The silence started the day of the leap. When John had swayed to the ground, weak-kneed from shock and grief and a bone-chilling fear, the silence had descended. He hadn’t even noticed it at first because he could still hear his own breathing and everything else was just a rushing in his ears that pulled him off-balance. But that was where the silence began.
There were times, in the days following Sherlock’s leap, when John thought he’d gone deaf. He would speak to someone, and his lips would shape the form of the words, and he heard nothing beyond that horrible rushing. But whoever he spoke to would look up, or nod, or somehow give acknowledgment that he’d spoken. The silence was worse than the sounds of desert-born IEDs, so much worse than anything he could ever have conceived. And it enveloped him, until whole days passed without him recalling the sound of another living soul.
And yet... the silence wasn’t absolute. People broke through it, their voices swaddled in cotton wool and dampened by the white noise that had become John’s constant companion. There were worried inquiries from Mrs. Hudson, accompanied by biscuits John never tasted and tea John never really drank. There were pushing calls from Harry, sometimes soft and coaxing but more often loudly and slurringly haranguing. There were stiff visits from Lestrade where they sat staring at one another as Lestrade made small talk, his hands fiddling with one of Mrs. Hudson’s teacups and his eyes looking anywhere except into the terrible darkness in John’s eyes. There were tense, formal meetings with Mycroft, where John stared into the terrible grief in Mycroft’s gaze and felt the darkness in his soul shiver with a tiny frisson of pleasure at the pain.
John remembered every conversation, vaguely, the mind clouding the thoughts with the softer edge of distance to keep him somehow sane in the face of it all. But he never once remembered actually hearing any of it. What he could remember was spending whole days in the silence of the flat, sitting in his chair and staring out of the window. Grief was a paralytic, and in the early days following Sherlock’s leap, John was a statue.
It was Lestrade who first suggested that John needed time away from the flat. At least, on reflection, that was what John remembered. There might’ve been someone else saying it, but Lestrade’s calm assurance, cultivated for his task as a homicide detective inspector, and the honest grief in his own eyes were what tore through the cotton wool. “You should take some time,” Lestrade spoke up, during one of his visits. The tea had gone cold ages ago, oil from the drink making jagged, barely-visible puzzle pieces that floated across the top, but Lestrade couldn’t quite stop holding the cup. John supposed, in the vague way he now thought all the time, that it gave the inspector something to look at, to fiddle with, so that he could mask his discomfort. “Clear London out your lungs a bit,” Lestrade continued, forcing enthusiasm into his voice in a transparent attempt to lift the gloom. “Give yourself some space.”
“Where would you suggest I go?” John’s voice was stronger than he felt, but he suspected that it was the terrible monotone of the words that took Lestrade aback. He tried to feel guilty about the new lines in Lestrade’s face, but couldn’t quite manage it. One sound, a sickening crack and splat that had somehow sounded too faint thanks to the silence, had excised his emotions as neatly as any scalpel might’ve.
As John watched, Lestrade lifted his hand, rubbing the back of his neck briefly. “I made inquiries,” he offered finally. “Henry Knight invited you for a month. Maybe longer. You should go.” Henry Knight, who had somehow accepted Sherlock’s faults with equanimity and good grace. Henry Knight, whose issue with the hound had begun long before Sherlock’s own rising talents had ever begun. Henry Knight, who must still believe that Sherlock was real. John considered the trail of thought, fragmented and meandering as all his thoughts had been of late, silently, but his eyes never left Lestrade’s face. In the end, it wasn’t the promise of someone else who believed or accepted or cared that made up his mind. Instead, it was the pleading within Lestrade’s hazel eyes that spoke to John, and even that silent request wasn’t immediately answered.
Lestrade rose, not noticing that his tea sloshed in the cup as he paced to the window, or how some of it dripped down to land on the carpet. But John noticed it. His eyes followed the drips down, watched as they soaked into the crimson rug. Three drops, a small stain barely noticeable to anyone save the Holmes brothers and likely to be dismissed even by those illustrious eyes. The drops burned their way into John’s mind with searing intensity. They were physical evidence that someone cared about his well-being, and John’s stomach roiled at the very thought. His expression never changed, not even when he agreed to go.
It was two months before John returned to the flat. Henry had been a good companion during the time away, reassuring John that he believed without belaboring the point. His own grief, old and faded though it was, had given Henry a bit of insight, but in the end, Henry was not Sherlock, his large house not 221B, and Grimpen was not London... even if the silence was the same.
The train back was a blur, John’s thoughts wholly covered in the soft promises of distance and the vaguest worry that Mrs. Hudson might’ve rented out the flat. He hadn’t spoken to her before he left, had only made a passing reference to his need to be away when he came up to London long enough to accompany her to the grave, and hadn’t notified her that he was finally returning home. He stood in front of the dark door, staring up at the brass address as his left hand flexed, then closed into a fist once more, and his shoulders straightened as he drew a slow, deep breath. Only once he was ready did he insert the key in the lock, discovering with distant surprise that it still worked.
The surprise carried through as he climbed the narrow stairs, stepping into his old flat and looking around for a long minute. There were boxes near the door, marked ‘science’ in large, felt-pen letters, but the rest remained untouched. And yet, Sherlock’s scientific paraphernalia left a gaping wound in the flat’s decor. The table was now mostly clear, scrubbed as clean as it could get so that the surface gleamed up at him, in places scratched or discolored but otherwise serviceable. In the center of the table sat the kettle, a teacup and saucer, and a teapot. John had to swallow more than once to choke back the betraying sting of tears. His hand flexed again, and he glanced down at it, staring as he waited for the tremors to slide through, minute screams of pain. But his hand remained completely steady.
After several minutes, he started the kettle, putting a bag of tea into the pot and then wandering aimlessly through the flat as he noted the minute changes. The tea-stains were still in the rug, possibly too small for Mrs. Hudson’s notice, the skull back on the mantelpiece. Everything, he began to realize, was still in place save for the science supplies. In place, dusted, awaiting John’s return. When the kettle clicked off, John turned back toward the kitchen and stilled. Mycroft stood in the doorway, held upright and formal. Their eyes locked in the wake of silence left by the kettle, and then John sighed quietly, waving one hand toward the couch. It wasn’t a welcoming gesture, but it said, better than words ever could, that while he may not ever forgive Mycroft, he couldn’t quite terminate this link to Sherlock’s memory.
“Thank you,” Mycroft said, stepping smoothly into the room and seating himself on the couch. As ever, he was all gentlemanly formality. “I trust your time away helped?”
“As much as it could,” John allowed. His voice was cold but strong. He didn’t offer Mycroft tea, instead simply making his own and moving to sit in his chair. It was a moment before he realized that the day’s paper was sitting on the side table next to the arm, placed neatly and deliberately by a landlady he had yet to see. Had she known he was coming back?, John wondered, but the thought skittered away before he could grasp hold of it. He sipped his tea, ignoring the paper for the moment to stare at Mycroft, though even looking at the man was a challenge. “It wasn’t home,” he finally added, when the silence stretched out between them to taut tension.
“No,” Mycroft agreed placidly, an oddly sad smile on his lips. “I don’t imagine it was. Tell me, Dr. Watson, do you intend to remain at 221B Baker Street for the duration?” He folded his hands fastidiously over immaculate trousers, but somehow, the gesture looked just as comfortable for Mycroft as any gesture he offered. Once upon a time, in the days before the man had betrayed Sherlock, John had inwardly mused that Mycroft was likely incapable of any outfit even approaching casual. That thought was now nothing more than a distant twinge of memory.
Mycroft’s lips twisted in what was meant to be a smile, and in that moment, John saw the mask crack. For a second, he saw a grief as deep and wide as his own, and he finally looked away, breaking that challenging eye contact to glance up toward the skull. “Duration, Dr. Watson,” he nodded. “Until you emotionally move on, grow old, or die, naturally.” Not staring Mycroft down any longer, John found that he could... not hear, perhaps, but assess the words with more precision. There had been the faintest of pauses before the word ‘die’. John found himself wondering, not entirely idly, whether Mycroft’s hesitation stemmed from Sherlock’s death, or from the thought of John’s possible demise. Not being able to tell would’ve bothered Sherlock, but John was cut from different cloth, accepting cloth, and he simply let the question wash away. “Is 221B Baker Street still your home?” Mycroft pressed.
