Author's Notes: There are four main inspirations for this piece.
Obviously the first is the Hotson roleplay. I used only Sherlock's replies because it would be redundant to have John's texts, since we're getting so much of his point of view anyway, and also because it forces the reader to consider what he might have said to incite those responses.
The title comes from an Eskimo proverb: "Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy."
You can also pretty easily find where I adapted that quote for another purpose.
The ending comes from a quote from Tom Stoppard: "Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over… Death is not anything… death is not… It's the absence of presence, nothing more… the endless time of never coming back… a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes not sound…"
And the writing style is inspired by Richard Brautigan and Michael Ondaatje.
Hope you enjoy!
Perhaps they are not stars
Now he was left with the cold and the dark and the silence. The wind whispered softly in the crags of the mountains that swooped up and around him, like stone vultures shaking their wings out against the midnight sky. Ice crystals glued themselves to his ribs, to his lungs, and he breathed deeply to shoo them away, coughing and feeling the blood sticking to his tongue, to his teeth.
The wound was deep; he could stick two fingers in it if he felt the need. A whole packet of chemical haemostat disappeared in its depths, like water falling into a vast chasm. Perhaps if he listened carefully he could hear it tinkling among the shards of his shattered spleen, pinging softly inside his hollow stomach. It was the delirium talking, he knew. He pressed harder on the hole seared into him by the world's only consulting criminal. At least the hole in Moriarty's head wasn't going to need medical attention by anyone but a coroner.
His phone vibrated softly in his pocket. Had he sent a text to anyone? Did he know of anyone to send a text to? Time seemed to lap at the edges of his consciousness, sucking memories in and out of his brain, and people swirled in the hazy borders of those half-remembered dreams. There were funny names and billowing coats. Umbrellas. Skulls on mantelpieces, pools and practiced limps, bombs going off, running across London. Afghanistan – did that mean anything to him? Poppy fields and native children who laughed around the gaps in their teeth. How much affection he'd held for them, giving them candy from his care packages. Who was that woman with the ginger hair: did he have a sister? Was there someone else? Who would he text? God, it was so cold. Antifreeze, antifreeze for his brain.
Breathing seemed precious. Breathing was a right, a gift given unto him from the gods themselves, but it was a struggle, a living thing fighting him with each inhale. His lungs were tacky with ice now (was that even possible? nothing seemed real anymore, not even his medical mind could fathom this pain, this beast of pain welling up like a thorn in his gut), and he lied back, pressing a hand harder into his left side and wheezing to inhale. There was no time before this incredible agony, this magnificent uproar of terrible pain; there was no breathing before this conscious struggle to fill his lungs, like depressing a syringe filled with tar and drawing it back again, endlessly. Perhaps it would be better to stop … ?
No, there was something, something holding him here. He looked up at the sky, a tempest of ice and snow, clear even now in the stunning darkness afforded by this privacy, this serene isolation. His enemy laying dead twenty paces away was his only company other than the silence and the near-physical entity of pain resting atop him like a malevolent pet. Surely there was nothing other than this moment: the symphony of snow, the feeling of a million tiny pinpricks pressing upon his back and always, always that bloom of blood and bone that scraped against his ribs and reminded him that he was alive, so horribly alive despite the severity of his damage, of his dying mark.
With a shaking hand he dragged his left hand across his body to his right coat pocket, where his phone buzzed insistently again. He whined as his finger accidentally strayed too close to the font of viscera brewing inside him, the sludge of infection and laceration done to him by Moriarty's gun. The tiny light of his secondhand phone glowed like a promise, a reminder of the living world he clung to with his broken fingernails and muddied teeth. Someone wanted him to stay. Someone, someone.
John, please, you have to stay awake. Please. –SH
Of course. Through the haze of sickness and nausea pooling like a groundswell inside of him, he could remember that name. A leviathan with curls and a whip-smart mind, who could pull information out of nothingness and arrange it to suit his fancy, who could read people like train schedules, who could glance at the ground and tell you every man that stepped there since the last rainstorm. Even if he knew the methodology behind the ability, it still seemed supernatural: it put the man on the same ground as myths. How could you not turn such an otherworldly creature into a legend, into a hero?
The wind was whistling harder and the blood was cold under his shivering fingers, his gloves sticky with his own life. He ripped off another piece of a fallen henchman's shirt, brushing the snow off and pressing it against his injury. Typing with one hand was difficult, surely draining his remaining strength, but he couldn't help but share the intimacy of death with the man who he'd done this for. It was a last kindness.
I'm sorry, John. God I'm sorry. –SH
The Swiss Alps were rubbish, he decided. Tracking the criminal here, to the peak of these old mountains, was a rubbish way to die. He could have breathed his last at home, in a warm blanket with his lover at his side, exhaling into that sweet, familiar air: the faint hint of formaldehyde and the rich perfume of many books. His nose was too cold to work in the sifting wind, and all he would be able to smell was death and blood and snow. And it was freezing. God, it was freezing. His hands shook hard enough that he nearly dropped the bright light in his hand, and typing was becoming more difficult the more he tried.
None of it matters if I lose you, John. –SH
What was he saying, anyway? To whom was he saying it? Words, all of them, the gritty consistency of them, here in the darkness and the arctic kiss, where each one was a lifeline, a reminder that other people were real, that this was the end and that the pain wasn't going to remain forever. He would welcome anything if it only would take away this terrible burden in his chest that ached with each breath. Leaving would destroy his lover, he knew, but wasn't he allowed his selfishness? More blood spilled out between his fingers, and the pressure wasn't enough, could never be enough. Wasn't this sacrifice worthy?
