This past November I took part in the ADL Concert Against Hate in Washington, DC. While there, I had the amazing opportunity to hear the NSO and stunning first chair violinist Nurit Bar-Josef perform the song The Lark Ascending. That experience can pretty much take all the credit for the genesis of this fic. I don't know if there's any place to hear her play it, but as I understand the melody is pretty popular among classical British music, so I highly recommend checking it out in any of its forms.
And now, on to fic!
He plays for 1,095 days, in the hopes that the notes will swirl over the grey countryside, filter through the murky city streets, and find their way back home.
He plays for 1,095 days, and does not stop.
The latch clicks softly in his hands, and the heavy wood swings aside under his touch. Vague shapes of furniture rise up from the inky depths of the room like the craggy outlines of headstones, but he does not reach for the switch. His bag lands softly by his feet, the dull thud sounding in time with the closing of the door behind him.
And then, silence.
He stands by the entrance, and for once, no thoughts pass through his brain.
All is silence. Terrifying and huge in the small, small room.
As if by their own volition, his feet toe off the wet and muddied shoes and strike out into the darkness. Pale, quiet, he moves as a ghost among the gloom, the watery light of the crescent moon that spills through the glass window leaving only a murky haze in his trailing wake. It does not shine in his dull, dead eyes.
Because he is dead, and not - and therefore maybe after all.
The case he still holds clenched in his hand is one he lifts onto the table in the center of the room. He settles on the couch in front of it, watches passively as his hands move to the latches and pull. The click as they fall open is jarring, would be jarring to anyone else, but Sherlock has forgotten what it is to feel, so his long, spindly fingers simply grasp the lid and push it back.
The instrument inside is quiet, quiet as it always is, until he plays it.
And he does. Goes through the motions as he rosins his bow, settles his fingers along the neck and his chin across the body, and gently rests the fine horsehair upon the strings.
And because he is dead, Sherlock does not feel anything when the instrument begins to weep quietly; high, lilting notes spilling out and pushing the silence back so that it hovers just at the edges. Rather than being erased, the feeling is heavier than before on the fringes of his mind. But because he was once alive, the memory of what it is to hurt is there, hidden deep inside his chest and only remembered in the vague twinges he feels as the notes rise within his ears.
Sherlock plays for three days that first time, or roughly so, until he can play no more and he passes out.
He wakes up with his instrument lying some distance away, his face pressed against the floor. It is wet under his cheek.
Odd, considering the windows were closed.
Sometimes he just plucks, when he arrives late at the cottage and he can feel the ache of the cold and the chase in his bones. When he has been in dark alleys and thought he might never see sunlight again; when he has scrounged along trails and found nothing at the end; when the night closes in around him and threatens to suffocate with all its cold airs and frozen, skeletal hands.
Then, his own cold fingers pluck out the melody listlessly, as he stares out the window and wonders how far these broken tones, sharp in the silence but so quickly vanishing - so very, very fleeting in their existence - can go.
When he has nothing left to play, he wonders how long they will last.
The silence is always quick to answer.
It's easy, forgetting.
He plays for hours, just low notes, over and over again, quick but long and loud and bright. His fingers grip the neck as if to wring the sound from its vocals, tightening in desperation as the minutes wear on and he still cannot remember. And still cannot, and still, even when he casts it away and the wood shudders, its cords wrung out and hoarse from use, cannot.
What a limited instrument, that it does not recall the tones of that laugh in the morning.
What a limited mind, that it has let the music slip away.
He hangs up. Breathes. Saves the file, over and over again.
There's a lark at his window. He first notices when he is taking care of the pile of dishes that has grown in the sink, as the bird is settling outside on the scraggly bushes just under the screen. He watches, listens as it sings softly to itself and hops about the tender frills of the bush. The bird turns a beady eye to him through the warped frames of the stained glass. He stares back, notes how its glance looks unnaturally large and keen through the great blue plating, dismisses the idea of its intelligence as ridiculous.
And yet it continues to watch him, strangely motionless, throughout the day.
He sees it much more in passing - as it alights on the sill, or flutters around the plants of the garden, he can see the flex of its tawny wings in the sun, hear the fragile fluttering of its wings through the open window. A strange, ever-present creature, always just at the corner of his eye.
