The man John saved is named Hope. Jefferson Hope.
In the end, John will have died for Hope. The universe has such a charming sense of humour.
It started as an ordinary day: a firefight behind enemy lines. But the private -- Hope, John knows now -- moved too soon, left himself exposed. Rookie mistake. Instinct threw John in front of the bullet, and good luck sent it through his shoulder and not his chest or the back of his skull. Blood loss and nothing more. But when his leg collapsed under him a week later, his luck proved to be fairly rotten after all.
Aneurysm, the doctor explained, although John didn't need an explanation.
He sat in stoic acceptance as an uncomfortable medic outlined the results of his CT scan: brain aneurysm, probably caused by a fluctuation in blood pressure from his recent wound. His leg had collapsed as the result of a minor stroke, and would likely be permanently weakened. Given his newly projected life expectancy, however, the idea of a permanent disability didn't seem a major setback.
"I'm afraid the prognosis," the doctor stuttered, and something about "terminal," and then "could be at any time," followed by an awkward apology. Bedside manner wasn't too bad, all things considered. No way to soften this news. John's not sure he could have done a better job with it himself. He'll never have to, after this, at any rate.
No, the worst of it isn't the hospital, the cursory physical therapy, or even the trip home in civilian clothes. The worst of it is the bedsit. Spartan, grey. Rough sheets pulled into hard corners, everything as tight and grim as the look in his doctor's eyes. No effort made to disguise it from what it really is: a waiting room. John is now a doctor exiled to a waiting room for the remainder of his days. It's irony of the finest vintage, bitter, with a slightly acrid aftertaste.
He sometimes thinks himself a coward for not ending it. He has a gun. But in truth, the gun is the cowardly solution. If this is his fate, so be it. He'll wait.
Harry offers her spare room, but John knows full well that the spare room comes fully furnished with Harry's hand-wringing and histrionics. Between the bedsit and life spent under Harry's watery, pitying gaze, John chooses the bedsit. Harry doesn't need any additional excuses to drink herself into a stupor, and a terminally ill brother living under her nose is the gold standard of excellent excuses.
John walks through London, moving as a ghost, hoping to pass as the man no one watches. Mostly, he succeeds. He thinks a lot about how he might want to die, because there doesn't seem to be much else on his to-do list. He walks because he imagines it might cause less trouble if he's the man found motionless in a park one morning. A few hours' work for the cops, but the autopsy will reveal natural causes, and it'll be done. He prays it's not a child who finds him. He tries to keep away from children if at all possible.
He keeps a note in his wallet just in case, with a brief summary of his medical condition and Harry's phone number. He's tempted to write If Dead, Call Harry Watson across the top. He's the only one who would appreciate the joke, however, which mostly defeats the purpose.
This much, he knows: he doesn't want to die in a Tesco. Mostly, it would be humiliating. But he'd likely collapse next to some little old lady trying to do her shopping, and she'd scream as he hit the floor in the produce aisle, and then she'd have horrible dreams about shopping in Tesco for years to come. Maybe she wouldn't be able to go back at all. And then she couldn't do her shopping, and someone else would have to do it for her. No, that's entirely unacceptable. He tries to do his own shopping as quickly as possible to minimise the chances.
He doesn't feel at all ill, which is something.
The last thing he wants to hear is his name shouted across a green stretch of park, because anonymity is the one thing he's cultivated since his return home, tending it like a gardener would fuss over prize tomatoes. But he can't be impolite, so he squares his shoulders to address the source. With any luck, he can make this encounter as forgettable as possible for all involved.
On this particular morning it happens to be Mike Stamford. A fellow doctor, no less. John's smile feels patently false as he shakes Mike's warm hand and braces himself for the inevitable questions no one wants to hear the answers to.
"John," Mike says, his dimpled smile too bright, like looking straight at the sun. "Haven't seen you in ages. What happened? I heard you were in Afghanistan?"
"I got shot," John says, gesturing with his cane, and hopes a partial truth will suffice.
Mike's brow furrows. "Sorry to hear it," he says. "You look well, though. How are you?"
"Fine," John lies, the most reflexive of all the lies he tells these days. When people inquire after his health, he knows they don't want to hear the truth: Not bad, I'm waiting to die from a brain aneurysm, which could happen at any time. He deflects the conversation, a volley back across the net. "How are you, though? How are the kids?"
