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the way you say yes when I ask you to marry me

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It’s the way you say yes when I ask you to marry me
You don't know what you would do
And do you think you can carry me
Over the threshold
Over and over again into oblivion?
-The National, Oblivions


“So, I’m going to suggest something and I need you to not panic,” Joan told Sherlock.

She’d put Arthur to bed, their current case was in a security-footage watching lull, and Sherlock had yet to hit the slightly manic and fidgety stage of their late-night digital stakeout. This was as good an opportunity as Joan was going to get to ask Sherlock what she needed to ask him.

“Well that doesn’t instill a tremendous amount of calm in me, Watson.”

“Marry me.”

Sherlock began panicking, of course. Not in any way that would be obvious to most people, but in that cerebral, overthinking way of his that was more than apparent to Joan’s eyes. It only took scant seconds for his mind to tick through the potential reasons Joan could have for making such a suggestion, seemingly out of the blue, and his eyes went wide as he landed on what he undoubtedly imagined as the worst possible reason.

“What? Has your prognosis changed? I thought your treatment was almost over, that the cancer is nearly gone—?”

Joan couldn’t help but smile. “What, the only reason I could possibly have to marry you is that I’m dying?”

“Watson, this is the furthest thing possible from a joking matter,” snapped Sherlock, and jumped up from the desk to begin pacing. “If you are truly contemplating marrying me, it must be for Arthur’s sake, because you fear he will be in need of another parent soon, one whose claim to him would be unquestioned—”

“Sherlock, stop jumping to the worst possible scenario. I told you, don’t panic. I’m fine, my treatment’s going great, I promise. This is for Arthur’s sake, yes, but not for any terrible reasons. Just practical ones.”

Sherlock’s pacing stopped, and with one crisp, stiff motion, he turned to face her.

“Explain, please.”

“I’m gonna reiterate here, I’m fine. Nothing has changed about my prognosis.” She looked Sherlock in the eye, willing him to see the truth of it, until he nodded, short and sharp. “I’d just like to take some steps to make sure Arthur’s looked after, in case anything happens to me.”

“Is that a particularly pressing concern at the moment?” asked Sherlock, no longer on the verge of careful panic, but still tense. “Our most dangerous enemies are no longer troubling us.”

 “Sure, but I could still get run over by a bus tomorrow, and if I did, Oren would take custody of Arthur. Which would be fine, he’s Arthur’s uncle and he’d take good care of him. But I’d prefer it if he stayed with you, because you’re my partner and my co-parent, and Arthur loves you. And the easiest way to ensure that is for us to get married.”

Sherlock was softening, Joan could tell. He was undoubtedly considering all of the possibilities and probabilities now, his mind flipping through them like they were a pack of cards, and eventually he’d reach the same conclusion she had: getting married was the neatest, simplest way to ensure Arthur’s continued comfort, safety, and happiness. For better or worse, if something happened to Joan, no one would second-guess Sherlock’s right to be Arthur’s parent if they were married. But if they weren’t, if it came down to explaining how they were partners, but not like that, and they lived together, but not like that, and oh Sherlock Holmes, didn’t he have a checkered past…well, Joan could all too easily see about a dozen different ways Sherlock could be shut out of Arthur’s life. She wasn’t going to take the risk, not with Arthur.

“Surely there are guardianship papers we could have drawn up,” said Sherlock, and sat back down at the desk with her. 

He was still studying her like she was a puzzle to be solved—after so many years, she was still the recipient of that look fairly often—but his eyes were no longer wide with panic and he was the normal amount of fidgety.

“There are,” allowed Joan. “But why go through all the trouble and expense of getting a lawyer to handle all that, when we could just go down to City Hall and pick up a marriage license? Nothing about our lives will change.”

“Hmm,” said Sherlock, and tapped on the table with his fingers, a rapid and thoughtful little drum roll. “The institution of marriage is outdated, regressive, and needlessly restrictive, but it does remain the most convenient way to enter into a number of social and legal contracts in the absence of blood relation. And if it’s for Arthur, to establish a more secure familial relationship between he and I…”

“Exactly,” said Joan, relieved that he got it.

Sherlock nodded decisively. “Very well then. I accept your proposal, Watson. Let’s get married.”

So that was that: they went to City Hall and filled out the paperwork for a marriage license, and then they only had to wait a day before they could go back for the marriage ceremony. It was a reassuringly bureaucratic process, so utterly lacking in romance that Joan could convince herself of just what she’d told Sherlock: nothing was changing at all. She’d just have a new, more socially digestible term for Sherlock rather than the too-nebulous word partner, and life would continue on.

She used to like calling Sherlock her partner, and it was still the word she defaulted to: she liked the strength of it, the way it positioned them as equals, the way it could apply to both their professional and personal relationship. And she couldn’t deny that the word’s vagueness had served them both well over the years. It was always interesting to see how people chose to interpret it, to let the word’s meaning shift to the most convenient definition in any given situation. But that was before she’d had to live her life as if she’d lost him for good. Before two years of silence had made her wonder if his gravestone was no longer a ruse at all. The word partner had lost a lot of its appeal then. Joan hadn’t been able to tell people I lost my partner and have them immediately understand what that meant for her life. Bell and Gregson and Kitty and some of the Irregulars had understood, sure, but no one else had.

