Chapter 1: The Pain of Instruction
After Death is my chronicling of Sherlock's life on the run with his guilt and grief after Reichenbach.
The chapters do speak to one another, but can be read as standalone pieces.
Thanks for reading.
Disclaimer: Sherlock and John aren't mine, I'm just borrowing them. I promise to feed them and take them for walks and give them back when I'm done.
Triggers: VERY disturbing imagery. Blood, death, explosions, scarring, cutting, snakes, being buried alive, drug use, gore, suicide, murder.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He never used to dream. Not until he left.
Now the dreams come every night After, stack like specimen bottles lining the shelves of his mind:
Naked shoulder scarred John. His hand. Fingernails.
Reach out, touch John's scar. Bullet hole. Explosion
in John's skin. Looming wound. The shape of words.
CONTAMINATED. SICK. He carves on John's eyelids, cheek.
FREAK on bottom lip. MONSTER on his heart. BROKEN
on his shoulder. The red edge of hatred. Slice echoes,
discordant. John twists around his name. Splits apart.
John, a broken tree. The dry cracked plain.
Bark crumbling skin. Rough patches. Parched.
Leaves shake, beg for water. The wind, his terrible wind.
Strip John down of green tender flesh
to the red marrow. Scrape underneath
John's pulsing roots, snap in half. Dry to a husk.
Crows feast. They have his eyes.
Moriarty's eyes, beetle black eyes that slither. Cobras coiled.
Anaconda. Chew on John's leg, slip up the calf,
torso, thigh, neck. John, paralyzed, eyes wet with screams.
Tawny tuft of hair surrounded by teeth.
Fangs. Digest. Acid. Hands, feet, shove, scrabble
from the inside. A vomit of bones.
Soft, lilting, slithering laughter.
John's deep blue. The salty oceans of John's eyes.
Dark forests of seaweed. Iridescent creatures
in the crushing black. Bright slips of color.
The waves of John lapping. Float in John.
The red bloom. Boiling red. Boiling him alive.
Rush of searing steam. The dry reefs of John's body,
harden, stone, crumble. Tentacles. Suckers.
John's inky screams. The stretches of dead fish.
Feathers and straw. The soft feathers of John's hair,
the smooth feathers of John's skin. Straw for his bricks.
Quiver. Rustle in oatmeal. Straw man. Blow away,
scatter dust. Grotesque mockery of flying.
Snap together bundle. Twigs. Dip in tallow. Light.
A fat, wild flame. His hands at John's fire. A false hearth,
all light, no heat. Bonfire. The incense of John's burning skin.
The dark inside of coffins. John's hands. Claw marks.
Deep wood. Dirt crushes John's face. Stops his throat.
His hands on the shovel. Six feet, sixty feet.
Wood splinters. Nails. The weight of earth. Loam.
Gravel in John's lungs. Sharp rocks of John's screams.
Toss another handful. Muffle. Bury John. Delete John.
Cliffs. Porcelain white, pockmarked grey,
stack together. Fingerhold. He climbs, hands fit into cracks.
Femurs. Tibias. Bones of balance and sickness.
Chasm of John's blood. Cliffs of John's bones. John's mandible,
flexing, soundless. Breaks off in his hand.
John's teeth. He falls into the red, slippery sea.
The hot needle. Slip under his skin. Seven percent lightning.
Veins crackle, flex, break. Plunger shot. Pale delirious fire.
John explodes, pink mist. Minerals. Hot flash of mica.
Shower of John. Freckles of blood. He breathes John in.
High on dead atoms of John.
Ribs, one, two, three lines. Snap. John's cage of bone,
pry apart. Jaws of life. Lift, hold, cradle heart.
Connected white string tendons. John,
heart in his own hands. Still beating. Coos like a dove.
Offer peace, offer home, offer soft wings for flight.
His fingers dig, crush. Nails down the side.
Sticky blood on grey feathers.
John, the bridge. Cables stretch in his wind. Flail,
twist in a double helix. Attachment. Center.
Cords sharp crack. He holds the knife.
Cuts John's steel links one by one. A whip on John's skin.
John bucking against concrete and water. His hands push.
The ledge. Shove. John's wings, hollow, broken.
The sickening arc of John's fall.
John's jumper. Aran. Fisherman family.
Patterns of home. Cabled zigzag dangle. Thread pull.
Unzip, slip stitch. Pile of white threads,
then piles of dishwater hair. Unravel into pink flesh,
strands of skin slough off, unwind John
with his pale fingers. John's nerves, a silver quivering tangle.
The thick cables of John's intestines. Arteries. Veins.
Capillaries. John, a mess of bloody strings.
He doesn't bother deleting these nightmares of John. He made this pain with his own hands. He doesn't deserve the relief of forgetting.
AN: The title refers to a lyric from Sting's "Inside." Thanks to Jodi2011 for her assistance with this chapter (particularly the last lines).
Thank you for reading! Comments are welcome and relished.
Chapter 2: The Weight of Water
Triggers: falling, blood, wounds, disturbing imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
AN: The title references a lyric from Snow Patrol's "Make This Go On Forever." Hat tip to the amazing MelStewartHM for the song recommendation.
My infinite thanks to the brilliant Kathrina (BehindTintedGlass) for her assistance on this chapter.
The "hopes of future years" and "strong wind" phrases reference a letter by American Civil War soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah Ballou.
Visual inspiration for Sherlock and Mycroft's hospital scene comes from DareToBeBoring's "Oh, Brother Mine" on DeviantArt (dot) com.
And thanks to you for reading.
Chapter 3: The Wolf You Feed
Triggers: blood, hallucinations, self-harm, disturbing imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The mirror in the dingy bedsit is cracked in three places, fracturing his image into Cubist planes. He stares, surveys the landscape of his skin. He managed to last one month with this face, a new record so far.
His beard, a ratty mix of brown and black, scrapes against his skin. He runs the razor under the cold tap, shaving his throat without soap or foam. Little prickles of red dot his cheeks as the blade runs across them.
He scrubs his head under the icy water, the new, dirty brown dye running dark tendrils over his face into the basin. His hair has been so many colors now, textures switching with the countries as he tracked Moriarty's men: blonde, straight, smooth (Norway); ginger, long, curled (Germany); scruffy, brown, bearded (Turkey). He does not remember its original hue.
The metallic sharpness of the shears echoes in the tiny room as he snips at the wet, limp curls, falling like dead leaves around his feet. He slices his hair into short, ragged spikes.
There are days After when he can't remember his own name. He has been so, so many names now. Sigerson. Kaufmann. Morris. Luther. Roberts. King.
