"This is life's sorrow:
that one can be happy only where two are;
and that our hearts are drawn to stars
which want us not."
- from "Herbert Marshall," Edgar Lee Masters
"Come on," the boy is saying. "Come on, get up, don't let them get to you."
And Sherlock sees the blurry outstretched arm and vivid eyes as his stomach twists, and it feels like the world is one of the little red tops he had when he was younger as it's in those final, wobbling stages right before everything collapses and there's nothing he can do to stop it, stop himself from spinning out and out and away.
But he takes the only solid thing before him by the hand and says, "Okay."
John has been with Sherlock as far back as he can remember, which is Sunday the 23rd of July, 1978, as he'll one day piece together from old scrapbooks and the elder Mycroft's recollections.
He recalls the white-gold glint on rolling waves, the soft foam that rose over his toes on rough, coppery sand. Gulls overhead. Sky, cloudless blue. A boy, the boy, tanned and freckled, grinning up at him and saying words he won't remember, but he remembers that he laughed in response.
"We were the only ones on the beach that day, Sherlock," Mycroft will say, peering at him strangely over the rim of a teacup with those beady, narrowed eyes. "Mummy, Father, you and myself."
Sherlock will nod, but he'll also know better.
After that day by the ocean, the boy crops up more often in his memories, like sunspots on a reel of film. Sherlock can flick back through them, watch as they grow and change, but John is always a constant. Whether they're digging under Mummy's gardenias for worms to dissect or fidgeting together in that stuffy old church on the corner of the main street with the peeling white picket fence outside and the warped stained glass bending the light into halos of color above their heads, John is the hazy glow just at the corner of his vision that makes everything else obscure.
They never leave him a place at the table, and each night he fights and screams until John is seated comfortably at his side. He demands food, but John usually draws the line there. "I can't stand asparagus," he'd say with a wrinkle of his nose, and Sherlock would giggle and leave it at that. He doesn't eat much either. It's all fine.
On the other sides of the table, Mummy and Father and Mycroft exchange nervous looks and don't speak for the rest of the meal.
If Sherlock hadn't deleted the first day of school (and as many days as he could after that), it would go a little something like this: Billy has orange hair and freckles and fresh white trainers and a spot of dirt behind his ear. He also has a mummy who is dead and a father who drinks lots of alcohol, and Sherlock tells him this, and then Sherlock is registering the pain on his face and a hole in his trousers and he is panting heavily and trembling on the ground and he is disoriented and he doesn't remember and he can't get up and he doesn'tunderstand, doesn't know -
John, his John, is staring after them with hard eyes before he whirls and rushes to his side, out of breath himself, and looks at his face in concern. "You'll have a black eye," he says grimly, and his chubby, boyish fingers reach out to prod the purpling swell. Sherlock flinches away from his hand, turning his face away, but they're both aware of the clear, watery line that carves a path through the dust on his cheek.
"Why don't they like me?" It's more confession than question.
John's own lips quiver. "I like you."
"Sherlock... Sherlock just isn't getting along well with the other children." Marjorie shakes her head, back and forth, "Mmm-mmm, nope, not a bit. I'm sure you understand." She begins to sharpen a pencil at her desk, the 'World's Greatest Teacher' mug at her elbow wobbling with the vibrations, half-drunk tea sloshing around at the bottom. It's probably gone cold.
Mrs. Holmes waits politely for her to finish, watching as Marjorie sets her pencil down neatly in the row of three others and takes out a fifth. "Well, if that's all," she begins, voice unsteady but gaining strength as she speaks. "Sherlock is a difficult child, yes, but he's beyond-"
"Difficult!" Marjorie tuts, setting down her unsharpened pencil with a crack on the desktop. "Mrs. Holmes, five fights in two weeks is... is..." She laughs sharply. "Well, I'm sure you understand we've done our best."
"But it's not -"
"Good day, Mrs. Holmes. I'll have his papers sent in the post."
"Wait just a moment!" Mrs. Holmes says, rising to her feet with a sudden flare in eyes that are almost devoid of color. The teacher quails under the icy stare, though her eyes stray nervously to the pencils that Mrs. Holmes' hasty stand knocked askew. One rolls to the edge, hesitating.
"You do not dismiss me," she hisses. Taking a breath, drawing strength into her spine, she tries one last time. "I'm quite assured something can be done. For starters, removing the boys who actually cause the fights. Removing those, those bullies from his classroom, at least separating them during the play breaks." She attempts a smile. "Is that so much to ask?"
Marjorie looks uneasy, and her eyes are still trained on the pencil dangling precariously over the lip of the desk. "Actually, Mrs. Holmes, truth be told, we're more concerned with Sherlock's erratic behavior. I'm sure you understand."
"Did you not just hear -"
"Not the fights."
Mrs. Holmes stops. A thin line tightens the corner of her mouth, and under the pale fluorescent light she abruptly looks far more wan, far more frail. "If this is about John," she dances quickly over the name, a hurried, exhaled syllable scrambling around the issue the way they all have come to do, "then I can assure you, we're trying to find a... solution."
"I suggest you do, or Sherlock Holmes will not be allowed to continue at this institution. We pride ourselves on certain standards here. I'm sure you'll understand."
She can't stop herself from snapping bitterly, "I certainly do not understand! He is - he's just a boy."
For the first time, Marjorie looks up, and her lips curl around a cutting smile. "One thing we can both agree on, Mrs. Holmes - Sherlock is not just a boy." The pencil tips at last and lands with a tinny clink on the floor, the only sound in a room saturated with troubled silence.
Sherlock squirms in the big, uncomfortable chair next to his mother. "May we leave, mother?" He squirms again, says quietly, "John and I are getting bored."
The storms of her grey eyes are held at bay only by the sight of her son, staring up at her guileless and innocent.
This is before he knows and understands the way he can wield humanity like a weapon, feeling the glint and power of its fragility in his hands. This is before he becomes a master of manipulation, using that same humanity against those who claim to have it themselves, slipping on skins and becoming everything he isn't. This is before he denounces it completely for himself.
She doesn't know this. Not yet. If she had, perhaps she would not have continued to stare, and then walked silently from the room without a backwards glance to see if he might follow, the click of her heels on tile fading as the distance between them grows.
"Where do you go," he asks ruminatively, pausing with the pipette hovering above the beaker's open mouth, "when I don't want you?"
"I don't... I don't know," John says, and he looks lost.
"What's a doctor?" asks John, his legs swinging where they dangle at the foot of the bed.
Sherlock sighs. John really can be so frightfully ignorant. It's good he has Sherlock to tell him all the smart, important things. "It's a person who checks you when you're sick for what's made you sick, and then makes you better with medicines and treatments."
"Oh." The legs stop. John is looking thoughtfully at the ceiling while Sherlock struggles with his laces. He smiles suddenly. "I want to be one of those."
