"In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion."
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
"Thanks for coming," Lestrade said, setting two fresh cups of coffee down on the two-person kitchen table and sinking into one of the chairs. Curling the fingers of his right hand around the steaming cup, he stared into it while he scrubbed his left hand through his short, silver hair. "I didn't know who else to call…Molly was my first thought, but then…" he trailed off.
Across from him, Mike Stamford removed his stethoscope, stowed it in his black medical bag, zipped the bag up, and set it on the floor before sitting back in his own chair and reaching for the second cup with a nod of thanks. "Definitely not the best person right now," he said agreeably, glancing back towards the living area.
Lestrade followed his gaze to where John lay sleeping on the sofa, his back to the dimmed room and a blanket pulled up to his shoulders. His breathing was deep and even.
"It's all right," Mike said reassuringly. "We can talk quietly…that was a pretty strong sedative I gave him. He should be out for awhile."
Lestrade sighed. "I didn't know what to do…he didn't want me to call anyone, kept insisting he was fine, but his color was bad and he kept shaking and he couldn't get his breath back–"
"Greg, it's fine," Mike insisted. "I was glad to come…there's not much I wouldn't do for John, but he hates asking for help."
"Tell me about it," Lestrade huffed, raising his eyes to heaven. Mike offered a smile of commiseration.
For a few moments the two men sat, sipping their coffee, in a slightly awkward silence. Lestrade liked Mike, but he didn't know him very well. He'd seen him occasionally at Bart's, but had known the doctor by sight only until John occasionally began to bring him along on pub nights, back before…well, before everything with Moriarty. Lestrade knew that Mike was happily married (no kids, two large dogs), that he taught at Bart's (where he had attended medical school with John), that he got on pretty well with Sherlock (or had once upon a time), and that he had actually introduced Sherlock to John when each separately told him he was in the market for a flatmate. Other than that, all he really knew was that Mike enjoyed a pint, was good at darts, followed football and seemed genuinely interested in the tales Greg and other Yarders had to share when they met up.
He also knew that, while Mike had not been on John's short list of approved visitors at Frankland, he had kept in touch with John during his incarceration through the post.
"How long have you known John, Mike?" Lestrade asked suddenly, surprising himself.
Mike, who had been staring thoughtfully into his cup, looked up. "We were sort of mates when we were students," he replied slowly. "I always liked him…hell, everybody liked John."
Lestrade nodded. It was easy to like John Watson, he knew. "How did you happen to lose touch?" he asked.
Mike hesitated. "Well, it wasn't really a matter of losing touch, so to speak," he said carefully. "I meant it when I said everybody liked John, but…he didn't have many real friends, if you understand me."
Lestrade frowned. "What do you mean?"
"It's a bit difficult to explain," Mike said. "That is…well, for a guy who seemed really warm and friendly, he mostly kept himself to himself. Think about it, Greg…what do you really know about John Watson?"
Staring down at the tabletop, Lestrade thought it over. What did he know about John? Not much, he suddenly realized with a frown. He knew John was a doctor, had been a captain in the army, had been wounded in action and invalided out. But he didn't know the specifics, Lestrade suddenly realized. He had met John's elder sister at the trial, but no other family had shown up.
Lestrade looked up to see Mike nodding at him knowingly. "Not much, eh?"
"I may not know much about his early life, no, but I know the important things," Lestrade said firmly. "I know he's a hard worker, a brave and loyal friend, and very honest. I know he's a good man…a man of integrity."
Mike smiled faintly. "You don't have to convince me, Greg. I never believed those charges against him for one minute, nor would anyone who'd ever actually met John."
Lestrade looked down and cleared his throat. Mike continued.
"I can tell you a bit more than that…not much, though. You know Harry's an alcoholic?"
Lestrade blew out a breath. "Yeah…yeah, John had said, a long time ago, and I recognized the signs."
Mike nodded grimly. "Well, she wasn't the only one in the family. His father drank, too, and though John never came right out and said it I gather he made a habit of knocking his wife and kids around. Harry left home early, then John had to live with her for a couple of years after their parents died…"
Greg winced. "Trust issues."
"Trust issues," Mike agreed. "You can see why he's got 'em. John was friendly, always, but he held his cards close and kept himself at a distance. He's not one to talk about himself."
The two men sipped their coffee in silence for a long moment.