Which had been okay, for a while: Arthur’s adoption had come through, and being a single mother had taken up most of her time and energy. She’d tried not to worry about Sherlock as the weeks and months ticked on with no word from him, had even assumed she’d been too busy and distracted to find and decipher Sherlock’s messages, until a year had passed without word, then a year and a half, and then Joan was wondering if, like the boy who cried wolf, their lie had become truth and Sherlock was actually dead.

It took seven years to declare a missing person officially dead. As the two-year mark with no word from Sherlock had loomed ever larger, Joan had realized she didn’t have it in her to hold out hope for that long. After a sleepless night spent tossing and turning and going over every single worst case scenario, and then another sleepless night spent scouring every possible place where Sherlock could have left her a message, Joan had come to a despairing certainty: Sherlock was dead, for real. The next day, she’d left Arthur with his nanny and gone to a support group for grieving spouses. It had been the closest analog to partner she could think of, had been the first group she’d found. And she’d told everyone there: I think I’m a widow.  

It had been stupid and dramatic of her, and anyway, she’d come to her senses after a couple of weeks; in all likelihood, she’d told herself, Sherlock had gone dark for a good reason, and he’d get in touch with her again when it was safe for both of them.

She’d still gone to the support group meetings though, until she’d had to stop when the book had taken off. Though if writing up their cases had been a form of petty revenge on Sherlock, letting a Holmes and Watson were secretly married all along rumor start would have been even pettier, and maybe would have even been enough to get Sherlock to risk contacting her.

Well, now it would no longer be a rumor, it would be the truth. They were about to become husband and wife in the eyes of the law.

Joan tried the words out in her mind: wife, husband. Sherlock could tell people this is my wife, Joan Watson. Joan could say my husband, Sherlock. She wrinkled her nose involuntarily. No, partner was better. Partner covered everything they were to each other. Getting married was just about filling out some useful paperwork.

A case came up the day after they filled out the marriage license paperwork, so it took them a week and a half to find the time to get back down to City Hall for their civil marriage ceremony. On the way to the precinct to wrap up the end-of-case paperwork, they settled on a date to go to the Marriage Bureau.

“Should we take Arthur with us?” wondered Joan. It could be educational, and they were doing this for him, after all. But maybe it would give him the wrong idea, or confuse him about Sherlock’s role in their lives. Arthur had accepted Sherlock as a parental figure readily enough, but marriage was a whole other thing… “Oh, and we’re going to need a witness.”

“Hmm, and a ring, I’m given to understand,” said Sherlock, and Joan gave him a sidelong look.

“Uh, no, pretty sure that part is optional. And how did you put it? ‘Outdated and regressive’?”

“Yes, yes, but I have my mother’s heirloom ring, and it seems a shame to let it sit in a safety deposit box for decades. And you’re partial to emeralds, you may as well wear it. I’ll fetch it from the bank tomorrow.”

Joan knew what the gesture really meant, despite Sherlock’s breezy and business-like tone: Sherlock was telling her she was his family. It was far from a new sentiment at this point, but it warmed her just as it always had, and likely always would. There never seemed like a correspondingly emphatic gesture she could make in turn, but in this case, she settled for smiling at Sherlock.

“Alright,” said Joan. “Thank you, Sherlock.”

In the end, they didn’t take Arthur with them. Marcus picked him up to spend the afternoon with him, happy as always for the opportunity to take Arthur out on an “educational” trip to some fun, kid-friendly place like the zoo or the Natural History Museum. He didn’t ask why Joan and Sherlock needed a babysitter for the afternoon, and neither Joan nor Sherlock volunteered the information.

After Joan spent far too long dithering over what to wear—she couldn’t wear a suit, that felt too severe and professional, but she sure as hell wasn’t about to wear a white dress either—she finally settled on a pale silvery gray dress, its skirt falling in soft chiffon pleats. It felt nice enough for the occasion, without making a big deal of it, but of course Sherlock remarked on her outfit anyway when she came downstairs.

“That’s a very flattering frock,” he said, as he helped her into her coat, and she noted that he’d made a token effort at dressing for the occasion as well, having opted for his nicest blazer and a starched white dress shirt under it.

Dressed for the occasion or not, instead of opening the door for her, he fidgeted and lingered in the hallway.

“Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet,” said Joan, half-joking.

“Before we do this, I must tell you something. And if it means you no longer want to go through with this, I will understand. But I can’t in good conscience let even a marriage of pure convenience begin on such terms.” He locked eyes with her, clearly forcing himself to hold eye contact, the jut of his chin distinctly nervous. “I relapsed, while I was away.”

It both was and wasn’t a surprise.


