Over steepled fingers, Sherlock stares at John Watson.
John flicks the pages of his newspaper, his face a little annoyed, but not much. That probably says something about how quickly he’s adapted to Sherlock’s odd ways in these months they’ve lived together.
Behind John’s shoulder, a houseplant blooms in riotous splendour. John must have quite a knack for looking after plants, since Sherlock’s certainly not the one who’s been watering them.
Sherlock snaps his gaze back to John.
“Everything all right, Sherlock?” A little more irritated now.
“John.” Sherlock rolls the name expectantly in his mouth, demanding John’s full attention. John looks up. “There seem to be . . . worshippers in the street outside. People carrying clay vessels and bread and sheaves of wheat.”
John rustles his newspaper with more than necessary force. “Probably a fancy dress party somewhere nearby. I’m sure they’ll clear out soon.”
Hm. Answered too fast. Like he already knew what Sherlock was going to ask, and had an answer ready for it.
* * *
And then there are five pips and a bomber, a puzzle-setting bomber who’s nearly as clever as Sherlock is, and for a dazzling brief bit of time everything is so wonderfully not-boring that Sherlock forgets to wonder what it is he’s sensed that’s so unusual under the seemingly ordinary skin of John Watson.
The night he plans to meet his mysterious criminal counterpart, this underworld mastermind so desperate for Sherlock’s attention, Sherlock’s whole body is humming in anticipation as he hunkers in his chair and waits for John to absent himself from the flat. All through this case John has been fixated on Sherlock’s failure to meet John’s own standard of empathy for the victims – as though that would allow Sherlock to save them any faster – and now John’s being tiresome once more, going on about the solar system or needing more milk or some such thing. Unimportant.
Finally, John leaves and Sherlock can set his plan in motion.
And then at midnight at the pool, here where Carl Powers died and launched Sherlock’s career, it is John who steps out from the shadows in an oversized parka.
In that first terrible moment, Sherlock thinks he’s misunderstood everything. Thinks that solid, maddening, dependable John is not the man he thought; that the oddness Sherlock has sensed in him was in fact a wrongness, and John has been the person pulling the strings. The very possibility of it drops Sherlock’s heart all the way down through the floor.
When the real puppet master emerges (“Jim Moriarty. Hi!”), it is a relief, yes, that it is anyone but John. But, too, this is now the man who strapped John in explosives and put him in the crosshairs of a sniper’s laser. It is no longer a game.
Moriarty taunts and teases, he is sing-song, he is mad. He delights in his own cleverness as he reveals the identity behind hapless Jim from the lab at Bart’s: the real Jim Moriarty is a consulting criminal who makes any problem go away, for those willing to pay the price.
It is brilliant and elegant, the ruthlessness of the design. Moriarty pulls the strings, but no one ever gets to Moriarty. Sherlock would dance this dance just to see what the madman might do next ¬– if not for John Watson, his face taut with unspoken tension. It is not acceptable that John caught in Moriarty’s trap. So Sherlock hands over the memory stick with the missile plans.
But Moriarty flings the stick away.
Then John, magnificent John, gets his arm around the throat of this Jim Moriarty with not an instant’s hesitation, trying to buy Sherlock time.
“Sherlock, run!” John shouts.
Moriarty laughs in disdainful delight at the attempt. “I can see why you like having him around,” he croons, his eyes never leaving Sherlock. “But then, people do get so sentimental about their pets.”
“I’m serious,” John pants, his arm still locked around Moriarty. “He can’t harm me. Just get away, Sherlock. I’ll take care of this.”
Sherlock doesn’t move. How can he, with a sniper’s rifle trained on John?
Moriarty is still watching Sherlock, but now some switch inside him flips over to anger. “You think John Watson is ordinary, don’t you, Sherlock? Unbelievable!” Moriarty scoffs the word out. “You and I, Sherlock, we could be marvellous, but you can’t even see what’s under your nose. What a waste of my TIME! So I’ll make you a proposal.”
Sherlock knows what’s happened from the spreading horror on John’s face: a second laser beam is trained on Sherlock now. They’re left with no way out.
