John has never in his life talked as much as he does after Sherlock throws himself off the top of a building and dies, nor has he ever wished to talk so little.
What John wants most in the world (aside from Sherlock, a time machine, and a bullet, in that order) is to be left alone. He wants to wallow. He wants to sit alone in the flat that he used to share with Sherlock, in Sherlock’s armchair, in the middle of their joint possessions, and he wants to think in excruciating detail about everything that he has lost and will never have again. He wants to do this over and over, and he wants it to hurt more than anything has hurt before, until his brain shuts down and he feels nothing. Tomorrow, he wants to wake up and do it all again.
The world, like most medical professionals, takes issue with John’s excellent plan. It gives him the press: blood-hungry, vapid and relentless.
John hates them. He loathes them. He can’t abide all these people, these clamouring jackals who mere months ago – weeks ago; days – held Sherlock up on a goddamned fucking pedestal and idolised him. The boffin of Britain; the solution machine. How eager they are to turn on him now, and how frustrated that he took himself out of their hands. A corpse is not half as fun to try in the court of public opinion, John supposes.
And so, with Sherlock’s absence, a measure of his celebrity has defaulted to John.
‘No questions,’ John says, shouldering through the throng gathered on the steps outside 221B. ‘I’m not answering any questions. I’m not-’
‘Dr Watson, is it true that Sherlock-’
‘Tell us you story, John!’
John turns at the door. He is livid. He is in pain. He is livid.
‘He’s gone, all right?’ John snarls. Mild-mannered Dr Watson died a bloody death not so long ago. This Dr Watson has had enough of stories. He’s had enough of lies. He’s had enough of watching his best friend, his boyfriend, the love of his fucking wretched life being picked over by vultures like this.
John yanks open the front door. He’s so angry he can’t even look at them.
‘He’s bloody gone, so just- leave him in peace will you, for god’s sake, just leave us all in peace.’
Silence descends once he slams the door. Inside. Alone. This place will always be quiet inside now, always peaceful.
John’s head thunks back against the peeling plasterwork.
He’s never been any good at peace.
‘It’s been eighteen months since your last session.’
In eighteen months Thompson has not redecorated, changed her hairstyle or, it seems, moved an inch.
In eighteen months John has been chased, arrested, drugged and shot at, shot at other people, done a lot of chasing himself, and gone for tea at Buckingham Palace. He has gained the world and lost it, and now he doesn’t know himself at all.
Has it really been so long? It feels like a much shorter period of time, or maybe a longer one. Different, perhaps. Sherlock experiences every moment with such intensity that around him time becomes a different concept altogether. Living with Sherlock was living in a different dimension, where none of the usual rules applied.
But some of them did, didn’t they? And there’s the rub.
‘Do you read the papers?’ he asks.
‘And you watch the telly?’
Thompson tilts her head.
‘You know why I’m here. I’m here because-’
John’s voice cuts out. He closes his eyes. This. This is always the hardest part. He feels like he’s climbing a slope – not too steep, but long, tiring, the very definition of an uphill battle. He feels like, at any moment, he’s going to reach the top, the last safe ground before the fall. He doesn’t want to get there.
He needs to breathe.
She’ll want him to say it. Of course she will. She’ll want him to add his voice to the clamouring throng, the screeching, yapping mass-market media that just won’t fucking shut up. She’ll want him to join them, and he knows exactly why. Thompson knows, just as he does, that he’s harbouring one last ray of stupid, irrational hope: there’s a chance, he’s thinking somewhere in that mixed up wreck of his head, that if they won’t say it, if he won’t, it won’t be true.
How pathetic is that?
John doesn’t even have denial to hide behind; he thinks it all the time, those four final words, but it’s the hardest thing to say except in anger. Will he always feel like this?
He looks out at the rain pelting the windows, obscuring every trace of the outside world with its violence. Obliterating everything.
He feels, suddenly, as though he has woken from a long dream, and he is so terribly, terribly sad.
Standing in the corridor at Bart’s and having someone declare for him officially what he already knew was nothing short of surreal. John’s far more used to being on the other end of such scenarios, to the point where, when he heard the words, he was actively surprised to note that someone else’s mouth was moving and his was not.
‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s not how this goes.’
Everyone’s mixed up their roles, forgotten their lines; he’s still coming out of his concussion and the narrative isn’t yet straight in his head – that’s what he thought.
He looked at the doctor in front of him in scrubs instead of uniform, the grey, impersonal corridor instead of a sun-bleached tent. He shook his head, cleared his hoarse throat.
‘You shouldn’t be telling me this.’
They asked him if he wanted to see the body. He did not. He’d seen it already. What would he have to gain by ten more minutes of staring at Sherlock’s dented skull, his bloody face? It’s not as though he’s ever going to forget what it looks like.
(Never, no matter how hard he tries. John’s had enough traumatic experiences to know when something’s slated to join the repeating roster of his nightmares. He thinks he would quite like for once in his adult life to go a single year without having an experience that ends in flashbacks and cold sweats and a yet closer acquaintance with his therapist. He thinks he would quite like to sleep easy, and dream not at all. He thinks he would quite like for Sherlock Holmes to still be alive.)
They got someone to take him home, eventually. Not that John was in any position to notice. All he could think was that he was on the wrong page, he’d lost his place. He went home and sat in that godawful ugly armchair of Sherlock’s and told himself the one thing he knew to be true: Sherlock was not a fraud, and John knew it, and no one could ever take that away.
Even cold comfort is comfort of a sort.
On the subject of truth:
‘Sherlock Holmes is not a fraud. He is not a liar, he is not a fake, he is the smartest, most amazing man I have ever met and none of us will ever see his like again. That’s a given. If you won’t accept that, we have nothing to talk about.’
John is on his feet and out of breath. One word, he swears, one word and he is out that door. Once he’s gone, he’s not coming back.
Thompson looks up at him, unfazed. She considers her options.
‘Was,’ she says, with precise emphasis. ‘He was the most amazing man you’ve ever met.’
Just as they are supposed to, the words cut John off at the knees and crumple him into his chair. He puts his head in his hands and takes long deep breaths and does not cry, even though he wants to. If he cried every time he felt like it, he’d have drowned himself five times over by now, so as a rule he doesn’t cry at all. He doesn’t have it in him anyway. That’s the real reason. He’s half afraid that if he lets himself try, he won’t be able to manage it. That, or he’d never stop.
Thompson watches, as she always does. She’s so careful with him. Surgical. It frightens him, and it makes him feel safe.
‘Now, John,’ she says. ‘Now we need to talk about beginnings.’
John moves out of Baker Street the next day. Mrs Hudson doesn’t want to let him go, but he can’t afford to stay in more ways than one.
He doesn’t have much. He moved into 221B nineteen months ago with a suitcase, a laptop, and a gun; he leaves it with the same. There are two boxes full of things that are not his sitting by the door, the only things that Mycroft hasn’t taken. John supposes that makes them his, so he shuffles them down to the taxi with his meagre belongings.
Laid out on the floor of John’s stark one-bedroom affair in Lambeth, it makes for a neat package: John’s life, and Sherlock’s, side by side. Boxed. It’s fitting and it isn’t. He can’t bring himself to unpack.
After that, the world does not exactly stop turning. John eats, he sleeps – the bare minimum, perhaps, but he keeps himself functioning – and he maintains some form of human contact, largely against his will.
Harry is over every other day with food and fresh flowers and the ‘feminine touch’, as though she didn’t spend most of their childhood, adolescence and, let’s be fair, adulthood bullying John when she could and emotionally blackmailing him whenever that failed. Mrs Hudson calls in the evening sometimes. John’s parents come to visit. It is... bearable.
But that’s just how John is as a person. He’s a soldier; he soldiers on. This, like John, is nothing remarkable. People do it all the time. Living is just subsistence. It means nothing. John’s heart has been torn still beating from his chest, an experience so painful it cannot be translated except in pieces, filtered down into a hundred inadequate clichés. This is living only technically, and John should know. Technically, he lived through Afghanistan. Look where that got him. Now, he lives only in memory.
Living, lived, lives.
These days John likes his tenses fluid.
‘I forbid you to get involved.’
Mycroft is dressed for a function. White tie, tailcoat, the works. Sitting at John’s battered little table in his battered little kitchenette he looks far more preposterous than usual. That does not excuse the rubbish coming out of his mouth.
John puts down the kettle, unheated.
‘Excuse me?’ he says.
