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Crazy For Love

Chapter Text

It starts with five words.

“Is my father really dead?”

Or maybe, that’s how it ends.

In any case, it’s when he hears these five words that it dawns on Sherlock: the man lying next to him is, indeed, dead. Not a very terribly difficult fact to ascertain; after all, Sherlock’s hands were on his skull just seconds ago, and the crack of his broken neck reverberated through each of Sherlock’s fingers, through his arms, his entire body. Or maybe that’s the pain of the gunshot still lancing through him. Maybe it’s that same pain that’s slowing his brain, making the obvious hard to recognize.

Sherlock closes his eyes, focuses his mind until the pain is nothing but a dull echo in his side, then lists the important facts.

Fact #1. Sebastian Moran – the last of Moriarty’s hired guns, the very last piece of his fallen empire – is dead.

Fact #2. Sherlock is wounded, but not to such an extent that his life is in danger. He’ll probably be able to patch himself up. He’s become fairly good at it, these past three years.

Fact #3. Sherlock will not, in fact, need to patch himself up. He could go to a hospital. Or even go ask for the help of a friend well versed in the art of tending bullet wounds. He could. It’s over now. He doesn’t need to hide anymore.

Fact #4. Knocking on John’s door at two in the morning after three years of pretending to be dead, covered in blood and already-forming bruises – and with a bullet wound in his side on top of it – might not, in fact, be the smartest thing to do at the present moment. Maybe Sherlock should clean up first.

Fact #5. There is a child looking down at him. Presumably the same child who asked about his father being dead. That’s… rather unexpected. And inconvenient.

Sherlock has been ruthless as he tracked his prey throughout Europe, Thailand, Brazil – and finally back to London. He’s confronted many men – and more than a few women – who were definitely not on the side of the angels. But the dark-haired boy peering down from the edge of the mezzanine directly above him is the first child he’s come across. And Sherlock apparently killed his father in front of him.

Bit not good, Sherlock.

He gives an involuntary shake of head at the familiar echo-memory. He’s heard it quite a few times since that day at Bart’s when he last heard John’s actual voice. Sometimes, it’s even been enough to make him change his plans. There isn’t much he can change now, though.

“Did you hear me?” the child asks, now frowning. “Are you concussed? Is that why you’re not answering? He did hit you pretty hard over the head. He always hit pretty hard.”

Stifling a groan, Sherlock sits up, then stands. He looks up warily. From where he is, he can’t see much more of the boy than his face: he’s lying on the floor, arms pressed along the edge of the mezzanine, his eyes bright as he observes Sherlock. He can’t be much more than… ten? Eleven, maybe?

“He is dead, yes,” Sherlock says calmly, his eyes flicking between Moran and the child.

He can’t see much resemblance there. Hard to believe they are related. Physiognomy isn’t always a help in matters of parentage, but—

“I didn’t mean Sebastian.” The child rolls his eyes. “I can see clearly he’s dead. The angle of his neck makes it rather obvious. I asked about my father.”

Sherlock isn’t used to being talked to like he’s exceptionally slow. He’s not used to craning his neck to look at people, either. He doesn’t particularly enjoy either thing. Pressing a hand to his side under his jacket, he walks to the ladder that leads to the mezzanine.

“As I have no idea who you are,” he says as he climbs, “it would be rather difficult for me to hazard a guess about your relatives’ health.”

By the time Sherlock reaches the top, the child is sitting on the floor, cross-legged but his back very straight, both hands clutching one ankle. His jeans are too short, exposing skin between the hem and his scrunched socks; old bruises peek through, already yellowing. His jumper, on the other hand, is too large, falling past his wrists and hiding the shape of his body.

He’s frowning again, more deeply than before. “You haven’t figured out who I am, yet?” He sounds almost disappointed. “Father said you were the smartest man he knew. How can you not know who I am? I even look like him. Sebastian said so all the time.”

Annoyance flares through Sherlock: annoyance that his intellect is challenged by a child, annoyance that no, he hasn’t figured out what apparently should be obvious – and then annoyance when he does figure it out that it took him so long.

“Yes,” he says sharply. “Your father is dead.”

The child doesn’t react with anything more than a blink. Soon, he asks, “Are you sure? Sebastian said you were there. Were you? Did you do it? He wouldn’t say how Father died so I thought maybe he was faking. Like you. Sebastian didn’t know you were faking but I thought you might be.”

“I was there,” Sherlock says. “I didn’t do it. And yes, I am sure.”

He’s about to explain he had a very clear view when Moriarty stuck the gun in his own mouth and pulled the trigger, but the echo-memory of John’s voice stops him. Not good? Why not? The child asked. Truth is best in these matters as in most. Hiding things from him serves little purpose.

And still, Sherlock doesn’t elaborate. Instead, he watches with mild curiosity as the child’s tense shoulders relax a little as though in relief and he breathes a quiet, “Oh, good. That’s good to know for sure.”

It’s… not the reaction Sherlock would have expected if he’d stopped long enough to expect anything.

The child stands, holding his hand out to Sherlock.

“My name is James,” he says gravely. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Holmes. I’ve heard all about you.”

Another flash of memory surfaces. On that roof, before he shot himself, Moriarty held his hand out to Sherlock. Sherlock hesitates, eyes scanning the child’s form for a weapon. He finally offers his hand gingerly, remembering halfway through the movement that it’s covered in blood. It doesn’t seem to bother the child, who takes Sherlock’s hand and gives it a pronounced shake, like he’s seen it done but never done it himself.

“You’re bleeding,” he says, letting go of Sherlock’s hand and looking at the drying blood that transferred to his palm. “I can help.”

And again, if Sherlock had expected anything, it wouldn’t have been this. As he watches James hurry to the lone piece of furniture in the mezzanine – a bed – and kneel next to it, he raises a hand to the back of his head. He winces when he finds what he’s looking for. There’s a definite bump there, as well as dried blood. Does he have a concussion, like James suggested? It’d certainly explain why he’s feeling so slow at the moment.

Either that or three years of never turning his brain off are catching up with him.

James has pulled a child-sized carry-on suitcase from under the bed and set it on top of the rumpled blankets. He flips the top open. There isn’t much in there as far as Sherlock can see: the corner of a book peeks through under neatly folded clothes. Half the space is taken by a white case with a red cross on its side. That’s what James pulls out.

“I don’t have much practice with stitches,” he says, “but I can clean wounds real good. And I’m okay with bandages, too.”

“Really well,” Sherlock says absently, watching those small hands work over a tube of waterless antibacterial foam. “Not good. Well.”

James freezes. For the space of three heartbeats, he remains absolutely still, then says in a very small voice, “Yes, sir. I can clean wounds really well.”

He’s still not moving, his breaths shallow and quiet, as though by being immobile and silent he can become all but invisible. Sherlock grimaces. It explains why James has a first aid kit, and why he’s supposedly so good at administering help. Practice on oneself does tend to be an excellent incentive to get better, as Sherlock has learned himself.

Say something? Say what? To one notable exception, people never appreciated when he gave away that he knew something important and personal about them. He can’t imagine it’d be different for a child.

“I’m sure your skills are excellent for someone your age,” he says, turning away, “but I’ll take care of it myself.”

He goes down the ladder again. Back on the ground floor of what was once a factory but has been converted into living quarters for criminals on the run, he throws a glance at the body and pulls the disposable cell phone from his leather jacket. He’ll be glad to return to a device on which typing is not so tedious. And he’ll be glad to get back into a proper coat.

Glad to get back into his life, period.

It’s done.

He hesitates before sending, and, for the first time in three years, adds two more letters to the message. They’re as unneeded as ever, but it’s still oddly pleasant to see them on the screen.

SH

As he waits for an answer that shouldn’t take long despite the hour, noise behind him causes him to turn. James is coming down the ladder, his progress barely hindered by the fact that he’s carrying the suitcase in one hand. Clearly he’s done this before.

“Where are you going?” he asks when James reaches the floor.

Now wearing white sneakers as well as an unzipped parka over his jumper, James turns a puzzled look to Sherlock. “Well, with you,” he says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

“No, you’re not. Who takes care of you?”

James’ raised eyebrows turn meaningfully to Moran’s body. Sherlock rolls his eyes.

“Other than him. Do you have a nanny? Babysitter?” He wants to say ‘parents’ but knows half the answer to that question and amends, “A mother?”

James shrugs. “If you’d called Sebastian my nanny or babysitter, he wouldn’t have liked that at all. And I suppose I have a mother, yes. Everybody does, don’t they?”

From his tone of voice, it’s obvious he has never met the woman who gave birth to him. Sherlock is about to ask if he knows anything about her when his phone rings. Not a text, but an actual call. He’s not surprised.

“Mycroft,” he says as he picks up.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft says on the other end of the line. “You took your time.”

A wry smile tugs at Sherlock’s lips. If he’d had his way, he would have kept all this from his brother, but unfortunately a few weeks in he needed Mycroft’s assistance. Ever since, every time they’ve been in contact, Mycroft has offered to help to speed up the process – and every time Sherlock has refused.

“Haven’t we already had this argument?” he says with a sigh. “I needed to do this myself.”

“No, you wanted to do this yourself. It’s different.”

“We’ll agree to disagree on that. Not that it matters anymore.”

In his mind, he can see Mycroft incline his head ever so lightly, conceding the point.

“We have your location,” Mycroft says. “I have people on the way. I assume you need someone to clean up after you?”

“Just one body, and...”

Sherlock’s eyes fall on James, who is listening to the conversation with one hand clenched so tightly on the handle of his suitcase that his knuckles are white. His other hand is by his mouth, and he’s worrying his thumbnail with his teeth. When he sees Sherlock watching him, he pales and lowers his hand to his side.

“And what?” Mycroft asks sharply. “Are you hurt? Do you need—”

“I’m all right,” Sherlock cuts in. “Although if you would be so kind as to bring me back to life, it might certainly make things easier.”

He doesn’t bother reminding Mycroft the part he played in starting all that mess. He’s sure his brother remembers quite well that he owes Sherlock. Eventually, Mycroft will feel he’s repaid his debt in full, but until then Sherlock intends to take full advantage of his guilt.

“It’ll be done by midday. Text me where to get it sent.”

“I will.”

As Sherlock hangs up and pockets the phone, doubt creeps in – and if he’s doubting himself at this point, it’s definitely another checkmark in the possible concussion column.

He should leave the child here for Mycroft’s people to deal with. They can probably figure out if he has living relatives, and either return him to them or place him somewhere. Then again, it’s not just any child. It’s Moriarty’s child. Sherlock had many questions, and even taking the man’s empire apart, he hasn’t found answers for all of them. And after all, if James wants to come with him… why not? If Moriarty told him ‘all’ about Sherlock, what else did he say? And how much does the child remember three years after his father’s death?

“You should know that I’m not a patient person,” he says, observing James closely. “I will not answer idiotic questions. Sometimes I require complete silence. I don’t know a thing about children. I don’t cook. I’m likely to forget you have needs so you’ll have to take care of yourself. I’m always coming and going at all hours and since I’m not leaving a child alone near my experiments, you’ll have to come wherever it is I’m going until I can arrange for a babysitter.”

At the back of his mind, he’s already sure Mrs. Hudson will spoil the child. But no, James won’t stay with him that long. It’ll only be a few days, just long enough to get a few answers.

“Does that mean I can come with you?” James asks, sounding excited. His lips are twitching, although he’s not smiling. His eyes are a little wider, a little brighter. How bad was it, really, for him to be so glad to leave with the person who just killed his caretaker?

Sherlock lets out a heavy sigh. “I suppose. We’d better go before Mycroft’s people get here.”

He starts toward the exit. James runs to catch up, his suitcase bouncing on its wheels behind him.

“Father was gone for a long time, once,” he says. “When he came back, he told me about your brother.” And then, after a pause, “Are you really sure he’s dead? Maybe your brother has him in a cage again.”

The tidbit is filed for later. It’s not like Sherlock cares what a dead man once said about his brother, but he’s curious. For now, Sherlock merely glances down at James.

“Here’s something else you ought to know,” he says. “I dislike repeating myself. You already asked if I was sure and I already answered, did I not?”

James looks at his feet and falls a little behind. Sherlock lets him. They reach the street. It’s quiet and deserted, with little to indicate that, only three streets over, London’s heart beats as quickly, as loudly as ever. He’s mapping in his head the way back to his flat, taking in consideration the pain radiating from his side, the short legs behind him that take five strides for every two of his and the need to remain hidden… and then it dawns on him again. That need is gone. He can take the first cab that presents itself. Oh, but he has missed cabs… Such a small thing, and yet…

Frowning, he glances back. Three strides for each one of his, now; apparently the suitcase doesn’t roll all that well on the uneven pavement.

“Give it to me,” he demands, holding out his hand.

James’ eyes widen a little. “It’s fine,” he says quickly. “I can carry it. I promise, it’s not too heavy at all.”

There’s something there, a fear Sherlock would dissect in a second if he wasn’t so bloody tired. But tired, he is, and impatient to get home.

“Come on. You’ll walk faster if you don’t have to drag that thing behind you.”

James’ jaw flexes visibly. He swallows hard, mutters a quiet, “Yes, sir,” and starts to push the handle toward Sherlock. He doesn’t let go, though, and asks in an equally quiet voice, “May I take the book out? It’s just… I didn’t finish reading it yet. I promise I’ll throw it away too when I’m done.”

Sherlock frowns. Why is every other word coming out of that child’s mouth a riddle? He never liked riddles. He still hasn’t learned to like them.

“Why would you…”

And then he gets it. God but he is slow tonight. Appalling.

“I’m asking for your suitcase to carry it for you,” he says calmly. “I am tired, I want to get home, the suitcase is slowing you down, it’s only logical I carry it so you’ll walk faster.”

Something flickers in James’ eyes; disbelief, maybe? Confusion? He finally releases the handle. Sherlock pushes it down, locks it, flips the suitcase on its side to take hold of the second handle. When he starts walking again, James walks faster, remaining at his side.

Having seen it open, Sherlock knew the suitcase didn’t hold much, but even so it feels extraordinarily light. A limited number of possessions, quickly packed when needed. James’ certainty that they’ll be taken away if they’re a hindrance. His acceptance of that fact… It’s easy to figure out James has been dragged from place to place before, and has learned the hard way that being too slow has consequences.

“What book?” Sherlock asks as they continue down the street; the lights are brighter already, the sound of traffic growing, even as late as it is.

“I’m sorry?” James asks.

“What book is it you didn’t finish yet?”

“Oh. Il Principe by—”

“Machiavelli,” Sherlock finishes thoughtfully. “How old are you?”

“Twelve, sir.”

Twelve. And reading Machiavelli. Interesting.

“In Italian?”

“Yes, sir.”

Very interesting.

When they get to a busy street, Sherlock is satisfied to find his ability to summon cabs is still intact. He climbs in, James right behind him.

“Who chose that book for you?” Sherlock asks after giving the address to the cabbie. He almost said Baker Street. Not yet, but soon.

“There’s a list with all the books I’m allowed to read. Sebastian had it.”

Sherlock nods absently. A list drawn by Moriarty, evidently. And of course The Prince would be on it.

“Since there’s no list anymore,” James asks after a few seconds, “does that mean I can read other books now?”

Sherlock’s mind starts to drift to his book collection. The Prince is in there, of course – although in English, not Italian. There are a few other books that might be suitable for a twelve year old. The only issue is that all these books are currently in storage, having been handed along with the rest of Sherlock’s possessions to Mycroft’s care.

“I don’t see why not,” he says absently in answer to James’ question.

“Thank you, sir.”

The fervor in those words surprises Sherlock, especially since he hardly promised James access to new literature, just stated he wasn’t opposed to the idea. He glances at the child and finds him smiling. From what he remembers of regular twelve-year-olds from the endless days when he had to sit in school and die of boredom, teens are not usually so enthused at the thought of reading. Then again, none of his peers enjoyed political treatises in a foreign language to the point of pleading to be allowed to finish reading them.

“No need for ‘sir’. You can call me Sherlock.”

“Yes sir,” James says promptly, then grimaces. “I mean, Sherlock. Sorry, sir. Sherlock.”

Sherlock turns his face to the window to hide a smile. It’s been a while since he shared a cab with anyone. He could easily get used to it again.

Chapter Text

By the time the cab stops, James has dozed off. Sherlock shakes his shoulder lightly. James bolts awake, wide eyes looking everywhere. He relaxes again when he sees Sherlock, and insists on carrying his suitcase up the three flights of stairs.

There’s not much to the flat; one look shows all there is to it. Sherlock gestures to the back, where a small bed is pushed against the wall.

“You’re falling asleep on your feet,” he says. “Go to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

James doesn’t move except to turn his head minutely toward the sofa.

“I can sleep there,” he says in a quiet voice. “I don’t need a bed.”

“Nonsense. I sleep on the sofa all the time.”

“But it’s your bed,” James insists. “Really, the sofa would be fine.”

It’s more than politeness, Sherlock realizes when he catches a glint of something wary in James’ eyes. Something that doesn’t belong in a child’s eyes at all.

“The sofa is fine,” he says gruffly, “which is why it’s mine. And I’m fairly certain that you being the child and I being the adult means you do what I say. Go to bed.”

James practically jumps. “Yes sir.”

Sherlock doesn’t bother correcting him. He’s beginning to understand that some things are going to take time. Out of two dead men, he’s not sure if one is more to blame than the other or if they’re both equally at fault. What he is sure of, however, even so soon after first meeting James, is that both Moriarty and Moran died much too quickly.

Shrugging out of his jacket, he walks to the bathroom and closes the door. Usually, he doesn’t bother as the tiny room is downright claustrophobic, but the feeling is in his head and he resolutely ignores it. For the first time that night, he takes a good look at the wound low on his left side; it bled a lot, but it turns out to be a bad graze rather than a through and through. He cleans up, disinfects the wound, bandages it, all by rote. Taking care of his body is a chore he’d much rather entrust to someone else.

When in passing he sees his reflection in the mirror, he barely recognizes himself. His features are as familiar as ever, of course, just… sharper. Almost gaunt. The sparse facial hair darkening his cheeks, chin and upper lip definitely add to the feeling of otherness. It was fine until tonight. It was even necessary. Not anymore.

It’s late, he’s exhausted both physically and mentally, he’s in pain – but this can’t wait. With slow, careful movements, he runs the blade of a razor over his skin and relearns the contours of his own face.

When he finally comes out of the bathroom, he almost feels like himself again. It’s going to take a little more than that, but it’s a good first step.

The flat is so perfectly quiet that it’s easy to forget he’s not alone. Lying on the sofa, he closes his eyes but he’s not quite ready to sleep. First, he reviews the events of the night, rechecks everything, makes sure he didn’t leave any thread hanging. When he’s satisfied he hasn’t overlooked anything in his desire to be done with his hunt, he closes that door and opens a new one.

What is it going to take to go back to his old life? Can he even go back, fully and completely? These three years changed him, and not just physically. What’s more disquieting, though, is that he’s not sure he wants it all back exactly as it was. Having lived without some things, he’s come to realize how much they meant to him.

He texts the address of his flat to Mycroft. That’s one thing done. He’s still trying to figure out in which order he’ll do the rest of the forty-two items on his list when he hears the first whimper. Strangely enough, it’s all too familiar, for all that he hasn’t heard anything like it in four, almost five years.

For a good six months after John first moved in, he had nightmares at least once a week, usually two or three times. He never mentioned them. Neither did Sherlock. But whenever the tell-tales sounds filtered down through the old walls of the flat, Sherlock would accidentally knock down a pile of books, or bang a door, or otherwise make some obnoxious noise. Sometimes, he’d have to repeat the process two or three times. Eventually, though, John would wake, and presumably go back to a more restful sleep.

There’s nothing to knock down within reach, and the thought of getting up is as intolerable as the idea of letting those quiet whimpers continue.

“James,” he says in a loud voice. He has to say it a second time before, at the other end of the room, a gasp and rustling sheets tell him the child is awake. He’s breathing hard, though trying not to make noise.

“Are you awake?” Sherlock asks.

“Ye-yes?”

“Good. I was wondering. Do you know additional languages other than Italian?”

There’s a beat of silence before James answers. “French,” he says. “And a bit of German. But Fa… Father said my German was terrible.”

“All right. Maybe we’ll work on that. That’s all. You can go back to sleep.”

The room falls silent again, but a few minutes later James’ voice rises softly.

“Sherlock? Are you… I know you said you’re sure, but… are you really sure?”

Sherlock refrains from sighing, although he’s not even sure why.

“Yes. I am really sure.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Soon, there’s nothing more than the sound of quiet breaths echoing through the flat. Sherlock never even realizes he drifts into sleep.

*

Sherlock couldn’t say what wakes him: the sound of his name or knocking on the door. He opens his eyes, and James is there, just beyond arm’s reach, wearing the same clothes as yesterday, his hair mussed up but his eyes alert.

“There’s someone at the door,” he whispers. “Are we running?”

Sherlock sits up, then frowns. “Why would we run?” he asks gruffly, blinking against the light pouring in through the bare window.

And then he remembers to whom he is speaking.

“No, we’re not running,” he says as he stands and crosses the small flat to the door, belting his robe over his t-shirt and pajamas.

He expected to find one of his brother’s lackeys behind the door. Instead, it’s Mycroft himself who stands there, looking as startled by Sherlock’s appearance as Sherlock is to see him.

“Dear God, are you ill?” Mycroft asks as he pushes his way in. “You must have lost nearly a stone.”

“And you must have gained it,” Sherlock replies instantly. “Diet not working so well anymore? You should try being on the run for a year or two.”

Whatever Mycroft meant to say, he falls silent when he notices James, still standing by the sofa. Sherlock grimaces. Why couldn’t Mycroft have sent a lackey to deliver the thick envelope he still has in hand?

“And who do we have here?” Mycroft asks after a second or two, and it’s not clear if the question is for James or Sherlock.

James’ eyes dart to Sherlock, questioning. Sherlock shakes his head minutely. James takes a step back, then another, turning away then darting back to the rumpled bed. The sheet and blanket have been tucked in neatly and a book rests on the pillow. It seems he’s been awake for a while. He sits there and picks up the book, appearing instantly absorbed by his reading. Out of the way, quiet, unobtrusive, seemingly uninterested by whatever is going on near him… He’s been well trained. Sherlock is as fascinated as he is appalled.

Mycroft, on the other hand, seems to err toward confusion.

“Would you care to explain?” he asks, turning a frown to Sherlock.

“No,” Sherlock says, holding out his hand.

Mycroft holds the envelope to his chest, a nonchalant hand wrapped around it. “Answer the question, Sherlock.”

“It’s none of your business.”

Eyes to the sky; old patterns are so easy to return to.

“You know I can find out by my own means.”

Sherlock snorts. “I’d like to see you try. It might be interesting to see what kind of nonsense you find.”

Given Moriarty’s skills in creating imaginary people, Sherlock is reasonably certain that James has a story already written, somewhere out there, only waiting for someone to come looking for it.

“Sherlock.” Mycroft’s voice cracks like a whip; like ice. “You coming back to life after a fake suicide is going to take some damage control on my part. Having some unidentified child with you would make my efforts a fool’s errand.”

The Ice Man echoes through Sherlock’s mind. As nicknames go, that one was fairly accurate.

As much as it pains him to admit it, Mycroft might – just might, mind – have a point. The presence of a child at his side will definitely raise questions. He could claim James is his son, but who would believe that? He’d need at least some kind of proof to back up that claim. Not that he intends to keep the child around for very long, but until he finds him a better place to be, a cover story would probably be helpful.

“James,” Sherlock says, raising his voice.

On the bed, James’ head snaps up at once.

“We’ll be going out as soon as Mycroft leaves. Unless you intend to go shopping unwashed and in the same clothes you wore all night, I suggest you make use of the bathroom. Your hair could use a good combing, too.”

James’ gaze flicks up to the top of Sherlock’s head, but if he thinks Sherlock is bordering on hypocritical, he keeps it to himself. Clutching the carry-on in both arms, he hurries into the bathroom and locks the door behind him. Soon, they can hear water running.

Mycroft has been observing the proceedings with a light frown. When Sherlock walks over to the window and opens it, letting in noise from the street below, he seems to catch on and comes closer, asking again, although more quietly, “Who is he?”

“Moriarty’s son,” Sherlock says coolly, observing his brother for a reaction.

All he gets is a slight widening of Mycroft’s eyes.

“I… see,” Mycroft says, glancing at the closed bathroom door. “And the reason he is here?”

Sherlock shrugs. “He asked to come with me. He seems reasonably smart for his age and I have questions about his father.”

“And when you get your answers… what do you intend to do then?”

“We’ll see.”

Mycroft shakes his head. “He’s a child, Sherlock. You can’t just use him for information.”

“No?” Sherlock drops his voice lower still. “I’m pretty sure being used for information will be nothing compared to what he was used for by his previous caretakers.”

The lack of reaction on Mycroft’s part can only mean he noticed something, a clue that guided him to the same conclusion Sherlock just hinted at.

“If that’s the case,” he says, “then what he needs is to be in the care of people who know how to deal with this kind of thing. You hardly qualify.”

Sherlock doesn’t gag, but it’s a close thing. “You think he’d be better off talking to a psychiatrist?”

For all the venom he puts in the word, it might as well be an insult. The look Mycroft offers him in reply is close enough to pity that Sherlock strides away from him, going to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from his jacket. He lights one with vindictive relish, more interested in changing the conversation to his bad habits than he is to talk about the past. Before Mycroft can decide to stay on course or switch gears, the door of the bathroom opens and James walks out.

The jeans are a little bit longer than the other pair but still too short. The shirt is too large, and it’s missing a button. What stops Sherlock’s cigarette halfway to his mouth however is James’ hair. Sherlock suggested combing it. James took that to heart, wetting it a little and slicking it back. The resemblance was there before; now, it’s startling.

“Is that better?” he asks.

Sherlock nods, then exhales a huff of smoke. A grimace flashes through James’ face but he schools his features. He walks back to the bed, setting the suitcase next to it, and sits on the edge, reaching for his book again.

Stepping forward, Mycroft throws a glare to Sherlock’s cigarette but says nothing about it. Instead, he addresses James.

“Sherlock told me you asked to stay with him.”

James looks up at Mycroft, then glances at Sherlock, questioning again. When Sherlock nods, James replies.