Moriarty smirks for a moment in satisfaction at himself, then the smirk twists into something far worse.
“I’m taking your heart, Sherlock,” he snarls. “I’m bored with your world and I’m going home, but your little pet is coming with me. If you want him so badly, follow me!”
He jerks one arm around John, a terrible parody of John’s move from before, and yanks him towards the pool, jacket and bomb vest and all. John’s eyes go wide, his muscles tense, but he’s in Moriarty’s grip before he can stop it. Together they go over the edge and into the water with an almighty splash, and then they’re gone.
The pool is empty, not a ripple remaining to trouble the surface of the water.
Sherlock dashes to the edge, the gun he’d been wielding at Moriarty dangling forgotten in his hand, and gapes disbelieving into the placid blue of the water. That’s not possible. They were there, and then –
No, it’s not impossible, because he saw it happen before his eyes. Improbable, perhaps. Yes. But there has always been something improbable about John. How he faces up to danger as though he were born to it. How he walks through London looking out of eyes that seem to carry in them the wisdom and scepticism of centuries, when they ought to see only everyday reality. How he arrived in Sherlock’s life as though it’s the place he was meant for all along.
And now, though improbable, John has disappeared into this seemingly ordinary water.
Sherlock sets the gun down on the concrete edge of the pool, then sheds his jacket and drops it atop the gun. He squares up to the pool, and dives.
* * *
Sherlock slices downwards, holding his breath and closing his eyes, willing the water to take him to whatever place John is. He falls through the heavy press of water, dropping down and down longer than should be possible within the confines of the pool.
He tumbles as he goes, until his feet are once more below him despite his headfirst dive, and when they strike against a hard surface, it is dry ground he lands on.
Sherlock opens his eyes.
He’s in a cavern of sorts; it’s hard to make out much detail, in dim light that emanates from no clear source. The curving ceiling and walls and floor of the cave are a uniform pale, dusty colour that speaks of being underground. There is no water above or below Sherlock now – whatever strangeness allowed a pool in London to dump him out here, it’s now gone.
The ceiling of the cavern is higher than his head, but not by much. The space is broad, though, almost as though it’s intended as a wide walkway to lead a person on from this entry point to . . . somewhere else.
So Sherlock walks.
He walks, and as he does so, he is rifling through the rooms of his mind palace. Underground. Underworlds? Relevant mythologies? Data? How does a man in London dive into a pool and reappear in a cave? Who is Jim Moriarty? Data points . . . The information at his disposal is maddeningly scant, but Sherlock sorts through everything he knows and devotes a file cabinet to it, in a bare and workmanlike room he keeps for current cases. He doesn’t enter the wing that belongs to John Watson. There is no time for that just now.
Abruptly, the cavern opens onto a wide expanse. He is still underground, but the nearest cave walls are so far away Sherlock can barely make them out. And nearly at his feet is the bank of an underground river, flowing swift and dark.
“Come!” a man’s voice cries, and Sherlock looks up.
An old man with white hair and long, ragged robes that flow dramatically back from his lean frame is standing up in the prow of a small boat and rowing towards Sherlock with gaunt but wiry strength.
Now Sherlock has placed for certain the context of this cavern world. Mycroft made him learn the Greek myths when they were children, insisting on the value of a foundation in the classics for some tedious Mycroftian reason Sherlock’s long since deleted. Sherlock is certain Mycroft enjoyed the myths more for their endless power plays than anything else. Whereas Sherlock found the stories tedious – all those gods and goddesses making imbecilic decisions because they were so driven by their lusts and jealousies that they never stopped for one second to think.
Charon’s boat bumps the shore. Of course it is Charon, who ferries the souls of the deceased from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and this dark mass of water that seethes past Sherlock’s feet is the River Styx. It seems impossible, to be sure, but if Sherlock has truly entered the underworld of Greek legend and this is the River Styx and John is on the other side, then he will get across no matter what it takes.
“You will cross?” Charon demands. His voice is rasping and bleak, as ancient as the craft he rows. No one ever said Charon was a nice ferryman.
“Yes,” Sherlock says. “What do I pay you?” That much of Mycroft’s tutelage, at least, has stuck. No one gets a ride with Charon for free.
