The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
“The Ache of Marriage,” by DENISE LEVERTOV.
TEXTS FROM THE BROWNSTONE GROUP CHAT
KITTY: Might bring a date home tomorrow night, pls give me some space
KITTY: I’m leaving Archie at Ms. Hudson’s, btw
JOAN: Got it. We’ll stay out of the way. Have fun!
KITTY: *eyeroll emoji* thx mum I mean Watson
SHERLOCK: co-signed + rmbr 2 use protection
KITTY: Dad, you’re embarrassing me
SHERLOCK: ok but cn i make a suggestion?
KITTY: Absolutely not
JOAN: Sherlock, do not suggest the sex blanket, I’m warning you.
SHERLOCK: : /
SHERLOCK: y not?
It was a Friday night and Joan was in her room, snuggled up with her favorite comic books. She always needed to be completely caught up before trying to discuss even a single issue with her brother, who had a tendency to spoil everything he ever read. (After the last DC reboots, which Oren had “reviewed” by basically sending her dozens of spoiler-full texts detailing every single thing that he hated about the New 52, Joan had decided to never mention to him any series that she hadn’t already read. He simply could not be trusted to keep the big twists to himself any more than she could be trusted to leave a puzzle alone.) She was just finishing the latest issue of The Defenders when Sherlock slipped into the room and climbed onto the bed with her.
He made no move to speak, so Joan set her tablet aside. “What is it?” She pushed her reading glasses back on top of her forehead. “Have you accepted Brian Michael Bendis as your lord and savior yet?”
Sherlock didn’t even frown in response to her joke. “Kitty should be returning shortly.”
She folded her arms over her chest. “Hello to you too.”
“It was heavily implied that they would have intercourse here, was it not?”
She made a face. “Ugh. Do you have to use that word? Also, we are not having this conversation.”
“Answer the question, Watson, will you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Jesus, I don’t know. Maybe. She said something about Netflix.”
“Netflix and chilling, Watson,” he corrected, in a half-hearted attempt at an American accent, undercut with a touch of exasperation. He shifted so he could rest his head on her thighs. “You really must stay up to date with current slang.”
“I know what Netflix and chill means,” she chided. I’ve even talked you into it occasionally, she refrained from adding. If Kitty had used that infamous line, though, she had definitely missed it. “She’s taking things slow, I think. Maybe she’ll just make her date watch a bunch of Monty Python skits on YouTube and they’ll make out a little.”
“One hardly invites a paramour home just to make out a little, Watson.”
“Well, you know what, even if they do end up having sex here, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, Sherlock. We shouldn’t even be talking about it. She’s an adult, and we’re not her parents.” He made no reply. Guessing at what was bothering him—for all his speeches about the benefits of polyamory, Kitty’s cavalier attitude towards casual dating still made him uneasy—she slowly caressed the sides of his face and added, “She can take care of herself.”
“It isn’t her maturity I’m concerned about.”
She sighed. “Not every person she meets is out to hurt her.”
“Statistically, the odds tend to be against young women’s safety when it comes to their romantic or sexual relationships.”
“She’s smart enough not to date someone she doesn’t trust,” she argued patiently. “Give her some credit.”
“This isn’t about credit, Watson. Of course I am proud of how far she’s come. I merely wish…” He trailed off and shrugged uncomfortably.
“I wanna protect her, too,” Joan said, putting it into words and hoping it would help. “I understand. But we have to let her live her life.” She reached out to turn off the bedside lamp, then wrapped her fingers around his jaw and tugged slightly to indicate that he should move. When he obliged, lifting his head off her lap and making as if to leave the bed, she grabbed a hold of his shirt and pushed him softly onto his back. “Don’t go anywhere,” she asked, as she shrugged off her cardigan and sat on top of him.
In the darkened room lit only by the faint glow of the streetlights filtering in through the window, she glimpsed the twitch of a muscle in his jaw and the disoriented look in his eyes. “Shouldn’t we—”
“Nope. You are not gonna keep me up all night just so we can eavesdrop on Kitty’s date.”
“It wouldn’t be eavesdropping as much as… remaining alert for any signs of trouble.”
