John can scarcely catch his breath for running, for laughing, for the surprise of opening the fridge door and seeing a face staring back. His hands are steady, his legs are strong, and his heart in his chest beats hard, close to the surface, strumming just under his breast bone as if to remind him that he’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive.
His heart beats the hardest when he’s running next to Sherlock.
It’s like The Wizard of Oz, John thinks: living a colourless life for so long that he couldn’t remember anything beyond the greyscale, and then suddenly being swept away by a whirlwind and into a bloody burst of pink and red, chasing the blues and purples of the night into the back booth of a shoddy two a.m. Chinese, laughing over plates of steaming food and the golden crisp of a fortune cookie that said: a new voyage will fill your life with untold happiness.
Across the table, Sherlock had slurped at an enormous helping of noodles, garlic sauce flecking the corner of his mouth and eyes closing in satisfaction, and John had chuckled to himself and thought, all right.
He works a little, just a few locum shifts here and there, and he dates a little, just a few nights out once or twice a month. He’s not very good at either endeavour; John has never been so unreliable for so many people in his entire life. He finds he doesn’t care much though—he’s always there when it’s Sherlock who needs him, even though once or twice that’s more because he’s been kidnapped and held at the big conclusion than because Sherlock intended him to be, but anyway it’s hard to spend too much time thinking about what he’s supposed to be doing when he’s busy getting shot at instead.
And they do get shot at sometimes, John and Sherlock do, but it’s all right. John shoots back, and together they chase killer cabbies and combat acrobats and search for diamonds, infiltrate international smuggling rings and fist fight giants and foil evil stepfathers. They stay up late searching for clues, and stay in for days trying to make sense of them, and they take the clients they want to take and they do whatever they have to do to find the answers they need, even if it means wearing stupid ninja costumes or hiding under even stupider hats.
And even when things are bad—even they yell and row and storm off and leave someone behind, even when they’re not fast enough or not clever enough and the cases go wrong, even when Sherlock’s experiments foul up the flat or when John says something unkind in a blog post—things are better than they were before.
At the end of March, they nearly die in a swimming pool.
John goes away for a few weeks, and he knows he’s running, though he’s not sure why or what from. Moriarty, he tells himself. He goes off to New Zealand to visit a friend from his army days—another friend he’d almost died next to. They celebrate his birthday by getting incredibly drunk and whispering confessions to each other so John’s girlfriend, Sarah, doesn’t overhear, but it doesn’t matter anyway because the next morning in the haze of his hangover John manages to say, “Sod off, Sherlock,” instead of what he meant to say, which was “Thank you, Sarah,” and that is the end of that.
When he comes home, Sherlock buys beer, and sits around the flat pretending not to be staring at John as he reads the paper in his chair, like he can’t believe John is real. John doesn’t mention it, but he stays up until Sherlock falls asleep on the sofa, and Sherlock doesn’t mention it when he wakes up the next morning covered in the blanket that usually hangs over the back of John’s chair and smells like John’s hair products, and that isn’t the beginning or end of anything, really, but it is something, and John smiles to himself and leaves it at that.
In September, they meet Irene Adler, and John wishes they hadn’t. She makes John’s skin crawl, the way she looks at Sherlock, like a prize to be won or a meal to be devoured or both. Sherlock, drugged, clings to John, soppy and protective in the back of Lestrade’s car, and then just hours later asks what he could ever need John for, and that’s fine and not fine, but it is what it is. John goes out on a date with a tall, beautiful woman who wears her collar popped, and gets over himself.
By December, he can’t even remember how hopeless he’d been in January.
Everything happens, except for the one thing that doesn’t.
It isn’t until the New Year that John realises something’s missing.
He’s not sure what makes him think of it. The flat has been quiet and gloomy since Irene Adler and her game of dead-or-alive—and maybe he’s just looking for excuses to do something happier, to celebrate something. To get another chance at the good mood that had filled up the flat in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when he and Sherlock had strung up fairy lights and bickered over which wine to buy and made snarky jokes over the face they imagined Mycroft would make if they invited him over.
And Sherlock is—not Sherlock. And it makes John ache in a pretty uncomfortable way, and he wants to make it better, to do something to—to comfort, or to reassure, if that’s a thing anyone can do for Sherlock Holmes. John tried, New Year’s Eve, with the resurrected spectre of Irene Adler and her tawdry text alert filling up the flat—and Sherlock refused, which didn’t really come as a surprise because, for all that Sherlock is loud and brash and outrageous, at the core of him he’s really very shy.
It took John a while to catch on to that tidbit. To earn it, even, being able to know that.
Sherlock Holmes is shy.
