The news of Sherlock’s impending retirement hits John like a physical blow. He looks around for something reassuring to stare at, something comforting, but the flat seems suddenly foreign and he feels that he is falling, falling. His breakfast has gone heavy in his stomach.
“To East Sussex, in six months,” Sherlock says, settling into his armchair with a trace of a smile. “Previous owners kept an apiary, it seems. Come with me.”
John wraps his hands around his teacup, focusing on the intensity of the too-hot china against his palms. “Bit early for that, isn’t it? For retirement?” John asks, hoping he sounds casual.
“I’m forty-eight, John, and I need hardly remind you that I’ve not been careful with myself. My ability to keep pace with the physical part of the work is no longer adequate, and I refuse to descend into mediocrity,” Sherlock says. He seems amused, which John can make no sense of.
John puts down his cup and pulls the blanket on the back of his chair into his lap, clutching fistfuls of its worn fabric. “Right,” he manages, “Okay. Can… can you even afford that? Not working for that long?”
Sherlock favors him with a withering stare. “Despite your impression that I am financially impaired, I have in fact arranged accounts for each of us that, unless we should develop a fondness for crashing Mazaratis into Hermès boutiques, will be more than sufficient for our needs. Really, John, give me some credit.”
John swallows. John does not like change, John wants what he already has, and John did not wake up this morning hoping to find himself out of a job and looking at real estate in East bloody Sussex. “If we did that,” he starts, not sure what he’s going to say, “Retired together. That would, ah, that would say something about us. Wouldn’t it?”
“Something you don’t think is true?” Sherlock asks, one eyebrow forming a quizzical arch. He pauses, scrutinizing John’s face. “Ah. Something you’re afraid is true. Disappointing.”
“This isn’t who I expected to be,” John says, reaching for his cup. It’s lukewarm. He takes a sip he doesn’t taste.
“And you fear you’re running low on time to live up to your expectations,” Sherlock supplies in a monotone that hurts John worse than Sherlock’s outbursts ever have.
John stares out the window over Sherlock’s shoulder. Grey sky. Unremarkable. Unhelpful. “I just—to be honest, Sherlock, I didn’t think you’d ever retire. I thought you’d work yourself into an early grave, and then I’d—”
“Finally have the chance to live your real life with some woman,” Sherlock says, his voice still flat.
“No. No,” John says, “I don’t… I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know who I am without you.”
Sherlock rises and takes the few steps to the kitchen chair that he’s buried under his outdoor things. He slides on his coat, then his scarf, each movement restrained (theatrical, John thinks, let’s not mince words, the man is starring in the play of his own life and he knows it). His coattail snags the umbrella stand on the way out, upsetting it, but he doesn’t pause. John hears him descend the staircase, wait, and run back up, taking the steps two at a time. He bursts through the doorway and jams his hands into his pockets.
“I know who I am without you,” Sherlock says, his intensity saturating his words, “I’m half. How can you not…” He presses his lips together and stares at the parquet. “Selfish,” he mutters, and turns away, closing the door behind him.
John stares at the umbrellas scattered across the entryway. He puts down his teacup. He isn’t sure which is worse: that Sherlock, of all people, has called him selfish, or that Sherlock is right.
Greg looks contented, soft around the edges and domestic in ways John would not have imagined possible during Greg’s days with the Met. Over the years, staying home to raise two girls has taken some of the swagger out of him; while John imagines that a certain amount of self-assurance is built into Greg’s DNA, the man sitting across the scratched-up pub table from him now wouldn’t strut outside a country inn in sunglasses. He has nothing to prove, and it seems to suit him.
John sips at what he hopes will be his first of many pints and asks, “How’s tricks?”
“Molly’s great, it’s her first month as Head of Pathology,” Greg says with a smile.
“That’s fantastic!” John says, and means it; Molly, for all her awkwardness, has the right mix of warmth and pragmatism to handle management.
“She’s just over the moon about it, we all are. Girls are fine, holy terrors as usual.”
“Good to hear. Jude still doing Debate?”
“She is. Turning her more outspoken than ever. Why they teach the kids how to argue, I ask you…” Greg shakes his head ruefully. “Tabba’s going out for football, which is quite the mystery since she’s never done sport a day in her life, but who knows.” He shrugs. “How’s by you?”
“Oh, fine. Sherlock’s retiring,” John says, picking at the edges of the cardboard coaster under his glass. He’s glad that Greg chose a place that keeps the telly volume down; for the last few years, he’s found it hard to follow conversation when there’s much background noise. He’s so grateful for the quiet that he’s willing to excuse the pervasive smell of spilled drinks and stale pretzels and the alarmingly sticky floor.
