“You’re not getting better, John.”
The therapist’s words were soft; un-accusing. It was a carefully trained tone of finality. Her face, if he had cared to look at it, would have been kind. That fine line between patronising and compassionate. John did not care to see it.
“You’ve heard me talk about Scarlet Hill? It’s a lovely place, just outside of London.”
At once, he didn’t want to listen. He didn’t want to sit and let these spiritless niceties drift past him; sitting like an old rock being slowly eroded by the tide.
“Just tell me what you’re talking about. Please.” His eyelid flickered shut for a moment, a minute defence against the waves.
He sees the shift in Ella’s position. The forward lean: the talk to me and listen tilt.
“You’re not making enough progress, John. You need more support. I think, and your doctor agrees, that you need to take some time to really focus on yourself and your life. You can’t go on like this. Can you see that?”
From Ella, it was strong words. You can’t go on like this. What did that even mean? He saw no reason why he couldn’t. Some lives just aren’t meant to be happy. That’s what he told himself.
“I think that it is in your best interest to co-operate. Just think. This could be the best decision you ever make.” Ella smiled, exactly like a therapist should.
A decision, she said. From where John was sitting it didn’t sound like a decision at all. He got the distinct feeling, in fact, that this was already arranged for him; a decision indeed.
“I don’t need to go to a psychiatric hospital.” It sounded like denial. But of course it wasn’t. John understood health. He understood sickness; he saw it enough. He told Ella that.
“But, John, you haven’t had a job in weeks.”
That was true; though unfair of her to point out.
“I wasn’t fired,” he said, and he sounded defensive.
Ella slants her head slightly. Her mouth pulls into a bemused line. “I know that,” she said. “But we’ve talked about this before. The line between being fired and leaving before you are is a thin one.”
“I wasn’t fired,” he insists. “But can we get back to the point.”
“What is the point?” Ella asks, and it sounds so annoyingly philosophical that he has to fight an impulse to sigh. She watches him expectantly. It’s infuriating.
“I’m not going to hospital.”
She’s disappointed. John suspects it’s because he hasn’t told her the meaning of life yet.
“You need to learn to live again. Live like a civilian, that is. The place we’ve chosen for you, it’s a residential facility. The staff are excellent, and the location is beautiful. Not to mention, they have specialist trauma and PTSD services. I think it’s for the best, I really do.”
Trauma, civilian, PTSD...
The buzz words; he’d learned to deflect them. But this time, they stuck.
It wasn’t a friendly idea. Ella really thought he should go away...to a hospital. God, did he hate those places now. What did that say about him? John wasn’t stupid; he knew things had been rough since Afghanistan. He hadn’t been right. But that was to be expected. Wasn’t it?
“It’s been months, John.” Ella looks at him, waiting for him to look back.
He goes back to his only real line of defence, ignoring the stab of guilt that tells him he’s wrong.
“I don’t need to go to hospital.”
“John, you don’t think you need anything. You think your career is meaningless. You think people will let you down. You think your friends will only die. It’s not that kind of war out there; you would know that if you gave it a chance.”
That’s how it happened. With an ultimatum and a fake smile, John’s life was changed.
He packed his bag, and he didn’t pack much. He let the cab take him away. He signed on all the right dotted lines.
He didn’t know who he did it for. But it certainly wasn’t himself.
Scarlet Hill: Residential psychiatric hospital.
He allows himself a wan smile to the chatty receptionist; because manners cost nothing. She beams back, and he wishes he could understand how she did it.
A straight-backed man with wiry blonde hair and a pallid complexion introduced himself as Dr Rose. “You’re allocated Room 5,” he tells John, accent bristling with assumed class. “But before you can settle in, you’re seeing...ah, Dr Feng. Yes, her office is easy enough to find, and I’ve no doubt you’ll get a tour later. So don’t worry about that. You’ve arrived rather late, I’m afraid; I hope you’ve eaten already.” He doesn’t pause to acknowledge John’s brief nod. “You will get your treatment timetable tomorrow, after Dr Feng has talked you through your options. And that’s all! Any problems, be sure to find a member of staff. Best of luck, Mr...I’m sorry, Dr Watson.”
Dr Rose doesn’t hang around, and John is left horribly alone.
As he trails around the hospital he is struck by its emptiness. High ceilings, blue chairs; clean, but not clinical. Not quite.
The living room is spacious, and the furniture sparse. The sofas are well worn. A clock ticks away wearily, and it shouldn’t affect him like it does.
The blank room felt heavy against him, and for lack of anything, he fumbled with the sleeves of his shirt, feeling far too much like a child on their first day of secondary school. It wasn’t helpful. Sometimes you just want something to hold on to. On this occasion he would have to make do with nothing.
It was becoming clear that he would have to learn to navigate this place by himself. So that’s what he decided to do.
Making his way past a suitably sized TV set, John aims for the door; a closed door.
The light switch isn’t far away, and he flicks it on easily. At first, it’s only the bare bones of a room. The floor is wooden boards, worn with age. A few easels line the far wall, but none of them hold art. Then something moves. Unfolding from somewhere behind a bare table is a tall, thin, angry looking man.
“S-sorry,” John stammers. Actually stammers.
The man looks at John, then behind him, and then back again, his eyes narrowing to slits on his face.
John checks himself. So he found a human being in a darkened room, nothing to freak out over. Not for the first time, he notices that he can’t remember how he would have reacted to this before. Would he have found it strange?
“I was just...you couldn’t tell me where Dr Feng’s office is, could you?”
The man, whoever he is, is definitely angry. Maybe it’s a psychiatric hospital thing. Perhaps this man has staked a claim on this particular darkened room. No, John thought. He should probably just leave before he said something like that out loud.
“Er, thanks for your help,” he said, and left without waiting for the answer he wouldn’t get.