Which leaves John here: looking for an excuse to do something nice, to do something special, something that will lift their spirits, and realising suddenly that he and Sherlock have lived together for nearly a year and they’ve never celebrated Sherlock’s birthday. John doesn’t even know when it is.
If it had occurred to John three or four weeks ago, he probably would’ve just asked Sherlock outright. But things seem so uneven now, so off-kilter, and Sherlock keeps so much of himself so close to his chest, and John doesn’t know if he’s really all that interested in reaching out in some way just to be rejected again. Sherlock would probably just huff at him in disinterest. John can hear his dismissal now: birthdays. Dull.
But the thought of it sticks, Sherlock’s uncelebrated birthday, and John thinks maybe late is better than never anyway.
So: Sherlock’s birthday. They couldn’t have the usual sort of celebration, obviously; John certainly wouldn’t be offering to set up a drinks thing with friends, and he can’t exactly arrange for someone to get murdered in a spectacular way, so his options would be limited to begin with, and in the end, John looks up a few things on Google and then just picks a day at random. Not on the weekend; Sherlock would be suspicious that it were something too special. Monday is out because Mondays are Mondays. Tuesday is spent mostly wandering around a warehouse looking for a suspect in a fraudulent gambling outfit, and Wednesday finds John having a lie-in with a sore shoulder from having to tackle said suspect in said fraudulent gambling outfit. So: Thursday.
On Thursday, Sherlock goes out to do god-knows-what, and John sneaks off to Waitrose for a special shopping trip. He picks up everything for a beautifully creamy parmesan mushroom risotto as well as a crusty loaf of bread to go with, and a white chocolate strawberry cake for dessert. Sherlock loves sweets, after all—he’ll never turn down a cake.
He will, however, turn down any opportunity for a fuss to be made over him. If Sherlock was into birthday celebrations, they’d probably have had one in the last year already, and John may not be a genius but he can certainly take a hint: shy, he remembers. That’s all right—it’ll just be an unbirthday party, John thinks, and he laughs at an affectionate comparison to a mad hatter and stirs the risotto some more.
When Sherlock comes in that evening, John is ready. The table is cleared and set, the flat smells wonderfully like buttery warm bread, and John is the very picture of casual flatmate just happening to serve dinner at an opportune moment.
“Just a little something,” John excuses, gesturing at Sherlock to sit. “Come on.”
Sherlock eyes the two plates set on the table with suspicion and does not move. “Why.”
“Because it’s gone seven and I’m hungry.”
“But I’m not.” He makes a beeline for his bedroom, skirting the table as though just brushing the back of a chair would scald him.
John rushes to intercept him. “Sherlock. You haven’t eaten dinner all year. You even like risotto. And there’s cake.”
Sherlock’s scowl deepens. “Why is there cake?”
“Because it was on sale,” John invents. “Come on. Dinner. Sit.”
Sherlock hesitates, then fidgets in place a minute like he’s trying to decide, and finally, he sighs and pulls out a chair and sits. “Don’t expect me to eat very much,” he says, not unlike a pouting child.
John ignores him, and three helpings of risotto, half a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and three-quarters of a cake later, he dares to raise his glass to Sherlock with a grin. “To Sherlock Holmes,” he says, trying not to giggle, “mad bastard and all-around Hat-Man.”
Sherlock snorts and raises his glass back. “To Robin,” he says, tipping his chin toward John, and they both collapse into laughter.
Later, when they’ve abandoned the clean-up to morning and John has wandered, still tipsy, up to bed, he adds a little notification to the calendar on his mobile for the same day next year. If Sherlock won’t tell him when his birthday is, fine. John’ll give him a new birthday and celebrate it just the same, and then in twenty-odd years when Sherlock tries to say that John never wished him a happy birthday as a point in an argument, which John would bet a tenner Sherlock would try to do as though it were all John’s fault, he’d be able to look back and point to years’ worth of dinners in protest.
John falls asleep with a smile on his face and his mobile in his hand.
It’s the sixth of January.
As the winter fades into spring, John and Sherlock race around London, dodging darts and arguing about nothing. Sherlock resolves to quit smoking, and John resolves to quit dating, and in the mists of the moor, Sherlock calls him a conductor of light. As though John was the one illuminating all the world and shining hope into the dark corners of Sherlock’s mind, instead of the other way around.
It feels like the beginning of something new, John thinks, watching the firelight play across Sherlock’s face one night as he plays the violin, as his eyes slide over to John’s and catch briefly before sliding away. Like something more.
But in June, Sherlock dies, and all the lights go out.
John’s mobile goes off at eight o’clock in the morning.
He grunts, half-asleep. His mouth tastes foul; his arm is stiff and sore from having slept on it funny. Fell asleep on the sofa again, he notices sourly, though he supposes it’s better than getting no sleep at all. He fumbles around blindly for the phone and slowly drags it into view.