“One coin,” Charon barks.
Sherlock digs in his trouser pockets and by some miracle unearths two one-pound coins. He’s not in the habit of carrying change in his pockets, but he must have absentmindedly dropped them there earlier in the day.
Excellent. One coin for now, the other in reserve for later. Sherlock refuses to think about the possibility that he might in fact need two more coins, if both he and John have to return this way. He will give his single remaining coin to John if need be. No need to think about that now.
He palms the spare coin and slides it back into his pocket; the other he drops neatly into Charon’s outstretched hand.
Sherlock has one foot over the side of the wooden boat when he becomes aware of a strange keening noise that hacks away at the back of his skull, just under the edge of conscious hearing. Sherlock hesitates. He could ignore it and keep going. They’d soon be out of earshot.
He heaves a sigh. “What is that infernal noise?”
“Only a no-fare.” Charon says it carelessly, already impatient to be off, now that Sherlock has paid his coin.
Sherlock turns and scans the riverbank, and now he sees: A child, not more than five or six, is limping along the edge of the water towards them and wailing piteously, snot running down a very dirty face. This is a shade, a dead soul – that fact is somehow easy to discern by a slight blurring at the figure’s edges, for all the child still wears a human shape.
“You can’t expect me to show pity,” Charon says, sounding cross now. “I don’t make the rules down here, Hades does. If they don’t have the fare, they don’t cross. Simple enough. The sentence for a no-fare is to wander the shoreline for one hundred years. Then they can enter the boat, not before.”
The child has nearly drawn level with them. It’s a girl, Sherlock sees now, with matted brown hair and wide, frightened eyes that stare out of her dust-streaked face. She stares up at Sherlock as she comes close, but there’s no hope for sympathy in her eyes, only the same terror he heard from afar in her keening wail. The terror of a child sentenced to a hundred years of loneliness.
The girl stops a moment, still staring at Sherlock. Her thin shoulders are hunched in close around her body.
“My parents didn’t have a coin,” she whispers. “They’re not stupid, they know you’re supposed to bury dead people with a coin to pay for the boat. They just didn’t have one, that’s all.” Then she begins to wail again as she walks past, her small bare feet leaving hardly a mark on the damp stone along the river.
Sherlock watches her go, feeling a shiver of irritation. Observing the child’s predicament has cost him time that would be better spent searching for John.
And all the while his spare coin weighs heavily in his pocket. The coin he is holding in reserve for John.
The girl with her tiny slumped shoulders continues to retreat away from him, snuffling and wailing as she goes. Sherlock stares after her, though he doesn’t want to. He hates being reminded of loneliness.
“Enough. You’ve paid your coin, will you cross or no?” Charon growls from behind him, and Sherlock feels a sudden, incandescent rage that anyone immortal should have need for impatience.
He spins around and glares at the ferryman. “I pay for the child as well,” Sherlock snaps. “So you’ll have to wait until she’s on board, won’t you?”
He pulls his second coin from his pocket and slaps it into Charon’s hand. Then he strides after the weeping child and drops down, crouching to his knees and ducking his head until the two of them are more or less at the same eye level. He holds out a hand to her. She stares at him, not responding (wasting more time!), though she does stop crying.
Finally, the girl reaches out and puts her hand in Sherlock’s, and lets him lead her to the boat.
They cross the River Styx in silence. Charon looks mightily annoyed, glaring back and forth between his two passengers, and Sherlock knows he probably hasn’t played by the rules. But what rule says a child who arrives without a coin, because her parents were too poor to bury her with one, is condemned to haunt the far bank as a tormented shade? That’s an idiotic rule.
When they disembark on the other side, Charon gives Sherlock a grim smile that’s really more of a grimace and says, “Good luck, mortal. You’ll need it.”
With Mycroft’s half-remembered tutelage to forewarn him, Sherlock is not altogether surprised that they’ve taken only a few steps away from the river, he and the small girl shade, when a massive beast barrels forward to block their path. It has three heads, all of them slavering and snarling: Cerberus, hound of Hades, guardian of the entrance to the underworld.
