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The Doppleganger

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When John meets Matthew for the first time, he has to look twice.

It’s the height, he tells himself. He’s been subconsciously, painfully, on the lookout for any tall figure in a dark coat for over a year, any head of tousled curls or cheekbones that could cut diamonds as easily as they cut his breath short, and so his eye is immediately drawn to the lanky figure across the bookstore from him.

It’s just the height, though. He’s wearing threadbare jeans and a loose hoodie, worn trainers, nothing bespoke or expensive about him. His hair is neither particularly dark nor curly, and while he may indeed have the cheekbones, they’re hidden beneath a healthy layer of flesh bought with regular meals, fish and chips, take away, pastries. He’s lean without the ex-drug-addict’s slenderness, the days of being too engrossed in crime fighting to bother eating.

The other man feels John’s stare, his appraising glances, and looks up, blinking eyes that are far too close to the right colour. John feels his heart stutter, and then the stranger’s face flushes, and he hunches down as if to hide behind the book in his hands. John feels his own skin heat in like embarrassment, and he forces himself to finish his shopping without once letting his eyes stray in that direction again.

Which is, of course, why he finds himself queuing up to pay directly behind the man.

His hair’s a deep ginger, the back of his neck pale with only the barest suggestion of freckles, and from this close distance John can tell that, while he isn’t wearing any cologne or detectible aftershave, he smells good. Organic. Homely.

John’s gut clenches. He has to fight the ache creeping up his leg.

The young man glances over his shoulder once, sees John behind him, quickly faces front again. He’s visibly tense all of a sudden.

They each take their turn to pay, and John’s making an effort to put the man from his mind as he steps out onto the street, but then there he is, stopped in the middle of the pavement, swearing quietly as he stabs long fingers at the buttons of his mobile.

“Uh— Can I help?” John’s voice surprises him; he doesn’t recall giving himself permission to strike up this conversation.

The taller man looks up, blinks in his direction, seems instantly wary. But then he shrugs, grimaces. “New phone,” he sighs, and his voice is a rich baritone that makes the hair on John’s arms stand on end.

“I think I’ve got the same type,” he says helpfully, fishing out the mobile Harry’d given him when he’d returned from Afghanistan, complete with misleading inscription and incriminating scuff marks. He shows him how to sync his email, a task John had failed to accomplish the first six or seven times he’d attempted it, and they both laugh at how utterly shite the pair of them are at learning new technology.

The man smiles, shyly, and says, “I’m Matthew.” And then he asks John if he’d like to get some coffee.

Matthew is a writer, an introvert, quietly intelligent. He’s spent the last two years travelling through Europe and Asia, chronicling the sights he’s seen and the people he’s met, in places of beauty and spiritual healing, no war zones. He’s never heard of John or his blog. He’s also gay, and John doesn’t have to hesitate anymore when discussing his own two-pronged sexual preferences.

“Sorry if I was staring earlier,” he says awkwardly, halfway through their impromptu sort-of-not-really-but-maybe-could-be date. “You, ah... look a bit like an old friend of mine.”

“Oh?” Matthew asks, sipping his coffee – just a little milk and sugar added, not too sweet, mild. “Someone you were in the service with?” Because they’ve already covered John’s background in the army medical corps.

John shakes his head. “We met after that. He was my best friend, really. We were, uh, flatmates. And. Well. We never dated, I mean, we never slept together or anything, but everyone was always saying we were a couple, and... I just have a lot of regrets, I suppose.” He curls his hands around his own mug, tries to chase away the chill in his bones. “But I shouldn’t project those onto you, so. I’m sorry.”

Matthew smiles, that warm, shy smile, like John’s flattering him with his mere presence. “I don’t mind. But why don’t you ring him up, see if you can give it another go? Lay all your cards on the table and such.”

“Oh—” John feels heat climbing his face, or perhaps ice, burning him, searing through him from the inside out. “He— He died. Actually.”

Matthew’s eyes are wide, his expression frozen in horror. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”

John swallows. “He, ah, he took his own life. About, um,” he pauses, as though calculating the days in his head, though he doesn’t really need to, “fourteen months ago. I just.” Bloody fuck, is he about to start weeping in front of a total stranger? “I wasn’t there for him, like I should have been, those last days.” He draws a shaky breath, tries to shrug it off. “Like I said, I have a lot of regrets.”

“I’m sorry,” Matthew says again, and his face is so earnest, so full of empathy as if he can truly reach out and share John’s pain.

John shakes his head, waves him off. Thinks about all the stupid things people say in response to this kind of sentiment. “I shouldn’t be laying all of this on you,” he says.

Matthew considers him for a moment and then says quietly, “I’m sorry you had to go through that, though.”

John looks at him, finds, somehow, that he can accept that.

They talk for nearly an hour, and then Matthew gets a text that makes him frown down at his phone and stand with an apologetic smile, saying he has to go. He’s about to leave when he pauses, stares hard at John for a moment, and then reaches for a napkin. “I never do this,” he says, laughing nervously as one hand produces a biro pen from inside the pocket of his hoodie, and before John can make the connection, he’s scrawled his telephone number across the thin paper and has shoved it at John. “It really was lovely talking with you,” he says, holding John’s gaze with sincere grey eyes, and then he’s dashing off, pressing his mobile to his ear as he exits the cafe.

