"…the little things are infinitely the most important."
― Arthur Conan Doyle, from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Moriarty, dressed in the uniform of a prison officer, wields a heavy baton to herd Sherlock towards the lower levels of the prison. The walls are higher than John remembered, and the lights harsher, but they begin to dim as Sherlock descends the metal stairwell. He looks back at John, who is peering at him through the open flap in the door of his cell.
John tries to cry out, but his voice has vanished. He pounds on the heavy metal door, but though he bloodies his fists against it, there is no sound.
Sherlock's eyes, oddly serene, meet his own frantic ones.
It's all right, John. I'm taking this fall so you don't have to. You are safer where you are.
John tries to cry out, Sherlock! But it's useless – his voice is trapped in his throat.
Suddenly Harris's eyes appear in the flap, mere inches from his own, and John rears his head back in a sudden panic.
"Good night, Watson." The flap closes with a clang and the cell is plunged into darkness.
Appearing suddenly at his shoulder, Moran whispers hoarsely into John's ear.
"Not our affair, John…we have to be kenneled while our masters play. That's what happens when you're a mere dog, loyal to a fault – didn't Mycroft tell you that?"
A strangled cry surged against John's chest wall, jerking him out of the nightmare and into a basement bedroom so dark that at first he wasn't sure he was awake, or that he was where he should be.
His first clue that he's home are the sheets and blankets he had to scramble his way out of in order to sit up – that dank, chilly, subterranean bunk had had no bedding. His own full-sized, comfortable bed's grounding touch counterbalanced the disturbing lack of light that fought to trick his damaged mind into pitching him into a terrifying past he can't forget. With a shaking hand, he fumbled for the small lamp on his beside table. It illuminated his small, cozy bedroom, chasing the threatening shadows back to the far corners of the room.
John concentrated on steadying his breath as his heart thudded in his throat and cold sweat pasted his hair to his throbbing temples. He glanced at his beside clock: 2:43 am.
Though Ella, his therapist, encouraged him to take things slowly, John was determined to get past his irrational fear of the dark. He was coming along well, but on nights like this, when the night terrors drove him towards wakefulness, the basement bedroom's two small, street-level windows did not admit enough exterior light to help speed him toward reality. Resolutely, John threw back the covers and swung his feet to the floor, grabbing his dressing gown from the foot of the bed in the same movement. A hot cuppa…that's what I need.
Moments later, though, he found himself padding up the stairs to the first floor instead, having bypassed his kitchen and a comforting mug of tea for a greater comfort – reassurance that his friend really has returned from the dead.
This was only the fourth time he had indulged in a nocturnal check-in since returning home from the hospital in December. Sherlock's unpredictable schedule and haphazard sleep patterns usually provide the reassurance John craves in the form of violin playing, frantic pacing, sudden crashes, or small explosions. Usually John and Mrs. Hudson can sleep through such disturbances, but when John awakes from a night terror, they go from being an unlikely, vaguely alarming background noise to a soothing lullaby. On this night, however, there is only silence from above – Sherlock is either out or asleep, and though John knows the former is not necessarily cause for alarm, he hopes, for the sake of his own shaken nerves, that it is the latter.
The door to 221b is ajar. Since John was released from hospital, the boundaries of the three separate flats had become blurred…indeed, only a few hours previous John had been comfortably ensconced in his old chair (which he occupied far more than the fine new one in his own sitting room), reading a book while Sherlock made a mess in the kitchen. And when the restless prat wasn't up here or chasing round London on a case, he was in the basement flat as often as he was in the first floor one. In many ways, their flats had indeed become extensions of one another.
The sitting room light was off – a sure sign that Sherlock was home and had gone to bed. Irrational as it might be, however, John couldn't relax until he was sure, and so he quietly made his way down the short hallway, past the kitchen to Sherlock's bedroom, being careful to avoid the creakier floorboards.
Sherlock's bedroom was darkened, of course, but John didn't need to see him – holding his breath slightly, he waited until he heard Sherlock's own. A tightly coiled something in his chest loosened, and he turned to go back downstairs, slowly letting all the air out of his chest cavity.
He hadn't gone two steps when Sherlock's beside lamp clicked on. "John?"
John froze, then slowly turned to crane his head round the doorjamb. Sherlock had raised himself on one elbow and was peering at him from under a disorderly mop of curls. There was a pillow crease down the left side of his face, eerily echoing John's own scar.
Flustered and embarrassed, John stepped into the doorway as he stammered, "I – I was just–"
"This is fortuitous," Sherlock said briskly, sitting up. "I was just thinking I could do with a cuppa."
