“John Watson,” the receptionist announces as she opens the door to the therapist’s office and ushers him in with a polite smile.
John stands still as the door shuts behind him. There’s a worn, navy couch placed at an angle that takes up most of the room and he vows there and then not to lie back on it sobbing his heart out or reliving his childhood like some cliché, or even to sit on it without being asked.
The only other piece of furniture is a wicker chair with blue cushion coverings, currently occupied by a man that John presumes is his therapist, although he looks like a posh kid straight out of university who won’t be able to grasp the concept of life as a doctor, never mind as a soldier.
He casts a glance over the rest of the room, taking in the plain coloured walls and carpet, the clock with large, black numbers and a loud hand ticking away the seconds, and the open window behind the wicker chair with no blinds, just blue curtains, that don’t match the wicker chair coverings or the couch, billowing a little as cold air wafts in from outside.
“Afghanistan or Iraq?”
John focuses on the therapist again.
“Did you serve in Afghanistan or Iraq?” the man clarifies, steepling his fingers under his chin so that he looks like he’s praying for patience, and John reminds himself that he only has to attend six obligatory sessions with a psychiatrist.
“You’ve got my file,” he replies.
“Probably, but I haven’t read it.”
“You haven’t read it?” John repeats, staring at him.
“Of course not. Where’s the fun in that?”
The therapist looks him over, from the toes of his polished shoes to the tips of his brushed hair, and smiles. It’s a small, close-mouthed smile, but one that promises sharp, sharp teeth and something in John’s hindbrain sparks to life at that hint of trouble.
“How do you know that I served anywhere?”
“Please. I know that you were in the military, I know that you were wounded in action, and I know that you’ve been sent home recently, so: Afghanistan or Iraq?”
“You get a lot of war veterans, then?” John says in lieu of answering the question.
“I tend to be recommended to ex-soldiers ever since one of them complimented me on my ‘lack of bullshit’ and now I can’t seem to get rid of you.”
He doesn’t sound annoyed about it though.
“Alright,” says John, “but why do think I’m one of them?”
The therapist launches into a stream of information, of details large and small, and it should feel invasive, but instead he just feels seen, for the first time in a long while.
“Pass me your phone,” the man demands at the end of it and John places it in his outstretched hand automatically.
He fires off a text and John opens his mouth to protest, but then there’s another torrent of information flying at him, about Harry and the drinking and somewhere in there there’s something about John being a doctor as well. John takes his phone back when it’s offered, opens and closes his mouth because he’s forgotten what state it was in, and finally says, “That was amazing.”
“Really?” says his therapist flatly.
“Yes, really. Of course it was. It was extraordinary. It was quite…extraordinary.”
The other man peers at him, as if looking for a lie, and John has the thought that maybe he isn’t used to compliments and maybe he doesn’t mind being recommended to ex-soldiers because it comes on the back of one.
“I hope I made my point, then,” is the eventual reply. “Which is: don’t try and hide anything from me, John. That would be completely pointless.”
“So I’m just meant to trust you?”
John tightens his grip on his mobile, squeezing, and then finally puts it away when he realises what he’s doing.
“No. That was a warning, not an invitation.” He pauses, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankle. “I can see from the bags under your eyes that you’re not getting much sleep. There’s a hint of camomile on your breath, so you have been trying to. You’re not afraid of falling asleep: that’s good. However, you find it difficult to and rarely sleep undisturbed, so: nightmares.”
He has a rhythm of speaking that John finds kind of relaxing, rambling on as if they’re discussing openly acknowledged facts, as if anyone could tell these things about John just from looking at him, and when there’s a silent gap John feels that it’s only polite to fill it, not as if secrets are being pried out of him and he needs to keep his mouth shut.
“Are you going to offer me medication?” he says into this particular gap.
The corner of the therapist’s mouth quirks upwards in a smile.
