My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.
—John Donne, The Good Morrow
The first time that they meet he is called Xanthos, because it is a family name given to those born with his hair—a cascade of fair curls that are his one vanity. The other man is called Ioannes, and he is inexplicably fascinating to him. Xanthos is so rarely fascinated; to be so interested in a mere soldier is something of a novelty. He joined the procession of the army as a historian to document their glorious battles, more because it seemed like a good adventure than because of any interest in warfare. What he learned is that war is not glorious, battle is not noble nor beautiful, and that soldiers are crude and alarmingly uneducated. Most of them, at least. He watches this Ioannes from afar, thinks there is something less than tedious about him.
“I overheard that you served in Alexander's army,” Xanthos says to Ioannes one day. They are the first words he's spoken to him, or any other solider, that were conversational rather than strictly a necessity.
“I did,” Ioannes admits. “For many years, until he was gone and I found my way to this one.”
“Loyal,” is all that Xanthos says, and that is the end of their conversation as he strides away leaving a confused man in his wake.
He finds him again the next day. “Your name, it was a Hebrew name, was it not?”
Ioannes is startled to find the scholar hovering behind him, speaking with no greeting to preface this question. He turns around to look up at him. “Yes, it was. Translated.”
“Transliterated. You did not grow up speaking Greek, then, because you are not Greek. You are Hebrew.” He pauses momentarily. “That explains the way that you say some words, it is not an accent that I've encountered before.”
“Glad to be of help, to teach you something new.”
Xanthos narrows his eyes. “Alexander conquered Isreal, defeated your people, yet you joined his army, stayed loyal to him and did not desert him before his death, even while others mutinied. Why is that?”
Ioannes shrugs. “It was the thing to do. I wanted to see what else there was in the world, and following an impressive man like that seemed the best option.”
After this, they are something like friends. They seek each other's company for conversations, at least, and Ioannes is the only person who has been invited inside of Xanthos's tent, allowed to read his accounts and handle the instruments he keeps.
“You are different from most of these other men,” Xanthos tells him one day while they are eating dinner together outside, gazing up at the stars.
Ioannes has not become tired of his friend's efforts to study him, to try to understand him like his is some sort of puzzle rather than a man like any other. “And you, you are not strange at all.”
It is met with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Of course I am, I make my way through the world using my brain and not my might—” he is interrupted by a snort of laughter because any man would look at him, even Ioannes who accords him some amount of respect, and not think of him as mighty. “Shut up. I use my brain and not my might so obviously I am different, but why are you?”
“I am what I am because that is who I am,” Ioannes says, as though it is a simple and indisputible fact.
There is a battle in which Ioannes takes a spear through the left shoulder. The others are able to remove it, but they do not think that he will recover from the wound, that it is in grave danger of festering.
“Let him go,” an old soldier advises. “There is little that we can do to keep a man on the earth that will not only prolong his suffering. You will see your brave friend again in the afterlife.”
But he will not give up, will not release Ioannes’s hand and let him slip away. “If you take him away to die, you will have to take me too,” he tells them. He curses the army, the gods, and anyone who comes close, and throws himself across his body until they give up, agree to move him into Xanthos’s tent and let him become the scholar’s burden.
The two are left behind as the others march on, but he does not give up hope. He knows enough of history to believe that recovery is possible, and enough of survival to keep them both alive as he waits for his friend's fever to break.
“You utter idiot,” he whispers as he strokes a damp cloth over Ioannes's head, though he does not think that he can hear him. His breathing is quiet and steady as if in sleep rather than the edge of death. “I thought one of the first things they taught you in training was how to dodge.” He keeps him cool, gives him water, and is rewarded by the opening of his friend's eyes before two full days pass.
“We were left behind,” Xanthos explains, when he appears confused by the quiet. He tells him all that happened.
“You have more force of will than any god,” Ioannes says with a weary laugh. “They are all too frightened of your snarls to take me away just yet.”
When Ioannes is well enough they pack up the tent and Xanthos's belongings, some of which they sell in the first merchant town that they reach in order to fund their new journey. They keep the wound of his shoulder clean, but it is weak and Xanthos bears the brunt of moving their things, and sometimes supporting his friend when he is feeling less than recovered. Ioannes never again questions whether Xanthos is just as strong of body as he is of mind, and lives in awe of this man whose sheer determination has kept both of them alive.
They make way for Alexandria together, where it is easy for Xanthos to work as a scribe and surround himself with philosophers. Ioannes, no longer able to serve in any army, learns to put his agile hands to work as an assistant to a physician, then learns the trade himself at the great medical school of Alexandria. Xanthos teaches his friend about philosophy, about the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Ioannes teaches him in turn about the scientific method and experimentation, about Hippocrates and Herophilus, and the argument that intellect resides in the brain rather than the heart. Xanthos thinks that he can agree with this, because if the heart was the seat of consciousness and decision, the fluttering and pounding of it would have directed him into the arms of his friend long ago, while his brain reminds him that it is unwise.
Ioannes has never expressed any sort of longing for his friend, nor any other men or even women. It is confusing to Xanthos who was pursued in his youth in Greece, and often propositioned by soldiers after he went on the march. He assumes that his friend is uninterested in that sort of thing; it is not unheard of. As friends, it is their custom to share a bed, when Xanthos can be bothered to sleep. They are both surprised when, one evening, Xanthos cannot help himself and reaches out to caress Ioannes.
“This is okay?” he asks after a time, though his friend has made no move to pull away and has put his hands on him in turn.
“Gods, yes,” Ioannes sighs in answer. “I've wanted to do this so long, myself.”
“Then why haven't you told me?”
“You always rejected the other soldiers, so I assumed—”
“Idiot,” he says affectionately. “You know that you are unlike anyone else to me.”