“Sherlock, no,” she refused firmly. Now that her eyes were more accustomed to the darkness, she could see the worry creasing his forehead and the nervous tremor of his fingers near her knees. “It’s inappropriate and it’s gonna backfire. If we police everything she does, do you think she’s ever really gonna trust us?” she reasoned, patting his chest. “How’s that gonna help keep her safe?” He still looked unconvinced, so she took one of his hands and anchored it on her hip, pulled up the other one and pressed it to her chest. She bent down and cupped his face in her own hands, nuzzling his nose with hers and dropping soft kisses to his stubbly jaw. “Don’t be so worried. Be here. Feel this.”
Sherlock’s eyes fluttered shut and he sighed, but his hand still hovered at her hip, undecided. She was about to start swaying against him when they heard the faint sound of the front door opening and closing two floors below, followed by hushed voices. Frustratingly enough, his eyes instantly flitted to the door and she could practically feel his brain straining to gather information about the other two human presences in the brownstone. Joan rolled her eyes and undid the top button of his jeans. That got his attention back. A strangled whimper and he was searching her face wildly. “My dear Watson–”
“Don’t dear me when you’re not paying attention to me,” she grumbled.
He looked slightly mortified. “I am always paying attention to you,” he argued, gingerly prying her hands from his zipper and bringing them to his chest, where she could feel the quickening of his heartbeat protesting the same point. “But do you think this is wise? What if we’re loud?”
She shrugged and raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “If we are, she’ll know we’re definitely not spying on her date, right?”
His eyes widened, whether with surprise or distaste or both, she couldn’t tell. She breathed out an impatient breath and laced their hands together. “Fine. If you’re uncomfortable, we’ll just go to sleep.”
“Sleep?” He repeated the word as if it were in some strange foreign language, then smirked very faintly, even as his brow furrowed. He sneaked his fingers below the waistband of her shorts and softly pressed the pad of his thumb against her cunt. Joan’s eyes flickered shut and she staggered forward; he caught her with his other arm. “When we could be doing this instead?”
Joan smirked into the crook of his neck, eyes still closed. “Now you’re talking.” She cradled the back of his head and kissed him hungrily. When he swiped his thumb into her hard, she gave a jolt and gasped into his mouth, but she resolutely did not break the kiss until she ran out of breath.
“Clothes, off,” she managed to say, as she began to unbutton his plaid shirt. “And keep doing that.” Then, inexplicably, he was laughing, the rumble of it in her ear. “What the fuck,” she demanded, a little snappily. “Are you laughing at me right now?”
He kissed her temple as he reached under her shirt to unclasp her bra. “I wouldn’t dare.”
“Of course you would.” She tossed his shirt away over her shoulder and pulled her own off over her head; they were going fast, but not fast enough for her liking, though she had found that that was actually pretty common if you happened to be having sex with Sherlock Holmes. Observations and arguments abounded, a continuation of the running commentary he applied in every other area of life. Joan was still getting used to it, so she hadn’t decided yet whether it was endearing or annoying. Right now, the balance was tipping toward the latter. “Just so you know, you don’t have a monopoly on liking sex.”
He fingered her again and she whimpered needily, her whole body squirming for more. It was all very undignified, but totally worth it to see the triumphant little smirk on his face. “Question, are you gonna keep talking or are you gonna have sex with me? I’m asking for a friend.”
Sherlock wrapped both hands around her midriff, fingers fitting snugly against her ribs, and pulled her closer, looking like he was giving it some thought. “Both.”
“Oh, good to know,” she said casually, as he trailed kisses down between her breasts. “Gonna get a move on, then?”
“All in due time, Watson, all in due time.”
She felt another near-silent chuckle against her neck and rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m glad one of us is having fun.”
“Don’t be cross. I’m just a bit distracted.”
“Which is super flattering, thanks.”
He raised his right hand as if taking an oath of office. “I shall make it up to you.”
She hummed a noncommittal sound. “Awesome, could it be anytime today?”
Clearly still holding back laughter, Sherlock shook his head as he rolled them both over so that she was on her back, arching up to meet him. “How very rude and bossy you are this evening, my dearest Watson.”
She scoffed. “Like that’s a surprise.”
Sherlock had stopped laughing; now his face was earnest, almost solemn, as his eyes roamed over her until they met her gaze. Whenever he looked at her like that, Joan felt seen, found, rediscovered each time, he an astronomer naming a new star or an anthropologist unearthing a lost language. “Not a day goes by that you don’t surprise me.” There was something about the quiet way he said it that moved her strangely, as it always did, as if he were thanking her for some precious gift, when he was the one who was doing the seeing, the giving.
