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Gone to Feed the Roses (Elegant and Curled)

Chapter Text

John Watson’s not an idiot. He can see the signs.

John Watson is a doctor, a soldier; he knows what depression looks like, can recite the stages that grief is meant to (and often doesn’t) follow. John Watson knows how to take a life in more ways than most men: quickly, painlessly, ruthlessly, prolonged. John Watson doesn’t have to think on it much, before he knows how he’s going to play the hand he’s been dealt. His grip doesn’t shake, though his heart races; nerves of steel and all that. But it takes less than an instant for him to be sure, for him to be certain where he might have hesitated before.

John Watson credits Sherlock, for that.

_______________________________

The first week doesn’t exist, save in fleeting impressions, little notations of the passage of time and the persistence of life where it isn’t welcome: the ache along his ribs where he fell, for instance, where he hit the pavement after the world collapsed around him; the tenderness below the bones—far less physical, but somehow more acute. The aluminium rattle, the clang-and-drag of the wheels of a trolley bearing dead weight off toward a lesser sort of oblivion, left to cool in a morgue where they'd laughed, once, bickered; how flippant, how insolent—a blasphemy, so fucking obscene. There are dreams in those days, like the ones from before, like the ones full of blood, but these are darker, colder; these ones don’t pass. These one’s stab at the centre of him, tear at the core, rage at a heart that’s a bit absent, mostly vacant, that goes on because it doesn’t know what else to do, because John doesn’t know what else to do.

The second week, well: looking back on it, John can’t really tell it apart from the first.

_______________________________

It’s difficult to process change—internal, external; transformation over time—without distance, without a reprieve from consistent acclimatisation to the alterations taking place. John understands that.

Scratch that, no: John doesn’t understand. John doesn’t comprehend how anyone can fail to notice the way that something, someone close to them reshapes and reforms under the influence of pressure and weight and the unforgiving passage of moments, of hours into days. John doesn’t see how people can fail to read those signs. He remembers watching himself change, the subtle shifts of his reflection in a pool of water: the fit of his uniform, the shape of his hand around his weapon. He’s watched his sister slip into the void of addiction, step by step, refusing his help until it hurt too much for him to offer it anymore, to stand by and watch it all slip past, too close at hand. He’s watched his flatmate, his best friend, his best everything, even, maybe, his—

Well, he’d watched Sherlock change, in little ways. All the time.

And the months he’d spent, that he’d lived and breathed with Sherlock Holmes under the same roof, watching him work and hearing him theorise, deducing on his own the things that Sherlock, in all his brilliance, failed to see himself: those months stretched out like lifetimes, in practice, and no man can live a lifetime without the scars to show for it.

John Watson’s got his share of scars to show; John’s no fucking exception.

The thing is, though, the important thing, is that John’s been changed, fundamentally altered—all the equal and opposite reactions to Sherlock’s infinite action, his momentum. John’s been broken and flattened and reshaped and made anew, and the elemental parts of him are still the same, for the most part, but he’s a whole new shape, a configuration that’s recognisable from some angles, if not from others. Sherlock left his mark in more places than even he could likely fathom.

But there’s something about change, really; something about reduction and division and removal, transmutation and the like: something John remembers from his chemistry labs, from Lavoisier and the shift from mysticism to rationality, from alchemy to empiricism: matter doesn’t fluctuate. The fundamental system remains constant, always. There is no destruction, despite appearances. We can burn again and again, unending, and yet we still remain. So while John has come to understand certain truths that remained hidden to him, once; has come to question convictions that he’d never once been known to doubt—while John is not what he once was, while he has been remade into something new and better and stronger and weaker and lighter and bolder and braver and fearful, more tainted, and yet, the beating heart of him had never been so goddamned bright: for all of that, John’s never not been himself. John’s never lost the pieces that have always made him up; he’s just had the parts remoulded, so that they’d fit. So they’d make a whole.

And sometimes, a man simply knows what he has to do. Knows what sort of life’s worth living, and what sort of life isn’t really a life at all.

John Watson, well: he’s the sort of man who knows—always has been.

_______________________________

 

The third week, John spends in a state of sheer fluidity, ambiguity: formlessness and fervent focus. Facts and figures, details flood his mind and distract him, a running backdrop to his daily routine as he returns to the surgery, as he brews tea for two because anything less is unthinkable—as he hums symphonies to himself, only the strings, because that’s the only bit he knows.

The heart of a human adult weighs approximately two-hundred to four-hundred grams (it’s heavy, but not that heavy, and John thinks idly, dramatically, that maybe there’s something extra in his chest for it to feel so full, so leaden; for it to seem like a fucking trial to simply raise up and make himself be, make himself do).

Current research suggests that dream-frequency and intelligence quotient may, in fact, be positively correlated (John thinks he’d like to look into that, if only to prove it wrong, to prove that the smartest man he’s ever known barely slept, barely paused, danced on the edge of oblivion at every moment, and he couldn’t have had time for dreams).

(John wonders what kinds of dreams Sherlock Holmes might have had, though, on those off days, the anomalies: where even the mighty deign to rest.)

Human bone is as strong as granite with regard for its capacity to support weight (and yet the physics of it, momentum and gravity and force and speed and collision: that awful thud-and-crack on the concrete, and Sherlock had never been unbreakable, of course—had never been untouchable, and the doctor who had mended the fissures, the cracks and crevices; the man whose hands had touched and felt the softness, the warmness, the unrelenting humanity that seeped from those pores; John of all people would know it. John knew the feel of those bones, knew the structure and the shape and the jut of them beneath the skin and he knew the twist in his gut when they looked all wrong, from the wrist to the clavicle to those goddamned cheekbones, all skewed and snapped and shifted, impossibly realigned and then painted over red).

A definitive capacity for the human brain remains scientifically elusive, but if the analogy is to be drawn, some liberal estimates suggest one might be able to store upwards of a thousand terabytes of data inside such a hard drive (John doesn’t believe those theories, really, because he believes in the limits of a human being, has always held that you could praise a person for their shortcomings, their restraint as just as well as your could for their strengths. And yet there’s Sherlock, Sherlock whose hard drive needed deleting and yet whose Mind Palace was infinite, and John wonders which was the lie or if the paradox was where the beauty dwelled, if the suspension between two poles was Sherlock at his core, unhinged, and to live in tension between the two was the marvel to be praised, the most honest he could get. John wonders which parts of Sherlock’s life merited saving, which were condemned to removal, wonders how the process of selection became underway; wonders if they remembered the same things, any of the same things—wonders how much of their time together would have been saved, would have found a place in the hallowed halls of the Chateau in Sherlock’s head).

There is a rather vague precision inherent to the phenomenon of rigor mortis; the fact that it sets in somewhere between minutes and hours following time of death (and the stiffness, that eerie stiffness is something that John has never got used to in his profession, his line of work; and then in Sherlock, in Sherlock who tried to be so hard and so rigid, who maybe tried because in truth he was softness, warm flesh that gave beneath a touch and a pulse that surged and met John’s fingertips as he tended a wound or set a break, realigned a dislocation; to feel Sherlock still and stiff and cold was wrong, is wrong, will always be wrong not just for what it means, but at some deeper level of how the universe works, how the world comes together and stays solid without shattering under the weight of all the hurt and rage and loss).

And so John thinks these things over, and over, and over, until his own dreams don’t have room to torment him anymore, until they’re nothing because they’re everything, these memories, these thoughts: over-saturation, excess exposure, desensitisation. Textbook.

John discovers, once again, that textbooks sometimes lie.

_______________________________

The fourth week, John finds the stack of newspapers.

Apparently, they were always being delivered—a failing of both sight and observation, on John’s part—from all over the world, in more languages than John could figure, small ones and thick ones, broadsheets and tabloids alike. Mrs. Hudson had been stacking them in Sherlock’s room—not binning them; sentiment—but she’d missed one, this one, the pile of them on the doorstep as he undoes the lock, at least thirty different publications, and something intangible tells him to pick them up, to take them, to know them and ponder them: a memorial, a remembrance, a way to get him through the day.

So he does it, he reads the newspapers when they come, all of them—or else, all the ones he can recognise to any limited degree. He’d only ever bothered to read the national publications, before; had never noticed the bylines traced in letters he recognised alongside characters he couldn’t parse, unfamiliar amalgamations, left-to-right and right-to-left alike.

He wonders if that ink had ever betrayed itself on Sherlock’s hand, if foreign letters had stuck to his skin and screamed to John to look and see and know just this thing, this one little thing that, like all of the little things about that larger-than-life man, would be like gold, like water in a desert and shelter from a storm. He wonders if he’d simply learned to heed the call too late.

Far too late.

So he reads them, and looks for crimes, for clues and patterns, steeps himself in the familiar. He smiles to himself, the nausea in his stomach somehow tightening, deepening even as it eases, and he can almost see the upturn of those lips, that mouth; can almost hear a breath that’s not his own in the empty rooms of the flat when he double-takes, when he ponders loose ends and vagaries, when he digs deeper even to find nothing of note. It’s the routine, the practise of it, the circling of words and the underlining of titles, the scouring of obituaries and the connecting of dots. It feels like home and safety and the closest he’s allowed to order, to peace in this post-war world where nothing’s the right way up and he’s going to go with that, because he’s tired of feeling dizzy all the time, like the blood’s rushing to his head; tired of feel disoriented on top of feeling gutted.

It’s an elaborate, maladaptive coping mechanism, John knows this. But it is something, and really: John’s got no right to be picky.

_______________________________

The truth is that the pity doesn’t surprise him, when he emerges enough from the haze to recognise it for what it is, for how it twists in the gazes, the stares of everyone—everyone, from strangers to friends to own fucking sister, they stare at him with that watery sort of guilt, degrading: they look at him like he’s mad, deluded, lost, and he is, possibly, he knows that, but it’s not new. Any man would have to be a bit bonkers to follow Sherlock Holmes about, to live with him. A person would have to be deluded to believe in miracles from even the most amazing of men—a mortal, finite, human being, as blissfully, brilliantly brokenly human as they come—but damn it all, there’s a part of him that still hopes.

And true, he’d found something at 221B, in London again, and yes, in Sherlock—he’d been shockingly and blissfully and recklessly anchored for a time there, in him—but the hard fact is that John’s no stranger to being lost.

So, true: all of it’s rather unfortunate, heartily tragic and that rot, and it kills him slowly, all slow-motion bullets that shatter and dig into the tissue, deep until they penetrate bone: but the pity stings like salt in the wounds. And all John is anymore is a string of open sores, aching, slowly bleeding out. The pity reminds him, sears it anew against the torn flesh of his soul, as if he needs reminding, as if he could forget. The pity just makes it that much worse.