So they become lovers as well as friends. Xanthos is a difficult man who pays little mind to the feelings of others and spends much time wrapped in his own preoccupations, but Ioannes loves him wholly and does not ask him to change his ways. Later, Ioannes takes a wife, and that is okay because he is a man who should have children—he is a wonderful father. Xanthos declines to do the same, citing that he is married to his work. The truth is that he does not believe that there is room in his heart or his mind for anyone else. It seems a miracle to him sometimes that he found even one man to let in.
They have a good life here, but it was a hard life in past years, especially for Ioannes, who came so close to death once before. He can feel himself getting sick, knows that his lungs are weak and he lets Xanthos know this so that he will be prepared for what will happen. Despite this, he cannot accept it and he is not ready when the time comes and Ioannes is on his deathbed, only able to draw shallow breaths that cannot sustain him. Xanthos is by his side, holding his hand like it is all that keeps him tethered to the earth.
“I will never forget you,” Ioannes promises. Xanthos does not say the words back to him because he cannot say anything in this moment, but he knows that this is true for him as well.
Xanthos does not linger long after his lover is gone. He makes provisions for his belongings to become the property of Ioannes's wife and children, because he thinks that would make him happy. He writes their story down, paying great attention to the loyalty and good deeds of his soldier and scientist, because that is what he is most proud of—next to his loyalty and devotion to an impossible, infuriating scholar who didn't deserve it but received it anyway. He immortalizes what they were to the world and to each other and smiles to think that this piece of papyrus, his best work, will live here in the Library of Alexandria forever. He dies with Ioannes's name on his lips and a vial of poison clutched in his hand.
He does not immediately remember his old life in the next. He lives in Rome in this life, and is named Xanthus though his hair is dark rather than blond. He is young but wishes to be an orator, has only just returned from his studies in Greece at the age of 18, and his brother is a Senator like their father before him; they are a powerful family.
It is not until he sees him again that he remembers. He looks much the same though Ioannes is many years older than himself this time, but even if he wore a new face Xanthus would know him, recognize the mark of his soul because he knows its points, its lines, its planes as well as those of his own being.
“Ioannes, Ioannes!” he calls out, and the man stops walking, turns around to find the voice calling out his name. He looks confused, but Xanthus does not notice this in his excitement. He grabs his lost love’s face in his hands, stares at him in wonder, and presses a kiss of greeting to his mouth. “I am sorry, I think I did forget you for some time,” he tells him.
Ioannes is a polite and patient man in this life as well, it seems. “I’m sorry, young man, I’m afraid you have mistaken me for someone else.” He does not draw back from his touch, however.
The memories came into existence in an instant and he can remember it all like it happened to him just a moment ago and not to a different man in a different body: saving the wounded soldier, his heart’s only friend, when no one else would; their long life together, when he traced all the lines of his lover’s body with his tongue so as to imprint them in his mind forever, when he taught this man’s sons to hold reed pens and form letters as their father taught them to wield swords and make war; his deathbed; his promise. He is the one who promised to never forget, and here they are together once more and he is a stranger.
His mind is sharp and its processes quick so that he only falters for a moment as he releases him. “You knew me as a child, were a friend of my father’s,” he tells him, injecting the barest hint of hurt into his tone. “It has been many years since we have heard of you, and we feared you dead.” The lie comes fast and is convincing enough that it is accepted.
“I have a terrible memory about this sort of thing,” Ioannes apologizes. “Met a man this morning who says we were tutored together as boys and it took me some time to recall it. He’d gotten fat, and that never helps with remembering. Not that you have that problem.”
Xanthus laughs with him. He is taller than average, thin and lanky in his youth. “And why is your memory so poor that you cannot remember our faces?” He recognizes him as an eques Romanus from his dress and the gold ring he wears, but wants to hear more, wants to know everything about this new Ioannus.
“I have been gone from Rome for many years, sent to Egypt and beyond. Too much time outside of our city will addle a man’s wits.”
“It was Athens for me,” Xanthus says knowingly. “Are you back home to stay now?”
Ioannes admits that he is; he has served as an officer for more than ten years and that entitles him to a rest, a chance to make a life here in Rome once more. With the help of Xanthus and his family it is a good one. He is learned, can read and write in a variety of languages, so he is given a secure position as a government clerk. He finds a wife and has a family, but also takes Xanthus into his bed.
“You would have an old man like me?” Ioannes asks after the first time that Xanthus has kissed him with open mouth, drawing in his tongue as lovers do.
“Old, young, in-between. However you are because you are you,” Xanthus affirms. It makes him ache deep in his chest so that it feels his heart might burst, that Ioannes does not remember him from before, when he was strong and saved his life. He knows him only as he is now, an infatuated boy.
This life ends much as the last, though this time it is Ioannes’s heart that cannot keep up with the strain of living. After he is gone, Xanthus tries to live with his grief for a time, but the memories of his past life and of Ioannes have derailed his plans in this one and he is left feeling that he has nothing to live for now. He uses a dagger belonging to his lover to end it.
He does not forget again, after that first time. His name is now Lucius, and he lives his life normally, but knows that somehow he will meet his Ioannes again. It comes quickly enough—he is born well again, and while his father handles his education in the beginning, when he is fourteen years old they hire a tutor. This man is Ioannes, and he is a slave, albeit a well-learned one, in this life.
Lucius doesn't know why he can remember but the other man cannot. He has read many accounts, known many great minds in three different lives, and he has never seen another mention of anything like this, of repeating and remembering. Plato presented a story about soulmates, but that was merely a story, one that he thought was beautiful when he first heard it, but silly now. He wonders why this does not seem to happen to other people. He decides that there is a simple proof: he will take his tutor to Alexandria and show to him the account written by the Greek, Xanthos, of his love for the soldier Ioannus. When he hears that Caesar has burned down the Library, he weeps.
