Chapter 1: Flesh Becomes Water
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
One thousand ninety-four nights After, in a bedsit in London, on a plane leaving Paris, they dream.
The sky storms with stars that pulsate like small, ruby heartbeats, streaky clouds glowing like embers from a hearth. Under this flaming sky, on a vast, black ocean, they float, naked and alone: one man pale and long, a silvery starburst on his temple; the other, golden and solid, a bronze snowflake on his shoulder. Lightning flashes through the water, lapping their skin with garnet fire. Across the wide depths, they gaze at each other, their bodies hovering at the edge of each other's horizon, their figures dipping down below the curved edge of the earth.
Rooted in their hearts is a taut, gossamer thread, stretching across the ocean. The string, once a vibrant crimson, is now worn down to a musty pink, the edges fraying with age. Thin tremors snake through its length as their pulses beat, vibrating together in syncopation, beacons calling out to one another.
Slowly, they begin to swim towards each other, following the thread inch by inch across the water, pulling themselves from opposite sides of the earth. The ragged cord draws slick blood from their palms as they cling to the throbbing lifeline, tendrils of red trickling out into the dark water.
They swim for days, lengths of thread tangling around their limbs as the ocean swells, waves spilling over their bodies, pitching them to and fro as they claw against the tide, until they finally meet in the center of the sea.
Miles of thread swirl around them both as they float, gasping for breath, covered in sweat and salt and blood, a mere slip of water between them. Their gaunt bodies shake from exhaustion, their hearts bruised from the constant, fierce tug on the tattered thread.
They ghost their trembling bodies over one another, the water glinting as they move, rippling the slate blue pools and smooth, glasz pebbles of their eyes. Cool hands card through hair like ripe wheat; calloused hands cup thick curls of black ink; fingers caress crinkled eyelids, deep auburn and spun gold; trace the lines of sharp cheekbones worn down by water; stroke feathery, blonde eyelashes, moist and soft; until they finally press their wrinkled hands to each other's heart.
A deep, velvet voice breaks over the waves. "I kept it safe for you."
"I know." Another voice, dappled with amber.
"I never meant to hurt you. To have it this long."
"Will you forgive me?"
The golden man smiles, his face breaking open like light between clouds. Carefully, he gathers the woven, red threads in his hands and wraps them around both of their bodies like a great net, starting with their feet and winding up to their shoulders, the thin cord pressing their flesh together in a tangle of muscle and bone. The edges of their skin blur, their mouths, eyes, hearts nestling inside one another, locking into place, their single heart pumping out steadily and joyfully like a sweet, clear spring, warming their aching, cold skin. They glow with golden, shimmering light, rippling out into the water for miles, a perfect, shivering note of need singing between them like the tremor of a violin, their bodies melting into one another until they are a single being of pure light, rising up into the night, shattering through the clouds to the stars, their heart breaking loose on the wind.
AN: Thanks to the brilliant Mirith Griffin for her beta critique and generous support. The title references a lyric from Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Walk on the Ocean." Visual inspiration for this chapter comes from the comet arrival and energybending sequences from the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode, "Sozin's Comet;" and the Ilia/Decker merge sequence from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The "hearts breaking loose" and "sky storming with stars" phrases are from Pablo Neruda's poem, Poetry. The red thread is a reference to the red string of destiny binding soulmates together (found in Chinese and Japanese legends).
Thanks to you for reading! Comments are welcome.
Chapter 2: The Heavens Unfastened
CW: suicidal ideation, cutting, blood, death by falling, disturbing imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sunlight pours through the window, sneaking under the curtains like spies of life, sliding over John's body as he wakes. The sky is robin egg blue, streaked with warm clouds, shafts of gold cutting through his dark room as he lies in bed, wrapped around (his) urn. The clock on his nightstand reads 7:28 a.m. Saturday. June. Three years After. Three years of small cuts in his skin, scabbing over, dried blood and tender flesh ripped away with each new anniversary: the first birthday gone, then the second, then the third. The silent, unlit Christmases. The moment (he) hit the pavement, striking again, and again, and again.
Time shifts and morphs, becoming like light, at once solid, sharp particles and curling, razor waves, speeding up and slowing down as the days go on. John looks up from his daily task of merely breathing, and weeks pass, swallowed in a line of sick patients, crap telly, and silent nights cradling (his) bones. And there are days when the seconds stretch on to the end of the galaxy and back, universes of grief nestled inside each other like nesting dolls.
The world turns fiercely vibrant in (his) absence, over-saturated and stark. Winters are thick with snow, glittering in the frozen sun, gusts of wind blowing deep drifts across the length and breadth of London. Autumns, usually mere wisps of tan and pale red, are riots of crimson, orange, gold, leaves cascading over the city as they transform, fall, die. Summers are blisteringly hot, leaving John to huddle in the shaded darkness of the flat, away from the flesh-searing heat. And London springs are misted with fine rains, sinking their moisture deep into the earth, feeding plants ready to unfurl themselves from the dark. John passes through each of these seasons unmoved, each violet flower and blazing sunset a cheap imitation of (his) gleaming eyes and sparkling mind.
Time crawls over John like an army of leeches, nibbling away at the dead flesh of his pain, the gangrenous grief that turns his body blacker by the day. His vision is draped in black crepe, the thick, silk veil cloaking his world in night. He learns to see in the dark, the world glowing in haunted black and pixelated green, finding his way to the store, the surgery, his flat, sometimes the pub, sometimes to Sarah's, but never to Baker Street, the darkness of that door burning his eyes like hot tar.
John clutches (his) urn to his chest, his lips brushing against (his) name carved in the stone. He traces the line of his own initials in the marble, letters jagged and rough, scratched with a penknife the second anniversary After, when he wandered the streets until he found himself at Bart's, staring at the spot where (he) fell, standing there as the moon rose and fell and the sun split the sky in two.
There are days, still, when the pain of his leg grips him so hard he cannot leave his bed, trapping him on the rocky outcropping of his soul, waves of grief breaking off chunks of stone until he can barely move, the sea boiling so furiously it would flay him alive. There are days when he wants to fall into this seething ocean, let himself be dissolved down to his bones, so that he can join (him), his ashes mixed with (his) in the cool, black marble.
There are days when he cleans his gun over and over, every day before work, flicking the safety off and on, lining up bullets in his medicine cabinet, the silver of the bullets the same color as (his) eyes.
There are days when he doesn't remember when he last breathed, something anxious and wild buzzing inside his heart like a swarm of stinging wasps; when he doesn't remember when the last blond hair disappeared, or the notch on his belt tightened again, or the bags under his eyes grew new pockets.
He only remembers the stock answer to the question everyone asks him, their voices unnaturally gentle, their smiles pinned in place by worry and courtesy: "I'm fine." Fine like the sparseness of breath in his body, the delicate, translucent veins in his wrists, his bitten, brittle fingernails. The negative space between trees. The powdery ashes at the bottom of his lungs. The hair-thin line between pulse beats.
He carefully sets (his) urn on his nightstand, patting it once with his hand, giving it a weak smile. He peels off the covers, swings his legs over the side, knocking against his silver cane. Propping himself up, he limps to the bathroom, using the toilet, splashing water on his face and through his close-cropped hair, before heading to the kitchenette. Pulling a mug from the drying rack, he rummages through the cabinets for tea among the cans of beans, bags of noodles and rice, jars of curry powder and garam masala. He opens the sugar bowl to find only a few stray crystals at the bottom, the sugar forgotten during his last trip to Tesco.
Swapping his pyjama bottoms for jeans, he shrugs on a thin cardigan over his grey sleep shirt, then pulls on his brown loafers, scuffed at the edges. He grabs his light jacket, the color of spring leaves, then clicks through the door and down the stairs, his body still stiff with sleep and grief. When he opens the building door, a man is standing there, arm raised to press the flat's buzzer, and the world goes suddenly silent.
A perfect almost-silence envelops John, muting everything—the wind rustling through trees, the rumble of cars streets away, the clouds rushing through the sky. He feels only the breath flowing through his lungs, the blood pumping frantically in his veins, the trembling in every muscle. The world sharpens down to the narrowest point, every cell in his body transfixed on the man before him—
His face, cheekbones weary and sharp, skin tanned and mottled with stubble, a shining scar on his temple. His heart-shaped mouth, lined and chapped and parted just so, as if a question were on his tongue. His hair, a stringy, dark mess swirling over his forehead. His Adam's apple, a thick knot in the deep hollow of his neck. His thin body, dressed in a black, battered coat, grey hoodie, and jeans, collar half-upturned, hand fisted at his side as if clenching back the urge to move.
His eyes. The silvery, almond, haunting eyes that pierced John through in his nightmares, that broke him open down to his core, that were blown wide and still on the pavement, the eyes that are now red-rimmed and sheened with tears, as if all the storms of the world were crashing behind his pupils.
The man freezes in place, his outstretched hand hovering, as if caught before a frightened animal, trying to not scare it away. He swallows, eyes fixed on him. "John."
John's cane clatters to the floor, his arms limp at his sides. His blue eyes are wide, drawing in all the light in the universe to see more clearly, his mouth opening and closing like a shocked fish, the lump of a name he has not spoken in three years stuck in his throat. "Sher...." He sucks in a terrible, sharp breath, his body vibrating like resonating crystal just before it breaks, as the world shifts on its axis inside him, stopping its rotation and spinning in reverse, because this isn't real, he isn't real, Sherlock isn't standing before him after three years of his bones sitting in a jar, of him cradling his ashes every night.
Slowly, as if Sherlock's image would shatter in his hands, John reaches across the empty space between them, the space of inches and miles and years, of blood and bones and blackness, and his shaking hand touches Sherlock's bare, warm, living flesh—
and every cell in John's body cracks open, bursting like the sun over the horizon. Golden blossoms explode like grenades in his heart, petals covering the shrapnel of his sorrow; the leather bindings of his pain untangle from his soul, the tawny wings of his joy spread wide; the ship of his grief splits apart and sinks, the ocean cresting smooth and sweet above it; the withered root of his heart breaks into bud as the fabric of his body unravels and reknits itself, tendons and blood vessels and nerves exploding and luminous, his soul singing two words, you're alive you're alive you're alive, rising to a crescendo until his body overloads with the sensation of life, the shockwave knocking him down as his limbs collapse and his eyes flutter shut, feeling the tightening grip of Sherlock's hand in his, the rush of air as Sherlock darts to his side, his strong, wiry arms cradling John's body as he falls into a bed of dark curls and dark wool and dark, sweet breath.
AN: As always, thanks to the lovely Mirith Griffin for being my Beta Goddess and sounding board. Thanks to all of my friends on Tumblr for their support, particularly emmadelosnardos, songstersmiscellany, and behindtintedglass for the conversations that helped shape this chapter for me. And thanks to all of you for reading.
The title references a line in Pablo Neruda's Poetry. The leather bindings, sinking ship, and withered root imagery are adapted from Rumi's poem, Nasuh. Visual inspiration for Sherlock and John's poses come from MarieLikesToDraw's Reichenbach reunion painting, "3 years." John's "I'm fine" reply is after a line in Chapter One of IvyBlossom's amazing Reichenbach fic, The Quiet Man.
Chapter 3: Lifting the Mirror
CW: references to blood and knives.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sherlock kneels beside John's body, eased down carefully in the empty hallway. He peels away John's jacket, wadding it up and shoving it under his legs, then undoes the buttons of John's pyjama top, baring his throat. His hands hover over John's chest, feeling the rise and fall of his lungs, then move to John's wrist, seeking his pulse. John's pale, pliant body rustles and twitches, soft moans escaping his lips.
(i had no idea John you have to believe me i didn't realize you would be so affected i'm here John i'm here you don't have to be alone again we don't have to be alone again this isn't the way i thought this would go this was not in the formula in the calculations this is not what was supposed to happen i'm sorry)
His mind spins through the dawn, back through the night that stretched from the forests of France across the Channel. The flight, full of the fitful sleep of a man facing a firing squad in the shape of his own heart. The first glance of London, her golden lights and cobblestone streets enveloping him, the city fogged with morning twilight. The silent taxi ride from Heathrow through streets etched into his brain long ago, a thousand-days' changes washing over him: new construction here, worn pavement there, all of it blocked by the black blinders of his mind, only the image of John's black-and-white pain in his vision.
John's flat, a plain, brown door in seamless line of plain, beige brick flats, stacked like dominoes. The identical brass buzzers in a neat row, the numbers and names beside, marked on white paper in block letters: J. Watson, 2B. The doorknob, worn smooth, the residue of John's fingerprints still on the bottom third. The thick curtains of his flat (front window, second floor, based on typical layout / only one available at the time / difficulties with cane due to stairs), the echo of John's cane clattering up seventeen stairs.
Something itched inside him then, an electric buzzing like a battery wired to his heart, arcing and wild. His breath, shallow in his chest, filtering up through his lungs, into his mouth, down through his chest again in a continuous loop, oxygen depleting until dizzy with anxiety. His legs twitched, muscles split between planting firm and running back into the night, where he was still a breath of wind, a rustle of leaves over a grave, where he didn't have to see himself reflected in John's eyes, his soul twisted and shrunken, erased with every blink.
(coward, you ran away from him when you needed him the most and now when he needs you, you want to walk away, you waited so long for him, you promised you would come for him, you can't leave him now)
His arm. The buzzer. The door. Opening.
John. Eyes the color of ocean slate, of the Thames on a clear day, of soft, limpid pools on a rocky shore, breaking open like a sapphire supernova, shards of glass glued together and placed in his sockets. Hair, the grey of rocks at the bottom of a river, grey concrete smudged with dirt and washed clean of blood. Body stained and weatherbeaten, left out in the elements of grief for so long his body cured like leather. The wrinkles in his forehead furrowed like the lines of a seismograph gone wild, the saddlebags of his eyes packed heavy with pain. Wiry hands dropping his cane like the first night at Angelo's, when he thought he needed to flee. Head tilted to the side, looking at him through a kaleidoscope of pain.
Sherlock had stiffened, muscles steeled for the slam of John's fist, for John's hands to rend him open and make him bleed. His soul was perched on the knife point of John's eyes, waiting on John's breath, his bleeding, fragile heart stretching into the past, the present, and the future. His mouth whispered John's name, the word that reverberated off the walls of his soul for years, the word that never echoed against John's body, never returned with the sound of John's skin.
His own name coming from John's mouth, that single, shattered syllable setting every piece of his flesh alight. His cells vibrating against it, curving into John's voice as it slid over his skin like soft, warm cotton. His hand, pulled towards John's like two planets in orbit, John's electric touch shocking his body, turning his nerves orange with fire like hot, radiating coils, a circuit completed and switch flicked in his soul, his senses flooded with the mossy scent of John's hair, the clean eucalyptus of his skin, the deep, briny taste of his tears as John fell, willow-weak, in his arms.
Sherlock worries his fingers over his lips, scrubs his hands through his curls, stares at John's breath flowing in and out of his broken body. John's murmurs and moans echo in the empty hallway, traces of no and can't and Sherlock falling from his mouth. Sherlock clutches John's hand in his, running his fingers over his heartline, bloodline, lifeline, down the length of his wrist to the pulse point, feeling the bubble of blue life beat up to the surface. Their hands are an ouroboros of skin and blood, sliding against one another like a pair of birdwings in flight.
Sherlock locks his breath to a steady, slow rhythm, like a metronome, pressing his own heartbeat into John's skin until John's ragged breath matches time to his. He slips his heart into John's chest and nestles it behind his friend's, spun indigo and obsidian spooned against quivering, tawny feathers. The fragile organs pulse in and out together, one beating while the other stills, curled in a nest of warm flesh, Sherlock's heart pumping out one steady message: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
As always, thank you to Mirith Griffin for her beta critique and personal support (particularly with my artistic crises). Thanks to BehindTintedGlass and SongstersMiscellany for their energy and encouragement. And thanks to you for reading.
The title references a line from Rumi's poem, Birdwings. The “I didn't realize you would be so affected” line references ACD's The Empty House. The ouroboros reference is a nod to emmadelosnardos' beautiful S/J fic, Pax americana. The description of John's eyes as a “sapphire supernova” comes from both strangersatthemall and doublefantasies (both on Tumblr), who referred to John's eyes as a “sapphire explosion” and a “supernova,” respectively (which got merged in my brain while writing).
Chapter 4: An Infinite Lie
CW for references to blood, vague suicidal ideation, violence, strange imagery
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
John slowly rises through the darkness, the light breaking through the waters of his mind. He feels the touch of pale fingers on his skin, cool air flowing over his throat as he moans softly. He opens his bleary eyes, his gaze fluttering over the ceiling before landing on Sherlock, hovering over him. He stares at Sherlock's gleaming eyes as they lock on his. "I can't believe you're here."
Sherlock's mouth curls in a tiny smile. "You can."
"Am I dead? I always hoped I'd see you again when I died."
"No, John. You're not dead." Sherlock presses their clasped hands to his own heart, his steady pulse beating through John's fingers. "And I'm not dead. I am very much alive. I'm here, John." The silken words fill the empty air. "I'm here."
John looks at their interlocked hands, pale skin woven with tanned. Carefully, John reaches up with his free hand and cups Sherlock's face, mapping the contours of his skin. His fingers trail over his soft eyelashes, crest over the curves of ears, slip through the tangles of short, raven curls, caress the shiny, smooth scar on his temple, down over his shoulders and clavicle, settling on his arm; all the while, his blue eyes shimmering.
Suddenly, John grabs Sherlock tight, pulling him down against him. He clutches Sherlock hard enough to draw bruises, pressing his hands against his skin as if trying to imprint his fingerprints on his flesh, to feel Sherlock's blood well to the surface with the evidence of life. His chest shakes with slippery, hiccuping sobs, the cry of a man who thought himself trapped forever in the sodden, diseased trenches of grief. "I thought I was dead...I was dying...I promised myself I wouldn't die, I didn't want you to see me like this. I wanted to see you again, I wanted to, but I promised I'd just hold on because maybe things would get better." He gulps down huge lungfuls of air, as if surfacing from a long, crushing dive underwater. "I promised...I couldn't...God help me, Sherlock, I couldn't do this without you, I couldn't...." His words tumble from his mouth, loose and collapsing like a jumbled marionette.
Sherlock makes little susurrus sounds as he clutches John's hand, his baritone voice washing over him like a soothing, rich balm. John's limp body floats, his head spinning, full of cotton and wool and the dizzying smell of Sherlock's sweat. "I don't...I don't understand. How...?" The question trails off like a curl of smoke.
Sherlock's eyes flit away, down towards their hands, then back to John's face. His body suddenly tenses under John's gaze, his fingers tightening as he sucks in a deep breath. "I lied."
Sherlock's words cut through John's swirling mind, leaving a ragged blade of wake behind. "What? What do you mean?"
"I had to—I couldn't—I had to do this. To keep you safe."
"Had to do what?"
"Disappear. Disturb everything I've ever known. Disgust you. Deceive you."
Something hot unfurls in John's chest, a smoldering, tiny coal of anger buried in the ashes of his soul for years, suddenly sparked alight. "Deceive me?" He pulls away from Sherlock and props himself up on his elbows. The boundaries of his skin, once stretching with elation to the end of the universe, snap back to a hard, dense core, ready for another Big Bang. "Why? What are you talking about?"