But what is more strange is that when he plays, there is a faint, twittering echo. His bow slides, glides, strokes a run, the notes scraped from the strings and brought stark and bright into the air. And a sweet, warbling voice sings right back, its own measures entwining with his in soars and crescendos; holding it through the dives and not letting go through the tremulous vibrato of the end.
He searches for it, afterwards, wonders at the remarkable ability of such a small animal, but it is always just-almost there, the only time fully tangible in the way it darts in and among his notes, until one's verses do not sound right without the other.
He has taken to leaving the windows open when he plays.
Sometimes, though, it rains.
The thunder rolls in over the skies, falling down from the mountains and spilling out over the countryside in whispers, then rumbles and cracks - cracks that split the very sky and leave water plummeting to earth, the splashes resounding together in a ceaseless, marching drone. Winds stir among the branches of the birches and oaks, and their leaves rattle when they slither alongside one another. Sometimes it is this; only the quiet rustle, but other times it howls and shrieks in long, high moaning tones.
At all times, the earth - not only just with green and fertility - comes alive under rain.
He stands by the grand window overlooking the rapidly darkening world; feels his fingers fly over their familiar, well-worn cadences, and his figure outlined against the lime-greys of the sky is as a conductor poised before his orchestra. The world swirls and slows before him, and he, at once the soloist and the maestro, allows the percussion and woodwinds of the universe to accompany him.
He, in all his glory - the stark figure, pale and gaunt under the flashes that strike through the darkness, who moves furiously with the music that encapsulates his being. His fingers tremble like the branches outside, and he shakes even as the trees do, in all their might, under the threatening dark. He is wild in motion, arms slicing across the instrument as if he could draw blood from it instead of the notes that seem to bleed themselves into the atmosphere. He can feel it dripping down around him, in the rain and the sweat and the strange trails on his face, and he is so strangely, terribly desperate to cast it off - he only conducts more furiously; only saws more intensely at the straining strings, and though his feet stand in place it is as if he is flapping and flying fast and far away from here.
The notes and the world and the man - they all rush together, overwhelming in their grand, great noise, and the cymbals of lightning shudder.
His hands burn where he has scrubbed them.
Scrubbed them for hours, and hours, and hours, until the hot water was completely spent and the great stains and swathes of blood all over his hands had been replaced with the blood spilling from his own cracked and broken skin.
It looks more like him than his pale, white hands had ever done, and as he holds the shiny, pink mitts against the instrument and it stings - it stings and it hurts and it is real - he cannot reconcile that angelic image with the one staring him back in the face.
This, bared muscle - ugly and bloody. It is what he has always been beneath the lies and deception of white, crystal skin and all of it; everything else. Any supposed goodness had never existed, and if it had, he'd watched it only moments ago as it swirled down the drain. Nothing has changed, only been revealed when all those false coverings were torn away. The truth is, he has always murdered the things he touches.
Sherlock does not do milestones, or count dates, or keep a calendar. Not consciously, anyway.
But he wakes up drowning in his own sweat, gasping as his hands ball into fists at his sides and tear savagely at the sheets, the breath of a name held between his teeth, and there is the sound of screaming in his head.
He drowns it in music; wonders if it could possibly rain enough to wash them all away. Man, cottage, instrument and all. Wonders if it's enough to reach back through all of time and flood through the past. Wash away history.
Alone in the countryside, in the present, the music soars over his head and drags him under.
He stumbles up the road, feet squelching through the muddied gravel that scrapes against his bare feet. He feels it seeping through his cuts; winces and gingerly holds himself. Cuts, bruises, and all, he struggles forward. He'd been gone for weeks, this time. Usually didn't take so long. But they were getting cleverer, and he was getting inexplicably weaker, and it was so frustrating-
He cries out as a rock lodges itself under a tender, aching foot and crumples to the ground, catching himself on his hands. Sharply, he turns away from the pain that shoots through his arms, and falls to his side. Even his ribs cry out, and he shudders for moments on the path to home, lost and far away.
How easy, just to lie here. Especially after all that running.
And Sherlock is so very tired of running.
