Gunfire. Delete. Blood, splattered. Delete. Coarse salt gritting beneath his feet. Delete. Sulphur in the air, in his nostrils, on his clothes. Delete.
They’re not his memories, not his thoughts and not his past, so he feels no remorse or hesitation in removing them. Not like he did when considering if he’d ever need to know how the solar system works or Mummy’s favourite colour (he grants each a footnote, a scribbled post-it note lost somewhere behind the fridge of his mind palace: if needed, the first can be solved by research and the second by Mycroft).
They are frequently impossible anyway, and therefore unimportant (eliminate the impossible). A woman pinned to the ceiling, fire ripping through her gut (delete); a man’s eyes flashing to golden and back, no trick of the light (delete); blood glistening red like rubies on the lips of a baby (delete).
A clean slate; a clean mind. All that remains is a small, rusted key, tossed into the back of a drawer in a room he rarely enters in the labyrinth he’s made in his mind. Thoughts rarely revisited.
Two boys, curled against each other in the backseat of a car, a shotgun at their feet.
Mycroft worries about him, almost more than Mummy. It’s insufferable and impossible and he hates the feeling of his brother’s eyes on him as he runs across the back lawn, pack banging against his legs. He knows Mycroft’s watching as he drops to his knees and crawls under the hedge that separates the formal garden from the much more interesting expanse of woodland behind the house.
He drops his pack to the ground, crouching down at the edge of the pond. He peers into the water, trying to make out some of the newly-spawned tadpoles. Reaching behind him, he fumbles inside his pack for a vial to take a water sample. If he could capture a tadpole or two, that would be fine, also. He could keep them in the bathroom sink.
The pack proves obstinate, though, and he has to shuffle around and open the bag wider, shaking the contents until the small plastic containers become visible. Grasping one triumphantly, he turns back to the pond and nearly topples with shock when he sees a cadaverous head with blank, dead eyes staring up at him from the murky waters.
He falls forward, hands in the mud as he scrambles to catch his balance, and when he looks back at the pond, the head is gone. He shuffles a step, barely aware of the water seeping into his shoes, and reaches in, determined to find it again. A dead body might finally make things interesting around here. His hands come up empty but for some slimy pond weed.
He returns home wet to the knees and with his feet squelching in his shoes; his pack, laden with samples, though, sadly, no live tadpoles, digs into his shoulder. Mycroft sighs, like an adult, like Father, when he sees Sherlock’s mud-stained trousers, and Sherlock thinks of Mycroft’s head bobbing in the water, mouth gaping open and eyes rolled back. He sticks his tongue out and runs, leaving behind sodden footprints and Mycroft’s shouts.
A pressure on his chest like his breath is slowly being pushed out of him; the darkness around the edge of his eyes tints pink, then red as he feels something tightening like an implosion within him. Thin, bony fingers like thorned twigs force his jaw open, and he feels his breath fall and flow and tumble out of his mouth with no control over his lungs, his heart, his very innards.
He wakes in the night, alone and cold, and for a moment the sheets feel strange and rough against his skin. He kicks his feet out frantically, the weight of the sodden blankets pressing onto him, holding him down. His breath comes out in great, shuddering gulps, and, flinging his hands out, he tries to find the thing that choked him, that stole his breath, but the air is empty.
He must have cried out, because his door cracks open, letting in a sliver of light, and Mycroft slips in and sits at the edge of his narrow bed. He touches Sherlock’s forehead with just his fingertips, and Sherlock stays very still. Neither of them say a word, but after a long moment, Sherlock sits up and presses his face against Mycroft’s upper arm, breathing in the familiar smell of soap they’ve both used their whole lives. Mycroft doesn’t fuss or placate, and soon enough Sherlock’s heart feels steady in his chest again.
Only then does Mycroft help him out of bed, strip down the mattress while Sherlock changes clothes. Mycroft remakes the bed, and Sherlock crawls in without a word. Mycroft leaves and Sherlock doesn’t sleep.
It’s Mycroft who teaches him to arrange his thoughts, to build his palace brick by brick and memory by memory and tuck things away. Everything in its place, he admonishes Sherlock, and everything kept.
Sherlock does no such thing.
He deletes what he can, eradicates memories already half-forgotten, images that flicker like badly damaged silent films, digs them out of his mind and flings them away and, when they’re too deeply entrenched, he drowns them, smothers them, chases the firing of his neurons with the sharp, crystalline knowledge of cocaine.
The images – he refuses to call them visions, to give them some pseudo-pious façade – come more frequently as he ages, enough to be familiar if he weren’t deleting them from his memory the moment they end. They nearly overwhelm sometimes, the insistent press of lives not his own against his skull. It’s simply one more betrayal of his body, his body that needs and aches and hungers and clamours for so much, for food and air and sleep and drugs and sex and so many things that he ignores, tamps down, shuts away, that they – the images – simply become one more thing to control.
Sharp, yellow teeth, skin peeling away and falling wetly to the floor, grey spectres of former lives flickering in and out of existence. He slides the needle into his vein – blood and salt and iron – and depresses the plunger.
The itch at the back of his mind thrums and calms and begins again in cycles and he shuts it away anew each time it emerges. He gets better, more efficient, and begins to replace spectres and chimeras with solid human bodies, dead on floors and in cupboards and underwater and in skips.
His mind is wholly his own like this, filled with things useful and interesting, honed like a blade on a strop, and his blood is clean and red and warm beneath his skin.
He lives alone, works alone, but builds up a network of – not friends, exactly, but contacts, people predictable in convenient ways. DI Lestrade, sturdy and not exactly patient, but long-suffering and willing, willing to listen to Sherlock, to put results before his own pride, to work long hours for little pay or respect; Molly Hooper, quiet and easily manipulated; Mike Stamford, endlessly jovial even in the face of Sherlock’s darkest moods. Sherlock becomes accustomed to their presence at the edges of his life.
The familiarity of solitude is blown wide open when John Watson walks into a lab, military stance and greying temples and generous spirit. John at his back feels safe, feels dangerous, feels like walking the edge of existence every day and writing the rules of living anew.
