BE HERE NOW
My love and I are inventing a country…
But there is a problem: if we put a river in the country,
it will thaw and begin flooding.
If we put the river on the border, there will be trouble.
If we forget about the river, there will be no way out.
From Larry Levis’ “In a Country”
The war had taught him many things.
First, he’d learned there were some things he’d seen that he would never unsee. The burst of red and black and white that a man became when he stepped on an IED. The incongruent sight of teeth blown into brains.
Second, he’d learned how not to cry. He’d learned to stand at attention as men he’d just watched die were loaded onto planes – really watched die, the pulse monitors clamped to the wrists of the lost causes (the ones whose hearts didn’t have the sense to stop, despite that most of the brain was gone) beginning that long, terrible note.
And last, he had learned to love. Really love. With all of his heart. He thought he’d loved before, of course. His mother, especially. But even that felt like nothing when compared to the feeling of his hand on the back of Paul Killian’s neck, the squeeze he gave it as Paul – the younger medic – broke down and finally righted himself. The strength of the man, how John realized he’d seen all of him, even the parts Paul would have wanted no one to see. The way Paul realized it too, tears pulling clean streaks in the bomb’s black smoke on his cheeks.
What a wanker I am, eh? Paul’d said, trying to break the moment, punctuated by the nervous laugh of exposure.
No, John had replied, tightening his hand on Paul’s neck and looking into his eyes. Not at all.
What had the writer said? Every war story is a love story…
These things the war had taught him were not serving him now. He could not unsee the black coat furling out behind Sherlock as he fell, and fell, and fell. The long note he heard in his head now was the cry that needed to come out of him, caught bird-like behind his chest. And as for love…
“John, you’re doing it again.”
John Watson snapped his eyes up. His mouth was working in that way he did when his control was slipping, and he swallowed hard. His therapist’s eyes were like like drops of oil, wet and sad and boring into him. She was leaned forward over her notebook, holding her own hand.
“Yes,” he said quickly, clearing his throat. “Sorry.” He sat up straighter. “What was the question again?”
She smiled faintly. “There wasn’t one.”
He felt color come up on his cheeks. “Right. Sorry.” He looked out the window, feeling suddenly even more awkward in his too-big clothes. His shoulder had inexplicably begun to ache.
Now she leaned back, sighed. “You know, John, I could be much more help to you if you’d actually say the things you’re thinking.” A beat of silence. “I’m very worried about you. You look…unwell, and I want to be able to help you.”
He looked down, feeling that he’d somehow disappointed her, and that was something he never did if he could help it. He bit his lip, shook his head. “It’s too…“ He trailed off.
“I know you loved him, John.”
As though by reflex, he rolled his eyes. “Not you too.” He tried to push a laugh out. It sounded like a faint, pained cough.
“Stop trying to name it, John, or worrying about other people naming it. Stop judging it. I think doing that’s getting in the way of you talking about what’s happening with you. You can just have loved him and leave it at that.”
The words bloomed warm in him, a tiny bit of light in all that dark. He cleared his throat and looked down.
“It’s not just him,” he said. “It’s all of it.” He shook his head, drawing in a huge shaking breath.
She spoke into the quiet. “You’ve been through a lot. It’s okay that the war is still with you.”
Now a tear did find a way out. “It’s all come back,” he said, and his voice broke. “I see Sherlock falling and, my God, it hurts so much…and then it all comes back.”
“Tell me,” she urged quietly. “Tell me what’s come back, John.”
He looked out the window into the seemingly perpetual rain, sheeting down the thick glass pane.
He shook his head sharply. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
Prague was a dark city, even in the daylight, but at night it was nearly impenetrable. It seemed to fit both Mycroft Holmes’ mood and the errand for which he’d traveled all this way. His private jet was fueling at the airport and on stand-by for immediate return to London. With luck, no one would even know he’d gone.
One of his men was by the door to get it when the knock came, a soft tap. As the door swung open, it was as though a piece of the Prague night unfurled into the room, Sherlock’s coat trailing a bit behind him as he stepped quickly into the room. He was all in black – his shirt, jacket beneath his coat, pants, shoes. Only his scarf– striped with sapphire blue—gave any relief. His raven hair was now cut short, the longer hair on top falling to a long fringe that was windblown. The pupils of his pale eyes were huge, eclipsing most of the watery blue.
Six months since Mycroft had last seen him, and somehow Sherlock already looked older, harder. It was the day after his leap from the hospital roof, the laundry truck’s contents padding his fall but not breaking it entirely. Outside Suffolk, after Mycroft received a text with nothing but an address.