He doesn't know if he would respond to his true name now. No one has spoken it to him in months, not even his own brother. Everything is coded now. He is Raven. Tesla. Nicotine. Obsidian. Grendel. These names, these faces like playing cards he shuffles in this awful, new game of hide-and-seek with Moriarty's network.
He had heard his real name so many times Before: in a dull tolerance by Mycroft, in loud exasperation from the Yarders, in a slithering, sickening drawl from Moriarty. And then, from John. A tight, little hiccup of his name, the syllables softened in John's mouth: Sherlock, eat. Brilliant, Sherlock! Sherlock, you okay? Sherlock, run!
Every day After, he buries himself under these layers of skin and bone, truths and needs and half-lies that crush him with their weight. He is clay on the wheel of his own making, spinning himself a new body, destroying it every night, smashing and punching himself out again the next day.
He hunts. Camouflage. Slipping invisible in the middle of the crowd (who would notice me?). He is hunted. A wolf circling its own shadow.
His skin prickles with the delight of the chase, never able to stop, his mind blazing, all day, every day, burning through deductions and evidence, burning down a trail to Moran's door, his own body the kindling.
With Moriarty's games, the fire in his brain had been a delight, singeing the edges of him to the pleasure side of pain, his whole body quivering, dancing from the power of his mind running overdrive, the surge of it rising to something close to godlike, drunk with the knowledge no one would dare defeat him.
Now, the fire eats away at him all the time like a supernova, ripping through his self like a bomb tearing through flesh. And underneath the fire, at the bottom of his stomach, sits a slow-simmering coal of fear: I can't let it end here. I can't fail. I can't fail John. I can't disappoint him. I can't let Moriarty win. I can't let him win.
It has been so long since he has been seen, since anyone saw his dry, cracked depths. He remembers how John had seen him so long ago, seen his brittle, fragile self like a broken, rare creature and caressed it with his words: brilliant, fantastic, amazing.
John had almost made him believe that he could be good, that he could be human, that he could be worthy of kindness (who would be a fan of Sherlock Holmes?).
He had tried to tell John, to warn him away: I wouldn't be one of them—
(I know what I am. I wil cut you with these terrible claws. I will tear into your heart with my fierce teeth. I am not safe. I am no hero. I am a horrible wild thing and I am cold and cruel and calculating and I could kill you if I chose)
—and John's face had hardened into a thin line of disappointment, slicing into him.
But then came the days of puzzles, and the night of the pool, and when he saw the same razor sharp claws hidden in Moriarty's smile, the same vicious grin that devoured death with pleasure, his tiny heart fluttered in his chest, and he knew: I am just like him. We are the same being, shadow twins split in two.
As he stares at his fractured face, his mind shatters into pieces, fragments of his heart cutting the inside of his skin. His face in the mirror cracks apart into sharp shards, two faces staring back at him:
Moriarty, his greasy black eyes suddenly pearl grey, lit by a silver sun at the center of him. Moriarty's voice, crawling over his skin, mauling his lips: I see you, Sherlock. Your barren heart. We were made for each other. You and me. You're mine. You're me. Moriarty's teeth glisten, wet with delight.
John, safe John, good John, his eyes a gentle, patient blue, his voice like warm honey and sweet milk and hot tea and everything soft and steady. I see you, Sherlock. You're not like him. You are my hero. You have a heart. You are human. You are kind. John smiles, his gaze strong and loyal, and he grabs onto John's voice like a lifeline (remember remember remember).
The layers overlap in a terrible, sickening melody, Moriarty's mocking singsong warring with John's stable warmth, slowly overtaking it—
you are Sherlock Holmes you are meant for me you are the only one in the world you are brilliant you are not a hero you are charming you are my only friend you are sentimental you are mine you get your hands dirty you are worthy you like to dance for me you are good you are stunning you are my home you are needed you're like me you use people you lie to them you're not human you are sexy you will be very happy together you don't care you're an idiot you and me you are not kind
—his throat clenches up and something slimy unfurls itself in his gut and he can't breathe, his body skittering and shaking—
(don't look shove it down don't look not real)
—the darkness in his heart begins to grow small, sharp fangs that chew at the thread of John's voice, crushing his words one by one—
(stop it stop it stop it)
—and in the mirror Moriarty's jaws break open backwards, twisting around themselves, and he tears into the fragments of John, Moriarty's dark mouth swallowing John's golden heat, devouring John whole until there is nothing left of him but a cracking of bones and teeth and splintered glass.
He scrubs his head hard, trying to burn the feel of John's flesh under his teeth out of him like impurities out of metal, digging his fingernails into his temples until they draw blood, but he can't and his whole face snaps apart as he screams, his eyes full of black fire—
I am cruel I lied I lied I lied you worthless freak you arrogant sod of a thing you lied to him you lied to your only friend and you can't see anymore and you lie and kill and hurt everyone you touch and no one will ever want you again you are poison you are poisoned you are a monster I destroy everything I touch and John will never want me again John will never want me again he will see what I've done and he'll see Moriarty's eyes in my own and he won't want me ever again he'll run away screaming like everyone else oh god stop it stop it stop it stop it—
He jerks his head up, eyes flashing open, wide, hair-triggered. In the mirror, he sees only himself, his damp, sandy hair, the smooth redness of his shaven face, his eyes wet and faded.
(shove it down shove it down ignore delete)
Slowly, he washes the blood from his face, the icy water bracing against his shaking skin. He ruffles his hair dry with his fingers, sweeps the last of his beard hairs down the sink. He slips a set of colored contacts into his eyes, turning them a dusty blue, then follows them with a pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses.
His muscles aching from the memory of his wounds, he pulls on a plain white T-shirt, jeans, and simple grey cardigan, then gathers his old clothes, bundling them up in a sheet along with his shorn hair, ready to discard in the nearest skip.
He tests out voice after voice, settling on a soft, lilting breath, then shifts the muscles in his face, moulding it into a tentative, crinkling smile that does not touch his eyes.
It is easier, this way. To descend under these masks until there is nothing left of him. He doesn't know if he will ever come out again. He's not sure he knows the way.
He has forgotten what light feels like anyhow.
First, thank you for reading, and for your comments/kudos/bookmarks/reblogs. I deeply appreciate all the energy you've giving to this story.
As always, my deepest gratitude to my brilliant friend and beta, Kathrina (BehindTintedGlass), without whom this story (and this chapter in particular) could not have come to fruition.
And thank you to all those who submitted their head!canon photos of fugitive!Sherlock: Valeria2067, PsychoMom, and JammmJamson.
