I spoke about wings
You just flew
I wondered, I guessed and I tried
You just knew
But you swooned
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
The Whole of the Moon, The Waterboys
In the beginning, there was a checklist lurking at the back of John’s mind.
During that narrow window of happiness between first having Sherlock and first losing him, he forgot about the list. He had what he wanted – what he needed – and although it involved far too many near-death experiences for his liking, it seemed a fair trade.
“John?” Sherlock said one night. It was six months after they’d finally admitted to each other what everyone else had known all along. They lay together side by side, shoulders touching, John’s leg snaked around Sherlock’s.
“Mm?” John said sleepily. He was more into the post-coital coma than the post-coital chat.
“Do you miss . . . them?”
“The Beatles? Dinosaurs? Help me out . . .”
Sherlock took a long breath. “Girlfriends.”
“There are plenty of girlfriends still out there, I imagine.”
He smiled an anxious kind of smile. “Just not with you.”
“No, not with me.” John curled his fingers around Sherlock’s wrist.
“Then it’s all right?”
“Yes, of course.”
It was more than all right. For as long as it lasted, it was the most glorious game John had ever played.
Sherlock later thought of those years –his disappearance and his return – as his dark ages. He’d spent hundreds of days chasing ghosts, following leads, drowning in the despair that he would never make it back. He spent most nights trying to find a reason not to slide into the haze of a hit.
When he finally reappeared, his own case of PTSD etched into every new shadow on his face, he found the room empty. The fire gone cold. The haze was a welcome relief. Consolation prize for the runner up.
But even now, with the warmth of John’s hand in his as irrefutable proof that he finally made it all the way home, he presses his fingers against his veins and hopes it’s enough.
Love does not make life easier, John learns. Better, just not easier.
Sherlock complains that John watches too much telly. What he really means is that John doesn’t watch the programmes he likes. He complains that John talks in his sleep. John asks him how he knows and he says that John’s snoring keeps him awake.
Sherlock hates John’s clothes (another green jumper, John, really?), his taste in books, his sister. Over the past week, he’s accused John of cheating at cribbage, using all the hot water, hiding the biscuits.
Sherlock scowls when their weekend in Sussex is rained out.
“My fault, I suppose,” John says.
Sherlock doesn’t disagree.
Sometimes John wishes Sherlock liked him more and loved him less.
When Sherlock saw the gun and the small hand holding it, he estimated the probability that the boy would actually try to shoot him at less than 10%. In the unlikely event the boy pulled the trigger, he estimated the probability of being hit, given the distance between them, at less than 2%. So he stood his ground.
Sherlock’s not nearly as clever as he believes.
He would have been right 98 times out of 100, he tells me later.
“Small consolation,” I say. “You take too many chances. You almost . . .” Left me again, is what I wanted to say, but I knew I couldn’t manage it.
“Yes. But I didn’t.”
“The odds are in my favour, John.”
“Yes. Fine. I promise.”
His body is not as forgiving as I am. There are more surgeries, more antibiotics, and for days words like ventilator and best-case scenario crackle in the air like storm warnings.
But then, for the second time in as many months, Sherlock beats the odds.
He’s still sleeping, torqued into some improbable shape, like a body washed up on the shore, one arm thrown up over his eyes to block out the morning sun. He hasn’t moved in more than an hour.
I leave him there while I go make tea and take a shower. I’m getting better at this now. At leaving him alone. I’ve finally begun to believe what I’ve been telling him for weeks. That the doctors are right. That the worst is over. That time will do the rest.
I’m standing by the sink, cutting strawberries for cereal when he finally appears. He smiles and my heart does a little flip-flop. Still. After all these years. He’s too thin by half and he walks slow and stiff, like his brain isn’t on speaking terms with the rest of his body yet, but at least he’s walking again. He stands beside me, his bare shoulder pressed up against mine, and kisses me on the cheek. Then he lifts his arm to turn my head and we kiss like we used to. And he tastes like toothpaste and he says I taste like strawberries. We forget the tea and the cereal and go back to bed, and even though it isn’t the same as it was before, it’s still us and we still get where we want to go, even it takes us a little longer.
