He’s halfway to Baker Street when he realises, when he sees.
Sentiment, as he always suspected, has rendered his methods defective.
“Turn around, back to Bart’s,” Sherlock says, but the words are blunt, less sharp than he wants them, needs them to be, worn by the pulse rising in his throat, all barometric pressure and the unforgiving tides.
And he should have known, should have seen: he’d said the roof, the roof, because he was owed a fall and there was absolutely no reason, no reason for his opponent to alter that trajectory, to introduce a variable, because Sherlock understood, Sherlock had set the necessary measures into motion: defamation, destruction—he had to die.
When the text that followed John’s departure had read anything save I’m waiting..., with that madman’s appalling ellipses, Sherlock should have seen.
When the text read King to TQ285815. Your move., he should have known, should have felt it in his blood, the boil of it, the undercurrent of wrongwrongwrong.
And yet, he’d sent away the heart. He’d lied to its face and swallowed the way his stomach had seized and his ribs felt unsteady. He’d told himself it was to keep John safe.
Save him the burning.
And so he’d blinked at the screen and thought Crown Jewels and Marylebone before grabbing his coat and hailing the cab, and he hadn’t thought, he hadn’t thought.
But the burning’s here, now; the burning’s rising swift in Sherlock’s neck as he urges the driver Faster, you useless waste of oxygen, or I’ll report you to the Met for the eight-balls stashed beneath your seat” except it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work because speed is a scalar quantity but their velocity is inconstant, and the vector acceleration is dependent on their mass and Sherlock cannot will away the cocaine that doesn’t call to him, not now; cannot dissolve the excess body weight around the cabbie’s jowls; cannot make himself small or the feeling in his chest any lighter and fear, it seems, rather suits him, saw fit to settle in and make a home upon finding him susceptible, upon victimising the mind of him, the—
His eyes are on the skyline, the edge of the rooftop where he’d been, where he’d staged it all and planned: he’s looking up, before he steps out from the cab, before his own feet touch the ground, and the air is scarce, somehow, for the breath of wind he cannot catch, all but fails to mimic.
“Sherlock,” and it’s John’s voice—steady, but forced—but Sherlock can close his eyes and tease out a tremor that’s not realised so much as implied, and he inhales chlorine as the stomach of him plummets.
And he thinks he might be shaking, can’t tell for the way the poles of the globe have shifted and he is both weightless and leaden all at once; can’t bear how the amygdala is cowering, trembling, short-circuiting the entire mainboard all because Sherlock Holmes was weak, is weak—Sherlock Holmes encountered fear and chose to learn it, assimilate it and adapt to the threat of JohngoneJohnlostJohngone with something primal, something crippling, something desperately horrific as it settles in his bones, all dilated vessels and airways, flooding glucose, pounding heart and it’s burning, burning, burning, there’s too much oxygen feeding the fire.
He cannot douse the flames.
And it hurts, if he’s honest: it sears and he doesn’t know how anyone manages this, and synaptic plasticity be damned, he should have deleted this, he should have eradicated it entirely, should have been the one to control the burn as he torched the entire centre, the neurones and the corridors and removed this infection, this malformation, except: John.
Except all that is John cannot be removed, and Sherlock is weak, he is compromised, he is a system failing, always failing. Forever failing.
Alone only protected when his heart lived in his chest.
“Here we are at last,” John says across the line, and Sherlock can see him, can suss the posture of him, rigid, from so many stories up.
“You and me, and our problem” John pauses, and Sherlock can hear the way he swallows, the connection all too clear: “The final problem.”
Gottle o’ geer...gottle o’ geer...gottle o’ geer. The echoes of the past ricochet indefinite inside Sherlock’s skull, and down as they give way to the present.
Oh. Oh, no.
“In the end, you know, it was easy,” John tells him, and the rabid pounding shaking through his frame will not ease, will not cease, forcing blood to all the places it hurts too much to feel. “To beat you. Turns out you’re ordinary, just like the rest of them.”
And it’s not John, it’s not John, but that cuts to hear, that stings and makes him swallow hard around the thickness that settles at the base of his throat.