Sherlock pulls in another breath, the words coming out waterlogged. "I wasn't dead. And you couldn't know. Or else I would get you killed."
John shakes his head, the muscles of his neck tightening like industrial springs as his hands curl into shaking fists, the coal burning orange in the center of his chest. "You did what?" His eyes grow wide in understanding, his breath rising hard and fast in his throat until it becomes a hysterical pant. "You were alive, all this time? And you never told me...." Sherlock manages only a small, swallowed nod, his eyes dull and rusted. "You were alive, and I was here, and I couldn't even, and you—"
Suddenly, John pushes himself away from Sherlock, skittering across the floor on his hands, knocking into the wall. "I trusted you. I...you...." His face flushes as the coal catches fire, setting his body aflame. He gapes at Sherlock, watching the man's face melt into a straight line of something that looks like remorse. "You...." Body still woozy from his faint, he stands up and limps toward the stairs, leaving his cane behind, rushing away from the man who sucked all the air from the hall, from the flat, from his body for three years.
Sherlock rises and darts after him, standing at the bottom of the stairs. "John, I can explain—"
John wheels around in the stairway, eyes glowing with fire and trembling with water, stopping Sherlock in his tracks. "I can't." The words are razors in his throat. "I can't." He stumbles up the steps to his flat, fumbles with his keys, unlocks the door and slams it shut, facing the dull, beige emptiness of his room. His eyes flit from side to side, his gaze flicking from the single mug on the kitchen counter and the barren, blank walls to the black marble urn beside his bed.
Limping to the nightstand, he picks up the urn and cradles it in his hands, the warmth of Sherlock's body fading from his flesh into the cold stone. As he stares at their names, scratched and dug into the marble, his hands start to shake, the fierce magma of his pain erupting in a terrible, aching scream, and with all his strength he hurls the urn across the room. The urn slams against the door, the force cracking the lid in two, an explosion of bone billowing through the air. Falling to the floor, he begins to weep, hot tears and grey ash blurring his vision. Slowly, he crawls on his hands and knees to the scattered remains. He rights the urn again, scooping the ashes back inside, then collapses against the door, pressing the urn to his chest.
The world around him unravels like a loose jumper thread caught on a nail, the past three years of his life disintegrating until he sits naked and alone among the ruins, weeping into the dry bones. Something black and searing pours from his heart as he cries, emptying his soul of everything but fire and oxygen and The Lie. The wrongness of his being wrenches a hole in the universe, his body a half-step out of time, all the days of peace he could have had spilling over his hands like blood as he screams in ragged, horrible sobs, tears into his skin until it bleeds, until there is nothing but the red flame, burning him alive.
AN: Thanks for Mirith Griffin for being my BetaGoddess and for the idea re: John smashing Sherlock's urn. Thanks to my various Tumblrfolk for their energy and support. And thanks to you for reading.
The title references a lyric from Shearwater's "Black Eyes." Sherlock's "I lied" references a line from SkipandDi's amazing Reichenbach fic, (Life is) A Series of Risks. Visual inspiration for John touching Sherlock's face comes from the Celie and Nettie reunion scene from The Color Purple.
Chapter 5: Crossing the Burning Ground
CW: suicidal ideation, blood, disturbing imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sherlock stands at the bottom of the stairs, braced between the wall and the railing, the slam of John's door filling the hallway. The crash of something hard and heavy against the door slaps Sherlock in the face, and he jumps, involuntarily reaching up to touch the thin, silver scar on his cheek from John's punch so long ago. John's sobs pour from the flat, his raw, wicked screams searing Sherlock down to his bones. He stares at his trembling fingers and rubs them together, feeling the faint echo of smeared blood on his skin.
Slowly, he picks up John's cane and jacket, then creaks up the stairs to John's flat. Sherlock kneels at the threshold and leans against it, laying John's things on the floor beside him. He runs his hand over the old door, its rough, wood grain. A splinter catches on his finger, and he presses it deep into his skin until it disappears. He stills his breath, listening to John's soft cries on the other side, the rustle of his clothes. Closing his eyes, he focuses on John's ragged breathing, counting the passing minutes by his own heartbeats. He reaches 1,050 pulses when John speaks one word, wrangled from the bottom of his throat. "Why?"
"It was necessary."
"Necessary." John's brittle laugh is thick with splinters. "Why'd you do it?"
"Moriarty. He was dead. I had to kill him, but there was still more. His whole web. I couldn't let them have you. Us. If Moriarty were dead, his network would stop at nothing to eliminate us. I couldn't let them hurt you."
"No. You did a perfectly good job of doing that yourself. How did you do it? I saw you there, I saw..." John's voice breaks thick and wet. "I saw you die. I watched you fall. Your hands...your eyes...they were..."
"I was dead. Almost. For a moment. Those wounds were real. I have the scars to prove it. I didn't think I would survive it."
"So. Did you decide to lie to me when you went up to meet Moriarty, or was it later? Just so I know when you decided not to trust me anymore."
"I didn't...I thought." Opening his eyes, he skims his hands over the wood again, blood beading up from his finger, streaking across the surface. "If you were out of the way, if I were alone, it would be easier. And then I fell, and I knew Moriarty was dead, but the rest of them were still out there. And I couldn't let them lie."
"And you had to run off alone." John laughs again, the sound as hollow as the cheap door between them. "You and your massive intellect."
"It wasn't that. I needed...I couldn't." Sherlock tears at his hair, trying to pull the right words from his scalp. "I needed to do this by myself." He mutters to himself. "You wouldn't understand this, I knew you wouldn't understand."
"Then try to explain it to me. You're the great consulting detective, you can surely explain it to an idiot like me."
Sherlock flinches as if struck again. "You're not an idiot."
"Then what am I? Nothing, apparently, since you did this to me. You couldn't even tell me—"
"You are everything to me."
"I can't believe that. Not after everything you just said." John's voice is hard as flint. "You don't lie to someone for three bloody years and make them think you're dead and hold onto your ashes every night and wish they'd fallen off the roof with you."
"God, Sherlock... This isn't like putting a head in the fridge, or what you did at Baskerville. You think sorry's going to make up for what you did? Three years, Sherlock! Do you know what this did to me? Do you have any idea?"
Sherlock hears John's voice crack, the slide of his hands over skin and stone. Sherlock curls his long body in on itself, clutching the collar of John's green jacket in his hands, worrying the edge. "I don't know. Not all of it. But I'd like to know. Mycroft showed me pictures."
"He showed me pictures of you. The way you...changed."
"Wait...what? Mycroft knew?"
Sherlock swallows down a thick knot in his throat. "Yes. He helped me. He had the resources I needed. My recovery, changing the records, the funeral, the hunt."
"Mycroft." John's voice burns, the name growled out with bared teeth. "He...that bastard. So. Who's in your urn?"
"I don't know. Nothing human though. He assured me of that."
John harumphs. "I guess I should be grateful to him then, for tending to me so very well. I thought I was as trustworthy as your brother. I guess not."
"He had what I needed."
"And you didn't need me?"
"Of course I needed you." Sherlock's lungs start to throb, his heart bruised and pulled towards the man on the other side. "I needed you every day. If I had known you were this impacted, I never—"
"If you needed me, why didn't you tell me? Why did you lie to me?"
"I was afraid, John." His small, thin voice evaporates into the air. "I was afraid you would turn out like me. Twisted and blackened and bloodied and cold. I was afraid you would get lost. I would get lost. And I wouldn't be able to bring us out of it. The death. The darkness. You had to stay here. It was better this way for you to be here. For me to do this work for you."
"Better? For who?" John snarls. "For me? You were dead, Sherlock!" John's heat flares through the door, singeing Sherlock's nerves. "Do you know what that was like? Thinking that you were never coming back? Ever? Do you understand what that did to me? Being here, without you?"
"I know. I wanted to tell you. I didn't think you'd understand. I wanted to...please, John. I just..." Sherlock aches to link his mind to John's, transmit his bright, burning fear directly to John's neural net. "I knew you would be safe here. I thought you would be safe here. I thought I could handle it alone. If you were with me, I'd have to worry about you, and if you were killed... I know I said 'dangerous,' John, and I know you wanted it, but this was different, this was...hell. I didn't want to. I needed to. I had to keep you safe. I didn't know it would take so long.
"I did things I don't want to remember anymore. And I can't delete them no matter how hard I try. I didn't want you to see. I needed to keep you. You were the only reason I lived this long. I don't mean just while I was gone, but before. When I first met you. You were a puzzle, John. A walking paradox. Something fine, like a perfect watch or an old violin, and I knew I had to keep you. I had to keep you safe.
"I wasn't afraid of dying. If I died alone, that meant you weren't with me, so you were safe. I've always been a danger to you. Always. And this time was too much. I couldn't let you do this work for me. I couldn't let your hands get dirty for me. I did this for you. I swear I did this all for you. I know you can't forgive me...and if you don't, I understand. I can leave now if you need me to. Or you can punch me if you want. I'll tell you everything. I promise. Just...please don't go yet. I need...I need to see you. I haven't felt you. I wanted to tell you for so long. John...please...just...don't send me away yet, just one more moment and then I can leave you forever..." He sucks down a terrible sob, scraping at the bottom of his soul. The swarm of words streams from his mouth like bees, their stingers lodging in his lips. "John, it was all a lie, I couldn't do this by myself, I don't know if you'll recognize me any more, there's a black spot on my heart and it's grown so much and I don't want you to see it, I never wanted you to see it, I never wanted you to see that I was just like him, you were in the mirror and he was in the mirror and I had to choose and I always tried to choose you but I had to choose him eventually, I didn't want to, and I couldn't let you see that, John, I couldn't let you see me like him, I couldn't let you become like him, I had to leave you here, don't you understand, it was imperative and I needed you to be here and whole and safe and I need you I need you please—" His breath slows and stops, his eyes tight and wild. His hand, twisted in John's jacket, shakes, his knuckles white. "Please."
Sherlock's words tumble over John like a rockslide, the boulders and pebbles crushing the breath out of him. He blinks and shudders as the tsunami of words washes over him, almost sucking him out to sea. John clutches the urn tighter to his chest, rivulets of blood trickling over his arms from his ragged scratches. "When did you stop believing in me?"
"When did you stop believing in me?" John says. "In us? That we could do all of this together? Because it sounds like you didn't believe in us at all."
"John. I never...I never doubted you. I doubted myself. I couldn't trust myself. I couldn't make a mistake. The web was everywhere, John, it was all around me, so many people, so many fibers, and I nearly died in the middle of it and I couldn't break free for so long and the thought of you trapped in there with me...I couldn't bear it. I couldn't let you die. Not for this. Not for me."
"You didn't have to protect me. That was my job. To protect you. From him. That was my job. To keep you safe. Even from yourself." John scrubs the tears from his eyes, something bitter twisting in his chest. "Hell...and I couldn't even do that."
"Sherlock...I knew, from the beginning, that I'd be here. That I was staying. I knew that on the first night, when I shot the cabbie for you. Hell, I knew that when you fixed my limp for me. I made a promise to myself that I was going to look after you. I knew then I needed you. That whatever sort of madness you were selling, I wanted. I knew that right from the start. And I thought you did, too. I thought..." John's voice flutters, like a bird with a broken wing. "...you needed me, too. I thought that maybe you believed in me enough that you'd want me around when it mattered the most." He draws his knees closer to his body. "I guess I was wrong."
"John." Sherlock's voice is murky, like the pitch-black bed of the sea. "I need you more than anyone else on this planet. I needed to know you were alive and breathing somewhere on this earth. It didn't matter to me where you were, or what you were doing. I just needed to know you were alive. Because if I had brought you with me, and made a mistake, and let you die, or gotten you killed..." His voice descends further into the abyss. "I would not have survived without you."
The core of John goes very still, and very quiet, like the dark, cool depths at the bottom of a well. His words unspool like thread, flowing over their bodies, tangling around their feet. "There was a day, about two years after. It was a clear day, a beautiful day, and I was walking through Oxford Circus, where the traffic is so busy. And I thought, you're never coming back. I thought, it would be so easy. Just to see you again. All those buses going by, all those cars, so fast, like a sea of them, and I was drowning, and I thought... And then my foot started to move, and I started to lean into the street, and I just held my breath and waited for someone to catch me...and no one did. There were other people there, and no one caught me. And I thought, no one's going to miss me when I die. No one will remember me...but they'll remember you. I thought, I have to stay alive so I can remember you."
John slumps against the door, his spirit hovering at his side, waiting to slip back into his body. The sound of pittering tears fills the silence. "I'm sorry," Sherlock says.
Sherlock's voice is smaller than an atom. "I don't know what to say."
John manages a small grin, the required muscles stiff from disuse. "That's a first. I'll have to put that on the blog."
"You're still writing?"
"No. I couldn't. Not after I left Baker Street."
"Why did you go?"
"It hurt too much. You were everywhere."
"Why come back here then?"
"It was here. And cheap. And nothing." Like me, John thinks, the room a perfect, beige echo of his spirit. The silence stretches under the door, enveloping him in the creak of wood and the sound of Sherlock's breath. "So what now?"
"I don't...I don't know," Sherlock says. "I could stay here. Or I could leave, if that's what you want. If it would make it better."
"I don't want that...I don't want you to go. Not after everything. I want..." John's heart tears in two, his anger taking one arm, his longing another, pulling at him like two vultures fighting over a carcass. "Damn it, Sherlock, I wanted you! I needed you! I've always done everything for you, and the one time I need you, you go off and die! You didn't even let me have a say in any of this. I could have come with you. We could have done this together. We didn't have to be alone, Sherlock..."
John descends into another fit of sobs, thin, thready things punctuated with chest-choking whines. "You were everything to me. You were everything... God, Sherlock...you didn't even let me say goodbye. You didn't even...God, Sherlock, I want you, you're all I ever wanted, and you were gone—" John drops the urn to his side, spinning around onto his knees, and flings open the door, stray remnants of bone digging into his knees. Sherlock kneels before him, his pale face damp with sweat and tears, his hair mussed and wild, his eyes liquid and quivering in their sockets. "John..."
Smudged with bones and blood and tears, John totters toward Sherlock, clutching him like a tree trunk in a hurricane. Sherlock's shivering warmth curls around him as he sobs into Sherlock's chest, trembling in the morning light. "I loved you, you fucking bastard. How could you do this to me? I love you, you stupid fucking bastard, I love you, I love you, I love you..." His lips brand the words into Sherlock's body, down to his heart.
Sherlock cradles John, rocking them back and forth on their ocean of pain, making a boat of his body for him. He strokes John's hair, smoothing over his back, holding onto his shaking, fragile vertebrae. Sherlock breathes one trembling word against John's ear, over and over, pouring from his lips like a prayer: "Yes. Yes. Yes." Slowly, the black barbed wire embedded in John's heart, slicing deeper with every pulse, crumbles and collapses, falling away from his tender flesh. His heart takes a full, shuddering breath, screaming as its old scabs and scars split open, the muscle atrophied from being bound so long. His pain merges with Sherlock's into a single Möbius strip of suffering, rusted copper and dull steel forged together and edged with blood, twisted in an infinite loop, the two of them breathing in each others' sorrow until their mouths are quiet and there is nothing more to say.
Gratitude, as always, goes to my BetaGoddess, Mirith Griffin: "yes." Thanks to my official music consultant, SongstersMiscellany, and my sister across the sea, BehindTintedGlass. And thanks to you for reading, commenting, and sharing.
The title references a line in Van Morrison's "Dweller on the Threshold." The section re: Sherlock's doubt is remixed from Heart on a Shelf, co-written with BehindTintedGlass. The idea of Sherlock telling time by his heartbeats is from WhoreCouture's untitled 1m x 1m box Sherlock+John fic. The "I thought I was as trustworthy as your brother" references a line from the Granada treatment of ACD's The Empty House. The Moebius strip is a nod to an image from Mirith Griffin's Control, Alt, Delete. Visual inspiration for Sherlock and John's embrace comes from Reapersun's i held your name inside my mouth. Thanks to filledesang, marielikestodraw, and theplatonicnonyeah for their suggestions on high-traffic areas in London.
Chapter 6: The Tattered Flag
CW: blood, vague self-injury.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Their bodies split apart like a cell undergoing mitosis, their hands linked at the spot of common DNA. John slumps in Sherlock's arms, head lolling against Sherlock's shoulder, hands loosening from his coat as he folds back in a rumpled heap. Slowly, Sherlock shuffles John forward and guides them into the flat. Still pressed skin to skin and breath to breath, they kneel amid the rubble like two refugees in a warzone. Carefully, as if laying down a body on a crime scene, he sits John down, legs swept to the side, posing him like a wooden mannequin. After retrieving John's jacket and cane, Sherlock kicks the door closed with his foot, then sits facing John, steepling his knees to his chest.
Sherlock takes in the flat: the plain wood, the painfully neat belongings, the spartan kitchen. He stares at John's crumpled, frail form, his washed out eyes, sallow skin, narrow waist, and is reminded of wraiths, ghosts so starved by grief they disappeared into the shadows. John's wan body blends in with the beige carpet and walls and air so easily only his blue eyes, taut with pain, are visible. They are raw and ragged, as if John were naked in the middle of the street, all his armor stripped away until there was nothing left but bare pain on bare skin. Sherlock tries to look away, to give John at least the illusion of modesty in his grief, but he can't, drinking in John's pain like a parched man offered filthy water.
Beside Sherlock lays an unusually large chunk of bone. He picks it up and rolls it in his fingers, then cups it in his palm, shaking it slightly like a die. "You kept this," Sherlock says.
John stares at the ashes in his hand. "Of course I did. It's all I had left of you."
Sherlock studies the bit of calcium, grey against his pale skin. "Did you mean it, when you said you loved me?"
"Would I lie about this now?"
"I suppose not," Sherlock says. "I don't understand why you love me."
"Neither do I." John laughs weakly. "Especially after all you've done. I suppose I just have to accept it. And so do you."
"That this is where we are. You. Here. Not dead." John shifts his legs under him, sitting up a bit. He reaches out to clasp Sherlock's hand again, holding him as if he would disappear without his touch. "I've never loved anyone before, not like this. And the only thing I can think of is how to get you back in my life as soon as possible. God. I must be absolutely mad." John breaks his gaze, his free hand flexing and clenching in his lap, tendons stretching and sharp. "If I had told you I loved you, would you have stayed with me? Would you have left me alone like this? Would you have taken me with you?"
"I just want to know what I could have done. To get you to take me with you. I just—was it my leg? Because you knew it was healed for a long time, and you knew I didn't get nightmares like I used to..." John's voice breaks into shards of glass. "I just want to know. I thought...you were never coming back."
"Would you have wanted to know?" Sherlock asks.
Sherlock shakes his head, furrowing his brow. "No, John, I mean, would you have wanted to know I was alive? Would you truly have wanted to stay here and be worried sick about me for as long as I was gone? Wondering if every day would be my last? Would you have wanted that? You worried about me too much even when I was with you."
"I could have done it. I don't know how, but I could have. I've done impossible things for you before, Sherlock. I've killed for you and almost died for you. I could have endured this for you. I would have done anything for you."
