Chapter 1: Remembering Things
I’m back in London. I breathe it in, feel its beating heart quiver beneath my feet. I am home.
Obviously, I’ve been away for a while. Under the familiarity, there is a strangeness. It’s like returning to a childhood home, or a classroom where one has spent many hours. It looks smaller, older, dirtier, but feels somehow beloved. Though I don’t remember how I came to be here— or where I’ve been— I am able to note the small differences, signs of what has changed in my absence.
Imagination is never as finely-tuned as reality. While I have kept a version of London in my Mind Palace, returning there whenever I felt homesick, what my senses are telling me is certainly real. At this moment, I am actually in London, walking down a street in Marylebone. There is the chemist’s shop, there is the Tesco where I buy tea and milk, and there is the coffee shop where I stop each morning.
Right now, I’m walking somewhere. The trouble is, I’ve forgotten. I’m trying to do this by rote, letting my body go wherever it thinks I’m going without engaging my mind, because thinking about it will only muck things up by forcing me to notice that something is wrong.
I don’t know where I’m going. I keep walking, hoping my mind will reboot, catch up with my legs, and that I’ll remember why I’m here, on this corner. It’s not unusual for me to slip into my Mind Palace when I’m thinking something through. One moment I’m lying on the sofa talking to—
That’s not what happened. I don’t know what happened, but I wasn’t on the sofa, talking to anyone. I don’t know where I was. Something is definitely wrong.
Helpfully, my mind suggests coffee. The shop across the street is familiar. Double espresso latte. The biscotti are house-made, or so they claim. The chocolate ones are divine. I remember these details.
I order, sit, drink— as if this day were normal, as if I were normal. I breathe in— coffee, chocolate, cinnamon. Scent is a powerful mnemonic. Just catching a whiff of a familiar scent can trigger an entire chain of memories, put a person back into a past they have almost forgotten. I close my eyes, hold the cup under my nose, and inhale.
Details emerge, pieces of my journey. I was in Serbia. I’d been gone from London a long time, almost two years, on a mission. I was a hunter, tracking prey.
I remember pain.
Forget the pain. It’s an anti-mnemonic, blocking memory. No one wants to remember pain, so the brain blocks the memory. Put the pain in a drawer and close it.
Last clear memory: train.
Before that? I’d finished a mission (put that aside for now; consider later) and was returning home. I was exhausted, relieved, anticipating—
I was on a train, the Underground. I must have flown, must have taken a cab from the airport. Why the train? Don’t remember.
I was in London, back from travels. I was taking a train… dark tunnel… going somewhere…
Perhaps this is drugs. I don’t remember taking anything, but the nature of drugs is to distort reality, to leave gaps. This must be the aftermath of a drug episode.
If you’re going to do this, leave a list, Sherlock. At least then I don’t have to guess—
Detail: I have a brother. Mycroft.
I pat my pockets, but there is no note, no list.
I sit in the coffee shop until the sky begins to darken. It is March. I know this without looking at the newspaper that is lying on the next table. I have money in my pocket, just a few pounds. I have no phone, probably because I’ve been away and haven’t got a new one yet. They have phones in Serbia, obviously, but different carriers, different networks. I would have an international plan. And I was fleeing from… something. No phone, then. That might have been helpful, to look through my contacts. Doesn’t matter.
My thoughts return to Mycroft. Older than me by seven years. Went to Eton, Oxford, came out covered in glory, dripping with accomplishments, while I— better not think of that right now. Distraction. Delete.
Mycroft. If I had a phone, I could reach him. He still works for the British Government I think, doing things he can’t talk about. At times, he acts as if he is the British Government. I am a great disappointment to him. The less said about that, the better.
It is surprising, now that I think about it, that he hasn’t picked me up yet. He has a sixth sense about me and access to unlimited surveillance footage. He knows my location and circumstances at all the moments when I least want his interference. Against my protests, he interferes anyway. A dark car will appear, the window will slide open, and a female voice will say, Get in the car, Sherlock.
The British government isn’t looking for me tonight. Strange.
Right now, I need a place to stay.
I sleep in an Underground station because I don’t know where I live, and I don’t have enough money to stay in any of the hotels around here. I had enough to ride the train, but decide to hold onto my cash. Perhaps I had cards, ID, passport— all gone.
I go into a restroom, relieve myself and splash water on my face. There are no towels, just blowers, I notice too late. I look in the cloudy mirror, see what I expect to see. My hair is a bit long, but it has been recently washed. I run my fingers through it, a familiar gesture. My eyes do not look bloodshot, my face is not grey and pasty. I look quite healthy, in fact. Running my fingers over my scalp, I feel for anything that might indicate a head wound. No bumps, no painful spots.
It isn’t amnesia, I think, though amnesia can take many different forms. I remember who I am, so that’s something. I know today’s date: Monday, March 31, 2014. Significant date, though I don’t recall why. (Bracket that; not important right now.)
I know where I am, also a good thing. I am in the Baker Street tube station of the London Underground in England, on the isle of Great Britain, in the United Kingdom, in the Western Hemisphere of the planet officially called Earth. (Yes, I looked it up. It’s officially Earth, not Terra or Gaea.) I suppose the residents of any hypothetical planet refer to their home by whatever word their language has for earth, ground, dirt. And our moon’s name is not Luna, but Moon, our star is simply Sun, not Sol. And our galaxy is not officially the Milky Way, though teachers always taught us that. It’s just Galaxy. Thus sayeth the International Astronomical Union. (Why do I remember this? I thought I’d binned Astronomy…)
The point is, there is ground under my feet. I am not dreaming, not high, not injured.
And yet, I do not know what has happened to me, or what I should do. The fact that I am able to think about this tells me that I am real, that this is real. Cogito, ergo sum.
Make a decision. Should I follow my gut, move by rote, let my thoughts run— and wait for something in my subconscious mind to trip my memory? Should I try to access my Mind Palace (where something is seriously wrong if Astronomy is back) and uncover more memories?
When commuters begin to fill the platform, I rouse myself and board the first train that arrives. I’m going to see the British Government.
It takes me an hour to work my way to a person who actually knows my brother. Apparently he is either so important or so inconsequential that people do not recognise his name. He is out of the office, I am told. I ask to wait. He won’t be back today, I am told. I ask for pen and paper, write him a cryptic note, and seal it in the envelope his completely inscrutable secretary hands me. (When I’ve left, she will rip it open, read my note and call him.)
I am not a man without friends. I have lived in London for years, and surely there are people here who know me. And I am a detective— specifically, a consulting detective. If the world’s only consulting detective can’t figure out what has happened, who can? Nobody.
I am sitting in St James Park, trying to search my Mind Palace. I stumble around, wondering what has happened here. I open doors, find empty rooms. Labels are gone, drawers pulled open, shelves empty. The palace has been ransacked, left in shambles. Astronomy is walking around in a daze. I can’t remember who wrote The Pickwick Papers, who the King of England is, or what the atomic number of Boron is.
I wander the halls, stare into disordered rooms. Finally, two chairs before a fireplace. One is my chair, where I sit when I’m thinking or meeting a client. The other chair—
Oh. This time I’m the client. I sit facing myself.
Mind Palace Self asks me, How can I help you, Mr Holmes?
I’m not sure you can, I say. I mean, we’re the same person, aren’t we?
He smiles. This is true. But I’m very objective. Describe your dilemma, and I will solve it for you.
Ruefully, I smile at myself. There are limits to what even you can believe.
Nonsense, he says (I say). My dear fellow, life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent. There is nothing so commonplace as the unnatural.
I’m not sure that’s how the saying goes. I stare at myself, lounging in my old chair, wearing my grey dressing gown. I am Sherlock Holmes. My brother is Mycroft Holmes, a government functionary who is currently out of the office, not available to respond. In the past, I’ve been a user of drugs, both cocaine and heroin. My life’s work is solving crimes.
I ask myself, What has happened? Here is my dilemma: everything is the same, everything is different, and I don’t know how I got here or why I’m here or what I’m meant to be doing. This is my life, and I feel like a visitor— like a passenger who got off at the wrong stop.
The me that sits in the consultant’s chair lights a cigarette, blows out a cloud of blue-grey smoke that hovers over us. This is a life, he agrees. But perhaps it isn’t your life.
In the client’s chair, I startle. What do you mean?
It’s the unimportant details that you notice. Like the fact that I am smoking, when you know for a fact that you haven’t touched a cigarette in years.
It’s true. I gave up smoking because it was such a bother, other people always making faces and reminding me this is a non-smoking area. Patches are the solution, though occasionally I can’t help myself. Nicotine is an even more powerful addiction than heroin. Speaking as one who has tried both drugs, I think I can claim this with some authority.
Where are my patches?
I roll up my sleeve. No patches. Even more significant, no scars. For years, I’ve kept my sleeves rolled down because of the needle tracks. Now my arms are as immaculate as a baby’s bottom. No one has ever plunged a needle into these arms.
Do you see what I mean? I watch myself throw the cigarette into the fire. Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
I wonder if this is how I always deal with clients and vow to do better with my next client. The me in the consultant’s chair is arrogant, cryptic, and a bit smug. The me facing myself is confused and desperate.
Just tell me what to do, I say.
He leans forward. Whom do you trust?
If anyone can tell me what’s happened, it might be Lestrade. He is a policeman, lacking imagination, bound to facts, unhappy with paperwork, and impatient with all of my shit. On the other hand, there is nothing I can say to him that will surprise him. And I do trust him.
Fact: I have known him for years, since I was a teenage junkie who stumbled into his crime scene, high as a kite, and solved it for him.
I am standing outside of New Scotland Yard, thinking about going inside. The reality is, I have no other ideas. I need grounding, and he can provide it.
As it happens, thank all the deities who guard the line between improbable and impossible, he is coming out of the building right now, as I’m standing here, waffling. He is with another man, a detective I do not recognise. He is being deferential, I think, nodding and smiling. The other man grinds out a cigarette with his heel and walks away. Lestrade sighs and begins crossing the pavement. I watch and wait until he is closer before I speak. It occurs to me that if I’ve been gone for a while, he might be surprised to see me.
His eyes flick towards me and he frowns. “Yes?”
“I need your help with something.” It’s a bit humiliating, and he’ll probably never let me live it down, but— out of options.
Still frowning. “You are…?”
I huff a small laugh. “In a bit of a dilemma.”
He doesn’t look surprised to see me. Just blank. He turns, gesturing at the entrance. “Go inside, mate. Someone at the front desk can help you fill out a report.”
I remember the mirror in the restroom at the train station. My eyes told me: I am still me. Or maybe I have some kind of body dysphoria and I only think I look like myself. Maybe I’ve forgotten what I look like. Maybe I am someone else. Or maybe—
“You don’t know me,” I say.
He shakes his head. “Should I?”
“We’ve known one another for years. I work with you, solve crimes for you. Consulting detective, the one you call when you’re in over your head, which is almost always. We have a running joke that I don’t know your first name, but it’s Greg. Greg Lestrade.”
“Sorry, mate. You’ve got my name right, but I don’t remember meeting you before. And I don’t consult with amateurs.”
I ignore his remark about amateurs. “Sherlock Holmes. We met years ago, when I was nineteen, a junkie you rescued—”
“Sherlock,” he says. A light begins to dawn in his eyes. “Holmes. You were that kid, in the alley.”
I ought to feel relieved, but this is completely wrong. He knew me, but he no longer knows me.
“Christ, that was years ago. I’d almost forgotten.” His frown deepens. “But it can’t be— you died.” He’s looking at me as if I’m a ghost. In his mind, ghosts do not exist. He is a realist, a pragmatic man who needs evidence before he can make deductions. At this moment his brain is trying this on for size, that he is talking to a dead man, and he can’t make it fit.
Being dead explains at least part of what is happening. If it is true, I have many questions. Am I a ghost? Is this the afterlife? But now is not the time for interrogating myself. Now is the time to make an ally. That’s what John would say, at any rate—
John. I’d forgotten. John. Where is John?
“John Watson,” I say. “You know him. You have pints with him and watch rugby. Or football. I’m not sure because I usually delete sporting events.”
“I don’t know a John Watson.”
“Short fellow, blond? Army vet, doctor—”
“Sorry. Never met the bloke.” He narrows his eyes at me. “Your brother gave me hell after you died. Said I should have— well, obviously you’re not really Sherlock Holmes. Maybe this is your brother’s idea of a joke, a reminder of why I’m always passed over for promotions.” He smiles grimly. “Anyway, ta for that. Gotta go.”
“How did I die?” I ask as he turns away.
He stops, scowls at me. “Not that it’s any of your business, whoever you are, but I found you, off your tits on drugs. You begged me not to call your brother and promised you would get help. As soon as you got out, you bought some smack and overdosed. Thanks for the memories, arsehole.”
John. How did I not remember John Watson?
Finding him should not be hard. In this reality, he won’t know me, of course, because I’ve been dead. Years, apparently. He hasn’t met me. But I know John Watson, and though his funny little brain may at first rebel at the illogic of what I tell him, he is first and foremost a caring man, a healer. He will try to help me, even if he thinks I’m insane.
Before I figure out my destination, a black car pulls up beside me. A window slides down and a woman says, “Get in the car.”
This has Mycroft written all over it, I think. And it’s about time. I get into the car.
The woman is pecking at her phone, almost as if I’m not sitting on the seat next to her.
“Hello.” I may as well be friendly, I decide. Easier to manipulate people when you’re pleasant. This is what John taught me. “Is there any point in asking where we’re going?”
“None at all,” she says, glancing up and smiling. She returns her attention to the phone.
Our destination is an empty warehouse, very noir. Mycroft has watched a few too many old movies, I think. Always carefully setting an atmosphere of intimidation. The car pulls into the parking area beneath the building and I am allowed to get out.
“There you are,” I say, spotting Mycroft. “I’ve been looking for you.” He looks older, but it’s definitely Mycroft. He’s leaning on his umbrella, watching me with that famous detachment he prides himself on. He will remind me that I’m once again inconveniencing him. I will remind him that we are brothers, after all.
He regards me with cool indifference, sizing me up. Probably wondering if I’m on drugs. He could be the consulting detective, we both know, if only he didn’t hate the legwork. Lazy, arrogant arsehole.
“I would have called, but I seem to have misplaced my phone,” I say.
“Who are you?” He steps towards me, his eyes flashing. “What are you playing at?”
A thought flies into my brain. The only reason I would ever go to Serbia is because: Mycroft. “Is this about Serbia?” I ask.
“Serbia? What are you talking about?” Arrogant, angry sneer.
I’m slow. Of course he’s angry. He thinks I’m an imposter. I raise my hands, a gesture of surrender intended to appease him. “Something has happened. You obviously don’t know me. I understand. Lestrade didn’t recognise me, either. You think I’m an imposter. I’m not—I’m Sherlock, your younger brother. I don’t know how this has happened, but I seem to be alive, though you believe me dead.”
His face does not change. Still furious. “I repeat: who are you— and who has put you up to this… prank?” He is angrier than the Mycroft I remember. “Was it Lestrade?”
“Lestrade didn’t know me. He told me that I died. Apparently I’ve been dead for years.”
“Ridiculous,” he says. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“I do know,” I say, feeling suddenly weary. “When we were children, we had a dog. I called him Redbeard, after the pirate. That was my ambition at the time, to be a pirate when I grew up. When I was six, I climbed out the window of my bedroom, fell two storeys to the ground, broke my arm, but miraculously survived without further damage. I was home schooled until I was old enough for boarding school. Never had friends, however you might define that. When I was at uni, I started taking drugs. A policeman named Greg Lestrade took an interest in me after I solved a case for him, tried to get me clean. I overdosed, and he took me to hospital. When I woke up, sober, he gave me an ultimatum. I would stop using drugs, and he would let me help him on cases. If I did not, he would arrest me and see that I was sent to prison, where I would be forced to do rehab. I chose to get clean.” I pause, remembering. “Or perhaps I didn’t. Maybe I overdosed and died.”
He gives me that a calm, icy stare that shows just how sceptical he is. “You’ve done your homework. And you do look as I imagine he’d look. But my brother is buried in the family cemetery in Sussex. He has been dead for nearly twenty years.”
“You say I’m dead, and yet here I am.”
“Who are you working for? And to what end?”
“I am working for no one. And my only end is to find out why I’m here.” I laugh bitterly. “I don’t believe in an afterlife, so it can’t be that, unless this is the idea of a non-existent deity who wants to rub my nose in the fact that He/She does in fact exist. So, let’s go with Alternate Reality. The first question should be how. How does one travel between these realities?”
I can see he’s intrigued, though, and a bit moved. “I was walking down Marylebone, going somewhere. I’d been on a train, I think. I was recently back from Serbia, though whatever I did there is a bit fuzzy. I assumed you would know. Since you do not know, and seem disinclined to believe me, I’ll be gone now.”
“Sherlock,” he says.
I turn. His usually controlled face is wistful. “Mycroft?”
“I missed you… I wish…” He is speaking softly. His face contorts, then hardens. “You’re not real. Whoever you are, you must cease and desist from whatever charade you’re playing. I will be watching, so go back to wherever you came from and do not haunt me again. If you do, I will destroy you.”
He turns towards the car.
“Money,” I say. “I’ll need some money to cease and desist.”
He gives me a tight, cynical smile. “I see. So you’re not a ghost. That makes this all so much easier.” He nods at the woman in the car.