The little girl, no longer weeping now that she’s on the side of the river she’s meant to be on, darts ahead.
Cerberus leans down and gives her a hefty sniff with one of his heads. Then the head rises safely away from her little body and allows the girl to run past. In mere moments she’s gone up the path, disappearing into the underworld. She’s passed muster, since she is dead, and the dead are those that Cerberus is meant to allow into the realm of the underworld.
Not living mortals like Sherlock.
Sherlock squares his shoulders and advances towards the enormous dog, his mind running rapid-fire through any relevant knowledge he might possess. What does he know of three-headed Cerberus? Only that the beast guards the underworld, allowing the dead to enter, but will attack any living being that tries to get in, or any of the dead that try to escape.
Even as Sherlock nears Cerberus, he sees that there is also someone approaching from the other side. Hard to tell if it’s someone dead, with a huge three-headed dog leaping about and getting in the way, but Sherlock thinks so. It’s an older man, around the age of Sherlock’s father, and instantly Sherlock is annoyed to have noted that resemblance. He can’t afford to be distracted by sentiment.
The man stops a safe distance to the far side of Cerberus, as Sherlock has stopped on his own side. The man grimaces, and his thoughts are all too clearly a parallel of Sherlock’s own: How to pass by the beast?
Between them, Cerberus paces and snarls, but it seems he won’t attack if they remain at their current distance.
Sherlock glares at the other man, willing him to go away. The last thing Sherlock needs is to have to factor some unpredictable idiot into his planning.
The man looks at Sherlock, then looks again in surprise. He calls something, and though it’s hard to hear him over Cerberus’ growls, Sherlock can make out the movement of his lips well enough: Are you alive, and yet would enter here?
Sherlock rolls his eyes at this banal exchange, but nods and shouts, “Yes! And you’re dead, I assume. No, don’t bother answering that!”
Then all at once, Sherlock has his plan. A switch, a reversal of roles, what else? It must be executed with impeccable timing. Can this idiot on the other side pull it off, or by attempting it are they both offering themselves up to be eaten by an overbred immortal dog?
Does Sherlock have any choice but to try?
He communicates his plan with hand signs, since shouting at any great length is impossible. The man nods, indicating that he’s understood, and Sherlock will have to trust that that’s good enough.
Sherlock dips his head sharply as the signal to start, and they run.
Oh, the adrenalin! How John would love this! Under Cerberus’ nose, quick as the wind, one living mortal and one dead, racing so fast that the beast’s three heads dip and whirl and don’t know which way to strike, and then they are past, Sherlock within the boundary of the underworld and the dead shade outside it. They’ve succeeded in swapping sides, right past those three big slobbering heads.
And as the shade darted past Sherlock, somehow he had breath to whisper fervently, “Thank you. I left my love unprovided for when I died. I must return to the world above, if only for a day, so he will not suffer for my carelessness.”
Now Sherlock stands shivering inside the underworld, staring after the retreating figure of the dead shade that runs towards the banks of the Styx. It makes no sense that the shade’s words have shaken Sherlock so: that reference to a man, a love for whom the shade would attempt anything, even such an impossible task as breaking out of the closely guarded underworld.
Sherlock shakes himself in annoyance and brushes the dust from his shirt and trousers. Too many distractions. Enough. He’s here in the underworld, surely where Moriarty meant for him to come. And now that he’s here, he must find John.
He walks on, into the underworld proper. No grim caverns here, no hellfire. Rather, it’s a land of hilly meadows dotted with trees. A bit mundane, but not unpleasant. For those who like that sort of thing. John would like it, probably. John seems to like plants and trees and looking at pretty countrysides. It’s a pastime Sherlock has never understood, yet the thought of it now gives him a melancholy pang.
Sherlock crests one hill, then another and another, each offering an unbroken view of gently rolling meadows that are always much the same. But the path does at least seem to be leading him ever onward.
Then he comes down the slope of the next hill and the sameness is broken by the sight of three enormous winged creatures with coal-black bodies, hair like snakes and wings like whips. All three are shrieking and attacking something small that lies huddled in the path.
