A/N Last one, hope you enjoyed!
Thanks to jacquesgenevieve, Sherlockreader, and Anylinde
Disclaimer I don't own Sherlock or any associated characters, events, etc.
She wakes up the next day to sunlight. It's surprising, almost disorienting to feel the tentative shine slipping past her window blinds, brushing gently over her bed and the tangle of sheets and blankets that she's nested in. For a moment, she thinks that perhaps she's slept in, that it's already noon, the only time that the sun usually has the power to pierce through the perpetual veil of smog that crests London's sky. But then it hits her that it's simply sunny out—the clouds are gone, if only for a brief while, and, as she learns when she sits up and draws the blinds fully away from her window, people are taking advantage of it. Strolling down the street in two and threes, laughing, talking.
It is June 27th, and the city has forgotten.
There's not a whisper of grief in any of the pedestrians' expressions, and Mary wonders vaguely whether John has been put into a similar good mood by the surprisingly cheerful weather. It will be nice, she decides, if he's more animated for their—
(Oh, God, she'd completely forgotten.)
She nearly trips over herself getting out of bed, and is halfway to the phone, words forming in her mind—I can't, I'm sorry, something's come up, I'm busy, it just won't work—when it occurs to her that she really doesn't have an excuse to avoid this. Not for him, or for herself. Why is it so bad to just let herself go out every once in a while, after all?
No, that's crazy. She's not in the kind of job that allows for relationships, anyways. And even if she was, would she really choose John Watson, of all people? A depressed ex-army doctor with reverse PTSD and a recently dead best friend?
Taking a deep breath, she lowers herself down to sit on the ground, running one hand through her hair. One date, that's all it is. Just one date, and then she can tell him it won't work out, avoid it if he asks again. She could also, as she now theorizes, act awful enough that he won't want to see her again. No, but he has to see her again, just not in this way, if she's still trying to get information from him…
You're acting like a child. Calm down.
She can shower. Of course, she already did last night, but it'll be good, it'll clear her mind, and that's exactly what she needs right now. Rising again, shakily, she stumbles out the door of her bedroom and moves to the bathroom across the hall, her fingers slipping over the light switch and then the handles of the faucet, turning the water up as hot as it gets. Her pajamas pool around her ankles as she pulls them down, then steps out and slips under the water.
It's a relief from the moment it hits her skin. Too hot, yes, almost burning, but wonderful for the fact that it wipes anything and everything else from her mind, rearranges and calibrates everything so that she can start down a logical train of thought once more. She takes a deep breath through the hot streams running down her cheeks and forehead, and tries to mull over things again, more reasonably.
She's already agreed to go on a date with John. A single date. It won't hurt anything—it might, just might, even let her get even closer to him, help her understand his emotional state.
(You've been telling yourself that every damn time, you idiot. Whenever you get closer to him, you just say that it'll help you gather more information, but there's a limit, there's a boundary that you're about to cross, if you haven't already.)
And then, after that, she'll just say that it's not working out, and not go through it again. Simple. Straightforward. She'll be able to keep seeing him, and no problems will be caused.
Before all of this, though, she'll go to work. She barely has anything to do at last check, but Mycroft might have added to her tasks since last night, and it'll be good to give them a look-over, so that he doesn't think she's slacking. She's been working doubly hard lately, to get everything done while still taking a couple of hours a day to go and see John. Mycroft probably knows about her visits, at this point, even though he hasn't mentioned them to her—the man finds everything out eventually—and she doesn't want him to forbid her from going to Baker Street.
She tries not to think about how nonsensically she's behaving. How it shouldn't be a problem what Mycroft thinks, since it's his commands that she's obeying anyways, and if her job doesn't involve such close contact, then she should drop it without thinking twice. She still tells herself, for some reason, that she's doing this all for work.
That's a joke at this point, but she's happy to deny it.
