At first, they’re both certain it’s a hoax.
“At first” doesn’t last much past the pale, sweating client at teatime.
By nightfall, Parliament is burning.
* * * * *
There’s no question of leaving the city. John doesn’t even broach the subject.
It isn’t until they lose Mrs. Hudson that Sherlock brings it up.
They’re sitting in the living room with the sky a bloom of reds and oranges. It’s stiflingly hot, but the windows are all shut tight. Through the glass, John hears occasional crashes and screams.
Sherlock sits with his hair askew and his sleeves rolled up past his elbows. His shirt is crusted with something dark and viscous. John looks at him, thinks of suggesting he wash, and then remembers that the water stopped working two days ago.
That’s how they lost Mrs. Hudson, popping outside to bring in some pots she’d set out to collect rain.
“You should go.”
John lifts his head with a mild, “Hmm?”
“The countryside is less populated. Fewer people means fewer…of them. It’s safer.” Sherlock rouses enough to lift his gaze from his hands. He looks across the room at John. Mrs. Hudson’s blood is still shockingly red against his pale cheek.
So close. He came so close.
For a moment John is back in the cramped hall, everything shadowed and hot and confused with the sound of shrill shrieking and a low, thick growl. Sherlock shouts, and pushes past while John is still drawing his gun, and—
Outside, the sun is setting.
“You could go in the morning.”
John shrugs with studied indifference. “I never did like the country.”
On the floor between them, Mrs. Hudson sits up. The sheet slides down, revealing eyes gone sunken and yellowed; skin sallow and cracked. The tendons in her jaw work soundlessly, visible beneath her missing mandible.
Sherlock turns his face away, swallowing.
John thumbs back the safety and raises his gun.
A day and a night he burns, mumbling nonsense in languages John isn’t even sure exist. Sometimes, John hears his own name from Sherlock’s parched and bloodied lips. Sometimes Mycroft’s.
Once, it’s his name Sherlock cries—invoking him like a demon, drawing his laughing presence into the room and tightening John’s grip on the gun cradled in his lap.
John looks out the window and wonders whether the devil is still out there somewhere. Whether he’s laughing if he is.
He wonders if Moriarty’s laughter sounds like screams.
He opens glass-pale eyes and John isn’t quite swift enough to hide the gun in his hands. Two bullets in the chamber, all John would have needed.
If he’d needed.
Sherlock’s eyes slip shut again with a cynical smile.
John forces a swallow. “Sherlock, I—”
“Don’t spoil a perfectly good morning with sentiment.”
John sits, blinking into the brightening light and trying to catch up to the fact that Sherlock is rational again, and talking. Then he stands, slipping the gun back into its holster, and goes over to the window.
Looking out on London is like staring down on a graveyard, but at least the flat no longer feels like a mausoleum.
John covers his eyes with one hand, and laughs.
John lifts his head from his canned sardines and watches Sherlock pace. He’s still weak from the fever, but his determination burns hotter than before. It’s like he’s been purified: all the excess frivolity burned off along with what little body fat he possessed. Meeting his gaze is impossible.
John drops his eyes.
“I haven’t the proper materials here. I need the lab, and electricity.”
“There’s no guarantee there’s electricity at the station.”
“What do you propose then? Because there’s certainly none here. I need proper equipment.”
John hesitates, poking the sardines with his fork. Then, reluctantly, “Sherlock, you’re brilliant, but you’re not a doctor. Don’t you think the best medical minds in the country have already tried—”
“Amateurs,” Sherlock snaps. Then, as if realizing how foolish he sounded, he adds, “Everyone is, when it comes to…to this. Besides, I don’t need a medical degree. I have you.”
As gently as he can, John says, “I’m a general practitioner, not a pathologist.”
Sherlock doesn’t reply. When John chances a glance, Sherlock stands on point, his body strung tight and his face angled toward the windows. John might hear the faintest trace of screaming, if he cared to acknowledge it.
Eventually—not soon enough—it stops.
The only sound in the room is their breathing. It might as well be the only sound in the world.
“Why did you stay?”
Sherlock sounds genuinely perplexed, and John can’t resist a hollow laugh.
“You could have gone,” Sherlock presses. “You—you’re a fine marksman. You would have made it out.”
He shifts closer, and John senses a hand just brushing over his hip, tracing up the length of his body to hover above his neck. He holds himself still, hardly daring to breathe.
“You never even tried to convince me to leave.”
“Would it have done any good?”
The silence spins out into dizzying minutes. The sensation of Sherlock’s almost-touch recedes.
When Sherlock’s voice comes, it’s little more than a whisper.
“I can solve this. I have to solve this.”
John closes his eyes. He thinks about going outside, creeping through the rubble with each stray scatter of pebbles a possible death warrant. He thinks of the sights he’ll see.
The things he’ll have to do.
His stomach tightens, knots. His breath comes faster. The old wound in his shoulder aches.
“Yes,” John says.
Yes, and yes, and yes. A thousand times, yes.
John lets out a slow, even breath, and rolls over.