AN: I highly recommend listening to Erik Satie's Gymnopedies while reading this chapter.
The rain falls in a quiet pattern. It drops against the streets and trickles in little streams off the awning. It's quiet for a Tuesday afternoon, this John realises as he settles himself inside the dimmed coffee shop. He sits beside the large pane of glass overlooking the road and watches the splash of droplets hitting puddles. There's something playing low and quiet in the speakers, some piece of piano music John doesn't recognise. He thinks it fits though, this sound with this setting. It all makes sense.
He's waiting for a colleague. She'd asked him round for coffee, and he had said why not. After all, it's not as though he was trying to shag her. Even though he and Karen had failed to work out (a bit needy too soon, she ended up being,) he's still quite open to the idea of companionship. He's not completely sworn off of anything—he's just waiting, taking his time.
John's phone makes a noise that seems to disrupt the entire atmosphere and he almost turns around to apologise to the other patrons. The coffee he ordered comes out from behind the counter, the barista bringing it giving him a lazy smile. "Black, yeah?" she asks, and he nods as she sets it down before him. He gives her a quiet thank you, to make up for the sound intrusion, and looks down to his phone:
Can't make it. Reschedule?
Of course, of course. Teresa is her name, and she's a bit younger than he is. She leads a busy life—she's a divorcee with two kids and a home she can't quite afford on her salary. He understands, doesn't become perturbed by the idea of her standing him up. After all, he thinks as he slides his phone open, it's not being stood up if she sends him a text.
Call me when you can, he replies simply. No malice, no underlying disappointment. An easy acceptance of the facts. He doesn't bother to ask her why she can't make it, it's not entirely his business. They've only seen each other twice outside of this, there's nothing serious. He turns his phone down to vibrate, just in case. No need to interrupt with a grating ringer.
John decides to stay. There's no use in leaving now, and he quite likes the atmosphere. Besides, he's just gotten his coffee, and it smells warm, which would feel nice against the contrasting chill that the window gives him. He sips quietly and contemplates when she might reschedule. He thinks of looking at flats. He thinks of settling into a place that isn't Harry's and smiles to himself at the idea. Not that he doesn't enjoy his sister's company (he doesn't,) but he'd much rather have somewhere of his own. Some little one bedroom place he can do as he likes in. And a bed—that'd be a nice change. His back can't handle much more of that awful sofa.
He's losing himself in thought, almost, when his phone vibrates against the bare wooden table. It's probably Teresa, he reasons. She'll have some sort of reply about when they can meet up again outside of work. And sure enough, he sees her name as his thumb traces along the screen. She writes that they'll have to try for Friday. Maybe dinner, she suggests. He smiles to himself in that knowing way, pleased with the outcome. He'll tell her he'll look at his schedule, see if he's available. It's not often he plays the game, so to speak. Might as well.
John opens his phone to start typing out his response when it vibrates once again—another message comes in. This one—this one causes his head to slow just slightly. It causes something funny to well in his chest, sad and confused and curious all in one go.
A message from Sherlock. The first he's heard from him in months.
He postpones Teresa's message in favour of reading Sherlock's. It seems a silly thing to do, considering the amount of time that has passed between them. He thinks maybe he'd be ready to see him again, maybe. He thinks maybe he'd like to try a case or two, back to how things were well in the beginning, back when they first met. He thinks he'd be ready for that, bored as he is these days. But the message is not another proclamation of necessity, not a 'come-at-once', as he might have hoped. Instead it is a statement.
I've seen you with her.
John doesn't have an immediate response. He wonders when, he wonders who, he wonders where. He wonders why, if it was on purpose. He wants to ask all of those questions and more, but he doesn't. Instead, he rethinks and re-examines and decides to go with a declarative—harder to reply to. Perhaps the conversation will lull and Sherlock will bore and off they'll go.
He thinks this is a good way to respond. Well, it's the best he can come up with. And he feels satisfied enough with it to watch it send itself off, and so he won't be concerning himself. He sets his phone down and goes back to his coffee, goes back to his thoughts. The phone vibrates only moments later, and John imagines Sherlock watching his own like a hawk. He imagines him perched in his seat in Baker Street, his mobile sitting on the arm. And he would snatch it up the moment it chirped.
