"Again, Sherlock. You did this to me again. I could understand it when we weren't...you know, together - no, shut your mouth, I mean't together together but now? After everything that's happened?"
He's glaring at me, his arms are folded and his face is crimson; he's shouting like the tiny, furious dictator that he is and I want to kiss all that rage out of him.
"Are you even listening to me, Sherlock?"
I am. I'll do whatever you want. You say jump-
"Because this is your final chance. In case you haven't noticed, the last two times you've decided to play the amazing fucking lone wolf hero one or other of us has ended up fake dead or almost dead. What does that tell you? Hm? Don't be so fucking fatuous, of course we're not going to live forever but I'd like to see my 45th birthday, if you don't mind. With you if possible."
Sherlock blinks and the vision dissipates, bringing with it a hollow chill. Molly stands in the doorway wringing her hands, eyes red, her white coat dishevelled. He shoves down an irrational burst of fury at the coffee stains on her lapel, her scuffed shoes, most of all at her eagerness.
"Not yet. Go away."
He turns his back on her, ignoring the stifled sob and the sound of hurriedly retreating footsteps and leans forward, hands gripping the end of the bed.
It's strange what perspective does to a body. On the surface John is as he was - the same size, the same shape - but in this tall, sterile room, swathed in white, he looks doll sized and fragile without all that bluster and energy. It occurs to him that this is a similar situation to the one before, when he was still a fugitive. When he couldn't resist breaking into that stale ward only to find a stranger waiting for him. Similar in all respects except one.
It's to be expected really. In their line of work, with their combined impulsive, impetuous, competitive natures neither of them were looking forward to reaching retirement age. Not when they were running headlong into danger at every opportunity, grinning at each other as brightly and fiercely as igniting flares as they did so. Sherlock smiles faintly at the memory. They were never destined to fade away quietly.
He looks down in surprise at the first splash of warmth on his hand.
There's a time and a place for sentimentality, Sherlock. Mycroft's voice cool and disapproving in the silence of his head. Is this one of them? (You look sad when you think he can't see you). He can loosen the collar of reserve in the quiet places where he can't see. In the white rooms, the hospital labs, a freezing rooftop. He recalls the grieving family in the morgue, asking his brother whether he thought there was something wrong with the both of them.
The fact you even have to ask the question makes you all sorts of wrong. John's voice, exasperated and fond.
His hand is cold, pale, even against the white of the sheet. Sherlock traces his fingers, curls his own into the palm of John's hand and decides that he hates hospitals, the starkness, the sterility, but most of all the impersonality. Ironic that he used to admire such detachment. But here death is commonplace; a natural process you can sluice off your hands before moving on to the next fading life, nothing at all like the apocalypse unfolding inside him. Sherlock removes his coat and covers John's body, tucking the chilly limb underneath thick wool, smoothing it over him carefully. There's nothing natural about this, this absence of John. His fingers twist at a button.
Anger. One of the seven stages of grief. A children's book on how to feel. Denial, pain, bargaining, depression. Finally acceptance and hope - a reward for following the plan, for good bereavement behaviour.
Grief is such a small word, utterly inadequate. There's a monster inside him, dark feathers brushing the underside of his skin, quills pricking at his eyelids, and no amount of stages or labels or empty platitudes will placate it. Small wonder that the human mind finds it difficult to comprehend any death toll above twenty when one is so-
Not yet. Not ready yet.
John's absence tears a hole in the world into which all the warmth and light flow after. Easter egg he thinks, turning the metaphor over in his mind. John liked his metaphors, a secret language of their own. (So how's the engine running today, Sherlock?) He fingers his jacket, plucks at his shirt restlessly. Just a painted veneer with the centre sucked away. Nothing left but the shell. Brittle and hollow and lifeless. And laughably unaware of it until now, filling those empty spaces with puzzles and drugs and ego.
The door eases open with a warm rush of air from the corridor outside and Sherlock stiffens, a dismissal bitter on his tongue until the single tap of an umbrella stills it. Mycroft makes a soft noise of reproval, moving soundlessly on the tile of the floor to stand next to him and the dart of irritation the familiar sound elicits is as soothing as ever. The pinstripes and the patrician face, the faint air of disapproval and the stupid fob watch drain some of the stiffness from Sherlock's spine. Mycroft inclines his head at him, a brisk dip of his chin, and it's the shadow of a hand on his shoulder.
"What are you doing here?"
"What do you think I'm doing here, Sherlock?" sighs Mycroft with the air of the perpetually misunderstood. Several responses flit through Sherlock's mind before he decides he's simply too tired to bother and settles on an answering scowl instead.
"I'm sorry it came to this."
"It was always going to come to this," snaps Sherlock. "You were right."
"Oh yes? About what?" replies Mycroft mildly.
"'Caring is not an advantage', you said. So congratulations, you can now say 'I told you so' with incontrovertible proof behind you."
