Say it: John is dead.
Repeat (hope it gets through): John is dead. John is dead.
Not possible. Not possible.
(Whatever remains, however improbable)
Then. Since it is not possible that John is dead (though he is, perhaps you should amend that – it is not possible that John can remain dead, permanently parted from you) what can you do to correct this state of affairs?
You turn your back on Lestrade, on cases, on your brother; turn your back and try to think.
You dream of John on the third night.
You say, "If this is all I will have for the rest of my life, I can be content with that."
John says the truth he would once have couched in niceties to save your feelings, though you told him often you had none – "No you won't."
You always said the day John knew the truth before you would herald the end of your world.
"You can't go on like this, Sherlock!"
"I worry about you."
"Freak – there's been a murder, a weird one, nasty – don't you want to see?"
"You know John wouldn't – he wouldn't want this for you. He wouldn't like to see you like this."
You hear them through a haze, their voices so distant, as if they are the ones speaking from another country, not John, waiting patiently for your dreams.
You may have lived with John, but you existed before him, and you will exist after him. You keep telling yourself that with every breath, hoping that repetition will make it truth.
(You've heard this song before: this can't be happening to me, not me, things like this happen to other people, not me – for me he will come home, it will all have been a dream, a nightmare, because I'm different, therefore he's different – such things do not happen to us.
Before, you always said: oh, stop being stupid and face the facts.)
It is like an equation that you cannot work out – you know every step, the result is always correct, for you double-check at every stage, and yet you wish it wasn't. It isn't supposed to work like that – you are not supposed to work like that. Grief has made a mockery of your pride – you see so clear now: you are like everybody else before Death.
"I'm dreaming," you say.
"Yes," John tells you. His smile – is it exactly as you remember it? John had so many for you, perhaps it is simply a new one he has learnt.
"I don't want to wake up," you confess.
"You will," John says, bluntly truthful. You remember you trusted him to tell you what lines you were crossing, what morals you trod upon. This is the same, isn't it, this honesty, so terrible and sharp like a knife between your ribs.
You turn your head and meet his eyes for the first time and they are – you look at them straight on and they are colourless. Not white: the total absence of colour. Your breath catches in your throat.
"Sherlock?" Not-John says. "What's wrong?"
You wake and think of John's eyes. You cannot recall their colour. You say, blue, brown? Pathetic, you could once name the exact shades a painter would use. You say, something light. and mean, they shone when the light hit them just right, they were clear and steady and he looked right at me and he saw something worth praising and something worth thought, and he didn't look away when he found himself looking at blood and shadows.
You say, why can't I remember?
You say, "Oh. Oh, I am forgetting John."
(You existed before him and you will exist after him and this is how: by letting time take him from you, by letting it blur and erase every memory that cuts you open, and the blunting of your grief is the fog of your new life, seeping through you, remaking you.)
You pace the confines of the flat. (When did it become a cage instead of a home?)
There, John's laptop, a fine film of dust between the keys – over the keys now. John's favourite mug, sitting by the sink, unwashed, the last few drops of cold tea now a sticky patina across the bottom. John's chair, out of alignment from where he'd shoved it back in his haste to get up and follow you, John everywhere, in everything, but never to come through the door again, never to laugh or smile or fling cushions at your sulking back, never again to make tea or throw out body parts or change everything (the flat, your world) just by walking in.
Remember: the way he said 'that's amazing', the way it filled you with heat, you who had been cold almost all your life – pride and something tender that made you smile with a wonder you could feel in the uncertain lift of your mouth.
Remember: the feel of his hand in yours, calluses and lifelines, warm and solid, fingers curling against yours every time you fall, don't worry, i'll be there to pick you back up, promise, just – try not to fall so much, yeah?
Remember: John. John's smile, John's exasperated frown, John's laugh, giggly and delighted against your ear, John's grin, the way he licked his lips, the way he said your name, the exact colour of his eyes-
You stop, stand still in the middle of the room, hands curling at your side, head tilted up and back, looking to the ceiling (John's room). You close your eyes. You say, "The fare for a living man to cross the Styx is mistletoe, the golden bough of Aeneas."
Yours is not a mind made to know the path between the worlds of life and death. Even as you walk, it twists before your eyes, your logical mind rebelling, interpreting it all as something you can understand, as pavement and cobbles and worn patches of earth, as grass and sky, stone and sand. You know the reality is nothing like what you see.
You begin to play your violin as you cross the ink-black river, Charon's fierce gaze nothing to the music in your head – this song, this is the song you will play for John if – when – and it will be the best thing you have ever performed in your life, repayment for all those times when you played nothing but the shrieking disharmonious chords of your thoughts.
You coax majesty from your instrument, seguing from movement to movement, song to song, barely notice when your feet touch earth, when you walk past whining Cerberus, through gates that twist and blur in the corner of your eye.
You walk for an age, an eternity, and not long at all, to stand before the thrones of the King and Queen of the Dead.
