“Sherlock,” John shouts. His voice hoarse and rasping, echos up that endless shaft above him, out into the small patch of night sky. He strains to hear a response. There is silence except for his own labored breaths, the low roar of the water pouring in and the slosh and slap of his arms flailing against the water that is closing around his neck, like algid fingers.
He felt weak even before the frigid water started pouring in. The drugs that had knocked him unconscious have not fully worn off and the chill of the water has numbed his muscles and sapped what little fight he had been managing to put on.
The metal bites into the flesh of his ankle as he jerks against the shackle anchoring him to the bottom. He can feel everything trembling as he tries to stay above the water. His lungs burn. His fingers scrabble against the slick stone wall, seeking some hold. The tips are bleeding, but that hardly matters.
He is going to die here.
“Sherlock.” His voice is so small; swallowed up in liquid darkness. He thinks of that smooth, black surface of Sherlock’s headstone. How he had placed his hand on it and bowed his head. How he had wept and felt like he was drowning and begged for Sherlock to come and save him… and he had come… but too late. John had already died inside. Had already buried his truths in a cold grave.
And now… when Sherlock comes - if Sherlock comes- it will be too late again.
His vision remains warped on the edges, like staring out of a fish bowl. That bleak irony is not lost on him. His weakened arms flail uselessly against the water. They are doing less and less to keep him buoyant. Exhaustion is quickly settling into every muscle and his legs have turned heavy, like stones, weighing him down.
“Please. Please, Sherlock,” he whispers. He touches the device nestled in his ear. It has been silent for far too long. Maybe Sherlock is hurt too. Maybe he can’t come. Maybe communication had been turned off because maybe, this time, Sherlock won’t try to save John - doesn’t want to. Always the bloody ‘damsel in distress’ and, just like in the prison when John had tried to warn Sherlock with ’Vatican Cameos’ and Sherlock chose to ignore him, maybe the time when Sherlock would trust words from John above all else had passed.
The panic swells in John’s chest along with the guilt, the shame, and the heartache. He knows that on some level he doesn’t deserve to be saved, yet again. Sherlock had saved him so many times and in so many ways and he had been downright vicious and cruel towards him. He had misdirected his grief and rage on the one person that had went through fire and hell for him time after time. And it had all been John’s attempt to kill his own feelings - to burn out his own heart so he could stop feeling. He really is an idiot.
John could never trust it. He had loved Mary… the Mary before the shooting… but that Mary wasn’t real… the woman playing the role of Mary, Rosamund, she had proven herself to be a very good actress. So he couldn’t tell what was the truth or the lie with her. It was all an illusion. They were all smiling and living a perfect (fake) life. He was playing along but there were so many lies.
The more he stayed with Mary and the more he tried to play the perfect part of husband and father, the more he realized what was missing. The woman on the bus… the woman he now knows to have been Eurus… reminded John of Sherlock in ways he hadn’t even been able to pinpoint at the time - just in the feeling she gave him. More so when she texted him… her smart, sharp and sometimes dark wit… He could almost pretend… that’s why he had texted her - kept texting her. It was wrong. He felt horrible and guilt-ridden… but with that light flirting he also had felt closer to happy than he had since before Sherlock jumped.
That day he texted Elizabeth (Eurus) that it was over, he had realized she was a stand-in for Sherlock. He realized he was never going to be happy with the illusion and that, even if he was terrified of being rejected by Sherlock again, he had to try. He had planned to tell Mary he couldn’t do it anymore. He had started to, there on the couch, before they got the text to come to the aquarium. Then, in the moment Mary had died in his arms he had been overwhelmed with grief, guilt, shame and anger because in that moment of deep anguish it all got twisted up inside him and it seemed that falling for Sherlock all those years ago cursed him to never be able to be the kind of man that could be worthy of all that praise Mary heaped on him in those final moments and all the kindness and self-sacrifice she’d shown in the end. Maybe she had been worthy of all of John’s love, but he had fallen for another long ago and he could not make himself fit that perfect image of happiness she had been trying to create for them both.
He had failed in so many ways.
Above all, he’d hated Sherlock for making him fall in love and then turning into a man that seemed capable of loving too late.
John yanks at his leg again, desperately. It isn’t suppose to end this way. Chained to the bottom of a well with the bones of a child beneath his feet. He thinks of calling out again, but it seems futile. There is no one to save him this time, and he only has himself to blame.
The last words John had heard through that device in his ear now echo through his mind. Sherlock’s voice; quiet and broken and raw with honesty, ‘I love you.’
It hadn’t been for John. Those words had been for Eurus, just as they had been offered up to Molly earlier. They’d never said those words to each other. They had come closest with Mary as a buffer of safety.
