It’s dark and the snow is up to his ankles by the time the house comes into view. Snow is everywhere, falling fast, wrapping itself around his limbs and face and slipping down the back of his collar and up his cuffs, and though it’s numbing, he doesn’t mind much because it keeps the freshest cuts from bleeding too heavily. Small mercies. The house is a dim beacon on the horizon, fixed and steady, so there’s that to focus on instead of the fact that it is very cold and he’s very tired. At first glance it appears unoccupied, wearing its emptiness like a heavy cloak, a sort of sad weariness, he thinks, and then he laughs at himself for being uncharacteristically melodramatic. It’s a house, after all, a refuge and a much needed one. Then, as he approaches he sees a thin, white twist of smoke rise from the chimney and he stops in his tracks, snow whirling about him. A dilemma to be sure, but there’s nowhere else to go. He can’t turn back now, not safe, plus too far. His lip is swollen and throbbing slightly in the cold. Whoever lives there will be startled by his appearance and he must be prepared for that.
Seventeen steps to the front door where he knocks, and knocks again. And again, bare knuckles scraping against wood. He lost his last good gloves yesterday, of course. He hears a faint shuffling behind the door. And old man’s walk, he thinks, bad leg, uses a cane but hates it, makes him feel even older, so he shuffles instead, and pays for it later.
The door opens, and yes it’s an old man, an old man with a kind, sad face and short silvery hair. He’s slightly bent, frail, but with a sinewy strength underneath. He’s wearing a checked shirt and a cardigan. His eyes are blue and kind and inquisitive and sad, and oh so familiar.
He stares at the man without speaking because he’s not sure what to say. He’d had a speech prepared — unfortunate accident, mugged in town, money gone, just need a place for the night — but the sight of the man standing just inside makes him forget everything, because it can’t be possible, it can’t be John standing there in front of him because he’s old and it’s not possible—
But it is possible, apparently, because it is John, a John aged by some 30 years or so, hands on hips, silver head thrown back and laughing a sort of strangled laugh. He then claps a hand to his mouth, as if to make himself stop laughing. John removes his hand and it’s trembling, and when he finally speaks his voice is trembling, too, not only because he’s old, but because he’s crying now.
“Of course,” John says in his not-quite-John voice. “Of course, of course the great bloody Sherlock Holmes would go and learn how to time travel.”
John doesn’t invite him in so much as he moves away from the door and Sherlock slips inside, snow dropping from his clothing to the wooden floor. He stands dumbly in the sudden heat. His brain seems to have stopped functioning along with his voice. He swallows several times and tugs at his muffler. A drop of water gathers at the tip of his nose, dangles, falls. He dimly wonders if he’s melting. He stares at the old man who stares back at him. Sherlock pushes the door shut, lets his bag fall to the ground. He is suddenly staggeringly exhausted. If he doesn’t sit down soon he will fall down, but he still can’t make himself move. John tilts his head, studying him.
“It is you, then, isn’t it? It’s really you.”
“I don’t know,” Sherlock says, because at the moment he really doesn’t. “I don’t—”
Sherlock looks about the small room, at the scattered knickknacks both oddly familiar — a hollow-eyed skull grins at him knowingly from a small side table — and oddly worn — books with tattered covers and dog-eared pages, at the framed photos of a younger John and, well, younger Sherlock together. Then, other photos of this John and similarly aged Sherlock, side by side, grey heads bent towards one another, shoulders touching.
“Of course it’s you,” John says softly, smiling an odd little smile, like it hurts.
Sherlock tries again. “I don’t— I don’t understand.” And since he’s not used to not understanding, this makes him feel even weaker and unsteadier. He’s afraid he might faint and how embarrassing would that be, and how on earth would Old John manage him? “Where are we?”
John makes a sound and shakes his head. His hair in the firelight is more white than silver. Sherlock resists the urge to touch it. He’s not sure of the rules here yet.
“You must be freezing,” John says at last. “You look like you’ve been walking for days.” He studies Sherlock’s face. “And lost a few fights.”
“Won some, too,” Sherlock says, and this makes John smile, just a little.
“If I could just—” Sherlock begins and tries to move to the closest chair, then finally does fall down, legs folding beneath him, landing hard on his knees, hands splayed uselessly in front of him. John crouches beside him, an arm spread across his back, a hand cupping the side of his face.