“Why? You won’t use it. Now, you limp when you walk, but you’ve been standing for the entirety of this session and you’re obviously not feeling any pain. Furthermore, your weight remains equally distributed on both legs. It’s at least partly psychosomatic, meaning the original circumstances of the injury were probably traumatic. That was part of my earlier deductions – wounded in action. Tell me, did you see someone else injured in the leg?”
“I’ve seen a lot of injuries.”
“Doubtless. That, however, isn’t one,” the therapist says, casually waving one hand at John’s leg. “We’ll be addressing that. As I said, though, this session is at an end.”
He rises to his feet, graceful but fast and John instinctively takes a step back.
“The name’s Sherlock Holmes, since I doubt you bothered to find out,” the therapist continues, as if he hasn’t noticed when John is under no illusions that this man notices everything. “You’re required to spend a further five sessions with me and I will see you at the same time next week. Try not to shoot yourself in the mean time.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says John, clutching at his cane.
Holmes steps around him and opens the door.
“Of course not. Therefore I have nothing that I’m obliged to report. Next week, John.”
“Afghanistan,” John says quietly as passes him on the way out. He’s not sure why. Although he does know why he adds, “Harry is short for Harriet.”
Holmes is lying flat on his back on the couch with his hands steepled under his chin. His suit jacket is flung over the back of it, but he still has his shoes on.
“I don’t think you’re meant to be the one on the couch,” John tells him, pausing in the doorway.
“Why not? I’m the one that’s in here all day. You’re only here for forty-five minutes. Why shouldn’t I be the one that gets the comfy chair? Take a seat, John,” he says, gesturing at the only other one available.
Actually, John finds the wicker chair rather comfortable with a lovely trickle of fresh air from the open window and decides not to complain.
For a few minutes the only sound is the ticking of the clock and John actually starts to relax. He’s never had a problem with quiet times, although that does beg the question of why he’s never comfortable alone in his small London flat. He suspects that it’s the promise of danger in the form of the man on the couch. He feels that he’s allowed to take advantage of the opportunity to be calm when that opportunity could be gone at any moment.
“I did rather a lot of talking at our last session,” Holmes says. “I do tend to do that, but you need to talk as well, John. Now would be a good time to start.”
John folds his arms and tries to think of a conversational topic.
“I read that text you sent from my phone,” he tries. “What was all that about?”
“I consult for the police. The number I sent the text to belongs to a Detective Inspector Lestrade. Don’t worry, I don’t text just anyone about what one can tell about sexual preferences from a dead body.”
“Right. Well. Good. Not that that explains why you had to use my phone.” John scratches the back of his neck. “So, you do profiling then?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Holmes scoffs. “Profiling creates a box that hundreds of people could conceivably fit into. What’s the use in that?”
“So what do you do?” says John, leaning forward in interest.
“I tell them who the murderer is. I create a box that only one person could conceivably fit into. All minds are, after all, unique.”
“You know, you’re not what I expected,” says John with an air of confession, which is as close as he can get to aren’t you a bit young for all this?
“And are you what people expect?” Holmes replies evenly. “When you queue up at Tesco with you milk and beans in that ridiculous jumper, is an Army Doctor what people see? Of course not. People are never what they seem.”
He swivels sideways, off the couch and upright, and begins pacing back and forth across the office. The way he does it makes John think that having the empty space is more important to him than having a desk or shelves or the normal paraphernalia of an office would be.
“London is full of people who may as well be wearing masks for all the attention they pay to one another. No one every really observes, John. Lingering behind their faces are the soldiers and the doctors, the murderers, the thieves, the psychotic.”
He comes to a halt facing John.
“Oh, you like that.”
“What?” says John, trying to keep his face blank.
“The idea of London as a war zone, like being back in Afghanistan where the enemy could be anyone.” Holmes throws himself back onto the couch with his legs dangling over one armrest. “You have an intermittent tremor in your left hand. It’s stopped.”