There he’d found Sherlock alone in a tiny hotel room, sitting still on the side of the bed, his shirt open and revealing tight bands of tape around his broken ribs. His chest rose and fell with an unnaturally slow rhythm. There’d been another bandage over his left eye where he’d gashed his forehead down through the eyebrow, and a bruise the most exquisite shade of violet was blooming around the bandage’s white.
Molly had taken care of it all, then left him alone to heal at his request.
Sherlock had cocked his other eyebrow at Mycroft as he’d entered by way of greeting. Mycroft had covered his mouth, shaking his head, and breathed. “Oh Sherlock…” with the tone not of relief but of what have you done…
The gash over his eye had scarred, likely from lack of medical attention as it healed. There was now a thick pink line cutting through his dark brow, extending up into his too-long fringe.
“You appear to be on your way to becoming a pirate after all,” Mycroft said mildly as Sherlock stopped in front of him. He did not sit, his gloved fists balled at his sides.
“What do you want.” It was not a question, and the statement was loaded with rebuke.
“I know,” Mycroft said patiently, nodding. “I know I was not to contact you, I know I was not to attempt to see you.” He met Sherlock’s eyes gravely. “But I believed the circumstances warranted it.”
Sherlock stood still, saying nothing, but his head cocked a fraction in both interest and in a challenge.
“Please sit,” Mycroft said, gesturing to the other chair, and though Sherlock hesitated another fraction (never one to do what Mycroft asked, as if on principle), he did sit. He was curious, and a curious Sherlock could be more pliant.
Mycroft turned to the figure at the door. “Wait outside, please,” he said, and the man nodded and left, the door snicking closed behind him.
There was tea, fresh from room service. Mycroft poured himself a cup and looked at Sherlock, the spout poised over the other cup. When Sherlock nodded, he poured.
“What progress have you made?” Mycroft began conversationally as the tea poured.
“Not enough,” Sherlock said softly, tightly. “Obviously.”
“You need to work more quickly,” Mycroft said, pouring a swirl of milk into the tea and handing it over.
“Obviously,” Sherlock said again, slower and more sour. He blew on the tea, his eyes boring into Mycroft with disdain. “Now. What?”
Mycroft had been rehearsing what he was going to say on the plane. He knew he must tread carefully for many reasons, not the least of which was that he was responsible, at least partially, for this whole situation. Not to mention that he had his own difficulties speaking about anything related to matters of the heart.
He gave a wincing smile as he picked up his own cup and saucer and re-crossed his legs.
“It’s John,” he began, and Sherlock stilled with his cup resting on his bottom lip.
“Yes?” Clipped. Trying for impatience, but not quite hiding the anxious spike underneath.
“It’s…not going well, I’m afraid.”
“Explain.” Sherlock finally took a sip, his eyes locked with Mycroft’s still.
Mycroft looked down. “Sherlock,” he began, trying his best for kindness and not condescension. “John is a wounded veteran who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder since his return from combat. He is also as intensely empathetic and sensitive to the needs and feelings of others as you and I are oblivious to them. But his military training and upbringing block his ability to adequately address his own pain.”
“Thank you for the painfully obvious summation,” Sherlock said, sotto voice and full of annoyance and…something else. “Now get to the point.”
“All right. The point.” Mycroft set the cup down, untouched, breathed out. “Have you seen him?”
“Of course not,” Sherlock sneered.
“You have him under surveillance, yes?”
“No,” Sherlock said darkly. “Why?”
Now Mycroft reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a plain brown envelope closed with a red string.
He handed it over and Sherlock took it with just a touch of hesitation. He unwound the red string and took the photos out, lingering on each for a few beats.
Mycroft watched his face closely, how the corners of Sherlock’s mouth pulled down, how his full lips pursed then drew to a thin line. Something clouded his eyes, and they shone conspicuously in the room’s dim light.
“So he’s lost weight.” His throat sounded tight. There was nothing in his tone to convince anyone of its attempt at nonchalance.
“Two stone, perhaps more,” Mycroft said, nodding. “He’s not working. He’s been prescribed tranquilizers, anxiety medications, for sleep. Mrs. Hudson says he wakes her up most nights shouting, doesn’t eat…” He trailed off, letting his words sink in.
“His mental state is not my concern at the moment,” Sherlock said tightly, handing the photos back. “Keeping him alive is.”
“He may die while you’re doing that, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, leaning forward. “I’m deeply worried about him.”
“Sherlock, you jumped to your ‘death’ in front of him. A very convincing death as I understand.”
Sherlock’s eyes flared with rage. “You know I had no choice,” he hissed.
