Airplane to Death
The airplane to the land of the dead disappears without the man, and he watches it, knowing nobody else can see it – or him.
You have as long as you want to decide, his guide told him when he first got to the gates, if you want to stay or if you want go.
"Here we are again," says a voice behind him, laced with something soft the man can't quite identify, and the man turns, gun raised and ready to fire. It is instinct, only. It will do nothing to save him or hurt him. The voice's tone (so familiar to the man it hurts) changes slightly, breaking, "Well, me, anyway."
The man sees the owner of the voice, lowers the gun. "John." His voice is the barest whisper, though he could have shouted and not made an impression on the living, blond-haired man standing barely two feet in front of him.
The living won't be able to hear you, but you will be able to hear them, his guard had said, smiling sadly in that way of hers. It's a special kind of torture.
If you choose to stay, she hadn't said, you will only be able to walk the earth on the day of your death. You will float in nothingness the rest of your life.
It's the boredom that really gets him, drags him down into spiraling darkness, but this time there are no drugs, no cases, only the promise of a moment or three with John. And that's enough. He's decided this already, as soon as the guide told him he could stay.
"Sherlock," says John, and the man tenses, but John isn't speaking to him, although it is his name.
John's footsteps echo through the empty building as he walks toward the glass wall of the terminal. Sherlock turns and gazes at the man, trying to see what he's missed in the year since he's last seen John. A year exactly, John came at an hour to midnight last year too.
John's shorter, just a little, coming up to Sherlock's earlobe when he used to come up to his cheek. His hair is greyer, his face is darker, and the laugh lines around his eyes have faded slightly.
"I've missed you, Sherlock, you know?" says John, voice low and soft like that day at Sherlock's grave; back when Sherlock hadn't been truly dead, when he had only been pretending.
But because he isn't, not anymore, Sherlock reaches out to touch John's shoulder, but stops before contact. "And I you, John," whispers Sherlock instead, despite the fact that John cannot – can never – hear him, "more than you can imagine." It's ridiculous, he reflects, a man speaking to a ghost in an empty airport long after the time when it's reasonable to be wandering around a terminal.
How can I go? Sherlock asked.
Take the plane, said his guide simply.
Not away, he clarified, back. How do I get back?
John steps towards where Sherlock is again, and Sherlock takes a step sideways to avoid colliding, even though he knows they are living on separate levels of existence.
It's just dimensions, isn't it? There must be a tunnel, some way to stay as long as you like, he argued.
His guide did not reply.
John reaches out a hand to press the palm of his hand against the glass of the terminal wall, sweeps it down to find the patched circle where Sherlock shot a hole through the glass the day he died seven years ago today, and Sherlock tentatively reaches out to brush the hair over John's forehead.
John shivers slightly from the phantom touch, and his hand moves upward until it's so close to Sherlock's that Sherlock can feel the heat from John's skin.
It's the closest he's gotten to John since Sherlock died. It's painful in a way that he can't bear, this closeness without being able to touch.
If you stay, his guide warned, you will not be able to touch the living. You'll be a ghost, less than human.
I already was, Sherlock informs her, but he doesn't say that John was the only one who ever made him feel otherwise.
John breathes mist onto the glass, and traces I believe in Sherlock Holmes in the condensation.
Sherlock can't bear to tell John there's nothing for him to believe in. Sherlock's dead, and there's no coming back. Not this time. Not without sacrifices, and there's nothing Sherlock's willing to give to get back into the world.
It would mean a life, his guide told him finally, hesitant, if you want to stay. That's your tunnel.
Any life? Sherlock asked, just in case. Hoping against hope that something, finally, would be biased in his favor.
It must be someone who loves you enough to give their life to you freely, she said. It will only last as long as their life would.
Of course, said Sherlock. The world is never biased in his favor.
So Sherlock touches John's shoulder, tracing a finger over the knit patterns on John's jumper. The fleeting touches when John visits the airport where have to be enough, except they never are.
Then he'd asked, What happens if you cross?
You can't go back, she answers, not after you cross.
I won't cross, said Sherlock, and stayed, for one hour with John in every 8760 hours in a year.
John pivots away from the window, and his footsteps echo through the corridor until he rounds the corner and is gone. Sherlock does not follow, because he can only go so far.
You will only be able to walk where you did the day of your death, she hadn't told him.
And for the first time in his life, Sherlock regrets staying a night in one place to watch for the suspect.
So do we all, said his guide mournfully, when we die.
Sherlock watches until the words disappear, leaving only a few smudges left to show that he or John was ever there. Then he stares at the empty glass, out beyond them at the flickering lights of the airplanes for the living.
Are you sure you won't go? His guide asks.
Absolutely, says Sherlock.
The airport clock chimes the hour, midnight, and Sherlock knows he has seconds left. He braces himself for the pain of returning to the in-between. After all, humans are not built to survive between life and death. But then again, they are not meant to be able to tell most of a person's history from their phone.
And yet they can, and do.
The planes leave every other week, said his guide before she disappeared, her two hours of regulated guidance over, take whichever one you like.
Yes, said Sherlock dismissively, as always.
Remember, if you leave the in-between, you can never go back.
He clutches his memories of John (which have replaced his knowledge of soil samples and tobacco ash and bone structure, since they are infinitely more important) to his heart and disappears into nothingness again. It's as painful the fourth time around as the first. But it is worth it.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand five hundred and seventy-six minutes to wait until he can see John again, but he will.
I will wait, he says to nobody in particular, his voice defiant.
Another plane leaves the week after next. He is not on that plane.
He does not board a plane for forty-three years, seven months, and three days. On the fourth day, there is a section in the daily obituary for Dr. John H. Watson and a picture of his face, smiling.
"Sherlock?" says John when he sees him at the gate to the airport terminal labeled AFTER in stark white letters, voice hushed and faintly reverent. He looks like John when Sherlock first met him in Bart's, not the old shriveled corpse that bears his name, buried in the earth next to an obsidian plaque that reads SHERLOCK HOLMES.
"Hello again, John," says Sherlock, simply, and holds his hand out to John, and revels in the simple contact as John takes it in his own. "Ready?"
"Always," says John.
They take the next flight out, and wave at the airport's receding lights until they pass into the portal through the in-between (which doesn't hurt, not this time, with John's hand clasped in his) and the lights from their first world wink out into darkness.