Author's Note: This is probably the most difficult Sherlock piece I've written thus far. Usually I can work on a oneshot on and off and it will be done within one to three days, but this story took a full two weeks.
There are many, many reunion fics out there, simply because there are equally as many plausible (and implausible) variations on what could occur. Time and place, mood, reaction, development... so many roads from one point of departure. One focus I've noticed in many of them is John's initial reaction to seeing Sherlock alive. What will he think? What will he feel? But in this story, I've sort of aspired to push that aside, almost to the extreme of saying, he can't. In the immediate time following Sherlock's return, John can't react. It's too much.
This story also turned out much longer than I had anticipated, because I exceeded my own expectations of focusing on the moment, each moment, as it happens. Time is an important element here. Each moment holds its own significance, whether noted or left unsaid.
This story was inspired by one of my other fics, "Wounded", specifically Sherlock's mental fantasy of his return, if he had chosen to do so at that moment. So this can sort of be considered a sequel.
As In Olden Days
It is snowing in London.
It isn't a hard, unyielding snow that freezes like iron or glass across the face of the road, nor is it a soft white down spreading its blanket over cars and shops, smoothing abrupt edges into easy folds. This is an in-between snow, silent and steady and patient. It layers itself unhurriedly over any surface that happens to come between the crystal flakes and the air beneath them, and carries no bitter force to numb the exposed skin of passersby. Neutral, accepting, the snow falls, and the only sound it makes is a muffled cough when it is compressed by the scattered beat of many footsteps.
It is nighttime in London.
This simple fact is somewhat belied by the lights that are everywhere – windows gleam softly from every level of the city, and long sinuous strands of tiny glowing orbs blink contentedly from over doorways and mantels, nestled within fragrant beds of balsam. The beams of passing cabs proceed slowly along their frosted routes, and the silver-flecked darkness parts agreeably to admit them before drifting past again in their wake. Laughter and good cheer spill out into the golden puddles created on the pavement by the advent of wide-swinging doors. Somewhere, a warm song is lifted into the night by harmonious hands.
Well-wrapped knots of people move up and down the streetsides, little more than silhouettes against the bright windows and only slightly more than shadows as they walk between patches of light. Small mittened hands reach down to cradle small bundles of snow until they are pulled away again by larger, gloved ones, and then two sets of feet dart away in unison across the whitened pavement.
In this anonymity of thick clothing and irregular illumination, the man stands out slightly only because he is alone.
He walks with a stride that is long, but not quick; his gait seems peculiarly restrained, as though he is deliberately holding back his steps from taking him more swiftly to his destination. His gloved hands are buried deep within the pockets of his heavy, high-collared coat, but his shoulders are unbowed and his head inclined only slightly in response to the steady snowfall. The cold, weightless crystals settle themselves lingeringly over the tight-woven grey wool swathing his body. His head is uncovered, and the flakes become entangled in his dark, restless curls as well, before he lifts his face briefly to shake them away again.
As he pauses at a crosswalk to allow a cab to trundle by, he turns his head slightly, pale eyes watching the gentle ebb and flow of movement along the street. It all seems so strange, in a way, so unfamiliar to him.
He wonders, very suddenly, if this is what it's really like to come home from a war.
He presses onward through the shifting curtains of snow, pausing every so often so brush the light accumulation from his clothing, more out of instinct than from any sense that the action will be worth the effort. He knows where he is going, and that's something of an instinct as well, but it is tempered by the realisation that it still feels peculiar. It's an odd sort of discomfort – feeling out of place in a setting more familiar to him than the faces of most of his acquaintances – and it bothers him far more than he had expected. He has been so long away from this, his city, that he has inadvertently become the stranger that he once could pick from the crowd at a single glance. Is that what he looks like now, to all these people drifting past? Uncertain, hesitant, lost, victim of the exile's classic scourge, that sense of not belonging?
He considers these sobering thoughts as he steps around the deeper layers of snow gathering about his feet. Emphasising the months of separation will not aid him in melding back into his old habits and haunts, he realises. He tells himself firmly that in many ways, he can still make a far more convincing claim of belonging here than a good number of the people he is passing. It is all dependent on perspective.
