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The Thing Which I Greatly Feared Is Come Upon Me

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Once the repairs to Baker Street have got past their initial phase, during which the air is full of particulate matter, John makes the experiment of bringing Rosie along; he and Sherlock work around her in the sitting room, while she stacks blocks and sweeps them down again, laughing. “Watson,” Sherlock tells her, “your studies of structural engineering have clearly been deficient to this point.” He had tended Rosie before, at Mary’s urging — her urging of John, that is, for Sherlock, though he had been tentative at first, had never seemed reluctant. The windows are wide open to spring and to the sounds of quotidian London; that morning, Mrs. Hudson moved back in from the serviced flat where Mycroft had been putting her up. Sherlock and John are drinking coffee from Speedy’s (new furnishings and kitchen equipment also paid for by the British Government, Personified) into which they’re trying not to spill any wallpaper paste. Sherlock turns away from Rosie’s construction project, then turns back again, frowning, to cup the back of her head; his fingers reach ear to ear. Not so much as two seconds has elapsed before he returns to the wallpapering. He doesn’t say anything about the moment, and John doesn’t either.

Sometimes he wonders why Sherlock calls Rosie “Watson”; he could have thought it a way of shutting Mary out, but that Sherlock had gone to such bitter lengths to save her. Everyone else, her father included, calls Rosamund Rosie. “Watson” is oddly dignified and a little strange and might express a hope of Sherlock’s that this child will grow up likewise, which John can’t argue with, much. His own hopes for a hypothetical daughter had once involved — he can hardly believe this himself, sometimes — matching mother-daughter dresses; ballet lessons; a big wedding. The first was absurd even before Mary died and the third he now understands as laughably unimportant. The second is a possibility, though, if she turns out to love dance as much as her godfather does.

John can’t think of what he himself might hope, for Rosie. When Sherlock rescued him from the well, and Rosie was brought to him, it seemed impossible to take any action other than to hold her close to him; he let her go only to Sherlock, and then only because Sherlock pointed out that he would develop hypothermia despite the shock blanket unless he put on the fresh dry clothing that had also been brought. John could see the logic of that. He had a child; he ought to protect himself from hypothermia. He would not have believed how difficult it could be for a grown man to tell himself this, to force his arms away from that small body, to raise his head from where he had pressed it against her shoulder, to dam the stream of “Oh, God, Rosie” pouring out on his breath.

He had stripped out of the wet clothes, never mind who might see, put the thermal shirt on backward twice, panting, then finally getting it right on the third try. Sherlock sat in the back of the ambulance with Rosie tucked under his coat and his knees bent up to make a palisade in front of them, swaying a little. He must have been exhausted. When John was dressed, he handed Rosie back and took off his coat to drape it over all of them. Under it he drew his arm over John’s shoulders and squeezed, once, lightly, then withdrew and wrapped himself around his own legs and put his head down, and that was how they waited till one of Mycroft’s cars came to take all of them home.

The driver dropped John and Rosie off at the flat he had moved into with her after Mary died. It didn’t occur to John till later that he had no idea where Sherlock was staying.

*

John’s at Baker Street a couple of afternoons each week; after that first trial, he brings Rosie as a matter of course. Eventually, because that day it is raining and the strap of the bag with all the baby kit has pulled his jacket collar away from his neck, so the rain has got down his back, and maybe it would be nice to not be so much of a donkey so much of the time, he asks Sherlock for permission to store some baby supplies — “Nappies, wipes, some baby food?”

Sherlock’s organizing his forensics texts and doesn’t turn. “Or you could omit the intermediate steps. The place is habitable now. Move in.”

John looks around. Sherlock found wallpaper exactly like the old wallpaper, and together they had made a new smiley face in the wall, but the coffee table has rounded corners, and the stairs up to his old bedroom are gated at foot and head. The rebuilt kitchen cabinets have locks. All this has been done with conscious purpose: Sherlock’s purpose. For the first time, John considers that he has been spending almost all his free hours at the task of restoring what, if anyone had asked him, he would have said was Sherlock’s home. “You’d want that?” he says.

Sherlock does turn now, to frown at him. “You’ve just spent thirty-nine seconds belatedly attending to the evidence that I do. Obviously, if you are disinclined to return on a permanent basis, you’re welcome to store whatever you like. That’s not in question.”