It’s the same in his sleep – when he sleeps – his mind is running, ever running, but not away, and it feels right to do so. There’s a tinge of fear and uncertainty to the thoughts-not-his in his mind, but those emotions are overwhelmed by a sense of belonging, of a sturdy, safe, welcome partner at your arm, at your back, of a rightness to actions that has little to do with morality. He feels settled, even as every day brings the unexpected, and so do they, the forgotten men in his mind.
Things get tipped sideways a bit by a pink phone and a series of shaking, distraught voices on the line. Sherlock doesn’t sleep for three days, running on nicotine patches, coffee, and the ever-present heady thrill of the clock, ticking away, each second a challenge.
It counts down to one final pip, one last bomb, and Sherlock waits for the air between them to snap. John goes out to Sarah’s, looking askance at Sherlock when he pauses in the doorway, and Sherlock wraps his coat tighter around his knees and keeps his eyes on the telly. John tightens his jaw – Sherlock can hear the click of his teeth – but leaves. Sherlock updates his website and settles in to wait until midnight.
By half ten, the chill and three long sleepless days begin to creep against his consciousness and his eyes flicker closed.
The images assail him immediately, bleak and desperate and angry. Two men, on their knees, clutching each other in the dirt. A howl of pain, a yell of despair. Blood flowing thick through fingers scarred and dirty.
Delete. He pushes the pain, the anguish, the anger away – far into a corner of his mind – but the vestiges lurk in his limbs and for all his bravado as he leaves the flat there’s a tension under his skin that portends peril.
In the bleak small hours of the morning, there’s a pool, and a vest, and a gun, and Sherlock can feel the thrum of John’s body – alive, alive, alive – even though he’s three paces away, crouching, legs no longer weak but ready, anticipating movement. John’s offer sits heavy in the space between them: a live given for a life snatched free. When his feet don’t run, Sherlock wonders how many more chances they’ll get to give up their own lives for each other.
Their fate’s decided for them, which rankles, but it’s absolved when John’s knuckles brush against Sherlock’s thigh as they walk away, when John’s slight, bewildered smile doesn’t disappear for three hours, through greasy fish and chips and the cold, crackling London night air.
“Is this your mind palace thing?”
“What?” Sherlock doesn’t open his eyes but rolls his head in John’s direction, letting the slight lift of his eyebrow convey his annoyance. John presses on, however.
“This thing you do, on the sofa, where you go all –” Sherlock can see, behind his shut eyelids, the way John waves his fingers here in an attempt to encompass something he finds difficult to articulate. “ – all thinky and quiet and still. We don’t have a case on, so.”
It is indeed a mind palace thing, Sherlock thinks, as at the back of his brain a young girl with white eyes laughs, chilling and maniacal. He deletes her from the ankles up, aware of John watching him, her eyes then her forehead then the crown of her hair slowly disappearing.
“Tea,” he says, rather than asks, when he’s done and his mind is clear and eyes open. John looks at him, frowning, then sighs, heaving himself out of his seat to go to the kitchen.
He doesn’t ask again, not in words.
There’s a car and strains of a guitar solo on the radio. There’s a contented smile and hands drumming on the steering wheel and a long empty stretch of open road. A man dozes in the passenger seat – right side, American – and the side window is cracked open at the top, a low whistle of air bringing in the scent of rubber and oil and hot, shimmering asphalt.
It’s boring and dull and unnecessary and deleted.
Sherlock stretches his fingers over the wheel of the Land Rover, curls them around, the tips tapping against the leather. He grins, sideways, and John glances over at him. “Ready to go, then?” he asks, and Sherlock nods, smile still hinting around the corners of his lips, and turns the key, puts the car into gear – brake, clutch, gearshift, accelerator – and pulls away from Baker Street.
John stays alert as they move out of London, but as the buildings slowly recede and trees grow more numerous, he fidgets, fingers tapping against the door handle, pulling at his seatbelt to twist and stretch. An hour in, they come to the end of a track on Sherlock’s iPod, hooked into the stereo system, and John picks it up, scrolls through the options.
“Good,” he says in the silence. “Can we be about done with Bach? Doesn’t feel quite right, for a road trip.”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow, thinks about assenting, because John’s taste in music is predictably familiar for a man of his age, the sort of classic rock he listened to in his twenties precisely because it wasn’t new and mainstream and trendy, but instead says, “Driver picks the music.”
He has no idea where that came from, but John just laughs, says, “Oh, really?” and switches Sherlock’s iPod out for his own. It’s the Beatles, which is – fine, actually – and John hums a little, under his breath, looking out the window as the landscape gradually turns from hilly farmland to wind-swept moors.
The humming slows, and quiets, and stops, and when Sherlock looks over forty minutes later John is leant against the window, mouth slightly open and eyes closed, his breath whuffling in his seated position. Sherlock’s not sure why, but he leans over and turns the music up a few clicks, then pushes on the accelerator and drums against the wheel as they speed down the quiet motorway.
They get a room at a tiny inn and gastropub in Dartmoor and John pays while Sherlock looms in the doorway and eyes the other guests. There’s a bit of apologetic confusion over the only room still available, which Sherlock doesn’t quite get until he sees John pause then grin brightly in a way that means he’s changing the subject. Assumptions about the nature of their relationship, then.
John stopped denying, stopped correcting, sometime after Irene came back from the dead – the first time. Yes, you are, she’d said; look at us both, she’d said, and though nothing has changed between them – nothing substantial, nothing life-altering, nothing more than the progression of time and perhaps something like a deepening of understanding – John now evades where he used to challenge.
The room they are given, in the end, has two single beds separated by a narrow, worn carpet and a spindly bedside table with one shared lamp. It doesn’t much matter to Sherlock, as he’s not planning to sleep anyway, not with a giant hound on the loose, and John just drops his bag on the bed nearest the door and shrugs.