John flexes the hand in question, unable to keep himself from checking if that’s true.
“Right. Well. There’s no need to bring my taste in clothes into it.”
His therapist’s head swivels round to look at him again.
“Interesting,” he says.
John thinks he ought to feel uncomfortable being the focus of the other man’s attention, especially when the other man is probably going to be reporting on John’s every word and move, but instead he feels rather pleased to have finally gotten Sherlock Holmes to look at him more than briefly. He wonders if he’s being subject to some sort of reverse psychology.
“Tell me more about yourself, then, John,” Holmes says, tilting his head to one side like a curious bird.
John, never good at talking about himself although he prides himself on being a good listener, turns his head to look out of the window, not looking at anything in particular, just things passing by.
“At my initial evaluation I was told to start a blog,” he says, because that’s the last time someone demanded this from him.
“And how is that going?”
“Yet you created a blog anyway, didn’t you?” says Holmes, more than capable of carrying on the conversation without any verbal input from John. “Still following orders.”
“I haven’t written anything,” John feels obliged to point out. “Nothing ever happens to me.”
Holmes lets out a huff of breath and John turns to face him again, thinking that his therapist looks as amused as he sounded but also a little exasperated.
“Then be the thing that happens to other people,” he says.
“What is it that you miss from the war, John? The fighting? Healing? Being able to help people? If you miss it so much, go out and find it.”
It’s an interesting idea, but John’s not sure how to do it.
When John walks in Holmes is putting on a long grey coat whilst texting with one hand, a flurry of motion.
“I was just leaving,” the therapist says, without even glancing in John’s direction.
“Ah. Right.” John moves sideways so that he’s not blocking the door. “Should I reschedule my appointment at reception?”
Holmes shoots him a slightly confused look then.
“Of course not. I suspected this would happen and planned accordingly. Take a seat,” he says, waving the hand that he isn’t texting with at the wicker chair.
John does as he’s told and leans his cane against the side of the chair.
“Today,” Holmes continues, “I want you to talk to the clock.”
John blinks twice and then automatically looks to the clock on the wall. Someone has painted two eyes and a wide smile on the glass cover of it in bright yellow paint, like a child’s drawing.
“Everything you say will be even more confidential than usual, so feel free to say whatever you like,” says Holmes.
“This is ridiculous.”
“That’s the spirit. Do start as you mean to go on.”
John takes a deep breath in through his nose.
“You actually expect me to just sit here while you swan off?”
“Oh what I expect isn’t really the question,” says Holmes, slipping his mobile into his coat pocket and finally turning his attention to his patient. “You can either do as you’ve been ordered and sit here for the remainder of your appointment talking to the clock or you can leave. What you will do is the question, John.”
He grins widely, then flings the door open and sails out.
“I think my therapist is mad,” John informs the clock after a while.
The clock ticks.
John feels tight and angry today, sleepless nights culminating in a pounding headache, which is not helped by the stupid clock still having a stupid smiley face on it when he walks into his therapy session.
“Afternoon, John,” Holmes says, this time lying on the floor with his feet propped up on the couch, shoes still on again and leaving God knows what on the seat cushion.
“So a lot of people become therapists because something bad happened to them and they got over it and want to help other people, right?” says John, dropping into the wicker chair and letting his cane fall to the floor. “So what happened to you?”
Holmes raises his eyebrows briefly before closing his eyes and smirking.
“Let’s see. Well, I have always been socially inept and tormented for it. My father committed suicide in front of me when I was a child. My family was dysfunctional even prior to that. I went to university at an exceptionally young age and was taken advantage of, both academically and sexually. The first relationship I entered into was abusive. I have a history of addiction and drug abuse. What’s on your list, John?”
“What?” John blinks and swallows. “What, you just want me to list things off in my life, like a…like a bloody shopping list? And I don’t even believe you!”
“Well I certainly didn’t become a psychiatrist to help other people,” says Holmes in amusement. “Believe that at least.”
