I ’ve disappointed you.
Of course John was disappointed. Because he had hoped, he had wanted to believe that Sherlock was better than their crazed bomber. Not smarter, or quicker, but better. He didn’t think it was all that much to ask for, didn’t think he was unreasonable for thinking Sherlock was a hero, because he was. Whether Sherlock realized it or not, that’s exactly what he was. He was brilliant and magnetic and capable and unstoppable, and people looked to him to solve their problems and save their lives. But from where they were currently standing, there wasn’t a lot of difference between Sherlock and his quarry. All that really separated them was a question of semantics. One was a consulting detective, the other a criminal mastermind for hire. Only a thin line in the sand made that distinction clear, and the more they both stepped over that line, the harder it got to separate out. The more they started to resemble each other.
And John recalled Donovan’s words of warning when they’d first met, when he first began following this wonderful, absurd man around. Remembered how terribly calm and resigned she’d been, her quiet sense of inevitability as she predicted Sherlock’s fall. His descent into the depraved and the criminal, grasping at straws to stay afloat. Anything to save his mind from destroying itself. And the worst part of it all was that, God forbid, should things ever take that turn, Sherlock wouldn’t be any more passionate about criminality than he had been about justice. None of it would stem from a malicious intent or because he sincerely thought people deserved what he did to them. It would simply be the next logical progression in the world as Sherlock saw it. Nothing more.
But John also remembered what Lestrade told him that same day, when Sherlock had disappeared into the night after a murdering cabbie without a single word of explanation.
Sherlock is a great man. And one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.
And John believed that. Had to believe that, had to put his faith in a spectacularly flawed genius and hope he wouldn’t be left crushed by the wayside. He believed and hoped and followed along devotedly, if questioningly, because there wasn’t much else he could do other than reprimand and scold and then ultimately obey. He put his faith in Sherlock Holmes because he clearly had no choice and Sherlock seemed far more likely to answer his prayers than God. So he prayed and he believed and he threw himself into the path of danger for this man he’s known less than six months because Sherlock’s life had far too much potential to be wasted. Too fragile and magnificent a flame to go out, and John’s life wasn’t nearly so necessary. He was used to being a soldier, giving his life up for a cause, and there were few causes nobler than saving Sherlock’s life, in whatever way he could. It was worth it. That he never doubted. It was always worth it.
Sherlock sat still as granite in the moulded plastic chair in the private room of the hospital where Mycroft had hidden him away before the mortar of the swimming pool had even finished smouldering. It wasn’t his private room.
The bomber had beaten trail by the time Lestrade marched on the scene to find a charred and bloodied Sherlock sat hunched up near a collapsing pool while debris fell all around. John Watson was laid out beside him, head cradled in the detective’s lap, those daddy-long-legs pulled up close and one arm wrapping easily around both knees, head braced atop it solemnly while the other hand rested firmly over the pulse of John’s neck. A cage of flesh to guard a fallen comrade.
Sherlock had refused to say a word, and despite the crimson swath across his shirt collar he wouldn’t move either, wouldn’t relinquish his hold on the unconscious man, just staring mutely at the gaping hole in the wall where the back door to the complex used to be. No amount of yelling or prodding could budge him, and the paramedics had been fully prepared to use violence to pry the two men apart when a sharply dressed bloke with a black, hook-handled umbrella appeared out of seemingly nowhere and drifted through the police barricade like they were so many insects to be swatted aside. Mycroft-bloody-Holmes, because that’s what Lestrade really needed just then. It was a testament to how big this infuriating “game” must have really been if Big Brother had to get involved.
Mycroft said two words, “Come, Sherlock,” and he did. The Great Consulting Detective gave a sudden, full-body twitch before carefully sliding out from under John’s limp body and stood, shaggy head bowed like a frightened child. In five years Lestrade had never seen Sherlock emote that much, and he would have thought is a hallucination brought on by smoke inhalation from the pool, if Mycroft hadn’t looked so very grim.
“He’s alive, then?”
“Undoubtedly,” Sherlock said, and still wouldn’t look up.
Lestrade had the distinct impression they weren’t talking about John. Some indefinable look passed between the two, and then Mycroft turned to Lestrade and said, “This, of course, will not make your official report, Detective Inspector. This was a very old structure long overdue for electrical rewiring. I suggest you leave off investigating this matter any further, as it goes rather above your security clearance. My team will be happy to take it from here.”
