"I want," John Watson says to Harry Watson, "to buy a gun. A nice one."
"And hi to you too, you wanker," she says.
"Tea, please," John says to the waiter loitering guiltily nearby. "Black with sugar."
"You remembered, little bro," Harry says with a trace of bitterness. She drops into the chair opposite him with a heavy thump and bites her lip, staring at him with a frown drawing her eyebrows together. Their mother used to note, almost sadly, that they only looked really alike when both of them were in bad moods. In the Watson home, bad moods had been something of an epic- duly inherited, shamelessly propagated and furiously dealt out.
John looks back at her. He wants to smile but knows she will fly into a rage if he does, so all he does is nod politely. "I remembered."
Harry looks almost the same as he remembered, except that the lines of age bracketed around her eyes are a bit deeper than they used to be. She is rumpled, her clothes unironed, her shoes dirty. The distinct sour-alcohol smell clings to her strongly, so much so that John can't fool himself into thinking that it was just from last night. Her hair is still thick and lustrous, if shot through with a few strands of grey, and her figure is still slender, although she has some of John's stockiness. But Harry is, and always has been, attractive in a way that John could never be, and even as a depressed drunkard displays exuberant joie de vivre; in the good, early years, Clara had confided in him that that was what she fell in love with.
They sit for a while, the silence stretching thin. His sister is tense, curt, snappish, and through oblique hints and blasphemous swear words in her irregular letters while he was at war, John can tell what's on her mind. So John says, "Harry-"
"Don't say it."
"But I can't-" and it's true he can't shut up, won't-
"Damn you!" Harry shouts and stands abruptly, chair screeching and tumbling backwards across the smooth tiled floor. "I said shut up, John, just-"
"Clara?" John says hopelessly, and Harry goes rigid and glares at him, and she's digging trembling fingers into her purse and for a split second John thinks oh god, she's going to kill me. But instead she pulls out something thin and flat and rectangular and tosses it at him. It hits the tabletop hard and slides towards him; John sees it is a phone, sophisticated and advanced but well-used and well-worn: scratched, worn, dutifully abused. Much like Clara had been, probably.
"There," Harry says, "that's for you. Welcome home, John, bro."
"Harry- I just want to- help."
"I'm getting a divorce," Harry spits. "We're getting separated. I'm leaving her. Help that, won't you?"
"Harry, please, sit down." He picks up the phone gingerly. On the back, engraved into the metal: Harry Watson, from Clara XXX. He had always liked Clara; Clara laughing at the wedding, flushed in white lace and hope; Clara standing at the station next to a grim Harry before he left and the fervent feelings she felt playing over her delicately expressive features; Clara, one night at the back door when all three of them were uproariously drunk and Harry had passed out in the living room and they were sharing a smoke, almost pressed into each other to keep the chill away, and then she was so close and so sweet and so pretty that he leant over and kissed her.
Harry would hate him. More than she already did anyway. He'd never told her, knew that she would kill him for it, knew that Clara would be devastated. Another dirty little secret, another nail in the coffin of their relationship.
"I'm going to the courts now," Harry is saying, and he takes a deep breath and looks at her.
"Harry, please," he says again, and people are beginning to stare now. "Please, just don't drink, at least. Stay sober."
"I'll do what I bloody well want to!"
"I can't let you drink," he says firmly, "You're ruining your life, Harry."
And she turns and stomps away, heels clacking furiously over the pavement and John can only stare at her retreating back. His eyes flit up to the clock on the wall; this meeting had lasted a grand total of six minutes.
John sighs and drinks the two cups of tea brought to him before leaving.
"A gun, John?"
They are at a food fair in a hall bigger than Bart's, filled with all kinds of smells and scents with tables overflowing with food that is either too disgusting to contemplate, too expensive to buy or too dangerous to eat.
"Yes," John says. "A Sig Sauer, or a Glock semiautomatic. Something comforting."
Harry chuckles, lifting a jar of preserved worms. "Morbid, eh."
Two days later Harry had called up, apologized. John had apologized, and they'd met up here again. There was no Clara, no drinking, no mention of any trouble at all. They were two siblings, walking in a fair, contemplating food they would rather burn than eat.
"Where'd you buy a gun? Is it legal to have one?"
"Oooh, is little John trying to break the law? Naughty boy."
"It's perfectly legal- if you go through certain procedures."
"Mmm. I would suppose being certified sane by your therapist would be one of them."
"Well," John says lightly, "I don't see any problems with that."
Harry smiles and lifted a jar. "Um, pickled tea leaves."
"How about some reindeer pate?"
"No, Johnny, pate is clichéd. Let's get some Casu Marzu."
They stand in front of the disreputable cheese, breathing in synchrony through their mouths. The maggots, as pale as dead bodies, crawl over the rotting cheese with faint sucking sounds.
