When he was small, eight years old, maybe nine, certainly not more than ten, John Watson wanted to be a magician. He read every book he could get his hands on about the art of illusion. He was enthralled with Harry Houdini, the American escape artist. He fantasised about mastering the escape from the Milk Can, or the Chinese Water Torture Cell, or the Overboard Box. Sometimes, though he would never admit it out loud, he also fantasised about locking Harry Watson in any one of Harry Houdini’s contraptions, minus the tricks the magician used, but he reckoned that was just something little brothers thought about. Mostly, he imagined being locked inside the box and dropped from a boat or a bridge, emerging unscathed to the appreciative roar of the crowd.
Eventually, his interest in stage magic faded away, his dream of becoming a professional magician as unlikely as his dream of becoming a professional footballer. Instead of a wand and a top hat, he donned fatigues and picked up a scalpel and went on to perform death-defying stunts in the name of Queen and Country. His grand finale of that act took place on a stage built of shifting desert sand and sent him back to London, scarred but technically alive. His heart still beat, he still breathed, he still walked, even if it was with a limp that no one could explain. He embraced the pain; it reminded him that yes, he was alive, whether he wanted to be or not. He meant what he almost said to Mike Stamford on that park bench; he was no longer the John Watson his friend knew. He was not the John Watson who had studied hard at Bart’s, not yet familiar with the true grind and glory that practicing medicine would entail. Nor was he the John Watson who had arrived in Afghanistan, not yet aware of how indispensable a regular adrenaline spike would become to his continued existence.
Less than two years later, he was not the John Watson who limped through the park on a sunny afternoon, not yet acquainted with the mad genius who would bring all those necessary elements together to forge a new man, a better man. In his time at Sherlock Holmes’ side, John Watson was something he had despaired of becoming: a man whole and alive and filled with purpose. It was glorious, and like every glorious thing, it disappeared much faster than it arrived.
Now, he wakes each morning with the knowledge that the day ahead of him is a performance, a show he has done a thousand times. He showers, he shaves, he dresses in his perfectly presentable John Watson costume, and he leaves his cheap bedsit for one short-term job or another. His bland answers to his sister’s questions over the phone give her no reason to worry, no reason to think he has not moved on with his life, no reason to insist on togetherness neither of them wants. When Greg calls and suggests the pub, he goes, and he drinks a respectable pint, and he talks about anything but the man who brought them together in the first place. He is not surprised when the calls grow less frequent. He does not invite Greg, or Harry, or anyone to the grimy flat. He tells himself it is a temporary place. He stocks the fridge with minimal groceries. He neglects to hang any sort of decoration on the walls. He keeps the curtains drawn and lies down in the darkness, staring at the clock, watching the seconds tick into minutes, the minutes into hours. His chest is hollow and heavy with a weight he cannot bring himself to name. If he named it, he would have to remember, and it is only his determination to ignore the memories of every moment before he moved in here that allows him to get up in the morning at all.
Sometimes, despite his best efforts, he remembers things he would rather forget. Like a voice rasping out, I will burn the heart out of you. And the answer, delivered with just a bit of a wince, I have been reliably informed that I don’t have one. And, then, of course, Oh, but we both know that’s not quite true.
He was not a part of that conversation. He had been cast aside, ignored but for the sniper who kept a rifle trained on him and the explosive locked across his chest. That day, there in the darkened pool, he was already hollow. Moriarty was right, the bastard was right, and it was not quite true that Sherlock had no heart. John knew that better than anyone, because the heart in question was his. He had handed it over whole without a second thought. So, in the end, Moriarty was right about something else: I can stop John Watson, too. Stop his heart.
John’s heart cannot be breaking now. It already shattered when it went off the roof of a building with his best friend.
At its most basic construction, regardless of glossy finish or knots of flowers piled on top, a casket is simply a box. Its six sides and twelve angles enclose all that is left of someone who once moved through the world. John has seen many caskets leaving hospitals and battle zones, but he has seen very few lowered into the ground. He stood at the graveside and watched, and he wondered how that was even possible, given that he was fairly certain that he was inside the box, still seeking any sign of life.
His hand on the cold stone, John remembered Houdini and his underwater box escape. He thought that if anyone could escape the grave, it would be Sherlock Holmes. But Houdini had trickery on his side. He had built in escape routes. Sherlock’s own words: It’s a trick. It’s just a magic trick.
Sherlock was a magician, of a kind. He was always three steps ahead. He knew every trap door and escape hatch. It was too much to hope that his coffin was some sort of magician’s box. John knew that. He knew that. He knew that, but it was just so damn hard to believe.
Back in his magician phase, John tried to learn to hold his breath like Houdini had. In his early therapy sessions, and again when he returned all those months later, Ella walked him through calming exercises to silence the echoes in his head by focusing on his breath. Almost by accident, John discovered that what works even better is to simply stop breathing, just for a little while. He can hold his breath for nearly two full minutes, watching the seconds tick by before his traitorous lungs insist on taking oxygen again. By then, he is incapable of any other thought, and his pounding head reminds him that blood does in fact still flow through his veins. Then he sleeps, and he does not dream, which he supposes is a small mercy. Every night, it takes a little longer, this ritual that allows him to narrow his focus to the single sensation of not breathing, and then breathing. He wonders when the breaking point will come, what his own personal record would be. He remembers, vaguely, a story on the telly about a free diver who held his breath underwater for more than 20 minutes. He wonders if he could do that. He wonders if he could will himself to stop breathing long enough to truly lose consciousness, survival instinct taking over.
It takes a few weeks, but he discovers that yes, it is possible for him to hold his breath until he passes out, and it is the first time in months that he dreams.
In the dream, he finds himself back at Baker Street, sitting in his armchair, his eyes closed. He can hear a violin somewhere far away, but when he opens his eyes, the music stops. Sherlock is reclining on the sofa, wrapped in the blue silk dressing gown, hands steepled under his chin, his shoes up on the armrest.
John shakes his head. “You can’t sleep like that,” he says.
Sherlock does not move, does not give any indication that he has even heard. John rubs a hand over his face, and when he looks again, he is at Sherlock’s feet, untying the laces and slipping pale feet out of the polished leather. The feet are cold, too cold, and John’s stomach roils as he looks at his friend. He steps quickly to the other end of the couch and brushes an errant curl from Sherlock’s forehead. Silvery-green eyes open, staring up at him.
“You don’t have to do that,” the voice rumbles.
John shakes his head. “There is nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for you,” he says. “I should have told you that when I had the chance.”
Sherlock does not answer. He does not blink. He does not breathe. John lifts his hand from the dark curls. It comes away bloody.
John wakes up gasping for breath. The clock swims into focus to reveal a stupidly early hour. The seconds stretch into minutes, and he does not move. The sun rises, light filtering grey through the curtains, and he does not move. The phone rings, and he does not move. The minutes stretch into hours, and he does not move. He stares at the clock until it blurs again, the air around him becoming water, a lake to drown his memories.