He's fixed with a hard stare from under a mop of black fringe. "Yesterday you wanted to be an army man. And the day before that you wanted to be a firefighter. And the day beforethat -"
"Yes, alright," John says crossly, jumping down and kneeling beside Sherlock. He shoves his shoulders back and takes up the shoes himself. Sherlock huffs, but allows it, falling backwards and resting his feet carelessly in John's lap.
"I'll always want to be a pirate," he muses, and John snorts, still convinced that Sherlock's ideas are frequently, if not always, ridiculous. "Until it gets boring. Then I'll be something else."
He opens his mouth to reply, but there's a knock at the door, immediately followed by Mycroft edging into the room. He looks down his nose where Sherlock is sprawled on the floor. "All ready, dear brother? The appointment is in," he checks his new watch, an annoying habit ever since Daddy got him the stupid thing last week, "ten minutes. Can't be late."
"I'm not even sick," he grouses, muffled by the arm he's thrown over his face. The other arm extends upwards with a flourish.
Mycroft just grants him a terse smile, though he steps closer and takes Sherlock's hand, pulling him to his feet. He's turning them for the door when Sherlock asks, "Can John come, too?"
The small hand in his own is sweaty, and Mycroft feels the loss of warmth as it slips away. "Of course. But just this once." His back straightens, and he quickly marches, alone, into the shadows of the illustrious molding and grand arches of the hall. Just this once more. Just this last time.
"I prayed we'd never have to speak of it again," Mycroft will tell him, a rueful quirk at the corner of his mouth.
"You've never prayed for anything in your life," Sherlock will grouse. "And if you did, change your deity, because here we are."
Three nurses and one of them has a daughter - no, son, stupid - and another one is a man and he's sleeping with the last nurse, who has a husband that's older than her by at least ten, maybe fifteen, years, and is probably - no, definitely - cheating on her as well. The man has a dog and the last nurse's husband is allergic and will probably realize something is off when the sneezing starts and they're really all so stupid, all of them. There's also a secretary and she smokes but not at work and she had an apple for breakfast though he can't tell if it was green or golden delicious and she's talking to someone named Linda on the phone and Linda thinks that Jane - the secretary - should get a better job but the pay is good here (it isn't) and she's happy (she isn't) and she should stay (she shouldn't, if she knew anything, but obviously she's an idiot, too).
And down the hall and around the corner - second corner, actually, and to the right - there are three people and they're all men over the age of 40 and he can smell coffee - cheap, and if he could taste it he'd even know the brand - so he imagines that there is some sort of lobby or workspace or not enough data, not enough, but there's something there and Sherlock would like to go see what it is, and maybe that would lead him somewhere else, and then he'd find out where that went, and on and on and on until he's followed all the threads and walked all the paths of the entire world and there are no more secrets, nothing he doesn't know.
Thinking about all this and it still doesn't drown out the sounds of Mummy crying in the office to his left, seated before the long table with the crinkly paper, four legged-chair but one of the legs was off and made a noise every time she shifted her weight and it rocked to a new side, while the doctor sat in a rolling chair. Protesting wheels; definitely had it over ten years. Definitely.
And they're things he knows. Not like, "Disorder," and "Schizophrenia," and words he's heard and seen in books but never associated with himself. They don't belong to him. They are foreigners marching across his pages, and he wants to tear them out, out of all the books and out of his life.
He draws his knees up to his chest and mashes his face against his kneecaps - patellas, he connects mentally, and then he's skating off through the skeletal system, almost unable to stop the frenzied patterns that march along inside his head. And in the dark, he can't see John next to him, and he thinks that's what they want, femur, tibia, fibula... nevermind that he can sense the heat of his body, humerus, radius... ulna, feel his warm arms around his trembling shoulders, mandible... clavicle... ph... ph even hear his voice next to his ear saying, "It's okay," over and over again in low tones, even though he can't possibly understand. The words resonate in bones whose names he doesn't care about, not anymore, until it's enough white noise to make all the other sounds cancel out to welcome silence.
"One pill, once a day," Mummy says, kneeling down in front of him and balancing a small, cylindrical capsule in her outstretched palm, an offering that she prays he will accept. "You can take it with your breakfast."
Sherlock looks dubious. "Why?" He's not sick. He doesn't need to get better.
"Oh, honey," she murmurs, stroking a hand over his cheek, and then lies.
He knows it's a long shot, but he's so scared, so very, very scared, and so he whispers, "Has anyone seen John?"
It takes him little over a week to find out he has been betrayed. It's embarrassing that it should have taken so long - so much wasted time, trying not to worry, doing nothing else, because John, permanent John, John who was as much flesh and blood as he was, whose heartbeats had been synced with his for all the long years stretching back through his memory, the pulse of the ages as it scrolled on like lifelines on a monitor, was gone, just gone, and no one was doing anything about it.
Then he finds out why, and it's so much worse. Not just embarrassing. Humiliating. Yet there's also the solution, and it's easy to forget what they did to him, how they'd played deaf to his cries and blind to his fear, when he doesn't take the wretched medicine and John is there beside him the next morning. It hurts just that little bit less, and that's enough.
"Where have you been?" he asks, voice erupting wildly off his tongue. At least, it seems like the bottle cap exploding as every unpent, simmering feeling unfurls in the open air, but he can only croak, the words barely fizzing from his sleep-coated, tear-hoarse throat.
John's eyes are large and glassy in the dim morning light, the grey of just before dawn making them look like the sea, mercurial and filtering over green and steel and cerulean and indigo and back again, so he can't catch one color as it shifts to another. Sherlock wonders if he might fall in and drown in that kaleidoscope sea, especially when John curls a hand over his chest and pulls him closer, deeper. "Right here."
Strangely enough, he's still breathing.
"Who are you, really?"
Sherlock nods, slowly. "Are you real?" he blurts after a while.
John just looks at him with that same steady, level gaze, slightly chiding, slightly fond, and they don't speak of it again.
Sherlock studiously buries the pills every day, varying their locations as best he can - less chance of anyone finding out that way, and if they did, it could be written off more easily. Sherlock's becoming a fantastic liar, and the game of it is just the start of his chasing after thrills. But such is the price.
John's eyes grow sadder when they hurry off to school each morning and he sees the slim outline of the capsule in Sherlock's back pocket and the grin on his friend's face, but still he says nothing.
Each, in their own silences, and slowly the lack of it becomes a tangible force between them, a wall that neither can breach. Now, Sherlock wonders what would have happened if he'd stopped then. If he'd listened before plunging on recklessly ahead. He discards it as irrelevant. After all, that came later.
For a while, things work. Years, in fact. They function.
But John cares too much for only functioning.
"I can't watch what it's doing to you. I can't - what you're becoming. It's... not good." He's grown some muscle as they aged, no longer the skinny, small boy from their childhoods, but a... a man, even as they're only just entering the secondary school. Sherlock, with his giant, spindly hands and knobby knees and stick-thin torso, capped by a mop of increasingly untamed hair, is fascinated by the change that happened without his noticing, especially when he still feels so small and gangly. Especially now, in light of what John is suggesting.