"Mike," Greg said eventually. "That day…what made you decide to introduce John to Sherlock, of all people? You already knew how…ah, difficult Sherlock is, for want of a better word."
Mike let out a long breath, thinking. Greg waited.
"I liked Sherlock," he said finally. (Greg smiled at this…good old, easygoing Mike, who saw the good in everyone.) "And I thought John could handle him."
When Greg raised his eyebrows at this, Mike smiled. "I did. John's laidback, but not a pushover. I knew from Bart's he had a good sense of humor and thrives on challenges. And patient, good Lord," here Mike snorted. "Anyone who could help me get through pathology should be able to put up with Sherlock's crazy experiments, I figured!"
Lestrade couldn't help laughing quietly with Mike at that. Then the doctor turned serious again, looking at Greg earnestly from behind his specs.
"Between us, though, Greg…there was something sort of…I dunno, sort of desperate in John's face that day. He recognized me right away, I know he did, for all he pretended not to at first." Mike chewed his lip a second, thinking. "I just couldn't let him go. He looked so damned…alone."
Mike glanced over at the sofa, then back at Greg.
"And Sherlock seemed so alone, too. I know he's not like other people, but I thought for a long time he could use a friend, even if he didn't think so himself. Well, I was too slow and dull to be his friend." Mike chuckled ruefully.
"Aren't we all, mate?" Greg smiled in his turn.
Mike nodded. "But…call it a hunch, if you must, but I thought John might be different. And I hoped John, for his part, would at least find Sherlock a distraction. It all worked better than I'd hoped…until it didn't anymore." Mike's kind face fell.
"You mean until Sherlock took a walk off the roof of St. Bart's and John went to prison," Greg said quietly.
"Yeah," Mike said. He rubbed his eyes under his glasses briefly. "But I'll tell you something, Greg…I could never bring myself to truly regret introducing them, not really. Now and then I'd wish I hadn't, then I'd remember that look on John's face that day in the park, and…" He trailed off.
Lestrade waited, and when Mike didn't continue he prompted him. "And?"
Mike refocused his faraway gaze on Greg. "Let's just say…I'm not sure John would be with us today, if he hadn't met Sherlock." He hesitated, then added, "And a world without John…well, it would be a less noble place, in my opinion."
Lestrade pondered that for awhile, staring at the tabletop. Finally, he looked up, determined.
"Mike, could you do me another big favor and stay here for a bit? I'd like to go see someone, and I don't want to leave John alone right now."
It was after midnight before Lestrade showed up at 221b.
Sherlock was in his accustomed leather seat, facing John's empty chair with his fingers steepled before his thoughtful face as of old. But as eerily familiar as the scene was, Lestrade felt the difference – an unseen tension thrummed just under the surface of Sherlock's calm facade, and his pale skin had a grayish tinge to it.
Feeling an odd sense of déjà vu, Lestrade, after some hesitation, seated himself in John's chair and waited. Sherlock's pale eyes were shuttered, but after a few moments it was as though a shade went up behind them and he finally seemed to see Lestrade.
The naked, wounded look in Sherlock's eyes left Lestrade feeling as though he faced a child. It occurred to him that this was not the first time he had felt that way about Sherlock.
"Where's John?" Sherlock's voice was small and uncertain.
"Sleeping," Lestrade replied. He didn't mention how long it had taken to get John through the panic attack, or that he'd had to call in reinforcements.
Sherlock looked away. "I don't understand. I said I was sorry. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
His lost, bewildered air punctured Lestrade's bubble of righteous anger.
"Sherlock," Greg began – then stopped. Sighing, he dropped his face in his hands. "If only it were that simple."
"It is simple, Lestrade," Sherlock said coldly, and suddenly the old, arrogant Sherlock was back. "It was Mycroft. Moriarty framed John along with me, and Mycroft didn't tell me. While I took my own 'fall' from the roof of Bart's, Mycroft let John take a metaphorical 'fall,' claiming it was to keep John safe. John is understandably bitter and blames us both."
Lestrade dropped his hands to his knees and sat back in John's chair. He searched out Sherlock's eyes with his own.
"Look…Sherlock. John's upset about that, yeah, understandably. But I think he's almost more upset that you underestimated him, and that's what kind of led to the whole thing happening."