“Yes,” John murmured finally, the whole conversation, the whole visit, making him extraordinarily tired. “Come to the point, Mycroft, and leave. We both know that we’re not friends.” There was a dark, twisted amusement to be found in letting the rudeness slip past his lips, like a veil of Sherlock that slid across his mind. “If you’re asking me to clear out...”
Mycroft didn’t let him respond. “Indeed not. When we met, Dr. Watson, I offered to ease your way for a bit of information.” There was a pause, and John nodded as expected, not seeing what the connection could be. “On that day, you refused. My initial assessment was that your choice was quite foolish, but I see now how you could do little else. From that first day, you found something within my brother that gave yourself back to you. It was not honor that pressed you to refuse my offer, but self-preservation. In the spirit of that very preservation, I am not making an offer this time. This one, Dr. Watson, is a demand. For as long as you remain in this flat, among my brother’s possessions and free of even the locum work offered by the surgery that once employed you, I will arrange a comfortable monthly stipend that will take into account full rent on the flat as well as all other reasonable needs.”
John’s eyes had shifted back to Mycroft during the low speech, a frown growing over his face and thunderclouds in his brows. He opened his mouth to speak, and Mycroft held up a single hand, forestalling objections.
“Mrs. Hudson is being paid a monthly sum of money to keep this flat free of outside interference. I have no other... no better... tribute to my brother’s memory than to arrange the comfort and well-being of his dearest friend. Whatever else you may believe of me, Dr. Watson, and believe of my relationship with Sherlock, I’m sure that even you can appreciate the grief of a sibling.” His lips, thin and pale, twisted into a painful smile made all the worse for the new crack in the mask, so that the pain shone through once more. “As useless as it may be, a shrine is not an uncommon way of offering respect to the dead, and no shrine could be more fitting than the home where my brother found his measure of happiness and peace.”
Mycroft rose, standing over John and looking down at him. But for all the looming height and superior pose, there was supplication in his eyes, a plea that John could barely stand to see. “Consider contacting your friend Lestrade,” he directed quietly. “While Sherlock certainly got most of the credit, you were not an inept pupil, and your aid, if you can remember what my brother taught you, may well prove invaluable to them.” He turned, making his way to the door before pausing just inside it. Not turning around, he added quietly, “And you are the sort of person for whom doing good to others heals you.” With that simple pronouncement, Mycroft left.
Hours later, after the tea had grown cold and he had spent some time staring blankly at the paper in an effort to read it, John rose and tidied his little mess. On the arm of the sofa, he found a cheque made out to John for entirely too much money. In the corner, on the memo line, it read simply, “Month 1.”
I'd like to extend my thanks to Hamstermoon (quarryquest on Dreamwidth) and Facsimilii for their wonderful aid in improving the story. And thank you to finalproblem for helping me to sort out my own theories, not only on RBF, but on many other aspects of the show.
Anything I get correct, you should praise my beta-reader and Britpicker. Anything I get wrong is definitely my own fault.
“He’s an odd duck, isn’t he, that Mycroft?” Mrs. Hudson asked some days later, as she set a bag of unrequested takeaway down on the kitchen table. “Can never quite tell what he’s thinking, can you? Though I suppose wanting to remember your brother is natural enough.” She seemed to take no notice of John’s silence as she bustled about, putting small things to rights. That her fluttering help was an excuse to stay near and talk was transparent, but John held his tongue. Instead, he closed his eyes, imagining that he could almost feel the swish of her skirt as she moved around the room, the way it fed faint air currents that drifted back to him.
Presence. It was all about the presence.
“You had barely left on your trip when he showed up, you know,” she continued, oblivious to the meandering nature of his thoughts. “I tried to get him to take the boxes then,” she added, “but he refused. Didn’t even give me time to be upset before he was explaining the shrine and all those financial details. It felt like a dream to me.” Quietly, she set a cup of tea down on the table beside his chair, and John’s eyes drifted to it, staring blankly for a long minute before he reached over and picked it up, feeling the steam curl up around his lips and smelling the soft aroma of chamomile. It wasn’t what he wanted, but somehow, he couldn’t quite say no to Mrs. Hudson, and so he sipped, letting the warmth and mild flavor slide through him. “It wasn’t my first thought, mind, but I was beginning to grow a bit worried about the rent.”
“Yes,” John finally said, tasting the word as he’d tasted the tea, and finding it just as lacking. “Of course you were. Mycroft has certainly come through for us.” The words twisted in his gut, making him nauseous, and he looked away as Mrs. Hudson sat down on the couch opposite him. “Though I’m not sure quite what I’m going to do now that he’s taken the surgery off the list. I can’t sit here alone all day.”
“I’m sure you’ll find something to do,” she replied gently, and John’s eyes drew back to her, seeing her somehow anew. Sitting on that sofa was a woman who looked ten years older than when he’d left, her face soft and sad, lined with wrinkles in a way that made John think of crumpled muslin. She looked more fragile than he could ever remember, and warm in a way that screamed ‘motherly’, and the combination closed John’s throat, closed his ears, closed him up in the cotton wool until he could barely even breathe for a moment. He finally tore free of it, reaching across the empty space between them to take one of her hands in his as he summoned a tiny smile that felt very wrong on his lips.
“Of course I will, Mrs. Hudson,” he promised her, his hand gripping hers with warmth and his thumb sliding a soft circle across the back of her knuckles. Her skin was soft, delicate and smooth and somehow, all he could think was how easily that skin could break if he was in any way harsh with her. “We both will.” Comforting assurances he didn’t believe, but he could force them out into the air if it meant helping her that little bit, this woman who was almost a mother to him. “Thank you for the food.”
“Just take care of yourself, dear,” she returned, squeezing his fingers with more life than he’d given her credit for before gently extracting her hand and rising. “Look at the time. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.” Her hand rested on his shoulder for a moment before she walked out, and John was left sitting in silence, recalling the delicate touch of actual human connection and wondering why it had somehow hurt him all the more, rather than easing the pain.
“Heard you were back.” Greg Lestrade leaned back a bit in the chair behind his desk, regarding John with sympathetic eyes and a half-smile that the doctor knew was meant to be welcoming. It looked anything but. “I’ve been meaning to go ‘round to your place,” he added, after a beat of silence that John recognized only belatedly as his space to speak. “See how you’re doing, maybe take you out for a pint. Had a call from Sherlock’s brother about you, actually.”
Mycroft. Manipulative, meddling Mycroft who could go to bloody hell. John’s hand gripped the arm of his chair, knuckles white as he fought to keep his tone civil when he finally spoke. Lestrade, at least, had offered proper aid, an intelligent idea to get away for a while, even if it hadn’t actually helped as much as he’d hoped. “Oh?” John managed, wondering if the tension in his arms actually carried to his voice. If the look on Lestrade’s face was any evidence, it did. “And what did he have to say?”
“Said you might be contacting me before the month was out,” Lestrade said, honesty and wary concern warring in his eyes and voice. Damn Mycroft and his deductions, John thought viciously, because he’d been absolutely right. A week. It had taken him all of a week. “Said you might be interested in getting back into the game, and I’d be a fool to turn you away.”
‘The game.’ Holmesian rot. “I was...”
“John,” Lestrade said quietly, setting his arms on his desk and leaning forward. The wary look was gone, replaced by earnest worry so thick that John had to fight the urge to look away, to run away. He straightened his shoulders, determined not to give an inch, and stared Lestrade down. “If you want to help on the cases again, I’d be happy for it. But... after the papers, and what they said...” There was pain in Lestrade’s voice.
“Off the books for now, Greg,” John said, after a second. Because even Mycroft and his damned meddling had a point. He needed work. He needed this work specifically. The surgery, the locum work, it had all been tedious, and he’d needed tedium at the time, in small doses to help balance the whirlwind that was Sherlock. But he had no whirlwind now, so he’d have to make his own gale. “I can be a second opinion. You won’t even need to pay me.” Hearing those words, that bald begging that had slipped out despite his pride, hang in the tiny room, John sagged. A hand came up, rubbing his face as he drew in one shuddering sigh.
Because yes. He really was that desperate.
