Title: About Time
Word count: 4000
Fandom: Sherlock (BBC)
Characters: Sherlock Holmes, John Watson
Disclaimer: We are all aware that "Sherlock" is not mine.
Summary: This is a story about time: time spent grieving, waiting, coming to terms with what has happened. Time stopping. Time moving forward. John has lost his best friend, but it takes him a while to understand why his grief is so much deeper than that.
The Reichenbach case is your biggest challenge yet as Moriarty twists the knife deeper and deeper. It ends with your best friend on the roof of St. Bart’s and you on the pavement, staring up at him, your eyes following his tumbling form, the flapping coat tails like wings. You hear the thud of a body hitting the ground, just before you hit the blacktop yourself. You get up again. There are people. Sherlock, on the ground. Half-open, sightless blue eyes framed by blood-matted curls. There is no pulse. Sherlock Holmes is dead. The time is 3:42 pm.
The time you spend waiting is probably the worst. Every minute of every hour is filled with endless seconds of love that flow like blood from a wound, draining from your soul, useless and dripping nothing but pain. You miss him more with every contraction of your bursting heart, full to the brim with the things you didn’t say when you still had the chance.
You wait for a miracle, for things to get better, for dawn to appear on the horizon of this endless night, but nothing happens. You feel sunken into a well, with people moving above, going about their daily business, but no one can see you down here. You’re not sure if you’re waiting to be rescued or to drown.
The time you spend with the people who are left in your life – who life has left you – is agony. Harry feigns compassion when you know she’s secretly glad that this event has inevitably broken you from the gravity of his orbit, for good, it seems, to float away helplessly into the vast, chilled emptiness of space that is your existence.
Greg is too guilt-ridden to see far beyond his own grief, helpless to assist you as he himself struggles to stay afloat on the ocean of regret he finds himself on. He has tried to reach out, knowing that you have it so much worse than him, but your dimmed, lifeless presence adds to his burden until he can barely stand, so you avoid him to protect both of you.
Mycroft is an enigma, as always, cold and distant yet oddly subdued in the face of your anguish. Your lava-liquid anger towards him has solidified into black, hard basalt hatred. Still, you know he must be suffering, too, so you let go of your resentment as far as you can. There’s no point in sinking your leaking boat with more heavy emotion.
Mrs. Hudson is the only one who seems to grasp the nature of your feelings, so when she come to visit to share tears and tea, there is always a brief moment when you almost welcome her presence. She seems to sharpen the edge of your grief so its stabbing blade hurts less when it slides into your heart, the cuts deep and clean. You cling to each other, struggling for breath, treading water under the bridge with no way back upstream.
The time your clock measures, or your calendar, or your heartbeat, passes unnoticed, for now. Rationally, you know your life is moving on without you, that you should make something of your limited span on this rock hurtling through space but you can’t seem to find the energy to care.
You blink and it’s evening, another twenty-four hours have silently flown past you. If there was a dawn, you must have missed it. It doesn’t matter.
The time since you last saw him stretches painfully inside you. It feels like you are so much bigger within now, expanding involuntarily to accommodate your grief, like you are building a mind palace of your own inside yourself, all shaped out of sorrow and despair and filled to the roof with snow flakes made from frozen tears.
The corridors stretch, unlit, into the gloom with dark, unknown ends. Silence echoes in the halls and no light filters through the bricked-up windows. The whole complex is empty safe for a few grains of dust that bear his fingerprints, strewn like bread crumbs on the bare floors with ever expanding spaces in between them.
In the farthest corner, there is a closet which you try to keep locked at all times. It holds all of the memories of your glorious time together, with the emotions heaped on top in an untidy tangle. You never manage to properly shut the door, though, and the stacked-up boxes tumble out at the most inopportune moments.
One day you notice that the hidden feelings inside shine thought the cracks in the closet door, lighting up the space around it, and you run in fear of the light.
The time used on rationalising your feelings is never enough to reach a conclusion, or even begin to uncover the layers upon layers tucked away underneath each other like the growth rings of a millennial oak, stooped and bent like you, struck by lightning far too many times until it eventually split down to the roots, yet still clinging to life.
Most of the time, you don’t know why you even bother. What does it matter that you felt a warm wave of golden affection every time he looked at you? That you experienced the beginnings of something mysterious and searing every once in a while when the adrenalin wasn’t enough any more? Your boiling blood has cooled now, the burning centre at the heart of a wandering comet dimming to ash as the radiant core of your universe was gobbled up by the black hole of death, merciless, irreversible.
You tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling this way. He was only your flatmate. Friend. But you are man enough to acknowledge that you do. Feel this way. Not knowing why is slowly driving you insane, so you worry away at the truth hovering on the edge of your conscious, the fringes of your galaxy.