6TH JANUARY, the screen reads. SHERLOCK’S BIRTHDAY!
Immediately, John’s chest bursts into aching. His eyes go blurry; his nose starts running. The mobile clatters back down to the floor.
Fuck. Fuck. Sherlock’s birthday, his fake birthday. His fake birthday that John had celebrated last year because Sherlock had never told him his real birthday, because Sherlock never told him anything, because Sherlock hadn’t thought it was important, maybe, or because he hadn’t thought John was.
Sherlock’s been dead six fucking months, and now John will never know.
He rolls over on the sofa and presses his face into the back cushions, pretending that it’s just the dust in his tiny flat that’s making his eyes prick and tear. He’s supposed to let it all out or something, according to his therapist, but he worries—irrationally—that if he lets it all out, he won’t have anything of Sherlock left.
John calls out sick to work—he’d promised to stop doing that as his new years’ resolution, but he can start after today—and stays curled on the sofa until half-past noon, remembering Sherlock’s incredible sulks and the way he’d fall asleep sometimes like that, his face smoothing out of its sour moue into something soft and innocent. John would put a blanket over him, sometimes, and talk himself out of kissing Sherlock’s forehead.
He wishes he had done, just once at least, but it’s too late now.
Eventually John peels himself up and pours himself into his clothes. It’s cold outside—fucking freezing, actually, and it snowed the night before so everything’s slick and frosted—but he ends up wandering out anyway, meandering through the streets where he and Sherlock had once run, stopping into a Costa where he’d once bought Sherlock a hot chocolate on a stake-out, mostly as a tease. Sherlock had scoffed and rolled his eyes, but he’d drunk it, and John had caught him smiling at it once when he thought John wasn’t looking, so it was all right.
He ends up in Waitrose that night, looking at the display of pre-made boxed cakes. Belgian chocolate, this year, John decides, and when he gets home he realises he hasn’t got a birthday candle, so he lights a tea light on top of it instead.
Make a wish, John thinks. He takes out his mobile and scrolls down his calendar to the next year, to the next sixth of January, and sets the alert again. Then he closes his eyes, blows out the candle, and says, one last time, “Please stop being dead.”
John dreams about flying.
Not flying like a bird, not the kind of flying that feels like falling—though he does dream that, sometimes, a horrible nightmare that ends with a horrible thud in his ears and a horrible sense of his fingers wet with blood, even though he hadn’t gotten Sherlock’s blood on his hands that day, even though he hadn’t run his fingers through Sherlock’s soaked hair the way he wished he had afterward—one last touch, one last regret, that he’d never done that when Sherlock was alive—but boring: on a plane, a commercial flight.
He dreams about looking out the window as he’s flying over the ocean at night, watching the pinprick lights of the cities and villages on some coastline below getting farther and farther away until there’s nothing. Nothing but wisps of clouds like funeral shrouds and the smooth, glassy ocean below.
And then, after what seems like years, after what seems like a lifetime, there’s something on the horizon: a beacon, like a lighthouse, like a single flickering candle in a window at the end of a lane. Just the tiniest, dimmest suggestion of light, drawing him closer.
Drawing him away from the lights he’d left behind.
He’s already awake when his phone beeps at eight o’clock in the morning. It’s Tuesday, so he’s got a shift at the clinic starting at 8:30, and he’s running late for having missed his train, and he still wants to stop for coffee if he can—the break room stuff is foul, John thinks it’s on purpose, too, trying to get the staff to embrace their own health! or some other similarly stupid campaign.
He hears the mobile alert as he’s trying to get away from the jabby end of some woman’s enormous black umbrella, and his chest caves in for a moment even though he has been anticipating it.
He knows perfectly well what day it is.
It’s a day that doesn’t matter. A day just like any other. It isn’t even the right day—Sherlock would think that was the stupidest bit of all—so John isn’t going to make a fuss out of it. It’s nothing.
He ends up being too late to get coffee, and the clinic is wretched this time of year on top of it, filled to bursting with influenza and with people who think they have influenza but really only have a bad case of the new-year-doldrums. Talking to other people about depression feels like the height of hypocrisy, but John has always been a better doctor than he is a man, so he does what he has to do.
At the end of the day, Mary pops her head in around the door. “Hello, you,” she says. “Busy tonight?”
They’re dating, John thinks. He’s pretty sure they are, anyway—they’ve been out. He’s stayed over a few times. It’s new enough that they’re keeping things to themselves, here at the clinic, but not so new that they won’t sneak a kiss or two in the supply cupboard or leave together at the end of the day.
