The army, John thinks, was the perfect training for the end of the world.
He already knows how to trap water from the air, and how to purify it. That’s the crucial part, especially now, when every sip of raw water is a gamble: which will kill you first, the dehydration, the radiation, or the bacteria? Which can you survive? How much of each poison can you take?
He knows how to hunt for food, though military training focuses more on scavenging from the wilderness than from the pantries and broken refrigerators of abandoned houses, empty supermarkets with the doors blasted off by looters in the early days of the war.
What he knows--or hopes he knows--is how to rescue a comrade from behind enemy lines.
Sherlock entirely missed the early stages of the war.
Everyone missed the earliest bits, to be honest. The world didn’t sit up and take notice until New Delhi and Mumbai went up in flames, and then possibly only because it was a slow news month.
“Christ,” John said, shaking his head at the news footage. “Jesus fucking Christ, eight million people.”
Sherlock looked up at the telly. “That’ll only be initial casualties. Over the long term, radiation sickness will claim at least that again.”
An odd look passed over his face, as if he had thought of something, and then he was blank again.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m deleting it.”
In the ensuing shouting match, John punched a hole through the drywall, came the nearest he’d ever come to leaving, and learned that sometimes, Sherlock’s “delete” function is put to purposes beyond the simply practical.
As complex as it might seem, the governing principles of Sherlock’s mind are simple. There are two things it cannot abide: not enough information and far too much.
“I can feel it rattling around my skull, it and everything it comes with, all the petty little power struggles between nations and departments and individuals--”
“--why they’re reporting on what they’re reporting and who’s stopping them and censoring them and censoring us--”
“--and that reporter is going to die of radiation poisoning in a month and she knows it but she’s working the job anyways because she’s got a clot in her brain and is functionally suicidal but figures she might as well get in some good coverage before she dies--”
“--and see precisely how every one of those children in that dreadfully sentimental news byte died--”
“--that girl there, about four, with her lower half covered by a blanket, it’s obviously hiding the fact that everything from her ribcage down is completely pulverized, and it’s because they were evacuating, she and her family, but they were running too quickly and she tripped trying to keep up, and they couldn’t stop, they would all die if they stopped, the father shouted it at them, most likely, and they kept running while she practically howled and tried to get to her feet and then the stairs collapsed--”
“I can’t keep it, don’t you see, John, it’s not--I don’t--I can’t--I--I can’t--”
After that day, John did not object when Sherlock turned away from the telly and covered his ears.
Every morning, John rises an hour before the sun, packs his bedroll, collects the water from his dew trap and drapes his tarp over a branch to dry. Then he can begin the process of making the water drinkable.
Theoretically, dew and rainwater are supposed to be purified and distilled. But John’s not sure if that still holds when all the water sources are heavily irradiated and potentially contaminated with God knows what sort of biological weapons. Plus, there’s always the chance the tarp or container’s picked something up. So he goes through the steps, just to be safe.
First he checks it with his Geiger counter. (Sherlock could translate the pitch and frequency of the sounds it made to precise measurements in a second, but John’s had to mark “safe to eat” and “get the hell away” by making scratches on the glass over the numbers.) If it passes muster, he boils it over the fire for five minutes (one is all that’s necessary, but John is nothing if not safe), then lets it cool for half an hour.
While it’s cooling, he cooks his breakfast over the same fire. Most days, it’s beans and rice, or cup-o-noodles, or something else out of a tin or a plastic packet. John lived off the same during his years at uni. Eating them beside Sherlock felt oddly nostalgic, as if they’d been transported back together to John’s school days when John had been young and mischievous and unscarred.
But John eats alone these days.
There were a few early alarmists. There have always been people who panic at the slightest hint of disaster, who gather tinned and dried goods, build their fallout shelters and rehearse getting into Hazmat suits. Look at the Cold War, the Y2K bug, the end of the Mayan calendar. They were paid little mind, those men who cried wolf.