You look bored.
John rolls his eyes. He shakes his head and lets a quiet exhale escape from between his lips.
I'm not, I assure you.
And seconds later comes,
John huffs and readjusts in his seat. He's trying to think of a good retort, something to cut this conversation off quickly. He doesn't know if such a thing exists, considering the other party, but he tries. Another message comes in before he can reply, from Sherlock once again.
How is their coffee?
John feels himself very physically whirl around in his seat. His eyes dart over the other patrons, but he realises this is the wrong move quite quickly. How's the coffee—he's not inside, he's somewhere outside, watching, waiting. Spying? He frowns as he looks out the window, squinting against the now thick sheets of rain and attempting to decide where Sherlock might be hiding. When he receives no visual confirmation of the detective, he goes back to his phone.
Where are you and what do you want?
He doesn't get the response he's hoping for.
Do you love her?
John shakes his head. He wonders if Sherlock can see it, if he's assuming that it's an answer to his question or simply a resignation. He wonders more and more what the point of this is, can't imagine why Sherlock would be messaging him for no reason. He wets his lips as though he might speak, though he knows he won't, and if he did Sherlock wouldn't hear it.
I don't think that's something for us to discuss, especially not like this.
He slides his phone into his pocket and knows that Sherlock will see it. It's his final reply, the one that puts the finality in his statement. He thinks it's good enough, considering he's being watched. He wonders if it's in person, or if it is at the aide of Mycroft. He starts to think it's not the first time. It causes an itch of discomfort to form beneath his skin, and he thinks he might slug back the rest of his coffee and leave.
But he gets stopped well before he picks up his cup.
Sherlock slides into the seat just across from him quietly and unannounced. He doesn't say anything immediately, simply clenches his hands around one another and rests them on the table. He stares unabashedly at John—it takes John a moment to return the gaze.
He looks—awful. Sherlock looks as though he hasn't eaten in a long while. The bags beneath his eyes tell John that he hasn't slept either. His clothes don't fit right, his hair looks mussed. Everything looks worse beneath the drowned look he sports now, having been in the rain as long as he surely had been. He hasn't been caring for himself, John knows. He wonders if it goes beyond that, if the lack of care extends to chemicals. He doesn't ask. He meets Sherlock's eyes—they are the same ice blue he remembers, but they aren't as bright as they may normally be. Sharp, yes. Observant, certainly. But not the same. "What are you doing here?" John asks quietly. He wants to sound authoritative and calm, but his voice deceives him and instead he sounds sombre and tired.
"What do you think I'm doing here?" Sherlock asks. His voice is low and gently rasped as though it's been unused.
"Case?" John wagers facetiously.
"No," Sherlock returns seriously.
John gives the back of his neck a quick rub before letting his hand drop into his lap. He sighs quietly, wearily. He thinks he knows what Sherlock is after. "I don't know why you're-"
"You know exactly why I'm here, John," Sherlock interrupts.
John does know, maybe. But he doesn't say. He shakes his head instead, slowly and without his gaze leaving Sherlock's face. A sigh emerges from Sherlock's lips. He looks to the barista behind the counter and gives her a snap—when she looks round, he calls for a coffee with two sugars and another black. She looks disgruntled as she turns back to the machine, but she appears to be granting his order. "I need to speak with you," he tells John finally.
"John, please," Sherlock cuts him off again. He looks delicate, and that disturbs John, so he quiets and allows Sherlock this moment. At least here, he knows that he will not be forced against a wall and half-tricked into bed. "You and I," John says after a moment, quietly, "We don't talk. You talk, and you want me to listen."
"That's not what I want," Sherlock says.
"Then what do you want?"
"I want—" He stops there. It seems like the words are in his head but not in his mouth yet, and it means he has to pause. John hasn't seen him like this very often. It makes him nervous. "I want to tell you what I've discovered," he goes on after a moment, "About myself, about you, about—about what happened here." The way he says it makes it seem like something genuine. John heaves a great breath from his nose and wets his lips. He doesn't say anything more.
Sherlock doesn't know where to begin, that much seems certain. Perhaps, John thinks, he was expecting more fight. He had probably prepared for it, had his speeches ready for whichever line he knew John would give. Silence is not in the cards, and so he must recalculate. The barista places the two coffees on the table, and Sherlock hands over a tenner and waves her away. He waits until she's back behind her counter to touch the mug, to tap against the ceramic in rhythm. "Do you love her?" he asks again.
