“Forgive me, John, but you look like shit. Did you check out Against Medical Advice, or are you still getting care for that concussion?”
“I feel like shit. I go for my checkups, but as far as I can make out they drugged the crap out of me for the better part of a week.” I missed his funeral. Thank God. Don't think about it. “Not what I learned to do for head injuries. The first thing I remember —after— is arguing with Harry about taking my pill.”
I see it cross Greg’s face: We both know where you learned that, mate and see his expression change, sink almost the way I know mine does, a hundred times a day. I try to smile, but … “Yes,” I just say. “Exactly.”
For a minute we just sit there in our pain. I pull out of it and go on. “So I made her get me out of there as soon as I could walk without the floor spinning under me. It’s all right. She yells a lot.”
“You could stay with me,” he offers.
“That’s really going to help you with the enquiry, having Confirmed Bachelor Watson on your couch.”
“Fuck them all.”
Yeah. Oh very much yeah, but then if it weren’t for the IPCC Committee of Enquiry I wouldn’t be sharing pints with him. Harry had to take a day off work and bruise my wrist holding it too hard, making sure I behaved, sitting there the first time I went in to testify. The pain helped. Pain I understood, pain from somewhere real, threatening, present, instead of this bloody emptiness. Made me look outside and see Greg, and Molly, even sodding Mycroft, all of us in our best clothes, on our best behavior, listening to those superior bastards belittle the times Sherlock and I and the rest of them gave our blood and sweat to trying —to fight the bad guys, to play the Game, to dance the Game, whatever, track it? Because no matter how much good he was doing, and sometimes he did admit he was, it was all about the Game, the Work: pulling a shape out of the smoke and making a narrative out of chaos. We don’t blame a foxhound for yearning after the scent. Can you blame a man loving to do what he was made for? I think of the poor twisted people who seem to have no choice, the molesters and the true sociopaths. They say ‘perverse,’ literally twisted; Sherlock may have been, more than a bit, but he twisted the other way. He said once he did it it because it was harder. I like to think better of him-- Don't think about that.
I ask, “Why do they even think you would do something like that? Fake a bunch of crimes, sell out to a fraud?”
“Because bent coppers come in all possible shapes. Money, promotions, publicity. Impressing the women.”
We can both laugh at that. Apparently his ex turned down an interview with Kitty Riley, showing, he said, that she loved him more than he’d ever have guessed. “You could have split the money,” I’d said.
“But mostly,” Greg goes on, “because they have to be seen to be doing something. Dealing with the fallout— God, sorry— from one consulting detective is a hell of a lot easier than finding out why so many guys feel the need to beat up immigrants and take bribes from Rupert Murdoch.”
“You’re handing it better than I would.”
“Not really.” He takes a pull on his pint. “But you haven’t seen how many coppers support me—him. Us. Hell, everyone hates Professional Standards. Some of the lads telling me to stick it to them aren’t men I want on my side. But most of them are. And not to sound overly modest, but I am known to be —“ he hesitates.
“The very model of a modern Metropolitan DI?” I needle him, because, except for his weakness in the matter of consulting detectives, Lestrade always reminded me of the better officers in the army. He cares more about the people under him than he cares about the people over him. And the Work, of course.
“That’s why they let me get away with the shit Sherlock gave them for so long. And they want the same things they think I do — money, promotions, some good publicity for a change.”
“Witch-hunting won’t get it for them.”
“Neither will exonerating me. Thanks for showing up, by the way.”
“I was bloody subpoenaed.” The first couple times, while Harry had to guide-dog me. Until I realised how often I heard Greg say, slowly and clearly, over and over, one of the samples wearing a track in my brain: He was not a fraud, he was not a criminal, he was a great man. Heard someone saying that besides my own voice. I hear it more often now, but Greg was the first.
“The first couple of times I saw you I was afraid you’d pull out your illegal weapon and make them see reason.”
"What illegal weapon?” We smile together quickly, painfully, old exes with a shared sentimental pang. I shake my head. “Not likely. But Harry’s so worried about me she’s taken the pledge.” Not for the first time, Greg probably knows, but it’s something. I didn’t know she cared.
“You still don’t have to stay there.”
Is he offering because he’s lonely? Because he feels guilty? Because he feels sorry for me? It was weeks before I noticed how much pity there is in people’s faces when they look at me. Before I really saw myself in a mirror, saw what they were seeing. I’ve given out enough sympathy myself — Christ, how many times did I offer double when, when, when—Mr. Cheekbones was being an arse? Now I know what it’s like on the receiving end I don’t know if I’ll do any better; but I can tell when people offer their regrets because they’ve been somewhere like this instead of because they’re afraid they’ll be somewhere like this. Like someone who’s been to war, not just seen it on the telly. I look at Greg, really look. He’s in better shape than I am, but a long way from all right. But he cares, my God, he cares. He knows, or thinks he knows— so much less to know, really, than people think— and whatever loss he thinks I feel is close enough to his own that I can’t fob him off.
“I’m having nightmares,” I say finally. And the occasional crying jag, which he can infer if he needs to. “Right now I’m not fit company for anyone with a steady job — my sister owes me a lot of sleepless nights. And I’m not—“ Ah, CHRIST, the pain cracks through me like an MI and it’s all I can do not to roar with it.
Greg grabs my hand, squeezes tightly as my muscles cramp and I wish the pint-mug handle would shatter, cut me, let the pain out in a bright red— breathe, John, BREATHE, Dr. Watson. I’m shaking like a leaf, still trapped in a squeeze inside my thorax that darkens my eyes.