Joan swallowed hard and propped herself up, pushed him back so she was straddling him again, both their bodies shivering in response. She pressed her forehead to his and smiled sweetly, wickedly. “That’s the plan.”
In the morning, on her way to the bathroom, Joan ran into a tall black girl who looked about Kitty’s age. “So you’re the mysterious new date,” she said amiably, holding out her hand. “I’m Joan.”
The girl gave her a firm handshake. “I’m Kara. You’re Kitty’s… mom?”
“Just a friend. Also Archie’s godmother,” Joan clarified. “Did you have a nice time?”
“Yeah. I didn’t mean to spend the night, but—”
Joan raised her eyebrows and put up her hands to stop her from going any further. “You don’t have to explain anything.”
“No, I know. I was just answering your question. It was a really nice date and I was gonna go straight home afterwards, but then Kitty was so excited about binge-watching this British TV show..."
"Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Joan supplied knowingly. “She made you watch the whole thing, didn’t she?”
“Pretty much,” Kara confirmed, and added guiltily, “I fell asleep halfway through. That’s how come I slept here. I feel like the worst date ever. But Kitty doesn’t seem mad.” Here she flashed a hopeful little smile. “She made me breakfast and everything."
Joan smiled encouragingly. "That’s good. I’m glad you had fun."
"Me too." Kara's cheeks tinged red as they heard Kitty's heavy step coming up the stairs towards them. "Excuse me."
Joan waved her assent and the girl ducked into the bathroom just as Kitty came up.
"Watson! Good morning.” Kitty nodded towards the bathroom and stage-whispered, “I see you two met already."
"Kind of. Nice girl."
“Very.” Kitty gave her a cheeky smirk. "Breakfast's still warm if you two wanna have some. I'm gonna walk Kara home."
"How chivalrous of you," Joan teased.
“I don’t know what you’re implying, Watson,” Kitty countered, pressing a hand to her own chest. “I’m always a perfect lady, you know that.” She adjusted her leather jacket and tossed her auburn hair back primly; she couldn’t be any more like Sherlock unless they were actually related.
“Sure. My bad.” Joan tried not to laugh. "I'll ask Sherlock if he's hungry."
"I'm surprised he didn't come up with an excuse to chaperone us." Kitty's eyes narrowed in a look of faint suspicion. "'Suppose I have you to thank for that."
Joan smiled apologetically, eyebrows jutting together. "It may have taken some convincing."
Kara came out of the bathroom, nearly bumped into Kitty in the narrow hallway and blushed again. "Hey there."
"Hey, yourself." Kitty waved lightly to Joan and gestured for Kara to follow her downstairs. "See you later, Watson."
"Later. Nice meeting you, Kara."
"Likewise," Kara said. As they headed off, the girl frowned slightly and stooped to whisper near Kitty's ear, "Watson? What’s that all about?"
When Joan came back into the bedroom, Sherlock was still asleep. It was pretty rare for him, considering how poorly he slept in general, but in the whirlwind of Kitty's visit, Joan didn’t think he'd slept a full eight hours any night that week. She clambered back onto the bed and ran her hand through his hair, feather-light. "I'm sorry to wake you, sleeping beauty," she said as he stirred, "but Kitty says there's breakfast downstairs, would you like some?” The next words came of their own accord, as casually as if she’d been discussing the weather: “Also, I think we should get married." The second it was out, she wished the earth would swallow her up. She had not meant to bring it up like this.
Sherlock rolled over, frowning before he’d even opened his eyes. "Is this an attempt to test my alertness upon waking?"
She shook her head. "Of course not. I wouldn’t joke about breakfast."
"And the second part?"
"We can discuss that later, when you're more awake."
His frown deepened, but he sat up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and rolling his head to one side, then the other, to work out the kinks in his neck. "Good morning, then."
"Good morning to you too." Joan patted his knee, then slid off the bed and began selecting clothes. "Just met Kitty's date, in case you were wondering."
"I gather from your demeanor that it wasn't a giant set on eating her toes, as I feared."
She chuckled and pulled a pair of running tights from a clothes hanger. "Nah. A very pretty girl who doesn't like Monty Python all that much."
