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A Strange, Eventful History

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           In the very old days, people would journey to see important figures.

           A place, or a relic, or a statue that wept blood, maybe lactated. A person, even, who was deemed sufficiently noteworthy. People would move great distances to see them.

           In the newerbutstillold days, people would sometimes move great distances to see them, to marvel at their work. But there wasn’t a point to their old lives anymore and hardly anyone to see or be seen at all.

           Their pilgrimage had brought them out of London amid those who were still able to amble aimlessly. Those who had forgotten perhaps recognized a purposefulness to their walking. Those who had forgotten looked at the pair of men cutting through them all. They alone still moved with a goal in mind.

           They seemed to the crowds as saviors, a pair of newnewnew gods.

           The mob would grab weakly at them as they passed by.

           Where am I?

           What is happening?

           Who am I?

           Where is Susan?

           At first, Sherlock tried. Many of the ways he knew things in the old days no longer applied, but at first, Sherlock tried. After the city, though, he became worse at telling where someone had wandered away from so he and Jim walked on, ignoring the thinning ranks of the confused and shoving off the desperate when they cried for answers. There weren’t any answers anyway, not anymore. Soon, even the questions would be forgotten, so they walked on.  

           On the way to Dartmoor, they’d passed the ones who’d already forgotten, laid out gaping at the sky, sometimes strangled by their own spittle. Then, they passed no one at all. Jim turned up his nose at the way the various bouquets of death cut through the chilled air. Sherlock found a glimmer of delight in explaining what that meant about the population of dead, what they could expect to find next along the road, as though any of it could possibly matter anymore. But they’d walked along in long silences with nothing to think about often enough. Those silences embittered Sherlock as tangibly as if they hung in the air as a note to the putrid sweetness, so Jim let him talk on.

            They found nothing along the way to Dartmoor. They found nothing in Dartmoor proper.

           “Wiltshire,” Sherlock said, eyes darting from his petrol station map to the notes he’d been carrying since London to Jim’s eyes for confirmation.

           Jim was lying on his back, idly tracing the roots of long numbers on the skin of his own belly. He cast a long, tired glance up at Sherlock. They stared at each other for suspended moments, Jim blinking slowly.

           “Okay,” Jim said at last, returning to his numbers.

           “Seriously?” Sherlock’s voice climbed pitch in disbelief. Sherlock now missed the adulation of his genius he’d once taken for granted.

           Jim snorted bitterly. “Yeah. Okay,” he repeated, unwilling to give Sherlock any more than that.

           Sherlock packed away his notes as angrily as he could while simultaneously taking care not to damage them. They spent the rest of the evening in silence before they huddled together to sleep.

           Food was of no concern, nor was shelter. Sherlock had proven especially adept at finding the wads of cash people had stupidly squirreled away. It burnt well, they found.  They took whatever they wanted without resistance, the most literal of Jim’s wildest dreams. They walked along the highways, weaving through the abandoned traffic to take advantage of the paved roads. When they reached Corsham, the only challenge was finding it.

           Sherlock deduced its location from the presence of a tall pole with a camera pointed towards the neighborhood. They walked towards the pole, passing abandoned houses, until they reached the grassy mound with the concrete door cut straight unto the side.

           “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” Jim smirked as they stood before the door, having already exhausted all of his ‘open sesame’ quips many, many bunkers ago.

           “Do shut up,” Sherlock ordered, but the excitement crackled off of him like electricity as he set about to coaxing the door open. They’d lost almost an entire day searching the neighboring houses for blunt objects with which to attack the doors. Sherlock would occasionally kneel to pick insistently at the lock or alternately stand to stare at the frame, perhaps looking for some sort of button. Eventually, when Sherlock had exhausted the third hour on his knees curled around the lock, and Jim had taken to filing his nails on the pavement, Jim looked up at the sound of the pick clattering against the ground.

           Even from where he sat, he could see Sherlock’s hands tremble in anticipation as he tentatively pushed the door to find it giving way. They exchanged saucer-eyed looks of shock before running for their packs and then running back only to crash headlong into the thick stench of death, like a wall erected just beyond the door.

           “Well, It doesn’t mean anything,” Sherlock said anxiously, preemptively cutting off any argument Jim could make. “He’d leave them to rot. Of course, he wouldn’t move them. He barely ever bothered doing much of anything at all. Come on.”

           Jim had been making small steps backwards towards the door, but growled in frustration through the hand covering his nose as Sherlock sped off. He would not chase after Sherlock. He never did. It was always best to let Sherlock convince himself that this was the wrong bunker. He would believe it no other way. Instead, Jim dropped his pack by the door and formed a makeshift mask out of the blue scarf before trudging along in the arbitrary direction Sherlock had chosen.

           They had been young in this particular bunker. They had not died all that long ago. Death still smelled wet here. He could tell even with his limited interest in any of Sherlock’s lectures on decomposition. Through the doors that lined the corridor, some long since left open, some flung open by Sherlock, he passed them as they lay over their control panels and computers. This one had fallen off of his chair at just the right moment to liquefy his flesh with the impact and now lay here in a pool of what had once been his lower half. That one had slumped and leaked and then dried over top of that other one there. He narrowly avoided stepping in some crusted over, sticky substance he hadn’t a hope of identifying.  

            He turned a corner into another hallway and walked towards the light streaming through a door cracked open, having lost track of the sound of Sherlock’s footfall. Tightening his scarf against the particularly offensive smell emanating from this room, he opened the door just enough to let himself in and entered. The plague had taught Jim many things, not least of which that he had lost touch with death as more than an abstraction, had long since forgotten the realities of death as a physical presence. In the newerbutstillold days, Jim could have ordered someone’s death with a nod. Now, instead, he clamped a hand over the scarf uselessly, neither enough to staunch the sudden throb in his temples at the rot.

            More of those rust-colored stains lay beneath almost every bed, dripped down at some point by the carcasses lying on top when there was still any water to them at all. Now their skin stretched bronzed and mottled black and purple over their frames and contorted their limbs strangely. These had died unattended and crowded in the infirmary obviously, some of them still hooked up to machines, some of them on the floor, and all of them whose faces he could see twisted as if caught screaming at their skin drawing too tight. He stared far past the point when he wanted to stare and committed revolting details to memory involuntarily.

           Food was of no concern. He felt no compunction in capitulating to his desire to vomit, it at last gave him a concern pressing enough to interrupt his morbid fascination for good. He held his breath until he could slip through the door, shut it, and put a few paces’ distance between himself and the room. Exhaling, he went to his knees and dry-heaved until his stomach no longer tugged insistently at the mesenteries holding it in place. It satisfied him. The acridity of stomach acid seemed fresh air in comparison and as he waited for the lightheadedness to pass. A harsh cough echoed down the hall to him.

            “Sherlock?” He rasped, answered by the sound of Sherlock’s own retching further down the hallway.

            “Sherlock,” he repeated with a tinge of frustration.

           He ventured further down until he came upon him, doubled over and leaning against a wall. If he felt the slightest instinct to draw closer to Sherlock, he was barely aware of it. Sherlock should have known better. They had anticipated this bunker being more populous than the others they’d entered. Sherlock should have known. Even spending time with corpses as often as he had could hardly prepare him for the sheer mass of death that surrounded them now. Jim merely stared down the hall at him until Sherlock had stopped gagging long enough to compose himself as best he could. Sherlock’s back straightened somewhat as he wiped at his mouth, and turned to unsteadily rejoin Jim at the fork in the tunnel.

           They walked in silence until the exit to the bunker, wanting to avoid opening their mouths while still immersed in the miasma. Even after they were back on the road, Sherlock resolutely looked straight on, wanting to avoid addressing their most recent failure. Jim too had no desire to recriminate him with the fruitless days upon days of walking Sherlock plotted for them after each empty bunker.

           They lit a fire in a bank and Jim drifted off alone on the faux-marble floor. When he came to, it was dawning, and Sherlock was attempting to read his notes by the dim light. Jim made no attempt to conceal an irritated groan as he met eyes with Sherlock and immediately rolled over, determined to sleep in for once.

           “Coventry,” Sherlock said unwaveringly to Jim’s back. “Mycroft is in Coventry.”

 


           Sherlock still remembered.

           It was a new day. The sunlight shredded through the thin curtains of Baker Street. Sherlock opened his eyes, blearily removing the remnants of his nap from his eyes and rubbing the crick he’d developed in his neck from a night on the couch. John had nearly fallen over when they’d made it back early this morning, and Sherlock had convinced him to stay. Certainly, Mary and Elizabeth would be alright. John had quickly agreed, his tread tired and heavy on the worn stairs leading up to his bedroom. Still cresting on the high that now came from a solved mystery and not the tiny vial beneath the tiles of the bath, Sherlock had plucked merrily at his violin, checked the status of his latest experiments, and promptly fallen asleep as soon as he sat down.

           Now, the day was fresh. The fog of boredom had not yet re-penetrated his mind palace, and his good mood held as John came down stairs, scrubbing at his face and banging around the kitchen to make some tea.

           “I thought I heard the two of you get back in the wee hours,” Mrs. Hudson’s voice called from the doorway. In her hands was a tray Sherlock was rather sure, and reluctantly hoping, was heavy with breakfast. Several seconds later, the smell hit his nose-- bacon, eggs, toast. Excellent, then.

           The tea was finally steeped, and the three of them settled in, John telling Mrs. Hudson all the details of their latest adventure, Sherlock only interrupting when John got something wrong, or was too mired in some extraneous detail.

           “It wasn’t the coat that gave it away,” Sherlock dismissed, “it was the thread he’d used to mend it back together. He used surgical thread. Honestly, John, I did hope you would notice.”

           John wiped his mouth, ignoring Sherlock’s prickling reply.

           “Right, well. Good thing there’s you then, Sherlock,” John said. It was tightlipped. Impossible to know whether John’s being overly complimentary or sarcastic. Equal probability of both. “Anyway,” John interrupted Sherlock’s thoughts, “I’d best be off. I’m sure Mary would like some relief from Elizabeth.”

           “I’ll follow you down, then,” Mrs. Hudson offered. “I’ve got to make it out to the shops today or there’ll be nothing left in the larder. You boys ate the last eggs and the last rasher I had.”

           Sherlock had watched them both go. John first, hurriedly putting on his coat, hunting his keys and wallet. His steps were quick on the stairs. And then, Mrs. Hudson.

           Mrs. Hudson had shrieked and there had been a terrible bang.   

           It was fortunate, then, that John had not yet left.

           It was fortunate, for all Sherlock’s ribbing, that John was a doctor.

           Because it was John down there on his knees, keys dropped, chanting Mrs. Hudson’s name in between screamed orders for Sherlock to 'Call a fucking ambulance!'

           The antiseptic of the hospital was unwelcome under his nose. He, John, and now, Mary sat waiting. Elizabeth cooed from her place on John's shoulder. Finally, they were allowed back. Mrs. Hudson looked so small in the bed. For the first time, Sherlock noticed the white hairs that had quickly taken over the honey of her hair.

           Her nephew had been called. Choices were made. Subdural Hematoma. There was nothing to be done.

           It had been a clear, sunny day for the funeral. It was back when they still had funerals for the dead. It was boring. A boring funeral for a woman who'd once run a drug cartel, once been a topless dancer. It didn't at all remark on the wonder that was Mrs. H.

           They returned to Baker Street some time later. Mary's nose crinkled.

           "Sherlock, how long's this breakfast been sitting out?" She asked.

           Sherlock said nothing, retreating to his chair. John told her quietly, and in the way in which Mary silently fixed things, she fixed this, until every trace of the near rotten food was gone.

           "I should go downstairs and see to her things," John said, voice tired.

           Sherlock waved his hand. "No, no. You two go on. I'm sure Elizabeth would like to be rescued from that idiot of a babysitter."