“Outside any better?” Greg asks quick and urgent. I shrug, follow him out the side door, dragged really, as he snags a pile of napkins off the bar. There’s a bench in the fading sun; bright enough to make anyone close their eyes. Maybe not so bright that anyone else would hide their faces in their hands. Getting more familiar than I like with the Stages of Hysterical Sobbing. First time outside the house; well, Harry’s house. My body has demanded more of a say in my life than I like since the army. The pain, really— physical pain— wants all of me for a moment. Finally it loosens enough I can trust myself to exhale without screaming.
I can feel Greg’s indecision, fluttering like a proper Englishman between two centuries — late nineteenth Stiff Upper Lip or early twenty-first Sensitive Metrosexual? Always these questions.
“Fucking hug me, all right?” I snarl, and take the paper to keep from getting snot all over his shoulder. Letting down the side, Watson. Except I’m not the only one in pain here. There’s something to be said for being the identified widower. Getting back to regular breathing, except that I can hear myself keening. Softly, anyway. Greg has jettisoned his guy-credentials to hold me like a tall child, holds me tightly. I can hear a stray few sobs fight their way out his chest, against my ear, and as my breath starts to come more regularly I find I am patting him gently on the shoulder. Damn you, Sherlock. How could you do this to him? The iron band around my ribs loosens again but the sorrow takes the space to bite harder. Now it’s just my shoulders shaking, but smaller loose hiccuping sobs pour out of me. It’s best not to try to fight them, and Greg, frankly, is a mess. I’m crying for both of us, but he’s doing all right on his own. 'Let it out.' One more person tells me and that I _will_ use the gun.
I get the first decent breath in ages, a break in the clouds. I’m not used to being in a man’s arms. Not anyone’s, really, these days, Harry and I are not all that good at familial affection and I’ve told her to fuck off too many times. Greg is not as tall as, as Sherlock-- damn, crying again. It’s like being a building in an earthquake. I’m getting some of those springs in my foundation from practice, but Greg is like something made out of old-school masonry. Mind you, save enough sorrow up it starts developing interest, and between, between that, and his career on the line. and his divorce, he’s probably got a pile. Are you pleased with me, Ella?
Both of us are gasping less and breathing more and Greg loosens his death-grip on my shoulders. I offer him a napkin. “Allergies?”
“Oh, right, ta very much Dr. Watson.” He blows his nose. I blow mine. We sit on the bench, our shoulders mashed against each other. I’ll take the comfort. Six weeks in, now, I have learned not to be picky. My body doesn’t want sex particularly but it wants touch so very much, so empty inside sometimes, something outside helps fill me a little.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Fuck off. That happen to you often? No wonder you look like shit.”
“The headache afterwards’s the worst part, “ I tell him. “Want coffee?”
I can tell he doesn’t want to go back into the pub with his mascara running but I have no pride anymore, and coffee helps, so I give him a one-armed hug — I am a doctor, damn it, and he needs it, screw his pride— and pop back inside long enough to get some. And more napkins. Sit back down, as close as before. No pride.
Greg doesn’t pull away. We don’t talk for awhile, as the last light fades. I could rest my head on his shoulder but I don’t think either of us wants to go that road. If I weren’t so ground down I wouldn’t have thought of it, but it was nice to be held by someone. Tall and broad, anyone, really. I hold myself up so often I can feel it in my back these days. I check that my breathing is normal, not like it’ll trip over an emotion, and say: “If I moved in with you it’d be-- another flatmate, and I can’t now.” I’m pleased I could say it, breathing again carefully.
“See your point. Sorry.”
“Nah, thanks for the offer. Ask me in a few months if you want.” Oh, that was a bit much. I make myself breathe, stretch my neck and shoulders, concentrate on the cobbles at our feet. River-tumbled, poorly sorted, probably local. Post-war aggregate, this pub is older than it looks. At least the garden is. I’m trying to observe. You really can see more. Christ, I miss you.
But one melt-down is enough for the evening. “So what now?” I ask. “You go back to work, with the thanks of a grateful nation?”
“No. I go back to work with a big red blot that’s not supposed to be on my record and try to solve a bunch of cases the Met’s been too busy to look at properly. Without any civilian help, if there was any I wanted, and without half my team. If I wanted them, either. I’ll talk to the other DI’s, see if we can trade, but Donovan and Anderson have somehow acquired leprosy in the last few days. I think they're trying to go elsewhere.”
I shouldn’t be happy about that. “What is it, ‘if you try to kill the king, you’d better succeed’?”
“Pretty much. How about you?”
“You remember Sarah Sawyer? She called me up out of the blue to ask if I could be locum in her practice again. I’m not sure she really needs one. But I need to do something; I'm still a doctor and that still matters, and I won’t have to explain things to her. Start out with a few hours a week.”
He hesitates. I can hear him wondering if I’m in any shape to tend anyone, because I wonder that as well.
“Go ahead. Say it.”
Greg shakes his head. “No one for her to be jealous of now. Nor to put her in harm’s way.”
“Or me, either. Not that I think we’ll be dating anytime soon.”
“Christ, _dating_,” Greg said, sounding like, like a disdainful schoolboy. “I’d almost rather be helping IPCC with their enquiries. No excuse now. You want to be my wing-man?”
“You’re watching too much bad American TV.”
“Shall we see if they left our pints on the table?”
As easy as that, or as hard, we pick up our friendship to try to make it live. After Sherlock.