“I relapsed, and if I relapse again, and it’s Arthur who—you who—”

Joan didn’t usually have the kind of lightning bolt epiphany that Sherlock did; her moments of clarity and understanding tended to be more like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, the full picture coming together piece by piece. But this time, she understood Sherlock’s two years of silence with an illumination so sudden that it was like the damned big bang, their little two-person world expanding with explosive force. This was why he’d gone quiet those two years. For her and Arthur’s safety, yes, that had been the logical reason, but a relapse—that had been the messy emotion underlying that logical reason.

“But you’ve stayed, these last ten months,” said Joan, reaching for her old sober companion, cool calm, and not entirely succeeding. “Are you planning to leave again when my treatments are over in a few weeks?”

The prospect made her throat go tight. She could manage, on her own, of course she could, she already had. She just wasn’t sure she wanted to, anymore. If she ever even had. But if Sherlock wanted to go, if he needed to go, she wouldn’t hold him here.

No,” said Sherlock vehemently, making an aborted gesture towards her, to take her hand or pull her close, maybe, before he changed his mind and wrung his hands together instead. “No, I—we can manage, without each other,” he said, as if he’d read her mind. “We can do the work on our own, we can live fulfilling lives. But you almost let me leave just to spare me the—the, I don’t know, inconvenience of your illness—”

“I didn’t want you to give up your life just to take care of me, to feel stuck here in New York just because I’m sick. You seemed happy with the work you were doing, the life you were living—”

“Yes, and I nearly left to spare you and Arthur the presence of an addict in your lives. I know now that would have been a profound mistake on both our parts. I told you once that we are two people who love each other, that we are a family. And if that is what we are, then how could I leave you to face this alone? But if, when you are well, you feel that I am an unsuitable—”

Yeah, no, Joan had to cut this off at the pass.

“If you wouldn’t leave me to face a totally survivable cancer on my own, then why do you think I’d decide one relapse means I won’t want you as my partner anymore?” she demanded.

From the moment they’d met, she’d known Sherlock was an addict. She’d known when she’d chosen to take up his work, she’d known when she’d chosen to live with him, she’d known when she’d chosen to be his partner. She’d always known, and she’d chosen to care about him anyway, and not once had it occurred to her to leave him for it. She was, frankly, sort of furious that he could think she ever would.

“It could happen again, Joan.” It was rare, still, for him to use her first name. It made her heart skip a beat every time. “All these years, and still, sobriety is the same, tedious struggle, and if I should harm Arthur with my addiction, in any way—”

He was still wringing his hands, the knuckles white with tension. She took his hands in hers and squeezed.

“Then we will handle it. Just like we’ll handle it if my cancer comes back, or gets worse.” She stepped towards the still-closed front door, still holding his tense hands in hers, pulling him along with her. “I still want to do this, Sherlock.”

Sherlock looked down at their joined hands, and in the half-light of the hallway, she couldn’t make out his expression. Finally, he turned his hands to grip hers tightly, and in one swift move, he brought them to his lips to press a quick kiss to her knuckles, the gesture almost courtly, like how he always offered her his arm when they walked together. 

“Then I shall endeavor to never give you cause to regret it,” he said, eyes still downcast and voice rough with sincerity.

Brooklyn’s Marriage Bureau wasn’t exactly busy on a Wednesday morning, but she and Sherlock still had to take a number after they checked in. 

“Didn’t realize this whole City Hall marriage process was quite so much like the DMV,” said Alfredo.

She and Sherlock had gone back and forth on the necessity of bringing a witness with them: Joan had suggested roping in one of the other brides or grooms who’d inevitably be waiting for their own weddings at the Marriage Bureau, but Sherlock hadn’t wanted to leave matters to chance, and had suggested one of their Irregulars. Well, then I hope you’re ready for literally every single person we know to learn about our shotgun wedding, she’d said, because the Irregulars’ gossip grapevine was swift. Alfredo will be discreet, Sherlock had insisted. He won’t make a fuss over it.

And as promised, Alfredo was here, not making a fuss. He’d arrived in normal street clothes, looking calm and a little befuddled, because I thought y’all were married already, to be honest. Like, a green card marriage or something.

“One imagines everyone solemnizing their nuptials at a government office is well-aware what they’re getting into,” said Sherlock. “Is this the wedding you’d always dreamed of?”

“Weddings have never really been a big part of my dreams, no,” Joan said dryly. 

Although, wedding dresses…well, Joan liked nice clothes, okay? And wedding dresses were one of the most opulent, indulgent items of clothing a person got the chance to wear in their lifetime. She wondered how Sherlock would have reacted to her dressing up in full bride regalia for this. Horrified, probably: it’s unconscionable to spend so much money on a dress you will only ever wear once, blah blah blah. Joan didn’t even disagree, but the thought still amused her, and she smiled to herself. Maybe Sherlock guessed at the direction of her thoughts—he often did—because he smiled too, small and so honestly pleased that Joan had to look away.

After twenty minutes of waiting, their number was called, and they went to the counter to fill out the final paperwork, which now that Alfredo had mentioned it, did have a distinctly DMV feeling, like they were all here to renew their licenses. But no, this was a marriage certificate she was signing, the simple piece of paper that would bind her and Sherlock’s lives together for good in the eyes of the law. 

