Chapter 1: Just A Bit Under The Weather
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
— Walt Whitman
"That cough's getting worse," John tells me while struggling with a very contrite Rosie who doesn't want to wear a dress today. She rarely does, but it's parents' day at the daycare centre, and John appears to feel the pressure for conformity today. "You should have that checked out."
I dismiss his worries with a flick of my wrist. Being buried under a blanket on the couch for a week as the fever comes and goes and the swollen lymph glands on my neck give me a constant, throbbing headache has been trying on my patience. "I'm fine."
"When would you ever be not fine?" John asks, slightly amused but glancing at his watch once again. He doesn't want to be late. "Out of curiosity, what would qualify? You got shot and escaped the hospital to have spaghetti at a pub."
I duck under the duvet I have dragged from my bedroom and stifle another cough.
Pneumonia. How pedestrian.
It doesn't get better. There are more specialists, and finally, I am subjected to a bronchoscopy which — believe me — is worse than getting shot. At least it lasts longer. I'd let slip to John that was the diagnostic plan, and he insisted on coming with me; I vacillated between telling him not to and wishing him there. It's not as though I was going to ask Mycroft.
In the end, Rosie catches something at daycare and is vomiting profusely in the morning. We couldn't bring ourselves to turf looking after her to Mrs Hudson — who knows what gastroenteritis at her age could cause.
I just didn't want John to see the scars on my back.
I've not been entirely honest with John; it's not just the cough that persists. He doesn't know about the rash on my torso or the night sweats, about the chills or the sore throat. Mostly, it's like a very persistent head cold in its early stages. He's seen the enlarged lymph nodes, but those could be anything. "Your body's just reacting to some bug," John told me reassuringly.
I nodded like a bobblehead. Those could be anything.
Two days later, I go in to hear the results of the biopsy and bacterial samples. I hadn't told John about the appointment. I don't know why. I don't believe in premonition.
"Histoplasmosis," the pulmonologist tells me. "Quite rare in the UK."
It must be rare since I have not heard of such a thing. John's words from a week ago come to mind: "You should get that cough checked out; who knows what grows in that damned well."
I know it isn't so, but a fleeting thought of it somehow being Victor who's made me ill after all these years comes to mind. I've suffered enough for him, I think. A part of me will never let go of the idea that if I'd been cleverer, faster, older, more responsible, he'd be alive.
The pulmonologist writes me a prescription while I try to swallow around my still lidocaine-numbed throat.
"It's an antifungal which should clear this right up at this stage."
At what stage? I cannot parse the meaning of the expression.
The doctor watches my reaction, his hands on the keyboard halting. "You were told, weren't you?"
I see a sudden panic on his features. He is no spring chicken, no recent graduate but an experienced physician. Yet, whatever he's just realised I am not aware of has caught him off guard.
He pushes his chair away from the keyboard and towards the left side of the table where it is closer to mine. He leans forward, his eyes serious.
"Mister Holmes–– you tested positive for HIV."
"That's not possible. I've been tested several times in the last two years, and it has always come back negative."
I know of at least two occasions on which Mycroft has literally demanded blood. Right after I returned from Serbia, and during my incarceration after Magnussen's death.
"We have reason to believe this is a very recent infection, and that some of your symptoms have been those of a primary HIV infection, not the histoplasmosis. Your CD4 cell levels are very good, which is why we're not treating the infection as fulfilling of AIDS stage criteria."
I don't understand anything after recent infection, because I'm scrambling to understand how it could be possible. "Redo the test. It can't be correct."
He leans towards the computer and presses a few keys, scrolls down something. "We always do a verification run if an HIV discovery is made. I'm afraid the results are confirmed."
Go to hell, Sherlock.
I don't remember all of those two months. I don't remember all of it. I didn't share needles. I never share needles. Admittedly, it was one of my worst binges. The worst. I had to be thorough. John had to believe me. But I never shared needles. Not that I remember.
I never shared needles. I never shared––
I don't believe in stages of grief, as explained by the leaflet that's shoved into my hand as I depart from my first appointment at the Wharfside Clinic of St Mary's Hospital.
