Sherlock stares at the message, that mockery of everything he’s never said. They’re not even words anymore, because he’s seen those scrawls so many times. By now they’ve disintegrated into their constituent parts, into curves, into lines vertical and horizontal. Their original significance erased even though at one time they embodied twenty-four months of absence, of nothing, of torture.
And yet their meaning has never been clearer to him. The letters scream like the ghosts of children who never died. Blue and luminescent like the lies he’s trying to see through, the lies he thought were over. There they are again, in all their taunting linseed glory, resurrected one last time.
Because people leave a note.
The witch in the woods with her Bohemian stationary and her breadcrumbs and her deadeye stare. She’s the shark, and these are her waters. Worse, she has John – has always had him, since the godforsaken day she entered their lives.
But at least that means Sherlock can foresee where she took him. He just needs to find the right room.
He’s so lost in the maze of his brain that he doesn’t come to until he’s at ground level, flailing for a taxi that won’t appear. They glide past like mindless amphibians, blind and stupid at the bottom of the sea, intent on finding their next prey. Sherlock isn’t even a good victim anymore. He’s already spent game, hunted down and cornered and drained of all life: they don’t want him. They want fresher meat, not this washed-out, fucked-up dishrag of a man who is almost too weak to stand on his own two legs in his own fucking street.
Did you drive here?
But she’s gone now, and so is her car. There aren’t even any motorcycles in sight. He’ll have to run.
Almost too groggy to see the pavement in front of him, he stumbles through the traffic. A single syllable for each footstep, John, John, John, just run – just do it – just make sure you get there – just continue moving forward. He’s got no one but you. Sherlock knows that now. All those years thinking he didn’t really matter, not deep down – now he knows the truth, and it’s like a razor in his throat, slicing through the membranes as he breathes in short, sharp bursts of smog. He matters. He’s the only one who matters.
Even though John may never acknowledge it even to himself.
His throat and chest ache when he finally arrives at the right address. The area is calm, dull even. A beautiful façade, carefully demarcated by well-tended hedges and fences. A colourful game board hiding murder between the cracks. There’s a muffled pop as a gun goes off. Turning abruptly, he runs up the path just in time to hear tires squeal behind the house. The heel of his hand smashes into the door and there’s a dull jab somewhere at the edge of his consciousness as a splinter drives deep into his flesh. The shock of impact travels up his arm and the door swings open on a bloodbath.
John, on the floor, shot.
The facts crowd into his mind as if they have meaning. They don’t. There’s only one Rosetta Stone for this, and it’s beating behind his own ribs.
His knees all but shatter when he lands on them. John gasps where he lies, his left hand twitching on the floor. Sherlock rips his scarf from his throat and presses it against the wound the way John once taught him to, and he reaches into his pocket for his phone. The puddle he sits in is warm and sticky. He can’t breathe because the air is iron. John blinks rapidly, his eyelashes quivering with the strain. His almost-gone stare seeks Sherlock’s face, clawing for some kind of recognition, some kind of hope. Is there hope? Can Sherlock save him?
Was this how you felt?
Did I do this to you?
The phone is sticky too. Did he drop it in the blood? The smear from him swiping the screen presses into his cheek as he stutters the address to a person who’s only doing her job at the other end of the line – he can hear himself sounding absolutely panicked, and he tries to locate his ordinary voice somewhere in the echoing void inside him. But there’s only emptiness – just an endless, desperate vacuum where his mind should be.
He sees his own hand cradle John’s cheek and realizes that he must have blacked out for a moment. The phone lies discarded by his side now, the conned lines of comfort from the 911 woman muffled by blood seeping into the microphone, blurring her words. Soon it will go completely mute.
