Due to the overwhelming feedback generated by the post I made, I was motivated to write a little fic, partly as an apology for apparently upsetting thousands of people, and partly because I want to cackle with glee as I upset you even further. Let me know what you think!
Desert, Desire, Deserve: 3,114 words
Warnings: Swearing, lots of creys
Summary: Post-Reichenbach. Sherlock returns after three years, expecting John to punch him in the face. What he gets is so much worse.
It’s grey and drizzling the day Sherlock at last returns to London, which suits him just fine. It gives him an excuse to pull up the collar on the tattered, old jacket he’s wearing and duck his head away from the crowd. Three years have passed since his face last appeared in the papers, but he doesn’t want to run the risk of being recognized. Not yet.
“Sherlock,” his brother greets him with a nod. “Looking a little worse for wear, I see. Didn’t bother to shave this month?”
Sherlock grunts, but rubs his chin self-consciously.
“Hasn’t been my top priority, Mycroft,” he says. “I’ve been a bit busy scouring the globe for terrorists. And you? Is the chair in your office still as comfortable as I remember?”
Mycroft glances up, past the rim of his umbrella and into the dim, hazy sky. Sherlock notices he’s lost weight, but maybe not the good kind, because there are lines in his face that weren’t there before. Oblivious to the scrutiny he’s under, Mycroft considers for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of taking the bait, then sighs and pulls an envelope from inside his coat.
“Reimbursement,” he explains. “As we agreed. Shall we go? I have a car waiting.”
Sherlock almost refuses the money. They did agree, though, so he grudgingly accepts it and follows Mycroft out from under the eaves of Heathrow International to the idling Benz. A few people glance at them in mild interest, but their eyes don’t linger – they have places to go, people to meet, and two men, one looking homeless and the other like a rich man, are hardly worth the time.
In the car, Mycroft’s assistant, Anthea, hands Sherlock a bundle. It’s his old coat, the navy blue one that he left with Mycroft all that time ago, and on top is a mirror, a bottle of water, a razor, and shaving cream. He rolls his eyes but accepts the gift without a word.
“It’s taken care of, then?” Mycroft asks as Sherlock carefully cleaves away the black stubble on his face.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”
“Nothing surprising. Two of them gave me a time of it in South America – Sebastian Moran and Lucas Cray – but I caught up with them eventually. Moran’s with the CIA and Cray’s got a life sentence for murder in Peru. Whether or not he deserves it is a matter of opinion.”
He finishes shaving and Anthea offers him a towel.
“What about the third one?” Mycroft prompts.
“Greer?” Sherlock smiles. “No longer a factor.”
“No more questions,” he says firmly. “If you don’t like the way I did your job for you, it’s your problem, not mine.”
They ride in silence for a few minutes, Sherlock having swapped his ratty jacket for the navy blue. He’s feeling out the seams, remembering the way they stretch and fall like one might remember the embrace of a dearly missed friend. And speaking of which –
This seems to be a topic Mycroft has been dreading because he visibly winces. Sherlock looks up sharply.
“John didn’t take it well,” Mycroft says.
“I know that,” Sherlock says. “I was there. But how has he been since?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Mycroft sighs. He presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “He never really… Well, I did my best to see he was looked after, that he didn’t do anything reckless or stupid, but I won’t lie to you. There’ve been questions about his psychological wellbeing.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s hard for me to say, to be honest. I haven’t been there. It’s in D.I. Lestrade’s reports, mostly. They go out for a pint occasionally, you know, and Lestrade tries to make sure he’s not alone with only Mrs. Hudson or –”
“What,” Sherlock repeats with no small amount of venom, “do you mean?”
Mycroft eyes him dubiously. Sherlock is looking at him with hard eyes, harder than they used to be even before all this mess with Moriarty. There’s been a change in his little brother. His mind flickers with doubt. Maybe it’s not John’s mental stability he should be worrying about.
“It’s probably nothing,” Mycroft says. “I wouldn’t explain properly, anyway. Best if you go see him yourself.”