"I know, John. That was the problem. You would have done anything I told you, if it was for the greater good. You'd have followed me around the world if I asked you to. There were things I couldn't ask you to do. I couldn't...I didn't want to take advantage of you."
"Oh, now you don't want to take advantage of me!" John says, rolling his eyes. "Mister Steal-My-Laptop and Use-My-Phone and Drug-My-Coffee and Not-Tell-Me-When-You're-Running-Off-After-A-Bloody-Psychopath! Did you not learn anything from the pool? Did we not talk about this already?"
"Yes, I learned everything from the pool!" Sherlock growls. "I learned you think you are expendable when you are clearly not. I learned you think your life is worth less than mine, because you constantly put it on the line for me, time after time after time, and it sickens me to think you believe your life is...disposable!" He spits out the last word, flavored with sulfur. "You are dutiful and brave and loyal to a fault and I could not let you risk your life for me again." Sherlock tightens his hand on John's. "I need you too much to let you die."
"You," John says, his mouth setting like stone, eyes flaring, "don't get to decide that for me. Ever. You don't get to decide when and where I give my life. I would gladly give my life to you if I could keep you safe. Joyfully. I told you, from the beginning, I wanted to be with you. Hell, you knew it before I did! And now you try to pawn me off and leave me behind when it's fucking convenient? How dare you do that to me? You can't just leave me behind because you think I'll be a burden to you or you think I'll be in the way, or because of some self-sacrificing noble martyr crap you're trying to pull! You left me here to die, Sherlock, and I can't accept that. No, sod it. I did die, Sherlock. I don't know who I am anymore." The fire in his eyes snuffs out to a bitter, tiny flicker. "I go to work all week and Tesco on Fridays and the pub on Saturdays and every night I come home to this empty flat because it's the only place in the world where I don't have to think about you. It's the only place I can feel dead and nobody bugs me about it." His hand trembles in Sherlock's grip, straining like an animal caught in a trap. "I can't do this anymore. I can't live with you if you're going to constantly jerk me around like this. I won't do it. If you do this again...I will leave and never look back. It'll kill me, and I won't know how to live anymore, but I swear to God I'll do it."
Sherlock starts to tremble, panting in shallow gasps, squeezing onto John's hand so hard his bones grate together. His gaze skips around the room, flitting over John's bed, nightstand, desk, kitchen, ceiling, floor, anywhere but John's face. He squeezes his eyes shut, mouth contorted in pain. "I...John..."
John's eyes soften from steel to silk, and he shuffles closer to Sherlock, his knees brushing Sherlock's calves, clasping his other hand around their joined fist. "I love you, Sherlock." John says, his voice like an iron dove. "I have always loved you. I just can't do this anymore. I gave myself to you willingly. You have to respect that will. You have to respect me. I know how to take care of myself. I won't leave you, and I can't have you leaving me. I put my life in your hands. I need yours in mine. We have to do this together. It's the only way it will work."
"I don't want it," Sherlock gasps.
"I don't want it. Your life in my hands again. You can't trust me. I can't trust myself. I will...I don't know why you're giving me a second chance."
"Sherlock...I already know what life was like without you. Life with you can't be much worse now."
Sherlock shakes his head, his curls damp with sweat, swinging from side to side. "I can't. Not after what I've done. You can't have this impossibly huge heart, John. You are frustrating and foolhardy and I don't understand why am I worth all of this, I am not worth all of this I am not—"
"Then don't do it for you."
"Do it for me," John says. "If you can't do this for yourself, if you think you're so worthless—which you're not, by the way—then do it for me."
"I can't, John!"
"Damn it, Sherlock—why not?"
"Because I would do it again!" Sherlock's eyes snap open, filled with a desperate, blue fire. "I will always keep you alive, no matter what the cost. Even if I have to leave you behind. I'm not good for you, John. You have to...I'll forget, I won't treat you well, I'll lie to you again, I'll leave you behind one day, and we'll be back here again, and then you will leave me and I can't..."
John pulls back, his shoulders squaring, jaw setting tight. "So you're saying...you would choose this," he says, gesturing to the strewn bones, "over me. Again."
"You haven't listened to me at all, have you?" John hangs his head, a bitter laugh cutting his throat. "You haven't heard a fucking word I've said."
"You don't get to do this to me anymore!" John tears himself away from Sherlock, his hands turning into small, fleshy grenades. "You don't get to leave me behind like some dog because I'm not important to you! You don't get to tell me when and where I go and keep me at your beck and call and dick me around like this! You are not my fucking keeper and I am not your fucking child and if I wanted to be back in the army I would have gone back if I could! You don't get to leave me behind again, you don't get to lie to me, you don't get to hide the truth from me when you think it'll piss me off, or I won't understand it, or you think it's for my own good, or you're too arsed to care, or you need to hide it from yourself. You are not going anywhere, and I get a say in everything we do. Everything, Sherlock." Hot tears snake down his face, the very air around him vibrating with intensity. "Was it worth it?" John asks, his voice thick and broken.
Sherlock clutches the shard of bone in his hand, holding it so tightly it burrows into his flesh. "I destroyed Moriarty. I also destroyed you." The bone finally splits his skin, drawing fresh blood. "I don't think the former...was worth the latter." Sherlock curls in on himself, as if he could reduce John's pain by making himself smaller. "John. Please. I just want to come home. Be home. With you. I want you here with me. I need you. Please."
John stares at Sherlock's frail, shrunken body, his wet eyes, his chapped mouth. He sits for a long time, breathing in and out, before he speaks. "I don't know if I can trust you again. Not for a long while. I...I need time. To not be myself. I haven't exactly been well. And neither have you. It's going to take a long time before I can be with you again the way we used to. But I promised I wouldn't give up on you. I'm not going back on that, but I can't go back on myself. And neither can you. You can't leave me like this again, Sherlock. I can't live with you unless you promise to do this. I don't know what will happen. I won't like you very much for a while. But I'll be here...as long as you are. Are we clear?"
"John. You. I—" Suddenly, Sherlock crumbles into John's lap, his body curling fetal. His chest heaves with silent sobs as he presses his face against John's leg, hiding himself away from the bright pain surrounding him. "I promise. I promise," Sherlock says, over and over, clutching onto John's arms, leaving a streak of blood on John's shirt.
John softly cards through his sable curls, stroking over Sherlock's cheekbones, the hard, shaking line of his shoulders, before settling back into his hair. "I mean it, Sherlock," he whispers. "I can't be alone again. You have to do this for me."
The rise and fall of John's chest sings through Sherlock's veins as he burrows himself in John's lap, the smell of John's soft cotton and cheap detergent and tired sweat washing over him like an anointing. The weight of his vow wraps like a band of iron around his wrist. "I promise. I promise."
AN: As always, thank you to my beta, Mirith Griffin, for her incredible work. Thank you to emmadelosnardos, songstersmiscellany, idratherbereading, valeria2067, and behindtintedglass for their encouragement and energy. And thanks to you for reading, commenting, recommending, and bookmarking. Comments are welcome.
The title references a lyric from Sting's "Fortress Around Your Heart." The line referring to John's impossible heart is remixed from a line in an unpublished fic co-written with behindtintedglass. Visual inspiration for Sherlock and John's end embrace comes from Livia-Carica's Sherlock+John art, Absolution.
Chapter 7: Breathing Your Life
CW: needles, gunshot wounds, murder, blood, strange and painful imagery.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
John cradles Sherlock in the bed of his body, sitting with him until Sherlock's sobs still to quiet sighs. John slips his rough hands through Sherlock's soft hair, twisting one of his curls around his finger and tugging it gently, feeling the pull of his scalp, the slight hiss from Sherlock's mouth. "I missed you," John whispers. "I missed this. Us. Together. I wanted you here for so long. I thought I saw you on the street sometimes. Someone with the same hair or coat. I swear, there must be a half-dozen blokes who think I'm mad because I nearly tackled them in the street." Sherlock snorts, his grin stroking through the thin fabric of John's trousers. "I never thought I'd see you again. I wanted to tell you so much."
"Such as?" Sherlock asks.
John is quiet for another moment, the words sprouting up from his heart like long-forgotten seeds. "How I loved you. How you saved me. That I didn't know I was alive until I met you. That I loved you more than anyone else in the world and would never love anyone that way again." He releases a loose curl from his finger, the hair unfurling in a spiral. "I never thought I'd get this chance again. And I'm not going to give it up for anything. I'm not letting you go, even if you think you have to kill yourself to make us safe. I won't let you do it." He tugs again on one of the dark locks. "Promise me you won't die."
"Promise me you won't die. Not before I do. Not again."
Sherlock cocks an eyebrow. "I'm not allowed to die?"
"No. If you can come back from the dead, then you can keep yourself from dying for another fifty or sixty years."
"I hardly have that ability, John," Sherlock says mockingly.
"I mean it." He yanks on the curl, drawing a yelp from Sherlock. "No going off and dying for me. If I find out you died for me without telling me I will ruddy well kill you myself."
A faint laugh rumbles from Sherlock's chest. "I will try."
The silken swish of John's skin in Sherlock's hair, the rustle of John's clothes in Sherlock's hands fills the space between them. "Will you tell me?" John asks softly. "Everything?"
Carefully, Sherlock twists around in John's lap until he looks up at John's face, settling his hands on his own chest. John rests his hand on Sherlock's arms, over his heart. "There was a night, when I was in Tibet, at one of the monasteries. They took in travelers. I spent some time there studying, recovering. The silence was peaceful, and the chanting was useful. I was out on the cliff, watching the sky, and the nights there, John, the mountains were so high, there were no clouds, I was staring right into space, and the whole sky opened up for me and it was...beautiful. The wind was sweeping across the mountains, and the sky was empty and full at the same time, and the whole world was still just for that one moment and I thought...I could almost touch you. I could reach out my hand and touch the sky and you would be there. All this was us, John. The sky, the wind, the emptiness. And we were singing to each other. I thought, I would live like this forever if I could come back as air."
As Sherlock speaks, John closes his eyes, and inside him, his bones slowly vanish, his organs fading into a blue-black, velvet-smooth night. One by one, a thousand silver stars appear, until the whole Milky Way burns in his body. He opens his eyes, and he is standing on the cliffside, the sweet smell of sandalwood surrounding him, the rough, rocky mountains bright against the night sky. The wind caresses his skin, filling him with light and air and energy and a longing inexpressible with words. He breathes in Sherlock's voice as it flows over him, setting him aloft on a breeze that billows him around the world. He is in a hotel room in Minsk, another man's blood on his hands, his heart crumbling into glass shards, screaming. He is in a dingy van in Guadalajara, stitching up a chest wound by the light of a dim torch, the thread rough and needle dull. He is slumped in a shed in Kiev, the rain beating staccato on the tin roof, banging into every part of his soul. He runs down the back alleys of Tokyo, covered in leather and neon, the sweet pump of adrenaline in his lungs. He is in Sudan, pressing a wad of bills into a border guard's hand, the heavy weight of a Browning at his back. He is in the grass of Kandahar, clutching the hot, gunshot ruin of his arm, a deep groove in his flesh. He runs and sleeps and pines and hunts. He has blond hair and brown hair and black, he is rail-thin and shaking with fear and hunger and longing, he hides and crawls on the ground like an animal, he sleeps in fits and starts or not at all. He calls out his own name in Sherlock's dreams, cries Sherlock's desperate tears, Sherlock's memories burning into his heart as if they were his own, slipping into Sherlock's body so completely he doesn't remember where he begins and Sherlock ends.
They part only briefly during the day, for tea and toast and leftover curry takeaway, to gather the ashes back in the urn, to clean their bleeding wounds, returning to the same spot on the floor, feeding each other with stories. Sherlock sits at his own funeral, listening to the vicar give the eulogy for a man he's never met. He eats lunch with Sarah at Speedy's, ripping his straw wrapper into anxious shreds, swallowing down his sorrow like library paste. He lies alone in the night, cradling his own bones, pressing his mouth to the marble like the softest of flesh. He passes by cabs and flinches, he walks to Bart's and his legs give out, he wanders through the relics of Baker Street and wants to burn them to the ground. Night after night, he falls into the blackest river, clawing at the water, his body fracturing into a dozen shades of white, mind-numbing pain. His skin burns as he shakes with hot tears, his breath coming in pants, the terrible, blank agony cutting into him with every word John says, leaving him a bleeding heap on the floor, whispering, "I didn't know. I didn't know," as John carries him whole through the broken fields of battle.
When the moon reaches its zenith, they sit side by side, cross-legged, half-mumbling from exhaustion, leaning on the foot of John's bed in a ragged heap. The urn, cracked lid replaced, rests beside John, next to his silver cane. John yawns, his stiff muscles cracking with fatigue as he stretches. "I'm knackered," he says. "Completely. I need to sleep."
"Sleep is overrated," Sherlock mutters, lolling his head on John's shoulder.
"Just because you came back from the dead doesn't mean you don't need sleep." Sherlock hums, the sound thrumming through both their chests. As John moves to rise, Sherlock suddenly stills, his breath catching in his throat, and he holds John's arm, turning him back. "John...do you want me to go?"
John's face wrinkles in a small smile as he looks into Sherlock's timid, nervous eyes. "No. Please. Stay."
Sherlock's hand relaxes, and he draws it away into his lap. "Thank you," he breathes.
"I don't have much," John says. "I didn't bring the lilo with me. I can get you a pillow and some blankets."
"Let me fix this, then. I'll be right back." Silver cane in tow, John goes to his closet for a spare pillow and afghan, setting them on his desk, then limps back to the floor beside Sherlock. Carefully, he picks up the urn, cradling it in his arm as he walks to the nightstand. John lays the urn down gently, turning it so their carved names face his pillow, and he cups the marble teardrop for a long minute.
As Sherlock watches John's tender ritual, John communing with his ashes, the paleness of his skin against the black marble, his face going blurry with grief, something hard lodges in Sherlock's solar plexus. Sherlock rises and steps beside John, close to his wiry, trembling body. John turns back to him, his eyes full of burning bones and empty nights. "It's...it's all I had," John says, his face a thousand days away. "Old habits."
Sherlock stares at John's hand again, the wrinkled skin against the smooth stone. Carefully, he peels John's hand from the marble, wrapping his fingers around John's wrist, encircling his pulse. John looks down at their joined bodies, the heat of Sherlock's skin seeping into his as Sherlock rubs his thumb over John's knotty joint. Slowly, John slips his hand in Sherlock's grip, sliding up to lace their fingers together. As he looks back at Sherlock, the flickering ashes in John's eyes disappear, replaced with a yearning liquid and dark, like warm molasses.
John sets his cane against the nightstand, then flicks off his night lamp, moonlight streaming through the open windows, casting them in a pale blue glow. Still holding Sherlock's hand, he draws back the bedclothes and slips inside, pulling Sherlock down beside him. They lie curled like question marks, gazing at each other in the dark, silver eyes meeting sapphire, their scents of sweetgrass and rain, cloves and jasmine flooding their senses until they can barely breathe.
Carefully, Sherlock caresses John's face, tracing the three wrinkles in his forehead, the constellation of moles under his ear, the golden feathers of his eyelashes, mapping every inch of long-remembered skin, John shivering at the delicate touch until he begins to weep, broken whispers of Sherlock escaping his lips. Affirming with his mouth what his mind already knows, John slowly places tender, shaking kisses on Sherlock's hands, fingertips, face, finally pressing one sobbing kiss to Sherlock's lips, his mouth falling apart at Sherlock's warm, living breath.
Sherlock takes John's face in his hands as John descends into soft sobs, kissing his weeping eyes before drawing him in close. They lie like this, strong pulses beating through their skins, bellies dipping in and out with breath, until John's cries finally still. Sherlock gently turns John's limp body in his arms and spoons against John's back, wrapping his long limbs around him, intertwining their hands under the covers. Their bodies slot into place like waves hugging a coastline, like petals nestled in a rose, the edges of negative and positive space, of emptiness and fullness, of everything and nothing, finally fitting together like home.
AN: As always, thank you to my beta, Mirith Griffin, for her work. Thank you to emmadelosnardos, songstersmiscellany, idratherbereading, valeria2067, and behindtintedglass for their encouragement and energy. And thanks to you for reading, commenting, recommending, and bookmarking. Comments are welcome.
The title references a line in the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris." The end sequence was written under the influence of "Flute Solo," from the Raise the Red Lantern soundtrack (easily Google-able). Sherlock's eye kissing is vaguely inspired by a moment in wordstrings' A Thousand Threads of What-Might-Have-Beens. The van and shed moments in Sherlock's flashbacks are drawn from Khorazir's art series, Sherlock after the Fall.
Update note: I'll be busier than usual through the month of April due to some personal projects and some traveling here and there, so I won't be able to update this as soon as I'd like. If it helps, we've reached the end of what I'm calling Part One of this story (Sherlock and John's first day together), so it's a comfortable stopping point. Thank you all for your patience and support!
Chapter 8: Shelter
CW: references to torture, murder, gunshot/stab wounds, scars, suicidal ideation.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
For the first time After, John's dreams are silent and and warm and dry, his body still whole as dawn breaks cool and coral. Through his layers of skin and bone, he feels another heart beating, the ripples of breath through space, and the sensation of another body against his feels like a wound scabbing over, itching and tight. He opens his eyes to find Sherlock still spooned around him, propped up slightly on his folded arm, a hand splayed over John's chest. John yawns, looking over his shoulder at Sherlock. The silver slips of his eyes skitter over John's skin, stripping his flesh down to his heart beating in his ribcage. The intensity of that gaze, unfelt for so long, tingles down John's spine as he reaches back to graze Sherlock's cheek. "You're here."
"Yes." Sherlock's voice rumbles through their tight-pressed bodies. "Where would I go?"
"I don't know. I've just—I thought you might disappear again. Another dream."
"You've dreamt of this?"
"All the time," John whispers.
Long seconds stretch before Sherlock can speak. "I'm alive. I'm right here."
"I know." John blindly cards his hand through his dark, mussed curls. "I just...I have to get used to things. You're not exactly catching me at my best here."
"I'd rather have you at your worst than nothing."
"Thanks, Sherlock," John mutters as he pulls back, body tensing.
"No, I mean—I—I'd rather have you, any way possible, than not have you at all. I'd rather have anything of you, than nothing."
"So why did you leave me behind?"
"Because a dead John Watson is of no use to me."
His words turn the warm tingle into an icy prickle. "You could have used me," John says quietly. "You could have had all of me. Anytime. Always. I thought you trusted me."
"I used you enough. I couldn't use you again."
"What if I want to be used?" John growls. "I'm not some thing that can just sit idle and get rusty like some damned piece of machinery. I can't live like that." He wants to kneel down before Sherlock, bow his head, offer up his rusted hands to be polished to a lustrous silver. "Use me, Sherlock. Use me however you like. Use me as your blogger and your friend and your doctor and your soldier. Just don't use my heart like a wrecking ball."
"I will..." Sherlock whispers, "I will destroy you."
"You already have. I don't think it can get much worse than this."
"You don't know me. Not anymore. You don't know what I've become. I don't...I don't know who I am anymore."