She’s exactly the sort of woman John had grown up knowing he’d fall in love with and marry and ride off into the sunset with, or something like that. Irreverent, quick witted, down to earth. She’s not always soft when she ought to be soft, and she’s not always joking when she ought to be joking, but John’s like that too, so he thinks it fits.
He knows she’s pursuing him far harder than he’s pursuing her, but he also knows that he’s going to let himself be caught. And why shouldn’t he? Because almost two years ago someone else, who John had never loved the way he meant to, and who had certainly never loved him back, had gone and stepped off a roof?
Yes, a voice says in the back of John’s mind, and it sounds like Sherlock’s voice. Because you need me.
Can’t need something I can’t have, John thinks back, but he smiles apologetically up at Mary. “Sorry,” he says, “I’ve just got some errands to run, but I can’t put them off any longer. How about tomorrow, instead?”
She smiles back. “Tomorrow’s good,” she says, coming into his office and giving him a quick kiss. “Tomorrow’s great, in fact. I’ll make dinner?”
“Sounds perfect,” John tells her.
That night, John runs his errands: he walks through Regent’s Park, buys a cup of coffee from a cart. Wanders over to Baker Street and tells himself that he should really call and check up on Mrs Hudson, but never crosses the street. Goes to Waitrose. This year he buys a carrot cake and imagines Sherlock’s look of horror at what would have been John’s flimsiest attempt to get him to eat a vegetable to date.
“It’s new,” he tells his slice of cake, “this thing with Mary. But I’m alone, with you gone, and she gets it, I think. About you. About, you know, having lost someone, someone who isn’t really anyone in the easy ways of compartmentalising. I dunno. She gives me space, in a way. Lets me keep my secrets. You would’ve liked her.” He laughs to himself. “Or maybe—you’d have liked her if I wasn’t dating her, I think.”
Slowly, John finishes his slice of cake. He bins the rest, and when he goes up to bed, he puts Sherlock’s birthday—his fake birthday, his nonsense, nothing, meaningless birthday—into his phone for next year.
He can move on, John thinks, and still keep this one thing. So he tries to move on.
When Sherlock resurrects himself in November, John is so angry that he pulls up the event to delete it, but he can’t make himself do it. There’s still something he’s mourning, John is. The way Sherlock used to be, maybe—the recklessness, the frenetic energy—it’s not the same. Sherlock comes back thin and cautious and uncertain of his place in the world.
He’s not John’s Sherlock anymore.
And John isn’t Sherlock’s, either.
“John?” Mary comes into the kitchen, carrying John’s phone. She holds it up so he can see the alert on the screen. “It’s Sherlock’s birthday?”
John flushes. “Ah, well. No,” he says, taking the phone and swishing the event away.
“It said it was. Right there. On your phone.”
“It did, but it’s not.”
Mary ignores him. “Well, we should do something with him, then! Dinner, at least, don’t you think? I could pop by somewhere, pick up a Victoria sponge?”
“It’s not—” John stops himself. Too snappy; Mary hates that. Try again. “It’s not really his birthday, Mary. I don’t even know when his birthday is.”
“Then why’s it in your phone?” She looks unimpressed.
“Because he died, all right? And I didn’t know. And there are some thing you just—need to know, even if you know it’s not really true.” He stands up and slips past her, out toward the back door. “Just leave it.”
It’s too cold to be standing in the garden. Sixth of January. Next time he chooses a fake birthday for someone, he’s going to pick a nice one. October, maybe—that’s got a certain macabre feeling he’d bet Sherlock would appreciate.
He could just ask. About Sherlock’s birthday. He could do that now: text Sherlock and ask him things, and get answers back. Because Sherlock is alive, and Sherlock had had birthdays the whole time he’d been gone. Years of birthdays. Years of growing older, traveling the world and doing whatever he was doing. Years of lies. Years of knowing John was here, grieving for him, and never saying. Never even hinting. Years.
John could ask, but he doesn’t. Instead he goes back in, kisses an apology onto Mary’s cheek, and goes to work like it were any other day. Because it is.
When he comes home that night, he brings a lemon drizzle cake from Waitrose, and Mary puts her hand over his but doesn’t say a word, and they spend the evening talking about plans for the wedding, and John doesn’t enter anything into his phone at all but he knows he’ll remember it, next January. He knows he’ll always know this date. He’ll remember it even if he doesn’t want to.
It’s April before John starts going on cases with Sherlock again, properly, the way they used to. John starts checking Sherlock’s emails again, and they start laughing again, and as long as John doesn’t lose track of himself, it’s fine.
