Sherlock was four years old when Mummy explained to him what the picture on his left wrist – a large spider web with a tiny spider in the centre – meant.
“It’s the symbol of your soulmate, Sherlock,” she told him, running an elegant finger over the wristband he used to cover it. “The person who in all the world is the best match for you, the one who will make you happier than anyone else could. It’s something that represents who they are. You can’t tell what it means now, but don’t worry, that’s only because you haven’t met them yet. When you do, you’ll know.”
“What if I never meet them?” Sherlock asked.
“You will,” Mummy said. “Soulmates always meet. Sometimes… sometimes they don’t have very long together, but they always meet, and they always know. That’s just how the world works.”
Sherlock frowned as he thought about it.
“I don't like that,” he decided. “Even if we do meet, I’ll just ignore them.”
The corners of Mummy's lips twitched upwards. “Oh? And why would you do that?”
“I’m not going to let a picture decide my life for me. I’m going to make my own choices.”
Mummy laughed, running her fingers through his curls. “Oh, Sherlock,” she said. “Choice isn’t always a good thing, and lack of choice isn’t always a bad thing. You didn’t choose to be born, did you? You’re a little too young to understand, I suppose, but you will eventually.”
Sherlock disagreed, but arguing about things that could not be proven to be either true or false was boring and pointless, so he remained silent.
Sherlock was thirty-four years old when his resolution was finally put to the test.
“I’m sure you two will be very happy together,” John said, and something about the statement (other than the obvious) nagged at the back of Sherlock’s mind.
“We were made for each other, Sherlock,” Jim Moriarty said with someone else’s voice, and it all clicked into place.
The realization – a bit late in coming, but then Sherlock hadn’t given the symbol on his wrist a single thought since he was nineteen – almost made him laugh out loud in delighted surprise. What an introduction!
Impressive as it was, however, it changed nothing.
It might have, a few years back, when he’d been bored to the point of depression, and utterly directionless, and desperate for anything interesting to come along, even if it would mean being proven wrong. But now he had his work, and he had John.
So it changed nothing.
Mary, whom John met not long after The Pool Incident, was perfect.
A high school chemistry teacher, older than him but only by a couple of years, she was smart and funny and always a joy to be around. They spent as many of their dates on her couch, reading or watching bad telly, as they did trying new restaurants, going for long walks around the city, and collecting new experiences. (Once, he took her to a trampoline gym. The next weekend, she showed him her homemade fireworks.)
Better yet, she liked Sherlock (in a parentally tolerant sort of way not entirely unlike Mrs. Hudson's), and she didn’t begrudge John the time he spent with him. She didn’t even get mad when Sherlock crashed their dates, only laughed and made John promise that she’d be the first to hear all about their latest adventure.
They’d been dating almost three months when Mary said, “you know how horrible my parents are? They let me believe that the world is actually the shell of a giant space turtle! Until I was ten! Why then, I asked, are globes round. Oh, pay it no mind, they said, they’re just made that way to make the geography easier to understand.”
John, who was currently chopping carrots for the chilli they were cooking together, almost cut his thumb off.
He’d known about Mary’s love of travelling from the start. She’d probably spent more time abroad than even John himself had. Certainly she’s been to more countries. But only now could he apply that knowledge to the picture on his right wrist: a turtle with little stick figures standing on its back.
A world turtle.
“Did you tell her?”
John paused in the doorway and turned to face the sofa.
“Tell her what?”
“Don’t play dumb. It doesn't suit you,” Sherlock said, looking up from his customary reclined prayer position. Annoyance and sort-of-compliment rolled into one. “Did you tell her that you are soulmates.”
“Not yet,” John admitted, not bothering to ask how Sherlock knew. He’d been too dazed to say anything at the time, and he wanted to actually prepare for it besides. Make the occasion something special. “But I will. Next time we see each other, I will.” The thought made a giddy smile spread across his face.
