Grimy, that's how things looked, that's how he felt. Grimy and sticky, like he was dragging every ounce of smog and dust he'd ever encountered around with him, like the entire flat was filling up with it, choking him. But he didn't mind the grim, grim covered up the unnatural shine on his new place. It wasn't 221B, but it wasn't the street. The kitchen wasn't terrifyingly disgusting, needed cleaning for sure, but he'd get around to it. He'd get around to a lot. One day.
He'd heard the voice in his head so many times before he didn't bother looking up. He knew it was an apparition. Always was.
"What now?" he asked, pulling a mug from the shabby cabinet. The voice never talked back, never answered the myriad of questions that still, a year later, bombarded him, drowned him in confusion and regret and agony. Mostly it was the agony. The raw, aching grip of it choking him like the London smog each night before he fell asleep to the same dream. The same fall.
"John," the voice repeated. He shuddered. It always sounded so real. That same baritone vibrating through the room and thumping into his lungs with a near physical force. He rummaged for a tea bag; it had been weeks since he'd last bought groceries. He still found it odd to open the fridge and find only milk and eggs. Not a thumb to be seen, the microwave free of eyeballs.
"Not today, thanks," he said. The kettle whistled. The stove needed to be cleaned as well.
He paused. This last intonation sounded different, it wasn't just the dull echo, the hollow sound of his own name that he usually heard. This one sounded pained. He shook his head, reaching for the kettle.
The kettle thunked back onto the stove. The voice didn't talk back. It never talked back. Only repeated his name. Over and over again, the sound of his name. The sound of goodbye.
"Can't be," he told himself, picking up the kettle again. He flexed his left hand, told himself it was nothing, that he should grab a pain pill before the throbbing in his leg got worse. No sense in prolonging it.
The kettle settled back on the stove with a small clang, shaky, but controlled. Now this was too much. His therapist had said he might hear voices, might relive it all. Just the PTSD, she'd said. But he wasn't thinking of the war.
"No," he said, shaking himself. "It's just been a long day. Just a long day." The voice didn't reply to this and he took it as a good sign. "There, it's nothing." But if it was nothing then there was no way the floor could have creaked.
This was ridiculous. Absolutely beyond PTSD. This was reaching a completely different realm of insanity. But if he was losing it all, his last, small-fisted grip on reality, then why was he aware of it? He'd heard stories, even had patients who'd slowly wound themselves so deep into their own fantasies and thoughts they'd never resurfaced. But none had been conscious of the change. So how could he be? Slowly, knowing the impossibility of it all, knowing that he was most likely losing what little of his sanity was left, he turned.
"No." Recognition was there, it always was. He couldn't escape it so he'd grown to accept it. But this was far too real. "No."
He felt his leg give way and his back banged against the counter as he slid down, vaguely aware that his spine was crushed against a cabinet handle. It didn't matter, the pain; he pushed himself back, trying to get away, away though there was no escape. He closed his eyes, tried to breathe. That's what his therapist had told him. She'd said it could happen, that he would start seeing things. He winced, his leg shaking worse. Not daring to open his eyes, he rubbed the sore thigh, his other hand grounding him to the dirty hardwood floor.
Yes, he would be okay. If he could just reach the bathroom, reach for that last anxiety pill, then all would be okay. He'd be tired and bruised, but he would still be the same. It was all right. He wasn't gone yet. He'd made it this far, not that that was saying much.
But now there was more than the voice, the voice that was suddenly worried. His delusions must be getting stronger; the hand on top of his own couldn't possibly exist. He winced as his head bashed into the cabinet, entire body trying to skirt away from the imagined touch. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter, as if he could wish it all away. But wishing didn't work; he'd tried that. He felt another hand on the back of his head, easing it away from the counter. Now he was losing it, now it was as if the voice cared. And if it cared, that was something he had to see. What form would the apparition take now? This caring, concerned version? Pills, he had to get the pills. Yes, he would slowly get up, hobble his way to the bathroom, and let the medication wash it all away. Breathing deeply, he opened his eyes to find Sherlock Holmes staring straight at him.
The sound of skull against laminate resounded through the tiny kitchen, stars dancing in front of his eyes at the impact. He inhaled sharply, the pain dulling everything else for a while. It couldn't be, he must have hit his head harder than he'd thought. But those eyes. He'd never been able to imagine the right blue. Perhaps the knock to his head had snapped him into it – had brought the right shade to his mind. But he'd never before seen the man, only imagined a shadow of him. He'd hear his name, the soft slide of a bow across strings, but he'd never see anything.
He shut his eyes tightly again. The pills, he desperately needed those pills.