“I intend to. In fact, take me there now.”
Baker Street is the same as ever, barely changed in the past few years save for the installation of a new lamppost on the corner. It’s early evening and there are a few people in the deli. No one Sherlock can recognize, though. He hovers on the stoop of 221B for a moment, bracing himself for the inevitable explosion, and then reaches out and knocks firmly on the door.
“Just a moment!” Mrs. Hudson calls from within.
There are footsteps – the familiar light shuffling of a woman of a certain age – and the door swings open. Mrs. Hudson looks up at him. She blinks.
“Hello, Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock smiles. “Don’t suppose I could bother you for a cup of tea?”
He expects the tears that well up in her eyes and the shrill wail she gives as her mind catches up with her eyes. She leans against the doorframe as though her legs have just gone out, fingers clutching desperately at the wood.
“You can’t be…You were…Sherlock!”
Mrs. Hudson bursts into tears and throws her arms around him. Sherlock returns the hug and pulls her gently inside, deciding that this is a spectacle he’d rather not have the whole street privy too. For a few minutes, the landlady is utterly lost in herself, crying into his coat. Then, at once, sense seems to return and she bangs her fist harshly against his chest.
“What did you mean by all that?” she demands shrilly. “Pretending to be dead and then not bothering to drop by or write for three years!”
“I was taking care of some very delicate business,” Sherlock says. “I hardly could have called to chat.”
“Oh, you big prat!”
“Please believe me when I say that I did only what I considered to be absolutely necessary, Mrs. Hudson. If it had been possible to return even a second sooner, I would have.”
“You always knew how to butter me up,” Mrs. Hudson sniffs. “Don’t expect that to work on John, though.” She grows serious. “He’s been a right mess.”
Ah yes. John.
Sherlock’s eyes flick to the staircase and the rooms above and Mrs. Hudson seems to understand at once. She steps aside and gives him a gentle shove. He glances at her, as if seeking permission or reassurance, and she smiles.
“Go on, then,” she says.
Sherlock straightens up, runs his fingers nervously across the lapels of his coat, and then mounts the first step. It creaks beneath his foot.
Stepping into the flat is like travelling back in time. Things have changed – furniture has been moved, papers have been shuffled about, the bookshelf has been reorganized – but these are John’s belongings only. Sherlock’s things are still exactly as he left them, down to the glass vials on the table and the violin perched sloppily on his chair. The book he was reading when he left is still opened face down on the floor. It’s eerie. For a moment he believes that if he walks into the kitchen and opens the microwave he’ll find a jar full of eyeballs, though he knows Mrs. Hudson at least will have thrown these away.
His heart sinks. This is not the home of a man who has accepted the death of a friend. This is the home of a man who is deeply in denial.
Suddenly winded, he moves the violin and sinks into his chair, trying to sort out his thoughts and find the right thing to say. Briefly, he considers, “I’m not dead, let’s have dinner,” but then decides that humor is perhaps not the best route to take. Before he can come up with a concrete plan of action, the door to John’s room swings open and the man himself steps in.
John glances at him, sees him in the chair, registers his form, and then…
Looks away? What?
Sherlock watches John cross to the kitchen and put the kettle on, completely unsettled. In all the scenarios he has imagined over the past three years, this has not been one of them. Yelling, yes. Punching, yes. Perhaps even a few rounds fired from John’s gun. But indifference?
Something is terribly wrong. He’s missed something.
Carefully, he examines John’s profile, searching it for any discrepancies from the John in his memory. He’s the same in his face and expression, still neatly put together with the measured, precise care of an army doctor. His left hand is still, not shaking, and there’s no sign of the cane anywhere in the room. John’s clothing is clean and free of wrinkles, the buttons done correctly and the laces on his shoes tied.
Nothing is wrong.
Time to reassess. Maybe he didn’t actually see Sherlock. Maybe he thought it was a trick of the light.
“Er, John?” he calls.
