Ever since the shooting, John had been acting strangely, Sherlock thought. There were slight changes he'd noticed about the man's habits that didn't match up with his usual customs. They were small things, of course, tiny details that most would dub insignificant; indeed, Sherlock didn't bother with concern until he noticed his friend forgetting his phone.
In general, John complained often that Sherlock paid little attention to him, and for the most part, he was right to—Sherlock admitted to not noticing when the man was out if he was too buried in a case to bother absorbing such trivial information. However, he watched his companion enough to know when something was wrong, and something here was definitely wrong. John had always been a creature of habit, governed by routines, and any significant changes in said routines were often forced. The phone, as it turned out, was only the beginning of a string of worrying alterations.
It started only a few days after the two men had been discharged from the hospital. John had taken the brunt of the attack, receiving a bullet in the stomach, but he'd made a full—and remarkably quick—recovery. The first couple times it happened, Sherlock wasn't concerned, as a bit of forgetfulness here and there was normal for most people, even with ingrained habits; but when it became commonplace to text his friend a request and hear the familiar alert ring off from the kitchen when he knew John had gone out, he realized there was something more to it. He could only come up with two reasonable explanations for this: either John was suffering some sort of minor long-term memory loss or he was leaving his mobile behind on purpose so he couldn't be tracked by his GPS.
Sherlock couldn't imagine what could possibly drive John to be so secretive when he leaves—and yet, the man was showing no other signs of any kind of mental regression, so the other option was far more likely.
His suspicions were only heightened when he would open the refrigerator door to find the thing empty of food, even after John said he had recently returned from the grocery store. Sherlock had unintentionally lost a few pounds over a matter of days due to this mysterious lack of food; he was so used to John fetching and preparing it for him that he'd nearly forgotten how to cook a meal for himself. Mrs. Hudson, too, had been lacking in her usual duties. Though normally motherly to a flaw, she now seemed quite reluctant to enter the flat at all, though Sherlock could hardly imagine why this would be.
Even when there was food in the house—food that Sherlock had bought himself—John didn't cook meals anymore. Sherlock had emerged from his room more than once after several hours (possibly days, he tended to lose track) of being locked inside to find that none of the dishes or the food had been touched. He wasn't used to doing such chores as cooking and cleaning, and while he didn't necessarily put it on John's shoulders to complete such things, he had certainly grown used to them being done for him. The sudden change was throwing him off.
Deciding to confront the man, he called from his position on the couch, "John!"
He must've been at work, he supposed. It was the most reasonable explanation, given the time of day. He'd lost track of how far along the week he was, but it appeared to be somewhere between afternoon and evening now, so that was most likely where he would find John. He had no desire, of course, to make the journey down to the hospital just to badger the man when he was perfectly comfortable sprawled out on the sofa; a text (or few) would do. His phone, unfortunately, was on the table. He almost called for John again before remembering that John's absence was the reason he needed his phone in the first place.
"Mrs. Hudson!" Sherlock shouted.
Her reply was muffled through the walls and slightly delayed. "What is it, dear? I'm rather busy."
Sherlock paused for a moment, listening. "No, you're not! I can hear the whistle from your kettle!" he yelled. "Come on, it'll only take a second!" Why was she avoiding the flat? It was very unlike her to do so. Were she and John keeping something from him? She always had been a terrible liar; perhaps she didn't trust herself not to give something away. He bookmarked this oddity in his mind, resolving to add it to his list of things to ask John about.
A few moments later, she arrived in the doorframe, and there was something of half-concealed distress in her expression. "What is it you need, dear? A cuppa?"
At least she was still making tea; that, at least, was a sign of normalcy. "No, thank you," said Sherlock. He pointed in the direction of the table, on the edge of which his phone was perched. "Could you grab my phone for me?"
Whatever emotions were featured on her face vanished then, replaced by one of frustration. "It's not five feet from you, Sherlock," she said crossly, but she stepped up to where he indicated. "Why did you have to call me all the way up here?"
"I'm busy," replied Sherlock as she handed over his phone. He clasped it between his flattened palms for a moment; he couldn't call John until she'd left. There were things he had to ask which he knew would concern her, and he didn't want her worked up if it turned out to be nothing.
"Busy? You're just sitting there."
"I know. I'm busy sitting here." She sighed with exaggerated impatience before retreating to the door again. "Thank you, Mrs. Hudson," Sherlock called, and she cast a small, fond smile over her shoulder in answer.
Despite the likelihood that John's phone was sitting on the kitchen table, Sherlock sent a simple, hopeful text: Where are you? –SH
Sure enough, a moment later, a text alert resonated from the other room. Sherlock scowled. That meant he'd have to call the hospital, and he hated talking to normal people, even when it was necessary. He reluctantly punched in the number for the front desk and held the phone to his ear. It rang three times before a secretary answered. "Hello?"
"Is Dr. John Watson there?" asked Sherlock without preempt.
There was a moment of stunned silence from the other end. "Is this some kind of joke?" the woman snapped. It could've been the sound of her voice over the phone, but he thought her voice quavered a bit. "No, of course he's not here!"
Sherlock, shocked by this reaction, was unsure of how to respond. Before he could decide on the best way to tell her he was being entirely serious, he heard a click and a dial tone. She'd hung up.
The phone remained against his ear for several moments before the sound of the ended call annoyed him enough to make him lower his arm. This was turning out to be a rather strange case. What could warrant a secretary to answer so unprofessionally? He supposed he could call back and find out, but he had no desire to speak to the woman again. Anyway, he'd gotten what he'd wanted; John wasn't at the hospital. So where was he, and what was he doing? Whatever he was hiding, Mrs. Hudson was likely in on it, but Sherlock didn't want to resort to interrogating his excitable landlady unless all other options had been exhausted.
In the meantime, he would wait for John to come home. He settled into a comfortable position, turning the phone over absently in his fingers as he regarded the mystery before him. John wasn't at work, which left either getting groceries or out with a friend. There was no way for Sherlock to confirm whether or not John was getting food, so he left that option open. He could call Stamford and ask if John was with him, but the idea of calling anyone else was none too appealing. Human interaction was far from his forte.
Assuming the shooting was related to this change, what could possibly have happened to make John so secretive of anything? What was it he was trying to hide in the first place?
Sherlock reviewed the events in his head. It had happened about a week ago. They had been on the trail of Moriarty and his accomplice, Moran; they had not tracked down Moriarty, but Moran had left a scent and Sherlock was hot on his heels. John had insisted on coming as they lured the formidable sniper into the open. He had sensed a trap, however, and made a break for it, so John and Sherlock ran after him with Lestrade and his team following closely behind.
The last thing Sherlock remembered was a long, straight alley, the cloudy, starless sky arcing overhead. Then he woke in a hospital bed with a patch of gauze on his shoulder and a great aching in his chest. John told him that Moran turned and fired; he hit Sherlock in the shoulder and John in the stomach, but neither hit anything vital, hence the fast recoveries. Lestrade arrived before Moran could get off any more shots and killed him. Moriarty was still unaccounted for.
For whatever reason, John said, Sherlock had been unconscious for two days straight. The doctors were still puzzling over it. They couldn't imagine how such a harmless wound could cause that. His nurse had guessed that perhaps he didn't want to wake up, like he was having a good dream; but whatever visions pervaded Sherlock's sleep had vanished from his memory now. For the meantime, he didn't worry about it. Both he and John were alive and safe now, in any case.
…Or were they?
John's changes had begun immediately after the shooting. Therefore, logic dictated that the shooting somehow caused the change. A sudden, frightening idea jolted his mind, causing him to bolt upright, his eyes wide. What if John was slowly dying from the bullet wound? He would've told Sherlock he was fine so that he wouldn't be too concerned or distracted. Perhaps his mysterious disappearances were to the hospital, to see if anything could be done, and the secretary had reacted so snappishly to his question simply to divert attention.
