The headstone had nothing for him. No words of comfort, nor of brilliance. Only the darkened reflection of a man swept out to sea, and a boldfaced name stating the reason for his entire voyage. The wind fairly howled and the surge was high; rain beat heavily. John stood in an empty and quiet graveyard and forced the watery gale to stay within, to not force itself out through his eyes. The ship splintered against his ribcage.
John wiped his eyes, bit the rest of his tears down, and looked away from the name; that name that he could hardly dare to speak now that it was all that remained. He forced himself into attention, his feeble work here done. He turned, turned his back on the grave.
He walked away, because that was how simple it all was in the end. People walked, ran, blew, burned, fell away, and there was no time for good-byes. Brothers-in-arms died with laughter still alive on their faces. There were no reasons, no explanations, no truths. Even those to whom he would have trusted his soul had proved unworthy of its safekeeping, though of course he'd never believe that in the end, because he wouldn't believe that that man -- the one now quiet in the ground, far beyond John's ability to extract one last, final, ultimate explanation from him -- had been anything other than the best, wisest, most brilliant man John had ever known.
He never would, even if he died the last man alive who had just one good word to say about Sherlock Holmes.
He walked, because he couldn't weep.
The grass was trampled, but he wouldn't stare at it. He watched the sky instead. If it had been night-time, its view might have upset him. Almost anything could upset him, because now the whole world had been tinged with shades of Sherlock; everything was explained through Sherlock's eyes, nothing ever the same as it was before him, back when Sherlock's essence hadn't yet seeped into every crack in John's soul and formed ugly, smelly scabs over them that, nevertheless, kept John whole. Sherlock was everywhere, had left his fingerprints upon everything John touched, and John didn't think he could bear living with a ghost covering his ears and eyes for all time.
John's mobile rang.
He stopped. He waited. It rang again.
Slowly, his hand found his pocket. He pulled his phone out, peering at the screen. Who'd possibly be calling him? Everyone he knew either knew where he was and to bloody leave him alone, or didn't care.
It rang again. The caller ID wasn't available.
It rang again.
John had thought Moriarty was dead. If he wasn't -- well, then not only had he fooled Mycroft, but also hadn't been satisfied merely with Sherlock's death.
It stopped ringing. After a few seconds, he got a text:
Message received 14/06/11 at 15.24 -- From [Number Blocked]
Find the bench on your left side next to the statue of the angel. Sit. Do not act as if you are under orders. Delete this.
John hesitated, then complied with the last order. He looked to his left. A row of tall headstones and memorials blocked his view; affecting nonchalance, he squeezed between a large cross and a white marble slab to get a look at the graves behind them. A little further back the way he'd came, he spotted the angel, standing above a small fountain, her hands clasped in a depiction of grieved supplication and face raised to the placid sky. Her wings were opened wide. Next to her fountain, there was a bench. Hiding the purpose from his step, John approached it, and sat. He waited.
After about three minutes, his phone rang again.
It was already in his hand. He looked at it, waited. He knew that he was being watched.
John's blood sang as he pressed to answer the call. If he was to die -- well, that was fine. It had always been fine. Joining up had been as much suicide as it was courage.
He was more than ready to enter the very last battle, the final round of the game.
Clearly, the voice on the other end was not human. Clearly. John pretended his breath hadn't snagged when he'd heard it, pretended his heart rate hadn't leapt from something that wasn’t fear.
"John Watson, did you trust Sherlock Holmes?"
The voice was far too cruel and kind and clearly inhuman to be asking him such a thing.
"Yes." John's voice was flat.
"With your life?"
"And did you believe him?"
"Which part," he asked, though he knew the answer.
"Did you believe that he was, in fact, Sherlock Holmes?"
Of course, John knew what the voice meant.
"I never doubted it."
"Not even when he himself told you it was a lie?"
"Not even then."
"You cannot choose to believe one thing and discard the other."
"I didn't say I believed everything he ever told me. I said that I believed him."
"I see," the voice mused, and John hated the way it took a contemplative breath. Hated it, because he knew it better than he ever should.
The voice wasn't human. John wouldn’t, wouldn’t think of the very last time he’d heard it speak.