These can only be the Furies. The “Kindly Ones.” The fierce, punishing crones so frightening that the ancient Greeks never used their true name, instead calling them by that misleadingly pleasant-sounding moniker.
Sherlock sighs and rolls his eyes. He could go off the path and make a wide circle to avoid them, but how long would that take? Fine. He plunges down the hill towards the three terrible crones and whatever prey they’ve got cowering on the path beneath their talons and their scourge-like wings.
On closer approach, Sherlock sees that the Furies’ prey is not one something, but two: two small children, a boy and a girl. The boy’s arm is wrapped protectively around the slightly smaller girl, as they hunch together beneath the onslaught of whipping wings.
Both children have sandy blonde hair quite similar in colour to John Watson’s, and Sherlock did not need that particular comparison, did not need to be thinking of these unfamiliar children as though they were John and his sister Harry somehow transported back to childhood. Sherlock purses his lips, annoyed.
“Stop it, you big bats!” he yells, not bothering to be nice. The Furies aren’t nice; why should he be? “Quit that!”
The Furies, surely from surprise more than anything else, do pause in their assault on the two terrified children, and turn to see what mortal dares interrupt their doings.
“Who speaks to us?” one of them screeches.
“Sherlock Holmes!” Sherlock yells back. It feels good to let his name roll off his tongue, asserting himself here in this place that is so decidedly not his own familiar London. “And who are you?”
“We are the Erinyes!” another of the three yowls. “We are the Furies! Cower before us, mortal man, for we wreak vengeance against the insolent!”
“Vengeance?” Sherlock snaps. “Against a child? What could these children possibly have done that’s worthy of revenge?”
“They were insolent to their father,” whines the third Fury. “We Furies hear and punish acts of insolence committed by the young against the aged, by children against their parents, by hosts to their guests…”
The Fury drones on, but underneath it, the boy pipes up, fierce in his reedy child’s voice: “I know I was bad, but I don’t care! I told Dad I hate him because it’s true! He hits us. He gets drunk and he comes home and he hits us!”
Sherlock freezes. He is still thinking of this child as John, although he is not John. But he looks so much like a small, angry John Watson, determinedly protecting his sister from an abusive, alcoholic father.
Sherlock wheels on the Furies. “You imbecilic creatures!” he thunders. “The father abuses the children, yet you punish the children? What sort of foul, ineffectual, empty-headed birds are you? And you call yourselves wreakers of vengeance?”
There is a startled pause, then the Furies take up their litany again: “We Furies hear and punish acts of insolence . . .”
“I’ll tell you what’s insolent,” Sherlock growls. “A father who doesn’t know better than to make his children live in fear of him. Go find the father, you stupid bats, and punish him for his insolence. All the rest of time and history is open to you to punish other ‘insolent’ children if you must. But you may not punish these two.”
He stalks forward, showing them he’s not afraid to run them down if he has to. Affronted, the three Furies flap their wings and grudgingly lift away from their prey. They grumble as they rise and their wings create a powerful draft as they beat against the air.
Sherlock looks more closely at the children, where they huddle in the road. He’s not sure, but they don’t seem to have that same . . . slightly blurred look as the two shades he’s encountered so far. He cranes his neck up to the Furies and shouts, “STOP, you useless dinosaur brains! Are these children even dead?”
“No,” sings one of the Furies in a screeching wail. “They belong to the land of the living.”
“We only brought them here to punish them,” shrieks another.
And the third cackles, “After all, that’s what we do!”
“THEN TAKE THEM HOME AGAIN!” Sherlock roars.
And against all probable odds, two of the shrieking Furies do dip down and snatch up the crying children in their talons, to carry them away from the underworld. The boy catches Sherlock’s eye as he’s yanked away, and Sherlock thinks he sees relief and gratitude there, underneath the terror of being dragged through the air by the Furies.
But it doesn’t matter either way. Sherlock didn’t intervene for the child’s sake. He did it for John – or, not for John, since John isn’t here – but for – that is –
He must find John. That’s all that matters.
Over the next hill, Sherlock comes to a crossroads where three judges are gathered, clad in long black robes. They appear to have been seated, though Sherlock can’t see any chairs. But they stand as he nears.
