The voicemail was from Mrs. Hudson. He knew it was, because he’d seen her name in his missed calls.
John Watson, surrounded by Christmas cheer, sat in the café where he’d stopped for some much needed caffeine and swore fervently. His mobile was sitting heavily in his pocket, and he’d been ignoring it since leaving the clinic that day. He’d been ignoring it so much that he’d refused to go home, because then he would have no excuses left to not listen to the message, so instead he was surrounded by too many sodding happy people with all their bloody laughter. What the hell? He’d picked the one day in this unbearable Christmas season when busy shoppers weren’t quarreling with each other over perceived rudeness.
John took a deep breath and fished his mobile out and stared at the message indicator. Stared and stared and stared. Held his breath. Sipped his coffee (some stupid peppermint concoction – stupid holiday season). Spun his mobile on the table a couple of times. Then said, under his breath, “John Watson, listen to that message,” and picked up the mobile and dialed his voicemail lightning quickly, before he could change his mind.
He had been scared that the message would be a bit of a guilt trip. John hadn’t been back to 221B since moving out four months earlier, and it was Christmas, and surely Mrs. Hudson would be keenly feeling everything over Christmas. Christmas was the loneliest time of year. And last year’s Christmas had been… But John couldn’t handle 221B under the best of circumstances, never mind Christmas circumstances.
The message, however, surprised him. There was a bit of Haven’t seen you in a while and Hope you’re okay, but the point of the message was: You’ve got a letter here. A fairly thick envelope.
John considered. He hadn’t had a letter misdirected to 221B in a while now. And a “fairly thick envelope.” Not a bill, and apparently not junk mail. What could it possibly be?
Curiosity combined with guilt, and he found himself standing outside 221 Baker Street fighting down a sudden panic attack. He squeezed his eyes shut, commanding himself not to think. Don’t think about Sherlock standing with you at this door for the very first time. Don’t think of walking out of it with him, exasperated, delighted, excited, laughing, furious; don’t think about any of those times. He’d been doing so much better, he really had. He’d felt a little bit like he could live the rest of his life, like it wouldn’t be unbearable. And now he was back at 221 Baker Street and it was unbearable.
Mrs. Hudson swung the door open and said, “John,” with a great deal of joy, and then swept in to kiss his cheek, and John forced the panic attack away from him and said, “How are you, Mrs. Hudson?”
Mrs. Hudson was giving him that close, assessing look that he was sick to death of people giving him. He knew they all meant well, but he wanted to stop being Poor John Watson, any day now. “You said you had a misdirected letter?” prompted John, foreclosing small talk because he didn’t want to make any. He frankly didn’t know if he was capable of small talk anymore.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Hudson, taking the hint and fluttering off into 221A for a quick moment before returning with the envelope, which was large and, as Mrs. Hudson had stated in her message, fairly thick.
“Cheers,” said John, automatically, as he took it. He looked to the return address but there was none, not helping with the mystery of what it was. John was about to turn it over when he happened to glance down at his name and address on the front of the envelope. Dr. John H. Watson, 221B Baker Street. John’s hands tightened involuntarily on the envelope, crumpling it slightly.
He knew that handwriting.
Mrs. Hudson was talking to him, but John wasn’t registering any of what she was saying, or that she was saying anything at all. He was staring at Sherlock’s distinctive handwriting on the envelope, that oddly old-fashioned yet modernist scrawl that was Sherlock’s, and he was wondering if he was hallucinating it, going mad, or if he really had an envelope from Sherlock—Sherlock—who had been dead five months and twenty-seven days. All he could comprehend was that he had to get back to his new flat, he had to get alone, because if it wasn’t from Sherlock, the disappointment would destroy him, and if it was from Sherlock, there was no way such a missive should be read with other prying eyes around him.
He nearly fell off the front stoop in his eagerness to get away, and he managed to hear Mrs. Hudson saying, in concern, “John? John!”
“I’m fine,” he murmured back, distractedly. And then, louder, “I’m fine, I’m fine, I…Taxi!” he shouted at the one driving down Baker Street, and to his astonishment it actually stopped.
