Title: All His Vertebrae Dance

Author: Elliott Silver

Summary: The way John Watson survives. A short vignette post-Reichenbach.


/-/-/-/-/


He says he doesn't remember much of those long months, that wet and dreary time after Sherlock Holmes fell from this life.

He says he doesn't remember, but I know that's not true.

John Watson remembers every detail, every well-meaning question, every insolent insult, every barb in the press, every breath that cracked his ribs, every beat of his traitorous and still-beating heart.

He doesn't talk about it, but it's in every way he moves, from how he sets down his tea cup to the way he drops his wet bathrobe on the bed without even thinking about it.

I find it there when I come home at night, the coverlet wet through and the sheets etched with watermarks that look like continents on a map. I strip the bed before he returns, and when he comes back (but not home), he doesn't notice the difference.

Sometimes at night, he calls out in his sleep.


/-/-/-/-/


Sherlock.


/-/-/-/-/


When I met him – eight months ago – he looked like he'd been hollowed out by the world. In his green Folk jacket he looked like shell, bitter and fragile. His collar was turned up against the rain and I wasn't sure he wouldn't melt when it touched his paper skin.

We were both looking at the same flat in Wainwright Gardens. When the realtor left I turned to him and he seemed surprised to feel someone moving towards him. It was odd that we both wanted the same thing – even if it was just space.

I asked where he was staying and without hesitation he answered, "The morgue." He wasn't lying (it's very easy to tell when John Watson is lying), and Molly, sweet awkward Molly, told me John never went back to 221B. He'd tried to follow Sherlock even in death, but that last place, that barrier between heaven and earth, had stymied him.

The mortal coil stayed with him, and he was too much a soldier to end it.

So we took the place together, perhaps the rashest thing either one of us had done. My boxes of books and clothes and cooking utensils dwarfed his two lone suitcases and laptop.

I didn't know what had happened, exactly, but I knew his friends were worried about him. His landlady used to bring over things that weren't his, just to see him. At first she'd leave them at the door, but then she'd knock and I'd have the kettle on, and we'd sit and talk. Mrs. Hudson has a lot to say, even though she doesn't think she does. She talks about John sometimes, but mostly it's about Sherlock, and this is how I meet him – in her words and the back of John's eyes.

It is not too much to say that I despise him immediately in a very long and vicious way.

For most of the first month I knew him John sat in a chair by the window, staring out at the leafy tops of the elm tree across the street. His laptop sat open but never on. His bare feet, sole pressed to sole, rested on the carpet, and his tea grew cold, the lines of its dark murk staining high water marks on his Royal Army Medical Corps mug.

In Arduis Fidelis is Latin for "Faithful in Adversity." I think that could be John's life motto. Or perhaps, In Mortem Fidelis.

I come in one night and find John sitting with his gun. The air smells of gun oil. I sit beside him and he looks at me with eyes dark as nights in Afghanistan, as blood on the pavement. When I touch him, he flinches, but when I kiss him, he breathes and opens his mouth to mine. We sink into his bed with an effortless grace, and I feel every edge of his brokenness poking into me. We move with everything dark and vivid and scathing that had been in us, like ink – or blood – that had been spilled and stained remorselessly.

He sleeps quietly that night, as if he hasn't found peace, but has let go of exhaustion.


/-/-/-/-/


I like the grey-haired detective – Lestrade? – he has an easy smile, but the fringes of his eyes bleed concern about John. And yet even that fades as time goes on, the longer he survives, and I haven't seen the detective inspector in months, now that John's gone back into medicine.

The hollows are gone from his cheeks, and he doesn't invoke Sherlock's name every time he makes a diagnosis. He has patients, people who look to him, when the world beyond football on the telly, pints at the Marquis Cornwallis, and weekend trips to the Cotswolds doesn't invade his life, doesn't become it. He's stopped seeing his psychiatrist, and there are even weeks now when he doesn't go the cemetery by the Saxon church. There are murders and robberies and crimes that make the front-pages of the Sun and the Mail, and yet those stay there, coming only as close to him as the black print that rubs off the pages as he reads them over toast in the morning.

One day he asks, "Did you ever want to be a pirate?"

"No," I answer him.

"Neither did I," he says.

If he isn't happy, he's content and sometimes I think that's all we can be in this life. He takes my hand in crowded Tube stations, pulls me against him as we lie in the sun of Green Park, and laughs when we watch telly and eat. Later his body finds mine like it's trying to say a word that's on the tip of his tongue, to remember a word he once knew by heart.

I cherish this time, but I find myself waiting, looking at clocks and counting down what I know in my heart only to be inevitable.

It comes when he returns one day and I notice the lines on his face have changed. There's wonder written into those crinkles about his eyes, a relief pulling taut the pallor of his cheeks, something seamless and abiding in the uplifted sway of his smile.

I know then, even before he kisses me, but I listen anyway.

"He's alive," he says and he doesn't have to say any more.

I try to be glad, but I understand that this resurrection, miraculous as innocence, doesn't mean the Reichenbach hero loves John any more for it. I don't believe Sherlock Holmes understands love, that he can't, not with that brilliant, whirlwind mind of his. It would only slow him down, muddy his judgment. It's like blowing sand against glass – it's what makes it up, the silica and the soda ash – but it also sends grit into that smooth surface, pits its reflection with a thousand and one tiny nicks so that what was once see-through becomes cloudy, what was once sharp become marred into softness. No, I don't believe Sherlock Holmes understands love. But John does.

And I do.

So I do the only thing I can. I smile, and he smiles back.

It's beautiful, and I've never seen that before.

There's a tall man at the end of the street, with sharp cheekbones and dark tussled hair, waiting. I watch John move towards him. There's a spring in his step now, something about the way he stands. There's something about the line of his spine as he walks that isn't the way I knew it, something about the way that Sherlock Holmes makes all his vertebrae dance.


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