By the time I am back on Marylebone Road, Anthea (that’s the woman’s name) has procured a phone for me. I assume that she will be tracking me with the phone’s GPS. She hands me a pre-paid bank card. “Don’t go crazy, now.”
“Thank you.” I get out of the car.
She is looking at her phone again, smiling. “Bye.”
Now, to find John.
I remember John. The first time I saw him, I was in the lab at Bart’s. Mike Stamford brought him down there because he remembered me moaning about how hard it was to find a flatshare. I looked up when I heard his voice saying, a bit different from my day.
Unremarkable, I thought. Invalided soldier, damaged doctor, a sad reminder of what war does to its survivors. But something else— perhaps not remarkable, but interesting. A small mystery of a man. He gave me his phone and I used it to send a text. I explained his haircut, his posture, his tan line, his limp. He was amazed. I was a bit of a fool.
I remember all of this now, as if it has really happened. Which it hasn’t, at least not here, wherever here is.
He returned from Afghanistan wounded, limping and in pain. He lived in a dreary bedsit somewhere on the outskirts of London, depressed and desperate. If he’d never met me— I heard him say it once, that he was near the end of his rope that day at Bart’s when he agreed to look at the flat. I only hope— well, better not theorise until I have some facts.
Bart’s is the logical place to begin my search. He is a doctor, after all, and knows other doctors. He knew Stamford from before, so Mike is the first person I will approach.
As I walk across the lobby, a woman comes out of the coffee shop carrying a cardboard cup with a lid on it. She’s wearing a blue sweater with tiny cats embroidered on it, each cat playing with a tiny ball of yarn.
“Molly,” I say.
She turns and looks at me without recognition. Why is it so hard to get used to being dead? “May I help you?” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I begin again. “You’re Molly Hooper, aren’t you?”
She nods and smiles, but her face is serious. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“I’m Sherlock Holmes, and I’m looking for Mike Stamford. Someone said you might know where he is.”
“Probably in his office. They can give you a map at the front desk if you need help.” She smiles, still puzzled. “I’m sorry— who did you say pointed you to me?”
“Erm, I don’t know who it was, just some medical-looking fellow. Don’t know why I thought he’d know Mike.”
“You’re friends, are you?”
“More like acquaintances.” I’m thinking that Mike won’t know me either, since we met at Bart’s, and I was already dead when he started here. “He might not remember me. Thought I’d just pop in and surprise him.”
She nods. “I can walk you to his office if you like.”
“If it’s no trouble— I don’t want to take you away from your work.”
We don’t talk much as we walk through the corridors, dodging carts and wheelchairs. I’m remembering the last time I was here, when I was being wheeled in on a gurney. It’s funny how places and smells can set off a memory like that. Yesterday I couldn’t remember why I was here or what I was on my way to do.
Today I suddenly remember something very important. Nearly two years ago, I fell off the roof of this very hospital and died. Well, I pretended to die. The whole thing was rather elaborate. Molly helped me pull it off, finding me a corpse to prove my death. She was reluctant, but I persuaded her by insisting that Mrs Hudson and Lestrade and John would all die if I didn’t fake my own death. Moriarty had killed himself, and there was no one who could call off the snipers. So I fell. After my death, I went abroad and hunted down Moriarty’s associates. That’s what I was doing in Serbia. I must have finished and had just returned to London when I tripped into this Alternate Reality where I am already dead.
In less time than it takes to spell all of this out, I find myself lying on the floor, looking up into the concerned face of Molly Hooper. Other medical people are also crowding around, looking at me.
“Sorry.” Not quite what one ought to say when one has passed out. “I didn’t eat breakfast this morning.” This is true, I think, though hardly the reason for my faint.
A couple of doctors help me up and push me into a chair. They vie to take my pulse. Someone straps on a sphygmomanometer, and another has shoved a thermometer under my tongue. This is their arena, and I have unfortunately passed out in it. I let them do their job. Molly goes back into the coffee shop and emerges with coffee and biscuits and pastry.
“I’m fine,” I say, biting into a Danish. “Low blood sugar.”
When the hovering professionals have decided that I am not going to die of anything interesting, they wander off to look at clipboards and type things into tablets.
Molly sits at my side, watching me. I know she is just looking at my colour, trying to decide if I’m really okay. She’s not trying to remember me because she has never met me in this reality. I cannot expect any favours from her. People passing out is something she is used to, and her concern for me is merely that of a medical professional.
“You’re very kind,” I say.
She reaches for my wrist again and takes my pulse. “Almost normal.” She smiles. You surprised me. I never saw anyone pale so quickly. You were white as a ghost.”
“Well, you do work with dead people, so you ought to know.”
“How did you know that?” She looks startled.
“I just… I’m good at spotting things like that, professions, cats, etc. You have three cats, at least one of whom is ginger. No, two.”
She might be going to tell me to piss off, but then she smiles. “You’re an interesting person. Do you think you can stand yet?”
She holds my hands— unnecessarily— as I rise to a standing position. “I feel fine now. Thank you for breakfast. Now, I’ve taken up enough of your time, so if you can point me towards Mike’s office, I’ll let you get back to work.”
“It’s all right,” she says. “Let me walk you the rest of the way. Otherwise, I’ll be imagining you passed out in another corridor.”
We reach Mike’s office without further incident. He is as I remember him, a cheerful, pudgy man with glasses. He looks up with a smile as we enter. “Hello, Dr Hooper,” he says. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“This is Sherlock Holmes,” she replies. “He was looking for you.”
He stands and holds out his hand. “Have we met?”
I realise that this is going to be the story of many days, meeting people I know by name and being asked if we’ve met. Though I never cared for people much before, now it feels rather lonely to always be a stranger. I wonder if any of the people I knew when I was a junkie are even alive in 2014.
“Once, a long time ago. I’m sure you don’t remember me. I’m looking for a friend of yours, John Watson.”
“Watson,” he says. “I know a few people by that name.”
“You were in school here together. Here at Bart’s.”
“John Watson. Yes, I remember him. I believe he went abroad— with the RAMC, I think. Probably getting shot at as we speak.” He chuckles. “Sorry, that was morbid. I hope he’s fine, but I haven’t seen him in ages. We were never close friends.”
The possibilities spool out in my mind. Tiny, random events triggering vastly different outcomes, infinite universes. He might still be in Afghanistan. He might have married. He might have moved to another country. John Watson, seeker of danger, might be anywhere on this planet, right now, living a life where he’s never known me. Or he might have died in Afghanistan, from his wounds or the infection. He might have killed himself in his grey bedsit. He might have been hit by a car before he even left for Afghanistan. He could be dead in any number of ways— again, without ever knowing I exist. Or used to exist.
Through the fog of my thoughts, I hear Molly’s voice. “He’s going to faint again— catch him!”
I blink and grab the edge of Stamford’s desk. “No, I’m fine.”
“Sit down,” Molly says sternly. She takes my wrist again, feels my pulse. Stamford looks at me in alarm.
I begin to babble. “I only just returned to London, you see, and I wanted to look him up, but it’s been a couple years now, and you said maybe— and I thought, what if he’s dead? I just— he was a dear friend, and it’s rather shocking to think that he might have died and I never knew—”
“You haven’t been in touch with him, then?” Stamford asks. “If he was a dear friend, I mean...”
“We had a… falling out,” I stifle an hysterical giggle. Falling, indeed. “I’m afraid he must have been rather angry with me.”
This is true, I realise. The John Watson I know would be livid to discover I’d faked my death and didn’t tell him for two years. What was I thinking? That I could just come back here and pick up where we left off? Well, that plan’s off the table now. I had to fall off a roof to save him, and now it is quite possible that I’ve lost him.
Molly hands me a tissue, which puzzles me for a moment, until I realise that tears are sliding down my cheeks.
Mike is typing something into his computer. “Let’s look him up in the General Register. That way you’ll at least know if he is, erm… What’s his full name?”
“John Hamish Watson. Date of birth, March 31, 1974.”
“Looks like…” Stamford peers at his monitor, pushes his glasses up on his forehead and leans forward. “Well, he’s not dead. Might still be abroad.”
My relief is huge. I feel a bit giddy, express unending thanks to Molly and Stamford, make even more apologies for fainting, and promise to let them know if I’ve found Watson.
I haven’t met him yet, but he is alive, and I will find him.
It only occurs to me later that I should have consulted the medical register to see if he is still practicing. I rather doubt it, since he was wounded. But that was in another universe. In this one, he may not have been wounded. And he might still be in Afghanistan if that’s the case.
I walk down Baker Street, looking for my old residence. I expect that since I’ve never lived at 221B in this world, someone else will be living in my flat. As I pass the address where Angelo’s Ristorante ought to be, I stop and stare. The building is occupied by a Greek restaurant called Yanni’s. I wonder if Angelo is in prison for killing the man he was accused of murdering. Or maybe he was caught carjacking. Or maybe he went back to Italy before they caught him.
On the pavement outside 221B I hesitate, thinking of what I will say to Mrs Hudson. It feels like I’ve known her forever, but we only met after my rehab. In many ways, she has been like a mother to me, and I feel bad that I’ve never really appreciated this before. I was a terrible tenant, storing dead and decaying things in the fridge, playing the violin at all hours, shooting holes in the wall, and, on one occasion, blowing up the kitchen. John used to remind me how lucky I was to have her as a landlady instead of someone more normal.
Making up my mind, I knock on the door. The person who comes to greet me is not Mrs Hudson.
“Well?” she says, tucking a shawl around her shoulders and eyeing me suspiciously.
“Good afternoon,” I say, remembering how polite John always was with shop people and clerks and landladies. “I’m interested in the neighbourhood and wondered if you know of any available flats in the area.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t know of any empty flats.”
She doesn’t seem like the type to endlessly yammer on about random things, so I thank her and leave. I think about Mrs Hudson, wondering if she’s still in Florida, married to the drug dealer.
It’s beginning to feel like a movie, this new life where I am dead. I did not save Angelo from going to prison or help Mrs Hudson escape from her horrible mobster husband. Maybe I was sent here to learn how much difference one life can make. On the other hand, Lestrade’s career has suffered because of my death, and Mycroft— well, he seems the same, but it’s hard to tell. His ambition can run rampant now, as he has no younger brother getting in trouble and embarrassing him. I’m not sure this is a good thing.
I walk. Finally, I spot a library across the street, where I might go online and search for John Watson. I might need to prove I’m a real person before they give me access, I think. I’ll make something up.
My phone pings and I fish it out of my pocket as I’m crossing the street. Glancing down, I see a message from my brother.
We must talk. MH
What I apparently don’t see hits me. I remember flying through the air, knocking my head on something.
Later, when I wake up, John is looking at me.
Chapter 2: Flirting with My Doctor
I open my eyes. John is looking at me. He’s wearing his serious doctor face.
I smile. I’m not sure how much of what I’ve been through is a result of some minor head injury, but John is here, and I’m not dead anymore, and now everything will be all right.
He’s shining a light into my eyes. I notice he’s wearing scrubs, which is not unusual, if he’s at work, though at clinic he usually wears khakis and a button-down shirt. His hair is lighter than it was in 2012, but his eyes are still as blue as a storm-tossed ocean.
“Can you tell me your name?” he says.
I try to roll my eyes, but it hurts. “Queen Elizabeth,” I say.
He huffs impatiently. So very John it almost brings tears to my eyes. “You had no ID on you, and your phone was crushed by the car that hit you. Can you please tell me who you are?”
This horrible depressing reality just goes on and on, I think. Getting hit by a car, minor head injury— these are the very least of my problems. The big one is this: John doesn’t know me.
“I’m Sherlock Holmes.”
He frowns. “Can you spell that?”
I do. He types.
“Where am I?”
“UCL. We’re the closest A&E. Can you tell me what day it is?”
“The last I remember, it was Monday, March 31, 2014. Since I don’t know how long I’ve been unconscious, it’s impossible for me to say if that’s—”
“It’s still March 31. You were out only for about an hour— which is still cause for concern.”
“What?” He looks down at himself, pats each shoulder in turn, looks around the room, then returns his gaze to me. “Is there a sign or something? Did somebody write a note on my forehead?”
“No. It’s your fortieth birthday, though. Did anyone bring cake?”
“I didn’t tell anyone. How did you know?”
“Not sure. Head injury, remember?”
He frowns and chews his lip a bit. “Interesting. Were you clairvoyant before the accident?”
“I don’t think so. Again, I don’t remember—”
“I know— head injury. Right now we need to put you in a big magnet machine that’s going to take pictures of your brain. How does that sound?”
“I’m not a moron, John. I know what an MRI is.”
“That’s Dr Watson to you, Mr Holmes.” He gives me a beautiful smile. “If you’re a good boy and keep very still while we take pictures of your brain, I’ll see that you get a lolly when it’s over.”
Inside the tube of the MRI, I keep still and think about this John who seems so relaxed and almost flirtatious. He smiles more easily. I’ve seen my John with patients often enough to know that his manner is always calm and direct, but not usually playful. Though serious, he recognises patients’ anxiety and does his best to ally it. This John is different, and I can’t say exactly how until I have more data. Somehow, I’m going to figure out a way to spend more time with him.
Once I’m out of Imaging, an orderly brings me back to the A&E. John is standing at the nurses’ station when I’m wheeled in, telling a story about somebody named Andy. “He dances like he’s having a seizure,” I hear him say. He demonstrates, flailing with rhythmic frenzy. The nurses are giggling. As soon as he sees me, he grins and holds out a yellow lolly.
“Here’s my boy,” he says to the nurses. “How are you feeling, Your Majesty?”
“Regal,” I reply. “I hate yellow lollies.”
“Everybody does,” he replies. “And yet they continue to make them. One of the mysteries of the universe.”
This universe, perhaps, I think. “Have you looked at my brain yet?”
“I’m dying with anticipation,” John replies. “But the real doctor has to take a look first.” He takes command of my gurney, wheeling me towards the patient bays.
“You’re not real?”
“I’m not imaginary, but I’m merely a trauma doc. They’ll have a neurologist look at it first.” He pushes my gurney into one of the bays. “It’s likely that you’ll be kept overnight for observation since it’s after six already. There is a minor problem, however. We’re a relatively small hospital and right now there are no single rooms available. We’re a bit short-staffed as well, which is why I’m driving your trolley tonight. If you want a room to yourself, you’ve got two choices. We can have you transferred to St Mary’s. They don’t have an A&E, but they can keep an eye on you just fine. If you don’t want to move, we can keep you in A&E overnight. A bit less private and more crowded, but we’ll do whatever’s most convenient for you. Do you have a preference?” He begins hooking me up to monitors.
“Will you be on shift tonight?”
“I will. My shift started just before they brought you in, so I’ll be here until midnight.”
“I’ll stay here.”
“Brilliant. I need to check on a couple other patients, but I’ll be back. I’ll send someone if you want to order food.”
“Suit yourself.” He returns in a half an hour with a carton of juice for me.
“I’ve talked with the neurologist. He won’t be in until morning. Drink your juice.”
I open the carton and take a sip. “I don’t see why they won’t let you read my scan. Surely you performed all kinds of medical tasks when you were an army surgeon in Afghanistan.”
He gives me a sharp look. “I see your clairvoyance hasn’t diminished. Do you play the violin?”
My mouth drops open a bit. “I do.”
“Really? Wow. That was supposed to be a joke, but you ruined it by actually being able to play the violin. Listen to how it’s supposed to go: Doctor, doctor, will I be able to play the violin after my operation? And the doctor says, of course, my boy. Patient replies, that’s good! I never could before.” He pauses, frowns. “You’re not laughing. Did you at least think it was mildly funny?”
I smile. “I’m sorry I ruined your joke. My sides would be splitting if my head were not already split. And I trust that I have not lost my ability to play the violin. Tell me another joke and I promise I’ll chuckle.”
He shakes his head sadly. “It’s the only joke I know, Holmes. Don’t get your hopes up for an encore.” As he’s talking, he’s making notes on my chart, checking the monitors, and looking extremely handsome. He finishes his notes and bows. “I’ll be back.”
The A&E is not busy; I hear two patients released and sent home. Soon he stops in again, bringing me a lukewarm cup of tea and a half of a sandwich. “You should eat,” he says.
“I never eat much.” I take the sandwich and dutifully bite into it.
“I can tell. I’d like to see a bit more meat on your bones.” He winces. “Sorry. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounded really filthy, like a terrible pick-up line.”
“You could invite me out to dinner.” Instantly I regret saying this.
His eyebrows rise up into the fringe of blond hair that is flopping over his forehead.
“I’m joking,” I quickly reassure him. “I suppose you have a girlfriend.” Awkward.
He shakes his head. “Not my area.”
I know what it would mean if I said girlfriends are not my area, but I’m not sure what this John Watson means by it. “I wasn’t trying to flirt with you.”
He smiles. “Why not?”
“I just assumed that you… that someone like you would have a significant other.”
“A reasonable assumption.” Smiling, he raises an eyebrow.
It hits me. January 30, 2010. Dinner at Angelo’s, John’s awkward questions about my relationship status. My John continually denied being gay, but protested a bit too much, I always thought— and suddenly I understand what was going on. Bisexual. “Oh. You have a boyfriend. Which is fine, by the way.”
“I know it’s fine.” He gives me a another beautiful smile. “Though it would be more accurate to say I had a boyfriend. We broke up.”
I try to suppress a smile. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. He was very fit, but too young, terribly immature. We were looking for different things.”
“What are you looking for?”
