When first we faced, and touching showed How well we knew the early moves, Behind the moonlight and the frost, The excitement and the gratitude, There stood how much our meeting owed To other meetings, other loves. The decades of a different life That opened past your inch-close eyes Belonged to others, lavished, lost; Nor could I hold you hard enough To call my years of hunger-strife Back for your mouth to colonise. Admitted: and the pain is real. But when did love not try to change The world back to itself–no cost, No past, no people else at all– Only what meeting made us feel, So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange? --Philip Larkin When First We Faced, And Touching Showed
Sherlock’s been home from hospital for five days, but nothing is settled. Nothing is comfortable.
Nothing is right.
John is a conscientous, overly solicitous caretaker, making tea and food, rearranging blankets and pillows; Sherlock is well behaved and far too polite, accepting the careful ministrations without comment, both of them steering clear of the petty squabbles and teasing jibes that are their stock in trade when all is easy and well.
The elephant in the room looms large between them, casting its shadow every minute of every day.
Tonight, her spectre looms large over the two tense, unhappy men as they sit in grey silence in front of a cheerful, crackling fire.
Sherlock takes a deep, careful breath and sets his mug aside, pulls the silver memory stick out of the pocket of his blue dressing gown. John watches him flip it contemplatively between long, graceful fingers.
(John hasn’t read it, because there is nothing on it to read. It is empty, as empty a shell as the woman herself.)
“John,” Sherlock says, his voice deep and solemn. “We’ve put it off for far too long.”
John raises his eyes wearily.
“Sherlock,” he sighs. “Just. Can we not?”
“You know you have to go back to her,” Sherlock says quietly. “And soon.”
John exhales hard, shakes his head. This is not the first time they’ve had this conversation.
“I can’t. You can’t…” John suddenly feels too near tears, his heart aching, his soul exhausted. “Don’t ask this of me, Sherlock.”
Sherlock’s pale silver eyes bore holes in him. “We have to keep her close,” he says, his voice tired and resigned. “Keep her complacent. Make her think she’s safe. If she thinks you’re working against her…” his eyes drift downward to the blank drive. “She’d kill you without a moment’s hesitation to protect herself. Don’t doubt it for a second. You’ve seen what she really is.” His voice softens, almost pleading. “Don’t allow sentiment to cloud your judgment about what you must do.”
John’s head jerks up. His laugh is short, sharp, utterly lacking in humour. “You think I’m hesitating because I feel sentimental towards her?” he asks, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
“That’s not the sentiment I was referring to,” Sherlock says softly, not meeting his eyes.
Understanding washes over John, and the hollow despair in its wake is almost too much to bear. He swallows hard against the lump in his throat, pushes down the hurt. Shakes his head.
“You’re due for a dressing change and a pain pill,” he says.
“John, damn it,” Sherlock says with an edge of irritation. “Don’t change the subject.”
“It’s late, and you need to rest,” John says, getting up and moving toward the kitchen. “I’ll keep an ear out while you’re in the shower to make sure you don’t pass out and crack your head open. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll come put on a clean dressing.”
He deliberately turns his back to Sherlock, busies himself with locating a clean glass and pulling the bottle of Macallan from the cabinet. Behind him, Sherlock is still for a long moment before sighing in resignation as he gets up and goes into the bathroom without another word.
John returns to his chair and sits down heavily, takes a generous gulp of the Macallan. The burn of the scotch does nothing to alleviate the heavy weight of dread in his chest.
He contemplates his future as he gazes into his glass, listening to the shower run, to Sherlock moving carefully in the bathroom as he steps into the tub, closes the curtain.
(He very deliberately shuts down any stray thoughts of Sherlock in the shower, pale and lean and naked under the hot spray, carefully soaping his body, scrubbing shampoo through his lank, overly long hair, closing his eyes as he rinses, sluicing water through dark curls. Not really helpful, he tells himself, especially considering the issue at hand.)
Sherlock is right. John knows this. He has known ever since the night after Sherlock woke up from his second surgery, when Mycroft sat on the other side of Sherlock’s hospital bed and laid out the details of Mary’s past, her involvement with Moriarty, the way she deliberately placed herself in John’s path after Sherlock’s fall, took advantage of his grief to insinuate herself into his life, his heart.