He paces forward evenly, dismissing doubt in favour of something nearly as alien to him – sentiment. Because despite the strangeness of being back in the heart of London, he cannot deny the pleasant and relieving sense of coming home that has been slowly stealing over him as he walks. It's nothing to do with the snow that has turned everything into a frosted visual delight, or the glint of red and green and gold that catches his eye near every corner, or the general, all-pervading sense of peace and cheer that is created more from people's expectation of its presence than from any tangible reality. His calm stems instead from the deeper atmosphere of the city, that distinctive aura that whispers its identity to him no matter what holiday trappings are overlaid to make it more palatable to the populace at large.
It is for this reason, as well as others, that he has chosen to walk through the chill, snow-laden, but somehow clear night. He wants to feel that he is actually here, with no other motive than simply wanting to be here. He wants to breathe in deep lungfuls of cold air and taste the tang of London that not even the cleansing snowfall can fully hide. And he wants to think – not about where he has come from, but about where is now, and where he is going on this Christmas Eve.
Baker Street is like all the other streets of London he has traversed in the last half hour, dusted with an inch or two of uneven white; but it is also more quiet than the main roads, still and mute without even a cab passing by at this moment. A few street lamps create intangible islands of gold amidst the plummeting flakes. In the snow spread over the pavement, individual footprints can be made out. No great crowds of people have passed this way since the snowfall became steady.
The expression on his pale features is nearly impassive as he takes the few steps between himself and the worn, dark-stained door that rises like a sentinel beside the locked-up café. His grey-blue eyes, however, seem to glimmer softly, magnified against the steely shadows that night has draped over his surroundings. He raises one glove-encased hand to grasp the knocker, raps easily, and then paces backward. Leaning on the icy iron-rail fence that juts up to one side, he tilts his head back to put the windows of the second floor clearly within his line of sight. The filmy curtains drawn across those directly above the café keep him from making out anything distinct, but there is hope yet – a warm glow emanates from behind them. He feels a strange little jolt at that recognition.
The door marked 221B now cracks open slightly, and he straightens immediately at the sound of the latch. A weary little smile finds its way onto his face as he glimpses the lined, careworn features that peer out to investigate, and then the door is swung wider to admit him. As he steps over the threshold, thin arms reach around either side to embrace him in fond welcome.
"Mrs Hudson," he murmurs, and he holds her gently in reply for a moment, his dark head bent over her greying one, before disengaging.
She closes the front door again, and then begins fussing over him, brushing the snow from his back and shoulders, standing on tip-toe to dislodge the flakes from his hair. He loosens his scarf, pulling off his gloves to unbutton his coat, and she steps back to get a good look at him, clicking her tongue in disapproval.
"Sherlock, you've been skipping meals again, haven't you?" she accuses him, but there is no bite in her low tone.
Sherlock's lips twitch again into a small smile as she goes on briskly, "What you need is a good feeding up, and then a decent night's sleep. Do you a world of good."
"I'm sure it would, Mrs Hudson," he agrees, and though he's never placed much importance on either activity, he has to admit that right at the moment, both are, in fact, somewhat appealing. But no – not now. There will be plenty of time, later on, to deal with his physical problems.
He turns his face away from her, looking upward along the half-shadowed stairway leading to the second floor. "Are they gone?" he asks softly, and though it's a rather obscure question, Mrs Hudson understands.
"They left about half an hour ago," she says, nodding and following the line of his eyes. Sherlock does not make any reply, but waits, knowing that his former landlady will hear the unspoken question; and accordingly, she adds after a moment, "He's still upstairs. I left him up there, he seemed to want to be alone for a bit."
Sherlock considers that, then inclines his head. He gives her a tired smile, touches his hand briefly to her worn cheek in thanks, and then turns away and begins climbing the flight of stairs before him. A barely audible hiccup of a sob drifts up from behind, but he pretends not to notice.
