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where do we go but nowhere

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It had taken the better part of three hours to coax Emma into the bathtub, so he’s more than a bit peeved when the doorbell rings. He lets the stranger wait a while and scrubs at the back of Emma’s neck with a washcloth, her small nose wrinkling in distaste as he does so. He’s half-resolved to simply not answering – he never gets any important visitors – when Emma cocks her head to one side and asks, “Aren’t you going to get that?”

Jesus Christ, it’s like having a life coach. He can’t imagine what his younger self would say if he saw him now, taking instruction on how to be a functioning adult from an eight-year-old.

John pours water over Emma’s head before answering, rinsing the shampoo out of her hair. “Yes, I am. But you have to stay in here until your hands are all shriveled up like raisins, alright?”

Emma pulls her hands from the water to look at them.

“See? You’re not nearly there yet.”

Emma gives a small upward puff to blow her wet bangs off her forehead. “I know.”

John lifts them away and tucks the longest piece behind her ear for her. “I’ll be right back.”

His cuffs are drenched, even though he had rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, and he has a wet spot on his stomach and soap suds behind his ear. He wipes at the suds and rolls his sleeves down, and, thinking that the visitor may be a locked out Mary, he takes a moment to straighten his hair.

God, it’d be vile if it wasn’t anybody he knew well. It does seem a bit pervy, out of context, an uncle giving his niece a bath. But he’d found out two nights ago that when she was showering, all she was doing was standing in the bathroom fully clothed while watching the water run, and forcing her into the tub under his supervision seemed to be the only solution.

What he wishes he could do, strangely enough, is call Clara. He hasn’t got any idea where she’s living nowadays, and he’s not keen on talking to her after her conduct at the funeral, but Clara seems like the only person who might have an answer to any of his questions – does Emma know how to shower? How old are kids when they usually learn these things? What does she like to eat? Is she interested in anything?

Last time he’d seen her, two Christmases ago, she’d known everything there was to know about dinosaurs. She’d spent forty minutes telling John about the various inaccuracies of The Land Before Time and how dinosaurs probably don’t look like we think they do, because we imagine them without muscle, only skin and bone. John had to hide the Barbie doll he bought her and go out and get a brontosaurus figurine one hour before dinner.

When John had asked her about dinosaurs last week, she had sighed and made a volcano out of her rice.

Yesterday, while Emma was up in her room, John had crept across the living room to peer into her backpack and extricate her lunchbox and a few folders. Leaving the lunchbox on the counter, he’d opened up the top folder – one with a dragon design on it – and perused its contents.

Emma’s work was sparse, if not nonexistent. She’d crumpled up the spelling pages that identified themselves as homework, written ‘0’ for every answer on an addition page, and circled every option on a multiple choice page about grammar. There was a ‘getting to know’ you page at the very back of the folder, presumably from her first day, that’d covered in questions like “what’s your name?” “what do you like people to call you?” and “do you have any pets?”. She’d filled out these answers normally, but the paper had a strange, heavy texture about it, and the back of it felt tacky against his fingers. John turned it over, to see.

The back of the page contained nothing but a large, square box, with the prompt “Draw your family!” up at the top. Emma had taken a crayon and filled every inch of it black.

The person at the door leans on the bell. The loud buzz cuts through the flat and John rolls his eyes as he makes his way down the hall to the outer door.

It’s like dying, which is the funny thing. The only other time he felt this way is when he thought he was shot through the shoulder and almost dead.

“I thought you were about to come and talk to me in the bookstore yesterday.”

He’s still got his hand on the doorknob. He grips it so tightly that his knuckles turn white; his fingers start to cramp but he can’t let go of it; he wants to rip it out of the wood and hurl it out into the street.

“What are you doing?”

The sheer force of will it takes to utter those words is almost exhausting. He’s looking at Sherlock Holmes. He’s looking at Sherlock Holmes.

“Let me in, will you? It’s pissing buckets. And I hope you don’t plan on keeping that mustache. It’s hideous.”

Rainwater drips off of one of his curls, slides down the line of his nose and comes to rest on his lips, where he licks it away. John’s almost nauseous.