The day goes by with alarming speed, and before she's ready, she finds herself back at home, sitting in front of a makeup mirror with her hair brushed and hanging in neat waves over her neck and shoulders, gazing at her clear face. She's not entirely sure how to go about doing this—she's been on dates before, of course she has, but those were years ago, and she's forgotten how to look like herself, rather than a smirking, dark-dressed facsimile with overdone makeup and a shadowed demeanor. Normally, it wouldn't be that much of a problem, but John knows who the real Mary is—she's shown herself to him, involuntarily, every damned time that they met. And she regrets it now—regrets it more than she can stand—but that doesn't mean it can be taken back.
Just how casual of a look is expected of her, anyways? He mentioned a restaurant, Angelo's. Italian—Italian places can be anywhere on the scale of formality, dammit. She'll have to find some sort of medium and hope it's okay.
With this in mind, she starts to create a new mask for herself.
She starts with the eyes. Darkening them—not too extremely, but enough for them to stand out. She does the same with her lashes, so that they're thick and curved, lending emphasis to the comparatively glittery quality of her eyes. Then the cheeks—the merest touch of rosy caramel blush, subtle enough to look natural, and a swipe of light gloss over her lips. It looks good, she decides—or at least good enough for this.
Her outfit goes along with the dark, simple theme. A black camisole under a thin, loose long-sleeved shirt of the same color, hemmed below the breast and ever so slightly transparent, and plain dress pants. She finishes with onyx stud earrings and tall boots. The entire thing takes nearly an hour, over which she experiences several surges of uncertainty and frustration, but she's happy enough with the final product. Hopefully he'll be, too.
(Why should that even matter?)
Despite the lightness of the morning, the color outside now is a charcoal grey, the first hints of sunset the only colors to pierce through the overwhelmingly dark shade. She keeps her spirits bright, though, reinforcing them with an unnecessary spring in her step as she moves along the sidewalk.
She takes a cab to Baker Street, and arrives at two minutes after seven—he's waiting outside, she sees with a jolt in her stomach, and barely thinks as she pays the driver and steps out. A flood of self-consciousness suddenly washes across her—are her clothes too fancy? Does she look like an idiot? What was she thinking, ever coming here in the first place?—but it's all background noise, because she has to focus on smiling and waving to him, on looking like she doesn't have any anxieties beyond the usual ones of a woman on a first date.
"You look nice," she comments superficially, taking in the fact that he looks no different than he did whenever she'd visit him inside. Perhaps his shirt is just a bit more fresh-pressed, and his posture is notably improved, but other than that, nothing. Still, he does look nice. He always has, really, except for the first day, when he appeared to be a walking corpse.
"I look nice?" he replies, with a genuine life. "Mary, you're gorgeous."
She really has no way to reply to that, so she settles for a nervous giggle and a bashful glance downwards. "You know the way, then," she mumbles, quite ready to be done with awkwardly standing on a street corner.
"Alright. Shall we?"
She half-expects, with a lurch of dread, that he's about to hold his hand out to her, but he doesn't, just turns and begins to stride along. She keeps up easily—his pace is casual, relaxed. She forces herself to behave the same way—she's had a lot of practice with acting, so it's relatively easy to school her features into a neutral expression. Her insides, on the other hand, have the opposite idea; they seem to be leaping about all around her chest and stomach with no thought given to their proper behavior. They exchange a few bits of small talk over the course of the walk, but she doesn't catalogue any of it, only keeps up responses in order to not appear uninterested.
Angelo's, as it turns out, is very casual indeed. The fanciest thing about it are the candles perched on each table, which don't quite work to maintain a romantic atmosphere, but she's glad about that. It's comfortable, homely, and that's all that really matters.
"I know it doesn't look like much," John says almost apologetically as they slip through the doors, "but it really is wonderful food."
Mary nods quickly. "It looks fine," she promises, and she means it. John smiles and slides into a chair near the front window. She obediently takes the seat opposite, and they've barely settled in before a large man with a big beard and a bigger grin is beside them, offering plastic-coated menus.
"Dr. Watson!" he booms. "Oh, it's good to see you out and about again, very good."
