Author's Notes - Oh god, it's been ages since you've seen me. I'm tempted to hide under my rock again in shame, but that's enough of that. Few things: summer's here, so that means more writing! Yay! Thus, more TSST. I can't apologize enough for leaving you all with another damn WIP, especially one that was supposed to be finished by March, but I hope you're looking forward to more because it's definitely coming - and this time, that's a promise. But in the meantime, some little fics for you that I've had stewing for ages and really just need to go somewhere. Therefore, interwebs. Enjoy! This one is Wholock if you squint, sort of borrowing concepts from The Girl Who Waited, but the one explicit reference is so miniscule that I've decided to call this piece more "timey wimey" than an outright fusion. Make of it what you will ;)
When Sherlock arrives at 221b, he is immediately certain of two things. The first is that the person moving around in the flat upstairs is undeniably John.
The second is that this is impossible.
Sherlock's eyebrows draw themselves down over his eyes. He listens harder. He never guesses, doesn't usually make mistakes, but this, this is... One step, two; shuffle towards the sink; faucet pulled upwards slightly and turned one hundred and eighty degrees exactly; five seconds as the water runs; water stops. Shuffle back - one step, two.
He knows it; it is. Sherlock doesn't have to live with a person to discern and categorize their gait, of all things. But this is John, whom he has in fact lived with, and for quite a while at that. Sherlock knows everything from the rhythm of his breathing to his typical resting heart rate. Footsteps, even through several feet of air and wooden floor and ceiling, are not difficult to read. But that doesn't change the fact that, for all his deductions, it cannot be.
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Something he'd said to John once, a long while ago, rings back from the past and resonates in his ears.
He stares at the closed door to the flat above for a long, long time. Then he pockets his keys, slowly, methodically, and unbuttons his coat. Unravels his scarf. Both are placed carefully over his arm, the muffled jangle from under the cotton the only sound in the empty hallway, other than the footsteps from above, and the first one Sherlock makes toward the steps.
In the time it takes to travel from the first to the fourteenth step (a well-tailored average of half a second at a run; bordering on four at his current slow tread, slow, slow, everything so slow because John is...what, is what exactly, what, what...), his mind - that efficient, assembly-line process of his firing neurons, ready to organize and examine with ruthless intensity every item until it is deemed relevant or discarded, all in milliseconds if it must - is still. The eerie ash and fog of shock, that clouds his vision and dulls his senses. He should be ready to - to react, to meet whatever (whoever) waits for him here, but all of his focus is invested in how unnaturally loud the blood in his veins sounds in his ears.
He remembers John standing by this door, only hours before. He remembers his hard eyes. His back, as it turned on him, and he walked down those same steps and vanished into the busy city streets.
He realizes, dully, that he is standing with one hand on the doorknob. His feet shift beneath him, and the step creaks.
Throwing the door open, he marches into the kitchen, but stops short in surprise.
There is an old man hunched before the stove.
No, not just a man... he thinks, narrowing his eyes, and suddenly with a crack his brain is back at work, squeezing out all the information the tiny room with its dusty windows and odd guest is able to offer; absorbing it with all the desperation afforded him by the strange realizations that are streaking in flashes of lightning across the backs of his eyelids.
Beginning spinal shift; exacerbated injury of some sort. Several stress fractures, healing, right wrist. Objects observed more closely; myopic? Ratty cardigan, two-days best, but old. Slight limp.
When he surfaces only seconds later, the man has stopped and turned towards him, watching with vague interest and...something else, something deeper... His gnarled fingers curl at his side, though they flare out briefly towards a cane leaning against the counter before deciding against it. Silver-blonde hair, thinning, rests over a face wrinkled with lines carved by too many years of laughter, though now they're creased with a strange - strangely familiar - concern. A sadness, mirrored in dark, hazel-blue eyes that are just as sharp as they have always been.
"Kettle's just boiled," he says at last, and the voice is raspy, but unmistakable. He coughs once, to clear it, reaching with strong fingers to switch the knob off. Sherlock notes vaguely that those fingers do not shake. Also, that the man seems to know this room; know it without looking. "Sit down," the voice cuts in again, muffled as it turns back to the tea.