He sets each foot down deliberately on the stairs as he ascends, avoiding those places that might creak when pressured, taking care not to scuff his shoes across the wood. A few bits of snow still fall occasionally from his clothing. He runs one hand along the railing for a moment, and as he reaches the landing, he stops. He draws in a long, deep breath, very nearly drinking in the familiar surroundings, this dingy, bamboo-patterned space that has not changed even with the passage of three years.
His gaze moves slowly from the door directly in front of him, to the one on his left, and his head tilts slightly to one side as he thinks. Both entryways are closed, but which would make the better portal under these anxious circumstances?
After a moment, he reaches out for the door that leads into the small kitchen. His hand looks very pale against the walnut-coloured wood, and it is shaking slightly. Almost holding his breath, he eases the door open, and then goes still, not yet daring to enter, waiting for a sign, a sound, to indicate that the movement has been noticed. But it does not come.
He exhales soundlessly through lips that have barely parted, and unwillingly lets his eyes fall closed for a long few seconds. Sherlock has imagined this moment so many times, yearned for it so ardently, that it is like a film that plays over and over across the empty spaces of his mind; no two renditions are alike and yet all are achingly vivid. But now that the film has shivered into reality, he hesitates, not knowing which mental adaptation the physical event will choose to follow. He thinks he has considered every possible scenario, but he can't be sure. What if something unexpected occurs, and he can't react accordingly?
Better that, he supposes finally, than to not brave the attempt at all.
The fingers of his right hand clutch hard around the doorframe as those of his left press lightly on the door itself, nudging it open far enough to allow him to pass through. The little kitchen is dark, the table and counters bare except for a tray of used glasses; wafting from them is the scent of faint, warm spice. Noiselessly, Sherlock pads over to the open doorway that leads into the main area of the flat.
A small fire curls back and forth in the hearth. The mantel is festooned with scented branches, and a few strings of pasty yellow lights hang from the mirror above. Beyond these, there is no other source of illumination that he can see; all the lamps have been switched off. Strange, flickering shadows skim over the furniture in accompaniment to the sullen spitting of the fire, darkening the grey-blonde hair of the man sitting directly opposite the kitchen with his chair turned towards the windows of the far wall.
Sherlock has to remind himself to breath, so focused has he been on staying silent. He shifts fully into the doorway, his hands back in his coat pockets, as he stares hard at the back of the other man's head. Part of him hopes that he will be heard, and noticed, and that the slumped figure will twist round to look at him. But another part of him balks at the idea. He's not prepared for this. The two viewpoints strain visibly this way and that across his face, desperate longing against cringing fear, and all the while a knot in his chest is twisting in on itself.
Finally, he steadies himself as much as he can. Moistening suddenly dry lips, he lets out the barest whisper of a word. John. Just once, and then he presses his lips together tightly again and tenses in his wait for a response. He is only slightly surprised to find that the murmur elicits no reaction. He hadn't really tried, after all – it had been a half-hearted sort of whisper at best, strangled by nerves he never realised he had until now.
He tries again, a little louder this time, but hoarser as well. Nothing changes.
Hesitantly, he takes a step into the room, his eyes uncertain beneath furrowed, upturned brows. John Watson still seems remarkably unaware of his presence for a former soldier with terribly good instincts – and that fact strikes Sherlock as frankly alarming. He hastens his steps towards the other man's chair, then draws up short a foot away, studying what fragments of the doctor's body that he can see from this angle. John's hands are relaxed, one resting on the arm of the chair, the other laying loose in his lap; his head is tipped forward between slightly hunched shoulders. He is asleep.
Sherlock circles wraith-like around his friend's chair, each movement deliberate so as not to startle John into waking. He looms above the other for a moment or two, then slowly sinks to one knee. His head is lower than John's now, and he can look up into the other man's face and see the shadows of lines that have deepened in his absence, the way John's mouth flickers downward even in repose. A dozen and more regrets seem to pounce on Sherlock all at once; he blinks them away forcefully.
Trembling hands reach out to rest lightly on the doctor's shoulders, and Sherlock's instinct is to squeeze gently, but he holds back. Instead, he lifts his hand after a moment to touch John's cheek as he had Mrs Hudson's. And then he goes still.