He clicked his tongue. "Ahhh. Then that relationship's doomed to fail, I'm afraid," he pronounced, affecting an air of great despondency. "Kitty will not stand for a 'Python hater,' as I believe she puts it."
She started to pull on the tights. "Give her a shot. Maybe she'll learn to appreciate it. She certainly seemed to appreciate Kitty, if you know what I mean."
"Either way, we are in no position to judge odd couples. Speaking of which," he added nonchalantly, as he reached down to pick up his socks off the floor, "what was that you were saying about marriage?"
Joan went into the closet to look for a bra and top, palms sweaty and stomach in knots. She was going to discuss this with him eventually, right? Sooner rather than later. Even if this was probably going to be a long and taxing conversation, much like the ones they’d already had about medical proxies, legal ownership of the brownstone, vacations and her medical license. In fact, it was exactly the kind of conversation she was an expert at walking away from, but it had to be done. Joan willed herself to be brave, rip the band-aid off in one clean motion.
“Um… Don’t freak out? But I want to marry you.” She waited while she pulled her shirt off over her head and put on her sports bra, but there was no response. "You okay?" She poked her head out of the closet, shirt in hand. Sherlock had put on a pair of sweatpants and sat back on the bed, arms around his folded legs, staring at her quizzically. “You’re freaking out, aren’t you.”
"If this is some form of elaborate humor, Watson, I must say..." He trailed off, shaking his head, his expression perplexed and hurt.
Joan set her shirt aside and folded her arms. So what — she didn't need to be fully dressed to have this, or any, conversation with her partner in the privacy of their bedroom. "I'm not kidding."
Sherlock's eyebrows shot up. He looked supremely unconvinced. "You want to marry me," he stated flatly.
“Are you so afraid I will get deported?”
Joan rolled her eyes. “It’s not about that.” Though it was true that they kept watching the current political climate with increasing concern — you never knew, these days, how many kinds of legal you had to be as an immigrant.
“Oh, so you’re marrying me for my personality?”
Back in the closet, as she rummaged through a drawer for clean socks, Joan smirked to herself. “Yeah, I was surprised too,” she teased back.
“Surprised? I’m flabbergasted,” he retorted, in a posh, pompous tone that made her laugh as she was coming back out. “How long have you felt this way?”
She shrugged helplessly. "I don't know exactly. Does it matter?"
He shrugged in turn and scratched at his jaw, idly. "I don't mean to interrogate you, Watson, it's just that it's all a bit..." He paused, then moved both hands forward in a quick pushing gesture. "Sudden."
You’re messing this up, Joan. A wave of anxiety suddenly made her dizzy. She put her shirt on robotically, fixed her gaze on the floor and forced a pleasantly blank look on her face. “I’m sorry. Maybe we should discuss it another time.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Another time?”
“Yup. I’m going for a run now,” she announced a little too loudly, as she picked up her sneakers. Even as she knelt to tie her shoelaces, she could feel Sherlock’s piercing gaze on her. “What?”
“You’re not going for a run.”
“Of course I am,” she countered weakly, trying and failing to draw in slow, calming breaths.
You ruin everything, Joan. You’ll ruin this too.
“No. You started this conversation, Watson, now you have to go through with it.”
Her first unbidden thought was: That’s rich coming from the man who walked away for eight months rather than have a conversation with me about healthy boundaries. She unclenched her fists. This was going to be disastrous. “I can’t right now. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to confuse you.”
“Then don’t,” he demanded starkly, the urgency in his voice adding to her anxiety. "Let’s talk about it now, please. Whatever it is."
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said through gritted teeth, keenly aware of how high and airless her voice was getting.
“Then we shall sit together quietly,” he insisted, beckoning her stubbornly to his side.
“Yeah, as if that was possible.” She kicked off her shoes and swallowed hard as she made her way over to the bed. "See, this is why I wanted to do this later. We're missing breakfast," she pointed out, going for Casual Joan, who wasn’t currently on the verge of hyperventilating.
"Knowing Kitty, it was probably something greasy and British that you wouldn't have liked anyway. Do you know that rogue youth actually enjoys Yorkshire puddings?" he remarked, as he moved aside to make room for her.
"Deception! Disgrace! Outrage! For shame!" she declared tonelessly.
Sherlock looked mildly worried for a split second that she may be having a stroke. "You are quoting from a Disney film, are you not?"