“Then why did you?”
“People,” says Holmes, “are fascinating. Especially the broken ones.”
“And I’m broken, am I?”
Holmes flings his arms wide open, an excessive invitation, then seems to realise how odd that must look to John considering their relative positions and, with a sigh, moves so that he’s sitting on the couch like a normal person.
“You tell me.”
“You said. Before.” John fiddles with a thread of wool where the hem of his jumper is becoming unravelled, reminding himself to fix it. “I have nightmares, yes. And a busted leg. My hand shakes sometimes, so I can’t. I can’t be a doctor anymore, not properly, and they sent me home.”
“I’m supposed to ask you how you feel about that, but it’s rather obvious,” says Holmes, leaning back.
“Yes. I suppose it is.”
The therapist hums for a moment and then lies down on the couch, hands beneath his chin as if in prayer, in what John is beginning to think of as his thinking pose.
“I wonder, would you say that the elderly are broken?” he asks. “Or, come to think of it, babies. Babies are absolutely useless. They can’t do anything for themselves.”
“We do break down over time,” says John, “and babies are just born like that.”
“Alright then, Doctor, what about a person with Down’s Syndrome? Or Autism?”
“Well.” John stills his hands and thinks about it. “I would say that they have special needs.”
“Yes, yes, very politically correct, but would you say that they were broken? They don’t fit into the spectrum of what is considered to be ‘normal’, do they?”
“What about me, John? You’ve seen a little of what I can do. Would you consider my brain to be broken?”
“Of course not!”
“I did tell you, John, all minds are unique.” He closes his eyes. “If normal means being the same as everyone else and yet we’re all unique then how can anyone be normal? You’re different, John. Everyone is in their own way and different does not mean broken.”
“What’s the point in having therapists, then, if no one needs fixing?” John demands, crossing his arms.
Holmes laughs, actually laughs, and John glares at him even though the man still has his eyes shut.
“Therapists aren’t here to fix anyone, just to ensure people are capable of functioning in society, which includes not being harmful to themselves or others. How are you functioning, John?”
“Well I had an argument with a self-checkout machine. Made myself look like a right idiot and had to leave my shopping behind.”
“At least you remembered to go shopping. I have a terrible habit of forgetting.”
“I’m not…” John lets his hands drop into his lap and tilts his head back. “I’m not planning to do anything stupid. I mean, I’m not going to. I’m not.”
“Good.” He sounds pleased. “Tell me your list, John.”
Why not, John decides.
“Our parents died when I was at University. I never got on with Harry and I didn’t notice when she changed from drinking to being drunk. I hate that she won’t stop when I ask and I hate that sometimes I feel pleased that she wouldn’t stop for Clara either. I’ve killed people and I’ve failed to save people. I hate feeling useless.”
He pauses, licking his lips.
“That’s about it, I think.”
“Apart from vicious thoughts against innocent self-checkout machines.”
John glances over at his therapist, who’s interlaced his fingers and has a small smile flickering across his face.
“You weren’t lying, were you? Earlier I mean,” says John and Holmes doesn’t ask which part of earlier he’s referring to, which is good because John’s not sure what his answer would be.
“I don’t lie.”
Holmes looks almost sympathetic when he says it, but the expression doesn’t sit quite right on his face. That’s okay though, because it’s just further evidence. Then he opens his eyes and adds, “Except occasionally when in the pursuit of a criminal, but I feel that’s justified.”
John ducks his head and raises a hand to hide a grin.
“I left you know,” he tells Holmes. “Last time.”
“Well, the clock isn’t a very good conversationalist,” says Holmes lightly. “I have a skull at home. Much better.”
John swallows a laugh.
A police officer, who John later finds out is Detective Inspector Lestrade, the lucky man who gets texts from Holmes like marks from non-consensual bondage on dead woman, check the gardener for herpes, interrupts their next session before it ever really gets going.