"Sherlock," John says, and Sherlock shakes his head. "Just—answer."
John shakes his head. "No," he says with resignation, "I don't love her. I hardly know her."
"Do you love me?"
"This isn't telling me anything."
Sherlock sniffs and his long fingers curl about the mug, spindly and careful. "I want to know where you stand," he explains. "I know where I am. But my discoveries mean nothing if you don't want to hear them." His eyes fall to watch his hand, his fingers. His jaw tenses and he waits, as though preparing to hear an answer he doesn't want. John says nothing in return, as he can't be certain either way. Sherlock wets his lips once again and his breath goes quiet, still. He seems to realise he'll be getting no straight answer from John. He shifts in his seat, straightens what was beginning to become a slouch.
"I could—I could sit here all day and tell you all the things I'd thought the night I asked you round," Sherlock begins. John shifts now, discomfort obvious. Sherlock either doesn't notice it or chooses to ignore it completely. "I could describe to you how the quiets are too quiet, how my head has lost its course. I could tell you how often I've gone back and thought of every moment I didn't—allow you to touch me and wonder why I simply didn't. I could tell you everything that happened in my mind while you were away—but you wouldn't understand."
"I still am away," John reminds, an unnecessary stab.
"I could tell you that—that I've changed," Sherlock continues without indicating he had even heard John. "I could tell you that I understand why you left, that you were right to go, how I will never, ever put the work before you. I will never, ever forget the days that are important to you." He looks up then, catches John's line of sight and holds it. "But I'd be saying what you want to hear," he says. "And you would question me, constantly. And every time I made an error, you would become upset, and you'd hold this conversation in your head and kick yourself for returning."
John doesn't say anything, doesn't move, hardly breathes.
"I haven't changed, John," Sherlock says simply. "I am stuck in my ways. I haven't had the practice, nor the drive." He shakes his head slowly, wets his lips again. The steam of his coffee seems to dwindle, a cup gone cold against chilly hands. John watches him, brows furrowing gently. "I do understand why you left, why you stayed away, why you have continued to do so. I understand why you came that evening and left that morning. I despise it, but I do understand."
"Then what are you doing here, Sherlock?" John asks. He crosses his arms over his chest and swallows down the small lump forming in his throat. "If nothing has changed, if nothing is going to change, then what are we doing here, right now?"
Sherlock takes a deep breath, one that he holds in his chest. His eyes avert back to his mug, his fingers tap gingerly. He leans forward just slightly, rests against his elbows. "I miss you," he says quietly, confessionally. "I miss your tea and your voice, the awful singing in the shower. I miss the way you look seated across from me, or beside me, or around me. I miss your jumpers and your mothering." All of this comes in a quiet rumble beneath his breath, as though the other patrons may hear and ask questions. John is forced to lean forward to hear him clearly. "I have missed you since the evening you left. I will continue to miss you until I cease to exist."
John's head begins a slow shake, almost imperceptible. Sherlock doesn't look up to see it.
"Please come home," Sherlock says quietly.
"I can't," John replies in the same quiet.
"You can," Sherlock retorts.
"If I come back now, what changes?" John enquires. Sherlock looks up to him and John is waiting to lock eyes. "If I come back now, we fall into the same routine, yeah? Where I need you—always, and you need me never." It hurts to say but he says it, lets it out just as he thinks it. "You want me about because it's easier, because it's routine. You don't miss me, Sherlock. You miss what I was—someone to keep you from too much loneliness."
"No," Sherlock disagrees, but John continues.
"I spent—ages waiting for you," he says. "I waited for you before we were together, I waited for you while we were. I waited for you after, even. A call or a text, something to show that I wasn't—" he pauses and takes a breath. "That I wasn't just a knick-knack, a piece of furniture. But you—you never gave me that." He stops again, takes another deep breath. Emotion is getting to him, this conversation, this man. John clears his throat, gives another shake of his head while he tries to straighten himself out. "You never gave me that. You will never give me that."