He made no move to rise, though, instead sitting up against the headboard, hands folded across his stomach, and looking up at John expectantly.
John stared at him for a moment, but when Sherlock made no move to rise a feeling of exasperation, not unmixed with fondness, replaced his embarrassment.
"Well, don't bother to get up, I'll just fetch it for you, shall I?" he said sarcastically, but was unable to keep the note of amused affection out of his voice. He knew Sherlock had heard it as well when the prat's expression went from expectant to smug.
Navigating round the biohazard of a kitchen was second nature. John found the tea stashed in an old tobacco tin, the kettle under a pile of what looked like empty gel packs, their blue innards having been drained away for a purpose John could not even begin to guess at. He extracted the kettle and gave it a quick wash before filling it and switching it on, and was relieved to find that his old RAMC mug was among the few drinking vessels not currently being used to house specimens.
He gave it a wash, anyway, using hot water and lots of soap.
Moments later, John made his way with both mugs in hand back to Sherlock's room. The detective was still abed, luxuriously wiggling his spindly toes under the duvet.
John raised a brow. "Not getting up then?"
"Mhm. Floor's too cold."
"Fine." John handed him a mug, then stepped closer to the bedside. "Budge over, then."
"I haven't got slippers on, either, you know," John said impatiently.
"Fine," Sherlock grumbled, guarding his tea from spilling with this other hand while squirming over to make room for John. "People will talk, you realize!" But he couldn't keep his lips from twitching.
John grinned, carefully stretching his legs out on top of the bedclothes. "People do little else!" He shoved his bare feet under a folded wool blanket draped over the foot of the bed.
For a long moment they sat in a companionable silence, drinking their tea, content simply to be in one another's presence.
John, his head leaned back against the headboard, his eyes closed and his mug warm in his hands, had almost begun to doze when Sherlock very quietly said, "This isn't the first time you've come here to look in on me when you thought I was sleeping."
John stiffened, then his shoulders sagged in resignation. Of course it was impossible to keep anything from Sherlock Holmes. He still felt a sort of weary embarrassment, though – now he knew Sherlock was aware of them, his trips upstairs sounded childish and pathetic at best, and almost creepy and stalker-ish at worst.
"I was just–" he began lamely, but Sherlock finished for him.
"Checking to see that I was still here?"
John looked at him, mildly surprised. Sherlock had his eyes fixed intently on the framed photograph of Mendeleev on the wall next the window in a rather obvious attempt to avoid eye contact, but John was both surprised and relieved that his friend seemed to understand.
"Yeah," he said eventually. "That's it. Irrational, I know, but…" He let his voice trail away, unsure how to finish.
Eyes still fixed on the photograph, Sherlock said in a low voice, "I used to talk to you while I was…away."
For a moment John was confused, then he remembered a conversation from several years ago:
"Do you just carry on talking when I'm away?"
"I don't know…how often are you away?"
To cover his awkward discomfort, John said a trifle flippantly, "Forgot to take your skull with you, then?"
He hissed softly when he saw Sherlock's jaw tense and his eyes become fixed. "Sorry, sorry…bit not good. I was just – trying to lighten the mood, I guess." He cleared his throat. "I find it difficult – this sort of stuff."
The jaw relaxed slightly and Sherlock finally looked over at him. "I know."
There was a long silence as John struggled with himself.
Ella Thompson continued to urge John to express himself, "get his feelings out." As a fellow medical professional, John respected her; as a person he had come to trust her (which was why he had gone to her to get Wiggins a referral for a therapist in West Sussex, the younger man having his own emotional fallout to deal with in the wake of their experiences at Frankland). Therapy could be very helpful sometimes, but John found that moments such as these with Sherlock did even more toward leaving him feeling less burdened afterwards, as though his friend had, simply by being there, absorbed some of John's pain into himself, bearing a part of the load on his own skinny shoulders.
Regardless, it still remained difficult for John to overcome his deeply reticent nature. Even after everything they had been through, John might still have found it nigh on impossible were it not for the fact that Sherlock himself had grown and changed. The detective was attempting to be more open, too, but John knew he'd make no headway if he couldn't trust his best friend to listen with sympathetic ears.
With that in mind, John said quietly, "I never really asked you about your time…er, away."
Sherlock stayed silent, waiting with uncharacteristic patience while John struggled to articulate his thoughts.
"I was curious, though," the doctor admitted slowly. "But I was so bloody angry. I kept thinking you had been out there having the time of your life while I was just…" He closed his eyes.