"John... were Sherlock Holmes to return, one more time, and speak to you again, would you believe what he said?"
John thought of the last time.
"I would, but --" It's not, it's not human, and John's voice broke, "I wouldn't believe him."
"If Sherlock said that what he'd said before, the part you didn't accept and vowed you never would, was a lie, would you believe him? And if he said the part you accepted, the part that brought you here today to that gravestone, was a lie as well, would you believe him then too?"
"Sherlock Holmes is dead."
And John did.
Past the headstones, and past the matted grass, and past the crumbling fountains, he could still see the tree beneath which Sherlock was buried. He could still see the grave, black and cold and sad where it showed a name that meant something unique to John alone. He could still see the dark trees beyond Sherlock's final home.
And now, he could see a white, white as bone face, floating within a mass of shadow and wood and utter darkness that could have hidden anything --- the silky strands of spider-web, or a black greatcoat.
"John," the voice dragged out his name, tasting its sound like it was sweet and sad and wonderful upon its tongue, "I'm not dead."
John’s heart stopped.
And then, just like that, the pall of hope and terror that had surrounded John ever since he'd heard the dead, gone voice on the line suddenly evaporated.
"Oh, wow, good job, there." He choked on a chuckle, tried to catch his breath, and failed. "You got me for a bit there. How did you get such a good voice manipulator? I think it might fool even his brother. I'd applaud, but you said to act natural."
"John," the voice was half chastising and half concerned.
"No, really, I'm impressed. I am. So, er, how soon are you going to kill me? Just a point of interest, you know."
"John," and now the voice was entirely concerned.
"I'd prefer it to be quick, if you care about my input. I know you've got snipers."
"No! John, no." The voice tried to regain some measure of control. "No, John..."
"Look, I know you're trying, and you get credit for effort, but I'd be a fool to believe this set-up. I can't see your face, the only communication's through a dodgy mobile connection, and, oh, also, just a nitpick, but: I saw Sherlock Holmes die. I mean I know you people think I'm an idiot but this is alarming --"
"No, John... I -- I don't blame you your scepticism at all. It's... it's good. It's smart. You're trying to defend yourself, and it's good. But, what if --"
"I'm not going to deal in bloody what ifs here."
"... just consider it for a moment. What if I'm Sherlock, because he didn't die? You already said you didn't believe everything he'd told you. What if you shouldn't have believed him when he told you he died, either?"
"He didn't tell me he died, for Christ’s sake; he was in pieces on the ground with blood coming out of his every pore." It made John's throat scream to say it. "And, besides, if I'm not always to believe what he says, then why should I believe it when he tells me he's alive?"
"That's assuming that he's the one saying it," the voice said softly.
A bird shrieked and flew out of Sherlock's tree. The very air held its breath.
"John,” the voice began.
Get out; get out while you’re ahead, John, before you fall into the trap.
“...do you believe me?"
John inhaled, and it wasn't steady.
"I want to."
"But you don't? You did in the past."
"But I still don't know... I have no reason to believe that you're Sherlock. I can't see your face, it's too far. And audio communication is easily tampered with."
"I know. I'm sorry I have to do it like this, but your life is in danger if word lets slip that I'm still alive. I can't be seen with you."
"Is that why yo-- he did it? Why he jumped? Because I'd die if he didn't?"
"Not just you. Not just -- no, everyone I consider a friend. It was worth it, John, would even have been worth real death, if it'd had to come to that."
Both parties were silent for a time. Then:
"I don't understand: why have you come to tell me this? Why either -- either tell me Sherlock's alive when he's not, or reveal yourself to me when you went to great pains to hide? What would you have to gain either way? If you people want to kill me, then why don't --"
"John, Moriarty's dead."
"Yeah, and apparently Sherlock's not. I'm not sure what to think anymore, and frankly I have an easier time imagining Moriarty coming to knit with my intestines than Sherlock walking back into Scotland Yard."
The voice sighed, and John saw it look down at its feet, scuffing the ground: an all-too familiar gesture.
