Well, everyone, this is the end of the line. Thank you all so, so much for your kind reviews - I'm far behind in responding to them, but each one has been much appreciated and treasured. I hope you enjoy the conclusion, in which John gets his happy ending. Finally. :)
London, December 2013
After a month and a half of overseeing Sherlock's convalescence, during which time petty skirmishes over diet and physical therapy have threatened, on more than one occasion, to finish the job that jumping off St. Bart's could not, both men are relieved to finally get the news that the last of Moriarty's network has been neutralised and they are free to return to the world of the living.
In retrospect, John's glad to have been on hand when Sherlock appears to Mrs. Hudson for the first time in eighteen months, and he's even gladder that neither he nor she have been up to the task of ridding 221B of Sherlock's things, which turns out to be convenient, as well as having the ancillary effect of rendering the flat all but unleasable in the interim. By the end of October, they are once again ensconced in their old surroundings - and yet, there are differences that strain against the familiar trappings.
It's one thing to have retrospectively believed oneself in love; it's quite another to be living with the object of one's erstwhile affections again in all his infuriating eccentricity - his experiments, his arrogance, his moods. The dichotomy between the superlative Sherlock of John's bereaved imagination and the stroppy one who lies brooding on the sofa for hours on end is stark, and it takes John time to reconcile the two.
But there comes a day when Sherlock, on his first case for Lestrade since his 'death', turns to John with eyes alight from the thrill of the game, and it's all John can do to remain upright. Something shifts in that moment - some indefinable thing that isn't new, but a rewriting of something John's felt for years - and he realises in that moment that what he'd felt before couldn't possibly have been love, because it wasn't this. This is more - everything - and it leaves John so plainly stunned that Sherlock tilts his head, fawn-like, and asks, "Are you all right?"
And John stares for a long, pregnant moment - at Sherlock's dark curls, his long fingers, his slender neck - then chokes out, "Fine. I'm fine. It was just -"
But Sherlock, assured of John's fineness, is off again, a whirl of coat and collar and splendidness that makes John reach behind him for a nearby chair into which he unceremoniously collapses. He catches the quizzical glance Lestrade gives them both out the corner of his eye, and he answers its accompanying smirk with a flush and a muttered "Shut up" that leaves Greg laughing.
Last Christmas, John had sat alone at his bedsit nursing a bottle of Scotland's finest; this year, there's a cosy fire and fairy lights and friends, and at one point John has to excuse himself, retreat to his bedroom, and sit on the side of his bed swiping at tears that will come despite himself. It shouldn't have been possible, he thinks - then gives a small laugh. Of course it's possible - it's Sherlock, who rewrites the laws of nature itself just to suit his whims.
A soft knock sounds on John's door, and Sherlock sticks his head inside.
"Everything all right?" he asks, his shrewd gaze taking in John's reddened eyes, but John gives a short nod.
"Fine. Fine," he says with a tight smile, and Sherlock, after a moment, nods and closes the door. It's something, John thinks, that Sherlock would even notice he'd gone; two years ago, he wouldn't have. John has no idea of Sherlock's feelings towards him, and he's certainly not prepared to ask, so he drinks in these small gestures that mean so much more than they seem - waters his own feelings with them and helplessly watches them grow.
A few minutes later, John hears the merry notes of "I Saw Three Ships" come wafting up from the lounge - for Molly, no doubt, looking pretty and fresh and more relaxed than John's ever seen her before. He smiles to himself and rejoins the party; but when their guests have gone and it's just John and Sherlock again, John dims the lights and lets the firelight cast a warm, shadowy glow on the room. He settles into his (much-missed) armchair, leans his head back, and smiles to himself. There's a lingering scent of gingerbread in the air - courtesy of their not-your-housekeeper - and pine from the sprigs on the mantle that Sherlock tolerates with many a long-suffering sigh.
It's a comfortable quiet into which seeps a melancholy note that makes John open his eyes. He finds Sherlock standing by the window, violin in hand, and looking down at him with purposeful eyes. The white of the falling snow outside casts a cold hue over him - he is black and blue, grey and white. Alone, separate, and the sounds that come from his violin are like nothing John's ever heard him play before. Where it usually storms and soars and occasionally sings, now it weeps - a low cry of sorrow and regret meant just for John, who thinks he can hear love in Sherlock's wordless lament.
With pounding heart and trembling hands, John stands and crosses to Sherlock, who leaves off on a broken note and turns an apprehensive face to his friend. John gently takes the violin from Sherlock, placing it carefully back in its case, then grasps his hand and leads him to his own chair across from John's. Sherlock sits, looking wide-eyed up at John as he reaches out to slide his fingers lightly down Sherlock's face. Sherlock's eyes close with the stroke, and he leans into the touch, covering John's hand with his own, nuzzling calloused fingers against his stubbled cheek. John sinks to his knees between Sherlock's legs, snaking a hand around Sherlock's neck and burying his fingers into the lush crop of curls at the nape, pulling Sherlock close.