Lestrade sighed, a gust of air that did its best to cover the echo of supplicating words. “All right, all right,” he said, his hand lifting to rub the back of his neck. He looked away from John, out of the windows of his office for a moment, and then his attention was back and he rose, making his way to a nearby filing cabinet and pulling one drawer open. He fished through, then found the file he was looking for and pulled it free. “Start here,” he said, handing the thin manila envelope over to John. “Body’s still in the morgue, due for pickup in two days, I believe. Take a look. Tell me if you see anything we missed.”
John nodded, tucking the file under his arm and rising to head for the door. It was only when his hand was gripping the knob that Lestrade spoke up again, his voice quiet but sincere. “It’s good to have you back here, John.”
John didn’t respond, save to close the door gently as he left.
‘The body’s still in the morgue.’ Why had John not registered those words before he’d got out into the open air in front of New Scotland Yard? Why had it not hit him that he would have to go there, rather than having the body somehow miraculously show up anywhere else in the world? Standing there in the sun, the folder clenched in one hand and his eyes on the streets, John could feel the whole of the world closing in on him, crushing him under imagined weight.
St. Bartholemew’s. The one place he would’ve chosen to avoid for the rest of his life, if he’d been thinking. And he still could, he knew. He could turn around, march right back to Lestrade’s office, and hand the folder back. He could head back to 221B and start placing calls to various surgeries, and damn Mycroft’s money or influence. He could take an imaginary scalpel and carefully slice away all parts of his life that belonged to Sherlock Holmes and then get about the job of healing.
Except... he couldn’t. Not because he needed the money, not because he needed the work, but simply because those parts of his life didn’t belong to him. They did, in fact, belong to Sherlock Holmes, and even now, John wasn’t willing to give up the feel of life in his bones, the way his heart thrummed a little stronger for knowing it. If he gave up those parts, he gave up every part of his life that kept him moving and breathing, and it would only be a matter of time before he turned his gun on himself in desperation.
Pain. Pain reminded him that he was still alive, and if he had nothing else to cling to, he could cling to that. So he squared his shoulders, nodding once, slightly, as he made his way to the curb with confident steps, one hand lifted to hail a cab. “St. Bart’s,” he said as he climbed into the back seat, the words barely making it past his lips. But he ignored that weakness, opening the case folder.
He wasn’t more than a quarter of the way through the folder when the cab arrived outside of St. Bart’s, and getting out of that vehicle was one of the hardest things he could remember doing since he’d arrived back in London. But John Watson, the man who had once raced through side streets and across rooftops with his new best friend, who had once stood steady and unshaking while a sniper’s mark danced across the front of his new, Semtex vest, who had leapt on a madman in a bid to save the greatest man he’d ever known, was not one to back away from a challenge. He stepped out, paid the cabbie, and stopped when he reached the pavement.
His hand clenched at his side, flexing unconsciously as he stood still as stone, eyes closed against the idea that he was right back where he had been on that dreadful, painful day. When he finally got his breathing under control, he opened his eyes slowly, staunchly keeping them straight ahead of him. He couldn’t chance looking up at the rooftop because he had the oddest sensation that if he did, he’d see... Sherlock, standing there, arms raised and spread wide, body tilting forward so very slowly that it almost was a dream, and then he would be
No. It was over, it was done with, and John was stronger than this weak fear. He could face down anything from IEDs and bullets in the desert to the knowledge that his best friend had chosen the coward’s way out. Spine almost painfully straight, body tense and determined, he made his way into the building. But his eyes never deviated from straight ahead of him, because somehow deep within, he knew that if he let himself glance at the roof, or at that one particular patch of pavement, he might just turn tail and flee.
John let himself into the morgue quietly, catching the door before it swung fully shut and slowing it, so that it whispered into place. He stood there, just inside the doorway, and looked at the large examination room silently, recalling hours spent in this very space, across a table from Sherlock as he made observations and needling sarcasm. But Sherlock was no longer part of this space, hadn’t since before they’d put him in the ground, and instead, John’s eyes rested on Molly, watching her lean over a corpse.
Her hair was tied back, small tendrils escaping to soften the severity of the style and laying loose along her cheeks and forehead. Her skin was flawless, washed out by the stark light of fluorescents but still soft and pretty and well-kept. His eyes roved over her face, settling on her unpainted lips, and he smiled faintly, recalling the rude dismissal he’d been privy to from the very first moment he’d seen her. Lipstick might well be an improvement, but watching the way those lips move as she spoke softly to herself, John decided that there was nothing wrong with what was already there.
His eyes drifted down to her hands, watching as delicate, gloved fingers sewed closed the incisions made by whatever autopsy had been performed, and John sighed, looking away. It was all too easy for him to imagine those gentle hands preparing Sherlock’s body for the funeral home, sewing together what she could and trying to reconstruct enough damage to allow Sherlock the final pride of a beautiful corpse. John wondered, deep within the dark recesses of his heart, whether she’d been upset when it just wouldn’t work, whether she’d cried when she realized that she just couldn’t put Sherlock back together again.
“John,” she said, and he blinked, realizing that he’d been staring blankly at her hands for god only knew how long, and she’d noticed him. “Come in.” He looked back at her face and blinked, frowning as he searched it. Was there a tightness to that smile she offered? Stress in the lines just under her eyes? He hadn’t even seen her since that last night at Bart’s, when she’d helped them before disappearing off to bed, and leaving Sherlock to die alone.
...Oh. He reminded her.
“Sorry,” he apologized, his voice a little rough as he fought down the self-hate. He reminded himself too, all the time. “I was talking to Lestrade and he suggested I might take a look at this guy.” He held out the folder to her, and she stripped off a glove before taking it.
“Are you helping them again, then?” she asked, her voice soft and polite, and John nodded, wanting to be anywhere but there. Once upon a time, he might’ve noticed how beautiful she really was under her too-girly, too-frilly clothing, and he might’ve entertained a fantasy. Now, she just looked too... alive for him. He was a dead man, walking through the world as though it were his own personal hell, and she didn’t deserve even a hint of that. Not in life. Not even in fantasy.
“Yeah. Nothing official, really, but it’ll help pass the time. I need to do something, at least.” He offered her what he thought was a reasonably charming smile, but she turned away, nodding as she made her way to one of the drawers in the far wall. He watched her go, the smile fading from his lips as he realized that whether there had once been a chance at friendship between them, it was gone, possibly forever.
He couldn’t bring himself to care.
“I’ll lay him out on table two,” she said, preparing to move the body, and John came over to help. “Take as long as you need, John.” He couldn’t quite understand the bitter twist to her lips as she spoke his name, but he didn’t have to, either. All he had to do was focus on the body, try to find whether Lestrade’s team had missed anything, and then return to the safety of 221B Baker Street.
“Thank you, Molly,” he offered, and she looked up at him, something pained and painful in her dark eyes. She finally turned away, returning to the corpse she’d been repairing, and John bent over his work.
“You told him, John.” Molly’s voice was as cold as the stainless steel table at his back, or the light sheet covering him from hips to knees. He stared upward, unblinking, able to see her face as she leaned over him from the side, her eyes focused on his temple. “You said, ‘friends protect people’. And then you left him.” Bitterness laced the soft words, accusation dripping down from her lips, and he felt the cold press of a scalpel against his head, just pressure, no pain, just dead skin parting and revealing his shattered skull for her to examine.
This was a dream. It had to be, he recognized it even as he lived it, and somehow, that knowledge allowed him to relax. If Molly wanted to punish him for the stupidity of that last betrayal, who was he to stop her? “You called him a machine, and then you walked away, and you almost didn’t get the chance to set the record straight because you were gone, John, gone gone gone.”
Delicate, soft hands moved down, and he could feel that cold pressure again, slicing from right shoulder downward in a slow progression that stopped only when it reached his pubic bone. They lifted, and another cut, carefully placed to avoid that wretched bullet wound on his left shoulder, and then she was opening him up. He could see her face as she lifted his organs out, one at a time, ever the professional. In her eyes was anger, was hatred, was a happiness that he was dead, stretched out on her table, where she could somehow damage him further.