John swallowed and opened his eyes again. "I know. But it wasn't only that. I hated thinking of you getting yourself into all sorts of trouble without me looking after you. And then here you were and you seemed just fine and I began to think I hadn't really been all that important to the Work, after all – that anyone could have done the things I did, a sort of glorified personal assistant who helped you with research and fetched you your tea."
The mattress shifted slightly as Sherlock sat up a bit more. "John."
He did not speak again until John finally turned to look at him. Sherlock's face was pale and set in lines of sadness and pain, but his odd-colored eyes were grave.
"I meant what I said," the deep voice intoned. "I tried not to think about you, or Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade or Molly or even London, because thinking about those things made me feel…empty and alone. But during the hardest times, the most dangerous and…lonely times…I talked to you. To the John Watson who lived in my Mind Palace."
John waited. Sherlock cleared his throat before he continued.
"There were some days…some tasks…I could not complete without the John in my Mind Palace. But even that John was difficult for me to take comfort in, for I was always exceedingly aware of what a pale imitation it was of the original."
Trying to swallow the lump in his throat, John turned his eyes to the periodic table on the wall. "The feeling's mutual. And I think I knew that all along…on some level, anyway. I was just too proud to ask."
Sherlock sighed slightly. "Mycroft paid me a visit the day after you moved into 221b with a complete dossier on you. I told him to piss off."
John smiled. "Respected my privacy too much to take advantage of what the British Government had to offer, hm?"
Sherlock snorted. "I won't insult even your lackluster intelligence with such an obvious lie…no, I was too…proud to accept the offer. I wanted no assistance from my brother, and I believed I could discern all that was important for me to know myself."
"Right." John took a long swallow of tea.
There was another long silence. Then Sherlock said, hesitantly, "John…when I was a boy, there was a Dutch elm in our garden that I was…rather fond of. It was good for climbing, or for reading in its shade of a summer's day."
John's eyes widened slightly. This sort of intimacy – a childhood reminiscence – was unusual. He waited, not wanting to risk cutting off his friend's line of thought with a word or a look.
"When I arrived home for the summer holidays after my first term away at school, I found that my parents had had it cut down…despite years of apparently healthy growth, it had become irreversibly diseased."
John waited for Sherlock to go on, but the detective simply watched him expectantly as though what he had said should make perfect sense. John struggled with it for several moments before giving up. "So?"
Sherlock huffed in exasperation. "So? Isn't it obvious?"
When John just continued to stare at him, flummoxed, Sherlock sighed again and clarified, "What I'm trying to say, John, is that you are not like John Sebastian Moran!"
John gaped at him, his head spinning with confused questions – first, how the hell did that apparent non sequitur have anything to do with the tree story, and, more importantly, how had Sherlock known that this was something that had been keeping John up nights ever since he had regained his senses while in hospital?
"Don't be an idiot," Sherlock said impatiently as though John had spoken aloud. "I know it's been troubling you because…I've spent much of my own time of late considering that I truly am like Moriarty."
Instantly John went into defense mode. "You're not!" he said hotly. "You're nothing like that–"
"But I am," Sherlock interrupted him coolly. "That is – I am not, but I could have been. I choose not to be."
John closed his mouth.
"My Mind Palace is peopled with individuals I know, people who, in my mind, represent parts of myself," Sherlock said calmly. "Mycroft is, alas, a prominent figure – he represents my intellect. You are an equally prominent figure – you represent the heart I so often deny having…the heart I sometimes wish I did not have, for it brings me much pain as well as joy, but that I would never now relinquish."
John felt his face warm. "Sherlock…what on earth does this have to do with your childhood elm tree?"
Sherlock sighed dramatically. "Isn't it obvious?" he repeated impatiently. "Like you, Moran did well – up to a certain point. But while you continued strong and straight in your growth, he suddenly developed an unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans...I have a theory that the individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes, as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family."
John stared. "Bit far-fetched, isn't it?"
"Well, I won't insist on it.* But, getting back to my Mind Palace...there are others who inhabit it. Lestrade. Molly. Mrs. Hudson. Even Anderson has a place. And, buried deep in the bowels of my subconscious, bound and chained, is the Moriarty part of myself. You help me keep him there, John."
John straightened his shoulders. "I help...but how...?"
Sherlock smiled slightly. "You keep me right."
And he says I have a tendency to make him into a hero. "Sherlock..."
"John, what do you think Moran would have done had you not arrived at the Mill in time to save my life?"
Thrown off balance, John said slowly, "He…he said he planned to leave England."
"And no doubt would have become a mercenary or something like. What would you have done had you not been implicated for kidnapping along with me?"