He keeps Ioannes in his household as he grows older and begins to take over the business of his father. They have a good relationship, but when Lucius buys him his freedom, he does not stay. He had thought that watching Ioannes die was too difficult to bear, but to have him leave willingly is devastating, and he goes mad from despair.
There are three lives that pass in quick succession in which he and Ioannes come together only briefly. In the first he is called Severus, and he is a physician himself—the only time he will take this path—, while Ioannes is one of the Praetorian Guard. They follow Marcus Aurelius to war and both die at the hand of the Germanian Tribes. In the next Ioannes is a gladiator, and Aelius—as he is called this time—cannot save him from his fate but loves him while he can and starves himself to death after he is gone. Then he becomes Lucius again, and he and Ioannes are simply Roman citizens in Britannia, but they are both killed during a barbarian invasion.
This time he is called Sherlock, and comes to think of that as his true name. He has golden curls again, though now he wears them shorn close to his scalp because the beauty of men is not prized. Their souls find each other and come together again; he is named John now, and he is as constant and unchangeable as ever, as sure to be by his side as it is sure that the sun will rise. They grow up together this time, are born in the same month of the same year and are treated as brothers by the rest of their little village despite their different mothers. They are inseparable and understand each other in ways that no others can.
It is this lifetime that will shape his thoughts of John for many years to come. When he thinks of him while he waits in their next lives he pictures him like he was here: golden skinned, strong of arm even after he is pierced through the shoulder in battle and scarred for the remainder of his days, sandy haired, and full of easy smiles and praise for his companion even when there was little to smile and praise for. This is the lifetime that brands him always as John, no matter what name he has come to be given (they do get it wrong, sometimes). When Sherlock reads history books about this time in the future he will laugh to see them all characterized as unfeeling barbarians. John was more noble, even then, than so many civilized men of later generations, and they loved each other as strongly and purely as any love he has seen across time.
It is life with this John that makes a warrior out of Sherlock, the man who has always lived on the strength of his mind in the past. Their families have not inhabited England long, were among some of the first invaders to wrest control from the Romans and native Britons. The boys have little choice but to become soldiers so that they can protect their new home and chief. Sherlock is not bold, though he is strong, and would be scared to do it if it were not for the presence of John, who he knows will always protect him even if it results in his own harm. As teenagers they are sent together to the chieftain's home for further training, and combine their blankets to make a single bed together on the floor.
“People will talk,” John says, smiling against the side of Sherlock's neck as he holds him.
“They do little else.” That is argument enough for John.
They fight alongside each other always. When there is a battle on Mount Badon and John falls, Sherlock kills the man who takes him from him and then ensures that he will too die in combat, because he will not live without him for even a day, not this time.
There is a long rest after that life. To the best of Sherlock's knowledge there is nothing between lives, no space his soul inhabits other than his various bodies when he is conscious. He likes to think that his soul rests, becomes stardust whirling freely through the skies until the time comes for it to gather all of its particles together and try again, but he does not know for sure. There is simply death, then rebirth, with no memories of the blackness between. He has seen too many gods come and go to believe that any of them or their afterlives exist.
Four hundred years pass in the blink of an eye. Sherlock is sad to not have had the time interspersed with moments of being with John, but he is also glad that he has not had 400 years of lifetimes filled with John’s death. All that he wishes for is a quiet life. The universe (or whatever it is that is driving this process, he’s not entirely sure) hears his thoughts and wishes, and has a strange sense of humor.
They grow up in the same village again, though this time John is older and they are not friends. Sherlock simply watches him from afar and plans to go to him when the opportunity presents itself. It is not forthcoming, because in this life he is rich, his father owns the land, and John’s family simply works it and struggles to get by. Sherlock sometimes escapes his Nurse and runs down into the village with a loaf of bread, a few apples, some cheese, or whatever else he can manage to nick from the kitchen and carry in his little hands, and deposits these things outside the home John shares with his family and their animals.
When John is nine, nearly ten, and Sherlock is just seven, his mother dies. John’s father has three other children to raise alone now, and John is the oldest and most capable of leaving, so he is offered to the Benedictines as an oblate, for them to raise to join them as he grows. This leaves Sherlock no choice but to convince his own parents that he is the most devout of children, that he wishes nothing more than to devote his life to the church in the service of God. He is just a middle child; there are sons and daughters older and younger to replace him, so they send him off when he is twelve, and are thankful that he won’t be clamoring for land of his own. Sherlock is good at pretending what he does not truly believe.
They do not require a vow of silence in this Order, but are encouraged to have brevity in their speech, to save their words for when they are truly important and must be used. It is not difficult for Sherlock, who has piercing eyes that can communicate even delicate meanings with a mere twitch of his expression, especially with his closest Brother, John. It is harder for John, who is full of joy and contentment in this life, and has trouble keeping the words to show his appreciation for the world tucked behind his lips. Sherlock regrets that John has to limit himself at all, that his humor cannot flow freely the way it always has in the past. He misses his observations and his praise.
Sherlock has an intense attention to detail now as always, and he spends his days illuminating holy manuscripts with tiny drawings, so full of life that they almost appear to leap from the parchment. He mixes the inks himself from plants and other natural materials gathered from the grounds (by himself or with the help of John) that he grinds and carefully prepares. John keeps the monastery’s bees, harvests the honey, and with his strong steady hands makes beeswax candles so fine and lovely that the Abbot requests his alone to adorn the altar of the cathedral. It is a calm and quiet life.
John pays penance each time, begging God’s forgiveness for his willful sin; that does not stop him from spending his every night in Sherlock’s arms. Sherlock spends all of the words that he has painstakingly saved through the day on these nights, murmuring his awe into his lover’s ear.
They live to be quite old for the time, and when John dies of his age, Sherlock is not far behind.
