It began like a bad movie:
Thunderstorm. Junk yard. Desperate man.
Because John was desperate. He was, apparently, desperate enough to take on a case, after spending the past eight months turning others down as politely as he could. (“I just can’t see things like he does—did. Nobody could. I’m sorry.”)
He was desperate enough that, “Andrew disappeared in a machine and never came back,” sounded interesting. Or maybe: he was desperate enough that if the bloke who’d come in stuttering such an unbelievable tale as he did was telling the truth, and if the same thing happened to John, he’d be relieved: so be it. He could do with some—travel or—whatever it was. Searing pain? Might at least be interesting.
The machine, which had reportedly come back without its operator, looked like something better suited to sizzling, gruesome electrification than what the client had described. He leaned over and shielded the rain from his eyes while holding his torch to the seat to inspect first it and then what appeared to be some sort of clutch beside it. No skin burnt onto anything, then. Well: it was dinged, here and there—a rough landing? Likely it had just been dumped into the place carelessly.
He shone the light along the curved frame of the thing, waiting to find a splatter of blood, a scrap of a t-shirt, anything. He flipped open a small, covered panel just behind where he supposed the driver would sit. Cords swung out of the compartment, all four or five ends joining together just before disappearing into the encased bulk of the machine. Now this was familiar: That end there matched to his phone; this one would easily plug into a wall socket—American, by the look of it—and on the cord beside it, another, proper wall socket. One of the ends was completely unrecognizable, but John wasn’t sure if that was a particularly strange feature of the machine, or just his lack of knowledge on such things showing through. He snapped a photo with his mobile for good measure—maybe someone else would know.
“Well,” he muttered to himself, “let’s give this a try, then.” As his eyes fixed on the screen of his mobile—1:43 AM—he recalled what little information he’d managed to gather from his rattled client, one Brian Teasley, almost exactly twelve hours earlier.
“And do you have any idea what it—the machine—was meant to do?” he’d asked, after Brian had told his story.
Brian had wrung his hands, eyes fixed on one wrist. “Uh, he said—I mean—promise you’ll still look into it for me? It sounds a little…crazy…but I swear I’m not lying.”
What else was there to do? “Yeah. Of course. What did he say it was for?”
“Okay—he said—I’m not making this up—he said—it was a…a time machine.”
“I can see why you added the ‘sounds crazy’ disclaimer,” John smiled a little, scribbling into his notepad. He swallowed past the distinct feeling that his heart had just skipped three beats. When he glanced back up to see Brian’s lip wobbling, he added, “Don’t worry. I promised I’d take a look, didn’t I? Some of our most interesting cases were…” He trailed off and glimpsed back to his pad, pretending to mark down another note. “And where is it now?”
“I dumped it off at this rubbish dump,” he handed over a slip of paper with an address and a number.
“Should’ve left it where it was.”
“In the middle of Andrew’s house?” he huffed. “It’s a good job I was the only one there when it popped in—well, exploded in, more like. I can’t imagine what my girlfriend would’ve done.” He sucked in a breath and sighed it out. “I didn’t know what it’d do. What if it blew up, eh? I don’t know how it works. I had to get it out. I live there, too, you know.”
“Can you give me that address, then? Might come by and have a look there as well.” John flipped to a new page and handed his notepad to Brian.
Brian nodded, fishing a pen from his pocket and scrawling an address. “Just so you know…I…I didn’t do it. I mean, it probably seems like I just…like I did it, like I…killed him…and made up this weird story, but Andrew was…”
“It’s fine. I’m sure we’ll—I’ll find something.”
“I thought about trying to use it myself, can you believe it? That machine. To see if it worked and…and try to find him or…you know? Sounds pretty stupid, but there you have it…”
John smiled. “I’ll go take a look tonight. Would you like to meet me and come along?”
“No,” Brian shivered. “Too spooky for me, rubbish dumps. Just call me with what you find out, yeah? Or come by,” he nodded to his address on the paper John held. “I’ll be about all day tomorrow.”