‘…I want to be up there with the two people I love most in the world,’ John had said when he asked Sherlock to be his Best Man.
‘…here you sit between the two people that love you most in the world,’ Sherlock had said in his Best Man speech.
That was as close as they could get - the brightness of their love dimmed into something manageable by reflecting it off another. They could not say it to each other directly because, as Molly confessed, saying it is too much when it is actually true. With Sherlock, it mattered. Saying it directly would change everything and that was always too scary a prospect. He was trying so hard to make it anyone but Sherlock, because Sherlock had already rejected him all those years ago and if he did again… that would be more than John could take. He wouldn’t risk it.
Now, as he strains on his tiptoes, his head tipped back, the water up around his chin, he thinks of those words from Sherlock being the last words he will ever hear. A warmth blooms in his cold, heaving chest.
“I never told you,” he says and his voice sounds loud, trapped inside his head by the water pressing in around his ears. “I should have told you. God, I am such a coward.” A pain stabs through John’s chest, his heart clamping down on a beat. He presses his eyes closed. These are his last words. Sherlock had once asked him, on that first case, what he would say for his last words when he was dying.
A desperate, sad laugh huffs out of him and water sloshes in his mouth and eyes. It tastes like death. Drowning - got to be one of the worst ways to go - better than burning to death though.
“Sherlock.” John shouts with his last huff of breath, then gives up the fight, the water closing in around him.
He sinks down, body going limp, as he holds onto that last breath. He lets one bubble go. The strain is becoming too much and his lungs burn. He has to let go of the last wisps of air. He watches it float the surface, trying to resist his body’s illogical insistence that he take a breath even as his brain knows it will only be water.
As he looks up towards the surface, the distorted images flowing like ink, he has a vague flash of recollection of when he was baptized as a child of perhaps ten. The preacher putting the cloth over his mouth and nose. Opening his eyes wide in fear as the preacher quickly dipped him backwards. The cold water had seemed to flow around and close over top of him in slow motion. It had seemed like he would stay in that strange, dark, womb-like world forever, but then he had been pulled up, up, up to the surface again.
As if reaching out from that memory, something wraps around him and hauls him up swiftly.
John’s head and shoulder are pulled above the water and he gasps, dragging in air desperately and slumping against the firm warmth coiling around him and holding him at the full extension of what that the little length of chain hooked to the cuff around his ankle will allow. He just breathes, grateful to be alive and able to drag air into his lungs again. It is a moment before he realizes that there is noise filling the space around him; that familiar, deep voice talking rapidly.
“John. I can feel you breathing, John.I know you are alive, John. But I need you to talk to me. I need to know you are all right, John.” John realizes he is slumped against Sherlock, his face against his friend’s shoulder. The taller man is now using his additional height to hold him up above the water.
John can’t move. His whole body is numb and heavy and his thoughts move glacial slow inside his head. He is immeasurably grateful for the warmth radiating off of the chest he is huffing frosty breath against. Sherlock is rambling too quickly, trying to clutch at the deadweight of John and maneuver him so he can see him without letting him slip back into the water.
“The water - this water is very cold. Approximately fifteen to twenty degrees celsius, I estimate. Approaching twenty minutes submersed, though the first five of those you were only approximately thigh high. Clothing provides some buffer. Hypothermia likely in early stages-”
“Talking too much, Sherlock,” John slurs in amusement and feels exceedingly proud that he was able to force those words out of the chest of a body that feels like it belongs to someone else, past numb lips that are just barely brushing against the warm skin of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock takes a deep breath and his arms close just a little bit tighter around John.
“John.” The way he says that one word, aching with so much unspoken. He curls, almost imperceptibly into John’s still languid body. It is almost a hug, and John isn’t sure if it is ridiculous or pitiful that that hesitant embrace is the most intimate physical contact they have had in the seven years since they first met.
Sherlock straightens and John feels it for what it is, even though they can’t separate now lest John drown, it is a careful distancing, a retreat into that safer, unemotional ground.
“Now I know that your cognition has been impacted because the John Watson I know would wait until my deductions have concluded to declare my brilliance.” Sherlock’s voice is warm, teasing, but John can’t help but hear the slight edge of sadness in it as well. That John Watson was a truer version of himself from a time when he wasn’t always so afraid to show how he felt about Sherlock. Back then he hadn’t hesitated to express it in that small way because it was harmless. It was in the same way they would later use Mary as a buffer to take some of the potency out of their confessions of love. The cases provided a context in which John could express his esteem for Sherlock without it changing anything. Since Sherlock returned from the fall, that John Watson had remained buried because expressing it in any context seemed too risky, too revealing.