Sherlock becomes an excellent observer, because that is what is necessary to spot John when the universe does not seem interested in bringing them together on her own. They don't always look the same: there are different faces, different hair, different bodies with different markings. John is usually strong and stocky, Sherlock is almost always tall and wiry. No matter what the features of the face look like, there is an expression they arrange themselves into each time that is wholly John, a certain gait and way of holding himself that is universally his, military service or not. John is always stoic and kind in ways that Sherlock cannot master even across multiple lives. He is the foremost expert in the things that make John who he is, and they are clues that cannot be hidden from him.
There is a painful lifetime when Sherlock lives to be 78 years old and he does not meet John even once, or if he did he was too distracted by the world around him to take notice. It is the 12th Century and Sherlock is a trouvere in the courts of France. He assumes, when he is old, that John must have gone off to the Crusades, smiles to think of him fighting alongside Richard Coeur de Lion and of how much John would have liked the romances they sing about King Arthur here at court. Sherlock includes him in many of his writings, gives him different names each time but they are all just versions of John. No knight in a story could ever be as good as that man, but Sherlock must make do and remember when he does not have the real thing.
He vows as he feels himself dying that he will always see and notice everything around him so that he never misses John again. He never does.
The next time, John remembers. They think that it must be due to the fact that they did not meet at all in their prior life, that the universe wants to give them double the chance to make it right again.
Sherlock decides that his best option for being sure to meet John is to join the Crusades, though he tries to minmize the likelihood of dying before they meet by learning the blacksmith trade and traveling with the camp. John is an archer this time, a deadly accurate shot with the longbow. He knows Sherlock this time, knows how he will think and plan, and joins the Crusades as well even though he had enough of the great stinking mess the last time; lost his faith a lifetime ago. Later John tells Sherlock how lucky he is that he found Edward Longshanks an inspirational enough leader to follow, or he might have stayed home and waited. No one was worth the Crusades. They both know that this is not true. They are both worth ten Crusades or more.
When they meet eyes for the first time in this life, there is instant recognition. Sherlock does not have to woo John this time, does not have to wait for him to realize that he loves him and wants to be with him. They acknowledge each other's presence but wait until they are covered by the dark of night to sneak away from the camp.
Sherlock expects that they will talk, thinks that John is likely to have questions, so he is surprised to find himself being thoroughly kissed the moment that they're far enough away from the noise and lights for comfort. By no means does he protest, and they're soon writhing together on the ground without yet speaking a word. John comes with his fingers fisted in Sherlock's curls and Sherlock clutches his shoulders as though he thinks he might disappear if he lets go. They lie there together for a while, quietly panting.
John is the one who breaks the silence. “I've waited... so long to do that.”
“Worth the wait?” Sherlock asks. His wry grin is evident in his tone.
“Always is, so much.” They go quiet again, before John adds, “I’m sorry,” suddenly sad. “I know I’ve hurt you before. It hurts for you every time.”
“It’s fine, it’s all fine. You didn’t know.” Sherlock pulls him close and rests his head against his heart. More tangible proof—feeling, sound of its beating—that John is real and he is here again.
John listens to Sherlock talk about how it feels to remember always, and he apologizes for not being able to do the same. It is out of his control, because he would remember every moment spent by this man’s side if he could.
They stay with the company until the truce is signed, then they make their way back towards England together, just the two of them. It is one of the best times in nearly 700 years, they agree. Sherlock sings the songs that he wrote for John over a century ago, and laughs because in that last life he’d been a tenor instead of his usual baritone. John reminisces about the way they both used to look (he misses Sherlock's golden hair and regrets that he has only been the taller of the two once before), and wonders if their graves still exist somewhere on earth, holding bodies that used to belong to them.
Perhaps their joy is written across their faces too brightly this time. They have forgotten that this century is not as permissive as the last, that there are new laws condemning the love between two men, and do not take precautions. They settle together in Spain, only planning to stay for a short while before continuing on to their home, but they have gotten used to the sun and the warmth. Sherlock manages to insult one of the powerful landowners who controls much of the region, and it is not long after that they are arrested for sodomy. The punishment in this country is gruesome, and rather than be subjected to torture and castration, Sherlock begs that they be hanged.
John is dropped first. In the moments before it is his turn, Sherlock hopes that it can be like this again next time, that John will remember too despite the pain of doing so.
He does not. They meet this time in London, where Sherlock is a journeyman locksmith, having tired of the scholarly pursuits. John is a guard in the Tower of London, and he is unusually stubborn about paying any attention to Sherlock this time around. It takes bribes of many trips to the alehouse before he will consider calling Sherlock a friend, though things go considerably quicker after that so that John spends more nights in Sherlock’s cramped room in the guildhall than he does with his wife.
They survive the Black Death while so many others fall around them and Sherlock thinks that he is lucky, finally. But just a few years later, years that he is grateful for but they are not enough, the peasants revolt and take over the Tower. John is stabbed and trampled in the process, and Sherlock goes mad from it: first holds his lifeless body in his arms and screams for him to not be dead, then turns his fury on the heavens, curses whatever, whoever is doing this to him. He runs John’s sword through his breast and dies with a litany of “why”s at his lips.
The universe gives them another brief reprieve after this, a rest of almost two hundred years.
Next, they live in Venice towards the end of the 16th Century, and this is brilliant because someone has invented the violin and Sherlock has never been so thrilled to hold anything other than John in his hands in many, many years. He lives this life in the thrall of music and the fact that it is his body and this instrument put together by the hands of men that can produce those sounds together. He composes his own music and plays that of others, becomes swept up in the burgeoning musical tradition of the city. This is how they meet: Sherlock gains some small fame as a player and relies upon patrons to support him, and John is duly impressed by hearing him play. After they are together, Sherlock will play songs that he composes just for him about their past lives, full of joy and sorrow in equal measure. He hopes that they might trigger something in John’s memory, but they never do.
