I'll make my apologies later. This is born of a conversation I was having with Mirith Griffin on the fact that in real life, people don't find each other just in time.
He finds him in a gutter, past the point of no return.
In real life, perhaps, they wouldn't have found each other at all, and would have died never knowing what they'd missed out on, but things around Sherlock Holmes tend to happen as though everyone's running on some kind of script that no-one's given you a copy of. In real life, people have an odd way of just missing each other. Really, the odds of one finding the other almost-dead, bleeding out from a stab-wound in an alleyway, are almost non-existent; far more likely is that they walk past to find a corpse they think they recognise, or not walk past at all, or that the self-destructive paths they have each been walking would not lead them both to that alley at that moment at all and they never would have known.
Of course, the other side of that works too; if he had walked down the alley just half an hour earlier, at the time when his former flatmate first staggered his way down it and collapsed on his knees, crying out weakly for help, then the ambulance would perhaps have been in time. It's this side that will haunt him forever, no matter how small the chance was. If he had been just a few minutes earlier…
He's out to do the shopping. He hates it, and it isn't something he does often – at all when he can help it – but sometimes it can't be helped, and he must lug himself down to Tesco before anything else gets done. Food, after all, is not completely avoidable.
As these things happen, he meant to go out earlier. For the last half-hour he's been sitting in his poky, hastily-rented flat and procrastinating. He'll kill himself over that later.
He tries to make the journey worthwhile by getting in a bit of scouting and people-watching on the way, and that takes up more time that he hadn't realised was so precious. All this wasted time he can never recover; of all the minutes he's ever wasted, if he could have recovered these last forty-five, he'd give the rest of his life. But he doesn't know it yet.
He doesn't even glance at the bundle of black clothing on the side of the alleyway shortcut. The alley is notoriously full of junkies and gang hazing rituals, and most people try to avoid it, but he uses it as often as he can, as though daring the world to take a swing at him. See what I've gone through already, he glares at them. Top that, if you can. You don't scare me.
The pile of surprisingly less-than-ragged clothing coughs weakly and murmurs something that sounds like his name; he turns around and glances at it in surprise. For a moment he thinks he imagined it – he hears his name in the strangest of places, and yet he always looks around just in case – and is about to move on. Then he freezes.
Somewhere in the middle of the dark heap, a dark and curly head shudders and lifts. It is – his face ashen as bleached candlewax, even his lips stark white, his tempestuous grey eyes red-rimmed and unhealthy. "John," he murmurs again. "John, help me…"
For another golden moment, he hesitates. Why he does this he's never sure, but he does nonetheless. For a moment that stretches on with the ticking of a clock seeming to echo in its depths, John Watson stands above Sherlock Holmes, bleeding and desperate, and does absolutely nothing. He's angry, of course he is, and resentful and mistrustful and he doesn't know what to do, and he hasn't seen the blood yet so he doesn't know, he still doesn't know how much his hesitating will hurt him.
"Sherlock… I can't… is it really you? I… I thought you were… you let me think…"
Sherlock doesn't respond. John bends down, because he has to touch that face, the face he's been seeing in his dreams for three years, cracked and bloody and broken on the London pavement, and he finally realises.
If this is another dream, it's agony. The consulting detective is unchanged, cracked and bloody and broken on the London pavement. John reaches out to touch him and his hand comes away wet with blood, smearing across his fingers like treacle. Sherlock's voice, when it comes again, is weak as a whisper on the wind.
He starts to panic. "Oh, God – Sherlock – sit up, here…" He pulls and prods Sherlock into a semi-upright position against the wall of somebody's house and leaves a trail of blood that some public servant will tut over later, just another nuisance that somebody didn't care enough to clean. "What happened? Oh, God, it looks like a stab wound… I'll call an ambulance, hang on…"
By the time he gets Sherlock's coat and jacket off and his shirt open to view the wound, gaping and horrible in the detective's stomach, Sherlock's eyes are sliding closed and his breaths are the shallow, frenzied pants of someone who would rather not breathe at all right now, thank you very much. John's a doctor. He knows before he hangs up the 999 call that it's too late.
He's seen this in a million films, the sobbing and the wailing and the begging, because Sherlock can't die, not when John's thought he already was for the last three years. He can't find Sherlock now only to lose him moments later. That wouldn't be fair.
There's none of that this time. John's not up for any Oscars, and so he keeps as much pressure on the wound as he can even though he knows it won't really help, and he looks up at the man he couldn't really live without, and he sighs. "How?" he asks.
Sherlock doesn't seem to know what to say. "Moran," he rasps finally, and his voice is what John always imagined Death would sound like. "Moriarty's right hand – he was the last. I got careless because after I'd…" His voice breaks and tears start to slip down his cheeks. "After I'd killed him I was going to go home. I was going to find you."