And then there’s Molly: Molly, who always looks at him like she’s got something she wants to say, just at the edge of her tongue: something timid and tortuous, something dire that she’s holding back, that wants desperately to fall and spill and bleed on impact, and John can tell that it burns, that it would hurt when it came, when it hit. The metaphor’s wretched, of course: makes him taste acid and bile at the back of his throat at times; sets him off laughing until his cheeks are wet and he can’t remember the sun, at others.

He wants to tell Molly, wants to just tell her that it’s fine; that words weren’t meant for this, anyway.

_______________________________

He marks the fifth week by getting into the black sedan that sits outside of Baker Street every day, from dawn to dusk, waiting.

Mycroft doesn’t look at him when he arrives, reads The Post in silence, and John sits, refuses a drink and takes in the patrons, the scenery, the whole fucking show. Old men with tobacco stained fingertips, some drinking water and others something stronger, yet John can read the difference, has learned to see the signs of it in the position of their hands on the glass.

Mycroft turns a page, and John glances, notices a stack of files on the side-table at his right, sandwiched between a foreign paper, Belorusy i rynok—one of the publications John’s collected, that he blinks at guilelessly, utterly lost, at his kitchen table when it arrives every week—and a tattered, aged volume, the title peeling at the spine: Practical Handbook of Bee Culture.

John sighs, shifts in his chair, and almost wishes he’d taken the drink.

_______________________________

The sixth week is when Greg comes to him, at Baker Street, and asks the question that John’s been waiting for.

“What in god’s name are you doing, John?”

John’s staring at an article from the Telgraf Turk, highlighting a line that pops out to him for some reason he can’t entirely pin down just yet as he struggles with the little Turkish-English phrasebook he’d found on one of the bookshelves. He looks up, notices Greg’s eyes on the wall adjacent the windows: the map, the web, the slowly-building mural made of clues to an unknown crime, and John wonders for a moment why it’s strange—strange, because Greg looks befuddled and horrified and then of course, there’s still the pity—when John does this, but perfectly normal for Sherlock.

Oh, well. For Sherlock. Of course.

But the thing is, if it was normal for Sherlock, it swiftly became normal for John as well, and normal, boring: they’re not one and the same, anymore. Normal, for John, is the rush, the absurdity, the humour in the obscene, the endless questioning and the obviousness and the observation and the dull roar that never flags in the background. John’s normal is motion and friction and running and thinking and asking and chasing and risking and danger and the sodding map of the world in the little revelations of words on his fucking wall, thank you kindly.

And he’s lost his balance, and he’s always feeling a little like he’s falling, and if he’s ever going to find his bearings again, if he’s ever going to calculate the proper course—to get over, to get through, to be done, to move forward, to halt momentum and find his answers and seek his truth and stop it all—he needs to find a foothold. He needs to hold a still-point long enough to breathe without the hitch in his lungs, in the flow of his blood.

Just a bit of normal, really. Routine.

That’s what he’s doing.

_______________________________

John’s not sure what sparks it, what drives the impulse—not that he’s sure of much these days, but he wonders if maybe that’s alright, because not being sure leaves room for doubt in even the most certain of scenarios, leaves some space to breathe—but John decides, at the very core of him, beneath and above all intellect and reason: he decides to venture into Sherlock’s room.

It smells less musty than it should, or else, less than John thinks it should. It feels much less like a shrine than he’d feared. He’d been in it enough times, though he’d not put much thought into studying the scenery, into really seeing, let alone trying to observe or deduce. Then, he’d had the genuine article. He was fascinating enough on his own.

John’s throat feels tight, at that thought.

There aren’t any experiments here, aren’t any beakers or flasks, no Bunsen burners, no knives or acids or vials, no bits of human beings, no tissue samples or slides or microscopes or chemical reactions left to peter out; the room is devoid of all these things and yet it feels so intimately like Sherlock that John wants to gasp and laugh and cry at it, wants to savour it and drown inside it, all at once.

There are boxes, though—stacks of things, random papers and such; meticulously organised, barely touched, and maybe that’s what draws John to them, maybe that’s why he slips the lid off and looks in the first place, maybe that’s what leads him to find the things that cut him to the core, to find the secrets that had been so distasteful to Sherlock, that had been kept so close by the man himself.

Sentiment. Buried, and hidden, and brilliant, and blinding.

It’s photographs, mostly, in the first box; photographs, faded, worn: John can see the oils from fingers where the prints were touched, some more than others, but he knows they were looked at, maybe even treasured. Old ones, some tintypes even, people with faces like Sherlock’s, and Mycroft’s, some dead-ringers and others who just share a trait or two. Newer ones, black and white still, or sepia. Modern shots, colours, row upon row, and there’s a method to them, a system, John can tell, but it’s not chronological.

He almost doesn’t want to know the logic; almost just wants to savour the bits of the man he misses more than he can bear.

There might be tears on his face when he finally stands and closes the door—thinks better of it, leaves it open just a crack—but that sort of thing is trivial, so he doesn’t bother to check for certain.

_______________________________

It’s in the middle of week nine that John makes his way to the Diogenes Club once again. Mycroft is skimming a paper called La Voz del Interior, though he folds it quickly when John arrives.

“Doctor Watson,” Mycroft says, and there’s a hesitation that’s uncommon for him, more than the formality of his title, his profession. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” He gestures to the chair across from him, but John intends to be brief.

“It was hard, at first, to see the resemblance,” John says, looks at Mycroft, can’t find Sherlock in the shape of his face or the set of his eyes, not without looking too hard, not without fearing he’s superimposing one face upon another.

“It’s not so much physical, though, is it? More a matter of disposition,” Mycroft stares, silent, his expression tight and tense and yet loose around the jaw; strange. Contradictory. Apropos, given John’s deductions. “You’re both fucking maddening.”

Mycroft tilts his head, parts his lips and takes in air as if he means to speak, but John’s heard enough from this man, John’s not sure what else might be said between them, and he’s not even sure he should be here, saying this, but he is. He is.

“I don’t understand it,” John shakes his head, brushes the back of his hand over his mouth and traces his lips with his fingertips. “Anyone who cared, who gave a toss about the bastard would have hurt when he was gone. And then there’s you. His brother. There’s you, and yet,” John chuckles, then, and it’s a broken, twisted imitation of the sound it’s meant to be.

Your world’s not upside-down,” John leans in, says it, delivers the words like a death sentence, a noose around the neck. “You’ve still got a purpose.”

Mycroft blinks, but his chest rises, falls more quickly, more shallow. His throat works under his collar and John sighs out a laugh again, though this one’s cutting, sardonic: like venom off his tongue.

Maddening.”

He realises, then, as he’s walking out, that hatred isn’t what he feels for Mycroft Holmes. He doesn’t know what it is he does feel, exactly, but he knows that hatred’s the wrong word entirely.

_______________________________

On his way to work, John walks past Barts every day. He could change his route, but he doesn’t.

Part of it’s penance, he figures. Part of it is a sort of self-flagellation that’s more effective, that hurts harder than anything he could literally do to his flesh. He can see the crime scene vividly in his mind’s eye, as if it had never been cleared; he can see it, and it stings too much to try and observe for too long. The ringing in his ears, the ache from his own impact with the ground comes back, seeps in like muscle memory, subconscious associations as he tastes the air and picks up salt and iron, the scent of blood.

Another part is curiosity. All sorts. The need to see from all the angles, to have that picture in his head of his own heart breaking, wanting to watch the ventricles comes undone from all sides, the need to know. The need to feel it, to not forget—as if that were possible, as if it could happen, ever; like it’s a danger at all. The need to see if there’s another part of the trick, the part when what disappears gets returned again, no worse for wear. The need to be sure that this all hasn’t been a vivid nightmare, a hallucination from Baskerville, some bad sugar in his coffee.

But there’s something else, as well: something nagging and insistent that makes John keep walking past, makes him go that way, that beats his heart into submission every morning, every day; makes him sit there on a bench and do the daily crossword, just down a bit from that fateful point of impact. It’s as if something’s telling him that he’s missing the point, that he’s got all the signals but he’s looked past the sign. It’s amorphous, may not even be real, but it’s there, and it drives his steps and directs his motions more than he’s really comfortable with, but the fact remains.

The fact remains, and he walks that path, unending.

He needs a fucking ending.

_______________________________

The fifteenth week is when he stops counting the days, because the passage of time feels strangely, vibrantly irrelevant. There’s before, and there’s the whole stretch of after leading up to the finish, culminating in only thing left for John to do here, now, in this brave new world where it’s just him, where there’s no one else to blaze a path or follow the trails, to play the game or piece together the puzzles, to drink the tea and dissect the bodies and mourn and laugh and live, and John’s just a man, one man, and he can’t do all of those things on his own. He doesn’t know how.

And, to be honest, most days it feels as if failing to do all of those things—those crucial, necessary things—it feels as if failing makes doing any one of them pointless.

There’s before, and there’s inevitability, and they’re all tied up inside each other, knots in the gut and the chest and the soul, all fucking tangled until there’s no separating one from the next, until the now poisons the then, and what was begins to colour the promise, the resolve of what’s to come.

It gets better—imperceptibly so, just that little bit easier to breathe in, if not out—when John stops marking time and just does, just plans, just is.

Until he isn’t.

_______________________________

He’s staring at the wall, staring at newspaper clippings—ones he’d tacked up, and ones he hadn’t the heart to tear down, which makes his head hurt for the confusion it breeds, and his chest ache for feeling—and post-its and bullet holes and acid burns in the plaster board and memories painted on the wallpaper when he hears the creak of the stairs, the cadence of steps, and he knows before the click of the heels resounds who it is that’s come to visit.

Mrs. Hudson’s delicate, eases her way into the flat without a knock, and John hears in the way that she breathes that she’s hesitant, apprehensive.

John suddenly realises that he hasn’t slept in more than three days. It’s entirely possible that he hasn’t moved in almost twelve hours.

He’s not hungry, or thirsty. He’s not tired. The bits of information, the little scraps of data, everything, the scribbles he’s made on paper and the mess of word documents on his laptop: all of the thoughts and ideas seem to flow differently, seem to spring up and swirl in the air before him, rearranging themselves in odd patterns, searching for an optimum fit, a way to make it all come together, to give him an answer and a bearing and a reason and a fucking prayer for anything, for the future or the present or, perhaps preferably, the end. It might be dehydration, exhaustion, or maybe a stroke of real genius, but John thinks maybe he gets it, maybe he understands some of the unthinkable things his flatmate has done, his best friend had been. Maybe he understands.

And that had been the point of it, really.