Mycroft once told John that Ella was an idiot, but the events at Sherrinford had made many things clear, among them the fact that the genius of Sherlock’s older brother didn’t extend as fully as he thought it did to the workings of actual human persons. John did miss the war: Mycroft was right about that. But Ella had been right about the trust issues, she had been right about the PTSD, and she had not exactly been wrong about the blog, either, had she, though John’s efforts in that department hadn’t worked as she might have hoped. John could write about Sherlock, he could write about their cases, he could respond lightly or sternly to comments; what the blog couldn’t teach him to do was to look at a feeling and name it.

“Thank you,” John says now. “Yes, I’d like that. I’d — ” But the end of the sentence is a precipice, and drops away.

*

John thinks Lestrade was wrong, all those years ago, when he thought Sherlock great but not good. Sherlock treated Jim Moriarty’s crimes as puzzles, but he competed with Jim by solving them, not by committing murders even more clever. The difference now is not that Sherlock’s become good but that, having survived Sherrinford and with it the failure of all his attempts to shield himself from feeling, he seems to have concluded that there’s no point in having any shields at all; he is, though sharp-tongued as ever, extravagantly tender. “Watson,” he says one morning when she launches herself at the pen as he makes notes, “Watson, it is time we began nurturing your artistic sensibilities,” and goes out, returning half an hour later with a package of crayons and a sheaf of blank newsprint that he sets before her with a flourish.

Or: “Watson,” he says, “that color is called indigo, and this one violet.”

Or: “Watson, you appear fretful. Perhaps the jigsaw puzzle is unsatisfactory, and a walk in the park would suit. . . . Bread is bad for the ducks, but fortunately we are well supplied with porridge oats.”

One day, John catches Sherlock’s expression as he, Sherlock, tucks Rosie into her yellow raincoat: it’s the careful concentrated look he might wear as he dropped reagent from a pipette, and the sight makes John laugh while, also, it squeezes his heart. Sherlock’s forty, and his unearthly beauty has worn away at the edges, but, as if in recompense, he seems at home in the world now, as John can never remember being.

For himself, he looks in the mirror and tries not to think the words “old” and “lost.”

It’s difficult to believe that Sherlock sees anything different, but Sherlock has always understood John otherwise than John understands himself. When they first met, at a time when John believed that there was only a dying ember inside him, Sherlock had breathed on the ember and brought him blazing into life. John makes a hash of their friendship, of marriage, he thinks he makes a hash of fatherhood as well, but Sherlock is steadfast. Over and over he has shown that he will stop at nothing to shield that flame. Therefore John goes on.

*

The upstairs room that had been John’s is his and Rosie’s now; it has been repapered in blue stripes and furnished out of John’s flat, except that when it came to moving the bed he had slept in with Mary and then, as a widower, alone, John had found himself on the phone with a charity shop. It’s a good bed and someone will get years of use from it, but that person is not John; he sees it off into the shop’s pickup van without allowing his thoughts to form themselves into words. If he did think the words, they would go something like this: He loved Mary, in spite of everything; their bed doesn’t belong in the flat he will share again with Sherlock. As the words are not to be thought, so the reasons are not to be examined.

When he has moved in, he stands for some time at the window, with Rosie in his arms, looking at the familiar long view over the low roofs behind. Sherlock is downstairs, scoffing at emails under his breath and rapid-fire typing out the answers to the “ludicrously simple” problems they present. The room accommodates, closely spaced, John’s new bed, his blocky dark brown wardrobe, a rocking chair, Rosie’s crib, and a chest of drawers in white pressboard. The matching toy chest rests in the sitting room downstairs, blocking the fireplace for safety’s sake. The old cow skull was destroyed in the explosion, so Rosie’s toy chest is watched over by the articulated skeleton of a Tower raven: a Mycroftian house-warmer.

Look back, and be transubstantiated into a pillar of salt.

Look back, and the woman following you up from Hades will vanish into nothingness again.

John doesn’t look back. Pursued by ghosts, he lives.

*

He wakes at the thin end of the night, a week or so afterward: his chest heaving, his face wet. This happens sometimes. Rosie smacks her lips and then falls into deeper sleep again, so when John realizes that tremors like punches are running through him, he gets himself into his dressing gown and goes downstairs. The nightmare keeps its hold; partway down the stairs he has to pause and repeat assurances to himself. The reality had been bad, but not that; it hadn’t been that. Nothing had happened that he couldn’t return from; he hadn’t done anything that he couldn’t return from.

He’ll wash his face, clean his teeth. Maybe Sherlock will be up reading or looking over case files; it would be good to see him, not to talk or anything; Sherlock might look up absently, smile, turn back to whatever he’s doing, and that would be enough. John fastens on this thought. Even if he just sees the light on in Sherlock’s room, all’s right with the world, he can catch his breath and then head back upstairs and sleep again.