Sherlock is not surprised at the order. He would be, in all honesty, surprised if anything were able to shock him at this point. Stepping forward fully into the kitchen, he sinks awkwardly into a chair, though he keeps wary eyes trained on the figure that busies itself with measuring out the leaves. Typical fastidious, well-practiced routine. Same deft sleight of hand; easy self-assurance in the process and reassurance by it. Everything, at its core at least, the same.
He snaps his mouth shut when his voice dies in his throat. He watches for a few seconds longer, an high, crystal ringing accompanying the strange silence in his head. But keeping his eyes focused on the walking enigma before him, he finally summons the words.
"You're John," he announces, before the silence can get any more oppressive than it already is. Sherlock pauses, frowns, feeling the urge to wet suddenly desert-dry lips. "But not my John."
The man's head turns toward him fractionally, and Sherlock watches in fascination as the man - John - quirks his lips into a well-remembered smile. "No. But I was."
Sherlock considers this. Something clicks. A shiver is suppressed from thrilling along his spine, simply at the newness of it. Novel. Still smiling, seemingly oblivious to the disbelieving fixation of the man opposite, John - future John? - shuffles over to the table and sets a mug in front of him, keeping the other cupped in his hands as he slides into his own chair and inhales from the wafting steam. The grin goes even dreamier as he closes his eyes in bliss. But after a few more minutes of silence, one of those eyes cracks open to take in Sherlock's skeptical gaze, and a sigh slips out. "I haven't drugged it," he reasons, before huddling back around his tea.
Sherlock scoffs at the notion that this, of all things, would be a problem for him, but his hands reach across the table and slide the mug towards his chest nonetheless. The reflection within is peering up at him from the surface, watery and dark. His eyes slide back to John. Back to the reflection. Back again.
He straightens, but a hand remains, tracing the chips and grooves in its porcelain lip. It feels real, but he's not sure what value that conviction has anymore. "Would you care," he begins, for one of the few moments in his life feeling hideously uncertain, "to explain?"
The curve is set on his lips again. Sherlock cannot tell whether it is appropriate to feel disconcerted or smile back. He settles on the safety offered by neutrality, keeping his expression carefully blank, even as John begins to laugh. Laugh, and laugh, and laugh, until it turns wheezing at the end and Sherlock can't help his own concern as it creases the skin between his eyebrows. But John is waving him off, wiping under his eyes and still bloody smiling, as if the world had become one of his great private jokes that always remained such a mystery to Sherlock.
"What?" he finally snaps, voice cracking through John's like a gunshot. "It's not often I'm kept unawares, I would be much obliged if that record was not broken with two instances in a single day."
The low rumble of his tones finally causes John's outburst to subside. "Right, sorry, sorry," he begins, but another wave of giggles overtakes him. Sherlock's eyes narrow. He is beginning to reassess his initial conclusions about this man. John is never so rude, that's usually left to him. Mischievous blues turn to his own, and Sherlock quickly looks elsewhere. No, then. Still much too similar.
But this odd John does at last heave a sigh and, sobered, face him. "I really am sorry," he apologizes again, fixing him with those eyes over the rim of his mug as it rises to his lips. Once it rests at home within the ring of steam-water beading on the wood, he releases another breath of air. But this one is accompanied by a slow shake of his head at the table, as if he disapproves of the grain. It remains unphased. John's hand rises to prop up his chin, but he still stares down at the patina on the table, divining god knows what from the pores and pigments. He, too, can't help but stare, as John's thin finger reaches out and traces the curl of one dark groove, swiping towards Sherlock's hand before darting away, just out of reach. "It's not often you w- are, kept in the dark, no. Just found my attempt at The Look to be more fun than I imagined."
Sherlock's fingers twitch, skin itching, and he tucks them hastily back around the handle of his mug. "It doesn't work on your face," he sniffs.
"No? Don't have the cheekbones for it?"
It has Sherlock focused on his face again; the hollows that circle the flesh over his ethmoid, cross the maxilla, and shade new paths down sagging skin. "Arrogant sod," John interrupts, fondly now, but he adopts a new sobriety before it can set. "I'm not sure I can explain, actually. There's a lot I can't tell you. I want to," he assures him, "but I'm already messing with things are they are, and more than that would be... er, problematic, for the world order, to put it lightly."
Sherlock cocks his head. "You can trust me."
