A/N: For my husband.
He looks tired, John thinks, studying his friend from across the antique chessboard.
The thought should shock him. Sherlock never looks tired. He has two primary modes: the flurry of activity that accompanies The Work, and the utter collapse that comes from the exhaustion afterward. Never has John witnessed 'tired' or 'under the weather' or 'weary'. Sherlock does nothing by half.
Yet, for some reason, John makes his silent observation with a sort of sad resignation. He always knew this day might come. Denial is a wonderful sedative, but it has a shelf-life. John is not sure when he stopped telling himself that Sherlock Holmes would live forever.
The years have been kind to Sherlock. His hair, though now completely grey, is still thick and unruly. He wears it short these days, instead of in the carefree curls of his youth. His face is a roadmap of wrinkles and little lines, but the chiseled jaw and cheekbones remain prominent. There is a scar longitudinally dissecting his left eyebrow, and the hair simply refuses to grow over it. His fingers, now gnarled with age, still grasp at the chess pieces with confidence – even if they do tremble ever so slightly.
John has fared well, too. His posture is still arrow-straight despite his needing a cane (and this time his limp is anything but psychosomatic). His short hair is grey and receding, but the exposure of the front of his scalp seems to lengthen his forehead and make him appear wise and scholarly. Laughter lines surround his thin mouth, and crow's feet adorn the outer corners of his blue eyes. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle into sparkling sapphire slits behind the panes of his glasses.
"Checkmate." Sherlock's voice is reedy. He sits back in his chair with a self-satisfied smirk, which lifts the right half of his mouth but not the left.
Huffing a laugh, John shakes his head. "As usual," he concedes.
A voice at the door turns both their heads.
A woman stands in the threshold. She is in her mid-thirties; blond, blue-eyed, with high blushing cheekbones and creamy skin. At the moment, she is very pregnant, but it is clear from the dainty wrists and ankles that she is normally a tall, slender thing. She is wearing a sleeveless spring dress and has her hair pulled back. A wedding ring sparkles on her left hand.
John smiles at the sight of her, beckoning her inside with one arm. "Just in time, Izzy. Your uncle's beaten me again."
Izzy smiles and crosses the sunlit sitting room to place a loving arm round her father's shoulders. "You know," she says slowly, her eyes flicking over the chessboard, "you could go easy on him once or twice, Uncle Sherlock. It couldn't hurt."
Both men laugh heartily, their wheezing chortles punctuated by Izzy's musical chuckle.
After the gales subside, Izzy squeezes John's shoulder. "Ready? Jacob's in the car."
"I'll be right down," John says with a nod, patting his daughter's hand.
She nods and smiles and takes her leave.
Sherlock stands first. "Decided on a name yet?" he asks politely as he walks John to the door.
"No," John says, shaking his head. "Izzy says she needs to meet him first." He throws his hands up as though he doesn't understand it, and leans heavily on his cane as they walk together.
They pause at the door of 221b to shake hands, and John's grasp lingers longer than normal, clinging to Sherlock's slender hand with all the strength in his own. "Listen, Sherlock..."
"Yes?" The grey eyes are as sharp and alert as ever, but there is a tenderness in them that only age can bring. They peer into John with honest curiosity.
"Take care," is what John settles upon eventually, and he reaches out to embrace his friend. Their hands break apart as the two men close their arms round one another, and Sherlock pats John's back.
"And you as well, John."
The call comes late in the evening a few days later. He hears the phone ringing in the kitchen, listens as Izzy picks it up.
"Oh, hi, Kate," she says brightly, and John's heart sinks.
Kate Tyler is Mrs. Hudson's great-niece, who now owns the flats at Baker Street. Formerly, she was a nurse, and frequently finds herself taking care of Sherlock despite her claims that she is 'the landlady, not the nurse'. Some things do not change over the years.
But the fact that she is ringing at this hour – or at all, really – is ominous. John's fingers clutch at the edges of his armchair as he listens to his daughter's footsteps approaching.
"Yes," Izzy is saying, "I'll just get him for you. Hang on."
John takes the phone when it is offered, giving Izzy a smile in the hopes she won't notice his apprehension of taking this call. He waits until she leaves the room before he greets Kate.
They exchange pleasantries briefly, and Kate gets right to the point. It is as John feared. Sherlock has been in hospital again, but this time only for two days. At the end of that stay, they gave him a choice: they could call hospice, or they could discharge him. It was up to him, they said, but he might like for someone to be around to care for him. Sherlock, of course, chose to go home.