“I don’t even think what I felt was really love, exactly, but he never noticed me unless he needed me. I brought him coffee, I accepted his insults, I let him be himself and if he hurt me, he never meant to. But you meant to hurt him, didn’t you, John? You changed him. You made him care, and then you cut him down when he didn’t care enough to suit you, didn’t you? I hate you, John,” she whispered into his face, and he could only lay there, stunned and unbelieving, because she looked nothing like the Molly Hooper he knew, nothing like the sweet mouse of a woman he’d always felt sorry for. She was glorious, and she was terrible, and she was....
He sat up, gasping sharply and clutched at his chest, fingers scrabbling over it as he searched for the incision. When he didn’t find it, his breath began to calm slightly, and he sagged back in his bed, shaken tears pricking the back of his eyes. “I believed in him,” he whispered out to the stillness of the room, fighting the tears. “I left, but I came back. He knew that I believed in him. I made him laugh.”
He wanted to hear that laugh again, he realized, laying in the dark and thinking back. He wanted to hear the startled, choked sob of a laugh as Sherlock realized that John believed exactly what he said, that John knew Sherlock was real and nothing would ever convince him otherwise. John’s hands fisted into the sheets at his hips, and he fought to recall the sound of it, the soft huff of air that told him more than any tears could’ve that Sherlock understood. But he couldn’t.
All he heard was that sickening crack and splat, playing over and over again as he lay in bed, letting the occasional dry sob escape his lips.
I'd like to extend my thanks to Hamstermoon (quarryquest on Dreamwidth) and Facsimilii for their wonderful aid in improving the story. And thank you to finalproblem for helping me to sort out my own theories, not only on RBF, but on many other aspects of the show.
Anything I get correct, you should praise my beta-reader and Britpicker. Anything I get wrong is definitely my own fault.
It took two months before spending time at Bart’s started to feel remotely normal to John. The few times he let himself think about it, he decided that it was probably fairly close to systematic desensitization. Bart’s was where It happened, but Bart’s was also where they met, where they spent time looking over bodies and examining minute traces of evidence. John remembered the way he thought of Dartmoor and Grimpen when he went to visit Henry Knight those two months after Sherlock’s leap. Grimpen wasn’t London.
Bart’s was London. Bart’s was home. But home was also Hell.
There was something freeing in the work, however. The more time John spent focusing on something other than his own grief, the more he was able to begin to draw away from it. The world, which had been so silent and still for so long, began to pick up around him, growing in speed and volume until he almost felt as though things were back to normal, or as normal as they might ever get, while he lived with a gaping wound in his heart. He combed through cold cases and consulted on current ones, content to be quietly on the sidelines as he examined each body or report, wading through piles of paperwork in an attempt to make some connection the police never had. He spoke quietly when he brought anything to Lestrade’s attention, allowing the detective inspector to smooth the way with whomever had been working the case, but he always looked Lestrade in the eyes, an equal, unless the subject of payment came up. Only then did his eyes drop away, his hands clenching at his sides as he fought the panic that Lestrade might turn him away. Money didn’t matter. Only the work mattered.
Two months to become comfortable at Bart’s. Three months to become used to the odd companionship that he’d struck with Molly, who hovered on the edge of his consciousness like a shy mouse, bringing him coffee or tea or crisps, offering a word or two of wisdom, but never quite daring to push herself into his presence fully. She was like a shade when he was at Bart’s, and there was something lurking deep within her brown eyes. Some days, John flattered himself that he could tell exactly what it was - anger for the way he had invaded her space, as he had once helped invade Afghanistan. Some days, though, John looked up, and their eyes met, and he found himself utterly speechless, lost in that unnamed emotion and confused by it in a way that shivered in his gut. It wasn’t a beautiful connection, that. It was cold, and terrifying, and he could almost liken it to anticipating the explosion of the Semtex, the way his heart stilled and it was only the knowledge that there was so much more to lose if he didn’t hold tight that kept him where he was.
He fought the fear and the anger and everything that held her back with his own brand of combat, the same style that had drawn Sherlock out of his shell and taught him how to exist within the world to the point that he’d begun to care. But he tempered that style with the knowledge that Molly was not Sherlock, and where he would’ve yelled to be heard over the racing mind, he kept his voice quiet and gentle with her. It was a doctor’s voice, a bedside manner that had grown rusty in the four months since Sherlock’s death, but still existed.
It was enough.
The first great shock came to John six months after Sherlock’s leap, four months after he returned to work. He never brought the cases back to Baker Street, not even when Lestrade quietly suggested he might think of something late at night. The work was his world away from the Shrine of Sherlock, and when he was in the Shrine, he was hard at work on other things. But he was long-since used to shocks in the Shrine, and so it was that his great shock came when he was at New Scotland Yard, sitting in the smallest of the interrogation rooms, the papers from the folder spread over the table. His back was to the mirror, but he’d lost himself in the case, too curious to remember that someone might be watching him.
The door opened, swinging on silent hinges and letting in a single figure. John didn’t even notice as it clicked shut again, but it took only one word to arrest his focus, his eyes jerking up to meet Donovan’s. They stood still for a long minute, a silent tableau of anger and worry. When she finally unfolded enough to sit down opposite him, John was shaking with the need to throttle her. He didn’t understand how she could look so... sadly calm about it all.
“You believe in him,” she began, her voice soft and gentle. “Why do you still believe in him?”
“Why do you not?” John demanded in return, and as gentle as her voice had been, his own was full of furious vitriol. “People point to Richard Brook like that was the only case he’d ever worked on, but you and I know differently, don’t we?” He pushed himself away from the table, the force of the move sending papers sliding across the surface and onto the floor, but he paid them no mind. Standing, he felt in a little more control. Standing, he had the ramrod-straight spine and military determination and the high ground. “Four years, Donovan,” he bit out, hands clenching into fists at his side, over and over.
“Four... years?” she asked, frowning slowly. She had leaned back a little when he rose, but she didn’t move otherwise. Sally Donovan had never been a shrinking violet, and she saw greater danger than John’s fury as part of her job. But John paid no attention to how she quietly stood her ground.
“Four years!” he repeated, almost shouting the words. His voice trembled slightly with control as he began to pace. “I’ve seen his notes. Four years he worked with you people before I ever met him. Why the hell would he make up Moriarty at the end, when he was just fine where he was, except for the fact that no one could begin to look past his social stupidity? He didn’t need Moriarty any more than he needed me. He wasn’t a psychopath or sociopath or any one of the million names you lot have called him behind his back, and you bloody well know it!” He was ranting. Words he’d never realized he stored up came pouring out of his lips, leaving Donovan dumbfounded in their wake. When he caught the glint of something that might eventually become guilt, a dark pleasure twisted inside him.
“Moriarty wasn’t real,” she tried to protest. “He said so himself! You told us that!”
“Yes, because he told me to!” John countered, aching to do something other than pace and yell. “He had some plan; he always had some plan and he never let me in on them so why the hell should he let me in on the last one?” He gasped, feeling his throat begin to close and not understanding why his steps faltered. “Why the hell would he trust me after all this time? I was... I...” His fists lifted, pressing with bruising strength into his eye-sockets, so that all he saw behind his lids were stars on a sea of red-black. “He had a plan,” he whispered again, flinching when he felt an arm settle around his shoulders hesitantly.
“How can you still believe in him so much?” Donovan whispered, near his ear and yet above it somehow. His hands lowered, and as he blinked he realized that somewhere along the way, he’d stumbled or fallen, collapsed onto the floor. Donovan was near him now, crouching beside him and offering awkward comfort in the face of his pain.
John choked back a pained laugh that held no mirth to it at all. The sound grated in his ears like jagged glass, gashing away the walls, and he turned, resting his head against Donovan’s shoulder as he gave up the last bit of control and finally, really cried, for the first time since Sherlock’s leap.
When he gathered his control back minutes later, he pulled away just a little and she let him go. He didn’t look at her face. He couldn’t. He’d lost control, and that very thought shamed him beyond anything. He rubbed away the evidence of tears roughly, tried to get to his feet and stumbled again, and gave up, just sitting there on the floor for a few minutes, with her crouching nearby. It was some minutes before he spoke, his voice gone froggy from the tears. “I believe in him because he was the most honest truth I ever saw. I lived with him,” he added, finally looking up at her. His eyes widened when he realized that she’d been crying, too. “I knew him. I knew the real him, and he never... Moriarty was real, Sherlock was real, and I don’t care if this destroys whatever plan he made, because I know the truth.”