“The glasses were the dead giveaway,” he says, stepping past John and into the entryway, “they were too big, it was painfully obvious I wasn’t used to wearing them – but I shouldn’t have worried, as ever, John, you see but you don’t—”

“Get out.”

Sherlock’s on his way to another sentence before he realizes what John’s said. He stops short, and everything goes eerily quiet save the steady dripping of water from Sherlock’s Belstaff to the floor. John looks down and he sees that Sherlock’s hands are trembling slightly, fingers twitching, as though they’re barely managing to keep themselves from reaching out. “What?”

“Get out of my flat.”

Sherlock tries to smile, but can’t manage it for all the tightness in his face. “Now, John, I understand—you have a right to be angry with me—”

There’s a clatter from behind him and John turns around; he feels Sherlock crane his neck to look too, over his shoulder. Through the door, John spots Emma, wrapped in her ducky robe with the hood pulled low over her eyes. When she sees John looking at her, she darts back around the corner to hide in the kitchen. John, trying to regain control of himself, balls his right hand into a tight fist and walks back towards his flat. He can hear the words in his head – ‘young lady, get back in that tub this instant’ – but he can’t say them, he can’t move his jaw, he can feel another body hovering close to his back, shoulders looming over his shoulders—

“Is that—”

“Nobody. It’s nobody.”

“You can hardly expect me to believe—”

John closes his eyes. “Emma. Harry’s daughter. Harry’s dead, if you hadn’t figured that out already.”

“John—”

God, his name. When people die you miss things you never used to notice. You tear yourself up because you’re never going to hear your name on their lips again. “Piss off, John, this isn’t about you. I can’t help myself. I love you, you’re my little brother.” You can estimate it, you can hear the echoes, but you can never get it quite right. It’s never going to be anywhere outside of your own head, and you figure it will fade with the rest of it; with your weekend adventures and what they wore in the morning and how they prepared eggs and what their hair exactly looked like, dripping with water that comes to rest on their plump upper lip.

“I’ve got other things to do.” There’s a machine inside him, working. Gears turning in his jaw, making it move. Three months ago, things would have been different. He would have been different. But now his hand uncurls itself from its fist and come to rest on the edge of the door. It’s almost relaxed. It’s exhausted. The only thing the real John can think of is how the wet spot on his shirt is sticking to his stomach. “I have a kid.”

Sherlock’s eyes dart back and forth. “Granddaughter, more like.” He gestures towards his mouth, which appears pursed and too-small. “That’s what everybody’s thinking, you know, with the mus—”

John’s knuckles go white again on the door. He speaks through grit teeth. “Get out.”

He’d wished for Sherlock’s life back hundreds of times. He’d never once wished for Harry’s.

There are other things he should say. How he hates him, maybe, how he feels like he should hate him. How it’s not about Emma at all, it’s about—it’s about—it’s about how small his body looks, standing in that doorway. How Sherlock’s always been tall and bitter and forceful and how he should be shoving himself inside, how he should be making John shout at him, how he should initiate a physical fight. How John’s already thinking about shaving. How Sherlock shouldn’t just stand there. How his face looks thin and his shoulders and elbows look sharp. Say something else, John thinks. Say anything.

Sherlock stands and he watches, and he doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t move.

“Go,” John says, and it’s him. He’s regained a sense of his body and he’s moving. “Please, just… go.”

John does not bother to watch Sherlock’s retreating back. The second he turns to leave, John closes the door behind him.

Emma peeks out from her hiding place underneath the kitchen table. She looks at John with wide, enchanted eyes that look more engaged than John has ever seen them. She smiles, and there is an awed hush in her voice when she speaks. “Was that Sherlock Holmes?”

*

He bangs on Mary’s door. He’s shaking it within its frame but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t think he can reel himself back. He’s buzzing and his skin is too small.

Mary’s smile when she answers the door fades immediately. “Calm down, you’d think somebody was—What’s wrong?” Her hand reaches out and touches his shoulder. “Come in, you look ill.”

“No, I—could you just—could you watch Emma? I need somebody to watch Emma.”

“John, I really don’t… I mean, I can…”

“Please. Just for an hour. I just—”

“Of course. Of course I can. But do you really think—”

“God, thank you, the door’s open downstairs.”

