They drifted apart, of course.
John supposed that it was inevitable, while at the same time it broke his heart. But medical training, military training and the slow decline of his mother into early-onset Alzheimer’s all meant that John had very little time for a life of his own. Still, he tried. Phone calls whenever he had a few free minutes. Getting together for a quick meal when he could pin Sherlock down to a time and place.
But even with his best intentions, there were gaps, periods of time when Sherlock Holmes just seemed to vanish.
Whenever the silence between them went on for too long, John would break down and call Mycroft. Not Mummy anymore, after one unpleasant conversation with that formidable woman. Clearly, neither Mycroft nor Sherlock had informed Mrs Holmes about her baby son’s…lapses. Mycroft was stingy with the information that he was willing to share, but at least John could confirm that Sherlock was alive, if not especially well.
The last time they met up before John shipped out to Afghanistan had been at a small Italian café not far from Regent’s Park. Sherlock was pale and twitchy, but apparently keen to talk about his brilliant new career.
“Consulting detective,” he announced grandly as John nibbled on breadsticks..
“What might that be when it’s at home, then?” John asked, trying to be subtle about the visual exam he was giving Sherlock. Routine, now, every time they met. Not currently high was the best diagnosis he could come up with at the moment.
Sherlock preened a bit and it was slightly reassuring to realise that some things remained the same even now. “I invented the job,” he said. “When the police are out of their depth, which is always, they call me.”
The waiter arrived, set their plates down onto the table and mumbled “Cenare bene” before vanishing again. John, weary of fast meals grabbed at either the military mess or the hospital cafeteria, dug into his aubergine parmigiana enthusiastically while Sherlock conducted an examination of his lasagne that was almost forensic.
“Just eat it,” John ordered finally. “So the police call you for help?” he asked, once Sherlock had actually taken a few bites.
Sherlock paused in his chewing for a moment, then resumed and swallowed before replying. It was a well-used tactic of his, giving himself time to think. “Well, they will once they realise how much they need me.” He paused again. “There is one detective…I gave him some help on a murder case.”
“Yeah?” John kept eating, but looked up at Sherlock. “An actual detective came to you for help?”
Sherlock moved the lasagne around on the plate, staring at it and not at John. “Not exactly,” he muttered. “The murder was in a drug house and I…just happened to be…” His voice dwindled off.
John set his fork down carefully. “I probably don’t want to hear that whole story, do I?”
“Possibly not,” Sherlock admitted. “You are terribly sensitive to things like that. Especially for a doctor.”
This was not the time, John told himself firmly, to explode in anger. Or to begin weeping. “Yes,” he said in his dangerously calm voice. “I do tend to be pretty sensitive over my best friend slowly poisoning himself to death. Sorry about that.”
Unsurprisingly, his words served as something of a conversation killer. They finished the meal mostly in silence, paid and left the café, emerging into a surprisingly warm night. John realised that he was going to miss London.
“I always seem to be walking you to a train station,” Sherlock finally said. Both of his hands were shoved into the pockets of his jacket.
“That’s true,” John agree. “Of course, if you came to see me sometime, then I could walk you to the station.”
Sherlock was quiet again, until they reached their destination. “What is the train schedule like to Kabul?” he asked, as John looked for his ticket.
John smiled faintly. “Don’t come to Afghanistan, you idiot.”
The platform number for his train appeared on the board.
“Take care of yourself,” John said.
“I should be saying that to you, shouldn’t I?” Sherlock replied.
John reached out to give him the usual hug. The blaring Tannoy almost drowned out Sherlock’s whispered words. “Please come back.”
“Please be here when I do,” was the fierce response.
John let him go, then hurried through the gate and sprinted for the train, not looking back.
Sherlock watched until the track was empty. He left the station and immediately lit a cigarette.
It was a year before John had a leave that was long enough to accommodate a trip to London, albeit a quick one. But it would be worth the jetlag, he decided.
Despite the things he had to do, John spent the first twenty-four hours sleeping more deeply than he had in many months. Then, because it was near his destination, he went to E Pellicci’s in Bethnal Green for a fry-up. It was quietly pleasant to sit at a Formica-topped table, surrounded by the wood-panelled walls and inhale eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, and all the toast he wanted.
Feeling more like himself afterwards, he caught a bus and went to the home to see his mother. He quickly gave up any attempt to convince her that he was not, in fact, her older brother Jack, who had died on the last day of WWII. Still, she seemed to enjoy chatting with him and was quite cheerful when he kissed her cheek and said good-bye.
A phone call to his sister was even more useless, as she was drunk and did nothing but wail about her divorce, which somehow seemed to be his fault.