And so here he was, in the rubbish dump on his own. John braced himself and plugged in his phone, waiting (probably too hopefully, he thought, and definitely too foolishly) to see the clock tick minutes forward or back like seconds, or hours like minutes…
Instead, his screen went black.
“Stupid—” he grunted, pressing down on the phone’s power button.
Well, that was absurd. He’d charged it just before coming, in case this took an inordinate amount of time or an inordinate number of phone calls and internet searching to sort out.
Except—it wasn’t that nothing had happened. One green LED inside the small compartment on the machine had flickered on. John pressed his ear to the casing and heard a faint whirr. He shone his torch on the console in front of the seat—“3.4%,” read a small display.
He unplugged and pocketed his mobile and a smirk crept onto his lips. “Huh.”
The trip to the flat was too slow.
But time had always been a strange, fluid thing for John, and frequently it was too slow—or, when he had angled his back to block buffeting sand and stop up a wound, just slow enough.
Time hadn’t moved slowly with Sherlock. Everything was fast with Sherlock, and so it wasn’t fair at all, how slowly these eight months had passed when the year and a half before them had been so short.
This taxi ride was just long enough for John to try to think of some other reason to be so excited—this was another interesting development in the case; he was one step closer to preventing someone from being arrested unjustly—and then to realize the futility of the exercise. The best he could do would be to prepare himself for disappointment—the moment he would realize that the machine was really built for some sort of video game, or was just a completely inoperable, flashy distraction from a devious crime. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Andrew had abandoned it and fled elsewhere, and Brian only thought he’d disappeared.
As Brian had shrugged his jacket back on, John had asked why Andrew had tried to build a time machine at all—Wealth? Scientific curiosity?
“His wife died,” Brian said. “He was heartbroken. He spent fifteen years building that machine.”
“Was Andrew a physicist? An engineer?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. He was a bleedin’ genius. He knew everything.”
“Apparently not,” John muttered, and he wasn’t sure Brian had even heard him until he saw him shaking his head.
Gradually, after Sherlock’s death, a slow trickle of supporters had come to John asking for help. At first, he assumed it was out of pity—to entertain him, to make him feel important, to make him feel better. He had posted to his blog: “I’m sorry. I’m not investigating any cases. Please contact Scotland Yard with your problems.” There were a few insistent commenters: “You must have learned something from him. He saved my husband’s cousin from being poisoned, you know? I saw him figure it out. I know he wasn’t a fake. Please, Dr. Watson—can’t you help?”
He’d met Lestrade for a pint a couple of times. “Sorry I can’t let you in on any cases, mate,” he’d told John. “I’m lucky to have a job at all.”
“I know,” John had said. “I understand.” He didn’t want to go anyway: or he did, because he knew that he would hear Sherlock speaking over his shoulder about overlooked details, muttering about idiots and obviousness. But he also knew that he would turn around and see nothing, and listen closer and hear nothing, and he would turn back to Lestrade to see brows creased in concern because for all the nothing John observed, his heart would show heavy on his face.
Instead, John mostly kept to his very regular hours at the surgery. When he came home—to Mary’s flat, that was, which wasn’t really home, was it?—he scanned the news for anything interesting; occasionally, he would find an interview or quote from a client he remembered. At the rate these people were coming forward, Kitty Riley’s stories wouldn’t last long. The thought was satisfying, but not satisfaction enough to make John stop racking his brain for why Sherlock hadn’t seen it coming: Moriarty’s lies falling to pieces in a matter of months. Sherlock had to have known it would happen, so why…
As the taxi pulled up to the flat, John leapt out as well as he could with his cane and hurried up the stairs. He found that he could still only go to Baker Street for small amounts of time—sometimes he’d spend a night or two—always alone, like it was a shrine he needed to keep sacred, or a crime scene to be left untouched until someone could uncover what had really happened the day Sherlock didn’t come back to it. He supposed it was, in ways—both of those things, a crime scene and a shrine. He scanned the area occasionally for cameras planted by Mycroft, who was now paying the entirety of the rent for the place whether John asked him to stop or not (he hadn’t—but those were Mycroft’s own words, texted to John months ago), as if doing so could possibly serve as some sort of an apology to John. (Perhaps it was an apology to Sherlock—John wasn’t sure.) Tonight seemed like the right time to go to Baker Street…to channel some of Sherlock, to remember how to see, how to observe. It was much too late, anyway, to go back to Mary’s, where he usually stayed; she would be asleep. He had no doubt she’d wanted to come along, the way her eyes had shone with excitement when he told her about the case.