“Aw, good on him. Didn’t think he’d do it before the work killed him.”
“Me neither. Says he’s going out to Sussex to keep bees—cor, is it always this dark in here?” John grumbles. Every time the door opens, it lets in a stab of light that hurts his eyes.
“Sure is, mate. Cops like dives, you shoulda known we’d end up here when you let me pick,” Greg teases, then turns thoughtful. “He does realize that Sussex isn’t in London, right?”
“Far as I know.”
“Huh. Never would’ve thought he’d leave the city.”
John sighs. “He’s asked me to come with him.”
“Obviously,” Greg chuckles. “Imagine him out there without you—half his neighbors’d hate him, and the other half’d try to kill him. When’s the big move?”
“Greg, I’m not going.”
“What? Why not?”
I shot a man to death for him on our first case because I’ve put him first since the day we met, John thinks, but it seems imprudent to mention that to Greg. “Dunno what the hell I’d do in Sussex. Seems pointless, really. Had a bit of a row about it with Sherlock this morning.”
“John, look, me and Molly’ve figured for ages that you two were—I mean, you just don’t work without each other.”
John presses his lips together. “Yeah. Bit unhealthy, that.”
“Maybe for normal people, but he’s nowhere near normal. Usual rules don’t apply,” Greg concludes, finishing the last of his pint.
“Look, Greg, I’m fifty-three, right, and so far what I’ve got to show for it is a bunch of scar tissue and a best friend who thinks nothing of leaving human remains in our kitchen. Career derailed ages ago, no real relationships since Mary. I don’t even own any furniture, for God’s sake. If Sherlock threw me out tomorrow—”
“Sherlock would never—,” Greg interrupts.
“If Sherlock threw me out tomorrow,” John repeats, “I’d have nothing.”
Greg reflects for a moment, then says, “You’ve got your blog.”
“Which is about Sherlock,” John counters.
Greg scowls. “I think we could use another round,” he decides.
When they’ve finished their drinks, they’re still not done talking (Greg could complain about his ex-wife straight through the Second Coming, John reflects), so Greg invites John back to his flat. The space is cosy and disorganized, the loose ends of four busy lives trailing over every piece of furniture. It smells of the nose-stinging body sprays favoured by teenaged girls.
Molly is sitting on the living room sofa, staring at her iPad (a website that consists entirely of photographs of cats in sweaters, if John’s surreptitious glance over her shoulder has the right of it). She must have just gotten home from one of her weekend shifts; she’s still in a smart blouse and slacks, her stockinged feet resting on the coffee table next to a glass of white wine.
“John!” she says, surprised. She looks furtive as she turns off the iPad.
“Hello, Molly. Congrats on making Head,” John says. He takes a seat in the armchair as Greg sits next to Molly and puts an arm around her.
“Thanks,” Molly blushes. “Didn’t expect to see you here. I just got back from coffee with Sherlock, I met up with him after work.”
John rounds on Greg. “Wait, did you know she was out with Sherlock?”
Greg looks like he’s swallowed something uncomfortable. “Didn’t seem like my place…” He cringes. “Sorry.”
“I hate it when you two fight,” Molly says, inexplicably sounding like she’s apologizing. “I hope you can work it out soon.” She pauses, her face nervous, then blurts out, “He’ll really be very crushed if you don’t go, Jo—oh, I wasn’t supposed to—well, I’m hardly telling you anything you don’t already know, am I, so he’d hardly have reason to—I should change,” she stammers, reddening as she hurries from the room.
“Still thick as thieves, those two, ever since—well,” Greg complains.
“Jealous?” John asks.
Greg wrinkles his nose. “What, of Sherlock? Pff. He’s weird-looking, innee, and he’s stuck living with you.”
John feels like he probably shouldn’t laugh, but he does.
There’s a ruckus at the front door. A few moments later, the twins burst through from the foyer, followed by a woman in a gray raincoat whom John finds familiar, but he can’t place her.
“Hi, Dr. Watson,” Jude calls out.
“Hullo,” Tabba adds, waving as both girls tromp into the kitchen. The familiar woman stays by the foyer entrance.
John waves back. “Hullo Jude, hullo Tabba.” Their names are Judith and Tabitha, properly, but no one calls them by their full names outside of school. They are pale and freckled and have, John thinks with a pang of sympathy, entered the tragically awkward phase of early teen development.