The only stages I plan to go through include anger which shall be followed by resignation. A part of me always knew it was childish to believe that those two years I lost to hunting down Moriarty would be repaid, somehow. With what? Happiness? Ha. That has eluded me all my life, save for the too few years I got to spend with John living at Baker Street. I was never destined for an easy, long life.
Some stars, when they reach the end of their celestial lives, diminish into white dwarves. I remember that this notion disturbed me as a child as I devoured countless books on science. I was much more pleased with the notion that some of them expanded into red giants and exploded into supernovas. Eventually, what remained was a black hole or a beautiful nebula. What is the point of it all, unless you can leave behind something beautiful and everlasting — or take everyone down with you in revenge if your life has been an endless line of adversity and suffering.
I don't want to take anyone down with me. John should have stayed away, but I wanted him back for my own, selfish reasons. Sometimes it's hard to believe the universe is not punishing me, but I have vowed never to succumb to such magical, self-centred thinking. This virus, this uninvited guest, this parasite in my cells is not part of a nefarious master plan. It just does what any living creature seeks to do: leave a legacy, to replicate, to not die and go extinct.
I skim a poster taped to the wall opposite. It promotes HIV testing. Wouldn't all those attending this clinic have passed that stage in the proceedings? Isn't that why they're here, because they have been tested?
Back in the day, they used to stage HIV appointments in back rooms, side buildings with separate, concealed entrances. Now, those patients are treated like anyone else, except that sometimes, they have their own units such as this one. Instead of walking out, I sit in the corridor and watch the people moving past. Which ones of them have it, and which ones are here as family members? Can I deduce it from the hunch of their shoulders, from the way they glance at others, from the way they carefully select a seat far away from the right appointment room door even if it hasn't been marked with any kind of a sign?
They're hiding in plain sight. Could someone clever deduce it on me?
The doctor is a forty-something male of Caribbean descent. His smile is kind of distant. He's been doing this for a long time, judging by that and his routine-soaked tone. "These days, Mister Holmes, it's a chronic illness, a latent infection, not a death sentence. The medications are excellent and require a less strict daily regime than before. These days, people who have it can give birth, have sex and enjoy a pretty normal life. People who get it now usually die of something else decades later."
"You should record that and just press play when you get a new patient," I tell the doctor.
Why would I want to die of something else? Why not this, in thirty years or however long it takes for my immune system to cave in? Is it still less dignified, less decent, less embarrassing?
He explains to me that my antiretrovirals are free of charge. He tells me that for the first six months, the transmission risk to a partner persists because viral suppression takes time. He's careful to use gender-neutral words. I suppose in his line of work he has to be more sensitive to these things than the average NHS employee.
"No partner," I say.
"You need to be particularly responsible during casual encounters, then."
"No casual encounters."
The look he gives me is sad. "So, you contracted this through––"
"Are you still using?"
"No. I've been clean for three months."
"That's very good, Mister Holmes. This may be a difficult time to stay sober; we have excellent support groups, and I can refer you to––"
"I have a support group." It's a group of one person, and his name is John. I can't cause him more worry and grief. I've done enough of that.
"I recommend we start with a triple combination of medications; it's standard, and with the infection you recently contracted, we'd best err on the side of caution."
I nod, rubbing the plaster on the crook of my elbow through my shirt; I'd removed my jacket for the physical examination. Bloods have been drawn to get a baseline of kidney and liver function and god-knows-what-else.
"Tenofovir and emtricitabine combined with dolutegravir, brand names Isentress, Viread and Emtriva," the doctor announces, then goes to explain doses and intervals. "The goal is to make your viral load drop down to where it cannot even be measured. At that stage, you will not be significantly infectious. We'll estimate at six months whether we should continue with this regime or swap one of the drugs."
I have questions. I don't have questions. I just want to get out of here, with these medications stuffed into my pockets so that people might assume, at most, that they're just packets of cigarettes.
"Thank you," I say at the end of the appointment, greatly confused as to why.