Mycroft gives him a prim look. ‘It would be in direct violation of Sherlock’s wishes.’
The final straw. John manages not to hurl the kettle at the sink, or Mycroft’s head, but it is a near thing.
‘Do you know what that bastard did to me?’ he says. ‘He tried to make me accept that he was a fraud. He actually thought that I would ever believe that of him, and more than that, he wanted me to tell everyone that it was true! He must have been completely out of his stupid, priggish, self-centred mind.’
John scoffs, a bitter sort of laugh. His hands are perfectly still in a way they haven’t been for a while: that is how angry he is.
‘Do you think I give a flying fuck about his wishes? Not in a million years.’
Mycroft raises his eyebrows.
‘Would this be the second stage of grief?’
‘I already have a therapist, thanks.’
And what stage of grief is Mycroft in? It’s business as usual for him as far as John can see, and has been since that day. Not that John’s seen much of him. Too busy pulling strings behind the scenes, probably; a coup d’etat in the Sudan, perhaps, a little more finicking with the Euro. Never mind that his family has been suddenly, brutally halved.
He came to Sherlock’s funeral (John’s work, that one), and he came to 221B exactly once to settle Sherlock’s estate, such as it was. He did it all without batting an eyelid. Not a single flicker of emotion. To do otherwise would no doubt have been an intolerable weakness. No, the workings of Mycroft Holmes are as mysterious as the hand of god as far as John is concerned. The Holmes brothers are great pieces of work. Just as bad as each other.
Mycroft regards his empty teacup with a sigh. ‘Whatever Sherlock said, he did so for a reason. If this is how he wishes the world to remember him, then I shall endeavour to make it so.’
Such brotherly affection, John thinks with contempt. Mycroft certainly does pick his battles.
‘And where were you,’ John says, ‘when he was giving me his last will and bloody testament? What were you doing?’
Did you even try to save him? Do you feel as guilty as I do?
Something approaching discomfort passes over Mycroft’s face for one moment and one moment only: the entire space of his grief. He looks John in the eye.
‘I am perfectly serious, Dr Watson, stay out of this business. It concerns you no longer.’
‘Does it not?’ John grips the edge of the kitchen counter, white-knuckled. ‘Is that how it is?’
Mycroft wipes his mouth with a handkerchief as he stands.
‘That, my dear doctor, is how it has always been.’
Of course. John was interesting only so long as he was attached to Sherlock and therefore useful. He is a useless appendage now. A dead leg.
‘Get out,’ he says flatly. Mycroft obliges.
‘I am doing this only for your own protection.’
There is something odd in the set of Mycroft’s shoulders. John leans against the doorframe, eyes narrowed.
‘What do you want to keep me away from?’
John had hoped to catch Mycroft’s attention, catch him out, but he only flicks a cursory glance over his shoulder as he leaves.
‘I have already lost a brother,’ he says. ‘Let us leave it at that.’
John slams the door. He goes back into the kitchen and braces himself over the sink and he seethes. Moriarty is out there somewhere. They found blood on the roof, but no trace of a body. Moriarty is breathing while Sherlock is not. The thought is intolerable. Mycroft may claim to be handling it, but he’s ‘handled’ Moriarty before and they’re all going to be living with the fallout from that for the rest of their lives.
No, John corrects himself. Not all of them.
It is only later that he finds the envelope full of crisp fifty pound notes. Newly minted. Naturally.
John throws it out with the expired milk. He has no interest in blood money.
‘There was another story in the Telegraph today.’
John has never had any desire read the Telegraph in his life; he reads everything now. He wishes he could stop himself, but it’s compulsive. As long as they keep bandying Sherlock’s name about like the cheap popular currency it has become, John will keep picking at the scab.
‘Oh?’ Thompson says.
‘You’d think they’d all be tired of it by now, but apparently there are still some angles they haven’t trampled completely into the ground. It’s the Met this time, if you’re interested. Institutionalised corruption, incompetence, misuse of MoD funding. You know the Torygraph.’
John chews at the corner of a fingernail, taps the fingers of his other hand on the armrest of the chair.
‘Guess who got to be the prime example of everything wrong with the police force? They’d make him the prime example of everything wrong with the whole damn country if they could. He’s a scapegoat now, a story. He was nothing like that. They know nothing about him.’
‘They’ve appropriated him,’ Thompson supplies.
‘Yes,’ John says, ‘that’s it.’ He’s warming to this topic now. Reading these stories – lies, nonsense – gives him the weirdest feeling of displacement. John honestly doesn’t recognise the man the press is talking about, and it makes him feel like he’s missing something, slipping farther away from acknowledged reality. ‘When they say ‘Sherlock Holmes’,’ he says, ‘they don’t mean Sherlock. They’re talking about this person that they’ve made up in the tabloids and on the telly. That’s not the man I knew. They’ve turned him into a- a-’ John gropes for the words – ‘a fiction.’
‘It’s interesting that you should say that,’ Thompson says. She scrawls a few things, leaves a big, looping question mark. ‘Do you think this is a story?’
Thompson points at John with the end of her pen.
‘You were talking about the press, how they’ve ‘invented’ Sherlock – a new one, not the man you knew, but a fiction. Is this’ – Thompson gestures at John, herself, the current state of the world at large – ‘another story to you? Another part of the myth?’
John sighs. He hates it when Thompson does this: takes some offhand comment and twists it round, tries to make it into complex psychological tell. These metaphysical games are stupid.
‘It’s a common coping mechanism, you know. Unable to process their feelings, a person might choose to fictionalise them, displace them onto something or someone else, or view them as part of a larger story. But the interesting thing about stories,’ Thompson says, ‘is that they can be rewritten. You change the facts when you relive them. Is your story like that, John?’
‘He’s been rewritten enough already, don’t you think?’
Thompson sits up. John fancies he can see her ears prick.
‘I’m not talking about his story, John. I’m talking about yours.’
‘Me?’ John stares out the window. Sunny, this time. ‘I’m just a footnote.’
‘What makes you say that?’
How to explain? It’s difficult to put this sort of thing into words, partly because John assumes that it should be obvious. This is and always has been about Sherlock; it was never about John except as a corollary.
‘He’s Sherlock,’ John says with a shrug. ‘I don’t know what else to say.’
Isn’t that the point? How long did John spend sitting alone in that empty flat while everything failed to happen around him? Hasn’t he told Thompson this a hundred times before? Nothing happens to me. What’s the point of the supporting cast without a hero? The protagonist has come and gone and once more John is inert, an obsolete plot device. He has regressed: new flat, same space, spartan and devoid of character – Sherlock had that in spades, and he took it all with him.
Yes, it’s just like that. Sherlock was always larger than life to John. Superhuman, preternaturally intelligent, the world’s most obnoxious ass on two legs – there were never any half measures. He plucked John out of his flat, empty, post-traumatic life and gave him colour, vitality, violence. It really was like a story, the sublime fiction of Sherlock Holmes. Their grand adventures. It was easy to get... swept up.
John rewrote his life in Sherlock’s terms, and now Moriarty has rewritten it again.
Is this a fable straight from the Brothers Grimm, or is there a happier ending in store? If there is, John can’t envision it.
‘John?’ Thompson prompts. ‘How does your story end?’
It’s a good question.
‘This is the end for me,’ Lestrade says. ‘I’m being put out to pasture, and it doesn’t get more pastoral than Sturminster Newton.’
John pulls a face in commiseration. ‘Good god. How will you cope?’
‘I don’t know. I’ll take up knitting, I s’pose.’
John smiles thinly. ‘I can’t picture it.’
‘Neither can I.’
John doesn’t have much to say; the elephant in the room (park) is standing on his windpipe. Lestrade hasn’t been able to meet his eye in weeks. They’re all drifting apart without Sherlock to hold them in orbit.
Of course, in Lestrade’s case there isn’t a choice.
Not for him or Anderson or Donovan, although the fates of those last two bother John less. The inquest has taken them all out in the crossfire, and Lestrade’s taken his share of the heat from the headlines. John feels sorry for him, a little bit, but he doesn’t have the energy for heartfelt goodbyes.
‘Do you have the files I asked for?’ he says instead.
Lestrade grimaces. He rubs the back of his neck. ‘Are you sure you should be poking around in that? I’m telling you, nothing good’s going to come out of it. If there’s anything in there, the tribunal will find it.’
‘And you really believe that?’
‘Not a chance,’ he admits. ‘They want this buried.’