Half a second later, he pulls his hand away again in the manner of a man unsure if he has just been burned or not. He holds his fingers up in front of him where the light can reach them – still shaking, he notes – and he finds himself, somewhat irrationally, trying to get a glimpse of the moisture he can now feel on his own skin. He doesn't try to fool himself that it's just perspiration from being near the fire, or a drop of snow that melted onto his hand. But all the same, it takes him off guard.
Sherlock's gaze slides ponderously over his surroundings as a growing sense of soft, paralysing confusion sneaks up through his chest and throat and into his brain. He doesn't want to be the one to wake John and disturb him from peaceful unconsciousness, but nor does he want anyone else to do it. It's a discouraging dilemma, and he is not certain of the best way to look at it, let alone solve it. Anxiety still lingers, and he feels strangely pressed for time, as though if he hesitates for too long, these moments will pass by and he will be forced to walk away, unseen and unheard; a stranger, a ghost, alone.
Swallowing silently, he rises again on noiseless feet, his hands drawing his coat closely around him to prevent it from brushing against John's legs as he moves. He turns away carefully after another long glance at the other man, and as he stands there, his eyes do another circuit of the flat, seeking inspiration. It comes to him with surprising ease.
He slips quietly over to the window. There is a narrow section of wall that makes one half of the corner between the bookshelf and the edge of the curtain. Every other time he had seen it, the space had been covered only with wallpaper, but sometime during his absence, it had gained a new adornment.
Sherlock extends his arms and gently lifts down violin and bow. Both objects are nearly free of dust, a fact which speaks for itself, though of Mrs Hudson or John, he can't quite be sure. The feel of the curved wood against his fingers is odd, familiar and distant, comforting and somehow painful all at once. He hasn't played in close to three years, and it's only now, when the instrument is in his hand again, that he understands how much he has missed it.
Moving with a sort of deliberate swiftness, now that he has made up his mind, Sherlock steps back over to the chair opposite John. He sets the violin down momentarily on its seat so that he has one hand free again, and removes the scarf draped around his neck, instead laying it over the back of the chair. His coat, however, he keeps around him. He takes up the violin again, then slowly sits down with the instrument nestled against his body. Leaning back in only feigned relaxation, he proceeds to tune it.
Minutes pass in warm expectancy. Sherlock's fingers touch quietly at the violin, nudging the pegs and then drawing a brief note from one string, then another, each sound mingling with the erratic song of the fire nearby. His eyes look down at his work only when needed; otherwise, they remain fixed on the still-slumbering figure of John. It is as though the immediate pool of light in front of the hearth, encompassing the two chairs and going merely inches further, is the only place of importance. Just once does Sherlock glance beyond; when Mrs Hudson creeps up the stairs and into the doorway to give him a questioning look. He responds with a small shake of his head, and she seems to understand, for she turns and disappears downstairs again without speaking.
It feels as though an hour or more has passed before John stirs, though in reality it can't be nearly so long. Sherlock pauses with one finger poised over a string, and his eyes flicker over to John's face as the other man shifts, slowly raising his head. Breath held in his throat, Sherlock watches, his stance somehow wary. The last note he drew from the violin shivers away into silence.
"Took you long enough."
John's voice is bland, weary, and far too accepting of what he should see as an impossibility for Sherlock to do anything more than stare hard at him. He studies John carefully, noting with an increasing sense of disquiet the subtle hints which are telling him that something is definitely off. The other man's eyes are almost neutral, his shoulders still slumped, his feet relaxed against the floor. He is giving every indication of being utterly unsurprised; and Sherlock, his mind whirling with various ways of countering negative reactions, finds himself with no opposing force to parry.
His hand unconsciously grips the neck of the violin, and he leans forward very slightly, his eyes boring quizzically into John's unflinching gaze.
"You've… been expecting me?" In any other situation, it might have been a rhetorical question, but here Sherlock just doesn't understand what is happening. All the possible scenarios have flown from his mind in the face of reality.
John glances down at the fire for a moment, seeming to run his tongue along his teeth in thought. When he looks up again, his eyes have lost none of their neutrality. "Knew it was going to happen," he says, with a tiny shrug. "I've just sort of – resigned myself to it, I suppose."