He shakes his head. “I’m a romantic. Unfortunately, when you’re gay, there is an assumption that you’ll hit anything that has a cock. I’m a bit tired of that lifestyle. I’d prefer something more stable at this point. Will liked the security of having a boyfriend, but was still working through the freedom of being out. He wanted an open relationship so he could fuck anyone he fancied. I was ready for more of a commitment.” He laughs. “Sorry. Too much information.”
“No, it’s all right.” I have a million questions, but don’t know where to begin.
“So, would it be all right if I asked you out to dinner?”
I feel myself blushing. “Absolutely.”
He giggles, a glorious echo of my John’s giggle. “Jesus. I’m not supposed to ask patients out. Technically, I’m still working, but in about fifteen minutes, I’ll be off duty, so I won’t actually ask you out until then. I hope you won’t get any other offers in the meantime.” He looks at me with mock severity. “And I don’t want you to think I’m the kind of doctor who routinely hits on patients. Highly unethical, even talking like this. I’ve never done it before, so that makes you rather special.” He winks at me.
My god, he winked at me! “When do you think I’ll be released?”
“I did take a peek at your MRI and didn’t see any serious damage. Mild concussion at worst. The neurologist will talk to you in the morning and you’ll most likely be released then, with instructions on what to avoid, what to watch out for, etc. I suggest that it might be better if you don’t go playing in traffic again. Is there someone who can pick you up?”
“I’ll be all right,” I say.
“Not what I asked. Where do you live? I can make sure you get there.”
“I’m currently… between living situations.”
He studies me with serious eyes. “You look a bit posh for a bloke who’s homeless. What happened?”
“I just returned from abroad and haven’t found a new place to live. And I lost my credit card and phone when the car hit me.”
“I see. Nobody whose sofa you can kip on for a few nights?”
“No. It’s a bit complicated.”
He nods, licks his lips. “Listen, I’m breaking a lot of rules tonight and I can’t explain why. Something about you— I don’t want to manipulate you into anything that makes you uncomfortable. I certainly don’t want you to feel beholden to me.” He sighs. “But I like you. So, this is just an offer, take it or leave it. You won’t hurt my feelings if you say no. The flat I’m living in is big enough for two, and since I’m currently single, having kicked my cheating boyfriend to the kerb, you might move in— just until you get yourself sorted, I mean, as long as that takes. No pressure, no innuendos, no questions asked.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “I might be a sociopath, or a serial killer.”
“I’m… I… play the violin when I’m thinking. Sometimes I don’t talk for days on end. Would that bother you?”
He smiles. “I’ve been forewarned about the violin, although I didn’t see you come in with one.”
“What I’m trying to say is, I’m not an easy person to live with.”
“What? Dear god— you play the sodding violin. You sometimes sulk. What other horrible vices do you have that I should know about?” He giggles again. “Since you’re clairvoyant, I suppose you know all about my vices.”
I cannot resist the bait. “You drink, not usually to excess, though. You have an alcoholic sister who serves as a reminder to you not to let yourself go. You have an illegal revolver which you keep because you rather miss the army. You’re sort of an adrenaline junkie, and you have nightmares sometimes about Afghanistan. You’re an amiable person, but you also have a temper which you lose on occasion.”
“Well, that’s settled then,” he says. “Eyes wide open on both sides. As long as you don’t blow up the flat or start storing body parts in the bathtub—”
I smile innocently. “Oh, would those be dealbreakers? I could keep them in the fridge, if you prefer.”
He laughs until he has to wipe his eyes. “Dear God, you’re a keeper, Holmes. Everyone else is dull by comparison.”
I look at the clock. One minute until midnight. “Happy Birthday, John, for one minute more. I’m sorry you didn’t have cake.”
“No cake, no candles… no kiss,” he says.
“Still time,” I say.
Smiling, he leans towards me, looking at the clock. “Off duty… tick, tick, tick…now.” It’s just a gentle pressure of his lips against mine, but it’s enough. His voice drops to a whisper. “Best birthday ever. Go to sleep now, Holmes. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The nurses keep waking me up, probably because they think I might have a concussion. I don’t think I do, but you can’t argue with nurses. Every time I do drift off, I’m either wondering what happened in Serbia or remembering John’s kiss.
I like this John, and I’m a bit afraid of him. He’s my John, but more open, less angry. Younger, somehow. He smiles at me, and playfully seduces me. I want to know how he became this person, what things are different in his life. For one thing, I don’t think he was wounded, at least not as seriously as my John was. No limp, no hand tremor. This means that he has only recently returned from active duty, that he didn’t spend months in a hospital fighting for his life. Maybe he never felt as hopeless and desperate as my John. His trauma is less about his own limitations and more about what he saw in Afghanistan, the lives lost, the friends who died.
And he openly identifies as gay, not bi-sexual. In this world, it seems that John doesn’t have a hang-up about his masculinity or sexuality. I wonder why that is. Sometimes I think that if I hadn’t had to jump off the roof of Bart’s, that we could have moved in that direction, that he might have become more comfortable with being bi-sexual. This is much easier, though. I just don’t know how it will be, long-term, if we begin a relationship.
One thing that is different: this John Watson didn’t meet me at Bart’s, didn’t move in with me, didn’t shoot a cabby for me. Whatever impact those events had on the John Watson who experienced them is something I need to think about.
And I don’t know if any of this will last. I don’t remember sliding out of one reality and into another. At any moment, I might slide back, or forwards, into a new reality. Perhaps people do this all the time, the difference for me being that I noticed.
The next morning John shows up at eight, comes into my bay and pulls the curtain closed behind him.
“Are you aware that the NHS has no record of your existence?” he asks quietly.
I nod. “It’s complicated.”
“So you said.” He sits in the chair and regards me pensively. “Mystery man. I’m intrigued. I’m not even sure how a person would manage to hide from the NHS.”
“Does that mean I owe them some ungodly sum of money for my treatment?”
He shrugs. “They’d need an address in order to send a bill. Don’t worry. I won’t turn you in. I wonder, though— are you living under an assumed identity? If so, you might have picked a less memorable name than Sherlock Holmes. Sounds like a nineteenth-century cricketer or something. Next time, think it through.”
“I suppose I could have picked something as ordinary as John Watson,” I say. “Perhaps you’re the one using an alias. I wonder… you could be a spy, for instance. Or fleeing from a dark past.”
Chuckling, he hands me my clothes. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, being clairvoyant and all that. Now, get dressed, and I’ll take you home.”
He hails a cab. “221B Baker Street,” he tells the driver.
Fortunately he doesn’t notice my chin dropping to my chest as I react to this bit of information: John Watson lives at our former home. I stopped here yesterday, probably minutes after he left for work. By the time we’ve stopped in front of the house, I have my face under control.
“My landlady is Mrs Turner,” he’s saying as he takes my elbow. “Not very talkative, but she’s a good soul. Just don’t call her the housekeeper, or she might stop making me tea.”
We climb the seventeen steps, his hand still steadying me, and enter the flat.
It is not as it was when I moved in— no skull or bullet holes or experiments in the kitchen. It still has the ancient, ugly Victorian wallpaper and odd assortment of furniture that has seen better days, but it is tidy and clean. A jumper is lying across the sofa. He tosses it onto his chair (the red chair, of course), and settles me comfortably amongst assorted cushions.
“I’ll get breakfast going in half a minute,” he says. “First, tea. Or coffee, if you prefer.”
Since it’s breakfast, I request coffee.
“Are eggs all right? I could scramble them, or do something more imaginative, if you like.”
Imaginative? John? The man who always eats the same thing for breakfast, packs the same sandwich if he’s going into work?
“Surprise me,” I say.
He prepares an egg dish he calls frittata. Once we’re seated at the table in our usual chairs (God, this feels so achingly familiar), he indicates that I should eat.
“How long have you lived here?” I ask.
“I came back from Afghanistan eight months ago, got the A&E job, and this flat was reasonably close so I took it. Nice location, a bit pricey, but I felt at home the minute I walked in.”
“Where did you meet your… boyfriend?” It’s hard to look at John Watson and say the words your boyfriend, I discover.
“Gay bar,” he says, shovelling frittata into his mouth. He swallows. “We danced, had sex in the alley—”
I snort, begin coughing.
“You all right?” He gets up and pats my back.
“Fine,” I say. “Just never talked about alley sex over breakfast before.”
“Sorry.” Grinning, he sits again. “I guess it was a bit impetuous, but I was just back, my head full of unpleasant things, and he was so fucking pretty I couldn’t help myself. A nice diversion, but I knew from the beginning it wouldn’t last.”
“How long have you been openly gay?” I ask. “Does your family approve?”
“Since I was seventeen. I have an older sister who’s a lesbian— not sure how you figured her out, by the way.” He cocks an eyebrow at me. “My father died when I was young, so it was just me, my sister, and my mum. She had a fit over Harry coming out. By the time I announced I had a boyfriend, she’d already been worn down. She doesn’t like it, so I don’t bring boyfriends around much, but it’s not her life, is it? I was a good kid, always got high marks, played rugby, worked gathering trolleys at Tesco after school, and mostly stayed out of trouble.” He looks reflective, takes a sip of coffee. “I suppose if my dad had lived, he wouldn’t have stood for it. Might have had a different life if I’d been forced to hide it. Both of us, me and my sister the same. Harry and her girlfriend had a baby last year, and now my mum’s a happy grandmum. If I could just figure out some way to get pregnant, I’d be back in her good graces. She’ll have to settle for me bringing home a nice boyfriend.” He raises his eyebrows at me, smiling. “How about you?”
“How about me… as a nice boyfriend?”
“I think you would be,” he says, his smile widening. “What I was asking, though, is how long you’ve been out.”
“I… I haven’t been. My brother knows, no one else. I had a boyfriend at uni, but it didn’t work out well. I’m a rather solitary person. People speculate, I suppose, but I’ve never been comfortable talking about it.”
He tilts his head appraisingly. “You seem comfortable now.”
“You make me feel comfortable.”
“But you don’t date, go to gay bars, have sex in alleys?” He grins.
“No. I’m socially inept. It has nothing to do with being gay. It has to do with me being me. I don’t have friends, John.”
“Wrong.” He leans across the table. “You have one friend— me.”
This John Watson is making it entirely too difficult for me to remain a sociopath. I loved my John, but would never have dared voice my feelings to him. He was prickly about his sexuality, and now I think I understand why: a strict father who did not die when John was young, a father who never thought his boy was good enough at anything he did, always pushing him to be what he was not. This John is much happier.
“You’re going to need some things,” he says. “I’m happy to share my toothpaste and shampoo, but you’re going to need some clothes at some point. Soon, I think.”
I’m too embarrassed to admit that I have no money, so I just nod. “I’ll handle it. No need for you to worry.”
“Will left some things here, and he was about your height, but you don’t look like the ripped jeans type. But you’re welcome to anything you find. Whatever you need, just ask.” He looks at me so intently that I wonder what he is offering. “Anything,” he says. “I mean it, Sherlock.”
“You’re very kind,” I say.
I fall asleep on his sofa. I must have slept for hours, because when I wake he’s coming through the door with Thai takeaway. “Hope this is all right,” he says.
“I’m sorry. Did you have evening plans?” With a small pang of jealousy, I wonder if he’s looking for a new boyfriend.
“Not at all,” he says. “I took a nap while you were sleeping, and now I’m ready to spend the evening convincing you to share my bed later.”
“You said no pressure.”
He sighs. “I know. And you’re concussed, a bit, so I’d prefer to wait until your judgement isn’t impaired.”
“I don’t feel impaired, John. And I don’t feel pressured.”
“Good. I said I like you, Sherlock. I also trust you. You’re not a sociopath. You’re a very intelligent man who also happens to be bloody gorgeous and I’m having difficulty not flirting with you. I know you’ve got complications in your life just now, and I don’t want to push you into anything you’re not ready for or interested in. And I don’t want to pry, but if you feel like talking…”
“You’re my friend,” I say. “As well as my doctor. You deserve some explanation. If I’ve seemed mysterious, it’s probably because I don’t know the answer to some of the questions you’ll ask.”
He nods. “If there’s any way I can help, I want to know. Let’s eat now. Since you didn’t make a yuck face when I said Thai, I assume you will eat.”
I find that I am ravenously hungry and eat my share of the food without any nagging. When John goes to make tea, I contemplate how to explain my unusual dilemma. I wish now that I could just slip into this new world and move ahead, living here with John and seeing where that goes. But I am dead, and that makes everything difficult. I have no identity, no money, no credit. I can’t even check a book out of the library. Mycroft may eventually come checking on me, though with my phone lost, he may not even know where to look for me. He is no doubt trying to discover who I am, and will want to lock me up somewhere if he can’t figure it out. He will not continue supporting me, and I cannot be dependent on John indefinitely. If I do not fall into another dimension, I will have to figure out a way to resurrect myself here.
In my own world, I am also dead. There, however, I might be able to explain my death and resurrection, and Mycroft will take care of the necessary paperwork. It occurs to me now that the people I left behind may not be chuffed to see me again. I lied to everyone, a very big lie, and though not many people cared much about me, I was surprised to see a good number of them at my funeral. If I hadn’t been so stubbornly set on taking out Moriarty and his organisation on my own, I might have asked Mycroft to supply minions for that purpose. It was certainly to the benefit of the British government to hunt down Moriarty’s subordinates and eliminate the syndicate. They might have asked the Americans for help. America loves sending the Navy Seals out to kick foreign arses. But I didn’t think of any of this. Moriarty made it personal, and I wasn’t willing to share.
This is an issue John always had with me. He said it many times, that I only pretend we’re partners, but then go off like a lone wolf, not telling him what I’m up to. It’s ego, in part, always being several steps ahead of normal people, always the smartest person in the room, at least when Mycroft’s not in the room. I don’t trust anyone, I suppose, though John has certainly earned the right to that trust. He is not a genius, but he is intelligent, brave, loyal, and has good instincts. He has saved my life more than once. I begin to realise the anger I am going to face on my return.
If I return.
Alternate Reality John is smiling at me, setting a mug of tea beside me. Maybe it’s time to begin building trust here.
“I want to tell you what happened to me,” I say.
He blows on his tea. “You don’t have to.”
“I want to. You deserve to know.” I sip my tea, thinking how to begin. “About twenty-four hours before I woke up in A&E and met you, I was walking down Marylebone Street, which felt completely normal. Except I didn’t know what I was doing there— where I was going or had just been. So I kept walking, hoping it would suddenly click, and I would be able to just carry on with whatever errand I was on. But nothing clicked.”
“Amnesia,” he says. “Did you feel like you might have had a head injury? I mean an earlier blow, before the car hit you.”
“I didn’t. I’m a consulting detective and work mainly on homicides, so I know a lot about head injuries, and have even had a couple of my own. I did not feel that there was anything wrong with my brain. It just felt as if someone had changed the channel. Whatever I was doing before, I simply couldn’t remember. Everything was familiar, but different, too.”
“Aneurysm, maybe. Or a TIA.” He shakes his head. “But the MRI would have shown that. Maybe you’d had an emotional shock. It could be dissociative fugue. That often has no organic cause.”
“True, but I know who I am and remember my entire life. Some of the gaps have filled in over the last day. I remember some details about what happened before. The only remaining gap is how I came here, where I no longer exist.”
“Clearly you do exist,” he says. “I drew blood from your arm, hooked you up to monitors that showed you were alive, heart pumping, lungs working.”
“I’m not supposed to be here. This isn’t my world. In this world, I died nearly twenty years ago.”
He stares for a moment, then opens his laptop and types. “Let’s see.”
“I have a blog called the Science of Deduction. I work with the Met. There would be news articles about cases I helped solve. And I live at 221B Baker Street.”
He looks up at this. “You remember living here?”
I nod. “You may think I’ve invented all of these— things you won’t find on the internet because they do not exist in this reality. But I am who I say I am, not some psychotic person experiencing dissociative fugue.”
He frowns at his screen. “No blog. No news articles.” He clicks some more. “Wait, here’s something.” He looks up at me, wide-eyed. “An obituary. January the twenty-eighth, 1997.” He is silent, reading. “It doesn’t say what you died of.”
He shakes his head. “There’s a picture— you, but younger. This is…” he squeezes his head between his hands. “My brain hurts.”
I nod. “That’s what I’m dealing with. It defies the laws of reality. Like you, I’m a scientist, and I’ve been trying to understand this from a scientific perspective.”
He stares at nothing for a moment. “No chance that you’re actually an assassin or a spy or something?”
“I’m not lying,” I say.
He studies me for a moment. “I believe you’re telling the truth,” he says slowly. “But like you, I can’t explain it.”
“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. Is it impossible that there are alternate, parallel worlds were we each exist, living similar, but separate lives? Using the physical laws of this world, I’m not sure we can disprove it.”
“Occam’s razor,” he says. “What explanation requires the fewest assumptions? That you are from another reality, and that you slipped out of that one, into this one? Or that you are concealing your identity for some purpose you’re not revealing? Or that you’re delusional?”
While I want him to believe me, I can scarcely believe myself. “If I were in your place, I would regard my story with the same degree of skepticism. But I cannot deny what I have experienced. Yes, I could have taken the identity of a boy who died years ago, who closely resembles me. Yes, I could be deliberately trying to deceive you.”
He holds up a hand. “No, Sherlock. If you were trying to deceive me, why would you be telling me this? You would create a credible story so I wouldn’t go looking for you on the internet. And if I seemed at all suspicious, you would simply slip out tonight and go try your scam on someone else. I can think of no reason you would tell me any of this. You might be mentally ill, but I see mental illness every day in the A&E, and it doesn’t look like this. You are not delusional. And I don’t think you’re an assassin. I could probably invent an interesting backstory for what you’ve told me, but it would require more assumptions.”