Or what if he was dying? Could it be that the shot he'd taken in the shoulder was far more severe than John was letting on, and John was searching for a way to fix it? It could certainly explain his forty-eight-hour nap and the curiously deep ache in his chest when he woke up. But he felt fine—surely, if he was dying, he would feel some kind of side-effect…
He mentally slapped himself. Neither of them was dying, that would be ridiculous. He certainly would've noticed symptoms either in himself or in John if one of them was slowly dying from a gunshot wound, if the doctor didn't tell them about it first. Anyway, he had begun to theorize, a habit which he frequently admonished.
A heavy sigh rattling through his throat, he settled back into his initial position on the sofa, placing his hands palm-to-palm beneath his chin and closing his eyes. For whatever reason, he was unable to escape the feeling that he was looking over something vital. Trying to cast the feeling aside, he continued to gather his thoughts, revisiting events from the past few days to see if there were any other noticeable differences. He found none, and was beginning to lose patience when the door opened and John stepped inside.
"Where've you been?" barked Sherlock, craning his head to see John.
"Out with Stamford," said John in a puzzled tone, kicking off his shoes and stripping off his jacket. Of course—there was a tiny new stain on the sleeve of his jumper from his favorite sandwich at the diner he and Stamford frequented. "I told you, remember?"
Sherlock frowned. He didn't remember. "I must've deleted it," he said nonchalantly. Before John could come up with a scathing remark, he sat up and asked sharply, "What were you doing with Stamford? It's…" He paused, taking a moment to look at the clock on his phone. "Is it really seven o'clock already?" he asked in surprise.
"Yeah. Been working on something?" John, of course, knew why and how often Sherlock lost track of the time of day.
"A case," answered the detective.
"What case? You haven't had a case since the shooting." John moved into the kitchen and set the kettle boiling. "Fancy a cuppa?"
"No, thank you," said Sherlock absently. He debated for a moment whether or not he should confront John before coming to the eventual conclusion that it was best. Matters like these wouldn't simply go away, and they most definitely wouldn't be forgotten while Sherlock was on the case. His eyes narrowed slightly, thoughtfully. "What have you been keeping from me, John?"
John set down the kettle before turning to look at Sherlock, a surprised and perplexed expression on his face. "I haven't been keeping anything from you," he said.
Sherlock examined John's reaction, repeating it a few times in his head to maximize his visual memory before analyzing every movement of John's face and every inflection of his words. Everything he knew about John's quirks and expressions and the way the lines on his face arranged themselves told him the man wasn't lying, and yet the facts told him he couldn't possibly be telling the truth.
Sherlock, deciding he would get nowhere in the present situation, archived the small mystery in a special room of his mind palace. He could go back to it later once he had more data.
All this he did, of course, in less than a second, though it was still enough of a pause for John to ask, "Why would you think I've been hiding something?"
If he told John what he had noticed, that would likely only cause his friend to cover up his new habits. Messing with data in such a way could only skew the results, certainly. "No reason," said Sherlock, and he knew John saw right through that simply because he was John. And because he was John, he didn't ask any more of it.
"So, what's this case, then?" asked John.
"Oh, it's nothing, just a small matter," lied Sherlock. "Obvious, really."
John smiled in that little way of his and was probably about to give him some sarcastic remark when there was a knock at the door. Mrs. Hudson turned the knob and peered inside, hardly glancing at John before fixing her brown-eyed gaze on Sherlock. All she said was, "Sherlock, you've got a visitor." Then she stepped aside, revealing, to Sherlock's surprise, Molly Hooper.
She was wearing a black turtleneck matched with an onyx gemstone ring that told him she had either recently finished her duties or hadn't begun them yet—otherwise, she would've removed the ring to put on latex gloves. The ring, combined with her outfit, suggested a dinner with a special someone. She had smeared the mascara slightly on her right eye, a flaw which would've been pointed out by a partner; so, she hasn't gone on the date yet. The color in her garments—or lack thereof—, paired with her slightly hunched posture and hands clasped before her suggested a subconscious association with grief, for whatever reason. Her makeup appeared to match her wardrobe, meaning she didn't change since this morning, so whatever was causing her sorrow wasn't any more recent than today. Whoever had passed away was someone close enough to alter her wardrobe decisions, but it wasn't recent or hard-hitting enough to make her broken up about it, as visible by the fact that her hair and makeup were still for the most part intact.
"Hello, Sherlock," she said with that nervous smile of hers that seemed to flit away from her face in split-second intervals. Her eyes held a deeper concern than he would've liked.
He could predict her next question from her expression, so he saved her from asking it by saying, "I'm fine, Molly. What did you come here for?"
She looked astonished by this response, but not in her usual way. Most of the time, she seemed the least bit used to his harsh remarks to her on most occasions, but now he could see he had truly rattled her. "I—I just wanted to see if you were doing alright," she said, a frown line appearing between her eyebrows, "you know, after the shooting."
"I'm perfectly capable of handling a traumatic incident, Molly," said Sherlock coldly.
"Sherlock," John scolded from the kitchen, carrying his mug of tea over to his chair. Sherlock cast him a look, but otherwise didn't reply.
The frown deepened. She didn't appear to have noticed John. "Oh. Well, I—"
Sherlock was saved from having to listen to her explanation by a sudden alert that rang off from his phone. On flipping it open, he saw that it was a text from Lestrade: I'm sorry to ask this of you, but I need you at the Yard ASAP. Moriarty's on the phone with a hostage and he's demanding to talk to you.
"I'm sorry to ask this of you"? He scoffed. How like Lestrade to think such a minor wound would be so debilitating.
"I'm sorry, Molly, but Lestrade just called me in to the station. Apparently Moriarty's pestering them," said Sherlock in a very unapologetic tone as he stood, pulling on his coat and tying his scarf around his neck in a dismissive manner.
"Hang on, I'm coming, too," said John, the still-steaming tea at his elbow momentarily forgotten as he stood, reaching for his jacket.
"No, absolutely not," said Sherlock sharply, fixing a pale-eyed glare on John. "Perhaps you don't remember, but the last time the both of us tangled with Moriarty, you got shot."
John raised his eyebrows with a do-you-honestly-think-that's-going-to-stop-me-look. "I'm coming, Sherlock," he said forcefully. Sherlock grimaced, but didn't argue; for purely selfish reasons, he would prefer to have his closest companion by his side, whatever this adventure might bring.
Upon turning back to the door, he found Molly staring at him, a look of mingled fear and alarm on her face.
"Something wrong?" asked Sherlock in a scornful manner.
"I—I—" she started, but was unable to put words to her concerns.
"Good, then please move," said Sherlock.
As she stepped obediently out of the way, John reprimanded again, "Sherlock!"
"Come on, John," said Sherlock in a biting tone, ignoring the reproach as he swept past Molly and out the door. Mrs. Hudson was nowhere in sight—again—and somehow, her absence made the hallway seem just a shade darker. As they were heading downstairs, he muttered to John, "Her brain seems especially addled today, have you noticed?"
"She was just worried about you. Would it kill you to be nice to her once in a while?"
"Yes," snapped Sherlock in reply.
They had stepped outside and were about to flag a taxi when Molly caught up to them, calling from the door in an overly-casual tone, "So John's coming, then?"
"Unfortunately, yes," replied Sherlock, casting a pointed glance at John, who raised his eyebrows coolly in return. "Apparently one near-death experience wasn't enough for him."
"Well, I'm living with you, aren't I?" replied John.
"Fair point," Sherlock agreed. He flung out his arm, calling over the vacant taxi that was just rolling up the street. The cabbie looked rather similar to the criminal of the pair's first case together, which didn't make him all that enthusiastic about climbing inside, but with a reminder that said man was dead, he got in.