What happens next is hard to explain. John's skin, already blue with the tracts of veins spreading beneath it, goes a frigid pale, offset by the widening of eyes that have failed to cataract. His grip on the mug - left hand, not shaking, hard as stone - threatens to shatter it. He has possibly stopped breathing. Sherlock is standing in alarm, hips jarring painfully into the table, before even his brain can think; though now it's running double-time through the possibilities - heart attack, stroke, poison, shock, more - and he reaches across the table for his wrist as John gapes soundlessly at him.
"John," he murmurs, and he doesn't know why the word uselessly escapes him now, a plea or a prayer or just to taste it and feel the shape of it against his palate, but it's enough. John's spine seems to snap upwards, and he's breathing again, great gasps of air rattling in and out of his lungs. "Are you alright?" he questions awkwardly after a time, still uncertain of what had transpired. Still uncertain of the faint fluttering under his fingers as it slowly returns to normal, and the one that mimics it in his own chest.
It strikes him then, that he does not know this John. Whether this incident was medical or unusual, it is something that has happened without his knowledge. John's fatigues and ailments all had their own numbers and lists inside his mental catalogue, but this; the marks of age... It all happens without his ability to comprehend, simply because he was not there. This John has a history and a life that he has not - has not yet? - been made privy to. Not enough years, when John has had too many. A new pain flowers just under his sternum, blooming outwards and settling, cold, into his bones.
He releases his grip on John's wrist, certain now it's doing more harm than good, what with the fragile tendons that quiver under even his gentle grasp.
But John seems to have recovered, and is now reaching again for the tea, as a child might for a security blanket. Unbidden, a corner of his mouth twitches upward, and some of the ice abates a bit. A few things he does know, even in the here and now. "Yes," John's voice comes, soft. "Just a... a bit of a shock, that's all. You reminded me..." He trails off, clearing his throat, loud in the quiet. "I'm afraid your tea isn't, though, love."
It's Sherlock's turn to stiffen, though it's not at the mess. John appears unwitting, already attempting to rise from his chair to clean the puddle seeping from the mouth of the cup that had been hastily knocked aside. "No, no, it's fine," Sherlock says slowly, attempting to keep his voice even while it threatens to strangle him in his throat. "I'll get it." John raises fine white eyebrows at his uncharacteristic politeness, but defers nonetheless as Sherlock moves away.
He takes the cloth hanging over the faucet and runs it under the water. His back to John, he begins reasonably over the rushing of water droplets bursting against metal, "So where you come from -" he pauses. "When," he tries again, "something occurred that made it necessary to return to a previous time. You wouldn't just choose to bend the laws of physics mindlessly. Something happened then. Something... cataclysmic." The image of John's face as it paled drifts like smoke across his mind. Shutting the water off, but still standing, he watches the cracks on the wall in front of his face spidering off over peeling plaster. One connecting to another, as roads in some indiscernible map he cannot hope to read.
He shakes himself. A voice in his head is attempting to scold him at all these wild flights of fancy, all this sentiment, but it's muffled, indistinct, as if whispering over a long distance. There's something else, deep, dark, to hold his focus. Something huge. He turns and makes his way back to John, who's resting his head over the arms he has propped on the back of the chair. Quietly, he begins to scrub at the table, watching tea stains bleed into his rag in a brown-red reminiscent of dried blood. Sherlock swallows. When only dampness remains, he risks another look at John. His eyes rise to Sherlock's face, head tilting fractionally, before it drops and a humorless smile stretches his lips thin. "Shit," he murmurs, eyes squeezing shut.
Sherlock's eyebrows rise in question, but John is already speaking, again shaking his head in disbelief. "You know. How can you possibly -"
Now those same brows drop to meet over his eyes. "No, how do you know that I know? You shouldn't be surprised at my knowing, because you certainly know my skills."
Their eyes meet, and as they register the convoluted statement a shared, unexpected laugh echoes in the small space, some of the tension diffusing along with it. Uncertainty and sadness threading their way out from the two parties and settling into their private space. In that moment, it's almost easy to pretend that they are not discussing what they are. But their laughter fades - they both do know.
John's face, that pale as it rushed towards him lying bruised and bloody on the ground after a fall, The Fall, many months and years ago now; John's face just seconds before. Sherlock knows enough to make the connection.
