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Nineteen Seconds of Falling

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“I want to be up there with the two people I love and care most about in the world.”

 

“Yes.”

 

This is one of those situations where John seems to expect him to understand. Sherlock waits.

 

“Mary Morstan…”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And… you.”

 

--

 

 

Sherlock knows that he shouldn't be here.

 

He's in the hallway, typically a place for planning and deciding how to proceed. The mind palace is not a retreat away from the world, it's functional. If he's here then he needs to work something out, but he has no question to pose this time.

 

"For the last time Sherlock, this is not a place for emotion!"

 

Mycroft is at the end of the corridor just behind Sherlock. Sherlock turns and Mycroft walks slowly towards him.

 

"I'm not emotional!" Sherlock snaps.

 

Mycroft reaches him and then, instead of stopping, circles him thoughtfully, as if Mycroft's an art critic and Sherlock's a lacklustre new piece.

 

"John asks you to be his best man and you retreat here. It sounds emotional to me. Ask yourself, why am I the smart one?"

 

"Fatter head," Sherlock grits out.

 

Mycroft's mouth twists as he returns to stand in front of Sherlock.

 

"Efficiency. Do you think that I engage in the silly little dances you need to recall basic information? Memories, mementos, people…this place is full to bursting and it's making you slow. And now you're panicking because John asked you to be his best man."

 

"I'm not panicking. If I'm here then there's a question I need to answer."

 

"Then work out what the question is."

 

Sherlock screws up his eyes, but he can't retreat to a mind palace while inside his mind palace.

 

"How I’m going to answer him?" he tries.

 

"Wrong," Mycroft snaps.

 

That's true. Saying ‘no’ is not an option.

 

"How to react?"

 

Mycroft sneers. "I think even you can manage to say 'yes'. People usually mention being honoured. I don't know where you hide social niceties in this maze, but I'm sure it's merely dusty, not deleted."

 

It’s in a safe behind a picture of his grandmother, who was never afraid to twist the ear of a boy who didn’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. It’s largely unused.

 

"Then what?"

 

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe you are just emotional-”

 

“I’m not emotional!” Sherlock snaps. “If I’m here it’s because something isn’t right. I need to work it out. Whatever you think, John doesn’t impair my abilities!”

 

Mycroft blinks and looks far smugger than anyone who is only a construct has a right to.

 

“I never said John impaired your abilities. Interesting that you should leap to that conclusion.”

 

Mycroft turns and walks away, leaving Sherlock to go in the opposite direction. He turns to go into the entrance hall but is blocked by yellow police tape. He lifts it up and strides onto the crime scene that’s appeared in his mind palace.

 

The forensic team are bustling about, Lestrade hovers on the edge of it all, and John is already there on his knees examining the plump body of Jillian Holter, an artist found dead in January with strings of daisy chains crowning her head and finger-marks bruised onto her neck.

 

This is a memory being projected into his mind palace. It’s an early case, not particularly memorable, the very epitome of a normal day in Sherlock and John’s world. The fact that this is now taking place in a grand palace seems to have escaped the team, who carry on as if they are still in the dirty Whitechapel alley.

 

He steps into his own role, reliving it for a second time. Annoyingly the clues aren’t visible here – it was a patch of oil that solved the case and this floor is as polished as ever. He points at the place where it should be and Anderson rushes forward to snap pictures of the shiny, spotless floor anyway.

 

Sherlock looks down at John, who is gently moving the daisy chains to get a better look at the throat.

 

This John is just a memory. There is no version of John in his Mind Palace any more.

 

There was a version of him here once. John was the first human he allowed in here (now it’s as if his mind is addicted to lecturing him in the form of everyone he’s ever met.) That John, always in a soft burgundy cardigan, was a warm comforting presence there to listen rather than to talk. That John’s fond smile was permanently in place and being around him was comforting when the real John wasn’t around. It was like a small patch of sunlight in his mind, one that he could go to for warmth whenever he wanted.