Hearing the voice only made it worse. If only he could turn it off, could find a way to drown it out. But it was all inside his head and there was no escape. The pressure on his hand and head vanished and he gave a small sigh. The voice didn't speak again; maybe it was leaving. Maybe he was fighting it off by sheer power of will. He'd fought a war; he could fight a ghost.
He groaned, knowing his weak mind was slipping after all. Maybe he did need to live with someone else. Perhaps Harry would take him in. He hardly left his room as it was, he'd be no trouble to her. He could learn to oversee the drinking, he really could.
"John, take this."
He refused to open his eyes, not strong enough to face the image again. A moment later he felt a hand on his, turning his palm up and dropping something light and smooth into it. He shut his fingers around it, glad that the imagined hand had left his. It seemed he at least had some control there. Rolling the object around in his fingers he realized it was the anxiety pill. He must have managed to crawl his way toward the bathroom, his subconscious ensuring he didn't black out before getting what little help he could give himself.
Opening his eyes to slits he looked down. Sure enough, the small white capsule was in his palm, a glass of water was sitting beside him. At least his panic induced haze gave him enough sense to find a way out. Quickly, he gulped down the pill, leaning back and letting his eyelids slide shut. It would all be okay in a few minutes. The pills didn't completely dispel the apparition, but they restored him to enough sense that he could simply blow it all away and carry on as best he could.
Within moments he felt his heart rate slow and his shallow breathing deepen. A tug at his limbs became deeper and more demanding. He allowed the pull to take over, settling his hands beside him on the floor, the pain in his leg receding. It would pass; it would all pass.
Tea, a cup of tea would help. Yes, he'd stand up, go back to the kitchen, and finish making his cuppa. But he would have to open his eyes first. Fighting the heavy effect of the drug, he opened them, only to find himself still in the kitchen. Curious. But he'd taken the pill, he was sure of that. There was no way he'd be this calm without it.
The thin hands came out, reaching for him. He even felt the light touch settle against this shoulders, slender fingers, stronger than they looked, pulling him to his feet.
It couldn't be true. It couldn't possibly be true. But the drug had taken effect; he could feel the slower beating of his heart, the rapid-fire sputtering of a few minutes before now past. And yet he'd never been so calm when he heard the voice before. This time, something was off. He looked up once more, letting his eyes take in the polished black shoes, dark trousers, and shirt. That damned coat hanging perfectly from the straight shoulders. He held his breath and looked up even more, astonished that his mind could so clearly present the image before him. There was nothing fuzzy about it; it was all so solid, so real. The blue scarf, the slanted nose, those damn cheekbones…and his eyes. Staring right back at him, blue and clear and concerned.
"Are you all right?"
He nearly fell again.
"Not possible," he muttered. He shook his head.
A low chuckle greeted the comment. The hands still firm on his shoulders.
"You're not real," he said louder. He'd let his head drop, chin nearly resting on his chest. He stared at the soft shine of the shoes right before his own. Funny that, he'd never once bothered to pay attention to Sherlock's shoes.
This made him look up. The familiarity of the statement, the smartass tone of it even now. It was all so spot-on.
The blue eyes softened, lowering to hover directly before his. The apparitions hadn't made any sounds of breathing before. But this one did. Not only was the sound of slow, steady breathes coming from it, but he could feel the slight intake and output of air.
"Wrong," the voice repeated. Quieter this time, like it was almost afraid to break the silence.
"No." He shook his head. "Not this time."
"No. No, this is not happening. I don't know what it means; I don't want to think about it. Go away." He'd dropped his eyes once more, unable to take the concern radiating from the great orbs before him. The voice never cared about him, never bothered with how he was feeling.
"I'm not a ghost."
"That's what a ghost would say."
The soft chuckle again, so very like Sherlock's in life. John's stomach twisted. He'd only heard that laugh a few times, fewer from his own doing, but he'd been pleased to be the source of it.
He turned back to the counter, the hands falling from his shoulders. That was good; at least the image wasn't going to assault him. Hearing his therapist's explanation for that would be a bit much. He picked up the kettle and set about letting it reboil. God, he just wanted to sit in front of the telly and forget everything.
"I can explain. If you'll let me."
He ignored this, wondering why he hadn't pursued a career in fiction writing rather than joining the army; He was clearly rather talented at making things up.
"I'll explain even if you won't."
"You would, wouldn't you." He bit his lip. Talking back to it would not help. Stability, that's all he'd asked for.
He heard a distinctive creak in the floor, knowing the exact spot where it came from. A moment later he felt a hand on his shoulder once more, a soft tug pulling him back around. This was quite out of hand now. Really, he had to get on with his day somehow. Determined to rid himself of the image he spun around once more.