Edited to add: the amazing Anke (Khorazir on Tumblr) has created a powerful drawing to illustrate the mirror moment in this chapter: http://khorazir.tumblr.com/post/11866242064/reflection-inspired-by-another-of
Chapter 4: The Distant River
Triggers: some references to drowning, blood, cutting, strange imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He sits cross-legged on the floor, the ceiling fans of his room tossing wind in fierce whips against his skin. Sweat sticks to his faded, open button-down and khaki pants, turning the light fabric translucent. The open air market below his window wafts in the noise of vendors haggling in Turkish and the smell of cheap meat cooking over fires.
Scattered around him are the contents of the latest care package from Mycroft: grainy black-and-white surveillance photos of Moran's men, pages from classified dossiers, copies of Internet records, yet another new set of ID, a fresh mobile and pistol.
He balances his new laptop on his legs, staring at the three words in the center of the screen:
He is alive.
This was the arrangement he had made with Mycroft eighteen months Before: Send a message on the first of the month. Do not let John know I am alive. Tell me nothing about him but this. Anything else will be a distraction.
He had lived before without food and water and sleep and rest and cigarettes and all other things essential to life, he had thought. He could survive without John.
He is alive. The words are now a mantra to him, chanted with every heartbeat and every step he takes like background radiation: John is alive, breathing, somewhere, on this earth.
Inside his bones, where he can't reach, he feels the constant, familiar itch, the craving to taste John's quiet voice on his skin, to dial his mobile and simply listen to John's voicemail over and over. There are days when he thinks he would cut out his own tongue to hear John say his name again.
He opens a new email window, the message box blank and waiting. A line of sweat trickles down his back as he types, fingers flying across the keys.
I wish I could tell you I'm alive. I wish I could tell you everything. But it's not done. I can't tell you until I'm done. It won't make sense to you. You won't see the whole picture. God, I need you to see. I need you to understand. I haven't made things right. I'm not worthy yet. Of you. To come home. I may never be.
I have nothing left, John. Just the crumbs of you, dissolving in my mouth and leaving me dry. Nothing left but this fight.
I don't even have myself anymore.
I hope it will be enough.
I would rearrange all the atoms in my body if I could be the man you saw in me, the man you wrote about in your blog. Collapse into piles of carbon, nitrogen, copper, oxygen, let you reconstruct me into the person you want me to be.
I died for you. I died so I could be a better man for you. The friend you deserved. If I could die again, to stop this evil in the world, I would.
This is the only way I can be good for you. To take care of you the way you've taken care of me. Let me do this for you. You fought so much for me. Let me do this dirty work for you.
I hope you are happy now. Without me. I will never forget you. But I know you have forgotten me. You have grieved and moved on and forgotten I even existed. I am sure you were glad to be rid of me, of all my mess, of all my cruelty, of all my lies. You deserve a better life than what I could give to you. I could only bring you ruin now. And even though everything we shared has dissolved into dust and even though it makes the bottom of my stomach twist, I hope you have forgotten you ever needed me because then I can forget that I need you.
I am ashamed. I am a coward. I am tired of hiding like some frightened beast. I don't remember the last time I took a proper shower. I feel dirty everywhere and I can't wash the blood out from under my fingernails.
I don't know if I could ever get clean.
Is this what you dreamt of, John? The blood on your hands? The people you couldn't save? The people you killed?
I still hear Moriarty screaming in my blood. He pulls me under, and there are days when I fight him, when I kick to the surface and take a breath, and it's the most beautiful breath, it's sweet and clean and almost too much to take.
But other days, he drags me down, and I breathe in my blood, and my throat burns with the foulness of it. He smiles, and I smile back, and I just let myself drown because it would be so much easier to die with him than to live with you, because it's not death that frightens me, John, it's living.
Dying isn't frightening because there's nothing left to lose, there's nothing left to risk, but when I live, everything hangs on this precarious wire. I never had a reason to care if I fell to my death until I met you. I never wanted to let you down, I never wanted to let you fall with me because it's the longest way down, and I thought if I died I wouldn't be afraid to live anymore.
There are nights when I can see the stars, out alone in this wilderness. I know you never thought I cared about the stars, never noticed how fiercely and beautifully they shine, but I do. I see every single one of them like little balls of lightning, the Milky Way pouring across the night, and every star is the shape of your eyes, these pinpricks of light you made in the darkness of me. I see all of them, all the layers back to the beginning of time, and even then you're there, you've always been there. John, you've always been my compass through the world so I can navigate what's Good and what's a Bit Not Good and what's Absolutely Horrible, and what can I do now that I have tossed you away?
I'm trying to be more like you. To lay my body across the world for you, the way you did for me, to make a bridge out of my blood and bones so you can walk across it whole.
Isn't this noble? Isn't this what it means? To be empty and selfless for someone else?
I know no other way than this. I know no other way to become you than to die and fill myself with you until I feel you in the look of my eyes and the breath in my lungs.
I am trying to be a good man.
If I murder the great man, the good one will emerge. If I slit my own throat, my blood will wash me clean.
Did I want to die after all? It's so exhausting being me. So tiring. I never rest.
I want to rest, John. I never thought I would hear myself say that, but I do. I want to sleep in the bags of your eyes and the crooks of your elbows. I want to stitch the patterns of your ridiculous jumpers into my flesh to keep myself warm. I want to carve your name on the underside of my skin, so I can read you in my dreams.
I want to drown myself in the undertow of your eyes, your sparkling bright blue, your kind gaze I don't think I'll ever deserve.
I want to taste the three wrinkles in your forehead, and the mole on the right side of your neck, under your ear, and the tiny bump on your nose. I want to cry the hollow screams of your nightmares, and wake up covered in your sweat. I want to count all 100,000 hairs on your head, and name each of their colors.
I want to come home. I want to come back to you.
Do ghosts have homes, John?
His fingertips, burnished red and smooth from typing, tremble as he pulls his hands away from the keys. The cursor hovers over the Send button. The air around him, thick with heat and noise and smell, floods his body with input, his breath heavy in his chest.
His skin prickles with everything he senses (meat cooking on fire, lamb kebabs; two women, mid-30s and mid-20s, American tourists, haggling over price of jewelry; human sweat; Turkish coffee, dark-brewed, fresh; incense: sandalwood, jasmine, vanilla; spices: cinnamon, cloves, oregano, mint; car backfiring three streets away, bad muffler; hazy day, despite intense sun, ozone and pollution at dangerous levels),
and everything he does not (space behind and directly to the right of me is empty John always stood there it made more sense since I'm right-handed and he's left-handed we could exchange objects more easily while leaving his right arm free for his gun which he always carried with him under that horrible jumper I don't know why he wore those jumpers even though I loved the smell of them soap linen wool tea and I think I have forgotten what his voice smells like and he is not here he is not here he is not here).