“Alright?” murmured Sherlock, and Joan nodded.

They paid the fee—another distinctly bureaucratic touch—and then there was more waiting for the actual ceremony.

“You wanna take any pictures?” asked Alfredo. “I feel like someone should be taking pictures.”

“No,” said Sherlock at the same time as Joan said, “One picture,” and Sherlock sighed gustily but gave in with ill grace.

“It’s for Arthur,” Joan said. “And for Kitty and Archie,” she added, and that was enough to turn Sherlock’s usual posing-for-a-photo grimace into a more genuine smile.

By the time they were all satisfied with the photo Alfredo had taken, their names were called, and they went into the little room that served as a wedding chapel, where the officiant was waiting with a welcoming smile. Joan was mildly relieved it wasn’t any judge she or Sherlock had testified in front of—that could’ve gotten awkward. If the officiant recognized either of them, she didn’t let on.

“Are you ready to begin?” the officiant asked, and when they said yes, she started in on the ceremony with warm familiarity.

“We are gathered here today to witness the exchanging of marriage vows of Sherlock and Joan. If there is anyone present today who knows of any reason why this couple should not be married, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”

The ceremony itself was brief, barely a couple of minutes long. There were no overwrought vows to make, no history of their partnership to recount, no long declarations of devotion to recite. Just the bare minimum vows: to love, honor, and cherish each other, and then the exchange of rings.

“You got me a ring,” murmured Sherlock, when Joan pulled the small box out of her pocket, and slipped the plain titanium band onto Sherlock’s finger. It was one of those spinner rings, with an inlay that moved; good for Sherlock’s sometimes restless hands, she’d thought, and was immediately proven right as he fiddled with it.

“Only seemed fair,” she said with a smile. “You don’t have to wear it.”

The officiant continued, “Inasmuch as you have both consented to be united by the bonds of matrimony, and have exchanged wedding vows before all of us present today, therefore, by the authority vested in me, and in accordance with the rules of the State of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

Right. Joan had forgotten about this part. 

Before she could dither over the awkwardness of it all, Sherlock kissed her hands, just as he had before they’d left the brownstone, only this time his lips lingered a little while longer, long enough for Joan to catalog the sensation properly: the warmth of his skin, the soft dryness of his lips, the way his hands gripped hers tightly. A kiss wasn’t legally necessary, it wasn’t what made this marriage official—the judge was doing that with her signature right now—but Joan nonetheless felt like her vows here wouldn’t be complete until she sealed them with a kiss. For all that this was a marriage of convenience, the vows they were making here today still mattered. So she kissed Sherlock, just a quick peck that landed somewhere near the corner of his mouth, so fast that she only heard the beginning of Sherlock’s sharp inhale of surprise, and then it was done, they were married.

Alfredo left them with congratulations and a promise to come over for dinner, so after the ceremony, it was just her and Sherlock, walking arm in arm with no particular destination in mind just yet. Joan expected a rant on the antiquated institution of marriage, or some long ramble about the origins of wedding vows and how the lovey-dovey ones were a recent invention just like romantic love was, but Sherlock surprised her by only asking if she wanted to get lunch before they picked up Arthur.

“Sure,” she said, and they grabbed a quick bite to eat at a nearby cafe.

It was an utterly normal lunch: they talked about their latest case, and whether Arthur needed more enrichment outside of what his kindergarten was offering—Sherlock said yes, Joan said no, she didn’t want Arthur to feel pressured into academic success so early, and they compromised with a plan to take Arthur to the library on Saturdays—and how it was probably time to get a new refrigerator.

Sherlock didn’t take his ring off, though, and neither did Joan.

As expected, nothing much changed about their lives. They told Arthur, who took a moment to contemplate the news, an adorable little crease forming on his forehead as he thought it over. Joan had told Arthur months ago that Sherlock was family and that he would be living with them now, which Arthur had accepted readily enough. To him, families were self-evidently made, and it was only natural that theirs could keep gaining new additions, in all sorts of different ways.

“You’re still my Sherlock though, right?” he asked, and Sherlock blinked very rapidly for a few seconds. For all that he’d lobbied hard for Uncle Detective, Arthur had declared that too long and settled on Sherlock.

“Always,” Sherlock said, low and solemn.

“And you won’t go away.”

“Never for long,” confirmed Sherlock.

“Then nothing’s different,” concluded Arthur, and that was that.

Apart from that, Joan and Sherlock’s new marriage was mostly a bureaucratic, logistical matter. They quietly updated some paperwork, and informed their lawyers, who accordingly adjusted their wills and powers of attorney and all their other assorted worst-case scenario directives. Sherlock’s lawyer seemed distinctly relieved at the news.

“Good, now when one of you inevitably gets arrested for some bullshit again, I don’t have to lose sleep worrying about the privilege issues. Christ, what took you two so long to get married, anyway?”

“Ah yes, spousal privilege. The real reason we should have gotten married years ago,” said Sherlock dryly. 