John gave the address of his flat and sat in the back seat of the cab and stared at his name on the envelope. Dr. John H. Watson. That was definitely Sherlock’s handwriting. Definitely. John had watched Sherlock heavy-handedly sign them both into places far too many times not to recognize the curve of that J, the slash of that W. Sherlock must have dropped it in the mail before his death, and it had got delayed for several months because the Royal Mail was utter and complete rubbish. Sherlock had sent him a message, and John had been without it for months. He was so furious he was trembling with it. And what did it mean, that Sherlock had sent him a package before jumping off the roof? Did it mean he’d been planning suicide all along? Why?
John staggered into his new flat and tore open the envelope before he’d fully managed to close the door, having made himself wait long enough. It was a sheaf of papers, held together with a clip, and the first one began, John – There are things I have to tell you, but you are not here to tell and I can’t get in touch with you because I’m supposed to be dead. John read it again. Supposed to be dead, he read again, and again, and again.
And then he slid to the floor, back against his flat’s door, and he stared at the words on the paper while time seemed to grind to an actual halt. Supposed to be dead. Supposed to be dead.
There was no date on the letter. Because it was clearly a letter. John looked at the –SH¬ at the end of it. He flipped through the next few pieces of paper. His name, on the top of all of them, and no date on any of them.
He looked back at the first one. Supposed to be dead, it read, and what did that mean? Did that mean Sherlock wasn’t dead? Or hadn’t been dead? Had he written it before jumping off the roof? And the stunt had gone wrong and he’d actually died? But if that was the case, why were there so many? This wasn’t just one letter, a suicide note, however carefully or messily composed. John forced himself to read the rest of the first piece of paper, and it was some nonsense about an experiment in the refrigerator. This was nothing, nothing meaningful at all, it was the sort of note he would have left for Sherlock in lieu of a text. “Ran out to get milk. Be back soon.” If Sherlock had written this before he died—any of these before he died—why would he have sent them? And, if Sherlock had written these before he jumped off the roof, what was the meaning of supposed to be dead?
Because John could only draw one conclusion about that. In the world he was living in right now, Sherlock was supposed to be dead. And John was holding a stack of papers that seemed to him to imply that Sherlock wasn’t.
John realized his hands were shaking, so he put the pieces of paper on the floor next to him and leaned his forehead against his knees and breathed, deeply.
Then he stood and, leaving the papers on the floor, went to the pub and ordered a pint and didn’t drink it. He sat in the pub as it emptied around him, looking at the television in front of him but seeing a stack of papers. Letters. From Sherlock. A possibly living Sherlock. Who had sent him some stupid letter about an experiment.
John left his untouched pint and went back to his flat and picked the letters up off the floor and allowed himself to read the next one. The first one had been written on a torn sheet of notebook paper, but the second one was on heavy cream stationery, and it was Sherlock complaining about having to speak French all the time. French, thought John. He had never known Sherlock to travel to France during their acquaintance. Sherlock had jumped off a roof in front of John, led John to believe he’d let his best friend kill himself, and then gone to France for a holiday, apparently. Pausing only to fret about some stupid bloody experiment he’d left behind.
John wished the new flat had a fireplace, because he would have dramatically burned every single one of Sherlock’s sodding letters. Instead, he dropped them in the rubbish bin and went to bed.
John stared up at the ceiling, thinking. Sherlock was possibly alive. Sherlock could be alive. And not very long ago John had pleaded with every substance in the universe for Sherlock to be alive. And now he had letters from him, and he had thrown them in the rubbish.
At four a.m., John Watson rolled himself out of bed and pulled the letters out of the bin. He brought them into the kitchen with him, where he carefully made himself a cup of tea. Sherlock had sent him letters. After months of silence. John couldn’t even begin to think why he’d done that, but he couldn’t not read them. Even if Sherlock wasn’t alive, even if this was all some odd thing Sherlock had set up before he’d jumped, how could John possibly refuse what could be the last of Sherlock’s thoughts he’d ever have? And, if Sherlock was alive…Sherlock couldn’t possibly be alive. John was hallucinating, having some kind of mental break; he didn’t have letters from his dead flatmate sitting on his kitchen counter. His therapist was going to be so disappointed; he’d made so much progress.
