“John, listen,” Mycroft says softly. There is something wrong with him, something that makes John want to recoil from him. It takes him a moment to realise that the reason Mycroft looks so dangerous tonight is that he looks tired. John has never seen him look tired before. Mycroft's eyes have a hint of red in them, and above his collar his skin is just slightly shiny. Fever, the doctor in John thinks, undeterred.
“I'm listening,” he says, on his guard.
“You can't see him.”
John's teeth gnash together in his mouth. Lately, whenever he manages to sleep, he wakes up with his mouth aching, his jaw sore, chewing on the tension that runs through his body in crackling lines of electricity.
Mary: didn't your dentist get you one of those braces as a kid? Her hand soothing on his jaw for a moment, but then, later in the night though he can't remember sleeping, her back towards him, her deep sleep silence. The earplugs that she bought despite the baby.
He unlocks his jaw. “I didn't ask to see him before.”
“No.” Nothing there: no acknowledgement, no apology.
John taps his fingers on the arms of his chair and waits for a long moment. Mycroft heavily rests his chin on his interlocked fingers – the only concession to what looks like an oncoming flu. The Diogenes beyond this office is silent as ever, and John feels a lot like shouting. “So is there – oh, I dunno – a reason you won't let me see him?”
Mycroft holds his gaze. “Military protocol, I'm afraid. Until the investigation into his death is concluded, the body will be kept in custody. It might be months before they can release it.” He pauses, sweeps a hand over his sweaty brow. “And it's not in good shape.”
John breathes out a bitter laugh. “You know you can't bloody well stop me.”
“They can,” Mycroft says, and to his credit, he doesn't look contrite.
“They,” John repeats, nodding slightly.
Mycroft sighs. “I know Sherlock never believed it either, but I've always been on your side.”
John assesses him the way he used to assess the new recruits. Mycroft notices, and frowns. “You should take an aspirin,” John says.
At home, the baby has acid reflux. John takes her from Mary's arms, feeling her tiny fists drum against his shoulder in her expression of how unfair this new and unasked for life is. She goes quiet with rage in his arms for a moment, screaming without sound, and then turns the volume back up.
Mary slumps a bit in her chair, then looks up at him. He does love her, he does: the way she still manages to look at him with sympathy, even on ninety-four minutes of sleep. He loves her in exactly the opposite way in which he loves Sherlock. Loved Sherlock. He shakes his head. Loves Sherlock.
“We got the invitation,” Mary says, and she has to raise her voice a little over the crying. “It's on Saturday.”
John bounces his daughter up and down in his arms. “There's nothing to bury.”
“You can't blame them for wanting to get some closure,” she says, and her eyes fasten onto her child as if by some never-sleeping instinct. She seems to realise, blinks, then looks at him again. “It could be –”
“Months, yes,” John says. His jaw throbs. “Mycroft said.”
Her mouth softens. Her lovely, lying mouth. Sometimes he traces their daughter's lips in a quiet moment, when she is heavy and floppy with sleep against his chest and thinks about it, trying hard not to be afraid.
“Was he awful?”
“He was Mycroft,” John says, then feels the sudden desire to say more, to talk her through it. Mary still does that, in spite of everything: make him want to talk. Sherlock always made him want to listen. “He's... I choose to think he's just got a strange way of expressing that he's sorry.”
The baby, having finally worn herself out, starts to quiet down, hiccuping and sobbing. Their living room suddenly seems larger without all that sound filling it.
Mary's watching them together. “I'm sorry,” she says, tension present in the tendons in her throat. John knows her well enough to see how it pains her, that he can't help his forgiveness wavering now that Sherlock is really gone. That his forgiveness appears to have hinged, after all, on the one condition that Sherlock wasn't lost.