“You did not have to do it in front of him,” Mycroft shot back, his voice rising.
Sherlock’s voice rose in response. “I tried to send him away. You know that.”
“And when he came back, you—“
“He wouldn’t have believed it any other way!” Sherlock roiled. “I couldn’t protect him if he sought me out—“
“Sherlock, he loves you,” Mycroft cut in, something plaintive in his voice. “And it’s been too much to bear with everything else. I know it’s hard for you, but you must try to understand that.”
“He loves you,” he repeated, enunciating each word. “And unlike you, John will not survive the fall he’s about to take.”
“Spare me the melodrama,” Sherlock slammed the cup down on the table, harder than he intended. “And since when have you given a damn about anyone but yourself?”
Mycroft nodded. It was a fair charge to make. “You know why. John is…different. And besides…you love him, as well.”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, a faint twitch starting beside his nose. “I’m going,” he said quickly, standing and moving toward the door.
“John’s therapist believes it’s only a matter of time before he does something to cause himself serious harm. You must tell him.” Mycroft’s voice was sad, urgent.
“I’m doing all I can, as quickly as I can,” Sherlock said, but something was broken in his voice. He stopped, whirled on his brother. “What else would you have me do? If I’m seen in London—“
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Mycroft said quietly. “Let me bring him to you.”
There was a long moment of silence. Sherlock turned slowly, went to the hotel’s vast window, looking out over Prague and its sleepy lights. He crossed his arms over his chest before the window as though he’d taken a sudden chill. Then he shook his head.
Mycroft let out a frustrated breath. “I can ensure he will not be followed. I can assure absolute secrecy.”
Sherlock’s gaze hardened again. “Oh yes, I know just how much I can trust you for absolute secrecy.” It was a mumble. Almost a growl.
It cut deep, as it was intended to. Mycroft looked down, nodded toward him. Touche.
“This is different, Sherlock,” he said softly. “I made a terrible mistake. I will not make it again, and certainly not with this. You have my word.”
Mycroft could almost hear his brother’s mind working from across the room. He was quiet for a very long time, looking out into the blue-black night.
“My plan. My location.” Sherlock said finally, his words hard as flint. “Nothing but transport and logistics from you.”
Mycroft let out a slow breath. “Of course. If that’s what you wish.”
He swept toward the door again, his gait determined. “I’ll text what I need and then the details when they’re in place,” he gruffed.
“Very good,” Mycroft said, formal once again, the wall back in place between them.
His hand on the knob, Sherlock turned back to him. “Mycroft…” He hesitated, his eyes down.
“You’re welcome, ” Mycroft said softly, and Sherlock closed the door behind him.
The Thames was beautiful, the setting sun burning the water’s surface, the long shadows of the skyline, everything a glowing red.
John Watson stood at the window of his hotel room, his arms crossed over his thin chest, his eyes on a boat moving off on the water. He’d never stayed in a hotel in London before, always having Mike or Harry or the Army accommodations to use when he was in the city.
But tonight, he’d splurged. The view, the food he’d ordered from room service, the large room… it had been lovely. In any other circumstance, he would have said he was having the time of his life.
And perhaps he was. On this, his last night on earth.
He turned and looked to the bed where his single, large suitcase lay at the foot. He would like to say he’d packed with care, but in fact, he’d simply packed everything he owned, leaving a note for Mrs. Hudson on the mantel between Sherlock’s skull and the framed, yellowed engraving of the taxonomy of plants. He’d thanked her for her kindness and given her his best, leaving the last month’s rent and the next’s in the envelope.
Earlier in the day he’d gone to see Molly and Mike at Bart’s. As usual, he brushed off Mike’s concern and invitation to tea at his house. But when John shook his hand, he held it perhaps a bit too long. He told Mike he appreciated all his worry but that he was “on his way to being better.” When Mike’s brow furrowed a bit at that, John had forced a soft laugh.
“Really,” he said softly. “All is well.” He couldn’t stand the worry on his face, and he would have said anything to smooth it away. And strictly speaking, it wasn’t a lie…
When he saw Molly, she was still wearing that pained and oddly guilty expression she always seemed to have when she saw him. She hugged him so hard as he left that when John pulled back, he felt his eyes welling up. There was something so anguished in her eyes, and it tugged at him.
“Molly,” he said quietly. “It’s not your fault, you know.”
“What isn’t?” she asked softly, her hand on his arm.
“Sherlock…I know you were here. I know some part of you thinks there might have been something you could have done—“
“No, no,” she rushed in, shaking her head. She averted her eyes. “I…know there’s nothing I could have done.” She swallowed. “I’m still so sorry, John. For you.”
