John is wearing a wedding ring. It's not the first thing Sherlock notices after nearly three years apart, but it might be the most important.
The ring itself is relatively new, no more than a year or so old. Well taken care of, from what Sherlock can see, but with a very particular set of scratches.
Not that Sherlock is close enough to see them. But he can extrapolate. The scratches will be, must be, there. After all, anyone who clings to a gravestone while wearing a metal as soft as gold must allow for a certain amount of wear and tear. And John is most definitely clinging. This is not a quick touch or a press of the fingers; it is a fraught, grasping thing. Desperate in a way that Sherlock despises associating with John.
How much pain can a man take into himself before he starts to drown?
The thought is detached, almost clinical. An inquiry to be tested. But not here, not now. And never, ever with John.
Sherlock clears his throat.
John jumps and twists around on his heel so fast that Sherlock is left feeling sympathetic vertigo. The doctor – for he is more doctor than soldier these days – stares with wide eyes. His mouth hangs open for a moment before he shuts it with an audible click of the teeth. His gaze moves from Sherlock down to the grave and then up to Sherlock again.
"Right," John says, exhaling sharply and straightening into an unconsciously defensive posture. "Hallucinating."
"Not your best attempt at deductive reasoning, John," Sherlock replies, "though perhaps understandable in the circumstances."
"Jesus," John huffs, grinning despite himself. "Even in my mind you are an ass."
Sherlock fights down a smile. "Hallucinations normally do not last this long, nor do they generally involve more than one of the senses. You are a doctor, John. Do try to remember that."
John shakes his head. "Dreaming then. You're dead, Sherlock."
"The rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated," Sherlock says, completely deadpan.
"See," John says, "now I know you aren't real. Sherlock would never know that quote."
"I've had three years to work out how to greet you in this moment," Sherlock counters. "The internet has been surprisingly helpful."
John laughs hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. "God! I mean... what the hell Sherlock?"
"Come back to the flat and I'll explain," Sherlock says, holding out a beckoning hand.
John looks back down at the grave. "Well, even if I am dreaming it's not like I've got anywhere else to be. But why . . . why you? Why not . . ."
The question is easy to fill in. Why not Mary? Why not John's newly departed wife?
Sherlock refuses to be hurt by this question. In the circumstances it is only reasonable. "Come John," he beckons again.
John ignores him, taking a moment to run his fingers over the name Mary Watson and then scrunches down to run his fingers, more slowly this time, over the second name. Shirley Watson.
John's wife and his unborn daughter.
A daughter obviously named for Sherlock himself.
Sherlock swallows. "I'm sorry, John," he finds himself saying. Even though he's not. Not sorry for his suicide or the amount of time he was gone or even the pain it must have caused. All those things were necessary. Unavoidable.
In this moment, however, he is sorry that he is not what, who, John needs most.
" 'S not your fault," John murmurs softly. "I hope - I hope you are real, Sherlock. I really do, though I may hate you for it for a while."
"The flat, John," Sherlock prompts one last time.
"Alright," John says, picking himself up off the ground.
No, he definitely isn't who John needs most. But even with that golden ring glinting in the sunlight they are Sherlock and John again.
And that is at least something.