He didn’t say anything as she slowly rose and made her way out of the room. He simply waited a few minutes, then gathered the papers up and began his research anew.
It was his name that caught John’s attention as he was leaving later, and yet, not his name. The files had been put away, quietly marked for tomorrow’s work, and John was walking through the somewhat quieter mass of desks and offices when he heard Donovan’s voice, low and soft and carrying just far enough for him to catch his name. He glanced over, then frowned deeply. She was settled in a corner, head bent toward Anderson as the two of them spoke quietly. They weren’t looking around, weren’t being overly careful not to be overheard. But John couldn’t help drifting closer, trying to make it subtle and trying to pretend that he didn’t really care what they were talking about.
“You didn’t see him. It was... scary,” Donovan said softly, one hand coming up to rest on Anderson’s forearm. It lingered there for just a moment, but in that single touch, John could see how easy it must have been for Sherlock, catching them out as a couple. He almost laughed, but the profile of Donovan’s face didn’t look scared. She looked worried, aged a bit with it, or perhaps with sleeplessness. There were definite bags under her eyes, and a worn slump to her shoulders that John didn’t really recall from the days before the leap. “He needs something to focus on.”
They were talking about him, John realized, his hands clenching by his side. Talking about him with that thick layer of false concern, as though he were a friend. He wanted to march over and tell them to shut the hell up or turn and march out of the building, head high and back straight. He almost did turn to leave, before he heard Anderson’s reply, words he never expected to hear in his life.
“Maybe he’s right. You’ve seen the reports. There’s nothing. Not even the actor. There should’ve been something by now, shouldn’t there? Maybe... we had it wrong.” John could see more of Anderson’s face than Donovan’s, but it hadn’t occurred to him to really look until that moment. His eyes slid over almost reluctantly, but there was no anger or derision in his expression. There was worry, yes, and it certainly seemed directed at himself more than at John, but there was also an honest consideration there, confusion and uncertainty that gave John the oddest flutter of hope in his chest. Just one little moth of hope in the great cavern of his grief, but that was enough for John. They were beginning to think about it all, to discover the truth he already knew.
“Maybe he is,” Donovan agreed, and her voice was more dismissive, but not in a way that rankled. “But that’s not the point. He needs something to focus on. He only had Sherlock before, and now... it’s not healthy, Jonathan. We need to find him a hobby or something. Fishing maybe. Poker. Something.”
Anderson smirked faintly at Donovan, leaning back against the wall a bit. “Maybe he just needs a good shag,” he suggested, but the mockery sounded a bit forced. “Sherlock can’t have been good for his sex life. You saw what the papers were saying.” He nodded to himself as though there had been a question, and John shuddered faintly, turning away before he could catch Donovan’s reply. He had a suspicion that any answer he overheard would be scarring for life.
As he made his way out to the pavement, John kept his shoulders square and his eyes straight ahead. Donovan and Anderson were discussing his sex life... contemplating it, possibly looking to interfere. The very concept was disturbing on a level that John hadn’t felt in ages. A muscle jumped in his jaw. As he reached the street and hailed a taxi, John felt an unhappy twist settle into his stomach. If they started giving him hints about a sex life of any sort, he would simply have to have words with them. Strong words.
He thought of Anderson’s smirk again. Very strong words.
After two weeks without any hint of mockery or teasing, however, John found himself dismissing the conversation he’d overheard. That it had been about him was undeniable, but obviously, Anderson and Donovan had thought better of pursuing anything, because John was left alone, arriving in the morning to gather files and putting them up before leaving at night without much interaction from anyone else. The first few days after overhearing them, he’d been prickly, anxious each time someone spoke to him. But two weeks later, he’d relaxed again.
Two weeks after, the other shoe dropped.
“Good, you’re here,” Lestrade said, as John stepped into the building. It was an unusual greeting from the Detective Inspector, made all the worse by the small smile on his lips. There was a scheme of sorts going on behind that smile, but that was all John could glean from it. Anything more, he’d need more data. “Come on, then. We have work to do.” He started off toward the interrogation rooms, and John followed after a moment, uncomfortably out of his depth.
When they reached one of the rooms, Lestrade pointed at the secondary door that served as the entrance to the observation room. “You stay in there. Take notes, if you like. When I’m done, I’ll need your opinions.” Finished, he stepped into the interrogation room, the door shutting behind him with a soft click that still felt like some sort of doom knell to John. Whatever Lestrade had planned, he hadn’t consulted John before putting it into effect, and this was new. It took him a few seconds before he moved to step into the observation room, and in there, he was greeted by the sight of Donovan, her arms folded over her chest and a frown on her face.
He couldn’t simply stand there silently, he found. As he moved to the one-way mirror, staring through it at the man sitting across from Lestrade, he murmured a quiet greeting to her. She glanced over at him, then turned her own attention back to the mirror, but somehow, John could still feel her focus on him. “So... what am I doing here, then?” he finally asked, even as he reached into his pocket for the small notepad he kept there, along with a pencil, and prepared himself to jot down notes.
“Lestrade thinks that maybe you picked up some of his observational skills,” Donovan said, a slight emphasis on ‘his’ leaving John with no doubt that she didn’t mean the detective inspector. “He thinks it’ll help. Maybe he’s right,” she added, her eyes sliding to him again. John resisted the urge to fidget, trying to decide whether he should read anything into the fact that she hadn’t used the term freak. “He’ll have you sitting in on interrogations more often, probably, unless you protest, of course.”
“No,” John shook his head, then blinked as he noticed a small movement from the man Lestrade was interrogating. It was a tiny thing, the way the man’s head lifted a little, eyes looking up and toward the right as though he saw something in the corner of the ceiling. It seemed out of place to him, but not drastically so. All the same, he noted it down, adding a question mark beside it before resolving to look it up for himself later. “No, this is fine. I don’t mind being another set of eyes.” And the truth to it was that he didn’t. There was no discomfort here, no feeling that he was being shoved out into a world that made no sense to him. He was still held alone behind glass.
“Good,” Sally nodded, glancing at him once more. “Look, John... about the other day,” she started, and that startled him out of his focus.
“No,” he said, his voice low but sharp. He finally looked at her, his eyes gone hard and cold as he stared her down, waving away her half-voiced protestation. “We are not talking about that. Not now. Not later. You don’t... have the... no,” he finally set down, his jaw working a bit as he held his anger back. He should have seen it coming, but somehow, in the silence that had stretched out among them all, he’d relaxed. “You make whatever deductions you want to, but you don’t get to ask me about that,” he finally finished, straightening his shoulders and looking resolutely back at the interrogation room.
He tried to ignore it when, a moment later, she left the room. But that afternoon, he wondered if she had been the one to leave the book on body language in the room he habitually used.
“So what do you think?” Lestrade asked, staring at John across his desk, his brow furrowed and his lips a thin line. Crumpled wrappers lay between them, the remains of a lunch that neither of them had likely tasted. The case was disturbing, and it had only been Lestrade’s too-jovial insistence that John join him that told the doctor how much Lestrade likely needed another focus for a few minutes.
“I think it doesn’t make any sense,” John admitted, poking at the last of the chips with no real interest in them. The fried food sat heavily on his stomach, but his doctor’s sensibilities had helped to keep the food down, even as he remembered the scene he’d visited that morning. “We’re not in India. We’re in London. Why would anyone use a cobra as a murder weapon here?” He scrubbed at his face for a moment, then sighed, leaning back in the chair.
Lestrade nodded at him. “Weapon of convenience, maybe?” he suggested, looking as lost as John felt. “Wouldn’t really take much to get the snake riled up, I imagine. Lock the poor girl in the room with the snake loose, let her banging and rattling do its work?”
“Weapon of convenience. A snake?” John repeated, and for a moment, there was Sherlock’s voice in the back of his head, mocking and derisive, saying all the things that John just couldn’t even when they seemed accurate. “So you’re thinking... what... crime of passion then?” He sighed, shaking his head. “It doesn’t feel right somehow. Neighbors didn’t even report it until the woman started to smell. Would someone who’d gone to the trouble of getting a license for that snake just... abandon it like that?”
