Author's Note: Post-Reichenbach, this piece takes place shortly after Sherlock's return from his three-year hiatus, during which he was occupied with exterminating the most dangerous remnants of Moriarty's web. For John, however, I maintain my belief that the abrupt transition is far from easy. It's time for our good doctor to make a decision, and made it he has. I warn you: this will not be a happy story.
And yes, this will be a multi-chapter fic.
Enjoy, and as always, I thank you for reading and for taking the time to leave your thoughts. :)
It Is What It Is
Part I: Lacking
Sometimes, despite all the efforts of strength and need and desperation, there is no way to fully heal a rift. It is a losing battle from the start, because the faith has been lost for too long; and without faith, there can be no trust in the other and no hope for moving beyond the point of separation. Faith is a thing of the heart, not the mind. For a heart that has been torn open, and that has subsequently grown a thick, encasing wall to hide and protect the gap, faith can be the hardest thing of all.
Such it was with John Watson. He was a man who, at not even forty years of age, had already had a lifetime of building walls and erecting barriers—things that would protect his heart and his mind from the worst of the circumstances that his profession had to offer. Anyone in his position who could not do this was mad, and would likely go mad because of it. Even the most hardened in the medical profession could only endure so much, and they were hardened because of their very ability to recognise and define their own limits.
This was not to say that John was not a compassionate individual, because he was, and very much so. But he also knew exactly when a calm, rational, and disciplined demeanour was absolutely vital, and understood how to shut himself off, at least for a time, from the emotion that would compromise his skills both as a soldier and as a doctor.
Sometimes, though, John found himself wishing that this ability wasn't quite so automatic—that he could turn away from it just a little more easily.
He had a terrible, hollow feeling that he shouldn't be using it on his best friend.
It's not going to be quick, he kept telling himself, at first. It's not going to be easy. It's been a long time, so give it time. It'll work out. It'll be OK. And for that first week, he had managed to ignore what he was only starting now to notice: that he was avoiding Sherlock, finding excuses to be in another room or indeed out of the flat altogether, and instead of dropping his mental barriers and telling Sherlock exactly what was going through his mind, he found himself putting up more—even strengthening them, damn it—and the worst part was, he didn't regret it in the slightest. At least, not until he thought about it. Then it was more guilt than regret, and he became angry not only at his flatmate, but at himself for being too much of a coward to admit to anyone including himself that he had hit that final wall of his endurance.
He knew his silence was hurting them both. Sherlock acted like nothing was wrong, of course, but John had caught him looking once or twice out of the corner of his eye, and there had been a glimmer of pain there, something dark and quickly-buried.
And then he had looked at himself in the mirror one morning, and the hard, tight, and distant face that looked back at him was not the John Watson he remembered.
It was then, that moment, that he knew this had to stop.
Easier said than done, a little voice in his head kept reminding him, and it was true; he did cringe inwardly at the thought that he was going to have to tell Sherlock what his subconscious had decided almost from the very start of their new-found relationship—that three years was too long. That the rift Sherlock had created between them by his death and by his absence, no matter how selfless his intentions, was still there, and would be for a very long time, and no matter how deeply John struggled with himself, the nightmares would not retreat.
He went to Mrs Hudson first, in what he convinced himself was a tactful decision even though he knew deep down he was only stalling for time. Quietly, over a steaming mug of tea that she had forced between his hands, he explained what he meant to do.
"Oh, but surely you can work it out, dear," she replied immediately, gazing worriedly at him across the tiny kitchen table in the downstairs flat. "Sherlock's never been easy to live with, we all know that, but you've always done better than—"
"It's—not working." John's voice was halting as he shook his head, and he couldn't quite meet her eyes. "I've tried, Mrs H, really I have, but it's just not..."
He found himself trailing off without really knowing where he was headed, and shut himself up again with another large gulp of tea that burned his tongue and throat as it went down. His fingers were probably burning a bit too; he had not released his grip on the mug since it had been given to him. He found that he didn't really care at the moment.
Mrs Hudson, bless her, kept trying all the same. "But these things take time, John."
"Some things," John corrected her immediately. "It doesn't always work that way. And in this case—it's not going to."
"Are you sure, dear, there's nothing you can—?"
But John shook his head again, and looked back into his mug.
She watched him for a long, trembling moment, running one hand sadly up and down the side of her thin, careworn face. Then her eyes softened, and he suddenly knew that she understood, at least partially, how difficult this was for him, and how much it had taken for him to admit, even to her, that he had actually given up.
"You've both changed so much," she murmured softly. "Sometimes I think—" She broke off, and John gave her an odd, questioning look.
"You think what?"
Mrs Hudson waved the query away, as though it was of no importance. "No, no, it's just me having a few silly thoughts, is all," she said quickly. "Nothing for you to worry your head about."
John, however, had developed a warm, genuine respect for the intuition of this seemingly-fragile woman, and it seemed that every once in a while she would demonstrate, very quietly, by word or action, that she, too, had eyes and ears just like Sherlock, and could sometimes see even the things that he would miss. With a fond smile, John reached over and touched his landlady's hand. "No, you can tell me," he encouraged quietly. "I won't be offended if it's something about me or Sherlock, I promise."