“John,” Mrs. Hudson ventures, and John blinks; the words are tossed into the melee of his thoughts, tied up in the trail, the breadcrumbs, burnt and raw alike, and it takes a moment for John to incline his head—not to look, but to indicate some scrap of attention that was better than no scrap at all.

“Are you,” she steps forward, looks at him carefully, critically, and he wonders if she sees the wheels turning, the parts coalescing, the obvious revealing itself behind John’s eyes because there were never questions, really, and John realises suddenly that if the choice had been offered before he’d taken to playing detective as if he had the foggiest clue what the hell he was doing, before he’d started mimicking so well that he’d begun to become—well, the answer would have been the same.

This conclusion, in essence, was a long time in coming.

“Are you alright, love?”

And John breathes, for the first time, without any pain, without any pressure on his lungs. There’s a vindication that’s taken place here: an ache released in the process of doing and being and steeping himself in what he knows in order to navigate the unknowable, thinking so that he can survive the unthinkable, only to find out that there are no unthinkable things, and he was never meant to merely survive.

“You know,” John blinks, exhales—filled with moonlight and the thrill of cornering a kill, giddy with an end that’s eluded him too long, that’s on the horizon now, within John’s reach. “I think I am.”

He is. He hasn’t felt this right since, well—not since. Because there’s a resolve in him, there’s a decision and a knowledge and a certainty in the marrow of his bones that he’s doing the right thing, that he knows himself well enough to understand that this is true, this is fact, this is the correct course, the only course left; that it’s high time to end this farce, this half-life he’s been leading, keeping the loss at bay just to stumble through survival without ever feeling truly whole. It’s selfish, maybe. It’s madness, possibly. It’s extreme, most definitely. It’s foolish, perhaps.

But it’s right.

It’s right, and it’s fine. It’s all fine and strangely, morbidly—fucked entirely, like giggling at a crime scene and eating breakfast next to a severed head or a hanging mannequin, and damn it all to hell if John doesn’t miss it like a goddamned limb—it’s the only thing left. Last move in the game.

He’s sure of it.

_______________________________

He puts his affairs in order, makes sure everything’s arranged and taken care of, as best he can. John does this, because he knows what it feels like to be left out in the cold, to be blindsided and bereft and left with the pieces in your lap, ready to cut everything open each time you try to move, try to breathe, try to think. John wouldn’t wish that on his second-worst enemy.

The worst enemy, though—the first-worst; he’d have sent that bastard to a hell worse than this in a heartbeat, if he’d ever been given the chance.

It’s not hard to sort, really; not like he’s never pondered it before, planned it out in his head when the days were dark. He’s got a foundation to spring from, tucked in a drawer in a flat he left a lifetime ago, with a long-forgotten cane and the kinds of aches that seem meaningless, now; the kind that seem foolish to have ever lamented or bemoaned, because they were the simple wounds—the easy hurts, really.

But he knows how to arrange it so that he causes the least pain for the fewest people, and so the harm that is inflicted, unavoidably, won’t be known, won’t be felt or seen until it’s already too late. He plans it out so that there’s no fuss, no questions, no mess. He’s meticulous. He’s seen enough deaths to know how to keep his own from going pear-shaped.

He can control this much, at least. He can have this one last say.

Of course, he knows how he’ll do it. Quiet. Simple. Effective. That’s always been the easy part. His particular means were learned in the desert; the catalyst uncovered in that faraway land: fruit of the coarse soil, that unforgiving sand. A devilish secret from that place he almost misses now, the last real danger left in the world, save for staying like this; apart from keeping on this downward trajectory and waiting—not bracing—for collision.

He looks at the vial, ponders it, turns it in the light; breathes in air that’s been starched, bleached in too much sun so that the oxygen in it shrivels, recedes, and his throat, his lungs feel parched.

The colour—mercury against midday sky, not quite anything and yet so many things, so much; the colour of the liquid used to stare at him, used to pierce him to the core.

And sometimes, John knows, God is tragically ironic. Sometimes, losing your sanity is the only way to regain your selfhood. Sometimes, the wound that breaks your spirit is the one that saves your soul.

Sometimes, the universe bleeds a poetic sort of justice from her very pores.

Sometimes, John’s a just sentimental sod, but fuck it. He doesn’t even mind, anymore.

_______________________________

He says goodbye in his way; nothing to arouse suspicion, of course, but he thinks it’s better than a call on his mobile from a fucking rooftop.

To Stamford, he gives his tags. Because Mike knows what they mean, what it means to leave them behind. It’s the closest thing to a letter he’s going to sign off on, to put his name to. He wants to make sure they know who’s handiwork they’re finding, when it’s done.

Sarah, he leaves a letter of resignation, very official-like, on her desk in the morning before she makes it in, held down by a blueberry crumb-cake—her favourite—from the cafe they’d gone to on their very first date.

Lestrade, he gives most of the snippets of cases, real ones, potential bits of evidence among the things that had decorated the walls and had brought John peace and purpose in the tumult while he’d reached his decision and found the end of his road. He doesn’t know if there’s anything worthwhile in the fray, the piles he ties up and leaves for him at NSY, but if there is something, even just a glimpse, he trusts Greg to follow through.

Anderson and Donovan, well: John’s envisioned them tumbling from a roof and oozing viscera on the concrete instead of someone braver—better—far too often for him to ever want to leave either one of them a bloody thing.

Harry; he gives Harry back her phone. Because he understands losing now in a new and fearsome way—understands it in the marrow of his bones and the chambers of his heart—and he thinks that most fences are probably worth mending when the slats are still there, and there’s still life in you yet. There are too many times when that isn’t the case, and there aren’t any more chances, John figures; it’s best not to take the ones you do get and just toss them, out of hand.

Mrs. Hudson, he gets her some soothers that’ll do the job better than whatever street-grade rubbish she’s been taking, and buys her enough tea to last at least a year or two—it’s not sufficient, really, but he’s not sure there’s anything that would be.

For Molly, he leaves a bit of residue from the silver liquid, the compound—The Compound—on a slide he doesn’t clean. She’s a clever girl. It’ll take time—enough, so that it’s far too late to change the past once she realises what he’s done—but he knows she’ll see what he can’t say.

John’s wasted too much time on all the things he can’t say. He’s done with it, now.

_______________________________

Twenty-three weeks and three days after—after—he leaves the city in order to finish things; goes where no one will find him, where no one will dig too deep or know too soon: he goes where no one will even think to try and stop him, to halt the momentum of the runaway train that’s taken hold in him, that had been out of control since that day in June when the world turned cold around the edges and the colour seeped away.

Of course he never stopped counting the days. Days were never irrelevant.

So it’s one hundred and sixty-four days after he watched the world end that John Watson leaves it all behind: a Tuesday, monochrome, his own fingers wrapped against his wrist, counting the slowing pace of his pulse until his grasp slackens, slips; until the spaces in between the beats grow long, languid: until they consume the ether and the rhythm gets lost.

One hundred and sixty-four days after everything changes and enough stays the same, John Watson dies with a smile on his face, and there was never any doubt, really.

He was always going to follow that bastard, one way or another.

Chapter Text

But the thing is, you see: John Watson's not an idiot. He can see the signs.

John Watson knows the difference between the improbable and the impossible. He can see inside the space between hope and despair. And John Watson knows when the Game's been won, or lost—when it's over either way—and when there are still moves left to be made before the finish.

John Watson is the kind of man you call when you’re in over your head, when you need something, someone to turn the tide. He’s the man who can keep a level head, a steady hand; the man who holds the ace that brings the house of cards tumbling down. John Watson is the kind of man who you bring in to close the match, to level the playing field.

To win the goddamned war.

_______________________________

It’s likely best to start the story where it rightfully began. John Watson doesn’t much like making assumptions, doesn’t appreciate it being taken for granted that everybody’s on the same page. That everyone understands, and sees the truth buried in among the trifle and the fluff.

So, yes. John Watson believes in starting with beginnings.

When he was in Afghanistan, John befriended a local: a new father barely past twenty with an easy smile and a quick wit. They took a mutual liking to one another, for reasons John still can’t quite fathom, though it’s a recurring theme in his life, isn’t it—finding friends in the most unlikely of souls. There was nothing quantitative to be gained from the connection, though, and John was grateful for it: that calm place in a perpetual storm, out there—the little joys, the minor distractions of friendship, trading words from both their native languages, swapping favours for home-cooked meals from the man’s young wife. It kept him grounded, kept him just this side of sane: holding the baby until he drooled into John’s DPM jacket, trading home-cooked khameerbob for a Yorkie bar from his Rat-Pack, learning how to form his mouth around the unfamiliar diphthongs of a new tongue.

On the whole, he processes his deployment as largely a study in poles, dichotomous experiences of action and monotony, and it all blurs together for the most part: heat and gunfire and the breeze in the sand, his ID tags searing the skin of his chest in the night. But he remembers the raid—recalls that one particular incursion as if it happened yesterday, were happening right now: remembers taking fire from the insurgents at dusk, remembers the feel of his footfalls on unsteady ground and the sting, the graze of a bullet that couldn’t be said to draw blood so much as bead it, single drops shaking free as John ran, returned fire, dotted the ground with red as he pursued, lined the shot, fired. Again and again and again.

When it was over, John looked for his friend, sought out the family: the veiled wife, the young son. He found the wife sobbing, he found the son crying, inconsolable where he was clutched to her chest. And John remembers the pull, the clench in his gut when he saw that blank stare, the pale skin, blood soaked hair clumped at the temple, caked in dirt; John remembers when he realised the simple truth: he’d never learned the man’s name.

_______________________________

 

But that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Men die, widows are made, and the war goes on. John never expected anything less.

What John doesn’t quite expect is to be taken captive ten days later.

He’s not entirely sure if they even want information from him, if they’re planning to interrogate him, or if they’re just putting him through hell for their own twisted amusement. He gets beaten, bloodied; he’s got too many bruises, broken bones to match—the lacerations are getting infected, and he’s rancid with his own dried vomit down the front of what’s left, what’s not been torn or taken of his uniform. He cries out when he can; his throat gets raw quick and he’s feverish, delusional maybe.

They stick him in solitude when he gets bad enough, when he causes enough trouble—sensory deprivation’s actually almost a relief with the way his body’s shaking, the way the marrow in his bones is drying up and rattling, the haze over his pupils a frost that makes any light scatter, psychedelic and confused. He’s a right mess, and he’s only just close enough to consciousness to recognise that fact; his pulse is weak and erratic, that vital muscle trembling at awkward intervals in rhythms he can’t follow through the fog, and he’s lost blood, it’s the desert and he’s freezing, and John knows what’s coming, he’s not a fool.