It was less than 20 seconds later that he was in the long, white corridor that started at reception and ended at the living room – His second encounter with the man from the dark room. How this person had managed to arrive in front of him, out of nowhere and with not a sound to be heard, was beyond John. He looked different now, under these glaring lights. The anger was wiped from his expression, replaced only by an empty nothing. His hair was a mop of unruly, dark curls, and his eyes stood out like bright stones in his pale face.
The man clears his throat. “Go to reception; there’s a corridor opposite it, to the right. You’ll find what you’re looking for there.”
It took a moment for it to click. John opened his mouth to thank him, but he is interrupted.
“–Sherlock Holmes,” said Sherlock Holmes. And then he was gone.
The night arrived shortly, and Room 5 was everything he thought it would be: clean, pale, and very empty. Two beds where made up with fresh yellow linen. He chose the one by the window, of course. Pressing a hand to the cold glass, he could almost pretend that it would open. That it wasn't bolted shut against him.
The sleep was empty. Just like his room. Just like this hospital.
He heard the music first: sweet, rolling sounds, reaching through his mind like ribbon.
Through the darkness of his dream, he opened his eyes, and the darkness changed. It was lighter, gentler.
The ribbons continued to ripple in the air. He could have reached out and touched them.
A deep voice disturbed their patterns.
“Do you object to the violin?”
John was awake now, staring into the purple shade of the ceiling.
“And you wouldn’t be offended if I were to ignore you now and then? I don’t care much for conversation.”
The music had stopped, but Sherlock’s voice rang out like it hadn’t at all. And it was Sherlock. John could see him now. His slim, suit-clad body stretched over the surface of the second bed like a tortured artist. His skin was almost silver under the pale streams moonlight. A violin lay over his shoulder, a bow in his hand.
“Roommates should know the worst about each other, after all.”
It was only for lack of words that John stayed silent. He had nothing to say, and so the quiet lingered. But it was peaceful, and it was calm.
“You look tired...” Sherlock said to the tranquillity. “What is it they say: No offence? Let me see if I can put you back to sleep.”
That was the last thing John remembered, before the music began, and he was lost to dreams once more.
And so it was, that for only the second time in his life, John Watson was hospital-bound. Yesterday he could have done anything. The potential had been there, at least.
The morning was cold. That seemed fitting. It was all John could do not to roll over and scream into the mattress. But he didn’t. He breathed, and he soldiered on.
It might have looked, from the outside, an act of courage. But to John, who knew the truth of bravery, it was not. Courage is a mask. It is a lie. He has seen enough grown men cry for their mothers to know that courage is a hope, and it can’t sustain. It is optimism for the emotionally guarded, and that’s the truth of it.
There was no one in the flanking white bed. No tall, scrawny man. No violin.
It was oddly disappointing.
At the foot of his bed was a single wardrobe, of no significant size or quality. It was there that he found his belongings. A quick stock-check found nothing missing, save the gun. That had been a long shot.
Had he been less stressed, and more awake, he would probably have noticed that Sherlock Holmes had no possessions at all.
There was a mug in the bottom of his suitcase. He held it now, wondering why the hell he’d brought it with him. The RAMC mug was, on closer inspection, the one thing of sentimental value John owned. Unless you counted the gun; and Ella had frowned on that.
The anger came from nowhere. It always did, but never had it exploded and seethed into being as it did now. He hurled the mug at the wall, and the resultant crash was unbearably loud. It was done. It was broken. Then his head was in his hands and, instead of tears, there was loud, angry sobs. Why had he done that? He had never killed anyone with a mug of tea; Ella had made sure of that before she had declared that it was a nice thing to hang on to. And now it was gone too. Maybe he did belong here.
A deep, baritone voice interrupted his regrets.
“You’ll want to get rid of that mess. If they think you’re creating sharp objects you’ll be on supervision before you can say have you seen the blood stains in the art therapy room?”
The sentence changed so rapidly that John could only blink up at its perpetrator.
Sherlock looked back, unfazed. If anything he looked even stranger in the daylight. His skin was strikingly white against the dark of his hair and pressed black suit.
John hesitated, unsure of his own ears. “...blood stains?”
“Yes, in the art therapy room. You should go downstairs now. I hear they hate it when you’re late.”
“Ah...You’re not coming?”
Sherlock smirked, his eyes glinting with repressed energy. “My programme is somewhat different to yours.”
“How long do I have to stay here?”
Dr Feng laughs quietly, but it is not cruel. It may as well be.
“As long as I see fit, Mr Watson,” she replies.
“Doctor,” John corrects her, out of habit.
“No – oh, never mind.”
How much was it possible for one man to lose? Surely his identity was too much.
This consulting room is like none he’s seen before. It’s bordering on lavish. A faux-diamond chandelier is suspended above them and potted plants are placed strategically throughout the area. Behind the psychiatrist, a window is open slightly. It’s the only window above ground level that can do that.
Dr Feng herself appears to be of expensive taste. She’s sitting on a red leather office chair; a deep red which seems to exactly match the shade of her shiny fingernails. She’s wearing a purple cashmere dress. Her olive skin is almost glowing as she watches his every move.
“I hear that you’ve been having some trouble with socialising; maintaining relationships, jobs...that kind of thing. Would you like to tell me more about that?”
He wishes he could say “No, not really,” but that would be petulant, and he feels infantilised enough as it is. He settles with, “There’s not much to say.”
Dr Feng smoothes down some non-existent stray hair. “I don’t think that’s the case, do you?”
“I’d rather not talk about this.”
She smiles a wide, shark-like smile. “But how do you expect to recover, if you do not talk?”
His jaw has set. “I want to leave.”
“Very well, you may leave my office. I’ll see you again in soon enough,” she smiles serenely at him, and begins pouring words from a sleek, black pen.
“I was thinking more about leaving this damn hospital. I’ve had enough.”
She stops writing and stares, green eyes glittering intently. “But, John, you’ve only just arrived.”
“I want to go back,” he says resolutely.
“Back: why do you say that?” Dr Feng asks, her hand flying over the note-pad on her lap.
“Because I’m fine,” his voice is getting higher and can feel his exhaustion strain; becoming unbearable. “I’m absolutely bloody ok! This is unnecessary and, frankly, a waste of my and everybody else’s time.”