John's shoulders sagged. "I don't–"
"I do," Sherlock interrupted sharply. "You'd have got on with your life."
John waited, but Sherlock said no more. John looked away for a moment, turning it over in his mind. Slowly, he nodded. Yes – Sherlock was right. That was exactly what he would have done. He might not have wanted to, he might even have believed for awhile that he couldn't, but in the end John would have got on with things, because Joseph Bell was right – John Watson was a survivor.
He turned back to Sherlock, smiling, and saw that the detective was positively beaming. "You see, John, Moriarty and Moran were the negatives – you and I are the positives. And–"
"And we keep one another so," John finished for him.
Without realizing he was going to do it, John put a hand on Sherlock's shoulder, and left it there as they both leaned back against the headboards to finish their tea in silence.
When John stood and reached for Sherlock's empty mug, the detective roused himself out of his thoughts and proposed a game of Cluedo.
"Sounds lovely," John said drily, "but I think I'm ready to sleep now."
"Bollocks," Sherlock complained. "I'm wide-awake!"
John snorted. "Well, if you're going to get up to entertain yourself, try not to blow up the building."
He gave Sherlock's shoulder a thankful squeeze, and, ignoring his sulky look, headed for the kitchen.
Then a thought struck him and he paused on the threshold. "Anderson has a spot in your Mind Palace?" he asked archly.
Sherlock glared at him. "I've been wanting to test the exact temperature at which paint ignites. Tell Anderson what I said and I will conduct my experiment in your flat."
John laughed. "Your secret is safe with me. Good night, Sherlock."
As he left 221b he paused at the top of the stairs and called back softly. "And…thanks."
Then he went back downstairs, got into his own bed, and slept the most peaceful sleep he had enjoyed in over three years.
Roughly a fortnight later, John was jerked out of a sound sleep on his day off at half six in the morning by a text:
Message from Lestrade. 2 bodies found by sanitation crew in vacant garage in Lewisham. One of the victims appears to have left a note indicating foul play. Sounds promising. –SH
John texted back:
I'm not going bloody anywhere without tea, a shower, and breakfast, in that order. –JW
A soft ping came back instantly, as though Sherlock had predicted this answer and had his own prepared ahead of time.
Do hurry. –SH
Shaking his head but unable to keep from smiling, John swung his feet out of bed and into his tatty old bedroom slippers in one motion and headed for the kitchen, pulling his dressing gown on along the way.
A case! He had only been on one other with Sherlock since the New Year – a simple case of a lecturer who was anxious to learn which of his students had stolen a copy of an important exam he had planned on administering to his class in the next few days – and was just chafing for something to do.
Sherlock, Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson had been in a kindly conspiracy to make sure John didn't overtax himself during his convalescence, and while John appreciated the sentiment he was becoming weary of the prolonged inactivity. He was a believer in following doctor's orders, even when he was the patient – hell, especially when he was the patient, since he knew he really couldn't be trusted to doctor himself – but he was beginning to feel his friends were far stricter than the medical professionals who were in charge of his recovery. He would have been cleared to go back to work weeks ago had Doctor Sarai still been out on parental leave, yet Mrs. Hudson fussed so much every time he went for so much as a stroll in the park that, when he began running again, he took to sneaking out through the area so she wouldn't see him in his tracksuit and trainers.
As for Sherlock – John smiled fondly to himself as he filled the kettle. Characteristically, the detective said little regarding the state of John's health, but observed much – those who didn't know him as well as John did might not see it, but John knew. The detective did go on cases, clearly torn between eagerness to work out a new puzzle and reluctance to leave John behind, but he also turned many down and stuck close to 221 a lot, mixing in plenty of film nights and board games with ominous experiments both upstairs and down.
Really, John thought, yawning as he opened the fridge, the man's thoughtfulness was getting a bit scary. He'd more than once been on the point lately of asking, Who are you and what have you done with Sherlock Holmes?, but he didn't want to make his friend feel self-conscious. Nor did he wish to be unjust…Sherlock had been a bloody marvel about looking after him these past few months, and John was beginning to think that, between their time away and all they'd been through since, it was really only to be expected that even Sherlock Holmes would grow up eventually. John had witnessed firsthand the greatness of the man's heart and, genius notwithstanding, he–
The doctor's train of thought suddenly derailed when, in place of the bottle of milk he'd expected on the fridge's top shelf, he found himself staring at a heart. A human heart.
A human heart sat on a plate.
A human heart sat on one of his plates.
John closed the refrigerator door carefully and stood for a moment with his hand on the door handle, tapping his tongue thoughtfully against his top front teeth. Maybe I'm still dreaming.