John sat at the kitchen table with his cup of tea and started reading.
The letters were surprisingly easy to read at first. Sherlock came across loud and clear in them. John could practically hear his voice as he read. It was as if Sherlock had suddenly dropped by and treated him to a monologue on the things that were annoying him. It was so much like it had been Before everything that John actually forgot to be heartsick and just lost himself a little while in the flow of Sherlock’s comments and observations.
And then he came to I would have listened to anything you had to say. Everything you had to say. I can’t believe you didn’t know that. Did you not know that? And his heart stuttered. And Sherlock was –S now, the only S in John’s life.
He came to his name, anagrammed, and then written out in a steadily messier hand, as if Sherlock had been clinging to the lifeline of it, the representation of John there on his page.
He came to come here immediately, I am in need of you, and he stopped reading and pushed the letters away and put his head in his hands and tried to breathe. He looked at his teacup, still full of stone-cold tea. He stood and poured it into the sink and filled the kettle and made himself a fresh cup, and then he sat and reached for that last letter, written on a scrap of paper that appeared to have been torn out of a book. He read it again and set it aside shakily and reached for the next one after a deep breath.
It’s not like you’re ever going to see these letters anyway, wrote Sherlock in the next letter, but that didn’t make any sense, because after all that he had sent them to John and John was sitting here reading them. Had he counted on John to toss them angrily away before going through them? John nearly had, so maybe this was one of those rare instances of Sherlock being incorrect in his predictions of John’s behavior. Maybe Sherlock had been away too long. Maybe Sherlock had underestimated the searing twist of longing that still sat sickeningly in John’s stomach.
John read of Sherlock, admitting he’d taken up smoking again; Sherlock, desperate to apologize to a blonde man in a striped jumper; Sherlock, unable to sleep; Sherlock, going to see the new James Bond film, aching and in pain, and that eliminated any doubts John had about when the letters had been written, because it would have been a very cruel Sherlock indeed to write about going to see a movie that hadn’t come out yet to trick John into thinking he hadn’t died that day. The only conclusion John could reach was that, somehow, Sherlock really hadn’t died that day. He’d lived to go on to do whatever it was he was currently doing, to be lonely and to put things down on paper John would never have expected, to suffer through insomnia and complain about a lack of tea, to go and see a James Bond movie that John, in London, had been unable to bring himself to see.
John swallowed thickly and pushed aside his full cup of tea, once again cold. He reached for the next letter, which started with Dear John. The first time Sherlock had called him by any endearment, even a formalized one like the dear at the beginning of a letter. John held his breath as he read, as he read through the possessive adjective applied to his name, as he read through Sherlock surrounded by bullets and guns and blood, Sherlock lonely and out-of-place and projecting that onto the John who had been there before him, and the letter ended without a signature, with just I wonder if you think for even the span of a heartbeat of me.
John wished he could write back. For the first time since he’d started reading the letters, he wanted to write back. The letter would go something like, Sherlock, you idiot, I think of you every single heartbeat. Where are you? Come home. How could Sherlock possibly not know that? How could Sherlock have ever thought, ever, that he would leave John to think he was dead and that John wouldn’t spend every single heartbeat missing him?
And even though John had spent so long lingering over the letters that it was now morning and he had to get ready to go to the clinic, John found himself unable to move until he finally put his head down on the table, cushioned in his arms, and cried for Sherlock Holmes in a way he hadn’t quite in five months and twenty-eight days.
When he got to the surgery, Sarah gave him the sort of careful look that he hadn’t got from her in ages. That You’re not doing well must keep an eye on you look. John realized he’d progressed beyond that, had got the pieces of his life together, that Sarah had started to relax and think he was going to be okay, the same way John had. John felt a little like a drug addict who had suffered a relapse. And that made him think of Sherlock. And that was not productive.