“I’m sorry,” Dr Feng says, with utmost calm, “you must have misunderstood my question. I meant, why do you choose the word back, as appose to home?”
His mind grinds to a halt. He doesn’t have an answer.
If there is such a thing as serenity here, it’s outside of the four walls. The gardens are well-kept, teased of weeds and other blemishes. But the gates are imminent, and they are Unmissable. Looming from the far bank they twist up and higher still. Even here, entrapment is forefront.
In the near distance, John can see other patients. He recognises the red headed woman, but he can’t remember her name. She had vivid green eyes. He remembers that. She’s kicking a football; laughing. The man, short and dark, he’s laughing too.
When was the last time he laughed?
John holds his mobile phone in the palm of his hand. Harry’s phone, really. He skims through its content. There are no pictures of his life here. No friends, no family. There are no pictures at all.
A presence is approaching. They join him, taking a place on the hardwood bench beside him. For a while, they say nothing at all.
“Dismal, isn’t it?” says Sherlock, sounding every bit as bored as he looked.
“How do you mean?”
Sherlock’s mouth twitches. Maybe he doesn’t remember how to smile properly either.
“He’s suicidal and she’s hearing voices.”
“And I suppose you’re here on holiday, are you?” John scoffs.
“Of a sort.”
It was just the way he said it, or maybe it was just him, but everything this man said felt like some kind of private joke. John wonders what sort of a person would have in-jokes with nobody but them, but the question answers itself: someone who has no one else to joke with.
“Trauma service, yes?”
John’s head turns sharply to face his companion, heat spreading through his face. “I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but that is none of your business.”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow. He seems to be enjoying the reaction. “I see: Iraq or Afghanistan?”
He positively delights in John’s glare. The clenched fists, the new tensed stance he sits with.
“How the hell –”
“A simple deduction,” Sherlock cuts John off with a wave of his hand.
John’s hand finds his shoulder. He can feel the protruding scar tissue and the dull ache of the healed joint beneath his shirt. Away from Sherlock’s piercing stare, the others have gone; the green-eyed woman and her smiling-suicidal man.
“Afghanistan,” he says slowly. “But how could you possibly know that?”
Looking back to Sherlock, John is caught off guard by how close he is. The concentration on his face is visible. He is reading John, reading him like a book.
Finally he answers, but John isn’t sure to whom.
Conversations drifted past John. No one spoke loudly, but somehow that only made the words louder. He could hear Charlotte, the red-head, whispering earnestly about her mother. He could hear a man talking softly about his children. Somewhere close, a woman hummed a song he didn’t recognise. The clock ticked. And it shouldn’t have affected him like it did.
Through the low murmur of thoughts and home-sickness and fears, John saw somebody new. This person looked no more than a boy to him. He sat away from the pairs on the sofas and around the coffee table, with wide, child-like eyes planted firmly on John. When John caught his gaze, a spark seemed to light; it was almost recognition. He couldn’t place it. Ordinarily, the staring would have been uncomfortable, but John was really beyond caring. The people here had learned to be open like this. Most had been in similar situations before. They knew the deal: talk, recover, and move on. They knew how to twist the system, he’d give them that.
Despite his distant admiration, John had yet to talk to anyone other than his rather flighty roommate. And Sherlock seemed to be able to turn his existence on and off like a tap.
So he smiled at boy. Just to show that he would not be completely averse to company. The hint was taken; very quickly, in fact.
He saw the wheelchair as soon as the smile appeared on the boy’s face; emerging from behind the sofa’s arm. When he arrived, it became apparent that John had underestimated his age. Up-close he was not so youthful. His face was weary beneath the cheery exterior, and his floppy brown hair looked coarse and tattered as his clothes. But his eyes were wide, and they remained child-like through it all.
“I know who ya’ are,” the boy – young man, John tried to amend – grinned. He was Irish, and John definitely recognised him now. Putting a name to the face was more difficult.
“Do you?” He asked. He kept his voice steady, hoping it might balance out the boy’s enthusiasm a little.
John’s eyebrows rose involuntarily with surprise, and he fought to control his expression.
“I haven’t been called that in a while.”
He was distinctly aware of the change in atmosphere then. Everything felt slightly more awkward and considerably more depressing. Looking up at the boy, he was contradicted by a big, happy smile. Maybe it wasn’t the atmosphere, then. Maybe it was just him.
Opening his mouth to say something, John’s stomach clenched with anxiety. He felt sick. He closed his mouth. What could he possibly have to say to this young, smiling kid?
“I think you’re brilliant.”
It hit him like a jug of cold water to the face; and it must have been easy to see, as the boy started stammering with embarrassment.
“I mean, I just, you’re...I’m Benson, sir. Shaun Benson.”
“Thank you,” John says finally. “Nice to...I’m sorry, have we met before?”
“Ah no. Not personally. But you were in my regiment. Spencer, my ol’ mate, he met you. Told me how you saved his life. And I heard all sorts’ stories. I just...I’m honoured to meet you properly.”
He didn’t know how to respond, but there was a lump forming in his throat. The way Benson was looking at him; the respect in his eyes. John remembers respect: The sort that had once rendered his word law. He remembers when people looked at him like that. As if he was something to aspire to. And he misses it. He misses it so much.
“Tell me t’ shut up if I’m annoying you, but is it true that you once killed a jackal with your bare hands?”
John laughs, but the noise is choked. He takes a deep breath, and he lets himself remember. “Yeah, I felt terrible about that. One of my lower moments, I think. Woke up with it biting my arm: poor, starving little thing. I just panicked, you know. We were in the tents. Some idiot thought they’d be clever; Went out in the middle of the night for a smoke. Didn’t close up properly afterwards. We were bloody lucky that it was only the animals that seen him. I don’t lose my temper easily – didn’t, I mean...anyway, I really lost it. He could have got us all killed...”