“You don’t seem exceedingly surprised to see me,” Sherlock says just before he passes out.
John lets Sherlock’s wet, cold body tumble heavily against him. He says, “You stopped surprising me a long time ago, love.”
When he awakes he is warm and dry and lying on the couch closest to the fire. The flames are rather mesmerizing, and he watches the colours change from orange to red to yellow and back for some time and listens to the ice tick against the windowpanes before he speaks.
“Snow.” It’s all he can manage.
John nods. “Record fall for December this year. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“December,” Sherlock says. He feels stupid. But, maybe John won’t notice.
Sherlock licks dry lips. “You never answered my question.”
John watches him from his chair. “Which one was that?”
“Where am I?” Sherlock says.
“That’s not what you asked,” John says. “You asked where we were.” He sighs. “This is…our home. Yours and mine. Our retirement home. Where we grow old together.” John’s voice fades at the end and he sighs again. Sherlock thinks about this for a while. It’s very quiet in the room and very warm. He feels drowsy but oddly alert, too.
“And where am I?” His tongue feels thick in his mouth and he wonders if the words are coming out right.
“You’re right there, Sherlock.”
“No, no, I mean, where am I?”
John sighs and puts his mug down on the little table beside him. But before he can reply, something much more important jumps into Sherlock’s head. He actually sits up a little and looks around.
“And where are the Christmas decorations? You love Christmas. You always loved Christmas.” It seems suddenly vital that he hears the answer to this question first.
John smiles and Sherlock knows what he’s going to say before he says it. “Wasn’t anything to celebrate this year.”
And that pretty much answers the other question, too, Sherlock thinks. He nods and lies back down. Beyond the window he sees the snow falling, and beyond that all the beehives silenced under mounds of white.
When he awakes the second time, John is making him dinner. He can smell meat and veggies and spices and a wave of hunger hits him like a punch. He tries to remember the last time he ate anything and can’t. He’s halfway devoured his plate before he realizes John is just sitting and watching.
“You’re not hungry?”
John shakes his head. “Not much of an appetite these days, I’m afraid.”
“You always used to harass me about eating,” Sherlock says around a mouthful of potato and John smiles a little but says nothing.
When he’s done, John hands him a hot mug of tea and Sherlock sips it. It’s exactly right. Of course. Years of practice, after all.
“Your face,” John says. “Let’s take a look, shall we?”
His hands are trembling and cold against Sherlock’s skin, but Sherlock isn’t sure whether it’s from nerves or age, so he doesn’t ask. He very gently cleans the wounds and dabs them with ointment.
“Don’t need any stitches, at least,” he says. Sherlock stares at him.
“May I…can I. Can I touch you?”
John nods and breathes. “Yes.”
Sherlock touches John’s lined, face gently and John leans into his hand a bit. Sherlock touches the silver hair, coarser than it once was, but still glorious. He covers John’s trembling, lined old-man’s hand with his own. Sherlock can feel the skin beneath his, paper-thin, blue-veined. An old man’s hand. Well, John is an old man now, after all.
“I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.” He says it without thinking.
“Yeah? I’d like to see you try, you berk.” John pulls back a bit, eyes narrowed. “I could still lay you flat with a single punch if I wanted.”
Sherlock smiles. “The last time I saw you—”
John stops. “Yes?”
“You were. You were at my grave.” Sherlock pauses. “I saw you there. I watched you and you didn’t know. And then I left. And I started running and I’ve been running ever since, for a long time now. And. And now I’m here and.”
“Ah. Right. Yes.” John makes a sound like a laugh, but it doesn’t come out quite right. “Where did you come from, then? What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I. It’s all such a jumble at the moment. Such a long time,” Sherlock says. He closes his eyes. “Trying to keep you safe, keep Mrs. Hudson safe, Lestrade. But, mostly you.”
“Ah.” John hesitates, as if he has a thousand more questions, but instead stands and clears the dishes. “Well, you’ve made a bit of a detour, haven’t you?”
Dishes clatter in the sink. “But, it worked, as you can seen. I’m safe. You kept me safe.”
Sherlock nods, suddenly close to tears. John stands across the room, wavering slightly.
