The wound on his temple is a fiery starburst against his pale skin, a ragged, puckered red, the red of flushed cheeks from running. A large half-moon is shaved around it, his barren scalp prickling with new hairs. A deep line of blue surgical stitches holds the jagged skin in place. Little archipelagoes of scratches litter his face.
The right side of his face is still splotched with the sickly green of decaying bruises. Underneath it all is the swollen lump of his skull, knitting itself back together again.
Everything aches as he stands for the first time, two weeks After, hobbling from his bed to the bathroom of his private hospital room (Mycroft's arrangements). His body, normally a flurry of limbs, had been trapped for days, and the immobility had forced his mind into overdrive, as he counted every ceiling tile and measured every shadow cast by the window blinds. He needed to move, even if it hurt.
The fluorescent lights buzz overhead, casting his skin even paler than usual. His right arm and leg, trapped in casts of metal and plaster, itch as they heal, his shattered bones pinned together. Under the thin cotton of his gown, his body is a solid mass of purple and blue contusions. Despite the swirl of painkillers in his blood, every breath hurts as his lungs expand and press against his broken ribs.
He peers at himself in the mirror, pokes and prods at his skin, mapping the coastlines of the wound. He fingers the blue stitches, not as neat as John's perfect stitches from John's certain, soothing hands.
The night John shot the cabbie, talking over dim sum and fortune cookies, John had told him about his scar, about the bullet that came while trying to save his patient; about the terrible fever that nearly killed him, about the way his scar still ached on damp, rainy days.
He had seen John's scar many times: after John showered, or on the rare occasions when he needed to stitch up John's wounds. The pale, silvery red outline, the gnarled knot of it, the memory of please God let me live permanently etched into John's skin.
He hadn't fully understood at the time what John knew: the hot, searing, sick pain that had lanced through John, John's desperate need to claw out of the blackness, the way the memory lingered at the back of John's mind, slipped into his nightmares. Not until That Day.
He remembers that the step off the ledge was so light, so small. The space of only a few centimeters, the length of his foot. A shifting from one leg to another, from solid concrete to open air. The wind stretched the seconds out into thin strips, the infinitesimal vectors of curves.
He remembers the sudden grip of gravity, pulling him toward the earth, the feeling of his own weight. Acceleration. His breath, ripped away. His body whipping apart, curls and coat billowing out like wild, broken wings. The wailing of sirens. The shouts from the street below, gasps. The one cry rising above them all, screaming his name as if the force of the sound could stop his fall. The silken, empty blackness. The single, ending thought: I'm sorry, John.
He remembers the breaking sky, thick with rain so cold it threatened to frost over, stinging his eyes. Something being crumpled, the pain exploding inside each of his cells. Crushed. Warmth. Crimson. His head. His cracked bones. Skull. Eyes.
John's earthy blue, broken eyes on his. John's hands, trying to press the life back into his head. John's face, the way it fought between shattering and collapsing and freezing like the rain.
John's breath, so warm on his shivering skin.
John's lips, the way they pled his name, over and over. Love and no and God and please.
Slowly, he picks at the jagged, thin gashes on his face, pulls the dried blood from the raw flesh beneath, letting the wounds open and bleed. The scabs litter the sink like pieces of evidence, proof of his pain.
He doesn't have to use his imagination anymore.
"Are you certain?" Mycroft's voice is almost a whisper, barely audible above the beeping of his heart monitor and the drip of his IV. The question floats in the air of the private ICU where his brother sits beside his bed, later That Day.
He was alive. Confronting Moriarty was, like so many of his plans, foolhardy, rushing headlong into danger and death. This was the closest he had come to dying, closer than the feel of a pill in his hands, of fabric choking his neck, of a red laser set on his brain.
But he was alive. He had awoken, felt the brittle throb of his broken body, the blistering pride of knowing Moriarty was dead, the memory of seeing the life drain out of his surprised eyes. He had remembered the trembling panic in John's voice, the way John's hands felt like home on his skin.