“John,” Sherlock starts, but John’s voice cuts in to drown, to smother, to overwhelm and Sherlock does feel bested, Sherlock feels lost, has lost, and he knows, somehow, that he’ll scramble for purchase the rest of his days and never again find it, that precious solid ground.
“Did I nearly get you, Sherlock?” John’s voice on his name is too high—false, all false—and it is fitting, almost reassuring, that his name doesn’t sound the same, even from John’s mouth, if it doesn’t move forth from John’s mind, John’s soul; still it churns, though, grows sour in the pit of Sherlock’s stomach. “Did you nearly believe I was a figment of your imagination? Did you see this coming?”
“I told you,” Sherlock starts, bites his lip, the tip of his tongue, to keep his own words steady. “I have something that you want.”
Please let it be something he wants.
“Oh Sherlock,” and John’s voice is stoic, steady, and Sherlock knows he’s hiding real malice, there; masking the hateful glee in Moriarty’s tone as it echoes in his ears.
“I don’t let anyone get their hands on the things I really hold dear. Unlike you.”
Something—a string or a ligament, a vessel or bone—something shivers through Sherlock body along the frequencies of a minor key at that before it frays, before it breaks.
His hand slips, damp, against his mobile and he clutches it harder, closer; hears the rush of his blood behind the drum of his ear.
“The keycode,” Sherlock gasps out, curses the way his voice sounds so thin, so wrong, as weak as he knows he is, as Moriarty knows it is, he is, knows and is raining it down upon his head, holding his heart hostage in the wings and it’s not strong enough, he fears; he’s not strong enough to break free and run, no matter how that heart of him strains.
“I’ll send it,” he threatens, tapping the sequence out with a nervous fingertip on the edge of his phone. “I will raze your empire with the press of a single button.”
There is silence, for a few moments: long moments.
There is silence, and Sherlock vows not to hope.
He cannot, however, seem to steer from failure, now that he’s mired in its grasp.
“No, no, no,” finally drones from the speaker. “Dear god, it’s too easy,” and Sherlock tastes acid and ash against his tongue because John’s voice is bleeding, the despair that’s running thick in Sherlock’s veins is seeping through his words and it’s Sherlock’s fault, it’s Sherlock’s fault.
He furrows his brow and stares, his heart pumping now in ones and zeroes.
“There is no key, doofus!”
Sherlock’s heart stumbles to a halt; he is cold, now, he is faint.
“Those digits are meaningless, they’re,” and John swallows hard, because he knows just as Sherlock knows that there was a single bargaining chip, there was only one way to gain the upper hand because Sherlock had a plan that involved his own plummet from the heavens, not John’s, not John’s, and Sherlock wishes there were no plans, and that he stood upon his own ledge so that he could fall and halt the feeling of raw agony that’s spreading through his limbs, tangling around his musculature.
“They’re utterly meaningless.”
“I’m disappointed, truly.” And again, he has to think it: not John, not John, not John.
Again, he has to fool himself into believing, just for now, just to draw in another breath, that John doesn’t think that, John doesn’t blame him, John doesn’t hate him.
Even though he should.
“But, but you,” Sherlock stammers, tries to suck in enough air to steady his voice, his breathing, his body. “Pentonville, the—”
“Daylight robbery,” John whispers, and Sherlock can feel the fight drain from him with just the words, the way they rest and settle. He can see the way John’s posture shifts from afar as he replaces that fight with a resigned kind of resolve: ever the soldier, ever the centre, ever the whole.
“You always want everything to be clever, Sherlock,” John says it, soft but so very strong. “You miss what’s right in front of you.”
Sherlock’s heart pounds wretched, straight through to the skin because he wants to believe that something real is buried, here: something splayed adjacent to all the gorgeous fears he’d left unsaid, so petty and trivial in comparison to this, the worst of things, the most horrific of ends as it threatens to fall.