All the same, John made sure to buy a little extra food at the shops every time he went and ordered a few supplies (Geiger counter, water purification tablets, ultralight hiking tent, tarp, bedrolls) over the internet. He ferreted it all away underneath his bed.
Just in case.
Sherlock is alive.
John knows this to be true, because it must be.
He’s heard stories of people who start out running that sort of service getting lost and running out of food and water. Sometimes, the goods start to look like more than just a collection of lovely orifices to fill. And at the rate Sherlock was--
John slings his pack over his shoulder and trudges down the road towards the town in the distance.
They took their last case two weeks before the evacuation.
An entire government subcommittee had dropped dead in their coffees. Each member awoke healthy. By noon, they were dead.
For the first time, Lestrade gave Sherlock as much time as he needed at the crime scene. For the first time, Sherlock took five minutes exactly. He hardly said a word the whole time aside from a few short questions.
“Nothing?” Lestrade said, agog, as they were stripping off their biohazard suits.
“You must have something.”
“Have your family gather your valuables and get out of the city,” Sherlock said shortly. “They’ll evacuate within a month. Six weeks after that, I’ll be surprised if there’s a government left.”
John shields his eyes from the sun and squints at the small house coming up on his left. He’s still about fifteen minutes’ walk from the main part of the town, but the place might be worth checking out. Could be food or supplies. Or loo paper. Christ, what John would do for loo paper.
The lock is broken in. Earlier looters probably got everything, but John is slightly more clever than most. They could’ve easily missed something he won’t. He bumps the door open with an elbow, eyeing the room for traps.
He moves inside cautiously, one hand on the knife in his belt. (The gun is for emergencies only. Bullets are hard to come by these days.) It’s a small place, a living room with attached kitchen, a bedroom and a toilet. It was probably quite homey once. Less so now, with a clear inch of dust built up on every surface.
Now reasonably sure the house is free of booby traps, John rifles through the pantry. It’s mostly empty, but there’s a tin of condensed milk and a few boxes of spaghetti that no one’s taken yet. John scoops them up, sets them on the counter, and swings his back off his shoulder and onto the floor with a thud.
In the bedroom, someone lets out a strangled scream that cuts off suddenly.
John goes very, very still. Crouching low, he silently draws his knife and creeps into the bedroom.
The closet doors are flung open and the insides emptied but for a few lonely wooden coat hangers. There is nothing else in the room except a bed covered with a rumpled set of sheets. John breathes slowly and deeply.
“I know you’re there.”
There’s a quiet gasp. Now that John’s aware of it, he can hear the breathing.
“Come on out. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
She crawls out slowly and gets to her feet, a girl of maybe eighteen or nineteen with long, straight, black hair, dark skin and dirty fingernails. She’s dressed in a short sundress that was once pale blue, or maybe lavender. Either way it’s filthy now. Her feet are bare, cracked and bleeding. Her wide brown eyes were probably captivatingly beautiful not too long ago. Now they just look sunken. Haunted. John suspects his own are not dissimilar.
“Drop the fucking knife,” she orders, voice trembling but sure, “or I swear to Christ I’ll scratch your fucking throat out.”
Huh. American. What are the chances? John thinks, and drops the knife.
Mycroft had the pull to get them both vaccinated. It was all very hush-hush. John didn’t want to know how the British government had access to a supposedly foreign biological weapon. He didn’t much care at this point. An echo of Dr Watson was furious that the vaccine wasn’t being mass-produced and distributed across the nation, but the soldier overruled him. The soldier was already working on how to survive.
A week before the evacuation, Mycroft appeared in their flat with two syringes, a suitcase and a proposition.
“This is a one-time offer,” Mycroft said.
“And this is my only answer,” Sherlock replied.
Mycroft raised his eyebrows towards John in silent appeal. John shook his head.
“We’ve decided,” Sherlock said, twirling his violin bow around his hand.