So when he sees the light flood his universe, take control and drive pins through the soft-spots in his skull, he’s sure that it’s an illusion, a hallucination. He recognises the silhouette that cuts through his failing vision as it approaches, seen as if through broken glass. It’s his friend, the man he’d seen dead at his wife’s feet, who’d left his crying son: a vision, resurrected. Impossible.

It’s getting hard, now, really fucking difficult: it’s getting hard to breathe.

They’ve traded words, phrases, but even if he’d possessed his full mental faculties, John wouldn’t have been able to grasp the terms, the soft mutterings that the man, the ghost before him utters. He wouldn’t understand the meaning behind the whispers, soft and careful as the man kneels, takes John’s pulse beneath the jaw (almost, not quite—close enough to how John had shown him, months ago) and draws him up, smoothes his hair away from his face and stares, searching in John’s eyes for something, and John cannot focus, can’t think, but the spectre sees enough, it seems. He draws back, reaches behind him, fishes for something, and John exhales with some effort. The end’s getting close, he’s sure of it.

It has to be close, now; he’s losing grip, he can’t keep hold.

His friend, his own personal phantom: John sees his motions in fractured bits, speckled in with bouts of blackness. He sees the apparition dipping the tip of his index finger into a jar, something clear coating his skin, vaguely iridescent. He leans over and grasps John’s chin, urges John’s lips open and slides his finger, forces the liquid onto the tip of John’s tongue, down against his bottom gums, across the backs of his teeth once his jaw unclenches and gives up, opens for this small gift, this first drink in days: almost nonexistent and yet perfect, bitter and smooth and unthinkably cold, like nitrogen and dead hearts of stars.

Kha ishtya walare,” his friend says softly. John doesn’t know what those words mean, but he remembers them: smiles and the scent of boiling water and spice. He runs his tongue across his lips, traces the contours of his own mouth and swallows, pants openly like it took all the effort in the world to manage just that, and fuck all, but it nearly did. He’s slipping.

Da,” John makes the movement, shapes the word but there aren’t any sounds. His throat is on fire, his vocal cords stiff and tight, already surrendered, and he tries, he tries and his eyes slip closed, forfeit; he moves his lips and hopes it’s just that his hearing’s abandoned him for the moment, that the words still come when they’re meaningless, when it doesn’t matter at all. “ D-da ceh sh-shi day?

Darmal, comes the answer from the silence, the sluice of his own blood forcing its way, stubborn through drying veins, and John knows that word, the way it bursts forth from the ether like a supernova: medicine.

John wonders what kind of medicine could help him now, here in this cave. John wonders what kind of medicine could sound so sad in his straining ears.

John knows the kind of medicine he’s hoping for; the kind he’s been praying to an absent God to receive for days, now; for weeks.

John begins to shake in earnest, and he can’t stop it; he coughs, his lungs rebelling and contorting, skinned from the inside, the tissue flaking off and searing, acid in his chest.

Qaraar, qaraar,” comes the voice, the hands on his body easing him, restraining him, keeping him close to the ground but John’s losing feeling, losing himself: everything is distant and he watches from afar until the watching, the seeing is lost irretrievably and he can’t even mind it, can’t even regret. The sound of his heartbeat in his ears is deafening, maddening, and there’s something wrong with the rhythm, the cadence; more wrong than it’s been yet, and he knows this, but not why—his mind’s too hazy, his neurones firing languidly at best.

In the end—in the heart-wrenching end, there’s neither darkness nor silence. In the end, there’s no fade into nothingness that ushers him out.

There’s an explosion, there’s fire in his chest and a shout in no voice or language he’s ever known—something elemental, a cry from the universe that rattles in his limbs before he goes limp; that lets his heart shake out the last of its fears before it lies dormant, relieved.

It’s all that, and then static. Sameness. Nothing.

The eye and the end of a storm.

John can’t bring himself to mind.

_______________________________

 

In stringing the clues together and following the scent, John finds that the real truth of the matter is that most people are very easily bought.

There’s an unintelligible map on the wall that, when read, points south, and only John can read it. So he goes north, steals away and finds himself an old country coroner who looks about ready to drop on his own examination table, if John’s being honest. He doesn’t offer much by way of details, mostly just issues instructions, gives orders with the authority of his rank and the soft, persuasive edges he’s honed for years at sickbeds, the kind that make people want to follow through.

He gives an address, a time—four hours off—asks for the body to be found and retrieved, to be left alone in the morgue and kept safe. He asks for the death certificate to be signed per usual, records of a cremation that will not take place to be filed, and no questions to be answered after the fact, should any curious bystanders start poking about.

John slides more money across the table than he makes in a month, and swallows hard, stands firm, and waits for his heart to stop jackhammering at his ribs because no matter how sure he is, no matter how much faith he still has in that godforsaken bastard Sherlock Holmes, this is madness. This is unconscionable and indefensible and just plain absurd. This is invading Afghanistan and running after unwitting Angelenos and dodging the Met and shooting subpar cabbies and giggling at crime scenes and Semtex and hallucinations and sugared-tea hounds and breadcrumbs, and—

This is by far the most sane thing John’s ever done.

The coroner looks him over and shrugs, takes his payments and slips it into his breast pocket, lets the seams of his threadbare shirt strain at his chest with the banknotes, and John nods. He doesn’t trust the man, doesn’t exactly distrust him either. It’s not a gamble, he thinks, that the man will do as he’s asked for the crucial bits of this harebrained idea: John’s fairly confident he’ll be pronounced dead and on his way to the continent within twelve hours, if he’s lucky, and “fairly confident” is actually a fairly good place to be for him, these days.

It’s afterwards that he fears for, but after isn’t quite so important, really.

John just needs enough time to disappear, needs to make it hard enough to figure his plan and follow the leads, difficult enough for even Mycroft to deduce through whichever means he’s deployed to keep tabs on John these days. John just needs enough time to get away, to get to the only place that the clues point toward, the only place that feels right in his gut and the centre of his chest, the place that pulls and makes him think that maybe, maybe, because Sherlock spoke the language sometimes, muttered to himself, to slides beneath his microscope or his rosin as he primed his bow, and John remembers the timbre of that voice, lets it send a shiver up his spine for the barest instant before he nods, and leaves, and knows that it won’t matter as long as he can get away because once it’s done, once he’s gone, once he’s found what he’s looking for and set things to rights, he’ll figure out the rest as he goes.

They’ll figure out the rest, like they always did.

So he goes to the address, and he sits in a chair that smells of rot and stagnation, and he takes out the extract, the poison, the nectar of a plant treated careful, so innocent, shimmering in the lamplight from the street through the dust-caked windowpanes. He breathes, and he prays, once again, one more time—please God, let me live—because he’s got a job to do, a case to solve, and there’s a man out there who is in need of him; who John knows, without question, that he—John Hamish Watson—needs in turn. Rather fiercely.

So, in the end, it’s far easier to fake his own death than John could ever have dreamed.

He swallows the liquid, the darmal, and revels in the slide of it down his throat before the colours dim and he’s lost.

_______________________________

It’s only after the dust settles that John really stops to observe the things he’d only barely seen, only partially processed through trembling fingers and tear-clouded eyes.

John washes his hands raw once he comes around, once he thinks enough to wash anything, to get up from the sofa and move. He washes his hands to get the traces of blood off, to make them warm, to make them feel something other than the numb, ice-coldness of that wrist, that still skin beneath his fingertips where blood no longer pumped, where John couldn’t time the seconds, the endless moments passing by the beat of that violent, vibrant heart. His own flesh is livid, red from the heat of the water, but he still feels frigid, can’t rinse away the touch of that chill.

Algor mortis, when it all starts to coalesce, is the first clue.

_______________________________

After he confronts the elder Holmes, after he relieves some of the building pressure in his chest and allows himself that small, transient space to start parsing what it is he truly thinks about the man, about this amalgam of global power and shadow governance personified and balanced on a brolly—once the ether starts to clear and there’s an identifiable aim to the task of breathing once again, John makes a point of popping into the Diogenes Club at least twice a week. The absurdity of the tradition is a refuge for him, now; 221B is quiet because it’s bereft, because there’s been loss, but this place is quiet by choice. There’s something empowering in that sense of agency, that capacity to defy the order of things, the inevitable.

And John needs to feel empowered, now. He needs to know that what he holds in his hands and turns over in his mind aren’t just the last gasps of a desperate soul, inconsequential scraps that he’s betting the last of his sanity on. He needs to know that it’s more than wishful thinking when his heart beats harder, shows more life than he’s seen in weeks when he sets the pieces side by side and they come together, almost magnetic. He needs to know this, all these not-random bits; he needs to know that they’re parts of a whole: the only whole that seems to matter, anymore.

But that’s not the only reason he stops in.

Mycroft really only nods at him in passing, like he’s not at all surprised to see him, but then Mycroft rarely seems to be surprised at anything. John wonders if he suspects, if he approves, or if he’s just that unflappable; just that keen on tracking John’s footpaths through the CCTV feeds.

Not that John can really judge anymore, because Mycroft’s not the only one watching, the only one gathering data from the sidelines. John’s picked up a trick or two from the Brothers Holmes, as it so happens, and he’s a crack-shot if the RAMC ever spat one out. His eyes are sharp as daggers. Unveiling.

And those lethal-dagger eyes of his: they tend to focus, surreptitiously, on the typeface emblazoned on the papers Mycroft unfolds to the centre, to a few pages aft. Never the first pages. Always the back.

And it’s not just The Post, see, or even The Times. Mycroft reads more than just the London papers. But it’s not merely a smattering of foreign press, either, not just a random survey: not just Córdoban publications or Belorussian business weeklies. They’re from everywhere. Nowhere. They’re in languages John’s never seen before, that don’t even look legible now and again. They’re minutiae. They’re wildly significant.

Belarus. England. Argentina.

Then Taloussanomat. Finnish.

And NewsDay. From Zimbabwe. The Georgian rezonansi. Shabab Yemeni.

It’s part-whim, part-intuition, and partly a maddening, untenable belief that the universe adds up in the end, sometimes, a faith that he can’t seem to kill: it’s all of these things and none of them and more that lead him to look more closely at the papers, the stacks that land on the doorstep every morning and start recognising lines, logos; to start matching images behind his eyes to print in black and white and start looking for something more instrumental than simple crimes, more earth-shattering than mere illegality.

Something that could change the world and shock even the deadest hearts back into beating.

And he doesn’t have to concentrate to see the signs, to maximise his visual memory or whatnot. The suggestion that the average human memory on visual matters is only sixty-something percent accurate is absolute rubbish, John knows; doesn’t count for a bloody thing when it comes to things that really matter, because John sees some things, some unseeable, heart-rending, world-crushing things with one-hundred percent clarity in his nightmares, his waking dreams. He knows.

