“It’s taking a risk, Harry.”
“I think we’re up for it.”
“Johnny, what can Christmas dish out that’s any worse than what we’ve had already?”
“You’re tempting fate. All right; your place?”
It wasn’t Harry’s fault (John tried hard to remember) that he felt like a shoal of small fish surrounded by larger ones, with teeth. In the hostile environment of Christmastide, reefs and unexploded ordnance all over the place.
”Reefs would not represent a hazard if you were a fish rather than some kind of watercraft.”
John supposed Sherlock’s voice would never leave its residence at the back of his head. The sarcastic, occasionally (very occasionally) kind voice had appeared not long after he had met its owner, a shallow simulacrum of the real thing. The snark and the diffidence had always been part of John, but the voice and the vocabulary had evolved away from John’s own as he lived with someone sharper, in all ways, than he was himself.
It spoke even in the days right after Sherlock’s death, when John thought seriously about sectioning himself. Not because of the voice—it wasn’t that kind of voice, it was just honest—and not simply because he was a danger to himself (he knew he ought to care about that); but because psychiatric hospitals had better drugs than anything he could legally obtain. And the waves of pain/sorrow/anger seasoned with flashbacks (London had always been safe before, from _unreal_ threats anyway) were intense and wrenching and frightened him personally and professionally. They needed to stop.
After the first couple of weeks, he traded them for bouts of sobbing that left him utterly drained, headachey for hours. John tried to hide them from Harry, insisted she go to work as usual. Sarah had given him four weeks’ compassionate leave whether he wanted it or not. He didn’t, but he didn’t trust himself outside Harry’s flat either. He slept, caught up on medical journals (the dry scientific language was steadier under his feet than anything lighter), and tried to keep away from the edge of the abyss. It wasn’t the same abyss as the one he had been close to just after leaving the army; bad as he felt, he was better now. He didn’t want whatever Sherlock had done to bring him back to life to go to waste.
But not wanting to kill himself—not actively thinking of ways to die—was not the same as wanting to live, and he was failing there.
The Independent Police Complaint Commission had helped. Harry dragged John to it in the first place, kept him centred and well-behaved. That wasn’t easy in the first weeks: the strangling formality of Scotland Yard trying to cover its arse, leaving its best officers to dangle in the wind; Lestrade and Dimmock and others, more or less defiantly, pushing back. The later part of the hearings was better, engineered by Lestrade and his allies (perhaps Mycroft?) to air the faith of so many—scores of civilian witnesses—who insisted on giving their evidence that Sherlock Holmes was not a fraud. Some from before John’s time; some were clients Sherlock and he had seen together. They made eye contact with him and smiled painfully.
And some of them—though speaking on Sherlock’s behalf—were still offended by the way the detective had treated them, and made sure the commission knew that, too. John saw Lestrade trying to conceal a grin; their eyes met across the chamber and sane, joyful laughter started in his chest. John knew he couldn’t let it free. Harry beat upon his upper arm and laughed very softly back. “What a _pillock_!” she mouthed.
“He really was. I called him an annoying dick, just before,” John said. But the sucking hole in his chest lessened and stayed more bearable, on the whole. The IPCC met twice a week through August and into September. Harry could not accompany him to all of the sessions, but the ground beneath John’s feet became more reliable. He avoided the other spectators, for the most part, not trusting his composure that far, but he returned obediently to physical therapy (his shoulder was seizing up again, though the limp stayed gone) and the less physically wrenching, more painful sessions with Ella. He couldn’t seem to put much into words: denial and anger and bargaining all mixed up, and none of them was right.
Harry had been decent in those hardest days. No: she’d been better than any member of their family had ever been, better than any friend or lover, refusing him any shred of dishonesty to himself. She’d always been the one who excelled at that, lying fluently to anyone about everything and dancing around the ruins. Now she was slower and steadier and painfully accurate. She encouraged him to keep seeing Ella, which never felt like it was doing much good; but John brought home some of the therapist’s questions and Harry helped him, sometimes, to go a bit further into them. Her own close association with therapists and psychiatrists and social workers of all kinds (she was volunteering with teens as well as working on herself) helped her cope with him—helped John cope with himself—in a far less irritating way than he’d known she could. This bout of her ‘recovery’, more than a year now, had struck deep and brought someone he liked to the surface. John moved back to 221B after eight weeks on her fold-out, still groping in his loss, but able to appreciate that he had something like what he thought most people meant by ‘family’.
Which meant Christmas with her (six months on…) was something John could contemplate. They talked about going somewhere warm and un-Christmassy, like Morocco, but Harry wanted to stay closer to home. Clara was not quite back in the picture—she was living with an aging parent—but Harry spoke to her ex more often than some of the currently-married people John knew.
“Umm,” Harry said when he arrived at her flat Christmas Eve. “I was thinking Lessons and Carols at the local.”
“Yeah. Do you mind?”
“No, fine, really.”
John watched Harry singing, fine straight hair falling past her chin, her face animated and absorbed; they listened to the vicar’s consideration of ‘God’s great gift’, without much direction as to what they ought to do about it. It was all right. John wouldn’t have agreed to the church of their childhood—family memories and an intimate God he couldn’t believe in—but this was almost civil religion. A few words for the queen and her family and a lot of words and phrases and song older than anyone there. Even Sherlock—his mind shied away out of habit, but he breathed through it—Lessons and Carols with Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson last year had been absurdist comedy.
John missed him.
Among the many, struggling with impatient children or standing properly like solid citizens, he could see other people in quiet distress; he wasn’t the only one feeling an absence. It’s the way it is. I don’t want to forget him.
“You all right?” Harry asked, as they left the crowd and the warmth and made their way back to her place.
“Mostly,” he said. “You?”
“I miss Mum.”`
“Ah. Yeah.” They went up the stairs (”Georgian building, not too badly hacked about by redevelopers”), and into Harry’s flat.
She turned on the lights, waved a mug at him; John nodded and went to change out of his good clothes. Harry missed Mum. Harry had had always had that, something he hadn’t. Maybe he’d come too soon after his sister’s birth; maybe Mum had thought raising a son was her husband’s business. Their dad was never a man for many words. Or touches. John, hanging his trousers, pulling at the crease, suddenly realised his father’s strongest emotion had been disapproval; approval was as close as he’d come to showing affection toward his children. Christ, had it been any better for his wife?
“Fuck it all,” he said softly to the mirror. He wanted to be better than that, better at loving; even Harry was better, messed up as she was. Which was why, two adults, they were celebrating the family they had left this holiday, and being careful of one another.
Now they sprawled on the couch in front of her muted television, some holiday thing struggling across the screen. She had apologised before for not being able to offer him a drink. They’d both made faces about proper care and not-feeding of alcohol addiction. The worst thing at this time of year was not having hard sauce on the pudding.
So Harry gave him tea and gingerbread. “You’re very quiet,” she said. “How was Ella on Christmas Eve? More stupid than usual or…less?” She searched his face for clues. He felt a prick of loss again. It was so much easier when the other person would do all the work.
“She reckons I might be mourning more than just Sherlock—”
“And your life together—“
“And my life with him, running around getting shot at. I know I miss that, I’m well aware. She suggested I think about my life before him. Not the part just after I came home, the other. The real part.”
“Your life in the army, running around getting shot at?”
“Yeah. I fell into that, and I didn’t know I’d fall out of being a surgeon.”
“The tremor’s better, I thought.”
“Not enough better, and probably won’t ever be. Nerve damage. Surgery involves a lot of practise, which I could probably get, but also precision. Like ballet, only with fingers.” He flexed his left hand. “It can play rugger but it’ll never go on point again.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I’m really lucky. It affects my typing but I can still do up buttons. I do more things right-handed now, too. Easier to retrain the nerves in my head that aren’t damaged the way the ones in my arm are.” He didn’t say anything about what he’d lost before he was physically wounded. That was well hidden, probably too well.
“Your head was ALWAYS damaged—”
“I love you too—”
“You don’t talk about the army, or the war.”
“It’s not done, is it? That uncle of Dad’s who was with Monty in the desert—he took all those very unofficial snaps, but he never talked about it.”
“Well, why isn’t it talked about? I mean, I know better than to ask you how many people you killed or anything like that, it’s plain rude; but you weren’t in battle all the time, and anyway, weren’t you well behind the lines? Was it like M*A*S*H?”
“I don’t think so. Warmer, usually. We were tired in a way you just don’t get here—always one ear open for warnings, for explosions. They say ‘boredom punctuated by panic,’ don’t they? Not really boredom, there was usually something I needed to be doing. And it wasn’t panic, because when things heated up we knew what to do—we had routines for the least routine things in the world. A rocket came into the mess hall: five men killed with stew in their mouths; thirty or so wounded sorted themselves—the ones who could walk—I had my napkin tucked into my belt and I didn’t notice for an hour. You’d have been proud. We were proud, we knew what to do and we knew where to go. And if there was no rocket, we knew how to manage that, too.”