‘Along with the rest of us?’
‘That’s about the size of it.’
There’s a long pause. The birds are out in Dulwich Park, singing. John stares at the damp soil beneath his feet. Kids in school uniform are everywhere, shoving their friends around, hanging off each others’ backpacks, laughing. They have not the slightest inkling of what’s out there waiting for them. John feels amazingly bitter about that. He should reinvest in a cane so that he can shake it at them, chase them a bit, lecture them on the evils of falling madly in love with stupid, suicidal geniuses who will ruin their lives.
Now there’s an afterschool special.
John clenches his jaw.
‘I can’t just let this go. You know I can’t.’
Lestrade looks pained.
‘It’s over. He’s gone. I know... that’s not easy for you, but-’
‘Save it. Are you going to help me or not?’
‘John, please. This isn’t your fight anymore. This is way above all of us. If Sherlock couldn’t make it, what makes you think you can?’
What indeed? But at least he’s trying. Everyone else seems content to leave things be and let Sherlock’s memory rot along with his body, but John can’t. The thought appals him. He wants to climb up onto the roof of Bart’s, right where it happened, and shout it from the bloody rooftop: Sherlock Holmes is the real deal, and you should all be fucking grateful.
He realises, of course, that no one’s going to take his word for it. He’s not completely irrational. He just wants Moriarty’s head on a platter.
‘So you won’t help,’ John says. The bench is cold from mild autumn rain. His hands are clasped firmly on his knees.
Lestrade stands up and fiddles with the cuffs of his jacket. If he wasn’t going to look at John before, he obviously isn’t going to now.
‘I’ve got to go,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a long drive ahead of me.’
‘John, for your own sake, let this go.’
John is fed up to the back teeth of hearing that. Everyone wants to play the protector now that the stakes are so much lower. What John wants to know is how they all seem to know with such certainty just what exactly is best for him, when he doesn’t have the faintest clue himself. Did he miss a memo?
John watches Lestrade leave. His shoulders are hunched up against the cold, hands in his pockets, radiating shame and relief in a palpable aura. This might be the last time they meet. The thought doesn’t sadden John the way it might have, before.
He gets up and begins to wend his slow way back to the station, past the children and the joggers and people with their dogs.
The whole thing has this horrible air of winding down. The tribunal are going to gut every last one of Sherlock’s cases. They’ll find every trace they can and erase it, undo everything he’s done, and excise him from their records file by file.
Neat, quick, efficient. A scalpel, right to the jugular.
Sherlock’s died once already. Must they kill him again?
John is fixated on that phone call.
It keeps him awake four nights out of five, turning it over and over in his mind. He remembers the timbre of Sherlock’s voice, the way it broke.
His bed feels empty.
Was there something he should have said, John wonders. Something he could have done. He shouldn’t have left Sherlock alone, that much is clear. He was gullible, and stupid, and he let all that talk get to him. He’s always known that Sherlock’s no machine, it’s just that sometimes, when Sherlock pushes like that, it’s difficult. Sherlock is difficult.
And what was that? Did he actually expect John to swallow that lie? No. Never. Did he have any idea how insulting that was? Classic Sherlock, really: can’t even leave a suicide note without being obnoxious. One day John hopes he will see the humour in that, but that day is so far off that they’ll all be living on Mars by the time it comes.
For now, it stings, far more than all the usual, casual insults that Sherlock dealt like offhand playing cards: all aces. He enjoyed making people feel small.
No, that’s not right. John isn’t going to do this. He isn’t going to make himself feel better by changing the facts like that. Making people small meant nothing to Sherlock. It was just a matter of course, just something that happened. He could no more control it than he could the orbit of the moon. John didn’t hold that against him; it was, in that bizarre, co-dependent, Stockholm syndrome-ish way, endearing.
He pages through the texts. They recovered Sherlock’s phone from the rooftop, still intact, unlocked. It’s full of messages, sent and received. Some from Moriarty which John scrutinises over and over and then never looks at again. Messages to John and from him. All the texts that Sherlock sent other people all jumbled together – so many disparate threads of thought that John could never hope to piece them all together, though he was there for most of these cases. There is no way that Sherlock fooled him in this – in many other things, certainly, whenever it was expedient, but not in this. John knew who Sherlock was.
Goodbye. That was all John got. No explanation, none of the faultless trademark reasoning of the great Sherlock Holmes. What kind of a half-arsed suicide note was that?
Why did he say it? Why, at the end, did he try to make himself less? Why John? Why make him the mouthpiece of his defeat? And why does John comply, no matter how it breaks him?
‘Why’, the eternal question.
But of course, Sherlock was the one with all the answers, so questions are all John has left.
They address the romantic nature of John’s involvement with Sherlock only tangentially.
‘Do I smell cigarettes?’ Thompson asks when John shuffles in on a drizzling Wednesday afternoon, shaking the wet from his umbrella.
John sniffs self-consciously at the sleeve of his jacket. He shrugs. ‘Thought I’d give it a go. I don’t know, for a laugh.’
He feels nervous as he sits down, edgy. That morning was worse than usual. There’s nothing that sets it off as far as John can tell, no obvious trigger, but today he woke up with a feeling of such utter desolation that he couldn’t think of a single reason to get out of bed, then or ever. So, he went out and bought a packet of fags. It’s hardly a forward step, trading one dependency for another. Was that what he was doing when he met Sherlock? Trading one crutch for another? One psychosomatic limp for another psychological imbalance?
Thompson always thought so.
She seems to think so now, eying John narrowly.
‘I’m sure I don’t need to lecture you about the adverse effects of smoking.’
‘Don’t worry, I don’t like it much. Thought it’d help me think.’
‘And does it?’
Thompson makes a noncommittal noise. She writes something down – paper angled firmly away from John these days, she’s learned her lesson.
‘He used to smoke,’ she notes.
‘Only before I met him.’
‘Is there a connection?’
‘Yes,’ John says bluntly.
Another noise, another pause. John gets the feeling they’re about to broach some difficult territory.
‘You shared a lot.’
Ah, here it is.
‘We shared everything.’
John winces as he says it. He sounds too defiant, too defensive, and of course, with a man like Sherlock, it’s an impossible claim.
‘No, you didn’t.’ Far too much to hope that Thompson wouldn’t pick up on that. ‘That hurts, doesn’t it?’
John looks at the floor, his hands, anywhere that isn’t here. Has she no mercy?
‘What do you think?’ he snaps.
He hates Thompson, he needs Thompson, he hates that he needs her. Therapy is just an exercise in painful memories; is he getting anywhere?
‘From what you’ve said of Sherlock, he seemed very... emotionally closed off,’ Thompson notes. She’s got that therapist’s expression on her face: fake-open and encouraging while giving not a thing away.
‘That’s one way of putting it,’ John says.
It’s true. Compliments, acknowledgements, affection: John has always had to work hard for those. Sherlock was miserly with his attentions. It was worth it, though, every ounce of effort, for that rare moment when Sherlock would look up, mid-revelation, and say, ‘John, you’re fantastic’, or, fondly sardonic, ‘John, what would I do without you’, or, stretched out mostly naked in John’s bed in that low, rich voice, ‘John, tell me again’.
John shifts in his armchair. He has absolutely no idea what this complicated knot of emotion is, balled hot and tight and lonely right behind his sternum. ‘Look, just what are you fishing for?’ he says. ‘What do you want to know about us? I don’t regret it, you know. Not a single moment.’
Thompson takes a breath. Her mask slips.
‘I know, John. I know.’
He looks away from her pity.
He misses the days when all he used to do was exasperate her. He wants to remember that man, the John Watson he used to be. The John Watson who signed himself into the hands of a mad, brilliant stranger with barely a thought, who learned to love the London nights and drew his gun without regret. The John Watson who walked into this very office on a grey Thursday morning without the aid of a stick and never looked back.
He was so young. He didn’t feel it, but looking back on it now, he was.
John works two jobs.
There’s his day job: Dr John Watson, GP. He fills out paperwork, prescribes pills, looks at people’s unlikely warts. The boring, day-to-day, breadwinning stuff that he does on autopilot.
Then there’s the other one. The one that earns him the occasional worried text from Lestrade, stern missives from Mycroft on official government stationary, and endless, anxious nagging from Harry.
He ignores them all. He’s fine.
Vendetta, John thinks, is such an ugly word.