John puts all his effort into bringing his arm up and leveraging a grasp on Sherlock’s shoulder in order to lurch to the side, chest sliding against chest and face dragging over collarbone, until his whole mouth and nose are mashed into the warm sinewy column of Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock gasps, going very still.
“Brilliant. Enigmatic… and late,” John mumbles. He grins, remembering the first time Sherlock had saved him; the Black Lotus gang in a dark tunnel.
“Yes… well… must keep up appearances… Sherlock Holmes makes dramatic entrances,” Sherlock says with only slight disdain and John loves the way he can feel the vibration of Sherlock’s laughter all through his chest against his own chest and face as they giggle together. When they stop laughing, Sherlock adjusts his grip on John and John can feel the tension in that long, lean body that means something is very wrong.
“Police will be here in ten minutes, John.” Sherlock says with his usual air of confidence, but the slight quake in his voice tells John all he needs to know. The water is around his shoulders and filling at such a rate that it will be over John's head in half that time.
They are still and quiet a few moments, clinging to each other as the truth hangs heavy between them. Sherlock shudders as the cold sinks into him. The water rises around them, wrapping its frigid fingers around John’s neck once more. In some ways he is grateful for the numbness. Sherlock is pulling him up with all his strength and the metal is yanking on his ankle so hard that it is surely sprained. When John feels the water reach his chin, he at last speaks.
“It’s OK, Sherlock,” John says against Sherlock’s neck. He feels Sherlock swallow roughly. “You tried. It is what it is.”
“No. They - they are coming. Hold on, John,” Sherlock says urgently, fingers digging in and straining to pull John up. John cries out, feeling his ankle wrench unnaturally. Sherlock freezes. He is breathing roughly now, chest heaving against John’s cheek.
“They aren’t going to make it in time, Sherlock.” John’s voice is calm. He finds he feels surprisingly at peace now, resting against Sherlock, the man he loves, and slipping into this watery grave. There is nothing left. No battles to fight. Nothing left to lose. If he can say it to Sherlock now then he can slip away, washed clean, his soul free.
“I am grateful…” John swallows roughly, his throat nearly closing off against the swell of emotion. “I am grateful I am not alone this time and-”
“No, John. They will get here. They will just have to get here faster,” Sherlock snaps and John knows that anger is not for him, but the situation. “If they don’t, I will - I will just have to find another way to save you.” There is an edge of panic undercutting Sherlock’s voice now. John tips his head back to keep it out of the water.
“Listen,” John says firmly. “ You are the bravest, wisest and kindest man I have ever met, Sherlock. You have saved my life so many times and in so many ways, but we’ve come to the end now-”
“John-” Sherlock warns, but John presses on.
“I have to tell you, Sherlock. You are brave. Not because of all of your looking criminals in the eyes and telling them off when they have a gun to your head. No. That - that’s just stupid.” John laughs and Sherlock’s laugh in return is more like a sad gasp. “No wonder Mycroft said ‘bravery is the kindest word for stupidity’ if he was gauging it by that…” John slips a little and claws at Sherlock’s shoulder to stay above water. He has to get it all out.
“No… I am talking about how you never hid yourself. You never felt the need to filter yourself for anyone or bend to the expectations of others. From the first moment I saw you - you were this strange, beautiful, incandescent thing - too much for most but you never even tried to water yourself down. That’s brave like I never could be.”
“John.” Sherlock’s voice creaks. He clears his throat and his voice is small. “Hypothermia is getting to you. You - You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I do, Sherlock. I do and it’s way overdue so just - just shut up and let me says my last words.” Sherlock tries to laugh again but it comes out with a sharp edge, like a cry.
“I said wisest and I meant it. You always could see people. You saw me and I was pretty used to going unseen. I know you took me on that first case and called me all the way across town because you knew what I was down to - knew what I had been thinking about doing with my gun. You saved me, and cured me of my limp in less than twenty-four hours and you never really stopped doing that… in little, quiet ways - seeing me and saving me from myself - and I was such an ungrateful bastard… An idiot, honestly.”
“You’re not-” Sherlock interjects and though John cannot push back to look him in the face, he can tell from the broken, wet sound of his voice that he is crying.
“No, you were right there. I am an idiot. I had a hard time seeing you for what you are. And you were the kindest man because you were always forgiving me my ignorance and selfishness. You knew what love was from the start. You loved me far better than I deserved, Sherlock Holmes.” John feels words rumble in Sherlock’s chest pressed against his own, but he can’t hear what Sherlock is saying because the water is over his ears now. He feels Sherlock try to tug him up and he hisses as pain shoots up his leg. Sherlock stills, so John goes on talking.