           Mary snorted. "I doubt she notices. Joy of being a baby."

           "Nonsense," Sherlock dismissed, “Elizabeth is already far more clever than that one."

           "High praise coming from you," John chortled. It was a gaping hole, Mrs. Hudson had left. It felt wrong to talk about something so mundane, so cheerful in light of the circumstances, even Sherlock understood that.

           Mary had popped back from the kitchen and Sherlock’s face must have given something away. “Mrs. Hudson was never somber. I doubt she minds.”

           After many assurances that he'd call them if anything was wrong, the Watsons left. He shuffled around the flat aimlessly for a while before remembering John's advice. He went downstairs to Mrs. Hudson's.

           He unplugged the lamps, gathered her mail, deduced the location of the strong box he figured he'd find. After years in organized crime, he imagined her distrustful of official means. After a few minutes, he cracked it, finding birth certificates, passports, jewelry, and a will. A brief glance told him that he would eventually be named as the new owner of Baker Street, and idly, he wondered if John and Mary might be convinced to move here. Practical, but likely interpreted as macabre.

           It wasn't until the refrigerator that he paused.

           He played back the conversation from that morning. 'I’ve got to make it out to the shops today or there’ll be nothing left in the larder.'

           The refrigerator was full to the brim.

           He reevaluated the flat now, noting the things out of place. The hairbrush between the couch cushions. The living room remote in the bedroom. The shoes-- one in the kitchen, the other in the bath. Ultimately, it could be meaningless.

           In the months that followed, he would be thankful that Mrs. Hudson had never woken up, never made to witness what lay ahead.

Chapter Text

          They trudge together in silence into the armogen.

          Since time immemorial, Jim has always had plans and then plans in case the first plans didn’t go to plan. But, he grits his teeth now and marches in Sherlock’s campaign towards Coventry. He will go, but he does not feel like giving Sherlock more than that, so he goes in silence.

          For Sherlock, there is no time spent smarting after a failure. Not for long. As soon as he charts their new destination, he brightens immediately and walks as though he were tugging forwards on a leash.

          Jim will walk, but he will walk at his own pace. He will not give Sherlock that either right now.

          Depending on Sherlock’s volatile moods, this sometimes compels him to stop and allow them to rest. Sometimes it irks him and he pushes further while Jim resolutely stays at the same pace, the distance and the annoyance between them building.

          It irks him today because he is obstinate in his pursuit, and Jim is obstinately not to be told what to do. There was a time when they love-hated this in each other. They still love-hate this in each other, but today is a hate day.

          Their own footfall is the day’s only constant sound. It takes Sherlock only a few paces to stop at the curious absence of footsteps in the morning.

          Jim has sat himself cross-legged in the grass by the highway. He is rummaging through his pack when Sherlock calls to him. He calls in hopes that Jim will call back an explanation, unwilling to take even a few steps back away from his destination.

          “Why have you stopped?” He calls.

          In response, Jim unwraps a chocolate orange and taps it open on the asphalt. He can hear Sherlock’s sigh and the jogging footsteps that announce his return. Jim considers it a victory and holds on to it. Victories come few and far between these days, after all.

          “What are you doing? Why have you stopped?” Sherlock repeats, looming above him.

          In the short glance Jim casts above himself, he catches Sherlock’s brow in outrage. It makes Jim scoff; Sherlock is this used to being followed without question.

          “There’s no time to waste.”

          “There’s all the time in the world to waste, Sherlock,” Jim drawls softly, smooths out the foil to use as a little plate.

          Sherlock looks out at the horizon as though he were a man worried he’ll miss his train. He is trying to calculate how far behind these few minutes are putting them.

          He is slightly breathless, as though he’s been on one of his chases through London.

          “Of course there isn’t. Get up, we have to….” he begins, as though Jim hadn’t heard it a thousand times before.

          “Mm,” Jim interrupts through a piece of chocolate and holds up a hand to wave away Sherlock’s anxiousness to press on. “Don’t worry. He’ll be just as dead when we get there, no matter when we get there.”

          Sherlock stops cold from motioning him up and drops his hand slowly from the gesture. Jim can’t help but smile at this.

          “You know I’m right,” He holds out a piece of the orange to Sherlock.

          In his fury, Sherlock dithers for a bit before losing the restraint to keep from knocking the piece lightly out of Jim’s hand. It earns him a barking laugh from Jim as he wraps the orange back up and replaces it in his pack.

          “Of course, you’re in no rush to go anywhere. You have nowhere to go, no one to look for,” Sherlock explains away Jim’s accusation over Jim’s quiet chuckling to himself.

          “That’s true.” Jim agrees, “That’s very true. But it doesn’t make what I’m saying untrue.”

          “You’re wrong. You know you’re wrong. The evidence all points to the contrary. If you’d ever bother listening to what I’m saying instead of going over your...your times tables in your head....” The diatribe is something less dignified than Sherlock intends it to be, as it grows louder to stay audible over Jim’s outright laughter. ”There’s no reason to believe that. Any of it.”

          “Sherlock!” Jim’s frustration bubbles forth mid-laugh as he shoots up to his feet, upsetting the crows watching them. “Look around! There is, actually, every reason to believe that. And, still. Every morning, there’s you at the crack of dawn. Go, go, go. We’ve got a new bunker to find, and fast. Wouldn’t want to keep those government-issued corpses waiting.”

          Sherlock has braced a foot behind himself, taken aback as he stares at Jim’s outburst. He quickly recovers though, and narrows his eyes

          “And how did you conclude that with any sort of certainty? Hmm?” He tightens his lips around the ‘hm’ so much, they barest sliver of them goes white for a moment. “Of course we have to keep looking, how else are we supposed to find him? What exactly is difficult to understand about that?”

          Jim rolls his eyes and shoves past him, intending to seek refuge in some abandoned vehicle.

          “You. You’ve either gone mad or you were like this to begin with,” Sherlock insists. “You’re behaving like an idiot. If I knew where he was offhand, I’d have gone there in the first place!”

          “No. You see? That’s my point,” Jim turns back to jab a finger in Sherlock’s direction, unable to leave without taking the last word with him. “What are we going to do? Search every office and bunker and remote government outpost in the world until you find a skeleton holding an umbrella?”

          Sherlock’s eyes dart briefly to the side and then back at Jim. He is otherwise expressionless. Jim knows him well enough now that he understands the expression to mean that Sherlock has not considered how this is going to end. He has taken for granted that the search either ends with Mycroft or not at all.

          Worse.

          “Oh, my God. That’s the problem, Sherlock, that’s the problem.” Utter disbelief has thrown Jim’s hands up. “You’re looking to find your brother alive and well having a scotch. You’re not looking to find your brother clawing the walls or just dead.”

          Sherlock pants at having been caught so nakedly in his naivete. The optimism of his venture embarrasses him. He wishes there were still windows and violins, he might have turned and ignored Jim. As things stand, there is nothing to cover the absence of an argument against Jim’s accusation. He breaks into an empty backseat and slams the door in frustration, the sound quickly echoed by Jim slamming the door to a vehicle of his own.

          Sherlock spends his time sulking by poring over his mental notes and convincing himself that he is following the correct route, that they are making good time.

          Jim spends his time sulking by poring over his mental notes and reminding himself that Sherlock without a purpose is not Sherlock at all, that they can’t kill time any other way.

          After an hour or so, the door to Sherlock’s car opens. Sherlock gives Jim a reluctant shove over to make room for him. Jim gives Sherlock a slice of chocolate orange. When they are done eating in silence, they exit via their respective doors. They meet at the head of the car.

          “So, how far are we?”

          “Fortunately, this...stop...shouldn’t put us terribly far behind, we’re only a few kilometers out of…...”


 

          Things fell apart quickly after that. At first, it attacked the most vulnerable-- the elderly, the immuno-suppressed. It was only when it began killing children that the world stopped and took notice. Small ones, once capable of speech, of walking, now sat in their cribs, then laid down, then died. They seemed to regress with shocking rapidity. By then, it was already too late.

          The world was infected. It had come from the water, they thought. Boiling wouldn’t kill it, no amount of chemical could erase the prion and leave something potable behind. The ill-informed started collecting rainwater, convinced that water was somehow purer.

          Some blamed global warming--15,000 year old glaciers melting, and exposing homo sapiens sapiens to something never before seen in written history.

          Some blamed God-- man had finally pushed Him too far. Between gay marriage and abortion and unions, God was furious, and his new flood was tainted.

          Some blamed terrorists-- Da’ish, the KGB, the CIA, Al Qaeda, the Chinese, the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians, your neighbor. Anyone other. Eventually, anyone healthy.

          Sherlock had examined some of the earlier victims of the first huge wave himself. The disease had attacked savagely, destroying the brainstem and cerebellum. Brain stems were less porous than the rest of the brain, more rubbery. But this man’s resembled a sponge cake.  

          It was only a matter of time before it came for them. On Tuesday, Lestrade had complained of a headache. By Saturday, he could no longer walk, his speech so slurred no one could understand him except his daughter. Everyday, John had gone to him after work even though the clinic’s hours had been extended (still they were perpetually turning people away, they were so busy). By the next Tuesday, Lestrade was dead. His fever had built and built, never breaking. John had come to Baker Street afterward, his hands clenching and releasing.

          “This is bad, Sherlock,” he said.

          Sherlock stayed facing away from him, studying the slides in his microscope from another victim.

          A hand grabbed at his shoulder. He looked up to find John close, his eyes steady, his mouth a grim line.

          “Do you remember what you promised at the wedding?”

          Of course, Sherlock remembered. He’d vowed to be there for as long as he lived, for all three Watsons. His stomach flipped. Sherlock nodded.

          “You be sure and keep it, you understand? Even if… even if I’m not here anymore. Promise you’ll take care of them, Sherlock.”

          He wondered briefly how many times some soldier or patient had said something similar to John. ‘Do this thing for me, this last, this final thing.’

          “Of course,” he said quietly.

          That was all that was said. The weeks passed, bleeding into months. John and Mary had agreed to move into Baker Street.

          With time, reports began to surface of different manifestations of the disease, now named Sudden Atrophic Neurodegenerative Syndrome (SANS for short), which attacked different parts of the brain. No longer were people falling victim to sudden, uncontrollable seizures or dying of massive strokes. Now, they died slow, tortured deaths. Sometimes forgetting their loved ones entirely, sometimes losing the ability to see or hear or speak.

          John began to show signs of fatigue from his long hours. His temper was shorter, his patience and ability to focus dwindling. He would go outside for periods of time, by himself, only Sherlock able to convince him to come in. One evening, Sherlock had come home from the morgue. He was greeted by John, sitting outside at one of the cafe tables at Speedy’s. It was freezing out. He was freezing. It was difficult to say how long he’d been out there. Hours at least.

          A few days later, in the wee hours of the morning, Sherlock was distracted from his work by a terrible amounts of noise from downstairs. When he managed to force himself into the flat, he found Mary in the middle of pinning John to the wall. Elizabeth was screaming from the other room.

          “John, calm down! It’s me. It’s Mary.”

          But, John was too strong for her. He pushed her off, and now turned to look at Sherlock. His eyes were unseeing, wild, frantic. He looked terrified, but also monstrously angry, an animal caged. Taking a leap, Sherlock began.

          “Captain Watson,” he snarled.

          Immediately, John went still, snapping to a clumsy attention. This seemed enough to break the spell, and John crumpled against the wall.

          “Mary, I…” he started.

          “Shh, it’s alright, John,” she soothed, running a hand through his hair. “I’ll go fetch the baby. Sherlock?” She trailed off, but Sherlock understood.

          He took John to the kitchen, fishing around until he located the poorly hidden whiskey bottle and poured him a few fingers.