"Does it look familiar, little brother?"
"That's what my old workplace looked like," John answers, and they both laugh –too loudly. An old lady looks at them with distaste and edges away. "In fact," he continues, "That's on a good day. On a hot day- well," and they double over, gripped with hysterical humour. And John thinks- isn't it? The dead cheese is exactly the colour of a dead body, and in Afghanistan, where the weather is unmerciful, rot sets in fast. And the maggots were, of course, everywhere, seemingly born from nothing but the mere presence of death. He never remembers seeing any flies- only maggots. Pale and white, feasting on the cold flesh of dead men. John, as the resident doctor, has had his fair share of maggots.
Hands on his knees, a sudden wave of nausea grips him, and he gags, throat closing up.
"Hey, Johnny?" Harry says, her voice far above him, and then her hand is closing tightly around his forearm and they are pushing through the crowd, through the thick, damp air. John's gaze is blurred, but he can hear his sister's loud, colourful voice, taste the alcohol of her presence on his tongue. Everything is bright, a golden glow, and his leg still hurts.
He wants to forget, but this new life is not new at all, only a different one.
And then they are outside, suddenly. The cold air bites his bare skin and he breathes in, sharply, deeply. It is snowing heavily, and the sidewalk has turned into slush. It is lunchtime and it is crowded, people are hurrying by, pushing their way through purposefully, eyes focused on nothing. They do not give a whit of attention to the dark-haired, blue-eyed couple who are so similar they must be siblings, and so Harry and John stand there, clinging to one another, gazing out into the cold, pale morning.
John's meeting with Clara is brief and succinct. They meet during Clara's lunch break under the Big Ben. It is quite cold, but the sky is clear and bright, and the snow has stopped. John arrives first and stands there uncomfortably, tapping his cane on the ground absently. He sees Clara before she sees him, her fair head poking through the greyness of the crowd around him. She looks uncertain, and at the split second when their eyes meet she seems almost frozen like a deer in headlights. John can commiserate- he feels the same way.
But she comes to him anyway, and they smile awkwardly, tentatively, at each other, breath fogging in the cold air.
"You look well," she says, slowly, cautiously. "I heard about what happened. I'm sorry, John. I really am."
Suddenly, on impulse, John reaches out and catches her hand, raising it to his lips. He kisses the bare skin briefly, marvelling at how cold and smooth it is, before quickly dropping it as he realizes the absurdity of his actions. His cheeks burn. Looking up, he can see that Clara is equally startled; a pink flush races across her pale skin.
"I'm sorry," he says, coughing in embarrassment. "I mean... about you and... you shouldn't apologize. For me. I mean. Your problems are more..."
"Let's get a coffee, shall we?" Clara suggests lightly.
"Yes," John says. "I'd like that."
They walk a few blocks to a small, humid coffee bar, bustling with teenage waiters who serve small demitasse cups of thick, strong, sweet coffee. They order Turkish coffee, John orders a pretzel and Clara orders a slice of apple pie. While they wait they look outside the window, and around them, and at everything. John sneaks looks at Clara while she stirs sugar into her coffee with a long silver spoon, sucking the glazed sweetness at the end of it with quiet concentration. She rests her head on one fist, fair hair bunched up on her head messily. She is wearing a pale tan coat and white shirt with black jeans, a red woollen scarf wrapped around her neck. She looks tired, and sad, old strains etched invisibly onto her face; but unlike Harry, she also looks remarkably calm.
Finally, when they know it cannot be delayed any longer, Clara sets her spoon down on the edge of her saucer with a delicate little ping. She laces her hands on the table between them, looks John straight in the eye, and says, "I'm going to Germany."
John looks into the tepid depths of his coffee. "Why?"
"The company offered it to me. Three months. For a joint project with another company. I took German in college; it's a little rusty now, but enough for work."
He nods a little. He wonders how Harry will feel. He wonders if she knows.
"It'll be good for you," he says. "A new start."
"Yes, I hope so." She pushes her spoon into the pie, mashing it up. "It'll be... a change. I've never been so far from England."
I've been to Afghanistan, John thinks. Is that farther than Germany?
"How about you, John?"
"I'll..." Sit around and rot. "Look for something to do, I guess. I have a medical degree; I could look for work in private practices or something like that. It'll keep me busy."
"That's good." They lapse into silence. And John cannot help but remember happier times, when the three of them used to go out together late at night for meals, or to movies, and the one time they went to Clara's family home out in the countryside on Bonfire Night. And the bonfire was magnificent, reaching up to the sky in a glorious rush of gold and heat and sparks. And Harry, her face glowing in the soft light, arm wrapped around Clara.
When Clara stands up it takes him by surprise. She says, slightly breathlessly, "I've got to go back to work. Sorry. It's late..."