The room seems to still at that moment. Or maybe it's just John, maybe it's just that everything has gone quiet around the loud thump-thumping of his heart. He watches Sherlock and swallows again, careful not to show the ache he's digging up and putting on display. Here it is, he thinks as he stares, here is everything I never said and always wanted. Here is how to fix it, here is how I come back. But he doesn't say any of that. He watches as Sherlock's hand wriggles its way beneath his lapel, into his coat. He follows that hand until it's holding Sherlock's mobile. He flicks his thumb over the screen once, twice, three times. And then he turns it and sets it upon the table. He slides it toward John slowly and finally, finally takes a sip of his coffee.
Drafts. That's what John is looking at. He's looking at messages never sent, words never shared. John picks up the phone and stares at the screen, tries to focus his eyes so he may see what he's supposed to:
You haven't come back yet. I do hope you'll be back soon.
You think I meant it, when I told you to leave? You were wrong, you're always wrong.
I used your jumpers for your scent. I couldn't sleep without them, I couldn't think without you. I hate you for this.
How very mature of you, to take your things and leave without remorse. Couldn't stand to see me? Couldn't speak to me yourself?
You ruined me.
How do people do this? How do people go through life letting people beneath their skin and continuing on to the next? This is awful. Physical wounds are much simpler.
Mrs. Hudson made breakfast this morning. I thought it was you. You were the one on the other end of the phone instead. "I'm sorry." For what? You didn't elaborate, you could be sorry for many, many things and all of them would ring true.
You could've stayed. You should've stayed.
I can't think without your presence.
I can't breathe without you.
Please come back.
I miss you.
I miss you. Come home.
I need you.
Chronologically, John can see—from beginning to now—where Sherlock has said what was never said. He sees the gaps in between, where he had thought Sherlock simply wasn't responding. He sees where things he wanted to hear were chucked to the side of the road and left there. He looks back to Sherlock, but Sherlock is watching his own hands again. He swallows down and John can see his throat contracting against the lump. "You think," he says quietly, "That I am missing an idea, an illusion. You believe that so that you may be angry, you may be hurt." He wets his lips and stares into his half drunk mug. "You believe that so moving on becomes easier. In this scenario, bitterness is an enabler. The more upset you are, the simpler it becomes to secure distance."
"Believe what you'd like, John," Sherlock interrupts unabashedly. "But know that not—once was I without distress. It was not the idea of you that had left me, it was you." He sniffs quietly, "And it—pained me. In every way a human being can be pained. Believe what you'd like, John," he hears himself repeat and doesn't backtrack to fix. "But know that I am—a wreck without you. There is nothing good about me if you aren't there."
John can feel a tightness in his chest. He hates it, and this. Things had been getting easier, finally. And now here they are, a mess once again, for what? He lets a low breath escape him and crosses his arms over his chest. "So what do I do?" he asks quietly, "What do I say? How do I know? I'm too old to be mucking about with this—on-again-off-again sort of relationship. And I can't go back to this knowing it's going to end up just as it was." He wets his lips and watches Sherlock's fingers. His eyes rove up to Sherlock's face, and their eyes meet. "You tell me you need me, but you won't change. I'll always feel like a plaything, convenient when nothing else is going on."
"You're more than that," Sherlock says.
"Then how did I spend so much time not knowing that?"
"You see but don't observe."
"Not helping your case."
Sherlock shifts in his seat, having slouched once again, and straightens his spine. He tries to look like himself, but it seems like this isn't the time nor the place, so he looks like whoever he does with a keen eye. "I cannot make you the promises you want me to," he says, and John nods and opens his mouth but Sherlock keeps on. "I cannot say that I will always remember to remind you of my affection for you, as I will not always be thinking of it. You were never furniture, never a knick-knack. You were never a plaything." He looks very serious just then, shoulders squared and jaw set. "You were always the exception. I say you ruined me, but you didn't. I was the one who destroyed my mental fortress. I took a pick-axe and carefully deconstructed everything I had built myself up to be." He sighs, and it stammers carefully, hitches quietly. "I ruined me, and I did it willingly, and I would do it again if it meant we could have what we had."