“You liked that.”
“I did. It worked for me. Some people couldn’t handle the contrast when they went on leave, handled it badly. I know you hate the war, and I understand why you thought we shouldn’t be there, I can make a good case for both sides. But since we were there, I wanted to be part of it, help our people—“
“Johnny, I know, and it doesn’t matter, we don’t have to revisit that one—you went, and you came back. Over, and that part’s done with.”
“Thanks, Harry.” John squeezed her hand. Foreign policy had played no part in his decisions; he was so very tired of trying to explain that to casual acquaintances with strong opinions.
“Only—is it? I worry you’ll go join Médecins Sans Frontières on me next, just to get back to a war zone.”
“I’d like to try living a normal life first, I think. Whatever that is. Ella seems to think Sherlock was methadone for the war.”
“That makes a disturbing amount of sense to me, really. Was it like that?”
John sighed. “With Sherlock? Not really. There were a lot more people in the army, and a lot more people trying to kill all of us. London is not a battlefield. And honestly, the army was better about telling me what was going on. We had regular briefings. It wasn’t at all like herding cats.” He sighed again. He missed being exasperated. No one bothered to wind him up; everyone he knew (maybe not Harry) was ceaselessly thoughtful and patient. It made John want to deduce someone’s adultery or insult their brand of perfume.
“So, the army again. What other losses might you be mourning about it?”
“We could give it a rest.”
“Do you want to watch ‘Toy Story 2’ that much?”
Harry shrugged. “I’m just…the iron is hot, you don’t really talk about the army and I know it was important to you.”
He stretched, arms and legs, gaining time. He didn’t talk about it often, she was right.“I loved being in a bunch of people that were pointed in one direction and everything else was—somewhere else. No conflict of motives. No uncertainty what to do next, at least not for more than a couple of hours. We all knew what we were there for, and that made a lot of things easier. And someone else did all the cooking and cleaning and we didn’t have to argue whose turn it was to clean the bath. “
“Like a very old-fashioned marriage,” Harry offered.
“Even from you, that’s a bit cynical. ” Harry rolled her eyes at him. “And less sex,” John said.
“Not from what I’ve heard. Fewer kiddies, yeah.”
“I don’t know if you’re being unkinder about the army or the very old-fashioned marriage.”
“Oh, the old-fashioned marriage, of course. I mean you must have—people in the army managed to get some on a fairly regular basis, didn’t they?”
“Not really, there weren’t that many women around.”
Harry picked at the cushion she was holding and pursed her lips, slanted a look in John’s direction.
“Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t go looking.”
“Would you really need to? I’ve never been in a residence hall where everyone didn’t know who was shagging who. It’s not like you were with Americans.”
“Some of the time, we were.”
“Was it strange, I mean, some of them _must_ have been, and…? Some of them must have wanted to defect.”
“Yes,” John said, his mouth feeling funny. “There were gay American soldiers, and they did find it strange to see us not giving a damn one way or the other who was and who wasn’t.”
“Except you, of course.”
“What the hell, Harry?”
“Not about whether they were: about you. I just don’t think celibacy’s a good look on you, and…”
“I am NOT GAY!”
“Well, THANK YOU for that—“
“Harry—“ John took a deep breath. “Sorry. Sorry, I just…got a bit tired of being called Sherlock’s boyfriend. Sorry.”
“I know, I know, Johnny, no queer girl could ask for a better brother. But, Christ, you’re defensive.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
She let him sit for a moment. “You really are. Not like when we were kids and you were such an idealist.”
“Well, I was a kid, and I didn’t know what it was like out there.”
“You knew what it was like for me.”
“I know it was pretty awful at times, but I don’t think lesbians get beaten up in the loo for looking at someone wrong as often as men do. At least not after they leave school.”
“Did that ever happen to you?”
“Not quite,” said John.
“Did you look at someone wrong?”
“No. And if I were going to have looked it wouldn’t have been at the kind of man who beats people up.”
“As if you can tell just by looking. But… you don’t look like the kind who would beat someone up.”
“Thank you,” he said automatically. Harry continued to pick at the cushion, let it sink in. Met his eyes. “Wait. What—?” The penny dropped. “Are you telling me I look—“ Words, polite or impolite, failed him.
“Again, as if anyone can tell by just looking. All I’m saying, John, is that you look like someone who might not be too unkind to someone who was lonely. Hardly an aspersion on your character.”
“No… not at all, that’s good,” John said. Silence re-entered. “Harry, are you asking me what I would have done if someone had propositioned me in the latrine?”
“Not really,” she answered. “Though I…no, I wouldn’t want to put you on the spot like that. But I really would like to know if, if someone who was maybe your friend, who… I mean, defaulting to a straight/gay binary is just idiotic, we both know that.”
He blinked. “That doesn’t sound like you.”
“One of my—someone I talked to once, yeah, but you know—Kinsey numbers? The whole ‘Defined Sexual Identity’ thing is pretty recent as these things go, last hundred years. I mean, I’ve never fancied a bloke but I’ve known twenty-year partnerships, women I really knew, and liked, and one day, pow! One of them leaves to go shag MISTER Right. And when a man leaves his wife for another guy, most of the time we say ‘Oh, he must have been gay all along’, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”
“I had one friend, another doctor, who wondered if there mightn’t be a virus—no, wait, really it was less stupid than that.” John waved at Harry’s expression. “He reckoned some people might have a latent tendency, really latent, and something just tipped them over; there are theories like that about some kinds of cancer and schizophrenia getting kicked off that way.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Not really. Not most people, for certain. But then most people get bent out of shape fast enough just talking about homosexuality at all.”
“No pun intended—”
“No, but I should have—”
“And you get bent out of shape, too,” Harry said. “Where you’re concerned.”
“I’d like to think about having a family someday, try to do a better job than our parents. For that I’d need a wife.”
Harry snorted. “There are plenty of gay couples with kids, even if it is easier for lesbians. Not something I’ve really wanted. If Clara… But John, I have much more trouble thinking of you with kids and a nice little semi-detached than I do thinking of myself with them, and at least I got married once. I mean, not to be unkind—you know that, right? NOT to be unkind?”
“I do,” said John. ”You don’t.” I _think_ I do. He hadn’t known she thought about him at all. He knew she’d been pretty damned unkind enough times in the years of her drinking. It was hard to get past those even now; that was one of the tasks they were both working on.
But as John looked at her—dark blonde hair, so much like his, falling over an intense face, more sharply chiseled than his own, some deeper lines—he felt a sudden warmth, invasive questions or not.
She really did care. Someday it might be safe to care properly in return. He hoped it didn’t show, that he loved her with tongs.
She was unique: his only blood relative, the person he’d known longest on this earth, the person who remembered when he’d had chickenpox and with whom he’d made blanket forts.
A loving person, despite being the daughter of two people who should not have married, let alone had kids. Someone who wanted to be known, now; who had gained the fearlessness to say she was an alcoholic, and a woman who loved women.
He wondered if he could be as brave.
She was speaking again.“Sherlock was the only person you’ve ever really settled down with, if you can call that settled.You were always on your way somewhere else, uni and surgical training and the army, yeah; but people do get married during all of those.”
“I was close to it a couple of times—“
“News to me. Except that heinous bitch Karen. And don’t make excuses for her.”
“No,” said John, “You’re right, I would have tried to make it work with her and thank God she was less interested.” He had felt as low as he’d ever felt in his life then; now it seemed like barely a ripple. “But—“ jumping off the precipice; he _could_ be brave—“There was someone in the army I would have settled down with, I think, but we couldn’t see our way past the place we were and that turned out to be…just as well.” He wished, briefly, deeply, for a whisky. You could blame more on booze than on tea.
“You never said—”
“I never say anything, Harry; you’re right. And I don’t say anything about the war because it’s not done to have loved it, and it’s not done to have been happy in it. And I was happy there, and for awhile I was really happy, and it was stupid. By the time I was shot I was glad to get out, but I’d expected it to be in a box.” John set his teeth in his tongue then. ”A bit not good.” “I’m sorry, it’s not done to say that either. But I wasn’t in good shape when Sherlock happened to me.”
“You weren’t in good shape either, Harry love.”
“I know I wasn’t—“
“If it’s any help I didn’t blame you, I could see you were trying.” “Complete lie, John, you were furious with her. If you had killed yourself you wouldn’t have cared how she felt about it; gunshot is so much faster than alcohol…” “And I damn well wasn’t going to pour my problems out when you already had your own.”
“I didn’t even know how bad I was for months—“
“Neither did I, really; well, not months, it didn’t take long to know I was feeling better.” “You invaded Afghanistan—“. “You couldn’t have fixed me anyway, I needed—I don’t know, shock treatment? Not the kind of kid-glove stuff I was getting from Ella and anyone else I ran across.” Stamford had been willing not to look at the wreckage, just drew John along toward an irresistible force and let him go into the current.
“Was it that bad a break-up?”