By mutual, silent agreement, they decided not to tell Marcus or Gregson yet. They’d almost certainly make a fuss about it, and even if it was a happy sort of fuss, Joan did not need everyone they knew to make a big deal about this totally bureaucratic, platonic arrangement.

“We’re going to need to update our paperwork at the precinct at some point,” said Joan eventually, and Sherlock just grunted. Of course. She rolled her eyes. “I’ll slip it to Anna in HR, she’ll take care of it.”

When it came to Arthur though, Sherlock was more than willing to handle the work of updating all  of the relevant paperwork and people. In fact, he seemed to be taking a particularly vindictive pleasure in it. They went to Arthur’s kindergarten together to let the office know about their new marital status; while Sherlock was already on the approved list for picking up Arthur, and he was the second emergency contact after Joan, not even a Brooklyn kindergarten in a hip neighborhood was entirely ready to handle a relationship definition of he’s my partner who I live with and who co-parents Arthur even though there’s no formal, legally recognized relationship between them, and they’d treated Sherlock accordingly, much to his annoyance. 

“Maybe now his teacher will listen to me about how Arthur is clearly ready to read books that are just slightly more complex than that vapid see Spot run type of nonsense, instead of just telling me she’ll discuss it with you—”

Joan smiled blandly at the poor school office’s secretary. “That’s what the weekly library trips we decided on are going to be for, Sherlock, we can get Arthur more books there.”

“His classroom should have a better class of picture book, Watson!”

“Maybe you can donate some,” suggested the secretary with a fixed grin. “I’ll update Arthur’s information in our system right away, thank you, have a good day!”

“I shall donate some books, thank you!”

Honestly, it could’ve gone worse. And at least now the school wouldn’t automatically defer to Joan when it came to every little thing, as if Joan wouldn’t say the exact same thing as Sherlock would when it came to how, no, really, Arthur needed a non-dairy alternative at snack time. 

Informing Arthur’s classmates’ parents was a whole other thing, and afterwards, Joan honestly couldn’t tell if it had gone well or poorly. She was never going to be a PTA and endless series of extracurricular activities kind of mom, but she was at least on friendly enough terms with the parents she saw most often when she was dropping Arthur off or picking him up from school. Sherlock, it seemed, didn’t have quite the same experience as her.

When they dropped Arthur off together one morning, Joan shared the news and got the expected round of congratulations and admiring her ring. 

“And who’s the lucky man?” asked one of the other moms. “Or woman!” she added hastily.

Joan blinked at her. She’d thought it was fairly obvious who her new husband was, on account of how Sherlock was literally standing right next to her, his right hand at the small of her back and his new ring on somewhat ostentatious display on his left hand.

“Sherlock. Sherlock and I are married now.”

Surprised and confused murmurs rippled through the small crowd of parents. Joan could just barely make out some of the chatter: wait, I thought they were already married? I thought they were business partners. No, he was her boyfriend, wasn’t he?

“Oh! Oooh, right, of course, ha ha, that…makes sense.” 

“Yes, we thought so,” said Sherlock. “And isn’t it makes sense the best possible reason for marriage?”

Okay, time to beat a retreat before Sherlock treated everyone to a lecture and/or rant about marriage in modern Western society. 

“He’s so romantic, really,” said Joan with a smile. “Let’s go dear, we have that meeting with Marcus, remember?” 

“Of course, darling.”

Yeah, no, that was fair. They were not really pet name kind of people, she acknowledged, wrinkling her nose at Sherlock and getting a twitch of a smile in response. Sherlock allowed himself to be guided away from the gaggle of fellow parents, and Joan breathed a sigh of relief. 

“Those relentless busybodies might finally quiet their gossip now that we’re a boring married couple just like any other. And perhaps they’ll call me something other than ‘your mom’s friend’ around Arthur. Or his ‘babysitter.’ His babysitter! As if I’m some disaffected teenager being paid $20 to look after Arthur!”

Joan suppressed a laugh. She was sympathetic, she really was. Sherlock genuinely took his co-parenting duties very seriously: he’d informed her quite solemnly that he’d read all of the most up to date literature on child development and as such he was prepared to be her partner in parenting, and he’d waited with perfect patience for Arthur to overcome his shyness around him. And most importantly, Arthur adored him. So it had to sting to constantly hear his role being downplayed, especially during school pick up and drop off when Arthur was standing right there.

“Hmm, I don’t know, Sherlock, I feel like husband is still kind of a downgrade from them thinking you’re my kept man.”

“Still preferable to manny,” said Sherlock with an exaggerated shudder, and Joan laughed.

Updating her medical paperwork was the hardest. Not in any practical kind of way; she could handle it all online, and it was no more difficult or tedious to do than it would be to update her contact information. And yet, Joan very nearly didn’t do it at all.

Sherlock was already her first emergency contact, her next of kin. He’d already gone to every chemo treatment with her, had already seen her through all the grim miseries of the worst side effects, had already looked after her and Arthur when she’d been too exhausted and in too much pain to manage it herself. They were past the worst of it now, her prognosis looked better and better after each round of tests, getting her closer and closer to the closest thing she’d get to cured: no evidence of disease.