“Approach, mortal, and be judged!” one of them utters in sepulchral tones.
The second judge raises an arm in a dramatic sweep. “Which way will your path lead? To the cheerless Asphodel Fields, to wander in perpetuity in the gloom? To the orchards of Elysium reserved only for the virtuous? To the punishment fields of Tartarus, where the dead suffer for their misdeeds?”
The third black-clad figure intones, “We three shall judge you. Step forward, o newly deceased mortal, and be condemned.”
Sherlock stamps his foot. “Can’t you even see that I’m not dead? I’m here to rescue John Watson. Tell me where John Watson is.”
The judges exchange a baffled look, and Sherlock feels his stomach dropping. Baffled is not a look that sits well on immortal beings.
“We know of no John Watson,” one of them says.
“There is no mortal here by that name, living or dead,” a second one adds.
Sherlock’s stomach drops the rest of the way, all the way down to somewhere far beyond the depths of the underworld. Because if John isn’t here, then where?
“You could ask at Hades’ palace, I suppose,” the third judge suggests as an afterthought, sounding almost casual now that their role as judges doesn’t seem to be required. He points along one of the paths that extend away from the crossroads.
So Sherlock runs in the direction the judge pointed. And all the while, as he runs, he’s also in his mind palace.
He’s seeing John’s smile, the one that crosses John’s face helplessly when he’s impressed by Sherlock’s deductions.
Sherlock is hearing Stop, we can’t giggle, it’s a crime scene! and That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done. And he’s watching over and over how John tried to sacrifice himself to Moriarty at the pool for Sherlock’s sake.
That has to mean something, doesn’t it? Does that mean something?
Sherlock halts abruptly. He’s standing before an enormous palace of black rock. It sits alone in an expanse of ground that’s remarkable mostly for the absence of absolutely anything else. In the meadows before there were flowers and shrubs, even now and then the chirping of birds in the trees. Now there is nothing but stillness, and the occasional harsh flutter of unseen wings.
Sherlock steps forward.
The wide front of the palace stands open. There’s no door, simply an entrance flanked by high columns of black marble. Sherlock straightens the lines of his shirt, regretting now the jacket discarded before he dived into the pool, and walks inside.
He walks on through Hades’ palace until he comes to an immense hall. Despite the vastly high ceiling, the hall manages to feel oppressively dark – here, too, everything is black marble. A throne sits at the far end of the room, glimmering a shade of dull bronze but cloaked in shadow, so that Sherlock can make it out clearly only as he crosses the hall and approaches more closely.
Within that shadow, lounging on the throne, a figure moves.
“Hiiii, Hades, lord of the underworld.” Jim Moriarty bounces up from the seat of the throne to land on his feet, then stalks towards Sherlock with a self-satisfied smirk. “Oh, Sherlock, you didn’t really think I was just some mortal, did you? Was my disguise so good?”
“Where is John Watson?” Sherlock grits out between clenched teeth, striding the remaining distance that separates him from Moriarty – Hades – whoever this man truly is.
“Ooh, so determined!” Moriarty trills, dancing nimbly back out of Sherlock’s reach. He makes an exaggerated, pouting face. “Did you come all this way just for him? Face all those trials and tribulations to prove your loooove? And goodness, you were so compassionate out there, Sherlock. It was so touching to watch you help that little girl and face down my big bad doggie and even fend off the Furies themselves. Thrilling! Really! I was so moved!”
“Were those tests?” Sherlock demands. “All of those people, you put them in my way just to see what I would do?”
Moriarty spins on his heels, throwing both hands in the air. “Tests, sure, call it that if you want. But I’m the one setting the puzzles here, Sherlock! Did you think I brought you here to be nice to people?”
Suddenly he darts forward, thrusting one finger hard into Sherlock’s chest, his face craning up towards Sherlock’s, his eyes wide and wild.
“No, no, no!” Moriarty snaps. “I brought you to my world so you could show me how clever you are. Trick Cerberus, outwit the Furies, talk your way past my incorruptible Judges. And it was beautiful, Sherlock. You did beautifully.” The finger presses harder, a sharp pain against Sherlock’s sternum. “Do you see, now? How we were made for each other? I can give you all my realm of strange, terrible things to play in. I want your cleverness, Sherlock. I want to see you dance. I don’t care about your EMPATHY.”