Chapter 2: The Curtain Rises
That night, I lie in bed, listening to the sounds from the flats above us. John and Rosie's room is quiet. It's the calm before the storm; she usually wakes up at some point to wail and be disconsolate for about half an hour. We've not been able to discern whether this is normal nightmares or what is known as pavor nocturnus — nocturnal horror fits, night terrors. It's strange to think that someone like Rosie could even have nightmares; she is still but a sprout of a human who has been spared and shielded of much pain and grief by the adults around her. What bad things would she dream about? Do any of her memory cells retain things about Mary, about the way John was after her death?
I can't tell if it's a side effect of the medications — loss of sleep is listed on all those online lists I've perused — or a side effect of a diagnosis that I can't sleep right now.
I remember a nightmare from the days before the wedding. I was at the venue, trying to make sure everything was ready for the reception. As I moved about the place, I kept bleeding; thin, burgundy trickles of blood on the flood, creating a map, not unlike that of the London underground. Nobody noticed. Nobody saw, or if they did, they seemed to think it was normal. I seemed to think it was normal. Mary was there, in those still-empty rooms, in the ivory Alice Temperley dress I recommended. Somehow, none of the blood ever stuck to those hems, never stained those almost virginal folds of cloth.
I'd dressed a bride in white for my funeral.
The side effects hit with a vengeance. I get dizzy if I move too fast, which leads to a most spectacular crash onto the floor as I try to climb over the coffee table while distracted by the taxonomy of Lepidoptera. At least Rosie thought it funny. There's fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and my gastrointestinal system becomes a disaster zone.
Three days later, there is a locked room murder going stale while I vomit my guts out and try to pick myself off the bathroom floor. John's trying to tell me we can't go, and I argue with more vigour than I actually possess that food poisoning is not contagious. He argues that we'd been eating the same things and that I could have still caught whatever Rosie had been suffering from last week. I lean my cheek against the bathroom cabinet and google incubation times for gastroenteritis viruses, my skin crawling to call him out on being wrong.
Then I realise I have to let him be wrong this time.
I never ask Lestrade if the murder gets solved. It should have been mine. Just like many things which never will be. That can't be helped now.
Every morning, my heart flutters with relief. He doesn't know yet. If John doesn't know, things are still like before. The future still looks slightly brighter like it has after things with Eurus quieted down after 221b Baker Street was put together and after John stopped grieving for Mary so hard that he couldn't even look after Rosie.
Every night, my heart constricts in my chest because yet another day has gone by when I've betrayed the promise we made to each other after Sherrinford: no more secrets.
I'm not keeping this one from him rather than keeping it for myself. As long as he doesn't know, it exists only in my head.
I thought, a part of me thought, that after everything, we might cast aside our doubts and youthful crises of sexuality and face what's been between us for the past ten years. This time, that plan, that hope, has not been snuffed out by a criminal mastermind, a certifiable sister or a marriage. No, this time it has been struck down by something so small one cannot even see it. John and I, I and John, in the truest sense of the word, is a fool's hope, now, one that had died a fool's death before it even lived. Expired in infancy before drawing its first breath.
I had nothing to offer for him before. Now, I am less than nothing. An equation he has never been able to solve, diminishing towards zero yet not quite reaching it. In this flat, he lives with the promise of a better future and a new life in the form of Rosie, and the ghost of pale death and loss in my human form. He's been hurt so many times because he's decided to make and keep my acquaintance. This illness may not affect his everyday life much if it behaves — as long as it behaves — but I am past wanting to burden John Watson with any more than he's already had.
This isn't his fight. It's mine, and I'm not sure how much of it I have left in me.
If ever the universe allowed John and me to be together as more than friends, public displays of affection would have been a thing to negotiate as John meandered his way through the inevitable crisis of his sexual identity shifting.
Now, there's is another meaning for PDA I must negotiate — public displays of anxiety. One of these occasions is when John emerges from the bathroom, Rosie in his lap and her soft, chubby fingers curled around my toothbrush. She's gnawing on the handle, and my instinct is to fling myself off the sofa and remove it before she gets to the bristles. My dental hygiene is impeccable; my gums haven’t bled in a long time, have they?