“What?” John replies.
“How have you been?”
Sherlock grimaces as he hears the words come out of his mouth, knowing how idiotic they sound.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! he admonishes himself. Three bloody years and all you can think of is ‘How have you been?’ You complete and total –
“Same as always, Sherlock,” John says without missing a beat.
Ouch. Well, there it is, then. The barb. This is John’s response – he is so mad that he’s completely transcended violence and gone straight on to passive aggression. It’s somehow worse than being hit.
“Some concern has been expressed to me regarding your ability to cope with my ‘death,’” Sherlock begins dryly. He is about to finish with, “But I can see that any worries have been ill founded,” when there’s a bang and a loud crash in the kitchen.
John has thrown a mug against the wall.
“Shut up!” John snaps. “Just fucking shut up already! I don’t need…I don’t need it from you, too, so do us both a favor and…”
He lets out a ragged breath and runs a hand through his hair. He’s facing the other direction, but Sherlock can see that his back his hunched and his shoulders are shaking slightly.
“Look, John, I’m sorry,” Sherlock begins again. “You have to understand that it was the only way.”
“Shut up!” John roars.
Sherlock’s mouth snaps closed.
Time passes in silence. John finishes making tea and returns to the sitting room with only one cup. (There’s that barb again.) He sits down in his chair across from Sherlock and reaches for the remote control sitting on the table.
“You don’t mind if I watch telly, do you?” he asks offhandedly.
It’s the only exchange they have for hours, until at last John stretches and rises to go to bed. He bids Sherlock goodnight and then goes up to his room, shutting off the light and flooding the room in darkness as he goes. (The barb, once more.) Eventually, Sherlock goes as well.
He lies in bed in his old pajamas but the confusion and guilt are so thick that he can hardly bring himself to close his eyes, let alone sleep. Instead he stares blankly up at the ceiling, trying to reassure himself that he’d done the right thing, that lives had been on the line, lives he cared about, and that if one death hadn’t been faked then three deaths would have been real.
That line of thought is pointless, so he turns it over to reexamining his interactions with John. He can’t shake the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong, and the fact that he can’t figure out what is killing him. The evidence all suggests that things are fine and yet he has this feeling that…
No. Stop. Feelings are irrelevant. The fact is that Sherlock knows John, knows how he thinks and acts. He isn’t passive aggressive. He’s regular aggressive. His behavior isn’t congruent with the model for John that Sherlock has in his head. There are only two possibilities – that something is making him act in this contradictory manner or…Sherlock’s model is wrong.
Had John changed? No, he’d already ruled that out. Or had he? What if he’d never known John at all, not really? Could that be it?
His mind runs in endless circles, spinning and twisting back again, like a snake devouring its own tail. At some point, he nods off, but wakes only a few hours later with the sun. It’s seven and John won’t be up yet. It’s too early to try again with him, but there are other people Sherlock needs to talk to. Well, just one, really.
There’s an answer on the third ring.
“Detective Inspector Lestrade speaking.”
“Lestrade,” Sherlock greets. “This is Sherlock Holmes.”
“That’s not funny,” Lestrade says harshly. “Who is this and what do you want? You can bet your mother’s arse that if you don’t tell me I’ll find out anyway.”
“It’s not a joke,” Sherlock says with a chuckle. “Nine years ago I was high off my mind and taken in on murder charges despite the fact that it was completely obvious who the real killer was. You were the only one who would listen to me. Lestrade, I’m not dead.”
“Yes,” Lestrade says. “Yes you are. This isn’t possible because Sherlock Holmes is dead. I went to his funeral.”
“I faked my own death. Is that really so surprising?”
“John watched you die.”
“John thought he watched me die.”
Lestrade makes a strangled noise through the receiver and Sherlock is glad he decided to do this over the phone. Comforting a crying Mrs. Hudson is one thing but he doesn’t think he’d be able to handle a blubbering police man as well.
“Fuck you, Sherlock,” Lestrade chokes.