"It feels nice," John replies easily. "Nice to see you, too, Angelo."
"And who's this lovely young woman?"
Mary looks up quickly from the menu she's been examining, about to answer, but John replies before she can.
"Mary Morstan. We went to school together."
She almost corrects him before she remembers that he still believes that—it's the lie she first fed him. So she suffices for a swallow and a nod, hoping that she looks friendly enough. Angelo offers a meaty hand that she delicately shakes, then he glances over his shoulder at the other tables in the restaurant, all of which are rather full. It's a busy night, with the bubble of conversations and the clink of silverware filling the room up to its roof.
"I'd best be off, then, lots of customers. Have a wonderful supper!"
He bustles off, leaving John and Mary in somewhat awkward silence. "So…" she begins, flipping the page of the menu for no real reason. "You know the owner?"
"Oh, yeah, he was an old friend of—" John freezes, then forces down a deep breath before continuing in a notably lower voice. "Of Sherlock's. We came here the first night we met, actually—never ate anything, got interrupted by this insane taxi that we ended up chasing… I thought it was the craziest night of my life, but, of course, that was because I'd only just met him…" He trails off, shaking his head. He's not smiling anymore. "I really do miss him."
And, suddenly, fiercely, desperately, she wants to tell him. It's stupid and irrational, and it could very well get her fired or worse, but she can't stand it anymore—the knowledge that she could cure that blank look on his face that haunts her so insistently is tearing at her, and she has to tell him, she just has to.
"Have you ever considered—that maybe he's not dead?"
The words spill out of her mouth without her trying, and her stomach immediately sinks. That's it. You did it. You said it, you failed, and now there's nothing left to do. She waits for the shock to spread across his face, for his jaw to drop and his eyes to widen, but there's nothing—just a slight shake of the head, his gaze shifting down to the candlelight shadows dancing over the tabletop.
"He's dead. I mean, it's nice to imagine otherwise, I guess, but… he's gone. I saw his body… I'm never going to stop seeing his body—whenever I close my eyes, for God's sake—" John cuts himself off, shaking his head. "No, we don't need to talk about him right now, okay? I don't want to dwell on him anymore… I'm sorry, but I just—I'm just not going to think about it."
"That's fine, that's fine." Her breath is coming just a bit too quick to be natural. Did she actually get away with that? She drags in a slow lungful of air, gripping her elbows tightly under the table. "I just…"
I just don't want to keep things from you anymore.
And somehow it's all falling apart—all the lies that she's worked so hard to maintain are falling and shattering around her, and she feels so vulnerable, exposed in front of his intent blue-hazel eyes. She doesn't belong here, she needs to get out, and yet—and yet, what is there to do?
"Mary?" he asks, leaning in a bit closer. "Are you… alright?"
"Anthea," is all she says in response. Even before the name is completely out of her mouth, she lifts a hand to her forehead, pressing her fingers to her eyes, trying to block him out. She keeps talking, though, forcing the words out one at a time. "My name's Mary, I told you the truth about that. But the first time you met me… I told you my name was Anthea."
For the longest time, there's only silence, and she half wants to spring to her feet and just flee the restaurant, flee John, return to watching him silently from the screens without him ever knowing. But he'd try to contact Mycroft, then, and then her boss would know… hell, he probably knows already. She can't leave John, though. She won't leave him hanging like this—because surely then he'll be even more wrecked than he was when she first came to see him.
"Anthea," he finally repeats. It takes her a moment to realize why there are chills slinking down her spine, then she realizes—she's never heard her false name in his voice before, only her real one. She decides that he sounds much nicer when he's not calling her by a pseudonym. "Mycroft Holmes's assistant."
"I'm sorry," she says simply. She is sorry, too. If not for herself, then at least for him—she was an idiot from the very beginning, to raise his hopes like this, put him under the impression that he was escaping Sherlock when, in reality, she was only holding him tighter than ever to the clutch of the Holmes brothers. Impeding progress instead of encouraging it.