Lestrade sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted, and John nodded, searching his face. “The whole thing is a bit... well,” he seemed to give up looking for a word, but he didn’t really need one, because John understood exactly what he was saying. He remembered the ripe scent hitting his nose as he made his way into the room, remembered the photos taken over Animal Control’s shoulders as they attempted to capture the huge snake. It was the closest John ever wanted to come to the creature, but somehow, it seemed so strange. “No telling how much evidence the snake destroyed, too,” Lestrade finally pointed out.
“Yeah,” John agreed, pushing the wrappers away and reaching for the file. Lestrade didn’t protest as he flipped it open, examining the photos once more with a frown. “There must be something we’ve missed, though, don’t you think? This sort of thing just seems beyond unusual, really.”
“Something he would have....” Lestrade’s voice cut off as John tensed sharply, one of the duplicate photos crumpling in his sudden fist. “Something we should’ve seen on the first go through, you mean?” The words were obviously a backtrack, but John didn’t fight it. He didn’t want to cling to the anger or pain, not when Lestrade hadn’t meant anything by it. He took in a breath, closing his eyes for a minute before breathing back out slowly.
“Maybe if you go back,” he finally said, tossing the file down on Lestrade’s desk and rising. “I need to get back to the other cases I’m working on.” He stared down at his hands as he fished out some money, tossing enough down to cover his half of lunch before walking out of the office. As he made his way back to where he usually worked, however, he thought about the snake again. Something felt off about it all. Maybe he’d consider taking the file home that night. But just that one.
I'd like to extend my thanks to Hamstermoon (quarryquest on Dreamwidth) and Facsimilii for their wonderful aid in improving the story. And thank you to finalproblem for helping me to sort out my own theories, not only on RBF, but on many other aspects of the show.
Anything I get correct, you should praise my beta-reader and Britpicker. Anything I get wrong is definitely my own fault.
John sighed, rubbing his face as he sat back in his chair, staring unhappily at the papers in front of him. Somehow, the cold cases just weren’t holding his interest, but he knew the reason. He’d got his hands on a copy of the King Cobra case before he’d left the night before, and spending hour after hour perusing pictures and details, autopsy results and evidence sheets, had done little to help his sleep when he had finally given in. And though his hours weren’t regulated in any way other than his own sense of responsibility, he’d still forced himself up and off at his normal time. It had seemed like the right thing to do.
Hours later, however, found John no closer to understanding any of the cases fanned out over his table, and the thin breakfast he’d had of toast and butter and tea just wasn’t cutting it any longer. He rose, making his way to the door and opening it, his eyes on the floor as mental images of cobras and dead bodies played in his mind.
“Thought you’d be coming out about now.” Lestrade’s voice was quiet and faintly amused, but there was an underlying tone of frustration to it. “C’mon then. Lunch is on me, if you keep me company.” John blinked at him stupidly for a moment, watching as Lestrade turned to stride away. There was something... confident about the man’s step, John noted, focused and determined in a way that he couldn’t really remember Lestrade ever being. John stared a beat before falling into step behind him, trying to think back. Could he remember ever noticing the man’s self-assured calm, or had he always been a bit too blinded by the cocksure whirlwind that had been Sherlock? The fact that he couldn’t really say for certain lay like a stone weight in his gut.
“No leads on the cobra case,” Lestrade said, as John finally lengthened his stride enough to pull up beside the detective inspector. “Customs couldn’t tell us anything. Snake was unlicensed.” He shook his head, his eyes shifting to John briefly.
“Unlicensed,” John repeated in utter disbelief. “Impossible. An unlicensed, two metre venomous snake? You can’t be serious.” But the problem was, he knew Lestrade was completely serious. He could see it in every line of the man’s form as they walked. There was a tension there that bespoke a lack of any useful connecting evidence. “Okay,” John nodded, only a beat after his protest. “Unlicensed. Where d’you get an unlicensed snake like that around here? Not pet shops, nothing so public. So it’d have to be black market, and that’d be a need-to-know, wouldn’t it?” he murmured, not paying much attention as they came to a stop outside a sandwich shop. He looked up at it, blinking a moment, and Lestrade chuckled beside him.
“Just can’t eat fried food every day anymore,” he said, making his way inside. John stepped in after him. “We’re not teenagers any longer.” He offered John an unselfconscious smile, then shrugged. “Anyway, back to what you were saying. Yeah, we figure he got the snake on the black market. Hard to believe that the neighbours didn’t see anything, but whether they did or not, they’re not talking.”
“People don’t like to get involved,” John pointed out. “Something like this, a killing this unusual? There’ll be all sorts of reasons that people don’t want to talk to you.” He said the words slowly, almost seeming to test them as he spoke. “Guilt, of course, is one of the big reasons. Imagine, if you noticed something a little off but didn’t report it, and then you find out that someone else is dead, possibly because you failed to report it? Are you honestly going to own up? Be the one to say, ‘oh, yeah, I thought there was some sort of snake in there, but I decided not to say anything. Sorry about her death’?” John shot Lestrade a pointed look, then shook his head. “Of course not. Most people will say that no, they didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. They keep telling themselves that and they can maybe eventually sleep okay at night again.” He paused long enough to place his order, then looked back at Lestrade, his eyes earnest.
“And, of course, there are the people who just don’t want to be involved. Maybe they think the killer will come back for them. Maybe they just don’t want to think that there was a brutal murder so close to their home. Maybe they just hate you lot. But they won’t talk, because there’s not enough trust. Not in them, not in the city, not in you.” John shrugged, taking the tray with sandwich and soup that the kid behind the counter offered, and stepping back to let Lestrade claim his own order.
Lestrade chuckled softly, barely more than a huff of breath, and sighed. “This isn’t news, John,” he pointed out quietly, shrugging as he reached for his own food. “It’s just the way it is. We know it, but it doesn’t stop it being frustrating.” They found a table and sat down. “There’s really nothing we can do to force the matter,” he continued, before taking a large bite of his own sandwich. “We’ll just have to rely on the evidence to catch him.”
“Do we know it’s a ‘him’?” John asked quietly, stirring his soup. He couldn’t quite bring himself to take a bite, now that his focus was back on the crime itself, rather than the neighbour’s reasons for not talking. “I mean, I know it’s statistically more likely, but...” He paused, then nodded to himself, holding up one hand to forestall Lestrade’s answer. “...But... the flat was rented to John Smith. Even with a name that ridiculously generic, it’s unlikely a woman would rent under that name. The victim was a girl. Not a guarantee that her killer was male, but it would make sense. And a snake two meters long? Whoever was controlling it probably had some significant body strength. Doesn’t rule out a woman, but...”
“But,” Lestrade agreed. “Men are also statistically more likely to own snakes, particularly poisonous ones.”
“Venomous.” The correction was out before John could censor it.
“Hmm?” Lestrade asked, frowning as he ate. His brow was furrowed, but there were fewer tension lines, John noticed. Either talking about the case was calming for him, or he’d needed food more than John had realized. Somehow, John found himself suspecting that it was a little bit of both.
“Most snakes are venomous, not poisonous. Cobras are definitely venomous.”
“You an expert on snakes, now?” Lestrade asked, his voice a little cautious, a little quiet.
“I did some research last night. The case has been bothering me; I couldn’t just let it go, so I read up. Poisons are absorbed by the body, but venom is generally introduced to the body directly through the bloodstream or tissue. That’s why you don’t worry about petting a cobra, necessarily, but you definitely worry about its bite, because the fangs are like nature’s hypodermics, only full of death, not health.” He offered Lestrade a crooked smile, the expression feeling unnatural on his face. But somehow, it seemed appropriate. “All that likely won’t help us find the killer or anything, but... it’s nice to get it right.”
“Yeah,” Lestrade agreed, his eyes thoughtful as he looked at John. “Yeah, guess it is.”