Mary is a threat that has to be neutralized, at least for the time being, until the brothers can cobble together a workable plan to bring her down for good. To accomplish that John must do the unthinkable, and pretend to forgive the woman who shot Sherlock in the heart.
The water stops; the shower curtain slides on metal rings. Sherlock opens the door leading into his bedroom. A drawer opens and closes.
“All right,” Sherlock calls, his voice tired and strained. Much as he endeavours not to show it, he is still gravely injured and still in considerable pain.
That is what I’m expected to forgive, thinks John. A bullet to the heart, flatlining on the table. Months of excruciating recovery.
How? For the love of God, how?
“Coming,” John answers, draining the last swallow of scotch and setting the tumbler aside. He stands, reaches for his bag behind the chair, and heads to Sherlock’s bedroom.
Sherlock is sitting on the his bed, clad only in soft cotton pyjama bottoms, frayed at the hem from many washings. His pale torso is far too thin, every rib visible. The bullet hole is healing well but still livid and draining just slightly; the thoracotomy scar starts under his right arm, follows the curve of his ribs, stretching around to his back. It looks minor, almost inconsequential, but John knows it hurts him almost as much as the hole in his chest.
John sits on on the bed to the right of Sherlock, laying out supplies, pulling on a pair of sterile gloves. He dresses the thoracotomy incision quickly and neatly, taping gauze into place, then slides to the floor, kneeling in between Sherlock’s legs as he tears open a single use packet of Bacitracin, applies the antibiotic ointment to the small, concave wound.
This is the fifth night they’ve done this, and the undeniable intimacy of it has not lessened one bit. The nearness of their bodies, John’s gloved fingers touching Sherlock so intimately as he tends to the injury-- the closeness of it all is overwhelming, almost terrifying, and John is nowhere near as observant as Sherlock but he still recognizes how the man’s heartbeat races under his hands.
John’s throat is dry, his own pulse hammering as he realizes he’s more than half-hard in his trousers. He swallows, pushing down the upwelling of confusing and overwhelming feelings. “All done,” he says, his voice sounding tight and strangled to his own ears. A moment later, he realizes belatedly his hand is still on Sherlock’s chest. He feels unable to move, unable to pull away.
Sherlock’s heartbeat thrums under his fingertips, so insistently, undeniably alive.
The moment stretches between them.
“There’s no other way,” Sherlock murmurs. “You have to see that.“ His hand comes up, covers John’s smaller one. He peels the latex glove away, tosses it aside. Presses John’s bare hand over his heart. “Please know that--please know I wish it wasn’t like this.”
Sherlock’s breath is ragged, shallow. John looks up at him, at pale eyes gone wide and dark in the dim light of the bedside lamp. For a fleeting, hysterical moment he thinks (hopes) Sherlock is going to kiss him.
“Please,” Sherlock says again, his voice low and hoarse.
John turns his hand over, interlaces their fingers together. He gives in to a mad impulse, bringing the tips of Sherlock’s fingers to his mouth, brushing them across his lips. Sherlock's breath hitches just the tiniest bit.
They stay like that for several long moments, breathing together, unwilling to break the fragile spell between them.
Sherlock takes a breath. “When we get clear of all this,” he says, eyes downcast, voice shaky. “When this is done, I hope--”
He trails off, shakes his head, eyes focused on John’s mouth.
John nods, once, understanding the emotion underneath the uncertain words. “When this is done,” he murmurs. “Yes. All right.” He reluctantly releases Sherlock’s hand, stands, gathers discarded wrappings and gloves from the bedspread and drops them in his bag. Sherlock is still, unmoving, his dark curls a halo in the dim light.
John reaches out, brushes gentle fingers over damp locks. “Try to get some sleep,” he says, his voice rough with unspoken feeling.
Sherlock nods without raising his head and John retreats, closing the door behind him, dropping his bag in the sitting room, picking up his glass and returning to the kitchen for another three fingers of scotch.
The burn of expensive alcohol does nothing to soothe the ache in his heart or the sting of unshed tears in the back of his throat.
“John, darling?” Mary calls up the steps. “I’m going out for a bit. Beth asked me to come over for coffee.”
John is lying on his back on the neatly-made bed. Their bed, the double bed he again shares, however unwillingly, with the woman he calls his wife. John sleeps with his back to her, clinging to the edge of the mattress, unwilling to touch her even in passing, even in sleep.