          John was quiet, and with Elizabeth settled, he refused to sleep anywhere other than his old bedroom in the attic.

          It went on like this for days, John terrified of himself. He wouldn’t dare be left alone with Elizabeth and spent even more time outside, just staring at the sky. He refused to go to the doctor’s, and started leaving off from the clinic as well. Sherlock would hear him rustling around upstairs, sometimes pacing for hours, other times yelling or crying. It did no good to see him. John would resent the intrusion in the morning when things were clear again. Those nights, Sherlock stayed up. The dull thump, thump, thump of John’s footfall above him in steady rhythm. John had become the attic ghost. But this ghost shouted now, and screamed sometimes, piercing the night. He’d never known John to be scared; he’d also never known John before when Afghanistan was less an idea, and more a smell he couldn’t wash from his clothes. Sherlock told himself it was just stress and undue worry on John’s part, but John’s gun was tucked away in the table near the door. He told himself he wouldn’t need it, but still he checked on those nights, as the thump, thump, thump beat unceasingly, to ensure the pistol was loaded.

          “I already know,” John would say, and his voice would sound so tired.

          One day, he just didn’t come back. Every day, there were flyers papering London. People looking for their missing loved ones. Whatever for? What would be the point? Mary was beside herself at first, but even she understood with the same cruel practicality that Sherlock did. There was little point looking for John if he didn’t want to be found. And, if he was totally unaware of his wanderings, perhaps it would be more painful to find him and then realize he wasn’t really John anymore.

          Sherlock oscillated between the painful realization that perhaps John had woken up that day in such an addled mental state that he’d wandered off and was now incapable of finding his way home and the equally painful reality that John had decided that he could no longer be trusted around Mary and Elizabeth.


          Either, merely a painful alternative to the other.

 

 

Chapter Text

           The day after their last spat is uneventful. They find a delivery van on the road, turned on its side like an ailing beast. The backdoors of the van are flung open and whatever parcels were once in it have clearly been looted. Remnants of packaging material are strewn about the van, and Jim idly kicks aside a decaying box. Sherlock has climbed on top of the van’s side and is crouched over the logo intently.

           (There was never any need to climb the van to read it, the logo is printed in miniature on the back door. Jim had rolled his eyes at the melodrama of Sherlock’s deductions.)

           “Thinking of a career move?” Jim ventures. “Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Graphic Designer, only one in the world?”

           “N…” Sherlock begins to explain in earnest before catching himself. Jim can’t help but snicker at the glare he feels Sherlock shoot him.

           Sherlock jumps down and rubs his hands together to dust them off.

           “It doesn’t mean anything. It might have at one point, but it’s unlikely now.”

           “You thought Mycroft pushed this van over to tell us something, did you?”

           “Well, it’d be to tell me something, in any case. And, no. It just happened to connect to something he was fond of saying.” Sherlock bends to pick up his pack and slings it over his shoulder. “Very fond of saying. Wouldn’t ever shut up about it when we were children. But on this occasion, it very much is coincidence.”

           Jim continues to needle him as they walk. The long hours of hectoring each other have sometimes ended in outright fights, but, they would both agree, they certainly beat long hours of nothingness.

           “Huh. The Sherlockdoesntcomparetome Parcel Distribution Service is a strange name for a shipping company.”

           “Sibling rivalry is terribly low-hanging fruit to pick at, don’t you think? Even for you?” Sherlock pretends to mind. “That being said,” he admits, “you’re actually not terribly far off the mark.”

           When they walk on easy days like this, they walk beside each other.

           It is a strange habit they have fallen into after the end--no one running ahead and no one chasing after.

           “I know I’m not wrong, I know your brother,” Jim carefully skirts around ‘knew’ and deflects with a little shudder of disgust at the idea of Mycroft. “I have to say, you Holmes boys don’t make terribly good company, even when the alternative is no company at all.”

           Sherlock shrugs but still manages to looks ruffled in response.

           “Case in point,” Jim simpers.

           A few kilometers later, they stop and fish around in their packs for water. Leaning against a car, Jim eyes Sherlock as he drinks.

           “Do you wish you’d just left London when he told you to?”

           “The point is moot,” Sherlock shrugs. “I had the baby to consider.”

           Sherlock’s deep-voiced self-assurance carries the words in the same way it once wearily explained obvious deductions or weaponized a cruel remark.

           Jim stares, having had no fair warning that Sherlock would phrase his reasoning so.

           “Sherlock, what the fuck?”

           Jim can’t stop laughing. He doesn’t stop laughing when Sherlock demands that he does.

           Sherlock looks as though he were trying to decide whether Jim is laughing at him. Worse, laughing at the child. He can forgive the former, Jim suspects, less so the latter.

           He isn’t, he really isn’t. He’s laughing at Sherlock’s sudden surrogate fatherhood, and at the fact that the last time Jim found himself walking anywhere it was only to seem normal to Molly. He’s laughing at the effort it took to produce and distribute that GIF that saved Sherlock’s life, at all the things that used to matter, and the things that still do.

           He is struck by the absurd contrast between who they were and who the plague turned them into.

           Sherlock still regards him seriously, evidently attempting to decide what exactly Jim finds so funny. He doesn’t stop laughing when Sherlock eventually joins in, and even then, he continues snickering to himself occasionally along the walk.

           “Mycroft wouldn’t have let me bring them, and thus I stayed.” Sherlock eventually explains in earnest, “There must have been some limit in effect to conserve resources. Otherwise, everyone employed by the government would have brought everyone else along, for all the good it would have done them. It might have helped Elizabeth. Equally, it might not have.”

           Likely, there was no limit, Jim thinks. Even if there had been one, he can’t imagine that Mycroft couldn’t weasel out of it if he’d had a mind to. Likely, Jim thinks privately, Mycroft elected not to allow Sherlock his attachments. Attachment, Jim amends. One of Sherlock’s wards was half-John, the other, not so much.

           “Really? Locked underground with Mrs. Watson, Mycroft, and a baby? I can’t think of a better way to go out.”

           Sherlock raises an eyebrow, apparently in concession that this best-of-all-possible outcome is not very good at all.

           “Mary wasn’t Mary at all in the end. But Elizabeth might have made it longer and Mycroft could have benefitted from something that appreciates all his mothering. Mothering, is it?” Sherlock pretends to dither. “Smothering? Mothering.”

           Jim catches the pun and smirks at it. He had already laughed at the idea of Sherlock ‘minding the baby,’ and would certainly have laughed at the idea of Mycroft minding a baby, too. But he’d already laughed at that in the old days. He’d been gleefully privy once to all the ways in which Mycroft had minded the toddler before him, still minded him as an adult.

           “Oh, I see. This is you doing the bit where you don’t appreciate all of his mothering, then.” Jim does nothing to hide his skepticism. The very walk they are on is enough evidence to contradict Sherlock.

           “He has his uses.” Sherlock shrugs to save face. “He was worse before.”

           “Whatever story you’re trying to tell, don’t. I can almost guarantee that I’ve heard it before. Especially if it involves the dog.”

           “You have a pressing engagement, then? Somewhere to be?” Sherlock bites back.

           Sherlock delights in turning Jim’s own words against him, always has. Jim delights in hearing even minor trivial things about Sherlock, always has.

           They’ve changed utterly, and not changed at all.

           Over top of Jim’s disgruntled protests, Sherlock tells Jim of how the East Wind carries off little boys who publicly disagree with their teachers, or those who will not eat, those who are too smart with their brothers, and those who are not smart enough at all.

           “Ah. And here I thought EURUS was just a stupid way to advertise local and international shipping,” Jim says, cocking his head behind him at the van they’d long since passed, sounding for all the world as though he’s recently been employed by EURUS’ marketing department.

           He has caught the reference Sherlock caught in the logo. He has caught Sherlock red-handedly poring over a meaningless word that reminds him of his brother. He has caught Sherlock wishing it did mean something when they both know it doesn’t.

           Today is only a day to needle Sherlock, though, not to jab him through to the quick. He will save this for one of those days he means to wound.

           Today, Jim searches around for something to say. “My sister said the devil would come for us.  Well,” he pauses to correct himself, “...my siblings didn’t care what I did. If I crossed them, we just scrapped. But, sometimes, if you did something you shouldn’t, then the devil would get you. The devil would get me, to be precise.”

           “Strange how things never seem keen on carrying off elder siblings,” Sherlock scoffs at the notion of the devil carrying off Jim, the ridiculousness of the East Wind notwithstanding.

           Jim looks over and suppresses a scoff himself. He has caught Sherlock once again. This time, he has caught Sherlock wishing it were true.

 


 

 

           Sherlock was tired. He could still smell the ripe stench of London on his clothing, the crush of people who’d been at the shops. As if the last loaf of bread, the last carton of milk would somehow keep their brains from turning into soup inside their craniums. He was still juggling his keys with the shopping bags when he looked up and spotted Mycroft, legs crossed, sitting in his chair.

           Sherlock kicked the door shut with a quick snap before he made his way to the kitchen to deposit the bags.

           “I had wondered when you’d come,” Sherlock called over his shoulder. The tea Mycroft had set to boiling whistled, and he returned back to the sitting room moments later, passing his brother the less filled of the two.

           If Mycroft noticed the slight, he said nothing of it.

           “It’s time,” Mycroft said, instead, sternly. Somehow, Mycroft still possessed the uncanny ability to make Sherlock feel as if he were a naughty primary school pupil, knobby-kneed and runny-nosed, even on the other side of 40.

           “No,” Sherlock answered simply.

           Mycroft’s eyebrow tweaked, but otherwise he maintained his bland expression of politesse. Still, he sat the teacup back on its saucer with the slightest tremble in his hands.

           “I’ve promises to keep, Mycroft,” Sherlock continued.

           “And I don’t?”

           “I’d say you likely went above and beyond anything Mummy could have possibly imagined years ago. After all, you did make the British government forget about my foray into first degree murder,” Sherlock returned.

           Mycroft tilted his head. “That isn’t the only thing the British government is forgetting, it would seem,” he paused, then met Sherlock’s eyes. They’d always been such a tired shade of grey against Sherlock’s own kaleidoscope. “We’re on the verge of chaos, Sherlock. Irrevocable chaos.”

           “Based on all the lectures you’ve given me since time immemorial, I’d say that’s rather my element,” Sherlock dismissed.  

           “Dammit, Sherlock!” Mycroft’s voice was harsh now, ripping. The miles deep expanse of Mycroft’s calm was broken. Sherlock gave him what could only be a shocked expression.

           Mycroft took a deep breath, his voice shifted back to smooth composure. “There’s nothing left for us here.”

           Sherlock snorted, “Perhaps for you.”

           Mycroft’s expression reminded him of the one he gave Sherlock when they were young and playing deductions, the one he gave when Sherlock had exhausted all his mental stores, and resorted to making things up instead.

           “I made a vow,” Sherlock reiterated, feeling the same need he’d felt as a boy to extrapolate.

           “And? John is gone, Sherlock.” It stung, as it was meant to. Truth was always Mycroft’s favorite weapon.

           “Mary and Elizabeth are not, however.”

           Mycroft’s smile was back, “For now."

           “Get out,” Sherlock snapped.

           “I thought blind loyalty was John’s vice. Apparently, it’s rubbed off on you.”

           Sherlock ignored him, instead getting up and going to his violin. He took it out  and rosined the bow liberally. His back was turned to the room and he heard Mycroft’s tread against the floorboards, heavy and, thankfully, moving towards the door.

           “It would seem the east wind has come at last. What dreadful business it has carried.”

           The door clicked open, but Mycroft lingered. It was strange for him to pause, to remain after it was clear Sherlock would say nothing more.