“Yes, sir.”

“Why? Believe me, he’s not the most pleasant person to be around.”

“He’s the smartest person I’m aware of,” James says. “I don’t really care about pleasant.”

Sherlock has a hard time hiding a smug grin, even more so when Mycroft throws him a dirty look.

“He may think he’s the smartest—” Mycroft starts, but James interrupts him quietly.

“Father thought he was the smartest man he knew. Including you, sir.”

This time, Sherlock doesn’t bother hiding his grin. Mycroft’s face might as well be a block of marble carved only halfway for all the life and emotions it doesn’t convey.

Turning his back squarely on James, Mycroft finally hands Sherlock the envelope that was the purpose of this visit. With the cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, Sherlock opens it and peeks in. A few official-looking documents; he can look at those later. For now, he pulls out a familiar lump of leather. Looking through it, he finds that everything is in order, from his bank card to his driving license. There are even stub tickets, three years old, for a gala he and John attended for a case. That was just weeks before Sherlock’s fall from grace. It’s not just a wallet stuffed with his things; it’s his wallet.

He looks at Mycroft with an eyebrow raised. Mycroft looks away, back toward James.

“How about… distant cousin?” he offers thoughtfully. “Mummy had a great-uncle who produced a rather alarming number of offspring.”

Sherlock shrugs, pulling deeply on his cigarette. “Whatever you think is best,” he exhales, but the whole point is, exactly, that they’re not doing what Mycroft thinks is best. Which is just how Sherlock likes things.

Ten minutes later, Mycroft is gone, Sherlock is dressed, and he and James head out.

“Where are we going?” James asks.

He’s wearing his parka again; zipped, this time. Sherlock tries not to think of explosives.

“I need clothes,” Sherlock says. “So do you, actually.”

James nods gravely. “I know. These are awful. Sebastian said to think of it as a disguise but…”

He gives an exaggerated shudder. Sherlock knows exactly how he feels.

“But before that…” James peers up at him. “Do you think we could find something to eat? There wasn’t much at all in your fridge. Or at least, nothing I dared eat.”

Which, on one hand, is a good thing because Sherlock’s mini-fridge is more a receptacle for in-progress experiments than edible stuff. On the other hand, Sherlock has always considered stopping to eat somewhere a waste of time. Well, not always. When his companion was hungry, it was a necessity to endure. And since his current companion is hungry… The tailor will have to wait a bit.

They stop at a Chinese place whose door handle looks promising. James orders without hesitation and eats with gusto. It’s only when he’s halfway done that Sherlock realizes he still hasn’t asked him anything. He’s not even sure where to start. He goes for the first thing that crosses his mind.

“So what did you think of Mycroft?”

James shrugs. “I don’t think he likes me much.”

Sherlock gives him a half-smile. “He doesn’t like anyone much. Try not to be crushed.”

Returning the half-smile, James goes back to his fried rice. He holds the chopsticks almost delicately, and closer to the end than most people do. After a moment, without looking up, he says, “I don’t need to see a psychiatrist. Or a psychologist. Or any kind of therapist.”

“You eavesdropped,” Sherlock says in reply.

“You were talking about me. I wanted to know. Are you going to send me to a therapist?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Because you saw one and it didn’t help you?”

Sherlock’s fingers twitch, seeking the cigarette he can’t have in here. He’ll need to buy patches. A lot of patches. Maybe bribe people not to sell him cigarettes. It worked, once. It wasn’t such a terrible idea after all.

“No,” he says quietly, looking out into the street. “It didn’t help. Are you done?”

“Almost.”

Sherlock watches people pass and instead of asking another question he reviews his list, rearranging things here and there. The list starts like this: Clothes [suits, shoes, coat, etc.] [clothes for James]. Phone [must have sensible typing option]. (Bookstore near phone store?). John.

There’s only one problem. He pulls his cell phone out, sends what will hopefully be his last text on this ridiculous keypad.

I don’t suppose you have his address?
SH

By the time they get out of the restaurant, Mycroft has replied with an address and a cryptic, Be ready for the unexpected. Which is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. How can one prepare for what they don’t know is coming? It must be Mycroft’s way of getting back at him for whatever perceived slight. Things really are going back to a semblance of normalcy. He glances at the child keeping pace with him; well, normalcy has always been relative where Sherlock was concerned. That’s all right. John is good at adapting to not-quite-normal things.

Chapter Text

Walking down Savile Row in jeans, an ill-fitted shirt and a leather jacket feels sacrilegious to Sherlock. Having a child at his side doesn’t help either. His old tailor does a double take when they walk in. Sherlock supposes he’s going to get this kind of look fairly often in the coming weeks. He already has his story ready.

“I was pushed, of course. Almost died but not quite. Coma. With killers after me, my family decided it’d be better if the world believed I was dead.”

“Killers? But the papers said this Moriarty guy was an actor.”

James doesn’t react to the name. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away. But as Sherlock answers, he raises a hand to his mouth, starts worrying his thumbnail with his teeth. It lasts for no longer than a second before he realizes what he’s doing and lowers his hand again, frowning slightly to nothing in particular.

“The papers also said I was dead,” Sherlock says sharply. “Who would you rather believe, your own eyes or some journalist chasing after fame?”

That puts an end to the questions. How often will Sherlock need to answer? It’s so tedious. Like many things, it can’t be helped, but after doing what was needed for so long, Sherlock would like to do what he wants for a change. Unfortunately, telling the man to mind his own business would probably be counter-productive right now.

The shop prides itself on quality and custom work takes time, so after the tailor takes his measurements and mumbles something unintelligible as he compares the new numbers to what he had on file, Sherlock passes into the next room. Ready-to-wear trousers and shirts will have to do for a while.

“What about me?” James asks with something that’s alarmingly like a pout.

“We’ll find a store for children when I’m done here,” Sherlock says. “Patience.”

“I don’t want children's clothes.” James wrinkles his nose like the thought is simply too disturbing to consider. “I want suits, too.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “By the time they’re ready, you’ll have grown taller. It’d be a waste of money.”

The blank look James gives him at that sends a rather unpleasant chill down Sherlock’s back. No need to ask who taught him that look.

“May I borrow your cell phone?” he asks, the words clipped and sharp. He’s already holding out his hand. “And I’ll need your bank card, too.”

Shrugging out of a jacket that doesn’t fit too badly, Sherlock frowns at him. “What for?”

“I won’t use it to make a purchase,” James says, which doesn’t answer the question.

The salesman slides the jacket on a hanger while pretending he’s not as curious as Sherlock is. Sherlock sends him to find plum-colored shirts in several sizes, and while the man is occupied, he hands James the phone and card he requested. James dials a fairly long number; international call, prefix for Switzerland. He speaks in barely accented French, reciting an eighteen-digit number, then turning away to whisper something that might be a password. Sherlock thinks the precaution is directed toward him until he notices the salesman is back and doing a very poor job of pretending he isn’t listening. Sherlock shoots the man a glare and misses what James says next. When he pays attention again, the child is spelling out Sherlock’s name and giving his bank card number to whoever’s on the other side. Finally, he holds the phone out to Sherlock.

“They want to talk to you.”

Sherlock takes the phone. “Allo?”

“Monsieur Holmes?”

“Oui?”

“Je voulais juste confirmer que le montant indiqué par Monsieur Lenfant sera transféré à votre banque avant la fin de la journée.”

“Et quel est ce montant?”

Sherlock didn’t hear the amount when James gave his instructions. When the banker repeats it for him, it takes a second or two before it makes sense. He manages not to choke on a thank you and ends the call.

“Now can I have my suits?” James asks, arms crossed, an eyebrow raised.

Sherlock nods. With that much money, James can have two dozen suits. And cashmere jumpers. And a car while he’s at it, not that he’d be able to drive it. With a smug little grin, James returns to the other room. He restricts himself to ordering three suits, and spends more time deciding on colors, fabrics and patterns than Sherlock did. The tailor, as he takes his measurements, asks Sherlock twice if he’s sure. Sherlock assures him it is no joke.

“Lenfant?” Sherlock asks when they finally leave. “An interesting name choice.”

James grimaces. “Not my choice,” he mutters. “Father had a peculiar sense of humor at times.”

But was it really a joke, Sherlock wonders. ‘The child’. It could have been a sign of affection. A reminder to James of who he was. Then again, it might just be something that James would rather forget.

“He made you memorize the account number and password,” he says instead, and it’s not quite a question.

“And the bank’s phone number,” James confirms, nodding absently as he looks at the windows of the shops they pass by. “He said it was in case something happened to him. It can’t be traced back to him at all.”

“Do you know how much is in there?”

James shrugs. “Enough. I don’t care. I don’t want it. You can have it all if you want. Sebastian wanted it but I told him I forgot the number.”

That last part comes out bursting with self-satisfaction. When Sherlock snorts, James throws a frown at him.

“You say you don’t want it,” Sherlock says with a wry smile, “but you hid it from Moran, and just now you were all too happy to use it to get your suits.”

“Well, if I’m staying with you I figured I should pay for my things.” James’ voice grows tighter when he adds, “And I wouldn’t have given Sebastian the time of day if he asked. I wish you’d caught up with us and killed him a lot sooner. I tried to leave you clues but I wasn’t sure it was even you who was following us, so I didn’t know what kind of clues you’d pick up on. I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

If the realization that those clues were left for him on purpose surprises Sherlock, it’s nothing next to the calm and even tone James uses when talking about murder. Only his eyes betray his emotions, dark and dull.

“That’s… not something you should be saying where someone can hear,” Sherlock says.

James nods, throwing furtive looks around them as though to check who might have heard. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”

Sherlock’s answer was far from adequate, he realizes that much. When a child raised by a psychopath and a killer for hire talks of murder, there are probably better things to say than ‘not so loud’. But after the past three years, Sherlock would feel ridiculous if he condemned murderous thoughts.

Maybe next time James says something like that, John will be there to teach him what’s acceptable and what isn’t. He’d be much better at it than Sherlock. Or maybe he’ll understand why James has those thoughts, and wish he’d been there to do something about it. He does have a rather pronounced protective streak.

They hit a couple more stores. James’ tastes in shoes are as expensive as his tastes in clothes. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise Sherlock all that much. He wonders if it’s something that was instilled in James or that came on naturally, but he doesn’t want to know badly enough to actually ask questions.

Sherlock sighs in satisfaction when he finds a twin of his Belstaff. Sliding it on feels like getting back into his own skin. James looks at him curiously, then tries the same model in the smallest size available. It’s still too big, falling almost down to his calves and covering his hands entirely, but he’s adamant that’s what he wants. Sherlock has stopped questioning his choices. They leave with coats, scarves and gloves. As she waves them off, the saleslady exclaims at how cute they’ll look, matching father and son. James’ nose wrinkles in displeasure. For a moment, Sherlock thinks it’s the ‘father and son’ comment that annoys him, but then James mutters, “Cute? How old does she think I am, three? People are so annoying!” Sherlock looks away before James can catch him grinning.

When they’re done – at least until they have to come back for fittings – they’re both carrying too many bags, but they still make two more stops in nearby streets. James insists on a blue iPhone. Sherlock thinks the color is rather garish for a phone but nothing he says will deter the child. They leave with each other’s numbers already pre-programmed in their respective devices. Sherlock takes the occasion to warn James about getting into strange cars with government-type people. James gives him an ‘Are you serious?’ look, and Sherlock realizes that the warning is probably superfluous.

Their last stop is in a bookstore. If James’ eyes lit up earlier when he found silk ties, now they’re practically glowing.

“How many can I get?” he asks, barely containing his excitement.

Sherlock shakes his head, amused. Another phone call, and James could buy the whole store. It might be a little excessive, however.

“As many as you can carry.”

James looks at his hands and the five bags he’s already carrying. “Could you…”

With an exaggerated sigh, Sherlock takes the bags and turns James loose, calling out after him, “Fifteen minutes, no more. We’ve still got to go across town.”

James bypasses the children's and young adult sections, Sherlock notes with a certain satisfaction. In fact, the entire fiction department seems to hold no interest for him. He goes straight to non-fiction. A short stop in front of the languages shelves and he pulls a thick book out; later, Sherlock sees it’s a ‘how to teach yourself German’ type of book. Animals, next, and James spends a full ten minutes before finally deciding on two books. Standing a few feet away, Sherlock is interested enough not to be too bored. The European history volume is somewhat unexpected, though less so than the book about Brazil.

“Making travel plans?” Sherlock asks, because at this point he wouldn’t be all that surprised.

“No,” James says, juggling the ridiculous pile toward another bookshelf. “I want to make notes on the places where I went in case I ever go back.”

‘I’. Not ‘we’. Symbolically erasing Moran from that trip, although Sherlock doubts it’s quite that easy. For his part, Sherlock would just as soon forget the whole trip happened at all; it was a complete waste of time on his end, chasing shadows and missing his target by entire days. If he’d caught up with Moran then… He’d have been home almost a full year sooner. His fists tighten over the bags he’s holding.

The last book James picks before Sherlock calls time is an illustrated guide to collectible firearms.

When they walk out twenty minutes after walking in, James is carrying six books, which all together must weigh a good stone. All in all, they’re nothing that Sherlock would have picked for him, but the selection is somewhat enlightening. James is beaming as brightly as people who aren’t them probably do on Christmas morning.

“I’m sorry to say keeping a beehive in the flat is not going to work,” Sherlock says as he flags a cab. “Mrs. Hudson doesn’t care much for insects.”

“I just want to know all about them,” James says fervently, stroking one of the two books about apiculture he picked up. “They’re fascinating, don’t you think?”

In front of his earnest eyes, Sherlock can only agree.

“Father thought it was a waste of time,” James offers, much less animated now.

“Learning is never a waste of time,” Sherlock replies.

Not all knowledge is worth holding on to, of course, but one must learn first to be able to discern what’s important and what isn’t.

Back home, James wants to start reading right away, but Sherlock reminds him they only came back to put down their purchases and change into their new clothes. James isn’t happy, but he doesn’t argue.

“No need for a tie,” Sherlock says a moment later when he sees that James has all five of them lined up on his bed and is deciding on one.

James apparently has very selective hearing. He can also knot a tie perfectly in under four seconds. Sherlock rolls his eyes and mutters “Show off.” He gets a pleased little smile in reply.

Another cab takes them across London. James spends the entire ride on his phone, looking up – what else – bees. Good thing Sherlock went for an unlimited data plan.

“Whose house is this?” James asks when they reach their destination and stand in front of the small but well cared-for townhouse in the middle of a dozen identical buildings.

“A friend’s,” Sherlock says absently. “Stay close.”

This is not what he expected. Maybe John finally found a medical post worthy of his skills? Unless he’s sharing with someone? A look at the mailbox confirms the latter, with two last names, including John’s. Sherlock isn’t sure why he feels a little miffed. He passes a hand through his hair, and resists the urge to turn up his collar. He glances back; James stands two steps behind him, hands in his pockets, eyes darting everywhere. Observing or looking for threats?

Sherlock shakes himself and stops delaying. He knocks twice. He’s been waiting for this moment for years. He’s rehearsed what he would say a thousand times. When a woman opens the door, he tries not to frown and says in a mostly polite voice, “Hello, I’m looking for John. Is he here?”

His words are lost on the woman. She stares at him through hazel eyes that progressively grow wider. Her dark blonde hair is trying to escape a messy bun at the nape of her neck. Her skirt and blouse scream office work, although they’re of a high-enough quality that she must be rather high on the corporate ladder. Without any warning whatsoever, she slaps Sherlock across the face, open handed and hard enough to whip his head back.

“How could you do this to him?” she asks, her voice trembling with outrage.

That… is not exactly how Sherlock imagined things would go.

And it only gets worse from there.

Chapter Text

Sherlock isn’t a stranger to pain. Over the years, he’s been shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, beaten with various objects, hit with a car, thrown out of a moving vehicle, and yes, occasionally, even slapped.

It’s not so much the diffuse pain warming up his cheek that keeps him silent, his mind running on overdrive. Instead, it’s what the woman said; she knows who he is, she knows he lied to John – and presumably she knows John did not take Sherlock’s death all that well.

He scrambles for words, his rehearsed scripts twisting into meaningless jumbles. Then, two things happen at the same time.

There’s a light tug on his arm, and Sherlock glances down to see James holding on to him. The child didn’t take his hand; he’s clutching the hem of his sleeve. He’s staring at the woman, though Sherlock would be hard pressed to give a name to the emotion tightening his features.

At the same instant Sherlock looks down, a voice rises from behind the woman.

“Love? Did you say something?”

Sherlock’s head jerks up, and there is John at the end of the corridor, half hidden behind the woman. Their eyes meet over her shoulder, and Sherlock tries to smile. His face, still smarting from the slap, refuses to obey. His mouth won’t move, not for a smile, not for a word. The most unsettling flutters knot his insides, and in this moment he hates his body, hates that it betrays him now of all times, hates that he can’t do anything more than watch as John blinks several times, his mouth falling open.

“No,” John says, and it’s little more than a whisper.

The woman turns halfway to him, opening the way between them. John shakes his head. His features are growing tense, and Sherlock remembers that expression well.

“No,” he says again, more loudly, anger bursting from the small word like it’s a live grenade. And again. “No. Just… no.”

He turns away with a quasi-military precision, and disappears past a corner.

A hundred, a thousand scenarios; Sherlock never imagined he wouldn’t manage to get even one word out. And he wouldn’t have believed John would just turn away without at least demanding an explanation. That unsettling flutter is slowly turning to nausea.

A light tug on his sleeve, and James asks quietly, “Are we going, now?”

Sherlock is still at a loss for words. The woman takes it upon herself to answer for him.

“Like hell you are,” she huffs. Arms crossed, she tilts her head toward the corridor. “You get in here right this second, Mr. Holmes. You’ve been running long enough, don’t you think?”

Sherlock doesn’t like the way she talks to him. He doesn’t like that she knows who he is while all he knows is that John lives with her and calls her ‘love’. He doesn’t like the impatient look she gives him when he doesn’t move fast enough for her taste. But he is grateful to be invited in, and he even manages to mutter a quiet, “Thank you,” as he passes by her.

He stops again when he realizes the tugging on his sleeve is gone, and James hasn’t moved.

“Come in, honey,” the woman says, her voice much sweeter all of a sudden.

James bristles; whether at the endearment or invitation, it isn’t clear.

“You hit Sherlock,” he says coldly, not moving an inch.

“That I did,” she says with the slightest grin. “And I’m not sorry.”

Those last words are for Sherlock, with a brief but intense look toward him.

Sherlock is losing patience. “James,” is all he says.

With a sullen expression, James finally comes in. Sherlock turns away, barely aware that the woman closed the front door, or that she’s talking to James, offering him tea, asking if he wants biscuits. James refuses both. Glancing back again, Sherlock makes a vague gesture.

“Stay with her.”

James starts to protest, but Sherlock is already on the move, going to the same corner where John disappeared, looking into a small kitchen bursting with dinner smells, passing a neat but comfortable looking living room, finally reaching a dining room. The table is set for two. A bottle of wine is in the middle of the table, uncorked. One of the glasses is missing. It’s currently in John’s hand.

He’s standing by a window, his back to Sherlock, looking out into the slowly darkening street.

“Go away,” he says, his voice rough. “Get out of my home. Now.”

Sherlock takes a few steps forward. “How about you give me a chance to explain first?”

John lets out a chuckle that’s as warm and pleasant as nails running down a chalkboard. He finishes his glass of wine, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. Sherlock clears his throat and starts one of the shortest explanations he prepared; it doesn’t look like John is ready for more right now. Maybe later, he’ll want to know details. They have time.

“Moriarty rigged the game—”

John huffs quietly and sets the empty glass on the window sill. As he turns, Sherlock practically trips over his own words.

“—so that if I hadn’t… hadn’t jumped his men would have—”

John’s eyes are dark, his mouth is little more than a thin line. His fist crashes against Sherlock’s chin. The taste of blood bursts on Sherlock’s tongue as the momentum sends him two steps back.

“Yes, Sherlock,” John says darkly, both hands fisted at his sides, his shoulders rounded as he glares at Sherlock. “Do tell me about this game. Explain to me how it was a game that I had to watch you jump off a building. Most amusing game ever.”

Sherlock touches his split lip with a finger, but it’s John’s voice that causes him to wince. The last time he heard that tone, it came with words like ‘machine’.

“Maybe game wasn’t the right word,” he concedes. “But there really was no other option for me but to… do what I did.”

John’s arm is tensing again, preparing for another blow. Sherlock adds very quickly, “My life for yours. Yours, Mrs. Hudson’s and Lestrade’s. That’s the choice he gave me. It wasn’t a choice at all.”

The second blow never comes, but the anger burns as bright as ever in John’s eyes.

“Right. You had to jump. And you had to call me before you did. And you had to say those lies to me and try to make me doubt. And you had to make me watch. And you had to make me believe for three bloody years…”

He tilts his head back, blinking a few times, and Sherlock’s stomach clenches when he realizes John is blinking tears away.

“Three years, two weeks and three days,” he says with a shake of his head. “Do you know where I was, two and a half weeks ago? I was talking to a block of marble. Again. It never said anything back, but somehow that never stopped me from talking. I can’t talk to my bloody therapist but I’ve spent three years talking to your tombstone and waiting for a reply.” He snorts lightly. “And now that you are saying something, I really don’t want to hear it. You’re dead, Sherlock. You can’t just waltz in here and not be dead. It doesn’t work like that. Now get. Out.”

“John…” He almost chokes on the name.

But John is back to the window, looking out again, ignoring Sherlock.

Clenching his teeth hard enough to hurt, Sherlock turns on his heel and strides out of the room. As he passes by the kitchen, a few words stop him.

“That bad, huh?”

He looks in. James is standing near the table, hands in his pockets, his expression when he looks at Sherlock quite as dark as John’s a moment ago. It’s the woman who spoke, and she looks at Sherlock with a mix of pity and exasperation.

“Honestly, what did you think would happen?” she asks.

Sherlock could give her a dozen answers, but what’s the point? He was wrong. From his most pessimistic prediction to his wildest, most improbable and silliest daydream, completely and utterly wrong. If he doesn't get out of this house and fast, he might just be sick.

“James,” he says blankly. “We’re leaving.”

James is glaring as he walks out of the kitchen, past Sherlock and toward the front door. Sherlock follows, aware that the woman is behind him but not feeling in a good enough mood to attempt a polite goodbye. As he walks out, she says his name from the threshold.

“Mr. Holmes. Sherlock.”

He stops, only half turning toward her. Behind the second window, a shadow moves away from the glass.

“It took him a long time to accept your death. Give him at least a few days to get used to the idea that you’re alive.”

The shadow reappears behind the window – or is that Sherlock’s eyes playing tricks on him? He clenches his fists in his pockets.

Sherlock nods, more acknowledgment of the woman’s words than agreement, and joins James where he’s waiting past the metal gate. Neither of them says a word as they walk down the street. It takes them a little while to get a cab. Sherlock asks for Baker Street. If he’s going to get slapped again, it might as well be tonight. Get it over with. Finally go back to normal, even if it’s not the kind of normal he hoped for.

Give him at least a few days.

And then what? Go back to that house, its domesticity, its…couple-ness? Intrude where he’s not wanted? Let John hit him until he gets it out of his system? And again… then what?

This is wrong. It's all so very wrong. But Sherlock can't figure out what he could have done differently.

With James standing sullenly at his side, Sherlock knocks on 221B after vainly searching his pockets for the key. By the time it takes before the lock clicks, he knows it’s Mrs. Hudson before she opens the door. He plasters a small smile on his face, and feels the cut on his bottom lip reopen.

Mrs. Hudson doesn’t slap him; progress. Instead, she opens wide eyes, presses both hands to her chest, and wavers a little on her feet.

“Oh my god,” she says. Then says it again. By the third time, she looks ready to faint. Sherlock reaches out to hold her arm, but she captures his hand and holds it in both of hers. Her eyes are full of tears but she’s smiling.

“How?” she asks, breathless.

Seated in her small kitchen, with just a splash of rum in her tea, purely for medicinal purposes – and still, always, under James’ silent and sullen staring – Sherlock recites his story. Pushed. Coma. Better to play dead. He’s not quite sure why his throat is so tight the entire time. It might have to do with the way Mrs. Hudson looks at him, like she can’t quite believe he’s here and yet expected nothing less from him.

When he says it was his family’s decision to pretend he was dead until the killers were apprehended, she huffs and rolls her eyes. “I’ve talked to Mycroft a dozen times,” she says. “He never even hinted at anything. Just wait until I see him again. It’s a disgrace, him lying to me like this when you’re practically family.”

Out of the blue, Sherlock finds himself glad he killed her would-be killer first.

As it turns out, she’s been talking to Mycroft because he was paying the rent to keep Sherlock’s things in the flat, having successfully convinced her that it was ‘still too painful’ for him to sort through Sherlock’s possessions.

“So it’s all there?” Sherlock asks, unable to keep his surprise from his voice. “Can I—”

“Move back in?” She all but beams at him. “Of course. It’s been so quiet with you boys gone. John’s been by to say hello, but he couldn’t…” Her smile fades a bit and she tilts her head. “Have you seen John yet?”

Sherlock nods once. “I have,” he says, and his sharp tone makes it clear he doesn’t care to say more. He looks away from her, and his eyes fall on James.

Who is still glaring.

What on Earth is wrong with the boy?

“Oh, Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson chides suddenly. “You didn’t even introduce your young friend to me.”

“This is James,” Sherlock says. “Distant relative. He’ll be staying with me. James, this is Mrs. Hudson. Our landlady.”

James mumbles something that almost sounds polite. Mrs. Hudson coos over how adorable he is.

“He looks just like you, Sherlock. I can really see the family resemblance.”

Clearly, either the rum or her evening soothers are starting to take effect. Sherlock says his goodbyes – and prods James to offer his own as well – and they leave, the flat’s key in Sherlock’s pocket, the promise that they’ll be back in the morning lingering in the air.

Since they’re only a few minutes from Angelo’s, Sherlock decides they might as well stop there. Maybe James has been so quiet because he’s hungry.

Angelo swears loudly in Italian when he sees Sherlock. The next second, he’s giving him a tight enough hug that Sherlock gasps, reminded for the first time since the tailor prodded his side a bit too insistently that he was shot at just hours ago.