They haven’t been intimate in months, not since the night before Mary pulled the trigger and fired the bullet that pierced Sherlock’s heart.
Just the very thought of touching her makes him feel dizzy and ill with revulsion.
But he took her back. He did, in the end, give in to Sherlock, his insistence that despite her lies and deception and attempted murder, the safest place for her to be was next to John, soothed into complacency by his supposed forgiveness.
He hasn’t forgiven her, though. Of course he hasn’t. Not one single word of his Christmas Day speech made mention of forgiveness. He took her back because plans demanded it --Your way, Sherlock. Always your way-- but he will never, ever feel any kind of love for her again.
Sometimes John is almost caught by surprise at the intensity of his hatred. It’s to be expected, he supposes. He could never hate someone this much if he hadn’t believed in them before. Hadn’t trusted them. Hadn’t loved them.
And he had, once. He’s examined this from every possible angle, and he knows the truth: he did love her. It was a pale shadow of what he felt for Sherlock, a mere flicker compared to the raging fire Sherlock lit in his heart; but she was there when Sherlock wasn’t, when he died, when he left John broken and alone, and he had truly loved her for it.
John had loved her once, and she betrayed him.
The betrayal, in the end, is what hurts the most. It’s lodged like a bone in his throat, something he cannot swallow down. The betrayal is what he can never forgive, no matter what carefully-crafted non-apology he may offer in words.
(The idea that some fraction of Mary’s betrayal may be John’s own doing, may be tied into his own intense and messy feelings for the man who came back from the dead...oh, he’s not unaware. Not at all unaware that in some nebulous, poorly-defined way, he has betrayed both Sherlock and Mary in the haze of his own confusion and sorrow. Interestingly, the fact of his own complicity in this current clusterfuck makes him hate Mary just that little bit more.)
His hands are folded across his belly as he stares at the ceiling, resolutely gazing at nothing in particular. Mary’s voice registers, triggers an upswelling of something thick and black and ugly in his chest. Anger? Disappointment? Despair? He doesn’t even know anymore. All he knows is the black wave will swallow him whole if he allows himself to feel it, so he doesn’t. He just stares at the ceiling. Notes a spiderweb forming in the corner. Need to take a broom to it, he thinks. Knock it down.
Dismantle the web. For some reason that thought resonates with him.
“John?” Mary calls up again, this time an edge of annoyance in her tone. “Did you hear me?”
You have to live a lie, Sherlock had said. Live a lie to get to the truth. Can you do that, John?
John closes his eyes. Swallows. Forces himself into a neutral, civil tone. “Yes. I heard you.” He sits up, swings his legs over the edge of the bed. Gets up and walks to the top of the steps. He gazes at his wife, enormously round, nine full months pregnant, looking somewhat like a child’s red balloon in her wool coat.
If things had gone just a little differently, right now John would be smiling down at her in soft, amused fondness. But that’s not how it turned out. Maybe it never could have. Maybe the lie was too huge to stay hidden. Maybe they were doomed from the very start.
As John looks at her he feels stiff, mechanical, tension in every limb. Like a marching toy with an overwound spring.
Say something normal, for God’s sake. He shoves the bad feelings down and smiles.
“Do you want me to do something about dinner?” he asks politely.
“I don’t know how late I’ll be out. Joe’s being a real git again and….” Mary shrugs, smiles, the lines by her eyes crinkling in a perfect display of cheerful bemusement. “Girl talk,” she says. “Relationship advice. You know.”
Her face is perfectly guileless, open, cheerful. She has no tells. That very lack is her tell. John is getting pretty good at this.
Relationship advice, he thinks. From you. Make sure to tell your friend a clean head shot is preferable when dealing with pesky relationship issues.
A vision rises, unbidden. Sherlock in the back of that ambulance, pale as death itself, blood welling from a dark round hole in his chest as his vitals crashed and John trembled with sick cold fear, absolutely certain he was going to watch his
die in front of him again.
He will do this, he will pretend, he will live this lie for as long as he can because Sherlock asked him to, because Sherlock said they needed to buy time, because Sherlock said they needed to keep her placated for just a while longer. But actual forgiveness?
Not ever, not ever, not ever.