           “You always seem to forget Redbeard was my dog,” Mycroft said quietly, and there was just enough weariness in the threadbare tone to almost tempt Sherlock to turn.

           It was a disjointed statement, but Mycroft was always drawn towards euphemism. It had made him a splendid public official.

           He remembered now, the warmth of the English sun on his back. He’d gone off to the old oak tree in the backyard to be alone, to wipe away, in peace, the hot tears that swathed his face. Father had gently led Redbeard away after Mummy had explained patronizingly that Redbeard was dying. Of course, Sherlock knew what cancer was. Knew in the balance how much pain they were sparing their pet. But, Sherlock had always been selfish. Once things belonged to him, they were his alone. He didn’t remember Mycroft’s face, no doubt still speckled with the ravages of puberty, or the too gangly arms he’d wrapped around Sherlock’s reedy shoulders. What he did remember was his cheek pressed into the wool of Mycroft’s blazer, watching the grey turn black in damp spots only to turn salt-licked and pale after he was done. He would find his way back here twice more, each time after too much cocaine speed-balled with at least a poppy-field’s worth of heroin.

           He recognized, for a brief instant, a strange craving for the texture under his cheek again.

           He was more than a little thankful that by this point Mycroft was well and truly gone, and for once, the first time, perhaps, he was spared the indignity of his brother seeing him at a weak moment.

           Mycroft was right; he had forgotten.

Chapter Text

       By the time they reach Moreton-in-Marsh, Sherlock has developed that sort of anxiety that pushes them to a grueling pace. He has spent the entire morning a few paces in front of Jim.

       He never casts a backwards glance to make sure Jim is behind him. They have grown too used to hearing nothing. If they do not speak, then birds call or a dog barks and otherwise, nothing. Otherwise, Jim’s footfall steadily reminds Sherlock that Jim is still behind him while he presses on.

       Jim will later reflect that he first heard the howl a moment before Sherlock is on the ground.

       Sherlock has only just briskly passed a car. The seething man launches himself from behind a car and the combined weight of Sherlock’s pack and the man send him off his feet and onto his back.

       The pack slides out from underneath Sherlock and amid the rocking back and forth of the struggle, he manages to slip his arms out of the straps. He frees his arms and aims a blow, but the man, this stranger, bashes him against the ground. From then on, Sherlock makes no more attempt to counter. Instead, he holds his forearms steady and shielding before his face and chest. He is attempting to buck his assailant off, though, but The Stranger has knelt astride Sherlock’s waist, and Sherlock is merely wriggling ineffectually.

       The Stranger is slack-jawed screaming down at Sherlock. He does not stop until Jim rushes at him, knocking him off of Sherlock with a kick to the ribs. Jim is unaccustomed to accounting for the weight of his pack in his movements, and it threatens to topple him with the momentum of his kick. He shrugs the pack off his shoulders and throws it off, probably onto Sherlock. Meanwhile, The Stranger has rolled off and into a crouching position, panting like a rabid dog.

       Jim steps over Sherlock and snarls as he advances on The Stranger. He is not too enraged to miss how the crouch is positioned to guard the man’s rib, and he advances slowly enough to give The Stranger time to rush at him.

       Instead, he looks wildeyed between Jim and behind Jim, at where Sherlock lies.

       “No.” The Stranger screams, spit flying from his jowls as he slaps the back of his head with his own palm repeatedly.

       “No. No. No. No!”

       They stare at each other for a moment, The Stranger and Jim. “No!” He screams at Jim before he leaps forward from his crouch.

       In an instant slowed by adrenaline, Jim calculates. For whatever reason, The Stranger has no quarrel with him.

       Jim side-steps. He feels momentarily as though he is courteously making way for the man to continue pummeling Sherlock.

       Before The Stranger can fully pass him, though, Jim moves to block him. He grabs the man’s collar and knees him in the ribs.

       It slows him down long enough to let Jim aim.

       He takes hold of The Stranger’s neck, then his cheek, and then jabs his thumb into and through the man’s eyelids. The Stranger has been screaming so long and so incoherently now that Jim does not flinch at the roar of rage turned into a roar of pain aimed directly into his face.

       The Stranger’s hands come up to his face. He is attempting to cover his eye against the pain, even with Jim’s thumb still deep in his eyeball and Jim is pulled by the hand as he screeches and staggers back.

       Eventually, Jim gains enough purchase to curl his thumb around The Stranger’s orbit and bring them both to their knees. Soon, he has mimicked the earlier tableau. This time, he is astride The Stranger, bashing his head into the pavement by his hair and by the inside of his cheekbone.

       He stops after the man’s struggles have been replaced by weak twitches. He is contented that The Stranger will never get to his feet again.  When he pulls his thumb back, it is covered in a bloody sort of gelatin. He stands and wipes his thumb on his jeans, looking over his shoulder at Sherlock.

       Sherlock is still on his back on the asphalt, panting open-mouthed at them. Meeting eyes with Jim shakes him out of the trance, though, and he attempts to move.

       He is dizzy. Jim can tell. Sherlock sways dangerously as he scrambles to his feet and half crawls, half falls onto the man’s corpse. He takes the man’s chin and turns it towards him. Sherlock searches for something in the remnants of a face. Seemingly finding nothing, he throws The Stranger’s face away and is left on his knees panting, almost sobbing dryly.

       The adrenaline in Jim’s system demands more release. The Stranger passed, the indignation finds a channel in Sherlock.

       “What the hell is wrong with you?” He yells, pulling Sherlock to his feet and roughly steadying him.

       “I….J….” Sherlock stammers, but it comes out as a gasp each time. His eyes trail down to the pulpy remnants of the man’s face.

       “Shut up!” Jim barks, despite the question he has asked of Sherlock. He covers both Sherlock’s and his own mouth and nose loosely. He is anxiously straining to hear anything to betray new danger.  He stares back into Sherlock’s wide-eyed stare until he is convinced nothing else is coming. Satisfied, then, he releases Sherlock and helps him slide down against the tire of a parked car a few paces away.

       Sherlock closes his eyes and rests his head carefully backwards against the door of the car. His breathing is still heavy, but it eventually grows softer. He lolls his head to the side, his eyes going briefly unfocused when he opens them to look at Jim.

       “Fuck you.” Jim seizes a lapel of the coat lightly as he grits at Sherlock. “Fuck you, you posh little pretty-boy. Fuck you for not knowing how to fight and fuck you for not doing anything.” Jim releases the collar and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He catches a foreign taste which cannot be anything but vitreous humor.

       Sherlock does not protest. Instead, his hand reaches gingerly behind his head. He pulls back fingers with a few spots of blood and drops them, disgusted with the whole situation.

       Jim turns to unzip his pack and rummage for his first aid kit, angrily. Angry at The Stranger for attacking them. Angry at Sherlock for frightening him. Angry at himself for being unable to show himself less frightened.

       “You’ve killed him,” Sherlock says, disapprovingly, staring past Jim at the man.

       The statement is obvious enough to make Jim look up, wondering if Sherlock has sustained brain damage. But, Sherlock merely seems vaguely despondent.

       Jim snorts mirthlessly as he finds the kit.

       “Yes, Sherlock, I did. I certainly did.”

       He motions for Sherlock to bow his head and draws nearer. He forces his hands steady enough to dab at Sherlock’s scalp through his curls with an antiseptic wipe.

       “He assumed I meant to strike,” Sherlock says, head almost between his knees. “It wasn’t an attack. It was defensive.”

       “So?” Jim replies. He once killed people offhandedly, without much reason but personal convenience. His tone cannot disguise how thoroughly annoyed he is with Sherlock’s attempt to solve the motive behind his own assault.

       Sherlock shakes his head slowly, and if Sherlock will not be still, Jim gives up on staunching the still-bleeding dermis.

       Jim sits back on his heels and tosses the wipe away. Sherlock, sensing he is done, lifts his head and holds it in his hands instead. He seems to have regained the ability to move without losing the focus to his eyes. Jim takes this to mean that there has perhaps been no damage. He allows this fact to calm him somewhat.

       But a tightness around Sherlock’s eyes and a frown discloses what Jim has learned is sadness in Sherlock. They meet eyes for a moment before Sherlock looks away again.

       Jim gets to his feet and follows Sherlock’s gaze. Sherlock is once again looking at the corpse of The Stranger.

       It is all that Jim needs to see to understand.

       Sherlock is looking at the corpse of The Stranger who died in a confused rage, defending himself from passersby.

       Sherlock is looking at the corpse of The Stranger, but Jim knows who he is seeing.

       He has exposed many of Sherlock’s weaknesses throughout their travels, but none so glaring as this one.

       Understanding Sherlock’s defenselessness, his ingratitude, Jim feels an impulse towards cruelty.

       Yes, Sherlock, The Stranger could well be someone's John and John could well be someone's Stranger.

       How easy it would be to confirm it out loud. Jim had perhaps killed someone’s frightened and well-intentioned John. Gleefully.

       How gently Jim could remind Sherlock that he of all people should understand the impulse. A bullet on the steps of Appledore, a thumb in the streets here and now. What difference did it make?

       After all, even Sherlock would have killed what John became to protect what John used to be. Sherlock might have wasted remorse on such things, Jim did not and he would absolutely not be begrudged for it.

       Hypocrite, Jim diagnoses him.  Martyr.

       “Fuck you, Sherlock. You did it once, too.”

       (and this is meant to mean I love you).


       His brother’s promises came to pass, as they always did. The government, when it died, didn’t whirl to a stop after a gentle decline, but rather slammed into non-existence all at once one day. Suddenly, the island that Sherlock had never noticed felt extraordinarily small and vulnerable. He wondered about “pre-Great” Britain. How terrifying it must have been to live on a crumb of land, no natural defenses between it and the rest of the world.

       The Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, finally, the Normans all came to this miniscule rock staking claims, and it was their combined influence that edified Sherlock’s own frightfully posh education. The Celts came to be something feared by all of them--nasty, brutish, murderous savages described over and over as the slaughterers of babes and virgins, the drinkers of blood. One of his nannies, in fits of ire or frustration, having eyed his dramatic features and witnessed his foul tempers, called him a “changeling,” a “fey beastie.” She’d been terribly Scottish. Mycroft had snickered about it for years afterwards. Sherlock had always found it strangely comforting because it gave him plausible deniability that Mycroft actually was related to him, after all.  

       Now, he saw it more clearly. As he made his way back from what’s left of the shambled shops, dodging the wide-eyed beggars in the streets, giving large berth to the foul-smelling packages wrapped sometimes in white linens, sometimes horridly left uncovered and spilling their contents into the streets, he understood. He understood like Sherlock often didn’t, never paying enough mind to understand such things. He understood, the Celts had been a people terrified, terrorized, hunted and invaded. Perhaps much of what was said of them was artfully crafted lies, but now--as he watches ordinary people fight in the streets, he understood. As he avoids the roving bands of young men seeking to destroy while they can still think back later and savor ruination under their rough hands, he understood. Understood what average people can be driven to in a way he’d never before.

       It was raining today. Sherlock had always liked London most when it was rainy. Good fortune, as it so often was. In the early morning, the fog would cling to the buildings, would rise from the Thames in a great white sheet, a cloud drifting over top its banks. Yellow would dot the thick blanket, the street lamps still glowing in the pre-dawn. Now, there were no streetlights, and he cursed his lack of umbrella. At one point in time, one of Mycroft’s cars would have sidled up beside him, or a cab would have materialized from thin air had such a predicament presented itself. Now, though, it was only him, the cold London drizzle slipping down the back of his neck.