He had a therapy appointment with Ella that evening, and it was torture to go and sit there and try to pretend that he was as okay as he had been the week before. Ella, of course, noticed immediately, and John didn’t say, Sherlock’s not dead. He’s sent me letters. I spent all day thinking about them. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Ella would have him committed. Sherlock had leapt off a building in front of him, in front of other people. His death had been front-page news. It was folly to think that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t dead…unless you had known Sherlock Holmes. And John had thought he’d known him better than anyone, so how had he missed that, how had he been so utterly fooled? And why? Why, of all people, would Sherlock have had to lie to him?
John’s head was in turmoil but Ella couldn’t help him with it and she gave him a sad look when he left the office, as if he’d disappointed her. He felt like he’d disappointed her, too, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to get home, where Sherlock’s letters were waiting for him on the kitchen table. He was desperate to read the rest of them. He wasn’t sure how he’d managed to tear himself away long enough to get himself to work.
John didn’t even bother with tea. He sat at his kitchen table and eagerly pulled the letters toward him. He didn’t re-read the one from Afghanistan. He didn’t think he could. So he moved forward.
The next three letters were written on scraps of paper. Sherlock was exhausted; Sherlock couldn’t sleep; Sherlock had apparently been in America for Thanksgiving, which had only been weeks ago.
The letter after that one was written on another scrap of paper, but this scrap was larger and the letter was longer and it was a mess: a stream-of-consciousness rambling in which Sherlock promised to buy John milk every day. It was almost nonsensical, and John was a little alarmed by it, and more alarmed when he got to the next letter, which was a string of I miss yous written over and over, Sherlock’s handwriting devolving into a messy scrawl. John couldn’t figure out if Afghanistan had been some sort of physical turning point for Sherlock or merely a mental and emotional one, but the letters since Afghanistan seemed to reek of a bit more desperation. Sherlock was falling apart on paper in front of him, and John was absolutely powerless to help him. John was sitting in his cozy kitchen with letters from his spiraling flatmate in his lap.
John should have been furious with Sherlock. He had been, just the day before. But he sat with a scrap of paper covered with I miss yous, all directed toward him, and fury was the very last emotion he was feeling.
The next letter was even worse, a catalogue of the things Sherlock missed: the color of John’s eyes, John’s smile, John’s laughter, John’s breathing. John had to put the letter down to keep from wrinkling it close against him, because John had been through all of this already, while grieving Sherlock. John had thought his string of I miss yous into the cold comfort of his pillow, eyes squeezed shut, hating Sherlock. John had mentally catalogued the things he’d missed about Sherlock: those indescribable eyes, the genuine smiles John would sometimes win from him, the way John could make him giggle like no one else could, the comfort of his steady, solid breathing from the kitchen when John couldn’t handle being alone. Sherlock was grieving for John the same way John had grieved for Sherlock, and it was all so unnecessary—
neither one of them was dead—and the fury began again in John’s gut, although massively diluted.
Sherlock rallied for the next letter, a bit of trivia about apple seeds, and it was almost comforting, even if it was still signed Sherlock, a far more personal signature than Sherlock had ever used with John. The next letters were a succession of Sherlock’s tired desperation: musings about the handcuffs, irritation over John’s un-updated blog, complaints about boredom. John wished now that he’d updated his blog; he’d had no idea that Sherlock might be out there trying to use it to stay connected to him.
The letter about the cocaine made John’s heart momentarily stop. He was proud of Sherlock for withstanding the temptation and didn’t even care that it had taken a pack of cigarettes to do so, but he was worried about how long Sherlock would hold it together. John had never known Sherlock to be as shattered as he was progressively becoming in the letters, and there weren’t very many letters left, and John was terrified of what they contained.