He doesn’t even care that she’s watching him as he bolts back down to the entryway and out the door.

*

He stares at Sherlock’s grave for forty minutes, getting soaked.

“I can’t believe you,” he says. It’s easier to say to a headstone. “I can’t believe you.”

*

When he gets home, Mary is reading a book at his kitchen table. Trevor lies asleep in her lap.

“Careful there,” she says, turning a page. “You’ll stain the hardwood.”

John looks down at himself, open-mouthed.

“Emma was fine, very compliant.” She shifts her grip on Trevor and dog-ears the page of her book before closing it over and standing up. “Bit of a change from this one. He’s like a windup toy. Goes nonstop until… well.” She bounces him a bit in her arms, as if that said it all. John forces a smile.

“I can’t thank you enough for this.”

Mary smiles. “Whenever you need me.” She starts to walk towards the door, and lays her hand on John’s upper arm as she passes by. John closes his eyes to rest in the warmth of it. “She’s going to be alright, you know. It’s hard right now, I know. But from here on out, it only gets easier.”

John can’t think of anything further from the truth.

Mary reaches behind John’s head, her knuckles brushing against the nape of his neck. His tag’s come untucked. She fixes it; then straightens his collar.

“There,” she says. “Now you’re perfect.”

*

When John goes to take a shower the next morning, he finds the tub full of frigid bathwater. There are two rubber ducks floating in it, bumping against each other. The water that has leaked out over the night has left a ring of dried, grimy soap on the ceramic five inches from the top. John reaches into the cold water to unplug the drain and decides to take a shower later.

He enters the kitchen to find Emma curled up at the kitchen table, knees drawn to her chest, backpack already on.

“You’re up early.” He hadn’t slept well. “Big day at school?”

She shakes her head.

“Do you want any breakfast? Cereal? I got the right kind this time.”

She shakes her head again. John decides not to push it.

He scrambles himself three eggs and spoons them onto a slice of toast, forgoing a plate. He takes his first bite and gets some down his front. He wipes at it and swears under his breath.

“Uncle John?”

“Hm?” He swallows his second bite too early and can feel it slide down his throat like a trap. Emma squirms on her chair and sinks her teeth into her knee, rocking back and forth. “Go ahead, you can ask me.”

Emma hovers on the border of indecision for another thirty seconds before coming out with it. “So Sherlock’s real? Really real? You lived with him and everything? Wasn’t he dead? Can anybody do that – come back like that? Are you going to see him again? Did you really do all those things – does he really have a skull?”

John’s hand shakes so badly he nearly drops his toast. He manages to keep it together, but he spills more egg down his front.

“I—I—” He swallows again, even though he doesn’t need to. “He does really have a skull.”

Emma shakes her hair down in front of her face. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” He tries to wipe the egg off his shirt and ends up making it worse. “It’s okay.”

*

The fifteenth comes and goes.

There is no cheque from Mycroft.

*

Sarah gives him his job back. Shame pools in his stomach as he explains, but there isn’t anything else to be done. He’s not going to demand Mycroft treat him like a charity case and he’s not going to let himself be bossed around by someone just because they have money. Because he knows what Mycroft wants him to do, knew what he’d want him to do the moment he opened the door and saw Sherlock alive again.

He thinks he might be able to manage, on clinic work and his pension.

*

The babysitter he hires through an online service doesn’t look older than 16, has the word “fuck” tattooed on her knuckles and hasn’t brought anything with her except for a large stack of magazine. John stares at her in the doorway for a full minute.

She’s frustrated to be kept waiting so long. “You’re John Watson?”

“You’re… from the service?”

“Duh.”

John looks over his shoulder. Emma’s already looking at him, conveying an expression John would describe as “subdued terror.” It almost makes him laugh. John shrugs his shoulders, hoping that he looks apologetic and that Emma gets the message.

Emma shrugs back. John smiles at her.

He realizes he hasn’t got any idea what to tell a sitter.

“Just—have her in bed by… 8:30. It’s alright if she wants to stay up and wait for me.”

It’s as though he hasn’t even spoken. “You know, I like to take half of my money up front.”

John pays her. Rates have gone way up since Harry charged 20 pounds a day for the neighbours.

