You remember the day that the two of you met, don’t you? The day of life-changing barter – you lent him your phone, and he gave you back your story.
It’s the Tuesday immediately after. Chiaroscuro clouds scrape across the skyline lazily this evening, and it is an early winter greyed by water vapour and photochemical smog. London is a city that operates on clockwork, compressing commuters into the rush-hour metro trains, draining white-collared drones out of office buildings and haemorrhaging carbon-belching vehicles upon the roads to sully the barren skies. People live and people die, and in spite of that the cogs keep whirring and the gears keep grinding – the London Eye spins, the Big Ben keeps time. Life goes on regardless of cause and effect, angels and devils, and humankind continues to walk the turning wheel.
In 221B Baker Street, however, there is a man who has pulled himself from this machination. This snip of a man, John Hamish Watson, has been brought to his knees in the unoccupied room of Sherlock Holmes and is crying softly into the empty bed, his fingers digging into a woollen deerstalker cap and pressing it over his mouth and nose like a respirator.
(His orthopaedic cane keeps vigil by his side, months of disuse cleaned from its aluminium frame.)
A week after Sherlock falls from the pinnacle of the world, John’s days begin to grow longer, his nights more hellish.
The nightmares return – slowly at first in a trickle of small sequences from the days in Afghanistan he thought he’d already learned not to miss, and then midnight hours where he’s back at Bart’s, standing in the road, around him a light snowfall painted with blood and weighted by gravity. The very force that keeps the Earth revolving around the Sun, a process that Sherlock once thought of as inconsequential, and the irony manages to wean a bitter laugh out of John on the blackest of nights. The days he usually forgets by lunchtime, but the hours stay with him, always – a navy blue scarf flapping alarmingly in the wind, a tangled mess of flailing limbs, and the sickening crunch of a calvarium smashing against the pavement at breakneck speed half a block away.
The blood. So much of his blood streaking his face and matting his hair, pooling on the concrete like Burgundy wine, more blood than he’s seen in a lifetime of military service and infinitely more macabre. Sometimes he can see Sherlock’s reposed eyes mirrored in the blood, ice-blue tainted by an overflowing of red, and then the stilling absence of a radial pulse beneath his fingertips. He can handle the sight of blood – he was an army doctor after all, a vocation not for the faint of heart nor the squeamish, a fact they hadn’t bothered to conceal within the fine print when he’d signed up all those years ago.
He can handle blood perfectly fine, he really can. But the blood in his dreams belongs to Sherlock Holmes, and the thought of that alone is enough to cut him like a machete.
(He’s seen enough of those wounds weeping into sun-baked sand, autopsied and documented melee kills over windswept dunes, and he knows how it feels down to every cell and every bone: a shock of white-hot pain branding from the raw core of a jagged wound and up the sides like a neurotoxin, filling blood vessels with seething fire, everything happening within half a second, and then it starts all over again.)
Evenings at 221B Baker Street become more difficult as cumulative nights of sleeplessness begin to take their toll. He shows up late for work every other day to the ire of his colleagues and patients, mumbling half-baked apologies through the fog of his torpor and dispensing tired looks through darkened eyes. For God’s sake, he nearly shouted at Mrs. Hudson the other day when she’d accidentally spilled a bit of milk on his mail bringing it up, stopping only after remembering what Sherlock would’ve done to him if he did. John knows that she’s not having it easy either dealing with losing Sherlock, and she’d even waived Sherlock’s half of the monthly rent the day he died so that John could afford to continue living there – bless her magnanimous soul – and he starts to hate being so bloody hateful about everything since Sherlock’s suicide. Not that staying at 221B is what he needs nowadays; several times a week he doesn’t come back at all, opting to kip over at Harry’s even though he can hardly stand the smell of distilled ethanol about the place and lager cans proudly stacked in the loo like trophies on an athlete’s mantelpiece.
The nightmares don’t stop when he’s there, but it’s easier waking in the dead of night, gasping for air, to a sister bushwhacked with hangovers than the emptiness of a flat broken in for two, the quiet.