"Sorry," John says. "Needed a distraction. You're being very beastly today, young lady," he chides fondly and fluffs her sparse hair with his hand.
I force myself to move slower than my instincts are screaming out for me as I replace the toothbrush with an antique quill pen.
For me, it would be better, not knowing. For John and Rosie, I must carry this awareness to protect them. Always, always protect John Watson.
If ever the universe allowed for John Watson to be together with a man, it wouldn't be with an HIV-positive ex-junkie. It wouldn't be.
The longer the thought remains mine alone, the bigger a black mass it becomes in my head. An impenetrable fortress of thought, with the entrance lost beneath curling vines of useless speculation and regret.
"You'll grow roots on that sofa soon if you don't find us a case," John tells me. He doesn't know that I am on one, without him. And I fear there is no solution to this one apart from doing what I am told and letting time pass, both things at which I have always failed.
"It's not a death sentence these days," I am told by a young doctor. My regular one is sick today. How poetic.
"Life is a death sentence," I tell him disinterestedly. "We're all just hurtling through space on an overcrowded, over-polluted rock waiting for our cells to reach the end of their regenerative abilities."
I leave the appointment with a prescription for an antidepressant. I bin it on my way out of the clinic.
Chapter 3: Where do we go from here while staying in this one place where we belong
One night, I wonder what my parents or Eurus would make of the news. I won't ever tell them.
Mycroft put it well in his usual holier-than-thou manner: "She's passed beyond our reach."
Our sister has not spoken after the debacle at Sherrinford. My two visits to her, violin in tow, produced nothing but a few broken duets. Whoever she was, whatever she was, appears long gone and I don't quite know when it was even lost. Did I know the real her only as a child, before long years of incarceration stripped away what humanity remained in her? The woman I met as an adult was nothing but layers upon layers of constructed identity, playacting, scheming, manipulation and revenge. She would have avenged what happened after Victor's death with more death.
It's a heavy burden to carry to be someone's pressure point. I am hers. I am my brother's. I am John's. That's why I still haven't told him. He doesn't need this in his life. It won't concern him as long as my viral load stays low, and there's no exposure. I've carried necessary secrets before, kept them at a safe distance from him. I can do it again. I just need to stop believing I deserve a chance with him after everything I've done. Maybe what we could have been broke long before Mary. Maybe it broke long ago and believing that infection could be the culprit, instead, is easier because then it won't have been my fault. In all the other versions of our story I have told myself, I was the one who made all the mistakes.
Whatever I may have wanted to achieve by coming back to John have slipped through my fingers. All I have left for him is the vow I made.
"It is curable, these days," Mycroft states plainly. He's known for weeks — probably from the moment some machine churned out a result strip with that three-letter cypher which is becoming a part of the defining code of my existence.
So many sets of three letters.
Mycroft knows because he's probably still got alarms programmed through some hacked back door into the NHS records system which sends him an encrypted email every time my identification is activated. Old habits are hard to break; though my brother hardly needs to protect my from Eurus, now, he hasn't stopped looking after me in his strange, compulsive, frightened way.
"We're tissue type compatible. We'll get you enrolled in a stem cell transplant program."
Mycroft has moulded his career, his life according to the demands of his family. Now, he'd give me his stem cells. I'm quite speechless. And embarrassed.
"Why would they accept me? Out of all the decent, hard-working citizens who've contracted this, why would they choose me for such an experimental treatment?"
"I don't care about those people," Mycroft says plainly and sips his tea. "This is family."
Perhaps I have felt lonelier than I have realised because his statement feels like the first bit of consolation I have received from anyone since I was diagnosed.
HIV has been around since the eighties. I could have caught it during any of the time I betrayed my principles of condoms and never sharing needles. I could have caught it at any time when I didn't care whether I lived or died.
Yet, I caught it when I cared for nothing more than I did about John's life and happiness. I had to catch it when I did it all for selfless reasons. Obscene.