Mycroft's team is almost there. You have to hold on. – SH
Time was irrelevant now in this space; it had never existed, even with this tenuous grip he held onto through the words of his husband. If only he could sleep. To sleep – perhaps the pain would leave him, would slink out and vanish like a raven into the mist. It was so cold, so cold: the inhuman shriek of the wind in his ears, the sibilant hiss of the shifting snow, made it seem ever colder. And the constant companion of his pain, like a dog running in circles before it slept, endlessly trampling down his ribs to smooth down a spot for itself, unbearable. He could feel his fingers slipping.
John, just … Whatever happens, you're the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you. –SH
This agony was nothing like the swift and silent hounds that ran through him when his shoulder was ripped apart. For one, the cold. It had been a viscous heat that day, a liquid fire that wrapped him in its warmth. He'd sprayed the wound with water while he worked on a dying man to keep the sand out, but the sand crept in anyway, abrading the useless muscle that had failed him. He had ignored the pain, had shut the door on it like a traveling salesman, but the pain in his viscera (was it now? what was now; what was then? whenever this was) could not be soothed, could not be pushed away with all the thought and concentration in the world. Maybe if he had something to do. A crossword puzzle and a pen. Small comforts. Laughing would tear his abdomen further – don't think of that.
I'm sorry I couldn't do the same for you. –SH
Maybe the two wounds were a dialogue borne out through his body. The spirits that stabbed at men in the dark and took them away, the senseless wraiths of war who chose their victims without reason, without mercy: they were here with him on this forsaken mountain, clawing at him, pushing their needle-teeth into his flesh and marking him, for all eternity, as theirs. God, if he only he could make them stop.
All the prayers he knew as a child, the things he whispered in the dark and the heat when he checked his gun again during the countless firefights that lit the world with streaks of red, so long ago in Afghanistan – where were they now? Where did they go? Were they inside him, stagnating in his marrow, or had they gone up among the ether, lost among a sea of fervent human demands? Maybe they'd been answered, silently, someone ticking off his wish list, letting him live because he'd said the right thing, pressed his thumb against the rosary enough times that it counted.
Or maybe the gods had kept him alive so these wraiths of ice and wind, these Swiss demons, could torture him here in the cold and the dark. They had saved him for this moment. If only they would stop. His hold was slipping, his bones unclasping themselves from their prim grip on the mortal coil, and he was so tired. So achingly tired. He thought he heard the rustle of crow's wings, the tricksters coming to scream him to sleep. If only.
I love you, John. Never forget that. –SH
He wondered then if they will ever run out of words – humans, whoever they were, whenever this was – if the formations in his mouth will stop meaning anything, if their luscious roll will become nothing, or only just a half-reverberation of something, a tinny echo of some great phantasmal rut of the word that he said and forgot and unknowingly wakes from the dead or – is it possible? – to pluck something from his memory whole and untarnished, like a perfect fruit hanging from a pregnant tree, savoring and sharing it, now blemished by his teeth and tongue but still palatable, the juice running down his lover's chin like a secret shared between them, this magnificent utterance he has drawn up from the deep well of his failing mind, again: to bask in, to cherish, to adore. Maybe it had already happened and no one had noticed.
Or, he pondered sleepily, that was ridiculous, and surely he should close his eyes and rest, let the ice take him and melt him into a dream from which he should never wake. Sherlock would know the answer – he always did – and he would be content with that, as he always was and always would be. How dearly he would like to sleep.
A lull came over him, and with it remorse for failing in his mission, for abandoning the one he'd promised always to protect. The stars gleamed down at him accusingly, a million million menacing eyes: a council of all the dead and all the unborn, come to shame him for giving up, disgracing his warrior's honor and letting down the man he loved. He felt not alone then, but pressed in by thousands, judged, spurred on to survival.
It's not your fault. Don't ever think it's your fault. I love you so much. –SH
This ghostly jackal lying on his chest, sinking its bones into his spleen, would simply have to wait for a more convenient time to kill him. The whirring of the crow's wings grew louder and the cold more insistent. His lungs, cut through with ice, ached with the strain of life. For all he knew the rest of the world had split off from this tiny island of stone, scuttled away to be destroyed, and he was its sole remnant, floating alone in the great bowl of space, a trinket from a lost time, a lost place and entity. Like the fossil of a species long crawled off into the ether, to be picked up and marveled at and quietly stored away. But he would live. He would live.
Lights appeared, two whirling suns, and the snow spun away to drift against quieter mountains. The whirling blades of the helicopter screamed and sung; he could hear voices, could practically touch the presence of humanity. Whether it had been hours or centuries or mere seconds since their arrival he did not know, for suddenly he was warm and broken open, his hands pressed gently into his sides, anxious faces peering desperately into his eyes. A man that looked like a man he knew was wearing a black flak jacket and carrying an umbrella, concern bright in his dimpled cheeks, in his thinning ginger hair.
How strange it was, how very absurd and beautiful; all the things come to pass, and here he was, one with the mountain and the ice, spirited away on raven's wings, leaving behind the shrieking demons. The endless time of never coming back, of never being empty again.