"Where to?" asked the cabbie.
"Scotland Yard," said Sherlock evenly, and they left Molly standing at the edge of the sidewalk, a dumbfounded expression on her face.
It wasn't a long cab ride, and the first minute or so was spent in silence. Finally John remarked, "You really should be kinder to her, you know. She's done all kinds of things for you."
Sherlock's gaze darkened slightly, but he didn't disagree. "I know," he said quietly, his gaze fixed on the passing buildings. He turned and looked at John, realizing that, if anyone else had told him that, he'd have probably given them a smart retort and completely ignored their advice. John, however, had always been different, even since they first met. John, who was so normal and so vacant, and yet who was completely and entirely unique in Sherlock's eyes. John, who rarely had anything to offer in a case, and yet was the most important piece in solving it.
The station was in a state of contained chaos when they entered it. People were scrambling about, tracing numbers and making calculations, shouting things urgently at each other from across the room. Sergeant Donovan, who was standing outside Lestrade's office, waved the pair of them over, a grave and slightly guarded look hardening her features. As he crossed the room, he got the feeling as though he were being treated as something that was feared, something that was tip-toed around because it might explode at any second. Even Donovan seemed to look him over cautiously before allowing him inside. The feeling sent an involuntary shiver down his spine, a purely emotional response that irked him in its nature, as he knew there was no logical purpose to it.
He hesitated outside the door. "Someone's died recently," he muttered to John. "Whoever it was, they expect me to be affected by it." He doubted he would be; John, Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson were all still alive.
"What makes you say that?" asked John, matching his low tone.
"The way people are acting around me. Molly's choice in wardrobe. Donovan's wariness. The symptoms are everywhere." It must've happened either while I was asleep or while John and I were at home, recovering, he thought.
Donovan, who had halted with her hand on the doorknob when she realized Sherlock had stopped, was looking at him with a mixture of concern and apprehension. "You alright?" she asked hesitantly.
"See what I mean?" he said to John, without answering her.
Inside, Lestrade was rubbing circles over his temples, his eyes closed and his forehead shining with a thin layer of sweat. He looked up as the door opened, a flush of relief just slightly relaxing his tense expression. "Sherlock's here," he announced, seemingly to thin air.
A voice from the speaker of the phone said, "Oh, good. Be a dear and put him on, would you? Oh, and turn the speaker phone off, please. I'd hate to have you all eavesdropping."
The voice, slightly musical in quality and with a natural tone that made it sound permanently amused, was chillingly familiar. Sherlock had been told who it was, but the sound of him speaking only emphasized the immensity of the situation. He picked up the phone and brought it to his ear.
"Moriarty," he said calmly.
The man on the other line giggled. "I love it when you say my name like that. It's so sexy."
"What do you want?" asked Sherlock, still in a cool, even tone.
"I want to talk about your pet. Shame about what happened," said Moriarty in mock sympathy.
An involuntary rush of fear sent his blood beating faster as he cast a glance at John. "What are you talking about? He's right here, he's fine."
There was a moment of agonizing silence during which Sherlock could only wonder what Moriarty knew that he didn't. "Is he?" the man purred in vague interest. He didn't give Sherlock enough time to reply before saying, "We need to talk, you and me. This thing that we've started has gotten a bit out of hand." He seemed to be breathing the words through the phone; Sherlock could've sworn he felt a breath stirring the hair by his ear. "It's time to end it. No guns, no sacrifice… just a really big bang." Sherlock struggled not to roll his eyes at the unnecessary metaphor, but before he could retaliate, Moriarty said, "St. Bart's, the rooftop. Be there in an hour and come alone." Then there was a click and a dial tone.
Sherlock wordlessly hung up the phone. He couldn't say he was surprised by Moriarty's demand; no doubt the criminal would have it all set up so that everything was under his control and his control alone. Any attempts at involving the police were pointless, he knew. He didn't want John involved, either, especially with the pair's last experience with confronting Moriarty. He could easily arrange a diversion while he took care of the consulting criminal. The question, of course, was how to go about it. Moriarty was clever—he would have something up his sleeve, something unexpected, and if Sherlock wasn't careful, it would result in his end.
"Sherlock?" John's hesitant intrusion on his thought process jolted him to awareness as he suddenly remembered that he was still in the present. It was a rather annoying interruption, but a necessary one, he realized; this was no place to mull it over.
"What is it, what did he say?" asked Lestrade expectantly, urgently.
Sherlock put to use one of his many talents: acting. "It was simply a taunt, nothing more," he said with an air of indifference. "Games and riddles. Just Moriarty being Moriarty." He could tell without looking that John had seen straight through his little lie, but he didn't dare make eye contact with the man yet. John could ask him about it later, at which point he'd have to come up with a more convincing story. "Come on, John," he said, pushing open the door.
"John?" said Lestrade in surprise, his eyebrows raised.
Both of them paused, Sherlock halfway out the door, and turned back to Lestrade. "Yes," said Sherlock, slightly thrown off by the sudden inquisition.
There seemed to be a hush over the rest of the department, whose activity had died down now that Moriarty had hung up. Lestrade, meanwhile, didn't seem to see John at all. "He's here?" he asked, gesturing the general vicinity. "John's here?"
"Of course he is. He's right there," said Sherlock, at the same time that John confirmed, "Lestrade, I'm here." For whatever reason, Lestrade's query triggered a small release of epinephrine which increased his heart rate.
The department, most of which had heard this exchange, was almost completely silent. Even Anderson, who normally reserved his most disdainful expression for Sherlock, looked shocked.
"What?" asked Sherlock sharply, his pulse increasing still. "What is it?"
Lestrade, who was utterly lost for words, was saved having to come up with an explanation by none other than Molly Hooper. She'd been standing at the edge of the room, and stepped forward now, up to the door. "Sherlock," she said in a serious, surprisingly even tone, "I think there's something you need to see." She was fiddling with the ring on her finger, a nervous tick. So she was anxious about something, but she didn't want him to know what...
"Why?" asked Sherlock suspiciously.
"Please, just… come with me," said Molly, taking him by the arm and pulling him towards the door.
He exchanged a glance with John. The other man, by all appearances, didn't have any clue what this was all about. He shrugged with a lost expression and followed after Sherlock as the detective was towed out the door.
"Where are we going?" he asked once they stopped at the edge of the street. When she didn't answer, he asked dryly, "Is this one of Moriarty's schemes? You're not dating him again, are you?"
She shook her head. He realized with surprise that she looked close to tears, and while he had never been all that careful with her emotions, he recognized now that a little silence on his part would be in the best interests for both of them. So he waited wordlessly, occasionally glancing at John, as she hailed a cab and the three of them climbed in. John ended up in the middle, a bit squished, but he didn't seem to mind. Molly gave the cabbie a street address, and Sherlock quickly realized where they were heading.
"Why are we heading to a cemetery?" he asked in a low voice as the cab pulled off from the curb. She didn't answer. Urgently, he turned to John. "John, do you know anything about this? Anything at all?"
John shook his head, dumbfounded. "Haven't the foggiest," he said honestly. This was exactly the type of thing for John to keep secret from Sherlock, and yet he didn't doubt his friend.
Why was his heart beating so quickly? Sherlock tried to relax as he ran through the short list of people he was close to: John, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade—he'd seen them all alive today, and was sitting in the car with one of them. Was it Mycroft, then? Or perhaps his mother? "Is it my brother?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Just trust me," she promised in an unsteady tone. "You'll want to see this for yourself."
Sherlock stewed in silence for the remainder of the ride with no inkling of what he might find at his destination. In an effort to calm himself, he retreated into the depths of the more mechanical portion of his brain, reciting the muscles of the human body in alphabetical order.
