Lestrade knocks violently one Tuesday evening, throws himself down in an armchair and says, "Why the fuck haven't you moved out, then?"
John's on nights, sprawled on the sofa since early in the morning. He's not sleeping well through the day, now; he woke at traffic, at the pigeons by the window, at the small stirrings of dust in the draft from the door. He feels as glassy and unreal as ever. "What are you doing here, Greg?"
"Need help with a case." Lestrade sits up for a moment. "Got anything to drink? Course you do."
He's drinking, but less than everyone thinks: vodka that goes down smooth as caramel, mostly. "Freezer."
Lestrade gets up and rummages. On the sofa, John turns his head just enough to see the quick glance through the fridge, the cupboards. There's food there – he picked it up this morning, from a Tesco Metro just opening up for the day on the Euston Road. Lestrade sits down with the half-empty bottle of premium Stolichnaya, and takes a slug.
"Me." John is feeling entirely like glass at this moment. "Why me?"
"To help with a case?" Lestrade takes another drink and glares at him. "Who else do you think I should ask for help? Donovan, maybe the Chief Superintendent? That, as you may recall, went so fucking brilliantly last time."
John gets up, slowly, limbs still brittle with sleeplessness. He stretches out, slow and careful, and walks around the flat as though he's seeing it for the first time, taking in the whorls of dust, dark wood furniture, the streaky window. Sherlock's books, all in their rows. "Tell me," he says.
"Someone calls 999 somewhere in Chelsea. My wife, she's dying, come quickly. The ambulance gets there, the paramedics unload. She's dead. He's standing there, hand to his mouth. I killed her, he says. I killed her."
"So far," John observes, "this is not sounding like a very difficult case."
"Yeah, whatever." Lestrade is glaring at him. "Here's the problem: how did he kill her?"
John stops pacing around the floor. "What do you mean?"
"No trauma to the head. No hastily-discarded blunt instrument. No bullets, no gun. The coroner even said she would have been in perfect health if it weren't for the fact she was dead. So unless he suffocated her with a cheese sandwich…"
"He said he did it." John's worldview has been getting more monochrome lately.
"Confession under duress, the defence will say, and who's to say they're not right? S'all bollocks, really."
"How about a motive?" John asks.
"Dunno." Lestrade shrugs, a whole-body manoeuvre followed by another lick of vodka. "Oldest one there is. Someone loves someone else and one someone ends up dead."
He sits there, drinking John's vodka, eyes stark and unapologetic. John sighs and falls back onto the sofa cushions. He thinks maybe soon he'll be able to sleep.
"Where are you working these days?" Lestrade says, in a different tone. "Wait, yeah. One of the lads saw you the other day after an assault and battery. Said he was sure it was you."
"Quite possibly." John's not looking up any more.
Lestrade is at the door when John calls him back. "You needn't worry, you know."
"Yeah?" Lestrade's looking over his shoulder.
"Mycroft." John spreads his hands and shrugs. "He's keeping an eye on me, too. The sort of close eye you'd expect from a man who controls all the CCTV cameras in London."
Lestrade merely snorts. "Bloody government work. Let me know you have any ideas on our friend Confession Under Duress."
He slams the door shut behind him. John watches the dust shift and fall in waves.
John is having trouble with silence just recently; it makes him uneasy, waiting for shoes to drop or spoons to clatter. His therapist agreed to meet him in a busy café instead, and it seems to have helped: the hour has, if not gone quickly, gone, and she's packing away her notepad, pushing away her saucer. "Look after yourself, John," she says, with her kind still eyes firmly on him. "An order, not a pleasantry. I'll see you next week."
That's when a woman on the other side of the café lifts her hands to her mouth and shrieks, "John!"
John's therapist turns to look at her, and then at him. "A friend of yours?"
John can't think of a way to express my sister's slightly-crazed ex-wife whom sometimes frankly I like better, and settles on, "A relative."
"I'll leave her my seat." His therapist grins at him and makes her way out of the café, steady on her stacked heels and unruffled by people or crowds or pushed-out chairs. John watches her go, then looks up as Clara slips into the seat opposite him.
"John," she says, happily, reaching out across the table. "It's lovely to see you."
"You too, Clara," he manages to say, and means it. She bounces up, runs to the counter, giving his shoulder a squeeze on the way, before she disappears at the end of a queue. John feels oddly calm. He sits perfectly still for the few minutes it takes for Clara to order coffee and a flaky pastry and carry it carefully on a tray to their table.
"Let me help," he says, half-standing, lifting away the mug, putting away the tray.
Clara sits down, reaches inside her bag for her compact. "Well?" she asks, eyes on the little mirror, squeezing her lips together so her lipstick blossoms.