"What do you what, eh? Can't you just bugger off? It's been a year. A bloody year." He knew his voice was rising, that anyone walking through his door would see him standing in his kitchen, yelling at thin air, but something kept him going. As if, were Sherlock actually standing there, he needed to tell him everything. He'd told his therapist, sure, but he'd only once ever visited his friend's grave. He hadn't been able to take it, the pressure of finding something else to say after begging for one more miracle.
"You can't come back. You're dead. I saw it, saw you die."
"You jumped off a roof, Sherlock! You jumped and I saw you. You bloody well made me watch. Watch the only person that I've ever—" He cut himself off, holding a hand to his mouth as he breathed through his nose, eyes starting to sting though he knew he wouldn't cry; he'd done enough of that in the past twelve months, once he'd finally allowed himself to do so. Silence followed his tirade and he found that his heart rate was rising again. He was out of the pills, not having gotten around to refilling the prescription, and couldn't afford to counteract the effects of the last one. "Just leave me alone. Please." His voice broke.
He hadn't expected that. He looked up, searching for the fuzzy ends of the apparition, the sign that would tell him it was all fake, that the mirage was just that—wishful thinking. But there was no blur around the edges, no sign that it was all a lie. There was the same, impeccably tailored wardrobe. The sharp lines of his jacket could be seen even beneath the coat. His shirt was pulled tight; it was always too tight. The blue scarf was perfectly centered around the pale neck. John hadn't noticed the subtle pattern to it until now, his eyes following the swirls and stitches down to the fringe at the ends. He didn't think Sherlock owned another scarf. His stomach twisted. There was no way, no possible way that Sherlock Holmes could come back from the dead. But if anyone could do it…
"It's impossible," he said, backing up again. The back of his knees touched the cabinet but he stayed on his feet this time, dropping his eyes to the floor. He hadn't noticed the scarf until now. He also hadn't paid attention to the shoes. To the single red buttonhole on the coat collar. No, it was just his brain, making it all up. He couldn't be sure that's what Sherlock's clothes had looked like. It was just his already stressed mind tormenting him.
"Highly improbable yes, but not impossible."
"No, but I like to think so."
There was no way his addled mind would have come up with that. It was Sherlock, through and through.
"Jesus." He felt his breath catch in his throat. The more he thought about, the more it made sense. Of course the bastard would cheat death. If anyone could it would be Sherlock. Outlive God, hadn't he said? Sherlock had, it seemed. "But…"
"I'm sorry, I couldn't come back before."
"How?" His brain was slower than it should be. He was muddled, drowning again, but this time not in agony, in possibility. His eyes finally flicked up, unable to fight it anymore. If Sherlock was real, if he was actually back…he furiously looked over every detail in front of him. The mirage held. Nothing shimmered in and out of focus, nothing changed. The blue eyes darted back and forth at an astonishing rate, watching him as his brain clicked into place, his reality desperately trying to replant itself.
"Perhaps a story best left for another time. John?"
"I…no, no. It can't be. No, no, it's not. Jesus." He kept trying to look away, but the second he had accepted the possibility, had clung on to the tiny sliver of hope he hadn't known remained, he'd been unable to stop looking, examining. He analyzed his memory of the fall, compared it to how Sherlock was now. He shouldn't have survived a fall like that. He couldn't. It was impossible. And yet…
"I do promise to tell you eventually, but perhaps you'd best sit down."
He did as he was told, hobbling to the worn sofa, dimly aware that Sherlock took the seat across from him, the collar of his coat still turned up, framing his long face. It had been like that on the roof of St. Bart's. John had been able to see it from the street. Scarf on, collar popped and brushing the ends of his dark hair. John nearly choked remembering the way Sherlock's coat had billowed out behind him, as though trying to stop that dreadful fall, only to end up wrapped around his corpse, the tweed slowly soaking up the blood that had pooled from that brilliant head, streaking across his white face and wide-open blue eyes. Good God, he'd been watching him, watching as John's whole world had narrowed to the fact that he could no longer feel a pulse in that still warm wrist. John's eyes burned once more.
"I don't believe it."
"I don't expect you to. Your brain isn't capable of handling the stress. I'd have given you more pills but you only had the one left."
"Oh, for fuck's sake how are you—no, nevermind. You're right."
"I usually am."
"I—" He had no come back. All he could do was drop his gaze to the dark denim covering his knees. He wrapped both arms around himself; the old sofa springs creaking as he started to rock back and forth. There wasn't, he couldn't, but how?