John is simply a physician, no soldier, and does not go off to fight in his wars. This seems good and safe, until the plague hits the city and John feels that it is his duty to treat and save as many as he can. Sherlock pleads with him, shouts at him, tells him that he is a fool to do it, but John is good and selfless and does what he thinks is right. He takes all of the standard precautions but they are not enough and he contracts the disease himself, just as Sherlock knew he would. He accepts it quietly and nurses John through to his death, knowing that the disease will take him soon after. When they take John’s body away, Sherlock has folded his violin in John’s arms to keep his body company under the streets of Venice.
This time Sherlock is an actor, though not one of any particular renown. He discovered in the last life just how much he enjoys public adoration for his talents. John is a poet, but he is not a very good one and spends more time reading the works of others than crafting his own. Consequently they are quite poor, but they have a happy life together in the shared room of a tenement after they meet.
Sherlock decides to confide in John, just to see if he can force his memory, and to ease the burden of feeling that weighs on his heart. “Do you believe that every soul has a mate?” he asks him as they lie in bed together.
John smiles and twines their fingers together. “But we by a love, so much refin'd, that our selves know not what it is, inter-assured of the mind, care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. Our two souls, therefore, which are one, though I must go, endure not yet a breach, but an expansion,” he recites by way of answer.
“A yes, then?”
“Very much so. I believe, and I believe that you are mine.”
He tells him then, that he has known him in many lives before and that he remembers each and every one. John takes it in stride, seems to accept that it is true.
“Why do you think that it’s always like this, that you remember them all and I don’t?”
“Cowards die a thousand deaths. The valiant taste of death but once,” Sherlock says with a bitter smile.
“Oh, Sherlock,” John breathes. “Is that what you think? You are not a coward. You are brave; you are the best man that I have ever known.” He takes Sherlock’s face in his hands, studies his eyes as though he can stare through them to read and rewrite his thoughts. After what seems an eternity of this scrutiny, he begins to kiss him.
Sherlock accepts these kisses and does not protest John's declaration. But he knows the truth. He is a coward who cannot face a life that does not contain John. His punishment is to watch him die again and again and to always remember.
They die together in the Great Fire of London.
Sherlock is sent to boarding school when he is thirteen. John is a professor there, and Sherlock becomes one of his most favorite pupils within a few short years. He also convinces his very reluctant teacher that it is okay to desire him and to indulge in those desires. They have an affair that lasts several months, until John's conscience gets the better of him.
John leaves the school rather than stay and be faced with his shame. Sherlock hangs himself in his room.
They are children together again, this time in France. Sherlock's family are part of the aristocracy, John (they call him Jean, and Sherlock is careful to do the same everywhere but in his thoughts) is the son of one of the kitchen maids. They are permitted to play together as they are the only young boys in the estate, and Sherlock champions for John's right to education. His parents indulge his notions because Sherlock is a forceful child, and they move to Paris to study together.
When The Terror begins, Sherlock is seized for being who he is and John is labeled as a traitor for being with him. They send John to the guillotine first and Sherlock wonders why it must always be him who watches the other leave.
Sherlock has become so used to noticing everything around him that it becomes part of who he is. He has accumulated a great store of knowledge over the course of several lifetimes, and he can't help but to be interested in science because there is always new information there each time he comes back. In this life he has decided to go to university, because he is lucky enough to have been born into a family of means who encourage his mind. While there, the other students notice his mental acuity and ask him to solve little personal mysteries for them. It is surprisingly challenging enough for his mind and the first good use for his skills that he has seen. He becomes an amature detective, then a consultant to Scotland Yard.
It is 1881 when he meets John again. He recognizes that it is him before Stamford introduces him as Dr. Watson, because he has clearly just returned from military service, yet he is also a doctor judging by the state of his hands. There are two constant things about John: he longs to protect and heal others, and he longs danger and is willing sacrifice himself to protect. Army doctor, yes, this is the perfect combination. He puts those steady hands to work as a surgeon. Little does he know that he has been studying anatomy and opening bodies throughout a plethora of lifetimes.
This John is brilliant, not as brilliant as Sherlock, but who could compare to all of his years of accumulated knowledge? But he is indispensable to the work, and his admiration is worth more than he might ever know. In this lifetime they are not lovers. This is the first time that they have known each other as adults and this has not happened, but times are different and Sherlock assumes that John is worried about the consequences. They still love each other very deeply; they are the closest and truest of friends. Not being lovers makes it all the easier to take risks and put himself in danger cases, and Sherlock convinces himself that it is an unnecessary distraction, in the end.
They retire to Sussex together when they are old. John indulges him in his bee keeping, and makes him stay out of trouble. Still, he has the audacity to die first and Sherlock keeps living for several more years out of spite. It is their longest time together, yet it is not the blessing that he thought it would be, all told.
The next life is a short one. Sherlock is initially thrilled because they meet again as children, and that should mean several good, happy years when they are carefree in each other's company. Instead, John dies of diphtheria when he is six years old. They have only been together for two years.
When Sherlock is a child he only knows that John is someone important, even more important than Mummy, and that he wants to spend as much time with him as possible. He doesn’t remember the reasons why until later; the memories come to him in dreams and he knows that they are true because they feel and taste and smell like the truth. He screams and cries for days when his best friend dies, but it is not until he is older that he understands fully what his life is missing.
He drowns himself in his parents’ swimming pool when he is thirteen years old. He should feel badly about how that will make them feel, but he has had many parents at this point, and he has already lived over half of this life without John. It is unbearable to know that he will only see him again after they are both dead.
It is 1957 when he is struck by a car while crossing the street because he sees him on the other side. He wants to smile when he hears him tell the bystanders to let him through, that he's a doctor, but it hurts too much. Sherlock knows he doesn't have much time left here, curses his impatience (he's only 16 this go around, and even though there seems to have been a bit of an age gap this time, he would have had plenty of time to catch up to his John later), and takes solace in John's hands on him, checking for a pulse and trying to soothe him. Sherlock is crying, can't help it.