John pulls Sherlock's arm tighter across his chest, intertwining their fingers. "We'll just have to find out together."
Sherlock's breath shallows over the back of his neck, little, nervous sips of air. "John," Sherlock finally says, "will you come home with me?" The question hangs over the room as they lie together, peach light splashing across their spooned bodies.
"I don't know if I can come back yet," John says slowly. "I've had a lot of time here by myself. I don't...feel safe with you yet."
"I don't understand."
"I can't live with you unless I know I'm not going to be alone again. I can't...be alone again." John shudders, the weight of a single layer of blue, bloodied silk echoing over his shoulders. "The last time I was alone in that flat, I nearly died. I couldn't go back, not after I left. I won't do that again."
"John—when you were here—when I was gone—" Sherlock blows out a nervous breath. "I was lonely. I wasn't before, when you were here. Even before I met you, I wasn't lonely. I never understood what that felt like until I...left. I don't even understand it. I only know I was alone and I don't want to be again. I don't want to do this without you. I don't know if I can."
John pauses. "We can't—I can't—things won't go back to normal quickly. They can't."
"I'll be rubbish at everything for a while. I don't remember what home is supposed to be like. I've lived on my own so long, I'd probably get on all your nerves again. I'm not sure I'll even be able to keep up with you."
"No, you wouldn't. It would be...nice. I missed you. You and I. The normal things. The way you'd read the newspaper, or watch telly. The way you took your eggs."
A giggle snakes out of John's chest. "Of all the things you missed, you missed the way I took my eggs?"
"Yes," Sherlock says, his eyebrow quirking.
"God, you're incredible. You really are," John says, shaking his head, smiling thinly.
"It was a part of you that I couldn't have, that I couldn't see. All those days without you I chose to give up, I'll never get back again—we'll never get back again. I want to make more memories with you. I don't want to waste this time alone. I don't want to be alone again."
"I don't want to be alone either." John tightens his grip on Sherlock's fingers. "I need you...I need to hear you say it."
Sherlock huddles closer to John, pressing his lips to the cusp of John's ear. "Come with me. Please. I'll...take care of you."
John's mouth drops open in shock. "What?"
"I'll take care of you. I'll be here, for you. Isn't that what you want?"
John sucks in a deep breath. "I don't...I don't want you to pity me, or do this for me because you think you owe me a favor. I don't want to be alone anymore, but I will be if I can't trust you to be there for me. I won't let you do that to me."
"You'd rather live alone. Here. Than with me?" Sherlock nudges the air with his shoulder, gesturing at the barren flat.
"I'd rather live alone than watch you die again. Living each day and wondering if there'll be a day when you don't come back." John twists around in Sherlock's arms, staring into Sherlock's sleep-wrinkled face. "I can't...I can't leave you behind again."
"Yes! I left you behind. That's why I had to leave the flat!" John cries. "You were everywhere. It hurt so much to live there, with all of your things and nothing of you and you were gone and I loved..." The black hole inside John's heart suddenly flares to life, sucking at his insides. "God, Sherlock, it was empty...and there was nothing...just a hole...and I couldn't see...and you weren't there..." John clutches Sherlock's hair in his hands, pulling their foreheads close until his face is a pale blur. "Don't leave me in that hole again. I'll die if you leave me there again. You can't—just—don't leave. Don't..." John's voice flutters brokenly in his chest. "Don't...don't you know..."
Sherlock slides his hands over John's and pulls them down between their bodies, steepling them between his fingers in supplication. "I promise I'll come back." Sherlock whispers. "Wherever I go, I promise I'll always come back."
John's eyes flicker with water. "That's what you said the last time. After the pool."
"But this time I mean it."
"You never meant it before."
"I never realized what you were to me before."
"Everything," Sherlock says. "Everything." His voice shakes loose a splinter buried deep inside John, drawing blood. "I'm not doing this because I think you're helpless. I'm doing it because I am. I am lost without you. I can't find my direction and I can't find myself and you're the only one who's ever seen through me and if I let you in then...maybe you'll find me again. John...wherever you want me to go, wherever you like, whatever you need, I'll follow you. I don't...I don't want to say anything I can't promise. But I won't leave you again. I won't." Sherlock's words wrap around John's hands, snaking through his fingers like leather reins, a bridle and bit tethered to Sherlock's heart. "Where...where do you want to go?"
John looks into Sherlock's worn, pleading face. The weight of empty days fills John's eyes until they glow like two eternal flames. "Let's go home."
They take a cab to Baker Street later that morning, sitting side by side, fingers just touching on the seat. The reflections of the city wash over their bodies: the ivy-draped flats across the street, the smell of panini wafting from Speedy's, the lace curtains in the filigree windows, their dark, shining door. The feel of their warm brass knocker sends shocks through John's hand as he knocks, shooting straight into his memories: Sherlock's firm, gloved handshake (Ah, Mister Holmes—Sherlock, please), Sherlock's ashes in his arms, and he stops breathing for a moment, body rippling with tension.
"John?" Sherlock frowns slightly.
"It's fine," John waves him off, shaking his head. "It's fine."
Sherlock has only a moment to look at John, mouth open to speak, before the door opens, revealing Mrs. Hudson's shocked face and promptly fainting body.
After a thorough round of you clot's, how could you's, several sobbing hugs, and one solid, open-handed slap, they make their way upstairs, Mrs. Hudson's soft, happy sobs floating through her beaded curtain, the clink of cups for fresh tea. John traces the worn wood of the banister as he climbs their seventeen steps, Sherlock swirling behind him. The creak of the stairs vibrates up his legs, the familiar sound washing over him as he steps over the threshold.
John turns in place, taking in the room, dusted with time—the white-draped lines of their chairs, still facing one another; the dark chocolate curls of the wallpaper; the smell of lignin, formaldehyde, and tea; the curved lines of their skull—circling around until returning to the center: Sherlock at his side. Sherlock takes one tentative step, then another, hand stretched out slightly, feeling the air through his palms as his glasz eyes flicker back and forth, Cubist-like, trying to see the room from all angles at once.
Sherlock's brittle edges fill all the empty air in the flat, his living body cutting a hole in the dead universe, its edges filling with John's tears. The room lets out a soft sigh, the cacophony of grief untangling into one strong, soothing note that vibrates straight through him. Every cell in John's body exhales at once, his body sagging as the dingy, stale air trapped inside him finally escapes. He shuts his eyes, hangs his head, his soul twisting in the wild, sudden wind. His heart starts to crumble, his blood slowing to a trickle, the iron doors of his lungs bursting open like trap doors as the molecules of Baker Street slip into his nerves, collapsing them, and he starts to shake, Sherlock's voice trickling into his ear: "John?"
Something stabs at John's leg, a scalpel lancing a deep, festering boil, and he staggers as the poison leaves his body in one hot, terrible flood, drowning him in pain. He feels Sherlock beside him, enveloping him in dark, warm energy. His hands flutter over John's neck, shoulders, arms as he leans his head into Sherlock's solid shoulder, clutching his arm like a piece of driftwood. After a long minute, John opens his eyes, staring down at their interlocked feet: old, tan brogues and scuffed, black boots. He leans more weight on his cane, shaking his head back and forth. "I'm sorry. It's just—you were here...and I haven't been back, and every day was like this..." He lets out a shuddering breath. "I'm...I'm sorry. I'll be fine."
"Really, Sherlock." He squeezes Sherlock's arm. "I'll be fine."
Sherlock tenses in John's grip. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"I'm the one who died."
"But I'm the one who loved you," John says. "If I'd stopped loving you, I could've saved myself the heartache." Sherlock pulls back ever so slightly, the impact of John's words striking bedrock.
"I never did, you know." John says, closing his eyes again. He inhales the tired musk of Sherlock's skin, the fine molecules of grey cotton, the waves inside him leveling off into a steady, smooth tide. "I couldn't."
Slowly, Sherlock wraps his free arm around the small of John's back, then traces gentle, clockwise circles on John's sacrum, warm and flushed with grief. As Sherlock rubs, the gnarled knot of John's pain unfurls, small, tender shoots snaking down his body and rooting into the floorboards. "I know."
Sherlock carried the blueprints of 221B inside him for the past three years, every door and window, every brick and tile, the pattern of the wallpapers etched into his skin. As he steps inside his bedroom, the walls unfold from monochromatic drawings to full-color sculptures. Slivers of light play over the floorboards, the walls smelling of wool and turpentine and the slight undercurrent of rot. As he moves through the space, lithe fingers hardly touching anything at first, then carefully, as if handling precious evidence, his thoughts split into prismatic streams:
His things. His stacks of books on the floor. His Poe painting, his periodic table, his judo certificate. His boxes marked Science Equipment. His Belstaff, dressing gowns, suit jackets, all in a line in his closet. His violin, laid in the center of the wrinkled bed, the case covered with dust.
Not his things. Fit into some other space, frozen in time. Too many things, when for so long he carried his life in the clothes on his back and in the barrel of a gun. Nothing was his anymore, not even his own name. The things of a dead man, long-buried, ephemera shed by the wayside like so much rickety baggage.
He stops at his dresser and the twin portraits squeezed among the mess: he and Mycroft as children, dark-haired and sullen-faced, standing straight in matching Sunday suits for Mummy; and he and John at their last Christmas together, taken by Mrs. Hudson—standing before the fireplace, arms clasped on each other's shoulder, eyes twinkling like the fairy lights. He picks up the photo of him and John, then wipes away the thick layer of dust on the glass, revealing their crisp, radiant smiles, then puts his dirty finger to his mouth, tasting the flavor of death, of grey, ancient things.
"I couldn't get rid of anything." Sherlock turns to find John standing in the doorway, leaning on the jamb. "I asked Mycroft to deal with it all. He took care of it, I guess." John walks over to Sherlock, standing next to him. "God, I remember this." John takes the frame from Sherlock's hands, smoothing away the last of the dust. "She wouldn't let us get away with another Christmas without a photo."
Sherlock smiles a bit. "It was either this, or the antlers."
"God, yes. And I know exactly how you looked in them, too," John says, laughing softly. For a moment, their small, shared giggles, bright and sparkling, come back to life, and Sherlock leans into the shoulder of the memory, warm and solid and vibrant with light.
The edge of John's laughter dies down into his belly as he holds the photograph close to him, looking back at his unlined, smiling image, and he sighs, face pinching. "Why didn't you let me in?"
Sherlock rifles through his mind for the right words, flicking past all the synonyms for destruction. "I would have...I would have eaten you. Swallowed you whole until there was nothing left."
"What if I wanted to be devoured?"
"Not like this, John." He shudders, a bitter spike piercing his spine. "Not like this."
"Will you tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"What I want to know. What you don't want to tell me." John traces the lines of their frozen bodies with his finger, running over the curve of Sherlock's face. "How hard it really was. I know you, Sherlock. Even when you're telling me the truth, you're still lying to protect me. I'm not some fragile thing that can't handle it. I need to know how bad it is so I can fix it."
Sherlock blinks once, then twice, his head twitching in confusion. "Why...why would you want to fix me?"
"It's what I always do. I am your doctor, after all. I'm your friend."
Something small and frightened and brittle seizes hold of Sherlock's heart. "Still?"
John swallows down the thick silence. "Always."
"Why?" (After everything I have done, after everything I will do, John, you and your impossible heart, why?)
"I don't have a choice."
"Why?" Sherlock repeats, pushing his whole soul into the single word.
John looks up from the photo into Sherlock's ashen face, holding his gaze for one long second. "I have to live," John says simply, the weight of the words as certain as steel.
Sherlock's legs begin to itch, the urge to run away from anything he could break by simply existing, starting with John, growing by the second. "You could live without me. You could leave."
"I can't. I have to save you."
Sherlock finally drops his eyes, staring down at the photo. "I don't deserve to be saved."
John resettles on his feet, swaying his hips in battle formation, adjusting his cane. "Why not?"
Sherlock slips deep into his archives of violence. "Do you remember the CIA agent, the one who attacked Mrs. Hudson? Do you remember what I did to him?"
"It was like that. All the time. I did...terrible things, things I don't want to remember. But I can't delete them. I told myself...I was doing them for you, but I was doing them for myself." Sherlock starts to pace in small circles, fluttering back and forth between the dresser and the bed. "God, I enjoyed it, John, watching them suffer! And I wrapped it up in something noble to make it palatable, but at the end there was so much blood on my hands I couldn't wash away no matter how hard I tried, and I don't deserve to live anymore, because how am I supposed to be a man who enjoys killing?" He stops abruptly in front of his window, turned away from John's gaze. "How?"
John looks at Sherlock's taut, shadowy, minutely trembling form, then at the image in his hands—Sherlock's silver, shining eyes, crinkled with joy, his long hand on John's shoulder. He puts the photo back on the dresser, straightening it, then goes to Sherlock and stands behind him, slightly to the side, his chest just brushing Sherlock's back. "You're not like him."
The warmth of John, his solidity, floats like a buoy in the blood of Sherlock's memories, and he focuses all of his will on it. "I was. And I will be again if I have to. I don't want to be, but I will, John. What does that make me?" He pauses. "Does that frighten you?"
"Because I've been a danger to you all this time."
Sherlock feels John smile through his layers of clothing. "I like danger, remember?"
"John...I don't want to kill you again."
"The only way you can kill me," John says, "is by leaving again. Unless you're planning on doing that anytime soon, I think I'll be fine."
"Will we?" Sherlock blurts out.
John raises his head and looks at him. "Hmm?"
"I don't know, Sherlock." John runs his hand over his face. "I honestly don't know."
"What are we then?"
Softly, John lays his hand on Sherlock's arm and leans his head on Sherlock's shoulder, the blue wells of his eyes drained low. "We're here."
Sherlock stares out the window at the flickering trees, their green leaves turning light and shadow and oxygen into life. Slowly, he covers John's warm fingers with his own, reveling in the beauty of atoms and flesh, and breathes. "Okay."
They spend this first day airing out the flat: pulling off drapes, opening boxes, washing dishware; floating, trance-like, uncovering the pieces of their life left in storage. Unconsciously, they drift from room to room together, moving from sitting room to kitchen to bedroom, never out of earshot of one another, tethering themselves to each other's breath, the creak of feet on floorboards, the clink of teacup on saucer.
That evening, John lies awake in his familiar yet unfamiliar bed, his old room a shadow of its former self. Tossing and turning, his skin prickles against the fresh, stiff bedding, the now-empty space in his arms, down through the floorboards to Sherlock below. After the first hot shower and first proper dinner he'd had in weeks, Sherlock passed out on the sofa, and John left him there to sleep in peace, heading back to his old bedroom. John's body tingles with loneliness, aching for something to hold onto in the night, the silence from below filling him until his heart flips over in his chest: what if—it can't be—i can't not—i have to see—and John slides out of bed, padding downstairs, careful to avoid the creaky ones.
Swathed in blue dressing gown and grey sleep pants, Sherlock lies curled, facing out towards the sitting room, arms loosely crossed on his chest. John kneels on the floor between the sofa and the coffee table, up by Sherlock's head, setting his cane beside him. John stares at Sherlock's body, his slow and steady intake of breath, the thready, fluttering pulse in his neck, the undulation of his eyes under their lids. An errant curl, still damp from his shower, falls over Sherlock's forehead, and John sweeps it back with one finger, the hair soft against his brittle skin.
Sherlock's hand is curled out from under the silk, and John carefully strokes each long digit from tip to root, ending again and again at his thin pulse point. Sherlock stirs underneath him, flinching slightly from his touch, and John freezes. Sherlock opens his eyes, his gaze bleary and unfocused for a second, then snapping back to attention as he sits up a little. "John?" he says, voice graveled with worry.
"I..." John blushes suddenly, licking his lips. "I couldn't sleep. I thought—I didn't know—" He breathes. "I just wanted to be sure."
Sherlock looks at John for a moment, face still in concentration. Slowly, he takes John's hand, still lingering on his own, and brings the tips of John's fingers to his lips, tasting the dirt and salt and skin, etching his fingerprints into his mouth. "I'm here," Sherlock whispers in between touches, as John gasps, shivers into the warm, solid touch. "I'm here."
John stares at Sherlock, his blue eyes blown black, filled with the light of his words. Carefully, John rises from the floor, their hands clasped in the dark, and pulls him upstairs to his bedroom.
They stand in the darkness, the cracks in the ceiling flowing like blood vessels, flooding the room with red, aching warmth. John slides the dressing gown from Sherlock's shoulders and leaves it in a silky pool around their feet, revealing his gnarled and knobby body, marked with new and fading scars. John lays Sherlock's wounded body down on the bed, then slips under the sheets, lying down beside him, propped up on one elbow.
Slowly, John strokes his fingers over each scar, feeling the skip from pale, smooth skin to puckered red, the tattered lines where Sherlock bled, every place his life almost slipped away again: the gunshot wound through his arm, the stigmata scratches on his palms, the stab wound to his abdomen, the ragged starburst on Sherlock's temple, still visible a thousand days after. Speaking soft words into Sherlock's skin—"we're here, we're here"—John begins to kiss each tender scar, knitting the old wounds closed with his lips. Spread beneath him, Sherlock arches into John's touches, gasping soft and breathless as he begins to weep, tears trickling down his haunted, hollow face. John curls around Sherlock, leaning down to place his mouth just before Sherlock's open lips. His sweet breath cascades over John's face, and John drinks deep, trying to breathe in the soul he lost so long ago, rooting himself into Sherlock's body again and again until he finds it.
"I love you." John says, enveloped in Sherlock's warm, whispered breath. "I love you. I'll say it until I know you're real, until I know you're alive, until I know you'll believe me. I'll say it until I know you need me. I'll say it until I forgive you and then I'll keep on saying it until the day I die because I will never love anyone else like this ever again. I'll love you until I believe you. I'll love you until I trust you. I'll love you until I love you."
Sherlock's eyes are bright, burnished moons, locked in John's orbit, and his body spasms with tears. "John..."
"I know," John says, and presses his lips to Sherlock's, his pulse echoing through John's mouth again and again as he swallows the sound of Sherlock's beating heart.
Their bodies find each other like the pull of magnets and gravity and all elemental forces: arms slip over hands, under chests, spooned against backs, legs intertwined, a single finger linked with a single finger. Cradled side by side, they burrow into one another, making a warm nest of breath and flesh. Like loosening blossoms, their bodies unfurl and nestle into the peace of warm skin and smooth breath that is not their own. Their souls braid together in a infinite knot, weaving back and forth, vibrating in syncopation as they sleep, two butterflies in one cocoon, waiting to break into the light.
AN: My deepest thanks to Mirith Griffin for being my wonderful beta and sounding board, and to BehindTintedGlass for the conversations and energy that have shaped this story. Thank you to idratherbereading for her help with the first section. Thank you also to my lovely friends on Tumblr for their care and encouragement. And thanks to you for reading, and for your patience in waiting for this update.
The title references the same-titled song by Ray LaMontagne. Sherlock's "I'll take care of you" references a line in Katie Forsythe's Four Minor Interludes for the Solo Violin.
My visual head!canon for the last paragraph: detectivelyd's amazing artwork over here: detectivelyd (dot) tumblr (dot) com/post/21585491818/all-finished-i-only-started-this-as-a-little. I saw Lydia's art after writing that section, and my heart just melted at the soulful beauty of it.
