A/N: Nothing you recognize belongs to me! Enjoy! :D
Oh, and I apologize for the long silence. I got married! Yup, I'm officially a Mrs. now. More fic is forthcoming!
Well, who else is there? I mean you lot, all you do is eat chips, go to bed and watch telly, while all the time underneath you there's a war going on!
~The Doctor, "Rose"
The days that changed John Watson's life started without fanfare or acclaim or any kind of warning that something extraordinary was going to happen. The day he met Mike Stanford in the park had started out miserably—he'd spent the morning contemplating his steadily dwindling funds and the necessity for immediately procuring a job when he wasn't staring at the blank screen of the blog his therapist seemed to think would help ease him back into 'civilian' life. It had ended with him meeting the most intriguing, infuriating, brilliant man he'd ever had the privilege of knowing, a man who had shown him that beneath the surface of the mundane existence of most people a battle was raging every moment of every day. Sherlock Holmes had opened John's eyes—and now he was dead. Dead and dishonored, mocked by the press and, once the scandal had worn itself into old news, forgotten by everyone except those who actually knew him: Mrs. Hudson, their landlady (not their housekeeper), D.I. Gregory Lestrade, John, and Molly Hooper. He refused to include Mycroft in his list. He hadn't forgiven Sherlock's older, supposedly cleverer brother for his part in the detective's death. If Mycroft hadn't practically written out Sherlock's entire biography for James Moriarty the consulting criminal wouldn't have been able to craft a story so plausible that everyone seemed inclined to believe him. As far as John Watson was concerned, Mycroft Holmes had killed his younger brother.
The question that loomed before him after the funeral, after he moved his belongings out of the flat they had shared and visited Sherlock's grave, was 'what next?' What did you do when your best friend was dead? He'd been swept up in Sherlock's life almost as soon as he'd met the man, and for three years his focus had been on his volatile friend. Life, however, gave him a limited time to muse and to mourn. His bank account was depressingly low and unless he wanted to take Harry up on her offer to share a flat (and wouldn't that be fun?) he needed to find a job.
So he did. He took a position at a clinic in the heart of the city that reminded him a bit too much of Sarah but paid enough to cover his expenses. He took the tube to work and wrote his blog (although readership had dropped significantly since Sherlock's 'exposure') and ate his meals alone in front of the television. He met Molly and Greg for drinks once a month, had tea with Mrs. Hudson every week (she worried, he could tell), and ignored the curious looks and hushed murmurs of his coworkers. In no time at all John Watson, M.D, former blogger for Sherlock Holmes, found himself in a peculiar sort of rhythm that felt almost normal.
The day that began a chain of events that would change his life again, the day that would lead him back into an adrenaline-saturated struggle beyond even what Sherlock had shown him began with a series of unfortunate events, the end result of which convinced him that he should cut his losses whilst he still could and return home. He had sick days to spare, as he generally disliked taking time off—it allowed him to dwell on what his life had become and that made him maudlin and that was unacceptable. So it was that he found himself in a small café a few blocks from his customary tube station ordering breakfast. John was a bit distracted as he found a seat, the man behind the counter reminded him of Angelo which reminded him of Sherlock, and he failed to notice the brunette woman behind him until they collided and he proceeded to knock the cup of coffee she carried from her hand.
"Oh!" she exclaimed as the paper cup hit the floor and coffee began to pool around their shoes. Or maybe it was because he'd grabbed her around the waist to keep her from falling. It had been a reflex, like ducking when someone yelled 'down!' or saying 'bless you' when someone sneezed. She was pretty in an unusual sort of way, he noted idly—her mouth was strong and too large for her face, her nose was straight and small, and her eyes were wide and brown. She was dressed like most of the young professionals in the café, but there was something about her that didn't seem to fit.
He pulled his hands back once he was sure that she was steady on her feet. "Sorry," he apologized with a rueful smile. "I wasn't paying attention. Let me buy you another."
