. . .
Six months, three weeks and four days—
(eleven hours and forty eight seconds, oh god)
—after Sherlock said goodbye for the last time, John meets Mary. She’s ten years his junior, a private tutor and sweeter than any woman John has ever known, his mother included, God rest her soul. He likes her immensely, though he knows Sherlock will—would find fault in her. The first time he asks her up to his new flat—he couldn’t stay in the old one, not after everything, though he knows Mrs. Hudson won’t rent it to anyone else—she makes him tea and asks him about the skull on his mantelpiece—
“It belonged to a friend of a friend. Not sure what that means. Sorry.”
“It’s lovely. Gives the place a very…Denmarkian feel.”
John laughs, the sound heavy in his ears, but still genuine. “That’s not even a word. What kind of tutor areyou?”
They laugh together and she pours him some more tea from the service Mrs. Hudson gave him when he moved out.
—and then buys it a companion a few weeks later.
They see each other frequently, and between their visits, John goes to the cemetery and tells Sherlock he’s wrong. Wrong about everything he’s thinking right now because Mary is sweet and kind and lovely.
It occurs to John that Sherlock might actually agree with him, and for some reason, that idea pains him.
. . .
One year, four months, and two weeks—
(three days, nine hours and twenty-two seconds—how does it still hurt?)
—after Sherlock said goodbye for the last time, Mary and John stand at the front of a church, hands clasped tightly together, and make their vows. John thinks Mary is especially lovely in her silk gown, her hair twisted up with flowers pinned into it, in place of the traditional veil. He looks into her bright blue eyes and he wishes that Sherlock could see them now. He would make a snarky comment about John’s tuxedo and possibly about her shoes, but John would know Sherlock was happy for them, the corners of his eye crinkling just so, lips twitching as he fights a smile.
Mary would know as well because she’s clever. Not as clever as Sherlock, no one is, but she’s far more clever than John, and she has a way of knowing things—
“Tell me about him,” she whispers one night as they stroll down the street to the water. She doesn’t say who, but John knows, and a part of him locks up in fear. Then the words begin to pour out, and Mary, sweet, lovely Mary, listens to them all. When he’s spent, she wraps her arms around his waist, lays her head on his shoulder and says, “He was lucky to have you, however briefly. It’s clear he loved you dearly. And you him.”
“It wasn’t like that,” John says, voice stretched thin. He wants to reassure her of this, of his fidelity to her, but she only laughs and hugs him more tightly.
“It doesn’t have to be like thatfor it to be love.” She stands on tiptoe and brushes a kiss to his cheek, then his lips. “Perhaps it’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m glad he didn’t take you with him.”
John doesn’t tell her about the two months that followed Sherlock’s death, and how twice John nearly followed him, only to have his phone ring, Mycroft’s voice filtering down the line just as calm and composed as ever, telling him to be rational. That this wasn’t what Sherlock would have wanted. He doesn’t tell her these things, and a part of him feels guilty for it. He returns her kiss, then stares out at the water and thinks ‘If only you were here now, Sherlock.’
—with just a glance.
. . .
Five years and eight months—
(three weeks, six days, five hours and seventeen seconds, because he couldn’t stop counting, even if he wanted to. And he doesn’t.)
—after Sherlock said goodbye for the last time, John and Mary welcome their son, John Junior—Mary’s insistence, not John’s—into the world. He’s a chubby little thing with John’s nose and Mary’s sweet disposition. Three months after that, Mary leaves John. She climbs into their little sedan, waving as she drives away and John thinks that he’ll make them a roast for dinner. He’s just putting Jack down for a nap when he gets the call.
Lestrade’s voice is tinny as he asks if John can please meet him at the hospital. There was an accident and they are just now pulling John’s tan sedan out of the river. John closes his eyes, clutches at the phone, and fights against the horrible sound building up in his chest. He knows he’s failed miserably because Lestrade is shouting now, but John just lets the phone drop from his hand and slips down to sit on the floor. He isn’t even aware of losing consciousness, just of firm hands shaking him awake again.
Jack is crying in the bedroom, and John wants to go to him, but Lestrade is there, face haggard and tense as he talks. He’s asking John something, but nothing makes sense. Then another face appears beside Lestrade’s, and it’s Mycroft. Not a hair is out of place, his voice is calm and he is completely the wrong Holmes. John thinks he says as much out loud, because suddenly Mycroft looks just as old and worn and sad as John does.
Unwilling to be stared at any longer, John pushes past them and goes to the bedroom where his son—Mary’s darling little boy—is wailing away in misery, and he scoops him up. He’s never felt particularly comfortable holding Jack because he’s so tiny, and normally he fumbles a little, but this time it’s easy. This time John lifts his son out of the cradle and tucks Jack’s downy little head under his chin, and he closes his eyes. He’s not naïve enough to think that Mary will magically be there when he opens them again, but that doesn’t stop the desperate grief that wells up when he finally does and she’s not.