“Bit far-fetched, isn’t it?” she’d giggled, and then leaned in conspiratorially. “What do you think really happened?”
John couldn’t say, his mouth hanging open for a moment and then shutting again. Mary’s lips pulled together and stretched into a smile: a sad one. The loveliest thing about Mary, John thought, was that unlike everyone else, she wasn’t trying to push him out of mourning. She rolled with it gracefully. She didn’t make it her business to tell him what Sherlock would have wanted. She didn’t even ask to go along with him to Baker Street, when he went, although he was sure she was curious; Mary had started reading John’s blog after the papers had began running articles on Sherlock, had become something of a fan. That wasn’t how he met her, though—that had been odder.
Tonight, though, they’d had a perfectly normal evening of take-out and crap telly. “Good luck,” she’d peeked over her laptop to say to him as he’d shrugged a jacket on. Not a single word about, “Are you really going to a rubbish dump to search for what one potentially unstable man had referred to as a time machine?” No, “Try to be back before eleven, won’t you?” She’d said, “Call me if you need anything,” and, “I’ll see you later, dear.”
He’d said, “I might stay the night at two two one.”
“Okay.” And she smiled, and that was all.
And so here John was, back at 221B, if only momentarily. He breathed in deeply, holding the air inside as if he could steep his lungs in it long enough that he could become infused with it, and began what had become his routine: he thought of it as practice. He practiced observing, here, because that was of much more use than remembering things, memories that made John’s veins thump uncomfortably angry and hot and close to his skin, stinging his nerves—memories like that once, not quite a year ago, Sherlock had lined up seven different types of apple on the arm of his chair, a notch sliced into each, and left them there to sit, circling the chair and lecturing John on the importance of recreating the original conditions for cases where the results could be highly sensitive to the environment. That was his explanation, at least, for occasionally misting the area with a spray bottle. One “stray spurt of water” (Sherlock’s phrasing) had made its way to John’s face—John had been one hundred percent certain it was intentional, and so he had shoved his laptop to the side and stood to wrestle the bottle from Sherlock’s hand. From there, he had spritzed his flatmate in the face about eight times before Sherlock took the high ground, removed the bottle from John’s grip, unscrewed the top, and threw the remainder of the water onto John’s jumper.
By the time John’s jumper had dried out, they’d eaten all the apples—Sherlock had gnawed into them with surprising vigor.
“Measuring the deterioration of the core should be sufficient,” he’d said through a mouthful of the last one, and stacked the final core onto the arm of the chair.
“’Course,” John agreed. “What case is this for again?”
“Nothing important,” he’d answered, quickly enough that John thought better than to ask further. “Cold case Lestrade sent my way ‘to cheer me up’ after—”
“After Moriarty’s court case, yeah.”
Sherlock had nodded and, John thought, looked as if he might be about to tell him something important, by the way he leaned in a little. His eyes widened and relaxed, irises stretching and shrinking like cameras finding focus, prepared to capture a reaction in detail deeper than the average eye could see. Sherlock opened his mouth, glanced at his chair, and said, “On second thought, I’ll need to replace them after all.”
“This case is important,” he snapped.
“But you just said—”
“We need milk, as well, don’t we?”
“Sherlock, I’ve already been to the grocery for you once today—”
“I’ll go, of course.” And Sherlock had swept out, and left John to stare at the cores along the arm of the chair. He’d been about to throw them out, but reminded himself that Sherlock probably still intended to include them in the experiment. The next morning, he’d found six cores in the garbage.