Lestrade hated Mycroft’s heavy-handed authority only slightly less than he hated jurisdiction pissing contests, so he just nodded and murmured something like acquiescence before moving away to find Donovan to explain to her why they were pulling out without actually telling her anything. She gave him that same look she always did: the one tinged with resigned disappointment, the one that somehow managed to communicate quite clearly, “You’re ruining your reputation and possibly your career, and you’re taking us all down with you, but I’m sick of telling you this, so I’m just gonna give you this look.”
He was more or less immune to it by now.
Mycroft then deigned to informed Lestrade that he would be moving both Sherlock and Dr. Watson to an undisclosed hospital where they would have the best quality care without any unwanted intrusions, and said it in such an ominous way that the seasoned policeman felt a shiver of dread down his spine. He said his assistant would text him the location after a twenty-four hour probationary period. Lestrade was used to being in the dark, sad as it was to admit, and he usually did everything in his power to get out of it, which went a long way for explaining why he put up with Sherlock’s narcissism and nonsense. He didn’t think he wanted to know what all this was about, though. He just nodded and went to oversee the rounding up of his men.
When the probationary period was up, he went to visit Sherlock at the hospital. Only he wasn’t in his own room, and it really didn’t surprise Lestrade as much as it seemed to surprise the nurse assigned to give him his pain medication. When she frantically confessed that she didn’t know where he would go, Lestrade simply sighed and moved ten feet to the left where Dr. Watson’s room had been situated. There Sherlock had been, curled like a gargoyle in one of those horrid, pastel chairs, hospital gown wrinkled and hanging off the shoulder wrapped in sterile bandages, looking much like he had the night before: unmoving, unseeing, barely breathing.
Lestrade was about to poke his head in, snap Sherlock out of his daze and make him go back to his room, perhaps scold him for upsetting his nurse because the Doctor was still out cold and couldn’t do it in his stead, when he realized Sherlock’s mouth was working, low, undetectable words falling rapid-fire from his lips, and he would have thought the detective’s grip on reality had finally snapped under the strain of his massive intellect, but his eyes . . .
They weren’t blank, or glazed over, or staring into nothingness. They were staring at John Watson. Intensely, and with a sort of pinched agony around the edges and in every line of his taut, stiff frame. And whatever he was muttering so fervently, it was only meant for the ears of the room’s other occupant. The man who couldn’t hear them anyway.
Lestrade left that day without Sherlock seeing him. He would stop by again tomorrow.
This hospital is full of people dying, doctor, why don’t you go and cry by their bedsides, see what good it does them?
There was irony here, and Sherlock was still in a state enough to appreciate that fact, somewhere miles below the baseline of fear and horror running on a repeating reel on his brain’s projector screen. He doesn’t recall the blast, not in detail. Too many chemical reactions, too many nerves firing in his advanced state of delirious adrenaline-rush for any of his higher faculties to take note of very much. He recalls firing the trigger, the kick somehow more jarring and painful than he expected, although that could also be because one sniper managed to get a shot off before a solid body impacted with Sherlock’s and sent him hurtling into clear, chemical water while the next second the world jerked violently before a rumble of fire and ceramic tile blowing into pieces rent across the muffled air above him.
He surfaced with John in his arms, more automatic than an after-thought, so intrinsic and innate he barely needed to think about it. There was a moment, just after he dragged his companion’s still and waterlogged body onto what remained of the pool’s edge, that Sherlock’s entire body felt as though it had been hollowed out. There was a white noise in his ears and nothing existed outside of John’s cool skin and the scent of burned chlorine. His fingers, trembling, eventually found a pulse and his mind must have observed reams of data for all that he couldn’t remember consciously doing it: bullet to John’s right thigh – irony strikes again – another graze along his right forearm, one just above his right ear, and another lodge solidly in his gut. The amount of blood suggested it hadn’t struck any major organs, but shock could still set in, he could still bleed out, or the wound become septic, he could still die, he could die, he could die, and People do get so sentimental about their pets.
Sherlock felt the sudden urge to be sick, and it was only the solid weight of John against his legs that kept the nausea and the clawing need to break apart at bay.