Yes, that must be it. He again pulled open the door.
The heart was still there, gleaming wetly on his favorite biscuit plate like a plump, self-satisfied frog lounging near a pond.
All at once, the warm and fuzzy thoughts John had been harboring for his best friend fled his mind to be replaced by a surprisingly vivid image of himself throttling the bastard.
Lestrade heard the shouting almost as soon as he opened the car door, which was rather impressive considering he had parked across the street and the windows of 221 were closed against the winter chill.
For a moment Greg tensed, the yelling putting him on alert, but he relaxed as he discerned a lot of exasperation but no real heat behind the raised voices. The dominant voice was easily recognizable as John's, and Greg smothered a grin as he stood on the front steps and listened as the doctor unleashed a lot of "bloodys," and "hells," and "bloody hells" (and a fair few expressions a lot stronger than either "bloody" or "hell" – John must have forgotten Mrs. Hudson was at home).
Greg raised his hand to ring the bell, but Mrs. Hudson opened the door first. "Come in, love."
"Ta, Mrs. H." He leaned to kiss her cheek, then glanced up the stairs to 221b. "What's up, then?"
Mrs. Hudson looked mortified. "Oh, dear, the neighbors. A bit of a domestic…something about Sherlock leaving something in John's kitchen–"
"–nicking my teabags and my milk, hacking into my bloody Wi-Fi, but this is the limit!" John's voice, raised in furious accents, drifted down the stairs, interspersed with Sherlock's exasperated shouts of, "For God's sake, John!" And, "It's for a case!" And, "I was out of room in my fridge; I didn't think you'd mind. Where else was I supposed to put it?!"
"Oh, dear," Mrs. Hudson murmured again. "I'm not sure I want to know…"
Greg had to choke off his laugh when she glared at him reproachfully before looking up the stairs again and calling out firmly, "Boys!"
At the sudden, guilty silence from above, she added in a more moderate tone, "Greg is here."
They answered at the same time, John with "Cheers, Mrs. Hudson," Sherlock with (predictably) "Who?!" Mrs. Hudson offered Greg an apologetic smile, but the DI just huffed out a sigh. He had a sneaking suspicion the arse continued doing that just to annoy him.
A moment later the pair of them came clattering down the stairs, John in the lead and breathing hard through his nose like a snorting bull, his color high. Behind him, Sherlock moved with precise dignity, wrapping his scarf round his throat and pulling on his leather gloves with pointed casualness. The expression on his angular face was meant to convey an above-it-all attitude, but Greg spotted, as few might, the mischief in his sparkling grey eyes and the slight smirk on his lips. The DI swiftly returned his gaze to John, and there it was – a quirk of the lips that belied the annoyed set to his expression, along with a light in his dark blue eyes that said he, too, was on the verge of laughter.
The Baker Street Boys were pleased as punch and trying not to show it, and, looking at Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade saw by the joyful, fond look in her eyes that she saw it, too.
Things were finally getting back to normal – or, at least, to whatever actually passed for normal at 221 Baker Street.
"All right, lads," Lestrade said aloud, stepping through the front door and onto Baker Street. "Let's get on with things, shall we?"
And so they did.
*This exchange is paraphrased from a scene in "The Adventure of the Empty House," where Holmes shares with Watson his theory on what may have caused a formerly honorable, distinguished career soldier suddenly turn to the bad.
Many thanks to englishtutor for her proofreading skills.
Well. Here we are.
When I began writing and posting this story in April of 2014, I had no idea I would be finishing it in December of 2015, over a year and a half later. I wound up with twice as many chapters as I expected, and ever so many more words! This is by far the longest fiction project I've ever completed, and I have to say there's no way I could have done so without the amazing encouragement I received from my readers in the form of alerts and subscriptions, favorites and bookmarks, views and kudos, and especially, comments and reviews.
I've come to know some amazing people through this fandom, and corresponded with some great people. Your support and encouragement have been invaluable, and I can never express my gratitude enough. I did my best to respond to every review and comment I received, and I'd like to take a moment now to offer a special thanks to those who left anonymous reviews or who reviewed, but don't accept personal messages – it pained me not to be able to thank you before, so I'm glad to rectify that in some small way now. I'd also like to thank those who were kind enough to refer or recommend this story in other forums – you are much too kind, and I do appreciate it!
This has been an incredible journey. I feel like I've learned a lot, and I've certainly had no end of fun with it. Thank you for taking this trip with me! I hope to see your names on this site again, and I hope to share more of my own work with you again at some future point. :-)
All the best,