John's fingers are on his temples, his eyes closed. Dispassionately, he notes the retinal afterimages behind his eyelids, red like post boxes and Clara's lips and other things he's seen lately.
"No one ever tells you," he decides after a while, "that it will be this hard."
"No," Clara agrees, snapping her compact expertly together with one hand. "No, they don't."
"Yeah." John leans back in his chair, looks up at the advertising above the counter, the sketchy drawings of all the places in the world coffee beans come from. The text below tells him that coffee is the world's most traded commodity, after crude oil. He thinks about great ships, their holds full of coffee beans, and remembers what Lestrade says, thinks simpler things are held globally in common.
"Would it be easier," Clara asks, her eyes bright, "if it had been a passing bus?"
"No," John says. He's thought of that. "This way – you ask him, why. But a passing bus – then you ask God. Same question. Still no answer."
"Thought you were an atheist, John," she says lightly, fingers brushing the pulse point in his left wrist. The warmth is a comfort, the reminder of living things and their internal rhythms. "You told me so."
"I've been in a foxhole since then." He glances up, willing the crinkles to appear around her eyes. Her hand tightens around his and she doesn't disappoint, laughing merrily, all bright eyes and bright colours.
"You're terrible," she declares, bangles jingling. And in a different tone: "Anything you need?"
John leans back again, thinking, looking at the espresso machine behind the counter, the overworked barista tending it like a bird, the rain beating against the window behind. "Latte," he says.
She chuckles, and says, "Terrible" – but she gets up, telling him to watch her bag, and he hears her voice tinkle Clara as they ask her for her name to write on the cup. In recent days he's never been more grateful for "John" – the encompassing anonymity of it.
When she brings him the drink it has an extra shot of coffee, caramel syrup, whipped cream and chocolate shavings, all in the largest available size.
John doesn't think of himself as bisexual, or queer, or anything other than a man grown safe in the knowledge he could bring anyone home as long as they had fewer STDs than Harry.
Harry slaps him when he tells her this. They're in Harry's flat, so he doesn't have the excuse that he's had a drink too many, and really he doesn't have any excuse at all: they've given him a gentle evening, a nice dinner, and Harry was only asking, in that way she has of being tactless but incisive. The sconce lights are low, the rain sweeping gently across the street outside; John had been about to stretch and reach for his coat and say must be getting on.
Even Clara looks shocked, although John reckons he recognises the wickedness in her face. "You bitch, John," Harry's saying, amiably, her temper gone with the slap. "Be glad you didn’t get one on each cheek."
In her voice, John hears something refreshing. There was always that ringing clarity to their fights, insults following accusations following shouts like a row of bells, struck one after another. The only times they hadn't forgotten it all by morning came after Harry started drinking.
Buoyed up, suddenly, John asks: "You two, are you back together?"
"Ooh, look who's paying attention," Harry snipes, and Clara says, "Never like that, darling. But some people you're just tied to, whatever happens, you understand."
Something snaps in half inside John's head, then. Harry says, "Oh, John, love" – though he hasn't said a thing, nor moved a muscle.
"This is my cue," Clara says, and blows John a kiss from across the room before she disappears. John hears her footsteps recede up the stairs as though from a great, great distance.
Harry waits for the sound to die away, and then throws off her shoes and gets up on the couch beside John, her feet tucked away under her. She's so close he can feel the warmth of her, feel her breathing.
"Do you remember," Harry says very quietly, "when you were five, you decided you wanted to be Amelia Earhart when you grew up? And no one could persuade you otherwise for weeks."
"Yes," John says, so quietly he can barely hear himself.
"And then you wanted to be a farmer. Then a sailor. Then the person who makes up the greetings in the cards."
John smiles a little. Harry wanted to be a writer when she was five; she is one now, deft, skilful.
"And then you grew up and became a doctor and went away. I remember wishing, when you went to Afghanistan, that you'd become Amelia Earhart, instead. But then I remembered her body was never found, so I wished you'd come home safe so I could fight with you again."
John's eyes are closing.
"And you did. Though you're still an awful bitch, John, and sometimes I can't stand you, you do come back. Do you remember when I broke up with Lizzie Pembroke in sixth form and you bought me a chocolate cake because you couldn't think of anything else to do that would help?"
"Yes," John breathes.
"You picked me out of the gutter a few times, as well," she says, with a lightness he admires, "but bringing a sad girl a squashed cake? I knew then you'd go far. Do you remember when I was sick in the bushes at your twenty-first? You were nice about it when you stopped swearing."