"You should remember which," she scolded him. "I made you watch it."
He sprung from the bed in frustration and started to pace the room. "Watson, do focus. I am attempting to have a serious conversation." He stopped and seemed to reflect for a brief moment, fingers drumming fast on his knees. "It was the one featuring Norse mythology."
If she weren’t so nervous, Joan would have laughed. But her hands felt cold and clammy and her heart was still hammering away against her ribcage. "It’s from The Lion King."
Sherlock made a face, obviously determined to soldier on. "Now that that’s settled, will you explain yourself?"
Joan could not look at him. She flopped onto her back and stared at the ceiling. "Do you want an explanation or a proposal?"
She heard him stop. "Both," he requested primly, "as I in fact do not consider broaching the subject in such an offhand manner an actual proposal."
For a moment, Joan couldn’t help but hide her face in her hands. You owe him this. She drew in a shuddering breath and let it go as slowly as she could. “I’m sorry. Talking about this is hard. And I don't know if I have much of an explanation," she warned. Sherlock had started to pace at the foot of the bed again, though less frantically. "I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time, but I kept putting it off. And I guess maybe it was seeing Kitty so happy. I never thought she'd get to have that life, honestly. That's pretty huge. It reminded me how much I wanted to do this.”
It had first come to Joan as a feeling of profound surprise: who’d have known that the traumatized young girl they had met years ago would turn into the woman they had reencountered? A vivacious flirt, a thriving therapist, a happy mother? Of course, the logical conclusion that followed was that if Kitty could have everything she wanted, Joan could too — as long as she was brave enough to ask for it.
“My apologies, Watson, but I don’t understand yet. I thought you’d given up on your search for a conventional life.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” She sat up to look at him more easily, arms encircling her knees loosely. “Why do you think it has to be complicated? I love you. The last few months have been the happiest of my whole life. I want to do all the things that people do when they love each other, including marriage. Is that so crazy?”
Is it so wrong for me to feel like this is home?
“No, I suppose not.” He sighed and ran a hand over his face, but didn’t stop pacing. “Partners in everything, is that the reasoning?”
She nodded emphatically. “Exactly. I know it may be a silly detail to you, but it matters.” His back was turned to her, but he tilted his head as if considering it. “Besides, no one knows, Sherlock,” she blurted out. His eyes suddenly cut to her, inquisitive, and she held his gaze though she felt even less steady than before. “We’ve told our friends and my family. Great. It’s not like either of us are the type to shout it from the rooftops. But don’t you want it known?” She paused a moment, with a knot in her throat, working up the courage to elaborate, “If Brunelle had shot up that diner, or if Vikner had really blown up our home with both of us in it, even you wouldn’t have ever known how I feel.” She bit her lip, breathed in, and tried to let the force of her feelings carry her through. “I can’t live with that. I’m proud of what I feel for you. Why shouldn’t I act like it?”
Sherlock stood absolutely still. He tore his gaze away from her and fixed it on the floor. “You would do that? You would make it a matter of public record?”
“Yes,” she declared resolutely. “It’s as much a part of our legacy as the work is.”
Joan was thinking about the watsonia. Wouldn’t a wedding ring —or a marriage certificate, for that matter— be exactly like them? A constant reminder, signifying that something precious and rare existed, or had once existed, if examined after they themselves were gone. That once upon a time there were love and righteousness; that once upon a roof there had been wonder and friendship — and newly discovered bees.
Sherlock looked up abruptly, eyes strangely unfocused and mouth twisted in a sad grimace. "And should my answer be a negative?" he blurted out. He looked appalled that he had asked and terrified of what she might say. “What would happen then?”
Joan couldn’t help the sigh that escaped her at that. "Even if you say no, you will never lose me," she said, anticipating what was probably eating at him. "Never."
Sherlock met her eyes. He looked like he wanted more than anything to believe what she was saying, but his brain was telling him to question it. Joan stood, took a second to breathe and held his gaze steadily. If there was anything in the world she was sure of, it was this. “I’ve never left you and I’m not about to start now.”
Please say that you believe me.
He nodded slowly, several times, and finally seemed to be a little more at ease, the lines in his forehead softening. “I know that. It’s… difficult for me to take that for granted, but I know.”
She shook her head and grimaced guiltily. “I’m sorry. I know I’m not being very clear and that this is a scary choice to make. I understand that.”