He does ask, once. In August: his stag night. The night is unseasonably cool; he wears a sweater. Sherlock wears his coat, and by the time they end up next to each other on the stairs at 221B, John has to tuck his hands into his armpits so he won’t try to worm them inside that coat. Inside along Sherlock’s ribs, along the warmth of his skin, to where John might feel his heartbeat in his chest like a homing signal: here I am. Here I am. I’m alive.
“When’s your birthday?” John asks, laughing, leaning forward in his chair, feeling like the question is a dare, like it’s walking some fine thin line between them without knowing how.
Sherlock giggles, his legs spreading wide, knees wobbling in and out. “Twentieth of April.”
John laughs again. “No—no. That’s my birthday.”
“Is it?” Sherlock’s knees stop wobbling. He frowns. “But we never celebrate it.”
“I celebrate it. You delete it.”
“Clearly,” Sherlock sniffs, “I don’t. It’s the twentieth of April.”
“You didn’t know it was mine though. What’s yours? For real, now.”
Sherlock giggles again. “Today.”
“It’s not!” John exclaims, but they’re both laughing too hard, and the conversation is lost. It’s not until later that John remembers it, and when he does, Sherlock is nearly passed out on the bench in the drunk tank. John catches at his hand, entwining their fingers so that Sherlock can’t brush him off.
“Sherlock,” he says, and now he’s drunk in a way that feels less like fun and more like the veil between all his emotions has gotten too thin, “Sherlock. I need to know. For real, now. When’s your birthday?”
Sherlock turns to look at him; he leaves their fingers twisted together, but uses his other hand to trace a line over John’s cheeks. “I don’t really delete your birthday, you know. I don’t delete anything about you.”
John stares at him; Sherlock stares back. There’s something in John’s throat. The last glass of whisky, maybe. Or maybe just glass. “Sherlock. Your birthday.”
Sherlock’s fingertip swoops along the line of John’s bottom lip, and then he draws back. Lays back on his bench again. Closes his eyes and squeezes John’s hand. “You already know,” he says. “It’s the sixth. The sixth of January.”
Frost flowers over John’s skin, like the blossoms on a windowpane: icy cold and unforgiving. His stomach heaves up into his heart, hurting them both, and he has to look away and blink back something that’s trying to escape him through his eyes. Sherlock knows. Sherlock knows, and has always known, and has just let John—and now to make it a joke—
He shakes his fingers loose and folds his arms over his knees. “Fuck you, Sherlock Holmes. Fuck you right back to hell.”
Sherlock, apparently oblivious, laughs. “Don’t worry, John. I’m still there.”
The next morning, John remembers everything, but decides to pretend not to, because he’s getting fucking married and he’s getting fucking away from people who lie and lie and lie.
Sherlock hacks his blog while John and Mary are on their honeymoon and says the most horrible things, things like I wish I really had died, and John remembers the most horrible things, too, things like fuck you right back to hell. In the end Mary steals his mobile and tells him, “He’s just after your attention John. It’s not serious. You know what he’s like.”
“Oh yeah?” John says, angry to cover up the smell of fear, “What’s he like?”
Mary looks him in the eye and says, “A liar.”
John remembers that, a month later, when she points a gun at him down a darkened hallway and admits she’d fired the shot that had nearly taken Sherlock’s life. He remembers that when Sherlock collapses into his arms and tells him that they can trust her, even as he bleeds internally from the wound she’d given him.
John remembers how serious her expression had been, how thorough her condemnation. A liar.
Every once in a while, not very often, but sometimes, things align in just some certain way, and John can step outside his body.
He thinks, possibly, that it happens mostly when if he didn’t, he would implode or explode or collapse or spontaneously combust, an abandoned skyscraper fitted out for demolition trying to escape the blast by heaving itself two steps to the right in a creaky, clunky jumble of disjointed limbs and unflattering angles. There is, after all, only so much a person can handle.
John spends the sixth of January on the floor of the bathroom at 221B, rubbing circles into Sherlock’s back as he dry heaves. He blames Mrs Hudson’s curried chicken instead of the drugs, and John lets him, because he can’t bear to blame the gunshot and the morphine Sherlock needed for weeks and weeks as he recovered from surgery and then have to listen again for the umpteenth time while Sherlock explains why John should forgive Mary this trespass. “I have,” Sherlock would say, rolling his eyes. “Why can’t you?”
In February, though, there’s a different birthday to celebrate: the birthday. The seventeenth: Rosamund Mary Watson is born in the backseat of John and Mary’s car, delivered into John’s hands and Sherlock’s scarf because nobody had remembered to grab the baby-go bag back at the house. “It’s not hygenic,” Sherlock fusses, but when John looks over to tell him with all affection to shut up, Sherlock is standing just a little too far away, hands shoved too deep into his pockets, watching traffic instead of John’s little family, and John doesn’t know what to say. He wishes he could take Sherlock by the hand and draw him in, to include him in the circle of people John loves, but John knows that the way he feels about Sherlock is not the way he feels about his family.