John nods, and that's how it goes, Harry's quiet voice, her remembered kindnesses, until the ache in his head abates a little, and he can sleep.
"Out of my way," shouts the orderly, but John stands his ground, is momentarily aware of the stone floor solid beneath him, then starts moving, catching up with the stretcher as it comes around the corner.
Blood gets on him as he takes the patient's vitals, calls for an IV, keeps on running alongside as long as he can, draws to a halt finally as wiser, more specialised hands than his take over. Adrenaline wracks through his body, etching into his bones so his hands go on his knees, acid rises into his mouth and he stands up and he's breathing. Years ago this was casualty; now it's emergency medicine, but he prefers what it was still called when he was in medical school, accident and emergency as though the two could be split like a clean fracture.
Molly, passing through, looks at him with mild horror; he remembers none of her patients actually bleed. "Scalp wound," he says, quickly, "broken glass, they bleed like hell."
It's all incoherence, but she leaves looking as though she understands. You won't be a real doctor, Professor Bell told him in third-year anatomy classes, until you've been in A&E. There's nothing like it.
In the momentary quiet, he hears distant notes of "Sailing By", someone listening to Radio 4 in the doctors' mess. The notes hold him still.
The next patient – accompanied by a terrified-looking husband, boyfriend, friend; they all look the same, John thinks, with the same expression drawn in the starkest of lines – is laid out on the stretcher with skin like salt. John glances up – Dr. Bhattacharya is taking care of things as the stretcher is wheeled away – and he takes the frightened husband-boyfriend-friend to a row of empty plastic chairs and sits him down. He's pliable, going wherever he's led, his eyes dull.
"Now," John says, sitting down beside him, "who's she, and who are you?"
"She's my wife," he says, with surprise, as though surprised John didn't know it, and John nods.
"How did you know?" he asks, but John doesn't answer.
"Tell me what happened," he says, very quietly, and makes a small hand-signal over his shoulder; in two minutes someone should bring two cups of gritty vending machine coffee, and John will have got the truth from this man.
His name is Tom. He married Helen a year ago, in a garden in Somerset. They're happy. She hasn't been well recently, but they're happy, they're happy and the only shade on that horizon came tonight when Tom got home to find his wife on the kitchen floor, food knocked off the worksurfaces with the force of her fall, and what, what…
"That's what we're trying to find out," John says, quietly. "She hadn't been well lately? How was that?"
"She's been… sad," Tom says, bewildered, not really seeing anything in front of him. "I mean… her whole life? But it's under control. There are pills she takes, they're quite new actually, and maybe I should…"
He's rummaging for a pen; John stills his hands, gently, and says, "We'll have her records. Just one last thing – what was on the floor, in the kitchen?"
"On the floor?" The man stares at him blankly.
"You said there were things knocked off the worksurfaces," John says, still gently. "What were they?"
Some people, at this point, would start to get angry – would start to shout incoherently about how anyone could expect them to notice, that was their wife on the floor, how could, how. John is relieved that he isn't one of these. Tom frowns and says, slowly, "Some ham out of a packet, I think. Stilton. A slice of bread. Maybe she was making a sandwich?"
"Thank you very much," John says, calmly, and reaches out for the coffee as it arrives. "Here you go. Someone will be back in a short while to let you know how your wife is doing."
John gets up, taking the second coffee, and doesn't look back. He reports his findings to the attending physician; Dr. Bhattacharya is a serious, thoughtful man and John doesn't insult his intelligence by spelling it out. Handover is slipping in with the dawn, and then he's pulling off his bloodstained scrubs, pulling his clothes out of his locker and walking out into London at its crepuscular best, the sun inching over Smithfield.
On the walk down to Chancery Lane, he pulls out his phone and texts Lestrade: confession under duress – MAOI inhibiters? JW
Lestrade doesn't reply, because even he isn't up this early in the morning, so John stuffs his hands in his pockets and goes on walking. Before he gets to the Tube station, he buys the first of the morning papers, and a few things for lunch. He's hoping that he'll be able to sleep.
"Heard you solved one of Lestrade's cases for him," Molly comments, perched on a bench with her legs swinging.
John glances up. He hasn't seen much of her lately, but he's got time to kill, between finishing his shift an hour ago and heading out, and he doesn't want to hang around the wards for fear of being drawn back in on something lengthy.
"Not quite," he says. "I only gave him a pointer."
"Didn't sound like that to me," she says, cheerfully. "Sounds like they were floundering, and then you…"
"Really," John says, but he's smiling. It's not that simple, and it won't be cut and dried until the jury cut and dry it, laying down the patterns of motive and method, but John, in his way, showed them how it was done. Lestrade was grateful, if snippy in the direction of certain of his colleagues. "The coroner shouldn't have missed it," John says, remembering, and finds he's still smiling.