“But I do.”
Sherlock spins to find the source of that voice he would recognise anywhere.
When John steps out of the gloom that swaths the edges of the room, he is himself and yet somehow different. A faintly golden glow surrounds him, as though he’s illuminated from behind no matter where he moves.
Sherlock’s stomach swoops back up from wherever terrified place it’s been hiding, all at once in a nauseating rush, and he stumbles on his feet. “John,” he gasps.
“Sherlock, that was –” John’s fists are tight at his sides, his soldier pose for facing difficult things. “The way you helped those people. The little girl, the man, the two kids. That was good.”
And Sherlock’s stomach drops again, because John has misunderstood.
“No, John, I – ”
John thinks Sherlock was doing good for the sake of doing good.
But Sherlock was only, ever, trying to get to John.
John strides a stiff step forward. “No, shut up, Sherlock, shut up. I saw you. That’s how the underworld works, from inside this palace you can see everywhere, and idiot Hades here confined me to the palace, so I could see you. You could have got into the boat alone, no one made you go back for that child. You could have run past Cerberus on your own, if you’d really wanted to. You could have gone past the Furies without stopping. No one made you do any of those things, Sherlock, except you.”
Sherlock stares at John. John with this strange golden light all around him, John who all too recently accused Sherlock of not caring at all.
John looks tense, like there’s something pent up in him and struggling to burst out. Irritation? Nervousness? Usually John is an open book, but Sherlock can’t read this.
John takes another step forward. Whatever pent-up thing is in him is boiling up now into something strange and bright, visible in his face and the way his eyes are locked on Sherlock’s.
“I’m going to kiss you now, Sherlock, okay?”
Sherlock, still staring, can only nod.
John steps in. He’s only a hand’s breadth away now, the whole force of him fixed on Sherlock. John’s gaze is fierce.
John is. The nearness of John. Is.
There is no language adequate for this.
John is standing so close now, and he reaches one hand up to the back of Sherlock’s neck, to coax Sherlock’s head gently down towards John’s own. Gentle is unlike John. Is it unlike John?
Their lips meet.
Warm. Firm. Sensation. Pressure of John’s lips moving against Sherlock’s, as John tips his head to the side and presses up harder, his hand pulling Sherlock closer, his mouth unequivocal in showing that this is where they should be, Sherlock and John, pressed together as though they are one single breath.
Sherlock gasps and grabs for John, his hands reaching out blindly. John is still wearing the shirt he had on at the pool, though he lost his cardigan somewhere along the way, and Sherlock’s fingers grasp the fabric and pull John in until they are flush against each other, chest to chest.
John is warm against him. John is alive and not lost.
John gasps too, a gasp like a laugh of amazement, and then he’s kissing Sherlock again and Sherlock disappears into the sensation of John. John John John, everything is John.
When they break apart and Sherlock looks at John for the first time since their lips met in that unexpected collision of pressure and welcome warmth, he sees that John is . . . smiling. The same involuntary and admiring smile that slips onto John’s face when Sherlock has done something brilliant – that’s how John is looking at him now. It is an unanticipated but not at all unwelcome sight.
“When you’re quite finished,” Moriarty snaps, from somewhere behind John. He sounds angry now – far less loopy-loony-mad, but far, far angrier.
John pivots to face Moriarty, but as he turns, one of his hands catches hold of Sherlock’s for a moment and gives a reassuring squeeze before letting go. What a strange sensation, holding hands.
“Hades, you can’t go around kidnapping anyone you want.” John pauses and cocks his head to one side, considering. “Well. You can. But you’re not going to be able to make it stick.”
“Going back to play at human life, then?” Moriarty – Hades – sneers. “Oh, BORING!” He stalks away, then spins around and glares again. “I’m disappointed in both of you. So determined to be ordinary.”
Sherlock looks at John, a number of puzzle pieces clicking into place so audibly, he can hear them in his mind. “John . . .” he says. “When I asked after you at the crossroads, the judges said there was no mortal here by your name.”