By then, there were bombs over China, Korea, Iran, Egypt, Turkey. America and Russia were a matter of time, and from then it wouldn’t be long before all of Europe was involved. On top of the bombs, there was the superflu. It had cropped up all over the Continent, but in Britain it had taken root and thrived. The hospitals were packed. Patients would be admitted in the morning and be dead by lunchtime. Everyone was pointing fingers and assigning blame and no one was taking credit.
“Sherlock,” Mycroft said, gentle but firm, “I believe you may have underestimated--”
“We have underestimated nothing, Mycroft,” Sherlock snapped. “I know precisely what would be in store for us in your highly secure and well-stocked facility and believe me when I say that I would die before suffering that.”
Mycroft’s jaw tightened. “You very well may.”
“Goodbye, Mycroft,” Sherlock snarled.
Mycroft paused in the doorway. “Do take care, Sherlock.”
He turned his head just enough to see Sherlock’s stiff nod, pinched the bridge of his nose, and departed.
John did not speak until he heard the door click shut. “You okay?”
Sherlock shut his eyes. “Fine.”
Her name is Mary Morstan. She tells her story over a dinner of tinned spaghetti that they cook over a propane stove.
“Propane won’t last forever. Might as well use it while we’ve got it, right?” she says.
She had been studying for her doctorate in piano at the Royal Academy of Music. She’s older than she looks--when John looks surprised that she’s in post-graduate work, she laughs.
“Babyface, right? I’m twenty-nine. I’ll probably still be getting carded when I’m fifty.” She sobers. “Well...I would’ve been, I guess. Not a lot of carding going on these days.”
When the superflu broke out, she and a few schoolmates headed to the countryside. Within days, her three friends were dead.
“I’m immune, I guess. They were saying something like thirty percent of people are.” Mary laughs again. “God, this is the plot of a Stephen King novel. This is literally the plot of a Stephen King novel.”
She’d spent two months hiding out in an abandoned library. But, as she put it, she hadn’t gotten the hang of covering up after herself, and a gang of traders found her.
“That’s what they’ve started calling themselves,” she explains. “Traders, because ‘slaver’ or ‘human trafficker’ or ‘pimp’ don’t sound as ominous, I guess.” She licks her spoon clean, looking far away. “The gang who had me got into a fight with another. In the mess, a bunch of us got away.”
John’s heart leaps into his throat.
“Listen, Mary,” he says, “were there any men with you?”
She nods. “A few.”
“What about one man in particular? Thirties, tall, very thin, dark, curly hair. Was probably...” Insulting his captors’ intelligence and talking about things he couldn’t possibly know, but that’s the old Sherlock. “...sort of...strange. Name of Sherlock Holmes.”
An odd look comes over Mary’s face. Several looks, really. There’s a small smile that goes a little sad, and then her brow sort of folds in and she bites her lip so that when her eyes come up to meet John’s, the expression she is wearing is unmistakably pity.
“Yeah,” she says softly. “Sherlock was there.”
It was still fairly early when John and Sherlock left the city. People were making plans to come home when “it all passes over,” which general consensus seemed to agree would be in six months. Maybe a year. John and Sherlock had no such delusions.
They left London with no real destination in mind and only a vague plan: keep out of the major city centers, stay alive, stop someplace that looks safe enough and hunker down. Past that, they had nothing. To take public transportation was to take your life into your hands at that point, so they walked.
It took them less than two hours to pack.
“Bring the violin,” John said.
The case was open on the end table. Sherlock stroked a finger down the strings, head tilted to the side and lips slightly parted. Then he clenched his jaw shut, wrenched his hand away and shut the lid with a flourish. “No. Large, bulky, non-critical. Waste of space.”
“Bring it. You can always get rid of it later. You’ll want something to do.”
Sherlock clicked the latches of the case shut without a word.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” John snaps. “Call firewood if you have to! Bring the fucking violin!”
He reached out and snatched the handle. Sherlock attempted to tug it back, but John didn’t let go.