He had just reached sternocleidomastoid when the cab pulled up and stopped next to the cemetery. The mental exercise had soothed his tension, but it quickly returned as he stepped out the door, holding it open for John and Molly to clamber out after him. Molly paid the fare and the cab departed with a mumble of thanks.
As they passed through the open gate, Sherlock caught a glimpse of the sign marking it: The Whitestone Cemetery. It was a rather nice place for a graveyard at night; the grass was well-trimmed, the lamps dotting the fence kept it well-lit, and most of the headstones—the more recent ones, at least—looked almost elegant. A few of the older ones were enormously tall and towered above the rest; there was even one with an angel carved into the top of it, the tips of its massive pinions brushing the grass.
Molly led them in a straight line down the center aisle, passing row after row of the deceased. Finally, near the end, she turned down one of the rows and halted in front of a headstone, looking to Sherlock with the weight of solemnity in her eyes. Sherlock and John could only stare in shock at the name etched in gold upon the black marble headstone.
It read Dr. John H. Watson.
Sherlock was the first to recover. "I don't understand," he said, lifting his gaze to Molly with a shake of his head. The tension in his chest was building, fracturing the walls around his emotions, but he couldn't yet understand why. John, meanwhile, was silent. "I don't—for God's sake, he's right here."
Her eyes passed over, passed through, the place where John was standing, and she shook her head sorrowfully. "Sherlock, there's no one there," she said softly.
The world was crumbling around him. He looked to the headstone again, that horrid black slab, as the realization of what she was implying hit him. Stubbornly, he shook his head, despite everything that was telling him she was right. "No… no," he said uncertainly, though it was obviously the most logical conclusion. John wasn't forgetting his phone; he'd never taken it with him because he'd never left. There wasn't any food in the flat because John had never picked it up. Mrs. Hudson was avoiding the flat because she knew John was dead and she didn't want to be reminded…
But even as all this ran through his mind, he could still see John standing in front of him, as real as he was a week ago. He reached out his hand, trembling with apprehension, as if he were afraid of what he might find at his fingertips. Expecting his hand to grasp air, he was surprised when it brushed the woolly texture of John's jumper. "John?" he said hesitantly, despite knowing now that he wasn't talking to John, and his voice broke on the name.
When the man only swayed slightly in answer, logic was forgotten for a moment as panic for his friend took over. "John," he said, much more urgently, this time gripping John's shoulders.
The man turned slightly, and alarm flared in Sherlock's gut when he saw a red stain blooming across John's chest. And suddenly, he was no longer standing in the cemetery, because he remembered. He remembered everything that happened, everything he'd missed, and it all flooded back so crushingly and so without warning that he was forced under its influence, tossed in its currents.
He was there, in that long, narrow alley, where the walls compressed the sky to a thin, starless strip. Moriarty had fled rapidly round the corner, but Moran had lingered and was poised at the other end of the alley. Suddenly, the man's arm lifted, and a gun was extended in Sherlock's direction. A flash and a bang later, Sherlock felt a burning sensation sheer across part of his shoulder. As startling as the sudden pain was, his first thought was, I assumed he was a better shot than that.
He was, as it turned out. His next shot might've hit its target true, might've proved the existence of the detective's heart by marking it with a bullet, had John not blocked its path. Sherlock saw, distantly, as though through a camera, how John's body jerked at the impact, but the man remained standing for a moment longer, his strength not yet leaving him. Sherlock caught him when he collapsed, just as Lestrade rounded the corner and shot down Moran.
He laid his friend out on his back, hastily suppressing the horror of the prospect that his friend had been shot and replacing it with as much level-headed indifference as he could muster. Upon seeing the wound the bullet inflicted, however, all aloofness vanished from his being. John's jumper, his cream-white jumper, was soaking up the blood from the bullet hole and displaying it like a flag, a blood-drenched white flag of surrender. The stain was growing rapidly, so quickly that Sherlock hardly had time to think around it.
He made automatic observations of the injury, information which he wished right then he didn't know: Diagnosis – puncture of the pulmonary artery. Fatal in minutes. Treatment – hope that an operating room and full team of surgeons are within the immediate vicinity. Otherwise, make the patient as comfortable as possible.
He disregarded this completely, however. This was John. He couldn't die, not like this, not so sudden and so bloody. John was supposed to die an old man, with a wife and a family. John was never supposed to get caught up in all this; it simply wasn't right. Desperate to preserve this pre-destined notion, Sherlock clamped his hands over the wound, trying to ignore the deadly amount of blood that pulsed up between his fingers.
Words spilled out of his mouth, words he never would've expected to hear in his own voice, words that he was hardly aware of: "John, stay alive. Stay with me, John. Please. Please—"
He choked on the words as soon as he felt it, that one little touch, a hand over his, calm and gentle and kind and reassuring. John's hand. John's hand, which so often gripped the handle of a mug or turned the page of a book or opened the fridge or applied a bandage, was now pressed over his own, and it was as though everything John had ever touched flashed through Sherlock's mind just then, perhaps because he realized that it ended here. He would be the last thing John would ever touch with that hand.
John couldn't speak, there was too much blood, spilling out of the wound and bubbling up the back of his throat, but Sherlock could lip-read just as easily as he could hear. "It's okay, Sherlock," John kept saying. Through the haze of all the pain and blood loss, he was looking at Sherlock with this expression, this knowing acceptance. "It's alright. It's okay."
It wasn't okay. How could he be saying it was okay?
"Sherlock." The quiet peace shining in his eyes through that strained expression was unbearable. His breath was coming in gasping, rattling breaths that shook Sherlock to the core.
Why was John comforting him? It was supposed to be the other way around. "No, John, don't do this to me!" he shouted vigorously, pressing down harder on the wound. "Stay alive, John, stay with me!" The words, commanding as they were, were really more of a plea than anything. Tears leaked out of the corners of John's eyes, sliding back into his hair as he kept trying to say Sherlock's name. "Please, just—stay."
Sherlock was hardly aware of when or how it happened, even looking back on it in such vividness now, but it occurred somewhere in that stretch between desperation and madness. Somewhere between "Sherlock" and "It's alright," he stopped trying to speak, but his eyes remained fixed on Sherlock. Long after John's hand had stilled and his eyes had gone cold—or perhaps only after a minute or so—Sherlock's pleas had drabbled together until they were incoherent, until his shuddering sobs were only occasionally punctuated by the word "stay."
He pulled John into his lap and slowly lent himself to the anguish that shook his shoulders, curling his spine until his forehead was against John's, until he felt the man's soft hair against his cheek. His teeth were clenched in a soundless snarl of immense agony, his eyes clenched shut against the bleak misery before him. Sirens blared in the distance, but they were too late. How dare they show up now, after the damage was done? It was irreparable. The thought of it, the sheer permanence of it, was unthinkable, but the stark truth was impossible to avoid.
He felt hands pulling at his shoulders and ignored them completely, the same way he ignored the organization of the solar system. He deleted those hands' existence from his mind because he would not be taken away from John, not yet. But they were persistent. He cast them off a few times before they managed to grip him by the shoulders so tightly that it hurt. They hauled him away, and as John's limp hand fell from his, he made a ghastly sound like a wounded animal. He didn't know where that noise had come from, but it seemed to open his ears very suddenly, and he could hear everything: the EMT crew shouting orders to each other, the clatter of a gurney being unloaded, someone telling him he was in shock, telling him his shoulder was bleeding and that he needed to hold still. He saw Lestrade standing in the mouth of the alleyway, his gun still poised in his hands, staring in shock at the bloody, broken body on the ground…
The rest was a haze, though Sherlock expected they had to put him under at some point. His mind had convinced itself that John wasn't dead, replaced him with a mere manipulation of senses as a protection mechanism against the pain the event caused. But it wasn't a permanent replacement, or even a worthy one; nothing could replace John. That was why he'd gotten suspicious so quickly, why everything seemed… off. His brain, meticulous as it was, could only do so much.
