Older and wiser, Sherlock thought as he sat at the kitchen table, his hands pressed to its acid-pocked surface. Or at the very least, Older.
How did we get here? Two men alone together, unable to live without one another, even after all we have done to hurt each other. Two men locked together in loss and pain. Two men alone again.
He could see John from where he sat, but John could not see him. He was sitting in silence, staring into space, in one of those moments when he thought he was unobserved.
Sherlock reflected for a moment, with uncharacteristic empathy, on what it must be like to live a life as acutely observed as John did. It couldn’t be easy. But even so, he had come back. Despite the lack of privacy that living with Sherlock entailed, he always came back. As Mary had said, they were a package deal. Somehow, at some point, they had become a single entity, and now they could not survive apart. Sherlock didn’t know when it had happened, but he knew it could not now be undone.
He studied what he could see of John’s face. He could only observe the side because John’s chair was turned a little away, facing towards the middle of the living room. The doctor’s head had dropped forward a little, and although he had lost weight since Mary’s death, there was still a small pouch of flesh behind his chin that bulged out when he tipped his head down. It gave his face a plumper appearance than it really deserved.
The undeniable truth was that John was lost, and it showed in his features. Not the way he had been when he and Sherlock first met, of course. Sherlock remembered the hollowed-out emptiness of his eyes that day in the lab at Barts. He had applied his enormous mind to lighting up those eyes, and had managed it within twenty-four hours, having quickly deduced John’s addiction to risk. That had been simple.
Now things had changed. This problem was not so simple. Because John was broken.
Sherlock could see it in his pallid face. His skin had a texture these days that reminded Sherlock of the crazed surface of an old, ill-used plate, stained and chipped. There was a crack through his friend’s soul, a fissure too great for even Sherlock to bridge.
Older and Wiser, Sherlock thought as he watched his only friend stare into the past, eyes fixed on a future that could never now be, and the memories of a life that had tormented and fulfilled him in equal measure.
‘All the King’s horses, and all the King’s men,
Couldn’t put Johnny together again.’
Sherlock’s mind had hitched onto the old nursery rhyme in recent weeks, reworking it to reflect the ache in his soul. He was powerless to help. Perhaps it was not the first time in his life, but it was certainly the most important, and he knew he had to keep his frustration from John. Sherlock had to work hard at that, even though John was so lost in his grief that Sherlock could have driven a bus over his foot and he wouldn’t have noticed. On the surface he was functioning, communicating, acting as Sherlock’s lightning rod and blogger, just as he always had. Few but the detective knew him well enough to see that it was just a counterfeit functionality. Like a zombie, John Watson was just going through the motions so as not to be any trouble to anyone.
Not that Sherlock did not have his own grief, in his own way. He had liked Mary, despite the bullet she had put in his chest. And he had liked the way John was when he was with her, more content in his skin somehow. Sherlock wished he could give his friend that peace, but he knew it was impossible. So in his way, he was grateful to John’s complicated wife. And without her, the Baker Street flat did seem strangely empty. It was as if a single note was missing from a Beethoven symphony, not a discord so much as an absence that very fractionally lessened the harmony that had existed. They had not missed Mary’s note before she had arrived in their lives because they had never known how much more harmonious she could make their world. Now she was gone, and that note would never be heard again. Now she was gone, and having heard her note, they heard its absence. And they knew the difference.
John closed his eyes, and Sherlock was reminded immediately of another pair of closed eyes, not those of Mary but of her child, stillborn, lying in his arms, so peaceful, so perfect, looking as if she was just sleeping like any other newborn. He did not know why he kept remembering the baby. He had held her, as he had never held another child. He did not know why they had given her to him. He remembered rocking her. He had no idea why he had done that. She was dead already, her tiny fingers cooling even as they wrapped around his own. She would not have known, was not there to be comforted. And yet he had felt the need to do it. It made no sense to a man who knew death as intimately as Sherlock did. And yet he had done it. And he had cried. He had no idea why he had done that either. He did not understand any of it.
Standing beside John at the funeral, watching the little white coffin carried behind the larger brown one, Sherlock had been quiet and stalwart. John had clenched his teeth through the whole ordeal. Every face in the congregation was pinched and drained with the horror of it, of the echo of the Dickensian in burying mother and child lost in childbirth together in this day and age. Afterwards, with palms sore from shaking sympathetic hands, they came home to the empty flat and listened to the silence together. Silence that was so wrong. A aural space that should have been filled with the cries of a hungry infant; a olifactory space that should have been rich with the scents of regurgitated milk and Nappisan and congratulatory flowers, but instead was empty of all except the familiar dust and chemicals.
John had never really recovered, and Sherlock understood now, many months later, that he never would. The crack would always be there, concealed but still gaping, an empty space that would never be filled. John was still his John, but was a little less John than he had been. The only way Sherlock could conceptualise the difference was that somehow Mary and the baby had taken a portion of John’s molecules with them, that he would always be a tiny but significant measure shorter than his proper atomic weight. And the thought of that irreversible loss made Sherlock feel more desolate than anything in his life ever had. He could not fix this. He would never be able to fix this. And he would have to endure that fact, just as John had to endure the torture of a future without his wife and child.
Molly told him it would get better. John’s grief and shock would play out. He would learn to live with his loss, get used to it, and manage to smile again one day. Molly knew about these things. It would take time. Sherlock must have patience.
Sherlock wasn’t very good at patience.
I’m older and wiser though, Sherlock thought, letting his eyes run over that beloved cheek, now drawn and grey with misery. I know I cannot help you. I cannot do this for you. You must mourn in your own way. But I will be here by your side while you do. And I will be ready when you have done with it.