After the paramedics arrive, Sherlock takes John’s keys and bundles the Watsons into the ambulance and promises to meet them at hospital.
He doesn’t, though. And John can’t bring himself to text and ask why not, because he already knows.
The rest of the year is a blur, after that. At first John thinks they might actually be able to do this—to be normal, or at least as normal as life can be with a consulting detective and a rogue intelligence agent and a baby—but Rosie isn’t more than two months old before everything falls apart.
Everyone has a history.
Mary’s history is A.G.R.A. Rosamund Mary: a target painted on the back of their little girl in a moment of sheer selfishness John doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive, and it comes back for her. Sherlock’s history is Moriarty, and every thread Sherlock picks up in the search for the remnants of Moriarty’s web leads to Mary instead, an ouroboros that should make John sick to his stomach at every turn and instead only makes him tired.
John’s history is Sherlock, and he texts Sherlock too often and wishes all the time that he could go back and leave all this behind, but in the end it’s Mary who leaves. John sits in 221B with Sherlock and Rosie, watching her little tracking symbol move across the map. He wonders idly if she’ll be back for Rosie’s first birthday in February; it’s only September.
“When’s your birthday?” John asks, turning to Sherlock as Sherlock hands him a bottle.
“Today,” Sherlock says immediately, but he smiles that particular smile and John knows it’s not serious.
“Git,” John says.
“We’ll have to leave Rosie with someone,” Sherlock says.
John blinks, surprised. “Leave Rosie? Why?”
“To go fetch Mary back, obviously. I’ve calculated the risk to be quite low but there’s no sense in inviting trouble.”
“Oh,” John says. “Already?”
Sherlock peers down at him. “Don’t you want her back?”
“Of course,” John says automatically, but he hadn’t actually thought about it. When he does think about it later, though, when he really sits and thinks about it, what he really thinks is, not really.
That’s why she dies, of course. Mary. A few weeks later: October. John had thought October would be a good month for Sherlock’s birthday once. John tries two or three times to start the conversation with Mary—separation, divorce, just can’t keep up appearances anymore—but she always turns it around like he’s so noble, so brave to love her. But I don’t, he’s on the verge of saying, but their mobiles beep and Mary’s out the door and the next time John sees her, she’s dying, and he can’t even say it then. He can’t even say it in her last moments. I love you.
“I didn’t even know her birthday,” John says to Sherlock, later, when Sherlock crowds him into the aquarium bathroom and pushes his hands under the sink. Sherlock scrubs Mary’s blood off John’s hands, the way John scrubs Rosie’s breakfast off hers. “Her real one. We celebrated in May, but I didn’t know her real one.”
“It was in June,” Sherlock tells him. “The twenty-second. I saw it in Mycroft’s files.” He hesitates, then adds, “She was two years older than she’d told you.”
John laughs a ramshackle laugh. “June twenty-second,” he repeats, trying to remember if they’d done anything special that day. He doesn’t know. “She lied about everything, didn’t she?”
For a long moment, Sherlock is quiet, wetting paper towels in the sink so he can clean the blood from under John’s fingernails. “Yes,” he says finally.
“I lied too,” John tells him. “I didn’t love her at all.”
“I know,” Sherlock says gently. John thinks probably Sherlock did know, and he studies Sherlock’s profile for a while, trying to sort out what Sherlock might be thinking right then. He can’t tell. He can never tell, with Sherlock.
Instead of asking him what he’s thinking, John asks, “When’s your birthday?”
Sherlock finishes John’s fingernails, bins his paper towels. Gets a few more and dries John’s hands. He says, “Today,” and John finally knows what that means: we’re not going to talk about that right now.
We’re not going to talk about us.
Well, what else is new, John thinks, and he finally manages to push Sherlock away. He leaves him there, in the public bathroom of the London aquarium, and doesn’t look back.
Mary’s will, when the solicitor finally calls John, includes a packet of medical documents: a paternity test. By the new year, John is alone in the enormous suburban flat, and he floats through it, for a while. He drinks too much and eats too little and sees things that aren’t always there, and reality, if there ever even was such a thing, begins to bend.
The next time John goes to 221B, Sherlock is tremblingly frail but his eyes are clear under the stitches. It’s March: John doesn’t really remember the first few months of the year.
(That’s a lie: he remembers the sixth of January perfectly, because he had broken every liquor bottle in the flat into the sink and when he’d cut himself on the shards, he’d sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Sherlock for two hours to come bandage it up. Couldn’t Sherlock deduce it? Didn’t Sherlock know?)