There was no reason to hesitate now. Listing Sherlock as her husband in these records would make no practical difference at this point.

In sickness and in health. 

That wasn’t the vow they’d made, but it was the vow Sherlock had kept, long before Joan had asked him to marry her. It was the vow she’d kept too, she realized: through addiction and relapse, through post-concussive syndrome.

And yet here she was, fingers unmoving on the keyboard, not quite able to change this one thing.

This, somehow, was what would make it real. And if it was real—she wasn’t sure what to do, if it was real.

Nothing. You don’t have to do anything. Suck it up, Watson. This was part of the whole reason you wanted this marriage of convenience anyway. She typed Sherlock’s name in, chose spouse for the relationship field, then saved the form.

“You really don’t have to keep coming with me for these, Sherlock,” Joan told him as the nurse prepared the angiocatheter and an IV drip.

It was Amy this week, a cheerful middle-aged Latina woman with gentle and efficient hands, who Sherlock trusted enough that he paid only cursory attention to her as she administered the intravenous chemotherapy.  

“Nonsense. Mrs. Hudson is looking after Arthur, and I am looking after you,” said Sherlock matter-of-factly.

As always, Joan saw no hint of resentment in Sherlock, no evidence that he would rather be somewhere else: he seemed instead to be wholly committed to the present moment, as if the invisible course of the chemo drugs racing through Joan’s veins was a case to be solved, or a stakeout that demanded his focus.  

“Because I need so much looking after while I sit here on an IV drip,” said Joan, the words coming out more waspish than Sherlock deserved, probably, though he seemed unbothered.  

With only six chemo treatments left, the routine was familiar by now, even down to Joan’s prickly response to Sherlock’s steady presence. He really didn’t need to be here: the side effects of the chemotherapy were predictable at this point, and no longer as debilitating or uncomfortable as they’d been before. Joan could admit that it had helped to have Sherlock here with her the first few months, but there was no reason for Sherlock to keep accompanying her now, and his time would almost certainly be better spent looking after Arthur or working on a case. Joan had told him as much on the way here, not that it had done any good.

“Aww, come on now, Joan, let your husband fuss over you,” said Amy as she slid the needle in with care. Joan blinked in surprise; she didn’t think she’d told any of the clinic’s nurses yet, so how did Amy know—her ring, of course. Joan was still wearing it. “Congratulations, by the way,” Amy said with a wink.  

“Thanks,” said Joan.

“You up for indulging a nosy nurse in some happy gossip?” asked Amy, making one last adjustment to the IV before she pulled up a stool and sat beside Joan. “Tell me everything about the wedding!”

Joan was used to the burning ache of the chemo drugs, but it still made her suck in a slow and careful breath to ride out the pain. Sherlock noticed, of course, because he always did, and he offered her his hand to grip. Joan took it, grateful for both the distraction of his touch and Amy’s conversation.

“Not much to tell, we just went down to City Hall,” Joan told Amy. “It was sort of last minute, I guess.”

“Keeping it sweet and simple! Nothing wrong with that!” said Amy with a smile.

“Just so,” said Sherlock. “No use in propping up the enormous wedding-industrial complex and making our wedding a tribute to capitalist excess.”

“We just wanted it done fast,” added Joan, before Sherlock could go on a tear.

“Most people who get married because of a cancer diagnosis get married right when they find out, or after they’re in remission,” noted Amy, and Joan wanted to interrupt, to deny that she’d asked Sherlock to marry her because of her diagnosis, but Amy continued, “But it’s sweet that you two just couldn’t wait! And honestly, I have to admit, I’ve always thought that the whole married right after a diagnosis thing is a downer, and getting married after you’re in remission makes the whole damn thing about your cancer. Just pick any time in between, do it the way you’d have done it without a cancer diagnosis looming over you.”

“Exactly,” said Joan, like she’d ever had any kind of plan for marrying Sherlock.

Would they have done anything differently, if this hadn’t been a marriage of convenience? Joan wasn’t sure they would have. A deeper kiss to seal their vows, maybe, and a nicer meal afterwards than salads and sandwiches. At the thought, something in Joan’s chest and stomach fluttered and swooped, but that was the chemo talking, probably.

“And hey, now you’ll have a whole new reason for a party in a few weeks, when your chemo’s over and you get the all clear,” said Amy, giving her a maternal sort of pat on the hand before standing.

"People have parties for that?” asked Sherlock, and to Joan’s faint surprise, he sounded more interested than appalled.

“Of course!” said Amy, and chattered on happily about remission parties. 

Joan tuned her out, closing her eyes. Sherlock squeezed her hand gently, and she squeezed back, a silent I’m fine. He’d assume she was riding out a wave of nausea or dizziness, and she did feel a little strange—floaty, almost, or like she was teetering on that tipping point moment between sleep and wakefulness when a dream began to tug earnestly at her— but really, Joan was busy thinking about what Amy had just said.