This was the one case he wished could've stayed a mystery.
When he came back around, he found that he was crouched in the grass, his fingers knotted in the hair on the back of his head, pulling at it enough for the follicles to cry out in painful protest, but he didn't stop. His tears were hot on his face, his breath thick and stuffy with his forehead against his knees, compressing the air that rushed out through his teeth. Molly was kneeling next to him, her hand gently rubbing his back. Her hands were smaller than John's, but the same kindness, the same softness was still there. She was making quiet, hushed noises with her mouth, soothing words he wished she would stop saying.
"Sherlock, it's alright," she said, her voice surprisingly calm despite the quiver of barely-restrained grief. "It's okay. You'll be okay."
"No," he gasped. "Don't say that. Anything but that." He lifted his face from his hands and hurriedly wiped the wetness on his sleeve, despite that more tears only fell to replace it. He stood, hardly aware of his surroundings anymore. The only thing he took note of now was that John was nowhere to be seen—and why should he be? There was no point keeping up the façade now that he could see through it. John. John was dead. He was gone. His John, his Watson, would never follow him to a crime scene again. John was the closest thing to normal he ever had. If something like this ever happened, Sherlock had always imagined he would go to John for relief. John was the only man he would cry in front of. He'd never dreamed that John would not be here to comfort him in a time of need. He'd always considered the possibility, of course, what with their lifestyle and their greater-than-average involvement with criminals, but this had always seemed so unlikely, so impossible…
"Sherlock," Molly called as he headed doggedly for the gate, determined to get out, to leave that cold, friendless gravestone as far behind him as he could. "Where are you going?" she jogged to catch up to him, but he didn't slow his pace.
Sherlock didn't answer other than to snap, "Away. Don't follow me." He was ashamed to hear how precariously his voice balanced on the edge of hysteria, betraying the chaos within.
Her footsteps didn't slow or cease. "I can't let you go off on your own," she said, admirably resolute. "You're—"
He whirled on her, snarling, "—In shock, still recovering from major psychological trauma, suffering the loss of a close friend, yes, I know!" He turned away suddenly, pacing with hunched shoulders like a trapped animal. "Look at me, Molly. Hands trembling, increased heart rate, tears in my eyes—all involuntary emotional responses." He made a noise of disgust. "Try as I might, I'm just as ordinary as any other human being right now. Unlike the lot of you, however, I still have my mental faculties about me."
"For God's sake, Sherlock, you've been imagining seeing someone who's been dead for a week!" shouted Molly before he could say anything else. "You need help!"
The unexpected outburst was enough to keep Sherlock from formulating a snappy retort, but he didn't agree to her statement. He couldn't reply without giving away his intentions.
She was, it seemed, more observant than he realized. "You're going to go after Moriarty, aren't you?"
"Leave me alone," said Sherlock venomously, turning away with a sweep of his coat and heading once more for the gate.
"What did he say to you on the phone?" she asked, ignoring his demand. "Did it—"
"What Moriarty said is between the two of us," Sherlock said coolly. "It doesn't involve you, so kindly shut up about it and go."
Though he was pleased to hear her footfalls cease, her abandonment of the issue left a hollowness in his chest that he couldn't describe.
He was halfway down a street around the corner—he didn't particularly care which street; he just wanted to get away from that place—when his stream of brooding ran dry and he was forced away from the momentary distraction. His mind, of course, went straight to the fact that John was no longer with him, and the thought made his legs give way. He dropped to his knees and sat on them, having no desire to push himself back up. His first instinct was to go back to the flat, but he couldn't imagine doing such a thing now. Going back to the flat would be too much to bear. There was too much there, too much to remind him—at this point, just looking at the tea kettle would set him off.
John was dead. He would never again fix a cup of tea, spread jam on his toast, read a book, update his blog. He would never again ask Sherlock the right questions, say something brilliant without realizing, back Sherlock up at a crime scene, poke fun at Anderson with him. He'd never again tell Sherlock off for being rude, tell him not to giggle at a crime scene, make a botched attempt at Sherlock's level of deduction. He would never again see beauty where Sherlock saw only data. John had become so ingrained in Sherlock's life that he felt like a part of his identity now. He had come to realize a portion of him he never knew existed, and now it had been snatched away. It was never meant to end like this.
How could he have let this happen?
He gasped, suddenly realizing that he was crying. It was a wet, ugly sound, but the emotional reaction was necessary, he realized; anyway, he couldn't stop it. He almost didn't want to. So he sat there on that dirty concrete, not knowing or caring if anyone saw him. It didn't matter anymore, none of it did, because John was not here to tell him to get up, brush himself off, pull himself together for God's sake people were probably staring.
Then, through his own private misery, a name came to light, a name which made his muscles start working again: Moriarty. John was dead—so what was left to do but avenge him?
He got up from his place on the sidewalk, wiping the tear tracks from his cheeks as he started off down the street. His stumbling steps soon turned into a brisk walking pace as he pulled out his phone and checked the time. Seven-thirty. He had half an hour until his meeting with Moriarty.
"Come on, J—" he started, but broke off abruptly, halting. He looked off to the side, biting the tip of his tongue so hard that it drew blood to keep from breaking down again. He returned his focus to the problem at hand, and the danger of stopping dissipated.
If there was one good thing that came out of John's death, it was that Moriarty no longer had any leverage over Sherlock. He could stride right up to that rooftop with a gun, regardless of any snipers, because Moriarty wouldn't have John strapped to a bomb. Anyway, Sherlock no longer cared whether he walked away from this encounter alive; it didn't matter if his chest was peppered with bullets, so long as the man responsible for John's murder was dead. He just needed to go back to the flat and—
He stopped for the third time. He needed his gun, but it was in his bedroom. He remembered leaving it on the desk at two in the morning after John had yelled crossly at him to stop firing it. Well, now that he looked back on it, he supposed he was, in essential, yelling at himself.
What was he thinking? He could go back to the flat, no problem. It would just be in and out, anyway.
The flat was within reasonable walking distance, so he didn't bother calling a cab. With a renewed sense of purpose, he stalked swiftly down the street, ignoring everyone along the way. Twice he was almost hit by a passing car, but he didn't bother responding to their owners' reprimands.
Mrs. Hudson wasn't in by the time he got there. It was better that way, he thought; she would ask too many questions which he couldn't answer. Despite this, however, and despite having steeled himself before opening the door, he was unprepared for the effect of standing in the doorframe and looking inside at the final remnants of his time with his flatmate. How many cases had the pair of them solved in this place? He supposed he could go back and count them if he wanted, but he shook his head for now. He was here for a reason.
He walked resolutely up the stairs, past John's shoes and coat still hanging by the door, past John's chair which would never be sat in again, past the mantelpiece where Sherlock's skull sat, past the kitchen where John had cooked him meals and made him tea. He had remarked more than once that John was merely his skull's replacement, but that was far from the truth, and he hoped John was aware of that before he died.
Unable to resist despite his qualms, he spared a glance into John's bedroom. The bed was neatly made, the walls sparsely decorated, the open closet door revealing clothes straightly hung; though he had left the army, it clearly had never left him. The room was, he noticed, dusty, probably from lacking a living inhabitant for a week. How could he have not noticed that? For all his observations, his brain seemed just like anyone else's: it only saw what it wanted to see.
He grabbed his handgun from its temporary place on his desk and shoved it, nozzle-first, into the back of his pants, under his coat. That was one benefit of wearing a knee-length coat: concealment.
He didn't know what made him do it, but on the way back out, he paused at the kitchen table and hefted John's phone. After regarding it for a moment—the inscription on the back, the scratches on the charging port—he flipped it open.
37 new text messages.