He does sleep, finally, after the hound – and Dr Frankland – are dead, after Lestrade liaises with the local police, having received a phone call that had him raising his eyebrows then passing over the phone, which results in the police leaving the entire mess for the army to deal with. They head back to their low-raftered room with the two narrow beds and John drops heavily onto the one nearest the door, hands shaking slightly as he fumbles with the laces on his shoes.
“It’ll pass,” Sherlock says, “it’s just the drugs.” John laughs, hoarse and low, and scuffs the back of his shoes as he toes them roughly off.
He lies back on the bed, feet dangling off the edge, and says to the ceiling, “You’re absolutely insane, you know that?”
Sherlock frowns, unbuttoning his trousers and letting them fall to the ground. “Why is that?” John rolls his head sideways, looks at him.
“Wild hound? Hallucinogenic gas? Any of this ringing a bell?”
“Those are hardly my fault.”
“Yeah, well.” John lifts his hand slightly off the bedcovers, waves it about abstractly. “You’re the one who goes charging into it.”
“You’re the one who follows me,” Sherlock counters.
“I do, don’t I?” John says and grins at him. Sherlock smiles back and thinks of John, and John’s gun, at his back. John’s eyes flutter closed and he rubs one hand over his forehead. “We should sleep,” he says, punctuating his words with a yawn.
“Not tired,” Sherlock says automatically, and he can almost feel John rolling his eyes.
“You were wound tighter than a –” he doesn’t finish his though, instead lifting his hand to look at Sherlock. “You should sleep.” Sherlock shivers, slightly, under his gaze, lets his arms fall forward, his shoulders slouch. When he glances over, John looks pleased, proven right.
“Fine,” he says and stands, lets his shirt drop off his shoulders. He pulls back the covers and slides into the bed, kicking his feet to loosen the hospital corners. From the other bed, he can hear John heave a breath as he pushes himself to sitting and the rustle of cloth as he disrobes. John settles in with efficiency, turning once to get comfortable before stilling.
Sherlock listens and waits for John’s breath to even before he closes his eyes.
He doesn’t dream – they’re never dreams, not really, no matter if he sleeps or wakes – but he feels the breath of the hound on his throat and it stinks of sulphur.
He blinks and he’s standing back and it’s happening to someone else; there’s no hound to be seen but the man in front of him, familiar like an itch at the edge of his mind, scrambles across the floor, feet kicking frantically. Sherlock can see-not-see the hound – hounds – can just perceive the way the air around them ripples, and he watches, horrified, as blood blossoms in bright, long streaks across the man’s cheek.
Unseen teeth sink into the muscle of his neck, claws across his chest shredding it to ribbons. His skin peels away under invisible fangs and Sherlock can smell the thick, heavy tang of blood and viscera in the air. He steps forward but his feet don’t move and the screams fall heavy in his ears, vibrating and echoing until he realizes they’re from his own mouth and he jerks, upright, hand over his mouth and breath loud through his nostrils.
John’s awake, alert, seated at the edge of his own mattress like he’s ready to burst forward if needed, but says nothing, just looks at Sherlock in the darkness. Sherlock shakes his head and John nods, reaches one hand out like he’s going to touch Sherlock’s cheek and, at the last moment, drops it to land with one heavy pat on Sherlock’s knee. The warmth of his hand prickles Sherlock’s bare knee, his sleep-sweaty palm leaving Sherlock slightly clammy. Sherlock shifts, sliding back under the covers, John’s touch still heavy on his skin.
John lies back down, facing Sherlock, and Sherlock doesn’t sleep again.
The next morning, John tucks into a surprisingly hearty vegetarian breakfast with obvious pleasure and Sherlock straddles the bench next to him. He sets a mug down by John, who narrows his eyes and doesn’t drink it, not right away. He watches John eat – chew, chew, swallow – and sips his own coffee.
When the ruse of the laboratory – and Sherlock’s own mistaken assumption about the sugar – is revealed, Sherlock watches intently as John cycles through a half a dozen emotions: disbelief, anger, annoyance, concern, amusement, and resignation.
He’s marvelling so at the man’s constant adaptability that he forgets to remember why John’s trying to be annoyed with him.
The thoughts, for a while, are of angels and other impossible things, and Sherlock lets them linger, for a moment or too, in their absurdity. He muses briefly on the things the human mind is capable of inventing, of clinging to, of insisting upon, before they’re erased.
Increasingly, phrases and images will stay with Sherlock, no matter how he scrubs away at them; he gives up, eventually, even though the feeling of another’s words, someone else’s thoughts, in his mind is anathema.
Getting too close…emotions and doorways to doubt…choice…free will.
Emotions and doubt, he thinks. Is that what free will means?
He’s never found self-sacrifice all that noble, yet here he is, on a roof with a madman. I might just get out of this, he thinks as Moriarty sneers and taunts and soliloquises. He plays his part, all patience and feigned ignorance, until Moriarty snaps.
“You’re nothing like me,” he declares. “You’re boring.” Sherlock rolls his eyes, bites back an insouciant remark, and Moriarty leans a bit closer, until his breath ghosts Sherlock’s jaw, warm and clammy. “You can’t fool me, Sherlock Holmes. I know what you are.” He pulls back, slightly, flicks his gaze up to Sherlock’s eyes. “You’re on the side of the angels,” he says, and his eyes flicker black.
Sherlock jerks back, but it’s gone, the darkness, and in the cool autumn sun Moriarty’s eyes are clear and grey. “I may be on the side of the angels,” Sherlock says, the flick of a coat and the rustle of feathers at the edges of his senses. “But don’t think for a second that I am one of them.”
“I’m you,” he continues, and thinks of John pecking at the keys of his computer, of John’s many and varied exclamations of Sherlock’s brilliance, of watching John, unnoticed, as he adjusted his lapels, unused to wearing a suit. “I’m you, prepared to do anything. Prepared to burn.”
“Oh. Oh,” says Moriarty. “Thank you,” he says, and his face is surprised, even in death, even with a bullet through the brainstem and bloody pulp sprayed across the roof. Sherlock wants to cherish it, he does, but instead he steps up on a ledge and dials John’s number.
