates yet again. This is possibly the most awkward conversation they have ever had, and that truly is saying something. "You can't see him again, you know. Not for a while."
"I know," Sherlock says quietly.
"Maybe another six months. We need absolute evidence that Moriarty's gunmen are completely gone before we even think about trying to explain you to the press."
"You can handle it," Sherlock says, sliding down in his seat. "I trust you." Mycroft scoffs, but Sherlock shakes his head. "No, I mean it. And… thank you. For all that you've done."
"Sherlock? Sherlock, are you okay?" The car is warm and the night is dark, and Sherlock hasn't slept in a while now. He lets his eyes slide shut. The car rocks underneath him, and he is reminded of a taxi ride so very long ago, when he pulled out an ashtray and a man he- no, he can't deal with that, not yet- began to laugh. The memory stays him as he falls asleep; making the world a little brighter, making the pain a little softer.