Chapter 9: Learning to Swim
CW: references to drowning, poisons, murder, death by explosives, blood, corpses, asphyxiation, suicide, physical punishment, cannibalism, cutting.
(This chapter truly is not as scary as the warnings indicate. Really.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was a numbness that happened in that sudden shock to the system, the moment John laid eyes on Sherlock That Day: all his bones, broken and out of joint, suddenly shattered again, ready to be reset properly, white waves of relief washing through him to mask the full weight of the pain.
And there is a drowning that happens these first few weeks After: John sinks down in the well of Sherlock's presence, drinking deep at this sudden oasis, so thirsty he lets himself drown, ignoring the spasms of pain. He swims in the sweet water of Sherlock's eyes, the sweat of his body, the vapor of his breath, drinking it in like ether and chloroform and all liquid things that deaden the pain. Down in the water, dark and deep, his anger is wooden, waterlogged, unable to catch fire. Another pain still under the surface, swimming with smooth strokes and silent teeth, waits.
There are moments when he comes up for air and sees the emptiness of the ocean for the first time, the stark expanse of sky. The waves of fury he can't feel below crash over him, the taste of salt water finally on his lips, and he treads water in his own anger, aching to lie in the sun on the scorched earth of his pain until he is parched.
There are the bleak, quiet spaces when he is alone, the edges of the day when his old grief flares, the transition times, the times when things die: in the bathroom, in the shower, walking to Tesco, washing dishes, stumbling to the kitchen at 3 a.m. for a cuppa. Separated from Sherlock's swirling energy, outside the cocoon of their new, impossible life, his body prickles against the empty air, skin turning itself inside out to feel, remembering what it feels like to be only himself.
There are nights he sleeps in the bunker built around his heart, buried six feet deep, shielding his body from the explosions of anger that rip him apart from the inside out. He shuts the door on these thousand bloody land mines, afraid to dare come close, afraid they will explode, afraid the rage he shut inside his heart for so long will kill his love for Sherlock, the blast turning his love into pink mist, afraid the words will kill them both: sherlock you killed us you killed me, so he swallows the explosions one by one, his lips burnt and bloodied, his mouth full of shrapnel.
There are days he still wanders the old wasteland at the bottom of his soul, swirling and wordless, brimming with white-hot anger for so long the walls are cauterized clean. He had let the slakeless emptiness lodge inside his chest, his heart abandoned and bricked over like a dank subway tunnel once bustling with life, the silence dripping from the ceilings.
It is in the memory of this silence that he floats, huddled in the hollow of his sorrow, this grief for a lie, carved out of the rough rocks along the sea. He lies in the surf and dirt, the salt and seaweed and tiny shards of glass, letting himself die—this old John, this dead John, this John-without-Sherlock, unmoored and broken and weightless, a speck on the horizon, the waves washing him out to sea.
Sherlock knows how to wait. He has waited for so long, stalking silently through the concrete forests, through the dark bungalows, looking for any trace of life. He knows how to look, to listen, to sense the slightest disturbance, to know when all is not well.
He is a scientist. He knows how to study, to record, to mark things down with pen and paper, to scratch figures into his skin and remember, to file away reactions and equations in his mind palace for safekeeping. He knows how to predict, how to watch, how to catalogue, lining things up in smooth straight lines, waiting for two chemicals to crash and react.
He knows how to look, to examine, to find the undersides of things, the shiny sides of dirty rings on dead women's fingers, the pinpricks of poison in the skin; how to see the lines of veins in a man's legs, the edges of clues sticking up from streams; how to distill the death of things down to the drops of pure data; how to cut away the impossible with words and facts and blood until only the improbable truth remains, a shining, freshly cut diamond.
He knows. He waits. He watches. John.
He becomes the compass pointing towards John's north, attuned to his magnetic field: waiting for him to explode, waiting for him to do anything. His heart, a small, cratered moon, is pulled into John's orbit, and the sensation of spinning in place and revolving around him is new, and dizzying, and right.
He is the Geiger counter, detecting when John becomes radioactive with pain, he is the seismograph and the EKG, sensing the shift in the tectonic plates of John's soul: the way he scratches his ear, the way his fists flex just so, the way his leg shatters and the bags of his eyes grow deep. He is the pendulum, moving in a perfect, steady arc, ticking to John's heartbeats: making John endless cups of hot Assam, holding John's hand when he shakes, fleeing the flat to give John the silent space he needs. He is the weather vane and the accelerometer, the dowsing stick for water, he is the antenna pointed to John after the radio silence of years, but it is still not enough,
not when his dials and calibrations are off, attuned to the John of old, the John who ran with him through the amber-hued night, the John who filled his dreams with soft words and soft hands on rough, battle-hewn skin; not this broken John, broken like rocks scraped by the sea until they are driftwood, ships wrecked on shorelines, ancient and barnacled, crumbling piers and empty lighthouses;
and he desperately tries to turns the knobs inside him to hear John's voice ring out through the crackling static in his bones, hear John's voice calling for him and because of him, feel the John who is here—the John he has wounded, the John he loves—and it is to him that Sherlock tunes the violin of his soul, and waits for John to make them sing again.
"Why haven't you punched me yet?" Sherlock asks, three weeks After.
John looks up from his newspaper, a glass of scotch balanced on the arm of his chair. He has been resting here off and on all day, nestled in this comfortable space he thought he would never feel again. He looks over at Sherlock, perched on the back of his leather chair like a gargoyle, feet on the seat, elbows on his knees, fingers steepled to his mouth. He has been in this silent position for the last hour, the low light of the setting sun sliding over his body.
"Lestrade did. Mrs. Hudson did. I was expecting you to do so." Sherlock says, stretching his still-bruised jaw. "Why haven't you?"
John drapes his reading over the arm of the chair and cricks his neck, resetting his thought processes. He flexes and stretches his hand, feeling his tendons give and pull, the taste of broken walls and punched-through doors echoing through his fingers. His skin wrinkles, tanned with time and grief, worn in like old sheets, and he shrugs. "I don't need to. I know you've punched yourself so many times by now, I don't even think you'd feel it." He takes a long, slow slip of his drink, then sets it on the side table. "Doesn't mean it wouldn't be deserved, though. I could save it for you, if you like," John offers. "Spring it on you when you're not expecting it. Or I could give you a couple of lashes with the riding crop if you think it'll help. Make you wear a hairshirt. Smack a board on your head like the monks from The Holy Grail."
Sherlock sniggers. "You and your pop culture references."
John smiles. "At least you didn't forget Monty Python while you were away."
"How could I forget? You made me watch that film five times," Sherlock says.
John playfully chucks the paper at Sherlock, the newsprint fluttering in a messy heap at Sherlock's feet. "It's a classic! And it helped you solve that crime with the swallows."
"True." Sherlock hums, a deep laugh stuck in the back of his throat. The laughter dies down, and Sherlock sits quiet for a moment. The tips of his fingers twitch, his shoulder tensing as he looks down at the carpet. "It wouldn't be enough, though," he says.
"Penance. For what I've done. It would never be enough."
John looks at Sherlock's taut face: his new frown lines, the still-short hair, the extra hollows in his eyes. He remembers the empty lines of Sherlock's chair, the wrinkled, negative spaces once shaped by Sherlock's warm body, the chill of Sherlock's sheets on his grieving skin. "I don't want your punishment," John says finally. "I want your life. I think that'll be enough to make up for it."
Sherlock's hunched shoulders loosen slightly. "You want this? All of this? Are you sure?"
"I know what I want," John says. "I've known what I've wanted for three years and I'm not going to let it go now just because you have doubts." His heart suddenly lodges in his throat, his body turning cold in the summer room. "Do you...do you not want me?"
"No—John, it's not that. I just—I want you to be sure. I want to be sure you want this." He waves his hand at the flat, encircling their mess. "All of it. Me. Again."
"You're—" John swallows, his eyes growing wide in slow amazement. "You're afraid I'll walk away, aren't you? You're afraid I'll leave. Is that...is that what you were afraid of, all this time, that I'd leave you?"
"You said it yourself—it wouldn't be undeserved," Sherlock says.
John sighs. "Just because you deserve it doesn't mean I'm going to do it."
"Why not? I've been reprehensible to you. I've treated you terribly, I've used you horribly, and yet you still accept me. You still want to be with me, you still smile at me and talk to me and sleep with me every night. Why aren't you angrier?"
John flexes his hands, in and out, taking a breath and gritting his teeth. "I am angry, Sherlock," he says evenly. "You don't want to know how angry I am. You really don't."
"Show me how angry you are. I know you want to do this—I know you want to hurt me."
The red, flashing pain shoots up in John's chest, bursting bright before fizzling out into acrid smoke. John frowns at him, his brows knit, shoulders tense. "Why—why are you doing this? What do you want from me?"
"I want to know why you won't hurt me, even when I need it, even when I deserve it. I want to know why you didn't forget me—why you died."
John's mouth gapes open. "What—Sherlock—you're the one who fell off a fucking building!"
"And you killed yourself right after." Sherlock leans forward, peering intently into John's face. "What happened, John? You withered. You weren't yourself. There were other things you could've lived for besides me—Sarah, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson. Your patients, yourself. There were other things you could've done besides wallowing here for me." Sherlock's eyes are needle-sharp. "Why didn't you live?"
John's face flares white hot, and something brittle and heavy cracks inside of him. He rises, standing behind the chair, clenching the rough blanket in his hands. "You can't possibly be serious. You can't seriously be asking me this."
"I am serious."
John sucks in a desperate, unbelieving breath. "I watched you die right in front of me. My best friend. Sherlock—"
"John, you don't understand—I thought—I wasn't expecting you to be this way. I wasn't expecting you to just...fall apart. I thought you would move on and forget me and you wouldn't care at all one way or the other. But then I saw you after, the photos from Mycroft, and you were so...unwell...and it was all wrong, you were all wrong... I thought you would live, John. I needed you to. Why didn't you?"
"This isn't—I'm not—I'm not one of your experiments! You can't just prod and poke at me and my grief to see what I'll do! I'm not a lab rat—especially not with this." John sucks his teeth, his gut seething and slithering. "You don't get to question me about what I should and shouldn't have done while you were gone. You don't have the fucking right."
"I have every right—I did this for you."
"So, what, now I owe you for all of this? Putting me through hell?" John laughs, a raw, grating sound. "I don't think so."
"You don't owe me anything, John."
"No, Sherlock. I owe you everything, and that's the problem. You expected me to just walk away, just leave you there on the bloody pavement and pretend this didn't happen? Just get on with my normal life and normal things and leave you behind? Live the rest of my life like this? You were my friend—my best friend. You were the only thing I wanted for so long. I can't believe you wanted me to forget you. I can't believe you wanted this." His grip on the blanket tightens into knots, and he hangs his head. "I grieved for you. I put your ashes in a jar and carried them around with me. I wasn't myself when you were gone because I wasn't myself until I met you. God—Sherlock—" He shakes his head, looking up again. "I wish you had taken me with you. I was a soldier, remember? Bad days?"
"John—all I had was you. I didn't even have myself. I needed you here. I needed you safe. There was no other option." The words burst in Sherlock's mouth like hard bulbs forced in water. "I had to live for both of us, because if I died, then you died, too, and I'd fail you—I had to. I had to," he grinds out.
"No," John says, jabbing his finger at him. "You didn't have to do any of this. You chose to."
"And so did you."
John blinks, reeling back as if struck. "What?"
"You chose to die."
John rears back like a dog about to strike, and he stands tall, ready to spit and tear. "Don't. You. Dare fucking tell me what I can choose for my life. You chose this for all of us. You chose this for me, and for you, and for everyone else, so don't you dare come back here and try to play the fucking martyr with me. You don't get to do that."
"Then you can't play the victim," Sherlock shoots back. "You are better than this, you are stronger than this—" He finally breaks his pose, rising and furiously pacing back and forth in a circle between their chairs. "Damn it—this was not supposed to happen!"
"What, you thought this was going to go according to some kind of damned plan? Well, life doesn't work that way!"
"What more do you want me to say, John?" Sherlock whirls around, thrusting himself close to John, chest to chest, hot breath to hot breath. "Do you want me to say I wanted to watch you disintegrate into nothing and be afraid of everything around every corner and slink like a goddamn rat down every filthy fucking street in the world? Do you want me to say I wanted to see you with a bullet in your brain because I failed you, because of me, because I was so fucking selfish and arrogant and presumptuous that I dragged you into hell with me?"
John steps back, putting up his hands in mock apology. "I'm sorry, did I misunderstand our relationship? I thought we had cleared that up a bit at Baskerville—just got one friend, right? Or had you forgotten that? I thought you might want to have your best friend along while you're fighting for your life, but apparently I'm mistaken."
"It was always about you," Sherlock growls. "I never forgot. Not in my sleep, not with any part of me. It was always you."
"But you did forget me," John says, his heart turning into iron. "You left. You weren't here when I needed you. You were gone. Christ, Sherlock—you were supposed to be here. We were supposed to be together. Always. I always thought I'd be with you, and then you left and..." The iron begins to rust and collapse. "I was alive because of you, and I was dead because of you, and for a damned long time I hated you for it. I hated you for leaving and for dying and I hated myself for living, so don't you dare give a damn about how I was when you were gone because you clearly didn't give a damn enough to let me know you were alive. To let me know I could still live. You—" The rust finally clogs his throat. "God—how was I supposed to live without you? How? Tell me that. You were the only one who could bring me back the first time we met. You were the only one, Sherlock, and you were gone. What else was I supposed to do?"
Sherlock closes the gap between them, pressing their beating hearts together, staring down into John's shattered face. "Live."
Sherlock watches John step back, his body absorbing his words like blood in earth. He fixes Sherlock with a fragile, brittle look, full of minerals and salt and things that have been burned, his body tense and flushed under Sherlock's gaze. John sways his hips just so, pursing his lips and furrowing his brow, the heat of John's body coming through the air, the imploring energy pushing against his skin. John raises his hand and presses it to Sherlock's sternum, pushing hard enough to bruise, and Sherlock shifts on his feet, bracing himself.
"Hold your breath," John says.
"Hold your breath until I tell you to stop." Sherlock looks at John, almost quirking an eyebrow, until he sees John's face: hard as flint, his voice tempered steel, the firm instruction of a doctor ordering a patient to take an awful medicine. Sherlock takes several short, deep breaths, his chest swelling tight against his shirt, then one final, large one, and holds it.
Seconds pass easily at first; Sherlock had practiced holding his breath many times for experiments, or in case an enthusiastic criminal threw him in the Thames. He slows his heartbeat to a trickle, watching the fading summer light play over John's worn, firm face. One minute passes, then two, and the slow, uncomfortable need emerges as his brain stem pushes on his nerves, the tingle of pressure on his lungs telling them enough. Sherlock shoves this message to the bottom of his body, his heart fluttering under John's hand.
At two minutes and thirty seconds, his heart starts to ache, red blood cells turning grey and wrinkled, flowing like sludge in his veins, and he opens his mouth to exhale.
Sherlock twitches, his mouth gaping at John's hard voice before snapping shut, and he pushes the screaming down again, his muscles bow-string taut, his heart turning stringy and fibrous. His brain fights against his lungs, telling them to release this stale, broken, poisoned air, wailing louder and louder. At three minutes, Sherlock lets out a noise like a whine, and he opens his mouth again.
John fists his hand in Sherlock's shirt, pulling him closer, and Sherlock tries not to flinch. "Not. Yet." Sherlock forces his lips closed again, willing his lungs to extract every last molecule of oxygen from his breath. As the last air finally disappears from his body, Sherlock's hands start to twitch, fighting against an unseen strangler, all the tiny hands choking his lungs, and John looks at him, hand on his spasming chest, his blue eyes growing soft with tears.
"Do you feel it?" John whispers as Sherlock comes apart under him. "Do you feel it?"
The poisoned air pushes against Sherlock's heart and claws at his throat, swelling it closed with yearning, his whole body shaking for a simple, sweet breath. "Yes," he says, the tiniest of breath, trembling in the cool light.
"That's what it was like to remember you," John chokes out, still clutching Sherlock's shirt. "And that's what it was like to forget. Every day. Every moment. That's what it was like when I remembered you weren't coming back." And at these words, he pulls Sherlock down and kisses him, pushing all the breath in his lungs into Sherlock's mouth, John's air spreading in his muscles and blood, through his hair and eyes and fingertips, John's breath filling every cell in his body with light.
"John!" Sherlock gasps, as John breaks the kiss. Slumping on John's shoulder, he takes huge, gulping breaths, leaning against the edge of the chair back. They stay like this for long minutes, holding each other up, panting in and out.
"I want you to know," John finally says. "I won't let you go until you know. I'm not going to come to my senses. I'm not leaving, even if you want me to, even if you need me to. And I'm not going to hurt you. I won't...I won't make you feel what I felt. You already know what it feels like to die. I don't want you to feel that again."
"John, I never..." Sherlock mumbles into John's shoulder, "I never thought it would be like this. I thought you would live, I thought you would be all right, I thought—"
"You didn't think." John wraps his arms around Sherlock's middle, sighing. "And that's the problem. You could have just asked me, Sherlock. You could have asked me to hide, or lie, or come with you. You never asked me what I wanted. I never asked you to die for me. I just wanted you here."
Still breathless, Sherlock thrums with energy, a nervous twitch itching along his spine. "John, you always—you always gave so much for me, you gave so much, I wanted to give it back, I want—" (you were the only thing / you were the every thing / I need to make you see / we don't share the same eyes but I would never want you to because yours are perfect and ordinary and good and full of small floating mysteries / you don't see this language thick on my tongue / lead / molasses / all things slow and unwieldy / this terrible iceberg of feelings you don't see the underside / you don't know how cold it was at the top of the world all alone you don't know the depths and the hard solid ice and how it cut in the night you don't know how sharp ice can be when you're about to die / please give me the pain / I want it I deserve it / make me bleed / make me be the pain / it's all I've had for so long nothing else makes sense anymore / your love kills me / please hurt me make me better again / let me cut out my heart and feed it to you so you understand this blood was always for you this blood was to make us whole this blood was for us this blood was the offering / and if I had to sacrifice it would always be me and it would always be for you / you bleed too much for me you bleed your body your skin your time your life / let me be the lamb / let me be the kindling / let me be the one who burns for you / let me be the one who lights our way / let me be the one who burns for you / let me let me let me) His eyes grow wide and wild, and he begins to shake. "I want—"
"Sherlock?" John's worried voice snaps him back to reality as his knees give way, breath and bile roiling in his body, eyes screwed shut as John catches him. "God, Sherlock—" Sherlock lets himself be led to the sofa by John's safe, careful hands. "I've got you, I've got you, just hold on, okay? I've got you," John says, over and over, sitting beside him, letting Sherlock lean against him.
John places his hands on Sherlock's back and chest, holding his heart between his smooth, steady hands, and they rock back and forth slightly, the swing of a cradle in the breeze. The tremors seep away slowly, the words no longer ripping at his mind. "I'm sorry."
"You shouldn't have to see me like this. Helpless. Fearful and tired and running. I'm not supposed to be that for you. You—you don't deserve this."