“So, you believe me?”
“I want to,” he says. “I really do. But this is like discovering that the earth is actually going around the sun, or that diseases are caused by invisible microbes, or that demons don’t cause mental illness. You being from an alternate reality— well, it calls for recalibration.” He leans back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. “I’m afraid my brain can’t do that much work without sleep.”
I nods. “I understand. I’m sorry about all this, and grateful for your trust.”
He gives me his beautiful smile again. “You’re a terrible houseguest, Holmes, what with breaking laws of nature and all.” He laughs. “Storing body parts in the fridge will seem a small matter after this. Make yourself at home. Just don’t blow the flat up tonight while I’m asleep.”
I return his smile. “I promise.”
He stands, stretching. “Good night, Sherlock.”
“Good night, John.”
“You’re still here,” he says in the morning.
I sit up on the sofa, feeling like I could use a shower. “Where would I go?”
“I dunno,” he says from the kitchen. I can hear water running; he’s filling the kettle. “You might have slipped out into the night to do spy things.”
I come to the kitchen door and watch him take eggs and butter out of the fridge. He is wearing a familiar jumper— shapeless, bulky, beige— and plaid pyjama bottoms.
“No body parts yet,” I say.
“Ta for that,” he says. “Poached or fried?”
“Fried. I have a problem.”
“A problem with poached eggs?”
“No. My problem doesn’t involve eggs at all.”
“Does it involve natural phenomena that defy scientific law, as we know it?”
“It involves money. I need to borrow some, and I’m not sure when I can pay it back.”
“No problem.” He takes the milk out of the fridge and shakes it gently. “Need to stop at Tesco.”
“I mean, I need clothes. It might run a bit.”
“Fine.” He gives me a quizzical smile. “Is it a problem?”
“I don’t like to impose on you.”
“Why not? My cheating boyfriend imposed on me for months. That was the price of keeping him— until I didn’t want him any more. Cards cancelled, password changed, problem solved.”
“I don’t intend to drain your bank account or run up your cards. But I don’t want to owe you anything.” And I don’t want you to stop wanting me.
“Consider it a gift. That’s what friends do, don’t they? Give each other things, just because?” The look on his face is… fond. “It would make me happy to outfit you. I’m working a shift this afternoon. Let’s go shopping this morning.”
Having no good argument against his generosity, I take a shower and put my clothes on again.
I’ve only ever seen my John dress in dad jeans or khakis, check shirts, and ugly jumpers. Now I begin to wonder if those items were his disguise, his not-gay defence. His clothes were always well-made, but no one could ever have accused him of having fashion sense. He always looked his age, and then some.
This John is not flamboyant in any sense, but there are small things about his clothes that I notice. His jeans are cut differently, a bit trimmer. They cling to his arse in a way that makes other men turn their heads to look after him. He’s discarded his beige jumper on the sofa and is now wearing a leather bomber jacket that he calls an investment, a dark blue knit shirt that shows just how trim his abdomen is and dips down his chest far enough to show a bit of golden hair. His hair is highlighted, I suspect, and he clearly uses product to spike it up, just a bit. Understated masculinity.
I have heard various statistics given for the gay population of the UK. Around five percent is what most polls show. That seems about right to me. When I watch the eyes that follow John down the street and around shops, I calculate that there must be more than five percent of men who appreciate another man’s arse.
He is an efficient shopper. I try on at least ten pairs of jeans, because he insists. This takes less than twenty minutes. He has me do a quick turn around in each pair, and accepts or rejects without deliberation. The shop clerks watch too, and I see them nodding in agreement, sighing with satisfaction when the Holy Grail of jeans is found.
“I know you’re not a jeans type of bloke,” he says, “but it would be a crime not to outfit that sweet arse in at least one perfect pair. Trust me. Humour me. You won’t be sorry.”
My mouth hangs open a bit at sweet arse, but he has moved on to shirts— t-shirts, button-fronts, knits. He decides that grey, blue, and dark red are my shades. He picks out a half dozen that do me justice, as he says. “No jumpers.”
“You wear jumpers,” I point out.
“Only for lounging around the flat. Jumpers keep me from turning up the thermostat, but make me look stocky. On you, they’ll look too loose if you buy for your height. If you buy one that fits your girth, your wrists will poke out at the cuffs. You have a model’s body, tall and lean. Don’t ruin your line with clothing that’s too wide, too bulky, or too short.”
He likes my Belstaff, but says I need something lighter because it’s April now. He finds two jackets that meet his approval, one that shows off my sweet arse, and one that is more conservative.
Undergarments and sleepwear are next, and fortunately don’t require any trying on. He finds a dressing gown that brings out my eyes, pyjama bottoms that make him smile. We buy a pile of socks— argyle, striped, chevroned— and two weeks’ worth of pants, the minimum according to him.
“A suit,” he says.
I protest. “I can’t possibly let you buy me a suit.”
He shrugs. “How about a pair of dress trousers?”
Three pairs later, we are heading home, burdened with bundles of clothing.
“That was fun,” he says, hailing us a cab, “but now I’m due at work. I’ll be home at eight.”
He kisses me and pushes me into a cab, hands money to the driver, the flat key to me. I stare out the rearview window at his retreating figure, a finger on my lips. John Watson kissed me.
I spend the afternoon walking around the neighbourhood, noting the differences.
Something must have happened to me for my entire world to have shifted like this. Now that I’ve decided I’m in a parallel world, or an alternate reality, or a science fiction story, I begin to notice little differences. Nothing earth-shaking, no people without navels, no Klingon newscasts. Just the small differences one notices when one travels to another country, like the flush handles of toilets being on the other side, or everybody writing sevens with a slash through the middle. Perhaps I’m obsessing, but once I start looking for them, I can’t stop seeing them.
For example, in this reality there are no Starbucks coffee shops. Instead there is another overpriced chain of cafes serving mediocre coffee that calls itself Sam Weller’s. Eventually I will learn that in this reality, Herman Melville was never born and consequently no one wrote Moby Dick. Instead, people gripe about how long Pickwick Papers is and although everyone thinks it’s a great novel, nobody reads it.
Could I get used to this reality?
I, who take notice of every minute detail, might drive myself a bit crazy with all the differences. I am a stranger in a strange land, but I have the most important thing— John, my conductor of light. I can stay here, I decide, as long as I have him.
When he returns at eight, he is humming and moving to music I can’t hear. He looks relaxed and happy. “Let’s go somewhere,” he says, slipping an arm around me. “I want to dance.”
I am eager to discover whether this John knows how to dance. My John avoided dancing scenarios as if his life depended on it. Perhaps dancing is a skill related to sexual orientation. Because my John was steadfastly not gay, he may have played down any dancing skills.
This John wants to dance with me. He approves of my new jeans and the aubergine shirt I have chosen to wear with it. His own jeans and close-fitting knit shirt meet with my approval.
It’s a gay bar, he says. The music selection is fitting— not a place where twenty-somethings hang out. “I took Will here a few times, but he hated it.”
“How old is he?” I am almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Twenty-four,” he says, grinning. “Yeah, he made me feel like a sugar-daddy.”
“I’m afraid I’m a bit older than that.”
“No worries. I’ve been there, hit that, and it’s you I’ve brought here tonight. And if anyone puts a hand on that arse, you’re going to see some fighting.”
There is no fighting. Apparently John Watson is well-known here, and though I receive admiring glances, no one steps out of line. We start with a slow dance, proceed to music requiring more movement. John is comfortable in his body, dances well. My dance experience consists of ballroom lessons, a year of ballet, and drunken flailing and writhing at university. I am naturally graceful, I’ve been told, and use that to my advantage. John leads, and I follow.
Eyes are on us as we dance, and I’m not sure whether I’m part of that scrutiny. John is compact, handsome, and exudes an aura of danger that is irresistible. I am merely his ornament, and I love it.
When we take a break from dancing, he orders me a Sex on the Beach, a beer for himself. By the time I have drained my glass, I am wishing there were a beach nearby. He buys me another.
A young man sashays over to where we’re sitting— tall, thin, with a riot of dark curls. He glances at me, gives John a knowing smile.
“Hello, Will,” John says. He doesn’t look distressed or unhappy to see his ex-boyfriend. What distresses me is how much this boy looks like my former self. As his eyes are lingering over John, I realise that I am jealous.
“You look good,” Will says. His eyes shift towards me. Hazel, not grey. “New flatmate?”
John shrugs and turns to me. “Sherlock, this is Will.”
We exchange nods.
Will chats about people they both know for a couple minutes, then says, “Well, I’ll let you get back to your date. I’m meeting some friends at Heaven.”
I half-expect John to protest that I’m not his date, but then remember.
“Boyfriend,” says John. “Sherlock is my boyfriend.”
Will’s eyes narrow a bit. Jealous. “Nice meeting you,” I say.
As soon as he disappears, I turn to John. “Am I your boyfriend?”
“If you want to be.” He grins. “I only said that because he needs to know he’s not irreplaceable. In the last conversation we had, he informed me that he’s way out of my league and that I would be sorry I threw him out.”
I try to imagine this scene. Once John Watson makes up his mind about something and uses his Captain Voice to make it happen, he is very calm. I imagine that murderous smile he must have been wearing.
“Is that why we’re here?” I’m suddenly aware that maybe John is using me, that the only reason we came here is so that he could show me off to his ex.
“Of course not.” He smiles at me. “We’re here to dance.”
“I don’t mind,” I say. “He treated you badly.”
He leans forward, resting his forehead against mine. “Sherlock, I don’t care what Will thinks. I don’t need to make him jealous to feel good about myself. My only motive in coming here was to be with you. I shouldn’t have said you were my boyfriend. That was spite talking; I gave in to a mean impulse.” He lays a hand on my cheek, whispers in my ear. “I wish it were true, though. I could be a very good boyfriend, if you let me.”
This time I kiss him.
At some wee hour of the morning, John decides we need to head home. As soon as we leave the bar, I press him up against nearest alley wall and kiss him passionately.
When we run out of air, he gasps, “Don’t do that.”
I pull away, confused. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t do that unless you mean it,” he says, his eyes on mine. He grabs the front of my shirt, swaying a bit. “I’m serious, Sherlock. If you kiss me like that, I will never let you go.”
“I don’t want you to let me go,” I say, and we’re off again, kissing against the wall.
My goal is alley sex. John holds his liquor well, though, and when my hand sneaks down the front of his jeans, he whispers, “Not here.”
Home, then. The door is scarcely shut when we fly together like magnets, gasping and thrusting and mouthing each other.
“Bed,” he whispers.
This is what I’ve wanted for years, I think. I’m about to give myself to the man I love, and nothing can tell me this isn’t right. We fall onto the bed, pulling each other’s clothes off.
Once we’re naked, I can feel him hard against my belly. “John, please— I want you.”
He pulls away, gasping. “Sherlock, we’re a bit drunk. Are you sure? I want our first time to be…” He pants a bit. “If we do this, I can’t go back.” The sound he makes is like a sob. “I love you. Please don’t… unless you mean it.”
“I love you, too,” I whisper. “I want this— I want you.”
He opens his bedside drawer and brings out lube. I have never done this, but trust him to prepare me. With the utmost care, he uses his fingers to open me up, telling me all the while how beautiful I am, how much he wants me. When he finally is inside me, it is intense, almost unbearable, but he is so careful, so gentle, and I feel so loved that I relax in his embrace.
When he comes, he cries my name. I feel my own release approach and take me over. I murmur, John, John… Panting and sated, we lie in a messy tangle of limbs.
“Do you mean it?” he finally whispers. “Do you truly love me?”
I kiss him sloppily, then pull away with a smack. “Of course I love you. I’ve loved you since the day we met.”
He giggles. “That was just two days ago.”
I must still be a bit intoxicated, because I insist on correcting him. “For you, perhaps. For me it’s been four years, two months, and four days.”
He stops giggling. “What do you mean?”
“Where I came from, we were flatmates. Here, on Baker Street.”
“Lovers?” he asks.
“No. You were straight. But I loved you all the same. I always dreamed—”
“Sherlock,” he says, propping himself up on an elbow. “I’m not who you seem to think I am. I’m a gay man who met you two days ago, found you irresistible, and only agreed to this because you said—” His lips tremble, and when he speaks, his voice is unsteady. “But you’re not in love with me. You’re in love with whoever John Watson is in whatever world you came from.”
“John— no,” I say. “You’re the same person. He’s— he isn’t openly gay, but we’re best friends.”
“I don’t want to be just a friend,” he says. “Not now. I don’t want you to do this because of some fantasy you’ve entertained. I want you to love me, the person I am.”
“I do,” I insist.
“I need to think.” He turns away from me, sits up and pulls on his pyjama bottoms. “I want to be alone right now.”
Before I can get up from the bed, he leaves the room. I hear him in the kitchen, putting the kettle on. It reminds me so much of my John—
This is the problem. He is right to be angry. In my mind, they are the same man, one person living different lives. I will always love John Watson, whatever world I wake up in. To him, however, it must seem as if I consider him merely a prop in the fantasy of a man I can never have. I put myself in his place. If someone should pop into my life and tell me they love me, that they want to have sex with me, and I give them that, and then they admit that I remind them of someone else—
Not good, Sherlock. It’s John’s voice in my head that tells me this. My conscience, my conductor of light. I must fix this.
I lie in his bed, waiting. I’ll give him a good twenty minutes, I decide, remembering how a twenty-minute walk used to reset John’s temper.
My thoughts threaten to run off on a dozen different tangents. I must focus on solving this problem: John does not understand why I love him and is reluctant— no, angry because he thinks I am using him as a surrogate.
I begin with science. Whatever may have happened to John Watson in this world that is different from the life that my John led, he must have had the same parents, and thus possesses the same DNA as my John. In that sense, he is the same person. Whatever is different about him is clearly the result of nurture, not nature.
The possibilities make my brain spin. For years, science has tried to solve the nature-nurture equation, answer the question what makes us who we are? Studies done with identical twins raised separately reveal eerie similarities that must result from something hard-wired, not the upbringing they receive. I remember one study where separated twins, knowing nothing about each other’s existence, married women with the same name, had dogs of the same breed, smoked the same brand of cigarettes. The conclusion: genetics are a huge part of who we are.
This John started with the same genes, but lost his father, a single factor which apparently changed him as a person. (The scientist part of my brain runs amok, thinking of all the fascinating experiments that could be run. Maybe other factors could be measured. What if, in another reality, John’s mother had died instead? Or his sister? What if he’d been brought up in a foster home? What if he’d never gone to Afghanistan, or been wounded? What if he hadn’t gone to medical school?)
Such speculation is pointless, of course. There is no indication that I will ever return to my own reality or visit any other parallel world. I may never see my John again. This reality and this John are all I have.
But when I am around this John, when I hear him giggle, see him give me a look of fond disbelief— even the way he moves, the way he smells… everything about him says that he is my John. He speaks less guardedly, dresses more stylishly— but he still owns the same ugly jumper (though he only wears it around the flat). He still drinks his tea with milk, no sugar. He still reads spy novels, watches James Bond movies.
Why is he gay? Why is he able to flirt and dance and wink at me? He has loosened something inside of me. I have been hiding my feelings since we met that day at Barts. Now that I have dropped my caring is a disadvantage alone protects me persona, I cannot put it back on. I love John Watson and I will never be able to un-say it.
But I am not the same person who fell off the roof of Barts. Being here has changed me.
I wonder about other versions of me, spread out across infinite realities. What would all those Sherlock Holmeses have in common? Genetics, certainly. But would some of those Sherlocks be straight? Asexual? What would I be if I hadn’t stumbled into drugs? What if I’d met someone at uni who actually believe in me, loved me for who I was? Maybe I would have finished my degree and been content with a boring research job. Maybe I would have been a doctor, a scientist, a professor, a concert violinist, a beekeeper—
Would I be a psychopath in another reality? Would I apply my intellect to being the best criminal the world has ever seen? I remember Sally Donovan suggesting just that. One day just showing up won’t be enough. One day we’ll be standing around a body and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who put it there.
I am not that Sherlock Holmes. Not remotely. I met John Watson and became a better person.
When I met John, I was at a crossroads. I’d gone through rehab and quit the drugs, but things were not going well. My career hadn’t picked up. Though I may have convinced myself that relationships didn’t interest me, that people were boring, I was lonely. I’d gone to Barts that day not because I had an engrossing case to solve, but because my brain was screaming for drugs. I needed a distraction. At the moment when I had decided that nothing mattered, Mike Stamford walked into the lab with an old army buddy.
John is the single most important relationship I have ever had. Meeting him out-balanced the effects of everything that led me to that crossroads.
What if I hadn’t met John Watson?
The big things certainly matter. My John was wounded. If he hadn’t been, we never would have met. He would still have been in Afghanistan on that day, and I would have left the lab and found my dealer. This John’s father died before he had a chance to be cruel to his son. If he hadn’t, I would have met a different John in the A&E two days ago. There would have been no flirting, no birthday kiss, no dancing, no sex.
Add to that the effect of little variables slotted together in infinite patterns. Add the cumulative effect of habit, gradually building some tendencies, wearing down others. I am a careless person who blocks out external stimuli, even when it puts me in danger. I don’t know what made me this way, but habit shapes my life in ways I am only beginning to see. How many times did I cross a street, looking at my phone, and was not hit by a car?