“And that’s your weakness, isn’t it,” and it’s not a question, and Sherlock, in the deepest cells of his being, knows it’s a truth. “You were so blind to where that beating heart of yours was kept, and you thought everyone else would overlook it, too.”
“Repetition, Sherlock,” John enunciates carefully, and Sherlock can almost see the sneer on Moriarty’s face, can imagine it perfectly, and he wants desperately to peel those curled lips back from the bone and tear, and tear, and tear and relish the spill of blood that makes this end, that makes them safe, that keeps John safe and oh, he should have known, he should have seen this coming, and maybe he did, what if he had and he’d ignored it, or deleted it, or refused to believe and now there’s this, there’s this—
“S’not so trite, now, is it?” John’s voice is blank, empty, and that’s wrong, that is wrong like all of this is wrong but this is a betrayal, this a travesty and a blasphemy and a sin against the only sacred thing that Sherlock knows and that is John, that is John and he is anything but blank.
Anything but empty.
“I thought I could forgo the explosives, this time,” John parrots, tone still reedy, still pitched just a bit shrill as he leans, as he peeks over the edge.
“It’s a fairly long fall.”
Sherlock thinks he might be sick.
“The snipers, though,” and Sherlock hears the hitch in John’s breathing, though only just, because his own lungs feel languid, feel flimsy and filled with holes as he sees the dancing lasers cutting across John’s jacket, the walls of the building, nearly staining the clouds.
“Kept those. And if Johnny Boy here doesn’t play along,” Sherlock’s body seizes, chest sore when the red settles on John’s torso, aimed at the centre: not again. “He gets to watch you bleed out before he dies, too.”
Sherlock feels the world trembling beneath him, around him, within him, and it’s nearly too much to stand.
“You know what you have to do,” John speaks again, low tones, and Sherlock can’t read anything in them, can’t tease a thread of feeling or fear to match, to soothe or coax his own, and that hurts, that runs heavy and deep through the chambers of his frantic heart and his jaw is clenched, his whole body poised: tight, ready to strike, or to shatter.
“Shall we finish the game?”
“Suicide, of course,” Sherlock nods, because he knows this, he knew this, he’d prepared.
“I,” he swallows hard, eyes fixed to the red dot following the pump of John’s pulse. “What,” he grinds out. “Throw myself into traffic?”
Sherlock curses the fact that there’s not a vehicle in sight.
“Genius Detective Proved to be a Fraud.” The words want approval, want validation: existed first with such taunting delight that Sherlock can feel the residue even as John delivers them with all the neutrality of pure water.
“I read it in the papers,” and Sherlock’s eyes slide closed as John exhales slow, resonant across the connection. “Must be true.”
“You’re insane,” Sherlock bites out, because there’s nothing else, for all the data and the knowledge and the clues there is nothing, there is not enough.
He is not enough.
“Are you honestly just getting that now?”
Sherlock swallows bile at that and wishes, wishes it would burn the parts of him still left to sear.
“But no,” John’s voice is back, and Sherlock tries to tether himself to the cadence, the sound of it, tries to let John’s accent and John’s resonant lilts sink into his pores and calm him, remind him that if it’s over, if he’s lost, at least there was John: at least the universe ignored how undeserving he was of the man for a span, for a time.
“Your death in disgrace isn’t the worst fate awaiting you.”
Sherlock’s eyes snap open and he fights to keep his jaw from dropping because no.
“Because oh, Sherlock you fell prey, didn’t you?” John chides, except; except Sherlock wants to believe there’s something deeper there, something true that rings through his ribs. “Humanity leeched onto you and sucked all the wonder from you. All the intrigue.”
It was there, Sherlock is certain. A different volume, a certain intensity lent to the falling prey, the humanity, rather than the loss of wonder, any derision.
“Does he know that you love him?”
Oxygen, suddenly, abandons planet Earth, and Sherlock knows, physiologically, that the valves of the human heart aren’t crafted to work this hard.
“Does he know that you’ve driven yourself mad with it, only half-knowing what it was you were fighting?”