The next one was about shooting people, clearly, and John pushed aside the compliment Sherlock left for him at the end of it—It’s possible you’re more brilliant than I am—and focused on the fact that it revealed to him that Sherlock was shooting people. Sherlock had always seemed to him to be a bit too fragile to kill people, for all his pomp and circumstance. John had seen the flash of dismay on Sherlock’s face whenever someone was killed in front of him. For all he pretended otherwise, for all he was fascinated by causes of death, the actual bringing about of the death was distasteful to him. John had never worried over Sally’s warning that Sherlock might start killing people, because John had always thought that he’d known that Sherlock would never be able to bring himself to do it. Apparently, Sherlock had moved past that, although possibly not well, considering the state of the letters, considering Sherlock’s ongoing documented insomnia (and apparently a troubled insomnia, since Sherlock had never seemed distressed about lack of sleep before).
Why? John couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Where was Sherlock? What was he doing? Why had he dramatically faked his death, shattered John to pieces, then run off to this self-imposed exile where he was clearly dying by inches, where he was clinging to chemicals to get him through the days, where he was killing people and getting injured himself? What was it all for?
John was on the last letter, and his name was not on the top, just a hurried J. The letter was lengthy—longer than most of them—but it was also clearly hurried, the handwriting blurring the words together, and it was full of fits and starts, sentences Sherlock hadn’t bothered to finish.
John read the first three paragraphs before thinking that he wasn’t ready to read it, not the last letter; he wasn’t ready for this to be over. He put the letter on the kitchen table and stood and paced through all the rooms of his flat before going back into the kitchen and picking the letter up. He didn’t sit. He stayed standing, and he read through it, getting to the point of the I love you. Written again, and again, and again. I loved you from the moment I saw you. I loved you and loved you and loved you and never told you. I love you. I LOVE YOU, read Sherlock’s last letter, signed with a Yours, Sherlock, and John read the letter over until he heard the church down the street chime midnight. He read it one more time.
Then he put it on the table with hands that were trembling and walked into his bedroom to change for bed, for a sleep that he knew wouldn’t come. His thoughts were full of the letters, all of them, tumbling over each other in his head, words and phrases and I love you. Why had Sherlock sent them? Finally? After all this time? He had clearly been writing them since just after his supposed death. So why send them now? Especially when it was clear from the content of the letters themselves that he had never intended for John to see them. They were full of glimpses into Sherlock’s head that Sherlock would never have allowed under normal circumstances.
John, in the act of absently brushing his teeth, looked at himself in the mirror and saw his own wide blue eyes looking back at him. Under normal circumstances. John spit out the toothpaste in his mouth, ran hastily into the kitchen, and scrambled for the last letter, focusing on the bits he hadn’t truly focused on before, in the middle of the I love you revelation. I never actually intended to be dead, read the letter. Just one more time, read the letter. Last cigarette, read the letter.
“Fuck,” breathed John, his head spinning, because Sherlock would never have sent these letters under normal circumstances. Sherlock had sent these letters because Sherlock had been convinced he was about to die for real.
John had been to Mycroft’s office only once before, a lifetime ago, when he had been Sherlock Holmes’s flatmate and friend and God only knew what else, really, because reading Sherlock’s letters had thrown everything in John’s world completely upside-down. It was like being in a snowglobe, tilted and toppled and shaken by forces outside his control. When John had gone to Mycroft’s office that first time, it had been a busy bustle of people, even though it had been late in the day. Now, in the middle of the night, it was still a busy bustle of people, and John was astonished by that. Didn’t any of these people ever go home?
When he said he wanted to see Mycroft Holmes, it provoked a flurry of owlish blinking from the three or four people, obviously very busy, gathered at the reception desk. And then one of them asked him his name and he said, “John Watson,” and then they almost fell over themselves getting him to the same office he’d been in last time. John had gone to Mycroft’s office on a whim, thinking there was no way Mycroft would actually be there. He had gone because he had been too restless to just sit at home with Sherlock’s letters and do nothing. He had thought he would get there and it would be dark and empty and he would turn around and go home and pace the flat. He had not expected to be shown into Mycroft’s office as if Mycroft was actually going to be there.