Sherlock wrote from Serbia, twice – and in both of the hasty notes he referred to other letters, ones that John never received. John isn't entirely sure why he never went to Mycroft to demand them. (Though he does know: to have confirmation that Sherlock wrote him things that Mycroft deemed unwise for John to read would shatter all that he had been trying to build, all that Sherlock had sacrificed himself for. The only thing that would be worse than that: to have Mycroft surprised, to have him sincerely deny that he ever stopped any correspondence. John doesn't feel like he can trust either of them anyway, these days.)
Like I told you before, Sherlock wrote. Handwriting more spidery than before.
As you know.
You may remember.
Make sure she sleeps on her back, Sherlock had written, and raise the head of her cot a little. It will help with the acid.
At the small ceremony for Sherlock, Mr Holmes cries more openly than his wife. She props him up, he stoops. She hands him hanky after hanky. He blows his nose without shame, holding his wife's hand. No one makes a speech. No one tells any stories about Sherlock. No one pretends his body isn't somewhere else, in a stainless steel military freezer.
It's nothing like his previous funeral. Most of the people attending are friends of Sherlock's parents'.
Mary stayed at home without John having to ask her for it. He's grateful for her still, for the way she allows him to hate her for now, the way she lets him project. He's grateful and he's guilty, because this is not her fault. But that it could have been, that it nearly was, that's... Sometimes he can hardly bear to look at her.
He tries to avoid Sherlock's parents , recognising that his anger at them for never having had to mourn Sherlock before is irrational. Of course, they very purposefully find him. Mrs Holmes asks after Mary, managing genuine concern. John doesn't doubt that she would hurt Mary if she knew what Mary did to Sherlock – scratch at her, punch her shoulders, try to wrap her fingers around Mary's throat and squeeze. She'd fight with no skill but mother's passion. But Mary would win, easily. John hopes his smile doesn't look as painful as it feels. “She wanted to come, but she couldn't get a sitter,” he says. “The baby's going through a bit of an unsociable phase. Reflux.”
Sherlock really did have his mother's eyes – the colour of course, but most of all the sharp glint of them, the speed of their movement. “Poor thing,” she says, patting John's sleeve. “If you two need a breather, we'd be happy to look after her for a few hours.” She smiles, watery. “After all, this is the closest we'll ever be getting to being grandparents.”
John's teeth hurt. He lets his gaze slip past her, because he's not sure he can handle looking straight at her right now. Mycroft, in a corner, catches his eye for a split second, and John looks away from him, too.
Mr Holmes shakes John's hand for longer than is comfortable, wrapping both his large and Holmesy hands around one of John's and squeezing tight.
“Mycroft,” John says after everyone else is gone, aware that he sounds a bit deranged. He catches Mycroft's elbow, prompting a startled spasm in Mycroft's arm. They've never touched before. “I just need you – to tell me –”
“Are you quite all right, John?” Mycroft asks him, his face wary.
“Yeah, I'm – I'm fine.” John forces his mouth to smile. “I just – tell me this isn't just him again, tell me this isn't –”
Mycroft looks taken aback for a moment. “Ah – John, no. I'm sorry. This is real.”
John, feeling dizzy, grabs him by the lapel. “So you – you saw him? You –”
Mycroft covers John's hand with his own and gently unclasps his fingers. His skin is soft, better moisturised and cared for than Sherlock's. “Yes,” he says after a beat, and he looks grim.
John looks at him for a long, heavy moment, then realises that Mycroft Holmes is holding his hand, and pulls it out of his grip. He shifts on his leg, clears his throat. His eyes feel so dry blinking is painful.
“I don't trust you,” he says, the words coming out croaky. He feels bled out, his insides gritty like sand. “Why should I believe this?”
Mycroft drops his gaze for a second. “I realise I haven't given you much reason to take my word for anything. All I can tell you is that I always went out of my way to give you all the information I could without compromising anyone or anything.”
John stands looking at him. He doesn't know this man, not at all. He didn't know all of Sherlock either, but at least he knew some of him, and what he knew was not something anyone else ever got to know.