“Shhhh, I've got you,” John says quietly, calmly. He wonders if he's an army doctor again this time, or if his steadiness is just undeniably John, no matter the background. “I'm a doctor, James Watson.”
Sherlock snorts derisively then winces because the sudden exhalation of what little air his lungs still possessed was not his smartest move, in a day full of poor choices. Still, he always is annoyed when they get his name wrong. “John,” he corrects. “I'm Sherlock.” He is disappointed because this is not one of those times when John does recognize him, though maybe it's for the best in this case.
He dies on the way to the hospital, wishing fervently that next time will be better.
He has modeled this life after the last happy one he had, the one from Victorian London when he was a consulting detective. It made sense to do so because the circumstances of this life are remarkably similar. He is called Sherlock Holmes again, has an insufferably smart brother named Mycroft (sometimes he suspects that his brother might be stuck in the same sort of time repetition that he is because he almost always has an older brother, but he never indicates as much if that is the case), and a family rich enough to give him opportunities. A different branch of the same family, in fact, as the last time that he was Sherlock Holmes, and he is thrilled when he is six years old and finds that his Stradivarius is hidden away in the study of the family estate.
He gets bored with waiting this time, though. University is ridiculous now that even the stupid desire an education, and people are ungrateful of his observations even when they are helpful—if not strictly nice, but nice has always been John's strength, not his. He has a friend there, a real one and perhaps the only real friend he has ever had who is not John. His name is Victor Trevor and while they are not in love—Sherlock is not sure if he is capable of that—they do enjoy each other's company. It has been over a century since someone has embraced him like a lover, touched any of the bodies he has inhabited in this way.
Sherlock does not feel guilt about the things that they do together because he has promised John nothing in this life; John does not know that he exists yet. This is what he tells himself later when he is injecting cocaine into his veins—and how that has changed and intensified like so much else in London—and trying to forget the pain of so many remembered years. He lets the cocaine become too much this time. He enjoys the numbness, the distraction, and the way that it blots out the portion of his mind that focuses so very hard on the past.
When he has reached his twenties and there is no John in his life, he decides to live it without waiting at all. He will power on with his life and forget that there is a man named John, their souls twined together in some endless connection, who he is fated to meet and fall in love with all over again at some point in time. He does not hold to this resolution well, and it takes Lestrade pulling him out of a gutter and threatening to take away the work altogether that makes him give up the drugs. That, and the memory of something John wondered damn near 750 years ago, about whether or not the graves of their old bodies still existed. Sherlock knows where they were buried the last time that he was Sherlock Holmes; he ignores his own grave and visits that of John Watson, Loving Husband, d. 1923. He absconds with the skull buried there, and does not think that John will mind because he does have a new one, after all. Talking to John’s old skull, while not as good as talking to John himself, will do for a while. He liked this John well, after all, though he does hope that the new one doesn’t have a moustache.
In a way—he's never quite sure if the time between counts—, 53 years pass before he sees him again. It's later in their lives than he likes these things to go, but it can’t be helped. This John looks like his John from so long ago, the one that he fought beside, his brother in arms: compact, tan and sandy haired, full of quiet composure and strength. He laughs when his deductions show him that he has been wounded in his left shoulder, and wonders if the scar will look the same, hopes that he will be allowed to run his fingers over it. He assumes that, since so many other things are similar, there is a chance that their relationship will be the same as it was a dozen decades ago. After all, they’ll be living in the same 221b Baker Street, he is once again a consulting detective, and John is once again an invalided army doctor. He hopes for Iraq just so that something will be different, but Afghanistan it is.
He smells like oakmoss, cheap aftershave, and even cheaper shampoo. Sherlock wants him, wants him more than he's wanted anything in years. He has to impress him, make sure that he will stay, so he rattles off all the details he observed at their moment of meeting—most of them, anyway; he keeps the cataloguing of his scents to himself. John is intrigued enough to turn up at the flat the next day so Sherlock invites him along to see a bit of trouble, because John always likes trouble. The first time he calls his conclusions “amazing”, he knows he's succeeded in catching his attention.
This John is a bit broken in ways that the others have not been: there is that limp without real injury for instance, and just a hint of sadness and loneliness that Sherlock is far more accustomed to finding on himself than his mate, who finds it so easy to pretend be ordinary (Sherlock likes this, it is like the special, real core of John belongs only to him) and fit in with other people. He wonders if it is because of last time, though John does not appear to be cognizant of the fact that there was a last time. Maybe he just feels the pull and ache inside his soul, deprived from its other half for so long. No matter the cause, Sherlock will fix it. The first step is making him forget that ridiculous limp.
John likes danger, it's why he is so often at war, why he puts himself in harm's way for no good reason. It is perfect, because Sherlock has come to love danger as well and it can be found in spades among the criminals of London. He won't put this life on hold, not even for John, so he brings him along to the crime scene. He had forgotten how very free John is with praise, and how easy it is to think with his company. Much easier to sound out ideas on him than that waste of oxygen, Anderson.
“If you were dying, if you had been murdered: in your very last few seconds, what would you say?”
The answer is instant. “Please, God, let me live.”
Sherlock scoffs. “Use your imagination!”
“I don’t have to.”
Sherlock’s face falls. He forgot who he was speaking to, and he doesn’t have to imagine it either. He’s heard those very words and others from him before.
He is utterly shocked later at Angelo's when it seems like John is coming onto him, making it seem significant that they are both unattached, and it knocks him off-kilter enough that he feeds him the line that he’s given so many others across so many lifetimes about being “married to his work”. Stupid, stupid. There had better be time to correct that in the future.
Thinking about John makes him slow, he doesn't realize that the answer to the murders has been right in front of his face until the cabbie comes to collect him. Unacceptable.