       Now, he hated it, hated every single thing left about this city. He hated the weeds that had begun to grow in the cracks of the pavement. He hated the gutted shops, long since looted. He hated the deserted streets where whole communities are gone, and dead. He was haunted by the skeletons of a large city hollowed out from the inside. Once as a boy, his family had gone to the shore. He couldn’t remember where, but it was isolated. He’d spent his days roaming the coast, and one day he’d come across a deserted stretch on which a small whale had beached, died, and rotted away. Nothing was left but eerie spires of bone. Where once had been draped fat and skin and blood, there was nothing but a frame. So, too, is London. Gone is its blood, and the anemic, hobbling thing left in the wake was more than hateful.

       Its ruination wouldn’t come for decades, centuries. It would take nature several human lifetimes to untie the knot of asphalted streets and crumble down the towers of glass and steel, but it hardly mattered, as it seemed increasingly likely there would be no humans left to measure the time. He could see the beginnings of it, the urban decay. Like a rotting tooth, it smelled sweet and made his jaw ache.  

       He wandered the streets he used to explore when he’d first moved here from Sussex to study at the College of London. He’d insisted upon it instead of Cambridge because of its location, right in the thick of things. He passed shady alcoves and dicey bits remembering the sharp zing of cocaine the first time he’d injected it instead of inhaling, with that memory, he also recalled the itching burn of his veins as he’d tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and… managed to get clean. Most painfully, the most common streets he tread are those which, once in a lifetime no longer measured in lifetimes, he’d traversed with John on the chase.

       That first night post-resurrection after John had made his nose bleed and the back of his head throb, he’d spent hours roaming, reacquainting himself with his oldest friend. He’d been near gleeful at the places that had stayed the same, curious and entertained by the things that had changed. He walked through the city the entire night, delighted in the feel of the pavement under his shoes, the cool air that soothed against his cheek.

       It was nothing like that now, unrecognizable in a way it hadn’t felt even after two years apart. He felt out of step with this new London, filled too much with haunting memory and hanging remembrances to be the vital, thumping heart it had once been. He was wandering in the husk, a boy roaming amongst the bones.

       He took the three steps to 221 quickly, the green door shutting and locking to keep the strange foreignness of London sealed out from the only home Sherlock had left to himself.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

       Jim has never seen Sherlock somnolent. He had once seen him buzzing with activity, movements frantic and writ large. He had once seen him composed and measured, no less a-flurry with activity in his head. He has seen him weary from travel now, and he has slept beside him. He has never seen him drowsy as he is tonight.

       It is not a direct result of yesterday’s injury, and that is a comfort. It is rather a result of the injury and how completely Sherlock disregarded it in on his path to Coventry.

       Sherlock tends to be practical about sleep, if about little else. When he is tired, he rolls over and sleeps. When he is not, he is awake and engaged in something. But now, he is curled up in the van they have broken into, the backseat laid flat as a makeshift bed.

       Sherlock tucks his legs to his belly to keep them from spilling over the edge of the seat while Jim sits cross-legged across from him. Privacy does not come easily, and they have tangled about it before. However, it has long since been resolved. Now, Sherlock stares past at the other side of the van while Jim traces things onto the fabric of the seat.

       Sherlock finishes ruminating and turns to Jim. Jim is staring intently at his fingers. They sometimes draw a line against the grain of the fibers and then smooth them back down once the line has outlived its purpose. Occasionally, he mouths something to himself and nods.

       “You taught,” Sherlock says at last, watching.

       “You know I did,” Jim replies.

       He looks up at Sherlock and wipes his lines away again. Sherlock blinks back but does not avert his eyes. Jim is reminded of the old tabby that would sometimes visit his house. The way she would watch him as if expecting him to do something interesting, specifically. Sherlock is experiencing a terrible conundrum. He is bored, but knows he should rest if he is to accomplish his purpose.

       Jim can give him this. Easily.

       “But what?”

       Sherlock narrows his eyes, and Jim continues his work. He can feel Sherlock’s stare bearing down on him.

       “Physics. It satisfies curiosities about how things work from the ground up, both practical and abstract. A way to delight in your own cleverness. Even now, you’re trying to stave off the effects of the disease with it.”

       “True. How long?"

       “A semester, maybe a year. No more than that. It didn’t change you. You were never a teacher, you merely taught. You used what some people aspire to their entire careers to get by between…” Sherlock emphasizes meaningfully, “jobs.”

       Jim nods, with a faintly amused smile at the exploits of his younger self.

       He decides to gift Sherlock with a chance to impress.

       “How did you know I taught?”

       “Simple. You can’t have really ever been on television, that would have been immensely stupid of you. But, you were always clever. It’s a good way to perform your cleverness in front of a captive audience.” Sherlock looks up at him for confirmation.

       “Not a literally captive audience,” Sherlock adds, "that came later.”

       “Mm," Jim agrees, his smile broadening somewhat involuntarily at Sherlock’s accuracy.

       Perhaps Sherlock’s injury has very obliquely inspired an especial kindness in Jim. Jim agrees to play in return. He even looks up from his numbers.

       “Methinks the professor’s son speaks from experience.”

       Sherlock nods once, more emphatically than he ought to in regards to the abrasion on his scalp, and winces. The game has captured his interest, however, and he wishes to keep playing.

       “Obviously. Between Mummy and Mycroft, there was always an impromptu lecture to be had. My house revolved around me and what I knew and didn’t know. I didn’t vie for attention with anyone, not like the youngest of the drunkard’s sons.”

       The game is momentarily paused as the shriek of a woman sounds distantly. They look in its direction with utter disinterest.

       “That concept is so middle class, Sherlock,” Jim continues. ”How should I know if I really was the youngest? Old Da got around.”

       Sherlock sucks his teeth and sighs at what he forgot to consider.

       “Anyway, I don’t vie. I’m perfectly happy to go unnoticed until it suits me. Unlike those of us who got used to all that petting.”

       “A dangerous thing, to have your father’s attention, then.” Sherlock’s eyes burn with curiosity. “What did he do?”

       “Do? That was sort of the problem. He didn’t do anything. Lived off my mother, that’s what he did.” Jim pointedly misunderstands the question, and Sherlock pointedly understands the answer with a nod.

       “He wasn’t anyone," Jim continues. “I think one of my half-brothers was a postman, for Christ’s sake. Or, something. I forget.”

       “Do you think they help you? Your sums?" Sherlock says, abruptly.

       Jim flatters himself. He believes he detects a note of worry. Perhaps Sherlock believes he has literally forgotten his half-brother, rather than he never cared to learn the information.

       “Well, I should think so, Sherlock. You and I are still here, obviously. Mycroft. Why not? Even if we ever slowed down, we’d still be miles and miles ahead of them. The ordinary.”

       It’s the sort of thing Sherlock would agree with, Jim thinks.

       Sherlock stares. It feels like the beginning of another long silence, and Jim continues working his problem.

       “Show me.” Sherlock’s sharp demand breaks the silence harshly.

       Jim stares for a bit and huffs at the absurd situation in the van, in the world, in their species.

       He repositions himself to lay on his elbow beside a very serious Sherlock.

       He begins tracing once again, this time a bedtime story into the fabric.

       “I’m going to venture that maths wasn’t your subject. Easiest way to start off, then. So, you have the binomial 'x to the sixth power plus n.' How many integers with an absolute value below 500…”


 

 

       Weeks slid by. For a while, things seemed to be in a sort of stasis. The electricity had stopped working after a few months. Sherlock and Mary both learned to do as much as they could while the sun was up. The water, thankfully, held, though for how long, he was uncertain. Mary busied herself with Elizabeth while Sherlock preoccupied himself with experiments on purloined brain tissue in John’s old room. In between going out to scavenge all the goods they need from other houses, he focused on weather-proofing the building for winter. Mary would come upstairs or he would go down for dinner, and Sherlock would play his violin for the three of them by candlelight.

       In those first days without John, they had been largely silent, only speaking when caring for Elizabeth or themselves demanded it, but as time marched forward, the two found an easy rhythm. Unlike John, Mary never tried to fill silences with chatter. He remembered her being more gregarious before, but that had likely been John’s influence on both of them. Without that, neither of them bothered with it anymore, but since it was a mutual rebellion, they found companionship in it. Finally, one day, she asked Sherlock to play The Waltz. Of course, Sherlock didn’t need to ask which one.

       Still, sometimes, the silences clung, and they were difficult to dispel, so they stretched on for days at a time.

       “What’s the point?” Mary asked bleakly one day. It had been a miserable week. The weather was drab, and the nights were silent enough to hear the moaning and garbled cries from those poor creatures left outside. Elizabeth had only very recently gotten over a bout of cold. “Why keep on?”

       Elizabeth, now a competent crawler, was at that moment demanding his attention as she gave him yet another of her brightly colored, plastic balls. He focused on the bright red ball too intently, and Elizabeth sensed the tension, screwed up her tiny face, and began to cry. The balls forgotten, Sherlock stooped down to pick her up, offering her a shoulder to placate herself on.

       “John made me promise,” he said lamely, rubbing Elizabeth’s small back.

       “Yeah, he made me promise, too, Sherlock, but he’s not coming back.” Her words were bitter. Mary was never made to sit still this long. All those years as a free agent had left her restless. It was harsh to know that she’d given up on John. He knew the statistics. He knew the likely ways in which John had died, the parts of his brain that had given way, riddled with the pox.

       “Still, I promised, as did you.” Mary stared at Elizabeth, calmer at his shoulder. Her expression was incomprehensible to Sherlock. He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, him supporting Elizabeth, the baby cheerfully mouthing at his shirt, and Mary looking at them both as if she were trying to make up her mind. Eventually, her expression cleared, softened, and she reached for the baby. Sherlock handed her to her mother, and Mary nodded as she softly curled Elizabeth into her chest.

       It couldn’t last. He knew it couldn’t, and it didn’t. One day, Mary couldn’t remember Mrs. Hudson’s name. Before long, her hands trembled and her words would sometimes slur. One day, she referred to herself as Abigail, not Mary.

       Mostly, she was still Mary. He’d come home and pop downstairs to check in, and there she’d be, cooing at the baby or making dinner, or alternatively cleaning one of the guns Sherlock had found at Scotland Yard. They talked about what they would do once all of this was over, but as the days dragged on it seemed less and less likely.

       “Maybe I’ll move to Australia,” she said, one day over their dinner. Her accent shifted all over, one day the same flat, unremarkable London English he’d grown used to, the next a drawl not out of place in the American South, the next clipped, fresh tones of South Africa.

       “Terribly hot,” Sherlock considered.

       “Sometimes, I miss the heat of dry places, deserts.” Sherlock made a note to stoke the fire in her fireplace. It was a fairly miserable replacement, but it’d have to do. He hardly ever noticed the cold upstairs. 

       “Do you think anywhere is doing better than this?” She asked after wiping Elizabeth’s face clean of its mash of peas and carrots.

       Elizabeth flashed her the beginnings of a toothy grin. She was in the first stages of teething, and when Mary was not herself, Sherlock stayed up with her, showing her innocuous experiments meant to entertain. He introduced her very solemnly to Billy On The Mantle. He wasn’t sure that she understood, but she looked at Billy with the same calm, even acceptance her father had often worn when Sherlock was particularly ridiculous.

       Eventually, that gave way, however, as he knew it would. Mary became less Mary and more Abigail. She reverted back to those parts of her memory, her experiences, best rooted in her mind through time and circumstance. She didn’t forget Sherlock or Elizabeth outright, but her movements became sharper, less colored by the softness of motherhood. Still, she stayed, and she talked in whatever accent seemed to strike her fancy, and Sherlock indulged her.

       Sherlock came in one day after a journey to the basement. Mrs. Hudson’s water heater was frightfully out of date, but this was useful these days. So long as they had gas, the pilot light could be relit, and they could have hot water.

       The door to the downstairs flat was open. Mary was pacing in the living room, walking in circles, her hands wringing. She startled when she saw Sherlock at the door frame, but settled again when she saw Sherlock show her his hands, palms up in peace.