“There is no reason to lie to you now,” Mycroft continues. “I wish – I wish there were.” His mouth purses, and for the first time since John has known him, he looks a bit like Sherlock. “If I were lying to you, it would mean I wouldn't have to live with –” He falters, uncharacteristically. John notes that, again, he looks unwell: his skin is waxy and pale, his eyes too bright.
John sucks on his teeth, nodding, then decides that he still has little sympathy to spare for the plight of Mycroft Holmes, who in the end sent his brother off to his death. He turns around and starts to leave.
“John,” Mycroft calls after him. John stops, but can't bring himself to turn around. “I'm aware my brother could be cruel, not least to those he cared about most. But he wouldn't put you through this again. You shouldn't remember him that way.”
John's shoulders draw themselves up without his permission as he walks away.
What Mycroft in all his omniscience doesn't seem to know, is that John doesn't want to remember Sherlock at all – not this time. He just wants him here, or if not here then at least somewhere on this planet.
If Sherlock came up to him now with a painted-on moustache and a nervous accent to hide himself behind, John would be happy. If Sherlock were in fact a man who would put John through this again, John would be happy.
John would – but no. That's no good.
In his dreams, as before, Sherlock isn't dead. Sherlock is trapped, Sherlock is... somewhere. John tries to get to him, but there is a river made of something dark – muck, mire – that keeps lapping at his feet and sucking him back. There is someone telling him that, no, he hasn't paid enough to cross. He shouts: I haven't paid enough? How can anyone ever pay more? He shouts, but this is a world where sound is choked quickly. Sherlock is on the opposite shore, crouching like a sick bird, his pale knees poking out of holes in his trousers. John can't see his face, only his hair, full of twigs, dull and dark in the twilight.
Like I told you before there isn't much I'm allowed to say. M likes playing censure service, as you know. I'm being moved tomorrow, so there's no use writing back. I'm fine and hope everything is well in London.
Give my love to Mary and to little Sherlock.
(John had laughed a little, and Mary had looked up from where the baby was dozing pinkly on her belly in a rare moment of tranquility. He remembers entertaining for a moment the notion of showing her the note and explaining that – but then, no. She already got Sherlock's love, she didn't need to get his stupid jokes, too. He'd tucked the note into a trouser pocket. Mary had smiled at him, a bit sad, a bit soft, with that far-away quality she had had ever since the birth.)
In the dreams, John almost dislocates his jaw shouting across the black river at Sherlock. In the dreams, he screams so loudly it's like everything that is on his inside is trying to get to his outside.
“Christ, John,” Mary says quietly when he shuffles into the bathroom in the morning and she catches sight of him in the mirror.
The underworld of the tube: the flickering lights of the Bakerloo Line, a drunk snoring in the corner of the cart, a few early commuters still smelling of night, pale and quiet and immersed in their own world of newspapers, e-readers, iPods. John holds onto the handlebars, wincing at the sticky feel of them. The train shudders and creaks.
Where's he going? Very suddenly, like receiving a blow to the head, he realises he doesn't know. He can't remember where he got on, he can't remember where he was going to get off. His eyes flick to the Underground map on the side of the cart, and the familiarity of it slightly takes the edge off his suddenly ballooning panic.
Trembling, he checks his watch: 6:12 am. Why is he up? Why is he not at home with his wife and child? He shifts and breathes, tipping his forehead against the handlebar, trying to push away the swelling nausea in his gut. His leg smarts, his shoulder aches. How long have I been awake? he asks himself, and as the question forms, the bone-deep fatigue in his limbs registers fully. The last thing he can remember is rolling out of bed, half-asleep, and stumbling to his daughter's room to soothe her. After that: nothing.
The next stop is Regent's Park. People file in and out, shoulders hunched with the weight of waking. Was he going to Baker Street? He gets off there – where else could he have been headed? – and rides up familiar escalators with unfamiliar people. Outside, the dying night is wet and hazy with street lights. His legs feel like wax and he crouches against a wall, hands on his knees, eyes closed, waiting for the feeling of being squeezed through a tight ring to pass. He's just in control enough to hate himself for having a panic attack in public: it hasn't happened since the last time Sherlock was dead. When he tries to open his eyes, his vision is flecked with wriggling white worms, so he closes them again and tries to breathe his way through every wave of further constriction in his chest. He doesn't know if anyone asks him if he's okay – the liquid roar in his ears makes it impossible to hear anything but the rapid thumping of his blood.