"I sent him away for his own good and the idiot came back-"
"Working alone doesn't suit you, Sherlock. It makes you reckless. I would have thought recent events would have taught you that by now."
"It's essential for the process. When people are around me they muddy the facts. I would have picked up on Moran's influence earlier if I hadn't-" he shakes his head abruptly.
"If you hadn't been intent on 'finding' John?" Mycroft raises one shoulder incrementally. "You shouldn't doubt your observations, Moran was very thorough."
"Not the point."
"No, it isn't. So what is?"
"If I remove myself from John completely, isolate myself, it'd be safer for him. In the long run."
"You're talking about cutting yourself off again because you believe friends make you vulnerable when really it's because matters were beyond your control. Because you've had a bit of a scare." replies Mycroft, an unsaid you idiot in the quick draw of his breath.
"Lack of personal relationships works well enough for you though, doesn't it? Iceman."
"You are not me, Sherlock," says Mycroft flatly, in a tone that brooks no argument, "and if I were you I'd stop aspiring to be."
"You will destroy everything."
Sherlock angles his head to look at him, caught by the unexpectedly vehement note in the cool voice. Mycroft's expression is unchanged, all poise and expensive tailoring, hands folded neatly over his umbrella. If he squints he can almost see beyond the bureaucrat, the manipulator, past the layers of condescension, cold logic and objectivity to the brother he grew up with. A flash of...something brittle in Mycroft's eyes when he meets his - fatigue, perhaps. Regret. Then he blinks slowly, smiles the bland little smile Sherlock always wants to claw off his face, and checks his watch, dropping it back into his waistcoat pocket with an exaggerated pat.
"He won't always come back, Sherlock." Out of the corner of his eye Mycroft watches his brother open his mouth and then shut it again, knuckles white against the chrome of the bed. "Not if you keep pushing him away."
"A moot point, don't you think?"
"He's in a coma, Sherlock, he's not dead-"
"Might as well be."
They contemplate John for a little while, twin studies in silence, until Mycroft inclines his head and rubs thoughtfully at the handle of his umbrella.
"Do you really think you should have turned the machine off?"
"The noise was irritating."
"You mean the noise reassuring us all that John is still possessed of a heartbeat?"
"Irritating," repeats Sherlock, mulishly, not bothering to add that every time the electronic blip slowed even fractionally he'd felt his stomach trying to crawl out of his throat.
"I'd say go and get some rest but I'm aware of the futility of that particular suggestion. At the very least sit down - I'll have some appropriate furniture brought in," Mycroft's umbrella taps once, decisively, on the floor as he turns to leave, sparing John one last proprietary glance.
"Comas are a funny thing," he muses. "I'm afraid for now there's nothing to do but wait, hm?"
Nothing to do but wait.
Once a torture of the cruelest kind, the waiting, tinged as it is with dread and a dull resignation is almost pleasurable in that he and John are alone left together for long periods of time.
Talk to him they say. Hearing is the last thing to go.
Talking aloud used to come so easily, talking at John even more so. Doing it now would be to give in to that fear that this may be his last chance to say all the things he should have said long before now.
Instead Sherlock curls into the ridiculously overstuffed armchair and withdraws. It's not exactly a retreat into his mind palace, more a stroll in the grounds, barefoot and chilled. He's dimly aware of the ebb and flow of people around him, the powder-perfume smell of Mrs Hudson as she presses a kiss to his cheek, the sun picking out the silver in Lestrade's hair when he pushes a coffee into his hand but mostly he's aware of the play of the light on John's face, the way it brightens and dims and absents itself finally over and over.
For once there's enough to occupy his mind, everyday mysteries yielding small victories - the complicated smell on his clothes which tells him they have been laundered by Mrs Hudson, for example, the shallow indents in the shower wall from four, no, five separate direct blows from a fist when Lestrade finally manages to force him into the relatives' bathroom; he wonders about the others until a soft tap on the door has him stumbling out, shivering, from underneath the now freezing spray.
He hurries back, hair dampening his collar but John is as he left him; his chest rises and falls, the machine, often manhandled into silence, for the moment bleeps in staggered counterpoint. The bandages are gone leaving John an even smaller figure without their bracing bulk. The right side of his head was shaved close, hair now beginning to grow out, the grey even more prominent than before. As head injuries go it was glancing; a great gouge of a wound and a depressed fracture. Then cerebral oedema too rapid to settle medically - the phrase 'brain like a sieve' horribly apt after all the burr holes needed to stabilise him - descending like an angry fist, squeezing John into unconsciousness.
He might wake up tomorrow, he might wake up next month. Next year. Never. Sherlock bends over him, watches his breath ruffle the grey blond hair and waits for John to swat him away. Maybe having found respite from the irritation that Sherlock so casually causes him he has decided to stay asleep, cradled quietly within warm flesh.
"Wake up, John," he murmurs, and closes his eyes.