"I... John, if you believe me now, one of two things can happen. Either you believe me and it turns out to be a lie, and you'll end up dead sometime soon, as you are aware. Or... or you believe me and it's true, and I give us... our life back. But you'd have to do some things for me first, to make it believable. Just like I did. The alternative is getting up and walking away, and leaving Sherlock Holmes to lie in the dust. If you believe, between the two paths, does it make any difference to you now which one you take?"
The speaker, the figure with the white face and the shadowy body, seemed to look right into his eyes despite the several hundred metre divide. John thought he could feel the gaze, and he stared back. Something brittle in him finally gave way. He chuckled, all warmth and resignation.
"You really do know me too well, Sherlock Holmes."
There was a puff of air from the voice's -- Sherlock's, because John was both delusional and suicidal -- end, and it too sounded like laughter. "You wouldn't believe me were I otherwise."
John smiled, then sobered. "You said you wanted me to do... things. What does that mean?"
Sherlock held onto his mirth for a little longer before letting it go. "You probably won't like it. It can all go wrong quite easily. It'll take a lot of planning and... a lot of lying. And it'll be dangerous, and not in the exciting way that you like. It'll, um... well, if I'm lying again, then you're sort of ... fucked."
"What... why, what do you want me to do? What for?"
"I'm not dead; it was all a trick," all a magic trick, John remembered, and he wondered if he were a complete fool, "but I can't come back. I need to stay away. I need to go."
"And... er, well, let me put it like this. I believe I once, a long time ago, said something along the lines of, 'I'd be lost without my blogger.' I trust -- I trust you understand what that means. Now."
"I'm not sure, Sherlock. Explain it to me." Sherlock always did.
"John... come with me?"
And then the explanation that'd been knocking at the back of John's mind was finally accepted through the door.
"I... yes, of course. But, Sherlock ... I'm no good at er, magic tricks."
"That's why you'll have to do as I tell you. You'll have to follow it to the letter, because it won't be easy.”
John leaned forward, even though at the distance they were apart it made no difference. “Sherlock... if I have to destroy all instructions you send me... what if I misremember something?”
Sherlock swallowed. “Well... it, it wouldn’t be good. The whole thing is very risky.”
John laughed, throat dry. "You said dangerous, and I'm still here. Even -- even after.” He cleared his throat. “All of that."
The sound of Sherlock’s sharp breath trickled through the speaker. “...So you are. So you are, John Watson.” He paused. “Thank you.”
John wasn’t sure why his throat suddenly felt so swollen.
A cloud moved overhead, shrouding what little could be seen of the sun. A long shadow fell across the graveyard, and a chill wind swept past. John swallowed.
Sherlock’s face was dark in the clouded gloom, barely distinguishable from the trees surrounding him. He was a trick of the light to John’s eyes.
“John, I do mean it. Thank you.” Sherlock’s voice was wavering.
“For what, Sherlock?”
“For everything. I ... I owe you more than I can say.” He sniffled, voice soft.
“Sherlock -- “
“Thank you, for believing me, and for not. I may owe you my life, at the end of this.”
“In fact, I believe I already do."
"Don't be stupid."
"I'm not. You can expect to hear from me soon." Sherlock, or the dark shape that made up John's friend or John's memories or John's nightmares, seemed to turn away, back towards the wood. He walked in, and was swallowed whole by the darkness.
"Sherlock?" John stood on weak legs. "Sherlock, how? How will I hear from you?"
There was a mischievous lilt to Sherlock's sombre voice. "From where one'd most expect it, and therefore will never look."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"I understand your blog receives quite a lot of traffic these days, John. Faceless fans, wanting to know the truth about Sherlock's life, asking you about him."
"Wh-- Sherlock? Sherlock?"
The line was dead.
There was no wind in the leaves, or sun in the sky. John heard thunder rumble overhead. The birds had all fled.
John's heart was the only thing alive.
It was an unusually cold July.
John was sat on his bed. There was grey, freezing rain outside.
John hated to do this. He hated -- hated the knowledge of what it would do. He knew its effect all too well. He didn't want to make anyone suffer like that, not on his behalf. But John knew it was necessary, for the same reason that Sherlock's actions had been necessary. So he hadn’t pressed the issue.