John released his breath and took in another lungful or two of air, chest rattling more than he’d expected. Six cores: That was a thing that he had observed. That memory, that wasn’t an observation. That wasn’t what he was here to do. That was why his chest was rattling, that was why he was going to keep his head on and simply observe now. So: The arm of the chair, now devoid of apples in any state of deterioration. Completely clean, in fact, the whole chair—something Sherlock had done around the same time. Well, it was hardly clean anymore; it was covered in a thin sheet of dust. If Sherlock could see the dust patterns here, John thought, he would know that his violin and his skull hadn’t moved an inch in the past eight months. He would see that only infrequently did a saucer occupy the space that had been freed by the microscope and chemistry equipment Mrs. Hudson had boxed up and donated. He would probably point out with a dismissive flick of his wrist that it was clear as day from the orientation and state of the dishes in the cupboards that some moron kept making one too many cups of tea. John had done it a few times on accident, and it became something of an experiment in evaporation: the cups were stained in rings around the inside. Sherlock would remark on how fantastically helpful it was, that when water fled to the air it left everything else behind. John thought it was damn inconvenient, but he couldn’t just scrub the rings out, could he? They were evidence. Data. The tea was there, and then it wasn’t. Because of evaporation. Obviously.
John continued his path around the flat, flicking through observations. Handprints on the window: not his, too big. He hadn’t intentionally kept them there; he just hadn’t cleaned the window for some time, and happened to notice them about half a year ago, and now they were a part of his observations practice, and he wasn’t done observing them yet, so he couldn’t very well wash them off now, could he? Sherlock hadn’t been done observing the seventh apple core. John had spent very little time in Sherlock’s room, but, prompted by an awful smell several months ago, had entered just long enough to find the core there, the sticky sugars that had seeped off the apple adhering it to the beside table.
So he could keep these perfectly unscented handprints as long as he damn well pleased. He leaned in to observe them more closely, trying not to breathe too heavily on them. He observed the curtains, and the mysterious slice that started halfway down one of them that he hadn’t noticed until some time after it happened.
“What’s that from?” he’d asked Sherlock, the corners of his lips pulling down as he motioned to the rip.
“Wednesday, August the fourth. Honestly, John, how is it that you can fail to notice something so obvious for seven weeks and then spontaneously observe it from across the room?”
John hadn’t dignified that with a response, and had asked nothing further.
He observed his own chair: still in the same place as always. The feet had probably merged with the carpet by now, or burrowed through it. Of course, the same could be said of all of the fixtures in the flat. When John stayed at Baker Street, he found himself as a ghost, unable to move anything, leaving just the faintest prints upon the furniture.
It was quiet, hauntingly so—like a church at midnight. Only the sober press of his feet into the carpet filled his ears at this hour; before, this would have been about the time that Sherlock would be most likely to retrieve and play his violin—just about when everyone else had started getting settled into sleep. John was so unused to sleeping to complete silence: Mary helped, her light breathing and occasional kicking off of sheets grounding him within the silence and the dark when he stayed at her flat. Here, at Baker Street, now, there was no such thing. Someone like himself, John thought, could only bear to live in such a place for so long. Like in the short amount of time he’d spent by himself when he arrived back to London from Afghanistan, his nightmares had become progressively worse while he stayed here, in the quiet, just after Sherlock’s death: Sherlock leapt from the roof of the flat; Sherlock, rather than the mannequin, hung in the entry to the living room; Sherlock had been building a secret trap-door in the kitchen, and one day made John watch him plummet down through it, and John looked down into it and saw only fire. Sherlock, when he’d been—when he’d been at Baker Street, he must have known, he must have deciphered how horribly John slept without noise. He saved some louder experiments for when John trudged up the stairs to bed; he developed a habit of speaking to himself at night; he got the sudden urge play his violin at hours that anyone else in his right mind would be dozing off. John once feigned sleep in his armchair and cracked an eye open to see that Sherlock was (badly) simulating clumsiness while he arranged some samples in the refrigerator. The violin, though, had been his favorite. The air in the flat was stiflingly still without some lingering, keening note cutting through it.