“Yes, I know.”
“Oh, fucking hell, John’s not going to take this well.”
Sherlock frowns and shifts and says, “I’ve already seen him. I’m at the flat now.”
“Christ,” Lestrade groans. “What happened? What did he say?”
“It…it was a bit odd, to be honest. I didn’t even think he noticed me at first.”
“What’s going on?” Sherlock asks. “Mycroft thinks that John isn’t right in the head. There’s no evidence to suggest mental degradation but his behavior has been…wrong. What am I missing, Lestrade? What aren’t I seeing?”
“Shit,” Lestrade says again. “I’ll be right there, Sherlock. Don’t move a muscle. We need to talk.”
He hangs up the phone before Sherlock can demand the answers he so desperately desires.
An hour later finds Lestrade pacing 221B with barely concealed panic. Sherlock, previously only confused, is beginning to feel similar nerves and taps his fingers on the arm of his chair. He wishes, for the first time in one year and seven months, that he had a cigarette.
“Where’s John?” Lestrade asks at last.
The detective inspector stops pacing and licks his lips, as if searching for the most delicate way to break bad news.
“He hasn’t been coping well,” he says at last. “At first he was fine. Well, not fine, but, you know, he was grieving and that was to be expected. But then, it must have been a few weeks after you, er, died. He just sort of…”
“I’m getting tired of this,” Sherlock frowns. “Tell me honestly – what’s wrong with him?”
There’s a sound from the doorway like a gasp or a choke or a whine. Lestrade and Sherlock turn to see John, still in his bathrobe and pajamas, standing framed in front of the stairs. His face is a sickly mixture of green and white, at once too pale and too colorful to be healthy. His mouth and eyes are opened equally wide.
“What?” he says. “What?” His eyes dart between them, scrambling to find purchase on something, though Sherlock can’t tell what. He trembles and quakes and opens and closes his mouth without making a sound. Then, like a sharp slap –
“You can see him, too?”
Sherlock feels his heart stop in his chest.
“John, I’m not dead,” he says quietly. “I tried to tell you last night –”
“You were here last night?”
Lestrade clears his throat but Sherlock barely realizes he’s there anymore. The entirety of his enormous, whirling mind is focused on John as the smaller man crumples and falls to the floor, staring up at Sherlock like a ghost or a god.
John hadn’t thought he was real.
John hadn’t reacted because he thought Sherlock wasn’t real and he was used to it.
Suddenly, everything clicks into place, but the surge of satisfaction that he normally feels upon solving a difficult puzzle is gone, replaced by a crushing nausea that seeps into his skin. John has been seeing things and it’s all his fault.
“I’ll never leave again, John,” he finds himself promising. “I swear on my life.”
He wants to reach out and touch him, to show him that he’s real this time – this time – but he can’t move, can hardly even breathe.
“Don’t,” John says, voice cracking. “Don’t swear on your life. On anything else, but not on that.”
And all Sherlock can say is, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” again and again and again.
For the past three years he has wandered the world, homeless and alone. In Egypt he nearly starved to death, in Hong Kong the Black Lotus tried endlessly to have him killed, and in Russia he watched, unable to help, as women and children were slaughtered like animals. In Australia, he shot a man and then kept on shooting until the bullets were all gone, and once again in South America he’d done terrible things to settle a personal vendetta.
So many endless days and nights had passed, so many horrible months, and in all that time, Sherlock had wished for many things – for home, for John, for Mrs. Hudson’s tea, even just to see Anderson’s stupid, smug face. Sherlock had wished – and he remembered this quite clearly – no fewer than seven times that he was dead, that he had really fallen that day at St. Bart’s and cracked his head open on the ground. But never before had he wished for death for any reason other than self-pity. Never had he felt a staggering self-hatred like this, crippling and visceral and real. It wasn’t until he stood there, watching John sob brokenly on the ground as he endlessly apologized for things which could never be fixed, that Sherlock Holmes believed he deserved to die.