John pastes a smile on his face. It feels like a rictus of revulsion. Sherlock is right again; John is a terrible liar. He tries to soften his lips into something more passably natural.
I am very pissed off, and it will come out now and then. Or, maybe always, always and forevermore.
“All right,” he says neutrally. “Have fun.”
“If I’m out past dark, I’ll text you,” she says, pulling on her gloves.
“Sure,” John says. “See you later.”
He turns and goes back into the bedroom before she can say anything else, shuts the door and resumes his corpse-like pose on the cheerful, homey starburst quilt covering the bed.
He’s silent. Still. Waiting.
He’s been waiting for two weeks.
Thirteen days earlier
The text was from a number John didn’t recognize.
Lunchtime walk. Hyde Park. Be in front of Wellington Museum at 12:30.
It was the first communication he had received from Sherlock since his plane returned to the airfield twenty-six days earlier; Sherlock had descended the steps, mumbled a vague promise to be in touch, and slid into the dark interior of a waiting car.
Before his dark head ducked behind the car door, his pale eyes flicked up to John’s, just for a fraction of a second.
As always, their silent communication rang through loud and clear.
Be patient, that look said. I’ll be in touch.
So John waited. And waited. And began to wonder if he had misunderstood, if his nonverbal connection with Sherlock had been broken by deception and betrayal and distance...so he can’t deny how his heart leaps at the ten-word message, how the muted tones of his world snap into sharp-edged brightness at the thought that Sherlock needs him. Wants him.
He’s not unaware of the different shades of feeling in that thought.
John rearranged his schedule--the front desk nurse annoyed and snappish but John could care less, it barely registered--and slipped out of the surgery just before noon. At 12:30 he’s in front of the museum, trying to look casual as a long, shiny black car pulled up next to him.
John opened the car door, slid across the leather seat.
“Oh,” he said, not bothering to hide his disappointment. “It’s you.”
“Always a pleasure to see you as well, Doctor,” Mycroft replied sardonically.
“I don’t suppose you could possibly tell me where the hell Sherlock is,” John said.
(He wasn’t at Baker Street. John knew that. He had been by three times, once on a pretext of picking up some forgotten items and twice for no reason at all, his need to see Sherlock superseding his better judgment (and didn’t it always), each time feeling more and more useless and foolish, certain he wasn’t imagining Mrs Hudson’s vaguely pitying look as she poured tea and explained yet again that no, she hadn’t seen Sherlock at all since the two of them had left for Christmas dinner at the Holmeses.)
“You are correct,” Mycroft said. “I can’t. I can, however, give you back something you’ve misplaced.” He opened a sleek black case and handed John his Sig.
John looked at the gun in his hand--the gun Sherlock had used to blow a hole in Charles Augustus Magnussen’s skull--and back up to Mycroft’s serenely unconcerned visage.
“How did you…” John sputtered. “How could you...Mycroft, this is an unlicensed firearm and also, in case you’ve forgotten, evidence in a murder case.”
“Charles Magnussen died of a massive cerebral haemmorhage,” Mycroft answered smoothly. “Tragic, yes, but certainly not a crime.”
“Sherlock shot him in the head in front of twenty men.” John shook his head as if trying to clear out cobwebs. “Twenty witnesses. How can you possibly sweep that under the rug?”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,” replied Mycroft.
John shook his head in resigned disbelief. “A cerebral haemmorhage,” he mused aloud, a small, humourless grin forming on his lips.“That’s one way of describing what happened to him, I suppose.”
“At any rate, that’s not what we’re here to discuss,” Mycroft said dismissively.
“Then what are we here to discuss?” John said with more than a trace of annoyance.
“You’ll be needed soon,” Mycroft answered.
“Don’t ask stupid questions, John.” Mycroft nodded at the gun. “Keep that close at hand, make sure your mobile is on you at all times." He fixed him with an intent blue gaze. "And remember this word: Byzantium. Repeat it back to me, if you'd be so kind."
John's eyebrows drew together in confusion. "I'm sorry. What?"
He saw Mycroft strain with the effort of not rolling his eyes. "Just repeat it back to me, if you please."
John sighed. "Fine. Byzantium."
Mycroft nodded. "Thank you. Now from here on out, be ready."
“Ready for what?” John asked.