"It's true, then," he says, and the words hang between them as if Sherlock had scrawled them physically into the atmosphere; the hand on the wall with its unshakable truth. He steps closer, tea towel forgotten in a sopping, crumpled mess on the table, peering down at John as if - and, they both know, as is most likely - he is able to read it in his face. John stares up, unflappable, and refuses to look away, even as something is shattering behind his irises. It's all the proof he needs. "I died." These words are strange, stranger than they should be, and he wishes they were something he could look at beneath a microscope. But they're gone into the air before he can observe them as they are.
I died, he tries again in his head. I died.
John's breath hitches. "Yes," he says at last. "Happened just yesterday. My yesterday, anyway." It sounds like physical agony as he forces its way through clenched teeth.
Something bitter, an odd, nauseating mix between thrill and sour epiphany, floods Sherlock's mouth. A taste of his own mortality. He could ask when, could ask how, should want to know... but something stops him.
"Haven't even... haven't even been to the funeral yet," he continues. "Just knew I - that I had to come here and see you."
The eyes that have yet to look away are fracturing in a myriad of emotions, but he is most transfixed by the desperation there, and how deeply it goes. It throws him back, back to this morning as John stood with his coat in his arms and his sweating hand on the cold knob of the door and dared him to face what he could not. Sherlock forces his eyes away, physically moving to the living room and allowing the familiar chaos to soak into his skin. Books, papers, skull on the mantel and blue-orange fans of fire dying with the ashes in the grate - these are the things he knows, and the ones he knows to be true. And his head is still warring with the impossible man in his kitchen, who despite all impossibility was undoubtedly real and as true as every object in this small and empty room.
He doesn't hear John come up behind him, lost in his headspace as he is, but feels it nonetheless; a presence welcome despite the berth of years that separate them. As he turns, it seems like ages, a verifiable timeline with little marks that Sherlock has yet to trace and that John cannot begin to hint at. But, all the same, it's mere centimeters.
A breath. "I get the magnitude of what I'm doing," John says quietly. "Could alter world events. Erase myself, or something. Doesn't change my conviction in this case." Sherlock doesn't know. Not in the slightest. If he's ever studied temporal travel, he's deleted it. But he knows it is big all the same, that someone would cross literal stretches of time to be with him. Unprecedented. New.
"So why are you here?"
For all Sherlock is master of how, and why in the reasons humanity stooped to crime and did what they did, there are some mysteries that he has not yet grasped. He wants to ask John if he ever will. But not this John, who has seen things he cannot imagine and knows ends that he can't foretell; no, his John, soft kind warm brave fierce everything John, who is not here, and will not be. And despite it, there's a flood of questions just begging to burst forth from the dam of his lips and self-control, but he cannot sort through them all in time. 'Why' is the only one that escapes to unfurl like steam, particles restless in their diffusion as they settle everywhere at once, weighted with meaning and heavy in the air, even as the rest of him longs to pry back John's delicate scalp and find answers there for the rest that remain unspoken.
John shifts on his feet. His cane is still resting against the cabinets back in the kitchen, but he doesn't limp as he chooses, instead of answering, to move to the couch. As Sherlock watches, he pats the seat beside him, and with only a brief hesitation makes his way around to sink into the cushions.
His warmth is familiar, his scent something that he's inhaled many, many times before. It is a balm, and even as he feels he should be on alert there is something in him that is relaxing, uncurling from its tense position as he sits beside his friend. Friend, despite the ages. As it has always been, as it always, apparently, will be. It's no small comfort, and Sherlock hides that thought away as John begins speaking, to take out and examine later when he is alone.
John scratches at a patch on his jeans, clumsy fingers pulling at unkempt threads. He stares down, unseeing, while Sherlock watches his face and sees everything. "You are spades more brilliant than most people. I know that. But this is one thing that only time, really... only time can teach you." He glances quickly over to Sherlock with a smile before looking back at the growing hole in the knee of his trousers. "What it's like to know someone for years, and then just have them be gone, it's... it's unimaginable."
It's odd, for them to be talking about him as if he doesn't exist anymore, when he is as breathing and tangible as the man beside him. He wonders if looking at him now, John is seeing ghosts.
"But I could see you again, I knew." He pauses. "Let's just say I once helped another doctor, and when I needed him, he was able to return the favor." It makes no sense. Absolutely none at all, but it doesn't seem as if John is going to elaborate. And he doesn't care about the logistics of what brought John here - just that he is, and he knows that if John was willing to do what few - any? - had ever done, there was an importance to that, impossible not to trust. And what was it John had said, about erasing his own existence? Something in him balks at the thought, and with it he allows the mysteries of the universe - admirable, yes, beautiful in their mystery, even, but irrelevant - to slip quietly past.