*

He runs up the stairs to get to Emma when he gets home. She’s sitting up in bed with the light on, waiting for him. It’s the oddest feeling, but John wants to hug her until she disappears. “How was the sitter?”

Emma shrugs. She has her giraffe nuzzled up close to her, and sitting in bed like this, it’s taller than she is. “She was okay.”

He’d thought about her the entire time that he was at work. He can’t believe he’d be so terrible, to leave her like that, to not know what to do. After being a soldier, there was never a worse feeling to him than not knowing what to do with his hands.

Well, almost the entire time. There was one instant where he’d thought that one of his patients had been—

He takes a few tentative steps further into the room and then settles on the end of the bed. “Just okay?”

“She set the fire alarm off twice making dinner. It was really loud.”

“I’m sorry, Emma. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay. You weren’t the one that did it.”

He never knew this, that kids could be so… black and white and logical. Fondness surges through the guilt and presses a sad smile into his cheeks. “I know. But I’m the one that left you with her. I’m not having her back; I thought about everyone else I could call all through work and it’ll be somebody I know next time.”

“Like Clara?”

God, he wishes he could get Clara for her. “I’m going to try Clara, but I’m not sure where she is at the moment. She might not pick up her phone.” Emma nods, then starts tracing a pattern into the bedspread. John sighs.  “Listen, I—I know I’m not doing the best job right now.” Is this something you’re supposed to discuss with eight year olds? Are they supposed to think that you’re always in control, or is that just an idea that they put in parenting books? He figures he might as well. She’s been nothing but frank and honest with him. Unlike— “If there’s something I can do,” he says, leaning up to press a kiss to her forehead, “just tell me, okay?”

She nods. Her whole body shifts with the motion.

He gets to the door before she says it. “Uncle John?” The bed is far too big for her, like she’s being swallowed by an ocean suspended on a bedframe. John smiles at her, hand on the light switch.

“Mum used to tell me stories. Before I went to sleep.”

Stories. He could do stories. He steps back into the room. “Alright. What about, what kind?”

She grows suddenly self-conscious, pulling the blankets further up her chest and studying her lap as she picks at loose threads on the quilt. “The one about the aluminum crutch?”

All the air goes out of him. “Oh, ah. I—I don’t really like—”

“So they were true? Even that one? And the one with the secret code?”

John blinks. He fights against the fact that his first reaction is to think ‘why do they always ask about the crutch?’ before realising. “Your mother… used to tell you stories… about me?” He doesn’t know what expression his face is trying to make but he forces it to stay neutral.

Emma beams. “She’d read them! From the laptop.”

John’s breathing is low and heavy.

“Will you tell it? The way mum did?”

John reaches over and puts his hand on her feet. She wiggles them back and forth, squirming, and gives John an encouraging smile.

“I can tell it the way I tell it,” he says, “and you can help me, when I don’t do it right. Is that good?”

She nods. “That’s good.”

It’s surprisingly easy, talking about Sherlock. He hadn’t even realised how much he’d been dying to do it—the different clients, how rude he was to them, the way he looked with his coat collar turned up and how John’d sometimes come home to a flat with cigarette smoke coating the ceiling, how they’d stay up late looking at photographs and depositions and what it felt like to dart down an alley after a suspect. He was a good storyteller, too—better than he was at writing, at least; he was always a terrible typist and everything he wrote sounded more stilted than he meant it to—and Emma was the perfect audience, gasping and clapping like she’d never heard them before.

But she had, and she was more meticulous about detail than Sherlock was. “There were four cups, not ‘a few’” and “No, Detective Lestrade told you that you had to wait first, but you went anyway” and “You forgot to say that you were wearing the coat you got for Christmas."

And then—“And mum and Clara?”

And up until this point, John had felt strangely lost in it: he’d climbed back down into somewhere he forgot leaving and was simply reveling in how he’d managed not to miss it. You just accept things, when you assume you’ll never get them back, but this—he could hear the sounds Sherlock made when he’d had an idea, see the way his shoulders moved beneath his shirts when he was explaining something, picture the tattered end of the sleeve of his blue robe. But this...

“What about mum and Clara?”