“You’ll know it when it happens,” Mycroft said. “Until then, continue on as if everything were normal.”
“Nothing about my life is fucking normal,” John muttered mostly to himself, tucking the gun into the waistband of his trousers as the car came to a stop at the intersection nearest his workplace.
“Always a pleasure, Doctor Watson.” Mycroft inclined his head towards the car door, a none-too-subtle indicator that John was being dismissed.
As the car pulled away John stood on the sidewalk a moment longer, pedestrians flowing around him unheeded. The butt of his gun pressed into the small of his back, a comforting presence under his tweed sport coat.
He had been called back to the battlefield. Sherlock’s battlefield.
Despite everything desperately fucked up in his life, John couldn’t deny the tiny fizzing bubble of joy deep in his heart.
The front door opens and closes. The car starts, the engine noise rising and receding as Mary eases out of the parking space and drives away.
John lies on the bed, feeling the black waves of anger and despair cresting and breaking just below the solid, immutable surface.
Mary is lying. Wherever she is going, John knows in his bones that she is lying.
So he waits.
A few minutes later, his phone vibrates in his pocket. He pulls it out, reads the text.
Don't be alarmed. SH
John sits up, looks around, sees...nothing.
He rises to fetch his gun from the back of the wardrobe, feeling the smile form on his face. It’s something small and sardonic and tinged with bitterness, but still. After all this time, something is finally happening, thank God.
As he opens the metal lockbox to fetch his Sig, the hairs on the back of his neck prickle unmistakably. John is suddenly certain there is someone else in the room with him.
He whirls around, gun held steady in front of him. It's not loaded, but he might be able to scare someone off--
The man in the black jacket and jeans raises his hands, backs up a step.
"Byzantium," he says.
John doesn't lower the gun but remembers the code word and Sherlock's text. "Okay," he says. "I'll play. What the hell are you doing in my house?"
"I'm here to kidnap you, sir," the man replies mildly, lowering his hands. He nods towards the gun. "And where we're going, you might want that loaded."
John wakes up, disoriented. He is lying curled on his right side, metal floor beneath him, hands bound behind his back, the smell of diesel fuel strong in his nostrils. Clearly the drugs haven't yet fully worn off because it feels like everything is rocking under his prone body.
Oh. He's on a boat.
His head clears rapidly. The dose of the drug was enough to knock him out convincingly, but light enough to recede quickly, and in another moment he fully recalls the details of the plan. His feet are bound tightly, but the rope around his wrists is loose, easy to wriggle free. The butt of his gun is still pressed reassuringly into the small of his back.
"You're awake," Mary says flatly, inspecting her cuticles, gun held loosely in her right hand.
'What the hell is going on?" John says, deliberately sounding more drowsy and disoriented then he feels.
“I had to make a deal,” Mary tells him, as casual as if they were discussing what to watch on telly. She shakes her head. “A boat," she sighs. “Why did it have to be a boat? Not terribly considerate of my situation.”
“What kind of deal?” John asks, already knowing the answer.
“I really thought he was dead,” Mary replies. “I thought I was free of him. I can’t owe him, you see. I need to make sure he’ll leave us alone. So I cut a deal with him. A trade. One life for another.” She takes a deep breath and rests her hand on her belly, a look of vague nausea on her face. “I’m sorry, John, but I really had no choice."
"You're not sorry," John says, not bothering to keep the hurt and disgust out of his voice.
"Okay," Mary concedes. "I'm probably not. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to settle my debt with him so I can raise my daughter in peace.”
“With who?” John asks hoarsely, horror dawning on him. He had known Mary was bad, was an amoral psychopath, a murderer, but this is the first time he had seen her for what she really is, what she is truly capable of.
“You know who, John,” she says, her tone mocking. “You know who I’m dealing with.”
A deep baritone voice echoes in the gloom. “But it seems you do not, Mrs. Watson,” Sherlock emerges from the shadows of the cargo hold, eyes pale silver even in the dim light. He doesn’t spare John even a passing glance. “Really, you were very slow,” he tells Mary evenly.
"I should have known," Mary sighs with something very like annoyance. Her eyes narrow slightly but her face registers no shock or surprise, showing nothing but the flat, calculating coldness of her true nature.
"You should have," Sherlock says.