 

In hindsight, he’d maybe become a bit too fond of that construct because it had been the warm glow of affection he’d expected from John upon his return, not the harsh reality that John have moved on without him.

 

Lestrade crosses his arms and watches as John finishes his examination.

 

“Strangled. Six hours ago at a guess.”

 

“Not strangled,” Sherlock says.

 

It was an insipid little case. He has no idea why he’s remembering it now. From his position on the ground, John frowns up at him.

 

“Sherlock, I know strangulation when I see it.”

 

“And normally I would trust your judgement, but everything else is screaming ‘not strangled.’”

 

For a moment Sherlock wonders if he hasn’t let his fantasy John sneak back, the one he fought so hard to banish, because there’s that same look of fierce admiration and curiosity on John’s face. He wonders if it was really there the first time, and he thinks that it might have been.

 

He holds out his hand to help John to his feet.

 

“Wrong!” snaps Lestrade.

 

For a second Sherlock thinks Lestrade is talking about the case. Both he and John freeze in position, hands millimetres apart.

 

“What?”

 

“That’s wrong. You never helped John up. He got up by himself.”

 

“Does it matter?” Sherlock hisses.

 

John and the rest of the scene have frozen in the moment. He’s alone with his own mind, who is wearing Lestrade’s face.

 

“You never helped him up like that. This is a memory, not a fantasy, stick to the rules.”

 

Sherlock sighs and withdraws his hand. The scene resumes and John scrambles awkwardly to his feet. Sherlock steps closer to John and rattles off the same little speech he gave last time. He’s just reaching the Kew Gardens part when Lestrade interrupts once more.

 

“You’re too close.”

 

The scene freezes again. Sherlock looks and finds that he is standing very close to John, but he’s defensive.

 

“We’ve always stood closely together.”

 

“Not that close. It’s not rush hour on the tube, nor are you sharing body-heat. Take a step back.”

 

Sherlock’s jaw tightens, but he steps back. John’s face unfreezes and Sherlock opens his mouth to continue-

 

“Come on, we have to get to-“

 

He reaches out and then pauses. For the first time he’s unsure. Did he lead John away from the crime scene? Or did he just turn and go?

 

Lestrade sees his indecision.

 

“You can’t do this anymore can you?”

 

“What?” Sherlock snarls.

 

“Friendship with John. Because this is what friendship with John was like and it’s not enough anymore, is it?”

 

“I’m his best friend.” Just saying it thrills him.

 

“Yeah. I get it. It’s more than you hoped for. But it’s still not quite enough is it?”

 

Sherlock sneers at Lestrade. His mind is crediting the man with a lot more intelligence than he displays in real life.

 

“And how is this insight in anyway helpful?”

 

“You needed to work out why you came here. You’re looking for a question an here it is: if you don’t want to just be friends with John, what do you want?”

 

“It’s irrelevant,” Sherlock waves his hand. “What I am is John’s best friend. His best man.”

 

“His only man,” Lestrade smirks. “And it is relevant: you can’t do friendship like you did before. You either have to work out what you want or you’re going to have to get better at hiding whatever this little display was.”

 

His phone beeps and Sherlock reaches for it, glad of the distraction.

 

Three texts.

 

15.21

From: Molly

It’s not hard work out what you want.

 

15.21

From: Molly

It’s this…

 

15.21

From: John

I love you :) xxx

 

Sherlock blinks. He’s fairly sure that if he did want… those words… it would be without the kisses or the smiley.

 

He looks up from his phone. The crime scene and Lestrade are gone. The hall is back to being just a hall, only Molly Hooper is standing in Lestrade’s place. She is, for some inexplicable reason, holding two of his shirts on hangers.

 

“The purple one or the navy one?”

 

He frowns but reaches for the navy.

 

Really?” she wrinkles her nose. “Well ok, if you’re sure.”