He spent the rest of the day just walking around the city, finally treating himself to fish and chips at the Golden Hind in Marylebone, washing it down with two beers.
Tomorrow would be the only reunion that really mattered.
In the past year they had talked once on the phone. He had written Sherlock six actual letters and a dozen emails. Sherlock had sent three postcards and three emails. None of the letters or postcards or emails had said anything important. That lone phone call had consisted mostly of Sherlock meandering through a description of a case that he had apparently solved for that Scotland Yard detective he’d mentioned before.
“So maybe you’ll get more work from him now?” John had suggested.
There had been a pause, long enough that John knew very well what Sherlock was not saying. He did not berate or lay a guilt trip on him. What would have been the point?
“When are you coming home?” Sherlock had asked suddenly.
“I don’t know,” John had replied. He used that as a cue to begin his own tale of a rare moment of humour in the war. The connection was lost before he finished.
And now he was back in London, standing outside a cheap hotel in Earl’s Court, waiting.
Two other guests, a couple of Aussie backpackers on their gap year whom he’d chatted with over breakfast, stood nearby, smoking. They seemed very young to John. He was amused at their slack-jawed expressions when the long black car glided to the kerb and John got into the backseat.
He was frankly relieved not to find Mycroft himself there, especially given the reluctance he had displayed to letting John visit his brother at all. “Try not to provoke him, John,” Mycroft had said. “He hardly needs a setback at this point.”
John was very tempted to point out that it was actually not him who had spent years provoking Sherlock, but, not wanting to risk the chance of seeing his friend, he swallowed his words and simply agreed to be on his best behaviour.
Assuming that the driver knew very well where they were going, John just took a bottle of Evian from the built-in cooler and relaxed against the soft leather seat.
The private clinic, it turned out, was in deepest Sussex. It was a lovely old stone mansion set within a massive, well-tended garden. The car paused at the main entrance for him to get out and the silent driver finally spoke, to say that he would be in the small carpark to the left of the building when Dr Watson was ready to depart.
As he stepped into the large foyer, John was greeted by a grey-haired woman in a knee-length black skirt and a matching blazer over a crisp white blouse. He gave his name in his best Military Doctor tone and she pointed the way to the conservatory where Mr Holmes was waiting. For one horrifying moment, he thought she was talking about Mycroft, but then he smiled. “Thank you,” he said, heading down the corridor.
And, indeed, ‘Mr Holmes’ was waiting in the glass conservatory.
Sherlock looked well, if too thin and somewhat paler than usual. He wore loose-fitting linen trousers the colour of ripe wheat and a forest green button-down with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His hair was too long and for a moment all John could see was that posh public school boy from a different life, instead of the recovering junkie he was looking at in the here and now.
Sherlock stood for a hug and then gestured for John to join him on the sofa.
“You look good,” John said when they had settled.
Sherlock shrugged. “You look like a soldier.”
John glanced down at his blue jeans and old football tee-shirt. “I’m a doctor,” he pointed out. “But right now, I’m just a friend.”
Sherlock shook his head. “Never ‘just’, John.”
As good as Sherlock did indeed look, there was also a certain fragility in his eyes and John decided almost immediately that it would be unfair of him to talk about some of the things he had seriously considered bringing up. Now was not the time to burden Sherlock with the tangled mess that was John Watson’s emotional state.
And if it all went wrong, he would have to deal with a very unhappy Mycroft Holmes.
So they talked about other things.
John’s journey from Afghanistan.
Sherlock’s complete disdain for group therapy.
John’s unsatisfactory family contacts.
Most interesting of all to John was Sherlock’s evident fascination with the apiary at the far end of the garden; it was maintained by the head of the clinic and Sherlock was allowed to visit whenever he wanted. As long as he went to therapy. “Someday I would like to keep an apiary, John,” he said. “Tend my own hives and make a study of the bees.”
“When you tire of the consulting detective gig?” John teased gently.
Sherlock just hummed and then brought up a case from the morning news, of a rather dreadful murder that had happened in East London. Body parts were turning up in the most unexpected places. “The left foot was found inside a confessional in the local Catholic church,” Sherlock said, sounding far too delighted. “I expect Lestrade is really wishing I could help.” His tone turned wistful at the end.
“Next time,” John said.
Before Sherlock could reply, a lovely young aide pushed a teacart into the conservatory and soon they were consuming perfect, warm scones with jam and cream. “They spoil you here,” John said, licking a stray blob of cream from his finger.
Sherlock took a sip of the lapsang souchong and then set the real china teacup back into its saucer carefully. “They make me pay for it,” he muttered.
“Mycroft said you’re doing well.”