“You already told her, she just didn’t hear—“ “It wasn’t a break-up, Harry; our jeep went over an IED and he was—he never regained consciousness.”
He watched, trying to see what threw Harry the most: the sentence that contained the death, or the pronoun.
“That wasn’t when you, your shoulder—?” Ah, it was the death. Good. Although. He had been in a war zone. Why was anyone surprised someone had died? ”_You’re_ still surprised. Unbelievable, really; that’s what people in war zones _do_.”
“No. It was the year before I was wounded. I was in back, behind the driver. I was all right.” Covered with blood, none of it his own. “He was in the front passenger seat, nearest the IED; he was the worst injured. The man next to me lost his lower right arm. Jason took most of the blast.” For a moment John fought against curling in on himself, not keening: oh, God, so much blood, not unusual, so loud, so near, so—ah, Jason. Long time ago now, still fresh sometimes. The smell of petrol, oil, hot dusty road, blood, bowel; the blaze of burning sunlight—John hadn’t taken his pulse; the surge out of the ruined thigh showed Jason was still alive. John could still feel himself applying pressure with his jacket, the wetness soaking through as he pulled the tourniquet tighter. Not a flashback, an ordinary memory, if anyone had ordinary memories like this. Many of us do. He had pulled into himself, tight and solid. Harry’s small hand was on his arm.
“John, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t…”
“No. You asked. You should know, ah, God.” John shook his head, didn’t shake Harry off. “I’ve seen as bad from an ordinary collision, lorry and a jeep—but yeah. War. That’s what it was like—sometimes it was calm and, and linear, and sometimes everything changed in an instant, very loudly and very awfully and you were still shaking an hour” —a day, a week—“later and you didn’t know until it stopped.”
Harry’s mouth moved in silence for a moment: not making a sound of protest, not crying out. She took a breath. “And you say you liked the army—how—?”
“I did like the army, I didn’t like the war. Well, not after that. It wasn’t the first time I was covered in someone else’s blood, I didn’t like that, I didn’t like the people suffering. But it wasn’t completely different from doing trauma or A&E in a hospital back here.” Well, yes, it was; here, it was stupidity more often than malice. Not that there had been any absence of injuries due to stupidity in Afghanistan.
“Can I hug you?”
“If you want.”
“I couldn’t hug you then, and I didn’t when you came home—“ Harry laid her head on his (good) shoulder. John thought about tenderness divorced from lust, how gentle she was; and Christ, he was sick of the taste of tears in the back of his throat. He stroked her hair. She snuffled.
“I’m so sorry—“
“Harry, you were what, two weeks out of leaving Clara—“
“Not about me, of course I’m sorry I’m a fuck-up; no, I’m sorry for you. For him, I guess, too. You said he was called—Jason?—I’m sorry you lost someone that way.”
“Everyone loses everyone—“
“Shut UP, John, they don’t, not that way. Nor—WHY do they have to die in your arms?”
“Neither of them did, Harry. Jason died in the hospital, before they could airlift him anywhere.”
To his complete surprise Harry put her face in his shoulder and wailed for a minute. A stunning reversal of roles, John thought, putting his arms around her. Her sobs quietened and then rose again into an angry snarl. She hit him fairly hard on the shoulder and seemed to feel better, sobbing only a couple of more times. “Harry?” He handed her the box as she groped for the tissues.
She shook her head. “Not now, sorry, John; ah, God, I hate your life. Give me a mo’, all right?”
She tossed her hair off out of her face, into his eyes, and blew her nose defiantly. She looked at her mug. “You can’t really linger over tea the way you can drinks. It goes cold.” Rising, she went to the kitchen and boiled the kettle again. John followed with their mugs and rinsed out the dregs.They shared a teabag.
“You’re judging me,” Harry muttered as he squeezed the bag between finger and thumb and tossed it into the sink. “I know you like loose tea.”
“This is fine—”
“You’re lucky I didn’t get something 'seasonal' with artificial cinnamon and nutmeg.”
They settled down on the couch again, close enough for warmth. Harry threw one of their gran’s afghans over their knees, and reached down alongside the tea table. “Thank God it’s Christmas,” she said, hoisting a small box from the floor next to the couch. It turned out to be a (large) box of chocolate truffles. “Take one, John.”
The chocolate was dense and bitter and unsparing, rather the way Harry could be. She nibbled at it, something crossing her mind and shadowing her face, and for a moment he thought she would cry again. “Hey,” John said.
She shook off his concern. “Absent friends. Christ. You really haven’t had an easy time. AND, you’re queer.”
“Yeah, a little. I guess I’m bisexual,” he added, trying out the word. _I’m_ not anything, I’m John Watson. And once he would have added ‘And the world is a delicious place’, but he’d gone too many miles since.
“How long have you known?”
“Forever. Didn’t do anything about it till uni.”
“You bastard, you never said.”
“It was—it’s never mattered, when I was home.” And you were drinking. ”When would I have talked about it? Growing up, it was all about you. I wasn’t trying to be the good child or anything, but no one had time to ask me—“ And God only knows if I’d have told the truth.
“While they were putting out the fires from the way I was.” Scorched earth.
“I don’t think it ever crossed Mum’s mind to wonder.”
“And if it had crossed Dad’s—no,” Harry said. “It wouldn’t have, unless you wore a miniskirt and roller-skated down High Street singing show tunes. Maybe not then.”
“He wouldn’t have talked about it even if it had.” Like so many things. You learned not to expect much from a concrete pylon.
“So, did you get laid often in the Army, or whatever you’d like to call it?” Harry asked, deliberately changing the tone. Light-hearted nosiness.
“None of your business! One time too many?” I don’t regret Jason. He didn’t regret me. He didn’t know it could be_good_. John tore his mind back to Harry.
“Just trying to catch up. Well. That explains why you’re so touchy about not being gay. Or really, it doesn’t. I mean, John—“
“I don’t…date…men, for lack of a better word. Not any more, not since the army.”
Harry looked at him with concern. “Are you carrying that big a torch for him?”
“Kind of the opposite? I mean, yeah, I, I think I loved him dearly, but…dammit, love is a big enough risk, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, and that means what, exactly?”
“So I just…look, I’m lucky, not like you, I can choose whom I love and for me, loving women is a hell of a lot easier.”
Harry exhaled and tossed him another truffle. Peeled hers and bit into it vengefully. “Do you want the lecture about heterosexual privilege?”
“No, I’m quite aware,” and he was, though he hadn’t thought of it that way. “I don’t _think_ it’s about that. It’s just that… men die.” A flash of a London pavement, blood pooling around his shoes. He pushed it away. “Does politics have that much to do with love?”
“For some people, yes. Fear certainly does.” She sighed over the bitten-back beginning of his protest. “Internalized, external, I don’t care. John, you are out of your mind. Utterly barking.”
“Doesn’t feel that way to me.”
“What do they call women in the US Army, is it still ‘Whacks’?”
“It was W.A.C., Women’s Army Corps, and no.”
“Well, suppose you had fallen for a delicious US Army enlisted woman and she’d died? Would you be all ‘I’m not straight!’?”
She gave him a considering look. “You mean it, too. Have you ever, EVER, mentioned any of this to your fucking useless therapist?”
“I’ve never mentioned any of this to anybody.” The people who had known him well enough to know of him and Jason had not commented on the change in John’s tastes, if indeed they had noticed. Not much anyone could say; his liaisons had always been relatively discreet.
“Seriously, what do you even talk about with her?”
“What I’m doing, what’s new, what I feel about doing something new. She’s more about coping with the present than the past, cognitive therapy stuff.”
“I’m not just saying this because you opened up about your tastes, but I know four or five people who might do you more good.”
“I don’t need ‘more good’, I need to get back on my bicycle and trundle off.” John considered that this was perhaps not really what he meant, but he was past patience with himself.
Harry thought he’d crossed a line as well. “How nice, you have Lady Thatcher in your head. John, but don’t you think a _little_ work on your past might make sense? Are you this thick about the people who come to your surgery?”
“Ow, bit unfair—“
“You know how it’s protocol now to ask everyone if they feel safe in their homes—which is really good, don’t take me wrong—? You should add in some innocuous-sounding question about whether people are comfortable with their sexuality. And then give yourself a hearing.”
“Sometimes I do ask teenagers something like that. Usually they deny having ever thought about sex at all. Except to ask about the failure rate of pulling-out as a method of birth control. But Harry, I’m perfectly comfortable about my sexuality.”
“Yeah, right: so comfortable no one knows what it is.”
“No one’s business!”
“Yours, and you’re not dealing!”
“I am dealing with it perfectly well!” Deep breath, both of them, consciously. Drink tea. Another breath, and Harry met his eyes.
“You aren’t, you know. I’m not saying it’s as bad—as harmful to you—as if you really were gay and were trying to pretend you weren’t, but I don’t think you can turn half of yourself off that way.”
John shrugged. “It’s worked so far.”