John’s eyes flick momentarily to the side, an instinct for deflection he can’t seem to quell. Sherlock thinks of John rustling his newspaper, dismissing the worshippers gathered in Baker Street as merely some dressed-up partygoers.
“Yeah,” John says. “About that.” His left hand flexes at his side: open, closed. “Ah, I’m – not mortal, Sherlock. John Watson isn’t the only name I’ve had, either. You have to update, now and then, to keep up with the times. When you’re immortal.”
John is looking closely at Sherlock, looking for – what, acceptance? Some acknowledgement that Sherlock isn’t rendered distraught by this admission that John Watson is not quite the unassuming man he masquerades as to the untrained eye? Well, obviously. Sherlock deduced that from the day they met. (Although the precise particulars, admittedly, may have escaped him until now.)
“Yes, all right, John,” Sherlock says. “I do comprehend the point, no need to go on about it.”
John stares at Sherlock, and then he starts to giggle. Sherlock, caught off guard, lets out a deep guffaw, which only makes John laugh harder.
“Stop, stop it,” John gasps around his laughter. “Very serious situation we’re in – really mustn’t giggle –”
Sherlock turns to Moriarty, whom he’s not bothered to acknowledge since John appeared in the hall. “Release your prisoner,” he says, but he says it carelessly, letting his boredom show. Knowing that John is immortal, just as Moriarty is, rather detracts from any intimidation advantage Moriarty might once have possessed.
“Sherlock,” John says.
He’s got control over his laughter now, but Sherlock can still hear a trace of it lingering in John’s voice. Sherlock decides on the spot that he plans to provoke that sound again and again.
“Sherlock, I’m free to go. You coming here for me, coming to rescue me despite the obstacles – that’s what it took. You proved your heart, Sherlock. Hades can’t keep me after that.”
John glowers over at Moriarty, Moriarty who is really Hades. Moriarty is still standing several paces away, glowering back at them and looking ever more truly like Hades the longer he stands here in the gloom of his black marble hall. But John, being John, is utterly unfazed by the lord of the underworld’s grim demeanour.
“Hades,” John says, and he manages to make it sound like any run-of-the-mill name. “You know you’ll have a nightmare of a row with the rest of Olympus if you try to keep me here. It didn’t go over particularly well when you did it with my great-great-great aunt Persephone, and they’re hardly going to like it any better now.”
The mention of Persephone unfurls a terrible thought in Sherlock’s mind, another reference dredged up from one of Mycroft’s interminable classics lessons. “John! Did you eat anything here? Because if you’ve eaten anything while you’re in the underworld –”
John rolls his eyes. “I’m not a fucking idiot, Sherlock. No, I haven’t eaten anything, and no, I’m not staying in the underworld. Let’s go home.”
He waves a hand at the nearest wall, and a set of stairs appears. Stairs that look . . . exactly like the ones that lead up to 221B.
Behind them, Moriarty stamps away in annoyance, but Sherlock doesn’t turn to look.
If a pool in central London can have its moment of delivering its occupants into an underground cavern rather than merely to the bottom of the pool, then Sherlock supposes a staircase in Hades’ palace can (also only briefly, one hopes) connect to 221B Baker Street. Fair enough. He strides towards the stairs, trusting John to follow.
When he’s gone a few steps up those familiar, worn stairs, Sherlock pauses and says, “If Persephone is your great-great-great aunt, that makes you . . .”
One stair below Sherlock, John has his foot poised to take the next step. “A descendant of Demeter, yeah. Goddess of agriculture. There’s a whole religion around us, actually. I try to keep out of sight, but people always find me somehow.”
Sherlock feels a smile fighting to escape. “Does this mean I should expect more worshippers in Baker Street?”
“Occasionally,” John says, in the same beleaguered tone that so often tells Sherlock he really oughtn’t to leave samples from the mortuary in the bathtub, but then lets him do it anyway. “Not all the time. It’s generally worse in the summer months.”
Now Sherlock really can’t help it: he smiles. “Come, John,” he says. “Let’s go home.”
And they climb the seventeen steps to Baker Street.