John laughs softly, leaning his head on Sherlock's shoulder. "Well, you can make it up to me later."
"Along with everything else," Sherlock says, falling into the pendulum rhythm of John's hands, steady as the beat of his heart.
"I want to go back," Sherlock says quietly, breaking the long waves of silence. The setting sun slides over them as they sit side by side. "To the way we were."
John wraps his arm tight around Sherlock's warm, thin body and threads his fingers with Sherlock's, resting them in Sherlock's lap. He remembers the night he first found a head in the fridge, their argument about the solar system. "You know time doesn't work that way. Or did you delete that too?" John quips.
Sherlock opens his eyes and rolls them, pinning John with a wry look. "I know that. I had hoped...we could start over."
"Anywhere. I want...I want a chance to make this right."
John looks at the flat: their two empty chairs facing one another, the leftover boxes from his old flat, the cane propped up against his chair, then back down at the floor, their naked feet. "I think you're a little late for that."
Sherlock's face draws taut. "Is there no hope then?"
"There always is," John says, reflexively, his instinct for survival flaring like a scrap of kindling. "I didn't know you believed in hope," he says, after a moment.
"I didn't know I believed in a lot of things. Not until I needed to." Sherlock finally looks into John's eyes. The gloaming light plays across Sherlock's face, turning his skin amber, his eyes liquid gold. "Would you have come with me that first night, had you known? All of this?"
John stops rocking Sherlock and simply holds him there. His soul weighs out the differences, piles of burnt, lead grief in one hand, heaps of shining, gold danger and adrenaline and breathlessness in the other. "Yes," he says.
"Can we..." Sherlock's lip trembles minutely. "Can we start there?"
John looks at Sherlock's hunched body, the thin lines of his hands, the fragile bones of his clavicles peeking out from his white button-down. As John studies him, Sherlock's pale face suddenly flashes with blood and rain, Sherlock's hollow, cracked eyes staring back at him, and John's throat fills with nails, hoarse from three years' worth of tears. Blinking furiously, he breaks away from Sherlock's face, down to their intertwined hands. He stares at the small cuts on his own fingers, dragged across a nest of razors so long ago, the parallel lines of pink scars on the very tips; then at the fresh, red scars on Sherlock's hands, torn open in a forest half a world away.
"I can't. There's too much." John says, and Sherlock freezes beneath his hands, closing his eyes, drawing his hand back from John's. John feels Sherlock's spirit snap closed like a bear trap, and his own body stills in response, the two of them on opposite sides of a long seesaw, balancing on the fulcrum of time and death and love and choice. Carefully, John reaches inside himself, down through the layers of fresh anger, steaming and raw, the parts of him that want to rend and tear, the voice that wants to cry for the rest of his life, to the amber-old center of his memories, the vision of him and Sherlock, laughing, running, side by side, forever. John reaches out, traces the lines of Sherlock's face with his fingers, his whole and unbloodied skin, the shining scar on his temple, and Sherlock's eyes snap open, locking with his. "But I can start here."
Sherlock's eyes grow wide, then slip closed as his entire body relaxes, sagging into John's arms. "Thank you," Sherlock whispers. "John. Thank you." As John holds Sherlock close, John's soul roots down into Sherlock's body, the trunk of his heart fusing with the branches of Sherlock's, tight, green buds appearing on John's veins. Slowly, among all the withered wood, one small, gold blossom unfurls in John's chest.
The next day, John takes a taxi back to his old flat to pack up the last of his things. The beige emptiness smacks him in the face, the dull air bristling against his skin, and he tries hard not to breathe too deeply as he works. His dishware, odd books, spare bedclothes fit into only a few boxes. He leaves a message with his landlord, setting the keys and the last month's rent in an envelope on the empty desk.
He turns to his nightstand last, the urn he had cradled through the night sitting on top, waiting for him. Sitting on the bed, he takes the urn in his arms once more, holding the black and violet weight of lies in his lap. He runs his fingers over their inlaid names, then up and down the crack in the lid, running down the center in a rough arc. The crack runs between their two names, Sherlock's elegant letters on one side, John's jagged initials on the other. His finger gets caught slightly on the raised edge between the sections, and a tiny piece of skin tears away, drawing a sliver of blood.
Taking the lid apart, he sets the pieces aside, revealing the grey garden of ashes inside. As he looks at the cremains, he remembers the feel of cooked animal bone under his teeth, the soft, gritty crunch, the taste of something elemental, essential. From his jeans pocket he pulls out his small vial of ashes, warm from his leg, the glass yellowed, stopper sealed with tape. Against his worn, pink skin, the bones are brittle white, tinkling softly against the glass as it rolls a bit in his palm. Slowly, he presses the entire vial deep into the center of the ashes until it disappears, then smoothes the surface clean. He slips the broken pieces of lid into his jacket, one on each side, the pockets sagging with the new load, then packs the urn away in its box, leaving it in the dustbin outside.
AN: Thanks to Mirith Griffin and behindtintedglass for their creative and soulful support. Thanks to emmadelosnardos for being my wonderful guest beta, for the poetry of loss, and for the word "slakeless;" and to songstersmiscellany for the music and desserts. Thanks to the following Tumblrfolk for their suggestions on love/hate songs (the background writing music for this chapter): dveleniet, newly-poly-nyc, ajournalofimpossiblethings, shariden, arandomfangirl, duskandshiverrrr, sophiahelix, roane72, and holmesiandeduction. And thanks to all of you for reading, recommending, commenting, and generally being kind and lovely folks.
The title references the Lalah Hathaway song, "Learning to Swim." John's cut fingers and bone-eating refer to moments from After Life (chapters 3 and 4, respectively). John's "you don't have the right" dialogue references a moment in SkipandDi's (Life is) A Series of Risks.
Chapter 10: Falling Slowly
CW for disturbing imagery (references to corpses, murders, violence, blood, drowning, human taxidermy).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It is the simple things that catch their breaths the most, reminding them that they have been granted another miracle (the first, the miracle of their meeting). For Sherlock, it is John's tawny hair, molten in sunlight; his eyes as blue as the open ocean; the rustle of newspaper and salmon fabric; a patch of leather on John's strong, solid shoulder. For John, it is Sherlock's baritone breath, filling the flat; his eyes, the color of nebulas, seeing straight to his heart; the swish of blue silk over grey cotton; the weight of a Browning in his hands. And for both, it is Baker Street: the creak of the seventh step, the gouge in the kitchen table, the wash of London rain on the windows, the tinkle of Mrs. Hudson's beaded curtain.
Slowly, they pull on their former lives like old, worn shirts, the fabric of their life misshapen by grief and loss and time so that it doesn't fit precisely, too tight in the shoulders here, stretched in the arms there. Once invisible in the day-to-day, the signs of age on their faces emerge as their bodies shift, adjusting to the presence of each other after so long, another person in the kitchen, another breath in the night.
They take their first cases one month After, the sound of Lestrade's old summons and the sight of yellow police tape making Sherlock's blood sing. Stepping onto the crime scene, he is a god returning to his temple, deductions spilling from his lips in a silver stream, and John offers his words up as worship.
As they settle into their old lives, nights of fresh blood and raw crime, cartons of takeaway spread in the sitting room, their laughter like dark chocolate and bubbling springs, the laws of the universe shift, adhering not to the whims of time and space, but to those of the heart and mind. With every new crime scene and foot chase, every violin solo and raucous Bond night, they grieve in reverse: remembering The First Time and The Last Time and The First Time Again, all these memories existing in the same space at the same time, turning bittersweet.
John's life Before was a long, empty train track stretching out before him for miles, his world collapsing to a vanishing point in the distance. And then the track shifted with Sherlock's return, not just from one line to the next, but entirely uprooted from the endless, sharp desert to winding hills and lush, dark valleys. There are days he still feels stuck on this same old track, hurtling uncontrollably through a thousand days of darkness.
Over the weeks and months, his leg slowly heals, the vines of pain wrapped around his thigh withering until only a thin tendril remains, permanently sunk into his skin. The little earthquakes in his hands fade completely, leaving only the scars on his hands as proof of his loss.
He keeps the flat stones of the urn under his mattress, sleeping on the fractured pieces, feeling them press into his body in the night. Over time, as John sinks more and more into the warmth of Sherlock's body, the reality of his flesh, the stones move from the mattress to his nightstand, the dark rocks spooning side by side, until they finally rest in a box underneath his bed with his dog tags and medals, the relics of all his battles.
In the quiet, in-between spaces—standing at the window, typing his blog, making a cup of tea—his old pain strikes him down without warning, flashes of Sherlock's face, smudged with rain and blood. Trapped on the raw, feather-thin edge of grief, he is brought back to life only by Sherlock's hand on his elbow, his cough from the other room, a vibrating text in his pocket. On the days when not even Sherlock's touch can heal him, when the memory of nights sleeping with cold bones wraps around him, John walks through the city for hours, letting the bracing London air clear his head of grief.
In taxis, at crime scenes, in the flat, John gazes at Sherlock even more openly, watching his living body move through space, the miracle of his breath moving in and out, imprinting Sherlock on his memory like light on a glass negative. He brushes up against him constantly, a hand to Sherlock's temple / neck / shoulder, pressing warm skin to warm skin, Sherlock's body a touchstone of flesh and blood. With every caress, the gaping, starved maw of his heart shrinks a little more each day.
There are mornings when John holds his breath before opening his eyes, counting past the 46-second mark, his old threshold of forgetting Sherlock was dead, until he feels the heat of Sherlock radiating beside him, the dip in the mattress, the press of a solid arm slung across his chest. And there are nights when he wakes choking on his screams, a new nightmare haunting him: waking up holding Sherlock's corpse, waxen, stiff, mottled with bruises; weeping into Sherlock's dead neck, his tears pouring from him in long torrents, flooding the room with salt and sorrow until he drowns. These nights, he clutches onto Sherlock's living body, feeling for his pulse again and again as Sherlock whispers his name and cradles John in his arms, pressing his mouth to the nape of John's neck until his sobs fade into sleep.
When Sherlock curls around John in the night, he envelops him like soft, warm armor, covering John's heart with his hands as if his fingers could stop bullets. Sherlock dreams of tiger hunters, John's head stuffed and mounted on Moran's wall; of kneeling in a pool of John's blood, watching his body dissolve before him, hearing John's acrid screams, the knife in his own hand. When he wakes with blood on his lips and gunshots in his ears, sometimes with his hand on John's throat, feeling his slow and steady pulse, he shuts down his quivering body, swallowing his tears and his shame.
Every morning, he stares in the mirror, poking and prodding at his crow's feet and elastic skin, his new wrinkles and worn eyes, his slowly growing hair. He feels the bruises still left in his chest, the ragged, stitched edge where he ripped his heart away so long ago. Tracing the shadows of his face, the black holes of his eyes slowly filling with light, he whispers to himself, I am Sherlock Holmes, I am Sherlock Holmes, I am Sherlock Holmes, and he prays that one day he will believe it.
His body echoes with the feel of a knife in his hands, or a gun, or a bare and pliant neck; his scars thrum with the pain of their making, the ghost of pain rippling through his body. Instincts swirling and feral, sharpened to a fine tip from years on a harrowing whetstone, he shoves down the urge to flinch away from all touch, trying to remember he is finally safe. It is then when he reaches for his violin, for a case, for John, filling his body with their complicated mysteries, funneling his sorrow into the world the only way he knows how.
For John, he lets himself be tethered and tamed, the red, pulsing string between him and John stretching and never breaking, wrapped around his throat like a sweet, soft collar. The connection winds through his nerves and blood vessels, the sensation of his heart walking outside of his body, wrapped in plain cardigans and wool jumpers, leaving Sherlock raw and naked. The thick, red, woven rope is knotted between their bodies like those of climbers, and Sherlock knows, now more than ever, that if he falls, John falls too, tumbling from this mountain of danger together, and so he takes the slightly safer routes, waiting for John to catch up, finding better footholds instead of jumping over chasms.
Sherlock forgets this only once, two months After, while halfway out the door to burgle a blackmailer, almost leaving John asleep on the sofa. The weight of his promise made on the floor of John's flat clamps down on his wrist, stopping him in his tracks. He creeps up the stairs again, eyes downcast, worrying his lips with his teeth, to find John sitting up, his face blank. Sherlock drops to his knees before John, his heart thumping out of his chest, I'm sorry and please don't leave spilling from him. John grips Sherlock's hands, voice firm, face tight—I had a feeling you'd do this. I know...it's an old habit. Just...don't do it again—and Sherlock's eyes glisten with tears. I promise. I promise.
Their life now is familiar, routine, almost ordinary: cases typed up with slow fingers, body parts kept in the crisper, long nights peering through the microscope, violin played by the dying firelight. They run together through violet alleys and over grimy rooftops, leaping across the city like lightning, and the feel of their breath in their lungs, burning dark and wild, is the only thing that matters. And yet nothing is normal about this new, extraordinary life, this wonder of breath and flesh, this worn and tired heart restarted, these small miracles blossoming between them every day:
It is finding their rhythm, learning not just how to walk side by side, shoulders almost touching, smooth glide next to sharp strut, but learning how to live in these old bodies they had discarded along the way like snake skin, a forced molting, how to pull on their old selves, the leather and wool, the Browning and brogues, adjusting the familiar layers of jumper and scarf, their new skins shifting and tingling underneath.
It is laying themselves bare with their longing: I'll wait for you and come with me and I'm listening and I'm here, running together into the night instead of foolhardy and alone; it is don't leave me behind / come closer / you can't do that / you will listen to me, pulling rank and leading the charge instead of swallowing down the anger.
It is speaking their language again, stumbling through phrasebooks to find the old words of brilliant / amazing / fantastic, pulling out the Rosetta Stone to translate the call of danger / come / need.
It is the slow erosion of grey, brittle grief by soft, clear words and bright, pale hands, digging down into the fissures until they crack.
It is the unfurling of fingers one by one, clenched around nuggets of grief for so long their hands are numb, letting their fingers splay open in the sun, the wind between them, ready for each other's hand to slip into the empty spaces.
It is the push-pull of their bodies, it is the falling down into arms and catching. It is the falling, and it is the flying, souls soaring and minds balanced, hearts outstretched; it is feeling each other underneath and beside, it is the joy of lifting up and being lifted, at once rooted and weightless.
It is rebuilding their foundation while their smoldering house still stands, stripped down by time to the bare, wooden bones, wind gusting through, laying their love down brick by brick, building it with the mortar of their words and their actions and their lives.
It is remembering the laws of physics, their souls at once universal constants like gravity and the speed of light, and as fleeting and precious as rare elements forged in a lab, flickering in and out of existence in a second.
It is the trust and the truth and the touch. It is is the grip of a hand and the letting go of silence. It is the knowing that they are the same blood, the same breath, cut one and the other bleeds, shoot one and the other gets high, and they are careful, so careful, risking only the parts of their bodies they can afford to lose, never their blood, never their hearts, saving those for each other.
It is the miracle of life and the miracle of acceptance, the miracle of hearts full of holes and badly placed sutures; the miracle of holding each other's soul in their hands, kissing them, and letting them slip back inside; the miracle of their life, of this life being enough, the miracle of the second chance and the third and all the chances after that, the miracle of a single taste of a single kiss, the miracle of waking up and of the sun rising and falling and the miracles that share the same bed, it is the miracle of a brass knocker on a black door and the hands that hold it, and it is this miracle that keeps the stars apart and keeps the galaxies alive and keeps their love fresh in their mouths.
AN: Many thanks to everyone who has stuck with this story and this series. At this point, there will be two, perhaps three chapters left in After Love. I began this series nearly a year ago, and I'm hoping to have it finished by that anniversary.
As always, thanks to Mirith Griffin for being my lovely beta, thanks to everyone on Tumblr for their support and energy, and thanks to you for reading. I welcome your comments.
The title references the Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova song of the same name. The "little earthquakes" line references the Tori Amos song of the same name. The "miracle that keeps the stars apart" references a line in E.E. Cummings' [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. The "miracle that keeps the galaxies alive" references a line in Al Jarreau's "After All." The blackmailer robbery is a reference to ACD's The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. The "fabric of life" line is after a theme in Holyfant's Reichenbach fic, The Fabric of Life. This song was written under the influence of Annie Lennox's "Primitive" and Ólafur Arnalds' "Ljósið" (hat tip to FuckYourSolarSystem for this song).
Chapter 11: The Year of Overcoming
CW for mention of suicidal ideation, falling, drug use, torpedoes, firing squads, scars, guns, allusions to murder.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As the first anniversary After approaches, The Day of Leaving and The Day of Returning folded into one, Sherlock and John retreat into themselves and pull up their old, long-discarded shields, anticipating the pain of remembering. The day is a black hole on the floor between them, and they walk warily around its edges, so careful to keep from falling in that they barely touch each other.
John lingers in this space of remembering, the day Sherlock died and the day Sherlock returned superimposed, Sherlock's slack face overlaid with his gaunt one. The familiar, thin desperation circles in his gut, slithering and silent. His body prickles with the old need to walk, to move, just to get anywhere, to not stand still before the firing squad of his agony; the urge to let the air pierce his lungs so he can feel anything at all, even the sound of his own heartbeat straining against itself; to outrun his pain as fast as he can, or perhaps to walk into it, turning himself into the torpedo's path, letting himself be blown to pieces. The longing builds up in his body, and he sits alone, pressing his naked feet together as if in prayer.
John pulls the pieces of urn out from under his bed, feeling the weight of them in his hand, their inlaid and scratched names. He holds the broken pieces to his chest, thinking of the man he could have been if Sherlock had not died, had not lied, the life they could have had, and he weeps. When he thinks about the man he would have been had he never met Sherlock at all, he cries harder.
As the day draws nearer, Sherlock watches himself become transparent, the memories of it spinning through him until he can barely stand to be in his own presence. That Day, he had severed his heart and John's, leaving them bleeding and naked on the pavement in front of Bart's. The voiceless, faceless, nameless creature he had become while gone haunts him, his life split between the panic in John's eyes when he died and the shock in John's eyes when he returned. He wants to hide himself away forever, let this day wash over him like all other days had, let the pain flow out of his body into the earth.
Sherlock lingers over old cases and ancient clues for hours, studying the deaths of those long dead and unwoundable. He pastes scraps of newspaper articles into his archives, stuffing them full of facts, hoarding them as defenses against his pain. He pours himself into the violin, playing for hours, long, deep notes in the shape of his scars, in the shape of John's eyes, the songs entwined in his muscles and sinews. The hollow sound fills the flat, his sorrow scattered in the air like dry dirt and leaves.
The day before is a quiet one, silence woven into the very air. John does the shopping, cleans his gun, works on his blog, leaving cups of tea at Sherlock's side as he works in the kitchen, ensconced in his fortress of beakers and test tubes, peering into small worlds. They hardly speak, lost not in each other, but in the dark memories brooding behind their eyes.