"Resigned –?" Sherlock echoes the word in a whisper, blinking harshly as though to clear a fog from across his eyes. He can feel the tension, the worry, coming over his features in little spasms, and everything about John's uncaring manner is crying out silently that something is terribly wrong. "John –"
But his voice is too loud in the quiet of the flat. With an effort, he moderates it, swallowing hard and continuing in a more restrained tone, "John – I don't understand."
John seems to find his remark funny; at least, he lets out a little huff of dark amusement. "No, well, you wouldn't, would you?" he mutters, almost conversationally.
Sherlock closes his eyes and forces himself to exhale slowly; he doesn't like how shaky his breathing has become. He has never seen John like this, so completely apathetic. By every right the other man should be shocked, angry, at the very least confused. But instead, the confusion is Sherlock's own; and more than that, he can't deny that he is slowly but surely finding himself afraid.
When he opens his eyes again, reluctantly, it is to find John's lips still twisted in that tiny, humourless smirk, as though he knows that someone is having a joke at his expense and can't do anything to stop it. And even stranger, John seems to be looking over the detective almost as thoroughly as Sherlock is studying him – not in any disbelieving sense, either, but almost appreciatively, like he knows why the joke is so funny.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Sherlock's tone is one of unwilling and forced calm, and it's a slapdash job even in the best light. All he wants right now is to figure out what's going on, why John is behaving in this way, and how he can make it stop, because he can't bring himself to believe that this apathy is the truth of his coming home.
John, for his part, merely shrugs again. "Look at you… tuning your violin…" he murmurs, apparently at random. His tone is nearly bitter. Then he shakes his head with an unamused snort. A long pause follows.
"I told myself," he says after a moment, "that I wouldn't do this. I told myself I wouldn't talk to you. But I am, aren't I?" He looks up, seems to grab Sherlock's gaze, and then holds it there piercingly; and Sherlock feels a kind of sickening little jolt as he looks into the other man's eyes.
"I'm talking to you anyway," continues John, looking down unexpectedly at his knees; Sherlock can hear a sudden emotion in his voice, fragmenting the words – "and I don't even know why… it's so stupid, when I know – you're not really talking back, you're never going to –"
John's eyes screw shut and he breaks off with a long, shuddering intake of breath, dropping his head into his hands and clutching it there. "Go away," he pleads abruptly, his voice a broken whisper. "Please, just – I knew you'd come back, eventually, but I can't – I can't – I don't want to have to see you – there –"
Sherlock can only stare at him, hardly aware of the violin still clenched within his hand, feeling as though his insides are writhing around each other and growing tighter with each movement. His first instinctive understanding, the one that surfaces immediately, is the horrible realisation that what he has been dreading has become the truth. John does not want him here. John has moved on and would rather he disappear again and let the horrors of the past rest. But even with that icy fear in the front of his mind, Sherlock still can't reconcile it with all he has observed of his former flatmate. It doesn't fit quite right – there must be something else at work here.
He drags his mind back from that teetering edge, forcing himself to think clearly, even as his eyes rivet onto John's huddled form in front of him. It's quite evident that Sherlock isn't the only one afraid of something.
His breath catches. Without thinking, hardly registering his own movement, Sherlock lays the violin to one side and slides from his chair. Resting once again on one knee in front of his friend, he reaches out and pulls the doctor close to him, his head bowed over John's. He doesn't know why he does it, only that sitting there, appearing to tolerate John's distress, is asking far too much of his self-control.
The other man's reaction is immediate; he stiffens, and then his rigid body begins to shake again. John's hands dig painfully into Sherlock's arms as he desperately tries to lever himself away, out of the taller man's embrace. Repeated gasps of "Oh my God, oh my God," rise jerkily from his lips as he struggles, but Sherlock only presses the other's face firmly into the folds of his damp coat, muffling his words, holding him more tightly. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he wonders if he knows the reason behind John's odd behavior, but in the present moment that understanding has become secondary.