John allows himself to be settled in the back of Mycroft’s car, little Jack in his carrier and the newest Holmes Senior P.A. regarding them both solemnly. Her smile is sad as she watches John coax Jack into having a bottle, but whatever she is thinking, she keeps it to herself. He’s thankful for her silence, and he rewards it with his own.
This time, John is allowed to say goodbye. The hand that settles over Mary’s brow—
“John, how does my hair look?”
John glances up from where he’s fumbling to secure Jack’s diaper, and smiles at her.“Lovely, as always.”
And it does, even in its simple braid. He tucks Jack into his little seat, then crosses the room to kiss her cheek, her nose and then her lips. On a whim, he dances her around the room, only stopping when a phantom pain—for a wound he never received in his leg—makes the muscles in his thigh go lax. He laughs and kisses her again.
“Give Margaret my regards and drive safe. It’s supposed to rain this afternoon.”
—only shakes a little. He brushes a kiss to her cold cheek and thinks his heart could not possibly break more. John whispers his farewell in the quiet little room, with its too-bright lights and the shadowy figures of Mycroft and Lestrade standing a few feet away. Then he leaves, needing to be away from witnesses when the tears begin to fall once more.
John moves out of their little two-bedroom house and back into the flat at 221B Baker Street within the month. He tells himself it is because he cannot bear having Mary’s ghost haunt him, but the truth is that now, more than ever, he needs Sherlock, needs some small shred of comfort that only Sherlock’s spirit can give him. He let’s Mrs. Hudson fuss over he and his son, takes a leave of absence from the small clinic he’s been working at, and tries not to lose himself in the grief that nearly killed him after Sherlock’s death.
He doesn’t question why it’s not quite the same, the pain that fills his heart. He’s learned not to.
After a few weeks, when John can bear to go outside and see the sun shining bright in the sky—and not immediately think of Mary’s smile, or her eyes or her hair – he goes to visit Harry. They’ve been in touch for a while now – she came to the wedding, Clara at her side—and she was at the funeral, but John hasn’t returned any of her calls as of late.
When he reaches their house in Newbury, he’s relieved to find little has changed. The garden is still a mess of over-grown weeds and dying hydrangea, the little fence faded and in need of a good whitewash—
(He fondly recalls reading Tom Sawyer, and for the first time wonders if Sherlock is—was his Huckleberry Finn.)
—and the path a good sweeping. He rings the doorbell and shifts Jack’s carrier from his left arm to his right, digging deep down to find a smile. He knows it won’t last, that Harry will see right through it and chastise him soundly for pretending just for her sake.
Clara shows him in, lines bracketing her eyes and mouth. She looks sad and worried and something else. John ponders it, right up until he sees Harry standing in the living room, and then it is all he can do not to drop the carrier at the sight of her.
She’s pale and thin, hair dull and hanging lank around her face. She’s sober now, but Harry was an alcoholic and a smoker for so long, John’s always worried about the long-term effects. Now he sees liver failure and lung disease, and his heart nearly stops. He can’t lose her too, not after Sherlock. Not after Mary.
“Oh John, you idiot,” Harry says gruffly, and then she’s there, pulling him in close for a hug while Clara whisks the carrier out of harm’s way. “I’m pregnant, you idiot, not dying. I had a bit of a nasty flu, but I’m better now. Only just a month along,” she adds before he can ask.
“You’re—really? Oh, that’s wonderful!” And it is. It’s life, not death. It’s family and love and John is happy for them both. He’s surprised, but then that had been one of Harry’s excuses for the drinking before. She had never wanted to become pregnant, but both she and Clara both wanted children. When Clara’s uterus was determined to be too hostile for implantation, things had fallen apart. Something has changed Harry’s mind, and John is glad for it.
“I suppose I should have called,” he says after a moment. “I apologize.”
“A gentleman named Mycroft called. Said you were on your way. Interesting fellow, that one.” She doesn’t ask who Mycroft is, and John is grateful for that.
They take tea in the front room, Jack sound asleep at Clara’s feet, Harry’s hand tucked between both of John’s. At one point, she reaches up and pokes at the corner of his mouth and says,
“None of that, now. I know you have your pride, John, but there’s no need to hide behind it with me.”
John doesn’t cry, but he thinks that’s just because there aren’t any tears left. He does let them take care of him, though. He lets Clara and Harry take Jack for walks through the neighborhood while he kneels in their garden, pulling up weeds and putting down bulbs. In the two weeks he’s at their house, he manages to turn their yard into something that will be wonderful, when everything is in bloom.
