Three months is not long enough to undo three years of believing your best friend is dead, not long enough at all. But here is Joan Watson -- Doctor Joan Watson, lately of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, a crack shot and psychopath-magnet -- standing resolutely in line for a chip-and-pin machine at Tesco while doing what she does best: soldiering on.
The business of soldiering on hits a roadblock when she happens to glance down at the three bottles of white vinegar, five yards of twine and two cans of cat food rattling in her basket.
Was this ever normal with us? she wonders. Because now it just seems...
She doesn't finish the thought. Instead, she glares at the items as though divining the future from tea leaves.
"They're for an experiment," Sherlock had said in response to Joan's stare. "With the cat paws."
Joan had turned blank eyes back to the five-item list he held in front of her. He had presented it to her this morning as she finished her tea, presented it with that damnable politeness that had marked all of his interactions with Joan since he waltzed through the door of 221B three months ago as though he'd never left. He stood on the opposite side of the kitchen table, facing her, hands behind his back, waiting with a patience she couldn't remember him having until she finally said, "Yes, Sherlock?"
With a magician's gravitas, he flourished his left hand from behind his back, swinging it in a wide arc that stopped a few inches from Joan's face. Between the pointer and thumb fingers, he pinched a small, square and very yellow piece of paper. Vinegar, shoelaces, twine, boric acid, cat food, she read.
When she looked back at him, Sherlock's face held all the expression of an Easter Island statue. "Something to do with a case?"
He blinked. "No," he said slowly. "Shopping list."
Shopping list. Arms aching, the first stirrings of a headache growing somewhere behind her left eye, Joan now wishes that she'd objected. Wishes that she'd told him to do his own goddamn shopping for once in his life, that she wasn't his errand girl, never has been, not three years ago and certainly not now, now that he's revealed himself to be a colossal bastard who lies to people about being dead. Said colossal bastard can just take his obviously not-dead arse to the store himself, because it's not as if he's doing anything else besides rearranging the furniture and brick-a-brack until they match his mental map of 221B from three years ago, and then sitting around the thus-ransacked flat all day waiting for Joan to have the mental break he's been so obviously waiting for since his return. Waiting, like the patient human being that she can't believe he's become, for her to...what? Scream at him, take a swing at him? Fall into her chair, sobbing about the miracle of his resurrection?
No. She's Doctor Joan Watson, battle-hardened, brave and too tired for this shit. So she swallowed her tea, hard. Plucked the yellow square from Sherlock's frozen hand. Stood up, smoothed down her clothes. Said, "Okay."
The man behind her coughs, and Joan slams back into her body, which currently seems rooted to the front of the chip-and-pin line.
"That one's open," the man says. Joan flicks a glance behind her. He's tall, dark and handsome enough. His chin, scattered through with stubble, is tilted toward the machine farthest away. Sherlock could probably tell what he had for breakfast, how many pets he has, what kind of sexual position he prefers with all that Joan has noticed. All she does is say, "Yeah, sorry."
Chip-and-pin machine secured, she checks her items one by one -- over the past three years, she has become an expert at the fine art of grocery shopping -- and with each beeping transaction her headache blooms incrementally wider. Of course, she forgets to buy aspirin, preoccupied as she is with the goddamn shopping list. Another thing she can rage silently about.
It's the chin-stubble man, the helpful-chip-and-pin man, now standing at the chip-and-pin machine next to hers with a tentative smile on his face. For the past three months, Joan has reacted with near shock whenever something so normal as being chatted up at the grocery store happens to her, when everything else with Sherlock has felt like quiet carnage.
She must be staring, because the man looks embarrassed. "It's just that I noticed your face. I mean, I...sorry, that wasn't the best--"
"It was. A bad day, I mean."
"Oh, sorry." Gentle surprise now; he didn't expect her to answer in the negative. That's because normal people don't answer in the negative, they say, "Oh, no, not at all, a great day in fac--"
"What...if you don’t mind my asking, what happened?"
He's more than handsome enough, she decides. But he's already issued two apologies to her one, is in the process of unloading a gallon of nonfat milk and a loaf of wheat bread from his basket, and Joan has no time for this kind of shit, either. So she completes her transaction, smiles and gives him the simplest, truest answer.
