A/N: I'd never intended to throw my hat into the "Return of Sherlock Holmes" ring - I wasn't trying to avoid it, I just never really thought I'd have something to contribute. But inspiration for a story is a fickle thing and here I am, over a year later, with plot bunnies nesting away.
There are a few people I'd like to thank. First and foremost, my beta, AGirloftheSouth, for her constant support, perspective, and general tidying up of my work. Verity Burns, for a fantastic conversation in a fantastic pub about origin stories. And Ariane DeVere, who painstakingly transcribed each of the 6 episodes, which is an invaluable resource to any author.
I am posting warnings for: major character death, violence, and probably some M/M porn (but let's be honest, why else are we here? ;)
"Am I too late?"
Yes. The answer was writ large in his expression, but it was also a lie, a desire to cause pain. Not an unexpected one – and there was no time for it, judging by the hard swallow that pushed down the impulse to be cruel. Cold blue eyes met his, holding them for a long moment – too long a moment, given the circumstances – but then John gave a shake of his head. An economic, almost truncated motion, so military in its reserve.
"No. She's waiting for you."
John held his ground for a fraction too long – a small rebellion, or maybe a warning. With a sigh he looked and stepped away, letting Sherlock move past into the small hospital room.
John hated the smell of hospitals now, that stale-pungent aroma of disinfectant, medication, and illness. The air felt heavy, like it never moved, like he couldn't quite expel it from his lungs. It was a feeling he'd carried when he'd been in the hospital himself – one he thought he'd overcome before it. The event had no name, because calling it what it was had been so hard – too hard.
And it had all been a lie.
He was trading one death for another, and the thought made him dig the heels of his hands into his eyes. Part of him wanted to deny the whole thing – this could be a dream. He'd dreamt about then so often that it only surprised him now when he opened his eyes in the morning and didn't remember it plaguing his sleep.
But no amount of denial or pinching the back of his hand would alter the reality. Age and illness breaking down a body. Two weeks of hospital visits, all the drawn out waiting, facing the possibility – no, the certainty – that he was losing another link on the too-small chain that had reconnected him the world.
A meeting with Mycroft – and actual meeting, scheduled in advance – and explanations that hadn't made sense to his stunned mind then.
Promises that Sherlock would be located and return before the end. An explanation to Mrs. Hudson with John there holding her hand, the delight and relief in her eyes had made him feel nauseous and guilty. Had made him want to run – a typical response for him, according to Ella, who knew these things. He forced himself to stay because running was what Sherlock had done, and John wasn't leaving.
Not this time.
He rubbed his hands together, suddenly acutely aware of the smoothness of his skin – in Afghanistan, his hands had always been chapped, calloused. It made him feel too sedentary, too complacent, and the urge to leave this all behind pushed him from his seat, made him pace lengths along the corridor in hopes that it would dissipate.
Some small, stubborn part of him ignored the sound of the door opening again, made him wait, facing away, forcing Sherlock to say his name.
John turned, keeping everything in check – especially the anger Sherlock would read anyway, all the resentments that they didn't have time for now.
"She'd like to see you."
"Are you all right?" John asked gently, taking her hand in his, surprised by the strength that still lingered there.
"Not according to all my doctors, love," Mrs. Hudson replied. But the light in her eyes told a different story – she looked better than she had even fifteen minutes ago. "But are you?"
He mustered a smile, it felt wan but he hoped it passed as convincing.
"I'll be fine," he promised.
"Don't be angry with him, John. He explained everything. Why he did it. Why he had to do it."
"Yes. I know." Mycroft had gone to great lengths to ensure he knew.
"Life is too short. I don't want you boys fighting for the rest of yours."
"It'll be fine," he said, leaning over to kiss the parchment skin of her cheek to cover the lie. "Don't worry."
The silence was a blessing. John didn't have any desire to speak – he had questions, but didn't want to ask them. Didn't want to give Sherlock the satisfaction.
He could feel the detective's grey eyes on him once in awhile – flickering up to assess whatever Sherlock thought he was assessing. Everything, probably. He tried for awhile to give nothing away then gave up, too tired to sustain the effort. Let Sherlock deduce what he wanted to deduce. There were more important things to think of.
The daylight faded to dusk blue then to night. John caught sight of the occasional guard wandering outside the door – nothing so obvious as uniformed security. A man in jeans and a shirt and a tie on his mobile, looking harassed. A woman cleaning the floor. An orderly and a nurse having a quiet conversation.
These were Mycroft's people after all.
There to protect Sherlock.
The sounds of the hospital became more muted as time past, as visitors left, as shifts finished changing, as doctors ended rounds. The quiet company of the monitors beeping was a familiar one to John – so many years as a surgeon, so many weeks in recovery. In the early days here, he'd kept track of them, watching for signs of hope. Now he checked them only as a matter of routine.
Waiting for them to change.
The flatline came sometime just after midnight, but there was no rush of a response team, no crash carts, no coding. The doctor came in, summoned by the nurse, who turned everything off, leaving the room as peaceful as the death had been. Despite himself, John breathed a sigh, feeling an expected flash of guilt at the rush of relief that there was no more waiting, that it was done, and that it had been without tears or pain or fear.
After Sherlock's – disappearance, Mrs. Hudson had given John power of attorney and made him her executor. With her sister in a home and recognizing almost no one, she'd insisted he was all she had.
He'd told her the same.
Mrs. Hudson had brushed that off – and John knew she was right to. Things with Harry were better than they'd ever been. Consistently better.