And there, just there: they’ve never said it, they may well never have a chance, but Sherlock feels it, feels validation in the knowing, reciprocated or not, because John’s voice slants upward at the end of each word, dances on the syllables with that very thing Moriarty wants to tell him he’s lost, that’s been robbed.
“When John Watson splatters on the pavement just there,” John’s voice comes, and he’s repeating without thinking, because the marvelling is still present, still stretches infinite—a question and a reevaluation of months, really, that implied a lifetime: of companionship that built a heart without intending, without ever meaning—all the more vulnerable, unprotected, and yet perfect.
He wouldn’t trade it, he decides.
Sherlock wouldn’t trade it for every clue that the cosmos could shape.
“When he falls, your world will end.”
It will. Yes. Sherlock can feel it echoing, hollow as his breath grows shallow, as he feels faint, as the bass rattling beneath his sternum starts cracking something sure.
“But better, oh, so much better than that,” John says in his ears, breathless; “when John Watson cracks like an egg on the ground, I’m rather certain you’ll start to lose your mind.”
He will. Yes.
He will, and there is a part of him that rails against it, insists that he is stronger, better, that he doesn’t need John Watson, that he doesn’t need anyone, that he will survive; there is a part.
Except that part, Sherlock finds, it withered. That part is valid and very much correct, except he doesn’t care.
He doesn’t care, and he will allow himself to succumb, because it’s true: he spent so long fighting, so long denying and secluding the want and the warmth in him that had built near to bursting, and now saw fit to self-destruct.
It’s true, and he will allow himself to crumble, when John is gone, because Sherlock Holmes has kicked the habit of taking comfort once before, and it was nothing like so intoxicating, so immersive and sweet as the presence, the mere existence of John.
He will lose his mind, because what sits outside the head is more than transport.
He’s so very tired, he finds, of fighting.
It’s hard, in the end, to fight against so much ache.
“Because you feel, Sherlock,” John breathes across the line, and Sherlock’s feeling it, now, yes: he’s feeling the way his body rages and resigns all at once, how the words might have moved across his skin if John had murmured them, hot at the lobe of his ear. “You’re weak. You’re ordinary, you were fool enough to play with love, not knowing what it meant, never learning how to handle the flame.”
He’s right. It’s right.
“I always said I’d burn the heart out of you, Sherlock Holmes,” John says the words, but doesn’t, cannot mean them; “I’ll burn the mind from you, too.”
And Sherlock realises, suddenly, that he cannot see John, not clearly, because his eyes cross, blur, grow suspiciously wet and he is petrified of losing, of not seeing, and yet as he tries to clear his vision, frantic, it only clouds all the more.
The sob caught it his throat loosens, spills forth as a gasp against the grey.
“What’s the use of that mind, anyway, really?” John breathes, and Sherlock can sense the metaphysical ghosting of the sneer that birthed those words, this hate. “You’re on the side of the angels, now.”
“I may be on the side of the angels,” Sherlock gasps, doesn’t know why, why he tries, why he bothers, because he doesn’t know what he is, he doesn’t know what this means. This is impossibility, this is sentiment, this is logic bereft and ill-spent and he is wasted, he is broken, he cannot compute this or place it in context and all he knows is John and the lack of John and the way that time seems to race.
All he knows is that it hurts, and he doesn’t understand, and it doesn’t matter, because there is nothing he can do.
He’s never felt helpless. Not like this.
He never realised, before, that helplessness was really just one hateful iteration of terror, of fear.
Most vicious of all.
“But do not make the mistake—”
“No,” John cuts him off, and Sherlock feels, somehow, a closing, a pressing, the return of gravity and the squeezing of a fist inside his ribs, nails drawing trenches: deep. “You’re not one of them, no.”
And there are words, there is a speech he believes, or once believed, before this aching, before the hammering behind his bones and the rising sickness that rails, pandemic.
“But you might say he is,” John’s voice trips: “John Watson.”
Oh god. Oh god.
“Fairy tales, Sherlock.” John’s voice is barely audible.
“Think he can fly?”