There’s a danger, sometimes, that he’ll start to believe the lie. Not that Sherlock was a fraud; there is no possible universe under which those conditions could be true. No, it’s the other lie he’s starting to believe, the story he tells himself now and then when he can’t get to sleep or he can’t wake up, or on those days when everything feels like it’s just that little bit too much.
He keeps going back to the scene in his head, day after day. Did he really see what he thought he saw? He jogged his head pretty hard; he was confused; maybe he missed something. A bait-and-switch? A fake? It wasn’t Sherlock, or it was, but he didn’t fall all the way. He stopped his pulse. He made it out. He’s alive.
But that can’t be right. John knows what he saw. He knows. And if Sherlock were out there, he would have come back by now. He would have sent John a message, a signal, something to let him know. Even Sherlock, callous and capricious as he was at his worst, would never be so cruel as to leave John here like this.
No, the more John thinks about it, the surer he becomes. Sherlock’s dead. John saw him die. Sherlock dictated his suicide note and tried to destroy every last shred of his own reputation, every last shred of John, and now he’s dead. That’s it. There is no other story.
John knows that. He and Thompson have talked about this. He knows.
Sometimes, he has doubts.
Classified, classified, classified.
Everything John wants is classified. He can’t get his hands on any of it. People are watching his house. They tail him in the street. Someone is working to keep things out of his hands.
Weeks of gruelling legwork made all the more difficult by the lengths to which John is forced to go in order to avoid his watchmen culminate, at last, in a single sniper-for-hire. One. That’s it. And when John rocks up at the grotty bedsit in Cheapside with the weight of his sidearm at the back of his trousers and a brutal intent to maim at the very least, he finds that he has been anticipated. The place is overrun, swarming with black-clad men and women of textbook spy-film anonymity.
Secret intelligence, of course.
Every trail after that is dead, every avenue already pursued by a certain someone with a fondness for umbrellas and approximately several thousand times the resources that John has.
He returns to his empty flat night after night, thwarted.
One night there is a thick brown envelope waiting on the kitchen table. The letter inside reads:
We have had this conversation once already, Dr Watson.
Do not force me to repeat myself. I would consider it poor form.
If I must, I shall take action.
There are a number of photocopied documents in the envelope: John’s national insurance number; his employment records; tenancy agreement; psychiatric evaluations; bank account details.
Honestly. How gauche. Mycroft must really be vexed with him.
John crumples the note and chucks it into the recycling.
Hand of god his arse.
‘What do you think of me?’ John asks Thompson on the five month anniversary of the fall (not suicide, he won’t call it that, not with that mess of mitigating circumstances).
For once, she’s the one caught on the back foot.
John rubs his hands on the arms of the armchair. ‘What do you think of me?’ he repeats. ‘What kind of person do you think I am? Tell me honestly, I want to know.’
‘That’s not the sort of question I should answer.’
‘It’s not the sort of question you should ignore.’
Thompson sits back and looks at him for a good long time.
‘I think you’re living,’ she says at last. ‘That’s the highest compliment I can pay. You’re a fighter, John. You’ve had your world ripped out from under you over and over again, but you’re still here. That’s something, isn’t it?’
John hums in the back of his throat.
Is living all there is? Is that all he should be aiming for? Thompson is sitting there in that chair behind her barricade of clinical notes, and procedure, and professional distance, cushioned by a life that knows nothing of the highs and the lows that John has seen. Thompson has never tried to hold in a man’s innards, kneeling in the baking heat of the Afghani scrubland; she has never been knocked out, tied up and held hostage with a vest full of Semtex strapped to her chest; she has never gone running in the midnight cold, out of breath, the police on their heels, clutching at his hand because Sherlock- because Sherlock-
Living? Don’t make John laugh.
What would the world have looked like if Sherlock had lived?
The telly is nattering on in the background and John’s cup of tea is going cold, but John doesn’t notice. He’s lying on the sofa with his head on the armrest, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
How different would everything be? What if they’d cleared Sherlock’s name, sent Moriarty to justice, the whole nine glorious yards of victory? Sherlock would be paraded in front of the press. Serenaded, applauded, courted. They’d have him on breakfast TV. There would be interviews. God, Sherlock would hate the interviews. He’d say something stupidly, incomprehensibly rude. Repeatedly.
And what then?
Would there be paparazzi following them all the time? Sherlock would be inundated with trivial cases, or fake ones, or fans. How would he be able to work? There’d be no more impromptu disguises and clever play-acting once everyone knew who he was. The game would be changed forever. For the worse, John thinks. Sherlock disintegrated in the spotlight, even as he basked in it.
But the spotlight was inevitable. Sherlock’s brilliance would always have drawn it to him sooner or later. There was no avoiding it. Eventually, he would have found his pinnacle. Eventually, he would have fallen. Tripped by a world that couldn’t support the weight of his genius.
It leads John to a grave conclusion.
Sherlock, perhaps, was doomed from the start.
This is a principle that John, no matter how he tries, cannot accept.
It is almost December when John discovers Irene Adler loitering outside 221B Baker Street, fashionably late and apparently breathing.
John’s there for tea with Mrs Hudson, to check whether he left a stray sock behind the bedstead, and, well, other flimsy excuse-type things. Unlike Irene, he’s not loitering. Not wallowing in nostalgia. Not letting his heart bleed out all over the pavement. Just there for tea.
He dredges up a heartfelt sigh.
‘Should you be here?’
He doesn’t ask why or how she is alive. He can’t say he’s all that surprised. Well, not about that. He’s surprised that she’s actually wearing clothing.
Irene turns with a smile: toothy, bright, conspiratorial.
‘Do you mean this country or this house? The answer’s ‘no’ either way, but it’s so dull, isn’t it, doing what you’re supposed to. How about you, John, are you being a good boy?’
‘I’m fine,’ John says through his gritted teeth. ‘Just... fine. Never better, thanks for asking.’ He tries to shoulder past her, but Irene has this way of just looking at you. The woman commands attention better than the most terrifying of RSMs; apparently more training regimens should include familiarisation with bondage.
She stops John right in his tracks with a hand on his shoulder.
‘You were there,’ she says.
Of course she wants to talk about this. Does anyone ever stop John in the street for any other reason?’
‘Yes,’ he says curtly.
‘And you saw it?’
John sets his jaw. ‘Everything,’
John pinches the bridge of his nose. He’s trying not to be so angry all the time, but by god do people make it hard.
‘Would you like me to recount every detail for you?’ he says as evenly as he can manage. ‘Shall I tell you what happened when he fell? No, let’s not tell it like that shall we: what happened when he jumped. D’you want me to tell you exactly what he said to me before he did it, and how he looked afterwards? Do you want to hear about how he cried?’
Irene, for perhaps the first time in her life, looks taken aback.
‘Yes it is. This isn’t some- some voyeuristic game, all right? I’m not going to pander to your fetish.’ John groans in frustration, at himself, at Irene and at the world at large. ‘Look, do you have a reason to be here?
‘No, I just...’ Irene looks down, fiddles with the gold charm at her throat. ‘I wanted to be sure.’
The tremor in her voice may or may not be an act.
‘I- Yes, I’m sure,’ John says. He takes a deep breath – he’ll need it for this. ‘I’m one hundred per cent sure that Sherlock is dead.’
Well. There’s no taking that one back. John finds himself oddly short of breath. His ears are ringing. It’s amazing how much power this thought can still have over him when he really pays attention to it. Frightening. Awful.
‘Buy me a drink?’
‘What?’ John asks. He blinks, shakes his head. ‘No, really, what did you just say?’
Irene shrugs. It’s probably meant to indicate genuine bemusement, but on her it looks coy, and somewhat sexually aggressive.
‘No,’ John says, and, with greater vehemence, ‘no.’
‘Oh, which are you, the pot or the kettle?’
Irene puts on a wounded expression.
‘I’m not half as cold as you imagine.’ She slips something out her pocket and tosses it to John. ‘Here.’
He catches it. A diamond cufflink. Unworn. Discarded somewhere back before that final, inevitable trainwreck began.
‘When did you-’
I-know-something-you-don’t-know, Irene’s smile says – practically sings – but she’s always looked that way to John, too self-satisfied for her own good. It’s no wonder she and Sherlock hit it off the way they did. This time her eyes soften the expression.
‘Remember him by it,’ she says. ‘I promise I will.’
John has that horrible, itching feeling of missing something. He feels that way all the time. When he wakes up, when he goes to bed, every hour in between. He knows exactly what he’s missing, the shape and the sound and the taste of it, but there’s no help for that.