“Sorry,” he says, actually sounding it, “ but there’s been another one, Sherlock, and this time they left a note.”
“Fantastic!” says Holmes, sounding a lot more excited that he probably should over what John suspects is a dead body.
“Yeah, well, Anderson’s gonna be there, so try to keep the rest of your comments as nice as that, okay.”
“I’ll reschedule this time, then?” says John.
Holmes pauses, his coat half on, and does that thing where he looks at John intensely, as if John is an open book and Holmes is a world champion in speed-reading.
“Army Doctor,” he says slowly, tasting the words. Then, “Do you want to come?”
“Sherlock!” the officer protests. “You can’t bring one of your patients.”
“Obviously. We’re both off the clock.”
“You mean that?” says John. “Because I’m not coming with you if you’re just going to analyse me all the time.”
“He analyses everyone all the time,” says Lestrade.
“Observe,” Sherlock corrects and finishes putting his coat on before swishing through the door.
John follows. It isn’t like he has anything else to do.
At some point he loses his cane and his limp. At another he gets kidnapped by his therapist’s (only he’s not really his therapist right now) archenemy, who turns out to be Holmes’ brother (and, yeah, John does believe that’s one hell of a dysfunctional family). He has perhaps the most awkward dinner conversation of his life and tells Holmes things that he’d never tell a therapist, or anyone really (please, God, let me live). There’s a dead body and a fake drugs bust and lots of pink.
He’s really glad that Holmes never reported him for having a gun.
Holmes spends most of their last session explaining the details of the case and, when John asks, a few others. John finds it fascinating and Sherlock’s deductive (as he’s told it’s called) processes amazing and says so at every opportunity.
“Time, John,” his therapist says eventually and John looks at the wall clock in surprise.
“Oh.” He shifts in his chair, strangely reluctant to leave. “So I’m done then?”
“Congratulations,” Holmes drawls. “Your obligatory therapy is completed. You’re cured. It’s a miracle.”
John frowns and looks away.
Holmes gets up from the couch and comes to crouch in front of him, which John doesn’t notice until he places his hands on John’s knees and John doesn’t startle, which is startling in itself.
“Look, John,” he says quietly, that intense gaze fixed on John’s eyes for once. “There’s no such thing as normal, remember? Everyone out there is striving for it,” he says, gesturing at the window without looking away from John and his hand returns to John’s knee immediately after. “Everyone’s striving to be ordinary, but what’s wrong with extraordinary? Do you see?”
John nods, once, and is released from the other man’s thrall as Holmes spins away and flops backwards onto the couch.
“Excellent. Now, I find myself in need of a flatmate.”
“A flatmate, John. Do try to keep up. I can only imagine the state of where you’re currently living on an army pension.”
“That’s a jumper comment.”
“I play the violin,” Holmes continues, as if John hasn’t spoken at all, but oddly John doesn’t mind because he’s certain that he’s been heard. “I tend to carry out psychological experiments on people randomly and I don’t always tell them when I’m doing it. I often decorate walls with photographs from crime scenes and I have conversations with a skull, although I think you’ll do better. Potential flatmates should know the worst about each other, don’t you think?”
John leans back in his chair and folds his arms.
“Oh, and do you reckon you know the worst about me already, Holmes?”
“I know the worst about you as a patient, John. I have no idea what Doctor John Watson, Flatmate has in store. Although I do hope for some less offensive knitwear.” He closes his eyes. “And the name’s Sherlock Holmes, John.”
“Okay,” says John, acclimatising to the fact that yes, he is going to go and look at a flat with this mad man. “Right. Well, in that case, Sherlock, if we end up as flatmates, I’m going to have to ask that you don’t wear shoes when lying on the couch.”
“John, you hate the couch. Just as you hated having a therapist.”
“That doesn’t mean it needs shoes inflicted on it,” says John, turning his gaze to the window and letting himself smile.