Sherlock is tempted by the game. Well over two thousand years on this earth means that there is not much that he has not seen before, not many things that are not boring. This is not boring, it is a puzzle that he has not been given to solve any other time than now, and he thinks that he has it figured out. It is a risk, he’s only just met John after all, and that’s something important, something he’s waited for his entire life thus far. But he is sure that he has it figured out, that if he takes this pill he will be—
The shot rings out, the cabbie falls, and he knows that this John, this man who hardly knows a thing about him, has killed a man just to save him, already. He is such a fool, and John has saved him.
Sherlock has never wanted to hurt another person as much as he wants to rip Moriarty limb from limb. It is like he knows the many lives that have been lived, how each time John dies it rips a wound in Sherlock’s being, and knows that one more tear, one more time watching him fall, might shatter him into irreparable pieces. It is irrational, impossible, but how else does this man know that John is the heart that can be burnt out of him, that he is the one single person in all of creation who Sherlock would gladly die for, each and every time?
He considers doing that, dying to save him. He knows that this is where Moriarty is headed with his little game from the first clue, that he will not be content until he has forced Sherlock to take his own life and rewrite his own history. Sherlock has never died to save John before, only selfishly clung on and wrung as much time and love from him as possible.
Oh, but it seems such a shame to die when he has not kissed this John’s lips, does not intimately know the topography of his skin, could not describe the different tastes of the skin at the back of his neck, along his collar bones, behind his knees, or along his spine to the cleft of his cheeks. Sherlock’s soul is very old, perhaps a little too set in his ways to become the one who sacrifices rather than the one who is sacrificed for.
So he plays the part—convincingly, because he has had much practice—and makes plans to survive the fall that Moriarty insists that he owes him. He does not let his friend, his one real friend, know that it is all pretend, because to do so will put him in danger. He will let him think him dead, let him live without him and not know that he will be back when the threat has passed. He will know what it is like to lose the one he loves—and Sherlock knows that he is loved, already. John can be the strong one, just this once.
He does regret that it has become so easy to close himself off from feeling, to try to prevent the pain from starting rather than enduring it after it begins. It was a method of coping with not having John, then having him and not being sure that he will be his—he remembers too well those few lives when John gave him up. He realizes that it was not effective as he sits there and listens to John shout at him, but it is too late. There is a plan that must be stuck to.
“You... machine! Sod this. Sod this. You stay here if you want, on your own.”
“Alone is what I have. Alone is what protects me.” It is an easy lie. He almost believed it once.
“No. Friends protect people.” John storms out and those are the last words he says to him before Sherlock is on the roof.
He returns after the threat of Moriarty has been neutralized and that is when he learns that John might just need Sherlock as much as he needs him in turn. He is stronger than Sherlock (he knew he would be) because he is still here, but he did pour out his heart at the gravesite without realizing that his dead friend was right there listening. John saw him jump off of that roof but he still believes. What a pair the two of them have become this time.
He waits for him inside of 221b that night, lets his presence curled familiarly in his chair serve as proof to John that it was just a magic trick, just a trick all along. John can't control the anger that bubbles up underneath the relief, punches him in the face, does not avoid the nose or the teeth. Sherlock knows that they’ll be okay then. That's John, always a fighter. Things can be fixed, there is still hope with a John who fights, who never gives up.
Sherlock clutches his face, not exactly surprised but caught off guard all the same. Checks that the nose is not broken then moves fast, catching John's arms and using his height as leverage to push him against the wall and keep him from swinging again. John is stronger than Sherlock, better at fighting, but he's panting and only struggling against being confined, not trying to hit him again. Sherlock keeps holding him tight anyway.
“Let me—this is fucking impossible, let me go, let me—” John is crying now and stops struggling, simply going limp and sliding slowly down the wall. Sherlock lets go of his arms and he pulls them tightly around himself, protective of the pain inside his chest.
“I'm sorry, John, so, so sorry.” Sherlock is on his knees right next to him. His hand hovers above John's shoulder, not sure if it is a good idea to touch him again just yet.
“I watched you die, Sherlock.” John's voice is strangled and accusatory.
“It was necessary.” He has trouble staying calm himself, after all he has watched John die time and time again. Never of suicide at least—small mercies. “You had to believe.”
“I did believe! I believed in you!”
Sherlock throws caution to the wind, pulls him close into a hug that he does not fight off. “And I can't thank you enough for it, John. It made everything else possible.” He holds him away again so that he can look into his eyes. “They were going to kill you. If a body hadn't come off that roof there were snipers ready to shoot you, to shoot Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson. And if they had any indication that you did not believe, that my death was faked, you were as good as dead.”
“I could have pretended,” John insists.
Sherlock can't help a slight smile, just a quirk of the lips that might not even be visible in the dim light of the flat. John is so good at this, unintentionally extracting smiles at inappropriate times. “You are not that good of a liar. It's one of your more redeeming qualities, except on the occasions when it's necessary and therefore terribly inconvenient.”
John sits quietly, lowers his head in his hands and considers this. He lets out a long sigh before he speaks. “You can't just decide things like that for me, Sherlock. You don't have that right.”
“I know that, now. But you must understand. Understand that I will not let anything happen to you if there is anything that I can do to prevent it.”
“Yes, well.” John stops and clears his throat. Conflicting emotions play across his face; he is still angry, but he is also...touched. “Well the same goes for you, as far as I'm concerned, but I've already failed at that once, haven't I?”
“On the contrary, you kept me very much alive.” Sherlock stands and holds out a hand for John to clasp. “You might find it hard to believe, but there’s nothing that I would like more right now than to sleep.”
“You're right,” John says while pulling himself up with Sherlock's aid, “I don't believe it at all and now have to entertain the possibility that you're a very poor doppelganger who doesn't understand how the real Sherlock Holmes operates. You're probably trying to get my guard down so you can take my form too. Bit of a downgrade, if you ask me.”
Humor. Even better, as far as John's responses go. “Taking down an international crime syndicate puts far too much wear on the transport. I will allow it to exert its superiority just this once.”