And then there is the element of pure chance. Why, on one particular day, did a car hit me? What were the odds that John Watson would be the doctor on duty when I was brought into the A&E, unconscious?
I remember the Sherlock Holmes I was, the one who loved John Watson, his straight flatmate, and faked his own death to save his life. Why do I remember this? Shouldn’t an alternate reality erase the memory of other realities? Is it because here, in this reality, I am dead that I can remember being somewhere else?
The Sherlock Holmes who was born in this reality died before he could be who he might have become. He is a newspaper clipping, an obituary, a brother remembered with anger, a kid who disappointed everyone. I was that boy once, and by some small factor out of a million variables that might not have mattered on any other day— timing, dosage, physiology— I died. All the realities that might have resulted from that point ended.
This much is true about me: I am a former drug addict, a man who now solves crimes instead of getting high. I am in love with my flatmate, who thinks I’m dead. I died for him because I love him. And since I didn’t actually die, I might have returned to him.
What if I don’t— what if I remain forever dead to him?
For the first time, I wonder what the last two years have been like for that John. I thought I was saving his life, but what if I’ve ruined it? He will be angry, and I cannot blame him. He watched me kill myself (he thought), and no doubt grieved. Has he moved on, found someone to love? Maybe he’s married one of those insipid women he always dated. Maybe he’s taken a job somewhere outside of London. Maybe…
I remember the John I met four years ago, the one who kept a revolver beside his bed. The one who barely functioned until we met. The one who always said I was amazing and looked at me…
Wait. Was that love, the way his eyes softened when he smiled at me? Not gay, I know. But what if that was love? What if, in whatever way he could, he truly did love me? What if my death devastated him?
I always expected that he would be waiting for me, that we would resume being friends and having adventures. Sometimes I even allowed myself to hope that we could be more.
Now I can see other less happy possibilities. He might not welcome me back. Either he has a new life that doesn’t include me, or he will not forgive what I did to him. I may have saved him, but now I am afraid that I have also lost him.
John once said that meeting me saved his life. He thought he might not have made it through another day if he hadn’t gone on a mad chance after a cab with me. If he hadn’t walked through the park that day, if he hadn’t mentioned his living situation to Mike, if he hadn’t come to see the flat, he might have taken his own life.
Now I ask myself, is he better off now that I’m gone? Will his life without me be better in the long run? At least he won’t have to accept that I lied to him, faked my death, and didn’t tell him for two years. That’s a lot to absolve.
In this reality, the only obstacle to John’s happiness is me, a ghost from a past he never lived, a high-functioning sociopath willing to take advantage of him. If I hadn’t come into his hospital on a stretcher, he might date others and eventually love someone else, a person who will not break laws of nature and throw his life into chaos, a man who will love who he is.
He should do everything in his power to shut me out of his life.
No. This is my fault. I should leave him before it goes further. I have been a manipulative, arrogant arsehole, conning him into sex, thinking of him as a new-improved Watson who is open to a relationship. He is not my John.
Rising from the bed, I put on my new dressing gown and walk silently down the hallway on bare feet.
He is sitting in his chair, staring at his tea. He doesn’t look up when I clear my throat, warning him that I’m here.
“Tell me about him,” he says. His voice is soft, pained.
I sit opposite him. Avoiding my eyes, he gets up and restarts the kettle, takes down a mug and drops a teabag into it. The water, still hot from his cup, quickly returns to a boil. In less than two minutes, he is handing me a mug of hot tea.
“Tell me,” he repeats.
And so I do. I tell him how we met in the lab at Bart’s, how we began working cases together, how his blog increased my visibility and brought us more clients. I tell him about the pink phone, the cabby he shot, the Semtex vest he was forced to wear. I describe the moment I knew I was in love with him, and why I never said.
“I couldn’t lose you, John,” I say.
“Him.” At last he looks up, challenging me. “You couldn’t lose him.”
“Who would you be,” I ask him, “if your father had beaten you for looking at boys? If he’d never been satisfied with anything you ever did, even when you got into medical school, the first person in your family to go to college? Would you have still been you, or would you be someone you wouldn’t even recognise now?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I was only three when he died, and barely remember him. His death affected me more than his life. We were so poor, constantly moving. Over and over, I had to make new friends, and then leave them behind. My mum was always working, and I had to help her. I couldn’t count on anyone but myself. It made me more independent, maybe. I can’t imagine what an abusive father would have done to me.”
“The John I know was never so poor,” I say, “but he was self-reliant, like you. When I met him, he’d been seriously, almost fatally wounded. He’d trained to be a trauma surgeon, as you did, but had lost that because of nerve damage in his arm. The trauma of that experience gave him a psychosomatic limp. But he never pitied himself. He was— he is… the bravest and kindest and wisest man I have ever known.”
And in the moment where John says nothing, I realise that I miss that other John. I do love this version of reality, and appreciate John’s openness and easy sexuality. Making love with him is one of the best things I’ve ever known. Whatever happens, I will never forget that. But my John, in spite of his bad temper and ugly jumpers, is the one who saved me from myself.
John shakes his head. “I’m not that man. I haven’t had an easy life, but nothing like what he’s been through. I’m not always thankful for what I have. I’m impatient, grumpy, bad-tempered. He’s probably more compassionate than I am. I drink too much and have sex with strangers in alleys.” He smiles grimly. “As for bravery, I’m inclined to be reckless. I’m a bit of an—”
“An adrenaline junkie.” I smile. “So is he.”
“Sherlock,” he says, his smile waning. “If you’re looking for me to be whatever he was to you, I don’t think I can do that. If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I can only be what I am.”
“I’m sorry.” I say this because I don’t know what else to say. I may have irretrievably ruined any possibility of a relationship with this John. Perhaps that is better for both of us. “I don’t know how to repay you for everything you’ve given me. I owe you more than I can say.” I set my cup down and stand. “I’m going out now. I’ll make arrangements so I don’t have to stay here.”
He doesn’t speak as I leave.
I’ll have to talk to Mycroft again, I decide. I’ll need a job and a place to stay. And I’ll have to borrow enough money to pay Watson back for the clothing he bought me. When I think of how many years it took me to become successful as a consulting detective, I’m not sure I can do that again, not without John at my side. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’m starting over at zero.
I will never let you go. I hadn’t intended to use John, and I wish now that I’d just kept my mouth shut. I shouldn’t have told him any of the things I did— about the parallel reality, about the John I already knew there. And I shouldn’t have slept with him. He said, I can only be what I am. Do I even understand what this John Watson is?
I think about that other Watson, grieving me in a parallel universe, thinking he will never see me again. Perhaps he won’t. But if I do return to him, what can I say to make up for everything I did to him? I used him— his trust, his loyalty, his grief. For a year and a half, I expected him to run out the door after me every time we had a case. I often left him in the dust, left him behind for two years, not telling him my plans because it was too tedious to explain.
I had intended not to make that mistake again, with this Watson. It seems I have, though.
I’m walking through the park when I notice something strange. A piece of the sky is missing.
Starbuck was the name of the first-mate of the whale-ship Pequod, the ship in Moby Dick, a very long novel by Herman Melville. This character is apparently the origin of the coffee chain's name.
Sam Weller was a minor but hugely popular character in Pickwick papers, a very long novel by Charles Dickens. Fittingly, the coffee chain in this parallel world was named after him.
Chapter 4: Hole in the Sky
Strange things are happening.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
A piece of the sky is missing. No one else seems to have noticed.
The sky is a bright blue. Puffy white clouds are floating by as if the dark, ugly crack in the sky is normal. I watch as one cloud draws near the crack and is suddenly sucked in. Interesting. The other clouds carry on, wafting across the blue expanse, like mindless, happy thoughts.
People really are idiots, I decide. There is a hole in the sky and everyone is staring at their phones, barely noticing the other people passing by with their eyes glued to the tiny screens— let alone the gash in the universe.
It’s morning, I register. John is at Baker Street, most likely making his second cup of tea. He’s always off on Thursdays, he said, and I assume today will be a normal Thursday, unless he has to sub in for a missing doctor in his department.
Right now, I need a friend.
I have friends, in another reality. They came to my funeral. If I am honest with myself, I never treated them very well. Maybe they never were friends, not really. But you don’t go to the funeral of a man you hate, do you? If I ever make it back there (somehow), I’ll be a better friend.
Here, I have no friends. I had John, but probably don’t now. I can’t even describe how bad that feels.
The sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and cheerful, the hole in the sky is a gaping wound. I don’t know what it means, but it can’t be good. This reality sucks.
I need a friend. I head over to Barts to see Molly.
Other Molly in that other reality might have been a friend. She tried, at least. She’s the one who helped me fake my suicide, something I’m rather ashamed of now. She didn’t want to help, but three peoples’ lives depended on me being dead, and she wasn’t one of them. Moriarty had skipped targeting her because he’d probably seen how little she actually meant to me. Maybe she hates me now. She might see how my death affected John, and Lestrade, and Mrs Hudson. Perhaps she hates keeping my secret, that I’m not really dead. By now she must realise what a cold bastard I am, using her to save them, and hurting everyone in the process.
I’m sorry about all of that now, but I’m not sure what else I could have done. At any rate, I haven’t given this Molly a reason to hate me yet, so perhaps she will be my friend.
As I walk towards the entrance, something crashes behind me. Turning, I see that a large piece of marble has fallen off of the face of the building. Had I been walking more slowly, it might have killed me. People stop and gape for a moment. A woman asks me if I’m all right.
“I’m fine,” I announce to the gawkers. I look up towards the roof of the building, experiencing a moment of deja vu. It’s a very old building, but it’s rather coincidental that I almost died in the place where I faked my death two years ago. The universe is rarely so lazy.
I find Molly standing in the lobby, cup of coffee in one hand, bag hanging off her arm, phone in her other hand, staring at the bank of lifts. I notice that it’s not a bank of lifts today. It’s a blank wall.
“Molly, hello.” I give her the kind of smile I imagine a normal person would use on a friend.
She turns to me, blinking with confusion. “Oh.”
“Sherlock Holmes,” I say. “We met the other day when I… erm, fainted.”
“Oh.” She blinks, chews her lip, nods. “Yes, that was interesting.”
Interesting, I think. She is distressed, I can see. Fortunately not by me, though.
“The lifts,” I say, gesturing to where they used to be. “Has there been some remodelling?” I don’t see a sign directing people to the nearest stairway, but remodellers are not always considerate. Chaos is normal for people whose job it is to demolish things. Soon people with blueprints will arrive and order will be restored.
“I don’t think so.” She frowns. “I’m pretty sure there were lifts here yesterday.”
Other people are standing here as well, staring at their phones until it dawns on them that the lift should have arrived by now. The man next to me looks up, frowns for a moment, and says, “Oh,” in a soft voice, as if he’s forgotten something. He walks away, looking for a stairwell, I presume.
“Yes, there were definitely lifts yesterday,” Molly says. “Right here. I remember stepping inside and pushing my floor. There was a man delivering flowers and I remember thinking, nobody every sends me flowers.” Turning, she seems to see me for the first time. Her cheeks turn pink. “Oh, erm. Hello, Sherlock. Did you find John Watson?”
“Yes, I did. He’s still alive, still a doctor.”
She nods. “Was he angry?”
“No.” I don’t explain how he didn’t know me, how he flirted with me, or how I broke his heart, all in the space of three days. Glancing around, I notice an official-looking person marching by and flag him down. “Excuse me. Where are the lifts?”
He gives me a look that says I don’t talk to crazy people. “What’s a lift?” Then he marches on, shaking his head and muttering to himself. Lift?
Molly and I stand there, staring at the wall as if a lift might appear if we just believe hard enough. She shakes her head. “I knew this day was going to be strange.”
“Strange— how so?”
“The news this morning. That AM London show with all the cheerful people. Don’t you watch it?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Tell me, then— what day is this?” She looks at me as if this is a question I might get wrong.
“Thursday, April the third.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. I met John on Monday, which was his birthday. I was hit by a car, but didn’t have a concussion. On Tuesday, he took me home. I remember we had Thai takeaway. Yesterday was Wednesday. We went shopping, and later dancing. Today is Thursday.”
She is doing something with her phone. “Watch this.”
She holds her screen out so I can see. It’s the morning show, AM London. The newscaster, an unnecessarily cheerful woman with dyed blond hair, is saying, “Well, a few alert viewers have noticed that this is our second Tuesday of the week. No, not of the month, but this week. We’re calling it Twosday.” She giggles. Responding laughter can be heard in the newsroom. “Some kind of glitch, a government spokesperson tells us. He assures us that tomorrow will be Wednesday— again! I hope all of you Hump Day fans are happy!” She beams at the meteorologist. “And I hope it’s as nice a day as we had yesterday! Spring has been kind to us this year, hasn’t it, Mark?”
Mark, a stocky man in a blue suit, chuckles. “It has indeed, Veronica. Hey, I don’t mind additional Tuesdays, especially if the rain holds off. Maybe we can skip Monday next week to even things out, right?”
The weather report follows. There is a twenty percent chance of rain tomorrow, which will be Wednesday. Again.
“Has this ever happened before?” I ask.
Molly shakes her head. “Not as far as I can remember. It wouldn’t matter if it was Saturday that decided to repeat, but I was going to take Thursday off so I could bring my cats to the vet, and now I have to come in and work another Tuesday and another Wednesday. What if they skip Friday? That’s my book club.” She sighs. “It doesn’t seem right.”
“It makes no sense,” I mutter. “Dates are purely a convention. How did people wake up this morning and decide it was Tuesday again?”
I touch the home button on my phone. The screen says 08:52 Tuesday, April 1. This might explain what happened. People woke up, looked at their phones, shrugged, and got ready for work as if it were normal for there to be two Tuesdays in a week. We can probably blame it on the Astronomer Royal, or whoever thought of Daylight Savings Time and Leap Years. Nobody expects time to make sense.
There are other things going on, though. I open my phone and begin googling: when was the lift invented? I know for a fact that it was 1852, and that it was Elisha Otis who invented it, and that it happened in New York. An unlikely fact to have stored in my Mind Palace, but there it is.
Yesterday there were lifts in many buildings. Today, according to the internet, the lift has not yet been invented. Somehow, the past has altered.
“Something is definitely wrong,” I say.
“I thought it was a joke,” Molly says, sipping her coffee. “Twosday. It was April Fool’s Day on Tuesday, you know.”
“Apparently today is also Fool’s Day,” I say. “The numbers have started over. But it’s not like a repeat of Tuesday; different things are happening.”
“Either way it’s confusing,” she says. “The government should just make it a holiday.”
Mike Stamford is walking across the lobby, on his way out of the hospital. “Oh, hello, Molly. How are you, Sherlock?”
“No longer fainting.”
“That’s good. Did you find John Watson?”
“Yes, I’ve been staying with him since Tuesday. Well, the first Tuesday this week.”
“Glad to hear it. Then you already know about Twosday.” He chuckles. “Good news for me, since I don’t have any Tuesday classes. With any luck, we’ll have Threesday or Foursday before the weekend. Well, I’m off.” He waves cheerfully and heads out the front doors.
Molly sighs and looks at me. “Were you stopping by for something, Sherlock?”
“Just a friendly call,” I say. That’s what people do, I think.
The rift in the sky is larger, I notice once I’m outside again. All the clouds appear to be gone now, and occasionally a person looks up and notices that something is different. Mostly, however, they aren’t paying attention.
Reality is coming apart at the seams. Time can no longer be counted on to move along in an orderly fashion. Yesterday was Wednesday, today is Tuesday. Or Twosday. Perhaps tomorrow will be Monday. While all of this feels wrong to me, the denizens of this reality don’t seem particularly annoyed or upset. Molly indicated that there had never been calendar disturbances of this nature before, so perhaps it just hasn’t registered yet.
Space also seems to be unreliable. Though astronomy is not my area, I am quite sure that the hole in the atmosphere is more than what it appears. I see no stars in the black hole above me. An occasional bird flies into it, but airplanes are avoiding it.
I know every street of London. I have committed its street map to my Mind Palace. Now, I notice that some streets have gone missing, while others have been rearranged.
Mycroft must know something about this, I think. I lost the phone he gave me, so he can’t call me, but I would be very surprised if he doesn’t know exactly where I am and what I’m doing.
I am thinking of John. Perhaps I am foolish, but I absolutely trust him. Whatever is causing this rift is alarming, and I need his calming presence to combat my fears. I need him to help me understand this, to talk it out with him. Over the past two years there were so many times when I needed him, when I could only talk to him in my mind. I must try to make him understand that I’m not pretending he is someone I’m in love with— he is the person I love, improbable as that may seem.
I oscillate on the pavement for a few minutes, wishing my Mind Palace had not been destroyed. I walk, not thinking about where I’m going.
I have been operating under the assumption that I am in some sort of alternate reality. I don’t know how this happened, but it was Sunday evening when I found myself in Marylebone without any idea what I was doing there. Three days have passed since then. Today should be Thursday.
What if my assumption is wrong?
Alternative theory number one: I am dreaming. The evidence against this is not conclusive. As a child, I did not experience dreaming. My mother took me to all kinds of doctors— sleep specialists, brain doctors, psychologists. Their tests showed that I do in fact experience REM sleep, which is indicative of normal dreaming. My brother said that I just didn’t remember my dreams. My teacher said I had no imagination.