Sherlock swung his legs over the side of the sofa and sat up, leaning forward to fix John with a furious glare.
“Of course,” he sneered. “It’s the normal thing to do, isn’t it? Find your soulmate, settle down, live happily ever after. Because real people don’t mind being herded like sheep. It’s a picture, John! A birth mark! Not the be all and end all of existence. Whatever happened to free will?”
John's smile faded away. Sherlock's opinion on the matter was not news, but the anger was bewildering to say the least. “Why are you so against it?” he asked. “It's the one thing in life we're all guaranteed to get right. Why shouldn't I want to be with her when I know for a fact that we'll be perfectly happy together?”
“Perfectly happy,” Sherlock parroted mockingly. “Yes, that is precisely the sort of tedium all of you idiots would strive for. The only thing that makes these matches perfect is the complete lack of conflict. The only reason Mary is perfect for you is because she will satisfy all of your emotional needs” (he spit the word out like it was something dirty) “while allowing you to do whatever you please the rest of the time.”
“Time I will be free to spend with you, Sherlock. I’m not exactly seeing any downsides here. For any of us. That's kind of the point.”
“The downside is that she is not capable of making you happy, only incapable of making you unhappy!” Sherlock shouted. Then he clenched his jaw, inhaled deeply through his nose, and leaned back into the cushions. “You don't think I get it. What if I told you that I already met my match?”
John straightened in surprise. “What?”
Instead of answering, Sherlock removed the band covering his wrist and held his arm out to John. After a brief moment of hesitation, John stepped closer.
What he saw made him draw a sharp breath and jerk back. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, it can’t… it must be someone else. You know how vague these symbols can be.”
“Don’t be dull. Just because you don’t want something to be true does not make it so.”
John pressed a hand to his forehead and shook his head again, then he took a couple of careful steps forward and lowered himself to the sofa beside Sherlock.
“So when he said… I mean he really…”
“Yes. When he said and he really.”
Sherlock smiled grimly. “So tell me, John. Now you know Moriarty and I really were, as he put it, made for each other, do you believe I should have joined him? Does knowing that my soulmate is possibly the most dangerous criminal in the world change your opinion of who I am?”
“Of course not,” John protested, looking up from his clasped hands to meet Sherlock’s guarded expression. “I know you. I mean… I know you’re no saint, but then who is. You are nothing like him.”
“But I could be. The picture on my wrist proves that much. The only reason I’m not like him, not with him, is because I chose not to be.”
“Well, yes, possibly, but doesn't that go for anything in life? It's useless to talk about if's and maybe's.”
“So you admit that soul matches aren’t everything.”
“I… yes. Fine. You’ve made your point. But you can’t compare-” he trailed off as Sherlock got up and stalked over to the window.
“You have two days to make your decision,” he said, directing his words to the darkness outside. “It’s me or her. You can’t have both.”
John's jaw dropped.
“Seriously?” he asked after five seconds of incredulous shock. “An ultimatum? I'm your friend, Sherlock. Not your property. I am not going to break up with Mary just because you never learned to share.”
“Whom you pick is up to you. All I want is for you to make a choice. I hardly think this is an unreasonable request, considering I made mine months ago.”
“That’s not fair.” John's initial baffled annoyance made the final shift to genuine worry. He stood up as well. “Relationships are supposed to be about compromise, not about… about threats and blackmail and forcing people you care about into lose-lose situations. You can't make me choose between you and my girlfriend.”
Sherlock scoffed. “Caring is not an advantage. I think the current state of affairs has proven that beyond a shadow of a doubt. I will admit that as long as my regard for you was reciprocated in full, the pros may have outweighed the cons, but I refuse to spend the rest of my life in limbo, fighting for scraps of your attention. Seeing as I can’t go back in time to ensure we never meet in the first place, the only option left is moving forward.”
“So you’d really rather lose me than share me.”