Eventually, the feeling that he's about to die fades.
When he dares to walk again, legs still wobbly and rubbery, his feet take him automatically to 221b. He gazes up at it, the quiet of it, the safety. Was he coming here? To the one place where his panic never got the best of him? Is that why he got on the tube somewhere, with the plan to... what? Visit Mrs. Hudson at 6am? The grey wall of fog in his head refuses to give.
Shaking his head at himself, he searches through lint and bits of biscuits and crumpled receipts in his pockets and finally fishes out the key that he never returned. Before he even gets a chance to work it into the stubborn lock, the door opens. On the other side is Mrs. Hudson, in her dressing gown, hair tufty.
“I –” John says, startled.
“Come on in.” She looks old and jittery.
“How did you – did I tell you I was coming?” John asks, head still spinning a bit as he steps over the threshold into the hallway of 221. The smell inside is familiar and painful, the dust, the wood, the slight organic tang of the mould from 221c.
“Of course, silly,” she says, but her face is serious. “Would I be up at this hour if you hadn't?”
“Mrs. Hudson,” he says urgently, and grabs one of her hands. She looks up at him, surprised, a flash of trepidation crossing over her face. “What did I tell you?”
She frowns a little, and he lets go of her hand, aware of her unease. “You rang me up around three – wouldn't let up, kept on ringing until I finally got up and picked up the phone.” She shakes her head, clearly confused. “You said you'd be here around half six.”
“Did I tell you why?”
“No.” Her frown deepens. “John, are you all right?”
“I'm –” He's swaying a bit on his feet, and she takes him by his upper arm and gently steers him towards her flat.
“Come here, dear,” she murmurs. “Make you a cuppa.”
As she bustles around with the kettle, he rests his forehead in his hands, trying to get a grip. “I don't remember ringing you,” he confesses quietly as she puts his cup of tea in front of him. “I don't remember how I got here. It's like I – woke up, on the Tube, in another world where everything is the same except for me.”
“It's the stress,” she says, and pats his hand. “God knows you've been putting yourself through the wringer, and it's no wonder, with Sherlock –”
“Mrs. Hudson, please,” he interrupts her, and she goes quiet. “I can't – talk about him,” John says. “I don't know why I came here, but it isn't for that, because I just – I just can't.”
“I understand,” she says, which makes John huff a small laugh. He loves her, but she doesn't understand. “But maybe it's good if you try. I knew him too, and I know how much –”
“Don't,” he snaps, because if he can't say it, no one should.
She goes quiet, radiating hurt. It's clear what she wants from him. He knows she thinks it would be healing – except he doesn't want to heal. And she will just have to find her own way to heal, he thinks, touching the handle of his tea cup with a fingertip.
“If I remember, at your wedding he said that he would never make a vow to anyone else ever again and that he would protect you and what you love at all cost.”
He looks up at her; she looks a bit angry. A burst of annoyance shoots through him.
“Yeah? Did a good job of that then, didn't he? I guess Sherlock never really got the memo that being alive is a requirement for protecting anyone.”
She shakes her head. “Listen to yourself.”
He spreads his hands. “What?”
“It wasn't your fault, John.”
He finds himself on his feet without consciously making that decision, his chair clattering backwards. “I let him think –” he says loudly, then makes himself swallow the rest of the words by pressing his fist against his mouth. “I let him think,” he tries again, softer this time, “that he would do best by me by going off on some mission that he knew would kill him. I let him think that that is the best he could do for me.” He swallows, and touches his hand to the tabletop in a gentle version of hitting it. “What kind of – what kind of best friend was I to him, Mrs. Hudson? He was back on drugs a month after my wedding. I never even bothered to check that my best man wasn't shooting up in some den, and a month later he was on a plane for a murder he committed for me.”
