It has been two years since Sherlock Holmes died.
There are a great many ways to spend two years.
DI Lestrade spends those two years trying to remember how he used to solve cases before he'd come to rely on a mind with the analytic power of a supercomputer. Those who know him well notice an increased grimness in his demeanour that wasn't there before, but this isn't the first time he's lost a colleague – even if that colleague had been more like a wayward, distant, highly irresponsible adopted son. He doesn't let himself get distracted – there is so much to do. It is no surprise that criminals have grown bolder since the events of two years prior were made public, and now a string of truly vicious murders by torture has Lestrade tearing at his hair in frustration. At such times the absence is felt more keenly than ever... and far too often, a cloud seems to hang over Scotland Yard, in the place of what used to be the occasional mocking, derisive comment, a stare of grudging admiration, and a contemptuous whisper of 'freak'.
Mrs. Hudson spends those two years in quiet, forgetful grieving – she does her best to pretend that nothing is wrong, for John's sake if not hers, because the poor boy hardly needs another reminder. She invites John and Greg for tea and scones and makes polite conversation about the weather with them and they all do their best to distance themselves from the belly of the criminal underworld they live in every day, suffocating them, forcing them to remember. She watches the telly, waters her plants, and considers getting a dozen cats, talking about what a jovial crazy old cat lady she would make. And then, at night, she finds herself straining to hear the sounds of a violin, but they never come, and she sniffles and sobs into her pillow just a little.
John Watson spends those two years drifting in and out of depression, and a strangely detached, clinical side of him observes his own progress with some amusement. It starts, predictably, with denial, and denial is oh-so-easy because all of his things are still there, and his mind and memory are the only things trying to convince him that Sherlock couldn't stroll into the flat one day and flop himself onto the couch and ramble and live as if he'd never left – and in all honesty, he wouldn't put it completely past him to pull a trick like that. Then, there is the slow, tumourous realisation of Oh God, he's not coming back, and it saps at his strength like a paralytic and he barely talks or eats or leaves the flat for days on end and just wallows in his own lethargy, floating on his back in the poison of achingly familiar things. Predictably, this is followed by explosive anger (That idiot! How could he do this to me?) and he lashes out at people and at things – but even in destructive rage, he is careful not to disturb his things. (Once, he storms through the room and the rush of air dislodges a sheet of note paper full of scribbled, half-finished music – John lunges to catch it before it touches the floor and reverently replaces it on the cluttered table – but something else has been dislodged, too, and for a long time all he remembers is shaking and crying.) And of course, it is all too easy for anger at Sherlock to morph into anger at himself, and that's when he starts thinking about the gun in his drawer more and more often, and at the worst moments, all that holds him back is the thought of what it would do to Mrs. Hudson.
Mrs. Hudson keeps checking in on him, along with Lestrade, and Sarah and Harry and Molly, and they are all far too good to him and so much stronger, holding up so much better. At one point, Mrs. Hudson asks him if it wouldn't be good for him to move out of 221b, as much as the thought of living alone again clearly pains her. When he refuses, she insists to at least cover Sherlock's possessions with drapes so he doesn't have to keep staring at them, and John gets shamefully angry at her when she doesn't understand that drapes would be so much worse. Two-year-old dust is bad and looks horrifically wrong, because Sherlock's things never had time to gather dust – not because of any tidiness on his part but rather because he'd keep moving and tossing and jostling them around. But everything he knows of drapes is tied to death and nevermores – the way you wrap up your old things to move them to storage where you'll never look at them again, the way you hang drapes over chairs and wardrobes before leaving your childhood home to stand empty forever, the sense of grim finality when respiratory and cardiac and brain activity has stopped and you know that all your knowledge and medical training has failed you and the only thing you can still do is drape a sheet over the cooling body and try to move on.
John tries to explain all this to Mrs. Hudson, explain why drapes mean death and it's over and closure and maybe closure is exactly what he needs but it's not what he wants, and that what he wants is just Sherlock, is that really so much to ask for - but what comes out is an enraged stream of sputtering incoherence and thankfully Mrs. Hudson leaves him alone before he has a chance to embarrass himself any further.