He sniffs. "I don't care if it's 'not good'." I have you for that," he reasons, and he reaches for John's hand, but the other boy flinches away, eyes hard beneath the shadows of the short, sandy hair falling over his forehead. There is no sea in those eyes now. Maybe air, because he's still falling through something, but there's no chance of safe landing at safe harbors now. Just the unsympathetic arms of the cold, hard ground. Cold, brutal reality, before Sherlock learned to make that his only friend.
Sherlock's knees are dangerously close to giving way, but he straightens as John steps forward, adamant. He uncurls the hand Sherlock had just been reaching for, and Sherlock's face morphs into surprise, settling into a steely stubbornness, as he spies the pill cradled along the line of his palm. Despite himself, his balance sways again. "You have to take it. This isn't healthy."
"Sherlock!" John growls, and then sighs, coiled, hard shoulders untensing into hunched defeat. "I'm -" His mouth twists, head turning away to hide the ugly expression, but Sherlock can read all the ugly thoughts as they drape around his figure, clinging like a dark and dirty blanket. "There's something wrong with me. I'm all in your head. I'm not -"
"Don't say it," Sherlock pleads, voice cracking like a gunshot.
But the smoke clears. "Real," John says with finality, and Sherlock flinches as if John has struck him. "Pretending isn't good for you."
"You're good for me!" he cries in frustration, and hurtles himself into John's arms. He wants to crawl in, infest him like a parasite until he's all there is, in every waking thought and every step he takes, every flex of his toes. Fine, if John is part of him, then so be it. He crushes him tighter, as if he gets close enough they might meld into one being.
But Sherlock knows, he knows John isn't part of him in that he's someone else entirely, with his own dreams and aspirations and goals and vitality. Just as he knows that, logically, John is an anomaly and a thing his mind has dreamt up, every atom in the space between them speaks of a real, true breadth, a distance that can only be created between two people who are made of all the same, human elements; oxygen and hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. And John... John is more human than he has ever been.
John is beginning to squirm, and Sherlock at last releases him, panting himself. "Do you feel real? To you, don't think about me, but do you?"
John is shaking his head, a humorless smile on his lips as he says, "That isn't fair."
"Then don't ask me for the same." He heaves in a deep, shuddering breath, taking the pill he filched from John's hand in the midst of their hug and pinching it between his fingers, holding it up in front of his face. His eyes flicker from the capsule to John and back again, and when he speaks, it's as if to the tiny, hollow disc in his fist. "You're good for me and I don't think I know how to survive without you. If you're real to you and you're real to me then anyone else can just piss off, because I don't care what they think, not like I care whatyou do." Sherlock lets the pill fall, and crushes it under his foot, green powder spilling out over the pavement.
"Sherlock, I'm - I'm impossible." John seems to shrink again, but Sherlock places his hands on his shoulders, gripping his arms tightly, digging into skin and tightly wound muscle that he knows he isn't imagining.
"No," he says, and he smiles faintly, the corners of his eyes creasing. "Just improbable."
"Do you miss John?" Ms. Tracey asks, hand poised over her clipboard, eyes full of a concern that is almost undoubtedly false. His eyes flick over her slim figure - gaining weight, more fiddling with the garish necklace than usual, frequent glances at the telephone. Break-up then, or one's at least coming.
He blinks, sits up straighter, smiles wide. "Do you miss Bernard, or - oh. Has he not even told you yet?"
Beside him, John sighs, and Sherlock feels the grin tremble.
He knew it would happen, and one day it does: as he swallows the last bite, he looks at John's face, John's sorrowful face, the face of a man who cannot lie to him. The pill is not at his elbow.
And he races to the bathroom and retches, and when his sweating face looks up at John in the doorway with his sagging shoulders he cannot be angry with him. He can only rest his forehead against the cool ivory and try, as if shouldering the heaviest burdens of the earth, not to let the heated pricking behind his eyes become anything more.
Sherlock nearly stops eating, and it's only when John promises, swears on the Bible and Sherlock's treasured microscope and on his own heart that he will not do it again, does Sherlock dare to participate in meals once more.
His parents blame it on an illness, but they're only half-right.
"I'd leave if I could."
Sherlock stares at him with infinite cruelty. "Would you?"
The hate, that beautiful, human hate fans John's eyes to a flame that burns cold at the center.
"No." Sherlock turns back to his textbook.
It's nineteen minutes past midnight when John shifts away from him, and Sherlock follows, curving around his back as if to hide him away from the rest of the world. He only belongs to Sherlock, it's true, why should he pretend it isn't? No one else can see him, and it should be a shame, but at the same time it means only Sherlock can have him. Only him, forever.Mine.
"I should let you go," he whispers, the ashamed, shallow breath of his confession fanning out across John's ear, but he only shivers and doesn't wake up.
They go out sometimes and lie under the sky at night.
"I feel," John would say each time, as he gestures at the huge expanse of swirling black and blues, majestic purple streaking the horizon, while they search in vain for stars amongst the city's glow.
"How?" Sherlock would breathe, as if anything more would disrupt these brash confessions, these treasured insights into what he does not understand, that are so rare, so precious, so much more than a few constellations. This peace that has become so tenuous. He cups John's hand like a diamond in his palm.
"Small," John would reply, and then he'd laugh, and it'd be a sound that was brighter in his head than all the stars, even the ones they can't see.
"Do you remember John?" his mother asks conversationally one day, and both boys, sitting on the couch - John sitting, Sherlock sprawled with his head in John's lap - flinch.
His mother is still caught in reflection, and she smiles faintly. "It was part of your disorder. You had this imaginary friend, and dear me. You two were just inseparable." She considers for a moment. "That was really the first sign."
"How do you know," Sherlock manages, and his eyes lock with John's, "that he wasn't just that? Imaginary? How do you know it was part of the... schizophrenia?"
"At first we didn't think schizophrenia at all. You were so young, and that's so rare... but, well, there were other signs. You not growing out of it. The social issues. Agitation," she says easily, the honest manner of the Holmeses not leaving much room for any sidling about the issue. There's only one recorded case of that, and he's sitting, though unseen, in the room.
"And of course the brain scans when you were older," she continues. "But I suppose we should be thankful it's the only thing you were seeing." She heaves an exhale, laying her magazine down on the coffee table and giving him a warm smile. "I ask because I was just wondering what he'd be like now, if we hadn't gotten you treated in time. If you'd still be friends." She laughs, a private little giggle, shaking her head, before standing and moving from the room.
At any other time, Sherlock would be quietly amused at how oblivious she is; how easy it's been for him to fool them all, even Mycroft - but in this moment, it's hard not to focus on John's watering eyes and pretend he's only staring into empty, absent space. "Yes," he says thickly, and above him John's eyes close and it's like watching someone swallow the ocean, all the seas, all of his entire world. "Yes, I imagine we would."