“Well, you know him. Always all about the dramatic gestures.” Her eyes smile a little, her mouth doesn't. “Don't suppose he ever knew how else to express things.”
John, feeling tears pressing behind his eyes, puts his chair back up and sits down in it. “I don't know why I never just told him that what I liked most was stake-outs together and – getting Chinese at arse o'clock. I didn't – I don't think he ever even knew that.” He rubs his eyes. “He knew so much, I guess I assumed he didn't need telling.”
“He needed more telling than anyone else, I think. And so did you, dear. Not many people can say they've had someone die for them, twice.”
It sets his teeth on edge, but the anger has simmered down into exhaustion. They sit for a long moment. John's tea has gone cold. “Sorry for waking you up,” he says quietly.
“Oh, don't worry. This is nowhere near the longest night I've had in my life.”
“Haven't I –” he begins, and his voice cracks. He clears his throat, presses a palm against his smarting jaw. “Haven't I paid enough, Mrs. Hudson?”
She doesn't respond for a beat. Then she takes his hand across the table. Her eyes are wet. “I think you have, dear.”
The doorbell rings.
“That'll be Mycroft,” Mrs. Hudson says, and she squeezes his hand. Her skin feels papery and loose.
Mycroft doesn't come inside, but instead waits for John to come out. He's standing with his back towards 221, smoking. Morning is breaking grey and wet over London.
“Mycroft, I don't actually know –” John starts, tiredness pulling at his feet like mud. All he wants is to go home and put his arm around someone – Mary, his brain helpfully supplies – and sleep this nightmare into a memory.
“Ah, John.” Mycroft takes his time exhaling, then taps his ash onto the pavement. “Come on. I'll take you to him.” He sets off, pace brisk.
John half-jogs after him. “Him?” Mycroft gives him a little look over his shoulder. John's insides start to churn. “Wait, you mean – he's in London?”
Mycroft smiles a thin smile, still walking quite fast. “I managed to... persuade the people in charge of the investigation to get everything involving Sherlock's body out of the way.”
“And you had him brought here.”
Mycroft leads the way. The pavement seems particularly long, stretching out as though John is looking at it through a fish-eye spyglass.
“John,” Mycroft throws over his shoulder.
“Yeah, I'm here,” John manages.
Mycroft stops and lets John catch up. John, refusing to be grateful for it, pretends that his head isn't spinning and endures the moments of dizziness with his hands clenched into fists at his side. “Why are you suddenly willing?” he asks when he feels a bit more steady. “Last time you implied I'd probably be executed if I tried.”
Mycroft gives him a curious look. “You don't remember?”
“It's –” John shifts on his legs. “Look, I don't know what's going on, but –”
“You called me.”
John makes a disbelieving sound. “When?”
“Earlier tonight.” Mycroft doesn't seem particularly bothered that John seems to be suffering from some sort of acute amnesia.
“And what did I say?”
Mycroft smiles thinly. “You very aptly... reminded me of something.”
“What's that then?”
“Something I'd forgotten,” Mycroft says, and glances up at the sky. “Come on.”
In the body-bag, that which is Sherlock is neatly contained in a way he never could have been when he was alive. John doesn't believe much in the soul or the spirit or what have you, but he has seen how death makes a difference on people that he thought he knew: erases something from them, or adds a twist of expression that was never on them when they were still animated.
Mycroft unzips the bag. The first thing John sees of Sherlock's corpse is his feet: absurdly white, ugly in that way feet are. The long, awkward toes. John almost laughs because he actually recognises Sherlock's feet: he's seen them often, when Sherlock was in a sulk and couldn't be bothered to get dressed.
Mycroft unzips him further. Calves, thighs. His groin, the lean stomach, the sparsely muscled chest that looked better built clothed than naked. His arms and hands, well-behaved at his sides. Numerous bruises, carefully cleaned cuts. There is nothing desirable about any of it now. John doesn't want to touch him. Sherlock's body always had an energy to it, a lurking tension. He had it even while asleep. He doesn't have it now. John recognises all the parts of it, and not the whole.