And Sherlock’s eyes are wide and his skin is cold and his blood is filled with air and it stings as the serration, the hate and the utter futility catch inside the veins and yes, yes, Sherlock thinks that John is the heart, his heart, and for the way it’s pounding—for speed and acceleration and sheer velocity John could negate gravity, just this once: John could.
“Stop, stop.” The words are out of Sherlock’s mouth, pleading and panting and weightless; they’re out before he can think, the mind of him unraveling already, too much, too sharp, too dark. “Please. You win, I yield.”
It’s in that moment that Sherlock understands what it means to be a friend, truly. What it means beyond sacrifice, or control. What it means to tie oneself and give, and love.
What it means, to risk being the one left behind.
“Pathetic.” John says the word, but it sounds different from the letters themselves in Sherlock’s mind: Breathe. I don’t blame you.
His Palace is starting to shiver, to shake, but maybe, just maybe: I love you, too, you idiot.
“What do you want?” Sherlock whispers, because he wants to know, he needs to know if those words were there or if he imagined them: if they’d been suffused from the source or if he’d imposed them himself.
“Anything,” Sherlock bites out as everything trembles—body, mind, and soul: “Anything, just, let him go. What do you want?”
And that’s when it changes. That’s when it shifts. John reaches from the rooftop, and Sherlock reaches back in kind, and if he were better, stronger, worthy, he’d touch.
“Same thing I’ve always wanted.” And it’s not John’s voice, anymore, and Sherlock can’t see: “To watch you burn.”
Sherlock cannot see, save for the hand that pushes John off balance, that forces him over the edge and the heart is weightless for being so heavy, it seems, as he falls, falls, falls—
Sherlock’s hands, still folded beneath his chin, can tease the harsh swell of his pulse at the neck as his eyes open, as he emerges from the Palace, from potentials and hypotheticals and models of reality as they may or may not be, have been.
Self-preservation, he thinks, inherent. He would not have survived hitting the ground.
Sherlock eases himself upward, slowly. He feels dizzy, nauseated. Unhinged.
He runs his hands across his face; his wrists are shaking. He buries his hands in his hair, and his eyelids are tacky, his lashes clumped for no good reason.
No good reason, at all.
His breathing is rapid, he realises, his heart rate still so fast, difficult to inhale around as the images assault him, the what-ifs, the possibilities he’d allowed himself to entertain honestly, wholly and without redaction, for the first time.
He’d shied from such exercises deliberately, and yet—
Imagine it, Sherlock, John had snarled as he’d turned those eyes—tired and fevered and angered and hurt: disappointed—on Sherlock as soon as they’d walked through the door, as soon as Sherlock’s gamble had solved yet another case, had served justice once more and yet not to John’s standards, not within John’s parameters, and it wasn’t as if there was an option that involved him not following the suspect off the quay, the water hadn’t even been that deep—
Just imagine what it would have felt like, your worst fear realised, John had half-hissed, rageful; half-whimpered, so spent. Then we’ll fucking talk about when it gets to stop haunting my every waking moment, yeah?
And Sherlock, who had realised long before he’d had to leave that John was more than a flatmate or a conductor, a blogger or a colleague or a friend, or even a heart, really: Sherlock, who knew that John was the sun he’d grown to orbit without choosing, from which he’d never break away—Sherlock had settled on the sofa in silence and did precisely that.
Tore down all the walls, and the barriers, and the safeguards that kept him from following that path, and placed himself in John’s shoes, relived the one nightmare his mind would not allow him, for fear it would consume.
His breath, he finds, is still shallow; his heartbeat rolling swift: too deep.
Your worst fear realised, John had asked of him: Imagine it.
Sherlock swallows hard, and steadies himself upon his feet, clutches the back of the chair—John’s chair—as he struggles to find his footing.
He understands, he thinks, as he pushes at the bedroom door, eases back the duvet and slides, moulds against John’s back, John’s body.
And his breath begins to even; his heart begins to calm. He presses the open curve of his lips to John’s shoulder and inhales the scent of him, the heat.
He understands; breathes as John shifts, curls an arm around Sherlock’s waist.