IN TWENTY MINUTES
Fandom: BBC Sherlock
Summary: After the hug, what then?
Characters: John, Sherlock
Notes: Ages ago pipmer1 left a prompt wanting to see “what happens between Sherlock and John right after that epic hug.” That stuck in my brain, and months later I’ve ended up writing my version of it…even though I’ve otherwise been trying valiantly to delete S4 from my brain entirely. ;-)
Thank you to indybaggins for betareading! We realized we were both writing fics about the exact same canon missing moment (though very different in tone) and decided to swap betaing. It was fun! And thanks as always to arianedevere, whose transcripts are a fandom resource and treasure.
Rated T for discussions of grief, and John’s swearing.
~ ~ ~ ~
It’s not okay.
John wants – he wants to punch something.
He doesn’t want Sherlock to reach out like that, put his long arms around John and fold him in like he could offer some sort of protection, redemption, commiseration, even for a fleeting moment. Because if he does that, John will –
John is crying.
He was crying already: hot tears, painful as they rip out of him and plummet to the floor, like gravity has claimed them even before they leave his body. He was crying already, but if Sherlock touches him like that, with compassion, he might never stop.
He might never stop crying these fucking useless tears, and then what kind of man will John be? What kind of father?
Isn’t it better to keep running away?
And Sherlock’s hand is on the back of his neck and John’s chest is wrenching open and he can’t stop it. He can’t hold together the pieces any more than he could stop his blasted-open shoulder from spraying blood. Everything in him wants to run but instead he’s hunched into Sherlock’s shoulder like a wounded animal.
He is a wounded animal, with bloodied claws he doesn’t know how to retract. He’s hurt everyone he promised to protect. He’s not the man Mary thought he was. He’s not the man Sherlock insists on believing he can be.
“It’s not okay.”
“No. But it is what it is.” Sherlock’s voice thrums through John’s skull and it shudders the tears loose and John can’t stop. He can’t stop.
It’s not okay. It’s not okay.
It is what it is.
John shudders and weeps into Sherlock’s dressing gown, as Sherlock’s cool fingers cradle his aching neck. He cries and cries, and he’s sure Sherlock must be tired of staying still like this, Sherlock with his hummingbird attention span and his bored! exclamations, Sherlock who’s never had patience for anyone. But Sherlock stands and holds his arms around John without the slightest shift or sigh.
“Sherlock,” John says finally. His voice comes out rough, dragged through the mud of tears. He says Sherlock’s name to give him permission to go, says it even if John himself isn’t ready to give up being caught and held, and saved from himself like this. But even Sherlock can only be required to perform superhuman feats for so long.
So John steps away, extricating himself from Sherlock’s arms. Wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. He doesn’t apologise. If Sherlock wanted to know which part he’s apologising for, would John even know?
John drops heavily into the chair where he sat before, opposite Sherlock, so Sherlock sits as well. Sherlock picks up the tea he’d been drinking before John had his little mental breakdown, gives it a slightly baffled look, then sets it aside again.
“Er,” Sherlock says in the tone of voice that means he’s about to say something, and then John’s going to be required to be the judge of whether or not that’s a thing that normal people say. “Would you like to talk?”
No. John would not fucking like to talk.
He would not like to ever talk, not about anything ever again. Preferably he would go suddenly, inexplicably mute. That would be great, actually. If John were physically unable to speak then no one could ask him ever again in that kind, concerned tone used on newly bereaved single parents, How are you doing, John?
Or they could ask as much as they liked, but he would never have to answer.
But he wants to be better than that. He wants to be better than that for the two adults he has loved most in the world, his wife and his best friend.
And he doesn’t want his daughter to grow up with an emotionally constipated idiot for a role model. Not that either.
“Yeah,” John says. He breathes in hard through his nose, breathes past the post-cry congestion that’s drowning his sinuses. “Sure. Let’s talk.”
Sherlock steeples his hands under his chin and adopts a serious look, like he’s trying to imitate a kind but professionally removed therapist. He’s so far out of his element it would almost be funny if John weren’t still perilously close to bursting into ugly tears at any provocation.
But it becomes abundantly clear that Sherlock isn’t going to speak first. This is John’s shit show, so he’s supposed to be the one running it. Apparently.
“I,” John says. “I, erm.” He clears his throat. God, this is stupid. Him and Sherlock trying to talk about their feelings, could there be any two more constitutionally incapable people? Now all they need is for Mycroft to sidle in the door, looking like it gives him a toothache just to remember that other human beings exist.
The thought is so ridiculous that John accidentally lets out a slightly crazed laugh. Sherlock looks at him, alarmed, and forgets to keep up his therapist pose.
“Sorry,” John says. “Sorry.”
He tries again.