The story rolls off his tongue. Angelo gobbles all of it, all the while exclaiming that of course he knew the newspapers were wrong. Of course he believed in Sherlock.

Of course.

But then, why is there the same guilty glint in his eye as when he had to confess to house-breaking?

Sherlock doesn’t care if Angelo believed in him or not. He smiles. Accepts a glass of wine along with a meal he only picks at. His lip splits open again, and blood stains the rim of the glass. Across from him, James eats everything Angelo puts in front of him, never uttering more than “Thank you”. Every now and then, he still glares at Sherlock.

It’s starting to get old, and fast. Sherlock wasn’t an easy child himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to tolerate this kind of behavior. He has enough trouble with adults – with one adult – to let a child give him grief.

“All right,” he says when they’re back to the flat. Last night here, thank god. “Let’s hear it. You’re upset. Why?”

He half expected James to sulk and refuse to answer. Instead, the child shucks off his coat and throws it at Sherlock.

“You left me with her,” he all but snarls.

Rolling his eyes, Sherlock picks up the coat and hangs it next to his behind the door.

“It was just for a moment,” he points out.

If anything, James glares even harder. “She hit you and you left me with her.”

“She slapped me,” Sherlock says, fighting the urge to touch his cheek. “Hardly a mortal wound.”

Crossing his arms, James shakes his head. “Did you know her?”

“No.”

“I thought not. So really, all you knew about her was that she has no qualms hitting someone she just met. And you left me with her. You can’t do that. You’re supposed to be better than that.”

This is starting to get ridiculous. Walking past James, Sherlock sits on the sofa to untie his shoes.

“You’re not making any sense,” he says. “She wasn’t going to hit a child.”

James follows, standing just beyond arm’s reach, his arms still crossed, his expression still forbidding. “I’m not a child,” he protests loudly. “And you couldn’t know she wouldn’t hit me. You had no way to know that.”

Heaving a sigh, Sherlock rakes his fingers through his hair.

This.

This right here is why he had trouble finding a flatmate. Not because he plays the violin at odd hours or stores body parts in the fridge, but because people get hung up over the most inane things and just won’t shut up about it.

“All right,” he snaps. “You’re upset I left you with a stranger. What else was I supposed to do? I had to talk to John. You being there would have only complicated things.”

Not that they weren’t already a lot more complicated than Sherlock expected…

“So why did you take me with you?” James retorts in the same exasperated tone. “I could have stayed here and read my books.”

“I told you I wouldn’t leave you by yourself.”

“Yes, because it’s better to leave me with someone who might hit me. Much safer. It really shows how concerned you are for me. You were supposed to be better than him.”

Again, that word. Better. What does that even mean? In some ways, Sherlock is much better than anyone he knows. He used to pride himself on it. He’s not sure it matters anymore.

“Better than whom?” he asks, his gaze narrowing as he looks at James. “Your father?”

James’ fists close until his knuckles are white, half-hidden behind his crossed arms. “Yes,” he says sharply. “He knew what Sebastian was like and he left me with him anyway. And you, you’re supposed to be better. You’re supposed to be good. How can you be good if you’re going to let just anyone look after me?”

Sherlock can’t help but laugh at that, leaning back into the sofa. It’s not a nice laugh, but then, he’s never been accused of being a nice person. Or a good one.

“I may be many things, but ‘good’ is not one of them. And I told you when you first asked to come with me that I know nothing about caring for children.”

“I’m not a child!” James cries out. It’d be a lot more convincing without his foot stomping down on the bare floor.

“So why are you acting like one?” Sherlock sighs. “She didn’t hurt you, did she?”

“That’s not the point!”

“What is the point?”

“The point is that I wasn’t supposed to stay with him for three years! My father wasn’t supposed to just go away and never come back! He wasn’t supposed to leave me with someone who… who… someone who was worse than him! And you were supposed to be better but maybe you’re just ordinary after all and if you are then who’s going to teach me to be good?”

It all comes out in a rush, and by the end James is a little out of breath. Sherlock is quiet for a while, taking all of that in. It makes no sense… and at the same time, it makes entirely too much sense. It isn’t long before James’ expression changes; he regrets his outburst, regrets saying too much. Too late, now.

Sherlock flexes his hands then clasps them in front of him. He keeps his voice cool and level as he asks, “Do you want me to find another place for you?”

James’ arms fall open. He blinks a few times and breathes, “You want to get rid of me?”

“You haven’t been with me for a full day and you’re already upset. Maybe you would be happier with someone else.”

Panic widens James’ eyes. He takes half a step forward before becoming very still again. “No, no, I’m not upset, I swear. It was just… a tantrum. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. Please. I’m really sorry. Don’t send me away.”

Sherlock has a hard time hiding a wince. He’s making things worse. Why on Earth does he always make things worse? Why does he even care, damn it!

“I’m not good at taking care of people, James. Whether they’re children or adults. If you stay with me I can’t promise I won’t upset you again. Actually I’m fairly certain I will.”

James shakes his head like a broken puppet. “I’m sorry,” he says again, and his voice grows a little shrill. “It was my fault, I shouldn’t have—”

“No,” Sherlock cuts in, quietly but firmly. “It wasn’t your fault. I wanted to see John and all other concerns were secondary, including you. It wasn’t fair to you. I’m sorry.”

They’re not words Sherlock is used to saying. He’s not even sure he really means them at this moment. But they seem to be what James needs to hear, if the way he relaxes means anything.

“Okay,” James says, his upper lip trembling a little.

“Do you want to live with someone else?” Sherlock asks again. He’d be hard pressed to know what answer he wants to hear.

“No, sir.”

Sherlock nods. “In the future when I have to leave you in someone’s care I’ll try to ask what you prefer.”

James’ shoulders sink down another few millimeters. “Thank you, sir.”

“You can still call me Sherlock, you know.”

“Yes Sherlock.”

“And you’re allowed to be upset and tell me you’re upset.”

“Okay.”

“All right. Well. Good. I’m glad we cleared that up.” Sherlock waves toward the back of the flat. “Get cleaned up then go to bed.”

As James slips away, Sherlock lies down and closes his eyes. He’d forgotten what it sounds like to have another person around. The sound of water running, bare feet on the floor, quiet breaths… If he doesn’t let himself think, he could almost believe…

“Sherlock? Can I read before I sleep?”

Almost, but not quite. He makes a vaguely affirmative sound.

The illusion is destroyed and Sherlock has to face the facts: James is likely to be his only flatmate for a while.

Maybe a long while.

Or maybe not. John’s girlfriends have never remained in his life for very long.

The thought troubles him, and it takes him a moment to realize why. Understanding comes with the memory of a slip of paper on a mailbox. Morstan & Watson.

How long have they lived together? Sherlock mentally retraces his steps through the house, seeking clues, but he was too focused on what he was doing to really pay attention and he can’t come up with an answer. It annoys the hell out of him and he presses his thumbs to his eyes as though touch will somehow improve his visual memory.

“Sherlock?”

He hears his name, but he’s too busy trying to remember something, anything and doesn’t bother replying.

“What if he came back?” James asks in a whisper that makes him sound a lot younger. “Would you make me go with him?”

Sherlock sighs. Loudly. “He’s not coming back, James.”

“But what if—”

“I don’t do what ifs.” He doesn’t mean to sound so sharp, not after James was so upset earlier, but he just can’t help it. Hasn’t he answered this question already? “He’s not coming back. If you’re done reading, then go to sleep.”

“I’m still reading,” James says very fast.

“Then be quiet. The only place you’re going to is Baker Street. With me.”

“Yes, sir.”

Relief shouldn’t sound so nice.

For that matter, no one should sound so glad at the prospect of living with Sherlock.

It took John a long time to realize that much. How long until James does?

And conversely… James forgave Sherlock’s mistake as soon as Sherlock acknowledged it. Would John forgive, too, if Sherlock said he’s sorry? It’d be a lie; he’s not sorry for saving John’s life - their lives. But if that’s what John needs to hear…

By morning, Sherlock is still debating the question.

Chapter Text

The last three years of Sherlock’s life fit in one duffelbag – with room to spare. Closing the door of his small flat one last time feels almost as good as opening the door at 221B. He climbs the stairs two at a time, James on his heels. The apartment looks cold with everything packed in boxes, the furniture covered in sheets.

“So… this is your home?” James asks, nonplussed.

Sherlock doesn’t bother answering. He drops the duffelbag on the floor, hangs his coat in the entrance, and starts to tug the sheets off the furniture, throwing them in a pile on the floor.

“Your room’s upstairs,” he says, waving toward the staircase.

From the corner of his eye, he can see James stand very still for a few seconds before he goes up to explore. He comes back within moments.

“Is that really my room?” He’s trying not to sound too thrilled but failing miserably. “Just for me?”

“Isn’t that what I said?” Sherlock mutters. He tries not to wonder where John will sleep when he comes back.

Tries not to wonder if he’ll ever want to come back at all.

Opening one of the boxes, he frowns at the mound of packing peanuts. This is going to take a ridiculous amount of time. He pushes the box away and opens another one. Books. Marginally better. He picks up a few and approaches the bookshelves, then glowers at the dust covering the shelves. His mood is taking a turn for the worse. He thought coming back home would be much different than it’s turning out to be, and his excitement is fading fast. Why can’t everything be just the way it was already?

“Can I help?” James asks behind him.

Whirling on him, Sherlock holds the handful of books out. James looks startled for a second, but he takes the books.

“What do you want me to do with those?”

Stepping over a couple boxes, Sherlock returns to the sheets and picks one up. As dusting instrument, it’s far from ideal, but it’s better than nothing. In moments, he’s cleaned the shelves, dropped the sheet, and taken the books from James again, all without a word.

“Are you mad?” James asks, pulling a few more books from the box and holding them out to Sherlock.

“Why would I be mad?” Sherlock snaps, tugging the books out of the child’s hands.

Rather than picking up another armful, James steps back.

“No reason, sir,” he says quietly. “I’ll go up to my room.”

Shoving the books on the shelf, Sherlock turns around. “No. This can wait. We’re going out. Get your coat.”

James eyes the mess that is the living room but he doesn’t say anything and gets his coat from where it’s hanging besides Sherlock’s. Before either of them can put their coats on, Mrs. Hudson comes up the stairs with a tray of tea, milk, toast and jam.

“Oh, you’re leaving already? I thought maybe one of you would care for breakfast. You came in quite early.”

Sherlock is about to say they have places to be when he catches the slightly hopeful look James is giving the tray. The boy didn’t say anything about being hungry, but it occurs to Sherlock that maybe he didn’t bother because he knew there was nothing to eat back in the other flat – nor here for that matter. They’ll need to go shopping at some point, and Sherlock grimaces at the thought. Fastidious, never-ending chore.

He resolutely refuses to think about John.

“I suppose we can leave in a few minutes,” he says with a sigh.

Mrs. Hudson is already leading the way to the kitchen, James right behind her. Hanging his coat again, Sherlock accepts a cup of tea, then goes back to the box of books he started emptying. Mrs. Hudson comes into the room and picks up the sheets, chiding Sherlock for just dumping them on the floor then babbling about nonsense. Sherlock tries hard not to hear a word of it.

By the time James is done with breakfast, Sherlock is ready to crawl out of his own skin. He bounds down the staircase as quickly as he came up that morning, and lights a cigarette before he even hits the street. When James appears seconds later, a flash of distaste crosses his face before he quickly schools his features again.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Sherlock mutters, starting down the street.

“Hear what?” James asks. He sounds wary.

“Yes, I smoke. No, I don’t care about the health consequences. You can disapprove all you want as long as you do so in silence.”

He planned to quit. Was determined to. But he doesn’t quite see the point at the moment.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” James says.

Sherlock huffs.

James keeps pace with Sherlock, but while yesterday he walked within half a meter of him, now he remains at double that distance. Sherlock frowns, adding up tidbits and clues until he gets it. He takes a last, long drag on his cigarette, exhales in a long sigh, and disposes of the stub.

“I’m not going to hit you,” he says, keeping his voice neutral.

James misses a step, his head whipping up toward Sherlock. He catches himself before tripping, then stops when Sherlock does.

“I didn’t think you would,” he says cautiously.

Very slowly, as non-threateningly as he can manage, Sherlock extends his arm toward James. His fingertips don’t reach closer than inches away from James’ face – and that’s before James takes a half step back.

“A useful skill, I’m sure,” Sherlock comments. “But not one that you will need around me. As you correctly deduced, I am not in the best of moods. It has nothing to do with you. But even if it did, I don’t see how hitting you would improve anything.”

A taxi is driving by. Sherlock hails it and they climb in. They’re halfway to Scotland Yard before James finally says something.

“I’m not really afraid of you,” he murmurs, his head turned doggedly to the window. “It’s just… habit.”

“So I assumed,” Sherlock replies. “I just thought you might need to hear me say it.”

For another few minutes, neither of them says a word. Sherlock is trying to figure out why giving James what he needs should matter; didn’t Sherlock tell him, right from the start, that he’d have to take care of himself? Sherlock doesn’t do well with people who rely on him. Not any better than with people he relies on, actually.

“You didn’t even ask if they hit me,” James says suddenly, still as quiet, still addressing the window.

“I didn’t ask if you make it a habit of breathing either,” Sherlock says gruffly.

James’ reflection almost smiles, but not quite.

“Father always had a reason,” he murmurs. “It was always when I’d done something wrong. So at least I knew to expect it. But Sebastian… he didn’t need reasons. Getting hit wasn’t so bad. Never knowing when, that was worse.”

The silence that stretches in the cab is uncomfortable enough to summon the echo of John’s voice.

Not good.

Well, that doesn’t help. Sherlock knows there’s nothing good about any of it. He doesn’t see what he’s supposed to do about it. It’s the past. He already told James he wouldn’t hit him. What else is there to say?

“You’re really not gonna say anything?” the cab driver erupts suddenly, glaring at Sherlock in the rearview mirror.

Sherlock frowns at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“You’re gonna let him say he’s okay with being hit as long as he knows why or when? Seriously?”

“I don’t see how this concerns you.”

A light turns red ahead of them. The driver takes the opportunity to turn in his seat and look straight at James.

“Listen to me, lad. I don’t care who’s doing it or why. No one should be hitting you. No one. Not for any reason.”

James looks at the man, his face a blank mask. “The light is green,” is all he says.

Moments later, when the cab stops in front of Scotland Yard and Sherlock pays the fare, the driver glares at him some more before rolling away with a muttered, “Tosser.”

Sherlock turns to find James observing him with that same blank expression.

“That wasn’t any of his business,” Sherlock says. “But. He wasn’t wrong.”

James' expression never changes. “Why are we at Scotland Yard?” he asks, and he might as well be screaming ‘can we move on from this topic already?’

Nodding once, Sherlock leads the way. “Someone else needs to know I’m alive.”

“Another friend?” James guesses. “Is he going to punch you in the face, too?”

Without thinking, Sherlock runs a finger over his bottom lip. The cut is closed, but it’s still there.

“Possibly,” he says. “Although I’m hoping being at his place of employment will deter him from being quite so demonstrative.”

The walk to Lestrade’s office is done under the gobsmacked stares of a dozen or so detectives. Sherlock keeps his head high and looks straight ahead, ignoring the murmurs that start to rise in his wake. He owes none of them any sort of explanation. They can read about his return in the press. Mycroft should be leaking the information they’ve decided on right about now.

Lestrade is standing by his open door, his arms crossed, his face a mix of surprise and anger.

“Detective Inspector,” Sherlock says, allowing a small smile to touch his lips. “Could we have a chat?”

“You bastard,” Lestrade breathes. “You bloody magnificent bastard.”

Sherlock clucks his tongue. “Is that how London’s finest speaks in front of children?”

Lestrade’s frown briefly turns to James before returning to Sherlock. People are approaching, and Sherlock can recognize one of the voices as belonging to Donovan. His supply of patience being on the short side, he doesn’t care to face her right now.

“Your office?” he asks.

Lestrade moves aside to let him and James walk in, and pointedly closes the door behind them.

“Does John know?” is Lestrade’s first question as he lets himself fall in his chair.

Sherlock tries not to scowl. “He does,” he says curtly.

Seated next to him with his back very straight and his hands in his lap, James is taking in the room, his gaze sweeping slowly over the desk, the file cabinets, whatever is pinned to the walls. Sherlock leaves him to his observations and focuses on Lestrade.

“He did that to your face, didn’t he?” Lestrade asks, gesturing with a couple of fingers.

Sherlock shrugs. “He didn’t take the news quite as well as you seem to be taking it.”

Chuckling quietly, Lestrade shakes his head. “Yeah, well, I’ve known you longer. I know there’s nothing you wouldn’t do if it suited your purposes. So, how did you do it, Sherlock? Why did you do it?”

The lie comes up easily. Repeat it often enough, and it might start to feel like the truth. By the time Sherlock is done, Lestrade isn’t laughing anymore, but he’s still shaking his head.

“Sounds easy when you say it like that,” he says, bitterness clinging to his words, “but you left us with a fucking mess. You and Moriarty dead. Those articles claiming there was no Moriarty at all. The way you and John took off after your arrest. It took us weeks to sort it all out. It’s a miracle I didn’t get fired over all this.”

Not a miracle, Sherlock is tempted to say. Mycroft isn’t God. He just likes to pretend he is.

He doesn’t say it. Lestrade doesn’t need to know this either.

“Speaking of my arrest,” Sherlock says instead after assuring himself that the mention of Moriarty didn’t upset James. “I assume I’m not wanted for questioning anymore?”

“I almost wish I could say you are.” Lestrade leans back in his chair and shakes his head again like he can’t believe he’s really looking at Sherlock. “Throwing you in lock up for a while would certainly feel satisfying.”

He glances at James, who’s been observing him for a little while. “Although I’m not sure what I’d do with your friend if I did lock you up. A bit young to be your assistant, isn’t he?”

“One is never too young to learn to observe,” Sherlock replies. “James, this is Detective Inspector Lestrade. He’s one of the least annoying people at the Met. Lestrade, this is James. As you correctly guessed, he’ll be coming with me to crime scenes.”

Lestrade’s eyes turn sharp as they come back to Sherlock. “You think you two will be allowed onto crime scenes?” he asks, incredulous. “Never mind the child, you’re not exactly welcome here anymore.”

“I’m not a child,” James protests. “And I think looking at crime scenes would be interesting.”

“And as I was never welcome here,” Sherlock says, “it won’t be much of a change, really.”

Lestrade looks back and forth between them like he can’t decide whom to address first.

“Which part of I almost got fired didn’t you get, Sherlock? We’re done. Not that I would mind having a pint with you every now and then if you cared for that sort of thing, but work-wise? I don’t want to see you here anymore. You’ve got clients. Or at least, you used to. Stick to those and let us do our job.”

With a quiet snort, Sherlock stands. “And is it part of your job to leave—” He gives the pile of folders on the far corner of Lestrade’s desk another glance. “—seven cases unresolved? And that’s just this year, isn’t it? Your filing cabinet doesn’t even close properly anymore.”

Lestrade stands and goes to open the door.

“Despite what you may think, we did quite well without you,” he says. “Now can you find your way out or do I need to provide you with an escort?”

Rolling his eyes, Sherlock stalks out. James is a mere step behind him. A group of detectives are assembled along the path to the elevators.

“You couldn’t even stay dead like normal people,” Donovan sneers as he approaches her.

Sherlock’s eyes fly over her, noting a dozen things. Scathing retorts burn his lips. He’s said worse to her before. Embarrassing her would be the perfect end to this visit to the Met. Doing it in front of all her assembled colleagues would be even better. She’s the one who first put it in Lestrade’s head that Sherlock wasn’t who he claimed to be. If she hadn’t… How would it have all turned out?

But then, would she have been so intent on discrediting him if he hadn’t antagonized her every chance he got? Granted, she started most rows, but Sherlock baited her more often than not. Doing so now when Lestrade is already ill-disposed couldn’t possibly improve anything.

Sherlock has always had trouble holding his tongue, but he manages well enough. Biting down on his aching lip helps somewhat.

“Are all your friends like that?” James asks after the elevator doors have closed on them.

Sherlock snorts. “On good days, yes.”

“Why didn’t you tell him the truth?”

Curious, Sherlock peers down at him. “What do you mean?”

“Why didn’t you tell him you faked your death so he wouldn’t die? He was one of the three, wasn’t he? I recognized his name.”

That’s… unexpected. “How much did you know about your father’s plans?”

James shrugs and looks away. They walk out of the elevator together.

“A lot. Father always explained his plans so I could learn. So? Why didn’t you tell him?”

“Think about it,” Sherlock says, troubled though he couldn’t quite explain why. It’s not like he hadn’t guessed Moriarty had been grooming James for his business, his particular brand of insanity. “You should be able to figure it out.”

On the ride to St Bart’s, James’ face is screwed up in concentration. After a little while, it lights up with a smile. Sherlock hides a grin of his own; it didn’t take him long at all. Only after they get out of the cab does James ask, “The hired-gun was a cop, wasn’t he?”

Sherlock nods, raising an eyebrow to invite him to continue.

“If you told Lestrade someone had been put in place to kill him, he’d try to figure out who it was. And if he’s not incompetent, he’d realize the best way to get to him would be from the inside. And that one of his men died mysteriously some time after you faked your death. So he’d know you killed a cop. A bad one, but he’d still see it as murder because that’s his job. And if you told him there were several killers, he’d realize you killed all of them. He wouldn’t approve.”

Sherlock smiles wryly. “No, he wouldn’t.”

“Is that why you didn’t tell Mrs. Hudson either? Because she’d disapprove?”

“No. She just didn’t need to know. She’d worry needlessly.”

James nods thoughtfully. “What about the last one? It was John Watson, wasn’t it? Did you tell him?”

Sherlock’s smile fades and, without quite knowing what he’s doing, he finds himself looking down at the pavement, seeking blood that wasn’t his own.

“I tried,” he says, shaking himself from his contemplation. “I thought he’d understand. I was wrong. Come on.”

He leads the way inside. Everyone he cared to tell in person now knows he’s alive; time to tell his accomplice she can stop lying on his behalf.

“Oh!” James exclaims suddenly. “I know where we’re at! Can we visit the morgue?”

Bit not good, John’s memory warns again. Sherlock grins anyway.

“We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

Molly is so focused on whatever dull paperwork she’s filling out that she doesn’t notice Sherlock and James walking into the room.

“Honestly, Molly,” Sherlock says after observing her for a second or two. “Three cats?”

Sherlock expected her shriek of surprise. What he did not expect, however, was that upon turning and finding him there, she’d stand and hug him.

“Sherlock! You’re back!”

As soon as she realizes he isn’t returning her overly effusive embrace, she pulls back, her blush brighter than her lipstick.

“I’m sorry! Sorry!” she babbles, wringing her hands. “You surprised me!”

“Clearly,” Sherlock says; he doesn’t mention that she surprised him as well. “Those reports must be fascinating.”

She hears it for the question it is, giving him a small shake of head. “Nothing you’d find interesting.” After a brief pause, she smiles ever so slightly. “Sherlock? Is this it? Is it over?”

He nods. “I am officially back amongst the living, yes.”

Heaving a sigh she sits back down. “Oh, good. Thank God. I kept your secret, I swear I did, but at times it was hard. Every time John came by, I could hardly…” Her voice trails off and she peers up at Sherlock, frowning. “Have you talked to John?”

Sherlock bristles at the question. Why is everyone so concerned about him talking to John? Everyone but John himself, of course.

“I have talked to John,” he says coolly, shooting back a question of his own. “Have you seen him that often, then?”

Sherlock would have believed John would have no reason to come by and visit Molly anymore. He might also have imagined that the thought of coming to Bart’s might be unpleasant to John. Apparently, he was wrong on both counts, because Molly says, “Oh, he usually comes by a couple times a month. It depends on his cases, of course. They don’t usually involve the morgue but he always comes and says hi. And I always felt so bad. I almost told him everything at least a dozen times. I didn’t, I swear, but I wanted to. He was so miserable. It didn’t feel fair, you know. That I knew and he didn’t. I almost made an excuse about next week. Will you be there?”

Sherlock is barely aware of the question; certainly not enough to try to decipher it or formulate an answer. When she mentioned cases, a thought came to his mind and he pulled out his cellphone. John’s blog still has the same URL, but it has a lot more content than the last time Sherlock looked at it. He scrolls through the entries, scanning them just enough to get an idea of what they’re about. He’ll look at them more closely later.

Cases, like Molly said. It seems that John quit working as a doctor altogether and fashioned himself into a detective.

Consulting detective, his new banner says, and Sherlock doesn’t know whether to roll his eyes or smile. The choice is easier when he notices that damn picture with the hat, still in place on the sidebar. Beneath it, five simple words with no explanation.

I believe in Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock’s throat tightens a little for no reason whatsoever.

The last entry is dated a week earlier. Sherlock can’t help but wonder if John will leave those five words and the picture where they are the next time he updates his blog.

“Sherlock?” Molly says, and from the tone of her voice it’s not the first time.

Pocketing the phone, Sherlock blinks and looks up. “Molly?” he says in the same questioning tone.

“Oh! I know who you are! You’re Molly Hooper!” James blurts out suddenly.

The boy was so quiet until now that Sherlock had all but forgotten his presence. Judging by Molly’s light frown, she hadn’t even noticed him. James is very good at not being noticed.

“I am,” she says, curious. “Hello. And who are you?”

“I’m James.” He offers her his hand as readily as he offered it to Sherlock that first night, beaming brightly as he says, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

She shakes his hand with a puzzled but pleased little smile. “You have? What did you hear, then?”

The glance she throws Sherlock makes it clear whom she thinks told James about her. She’s wrong, but right now maybe it’s best if she continues to believe it. Catching James’ eyes, Sherlock shakes his head ever so slightly. James’ smile wavers a little.

“James is my cousin,” Sherlock says, and if the interruption is abrupt, Molly is certainly used to such things from him. “He’s staying with me at the moment.”

What was left of James’ smile melts away. “At the moment?” he repeats, at the same time as Molly says, “Cousin? I didn’t realize you had family. I mean, other than your brother.”

“Distant relative,” Sherlock says. “And with a keen interest in the workings of the human body. I don’t suppose you would give him a tour of the morgue?”