"I haven't got much time, though," he sighs, turning a sad smile in his direction. His eyes drop over the planes of Sherlock's face for a long moment, Sherlock is still under his careful, meticulous study, his breathing quiet, even as it is the only sound passed between them.
"Time," he wonders aloud, hardly daring to stir further, "for what?"
The amount of questions he has postulated in the last hour are ridiculous, should be unnerving and irritating, but to be the one on this end is rare, rarer still for it to be John who has caught him so uncertain. To be the one under the microscope. Now John is probing into his tender brain, getting in deep. But John's interest is not that of the cool, calculated scientist, far removed from the specimen. No, with each shift of his eyes something new appears behind them, miasmas of color and feeling that are entirely too subjective for any careful reasoning. His fingers may go deep, but they leave their prints - their very identity - behind, where it is unable to be deleted. Sherlock cannot bring himself to stop the study, even when it is so tainted by humanity. Maybe this is, really, the purpose of John's experiment. Not an experiment at all - a memory. A memory that feels like the end.
John's eyes, for all that they are clear, seem his age when they rest at the level of his own. Blue and deep and sad. "You're so young," he says, and it's incredulous. "You're so young and you have no idea about all the things you're going to face." Sherlock should be affronted; almost is. But there are levels here that he is still not understanding, and it only encourages him to peer more deeply, more desperately into a face that does just the same. "And I... I'm old." He gives a little laugh and a shrug of shoulders that are more bone and less muscle than those of the John in his own time. "So I'm asking you to trust the wisdom of age, here, alright?"
"Age is not the most telling factor of intelligence," he says, regarding him steadily. People who were idiots in youth were likely to remain idiots into adulthood. Application, not age, changed the mind. "But," he reasons nonetheless, "I do trust you." John, in all his forms, was as reliable as his coat or scarf, more so considering he had a mind of his own and still, every time, would undoubtedly choose him as no one else had.
"Trust," John murmurs. "Funny thing." His exhale sounds pained, but before Sherlock can inquire after it, he's reaching for his mug, wetting his lips with tea before turning to face him head on. "If I'm correct, this morning you and I had an argument of sorts." He takes Sherlock's stony silence for confirmation and hurries on. "I know that right about now I'm regretting a few things that I said. Still fuming, don't doubt it; you're a right git when you want to be, Sherlock. But I don't know if I'll - no, I don't. I know I don't have the courage to tell you I was wrong, so I'm telling you now."
"You? Not brave?" He laughs without humor. "Bravery is what you are, wrapped in jumpers and doused in tea." The bile rises on his tongue but he swallows, willing the thoughts of the morning that sing through his memory into silence, and he stands abruptly. "Brave, and kind until you aren't," he adds softly, speaking to the room.
There's an awkward, unexpected lull when it does not answer back. He can hear John shift behind him, then, "Sherlock -"
In a swift move he is across the floor and away from the old man on his sofa. "No," he growls, meeting his own eyes in the mirror. They are the grey of the coat of paint Mummy ordered for the front porch during the summer of his fourteenth year. "To match the sky of our old country home," she'd said, as he ran his hands over the palate of sea-glass and iron and slate in her paint-book and thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. It ended up more steel than they'd wanted, but it decorated the summer manor anyway, right up until the day that Mummy... Well. Sometimes things as they seemed were not always how things ended up in reality.
"Everyone talks of this, of us, as if it's easy," he starts haltingly. "But it is not kind to assume that any of this comes naturally. I've never...I'm not!-" he halts completely, scrubbing a hand under his nose. "I can't. Bravery is all well and good, 'Take a chance, Sherlock!' but my mind is far too able to stoop to it."
Sherlock turns a half circle, breath falling much more heavily from his snarling lips than before, and sees John's own lips pursed in concern. Catches his anxious hand clenching and unclenching at his side, and hates it. Hates that look, and that man, and for an instant he hates himself as well - for not being able to see that all those broken roads, all those little keystones and salient points that he should have caught along the way, inevitably led here, and for being too weak to stop it. His eyes slam shut.