But the sitting room is dark, the kitchen shadows are cast only by streetlights, no light spills along the brief corridor to Sherlock’s room. John closes the bathroom door behind himself as quietly as he can, washes his face, brushes his teeth, then finds himself sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, unable to stand up. A little time passes before Sherlock comes in.

He studies John, nods, and sits down on the tub ledge without speaking. John rubs at his face. “Yeah,” he says.

“It’s not either of the nightmares that you used to have.” Sherlock pitches this somewhere between statement and question; there were the Afghanistan nightmares, and the nightmares about Sherlock falling and falling forever, which Sherlock somehow knows about even though he was in Tibet or Libya or someplace during the period when John was having them.

“No, not one of those. What, do I make different — ” But he can’t bring himself to ask what noises he made, and Sherlock doesn’t answer that unasked question. John tucks his hands into his armpits. The tremors had receded; now another one comes on. When it has passed, John says, “Do you ever wish you hadn’t killed Magnussen?”

A hesitation. “Not exactly, no. How can I put this? It seemed necessary, so I did it, and I would do it again; but if I could both have done it, and be someone who had not done it. . . . Useless imaginings. There are any number of things I would rather not have done. But I did them, and here I am.”

“My father beat my mother.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says. Of course he had worked this out, or Mycroft had sent him Artie Watson’s form.

“And he beat Harry,” John continues. “He didn’t beat me. But I beat you. Why . . .”

Sherlock waits.

John clears his throat, shakes his head, clears his throat again, finally manages to speak: “We both knew you didn’t kill Mary. Even I knew it, even when I wouldn’t see you or talk to you, I knew it. So why did you say that to Smith, that I had the right? I didn’t have the right. Not any more than my father had the right.”

“Culverton Smith was present,” Sherlock says, clearly in the belief that his train of thought will be apparent to John.

Then, seeing that it is not: “Consider why you beat me, John: you were ill with grief, and terrified, and you felt betrayed. Whereas Smith killed people to amuse himself. He could never have felt betrayed by anyone, because he didn’t love anyone, do you see? He was not to lord it over you. No matter what you had done.”

Love. How loud that word seems to John. A snatch of song lyric comes to him: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide —

“I’m a violent man,” he says. I know that you’re no good for me: only it’s more the other way round, isn’t it.

Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide —

“Yes. Sometimes you are a violent man. So, for that matter, am I. It’ll be all right, John.”

Every step I take, you take with me —

“Do you think we can take care of Rosie?” We. Hearing himself, John flinches.

“Yes,” Sherlock says, unhesitating.

They both fall quiet; John’s heart thuds. He has choices. He can remain as he has been, or he can step out of his self-protections as if to shed ill-fitting and uncomfortable garments. Perhaps he has had enough of protecting himself by inflicting injury on others.

Sherlock smiles at him.  “It’s rather crowded in here; will Watson sleep through the rest of the night, do you think?”

John nods, because that’s easy; then, weary of himself, speaks aloud. “Yes.”

“Then come to bed with me now. Sleep.”

*

In the dream that had woken John that night, everything began as it began in reality. He was with Sherlock. They were in the mortuary with Culverton Smith, and Sherlock’s beautiful hair hung about his face in greasy rags. Sherlock was in every way disordered. His mind was in disorder, the armor of his perfect black suits cast aside, his fingernails grimed, his trainers stinking of unwashed feet. He took up the scalpel and lunged for Smith, John got hold of him, yanked him back, shoved him up against the wall of refrigerated dead, grabbed away the scalpel, slapped him. As in life, so in dream.

Everything John did up to that point was fine, it was okay, he was preventing a murder — come to that, he was protecting Sherlock, too, because how many killings could even Mycroft cover up, not to mention how Sherlock himself would feel, later, because the killing of Magnussen was one thing, it protected John’s little family when there was no other means available; but this, this would have been murder through and through, and not only in the eyes of the law.

The law could deal with Smith, that was the thing. There would have been a way. Evidence. There could have been surveillance on patients in Smith’s hospital. Mycroft could have arranged that.

So, then. It was for Sherlock’s own good, what John did. Everything up to that moment. Then the beast roared out.

*

How easy it was to lift the latch of the cage around the John-shaped beast; a finger’s touch could do it.