He uses his best voice. His fool-proof, I-need-something-and-only-you-can-give-it-to-me-Molly voice.

It fails.

“Huh, I don’t know about that,” she says. “I mean, it’s not a place for children.”

James’ usual protest that he’s not a child doesn’t come. Instead, James says, “It’s all right, I’ve seen dead bodies before.”

Going by Molly’s stricken expression, it might not have been the best thing to say. She stammers a little, and gives Sherlock a side-look that causes the familiar, Bit not good, Sherlock to echo in his mind again, and in the end she flat out refuses to let them into the morgue. Someone else who isn’t quite the way Sherlock remembered them. It’s beginning to be rather annoying.

Molly has questions about the past three years, but Sherlock has no desire to answer any of them.

“Plausible deniability,” he offers as an explanation for his silence. “The less you know, the better for everyone. We’ve got to be off now. I just came to say. You know.”

“You’re back?”

Sherlock clears his throat. “Well, yes. But also, thank you. Come on, James. Say goodbye to Miss Hooper.”

In the cab that drives them home, Sherlock pulls out his phone and gives a closer look to John’s blog. He’s been busy. Very busy. There’s at least one entry per week, and most of them are solved. They’re not all cases Sherlock would have bothered to take. Maybe half of them would have been passable enough. One third, at the very least. But the process John details in each entry… that’s Sherlock’s, from start to finish.

“Why did you say ‘at the moment’?” James asks suddenly. “Last night you said I’m not going anywhere.”

Sherlock scrolls through the blog again, looking for the ‘contact me’ details.

“Molly hardly needs to know every detail about you,” he mutters. “Were you going to tell her how you know about her if I hadn’t stopped you?”

James’ silence is answer enough.

John’s phone number has changed, of course. Sherlock enters it into his contacts and ponders his first message.

“What did he tell you about her?” he asks, his fingers tapping along the edge of his phone as he tries to decide.

“He said she likes you a lot. He thought you liked her too but then he saw he was wrong. He never mentioned she was pretty.”

Blinking, Sherlock looks up. There are spots of color in James’ cheeks.

He finally types,

Back in 221B.
SH

and rereads the message four times before hitting send.

“I find it odd that he’d tell you about her. She hardly seemed important to his plans.”

He’s already regretting the message. That was really a stupid message to send. Maybe another one to explain…

“I think he liked her. Or at least, she amused him. He didn’t like very many people. They’re too boring. But I don’t think she’s boring.”

That last part is almost a whisper. Sherlock makes a small sound that could be agreement.

“They’re not all boring,” he says absently. “It just takes finding the right one.”

In case you’d care to have tea sometime.
SH

Polite enough? Yes, it’s polite enough. Not too desperate. A nice invitation to come and chat whenever John is up to it.

Hopefully soon.

Sherlock hits send, but immediately feels like it wasn’t enough. Too dry. Almost impersonal. Why is this so difficult!

“Will we see her soon?” James asks. When Sherlock looks at him again, he backpedals. “I mean, go back. Maybe next time she’ll let me see the morgue.”

Mention she’s much too old for him? No. Useless. James is perfectly capable of realizing as much on his own.

“I’m sure we’ll have reasons to go back, yes,” he says. They’re already in Baker Street. He types one last, hurried message.

Thank you for believing.
SH

*

Mrs. Hudson is not Sherlock’s housekeeper. She reminds him of that fact three times in ten minutes – and makes sure James understands it, too. But housekeeper or not, she filled the fridge and cupboards with food a child might eat, dusted the entire flat, put fresh sheets on the beds, and started to pull Sherlock’s things from their packing-peanuts tombs.

Sherlock could just about hug her. He refrains, offering instead his thanks and going back to the books. Those, she didn’t touch.

“What was the point?” she says with a little sigh. “I’m sure you’d have said the order wasn’t right or something.”

She’s not wrong.

“I made lunch,” James says some time later. “Are you eating with me?”

Sherlock looks at him, frowning. Wasn’t Mrs. Hudson standing right where he is just a second ago?

“Isn’t it a bit early for lunch?” he asks, glancing back to the book in his hands.

“It’s almost two.” James isn’t rolling his eyes, but it’s a near thing. “I made too much for one. Eat something?”

They sit in the kitchen. It’s odd to eat there. Sherlock hasn’t had a chance to unpack his microscope and the rest of his lab equipment yet. Lunch, as cooked by James, consists of pasta drowned in cheese and tuna sandwiches. He’s looking at Sherlock every few seconds as though to make sure he’s still eating. It’s not until he asks, “Do you like it?” that Sherlock understands what he’s waiting for.

Praise never rolled off his tongue all that easily. He tries. He must say something right, because James looks pleased.

After lunch, Sherlock checks his phone. Again. Still no message. His stomach twists a little, and it has nothing to do with lunch.

He goes back to unpacking, barely aware that James says he’ll go up to his room to read. One box after the other, his books return to their proper place, then every one of his possessions. By the time he’s done, the room looks exactly the way it did three years earlier. There are only two things missing: John, and Sherlock’s violin. One of the two is returned to him at nightfall.

James is in the kitchen, warming up leftovers from lunch when familiar steps come up the staircase. Sherlock looks up from his computer where he was updating his website with his new phone number and huffs as Mycroft comes in, carrying his violin case.

“I’ve been looking for that all day,” he says crossly, getting up to take the case from Mycroft. “Why on earth did you take it?”

Mycroft doesn’t reply. He glances toward the kitchen, answering absently to James’ greeting.

Setting the case on the sofa, Sherlock opens it and pulls the violin out. He frowns as he picks up the bow and throws a questioning look at Mycroft.

“Ah, yes.” Mycroft clears his throat. “The bow suffered an unfortunate accident. I hope you’ll find the replacement adequate.”

“Accident?” Sherlock bristles. “What accident? Don’t tell me you tried to play.”

Again, Mycroft doesn’t reply. Sherlock inspects the bow, then the violin. The strings have been changed recently. Sherlock grits his teeth as he checks the tension of each one and adjusts it. He hates the thought of a stranger’s hands on his violin. Hates the thought of a stranger touching anything that’s his. In his mind, they’re a woman’s hands he pushes away.

“I thought you should know,” Mycroft says, “that there’ll be a short, unobtrusive piece in the paper tomorrow about your ‘coma’ and the long recovery that followed.”

Stepping away toward the window, Sherlock raises the violin to his neck and lifts the bow.

“You might get some requests for interviews,” Mycroft continues.

Sherlock’s only answer is to slide the bow across the strings. He grimaces and fiddles with the tuning pegs again.

“I don’t think I need to tell you that the less you say on the record, the easier it’ll be to maintain the illusion.”

“Then why are you saying it,” Sherlock mutters, trying a short phrase. Better. Much better. The bow still feels a little unfamiliar in his hand, but it’s of good quality, and he can work with this. Maybe it’s just the lack of practice. He’s never gone so long without touching his violin.

For the next little while, he runs through practice exercises, eyes closed, trying to find that place again, the one where everything fits, everything flows, where his mind follows the music and the music follows his mind – his place. The one where he’s home.

The notes sound fine, the bow lets itself be tamed, and the violin welcomes him back, but there’s still something off. Something missing.

When he opens his eyes, James is curled up in John’s chair with a heavy book open on his lap. It’s all Sherlock can do to stop himself from snapping at the child. He didn’t mean anything by sitting there. It’s not like he has any way to know.

“Where’s Mycroft?” he asks, his tone colder than warranted by the question.

James blinks up at him. “He left.”

“But I was just talking to him.”

“He left an hour ago. Are you hungry? I put some food aside for you. And there’s tea. And Mrs. Hudson brought up biscuits.”

Sherlock passes a hand through his hair. An hour? And he missed Mycroft leaving and Mrs. Hudson coming in? What else did he miss?

Holding bow and violin with one hand, he pulls out his phone with the other. Checks his messages. Still nothing. Maybe there’s something wrong with his phone. Maybe messages don’t go through. He types with one thumb.

Send me a text.
SH

Seconds later, James’ phone chirps in his pocket. He pulls it out, looks at it, then at Sherlock, then at the phone again. He types something. Sherlock’s phone beeps.

Would you like some tea?
JM

Those two letters give him pause for a second but eventually he nods. “Tea sounds good.”

James carefully tucks a piece of paper in between the pages of his book and bounds to the kitchen. Sherlock pockets his phone again, lifts the bow to the violin and remains poised for a few seconds.

Three years without a violin. He needed to think, at times. Needed to clear his head. So he played in his mind. Composed in his mind. Committing every note to memory, going back and rewriting parts, sometimes changing one note and sometimes scratching an entire movement. He’s heard the concerto dozens of times but it’s the first time he’s ever played it.

The first note rises; long and quiet, then growing stronger. The first phrase is like a heartbeat, comforting, soothing. At first it’s steady and regular, but soon more notes come up, faster, more strident; adrenaline. Exhilaration. One rush of sound, almost but not quite discordant, and the heartbeat returns. It’s different, now. Still recognizable as that first melody, but changed; broken. Another phrase is added, and that one… that one, Sherlock had all the pains in the world perfecting. He always prided himself on self-awareness, but in the end translating himself into notes was the most difficult part of composing this piece. Certainly more difficult than the rest, when the two phrases speak to each other, going back and forth, sometimes faster, sometimes slowing down, but together. Until the end, when the second phrase rises higher and higher, before plummeting to silence. The heartbeat returns, broken again, more so than before.

Sherlock lowers the bow in the middle of a phrase. The piece isn’t finished yet. He had to come back to know how it ends. Except that now that he does know, he doesn’t like the ending at all.

“That was beautiful. Why did you stop?”

Blinking a few times, Sherlock focuses his gaze on James. The child is back in John’s chair – no, not John’s chair, John’s not here, it’s just a chair, anyone’s chair until he comes back, if he ever does. There’s a cup of tea on the table. Sherlock doesn’t need to touch it to know it’s cold.

“Why did you stop?” James repeats. “You should never stop before you’re finished.”

The ghost of a chuckle expands in Sherlock’s throat. “I’ll finish it,” he says. “As soon as I figure out how it ends.”

“Oh! You wrote it? That’s brilliant! What is it called?”

“I don’t know that, either.”

He sits down in his chair, picking up the biscuit resting on the side of the teacup. It tastes like every biscuit of Mrs. Hudson’s he ever ate. And at the same time, it tastes like dust, and emptiness, and unfinished melodies.

“I play the piano,” James says, a note of pride in his voice. “I haven’t played in a long time, though. I wonder if I’d remember.”

“I’m sure you would,” Sherlock says absently. “Some things never leave you.”

James’ eyes darken, his expression suddenly flat.

“Yes, sir,” he says. “I’ll go to my room now.”

He stands, clutching his book to his chest like a shield.

As he starts toward the staircase, Sherlock plucks a string with two fingers.

“James?”

From the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees the boy stops, glances back, wary.

“He’s not coming back.”

Something… shifts in James’ stance, barely perceptible and yet momentous.

“Yes, sir. Good night.”

He walks away without a sound.

“Good night,” Sherlock tells the empty room. It’s stupid, but he wishes someone would tell him the very opposite of what he just told James. Maybe, then, he’d possibly have a good night.

Chapter Text

The first thing Sherlock does upon waking up is check his phone. Still no message. He tries to drown his disappointment with a scalding shower, but to no avail.

James is much too cheerful when he says hello and offers Sherlock tea. What’s good about this morning anyway? Nothing Sherlock can see so far.

He checks his email next. No prospective client. Maybe he should put up a longer message on his website than ‘Now accepting new cases’. A link to that newspaper article Mycroft mentioned, maybe. Or a short explanation in his own words. This was never his forte, though. As much as it always annoyed him, most of his clients did find him through John’s blog. What they saw in John’s writing, Sherlock never understood. He’d be hard pressed to replicate it now.

He’s not too sure how he ends up on John’s blog again. It hasn’t been updated since he last looked at it. He rereads one of the latest cases and is sorely tempted to leave a comment. John could have solved this faster if he’d only remembered—

“Sherlock?”

He looks up from the laptop to find James at his side.

“You said you’d help me with my German. Could we do that now? If you’re not too busy?”

Sherlock glances at the empty comment box. John didn’t use to mind Sherlock showing off, or at least not that much, but that was before. Everything and everyone seems to have changed, and Sherlock has a hard time adjusting. He closes the laptop and gestures for James to sit down.

“All right. What do you want to work on?”

Patience is not Sherlock’s strong suit, and he never had any interest in teaching, but James is quick enough that the entire thing is not too tedious. His accent does need a lot of work, and his word order is problematic at times, but that’s nothing regular practice can’t solve.

All in all, before Sherlock realizes as much – and before he gets bored – it’s time for lunch.

“Can we do this again tomorrow?” James calls out from the kitchen over the buzzing of the microwave.

“We’ll see,” Sherlock says, because this was almost nice, all right, but routine is boring. Besides, who knows what tomorrow will bring? They might be on a case across town.

Or Sherlock might be in front of his laptop again, considering writing an annoying comment simply to see if that would get him an answer from John.

When James announces for the third time that lunch is ready, Sherlock joins him. Better that than to actually press ‘post’. He makes sure to erase the comment before he goes.

After lunch, with no email and no text message to distract him, Sherlock picks up his violin. He meant to figure out an ending for his concerto, but before long his bow finds its way toward Bach. Sherlock lets it.

Seated almost primly on the sofa with one of his bee books in his lap, James appears to be paying Sherlock no mind, but every so often his thumb beats on the edge of the book, following Sherlock’s tempo.

In the middle of the afternoon, they get a visitor, and Sherlock has to hide his excitement when Lestrade comes in, a slim folder in hand. Lestrade comments on that article about Sherlock in the paper, and mentions he got Sherlock’s new phone number off his website. The entire time, Sherlock tries not to look at the folder and hopes he doesn’t seem too interested. Judging from that damn annoying smile at the corner of Lestrade’s mouth and the way James starts eyeing the folder, that’s not working so well.

“So, I talked to John after you came by,” Lestrade says, and not only it has nothing to do with the folder, it also makes Sherlock’s stomach flip unpleasantly.

“Did you,” he says in his best ‘this is boring’ voice. Deep down, though, he’s annoyed. Why does Lestrade get to talk to John when Sherlock can’t?

“And we were both rather confused,” Lestrade continues, “when we realized the stories you told each of us don’t match.”

On the sofa, James turns as still as stone, though Sherlock can’t fathom why. He’s the one who lied, and the only answer he cares to give to Lestrade slightly accusing tone is a light pluck on a violin string.

“So of course,” Lestrade goes on when Sherlock says nothing, “we tried to figure out who got the right story. And who was lied to.”

Two strings, now, and Sherlock raises an eyebrow at Lestrade, still not bothering to answer.

“John seemed rather convinced that you lied to him, but I don’t think you did. You might be a wanker, but I don’t think you’d lie to him about his life being in danger. Or rather, our lives.”

It’s not technically a question, but Lestrade observes Sherlock long enough that it becomes clear he expects an answer.

“You’re the DI,” Sherlock says, shrugging. “Whatever you deduce must be true, certainly.”

Lestrade shakes his head. “Oh, I’m not deducing anything, Sherlock. I’m not thinking about what any of this means. At all. Ever. Not any more than I think about the mysterious shooter who killed that cabbie, a few years ago. Remember that?”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow as he considers Lestrade’s suddenly very serious expression. Where is he going with that line of thought?

“Vaguely,” Sherlock drawls.

Lestrade nods once and leans forward in his seat, holding out the folder to Sherlock. “Right. So. Not thinking about it. Here you go.”

Setting the violin aside, Sherlock accepts the folder as nonchalantly as he possibly can with a bored, “What’s that?”

“It’s not a thank you gift,” Lestrade says a little too pointedly. “More like, a welcome back present.”

Sherlock opens the file eagerly, his eyes flying over pictures, reports, transcripts.

“You said you were doing just fine without me,” he says absently.

“We are doing just fine. I just thought you’d like a puzzle. For old time’s sake, since you’re off crime scenes. But if you don’t want it…”

His voice trails off when Sherlock closes the file and holds it out. Rather than handing it to Lestrade, however, he gives it to James, who takes it after a beat of surprise.

“Wait, no, Sherlock!” Lestrade protests. “That’s not for a child’s eyes!”

“Why didn’t you look for the van?” the child in question asks after only seconds.

Lestrade’s frown goes back and forth between James and Sherlock. “What van?” He takes the folder James is handing back to him and opens it at once, glaring at the documents as though it’ll help him see better.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Sherlock says. “Nicely observed, James.”

James all but beams at him.

“What is there to observe?” Lestrade mutters. “Why a van? What am I missing?”

“Still no crime scenes?” Sherlock asks in his most innocent tone.

Lestrade sits back in his chair and sighs. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t.”

“Pity. But if you really don’t want our help… Good luck finding that van.”

The infuriated look on Lestrade’s face is something to behold. “What van? Sherlock, come on. Even if I could get you in, he’s just a kid.”

James is about to disabuse Lestrade from this odd notion, but Sherlock is faster.

“He’s older than I was when I figured out there was something very wrong with Carl Powers’ death.”

Standing abruptly, Lestrade glares down at Sherlock. “You know what? We’re not talking about this. I came by to not say thank you. And I didn’t say it. See you around, Sherlock.”

Sherlock smirks at his departing back. He’d bet that before three days Lestrade will be back to ask about the van. And eat his words. “Good day, Detective Inspector.”

“Black van,” James says before Lestrade leaves. “Or maybe dark gray. Used, bought with cash by the killer within a week of the murder and then dumped, maybe burned, but with any luck you’ll be able to trace it back to the seller, and from there the buyer.”

Lestrade’s eyes are wide when he turns back to them. “Sherlock? Is he serious?”

“I guess you won’t know until you find that van, will you?”

The door bangs shut behind Lestrade. Sherlock picks up his violin again and glances at James, who grins at him. One day. Two at most. This is going to drive Lestrade crazy.

*

“Can I ask you something?” James asks later that evening, looking up from a mystery novel he found on the shelves; it’s not Sherlock’s. Sherlock, in fact, has scoffed many times at the book’s owner for reading such pseudo-literature. And he still put the book right on the shelf as though it belonged there.

“Yes, I’m sure he’s dead,” Sherlock answers absently. His gaze never rises from the book he borrowed from James. Social interactions in beehives are fascinating.

“That’s…” James’ voice breaks a little and he starts over. “That’s not what I was going to ask.”

“Oh.” Sherlock looks at him, frowning. “What were you going to ask, then?”

“When your brother asked why you took me with you, you said you had questions about my father, but you haven’t been asking me anything. How come?”

Tilting his head, Sherlock observes James closely, but his expression gives nothing away. “Do you want me to ask you questions?”

James shrugs. “I don’t care. If he’s dead I don’t need to keep his secrets, do I?”

If. Again. Sherlock tries not to sigh.

“He is dead, and I suppose that’s up to you.”

Another shrug. This one looks forced. “I wouldn’t mind answering if it was you asking the questions.”

“Why me? I was his adversary. I did not kill him, but he did die because of me.”

James doesn’t so much as blink. “People die,” he says calmly. “Everybody does. Even him. He’d have died sooner or later. It doesn’t really matter how he died, does it?”

“You tell me,” Sherlock asks, because it certainly sounded like a real question rather than a rhetorical one. “Does it matter to you?”

“I thought it was important,” James says after thinking about it for a moment. “I asked Sebastian a hundred times.”

His tone always hardens when he mentions Moran, but rarely when he talks about his father. Sherlock isn’t sure why, but that’s interesting.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing.” And nothing is exactly what transpires through his voice now. “He just hurt me. That was his reply.”

“But you kept asking,” Sherlock pushes.

James shifts a little in the-chair-that-isn’t-John’s-anymore. His eyes flit around the room. “I knew he’d hurt me anyway. If I made him angry, at least I knew when and why and how.”

Does that mean the repeated question was a defense mechanism rather than something James wanted to know? What about the question he’s asked Sherlock repeatedly? Is that the same thing? Why would it be? Not enough data to assess. And still, Sherlock picks up on something else.

“You haven’t asked me how he died other than when we first talked.”

James fiddles with the cuff of his shirt. “I’m not sure I want to know anymore.” He glances back up at Sherlock. “Is that okay?”

“It’s your choice,” Sherlock says evenly.

“All right. Maybe I’ll ask you some time just. Not now. Will you tell me if I ask?”

“Like I said, it’s your choice.”

James nods once. For some odd reason, he seems relieved. If Sherlock had any delusions about understanding James, they’d disappear right about now.

“Thank you,” James says. “And thank you also for taking me in.”

Well, since he’s raising the issue…

“Why did you want to come with me?” Sherlock asks. “I don’t understand that. Being clever doesn’t make me suited in any way to be your guardian.”

Several seconds pass. James remains very still, though his composure cracks ever so lightly, and when he finally answers there’s a quietness to his voice that has less to do with volume than with silenced emotions.

“When I was little… when I messed up or I didn’t learn something fast enough… Father would say, ‘If you don’t do better I’ll have to send you away. I’ll send you to Sherlock Holmes and you’ll see how he deals with idiots.’ He meant it as a threat because he knew I didn’t like being around new people. But then…” He gulps a little, and now there’s a definite thread of worry woven in his words. “I started disliking being around him even more than that. So I messed up on purpose sometimes and hoped he’d really send me to you. But he never did.”

Dark eyes are fixed on Sherlock by the time James finishes. From the way he sits, the way his chin is tilted up a little, the way he clutches the book in his lap, he’s waiting for something – a meaningful answer, maybe, or some kind of reassurance. Sherlock has no idea what, exactly, but he’s rather certain his answer doesn’t cover it.

“You could still have a real family, you know.” Because Sherlock certainly isn’t, can’t be that to anyone, not properly. “He may have been your father but he didn’t act as such.” Not that Sherlock has much personal experience on that, either. “There are people out there who know how to treat children right.” Or at least, Sherlock supposes as much. “I’m sure Mycroft could find you a decent family if that was what you wanted.” Well, he’s almost sure.

James frowns ever so slightly before returning his attention to his book.

“I already have what I wanted,” he tells the pages, and Sherlock has no idea what to answer to that.

*

After James goes to bed that night, Sherlock checks his phone again. Still no message.

He opens his laptop and composes what’s practically an essay about how John should have solved his latest case faster. When he presses ‘post’, he gets an error message.

Comments are limited to 5000 characters.

Sherlock’s finger presses the backspace key repeatedly. He deletes the entire comment, one keystroke after the other. Writes down instead, I miss working with you. He doesn’t post that comment either.

He’s about to go to bed when unsettlingly familiar noises drift down from the upstairs bedroom. Another nightmare.

For a few seconds, Sherlock stares in the direction of the stairs, pondering his options. He finally picks up his violin. Brahms seems to work well enough; by the time Sherlock finishes the lullaby, the flat is quiet again. He plays something else, something quiet and slow, a rhythm he heard somewhere. He thinks as he plays, unraveling his memory, stepping back in time until he finally remembers where and when he heard this tune.

Angelo’s. Faint music in the background, just enough to be heard during the lulls in conversation, not enough to be intrusive, easily ignored. That night when he was hunting the cabbie – Lestrade mentioning it must have triggered the memory. The same night he first heard Moriarty’s name. The night he told John he was married to his work.

The bow comes to a screeching halt halfway through a note. Gritting his teeth, Sherlock puts the violin away. He checks his phone again. It’s all he can do to stop himself from throwing it across the room.

Still no message.

Chapter Text

A client shows up the next day by mid-morning, interrupting Sherlock’s first experiment since he came back. It takes Sherlock three and a half minutes to realize the man is not, in fact, a client, but an ‘undercover’ journalist. He’d have figured it out faster if the man hadn’t derailed his train of thought by mentioning John twenty seconds after being invited in.

Scowling, Sherlock shows the man the door then lights up a cigarette. James, sitting once more with one of his books, glances up before turning a perfectly blank look back to the pages. Sherlock narrows his eyes at him, silent but glaring, waiting for the remark he’s sure is coming.

After a few minutes, James meets his gaze. “I don’t mind the smoke,” he says in a flat voice. “I’m used to it.”

Before Sherlock can answer, James unfastens the first three buttons of his shirt and tugs down the collar of the t-shirt underneath, exposing his clavicle. Sherlock counts five perfectly round scars, maybe a sixth one peeking from under the edge of the t-shirt. Two are bright red against his pale skin; no more than a few days old. The others are at various stages of healing.

“Sebastian smoked, too,” is all James adds before doing up his buttons again.

Sherlock looks at the glowing tip of his cigarette before grinding what’s left of it in the saucer he’s using as an ashtray. He dumps the rest of the pack in the trash bin. He’s definitely going to need patches now.

“Get your coat,” he mutters, already wrapping his scarf around his neck.

Halfway back from the store, Sherlock gets a text message. He almost fumbles the phone in his haste to check who sent it. Even as badly as he wants a case, he’s disappointed to see it’s Lestrade.

“Change of plans,” he tells James, who’s looking at him curiously. “Are you ready for your first crime scene?”

James’ grin puts to shame the pale sun that doesn’t begin to warm the air. Sherlock turns to hail a cab – not at all to hide his smile.

Technically, it’s not a crime scene. The charred remains of the van have been taken to the forensics lab, and Lestrade waits for Sherlock outside. He grimaces when he sees James but says nothing. He lets them in through a back door, and somewhat miraculously arranges for every idiot employed in the facility to get away from the van before he, Sherlock and James approach it.

“Where did you find it?” James asks eagerly, stealing the question right out of Sherlock’s mouth.

Lestrade looks at James, then at Sherlock. When Sherlock raises an eyebrow, Lestrade sighs and surrenders.

As cases go, this is a boring one. Sherlock wouldn’t have bothered showing up if not for his desire to see what James makes of it all. To hear him explain to Lestrade with perfectly timed pauses and little eyerolls why the van is important, what it proves and how he knew it is oddly satisfying. Sherlock would feel proud if he’d had anything to do with honing James’ skills.

“Please tell me you coached him on what to say,” Lestrade asks Sherlock when James is done.

“We didn’t even discuss the case,” Sherlock says, allowing himself a slight smile. “Afraid for your job, Detective Inspector?”

Lestrade looks properly impressed. Also, strangely enough, mildly disturbed.

“That was fun,” James says when they leave.