His heart twists violently in his chest, as if trying to wrench itself free from a steel vise.
(help me i'm falling i can't i'm not)
He shoves it back down to the bottom of his body, ignoring its insistent, terrible screaming.
Swallowing the raw lump of gravel in his throat, he clicks Cancel, his words deleted.
AN: The title references a line in the Sade song, "Like a Tattoo."
My deepest thanks, as always, to Kathrina (BehindTintedGlass), without whose Sherlock expertise and conversations, this work would not be possible.
And my many thanks to you, for your extreme patience in waiting for this chapter, and for your energy/reading/commenting/liking/recommending.
Chapter 5: All Unquiet Things
Sherlock's going into his Really Bad Place. Definitely a Bit Not Good.
Content warning: murder, torture, gore, cannibalism (sort of), very disturbing imagery
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Every night After, he peels away his flesh and bones, nothing inside him but the wind howling across the moors of his body. In this barren land between rightdoing and wrongdoing, he is alone with the things he has done.
He doesn't want to speak them aloud. They flow over his body like lava, scorching their truth into his skin for everyone to see.
He says them anyway. It doesn't matter.
There is no one left to hear them.
"Give me the name."
Look at this one. Hold it up to the light. This was one of Moriarty's best agents. For six months I tracked him, all through Europe to an abandoned farmhouse in Andalusia.
His red-rimmed eyes, shaking out of their sockets. The slice of blood curling up from his mouth. His voice bubbling and wet, his broken throat choking on air.
It took eight hours of slow, little cuts everywhere before he gave himself up to me.
I heard all he had to say, and then I stopped his blathering. He was of no use to me anymore. I needed him to suffer.
I need all of them to suffer for what they've put me though. Making me crawl through the wilderness like an animal. Trying to destroy my work, my city, my life. Making me rip myself from you, the one person I need the most.
I would bring Moriarty back to life just to kill him again. Carefully. Elegantly. Something special.
Unfortunately, his corpse can't feel pain. But his minions can.
Punishing them will have to do.
I smell it all the time, their blood in the water, this never-ending, never-sleeping need to hunt. Stalking, silent, striking with swift, sharp teeth. The rending of flesh into roiling bits. The way the water quiets, the surface a perfect, placid disguise.
My bones crackle with white fire, this power engulfing me like a supernova. I am The Cause, The Big Bang in reverse.
The dead once whispered their voices in my mouth. I plucked their secrets from their bodies and unfurled them in my fingers like bright, red blossoms. Now I silence everyone I touch, reach up from my abyss and suck them down to the crushing dark where they will never speak again.
When I dragged that knife across his neck, his head in my heads, the world, God—everything—just went white noise and It. Was. Beautiful.
I have never been that quiet in my entire life.
I never thought I could smother the voices in my head, spinning like a thousand tornadoes tearing at the same piece of ground. They scream all the time, their hungry cries echoing in my ears: more data, more leads, more blood. Feed us before we devour your own heart.
"There's still time to hurt you."
Every time I give one over to Mycroft, or take one under my own hands, the fortress around me grows stronger, safer. Less data to track. One fewer pair of hands that could strangle me in the night.
The light going out of his hazel eyes, flecks of green turning grey. His pizzicato gasps ringing in my ears. His screams, tasting like dark, rare honey. I held it all on my tongue like a benediction and swallowed it down.
(John. You're doing this for John. You have to remember.)
"The name! Now!"
I shiver all the time, a layer of frost under my solitary skin. I don't remember the last time someone touched me without a knife in his hands.
I don't deserve to be touched kindly anymore. I am not a good man. I am not even a great one, now.
There is a reason why all monsters die alone.
I never thought I would burn out my own heart so beautifully. This charred, cold hollowness. I fill my empty soul with the blood of everyone I've destroyed, all their wretched, ragged pieces. I eat their hearts and they knit together in my chest, talk to me in my sleep.
They whisper Moriarty's secrets in my veins, flood me with their antibodies, and my body doesn't reject all these little slices of evil, just absorbs them into my own flesh.
What does that say when I need the things I am killing? And when they need me back? And when I don't need you enough to hold on?
The last time I was this still was after shooting cocaine, that moment of blissful, silver silence. I needed it when I was bored.
But I'm not bored now. I'm never bored. I don't need drugs when I have this.
And it's almost good.
Lilacs / olive trees / horse manure / sweetgrass / traces of moldy cheese / copper / rusted wires / loam / scratch of metal chair on wooden floor / creak of shutters / buzzing light bulb, 60 volt / cobwebs from Steatoda grossa / human sweat, acrid with minerals / the scrape of razor against bone
God, this is dying, a sick, fucking vomit at the back of my throat all the time, something foul under my breath I can't scrape away, this is nothing like delight and giggling at crime scenes.
There is such blood here. Enough for a lifetime.
All these little steps back to you. Every man dead at my hands or locked away in a tiny hole in the earth. These are my offerings to you. If I bring enough blood home, I can make us alive again.
I wish it were not at the cost of everything I hold dear.
There's a black spot on my heart, cold and furry and alive with creeping, terrible teeth. Its roots burrow into my flesh, tangling its barbs around my veins, choking me. I take a knife to my skin and gouge it out, but it keeps growing back like a tumor.
If I let it eat me, will I finally be at peace?
I heard every cell of him shrivel and stop, his heart ticking like a dying clock: body in shock / severe concussion from initial pistol-whipping / skin covered in vomit, blood, and spittle / acute trauma to epidermis from repeated incisions over 90% of his body / wrists and ankles raw to the bone from struggling against his bonds / ultimate cause of death: blood loss from tracheal wound.
It is a strange feeling to be able to deduce your own crime scene.
(liar, you're doing this all for you, you always wanted to prove yourself a god, to prove yourself cleverer than all the rest, to out-scheme and outsmart and out-destroy them all, to soar above all these mortal, idiot people, you always thought you were invincible, and now you are, no one can fucking touch you, no one ever gets to you and no one ever will)
I don't remember the last time I felt your sweet voice in my head. If I were a better man, I might feel ashamed.
All I feel is this cold lust coiling in the center of my gut, the bright, needle-sharp stillness afterwards. Only the white flame, burning me alive.
AN: The title references a lyric from "This Is Why We Fight," by The Decemberists. The "alone with the things" line references a phase from A Softer World, Comic #227. The "rightdoing and wrongdoing" phrase is from a poem by Rumi. The "perfect disguise" phrase references a lyric from "A Horse with No Name," by America.
Thanks to Mirith Griffin for her gracious pre-reading, and to Kathrina (BehindTintedGlass) for the Sherlock & Moriarty conversation that helped shape this chapter.