       The water was running in the bathroom.

       “Do you want me to take Elizabeth while you bathe?” He asked. Perhaps Elizabeth would be interested in the colorful moth he’d found downstairs and carefully trapped in a specimen jar. He could feel it flicking and fluttering against the glass from his bulging coat pocket.

       Mary looked at him in a daze, unaware of anything. Her eyes skittered over to the shut bathroom door before travelling back to his.

       The front of Mary’s jumper was damp, as were the knees of her trousers.

       His heart plummeted through the floorboards.

       The moments it took to span the hallway to the bath seemed to stretch on for eternities.

       There was water spilling all over the floor, and Sherlock’s hand flew to his mouth at the sight of the tiny body, bluing and floating in the tub.

       He took Elizabeth from the water, holding her small chest in his left hand as he thumped her back with his right.

       Nothing.

       He settled her on the wet floor and tried to revive her, pressing careful fingers to her breastbone and tilting her head back. He gave her his breath over and over again, wishing he could give her all of it, the blood in his veins, the marrow from his bones, along with the air from his lungs.

       Her eyes were flung open, dark blue and unseeing. For all his efforts, Elizabeth never took that first trembling breath of someone recently reacquainted with living.

       When he’d first began detecting for Scotland Yard, he’d gone with Lestrade to a recent widow’s house. And, by recent widow, he meant freshly minted. Lestrade and he had watched her husband’s murder, incapable through circumstances of stopping it. Lestrade had told him to wait in the foyer, and Sherlock had complied for a moment before he heard the crashing of crystal. He entered to find Lestrade with his head down deferentially, and the woman, middle-aged, sat surrounded by the shards and sobbed like something broken, like a chasm of longing and pain had opened in her chest. In the years after, he’d never again seen someone react like she had.

       Some part of him was still clinically detached. He felt emotion welling, burning at the corners of his eyes. There was a moment before it began. It felt like peace, but its edges sliced him to the quick. There was some massive amount of time where the buzzing in his ears drowned out everything else completely.

       A sharp whine sliced through the white noise, and Sherlock realized that it was ripping from his own throat. His hands shook uncontrollably as he closed her eyes, unable to bear for a moment more the blame that should be there.

       Then, the wave peaked and crashed rapidly, hurling Sherlock headlong against the rocks. He sobbed. He clutched Elizabeth’s tiny, frail body to his chest and sobbed as he’d never done, frustration and despondency combining to create some third immense emotion that threatened to tear him limb from limb. And, it was what he deserved.   

        Afterwards, he had buried her in the garden. He wasn’t sure how he managed to stop trembling once he’d started. Still, he did.

       He broke into their medical stores and gave Mary enough benzodiazepine to make her sleep until morning.

       There wasn’t enough data to make a firm conclusion one way or the other. Mary could have merely meant to bathe Elizabeth. She’d never before shown any aggression towards her child. Still, his mind went back to those weeks ago when she’d pinned Elizabeth and himself with that inscrutable expression, as if debating something internally. He shuddered with the realization and clarification of her calculus.

       Mary would not kill her child intentionally, but Abigail? Difficult to say.

       Either way, he got roaringly drunk, the dull thump behind his eyes only receding after what he roughly estimated was his fifth glass of whiskey, if he’d at all bothered with glasses. Instead, he stayed leaned up against one of the sitting room walls in his flat and drank it straight from the bottle, relishing its burn. He had not bothered to take off his damp clothing, mud-stained from Elizabeth’s grave. Her grave. How small a thing it was.

       It is a kindness.

       Elizabeth wouldn’t know the pain and fear of her mind, still so new, turning viciously against her. So many babies had died in the first waves. Fevers, stiffening, and finally, drowning in their own sputum while desperate parents begged for anything different. John must have known this, must have watched that same death over and over again.

       He was, in that moment, irrationally angry at John. Obviously, the logical part of himself knew that John would have been in no state to have done anything. Still, he hated that this was for him to bear. He had spent decades keeping people out, and still he was in the most predictably maudlin of situations—the kind mothers, fathers, brothers, children found themselves in every day. But, his had always been a life of relative removal.

       I’m not meant for this.

       Secretly, he feared he wasn’t fit for it.

       He was still there, bottle neck clutched in his left hand when the other found its way to the specimen jar he’d retrieved earlier that day. The moth, pyrausta aurata, soft browns and deep yellow, was dead at the bottom, suffocated.

       The glass shattered into a million shining pieces after he hurled it against the opposite wall, the desiccated corpse of the moth forgotten.

 

Chapter Text

          Jim attributes it to the (well-placed) knee he launched at The Stranger’s ribs. Regardless, Jim has fallen off his ankle, swearing. It has rapidly begun swelling.

          Despite the fact that he was there to see it happen, Sherlock takes Jim’s leg as a mystery to solve. He circles Jim once or twice and then looks out about himself.

          “This way. Come on," he orders. Jim’s heart drops when Sherlock begins heading in a different direction.

          “Oh my God, Sherlock, no.” Jim tastes fear fleetingly. Mycroft is really in Siberia as it turns out, and they have to be there within the hour.

          Sherlock turns to consider him. After a few, unreadable moments, Sherlock comes to a private conclusion and nods. “Wait here, then.”

          “Um. Where are you going?”

          “You’re going to slow me down otherwise. Just sit.”

          Jim’s eyes narrow. “Like I slowed you down in Moreton-in-Marsh?”

          “I’ll be fine. Wait here. I’ll only be gone a moment.”

          In fact, Sherlock is gone for an hour before Jim makes up his mind. Sherlock has fallen down dead from the head injury. It is bitterly funny to imagine himself on a quest similar to Sherlock’s. He could find someone still barely lucid and explain, “We’re looking for a corpse in a black coat. For some God-forsaken reason, which I will, of course, never bother to explain we have to walk to Cardiff and then back here to find it.  You’ll know it when you see it, it’ll have it’s arms crossed in an eternal sulk.”

          He misses when he used to send people away on errands.  At least, before, he always knew Moran would come back.

          An hour after that, Jim sits up at what has become a foreign and hideously loud sound. A car comes growling down the road, still out of sight.  With his ankle swollen under the bandages, he’s in hardly any condition to face another Stranger. He limps behind one of the cars parked behind the street and waits.

          The car comes to a halt just behind his hiding spot. He limps out scowling and climbs into the passenger side. Figures. He usually manages to both hate Sherlock intensely and be immensely pleased to see him.

          There is almost no room for him in the car what with Sherlock’s massive smugness.

          “No charge," Sherlock says. Jim can do nothing but growl in pent-up frustration and relief.

          Sherlock is in good spirits. “We’ll be there today," he offers.

          Jim nods without saying anything.

          “You wanted to keep walking, then?” Sherlock snaps. He is fishing for praise and put off that he hasn’t received it.

          “Should I be excited? Yes, you were very clever.” Sherlock sputters. Likely, he does think Jim should be excited.

          Two blocks later, the car breaks down. Sherlock tries and tries to restart it and then eventually slams a fist on the steering wheel. Now, he is the one growling in frustration. They will not be there today, after all.

          Sherlock understands things in terms of being clever enough to do them, or not. He has still not mastered the concept that sometimes all the cleverness in the world doesn’t matter.

          Jim cannot pretend to be sorry. He is sorry that he has to be back on that ankle, though.

          Sherlock walks off, ten, twenty paces, in front of him. Perhaps hearing his footsteps grow more distant, Sherlock doubles back. Then he walks off some distance and doubles back.

          He’s like an anxious pointer, Jim thinks. No wonder he was such good friends with the dog.

          “No, no, no, no.” Jim stops as Sherlock jogs back to him again. “Don’t come back here. You’re going to run yourself into the ground. You’re doing twice as much walking.”

          “Oh, as if it mattered. We aren’t going to make it today either way.” Sherlock really is a little out of breath.

          If Sherlock wants to fight about going faster, Jim is prepared, but he seems more disappointed than angry.

          “The car was stupid. It was sheer idiocy.There’s been gridlock out of every city that we’ve passed. I should have known we’d have to leave it eventually. It was a waste of time.”

          “Well,” Jim says, taking the opportunity to sit and poke at his ankle for a bit, “I liked it, for what it’s worth.”

          “Stupid,” Sherlock mutters to himself, pacing a little and mildly striking his forehead with heel of his hand.

          Even after all this time and as many times as they’ve been wrong, Jim is unfamiliar with Sherlock berating himself. It’s a very different man than the one he used to know. He feels a vague impulse to console him but only knows one argument that would, as much as Sherlock hates it.

          “Sherlock,” he explains, as he might have once to a very obstinate student. “We can very literally only get there when we get there. You thought it’d get you there today. Instead, it’ll get you there tomorrow or the day after.”

          “Yes, but it was meant to get us there today,” Sherlock answers, eyeing the ankle as though it were a traitor.

          “Shut up,” Jim says tiredly, unwilling to put up with much more of this. “Shut up. Listen. I’ve been trying to tell you since the beginning and you never listen. We have time.“

          Sherlock seems skeptical, as he always does, but too filled with remorse to be annoyed with him. Jim sighs and rolls his eyes. The things he brings himself to do for this man.

          “Look. Plans. Patience. Those weren’t exactly ever your strong suits. They’re mine.” Even Sherlock has to grant that.

          “More importantly,” Jim continues, "They’re your brother’s. He must have known he was probably going to outlast most people. Wherever he is, he wouldn’t seal himself into a bunker without a year’s supply of umbrellas or whatever. You didn’t go with him when he asked you to go with him. Plan A failed. But you never listen to him the first time around, and he knows that. This is Plan B. Sniffing after things is sort of what you do, after all. But. I know your brother. I know the way he works, and I’ve been at this much longer with him than I have been with you. Your. Brother. Always. Plans. For. Failure. Specifically, your failures. He’s thought it’d take you a while. We have time. Q.E.D. Sit.”

          For the first time since they set out, Sherlock acknowledges Jim is likely right on this point. He sits.

          Or, he’s just dead. Then, we definitely have enough time, Jim thinks but does not say.

          “The only thing he’s probably not planned on is me,” Jim says, lacing his shoe back on. “As he was always so wont to do.”

          “We planned on you. Though, not always on what you’d do. Throwing the plans in the pool. That was….different.”

          “You misunderstood the point. You always do. I’m sure this’ll all be taken as a complicated plot to trick you into….who knows.  Guiding me on a tour of the UK’s Top Ten Bunkers. I don’t know.”   

          Sherlock smiles a little. In fact, Sherlock has never given Jim any indication that he has considered what will become of him if Mycroft really is alive. Jim has always assumed that Mycroft would reason the same way Sherlock did when he first invited Jim to come with him. It doesn’t mean he’ll still not be shut out or shot, though, or that things won’t change radically for the worst for Jim.

          “He won’t mind,” Sherlock says decidedly. It is Jim’s turn to be skeptical. Sherlock sounds for all the world like a little boy that is certain he’ll get to keep a stray. “If that’s your concern.”

          Jim nods.

          Or, he’s just dead. Then, he definitely won’t mind, Jim thinks but does not say.

 


 

 

          Mary was never the same. Sherlock wasn’t either, if he was honest. Any of the comfort the two of them had found in the passing weeks was gone. Whereas John’s absence had led to camaraderie around a common goal, Elizabeth’s death was an insurmountable void. Sherlock didn’t try to reach across it because there was nothing left to say.    

          Nothing left to say to anyone, really.

          She cried for hours. He could sometimes hear the faintest whispers of her sobs from upstairs, but he gave her privacy, figuring she would appreciate it as he would. Every night, the same. Sherlock would make his way up, Mary would wait for an hour or two, and then the wracked sobs would drift toward him. He had little sympathy left to give her.