Sherlock frowned. Lestrade could see by his expression that the detective was puzzled, but didn't want to admit to it.
"Sherlock," Lestrade tried to explain, gently. "Your faked suicide nearly killed him."
Sherlock blinked. "How–"
"I mean," Lestrade interrupted loudly, "It about broke his heart."
Sherlock stared at him. "I don't understand. Why would he be that upset?"
Now it was Lestrade's turn to stare. "Are you bloody serious?" He asked finally.
Sherlock's face turned sour. "Speak plainly, Lestrade, and for God's sake, dispense with the sentiment."
"A bit difficult to do, when talking about your friends," Lestrade said acidly. "You really don't 'get' how much we all care about you, do you – especially John? You think I was in it for the help on the cases, and John for the excitement, and Mrs. Hudson…hell, Mrs. Hudson because she was lonely, or something. You really thought it wouldn't hit us that hard if you died."
"And it was your fondness for me that caused you to take me on in the first place, Lestrade?" Sherlock asked with a sarcastic twist to his lips.
"Not at first, no," Lestrade admitted. "But over time–"
"As interesting as all this is, Lestrade, it hardly applies," Sherlock interrupted coldly, looking away. "I tried talking to John. He made his position quite clear."
"Because he's hurt."
"At least he's not dead," Sherlock shot back. "Mission accomplished, and there's an end to it. Now, I have other, more serious matters to occupy me, and seeing as John isn't in the picture anymore, if you wouldn't mind, I have work to do."
Lestrade sighed. He could see the half-hidden hurt and confusion behind Sherlock's eyes and decided to let it go for now. Standing up, he said, "Listen…I have a case tomorrow you might be interested in. Why don't you come on out, get your feet wet again?"
Sherlock looked up at him, surprised and (Lestrade could have sworn) almost touched.
"I have a case I'm working on for my dear brother" he almost spat the last two words, "but I imagine I can find time to assist you. Except–"
He broke off suddenly and looked away.
Lestrade understood. "Except it won't be the same without John. I know. But maybe it's only temporary."
"I need an assistant," Sherlock mumbled without looking up.
"You need John…but he needs time. So, for now, why don't you ask Molly?" Lestrade suggested. "You owe her after all she did for you…that couldn't have been an easy burden for her to carry."
Shrugging into his jacket, Lestrade headed for the door without giving Sherlock time to respond. "I'll text you tomorrow," he called over his shoulder.
Sherlock didn't answer. He appeared to have returned to his Mind Palace.
John was about ready to pull the hair right out of his head…or kick the walls of Lestrade's tiny bedsit in.
It had been five days since Sherlock had "dropped in," and only once since then had John been out of the bedsit. He and Greg had risked a late night trip to an all-night café two streets over the day after Sherlock's visit, John using a hat and scarf to keep as much of his face covered as he could. It didn't work…an eager young tabloid reporter (she reminded John unpleasantly of Kitty Reilly) had been tailing Lestrade, guessing from photos taken during John's trial that the detective inspector might have ties with the elusive John Watson that had been heretofore unexplored.
They managed to get back to the bedsit without being followed, but now Greg was being tailed at Scotland Yard, and John knew it was only a matter of time. Greg broached the possibility of John making a statement, but John wouldn't hear of it…he wanted nothing to do with those vultures.
Besides…he didn't know what he would say.
So now John was practically climbing the walls. His face, along with Sherlock's, was all over the papers and the TV, Mrs. Hudson couldn't even visit the shops without reporters approaching her, Lestrade was being dogged at the Yard, and Harry was getting intrusive calls at home and at work. John was both afraid to go out and half mad with staying in. And, as relieved as he was to be out of prison, he was disgusted to find himself…well, almost missing the place. There, danger lurked every time he left his pad (except when he was working with Bell), and while actually in his pad he'd suffered from a constant, fluctuating level of anxiety brought on by the mind-numbing boredom and suffocating sense of confinement. But at least he had known what to expect on a day-to-day basis. And he had forged new, distressing habits over the past two years under the rigid routine…he could barely touch anything without reflexively looking to Lestrade for permission first, a situation that embarrassed them both. Lestrade tried to be reassuring ("these things take time, John"), but John felt as though, in his mind, at least, he was still imprisoned.