And he sees, too—sees with a sudden perfect clarity in the newsprint, on the paper: this is the lynchpin, the opening gambit.

John had accepted the challenge long before he’d even seen the board.

He assumed that Sherlock had them all delivered, had received the papers for some reason apart from the Fall, the End: John’s had quite the ample bit of time to ponder what happened, how it all peaked and shattered, and he doesn’t think that Sherlock knew it was coming, not for certain, not so far in advance. He knew the potential was there, and perhaps he moved the pieces to protect what he could, but too many pawns were sacrificed for it to have been a real, solid plan. It was makeshift. It was cobblestone, shaky: riddled with holes.

John wonders, now, if he’d have been able to pick any of it apart if Sherlock’d actually had the time, the foresight, the unthinkable cognisance of his own finitude, his own unshirkable mortality: he wonders if he’d have been able to figure it out, to so much as suspect in the end, if he’d been up against the true extent of that improbable genius, that deft and dexterous mind.

But he doesn’t waste much time with the wondering. He’s wasted enough time as it is.

Because it’s obvious, when the data is in front of him, when he pieces that were always there rearrange and reveal something new. Because it’s a sequence. Alphabetical, geographical, intricate, subtle. There is a sequence.

If John’s learned anything from this business, from any of it, it’s that there’s rarely a sequence in this world that doesn’t mean something.

And John knows he’s only seeing the first layer, the idiot’s sign. There’s more. There has to be.

And because they were Sherlock’s—because they were delivered to a Mr. Sherlock Holmes and John couldn’t bear to part with so much as the anaemic, soulless typeface spelling out that name, that perfect, painful, infuriating name belonging to the sort of man who could swap the poles of the globe and turn everything on its head like it was made to be that way, like the rush of your blood in the wrong direction and the shift of gravity and the extra pressure lingering in your chest, the lightheadedness, the disorientation—like it’s all fine, because you were upside-down anyway, before a madman grabbed you and sent you racing back to rights.

Because they belonged to Sherlock, by rights, John never tossed any of the papers. Not a single one.

John knows where to go to start drawing back those layers, and he’s taken gross anatomy. John can peel back the epidermis, the dermis, can slice through the subcutis down to the veins, the arterial pathways so as to reveal the heart.

Here, and now: John will reveal the heart.

_______________________________

In the desert, he wakes up, and he knows. He knows before anyone else tells him.

This isn’t death. This isn’t heaven, or hell. It’s calm. Quiet. Hot. Rough. There’s sand in the wind. There’s the smell of mud, of green, of bogs and stagnant water, rancid thrush on the gusts that catch his sweat-soaked hair.

This is the same goddamned nightmare, the same casting of the die in every moment before a bullet came to break him and his time would finally be up. This is more of the same.

John sighs, and doesn’t know whether or not to be grateful.

_______________________________

In the morgue, in a strange town where the air taste different, settles wrong inside his lungs, he wakes up, alone; naked beneath a sheet. He blinks. He breathes. He grins.

John gets dressed, tucks his gun into the waist of his jeans, and he doesn’t look back.

_______________________________

Like clockwork—like a madman breathing soot and grasping desperate at the very end of everything, John goes through the papers. All of them. He orders each publication and reorders them and reads them front to back more times than he can count. None of it makes sense, really, but he begins to pick up on things, little aberrations, works on figuring and pondering and parsing out the inexplicable.

He wonders if he’s lost it, if he’s gone off his rocker, more times than is likely acceptable by any generally-accepted standards of normality, but he left “normal” behind when he took the room and moved in to 221B, didn’t he? And he isn’t about to start looking back now.

So he pushes onward, tries to make some sense of it all, keeps looking for inroads when he reaches a dead end, and he makes himself remember, forces himself to focus on the fact that that day, that fateful fucking day when he’d watched his best friend fall and felt his heart stop and searched for a pulse that couldn’t be found, he fixates on the simple fact that those fingers, curled up like that: it was as if they’d been dead for hours, like they’d been still for far too long.

Rigor mortis is the second clue.

_______________________________

Bone structure, coupled with the fact that John had always observed better than people gave him credit for: that’s the third clue

Because John did observe, and he observed Sherlock better than any being in the whole sodding cosmos—living or dead or a bit of both, even, if there’s a need to get technical.

John figures, though, that something so obvious would speak all on its own.

And John can blame a lot of things on wishful thinking, desperation; on being a little bit heartbroken and a little bit soul-sick. He can maybe blame the coolness, the stiffness on shock.

But there’s an angle, there’s a way that light plays off of those goddamned cheekbones that John would know anywhere; a way that liquid, regardless of its viscosity, traces the planes of that face: raindrops and water from showers, mild corrosives from experiments gone awry, falsified tears to coerce witnesses and suspects alike. And the blood on that face spilled in all the wrong ways.

Those cheekbones weren’t Sherlock’s. And John would fucking know.

_______________________________

John doesn’t remember much of being shot, to be honest. He’ll throw vague recollections out to the doctors, to the therapists who try to tell him how he’s feeling and what he’s fit to do, but the god’s-honest truth is that the impact, the injury—the process of being invalided home and deemed obsolete—is mostly a blur. The human mind’s a tricky thing, though. It doesn’t like to grasp at the thoughts that make it numb, or worse, that sear within the gyri and the sulci; that burn inside the folds of grey.

It’s not important to remember the bullet, really; John’s perspective had changed after captivity, after seeing the light and the dark and the dark and the light, after leaving and coming back. He’d faced death and fooled the enemy and fooled himself, and made a strange sort of peace with what lies beyond in those moments. The bullet didn’t matter so much after he’d swallowed the liquid that ended everything just to start it all again.

And that liquid, that elixir; he remembers that like a beacon in the dark, the shine of it, the taste and texture, the burn, and before he can attach the memory, the colour to some wild, boundless, depthless eyes, he remembers it because it wasn’t just darmal, it was nectar and ambrosia, it was curses and the selling of souls; it was tears and blessings and gifts and loss—Romeo and Juliet, the mystical, impossible thing that mimics ends where none exist, that fakes and cheats the Great Equaliser, the Grim Reaper himself.

His friend—Ghairat, he learns: brave as his name, and that’s another thing he won’t forget: the man who saved him and damned him and fed him poison to keep his soul— Ghairat is there when he wakes, smiles at him, eases him back to his bearings as he shakes lassitude and quietus from his aching, broken limbs; waits for it to lift from his mind before he asks questions, before he even tries to process the inconceivable.

But Ghairat is patient, lets John prod at him a bit, lets John try to puzzle out his existence despite John’s memories of Ghairat’s corpse. He shows John the shoots, the leaves of the plant that the extract comes from, that iridescent solution: native to this place alone and hidden, feared and revered—it’s a secret passed down bloodlines and kept in the shadows of trees, in the hollows of the mountains themselves, writ in the rock where the roots take hold, where they thrive in the dark. He hears the stories, myths of miracles, accidents of early medicine and tribal pharmacology, tales of resurrection and deceit and the thwarting of enemies, the close calls and of living to fight another day by feigning demise. He learns how death can be a matter of perspective, sometimes, a matter of one moment to the next, and that if a head is pressed to the chest in silence, a shrewd ear can parse the difference, but no other.

A ruthless, incredible magic trick, if John ever saw one.

It’s Sherlock’s words that rekindle the memory, and really, once he coaxes meaning from each of the clues; once the truth emerges from the pieces and the parts, John doesn’t have to ponder the hows. Only the whens, and the wheres. He doesn’t quite understand the chemistry of it, and perhaps it’s reckless, as a physician, as a responsible human being, maybe, to risk it all to chance, to take the plunge and trust in the unknown things of this world, the mysteries in the night, but John doesn’t care. He knows the truth, has known forever now and he can’t believe he’d forgotten, let his mind go numb for so long with needless, endless, leaden-loving grief.

Because John knows that it’s not impossible to cheat death.

And once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.

Must be.

And it wasn't just the trauma, or the impact, or the light. The cheekbones wearing red weren’t sharp enough. The colour of those sightless eyes didn’t match quite right. The >feel of him was far too stiff. The body was much too cold.

So John doesn’t waste time, doesn’t spend much energy thinking on the how, once he’s made up his mind to believe. The when takes too long for his comfort—too long for his sanity and the tightness between his ribs; and the where is simply as far away as he can get. He makes his plan, and takes his leave, and sends the devil his regards in the doing.

The why of it all, of course, was never in doubt to begin with.

_______________________________

The train affords him more anonymity than flying would, these days especially. He books a seat on the first Eurostar out of St Pancras, and he feels guilty for pickpocketing the coroner, for using the old man’s bank card for the ticket, but there are worse things he could have done; worse things he has done, to be sure—that he may yet do when he gets to where he’s going: when he finds the part of himself that’s been missing for far too long and slips it back into place—once he sees how well it fits, how worn its become while it was away.

There are worse things he’ll do, if he’s not whole upon returning. Much worse.

He slipped an extra fifty quid into the man’s desk drawer before he left, either way; he hopes that’ll do.

The chair he’s in is uncomfortable, and the food he buys is unsatisfying (as train meals always are). It settles like ice, like lead in his stomach so he doesn’t finish it; can only stare out the window at the darkness as they pass beneath the Channel, thinking of possibilities and desperation and what if he’s wrong, and what if there’s nothing, and what if Sherlock’s really buried where his grave hits the ground, and what of all the words he hasn’t said, hasn’t owned amidst the few he’s been able to grind out to that burnished headstone—what of the unthinkable, the probable, the believable and the rational and Jesus, Jesus, he can’t.

John thinks of words, the last words. Their last words, said face to face or over a phone line, and the syllables taste sour on John’s tongue either way.

Fuck, but John can’t be wrong.

Because... because yes, yes: friends protect people.

But love really is the most vicious of all motivators; it does more than just protect.

Love consumes. Love obscures. Love open doors and lifts curtains and lets in the light so you can see. Love drives and grips and won’t let go. Love will strangle you, throttle you, cut off the circulation and close off all the air if you don’t keep watch, if you don’t recognise the power that it holds.

Love will kill—even its own self—in order to save the beloved.

Love takes all prisoners, love levels all barriers, love ravages walls and hearts and souls alike. Love doesn’t just protect, it turns out.

Love does something else, entirely.

The only trace John leaves when he departs is the shape of his cheek, damp against the glass of the window at his seat.

Chapter Text

The hotel outside Paris is small, a bit of a hole in the wall that smells of curry and the vilest kind of refuse mingling awkwardly, pungently with the bleach from the linens. It’s the kind of place where questions aren’t asked because answers aren’t wanted. It costs him €70 for the night. He thinks of Baker Street: of leftovers from Indian takeaway, the stench of something decomposing in the kitchen, near the stove; of the Cif he’d used to scour the sink, to get the dried bits of rodent entrails off of the basin.