White skin, sweat-slicked and quivering under his hands, leaping and jumping as tanned fingers danced across it and played like Sherlock might play his violin. An expert, a craftsman; the greats who were one with their instruments. Supple length of his spine arching taut as strings while open, tongue-soothed kisses were mouthed against the curve of his hips, the nick of canines over the stretched fragility of bone that left mottled purple and green abrasions behind; the matching marks of thumbs that pressed, mashed, drove in and held his shuddering body through its acceptance of all John gave in the rough rolls of skin and the words - the word - he breathed hot against his own skin, inside his own; John in his head and written on his very bones as Sherlock warred with quaking pleasure and the brutal beating of a heart that warned him against this with every leap against his ribs, with every cry choked into warm and pliant, reassuring, lips. And then white, white, white, someone singing or sobbing; his mouth opened wide and his body contorting, uncontrollable as a tempest as it shook and snapped and shattered in the agony of ecstasy.
And the fear, doubt, feardoubtfeardoubt Sherlock's fear and doubt; so intense that in the morning it had crackled around them like the presence of nuclear warheads, and it only needed the sparks of John's own uncertainty to set them alight.
John, standing in the wreckage and prepared to stay or go. John, coat over his arm and hand on the doorknob and a question in his thunderous, hurt eyes that Sherlock couldn't answer.
"You are a coward."
Jarred from memory, Sherlock sharply raises his head. "Sorry?"
John's eyes are hard as he stares back. "You're a coward. I'm not going to dispute that claim," he bites out, but his face goes regretful as the words leave his lips. "But I am, too. For leaving."
Silence. Then, "Two cowards," Sherlock huffs. "Not the best..." He waves his hand feebly, as if to conjure the words from the air. "Relationship strategy," he decides.
John smirks in his direction. "No. No, it isn't." he says, stepping closer. "But you and I both know that we can't run forever, and that's a step in the right direction, yeah?"
No, Sherlock knew it was inevitable. The force of gravity dragging waves relentlessly against the shore; the rain after a prolonged drought. Some things were inescapable. They were, for one. But was the aftermath determined to follow the same fate? Was this not the definition of insanity?
As if John could read his mind, he raises his bony, tired arms, lifts his eyebrows. "See? Don't you see?"
Taken aback, Sherlock murmurs defensively, "I see everything."
"Then observe," John whispers. He takes another forward step. "I am that John, or I was once. And maybe the John you know still has a bit of growing up to do, but Sherlock - at one point, I was willing to cross all of space and time for us. And this is me, asking you to meet me halfway."
Sherlock looks at him; the open vulnerability of his posture and its equal in his guileless gaze, and hesitates. "Why does it matter?" It slips out soft, and broken. His old query - why are you here?
John's mouth drops open fractionally, and he blinks tired eyes as his arms fall back to his sides. "Don't tell me you can't read that, too." Sherlock's answer doesn't come. He's looking back in the mirror, but not seeing anything, as his mind traces patterns of lines to the truth and a finger traces patterns and whorls in the dust on the mantle. He vividly remembers John doing the same on the table mere moments before, and stops, his finger resting on the mirror. Just over the reflection of John's chest. The heart within. Wouldn't John know if this turned out fine in the end? His nail taps at the glass. It has to, it must; there are no alternatives. Maybe they're not together romantically, in his time, but they are Sherlock and John and they will always... But then, why would he be here at all? Why would he counsel him here, now? Why -
Where most realizations flash in white, Sherlock is certain that for a moment his vision has gone entirely black.
As he blinks it away, John catches his eyes with his own sorrow, and keeps his voice low. "If you want to hear me say it -"
"Yes." He needs it. Needs to know.
There are entire symphonies in the volumes of the silence during which John does not speak. And then the maestro fully raises his baton. "When I come from, you are Sherlock Holmes and I am John Watson, and I loved you until the day you died. But I haven't spoken to you ever since the day I walked out of our flat and didn't - didn't come back. I was too proud or stupid or scared, and so were you; christ. And we both took a chance and failed to take another. We never tried. I didn't..." The quiet rustle of shaking shoulders, and the silence of a long-suffered misery, rises instead when his words fail.