Chapter 6: The Least of All My Fears
Content warning: cannibalism, suicide, gore, blood, sickness, hallucinations, murder, warfare, autopsies, dissection, disturbing imagery
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The fever comes two years After in the mountains of Lhasa, after 76 straight hours of consciousness: driving, climbing, chasing, breathing the sparse air, all to catch one of Moriarty's chief operatives who fled across the border between Tibet and Nepal. 76 hours of sucking on stale cigarettes and chewing on coffee beans and carrying a thick pack on his thin frame.
The years of running creep up on him, smashing into his bones until he can barely stand. He throws himself into an ancient hotel room, the walls paper-thin, ornate verandas crumbling. A storm of sweat drenches him as the sickness rips through his body, his cells screaming from the strain of being pulled like rubber bands to the edge of breaking.
He falls into a fitful, thin sleep, his breath high up in his throat, stuck somewhere between his clavicles. He aches for John's steady, soothing hands to wring the poison out of him, brush his matted hair back from his forehead, bring cool water to his lips. John's soft, warm hands, to bless each piece of him, plant sweet seeds of relief. John's firm, strong hands, to press his words against his wounds to stop the bleeding in his heart.
A silken, sickening voice lilts at the back of his mind, smelling of chlorine and blood. Its words flicker like bright red dots, trying to find a target. (you threw your pet away, remember? the one man who knew how to heal you.) It laughs, a high-pitched sound resonating in the echo chamber of his brain, his body shaking with blue-black tears.
Floating on the ocean of pain inside him, he vibrates as he flits in and out of consciousness for days. His spirit separates from his blood, hovering slightly above it, mind and flesh a half-step out of synch. Through this open crack between them, the nightmares slip inside.
John lies in the dirt, dust rising around his feet. His body is skeleton-thin, his face sunken and grey, his tattered clothes hanging from his frame like broken feathers. Fragments of bullets jut from his skin, a teeming mass of scars and scabs. Small chunks of his body are missing, gouges of emptiness on his arms and legs. One impossibly blue eye is gone entirely, a hollow of smooth flesh in its place.
Spiraling around John is a ring of barbed wire, the metal woven of twisted words: I am sorry this was coming have found your friend can end it here will handle arrangements stop him for good I knew goodbye.
Around the nest of wire, in concentric circles, are small, shallow mounds of earth: 730 land mines, some old, others freshly laid, little nuggets of death, all of them stenciled with SH in black, block letters.
Beyond the minefield, lines of snipers train their rifles on John, all of the men with the same thick, black curls, the same silver, alien irises staring down the sights of the weapons. A crown of red lasers flutters on John's forehead, flashing at his pulse points.
Propping himself on his hands and knees, John reaches tentatively for the edge of the wire, the hooks rusty with his own blood. A gunman picks off a piece of him, this time, his left little finger, the shot clean and quick. John is so thin he doesn't have the breath to scream.
John clutches his mangled hand to his chest, his leg trembling underneath him as he bleeds into the dirt. From the outer ring of the siege, rows of long, pale hands fling grenades at John, the tiny explosions ripping more and more flesh away from his cadaverous form.
John tries to shimmy under the wire, his useless body snagging in its jagged tendrils. The final round of grenades blasts a hole in his torso, turning the flesh into pulped meat. Tangled and flailing in the barbs, John mewls, his breath a thin thread snaking out of his ruined chest. "Please."
His withered heart, still beating, dangles out from the open wound. Slick with mud and blood, John cradles his heart in his hands, offering it up to him. John's eyes are desperate and dim, his voice cracking over his lips. "Please."
In unison, the snipers raise their rifles, aim at John's heart, and fire, filling him with the rest of their bullets, his body jerking with the illusion of life.
The sound of teeth meeting bone. Soft growls. Smacking noises. John crouches beside him, surrounded by human bodies, Moriarty's agents laid at his feet like trophies; stabbed, shot, strangled, suffocated. The doctor gnaws a bone, rips off chunks of meat and wolfs them down whole, then tosses it into the huge, jumbled pile of tibias, femurs, and chewed skulls beside him.
His hands and mouth are covered in gore, crimson running down his oatmeal jumper. Blood drips from his grinning teeth, his eyes filled with cold, blue fire. "I killed them all for you, Sherlock. Aren't you proud of me? Isn't this why you need me, to do your killing for you?
"I wrap their skin around me to keep myself warm. I sink my teeth into each and every inch of their flesh, and swallow it down with their blood. And it's so good."
John licks his lips, catching a swipe of red on his tongue. "Please don't take this away from me. I don't want to stop. I need more bodies. I can't go home until I've destroyed them all.
"Please." John eyes glint, wild and bright, like the eyes of wolves. "I'm so hungry."
Suddenly, John shoves his fingers in his own mouth, biting them off one by one. Working his way up his arms, he chews at muscle and sinew until his shoulders are bloody stumps. He folds himself in half, starting again with his toes and feet, swallowing great chunks of his flesh, his tears seasoning his blood as his jaws open wide, crushing his heart before inverting and swallowing his head whole.
John flicks his hands over his pale skin, his gloved fingers cold and brittle, peeling away his clothes until he is naked. Picking up a scalpel, John slices into his waxen, still body, a Y incision down the length of him. His screams are paralyzed in his throat, the pain slicing through the strata of muscle and fat.
With his bare hands, John cracks open his ribs to the very core of him, revealing the black, decaying organs inside his cavity. He plucks them from their hiding places, holding them in his warm hands, measuring the worth of his life. John reads off the words etched on each organ like scarred welts: Freak. Sadist. Alien. Abusive. Arrogant. Cold. Artificial. Deadly. Psychopath. Cruel. Monster. Heartless. Bastard. Selfish. Murderer. Liar.
John's apron and gloved hands are stained black with his blood. "Worthless," he says, his voice clinical and clipped. "Every piece of you. Nothing worth loving. Nothing worth living for." With every word, he tosses another piece of his body into the rubbish bin.
John's voice sends electric shocks of shame through him, every mistake he ever made flashing in his veins: John's warm body, cocooned in explosives, wooden with terror, his kind voice twisted into the sharpest blade. John's sad sighs, after all the times he snarled and bit at the heart of their friendship like a wounded dog. John's slate blue eyes, looking back at his on That Day, the color draining out of them until they were mere watermarks.
Raw tears wash over his silver irises, pooling at the edges of his frozen eyes. His face solid steel, John stares at him, holding his charred heart in his blood-slicked hands. Without a sound, he drops it to the floor, crushing it to a wretched pulp under his heel.