 

Sherlock ignores her (what’s wrong with the navy shirt?) and strips off his current dressing gown and shirt. He’s a little disappointed that Molly doesn’t look embarrassed, she watches him disinterestedly as he bares his chest and pulls the fresh clothing on. Then again, she’s representing his own subconscious and therefore has no reason to feel embarrassed.

 

He leaves the dressing gown and his old shirt on the floor and follows her up the main stairs towards the dining room.

 

“Now you mustn’t be nervous,” she says. “Dating’s really very easy. Everyone else does it after all.”

 

“Dating?” he echoes.

 

They stop outside a rarely used door: the dining room. She leans against the frame, opens the door, and waves him inside.

 

“You want more than friendship, this is the next logical step.”

 

The dining room from his childhood is still largely the same (he tends to keep all his knowledge about food and global table setting knowledge in here, and he makes an absent note that there might be something useful for the wedding planning here.) The one difference is that the big dining table has been replaced by the smaller, more intimate one from the restaurant John and Mary had initially dined at. There’s no sign of Mary now though, just John who is looking around at the room as if this is the strangest, most brilliant place he’s ever been.

 

It’s the fantasy John.

 

“I banished you,” Sherlock snaps. “You aren’t… my brain can’t recreate John Watson.”

 

The door behind him opens again and Molly pokes her head in, scandalised.

 

“You can’t talk like that, you’re on a date.”

 

Sherlock turns in frustration and glares at her. “An imaginary date with a man who is both not real and engaged to someone else. This is a pointless exercise.”

 

Molly huffs. “Don’t think about that. If you want it, you’ll work out how to get it. I’m going to have to talk you through it. How about you start with a compliment.”

 

Sherlock turns to the unreal John exasperatedly. “For an unwelcome imaginary representation, you look fantastic.”

 

Molly groans, sits on the floor in front of the fireplace, and watches them like a hawk as Sherlock takes a very reluctant seat at the intimate little table.

 

There’s no annoying waiter to interrupt the night, he’s not hovering at the edge of the scene and intruding, he’s allowed to sit here with John. It feels almost like it used to when it was just the two of them. John is smirking across at him, like he recognises how insane the situation is and thinks it’s hilarious.

 

This is why the fantasy version of John is dangerous. It gives him false hope.

 

He tries to snap himself out of it.

 

“So how is Mary?” he asks.

 

In the corner of his eye, Molly raises her eyes to the heavens. She has no need to worry. Imaginary John ignores the question.

 

“More wine?”

 

“I never had any in the first place.”

 

“Right. Right. So…”

 

Sherlock sees the look and recognises it for what it is. He was right there when John had that expression the first time.

 

“Stop this,” Sherlock hisses to Molly.

 

“Sherlock I know we haven’t known each other for long…” John murmurs.

 

“We have.”

 

“But I’ve enjoyed our time together so much.”

 

Sherlock squirms in his seat. This doesn’t even make sense.

 

“Sherlock please will you consider-”

 

Sherlock jumps up before John can finish the rest of the sentence he doesn’t want to hear.

 

“I don’t want this. I don’t want to worry about what I’m wearing, or to make compliments because it’s expected, I don’t want to eat in restaurants for any other reason than that it’s nearby and we both hate cooking. I don’t want candles, or proposals, and, above all, I don’t want to be Mary.”

 

“This whole thing is a farce. John would have thought it was ridiculous and I would have said something inappropriate and got us kicked out and the whole thing would have ended with a Chinese and a murder. I would never fit into this world.”

 

“Oh I know,” Molly smiles faintly. “This was never supposed to be about you following the rituals of dating. You’d be awful at it. John is awful at it.”

 

“Then what?” Sherlock practically yells. “What’s the point?”

 

“To see if you could imagine dating John.”

 

“Well I can’t. Clearly.”

 

Molly is sipping wine. “Oh you can. Chinese and a murder. Sounds like a date to me.”

 

“We did that before.”

 

“But, as you’ve already established, the way things were before weren’t enough. You’re making progress here. You’re that step closer to working it out.”