Huffing out a breath, John flopped down on the sofa and pulled out his phone. He opened the contacts list, which was distressingly short. Skimming over Mrs. Hudson's and Lestrade's names, he paused at the one just before Mike's and, after a moment of hesitation, selected it.
Three rings later, a connection was made.
"Watson…John. I was wondering when you'd be in touch. Welcome back to the world."
John sighed with relief and smiled a little. "Sir."
"You can call me James now, John. I'm not your CO anymore."
"Thank you, sir…James." The sir had slipped off his tongue automatically, and both men laughed a little.
"How does it feel to be exonerated?" Major James Sholto asked.
"I don't exactly feel like a free man," John admitted. He paused, then asked, "Have you seen the latest?" By "the latest," he meant Sherlock's return.
"I have," Sholto said simply.
For a moment both men were silent. It was a comfortable silence, and this was, at the root of it, why John had called. In addition to their shared history (and John's enormous respect and admiration for the man), Sholto shared firsthand knowledge of the things John had gone through as no one else had…like John, he, too, had witnessed the deaths of good friends first hand, and he alone among John's friends knew what it was to be hounded by the media. In temperament, James Sholto was even more reticent than John, and John appreciated that the man seemed to know about him without John having to actually speak of certain things. It was one of the things John had appreciated about Sherlock.
"So, John," Sholto said now. "You and I have both lost more than our fair share of friends in violent ways over the years…this is the first I've heard of one coming back."
John laughed shortly. "Yeah."
"You don't sound particularly happy about it."
John blew out his breath, trying to collect his thoughts. On the other end of the line, Sholto was silent, patient. That was one way the antisocial man was quite different from Sherlock, John remembered – he would wait while you gathered your thoughts.
"He didn't know about me winding up in the nick," John said finally. "His sodding brother didn't pass along that tidbit of information, apparently. But he lied to me all the same, and for the worst reason…because he didn't trust me."
Saying it out loud made something twist painfully in John's chest. Again he heard Sherlock's voice in his mind ("I was worried that, you know, you might say something indiscreet") and the words stung just as much as when John had first heard him utter them.
"I don't know if I can forgive him for that," John said aloud.
"A man needs to be able to trust his comrade," Sholto agreed. "And to know he's trusted in return."
"And on top of everything else there's the bloody papers…well, I don't have to tell you what that's like. I can't stir a step outdoors, James," John said bitterly.
"Maybe you should get out of London for awhile, John."
"Where would I go?" John retorted.
It was a rhetorical question – he really didn't expect an answer. But Sholto gave him one, anyway.
"You could come here."
She might not be able to run any races with the state of her hip, but her hearing was as sharp as ever. At what sounded like a key in the front door lock, Mrs. Hudson turned the television off with a puzzled frown. Sherlock had called that he wouldn't be in for tea when he had gone out a couple of hours ago, and Greg usually called before dropping by. But the metallic rattle was followed quickly by the scrape of the door opening.
Moving quickly to the door of 221a, Mrs. Hudson cautiously peered out into the hallway. Her heart stilled for a moment when she beheld an unfamiliar figure of somewhat shorter than average height, skinny, wearing faded jeans, scuffed boots, an old blue jacket and a battered black sweatshirt with the hood drawn up. Despite the mildness of the evening, a dark gray scarf further obscured the person's head and face.
Before she could demand that the figure identify itself, it spoke: "It's me, Mrs. H."
She could not help gasping in pleased surprise when John reached up, unwound the scarf and drew back the hood, revealing tousled silver-and-gold hair and the ugly scar that disfigured his otherwise charming face (and broke her heart a little every time she beheld it).
"John! You're home!" Mrs. Hudson cried delightedly. She hurried forward and embraced him. "Oh, John, you should have rung – I would have had tea ready for you!" She leaned back, looking into his face, then said again, "Oh, John…I'm just so happy!" She leaned into him again and gave him a tight squeeze.
He squeezed her back, then held her away from him for a moment. He looked anxious, awkward. "Look…Mrs. Hudson…"
"I'm afraid Sherlock's not here at the moment, John, but he's going to be so happy," Mrs. Hudson bubbled on. "He wouldn't say so, but he hates not having you here, he's been moping about dreadfully–"
"I know he's not here," John interrupted. "That's why I…Greg said he was going with him tonight to see about a skeleton that was found….anyway, I borrowed Greg's key to 221 so I could–"
She interrupted him in her turn. "Don't you worry, I have your key waiting for you. I could have had it back to you before, but–"
John raised his voice. "Mrs. Hudson, I'm not staying!"