After an evening of stale reruns, the sounds of Sherlock's experiments wafting through the sitting room, John snaps off the telly and heads into the kitchen, yawning and stretching slightly. Sherlock sits at the table, close to the sink, fiddling with his microscope. "Right. I'm off to bed," John says, squeezing his shoulder a bit as he passes. "Don't be up too late." Sherlock hums in assent, staring at the bit of evidence. John smiles, letting his fingers linger on Sherlock's purple-clad skin as he draws them away. He is almost at the door to their bedroom when Sherlock calls after him: "Do you want me to leave tomorrow?"
John turns in the doorway, framed by green tiles. "What?"
Sherlock raises his head, his hands still on the microscope controls. "Do you want me to leave tomorrow?" he says, emphasizing each word.
John's thoughts suddenly tangle into a bewildered knot. John frowns, swipes his lips. "Why—why would I want you to leave?"
"You've been alone the past several years on this day, a day I caused. I didn't know if you wanted me here." Sherlock looks down at his scattered experiments as if they held the answers to John's question. "I thought my presence might be...distressing to you."
John's body falls closed as he crosses his arms. "Sherlock—why—I don't—I don't know what I want tomorrow." He sighs. "To be honest, I haven't actually thought that far. When you were gone I never really planned the day. There wasn't much point in it."
"Not exactly the best of plans," Sherlock remarks, arching an eyebrow.
Sharp, bitter glass slashes John's heart. "Well, it wasn't exactly the best life," he shoots back between suddenly clenched teeth. His shoulders draw in tight as he breathes deep, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry," he says, opening his weary eyes. "I just...I know you're back and all, but this day...it still isn't easy for me."
Sherlock finally drops his hands from his microscope, setting them on the table as he holds John's steady gaze. "It isn't easy for me, either, John," he says, voice dark as a bruise.
The stabbing pain in John's chest withers to a dull ache, and his shoulders slump. He pulls out the chair across from Sherlock and sits down, resting his hands among the glass. "I'm sorry," he says, the words wrinkled and tired. "I shouldn't have taken that out on you."
"You're perfectly within your rights, you know," Sherlock says warily, waving a dismissive hand. "I don't think there's a statute of limitations on what I've done. You could be hurt like this for the rest of your life and I wouldn't blame you."
"But I would blame me," he says, sighing again. He reaches across the table, full of fragile things, for Sherlock's fidgeting hand, their fingertips barely touching. "I can't be angry with you forever. It wouldn't be good for me. I've tried holding grudges before, and all they've done is given me heartache and indigestion. Not exactly the best remedy for healing."
"I don't want to hurt you again. I want to make this day as painless as possible for you."
"Unless you can erase my memory, I think this day will always be painful. For both of us. God, Sherlock, you don't need to go anywhere. I want you here. I've always wanted you here." John rubs his eyes, scrubbing away the pain to get to the memory. "You know what I did on that day? I walked. All through the city, all the places we'd been together. Just to get away from everything, from Baker Street, maybe feel like part of the world again, feel closer to you. I pretended sometimes that you were with me, I wanted you back so much. I imagined you were right behind me, or around the corner, and if I looked out of the corner of my eyes I'd see you, just for a moment. I thought if I could fool myself a little while longer, I'd be all right."
"Fooled into what?"
"That you were still alive, that I could live without you. Hell, that I could do anything without you." John grumbles, flicking the edge of an empty beaker, the ping bright and hollow. "I guess you saw how that turned out."
"John—" Sherlock starts, his face twisting.
"I know, I know, we've been over this," John mutters, "I'm not helpless, I'm not pathetic. I know that. I survived. I didn't live. Living was...everything you were. After you died, I was alive, but it wasn't our life. My life." John stretches out his hands further, interlacing his fingertips with Sherlock's, feeling the tiny pulse points beating through his skin. "That man who came back from Afghanistan died the night I met you, after Angelo's, when you took my cane away. And when you died, that new John Watson died, too."
Sherlock studies their linked hands, the interplay between light and dark, worn and smooth, short and long. He pulls open a rusted box inside his mind, the memories dusty and brittle. "The first year I was a stowaway on a cargo ship bound for Singapore. I spent ten hours cramped between two shipping containers, in the festering dark. The case of heatstroke I had nearly killed me. The second year I was holed up in Tibet with delirious fever and couldn't even remember my own name. I have a 72-hour gap in my memory that will never return." He feels John flinch slightly in sympathetic pain. "And the third year, I was on a plane bound for London."
Sherlock smiles a little as he rummages through his past, pulling out a bright spangle among the detritus. "There was a violin shop in Paris, next to the flat where I was staying. I stopped in there sometimes, just to play." The memory of long, low notes played and flung across the ocean, vibrates in his voice. "It helped. A bit."
"Mycroft couldn't get you a violin from somewhere?" John asks.
"Yes, but, unfortunately, life on the run is not conducive to carrying large and unwieldy instruments."
John laughs. "Couldn't try anything smaller, then? No personal miniature violins? Mycroft should really look into that."
Sherlock feels the warmth in John's skin bleeding through into him as he laughs in turn. "Well, there was the pochette, but even that was too big. It was either carry the violin or carry the gun. I didn't have room to carry both." The warmth disperses before it can reach his heart, awash in the sudden memory of his hands pulling sorrow out of strings, pulling life out of men. "It wasn't the same though, not playing for you. Nothing was the same without you." Sherlock fidgets in his seat, taking a breath from the rusted bottom of his memories. "I never said your name while I was gone. I thought about it all the time, but I never said it. I thought I would...sully it somehow. I had no right to say your name anymore since I had hurt you so much." The rust slips into his lungs, and he begins to choke. "John, I wanted you. All of you. I wanted to tell you I was alive. I wrote you emails and never sent them because I was afraid something would happen. If I had sent something, and it was intercepted, and you were killed just because I tried to contact you, because I couldn't resist you..." His breath comes hot and fast, and he tightens his grip on John's fingers.
John's face collapses into familiar furrows of worry. "I know," he says, placing his free hand on top of their joined ones, the added weight and warmth anchoring Sherlock. John's voice, soft and rumpled, wraps around him. "I know."
John holds onto Sherlock, letting ride out the flash flood of memories. It is a familiar position over the past year for both of them, trading off being the wounded and the healer. He watches Sherlock's face settle down past calm into contemplation, into questioning. "Do you ever regret me coming back?" Sherlock asks.
John tilts his head, twitching as if stung by a wasp. "What?"
"I could have saved you this heartache, this betrayal, if I had stayed dead. I could have spared you this second pain. I had thought about it for a moment, staying away, before I saw how you truly were." Sherlock's eyes flicker in grainy black-and-white. "You wouldn't have seen what I had become. I wouldn't have hurt you again."
John shakes his head, trying to knock out the hot, dense ball of anger in his brain. His breath flares like a wounded bull's. "Don't—don't even think—" His eyes turn to blue steel, and he clutches Sherlock's hand tightly between his, locking it in place. "I don't regret it for a day, for a second, do you hear me? I regret not telling you I loved you, that I had to wait for you to fucking die and come back before I said anything. I regret that you thought you had to do something so drastic to protect me in the first place." His eyes glisten with new, raw tears. "I regret that you thought you were alone."
"I know what you thought," John says sharply. "You wanted to spare me pain. I'd rather face the pain with you than not at all." He holds Sherlock's hand tighter, trying to push their very bones together, and Sherlock gasps. "I love you, and I love your pain, and our pain, and I love that we're in pain together because that means we're fucking here and alive and breathing, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I don't want to regret a moment with you for the rest of my life. Understand?" He holds onto Sherlock with his eyes and his hands and his words, hoping it will be enough. "Never again. Never. All right?"
Sherlock swallows, his hand trembling in John's, his face open and wide, eyes full of bright, fierce awe. "All right."
They stay frozen like this for a long moment, holding and held, until John loosens his grip on Sherlock's hand, the fragile fingers resting lightly in his palms. He traces the lifeline of Sherlock's palm, then cups his pale hand closed, cradling it in his own. "I want to spend tomorrow with you," John says. "I've been alone on this day for so long, I think I'm a bit overdue for some company."
Sherlock's body relaxes and he nods, a slight smile curling his mouth. He looks down at their hands for a moment, biting his lip. "Could we walk together, just the two of us?" Sherlock asks. "I'd like to see the city through your eyes again. London felt new when I lived it with you." Sherlock raises his liquid gaze to match John's. "Everything was new."
John smiles, feeling Sherlock's warmth, bright and beautiful, arc from his body into his own. "Okay."
That Day, all the things that John had done alone, staggering through the forests of his grief, they do together. They survey the old battlefields, the lands of devastation, the places where their blood sang and cried and spilt over the pavement. The day is bright, fresh, the London skies washed clean by rain the night before, and the air still dances with the green scent of petrichor. They walk side by side, hand in hand, easy and slow, stretching towards each other like sunflowers seeking light. Their languid words, soaked with old sorrows, spiral around them as they walk.
They walk past New Scotland Yard and Angelo's, stroll through Trafalgar Square and past John's old flat, stop for coffee and pastries at the Criterion near the Russell Square Gardens, where John had heard his name called out so long ago. They wander all day, their memories unconsciously guiding their feet, until they find themselves, near sunset, turning the corner at Bart's. They had come to this building many times over the past year: for cases, for Sherlock's lab needs, but never for this purpose, never on This Day.
They walk slowly, breath tight in their throats, until they reach the spot where they both fell, the lines in the pavement stones clean and dry. John looks down at the mark, remembering Sherlock's crumpled body, his pale, frozen eyes, the acres of blood on his hands, and he clenches his fist as he blinks back tears. Sherlock's hand is still in his, squeezed hard enough to bruise, but Sherlock doesn't flinch away. John stands in this place of pain, feeling it and receiving it, letting the rest of the world flow around him, sinking alone into the skin of his old self.
"It didn't hurt."
Sherlock's voice snaps John back to reality. He frowns and scrubs away his tears, loosening his grip on Sherlock's hand, then looks over at him. Sherlock is staring at the sliver of roof framed by sky. "What?" John asks.
"The fall." Sherlock's eyes narrow into thin slits, undaunted by the light. "At least not at first. Not in the air. It was so fast and so slow at the same time. I know that's the cliché, but it's true. I heard everything. I heard you scream, I heard my heartbeat, and I was weightless and fast and heavy and fierce and alive, and I knew you would never forgive me." He looks down again at John's tear-damp face, and Sherlock smiles, a thin, shaking thing. "I remember your face, standing over me. You were so beautiful, and so terrible, and it looked like you were going to crack apart. I thought, 'I have no right to look on your face again if I'm only going to break it more.'" Sherlock leans down, pressing his forehead to John's, and John sighs, letting himself sink into Sherlock's warm body. "I'm sorry I left you here," Sherlock whispers into John's skin.
The small part of John that still feels alone, trapped in the moment of Sherlock's death, begins to keen, the hollow sound traveling through his body, turning into a ragged gasp in his mouth. He clamps onto Sherlock's side, his other hand still linked with Sherlock's. "It hurt," he chokes out, buried under the weight of days. "It hurt all the time, and I couldn't stop it. I couldn't stop it and you weren't there and I couldn't even say goodbye..." John trails off, holding onto Sherlock and trembling silently. Sherlock lets him, swaying slightly in the middle of the pavement. The old yearning to find, to seek, to hold and protect stretches taut inside John. "You were right," John finally says as he looks up at Sherlock, voice damp and calm.
John's body shifts to the fierce, ragged determination of a front-line soldier. "I would have done anything to get you back. Anything at all to stop feeling like this. Sold my soul, or someone else's. Died. Killed. Anything. I would've come with you, if I'd known you were alive. I would've chased you down and never stopped until I'd found you. Not even Mycroft could've stopped me."
Sherlock holds John tighter. "You would have destroyed yourself."
"It would have been worth it, though. To see your face again." John's eyes are oddly bright, filled with the reflection of Sherlock's living face. "Just for one day, one second. It would have been enough."
Sherlock watches the reflections of himself in John's eyes, the tiny images of John in that reflection, contemplating them smaller and smaller, the two of them nestled inside each other to infinity. This is how it should be, he thinks. This is how it always should be. His brain flickers through all the words he has ever known, all the languages, all the subjects, and finds them wanting. "There are no words for"—he waves his hand between them in a small loop—"this. There's nothing that can capture—" He takes a deep breath. "I've always wanted to tell you. But words seemed...insufficient."
"You could show me," John says simply, his body relaxing in Sherlock's arms. "If there aren't any words."
Sherlock beholds John, his tanned face and solid shoulders, his short powerhouse of a man, the body he clung to in the night, the flesh he dreamt of for a thousand days. Slowly, Sherlock takes John's hand from his waist and raises it up to his own temple, to the silver scar still visible under his thicket of dark hair. He holds it there as he looks into John's wide, trembling eyes. "I already have." John lets out a stifled sob, his hand pressed into Sherlock's skin as if the life might still pour out of him. "I would do it again," Sherlock says, clutching onto John. "I would die for you."
"I don't want you to die for me," John whispers. "I want you to live for me. If that's what you're looking for, a way to make this up to me, then live for me. Live for us." He turns his hand in Sherlock's grip, making a fist, then pulls it down from Sherlock's temple. He raises their other fist from John's side, holding them both together between their chests. "We can do anything together. We can be here, just you and me and nothing else."
Old panic flutters in Sherlock's gut. He remembers John wrapped in Semtex, John kneeling before a gunman; imagines John eaten by cancer, withered by age, shattered by something as mundane as a passing lorry. "What if something happens?" he asks.
John grins, a wicked glint in his eye. "Something always happens," John says. "Isn't that what we live for, something happening?"
A fragment of memory blooms pink in Sherlock's mind. "And I said 'dangerous'…"
"And here I am." John presses a kiss to each of their fists, Sherlock's hand on top. "Always."
John watches his words play like light over Sherlock's face, the bright smile softening Sherlock's body. Underneath him, John's leg, held fast and taut for so long, twinges, and he shifts on his feet. Keeping their hands clasped, he pulls Sherlock down onto one of the wooden benches outside Bart's. Turned slightly into Sherlock, he looks past him at the people walking by, the pigeons in the eaves, the cars and buses in the street. He looks past these ordinary things, through time and space, to a night spent shivering on Bart's roof, a penknife cutting into marble, his hands covered in blood.
"I can't forget what happened," John finally says. "I don't think I ever will. But I don't want to be angry with you anymore. I don't want to hurt like this anymore. There's no place for it in my life." He watches the outlines of the people, the buildings, the trees across the way, the wind shifting through. "There's this little voice in the back of my head that says, 'Sherlock's dead, he died, you remember that, remember how he hurt you?' And I can't shut it up, no matter what I do. I look at you, and sometimes I see your body on the pavement, and it just kills me all over again, no matter how close you are, no matter how much I tell myself you're real. I look at you and it's still like a damned miracle and a fucking disaster at the same time." John's shoulders slump. "I'm tired of remembering you were dead and tired of feeling hurt and angry, and I'm afraid I'm not strong enough to let all of it go because if I let go I'll have to hold onto you." He finally turns to meet Sherlock's storm cloud eyes. "I'm afraid I'll reach out and you won't be there."
Sherlock moves to speak, but John cuts him off. "I know that's rubbish because you've been so good. You've been here, and you haven't left me behind. You've changed. But I don't know if I have. I reached out for you so many times and you were always there, but then you weren't. I'm still afraid you're some sort of damned mirage and I won't be able to rely on you. I've been holding onto this for so long I don't know if I can let go."
Sherlock's voice is quiet. "What will happen if you do?"
"I'll die." Sherlock snaps back, his body tensing under John's fingers, and John quickly clarifies. "At least that's what I used to think, when you were gone. I had to hold myself together, keep everything under control, because if I didn't..." John feels the weight of his gun in his hands, the prick of a needle at his elbow, and winces. "...well. I was afraid I couldn't stop myself."
"John." Sherlock's eyes are suddenly hard. "You're not thinking...?"
"No! God, no." John unfurls his hand from Sherlock's and rubs Sherlock's wrists to settle his flash of panic. "That was a long time ago still. It's just...hard to break old habits."
Sherlock smiles, his tense face relaxing. "You're the oldest habit I've had besides crime and cocaine. And I haven't broken you yet. I don't think I ever will."
"God, me neither." John chuckles, shaking his head. "You're not exactly the safest person to be around, but I wouldn't want it any other way." He traces the blue veins in Sherlock's wrists, tiny bridges in his body, feeling the blood rush under his skin. Sherlock shivers under his touch, arching his skin into John's. "It's not right what you did. But I understand why you did it. Maybe that's enough." In the distance, the long bridge of forgiveness stretches before him. "I want to forgive you, but I'm not ready yet. I'm sorry. I want to, I really do, I just can't."
"John." Sherlock fixes him with a pointed glare, his eyebrow quirked the highest John had ever seen it. "You mean to tell me that you're sorry for not forgiving me yet for hurting you terribly? John, you have the most ridiculous heart. I don't understand it sometimes."
John laughs. "I don't understand it either. At least not when it comes to you."
"Then I suppose we're even. You can be my mystery and I'll be yours." Sherlock clasps John's fingers, pressing their pulse points into one another. "John...whatever you need, whatever you decide, I'll take it, as long as you're here. I was prepared for this. I was prepared for you to hate me, to never want to speak to me again." His voice quivers, sinks deep. "I want you to trust me. More than anything. But if you never forgive me...I'll understand."
John feels Sherlock's pulse flutter fast against him. His words seep into John's skin, his very blood, bringing oxygen to his starved heart. He looks down at the pavement, up at the slice of roof, to the purpling sky beyond, then back to Sherlock's soft, pale face. "Thank you," John whispers.
They sit for a moment, listening to each other's breath as the night slowly rises around them. The sky slips from cobalt through violet to crimson, the darkness caressing their bodies. The wind, full of shadows and silk, whispers sweet, dangerous nothings in their ears. "Shall we?" John finally asks.
Sherlock rises, holding John's hand, pulling him up. "Let's." Arm in arm, they walk back home, their sorrows falling from them like dying petals in spring.
AN: This is the next-to-last chapter of After Love. I hope to have the final chapter up very soon. Thank you for reading/commenting/bookmarking/recommending, and for sending me good writing vibes. As always, thanks to Mirith Griffin for her beta reading and research, and to BehindTintedGlass for her energy. Thanks also to Roane72 for her help with this chapter. Thanks to SongstersMiscellany for the sunset.
The title references a line in Kim Rosen's poem, The Practice. John's lines about regret are reworked from sections of an unpublished fic co-written with BehindTintedGlass. The "done alone, done together" sentence is after a line in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. The pochette is also known as a kit violin or pocket violin.
Comments are welcome.
Chapter 12: One Day, Like This
CW: brief mentions of blood, bones
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Moment comes on a Tuesday evening, one year, five months, and 23 days After, as John is brushing his teeth.
The day is perfectly extraordinary: a whirlwind of calls from Lestrade, taxi chases, lab experiments, and stakeouts that ends in a brief, breathless standoff with the criminal. Thrumming with dangerous delight, Sherlock and John feed their hunger with Chinese from down the road, eventually stumbling into Baker Street stuffed full of sweet and sour things. Sherlock tosses off his clothes and leaves them in piles throughout the flat, swapping them out for his grey silk pyjama bottoms. Muttering and weary, he collapses on their bed, while John strips down to his pants and worn T-shirt, wrapping himself in his bathrobe.