Mary had come to him as something of a blessing, several weeks after Sherlock had jumped, just as John had been contemplating moving in with Harry—anyone—to escape 221B for a while. Mycroft had called once to offer assistance, but John could hear from how he said it that Mycroft already knew what his answer would be. John and Mary, though, had hit it right off.
“It must be awful,” she’d said over dinner, “living there, you know, after…”
“It is,” John admitted. “I’d stay someplace else, but I haven’t really found…” He hadn’t looked, either, of course, for fear of actually leaving Baker Street for whoever would take it next—leaving Mrs. Hudson. It hadn’t been until later that month that he’d found the rent already paid, and gotten Mycroft’s text.
“How about you come to my flat?” she suggested, and then flushed. “Not like that, I mean—I have a rather comfortable sofa. You can kip there for a few nights if you’d like.”
“‘Not like that,’ is it?”
“Oh! Well—if you’d like, it could be like that, too,” she laughed. “I just didn’t want to…I didn’t know if you were…I mean…”
“What?” He’d half expected to hear “gay.”
“You know, if you...since your friend just…so maybe you’re…still…”
John’s expression sobered. “Yeah. Well…yeah. Maybe slower would be better. The rather comfortable sofa it is, then.” He smiled wryly. “Thank you.”
Mary smiled back. “John,” she said, and leaned in conspiratorially, “kiss me.”
And he did.
The memory no longer seemed out of place while he was here; John had thought of it plenty of times while he was visiting Baker Street. It was one memory that he allowed himself guiltlessly, because it wasn’t about Baker Street. It was a strange moment, a mystery well suited to long glances at Sherlock’s chair. Sometimes, he replayed that moment as if it had taken place elsewhere; once, he had tried different people. Mary had had a soft confidence, then, leaning in, like she knew something John didn’t, eyes gleaming with eagerness for him to kiss her so that he could figure it out, too.
He hadn’t figured anything out, though, except that he might want to do it again sometime. Mary had pulled back aglow, touching her lips.
John licked his own lips at the memory, plugged in his phone to charge, and compared his laptop cable to the photo on his mobile—no good. Well, he could bring his laptop and use it to charge his phone, then, and try plugging his phone into the machine to see what would happen. Sherlock would’ve scoffed at his rather unscientific process—good. Maybe if he did enough completely stupid things, Sherlock would come back and tell him off for it—for that and his unscientific tea rings, and for getting rid of his microscope, and for not using the proper methodology to preserve the prints on the window.
On his way back to the rubbish dump, at 2:54 AM, John closed his eyes and tried to imagine Sherlock falling backwards. How far back would John go, if he could go back? Would he ignore Sherlock’s command, refuse to watch him jump, and see what happened then? Would he sneak up onto the roof, tackle him down before he could step to the edge?
He could refuse to leave Bart’s at all. “Mrs. Hudson’s fine,” he’d say. “Or else you’d be worried, too.” He could tell Mycroft at Buckingham Palace to keep his damned mouth shut about his brother, if he wouldn’t mind (“…and by the way, keep this Irene Adler business to yourself; Sherlock has more important things to do, thanks,” he imagined he’d say). The night of his kidnapping, he could take his gun with him on his way out to Sarah’s and wait around the corner and shoot Moriarty’s men, and then Moriarty himself. Or the day before, he could tell Sherlock: “A guy called Jim is about to come in here and sneak you his number. Once he leaves, find him and kill him.”
Sherlock wouldn’t do that, of course. John would have to do it himself.
But then, without his being kidnapped and decked out in semtex, he would not have had the hours that followed that night.
Sherlock had collapsed onto the sofa, clearly in deep thought, and so John retired to his armchair, simultaneously exhausted and far too wired from the night’s events to fall asleep. His phone buzzed: a text from Sarah. “john, what happened?” it read. Seven missed calls. Thirteen texts to the same tune as this one. He tilted his head back, pondering whether he ought to say, “Sorry, was busy being a ventriloquist dummy and an explosive at the same time for someone even more insane than Sherlock, tell you about it later,” or just leave it at, “Oh, weren’t we meeting tomorrow night?” The second was certainly easier to type. He tilted his head and licked his lips, puzzling out the politest way to say it.