You hope that understanding what you are grieving for will help you to find a substitute, a make-shift part to fill that space inside of you so you won’t have to be so damn careful all the time not to trip and fall head-long into its terrifying depths. A spare part, certainly not perfect, but fit to allow the machinery of your broken heart to work again, hitching and creaking, gears and wheels grinding laboriously on.
The time that follows a very important realisation flares up and burns like an arsonists’ masterpiece: You’ve chipped away at the truth, you’ve followed the bread crumbs, you’ve dared to grasp at the rays shining through the closet door and now you know. You know why your heart feels so broken that tears are dripping out at the seams no matter how many stitches you put in, why that cavity inside of you keeps growing like an undercutting in the endless, torrential rain that keeps falling now in your London.
It is so obvious that you discover new emotions blooming inside of you to battle the all-encompassing grief: Astonishment. Disbelief. Regret. Self-loathing. The days burn now with them, glow eerily in this new light. Eventually, the flames die down and beyond smoke and ashes lies the pearly-white gem of Acceptance.
You loved him in a way that was so deeply and profoundly rooted in you that it would have required you to step outside yourself to see it - like, indeed, so many outsiders did. The reason you hadn’t realised was that you were standing too close. With your nose pressed against the glass surface of the screen you couldn’t ever hope to see the whole picture, only tiny, coloured dots of light in red, blue and green. Staring at the sun, you were blinded to a universe of stars surrounding it. It took him dying for you to take the necessary steps backwards to widen your gaze.
The time you spend crying, now, is coloured by the prospect of resolution. The tears feel more like letting go of precious gems, fireflies released into the night sky or prayers set free to the wind, instead of adding to the sloshing flood that was drowning you, pulling you under relentlessly. You begin to cautiously hope that one day, you might even run out of salt water to spill down your cheeks onto your pillow, his pillow, Mrs. Hudson’s kind, old hands, the violin, the broken beakers on the counter, the black marble headstone marking his last resting place (this one only when no one can see you, in the dead of might).
You start to feel almost imperceptibly lighter. You wish he was still here so you could tell him. You want him to know that you’ve forgiven him, that you are grateful, that now you’ve realised the truth you will never stop loving him. Instead, you tell his tomb stone and are, inexplicably, almost certain that he can hear you.
The time between winter and spring feels filled with promise and anticipation. You have gotten through the darkest, coldest part and survived. Even though you were unable to figure out his heart, what moved him to do what he did, what you could have done to prevent it, you know now what moved your own heart back in those golden days, moves it still. In the end, forgiving him had been almost easy.
Now, you are on the verge of forgiving yourself. For not seeing, for not listening more closely to the things unspoken, things said only through the violin, for not trusting in that tiniest, crucial moment when he needed you most. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean you won’t regret it to your dying breath, but you tell yourself to let it go.
Time stops when you open the door one day and see him standing there, back turned, coat and all, in the middle of your living room. You are shocked because you really had thought you were getting better - so much better, in fact, that you had returned to work some months ago. Apparently, you overestimated your brains’ potential to recover from trauma because what you are seeing can’t be real.
Anger follows, anger at yourself for not being stronger than this, for caving in after all, your foundations giving way and crumbling under the sustained strain of grief and regret. You press your lips together, blinking hard to dispel the ghost in your parlour and clear your vision of this hallucination. What angers you most is that this means you will not be fit to practice medicine, the one thing that has never failed to give you joy. A doctor slipping from reality is no good to anyone.
Your universe, tentatively re-kindled and carefully fed with little scraps of honeyed light, is on the verge of implosion yet again.
Then, the figment speaks. Your name, rough around the edges, broken in the middle, creased and worn like a well-used tissue after an accidental round in the washing machine, issues from those lips. Air rushes into your lungs. With a sharp lurch, reality snaps into focus again. A hysterical part of your brain screams that you are not losing your mind, after all, and how could you ever think otherwise. Things morph into another kind of shock, not the paralysing, defeating kind, but the energising sort that makes your muscles bunch and your ears roar with adrenalin. You give yourself another moment to gather enough saliva in your mouth to form words.
“Sherlock.” A combination of syllables you haven’t used in a long time. You swallow the unfamiliar taste. A muffled noise is heard as your briefcase drops from your hand as Sherlock turns around to face you. Your brain has forgotten about your fingers entirely. There is so much you want to say, words warring at the back of your throat, but you can’t decide which to let slip past your clenched jaw and pressed-together lips, so you say nothing more, just look, drinking in the appearance of the man in front of you.