“Alright,” The words echo inside John’s head now, held in by the water around his ears. “If you can still hear me, Sherlock, I need you to know… Sherlock - I’m sorry I never said it. I’m sorry that I hurt you so much. It was always you, Sherlock. You kept me right. You made me better… and all of it… even the bits that hurt… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Sherlock’s chest rumbles, the vibration so deeply and prolonged that John feels certain it can only be a scream. He slips back out of Sherlock’s arms. For a heartbeat he is looking into Sherlock’s eyes, wide and glassy with tears, wild with panic, anguish and fear and… love.
There it is. It is all John ever needed. It is all worth it for the truth in that look.
“I love you, William Sherlock Scott Holmes,” John says, water sloshing into his mouth and choking off the end of the words. He takes a deep breath as he slips into the cold darkness beneath the water.
Beneath the surface, he holds his breath as long as he can. Sherlock’s hands scramble over him a moment, trying to pull at him, then Sherlock comes into view across the small space, his dark curls lifting away from his pale face like some enchanted water creature. He is beautiful. He grabs John, holding onto his shoulders with determination in his eyes. Then a hand moves to John’s cheek and taps and presses in an alternating pattern - Morse code.
-.. .. / ……-. . / …. — .-.. -.. / — -.
D I - H E R E - H O L D - O N
John’s brow furrows as he shakes his head back and forth. He can’t. It’s too late. His last breath is escaping, his lungs screaming in pain, and he reaches out, runs a numb hand in a clumsy caress over Sherlock’s jaw and tries to smile.
Sherlock’s face changes, hardening, like a switch has been flipped. He grabs John, his large hands enclosing each side of his face. He pulls John forward and crashes their lips together. John is disoriented for a moment, consciousness slipping, then Sherlock’s lips seal over his and all the air is forced out of Sherlock’s lungs into John’s. John’s eyes pop open as Sherlock scrambles up to the surface, getting another breath and then they are eye to eye again.
John grins at him, his chest swelling with adoration. If he could tell the man how brilliant he is, he would. If they get out of this, John is going to tell him how much of a brilliant, dazzlingly, genius he is with every grateful breath.
He holds onto Sherlock’s stolen breath as long as he can, but it is not pure oxygen, so his body needs another breath much sooner. John grabs Sherlock this time and pulls him forwards, sealing his lips over Sherlock’s and pulling the air out of his lungs slowly. The way Sherlock relaxes into him and curls around him, it almost seems like a kiss. When they part he has to push Sherlock up towards the surface because those silver-blue eyes just blink at John, dazed. It is only two more breaths before an officer drops into the well with them and dives down to quickly cut through the chain holding John to the bottom of the well.
Sherlock and the officer haul John to the surface and John gasps real air again, then promptly passes out from the cold, exhaustion and oxygen deprivation.
When he wakes, he is in the back of an ambulance, covered in a thick blanket on a gurney. His eyes snap around, searching urgently, until he finds Sherlock sitting across from him with an orange blanket draped around his shoulders, batting away the hands of the medic trying to examine him. John locks eyes with him and a smile grows on both of their faces, that secret shared smile of doing incredibly daring and daft things and it all working out in the end. A joy and thrill bubbles up inside John.They’d survived. Again. Against all odds. The mad, brilliant genius had saved him again.
“I believe I said I would find a way, John.” Sherlock straightens his spine, lifting his chin with a smug expression that John knows is put on by the way his eyes flick to John’s lips and linger, his own lips pressing together and his chin thrusting forward slightly. John knows Sherlock is thinking about their not-quite-kiss and he hopes he is desiring a real one without numb lips, rancid water and the threat of death if one doesn't employ the technique of a sucker fish.
“Brilliant,” John breathes, eyes still fixed to Sherlock. “I’ll never doubt you again,” John says with a little nod, his eyes burning as he relaxes back onto the bed.
He means it. Never again will he be so stupid. He’s been an idiot long enough. Things are going to change now… and John isn’t scared anymore.
John has confessed. Sherlock knows the truth now. The last wall between them has been oblitherated (much like their flat). There is no more room for doubt or mistrust or fear. There is nothing left to hide. He’s taken that leap of faith and now he can only trust that this time, against all odds, Sherlock will catch him.
They’ve been through fire and hell and water.
Now they stand on the other side. Just the two of them, like always. But now John has been washed cleaned of all the fear and pain and at last is reborn; the spirit of Sherlock’s love filling him up.
This was worth it. This moment was worth a thousand cold and watery deaths.
He reaches out his hand towards Sherlock and Sherlock takes it. “Simply brilliant,” he says, eyes sliding closed as he grins widely.