*

In the dream, Culverton Smith has disappeared. John and Sherlock are in the mortuary. John punches Sherlock; he punches him again; he knocks Sherlock to the floor. Sherlock describes a curve on the mortuary tile. Sherlock covers his belly. As one does, when being kicked. John kicks him. John kicks him. Blood comes out of Sherlock’s body and spreads around him. This is not an unfamiliar sight to John. John kicks him. The impact reverberates up John’s leg. Kick, kick, kick. Sherlock has stopped bleeding. John kicks him. Sherlock is quiet. The impact of John’s foot indents Sherlock’s flesh. The foot withdraws, the indentation fills. Again. Sherlock is beyond recovery now. There is no mercy for him but death. What John has started, he must finish. Finish quickly. For mercy. He has caused the suffering and he must bring it to an end. He kicks Sherlock over and over. The head, the belly. The back the head the belly the back the head the belly. As hard as he can. Only death will end Sherlock’s pain now, he is so badly injured he cannot be saved John must kill him. Tears stream down John’s face, he howls ugly hoarse sounds like the sounds he made when Mary died, he splits apart like a prisoner dropped from a great height, he is hanging upside down by a rope he is a murderer he is kicking and kicking and still Sherlock does not die and with each blow John knows himself to be more monstrous, he can redeem himself only by ending Sherlock’s misery, over and over his boot smacks into tender flesh, but this will never end, never, John is a monster he cannot stop hurting Sherlock and he can’t save Sherlock from the wounds he himself has inflicted and he kicks and kicks and still Sherlock does not die: Sherlock loves him.

*

In years to come, John wakes from the dream, as he always wakes from it, at Baker Street, with Sherlock lost in stillness beside him. The baby monitor goes the way of the crib, and the crib goes the way of the white pressboard chest; Rosie sleeps in John’s old bed now, the one he bought on his return to Baker Street and hardly ever used.

If you had asked John, before they became lovers, what Sherlock was like in sleep, he might first have scoffed—only for the sake of form, of course, for the sake of joining in Sherlock’s self-mythologizing—at the notion that he slept at all. Second, soberly, John would have predicted that Sherlock was a restless sleeper, waking in starts throughout the night; getting up, sometimes, to prowl.

But Sherlock is the quietest sleeper John has ever known; he doesn’t snore, or speak half-articulated words, or thrash or scream—though, John thinks, surely Serbia at least gave him cause enough for the latter. When he turns, he scarcely disturbs the covers. He is a water spirit. His sleep is as deep as Rosamund’s. A sanctuary. Only, if Rosamund frets, or if John says his name, he rises out of sleep as quick as a seal breaking water.

The nightmare is an old familiar and John’s stuttered flight up out of it no longer disturbs him.

When he has caught his breath, John will raise himself on one elbow and, by whatever light the street and the moon provide, watch over Sherlock. If the moon is full and they have not drawn the curtains, Sherlock’s lashes will be visible against his cheek, fluttering perhaps through dreams.

As Sherlock asleep is different from Sherlock waking, so Sherlock naked is different from Sherlock clad. To see Sherlock dressed, you would think he was made of smooth cream all over. In fact he is much scarred. He had been relatively careful about needles but the cocaine time was long, and then long again, plenty of opportunity for missteps, so faded purple clusters mark the crooks of his elbows, and his forearms are trailed with purple. Both his elbows and both his forearms, because Sherlock in his thoroughness taught himself to be ambidextrous. He was stabbed in the thigh once, when he was twenty-six, and then again in Switzerland by one of Moriarty’s people, while he was away. Astonishingly, no one had thought to break his fingers, but he has been burned with cigarettes: Serbia. There is a flat white splash of acid burn on the inside of his left wrist: Cambridge. White threads crisscross his back: Serbia again.

Two-centimeter circle, pink-white, next the nipple on the right chest: London.

John has bloodied Sherlock but never left a lasting mark. Nowadays Sherlock may bear a bruise at his hips where John has clutched at him, or the print of teeth where John has worried at tender arousable flesh. Sometimes at these moments, which are the moments when he himself is most bared to Sherlock and in which he is telling his love as well as he is able, John can see all the way down inside himself, down to the bottom, all the way to the pit of fire. The view brings him up short, a scratchy blank instant as if a musician had forgot his notes. He’s pretty sure Sherlock notices, but Sherlock never says anything. His hands are always careful on John, the way they were the first time he held John properly, cupping his head while he wept. John can’t remember whether he had begged forgiveness then. But Sherlock had already forgiven him. Even in the moment, Sherlock had forgiven him; and there’s Rosie. Sherlock is John and Rosie’s refuge; they are his. So John keeps watch, after his nightmares, while Sherlock sleeps. And often, John’s happy. He hopes that Sherlock is, too.