Benson looks like a child on Christmas morning. “God, I knew that was true,” he says. “Spencer told me ‘bout it. He said you gave Peterson a right bollocking.”
“Spencer...? That name rings a bell. Ginger kid?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Benson says excitedly. “Ginger speccy twat! God love him.”
“I’m not too good with names, but I remember the faces. I worked with a lot of people; so many. But they’re all still here somewhere.” He taps his temple, absent-mindedly. “All of them...photographic memory.”
“I could use one of those, I’m awful wi’ faces.”
John sighed slightly. “It’s more of a curse than a blessing, to be honest. I remember...everything.”
He stops talking abruptly, seeing the bigger picture behind what he just said. Almost immediately, this picture was blacked from his mind by something stronger; something that he had been building, brick by brick, for months: A wall of nothing. A smoke-screen, if you will. Because John knows what happens when you remember, and he knows the consequences of talking. To relive a memory is to renew it. He can pretend the nightmares don’t happen. He can pretend his leg doesn’t pain him. He can even bullshit his way through the perpetual therapy of Scarlet Hill. But he can’t censor his thoughts forever. He’s slipping. This place is breaking him.
Overwhelmed, John stumbles to his feet, dread burrowing into his chest.
“I’m so sorry, Benson. I need to go.”
Harry is sitting beside him. She’s sober. He doesn’t know what else he expected.
She had met him at reception. They didn’t say a word, he just let her hug him, and all he knew was that it didn’t feel bad. The confusion and the sadness; it came of her in waves. But she didn’t cry. His little sister, she just smiled grimly and nodded. Let’s get this over with, then.
Now they are sitting close, facing Dr Feng. He feels slightly stronger with her here. It’s a nice feeling, and not one he’s had in a while. The role reversal of the situation is unavoidable. He thinks of all the times he took Harry to the self-help group when they were younger, barely more than teenagers. She would only go if John pretended to be an alcoholic with her. He had lied for her, and they had laughed about it. She had been defiant, the same bold, little Harry Watson. He had promised her anything to try. She had laughed and carried on her cliff-edge dance. She’s still dancing. But here, now, she’s different. The dance has changed. Her balance has improved; she’s stronger.
Throughout the session – the family support group, as Dr Feng called it – John paid little attention. Now and then something would catch him, or a question would be thrown at him, and he would be forced to concentrate; to think.
“Harry,” Dr Feng started, “can you try to tell John, as honestly and fairly as possible, how you feel about his current situation?”
That caught him. He waited, listening with no small amount of apprehension.
“I...don’t know how to feel.” Harry stops biting her lip and looks to him. “You know I love you, right, John?”
She looks like she wants to squeeze his hand, but knows that might be a step out of the ordinary too far for both of them. So she just waits for his nod. And he just hopes she understands.
“We promised, John. What happened to us?”
The lump in his throat is becoming ever-present.
“I don’t know...I really don’t.”
“Tell me about it.”
Dr Feng stops writing and thinks. “Tell me about this promise.”
It’s Harry’s turn to play dumb. She doesn’t want to answer that, and why would she.
“It’s nothing really,” John says. “It’s the size of our failure that’s really astounding.”
He had hoped to try and lighten the mood.
Dr Feng waits for him to elaborate.
It’s Harry who blurts out the information she wants. “We promised not to end up like them.”
Dr Feng loves that. He can tell. It’s a psychiatrist thing: they feed off your unstable parents and bathe in your childhood fears. He doesn’t want to know what she thinks about him. He doesn’t want to know what anyone thinks of him; because, maybe, one day, someone might say something that makes a little bit of sense.
“Our dad was great when we were little,” Harry says. “That made it worse, though. You know, like, he was such a laugh. And then his anger got the better of him, and the drink. He couldn’t control himself anymore so he burned out. Then there was our old mum. She was the sweetest, most loving person you could meet. But her anxiety ruined her. Her world got so small from the fears she collected, and she couldn’t let them go. Do you see how badly we let each other down?”
Dr Feng uses her most sympathetic voice. “But, Harry, does any part of you feel that, by coming here to Scarlet Hill, John is going some way to prove that he doesn’t want to break that promise you made?”
Harry doesn’t miss a beat, “the only thing my brother ever proved is that it’s possible to ignore psychological suffering to the point where it becomes physical pain.”
That night he saw Sherlock; that flickering ghost of a man. Why did it feel like he was holding his breath for these moments: For the small conversations, the unanswered questions, the mystery of him.
Tonight he is laying still, his long fingers steepled beneath his chin. His eyelids are peaceful, his face calm. The wall beside him is covered in desperate scrawls of words and numbers and symbols of no obvious meaning. There is no context, no structure. It is as uncontrolled as its maker.
John sits on the edge of his own bed, waiting.
“Why are you here?” John asks softly.
Sherlock’s eyes do not open, and his lips barely move. “I’ve been asking myself the same question.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Sherlock Holmes. Or I was.”
“Who are you now?”
The still mans eyes open, slowly, “I don’t know what the job is. I don’t have data, and I’m not even sure I have a case. There’s something missing.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“You want to know why I’m really here.”
“Yes,” John admits, taken aback. “I never see you at meal times, or with the other patients. I barely see you at all, actually.”
“In theory, I’m here for the rehabilitation service. I had a run in with something a little strong.”
“Ah. And the addiction centres separate, isn’t it? That would explain it, I suppose.”
In a flash of movement, Sherlock is sitting next to John, studying him carefully through sharp blue-green eyes. “But what explains you?”
“Soldier,” Sherlock mutters, “so far so obvious. Injured in duty, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression –”
John objects then, because Sherlock is wrong. “I am not depressed, alright! No matter what my file says – which you’ve clearly been reading, by the way.”