He says it’s too late for breakfast when we finally make it back to the kitchen. He’s always looking for excuses not to eat. The doctors say his stomach may never forgive him for getting shot. So I’m creative, sprinkling protein powder in his soup, hiding tofu in the lasagna, mixing wheat germ in the muffins. I suspect he knows, but he doesn’t protest. He plays along and I try not to hover or remind him of the world’s starving children as he pushes his food around his plate like a finicky child.
But he still has one weakness. Biscuits. So I’ve learned to bake. I collect recipes from magazines and borrow cookbooks from the library. One afternoon, not long after he came home, Mrs. Hudson walked into the kitchen, saw what I was trying to do, and took pity on me. She rolled up her sleeves and taught me what “creaming the butter” and “folding the batter” meant. We made lemon shortbreads that day – biscuits that have set impossibly high standards for everything I’ve attempted since. I glanced over at Sherlock in the middle of a bite and I’d never seen him look quite so happy.
But now it’s noon and I tell him he has to eat, trying hard to make it a suggestion and not an order. And for once he says he’s hungry and asks for soup, which we have, and gingersnaps, which we don’t. He watches me flip through the cookbooks while I eat.
He clears his throat and without looking up from the bowl, he says, “John?”
“You best cut back on the biscuits. Those trousers are definitely getting tight.”
When John tells him, he keeps his voice light.
“The doctor said it might be nothing. Told me to come back next week and they’ll repeat the scan. Sometimes a shadow is just a shadow.”
Sherlock nods and searches his face, looking for the truth – or perhaps the lie – hidden there. Like he did that time when John said he twisted his ankle, because it wasn’t the right time to tell him it was broken, not with McNeil still waving his gun around and two flights of stairs between them and the police. It wasn’t until McNeil was on the floor, hands cuffed, cursing them and their mothers and Lestrade and the whole fucking constabulary, that John slid down the wall with a ragged “Sherlock?” on his lips.
There are no more McNeils for them now, but Sherlock remembers the fear, the cold weight pressing on his chest, the prickling at the back of his neck.
"I probably just moved or took a breath when I shouldn’t have. Blurred the scan,” John says in bed later.
“Probably,” Sherlock says. “You never did learn how to keep still.” His hand opens and closes around John’s cock. “Like now.”
And then his mouth is on John’s, and his hand is in his hair. They move together with a rhythm they learned years before. Sherlock tells him he loves him, but he doesn’t have to, because John already knows.
Sometimes a shadow is just a shadow.
Party’s off, thank god. I convinced him to cancel my birthday party. I’m not sure where the idea for the party came from (Sherlock’s never willingly played host in his life) but he’s agreed to cancel with only a few hours of pouting. I’m relieved. I’ve watched enough telly to know that when you have a birthday party for a dying man, it’s not a lot of fun. People feel the need to say deep, thoughtful things about the meaning of life. Which all end up sounding like complete bollocks. Plus I’d have to act noble and stoic, and I am neither of those things. Still, I’m glad it’s me. I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if it was him. I wouldn’t tell him this, but I’m not sure I could live without him. I mourned him for a very long time once, and I know I can’t do it again. He’ll do fine without me. He has his research and his writing and his bees (don’t get me started on those damned bees). Does that make sound like a selfish wanker? Probably. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Borrowing trouble, Mum called it, do you remember?
I have two more weeks of radiation, then we’ll see. Doctors know shite – I should know.
Anyway, tomorrow’s the big day and I feel good. As good as any man my age has a right to feel. I don’t look too bad either. Yes, my hair’s a little greyer than last year, but on the bright side I’ve finally lost those extra pounds. Cancer is god’s very own good news, bad news joke.
Sherlock sends his love (no he doesn’t but we can continue to hope, can’t we?).
One more thing in case, well, just in case . . . look in on him from time to time, will you? Remind him to get on with things. Bring biscuits.
Sherlock left me once. A long time ago. To teach me a lesson, he says now.
“What lesson?” I ask.
But he just smiles and kisses me and tells me he loves me. As if I never knew.
It’s my turn to leave him now. In this small house, I measure out the time that remains. I've become miserly, penny-pinching the days and weeks, reluctant to spend even one.
He's angry with me. He says I've given up, and I have, but not in the way he means. I've given up pretending that anything else matters but here and now and him.