Three days later, John opens his. They wander the room briefly, eventually settling on Sherlock, and then drift closed again. Sherlock is on his feet and hitting the emergency button before he's even completed his next breath but by the time a team of medical staff arrive John's back under again and showing no sign of having stirred. Sherlock grits his teeth and ignores the sympathetic glances, turns his back on all of them.
The next time Sherlock registers that something in the room is different, he's sprawled awkwardly in the armchair tuning out the low buzz of conversation behind him as Mycroft and Lestrade, the latter having provided some terrible canteen sandwiches, discuss some obscure policing need in a county consisting mostly of farmyard animals. Sherlock raises a hand and they fall silent as John follows the movement, head shifting on the pillow.
"John?" says Sherlock carefully, approaching the bed as if any sudden movement will spook him back into a comatose state. John hums in discomfort, squeezing his eyes shut before forcing them open again. "How are you feeling?"
"I-" An expression of confusion crosses his face and he licks his lips. He peers up at Sherlock, gaze becoming flinty with suspicion. "Fine, thank you," he says eventually. "How are you?"
Sherlock takes a step back, feeling the blood drain from his face and the room tilt around him as his heart gives a great lurch in his chest. He fights the crazy urge to laugh at it all, the terrible irony of fate pressing the reset button on him once more.
Can't. Not again. Not this stranger again.
He draws his coat around him, mindful of the two figures straightening in alarm across the room and schools his expression. Easier to leave now, leave John here to rebuild an uncomplicated life, a life free from risk and revelation and him-
His gaze snaps to John's face, now creased in familiar concern.
"Oh, Sherlock," he breathes, face clearing. "You thought-"
Sherlock eyes him, barely daring to breathe.
"No, it's me, Sherlock. Please, I'm sorry. I'm unbelievably angry at you, I was gearing up for a good yell - Jesus, you look awful. Ow. Fuck. I can't move - Sherlock, come here. Please?"
He takes a step on wobbly legs. Another. John's face finally comes into focus before he falls to his knees by the bed and takes a great shuddering breath in.
"Sherlock, don't you ever-"
"I mean it."
"Never. Never, John. Never, never, never-" He buries his face in John's warm stomach and murmurs into the rumpled sheets. Dimly behind him there's the sound of frantic coughing coupled with sympathetic back patting.
"Please tell me Lestrade ruined that awful shirt," he mutters eventually, rubbing his cheek against skin to meet red rimmed eyes.
"Every cloud." Johns laughs shakily. "Although I think Mycroft's just handed over enough cash for him to buy ten more," he smiles, plucking gently at the soft dark hair at his nape. His expression turns into one of mild alarm as Sherlock surges up the bed in response, draping his long body half on top of him and burying his face into the space between neck and shoulder. After shooting a warning glance to the gleeful audience at the back of the room, John loops an arm around him, dropping a kiss onto his forehead.
"You should sleep," he murmurs, lips warm against his hairline. "I'm not going anywhere."
Sherlock knows better than to ask him to promise. For men like them uncertainty is the only certainty, so he simply tips his head back, the fading slant of the afternoon sun warm on his face, and catches John's mouth with his own.
"Good," he says quietly and smiles up at him. "That's good."
A/N: So we reach the end. A thousand splendid thanks to my beta Lyrium Flower who is simply the finest ever - talented, witty, articulate and most of all filthy as all get out. She deserves worship and hyperbole and lots of it.
Also warm, sticky waves of love in the direction of TSylvestrisA, my partner in smut, and Mirith Griffin whose support has been both squeeworthy and invaluable. In no particular order much thanks to meredithriddle, patronusrose, starcrossedstanzas, sherlocksphone, elfenwesen, burnedlittlefingers, qualyn, wordswhatareinmybrain, digi-smile, saga svanhildr, zizou, twinkel13, silentshadow2828, sv, tardisinthesgc, S b, Lusca Luna, iluvdestijl, smiles2go, Lagriega, AnakinSparta, mildetryth, kerri03nwc, thebookworm214, Just Miki, Sintemal, MojoFlower, , RosesAreForever23, nebbyJen, annikakt, SweetChi, Neoteekay, wrytingtyme, IamSHERlocked4ever, SeverusPotterSnape, Steanne, Cakebook, bamf1010, Coragyps, Nevertrustaprussian, neens3, bouncinggoldfish, Jess, MustacheBuddiesXD, DezP, radekris, fizzwizz15, bbybyrd, aindarayshin, odst-survivor, Adah.S, ohmythat'shot, ayearafterklaineoccurred, Angelblaze2007, estefani1509, percipieri, lamia-amo, Zzeer0, getoffmysheet, CeeCeeEss, Iriomote Yamaneko Nokomis, mayah20, The Feather Duster, thebondgirl, Doni, mylia11, Hellhounds and all you lovely Guests for your support and encouragement. Thank you so much for reading - SG x