Sherlock looks older, his hair long and in need of a good cut, framing a lined face with weary eyes that have seen too much. No, not lined. Scarred. At least some of them. He’s gazing at you, clearly waiting for more. From his hunched shoulders and bowed head you are guessing he might be expecting some for of violence from you. A few months ago, he might have been correct about that, but that was before... Before. It’s too much.
“I... I’m sorry,” you hear yourself say, mumbling “Sorry.” You blink and find your feet carrying you down the stairs to Mrs. Hudson’s door. You hear her before you knock, sniffling quietly in her flat. You conclude that she already knows. Placing your hand against the smooth wood, you rest your forehead against the cool surface, closing your eyes for a moment. You have no intention of going in, but you can’t go back upstairs right now, either, not with all the things you now know filling your insides like heavy, skin-warm gold coins, not with your emotions threatening to explode like a supernova behind your eyes.
You breathe, trying to focus on the one clear thought in this swirling mass: Whatever you’re feeling, whatever lies behind or before you, Sherlock is alive. That’s what counts right now. It also means you have suffered for nothing, have lost months of your life to such black despair that you never expected to come out at the other end at all.
Anger slowly rises to the surface like a bubble of noxious gases in a magma-filled crater of churning emotions. The numbness of solidified basalt on top cracks almost audibly. A floor board creaks from above: Sherlock shifting his weight. You open your eyes, sniffing once and whipping at your watering eyes with the back of your hand before you bump your fist against the door – gently, so as not to disturb Mrs. H., even though you want to smash the wood to splinters – then pushing away from it to ascend the stairs again. If you don’t do this now, you might never muster the courage.
When you enter the living room, however, you find Sherlock slumped in his chair, head in his hands. Gone is the straight posture from before. Now, he seems small, in pain even, his coat huddled around him like skin grown too large. He looks up from under his lashes when he hears you enter and you notice his eyes are red-rimmed with fatigue. He looks awful.
“You came back,” he croaks, straightening with a wince.
You frown. “I could say the same thing about you.” Carefully, giving nothing away, you cross your arms tightly in front of your chest.
You watch Sherlock slowly flex his fingers, balling his right hand into a lose fist before releasing again. “John, please give me the chance to explain.” He sounds so earnest. And suddenly, there it is: Your breaking point, the opportunity you have been waiting for without any hope of ever getting to this point ever again.
“No.” Your voice is calm. He looks stricken, opening his mouth to speak anyway. “No, listen!”, you interrupt. “You owe me that. Just listen for a moment, Sherlock, will you? You know I’m not good at these things.”
He looks bewildered but says nothing more, for now. You take a deep breath, gathering what strength you have left, deliberately opening the door to that closet with the memories stuffed inside and the emotions glimmering, almost blinding you. You reach for them with both hands, wrapping them around your heart like a cloak, like armour. You need to feel them close for this. They snuggle up to you like warm, friendly animals, with soft fur and comforting weight, and you wonder why you were ever afraid of them.
You bite your lip, looking at the floor between Sherlock’s feet, taking in his scuffed shoes, his stained, ill-fitting slacks, your eyes wandering up towards his face with every sentence you speak. “You were dead. I mean, obviously you weren’t really, but to me, you had died. I won’t ask you how you think I felt. I know emotions are not your area. So I’m going to tell you.” You meet his eyes briefly and they are wide and scared. You won’t let it deter you.
“For the longest time, I felt like the world had ended. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t even drink my bloody tea. I couldn’t understand why you had done it – still don’t. You’re going to have to explain that some time, by the way. – but what was so much worse was that I thought it was my fault. That my best friend k-killed himself – “ Your voice breaks for a moment. “Hrm. That you killed yourself and I should have seen it coming. I should have been able to prevent it.”
You rush through the last statement. Realising you are watching the floor again, you raise your eyes to his. He is shocked silent. You swallow before continuing. “And I know you understand that, Sherlock. I know you have felt guilt yourself when you couldn’t save that old lady, for example. But this was so much worse. This was you. My univ-“ You catch yourself before you say something hopelessly, sappily romantic. The leather of the chair creaks as Sherlock shifts uncomfortably. Clearing your throat, you go on.
“You were the best and the wises man I have ever known.” There, safer territory again. “And I just could not figure out what had gone wrong... And then I was so fucking angry! Angry at me and angry at you. At Moriarty. At Greg. At poor Mrs. Hudson. At everybody, but yeah, mostly at me.” There are tears threatening to spill so you pinch the corners of your eyes for a moment.
“It didn’t last. After a bit, I started to push it all away, lock it up, you know? Kind of like your mind palace.” You give a bark of humourless laughter. He looks chagrined, like he has swallowed a lemon.
“I missed you so much and I didn’t even know why.” You have to stop to breathe a bit. Mercifully, he doesn’t interrupt, just looks at you with a growing frown, like he is slowly realising an error. Good. His hands are loosely clasped between his knees now, still in a way that means he’s listening. You continue.