“ ‘Worked’ how? Hasn’t saved you any fucking heartbreak, has it?”
“I didn’t need to be sleeping with Sherlock to…and it wasn’t like that.”
“Oh, John, the hell it wasn’t! You say you’re sick of people calling you his boyfriend—do you ever think it wasn’t unkindness, small-minded gossip—they just saw the way you were together?”
“Pretty fucked-up relationship—“
“Most people’s are! And maybe it would have looked healthier if you hadn’t both been bending over backwards to keep away from each other!”
“How would you know? You’d written it off before you met him. He could have held up a sign that said ‘Sherlock is willing’ and you’d have thought he wanted another cup of tea. Right?”
“You didn’t know him!”
“Maybe, about this one thing, I knew him better than you did!”
“How on earth could that possibly be true?”
“Because we had coffee one morning and he told me he was in love with you.”
John’s cup was all but empty; it dripped on his knee as his hand went slack. Harry’s face was creased with sorrow—and anger, maybe—as she took it from his hand and set it on the table. “When?” he asked.
“April? Just after you two found that big ugly Turner. He’d been texting me wanting to meet. I didn’t want to be lectured, even though I’d been sober awhile, but he finally said ‘please’. He didn’t want to lecture me, he wanted to know—“ she hesitated.
“If I was, had ever been, gay?”
“Of course he wondered about that, I wasn’t any help; but he wanted to know how to do right by you. He didn’t—it wasn’t that he didn’t care how you’d respond—if you’d respond—he cared about that terribly; but he didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, to lose your friendship. I yelled at him for not taking care of himself at ALL. He loved you very much, John.” And she was angry at him for that. Angry for Sherlock, whom she had barely known.
Whom he had loved, admired, wanted to swat, been furious with, tried to look after: lived with.
“I did know that—yeah, Harry, I did, not that way, but I knew he—” he struggled over even saying it, the most innocuous kind of affection, the least complicated, and he had trouble getting his tongue around it. Harry breathed a few times, trying to calm down. Neither of them did well with yelling (for a Watson value of yelling. It involved a direct gaze as much as volume).
John tried to find his own tongue. “I’m not saying Sherlock was warm and furry at home—or anywhere, very often—but I did get to see something like that, sometimes. I knew I was valuable to him, and I knew that he liked me. I made him laugh. He made me laugh. He could be kind sometimes more cleverly than anyone—that doesn’t sound tender, but it was. Sometimes he knew me better than I did, whether I liked it or not.”
Harry nodded. John’s memory flashed to a moment, one night after lunch with Lestrade, when Sherlock had been tender: the mug of tea he’d handed John; the carefully emptied face of his friend not asking. Not asking. Because he knew John would deny him.
Oh, Sherlock. John’s arms ached with the need to hold him again—something he had done. To hold him tighter; to rest his face against the side of Sherlock’s neck, where it would have fitted. Which he had never done. Which he had known, even that night, he might have done, though more than that—to run a slow tongue licking up that throat, around to the swell behind the ear?—he had never dared consider. Marked ages ago as ‘not something for John Watson’.
And he wouldn’t really have thought it was for Sherlock, either, Greg’s deductions notwithstanding. John had barred the door against any thought of that, or more than that. If he had let the thought in? Would Sherlock have read it on his face, seen the guard let down, the interest? Would John himself have seen what Greg had seen? Damn Sherlock, talking to HARRY? John put his face in his hands. “Shit,” he said, tears rising, pain blooming out from his gut. He tried to breathe through it. “Ah, God.” He felt Harry against his side, squeezing his shoulder.
“You can let it out,” she said, a small voice, not hectoring him with remarks about closure; just saying it was safe, it was not impolite.
“I am so tired of crying.” Tired of his nose and his sinuses filling, of the thickening of his tongue and voice, of wanting not to howl and hearing himself anyway, and the soreness of throat and face and heart.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Harry said, handing him more tissues. “I didn’t know if I should or not. Not while he was alive, it was in confidence and I thought he’d get around to it but he must not have had time—“
“Things were very strange, they hotted up, after we found that painting. And—“ John didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t like the way it made him look. Didn’t like to think he—“I…Around then, Lestrade told me the same thing—not that Sherlock had talked to him, I don’t think that would ever have happened, but he said he thought Sherlock…loved me, and I really didn’t want to hear it. So… I didn’t. I went home trying not to think about any of it—thinking about Jason—and Sherlock had known I’d been torn open before I’d been in the flat more than a minutes” Talking about a thing, a moment, a point, was easier than feeling his feelings right now.
“Knew about Jason?”
“Not by name, just that Greg had torn up a memory I didn’t want to look at. Knew about someone being…the reason I didn’t want to talk about —“ Harry’s eyes were on him; John knew he had to finish the sentence somehow. “About why I didn’t want to date men.”
“Or love them.”
“Or, love them…like that.”
Harry fetched a glass of water from the kitchen. It gave him time to breathe. Harry patted his shoulder.
“It would be nice if you’d stop choking every time you mention men in bed with each other. Particularly if you’re going to insist you’re so well-adapted to bisexually erasing yourself.”
John welcomed the change in tone; more sympathy would kill him one day. “You sound like a Glad to Be Gay tract.”
“Yeah, well, I am. I’ll bet this would make your sessions with Ella more interesting.” She put hands on his shoulder and his knee, making him look her in the face.
“John, seriously, please, seriously, as seriously as you worry about my alcoholism, please. PLEASE go in there and tell her you’re bisexual and you want to be farther out.”
“I don’t need help to do that.”
“Maybe you didn’t once, but I think you do now. Even if you’re going to try to stick to dating only women, would you please talk to someone more competent than I am? So _you_ will know you _are_ out to yourself? You can’t make a real choice if every time you think of a male body you just wall it up, and you’re doing that. You know you are.”
He wanted to say he just wanted to be normal; but he loved his sister, and he had too many years of trying to be a good man to listen to himself betray every other human who had ever told him a secret. He didn’t need to be a therapist or a priest to know no one lived airbrushed lives outside of a magazine spread. “What’s most annoying,” he said finally, “is that you’re saying what I’d tell anyone who asked.”
“I know, yeah. It’s awful, tiring, to take your own medicine. Means you’re the same as everyone else. Humility, remember that? It doesn’t mean you’re crap, just that you should know any stupid thing you see someone else doing is something you’re perfectly capable of doing yourself.”
“Went to the same school you did, remember?”
“Doesn’t mean they weren’t right.”
John nodded. “Kind of had enough for the moment, all right?” he asked.
“For the moment, okay. I’ll try not to preach if you’ll try not to be defensive,” she offered.
“Probably we shouldn’t promise things we can’t deliver.”
“I know it’s not easy.”
John shrugged. “I don’t talk about myself much.”
“I have noticed that.” He could see her visibly bite back another remark; then she changed the subject. “You have any pictures of him, of Jason?”
“There’s a couple on Murray’s Flickr.” He’d never looked at them, after he came home, but it had been a comfort to know that somewhere there was proof. Not enough for him to be found guilty of anything, but at least proof Jason had lived, had fought at his country’s behest.
“Come on, then,” she said, and pulled over her laptop. He found the album easily; he had it bookmarked it at the time. Harry hadn’t seen anything of the places he’d served, and she oohed over the desert and the city and the less-sensitive parts of the military bases. “Oh, look, that’s you! You were HOT, baby brother!”
It was a candid shot, one night in the rec room, a bunch of them; his shirt was open to the navel and he was smiling and talking some nonsense to one of the other Americans. “That’s Jason over there—“ John pointed to the tall, chunky blond figure off to one side, paying attention to the group in the centre without being part of it.
“He’s huge,” said Harry. “Was he your type? He must have towered over you.”
“Not when we were sitting down. (Shut up, Harry.) I don’t know that I’ve ever had a type, men or women.” He was about to say ‘breathing’ but the pleasantry soured in his mouth.
“Any more pictures of him?”
They looked through Murray’s album, followed some links; found Jason from before John had met him, among his own nationality.
“None of you together.”
“Well, no. Certainly not anything that would show whatever you mean. The Americans were deep in ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ then. And he was hardly out to himself, either.”
“How did you get started then, if it’s not too sordid?”
“We went on some patrols together, some of his people and some of ours; we played some cards, just the usual things, and one day Jason saw another bloke chatting me up. I wasn’t in the mood that night and said so, very civil—we were friends—and Jason was just…floored. He couldn’t believe I wasn’t upset, insulted, what have you. I told him it wasn’t a big deal and some other night I might’ve said yes, and…you could see wheels turning in his head. Finally he said, ‘You—ARE?’ and I said ‘Sometimes, yeah.’ I could see on his face it wasn’t a problem as much as just a logical impossibility. So I ordered two more shots of whisky and waited to see what would happen next.”