After washing his face clean of London grime, John considers himself in the bathroom mirror. He studies his skin, the new wrinkles that have come in, the light blonde hairs slowly fading to silver and white. His muscles are tight and hot, not with the sharp pain of fatigue, but with the honey-sweet ache of exertion, of pushing his body to extremes, the knowing pleasure of waking up sore in the morning. He pops a few paracetamol, then begins to brush his teeth, mentally flicking through the events of the day, setting aside the best and strangest moments to write about for his blog. John had lost this regular practice in the dark years of no words, when his blog was empty of adventures. He switches from memory to memory, unconsciously brushing a different part of his mouth for each one: front teeth for the standoff, back teeth for the chase, left side for Bart's.
The spool of moments unwind in his mind, slipping through his consciousness like string through his fingers. As he skims through his day, untangling the thread back and back—tea and toast, waking in Sherlock's arms, his deep and quiet sleep—he feels something strange in the texture of the fiber. He touches the line of his thoughts all the way back through the day and finds the thread completely and utterly smooth. The toothbrush comes to a stop at his lower right canine as John's body goes perfectly still.
The sensation had lived at the edge of John's nerves ever since That Day, in his autonomic nervous system, as unconscious to him as breathing, blinking. The low hum of it prickled through him like background radiation: the memory of blood and bones and rage, the unbidden words that flared up in his mind throughout the day: Sherlock died. Sherlock lied. Sherlock hurt me. Sherlock's alive. When John had heard these words, his thoughts went slightly off course, back to the old ports of pain and desperation. He'd shake his head, automatically pinching himself to remember: Sherlock's here, Sherlock apologized, Sherlock loves me, Sherlock's staying. John had almost accepted that his old anger would flare like a grease fire, the maw of his loneliness would swallow him whole, the desperate instinct to touch him touch his heart just to be sure would never fade.
But now, as he stands before the sink, his toothbrush in his mouth, lips and gums foamy with mint, still in his bathrobe, drinking cup on the shelf, fluorescent light filtering over his face, hair mussed and soft, he realizes that none of these thoughts have crossed his mind today. John does not forget what happened: the arc of Sherlock's fall years ago and the touch of Sherlock's living hand years after are still indelibly branded into his heart. John still recalls how long it took to stop making tea for two, to stop calling out for Sherlock in the night, to stop expecting to see Sherlock's name on his caller ID.
Yet as he feels the threads of his thoughts again, going back through the day, then through the past several days, there are no knots, no tangles of anger, no words twisted up or repeated in sequence—Sherlock's dead, Sherlock hurt me; count the seconds, 45, 46, 47, 48—simply a smooth, straight, pure line. The memories have not flitted across his mind like a flock of dark birds in a clear sky. The harsh reminders, the useless warnings crafted out of his own desperation—don't give him all of your heart, he'll hurt you if you forgive him, you must remember or you'll die—have slowly dissolved into the ether, granules of pain washed away by the sea.
John's eyes widen as the revelation sinks into him, the weight of these unspoken words and counted seconds dropping from him like stones. In their place, he feels the memory of Sherlock's hand on the small of his back, steadying him down to his roots; of Sherlock's footsteps running at his side, warm and fierce and alive; of Sherlock's mouth, opening John's heart with his words. An echo of Sherlock's silky, wiry arms wrap around John, protecting all the fragile places in John's soul, and Sherlock's dark whisper caresses John's skin: I will catch you.
John pulls his toothbrush out of his mouth, his eyes wet and glassy. He cups his hand over his mouth, ignoring the foam that smears on his skin, steadying himself on the edge of the sink, and he begins to laugh in long, bright gasps. "Oh my God." He laughs for one minute, two, he doesn't know how long, crying to himself as the pain evaporates in the puffs of air. "Oh my fucking God."
"John?" Sherlock calls from the bedroom, voice muffled by distance and pillows. "Are you all right in there? You sound like a drunken hyena."
John shakes himself out of his laughter. "I'm fine," John says. He quickly rinses his mouth, hands, and toothbrush, drying off his face. John looks at his reflection again in the mirror, at the strands of amber and gold still in his hair, the lines in his face that have suddenly smoothed out. "I'm fine," he whispers to himself, and for the first time in over a year, he actually means it.
John goes into their bedroom, stripping off his robe and hanging it on the closet hook before turning towards the bed. Sherlock is sprawled in the center, on top of the covers, one arm flung over his head, the other resting on his chest. Sherlock turns his head and looks at John, his face golden in the glow of his bedside lamp. "Whatever were you laughing about?"
John stops mid-stride and takes a long, hard look at Sherlock: his hand fiddling with the hem of his pyjamas, hair damp with sweat, pyjamas rucked up to his calves. When Sherlock scrunches ups his face in confusion, John simply smiles, his heart bursting with wonder. He lies down beside Sherlock, propping himself on one elbow, curling around Sherlock's tired body. He trails his fingers over Sherlock's bare chest, dusted with ginger hair, down to Sherlock's long hand, slips over the crests of his hips, making Sherlock shiver, then back up again to cup Sherlock's face in his hand. John caresses his thumb along the cliffs of Sherlock's cheekbones, tracing the curls at the nape of his neck, and John kisses him, slowly, forever, the kiss a living, breathing thing spiraling between them. As John pulls away, he looks at Sherlock's face: no blood, no deathly pale eyes, only his skin flushed pink, open and radiant, bright with life.
As Sherlock opens his eyes, he looks at John's tender face, John's eyes anointing every part of him with their gaze. His mind knits and unknits in questioning patterns, exploring the giddiness of John's laughter, the sudden urgency of John's kiss, the lightness of it. Sherlock narrows his eyes slightly, pulling them back into focus. "What was that for?"
John's face unknots itself, his eyes bright scraps of sky. "I forgot."
"You forgot?" Sherlock frowns. Had the day been truly so tiring that it affected John's memory? he wonders. "But you just kissed me—"
"No." John says again, placing his palm on Sherlock's chest to steady him. "I forgot you died."
Sherlock blinks once, twice. "You…forgot I died?"
"Yes. It was...I didn't remember. I mean, I knew you left, I hadn't forgotten that. It's always been in the back of my mind, you dying and leaving me and coming back, all the pain of it. But all of a sudden, it wasn't. I didn't realize until just now that it's been gone for awhile now."
Sherlock's mouth drops open, his breathing slowing to a trickle. He pulls back slightly, letting the words slip in between them as he continues to stare at John. "How long?"
John shrugs. "A few days, maybe a week. Long enough. We went to bed, I woke up, we had breakfast, we went on the case, and I just…forgot. I didn't have a nightmare, I didn't startle a bit when I saw you. It's like," he says, his smile growing impossibly wider, "you never left."
A small fragment of Sherlock's soul, made of goldenrod and light, begins to pulse bright in the center of his chest. "What does this mean?" he finally says, voice dark and breathless.
"I think it means," John says, after a long exhale, "I let go."
John's words wind themselves around Sherlock's soul like fine, soft silk, cocooning him in a sudden, impenetrable warmth. He feels John leaning against the solidity of his chest, sinking down into Sherlock's body, letting Sherlock support him with his arms and heart and breath, and the hard shell underneath his skin shatters, the pieces dissolving away until there is nothing left but strong, supple muscle. He takes John's hand in his, linking their fingers. "Thank you," Sherlock whispers.
John smiles again. "For what?"
"For this." Sherlock tugs him in in tighter, nestling John against his side. "For you. For taking me back. I don't understand it. Still."
"You don't have to understand it," John says. "You just have to accept it."
"You know I can never let things lie."
John playfully rolls his eyes. "I know. But love isn't a mystery you can pick apart, no matter what anyone says."
"Well, technically, love is a chemical reaction produced by—"
Before Sherlock can continue his lecture on the interplay between oxytocin and serotonin, John suddenly yanks Sherlock's pillow from under his head and smacks him over the head with it. Sherlock blinks for a moment, his hair corkscrewed and wild, then his quicksilver eyes narrow. He snatches the pillow from John's hands, bonking him with it as they wrestle back and forth in a tangle of limbs—prat!—git!—wanker!—finally dumping the pillow on the floor and lying against each other panting, sprawled over each other like exhausted starfish.
Spent and sweaty, John curls on his side and pulls Sherlock against his back, spooning them together, their bodies intertwined at the wrists and ankles. As they catch their breath, Sherlock strokes lazy circles on John's chest with one finger, tracing the infinity symbol over and over on his thin cotton shirt. Sherlock's thoughts swirl back and forth in a closed loop, amplified with each circling, and a question, niggling at the back of his mind, breaks the circuit. He places his hand flat against John's sternum, feeling John's heart under his fingers, the endless flow of blood in and out. "Why do you love me?" Sherlock asks. "You don't have to if you don't want to."
"Sher—?" John twitches, turning in Sherlock's arms to face him. "What kind of question is that?" he says, pursing his lips. "Why would I not want to love you?"
"An honest one. I'm not a lovable person," Sherlock says, sighing. He ticks off his words on his fingers. "I'm heartless and cruel. I manipulate and plot. I talk too much about the wrong things and I never appreciate you the way you want me to. I've lied and stolen and killed, and yet I am here, and you," he says as he gestures at John, "are here. I don't understand it, and I want to know why." Sherlock looks up at John through tired, dark lashes. "Maybe if I hear you say it, I'll start to believe it."
"Sherlock," John says, voice plain and earnest, as he clasps Sherlock's hands in his, calloused skin against smooth. Sherlock anchors himself in the rough-hewn earth of John's body. "I want to love you. I need to. I choose to."
Sherlock swallows down all the reasons why John should never love him, the bile of self-loathing burning his throat. "Why?"
"Sherlock…my world doesn't work without you in it. I never thought I'd be alive again, and now here you are. I'll always love you. I'll always choose you. This. Us. Together." John chuckles. "God, I think I chose you before I even realized it. Loving you isn't a burden." His face rumples up. "Sure, it's a challenge. It's the hardest thing I've ever done, and I never knew love could be like this. But I don't really have a choice. I want to love you. I always have." John looks down at their hands, his blue eyes flickering in shades of black and violet. "I know I never told you before you left. I know I never said it, but I hope you felt it."
Sherlock smiles, soft and thin. As he presses himself into John, he hears all the round and ringing echoes of John calling for him—Here's tea, Sherlock; Sherlock, come look at this; Sherlock, please; Sherlock, run!—his name whispered and cried and shouted and cajoled, a dark, rich morsel on John's tongue. He suddenly hears all of the inner meanings of these words like pulses beating under the skin, concealed in these ordinary phrases, hidden in his very name, the syllables of love and yes and here and now; never leave and only this and always you; yes and yes and still forever yes. His eyes are shining, wet silver, and his breath catches in his throat. "I knew. I know." Inside him, the echo of John's name rings in his soul, the word he had packed away, a precious, priceless jewel, held up to the light after three years of darkness. He looks down at their threaded fingers, a bright red spiral unfurling from his heart, then back to John's face. "Did you?"
John holds onto Sherlock's hand, letting Sherlock stroke the valleys between his knuckles. He leans into the touch, the rocking motion of Sherlock's fingers moving in and out like the tides. Inside him, he hears the memory of Sherlock calling for him to come / shoot / fight / hold, all of these desires woven in this single word, draping him with a strong, certain warmth. "Yes," he whispers. "I did." He feels Sherlock's grip tighten on his hand, Sherlock's sudden breath, Sherlock's body trembling. "I do."
Sherlock's eyes sparkle like opals, and John feels Sherlock's whole soul blaze through them. "I never—I never meant to hurt you, to be gone this long. To lie," Sherlock says.
At the back of John's mind, fragments of ruby sky and onyx water sweep through his senses. He holds their clasped hands to his heart for a moment, rubbing at the sudden ache in his chest. "I know," he breathes.
Sherlock's body trembles under John's fingers, his muscles drawn taut as violin strings, vibrating on the highest note in an aching crescendo. "Will you forgive me?"
John's whole soul, floating on the vast ocean of his life, suddenly stills. He draws in a breath and holds it as the world narrows down to him and Sherlock, their hands and his pounding heart. "Sherlock…"
Sherlock's eyes turn molten, past liquid with intensity, past gaseous, to the state of plasma, of pure, white, unfiltered need; John's body is the lightning rod, crackling with his energy, his heart electric, tingling. "Please…" Sherlock whispers, locking his gaze. John sees straight through Sherlock, the layers of blood and bone, to the golden core of him, untainted and untouched, begging.
John's body vibrates on the single point of his heart, remembering the moments he entered Sherlock's life so long ago, all the little steps he took to get to this place: into the cab to take him to Baker Street for the first time, down the stairs for a bit of trouble—oh God yes, running pell-mell across the skies of London, through the dark hallways of a college, pistol at the ready; how it was so unconscious and effortless, all these steps not like walking or falling, but like flying, weightless and natural, until by the time he fully decided to stay, he was already deep in Sherlock's orbit, tethered to him as surely as gravity. He remembers that effortless, frictionless moment, slipping his heart into all the broken pieces of Sherlock's life and feeling Sherlock's fill his in return, and how simple, how simple it was to say yes, to say now, to say I will.
John remembers the days After when Sherlock returned, how their universes twisted themselves inside out, new black holes ripped through their hearts. He remembers how they slowly tore apart the black, stormy walls between their souls, each of them trapped in worlds of guilt and grief, pulling down the barriers with their words and deeds and bare hands. He remembers how they pulled at each other from the opposite ends of the universe, aching and adrift, how they clawed back to the center of their relationship, an inch each day, swimming through the dark, hollow silence towards each other's light.
John's heart twitches in his chest as he watches Sherlock's face, chamois soft and lined with yearning. He feels Sherlock's solidity underhand, the warmth and texture of Sherlock's skin and hands and words spreading through his limbs, branching out strong and alive; he remembers this feeling, sparking through him, the warm weight of certainty, of together, we, us: their nod at the pool, their giggles on a couch, their breath in the night; he realizes, he knows, as sure as a lightning bolt, that he has already forgiven him, from the moment he saw Sherlock's miraculous face at his doorstep, the moment he heard Sherlock's iron vow on his bedroom floor, the moment Sherlock cradled him in his arms and kissed him like he was the only thing on earth worth loving, these moments and all the moments after, all these little steps back to him, from the first night at Baker Street to their first night together and every day after, every day he woke up to find Sherlock there for him, every day John had woken up and chosen to stay, to reaffirm with his blood and breath and body I am never leaving, I am never leaving this beautiful, strange, and brilliant man and this beautiful, strange, and brilliant life; this is the moment he knows, when the last of the pain finally, finally dissolves, when there is only him, and Sherlock, and his hand in his, his heart outstretched over the long chasm of fear, the invisible bridge spun of faith, and he takes the single step, and flies.
John licks his lips, swallows. Sherlock's breath, fast and thready in his chest, slows to a trickle. He watches the moving of John's throat, the deep breath he takes, the sudden crinkles around his eyes. "I think…" John says, finally looking at Sherlock, "I already have."
Sherlock's breath stops entirely, his body like the stillness of a vacuum just before being filled. The pieces of him shattered by the moment of his falling, the moment of his return, paralyzed for days and months and years, waiting on John's words and eyes and mouth, begin to tremble. "John," he says, his hand shaking, brittle, "I need—I need to hear you say it. Please."
John smiles, the last wrinkles in his face disappearing. Untangling their fingers, he shifts closer to Sherlock, pressing him flat into the mattress. As John settles against him, Sherlock feels John's heart beating through his own chest. Pressed from chest to legs, John leans down close to Sherlock's ear, his breath fluttering over Sherlock's skin, then wraps his arms fully around Sherlock, holding him completely. "I forgive you," John says. Sherlock's world goes dark for one brief second as his eyes slam shut, then, inside him, his whole soul shifts, his heart breaking open like sun through clouds, a sudden crack in the universe that sets his body alight. All the frozen cells in his body flare to life like fireworks, fizzing and bright, his breath coming in an open O of release and revelation, caught in his throat with all his tears. As he begins to cry, choking on John's name (thank you and thank you and thank you), the weight of his shame, leaden and barbed, falls away as he lies in John's warm arms, his body buoyant, whole, weightless with light.
There is no end to this healing, this cycle of breaking and mending, of forgiveness and forgetting, a double helix stretching on for infinity that wraps around them both, made of their words and blood and bond.
There are walks through the city, always on That Day, marking the path of their sorrow through the city, the path of their life, until nothing in London is free from their touch.
There are mornings of tea and toast, of crime and blood, of sinking down into each other's body and breath until there is nothing left between them but mere molecules.
There are bees in Sussex, thatched roofs, nights of jasmine and honey and sweetgrass, with skies large enough to hold all of the stars in the universe, each one singing their names.
There are moments of reaching out to the old selves they left in the mirrors long ago, the paper-thin genius and the bone-brittle healer, and marveling at the miracle of a man named Stamford.
There are two stones thrown in the bottom of the Thames, fractured black marble inlaid with names, the last vestiges of their grief buried at sea.
There are shared dreams of universes, of bright, blessed moons, of the two of them spiraling together in each other's gravity, dazzling double stars in the blackness of space, all of it captured in each other's eyes.
And in the center there is a table, where they sit side by side, the smooth, solid warmth of their clasped hands, their life spread out before them, their love scattered among the teacups and computers and beakers: heaping plates of yes and this and forever; pots of worry, steeped for ages; mugs of shared, salty sorrow a thousand days old; bright confections of there and God and now and come; dark blood dishes of anger; plates of bitterness, sliced thin as radishes; jars and jars of the sweet honey of joy, spiked through with the rare, red saffron threads of love; where they fill their mouths with each other, the sweet miracle of breath and flesh, feasting on their life until their souls are full.
Thank you to everyone for your kind and generous support of this series: reading, commenting, bookmarking, recommending; helping me sort out ideas, talking with me about scenes and providing nourishment; sending me songs and making me art and lending me your voices. It's been a pleasure to write these stories, and I'm glad you were with me on this journey.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to these folks especially for their energy, time, talent, and encouragement: Mirith Griffin and BehindTintedGlass, Cobyfrog, Diane Duane, EmmaDeLosNardos, FindingSherlock, FuckYeahSnackables, FYeahLilBitOEverything, IdRatherBeReading, IReallyShouldBeStudy, Jodi2011, Khorazir, LokiOfTheSilverTongue, TheLavenderMenace, Mazarin221B, Pati79, PrettyArbitrary, Roane72, SkyFullOfStars, SongstersMiscellany, and Valeria2067.
If you've been waiting until the end of this story (or the end of the series!) to comment, I'd love to hear your thoughts. And if you're interested in reading my future work, please add me to your author alert/subscription. Thank you!
AN: The "round and ringing" phrase is from Francis Lam's $70 Bread: A Holiday Story on Gourmet online. The "inner meanings" concept and saffron images in the final paragraph reference Rumi's The Phrasing Must Change (as translated by Coleman Barks). The mirror!self idea is after Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. The "feasting on life" and general life table idea are after Derek Walcott's Love after Love. The title references the song by Elbow.
Chinese Translation! The lovely Ceen has translated the entire series into Chinese, available here: 221dnet.211.30i.cn/bbs/forum.php?mod=viewthread&tid=2239. Login required:
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