“I mean, no offence, but it’s not like we had known each other for that long, and there I was... Anyway, I started trying to figure out what was going on. So I could move on. And that’s how I realised...” You falter. This is hard. Now that you’ve come this far, you don’t know how to say it. You look at his eyes again. He’s frowning like when he’s on the verge of a deduction. You are not sure if you want him to reach is own conclusion or if you would rather be the one to tell him first. You give it another try.
“I’m not sure how to put this. Grieving for you is... was... like having the centre of-“ No. Again, too sappy. Sherlock won’t understand. He’ll laugh at you. “I...”
But it’s too late. Sherlock’s frown has vanished, replaced by a look of dawning comprehension.
“Don’t say it,” you throw in. You try to fend of his deduction, a shaky breath escaping as you feel the colour draining from your face. You know you won’t be able to stand this, him tearing your feelings to pieces, ridiculing you, telling you you’re weak, you’re wrong
. “Please, for the love of god, Sherlock, don’t say it. Please... please.” You are begging now. How is it possible that a moment ago, you were the one who wanted to tell him
, put it out in the open. Once and for all.
“John,” he says gently.
“No. No, this was a bad idea. I... it’s the shock. I’m overwhelmed. You’re alive!” You give a little laugh, almost hysterical in tone. “I wanted you not to be dead. I was hoping for a miracle for so long and here you are!”
“No, please. Don’t. Don’t spoil it. Whatever happened, I’m so glad you’re back and I don’t want to spoil it with my maudlin.” Your eyes dart around the room, looking for something to save you from this strange, terrifying moment, but then there’s Sherlock, right in front of you. The crashing waves of panic freeze inside your chest.
“I know what you aren’t saying. It’s all right.” His tone is unexpectedly kind, like he’s calming a spooked horse. He touches your forearm to make you look up. There really is a new scar or two on his face. You wonder how many more are hiding underneath his cloths, underneath his skin. You are reminded of that first night, here at Baker Street, with him looking at you like this: assessing, calculating, standing far too close, almost nose to nose. You can’t help it but to look back.
“This is the reason I left, John,” he says quietly. “Because I care for you as well, and I couldn’t see you die because of my sentiment. It made you a target, so I removed the threat. You see, I never expected you to reciprocate.” His breath ghosts across your face, your lips. It smells like he hasn’t brushed his teeth in weeks, or washed, or changed his cloths. He is so close to you that you can see where the stitches went in to close the thin, white scar now almost bisecting his left eyebrow. But this can’t be real. He can’t mean what you think he’s saying.
“Sherlock,” your whisper sound breathless, scandalised, incredulous.
“I apologise if I miscalculated,” he murmurs and before you can ask what he means by that, he has dipped his head and pressed his chapped lips to yours. The touch is infinitely gentle, barely moving across your mouth, demanding nothing. You are falling, realising this must be a dream: Sherlock alive, Sherlock returning, Sherlock kissing you, professing to feel the same. It can’t be real. Safe in that assessment, you see no reason not to enjoy the fruits of your madness.
You let your eyes drop shut, feeling your way along the kiss with your lips, the tip of your tongue. Saliva makes your mouths glide together easily, half open, just the other side of chaste. A hand comes up to support your head, cradling your face, and you become aware that you’ve grabbed on to Sherlock’s arms with both hands, pulling him in. He opens up a little wider and you feel the sharp edge of a chipped front tooth as you venture forth a little too far.
You continue to kiss, reverence in every motion. You try to kiss Sherlock like you wish you had kissed him... before, pouring all the love and tenderness you are feeling through the gentle movements of your lips, showing him he was cherished, wanted. That he had had a reason to stay. The last thought breaks something inside you. The tears that had been stinging behind your eyes slowly come forth one by one. You end the kiss with a few pecks to Sherlock’s still-open mouth before turning your face away in embarrassment, whipping at the moisture with your cuff, afraid to look and find him gone.
Time starts again as you open you eyes and he is still there. Not a figment, not a hallucination, not a dream, after all. You look up into his eyes, noting the dilated pupils ringed by cerulean irises. “I am so sorry,” Sherlock murmurs and you know it’s not for the kiss. It’s for all that came before. “Please forgive me.” You can feel your lips pull into a smile. “You still have a lot of explaining to do, but yes. Of course I forgive you!”
Later, you will ask him about his new scars. You will listen to him telling tales of loneliness and torture, starvation, cold and fear, the first kill, the second. How it changed him despite his determination to stay unaffected. Of running and hiding and being chased across the globe, and how he had kept himself afloat and sane with thoughts of you.
For now, you hold him close as the world spins on.