(He also remembers the seventeenth of February, because that was the day David Hendershott had asked if he would like a picture, and John said no, and David had sent it anyway. I’m sorry it happened like this, he says, and John doesn’t tell him to sod off but it’s a close thing. That’s the day John makes an appointment with a new therapist. He has to do something.)
What he does, it turns out, is snap.
(He remembers that, too, even though Sherlock tells him that he doesn’t remember it right. They can’t agree on what happened, how it happened, but John remembers the give of Sherlock’s body under his fists. You don’t forget a thing like that.)
Reality hasn’t quite yet bent back into place, John thinks, sitting across from Sherlock in their chairs. Sherlock’s wearing that blue dressing gown. Mary’s wearing a black shirt buttoned up to her neck. She doesn’t count. She’s dead.
Irene Adler, it turns out, is not. The phantom moan of her ringtone reverberates throughout the room and John’s stomach plummets into his shoes, and he knows. Suddenly, he knows.
“Happy birthday,” John says.
Sherlock dips his head, embarrassed. “Thank you,” he says, a confirmation he can’t withhold any longer. It’s the fifteenth. The ides of March. Julius Caesar bleeding out on the floor of the Senate—Irene Adler still alive and Sherlock still lying about it, exchanging pleasantries about a date John has obsessed over and has not been allowed to know.
“I never knew when your birthday was,” John says, and Sherlock’s face is so carefully blank. John would hit him again, he thinks, if Sherlock would just react.
“Well,” Sherlock says, and he says it like he pains him for some reason—knows he’s been caught, John supposes. “Now you do.”
John knows Sherlock thinks Mary was his missed opportunity. The person he reached out for when it was already too late and couldn’t hold onto. And he knows that Sherlock thinks the man Mary thought John was was a devoted, loving husband, who forgave even the darkest sins because he could not stand to leave her.
Sherlock is wrong, and it’s unbearable.
Sherlock is John’s missed opportunity, and Mary knew it. Mary had always known it. This would be her crowning achievement, John thought. Her last death-blow from beyond the grave: Sherlock, sitting right in front of him, holding John in his arms, even, his cheek against John’s hair, and John is so thick and full with shame and regret that he can’t say anything. Not with Irene Adler on Sherlock’s mobile, wishing him a happy birthday. Not if there’s a chance for him with someone else.
But two weeks later, John’s therapist aims a gun at his face, and blows reality wide open.
It’s surprisingly like the beginning, John thinks one night, watching Sherlock bent over his microscope at the kitchen table. It’s all footchases through slick city streets and covert meetings in back rooms, unravelling enigmas and uncovering conspiracies. No one ever dies, not for real, John thinks, watching Mary’s figure crossing Marylebone Road on the CCTV, six months after her funeral, watching Irene Adler emerge from the bowels of a warehouse. “It wasn’t really your birthday, back in March, was it?” John says to Sherlock as they get back into Mycroft’s black car.
“Birthday?” Sherlock says stupidly, already downloading data from the mobile Irene Adler had given him. “Of course not.”
Should’ve known, John guesses, and then he forgets it. They’ve got more important things to worry about: the mobile Irene passed them proves to be the missing link, and suddenly all the pieces are falling into place, and everything starts moving faster and faster and faster, and in the end, John is not surprised when it comes down to a matter of who was the better shot: John, or his dearly beloved dead wife?
John knows he isn’t. He doesn’t even try. He makes a run for it instead, pushing Sherlock out of the way, and when Mary fires, the bullet lodges in John’s abdomen.
“John,” Sherlock cries, at the same time Mary does. John huffs a laugh like tissue paper rustling—even now, even after all this, she hadn’t wanted to hit him. Sherlock lowers him to the ground, frantic. “John, what did you—”
John isn’t looking at Sherlock. Mary is standing only a few feet away, still aiming the gun, eyes wide and mouth open. “John,” she says. That’s enough of that, John thinks, and he raises the gun and fires.
Later, much later, John wakes up to Sherlock holding his hand. “John Watson,” Sherlock says, when he sees John looking, “You are in so much trouble. I am so furious with you we may never speak again. I have never been so mad at anyone in all my life.”
John laughs. It hurts his whole body, but he laughs. “That’s fair.”
“You got shot for me,” Sherlock says, as if John didn’t know that. “Why would you do that?”
He shrugs, lays back and closes his eyes. “That’s not what I did,” John says. “That’s what happened, but that’s not what I did. You know what I did, don’t you?”
Sherlock’s quiet for a long time. “I—John.”
“I loved you, that’s what I did,” John says. “And I’ve been pretty shit at it these last few years, I admit, but I think I’m getting better. You’ll have to give me another go at it, after I get out of here—”
John doesn’t get to say the rest, but that’s all right. Sherlock’s mouth is soft, and warm, and a little bitter from the bad coffee he’s been drinking, and that’s better.