Behind his words, he tries to say it’s just a trick, it’s not real – a trick of the light, a sleight of hand, a disappearing act – but by the way John’s voice cracks no he knows he’s been too good. He tosses the phone behind him and doesn’t beg for forgiveness.
When he jumps, he has a plan (of course I have a plan, Mycroft, I know what I’m doing), and that plan does not include dying.
It also, however, doesn’t include the feeling of air slowing down around him, of sudden warmth in the chill autumn day, of unsettling nausea like he’s been ripped through existence itself. He forgets all of that, though, at the faint touch of John’s fingers on his erased pulse, at the crack of John’s voice on the word friend; forgets it in the inhuman struggle to keep his eyes dead and the clammy crawl of his skin, reacting to the drugs that make his muscles fall, useless, from John’s grasp and drag as the ‘doctors’ pull him away.
He doesn’t think of it again until he’s in Barcelona with a knife at his throat and he feels it again – time slowing, his gut twisting – and suddenly he’s three feet away from his now-dead assailant. By that time, though, he’s seen – imagined, remembered – enough that he just catches his breath, finds the USB drive he’d been looking for in the dead man’s inner coat pocket, and walks away, collar of his grimy black trench coat turned up even in the weak sun.
He stops forgetting – deleting – while he’s dead, because it turns out being on the run requires his mental processes to work at full capacity, all the time. Deleting is time-consuming, painstaking, and leaves him vulnerable, open to attack, while he ventures into the corners of his mind palace and sweeps out spare thoughts. He can afford neither the time nor the weakness so he catalogues the thoughts – images, memories, visions – in what he’s come to think of as the empty room.
It begins with cold, white walls and empty shelves, but the visions live unbidden and unruly in his mind, and soon the walls are covered with unfamiliar symbols scrawled in blood and he sweeps aside a line of salt each time he opens to door to add another ghost, another monster, another terror unknown.
He worries for a while, in a way he hasn’t let himself before, about the things in his mind and their unknown origins. He remembers the shaking fear of seeing the impossible, but he now has no time to distrust his senses. Especially when week after week – in Cannes, in Marrakesh, in Zagreb, in Ankara – shadows and teeth and darkness and claws seem intent on proving the rigorous, logical limits of his mind wrong.
They are impossible and yet they are; Sherlock sees, smells, touches them, and more than once gets too close and the welling of blood at the edges of his slashed skin is proof enough. The newly-formed scars are humbling as he spends three years re-learning the edges of the world.
The world goes a bit – strange – while he’s out in it: freak storms and unexplainable catastrophes and plagues worthy of Judeo-Christian myth. He hears whispers, whispers and laughs and taunts from creatures strange and unknowable. Apocalypse is something out of myth, of gods and demons and huge swelling cracks in the earth, but as he brushes against the things that usually exist within dusty books and old wives’ tales, he redraws the line between fact and fiction.
Paying new attention to the images in his mind, he learns. Salt, iron, holy relics; spells and exorcisms. The Latin is crisp and familiar on his tongue, its cadences tasting of the salt-bitter loneliness of his secondary school years. He wonders, sometimes, if the religions he’s so often scorned grew out of the power of these humble things – elements and symbols and words, the very bricks of social existence – or if believing gave them power.
As he crawls along the strands of Moriarty’s web, doing his best to cut the threads loose, he discovers that Jim Moriarty, the most dangerous man in London, plays fast and loose with the definition of human. He wonders if he should feel vindicated; instead he feels bitter, betrayed, knowing that they’d been playing by different rules all along.
He comes across them, the men in his mind, almost by accident. Checking the news at an internet cafe in Istanbul, he clicks over to CNN's website and is shocked to see two familiar faces looking back at him, stark and uncompromising in bleak mugshots. Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers, born in Lawrence, Kansas, and wanted for crimes including credit card fraud, impersonating law enforcement, grave desecration, and, of late, murder. He reads up on their crimes avidly, flashes of familiarity in names and places and actions. In the mugshots, Sam, the younger brother, is annoyed, jaw tight and glare aiming somewhere to the edge of the camera. Dean, however, wears a cocky smirk and a raised eyebrow, as if at once surprised to be caught and already planning his escape.
So engrossed in reading everything he can find about the brothers, Sherlock completely misses the man he had been planning to tail and has to return the next day. Back in his dingy hotel that night, he lies on the tiny single bed and closes his eyes, opening the door to the empty room and letting them out. They shout and yell and laugh and fight, brothers and brothers-in-arms, and Sherlock feels John’s non-presence like a phantom limb.
He’d never expected them to be real, somehow, had thought – hoped – that they were the remnant of some childhood telly programme or book, blown wide by imagination. This, though, their lives in his brain, two worlds merging and collapsing together, means his mind is not fully his own. He shudders and lets out a breath as Dean, newly named and freshly vivid, lowers a circular saw onto the neck of something not-quite-human. His face is splattered with blood and his eyes gleam in the low light and he looks to his brother and shares a smile.
Sherlock can’t judge. He knows enough to know that death isn’t as clear-cut as many thinks and that the delineations of morality are constantly tested, pushed, redefined, by those who have the most to lose.
Moriarty’s network is vast, as Sherlock predicted, and concerned with a number of enterprises, as Sherlock expected, and a strange, uneasy mixture of human and not, as Sherlock never dreamed. He tracks them down, dismantling where he can and making small, subtle fractures where he can’t. Some of Moriarty’s agents he kills and some he – he does things that should kill them, things that should stop them but don’t – and some he just runs from. Not proud, anymore, as John home London John beats in his blood.
For three years, he runs, he chases, he hides. Three years, and each ticking hour reveals the legions at work; Moriarty, dangerous though he may be, is one man – one almost-man – among millions, and they teem with jealousy and pride and selfishness, weaknesses all. Mankind invites destruction thinking it his due, power his just desserts for simply existing, pleasure his reward for having desire.
We invite them in, Sherlock thinks, all the things that lurk in the darkness, we open the door and bring them in and serve them tea.