On the day he leaves, he makes them promise to take care of their garden. Their child will need a place to play, and he or she will only get lost if they let it get into a state again. Harry hugs him tightly and Clara kisses his cheek, and as he drives away, they stand side-by-side, waving to him.
(Later, they’ll find out they’re due to have twins, Harry will go into labor two months early, and John will tease her that twin premature babies that weigh six and five pounds are evidence of over-indulgence. Harry will punch him in his arm, but she’ll be too happy to be truly angry, and everyone will awe over them. A finger will stroke down the soft cheek of the little girl, and someone will say, ‘It’s a miracle that she’s got John’s nose, lucky girl.’
But that’s not until later.)
. . .
(two months, one week, three days, twenty-two hours and four seconds, each and every one still painful)
—after Sherlock said goodbye for the last time, the dreams start.
John had been convinced, in the days following Sherlock’s death, that he would dream of their last day together. Would dream of being there to stop Sherlock, or of Sherlock haunting him. When that had failed to happen, John’s depression had gotten worse, the guilt almost too much to be contained within his too-human body. He wonders what it means that he dreams of Mary.
They are back in their house, and John is reading the paper, Jack tucked into the curve of his arm. Mary is at the window, fretting, and when she turns, she looks as she did the day she left: hair pulled back in a French braid, face devoid of makeup but still lovely, her blouse tucked into her dark denims and a pair of ballet flats—as she called them, not John—on her feet. Her hands twist in the towel she’s holding.
“John,” she says, “Sherlock is going to be here soon, aren’t you going to put the tea on?”
John doesn’t say a word, just smiles sadly at her. He wonders if he’s done something wrong, if that’s why she’s being so cruel.
“I’ll just put Jack in his bed, shall I?”
He leaves her in the front room, lays Jack down in his cradle and then climbs into his marriage bed to weep the tears of a man who has lost everything.
John wakes feeling as though he’s missing something. He is. He’s missing Mary, his wife and his son’s mother. And he’s missing Sherlock, the closest friend he’s ever had, someone who meant something, meant more than John could bear to admit to himself, let alone anyone else. He sleeps fitfully for the rest of the night, and in the morning, he bypasses the tea and makes himself coffee instead.
The dreams come frequently, at least four times a week, and always they are the same. Mary insisting he put the tea on, John taking their son up the nursery, then lying in their bed, trying not to break down and cry. It won’t solve anything, and really, he knows now that it’s not as though Mary is trying to hurt him. She’s no more in charge of her actions than he is the dreams he’s having.
Sometimes Mary will pace. Sometimes she’s in a sundress, and they’re sitting in the backyard, Mary’s legs bared to the sun’s warm rays, her face shadowed by the large straw hat John bought for her on a whim one Sunday afternoon.
(The hat is still in the closet, one of the few things John couldn’t bring himself to get rid of. Later, he’ll send the thing to Clara, to protect her fair skin while she sits in the front yard with her son and daughter.
But that’s not until later.)
Always, though, she insists upon the tea, and always, John ignores her. He doesn’t wonder about it, because that’s not something he does. Sherlock would, he knows. Sherlock would demand to know why the tea is important, but John just cannot bring himself to care. Not about anything that isn’t Jack, or his work.
The days slip into weeks, but John pays them no mind except to visit her grave. He leaves daffodils and yellow roses by her headstone, tells her that he loves her, misses her, then crosses the grounds to do the same for Sherlock. Jack is almost seven months old and just beginning to sit up on his own. He’s not crawling yet, not even scooting around on his belly—his pediatrician isn’t concerned, so John pretends that he’s not, either—but he’s still a happy baby, which is really all that matters. John works half-days, spending his late afternoons and evenings with his son, and leaving him in the care of Mrs. Hudson while he’s gone. They find a routine that works for them, and life goes on, just like it’s supposed to.
. . .
Six years, four months, three weeks, one day, twelve hours and forty-two seconds—because John doesn’t have the energy to pretend like he’s not counting every second Sherlock’s not at his side—after Sherlock said goodbye for the last time—
John dreams that Mary is carrying Jack up to his room, her hair in a French braid, her face devoid of makeup and a sad, wistful smile on her lips. She kisses John’s cheek, and says,
“We’re all out of tea, darling. Run to the store before Sherlock gets here? And hurry. I need to go, but I can’t, not if I’m worrying about you.”
John wakes with a sense of urgency, and he stumbles into the kitchen to look for the tea. He knocks something over, but it isn’t glass, so he doesn’t really care, just keeps looking. He opens all the cabinets, checks behind the breadbox, peers into the freezer. He isn’t sure why this is so important, only that it is, and when he finds that he is out of tea—who doesn’t have tea, he asks himself—he starts shouting for Mrs. Hudson.
“John?” She sounds tired and maybe a little scared, but she’s there nonetheless. “John, what it is?”