Even as an adult, I rarely remember what I’ve dreamed, which leads me to suspect that I am not dreaming now. The notion that I would be having such a highly-detailed dream after years of forgettable dreams, and that I would be experiencing it in such a self-aware fashion tell me that this is unlikely to be a dream.
Alternate theory number two: I am in a dissociative state. I remember bits and snatches of Serbia. There was torture. Could I be inventing this entire reality as a way to escape an unbearable situation?
If such a situation were prolonged and involved psychological torture, this might be the case. What I’m experiencing could be a hastily constructed room in my Mind Palace where I am hiding. Due to the strain of whatever my physical body is undergoing, my logical mind has created some paradoxes and anomalies in this room, little mistakes that are a sort of escape hatch. If I wish to exit this self-created reality, I need only pursue these anomalies until it becomes clear that this is all an invention of my mind. The fact that the anomalies are growing and becoming more threatening suggests that I am trying to exit.
A horn blares me back into my surroundings as a bus rushes by. Heart pounding, I step back onto the kerb. Another close call, third near-death experience this week.
I am on Baker Street.
My feet have helpfully led me here, to the one person who can help me solve this. I need John. Even if he is a Mind Palace John I have created to be my conductor of light in this strange reality, he is still my John. He will listen to me, and he will help.
I let myself into the building and climb the stairs, counting subconsciously. Sixteen still comes after seventeen, and there are still that many steps up to our flat in this world where lifts have never been invented. 22B1 Baker Street was constructed in 1873, I recall, twenty-one years after Mr Otis got his invention working in New York, but lifts were not common then. His lift was unique in that it had a safety locking mechanism that solved the problem of the cable breaking and everyone inside plunging to a horrible death. Now everyone rides in lifts without thinking about death. Except here, in this lift-less reality.
Quite suddenly, I recall plunging to my death. I was standing on the roof of the hospital, looking down at the people walking around below, oblivious to the accident they were about to witness. A cab pulled up, and John got out, talking to me on his phone. I remember the moment I tossed my phone aside and fell. I had expected it to feel like flying, at least for a split second before gravity kicked in. Gravity is always there, however, and it was a remarkably short trip to the pavement. I didn’t actually die, of course, but I think I blacked out for a bit. I remember hearing the pain in John’s voice. I remember thinking that I would be back soon, and everything would be all right. Two years later, I wish I had explained it to him.
Reining in my mental wanderings, I focus on the problem at hand. What will I say to this John? I stand outside the flat, trying to come up with something persuasive, but all I can imagine is the look on his face when he realised that he was just standing in for another John Watson. He must hate me for doing that to him.
Before I even raise my hand to knock, it opens. John stands there on the threshold, a look on his face that might be surprise or annoyance. He is wearing a t-shirt and pyjama bottoms, which tells me he is not working today, but whether he is staying home because he thinks it’s Thursday or because he was up all night angry at me, I don’t know.
Remembering last night, a little jolt goes down my spine and straight to my groin. I suppress that train of thought.
“Can we start over?” I blurt out. “Please? Can you just pretend you haven’t met me yet?”
His face, always so mobile and expressive, shifts to something like fondness, maybe forgiveness. “You git. Come here.”
Then his arms are around me, holding me tightly as he whispers into my ear. “I told you I can’t let go. Can’t go back. So no, we can’t start over. We’re just going to move ahead. It is what it is, and I don’t want to change anything.”
“I love you,” I whisper back. “And I’m sorry.”
“For rudely breaking the laws of science, and for being a possibly delusional, parallel-universe git.”
“On behalf of Science and the Universe, I accept your apology,” he says, smiling up at me. “I love you, too.”
He then does what John always does when we need a transition back to normalcy. He makes tea. We sit across from each other, smiling and holding our mugs. There are biscuits on a plate. I want to stay here forever, watching him drink tea and smile at me.
But I am here to solve a problem.
“What day is this, John?”
He blows on his tea, takes a sip. “Thursday.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, of course. I never forget my day off.”
I nod. “Does your hospital have lifts?”
He snorts. “It does. And not just on Thursdays.”
“Have you looked at the sky today?”
“I just got up minutes ago. I heard you come up the stairs, which was why I opened the door. So no, I haven’t looked out the window. These are odd questions, Sherlock. Has something happened?”
I set my mug down. “I’m afraid, John.”
He extends his hand and covers mine. “What are you afraid of?”
“None of this is real. I’ve invented it all, even you.” I stare into those dark blue eyes. Be real, I say. At least you, John Watson, please— be real.
“You think you’re hallucinating?”
I nod, unable to speak.
“You’ve figured out what happened to you.”
“I was in Serbia, a prisoner. I remember they tortured me.”
He nods. “It is possible. Dissociative fugue, as you said. Or an hallucination. But if this is true, we must assume that I am a figment of your mind.” His hand is warm; he strokes mine with his thumb.
Tears are running down my face. “I want you to be real, John. But the evidence says otherwise. This is my fondest dream, to be loved by you, to give myself to you. If you were real, you would be telling me that you’re not gay. This is merely my mind creating a fantasy, granting my wish to be with you like that. This is not reality. You’re not real.”
He gives me a defiant look. “If this is your fantasy, then you ought to be able to predict what I’m going to do next. Wish fulfilment, right? What do you want me to do now?”
He laughs. “No. Guess again.”
“Take me to bed.”
“Wrong.” He stands up, rinses his mug and leaves it by the sink. “I’m going to take a shower. Then I’m going to make breakfast. See if you can figure out what’s I’m going to do after that.”
Giving me a cheeky grin, he walks out of the kitchen. I hear the door of the bathroom close and the water running. He’s singing, and I’m trying to identify the song. Just the kind of day to leave myself behind…I recall hearing it before, but don’t know the name.
I can stay here. That’s what I’ll do. John will take care of me, and even though I’ll know that it’s a fantasy, I can live here. It will be Thursday, and there will be no hole in the sky. John will make me believe everything.
I turn the kettle back on. The water boils and I pour water over another tea bag. Just as I’m carrying my mug to the table, I notice the newspaper. It’s still in a roll, but I can see the date: Tuesday, April 3, 2014. A date that doesn’t exist.
And that’s when I hear John scream.
I drop the mug, hear it shatter on the floor. I am already on my feet, running down the hall, yanking open the door.
John is standing naked before the mirror, holding a towel. His hair is wet and tousled, and he has evidently just wiped steam off the mirror so he can see himself. A look of terror on his face, his hand goes to his shoulder, feeling the large, ugly scar that wasn’t there last night.
“What…?” He turns and looks at me, his eyes wide. “Where did this come from?”
I put my hands on his shoulders and examine the scar. I’ve seen it a few times, and recognise its contours. The entrance wound, smaller and neater, will be on his back. The exit wound is ugly, showing just how violently the bullet tore through him, tearing flesh as it exited. When he first moved into the flat, he took pains to cover it. Embarrassment, I assumed. He’d only just begun to adjust to his injuries and didn’t like seeing it, much less having me study it. The first time I saw it up close was after the incident at the pool. We’d returned to the flat, and I insisted that he let me examine him, to make sure he wasn’t hurt. Under normal circumstances, he would never have agreed, but he was shaken by having a bomb strapped to his chest. He took off his shirt and for the first time, I was able to see how horrific his wound must have been.
Afterwards, when he’d allowed me to touch it— well, that might have been the moment. My hands were on his shoulders, as now. Something was exchanged in the look we gave one another. But then he looked away, pulled his shirt together, and gave a self-conscious laugh. Lovely, innit?
It was lovely, I thought. Without it, we would never have become flatmates. The bullet that had done this to him had brought him to me.
This John has no scars— I saw him naked the night before. He is not the John who was wounded and invalided home. He didn’t have numerous surgeries to repair the damage. He didn’t contract an infection that almost killed him a second time. He returned home in one piece just a few months ago, having served eight years in Afghanistan. He was not brought to me by a bullet.
“Sherlock.” The look he is giving me now is not lovely. It is heart-breaking. “What’s happened to me?”
He’s shaking— from cold and from the shock. I wrap his dressing gown around him and finish towelling the damp spots. “Let’s get some clothes on you.”
I lead him to the bedroom and make him sit on the bed while I rummage through his drawers to find clothes.
“This is not a figment of my imagination,” he says. His voice is soft, but a bit fierce. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “And I am not a figment of yours.”
I thread his feet into a pair of pants and pull them up to his knees. “Stand.”
He stands and pulls his own pants up. “I am real.” He glares up at me. “Tell me I’m real.”
“You are real, John.” I believe this. That scar may be dear to me because it brought us together, but it doesn’t belong on this John. “However, something is terribly wrong.”
He pulls on a t-shirt and the ugly jumper I have selected for him. I hand him a pair of jeans and he puts those on as well. They are his loose, lying-about-the-flat jeans. Now he looks almost like the John I left two years ago.
I wonder. Am I turning him into the John I know?
“How is this possible?” He rotates his shoulder. “It’s painful.”
“Hole in the sky,” I say.
This puzzles him, quite rightly. Even I’m not sure what it means. Sitting down again, he pulls on socks and slips into a pair of shoes. As he opens his mouth to ask me what the hell I’m going on about, I hear sirens approaching. In seconds, the front bell rings, and with barely a pause someone is pounding on the door, shouting “Police!”
We move from the bedroom into the sitting room. John opens the door, and we can hear voices below. Mrs Turner is going to the front door, muttering to herself. I’m coming, hold your horses, I’m coming.
We hear the door open, heavy feet entering the vestibule. “Sherlock—!” A woman’s voice. Sally Donovan, I think.
“Morning, ma’am.” This is Lestrade’s voice, I think.
“Sherlock Holmes, we need to talk!” Donovan is shouting up the stairs.
Mrs Turner speaks. “Don’t come barging in here like this. Dr Watson lives here. There’s no Sherlock Holmes.”
“We’ve got a warrant.”
John motions me to stay back. He steps out onto the landing, arms akimbo, Captain Watson look on his face. “I’d like to see that warrant.”
I hear footsteps pounding up the stairs.
“Really!” huffs Mrs Turner. “Manners!”
“What do you want?” John asks.
“You’re harbouring a criminal,” Donovan says. “Let us in.”
I’m already putting on my coat when they come through the door, pushing past John. “Hello, Sally.”
“That’s DI Donovan to you.” She smiles. “Sherlock Holmes, I’m arresting you on suspicion of abduction and kidnapping.”
“Kidnapping!” John is staring at her, his mouth open. “He hasn’t abducted anyone. He’s been with me.”
“Where is Lestrade?” I ask. “I would like to speak with him.”
“Leave it, Sherlock.” I hear someone step up behind me, swing around to see Lestrade holding a pair of handcuffs. He begins to read me my rights. “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
“You can’t arrest me,” I tell him. “I’m dead.”
Donovan laughs. “You look alive to me.”
Lestrade attaches the cuff to my right wrist and begins twisting my left arm behind me.
“Why are you cuffing him? He’s not resisting!” John protests.
Sally turns, seeing him for the first time. “You know this weirdo? He’s a psychopath, and if you’re with him, you’re probably an accomplice.”
“You can’t just arrest people. You need evidence.” John is still looking confused. “Who is he supposed to have abducted? What possible motive could he have for something like that?”
“He’s a freak.” Her lips twist into a sneer. “Gets off on it, the weirdo.”
I see it as it happens, almost as if in slow-motion. While Donovan is speaking, John’s right hand is slowly clenching into a fist. He doesn’t say a word, but his face hardens, and his eyes are a bit manic. A small, dangerous smile curls his lips. He moves quickly, and Donovan is on the floor, her nose pouring out blood.
I laugh out loud. Now I know this is real, because I never could have imagined it. The John Watson I know would never hit a woman.
Donovan struggles to her feet. “You’re under arrest, whoever you are—”
Lestrade has grabbed John, who doesn’t resist, and attaches the second cuff to his wrist, binding us together.
“Thank you, Sergeant.” Her eyes still blazing, Donovan turns on us, holding a handkerchief to her nose. “Put them in the car.”
Lestrade is driving, we’re cuffed together in the back seat, and I am deducing.
John is rubbing his shoulder. “Shouldn’t have done that.”
“You’re right about that, mate.” Lestrade glances at us in the rearview mirror.
I turn and study my doctor. “You surprise me, John. Didn’t expect that.”
He winces. “Forgot about my shoulder. Wouldn’t have hit her so hard if I’d remembered.”
“She’s a woman, John. And a police officer.”
He shrugs, winces again. “She’s a bully.”
“You’ll serve time for that,” Lestrade notes.
My focus shifts to him. “She’s your superior. Because my brother blamed you for my death, you were passed over for promotions. Donovan wasn’t involved, and now she’s been promoted to DI, while you’re still a Detective Sergeant.”
Lestrade growls. “Just leave it.”
“Though you’re as big an idiot as everyone else, you at least try to think logically. You thought I was an imposter three days ago. Now you’re arresting Sherlock Holmes, a man you were convinced was dead. Do you now believe I’m who I say I am? Or have you decided that I’m a secret twin?”
He shrugs. “Just following orders.”
“You didn’t even show him the warrant,” John says.
Lestrade looks in the rearview mirror, frowns at him. “John Watson. The bloke I’m supposed to have pints with, watch rugby.”
“I don’t believe we’ve ever met,” John replies. “You can’t arrest somebody without a warrant.”
“It wasn’t a real warrant, John,” I explain. “You may notice that we’ve missed the turn to Scotland Yard.”
John notices. “Bloody hell— where are you taking us?”
Lestrade doesn’t answer.
“He’s been entrusted with picking up me, an imposter posing as Sherlock Holmes, and bringing me to an office in Whitehall. The man who occupies that office holds a position in the British government that is so powerful, you might even say he is the British government. His office bears no name on the door because if you get as far as his secretary’s desk, it is presumed you already know who he is. His name is Mycroft Holmes.”
“Holmes? Your… brother?”
Lestrade pulls over. Two men in black suits are standing behind Mycroft’s personal assistant, a woman whose name changes every day. I wonder who she is today, the second Tuesday of this week.
We are yanked out of the car, and Lestrade removes the cuff binding me to John. He claps it onto John’s free wrist and pushes him back into the car.
I reach for him. “No— John stays with me!”
Lestrade shrugs and looks at the woman. She shakes her head.
“I’m not going without John,” I tell her.
“He’ll be fine. He’s going to gaol and you’re coming with us.” She smiles and nods at the two men, who step up and flank me.
“I’ll get you out, John,” I say as Lestrade closes the door of the police car. “I’ll see you soon.”
One of Mycroft’s minions seats me in a small salon and brings tea. I wait, sipping my Earl Grey. Apparently this Mycroft doesn’t know that I hate Earl Grey. The warmth of the cup and the steam I inhale calms me, though.
He keeps me waiting, a trick he uses that never seems to change, even in this alternate reality where I have not been annoying him for years. By the time he enters, I am thoroughly irritated.
“Ah, Sherlock,” he says, sweeping through the door. “Good of you to come.”
“My pleasure,” I say, grimacing. “Though it wasn’t put to me as a choice. And I’m sure if I decide to be difficult about it, the result would still be the same— me sitting here cooling my heels so you can play whatever game this is.”
“This is no game.” Giving me his all-purpose smile, he takes a seat. “I have no need of games to find out what I want to know.”
“It isn’t my fault,” I say, eyeing him testily. “Whatever you think, I was attempting to disappear, as you rather forcefully suggested I do, when I lost the phone.”
“It was fortunate for you that a Good Samaritan was close at hand. How is your doctor?” He puts peculiar emphasis on the word your.
I set my cup down. “What do you want, Mycroft? I’ve explained myself, and I’m quite willing to stay out of your way, if that’s what you prefer. There’s no need to threaten me.”
“My dear brother, I would never threaten you.”
My temper flares. “You already have. You said you would destroy me.” Then it hits me. “Why did you call me brother? Do you believe my story?”
He smiles insincerely. “I see that I have your attention at last. You were always such a contentious young man. It is oddly comforting to know that you haven’t changed.”
“Why are you suddenly believing me? What has happened?”
“A great deal, I’m afraid.”
This gives me pause. Of course Mycroft would notice a hole in the sky, and naturally he would call in experts to make sure it wasn’t going to affect all the many spy games he has going on around the world. “You have some idea what’s causing these anomalies?”
“An idea, indeed,” he says. “I was not aware of it until yesterday, but now it has been brought to my attention that certain dire events are transpiring. Scientists have been brought in, and they have briefed me on the phenomenon.”
Mycroft is fluent in Doublespeak. If the building were on fire, Mycroft might say something like, conflagration is transpiring, requiring an imminent need for the application of aqueous containment measures. He can talk for hours without conveying a single intelligible thought.
“I am not one of your political opponents, Mycroft. There is no need for obfuscation with me. Speak plainly. What phenomenon are you talking about?”
“Parallel realities. Alternate universes. Ordinarily, these time lines remain separated by the laws of physics, their inhabitants completely unaware that other multiple selves exist for each one of them, that in one reality they may be a consulting detective working with Scotland Yard, and in another they are... dead.”
“You believe me, then, when I say that I am not a pretender.”
“I do. You are my brother Sherlock, who in this timeline died nearly twenty years ago. Somehow, the lines have crossed, depositing you here, in a reality where you should not be possible.”
“Obviously I am possible. I’m here, talking with you.”
“You should not be possible. And yet you are.” Mycroft looks grim. “Your presence is a sign that something is so seriously awry in this continuum that it is possible, even probable, that we will cease to exist.”