"In other news," Molly says, now looking absolutely wicked, "I heard you're going on a date tonight."
John groans. "I'm not – I mean – does anyone in this place put two and two together and make less than eighty-five? Or keep their bloody mouths shut?"
"You do look nice," Molly says, chirpily, as if he hadn't spoken. "You clean up well when you're not bloodstained. And I like the leather jacket on you. Who is she, or he?"
"I am going to dinner," John says, through gritted teeth, "with Harry and Clara. My sister, and my ex-sister-in-law, neither of whom I would be likely to be going on a date with."
"Bet you're not their only guest though." Molly is staining slides expertly as she talks, not even looking at him. John sighs.
"It's a dinner party," he says. "There will be other people there."
"Eligible people. Eligible people to sit next to." Molly looks up and grins at him so happily that he gives in.
"If I should accidentally sleep with half of London before tomorrow morning, you shall be the first person I tell," he says at last. "Can I go now?"
"One eight millionth of London will do fine," she says cheerfully, still not looking at him as he goes up the stairs.
Someone visits early in April, his knock so like the rest of him, methodical and calculating, that John is unsurprised when he opens the door and Mycroft steps in, looking around him as though he's stepping into hostile territory.
John rolls his eyes. "Come in, Mycroft. Tea?"
"No, thank you," Mycroft answers, warily, and John knows enough to guess he probably suspects adulterated sugar or explosive teabags. He gets up to make tea for himself regardless, taking his time over it, using the movements of cup on saucer, milk in first, stir three times anticlockwise, to give himself the space to think. Whatever Mycroft wants will probably not lead to a quiet life for anyone, and in the meantime John makes his tea with the ritualistic precision Sherlock made it, and goes to sit down in the armchair.
"Well," Mycroft says, as the silence stretches on, his fingers brought together contemplatively.
"Well," John echoes, not in the mood to ease the conversation with small talk. They lapse into silence again for a few minutes,
"You still haven't moved out," Mycroft says at last.
"No," John says, surprised. "I did think about it. Mrs Hudson was going to give away the chemistry kit to a school, and I was going to move into a bedsit outside Zone 1."
"What happened?" Mycroft asks, gently.
John shrugs. "Time, I guess. Mrs Hudson couldn't find a school that would take it all. When I suggested smashing the glassware on Sherlock's headstone she got upset. I got my old job back, the one I had before I joined up. I earn enough to keep this place on my own, now, and I write under a pen-name sometimes and that brings in pizza money. Mycroft, why are you here?"
"The decision," Mycroft says slowly, "in R v. Macklevore. I was intrigued to discover…"
John makes an impatient gesture. "Lestrade's a good bloke and he asks me for help sometimes. You were expecting something else?"
"Not at all," Mycroft says, sounding quite shocked at the idea. "I was impressed, Dr. Watson. The evidence-in-chief suggests you noticed the drug interaction with what the victim ate when the coroner had missed…"
John shrugs. "They're rare drugs these days, and Lestrade himself was nearly there, he even said she could have been suffocated with a cheese sandwich. All I did was put it together."
"There have been other cases, too."
"Yes." John's getting tired of this. "Seriously, Mycroft. In six hours I go back to Barts and I was hoping for some sleep before then. Why are you here, really?"
Mycroft spreads his hands. "I hadn't seen you for, for quite some time. I was merely… wondering."
"I'm fine," John says, still impatient. "If you've kept the eye on me I think you have, you'll see I get up and go to work, I eat more takeaway food than a medical professional ought to without being a hypocrite, every Friday my sister and I see a film or go for a meal or, God help me, go to the zoo. Tonight I was thinking I would drop in on Molly before handover. I'm fine."
"You're not happy, though," Mycroft says.
John sighs. "How many hours of CCTV camera footage does it take you to put that together, then? If there's nothing else, then I really think you should leave."
To John's surprise, Mycroft doesn't resist. "As you wish," he murmurs, gets to his feet with that feline absence of sound, and moves to the door. "Good evening, Dr. Watson," he says, formally. "I hope…"
Uncharacteristically, he trails off. He gives John a small, slightly sad smile before heading down the stairs. Once he's gone, John drinks the cooled tea and puts the cup and saucer in the sink. The daylight's fading, but he doesn't draw the curtains. It's too late to go to sleep in a bed, anyway, so he sets an alarm on his phone and settles on the couch with a blanket, bathed in the last of the evening light. Warnings of gales off Rockall, murmurs the radio.
He's lying there, drowsing, when someone opens the door from the outside with a key.