“Tea, Mrs. Hudson. Where is the bloody tea?”
“Tea? John, what is wrong? What has happened?”
“I need tea,” he repeats, only he’s not saying, he’s pleading, the words high and almost broken, ringing in the quiet of the night.
“It just so happens that I have some tea with me.”
They both freeze, because that wasn’t John’s speaking, and it certainly wasn’t Mrs. Hudson’s voice either. She turns first, and at her scream, John knows. He knows. But that doesn’t stop him from choking on a sob when he sees Sherlock standing there, eyes bright but solemn, coat turned up at the collar and just a hint of a smile playing on his lips.
“I’m dreaming,” John croaks.
“I wanted to tell you, John, but we needed to be sure.”
“Sure? Sure?” Shock bleeds to fury and John’s hands clench at his sides. He wants nothing more than to punch Sherlock right in the face, but first. First he has to—
(Later, he’ll be embarrassed as he recalls this rather blatant display, and Mrs. Hudson will tease him until he’s pink in the cheeks.
But that’s not until later.)
—reach out and touch, feel the steady beat of Sherlock’s heart beneath his palm, the warmth of Sherlock’s skin where John’s fingers brush over his cheek, the softness of Sherlock’s mouth when finally—finally—they meet. All the while, he is chanting, over and over,
“Sherlock. Sherlock. Sherlock.”
The name is both a prayer and curse, just like the man himself.
. . .
Mrs. Hudson let’s them have their moment, going upstairs to fetch Jack, who has been fussing since she screamed. She takes her time, and John is grateful for it. He’s feeling unsteady as he stands there, hands fisted in Sherlock’s coat, head tipped forward and resting against Sherlock’s collar. He can feel a hand in his hair, stroking gently over the back of his skull, and he takes a shaky breath, holds it, and lets it out.
“You were dead.”
“I needed you, most of all, to believe that. It was necessary, if not inconvenient.”
“Inconvenient?” John chokes out.
“Every time I turned around to tell you something brilliant, I would remember that you weren’t there. And when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would pace the floor of my flat, desperate to hear anything from you. A nightmare, a murmur, a curse. Anything. I missed you, and I think that was the worst part for me. I hadn’t realized until afterward, until I was gone and you were left behind, just how much you made me care. Just how much I needed—wanted you with me. Always.
“Mycroft felt terrible as well. He forbade me contacting you. The risk was too great, he said, and he was correct.”
“Risk? What risk?”
“That Moriarty’s game was over. That day, when I stood on the ledge and told you to watch me, it wasn’t that I needed you to see me fall. It was that I needed to see you live.”
The hand in John’s hair tightens its grip, and Sherlock tilts John’s head back, tips his face upward. His eyes are dark, intense, and he’s utterly beautiful.
“Do you know what I would have done, had something happened to you? I would have been lost, John. I would have become the very thing we were fighting against. I never knew what it meant to care so much about another person before, and at times, I wished I still didn’t.”
He doesn’t utter the words ‘I love you,’ but they hang in the air between them nonetheless.
This time it is Sherlock who initiates the kiss, and it’s no longer a chaste thing. It is bruising, almost punishing in its ferocity, and it is the best thing John has felt since that day. Sherlock’s fingers bite into John’s arm, tug sharply on his hair, and John can feel the tension in Sherlock’s body where they’re pressed together, coiled like a spring and on the verge of snapping. They stay like that, parting for air only when it is absolutely necessary,until they hear Mrs. Hudson’s footsteps on the stairs. When they pull away, John’s mouth feels numb and wet, and Sherlock looks dazed.
Everything is perfect.
. . .
Much later, days and weeks and months—
(just two months and four days)
—later, Sherlock and John and Jack are gathered in Harry’s hospital room, staring down at the tiny bundles in her and Clara’s arms. Jack is sleepy, but quiet, and he lays his head on his father’s shoulder. Sherlock reaches out, strokes a finger down little Adele’s cheek and says,
“It’s a miracle that she’s got John’s nose, lucky girl.”
He winks at Harry when she lets out an indignant squeak, then leans over to brush a kiss to the little girl’s brow. He does the same to her brother, James, then steps back and holds out his hands. Jack goes readily into his arms, and then it’s John’s turn to greet his niece and nephew.
“They’re beautiful, Harry.”
She smiles up at him. “We’ve both got quiet the lovely little family, haven’t we, John?”
He glances back at Sherlock—who is making a long succession of strange faces at Jack, teasing a smile out of him—and then at Clara, who looks happier than he’s ever seen her before. Her nose is a bit red, though, probably from too much time in the sun, and John makes a mental note to send her Mary’s old hat. It will suit her.
John leans into Sherlock, who immediately wraps an arm around his shoulders, and he thinks, ‘This is how it should always be.’