He’s so confused.
Irene smiles at him, sad. ‘Stay safe, Dr Watson.’
‘Try not to jump into bed with any consulting criminals,’ John snaps back without thinking. Irene waves it off with a wry smile and flags down a cab.
John keeps his eyes glued to her back for every second until she disappears. Irene Adler, John thinks, still alive.
If one person can come back from the dead, why not another?
Why not, Sherlock? Answer me that.
Where are you?
On Christmas Eve, Molly Hooper disappears off the face of the earth. John tries to read everything he can into that, but comes up empty.
Sherlock, John firmly believes, has never acknowledged a power higher than himself. The very idea is antithetical.
When Sherlock died, then, his soul did not flee his body. He has gone neither to heaven nor to hell nor to any kind of purgatory. When he died, the electrical impulses firing in his brain ceased to function and that was that. Goodbye brain, goodbye Sherlock. There is no sense, spiritual or otherwise, in which he still exists.
John stands over Sherlock’s grave and cannot help but see him down there, all dirt and bones and decomposing flesh. The remains of Sherlock, full of insects. No. Sherlock is not here. He never has been. This is just matter. Sherlock is gone.
And this is why John hates to visit. He can hear Sherlock laughing at him. He who laughs last laughs longest, so they say; do posthumous laughs count? Sherlock should be in stitches.
Because however irrational John knows his actions to be, however stupid and unjustified, it makes him feel better. He still has things to say. Besides, Sherlock still has a case to solve, and John refuses to leave him alone until he gets up off his lazy arse and does it.
‘Just to let you know,’ John says, ‘I’m still waiting. I’ve set you a challenge. This is your most interesting problem yet, nigh unsolvable. You know you want to give it a go. I won’t be satisfied until you do. Prove to me that you really are that brilliant.’
There is only silence. Even the squirrel edging down the nearby oak looks at John as though it thinks he’s being an idiot. A hopeless, sentimental, lovelorn idiot.
Regardless: if anyone could outsmart death, it would be Sherlock Holmes, and John will out-stubborn even him, even if it puts him in his grave as well.
John dreams about Thompson. It’s a pleasing change from his usual dreams – gunshot, laughter, and death in a predictable number of guises – but not particularly pleasing for all that.
They’re sitting in Thompson’s room, a room so immaculately furnished it must see nothing but professional use. The weather outside is grey and indeterminate. John stares at Thompson. Thompson stares at John. Her eyes are dark, serious, lovely. She leans forward. She’s wearing perfume, and it smells good.
John smiles. He could get lost in those eyes. He almost does. It’s warm. He leans in.
Thompson puts out a hand to stop him. He goes cold. Her eyes are blue.
‘Who’s the hero of this story, John?’
John wakes in the night from a nightmare of unusual ferocity.
Harry answers on the third ring.
‘John? Are you- what’s wrong? What’s going on?’
John is struggling to breathe. It feels like something’s come loose in his chest. He’s given way. He’s crying, his shoulders heaving with it.
‘God, Harry,’ he sobs, ‘I, I don’t know, I’m sorry, I don’t know.’
He can’t stop. Physically. The sobs are tearing themselves out of him, wracking his body. His face is screwed up until it hurts, mouth open. It’s ugly and violent. The noises he makes sound nothing like himself, not even like a man at all. He cries until there is snot and salty dampness all over his t-shirt and not an ounce of anything left in him at all.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, barely comprehensible, ‘I’m sorry. I know it’s three in the morning. I’m sorry.’
There’s a muffled sound on the other end of line, a female voice that isn’t Harry’s. Harry shushes it, murmurs something.
John puts his hand over his face and sobs noiselessly into it. He’s still shaking.
‘You okay there?’ Harry asks softly.
‘Yeah. Yeah. It’s just...’
John sniffs and blows his nose.
‘I’m such a cliché,’ he rasps.
He can imagine what Sherlock would say to this: lips pursed, ‘Really John, how trite.’ Sherlock wouldn’t tolerate it. He’d look down his nose with distaste. He’d be uncomfortable, wouldn’t really know what to do and would try to cover it up. He’d probably try to cajole John with the promise of an arsonist or an exciting subspecies of carnivorous mould. He’d lift an imperious finger and say, ‘Come, John, fetch the laptop. And for god’s sake stop snivelling, this isn’t one of your abysmal soap operas, you know, there’s work to be done.’
John can really hear it, and even though he’s crying, he’s laughing as well.
‘Oh, John,’ Harry says fondly. ‘You’re an idiot.’
‘I know. I miss him.’
It’s okay to say it.
‘I miss him.’
Eight months after he felt the absence of a pulse in Sherlock’s crumpled body, John speaks to a woman he is sexually attracted to.
This time John thinks the world really might stop spinning on its axis. Or so it feels when she puts her hands down his pants.
It’s been a long time. A depressingly, crushingly, dishearteningly long time. John isn’t a monk. He isn’t Sherlock. He can’t divorce himself from his bodily needs at the drop of a hat. They’re at her flat and in her bed inside of fifteen minutes.
Sherlock was as selfish in bed as he was everywhere else; it was no surprise. John knew what he was signing on for. He was loud-mouthed, impatient and often distracted, but John resented that only sometimes and to differing degrees depending on how recently he’d had to clean entrails out of the inside of the fridge or deal with the acid scars on the kitchen table.
This woman, whose name he does not ask and whose face he doesn’t really look at, is not like that at all. They’re greedy, the both of them, tangled up, in each other’s mouths and arms, all over the place. She seems as uninterested in who John is as he is in her. She just wants him, and quickly. John doesn’t know what he wants out of the encounter. Just some warmth. A release. That, he gets.
He stays for breakfast, which is unexpected. They talk about inconsequential things: good books, the telly, carotid artery stenosis.
Her name is Rachel and she’s a paramedic.
She’s perfectly nice, but nice is no longer one of John’s criteria.
As John says his goodbyes and nips off for a shower and a change of clothes before work, he finds himself thinking almost wistfully of Irene.
That is the most horrifying thought of the entire grieving process.
The perspective of John’s thoughts begins to change. He no longer wonders, ‘what would it be like if Sherlock were alive?’ Now what occupies him is this: ‘what would it be like if John were dead?’
Don’t mistake him – he doesn’t want to die. Suicide is what put him here and suicide will not solve his problems save in the most final and unambiguous way. John isn’t interested in that. John, as ever, is thinking about Sherlock.
If Sherlock were in John’s place, what would he do? What would he make of the world without his trusty blogger, his only friend? ‘Friend’ is a difficult concept in this Sherlockian version of reality. It can mean alternately something trivial, dismissible, the property of an emotion predicated only of the dull-witted herd, or something hallowed, alien, altogether different – the difference being John.
You see, there are some people who, once they enter your life, reshape it so entirely that they can never leave. John was that person for Sherlock. He was his friend.
If John were to be the stupidly heroic and self-sacrificing one (all right, if John were to be the stupidly heroic and self-sacrificing one this time), John thinks he might have some idea how Sherlock would have taken it, and he means this without flattery:
Sherlock would be lost.
He would have railed. He would have thrown tantrums and furniture and made a wreck of everything. He would have hated it, all that messy emotion, being completely unable to control himself. He would have loathed it even more than John does. He would, no doubt, have taken it as a personal insult, unacceptable. The galling inexactitude of loss.
That’s what this is, in a word. Loss. Lost.
Here John is, stumbling in the dark, trying to find his way back.
‘And the Detective Inspector?’ Thompson asks. She’s scrambling now; John’s list of friends is so small that it’s at risk of vanishing completely. Maybe he should change his name to Sherlock.
‘We don’t keep in contact now,’ John says. ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to.’
‘You haven’t forgiven him.’
‘It’s not a question of forgiveness.’
‘Then what is it?’
John sighs, chin in hand, elbow propped on the armrest.
‘I don’t know. A reminder, I guess. Complicity. We all fucked up. The whole situation was a mess.’ He rubs a hand over his face. ‘I fucked up.’
‘You know,’ Thompson says, ‘you can’t pretend it didn’t happen, even if you never see any of them again.’
‘I know that. Do you think I’m an idiot?’
Thompson eases back from his irritation.
It’s not the answer John’s after, but nor is the person giving it. He’s really not in the mood for this today. He slept badly last night and was up early for a shift this morning. He has better things to do than retread the same tired ground.
Thompson looks down at her notes, considering.