Up ahead, a long, shrill note pierces the air. Followed by a run, and some skips - and slowly, the melody unfolds and dances down to him. It alights at his side, lifts him gently to his knees. The beginning of rain stings his eyes and his feet burn, but his heart is still beating, and that is something.
He crawls back to the house, sees the flicker of wings vanishing into the tangle of birches by the door.
Inhales; lets the electric air of the atmosphere fill his lungs, sharp and alive where everything else is not.
Early that morning, he'd come back to a ransacked hotel room. Destroyed, the only thing remaining in the threats spray-painted along the walls, everything else in pieces across the floor. Pillowcases torn to shreds, desk chairs in splintered piles, and instrument - shattered, its beautiful, slick sides reduced to dead wood. The bow snapped in half, back broken, horsehair spilling out across the floor in a dull grey mane. He had carded the threads through his fingers; touched the edges of the mahogany in incredulity. Why take something so beautiful and innocent, and break it? Perfection, reduced to…
But down in its baser parts, it was nothing, and as Sherlock flew from the room, he did not look back.
As he at last collapses onto the floor, dripping and sick, he resolves to go into town again. Find another to play.
But the song continues, soft and sweet as it sings him to sleep, and he doesn't stop to wonder if it's all in his head. There's too much inside it already for there to be anything more.
His fingers twitch the tune.
It is uncharacteristically sunny as he walks the streets of London. Lets it warm his face, turns toward it as a plant reaching for that radiant glory. It tingles down through his skin, comforting and bright.
But his bones ache with the deep frost of winter, because he knows he cannot stay.
In the shop, he lets many instruments pass through his hands. All the same, all different, had to be careful…
One has just settled on his shoulder when he glances through the window.
On the opposite side of the street, a man is emerging from a coffee shop into the summer street. Nothing striking about him. Everything striking about him. He blinks at the sunlight, juggling his drink in apparent search for sunglasses. He glances down at his pockets, and his blond hair flashes gold. He appears to sigh, giving up the search, and stumbles forward to be swallowed in the crowd. No, not stumbles…limps.
Sherlock falls back from the window, crashing into a music stand and toppling it sideways. The sheaf of notes fly down around him, tiny white birds winging through the air until they fall, and die. Just ink on a page, and none of them sing.
He demands a new instrument. Takes the first one he receives, leaves the other lying in front of the window, too afraid to touch it in case it leaves its f-holes burned into his hands.
It's easy, this. Steady glide of a bow. Fingers curled around its edges. Somehow, creating music, different sounds rising from different placements. Interesting, the science of sound. And to watch it at work, those steady vibrations, ringing in his ears…
But that's all it is. And if it's anything more, it's a pastime.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
More than once, he entertains the idea of sending letters.
Encoded. No one would know. Except him. He'd be clever enough to figure it out. Wouldn't have to put a return address, of course. Could even type it, if the handwriting had chances of being recognized.
But that was always it -
Those tiny, minute possibilities that all of it so far could be for nothing at the slightest mistake. That every single, agonizing moment and every meter of distance could somehow not be worth it, in the end.
He couldn't risk it. Not for an instant, or a letter. Not even a single word. Nothing was worth that terrible price.
So he sends music, instead, and hopes that it says more than paragraphs ever could.
Even though it is bitterly cold, he grabs a rickety garden chair and dusts the withered leaves from the seat before he sets himself down. His silver eyes dart up, but his lark is nowhere to be found. Gone somewhere for the winter, he supposes. His gaze drops to the horizon.
Across the wide and bleak hills there is nothing, not a soul or breath of air to speak of. But he knows that beyond their sloping sides, there is a city, and in that city there is a flat, and in that flat there is a man, and in that man there is a world that is far different than this empty countryside.
Lost in space as he is, shooting among the stars and spinning with the planets, he looks across the worlds that separate it from his own and wonders at how it ever got so far away. How their orbits, once interlocked, managed to drift so completely apart. He wonders if he can ever go back, to that city and that flat and that man, and be of his world again. Not something apart and so alien, that there are even times when he does not recognize himself.
And though he knows sound does not travel in space, he positions himself anyway, and lets the violin ring across the vast and lonely universes.