"His heart and kidneys are failing, John. He hasn't got long," Kate says softly, her voice full of gentle sympathy.
With a sigh, John nods to himself. "I'll be round in the morning, then. Is there... does he have someone... to..."
"I'll be looking after him," says Kate, plucking the thought from John's mind.
"Thank you," John replies, surprised at the steadiness of his voice. "Thank you, Kate. See you tomorrow, then."
John waits until the line goes dead before he presses the 'end' button on the handset. The phone falls into his lap as he cradles his face in one hand, a dozen thoughts swirling through his brain. He is not upset that Sherlock didn't call himself – he's probably far too tired for such activities, and they stopped informing each other of every single hospital visit a long time ago. But John is already beginning to grieve, faced with the imminent loss of his friend. What happened? he wonders. What happened to my plan of being the first to go? What happened to the both of us going out in a blaze of glory at the end of some great case, defending truth and justice?
Well, life happened, John realises suddenly. It doesn't stop for anyone, not even Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. They both got older. They both got to the point where gallivanting around London solving crimes on an unofficial basis became just too difficult. John married, had children and then grandchildren. Sherlock went on to develop new investigative technology for the military and police forces. Their lives were both great in their own ways, even when they started to branch in slightly different directions.
But that's the difference between him and me, John thinks bitterly. When I die, I will be surrounded by my children and their children. Sherlock doesn't have that. There will be no mourning sons, no weeping daughters, no sweet grandchildren clutching his hand in his final moments. He is alone. Sherlock has no family.
A tear rolls down the wrinkled face of John Watson and he silently corrects himself: No. Not alone. He has me. I'm his family.
221b is as bright and warm as it ever was when John enters its familiar embrace the next morning. Kate lets him in, and offers him a cup of tea that he turns down. He hangs his coat on the rack as though the last thirty-two years never happened and he still lives here.
Sherlock's bedroom is not as disorganised as it once was. The clutter, nowadays, is confined to the dresser and the desk and mostly consists of paperwork for the various patents that Sherlock has acquired over the years – as well as the occasional piece of dissected machinery. He doesn't experiment much anymore, unless it has to do with enhanced night vision goggles.
The room is open to the sunlight pouring in from the west, bathing the end of the bed in a warm glow. John drags his eyes up over the slight frame buried beneath the duvet, and finds Sherlock's head and shoulders exposed, propped up with pillows against the headboard. There is a book in his left hand, but it has fallen limply on top of the bedspread.
"Come in, come in," Sherlock says thinly, flapping a hand at John. "Don't hover in the doorway."
With a wan smile, John does as he's told, crossing past Sherlock's bed to nick the wicker chair out from beneath the desk. He drags it over to the side of his friend's bed and sits heavily, resting his cane against the bedside table. "Well," John begins, as in days gone by, "what have you done to yourself this time?"
Sherlock chuckles. "Got old. No one bothered to inform me, either."
"This is the first I'm hearing of it, myself."
"Truthfully, I never saw it coming," Sherlock admits, and there is something bordering on wistful in his voice. "I always thought..." He trails off, the strength going out of him, and his head falls back against the pillows. He gathers himself and continues, "I always thought I would die at the hands of some grand enemy. Or in a firefight. Chasing down a suspect. Falling into the Thames."
John sighs and leans back a little in his chair. "That makes two of us. Never in a million years did I imagine we would reach old age, either of us."
"Statistically speaking, the odds were against us."
They lapse into a silence that is broken by the birds chirping outside, and the dull rales of Sherlock's laboured breathing. His eyes are on John, but they are glassy and frequently lose their focus. John can see that he is still present, but tired and extremely weak. Kate was absolutely right – there is not much time.
"Do you have any regrets?" John asks out of the blue, surprising even himself.
The question catches Sherlock off-guard, but he does not seem offended or put off by it. He frowns, and his eyes flicker over John's body. "Do you?"
"No," John answers readily, and it is true. Sometimes he wishes that his friendship with Sherlock had not been reduced to once-a-week visits in their senescence, but he does not regret the decisions that led them there. They both achieved the things they wanted; parting ways somewhat was necessary.
"Nor do I," Sherlock says, and he seems pleased by the realisation. But then his face turns pensive, and he strokes his chin thoughtfully. "Although there is one thing that has always bothered me."
