When Jamie is born, the name Joan is already etched into the skin across her left ribs. It’s not fine script; the letters are a messy scrawl that are illegible to everyone but her. Jamie knows. She’d always known.
At the age of sixteen, when she’s working as a capo for the Dinapoli family as they claw their way into a stronghold in England, she sees one of the family’s specialists and has the name burned away with acid. If the name had been any larger, it might’ve left a disfiguring scar behind. As such, the skin left behind is super smooth with only the barest roughness around the edges. For the first few weeks after it heals, she takes to running her fingers across her ribs where it had been before she realizes that, too, is weakness and forces herself to stop.
She spares a thought for it every now and then. She wonders if Joan would be more suited for the lady she was—the refined daughter of the aristocracy she left behind—or the woman she has become. She tells herself it doesn’t matter; she's made her choice.
By the time she has broken ties with the family—taking with her a few loyal men and enough money to fund her budding empire—the scar is nothing more than a patch of shiny skin and a reminder of what might’ve been if she had taken the divergent path and allowed herself the excesses of the nobility without the bloody satisfaction of carving the name Moriarty into the swollen underbelly of the world.
She spends ten years focused on her goal and not allowing even a moment of weakness. When Kayden is born—not from any such moment, but the inevitable result of a well-played strategy with the father—she allows herself a short indulgence as she holds her daughter for the first and last time and thinks about Joan. What Joan might’ve made of Kayden. If they would have argued over her name, her nursery, her education. Kayden could’ve been their daughter.
When she passes Kayden to Allison and sends them both away to the relative safety and anonymity that can only be offered in New York City, she lets the fantasy die. Motherhood doesn't suit her, as much as she feels she can adore Kayden from afar. Perhaps motherhood wouldn't have suited Joan either.
She starts hearing about Sherlock Holmes not long after; he ruins two of their operations and gets perilously close to identifying more than just the unique killing style Sebastian employs. Her people are thorough, and they deliver her a complete write up just a day after she asks. Sherlock, it seems, has the name ‘Irene’ tattooed in the crook of his elbow. They have pictures liberated from Scotland Yard’s database of him overseeing a crime scene which allows a glimpse of the elegant handwriting. She practices it over and over, and extrapolates what the rest of Irene’s handwriting must look like from the unfortunately small sample size.
The day before she meets him, she buys herself a tube of black henna and ever so carefully writes out Sherlock’s name in his own, deliberately chaotic printing on the inside of her left thigh.
When he sees her the first time, it’s like he’s looking at the sunrise and she knows she has him utterly.
Things play out, interesting for a while, but inevitably even the sumptuous temptation of his mind begins to bore her, and she and Sebastian arrange her ‘death’ and disappearance. She leaves a few loose ends, in case she ever needs to reactivate the Adler identity, and takes off to France to overlook some of her holdings.
They tell her Sherlock is a broken man; she’s mostly forgotten the adoration in his eyes—poorly hidden, despite his best attempts—by the time the most recent application of henna has completely faded away.
Yet when it becomes prudent to allow Sherlock to meet with Irene yet again, she finds herself completely unsurprised to discover he’s taken up with Dr. Joan Watson.
She decides at first that Joan would’ve been the perfect companion to present to her family; a doctor with a well-to-do family, despite her failings in the former. The woman Jamie might have been been could have propped Joan up, helped her overcome her misaimed guilt and kept her in the medical practice. They would be well-received publicly, if not despaired of in private over their gender and Joan’s race. Everything could have been quite comfortable, all things considered.
But once Jamie invites Joan to lunch—all whimsy and indulgence she explains away to everyone else as strategy, though she makes it habit to not lie to herself—she wonders if perhaps Joan isn’t perfect for Jamie, instead. Jamie pokes and prods and deliberately antagonizes, and despite having the upper hand in every single way, she finds herself reacting to Joan’s pointed observations.
She is completely enraged with Joan when she allows Sherlock to ruin himself all over again. It pales in comparison to the grief she feels over Sherlock attempting the final destruction of his magnificent brain. If Joan cannot keep her things in proper order, Jamie decides, she has an obligation to take them away.