‘Have you forgiven Sherlock?’ she asks carefully.
‘Sherlock? Forgiven him for what?’
‘Take your pick. Or are you going to claim now that you don’t have any unresolved anger?’ Thompson lifts an eyebrow.
‘There’s... well... There’s plenty to forgive, I suppose,’ John says, trying to play it off. ‘The way he hacked my laptop whenever he felt like it. His complete disregard for privacy. Those four hundred times he left the milk out.’
‘John,’ Thompson says sternly.
‘And other things,’ John concedes.
He rubs his chin and stares out the window.
No. In all honesty there are a lot of things he hasn’t forgiven Sherlock for. How many of these grudges are actually Sherlock’s fault and how many of them are rational is a different matter. Arguably none, but it’s not like John can just trip off back to Baker Street and clear the whole thing up. He’s deeply furious for a number of reasons. Sherlock didn’t come clean. He didn’t trust John. He manipulated him. He tried to end it all on a lie. He made John watch. He left him, finally, alone.
A number of reasons.
There is a part of John that could grow to hate Sherlock, he thinks. A hard, dead, bitter core of anger that he doesn’t think will go away. And yet he would give anything, anything, without restraint, just to see him one more time. Living with these contradictions is no easy thing.
‘Will you ever forgive him?’ Thompson asks.
John nearly laughs.
In many ways, it’s beside the point.
Annie, Arabella, Caitlyn, Emily, Isabel, Louise, Lucy: the next seven women John sleeps with, not in that order. This time, at least, he does more than sleep with them. He dates. He goes to movies. He drinks copious amounts of coffee (and is invited up for just as copious amounts of ‘coffee’). It’s... nice. Everything these days is either nice or dreadful, mediocre or painful beyond belief. John’s heartily sick of the middle ground.
Each of these nice and perfectly pleasant relationships lasts between two and five weeks, and ends in an unspectacular fashion. For all intents and purposes, it appears that John has reverted to his old MO.
Harry is reassured.
John doesn’t know that she should be, but, equally, he doesn’t know that she shouldn’t.
Is that progress?
John never manages his revenge; someone else takes care of it for him. Not Moriarty – a fish that big, well, he’ll fry one day, but not yet. John’s going to be there for that one. He’s going to watch that monster burn. His network, however, is another matter entirely.
John’s seen it in the papers and online: nothing explicit or overt, but something is happening. There’s a battle being fought across international borders, in the streets of Prague and London and Brisbane; internet cafes in China; nuclear power plants in Connecticut. A prominent senator is found dead in his office. An organised crime ring with roots sunk right through the bedrock of South Africa is cracked by an anonymous tip. People are moving.
And John isn’t one of them.
That’s... difficult. What’s a soldier without his war? Or, to be more precise, without his brilliantly ill-advised crime-solving war-substitute?
The worst part of the psychosomatic limp was always how helpless it made John feel. Physically useless, but mentally so as well – so useless that he couldn’t overcome his own stupid brain even when he knew that it was the only thing at fault. This experience is not unlike that. All he can do is comb the papers and the news stories and cut the pieces out bit by bit, make a pretty picture from them.
He keeps them in a file in the drawer of his desk, under his Browning. Just in case.
Lucy is an extremely talented woman; John has never before seen anyone sip at a chai tea latte with such blatant exasperation. It looks like a useful skill. Or it would be, if John drank lattes.
Lucy settles her chin in her hand.
‘Are you ever going to let me see your flat? You know, just asking. Because we’ve been going out for almost a month and I’m starting to wonder if maybe you’re leading some double life you’re not telling me about.’
‘Uh,’ John says, ‘that’s-’
‘What? Is it a wreck? Earwig infestation? You haven’t watered your medicinal marijuana garden in three weeks?’
John blinks at her.
‘I only ask because I’ve had bad experiences in the past. You’re not a serial killer or anything right? There aren’t any skeletons in the wardrobe, are there?’
‘Only figurative ones. Well. Apart from the skull.’
‘Paperweight,’ John says smoothly. He looks at Lucy askance. ‘Is that what your dating history looks like? Should I be worried?’
‘Nah, I left those losers back in Wales.’
‘So stop deflecting.’
John takes a sip of his own tea (breakfast blend, plain, dash of milk) and watches Lucy over the rim of the mug in bemusement. She’s much more... assertive than his usual type.
‘What I mean is,’ she says, ‘it’s hard enough to draw you out of that cave. Literally and figuratively. I’m starting to think you’re never going to tell me anything about yourself.’
John is honestly surprised. Lucy knows lots of things about him. Doesn’t she? ‘Well,’ he says. ‘I’m a doctor, I was in the army, I love Italian food. What do you want to know?’
‘How about, for starters, anything that you’ve done since you came back from Afghanistan? I don’t know, what are your friends like? Do you get on with your family? What do you want to do with your life? What are your hopes, dreams, aspirations? Do you think about your future? Do you think about me?’
John sits quietly and stares at his hands.
‘This is exactly your problem,’ Lucy says. ‘You know, you’re a great guy.’
In John’s experience there is always a ‘but’.
‘Forgive me,’ Lucy says with not a sign of contrition, ‘but you need to get a life. Stop living in the shadow of whatever great millstone you’re dragging around over there and do something. Get a dog. Learn French. Do yoga. I don’t care what, just something. For the love of god, please, this is too upsetting to watch.’
‘Right, well. Maybe I’ll take up whittling?’ John tries.
Lucy continues to sip at her chai tea latte. Expressively. How does she do that?
‘So,’ John says. ‘I know this is a long shot, but are we still going out?’
‘Not a chance,’ Lucy says.
John looks at Thompson and says, in all seriousness, ‘Do you know what it’s like to be half of a whole?’ He regrets it immediately.
‘No,’ he says, ‘that’s a stupid question, that’s- I can’t believe I said that. God, look at me. I’ve walked out of some... fuck it, I’m a Mills and Boon novel on two legs. I keep spouting all this crap. That’s not what we were. I’m romanticising it all now. It wasn’t like that.’
‘What was it like?’
‘Honestly?’ John asks. ‘It was awful. He was an ass, all the time. Used to drive me to distraction. I thought about beating him to death with his own microscope at least three times a day. But I loved him. Stupidly, now that I think about it.’ John smiles ruefully. ‘Sherlock thought it was stupid too, but he couldn’t help himself. It was... brilliant. It was the most’ – John shakes his head – ‘the most imperfect thing – certainly the most imperfect thing he’s ever done, and it was bloody brilliant. Even when it wasn’t. I was something to him that no one’s ever been before. I was new. I’ve never been a novelty before. I suppose that’s not a healthy way to think about it, but I liked that.’
Thompson says nothing.
‘We used to do all these stupid things. I brought out the idiot in him, I think. There was this time, with- oh god, there was- The mongoose and the iodine, and then Lestrade...’ John trails off when he notices that Thompson is completely lost. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘you had to be there.’ He snorts back laughter. ‘Awful. He really was. A complete disaster.’
Thompson notes something down. ‘But you were happy.’ She doesn’t make it quite a question.
‘Yeah. Yeah, I was. It was – and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but – it was fun.’ Exciting. Terrifying. Frustrating. It’s all inadequate. John huffs in irritation and knocks his head back against the armchair’s plush, cushioned back.
‘Let me rephrase this, in better terms. I’ve dealt with a few amputations in my time. You know, before.’
(It’s staggering that Sherlock could render Afghanistan, of all things, just some insignificant portion of time in John’s life – just ‘before’, important only relative to the timeframe of Sherlock’s existence.)
‘After the limb’s been severed, the brain doesn’t catch up right away. Sometimes it never does. The whole somatosensory cortex rearranges itself, and what results, sometimes, is a phantom limb. It’s a perceptual anomaly, but a persistent one. As far as the subject is concerned, the limb is still there. It moves. It gestures when they talk. It feels pain. Sometimes it takes on a life of its own. Do you follow?’
‘You sound like him.’
‘Christ, seriously?’ John looks away and pulls a face. He smiles, just a little bit. ‘That’s the worst news I’ve heard all day.’
Thompson watches him evenly. ‘Sherlock Holmes is your phantom limb.’
John stares at his hands. ‘I’m always looking for him.’
‘Is that a hardship or a comfort?’
John licks his lips. ‘Maybe, I think, it’s a bit of both.’
Hardship because it hurts to remember, all the time, what he’s lost. Comfort because even John – practical, sensible, dependable John – can’t help but think that one day, one day, he might look up and find that Sherlock’s looking back.