"No, it's fine. Wait, Clara..." she looks at him. "I just want to say... I hope you'll be happy. And I hope you find... whatever makes you happy. And I'm sorry about what happened. I really am. If there's ever anything I can do for you..."
And for a while, they both remember a kiss one night, a long time ago.
Finally, Clara says, almost tenderly, "Take care of Harry, John. And take care of yourself. I hope you'll find what you're looking for."
And then she's gone.
John sits there for awhile as life continues bustling around him, breaking his pretzel into tiny crumbs on the plate, thinking: what am I looking for?
They are at a flower show. Their mother loves flowers, so they are looking for something to light up the dull winter months when her garden lies dormant, slumbering under the white mantle like a bear in hibernation. John is all for the orchids, but Harry prefers tulips.
"What did your therapist say?"
"Your paranoia is controlling you," John quotes. "You should stop using sarcasm as a shield. There is no good in avoiding this and pretending nothing is wrong, John."
"Well," Harry muses, "Daddy always said the Watsons were lousy actors."
"I never considered a career in acting anyway," John assures her. "There- there. The blue ones."
"They look tacky, John. I tell you- yellow tulips. Yellow is bright."
"You hate yellow."
"I'm not buying them for me, am I?"
"This place is too hot. I'm surprised these flowers are alive."
"They like it," Harry says. "The hot weather suits them. Better than it did you anyway."
John lets it slide. Instead he says, "It's funny. You know."
"It's winter. These should all be dead. They would be dead if they were outside. But in here they're alive and living, growing and thriving and secretly reproducing."
"Overtly. Look, the pollen on your sleeve. You're propagating sperm."
Harry brushes it off and smiles. "Oops, just killed some babies there."
"Think of all the lives you're destroying." John only realises the tactlessness –and also the truth- of that statement after he says it, but it is too late, and for a moment tense silence hangs between them.
They walk together, in silence, to a fogged glass window behind a great vase of flowers. Harry presses her hand to the glass, and then her cheek, closing her eyes.
"You'll stick to it," John says, half-jokingly, slightly disturbed by his sister's quietness.
Harry opens her eyes and stares at him steadily. She says, "I love you, you know, John."
He looks back.
And she says, with crushing, resigned finality, "I know she did too."
John knows that she knows, and his eyes fall under the unspoken accusation. There is no point in denying. All he can say is, "She loved you too." And it is strange, he thinks, how we can love so many people, have room for so many loves in our heart.
Harry leans against the wall and smiles tiredly. "It's all right, bro," she says quietly. "I didn't leave her because of that. I screwed it up myself."
They stand there for a long moment, gazing at each other: a sister and a brother, both grown up, both still children in different ways.
"It could be worse, I suppose," he says in the end. "I could have loved you."
She laughs and the tension is broken. They move away from the window, pushing determinedly through the crowd. It is already night and the darkness beyond the door beckons.
"I want," Harry Watson says to John Watson, "to have a life. How's that?"
John smiles and plucks a little purple orchid the size of his thumb, placing it on his tongue. "Not bad," he says. "Not bad at all."
One morning, when he wakes up, Sherlock is digging through his drawers. There are a lot of things- expensive things, cheap things, his things- lying, forlornly scattered, on the floor. John lies in bed, staring intently at the ceiling. If he looks at the mess he knows his inbred need for military precision will overcome him and he doesn't feel like having another spectacular argument with Sherlock in his pyjamas.
"I can't believe this," Sherlock says. "These photographs are twenty-two years old. Really, John?"
"Some people need reminders that they were young once," John says absently. "Anyway, get your hands out of there. I don't think my childhood photographs will help your case."
"No, but I remember you had some old negatives in here-"
"You are not touching those, Sherlock. If you try, you will be sorry. Some people have sentiments."
Sherlock sighs. "Sentiments."
"Just repeat that to yourself before you touch personal belongings."
"By the way, I found this in one of the packing crates." Something thumps onto his bed, sliding accurately across the sheets up to his fingers. "I suppose you must have forgotten it- it is so old. If this thing has sentiment for you, then I suggest you bow in obeisance to me for saving it before I set the crates on fire."
John picks it up curiously. And then he laughs.
"What?" Sherlock asks, half-turning, his profile almost fondly familiar in the morning light.
"Nothing," John says, leaning back and closing his eyes, the book clasped in his hands. "Nothing."
Sherlock thinks to himself: he looks remarkably peaceful.
"Go on, tell me. Is there something special about the book?"
"No, Sherlock. Keep digging."
"Literally or metaphorically?"
"Tell me," John says, smiling, opening his light eyes and settling them on Sherlock. He waves the book at him. "What's the title of this book?"
"La Vita Nuova," Sherlock says automatically. "The New Life."
"Exactly," John says, and then he laughs again.