“A lot of vaguely calming remarks from my side and not much from him, and then he went home. I didn’t expect to see him within thirty feet of me ever again, but the next day he was the same he’d ever been. And then that night he started to talk. And talk. And talk. He liked my bunch, he liked working with us. He liked hanging around with us off-hours. It hadn’t occurred to him that we were the infamous British homosexuals he heard we tolerated in our ranks. He said now he knew for sure some of us were gay, or gay-ish, he was noticing it everywhere, Americans too.”
“It’s funny when they realise that. You can see them getting all crisp around the edges.”
He knew what she meant, but it hadn’t been funny. Jason was ten years younger than John, not very well educated, not very well travelled, and not stupid at all. If anything had been amusing, it was the idea that Her Majesty’s Forces were a relaxed haven of sexual self-awareness and sophistication. Compared to Jason’s army, they were.
“He didn’t really believe that all gays were perverts and deviants and drug-addicts, though I gather that was the line his parents took. But he’d gone into the army straight from high school and he’d never spent time in even a very big city. He had no gaydar. He had no idea. Except that he knew he was, himself. Gay, not bisexual.”
“Was he messed-up?”
“Less than I expected. A bit about religion, but he’d already worked out a God who was supposed to be great had to be better than what his family said. He hadn’t spent much time with Roman Catholics, either, which made that conversation even more surreal. His parents believed Catholics rated about the same circle of Hell as homosexuals.”
“And there you were, recruiting him.”
“Not the way I’d put it. He’d already joined up.” But before him, Jason never kissed anyone while lying down. Not a great deal of kissing in any position. “Christ, people can be so damned lonely.”
“That we can,” said Harry. She let him sit there with his memories for a moment. “So. Then what happened?”
“We happened, I suppose. Quietly, because he was American, and neither of us needed to flaunt it. Most of my unit caught on, of course. I suppose it started out as curiosity and kindness, but he was such a sweet guy. He never pretended anything. Very easy to fall for.”
“How long did you have together?”
“Three months? We used to talk about travelling other places together when we got out; he wanted to see the Pyramids. I don’t know if we’d have lasted outside the army, we had very different ideas of home. But.” John shrugged. “We had more home for that time than a lot of people ever get, I think.”
Harry patted his shoulder again, her face showing how inadequate she knew it was. John shook his head. “It _happened_,” he said. “It was a war. I’m not saying we didn’t grieve when one of us was killed, or that we weren’t shocked. I’m not saying it doesn’t mark you, of course it does—I think every death changed all of us, whether we could tell or not, certainly all the deaths and the breakage around us, people, people’s homes. And of course it was different because he was my lover; it took me awhile to realise that. It made me want out of the army, made me want a different life, no idea what—just out.”
“But you didn’t try to get out—“
“I was in the middle of a tour, it wouldn’t have been easy at all, and like I said, it took awhile to realise. And I didn’t have any idea what I did want.” And sometimes I wonder if I wanted a way out, asked for that bullet— but John had spent long enough wondering about that to be at peace with the knowledge: he hadn’t really asked to be shot.
“And you never went with a man again?” Harry asked, as gently as anyone could have.
John shook his head. “It just seemed like a bad idea. And when I’d stop to think about it, it looked worse every time, and then I got shot and I was too sick to think about sex at all.”
“I knew it was bad—“
“The wound got infected and then I got typhus and then I got medically discharged.” He wouldn’t tell her about the time he spent looking at his gun. In fact, he wouldn’t tell her about his gun.
“And then Sherlock,” Harry said. “I’m sorry I was such a bitch when I met him.”
“He was awful, too. You had very different ways of showing that you cared for me,” John said. They had ignored him almost completely, so eager to tear one another into pieces. Sherlock at his haughtiest, Harry at her street-fighting snarling worst.
Harry sat lost in thought for few moments. “So Ella was right,” she said. “You have a lot to mourn. Jason. Sherlock. Half of yourself.”
He really didn’t want to discuss his sexuality any further. “The surgeon part, knowing where I fit in the world.”
“And the blogger part,” she said. “You fit with him. I can’t even tell you you’ll find someone else like him.”
“It’s hard to believe you’d want me to.”
“I care about you. And one coffee with someone being as honest as he was can change a lot of things.” She shook her head. “I didn’t know you’d ever look at a man, I really didn’t; but that morning I really wanted you two together.”
“I just never—I didn’t think about him that way, and I don’t know if it does any good to to do it now.”
Harry flexed her shoulders minutely.
“What?” John said.
“People…when you lose someone—like when a woman loses a pregnancy, sometimes they mourn all the things they didn’t even know they’d planned on, birthdays and first-days-of-school, all the future they had expected to have with that child. I miss Mum _every_ Christmas. I still see things for her when I’m shopping. I miss being able to tell her I’ve been sober this long.”
John nodded. “I know.”
“What, come on?” He watched Harry’s face as she considered what unacceptable thing to say now. “Don’t stop telling me how to live now, Harry, I owe you for the two months on your couch.”
“Let’s not start keeping count who owes who, it’s humiliating,” she said. “Okay. I already said I think it’s really, really important for you to own your queerness, Johnny. And whether you do or not, I think mourning the sex you never had with Sherlock Holmes, don't wince, I do think that’s important. Hell, I’m—“ she stumbled, her voice breaking, “—_I’m_ mourning it, I’m mourning the love he didn’t get a chance to tell you about; maybe he would have eventually—you would have been kind, I think—“ Tears started out of her eyes and came faster. She crumpled deeper into the sofa beside him. “I’m sorry, Johnny, he was yours, but I did see him that day, and I’m so sorry. For both of you. You would have been kind, wouldn’t you?”
John held her, offering tissues until she calmed down.
“Well?” she asked, when she had blown her nose. “Would you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe—the amount I didn’t want to think about it—I don’t know. He was never uncomplicated with me.” “ I’ve just got one.” “And even thinking about this hurts.”
“I know, if it’s doing this to me I can’t imagine,” Harry said. “But you…I’m not saying you have to move on, I hate people who talk about closure, but if you’re to love anyone again ever…you need to get over being afraid to look at him. Even I thought he was beautiful, and you actually liked him. Tell me you’ll think about him That Way, as you kept putting it.”
“Maybe not tonight, all right? I’m about done up.”
“Yeah. More emotions than we like.”
“Many more.” John sat there another moment, then stood up and stretched. “Thanks, though.”
“I do love you,” Harry said. “You go to bed, I’m going to call Clara.”
“Are you going to tell her I play for both teams?”
She looked up at him, trying and failing completely at innocence. “It is the most interesting gossip I’ve had in a while. We’ll keep it to ourselves, you know.”
“I am not ready to be fixed up with anyone.”
“No. You really aren’t.”
John tried to concentrate on one thing at a time. Brushing his teeth. Sleep before making any decisions? Too late. He’d told Harry something he’d never been aware of keeping secret from her; and she was right, he’d tried very hard to keep it secret from himself these last years.
Couldn’t blame him for wanting a quiet life.
And that had worked so well.
In his doctor’s mind, he looked at himself: a patient with repeated depressive episodes; yeah, repressed sexuality _could_ be involved. Just possibly. Ha bloody ha. Every medical professional knew what it was to find themselves behaving like their least observant patients, knew doctors who completely denied their abuse of medication, deliberately overlooked a changing mole on their own arm or their spouse’s.
But I’m different. I can make an informed decision. Or, maybe not. Maybe he was no different from some of the kids in Harry’s coming-out group for teens.
He wondered if there were any young bisexuals among them.
Ella’s speciality was helping invalid veterans return to civilian life. He’d mentioned women; she had never asked him for any more information. Must have been one of the only people in London who didn’t think he’d been sleeping with his flatmate. That made two of them who never thought about it.
He’d thought Sherlock was a third.
Sherlock had spoken to Harry in April. And she’d said he'd been wanting to meet her for a while. How long would it have taken him to decide to go to such a length? To engage John’s sister, about whom he rarely said anything, let alone anything positive? Did he start to consider it after the conversation he’d overheard John having with Irene Adler? Sherlock had never shown a flicker of interest what people said about John in his presence; it was hard to know if he’d been rising above, ignorant altogether, or just didn’t think John needed reassurance. It might have been nice if he’d said how lost he'd’ve been without his blogger more often. But the people who paid attention, as Lestrade had—Mrs. Hudson, sodding Mycroft, for that matter—they had seemed as ready as shopgirls and waiters to believe he and Sherlock were a couple. And they had known him longer than John had.
There was so much he hadn’t heard because he hadn’t wanted to. Did he want to hear it now?
He spat into the basin, rinsed his teeth and the brush and swirled a bit of extra water around to clean the porcelain. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t been queer in London—he HAD been quietly out among the students of his year—is there ‘quietly’ out? —not so very long ago—well. Twenty years. Times had changed. He hadn’t joined any of the gay student organisations, that had always been more Harry’s sort of thing (sounds of incoming rockets and explosions); but there were some pubs where he’d been known and welcome. If he wanted to feel really old and unlovely he could revisit them. He could imagine Bald Charlie was still tending bar; he’d been old as the hills back then, probably FORTY in 1995. As John was now.