He dared to look up again, eyes quickly taking in the somber face before him. Pale and drawn, mouth worried. His hair was a bit longer, the curls even less in control. The eyes were grave but still curious, entirely focused on him as he rocked. He didn't mind if he looked like a scared child. He didn't give a shit how he looked. His brain spluttered and fizzed and tried to jump out his ears rather than deal with the idea any longer. Hurt he could manage, had managed, betrayal, welling up more and more by the minute, anger, there from the very start, and that small minute hope. That was new, the hope. The tiny fragment barely registered amongst the others, but still, the sliver burned right in his center, relief beginning to spring from it. He felt his stomach go hot, acid demonstrating the tangible effect of the appari—of Sherlock. God, just thinking of it set his brain on fire. Actually trying to make sense of the body that seemed to have moved from the grave to his living room had neurons firing blanks as they each darted for the nearest exit.
"Shut up. Shut the fuck up," he said through his teeth. He dropped his eyes to the ground, watching the shoes once more. He really needed a new rug. The polished Oxfords looked far too nice to be resting on the tattered burgundy mess that covered the even more scarred floor.
He needed to take this slowly. If he even had a hope of remaining stable, of not blacking out from the sheer effort of understanding it all, he'd have to examine the evidence before him. That's what Sherlock had done. Looked to the small things for clues. People could fake the big stuff – plant a gun on someone, put fingerprints where they didn't belong – but they couldn't fake callused palms from scrambling over London rooftops or a small ring of darker cerulean beneath a pupil surrounded by teal.
Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly.
"Okay," he said. He took another breath. "You'll tell me how."
He watched as Sherlock narrowed his eyes, no doubt cataloguing every move, every word, every…everything. Fighting for one more deep breath—always fighting—John tapped three fingers on his arm. Sherlock's eyes darted toward the movement then back to John's face, twitching rapidly between the two until he seemed sure the movement had stopped.
"Norbury," John said, carefully gauging his former flatmate's reaction.
The eyes softened and he watched as Sherlock bowed his head. "Thank you."
There were only five people in the world that knew about that case. Two of them were sitting in John's living room. He sucked in a breath, the sliver grew brighter.
"You kept the lucky cat."
He looked up, following the blue gaze to the dusty bookshelf behind him. The golden plastic was just as dusty as everything else. He hadn't lived in the flat long, but he'd never once cleaned it properly. He stopped rocking and let his arms drop. The vast majority of his brain was still firing blanks, trying to connect impossible storylines and dishonest facts. Still, there was one small part that was entirely focused on the man in front of him. The man that had to be real, that had somehow, no doubt through an incredibly clever scheme of his own, faked his death twelve months ago.
John wasn't a man above feeling fear. He'd felt it and faced it on many occasions. He'd been afraid when he'd joined the army, even more so when he'd been sent to Afghanistan. He'd felt it when he'd returned home, battered and bruised and alone. He'd felt it as he'd chased after Sherlock, tearing through London after a cab that had driven the detective only God knew where to do God knew what. And he'd felt it as he'd looked up at St. Bart's roof.
He felt it now as well. As he sat facing the detective he'd rather devoted his life to. Fear that he'd wake up and find out he had, in fact, lost his mind. And fear that he wouldn't wake up, that it was actually happening and Sherlock really sat before him, alive and, as far as he could see, well. Because the implications of that might just kill him.
Fighting off the fear had been another thing he'd mastered in his life. Just one more thing he'd faced and quietly gotten through. But he wasn't sure he could conquer this one on his own. He breathed in through his nose, holding the air in his chest before slowly letting it out. He looked up, meeting the ice blue stare as evenly as he could.
"Why?" Sherlock, for once, looked startled.
"Of course how. But we'll get to that later. Right now, why?"
They sat in silence, Sherlock dropping his gaze first. John felt the corner of his mouth tug. He hadn't outlasted the detective before.
"Just tell me why. Why did you do it?"
John waited, breathing quietly, the rhythm slowing and becoming easier. He watched the slow rise and fall of the coat-covered shoulders before him, the tiny twitch of fingers on knee. He could wait to find out the how. He was curious, there was no doubt there, but he could wait. For now. He could wait…until he found out why. And it wasn't an answer he was going to let Sherlock slip out of giving. There was so much he wanted to say, so much he wanted to know. His brain continued buzzing, misconnects and accusations, blog titles and bullet holes, all swirling around the cauldron of mush that now made up the inside of his skull. But it didn't matter for now. The thoughts and questions could continue to toll against the side of his head like a bell, echoing in his ears. It didn't matter. None of it mattered until he knew why. Sherlock wouldn't be real. Until he knew why.
Blue eyes rose to meet his.