Sherlock sits up straighter, clearly affronted. “I would never stoop so low. Haircut, the way you hold yourself: military. Right, yes? Good. Now, the limp: It changes depending on the way you stand and your state of mind. Right now, for example,” he leans closer, “it is barely noticeable: Psychosomatic.” He holds up a finger to silence John’s exclamation. “You don’t use a cane, which just adds to the pile of denial you hold onto. You’re stubborn, set in your ways, and old-fashioned in your values. Your shoulder is stiff; it gives you some mobility issues. Nothing too debilitating, but it brings significant frustration, and pain there can worsen the limp. You shout in your sleep, you have an intermittent tremor in your left hand, and, sometimes, you wish you that bullet had killed you. I’m not finished! So: soldier, wounded in action, psychosomatic limp, PTSD. Am. I. Wrong?”
John blinked. “How the bloody hell - ?” He ran a free hand distractedly over his jaw and the scattering of stubble that had begun to roam free there. “Wow.”
Sherlock’s mouth twisted into a grin. Then fell into careful disregard.
“I...I was an army doctor.” John did nothing to hide the surprised disbelief on his face as the curiosity that Sherlock invoked in him hit boiling point. “How do you do that?”
The other man rolled his eyes, a little too enthusiastically for his apparent noninterest in John’s admiration. “I notice.”
“Can you tell me anything else about me?” John grins, the worst of his roommates observations were surely past now, leaving the path ahead clear.
Sherlock looks unblinkingly at John.
“You are alone.”
In the pale light of day he was there. That in itself was enough to make the air catch in the back of John’s throat. He was still there. Sherlock’s body, tangled with his own, pinning his arms to the bed with an unquestionable firmness. It didn’t, or wouldn’t, reconcile with reality. This image of Sherlock was so candid, so intimate, so far from the one he had grown used to. And he shared it with John, of all people.
Sherlock’s closed lids flickered gently, and John froze with uncertainty. This must too much? He barely knew the man, and for all his talk Sherlock was no more clued up on him. John had woken up to a few unfamiliar faces in his time, but this different. Sherlock was different. Everything about him; his manner was as unpredictable as his words. And John: What of his own feelings? It wasn’t something he wanted to look to at too closely. Not yet.
“John.”His name sounds soft on Sherlock’s lips.
For the longest of seconds, John is sure that the other man is asleep, talking unconscious. But then Sherlock opens his eyes, and the spell is lifted.
His eyes, his bright, bright eyes; they watch him as he pulls from their twisted embrace. They burn into his back as he turns away.
“John,” Sherlock says again.
He doesn’t turn around to reply; a coward’s move if ever there was one. "Yes."
The mattress shifts beneath them as Sherlock stretches out his long body and sits up. John keeps very still, all attempts at coldness null and void. He cares too much for that. The next words could change everything. Everything there is left to change.
Sherlock’s breath is warm on the back of his neck as he leans in near John’s ear.
“I know why I’m here,” he says. His cavernous voice is terse, filled with nervous energy.
Something soft brushed against his shoulder, lingering momentarily above where the bullet hit: the bullet that should have killed him. The old John Watson was still there, broken and bled out on Afghanistan’s plains. And yet here he was.
“This has gone on long enough,” Sherlock breathed. “We make our move today.”
“Why me?” The question slips out, low and hesitant.
Sherlock moves away from him, bare feet reaching out to touch the carpet. “I’m not sure yet. I plan to find out.”
John watches as Sherlock straightens his jacket. Somehow it looks even smarter than it did yesterday, despite spending the night as pyjamas. Glancing at the wall behind them, John notices that the unreadable scrawls had vanished. Then his attention is regained by the man himself as he springs away. Before he leaves the room, Sherlock hangs off the door frame and grins “Are you ready for this?”
For once, John does not wonder how he would have – how he should have– responded, because it doesn’t matter. Because he is bored, and Sherlock is the most intriguing person he has ever met. So he grins back: “When you like and where you like.”
Their conversation echoes in his mind all day, over and over again. He’s beyond doubt now. Adrenaline has begun to pump through his veins, and the promise of change is enough to make him light-headed. God, he needs to get out more.
The afternoon’s group therapy session is headed by a spectacularly tall, mousy haired therapist called Melissa. She smiles brightly at the small, mismatched group in front of her, and pushes the thin-framed glasses back up her nose.
“Today’s group is something a bit different,” she tells them. “I know that a lot of you like to write, read, blog...”
John laughs under his breath. That blog didn’t go anywhere.
“So, I thought we could try a session based around those things. Of course, you have art therapy, but I’d like this to be a little more of a group activity.”
She smiles around at the mostly disinterested crowd. There aren’t many of them, and John recognises most now. Benson, particularly, is hard to miss. He had waved at John as he wheeled himself over. It was always nice to see a friendly face.
“Don’t look so worried, Charlotte,” Melissa says, gently, “I’m not going to make you write anything if you don’t want to.”
The red-head shrugged and continued to chew morosely at her hangnail.
“Well, I thought we could start with something simple.”
John heard the pull of a chair, and looking up, he saw Sherlock. He couldn’t help but stare. The man was as together as always, even though the jet black hair was still rumpled, and his face was still ablaze with something both fiery and repressed. No one turned to look at him as he slumped down unapologetically on his chair, just outside of the circle. John raised a questioning eyebrow at him, only to be deemed senseless by a curled lip and a flash of laughter.
Benson’s voice cut through his inner monologue.
“The ladies talking to you, man.”
And so she was. Melissa sighed light-heartedly, smiling through her annoyance. “I was just telling everyone what we’re going to do first. You weren’t listening, were you?”
John shook his head, bashfully, “Sorry, I was just...I’m listening now.”
“Ok, once again for Mr Watson.” She clucked disapprovingly at him. “We’re going to go around the circle, and each of you will tell us one piece of writing that means something to you. And explain why, if you can. Everyone understand?”
Benson tilted his head, causing his hair to completely wipe out what could be seen of his eyes. “So, like a book, then?”
“Yes, like a book, or anything with words, basically. Think about what stands out to you in particular. Quotes are good!”
Her eyes light up and John feels guilty for his obvious lack of interest. Clearly, this means something to her.
“Ok, we’ll start with you, and I’m sorry, I don’t know all your names yet. So if you could start with that?”