John doesn’t sleep, that night.

He grabs for the copy of La Croix that he’d picked up on the way in, because that’s the paper Sherlock’s cipher pointed toward, the only one that fit his maddening fucking code—some bastardised, absolutely obscene incarnation of a Nihilist cipher, or close enough to it, which took John longer to parse than he cared to admit.

Frankly, his first attempts at making sense of it had yielded nothing more than a great lob of nonsense: everything from “anvil permeate fetter son lopsided vents arcane” to “whittle marmite detroit season waistcoat armistice fibonacci”—but he’s cracked it, finally; of course he has, because John’s keen, and Sherlock’s trained him like Pavlov’s fucking dog to look for the patterns that crop up inside the chaos, little inconsistencies that every brushstroke leaves in the painting of a masterpiece; the thin places in every veil when the breeze blows just so.

His fingertips are smeared with ink, his eyes burn and his lips are cracked at the corners as he licks them, idle; reads the same article twice through without absorbing, without processing a single line of it. He can’t even pick out a word to latch onto, to anchor on and hold.

So he goes through the evidence instead, runs it all over in his head: the mountains of research and documentation, the bits and pieces shoved together into some shoddy excuse for coherency because John needed, John had to find answers and when he started to, when the picture began to come together and sharpen into focus, something in him had blossomed and snapped all at once, and the world had turned bright and unsteady, and he’d torn through newsprint and textbooks and websites and files like a lunatic, like a fiend, like a detective hellbent on the truth.

Like a consulting detective, one who’d taught him all too well.

So yes, he’d figured out the pattern of the newspapers, thanks to the deliveries, and Mycroft’s reading habits. But that hadn’t been enough, of course, that was just one layer. And anyone who ran with just that layer and thought it revealed anything of consequence would have ended up searching in Oahu.

Sherlock wouldn’t be caught dead in Oahu.

So John skims the pages and looks for what’s really being said, remembers the reversals and the tells and the leads as his eyes flick across the pages. He notes that his own French has improved over the course of following the trails, of piecing together a puzzle that was never meant to be. He’s followed La Croix for weeks, now—the only possible source for the next coded message, the only one that made sense and fit the necessary criteria and didn’t deviate even the slightest bit, that had the precision necessary to be right—and it was in the following of that trail, that uncompromising theme that John came to realise, for certain, that it was finally time for him to act.

Because there’s nothing there, in the paper; nothing printed in the lines of ink. There’s nothing. Not anywhere. And there hasn’t been, for too many days in a row.

And Sherlock wouldn’t, hadn’t disappeared for nothing.

There was a plan, yes. And John had seen it. John usually saw the plan, whether or not he fully understood.

But, as it often did, the plan had gone wrong. It was the only explanation.

Except this time, John hadn’t been there. John couldn’t follow, John wasn’t there to save Sherlock from himself as soon as things got to be too much.

Well, John is going to remedy that. John is going to remedy that as soon as fucking possible.

There are only five locations that make any sense, given the evidence, the codes; given the patterns and the fact that John knows Sherlock, knows pieces of him that the world simply doesn’t. There are five potential scenarios that explain Sherlock’s sudden silence, that John’s narrowed down and hopes like hell are right, are sound, and will yield a breathing, brilliant Sherlock at their end.

He refuses to entertain alternatives.

So John spends the hours left before sunrise thinking, pondering the facts; second-guessing himself less and less, becoming ever more sure as light spreads across the horizon and seeps in through the window.

By the time day truly breaks, he’s narrowed the remaining five locations, the five potentialities that mean everything, now, that he’s risked everything for; by the time the world goes bright again, he’s narrowed the five possibilities further down to three.

_______________________________

The most challenging, mind-numbing bit, probably, is figuring out the damned double-encrypted key.

The impossible lynchpin is discovered by accident, in the most unlikely of places—which is what convinces John, in the end, that it’s the right answer.

The morning is unseasonably cold, and John’s shoulder is stiff. His chest feels heavy, and he’s a little masochistic these days, so he wanders into Sherlock’s room. He wanders, and he pokes about, looks through boxes, starts where he left off the last time he felt like tormenting himself just a bit with the memories, with the dips in the dust on the shelving that still fit the shapes of Sherlock’s fingers.

He reaches for a small box: lighter than the others, and older. Like a keepsake in itself: wooden, carved with care, inlaid with metals and delicate cameos. John swallows bile in his throat even as he smiles, sad; wonders ruefully if it’s from the Vatican, this box.

He opens it to find a small pile of memories, little scraps that don’t mean a thing to John, but are too old to be anything other than dear to whoever saved them. He recognises the newspaper clipping, an obituary for Carl Powers, but then there’s a letter—handwritten, thick paper discoloured with age, signed Mémère—and a death certificate with a name he doesn’t know.

There’s more, though not much, but John doesn’t get to any of it, instead gets caught up on the biggest inconsistency, the brightest red flag he’s stumbled upon thus far. It’s a photograph: old, worn at the edges and bleached, faded where there were colours once, and John can relate to that state, that mode of being—fuck, but he can relate.

He’s not surprised by Sherlock’s photographs anymore, though, he’s not taken aback by the keepsakes; so it’s not the picture in itself that draws John’s attention.

It’s the etchings in the bark of the tree: symbols not entirely unlike the Suzhou (not Hangzhou, which is something he very much wants to mention to Sherlock more than once, because John’s read enough books on sodding fucking ciphers now to know that Sherlock’s terminology was just a bit off, and please, god, please let this be right and let him be alive; let Sherlock Holmes be breathing somewhere John can track him to, somewhere he can find him and punch him and touch him and hold him and feel how indisputably alive he really is before he tells him that he was wrong, he was wrong about what the ciphers were called and wrong about the sugar and wrong about jumping off of a building and leaving John to shatter without anyone to pick up the pieces. He was wrong to think that John wouldn’t believe in him more than he’d ever believed in anything else, in anyone else; if he thought John wouldn’t keep every one of those broken bits and find answers in them, if he thought that John would give up, or give in—he was wrong and John needs to tell him that. John needs to hear laughter from him, deep; or indignation, stringent; or something softer and warmer and perhaps a bit choked, from one of them, both of them, he doesn’t know or care but he needs, goddamnit);

The symbols in the tree trunks are close but then, at the same time, nothing quite so logical.

It’s, it’s—John tries to think it, tries not to reject it on sight, and the smiles, the radiant smiles from two young faces that simply don’t smile like that anymore: those smiles help.

It’s not a spoken language. It’s not to be found in any book. It’s something born from imagination and intelligence and far too much time, from childish wonderment and the need for adventure. John sees the tail-end of a flag in the image—pirate, skull-and-crossbones—and, yes.

This is something significant. Something secret. Something only they would know, the two of them. Something only they could remember, that only two living souls in the whole bloody universe would have any possible way of knowing, of figuring out. Just the two of them, and that’s what made it safe.

Sentiment, and all that rot.

John takes the photograph and snaps a picture on his phone before replacing it in the box, and replacing the box in the corner it came from, in the closet where it hid. He closes the door to Sherlock’s room, and promptly goes to work.

Thankfully, Sherlock’s collection of books on linguistics only just falls short in quantity to the tomes on cryptology—both of which are outnumbered by the veritable library on beekeeping techniques, which John doesn’t think much on, at first.

Except then John sees the copy of the Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, recognises it from the office Mycroft uses, the one he sometimes invites John to join him in at the Diogenes, where it peeks out from under Mycroft’s chair. And that’s the final piece.

He decrypts the words in the photograph that night: Property of the Brothers Holmes.

And from that moment on, it feels like the sun’s come back, and his shoulders can straighten; like his heart’s been held in a vice-grip for eons and he can feel it filling properly now, finally; can feel it throbbing as it’s meant to for the first time in months.

And it’s too complex, John reasons: the way that the syllables in the papers correspond to the symbols in the photograph, the way they hearken to the book, if he tweaks the words and the phrases and the breaks just so: the pages in the text reveal truths, riddles and puzzles that, once solved, make sense, and not just in a simple, superficial way, but in such ingenious, implicit, remarkable ways, such Sherlockian ways that it makes John’s chest feel far too tight, too small. It’s too intricate, even if parts of it are a bit of a pastiche, thrown together on the fly—John might have been grief-stricken and alone, but he couldn’t have thought all this up on his own.

He just couldn’t.

_______________________________

Sometimes, John wonders what right he has to call himself a healer when his fingers fit better around a trigger than they do around a scalpel. He wonders what it says about the heart of a man, the soul of him, when it’s the weight of a gun against his flesh that brings him the stillest sort of peace he can fathom, that he knows how to hold.

The first location is a dead end, completely impractical for a standoff, even less so for a hostage. And he’s convinced himself of that much, that Sherlock’s been taken prisoner, or been forced underground: both, most likely, and that churns in John’s gut. It’s the most logical answer, though—the most appropriately Sherlock of his options. It makes the most sense: he would have stopped the messages to Mycroft not because he thought it wiser to go off-grid, but because he’d been given no other choice.

Because Sherlock isn’t wise, nor is he subtle. And neither brother could have dreamed that anyone would deduce their system. It wasn’t so grave a risk.

The second location is better, more feasible, but it’s not the right place—John can’t quantify it, but he knows that it’s not. That doesn’t stop him from roughing up a man he finds in the stairwell of the building, doesn’t stop John from pressuring him for information in a choppy combination of English, German, and broken French. John tries to feel guilty for threatening the man, for considering switching the safety off and taking the fruitless interrogation to an uncomfortable level, but he can’t.

He doesn’t know what that means.

_______________________________

The last clue, oddly enough, is one Mycroft Holmes.

And yes, true, it’s less of a clue and more of an impression, a feeling. But John’s got pretty far by going with his gut instincts, and he’s not one to dismiss them out of turn when the stakes are so high.

See, the thing is, Mycroft is a lot like his brother, in certain ways. The demeanour, the presence, the way their minds work. They both like to think they’re above certain human failings, but when the worst comes to knock upon their doors, when all seems lost, even they begin to crack.

Sherlock had cried, truly, in those final moments: in that last call before the end.

Mycroft, though: Mycroft had stood in the back at the funeral, fiddling with his mobile now and again when he thought no one was looking, and his world simply kept turning, largely unchanged.

