It’s Greg that introduces him to Mary Morstan. She had some sort of trouble - the kind of case Sherlock would have loved, of course, and Greg doesn’t find much out, but he says she’s a great girl and introduces the two of them.
She’s attractive, and kind, and absolutely lovely. It starts as a double date with Greg and Molly - though Molly keeps giving them odd looks, and if it weren’t for the fact that John knows she’s mad about Greg, he would wonder if she was jealous. As it is, the looks stop about half-way through dinner, and they all have an excellent time. At the end of the night, his face is a bit sore, and he realizes he’s been smiling the whole time.
It’s not such as rush as meeting Sherlock. His limp remains, and he’s not so overwhelmed - he doesn’t feel like he’s falling, he doesn’t feel that same deep connection that he’ll never replace. He doesn’t feel like he’s tied himself to someone when they’ve only just met. But it’s a nice feeling, meeting Mary, walking her home and then taking a taxi back to Baker Street. He thinks he could fall in love with her, and finally stop hoping that if he wishes harder, Sherlock will just be there - that he will wake up and he won’t disappear.
They date for a few weeks before she tells him they ought to have a talk. He wonders briefly if, even from beyond the grave, Sherlock has managed to scare away yet another one of his girlfriends - though he likes this one substantially more than most of the ones he dated when Sherlock was alive. Instead, she tells him that she’s dying. She’s known since before they met - she has some rare sort of cancer and she’s been given two years to live. She won’t tell him what kind it is - probably because she knows he’s a doctor and that he’d want to try and take better care of her.
She says he can break up with her if he wants and she won’t be angry. She thinks that maybe, if they’d met in another time and place, maybe -
But he can’t hear her say all the things about their budding relationship that he’d thought about with Sherlock. About how maybe if they’d met sooner or later or somewhere else, Sherlock wouldn’t have jumped that day at the hospital. How if he and Mary had met in some other time and place, they could have longer.
He kisses her, just to stop her wondering. It’s pleasant, not overwhelming. It’s like settling into a comfortable chair, or sitting by the fireplace on a cold night. It is not the all-encompassing force he had imagined kissing Sherlock would be.
When they break apart, he smiles at her.
“I don’t think that’s any reason to break up with you - if I break up with you, it’ll be for a real reason, alright?”
He knows it’s going to hurt - watching someone he cares about die, again. He’s not entirely sure that what’s left of his heart, all empty and stitched back together, will be able to make it through. Then again, he wonders if it’ll be easier - at least he’ll have time to say goodbye, this time around. At least he knows what he’s getting himself into. At least, now, he already knew that destiny had it out for him.
It’s not long, of course, before she finds out about Sherlock and the blog. She’d heard some of it on the news, but she believes John when he says Sherlock was as brilliant as people first thought he was. He starts to tell her the stories of cases they worked on together - stories of heads in the fridge, and of other experiments scattered about the flat. She laughs in all the right places and when he tells her the story of his first date with Sarah, she only asks why she didn’t try to save herself, and why on Earth any girl wouldn't think that was the best first date she’d ever had.
They go to Angelo’s one night, and he gives them their meal for free even though Sherlock isn’t there. He’s telling the story of A Study in Pink, then, and before he even gets to the part where he killed a man for Sherlock, she tilts her head at him, considering.
“It’s very sweet, you know. How much you loved him.”
The smile on his face slowly morphs into a furrowed brow and a gaping mouth. “Sorry?”
She frowns, looking a bit concerned. “Oh, I’m sorry. You did know didn’t you?”
He shakes his head, clearing. “Yes, God, of course, I just... I didn’t think you would...”
Her smile returns, then. “I’ve got an eye for that sort of thing. It’s all right, though, I think it’s very sweet, really. You’re so happy when you talk about him. I like seeing you so happy.”
“I’m happy with you, too, you know.”
She blushes, ducks her head a little. “Yes, John, I know. I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. No-one goes through life and only loves one person. Well, I shouldn’t say no-one - but very few people do. We love and lose and love again. Well - not to say -”
As much as he’s thought he feels it, they haven’t said that to each other yet. “Mary, I love you, too.”
She looks up at him, a glint in her eye. “Well who said I loved you?”
It’s clear by the look on her face that she means something else, though. They smile, he finishes the story, and they eat in peaceful silence, the romantic candle flickering between them.
That night, he goes back home with her, and they make love for the first time. It’s gentle, and beautiful, and it’s one first he doesn’t compare to Sherlock at all. She turns to him, afterward. “You know, I’m very, very, happy with you.”
“I should hope so,” he replies, half smiling.
“There’s a word, actually - a Norwegian word for this sort of euphoria of falling in love.”
He chuckles, thinking of significant looks and fingers in hair and longing and destiny. “There’s a word for everything, I’ve learned.”
“Yes, that’s probably true,” she says back, giggling. “Anyhow, the word is Forelsket.”
He mumbles an attempt at pronouncing it under his breath, and she only laughs at him. Pronunciation has never been his strong point. He can’t help but think, as they lay there, that she’s brilliant. The observations, the knowledge of odd Norwegian words. She’s no Sherlock - but no one will ever be Sherlock, and that’s all right. He still thinks that maybe, just maybe, Sherlock would have liked her.
They visit his grave the next day, and Mary shoos him away after a bit - she wants to talk to Sherlock alone for a bit, she says.
He hides a ways off, under a tree where he can still see and hear.
“Hello, Sherlock.” She smiles down at the well-kept grave. John’s already feeling a tug at his heart. “I know we’ve never met - regardless, I feel like I know you. I know all the best parts of you, at least. All the parts John talks about. You sound really brilliant. I do wish we could have met - though if you were still about, I don’t think I ever would have had a chance with John, so - oh, wow, I’m not trying to thank you for leaving, that’s horrible. Also, I wouldn’t thank you for that, because I’ve seen... glimpses, of what it was like for John right after you left. It was awful for him. I’ve never been half as sad as he looked in those moments. I just... I just hope you know how much he loves you, still. You did such incredible things for him, and you made his life so much better, and without you, John wouldn’t be the man he is today, without having met you. So, thank you. Because I love him, and you brought him to me, and you saved him. I can only hope to help him a fraction of as much as you have while I’m here.”
She pats the headstone, just like he has on several occasions. and turns at smiles at him where he’s standing under the tree. They leave the graveyard holding hands, and they decide to make visiting Sherlock a weekly occurrence.