“Of course you do,” he said softly. As he held her gaze, the memory of eight months spent apart passed between them like a melancholy ghost and then disappeared. Sherlock turned away and walked towards the window. “Was that the proposal, then?"
"No." Joan felt herself relax a bit. The next part was much easier. "You want the actual proposal?"
He glanced back at her, some of the tension easing off his shoulders. "Please."
Joan looked down briefly, readying herself, and her gaze fell on his socks. One blue and one golden yellow, as they were patterned with miniature R2-D2s and C-3POs, respectively. A wide smile broke across her face like the ripple of a sudden wave in a calm sea. Hadn’t she given him those socks for Christmas last year? Of course he had worn them before, but to see them again in this particular context was unexpectedly touching. Maybe she didn’t have to be nervous, she told herself, fully aware of how absurd her train of thought was. Maybe it didn’t matter if they were married or not, because the socks were a sign that a little piece of her was always with him. Just this once, Joan wished that Sherlock could really read her mind. If he could see that she was welling up over Star Wars-themed socks, he’d finally understand that she loved him beyond what she was capable of articulating. But words would have to do. "Here goes," she announced, then stopped herself. “Uh. Wait. Should I kneel? Do you want me to kneel?”
Sherlock looked at her as if she had asked for directions to Mars. “Why on Earth would I want you to kneel?”
“I don’t know. Tradition?”
“Yes, because clearly we’re both staunch traditionalists,” he deadpanned, gesturing between them. “Loyal defenders of the status quo.”
She rolled her eyes. “I meant, like, as a gesture of humility or something.”
“I am well aware of your humility, Watson, believe me. I don’t want you to kneel,” he said, sounding almost indignant, and with a shake of his hand, as if declining something unpleasant from a waiter.
“It was just a suggestion. C’mere then.”
He obliged, slowly making his way over. He uncrossed his arms and stood in front of her nervously. Joan cleared her throat and decided to go for quick and painless, trying not to make the situation any more awkward than it already was. Barefoot as she was, she had to look up to meet his expectant gaze. “You once told me that you and I are bound,” she began softly, twisting her hands together. “You're right. I'm sorry that it took me so long to see it,” she added, slightly bashful. “But it is true. And I want to make it official. So, will you marry me?"
He still looked mystified, though his expression had softened. "How can you know that you will not live to regret this decision?"
Joan looked away briefly, with a knot in her throat. He still didn't realize. How could he not realize? "Because you proposed to me first, remember? And I never regretted saying yes.”
“That was a proposal of a different kind,” he cut in, “and years ago, at that. I would never presume—“
“I know. You’re right. But I don't regret a minute of our life so far. I know I won’t regret the next… however many years we have ahead of us, if you want me to stick around.”
“If I want—” Sherlock echoed, looking baffled. “Watson, I can’t picture my life without you. I thought it was abundantly clear by now that I very much want you to ‘stick around,’” he declared, air-quoting the last part for emphasis.
“Good. So we agree.”
“Yes, but, Watson, your whole future...” He trailed off, shaking his head in disbelief.
“What? I don’t want it without you.”
He shut his eyes and winced, as if her words hurt him. “Don’t say that,” he begged in a tight whisper.
Joan felt the air leaving her lungs at the sight. She wanted so badly to pull him into her arms and soothe him, but what if he didn’t want to be touched? What if it backfired? “I mean it,” she insisted fiercely. “It’s what I want. Just because you don’t understand it right now—”
“—doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome?” he completed, opening his eyes as his eyebrows arched doubtfully.
“I was gonna say my choice,” she corrected him, though the memory stirred a surge of warmth. “But that works too.” Joan waited. Since Sherlock didn’t say anything, she sighed and reached up to cup his jaw, hoping he would look at her, but telling herself not to ask for it. “I go where you go, remember?”
“As if you’d let me forget.”
She allowed herself a little smile at that. “I know that this is a lot. But the most important thing for you to understand right now is that you’re always gonna be my guy.” Her voice caught, but she made herself go on. “No matter what your answer is, I’m gonna love you every day of my life. Every day a little more, actually,” she concluded, smiling widely even as she fought back tears.