Mike Stamford is standing in front of the frozen ready-meals section in Tesco’s, right between John and his unappetising, barely nutritional supper-to-be. It doesn’t take a moment for John to weigh his choices (thank god for takeaway menus) and he tries to backtrack unobtrusively but is foiled by a stack of Maltesers boxes on special offer. There’s a crash, a yelp, and little balls of chocolate all over the floor.
‘John,’ Mike says.
‘Yes. Hi.’ John dispenses apologetic smiles to the disgruntled employees who shunt aside his attempts to help. He hates feeling flustered. ‘Mike. Hi.’
There’s an odd expression on Mike’s face. Slightly horrified? Fearful?
What does Mike read? The Sun, right. Particularly horrible series of articles, inasmuch as you can reasonably call anything in The Sun an article. How many times did they say John had been arrested for assaulting police officers?
‘I-’ John starts. ‘Well.’ He’s at a loss as to what to say. He doesn’t really know how to explain himself or if he even wants to bother trying. He suspects his reticence has more to do with the latter.
‘Yes,’ Mike says.
‘Yes,’ John says. He coughs. Averts his eyes.
Mike doesn’t get the message.
‘We should... meet sometime. For coffee.’ Mike tries out a nervous smile. ‘Catch up.’
‘Definitely. We should. Yes.’
John has no intention of meeting Mike for coffee.
He’s so obvious about it that even Mike must know this. Mike still smiles. He probably doesn’t want to meet John either.
‘Great,’ John says, ‘we’re in agreement. So, um, beans. I’m going to go-’
‘Right, I’ve got-’
There’s a horribly awkward handshake where John grips too tight and Mike sweats all over him and then they both walk briskly away to seek refuge, John amidst the tinned vegetables and Mike in the bakery.
Filling up his basket with tuna and baked beans, John realises that this is actually, bizarrely, the closest he’s come to normal interaction with the outside world in, well, an extremely long time. Normal interaction that doesn’t end in sex, that is. John would rather not consider too closely what that says about him. The truth is that there’s something universal about the embarrassment of awkward run-ins with old school-friends that settles John’s nerves. There’s almost a smile on his face as he files through the checkout queue. He nods at the woman on the till – ‘Morning’ – and feels... fine. He feels okay.
It’s just another day.
He can handle that.
Lambeth, it seems, is one of those places that collects all the old colleagues and school-friends you don’t think about and never really want to see like unwanted lint. It’s that difficult place down the back of London’s sofa. This is the only explanation for the alarming frequency of coincidental meetings that John encounters in that week.
He’s walking past a row of cashpoints on his way back from the bank when Sarah bumps into him – literally, too busy doing something with her phone. John sort of wants to die.
‘John!’ she says, startled. She blinks, opens her mouth, shakes herself. ‘Hi.’
‘Um,’ he says, the very incarnation of suave opening lines. ‘Hi.’
There’s a bit of a face-off. For some reason, somewhere between the part where they dated, were abducted, broke up, and she fired him, things have become extremely awkward.
‘So. How’ve you been?’ John asks.
Sarah smiles and brushes a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Yeah, good. Great. You? How’s Sherlock?’
The smile freezes on his face, then hers.
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘yes, god, I’m- I... heard.’
‘Yes, well.’ John laughs and glances down. ‘You and the rest of the nation.’
Sarah looks mortified. John finds it kind of funny, actually. He isn’t going to shatter into a million pieces at the mention of a name, not even his. Doesn’t she know him better than that? He supposes not. He’s not the John Watson she knows anymore, hasn’t been for six, seven, eight months. More. Is that really the time? How quickly it’s gone, contrary to all expectation. Sarah’s a world away from him now. John left her in the dust of his old life. He’s had a lot of lives – more than his fair share, however you’d like to interpret that.
‘I’m an idiot, I wasn’t thinking.’ Sarah gives him an earnest look. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘Whatever that means to you.’
‘Not a lot, but thanks.’
Sarah’s hurt, but she tries to cover it up.
‘Sorry,’ John says, sighing. ‘I’ve been hearing that sort of thing a lot. ‘So sorry for your loss.’ ‘Heartfelt condolences.’ You know. I even got a ‘get well soon’ card from an estranged cousin once removed. I suppose it’s better than being called a – what was it – ‘sycophantic accessory to a deluded psychopath’?’ He shrugs. ‘Journalists.’
‘They were pretty brutal,’ Sarah agrees.
‘You’re telling me.’
Sarah bites her lip on a question, and John feels that old resurgent anger. He tamps it down. It’s not her fault.
‘No,’ he says, not quite able to rid his voice of its shortness. ‘Before you ask. No. It’s not true.’
‘I know. I remember what he was like.’
‘You know, if you ever want to talk-’
‘I’ll take it to my therapist, don’t worry.’
She laughs. ‘Right, of course. That’s good.’
John looks at the pavement. He can talk about it. He doesn’t particularly want to, but he can. He just doesn’t think Sarah will much want to hear what he has to say. For all her kindness, John’s got a lot of issues.
It’s weird running into her like this. It makes him think about how far he’s come since they had their unsuccessful fling, how different he is now. She looks just the same. John doesn’t, he knows. He sees it in the mirror every day, the mark Sherlock has left on him: tired, thinner, sharper. He’s a harder man, now. Stronger maybe, in some ways. Weaker no doubt in others. Sarah’s trying to look at him surreptitiously. He can see in her face that she thinks he’s a stranger.
Any minute now they’ll say their goodbyes and she’ll be off. Their paths might cross again, they might not. This meeting feels like something more than coincidence. It feels orchestrated: part of a plan, a tying up of loose ends. John’s been having this feeling for a while, like all the possible avenues of his life are closing down, one by one, funnelling him onto this single, inevitable path.
At this rate it might end up tying him out of existence, out of all feeling. A little parcel, neatly tied: here lies John Watson; doctor, accomplice, friend. Labelled and boxed like all that is left of Sherlock Holmes, tidied away at the bottom of John’s wardrobe.
That reminder catches John out.
‘You know what,’ he says, ‘I think there’s something I have to do. I’ll see you around.’
‘Oh, right,’ Sarah calls after him. ‘I hope things work out. I mean that.’
John’s the one to walk away.
Maybe they will cross paths again.
‘I’m pretty crap at dealing with people, I think. I don’t know what to say. I say stupid things. Talk about whittling. Or beans. Should that worry me?’
‘Well. A bit? I don’t know. Not really. I think I’m more worried about the accelerating rate of global warming and the state of the Eurozone, to be perfectly frank.’
‘It’s not a bad sign.’
‘But not good? How not good?’
‘John, it’s all right. You’re allowed to be... weird.’
Thompson points at him with her pen.
‘You know exactly what I mean. No one expects you to be right on the ball for every second of your life. Everyone has awkward moments. Everyone has off days. You don’t have to feel great all the time, or miserable, or anything. It’s okay not to know how you feel sometimes. That’s all right. That’s normal.’
‘Normal.’ John tests out the word. How long has it been since someone said that word to him without connecting it to words like ‘not’, ’ab-’ and ‘freak’?
‘Yes, John. We’re not here to make you perfect.’
John can imagine that: Thompson, sequestered in her neat little room, turning out immaculate super-beings of infinite compassion and emotional stability. A post-psychosis production line. He does a bad job of containing his snort.
‘What?’ Thompson asks.
‘What?’ She eyes John grimly. ‘We’ve already had the conversation about sharing. Several times.’
‘No, really,’ John says, waving her off, ‘it’s nothing. One of those stupid things.’
‘Whittling,’ John says, hiding his smile with a hand. ‘Beans.’
A certain gleam comes into Thompson’s eyes. On someone less dedicated to professional neutrality, he’d call it sly. ‘Fine. Let’s change topic.’ She tilts her head. ‘Tell me about your latest conquest. Natural blonde this time?’ Her face is suspiciously expressionless, pen poised.
John clears his throat.
Oh, so it’s going to be like that.
Eventually the hits on John’s blog stop climbing.
John doesn’t actually read the thing anymore, so he doesn’t see why anyone else should bother. He has written anything since that last time. June 16th. The only words he could force out of himself; his one little act of defiance in the face of Sherlock’s parting wish. The Science of Deduction is still running too, if only because John hasn’t brought himself to shut it down just yet. Sherlock’s phone gets calls sometimes, but John doesn’t answer.