“Does that surprise you?”
John remained silent a long time.
“No. It’s always been all or nothing with you, hasn’t it,” he said quietly.
Sherlock hummed his agreement, then he spun away from the window and headed for the door.
“Two days, John,” he repeated as he pulled on his coat. “And don’t bother wasting them trying to think of a compromise I would agree to. It won’t work.”
For a whole minute after he'd gone, John didn't move. Then he went to the kitchen, turned on the kettle, and took a cup out of the cupboard.
Only an hour earlier, he’d been thinking that his life couldn’t possibly get any better, and now this. Too good to be true indeed. John sighed.
Well, no point in dwelling on what he couldn't change, and by now he knew Sherlock well enough to see when there was no reasoning with him. Which left John with two very simple (if not easy) options.
Option one was Mary. His girlfriend and soulmate. Sweet, funny, adventurous, thoughtful, great cook, easy to talk to about absolutely anything, reasonable Mary.
Option two was Sherlock. His friend and sort-of colleague. Abrasive, self-destructive, self-centered, never does the cooking or cleaning, almost gets John killed on a regular basis, impossible to have a normal conversation with, ultimatum-giving Sherlock.
(And then there was option three, he thought sarcastically. Giving up on relationships altogether and starting a new life as a jaded bartender in Cuba.)
Looking at it that way, the choice should’ve been obvious.
Suddenly furious, John swept the still-empty cup off the counter.
The sound of shattering glass was inordinately satisfying, and he was hit by an overwhelming urge to break all the dishwear in the house.
But only after he broke all of Sherlock’s science equipment.
Instead, he grabbed his coat and went back outside, hoping a brisk walk in the cold air would help clear his head.
Five hours, a brief drizzle, and four scraped knuckles from a one-sided altercation with a brick wall later (as well as much internal and some external ranting and raging and cursing of both Sherlock's name and John's own inability to stay angry at the man) found John seated on a wet bench in an otherwise deserted park, damp and shivering but a lot calmer.
What it all came down to, he realized after most of the initial outrage had subsided, was this:
1. Yes, Sherlock was a selfish, arrogant arse, but he also got rid of John’s limp, and he gave John something to live for, and John knew that while he could not count on anything resembling emotional support from the man, he could count on him always having John’s back, no matter how dangerous the situation they found themselves in. And as Sherlock said: considering he'd already chosen his current life over his own match, was it really so unreasonable of him to ask for reciprocation?
2. Life with Mary might mean contentment and steady support, but John was well aware that without Sherlock there to balance it out it would also mean stagnation. For someone like him, Mary’s kind of excitement was a good way to relax and unwind, but it wasn't fulfilling. It wasn't something to live for. Staying with Mary would only give him a perfect relationship, not a perfect life.
And so, in maddening but not entirely unexpected conclusion:
John wanted Mary, but he didn’t need her. Not like he needed Sherlock. Maybe (definitely) that was pathetically co-dependent (and what did it say about him, that even after Sherlock's abhorrent behaviour it had only taken John a few hours to make up his mind), but it was still miles above any alternative. He could resent Sherlock all he wanted for not allowing him to have the best of both worlds, might even be right to, and it would change nothing.
By the time John got home again, Sherlock was back, playing something soft and melancholy by the open window. He glanced at John out of the corner of his eye when he cleared the threshold, and the melody cut off mid-note.
After a moment of frozen stillness, Sherlock carefully placed the violin on his armchair.
“You broke up with her,” he said, his face a blank mask.
“Yes,” John agreed tiredly. He'd never been one for putting off what needed to be done, after all.
Sherlock closed the space between them in four long strides, and John was enveloped in a bone-crushing embrace.
“I don’t understand,” Sherlock murmured against John’s hair. “I was so certain you would choose her.”
“No,” John replied into Sherlock’s shoulder, hugging him back just as tightly. “Of course not, you stupid jerk. How could I.”