Neither of them question the fact that John follows him to his bedroom and climbs in beside him, still clothed. Sherlock understands that John has just gotten him back from the dead, needs to be sure that he won't disappear again in the night.
The first case after his return sends them to Oxford, and once it is solved and wrapped up (mostly, the rest can be taken care of by Lestrade) Sherlock takes John to the library of Magdalene College, where a professor of Medieval Studies keeps a priceless 9th Century manuscript. Sherlock calls in the rare, reluctant favor from Mycroft, because it is important enough to merit the downsides of asking, just this once. He and John are allowed to see it with supervision, wear pristine white cotton gloves so that turning the pages does not make the parchment crumble to dust or mar the ink.
John does not know that the bees lovingly, laboriously painted in the margins of the Creation story once belonged to a man who was him more than a millennia ago, but Sherlock does and that is enough. He admires his handiwork and the fact that he once had the patience to create something so fine.
It becomes normal for them to sleep together, normal enough that they never talk about it, and John doesn't even wake up at the feeling of Sherlock sliding into his bed anymore (the prodding of his long limbs—ankles, knees, and elbows too sharp—does the waking instead). But that's all that it is, just sleep. Until the time that he wakes in the middle of the night with John pressed against him back to front, his own legs and arms wrapped over and around him, keeping him close, and no one has the ability to resist that much temptation. He groans softly and burrows his face into the nape of John's neck, inhaling. This, of course, wakes John up.
“What are you doing?” he asks, but does not tense or move away.
Sherlock's only answer is to nuzzle against him and press his teeth gently to his skin.
“Oh,” John says. “You're doing that.” He stretches and arches, which only serves to further close the minute space between their bodies. “Didn't think you did that.”
“Might have spoken hastily,” Sherlock admits, his voice a low rumble against John's back.
“And never bothered to correct yourself all these years.”
“Yes, John, you know that the thing that I am most likely to do in any given situation is to admit that I might have been wrong.”
John laughs and disentangles himself from those damnably long legs so that he can roll over and face him. Sherlock grumbles at the loss of contact but is stopped from further protest by the press of John's lips against his. It's gentle, simply the slide of mouth against mouth, breathing each other's air, but it's perfect. He pulls back to study Sherlock's face. “Most people would ask before fondling their flatmate.”
“This is me asking.”
John considers this. “For sex?”
“For everything. For anything. For sex if that's all you'd like for me to have, but what I want is all of you.”
John kisses him again, twining his fingers into his dark curls, coaxing his mouth open with his tongue. They kiss slowly at first, discovering each other's mouths for the first time. John discovers that biting Sherlock's lips will elicit a moan and make those all-observing eyes clench shut. Sherlock discovers that pulling away, turning his attentions back to John's neck with tongue and teeth, will end with himself flipped over, pinned under the other man's weight and the force of his hips rocking against him.
“You didn't even bother to wear clothes,” John accuses.
Sherlock shrugs. He never does, John simply hasn't noticed before.
“Not that I'm complaining, I suppose.”
“Oh,” Sherlock sighs at the first touch of John's hand to his cock, just holding the weight in his palm before his fingers wrap around it gently and move with maddening slowness. “I've wanted—so long.”
John stills his hand, distracted. “You've thought of this before.” It is a statement of fact, not a question.
“Obviously.” He bucks his hips, patience completely forgotten, deleted for good when it comes to this. “I've waited longer than you know.”
“And what stopped you telling me?” He gives him a slow tug, delights at seeing him writhe.
“The girls, John.”
“Oh yes, because you've always been so nice to them. Never sabotaged a single one of my relationships.”
“The sabotage was all you. Now if you would kindly shut up and fuck me.”
“God forbid we have some sort of conversation,” John says, but when the weight of what Sherlock has said hits him and he's reached those impossibly long fingers up to rub him through his pajama bottoms, he makes a strangled noise and pulls him up for a kiss, conversation forgotten.
John is maddeningly slow in his preparations—he would call it being a considerate lover, Sherlock calls it uncalled for levels of torture—until he has Sherlock whimpering, shaking from need beneath him, three sure fingers stretching him open before he replaces them with his own hardness. Sherlock comes apart beneath him, panting mindlessly yes yes yes that yes and it is up to John to keep them steady, holding him at hip and shoulder to guide him. When John comes his fingers dig into Sherlock's shoulder, clamping down with an almost painful intensity as though he's making a promise that will be felt in those muscles for days, a promise of never letting go.
They collapse in a dazed heap of limbs until Sherlock recovers enough to pull himself out from under John's weight, roll over onto his side, and spoon them together once more. John sighs contentedly, at something of a loss for words. “I am going to catalogue and memorize every inch of you,” Sherlock murmurs against John's hair and pulls him in close. For him it's rather romantic.
They retire together in Sussex again, but there are no bees this time. The bees have nearly died out in England. Disappointing. Instead Sherlock has a lab where he studies fungal growth rates on corpses of varying age and cause of death. It is well away from the rest of the house, because John insists that he has earned a retirement free of body parts stored in areas in which he has to eat. They claim to be retired, but Sherlock can be convinced to take on the rare, interesting case. Nothing less than an 8 these days. John has turned the cases that were once on his blog into a series of books, quite popular, and tries to write about other things as well. The public will read his other works, but grumble every time he releases something that doesn’t feature detective work. Sherlock sometimes publishes the results of his forensic experiments, and is perfectly content with the fact that John’s works outsell his hundreds to one. It’s merely the result of injecting sentiment into the facts, after all.
Sherlock hopes that when they die this time, that will be all. This has been his most satisfying life, growing old with a John who loves him in every way, who has killed people for him, who managed to be stronger than Sherlock ever has and kept going after he thought he had lost him. This has been perfect, it cannot be improved upon. He is tired, and he is ready for oblivion.