And it's ridiculous, completely ridiculous that in this moment it is he who is seeking comfort, who is looking to John for guidance. One for the road, he supposes. The thought leaves him feeling oddly bereft.
"Don't think of it as an end," John is speaking smoothly, coaching him, a warm hand on his shoulder. "Don't think of it as losing. Like an experiment, alright?"
"And I can stop again, if it fails?"
John smiles, just a touch sadly. "Retrials, right? Have to keep testing the hypothesis."
The inability to breathe becomes rather more pronounced, as something insists on getting in the way, and he can't even swallow around it. He ducks his head, feeling John's fingers thread up into his hair and stroke over his scalp. He doesn't want John to be scientific here, and even that's a strange thought. He wants John to, to care, like he always has, and like he doesn't seem to now.
And that isn't fair, because he does, and Sherlock can feel it in every tremble of his fingertips and every shallow inhalation as it rattles through his lungs. Lungs, flesh-and-blood lungs, figure, form, reality, person, human, alive. He cares too much.
And so does Sherlock, as water at last rushes around the lump in his throat and a tiny capsule slips past with it. He cares too much, too much about John, too much, too much, too much, and he tries to tell John this, that he's doing it for him and that has to be proof that he's made Sherlock better, but he's crying and he doesn't know when that started but it's as if John understands, all of it, every little unspoken word and all the spaces in between, and he keeps stroking, stroking and stroking and stroking and Sherlock cries and cries until he can't feel John's fingers anymore.
Everything is the same, and that's what's different. With John, every new day brought adventure, every hour was something unexpected. Maybe that's only what it felt like - for surely there was tedium, then - but now without John. Now without John. Even the words are hollow. Each day, he goes through the routines of being in high school, getting dressed and earning his marks and all the other pointless, useless little things that make up a day. For each one he is still given a wide berth by his peers. For each one he experiments, and reads, and walks, he eats and breathes and it's never been so boring. But every day, he is cordial for Mummy and Father and Mycroft, and maybe if he hadn't been at university Mycroft at least would have noticed something, but even on their phone calls he didn't mention a thing. All was as it should have been.
"I didn't realize, then," Mycroft will say, as he surveys a tea cake and then decides against it, much to the later Sherlock's amusement. "But I did know you'd lost something. You could..." he makes a vague gesture, lips pursing in slight distaste, no doubt at the emotional equivalent of it all. "...sense it."
No, and even the Sherlock of the past would agree. He didn't lose anything, he just finally let it go. And then - that was when he lost everything.
"They missed it. They've missed it. The shoes, John, there was no sign of them - what happened to Carl Powers wasn't an accident, it can't be -"
He remembers belatedly that no one is listening. Not the police, not his family, not - not John. Not anymore.
At least in the city, you knew the stars were there. Light pollution made it impossible to see them, but it was still probable - still definite, even - that they lay just behind the shimmering veil.
For Sherlock, sitting alone in a grassy field under a blank slate of night sky, he realizes altogether too fancifully that it's sort of like moving to the country and expecting to see all those brilliant stars, all those grand, great constellations, only to find out they'd burned out a long time before you'd ever have even had the chance to see them. Or maybe, he supposes, tucking his knees up under his chin and closing his eyes to be greeted by a total, complete darkness - like being all alone in his private universe, alone as he's never been before - they'd never existed at all.
He needs room for the entire periodic table, and since the cosmos rarely made an impact on his life, he begins the slow process of purging them from his memory, and it's essentially the same result.
Each morning he swallows around the pill and the lump it leaves behind in his throat. And he doesn't forget. It's a constant awareness, this lack-of-John, but perhaps it becomes like breathing - you forget that you're doing it, and in those moments that you do remember, you're suddenly, abruptly, all too hyper-aware of each dragging inhalation as your nostrils flare, as it scrapes against your trachea and expands within your lungs, converts, sings in your blood, finds its way back out as carbon dioxide, the cycle repeating until death. But mostly, it's just the way things are.
So his absence is a presence that he feels constantly, but not acutely - only in those quiet moments when he can hear how the silence sings without anything to fill it.
He remembers university as being an exercise in, well, exercising. Mind, body, yes, but more so, his limits. Without the barriers of expectation, without the steady, watchful eye of his family - Mycroft will sigh with a roll of his eyes, "We were always watching you, Sherlock, at least I was." - without John... well, he's been without John for a long while. He doesn't need him anymore. He needs no one. Least of all himself.
With this knowledge he breathes freely in relief. All the long years of hiding, first John, then his private, quiet pains - those are over now. They roll from his shoulders in an easy wave of self-assurance, in its wake leaving a proud arch to his neck, a cocky tilt to his hips, an arrogant glide in his step. His last thought of John for a long, long time comes one morning looking into the mirror at bloodshot eyes and pale skin, when he wonders if John would recognize the face that stares back.
He is reborn from the ashes, but it starts with a fire in his veins.
It's a rush, wholly unexpected, a sensory explosion behind his eyelids, and he can practically feel the various chemicals wreaking havoc as they sing through his blood, dancing and pulsing an urgent beat that flashes like a strobe in violent colors before his vision, colors that have yet to be named and that he can taste and touch and inhale, until he is made of all that light and shadow and sound. He's found the stars here of all places, in a seedy little East End club surrounded by drunk, laughing, dancing idiots, all erupting inside his head like bursting bubbles of champagne, and he can't get enough.
He takes cocaine to rise above it all, ecstasy to forget, heroin to love it.
The cigarettes, Sherlock recalls, were for after, plain, old-fashioned tobacco smoke, heady and thick. Just enough to tide him over until the next hit. That's why he keeps them, and then the nicotine patches. They're enough, especially once he's... grown out of it.
But back then enough was never enough, not as things began to escalate. Because eventually he's classified over 240 types of tobacco ash and tried them all repeatedly and he still can feel the ache of longing in his veins, little pinpricks of sensation that aren't nearly enough reminder of the sharp invasion of a needle, and the trembling in his limbs when it's been a while.
So at first he sleeps with them for data, but after a while when he's high and honest to a point of brutality, he can admit he does it to stop being bored. To pass the time until he's not aware of it passing.
He's developing something of a... reputation.
"Damn, Holmes," sighs his latest conquest, sloppily laid out on rumpled sheets in a dark flat that reeks of sweat and smoke and old mothballs. While he's catching his breath, Sherlock's already pulling on his jeans, checking his watch even though he knows he's missed his class, even though he knows it doesn't matter. "You're insane."
At this, however, his lips pull into a smirk. As if I weren't aware, he thinks, and leaves without a word, wondering if he can get a taxi down by the corner or if he'll have to walk all the way back to the main road.
"Oh, him? Just a cheap whore, if you can believe it." They giggle.