"Everything alright?" John asks.
"Why?" I press him. Challenge him. Test how badly he really suspects things are off-kilter.
"It's just… you've been a bit… I don't know, more OCD than usual?" He raises his hands in mock surrender. "Not complaining about the cleaning, but…"
I don't know how to do this, John. I know it's not easily transmittable. I know this, but a part of me won't believe it. The skin on my hands is cracked, and I hide them by sticking them in my trouser pockets.
He still smiles at me. Looks at me reverently while I steal glances at myself in shop windows and mirrors of murder houses to track the change a part of me expects but can't anticipate.
I want things that make no sense. Instead of the heady lust and compulsive possessiveness and fierce need to protect I felt for john before, I crave not his body but his presence even when he's right there. I need the way he breaks through my defences. I don’t want to tell him, but I want him to wrench the truth from me, to strip me of choice. Does he care if he just leaves me be? Does he care more if he respects my distance?
I want to smoke. I want to use. I don't want to disappoint john. I know I am on probation. I should be.
The rain-soaked Regent's Park looks bleak. Then again, anything would look that way when looked at through the dark-tinted windows of one of Mycroft's armoured cars.
"Diabetes, heart disease, liver damage, kidney damage, osteoporosis, hypercholesterolemia," Mycroft rattles off from memory.
"Why would I be interested in your NHS records?" I snap without turning to look at him.
"These are not ailments I suffer from," my brother clarifies, using the tone that borders on distasteful but manages to hang, tooth-and-nail, onto civility. "They are potential side effects of antiretroviral medications. You are looking after yourself, aren't you? Allowing yourself to be looked after? I cannot tell which concept you find more disagreeable."
I cannot, either.
"I'm taking the meds. Not much more I can do, so you can stop memorising package inserts."
"We don't do personal crises, you and I. We assess the data and manage. At least so I thought. Your landlady may have a point."
I have no idea what he's talking about. Mycroft taking advice from Hudders?
"I do wonder if this… will complicate matters for you."
"What matters?" I'm growing rather tired of Mycroft right now.
"John doesn't know, does he? Are you two… intimate?"
"I'll give you Irene's number if you're so deprived of human contact that you feel the desire to poke into the sex lives of others." He doesn't know that I know she's alive. He doesn't know, as far as I know, that I've seen her. Texted her. Though not lately. No interest. Mostly, she just needles me about John. It's quite pathetic, really, her obsession with me and relationships that don't even concern her. Maybe she and my brother would be a match made in heaven.
"I'll take that as a no." Mycroft leans back against his seat.
"Is this where you inflict a brotherly lecture about prophylactics?"
"No. This is where I tell you that this can go two ways. One, you continue to live with him, yet isolate him from your life by keeping this a secret. Two, you tell him and accept the consequences. They may not be as dire as you think."
I scrutinise myself in the mirror a week later. The nausea is abating, my energy levels are improved, and the symptoms of the initial infection are long gone.
I feel… normal, save for having to swallow a handful of pills each day. I look normal. I plaster on the fake smile I use with clients and witnesses. Perhaps I should even put on the hat.
I have a chronic illness. I'm managing it. Not a single day will pass when I won't be reminded of it by the blister packets I punch through. That shouldn't feel as crushing as it still does.
I didn't come back from those two years the same; I was different even before I caught this. John was charitable for liking me in the first place; add more difficulties and this, whatever this is, is unlikely to continue to feel like a reasonable trade-off for him.
I thought that with John returning to Baker Street with Rosie, Sherrinford being secure again, and Mycroft stepping down from all the surveillance, it would mean that we could begin our lives proper. A family; John and me and his daughter.
Yet I was caught in the current that takes me towards where mine ends. I know it might happen forty years from now, and not through the direct consequences of the virus. Maybe it'll be heart disease. Or cancer. It suddenly strikes me that in that case, I might plausibly keep this from John forever.
I know I won't. My lies have never had such longevity, not when I tell them to John.