And Mycroft loves his brother. He worries about him. He’d gone to great, often-disturbing lengths to ensure Sherlock’s overall wellbeing. He tried to save him the pain of the Adler woman’s death, even when he was only half-sure it would have mattered to Sherlock in the slightest. He’d looked genuinely stricken when John had lashed out, had shamed him for arming Moriarty with all the knowledge he’d need to bring Sherlock to his knees, to give him a spectacular fall. They had a secret bloody language, for fuck’s sake. One they both remembered well enough to use in the now.

Mycroft loves his brother. And if his brother had really met his end that day on the pavement outside Barts, Mycroft Holmes—stiff upper lip be damned—couldn’t have spent the memorial poking at his phone. Mycroft Holmes wouldn’t have been able to pick back up and fly to Chechnya for some top-secret government business just three hours after Sherlock was lowered into the dirt without so much as a moment, an instant of genuine grief.

Mycroft Holmes’ world would have turned upside-down, for at least a while. He’d have lost his purpose for the blink of an eye, if only just.

And he hadn’t. He hadn’t.

That’s what seals it. That’s what makes John sure enough to take the final leap.

_______________________________

John reaches the third location, and he can count the seconds by every double-beat of his heart, can feel adrenaline narrowing his world and sharpening his senses. This is the place.

It has to be.

He climbs the stairs, silent, stealthy; he knows this, knows how to balance his weight and land on his feet so as to remain unnoticed, unseen. He waits for a sound—holds his breath against his own will and hears the crack of skin on skin at high velocities, maybe of bone, and something in him shifts: darkness encroaches on the edges of his vision, and he feels a singular purpose rush through his veins. He climbs another flight of steps, ascending toward the sound and then he pauses, waits, surveys his surroundings before he makes it onto the next floor.

He takes out the sentries at the door in two fluid motions, sending them both down hard, one after the other. Their falls are softened, rendered nigh-undetectable by John’s quick reflexes as he balances one on the railing, letting him slip at an incline to sprawl against the stairs, and catches the other against his shin before unconsciousness takes over and the man slumps the rest of the way down to the floor. Child’s play.

John positions himself at the door, listens closely and peers in through the small window cut in the wood, makes himself unnoticeable except at the most opportune angle; tries to obscure himself from sight the best he can. His breath is coming fast, anticipatory, and he’s watching as someone paces, back and forth, eyes trained down, and there’s a tug in his chest that tells him, that leads him to be a little bit reckless: that makes him move until he can see the man tied against a chair, below eye-level, bloodied and a bit too limp. Pale skin, dark curls, and eyes.

Those fucking eyes, even through the glass, even at a distance, even in the paltry light. Those eyes.

John lines up the shot to take the bastard down, and exhales, prepares to fire as soon as the moment presents itself. He follows the pacing. He waits.

And he starts a bit—not outwardly, but he’s shaken inside—when the man moves, when he leans forward and takes Sherlock’s face, his chin between his fingers and strikes him, hard. He watches—horrified, vengeful, filled with wrath and fear all at once as Sherlock slumps, as the chair teeters with the force of the blow and goes down, and the man, the kidnapper, the evil fucking bastard who’s got Sherlock on the floor: he evades John’s sight for too many moments.

Tactically, it might not be sound, but John doesn’t care, not now, not when he’s come this far and Sherlock’s eyes are open and alive on the ground, with the blood, his blood, and John’s so close; not now.

Not anymore.

So heart pounding, breath sharp, John bursts through the door, and meets chaos.

The room itself is larger than John could have guessed from the window, wider, and there are more people in the room than he’d planned for—ten, by his count, but the lighting is dim at best; he can’t be sure.

John watches Sherlock rise, never sees him turn as he moves to take out the opposition, and John jumps to do the same, to cover Sherlock’s flank and watch his back. It’s dark enough that he can see the laser sights dancing, disorienting, and John tightens his grip on his gun, fires at anyone who isn’t Sherlock, the targets that he’s certain are too short, the wrong physical type—there are few he’s unsure of in the melee, and he leaves them go, refuses to take the risk.

Soon though, the lines of red begin to disappear, grow fewer, and John’s eyes adjust to the low light in time to see Sherlock wrestling a thick-armed man to the floor and then springing up to catch the next assailant around the neck with the ropes binding his wrists.

John feels the first wellsprings of real, uncontainable joy start to burst inside his chest but he ignores them, contains them until they survive this, until they can make eye-contact and breathe, because John’s not even sure that Sherlock’s seen him yet, that Sherlock even knows exactly who has come to find him, to rescue him and give him an earful for being a first-class moron.

John shoots one, two, three of them down—two men and a woman as they charge, their own guns trained on him but he’s faster, he knows this rhythm and his muscles remember it: his finger is quicker on the trigger. They all go down and John spins to see who’s left when he’s stopped, gets caught by the eyes fixed upon him, unblinking from across the room.

Sherlock sees him, now.

And John, for a moment, is caught in the gaze, in the way that Sherlock’s body stops, all that kinetic energy arrested and Sherlock is trembling, his lips are parted and his face looks somehow blank and wrecked all at once, as if he’s simultaneously empty and overfull. John can see Sherlock’s pulse tapping at the throat, even across the distance, and John feels a burn at the back of his eyes as he looks at Sherlock, really looks and sees the feeling caught up in that grey-blue gaze, lets it wash over him for an instant that John knows they can’t afford, but he can’t break away from it. Not yet.

He curses that choice, that stupid indulgence when he sees a flash of red jerk back to Sherlock’s heaving chest.

It’s without hesitation, but not without thought that John lunges, pushes Sherlock straight to the ground and feels the impact of their bodies before the impact of the bullet as it rips through him from the back, followed by the force of gravity dragging them both to the floor.

Because John’s thought about this before. The way they live, the things they do: he’s had to, couldn’t help it. But he’s always known what he would do, from that night at the pool to now. He’s thought about it often, and the answer is always the same: inevitable.

He’d take a hundred bullets for Sherlock Holmes, if it would keep breath in that madman’s lungs; if it kept life in his body just a minute longer, just a second more.

And there’s pain as he falls, and a little fear, and relief tangled up in both; and then Sherlock’s got hands on him, and the agony of movement is unbearable as he flips John over and onto his back, and there’s a roar that deafens everything, all things, even as Sherlock’s lips are moving, working, and his breath is hot on John’s skin though he can’t hear any voice, any sound above the rush of blood in his ears.

Sherlock’s wide eyes are staring—burned into John’s retinas as the hurt overwhelms him and his own eyes slide closed—and then it’s lost, just an echo and then nothing as John exhales, slow, and feels the world slip from his grasp.

The last thing John knows before the end is that, even if this is what came of it, he’s glad he stopped to look at Sherlock.

He’s glad that Sherlock is the last thing he ever got to see.

Chapter Text

Waking is a bit difficult.

Wait, no, scratch that: it’s a fucking ordeal, actually—his eyelids are heavy and his limbs weighed down like lead. He’s exhausted and hopelessly weak, his muscles overtaxed and his ligaments fraying when he tries and fails to move. He retreats from the challenge, ponders crawling back to the dark for a spell, but then he hears it, trailing in slow, subtle: that deep rumble that catches up in the squeeze of his heart, twists in the semilunar valves and vibrates, trills before systole, before it flushes through him and sears outward from the chest to the limbs, head to toe.

It’s faint, but he feels it, and he can’t pull back when it’s wrapping around him, gripping tight, refusing to give way.

I‘m sorry, it whispers, trembles; John, please, I, and then it fades off, but the burn’s still there, livid in John’s blood.

Forgive me, it comes again, and John exhales, feels his eyelashes fluttering, feels his throat scratch as he tries to lower his jaw, tries to open his mouth; as he makes the attempt to take in air between his lips and stretch his vocal cords against the haze of intravenous painkillers and quite possibly sedatives, if John’s properly recognising the cottony feeling in his head and behind his tongue.

“Forgive me, John,” and John’s close to the surface now, nearing the precipice. He can feel the weight of a hand in his, of rough fingers pressing, stroking ever-so-slightly against the veins of his wrist, tracing bone, and John feels something shiver at the centre of him, fault lines drawn from the clavicle across the sternum, all the way down.

His eyes open of their own accord: they have to see, have to place the final piece and make sense, make certain it wasn’t all a dream, a delusion; they need to make sure, of everything. He has to separate fact from fiction once and for all and breathe again like he’s meant to, like he relishes life rather than tolerates it, or worse: resents.

It takes a moment for him to focus, but then there’s the hair, the eyes—hooded, downturned and a bit red-rimmed, but the right colour; and the cheekbones, at just the right angle as they catch the lights, and the jaw that tightens, that shifts the orientation of that face in small ways that no one would notice, save John.

And then there’s the man, the whole of him, and Sherlock: he is warm; he’s soft and pliant where his hand wraps around John’s palm, and John forgot what the world looked like rightside-up before this moment, when everything shifts suddenly into its proper place and steals the air from John’s lungs, leaves him gasping for half-a-second that alerts Sherlock to his waking.

Sherlock’s own breath catches when he notices the change, when he registers John’s conscious presence—a bit belatedly, it takes him a moment; his whole demeanour is distracted, off-kilter—and he looks lost, so far adrift that John lets fear reign for a moment, terror at things he can’t name, that swim in that distant gaze.

“John,” Sherlock finally exhales, coming back, with John’s name breathy on his lips in a way that John’s never heard before and Sherlock deflates, every part of him unwinding until he slumps, the hand holding onto John clenching minutely while the free hand stutters in midair before it stills, drops, and Sherlock looks away.

“John” he tries once more, clears his throat and it comes out deeper, stronger, more recognisable but it’s a sham, like a boy putting on his father’s suit and trying to fool his friends. Sherlock’s eyes are shivering back and forth, trying too hard to narrow, hypothermic in their sockets as his fingers remain on John’s wrist, glued to the pulse-point.

John notices Sherlock blinking in time with his own pulse, resonant in John’s bones, in his marrow with the pressure of Sherlock’s fingers wrapped against the pump of his blood. He raises an eyebrow in askance.

“Just making sure,” Sherlock confesses—defensive, unsteady—but his grasp doesn’t waver, and that stirs something in John that he thought, that he’d feared might have truly died on that pavement, in that fall six months before.

John nods, inclines his head just a tad, pleased to note that the movement doesn’t cause him any disorientation as he curls his own fingers down toward the heel of Sherlock’s palm, stretching the pads of his fingertips to measure a twin beat beneath that soft, warm, pale wrist: Sherlock’s living flesh.

“Me too,” John says, his voice rough but firm, full to the brim with feeling, choked with it. He watches Sherlock, whose eyes slide closed for a long moment before they snap back open, reckless, desperate, aching as they fix on John, too wild to be seeing anything of consequence, too vivid a blue for John to stare into without the urge to flinch but he won’t, he can’t, there’s nothing for it: in the moment, in the now, that blue and the pulse racing, singing under his fingers—that blue and beat are all there is.