And then he could either talk about the war, always delightful; or not talk about the war, practically impossible.
And then either talk about Sherlock, or not talk about Sherlock. Practically impossible.
And then talk about how no, he hadn’t been getting off with Sherlock. Oh, that was going to be fun. Before last June, when he was out with a woman at least she (usually) hadn’t assumed he was fucking his flatmate (well, not until she was breaking things off with him); but if he were to be with a man now it’d be almost a reasonable question. Could be caring, even. CHRIST, no. He could have a card made: ‘Wasn’t. Possibly should have, never did.’
He thought one of his trysts in the on-call room had ended up specialising in psychiatry; he might be worth talking to, if he was still in London.
If, indeed, he could imagine talking about Sherlock with anyone. Funny: he blogged about him readily enough, even now. Polly-John’s-webmistress was encouraging him to fill the stories out, to make them more like memoirs. She teased out details, but she never asked him anything he didn’t want to talk about. He didn’t like to talk about Sherlock with anyone—part of the reason things were so glacial with Ella. Ella had never met him; she judged him on what she knew of John. Her definition of ‘normal’ had never been anything John wanted any part of. He’d only gone back to her because he could do so quickly, and she knew at least part of John’s story.
Harry was coming up the stairs. “Are you decent?” she called, carrying her laptop open in front of her.
She ducked into the room where the fold-out couch was. “Can I print something? I’ll just be a tick.”
“Of course.” John stood in the doorway as she turned on the printer, which whirred and clanked.
“You all right?” she asked.
“I think so. I’m feeling stupid.”
“Does that make a change?”
“Ta very much.”
“We had a big talk,” she said, offering him an opening if he wanted it.
“Yeah. The strangest thing happened when I wasn’t looking.”
“My big sister turned into someone I have to listen to.”
Her smile brought her face alive. It had been bad between them for so very long: probably since she was about twelve (he, ten) and puberty started to slam into her.
“Crazy talk, Johnny.”
“I’m just saying maybe you’ve pulled my head out of my arse more than once lately. I don’t listen to many people.”
“You’ve never listened to anyone,” she said seriously. “If someone says something that makes sense, you listen to that.”
“Oh,” he said.
“And he made sense, your Sherlock. To an alarming degree.”
“What did he say to you, exactly, that day?”
Harry glanced at the printer, stabbed at her laptop. More mechanical sounds. “We met for coffee. I said I didn’t like him; he said he didn’t care, he was in love with you. Stopped me cold, as you can imagine. I said you weren’t gay…he said that thing about binaries being idiotic, that you might not be higher than a two on the Kinsey scale, but…Then we talked about him. I asked if he’d ever…—“ her voice trailed tactfully off.
“I thought he was asexual,” John said. “I thought, at the very least, that he wanted to be.”
“Maybe he did, I don’t know. He said in university, when he’d been doing coke, he’d also done men and women.”
“God,” said John. He couldn’t imagine Sherlock between the sheets, turned on chemically as well as sexually. He shuddered.
“I know,” said Harry. “It must have been like being shagged by a tornado. He was bad enough out of bed cold sober. So I worried about the sex-and-drugs equation, and he said he wasn’t worried he’d use unless? until? he messed up badly and hurt you. He wasn’t worried about how he’d feel with you rejecting him; he was worried that you’d feel awkward and leave. He couldn’t quite understand why he wanted you to know how he felt; I think that was what drove him to talk to me, someone he said he knew to be completely on your side and not tell him kind half-truths. He wasn’t looking out for his own skin at all, John. I told him he couldn’t be much for anyone if he didn’t look after himself—are you all right?”
“Have been better,” John said. “Go on?”
“So I told him that lying is the worst thing for anyone in any relationship, and the longer he knew this about himself and didn’t tell you the worse it would be for your friendship. He didn’t want to believe me. He was worried if you knew how he felt you would leave, and he was worried if you didn’t, you’d be uncomfortable, and if you weren’t, and he ever got his wish, that that he would be a terrible boyfriend. He said when the two of you argued you were stubborn and he was manipulative, which sounded true to me, and he didn’t want to fight badly, and I said I’d send him some links. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so…brought low. Humble. Him. Sherlock Holmes, the prettiest, cleverest arsehole in England. In love with my annoyingly decent brother.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t fault his taste, Johnny.”
“Right, because I’ve been such a perfect son and brother.” Actually, compared with Harry, he’d done all right, but both of them knew that.
“Well, you were easier on our parents than I was, growing up, and you did the best you could with me. I know that for sure, even if I thought you were some kind of army clone for most of our twenties and thirties. Can’t blame you for wanting something orderly and dependable. And away the hell from home.”
“Afghanistan was some distance from Aldershot, yeah, in every way.” His head was whirling, too many thoughts, old and new.
“Johnny?” Harry was plainly hesitant but something nagged at her.
“I…look, forgive me, don’t answer if you can’t…but—what happened at Bart’s that day? You say he didn’t die in your arms, I was never sure. You said the papers were bullshit; they didn’t even really agree—he fell, you had blood on your shoes. Can you…?”
“Oh. You never heard any of it?”
“Like I could ask?”
“No. I suppose not. Sorry. Ah, God.” John shook his head.
“No,” he told her. “Sit down, I’m going to.” He slid under the sheets on the fold-out couch; Harry perched to one side. “I’ve talked about it before, with Greg Lestrade. Bit with Mycroft, who seems to have had cameras, not that that’s a surprise…We got into some trouble after they arrested Sherlock for the kidnapping—no, just hush, that didn’t hold up for any length of time at all, but we were fugitives from justice for a bit. We ended up spending the night at St. Bart’s. Someone—Moriarty? I don’t know—anyway, someone called me to say Mrs. Hudson had been shot at 221B and I wanted to go to there and see to her—he wouldn’t. I said something unkind and hared off, but of course she was just fine, so I went back to the hospital. Got dropped off at the little street where the ambulances go and the next thing I knew Sherlock was calling on my mobile. I could see him standing on the roof. He gave me some waffle about telling everyone he was a fraud, he’d made up everything—it was frightening, strange, made no particle of sense, and I was very frightened he was going to jump off.” John exhaled. “And then, he did. I tried to get around the ambulance garage and cross the street when some idiot on a bike hit me—“
“That was how you ended up in the A&E—“
“And I was out of it for a bit, I think, and tried to get to him before they took him inside—that was when I got his blood on my shoes—he had no pulse and his head looked pretty bad—“ not as bad as many I’ve seen, though ”—and I keeled over. Next thing I knew was you and Mrs. Hudson at the hospital.”
“I’m so sorry, Johnny. Awful.” She shook her head. “I’ve been worried—you don’t feel guilty, do you, I mean, do you wonder if there was anything you could have done? You wouldn’t talk when I brought you home, I don’t blame you, but I wondered…and they didn’t even wait on the funeral long enough for you to go—“
John shook his head. “Lestrade’s told me how it went. I’m not big on funerals, no matter what everyone says. No, Harry, thanks— you were really good to me then—no. For a little while I wondered if he’d been secretly depressed or…using something terrible, but he hadn’t seemed that way. I mean, I know people can deceive themselves and think someone’s fine and then look back and see all the signs, but I never could; it never, ever made any sense.”
Harry squeezed his shoulder. “Sometimes things just don’t.”
“Well, this really didn’t. And I’m not really supposed to talk about this bit yet, but Greg and I poked around a bit and it all just seemed fishier than ever, so we asked Sherlock’s brother—“
“Big Brother, the arsehole? You’ve mentioned him.”
“He’s not quite as bad as I thought. Still very much Big Brother, though. And he had Sherlock wired for sound and it seems Moriarty had sort of hostages, snipers waiting for either Sherlock to kill himself or them to shoot us—“
“Me and Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade. We’re okay now, Mycroft’s people—you remember that thing a few months back with the bent copper in the CID?
“That was the last bit of it,” John said. “Moriarty was real, and he left a mess of loose ends.”
“Is he still—“
“No, he shot himself on the rooftop making sure Sherlock couldn’t force him to call off the snipers.”
Harry seemed to be stuck for words for a few moments.“That was, you’ll forgive my saying, fucked up. The whole thing.”
“Yeah. Sherlock did dangerous things, sometimes stupid things, but that was all—“ John shook his head. “It wasn’t how I thought he’d go, but it turned out to have been much better than I feared. I still don’t know understand what he was saying to me that day, he could have been clearer—but he died for us. Mycroft says eventually that will get made better known.” And Greg thinks it was all misdirection, a ‘magic trick’ indeed, but I try not to think about that, because—and Christ now—if—we could—no, don’t think about that, DON’T THINK ABOUT THAT
“You should tell people that part on your blog,” Harry was saying, as the whirling carried away John’s internal monologue. The snarky voice had been silent for some time.