“Give that here,” Sherlock said, extending one arm, eyes closed as he laid back.
“It’s just Sarah.”
“Exactly.” His fingers twitched. “John. Your phone. Now.”
John crossed the room on legs that still quivered slightly beneath him. He was too tired to argue with Sherlock, anyway. “What for?” he asked as Sherlock’s long fingers curled around it.
“You are clearly shaken, and understandably so. Ideally, we should then minimize sudden movements and noises—including those from your mobile.”
John rolled his eyes. “And yours?” Sherlock’s phone would naturally be an exception to the rule.
Sherlock removed it and Moriarty’s pink mobile from his pockets, and made a show of switching them both to mute before stacking them on top of John’s and stuffing them deep beneath the sofa cushions.
“So you’re not at all affected by this, then?” John considered taking a seat on the table rather than risk a trip back to his own chair.
“Right, who am I kidding—” he bent his knees to sit on the table, and Sherlock opened his mouth in protest to the words, “—of course you are. I get it. I know. I saw.” The other man’s mouth clicked shut. “But is it really necessary to keep me from telling Sarah I’m fine? I think I can manage a quiet little ‘beep,’ Sherlock.”
“No, not necessary,” Sherlock agreed. “And still you gave your phone to me.”
“Yeah—well...well. Usually you have a reason.”
“I can see this will soon be going in circles,” Sherlock waved him off, hand swinging limply around his wrist. “Kindly shut up. I need to think.”
“About what—Moriarty? Leave it, Sherlock.”
Sherlock’s eyes finally slid open, and his nostrils flared as he bit out, “Doesn’t deciphering his next move strike you as the most important thing right now, John? He could hurt y—he could do something incredibly…destructive.”
Of course, John couldn’t have known what, then. “And he won’t be doing it tonight.” Maybe he should’ve let Sherlock think. He could have solved the problem before it started, realized what a threat Moriarty was, nipped it in the bud.
“So what do you propose, then, as a more worthy use of my time?”
John could have said a million things. He could have said something meaningful. “I think it would be of therapeutic value for you to insult a spy movie or two.”
“Preferably one you’re fond of, for the additional therapeutic value of watching you try to defend it.”
“Of course.” He stood, bracing himself against the arm of the sofa as he did so.
Sherlock’s gaze slid to John’s hand, mere inches from Sherlock’s face. “John.”
“I recall reading somewhere that physical proximity to a familiar human being can also be of assistance in recovery from trauma.” Sherlock fidgeted as he said it. He sat up and edged toward the middle of the sofa to make room. “I’ve been meaning to test its applicability to…”
“Yeah, yeah, budge up,” John collapsed into the empty space.
John glanced over for a moment in response, before returning his attention to selecting a film.
“I wanted to…say…”
John wished that he’d kept his mouth shut to hear how Sherlock’s statement had ended. With “thank you,” he postulated, but he also wondered if it could have been something—anything—else. Instead, though, he’d said, “I know,” with a wry smile and, “You think James Bond is a complete idiot.”
Sherlock smiled back, reaching over John for the remote. He spent the rest of the night leaning back against a pile of pillows, his legs forming a bridge over John’s lap and his feet digging into the gap between the sofa arm and John’s right thigh. Whatever it was that Sherlock had meant to say, it never came up again.
Thankfully, before he could torture himself over it any further, John arrived back at the rubbish dump. “All right,” he muttered to himself, slinging his laptop bag over his shoulder as he climbed out of the taxi. He would—charge the machine, if that’s what his phone was doing when he plugged it in—and—give it a try. Maybe the thing would totter around like a tricycle and make funny noises. Maybe nothing would happen. Maybe he’d wake up in A&E, or maybe he wouldn’t wake up at all. Of course, what he hoped—what he really hoped—was that it worked exactly as it was intended to. If that was the case—if that was the case, he’d have a whole new set of questions to ask, to answer. He would just have to charge it up, and if it worked—
If it worked, he would fire up the machine and go back.
He would save Sherlock.