She glanced at the slim watch wrapped around her wrist and grimaced. "Thanks for the offer, mate, but I'm already late." She cocked her head to the side and studied him for a moment. John had to fight the urge to fidget—he felt like she was seeing right through him—but then she apparently found what she was looking for, because she smiled and grabbed one of the napkins from a nearby table. "Tell you what," she began as she scrawled something onto the napkin. "I get off work at five. Meet me back here and you can make up it, yeah?" She pressed the napkin into his hand and wrapped his fingers around it. Her hands were soft, John noted, but the fingertips were calloused. Her nails were short but painted a bright, cheery pink. They scraped across his palm and sent shivers down his spine.
And then she was halfway across the room. He blinked. Had time skipped? Or was he really that distracted by a pretty face? She turned as she opened the door and waved at him before disappearing into the sea of people beyond the café's doors. John looked at the napkin, unfolded it, and could not stop a smile from flitting across his face. 'Mari Prentice,' the napkin read, followed by a phone number.
John met her later, of course. How could he resist? He'd run into her (literally) by chance and spoken to her for less than a minute, but there was something strangely familiar about the whole situation (and he refused to draw parallels between that instance and the day he met Sherlock but his mind made the connections anyway). It was ten past when he walked through the café's door again. She was already there, sitting at a table by the window. John was glad; it gave him time to consider her. Living with Sherlock Holmes, the man who noticed everything, left its marks on him and one of those was a new appreciation for minutiae. Something struck him when they first met, but it was a whirl of awkward apologies and spilled coffee and unexpected phone numbers.
She, Mari Prentice, sat with her head propped on her hand. Her elbow rested on the table and her chin on her palm. She was turned slightly away from John and the rest of the café's occupants. She was alone, he realized, that's what was odd. She was surrounded by people but she was completely alone. The space around her was undisturbed; no one bumped into her or talked to her or even looked at her most of the time. Well, no one besides him.
Mari smiled when she saw him and he was forced to revise his estimation of her. She was beautiful when she smiled—but it didn't reach her eyes. "It occurred to me," she said as he sat down across from her, "that I didn't get your name this morning."
"It's John," he replied with a crooked smile. "John Watson."
Mari held out her hand. "Nice to meet you John Watson."
She worked at the British Library. "Acquisitions," she replied when he asked her where, but her passion was poetry. Her tastes were eclectic—she read the War Poets (T.S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon) and the Imagists (Amy Lowell), although she wouldn't touch Ezra Pound. "He was an arrogant, anti-Semitic bigot," she'd declared forcefully.
"Eliot was anti-Semitic," John had pointed out, grateful that he'd dated a lit major in Uni, back before he'd decided that yes, he did want to be a doctor, and that the best place for him was a hole in the middle of the desert.
Mari smiled at him over the rim of her mug. "Yeah, but his poetry makes up for it," she replied.
They stayed away from heavy topics—why she moved through a crowd like Moses parting the waters, why his jaw twitched every time John saw a copy of the Daily Mail, why both of them were sitting in a café talking to a complete stranger. They talked about politics and poetry and patients, about the weather (unusually mild), about nothing at all. He was enjoying himself, John realized, more than he had in a long time. Drinks with Lestrade and Molly were heavy on the reminiscing—well—they reminisced. He drank and stared at the wall. Mrs. Hudson never wanted to talk about it. She'd been close with Sherlock, closer even than he had, and she missed the infuriating man. The shadows of him were heavy everywhere John went and it was nice, it was so nice to be able to breathe without the ghost of his friend saturating his lungs.
So John met her again, and again after that, and again after that, and soon they were meeting for lunch, and then dinner, and then she was following him home to watch a documentary he'd recorded. Because when they were talking (about anything, really, except the carefully marked folder of subjects that were most definitely OFF LIMITS) he could be himself—angry, sad, just a bit bitter, and occasionally funny, sarcastic, and rarely…happy—without the threat of judgment. She knew who he was, he could tell, but she didn't push him. She didn't ask him about Sherlock or what had happened; she simply accepted that Moriarty was real, that it was all real. He asked her about it once, when they met on their respective lunch breaks and she looked at him like he was daft. "Of course he's real," she said like it was obvious, like anyone who thought otherwise was a blithering moron, like she'd said it a million times before. John wondered what impossible thing she'd been forced to defend.