Emma raises her eyebrows at him and lets her jaw fall open like she’s shocked by his complete and utter stupidity. “They come to the dinner! Mummy solves the next clue!”

John’s heart is in his throat before he’s even digested what she’s said. “You’re right, you’re right. Sorry. I thought that came later.”

He pinches his nose and closes his eyes and then fake-yawns to make like he’s tired. “Obviously I’ve had a bit of a long day. I’m getting sleepy. Good thing you were paying attention. I couldn’t forget something big like that.”

Emma’s other prominent objection comes right before the end. With this, she interrupts him outright, sighing in exasperation and crossing her arms. “You’re making Sherlock so important.”

John feels his ears turn pink as he’s wrenched out of the story again. He’s forgotten that he’s angry and that he doesn’t want to speak to Sherlock again. “But he is important. He’s the story.”

Emma’s incensed. “You’re the story!”

“No I’m not.” He watches her face, uncomprehending. Could she have it mixed up? Could she think that he’s Sherlock and that Sherlock’s his—

“But you’re the one that tackles Mr. Barnes and arrests him!”

“The only reason we were there in the first place was—”

“You’re the one that hit the bad actor over the head!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know—I mean, if Sherlock hadn’t—”

“And you’re the one who shot the bad dog at Dartmoor.”

“Yes, but it was the gas that was really dangerous, the dog was just—”

“And you knew where to go in the case with the secret codes, and you grabbed the man at the pool, and you saved Sherlock in the plane—planetari—the space place—”

“I mean, when you put it like that, but if Sherlock hadn’t—”

And you killed the cabbie in the case with the pink lady!”

John’s about to protest again when he halts. “How do you know that?”

Emma tucks her chin to her chest and shields her face with her hair. John puts his hand on her arm to reassure her but she yanks the blankets up to her eyes all the same.

“It’s okay, I’m not angry. It’s just that that’s a secret, I’ve never told anybody.”

She lowers the blanket, but keeps it tucked under her arm and her eyes averted. “Mummy told me. She said that it was a secret, but she could guess.”

A cold stone appears in his stomach that he should be used to by now. He swallows, strokes Emma’s hair. When he speaks his voice sounds distorted and he can’t help it. “Would you mind if we finished the story tomorrow?”

Emma shakes her head. John stands, posture perfect, and turns off the bedside lamp. “Have pleasant dreams,” he says.

“You too,” she says. Her voice is so small in the dark room.

He hasn’t cried about his sister, not yet, he hadn’t really planned to. With so much else going on, the loss of his not-so-beloved sibling seemed… tertiary. An inconvenience, even. But now, he can’t even get down the hall, his chest tightening as he closes the door behind him so he can lean against it – and he’s crying, pinching the bridge of his nose to try and stop it, because this is his older sister, the one he grew up with. The one he took care of, the one with scabs on her knees and a girlfriend at fifteen that John had to keep a secret, the one that made him scrambled eggs at one in the morning after the end of his first relationship and the one that once knocked over their Christmas tree and blamed it on the cat. Everything, everything – their growing apart, the way they fought over her drinking, the way she seemed determined to destroy every close relationship she ever had, how she could see if he was lying in an instant – he’d never known, he’d never known, she used to tell her daughter stories, her hero brother and his friend the detective, and now he can’t do anything about it—

He stops himself again, forcing it, this time. Pressing his thumb firmly against one eye and the rest of his fingers against the other. Get it together, Watson. Jesus Christ. It’s death. It happens every day.

*

Emma’s very quiet the next morning. John’s worried something’s wrong, that he messed up again, but then she says, “Sorry if I made you sad by being mean about Sherlock. I think he’s important too.”

“Emma.” John crouches down next to her chair so that she can be on eye level with him. “I’m not upset. I’m flattered. That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me.”

“I thought you were mad, ’cause you stopped telling the story.”

“No, I wasn’t mad. I was tired. I haven’t thought about any of that in a long time.”

John reaches out and puts his hand on her shoulder. At first, she doesn’t respond, and John’s just worrying that he’s done the wrong thing again when Emma jumps up and throws her arms around John’s shoulders. She buries her face in his neck.

“You’re a superhero.”

John hugs her back.