Tonight, the universe has a sense of twisted humour, and it allows John to kiss me in the kitchen as we're putting our used pudding dishes in the sink.
It feels not like the confirmatory revelation I would have expected before. Now, it's a cruel afterthought.
Behind this self-centred veil that has befallen my thinking after the diagnosis, have I missed something? Did the moment completely elude me when the world tilted on its axis, and John took a shaky breath, opening and closing his fist as he admitted to himself what, for me, has been an inescapable truth from the start: I love this person. I would have wanted to see this happen, to see such a shift. When did it happen, John? Did I miss it, too afraid to watch you as carefully as I used to, in case it never appeared? Or did it happen when I half-existed, dead to you, during those two years? Did it happen quietly, perhaps as you were buying the milk I always forget or while your daughter played with her train set and you were picking other toys off the floor? Or did it happen just like it does in fiction; at some monumental moment in the past, perhaps as you shook my hand on the tarmac but wanted to do more, so intensely that you thought you were going to crumble right then and there? Did you hide it well? You must have, but the world's only consulting detective should still have picked up on it. He would have if he wasn't too busy sifting through the rubble of his life and trying to stick the broken pieces together.
The words which come out once our lips part are an entity entirely separate from me. They're vultures leaving a carcass. A confession.
"I'm HIV positive."
I expected silence and recoil. I expected questions. I expected... It’s strange how little I have tried to imagine this moment, considering how I've feared it.
I certainly didn't expect John to wrap his arms around me swiftly and fiercely. I didn’t expect being held, standing, John's warm palms on my shoulder blades, my name repeated reverently as if in the act of love.
”We need tea,” he says finally, and I’m relieved enough to feel drunk on something much heavier. ”I knew something was going on with you,” he says.
He doesn't make the tea, nobody does. Rosie is with Mrs Hudson, and I suddenly realise John had planned this evening, he'd planned to kiss me, to tell me things tonight. As always, I have derailed his fumbling attempts at doing right by others.
John sits perched on the hand rest of his armchair as though sinking down into the seat's soft comfort would somehow mock the seriousness of our conversation.
If I could tell him about the diagnosis, can't I tell him everything, anything? Why is it this thing, this minuscule thing, this virus, that would bring forth such a sudden honesty?
He asks me when I found out, and when I think I got infected. It's hard to admit I don't know, that someone he's described as the most observant man in London is missing chunks of memory. I'm not quite sure if he ever believed that our alienation wasn't just an excuse for a cocaine and heroin binge, even if, during that binge, I also used some substances I'd never touched before, as confirmed to him by Mycroft. I'm not sure if he believes I did it for him. I won't press this point, because it would feel like blaming him.
Once I begin speaking, it's hard to stop. Things tumble out. Slip out. Things I thought were over and done with, dealt with, put away, filed away in the Mind Palace. Mary. The Lazarus plan. Serbia. I can tell from John's shifting expressions and the fact that he was suddenly asking about my time away that he feared that it was not narcotics use but an event even more sinister which had infected me, that I had concealed this from him even now, blaming a contaminated needle.
I wish I could offer John a sob story of abuse and innocence. I wish I could give him a reality in which I am blameless for this final assault on our happiness. In saving him, I condemned myself. Was there a moment when I felt relief that I’d found an excuse to use? Had I decided that if the plan didn't work, I'd just burn through, continue using until I expired? Yes.
He asks about the scars on my back — I'd forgot about them as he embraced me, the pain they still cause like a thunder in the distance dulled by the shock that he wasn't walking away. He asks to see them and taking my jacket and shirt off turns out to make me feel less naked than uttering those three terrifying letters had been.
There are other terrifying but also wonderful words I have for him. Words I've said before. Didn't you hear me, John, at your wedding? Perhaps my timing was off as usual. You know social cues are not my forte. Didn't you hear it on the phone when you looked up and saw me standing at the edge of the roof? Didn't you hear it every time I said your name through the years?
He hears it now. "I love you. I've loved you from the beginning." I feel nearly hysterical how easy it is to say it, now.