In a bid to help him, his therapist prescribes Prozac for depression, Valium for insomnia. The Valium he keeps. The Prozac he flushes down a commode the first chance he gets.
Mycroft Holmes tries to contact him infrequently, though it’s usually a one-way endeavour – John deletes his text messages without even opening them, scowling as soon as he recognises Mycroft’s number flashing excitedly across his phone. He considers changing his number to put an end to the texts, but he knows that it’d be a waste of time – no matter how hard he’d try to elude Mycroft, the bastard would most definitely have his new number by the next morning, knowing the man and his methods.
They haven’t spoken since 10 Downing Street and the last time John saw him in person was at the funeral where Mycroft had stood by the roadside, leaning on his dark brolly, off the grass and a good distance away from the function itself. The press was raucous that morning, milling around the perimeter of the cemetery like flies drawn to fresh carrion, and while John appreciates that Mycroft had most certainly arranged for security personnel to keep the crowd at bay throughout the course of the entire ceremony, the fact that he chose to spectate rather than involve himself with them in mourning Sherlock infuriates him to no end. Of course, John hadn’t really wanted to be within ten feet of Mycroft anyway, not after he practically handed Sherlock over to Moriarty on a silver platter, but just for that day he was willing to look past that for Sherlock’s sake. There was room prepared for all of them and yet only five took their designated places – John, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, Molly and Mike – while the sixth veiled seat remained starkly vacant in a corner, an abdicated throne missing its monarch.
When John had finally looked at him, Mycroft left with his gaze turned downwards, vanishing into a limousine. It glided past, unnoticed by everyone else, and as it went round the corner to return to London, John imagined for a second that he could hear a cockerel crowing in the distance.
Long after he accepts that Sherlock’s gone for good, he continues to touch John in the oddest ways. His harebrained experiments that are still in progress test his quixotic hypotheses even in his absence, and they catch John unexpectedly whenever he drops his guard, even for a moment. For example, he finds sputum cultures in the ice cube tray at the back of the freezer, complete with toothpicks for convenient removal and examination; several opaque, suspicious-looking bottles sealed with duct tape in the toilet cistern and with ‘GENIUS IN PROGRESS, KEEP AWAY. THAT MEANS YOU, JOHN, AND POSSIBLY YOU, MRS. HUDSON’ scrawled on every one in Tipp-Ex; and an estranged pair of desiccated testicles in the salt-and-pepper pots when he opens them up for refilling the day he has finally eaten everything edible in the flat and is forced to go down to the nearest Asda for groceries. It’s difficult for John not to chew his lip in mild frustration when Sherlock had somehow managed to imprison the flat’s only stapler inside a whole jelly without him knowing, and there can’t be anything remotely forensic about that, can there? It’s the last straw in a long line of last straws with Sherlock and his bizarre eccentricities; he stands up exasperatedly, Sherlock’s name gripped tightly between his teeth…
No one is there. No one to reprimand, to be affronted by, to abandon momentarily for air he doesn’t really need. No Stradivarius crooning Paganini on this slow afternoon, and no delicate pizzicatos with slender, mobile fingers. Just him holding on to his cane and a plate, upon which sits an office implement encased in lemon-flavoured agar, the only thing Sherlock’s made that’s come closest to actual food. Bits and pieces of Sherlock, things that he touched and created, and these are all that’s left of him. It’s stiflingly quiet in the flat. John slowly sets the dessert down on the kitchen table, not bothering to rescue the stapler, before dragging himself over to his armchair and sitting in it, holding his face in his hands to muffle the crying. When he looks up soberly, the water in the kettle he set on to boil before discovering the jelly in the larder is already bubbling vigorously.
He makes coffee, the only thing he can do to avoid yet another breakdown. Strong black with a splash of cream and no milk, even though the milk carton finally doesn’t require a Hazchem diamond for the first time in the longest time, and he actually finds himself wishing that it did.