It hits John in a way he hasn't expected. He hasn't prepared for this conversation, not like he thinks Sherlock has. But maybe Sherlock hasn't either. And maybe that's good now, for the moment. John is not expecting to feel that surge of necessity creep up his spine and take him over. "Would you—" he begins, but it comes out just slightly more choked than he wants and so he has to regroup. It catches Sherlock's attention, and those eyes practically burn through John's skull. He swallows and starts again. "Would you honestly?" he asks, "Ruin yourself. For me? For—this?"
Sherlock swallows and nods quickly and he looks like he might be resisting emotion. "I would," he says, "Over and over again."
"I can't—I can't do over and over again, Sherlock," John says quietly.
"I don't want over and over again, I want—" Sherlock pauses and lets his hesitation melt away. "I want this. Just the once, until I'm no longer ambling on this planet."
"This isn't something to take lightly," John adds, and it sounds just like the very first discussion they'd ever had.
"I mean it, Sherlock," John interrupts. There's a worry that sits in his head and on his chest and he thinks he should stop and backtrack now, but he can't. Because no matter how many times he tells himself it's done, it never was. It never has been. It never will be, maybe. John can see as many people as he likes, he can marry the one that seems best and live fifty more years and it will never be done. Because Sherlock Holmes is the exception, and he has given John something that no one else ever had and no one else ever will—and that's himself, all of him, in his entirety, with no censorship or holding back. Sherlock Holmes does not have the Cosmopolitan guide to a happy relationship tucked away in his head, he has himself and how he feels and he is genuine in this respect.
Sherlock Holmes has ruined himself for John Watson, and would ruin himself over and over again if it meant keeping him. That is change, whether Sherlock realises it or not, without jumbling anything about himself. And that, John knows, is all he wants.
"Do you love me?" John asks.
And Sherlock doesn't hesitate as he replies, "Yes."
"Are you sure?"
"It can't be anything else."
A silence. And then,
"Do you love me?" Sherlock asks.
John nods. "I always have."
"Come home," Sherlock says.
"I don't know if I can," John says.
"You want to," Sherlock adds.
"I could," John replies.
"Please come home," Sherlock pleads quietly.
It's here that John knows what he will do. He knows that he will go back to 221b Baker Street, and he will settle into the flat once more. He will watch Sherlock perch on chairs and saw away at his violin and things will return to their seemingly natural way. How else does this conversation end? Sure, he can walk away now. He can remind Sherlock that nothing changes, that things continue on. He can lie and say they'll get over it, that they'll move on eventually. But—he doesn't want to. So he breaths deeply and holds it in his lungs, and then finally—he nods. "Okay," he says.
"Okay," Sherlock repeats back.
"Okay," John says again. This time he scoots his chair outward and makes to stand. Sherlock's brows knit and he stares at John with just the tiniest hint of dread in his eyes. "I've got a busy day ahead of me—if I'm to be moving unexpectedly and all."
A small smile cracks over Sherlock's lips and he feels himself nodding without consent. He, too, scoots his chair out and makes to stand. "She's in—Stepney, if I recall correctly, yes?" Sherlock asks. John nods as the tall, damp mass comes closer toward him. There's a brief hesitation between the two, where permissions are silently granted in the flicker of an eye. But then, there are fingers wrapping in one another, and John is pressing up just enough that the two of them may kiss—nothing too sloppy, too overzealous. Just a meeting of lips, a necessary one, as things morph back into how they once were.
Sherlock leads John from the coffee shop and onto the thankfully rainless street. He stretches out his arm and the first cab they see comes to a smooth stop beside them. They enter the car and John is the one to recite Harry's address. Everything is moving quickly, efficiently, in the exact way that Sherlock operates. He wonders if Harry will be home, if she'll have a fit over this reconciliation. He's at least ninety-five percent certain he doesn't care as Sherlock finds voice enough to babble his stream of consciousness to John's willing ear.
John knows somewhere that there will be times that Sherlock will become sidetracked. He will forget to balance work and health and this relationship, and John will become frustrated with him. But there is a difference, and perhaps it seems like nothing now, but it will be everything in those situations—Sherlock would ruin himself over and over again for John. But John wouldn't want that—no more than he already has. The more one ruins themselves, after all, the less like themselves they become.
And John Watson loves Sherlock Holmes as he is.
AN: There's still an epilogue coming, to make up for some of the emotional distress I've apparently put my readers through. Thank you for reading.