“We? You mean this reality?”
He nods. “So I am told. Our other selves will go on in their separate worlds, assuming they have not been contaminated. Our experts believe they have isolated the cause of the anomalies, and if it can be contained, we may be spared.”
I try to imagine what could cause time and space to become so unstable. I am a scientist, but these events seem more like science fiction. Physical laws are what they are, even in this reality: gravity still pulls; energy travels only as fast as light; everything real consists of atoms. Time moves in one direction.
It has long be theorised that every choice has a range of potential outcomes, each creating an alternate reality playing out the consequences of a different choice. Within each new reality, new choices arise and new realities follow. These theories are dear to science fiction writers, but disputed by many scientists. Proof of the existence of other realities is momentous; it may take years for scientists to unravel the implications.
But I am not here to play out the consequences of a choice. That choice was made; I overdosed and died. I am not supposed to be here.
“The cause,” I say, already knowing the answer. “What do your experts theorise about that?”
“I do not know why you are here, Sherlock.” The look he is giving me is infinitely fond, infinitely sad. “I am not the kind of man who regrets the past. I stand by my decisions and accept the results. Nevertheless, there have been many moments since your death when I wished that I had foreseen the consequences before you died those many years ago. Obviously you made the choice that led to your death. And I have blamed Lestrade for his part in those events. But I blame myself as well.” He sighs deeply and leans forward. “Your loss broke my heart. I wish I had seen then what you could become. Now, through some flaw in this universe, I have had that opportunity.”
“You are saying that my presence has caused the anomalies.”
“Yes. All these changes have happened since you appeared. If you remain here, this version of reality must end. It will collapse under the strain of paradox. You did not come here of your own volition, but you cannot remain. You must return to whatever reality you came from.”
“But— I don’t know how! I don’t even remember coming here. It just sort of happened!”
“Be that as it may, events are taking place which show that we are nearing the end. Tears in reality, you might say. Your encounter with the automobile may have been an attempt to rectify this.”
I remember the debris that fell from the hospital, barely missing me. And the bus that almost hit me as I approached Baker Street. “Someone is trying to kill me? Should I be looking for hitmen?”
“Not someone. Reality has hitmen, too. You will no doubt have more near-death experiences as the universe tries to fix its mistake. Unless it tears itself apart in the attempt.”
“What are you suggesting? That I should kill myself?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
“Supposing I do take my own life— what will happen here? How do you know I will return to my own reality? And won’t people here notice I’m gone? It’s 2014— I died in 1997. Unless you’ve got a time machine, I don’t see how my death in 2014 can fix this reality.”
“All I can tell you is what I’ve been told. One of my consultants believes that your death will reset this reality to 1997, from which point it will proceed as it was meant to unfold. He is a mathematician— quite brilliant, really.” He smiles. “Even beyond me.”
“I would like to talk with this brilliant mathematician,” I say. “Who is he?”
“I’ll put you in touch with him. His name is Moriarty. Professor James Moriarty.”
And now, perhaps, I can see the ending.
Song John is singing in the shower: Tuesday Afternoon / The Moody Blues
Chapter 5: The Perfect Storm
I’m standing on the pavement outside of Scotland Yard, waiting for John to be released, as Mycroft promised me. He doesn’t need to leave his office to make this happen, and I am wondering why it’s taking so long.
At last I see John approaching, escorted by Lestrade. I go to meet them and grab my flatmate possessively. “Let’s go,” I say, glaring daggers at Lestrade.
“Sherlock,” he says. “I’m sorry about all this. Donovan is a bit of a hot-head sometimes, but she really believed the kidnapping charge. Knowing your brother as I do, I realised he was just using us to bring you in. She shouldn’t have said the things she did.” He turns to John, smiling. “Maybe we can get that pint some time, yeah?”
The murderous look is gone from John’s face, but I can see that he is still wary. “We’ll see.”
My Watson heads for the kerb and flags down a cab. This makes me smile.
Once we’re home, we shuck off our coats. Since John is now the one who flags down cabs, I decide that I should be the one to make the tea. When I bring our mugs into the sitting room, he seems lost in thought, staring at the fire he just lit. We sit in silence for a few minutes.
“There is something I need to tell you,” I say at last.
He looks up, startled out of his thoughts. “Sherlock, you don’t need to apologise again. All of this is bizarre— this scar, that hole in the sky— and I don’t understand any of it, but it’s not as if it’s your fault—”
“It’s not about that, John.” I draw a deep breath. “I don’t know if I can stay here, in this reality, but I owe it to you to be honest.”
“Can’t stay…? Because of the anomalies? You think it has something to do with you?”
“Mycroft thinks so. I’m not sure what will happen, but I have to tell you the truth— about me. It’s… a promise I made myself, not to hide things from you.” When I made this promise, I was thinking of the John I hoped to return to, but this is the only John I have right now. I start here, being honest with him.
He sets down his mug. “Sherlock, whoever you were before you came here, I accept that. I don’t need to know. The problems of your past are your business. The problems of your future… are my privilege.”
I wonder what I ever did to deserve this man. “I did a terrible thing… to my John.”
He shakes his head, disbelieving. “You wouldn’t hurt him— not deliberately. I know this about you. You loved him.”
“Yes, I did.” I suppose that I still do, though it’s unlikely I’ll ever return there to tell him that. “I’ve been thinking about what he will feel when— if he sees me again.”
“You’ve been away, you said. He’ll be happy to see you, won’t he?”
“No, I don’t think he will. He believes me dead.” There is no good way to say it, so I forge ahead, honesty all the way. “I committed suicide— faked my own death— while he was watching. I’m not sure he can forgive me for doing that.”
His eyes widen. “Why? Why would you do such a thing? He loved you— I know what you said, that he’s not gay— but he must have loved you! How could he not? For you to do that… Bloody hell, Sherlock…”
He is not angry, I deduce; he is horrified. I feel like a monster for even thinking that such a plan was a good idea. To traumatise a man who’d already been through a war, injured and suffering from PTSD— how could I have done this to him?
“It was to save him,” I say. “His life was in danger, and he had to be convinced that I was dead in order for the threat to be removed. I would have done anything to keep him alive. If I’d had to actually die, I would have. I went into exile afterwards, hunting down our enemies. I thought it was worth it, but now I can see what it cost me. What it must have cost him.”
He shakes his head. “It must have devastated him, seeing that. Believing you’d died.”
I nod. “I can see that now. And from knowing you, I understand better what I’ve done. You and he are quite a bit alike, and even though I’ve only been with you a short time, I realise now that he loved me. I can’t say if his love is like yours, but I am convinced that I underestimated his feelings for me. I think he’ll be angry, and I don’t blame him. He may not be able to forgive me for what I did. Assuming I am returned to my own reality after leaving here, that is.” My insides twist at the realisation that I may never even get a chance to ask for his forgiveness.
He startles. “You’re leaving?”
“I might not have a choice about it. This is not my reality. I’m dead, and my presence is creating a paradox. It appears that your reality is trying to dislodge me, spit me out into the void. If I don’t figure out a way to leave, this world might end.”
“Oh, god.” He looks stricken. “Sherlock, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to talk to you, to explain it to you while I have a chance, while there’s still time. What do you think I should do?”
He is silent for a long moment. “You should go back,” he says at last. “Go back to him.”
“I don’t want to leave you, John. I love you.”
Tears gather in his eyes. “I love you, too. But you have to leave. I don’t care about myself, but if this world ends, it means billions of people will die.”
“I know.” I think about Moriarty, and wonder if John needs to know about him. No, I decide. He’s got enough to deal with now. This is my problem, not John’s. Whether I believe Moriarty or not, I will have to deal with him myself.
“But… how will you leave?” he asks. “Maybe I could go with you.”
“That would create another paradox. This is your world.”
John sits crumpled over in his chair, his hands covering his face. His shoulders shake. “Sherlock,” he sobs.
“Come here, love,” I say. “I’m not leaving yet. Will you let me hold you for a while?”
He looks up, his eyes red. “Hold me,” he whispers.
We lie together in his bed— our bed. Soon he calms, and we make love slowly, with infinite tenderness, both of us knowing it will be our last time. I want to remember every moment of it— the heat of our bodies pressing against one another, the feeling when he is inside me, the urgency that makes me cry out his name. When we are spent, we lie with our arms around one another.
“Tell him,” he whispers. “Tell him why you did it. You have to make him understand, because I know he loves you, and he will forgive you.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I love you. If he is even a little like me, he cannot help but love you. He will forgive you.”
“I don’t even know if I’ll find him there. Or where there will be. Maybe I’ll find myself in another reality.”
He turns facing me, taking my face in his hands. “We will always find one another, Sherlock. You found me here. Out of all the hospitals in this city, all the doctors who might have been on shift when you came into the A&E, you found me. You will find him, wherever you go. And you will find me.”
I lean my head on his chest and touch his scar. “I don’t know what to say to him.”
“Tell him the truth. You’ve always loved him, but he doesn’t know that. Knowing will change everything.”
“He’ll say I didn’t trust him, that I should have told him.”
“It would have been a risk to tell him.” John strokes my head. “He would have been protective of you, and might have risked himself to save you. That’s what I would have done.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. I couldn’t lose him. But he’ll be angry.”
“Let him. But please tell him how you feel. Even if he can’t accept it, you must tell him, give him a chance. Do it for me.”
“I will, John.” I raise my head, place my lips against his.
He kisses me back.
When my phone signals an incoming text, John is sound asleep next to me. Before I look at whatever Mycroft has to say, I slide my arms around him, inhale his scent, fixing this moment in my mind before it ends.
We need to talk. JM
Not Mycroft, then.
Who is this? SH
The dots appear, indicating an answer is being typed.
I stare at the name, remembering the last time I saw him, the moments leading up to my fall.
Barts Hospital Rooftop.
The screen of my phone says: Friday 1 April.
On my way. SH
The game is on.
The decision to leave John asleep in the bed may be wrong, but I sense that this is the end, and we’ve already said all that we need to say. To say more would be to tempt myself to crawl back into the bed beside him and stay, just stay in his arms until the end of the world.
The end of this world is what I must now stop.
I dress quickly and slip out of the flat. I would rather remember John (my John) slumbering peacefully, waking as if I were some weird dream that leaves him smiling as he reaches for the few shreds of it that are wafting away. By the time he sits up and stretches, thinking of breakfast, he won’t even remember me. If what Mycroft said is true, reality will reset with my death. I imagine John filling the kettle, turning on the telly to catch the weather. He’ll be working today, a Friday, but not until later, the evening shift when all the drunken accidents come into the A&E. He’ll joke with his patients and tell the nurses funny stories. It will be 2014, but he won’t have met me because I’m dead. He won’t be sad or grieve over a person he’s never known. He’ll have the chance to meet someone who will make him happy and not break the laws of physics. We have never met, will never meet in this reality.
When I push open the door and step out into the street, I am certain this is Armageddon. The crack in the sky is gaping wide, and it appears that it is going to swallow everything. It’s early morning, but the sun shows no sign of rising on this world. Lightning flashes; thunder rumbles. I walk several blocks before I see a cab. Getting in, I tell the driver to head to St Barts Hospital.
“Some night, yeah?” the cabby says. “Big storm moving in. Goin’ ta be a loud one, I think.”
“No doubt,” I say, sliding across the seat. Snowflakes begin to hit the windshield.
“Bloody hell.” The cabby turns on the wipers, shaking his head. “Snow in April. Climate change is a bloody bitch.”
The perfect storm.
The rooftop is empty when I arrive. I stand looking across the city, watching the horizon, which is glowing oddly. Wind whips across the rooftops, driving snow around me chaotically, making it impossible to tell whether it is falling up or down.
I hear him speak before I notice he’s there. “Mr Holmes.” He stands in the shadows.
I turn and step forward. “Let me see you.”
Just then lightning tears the sky, and for a second, it’s as if a photographer’s flash has gone off, illuminating us starkly. I see that mad face triumphantly leering at me, his dark eyes taking me in.
“Here we are.” His smile widens. “The final problem.”
“What brought me here?” This is the question, I assume, and in this world, he seems to be the one with the answers.
He shrugs. “I assume you took a cab. You’re lucky you found one— probably the last cab… ever.”
“I mean, why? I assume you have something to do with me being here.”
“Actually, no. You’re not the only traveller here, Mr Holmes. I’ve been studying this little problem for some time, but you are a surprise. You’re supposed to be dead.”
“Apparently, I’m not, however surprising you find that. You, however, are dead.”
“Not really. Not here, at least. Here I am a highly respected mathematician, currently studying the hypothesis that multiple dimensional planes might exist. Mathematically speaking, it makes perfect sense, you know. It’s hard to call it an hypothesis, though, since it’s not possible to test it scientifically. A notion, then, let us say.” He grins. “A notion which I am currently exploring.”
“Why did you ask me to meet you here?”
He steps up on the ledge and spreads his arms. “The better to observe this light show, and to see what is going to happen. It will be soon, I think.”
I realise something. Just as the people I’ve known before are different here, in small ways, this Moriarty is not the same as the man who shot himself here, on the rooftop of Barts. “You know me.”
He turns and studies me. “I do. We have met before, Mr Holmes. I know that you remember at least one axis where our paths have intersected. That did not end well for either of us.”
“You can’t blame me for that. I didn’t shoot you.”
“But you jumped.” His lips curve in what might pass for a smile, but looks more like a sneer. “Oh, I know about your elaborate ruse to play dead.”
“Is this some warped attempt to pay me back for that? As I said, you chose to put that bullet in your brain.”
“May I call you Sherlock?” His smile is empty, his eyes bottomless. “I feel that we are beyond formalities, in this axis or any other. Ask yourself, Sherlock. Why would a man who had just won the game kill himself?”
“To force my hand, make me jump.”
He wags a finger at me. “You see, but you do not observe. You think this is all about good and evil. Dull. The physical forces of the universe are amoral. They obey the laws of mathematics. Balance is the only thing that matters. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
“Physics?” I say. “Is that how you’re now rationalising your crimes?”
He rolls his eyes impatiently. “We’ve had this conversation before, you know. Same questions every time. You really need to build a new room in that Mind Palace of yours so you won’t keep forgetting me.”
“My Mind Palace— How do you—?” And then I remember a door with a name-plate: Moriarty. It bears a heavy deadbolt, but I know what’s inside: a man in a strait-jacket, whispering madness.
“I knew that you couldn’t delete me,” he says, smiling.
“Why am I here?”
“A very good question, one I have been trying to answer for several days.”
“And what is your answer? You wouldn’t have asked me to come here if you didn’t have some brilliant deduction to share with me. My theory is that you brought me here. For what reason, I admit I don’t know.”
His eyes widen. “If you think that I have that kind of power, you are not understanding anything. We are not players; we are pawns. Particles. Why would the universe snatch you out of your own axis and set you down here, where you are dead? Your arrival here has caused an imbalance which has begun to warp time and space. The things you have observed are evidence of this. I mean to learn all I can before you disappear.”
The horizon brightens, but it is, impossibly, the wrong end of the sky. The sun appears to be hovering orangely in the west, challenging all the laws of physics.
“What’s going to happen?” I ask. “Is this world ending?
He hops down from the ledge. “Perhaps. I’ve been trying to figure out what brought you here, what created this paradox. This is the final piece of my theory, the magnum opus I’ve been writing since I was seventeen.”
“And what is this theory?”
He gives me a sudden, sharp look. “Don’t be tedious, Sherlock. You may be a bit brighter than the average idiot, but you would not understand one word out of ten.”
“You intend to kill me then, to restore balance to this reality. You killed yourself in my reality, and now you expect me to do the same here.”
He gives a hollow laugh. “I was already dead in your axis, Sherlock. I didn’t belong there, just as you are out of place here. Did you never once ask yourself where I came from? You and your fat-headed brother were so busy chasing my organisation that you never discovered the one, obvious fact that would have explained everything. In your axis, James Moriarty was a child who died at the age of four. Very ordinary, really. I drowned in a pool.” He laughs. “You see the irony. In another axis, a boy drowned in a pool because of me.”
“Then who shot himself on this rooftop? Why did I jump?”
“I shot myself, and you jumped because you were already so invested in my existence that you couldn’t let me go.”
“You threatened people. You were going to kill them.”
“Action, reaction. And now, your actions have caused more chaos than I ever could have.”
“I took myself out of that axis because it was so far out of balance that it would have ripped itself apart. Like this one, it was heading towards annihilation. But balance was not restored. You’ve been in Serbia for two years, trying to destroy my network, but my death should have taken care of that. You are too zealous, Sherlock. In some sense, you created Jim Moriarty, consulting criminal. And now, you have destroyed what you loved the most.”
John, I think. I’ve destroyed John Watson. “What do you mean?”
He doesn’t answer. Maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe he’s insane. The sky is torn by another bolt of lightning, the thunder following hard upon the flash. “You said this reality would end if I stayed here.”
He nods. “In some ways, this axis has given you everything you wanted. You feel complete as a human being. John loves you, and you love him. You were beginning to think that you could just stay here with him, but that’s not possible. Here, you are a shadow, drawn here only because you could not fix the axis you left behind.”
Of course he knows about John. “You mean that I’m here by accident, that I need to go back where I came from and somehow fix it.”