For a second, he had thought: It's over. It's done.
But then there had been the moment of realization: Moriarty was more than a man; more than just flesh. He was a network, an organization that could still wreak havoc across the world. He had seen the full spectrum of Moriarty's web, all the sticky fibers of his network that could still ensnare them, sink their poisonous jaws into them, bind them tight, and eat them alive.
The vision had come unbidden: John, bitten and paralyzed, strangled in silk, winding tight over his terrified eyes; and he had felt the hot flash of protect | rage | now, pulling at him like a strong wind.
And, once again, he comes to the same conclusion:
He must stop them. Eradicate them from the face of the earth. Only then will they (he, London, John) be safe.
He will be ruthless. Ravenous. He will strike again and again with the machete of his mind, turn himself into nothing but teeth and fire and blood, because that is what Moriarty's network will do. They will destroy everything he ever loved, and they will start with John, and he would rather die before he let them hurt John again.
But he must do it alone.
He can't let John follow. If he takes John, he will ruin him, ruin everything good and kind inside of him, and turn him into a monster. Like himself. John will no longer be good John, safe John, golden warm light John, but rage John, broken John, John full of nothing but boiling shadows and exploding grenades and the blackness of bitter bones, lost forever in the darkness, and he can't let John be lost again.
He can't let John know. He can't leave John to wait for him, to worry about him, to wonder whether today is the day he dies on the battlefield. And John, loyal John, stubborn John, who had always followed him through every dark alley and to every bloody crime scene, would follow him again to protect him. John would uproot himself from everything good in his life, chase him across the globe into the worst corner of the abyss, across the razor-thin line separating danger from hell. He can't let John die for him. He isn't worth dying for. He can't do that to John's kind heart.
He can't fail John. He can't disappoint him. From the moment they met, John looked at him as if he were a brilliant, mad miracle. He can't guarantee that they will come back, that they will succeed, that he will not be stupid and heartless and wrong. He can't be wrong. He can't bring John to ruin with his faults, at his hand. He isn't good enough to protect him.
John has friends. John has people who can take care of him, and people to take care of. He has Sarah and Lestrade and his patients, and they are good, and kind, and they will never hurt him. Not like he will.
John will be grief John, sorrow John, limping-through-the-streets John. But John has strong roots, he will grow again. He is a doctor and a soldier, and he knows how to endure and how to heal.
John will still be alive. John will still be a good man. John will live without him.
He closes his eyes, his voice breaking in the silence.
"Yes. This is the only way."
And with these words, a new pain crushes the center of his chest, worse than the pain of his broken bones and bloody bruises, worse than the pain of withdrawal, shaking him from the inside out, and he can't breathe.
In his mind, he claws through his own chest, down through the layers of muscle and bone, and slashes the white tendons that hold his heart in place, leaving a ragged hole behind. He cradles his still-beating heart in his hands, holding it against his broken chest.
Blood spills through his fingers, washing over him with all the days he will never have with John again, all the heartbeats he will never take with John at his side: John's steady footfalls behind him; John's praising, warm voice at crime scenes; John's kind smile at the breakfast table, John's effervescent laughter.
And with every beat of his severed heart comes one word: Please. Please. Please take my heart, take these days. Let them be an offering, let me burn all these hopes of future years to ashes so John will be safe. Please let this not be in vain. Please let me live. Please let me see John's face again. Please don't let me fail my friend. Because if I fail John again, I won't be worth anything.
Slowly, his heart slows, stills, stops. The lump of flesh breaks, melts, evaporates in his hands, covered in bruises the color of soot. Every piece of him feels raw, all his nerves exposed as if ripped from his body, the edges cauterized. When he opens his eyes again, they are slick with tears.
This is the only way. This is the only way. This is the only way.
Inside the hollow space where his heart had been, an ice blue fire begins to burn, the flame of purified gas, the flame of magnesium hitting water; sparkling, crystalline, and utterly cold. The cold of deep space. The cold of revenge. The cold of a dead man's hands.