“I.” He bows his head, looks down at the 221b floor under his feet, so familiar to him after all this time that he has lived here, not lived here, returned again and again. He raises his head again to look at Sherlock, with his stubble and the healing cut over his eye. “I am not doing well, Sherlock. I’m not joking about that, I’m not okay.” He lifts a hand like he can fend off anything Sherlock might say before it leaves his mouth. “Don’t tell me some platitude, I know you mean well, but it’s just, it’s shit, it’s how it is, anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Grief is shit, guilt is worse than shit, there’s no word for it, but it’s what I have. And I have to keep going on through it anyway, because that’s what I have, okay? Because of Rosie, because I have to be there for Rosie, so I go on. Can you understand that, Sherlock?”
John drops his hand back into his lap and looks away. Are their twenty minutes up yet? God, this does feel like a therapy session: waiting for his time to be done, counting the minutes until he can shrug away the discomfort of having to pick up his feelings and name them and look at them in the light. It’s a discomfort he’s always winced away from, even if he knows it’s probably good for him.
“John.” Sherlock’s voice has dropped into the deep baritone thrum that feels like it could lift the floorboards.
John looks up. There’s a particular way Sherlock says his name that still has the power to startle him, even after all these years.
Sherlock shifts his feet against the floor, looking unexpectedly hesitant. “There were times, during . . . those two years we don’t speak about,” he begins.
Ah. When Sherlock was ‘dead,’ then.
“It is in no way comparable to your grief over Mary, and I would never presume to suggest such a thing,” Sherlock says, in that deeply rolling, almost oratory manner he has. “But those were not easy years, and there were times when the only thing that kept me moving forward with difficult, distasteful work was the knowledge of you, and the necessity of returning to you. So: that much, if nothing else, I can understand.”
John stares at him.
Because Sherlock came back from those years of pretending to be dead and set about being an absolute, utter arse. He crashed John’s wedding proposal. He took them down into the bowels of the Underground and pretended to get them both nearly blown up. He never properly apologised for the years of lying. Or for making John watch him die.
He surely didn’t act like someone who’d kept himself alive only for John.
When he made his only vow, and made quite clear it wasn’t a thing he planned to do ever again, for anybody else. When he proved that vow by sacrificing himself at Appledore, for Mary and for John. John isn’t completely stupid; he knows it’s only chance that brought Sherlock back home from exile this time.
God DAMN it, John’s going to cry again.
No. No, he absolutely refuses to shed any more tears today. Not over something as pointless as a realisation of just how much Sherlock cared about John at a time that’s already several years in the past.
Instead, John lunges up out of his chair and across the space between them to enfold Sherlock in a fierce hug. Sherlock gives a squawk of surprise, or maybe just dismay.
“No, you tit,” John growls. “Let me hug you.”
Sherlock acquiesces, his arms coming up once more around John. It is in every way the opposite of their earlier hug. Fierce where the first was tender. John now as the giver and Sherlock the receiver.
“What is this for . . . John?” Sherlock asks, sounding confused, his voice muffled against John’s shoulder.
“You are the best. Friend. I’ve ever had.” John says emphatically into the air behind Sherlock’s mess of curls. Then he adds decisively, “And you are such a cock.”
John laughs. The laugh comes out kind of watery. But kind of okay.
“I will always be here for you, John,” Sherlock says solemnly, his face still pressed into John’s shirt at what must be an uncomfortable angle. It’s getting weird now, that they’re still embracing but nobody is crying. Why is that, anyway, that it’s weird to hug if nobody’s crying?
“Please tell me it’s almost time to meet Molly,” John says. He’s noticing now all the awkward things like how his hands are getting sweaty where they hold Sherlock’s shirt, and that his mouth is oddly close to Sherlock’s ear.
“Yes,” Sherlock says. “Yes, quite.”
They break apart.
They smile awkwardly.
Sherlock’s smile isn’t the big fake one he gives clients, nor the far more rare but more real one that comes out when he’s truly experiencing joy. This is something more tentative, but gentler as well.
John’s own smile must look like he’s wincing. He so rarely shares this much of himself with anyone who isn’t being paid to sit in the seat opposite and listen. He can’t believe he’s shown so many awful sides of himself to Sherlock and Sherlock is still here.
Right now John doesn’t want to punch anything, though. That’s a first in recent memory.
And he’ll see Sherlock again tomorrow for John’s next turn at keeping him out of trouble, six ‘til ten, and John isn’t dreading it. Now there’s a thought.
Sherlock texts back and forth a bit with Molly to arrange where to meet: some cake place, which doesn’t sound entirely awful after all this mucking about in the mires of emotion. They both get their jackets and John follows Sherlock out of the flat, as he’s done so many times before.
When they reach the bottom of the stairs, before they open the door to the street and face the world together, Sherlock rests a hand lightly on John’s shoulder. A hand that says . . . damned if John knows what it says. But it’s a start.
It is what it is.
or read it on AO3.