"They're all well," Mike grins. "Growing like weeds. I'm teaching at Barts now. Just on my way there." He pauses and tilts his head, studying John. "You sure you're all right? Where are you living these days?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Fine. Got a place, you know -- a bedsit, they found it for me -- it's not far. Nice location." He swallows. "It was great to see you, Mike." Was. Past tense. He hopes Mike will get the hint.
Unexpectedly, Mike claps a hand on John's shoulder. "It's good to see you too," he says, and it's by no means a pleasantry, or a dismissal, as John's was. "Really. Are you -- are you free, at the moment? I'd love to get a cup of coffee."
Every available instinct tells John to flee. Disengage. Mike is a good, decent guy, and he doesn't need to know that the old friend he's just invited to coffee may not be available next month due to being dead. It's not cheerful news, certainly not anything he wants to spread around. Best for all involved if John pleads an appointment across town, and they nod and shake hands and go their separate ways.
He looks Mike in the eye and feels a stab of guilt at the warmth of the smile he sees there. The part of John that likes to jump in front of bullets is the first to speak.
"Yeah, I'm -- I'm free," he says, and kicks himself even as he says it.
* * *
"You need better living arrangements," Mike argues, as John shakes his head in protest. "Those bedsits are hellish, and don't try to pretend otherwise. You need to find yourself a flatmate."
Living arrangements. If only Mike knew that "living" was the loaded word in that sentence. "That's really not possible."
"Don't be ridiculous." Mike sips his coffee.
John's managed not to reveal anything, but this is veering dangerously close to a point at which he'll have to confess. "I couldn't pay rent," he protests. "Anyway, who'd want me as a flatmate?"
"You're the second person who's said that to me today."
John stares at the paper cup in his hands. "Seriously, Mike. I can't do this. I appreciate the offer, really."
"Just come with me to Barts," Mike says. "Some of the old crew are still there. They'd love to see you."
This is, again, a terrible idea, which is why John doesn't understand when he finds himself following Mike up the familiar steps to the hospital. Perhaps the stroke has shorted out the part of his brain responsible for making good decisions.
His therapist would probably say he was following Mike out of a deep need for the emotional connections he's been denying himself during this difficult time. But his therapist is shite.
How John finds himself looking at a flat with Sherlock Holmes the very next day is, after all of this, even more difficult to understand. John sits in a very comfortable armchair at 221b Baker Street, thoughts drowned out by several loud internal alarms, trying to think of a way to extricate himself from this untenable situation. He is allowing himself to live out a fantasy, to pretend as if he hasn't been given a diagnosis, and this has to stop. Despite Sherlock's otherworldly magnetism, which the man throws off like a torch emits light, John needs to be on his way.
"Look," he says, watching Sherlock's lean form silhouetted in shadow. "I told Mike, I'm really not flatmate material at the moment. I'm sorry. It's a lovely place. I'm sure you'll have no problem finding someone else."
Sherlock ignores him. Instead, he peers at him with a glowing, razor-edged stare, and John finds he can't look away. "You're a doctor," Sherlock says. "An army doctor."
"Yes," John says, struggling to his feet. "But I told you, I can't -- I have to go."
"Very good," John says instinctively, before he can stop himself.
"Seen a lot of injuries then. Violent deaths?"
Temptation barrels through John, and he's utterly overcome. Like a starving man at a banquet, he breaks down, cursing himself inwardly for lacking any self-control. Sherlock's bright eyes, Sherlock's unbelievable mind, the dark promise of a crime scene almost like the war he's known: everything John needs is gleaming before him, gold beneath a sleeping dragon. He hobbles out the door after Sherlock Holmes, hoping the dragon will sleep just long enough to let things get interesting. Just this once, he thinks. Just this once.
* * *
John hasn't laughed this hard in years. As he clutches his side, his shoulder brushing against this strange, electric man he's only just met, John thinks he could die right now and it wouldn't be bad at all. It's a horribly selfish thought, but he thinks it nonetheless.
"Mrs Hudson," Sherlock calls out, "Dr Watson will take the room upstairs."
"Wait," John gasps, heart pounding and head pounding to match. He's not supposed to do this; he's not even supposed to run. The evening will be far less fun for Sherlock if John keels over in Mrs Hudson's charming wallpapered hallway. "Wait. Sherlock. I really can't."
Sherlock glances down at him. "Why not?"
"I could die," John says, and at last the truth is out. "At any moment."