“Uh-uh, Mr Temper Tantrum. I’m not letting you smash it against the wall either.”
Sherlock shoved the violin case into John’s chest and threw himself off the sofa, flying into the kitchen in a whirlwind of wild gestures. “Useless!” he snarled. “All of it, utterly bloody useless!”
He picked up one of the chairs at the kitchen table and threw it across the room. It struck the wall and splintered apart with a crash that didn’t seem to satisfy Sherlock as much as he’d hoped it would, because he just sank to the floor, curled into a ball and hid his face in his knees.
And John realized that maybe this wasn’t about the violin. He pinched the bridge of his nose and missed Mrs Hudson.
“Sherlock,” John said. He set the violin down on the end table and moved to kneel beside him. “Hey.”
His heart beat wildly. Panic buzzed in his chest and hummed in his limbs, the offspring of the animalistic instinct to protect and survive and the soldier’s critical analysis of a situation, all of which was shouting: he’s half-broken and it hasn’t even started, we’re lost, it’s hopeless, we’re finished.
But John did not panic. Instead, he took Sherlock’s shoulders in his two steady hands and pulled him to his feet.
“Come on,” he said gently. “It’s okay. We’re alright. We’re gonna be alright.”
Sherlock sagged against him, boneless from the chest up, and breathed in and out, in and out, in small, shallow gasps. There was a quiet rasp in his exhalations, like the precursor to a cough. It quieted slowly as his breaths evened out and deepened until it was nothing at all, and he was merely breathing deeply and quietly. He sank forward and dropped his forehead into John’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to go,” he whispered.
John’s throat tightened.
“I know,” he said, and squeezed Sherlock’s shoulders. “I know.”
They were out of the city by sunset. They spent their first night in an abandoned car with their things in the driver’s seat. John pretended to sleep in the passenger’s seat and kept his gun within arm’s reach. Sherlock slept in the back, stirring with nightmares that made John’s heart clench.
After Mary finishes her story, John wipes his cheek and realizes he’s not crying.
He feels like he’s crying. But it seems his body disagrees. It’s clinging to all the moisture it’s got. Every cell of his being is a survivalist, and not for the first time, John wishes it weren’t.
Mary tentatively takes his hand. “I’m sorry.”
John’s lips jerk into something resembling a smile. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
She lets him hold her hand for a long time, waiting for him to catch his breath.
“Doesn’t change anything. Helps, really. Know where to look now.” He clears his throat, pats her hand and gets to his feet. “Come on, we’ve got work to do before bed.”
John sets up a trap by the door, just to have something to do, while Mary does the washing-up. He falls asleep on the couch and prays for dreams free of blank green eyes sunken in their sockets and thin, sallow skin stretched tight.
With Mary’s help, it takes half as long to get ready in the morning. All the same, John is careful to make sure the bottom of the pack is covered before he lets her put anything in.
He doesn’t know what she’d think of the violin.
Sherlock had been right. It only took three months for the government to fall. By then, they were miles away, in the middle of the countryside, still looking for a safe enough spot to settle down.
“I suppose I ought to take up astronomy.”
The way Sherlock said it, it sounded like a niche fetish of some kind. John poked idly at their fire.
“I swear to God, if you put bees in our house--”
Sherlock sort of--caved in on himself at that, and he launched himself sideways into the tent. John sighed.
“Ridiculous. Patently ridiculous.” It’s followed by a less muffled demand: “John, put that fire out and come to bed.”
John ground his teeth. Sherlock was right, though; it had gotten late. He stomped out the last of the flames, kicked off his boots, and climbed into the tent. Sherlock was already wrapped tightly in his sleeping bag, face turned away. John crawled into his own sleeping bag and rolled onto his side.
“Good night, Sherlock.”
Sherlock hums in response.
Later, John will curse himself for not tucking that moment into his pocket for the days to come. Later, he will wish he had woken Sherlock up, tried to talk to him, before it was too late.
But in that moment, he simply shut his eyes and fell asleep.