Sherlock scoffs at the notion. By the end of the evening most of his bedmates would have been begging to pay him, all coltish and smoky-eyed and sensuous as he is. As if he'd have to do something so mundane as ask for payment.
The group moves out of the library. It's quiet again. Sherlock attempts to concentrate on the structures of the common D-aldohexose monosaccharides, noting the hydroxyl orientations.
Mycroft will say nothing, but John will be different.
"What?" he will snap at him, John and his stricken face, when he recounts it later, but John will swallow and tell him roughly to just get on with it.
He only tries LSD once. Just once. He's being shagged by some passing stranger from the pub, maybe he chatted him up, maybe the other way round, ahh, he can't remember, doesn't care; hands are wrist-deep in his hair and a tongue is savaging his mouth and Sherlock feels blood under his nails as the headboard slams against the wall, picking up speed, and it's so good, so fucking good, like being fucked by an angel. The thought makes him laugh, laughing hysterically as he comes messily all over his own stomach, drenched in sweat and giggling in sharp pants as he's rocked by each pulse and the other man grunts towards his own climax.
And after he's flying to the bathroom to clean himself up, snatching a neon-purple towel from the rack when he hears behind him an aghast, "Sherlock," in a voice he hasn't heard in years.
His head cracks around, body struggling to follow. John is gaping open-mouthed in the doorway. "What the hell?" he asks, or maybe Sherlock does, he can't tell, can't remember, doesn't matter, just staring at the new lines in John's anguished face before his whole figure suddenly flickers once, twice, like a skip in a film reel, and disappears.
He wakes up alone in his own apartment with a splitting headache, unsure of what day it is or if what happened was even real. But he's used to this, used to things being all in his head. He doesn't allow it to bother him. Nevertheless, the next time someone offers him a tiny square of blotter paper, he shakes his head, slowly, and leaves. He doesn't come back.
"Ah..." His brother will ask. He will peer at him with curiosity, a keen, smug light of perception in his eye. "Is that when you showed up on my doorstep looking so very charming, brother dearest? Was that the end of your little habit?"
"If you'll recall I still do smoke occasionally, Mycroft," he'll snap, but Mycroft will smirk and settle back in his chair, simply waving him on.
If Sherlock hadn't deleted the withdrawal, it would have gone a little something like this: shrieking at 2:30 in the morning as he rips his own hair from his head in great, bloody gobs during the worst of it, perspiration soaking through his shirts, trying not to claw through his own skin in an effort to let his blood sing with the pain and oxygen, the only high he can imagine now. Desperate, ugly craving for more, always more, with constant denial, growling obscenities at Mycroft when he isn't too busy moaning on the floor to do so, or curled away from the fear that is tearing its way through his throat, through his veins, through his mind.
He is used to fighting mental battles. But his entire body is engaged in this fight. It's been awhile since he's been so wholly occupied. He doesn't think this, however, is what most doctors mean by 'staying active.'
During the long months, the battle moves from his nauseous stomach, out of his trembling limbs, away from his itching skin, an army in retreat. It settles more into his head, curling around his emotions like a fog he must work especially hard to see through. It warps and distorts every thought. The drug is no longer in his system, but it will not leave for good, not for a long while yet.
He's so intensely focused on not allowing the irritability to become numbness, on not straying into panic and anxiety from apathy, that he does eventually forget the worst of it. After all, all of it was, as has been said, deleted, eventually.
There was that moment he forgot, however, in the A&E on one of the Danger Nights where Mycroft had ordered him to emergency care, when through the blur of bodies and distant shouts and his own sweat in eyes he feels a strong grip on his shoulder. And a doctor, maybe just another of the nameless interns cycling through as his hired protectors, wrenches him upwards, smiles, skin around his magnificent blue eyes going crinkly though he can't be much older than Sherlock, murmurs, "Yeah, you're going to be fine," and sets him down in a wheelchair to be carted away down long hallways to even longer recoveries.
He forgot his name, maybe never asked. It hadn't mattered. Forgotten, then deleted.
For most things, when it's all done and disappeared from his mind palace, it never crops up again. But like discarded treasures in the attic, skeletons in the closet, some things refuse to stay as irrelevant as Sherlock, in youth and naivete, had made them out to be.
Having had enough time to mull over the hazy memory himself, Sherlock will reveal "He was there," before stoically raising his cup to his lips, smiling behind the protection offered by the mug.
"Who? John?" Mycroft will frown, thinking, then nod a little to himself. "Yes, if I remember correctly, his file does put him in residency around the same time. We probably passed him quite a bit."
When he asks John later, he'll also take a pause to think, then shrug up at him. "I was training at Barts. Don't particularly remember seeing you, but then again, got quite a few of your type off the streets," he'll add with a pointed look. "Why? Did I help treat you?"
"Yes," Sherlock will say, and then grin, swift and sharp. "Yes, you did."
Regularity, after that, settles in with relative ease. Not that he's ever been anywhere close to normal, no, but one day he worms his way into the scene of a recent crime because the idiotic forensics team had completely missed - insulting, really, this incompetence - the trajectory of the blood spatter. "It has to be homicide, not suicide," he'll shout, and then, under his breath, "Morons."
And amidst the panic and confusion, angry shouts and nervous gestures at the civilian swanning around their crime scene like he owns the place, "Why?" someone asks from behind him.
He turns, advancing immediately on the newly-minted detective inspector. Then he stops dead, his forehead creasing in sudden confusion. "W-why? You actually want to know why?"
He looks extremely taken aback, and the man can't help but smile faintly in response, tipping his greying head. "It's either that or get your arse in custody in about two seconds. If you've got something to offer, best gimme."
If he ever were to ask, Lestrade would rock back on his heels and say something along the lines of, "It'd been a long day. Besides, most lunatics don't step willingly past the yellow tape."
At that first scene, Sherlock surveys him for a few seconds longer, deducing many things but chief among them Greg Lestrade's sincerity. Then he launches into an explanation, "Look at the angle of the gunshot wound. That sort of spray pattern..." and it's just the beginning of the life he's destined for. Of the life that will become his new normality. But it isn't quite done forming, not yet. That comes later. In fact, it's coming soon.
"Bit different from my day."
Every illusion of normalcy, of coping, of moving on, shatters.
Because he could dismiss it, could say he must have missed a dose somewhere along the line, could delete him all over again - but Mike is looking at him, too. Mike, staring at him, mouth morphing around the words, "That's an old friend of mine, John Watson."
Mike can see him, too.
And then when John looks at him, there is no light of recognition in his eyes. None at all.
He rushes from the room as soon as he can, his recent deductions crawling over his skin and questions threatening to choke him so he can't concentrate, can't do anything except get out and get out fast so he can breathe. There's not enough oxygen in his blood, not enough getting to his brain, he can't even think.