Someone tells him he cannot take the case. The metal detectors screech as it goes through, and an angry guard shouts at him in broken English and shoves it roughly into his arms, pointing back to where he cannot return.
He swings it, and it's unexpected, how easily this cold violence comes. The man falls. He leaps over the barriers and dashes onto the plane before he can be stopped, but he doesn't stop shaking, not for the whole flight.
His fingers stroke the metal, and he tastes it on his tongue.
Sometimes, when the burn of addiction sings in his veins, he sets his shaking fingers to the strings and plays; plays until his calloused fingers crack and break once more, and the burning, pulsing, pounding need has drained out of his fingertips, and tracks of dull red run down across the strings.
Sometimes it is enough, and sometimes it isn't. Because a long time ago he had traded in one addiction for another, but his veins still remember the trace of the first. And when he had done it again, his heart had betrayed him and yearned for the feel of the second.
But he tries, he tries and he tries and he tries because of what he remembers, and even when he fails he is doing all he can.
And even when he does not fail, he is still losing. Losing entire days.
Locked in a cellar, baiting opportunity, he waits.
Waits for three days. There is no food, no water, no place to relieve himself, and no violin. Not even room for it. Barely room for himself.
He could grow delirious and pass out. He could give up and leave his cramped hiding place. But if he does anything except stay here, far from the rest of the world, they will find him, and he will die. But if he stays, the claustrophobia will get to him. This trapped feeling, of all his edges being squished inside. This feeling that he will never see the sky again. This terror, that he is so far underground and so far from air, that his lungs will grow stale and give out. It all presses in, dark and oppressive as the walls by his side and back and front and head.
But he drums the rhythm against the walls, murmurs the tune under his breath, along with a name, and it keeps him sane enough.
Farther from home than he has ever been, Sherlock forgets what home is.
It's curious, because he hadn't consciously deleted it.
It just sort of… slipped away. As if a virus had come up and pillaged in the middle of the night, leaving him with nothing save the empty, aching hole that not even his music, when he plays and plays and plays, can fill.
Comb through his files all he wanted, but he couldn't find it.
Doesn't find it.
He wonders where the lark has got to. If it's made a nest, and a family, yet, in his absence. If it still sings without him.
He took no photographs.
That night, when he had sat in his brother's car and looked up through the tinted windows at the flat he intended to leave, he vowed only the important things.
Photographs… sentimental. Useless, especially when his brain could remember -
But he'd overestimated his abilities, and there comes a morning when wakes up and doesn't. Not anymore. In the night, every aspect of a face he had once committed to memory had vanished. He tears apart the cottage, crumples in the living room and claws long gashes in the floor like some sort of beast; turns to his instrument and ravages it with angry saws of his bow and lets it howl frantically for him until he is panting and flushed, hair askew, tasting blood on his lip from where he bit himself to stop all the words under his tongue from falling out. But still he does not remember.
Only the important things.
But none of those were necessarily things that he needed.
Sherlock is not a religious man, but when he enters a church in tracking down the last few of that mastermind's henchman and sees pictures of hell, he realizes they do not look too different from the images that flash behind his eyes at night. A man with black irises and a wide, sharp-toothed grin, and his faceless victims, and the many demons that swarm at his feet.
And, of course, there are avenging angels, but as Sherlock fires the last of his bullets and it hits a man square in the chest, he does not feel he is of heaven at all. He has been showered with none of God's rewards. And he does not think God looks too kindly on those who kill so coldly.
Even now, in his absolution, no prayers escape his lips when he leaves the man bleeding on the floor, save for an utterance of his idol's name.
On the doors before him, an angel with her stringed instrument stares solemnly back. Without thinking, his hand reaches towards her face, but he flinches away before he can stroke her pale, stained-glass cheek.
Those above do not have pity for those below. But those in between are forgotten entirely.
There comes the day when he steps up onto the cottage porch and finds the lark dead across his doorstep.
He recalls murders, and how he used to solve them. How the clues all used to jump out at him and make everything so simple; so dreadfully easy to realize who was at fault and bring them to justice. Funny, how things change, how everything is now so backwards and twisted and wrong.
He reckons, though, that he could still do it, and peers closer.