 

Sherlock is about to lose his temper. He’s going to snap out of this little maze and return to the real John and it he’ll just say whatever’s in his head, like an average person, and forget this whole confusing mess ever happened.

 

Mycroft’s right. His emotions are slowing him down.

 

“He’s actually quite a good imitation.”

 

Sherlock spins around, Molly completely forgotten.

 

Sitting in the seat he vacated a moment before, leaning in closely to peer at the frozen and oblivious John, is Irene Adler. She hasn’t bothered to dress for the occasion.

 

“Not the personality of course,” she purrs. “You never could get that right. But physically he’s nearly identical.”

 

“I’m observant,” Sherlock points out.

 

“You should be commended. Most people imagine their loved one taller, or thinner, or less freckly… you like him just the way he is. Have you put this version of him to proper use yet?”

 

Sherlock frowns. “Use?”

 

Irene laughs. “Oh my! That’s precious. You have a fantasy version of him running around your head and you’ve actually been trying to talk to him.” She looks at the plates and cutlery on the table between her and John. “You do realise that when I said ‘dinner’ this wasn’t what I meant?”

 

“I don’t want that version of ‘dinner’” Sherlock gestures at the table. “I don’t want yours either.”

 

Irene raises an eyebrow. “Oh really? How can you be sure unless you try?”

 

Sherlock knows, even if he can’t see, the bed raising up behind him. He’s supposed to be falling backwards but it feels like he’s still standing. Irene stands and stalks towards him. She reaches out and pushes and he’s tumbling backwards…

 

A second later he’s in the bedroom, in the bed, and the fantasy John is in it with him. More worryingly, Irene is there too.

 

They’re all very naked.

 

Sherlock is in the middle, facing John, who is giving him that faintly bewildered look of amused amazement. Irene is behind Sherlock, whispering into his ear.

 

“Don’t worry,” she murmurs. “I’ll tell you what to do. Touch him.”

 

Sherlock reaches out hesitantly and runs his hand across John’s chest. It’s frustrating because the skin all feels the same, there are no rough patches or much hair because he’s not got any data to work from. He has to focus on remembering that skin should feel warm, else his mind forgets and John begins to feel tepid, and when Irene prompts for Sherlock to kiss John their mouths lock together as they should, but it’s a cool kiss and John tastes of nothing.

 

Damn her though, because the visual is enough to make his body react. This little fantasy is teasing him but he knows that it will never be enough to truly satisfy.

 

Irene laughs behind him, and Sherlock stills.

 

That was the whole point of this little exercise then.

 

He wants more than a friendship. He wants romance. He wants a physical connection. He wants so much more, and just like the little proposal scene earlier, it’s another stinging reminder that he can’t have any of it.

 

“WAIT!”

 

The door slams open. Next to him imaginary John disappears, but Irene remains in place, propped up on the pillows.

 

Anderson barges into the room. He is, without doubt the last person on earth Sherlock wants to see.

 

“It’s not impossible. Not for you.”

 

He is holding his notebook and has a gleam in his eye that suggests a conspiracy theory is about to be inflicted on them.

 

“You can still get rid of Mary.”

 

Lestrade follows Anderson into the room. “Oh yeah, let’s just bash her head in with a rock,” he snorts.

 

Sherlock pulls the sheets around himself and groans as the two of them begin to bicker.

 

“You’ve already noticed it…” Anderson is explaining. “You’re so close to the truth.”

 

Irene leans in to whisper in his ear. Her breath is accurately warm because he has experience of feeling it. “Perhaps he’s right. You wouldn’t want to let another woman beat you… I’d be terribly jealous.”

 

“I hate to break it to you, but John isn’t going to be overjoyed if Sherlock gets rid of her,” Lestrade points out.

 

They’re all too noisy. It’s too much. He’s running out of time; it occurs to him that he’s been here quite a long while now. Sherlock stands, wraps the sheet around himself, and slips through the door unnoticed. He shuts the door firmly and-

 

-walks straight into his mother.