Sherlock looks at him as if he's just sprouted wings. "And?"
John leans against the wall, wills his head to stop pounding. "That doesn't bother you?"
"I almost died twice last week," Sherlock says matter-of-factly. "If you're all right with that, so am I."
They stare at each other, and Sherlock's mouth hints at a grin. He doesn't realise, John thinks. He’s misinterpreted. I need to clarify, tell him I'm quite serious, that I wasn't talking about dying due to tagging along on a case. That my dying is an entirely independent issue.
The grin spreads to the corners of Sherlock's eyes, and it's far too contagious. John grins back and finds he can’t clarify a thing. "Fair enough," he says, and if there is a hell, he's just reserved a room there.
He shoots a man later that night without hesitation. Despite John's recent tendency toward poor decisions, this is the easiest, best decision he's made in a while. Ridding the world of a serial killer about to murder Sherlock Holmes seems a no-brainer.
Sherlock can't find the serial killer’s real name. The man drove a cab, but his identification cards are missing; nothing in the cab, and even less on the body. It seems to bother Sherlock, but only briefly. The cabbie was working for someone named Moriarty, and that's intriguing enough.
* * *
John finds one thing reassuring about his new life with Sherlock. He is living with the one man in London who would most appreciate finding a corpse in his flat.
* * *
Sherlock leaves body parts in the fridge, shoots holes in the wall, and abandons John at approximately thirty percent of the locations they visit. It’s not quite on the scale of “I never told you I’m terminally ill,” but some days it comes remarkably close.
John does intend to tell Sherlock. He’s got an explanation planned, detailed medical facts at the ready, a thousand apologies on the tip of his tongue. But time escapes, a startling amount of time for someone in John’s condition. Every morning John wakes in the upstairs bedroom is another day closer to the inevitable accident he could easily explain before it happens. And every morning he heads downstairs, determined, and Sherlock disarms him with a look. Not today. Just one more day of this fantasy, this borrowed life, this fragile, sweet bubble on the tip of John’s finger. Just one.
Sherlock doesn’t deserve this. He deserves a flatmate who will be there for the next twenty years, making sure he has milk and that he eats more than once a week, making sure he expresses gratitude appropriately in social interactions. John could easily do this for the next twenty years, for longer. He knows he might be the only man on earth who could.
To his great astonishment, his leg is much improved. He hardly needs the cane anymore.
* * *
John packs his suitcase one morning. Shirts and jumpers and a couple of books, a toiletry kit, a gun. He rings the RAMC office on his mobile and leaves a message about needing to find another bedsit. He makes his bed into very neat, hard corners and sits looking out the window at the grey rooftops and grimy chimneys of Baker Street and a sky weary with clouds and patches of blue.
Quick footsteps on the stairs, and John barely has time to turn toward the door, much less hide the suitcase, before Sherlock bursts into the room in a flare of coat and indignation.
“Lestrade isn’t answering his phone, we’ll have to go down to the Met, and I’m sure that’s what he wants -- what on earth are you doing?”
John releases the edge of the mattress with some difficulty. His voice doesn’t want to work. “I -- you go ahead, Sherlock.”
Sherlock stares. “You’re leaving. Why?”
The grey rooftops out the window don’t look at John the way Sherlock does, so John studies them. “You’re busy,” he says. “I’ll tell you later.”
“You don’t have another place to live,” Sherlock says. John can feel his eyes scanning, cataloguing evidence. Sherlock will see everything, but he can’t see this. He can never guess what’s inside John’s skull, waiting: asymptomatic, silent. “You’re going to... your sister’s. You’re arranging for another bedsit.”
John exhales. Clouds gather against the rooftops. “You need to stop doing that.”
“This is nonsense,” Sherlock says. “Leave your case. We’re going out.”
“Sherlock. There are things --” John swallows, and finally looks up. Something very hard, very large, sticks at the back of his throat. “There are things you don’t know about me. I can’t do this any longer.”
“There is nothing you could tell me that would make me want you to leave,” Sherlock says flatly.
John’s heart beats very fast. It seems to rattle between them in the neat, recently emptied room. “You can’t know that.”
Sherlock nearly scoffs. “I can.”
John stands up stiffly and pulls down his jumper. He straightens, faces Sherlock as squarely as he can manage. “Don’t make this difficult,” he says quietly.
“You don’t want to go.”
John doesn’t respond. He tilts his head to look up at Sherlock. Sherlock’s eyes are stormy, his face unusually pale.