"Anthea." Again. She wishes he would stop. "Yeah, I can see it now. Is that what this is, then? Is that what this always was? Just here on a mission for your boss?"
It scares her that he doesn't sound the least bit bitter. Maybe it should be the other way around—maybe she should find it encouraging—but she can't help but feel as though this is the calm before the storm, like he's about to blow up in her face and tell her everything she did wrong, all the reasons why he hates her. Because surely he must hate her now. She expects him to hate her—any reasonable person, surely, would hate her.
"He told me to watch you." She drags the words out, feeling sicker and sicker by the second. "After Sherlock fell. He wanted me to make sure that you weren't too… damaged." It's impossible to look at him, to take her hand away from her eyes. She's hiding. Pathetic.
(She's so pathetic.)
"Sherlock." There it is—spirit in his tone. Sharp, fiery, insistent. "Tell me, then—you said something about him being alive, didn't you? You asked me whether I'd ever considered if he was alive, and Mycroft wouldn't bother to send someone after me unless he knew something I didn't—he couldn't care less about me, but Sherlock did, Sherlock cared, so why would I even be on his radar unless—"
He cuts off so abruptly that she looks up reflexively. And when she does lock eyes with him, it's like he's a whole new man, an entirely different John Watson—a thousand times more animated, surely, than she's ever seen him before. Almost manic. And yet at the same time, there's a steadiness in his eyes—an almost frightening steadiness, burning and intent.
"Do you want to know?" she asks wearily. She figures he has the right to know, at this point—yes, he does. She messed up, not him, and she should be the one to pay the consequences. Mycroft will be furious… beyond furious. Maybe it's mere paranoia, but she can't even be entirely sure that she'll escape with her life, after something like this. She knows that he's had people killed before, even if he's never told her personally. But maybe that is overreaction—he doesn't use murder as punishment, only as a safety precaution.
Nevertheless, she feels sick.
"I—" John begins, then bites back his half-formed words. A long moment drags itself painfully by, during which all she can see are his eyes. Slowly, the flame in them dims, and his brows crease in weary stress, chin tilting down slightly. "No. Don't—don't tell me. I'm not going to do this anymore—to dwell on him. You helped me out of that, believe it or not—Mary, or Anthea, or whoever you are. I am completely honest when I say I might be dead by now if not for you."
Her stomach twists. Does that mean she's done what Mycroft asked after all? But, no, she shouldn't be concerned about that—she hasn't done a single damn thing right in all of this, and seeking to find something she didn't mess up on won't dull the reality of that, no matter how much she may wish so.
"You'd have found a way to keep going," she insists. "You're strong. Stronger than you think."
And that, she decides, is the perfect parting note. She begins to stand up, only realizing now how absurdly shaky her legs have become, staring at the tabletop once more. The backs of her eyes are burning, for some strange reason, and she knows that she has to get out of there before she does something stupid like show how much she regrets all of this—show, for once, her genuine emotions.
But something's holding her down. Another hand, fingers pressing gently on her wrist, warm and steady and anchoring.
"Wait," John says.
She glances up through her overdone lashes, meeting his gaze once more. He's not smiling—not with his mouth—but there's a tenderness in his eyes that jars her slightly, causes her to bite down on her tongue and freeze in place.
"Let's not think about this now, alright?" he suggests. "You've done your job for… for Mycroft. There's no need to keep an eye on me, so you can forget about that. Just… just focus on having a night off, alright? We can worry about the rest of it later…"
"I can't," she says automatically, but she's not moving away. "I'm not going to do this, John—"
"Mary. Please. For now, just have dinner with me, alright?"
She shouldn't do this. She should stand up straight, turn around and walk right out of the restaurant, down the street, take a cab to her office and pick up her paperwork and go back to doing what she's supposed to, and yet…
"Alright." Without any reason, she settles back down into the chair. He releases her hand, and she brings it to her lap, folding it under the other. "Fine. For now… let's have dinner."
He smiles, and the candlelight dances like a mirage in his impossibly colored eyes. "I couldn't ask for anything better."