He throws a shoulder against the wall once he's out of the room, all his breezy confidence dropping as if shedding a coat, and takes a deep, shuddering breath. Then another, and another, until his racing pulse has quieted and he can see clearly, though every cell in his body still feels as if it's on fire, lit by the burning need for answers in light of the impossible come to life.
John is every bit as magnificent as Sherlock remembers. It's just the being real, being tangible, honest-to-god present in this world, that's new. Sherlock muses how it's funny, now that's he's real, Sherlock isn't allowed to touch. That he exists and at once has never been farther from him. John has a sister, and a history in Afghanistan, and medical school training. He has a scar Sherlock's never seen with his own eyes, he's killed people, he prefers whiskey when he's stressed but never over-indulges, even has a fondness for woolly jumpers, and Sherlock isn't a guessing man but he'd bet that he also has cavities in his teeth and trigger calluses on his fingers and freckles on his back and memories of an entire past stretching out behind him, and all of it is a mystery to Sherlock. Sherlock, who once knew him best, and isn't even a memory for him now.
When their shoulders brush in the hallway he can almost feel the crackling particles in that space, positives and negatives that draw them in closer, and closer - but John leaves to answer the door and it seems that orbit and orbit only is inevitable.
Sherlock tries skipping a dose, just in case. John thuds downstairs the next day, yawning and scratching his stomach, and asks, "Any of that takeaway left?" as if he hadn't killed a man the night before, as if he hadn't just defied all the sentient laws of nature, as if he hadn't just walked into Sherlock's world and burned it all up, like a planet crashing into the sun.
Watching John, both when the man is aware and when he is not, becomes a constant. John becomes used to it, and Sherlock won't pretend that, at first glance, there is very little mysterious about him. He can read every wrinkle in his clothing as simply as a line in a book (had a wank this morning. Dull). Every new shadow under his eye is not a secret (nightmare, heightened spatial awareness means Afghanistan, also statistically more likely given there's no case on).John is one of the most honest people he's ever met. He tells Sherlock more bluntly than most when things are not okay, are not human. He even keeps the hidden things, all his little secrets, out in the open. His metaphorical heart not on his sleeve, but branded onto his arm, unable to be ignored as it blazes for all to see, and to someone like Sherlock he is almost painfully obvious.
But the deeper he delves into John the more mystery he unravels, like a loose thread on a shirt that, when pulled, tears it all apart. And even then the threads are tangled; even then he can't sort through what he uncovers. His soldier's heart is offset by a service to queen and country, his killer's hands are influenced only by what is morally correct in his eyes. Hedoesn't make sense! John is a frustrating paradox between the visible and intangible worlds, breaking through the fragile surface of reality to be simultaneously what is, and what is not.
And that's all without touching on the fact that John Watson is someone he's known all his life, who once was only a figment of his imagination, and now... he isn't.
"Who are you, really?" he tries once.
John laughs. "Funny question." He peers at him with more apprehension. "You're not high, are you?"
Sherlock huffs at the tedium of such a response and doesn't make another attempt. It was a long shot anyway.
It shouldn't matter. Doesn't. The majority of those memories were shrouded by years, if not removed from his hard-drive entirely. But sometimes John will do something, something so reminiscent of that boy from his youth, and he'll forget, almost say, "I remember -" and then belatedly remember also that John doesn't.
And his hesitation isn't because he doesn't trust John. John thinks he's mad anyway, and frequently says as much. Besides, they share a bathroom - he's undoubtedly seen the dull green pills stacked in their bottle under his toothbrush, and even if he wasn't a doctor he could have looked up the name on the label and seen for himself, curious enough about Sherlock as he was in the early days. Even now, he supposes, with a small smile. Regardless, John is aware, and if he weren't, Sherlock would not mind telling him. There's always the stigma, yes, he's battled that his entire life, but John never was one for social convention.
It's his own uncertainty. John might not judge him for his illness, but for claiming he knew a boy, and that the boy's name was John Watson, and that John Watson was his John Watson... claiming that all the things he knew about that John were the same for this John, and that every new thing was just something he hadn't learned yet... well. There were a hundred arguments against it; there was Harry and his family, and John's summer vacations to Scotland as a child, and more treks he'd mapped and followed in his head all to the same conclusion - impossible, impossible, impossible.
But it isn't, and that's a whole new uncertainty altogether. He cannot trust what's before his eyes. Maybe what's there isn't even real. Maybe his medication has failed, maybe his brain has erupted from its careful confines - he's writhing in a bed at Broadmoor as John bleeds out from all the files in his carefully ordered mind, uproots the foundations of his palace to leave it in ruins and to infest the absence. Infest the nothingness until he's everything. What he knows to be true no longer is. It's a ferocious doubt, but he's never doubted John before, and he isn't keen to start now.
He's going to have to go to the source, if he wants the facts. Back to the beginning, and work forward from there.
Mycroft looks convincingly shocked to see him, though he'd no doubt tracked his progress and spent ages preparing for his arrival. Sherlock glowers up from the stuffy armchair.
"Spare me your gloating," he says, when Mycroft settles into his chair and immediately opens his mouth. That same mouth now shuts and the eyebrows above it rise. "I need to talk to you about John."
The eyebrows shoot higher. Sherlock's tempted to tell him to restrain them before they fly off his forehead, but he clamps his jaw shut and waits. Mycroft appears suitably shaken, but he's quick to dissolve the expression and shrug over at his brother. "I'm hardly an expert -"
"Not John, not this John." He grits his teeth. He stares at sunset light dancing over the red carpet. "That John. The John from before."
Recognition dawns in Mycroft's eyes almost immediately. "Ah," he sighs, uncrossing his legs and rising, taking a moment to straighten his waistcoat. "I think this is a conversation that will require tea."
The last dregs of tea are cold by the time Sherlock has recounted everything. Outside, the sun has been tucked away under the horizon, the dark, starless sky reigning instead. The fire is ash and ember, and as they stare into the dull orange glow, Mycroft's eyes are far more tired. He presses his steepled hands to his lips.
"And you're sure?"
Sherlock gives a curt nod.
Mycroft falls against the back of his chair, looking dazed as he stares out, unseeing, into the shadowed reaches of the room.
Sherlock stops drumming his fingers against the arm of the chair. They clench into a fist. He stares at his white knuckles, imagining that he can see his bones beneath the stretched skin, wonders what would happen if they broke free, splitting him open from the inside out, before he dismisses the ludicrous vision. "Some elements don't make sense." The silence breaks around his harsh voice. "But the new medications aren't any different. And John is..."
"Does he remember anything of the sort?"
Sherlock fixes him with a look.
Mycroft sighs, rolling his eyes. "You have asked him, yes?"
"Oh, yes," Sherlock snaps. "'Hello, John, we have a case - oh, and did I mention you used to be a permanent feature of my mentally disturbed imaginations?'" He snorts. "I don't doubt that would go over incredibly well."