What begins to creep up on him as he lives through each day without Sherlock is nothing short of astounding. He tries his best to be more obvious than normal – perhaps a little unkemptness about his attire or a stain here on his shirt cuff with a sprinkling of residue there on the edge of his collar, just so that maybe someone on the tube would peer at him and note how he’d gotten up for coffee at two a.m. that morning or identify the brand of washing powder he uses to launder his jumpers. In the shower he over-lathers until he reeks of antibacterial body wash, and he exercises full profligacy afterwards with the hair gel until he turns into a walking bathroom supply closet, hoping for even a snide remark from a passer-by regarding his fictional obsession concerning personal care, but it’s fruitless. He is seen, but never observed. Nobody reads him the way only Sherlock can, something that quickly becomes more of a need than an annoyance, though he can’t help but fault them at times for a lack of trying.
Then there are also the episodes that seize him at any possible time, where the only thing he can think about is Sherlock with his name ringing in his head louder than a klaxon, feeling the touch of Sherlock’s hand in his the night they ran away from the police. Their palms were sweating as they held on to each other and fled through the shadows, hearing the sirens blaring on the manhunt about the streets; Sherlock had scrambled over the metal fence in seconds while John reached out with his free hand, grabbing him by the lapel of his dark coat and he drew Sherlock to him to hiss instructions in his ear. It was frantic that night and there was not much to think of at the time, but he still remembers the clarity of Sherlock’s proximity in smaller moments on his own. How even then, while they were being chased, he had felt the warmth of Sherlock’s breath flocking against his face and that prompted him to look, just really look at Sherlock and recall all the times they’d been physically close together but none of those were closer than that apart from the pre-Adler household incident where he’d had him in a headlock on the road. He’d already committed Sherlock’s face to visual memory – every dimple and every smirk and every fathomable expression of his and how he finds himself so easily in that face – but still he looked up into Sherlock’s eyes and saw an enigma, someone so incredibly beautiful and wonderful but not quite seraphic and he’d already known that for a while but tried not to think about how he wanted so badly to explore Sherlock’s face with his fingertips. He thought that it could’ve been a misleading flight of fancy, briefly considering the possibility of love and he felt his face flush faintly, but these thoughts were hastily extinguished by adrenaline and the thrill of a chase after he’d cleared the fence too and they took off together.
So many times they were close enough to touch, and it burns John to think about every one of those times when he wasn’t brave enough to take Sherlock Holmes and kiss him.
This dream happens just once, but it feels more than real and it’s the only one he wants to have for the rest of his life:
– there he is again, squatting on his chair with his palms pressed together, eyes alight with the joy of mystery. It would make a nice cinematic shot for a portrait, John thinks. Sherlock’s gaze flickers towards John and gives the ‘we both know what’s really going on here’ look with a grin although it’s just his own face to him and John actually does know what’s going on this time before Sherlock leaps off the furniture and whirls him around and then they’re embracing with no wasted space between them, and because Sherlock’s so much taller John buries his face in his chest, his cheek pressing against Sherlock’s sternum to feel his heartbeat through fabric and he hums the exact rhythm of it into his bones, Sherlock’s sturdy bones bracing against him and he memorises the shape and contours of Sherlock’s whole body with his own, inhaling until his lungs overflow with the air trapped between Sherlock’s skin and silk dressing robe and it is the most wonderful thing he’s ever smelled in his life; John smiles quietly, the crystal laugh of another case cracked melting in his ears.
It is this dream that he thinks of, tacking on to the ends of nightmares that never leave him be. He writhes in the tangled sheets at the witching hour and his eyelids flicker open to release the visions of Sherlock broken on concrete to the reality where it was so. Often, the sky is still dark, and John will close his eyes tightly to invoke the memory of the dream where they finally belong to each other, pretending that Sherlock is once again beside him so he can turn to him and touch him and sway gently together against the starlight in a world that cannot be, and he never wants to open his eyes again.