John sighed, stepping out of the observation room as he looked down at his notes. The suspect was still inside, left to stew a bit as Lestrade talked with Sally in a corner of the room, away from John. On the whole, the questioning session wouldn’t have been particularly interesting even if John had been following the case. However, the case was not one of John’s, and he’d elected to duck in more to observe the actual act of questioning rather than the progress of the case. He closed up his notebook, tucking it back into his pocket and starting toward his own little room, his thoughts lingering on the small traces of unspoken language he had picked up on, and found himself stopped by a hand on his arm. Brought back by the touch, he blinked into Donovan’s dark eyes, belatedly raising an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Did it help?” she asked, dropping her hand the moment he’d registered her. As her arm fell, he noticed a thin gold chain slide down to rest against the lower portion of her hand, and he found himself frowning faintly. He couldn’t recall seeing the bracelet before, and it looked a bit delicate for her work, though he had to admit that he hadn’t really ever envisioned her taking to dark alleys and rooftops as he and... He forestalled the thought before it could finish, turning his attention back to her bracelet. It was a simple chain, nothing fancy, but it shone brightly. She obviously took good care of it, he noted distantly, and couldn’t quite stop his eyes from flicking up to her throat, barely catching sight of a matching chain under her collar.
“Did... what help?” he asked belatedly, dragging his mind back to her question. She quirked a smile that didn’t really fit and moved to fall into step beside him. The chain didn’t really look like Anderson’s style, John decided, returning to the puzzle of the jewelry. And yet, he hadn’t caught even a hint that the two of them were anything less than as friendly as ever, and hanging around had certainly offered him plenty of chances to observe the relationship closely.
“The book. It’s not exactly required reading or anything,” she noted, and if she’d noticed his attention to her accessories, she made no hint of it. “Still, it’s a pretty good overview for someone new.” She reached out as they passed her desk and grabbed a file, opening it. She looked down at it for a moment, then her eyes lifted to his again, and John was struck by how pretty she really was. He couldn’t really remember ever noticing before, but then, there was something a little different about her, some hint of something behind her eyes that he couldn’t quite name. “My mentor gave it to me,” she added quietly, and smiled when he blinked in confusion. There was a hesitancy to the expression, as though she wasn’t quite sure whether she should be smiling at him at all.
“Sorry?” he asked. He’d lost the train of conversation, he realized, and couldn’t quite figure out if he’d lost it at the sight of that shadow behind her eyes or the soft caution to her smile. But his confusion just made her huff out a half-laugh.
“Break for lunch, Dr. Watson,” she advised, tucking the file she was holding under her arm and glancing over at Lestrade’s office. “It’s early, but it sounds like you might need it. Besides,” she added, starting toward Lestrade and throwing the statement over her shoulder, an obvious afterthought, “you can keep sane hours, unlike the rest of us!” Her hair fanned out as she turned back toward her destination, and John sighed, rubbing his face with one hand. The whole conversation had felt more than a little forced, and yet, he couldn’t help feeling that it was a leap in the right direction.
His own lips quirked in a half-smile as he made his way toward his room once more, thinking about what he’d seen in Sally Donovan’s eyes and mouth, and the chains around her throat and wrist. There was something going on, something changing her, and if she was going out of her way to talk to him, perhaps she’d done some re-evaluating of her own. He could only hope.
“John!” Lestrade’s voice intruded on John as he was walking toward the exit, and John turned, glancing back to see the detective inspector striding forward to catch up to him. Bemused, John waited, his hands tucked into his pockets. One fist closed around his phone briefly, and he fought the urge to jerk it back when it vibrated in his hand briefly. Text alert, the short vibration had suggested. That meant one of three people, and if Lestrade was making his way up to John, that dropped it to one of two people. He had no interest in talking to either of them, so he pulled his hand back out of his pocket, flexing it as it dropped to his side.
“John, good, I caught you.” Lestrade was smiling, which meant there was no real trouble going on. No new cases, no new crime scenes, not even new cold cases, though such terms certainly felt mutually exclusive. “You’re coming next Monday, right? If you are, the list will be nicely even.” Lestrade waited expectantly, but John just stared at him in confusion. The words were all sensible English words, and yet John could make no real sense of them. Monday? Coming? List? He opened his mouth to ask, but Lestrade beat him to it. “The party,” he said quietly, and that worry was back in his face, all traces of merriment wiped away in favor of concern and compassion. John was growing to hate such expressions.
“Party?” John finally asked, when it rang no more of a bell than the other words.
“Christmas party,” Lestrade said, forcing the grin back onto his face. John decided the forced grin was far worse than the worry. At least the worry was a natural look on Lestrade’s face. The forced grin just made him look sick and sad in an entirely uncomfortable way. “Just our division. You should be familiar with pretty much everyone there. You’re practically a member of the team anyway,” Lestrade added. “And it would even out the list.”
“What list are you talking about?” John pressed, but the list was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he found himself drifting into the past, recalling a year before and the sound of a violin playing “Wish You a Merry Christmas” before forcing himself away from that line of thought. At his side, his hand tightened around the handle of the simple case he carried to and from home, fingers digging into the leather handle hard enough that he spared a distant thought to wondering whether there would be imprints. His free hand was curled into a fist.
“Well, we’re all doing a little gift-exchange. Names from hat, basically, but I thought you might like to be part of it. It’s the first Christmas si... with you here all the time.” Lestrade stumbled over changing the words, but the trip had been enough for John to turn sharply away. That Christmas had been a nightmare, but John had a deep suspicion that somehow, this one would be worse unless he fought against it.
He opened his mouth to refuse, already making mental plans to arrange dinner with Harry, maybe a late drink with Mrs. Hudson. “Go ahead and add me,” he said instead, and his eyes squeezed shut. “Just let me know who I’m buying for, all right?” he added, dragging in a ragged breath before striding off. If Lestrade answered him, he didn’t hear it. He was far too intent on getting out of the building before it crowded down around him and left him unable to breathe at all. Somehow, the thought of the party scared him just as much as the thought of sitting alone in the flat that whole night, as though either way, he was destined to go mad.
The party wasn’t a grand thing, all divisions coming together for some big event before heading home to families. It was much smaller than that, much simpler, and somehow, that made it all the worse when John finally showed up. He’d already put in a full day, and had a nice stack of files to take home over the holidays, knowing instinctively that if he didn’t take the chance to bring home work, he would face two silent days in the Shrine of Sherlock, and he couldn’t cope with that while memories of happier days whispered around him like seductive murmurs that could draw him back down into the void. He’d made certain to grab files that Sherlock had previously worked on, because even Sherlock hadn’t been perfect, but there would be so much more information somewhere in the flat, and searching for it would pass some of the time, though he’d try very hard not to recall the desperately thorough drugs search he and Mrs. Hudson had performed while Sherlock made his way to the morgue.
Stepping out into the party didn’t initially feel very different at all, and it took John a moment to realize that there was even a party going on at all. He’d recalled Lestrade’s awkward invitation, and the text he’d received from the man later on that held only two words in it, a directive to buy a gift for the man himself. The sight of that text had actually drawn a smile from John as he thought of how uncomfortable the man must have been, texting his own name. And the truth of the matter was that John didn’t even know how the gift exchange was supposed to work, when it came down to it. Did having Lestrade’s name mean that Lestrade had his? Was he going to be forced to show some falsely-heartfelt gesture of thanks when offered a gift in which he had no interest? And perhaps worse, would Lestrade misunderstand his simple gift as uncaring? He worried about such things and he didn’t, because worrying expended more energy than he really had.
People mingled, appearing to mostly stay in small groups gathered around desks that were already near each other, but as John surveyed the room, he began to realize that there was more than simply the people he was used to. In some pockets, there were a few new faces, people that John assumed must be ‘plus ones’, perhaps come to pick up their partners for dates or a trip to hearth and home and family traditions. He sighed, setting his case of files down and holding the envelope containing Lestrade’s gift in one hand as he went in search of the man. Most of the people he passed had dressed up in some way, Santa and reindeer brooches on women, gaudy holiday ties on men, stupidly floppy red cone hats with a white ball on the end decorating various heads and being passed around with no regard for personal hygiene. There were polystyrene cups in some hands, while others clutched colourful paper napkins around carrot sticks, quiche, cakes, sandwiches, sausage rolls, and a bowl of ambiguous crisps, and even from where he stood, John could see that most of the food was supermarket-bought. For a brief moment, his mind drifted back to his flat and the scent of Mrs. Hudson’s mince pies, and his stomach churned a bit.