But Mrs. Hudson had been family all the same. A mother he hadn't had in years. A son she'd never had at all.
There were papers to sign and people to talk to and decisions to be made as the night wore on into the early hours of the morning. When it was finished, when she was gone to be seen to by all the right people, Sherlock was still there.
John felt a dull thrum of surprise – both at the fact that the detective had stayed and that he was there. Real, present, tangible. Not a dream. Not this time. Standing awkwardly, hands in the pockets of that coat – God, did he get it cleaned after that? John wondered, trying not to wince at the memory of the blood, shaken by another memory of Sherlock in a cemetery in Grimpen, looking apologetic.
Too much death – John shook all the memories away, shrugging his coat over his shoulders, aware of Sherlock watching the motion, judging it. Let him figure out that his shoulder didn't bother him so much anymore but that the blasted limp came back now and again.
It wasn't going to tonight. Not if he had any say in it.
"Where are you staying then?" John asked, hating that he really did care. That he was interested and that he wanted Sherlock to have a place to go so he could be angrier with his former friend.
A quick glance away, licking his lower lip and biting it briefly – and John realized Sherlock didn't know. It stunned him into immobility for a moment; Sherlock had landed in London and come straight here.
"Mycroft's, I imagine," he replied, and John didn't imagine the note of distaste – reluctance – that had slipped into his voice. It might have been deliberate, but he doubted it was feigned. A hesitant pause and Sherlock actually shifted uncomfortably. "You're still at the flat."
It wasn't a question, so John didn't nod. If Sherlock had internet access – and John couldn't imagine the great Sherlock Holmes without internet access – then he'd have been reading the blog. It had taken awhile to start up again, and had been as stilted and patchy as his first attempts, but as the year had worn on, it had been better. Some rough spots – Christmas, Sherlock's birthday. And he'd been dreading the one year anniversary of his best friend's death.
A twitch crossed his lips. He'd been spared that. Spared by a lie.
"You could stay at hers," he said. "I doubt she mi– Well it doesn't matter what she would have thought now, does it?"
"She left you the house." Again not a question, but there was a shadow of one in there. John gave a curt nod.
"Then it's a matter of whether or not you mind."
"Yeah. I do," John replied. "You can stay anyway."
John hailed a cab outside of the hospital, a dislocated feeling making him almost dizzy when Sherlock moved to do it, like two separate lives were being superimposed on one another. Like all that time had never happened and Sherlock was back into old habits but John wasn't.
He'd learned – or become used to – operating on his own, of being one whole entity, not half of a pair. Like living without a shadow.
Without a partner.
John snapped the door closed behind him; Sherlock shut his more gently, letting John give the address. The same silence descended – only it wasn't the same. The questions that hadn't mattered a few hours ago were clambering for attention now, churning in his throat, poised on his tongue and lips, fighting to be voiced.
"Molly knew." He heard himself saying it without intending to, without even having realized it until now. The weight of all the implications hit him, made him lean back in his seat and exhale a slow breath – without something to distract him from it, the reality seemed overwhelming. The plans. The details.
"Molly knew," Sherlock confirmed. "I needed her help to make this work."
John bit his lip against the retort, watching the sleeping city slide by through the smoky glass.
"I visited, you know. Every week. Sherlock, who was I visiting?" The silence made his head snap back; Sherlock had his hands in his pockets again, meeting his eyes only reluctantly. "Mycroft said he was dead, that he shot himself on the roof of Bart's. If you weren't in that bloody coffin, who was?"
"It was him," Sherlock confirmed, voice low, almost hesitant.
"Jesus Christ," John muttered, pressing a fist against his lips, looking away again, but this time it wasn't the city – or even the battlefield – he saw. A cemetery, a polished, gleaming black headstone. A body rotting in the ground that deserved nothing better – but that certainly hadn't deserved his grief and his companionship.
"He was least likely to be found there. No one would think to look."
John was spared having to answer when the cab slowed. He paid the driver – probably tipped him too much, but it didn't matter – and scrambled out of the car as quickly as angry dignity would allow. Sherlock followed him inside, a silent shadow.
"Here," John said, fumbling for Mrs. Hudson's keys in his pockets. He passed them off into a waiting palm, fingers brushing Sherlock's, sending a hard jolt down his spine. They hadn't touched, not once. No hugs. No punches.
He wanted to punch Sherlock, get a reaction – shock, surprise, pain. Anything. The desire made the nerves in his hand burn but he wrestled himself under control. He could do without the broken bones. He'd spent too much time in hospitals lately.
He wasn't worth it.
"No bloody violin music," John muttered as he started up the stairs. "I need to sleep."
"You've got my violin," Sherlock replied, stopping John cold. Despite himself, he looked back down; Sherlock met his eyes levelly but there was something else there. Pain. Grief. Longing.
Mrs. Hudson was dead, and Sherlock wasn't.
He wanted everything to go back to normal – it never could, but god he wanted it to.
Sherlock wanted the same.
At three in the morning, it seemed somehow possible, even easy. Come upstairs, your room's still the way you left it, all your things are still there–
Old habits die hard.
Especially when they're not dead, John thought.
"Get some sleep," he made himself say, picking up his pace again.
"John. I had to. To save your life."
He paused again, hand on the railing, looking up at the wall ahead of him for a long moment before glancing back down.
"Yeah," John said. "I know. But did you have to take yours right in front of me?"