“How are you here?” Sherlock sounds a bit like the men John remembers from the battlefield, the ones who were dying, delusional from blood-loss; the ones who survived, but were too broken to believe.

“Did you really think I wouldn’t pick up a few tricks from you along the way?” John teases gently, wants to put warmth back into those eyes, wants to see them dance, wants to let the life in them erase all the nights John spent with that soulless gaze on the concrete staring up at him, relentless.

John wants, needs those lifeless eyes to be gone.

And John gets life, all right, but not the kind he craves. Sherlock eyes frown, fade, withdraw and his expression drops, and the blue turns bright, fluorescent, and John recognises a tremor when he sees it, when he feels it clasped to his arm like a lifeline, a prayer carved in skin, and Sherlock clings to him like the world’s ending; and John knows that feeling well, but he can’t quite comprehend where Sherlock might have crossed its path.

“No, I,” Sherlock tears out, the sound jagged like it left half of itself behind in the wrenching. “John,” and he trails off, can’t find his mooring, and John can’t bear it, so he clutches tighter to Sherlock’s hand, draws it closer—palm to palm— and threads their fingers together. Sherlock’s neck turns, head jerks, willing away something sinister and false in the ether before he focuses on John, gaze needy, asking, filled with longing and a childlike hope.

“What is it?” John urges him, gently, knows there’s something he’s missing, knows now that he needs the pieces if he’s going to make any more broken things into wholes.

Sherlock gropes, reaches for something behind him: in the pocket of his coat where it hangs askew on the chair he’s folded into, but he doesn’t break John’s gaze. He squeezes John fingertips when he eventually has to look away, mobile in hand, scrolling through menus before extending the device out to John, for him to see.

John’s eyes take a long moment to focus, and he tilts his chin to combat the glare, the strange polarisation of the screen before he sees images, characters that tell a story, that make some sense.

JW dead. No pulse, 10+ min.

John feels time slow precariously around him as he processes what the message says, what it means.

“The Network,” Sherlock forces out by way of explanation: gravelly, like it hurts. “They didn’t know why, didn’t know who they’d be contacting,” and John watches, a bit mesmerised, when Sherlock’s chest expands to accommodate the depth, the full extent of the breath he draws in and sighs out: long, heavy, brittle.

“One of the Irregulars followed you out to Royston. She saw,” Sherlock swallows, the muscles of his throat working hard, and John hadn’t noticed before just how gaunt Sherlock looked, how drawn his features had become: how thin.

“She said she felt,” and John feels his heart clench around the way Sherlock’s voice cracks, the way he blinks too fast, too desperate. John knows how that feels, and there’s something about seeing it, and feeling the echoes that haven’t died against the unrelenting grip of Sherlock’s hand on his own—there’s something about it that takes whatever core of anger, whatever edge of betrayal or comeuppance or requital that had been coating John’s need for this man, and his relief at finding him alive and in one piece; it takes those dark edges and burns them away in an instant.

“She said that you were gone,” Sherlock says it: small, confused, and sad in a way that John can’t quite makes sense of, like it’s too pure an expression of real, honest devastation for him to qualify it any further. It looks shaken, bereft, and Sherlock looks those things by extension, the whole of him, and that’s not right.

Sherlock Holmes isn’t meant to look that way.

“I had to make it convincing,” John makes the move to explain, to justify, and he tamps down the voice in his head that tells him he shouldn’t have to, because friends protect people, and love means sacrifice, and John will be damned if he can’t manage both, here and now: for this man, if for no other.

“You know how it is,” John tries, halfheartedly, perhaps ill-timed, to lighten the mood, even as that memory, that reality still weighs heavy on his heart. He tries, but it snaps something in Sherlock, sets him in motion, opens a floodgate and his lips are moving too fast for his words. He trips over them, uncharacteristically graceless, inarticulate, and his eyes look like they’re about to swallow the rest of him whole.

“They were, he was,” Sherlock stumbles, his breathing shallow. “They were going to kill you, all of you, you, and,” he sucks in a breath that steadies nothing, only takes up room with a sharp hiss. “You and Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and,” he’s breathless, more than John’s ever seen him—more than running across London and chasing criminals and fighting off smugglers and facing down death; Sherlock’s winded, utterly so. “It was my life or yours, and John, it wasn’t, I couldn’t,” and his hand is shaking in John’s, positively seizing, and John can’t take it, he can’t; “I-”

“Sherlock,” he says, with all the soft, exasperated, joyous affection that’s been bubbling in him since he saw Sherlock through that doorway, through that window, tied to a chair; he says it and lets the sentiment linger, soothing and warm between them as he gathers Sherlock’s other hand and folds then both within his grasp. “We’re not done with this,” he starts, serious but not grave; promising a tomorrow for them both, a day that waits for the two of them, together, where they’ll sort out the kinks and make sense of things again.

“We’re not done with talking about this, and what’s on and what isn’t when it comes to you putting me through the goddamned wringer, thinking you were dead, fearing I was going mad with believing that maybe, maybe you were out there.” John says it, holding on to Sherlock tighter with every word because it hurts, it stings to get this out but he needs to, they can’t go any further now without him saying just this much, just this bit, just the truth, because he, because that

“Because that was hell.” And Sherlock’s eyes widen, he straightens, but John follows, leans in just enough to draw him back, to keep his hands between John’s where John can feel his heartbeat racing, a hummingbird beneath the skin and John’s not sure, but the thinks he could write a book around that rhythm, maybe build a life around that pulse.

“But we’re here now, and we’re safe,” John assures him, tracing the shapes of Sherlock’s fingernails with the pads of his thumb, stroking from the cuticles to the knuckles, down and back.

“And I’m not leaving you, do you understand?” John tells him. “We do this, whatever this is, whatever you’re after—we finish this together, or not at all.”

And there’s something immoveable, unshakeable in the way he says it that fills him with power, that strains the stitches in his back with the way it expands, the way it lifts him up and reaches out and settles in Sherlock’s eyes with a certain gravitas, a certitude that’s solid, that holds as Sherlock nods, slowly, considered: sure. It’s an understanding that John’s been waiting for, been aching for; that he didn’t realise would bring something in him to its knees the moment he saw it, the moment it was his.

John breathes out slow and closes his eyes for a spell, lets the dust settle; lifts his gaze inside the instant between feeling Sherlock’s right hand slip from their shared hold and the unexpected touch of that same palm to John’s cheek.

“You’re here,” Sherlock whispers, almost marvels. John smiles at him, and gives into the impulse, the unexamined urge to reach up and cover the hand that’s framing his face.

“And not a moment too soon, from the looks of things,” John tells him, the grin clear in his tone. “You shouldn’t have tried to leave me behind, you know.” He leans forward—a fault of gravity—but before he can correct it, Sherlock meets him halfway, hesitant for the lost half of a second before he rests his forehead lightly against John’s.

“I’m the brains of these operations, after all,” John breathes out, feels the heat condense and cool between their mouths and Sherlock doesn’t smile, not exactly, but he looks lighter, somehow; his lips form the shape that follows a long, contented sigh, and John thinks he’ll take that; thinks he’d take that any day.

“You’re alive, and you’re here,” Sherlock says again, voice still scarce, eyes closed.

“Repetition,” John chides him fondly. “That’s dull, isn’t it? Irritating?”

Sherlock’s lips quirk upward, and his breath is warm on John’s cheek when he answers: “Some things are worth saying twice.”

John smiles, and lets himself enjoy the stillness for a moment, lets himself revel in the breath of lungs that he’d feared were damned to dust beneath his feet. It’s a sensation, a revelation that John doesn’t think he deserves: it’s too bright, too aching and brilliant and painful and perfect, and he’s only a doctor, a soldier: he’s just a man who was too goddamned stubborn to accept a loss.

In an instant, unexpected, he’s overwhelmed by all of it, by everything, by the devastation and the resolve, the journey and the destination, by everything and nothing, and he can’t help the laughter that bursts from him, effervescent and badly-timed, but honest and full and grateful like nothing else in the cosmos, like nothing could ever dream of being outside of this one miracle that belonged to John Watson: that his and his alone at which to wonder.

“What?” Sherlock asks, and John glances up to see the question, the first buds of hurt in those eyes and it’s then that he reaches up himself and frames Sherlock’s cheek, lilts his fingertips across those fucking cheekbones and smiles all the wider.

“Nothing,” John shakes his head, truly overcome. “I only realised, I paid that coroner a boatload to keep things quiet, to keep anyone who came poking around well occupied,” he looks at Sherlock’s phone and breathes out one last chuckle, crime-scene giggles coming at him once again. “Lot of good that did.”

Sherlock sobers, and John knows he’s the cause, but he’s not sorry. He’s not sorry that he’s got this back, that he has this and there’s life again in a once-broken body: Sherlock’s, yes, but John’s as well. He won’t apologise for relishing that to the full, however it comes out, whenever it strikes.

He’ll never apologise for this.

“John,” Sherlock says, slowly, meeting John’s eyes and then glancing away, impossibly timid. He takes John’s hand from his cheek and gathers the other, both of John’s in his single palm and he holds them, reverent, before continuing on.

“John, if,” he licks his lips, and John watches the motion of his tongue, its retreat back behind his teeth. “If this is what you,” Sherlock shakes his head, meets John’s eyes and tears them away, stares at their hands together.

“These past months, if this,” Sherlock draws in breath again, halting and unsteady, and his next words, they’re pitched all wrong—keening, on the brink of something treacherous and deep: “then I’m-”

“Shh,” John cuts him off, catches his eyes and makes them stay, lets himself open to the storm in them, the storm in Sherlock, that is Sherlock Holmes and always was, for all that he wanted to hide it, for all that he tried to deny: the cyclone that’s all feeling and no restraint, the place where he’s splintered and can’t patch the break alone, and John holds, they hold and Sherlock settles, calms, and the lines in his palms press at wrong angles against John’s skin, and it’s alright, it’s fine.

It’s all fucking fine, and it always was, and John believed, goddamnit. John believed.

And they’re close. They’re so close, and it’s fine: it’s fine to feel Sherlock’s breath on his skin, to shiver when he exhales. It’s fine that John’s heart is pounding so fiercely that it moves him, shudders through him so as to bring them closer, tightening their orbit, strengthening the magnetic pull between them as they look and they breathe and they exist there, together, alive. It’s so fucking fine, it’s uncanny.

And it’ll be fine, John believes that more than anything else, when Sherlock’s lips meet his. When they connect and collide, when the world lights up in colour, they’ll be fine; more than fine, even; maybe.

Together, though, like this: they can’t possibly be anything less.