Mankind are idiots.
Three years in, he finds himself in Qinghai province, stagnant as he waits for the right opportunity to get into Tibet. He has a press pass, but China isn’t letting anyone across the border. He’s on the trail of a group smuggling both antiquities out of and firearms and into the beleaguered country; having realised the scale of Moriarty’s former network, he no longer has any illusions of crushing it, fully, but he can still splinter apart the tenuous edges.
He hitches rides in trucks, carts, rundown motorcars, and once, memorably, on a motorbike mostly held together by tape and wire. The road into Tibet is long, and at each new checkpoint, with each new driver, he invents a new self: German tourist a little too eager for danger; enthusiastic travel blogger writing about the rough side of travel; student keen to study the sculpture of Tibet. He no longer knows if each passing traveller is human but knows enough to keep a small handgun at the small of his back, a silver knife tucked into the boots he’s taken to wearing, a rosary around his neck, and salt in his pocket.
He gets close to one arm of the organization at a small monastery in Radreng; the site itself is plain and unimportant but they’re using it as a hub for merchandise movement. He’s not sure if somehow Moriarty turned some of the monks or had them possessed, but they certainly aren’t engaged in holy works.
Tired of waiting, he sneaks into one of the back buildings of the monastery at night. Sure enough, he finds the dark, dank room full of wooden crates; when he cracks one open and pulls away the straw, the serene expression of a centuries-old bronze bodhisattva gazes back.
“You shouldn’t touch what’s not yours.” Sherlock reels around, searching in the shadows for a face. A man steps out from the darkness; he wears a smart suit and a harsh smile and tilts his chin down to look at Sherlock. Sherlock hadn’t even heard his footsteps.
“I could say the same to you,” he says, turning slowly, letting his hand fall to his back where his gun presses, its weight still strange and unfamiliar.
“Ah, but they are.” He glances around the room, eyes lighting on the many crates, and spreads his hands. “Haven’t you heard? The world, as they say, is my oyster.”
“I hadn’t heard,” Sherlock says, and slips his hand around the grip of his gun. “I’m afraid I know nothing at all about you, in fact.” He makes his move, swinging his arm around to aim at the man’s head.
The man laughs, a hoarse, bitten noise. “Oh, dear. Don’t you recognize me?” he asks, and his grin is feral. It suits his face, lean and sharp, tan and blond and rough. “Though I suppose this new body isn’t quite what you remember.” He runs his hands down his chest slowly, the touch familiar, intimate, and Sherlock keeps his gun steady. “Sebastian Moran. Very devoted, even now.”
“What,” Sherlock says, biting out each word, “are you talking about?”
The man looks up at him, straight into Sherlock’s eyes, and blinks. This time, Sherlock doesn’t stumble back from the inky black but he does feel his wrist waver, the tip of the gun dip fractionally, before he pulls it back up, steadies his grip with his other hand.
“Huh,” the man says, cocking his head. “Pity, I remember that little trick having more of an impact before.”
“I’ve seen far worse of late.”
“Oh, yes,” the man claps his hands together, gleeful, the gesture unsettling on his raw, masculine frame. “I’ve been hearing all about your little adventures.”
“So you’re a demon,” Sherlock says, voice conversational. “I’ve met your kind. I’ve sent your kind back to hell.”
“Yes, yes, well done you. Do you want a gold star?” The man blinks again and his eyes are once again icy blue. “But I’m not a demon, darling, I’m your demon. Like I said, don’t your recognize me?”
“Moriarty.” A bullet to the brainstem doesn’t kill his kind, Sherlock knows now.
“What do you want?”
“Well, I’d rather like it if you stopped killing my men. Well, when I say men…” he shrugs, cheerful smile in place.
Sherlock doesn’t respond, says instead, “All this time, then?” and Moriarty licks his lips.
“No, actually. Little Jimmy’s just this fucked up, even without me. The pool, the plane, the crown jewels: that was all him. Well, mostly him. I helped a little.” He beams like he’s expecting praise and Sherlock frowns, faintly, and he sighs. “Well, you can hardly blame me. It’s not every day a demon gets to tango with a prophet and not get, you know –” he waved to the rafters – “smote.”
He cocks his head, lips pursed like he’s pondering and the question is on the edge of Sherlock’s teeth with the effort of biting it back, because he knows that Moriarty’s just waiting, waiting for him to ask so he can grin and laugh and insult. Sherlock sighs, and asks anyway. “A prophet?”
Predictably, Moriarty claps his hands and giggles, a high-pitched noise that comes out oddly pitched from his new body’s larynx. “Oh, you don’t know, do you? Oh, this is delightful. Did you think you were dreaming?” His eyes go wide, head oscillating slightly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sherlock lies.
Moriarty tsks. “Dear me, that won’t do. Your visions, my dear, they’re real. Real people, real events, your own personal reality telly projected straight into your brain. The word of our Lord who art not in heaven, having fucked off and left things to his idiot creatures. Amen.” He crosses himself with an exaggerated slowness, forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Moriarty narrows his eyes, the irises an all-too-human blue, and peers at Sherlock for a long, unsettling moment. “What did you think they were?” he asks, incredulity frank in his voice.
Sherlock blinks. “I don’t – I didn’t,” he says, surprised into honesty.
Moriarty stares, rocks back on his heels. “You’re a constant disappointment,” he says, deadpan, shaking his head.
“My sincerest apologies,” Sherlock answers.
Bared teeth edging into a leer, Moriarty drops his voice. “You could make it up to me.”
“Oh, but you could be. In fact, this is one area where our interests align.” Sherlock narrows his eyes but says nothing. “Really, honest,” Moriarty says, eyes wide. “The fate of the human race and all.”
“Become a philanthropist, have you?”
Moriarty shrugs. “Humans, you’re so terribly useful. You’re all so eager to give up your souls, to trade in your humanity for a bit of profit. Things haven’t been this interesting on earth since Rome.”
“You want me to help you so you can continue to trade in – human souls?”