Carefully, John lays back the flaps of his skin, shutting them like doors. John closes his body with fine, perfect stitches, a blue Y incised on his chest, then sews his lips together. He feels the needle pass through him, a red thread of pain slipping in and out, his voice dying in his throat. The last thing he sees is John's cold, flat gaze as he slowly sews his weeping eyes shut.
AN: The title references a lyric from "Barton Hollow," by The Civil Wars. My thanks to Mirith Griffin for her beta critique and the perfect inspiration for the besieged!John section. Further lyrical inspiration for besieged!John comes from "Fortress Around Your Heart," by Sting.
The talented Khorazir has once again graced this story with her art: http://khorazir.tumblr.com/post/15046706450/day-23-originally-i-had-wanted-to-do-an-entirely
And thanks to you for reading. As always, comments are welcome.
Chapter 7: Becoming Osiris
CW: strange imagery, references to violence.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Every day After, he runs. His body splits apart, pieces of him flying to the four corners of the world, his soul drawn and quartered by the horses of the chase, leaving nothing in the center but a crumbling, bruised, stringy muscle that used to be his heart.
He runs to the frozen north where the wind blows black, where the night is everlasting, where the tundra sears his skin; he runs to the fields where the cold matches his bones and his heart is the only thing keeping him alive; he traces the circle of ice at the neck of the world and slices his throat on it, peels the permafrost from the wasteland of his body and warms his bones with it;
he stands at the top of the world to see the ruin he has made upon it, his eyes as cold as the gunmetal sky, the blood he sheds pouring red on his white skin and the white snow; he runs into the future studded with ice; flees to the steppes, the clouds sweeping smudges of dishwater and oatmeal;
he climbs the glaciers that glow as blue as the deepest wells of John's eyes; to the land of aurora borealis, swirling green like the fields of Dartmoor, the skies of bright, shivering doubt; he runs to the point of the compass tip, to the north pole around which he soars, the Polaris star the color of honey, the closest star in this blueblack night.
He runs to the west, chases the setting sun around the world, runs after the darkness as if his light depended on it; he sneaks through the tiny neon corridors where the black lotus grows; he runs to the mountains and buries his soul in the sky, crushes it with flour and tea and throws it to the vultures to feed;
he runs to the west, where the days grow fat with time, too much time away, not enough to make himself invincible; he stands on the line when tomorrow meets yesterday and vibrates on the edge of now, always now, the edge he's lived on for 2½ years;
he runs through the slippery alleys of the city that doesn't sleep, the streets of his city filled with the trash and piss and grime of a man open 25 hours a day; he runs to the edge of the continent where the sky is hot and brown and filled with smog, the future choking him in its grip, the earth crumbling underneath him and swallowing him whole, drifting alone into the ring of fire.
He runs to the east, to the crossroads of the world, the cradle of civilization, where the rivers flood the land with the years of battle he cannot shed; he runs to the place that existed for him only in the screams of John's nightmares, to the dry grasses and silver sands and blood shifting in the dirt;
where the call to prayer comes five times a day, echoing in his bones, the call to stop and praise and remember, the call he must ignore because he can't set root here, where the tongues are many and delicious, where the curled and curving words John cried in his sleep are like sweet halvah on his lips;
he runs to the spot where John took the bullet that sent him to him so long ago, the place where he takes a bullet back, adds it to the scars he carries like talismen; he runs to the mountains, thick with silence, where the wind howls over the cliffs like a dog for its master, the ache in his heart the return message he seeks;
he runs to the tombs of the ancients, writes his name in the book of the dead with his own blood; he runs to the land where the sandstorms are fierce and wild, where the sand on his tongue is like water on his throat and the grit in his eyes is the only way he can cry.
He runs to the south, to the line at the center of the globe where the world burns as bright as John's eyes in the sun; he rushes to the place where the water smokes like thunder, and wonders how it would feel to fall twice; he sails to the tip of the world with no good hope, crashes his ship upon the rocks and leaves himself for dead, cuts his heart apart on the blade of the land;
he flees into the months of water, of mist and moisture and monsoons, to the sacred muddy rivers still cleaner than his polluted soul; he runs to the land of hot spiced sun, of fever dreams that come as certainly as the rains, like the furious drumming inside his heart;
he runs to the temples of ancient gods with a thousand faces, this place where he doesn't remember his own; he dives through the barren reefs crumbling in the dark; to the jungles with cliffs like razors and roads that cling to them like lovers; he walks on the spine of the world, where his body falls and breaks alone, where every bone shatters and he can't remember when he was whole;
he runs to the land of frozen cities, abandoned green fields on mountainsides where his air is thin, left in John's mouth on a street thousands of miles and hundreds of days away; swims to the bottom of the world and hoists it on his shoulders for him, always for him;
he runs to the line where the world is cut in two, the canal bridging east and west, the bridge he hopes he has not burned completely, the bridge he hopes he remembers how to cross, to the man he hopes will be there on the other side.
AN: Thank you to everyone for your comments, bookmarks, and thoughts. I'm touched by the response to this story. FYI, we have only one, perhaps 2 more chapters of After Death left before we head into After Love (the reunion story).
Special thanks to Mirith Griffin for her beta critique and Osiris reference, BehindTintedGlass for her love from across the globe and the Forgive Durden song, SongstersMiscellany for the qawwali poem that shaped this chapter, and Sis and [Redacted] of FuckYeahSnackables for the delicious mangoes and coffee.
This was written under the influence of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman," the song featured in one of the previews of The Reichenbach Fall.
Osiris was the ancient Egyptian god of the dead, who was murdered by his brother Set, his body dismembered and scattered across Egypt, and later reassembled and awakened by his sister-wife, Isis.
The four horses and drawn-and-quartered imagery references lyrics from Forgive Durden's "I Am A Heart, Watson. The Rest of Me Is Mere Appendix." The longing + return message phrase references the Rumi poem Love Dogs.
In order, the places I reference for Sherlock's world-wide travels are: Russia (the steppes), the Arctic Circle (neck of the world), China (the black lotus), Tibet (sky burial), New York City (city that never sleeps), California (smog-filled land), the Pacific Basin (ring of fire), the Tigris and Euphrates (cradle of civilization), Afghanistan (John's nightmares), Egypt (tombs of ancients), the Equator (line at the center of the world), Mosi-oa-Tunya, a.k.a. Victoria Falls (known as The Smoke That Thunders), The Cape of Good Hope (the ship crashing), India (monsoons), the Ganges River (sacred muddy river), the Great Barrier Reef (crumbling reef), Bolivia (razor-like cliffs), Chile (spine of the world), Machu Picchu (frozen green cities), Cape Horn (bottom of the world), and the Panama Canal (canal from east to west).