“We’ll talk more tomorrow, yes? I’m too tired now, Sherlock. I need to sleep. And you do, too, I’m sure.”
“Tomorrow,” John says gently. “If you’re still here, that is.”
Sherlock frowns. “Where else would I be?”
But, John doesn’t answer, and Sherlock hears him shuffle down the hallway, hears the bedroom door close firmly behind him.
It turns out the walls are quite thin and even though Sherlock sleeps soundly, the sound of John’s muffled crying in the dead of night wakes him, keeps him awake for a long time.
“Do you feel strong enough for a walk?”
The snow has stopped and the morning sun is bright, painfully so, glinting off a smooth sheen of white for miles of countryside around the small house.
Sherlock nods and pulls on his coat and boots, wraps his muffler around his neck. John hesitates, then hands him a pair of thick leather gloves. They fit him perfectly.
“Yours. Yes.” John smiles. “Christmas present last year. Come on, then.”
They walk in silence through the snow, breath billowing around their faces. John’s cheeks and nose go red quickly, and the tips of his ears. He’s not wearing a hat and Sherlock wants to chide him, but resists. He doesn’t know this John well enough yet.
They walk without speaking and when they stop Sherlock sees they are standing by a small cemetery, a scattering of headstones, most old and faded. But, there’s one fresh mound, and scattered flowers poking through a powder of snow. John bends down and wipes some away. His head is bowed. Sherlock swallows hard. It’s all so very strange, to be standing here like this. He doesn’t know what to say or how to feel about any of it. He’s sorry he missed the funeral, though. Now that would have been interesting.
“There’s no marker.” His voice feels big and heavy in the morning air.
“No.” John’s voice catches and he turns it into a cough. “Not yet.”
“Ah. This was—”
There doesn’t seem to be much to say after that. “I’m sorry,” Sherlock says because it seems appropriate and John smiles.
“How did I—”
John looks at him.
“You know. How do I.” He stops himself, shakes his head. “No wait. I don’t want to know. Do I? No. No I don’t want to know.” Firm. John is nodding.
John shudders slightly. “Just…good idea.”
“Oh my god. I blow myself up, don’t I? I knew it. I knew—”
John is laughing. It’s the first genuine laugh Sherlock has heard and he’s laughing about Sherlock’s death.
“You don’t blow yourself up, Sherlock. I promise. It’s…fine. It’s all fine. Don’t worry. It’s fine.” He pauses. “Well, except for the dying part. It’s…noble and fine.”
Sherlock snorts. “Noble.” He smiles. “I highly doubt anything about my death was noble.”
John takes a shuddering breath and when he speaks, he looks right into Sherlock’s face.
“You died loved, Sherlock. You were very much loved and you weren’t alone and that’s all you need to know, right? Isn’t that enough?”
The clock ticks loudly in the silence. Sherlock holds a mug of tea gone cold and stares into the fire. He feels John’s eyes on him but doesn’t look up and doesn’t know what to say to break the silence. It’s so quiet in this house. It must drive John mad.
“It’s funny, but I’d almost forgotten,” John says.
“How bloody beautiful you were.”
Sherlock shakes his head. “I look ghastly right now. I know it.”
“No,” John says. “Never.”
Sherlock rises then and moves to John, stands over him, wondering. He leans down, bracing himself with a hand on each arm of the chair. He leans down further and presses his mouth to John’s hesitantly at first, then with more pressure when John doesn’t pull away. They stay that way for a moment, their lips soft against each other’s, breathing quietly together, before John pulls away, eyes closed. Sherlock kneels in front of him.
“So, you forgive me, then? It…all turns out all right?”
John looks at him.
“I mean, it must turn out all right. We’re here, yes? Or, at least I was here.” John remains silent, maddeningly so. “I just…I want to know how it ends.”
“This.” John lifts his hands and gestures about the room. “This is how it ends, Sherlock. This, right here. You and I, right until the end.
Sherlock takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I’ve been so afraid, you see. So very…afraid, this whole time.”
“You?” John laughs. Looks at him with that John mixture of frustration and amusement and utter enchantment. “You were afraid, after you left? You. You have no idea how I…” He licks his lips and shrugs a little.