You see: a man, clean-shaven, stern-faced and brooding, something familiar in the curve of his nose and the tilt of his chin, hands callused (miner's hands). You see a girl, perhaps sixteen as you understand years, hands and feet soft and unmarked (scented, no, anointed, balsam oil, for the dead), uncertain in her husband's shadow, her eyes wide and troubled.
You see: streaks of white in the man's beard, fingers ringed with heavy gold (four: index, left, middle, left, ring finger, right, middle, right; three stones – amethyst, emerald, sardonyx – metal surrounding them dinted and scratched, probably pure), a crown so bright and bejeweled you flinch. You see a woman in the prime of her life, straight-backed and almost haughty, elusive promise of youth ripened not into beauty but into strikingness, something that will last. Six, no, seven months pregnant (but dead – her hand does not flutter and curve protectively, she gives none of the little winces and sighs provoked by an active foetus, gives her rounded belly no regard at all. You have a moment of understanding – of course nothing grows in the realm of the dead).
You see: the man's sunken eyes, bright with wisdom, a face marked by years of frowning, beard and hair the dead white of age, skin creased and worn. You see a woman with staring eyes, misted and grey and looking always just beyond you, her brittle grey hair elaborately coiffed, liver-spotted hands made fragile by the addition of heavy rings.
(Her thumb brushes the back of his hand, old, familiar habit; he cradles her fingers like rose petals, something new and precious)
You see all this and more in one moment, and some of the things you see sitting upon the thrones of the King and Queen of the Dead are not in the slightest bit human.
You can bear the sight no more than you could bear to see John's beloved face made mockery by lack of colour. For the first time in your life, you avert your eyes.
You had speeches for this moment. Your voice would have soared, you would mix lofty rhetoric with earthy realism, sweeping generalisations tempered with heart-cut-quick-close personal anecdotes. You would tell them everything you loved of John that you never said when he was alive, and everything you despised and yet would not change for all the world. You would have touched their emotions with your own, would have used the universal desire for a mate, would have used everything you had to force them to see your loss as the earth-shattering disaster it is to you.
Another first: your words fail you. Your hands keep moving, the music keeps playing, but your voice has fled.
You say: "Please," all your love compressed into a single word. Apollo has written paeans with less eloquence than the crack of your voice.
You will never remember what you said or played to bring tears to every eye under the rim of the earth where Death is lord. You know only that the Queen looked at you and smiled with still-damp cheeks and said, "Husband, let him have what he wants."
(There is a phrase isn't there, about the difference between wanting and needing, having and getting. You can't remember it under the deluge of JohnJohnJohnohplease.)
"So be it," the Lord of the Dead says, and something collapses inside you, relief heavy as mountains, light as air.
"Wait," she says, when that feeling is at its height and you don't know what to do – it will smother you, choke you, you cannot cope with the breadth of it. "A condition – a test, if you will."
(crown of dead leaves in her hair, goddess of spring)
"A test?" You say, voice choked and small. You do not say, anything, anything, I will do anything, throw what you will at me, I will win if it means John's return. You are not entirely a fool.
"Of faith," she says. "Do you have faith, Sherlock, famous of name?"
in John, only ever in John
"Turn," she says, pomegranate red mouth curved in a smile. "And walk. Behind you will follow your beloved. Do not look back."
She knows you have been doing nothing but since John died.
The smile of Hades is quiet and self-assured. "None leave the underworld by the way they came to it. Follow the path – you will know it. Do not leave it, and you will walk once more in the sunlight of the living world. Halt not, speak not, turn not until you both have left our kingdom. Then, and only then, will John Watson be yours once more."
"Thank you," you say, your heart thundering in your chest.
He laughs. It rolls like thunder. "He thanks us, wife."
Her laughter is sweet like spring rain. "How goes it, husband? What fools these mortals be!"
You turn and begin to walk. You do not look back. Their laughter follows you.
You can hear your heart beating, blood rushing in your ears, the sound of your feet against earth, against stone, the echo of Hades' laughter.
You cannot hear John.
The path is steep, and John's leg still trouble(d)s him now and then; he would not be able to keep from making small noises of discomfort, not at the unrelenting pace you are setting. You cannot hear him swearing softly under his breath, you cannot hear his footsteps, cannot hear the whisper of his clothing, his hands trailing against tree trunks or stone walls. You cannot hear him breathing.
When the laughter of Hades no longer rings in your ears you can hear nothing but absence, nothing but what should have been.
If you spoke, surely John could not keep himself from making some sarcastic remark back, surely he would reply, and you open your mouth –
You bite down until your lip bleeds.
Hours and hours pass and you keep eyes determinedly fixed upon the path ahead of you, though every fibre in you cries and screams that you are walking alone, that you have been tricked, that there is no one following you.
The silence has never been so terrible since the morning you woke and didn't have to realise John was not there, woke and didn't have to remind yourself he was gone. Your breath rasps in your throat, ragged and wet, the noise unbearably loud and from behind you there is no noise at all, just your tears, echoing.
You are alone, and the sunlight is cold and weak on your face - you are alone and you cannot bear it, must know and so you