It starts with breakfast in a café. There is a table in the window. There is a checked tablecloth, red and white gingham. There is one of those plastic tomatoes that holds the ketchup. There is sausage, egg, bacon and beans, and a tomato sliced in half and grilled. There is cheap, stained cutlery and mugs of milky tea. And there is happiness.
John cannot remember the last time he was this happy. He thinks it may have been in Dartmoor. So long ago. Before the grief. Before the loneliness.
And now here he is, three years later, and the man he missed, the man he mourned, is sitting opposite him. And the most unlikely thing about it all is not that he is having a greasy breakfast with a dead man, but that Sherlock is tucking into the full English with extra toast.
'Who are you and what have you done with Sherlock Holmes?'
And Sherlock actually laughs. John has the distinct impression he has not done that for a very long time.
They eat quietly, glancing up at one another occasionally, as if just check the other one is really, actually there. They have done their talking, their shouting, their throwing things and slamming doors and punching. They have reached a kind of equilibrium. It is all finished, their renegotiation, the recognition of damage done, promises broken, trust smashed and anguish caused. There has been recognition too of a debt owed, of a brave act undertaken, lives saved at great expense. Nothing is left unsaid now, nothing unacknowledged.
John still feels a bit wobbly, a bit emotional. It's going to take some time. There is no precedent, at least not in his experience. No one comes back from the dead. Except Lazarus. And Sherlock Holmes.
One last miracle was what he asked for. One last miracle is what he got.
Only it is not the last.
Because then, when John is half way through his sausage, when egg yolk is dripping from the bacon on his fork, Sherlock reaches across the table and covers John's hand with his own.
Their eyes meet.
Sherlock glances down at the contact, indicating its significance, and says, 'Three years is a lot of time to think, John.'
Outside on the pavement, Sherlock clears his throat and buries his hands deep in the pockets of his overcoat.
John nods and they set off, John having to overstretch to keep up with Sherlock's loping stride. Somewhere around five minutes in, he realises that a pale, cold hand has snaked back and ensnared his own.
I am walking hand in hand with Sherlock, he thinks. Sherlock is holding my hand.
By the time they get to the park, John is as high as a kite.
It is late February and the wind is still bitter. Spikes of new daffodil leaves have broken through the grass, between the livid spotches of acid yellow and amethyst purple of crocus. They stroll down the avenue of skeletal cherry trees, where the rusty peeling bark shines in the pearly daylight. In a few weeks time, this path will be canopied with heavy pink blossom, the tarmac drifting with a snow of fragile petals. Cherry blossom time is John's favourite time of year. During his grief, he spent many hours walking here. The pompoms of flowers comforted him somehow, gave him hope. Hope that did not prove, in the event, to be false. Now he is walking that same path with the man he never thought he would see again.
Sherlock is holding my hand.
John is elated.
Sherlock starts showing off. He talks confidentially, deducing every passer-by.
'That couple there, the elderly couple? Not married. Adultery.'
'I'm serious! Look at them, they're having far too much fun for a couple who have been married for fifty years. Holding hands? No. He's just come from visiting his wife in hospital – he's got the consultants letter sticking out of his pocket, see? And she's made some excuse to get away from her boring husband who just sits in front of the telly watching golf or indoor bowls all day.'
'How can you tell?'
'Make-up, John. She's wearing make-up. You don't dress up to meet someone who has seen you first thing in the morning every day for fifty years.'
'I think you have a very unromantic view of marriage.'
'If I loved someone enough to stay with them for fifty years, I pretty much would still want to dress up and look nice for them.'
'That is because you are a romantic, John.'
Says the man who is holding my hand and being deliberately charming, John thinks.
'And what are you?
'Yeah. Right.' John catches sight of another walker, a young woman pushing a pushchair. 'What about her?'
Sherlock loves to show off, and he has known from the start that John loves it when he deduces, so he'll relish any challenge offered.
'She's fallen out with her mother. Probably thought she was too young to get pregnant.'
'Oh, come on!'
'What is she, do you think? Sixteen? Seventeen, tops. She's clearly bringing that child up alone, no help at all, judging by the obvious exhaustion, unwashed hair, the baby sick on her coat.'
'Most mums look like that.'