Had he really sent that many? He looked through them:
Pick up some bread. We're out. –SH
Are you going out tonight? –SH
Could you swing by the store and pick me up a few things? –SH
You really shouldn't leave your mobile at home. It rather defeats the purpose. –SH
Are you with Stamford? –SH
Where are you? –SH
Did you remember your phone today? –SH…Apparently not. –SH
Are you going to make dinner tonight, or shall I? –SH
They continued on like that for a long while, it seemed. No one else had sent John any texts—they, apparently, hadn't coped in the same manner Sherlock had. The one question which recurred surprisingly often was, Where are you? It was the last text Sherlock had sent to John's phone. He'd finally gotten an answer, he supposed, though it only made a new question: Can I go with you?
He placed John's phone back on the table and continued on his way. Halfway down the stairs, the front door opened and Mrs. Hudson bustled in, her arms full of grocery bags. "Oh, Sherlock," she said in surprise when she saw him. He saw the half-buried pain in her eyes, the burden of carrying such a weighty secret. It made him ache for her that she had kept it so long. He knew she hadn't done it out of cowardice for Sherlock's reaction; she had done it simply to keep him happy, and even for that, he was grateful.
"Here, let me help you with those," he said, trotting down the last few steps and taking two of the bags from her hands.
"Oh, thank you, dear," she said as they made their way into her kitchen. After a pause, she seemed to notice the change and asked, "Are you alright?"
Far from it, he thought, but he answered, "Fine. I was just heading out to pick up a textbook. John's out and he's not answering his phone, so I'll have to get it myself."
He hated himself for the brief, tense silence that followed those words.
"Do me a favor, Mrs. Hudson," said Sherlock calmly, surprised at his ability to hold himself together after such a bombshell. "Don't ever leave Baker Street." A flash of confusion crossed her face, but before she could ask about the statement, he added, "If the pair of us ever moves out then find someone else. Don't let it stay empty."
She looked even more perplexed. "Why would I ever let it stay empty?" she asked with a laugh that sounded nervous. Then, more seriously, "You're not going anywhere, are you?"
"No, no," said Sherlock lightly, setting the bags down on the table. "Just going to grab that book."
He offered her a small smile and a soft kiss on her forehead before he turned away. As soon as he closed the door behind him, he felt his face twist, unable to keep up its mask any longer. He was going after Moriarty, and in the last few minutes, the idea had cemented that he wouldn't be returning. He wasn't feeling suicidal—he didn't want to die—he just… wasn't opposed to it anymore. He wasn't going to go out kicking and screaming as much as he once might've.
The cab ride to St. Bartholomew's Hospital felt like one of the longest he'd ever endured even though he'd taken this route countless times before. He could not remove his thoughts from John's death, watching the blood swell up around his fingers, knowing that there was nothing he could do. Why had John stepped in front of that bullet? Sherlock would rather he hadn't, would rather their places had been reversed. John had always been the stronger of the two. Sherlock was no coward, certainly, but John had a stout resoluteness, a stubborn way of existing, like no one could persuade him to die.
Is that why he did it? Did he believe Sherlock could pull through? Perhaps he could, but he doubted he would get the chance to once he reached that rooftop. There was still a chance to turn back, he supposed, as he paid the cab and stepped outside, but he had no desire to do so.
There were too many stairs. That was Sherlock's only thought as he ascended them, trotting up one flight to the next with the nonchalance of any other day. He wasn't tired in any way, but it was taking far too long to get from one end of the building to the other. Impatient as he always was, he simply wanted to get it over and done with.
He didn't spare much thought for the starry sky, only a glance as he stepped out the door and onto the roof. It was windier up there and a bit cooler as well. He glanced at his phone and saw that it was five-to-eight. He was early—but not, as it seemed, unexpected.
Moriarty was there, sitting on the edge of the roof and gazing down with the expression of a cat observing its house from the top of a bookshelf. He turned his head slowly, lazily, his arching eyebrows quirking ever-so-slightly at the sight of his adversary. He stood and glanced at his watch as Sherlock, doing his best to match the man's unconcerned demeanor, crossed most of the distance to where his enemy was.
"In a rush, are we?" drawled Moriarty. He was in a suit, as he usually was when he wasn't trying to blend in with the crowd. His hair was slicked back, further accentuating his reptilian demeanor. His large eyes, which could look so innocent when he wanted them to, appeared so distant and dreamy that they seemed to be unhinged from reality. He supposed they were, in a way.
Sherlock said nothing.
"Oh, Sherlock, baby, don't be this way," simpered Moriarty with a mocking frown. "We won't get much done here if you don't talk to me."
"I know John's dead," said Sherlock stiffly, his cold eyes stabbing into Moriarty like jagged shards of glass—sharp and dangerous, but still fragile.
"Oh, yes, I know," said the man breezily. "I had some eyes on you at the cemetery. It's really a shame your friend Molly had to spoil all the fun—I would've loved to have been the one to break the news." He paused, stepping closer to Sherlock. "They were all wrong, you know. You do have a heart. It bled out in that alleyway." He laughed as if he'd just made a dirty joke. As Sherlock got a closer look, however, he saw that all was not well with Moriarty. There were shaded circles under his eyes, and bitterness pervaded them.
"Yours isn't doing too well, either," answered Sherlock, his confidence swelling at the realization. "Weren't expecting Moran to be shot, were you?"
Moriarty tried to sneer, but his lip only curled in an unpleasant way that rather looked like a defensive, noiseless snarl.
"No," Sherlock answered himself. "If you'd expected him to be shot, you wouldn't have taken him in the first place. Was attempting to shoot me part of the plan, then?"
"We're NOT TALKING ABOUT MORAN!" shouted Moriarty suddenly. It took a great amount of self-restraint on Sherlock's behalf not to flinch at the outburst. Moriarty's eyes were smoldering quietly in a way that made Sherlock feel as though he was watching a lit fuse. Instead of exploding, however, the man regained some semblance of his composure—if you could call it that—and said in mock hurt, "That's really rather low for you, Sherlock. I expected you to fight more fairly."
"I'm so sorry to disappoint you," Sherlock replied sarcastically.
"Oh, alright, then," he said with a sickeningly warm smile. "I forgive you. I wonder, though, what was it like when John bled out? You tried to save him, I suppose?"
Sherlock abandoned his attempts to resist the man's questioning and gave a curt nod.
"Funny what love does," Moriarty remarked, that same smile still showing a ring of his teeth. "If it was anyone else, you wouldn't have bothered."
"If it was anyone else, would I be here?"
Moriarty shrugged casually. "Suppose not," he answered. After a moment, he said lazily, "Go on, then. I missed the show. Fill me in."
Sherlock had no desire to relive those moments, and he could think of no reason to keep Moriarty alive any longer. He had the criminal exactly where he wanted him. "No, I don't think so," he said coldly, drawing the gun and holding it level, the nozzle pointed directly at Moriarty's chest.
The other man's smile widened; he didn't even spare a glance for the gun. "We're not so different, you and I."
Sherlock laughed bitterly. "How so?"
Moriarty said nothing, and there was no falter in his expression. This registered as wrong in Sherlock's mind, but he didn't care. He was ready. He was ready for every one of those snipers' bullets to hit home.
Just as intended, the bullet struck Moriarty in exactly the same place as Moran's had hit John. The man staggered back from the impact and collapsed onto his back as a blossom of red bloomed across his white shirt. Sherlock lowered his arm and closed his eyes and waited.
He opened his eyes as a disgusting gurgling sound reached his ears. Moriarty was still smiling, and now his shoulders were jumping up and down. At first, Sherlock thought it was some sort of seizure, but then he realized that the man was laughing.
His mind raced. Why would he be laughing? Moriarty didn't strike Sherlock as the type who was terrified of death, especially now that Moran had been shot, but he expected the man to be surprised at least, or angry that he'd been defeated. Why would he be laughing if his plan had gone awry? Because his plan didn't go awry, he realized. He wanted this to happen. He wanted to die. He was ready.