“Jim really is dead, then,” Mary says, her voice cold.
“Undeniably so.” Sherlock gives her a disdainful, condescending look. “Staging his return was such a simple job, I can’t believe you fell for it. A few phone calls and text messages? Mycroft said you would, but I admit I had my doubts. I must say, I’m curious as to whether pregnancy hormones are making you slow, or if I overestimated Moriarty’s second in command all along.”
Mary aims her gun at Sherlock’s forehead, her face pale and damp but her hand perfectly sure and steady. “Insult me some more, and you’ll see how slow I am.”
Lying forgotten on the cold metal floor, John feels the revulsion spread through him.
This is why Sherlock kept him in the dark, lied to him, manipulated him, pushed him back to her against his will--to keep him safe from a woman who would kill him as easily as kiss him. Who would sell him to Jim Moriarty, to God knows what kind of fate, without a single blink of an eye.
John is finally, at last, beginning to truly understand why Sherlock had kept this from him. He hates it, it fills him with resentful anger that Sherlock treats him like a child that needs shielding from the harsher truths, but for the first time he does indeed understand.
He gathers his wits, remembers his role in all this, and begins to stealthily pull his hands free of the deliberately loosened rope around his wrists while neither Mary nor Sherlock are paying him any mind.
Sherlock cocks an eyebrow. “Kill me? Perhaps eventually, but I know you, Mary, and I know you’re the sort who will get as much information as you can out of me before you kill me. And you know I’m the sort who loves to hear myself talk.”
Mary shrugs and nods, conceding the truth of his words. “You brought Moriarty back from the dead just to draw me out?” she asks.
“Mycroft did,” Sherlock says, and John is fairly certain he’s not imagining a trace of something like pride in his voice, in the machinations of in his clever big brother. “I only learned of his plans after the fact.”
Mary tilts her head to the side, coldly reptilian. “But why go to the trouble?”
“Three reasons. One, get me out of exile and keep me in England. Two, keep you from gathering up the remains of Moriarty’s web and reestablishing his network under your command, which you surely would have done once you grew bored with playing housewife. You’ve already moved funds and established three alternative identities that we’re aware of. Three, keep John safe from you. You were going to sell him out at some point, for power or information or leverage or just to be rid of him.” Sherlock's lips curve into a thin, sardonic smile as he tilts his head toward John. "You acted on that front even quicker than I suspected you would. I thought sentiment would stay your hand for at least a few more months."
"Sentiment," Mary sneers. "As you might say, Sherlock, not really my area."
Sherlock shrugs, quirks an eyebrow. "I overestimated your capacity, it seems. Mea culpa."
Mary tilts her head in consideration. “You know, you could have accomplished all that a lot more safely by having me arrested in my kitchen,” she points out.
“Four reasons, then. I admit, I always like a dramatic confrontation,” Sherlock replies with a shrug and a quirk of his lips. "Runs in the family."
“And of those four,” Mary sneers, “which one is most important to you, I wonder?”
“You tell me,” Sherlock replies evenly.
“Of course.” Mary rolls her eyes in contempt. “It’s all for John, isn’t it? Everything, always for John." She laughs spitefully. "All for your faithful pet. Unfortunately for you, your obsession blinded you to the fact that there’s no way I will let you leave this stupid boat alive.” Her eyes narrow. “No, better yet.” She shifts, pivots on her heel, levels the gun at John’s prone form. “I think I’ll kill him first.”
Mary's face is calm, but John doesn’t miss the minute tremble of her hand. He’s pretty sure it’s not emotion. Her eyes narrow in her pale face as she stares Sherlock down. “You think I’m the one who’s slow? You’re the one who let your mind get clouded by your sentiment, by your desperate lovelorn pining for precious, slow, oblivious John Watson.”
John sees his chance and takes it, rolling hard to the right, going for his gun with his left hand.
“Not quite as oblivious as you think,” John says, Sig Sauer trained unwaveringly on Mary’s upper body. She turns to face him; her eyebrows twitch upwards in the barest hint of surprise.
“Oh, John,” she sighs, and he can’t quite parse the tone of her voice--is it bemusement? Annoyance? Pleading? Something of all three? “You won’t really shoot the mother of your child.”
“Good thing you’re not, then,” John says, and pulls the trigger.