John was sat on his bed. There was grey, freezing rain outside. There was a cardboard box beside him.
He hated to do this, hated having to time it so perfectly. Hated how much he knew the suddenness would sear. Hated the constraints time and chance and falsehood put upon gentleness, and the ability to move on. He hated how raw he knew the wounds would rub, just like fresh bullet holes on a battlefield.
John was sat on his bed. There was grey, freezing rain outside. There was a cardboard box beside him. A certain piece of metal rested against his thigh.
He hated to do this with doubts and questions still hanging around his mind. He hated to, for once, trust his intuition so completely. It was self-destructive at the very best of times. Now... now, he had only a thin veneer of instinct between beliefs and possible lies.
John was sat on his bed. There was grey, freezing rain outside. There was a cardboard box beside him. A certain piece of metal rested against his thigh. He gripped it, raised it close to his eyes.
He hated to do this when so much was up to chance. He hated to hope he'd done this right, to pray Sherlock had been right, hadn't lied. He hated to have Sherlock trusting him when John didn't even trust himself. He hated the thought of Sherlock's face if it went awry.
John was sat on his bed. There was grey, freezing rain outside. There was a cardboard box beside him. A certain piece of metal rested against his thigh. He gripped it, raised it close to his eyes. He studied it, and pressed it into his mouth's insides.
He hated to hear the future's screams, the sobs he knew would come rolling within a minute's time. He hated to know what would happen. He hated knowing, and yet being so unsure. He hated groping so in the darkness; hoping to meet a hand similarly made of flesh and blood and bone and with a steady beat inside. He hated wondering if he'd lost his mind.
He hated waiting.
He knew what was about to happen, but he still didn't know about the end.
He didn't know what was going to happen.
Between the two paths, does it make any difference to you now which one you take?
He hoped Sherlock was right.
His cue came: a knock upon the front door.
The shot was incredibly loud.
On 29 July 2011, Dr John H Watson, formerly of the fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, formerly companion to the late detective Sherlock Holmes, shot himself in the mouth. Fifteen minutes previously, he had called Greg Lestrade, formerly a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, with instructions to come to 221 Baker Street as soon as possible. He failed to explain why. It is believed that Lestrade was the last person to whom he spoke. It was just as Lestrade made his arrival known that Watson committed his suicide.
He was documented as having suffered severe depression in the month-and-a-half since Holmes's death. Friends said he was withdrawn, and with some reluctance admitted that his suicide was not a shock to them. Some suspected he suffered from hallucinations, possibly depicting Holmes himself.
His and Holmes's landlady, simply known to them as Mrs Hudson, left the premises briefly to stay with her sister. Holmes's brother, a minor government official named Mycroft Holmes, oversaw the upkeep of the house in her absence and eventually bought Watson and Holmes's flat from her, intending to let it serve as a kind of memorial to them.
Harriet Watson, Watson's estranged sister, kept his ashes. She arranged for his gravestone, near their parents'. The stone was a bright white.
It was night. For once, there were a handful of stars in the sky. Sherlock smiled to see them: they were inextricably linked in his mind with the thrill of the chase, the feeling of John at his side. The whole world now was told to him in a series of John-related images, and despite how much of the distortion he tried to banish, he knew that he'd never really be able to get John entirely out of his mind. It annoyed him, but it was also a little comforting when the future was inscrutable and John far away. He wasn't sure why.
The wind was crisp and quick and he relished it. It made him feel alert, and as he stood on the bridge, looking out at the Thames, dark but for the dancing of the city's lights, never did he appreciate the air more. He extended his tongue to taste it. It brushed the hair on his forehead aside and blew a clear breeze against the back of his exposed neck. He hummed at its touch.
There wasn't anyone else on the bridge at this time of night, and there were long patches of dark between the strings of lights. He liked the quiet, the way the city's rumble was muffled by the sound of the wind. He liked the space, liked to finally breathe after long months of wondering if he'd lose the game, when he'd last get to see the sky.
They still weren't victorious yet. This was a different kind of chess: the king was taken, but the rest of the black force was at large. It wasn't yet time to walk away from the board. The white king was cut low, but he wasn’t defeated.