And so John somehow keeps living or at least existing and being there, there on the off chance that it is something crazy like a test or a dream, there for the infinitisemal chance of something, anything, happening.
And so he lives, and watches dust gather on the violin.
Sherlock Holmes spends those two years dead.
It is a statement that is correct in practically every way. The concept of death holds a great amount of meanings, many of them symbolic or tied to immaterial things.
In many ways, it is perfectly correct to say that Sherlock Holmes is dead.
Fact: There is no eccentric genius living in 221b Baker Street and spending his time cracking cases, insulting policemen and human beings in general, playing screeching noises on the violin and harrying his flatmate to buy more milk.
Fact: There is no high-functioning sociopath giving hugs and pecks on the cheek to Mrs. Hudson and staring icy death into anyone who holds a gun to John's head.
Fact: There is no tall and lanky man with pale skin and dark hair prowling the streets of London in his soft navy scarf and dramatic long coat, his blogger never farther away than the boundaries of his own shadow.
Sherlock Holmes is dead.
But Sherlock Holmes is also pure boundless, manic, obsessive energy, and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. For the rest of the world, it is a truth that speaks of chemical reactions and bacterial decay and rapidly cooling ashes in a burial urn.
For him, it means something very different.
There is a man prowling the streets of London – and Berlin, and Stockholm, and Mumbai, and St. Petersburg, and many other faraway places. There is a man who may wear a scarf and a long coat, but never that particular cut, and he also wears hoodies, hats, suits, filthy rags, cardigans, vests, jumpers and the uniforms of a dozen different professions. His hair may be black, but it may also be ginger, a mousy brown, a chemical blond, a weathered grey and every possible shade in-between, in styles ranging from spiked to curly to long and ponytailed, and the contact lenses he wears are even more varied. He may be a genius, but a genius attracts notice (Amazing! Fantastic!), and though his mind constantly boils with streams of deduction about the people he sees and the sordid details of their lives, it has been two years since he has spoken such thoughts out loud. Two years since he'd spoken in a voice that was his own, rather than in whatever pitch and timbre and accent and manner he had judged convenient for that particular identity. Two years since he'd given anyone a peck on the cheek with any measure of sincerity.
Two years since he'd last answered to the name Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes is dead.
But his heart never stopped beating (for too long, anyway), his lungs never stopped pumping air (long enough to cause brain damage, at least), and his mind has been so very busy. By every reasonable practical, medical definition, he is still alive.
He has not been destroyed, but transformed. His own mother would be hard-pressed to recognise him now.
Diving into the world of shadows had been so pathetically easy. It took letting himself sink into the filth and having it close over his head to understand how close he'd been living all this time. One foot in the doorway. And now, six feet under. Figuratively.
The least he could do was not to drag John after him any further.
Moriarty's death had been just the beginning – his influence had encompassed the entire world, an ingenious spider's web of invisible power. If Sherlock Holmes were still alive, he would have appreciated, no, marvelled, been ecstatic at the level of brilliance that required.
But Sherlock Holmes is dead, and the man who is still using his heart and blood and lungs can only find it in himself to feel quiet awe tinged with dread and a surprisingly intense feeling of righteous fury, hatred, desire to rid the world of this for once and all... He wants it to be over. He is so, so tired.
The endless secrecy, going through guises and faces the way an addict goes through cigarettes. The wild chases across rooftops, tiles slippery underfoot. The feel of a knife in his hand, the gritty texture of gunpowder on his fingertips. The constant paranoia, looking over his shoulder and calculating odds. On a bad day, the cold burn of steel gashing his side, or a bullet in his flesh. Too often.
It would have been thrilling, once. But he is alone – safest to assume that Moriarty's reach extends even to the Secret Service, so he and Mycroft trust no one but each other with what us happening. And for the first time ever, he just wants a day off.
And now, after two years, he is getting one.
Not in any official sense. There is still so much to do. But he is back in London for now, and is forced into passivity for an indeterminate number of hours, waiting for Mycroft to follow up on his lead and get back to him. And so he succumbs to a foolish, dangerous temptation, and heads to 221b Baker Street.