It doesn't sink in for a moment. How both of them were so wrapped up in their own grief, loss, hope – their own focus on their life apart, for whatever reason – that they missed out on their life together completely.
John still doesn't cry. "Sherlock, you idiot," he breathes, his fingers trembling on the once-periwinkle shirt now stained the ugly crimson of life-blood. "You colossal dick. Three years I've tried to convince everyone else that you weren't dead. And you… you could have proved them right tonight."
Sherlock laughs, that tiny gasping desperate chuckle that John's heard before, at the other end of a redundant mobile phone whilst staring up at a man on a rooftop. "John," the detective murmurs fondly. "You know it's too late."
He does know, of course he does, he was in Afghanistan, but for some reason this is worse than all the friends he couldn't help in the field, this hurts so much more. He shakes his head. "No," he insists. "No, you can't. Sherlock. Come on. It's not fair."
"It's okay," Sherlock whispers. "I thought I was going to die alone in a crummy back-alley where they'd call me an addict without even checking my blood toxin levels. Now I've got you."
John keeps shaking his head as though there's something lodged in his ear and that's why he's hearing such resignation from the man who had always been adamant he'd never grow old. "No, Sherlock. Please, you can't leave me again."
Sherlock smiles shakily. "I'm sorry, John. I'm really sorry. But they would have killed you if you'd known."
"Why aren't you angry?" John says helplessly. "How are you okay with this? Rage, rage against the dying of the light – you of all people aren't supposed to go gently! Why aren't you angry?"
A deathly, spiderlike hand creeps over John's, clenched tightly against the blood-soaked shirt. Sherlock's still smiling, sad and eerie. It's not enough, and it makes John more angry himself, only there's nobody to be angry at. There's only emptiness. John sighs again. "I'm sorry, Sherlock. I'm so sorry."
"I know," the detective wheezes. "I'm sorry too."
Slowly, reluctantly, John lets his hands fall from Sherlock's chest. It seems like an admission of defeat, and really that's what it is. Sherlock's gentle stream of tears catch in his throat and turn into harsh, painful sobs. Out of instinct, John pulls him away from the wall of the alley and holds him as close as he can. "I've missed you so much," he whispers. Sherlock reaches up to clutch at his clothing, but his hands don't form fists properly and his fingers slip.
"John," he chokes. "John, John… John, I'm scared." The doctor clutches him yet tighter and presses his chin against the top of those blood-streaked curls, his eyes staring straight forward and not seeing anything.
"Don't be scared," he counters mindlessly, even though he's scared too. He barely lived without Sherlock the first time, and he's rapidly losing enthusiasm for a second attempt. This, this last encounter in a dodgy back-alley, this is as close to catharsis as he'll ever get. This is his last opportunity to say the things he wanted to say before but didn't get the chance – now he's getting it. "I love you, you know," he begins. "I always have. You saved my life." He huffs out a hollow, empty laugh. "I'm glad I got to say that," he admits. "Even though I guess it doesn't matter now. I think that's what hurt the most. I never got to tell you how much you meant to me. I thought you'd died and you never knew."
Sherlock laughs too. "I knew, John," he says. "And it does matter. I love you, too, and it means something that we got to tell each other. You gave me a life. I've never loved anyone but you."
The doctor leans forward and places a kiss on the top of Sherlock's head. His lips come away streaked with drying blood. "I think that's all that matters," the detective admits, his eyelids drooping helplessly. "That we got to say goodbye. I love you, John."
There's nothing John can say, really, except, "Bye, Sherlock. I love you too."
The ghost of a smile flicks across Sherlock's stilling face. "Bye," he breathes slowly. "Goodbye, John…"
Lestrade finds them like this ten minutes later, crouched on the disgusting ground of the alley, John rocking gently on his knees, clutching Sherlock's unmoving body to him, eyes dry and sightless.
"John," he says gently, touching the doctor's cheek. "John, come on. You have to let him go now."
John looks up, and takes a moment before he can focus and recognise the detective inspector. Then he smiles. "Yes," he whispers, looking down at his flatmate. "Yes, I have to let him go."
He watches the ambulance crew bend over the beautiful, inert body; watches the red-headed young woman look up at Lestrade, glance awkwardly at John, and shake her head; watches them lift Sherlock onto a stretcher and gently swing the doors to the ambulance closed.
Then he squares his shoulders and turns away, back to where Lestrade is holding out a shock-blanket and a sympathetic expression and the door to a police car. He doesn't cry.
I have to let him go.
A/N: Well, that… that didn't go as planned. Sorry for the Oscar-worthy Disney-fied catharsis fest. Sorry for the angst. And I think that about covers it - I'd be really happy if you took the time to review. Seriously, I'd do a little happy-dance.