But not quite yet. Sherlock leans forward, forehead touching John’s, hand cupping his head now, mouth a mere inch from John’s, and he begs like he’s never begged in his life – more than fucking twice, more times than any tragic lover in recorded history. Orfeo, Tristan, Lancelot and all the simpering Romeos of earlier centuries fade away, they all pale to nothing in the raw screams tearing out of his throat. The word – the word, the forbidden one – blooms like a desperate flower from his tongue, again and again. That illicit, stupid little syllable he meant to deny himself forever – now it unfurls in cascades of velvet petals, all raining down in deep maroon over John’s pallid face:
If there’s grammar in there, he can’t locate it. There’s just love, and more love, and all the times he didn’t say it, and all the times John seemed on the verge to. If there’s a time for syntactic rules, that time is not today, because now he’s the one saving the life, and it has nothing to do with the scarf clogging up the entrance wound. It’s just I love you and don’t go and the horrible, naked truth that I only ever lived for you.
For a second in the middle of it, their eyes meet. Sherlock doesn’t know if it’s the flashing blue of the sirens outside or if it’s just the cold fire of resolve in John’s eyes, but he almost imagines that there is a flicker of recognition there – that they’ve finally reached some kind of understanding – here at the end of everything, here at the precipice where Moriarty’s plan is brought to ultimate fruition.
And then there are footsteps and people shoving him out of the way and someone taking his hand. There’s a stretcher and some sort of machine – or is it? he’s not sure – and he tries to stand up but his muscles can’t carry his weight. The last thing he remembers is telling someone who smells of latex gloves that yes, he will miss John, he will miss him from the bottom of the hell pit all the way up to God and his fascist fucking angels. He will miss him like a heart lacking a ribcage. He’ll be alone and defenceless in an eternity of torment, and all the words of useless poetry ever penned since the dawn of time won’t be enough–
And then merciful darkness takes him. Perhaps it’s death, because a heart can’t survive on its own. Perhaps he’s finally done: his last debt paid and the ultimate reward waiting at the end of a hallucinated tunnel of light that’s his brain’s final act of self-medication.
But he surfaces again, and the white light isn’t a fabricated heaven, it’s the glare of starched hospital sheets. The first thing he knows is that his neck hurts like hell, which can only mean that he’s alive. The second thing is that there’s the steady beep of a heart rate to his right. Raising his head from the edge of the bed, he slowly focuses on the jumping line on the screen. Beep, beep, slow and steady, the stubbornness of a man who refuses to die.
Something moves on the sheets: a pale hand, searching for comfort, for support. Sherlock grabs it, kisses it without thinking, and the fingers cramp a little under the touch of his lips. Steeling himself, he seeks John’s face. He’s there, he’s so alive, and he’s almost awake. He’s slowly unsinking from his drugged-out coma, returning to the land of the living with a raspy breath that tells Sherlock he’s trying to say something.
“Shh,” he whispers, but the sound of it makes John open his eyes. Seeing Sherlock, he breathes in sharply, and Sherlock mimes laying a finger on his lips. John gazes at him vacantly and then narrows his eyes.
“I…” he wheezes out.
John briefly closes his eyes and swallows, looking – of all things – irritated. “No.” His vocal cords make a valiant effort to participate. “Fuck you.”
Sherlock almost sits back, but not quite. He holds on to John’s hand, knowing that he needs to hear whatever it is John needs to say. It’s not dangerous, not this time. Not the way it’s been dangerous countless times before. No, this time John’s anger – weak as it may be – is a good thing.
Breathing in deep, John forces out, “You will not have the last word this time, Sherlock.”
John shakes his head and Sherlock bites his tongue. Breathing deliberately for a while, John fixates Sherlock with an intent stare. Sherlock all but nods, showing with his whole body that he’s listening, that John will finally be allowed to say his piece. God knows Sherlock’s got it coming.
But when the words finally come, they hit him in his weakest. He’s totally unprepared for the attack. Maybe he’s the one who will bleed out, because this is too much. He can’t take it. The whole thing is impossible.
And yet there it is, in John’s undeniable, if gravelly voice: “Me too.” His hand closes on Sherlock’s as he looks at him with a tenderness no one in the world can deserve, repeating it to make it doubly true: “Me too.”