John goes home and finds the napkin again when he’s emptying his pockets before bed that night. It sits on his chest of drawers for less than forty-eight hours before he plucks up the nerve to call and ask if Matthew would like to get a drink with him that evening.

~*~

Matthew kisses him first. Not a demanding kiss, but a quick, asking one, soft, pulling back to look into John’s eyes and see if this is all right.

Oh, John thinks. Oh, yes.

~*~

They’ve known each other two months when they go to bed together. John’s never actually been with a man before, but he has a basic understanding of the mechanics of it. Matt guides him, admits he’s only dated a little since uni himself, and they learn together.

Matthew is timid and gentle in all the ways John can’t help imagining Sherlock wouldn’t have been. But then, there were always those comments about him being a virgin, so perhaps that’s an unfair assumption – and then John shakes his head and reminds himself to focus on the person here with him, right now.

After a few repetitions, the reminders become almost unnecessary.

~*~

It’s a stormy night in November the first time John has a nightmare while Matthew’s there. He wakes with Sherlock’s name dying in his throat, the waxy feel of a lifeless wrist lingering against his fingertips, except, no – the pulse under his hand now is very much alive.

It takes him almost a full minute to recognise the man lying next to him, to separate dream from reality, but when he does, Matthew simply scoots closer, wraps his arms around John, and holds him until he stops shaking.

~*~

Matthew’s working on some magnum opus, a book about various indigenous populations in far-flung regions of the world. It’s something he’s planned since secondary school, something he’s had in the works since before he met John, something that takes him away for several weeks at a time. But he always comes back, and he always wants to see John, always wants to be with him, even if it’s nothing but curling up in front of crap telly together after an exhausting trip to South America.

On those nights, John finds himself running his fingers through auburn hair, a smile on his face and a deep warmth spreading outward from his centre.

~*~

John has to marvel when he realizes it’s been another year.

Matthew goes with him to the cemetery, but stands back near the entrance, eyes downcast and thoughtful, gives him his space.

Mrs Hudson’s already been here, he sees, along with a few others, probably Molly, perhaps Lestrade or Mycroft. He’s not kept in contact with either of them, can’t really think of it without feeling the old rage well up once more, and with that rage comes his own spiralling guilt, for he’s as much to blame for the way those final days went as either of them. Best to let such things lie, he’s decided.

John places his bouquet of Solanum dulcamara by the grave, flowers purple and sultry and poisonous. It had taken him two days to find a vendor that would sell it to him, but he couldn’t bear the thought of purchasing a bland wad of roses or daffodils that Sherlock would have hated.

He kneels in front of the headstone, notes the weathering already beginning to show around the edges of the sleek black stone, two years of wind and rain softening the angles of his name.

He whispers, “I miss you,” into the air, and doesn’t get a response.

~*~

Matthew’s almost finished with the research for his book. He has a few more trips to make, revisiting sites in remote China and Russia, along with a few Pacific island nations. John sees him off at Heathrow, doesn’t mind paying the cab fare to ride both there and back, since it means getting to hold him one last time before he disappears into the blue again.

“I love you,” Matthew presses into his hair as they embrace on the kerb, his voice a quiet rumble that seems to reverberate through John. “I’ll see you soon.”

John nods, steps back, doesn’t want to let go. “Three weeks,” he says, “not a day more.”

“Never,” Matthew agrees, smiling.

“I love you,” John says, only the barest hesitation in his voice, and then he finally lets Matt walk away through security.

~*~

Sherlock’s phone beeps where it rests behind him, atop the toilet in the dingy Moscow hotel room. Luckily, he’s not had to stay here the entire time he’s been in Russia, but three weeks in the safehouse Mycroft had arranged hadn’t been much better. He gathers the towel around his neck, flips his newly dyed hair back in a wet mess before rising from his spot in front of the bathtub and reaching for the device.

What time does your flight arrive?

11pm, he types back. Why?

He can almost hear the bashful tone in the responding text, can easily visualize the oddly endearing flush spreading across his lover’s face.

I managed to get tomorrow off work, so I had this idea that I’d surprise you at the arrivals gate, but then I realised I didn’t have any of your flight information handy.

He feels a smile curling at the corner of his mouth as he sends the details of his travel itinerary, and then, after a moment’s pause, adds, I miss you.

John’s reply is four minutes and sixteen seconds in coming, but Sherlock savours every instant of it.

I miss you too.

He looks at himself in the mirror, at his reflection altered by carefully applied cosmetics and regular meals. “Do you hear that, Matthew?” he murmurs. “John misses you.” Yes, the words are for his alter ego, but the pause, the four minutes and sixteen seconds, like the bouquet of Nightshade and every time John calls his name in his sleep, those are all for Sherlock.

Only a few more trips left to complete this project, he reminds John. And then, I’ll see you soon.

He towels his hair dry, works in the product that keeps it from curling too wildly, inspects his transformation back into the quiet author who gets to spend his nights next to John Watson, whenever he isn’t across the globe tearing Moriarty’s crime syndicate to pieces, that is.

Soon.

He straightens his clothes and the unnecessary reading glasses that get habitually pushed up on top of his head. He double checks his boarding passes and passport, the dossier of writing and photography samples that are his cover story, the latest addition to the book he isn’t actually writing. Paces the breadth of the tiny room as he waits for his cab to shuttle him to the airport and then back to England, back to John.

Soon, he’ll see John again – and John will, finally, see him.