Chin-stubble man's name is Mark, a quick, sharp syllable conducive to piercing through the throngs of people who are just now exiting the underground and emptying onto the street outside Tesco to join the two of them. ("Name's Mark!" he fairly shouts at her as the crowd pushes them apart.) A lot like a bullet, is Mark, but for once Joan doesn't jump in front of it. Instead, she pretends not to hear him and aims her body toward the direction of Baker Street.
It's an unseasonably cool April day. She hooks a wrist through the loops of each of her two shopping bags, then tucks each hand into a pocket. The collar of her jacket is up, a thin substitute for the scarf she forgot at the flat. She does things like that now, forgets wallets, scarves and lunches at 221B, but she only turns back to retrieve them if she knows Sherlock isn't there. She risks veering off script, otherwise, and three months is too soon for that to be the kind of risk she would like to take. She hates the politeness that currently shields each of them from the other, but she is even less eager for what might happen when that shield finally cracks.
So, as she walks slowly home, she plans. Joan never returns to the flat without a plan nowadays, a survival mechanism she learned to adopt very soon after Sherlock's return. For every situation, an exit plan; for every engagement, a defense.
For instance, Sherlock might say, "Joan, I asked you to buy shoelaces and boric acid." And she would say, "Looked for them, couldn't find any."
Or: "You've bought us cat food, why? I said cat litter." ("Check the list. Says cat food.")
Or: "Why isn't this twine organic?" ("Should've specified.")
Alternatively, Sherlock might not say anything about the groceries at all. Joan could open the door to the flat to find him sitting in his usual chair, fixed as a gargoyle, eyes already trained on her and dissecting every minute change in her appearance since this morning. He's done that a lot lately. It hasn't stopped being unnerving, but it also hasn't caused her to miss a line yet.
If he says nothing, she'll say, "Since you're not busy, mind grabbing these? I have a headache. Gonna go lie down."
If he starts deducing, she'll respond, "Yes, true. All of it. Brilliant. I have a headache. Gonna go lie down."
A third and unlikely scenario would be if she opened the door to the flat to find him standing by the window, back to her, one hand cradling the violin against his neck like a lover, the other hand curled loosely around the bow. If she were to find him thus, Joan knows that it would be a non-musical encounter; since coming back, Sherlock has avoided playing the violin whenever Joan is within earshot. Several times, she's come home from the surgery to the sound of plaintive notes floating lightly down the steps, only to hear them abruptly silenced by the time she reaches their door.
She doesn't know what that means, but something inside her flinches at the thought that there are parts of Sherlock that he's guarding against her. It would be the other way around, if she had any sense.
In this third and least likely scenario, Joan's plan of attack is to just as noiselessly leave the groceries on the kitchen counter and proceed upstairs to her room. And if he deigns to protest, she has a response ready: "I have a headache. Gonna go lie down."
Joan is five more blocks to the flat when she sees her. Or, she thinks she sees her. It looks like Irene Adler, but Irene Adler is dead.
Once, before Sherlock, when she was still living in that dust-colored bedsit, Joan had looked into the cracked mirror of the shared bathroom on her floor and seen not her own face, but the hollowed-out crust of a dead private's skull.
Dempsey. She never learned his first name and he never learned hers, but even without the benefit of eyes, mouth or skin, Joan had known at that second, as certainly as she had ever known anything else in her life, that the thing in the fogged-up mirror staring back at her was Dempsey.
Thirty seconds before he died, Dempsey had been exchanging bad jokes with Joan and another doctor, an American named Lia. Seven seconds later, he was lying face up on the rippling desert ground, too shocked to scream while Joan and Lia tried to pour his guts back into his stomach and gunfire erupted around them. An explosion five yards away to Joan's right threw her to the ground. She was suddenly insensate to anything but the heat and grit of the sand beneath her cheek and the roar of something large burning nearby. She screamed Lia's name but couldn't hear anything human over the ringing in her ears. When her vision stopped swimming, Joan lifted her head and saw two unmoving bodies. One was Lia's, facedown, an out-flung hand still clutching her kit. The other was Dempsey's, on its back, a pulpy mess where his face had been.
Then someone was banging loudly on the other side of the bathroom door and Dempsey's carapace was gone. The thing in the mirror had a face now, with broad cheekbones, pale lips and wide, round eyes that were as blue as the ocean in a winter storm. It was a long moment before Joan recognized it as her own.