Sherlock plunges on. “I’ve been so afraid that you. You couldn’t forgive me. For. What I did. For leaving like I did.”
John doesn’t speak for awhile. “You’ve been running such a very long time,” he says. His fingers brush Sherlock’s curls back. “Maybe it’s time to go home now.”
“You’re going to be so angry with me.”
John laughs, gleefully. “You have no fucking idea.”
“You must hate me.”
John stops laughing. He looks at Sherlock, suddenly serious. “No, Sherlock. I never hated you. I wanted to. Oh god, I wanted to kill you with my own two hands. I wanted to hurt you the way you hurt me.” He sighs. “But I never hated you, right? I couldn’t. Even when—”
“Well. There’s Mary to contend with, too.”
John only smiles a little.
Mary, Sherlock thinks and a little knife twists in his heart.
“Never mind.” John smiles. “You’ll find out. But, you need to go home.”
“How do I get there?”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You always do.”
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“I don’t want you to leave. But, this is my life now. My life is without you now.”
“I don’t want to—”
“Listen to me, you great stubborn prat, you bloody well can’t stay here!”
“Because I need you.” John says simply.
In the end there’s one final meal and glasses of Brandy and a list of instructions.
“Listen,” John says leaning forward in his chair. His glass is half empty and his words are falling from his lips much too easily. He looks devastatingly handsome. “Listen very carefully. You’re going to have a lot to make up for when you return, and because I’m feeling generous at the moment, I’ll help you out.”
Sherlock looks at him.
“I like my feet rubbed.”
Sherlock nods. He can do that.
“I don’t take sugar in my coffee. Well, not until later, anyway. But you can just ask, right? It doesn’t hurt to ask.”
“You could be kinder. More…attentive, once in awhile. Get out of your own head and pay attention to me.”
“Patience, Sherlock. You’re going to need…patience. Because it takes time. It takes a long time. Well.” John swallows thickly, takes another sip of Brandy. “Patience.”
Sherlock waits. He can be patient, he thinks. He starts practicing now.
“Make meals. Shop. Tidy up for god’s sake.”
“Tell me you love me.”
“I love you.” Sherlock says it fast, because it’s been sitting in his mouth since he first laid eyes on John and it just kind of falls out when he replies.
John smiles. “When you get back. Tell me. Because I don’t know. I don’t know for sure for a long time.”
“But I do—”
John clears his throat. “Fine. But just say it. Say the actual words. Once in awhile. I’m not asking for bloody bended knee and roses and candlelight, though that would be fine, too.”
“Yes. On the night of the 23rd, you must not, above all else, bring home the cat.”
“Here. I’ll write it down for you. Please. No cat.”
Sherlock, dressed for the cold with his bag on his back, wakes John in the night, kisses him gently on the mouth.
“Was I good to you?” Sherlock asks very quietly. John looks at him a long time, eyes wide in the moonlight.
“You were the very best.”
It’s dark and cold but clear when the row of buildings comes into view. There’s no snow and the moon is out, so he can see well enough. The flat — so achingly familiar!— is a dim beacon on the horizon, fixed and steady, so there’s that to focus on, instead of the heavy thud of his heart against his ribs. At first glance it appears unoccupied, empty and sad, perhaps coated in a layer of dust after all this time. But, of course it’s not, and he knew it wouldn’t be. He knows who lives there now, too, and it hurts, but there’s nowhere else to go. He can’t turn back now, not safe, and he’s come so far. His face feels fine because someone took good care of him and everything is healing nicely. But still, whoever lives there will be startled by his appearance and he must be prepared for that.
Seventeen steps to the door where he knocks, and knocks again. And again, knuckles against wood. He wears a pair of beautiful new gloves, thick leather the colour of fine Brandy, a gift from a dear friend and his hands are very warm in them. He hears a faint shuffling behind the door. And young man’s walk, he thinks, but a bad leg, uses a cane but hates it, makes him feel old, so he shuffles instead, and pays for it later.
He hears a woman’s voice, then, faint, kind, and remembers, Patience, Patience. And then a man’s voice, replying, a young man’s voice. Sherlock smiles.
“Yes, yes, I’m coming. Hold on, for—” He hears the dear, familiar mutter and closes his eyes and holds his breath.
The door opens.