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The Hollow Now

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Chapter 1

A raindrop curled down the smoked pane of glass, dodging left, right, and then right again, gathering volume as it collided with nearby drops. It hurtled toward the window sill and finally slipped away, out of John's sight. He turned to face Ella.

"Sorry. What was the question?"

"Are you sleeping any better?"

"No." Which was just as well, considering the nightmares that plagued what little sleep he managed.

"I can give you something for it, if you like."

He pursed his lips. "I'll think about it."

She uncrossed her legs, crossed them again the opposite direction. "It's only been a few months. It's perfectly normal to—"

"It's been seven months. You're supposed to be past the worst of it after four."

"You grieve on your own timeline. There are no rules. Loss of a loved one is an immensely difficult—"

"He wasn't my—" John began, and then winced. "Shit. I said I'd stop doing that."

She nodded, acknowledging his self-correction. "You don't have to compare your grief with anyone else's. These are your feelings, and they're right for you."

John snorted and rubbed at his eyes. "They aren't right, though. That's the problem. I just want to get on with my life and not feel like this all the time."

"Like what?"

He took a deep breath and released it. "Like I'm… waiting." Treading water in a vast sea, knowing it was just a matter of time until he'd drown.

"For what?"

John almost smiled. "For the day that I'll look up and he'll be standing there, with a shit-eating grin on his face." Sometimes he let himself believe it for a little while, just for a reprieve from reality.

She made a note on her pad. "Are you writing?"

"No."

"I'd like you to write before we meet again."

"I really don't want to blog about this." God, no.

"No, this is just private. You don't have to show it to anyone. It's just for you. I'd like you to set a timer and write for fifteen minutes each night, about whatever is in your mind. You don't even have to look at it again, but I'd advise you to save it. You may want to look back on it later. Will you try that?"

John chewed on his lip for a long moment. "Yes. Fine, I'll… try."

"Good." Ella scribbled something on her notepad, and John turned to look out the window once again. The rain had picked up, sheeting down now, and the pavement below was a sea of bobbing black umbrellas.

He'd forgotten his. Of course. John closed his eyes and sighed.

***

He was underwater.

No, that wasn't… right. Dark swirls of color, or of sensation, something, not much light, distorted voices, some familiar. Oh, John and We just don't know what the long-term prognosis will be and London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. Flashes of pain that subsided just as quickly, thick like fog, like drowning.

I'm sorry. Sherlock's voice: real enough to push his consciousness up, up nearly to the top. Opening his eyes took great effort, and it was like looking up through six meters of water, everything distorted, voices rising around him, colors and movement — easier to sink back down again, to lie on the bottom and close his eyes.

Rhythmic sounds, mechanical, loud, persistent, painful. Sometimes a touch, gentle, a hand reaching down through the dark water, impossibly long arms, trying to reach, to pull him up again. It was too hard, too much. Easier to lie here and rest, sleep, wait.

Oh God, John.

He lost track of time. Days, weeks, maybe? Minutes? There was no time here anyway, no way to measure, no reason to care. Mind too foggy to process, to work it out.

Nothing yet? No change?

Sherlock's voice again — it had to be — more clear now. He tried to move, to breathe, but everything was thick and dark. Lungs not working, can't inhale this stuff, too hard. Don't bother. Just rest. Voices raised again, pressure of hands on his, and it was too much. Fall back down again and rest on the soft, warm sand. Don't breathe. Don't think. Just wait.

Sherlock was dead. Maybe John was dead too.

***

His mind was clearer now, had been growing more so for a while. Thinking was easier and his thoughts were coming more quickly, less murky, less tangled. He felt an intense urge to breathe, but couldn't. Something was wrong — airway blocked?

He opened his eyes, blinked against the shocking light of day, and focused on the paned ceiling above him. Hospital. He blinked again. No memory of coming here. No pain. He flexed his fingers, then his toes.

"Oh my God, get a doctor, quick!"

A face hovered into his frame of vision: a nurse, probably, eyes full of concern. He tried to move his lips to respond, but something was in the way. Intubated, God. He closed his eyes again.