There’s a new spring to his steps. Sherlock refrains from pointing out that not all cases will be so obvious. He’s curious to find out where James’ limits are.

They stop at an Indian restaurant on their way back. James, apparently, has never tried Indian cuisine. He eats with gusto, and asks to sample Sherlock’s plate, too. Sherlock almost wonders aloud about how James can be so strikingly, unhealthily thin when he’s eating that much. Almost. He stops himself before the first word leaves his mouth. It’s not the thought of James turning the remark back at him that stills his tongue. Instead, it’s a sudden question: was lack of food another form of punishment inflicted on him, maybe? Sherlock feels a little sick. He pushes his plate toward James and claims he’s not hungry anymore.

Before they return to Baker Street, Sherlock leads the way to a music shop he knows. He only intended to buy blank sheets to write down the piece he composed, but James’ eyes light up when he sees the baby grand in the middle of the shop. His fingers twitch at his sides, and if not for the sign forbidding as much, he’d probably sit down and play.

“That’d never fit in the flat,” Sherlock points out the obvious.

“Oh. Of course.” If James was trying not to sound disappointed, he fails miserably.

As cramped as 221B already is, even an upright piano would be a stretch. An electronic keyboard would fit in James’ room, but that’s a crime against music that Sherlock refuses to commit.

“Would you care to learn another instrument?” Sherlock asks.

James’ gaze immediately finds the display of violins. “Will you teach me?”

The store owner suggests a slightly undersized, rugged violin he says will be best for learning. Sherlock doesn’t need James’ grimace to realize anything but the best would be inadequate. Besides, it’s not Sherlock’s money paying for it. A present from Moriarty from beyond the grave… No. He deletes that thought, rewrites it. James’ present to himself, like the books or suits or the silk tie James insisted on putting on before they went out.

Lestrade eyed that tie half a dozen times while James was walking him through his reasoning. He has questions; it won’t be long before he asks. Sherlock needs to figure out what he’ll say then.

James clutches the violin case to his chest all the way back to Baker Street and asks to get his first lesson immediately. Hiding his amusement, Sherlock tunes the violin for him, explaining about the strings. James nods impatiently. Sherlock then makes him stand straight, shows him how to hold the bow correctly, how to place his fingers on the strings, how to hold the violin. When James flinches, Sherlock realizes the instrument is resting right on those glaring scars.

“It’s fine,” James says coolly when Sherlock hesitates. “I’m fine. Now what do I do? Do you have sheet music for me?”

“That’d be a little ambitious for a first time,” Sherlock says, and while he tries to sound teasing, his throat won’t cooperate and he mostly sounds gruff. Why did he kill Moran so quickly? “Practice drawing the bow straight across the strings. Try not to move your shoulder, just your elbow, and keep the bow very straight.”

The first pass of the bow produces an ear-splitting screech. James’ cheeks redden and he turns wide, wary eyes to Sherlock.

“Very straight,” Sherlock repeats, stifling a smile. “Try again.”

The second try is not that much better than the first. Sherlock picks up his violin and stands across from James, demonstrating with a single note that quivers like a crystal chime in the air between them. James’ expression scrunches up in determination. His next attempt is moderately better, but still rather hard on the ears.

“This is terrible,” he mutters, not meeting Sherlock’s gaze. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“There is nothing to be sorry about. Did you expect to pick up your first violin and play a concerto within the first five minutes?”

James gives a small shrug. “I wouldn’t have expected that,” he mutters.

The emphasis on the subject hints that someone else would have. Sherlock doesn’t need to ask.

“Well, I didn’t expect it either,” he says. “Come on, straighten your back. Lift your arm. There you go. Again.”

After another ten minutes, Mrs. Hudson comes up. She observes for a few seconds and, with a pained frown, asks if they need anything from the store. Sherlock would have bet that, until she saw James holding the instrument, she was ready to say something else entirely, more along the lines of ‘Why are you torturing me like this?’

They keep practicing. Very, very slowly, James improves until every other slow pull of the bow across the strings produces something that sounds less like a cat being skinned alive and more like a proper note. When the door opens again, Sherlock thinks Mrs. Hudson is back, until he hears the familiar fall of footsteps up the staircase. Holding his breath, he turns to watch John walk in.

“I could hear you from the street,” John says, the smallest smile tugging the corner of his lips. “I was worried for a minute.”

“First lesson,” Sherlock says, aware that James’ head snapped up and that he’s bound to be touchy about his progress. “Not doing badly so far. James, why don’t you go practice in your room?”

From the reproachful look James gives Sherlock, he doesn’t think much of that idea, but he doesn’t protest as he goes, passing by John without so much as a word of greeting.

“Hello John,” Sherlock says, feeling absolutely ridiculous as soon as the words pass his lips.

The undersides of John’s eyes are darker than they were two days ago. Lack of sleep, certainly. His hands are in his pockets, fisted, although his shoulders appear relaxed. Nervous, but trying not to show it? One long, dark blonde hair near the collar of his jacket. A hug. The barest smudge of lipgloss on his upper lip. A kiss.

“Tea?” Sherlock offers, turning away stiffly to set the violin back in its case.

A rather unpleasant screech drifts from the upper bedroom before John can answer. He looks up absently.

“That’s what you offered,” he says, stepping further into the room and shrugging out of his jacket. The hair flutters to the floor.

The way Sherlock’s hands shake when he fills the kettle with water is absurd. Good thing John is in the living room and not close enough to see this. Although… would he notice?

Tray. Saucers. Cups. Spoons. Milk? Yes, they have milk, bless Mrs. Hudson. Sugar. As he fills the teapot, Sherlock has a sense memory of doing this before, quite as precisely as he’s doing it now, although for someone else entirely. He chases the memory away, but returning to the living room to find John sitting not in his chair but in Sherlock’s instead does give him pause.

There’s meaning there, certainly. A message. Sherlock really has no idea what it might be. His mind is dreadfully uncooperative at the moment.

“I spent two days trying to remember the last time you made tea for me,” John says as he accepts his cup. “You must have at some point, but I can’t remember.”

Sherlock sits down with his own cup. “Does it really matter?” he asks, and while his voice is calm, his memory is churning. When was the last time he made tea for John? He made coffee for him, once, but that’s better left unmentioned. Tea, though… John always made a second cup when he brewed some for himself. Sherlock can hardly remember needing to do it at all.

“I don’t know.” John takes a minuscule sip before lowering the cup in its saucer. “It’s hard to figure out what matters, right now.”

His eyes are on Sherlock as he finishes, his gaze hard. He’s not smiling anymore. Sherlock shifts a little, uncomfortable in this seat.

“Is there anything that does matter?” he asks, soothing his too dry throat with a gulp of tea. “I mean, anything you want to know?”

John takes another thoughtful sip. Sherlock’s fingers twitch on the handle of his cup. He’d like nothing better than to wipe that trace of lipgloss away. The only sound in the room is the repeated and somewhat worsening noises James coaxes from his violin.

“Molly helped, didn’t she?” John asks after a few seconds. “I keep thinking about the how. She must have helped.”

“She did.”

John lets out a small huff. “All these times when she wouldn’t meet my eyes, I thought she missed you as much as I did and was trying to hide it from me. And she was the one who knew. The one you told.”

There’s enough accusation in John’s eyes that Sherlock’s prepared explanation dries up on his tongue. He inclines his head, looking into his tea. It holds no answers, unfortunately.

“Did anyone else know?” John asks, his voice just a little calmer.

Sherlock clears his throat softly. He still doesn’t look up. “Not initially. After a few weeks, I contacted Mycroft.”

“Mycroft?” John lets out a bark of incredulous laughter. “You asked for Mycroft’s help. You.”

Shrugging, Sherlock looks up. “And I hated every second of it, believe me. But I could see no other choice. Lestrade was about to be sacked. I knew Mycroft could fix it.”

That earns him a thoughtful look over the rim of John’s cup. Above them, James gives up after one last, dreadful screech.

“You swallowed your pride and called your brother for Lestrade’s sake,” John says slowly, softly. “You’re not going to tell him, are you? Not any more than you told him about the killers.”

“Ignorance is bliss,” Sherlock says, setting his cup back on the tray. “Isn’t that the saying?”

“It’s a saying. I don’t know that it holds much truth.” Bitterness is as thick in John’s voice as it is in his eyes. He leans forward to set his cup down, too, and remains on the edge of his seat, hands clasped in front of him. “Did you ever want to call me? Text me? Just… anything? So I’d know?”

Sherlock swallows hard, his eyes flicking around the room before returning to John. “I considered it, yes.”

John doesn’t ask, but the question is obvious in his furrowing eyebrows.

“I couldn’t,” Sherlock explains. “I was afraid to draw attention to you. Put you in danger again. Then all of it would have been for nothing. And I never thought it’d take so long. At first, I thought, a few weeks. A few months at most.”

Leaning back in the chair, John props his cheek against his closed fist. “Three years,” is all he says.

Nodding, Sherlock looks away again. “I know. I wish I’d been better. I’d have been back faster. And you wouldn’t have been talking to my tombstone for so long.”

“Yes, well, at least it never said anything asinine.”

“Unlike me,” Sherlock whispers, and John doesn’t reply. Silence falls again between them, broken by the familiar creaks and odd noises of an old house.

“I’ve seen your blog,” Sherlock offers, because if they’re not talking then John might leave, and that’d be too soon. “Your new cases.”

“Oh.” John tries to hide it, but he’s pleased. Sherlock could always tell. “What did you think?”

Sherlock is suddenly glad he didn’t send that ranting comment. “You’re a bit slow at times but you’ve improved.”

John snorts quietly. “High praise, coming from you. Got any cases of your own going on?”

“Nothing much. We’re helping Lestrade with something.”

“We?”

Is that jealousy in that flash of a frown?

“James and I.”

“Oh. James. The kid. You teach him more than the violin, then?”

John’s eyes flit toward the staircase. He has improved, indeed.

“I try,” Sherlock says, hiding a smile behind his hand. “He’s much better at observing than he is at eavesdropping.”

There’s a moment of silence, both John and Sherlock looking at the staircase. James finally appears, entirely unabashed at having been caught eavesdropping.

“I just wanted to know if he was going to punch you again,” he says, his gaze trained on Sherlock.

“I don’t intend to,” John replies. “Not that I’m sorry I did.”

That last is obviously meant for Sherlock, who acknowledges the words with a slight nod.

“She said the same thing,” James says sharply. He still hasn’t taken more than one step into the room; back to keeping his distance? “The woman you live with. She slapped Sherlock and she said she wasn’t sorry.”

John smiles fondly. “That’s my Mary, all right.”

To see that smile as John says that name feels pretty much like being punched again. Sherlock stands, nervous energy practically flinging him in motion.

“Never mind that,” he mutters, then gestures for James to take his seat. “Come closer, James. I want you to meet my friend, Doctor John Watson.”

After a slight hesitation, James comes forward. He looks John up and down before finally offering him his hand. John smothers a smile before shaking it.

“Hello, James. Nice to meet you. How did you end up with Sherlock, then?”

James sits up on the edge of the chair, looking up at Sherlock as though to ask what he should say. Sherlock answers for him.

“He’s Moriarty’s son.”

John’s face goes slack with shock. “He’s… what?”

“Why did you tell him?” James protests. “I thought we were telling people I’m your cousin.”

Picking up his violin, Sherlock sits on the sofa. Distance is good. Better than closeness, at any rate. At least for now. “John isn’t people,” he answers distractedly.

For a little while, John stares at James, who stares back with a blank expression. Can John see anything beneath the surface of well-made clothes and slicked-back hair? They’re a costume James puts on, although Sherlock is still working out why. Beneath that is the child he claims not to be.

When he turns to Sherlock, John still seems a little unsettled. “Do I want to know why you’re taking care of… of his son?”

Sherlock draws a single note from his violin. “Because James asked.”

And there’s more to it, of course; more, maybe, than Sherlock cares to examine too closely right now, or even ever. But that’s how it started, and it’s an answer that pleases James, if nothing else.

“But of course.” John shakes his head, but he’s smiling faintly. “That makes perfect sense. You’re absolutely perfect in the role of care-taker.”

“He does just fine,” James says with a sniff.

“Does he?” John’s smile widens a little. “He can’t remember to feed himself, I can just imagine him feeding you.”

James rolls his eyes. “I don’t need anyone to feed me. I can cook.”

“So you feed him, huh?”

Sherlock starts to interject something, but a realization stops him. James does seem to prepare more food than needed with extraordinary regularity.

“I try. It’s not easy.”

“No, it never was.”

When John chuckles, Sherlock wants to intervene again, but something passes between the two of them, leaving Sherlock slightly confused. Are they… bonding? James is definitely relaxing, his posture no longer defensive as he sits back in the chair. As for John, he has angled his body so he can see both Sherlock and James; there are fine crinkled lines at the corners of his eyes, and his smile isn’t fading.

“Mycroft said he lost a lot of weight,” James suddenly confides.

John glances at Sherlock. “Yes, he did. And he was never all that heavy to begin with.”

It’s becoming ridiculous. Sherlock crosses his arms, bow and violin sticking on either side of him. “You two do realize I can hear just fine, don’t you?”

Neither seems cowed in the slightest.

“That’s half the fun,” John says, his grin widening a little more. Sherlock has missed that grin. He almost forgot what it looked like. “Finally I’ve got someone who understands what it’s like to live with you.”

“Wonderful.” Sherlock sighs dramatically. “When you move back in I’ll have two people badgering me instead of one. Just what I need.”

“Sherlock,” John says softly. He’s not smiling anymore. “I’m not moving back in with you.”

Sherlock doesn’t move, but the world spins around him, turning everything upside down, tugging his life inside out. It took him a while, as he was on the run, to understand what he missed most about his routine – what he couldn’t live without. Every day before that realization was an aggravation; every day after, torture. The past two days since Sherlock first saw John were even worse as he waited for something, a sign, a message – waited for John to show up at the flat and for everything to go back the way it’s supposed to be.

But now…

Now what?

Chapter Text

I’m not moving back in with you.

The words still echo through Sherlock’s mind by the time the world stops spinning. There’s only one possible reply to that. Only one adequate response, only one reaction that won’t threaten Sherlock’s world.

Sheer and utter denial.

“Of course you are,” he says in his best ‘don’t be an idiot, John, we both know you’re better than that even if I do occasionally question your mental abilities’ voice.

He doesn’t know if it’s the exasperation in his words or his eyeroll that bring a small grin back to John’s lips; either way, he didn’t expect the grin at all.

“I’m really not,” John says, propping his head against two fingers and raising his eyebrows like this is all a game. “You’d know that if you’d been paying attention.”

Sherlock puts away the violin and bow, and hopes no one sees how badly his hands are shaking. John doesn’t seem to notice, but James’ frown says something else.

“Well maybe not right away,” he says in a reasonable tone. “But let’s be honest, you never keep girlfriends for very long. When things end with… Mary, is it?” Mary. What a horrible name. Common. Bland. So very unlike John. “You know you’ll have a place here.”

Snorting quietly, John shakes his head. “I’m not sure whether to be touched or insulted.”

That’s still not the reaction Sherlock expects. He doesn’t know anymore what to expect, in fact. He doesn’t like that feeling. He doesn’t like that, even though he’s seated, his feet firmly on the ground, he feels like he’s wavering a little. He pushes through it and pretends everything is fine when really, nothing is. Why is John pretending he won’t come back? What did he mean by paying attention?

“Why insulted?” he asks. His throat feels parched. He manages to stand, helps himself to more tea. It’s tepid at best, but it’s something. He sits down again. His hands aren’t shaking too badly anymore. “I’m offering you a place to live.”

“You are, hmm?”

That same hint of amusement continues to shine through John’s voice. Sherlock used to enjoy watching John be amused by the most random things. Right now, that amusement feels like needles sliding under his skin. And not the kind of needles that bring peace, either.

“Two bedrooms in here,” John continues. His fingers drum on the armrest; idly, no message there. Or is there? “From what I gather, James has my old room. Where exactly would I sleep?”

“My room,” Sherlock answers promptly. “I can sleep on the sofa. I do it often enough anyway.”

That’s not what he wants, but this is not the time, not the right time to say what he wants. It’s still a wonder to him that he wants it at all, and he’s not sure how to explain it, to himself or to anyone else. But that doesn’t matter right now because John says again, still very softly, “I’m not moving back in, Sherlock. Mary and I aren’t going to break up.”

Sherlock’s hands are threatening to start shaking again. He sets the tea cup down on the floor, rubs his palms against his trousers. They’re both looking at him, and Sherlock doesn’t know what they see. He doesn’t want to know at all. Doesn’t want to hear the note of pleading in his own voice.

“You don’t know that,” he says, just to say something. Weak argument. He needs a better one. But which one? He could tell John… but no, this is wrong, not like this, not with an audience, not when Sherlock’s world is still so unsteady.

“I do know that.” John shakes his head again, smiling crookedly. “You didn’t notice, did you? I can’t believe you didn’t notice.”

Ask James to leave so he can tell John? No, who cares about an audience. Sherlock isn’t ashamed. Confused, annoyed, desperate, yes, but not ashamed. But is this the right time? Is there ever a right time?

“Notice what?” he asks, distracted.

“Her hand,” John says somewhat maddeningly.

Riddles. Sherlock hates riddles. He huffs. “What about her hand?”

The answer comes not from John but from James. “She was wearing an engagement ring.”

John throws him a quick look that might be one of surprise, but soon his gaze is back on Sherlock. “Even James noticed. I can’t believe you didn’t. The first case you dragged me to, you proved you could tell the state of a woman’s love life from one look at her jewelry, and you didn’t notice Mary’s engagement ring?”

No, Sherlock didn’t notice. Or maybe he didn’t want to notice. He closes his eyes and replays that day in his memory, from the moment Mary opened the door until she waved him in toward John, fast forward over that awful conversation then slow down again to look at her in the kitchen, then at the door when she asked Sherlock to be patient. In his memory, Sherlock sees that ring clearly five times. It’s simple: a thin gold band, medium-sized diamond, princess cut, very brilliant. Immediately identifiable as an engagement ring.

It’s right there in Sherlock’s memories, but at no point until this instant did he let himself see it or acknowledge the obvious.

“You’re getting married,” he murmurs, opening his eyes again.

“I am, yes. We are. Saturday after next.”

There’s an odd, quiet pride in John’s voice when he says ‘we’. It makes something inside Sherlock’s chest ache, break, dissolve into an abyss of acid. The tea is trying to come back up. Sherlock focuses on keeping it down – on keeping everything down, including the words he’s not allowed to say now.

John is getting married.

John is getting married to someone else.

“That’s why I’m here, actually,” John says when Sherlock has been silent for what’s probably too much time. He expected congratulations, didn’t he? Customary in this situation. Sherlock can’t sham that well, so he doesn’t try.

“Mary said I’d regret it if I didn’t ask you and she was right.”

“Ask me what?” Sherlock asks blankly.

“Can’t you guess?”

John is smiling again. He’s happy. Happy to be getting married. And he’s asking Sherlock… What? Think, damn it. It’s not as though the world just ended. Not at all like that.

“A bit short notice for an invitation,” Sherlock says, the words clipped, his foot beating on the floor. He wishes he could go now. “Not sure I’ll be able to come.”

If anything, John’s smile widens a little more. “Well that might be problematic, seeing how you’re the best man.”

For the second time in just moments, Sherlock’s thoughts come to an abrupt, screeching halt. It makes no sense. None of it does. Not John getting married, and not… this.

“I’m… your best man?” he repeats. He hates repetition, but right now it’s necessary.

“Of course you are.” John chuckles, as though it really is obvious. But it’s not. It’s really not. Sherlock’s brain is whirling again, and the gears aren’t clicking together.

“You thought I was dead until three days ago,” he points out. Doesn’t ask who would have been there if he’d stayed dead, but John answers anyway. Because John understands how Sherlock thinks, sometimes. But only sometimes. And rarely when it truly matters.

“I’d asked Stamford,” he says. “But he understands.”

“Understands what?” Sherlock asks, because he really doesn’t.

“That you’re my best friend.”

Sherlock’s throat is too tight but he manages two words. “Even now?”

“Even now.”

John’s not smiling anymore, not amused, not teasing. He means this. Three days ago, he couldn’t even look at Sherlock, refused to listen to him, but now they’re best friends again, and that’s…

Not enough. It was, once, but not anymore, not since Sherlock had the most painful, the most inconvenient of epiphanies.

It’s really not enough. It’s not what Sherlock wanted. It’s far enough from what Sherlock wanted to be comical, actually. But it’s still better than nothing at all.

It’s everything.

“And I’ve got a favor to ask,” Sherlock’s best friend continues. He’s the same as always, but he seems completely different, too. “Mary loves classical music. We’re having a waltz as our first dance. We took classes and everything. I only have one and a half left feet now instead of two.”

It’s a joke. Self deprecating and playful. Sherlock tries to imagine John dancing. He can’t picture it. It’s like he doesn’t know the man sitting in front of him anymore. It hurts.

“Charming,” he drawls, because a response is expected.

Undeterred by Sherlock’s apathy, John keeps going. “We were going to have the DJ play a CD but I thought maybe you could play the waltz for us. Mary would like that a lot, I think. So would I.”

John smiles and looks at Sherlock like he didn’t just tear his heart out.

“I don’t think I could,” Sherlock hears himself say. “I haven’t played the violin in so long, I barely remember.”

James shifts ever so slightly, the first time he’s moved since mentioning the ring. Sherlock had started to forget he was there. Again. James is much too good at that.

His attention snaps back to John when he says in a mild voice, “Don’t you try lying to me, Sherlock. Not again.”

He doesn’t say ‘like you lied to me on that roof’ or ‘like you lied to me for three years’ but it’s right there, in the slight downturn of his mouth, in the angry glint in his eyes. Best friends, sure. Forgive, probably. But forget? Not so easily.

Sherlock drops his gaze to the floor, clears his throat. “A waltz, you said.”

John stands. His shoes are shined, spotless. Heavy but comfortable. Not dancing shoes; running ones, to chase someone through London’s streets.

“That’s what I said, yes. Saturday after next. Here’s the info.”

An invitation appears in Sherlock’s field of vision. He takes it reflexively. Names, date, time, places. On the back is a handwritten note – the address for the tuxedo.

“May I come?”

Sherlock hears the words as though from a great distance. He looks up at James, confused. Why would he want to go? Sherlock himself doesn’t want to.

“I guess so,” John says. “We’ve got a few guests around your age. Maybe you’ll make a friend or two.”

James huffs. “I don’t need friends.”

Turning back to Sherlock, John holds out his hand. “I’m starting to see why he’s staying with you,” he says, amused again. “Maybe he can learn from your mistakes.”

Sherlock drops the invitation on the sofa and takes that hand, that strong, steady hand that saved him, more than once. He shakes it and wishes he didn’t have to let go.

“And unlike me,” he says, choking a little, “maybe he can even learn before it’s too late.”

John pulls him to his feet, and before Sherlock can react there are two arms around him, holding him close, releasing him again before Sherlock can return the hug.

“It’s never too late, Sherlock,” John says with a smile before he leaves.

Silence falls on the flat. It feels empty and cold, all of a sudden. Sherlock isn’t sure how he ends up by the window. He watches John walk away, his gaze set on the corner where he disappears until a voice rises behind him.

“Why didn’t you tell him you don’t want to go or play the violin for them?”

Sherlock turns and looks at James. He seems genuinely confused. So is Sherlock, actually. He’s not used to doing things he doesn’t want to do at all. Not used to doing things entirely for someone else, with no selfish motives whatsoever. He doesn’t want to go to John’s wedding. He doesn’t want to play for his first dance. But he will, because there’s one thing more important than the irrational ache in his chest.

“Because he’s my best friend,” he murmurs, stumbling back to the sofa and lying down.

“Why is he?” James presses on. “What’s special about him?”

Sherlock closes his eyes. He’s asked himself the same question many times. From that first chase through London, something just… clicked. He’s never been able to put it into words. He still can’t do it now.

“Nothing,” he breathes. “Everything. He’s ordinary. Perfectly ordinary. And that makes him extraordinary.”

He can practically feel James’ eyes on him, can all but hear his mind churning, deciphering Sherlock’s words. Sherlock clears his throat.

“I’m not an easy man to get along with. John’s the only person who doesn’t get too upset when I do or say things others frown upon.”

It’s a long time before James says, “Father didn’t like him much.”

Sherlock chuckles humorlessly. “No, I don’t think he did. Unless strapping explosives to his chest or training Moran’s gun to his head were offers of friendship.”

“He was insane,” James says dryly, “but not that much.”

Opening his eyes, Sherlock turns his head to James. There’s a question on the tip of his tongue, the key to another piece in the Moriarty puzzle. James told him he could ask.

But it’s something else entirely that comes out of his mouth. “What did you think of John?”

James shrugs. “He hit you. And he said he wasn’t sorry.”

“He had cause,” Sherlock says dismissively. “But these are facts, not your impressions of the man.”

Frowning slightly, James thinks it over, finally settling on, “He seems… protective of you. But he hit you anyway.”

“Who’s protective now? Honestly, James. It was nothing. I can take care of myself. Stop boring me and answer the question.”

James sits straighter in the armchair, suddenly, and his voice is cooler when he says, “He was surprised to hear about my parentage, but he got over it quickly. I thought if people knew, they’d look at me and blame me for my father’s actions. He didn’t. That was nice. You don’t either. That’s nice too.”

“You are who you are,” Sherlock says with a vague gesture. “You neither chose your father nor the way he raised you.”

“What are your parents like?”

The question comes fast enough that it must have been lurking for some time. Sherlock shakes his head.

“Irrelevant at this point. I thought you were telling me what you think of John.”

“I did,” James says, now sullen. “I don’t know what else you want to hear.”

Sherlock doesn’t reply, because he doesn’t know what he wants to hear either. Nothing in particular, certainly. Maybe he just needs someone to tell him John isn’t all that extraordinary, after all. But if they did, he wouldn’t believe it.

He closes his eyes again, fingers steepled under his chin as he replays John’s visit. Nothing extraordinary in anything he said or did, was there? And yet…

Noises drift through to him; the clink of porcelain, liquid being poured in the sink, china cups washed carefully. Domestic noises. John, his mind supplies, and it takes a little while to realize that’s wrong. Not John, no. John is gone, back to his fiancée. Sherlock almost wishes he’d never come back.