"It's alright," he finds himself murmuring, over and over and over again, with his cheek very nearly brushing John's hair. "It's alright…"
It's far more of a wish than a fact, of course, but one which Sherlock supports wholeheartedly. He winces slightly as John forgoes his attempts to escape in favour of clutching feverishly at the other man's back, his fingers as indelicate as talons even through the thick coat, his voice still hoarse with disbelief. Sherlock breathes out slowly, and simply lets his friend get on with it; he will permit such ardent physical contact simply because he realises it's the one thing that has convinced John of his real presence here.
After a minute or so, John seems to lose some of the energy of shock, and stops trying to get away. Sherlock tentatively loosens his hold a bit, making as though to pull back again, but John immediately latches onto him more firmly. His head is still down, buried somewhere near the detective's chest. He seems disinclined to look up at any point in the near future. Sherlock lets out a soft sigh, shifting slightly into a more comfortable position, and merely waits.
"You can't be here." John's trembling voice lacks conviction, but he goes on anyway. "You can't – you're gone, you've been gone for three years, I saw you – I watched you d –"
Sherlock can hear the other man working himself into a panic again; John's breathing is laboured and rapid as he exhales desperately against his friend's clothing. Swiftly, Sherlock moves his hands from around John's shoulders, down to the middle of his back. He presses firmly, his palms moving up and down in a calming massage.
"Don't think about it," he instructs in a low voice, surprised to find his own emotions churning uneasily again. Once more, he is mentally torn. He knows that once John gets over the initial shock of his appearance, the doctor is likely to start acting on all those sentiments that he has been quelling for three years; now he has an outlet, something – or rather, someone – to take the full force of his anguish. Sherlock, for his part, cannot deny that he probably deserves the brunt of that storm. But at the same time, he would much rather avoid it if he can. And here, perhaps, is a ready-made opportunity to do so. John is obviously not thinking too clearly right now – it would not be difficult, thinks Sherlock, to gently nudge his friend in the direction of acceptance rather than hostility while the other remains malleable.
His eyes flick to their corners, looking uncertainly at what he can see of John's form. He isn't sure if that apparently easier path is really the correct one to choose. Can he justify turning aside the impending torrent of the other man's emotions, simply to make it less painful for himself?
By this time, John has seemed to relax somewhat, in part due to Sherlock's pressuring of his back, and also because of his own weariness. Sherlock privately suspects that most of it is just a surface appearance; John has most likely put up mental walls to keep from being flooded by the full implications of what is happening. But maybe that's for the best right now. Maybe it's better, at the very beginning, to just ease across the top layer and work on accepting that much before they delve any deeper; a respite before facing the harsher realities.
He feels John twitch slightly against him, and after a moment, the other man speaks again.
"Your coat is still damp." His voice is weak.
Sherlock turns his eyes upward for a moment before glancing over his shoulder, towards the window. "It's snowing," he says simply, by way of explanation.
Another long, awkward silence follows, but Sherlock doesn't break it. He doesn't know how.
Eventually, John does it for him. "Sher –" But he can't seem to get it out; his voice twists and seems to fumble in on itself. Sherlock's hands tense against his friend's back. John inhales shudderingly, and tries again: "Sh-Sherlock – you – you were dead –how can you possibly be here –?" His mind still can't get around that barrier, apparently, but in odd contrast, his hands grip Sherlock more tightly.
The detective's body is beginning to ache from holding his position, half-kneeling with his arms around John. "Don't think about it," he says again, more firmly, unable to think of something more practical.
"How can I not, when you're – when you seem to be – right here –"
"John." As best he can, Sherlock eases back out of John's hold, at the same time releasing his own. John slumps forward as the solid body which he had been leaning against moves away, but Sherlock catches him by the shoulders, supporting him again, now with a semblance of breathing space between them. "John," he repeats gently, and he tucks the back of his hand beneath the other man's chin, lifting his heavy head, holding it there. "I don't seem to be here," he insists softly. "I am here."
John stares back at him, still as stone with features visibly stricken. Moisture wells over the rims of his tired eyes and slowly traces the curves of his cheeks, running down until Sherlock can feel the damp on his own hand. He swallows hard.