“I’m not in the soul business per se,” Moriarty said, shrugging, “but I can’t say it doesn’t help. No, I’m on the up-and-up, now. Well, after a fashion. I’ve grown to like above ground, you see. Not the humans, sad, pitiful, crawling little vermin that you are, but the opportunities you afford are boundless.” His eyes go wide, earnest. “There’s so much to be done when you trade in corruption.”
“I’ve been working against your – trade – for three years. What on earth could you possibly want from me?”
“Some new businessmen have come to town and they don’t play nice.” He shrugs. “You can help get them out of my way. Oh, and save all of humanity in the bargain,” he adds with a sigh.
“Why should I trust you?”
“You shouldn’t. But surely you’ve realized by now that what I’m working is too big for you, one tiny, pitiful human, to touch. And you can’t kill me, my dear, you don’t have the equipment.” He smiles sweetly. On his new angular, shark-like face, the grin is awkward, too sharp and knowing. “So you may as well listen, take what I have to give you, and go home to merry London-town and your dear loyal doctor.”
Sherlock doesn’t say anything, but he lowers his gun and tucks it back away. Moriarty laughs and takes a step closer. Sherlock can’t help but flinch away; his fight-or-flight instincts have been heavily programmed toward flight of late, ill-equipped as he is to dealing with anything more than the weakest demon or spirit.
“Dear me, I’m not going to bite,” Moriarty says, clearly enjoying having Sherlock on the defence. He holds out one hand and twists it slightly, counter-clockwise, and the crate nearest to him bursts open spectacularly. Sherlock shields his eyes with his forearm, coughing in the dust, and Moriarty giggles. “I shan’t be needing that again.” He fishes in the straw to pull out a cylinder about as long and wide as his forearm.
“That seems a bit overkill, does it not?”
Moriarty shrugs. “Precautions, my dear.” He twists the lid off the cylinder, pulling out what looks to be a very old and rather battered scroll. “Do you know what this is?”
“Interesting.” Moriarty peers at him, intent. Sherlock finds his eyes straying to the scroll held loosely in Moriarty’s hand. “Prophets usually feel – but then, maybe you’ve fought it for so long, you’ve beaten your senses right out of you.”
Sherlock frowns. “That’s to do with my – visions, then.”
“In one.” Moriarty unrolls a portion, holds it up. Across the yellowed silk dance rows of hatches and slashes and marks. They remind Sherlock distantly of ancient Assyrian, which is assuredly not in his list of tongues, but maintains a spot in the cluttered corner of the sitting room in his mind palace due to a visit to the British Museum with John. Insisting that they look at the artwork properly, not just when preoccupied with not getting shot, he had dragged Sherlock from the Elgin Marbles through to the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II, only giving up when Sherlock had made a group of teenage students cry by muttering the clique’s secrets under his breath.
“I’ve been a long time looking for this,” Moriarty says, looking down at the scroll proudly.
The marks dance at the edges of Sherlock’s eyes, like they want to resolve themselves, but he can’t quite get them to focus. “You’ll need to give me a bit more than that to go on,” he says, because he wants to know, to touch and absorb and focus until the marks give up their meaning. He knows, somehow, that they will – not like he knew he’d be able to get through Petrarch with enough study or synthesise his own strychnine given the right chemicals, but like he knows his arm will raise if he thinks to lift it. It’s in his nervous system, his blood, his instincts.
“The Word of God,” Moriarty says. “Actually, really, this time. Well, the Word of God as told by Metatron to a half-illiterate monk, but it’s close enough. Something between prophecy and spellwork, so the rumour goes.”
Sherlock tries not to eye it too eagerly as he listens. “Rumour?”
“Well, I can’t read it, can I? Only prophets and angels can read the language of Metatron. Which is where you come in, my dear.” It must be true, because Sherlock can feel the inkling of meaning at the back of his mind, words taking shape, coalescing into something greater, something of import.
He smiles a bit, with a bravado he doesn’t quite feel, and taunts, “You need me, then, do you?”
Moriarty sighs. “We need each other. If you want to go on living, that is. You and...everyone else.” His pause leaves no doubt to his reference and now Sherlock’s thinking of John, on the ground below, one hand held up to shield his eyes and to touch the air between them. Sherlock licks his lips.
“Fine. I translate it – and?”
“And do what it says – whatever it says.”
“What, that’s just – you just leave me to it?” Sherlock raises an eyebrow, incredulous.
Moriarty shrugs, rolling his eyes heavenward. “These sorts of things – they’re not up to demons to do. I can’t – God did so love you pathetic little apes. He gave you far more power than you ever deserved.” He rolls the scroll back up with a snap, slides it back into its case. “It’s not just for me,” he reiterates, though at this point Sherlock needs little convincing; his fingers itch for the scroll to be in his hands, his mind aches for it like no puzzle or case before. “This is literally about the survival of the human race. You may pretend not to care, but I know you, Sherlock, you and your endearing little emotions.”
“I’ll do it,” Sherlock says, to stop him talking. He knows where this conversation is headed, and John’s name on Moriarty’s lips is an indignity he shall not suffer.
Moriarty grins, licks his lips. “Usually deals are sealed with a kiss,” he says, flicking his lashes down then up again, coy.
“I’m not making a deal.” Sherlock clenches his jaw. “You’re offering freely and I’m making no promises. That’s all you’ll get from me.”
Moriarty sighs theatrically. “Fine.” He holds out the scroll, and Sherlock takes it quickly, not touching his hands. “Goodbye, Sherlock Holmes,” he says, and vanishes.
It’s all Sherlock can do to get himself back to the tiny room he’s renting from a nearby farmer before pulling out the scroll and devouring its words. His breath is warm and his pulse is strong and he has two reasons to go home – the Word and John – and none to stay, so the next day he picks up his bag and finds a ride back to China.
Back in London, the draw of Baker Street is nearly magnetic. He tries to walk past Anthea at Heathrow, but she just follows him; he can hear the clicking of the keypad on her phone with each step. The doors slide open and he steps out on the kerb, worn bag over one shoulder and his familiar wool coat slightly more threadbare. Anthea stands beside him and doesn’t say a word.