“Sherlock?” James asks when he returns from the kitchen. He waits until Sherlock opens his eyes to continue. “Why do people get married?”

Standing close to the sofa with Sherlock’s abandoned tea cup in his hand, he looks… earnest. Like this is a real question. Like the answer is important. Sherlock’s mouth twists.

“Love, I suppose.”

James nods impatiently. “Yes, but what’s the point of it?”

“The point of love or the point of marriage?”

“Both?”

Social conventions, poetry, literature, practicalities… Sherlock could give a dozen flippant answers. “I really couldn’t tell you,” he says instead. “From what I know of both, they only lead to pain.”

James looks at him with something that, coming from anyone else, Sherlock would label as pity. From James, it seems more like a question. Why are you doing this to yourself? Sherlock turns away, pressing his face to the back of the sofa.

“Teach me some more?” James asks some time later.

Sherlock doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to talk, think, even breathe. If he could just disappear, cease to be, go away, wouldn’t it all be better?

“Sherlock?” More time has passed. James left, but now he’s back. His voice is quieter. “If you need a new friend… that could be me if you want. I’ll try not to be boring, I promise.”

Too much hope in the words of someone who, earlier, claimed he didn’t need friends. Hope is bad. Doesn’t he understand that, after everything he’s been through already in his short life? Doesn’t he get that people always disappoint you in the end?

With an immense effort, Sherlock turns around. Sits up. Speaks.

“Get your violin.”

Chapter Text

“Good morning.”

Sherlock hears the words but they hold no relevance so he doesn’t reply. Instead, he stands from the sofa, having been ready and waiting for close to two hours already.

“Get your coat,” he says, looking up to James and only now realizing the boy is in his pajamas and clutching a set of fresh clothes to his chest.

“Do I have time for a shower?” James asks. “I won’t be long.”

Sherlock heaves a sigh and sits down again. James scurries away, the lock clicking shut behind him. For the umpteenth time since the previous night, Sherlock tells himself this might all be easier if he was alone, if he didn’t have to wait on a pre-teen to finish his morning ablutions – if he didn’t think it’d be near impossible to hide an altered state from said pre-teen’s uncanny observation skills.

As much as he deleted from his unfortunate stay in rehab, one thing stuck with him. An addict is never ‘cured’. He knows it to be true much too intimately for comfort. He’s been tempted, over the years. Less so after John moved in with him, although why disappointing him always felt like such a deterrent, Sherlock isn’t sure. Three years on his own, on the run, oftentimes dealing with less than savory members of society were hard on his self-control, but he managed; he needed to remain focused on the task at hand.

Now, though…

Now he’s not sure what he has left. Every time he picks up his violin, the first notes of the concerto he composed rise under his bow and he wants to smash something. The five patches on his arms are making him faintly nauseous. Lestrade hasn’t bothered to text about the end of that case even though he must have found his murderer by now. James would be better off with just about anyone who isn’t Sherlock. And John… John is all but out of his life, isn’t he?

“Sherlock? Are you okay?”

The question startles him out of dark thoughts in which needles and oblivion feature prominently. He blinks up to find James taking a furtive step back; what does Sherlock’s face look like right now for James to return to his ‘out of reach’ protocol?

“I’m perfectly fine,” he lies as he stands. “Are you ready?”

Suit, tie, shined shoes, slicked-back hair… James is ready, yes, although still wary. He doesn’t believe Sherlock. Damn but it was never this hard to fool John. Sherlock is out of practice, sure, but even then James is much too perceptive. Time for a distraction.

“We’re going to Bart’s.” He observes James from the corner of his eye as he slides his coat on. The flash of a smile tells him the distraction is working. “You might want to take a book with you, I’m probably going to be a while.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” James says. “I’ll find something to do.”

His ears and cheeks pink up at the same time. Thinking of Molly, Sherlock conjectures. His theory is proved right when they get to the lab. It only takes moments for James to entice Molly to accompany him to the cafeteria because he didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast. Sherlock hands him a few bills and suggests he offer Molly a coffee or something to thank her for showing him around. Her disapproval at the lack of breakfast is washed away by James’ renewed efforts to get her to show him the mortuary. Before they’re even gone, Sherlock tunes them out, pulling the envelope from his pockets, and out of the envelope the lone dark blond hair he picked up from the flat’s floor.

The process is easy, provided one has access to adequate equipment. The idea came to him as he was weighing the likelihood of acquiring illegal substances while remaining untracked by CCTV cameras. If this test showed the owner of the hair indulges in something illicit, if an anonymous source were to call in a tip to the police, if a drugs bust were to find something, if the partner of the hair owner had his eyes opened before their wedding…

Well, it would hardly be anything to be sorry about. Better before than after. Really, it would all be for the best.

Unfortunately, by the time James and Molly return – hot chocolate and a donut for him; black coffee only for her as she’s watching her weight as of three days ago – the first four results have come up negative. Two to go, but Sherlock is already anticipating they’ll be negative as well. Maybe it’s not a chemical thrill she’s after. Maybe she is weak in other ways. Nothing suggested as much during the few moments Sherlock spent in her presence, but he didn’t even notice that stupid ring, so who knows what else he missed. She might be a serial adulterer. Surely that’s something John would need to know before an exchange of vows.

“What are you doing, then?” James asks, curious eyes taking in the equipment in front of Sherlock.

Surveillance might be problematic with a child in tow. Maybe Mrs. Hudson wouldn’t mind babysitting him. Remember to ask James if that’s acceptable.

“Drugs test, isn’t it?” Molly says when Sherlock doesn’t answer James’ question. “Who are you testing?”

“It’s for a case,” Sherlock mutters, all too aware that James is now frowning at him. Changing the topic might be best. The ping of Sherlock’s cell phone is just what he needs.

You busy? I need back up.

Sherlock is still marveling at the message he waited so long to receive when a second, even better one comes in.

Could be dangerous.

He texts back at once.

Where?
SH

“I’ve got to run,” he says, already slipping his coat back on. “Will you text me the results, Molly?”

“Oh, all right, but I don’t think I have your new number.”

Before Sherlock can give it to her, his phone pings again. John sent him an address.

10 minutes
SH

As he strides out of the room, he’s barely aware that James is giving Molly his own number, and promising to tell Sherlock whatever she sends. He’s halfway down the corridor before James catches up with him.

“What’s the case, then?” he asks, eager.

“Not sure,” Sherlock says. “We’ll see when we get there.”

They’re already in the cab when it suddenly occurs to Sherlock that ‘dangerous’ might be synonymous with ‘not appropriate for children’. Too late now.

They meet John at a café. He rolls his eyes when he sees James.

“I thought I mentioned it could be dangerous,” he says, giving Sherlock a pointed look.

“I spent the last three years on the run with a killer for hire and Sherlock on our heels,” James objects coolly. “Is whatever we’re doing here more dangerous than that?”

After a beat of wide-eyed silence, John has to concede that it’s not.

It’s a simple case of stolen jewelry that was stolen a second time from the known thief by an equally known perpetrator. Some family dynamics are apparently more complicated than the Holmeses’. Sherlock wouldn’t have bothered, but who is he to criticize John Watson, Consulting Detective when he’s been asked for his assistance? After a night spent mourning the loss of his flatmate, Sherlock can admit, to himself if to no one else, that he’s thrilled John wants him here. It’s almost like old times, except that today John is calling the shots, and that’s… not as annoying as Sherlock would have expected.

The place they’re breaking into is across the street. They leave James in the café with his most solemn promise to stay there until they come back for him. He agrees with obvious sullenness, and thinking ahead of them suggests that Sherlock leave his phone on, but on silent.

“Not sure how I feel about a kid being our look-out,” John mutters when they finally cross the street and enter a narrow back alley. “That can’t possibly be good.”

“And breaking into a house is?” Sherlock teases.

When John grins, three years disappear like ice melting in the sun.

As it turns out, it’s a good thing they have a look-out. A few minutes after they break in, a text message – 2 men coming in. JM – gives them a few moments to prepare, although not enough to hide or run. The two men are the original thieves, the brother of John’s client and an accomplice, here to steal the jewelry back. John, surprisingly enough, takes out a police badge, and Sherlock struggles to stifle a laugh when he realizes it’s one of Lestrade’s.

He’s not laughing when the accomplice draws a knife. Things don’t get much better from there.

Half an hour later, they enter John’s house. He wanted to go to hospital, but Sherlock vetoed it.

“It’s just a scratch,” he protests yet again. He doesn’t like being here. It’s John’s home away from Baker Street. His home with her. Sherlock isn’t even interested in observing the thousand little details he missed the first time he came here. “You could have patched me up at home.”

“Shut up,” John replies, having long ago exhausted his supply of patience and arguments. He closes the door behind James and tells him, as though in confidence, as though Sherlock isn’t standing two feet away, “When he gets hurt, it’s not even worth it to argue with him. He’d let himself get an infection or even gangrene and think it’s an interesting experiment.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sherlock huffs, offended. It’s been years since he considered experimenting on his own body in that way.

Ridiculous or not, John orders Sherlock into the dining room – the same place where they didn’t exactly talk, what feels like an entire lifetime ago.

“Shirt. Off.”

And while Sherlock might have imagined John saying those words to him over the past couple of years, it was never quite in those circumstances – or with a child for witness.

John disappears while James shrugs out of his coat and holds out his hand. Rolling his eyes, Sherlock takes off his own, wincing as pain lances through him. He gives the coat a look before handing it over along with his scarf. It’s fine other than for a little blood that should come out easily enough, but his jacket and shirt are done for. He removes the jacket, and James takes that, too, touching the bloody fabric with two fingers.

“Does it hurt?” he asks, looking up at Sherlock with a deep frown.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock says, careful to keep his face smooth when he unbuttons his shirt and tugs it away from the cut across his stomach and side. Five inches long, not very deep as far as he can tell, but still bleeding.

“Yeah, fine,” John snaps, getting back into the room with his sleeves already rolled up and a medical kit in hand. “As I recall, you were fine too that one time you broke two ribs and sprained your ankle. Get that shirt off, lie down on the table and shut up.”

As much as Sherlock tries to protest, he ends up exactly where John wants him – where he and his fiancée have romantic dinners. Some small part of Sherlock hopes his blood will stain the polished wood.

He looks at the ceiling as the smell of antiseptic bursts on the air, noting small flaws in the paint job. John cleans up the blood and mutters darkly about how he had things under control, why in hell did Sherlock get in the path of that knife anyway, why does he need five nicotine patches, and what are those other scars on Sherlock’s chest, his shoulder, his arm. And then John stops complaining and tugs off the square bandage low on Sherlock’s ribs. He takes in a hissing breath.

“Sherlock. That’s a gunshot wound.”

That’s a familiar tone of voice. Usually it accompanies words like, ‘why is there a head in the fridge?’.

“It was a graze, nothing more.” Sherlock says, rising up a little to look at the wound. It looks well on its way toward healing.

“A graze?” John pushes him back down, warm fingers pressing in the center of Sherlock’s chest and raising goose bumps all over his arms. “That should have been stitched closed, you idiot! When did you get that?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes at the ceiling. “Who cares? It’s healing fine.”

“That was the night before he first came here,” James supplies.

Turning his head toward him, Sherlock lets his eyes make the accusation. Traitor. James seems absolutely unimpressed.

“Well at least one of you is helpful,” John mutters, going back to his ministering. “This needs stitches. I don’t have anything to numb the area. You okay with me doing it or do you want to go to—”

“Do it,” Sherlock cuts in.

John clears his throat quietly. “I should warn you, my hand isn’t quite as steady as it should be.”

“Do it,” Sherlock repeats, more softly as he raises his head to meet John’s eyes. The flutter of a smile touches John’s lips.

James shuffles a little closer as John gets ready, earning himself a thoughtful look.

“Do you want to go watch telly in the living room?” John asks. “We won’t be long here.”

“I’d rather watch,” James says. “I’m not too good with stitches yet.”

“Starting now,” John warns.

Sherlock closes his eyes, clenches his fists over his head and tries to compartmentalize the pain. It’s not too bad, as far as injuries go.

“So you’re saying you can do stitches?” John asks James absently as he works.

“I learned, but I’ve only done it twice. I offered to help Sherlock when he got shot but he wouldn’t let me. Can I do one?”

John’s hands still for a moment, long enough that Sherlock thinks he’ll agree, but finally he says, “Maybe next time. So… if you offered… does that mean you were there when he got shot? That was the last one, Sherlock.”

Sherlock lets out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. When he opens his eyes, James is looking at him, worrying his thumbnail with his teeth.

“You can answer if you want to,” Sherlock says. “Or not if you don’t.”

The smallest of nods, and James drops his hand back to his side, his focus returning to where John is now bandaging the cut.

“They woke me,” he says quietly. “I didn’t see Sebastian fire the gun but I saw them fight after that.”

“And how did that fight end?” John asks.

He offers his hand to Sherlock and helps him sit up so he can wrap the bandage around him. When James doesn’t reply, he glances at him, then at Sherlock. Whatever he sees on their faces, his expression darkens.

“Jesus. You let him watch you kill someone?”

Sherlock’s head snaps up. “I didn’t let him do anything. I didn’t know he was there.”

John shakes his head. “Still not good, Sherlock.”

The memory of that night surfaces, and it’s disconcertingly comforting to know that Sherlock was right in imagining how John would react. “I know that,” he says a little more sharply than he meant to.

John glares at him, a reply on the tip of his tongue. At his side, James snorts and says, “You’re acting like this was the first time I saw someone die.”

“It wasn’t?” John practically chokes on the words.

“Of course not.” James sounds bored. “You know who my father was. What did you expect?” After a second, he adds, his tone suddenly more thoughtful, “But it was the first time I saw a death from a broken neck. That was different from what I imagined.”

John leans back against the table, covering his face with one hand. James has a point, though. What did John expect, knowing James’ parentage?

“Jesus Christ,” John whispers before lowering his hand and asking James in his softest voice, “How many people did you see get killed?”

“Five,” James replies with a small shrug. “Counting Sebastian. The one Sherlock killed, I mean.”

It’s the shrug that does it, Sherlock thinks. If not for it, John might not have turned that hard, reproachful gaze to him.

“Yes I do realize that’s not good,” Sherlock says, a little annoyed. “But what do you expect me to do about it? I can’t change the past.”

John’s jaw tightens and releases several times as he turns back to the table and packs up his medical supplies.

“That kind of trauma in a child… he needs to talk to someone, at the very least.”

Crossing his arms, James glares at the both of them. “Stop talking like I’m not right here! And I’m not a child.”

“Maybe you’re not a child now,” John offers. “But I’m guessing you were when you saw people being murdered in front of you. Yes?”

James’ eyes narrow a little more. “So?”

“So that kind of thing changes people. I was a soldier. I’ve seen the effect war has on young people. And I’ve seen the effect it has on children, too.”

“That wasn’t war,” James says, huffing. “It was just Father getting bored. Or Sherlock saving your life.”

What the brief look John throws at him means, Sherlock has no idea. He’s not even sure where John is going with that conversation.

“Neither thing is the kind of experience anyone should be able to talk about so casually.” John’s voice is quiet, reasonable; his doctor voice. “It changed you, whether you realize it or not.”

“Did killing people change you?” James challenges. At John’s startled look, he adds, sounding much too smug, “Of course I know you killed. You said you were a soldier. Even as a doctor you probably saw combat. And anyway you killed the cab driver that was poisoning people.”

“No, I didn’t tell him that,” Sherlock says preemptively when John turns furious eyes to him.

“Father did. He was very cross with you.” James’ expression makes it clear that this is all obvious and a waste of time. “But you see? You killed people. And Sherlock did too. And you’re both fine, aren’t you? So what does it all matter?”

“We’re not children,” Sherlock points out, and immediately corrects himself before James can do it for him. “Or pre-teens.”

Drawing a chair, John sits down and peers at James, closer to eye-level, now. There’s a tightness around his eyes and mouth that hints at gloomy thoughts, although Sherlock can’t figure out what they are until John speaks in a gentle voice.

“James. I’m going to ask you a question and I would very much like you to tell me the truth. Did you ever have to kill anyone?”

James’ eyebrows tighten for a second before he answers coolly, “No.”

Truth, Sherlock assesses. Although not the whole truth.

“Okay.” John lets out a quiet breath. “Good. That’s at least—”

“But I wanted to,” James finishes, lifting his chin half an inch higher. And the rest of it now… “And I wish I had.”

John sighs. “See,” he says in that same gentle voice, “that’s one way seeing the things you’ve seen changes you. Young people your age don’t actually wish things like that.”

James’ entire body goes rigid. “When they’ve got people like Sebastian or Father around them, yes, they do.”

For the first time, Sherlock realizes that, for all his bravado, James has started to edge away toward the door, putting distance between him and his questioner.

John frowns. “People like—”

“John,” Sherlock interrupts. “Drop it. Please.”

A questioning look asks Sherlock why, but thankfully John holds his tongue.

“May I use the restroom?” James asks, each word clipped and sharp.

John tells him where to go and waits until he’s left before whispering furiously at Sherlock, “He needs to see a therapist.”

“How’s Ella, then?” Sherlock replies, deadpan. “Helpful, lately?”

John glowers, color rising in his face. “We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about a traumatized kid.”

And Sherlock isn’t disputing that point. He’s not blind, nor completely oblivious to other people’s suffering, despite general assumptions. But the thing is, he’s rather certain he understands James. He understands him better than most people, actually. And even after so few days, the reverse is equally true.

“He doesn’t want to talk to a therapist,” he says, and as far as he is concerned, that’s the only valid argument here.

“It’s about what he needs,” John protests heatedly. “Not what he wants!”

“You know I defer to your medical opinion for most things, but in this instance it is about letting him decide for himself for a change. He’s been forced to do things against his will too often as it is.”

Sherlock can tell the exact second when John understands what he isn’t quite saying. His face falls, his wide eyes darting toward the entrance of the room.

“Shit,” he breathes. “You mean… Did he tell you?”

“Not in so many words. But he didn’t need to.”

“I forget who I’m talking to,” John says dryly, then again, “Shit.”

Somewhere out in the hallway, a door opens, followed by quiet steps. A quick look and John drops the subject at once.

“Let me get you something to wear. Your shirt’s a lost cause.”

He steps out with the first aid kit. James comes back into the room, his face once again a mask of calm. It’s pinker than when he left and his hair’s a little damp. He splashed cold water on his face. Not as untouched by the conversation as he likes to pretend, then.

“Are you done talking about me?” he asks in a bored tone after observing Sherlock for a few moments.

It doesn’t occur to Sherlock to try to lie. “Yes we are,” he says. He can easily guess James’ next question. “No I’m still not sending you to talk to anyone.” After a beat, he adds, “Not unless you decide that’s what you want.”

While James keeps his face smooth, there’s a hint of relief in his words. “It’s not.”

“But if you change your mind,” John says, coming back into the room, “we’ll find you a good doctor to talk to.”

‘We’, Sherlock notices with pleased surprise as he takes the plain t-shirt John is handing him. Slipping it over his head pulls a bit at the cut, but it’s nothing Sherlock can’t stand. Is he fooling himself into thinking it smells like John? Probably. The thought is still a nice one, though.

“You’re a doctor,” James says suddenly.

John seems to see immediately where he’s going with that. He raises both hands palms out and smiles. “I’m not that kind of doctor.”

But James is undeterred. “No, you’re a doctor who has killed and seen people get killed. And you know about my father. If I wanted to talk to someone you would be ideal.” Frowning, he adds, “But I don’t so the point is moot.”

“Well if you change your mind,” John starts, but is interrupted by a voice calling out from the hallway.

“Darling I’m home!”

The smile that bursts instantly on John’s lips is like a punch to the gut. Being here, in his care, under his hands, Sherlock had almost forgotten how much things have changed. He aches, and it has nothing to do with the cut on his abdomen.

Chapter Text

She calls John ‘darling’.

Sherlock has always thought pet names were horrid, but this is ridiculous. There’s nothing ‘darling’ about John. He’s quiet, strong, gentle, dangerous, affable, deadly, and quite a few other things, but ‘darling’?

Ridiculous.

Sherlock can’t help but hope for a bit of a row when she follows John’s “In Here,” and appears at the dining room’s entrance. John’s girlfriends as a rule have never been very fond of Sherlock, and while John never said so outright Sherlock estimates he was a factor – if not the main factor – in about eighty percent of John’s break ups.

If she’s surprised, it’s for no longer than a second or two. Her eyes sweep the room, pausing ever so briefly on Sherlock’s ruined, bloody shirt. She’s already walking forward, stepping easily into John’s embrace. They share a peck of a kiss that absolutely doesn’t make Sherlock’s blood go cold in his veins, no, not at all.

Staking her claim, Sherlock thinks at first, but John’s reaction to the kiss says otherwise. He expected it. Would have been disappointed if it hadn’t happened. A ritual, not taking place because of Sherlock’s presence but in spite of it. Of course. Why would she regard him as competition?

“Evening, boys,” she says, her smile taking in John, James and Sherlock before returning to John. “You didn’t say we’d have guests for dinner. Or was it a professional call?”

She’s asking about the bloody shirt, although indirectly. Sherlock files that along with everything he can glean from looking at her. She’s wearing the same kind of professional attire as when he first visited, although he still can’t narrow down what she does other than to say she works in an office. Sensible shoes, so she must be on her feet a lot. Her hair is down, pulled back from her face with barely noticeable clips; she’s showing off the diamond earrings that match her engagement ring. Showing off for whose benefit?

“Professional call,” John answers her question. “Sherlock helped me get Mrs. Elliot’s necklace back. Remind me to call her after dinner.”

Interesting. Apparently, she knows about the case.

Even more interesting: her eyes widen in outrage.

“You went without telling me?” she demands, hands on her hips.

John doesn’t even try to hide his grin. “You said your colleagues were throwing you an engagement party. I wasn’t going to interrupt that.”

“Yes, so you should have waited! No backup, no case, remember?”

Here’s the argument Sherlock anticipated. It’s not about the topic he expected, but this will do. Except that John is still grinning… Why is he grinning? Is this not a real argument? Are they…

Oh god. They’re teasing each other. How sickening.

“I had back up,” John says, gesturing toward Sherlock. “I had the original consulting detective as back up.” After a beat, he adds, “And James. He was very helpful as our look-out.”

“Oh, that’s all right then I suppose,” she says, sounding a little mollified. She even offers James a small smile.

“And I was very helpful in stopping a knife with my stomach,” Sherlock feels it necessary to add.

Her eyes immediately go back to the bloodied shirt. Rather than saying anything, she raises a severe eyebrow at John.

“Remember how I told you about Sherlock’s very particular sense of humor?” John asks, throwing an eyeroll at Sherlock. “That’s it. That was his idea of a joke.”

It wasn’t, as a matter of fact, and Sherlock would be all too happy to point that out and mention there was actual danger, just to see how she’d react to that. He doesn’t get a chance to say any of it. Already, she has moved on, and is asking James what he likes to eat.

“You are having dinner with us, aren’t you?” she throws at Sherlock while James tries to decide on an answer.

Sherlock’s first instinct is to decline. The prospect of dinner with her, in her house, is about as appealing as the idea of another dozen stitches with no anesthetic. On the other hand, it’d provide him with a chance to observe her. And then there’s John. Sherlock isn’t ready to say goodbye yet.

Fifteen minutes after agreeing to dinner, he’s ready to change his mind: the two of them cook together. Standing right outside the kitchen, Sherlock listens absently as John explains how he met her – a case, of course; Sherlock had already figured that out, and the details are unimportant. What is more telling than that story is the way she adds in a detail or two, now and then, without breaking the flow of John’s words. And what’s even more telling than that is the way they move around each other as they go about their tasks, each checking what the other is doing, handing out whatever is needed before it can be asked for.

Out of the blue, Sherlock remembers John saying they learned to waltz; apparently, the skill extends beyond the dance floor and requires no music.

At some point it becomes too much. The story isn’t finished, but Sherlock drifts away anyway, joining James in front of the television. He can still hear them in the kitchen even when they whisper.

“Is he upset? He looked a little upset.”

“If he was upset, he wouldn’t still be here. Don’t worry about him. That’s just the way he is. Do you think the sauce needs more salt?”

The way he is… The words bounce through Sherlock’s mind. What does John mean by that, exactly? How does he see Sherlock?

Does it matter at this point?

When he gives a sharp shake of his head to chase those thoughts away, Sherlock realizes James is observing him rather than the television. He schools his features, but can’t help but wonder what he already gave away.

The most memorable part of dinner, as far as Sherlock is concerned, is the small pill bottle John places by Sherlock’s plate.

“I trust you remember how to take care of stitches? I’ll come remove them next week.”

For no particular reason, Sherlock breathes a little better after that. He continues to observe, still looking for something – the deal breaker. Molly texted the last of the results earlier, and there’s nothing there. Alcohol, maybe? That wouldn’t be received too well after Harry. But no, she doesn’t drink more than a glass of wine.

By the end of dinner, Sherlock has heard more than he cared to know about the adventures of John Watson, consulting detective, and his cunning assistant. When they suggest coffee and more conversation, he makes an excuse about needing to leave.

A taxi is on the way and Sherlock insists on waiting outside. She says goodnight with a smile, but John accompanies him out. They stay on the front step while James walks to the gate, waiting there without needing to be asked.

“Go ahead,” John says, rubbing his hands over his arms against the chill of the evening. “You’ve been deducing things about Mary since she walked in. Let’s hear it.”

“Are you sure you want to know?” Sherlock asks in a neutral voice.

There isn’t much light, but he can still see John’s grin.

“I’m sure I already know whatever it is you found out.”

“That sure?”

“Yes.”

It’s the quiet confidence in that single word that stills Sherlock’s tongue. John knows what Sherlock can do, he’s seen it often enough. For him to believe there’s nothing Sherlock can tell him that he doesn’t already know can only mean one thing: they have no secrets from each other. She’s told John about her failed marriage, and the failed engagement that followed. She’s told him about her family.

What confessions did John offer in return?

After a few more seconds, all Sherlock says is, “She makes you happy.”

“She does, yes.” John sounds surprised, but pleased. What horrors did he expect to hear?

“I’m—” Sherlock has to push the next words out past a too tight throat. “Glad. That you’re happy. You should be.”

“Thank you.”