The first to speak is Sam Okoro. He’s no more than 25, and he’s reluctant to talk. As they all are.
“I don’t know,” he mutters, pulling at the cuff of his shirt. “I always kind of liked those Narnia books – I mean, when I was a kid...”
Melissa doesn’t laugh at his embarrassment, though a few others do. She waves off their giggles with one bejewelled hand. “What do you think appealed to you about them? I think it’s nice to get lost in another world for a while. That’s the joy it: The lives you can live...Books can be closed when desired. But that doesn’t mean they end.” She’s rambling, but it’s kind of nice to watch as she really does get lost in her own world.
Sam smiles lightly, choosing just to nod along; let it go on without him. She doesn’t push him for more.
“Charlotte?” She asks finally.
“I like poems.” A pink blush spreads across her cheeks as the circle listens to her. She’s uncomfortable, but seems to be falling into her element here.
“Do you have a favourite?” Melissa prompts.
Charlotte runs a finger over her wrist. A flick of her arm and John can see the smooth line of a tattoo there. She’s tracing the words as she says them: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there; I do not sleep.”
She blinks and it’s clear she’s said her bit.
Melissa looks pleased. “That’s good, Charlotte. It’s actually a personal favourite of mine, as well.”
The therapist’s eyes arrive at Benson. He shifts uncomfortably under her gaze.
“I’m Shaun Benson,” he says. “And, um, well I can’t read well. Dyslexia,” he shrugs, “so, I can’t do this.”
“We can work around that, Shaun,” Melissa says firmly. “There must be something you’ve heard, something that inspires you?”
He scratches his chin absently. “Ah, maybe, I don’t know. It’s just hard.”
“Why’s that?” Melissa asks. “What exactly is making it difficult, beside the dyslexia, I mean?”
“I just...like, I was a unit. They always said that t’us. You’re not a person, you’re a fuckin’ unit. You’re brothers. But no one ever told us how to stop. An’ then your home an’ you are just you. I don’t think know how to think right anymore. I’m like...I don’t know.”
“A cog without a machine?” John suggests, in undertone.
Benson snaps his fingers on impulse, “exactly! Just a cog without a machine!”
“That makes sense,” Melissa beams at them. She’s pleased at the development and itching to write it all down.
“But, now that I think of it, there is something I heard once.”
“Go ahead,” Melissa encourages.
“He said: This is war: there are no winners; only survivors. And that’s what we are. Aren’t we, Cap?”
John coughs, trying fruitlessly to disguise the thickness of his voice. He gives up, and just lets himself smile. “Yeah, we are.”
He allows himself to look up now, for the first time since the last time. Sherlock is looking back. All repression has gone. He is openly beaming, and John has never seen anything so glorious.
“I’m sorry,” he says. Standing up, he offers a hand to Benson, who shakes it gladly. “I have to go now. But I’ll see you again.”
Then he turns and the room is behind them. It’s starting.
On a whim, John takes a fist to the fire alarm. It did the job: noise filled the empty corridors, water began to spray from the ceiling, doors open.
“Take my hand,” Sherlock shouts over the noise.
And together, they run.
It began in Baker Street, as all the great mysteries do. It was not Baker Street as we know it, but a shadow. Sherlock Holmes stood among the destruction, cold-faced and silent. John didn’t know what to ask first as he gaped around at the ruined flat. The floors were scorched, curtains hung over the charred remains of a leather sofa. Picture frames were shattered and blooded, as if punched clean through. There had been no door to bar their entrance, no locks, just sad yellow tape slung low over the threshold. In his chest, John’s heart throbbed uncomfortably, and the world seemed to spin beneath his feet. Who was this man he wondered feverishly. Who was Sherlock Holmes anyway?
“Moriarty,” was what he said.
John looked up abruptly, “who, now?”
Sherlock’s flat mouth twitched. “I did disappoint him so.” He breathed a heavy, sarcastic sigh. “I suppose he thought he could finish me this way. Burn me...”
John pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling an overwhelming urge to sit down and drink copious amounts of tea, “Pardon?” What have I gotten myself into?
Sherlock spun among the wreckage, a terrible angel with a manic smile. “Oh yes, I disappointed him. I don’t play games anymore, John.”
The taller man leered down at him. “Do you wonder why you followed me here?”
“I’m beginning to.”
“Is it because you seek adventure? Are you a foolhardy man? Perhaps you want me. I imagine so...I’ve been called charming, though not nearly as often as I have been called a manipulative, lying, psychopath.”
“Is that right,” if John were a weaker man he would have crumbled right then. Instead he breathed deeply and said, “What do you want with me?”
Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. “They took your gun. You itch for it, to hold it, but they took it away from you, didn’t they?”
It was John’s turn to narrow his eyes. “What are you?”
“I’m a thinker, John. I believe we’ve covered this.”
“Why am I HERE?” he exploded, fists balling. “I may not have a gun, but –”
“You can’t hurt me. Not even if you really wished to” Sherlock said. “– which you don’t” he added confidently.
“Look, I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything really, not lately. I don’t know you, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me or why the bloody hell I thought this little shindig was a good idea. Hell, I was in a psychiatric hospital, and apparently I got played by a psychopath and now I’m going to be murdered, but I will not go down without a fight!”
Nobody spoke. Sherlock panted slightly, as if it were he that had just made the speech.
Carefully, he stepped forwards, past the almost visible walls of anger that John was radiating, and his hand reached out. To comfort or kill, John didn’t know or care. He was ready.
A weighty fist collided with Sherlock’s face. He didn’t pause to take in the incredulous look on the other man’s face; he just struck again, and again.
“John – this really isn’t – ouch – necessary”
He didn’t care.
“If you would just let me – stop that – explain!”
John relented. Or Sherlock thought so, until he found himself flung up against a sooty wall, shoulders pinned back painfully by the extremely pissed off ex-soldier.
“Make my day: explain!”
Sherlock laughed breathlessly. “Yes, of course.” His eyes rolled back a little as he chuckled.