John took her to meet Mrs. Hudson first. Every Sunday afternoon he had tea with his former landlady back at 221A Baker Street. It was the closest he'd go to the flat. He couldn't bring himself to actually touch the cool brass doorknob or push in the door (for fear it would creak as it always did and he'd be thrown back into what had been his life) and go inside. He wasn't that man anymore. He wasn't the John Watson who ran around, playing (in turn) nursemaid and friend and soundboard and gopher to Sherlock Holmes. He was Dr. John Watson who ate lunch with Mari at a different place every day, who met her for coffee after work, who put up a fuss about watching EastEnders but was secretly addicted. He was moving on. He was building a life. He was healing—and he thought that he was stronger for it.
Mrs. Hudson, as he predicted, adored Mari and it was easier to breathe with her there. They drank tea and ate biscuits. She rested her hand on his leg and he rested his hand atop hers. They didn't hold hands, although they frequently walked arm-in-arm. Whenever he tried to lace their fingers together something passed over her face and she pulled away like she'd been burnt. He got the message (bad memory) and didn't press. She didn't ask him about the cane that leant up against the corner of the sitting room in his flat, or about the service revolver he kept loaded in the nightstand.
They talked about the weather and Mari's job at the British Library. John complained about a few of his more colorful clients, and Mrs. Hudson mentioned that someone had rented the flat upstairs. "A nice-looking young man," she observed. "But I don't see him much. Shut in, I expect, one of those agrophobics."
"Agoraphobics, you mean?" John clarified.
"That's it, dear," Mrs. Hudson agreed.
Mari cocked her head to the side. She looked—troubled—and she was distracted for most of the rest of their visit. Mrs. Hudson invited them back, of course, and bid them goodnight warmly.
"Everything all right?" John asked after the door had closed, as they walked arm-in-arm to the tube station down the street.
Mari gave him a bright smile that he didn't believe for one second. "Course it is, why wouldn't it be?"
He looked at her long and hard, but she seemed determined to sweep whatever had bothered her under the rug. He backed off with a sigh. He valued her empathy and her instinctive knowledge of when to press—but there were chasms between them, entire lives that neither knew and she, at least, seemed to have no intention to bridge them. And then he saw a man in a long, dark coat turn the corner ahead of them and felt something clench inside his chest, like an iron band around his lungs. Well. Maybe he didn't either.
John wasn't sure who was more surprised when he brought Mari to the pub—Molly or Greg. It was for different reasons, of course. Greg had been half-convinced that John was in love with Sherlock (like most of the police force, it seemed). Molly knew better, but she was shocked that he'd let someone he was interested in meet them. Greg spent most of the night talking about a series of unsolved murders; serial killers, he thought, and moaned about how Sherlock would have been all over that case. It was an odd one: the people were seemingly unconnected except that they all lived in major population centers and the flats next to theirs had been recently vacated.
Mari seemed interested, which struck John as odd. He hadn't pegged her as a crime show person and she'd never expressed more than mild interest over anything reported in the papers. He'd taken to looking for news of the criminal world mostly out of habit. He couldn't count the number of times he'd combed the papers whilst Sherlock checked his phone and the television, on the prowl for something to occupy his mind. Greg refused to go into detail. It was, after all, an open case and he was legally prohibited from talking about it.
Once again John had to remind himself that he wasn't the only one who suffered from Sherlock's death and dishonor. Lestrade had been formally reprimanded. He'd allowed Sherlock to consult on hundreds of cases. That didn't look good after he was framed as a fraud. And Molly, well, everyone knew that Molly carried a torch for Sherlock. Still, it was good to talk to them. They kept him anchored, kept him grounded in the knowledge that he wasn't crazy.
He and Mari said goodnight around 11 o'clock. They both had to be up early but, as was his custom, he walked her to her door and kissed her goodnight. It was chaste, just a soft press of lips. She seemed to shy away from sex, and if he was honest he could get that anywhere. The companionship he found in her, though, was hard to come by, so he was content to remain at rest.
It was a good life he was building. A solid, stable life. He had a good job, a decent flat, and good friends. Mari was kind, interesting, and generous, and he was lucky to have her in his life. Until one day, when, quite suddenly—she wasn't.