Mycroft’s office was empty. John sat in the chair he’d sat in before, his hands tight around the letters he’d brought with him, and looked at the small poinsettia perched on the corner of Mycroft’s desk, a nod to the holiday season. John had, only a few days ago, been considering getting a Christmas tree. He had been thinking of moving on. Jesus Christ, that felt like it had been someone else’s life entirely. John was an emotional mess, his world was topsy-turvy, he didn’t know what he was doing, but what he did know was that he felt more like himself than he had in five months and twenty-nine days. He felt like John Watson. He didn’t know who he had been two days earlier, but it hadn’t been John Watson.
The door opened and closed, and John twisted in the chair to see Mycroft walking in.
“John,” he said, with a tight smile. “This is a surprise.”
John noticed the lack of the adjective of pleasant in that sentence. And John also decided that he wasn’t going to do small talk. That was something that two-days-ago him had been unable to abide, and it was possibly the only thing John was going to keep from two-days-ago him. “Sherlock is alive,” John said, flatly.
Mycroft’s face didn’t so much as flicker in reaction. He leaned up against the desk and regarded John impassively. “Has he contacted you?”
So he wasn’t even going to pretend that he didn’t know Sherlock was alive, that he hadn’t known all along. John wanted to ask a million questions, but decided now wasn’t the time; he would ask them of Sherlock once he found him. John also wanted to punch Mycroft, but he decided that was also something he could do to the other Holmes once he found him.
So what John did was to hand across the sheaf of letters. John had pulled out the most personal ones, the ones displaying Sherlock at what he was sure Sherlock would consider his worst, although he had kept the last one in there out of necessity. John watched Mycroft flip through them as if they weren’t the most amazing gifts John had ever been given, glance a bit more closely at the very last one.
“I think he’s in trouble,” said John, as Mycroft’s face continued to be devoid of reaction.
“What makes you think that?” asked Mycroft, blandly.
“Because Sherlock would never have sent me those unless he was in trouble.”
“Why not?” Mycroft dropped the letters carelessly on his desk, heedless of their value. “Sherlock always had a weakness where you were concerned. It was foolish of me to think he could let you think he was dead for any length of time.”
“I think he succeeded at that for quite a long enough length of time, ta very much,” snapped John, losing his temper. “You knew he faked his death?”
“Of course I knew.”
“Then where is he now?”
Mycroft hesitated, for a moment that said everything. John thought of Mycroft the way he had been the last time John saw him while Sherlock was still alive, hesitant, uncertain, diminished somehow. In that moment of hesitation, that’s how Mycroft was again, and John felt the same pressure in his chest that he’d lived with in the first few weeks after Sherlock’s death, the compulsion to say no, no, this can’t be true.
“I don’t know,” Mycroft said, finally.
“What do you mean?”
“He was supposed to stay in touch. He hasn’t been. We lost him.”
“A week ago.”
“A week ago? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“John, you thought he was dead a week ago. What would I have said to you? That I think this time he might be dead for real?” Mycroft’s voice was sharp, betraying how much emotion he was actually holding in. This was not an easy conversation for him, John knew.
John also didn’t care. “Where was he when he disappeared?”
“What was he doing?”
“Taking down Moriarty’s web. That’s why this whole thing happened, John. Get rid of Moriarty, so he could get back to you.” Mycroft’s voice was wry and sad all at once.
“So you sent him out there as an operative? Sherlock?”
Mycroft stiffened. “Do you think I had a choice? Do you not recall how stubborn the man was?”
“Is,” corrected John, insistently. “How stubborn he is. And I don’t care. Sherlock is many things, Sherlock is so many things, but he is not a soldier. That’s why he had me. And you let him go out there, alone.”
“Sherlock likes working alone.”
“Sherlock hates working alone. How can you not know that about him? How can you see him so unclearly? Sherlock hates it; he needs people around him, allies, friends.”
“He doesn’t have friends, John, other than you.”
“Oh, my God, you have always been so wrong about that. Both of you. Idiots.” John stood and snatched the letters off Mycroft’s desk angrily. “Merry Christmas, Mycroft.”
“John,” Mycroft called after him. “I’m sorry. But…he’s dead. For real this time.”
John paused with his hand on Mycroft’s doorknob and looked back at him. “I believed that once before. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. I’m going to find him and I’m going to bring him home.” John made sure to slam the door on his way out.