"The Pembleton case. The one with the gold earring. Was it – Thompson?"
"Toulson," John corrects. "I remember. What about it?"
Sherlock's eyes slide closed. "I've had doubts about that case," he admits softly. "Sometimes I wonder if we put away the right man."
"I thought it was an open and shut case?" John's surprise shows through in his voice.
Sherlock shrugs languidly and speaks without opening his eyes. "It's just a feeling I've had... It bothers me more now, though."
"I could look into it for you," John says kindly, certain that it's unnecessary. Never has he known Sherlock to be wrong about the outcome of a case. They've never put away the wrong person.
"Don't trouble yourself, John."
"No, it's no trouble. I'll pop over to NSY this afternoon and have another look through the case file, just to be certain."
"Of course, Sherlock. No problem."
Five hours later, Izzy and Jacob's dining table is covered in paperwork, photographs, and bagged evidence. John's laptop is open on one of the chairs, the archives of his blog displayed on a web page. Izzy's tablet is also propped on a dining chair, this one open to Sherlock's old website. Of course, Sherlock's notes on the case are considerably more cryptic than John's; but truthfully, neither of them are all that helpful.
"What a mess," Izzy sighs, crossing her arms over her chest. "It's a wonder the police ever solved anything back in your day, Dad."
Jacob, standing beside his wife, shakes his head. "This is, what – a forty-year-old case? Forty-five? It's a wonder they still had all this stuff..."
John feels very old. "Probably they just never bothered to clean out all the old lockers," he admits.
"Which is probably why they let you take it all," adds Jacob, with a snicker.
As it turns out, New Scotland Yard kept terrible records during the peak of Sherlock's career. John suspects that this is because Sherlock rarely explained himself in full or in a way that would be understood by the grunts doing the paperwork, which resulted in reports that were incomplete or altogether unfiled. And, of course, nobody ever went back to check because Sherlock was never, ever wrong.
Except this time.
It is close to midnight when John's trembling hands close around the piece of paper that absolves a now-dead criminal of murder. According to this piece of paper – emailed over from Saint Marcus Hospital four hours ago – the suspect was hospitalised at the time of the murder he supposedly committed, as well as the two days before and one day after. What's more – the reason listed on the intake form is attempted suicide. Via overdose. He couldn't have been killing his wife and himself at the same time, could he?
The hospital bracelet the man was wearing when he was apprehended is what turned John in this direction. It had been cut off the suspect when he was arrested, and apparently tossed into an evidence locker and then forgotten about. A quick lookup of the medical records via a friend at St. Marcus quickly proved John's worst fear.
Sherlock Holmes was wrong.
No, John thinks, and he seems unable to think anything else. I can't believe it. So firm is his disbelief that he spends the rest of the night and most of the wee morning hours trying to prove himself wrong.
Come morning, John's disbelief has melted into dismay. They were wrong about this one. The evidence of such is staring right at him, and though denial still tugs at his shirtsleeves, he's left with no other options in the face of the suspect's alibi. It must have come up in court, John thinks, incredulous. Wouldn't the medical records have been referenced as evidence? Wouldn't the hospital stay be his main defence? His memory does not serve him well in this regard – he has very little personal recollections of the case specifics.
The question he is now faced with is heavy and frightening. How do I tell Sherlock?
The clock strikes six, and John hears the monotone bleat of an alarm clock from upstairs. The sound rouses him from his dumbfounded trance, and he shakes his head to clear it. I can't tell him. I won't tell him. John hates lying, especially to Sherlock, but he cannot let him leave this world knowing that he failed, and that a man died in prison because of his failure. He resolves not to tell him at all, and in fact to put it out of his mind. There is no help for it, anyway – the man is dead, and whomever killed his wife is probably also very much beyond the reach of this world.
And I am too old to be chasing criminals across London, John adds silently.
There is a cannula in the back of Sherlock's hand, and an IV rack beside his bed. John can see the label on the bag hanging from the rack and knows that hospice must have come after all, to administer what palliative care they could offer. The IV line is disconnected now and has been for some time, but the drugs are still doing their job and doing it well; Sherlock is sound asleep in his bed, propped up by a mound of pillows. John stands at the end of the bed, watching the slow, shallow rise and fall of the thin chest with dread.
He is vaguely aware of Kate touching his shoulder. "You okay?" she asks kindly, staring up at John with sad brown eyes.
