John walks steadily down the darkened street, streetlamps casting light here and there. It is a busy road and he does not notice the shadow that is following him a few steps behind.
Even though John won’t see him, with his dark long coat fluttering, just another amongst the passers-by, the man walks slowly, trying to look inconspicuous, trying to blend in.
The suit John is wearing is fancy, and Mary’s note is neatly folded inside the pocket of his jacket, on the left side. He has read the words so many times he can easily recall them. He smiles, thinking about how lucky he is to have found her. He hasn’t the slightest idea why she asked him to meet her here tonight, but she chose the restaurant where he proposed to her, one of her favourites.
John walks in and the valet opens the door, nodding politely. John sees his own reflection in the hall’s mirror but he does not waste time contemplating it. He follows a waiter to the reserved table and he orders water while he waits.
The man waits outside, looking at himself on a nearby window. His own hair is greyer, the wrinkles on the corner of his eyes deeper. He feels his heart throbbing inside his chest and, to distract himself, he tries to remember the last time he was this nervous. Memories rush by, he allows them to.
1987. His first scientific experience that went terribly wrong. His mum had him grounded for months.
1990. His first kiss. A girl he never saw again stole it during a family’s wedding.
1998. His first fight, against a school colleague.
2003. His first dose.
He closes his eyes, blocking the thought, storing it back into his mind palace. He could have chosen to forget. But he wants to keep it for remembrance, so he won’t fail to recall who he used to be and who he has become.
2010. The year he met John. The year his loneliness was chased away by an unlikely being such as himself.
2012. Staring at John crying over his empty grave.
It was the recalling of that day, more than anything else, which compelled him to take a step forward, finally walking into the restaurant.
Talking Mary into doing him this favour hadn’t been easy, but Mycroft had helped and she was now, more than anyone, his accomplice. ‘I know how much you mean to him; I am doing this for him, not you.’ She had said. Sherlock knew that. He was not the sort of person people would do things for.
The valet took his coat as he walked in, but he refused guidance. He could see John clearly now, illuminated by the dim lights that hang from the low ceiling, sipping from his own glass of water. It was the first good look he was having of him after three years and, despite the circumstances, he suppressed the urge to laugh. John had grown a moustache. That idiot.
He approached the table, his shadow casted all over John.
John lifted his eyes from his own watch and looked at the source of disturbance of the light. Standing on his six feet tall was Sherlock Holmes. John blinked a few times, stopped on his tracks, mouth slightly opened. Sherlock was gazing at him with all the imposingness he remembered.
The baritone voice hadn’t changed. No tremor, no hesitation.
Sherlock saw as John’s eyes watered, saw as his best friend tried to search for an answer. But even as John got up, he did not anticipate the fist that moved in his direction, hitting him hard on the left side of his jaw. John was left-handed and his punch stronger than Sherlock remembered. He kept his head down, hand on his chin. The small crowd that sat at the restaurant tables had their eyes on both men, and the waiter approached at once, talking to Sherlock.
“Are you alright, sir?”
Sherlock nodded and looked up. John was gone.
“Where did he go?”
The waiter pointed at the empty hall and before he had time to stop him, Sherlock paced towards the street.
John was leaning against the wall, head between his hands, rocking back and forward. Just like Sherlock’s, his coat had been left inside. He looked up as Sherlock walked outside, his breath visible as it met the cold air of the evening. His lip was bleeding.
John said the word as a curse, pointing out at him. He wanted to say more, so much more, but the words were too lost inside his mind and nothing made sense.
People where slowing down as they walked by them and Sherlock faced him.
“Please, come inside. Let’s talk. There’s much to explain.”
John nodded, his throat dry as sawdust, his heart so small, crushed inside his chest. He followed Sherlock as if he was a ghost, and leaned against the wall again.
Their eyes met. De grief in John’s eyes killed Sherlock on the inside, tore up at him bit by bit, until all he had planned to say seemed vacant, hollow, meaningless. How could he start to explain? Which words could he use that would heal what he was seeing on those accusing eyes?
He reached out for John’s arm but his own hand was left hanging in mid-air, too awkward to complete the movement. Three years is a long time and he had never been good with affection.
“Moriarty threatened to kill you if I didn’t kill myself.”
His voice was low, almost a whisper. He could see the valet looking at them, aware of any sign of trouble.
“You. Mrs. Hudson. Lestrade. He wanted to destroy my name, my years of work. He wanted me to die as a fake. That was his last trick. If I didn’t die, you would.”
He waited for John to take it all in.
“I had to pretend to kill myself to save you.”
Sherlock read the question on John’s expression before he turned it into words.
“I figure it out and I had Molly and Mycroft’s help. It had to be believable. There were snipers with guns pointing at you. If I hadn’t done it they would have shot.”
“And you knew it way before you went to meet Moriarty.” John said. Not a question, an affirmation. “It never occurred to you to include me on your plans?”
John’s voice was quivering and he raised a hand, stopping Sherlock from interrupting him.
“For three years… For three damned years, I have been reliving that scene in my head. In my dreams. I have been dreaming with you flinging yourself from that rooftop for three years and I can never catch you. Not once. You’ve been hunting me for three years and it never occurred to you to tell me that you were… you we-“
He trails off, pressing his palms against his own eyes, suppressing the sobs that form in his throat. Sherlock’s hand finds a way this time and settles on John’s shoulder. He can’t make himself hug him. That he hasn’t learned yet.
“There was still one out there.” Sherlock continues. “One of the snipers, and Moriarty’s right hand. Steve Moran. Took me three years to find him. But I did, so we are safe now. All of us.”
John lifts his head, still crying, still fighting it.
“What does it matter now?”