          It was difficult now to remember why he’d ever promised John this in the first place, why he hadn’t just gone with Mycroft when he’d requested. In the moments in which everything seemed to be going wrong, he found himself fantasizing about some bunker underground somewhere, peaceful and quiet, even if it did mean dealing with Mycroft day in and day out. It would be a welcome reprieve from now.

          A benefit of winter coming was that many of the roaming horde outside succumbed to the weather. Traversing the streets was far easier now. He entertained himself by conducting experiments and cleaning out and reorganizing his mind palace, but the majority of his time was gone to Mary. There was simply no time to be bored.

          Day by day, she regressed, and Sherlock watched on in rapt horror as she slid further and further into decline. He’d studied enough of their brains by now to know what was happening.

Short-term memory loss, emotional volatility, longer-term memory loss, inability to communicate. Then, diminished mobility, difficulty breathing, and eventual death.

          More and more of her days were spent talking about times far before she knew any of them. Surprisingly, a vast majority of this transpired in Hebrew. It took him several weeks to chase down some old books on tape and become fluent. She spoke of the streets of Jerusalem, the quiet awe of synagogue, and the terror that gripped the region from even before she was born.

          Sometimes, she sobbed--for her mother, for John, never for Elizabeth, however. Her existence was either too new for Mary’s failing memory or too painful to dwell upon. Sherlock understood this last part. Still, it had never been difficult for Sherlock to separate himself from his emotions, and it was hardly different now. He spoke calmly to Mary through her confusions and her rages. He quietly soothed her through the crying and carefully tried to look as though he was not soothing her at all.

          But, it wasn’t always like that. Some rare days, Mary was herself again, and those days were worse. On those days, the nightly wailing began anew, and Sherlock hoped that she would again slip back into confusion. Thankfully, she always did, and in shorter and shorter intervals. She spoke less, moved less, stayed in bed longer and longer. The young plumpness of her face and arms melted away day by day like a cachectic hourglass. He saw more and more of the physical signs of the disease make themselves just as known as the mental ones.

          The days slipped on, the weather ferocious at times. Before, a heavy winter storm in December would have been the bane of everyone’s existence. Rare and unexpected, the shopkeepers would have grumbled about it, and the faces of the people on the streets would have been snarled up in consternation. Now, the snow fell on a fairly deserted Piccadilly Circus. It was the first December Sherlock could remember without insipid Christmas carols and tinsel. It was also the first he could remember without his family. Even in those years lost to the streets and heroin, his brother had always found him and forced him to Sussex to see his parents.

          While smoking at the window of 221b, he realized that he’d never asked Mycroft about their parents. They had never called. Such was their way. It had always been him and Mycroft, their parents a world away from their lives here in the city. After Sherlock had spent so many years wasting and failing and drugging, they’d stopped calling, stopped trusting him. Everything was filtered through Mycroft, both his exploits and Mummy and Daddy’s concern. It made sense, then, that Mycroft would have hidden their deaths from him. What would have been the point of discussing it? Sherlock had flicked his cigarette into the snowy street, dismissive of any consequence.

          It was New Year’s Eve. He played Auld Lang Syne just the once while Mary was resting, feeling the bitter sentiment in the song for the first time. He slipped the beloved instrument back into its case. It was dinner time, and Sherlock prepared himself.

          Early this morning, Mary had had a bright spot of sanity and clarity. She’d wiped her mouth with trembling hands that looked older than his mother’s and smiled weakly at him.

          “I always knew you were a good one, Sherlock Holmes,” she teased. It ached. Her voice still sounded clear and bell-like, as it always had. Sherlock winced and Mary’s smile had faltered.

          “You are likely the only one to think so,” he volunteered as distraction.

          Mary shook her head. “For a man with no one, you’ve had more than your fair share of admirers in one way or another. John told me once about The Woman.”

          Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Not that again.”

          “Why not?” She asked. It was clear she was asking a question far more personal than interpreted at first glance.

          “It just wasn’t. It wasn’t ever going to be.”

          “Janine was right.” She smiled again.

          “It’s not that. Well, it’s not just that. Irene ultimately did what she did to secure her own safety. I wouldn’t have been happy with safe, I don’t think.” He wondered now if Irene was still out there, whether she was dead or tormented out of her impressive mind. Perhaps she knew someone somewhere who would keep her, again, safe. Perhaps, at the very least, she knew what that someone liked.

          “Taking the risk on someone unsafe is just that. Unsafe.” She looks regretful and tired, and Sherlock wondered whether she was thinking of John, the sacrifices both of them had made for a marriage that had ultimately not lived to see past their first anniversary. Perhaps once, that would have been a strange thought for Sherlock to consider, but ‘now’ was hardly ‘then,’ and that man? Why, he was hardly here.  

          “Oh, I dunno. People like me, like John are willing to take the risk.” It was the closest he could come to any sort of resolution.

          That evening, however, the milky veil had dropped again, and Mary had stared at him. He was unsure if she was aware of who he was. Her speech, even this morning, had been labored, but now it was all but unintelligible. Her hands were drawn up into tight, clawed fists. Sherlock made his way over slowly with the bowl of soup. He’d found a store of unrotten potatoes in a neighbor’s pantry. Today, he had thawed them from the cold and chunked them. The soup had cooked well over the fire.

           He began spooning it, and at first, as always, she was hesitant. Eventually, realizing that Sherlock meant no harm, she tucked in, happily eating the broth, even gesturing to allow him to let her do it herself. He sat the tray on her lap and handed the spoon to her. She seemed to be doing well enough with the spooning, and Sherlock let her have this dignity.

          He went into the kitchen for just a moment, just a moment he let his guard down. When he came back, the bowl was on the floor, all the soup dripping from the blanket into a pool on the carpet. But, more pressingly, Mary was choking. Red arteries were already turning her glazed eyes a brilliant pink, a vein throbbed at her temple and across half her forehead. He imagined that her gag reflex was too weak to right itself, and he studied her for a long moment.

          Later, after her thrashing was over, Sherlock was not sure whether what he’d done was a kindness or revenge.

          In the end, it didn’t matter.

          He wrapped her in the sheets from the bed before taking her out to the cold, snowy garden.

          He’ll bury her once the ground is thawed.  

 

Chapter Text

          They are currently staying in a flat they found yesterday, luckily both unlocked and empty of corpses.

          Sherlock has taken the day off to analyze maps and notes. He has seemed calmer but still unwilling to waste any more time and effort being wrong. He’s made a makeshift ‘crime wall,’ checking and rechecking his data until he’s pinpointed with absolute certainty the whereabouts of the bunker in Coventry.

          Jim has taken the opportunity to sleep in gloriously late and then to manifest his disgust with the previous occupants’ collection of books.

          At night, Sherlock makes an abominable amount of noise bustling about the flat. Jim lays on his side with his eyes shut, counting things in his head, waiting for Sherlock to quiet. He falls asleep first, though, and is soon awoken by weight shifting onto the mattress.

          He opens his eyes to Sherlock staring back at him in the darkness.

          “Why are you still up?” Jim groans, blinking bleariness away. “Better question, why am I up?”

          “I had to finish,” Sherlock says lowly, even though there is no one else to wake up. “It’s not far from here. We arrive tomorrow, I’m sure of it.”  

          Well, that’s a kindness, Jim thinks. He settles back to sleep but still feels Sherlock watching him.

          After they had left London, it began happening.

          After their return from Dartmoor, it began happening less and less frequently.

          After their failure in Wiltshire, it has not happened at all.

          These days, if the nights are especially chilled, sometimes Jim wakes with an arm draped loosely over Sherlock.

          But there are plenty of places to sleep in the flat and enough blankets to sleep both apart and warmly. There is no real need to come to bed.

          Ah.

          “Why?”

          “You never asked ‘why’ before.” Sherlock resists having to explain himself.

          “No, neither of us did.” Jim stretches. “But, like you said, that was before. Why now?”

          Sherlock shrugs with one shoulder. “It’s enough to say you don’t want to.”

          “Obviously. Except I didn't. Are you scared we won’t be allowed after tomorrow?” Jim scoffs at his own joke. Sherlock snorts and shakes his head.

          It would be pointless to set off right now, they are close enough and can move more quickly tomorrow if they rest Jim's ankle. Maybe this is Sherlock trying to work off the disquiet he feels being so close to the bunker yet still not there. Maybe he is hedging his bets and saying his goodbyes, just in case. Maybe now that he’s solved the case, he’s just bored again.

          “I don’t know. I just thought we might, I suppose.”

          “Ever the charmer, Sherlock.”

          “Well, do you want to or not?”

          Jim interprets the insistence. Sherlock would only ever be concerned with whether Jim wanted to if he wanted it first. It’s enough.

          “Get me my stuff.”

          (Sherlock had arched an eyebrow when he first discovered that Jim’s version of a first aid kit included lube. “Necessary in an emergency,” Jim had reasoned.)

          (Not long after, in a fit of utter boredom between bunkers, Sherlock resumed a sex life long dormant since his heroin days.)

          Smack addicts sometimes got high and fucked for ages, their nerves dulled and their hours long and sluggish. Jim knows and accepts this. Fuck what they could have been, fuck what it might have meant, fuck what they might be tomorrow. They’ve always been each other’s best distractions, anyway.

          Sherlock returns and rifles through the first aid kit. Eventually, he extracts the lube and places it on the mattress by Jim's feet, much like a cat presenting a dead mouse. Even in the darkness, it is clear they are staring at each other. Sherlock stares awkwardly, Jim stares just for the fun of seeing how long Sherlock will wait before he moves to do something.

          Sherlock fakes having to clear his throat and looks away. He convinces himself to roll down his sleeves and lift the hem of the sweater he favors nowadays.

          “Oh, you,” Jim says and tugs him down by the arm.

          Jim had been prescient in packing the lube, as he always was in these matters.

          On occasions when he finds himself in a despondent sort of boredom, Sherlock prefers to bottom, Jim has noticed. He can always allow himself to be done to and hardly do anything in return, merely zoning in and out of his mind palace and whatever thoughts must overtake him after defeat. He is thin enough these days that Jim thinks this must be what he seemed like in his youth; delicate, high as a kite, and utterly uninterested in anything.

          On occasions like this one, when he finds himself itching with nervous tension, Sherlock prefers to top. Jim approves of this decision. Sherlock has proven not without his talents when he has a lot of energy to burn off. As far as Jim can tell, Sherlock remains present in body and spirit then. Jim wanders off occasionally to his own mind.

          It's not a palace.

          It is an entire multiverse and he is a god, making and undoing, with a twitch of his hand, whole alternate realities.

          He goes to Baker Street, Sherlock has exploded his heart with a frankly impressive amount of cocaine. He never goes to Baker Street, he shoots himself for good this time. Abby goes first, Sherlock insists on bringing the baby along for the ride. The doctor lives, it is he who limps after Sherlock. He reroutes the plane from Serbia, but sends for Sherlock to be brought to him. He goes to Baker Street, after the trial this time, makes Sherlock an offer he will not refuse. They do this, but in London, back when there was a London.

          He entertains the fantasy of Jim Moriarty, suit-clad, consulting criminal, placing a knee between the thighs of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, only one in the world. He imagines himself twining hands in Sherlock’s curls, soft and well-kept as they used to be. He twines his hands in Sherlock’s hair, cut by Jim himself. The motion melds realities. He cants his hips and tightens around Sherlock a few times and he finishes. They both finish, then, thanks to a few final pulls from Sherlock.

          Sherlock falls beside him with a sigh, the tension dispelled. Jim drops a hand into the front pocket of his pack and fishes out cigarettes. He lights one and passes it to Sherlock.

          “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” Sherlock muses after a drag.