“How was the movie?” Greg asks.
“Hilarious,” Tabba says, at the same time Jude groans, “Wretched.”
“Well, I thought it was hilariously bad, but that made me laugh, so I loved it,” Tabba grins.
“You’ll have to help us pick out different films from now on,” the familiar woman tells them. “Your mum likes them, but I think that maybe romantic comedies aren’t your style.”
“Not really, Dr. Miller, but thanks for taking us,” Tabba says.
“Yeah, thanks for not ditching us, like our darling mum did. Mr. Holmes showed up and she went off with him instead,” Jude complains.
“Maybe they’re having an affair,” Tabba speculates, sounding at once scandalized and hopeful.
“You’re mental,” Jude scoffs, “Mum wouldn’t do that to Dad, and anyway no one would have an affair with him. He’s old, and mean, and if he was trying to put the moves on Mum he did it all wrong.”
Tabba holds one arm stiffly in front of her as though offering an invisible packet. “’I brought crisssps!’,” she drones, doing such an unmistakable imitation of Sherlock that John doesn’t know whether to applaud Tabba or defend Sherlock. The twins giggle.
The familiar woman (Dr. Miller, apparently) makes eye contact with him. Two things strike him: one, that he’s seen her around the Met, and two, that he finds her attractive to such a degree that he may actually forget how to compose a sentence if he tries to chat her up. She has dark eyes and dark skin and killer, just killer cheekbones, and yep, derp, there goes his coherence. If he gets a chance to flirt with her, he’s going to have to coast on charm and hope she doesn’t think him too old or too frumpy. She’s sharply dressed, and he’s… well, he’s been meaning to replace this jumper, but he’s just so used to it.
“Jude! Tabba! Out,” Greg roars. He shakes his head as the girls skitter into their bedroom. “Honestly,” he mourns, “it’s like they turn thirteen and their manners just vanish. Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” John assures him, “hardly the worst beating Sherlock’s taken.” He’s always been fond of the twins; Tabba is a born entertainer, and Jude has been calling Sherlock out on his poor behavior since she was five (“That’s my drawing! Don’t write on it, get your own paper!”), which is more than enough to put them in his good books.
“I’ll have to have a chat with them about neuroatypicals,” Dr. Miller frets. “It wasn’t very sensitive of them to make fun of Sherlock like that.”
Surprised, John asks, “You’ve met Sherlock? Before today?”
“I’ve seen him around. Heard the two of you chatting as we passed in the hall a few times—well, mostly he was talking at you,” she says. John’s confusion must show on his face, because she adds, “I’m a psychiatrist, I do some consulting with the Met. Dr. Cynthia Miller.”
“Dr. John Watson,” John says.
“Nice to formally meet you,” she replies with a gracious smile. “I have to say, your boyfriend is quite the character.”
John shakes his head. “Sherlock is not my boyfriend.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I should have known,” she apologizes, “you’ve been together so long—do you prefer ‘husband’? ‘Partner’?”
“Neither,” John grimaces, “we’re friends. Just friends.”
“Right. Well, I hope you get sorted soon,” she says. “Life’s too short.” She looks at Greg. “I have to run. Tell Molly I’ll call her later, would you please?” Greg nods.
“Mind if I walk out with you?” John asks.
Cynthia shakes her head. “Not a bit. I’ll just step out for a smoke while you get ready.”
“Great,” John agrees.
As soon as Cynthia leaves, Greg says, “Good luck, mate.”
John gets out of the armchair, mostly suppressing his usual hmph of exertion. “Sorry, what?”
“She thinks you’re gay, and she’s out of your league. Good luck asking her out,” Greg smirks.
“Go to hell,” John says lazily. “See you for the Arsenal match next week?”
Between the time that John vanishes into the foyer to put on his coat and the time that he shuts the front door behind him, he hears Molly head into the kitchen and the girls emerge from their room. He overhears comments from:
Jude, incredulous: “Oh my God, Mum, Dr. Watson is the biggest closet case ever. I seriously don’t know why he bothers with dating. Those poor women.”
Tabba, giggling: “Mr. Holmes is drowning his sorrows in crisssps!”
Greg, exasperated: “Girls! You’ve no business talking about them like that, and even if you had, Dr. Watson is still here!”
Jude, mortified: “Oh, shit!”
Molly, mortified: “Jude!”
Tabba, puckish: “Mum!”
Greg, irritated: “Tabba!”
Tabba, irrepressible: “Crisssps!”