John sighs in response. "Has it been bad?" he asks, nodding toward the IV rack. He feels guilty for having not been here last night and the better part of today. It seems so silly now, all that time spent trying to pin down the Pembleton case, when he is now resolved to lie to him about it anyway.
Kate makes a noncommittal gesture and an ambiguous noise in the back of her throat. "On and off," she says at last. She lowers her voice to a near-whisper. "I... I rang hospice this morning... I hope that's... um..."
John realises with a start that Kate is afraid she's offended him by making that call herself, instead of calling John to do it. He shakes his head and places a heavy hand on her shoulder. "That's exactly what you should have done," he states firmly.
"Okay," the landlady-not-nurse says with a relieved sigh. Her shoulders slump a little under John's hand and he realises she is probably exhausted.
"Go home," he says, setting his cane down upon the desk and shedding his jacket. "I've got it from here."
"You sure?" she asks, eyes scanning him dubiously.
John winks and waves her away.
"Okay. I'm just upstairs if you need anything..." Kate glances once more at Sherlock's sleeping form, and bids John goodnight.
The wicker chair whispers across the carpet as John tugs it toward Sherlock's bedside. He lowers himself into it, and observes Sherlock sigh in his sleep, a deep frown marring the pale space between his grey brows. The drugs are wearing off; the pain is returning with slow but steady resolve.
"Not much longer, my friend," John whispers, reaching out to touch one of the frail hands that lay upon the bedspread.
It is early the next morning when John is prying his own eyelids open, aware that he'd fallen asleep in the chair some hours before but uncertain what has woken him. The west-facing window behind him reveals the grey-blue dawn sky, and from somewhere down the street he can hear a car starting. It's still early: the birds aren't even up yet.
As his eyes adjust to the dimness of the room, John realises that Sherlock is awake and looking at him – or at least, he appears to be. Rousing himself more fully, John rubs a hand over his face and leans forward, tentatively reaching out to tap Sherlock's hand. "Hey. You awake?"
"Mm," Sherlock says, and his voice is faint. He blinks slowly at John, his eyes comprehending but only just. John notices that his breaths come short and shallow. He clicks on the bedside lamp and sees that Sherlock's nail beds are blue, in sharp contrast with the sickly pallor that has overtaken the rest of him. His heart is failing.
"Can I get you anything?" John's voice cracks and belies the calm that the rest of him projects.
Sherlock gives that lopsided smile of his. "No," he says in an almost-whisper. His speech is halting, as though it's taking up all his strength. His wrinkled brow contracts as he pours his remaining energy into it. "But did you... look... into... the... Pembleton..."
"Yes," John interrupts. He drags his chair closer and takes Sherlock's hand in both of his own. His eyes sting oddly, and he tries to blink the sensation away. "You were right, Sherlock. You got it right. David Toulson killed his wife."
A smile flickers over Sherlock's worn face, and his fingers twitch in John's hand. "Ah. You found... the bullet casing... then." His eyes lose focus for a moment, then come back slowly. "Knew... you would... Had faith in you... John."
"Bullet casing," John repeats, lost. His friend must be incoherent. Is he in pain? "Sherlock – "
"Cleverer... than... you give yourself... credit for..." Sherlock interrupts, barreling through John's attempts at speech. "Cleverer than... I gave..." He stops, suddenly looking through John instead of at him.
John feels his own heart stop. He squeezes the hand he holds more tightly and recognises the cold tendrils of panic wrapping themselves around his lower spine. "Sherlock?"
After a shuddering breath, Sherlock picks up the thread again, determined to finish. "Wanted you to see," he says, whispering now. "Wanted you to see... for yourself..."
"Sherlock, I don't understand."
"The... casing... John. Do... try... to keep up..." He tries to smile, but it looks more like a macabre grimace, worthy of a Halloween costume, and it makes John sick to his stomach.
"Okay, Sherlock," he says, his voice quivering. "Okay." He feels he should say something profound. But what? I love you? I'll miss you? These things are obvious. Suddenly John aches for Mary. She would have known what to say. She would be here, across from him, holding Sherlock's other hand and whispering sweetly, some comforting story from their younger days. But she's long gone, and so is anyone else who could help in this situation, and so John just sits there and occasionally issues soft, soothing noises until his friend's eyes gloss over and slide shut.