Amy had made good points, at least as far as normal couples went. And yet the discussion only served to highlight the weird timing of Joan’s proposal: too late to pass for being only about the pragmatic practicalities, and too early to be a celebration and affirmation. She could have waited until her chemo was finished and she got her first no evidence of disease test results, she should have waited. That way there would have been no doubt about whether Joan was dying or not, and Sherlock would have immediately understood her marriage of convenience proposal as the totally rational decision it was, as the best way to secure a stable future for Arthur instead of just planning for an all too possible worst case scenario.

But would he have said yes, if she’d waited?

Would he stay, when she was well again? Could she even ask him to?

Except she’d already asked, and his answer rested heavy and comforting on her left ring finger and on his, his answer was on the marriage certificate he’d signed with her, his answer was here in this moment as he held her hand. Now more than ever, Joan had a claim on Sherlock, something more tangible than a series of personal and professional entanglements spread out across the years, and she could admit that it wasn’t a claim she needed, not now. It was just one she wanted.

They’d been partners for years, in more than one way, but it struck Joan now that maybe the vagueness of the term wasn’t such a good thing after all. Maybe it was time for more certainty.

“Watson? Are you alright?” 

Joan opened her eyes, and saw Sherlock, really saw him: his luminous, deep-set eyes, his nervous and mobile mouth, his stubborn chin. It was a face she’d grown too comfortable with to consider handsome most of the time. It was just Sherlock’s face: familiar and easy to read now, after long years of practice, like he was a favorite book she’d returned to over and over again, the pages getting a little more worn, a little more wrinkled, but more and more beloved with every careful, attentive read through. He was a book she’d read and a book she’d written, and she’d thought that book was a mystery, but maybe that wasn’t all it was or could be. Maybe its opening words were the truest, after all these years, those words Sherlock had thrown at her as a confrontational kind of wall: I have never loved anyone as I do you, right now, in this moment. This was far from the end of their book, but somehow, they’d looped back to the beginning, old words taking on new context. Joan had given up on romance a long time ago, resigned to the fact that for her, attraction and love would never quite match up the right way, would never hit the perfect balance that made a relationship worthwhile. But maybe she’d just had to be patient. 

“Is it the nausea again? I’ve brought some ginger tea with me, I can go make you a cup—”

“I’m fine,” said Joan, and squeezed his hand tightly, though it made the bones of her hand ache. “Stay,” she said.

And he did.

After the worst of the aches and exhaustion passed, Joan spent a few days turning things over in her head. She was out of practice at this romance thing, if she’d ever been in practice at all, and now she’d gone and done it entirely out of order with Sherlock: living together first, for professional reasons and then personal ones, then living apart, then living together, then getting married, and now, finally, Joan was thinking about turning their relationship romantic. It was, frankly, a disorienting place to be, and for a while, Joan considered just forgetting about it. What they had was enough.

Joan should have known that there was no forgetting about anything, though, not when you lived with Sherlock Holmes.

“You’ve been looking at me a great deal, lately,” remarked Sherlock late one evening as they settled in to look over some new case files. 

He didn’t look up at her as he said it, his voice quiet and almost hesitant. The pace of their work was slow, lacking any urgency, given its cold case status, and with Arthur in bed and the brownstone quiet around them, the warm glow of the study’s lamps made the night feel hushed and intimate.  

“I look at you all the time,” Joan said automatically. “We live and work together, it’d be pretty impossible not to.”

Sherlock glowered at her briefly, before returning his attention to the file in front of him. “Yes, I am aware how vision works. I meant—you’ve been looking more closely. Should I be worried?”

“You’re still wearing the ring,” she blurted out. Now Sherlock looked up, blinking in surprise. “You don’t have to, you know.”

Joan didn’t keep hers on; it was a lovely ring, but somewhat impractical for everyday wear, and she was always worried about the priceless family heirloom falling into the sink drain or slipping off her finger and into a storm drain or gutter or something. The titanium spinner ring Joan had gotten Sherlock was still on Sherlock’s left hand though, and had been since Joan put it on him. He fidgeted with it often, the inlaid damascene spinning ring catching the light as he absently twisted it back and forth. Every time she caught him at it, she thought: we are married. That is his wedding ring, that I gave him. 

“It’s a handsome ring,” said Sherlock. “And it’s pleasant to have something to occupy my hands with.” 

He tilted his head and studied her, that Watson is my own personal mystery to solve look, searching and attentive. Joan never knew if it was a good or bad thing that after all these years, he still looked at her like that. Was she such a puzzle box of a person, or was she just of particular fascination to Sherlock? And did she want him to figure her out for good?

“I’m glad,” she said. “I thought you’d like it.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Of course he wouldn’t let the deflection go. She hesitated, wondering what to say, and saw Sherlock swallow hard, worry and wariness rising in his eyes. She was past the point of safely deflecting by now; Sherlock would know without a doubt that she was lying if the next thing she told him was anything other than the truth, and the knowing would hurt him.  

“I don’t think you should be worried, no. I hope not, anyway.” It was now or never. “Remember what you said, when we first met?”