She stared at him, stricken. His dark blue eyes were large and solemn as he looked at her, and he swallowed nervously, shifting his gaze to the left. "I-I just came to get some things, and to…well, to tell you goodbye."
"Goodbye?" Mrs. Hudson echoed faintly. "But why…where…" She trailed off. She was gripping both his forearms tightly.
John lowered his eyes a moment, then raised them again. "I'm going to stay with a friend in Yorkshire for awhile," he said quietly. "I'm heading to the train station directly from here…I figured, you know, while Sher–…that is, while he was out, I'd…well, that it would be a good time. To come by, I mean." He looked away awkwardly.
Mrs. Hudson closed her eyes a moment. Her hands slid down from his arms to grasp his hands in hers. She opened her eyes and looked at him sadly. "Oh, John. Just when I got both of you back. Do you have to go?"
"I really do." He looked at her earnestly, and she could have wept to see the look on his face…hurt and scarred and somehow very young, despite the new gray strands in his fair hair. "It's just…Greg's place is so small; we're right on top of each other there…it's not fair to him. And I can't take a step outdoors without the press swarming all over me, not without bundling up like this, anyway."
"No, Mrs. Hudson, I really couldn't," John interrupted. "I can't…not now, not yet."
He didn't add, maybe not ever, but she could see it in his eyes, and she didn't press it for fear he would say it out loud and make it real. So instead she pressed her lips into a tight line and nodded.
John nodded back, relieved. "I just…I just need some time, some space." He paused. "Do you understand?"
"Yes. I do," Mrs. Hudson sighed. "I hate it, but I do understand." She'd been through something similar when her husband was on trial back in Florida. "You'll call me when you get there, and promise to stay in touch?"
John squeezed her hands gratefully, then let go. "Promise. And you can call me, too, now, you know, whenever you like…it's not like before."
He smiled, and she tried to smile back. She saw his eyes drift toward the stairs.
"Do you need help?"
"No," John replied quickly. "I'd rather…I can do it myself. It won't take long."
She nodded. "All right then. I'll wait for you down here."
She watched as he took a deep breath, then strode purposefully upstairs. She noticed that he bypassed the first storey altogether, not even glancing in the direction of the sitting room, proceeding directly to the second storey where his own bedroom was. She heard the door open and close, and wondered how it must be for him to be back in his old room after two and a half years, looking exactly as he had left it. It hadn't even gathered any dust – she had seen to that.
With a heavy sigh, Mrs. Hudson returned to 221a and headed directly to the kitchen. She found a small box and quickly began to pack it with teabags, biscuits, some cold leftover chicken, a couple of packets of crisps, and a small cake she had made for Sherlock. By the time she was finished, she heard John clattering down the stairs.
Stepping back out into the hallway with the box, Mrs. Hudson saw him descending the last few stairs, a large Army duffel bag over one shoulder. He was pale and looked somehow…pursued. Anxiety practically radiated off him.
"Here, open your bag," she said quickly. "I put together some things for you."
Grinning, John set the bag down and unzipped it, giving her a brief glimpse of clothing, a few books and his laptop. She tucked the box inside and he laughed breathlessly as he zipped the bag up again.
"I never having to worry about starving when you're around, Mrs. H!" he said, smiling. Then the smile faded and he looked at her seriously. "You always try to look after me."
Tears filled her eyes as she reached for him. "And I always will." Her mouth trembled. "Come home soon, John."
He kissed her cheek, gave her a wordless squeeze, then, scooping up the bag, headed for the front door. She moved sadly back to her own flat.
"John!" she called from her doorway.
He paused in the act of drawing up his hood, and looked back at her expectantly.
"We love you," Mrs. Hudson said, firmly and meaningfully. "We all love you."
He offered her a small, sad smile as he wound his scarf around his face again, slung the duffel bag over his shoulder, and headed out into the damp night without a backward glance.
Mrs. Hudson could not bear to watch him go from the window, and John was too preoccupied, so neither noticed the figure across the street, half-hidden in the shadows, watching him intently as he strode away.
Special thanks to hajimebassaidai for her Brit-picking skills.