During the first five minutes, the taxi that is leading them away from Sherlock is filled with John’s anger, spoken and unspoken in equal measure. But after that there’s just silence, and Mary’s hand holding his, and the dawning realisation of what has happened, what his life has come to.
“Do you love me?”
It’s the right question to ask to break him out of his trance. He looks at her, shocked and confused that she needs to ask such a thing. He drops his toothbrush, spits out a stream of blue-white foam, wipes his mouth on his sleeve and then kisses her on the lips, holding her face between his hands.
“Very much,” he says, his eyes searching hers.
Mary smiles up at him. One of her hands comes up to peel away one of his from her face, gently. She kisses its palm, entwines their fingers.
“Then will you tell me something?”
The crease between his eyebrows deepens a fraction. He looks – not worried exactly, but close. “What is it?”
“You and Sherlock,” she says, and John steps away from her, a humourless laugh leaving his throat. He crosses his arms and shakes his head at the floor, leaning against the sink.
“I can’t believe you’re asking me this,” he says. “You of all people.”
Mary steps forward and puts a placating hand on his arm. “I haven’t even asked you anything yet,” she says, smiling.
John looks her in the eye. “You want to know if we were lovers, boyfriends. It’s what everyone thinks.”
He manoeuvres away from her, out of the bathroom. Mary hears the sounds of him changing into his pyjamas in the bedroom, catches sight of him in the mirror she can see through the open door.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” she says.
The rustle of clothing stops abruptly, and then she hears John sigh. He appears in the doorway, his arms stuck down the sleeves of the pyjama shirt he’s still in the process of putting on. He looks at her with guilt-ridden eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says. He gestures helplessly.
Mary chuckles and nods down at his shirt. “You should put that on.”
He follows her eyes and only then seems to realise how ridiculous he must look. He puts the shirt over his head and then approaches her, kisses her again. “I’m sorry,” he repeats. “I’m an arse. What do you want to know?”
Mary wraps her arms around her neck and puts her lips to his, tasting mint. “Let’s get to bed,” she whispers.
“No, really, it’s fine,” John says.
“Bed,” Mary repeats, her eyes shining. John reaches behind him to switch off the light and moves them to the bed, mouth pressed to her neck.
“Thinking about him?” Mary asks.
John knows better than to lie, or feign incomprehension. “Yeah,” he says, stroking her arm.
“He’s quite dashing,” Mary says after a moment. There’s a touch of dreaminess to her voice, and John doesn’t say anything. “I didn’t know he’d be so...” Her fingers flutter through the air before they land on his torso. “Charismatic.”
“Please don’t get a crush on him,” John says, only half joking.
Mary moves her head so her chin is resting on his chest. “I promise if you promise,” she says, amused.
John narrows his eyes. “I’m not gay,” he says, for what feels like the thousandth time.
“I think we’ve established that,” Mary says, raising her eyebrows. “Is that how you always react? When people ask about you and Sherlock? I’m not gay?”
“Sometimes I give them the finger,” John says. “Depending on my mood.”
Mary chuckles. She rolls on to her side, hands folded under her head, and looks at him. “You shouldn’t get so defensive. It makes sense for people to think these things. I mean, I’ve seen you two together now, and I too thought there was something.”
Mary nods with big, smiling eyes.
“I punched him in the face, Mary.”
“I know,” she says. “And he deserved it. The first time around, anyway.”
“He bloody well deserved it all three times,” John says.
“You’ve forgiven him already, though, haven’t you.”
John is silent for a moment. “I think so. I can’t hold his being alive against him, can I?”
“He gets this look in his eyes,” Mary says after a pause. “When he looks at you. He gets this look.”
“You’re not letting this go, are you.”
“I just want to understand,” she says. Her feet touch his shin.
John turns on his side to face her and wraps an arm around her legs, his thumb moving on her skin. He looks into her eyes and Mary waits, patiently. She loves him, in this moment, more than ever. The shadow of a plea on his face. His lips pressing slightly together. She’s momentarily tempted to reach out and touch them.