When she realizes the deception—moments before Sherlock confirms it and Joan walks through the hospital door—her heart heaves in her chest. She’s not used to being surprised. Not when she felt she had accounted for every angle and possibility. Joan is not supposed to be Jamie’s. Joan is supposed to be for the woman Jamie had left behind.
She doesn’t struggle as they lead her away. She has sixteen different contingencies in place in the event of her incarceration. Everything will continue running smoothly without her. Her empire is safe, her involvement in all but the most recent assassination completely obfuscated, and her lawyers are prepared to release certain details to any potential prosecuting attorneys that will be appear to be more than fair trade for her freedom. Once they’ve shown her to her cell, within a day she has figured out so many means of escape that the attempt to keep her prisoner becomes a small, secret joke that she hides in the corners of her mouth.
In spite of everything, she opts to remain in custody for a bit longer. Her first glimpse of Joan and her brilliance was not enough. And, perhaps if she stays, she might have another.
Joan is thirteen when the name ‘Penelope’ finally fades into existence in tiny, mouse-like letters along the inside of her ring finger. Penelope, she thinks, is a beautiful name and she doesn't mind that she's had to wait so long to see it. Her mother tries not to look disappointed in it, but even the downturn of her mouth and silent disapproval can’t tamper Joan’s elation. Penelope. Penelope. She writes it down a thousand times in the margins of her notebooks and school texts. Her eyes circle to it all the time, and stroking the pad of her thumb across the writing becomes a nervous habit over the years.
One night, during her residency when everything is stressful and terrible and wonderful, she looks down at her finger and the patient chart she’s holding falls from suddenly limp fingers.
Tattoos don’t disappear. She’s a doctor; she’s seen them linger as a bittersweet reminder when delivering news about a patient’s condition—still printed bold despite each slowed beat of a dying heart. Even when life is robbed from a patient violently, they don’t just vanish. Losing your soulmate doesn’t mean they stop existing.
It was all wrong.
Joan compartmentalizes the best she can, and sets herself small goals: get through the next minute, the next ten minutes, the next half hour, the next hour until she finally finishes her fifteen hour shift in the ER and goes home and collapses from grief. She’d always assumed Penelope would somehow appear in her life. That they’d run into each other buying coffee or reaching for the same sweater while shopping or be introduced by mutual friends who had no idea that they were a match.
She spends an hour crying in her front hallway before dragging herself into the bathroom to shower the smell of antiseptic off her skin.
When she’s stripped naked, and tossed her scrubs into the laundry hamper, she finds the name on her bicep. The handwriting has some similar characteristics—the ‘e’ looks almost the same, though Penelope’s were less bold—but she’s so full of staggering relief that she doesn’t care. Penelope is gone, but whoever this Jamie is… they’re still meant for her.
Circumstance leads her to Sherlock. Sherlock leads her to Moriarty. To Jamie. Her Jamie.
They sit across from each other at lunch, and Joan knows that Moriarty is aware of their connection and is pretending not to be. To be honest, with the way she tried to destroy Sherlock, Joan’s ready to ignore it as well. When Moriarty asks Joan if she wants to sleep with Sherlock, Joan wonders if she realizes just how much jealousy is bleeding into her words. Why ask, otherwise?
She figures Moriarty out and helps Sherlock craft a plan that can end with her in custody and tries not to think too hard about where the insight came from.
The next time Joan sees her, Moriarty flirts outrageously and while Joan is confident she’s doing so as a distraction, she’s reluctantly entertained by it, though she struggles not to betray the fact. The situation forces them into close proximity, and they still don’t mention the elephant in the room. Joan decides they probably never will.
But then Moriarty's being loaded into an ambulance and Sherlock places a hand on Joan’s arm, barely touching her tattoo.
“Strange,” he mutters, “I couldn’t help but notice that while awaiting medical attention, we seemed to spend the entirety of our discourse discussing you.”
Joan’s never kidded herself about Sherlock’s genius, but even after all this time, she doesn’t see it coming when he pieces things about her together so effortlessly. It hits her like a punch to the gut every time (observations about her menstrual cycle notwithstanding).
It’s with no small amount of reluctance that she visits Jamie’s admitting hospital the following day. She stands for a long time outside Jamie’s door, thinking about who Penelope was and who Jamie is. What it means for them. If it means anything.
Whether or not she should go in.
She stands in the hallway for a very, very long time.