I sleep in the afternoons. Rehearsing, I say, but he doesn’t see the humour. He draws the curtains and lies beside me, one arm wrapped tightly around my shoulder as if to anchor me in his world.
For months, I didn’t dream. But now, away from the machines and the lights and the doctors, my dreams have returned.
I dream about my mother kissing me good night. When I ask her if she loves me, she hugs me tightly and whispers in my ear, “To distraction, silly boy.”
I dream about my father. We walk together again in the woods, his breath a frozen cloud against the endless blue.
And I dream about Sherlock. Always about Sherlock.
He's finally forgiven me, I think. For leaving him when I said I never would. It’s a thirty-year old promise, I remind him.
We rise early now. He brings me tea and we drink it by the fire. For an hour each morning, before the pain grabs hold, we have our old life back. It's enough to see me through. He understands that now. When we lose this time, this one good hour, which will happen soon, I know, we’ll learn to say good-bye. One heartbeat at a time.
And I will teach him the lesson I never had to learn.
These were the things that John never talked about:
The time he broke his ankle stepping off a kerb. When he ate a pound of water beetles (chocolate-covered, but still) because Sherlock bet him fifty pounds he couldn’t. Mary Morstan. March 10, 2014.
These were the stories that he told again and again:
Baskerville. The Queen's ashtray. The day his first novel came out. Their wedding. Stories Sherlock had heard so many times he could tell them himself. Sometimes he had laid a hand on John's arm or caught his eye and John would pause and clear his throat and change the subject to the weather or the price of petrol.
In the end, there was only one story that mattered. “I’ve always loved you.”
Sherlock had his own stories. Their first case. First kiss. Last kiss. He went back to them over and over those first weeks when the house felt too empty, the silence too loud. He’d sit opposite John’s recliner in the dark, hands wrapped around a tumbler of whiskey, Bella snoring quietly at his feet, and imagine him there.
John had come home with the puppy five years earlier. He said it was for Sherlock’s birthday, but he was the one who’d always wanted a dog. From the start, Bella tolerated Sherlock, but loved John with a devotion that stalkers could only aspire to.
Every evening now, she sat by the door with the leash between her teeth and waited for Sherlock. They both agreed he was a poor substitute for John, but grief had finally made them friends.
In the books Sherlock loved as a child—brightly illustrated tales of knights and maidens and magic—each character possessed one defining trait. Maidens were beautiful, fathers stern, knights brave. Frogs became princes, and princes became heroes. Villains were killed, not reformed. Personality was motivation—bad men did bad things—and revenge was never mistaken for justice. Even in these stories, heroes sometimes died, but always some good would come of it.
Sherlock learned later that these were fairy tales. That nothing was ever that simple. That heroes were neither completely happy, nor entirely good. He learned that the fight was never fair, that the line between good and good enough shifted and blurred as the years went by.
He understood that happiness was a piecrust promise. Easily made, easily broken. So he learned to hoard small moments of joy—John’s laugh, a puzzle solved, his bees in summer. He saved them like collateral to borrow against in hard times . . .
“Come here,” Sherlock said. Out loud this time. He’d been saying it silently for months, waiting for John to finally hear him. “Please, John.”
In a second, John was in front him, eyebrows raised, head tilted. Sherlock fisted his hands in the lapels of John’s overcoat and pulled him close. Then he leaned forward and kissed him.
John opened his mouth and for a moment Sherlock thought he was about to say something about how it was too soon, or too late, and how he’d got it all wrong. Again. So he slipped his tongue between John’s teeth and he made a sound deep in his throat, and then John was kissing him back. Sherlock threaded one hand in John’s hair, and it was damp with snow and he wanted to stand there forever, the heat of John’s body pressed against his.
They broke apart finally, panting, their breath rising like clouds in the cold night air. John pulled them back together laughing, “Again,” and Sherlock thought he had never heard anything as brilliant as that.
“Let’s go home,” John said and Sherlock grabbed his hand and then they were running toward Baker Street, the new snow swirling around their feet and John was laughing and looking up at the snowy moonless sky.
And Sherlock’s only thought, repeating over and over in his mind, “This is where I belong, the only place I ever want to be.”