Sherlock doesn’t understand the question.
“It matters because it’s fine now. We can both go back to what we used to be.”
Despite everything, John laughs.
“No.” He says, shaking his head.
The look of confusion on Sherlock’s face is what makes it worst.
“We can never go back to what we used to be.”
He prepares to walk away, but Sherlock’s hand is on his arm, and he clutches at him.
“Why not? Don’t you remember? The thrill of the chase, the blood pumping through your veins, the two of us against the rest of the world!”
John detects a glimpse of madness on Sherlock that scares him more than anything else.
“There is no two of us against the rest of the world. There’s just you, thinking the world revolves around you, at your whim. Leaving me behind, no matter your reasons, and thinking you can make three years right in a second. You broke me. I am still broken, trying to mend the pieces. And I thought that you, coming back, would make it all okay, but it doesn’t. It just makes it worse.”
He pauses for a second, weighing his own words.
“I am sorry.” He apologises. “I’m the one who needs time now.”
And he walks away.
Sherlock finds the empty flat just as he left it three years ago. It’s not really empty; all his things are scattered around just as before, Mycroft made sure they would be kept like that. Mrs. Hudson is gone for the day, and his old violin sits on its stand. It was probably the only thing Mrs. Hudson allowed dust to rest upon. He grabs it, blowing the dust, and tries his best to tune it, but like all things, three years is a long time and he can’t fix it. He plays nevertheless, the unturned melody voicing his heart perfectly.
Later that night, Sherlock sits on the floor, Billy on one side and his violin, strings broken, on the other. He clutches at John’s coat, which he retrieved with his own from the restaurant, and he falls asleep holding on to it, the smell of cologne like salt on a fresh wound.
Somehow, this helps him sleep. It also helps him remember that time opens wounds but it also heals them. That he can buy new strings for his violin and play new melodies, strange fingers can learn again. And he can also leave his door opened and one day, if he’s very, very lucky, John will walk in to get his coat back and, possibly, his friend as well.
It does happen after a long time. Sherlock is on a case and he has cracked it, but he has no one to rejoice with, and it doesn’t feel the same.
The nicotine patches are gone and the cigarettes fill the house, as if he is trying to end it faster, to burn his own lungs so that he can forget the ache in his heart. There is a key he uses seldom; he keeps it at the bottom of his drawer, hidden between the creases of John’s folded coat. It opens a world that stings his arm, a literal solution, an escape when everything is too much for him to handle. Three years away, with his mind set on the return, has changed him more than he can admit to himself, but it’s not like he cares now.
Both Lestrade and Anderson – feeling guilty, he is sure – invite him to go out and have a drink but he refuses, immersing himself in deeper studies, dead bodies and weird mixtures. He visits Molly regularly, who is a silent companion, and seems to understand what he is going through better than he himself does.
He walks in the flat, removing his scarf and gloves, and he stops at the threshold. John is sitting on his chair, facing the door. He holds a newspaper, Sherlock’s face on it, the complete explanation of three years away.
“Lestrade called me.” He says.
Sherlock nods; he doesn’t know what else he is supposed to do.
“Says you started smoking again.”
“Are you part of the smoking squad now?” Sherlock questions.
The words come out blunter than he wished. Somehow, the pain is there and even though he believed it all had made his heart more vulnerable, it made it colder again. Today, as any other, their last conversation had crept into his mind, and he feels revolt because he did it to save John. He did it to save John.
John points at the newspaper.
“It’s all here. What happened. I know now.”
Sherlock puts the kettle on and watches as the water boils.
“The newspaper is a couple of weeks old.” He turns around to face his old friend. “Why today?”
His stare is cold and it scares John.
Sherlock sees the small envelope on John’s pocket and he lifts his chin, understanding.
“Oh.” He says, before John can continue.
He puts two cups on the kitchen table and John gets up, placing the envelope on the table.
“I want you to be my best man.”
The words catch Sherlock by surprise but he is quick enough to hide it. He frowns.
“I said I needed time; I never said I wouldn’t forgive you.” John utters.
Sherlock opens the envelope and traces the golden letters with the tip of his finger.
John stares right at him.
“Because you’re my best friend.”
There is a glimpse of emotion that suddenly betrays his composure and for the first time since he can remember, Sherlock has to fight back the tears.
It comes out as a relived whisper and the two man gaze at each other for a moment. Then, John smiles.
“You’re an idiot, you know?”
The words are so familiar they pierce though Sherlock’s chest and he holds his breath. He nods. John laughs and finally Sherlock smiles. He takes a step forward and, without hesitation, he embraces John. If John is surprised as he holds him back, he doesn’t show it.
“Congratulations.” Sherlock says and he pulls away. He means it.
“Yeah, not all was bad about you being gone. At least I was able to keep a girl to marry me.”
But he is smiling, no more hard feelings.
They sit down and have tea, and after Sherlock does his explaining, they talk of trivial things. When it’s too late, John puts his coat on and stands at the door.
“Any advice for the groom to be?” he asks.
It takes Sherlock just a heartbeat to answer.
“Yeah. Lose the moustache. It’s ridiculous.”
John frowns. Then he smiles one of his warm smiles, and leaves.
Sherlock washes the cups. Then, he gathers the cigarettes and he lights them, watching as they turn into ash. He unlocks the drawer and flushes the solution down the toilet. He cleans the flat a bit and places all the books around the flat on their shelf, as they should be. Billy goes back to his place over the mantelpiece. He won’t be needing it so often anymore. And he plays the violin, a known tune, the first joyful one in years. His hands don’t tremble anymore and he knows he will be alright. He calls Molly and tells her to choose a dress; they have a wedding to attend to. And this time, as best man, he plans to be worth the name.