“I don’t know why you’re here, Sherlock. Do you know anything about quantum mechanics? Of course you don’t. You deleted it. No practical application to detective work.” He smirks. “I’ll enlighten you: the universe is a place ruled by natural law. It is orderly, deterministic, measurable— or so it seems. The job of physicists is to explain those laws so we can make predictions. But there is a tiny world of particles that refuse to obey those laws. They behave randomly; nothing is certain at that level. There are only probabilities. These particles influence one another in ways that are not understood. You and I are quarks, Sherlock, entangled across time and space, refusing to act in predictable ways. Our lives transcend the laws of the universe. We ignore evidence that this is happening, but it is true. Open your eyes.”
I look up at the crack in the sky. It has widened, swallowing up most of the horizon. London is vanishing before our eyes. “What will happen? Will we all die?”
He shrugs. “That’s what people do.”
“It was an experiment, killing yourself.”
“That is a reasonable explanation. We have stood on this rooftop many times, with many different outcomes.”
“I wonder. What have those outcomes taught you?”
He smiles. “I’m here. Cogito ergo sum.”
“If I die, that will restore the balance?”
“That is the question I hope to answer here and now.” He gestures at the sky. “The universe is not good or evil. You are wondering why you are here, how you can save this world. You want there to be a purpose for all this destruction, for your death to mean something. I can’t answer your question. No one can.”
“Tell me this, then. What will happen to me? What will happen to John?”
“Your thinking is faulty. You are not a person. You are an unpredictable series of endless permutations across infinite realities.”
I step onto the ledge. There is no harness now, no giant airbag ready to catch me. If I fall, I will hit the pavement before I reach terminal velocity. My bones will be broken, my organs explode, and before I realise I have landed, I will die. Whatever that means.
“Make your choice,” he says.
Everybody dies, or one person dies. Fix this.
John, forgive me, I think.
* * *
I’m in London, walking down a street in Marylebone. There is the chemist’s shop, there is the Tesco where I buy tea and milk, and there is the coffee shop where I stop each morning. I feel the pulse of the city beneath my feet, breathe in the scent of exhaust and rain and antiquity lurking just beneath the surface. It is both familiar and disorienting.
I’m heading towards Baker Street, trying to figure out how to tell John that I’m alive. I don’t even know if he still lives there, but I am drawn to it, homing in on it like a migrating bird. It’s cold for March, with a bite in the air that makes me wish I were already sitting in front of a fire with a cup of tea.
I realise that today is John’s birthday.
I turn the corner onto Baker Street and pause. My brain is attempting to recalibrate something, to make all of this fit.
Deja vu. I have been here before.
Baker Street is, of course, familiar. I have walked down this street countless times on my way back to the flat. I could navigate it with my eyes closed simply by the sounds and smells.
This is another kind of deja vu. I have been in this moment before. The last day of March, 2014. Baker Street. John.
The door of our building opens and he walks out, heading straight to the kerb, presumably to catch a cab. My initial assessment shows him as I remember— perhaps he is thinner, though. His hair is a bit longer on top, and he’s grown a scruffy beard. Walking with purpose, but I can see the slight hitch in his stride that tells me he’s still limping. He’s wearing dark jeans and a pair of boots I don’t recognise. A leather jacket zipped up to the chin. A blue scarf— my scarf— tied around his neck against the wind.
And I remember.
Waking up in the A&E, flirting with him. Going home to Baker Street, to a flat I’d never lived in before. I remember him, just back from Afghanistan, the gentle kiss he placed on my lips, the nights we slept together. It all returns in a rush, like air filling my lungs as I surface from a dive.
But that was another John, a different Baker Street, a cold spring day in an alternative 2014.
This John doesn’t see me. A cab pulls up as he signals, and he climbs inside. I hear him say, Hanwell.
He’s going to my grave. I catch the next cab and follow.
I shadow him as he walks through the gates, along the path through the monuments, heading towards the black monolith which stands watch over an empty grave. I wonder how often he comes here. I heard what he said that first time, as I watched from a grove of trees.
…there’s just one more thing, mate, one more thing: one more miracle, Sherlock, for me. Don’t ... be … dead…
And I remember that he’s going to be angry when he sees me. He doesn’t know I’ve been running for my life, imprisoned, tortured… He doesn’t know about the three snipers or Moriarty shooting himself, forcing me to jump. All he will know when he sees me is that I lied to him— for two years. And I may not be able to fix that.
He loves you. What he doesn’t understand is that you love him, too. He saw you kill yourself, and he will think you didn’t trust him. Tell him.
“Hello, Sherlock.” He’s standing, hands in his pockets, speaking to my grave. “I’m sorry I haven’t been back. I could say I’ve been busy, but that isn’t why I’ve been avoiding this. It’s just… too hard. I know you’re gone. I know, and I’ve mostly accepted it. Still angry, though.”
He sniffs and rubs his hand across his eyes.
“Yeah, I’m angry. I guess I’ll never understand why you did it, and that’s the hardest part. For a long time, I pretended.” He laughs weakly. “I pretended it was all a trick— not you, not the cases, but your death. I kept telling myself, if anyone could fake their own suicide, it would be Sherlock Holmes. I imagined that you were just off somewhere, mopping up Moriarty’s organisation… And I saw you— everywhere, just on the edge of my eye, like a ghost. The Belstaff, swirling around a corner. I’d hear your voice—”
He chokes, and for a few moments he is silent.
“Anyway, I came back today because I have something to tell you.”
I hear him draw a deep breath and realise I’m holding my own. I imagine seventeen different things that would bring him here to talk to my grave, all of them good-bye.
“People tried to help me,” he says. “They gave me time, at first. But I wasn’t getting over… your death. Getting over you. I almost…” He sighs. “Well, you don’t need to know about that. When that… happened, Lestrade sat me down and talked to me. Mycroft had told him that you did it for us, that we were in danger, and you’d killed yourself to save Mrs Hudson, him, and me. He told me you wouldn’t have wanted me to mourn him, and that if I loved you, I would live my life. I would honour you by surviving.”
He pauses, and all the damage I have caused sinks into my brain. Moriarty was right. Your actions have caused more chaos than I ever could have.
“He kept trying to fix me up. Sarah, too. I was their project: Find a Girlfriend for John. I wasn’t a fun date. Just talked about you. There was one, a receptionist at the surgery, I might have… well, I couldn’t. And that’s why I’m here, to tell you something you probably deduced in the first ten minutes after we met, while we were standing in the lab at Barts, talking about sharing a flat.”
I flip through my Mind Palace, recalling the soldier with a cane who loaned me his phone. I remember trying to impress him, pouring out deductions— tan ending at the wrists, military posture, psychosomatic limp. He was wary, but I already knew that my life had changed.
He breathes deeply, closing his eyes. “I always said I wasn’t gay, but what I didn’t say— and you must have realised— is that I’m not entirely straight, either. My dad quashed my interest in other boys when I was too young to know better. No son of mine… He hated it when Harry came out, but he was terrified of having a gay son, so he punished me. When I said I’m not gay, I was saying it to him. Every time. I dated women, and I told myself it was true, that I wasn’t gay, because I was afraid of disappointing him.”
He opens his eyes, smiling slightly. “What I’m trying to say is, I am gay. Or maybe bi. I, John Watson, am attracted to men. After you died, I faced up to it, and I decided to be what I am. I stopped dating women, started looking at men. I went to gay bars. I don’t mean that I slept with every gay bloke in London. I just mean, I let myself want what I wanted, be who I am. And six months ago, I met someone.”
My heart is pounding so hard that I’m sure he can hear it. The blood rushes in my ears, and I strain to hear what he says next.
“But he isn’t you. None of them were you. And I wished I had realised sooner, that I’d said what I’ve been hiding from you— from myself.” He straightens his shoulders. “I love you, Sherlock. I always did. I wish I’d told you. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. You’re not like that— you’re married to your work. But I did… I do love you. And no one will ever take your place.”
As I watch, he rests his hand on my marker. “You were the best man, Sherlock, and the most human… human being I’ve ever known. I was so alone, and I owe you so much. I owe you this— me, finally able to be honest with myself. I only wish I weren’t confessing this to your grave. I wish…”
He puts a hand to his eyes. I see his shoulders shaking.
“John,” I say.
He whips around, his face disbelieving, ready to deny the trick that brought me here. His eyes scan me, recognise me. Reaching back towards the grave marker, he attempts to steady himself, misses, and begins to fall, his eyes rolling back in a faint.
I run forward and catch him, hold him tightly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I murmur. “John, I’m sorry.”
He opens his eyes, pulls back a bit so he can see me. “You’re real.”
“I am.” I’m not sure what my face is doing. I think I’m smiling, but tears are blurring my vision. I blink and my cheeks are wet. “I am real.”
“How?” he gasps.
“As you said, it was a trick. I couldn’t tell you… they were going to kill you.” I gaze into his eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think I’d be gone so long.”
“You’re angry with me, I know. You have a right to be angry. I shouldn’t have left you, I should have told you, but I didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t any time. I— I’d calculated thirteen different possibilities—”
“Thirteen ways it could have gone, but in the end there was only one thing to do— and I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you… Short version: Not dead.”
I look at him finally, see the tears on his face, the look in his eyes. He wants to hit me. He wants to scream. He wants to—
And then, he’s kissing me. It feels both achingly familiar and completely new. He isn’t the John I left sleeping in a flat in another world. He’s my John, the one I met years ago in a lab, the one whose phone I borrowed, the one who shot a cabby for me, the one who never could love me.
Except he does. He’s kissing me, and I feel his body against mine, smell the cheap shampoo he always uses, the cologne he wears. The beard against my cheeks is unfamiliar, but he’s John, my John. Thinner, by at least a stone, and trembling from shock, anger, grief. Hasn’t been sleeping well, I deduce. Still having nightmares, but now they’re not about Afghanistan. They’re about me, dying on the sidewalk in front of him.
“John,” I whisper into his hair. “I’m so sorry.”
“You git.” His voice is clogged with tears and he pushes me away to have a better look. “You heard what I said a minute ago. You were listening.” He stands and brushes himself off.
I get to my feet, opening my mouth to reply. “John, I—”
He stabs a finger at me. “Shut up. I know— married to your work. Sentiment’s on the losing side, makes your brain slow, all that. Sorry, but I meant what I just said, and right now I’m so angry I could throttle you. One word, Sherlock—” He drags a hand across his eyes, chokes, sobs. “That’s all it would have taken. If I’d only known… I prayed for this, asked you not to be dead.” He rests a shaking hand on the gravestone. “I’m hallucinating. That’s what this is. I’ve lost my mind. So many times, I imagined…”
I understand how he feels, like he’s just awakened in a world where the impossible has happened. I’ve been dead for two years, but not really. He will have questions about that, and I will answer them honestly when that time comes. “You’re not imagining this, John. I’m really here. And you have every right to be angry. I deserve your anger, and will gladly pay that price, just to see you alive. I can explain how I did it—”
“Don’t care.” He is glaring now, and somehow this makes me hopeful. I know this John, the one with a temper. “I don’t care how,” he growls. “Only why. Why would you leave me like that? Two years, I grieved, Sherlock. I saw you die. What kind of friend would do that?”
“I couldn’t take the risk,” I say. “I love you.”
“Don’t.” He narrows his eyes, his face furious. “Don’t say that. You don’t mean it, not like I do. You hate sentiment. Love, a chemical defect.” He makes a scoffing sound. “So don’t tell me you love me— not unless you can explain how Sherlock Holmes, who holds cold, pure reason above all things, who left me to grieve for two years and never bothered to mention he’d be back—” He covers his face with his hands and sobs.
“You called me a machine once.”
He scrubs at his eyes angrily. “Yeah, and that’s almost the last thing I ever said to you. Do you know how often I thought of that? How hard it was for me to reconcile my feelings after watching you die?”
“I was afraid.”
Tell him. Give him a chance to understand. “From the very first, I loved you. And it frightened me. I thought I couldn’t be human and be brilliant at the same time. I thought it would slow my brain down, make me ordinary. I’ve spent the last two years realising my mistake. I should have told you years ago.”
Silently, he considers this, narrowing his eyes at me. “What do you mean? When you say I love you, what does that mean to you?”
“It means I was wrong. I faked my death because I couldn’t bear to lose you, but I was wrong. It was selfish— and cruel. I should have trusted you. My focus was all on stopping Moriarty, and it didn’t occur to me that I might have done things very differently if I’d trusted you, if I’d told you how I felt. We should have been partners. That’s what love means. Instead, I kept things from you and ended up hurting you.” I take a deep breath. Honesty, I remind myself. Acceptance. “When I say I love you, I mean that I will accept whatever you decide. I will go away and let you live your life with someone else, if that’s what you want. Or I will stay, if that makes you happy. We can carry on as we were, or…” I trail off, unwilling to voice what I want. This is not about my own selfish desires. “It’s your choice.”
There are several emotions at war on his face. He is a kind man, an angry man, a man who’s suffered more than most. He’s almost given up, as least twice that I know of, but he is a soldier who carries on without complaint because he doesn’t want to disappoint the people who love him, who rely on him. At this moment, I am not sure what he’s feeling. I’ve known him long enough to be able to read him, but I can’t read this.
A long moment passes. In that moment I realise that I am exhausted, and that all I really want is to sit across from him in my chair at Baker Street, a cup of tea beside me. The old me could probably bully the old John Watson into letting me come back. He would fuss at me, but take care of me, and I would let him. But we are both different people now. Two years have passed. I wait.
His face resolves into something like calm. “Let’s go home,” he says, putting his hand in mine. “Before I decide about hitting you, I want to know everything.”
“You’re going to hit me? All right, that’s fine. Just warn me so I can brace myself.”
He smiles. “I’m not going to hit you. I just feel as if someone pushed my reset button, and it’s taking a while for my brain to come back online.”
He hails a cab and gives the driver our address. I’m going home.
My throat goes a bit tight when the cab pulls up at 221B. It feels so familiar, but I know it will be different. John opens the front door and leads me inside.
“Mrs Hudson?” I say this quietly, so as not to startle her, but hear no sounds of hoovering, smell no biscuits baking.
“Visiting her sister in Edinburgh.” He leads the way up the stairs. “I’m going to have to prepare her for you. Might give her a heart attack.”
And then the door of the flat is open and I’m walking across the threshold. It is cleaner, much neater than I ever remember seeing it. There are no experiments on the kitchen table, no papers strewn around the floor and every flat surface. I open the fridge, see no body parts. But the skull is still grinning from the mantel, my books are neatly shelved next to the fireplace, and my chair is waiting.
John is watching me. “Yeah, I kept your things. Don’t know why, exactly. I had to clean out some of the experiments, but I couldn’t quite bear to get rid of every bit of you. Sentiment, I suppose.”
“I can sleep on the sofa,” I say. “I don’t want to be in the way.”
“You’re not in the way,” he says.
“But you… you have… your…” I can barely say the word. “I heard you say you’d met someone. You have a—”
He grins. “Had. Reminded me a bit of you. Will was his name. Dark hair, lanky, congenitally unable to make tea or buy milk or clean the bath. Fun while it lasted, but we broke up a couple weeks ago.”
He’s blushing now. “Yes— well, I kicked him out. No hearts broken, at least not mine. Will was too young to be serious, and when I caught him cheating on me, it was all over. He ran up my credit cards, but I suppose that was the price of having him. So— cards cancelled, passwords changed, problem solved.” He smiles at me. “It wasn’t meant to be. He wasn’t you.”
“I’m me,” I say.
He nods. “Married to your work. The Work.”
“No,” I say. “The work is important, but you come first.”
He cocks his head at me, a pensive look on his face. “You love me.”
I nod. “Yes, John. I’m in love with you.”
“I love you, too. You’re not sleeping on the sofa.”
“Oh,” I say. “You’re saying…”
He stands and crosses the distance between us, grabs my hands and pulls me to my feet. “You’re sharing my bed.”
“Now? It’s not even noon yet,” I point out.
“Problem?” Captain Watson cocks an eyebrow at me, smiling.
Sometimes I think I’m in an alternate reality. I wake up curled around John, feeling his warmth, listening to him breathe, and I think that I’m in another 221B Baker Street in some other London. And John will usually mumble, “Love you.” Sometimes he will instead mutter, “You’re like a furnace, you git.”
Here Moriarty is dead, his organisation defeated. I imagine him in another world, writing scholarly papers about parallel realities. I see him standing on a rooftop, watching for holes in the sky that will tell him another paradox has occurred. Maybe in some universe we are facing one another, and he is explaining that the universe is amoral, that there is no good or evil. But whatever forces there are in the universe, we all ally ourselves with a side. There are some things worth dying for.
Sometimes I wonder what happened in that other reality, what that other John is doing. Did his world end? I hope not. I hate to think of him grieving for me, though. He was happy before he met me; I hope he’s forgotten me now, and life continues. Without me there, he has no reason to know about Moriarty, or fear that the world will end. He goes to Afghanistan, he returns home without scars. He will find his way.
And I remember what he told me: We will always find one another.
I think about my experience often. Sometimes it feels like a dream, as if delirious, I spun that reality as a means of escape. We’re all captives, in whatever world we find ourselves.
In my Mind Palace, there is a locked room with a date painted on the door: 31 March 2014. Inside, there is a might have been, an alternate memory of a day when I found myself walking home to John.
You will find him, and you will find me.
He sighs and snuggles back into me. I run my fingers over his scar and know that he is mine, the one I was afraid to love for so long. I don’t know how my life would be different now if I had been brave enough to tell him sooner, before I put us both through hell. Maybe we weren’t ready then, or we would have eventually given up on each other.
As John says, we can’t go back. All we can do is move ahead.
I am home.