Suddenly, the memory of the conversation I had with Culverton Smith at the hospital drifts in. In that moment, the intensity of my desire to live, after all, shook me to the core. That is precisely how I feel right now, burning with desperation for more, for another chance.
John takes my hand, brings me back to the bedroom. I don’t expect him to pick up where we left off; the atmosphere is changed. We lie on the bed, clothed. It happens without negotiation as though this is something we've been doing for years. I wonder if, in thought, we both have truly been doing so. Have we laid awake, him upstairs and me down here, both hoping we could cross the expanse?
"I don't want you to be alone. I don't want to be alone," John tells me as his weight settles behind me. The big spoon and the little spoon. Sentiment.
Is he saying these things because he pities me, because I'm the only option left, or because he has chosen me?
He answers my unspoken question. "Every night, after you came back and I'd moved in with Mary, I thought of you. Last thing in my head every night, you. I couldn’t shake the thought of you here, alone, that I'd caused it. I knew but didn't want to admit it wasn't alright, that it wasn't just the normal thing of two flatmates separating when the other one meets someone. I didn't want to admit that you weren't alright and by extension, I wasn't, because I can't extricate myself from you no matter how hard I try. And I don't want to, not anymore. Never really wanted to. Opera house napkins, Sherlock, for fuck's sake. I just didn't think I could derail that train anymore, that my choices were too permanent. I didn't think the universe would ever give us a chance. I didn’t feel like being alone because I want to be with you. And you shouldn’t be alone, especially not with this.”
He’s warm. This bed has never been so warm.
"It's not a death sentence. Not anymore," John tells me with the tone of someone who genuinely hasn't realised how many other physicians have told me this.
"I've had a few of those. I can tell the difference," I tell him tiredly as I cross the expanse of my — our — bed and lay my head on his bare shoulder.
"We'll be alright. You'll be alright. They caught it early," he tells me quietly. "It's just… a thing we have in our life, like a dead assassin wife and a toddler and a selectively mute psychopath sister and Mycroft."
I chuckle. "Clearly, Mycroft's the worst of the bunch." Obviously, he's not, and perhaps sometimes that statement needs to be made. Not to his face, of course. I'm allergic to his brand of smug.
"It's not a death sentence," John repeats, "and I won't let you live as though it were."
I believe him.
Chapter 4: Long-term
A mistake I keep repeating is underestimating the consistency of John's loyalty. I have overestimated his fear of parts of himself he wasn't willing to embrace before. I have underestimated his courage. I have underestimated his feelings for me.
And I'm fine with that. It's all fine. It's been fine ever since that first night at Angelo's when neither of us could ever have imagined where we'd be, now. Years later, after a failed marriage, two lethal gunshot wounds, years of circling and circling and circling.
If something circulates a planet on too low an orbit, it will eventually crash into its atmosphere and burn. I am ready to crash into John's, but instead of breaking apart, I believe it's the only way to stay whole.
With careful movements, John places the blister packet on the kitchen table next to my microscope. He wants me to see it. That's why he's taken it out of the cardboard package.
"I am on three different medications. That combination's not superior to them," I tell him. Has he prescribed it to me, contrary to GMC regulations about treating family members and friends? Why? Does he not think I'm attending my appointments or taking what I'm supposed to take?
"It's not for you."
I look up from the cirrhotic liver cells on my slides. John looks determined; beyond that, his expression is hard to read. "What?"
He digs out another thing from his pocket, slides it next to the microscope like an offering.
A packet of condoms.
My jaw falls open. Oh.
"John, no. You'd worry too much. You'd worry about Rosie, what would happen to her if you––"
He wraps his warm hand around mine, removes it from adjusting the focus.
"I think you're the one worrying. Your viral load is unmeasurably low; you're on your meds like clockwork. My risk would be negligible even without prep, but I'll take it so that you don't have to worry."
"Because you've spent years worrying about other people instead of yourself. I want you to stop. I want you to look after yourself, and I want to stop wasting time not doing what we should have done years ago."