And Sherlock still had one remaining knight.
He glanced around, trying for patience. He was bad at waiting, but John had already waited for so long, so very long, and it was the smallest of favours.
He bounced a little on his toes, both to distract and warm himself. He was feeling the cold, even though it was July.
He glanced again. No-one came.
The darkness was still at large. He shivered. Doubt crawled in through his cuffs, slithered over his goose fleshed skin. He shut his eyes.
He wondered if this was the feeling John had lived with ever since Sherlock had returned to life. This feeling of -- uncertainty.
Sherlock Holmes didn't settle for anything less than the answer.
And, of course, the answer presented itself to him. It always would. John had known, he'd known, he'd warned him -- and somehow Sherlock had still failed. He didn't know how, he'd double checked everything, but, somehow -- it must have gone wrong.
There were no more stars in the sky. He breathed deeply, looked down at the trembling, fathomless water. His own face emerged, watching him in turn with sad eyes.
Sherlock was lost.
His craft had gone out to sea, and he hadn’t an anchor.
It was hard to breathe.
"Sherlock? Is that you? I have to say, ginger's not entirely your colour --"
His gaze shot back up so quickly his neck cracked. "John!"
"You okay? That sounded like it hurt..."
"No, no, I'm fine. Please, I'm fine." He batted John's worried hands away.
"No, you're not. You look really pale. And... I don't know, but for a moment there... you looked really sad. Don’t think if I’ve ever seen you look like that before."
Sherlock blinked. "Oh. Er, I was just -- just, ruminating upon how unpleasant the next months will be for us. Ours is a sorry fate."
"It's going to be more unpleasant for everyone else. I'd know, Sherlock."
Sherlock looked away. "Yes, I know. I'm --"
"If you're going to say 'sorry', don't. I don't think you did anything especially out of line. You came back for me, and that makes it okay."
Sherlock breathed, and nodded. "I wasn't -- I wasn't sure, if I should. I had quite convinced myself that I ought to leave you."
John's expression went to stone for a moment. "What made you change your mind?"
"Mm. I saw you... I was there the whole time, at the cemetery. I heard." God, John, how do your slightest words have such power to evoke life in Sherlock’s heart, so cold before you entered his life?
"That... that was quite a quick change, then. I mean, that was probably only five minutes there."
"Quick, but thorough." Sherlock cleared his throat, and began to walk. John fell into step beside him. "I see you managed to make sense of my instructions."
"They were typical Sherlock: brilliant and impossible to understand. I'd really like to know when you extracted all that blood from me, because I'd never even noticed. That was about four pints in that gun."
"I, er... I'd been collecting it. Just in case something like this turned up."
"Shut up, you'd wanted to experiment on it."
"Oh yes you did, you bastard. Jesus, you're like a bloody vampire."
Sherlock couldn't stop himself from chuckling. "I guess you've found me out, then. It did prove useful, though, so I'm not sorry."
"You're a creep, Sherlock."
John laughed. They walked into a long stretch of shadow.
"So. Where are we going?"
"Anywhere I wouldn't, under normal circumstances. We need to lay low before we can act upon any of his surviving operatives. I think a departure from the country's in order. Fancy a trip to Switzerland?"
"Huh, never been. I've heard they have spectacular waterfalls there."
"Yes, like the Reichenbach. Lovely."
"Knew you'd say that."
Sherlock huffed a close-mouthed laugh. Then he released a louder one, and his face blossomed into its first real smile in a very long time. He'd spent far too long an eternity looking sad and trying to hide.
"Our new lives as dead men."
"That's what most people call the afterlife, Sherlock."
"Hmm. Where do you think we've ended up, then? Heaven, or hell?"
They reached the end of the bridge, and let themselves be engulfed by a massive patch of darkness. Their footsteps began to fade into the city's hum.
"Oh, heaven, definitely. Psychopaths and murders and all."
"Huh. Funny that you say that, John."
"Because that's exactly what I'd say as well."
"Well, obviously. You're happy anywhere a crime is going on."
"No, that's not why I'd agree."
"Because, Doctor John Watson, you're here at my side.”