“I don’t have permission right now—no, I don’t mind, I feel like I owe Mycroft something for telling me what was going on when he really didn’t have to. And if there’s any more mopping-up left I really don’t want to queer it.”
“So Sherlock died for the three of you.”
“He was always a stubborn bastard. I’d have liked some say in the matter.”
Harry exhaled a puff of nearly-laughter. “He said something like that when we were talking—I asked him if being in love would make him any more careful not to get you killed, and he said ‘My life for his—but that’s not the same as being careful.’ “
“‘Careful’ wasn’t what we were about, really.”
“But the other two hostages—I’m glad it wasn’t just you.”
“Oh, Christ, yes, so am I.” He would have. I knew that from the start. I’d never have offered—oh, I would. I did. But after the pool—I knew, I thought, I think I knew it went both ways…was that what made him think about love? It’s what soldiers do, our lives aren’t…not mine, anyway. Hold it lightly…
Harry was speaking; John pulled himself back to her. “...And I’m glad it wasn’t just some fucked-up craziness on his part, I did wonder. He never seemed the type, but you know, they never do. Well. Okay, some of them really do, but enough—you’re right, it didn’t make sense, and this is horrible, but it’s better. Thank you. I won’t be telling anyone for your Mycroft to worry about.”
“Thanks. If it gets any more of that evil bastard’s friends caught, I don’t care how long it takes. People who want to know that Sherlock was real already know; I don’t think he’d care whether people thought he was suicidal or not.”
“As long as he got the job done.”
“Still,” Harry said. “A bit rough on the three of you. How is Mrs. Hudson doing with knowing that?"
“She says it was a relief to her to know he hadn’t taken the fraud stuff too much to heart. She said there was a time that accusations like that would have hurt him very deeply.”
“I thought he’d practiced not caring what anyone thought.” She collected her print-out, pushed the button on the printer. It whirred and clanked as it shut down.
“I think he did, but but she’s known him a long time, back into his addict days.” For all her pretended frothiness, John thought, Mrs. Hudson was as stoic as Lestrade. Maybe growing up in the aftermath of the war had left her determined as any solder to keep calm and continue carrying on. They spoke Sherlock’s name between themselves quite easily, and he was grateful.
“Do you…help her out a bit? With the heavy lifting, if any?”
John nodded. “She’s old but very healthy—” Chatterjee, you bigamous fucker— “but she knows I’ll help. We have tea a couple of times a week. Tea and gossip. My web-mistress comes to see her, too. And no, I am not dating Polly. Ever.”
“I like what’s she’s done with your site…but it’s late. Father Christmas can’t come before we’ve been to sleep. Will you be able to sleep? We talked about a lot of things.”
Harry knew as much as anyone alive what his sleeping well included, or did not include. “I hope so,” John told her sincerely. “I don’t feel triggery. Just…surprised. And, umm, grateful. Thank you.”
“I thought you deserved to know,” she said. “I don’t want to make things worse.”
“I don’t think it does, really. Thanks for being a friend to him, that day. It means a lot.” It means one Watson acted like a decent human being when Sherlock needed it. Ah, Christ, my dear…
She waved her hand, indicating a trivial matter, just not something she could speak about, right then; hugged him awkwardly, and left him alone. John turned off the lamp and pulled the blanket up over his bad shoulder. He wondered whether the memories of his dead friends would keep him awake, but he sank swiftly and gratefully into unconsciousness.
When he awoke it was still dark, but his watch said it was nearly eight. Thank God for Christmas and the solstice; the light would return. He dressed in the dimness, took Harry’s gifts out of his bag and went downstairs. He switched on the lights of her small tree and added to the offerings beneath it. One of his gifts to her was suspiciously close to the shape of one with his name on it. Were they giving one another the same thing? Could be worse.
He filled the kettle and started Harry’s coffee machine as quietly as he could, while the darkness outside gave way to grey, then pearly, light. It didn’t look as though it would be a sunny day. A good day for cooking, eating dinner at midday, and off home. Mrs. Hudson was somewhere in Norwich; she had fussed about leaving John alone. He snapped a picture of Harry’s tree with his phone and sent it to her. He opened his laptop, checked the headlines; posted a minimal greeting (“Peace on Earth”) on his blog in response to the ones people had left him.
Harry staggered down into the kitchen. “Happy Christmas, Johnny,” she said, hugging him. “I’m supposed to feel so very much better not being hungover in the morning but I swear I feel much the same.”
John poured her coffee. She took it and joined him at the table. After her first half a cup, she added, “And thank you for starting the coffee.” He passed her the plate of mince pies. She took one. “You slept all right, then?”
“Very well, thanks. You?”
“Fine, thanks. The first day of the rest of your life.” She glanced at him.
“Harry, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas morning, I am going to have a fancy dinner with you and go home and tomorrow I’ll be filling in for someone at the Royal London. I’m not going cruising!”
“Not in those clothes, you’re not, no. Fortunately—“ she looked at him significantly. “Want to go open presents?”
“You never could wait,” he grumbled, pouring another cup of tea.
“Seriously, John. All I want for Christmas is who you really are.”
“That’s very sweet, more than I can take this early. Come on then.” They went to the living room. As they sat on the floor, the tree was taller than their heads. For a moment John remembered being small: Christmas trees hung with lights and bright glass that had seemed to tower over both of them.
They shared an unfashionable love of knitted jumpers. The look on Harry’s face when John gave her the cabled blue alpaca he had commissioned from Mrs. Hudson was worth putting up with her crowing when he opened his parcel: three slim-cut solid-coloured button-down shirts and two pairs of trousers. “These look more like a high-end consultant’s than a GP’s,” he said. “How long have you been planning to dress me?”
“Since I saw the state of your wardrobe. And there was a sale. Will you try them on?”
“I'll dress up for dinner,” he promised. “But I am not going to wear them to work to be snuffled upon during flu season.” He stroked the fine wool. “I’ll have to buy them a decent jacket, or they’ll pine.”
“And something besides your regimental tie.”
“At least they’re my size. If we’d had that conversation a few weeks ago you’d have taken all of it back for the next size down.”
“I don’t want you to get any thinner,” she told him, pulling the jumper over her pyjama top. “How’s it look?”
“Like you got the ultramarine when they were handing out blue eyes,” he told her honestly. “Send a pic to Clara?” He wanted one for himself; it was good to see this Harry, her face alight and her hair every which way.
“I can’t stop petting it,” she said, and the static made her hair even stranger. “Open your other one.”
“You, too.” He handed her the present that looked like the one for him and they tore the paper simultaneously.
“Oh,” she said. “John, you shouldn’t have.”
“I doubt that it cost any more than my new clothes,” he said. “And I know you have mixed feelings about Amazon, if you want you can send it back but—“
She interrupted his explanation and hugged him. “They do make the trains run on time.” She pressed the power button on the Kindle. “I gave you sort of the opposite—“
She had given John a fountain pen and a journal with a tooled leather cover, luxurious in his hands. “It’s for things you don’t want to put on your blog,” she said. “Not that I knew how much there was not to put, but a lot of us are big on keeping a private journal. If you want.”
“It’s a really nice one,” he told her, sincerely, riffling the pages. “What’s this?” In the back pages, she had pasted pictures of their parents—from sometime in the mid-1980’s; they looked relatively young and healthy—and herself, and their grandparents, and the cats and dogs of their youth.
“In case you need something to write about—“
John reached over and hugged her. She hugged back, and handed him the pages she’d printed out the night before. The picture he’d shown her of Jason, and one of Sherlock. Which made it almost too personal, and he couldn’t speak for a moment. “It was already wrapped,” she said. “But if you like. They should be in there. Yes?”
“Mmh,” he agreed, drinking tea. “I put some books on your Kindle to get you started. It made it more fun; a couple of your old favourites and I asked a few people what they recommended.”
Technology came to her easily and she looked at the ‘library’. “My God, Anne of Green Gables, I loved that.”
“I remember,” John said.
“Harriet the Spy?"
“Sarah recommended that, when I said I was looking at our old kiddie books.”
“Trustee from the Toolroom?”
“That’s by the same author as A Town Like Alice, but Lestrade said you didn’t want to cut your own heart out so much at the end.”
“Sounds very promising,” she said. “And oh my, Lud-in-the-Mist. That's been a while. On a tablet; just seems strange.”
“It’s a strange book,” John said. “I found my old copy, going through some things. You wrote someone’s telephone number on the inside back cover.”
“I’m sorry, John, I was a horrible teenager.”
He waved it off. “It’s all right, now, it made me smile. Something we both liked.”
“I was looking very hard for fairy fruit, those days,” she said. “And you were looking for quests. I remember you so solemnly taking the oath: ‘He who rides the wind must go where his steed carries him’, wasn’t it?”
“I’m impressed,” John said.
“That was us in a nutshell, wasn’t it? I mean—really. Only now I’m off that kind of fruit for good, and you came home.”
“There are quests to be had at home.” Only now— Rather than letting Sherlock’s absence claim a place next to him, he put the printed pictures carefully in the journal and began to pick up the torn wrapping paper.