“Do I have a choice?” he asks.
“No,” she says, without looking up. The black car stops at their feet and Sherlock sighs.
In the car, his knees knock against Mycroft’s and he doesn’t make eye contact, knowing that Mycroft is looking him over, evaluating, taking in every change of the past 1,211 days. Well, nearly every: Sherlock’s fairly certain not even Mycroft can deduce the existence of the supernatural from Sherlock’s worn hems and scarred hands.
London rolls by outside the window, unchanged.
“Take me to Baker Street,” Sherlock says, not looking at Mycroft.
“He’s not there,” Mycroft says mildly.
“I wasn’t – he’s not?” Sherlock looks sharply at his brother and, seeing pity in his eyes, regrets it instantly.
“He moved out, just after.” It only made sense. The world had rearranged itself every day; he had no reason to expect London – and John – to stay the same, except. Except.
“Take me to him.” He has little shame or pride left, after all, little to show for his three years away, and a heartbeat that seems to still speak one name.
“Sherlock –” Mycroft warns and Sherlock interrupts. “Take me to him, Mycroft.”
“You look –” Mycroft shakes his head. “Come with me; have a shower, something to eat, some clean clothes, then go to him.”
“Things stopped going according to plan a long time ago, Mycroft, and this can’t be –” he shakes his head, jaw tightening. In the window his reflection, rain-fractured, is gaunt and pale. “Take me to him.”
John opens the door, not looking up, like he’s expecting someone else, and there’s a small grin playing at the corner of his lips as he keeps his eyes down to do up his cuffs. “You’re early, Angie, I –”
His hand drops as he looks up.
He pales, just a bit. Like he’s seen a ghost, Sherlock thinks, slightly hysterically. “John, I –” Sherlock begins, when John closes the door on him.
Sherlock blinks. Somehow, that response hadn’t been on the predicted list (he had four-to-one odds on a punch being thrown). Unsure, he lifts his hand to the knob but stops before touching it. He hears a dull thud on the other side, something hitting the door, and reaches anyway, pushes it open.
John hasn’t locked the deadbolt, but it turns out the thud was his own body slumping against the door. In a faint or in surprise, Sherlock cannot at first determine, but then John moves away from Sherlock’s shoving and lets out a startled noise.
“You can’t –” John says, and shakes his head. “You’re not –” He keeps the door in place with one hand and holds himself up with the other, braced against the door frame. His face, in the open sliver, is more lined than Sherlock remembers, and he doesn’t make eye contact.
“I am,” Sherlock says, with some pain, through the eight-inch gap in the door. He wants to reach through, to touch John, but he doesn’t.
“You’re not,” John says, with a wavering finality, but he doesn’t close the door again.
“Let me in,” Sherlock says, and John takes a deep, shuddering breath. His fingers curl around the door frame, flexing, tightening, then loosening slowly, like it requires deliberate effort. He pulls his hand away but doesn’t drop it, doesn’t pull back, hand hovering in the air level with Sherlock’s face, and Sherlock finds himself calculating angles of reach and obstruction through the narrow gap.
John throws no punches though; he drops his hand to his hip and takes one measured step back. Sherlock pushes the door open the rest of the way and doesn’t move.
221b had been their home; it had a potency of place far more intense than Sherlock had ever experienced. He wonders now if its bricks didn’t hold some memory of lives gone by; he knew it would withstand his own, even as he died and was remade and now, standing in a doorway looking at the man who is his talisman, whose very name beats in his blood, feels his world on the edge of implosion.
No matter the lives lived and lost in his home, their home, his feet always fell comfortable and assured on the worn wood stairs, on the stained Turkish carpet, settled and moved within its walls like he belonged. But this worn beige flat, with chips in its paint and a banal brown mat at his feet and a motley set of pre-furnished fixtures, stops him at its threshold.
He closes his eyes and leans against the doorframe. “John, I –” He can find no words to define his presence, there, and what it means. I died for you, he wants to say. I came back for you. Don’t let me leave you again. “May I come in?” he asks and has to remind himself to open his eyes, to see John’s weak and bewildered nod.
He steps forward uncomfortably, and John takes one step back, keeping the distance between them equal. “Come home with me,” he says, and John’s eyes go wide. “Please, I –”
John shakes his head, keeps shaking it even as he says, “No, Sherlock, no, I –” He breaks off and looks over Sherlock’s shoulder, through the door behind him. Sherlock turns his head to see a woman, late twenties and thick dark hair and John’s type all over, standing in the hallway, looking between them both.
“Is this a bad –” She looks at Sherlock and doesn’t finish her question.
John licks his lips. “I think I have to – postpone. Something – unexpected –” He looks up at Sherlock, eyes slightly wide like reality is still dawning, and finishes his sentence looking at him, not her – “turned up.” She makes a slight noise of disappointment and John tears his gaze away, assuring her he’ll text, and somehow manages to touch her shoulder and close the door without ever once touching Sherlock.
They stand for a long, long moment in silence before Sherlock lifts his hand and touches John’s shoulder, gently. Below his fingers he can nearly feel the ridges of John’s scar, made long before he came into John’s life. It’s not the only scar John has now.
Rather suddenly, John grasps Sherlock’s arm and pulls him in, wrapping one arm tightly around his neck. His cheek, pressed to the crook of Sherlock’s shoulder, is wet, and his tears leak through Sherlock’s shirt. Sherlock thinks rather distantly of holy water, of baptism and exorcism and the painful, long road to absolution. He holds John closer and doesn’t say a word.
John comes home, he does, and narrows his eyes when Sherlock offers to help carry boxes up the steps. “You would choose now to become considerate,” he says, but hands him a box anyway.
Inside, John stands in the middle of the sitting room, box in hand, and looks lost. Sherlock knows the feeling; everything in the room is just as it was, only it all feels twisted, like it’s been put back at an angle or just two inches to the left or replaced with near-but-not-quite-replicas.