We don't have sex that night. Instead, the very thought that it's possible paralyses me in the doorway of what is now our bedroom, and everything is suddenly too much.
Years spent fearing I wouldn't have this. Years, fearing I'd lost my chance to even try. I don't equate sex with love, with relationships, but inevitably, with someone who spent years declaring this was the last thing he was, the last thing he wanted, sex is the final wall between us.
And John has brought it down. Despite everything. Despite… me.
And my hesitation breaks something in him, and he's holding his trousers in his hand like an idiot with tears in his eyes, and I feel so brittle and spent and happy even though I have no skills for this, no words to begin to diffuse the weight on my chest right now.
I've kept myself together for so long that I forgot how to let go of any of it. I swore as I flung myself off that roof that it wouldn't change me, that I'd come back the same man John buried. It doesn't work that way and realising it as I left his wedding to someone else, the finality of it nearly made me relapse that night.
He's here. With me.
My skin tingles and feels too tight. I shake, and I shake, and he buries his face in my chest.
There are days that are better and days that are not good. This morning is not a good one, which means that today won't be any good in its entirety. I follow John around, thoughts too scattered to manage proper clothes. I'm cold in just my dressing gown and underwear, flitting about just outside the bathroom door as he brushes his teeth and does whatever things he does in there after waking up. I have routines, too, now — with a child in the house, one must adjust — but today they elude me. I haunt John uselessly, plant myself in his way because I need something I do not know the name of.
Finally, I trail him to the kitchen. Without even asking, he runs me a glass of water just as I go for the blister packets in the top drawer. They're in the top drawer so Rosie won't get to them when she starts walking.
I swallow the pills, John watching me.
"Why would you stay? Why would you choose this?" I ask, listening to my own words as though they were someone else's. I didn't mean to say them.
Why would he choose me?
John dries his hand in the kitchen towel. He looks calm, fond, a bit resigned. He huffs, and that sound is very like the self-deprecating, cornered animal I am today.
The bitterness in his tone, I do not expect; it echoes the tone of my own thoughts. "Why would you want me, hm?" John asks. "What have I got to offer? Single dad with anger issues who's let himself go and who gets off chasing after some madman solving crimes all over London."
It occurs to me that we're idiots. I tell him this, and he agrees, laughter lines crinkling up his features.
"It was always you, and no one else," I tell him, and the way he looks at me makes the doubts disappear.
It's been a year. Not a year since I was diagnosed, but a year from when John and I became us.
Rosie totters into the kitchen as I'm having breakfast, immersed in a set of crime scene photographs from the serial arson case that's kept us busy for the past two days with the Met. It's my first time working with just Sally, who's risen in ranks to gain her own team. Lestrade is on holidays.
John walks in, holding the soft pink brush he uses on our daughter and some soft, yellow hairbands. It appears Tiny Watson has escaped the clutches of her hairdresser as usual.
"Only you," John says with a grin, and it takes me a moment to realise he's referring to the visual similarity between the piece of somewhat burnt toast I have placed on the table next to the photos, and the blackened murder victims in them.
I lean down to lift her into my lap. John's eyes widen in alarm, and I realise too late that Rosie is about to get an eyeful of the admittedly gruesome images.
Too late. Her chubby finger stabs the photos. "Gingerbread!"
John and I both burst out laughing, and I turn the photos around to discourage further scrutiny. She's right. My only attempt at Christmas preparations last year, assisted by Mrs Hudson, did produce somewhat… crispy results.
John wraps his arms briefly around both of us. His quiet declaration of love is for both of us, and suddenly, it occurs to me how many mornings like this remain in my life. I'm not going anywhere. My viral load is unmeasurably low. I'm fine. The side effects are manageable. As long as I don't catch another strain which would expedite the course of the disease, it's unlikely it'll progress anytime soon. I intend to stay sober, and John will be the only man I make love to henceforth, so that risk is practically non-existent.
Mycroft has dedicated himself to a project of getting me enrolled in some trial or another. Even if he doesn't turn out to possess the omnipotence he's always believed in since we were children, it's alright. We're alright.
— The End —