And now he was sat by John’s bedside, though Sherlock wasn’t crying, and John wasn’t even dying, was in fact steadily recovering. There was a hole punched in his shoulder to match his doctor’s, and he still felt lost and torn to pieces. Raw. There was nothing for it. Moriarty had survived, there was no question in his mind about that. And he hadn’t intended for Sherlock and John to make it out in a similar condition, that was clear enough as well. He was sure to one day, probably sooner than later, try and rectify that. Sherlock knew it would come and he knew it would take a similar form as this last attempt, and all he could hope for, selfishly, was that Moriarty pulled the gun on him first. He couldn’t watch John Watson die. He could never, ever abide it, and he knew that, now. He’d been too slow on the uptake, dangerously, and they had both nearly paid the ultimate price for his stupidity.
It would be better if John wasn’t here. It would be better if they had never met. But because Sherlock wasn’t a good person, he couldn’t convince himself of any of it. He knew, if given the chance to do it all over again, knowing everything that he did now, he wouldn’t change a thing. He knew that. Which was exactly why he didn’t deserve it. Something so fragile and perfect should never have been given to him, who so carelessly threw things around, tested them, experimented on them, pushed them to the very brink, broke them apart to know how they worked, ruined them in his understanding. And now that he finally understood this, it meant he’d finally ruined it. Time to move on before he made it any worse, before either of them were too broken to walk away later, too damaged to ever recover. To perform the kindest act he’d ever done he must deal the cruelest blow he’d ever felt, because at least then there was a chance to change. He knew he never would. But John, if nothing else, deserved that chance.
John deserved far more than Sherlock could give him. He knew that too.
When John awoke it was to the depressingly familiar reek of illness and decay overlaid by hospital sterility. The fluorescent lights overhead were equally unwelcome, and he had always wondered why these facilities insisted on affronting the retinas of their already-distressed patients. It seemed the sort of insult only truly sadistic people added to injury.
He also awoke to Sherlock Holmes sat hunched up, mulish and brooding and looming slightly overhead. He wanted to tell the impossible man to stop being an idiot and go back to his own bed. He wanted to grasp a deadly pale hand and demand to know if he was all right. He really wanted to go back to sleep.
Sherlock had his own plans, which was so typically dictatorial of him John actually felt comforted in having his plans thwarted.
“You can’t remain with me.”
The first words he hears after regaining consciousness, and John thinks it’s a dream. It has to be. It’s ridiculous, to start with, not to mention apropos of nothing, but then again Sherlock had always had a bit of a magician’s flare in how he conducted business.
“What?” was the most complex response John could muster.
“Your pupil activity confirms that you are as close to lucid as can be expected in these circumstances. You heard me perfectly.”
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
“I’m a sociopath. You know that already, I mentioned it the first day we met.”
Potential flatmates should know the worst about each other.
John shook his head, feeling somehow like he was still underwater.
“I don’t follow.”
Something in Sherlock’s face shifted, but his expression was still clinically neutral, like he was staring at a cadaver or a pock mark on the wall.
“We’ve established that I don’t care about other people. That, in fact, I find it very easy not to care about people.”
“Yes, that would expected of a sociopath.”
Exasperation or annoyance or something like it twitched in the shape of the detective’s mouth but he tamped down on it quickly, and John knew instantly he was playing something. Deliberately putting on an act, trying to achieve some end that John was still in the dark about.
“I will endanger you. Repeatedly. We’ve seen evidence of that already, and if I cared anything for you at all I would cease activities which result in such repercussions. But I won’t. To be honest, the thought to do so hasn’t even occurred to me as a viable response to recent events. I will continue to act as I always have, and that will continue to put you in a position to pay for my actions. Which is why you can’t remain with me.”
John thought he should probably feel offended, as though he were incapable of defending himself, as if he needed to be rescued, as though he were a hindrance to Sherlock. And if that were the case, he would have packed his things weeks ago, after the third failed experiment involving some sort of plasma of dubious origin when he realized that Sherlock’s career and Sherlock’s happiness and Sherlock’s peace of mind suddenly meant more to him than his own. If he held Sherlock back, he would be gone. But if he could help Sherlock, and he knew in some indistinct way that he did, he would stay.
He should probably also feel crushed, due to the not-so-subtle implication that Sherlock didn’t care about him. Would keep acting in direct opposition to John’s best interests, and wasn’t even apologetic about it. It certainly fit with the sociopath modus operandi. But not everything did.