This far on, the papers and TV news are safe ground, all quiet on the Western Front, but the internet carries more of a risk. People out there are saying a lot of things that John doesn’t want to see. Maybe some he does, but not enough to compensate. On the whole, though, it’s quiet.
Quiet, incidentally, is how John would define his life now. Unremarkable. He keeps his head down. No one looks at him on the street. Even Mycroft doesn’t bother to have him followed these days.
Sherlock would term it absolutely hateful, but if Sherlock were around the problem would be moot.
John finds it interesting to chart the progress of his own evolution from the quiet, unremarkable, post-Afghanistan Dr Watson to the dangerous, thrill-seeking accomplice of Sherlock Holmes and back, as though Sherlock were just a passing phase, a brief illusion, now lifted. Just a fantasy. The media’s like that too: a hundred stories in the span of a week, but how quickly Sherlock fell into obscurity when people got bored. His story will become a myth, the myth a legend, and soon enough it will drop out of the collective consciousness altogether. All of those fictitious ‘facts’ will be forgotten.
But not by John.
He’ll carry this with him, always. John will never be what he was before. The true legacy of Sherlock Holmes is written into every crease of his hands, every habit, every thought, and he’s never letting that go.
‘Time heals all wounds, love.’
A platitude for every occasion, and an occasion for every platitude.
It used to get on John’s nerves that people thought they could take one look at him, take what he was feeling, and package it up in this handy little pre-made cliché. They always looked so sincere, as though they thought they were doing him some kind of favour.
John hated that. He is not and has never been a grieving widow to be placated with flowers and soft words, and anyone who believes that time heals all wounds ought to try being shot. John has. He knows damn well that some damage is permanent and he has the scars, nerve damage and lasting psychosis to prove it.
What he also knows, though, and this one’s new, is that none of that matters. People say those things to make themselves feel better, and also because it is the nature of loss that nothing may be adequately said to resolve it. Sorrow like John’s cannot be quantified. In the face of that, all words break down. People need platitudes to fill the gap. They don’t heal, but they don’t hurt.
So when the old woman behind the till at the corner shop gives John his change and says, ‘chin up, it’s just time,’ John isn’t fazed. He doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t feel a pang of any variety. He just nods, pastes on his habitual facsimile of a smile (so well-worn that it’s in danger of becoming genuine), and lifts his hand.
‘Cheers,’ he says.
‘On you go, dearie. Mind the buggy on your way out.’
John edges past the couple lingering over the magazine stand beside their pram.
‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’
The world goes on.
‘Summer’s late this year,’ John says, watching the drizzling grey sky outside Thompson’s window.
‘Mmmm,’ Thompson agrees. ‘Do you have any plans? It might do you good to get out of the country.’
‘Yeah, I s’pose, but it’s a bit of a hassle isn’t it? And where would I go? Can’t really see myself in Paris.’
‘Still, a change of scenery. It’d help you get out of your head, at least.’
‘And make it easier for you to get in?’
John smiles wryly. He knows what subject they’re skirting; it’s unlike Thompson to be so circumspect.
‘I know what time of year it is,’ he says. ‘It’s fine. I’ll stay here. Maybe I’ll go walking in the Cotswolds or something. How about you? Any plans?’
They fence pleasantries for the last ten minutes of the session; this is what their conversations look like now. They’ve talked about Sherlock so much that there is nothing else to say. Sherlock has been everywhere: all over the press, the TV, in John’s brain, his heart, his speech – enough.
Sherlock is a dead man. Let him lie.
Dear god, please, just let him lie.
On the one-year anniversary of Sherlock’s death, John does not visit his grave. He doesn’t go to the Cotswolds either. He sits alone in his room in the dark, stands a bottle of whisky on the table next to the skull that he will never admit to talking to, and stares at it.
Then, he gets up and makes some calls.
Forty minutes later the lights are on and Mrs Hudson is ensconced in the corner of John’s ratty sofa while Lestrade, back in London to visit relatives, pours the second round. Mycroft is absent, tied up in matters of national security.
‘To Sherlock,’ Lestrade says, ‘most arrogant git of the century, and the most brilliant detective the world has ever known. I pray we never see his like again.’
John smiles into his whisky. ‘To Sherlock,’ he says.
He sets out an extra glass for him. Tradition, he claims. But in the back of his head he’s still thinking: just in case. Just in case.
‘If Sherlock Holmes were to come back from the dead tomorrow, what would you do?’
John opens his mouth, closes it.
‘What, if it turned out this whole thing had been a massive ruse and he’d been out there, I don’t know, biding his time in some desert in Botswana for the last year and a bit?’
‘Yes,’ Thompson says. She flips her pen thoughtfully in her fingers, face carefully neutral. ‘What if he walked up to you on the street tomorrow or tonight or this afternoon. What would say to him?’
John pulls a face and scratches his chin.
‘I don’t know. ‘Hello’, I suppose? ‘Welcome back’? ‘You callous fucking bastard, come over here so I can kill you again’?’
He smiles, wry, and Thompson smiles back.
‘I suppose,’ he says slowly, ‘that if I had the chance, I’d tell him ‘so long’. He’d just be a ghost, after all. What we had is done. That chapter is closed. I need... closure. If I saw him again, I think I’d say ‘goodbye’. Just that.’
Thompson tilts her head.
‘You’d walk away?’
‘Yes,’ John says. ‘No.’
He can’t approach this thought head-on, which is ironic, really, considering that it’s been the unspoken assumption lurking at the back of his mind all this time: the impossible conviction that one day Sherlock will return. John closes his eyes and rubs the bridge of his nose.
‘I wouldn’t. Of course not. I’d probably punch him, but I love that stupid git, and I always will. One thing’s true, though. I couldn’t just pick up where we left off. I’m not the same man I was then. He wouldn’t be, either. We wouldn’t even know each other anymore. I know that. But I wish, I just wish...’
John takes a deep breath. He can feel himself getting teary against his will. Again. Still. This is so frustrating.
‘John-’ Thompson begins, but John holds up his hand.
‘He called me, you know? He gave me his last words, told me his ‘note’. He made me his note. I feel like, in this stupid, selfish way, I feel like I’m the last part of Sherlock still living. He made me a legacy, not a person, and I. I don’t know what to do with that. What can you do with that? I’m not just his blogger – I’m not the sidekick, the assistant or the accomplice, confirmed bachelor and all that. Whatever they said about me.’
John scratches at the upholstery under his fingers, digs his nails in. It’s ugly, bringing this up. He’d thought he’d buried it, he’d thought he was moving on, but here he is, red-eyed, struggling to keep the break out of his voice. He looks away from Thompson’s steady gaze, hand over his eyes.
‘It’s been more than a year now,’ he says, ‘and I still think that he’ll come bursting through my door any day with a case, or I’ll come home and find my locks picked and him in my chair with that smug look on his face, dying to tell me how he did it, how terribly clever he is.’ John’s laugh is barely a laugh at all, choked. God it hurts. ‘I still wake up expecting to hear him yelling at me to grab his phone from the table or defrost the severed toes. I want to hear it.’
He swallows the first real sob before it can break free and blinks at the ceiling. ‘But that’s the thing,’ he says hoarsely. ‘I always will, won’t I? I just have to live with it. That’s all.’ His mouth stretches, almost a smile. ‘I just have to live.’
Thompson stands. For the first time in the three-odd years of their haphazard acquaintance, she touches him.
John looks up at her, snot and saltwater on his face, childlike in his desperation.
She is always so careful with him, so precise. He feels frightened. He feels safe.
‘John,’ she says, ‘you’re going to be fine.’
A year and a month after Sherlock’s death, John visits his grave for the third time since the funeral. He brings flowers, and a note – creased, much folded, anxiously toyed with.
‘It’s embarrassing, right?’ he says. ‘You’re not even here to mock me – I’m just talking to a headstone and there are still things I can’t say. What kind of emotional cripple can’t even talk to inanimate objects? I know. But, here I am.’
John bites his lip at the headstone, all glossy black and overbearing in the graveyard’s unpretentious quiet. The sun is warm on his back; late summer, come at last. There’s a thrush in the trees, singing.
He puts his fingers to the inscription, feels the grooves in all the letters, the name: cool, smooth, inert. He leaves the note there tucked away amidst petals of marigold, hibiscus and pear blossom, unfolded, four lines of his untidy scrawl exposed to the light.
I owe you so much.
John rubs his eyes, and smiles.