Chapter 8: Breaking the Night
My apologies for the extreme delay in posting this final chapter. The Reichenbach Fall thoroughly messed with my writing brain for several weeks. Thanks for your patience.
Content warning: violence, guns, gunshot, murder, blood, gore, reference to suicidal ideation, disturbing imagery
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Three years, six continents, and thousands of miles After, he waits. He crouches in the darkness of Moran's hideout, a quiet cabin in the Ardennes, plain shingles, worn wood. For one week, he watched him: finding the silent footpaths, tracking his routine, walking like an unshootable shadow, finally slipping inside when Moran left for his nightly card game.
Alone in the empty house, he waits like Michaelangelo's David, muscles coiled, eyes narrowed, hand clenched around his pistol. He expands his senses out into the night, listening for the minute noises of his prey: rustle of grass on camouflage fatigues / scrape of boots against the ground / size nine feet, strong arches / thin but muscular, six feet tall / unsteady gait, slightly inebriated.
As Moran approaches, he slowly wills his mind to a halt, silencing the grinding of the gears, down to the flow of blood through his heart. The seconds stretch out like spun glass, so thin they threaten to crack around him.
Moran stumbles in as the moon rises, shrugging off his field jacket before flicking on the light. His face is cool and tanned, thin curls tangled around his face, dark eyes soft with drink. "You." A small snort of breath, a spark of surprise.
"Yes." The Browning is heavy in his hands, his back straight and tall as he stands.
"You killed my master." His voice, hard as tempered steel. "You've been destroying me, inch by inch. You killed my friend." The steel slowly turns bright with fire, his eyes sharpening like a blade on a whetstone.
Moran's thin body bristles, muscles rippling under his army surplus t-shirt like a tiger arching its back, making itself bigger. "You clever, cunning, fucking bastard. You took him away from me. I gave up everything for him, you know that? I followed him for years. The only friend I had, the only man worth following." He takes a small step forward, hands clenched at his sides.
His finger twitches around the trigger, tightening a hair's breadth as he watches Moran, the sniper's anger bleeding from his chest. He stares at Moran's hardened, lined face, his eyes flaring like rockets, voice soft even sheathed in steel, his hands worn and steady, and his eyes suddenly transform from burnt umber to a muddy, sapphire blue, his hair shifting from ruddy brown to silver dishwater, three wrinkles appearing in his forehead, his mouth thin and wry—
The soldier's eyes burn red in the white room, voice growing louder. "You bastard, Jim left me behind to find you, to play with you, always you. He left me when it mattered the most to be with you, and I want to make you suffer, you killed him, you killed me—"
—and all of his acrid anger coalesces like a nebula into a white star of hatred, with all the fury and loathing of a dog on fire, howling at the man who set the flames, John's words screaming in his ears—you killed him, you killed me, John's voice like a raging forest fire, John's mouth ready to tear him apart, and John rears up, rushing at him, roaring—
(put the dog out of its misery)
The room explodes with lightning as he pulls the trigger, Moran's mouth shattering apart, bits of grey splattering on the hardwood. The gun thunders into silence, echoing off the walls. There is only the creaking of the floorboards, the scrape of tree branch against the window, the rustle of his clothes against his skin.
He stares down at Moran's body, no longer cloaked in oatmeal and silver. Dappled with scars, he lies pale against the bare floor, blood haloing his head, his open eyes a pair of dusty marbles.
Slowly, a thin tremor shakes up his spine, rising through his limbs until it reaches his hands, still gripping the pistol. His fingers vibrate, first slow, then faster, until they are almost a blur. His knees fold under him, shattering like rickety table legs. The last shred of paper armor dissolves from his flesh down to the bones underneath. The gun falls at his side, his arm limp as a rag doll's, his body like an android with no programming.
Kneeling at the edge of Moran's body, lines of blood roll toward him, pink and grey flotsam floating downstream, staining his knees dark. He sways back and forth, rolling clockwise, then counterclockwise, floating like the unbalanced notes of a violin, the tuning before something beautiful is played.
He stares at his trembling hands, sheets of pain shedding like snakeskin, slipping through his fingers. Without a sound, he begins to cry, thin tears sliding down his cheeks, dropping from his chin and mixing with the blood on the floor, the taste of blood fading from his lips, the cold fire in his heart snuffed out, until the metal walls of his soul are washed clean.
He restarts his own heart, pushing life through his capillaries, pins and needles pricking through his body. His pink, wet lungs swell with breaths as full as the ocean, instead of his old, shallow gasps.
Slowly, he digs down to the bottom of his self, scraping away the layers of broken glass and blood and grime, until he reaches a small strongbox. He opens it, carefully lifting out a single word, unspoken for three years—"John."
The syllable echoes and shimmers, filling the room with light. "John. John. John. John." An open oh of a name in his baritone mouth, swirled and thick like the sweetest of honeys. "Dʒɑ́n." He says his name over and over, the word streaming from his lips like water, easy and liquid, until his voice gives out.
(My real initials. The letters look so strange: a snake and a ladder, side by side. These brittle, broken bird's legs, these twigs holding up my heart. When did they become like cotton or clay?)
Are you injured?
(I have burned all the kindling now. There is nothing left for me, now that they are all dead. Will you still want me like this, John? Hollowed out, bones cracking from weariness, muscles thrown on the fire like cordwood? I don't remember how to be human anymore. The beast has eaten me alive.)
(I want to go home. Place. Land. Flat. Residence. Hearth. Lodgings. You have lodged yourself in my heart like a knife I can't remove without killing myself. Abode. Domicile. House. Nest. Let me curl up inside your wool wrappings and earthy tea bags. Dwelling. Stay. Remains. Cremains. Re-mains.)
A recovery team will be there in two hours. I will accompany them. Remain at your present position.
(I used to run beside you, through the moonlight. You used to like to watch us run. Your body warm next to mine, your breath like sweet almonds, your eyes sparkling like mint and lemons. I think it was called joy.)
(I should stay away. It would be better. I would be dead and nothing would change and you would remember all of me the way you needed to, and I would never have to reveal this shame to you like a tattoo carved across my chest. You would never see the scars the monster left, bites in the shape of my own teeth.)
He is alive.
(I don't deserve to remember you, after everything I've done. But I've waited so long. So long.)
Tell me everything.
The brothers sit in Moran's kitchen, at a hardwood table gouged and pitted with age. Mycroft's team flurries around them, removing Moran's body, tearing into every nook and cranny to find any last vestiges of useful information, like vultures stripping a carcass clean.
He watches Mycroft, suited and sharp, marking the changes of age: traces of new wrinkles around his lips, a smattering of grey hairs near his temple. For a moment, he is envious of his brother's internal organs, his eyes that watched over John, his mouth that spoke to John After, his eardrum that felt John's voice against it. He wants to cut them from his brother's body and eat them, taste the memories of John he could not have.