It’s one possible explanation of some of the facts.
He would never in a million years admit this to anyone, but at that moment, he thought he might understand what wives of abusive husbands felt like. How, despite all the evidence that the person harming you doesn’t care, that they don’t feel remorse, that the entire environment is poison, you keep coming back. You defend them, even, find excuses for their behavior, some justification that it isn’t their fault and that deep down, they do love you.
Except that even on his darkest day, John isn’t quite that damaged, and the warming sensation in the pit of his gut that seems utterly inappropriate for such a dark situation isn’t because his emotions are merely being manipulated. Sherlock hated psychology, for all that he employed it in his job, and despite his vast skill for subtlety he’d never had the patience employing such tactics when it came to anything involving John. Reverse psychology was unlikely. When Sherlock wanted to press John’s presence on a case he plied him with danger; when he wanted a cup of tea or his phone or a book that was literally two inches outside his reach and couldn’t be bothered to get up himself, he used pouting martyrdom. This was something completely different. An enforced mask of calm indifference, calculated statements, not even permitting himself to be annoyed by John’s deliberate obtuseness.
With all of the unlikely eliminated only one real possibility remained.
John grinned, and Sherlock clearly wasn’t expecting it. He frowned in return.
“You’re an idiot,” John said, fonder than he thought was wise, but he could blame it on the morphine drip.
Sherlock stiffened, scowl overtaking his detached façade. “I’m sorry, in what way have I proved my idiocy?”
“You’re also a terrible liar.”
There was no response the detective could find for that, and the corner of his lips quivered slightly while his eyes sharpened and grew wide.
“John,” he said eventually, voice hoarse, “John you can’t . . . I have no heart. How could you put yourself in the hands of a man who is incapable of caring about people, who has no conscience?”
“Like I said. Terrible liar.”
“It’s not a lie!” Sherlock yells, and John desists the teasing because his friend is clearly more unraveled than he thought. “Throughout this entire ga—throughout this case, you yourself have admonished me for not feeling anything for the people whose lives were at stake. You were disappointed in me. It’s not . . . I can’t . . .”
John reached his hand out then, wrapping firmly around long, bony fingers and Sherlock must have been really out of sorts because he simply squeezed back and didn’t even raise a sardonic eyebrow. It hurt, he realized belatedly, because there were apparently stitches in the arm he’d moved, but it wasn’t very important. John was good at ignoring pain.
“It’s fine, all right?” he asked, and Sherlock just wordlessly shook his head. “It’ll be fine. Because you do care, after all.” It was his turn to shake his head, when Sherlock looked up at him with something like incredulity in the twist of his mouth, and John grinned. “No, it’s true. You wouldn’t be convincing me to leave if you weren’t worried I’d get hurt. You can’t worry and not care. That’s also why you’re an idiot, for the record.”
A ghost of something softer than misery sprinted across Sherlock’s face, and that seemed like enough of a victory for now.
“Your powers of deduction seem to be improving, Doctor,” he said, an attempt at levity.
John smiled wider. “Well, I’ve had a pretty impressive teacher so far.”
Sherlock permitted a brief smile but it guttered out like a flame in high wind. His fingers squeezed at John’s again. He took a breath. “John . . .”
“I know. It’s all right, Sherlock. Really.”
Sherlock shook his head once more, clenched his eyes closed, bit his lip, but didn’t try and elaborate. They sat like that for a while. Until John fell back asleep. Sherlock remained for several minutes longer, unable to pull away, fearing the loss and its permanence. He inhaled sharply, blocking out any scent that wasn’t relevant, that wasn’t the familiar scent of John, and he was tempted to break into hospital storage and find the bags where they’d put the sooty and blood-soaked clothes John had been wearing when admitted, but the impulse seemed slightly too desperate for his tastes, and he eventually decided against it.
There were drawers full of John’s clothes back at the apartment, after all. He could have someone pick up a jumper.
The next day Sherlock goes missing. Lestrade arrives at the hospital around eleven in the morning and completely bypasses the detective’s room because he’s fairly sure it would be a wasted effort, but when he opens the door to the John’s room he sees the look on the man’s face and says nothing. He simply moves closer, grabbing the now-empty visitor’s chair with him as he goes and sits near the man’s bedside. They wait together in silence, for different things but the same man.
They wait for three years.