“Do you think you might use it?” Harry asked. “Some of the women in my group go to great lengths with sparkly pens and glitter but I didn’t think that was your style. Although if you want glitter but you’re too embarrassed to buy it yourself, just say the word.”
“No, really, thanks, this is as opulent as I’m likely to go any time soon. I’ll give it a shot, Harry; you’re right about things I don’t want on the blog. And this is much nicer than the notebooks I’d ever get myself.”
“You matter,” she said. “What you do, who you are. I thought about adding a book or so, Writing Down the Bones or The Artist’s Way or like that, but you seem to know something about writing for yourself already.” She held up a hand and John drew her up from the floor. “And I like my smart Kindle very much, perfect for the bus. One of my friends has one and she swears by it.”
“Rather than at it, like a computer?”
“I want to revisit Avonlea, but I’m not going to leave you with all the cooking today, even if you did offer.”
They put the roast in, added parboiled potatoes and carrots and sprouts around it a bit later, and whiled away the morning. John made a salad, while Harry explained how their gran had taught her to make Christmas cake and how she had adapted the recipe to the one she had made a few days ago for them. John changed into his new clothes. They made him look and feel very sleek; he hoped it had been a good sale.
The flat smelled better and better, until (as was traditional) some of the fat from the Yorkshire pudding caught fire in the oven. They aired out most of the smoke before they sat down; the food was a success. Harry got horse-radish up her nose during dinner, and they laughed even harder. The Christmas cake had an extra marzipan layer halfway down.
“Better than Gran’s,” John said.
“When you get home moisten it with some brandy or whiskey, for goodness sake,” said Harry. “Or maybe melted butter.”
Then they did the washing-up together, listening to the Queen’s Speech (mercifully short), and it was time to go home. But John didn’t feel so much like fleeing as he’d expected, and Harry didn’t seem to be in hurry for him to leave.
“This is the best Christmas I’ve had in years,” she told him as he put his coat on. “Thank you, John.”
“Thank you, Harry; me, too.”
“Better than last year,” Harry said. “I’m sorry about that.”
“He was not at his best either, it wasn’t just you. Thanks for this year, Harry, all of it. Christmas has been better than I could have hoped.”
“It _will_ get better.”
“It’s not that bad, I have no right to ask for more than this—I never thought you and I’d be our own adults, together like this.” John hugged her. “I just miss him. And you’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“Call me if you want to talk. Call me anyway.”
John promised he would. They assured themselves he had his presents and his overnight kit and a substantial portion of the leftovers and hugged goodbye. John folded himself into the Zipcar. As well as it had gone, he was glad not to stay another night. Driving in a deserted London was strange and satisfying, as though he had found himself in his own empty universe, barring a few feral taxis.
He was accustomed to the quietness of the flat now. Mrs. Hudson had looked horrified when he’d said he wouldn’t need to do any Christmas decorating, so he’d hung a swag of evergreen and one string of lights along the mantelpiece. It smelled good. He kicked off his shoes and made tea, startled to notice his new clothes in the mirror. Mrs. Hudson would approve. He could just about cope with her commenting on them, but the thought of anyone else made him feel self-conscious. He had always faded quietly into the background, even more when Sherlock was centre stage. It was comfortable.
Whatever Harry thought he ought to do, John was still reluctant to throw himself into the shark-infested waters of looking for companionship. He was still too unsure where he was going to want to find anyone to travel with. Meaningless sex seemed to have lost its attraction, though he put some of that down to the antidepressants he was easing off. Some of it, he knew—feared, was all right with—was that the power of Sherlock’s loss had made him unwilling to waste time. It was a terrible attitude for clubbing or barhopping. He should accept Sarah’s invitations, go more professional social gatherings, if he wanted to meet nice women.
Nice, ah, people.
A treacherous part of his brain flashed a sense memory: some male arse pushing into his palm. Warmth bloomed and focussed below his waist. His body was in complete agreement with Harry about the importance of owning his attractions.
She had been too kind to point out that the only people outside their family whose pictures she thought worth putting into his book were men. ”An impartial observer might wonder if your place _emotionally_ on the Kinsey scale wasn’t north of three, rather than south.” Once or twice he’d envied Sherlock’s lack of feeling, even while he’d resented it. It had seemed an easier way to live, at times. But apparently it hadn’t been, any more than Sherlock’s unruffled surface had gone as far down as he’d liked people to believe.
There was tape on the desk. Harry had used some posh scrapbooking adhesive on the family photos, he thought, trimming the prints she had made. Grandparents on the the last few pages toward the back—just their mother’s side. They hadn’t known their father’s parents, and even their mother’s da was gone by the time John was six. But he remembered his gran fondly, as Harry did. She had passed not long before their mother, the picture very much as he remembered her: birdlike, white-haired. He flicked past the his parents, and the animals—was that Harry or him with the dog? Very young—and smiled at the shot she had chosen for herself. It must be nearly twenty years since that picnic.
He left room for Clara, for when she and Harry managed to reunite; left a couple more leaves and taped in Jason. “So, this is my family,” John told him. “Sorry it took this long. Harry would have liked you, and you missed out on the rest. Just as well.”
That left the picture of Sherlock, which John knew he was skittish about. He’d tried more than once to understand why the rare images of his friend looking directly out of the frame at the camera left him uneasy. John wasn’t one for people frozen in time on his mantelpiece or his bedside table, and his webmistress’s enthusiasm for sprinkling his dead friend’s face into the blog archives he left to her and his readers. This looked like it must be one of those; he’d have to ask Polly what the date on it had been, since he didn’t recognise either the background or the unaccustomed gentleness on Sherlock’s face.
And he wasn’t pasting it anywhere near Jason or the rest, for whatever reason. But since Harry had made this absurd category, shrine, whatever it was, he knew he couldn’t leave Sherlock out of it, and finally John put him a few pages in from the front of the journal. “To keep you from causing trouble,” he tried to mutter, but his voice cracked. “Damn. Damn it, Sherlock, I hate this, I hate missing you, and I hate being so broken up I’m no use to anyone. And why did you go and tell—“
Because he’d been right not to tell John, the one whom he had ached to tell. Because John was not a good enough person for Sherlock.
Sherlock hadn’t thought that. He’d known John to John’s bones, and had known John’s weakness and still told Harry that he loved him.
One of John’s teachers in secondary school—a terrifying man in Scripture class, a funny one in French and ancient history—he’d had a bee in his bonnet that ‘being loved was humiliating’. John and his classmates had put it down to his being a dotty old Jesuit, and he hadn’t thought of it in years. At this moment, it made perfect sense. It had been painful to hear Sherlock was willing to die to protect his friends, but that was something John understood. To know that Sherlock had sought out someone he disliked, because he trusted Harry’s love for her brother; that he’d willingly swum out of his depth to try to reach some understanding of himself and his feelings: that was humiliating.
Love was a grace, something freely offered and unearned; it might be deserved, but it couldn’t be an obligation. Sherlock had loved him knowing John wasn’t able to hear of it. Had accepted what John had been able to give him: a different kind of love, less enveloping and less vulnerable, but something John thought Sherlock hadn’t encountered before.
Perhaps that was all it was, just gratitude for John’s affection, and Sherlock had been bowled over by _feeling_ _any_ sentiment—
”Because, of course, he was nothing but an adolescent, not someone who studied the vagaries of human behaviour, detailed the traces and outlined the consequences—”
I never said that, I just thought it might be different studying it in himself than studying the effects in others, John protested.
The kind of love that shut its mouth when its object could not speak its name was brave and kind and gentle and wise, whether the man who was felt it was old or young or inexperienced or not. And it made perfect sense, John realised; it went perfectly with the arrogant poser who was never deliberately unkind to anyone powerless, who was owed favours by small shopkeepers all over London and made the homeless into a secret weapon, while snarling at his brother and stealing ashtrays from the queen.
He put the cartridge into the fountain pen, which balked as they always did. John dipped in his tea, as he always did; the heat of the liquid stripped away the manufacturing oils and let the ink flow. He turned over the page where he’d placed Sherlock’s picture so as not to have that face looking into his own, and wrote.
John paused to try to figure what it was he really meant.
Christmas, 2012. My sister has given me this book to put what I don’t want to blog about. She also gave me a memory, a secret, a message, a ticket to part of myself where I have not been in a long while. And while I’ve always talked about Sherlock’s great brain, I’d never recognised the great heart that went along with it. I’ve had good reason to be who I have been; I’m not ashamed, Jason, that losing you was enough to make me try to jettison part of myself. But I think Harry’s right. Sherlock, I wish—no—I’m sorry—
Finally he wrote, knowing sometimes it’s better to get anything down than nothing:
Greg Lestrade once told me you were a great man, and he hoped one day you would be a good one. I don’t intend to be great, and I thought I was good. But you were better, and I thank you for it. For my life. For whatever comes next.