“Mycroft,” he says by way of explanation, and John nods, putting the box down on the coffee table. There are six more and one heavy trunk: John has accumulated things, in the year and a half with Sherlock and the three without, that he hadn’t owned in those short few months before he moved to 221b, used to a more spartan lifestyle as a soldier. Sherlock watches as he carries the boxes up, newly bought for this move, and wonders if John knows the many and subtle ways objects can tether one to the world.
Most he puts in the bedroom but Sherlock watches as he opens one, only one, in the sitting room. He takes out his RAMC mug, with its cracked and glued handle from when Sherlock overestimated its resistance to heat, a foxed and faded copy of Bonaventure Orfila’s A Treatise on Poisons, John’s gift to Sherlock that first Christmas, and the skull. He places each on the table.
Sherlock wants to cradle John’s jaw in his hands, wants to grasp his forearms and remind him that they’re both alive, wants to mark his skin with signs and sigils so nothing can harm him. Instead he stands, picks up the skull, and places it on the mantle.
“There,” he says. “Home again.”
John only asks once, but his words – his tone sharp and gentle and needful all at once – broker no compromises.
“Tell me what you did, while you were – away.” He wants to say dead, while you were dead, while I mourned you, while I ached: Sherlock can read it in the set of his shoulders and the tightness of his jaw.
He shakes his head, the movement painful. “I can’t.”
“No,” John says, and stretches his hands. Sherlock wants him to take hold, to grasp and shake and take out his anger; to purify and absolve. He won’t though, just like he didn’t when Sherlock couldn’t walk through his door, just like he didn’t when Sherlock asked him to come home. “I need to know, Sherlock. You can’t – I can’t live here, be – here with you – and not know. I can’t. I don’t even know why you –” he breaks off and swallows, hard, and Sherlock feels his own hand shake slightly, like he’s not in control of his body.
“You don’t understand, John. There are things he could have done –” Sherlock stops, takes a breath. “There are fates worse than death, you know.”
“Yes,” John says, looking him in the eye, “I know.” Sherlock’s stomach seizes slightly, and he looks away first.
“I did things,” Sherlock says, low, breaking the long, tense silence between them. “I saw things. Things I couldn’t – can’t – explain.”
“You wouldn’t believe me.”
John huffs a low, small breath and shakes his head. “I always do,” he says honestly.
Sherlock looks at him, and lets out his breath, and tells him everything.
Sherlock’s sprawled on the sofa and John’s leant on one elbow at their shared desk, scrolling through comments on his blog distractedly, when the Winchesters walk into their flat.
Sherlock’s unexpected – and surprisingly newsworthy – return from the dead six months ago has brought a renewed interest to John’s blog and an unwanted influx of idiotic commenters, and when the door opens, accompanied by Mrs Hudson’s familiar cooee, John’s finger hovers over the delete button. He straightens up as heavy footfalls sound behind Sherlock, and Sherlock cranes his head upside down until he can see their visitors.
He jerks slightly in surprise when he sees who they are, and John narrows his eyes suspiciously. Flipping his feet down from the sofa arm, Sherlock swings into a seated position and, waving abstractly toward the pair of armchairs by the fireplace, says, “Sam and Dean Winchester. Have a seat; it’s a long flight from – North Carolina, was it? Especially with a fear of flying.”
“Wha-” Sam says, jaw dropping then snapping shut, and Dean reaches for his hip, no doubt for a gun that’s no longer there. John half-rises from his seat until Sherlock gives him a terse nod and he sits again, tensed for action if need be.
“How do you know who we are?” Dean asks, empty hand clenching air, voice a low growl.
“It’s not every day a pair of dead men walk into my home,” Sherlock says instead of answering, and John snorts.
“Bit rich,” he says, with a pointed look, and Dean looks between the two of them like they’re speaking in tongues. Sherlock narrows his eyes but says nothing.
“We don’t really have time for this,” Dean says, hands flexing. Sherlock notices the small crescents not yet faded from his palms.
“The chances of dying in an airplane crash are far slimmer than the chances of dying in your line of work,” he says, and Dean glares at him, grits his teeth.
“How do you –”
“And you should know, Mr Winchester, you’ve both died before.”
Dean takes a step forward and Sam stops him, hand on his elbow. “I think you have some explaining to do, Mr Holmes.”
“I’m not the one who turned up out of the blue on a stranger’s doorstep,” Sherlock snaps.
“Sherlock…” Sherlock doesn’t look at John but closes his mouth.
“Listen, we just – well, it’s hard to explain, really –” Dean scrubs one hand over his forehead, letting out a breath.
“Here,” Sam says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a slip of paper. He holds it out to Sherlock, who ignores it, so with a sigh, John reaches across. When unfolded, 221b is revealed, scrawled across the paper with a heavy, dark marker. “This number was given to us by – well, by someone very close to us, in his last moments. We have reason to believe he wanted us to come here.”
“No other 221bs show up on Google, anyway,” Dean adds. Sam shoots him a look and he shrugs.
“So, we’re hoping you can help us.”
Sherlock grins; how many of his best cases start with those words? “I can,” he says shortly, “provided it’s Leviathan you’re fighting.”
Half-prophecy, half-spell, and a little unclear in the specifics, the scroll nonetheless details a few specifications to any who seek to banish the Leviathan back to purgatory. Sherlock – and John – have already been preparing, which means that all of the ordinary ingredients and a fair few of the extraordinary have already been gathered. Dean looks at the list and nods, humming a bit under his breath.
“We can do this,” he says, and looks up, grins at Sam. “We might actually be able to beat those sons-of-bitches, Sammy.”
Sherlock watches them; they’ve lost so much – everything, nearly, except themselves and each other – and yet they still look forward to each battle with fire in their eyes. John’s fingertips twitch against his thigh and he leans into them a little.
John leans forward and his knee brushes against Sherlock’s. Heat transfers between them and Sherlock’s blood sings John home London John.
“What do we do now?” John asks, and looks only at Sherlock.
“Now?” Sherlock shrugs, then grins. John’s lips curl up automatically. “We save the world.”