Sherlock nodded several times, but he seemed entirely at a loss for words, which made Joan chuckle. He leaned in and cupped her face in his hands, pressing their foreheads together. His eyes were closed, so Joan allowed herself to watch his face hungrily, that odd, angular face so familiar and dear to her by now. She fisted her hands in his shirt to keep from touching him.
"You have rendered me quite speechless," he said at last, eyes fluttering open. He was almost smiling but also clearly holding back tears, and still so close she could feel his breath on her mouth.
"Yeah, well, what else is new," she retorted, with an exaggerated eye-roll.
Sherlock laughed and the force of it once again brought their foreheads together. He brushed his thumbs across her cheekbones and Joan felt lightheaded, stupidly young, nearly weak at the knees. "Joan Watson," he intoned, then shook his head several times, as if he didn't know what else to say, or had forgotten every other word in his personal vocabulary. "My dearest. I feel honored. You have my word that I will not make this decision lightly. May I have some time to consider it?"
"Of course. Just let me know when you're ready to talk about it again. Oh, and I almost forgot." She disentangled herself from his grip to go into the closet and came back out holding something behind her back, much to Sherlock’s increasing perplexity. When she reached him, she presented him with a small jewelry box with a note pinned on top. His eyebrows shot up in question, so she nodded encouragingly. “Open it.”
For a long moment, he just stared at the object in his hand as if he had never seen anything stranger in his life. Then he pried the note open carefully and gave a strangled chuckle when he saw what was written inside: Will You Bee My Groom? Inside the box was a tiny golden bee-shaped pin.
“It’s for your coat,” she explained. “You can wear it even if you say no. I just thought it was so you. I had to get it. ”
He stepped back, and bowed his head. "Thank you. So, shall I see to that breakfast now?"
Joan had completely forgotten about it, but now felt her empty stomach rumbling in protest. She checked her wristwatch and went to get her shoes. "Nah, forget it. I'll just have a smoothie when I come back."
“Shall I make it?”
Joan wrinkled her nose as she tied her shoelaces for the second time that morning. “No offense, but you should always leave the smoothies to me.”
“You propose, then you offend me thus,” Sherlock lamented, shaking his head. “A most confounding behavior.”
She smirked a little as she stood. “Don’t be cranky. You can’t be good at everything.” She grabbed a blue hoodie off the back of a chair and put it on, zipping it all the way up. “We can have a nice lunch with Kitty and Archie and Ms. Hudson later, my treat. What d’you say?”
“I’d like that.”
“Awesome.” She grabbed her cell phone and earbuds and swung the door open. “See you later then.” She stopped at the threshold for a second to get one last look at him, her mouth pursed to the side contemplatively, and he met her gaze with a small, soft smile. What a relief that he didn’t seem upset. What a relief that she had finally done this. What a relief that she no longer had to pretend not to want what she actually wanted. She turned swiftly and descended, heading for the front door, and then she was out, running down the street too fast too soon, with her heart pumping wildly and her feet barely touching the ground.
A few minutes later, she stopped at a corner to wait for the stoplight to change and tried to catch her breath. It wasn’t the exercise that was overtaxing her lungs and heart, she knew, but the weight of what she had done, the knowledge that she had asked a question that she would never take back, regardless of the answer she received. Joan had meant every word of what she had said and promised, but she couldn’t help being afraid of what it would do to her to be rejected. Was she going to be able to keep her promises even if the answer happened to be a resounding negative? Would she accept it as she had accepted all the things she couldn’t have in this wonderful, complicated life she had been dealt?
This would hurt more than the rest, whispered a small, malicious voice. You’re not strong enough. She shook her head, trying to free herself of the thought, but the voice insisted: You should not have asked such an important question if you don’t really want to hear the answer, Joan.
Enough. She shook her head again and looked up. The stoplight was still red. How could that be? She had obviously missed the walk signal, maybe more than once. Joan cringed, wondering how long she had been standing there panicking. The light changed again and she stepped forward.
She half turned. Sherlock, looking winded and concerned, rushed to close the gap between them. He gently grabbed her by the shoulders, turned her round so she was facing him fully, and pulled her close to him. After the initial surprise, Joan slowly locked her arms around his waist and felt his sigh of relief on the top of her head. One of his hands moved to cradle the back of her head. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, as he stroked her hair. “You will not lose me, either.”