Their first kiss is tentative - a dry brush of lips from which they pull back, each studying the other. Then John licks his lips; a reflex, but one which serves him well as Sherlock smirks wryly and reaches out to bring John back. This kiss is better, a light nibbling of Sherlock's lower lip joined by a coaxing tongue that teases Sherlock's willing lips apart. Soft pants, high gasps, and low moans echo in the quiet as John reaches up to undo a button - then another - slipping his hands inside cool cotton and over smooth skin. He slides the shirt off Sherlock's shoulders, then brings his lips to Sherlock's long, craning neck, his warm breath raising goose bumps over the sensitive flesh as leans close and suckles there.
Sherlock clutches the wool of John's jumper, sliding forward slightly in his leather chair as he pulls John forward. He takes John's face in his hands, his eyes devouring the utterly uncommon sight of John's swollen lips and dilated pupils, and he lunges, consuming John with a hunger that bides by no rules but its own. And this, this is what John has wanted for so long - to overwhelm and be overwhelmed. To touch and feel, both inside and out; to look - to be seen and known. To love, to be loved, despite flaws and foibles; and he does, he loves Sherlock, who's alive when he shouldn't be, brilliant and beautiful and like nothing John's ever known.
John laughs breathlessly and Sherlock pulls back, a hint of hurt lurking on the edge of his expression; but John shakes his head with a soft smile, climbs to his feet and gently pushes Sherlock back, straddling his lap to bring the hard flesh still trapped inside his jeans into contact with that just barely hidden away within Sherlock's Spencer Hart trousers. Sherlock hisses; his head falls back - his eyes close - and John uses this momentary incoherence to his advantage, pulling his own jumper and t-shirt over his head, then leaning forward to bring his mouth to the soft flesh above Sherlock's sternum. He's always liked the feel of skin against skin, but until now it's been his hard planes against the soft breasts of a woman. This is different - new - and as Sherlock regains enough of his composure to slide his arms around John's waist and up his back, as John lets go of a lifetime of self-loathing and surrenders himself to the sheer want that suffuses his body, he realises how quickly it could become an addiction.
Fingers fumble at their zips, just enough to buy some relief - to bring them that much closer, though they're both too far gone to last very long. Sherlock's fingers hook into the belt loops of John's jeans and he mindlessly grinds against him again and again, until their sighs become pants become heaving gasps, and they cling to one another as climax overtakes first one, and then the other.
John collapses against Sherlock's chest, fighting to regain both his breath and his dignity; Sherlock is still beneath him. A fleeting terror flits through John's racing mind - that they've gone too far, that something delicate between them has been wrecked and ruined. He's close to a kind of aching regret he hasn't felt in years when he hears Sherlock sigh into his hair - feels the gossamer lightness of the kiss Sherlock brushes against his shoulder, thrills at the possessive tightening of Sherlock's sinewy arms around his waist.
And they sit like this for a time, as the world carefully rearranges itself around them, and when John sits up and slides off Sherlock's lap and onto the floor, Sherlock leans forward - his tousled curls deliciously debauched - and places a gentle kiss on John's forehead. John slides a thumb over Sherlock's lips.
"It's only ever been you," Sherlock says softly, his eyes never leaving John's.
John smiles, for once - finally - at peace with himself.
"Sherlock," he whispers.
Coda: London, December 2002
It's another tiresome night spent out on the streets, but what else has he to do? Mycroft, the prat, has told him, 'in no uncertain terms', that he's to be back no later than ten o'clock, and that's simply rubbish. He'll do what he likes, and what he likes is to impress the masses with his feats of deduction. It's wasted on this lot, of course; he can see straight through the grasping desperation of lipstick and mascara, short skirts and tight blouses, and he knows that, to them, he's little more than an amusing boy with a few stunts up his sleeve. But, while it leaves him cold, there's a part of him that soaks up the small squeals of delight the girls give as he explains that the bartender owes fifty quid to his bookie, and he needs to pay it back within the week or there'll be hell to pay; that the girl in the corner with the furtive glance is having an affair with her married professor; that the plumpish bloke in the checked shirt comes from Manchester and is studying to be a doctor.
They clap and giggle, and he takes a sip of water and a drag of his cigarette. He's just about to move on to his next hapless target when he notices the friend of the fat fellow looking at him. He's a nondescript sort - plain in his jumper and corduroy trousers, hair the colour of ripened wheat - but for a fleeting moment he sees Sherlock in a way people seldom do. There's a flash of appreciation in his eyes, and for a long, lingering moment it holds Sherlock hostage. Then he laughs - not in mockery, but Sherlock's eyes narrow all the same, and, chastened, he turns back towards his friend.
And suddenly this is just so cheap and pointless. Sherlock can be better, wants to be better for someone like that, who might see through his bravado and understand that it overlays a world of hurt and benign neglect. Someone who might realise that there's something more than parlour tricks to him.
And when, years later, they finally come face to face in the company of their mutual friend, Sherlock knows that John Watson is the one who saw him - the one who will always see him - and he surrenders a little bit of his heart to John's keeping, quite unbeknownst to himself.