Mycroft is quiet. "I think, perhaps," he says at last, slowly, soothingly, "you ought to give more credit where it is due."
The fire pops, and a log shifts, sending sparks flurrying up towards the chimney amidst a cloud of smoke. They watch as each winks out, one by one, until the dying flames have settled again. Sherlock doesn't look away as he says, quietly, "It's more likely that this is no longer reality. All this is," he waves his hand, grimaces, "false."
His brother stares at him.
"But it doesn't feel that way. I'd rather this than..." he trails off. He doesn't have to continue, not with Mycroft.
He nods, meeting his gaze with concerned, sad eyes of his own, an expression that for once is completely honest when it sits on his face. "I can't do anything to help you, and I think you knew that when you came here. But I can assure you that this is the real world, Sherlock - though I don't know how much that might mean to you." He pauses, chewing his lip, and then adds, "John might not have been part of it, once, but he is now, and it's your choice what to do about that. But those are the facts. I can get more information, if it suits you."
Sherlock shakes his head, minutely, and then asks, "Will it be enough?"
For once, Mycroft doesn't have an answer, isn't even quite sure what he's asking.
"I won't turn you in, either," he says at last. Sherlock tips his head, says nothing more.
They sit in their separate chairs and watch the fire burn itself out, until Sherlock gets up and leaves without another word, coat pulled tight around him as the hallway engulfs him in darkness.
He sees John again at breakfast the next morning. He tracks his flatmate's progress through the kitchen as he bustles about, humming and slathering butter on his toast and pouring his tea before he settles down and reaches for the newspaper. Pulling down the corner, he draws John's attention to his face.
"I have to tell you something," he states. He finds it odd that he can't just ask, as he always does; it's as if he has to prepare John for this, has to ready himself, has to...
But John is swallowing around a mouthful of bread, nodding, saying, "Okay, shoot," and sending Sherlock a smile that is so devastatingly honest that something twists in his stomach, and for the first time in his life he can't summon any words at all.
"The fridge," he says finally, and his hand slips away. "I need the fruit drawer to test whether or not Mr. Davies was innocent."
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
"I thought you didn't -"
"Doesn't mean I can't appreciate it."
He looks sidelong at John walking beside him, nodding his head as he considers. "Do you remember looking at the stars as children?" He almost curses aloud, eyes quickly darting over again before remaining fixed on the road ahead, heart unnaturally noticeable in his ears.
"I did a lot as a kid, yeah." John says slowly, puzzling over his answer. Escaping through the complexities of the English language was too narrow an escape, but Sherlock doesn't know whether he feels relieved by it or disappointed. "Lived in the country when I was little. Some really nice skies out there once you get away from the city for a bit. Why d'you ask?"
"How did it make you feel?"
"What?" he laughs, incredulous, before spying Sherlock's entirely serious eyes where they're seemingly glued to the wet asphalt. "Um..." he thinks again, a crooked little smile warming his face despite himself. "Small, I guess."
He peers curiously at Sherlock, but the man says nothing more. Sherlock indicates a new alley with a pointed finger, and John just sets off down the dark streets, determinedly at his side, not noticing how the digit trembles.
Moriarty has a gun trained on John. He might not be holding the rifle himself, but it's him, his impish face with all its twisted intelligence, behind the orders that keep the red dot hovering just over John's heart.
And in the midst of keeping his face flat, in engaging with one of the most - no, the most brilliant mind he's ever encountered, in steeling himself against the unexpected roiling in the pit of his stomach every time he looks at John's downturned face, his mind can't help but whisper that this is just another game it's concocted to keep him occupied, the Hyde for his Jekyll; Moriarty is just the hissing, swirling projection of all he could have been, all the things he sometimes sways so dangerously close to before John can pull him back.
He doubts that even his mind would dare to throw John into any form of mortal peril and expect him not to fight his way out. Maybe that's why they escape, getting off so easily it's almost anticlimactic. Maybe his brain isn't ready to tear itself to pieces, not quite yet, but with every new question - the door slams, John slumps again, Sherlock dares to breathe - he's drawing himself deeper into the inevitable. Mycroft's talk of choices rings back to him, irritatingly clear.
But when John had the laser dancing over the bomb strapped across his chest, he'd looked so real the brutality of it had threatened to crawl up from his chest and strangle him from the inside out, and it's with that in mind he finally decides to find the rest of the truth - whatever remains of it, at least.
John is silent once they are back in the flat. Sherlock studies his movements, finds it is as with any other danger - he's not shaken, just glad to be out of it. In everything, the soldier. Sherlock relaxes in kind, waiting in the sitting room as John makes tea for the both of them. He decides to make an experiment out of it, and in his mind's eye he creates a chart allowing for all the variables and suitable constants, with proper areas for outlying data.
Senses. Memories. Subconscious Reactions. Then, John's Reaction(s) to Stimuli. Sherlock's Reaction(s) to Stimuli. Room for Observations. Qualifying data rather than quantifying, trickier but necessary.
"You okay?" John asks as he's handing the cup over, stooping a little to look down into his brooding face.
Their fingers brush as Sherlock takes it, and he regards the area with interest as he pulls away. Excellent. "Fine." It felt real. He doubts minute contact would be imagined, although his mind can be incredibly detailed. He'd have to catch it off guard.
"You're licking my hand."
He pulls away. "Data."
"Data," John repeats. He is looking at him oddly. He files the expression away for later, still tasting the tang of John's skin over his tongue. He hadn't licked John as a child. It was somewhat unnecessary. But the friction of his taste buds dragging over the crags in John's flesh had been realistic, a fierce reality of skin on skin that he does remember from university days, when John didn't exist. At least, not for him. It's a tenuous point, but he makes note of it anyway.
John clears his throat. "Well, thank you, if you're quite finished..." Sherlock releases him and he sits in his own chair. "You sure you're all right?" he questions one more time.
"Mmm," Sherlock hums, closing his eyes, before they open sharply and fixate on John. He hesitates. "Are you?" he inquires, and it's so strangely polite that John can't help but smile and, funnily enough, he is.
"Yeah, 'm fine."
"Mmm," he hums again, and that ambiguous response is the only one John receives for a long time.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Sherlock springs unexpected questions on John and surreptitiously carries out the experiment. He finds ways to surprise his flatmate and himself, probing about his childhood and dousing him in what he hopes are sense memories - a crop of Mummy's lilac yields nothing, save John's concerned face at the vases unexpectedly littering the flat. He spills the bottle of his medication only to see it cleaned up and neatly put back in place without John uttering word of the incident. For himself, the memories return remarkably well, but it's as if they're breaking towards opposing ends of the spectrum - John sees nothing, Sherlock sees everything, and his attempts to drag him desperately behind are nearing failure.