Joan felt a knot in her throat and held on tight. Sherlock’s heart was still pounding in his chest and he was breathing heavily. He had been running after her, she realized, and in her agitation, she had not heard him. Of course she had been far ahead of him, and with her earbuds on — but he had been there when she thought she was alone, just like in that clinic on 59th Street all those years ago. (Even though back then she hadn’t dared hope he would help, he had shown up for her, as if she had actually said, I need you with me. I can’t do this alone.) This time, he had seen her frozen in that corner —holding her head and struggling to breathe, a picture of helplessness— and he had run to her.
“I know,” she finally managed. “I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Watson.”
Sherlock’s voice was firm and kind, in contradiction to his obvious state of distress, yet Joan didn’t know what to say. For a long moment, they just stood together, as the light breeze toyed with the yellow and red leaves at their feet. Her earbuds had fallen loose from her ears and now hung around her neck, neglected, some upbeat tune still straining to provide a cheerful soundtrack over the noise of nearby traffic. Finally, she nodded against his chest and pulled back. “Thank you."
He made a face as if she had said something absurd and kissed her forehead. "I will return to the brownstone. I'm sure that Kitty and Ms. Hudson will be arriving with Archie any minute—"
"You’re right. You should go. Can’t miss your playdate.”
“It’s not a playdate.”
“Sure,” she agreed indulgently.
He gave her a wary look. "You sure you'll be alright?"
"I'll be fine." She gave him an encouraging pat on the arm, then bit her lip and eyed him curiously. “But why'd you run after me?"
He pursed his mouth, a little shamefaced. "I was asleep and then you woke me up and proposed. It was a possibility that I had just dreamt the whole scene."
Joan tried not to laugh. “You’re not dreaming,” she reassured him. “It’s a pretty dreamy day, but you’re not dreaming.”
Sherlock hummed a note of cautious agreement. He was still wearing his sweatpants and had draped a hoodie over the old and ratty Outlandos d’Amour T-shirt he had slept in, so she guessed her proposal gift would still be in his pocket. “I’m serious,” she insisted. “That note I gave you? Still gonna be there tomorrow. And so will I.”
His face lit up at that, and he nodded appreciatively. With one last tentative half smile, he gave a half-hearted wave, turned and started off the way he had come. Under the rising sun and with a smile of her own, Joan watched the man she loved walk off until he became a tiny figure silhouetted against the Brooklyn streets.
It was a beautiful morning, and it was only the beginning. There would be lunch with Archie, Kitty and Ms. Hudson; later there would be pleasant conversations back at the brownstone, and Joan hoped she could get Ms. Hudson to recite some Sappho for them; and later yet, after dinner, once they had put Archie to bed, Joan, Kitty and Ms. Hudson would drag a couch to the media room, put on some late night show or maybe even SNL, and fall asleep together, all piled up on one another under an old blanket, while Sherlock, in the lock room below, tinkered away at that old stereo he’d promised to fix for the rooftop dinners Joan kept insisting they should host sometime. And later still, in days to come, there would be time for further arguments, for careful considerations, for decisions and revisions before and after breakfast. But whatever Sherlock’s answer may be, Joan felt fairly confident that it would not change the sturdy fondness that bound them together, nor the carefully arranged constellation that was their life.
Joan filled her lungs with air and took off. There was nothing to fear.
TEXTS FROM THE BROWNSTONE GROUP CHAT
KITTY: What’s this I hear about a proposal?
JOAN: You told her already? Couldn’t wait ‘till lunch?
KITTY: I’m a trained detective, Watson, I deduced it
SHERLOCK: sorry wtsn u didn’t tell me 2 keep it a secret
JOAN: *shrug emoji* Nevermind.
KITTY: So you did propose?
JOAN: It’s true. I popped the question.
KITTY: How dare you propose to my father without my permission?
JOAN: You’re right. My bad.
KITTY: About time you made an honest man out of him anyway
SHERLOCK: FYI am already n honest man
KITTY: Wait, are you two doing this for Archie?
KITTY: You don’t need to be married to be godparents, ok?
JOAN: Yeah, we know that.
SHERLOCK: rspkt ur eldrs
SHERLOCK: no offense but this is unrelated 2 ur son
KITTY: None taken, congrats… I guess?
JOAN: Thanks! I guess we’ll see.
KITTY: Jsyk if there’s a wedding, I’m not wearing a bridesmaid’s dress
SHERLOCK: dnt wrry *cat emoji* neither am i