Outside a clock strikes the half hour, and then John begins to talk. About meeting Sherlock. About living with him. How there were moments he wanted to strangle him. How, as the years went by, half a word was usually enough. How Sherlock used to play the violin for him when he couldn’t sleep. How there were days when they locked themselves in and didn’t open the door for no one, not even Mrs Hudson. Them against the world.
“We drove each other up the wall sometimes, and sometimes we shouted at each other until our throats went raw, but it didn’t matter, you know? It was okay. We needed that. Some sense of balance. Do you know what I mean? People are always so ready to assume we were lovers, and yes, I do get defensive because they don’t get it. Things were never like that between us. It went further than that, in a way. It was like the craziest, wildest, unacknowledged love affair you can imagine.”
“So you did love him,” Mary says.
“He was the most important person in my life. And when you share experiences like we did, it gets... hard, sometimes, to keep your heart out of it. So I loved him, yes. I did.”
“Did he know, you think?”
The corners of John’s mouth lift a little. “He’s Sherlock. He knows everything. I mean, I never told him, but still. And it was a mutual thing, as well. We never talked about it, but we were aware we never talked about it, if that makes sense.”
He pauses and narrows his eyes in thought. “There were moments, though. That I just...” He trails off, and he’s back, momentarily, at 221B, Sherlock two, maybe three steps away, eyes clear and fond. Defenceless, almost. John shakes his head, ridding his mind of the image.
“Sometimes I just... I wanted to know what would happen, if I’d turn it into something real. No, not real, something... unambiguous. You know? Sometimes we would look at each other and there would be that feeling of being on the verge of something, but...”
“You didn’t dare,” Mary says.
“Yeah, maybe. Or we didn’t want to. Change things, I mean. It worked, the way it was between us. Most of the time, anyway.” John chuckles. “I threatened to move out once, just to see how he’d react.”
“He slammed me into the nearest wall and vowed to dismember me if I ever said anything that stupid ever again.”
Mary laughs. “Charming.”
“Very. And then he stormed off to God knows where and returned in the evening and spent the next, I don’t know, twenty minutes telling me in his own way how much he appreciated having me as a flatmate and that he was ready to do practically anything to make me change my mind. It was quite sweet, actually.” John smiles at the memory.
“And now he’s back.”
“And now he’s back.” John touches Mary’s cheek. She moves in and kisses him, softly.
“Confused, mostly,” John says. “But happy, yes.” His gaze moves over her face, as if he’s following a trail of newly discovered details. “I’m lucky to have you.”
Mary’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “Is that singular you or plural you?”
A smile, brief and flickering. “Singular, of course.”
Turning onto her back, Mary says, with a hint of playfulness in her voice, “Well, I don’t know. It seems like I’m going to have to compete against Sherlock.”
“No,” says John, shaking his head in emphasis. “You don’t.”
At the tone of his voice, Mary’s amused smile softens into something gentler. “I was only teasing, John.”
“What I feel for you—”
In a quick movement, Mary rolls over and puts her fingers to his lips. “Don’t,” she says. “I know you love me. And I know you love him—” John starts to protest, but she silences him with the combined force of her fingers and her eyes. “—and I’m fine with that. I really am. You still want to marry me, yes?” She removes her hand.
“God, I do. Absolutely, yes.”
Mary nods. “Good. That’s all that matters to me. You don’t have to feel guilty, or pretend, if there’s still something there. I mean, I saw it with my own eyes, tonight, and that’s okay. It’s fine. I don’t expect you to... unlove him for my sake.”
John looks at her for a long, quiet moment. There are things he feels he needs to explain to make her realise exactly what she’s saying, how much she’s offering him. But something in those patient eyes of hers tells him that she knows, that perhaps she’s always known.
“Thank you,” he says softly, inadequately, and he feels an overwhelming tenderness expanding in his heart, the heart she has allowed him to be never fully hers.
He kisses her, warm and gentle, and she smiles against his lips.