Instead of responding to that, Sherlock leaned back into the sofa. “When are you coming home for good?” he asked quietly.
John finished his tea. “Not for a while, Sherlock.” He paused. “Will you be okay?”
Sherlock shrugged. “Lestrade says he will call me in on cases if I stay clean.”
John suddenly felt as if they were ignoring the great big fucking elephant in the room and that they had been ignoring that bloody pachyderm for years. But now… He looked at Sherlock, who had fallen into the old familiar posture of pulling both knees to his chest and knew that his earlier instinct had been the right one. Sherlock was dealing with enough already.
He shoved that elephant right back into the metaphorical closet.
Sherlock began a brutal dissection of the staff and his fellow inmates that had John laughing far more than was proper. At one point, Sherlock grabbed John’s arm to make a point and neither of them seemed to notice that he did not let go.
When it was time for John to leave, Sherlock walked him out to the car. They hugged again, tightly, without speaking, then Sherlock turned and walked away.
John asked the driver to wait a moment, watching as Sherlock returned to the building. When he reached the entrance, Sherlock turned around and lifted one hand in farewell. John asked the driver to sound the horn, once. Frowning, the driver did so. No doubt he would be reporting this to Mycroft.
Sherlock lowered his hand and went inside.
John took a beer from the cooler and drank it as he returned to London.
The next time John was [unexpectedly] in London, for a hastily convened medical conference on battlefield brain injuries, was nearly a year later. When he arrived it was to find that Sherlock was actually in Edinburgh, working on a case, according to Mycroft.
“So he’s doing okay, then?” John asked, trying overcome the disappointment of not seeing his friend.
Mycroft, as usual, sounding mildly distracted, not by whatever else he was doing, but by John’s phone call. “Okay? Oh, John, I would say that he is doing much better than that. In my opinion, Sherlock has finally come into himself. Learned to count on his own strengths and not be hampered by…illogical and useless emotions.”
John thought he made it sound as if Sherlock had turned into Spock or something. “Well, tell your brother I’m sorry to have missed him.”
“Certainly, John. Safe travels back to Afghanistan.” Which seemed an absurd thing to say.
Sitting alone that night in the Travelodge, John decided that he could not really trust Mycroft to deliver the message, so he sent an email.
Hi, Sherlock, so sorry I missed seeing you. Headed back tomorrow. Glad to hear that you are doing well and working. I miss you. Take care. John.
There was no reply.
A relapse was probably to be expected. Actually, the only surprise was that it took so long.
John was sleeping, after a fifteen-hour stint in the operating theatre, when his phone rang. Swearing, he rolled over to grab it from the floor next to the camp bed. “What?” he growled without even looking at the screen.
There was only the sound of heavy breathing that went on for so long he almost just disconnected the call.
Then: “John?” Raspy and tentative and unmistakable. And unmistakably high.
“Sherlock,” he sighed, more than said.
“I’m sorry, don’t be angry, please.”
“I’m not angry,” John said, although he was. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” There was a pause, with more raspy breathing. “No case in weeks. I was just…so bored, John.”
John gritted his teeth, not wanting to say what he really wanted to say. “Lucky you,” he finally said tightly. “I wish I had the time to be fucking bored, instead of being up to my elbows in blood and broken bodies.”
“Well, you’re the hero, aren’t you?” Sherlock replied. “I’m just the freak who gets high.”
There was a pause.
John was about to tell him to quit being fucking Peter Pan and grow up, but he held back. It wouldn’t help now. And there was a part of him that did not want Sherlock to change. He only wanted him to stop killing himself.
“Do you remember when I used to dance, John?” Sherlock asked suddenly, his voice a whisper.
“I do, yes. You were beautiful.” John was so tired that he spoke without thinking.
“Was I?” Now Sherlock sounded almost dreamy.
John wondered just how high Sherlock was. “Where are you?” he asked.
“Flat on Montague. Waiting.”
John could hear the distant sound of a copter approaching the compound and hoped to hell he wouldn’t be called back to the operating theatre. “What are you waiting for?”
“Mycroft. Taking me back to rehab.”
“Well, that’s good.”
There were some faint noises that John could not identify. Still, he took a chance. “Put down the fucking needle, Sherlock,” he said hoarsely.
It sounded as if his order had been followed, at least judging by Sherlock’s sigh.
“When are you coming home, John?” Sherlock asked. “For good?”
“In about nine months, Sherlock. Try not to kill yourself before then, will you, please?”
The next sound he heard coming through the phone was that of pounding feet and background voices. “Goodbye, John,” Sherlock said quickly.
The connection was cut.
“---because I love you,” John said one second too late.