He was right; the two of them weren't so different, after all.
Even so, it seemed very uncharacteristic of Moriarty to simply give in. There had to be something Sherlock was missing, but what?
As he stared into Moriarty's contorted face, he realized that the man was mouthing something. Over and over and over, he kept saying, bang, bang, bang. That didn't make sense, though. If there were snipers, if Sherlock was going to be shot, wouldn't it have happened already?
He stepped up to the man until he was close enough to press the toe of his boot into an area of his ribcage that would intensify the pain of the wound. Moriarty's body stiffened out of reflex and a tight, rasping groan slipped through his bloody throat. He began to cough and wheeze, the blood collecting around the corners of his lips and trailing over the sides. The sight of Moriarty's draining life made Sherlock cringe inwardly, and for a moment, he was stepping on John also.
He shook himself free of that vision. "What are you planning?" he hissed, the skin on the bridge of his nose crinkling as anger twisted his features. "What have you done?"
Moriarty didn't answer other than to mouth bang four more times, that splitting grin still mangling his expression. Then his eyes rolled back into his head and, after a few quick, rattling gasps, he lived no more.
Sherlock stepped back hastily from the body, unconsciously dropping his gun, his free hand covering his mouth for an instant as his fingers dragged at the skin around his lips. The depths of those black eyes threatened to swallow him up before he staggered away, towards the edge of the building. The thought hit him that he could jump, but he shook it away. There was something else going on, something Moriarty had instrumented, and he had to find out what it was.
Think. Think, you stupid idiot, he cursed at himself.
His eyes landed on a rather conspicuous vehicle down below. It was parked at the curb like any other car, but it was a large black van, windowless—not the type that you usually saw wandering about without some grave, pre-ordained purpose. Sherlock would've guessed it was there to provide secure lodgings for a stake-out except that he probably would've heard about it if it was. Anyway, chances were high that the van's presence had something to do with Moriarty.
Bang. Moriarty's final word rang through his mind, and a realization dropped out of nowhere, hitting him with an icy shock that turned his legs rigid. There was very little evidence for the idea, but the more he considered it, the more possible it seemed.
The van contained a bomb.
Moriarty's body forgotten, he turned and sprinted for the door, racing down the steps at such bounds that he felt certain he would've broken his neck if he stumbled even the slightest. Once again, the steps took far too long to traverse.
As he ran, he calculated: the van would be empty, as anyone guarding it would have to be suicidal—assuming they knew about its cargo, of course. For a van that large, assuming Moriarty took advantage of all its space, it would contain a devastating amount of C-4—in this area of London, it'd be enough to rack the number of casualties up to a hundred at the very least, with hundreds more injured. Those types of chances were especially grim in the vicinity of a hospital. Then there was the timer. Moriarty picked the time that they would meet, which means he probably scheduled the explosion accordingly. Sherlock didn't count on there being longer than five minutes on that timer.
On the first point, he was grateful to find, he was right. The driver's seat was empty, and there didn't seem to be anybody else in the vehicle. It wasn't too difficult for him to break inside, as the van, conveniently, was unlocked. He circled around to the back and, after throwing a glance over either shoulder, he cautiously opened the back doors.
He was not wrong on the second point, either. Bricks of C-4 were laid out in a mound from the floor of the van to the ceiling, interlaced with wires and switches he couldn't make heads or tails of. So intricate were the workings that Sherlock had not the slightest hope in deciphering it, even if he did have any sort of experience in bomb-dismantling. It would require a squad to incapacitate it, but by the time they arrived it would likely be too late, as evidenced by the third point, on which he was also right.
The timer wasn't too difficult to spot; it was smack in the middle, glowing red numbers flicking down steadily: 2:31… 2:30… 2:29…
Despite the sudden urgency that stimulated his thoughts, he closed the doors as carefully as time allowed before racing up to the front of the van and leaping inside. The keys were missing, but that didn't hinder his actions; it took him only a moment to hotwire the van—a skill he'd never actually practiced himself, but something he'd archived in his mind palace in case of use in the future.
Sherlock wasted no time. He slammed on the gas, swerving out onto the road. A horn blared alarmingly close behind him, but he ignored it, already feeling inside his jacket for his mobile. He needed to drive the bomb to a place with fewer casualties—an explosion this size, as he'd previously calculated, would condemn most of the inhabitants of the hospital to death.
Charterhouse Square. It was the optimum location, being that it was within reach time-wise and would result in minimum damage.
He had pulled out his phone and dialed the number in seconds. It only rang once before Lestrade picked it up. "God's sake, Sherlock—Molly told us you ran off. Where are you?"
"Just leaving St. Bart's. Listen, Lestrade, there's a bomb. I'm driving it down to Charterhouse Square."
"Good God—a bomb? You're driving it?"
"Yes, Lestrade!" Sherlock barked as he pulled a vicious right turn, narrowly missing a Honda which screeched its brakes in order to avoid him. "It's got less than two minutes left, so listen carefully:" he paused as Lestrade shouted orders to his men, "it was Moriarty. He committed suicide on the rooftop. There's no time to disarm the bomb and I haven't got the foggiest idea how, so I'm going to take it down to Charterhouse Square and let it explode there. If anyone's still there, you need to do everything you can in the next minute to get them out."
"Goodbye, Lestrade." He hung up the phone.
He blew through a red light, almost T-boning another car, but his concentration was elsewhere as he pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the road and let the engine rumble in silence. He knew he had less than two minutes left, but he needed a moment. He was completely and utterly alone in a massive van with nothing but a massive bomb for company. For a second, the empty space in the van seemed to compress him into a tinier space than he normally occupied. It was a frightening feeling that seemed to constrict his throat and halt his breathing.
He closed his eyes. "John," he said. He knew his best friend wasn't there, but he needed the man now more than ever. He supposed, if anything, he was praying to the man rather than talking to him, but it was necessary. "I don't… I don't know why I'm doing this, since you were just a figment of my imagination for the past week, but—" He broke off, a surge of emotion catching him off guard and making his voice shake. "I need you. Tonight, here, just for a minute, I need you."
His jaw muscles flexed as he gritted his teeth against the onslaught of the realization. Once again, he had the familiar pressure beneath his eyelids that spoke of impending tears.
He nearly jumped out of the car when his plea was answered with a touch. He felt it at his wrist, two fingers and a thumb pinching his sleeve, and his eyes snapped open to see, sitting in the front seat, Dr. John Watson.
His friend was wearing the same jumper he'd worn when he died, but it was, thankfully, missing the blooming bloodstain. On his face was a grave, forlorn expression, his ruffled brow drawn over sad gray eyes as he regarded the shell of his former flatmate. Sherlock knew it was all in his head, but he couldn't help the burst of joy that flooded his heart at the sight of the man, nor the twitch of his lips that followed—the closest thing he could get to a smile during such a time.
John's expression softened, the hard lines on his forehead melting and eyes crinkling at the edges in what could only be taken as a return of the gesture. There was still, however, a half-concealed sorrow in his eyes as his grasp tightened on Sherlock's sleeve, his hand forming a fist. He only said one word: "Go."
Sherlock hardly spared a glance over his shoulder before pulling out again onto the road. All the while, the timer ticked away in his subconscious: 1:18… 1:17… 1:16…
As the seconds ticked away, he grew more and more tense. John's hand squeezed comfortingly around his forearm which, by the end of the next thirty seconds, had become as solid as an iron bar. He was gripping the steering wheel like a lifeline, clenching it, white-knuckled, in both fists. His jaw was rigid, and the muscles in his neck were corded and stood out in sharp relief.
"Relax," John instructed, making Sherlock realize just how much he missed hearing the man's voice. "You're going to squeeze the life out of that steering wheel."