John slammed him back against the wall. “Start talking, Holmes!”
A pair of ice blue eyes stared down at him, fanatical, adoring.
“I’m serious Sherlock,” John almost yelled in frustration. “What the hell is wrong here?” His voice broke in all the wrong ways. Shoulders shaking, he loosened his grip on the man he held captive.
A cool hand touched his chin, pressing him to look back. “I can’t – I don’t understand anymore.”
John wept openly. Desperate angry sobs rocked his body.
Firm hands clasped his shoulders, steadying them.
“Tell me.” John said, “Please, just tell me something.”
A curly head of hair bowed over his. “I’m afraid I can’t do that yet.”
“Why the hell not,” John argued, but there was no fight left in his voice. “Tell me something...”
He barely felt the kiss on his forehead, but he shuddered as it seemed to take all the hurt from him. It didn’t matter anymore. He didn’t care.
“I needed to be sure,” said Sherlock. “Now I wish I wasn’t.”
John met his eyes at last, tongue on his lips, searching for something – a glimmer of recognition – in this strange man that he had foolishly assumed to know.
“Who are you?”
“I am Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, and your new flatmate.”
Then Sherlock’s cold mouth is on his own.
It was an incredible thing, John marvelled, to kiss Sherlock Holmes. With every moment that passed his lips warmed and his heart wrecked with life. Everything was about him. Sherlock’s arms on John’s back, his hand on John’s neck. Sherlock’s body pressed against him, the small gasp of their breathing. Everything was him. Scarlet Hill was nothing now. Not even a blink on his radar. The past few months meant nothing. He had never felt less broken, more a part of something truly fantastic. Nothing else could have mattered to him now.
That’s what John had thought. In the moment – that wondrous moment – there was nothing else but them, and their lips and their bodies.
But, of course, this is not the end. This is where the curtain falls on fairytales, not truth. It is as good a place as any to leave–if you should so desire– because from here on out, the circle is only closing.
Do you ever get the feeling that you’ve been here before? Same place, different time...
Baker Street. Even in ruin as it was, it retained that unmistakable air of home. It had been one of the strangest days of John’s life (bear in mind that he had indeed once awoken to find a jackal chewing on his arm) and it was all he could do not to fall asleep.
They lay together, Sherlock and he, on the remains of the living room floor, not speaking, apart from each other as the crowded room allowed. It was an understanding; a peace, of sorts.
John could hear every beat of his heart, each shallow breath of his companion, even the tickle of wind on the window sent a carrying thrill through him. Dramatic as it was, he felt that they couldn’t possibly be in the London he once knew. This was another world, where he was alive with the small pleasures of simply being, of having another person by your side in utter silence and feeling nothing but contentment in between. It was surely another world.
Lost in thought, the other man did not respond. John looked to him. The smile on his face slipped.
He scrambled to his knees, grabbing the detective by his slender wrist.
A hand on his forehead revealed a clammy heat. His face was bloodless, still, his breathing shallower than ever.
“For God’s sake, Sherlock, look at me!”
With an audible gasp, the formerly immobile corpse of a man sprang to life. “What on earth is it?” he demanded, frowning up at the stunned doctor.
John breathed again, for what felt like the first time in a long minute. “What’s wrong?”
“Excuse me?” Sherlock bristled. “I believe it was you that started with the panic and accusations.”
He would have laughed, had he believed for a second that Sherlock was being deliberately ignorant.
“It was like you were in a trance or something,” he explained, trying desperately to reel in his own annoyance.
Sherlock made a tutting noise. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’re ok then?”
Sherlock glared, “meaning?”
“You don’t look so good.”
He was pale, it was true. And maybe it was John’s imagination, but he could swear the man looked thinner.
“You didn’t seem to mind earlier,” Sherlock smirked.
“Don’t change the subject.”
“The subject is dull though, wouldn’t you say?”
John cut off abruptly. The pair of them froze as a noise became painfully clear: footsteps.
Sherlock’s eyes widened. “With me,” he hissed, gesturing towards the kitchen.
There was no time for questions. Together they made their way from the open ruin of the living room to behind cover of the kitchen.
“It’s my landlady,” Sherlock noted in a whisper. “And she’s got company.”
Two pairs of footsteps advanced closer still, until their voices bled through the emptiness.
“This is it then.” A woman said sadly. “Compensation doesn’t even begin cover it.” Her voice was tinged with tired anger.
“I’m doing everything I can.” A man spoke now, exasperated and equally morose.
Sherlock shifted beside him. He muttered something that sounded like “strayed,” leaving John confused as ever.
The woman sighed. “I know dear, I know.”
They had stopped waking. For a moment they simply stood, simply taking in the damage. There was a sniff, before the woman blew her nose noisily, causing Sherlock to shuffle uncomfortably in place.
“I just wish we knew where he was. Honestly, after all he’s done for the police!” She said indignantly. “It’s not right. They should be looking for him.”
“But...?” Sherlock’s landlady pressed him.
“I said I agree with you.”
“But you think he should have made more of an effort,” she insisted, “been friendlier. I know what they say about him. I know it, dear.”
“Well, maybe. But I’m not sure it would have mattered so much. Sherlock making an effort isn’t exactly...”
“Orthodox,” she suggested.
“I suppose not.”
Neither stranger spoke again for several minutes.
It was the man, his apology full of regret.
“Oh, Inspector, don’t go blaming your-self for this. He’s got a good heart, no one can convince me otherwise, but the boy was always reckless; he thought he was indestructible if you ask me.”
Sherlock was oddly rigid now, his breathing muted.
“I...you’re right, I know. I just can’t help thinking it was me that pushed him other the edge. What with that drugs bust stunt and all.”
The woman just sighed again, “Reckless boy.”
Sherlock moved noiselessly to the small bathroom, indicating firmly that John should not follow. When he returned, his skin seemed papery as the note he held in his hand. He held the scrap away from John, placing it, ever so carefully, as to not attract the attention of our unexpected visitors, on the kitchen table.