          Jim rolls his eyes towards Sherlock. “You don’t mean it, sweetheart. You’re just pleased with yourself.”

          “You’re right.” Sherlock puffs on the cigarette again. “I'm not even sure where it's from, come to think of it.”

          Jim chuckles. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. It creeps in a petty pace from day to day, until the last syllable of recorded time.” He lifts Sherlock’s hand to kiss it and steals back his cigarette.

          “All our yesterdays have lighted fools on their way to dusty death.”

          “Doesn’t sound right,” Sherlock grumbles sleepily.

          “As if you would know.” Jim jabs him with an elbow. “Posh, pretty boy, too poncy for your poncy education. Spare me.” What else would he do, all realities considered, than grumble at Sherlock like this? How else should he spend the last syllable of recorded time? He has forgotten anything different with fucking SANS not at all responsible.

          “Mycroft will know,” Sherlock says, just as he is falling asleep. “Mycroft is never too poncy for anything.”

          Jim scoffs. Sherlock is so damn sure that he will see Mycroft tomorrow. Jim indulges himself in one last reality before he drifts off to sleep.

          In this reality, he is damn sure, too.

 


 

 

          The rest of the winter passed in a tedium. He was free from his responsibilities, but felt the weighing press of their absence. It was difficult to separate the different people in his life from the ways in which they’d all ultimately left him. The genius realized that his audience was well and truly gone. The siren call of the cocaine under the tiles grew more tempting. He knew that one day, sooner rather than later, it would be too much and he would begin again.

          He found an old map he and John had used in the Dartmoor case. John’s tidy x’s marked the location of every known bunker currently used in the British military complex. Mycroft had grudgingly given him the information, knowing full well that it wasn’t at all relevant to their current case and that Sherlock was merely bleeding him for more. Still, Mycroft had let him. A strange indulgence, almost suspicious. As though, he were planning for the scenario in which Sherlock might need it.

          After all that time, he was finally studying it thoroughly, and began plotting. It was far too cold now to travel, but in a few months, that would not be the case. As spring came to London, he would leave it. Without the burden of his promise, he was finally going to Mycroft. He would need to be thorough in his preparation. There were certain aspects of survival that weren’t as necessary as they might have been in other global cataclysms, but there was still much to be done.

          Revitalized in his purpose, he felt renewed. This was a mystery, and one that would take him weeks to solve. He gathered his things slowly, and stared at the weather, cursing the snow in much the same way he would have done when there were still other mysteries to be solved.

          He was unpacking and repacking his bag for the tenth time when the soft tread of footsteps startled him. Without thinking, John’s gun was located and cocked.

          He knew that others, the other straggling survivors, would forage through houses in much the same way he did. He remained deadly silent as the footsteps stopped, still at the bottom of the stairs. The door to 221a opened, and there were several minutes where the footfall was too soft for him to hear. And then, it moved back toward him again. He drew the gun up into a comfortable shooting position. There seemed only one of them, making his job much easier.

          He hadn’t bothered locking the front door to the flat, and it was pushed in slowly. His finger was on the trigger, but then the door opened to reveal the very last person he’d ever thought to see again.

          “Hello, dear. It has been an awfully long time.” Sherlock stared unabashedly. Jim’s eyes drifted to the gun. “Well, I’d be the first to admit my manners were abysmal, but I hardly think it merits blowing my head off once you’ve just learned it was still intact.”

          Jim flowed into the space as he always did, like he owned the whole thing. Sherlock, still flabbergasted, finally lowered the weapon. This was something so far out of the realm of possibility that he’d never expected, never even thought.

          Jim was alive.

          Jim’s brows knitted together. “You’re starting to unsettle me. Please don’t tell me your head’s gone all soft.”

          “You…” Sherlock started. “How?”

          “How? Well, hardly matters now, does it?” He asked sharply, annoyed. “I had a plan, Sherlock, a great big plan. So clever it would have made you weep. But that’s all gone to pot now.” He walked over to the curtained windows, pushing them aside with a finger to look out.  

          Sherlock was silent, now less out of shock and more out of the sense of danger, the prickle at the back of his neck warning him of a predator too close for his survival center’s comfort.

          “They’re dead,” Jim observed. “Mary, the baby. I’ve been round back. No grave for John, no sign of him. Did soldier boy decide it was all too much?”

          Sherlock’s temper snapped and the gun was retrained on Jim, pointing at his pale forehead.

          He waited for some sort of reaction, but there wasn’t one. Jim looked bored, exasperated.

          “Oh, for God’s own sake, Sherlock. I’m hardly going to kill you now. What d’you think, I manufactured this myself? A diabolical trick to vex you?”

          “Why are you here?” Sherlock asked.

          “Isn’t it obvious? I’m bored. No pun intended, but I’m bored out of my mind. And, here you are--being boring?”

          “How am I being boring?” Sherlock asked.

          Jim waved his hand at the gun. “This, all of this. You still think it’s like old times. That I’ve got six snipers marked on you, and your only hope is to detonate the Semtex and take us all out in a blaze of self-righteous glory.” He looked back over at Sherlock now and met his eyes. “We’ve rather done that bit before, wouldn’t you say?”

          They had, but this was still Moriarty. His name had been plastered to the inside of Sherlock’s skull for too long to be trusted.

          Jim sighed. “None of it matters, now, Sherlock. I only did it to stop the boredom.”

          “You killed people.”

          Jim blinked at him slowly, not saying anything. Sherlock thought back to Mary. To Magnussen. The argument didn’t have the same heat it used to.

          “Yes.” Jim didn’t try to excuse the behavior or explain it.

          “So why should I trust you now?”

          Jim rubbed his temples. “Because, I’ve only just now managed to find anyone worth talking to again. Why on Earth would I kill you? Because of before? You were in my way then. Now? There’s nowhere to go in the first place.” There was something empty in Jim’s eyes. Sherlock recognized it as the same expression he’d worn on the roof. Tired and loathing.

          Sherlock scoffed, but lowered the gun. He figured if Jim did intend to kill him, there was little left to do about it.

          Jim roved the flat, looking over the half-packed sack, the marked up map stretched out over the coffee table.

          “You’re planning something.” The timbre of Jim’s voice shifted, now near gleeful. He was likely just as starved for anything interesting as Sherlock was.

          Could he really drag Jim Moriarty with him to possibly the last known safe house in the world? Would Mycroft even let him in in the first place? It would be useful to have companion on his trip, and there was hardly anyone else, but he could hardly trust him. Mycroft wouldn’t, at all. He was more likely to have Jim shot than anything. Even the reorganization of the world didn’t necessitate someone like Jim. Still, there was benefit. Jim seemed relatively unaffected by SANS, he was upright, moving of his own volition. He was just as clever as always, something Sherlock figured could be both equally positive and negative.

          Unbidden, his own words to Mary came back.

          'People like me are willing to take the risk.'

          “I am, in fact. A trip,” Sherlock said after a long moment. He paused before smirking at Jim. “Interested?”

          Jim tried very hard to school away his excitement, but didn’t quite succeed. Sherlock could see his mind already whirling with something, anything to do again.

          “Yes. But first, I noticed you still have a hot water heater. My building’s is electric. I’m dreadfully tired of icy baths. I’ll have one,” Jim said, pulling at his tie. “That reminds me, we’ll have to go back to mine for my things.”

          Typical. But, Sherlock nodded, still a bit woozy from the last few minutes, how foreign, and yet how familiar they felt.

          “And, Sherlock?”

          He looked up. Jim’s expression appeared serious and a bit open.

          “Bring me a towel, won’t you, sweetheart?”

 

Chapter Text

          Under ground always feels cooler than topside. It’s just a feature of the earth itself, a physical phenomenon explained by heat transfer. Still, this bunker feels like a crypt. Your breathing is heavy. You’re excited, like you always are when we manage to find one. The stairs are rusty from disuse. This is not a good sign. There are so rarely any good signs. Maybe it is a good sign. Certainly, good for me, at any rate. I keep this observation to myself.

          I open doors slowly. This bunker is much smaller, hardly like the the one in Wiltshire. A half-dozen rooms at most. There is nothing to be found. Unlike the last bunker, this one is completely empty of even the dead. It’s just been forgotten.

          You’re angry, furious. You throw things. Every time this happens, you become unreachable. I don’t try.

          I let you spend as long as you will down here in the cool of the grave. Eventually, your temper comes back from its peak, and you begin making your way out. I’ve said nothing this entire time. Neither have you. It’s for the best, really.

          Then, you stop. You stare at whatever it is with the same single-minded focus of a bloodhound. The office just off the doorway contains several books. I steel myself. Books are your very favorite.

          You begin to pore over them. I watch you as your eyes snap back and forth frantically. You’d been so sure this time. You don’t make decisions without proper data, and yet last night, you’d been convinced.

          I consider, now, that there is a third possibility for which neither of us has expressly accounted.

          You always expect Mycroft to be one step ahead, another bit of smoke, a mirror, and Mycroft makes it out unscathed. And, maybe that’s Mycroft’s fault. In that one way, he could still manage to be a hero to his brother.

          You are still living in that story, Sherlock. Mycroft isn’t going to be found dead or alive in some country bunker somewhere.  

          I can imagine what Mycroft’s fate was, let me paint it for you. Removed from the responsibility that you and he felt for one another, Mycroft was alone, facing the degradation of the one thing that made him special, made him useful, made him him.

          We go into these bunkers, but not for an instant do you suggest going to Downing Street or to Whitehall or to The Fucking Diogenes Club, anywhere probable. Chances are you’d find his crime scene there. The blood would have long since coagulated, and dried up completely. Mycroft is moldering in some nicely panelled room somewhere, bloating and staining his bland grey suit, a forgotten half drunk tumbler of scotch at his side, and a hole the size of your fist at the back of his head.  I bet it’d only take you a moment to put it all together, clever thing.

          You’ve told me all the stories. Of course you have. You’ve grown so used to having people to talk to, and you talk to me. I listen, pretend I don’t care, and meticulously file them all away for safekeeping. I know about John and about your brother. I know about Elizabeth, and I know more than you think I do about Mary. You’ve told me in fits and starts about Mycroft.

          You forgot, Sherlock. You forgot or you misinterpreted. Either way, I don’t think you know where Mycroft meant to take you at all.

          I think if you had gone with him, one day in my boredom I would have come across a similar scene, only you added to the mess on the floor. I’ve heard all the stories about the dog. About the dead, floating baby. And likely, Mycroft would have thought it a kindness, as everyone is so drawn to doing.

          Dying is not a kindness. It is not an unkindness, either. It is merely dying. It isn’t the application of justice, and it’s not the protection from fates worse than death. It is dying, and that is all it is.  

          Finally, you find whatever tendril you wish to affix yourself to next, and you hurriedly take the stairs.

          You’ve started marching down the hill without a moment’s hesitation, already brooding over what will be the next town to strike your fancy. But you pause, looking around until you see me, as if you’ve already forgotten my footfall behind you.

          I’d like to say it’s because you’ve come to rely on me that you look back, but it isn’t, is it? You’ve forgotten where I am, even though I was just right behind you.

          I can’t remember how many times we’ve done this.

          I can’t remember when the vision in my left eye began to blur or when my leg really first started to crumble under me. Was it after kicking his ribs in, or was it before? Sometimes, I do forget my brother’s name.   

          You wait at the bottom of the trail, and I go to you.

          It’s strange to see you wait. You haven’t usually. My steps falter as I approach and you fret down in the direction of my leg. I think you’re fretting because you anticipate being slowed. But maybe you’re just fretting at my leg in general.

          Maybe.

          Fuck. It doesn’t matter. There is nothing left but this fool’s errand and you.

          “Where are we going?”

          “Edinburgh.”

          “Ugh. I hate Edinburgh. Mycroft would.”

          And we walk on.