"Well..." He watched as she fixed her gaze on the bottom edge of the refrigerator. "It's only that sometimes I look at you both, and it's—it's almost like you've changed places, since Sherlock came back."
John went very still, trying to identify the strange rolling of emotions her soft words had suddenly evoked. "What d' you mean, changed places?"
She let out a shaking, embarrassed little laugh. "Oh, but that is a silly thought, isn't it?"
"What? No..." he assured her absently, "no, it's not. Trust me."
"Well, I've noticed," Mrs Hudson went on, in a hesitant, slightly shaking voice, "that you've gone a bit—well, a bit distant since he's been back, John dear. You don't talk much, and it's so quiet upstairs I keep asking myself if they've both gone out somewhere, except—"
"—except that we haven't gone anywhere," John finished for her softly, and he was becoming aware of a slight ache in his head—or was it his heart?
She nodded. "And it's just it used to be Sherlock who locked himself up in his own head, you remember."
"And... you're saying it's me, now, doing that."
"Oh, well," she fluttered, "not quite like that, of course..."
But she did mean it like that, and they both realised it. John was suddenly becoming aware that this, this was exactly what had been bothering him this whole time, only he had never been quite able to put it into words, because it had never occurred in his wildest thoughts that he could possibly be becoming anything like Sherlock. They had always been different, hadn't they? People called them opposites, even; on the one hand, there was Sherlock—brilliant, erratic, calculating—and on the other there was John—the steady, patient, and practical doctor who just happened to have a military background that encouraged a life outside the ordinary.
And yet, here now was Mrs Hudson, probably the one person closest to them both, telling John in her soft and reluctant voice that she could see a shadow of Sherlock Holmes in him. Mentally, John flinched back from the idea. It was uncanny; it was frightening. There were sides of Sherlock that John never had and never would like, and that sort of personal isolation was one of them.
It was with a slightly stricken feeling that he looked away again—out the window, at the floor, anywhere—but at the same time, he could hardly deny what his instincts had been trying to tell him for days now just because someone had finally had the courage to say it out loud. What he could say to that was another problem entirely, and he didn't have an answer.
"He came down and visited me, you know," Mrs Hudson ventured, gently clearing her throat.
John swung his head around to regard her incredulously. "Sherlock?"
She nodded. "It was—Thursday—I remember because I'd just done the floors in here and out in the hall, and when I came back there he was, sat in here like he'd just appeared instead of coming down the stairs where I should have seen him."
Despite the ensuing pause, John didn't interrupt. A quiet combination of confusion and guilt was pressing gently at the edges of his consciousness as he listened, for this was not normal Sherlock behaviour. He could think of any number of reasons why his friend would pop downstairs, but none of them included sitting quietly and waiting for Mrs Hudson to return from one of her regular bouts of cleaning. Sherlock could just have easily caught a word with her in the hall, but he had chosen not to, and John felt a small pang as he realised why that must have been.
"I could tell something was on his mind, you know, but he didn't say a word for the longest time... just kept looking all around while I made a cuppa." Mrs Hudson's pale forehead was wrinkled in thought. "And I thought, oh, this is very strange. I don't think I've ever seen him look like that before. Almost lost, it was."
John let out a long, slow breath. "Lost?" he repeated quietly. "Why—lost?"
Her eyes blinked apologetically back at him. "I think it was you, dear." She sounded very much as though she would have liked to hold the words back, but at the same time, John thought he detected the barest note of gentle reproof. "He's trying, you know, John. I think it just doesn't show as much—but that's the way he's always been, isn't it? He's not about to tell you or me or anyone, but he is trying. I can see it."
"Then why did he bother coming down here, if he's always so closed-up?" John asked, feeling it odd to be reaching in such desperation for answers about his own best friend.
"Because, love, he doesn't understand what's happening. He's only a child in some ways, after all."
As another throbbing ache felt its way into his chest, John abruptly closed his eyes and dropped his head into his hands. This was exactly what he had been afraid of, if he was honest with himself: losing Sherlock to something of the detective's own making, and watching helplessly as their friendship swayed and buckled and slowly gave way to something far colder. It was as though even through death, Moriarty's ultimate scheme was reaching for them, twisting them apart. When John next spoke, his voice was muffled against his palms and fingertips.
"And that's exactly why I have to leave."
He heard a light breath escape her lips before she asked, very quietly, "Are you sure, dear, that's not exactly why you should be staying with him?"
"No—no—it's just the opposite—" John's head shot up again, and as he looked at her, he could feel his eyes burning with all the memories and all the trials and all the things he knew he was about to let fall to the earth behind him. "It's not going to work, Mrs H, it just isn't. I'm sorry—I wish it could happen some other way—but we've both said too much, and—and not said enough—and it needs to stop before it gets completely out of control."
"Alright, dear," she whispered. "If that's really how you feel about it"—and the soft disappointment in her voice cut through him like knife.
He didn't remain long after that. Sherlock had gone out by the time he returned upstairs, for which he did not complain. How long he sat there in the darkening room, he never remembered, for the minutes and hours ticked thoughtlessly on, and still, still, he could not think of how he was going to tell Sherlock.
Thank you kindly for taking the time to read! Any thoughts, comments, or suggestions you could offer are very much appreciated. :)