The banging had stopped; whoever it was must have just gone to the bathroom on the floor below. Joan had pulled the towel tighter around herself, waited for the thundering inside her chest to slow, opened the door with a hand that barely trembled, walked back to her room and cleaned her gun.
Now Irene Adler -- the thing that looks like Irene Adler -- sees her and does a perfectly executed Irene Adler move: smiles, just a little bit, just enough to make Joan understand that she knows something Joan doesn't. Joan had hated that smile on the real thing, hated the suggestion of slyness masked as mystery. It's even worse now, mostly because Irene Adler is dead.
It even moves like the real thing, with a walk that is more like a slink. The exquisitely carved face. The dark cloud of hair. The crystalline eyes bearing equal parts intelligence and curiosity. She could be describing Sherlock, but the thing in front of her is wholly Irene Adler, and Joan aches to see why Sherlock had loved her. The thing stops just feet away from her. Joan becomes vividly aware that they are the only two pedestrians on this residential street and there is not enough sunlight for anything , real or imagined, to cast a shadow.
"Doctor Watson," the thing says.
Joan's left hand flutters once in her pocket, then falls absolutely still.
"You're looking--" It regarded her with a considering look that was all art. "Well, I'd like to say you're looking like you've seen a ghost, but that would be too easy, wouldn't it?"
Dempsey's ruined face never said a word to her. Of course, Dempsey's ruined face did not have a mouth.
Under Joan's silence, the smile that isn't really a smile grows gentle. "It's been a long time, Doctor."
Joan has never seen that look on that face before, and this is what tips her off. "You're real."
"As real as you are, yes."
There are many things Joan could say to this -- intelligent, cutting things. But all she can think of suddenly is a moment nearly four years ago, and the softness in Sherlock's voice when he'd stretched out his hand and said "Please." She'd given him that damned phone thinking it was for the best. She'd lied to him, for him, thinking it was for his protection. She'd tried to purge every bit of resentment, deserved or otherwise, that she'd felt for Irene Adler because it felt wrong in the face of Sherlock's gloom. But as is typical, Joan has been laboring under an illusion, for here is the woman herself. And if she's alive, Sherlock almost certainly knows; he keeps close tabs on his obsessions. The implications...
But all Joan says is, "Fine."
Irene pouts. "That's it? Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. This is old-hat for me now, isn't it, dying and coming back. I suppose the novelty wears off quickly." She pauses, then says, "And how is Sherlock?"
Joan thinks to herself that this is the most surreal conversation she's ever had, and there are cat paws marinating in dirty dishwater in her flat. That was also the most loaded question she's ever been posed.
"I can never really tell," she says simply. Let her fill in the blanks.
"Really? I find that hard to believe."
"I guess you can ask him for yourself now."
"I never knew you to be so meek, Doctor," Irene says in a tone that suggests genuine disappointment.
A sharp, clarifying burst of anger surges through Joan. "You don't know what I've been through," she says slowly.
"True." Irene lifts her hands in the air, palms up, in a placating gesture. "Let's change that. There's a nice café around the corner. Sherlock can wait, he's had you all this time. Let the other kids have a turn."
As quickly as it came, the anger drains out of Joan. Suddenly, all she can feel is the old hurt in her left shoulder beginning to throb and spread to her back, her temples squeezing inexorably tighter like a vise, and a sharp pain in each of her wrists where the forgotten grocery bags are digging in. Just standing is exhausting. But right at this moment, the most exhausting thing of all is Irene Adler looking expectantly at Joan like she hasn't just blown the entire world wide open by simply being there. And it stings because it's an expression that Joan has already seen before, on a face that is more familiar to her than her own.
"I'm going home," Joan says, and without waiting for reply moves to walk past Irene.
A light touch at her elbow stops her. Irene leans close, all facetiousness gone. "Don't you want to know why I'm here?"
"I do but I don't. I just don't care right now, sorry. About the how or the why, any of it. I'm tired. Congratulations on being alive."
She keeps going as though nothing out of the ordinary has just happened, as though there isn't a pair of ice-blue eyes boring into her back.
"I'll be in touch, Doctor," Irene says cheerfully.
Of course, you will.