John whispers, "I wish I could believe you."
Sherlock can only return his friend's stare, his own eyes helpless. "Can you not?" The words come out automatically; he knows that had he thought about them, they never would have been voiced.
John blinks – too slowly, thinks Sherlock – as he replies. "I want to." His tongue moistens his lips hesitantly, as though afraid to taste the tears on his skin. "God, I want to. But –" John's voice catches yet again, and he shakes his head numbly.
Sherlock drops his hand as realisation begins to filter through his desperate mind. No matter how he may deny it or fight it, he cannot make John believe. Nothing he might say or do is capable of bringing his friend back so abruptly from this dark recess of loss – John has been driven too deep, and pulling him upward will only break him more. Sherlock is just the light from above, the rope that has been tossed down into the depths. If John is to accept this return as reality, he must seize that lifeline and pull himself up through his own free will.
Heavily, Sherlock gets to his feet, his body swaying with something more than hunger and fatigue. John has looked away again, and in his face is acceptance – acceptance that Sherlock will be repulsed by his inability to believe. Sherlock can see the images playing out as surely as if he can see into John's own mind: a tall figure with sagging shoulders stumbling listlessly over to the doorway, a backward glance through pale eyes now dimmed, and then a coat wrapped like a death-shroud around the dissolving shadow of a shattered man, leaving behind another man equally broken.
Sherlock clenches his teeth around a harsh gasp of breath, neck twisting downward. Several more moments pass before he can master himself enough to speak. When he looks up again, he hopes that he has managed to mask most of the emotions that have been shivering across his face for the last half hour.
"I'm not leaving," he declares, very quietly, as conversationally as if John had just asked out loud if he intended to stride from the room. He goes on in a low murmur, "Nothing you say is going to make me leave." It feels vaguely and uncomfortably like talking to an inanimate object – or perhaps a pet – but at the same time, Sherlock wants his own intentions at least to be quite clear.
John does not respond, and his head droops as he stares at the floor. His energy seems utterly spent, so much that he cannot even bring himself to look up. Sherlock watches him, his own eyes flickering sadly. If it is shock, or fear, or a refusal to face something so painful, he cannot tell. Tentatively, he takes a step closer again. One arm extends slowly, his hand reaching for John's shoulder, but then he pulls it back again as though unable to go through with the action.
"Merry Christmas, John," says Sherlock thickly, his voice made quiet by a silent plea for the forgiveness he knows cannot come.
He turns away then, without waiting for John to react. Staring blankly at nothing, Sherlock finally removes his coat. His movements are small, subdued, and he lets the garment fall unthinkingly from his grasp so that it pools onto the floor at his feet. He retrieves his violin and bow and steps towards the window. His mind is desperately trying to smooth itself out, trying not to think about these circumstances, or in fact about anything. Thinking, for once, is too painful.
Closing his eyes, forcefully steadying the trembling of his hands, he raises the violin and begins to play.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas… let your heart be light…
From now on our troubles will be out of sight…
Sherlock turns slightly, glancing back over the violin. John is hunched forward in his chair, and now he's holding the detective's discarded coat in his hands, as though hoping it will speak to him and tell him that it's alright to accept Sherlock's presence, that it will give him comfort, not hurt him more. His hands clench and unclench around the fabric; and then he draws the coat around himself hesitantly. His head lifts, and his gaze meets Sherlock's own, his expression eloquent yet plain. It says, with a tremendous effort – I'll try.
Sherlock watches him for a long moment, then turns his head away again. Trying is such a difficult endeavour under these circumstances. Trying – he wonders if, in the end, it will be enough.
Here we are as in olden days… happy golden days of yore…
Faithful friends who are dear to us… gather near to us… once more…
The words of the song drift slowly through Sherlock's mind in accompaniment to the strains of his instrument. He can't quite decipher if his subconscious, in choosing the song, is trying to give him some sort of hope, or is simply describing a mute desire destined to remain unfulfilled.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough…
And have yourself… a merry little Christmas now.
Maybe, when it comes down to it, he's just trying to give John a reason to believe.
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