John cycles through bewilderment and exasperation as Sherlock becomes increasingly discomfited; even that turns to agitation and he ends up banging around the flat in the early hours of the morning and muttering to himself. One memorable night it's the violin wheezing up the stairs, the sawing of strings grating on his nerves as if Sherlock drew his bow across each and every one of his neurons, setting them all to vibrating and on edge, the friction before the fire. Another it's silence, complete and desolate and eerie, and it feels as if he's being watched by all the encroaching quiet as it prowls through the thick tension of their flat.
They're back to functioning, and it's only a matter of time before John cares too much to let it go on. He may not be the same John who tread so similarly in those past circumstances, but Sherlock knows this one, too. It will be no different when they fracture under pressure.
Interestingly, it's Sherlock who breaks.
It's three in the morning when the taxidermy killer finally ends up in the hands of the police after almost a week of non-stop searching, and John and Sherlock have finally been dismissed from the flashing red-blue lights of the crime scene and they're so tired, even Sherlock, and half-delirious as they're stumbling up the steps and onto the sofa, and maybe John mutters, "Jus' a few minutes, Sh'lock," as he allows his friend to drape over his lap or maybe it's just nonsense at this point, but the only thing Sherlock knows is nine hours later it's the longest he's ever slept, and John's gentle hands are teasing through his hair and it's so familiar and right that he has to turn into John's stomach and inhale to stop himself from letting the unexpected tears welling beneath his eyes escape.
"Sherlock?" John mumbles, and then louder, "Sherlock." He nudges at his bony shoulder until he rolls onto his back, sprawled across John's thighs and staring resolutely at the ceiling, breathing deeply.
"Are you going to tell me what's the fuck's the matter yet, or do I have to stay up another night listening to you throw things?" he asks, and though it's gentle there's a hard edge to his tone. "I warn you, if you go for that last option I might have to kill you first." He stares down, hands continuing to shift peaceably through his hair. Sherlock smirks, closing his eyes, feeling the rasp of nails and calluses as they scrape across his skin, and before he knows what he's doing nudges up into his touch and lets the words fall from his tongue.
John's hands stop. Sherlock nudges again until they resume, albeit more slowly, carding against the strands and lingering as they slip from the edges. "You need a shower," John says disapprovingly, and bounces his knees against Sherlock's back teasingly. Sherlock's eyes shoot back up, staring hard. He works not to betray his disbelief.
"You're not going to ask -"
"Getting there; just a side comment," he sighs wearily. His fingers withdraw, and he looks awkwardly about for a place to rest them before settling against Sherlock's stomach, folded and tight. "Sherlock, failure for you -" he searches for the words. "You don't fail. You just find new solutions. For better and often for worse."
He blinks. His lips tighten, but he doesn't move, just shifts his eyes to the ceiling. John's faith in him, however, has no ceiling; it's almost disgustingly obvious and it's never been more beautiful. He can't bear to part with it now. He must.
"No. You're wrong. There is only one solution to this, and I have been trying - I have been experimenting, attempting to prove that there are more outcomes, more means to an end, but in this case there's only the one. That's the failure. My failure."
John's forehead creases, eyebrows furrowing. "What?"
Sherlock smiles sadly. It's only in the best of times that John keeps up with him, clutching along in the wake of his swirling coat. And it's only now he starts to drift; only now he'll be lost for good. "I have to tell you something," he says, and this time, the second time he's uttered those words, he means to follow through. He takes a deep breath, and begins at the start.
What is the truth? Is it wide reams of possibility, all slipped up against one another like parallel universes, the impossible seeping through where their edges meet? Is it the wild imaginings of a man who was frequently deemed insane by those who didn't know, never asked, never went deep enough to strike the truth of that? If it is, then which imaginings? Which fantasies? Which outcome is the end of the maze? Perhaps truth is relative. Just a concept floating above their heads, just out of reach. Right and wrong reduced to nothing, meaningless. No, John tells him, no.
The words keep pouring, he keeps shaking.
Would Freud put him in a glass cage and lust after his decimated brain, would Jung invade his dreams and declare his brokenness, or was he already behind the one-way glass and shuddering in the hidden, forgotten corners of white rooms where men named John did not exist, where men named Sherlock were tests and nothing more? Was he a tagged, howling creature, the rat in the incubator and Frankenstein's Adam and the genetic mutation, abhorrent and disfigured beyond all recognition and still the subject of twisted fascination, but the object only? Was it too late? Was he alone? No, John is there beside him.
The words flow on.
Perhaps he is one of his own experiments, horrendously gone wrong before completion, an explosion that left the flat - the nonexistent flat - in pieces, the fragile figure of his body all splayed out and trembling in the absence?
...Perhaps he is the absence, everything and nothing, an unanswerable question.
Is it the truth, then?
He doesn't know, desperately hopes; all he knows that in the moment he stops this world is all made of honesty and light, hard, glaring planes that are impossible to escape. What is imprisoned in the prism, he wonders? Color, refracted and magnificent? Or nothing? Or maybe it's the man who encompasses it all, all held in by his light and shadow.
John doesn't have the answers. But when Sherlock finishes and curls away from him on the opposite side of the couch, exhausted, all hard angles and glaring planes himself, John reaches across the vacuum of space between them and unravels him with a simple, warm hand on his wrist, and the cascade of himself and his walls as he crumples to the sincerity of touch - a real and honest hand, as real and honest as honesty and reality ever have been - is the star exploding in death with bursts of glorious light and sound.
"I don't remember being him. But I don't - I don't know everything. Just that you're my best friend and I'll always believe in you, and maybe there's more to life than what our eyes can see."
It's enough, and more than.
"It should worry you," he notes, maybe a week later, even as he lifts his pen and takes down the information garnered from the moldy petri dishes. Interesting, his sidelined thoughts sigh, curling through his brain like smoke until they drift down onto the paper. John glances sideways, smiles, and decisively turns off the tap. He doesn't need to ask. He sets the water to boil and shuffles down to sit across from him, watching with half-interest before he sighs himself.
"Nah, I already knew I lived with a madman." They grin at one another, but Sherlock sobers and shakes his head, laying down his pencil.
"No. The fact that you might not be real. You're just something I created."
"Well, you did a pretty good job then."
"No," Sherlock says again, fervently and entirely serious, and wets his lips with impatience. "It means you're mine. Mine only."
John stills, but stares across at him, giving that same, steady, level gaze - slightly chiding, slightly fond - and doesn't have to say anything at all. And Sherlock knows what goes unspoken - that if John belongs to him, then without question, without doubt, he is owned, utterly possessed, by the one he's been circling his whole life; locked in orbit, the gravity of their lives pulling them together in ceaseless revolution.
If this is a dream, if these are his hallucinations as scattered and constant as the stars - breathing heavily, he risks a glance across the alley, where John is panting heavily, the glint of streetlamps on metal betraying where his gun is held relaxed against his palm, eyes bright when he catches his gaze, face smiling on the verge of laughter, wholly alive, as Sherlock has ever seen him - then he supposes it could be worse.