Sherlock lifts his gaze to the bloody, watercolor tones of the setting sun reflected in the mirror. They burn in his mind; can't compare to the burning that roils in his stomach, as if he'd poured kerosene down his throat and lit a match to follow. And when he looks away, the echoes are still there, flashing against the backs of his eyelids in the memory of light. Orange and red and yellow, that paint his insides in the threat of an explosion.
But the grey of John's quiet, personal sorrow washes it all away like rain. The summer home skies after a thunderstorm, the eyes he inherited from Mummy; these things that are well-loved.
The sun is setting. The day is almost through, and there's not nearly enough time. But his eyes are slow, unbearably so, as they rise to meet those red-rimmed ones of John's reflection, and so are his words as, for the second time that day, they attempt to form upon his tongue. But, "I'm scared," is all that escapes, in a small voice that is pathetic and weak to his own ears, something the great Sherlock Holmes would never admit were he on his deathbed - and never more true.
"I'm not here to frighten you," John says, voice scratchy and pained. He coughs, a slew of them, but recovering lifts his doleful sight once more. They stand, regarding one another still and silent in the mirror. The old and the young and the foolish at once. But now, trying. "But I'm here to ask you if, after seeing me, you still think that a lifetime of fear, faced alone, is worth a few moments of uncertainty."
To lose John completely, or to try for a better failure than what the broken man in the mirror has lived?
And then, gravity's waves. The drought's rain. The inevitable throws itself in the forefront of his mind, as incredibly obvious as any of the crimes he's deduced or the criminals he's captured. John and Sherlock, Sherlock and John - to lose John forever is unthinkable; for an instant the man before him is impossible, no matter what he's said in the past, because a universe where he and John are not together in any capacity is not one that is meant to exist. It feels wrong, unquestionably, indubitably, certainly. A world in which that has already happened is a world that might as well be razed to rubble and decay.
He feels shaken to his core, cannot even bear to look at the man behind him, and it is a trembling hand that he presses to his lips. His eyes squeeze tightly shut, as fear still threatens to reach up and choke him. If it doesn't work, if it fails, again - he will not lose John. That is the objective. To bring him back, bring him home - and whatever happens next is transport.
"This isn't a fixed point in time," John says, quietly. "Things can change." There is a soft hand on his shoulder. It's warm; warm as the setting sun. He can feel his heart beating through to it.
"Won't this change everything? Won't you be...deleted, if I change history?" John is silent, and he swallows. "Do you still want that?" He doesn't know which John he means now. It doesn't matter.
John's voice is thick when he says, softly, "More than anything."
Sherlock bows his head, his curls brushing at the mantle and raising dust motes to a flurry in the air. For one of the very few times in his life, he doesn't know what to say. Thanking the man for giving up his life to save his own doesn't seem to be enough; for someone who has changed the course of history, there are no words. For someone who has given him back what he was not yet aware of losing, nothing can be said. Nothing at all for the price of John.
And yet, he is John, and Sherlock is not the only one with another chance. And maybe, that is enough.
But when he raises his head and opens his eyes to tell him so, the flat stands as a dark and silent sentinel, and the old man is gone.
Vanished, he supposes fancifully, into the dust, particles dispersing from the atoms of what-was into the nothing of what-might-have-been, as soon as he made his choice. Shaking himself away from such ridiculous notions, he digs his mobile out of his pockets and sends off two quick words, and then settles into his seat to wait for John. Won't be long, now. But they have time.
The dust remains, dancing in a shaft of moonlight that is just beginning to appear over the London skyline - a light that falls across an empty cup of tea on the coffee table. When John comes home, it, too, has gone, but no one notices its absence; not even Sherlock.
Please stay. - SH
...Do you actually mean that? - JW
More than anything. - SH
Later, in the dark, John's lips are feather-light and drowsy on his scalp as they form words he's not sure John really means. Not yet. But this time he focuses on the hand curled over his shoulder, and its warmth. His steady breathing. And he commits John's resting heart rate to memory, ear pressed against his chest so he doesn't miss a beat of it. They've missed out on enough already. He takes out the thought he hid away that afternoon, and marvels.
This time, Sherlock nestles closer, and resumes his counting until it lulls him to sleep, while his own fingers, unbeknownst to him, trace out his own words over John's skin.
Stay, stay, stay. Forever.
Unbeta'd, unbritpicked, feel free to absolutely destroy in reviews, or praise, or leave none at all, or, really, whatever you please; just thanks so much for stopping by! :)