He is wearing baggy jeans, worn trainers and a grey hoodie that hangs limply on his frame, the hood pulled up over a cap casting his face into nondescript shadow, nearly shoulder-length curly chestnut hair hanging down past his cheeks like curtains and matching a sparse moustache. He's wearing an ipod and a worn backpack. His eyes are a dark brown. He's even thinner than he used to be and walks with a slouch and the ungainly gait of someone who's quite recently sprouted a pair of overly long limbs, thus completing the teenager/student disguise.
He walks down an overly familiar street with far too many memories. It is midday. He reaches the door and – no, of course he doesn't walk in. He walks past without a second glance, crosses the street, and sits himself down on a doorstep. He digs a science fiction novel out of his backpack and opens it randomly. Just a regular teenager, flunking school. Nothing to see here.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watches the entrance.
An hour passes, and nothing has happened.
He sighs, scrambles to his feet. It's impossible to determine whether John is at home right now from the data he has, and obviously it was too much to hope for that he would choose this particular time to leave the house.
He is uneasy in the quiet street, so he heads to the heart of the city, the crowded shopping centers. He has learned to appreciate the safety of anonymity in a thick crowd. A man could brush against another here, leaving a knife in his ribs, and disappear before the crowd has a chance to notice. He'd seen it done, and he has taken the art and perfected it and made it his own. Anything to make sure Moriarty's men keep dropping like flies.
A knife is easy, simple and clean. Most of them hadn't been so lucky. Sometimes he'd needed information. It takes longer and a lot more work, but every man has a place where he can be cornered, and it is not hard to ensure nobody can hear the screams when you put pressure on that point right there, and cut off the blood supply here, and wait, you're ready to talk now? Really? I can't quite hear you...?
He barely notices as his feet take him towards his favourite park, to his favourite spot, to his favourite bench.
He does not falter or miss a step, but it is a near thing.
John is there on the bench, and it shouldn't be a surprise to find him in one of his – their – old haunts, but it catches him unprepared. His mind flits through observations – more grey hairs, tired expression, shadows under eyes, conclusion: not enough sleep, limp's back, old coffee stain on jumper, ergo personal care neglected, hair not been trimmed recently, new watch on wrist, presumably gift, knuckles bruised, fistfight or, more likely, punched the wall in anger-
He's still walking forward towards John – they are nearly alone in this stretch of the park, and there's no way to abruptly change course without seeming conspicuous. His heart speeds up – this was a mistake. Idiot. Idiot! Sentiment is a weakness found on the losing side, he tells himself again and again. He knows something will go wrong – John will look at him too closely, or ask some trivial question, or make a comment, and then he'll recognise him and everything will go to hell and John'll be in danger again, their plans in jeopardy, they'd been so close, if only he'd kept himself detached like he was supposed to-
He walks closer. Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Five feet. On the surface, he's the very image of a bored and slightly nervous older teenager, but inside he is frozen like a deer in the headlights.
John is staring into space, cane held tightly in his hands, but rouses at the sight of the lone person walking past his bench.
John looks up, the light catching on his face.
John Watson looks him in the eyes.
John smiles a polite, humourless smile and nods in greeting.
He numbly nods back and lets his feet carry him past the bench, farther and farther and out of the park. He resists the urge to glance back.
Nothing has gone wrong. He should be relieved.
He feels like something has withered and turned to ice inside him.
It should be a good thing. A testament to the perfection of his disguise.
He shakes slightly, straining to contain a manic giggle.
A strange, light-headed sense of elation. He is always worried about bumping into someone whenever he's in London. Perhaps he doesn't need to be.
He's free – free and faceless and as untraceable as a shadow in a dark room. It's only a matter of time before the rest of Moriarty's syndicate is done for.
He feels his phone chime with a new message and reaches into his pocket. It can only be Mycroft, of course. He glances at the text.
Nightly. The warehouse. 10 pm. There will be five bodyguards. Collect supplies in usual place.
He breathes in and out again, brushing effortlessly through the crowd. Already he can feel the thrill of anticipation, of knowing that another of Moriarty's ilk will be dead before the day is done.
Sherlock Holmes may be dead, but his heart and mind and limbs still have so much to do.