Mycroft stops undoing the zip at the neck.
“I'd advise you not to look at his face,” he says softly. The backlighting in the mortuary makes him look like a dark spectre, one that speaks without moving its mouth.
“Fuck you,” John says just as softly.
“I'm not saying this because I think you can't handle it, John,” Mycroft says.
“Then why?” John mutters, and undoes the zip himself.
Immediately, he regrets it as something inside him that he didn't know was aflame is extinguished. Sherlock's face is still half there: his mouth is unharmed, most of his nose is intact, his right eye is still there. The left is gone, his skull having burst forward through his skin there. His brain is exposed: the most intimate part of him completely ripped to shreds, tatters of his left hemisphere hanging pitifully out of the crater of the wound. It's this that makes him look naked, even without a shred of clothing on him. The shot had come from behind – very close range, and – God.
“Was it –” he croaks, then is vaguely aware Mycroft is no longer standing next to him.
An execution. It must have been. Someone bending Sherlock's head forward, placing a gun muzzle against the back of it. What did they tell him? Did they say anything at all? Were they responsible for the cuts and abrasions that stopped healing very soon after they were made? He shakes his head, letting those unanswerable questions dissipate before they make him throw up. Reaching across Sherlock's face to the undamaged side, John touches his trembling fingers to his hair, rubs a curly strand – cold to the touch from the freezer – between his thumb and index.
Mycroft steps back up to the slab. His silence is stony. John lets go of Sherlock's hair and straightens up.
“Mycroft,” he says, and doesn't care that he sounds pleading. “Just – just let me take him home. Let me bury him.”
“You shouldn't have looked,” Mycroft says neutrally as he slowly runs the zip back down. “You can't take him back, John.”
“Why did you let me get this far if I can't –” John begins, but stops himself. Tears are brimming in his eyes, blurring the room.
“I thought I could help you,” Mycroft says quietly.
John can't fight. Not anymore. He deserves this.
Back outside, they stand for a moment side by side in the drizzle. The pavement gleams with rain, and the day still seems like it's half-night. John takes a breath. The air feels sticky in his mouth. Everything is wrong – this twilight London is not his, just like the Sherlock in that room wasn't his, either.
They don't speak for a long time. Mycroft lights his cigarette unhurriedly, cupping his fingers around the lighter. His face is briefly illuminated. He inhales, then exhales, blowing the smoke away from John. “Go home and get some sleep, John. It's been a difficult night. I know you expected something else from this and I'm sorry you didn't get it.”
John smiles tightly at nothing. It makes his jaw hurt.
In the dream, they're following someone through a dark corridor, a tunnel slanting upwards. The person they're chasing is fast, dangerous, and John can feel his fear transform into power as he ups the pace, gun heavy in his hand. He runs. The fixed point of light at the ending of the corridor doesn't change, and after a while the stunning urgency of the situation recedes. John starts to wonder who they're following. Sherlock is behind him, but the reverberating echo of their footsteps is confusing; at one point it sounds like Sherlock is falling behind, and when John stops to let him catch up, there is no sound, as if there is no one else.
In the dream, John feels something like warm wind streak past his cheek. He is blissfully not himself, he is someone else, someone much better, and after a moment he moves on, calm in the knowledge that Sherlock is right behind him.
“John,” Mary says as she shakes him awake, and all he can see of her are the tears glistening in her eyes in the dark. “Please, love, please stop.”
When he tries to speak, he finds that he can't open his mouth because of the cramp in his jaws.
You may remember I said it might not be six months after all. If tonight's operation goes well, it might not be. There's not much time to write right now, we have to move fast. Tonight is not without danger. If things do go wrong I want you to know that I want to come back.
Make sure she sleeps on her back, and raise the head of her cot a little. It will help with the acid.