'Not that bad, John. She's alone, no one to rely on, no one to help, or to tell her that her tights have a big hole in the back of the knee, or that her baby needs to have his head covered in this cold wind.'
'You never thought about having kids, did you?' John asks.
Sherlock does not look at him. 'The chances of finding an amenable partner seemed minimal.'
Seemed, John realises. Then notices that Sherlock's fingers have tightened around his own. I wonder if we are going to talk about this, or just pretend it isn't happening.
They do three loops of the park. By that point, people are beginning to give them funny looks for hanging about so long, two strange men swanning about, holding hands.
'I suppose we ought to head back,' John says, feeling a little deflated. 'I've got to be at the surgery for noon.'
Sherlock hesitates. He clearly would stay here all day if he could.
'Do you have to? I thought you might come and help me at the morgue. There's an interesting case I'd like your opinion on.'
His eyes plead.
I want to keep holding on to your hand, John thinks. I don't ever want to let go.
'Sorry. I promised Sarah a shift today. And I need the money. Realism sucks, doesn't it?'
They walk to the park gate. They will have to go off in different directions. John is torn. Sherlock's hand is warm. They turn to one another. Sherlock smiles fondly. John doesn't know what to do.
'I'd better go,' he says.
They just stand there.
Sherlock squeezes again. John can feel the heat rising in his cheeks. He wants to break out. He wants to say 'I love you' but he can't.
'See you later then.'
'Yes.' Sherlock says, voice full of regret.
And then, as John turns and starts to walk away, Sherlock speaks. 'Angelo's tonight?'
'It's a date,' John calls back over his shoulder. He grins insanely all the way to work.
John looks back at the walk in the park as a kind of oasis of joy amidst the return to normality. Two weeks go by. Sherlock has settled back into taking cases, working all hours, hardly sleeping, being rude and obnoxious. And not holding John's hand.
Not that the glow has dissipated much. John is so relieved that Sherlock is home that nothing could take the shine off the world for him right now. To settle into the old routine is just about as comforting as John could hope for. He realises, as days stretch into weeks since the happy hours in the park, that Sherlock is too busy re-establishing himself to worry about his feelings. In fact, Sherlock does not think about feelings. Instead, John clings warmly to the knowledge that at least he has had the recognition of his importance in his friend's life. One moment of fondness will be enough. Perhaps there will be more, perhaps not. It hardly matters now, so long as they are together. So he puts up with the rudeness and being taken for granted and the mess and the violin in the middle of the night, because that is Sherlock, and that is John's life, and it's just the way he wants it to be.
Then the last big storm of the winter comes sweeping up the Channel from the Atlantic, buffeting the south of England. The wind rattles the tiles on the roof of 221B, rocks the chimney pots, paints the sky the colour of dreadnoughts. By bedtime, the gutters are overflowing.
John makes himself a last hot drink before bed, listening to the sashes creaking in the window frames, and thinks of the cherry blossom, getting ready to bloom in the park. It will be blasted by the rain. The buds will be bruised and ready to rot by the morning, partly formed petals strewn across the paths. It makes him sad.
He leaves Sherlock muttering insults at the internet (on John's laptop yet again), and mounts the stairs. As he undresses, hail lashes the window panes. He doesn't mind wild nights like this, though. It makes him happy to feel safe and warm inside. He's done enough distance manoeuvres on the moors, and patrols in inhospitable landscapes, to know what it is like to be out on such a night.
In the early hours of the morning, he is woken by movement. The rain is still hammering on the roof, the wind whistling in the chimney. The bedroom door is open, a familiar figure silhouetted against the landing light.
'Humpf?' John turns over, struggles up onto his elbow just as the light goes off and the door shuts softly. Then the duvet is drawn back and a long, warm body slides in beside him. John finds himself wrapped in arms and legs, sweet-scented from the shower.
'I heard you call,' the deep, breathy whisper comes in his ear.
'No, you didn't,' John sighs, nestling into Sherlock's chest.
'No, I didn't.' Then a pause. 'I couldn't sleep. I was lonely. I didn't want to be lonely.'
John can't help but smile against his friend's t-shirt. 'It's a good thing I'm here, then.'
'Yes,' Sherlock whispers. 'Isn't it.'