When John meets Cynthia on the front porch, he asks her if she could possibly spare him a cigarette, and then he asks her for her mobile number. He gets both.
John comes home to a haze of cigarette smoke. He’s complained for years about Sherlock shedding his nicotine patches like so many molted feathers, but John is incredulous when he sees the full, smouldering ashtray on the coffee table.
“Were you seriously smoking?” John asks, hanging up his jacket. “In the flat?”
Sherlock is stretched along the length of the sofa in a grey dress shirt and black trousers, hands folded at his waist, looking even more cadaverous than usual. “I wanted a cigarette and I didn’t want to go outside,” he says.
“You wanted a pack, from the smell of it,” John snipes.
Sherlock keeps his eyes on the ceiling as he asks, “Are you going to be self-righteous—and hypocritical, might I add—or are you going to answer the door?”
“Why would I—”
The buzzer sounds from downstairs.
By the time the client (hapless bloke, rugby player, reminds John of many of his former teammates) leaves, John has decided not to fight with Sherlock about the smoking. Sherlock is too stubborn, and John is too, too tired.
Sherlock resumes his place on the sofa. “I have been informed that my earlier approach was not optimal,” he informs the ceiling after a few silent minutes have crawled past.
“I’m sorry, what?” John asks from his armchair. He’s made himself a nest of blankets and tea-with-brandy and a plate of biscuits, and more than anything, he wants to enjoy them and lose himself in the Wilkie Collins novel he picked up at a used bookstore ages ago but has never gotten around to reading. Probably because Sherlock interrupts him, he reflects, not without bitterness.
“It has come to my attention that—earlier. About Sussex. I should have asked you differently,” Sherlock says.
John demolishes a shortbread. “First off, you didn’t ask me, you told me to come with you. Not the same. And ‘differently’?”
“My source indicated—”
“Sherlock, for Christ’s sake, I know you’re talking about Molly,” John snaps.
Sherlock grimaces. “Molly told me that I was ‘unnecessarily antagonistic’,” he says, mimicking Molly’s delivery. “She said that I should ‘try being vulnerable’.”
“Okay, I’m listening,” says John, reaching for a custard cream. He makes a mental note to congratulate Molly.
Sherlock takes a deep breath. “I know that—that you don’t picture living with me if we aren’t working. Because it’s not what you thought you would have. It’s not what I thought I would have either, John, I thought I would be dead by now, but I do picture it. I do want life, with you.”
John blinks. “Sherlock, that is—did you plan to say that?”
“A bit,” Sherlock admits. “I didn’t trust myself to make it up as I went along.”
“It’s wonderful,” says John.
Sherlock finally turns his face to John’s. He looks pleased. “Will you come?”
John swallows a gulp of tea. “I can’t.”
“Why not?” Sherlock asks in his very best monotone, and John hates that he can see, actually see, Sherlock collapsing into himself.
“I just—” John shakes his head and starts over. “My life should be more than a response to yours.”
Sherlock bites his lower lip.
Sherlock stands and picks up his violin.
Two hours later, John knows that he should go to bed, that he’ll spend tomorrow feeling off-kilter if he doesn’t get enough sleep, but he doesn’t want to leave the room. Neither he nor Sherlock have said a word. Sherlock is playing, and John wants to, feels that he is supposed to, listen. John doesn’t know much about music (he has managed to learn nothing but a few bits of Italian that he considers unpronounceable), but he loves it when Sherlock plays. Tonight, the melodies hurt his chest, pain him in ways he does not know, has never known, how to describe. It’s breathtaking.
Sherlock stops. He holds the bow over the strings, trembling, then lets his arms hang heavy at his sides. The light from the lamp is gentle and golden over his dejected lines, his crumpled shirt. His sleeves are rolled to his elbows, his jaw flushed where he had pressed it against the chin rest. Damp silver curls cling to his temples.
Abruptly, Sherlock’s whole body tenses, his face falling in. By the time that John consciously recognizes that expression as the prelude to violence, he is already on his feet. He stares in horror as Sherlock dashes the violin against the wall, again, again, then throws open the window and flings the wreckage through it. He repeats the process with the bow, then storms into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
Cold air seeps in. John waits for his adrenaline surge to dissipate before he crosses the room to close the window, muffling the noise from the street. His fight-or-flight response isn’t finished: he is still shaking, still breathing too fast. He shifts against the sill, then feels a bright stab of pain and lifts his right foot. His sock is bloody. He peels it off. Splinters of Sherlock’s violin are lodged in his skin.
The silence is terrible.