On the table between them sits a thick accordion file, the edge marked with a plain, white label and black, block letters: J.H.W. Silently, Mycroft slides the file across to him, his hands unblemished and uncalloused. A minute tremor slips through his fingers as he draws his hands back.
His long, pale fingers undo the clasp, tripping over the thin thread. He opens the file, sheaves of glossy, grainy, black-and-white CCTV photos spilling out over his gaunt hands:
John, one year After, thinner than a lathe, a withered twig threatening to crack in half. John, leaden bags under his eyes, weighing down his whole face, wrinkles deep enough to carry all the world's sorrow. John, standing with Stamford at Bart's, staring up at the sharp, narrow edge of the building as if he wanted to slice his wrists upon it.
John, two years After, his trembling hand gripping his sterile, silver cane, the handle worn down with age. John, his all-grey hair, no sun-dappled warmth, his whole body washed out as if rinsed again and again in his tears. John, his clothes pulled tight around his taut body, threadbare at the cuffs and collars, the trace of shaving foam under his ear.
John, three years After, his body stiff and rickety and creaking like a rusted tin man in need of oil. John, hobbling out of his beige, tiny bedsit, the front door plain and brown instead of the glossy darkness of Baker Street. John, his hands full of shopping, the bag too light, only soup and tea and honey inside, not enough food to sustain a man who wants to live.
John alone. John alone. John alone.
The world narrows down to the furious pulse of his heart, exploding suddenly against his chest. His brain wrenches, fractures apart into jagged shards, every bone in his body breaking at once. The bright, thick, red pain smashes his face apart, three years' worth of punches hitting him in a single blow.
He hears the distant, dark whir of Mycroft's voice: did all I could do / under my surveillance / he rejected my help / impossible to reveal the truth. The letters fall to gibberish in his ears.
The seething, sad fury centers in his gut, panic throwing itself against his ribs, screaming like a wild banshee, his mind spinning into a fever pitch:
(he is the one with the strong roots for both of us, I'm just the meretricious leaves, I cut my roots away, but I was the one who was supposed to wither and die, not him, he is stronger than I could possibly imagine, what poison did I put in his soil, what did I do wrong, what happened, he couldn't live without you, you idiot, you saw but you did not observe, you pushed him off the roof yourself and he's falling and hasn't hit bottom yet, he's been falling for years and you could have caught him all this time but your hands were too busy killing to catch him, how can I go back to the man I've killed, how could he possibly forgive me—)
The bitter taste of bile rolls at the back of his throat, shivers coating his skin in a fine sheen of ice. Tears slip into the sides of his eyes, shattering his fragile irises, slicing down his face. He covers his twisted mouth with his sleeve, pressing back a scraping scream. An almost-whine tears from him, something like a choke, a breath of air trapped at the bottom of his lungs for three years, stale and festering, the force of it cracking his body apart, the air filled with the sharpness of ozone after lightning striking the earth. Fire sparks through his veins, the golden threads of his heart pulling against every piece of his body: I can't live without you anymore it's all done John I'm coming—
Mind spinning in circles, he staggers up from the table and rushes out into the night, stumbling through the underbrush, his booted feet slipping on patches of wet moss and thick mud. The moon is an ashen smudge in the sky, bruised with clouds, slipping over and under the stars. The trees are jagged shadows, their bark like razor blades.
He hears Mycroft shouting after him into the darkness. His breath drops from him like heavy stones, the sound amplified by the silence and flung out into the woods. A gangly tree root snags his foot, wrenching his right ankle, and he falls, all of his weight landing soundly on his shoulder as he bites down a cry so hard he nearly splits his lip, his hands torn open on the rough rocks.
The red pain shoots through him like Morse code, dashes and dots darting from his ankle to his shoulder to his palms, studded with mud and gravel. He tries to stand, pushing his wounded hands against the rocks, but his ankle buckles underneath him, ligaments tearing in a double helix of pain.
Shuddering from shock, he kneels and vomits into the grass, bringing up nothing but spit and the last vestiges of the tea he drank two days ago. He collapses in the rotting dark, his mouth full of the taste of decay, his body growing cold. Ants and slugs emerge from their disturbed holes, burrowing underneath him and leaving wet trails on his skin.
His body quivers, taut neck craning toward the sky. The moon is framed like a jewel between the broken trees, the branches clawing at the disc of dishwater light. Tears run over his gaunt cheekbones into his ears, muffling the sounds of the forest.
The wind, cool and sweet against his skin, rustles through the trees, an echo of an echo of a voice caressing his ear, calling him by a name he has almost forgotten.
sherlock. come back. just for me. please.
His limbs sink deeper into the earth, his eyes glazed over with moonlight, blown wide and still, as he whispers into the night.
"John. Please. Wait for me."
Slowly, he crawls out of the earth and rises to his feet, his clothes smudged with dirt, errant leaves stuck in his black hair. He staggers through the pain, grabbing onto trees as he limps through the dark, leaving soft smudges of blood on the trunks, glowing crimson in the starlight, the echo of John's hand in his as he runs for their lives.
AN: Thanks to the amazing Mirith Griffin for her beta critique and unflagging support; the brilliant Kathrina (BehindTintedGlass) for graciously letting me explore her Moran-morphing-into-John idea, and for the language for parts of Moran's dialogue; and BehindTintedGlass, Supernining, lappeldu-vide, and bfnp on their songs of fear and desperation, the soundtrack to several parts of this chapter. Thanks also to my friends on Tumblr who sent their positive writing vibes as I wrestled with, as SongstersMiscellany called it, my kraken!chapter.
The talented Khorazir has once again blessed this story with her art with a drawing inspired by this final chapter: http://khorazir.tumblr.com/post/18131779739/sherlock-after-the-fall-hurting-fifth-in-my
And, thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, recommending, bookmarking, and being such wonderful, patient readers. If you've been holding off on commenting until this last chapter, please don't hesitate to share your thoughts—I'd love to hear what you think! This story will continue in Sherlock and John's reunion story, After Love (coming soon).
The "like a tattoo" line references the Sade song of the same name. The title references a line from Florence + the Machine's "Howl" (thanks to Kathrina for this song). Some of Moran's dialogue is drawn from lines from ACD's The Empty House, as well as an unpublished fic co-written with BehindTintedGlass. The phonetic spelling of John's name is a nod to Mirith Griffin's amazing fic Control, Alt, Delete. The contents of John's shopping bag references MarieLikesToDraw's beautiful Reichenbach reunion painting, "3 years.", and her description of John's shopping ("milk, honey, tea, and noodle soup").