He forced a smile, a shrug. “I’m…fine,” he said, and drew in a breath. “I’m feeling much better. More…settled.”
“I’m glad.” She looked close to tears again, and her eyes darted away.
“Take care of yourself, all right?” John said, squeezing her arm in return.
She nodded. “You too. I’ll see you soon.” And then she was gone.
In the cab, he’d tried to call Harry and got no answer. It was fitting. A fitting end.
The meal he’d eaten – a steak with all the trimmings, a glass of Scotch – was the most he’d had in a week. His stomach was vaguely boozy with it, too full, and it made him sleepy and warm and slightly queasy.
He turned to the window, the sky now going purple edged with gray.
Time, he thought to himself. No use waiting…
He went to the bed and unzipped the suitcase. On top of all his clothes and the folders of paperwork (his will, his insurance, his pension information) lay his dog tags, his battered phone, and his pistol. He lifted the pistol and tags out, holding them in one hand, the metal clinking.
Breath in. Breath out. A huge space opened within him, his mind too full but his heart somehow completely hollowed out.
Tucking the pistol in the back of his jeans, he pulled his long-sleeved shirt out of the waist of his jeans, unbuttoned it and tossed it on the foot of the bed. Then he slipped the tags over his head, shifting them beneath the collar of his khaki undershirt. They felt right there, settled on their usual place.
He reached for the gun, looking down, and a sob caught in his throat now. He made a strangled sound. Biting his bottom lip, he pulled back the gun to shift one bullet into the pipe. He clicked the safety off.
He’d chosen a room that had both a shower and a tub. The shower would be easier to clean, and John Watson was nothing if not polite.
The room was silent, only the sound of traffic reaching far up through the glass.
Then, with one long look out the window again, he blew out a breath, nodded to himself, and turned toward the bath.
His phone beeped as a text came in. He glanced at it as the screen lit up.
“John. Stop,” the screen read, white words on black.
It stilled him, his eyes widening. His head swiveled, taking in the room with a start, the window. Nothing. No one anywhere.
The gun in one hand, he reached down and lifted the phone. The return number was blocked.
“Answer the door,” the phone buzzed again, and just as he read it, there came the quiet knock. He started, his heart racing, his fists squeezing around the phone and the pistol’s grip. His breath picked up as he stared at the door for a long moment.
Another soft knock. The phone buzzed in his hand. “John. Answer it.”
His eyes were wide as he took a hesitant step, another, then moved quietly to the door. He leaned in, licking the sweat that had formed over his lip, laid a hand on the door and looked through the peephole.
Nothing. No one there.
I’ve lost it, he thought, shaking his head, and had convinced himself of it until the knock came again, and this time he felt it beneath his hand.
It was pissing him off now. He grit his teeth, hiding the gun behind his back as he jerked the door open.
“Who in the hell—“ And the words disappeared in his mouth, his eyes wide.
Irene Adler, a mink coat’s collar gathered up at her neck. She had a strange half-smile, her eyes showing something akin to amusement at the surprise in his gaze. Then a gloved hand shot up and slapped him harder than he thought a woman her size could manage across the face.
The shock and the hard blow staggered him back into the room. As he struggled to remain standing, his arms windmilling, she was suddenly in the room, moving on him again, her left hand darting out. He didn’t even see the syringe until it had sunk in, a blossom of strange warmth spreading out from the needle prick.
Knees down hard on the carpet, the room swimming in a swirl of blur and color and sound. He was vaguely aware of the door closing, of Irene Adler following him as he threw himself back, crawling toward the bed, the gun sliding from his grip.
“Relax, Dr. Watson,” she was cooing from what sounded like far away. It seemed to echo in the air around him.
A phone was ringing somewhere then stopped.
John’s face hit the carpet, his legs gone numb, the limpness moving up. One lolling eye caught sight of the gun, and his arm flopped toward it.
“No no no…” she said from her tunnel of sound. “You won’t be needing that.” Her hand lifted the gun away and out of sight.
Then, her voice changed, all business. “I’ve got him. Send them up.” She huffed out a breath. “Yes, he’s fine. Well, he will be...”
The weight that had stolen his legs moved up, his arms going limp. A pain started behind his eyes, his head feeling as though it was filling with lead. He managed to turn his face to the other side just as it settled in.
“Go to sleep, Dr. Watson,” she said, leaning into his view there on the floor.
He blinked, a small sound coming from his throat.
She smiled faintly. “When you wake up, I promise…you’ll be in a better place.”
Then she reached out and closed his eyes with a black-gloved hand.
Continued in Chapter Two.