Sherlock grimaced apologetically. “A whole lot of nonsense about how I didn’t need you, as I recall.”

“Yes, but you were quoting something too. You didn’t mean it then, and I knew you were just messing with me. Do you remember that?”

Sherlock went very still, his eyes going distant as he dug up the memory. God, Joan hoped he remembered it. She knew he had when his gaze snapped back into sharp and urgent focus, something between shock and wonder in the wideness of his eyes and the softness around his mouth. 

“I have never loved anyone as I do you, right now, in this moment,” said Sherlock, low and shaky.

“That’s it,” said Joan softly. “The reason I’ve been looking at you a lot lately is—well, I’ve been thinking about that, and—” Her throat tightened, like one last reflexive attempt at self-protection, at keeping this safe inside, but she swallowed past it and continued, “And how it’s true. For me.”

“Joan,” said Sherlock, but she barreled onwards.

“I didn’t mean to marry you under false pretenses or anything, and if you don’t feel the same way, we can—”

Before she could finish, Sherlock darted forwards and kissed her. Just a fast peck on her lips, both of them with their eyes still wide open, before he sucked in a sharp breath through his nose and came back in for a softer and longer kiss. If there had been more comfort in it than passion, Joan could have lived with that; passion was overrated, and it hadn’t served her especially well so far. But there was passion in the press of Sherlock’s lips against hers, careful and devoted, and when she opened her mouth to it, she was in no doubt of Sherlock’s answer to her declaration.

There were things they should have talked about, conversations they should have had; that would have been the measured, adult thing to do. Instead, Joan was on Sherlock’s lap, his cool and steady hands cupping her face, as they kissed and kissed, with more and more urgency. It had been a long time since she’d had this: simple physical connection, and she’d never had it quite like this, with so much focus and attention, with such sharp tenderness. She didn’t need to hold any part of herself at a careful remove, had nothing to hide. Whatever she hid, Sherlock would find and solve, and the thought held no fear. 

When they were too breathless to keep kissing, Sherlock rested his forehead against hers.

“Those words—they have been true for me for some time, Joan. Marriage is an institution I have no use for, but the vows I made to you—I intend to keep them. For the rest of our days.”

“You’ll stay?” asked Joan. “No matter what? No deciding Arthur and I are better off if you’re gone?”

Sherlock took a deep breath and shut his eyes tightly.

“I’ll stay,” he said. “Unless you send me away, I’ll stay. Will you?”

They had said their vows already, the official ones meant for the judge, but this, Joan realized, was the real thing. They’d never said it before, not really; all the times they’d come together, their gravity keeping them close, then swung apart, only to draw close again. They’d never made this simple promise.

“Yes. Yes, I’ll stay.”

They crept upstairs to Joan’s bedroom, keeping quiet so as not to wake Arthur, and the silent anticipatory hush persisted as they undressed each other, kissing and touching each newly revealed stretch of skin, a wholly new kind of knowing, after so many years of learning everything else about each other.

For a moment, Joan wondered if maybe they hadn’t waited too long for this. They hadn’t exactly been young when they’d met, but they’d been less scarred, less timeworn. The Joan Watson Sherlock was uncovering now was thinner than she liked, she bruised too easily and tired too quickly, and she couldn’t hide that now that she was bare of all her sharply tailored armor. And yet, she still wanted Sherlock, not with the urgency of youthful passion, but with years of too-delayed desire. She wanted his muscled strength and solidity, his clever hands. She wanted his focus, newly physical and pleasurable. She just wanted.

Luckily for her, Sherlock was happy to indulge her, with devastatingly lovely and very enjoyable patience.

When she woke, her usual exhaustion wasn’t the heavy and dragging thing it had been since her treatments had started; it was a languid and pleasant sensation, leaving her feeling as sweet and warm as the honey from the hives of the bees Sherlock had named for her.

Speaking of Sherlock…

“Shh…” she heard him say, in a not at all quiet whisper. “Don’t wake your mama yet.”

“But her tea’s gonna get cold!”

Joan heard the clinking of dishes and felt the bed shift and Sherlock’s warmth draw closer until his lips reached her bare shoulder, then her neck, and cheek. The another, lighter weight shifted the bed and Joan smiled into her pillow. If this was how Sherlock’s habitual wakings of her were going to go from now on, she wasn’t going to complain. 

“Watson…” he murmured. “Did you need a lie-in this morning? We can go, if so.”

She opened her eyes, and saw Sherlock and Arthur, both of them with identically earnest and expectant expressions, setting a breakfast tray on the bed, ginger tea steaming gently. 

“No, stay,” she said, sitting up with a smile. “I’m feeling just fine. Come here, let’s have breakfast. Arthur, did you make the toast?”

“Yeah!” said Arthur, beaming, and he began chattering away.

Joan couldn’t stop smiling, and when she looked at Sherlock, she saw he was smiling too. 

“Is this an acceptable wake-up call?” he asked, eyes shining.

“The best one yet,” said Joan, and pulled him close for a kiss.