 

She smiles sadly and proffers the two garments she’s carrying; the shirt and dressing gown he abandoned earlier.

 

“I found these in the hall. Mycroft was right, this place is such a mess.”

 

“I told you,” Mycroft says, appearing at the end of the corridor again. He is holding a pair of trousers which gives Sherlock a whole outfit again. The moment Mycroft is close enough, Sherlock snatches them and dresses hastily.

 

The moment he is fully clothed, Mycroft looks at the closed door with an expression that Sherlock would hazard to be ‘proud’.

 

“You’ve made the right decision. Everything in that room is a distraction. Lock it away and forget about it. Delete it if you can. Leave this place and focus on being a best friend: that will be challenge enough for you.”

 

“That’s not a solution,” his mother points out. “As a friend, the relationship was nearly over. Being a ‘best friend’ has extended the relationship until the wedding.”

 

Another fifty seven days. Sherlock has already calculated that and is desperately thankful for this unexpected upgrade.

 

“But it’s still going to be over,” he says.

 

“And then you’ll have a clear head,” Mycroft points out. “Lock that door and you’ll be everything you wanted to be before he came into your life.”

 

“I-“

 

“What’s the alternative?” Mycroft snaps. “Keep it open and try to date him, fuck him, and kill his fiancé all at the same time?”

 

“Language!” his mother snaps. “And there is another way.”

 

Both Sherlock and Mycroft turn to stare at their mother. She reaches out and strokes Sherlock’s cheek.

 

“I’m so sorry Sherlock,” she sighs. “Because it’s going to hurt. Come up to the roof.”

 

He follows her along corridors and up narrow, winding stairs onto the roof. It’s new territory for him and he isn’t sure what to expect. He’s never been to the roof of his mind palace before.

 

His brain either hates him or is less imaginative than he’d thought, because when she opens the door he’s back on the roof of St. Barts. There’s no Moriarty now. No team working to trick the world. The streets below are deserted and there’s nothing but the hard ground below.

 

The three of them, Sherlock, his mother, and Mycroft walk slowly to the edge and the three of them stand there looking down.

 

“Falling,” Sherlock says. “It’s a bit of an obvious metaphor.”

 

“There’s nothing to land on this time,” Mycroft points out. “If you jump there will still be a wedding. The friendship will come to a natural end. It’s going to hurt.”

 

“Scared?” Sherlock sneers, unable to stop himself bating even his mind construct of a brother.

 

“Yes,” says this version of Mycroft, proving that he isn’t the real version by admitting weakness.

 

“What’s it like?” Sherlock asks his mother.

 

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Partly because my love was returned, but also because I’m also a construct and therefore only know as much as you do. But right here, on this roof, this time you don’t have a choice. You can’t be like Mycroft, however much you try, and that madness back there won’t work in the real world… you have to jump this time Sherlock.”

 

“You sacrificed everything for dad and for us,” Sherlock sighs. His once brilliant mother had jumped and been broken by it: and it was a softer landing for her. He had no idea what lows he’d stoop to if he did this, but he already knew that there’d be nothing he wouldn’t do…

 

“Did I ever do anything to make you think I made the wrong decision?” she asks gently.

 

“You don’t have to do it,” Mycroft points out. “Save yourself the pain.”

 

“You’ll tear this place apart if you try and bottle this up,” his mother warns. “You aren’t Mycroft.”

 

Sherlock’s mobile rings. He wasn’t even aware he had one on him, but he reaches into his pocket and there it is. As he answers it he looks down onto the ground and sees the figure of John, still in a burgundy cardigan, standing in exactly the same spot as before.

 

“Hello?”

 

“That’s getting a bit scary now.”

 

The call clicks off.

 

Time is up.

 

Sherlock falls.

 

The End

 

There is now podfic for this work: [PODFIC] Nineteen Seconds of Falling by consulting_smartass