It happens quietly. Sherlock lapses into half-consciousness as the oxygen in his brain expires. His breaths slow and lose their rhythm, his pulse fades and then freezes. John glances at the clock out of habit as his fingers press into the curve of Sherlock's wrist. 05:19, it reads in large white characters. He says it in his head to solidify the idea. Sherlock died at 05:19 in the morning on Tuesday, August 14th.
A week later, John is stuck with the task of figuring out what to do with all of Sherlock's things. Even in old age, he was a hoarder of an eclectic assortment of items. Most of it will end up donated to charity – the useful bits, anyway. The skull on the mantelpiece will probably go with John back to Izzy and Jacob's. The books will go to the London Library, except the ones that Sherlock wrote – those will probably go back with John, too. The microscope and other scientific equipment will go to a school, as requested in Sherlock's will.
The closet still smells like his expensive shampoo. John is taken back decades as he opens the folding doors. It's hard to remember those days, now. Living here, together, without a thought of death to hound them. At least, back then, it didn't seem so daunting. Rather it was a faraway notion, something that they only dealt with at crime scenes, and never applied to themselves.
Young and reckless.
The shelf above the clothing rack is full of boxes. John pulls a few down and realises that they are case notes. Since when does Sherlock take notes? he wonders, somewhat amused but ultimately perplexed by the idea. He opens a box and rifles through some of the contents – there's evidence in some of them (Highly illegal, thinks John), but for the most part they're just full of scrap paper that's been scribbled on in almost indecipherable code.
John allows himself to reminisce as he flicks through some of their old cases.
Pembleton comes back to him suddenly about an hour later, and his casual reminiscent wanderings abruptly become a frantic search. By the time he comes across the folder marked 'Pembleton,' it has been three hours and Sherlock's bedroom floor is a mess of poorly organised case files. John is breathless as he lifts out the file and opens it on the bed. His heart slams against his ribcage in an effort to escape its confines, and he takes a few deep breaths. It's irrelevant, he reminds himself. This is just to satisfy my curiosity. Probably nothing in this file makes sense anyway, just like most of the others.
He's partly right. Most of the paperwork consists of insane-looking chicken scratch. There are a few photographs – of the body, of the suspect, of the murder weapon, of a few inane-looking pieces of evidence. There are a couple zip-top plastic bags in with the papers, too, though, and John picks them out.
One in particular catches his eye.
A bullet casing, accompanied by a folded-up piece of paper. Or several pieces of paper, more accurately. Gingerly, John unzips the bag and pulls out the paper, careful not to touch the casing. This is more out of habit than anything else – surely the evidence from such an old case is no longer relevant or in danger of contamination.
One of the papers is a printout of a fingerprint analysis. The other is scrap, with Sherlock's spidery handwriting on it: Samuel Weyland, it says. Then, below that: Saint Marcus Hospital. Then, after something else that is scratched out, Fraud.
"What?" John asks aloud, as though Sherlock might answer from beyond the grave. He does, but only in John's head: Find out about Samuel Weyland.
With a sigh, John goes to the computer on the nearby desk and flicks the power switch. He is slightly bitter that he is following Sherlock's posthumous commands, but his curiosity – no, his need to know more – is largely driving him now. He pulls the wicker chair close to the desk and sets his cane aside, settling in for another long afternoon of research.
It is well past tea-time when John finally puts together what Sherlock probably figured out in a couple of hours, all those years ago. An investigation into the background of Samuel Weyland shows that he was a friend of Toulson's, who worked at the hospital where the suspect was admitted for drug overdose. Except that Toulson wasn't really admitted, and Weyland forged the paperwork as well as the records stating such. The plan, according to Sherlock's notes, had been to use the hospital stay as an alibi so that Toulson could kill his wife, and then split the insurance money with Weyland. They had it all worked out, and – according to Sherlock's case file – had even purchased train tickets to make their getaway afterward.
And the bullet casing? Toulson's fingerprints were on it. It was found in a mouse-hole at the house where Toulson shot his wife: a place none of the so-called idiots (Sherlock's words) at New Scotland Yard would have thought to look.
John stares in disbelief at the empty bed as though his friend were still lying in it, giving him that smug half-smirk and saying, "You found the bullet casing, then. Knew you would. I had faith in you, John. You're cleverer than you give yourself credit for. Cleverer than I ever gave you credit for. I just wanted you to see. Wanted you to see for yourself."
"Okay, Sherlock," John says to the empty room, eyes brimming despite his attempts to blink away the tears. He shakes his head and laughs without knowing why. "Okay."