"John, can you hear me? Stay with me, love; the doctor's coming." Someone — the nurse — squeezed his hand, brushed fingertips across his forehead.

There was a commotion in the room then, people crowding around and looking down at him, faces contorted. There was discussion he couldn't follow, couldn't process, and it was all too loud. He groaned around the tube and squeezed his eyes shut.

The hand holding his squeezed. "Shhh, it's all right. It's going to be fine."

Good nurse, very comforting. He liked her voice. He squeezed her hand in return.

Lots of noise now, many people surrounding the bed, and she let go of his hand, stepped away.

***

He swallowed and winced at the rawness of his throat, but was grateful to be breathing on his own again. The nurse handed him a cup of ice chips, and he nodded his thanks.

"It's good to have you back in the world again." She smiled at him and brushed his hair back from his forehead.

He smiled at her, though he was vaguely discomfited by the intimacy of the gesture. He tried to speak, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again, and finally managed a hoarse sort of squeak. "What happened to me?"

"The doctor said you probably wouldn't remember. You fell, hit your head."

"Concussion?"

"Yes. A bad one. We were quite worried about you."

He nodded, frowned. He had no memory of this, no idea what he'd been doing that was so risky. How ironic that he'd sustain an injury like this now, after all his days running around with Sherlock. "How long have I been unconscious?"

"Three weeks." She swallowed and reached for his hand again. He let her do it, though it was more than a bit strange. She was lovely, if not his usual type: heart-shaped face, short blonde hair, large green eyes. Jesus, how pathetic was it that he was thinking of chatting up the nurse?

He drew his hand away under the pretense of adjusting his position on the bed, and then folded his hands together in his lap. "Has my sister has been informed that I'm here?"

The nurse blinked at him, clearly surprised. "Yes, of course. She's been by to visit several times."

"Ah, right." John nodded and gave her a bland smile. "And I suppose the clinic knows? The clinic where I work, I mean."

"It's fine, love. I've taken care of it."

"I didn't realize that was part of the service." He smiled, but she didn't laugh at the joke.

"Service?"

"I've never heard of anyone being assigned a personal nurse under these conditions." He grinned at her. "I'm not complaining, mind. I'm counting myself lucky even to have a private room."

She stared back at him with an expression of shock. "Oh my God. You…" She sat back, away from him, suddenly pale.

He felt an odd prickling at the base of his skull. "What is it? What's wrong?"

They stared at each other for a moment, and then the doctor entered the room again.

"John Watson, pleasure to meet you at last. How are you feeling?" Her gaze was still fixed on his chart. "Vital signs appear normal, and…" She looked up. "If I'm interrupting—"

"He doesn't remember me," the nurse said, her face now nearly lined with concern. "He has no idea who I am."

The doctor — her badge displayed the name PATEL in a large font — narrowed her gaze at John. "You don't know this woman?"

John glanced between the two of them, and something cold settled in the pit of his stomach. He shook his head and clenched his hands in the thin blankets covering his legs, tried to ground himself in the sensation of rough woven fabric. His thoughts began to spin out of control. Something was very, very wrong here, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.

No, wait, stop. What would he do under these circumstances, if he were the doctor? He checked items off of a mental list, things he knew: his name, his address, his mobile number, his birthday, the current prime minister — but not the woman sitting beside his bed. Who was apparently not a nurse; now that he looked at her, really looked, he could see that she wasn't dressed in scrubs, but in ordinary clothing, soft pastels, no security badge.

Doctor Patel scribbled something on his chart. "John… what year is it?"

The answer popped into his head immediately and he sighed with relief. "Two thousand twelve."

The woman gasped and put a hand over her mouth. John looked up at Doctor Patel again, whose face was now a careful mask of stone. It was a look he knew well. She pursed her lips and took a step closer to him, and seemed to take a steadying breath before speaking again.

"It's 2016, John."