“No, really,” John says, taking his cup of tea from Sherlock and making room on the sofa so Sherlock can squish in next to him. The telly is playing some live New Year’s Eve countdown; Sherlock put it on mute ages ago. “I think you have to tell me now. It’s in the rules.”
“The rules?” Sherlock snorts. “There aren’t any rules.”
“Of course there are rules. Rule number one: hello and goodbye kisses. You’ve proved you’re very good at that already. Rule number two: be very attractive at all times. You’ve had that one down for years—” at this, Sherlock makes a hmmph and blushes and protests under his breath— “Yes, even with the goggles. And rule number three: you have to tell me when your birthday is. For real.”
“I already have,” Sherlock complains. “Whether or not you remember it is not my problem.”
“No, I do remember,” John corrects. “But you lied. You have to tell the truth now.”
“I told you on your stag night. You were just too drunk.”
“I was not. I remember it perfectly, it just wasn’t true.” John huffs, and doesn’t look at Sherlock, because it’s embarrassing, this part: John’s years of celebrating Sherlock’s birthday on a day that wasn’t even his own. That it was so important to him that he had had to invent something. “And I don’t know how you knew about the sixth, either, but it was really not on, actually. You were dead, and I did what I had to do to get through it so you don’t get to make fun, and I—”
“John,” Sherlock says, cutting him off loudly, pushing back to so he can look at John full in the face. “What are you talking about?”
John stares. Sherlock stares back.
He fumbles under Sherlock’s scrutiny, under the alarmed little line across the bridge of Sherlock’s nose. “The—I didn’t know your birthday,” John says. “I wanted to—I just picked a day. And it was right after New Years, and you were so—I thought you were upset about Irene Adler, about her having died, or about her being alive, I don’t know. I was trying to cheer you up, so I just picked one. We had dinner, that year. I bought a cake, even.”
“That wasn’t for my birthday,” Sherlock frowns. “That was because the cake was on sale.”
“No, it wasn’t. I didn’t want to tell you it was a birthday celebration because I thought you’d think that was stupid, and because it wasn’t really your birthday, but we—we had fun, didn’t we? And then when you were dead, it was the only date I had, and I just couldn’t—” John is suddenly hot in the face, and he inexplicably feels like he might cry. “I just couldn’t.”
Sherlock stares at him, reading every microexpression, probably assigning colour values to the reds in John’s face. After what feels like an eternity, he opens his mouth, takes a deep breath, and closes it again. Then he says, very slowly and very quietly and very carefully, “You mean to tell me that you’ve been celebrating my birthday on the sixth of January all these years?”
John wishes he could disappear into the back of the sofa and never come out again. “Yeah.”
“And now you want to know my real birthday, because you don’t know it?”
Sherlock puts his cup of tea down and slides off the sofa to rummage in the papers on the desk for a minute. He comes back with his driving licence and hands it to John. His hands are shaking. “My birthday,” he says, “is the sixth of January. 1977.”
John takes the licence. Stares at the unlikely little printed numbers under Sherlock’s name: 06.01.1977.
“Oh my god,” John says. “You mean I—”
“I didn’t want to sit down with you, that first year, do you remember?” Sherlock asks. “Do you? I put up a fuss. I thought you were—well, it was. I thought you had made me a birthday dinner and were about to get all soppy about it.”
“I was,” John admits. He looks up, eyes wide. “I’ve been celebrating your birthday on the right day all along.”
Sherlock’s eyes are shiny; his bottom lip is trembling. John is on his feet in a second, and the licence drops to the ground, forgotten, as he slides his hands over Sherlock’s jaw, cradling his face and rubbing his thumbs along his cheeks, pulling Sherlock close. Sherlock’s hands close around John’s wrists, holding him there. “You knew,” Sherlock says shakily. “You knew. How could you know? Of all the days, how could you pick the right one?”
John’s laugh is more breath than sound. “Dunno,” he says, “maybe that’s just the way of it, with people like us.”
“Like fate,” Sherlock agrees, nudging his nose along John’s. “Like soulmates.”
And then Sherlock is kissing him again, or maybe John is kissing Sherlock, wet and messy and uncoordinated, laughing against each other, pulling at each other, pulling each other down to the sofa, pulling each other together.
Days later, John goes down to Waitrose, and buys Sherlock’s favourite cake: white chocolate and strawberry. That night, he sticks a set of rainbow-coloured candles into the top and lights them, and sets it in front of Sherlock with a kiss to his cheek.
“Happy birthday,” John says. “Make a wish.”
Sherlock looks up at him and smiles. “I don’t have to.”