“I promise you, Mrs Hudson,” the man was saying, “if nothing else, we’ll find the person who did this to your flat. I’ll find them...”
John felt a hand on his sleeve, and then Sherlock’s lips were at his very ear, “time to go.”
Without a sound, they hurried through the kitchen door and down the hall. The stairs were more problematic. John’s leg burned painfully and unexpectedly. He cursed loudly before he was struck with the realisation of reality.
The conversation upstairs halted.
Sherlock’s eyes nearly rolled out of his head, “now!”
John didn’t need to be told twice. They bolted, down the stairs, under the police tape.
The man shouted after them. He intended to follow, that much was obvious. But they didn’t look back, and by the time the chance came, they were already in a cab, racing into the night.
If someone had told John 24 hours ago, that he would soon be on the run with Sherlock Holmes, free of hospital and free of the numbness that has encompassed him since returning from Afghanistan, he wouldn’t have believed them. But if someone had told him the truth, he would probably punch them and give up altogether.
That is because John Watson was not free; he was merely passing by a moment. Unbeknownst to him, it was a moment already long gone.
“Why here?” John asked finally.
There was no bitterness between them anymore. No space.
Behind them, a cab drove away.
“I really don’t know,” said Sherlock. “Shall we find out?”
John grinned, “Let’s.”
They stood before two grand pillared buildings, pale and adjacent. The carving below the stone crests declared them a college, but their name was long-since unreadable.
The college itself was tall-ceilinged and cool; shadows crawled over them as they walked through its empty halls. Each footstep cried out beneath them. John didn’t know where they were going. He knew better than to ask by now.
Sherlock demanded leadership. In the shade he looked gaunter than ever, taller than John remembered him, and final. It was in his slow, defiant walk, and firm tilt of his chin. No emotion passed his face here.
At last, they reached the end.
“This is the place,” said Sherlock.
It was grave. Perhaps it was just another spacious, if somewhat emotionless classroom. Maybe in the day it was a perfectly delightful place to be. Maybe...
John stalled. “You went to school here?”
Sherlock was glassy-eyed.
“Do you teach here?” he fumbled with the thought of Sherlock engaging a class of young people and thought better of it. “Do you reckon we were followed, then?”
It seemed a safe question. The cab that had been on their trail until a particularly messy series of backstreets was fresh in both their minds.
“Sherlock...Please, just don’t be cryptic about this. I need to know what you know.”
“You will never know what I know –”
If John didn’t hear the low key of pain in his friend’s voice, he would have assumed arrogance at his words. But the sadness was there, as was that old foe hopelessness.
“That’s one thing I’m glad of,” Sherlock finished. “But you deserve this much; it’s all I can do for you now. Do you know why I found you?”
John frowned. “Why we met?”
“No, I said I had a run in with something a little strong.”
Blue lights flooded over them and soon the wail of sirens filled the room. It seemed that the police had caught up with them after all.
“What do you mean? Why poison?”
“Because I was alone,”
Turning to face him, Sherlock’s eyes glistened with something beyond help. “I want you to know that it was real. It was all real, and I owe you...I owe you everything.”
John’s leg seared with pain again, and he found that his hand shook uncontrollably in his pocket. “You’re not ok, are you?” He said.
Sherlock laughed shakily. “I suppose I’m not, no.”
John nodded, swallowing emotional words with difficulty. “This room, what’s the significance of it?”
Sherlock looked out at the fast approaching siren-callers, his sharp features now enveloped in an uneasy defeat.
“This is where I died.”
When John would look back at this moment, he would notice the sickly pallor of Sherlock’s face, his bone thin body or his tired, matted hair. He would notice, in hindsight, the haggard mouth and the beginnings of a rank smell.
But if you asked him right then and there, all he could have told you was that Sherlock was fading.
Chilled, it was all John could do to watch.
“You see, it’s simple. So simple,” Sherlock spat the word in repulsion. “The day I died, you should have been there. The day you started wanting to kill yourself, I should have been there. We should have been partners...we could have been legends. But it’s too late. It’s just too late.”
John neither spoke nor cried. He held as still as he ever could, and he held himself tall. Because if this was the end of Sherlock Holmes, it was the end of him, and John Watson does not go down without a fight.
“Moriarty,” he said at last. “You said that earlier, you said he was after you...he destroyed your flat! He did this.”
Sherlock closed his eyes, smiling lightly. Twisted and fading, he had never looked more beautiful than he did to John right then.
“Moriarty was wrong. I know now what he wanted: an equal. Then he wanted to destroy me and he wanted to do it heart first. But he was wrong.”
“Moriarty was wrong,” he repeated. “And I’ll tell you why. That flat was never home, and I never had a heart.”
John destroyed the space between them, reaching out for Sherlock, finding nothing at all. That was when he saw it.
Even in pure death, Sherlock was magnificent. There were no words, nothing but the roar of loss pounded in John’s skull. He stared and he stared, and then he fell.
He collapsed over the broken body of the man he never met, shaking him, screaming swear words and promises and prayers. He needn’t have bothered.
It was over.
The room swam in and out of consciousness. Police and paramedics came and went. Sherlock’s body remained, lying horribly still like a terrible attraction amid a crowd of disrespectful tourists.
The man named Lestrade leaned before him, his familiar voice questioning and breaking like a frightened child.
“Sherlock? Oh my God, Sherlock!” he was saying, over and over again. “Oh God.”
“He can’t hear you,” John heard himself say.
“Who the bloody hell are you?” asked Lestrade, grief screaming through his words.
John smiled. “I’m with him.”
It has been said that every Holmes needs his Watson, and this is intrinsically true. But Watson, he tends to draw the short straw. He watched then as his friend faded forever. And he knew that it wasn’t fair. Had the world been fair, they would have had each other. Had their universe been as it should, they would have been happy. They would have lived, and loved, and simply been. But not now; the moment had passed.
Some lives just aren’t meant to be happy; that’s what he told himself.
“But the most special
are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins.”