John could only gape at her for a long, bewildering moment. He turned to look at the woman seated next to him, who stared at him as if he'd sprouted another head. He tried to laugh, but it came out a bit strangled. "No, that's not… You're having me on. It can't…" He swallowed and stared down at his hands again. They were swollen from the IVs still in place, but they didn't look all that different otherwise. Four years? "But she said I was only out for a few weeks. It can't have been four years."

"Retrograde amnesia isn't unusual with this kind of injury," Doctor Patel said, her voice soft now.

"Four years, though? No, I… I know that is unusual." His left hand began shaking and he clenched the blanket even more tightly.

"It's likely that your memory will return in time. Your physical injuries have almost completely healed, though you may continue to experience some fogginess, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound—"

"I know the symptoms," John spat, and closed his eyes. "I'm a bloody doctor, and I — Oh my God." He turned to look at the woman sitting next to him. Her eyes were wide with dark circles underneath, as if she hadn't been sleeping well. As if she'd spent a lot of time here, worrying over him. "Who are you? Why am I meant to know you?"

Her eyes fluttered closed for a moment, and she swallowed, as if steeling herself before looking up at him again. "I'm your wife."

"My…" He stared at her in shock. Wife. "Wife?"

"I'm Mary." She tried to smile, but didn't quite manage it. Her lower lip trembled.

He was married. To this woman, this complete stranger. He had no idea how he'd met her or how long they'd been married or… anything. He looked at her, stared hard, tried to remember, but couldn't. Worse, he felt nothing. Shouldn't he feel something when he looked at her? Shouldn't he recognize her on some level?

"How…" His voice caught and he paused to reach for the cup of ice chips again, grateful for an excuse to look away, to collect himself. Wife, Christ. "How long have we been married?"

"It was two years this past summer."

"And before that?"

"We were together a year before we got married."

"So I've known you for more than three years." He shook a mouthful of ice chips from the cup and looked at her again. She looked distraught, which was understandable. Terrified, even.

"Yes," she replied, and her voice was little more than a whisper. She looked down at her hands.

Oh, God — he was married. This person, this stranger sitting next to him, was his partner. "I don't," he began, and then paused. He turned to Doctor Patel. "I don't know what happens next."

Doctor Patel's expression was deeply sympathetic. "You'll have a consultation with a physical therapist and a psychiatrist, and we'll make a plan from there. If all goes well, you could be released in a few days."

"Released." He swallowed, hard, and turned to look at… his wife. Her name had flown from his mind as quickly as it had landed. He felt his cheeks heat. "I'm sorry, I… can't remember…"

"Mary." She pressed her lips together.

"Mary."

"It's highly likely that your short-term memory will be affected for a while as well." Doctor Patel's voice was gentle and urgent, simultaneously. "It's completely normal."

"Nothing about this is normal," Mary said, and John huffed out a sound of agreement.

"So I'll go home. With Mary." With a total stranger. He didn't even know where home was. Christ.

Doctor Patel made another note on his chart. "I'll check in on you in a bit." She smiled at John and turned away, leaving the two of them staring blankly after her.

John took a deep breath. "I've no idea what to say."

"Me either."

"I'm sorry," they both said, and John couldn't help but smile.

"You've nothing to be sorry for," Mary said. "I can't imagine what it must feel like, not to remember…" She trailed off and a strange look spread over her face, as if the magnitude of what he didn't remember had just hit her.

He swallowed and looked up at the ceiling. Four years, Jesus. "What the hell did I do to get myself in this state? What did I fall off of?"

"A building."

An image of Sherlock falling filled his mind, and he pushed it away out of habit, tensed himself for the desperate empty pain that usually followed. He held his breath, but it didn't come: he'd thought of Sherlock and it hadn't hurt. Had enough time finally passed?

"Not a big one, mind. A garden shed, really. In the rain." She raised her eyebrow in an expression of long-suffering amusement.

John frowned. "Why the hell was I climbing around on a roof in the rain?"

As if on cue, a familiar voice reverberated through the room. "Following me, as per usual."

John froze, closed his eyes. That wasn't… No.

He forced himself to open them, to look across the room. The blood drained from his face.

Standing in the doorway, wearing his trademark coat and a cheeky grin, was Sherlock Holmes.

***