But the only murderer here is time. His eyes close, and he toes the broken form off across the steps. Its wings fan out, a last, desperate memory of the wind and the air and the sky, before it falls and does not ascend.
In the mirror, Sherlock sometimes sees time creeping up behind him, grey fingers in his hair and scratching lines across his too-young face.
And in the windows, he sees it beckoning him closer with each rising sun.
He never used to care for those that time murdered, or for those the world murdered, or even for the ones that he murdered, but there comes the day when a lark falls from the skies on stones that lead straight to him, and he does.
He watches it spiral through the air.
He watches his life spiral out behind him.
The past sort of sneaks up on him, stalking from the shadows until the bullet, which flies forward deftly, certainly, sinks itself into the man's chest. Then, it leaps over him with a snarl, tackles him down to his knees. Under its weight, he gasps, great heaving sobs that are torn from his lungs until he is utterly wrung out.
Because he can feel it, feel it in his skin and breaking his spine and sinking in his chest - three years of chasing and waiting and killing; of setting his fingers to a gun and then to an instrument in an attempt to forget how the metal felt in his hands. Of letting music fill his ears so he couldn't hear his own cries in the night or the sobs of his sorry, hated victims begging for mercy in their last seconds. Of rain, and loneliness, and memories that time forgot.
Of doing what was necessary so he could forget all that wasn't.
And as the threads of that last life are cut, and he shakily comes to his feet, the vibrant threads of his past sing out through the air and follow the strains of his music to become the threads of a future.
The train is quiet, the only sound the sound of a man and his music, far at the end of the car.
The people gather around that one compartment at the back of the train. Some, like children, come with wonder in their eyes, at the sounds that can be wrung from one instrument alone. Others march in, angry at the interruption, but stop when they really begin to hear.
Because it is not just music. There is the weight of three years in it. There is a heavy silence in the rests that speaks more than any words could say, and in every note is the love and pain of many lives. And the wonder comes at the fact that it is just one soul; one soul who creates entire reams of feeling, who pours out his anguish into every measure.
And as every life on the train gathers round, they recognize it for themselves, though they all have forgotten the famous man who makes his instrument sing. To them, he is mysterious, nameless, notable only for what he creates. They do not know his past, or his future, and in that respect, they are all like him. But each and every one of them knows they do not want to be this man, though they could not tell you why.
It is enough to listen, and the edges of something more just barely brush the consciousness as the mourning, hopeful sounds reach new heights.
His notes crescendo, and they inhale as one, with all the sympathy they can hold in the wide expanses of their suddenly open hearts.
His face doesn't remember how to smile, but if it could, he would try.
The door opens.
Sherlock sits in the darkness of the flat late that night, and imagines that it should feel different.
But only he is different, changed by time and marred by circumstance. This place is still home, even if the word feels strange on his tongue. And John, though also changed, is still very much the same person.
Which is why he is not surprised, that as the song ends and the last, fragile notes linger in the air, a voice speaks up from the darkness.
"What is that piece?" he asks.
Sherlock's voice, cracked from disuse, answers, "I wrote it."
John is silent for a few more moments. He gives a little laugh. Then, "I… I feel like I've heard it before. In a dream, I think." Sherlock's heart, so starved as it is, begins to beat faster. "Can I hear it again? The whole thing?"
"It might take a while."
Sherlock inhales, again feels the years settle on his shoulders. And he remembers them, each and every day, as the images of strings and bows unfurl in his memory, as his only way of coping is suddenly, vividly, thrillingly unnecessary. Because there is an awkward, but tender, hand on his shoulder, and it does not weigh anything at all.
An inhale that is not his own whisks through the silence. And for a moment, that is all there is - silence. But his voice is the new music, that as he registers the number and breathes it once into the air, he speaks again in a more glorious melody than anything Sherlock could have crafted.
"I - we have time."
And so on that last night, Sherlock raises the instrument. A ray of moonlight spills across the surface, and the brief, barely-there flash of wings splits the image through the window. His eyes close around it, burned across his memory.
There are some things he will not forget. But time is very good at taking those old hurts away, especially when - and he feels his quiet presence as keenly as he feels his own - it has someone to help it along.
Sherlock begins to play.
That day, Sherlock does not play at all.