“Dr. Watson!” There was an energetic voice at his elbow, and John turned to look into a familiar face. He blanked for a moment on the name before it finally came to him. Dimmock, that too-young detective inspector who had ultimately accepted Sherlock’s help what seemed a lifetime ago. He was smiling at John, and there was an uncomfortable hesitation to it that told John louder than words how he’d felt obligated to come over and say hello to this sad and fading old man who didn’t really belong. John’s mouth twisted a bit, and he nodded, holding out a hand to Dimmock. Dimmock shifted the brightly-wrapped box in his hand and took John’s hand, squeezing it firmly for a moment before dropping it. It hadn’t quite been a handshake, but somehow that was better, and John looked at Dimmock through new eyes.
The man was a believer, John realized after a breath. That revelation somehow changed everything, and John relaxed ever so slightly, a little more comfortable for the accepting company. He cast about for something to say, but Dimmock beat him to it, leaning against a desk as he watched John. “I was glad to hear that you would be joining us for a bit tonight. I worried that maybe you didn’t feel you were welcome just yet, and that’s not true. Everyone around here likes you.” There was a bit of a twist to the smile he offered John, and John could read the thoughts behind it as though each thought was blinking neon above his head. John was welcome now. John was liked in a way that his best friend never had been. The doctor waited for the expected feeling of anger to boil up from him, but was caught off-guard as he realized there was no anger. In its place, there was only amusement.
“You mean, I’m liked, but Sherlock wasn’t,” he stated quietly. His voice remained steady and even. As Dimmock nodded sheepishly, John lifted his hand, waving the awkwardness away. “He never tried to be liked,” he began, then closed his eyes, feeling something unwind within him. “I don’t think he was comfortable enough with the world to ever worry about being liked by anyone. He was too busy carving his place in it.” It was not a popular theory, certainly not a theory he had ever shared with the man himself, but John thought it felt right.
“You’re comfortable enough to make up for it,” came Lestrade’s decisive words from behind John. He looked around and found Lestrade holding out a cheap white cup filled with coffee toward him. Beside Lestrade stood Molly Hooper, and for a moment, the sight of her felt like the worst sucker-punch John had ever sustained. She was wearing That Dress, though her hair was done up in an elegant twist that left her neck bare save for a few escaping tendrils and a thin gold chain. The makeup was different, softer somehow, but it was That Dress that kept drawing John’s eyes, and he finally drew a shaken breath and turned back to Dimmock just to get his eyes away from it long enough to gather his composure.
“I’m no more comfortable than the next person,” he finally managed, realizing a moment later that Lestrade had set the cup of coffee down on the desk nearby. “But I’m glad there’s a place for me here, for a few minutes anyway.” Except that he wasn’t glad at all. Everything was crowding around him, and he just wanted to take a few minutes away from it all and go bury his head in the sand. “Oh! Lestrade, happy Christmas,” he added after a moment, turning and offering the envelope. As he looked back at Lestrade and Molly, he finally noticed what the dress had first blinded him to. Lestrade’s arm curled around Molly’s body, his hand resting on her hip as he kept her close. John’s eyes traveled from the hand up to Molly’s eyes, and he saw light within them, and an apologetic sort of happiness that hurt his heart. “And... I guess congratulations are in order, then?” he asked, not noticing as Lestrade took the envelope from him.
“Took me long enough to notice what was in front of me,” Lestrade agreed sheepishly, squeezing Molly. She leaned against him, and when she looked up into Lestrade’s eyes, John saw the apology fade away, leaving only the happiness behind. “She’s too good for me, but she won’t listen when I tell her that,” he added.
John nodded, reaching for his files. “Listen, I can’t stop for long. There are things need doing at home. But I promised I’d show up, at least.” Anything to get away from the sap and good cheer that were threatening to drown him. Anything to get away from the apology in Molly’s eyes when she looked at him.
“Before you go, someone else is looking for you,” Lestrade said, looking back at John, and John used the files as an excuse to break that contact. “Make the rounds, at least, all right?”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” John promised, nodding to Molly and Dimmock before turning to go. He’d make the rounds because he knew it was part of the promise he’d made, but somehow, it was all going to end up too much, and John was beginning to realize that no matter what he did, it was always going to be too much. But he was a survivor, and he would survive this, too.
John sighed, the door in his sights but knowing all too well that he’d have to turn around and make small talk once more, now that he’d been spotted. Setting his files down beside his feet, he squared his shoulders and turned, offering a small and not entirely honest smile to Donovan as she caught up with him, distantly noting the large, green-wrapped box under one arm. Anderson trailed behind her, along with a young woman that John didn’t recognize. “Sally,” John said, nodding to her before offering the other two a slight nod as well. He’d made his rounds, and had, in fact, spent an hour longer than he’d wanted. There were no doubt others who also wanted to talk to him, but John found himself just wishing the whole thing would fade away. A cup of tea, some takeaway, and a book sounded better and better.
“I was beginning to think I wouldn’t catch you,” Donovan said, holding out the box to him. “And I don’t fancy carting this back home with me.” There was a teasing glint in her eyes that he didn’t answer. His hands flexed at his sides, clenching into a fist for a moment before he nodded and reached to take the box. It was a bit heavier than he’d expected, though not heavy enough to give him trouble on the way home. “I hope you like it when you open it,” she added, then turned to edge the woman standing with her forward a bit. “And I don’t think you’ve met Elena Smyth, have you? She’s down in forensics most of the time.”
As the woman stepped forward, John felt his breath stutter for a moment. Something about her reminded him of Soo Lin Yao, and the similarity, faint as it was, left him fighting the urge to take a step back. He clenched his jaw, shifting the box to under his arm as he offered a hand to Elena. “It’s good to meet you, Miss Smyth,” he said, feeling the words ease past his tight chest with no apparent difficulty, and wondering at that. “They must keep you pretty busy down there.”
“Busy enough,” Elena smiled, taking his hand in her own and shaking lightly. Her grip was soft but not weak, and her smile held no hint of hesitation, but John suddenly wanted nothing to do with her. “I’m looking forward to some time off, certainly. Sally tells me you know some of the best restaurants in London?”
It all suddenly clicked into place, and John’s eyes shifted to Donovan, staring at her as his stomach twisted. She stared back at him, and in her arch look he could read all the challenge and pushing she’d ever focused on him, all pressure for him to get away from Sherlock, to get away from ground zero, to haul himself out of the ashes and ruins and rebuild a life that was, if not safe, then at the very least happy. And for that moment, staring at her as she waited for him to accept the date she’d obviously engineered, he hated her with a seething, searing pain. His free hand clenched into a tight fist at his side.
“...Of course,” Elena finally continued when the silence had stretched out too long. She sounded suddenly awkward and uncomfortable, and John’s attention shifted back to her. “Of course, I know some good ones myself. I just thought a little recommendation or two would be welcome. Eating the same thing all the time gets so boring.” His eyes swept down to her hands, noting the way they twisted together, a whiteness around the nails where she gripped too hard.
He exhaled slowly, then forced down the hate. Elena didn’t deserve it any more than anyone else did, and he couldn’t let himself fall into the trap of hating anyone who came along. Another hesitation, and then he made a decision. Whatever reason Donovan might’ve had to introduce them, the fact was that it was time to start stretching his wings again. “Do you like Italian?” he asked, rather than let himself take the out that Elena had offered. Movement rippled at the corner of his vision, but he ignored Donovan’s excitement, focusing instead on the soft smile that Elena offered him.
“Yeah, I do,” she nodded, her face lighting up with the hope.
“Sally can give you my number,” John said, before he could second-guess himself. “I’m just on my way out, but I thought... maybe you’d like to try dinner on the twenty-eighth? I imagine you have plenty of family to visit with over the holidays,” he added, rushing on before she could offer a yes or no, “but get my number and give me a call if you’re free, and we’ll make the arrangements. Sorry, but I do have to dash.” He turned, setting the box down on top of the files and lifting both.
“John?” Donovan asked, as he started to make his way toward the door. He glanced over his shoulder and saw her following him, Elena left behind with Anderson and a bright smile on her face. But there was something else on Donovan’s face, a caution that was entirely appropriate given the way he was feeling.
“We will talk later,” he said, dropping the smile and act and making no effort to slow his steps. “Go back to the party, Sally. I’m going home.” He didn’t wait to hear if she protested more, instead striding away with a mix of fury and relief.