“I’m sorry,” John says.
He makes it halfway down the stairs, dragging his suitcase, before Sherlock pounds to a halt behind him, grasps his bad shoulder and pulls him to an abrupt stop.
“There’s nothing you can do, Sherlock --” John begins wearily, but Sherlock captures his mouth in a kiss and cuts him off.
Sherlock’s hands cradle the back of John’s head, threading cautiously through the short, cropped hair at the nape of his neck. John’s head tilts back awkwardly as Sherlock crowds over him, and the suitcase in John’s hand hits the landing with a thud that echoes through the stairwell. For one delirious moment John fears he’s about to die right there on the spot, because his vision clouds over and his heart threatens to explode, but as seconds pass and he still seems to be breathing, he sighs and surrenders utterly to Sherlock and the kiss.
When they break apart, Sherlock looks at him with something close to fear in his bright eyes.
“That works,” John says hoarsely, and he is a strong man, but no one could be this strong. He manages a weak grin, and Sherlock returns it.
* * *
John doesn’t die when he gets kidnapped and tied to a chair by Chinese acrobats. He also doesn’t die when he gets into a fistfight with a drunken one-eyed mob informant twice his size.
He doesn’t die when the point of a knife nicks his leg in a back alley in Covent Garden, or when he confronts a cornered murder suspect who happens to be holding a frying pan.
For a man with a death sentence hanging over his head, John seems to be remarkably adept at survival.
* * *
They walk briskly along the South Bank one night toward Waterloo Bridge, hands shoved in coat pockets and breath fogging their chosen path. The sky wheels overhead, a swath of black above buildings and bridges, cold and shot with stars. Stars that, amusingly, Sherlock knows very little about.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Sherlock says, and John glances at him in surprise. Sherlock only waxes poetic on rare occasions, and his compliments are usually reserved for particularly intelligent criminal deceptions. John looks up again at the vastness overhead, a rare clear night unfogged by smoke or city lights.
“I love you,” John says, because under the vault of sky, he is suddenly sure that he needs to say it before another minute passes.
They walk for a moment in silence.
“Obviously,” Sherlock says quietly, his voice so full of fondness that the word means something else.
John stifles something that’s almost a laugh. His eyes sting. “Am I that transparent?”
“Yes,” Sherlock says, and unexpectedly reaches out an arm and hooks it through John’s, drawing him close until they’re walking in step, sides pressed together in the cold.
“How tedious for you,” John says, leaning in to nudge Sherlock’s arm with his shoulder.
“Not for a minute,” Sherlock replies.
* * *
John doesn’t die when a criminal mastermind straps him with explosives, which turns out to be a good thing, because Sherlock wants very much to kiss him when it’s all over.
They are in perfect agreement on this issue.
* * *
When John does die, it’s not at all like he expects, and he’s had a surprisingly long while to prepare.
They are running down a dark alleyway in pursuit of a guilty ex-con, cobblestones flashing under their feet, when suddenly the cobblestones loom very close to John’s face and everything pulsates strangely. He swallows. His feet feel numb.
He hears Sherlock skid to a halt and double back. Strong hands turn him on his side. Sherlock pulls out his mobile to dial for an ambulance, but John puts a hand on his arm. “Don’t bother,” he says, feeling something ebbing away. Sherlock dials anyway, lowering himself down on the cobblestones until his eyes are level with John’s, until he’s lying right next to him. Someone picks up the call. “Come now,” Sherlock says, and hangs up.
Sherlock reaches out and pulls John against him, as if they were in bed, as if the cobblestones were Sherlock’s familiar crisp sheets. One warm, steady arm gathers John close, cradles the curve of John’s back. His face is most of what John can see. Sherlock’s eyes are wide, but he doesn’t look surprised. He looks very young, and inexpressibly sad.
He knows. He’s known all along.
Of course he has, John thinks, and grins, faintly. Because somehow, some deep, hidden part of John knew this, knew that there was nothing he could ever hide from Sherlock, no recess of his brain that was too shrouded for Sherlock to bathe in light. Sherlock knew; Sherlock took him anyway.
They stare at each other in wordless understanding, and Sherlock gives a half-twisted, wavering smile in response. “I’ve got you,” he says, his voice deep and shaky.
“It’s okay,” John says, because it is. It really, really is. “I’ve got you too.”
It’s so much better than he ever could have hoped.