It wasn't entirely difficult to sink back into their old rhythms, despite everything Sherlock knew now. "Yes, relax, we've only got a bomb in the backseat that'll vaporize everything within a thousand meters."
"Getting tensed up about it won't help anything," said John defensively, his usual motherly-doctor-self. They were almost there; just another turn—
Sherlock veered off the road, bracing himself for the curb. He hit it with the full force of forty kilometers per hour, rocketing about a foot in the air before coming down on the grass like a ship cresting a monstrous wave. Still he drove on, the dampness causing the tires to drive furrows into the dirt. He swerved between two trees before slamming to a jerking halt in the center of the Square. It was dark and abandoned, though whether that was a result of Lestrade or simply the late hour was beyond him.
Thirty seconds left—plenty of time to make a break for it and live to see tomorrow—but he stayed where he was.
"Sherlock," said John, a pained look etching lines between his eyebrows.
Sherlock knew what he was going to say, and he shook his head stubbornly. "I'm not going."
"Don't be an idiot, Sherlock," snapped John. "You can do this without me."
He shook his head again, pursing his lips, unable to speak past the tears which had now spilled over, sliding down to his chin and dripping on his shirt.
Before John could form an argument, however, the driver's door was suddenly flung open, and none other than Molly Hooper was standing there, panting. She grabbed Sherlock's arm roughly, trying to pull him out of the car. "Lestrade said two minutes!" she huffed at Sherlock's baffled expression. "Come on, you idiot, we have to go!"
"I—no, I—" he stammered, glancing back at the passenger's seat, but John was beckoning him onward. He let himself be dragged from the car and staggered after her, half-running for the street. The implication of what he was leaving behind—of the decision he'd been ready to make being snatched from him—he turned back, but Molly pulled him onward. "No—John—I have to go back!" he gasped, struggling against her.
"John's dead!" she barked, and he faltered at the solidity of the statement. "Come on, Sherlock, you can't just give up!"
He was entirely unused to this side of Molly. The timid, doe-eyed coroner he knew had been replaced by a girl with fire in her eyes and desperation in her frantic pace. Even so, he was slightly delirious and could not imagine the idea of watching John die again.
Before he knew it, the man was at his side, urging him onward with Molly, and only then did Sherlock actually put all his effort into distancing himself as far from that bomb as possible.
Then it blew.
The three of them were thrown to the ground on their stomachs, face-down into the grass. Sherlock felt something scalding against his back and knew without moving that his coat was ruined. Something had hit his head, and it was now throbbing distractingly somewhere near the base of his skull.
Everything was burning, and he was suddenly choking on every breath. He could see Molly next to him, see her lips moving, forming urgent words no doubt, but he could hear nothing. Even the smoldering fires littering the newly-charred Square were silent in his ears.
Only John's voice was audible, though he supposed that was because it was in his head. "It's okay, Sherlock. It's alright," he was saying. The man was clutching him by the shoulders, staring fiercely into him. There was something close to breaking in those eyes, but the ultimate tenderness in them stayed Sherlock's fear.
Sherlock could feel himself fading. With every aching throb of his brain, his vision seemed to be dimming more and more. "It's alright," he echoed, numbly, his hand fumbling for John's, touching it almost cautiously.
He didn't understand the half-hidden heartbreak in John's gaze until he felt the man's lips press against his forehead and heard the murmur that was nothing more than a breath in his hair: "Goodbye, Sherlock."
He had no energy to protest the farewell. His hand, scratched and bloodied from shrapnel, squeezed John's tightly, never wanting to let go. John's hand was the last thing he felt before the black world went even blacker and everything faded from his mind.
Sherlock woke in a hospital, unsurprisingly. His room was empty and almost silent but for the steady beeping of his heart-monitor. He was uncomfortably cold beneath the gown and the thin, scratchy blanket, and the IV feed was itching where it was attached to his arm, but he couldn't bring himself to move.
John was gone; he knew that for certain. He would never see his best friend—his only friend—again.
He struggled with this notion, trying to puzzle out whether or not it was worth it to continue now that he fully grasped and understood this. More than anything, he wanted to go back to sleep, to just give up and retreat into his dreams, but his eyes wouldn't close. They stared dead ahead, not bothering to observe his new surroundings. He felt no motivation to put to use his deductive talents. What was there to deduce? There was an explosion. He was in a hospital. John was not here. He didn't see the point in going any further.
An indefinite stretch of time passed after his waking before the door opened. A nurse entered, smiled when she saw his open eyes, and alerted her resident. They ran a few tests, altered his medications, and determined that he would be free to go home within a week. It was a concussion, as it turned out, something he'd had no problem recovering from.
Three days passed, during which Sherlock chose not to speak a word. Why should he? There was nothing that needed saying. Anyway, there was no one here he wanted to talk to.
The doctors insisted he at least answer their medical questions—how was he feeling, did it hurt when they did this, could he hear them alright, was he feeling light-headed… Before the first day had passed, they'd settled on a blink-once-for-no-blink-twice-for-yes system. They were worried about his silence, he could see it in their eyes, but he didn't care; it took a great effort now for him to care about anything.
On the fourth day, the door opened to admit not a nurse but Molly Hooper. She seemed to have begun a habit of showing up whenever Sherlock least expected it. She had a jagged line of stitches drawn across the left side of her forehead and a patch of gauze over her right forearm, but other than a few nicks, she seemed unharmed. His eyes slid expressionlessly over her, taking in nothing other than her new injuries, before losing themselves once more in the distance.
"Sherlock." His name—or, rather, the tone in which she said it—dragged his attentions back to her. There was a long pause as they regarded each other, and he could see the worry—possibly fear as well—building up in her gaze. She steeled herself. "I know what you were going to do," she said, "when it… when it exploded." Sherlock didn't answer. "You were going to stay there, weren't you? You were going to stay in the van when it—it went off."
He spoke his first word in days, his voice rusty and cracked with disuse: "Yes."
"Oh, Sherlock…" She pulled up a chair next to his bed and sat down. She looked like she wanted to touch him—his face, maybe, or his hand, but she held back. "I—I'm sorry. But you can't give up, you just can't. John," she paused for a moment, averting her eyes. "John wouldn't have wanted you to—"
"John's dead," Sherlock interrupted harshly. He was ashamed of how his voice broke on the second word, but he continued, "He's dead, he's gone. It doesn't matter what he would've wanted, because he's—it doesn't—none of it—…" He had to stop there, because his voice, fragile as it was, had faltered into nothing. He could feel his face screwing up, twisting to suit his emotions. Emotions. Once he had claimed not to be ravaged by such things, but he supposed that was a lie now.
Molly leaned over suddenly, and it wasn't until her arms were around him and his face was pressed against the hollow of her neck that he realized her intentions were to comfort him. She didn't say anything; she didn't need to. There was nothing to say.
Something inside of Sherlock broke open, and he sobbed openly into her. He'd tried to hold it back, but he couldn't help it. The physical contact, he supposed, triggered the response. His tears made the skin on her neck slick, but neither made any effort to wipe them away. After a few moments, her shoulders began to jerk in the same way his were. He heard her trying to stifle her sobs, but the wet spot growing on his shirt sleeve betrayed her. They spent several minutes like this, long after both their muscles had begun to cramp and their noses were stuffy and their brains felt swollen.
"I can't," Sherlock hoarsely half-whispered, "I can't do it."
"Yes, you can," replied Molly thickly through her grief. "You can. I'll help. We'll all help. It'll be okay." She took a long, ragged breath. "Please. Just stay with us, alright?"
Sherlock made his first effort in four days to do something other than eat and relieve himself by closing his hand over the top of hers, the same way John had clasped his. He felt like he was choking on the word, but he managed to get it out: "Alright."
A/N: I'm sorry. I'm not sure what possessed me to write this.