Sherlock nods stiffly, his eyes resolutely set on James. He’s looking at his cell phone, the glow illuminating his face in the darkness. He looks tired. Or maybe that’s just Sherlock projecting.

“Sherlock?” John says. “Are you okay?”

Sherlock bristles at the tone of concern. “Why do you ask? Because I found no fault with your fiancée?”

John snorts quietly. “I’m sure you did find fault with her, actually. If I were concerned, it’d be because you’re actually keeping it to yourself. But that’s not why I ask. You just spent three years running around God knows where. You’ve taken lives. I’m assuming it was more than one?”

“They weren’t good people,” Sherlock says with a shrug. He didn’t keep a tally. In fact, he was very careful not to.

“I suppose not, no,” John says. “Does that mean you’re not losing sleep over them?”

“You know me, I never sleep much.”

“That’s not what I mean,” John chides gently.

“I know. And I’m not losing sleep over them, no. Nor do I intend to repeat that adventure.”

“I hope not. I think—”

Whatever John thinks is lost the moment a cab pulls to the curb. Quiet goodbyes. He stays on the front step until the taxi has pulled away.

As soon as they get home, Sherlock finds the blank sheets he bought at the music store, sets them on the stand along with a pencil, and picks up his violin. He plays a few measures of the concerto, writes down the notes, plays it again as marked, continues for another measure or two, stops to pencil the notes in, makes a small correction, starts over. His movements are feverish, any thought that isn’t music silenced ruthlessly.

He’s aware, somewhere at the back of his mind, that James is moving around the flat – up to his room, bathroom, sitting room – but the knowledge is inconsequential at this moment. He needs to do this. He needs to do it now, finish it tonight while she’s still fresh in his mind, and then he’ll delete the concerto and never think of it again.

He couldn’t say how much time passes before he pauses, but his shoulder aches so he knows it’s late. He’s written down everything he has so far. Now comes the painful part. As he raises his bow once more, the quiet sound of a turning page catches his attention, and he turns his head to James. Sitting once again in John’s chair – not John’s anymore, damn it – he has one of his books in hand; one he already finished.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Sherlock asks, pulling a single, plaintive note from the violin.

No, that won’t do. Plaintive isn’t right at all.

“Should I be?” James asks. He doesn’t look up from the book but his eyes aren’t moving anymore. “You never said I have a bedtime.”

Fair point. Sherlock never believed in bedtimes for himself. He’d be rather hypocritical to impose one on James now.

Closing his eyes, he pictures her in his mind; draws another note from the violin, bright and brief. Then a second one. A few more flow out. He stops, plays it again, starting just a few notes earlier to see if it all works together. Not bad, but not exactly right either. He stills, thinking.

“Do you know how it ends now, then?” James asks.

“I’m getting there.” It’s only with a superhuman effort that Sherlock manages not to add, ‘I’ll get there faster if you don’t interrupt.’ Maybe he shouldn’t have bothered holding his tongue, because James interrupts again.

“It’s really nice. I bet he’d like it.”

Blinking a few times, Sherlock slowly faces James again. His voice was so quiet, maybe Sherlock misheard what he said. There’s no way he could know.

“But you’re not going to play it for him, are you?”

Sherlock feels like he’s just had the wind knocked out of him. James does know. How he can know, Sherlock has no idea, and he’s not sure he wants to ask. Not sure he wants to acknowledge the question either, or even worse, answer it. No, he has no intention of playing this piece for its intended recipient. He used to dream of it, but that dream is gone.

Turning away, he closes his eyes once more, takes a deep breath that pulls at the stitches on his abdomen, and starts again.

He writes down three full measures before deciding they’re wrong, completely wrong. Setting the bow and violin down, he balls up the sheet of paper and drops it to the floor before running furious fingers through his hair. This shouldn’t be so complicated. She’s not a complex person at all. What is wrong with him?

“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”

The question startles him twice over, because it echoes his own thoughts much too uncomfortably and because he’d all but forgotten James was there. He has set his book aside and simply sits there, as primly as though he were still in his suit and tie rather than wearing pajamas. He looks up at Sherlock earnestly, waiting for an answer.

“Why would you ask that?” Sherlock asks.

James shrugs. “I told the truth and John was upset. Should I have lied?”

“No.” The answer is instantaneous. Necessary. Obvious. “Don’t lie to him.”

He doesn’t add, ‘Don’t lie to me either.’ He doesn’t think it’s needed.

“Not to him,” James repeats, tilting his head slightly. “Does that mean lying to other people is okay?”

“When necessary.”

James nods, and his eyes lose focus for a moment. Is he trying to figure out what ‘necessary’ covers in this instance? Sherlock’s criteria used to be ‘whenever it’ll get me what I need’ but he’s not entirely certain it applies anymore. He lied to Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson hoping to make things easier for them, not himself. He’s lying to everyone, or almost, about who James is, but that’s to protect James, not because of something Sherlock needs. He’s lying to John, too, if only by omission, but what good could possibly come from the truth?

“You didn’t reply,” James says abruptly. “Is there something wrong with me?”

His eyes are dark, demanding an answer. This time, Sherlock doesn’t play with words.

“No. There’s nothing wrong with being special.”

From the tightening at the corners of James’ mouth, that’s not the answer he hoped for, and it soon becomes obvious why.

“That’s what Father called it,” he says tonelessly. “Being ‘special’. Sebastian called it being a freak.”

Angry heat courses through Sherlock. He was James’ age when he was first called a freak. Before that, he was ‘odd’ or ‘strange’, and as words went they were innocuous enough. Not so with this one.

“I’ve heard that particular word a few times myself,” he says, containing his anger. “Idiots. All of them. Just because their minuscule brains can’t fathom ours they believe us defective. Don’t let it bother you. It’s just a word.”

“Just a word,” James repeats. His voice drops to a whisper when he adds, “But it wasn’t just words.”

Sherlock’s anger flares anew, for an entirely different reason. He picks up his violin, sets it down again, wishing for a distraction but no, he has to say something.

“I know,” he says, inadequate words but they’re the best he can offer right now. That and his presence; he sits in the chair across from James and for a long moment they’re both silent.

“He was always so mad when I didn’t cry or shout,” James finally says, still very quietly. “That’s when he called me names the most.”

“So you kept quiet on purpose,” Sherlock guesses. Resistance can take many forms.

The shadow of a smile tells him he’s right.

“He was stronger, but I was smarter. And more stubborn.”

“So it seems.” Sherlock tries to smile back, but it feels like a grimace.

“Is it wrong that I wish I had killed him?”

Has this been troubling him all evening? He seemed collected enough during dinner, attentive to the stories Sherlock couldn’t be bothered to listen to. Hiding in plain sight again.

“What’s wrong,” Sherlock says, speaking slowly as he struggles for the right words, “is what he did to you. But. That being said. John is right. Killing someone. Seeing someone get killed. Things like that do change us.”

“So I really am a freak, then.”

And this was not what Sherlock meant, not by a long shot. Why is he even trying? He’s possibly the worst person to be doing this. There just isn’t anyone else to do it right now, and he doubts James can wait.

Sitting on the edge of his chair, he leans forward, holding his hand out palm up. “Give me your hand.”

James’ body instantly turns rigid and completely still. His palms are pressed tightly against his thighs. His eyes narrow ever so slightly as he asks in a small voice, “What for?”

It’s not often distrust rings through James’ voice when they’re talking. Sherlock tries not to show his impatience.

“I want to show you what you are,” he says calmly, keeping his hand extended but not reaching any further. “Trust me.”

A few seconds trickle by, and Sherlock thinks back on the past few days, trying to remember casual touch. He thought James was comfortable around him, but maybe not so much, after all. Even when he wasn’t remaining out of reach, he’s been avoiding contact. Only during their violin lessons did he allow Sherlock to touch his hand and shoulder to correct his position. Not unexpected, and still Sherlock finds himself gritting his teeth.

At last, James lays a hand in Sherlock’s palm – gives his trust, or at least a little bit (more) of it. Sherlock turns that small hand over. He has to stand to lead it back to James until it’s pressed almost in the center of his chest.

“There,” he says quietly as he lets go and pulls away. “Can you feel it?”

“Feel what?” James asks with a small frown. He starts shaking his head but stops, his frown deepening. “My heartbeat?”

Sherlock nods. It was his hand, his chest, his heartbeat, once, and the sickeningly sweet voice of a nurse. He tried to delete everything about that moment – what she looked like, the sandpaper-rough, cotton-fine sheets around him, the fire of need, of withdrawal running through his veins and burning his mind – everything but the staccato beat under his fingers, like music waiting to be rediscovered. The memory, however, endures.

“Do you know what it means?” he says. “It means you’re alive. It means you survived. Whatever Moran said, whatever he did, you lived through it. Maybe you didn’t kill him, but he is gone from your life. And you’re still here.”

James’ frown smoothes out, little by little, and something like resolve flashes over his features. When he drops his hand, the faintest smile tugs at his lips.

“See?” His voice breaks a little over the word. He swallows hard before he continues. “I don’t need a therapist. I’ve got you.”

Sherlock is utterly unconvinced. He has neither the time nor the inclination. John would be much better at it, as James correctly remarked earlier. John, however, is not here right now, and this was when James needed to hear something. Maybe next time…

The thought irritates him, because it comes with the realization that he doesn’t know when exactly he’ll next see John. It might be tomorrow. It might be on his wedding day. The uncertainty is unsettling.

“You should go to bed,” he mutters as he returns to his music sheets.

He drags a finger along the last line of notes he penciled in. When he looks up again, James hasn’t moved from the chair. He’s biting on his thumbnail, though he stops when Sherlock raises an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t want to go to sleep,” he whispers. “This is gonna be a bad night, I can tell.”

Sherlock doesn’t need to ask what ‘bad night’ means. After a few days of living with James – or rather, after a few nights – it’s all too obvious. He can also guess why James is worried: John’s questions earlier, compounded by the conversation they just had… shadows are lurking, ready to turn into nightmares.

When Sherlock strides by him, James is startled, and his tired eyes widen. In seconds, Sherlock climbs to the upstairs bedroom. He grabs the pillow with one hand, strips the blanket off the bed with the other. When he returns to the sitting room, James looks at him with confusion.

“Here,” Sherlock says, dropping the pillow and blanket on the sofa. “Lie down. Close your eyes. If you dream, I’ll wake you.”

Something gleams in James’ bloodshot eyes. It could be relief. It could be gratitude. But it could also be shame. Sherlock doesn’t try to figure it out – doesn’t try to pry. There’s been enough of that today and putting James on the spot again wouldn’t help at this point.

He picks up his violin and turns his back on the sofa. He starts the concerto from the first note. By the time he reaches the end of what he wrote down and has to start adding to the melody again, James is asleep, wrapped in the blanket as though in a cocoon, with little more than the tip of his nose peeking out of the folds. Sherlock keeps playing; keeps watching over James’ sleep; keeps adding more notes to the concerto until her melody - Mary’s melody; as much as he’d like to, he can’t keep thinking of John’s wife-to-be as ‘she’ and ‘her’ – melds seamlessly with the first phrase, the heartbeat. By the time he finishes writing it all down, his own notes have faded to nothing.

Dawn finds him at the window, a hand pressed to his own chest. Apparently, hearts continue to beat even after they’re broken.

Chapter Text

Mrs. Hudson is not impressed by James spending the night on the sofa. Even his protests that he didn’t mind do not appease her.

“Really, Sherlock,” she tuts, bustling in the kitchen like the housekeeper she isn’t. “That’s no place for a child to sleep. Especially when there’s a perfectly suitable bed upstairs.”

James is now out of the room and Sherlock could explain about his nightmares. He considers it for a second and rejects the idea. Mrs. Hudson’s fretting wouldn’t stop, merely change its form.

“Did you set the kettle to boil?” he asks in guise of answer, and is offered a new, heartfelt chorus of ‘not your housekeeper, dear.’

In the absence of tea, Sherlock treats himself to a hot shower. All through the night, his mind was blank save for music notes. Now that the music is trapped on paper, his mind is filling again with a jumble of thoughts. He lets them play, not bothering to follow any particular idea until he’s drying himself and slapping on four fresh nicotine patches. Maybe five was a little too much. Or maybe he was feeling nauseous throughout dinner for an entirely different reason.

Unwrapping the bandages that protect his wound, he looks at the stitches – nine of them, neatly aligned and regular; John’s hand was steady despite his warning; does he still practice medicine at all or is he only a detective now? A single thought suddenly burns brighter than the rest: would John come by if the cut became infected? More than likely. He might even stay for a day or two. He always regarded taking care of Sherlock’s health as some sort of solemn duty.

Running a finger along the stitches although without touching them, Sherlock lets the thought unfold, from the potential discomfort and threat to his well-being to John’s predictable sigh and mild reproaches. And then…

Sherlock looks up; in the mirror, his reflection looks somewhere between confused and startled. He’s not just imagining John’s voice. He’s hearing it, coming through the closed door from the sitting room.

He covers the wound again, his hands shaking a little in his haste. He gets dressed, fumbling with the buttons of his shirt, the zip of his pants. When he comes out, it’s to find John, Mrs. Hudson and James sharing tea in the sitting room. The scene is unexpected, and he doesn’t know what to say. This is three days in a row that John reaches out, either coming to 221B or sending a message for Sherlock to go to him. To think that first evening Sherlock wondered if he’d ever see him again…

Noticing him, John sets his cup on the saucer, shifts it to his right hand, then fishes something out of his pocket. He tosses it underhand to Sherlock, who catches the small plastic bottle despite being caught by surprise. He looks at it; the antibiotics John gave him last night. The ones Sherlock left on the table. As far as slips go, his subconscious wasn’t even trying very hard with this one, although it was a few hours ahead of Sherlock’s conscious mind.

“They only work if you actually take them, you know,” John says with a slight smile.

Sherlock knows this smile. It’s the one that means, ‘Sherlock is a genius but damn if he isn’t an idiot, sometimes’. He likes that smile and it’s always hard not to reply in kind.

“Thank you,” he says, pocketing the bottle of pills. “You didn’t need to come all the way here, I could have picked them up.”

Standing, John shakes his head. “Not a hardship,” he says, walking past Sherlock and into the kitchen. “I hadn’t seen Mrs. Hudson in a while.”

“It’s just like old times,” she says in reply. “With just an extra bit of cuteness.”

That last is said with a look at James, who instantly grimaces.

In the kitchen, John runs water, rinsing his cup and filling a glass, which he brings to Sherlock.

“The added bonus,” he says, “is that I can make sure you actually take them. Two. Go ahead.”

Mrs. Hudson makes a small sound that sounds extraordinarily like a stifled laugh. With a heavy sigh, Sherlock draws the bottle from his pocket again, pulls two pills out and dutifully swallows them.

“At every meal,” John starts, but seems to think better of it. He turns to James and starts over. “He needs to take them at every meal. Well, at least every time you have a meal. Remind him because if he gets lost thinking about something he’ll just forget.”

James nods gravely. “Yes, sir.”

“You can call me John,” John says at the same time as Sherlock mutters, “Honestly, you make it sound like I’m trying to hurt myself.”

Sherlock didn’t mean much by it; the sudden blankness in John’s eyes startles him. Its reason is obvious, and Sherlock winces. Silence falls on the room, heavy as lead and just as gray. Before Sherlock can figure out what to say, his cellphone beeps. He’s both grateful and irritated by the interruption.

The text is from Lestrade. Found my killer. He’s dead. I’ll show you the crime scene if you want but no kids allowed.

“Case?” John asks, his voice as expressionless as his face.

“Lestrade,” Sherlock confirms, looking down at the screen then back at John. “Do you work cases with the Yard?”

“No. Private clients only.”

“Are we going?” James asks, perking up.

Sherlock shakes head. “He still doesn’t want you there.”

“Still?” John says, one eyebrow raised. “You want to take him to crime scenes?”

Mrs. Hudson tuts, much like she did about James sleeping on the sofa.

“No,” James pipes up. “I want to go. But Detective Inspector Lestrade is not being agreeable.”

“At least someone has some sense left.” John says dryly.

Sherlock is torn.

He wants to argue the point, but John’s eyes are still too… blank. Hurt. Like he’s seeing something in his mind’s eye he’d rather forget.

He wants to invite John to come with him, but he’s scared John would say no.

He wants to blackmail Lestrade into allowing James on the scene, but he doesn’t want to miss a chance to clear his mind with a (hopefully) good puzzle.

He wants to go, but he doesn’t want to disappoint James.

When did things become so complicated? It used to be simple. The Work. That was what mattered. Everything, everyone else used to be secondary. How did doing nothing but work at dismantling a criminal’s empire for three years make everything else take precedence?

It’s not an improvement. Far from it. It makes for confusion and uncertainty. And the one person that could have made it worth it will be tying himself to someone else in nine days.

Sherlock’s mind processes all that in the time of a blink, and a decision is made. He can’t keep on like this, thinking of ways to bring John back to him, for good or for just a couple of days. It’s irrational. It’s childish. And in the end, it’s not going to do anything but hurt him. Hurt both of them when John catches on, and he would, sooner or later. So this needs to stop, and stop now.

Caring is not an advantage.

How did he ever forget?

In his mind, he imagines himself hastily fashioning a plain, square box and stuffing his feelings inside it. It’s a temporary solution, but it’ll have to do for now. He was always good at compartmentalizing. His head a little clearer, he types a message for Lestrade, asking for an address. At the same time, he glances at James, wondering how to break the news to him. Something must show on his face because James pouts for a second, then nods, resigned.

“Maybe next time?” he asks.

Sherlock nods back. “I’ll work on Lestrade. Mrs. Hudson?”

“Yes?” Mrs. Hudson says, but the question was for James. A fleeting look toward a still dark-eyed John is all the answer he gives.

“I was about to ask if you’d keep an eye on James,” Sherlock says, “but you’re going out today, aren’t you?”

Her light blush, just a shade darker than the lipstick she dabbed on then wiped off after thinking better of it gives her away even as she hems and haws.

“Well, yes, I do have somewhere to be,” she says, throwing a fond look at James. “Any other time, I’d be delighted.”

She stands and pats his cheek before excusing herself. James allows the contact, Sherlock notices, but his jaw is locked tight.

Sherlock’s cellphone beeps again. He glances at it then looks at James, wondering if he can guess the game they should play.

“I suppose you could come and remain outside,” he says as though musing aloud.

“That would be boring. Oh! I could stay with John!” James pipes up right on cue.

They both look at John, who hasn’t moved in the past few moments other than crossing his arms.

“I can’t decide if you two are brilliant or terrifying,” he says, and Sherlock isn’t sure if it’s a hint of amusement that brightens his voice or something less pleasant. “How long have you been perfecting that little act?”

“Does that mean I can’t stay with you?” James’ pout, this time, lasts longer than it did when directed at Sherlock.

“Not that either of you cares, but I’m busy.”

Yes, it is amusement. John’s eyes are crinkling. Something rattles inside the box but it holds.

“Case?” Sherlock asks.

“Shopping. I’m picking up my dinner suit for the wedding.”

The box rattles even harder at that last word. Sherlock refuses to let it open. It’s a perfectly normal word describing a perfectly ordinary event. There’s nothing to be upset about. Nothing at all.

“That’s perfect,” he says. “James needs something to wear.”

Which is not technically true; anything James currently owns would work just fine. John, however, doesn’t point out that James is in a suit right now, complete with a perfectly knotted tie. He drops his arms and rolls his eyes.

Sherlock knows that’s as good as agreement. He pulls out his wallet and hands his bank card to James, whose eyes light up. Sherlock guesses what he’s going to ask before he does.

“Yes, you can get more books if John cares to take you to a bookstore.”

James is beaming as he puts on his coat; John, bemused.

“Funny how easy it is to fall back into old habits,” he says, catching Sherlock’s eyes and offering him a thin smile.

To Sherlock, falling back into old habits sounds like a much better alternative than what he was doing so far.

*

It’s the same case Lestrade brought him as a present, but now it’s starting to be interesting. The man who bought that burned van is dead – and his body was found in the back of a van similar to the one that burned.

“He was not the killer after all,” Sherlock mutters after a few moments of observing the body. The back of the van is cramped and he steps carefully around the body, keeping his shoulders hunched. Outside, Lestrade is watching him like a hawk. Next to him, Donovan is doing the same, although her expression is a lot less friendly.

When Sherlock showed up at the entrance of the parking garage, she didn’t look surprised and merely gritted her teeth. She didn’t manage to hold her tongue very long, though.

“For the record, I don’t believe a word of it,” she said as she led him to the lift and punched the button for the third level with a raging finger. “Moriarty pushing you then committing suicide, you barely surviving and falling in a coma? I don’t believe it. Do you want to know why?”

“Not really,” Sherlock drawled, “but I’m sure you’ll enlighten me anyway.”

“John. Watson,” she said, pausing between each word and staring fixedly at Sherlock as though to catch a reaction. “He truly believed you were dead. No one can fake that well. All right, maybe you but certainly not him. He was there, he saw you jump, he took your pulse. And I took his deposition. And you will not make me believe for one second that what the newspapers are printing is the truth.”

“Good thing I’m not trying to make you believe anything, then, isn’t it, Sally?” He gave her his coldest smile. “Then again, if trying to make you believe something is as easy as buying you expensive earrings, I’m sure I could manage. After all, Anderson is still stringing you along after five years and god knows he’s not all that bright.”

The doors opened with perfect timing and Sherlock stepped out, leaving Donovan to collect herself. She caught up with him before he was halfway to Lestrade at the other end of the level and started to rant at him, but Sherlock spoke over her.

“I don’t get it. The man is married. Either you think he’s better off with her, in which case the affair is pointless, or you think he’d be better off with you, and if so why not just expose all of it and end the charade?”

“Will you shut your bloody mouth?” she hissed. “How could you even understand anything about love?”

Sherlock’s mouth opened. And closed again without a word. Donovan took it as a sign of victory. It was, although not the way she thought. She wasn’t right; the fight simply wasn’t worth the revelations it might accidentally entail. Revelations that Sally Donovan had no right to be privy to.

Unlike the facts Sherlock lists as he steps out of the van. She’s silent as she listens. Lestrade isn’t; he asks for clarifications, needs the obvious pointed out to him. Old habits, yet again. There are no praises at the end, just a request for Sherlock to accompany Lestrade back to Scotland Yard to look at some papers that might be relevant.

Before he agrees, Sherlock sends two texts.

To John: I might be longer than expected. SH

To James: I’m off to Scotland Yard. You can join me there if you prefer. SH

“You wouldn’t mind if James joined us, right?” he asks Lestrade after hitting send. “After all, the Yard isn’t a crime scene other than for the crime of incompetence.”

Rather than answering, Lestrade narrows his eyes at him. “Are you going to tell me who that kid is?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Long lost cousin.”

John’s answer comes first. Believe it or not, that is not, in fact, unexpected.

Sherlock swipes a finger over the screen, touching the words, hearing them in John’s ‘why do I put up with this again?’ voice.

“And your ‘long lost cousin’,” Lestrade says, his words dripping with sarcasm, “happens to have a brain as bright as yours and your interest in murders. That is not exactly a comfortable thought.”

“He also has a keen interest in bees. Does that make you more comfortable?”

Sherlock’s phone chimes again. Bookstore or Scotland Yard. Assuming you’ll tell me about the case later, I’m going to say bookstore. JM

Sherlock pockets the phone with a quiet snort. Not unexpected all around, then.

“Where is he anyway?” Lestrade asks after Sherlock tells him he’ll come. “I was just about sure you’d bring him despite what I said.”

Which means that next time, Sherlock will bring James regardless of what Lestrade says.

“He’s with John.”

Lestrade gives Sherlock a sharp look at that.

Donovan stayed behind to bring in the supposedly ‘professional’ crime scene technicians, so they have the elevator to themselves.

“I think you need to know something about John,” Lestrade says after the doors have closed on them. His voice is quiet and he’s looking at Sherlock with an odd intensity. “Two weeks after you died, I took his gun from him.”

Sherlock waits for the rest.

Then he realizes this is it. This is what Lestrade wanted him to know. That, and the reason why he took the gun, which is obvious and doesn’t need to be stated.

The lift stops. Lestrade steps out. Sherlock remains frozen long enough that the doors start closing again. When he finally follows, Lestrade is waiting for him, waiting for a reaction.

“Did you ever give it back?” Sherlock asks; his voice sounds hollow even to his own ears.

Lestrade snorts. “Did I give an illegal gun back to its owner whom I neglected to charge in a shooting? Seriously?” But after a second, he adds, more quietly, now, “No. Even after he met Mary, I still wouldn’t have trusted him with a gun.”

They’re just words. Nothing more than words. But they crack the hastily-built box in which Sherlock tried to bury his feelings not two hours ago. And now, it’s worse. Now he understands just how deeply he hurt John. That’s only one more reason why John is better off with Mary than he would be with Sherlock. And Sherlock, as much as he hates it, understands Donovan more than he ever cared to.

Chapter Text

If there’s something Sherlock learned in the past three years, it’s that time is relative. Sometimes, as he sought his next lead, things seemed to slow down to a crawl until he was ready to tear his hair out. And sometimes, especially when he started chasing Moran, days turned to hours, hours to mere moments.

The next few days until the wedding are like that: at times endless, and at times much too short. Nights, especially, seem too long. Nights are when his mind turns the John Watson problem under every possible angle, when he rewinds years back to when they first met and reinvents their entire relationship. The dreams he makes for himself are much more pleasant than the real ones. Much nicer than reality, too. But by morning, when he has to admit to himself that his flatmate is not an ex-army doctor but a broken boy whose newest obsession is to devour medical textbooks, those manufactured dreams feel like mistakes more than anything else.

With more distractions, days pass a lot faster.

Sherlock gets his first real client. It’s a mildly interesting case that involves, of all ridiculous things, a live penguin. He’d have passed if not for James’ obvious interest. It takes them two days to solve but really, one should have been enough.

He gets to help John again, although this time there’s no chase, only mental pursuits when John gets stuck on the particulars of a case. It’s not the only time Sherlock sees John, either. He comes by once to check on Sherlock’s stitches, then again the day before the wedding to remove them. And one time, he shows up for no reason Sherlock can figure out. He arrives in the middle of a violin lesson, and gestures for them to continue. While they do, he makes tea, then sits and observes. It’s not a pleasant lesson, but the screeching of James’ bow doesn’t seem to faze him. He stays for a couple of hours, and Sherlock tells him about the penguin case. The next day, ‘Flightless in London’ appears on his blog. Sherlock’s picture and its caption are still on the sidebar.

Lestrade texts to say the van murders are solved and that Sherlock was right. Why he feels necessary to add that last part, Sherlock isn’t sure. Lestrade doesn’t have new cases, unfortunately. Sherlock suspects he has guessed that next time James will be coming with Sherlock and that’s why he’s not calling.

Once, Molly sends a message about an interesting body she took delivery of. Sherlock wonders for a second why she texted James about it before he remembers he never gave her his phone number. He corrects that oversight when they drop by to see that body, and is surprised when she categorically refuses to let James in. She’s trembling like a leaf when she does, but she still holds firm against all of Sherlock’s arguments.

“You’ve changed,” he tells her when, much to James’ dismay, he finally yields.

“So have you,” she replies, and even though she smiles, her voice sounds sad.

He must not have changed that much, however, because while she takes James to the cafeteria, Sherlock ‘liberates’ a foot from one of the teaching cadavers. Back at 221B, he lets James practice stitches on it, and that makes up for the lack of mortuary access.

The stitches aren’t bad at all. They’re better, in any case, than James’ continued attempts on the violin. At the end of every painful lesson, Sherlock reminds him that the instrument has a steep learning curve, but James seems to take it as a personal affront from the strings and bow that they just won’t produce the notes he aims for with any sort of consistency. His German, at least, is improving regularly. Every day, they spend half an hour conversing in French or Italian. Of all possible distractions – except for John’s visits – these are Sherlock’s favorite.

Whether the hours crawl or pass too fast, Sherlock still isn’t ready when the day of the wedding comes. He gets dressed automatically, barely aware of what he’s doing. But just as he finishes knotting his tie, as he remembers that, the last time he wore one, he was going to a funeral, he suddenly feels so lightheaded that he has to sit down. He misses the edge of his bed by a few centimeters and ends up on the floor, gasping for air, fingers grasping for his tie and tugging it loose again until he can breathe.

It’s ridiculous. It’s completely and utterly ridiculous for him to feel this way, to feel like he’s losing John. Burying him, never to see him again. Like he failed him, after all, and allowed him to be Moriarty’s last victim.

Of course he’ll see him. They’ll keep working together. John will still come to Baker Street, and move around the flat with such familiarity that Sherlock will continue to forget he doesn’t live here anymore. He’ll keep rolling his eyes at Sherlock, and telling him whenever he says something he shouldn’t, and smiling that small, crooked smile when he thinks Sherlock is being especially clever.

They’ll keep being friends.

And Sherlock will never tell him he never had a best friend before. Never had a real friend. Never felt about anyone the way he does about John. Never wanted to touch anyone, or kiss them, the way he wants to whenever he is close enough to John to feel the warmth radiating from his body. No, Sherlock won’t say any of it, because John is in love, and in a few hours he’ll be married, and this is why Sherlock went away, isn’t it? For John to live, to have a happy life. To love and be loved.

If Sherlock were half as good a friend as John deserves, it wouldn’t matter to him where John found his happiness. He wouldn’t be harboring fantasies of telling John everything, telling him what he feels before it’s too late. He wouldn’t be craving the oblivion to be found in a needle sliding into his arm and delivering liquid comfort. At this point, he’s not even sure which option would be more destructive.

When the door creaks open, his breath catches in his throat. He looks up, unable to even feel ashamed at the sight he must make. His mind, still half convinced he’s going to a funeral, expects Mycroft to appear; a younger, heavier Mycroft, but already so disappointed whenever Sherlock isn’t his best.

It’s not Mycroft. Of course not.

Whatever James thinks of an adult sitting on the floor and having a fit, his expression doesn’t show. His dark eyes take in Sherlock with no reaction whatsoever. Then again, he’s undoubtedly seen much more disturbing things. Endured much worse than having to watch someone get married, too. At that thought, Sherlock is finally ashamed.

“You don’t have to go,” James says in a quiet voice, and as so often happens with James, it’s possibly the last thing Sherlock expected to hear. It’s also the very opposite of what Mycroft had said, back then. “We could say you’re ill. Made yourself sick with one of your experiments. He’d believe it.”

Of course John would believe. Just yesterday he was complaining about the state of the kitchen table, the way he used to, a lifetime ago. He’d believe, and he might even decide to come check on Sherlock. He’d be late to his own wedding. Because that’s the kind of friend he is.

Sherlock’s shame deepens a little more. He doesn’t like that feeling. He’s not been ashamed of much in his life. He’s never seen the point of it. He still doesn’t see the point now, but he can’t stop it.

Or rather, yes, he can stop it. He knows exactly what to do for that. And after taking a deep, steadying breath, he does it.

He picks himself up, metaphorically and literally. He dusts the seat of his trousers and smoothes a couple creases. He redoes his tie, then picks up his jacket and slides it on. When he turns back to James, he’s feeling more composed. He’s given up on that box trick, but at least he can put up a good front. He was always good at pretending not to be upset.

When he asks, “Are you ready?” his voice doesn’t even waver much.

James looks like he’ll say something, but in the end he only nods. He pulls back from the door, letting Sherlock out. Just then, Mrs. Hudson calls out from downstairs, “Boys! Our cab is here.”

If not for James’ gentle reminder, Sherlock would have left without his violin case. When he says “Thank you,” it’s not just about the violin; judging from James’ sad little smile, he knows that.

*

There’s a wedding.

Sherlock is fairly certain of it, seeing how he’s the best man and stands at the forefront of it all.

By the time the newlyweds climb into the limo that’ll take them to their reception hall, however, Sherlock would be hard pressed to remember anything that just happened. It is as though his mind refused to form memories of the event. Only one image remains, that of John’s smile.

After that, there’s a reception. Sherlock has no idea how he gets there, no clue how he ends up sitting on John’s left at the head table, no interest in what’s on the plate in front of him. It’s like his life is a blur, and the image only clears up whenever John leans toward him to share a word, a laugh.

There comes a moment for toasts. Mary’s bridesmaid says… something. The words are little more than buzzing in Sherlock’s ears. He barely hears the guests laughing; but he does hear John’s laugh, as well as his quiet, “You don’t have to do it.”

Sherlock isn’t sure if it’s the echo of James’ words in John’s that convinces him, or the fact that there’s a wary glint in John’s eyes. Of course he’s wary. He knows that any toast Sherlock gives is likely to include Not Good things. Even Sherlock knows that. He’s been trying to figure out what he’d say ever since John mentioned yesterday that Sherlock shouldn’t feel obligated to give a toast.

But he has to, doesn’t he? That’s what the best man does. What a good friend does. And Sherlock never wanted to be the former, but he desperately needs to be the latter, if he can’t be anything else.

When the bridesmaid is sitting again and the applause has died out, Sherlock stands, raises his glass of wine and clears his throat. He can suddenly feel the eyes of all the guests on him. He’s not talking to them, though, so he turns to look beyond John and finds Mary’s eyes.

“Before I was John’s best man,” he tells her, “I was his flatmate. And as such, I had the dubious privilege of becoming acquainted with his successive girlfriends. I honestly don’t remember them all, because there were quite a few of them—”

A quiet groan gives him pause and he looks down to see that John is hiding his face behind both his hands. Sherlock is sure for a second he's messed it up already, but he’s startled to realize the guests are laughing – and so is Mary. Sherlock continues.

“The one thing they all had in common as far as I noticed was they were never his girlfriends for long.”

Another round of laughter, and now Mary pats John’s back while he looks up to roll his eyes at Sherlock and mutters, “I wonder whose fault that was.”

It sounds like an accusation; it’s probably accurate.

“I don’t know you all that well,” Sherlock goes on, back to focusing on Mary. “But if you’ve lasted long enough to get to this day, then there must be something special about you.”

No laughter, this time, but a smattering of applause, and a couple of loud agreements.

“John is special too.” Sherlock’s throat is trying to close, but he pushes on and resolutely does not look at John again. “He’s the best friend I… anyone could wish to have. I don’t know what kind of husband he’ll be, but I know one thing. If he’d been no more than your best friend, you’d still have been a pretty damn lucky woman. Cheers.”

His hand is shaking when he raises his glass a little higher. He manages not to spill a drop before he sits, and empties the glass in one long swallow. His ears are buzzing again. He has no idea how his toast was received, no idea if he committed some cardinal sin; he’s afraid to look at John and find out something in all this wasn’t good. It was true, if nothing else.

A hand settles on his shoulder and he all but jumps out of his chair. A second hand on his other shoulder. The sweet smell of lilies comes from behind when Mary leans down to say close to his ear, “Just because he’s my best friend now doesn’t mean he can’t still be yours, too.”

She punctuates that with a kiss to his cheek. Sherlock is startled enough that he doesn’t point out the flaw in her logic before she returns to her seat.

Both of them can claim that John is their best friend, yes. But John, by definition, can only have one.

And judging by the small smile John offers him, Sherlock hasn’t forfeited that title yet.

*

A little while later, there’s a first dance.

“Still going to play for us?” John asks Sherlock. “I didn’t see your violin.”

“James has it. I’ll get it.”

Getting away from the head table – away from John and Mary – is oddly soothing. There are only a dozen or so tables, and Sherlock quickly finds the one he wants. He should have checked on James earlier, he realizes only now. Mrs. Hudson promised to keep an eye on him, but she’s not responsible for him; Sherlock is. And Sherlock has no idea how James feels about being amongst so many strangers – although he did ask to be invited.

Seated between Mrs. Hudson and Molly, with Lestrade, Stamford and his wife across from them, James looks content enough… or does he?

“That was a lovely speech, Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson says, beaming, as he approaches the table.

Sherlock smiles automatically, nods when the others agree, but it’s no more than a mask. He doesn’t need to ask. James pulls out the violin case, which he apparently was keeping on his knees rather than set it on the floor. Sherlock’s smile feels a little more sincere.

“Everything all right?” he asks quietly.

James nods, but there’s a tightness at the corner of his eyes. Something’s off. Sherlock glances at the head table. John and Mary are still seated so he has a moment.

“What’s wrong?” Sherlock murmurs, crouching behind James’s chair. He speaks quietly enough that only James will hear, though Mrs. Hudson is talking to Mrs. Stamford about some television show and not paying attention to them anymore.

James shrugs one shoulder and turns in his chair to whisper back, “I said something wrong and everyone went very quiet.”

Oh, how Sherlock knows the feeling… He gives a quick glance around the table.

“Don’t worry about it. None of them is upset with you so it can’t have been that bad.”

Another shrug, smaller this time. “Can I come find you when you’re done playing?”

“Yes. We’ll get some fresh air.”

Judging from James’ expression, it was the right thing to say.

John and Mary have made their way to the middle of the loose circle of tables. They’re talking quietly to each other, laughing softly. Sherlock’s jaw tightens a little as he returns to the head table and sets the case down to pull out the bow and violin. He checks the tension of the strings, restlessness rather than real need, and a hush falls over the room as John faces his bride and gives her a little bow, spoiling the effect with a quick chuckle. She responds with a curtsy, and she must have practiced doing it in her ridiculously puffy dress because the movement is flawless. They take each other’s hand, clasp waist and shoulder, and John looks at Sherlock, smiling warmly.

Sherlock closes his eyes and plays.

He debated with himself for days about which waltz to pick. In the end, he went for Strauss. The Emperor’s Waltz. Something easy – easy to waltz to, at least. John didn’t sound all that confident in his skills. When Sherlock can’t resist anymore and peeks, John seems to be doing just fine. He’s still smiling. He’s barely ever stopped smiling today. He’s happy. Truly happy. That’s good.

It shouldn’t make Sherlock so sad that his friend is happy, should it?

He closes his eyes again to finish the waltz. When he draws out the last few notes, he can guess from the wolf whistles that they’re kissing. He still doesn’t look.

Almost as soon as he lowers the violin, music bursts through the reception hall – although ‘music’ is a very generous term to apply to those discordant wailings, not that anyone is asking him. Apparently, the DJ does not care much for subtlety, nor does the mob of guests now joining their hosts on the dance floor.

Sherlock rolls his eyes and turns back to the case, returning the instrument to its nest of velvet and removing the sheets of music he'd set there. He should have placed them in an envelope. Or rolled them up and tied a ribbon around them. Something, anything to make them look as special as they are. It’s all he can think about when Mary approaches him to thank him for the waltz. He almost hesitates, then. Should he give it to her? She already has John; does she need this, too? He should just have burned these sheets and their notes, should have deleted the whole thing from his mind the way he meant to.

“Sherlock? Are you all right?”

He looks at her hand, resting lightly on his arm. There are two rings on her finger, now.

“This is for you,” he says a little gruffly, pulling his arm free and holding out the sheets to her. “John said you like classical music.”

Her face breaks into a smile every bit as bright as John’s when he appears behind her and encircles her waist with his arms. Without thinking, Sherlock shifts back a little.

“What’s this, then?” John asks, looking at the sheets over her shoulder. “Our waltz?”

“That was Strauss,” Mary replies absently. Her eyes are running over the sheets, her fingers tapping lightly on the paper. She has the rhythm down. “This is…”

She looks up at Sherlock, eyes a little wider. “You wrote this, didn’t you?”

Sherlock inclines his head.

“Thank you so much. What a wonderful gift! You’ll have to play it for me sometime.” She all but beams at him. “What is it called?”

“It doesn’t have a title,” Sherlock lies. “And maybe you’ll play it yourself. Flute?”

“Transverse flute, yes. Did John…”

John laughs quietly and releases her when she turns to look at him.

“No, I didn’t tell him.”

She grins. “Of course. Let me put this somewhere safe, then.”

Before she leaves, she presses another kiss to Sherlock’s cheek. This time, he knows it’s coming, and it’s all he can do not to flinch away.

“Do I get a gift?” John asks teasingly.

Sherlock’s heart sinks to the pit of his stomach. He should have had something for John too, shouldn’t he? He’s such an idiot.

“Well my last surprise earned me a punch to the face,” he drawls, “so I thought avoiding rows on your wedding day might be the best present.”

John laughs again. Happy. So damn happy.

“I’m glad you’re here, Sherlock,” he says, and his smile is softer now. “Not just alive and well, but here, today. I’m glad you were standing next to me.”

Sherlock can’t say the same, not with any truth to the words. Before he can answer, though, John hugs him, like he did when he came back to 221B. This time, Sherlock hugs him back. It feels like saying goodbye.

Mary returns, and after thanking Sherlock again she drags John back to the dance floor and their guests. John can’t dance at all, but he’s still smiling. James appears at Sherlock’s side.

“It’s really loud in here,” he says.

It really is, and it’s not just the music.

“Come with me,” Sherlock says, finally closing the violin case.

They make their exit unnoticed. Sherlock has been in this hotel before on a case, and he orients himself easily. There is a smaller hall not very far. Opening the door is a matter of moments. A few lights are on. James lets out a quiet “Oh!” when he sees the grand piano and runs to it at once.

Sherlock closes the door and follows, and soon sets the violin case on top of the lid before sitting next to James on the bench. James has already pulled up the cover and his fingers are caressing the keys with more gentleness than he ever shows his violin. He’s not playing, but his eyes are half-closed, and Sherlock would bet he can hear music in his mind.

“Do you want to tell me what you said that had you so worried?” Sherlock asks, watching James’ fingers and wondering why he’s not pressing down on the keys.

“It was nothing. I had a good time, really. I’ve never been to a wedding before. And Molly said I looked like a grown up. She’s really nice.”

“James.”

James’ fingers still.

“I just… I asked Detective Inspector Lestrade if the second man was murdered with a SIG P226 like the first one. I just wanted to know, that’s all, because you didn’t say how the second one died and I figured that was likely. That’s when they all went very quiet. And then they started talking about the food and Detective Inspector Lestrade never answered my question.”

“I should have told you,” Sherlock says. “Yes, it was the same gun. Or at least everything pointed to it.”

“I thought so,” James says very quietly. A little louder, he asks, “Do you… Do you ever feel like everyone else is speaking a different language and you can understand them but they can’t understand you?”

Sherlock has a hard time suppressing a laugh. That is indeed exactly how it feels. He lays a hand on the piano, draws a single note. It rings, clear and true, echoing through the empty room. A flat.

“I’ve felt that way, yes,” he murmurs.

“So what do you do when it happens?”

Sherlock presses a second finger down. B.

“I don’t know anymore. I thought I’d found someone to translate for me. To serve as buffer. But…” He shrugs, then pulls his hand off the keys. “Go ahead, show me what you can do.”

James’ face splits into the brightest smile Sherlock has ever seen on his features. His hands move on the piano, settle down very precisely. He takes a breath and starts playing. It takes Sherlock only seconds to recognize the piece.

Bach. Partita number one.

Sherlock doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He does neither and just listens.

Chapter Text

The day after the wedding is rainy and miserable, which suits Sherlock’s mood perfectly. Rain beats against the windows, and the sound is oddly soothing, like music and yet not.

“You’re still in your pajamas.”

Sherlock doesn’t answer, nor does he open his eyes. If James insists on stating the obvious, nothing dictates that Sherlock has to reply.

“Does that mean we’re not going anywhere today?”

Something else that hardly needs a reply. Had Sherlock been on a case, he wouldn’t have been home in the middle of the morning – and, as James so astutely observed, still in his pajamas.

“Would you like some tea? Or something else?”

Why can’t he just leave Sherlock alone already?

“Sherlock? I know you’re not asleep. Why aren’t you answering?”

Sherlock opens one baleful eye. James is standing near the sofa; not too close, though, of course not.

“Do you remember what I said when I took you in?” Sherlock asks, not bothering to conceal his irritation. “I said at times I require silence. Could my continued silence possibly mean that this is one of those times?

James’ eyes widen and he turns completely still. It’s not until Sherlock has closed his eye again that he whispers, “I’m sorry, sir.”

Light steps out of the room then on the staircase; going up. The creaking of a bed. Reading, probably. Most of the time, James reads in the sitting room, ensconced in the armchair he has claimed as his own. Better that he made a different choice today.

As silence finally returns, Sherlock presses his fingertips more tightly together and returns to his mind palace. Some things in there are not needed anymore and he is trying to do some clean up. It’s a familiar activity, usually calming. Not today. His mind feels dreadfully uncooperative. It clings to scraps of memories even after Sherlock tries to delete them, hoarding them with no organization whatsoever in a room that appeared on its own.

Sherlock’s mind palace is order and precision. It was built carefully over many years, each room designed for a specific purpose, each detail in each room carefully chosen to maximize the retention of pertinent information. It used to be perfection – until this unwanted addition. It never seems to remain in the same place, and sometimes, when Sherlock opens the door to the conservatory or the lab, it’s this bothersome room that appears instead, overflowing with chaos. Whenever it happens, he has to start from the front door, retrace his steps, get his bearings again, and focus better to get back to the place and information he needs.

He hasn’t named the room. It would give it too much strength, too much reality if he did. But there is a common point to everything that ends up in here, everything he can’t manage to delete. John.

He knows it’s not his brain betraying him in this matter so much as another, much more fickle, much more metaphorical organ. The problem is a simple one: he needs to learn to rule his heart better. He thought he knew how to control his emotions. He managed just fine until now. Why doesn’t it work anymore?

“Sherlock! What did you do?”

Mrs. Hudson’s outraged tone jars him out of his thoughts and he opens his eyes to find her standing practically over him, her hands on her hips, glaring harder than the time he set fire to the curtains to test a theory.

At his confused frown, she all but hisses, “James. What did you do to that poor child?”

Sherlock is beyond confused, now. He sits up and shakes his head. “I asked him for some quiet. That’s hardly—”

He stops himself before saying that’s hardly the worst that ever happened to James. She doesn’t need to hear that.

“Well I just went to his room to do a spot of cleaning,” she says, still reproachful. “And he’s sitting on his bed, the poor dear, and when I asked what he’s doing, he just shook his head and didn’t say anything. How long has he been up there?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock says. “What time is it?”

“Almost five! Did he even have lunch?” At Sherlock’s blank look, she glares that much harder. “That’s taking ‘some quiet’ a bit too far, Sherlock. It’s one thing for you to act this way with us adults but I will not let you treat a child like that. Now go fix it.”

Sherlock blinks. Repeatedly. Defend himself? Useless; she already made up her mind he’s guilty. Tell her to mind her own business? Appealing, but ultimately he decides against it. Just because she’s mistaken today – he didn’t do anything wrong. Did he? – it doesn’t mean she might not be right in the future. How long would have Sherlock needed to realize James was too quiet?

Without a word, he stands, belts his robe around him, and goes up to James’ room under Mrs. Hudson’s disapproving stare. The door is open. Like Mrs. Hudson said, James is sitting on the edge of the neatly-made bed. He’s biting on his thumbnail, but when he sees Sherlock he drops his hand, linking his fingers on his lap. His throat clicks when he swallows hard, and there’s something in his eyes, a bit of fear almost hidden, that Sherlock doesn’t like at all.

It’s the first time Sherlock has been up here since they moved in. His gaze sweeps the room; it’s tidy, almost too much so considering it’s the room of a twelve-year-old boy. The only sign James lives here – other than his presence – is the neat pile of books on the window sill.

“Bookcase,” Sherlock says absently.

James’ head snaps up. “I… sir?”

“We need to get you a bookcase.” Sherlock eyes the room again, measuring. “Between the window and the wall might work best.”

James looks at the corner Sherlock is indicating. When he turns back to Sherlock, he’s frowning, clearly confused, but says nothing. Waiting, Sherlock realizes. But waiting for what?

“Mrs. Hudson seems to believe I demanded you sit up here and not move or make a sound.”

James’ only reply is to look down at the floor a few inches in front of Sherlock. Still waiting.

“You do realize I demanded no such thing, don’t you?” Sherlock asks, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorjamb.

Those dark eyes come back up, though they stop short of looking straight at Sherlock’s face, stopping instead somewhere around his collarbone.

“I apologize for not realizing you wanted silence, sir.”

Sherlock heaves a sigh. “Stop calling me ‘sir’. And there’s a rather significant difference between wanting silence and sending you to sit in your room as though you needed to be punished for not reading my mind.”

Something flashes through James’ features; had Sherlock not been looking for it, he might not have noticed. So that’s what he’s waiting for. Punishment.

“For future reference,” Sherlock says, his voice calmer than he feels, “when I say I want silence, all I expect is that you stop talking to me.” After a beat, he adds, somewhat reluctantly, “Unless it’s an urgent matter. Are we clear?”

James gives a stiff nod. “Yes si—yes Sherlock.”

The issue solved, Sherlock turns on his heel. He doesn’t have time to take one step before James blurts out behind him, “Aren’t you going to punish me, then?”

Sherlock glances back. The look of near panic on James’ face seems entirely out of place. Apparently, the issue is far from solved.

“When did I give you the impression that I’d be likely to punish you in any way?”

James frowns, shaking his head a little. “But you have to if I… if I do something wrong.”

Sherlock crosses his arms again. “Have to?” he repeats. “No, I really don’t.”

“But you do!” James’ eyes are wide, wild. His fingers are tugging and pulling at the blanket on either side of him, although Sherlock doubts he’s aware of it. “You have to punish me when I mess up. That’s what people do to show they care about someone!”

“No,” Sherlock manages despite the bile burning the back of his throat. “That’s not what normal… not what good people do.”

If anything, his reassurance seems to upset James even more and he jumps to his feet. “Yes it is!” he protests. “I know it is! John thought you made a mistake and he hit you because he cares about you. See? That’s what everybody does. Even good people.”

Sherlock winces, and he’s not sure if it’s because James mentioned John or because he clearly believes every word he’s saying. How is Sherlock supposed to convince him otherwise?

“Come downstairs,” he says, already turning and rushing down the steps.

He finds his cell phone, starts typing feverishly.

Because you punched me James is now under the delusion that everyone shows affection through violence. How do I fix it?
SH

A long moment passes after he presses send. Mrs. Hudson leaves. James slowly comes into the sitting room, looking wary as he stands with his hands behind him. Still waiting, although calmer now.

When Sherlock’s phone chirps at him, it’s not with the help he hoped for.

hon•ey•moon
noun
: a trip or vacation taken by a newly married couple
: that time when I won’t answer your texts

Sherlock only has time to scowl at the screen before another message pops up.

wait a minute
WHAT THE HELL?

Sherlock starts to type a reply. Before he finishes, a phone rings. Not Sherlock’s; James’. He gives Sherlock a questioning look, and only pulls his phone from his pocket when Sherlock nods.

“It’s John,” he says, looking at the screen then up at Sherlock.

Sherlock doesn’t ask how John has James’ number. He doesn’t protest either that John should have called him, not James. Instead, he gestures for James to take the call.

“Hello?”

Sherlock would give anything to hear what John is saying. All he has, however, is James’ side of the conversation, and his facial expressions when he listens.

“Yes that’s what…”

A slight grimace and James pulls the phone a little away from his ear. John is talking very loudly.

“But you did!”

Protesting, now; a mutinous expression. He’s still listening, the phone closer to his ear again, his brow furrowed. His eyes flick to Sherlock for just a second then he half turns away and asks very quietly, “Then how do I know?”

Sherlock knows, without a shadow of a doubt, what he’s asking: James thought people showed they care through corporal punishment, so how is he supposed to recognize it without that clue?

Which begs the question – how is Sherlock supposed to show it?

He does care about James, not even two weeks after meeting him. Not because he’s a smart child, not because he’s different in a way that’s intensely familiar or because he plays the piano beautifully. Sherlock cares about him because… He frowns as his thoughts stutter. Why does he care about this child? When did it start?

He tries to pinpoint it, but can’t figure out a definite moment. When he dislikes someone, there’s usually a turning point, something that tips the scales from ‘ordinary idiot’ to ‘stupid enough to hurt my brain’; Anderson, for example, fell into the latter category the first time Sherlock had a peek at one of his crime scene reports, which had failed to mention any of the important facts. It’s the same thing when he likes someone: Lestrade promising he’d let Sherlock help if he was clean, Molly showing him she could see him beneath his façade…

It’s different with James. Sherlock can’t think of one single moment. He cares about him because he is who he is.

There’s only one other person for which this is true, although ‘care about’ is nowhere near enough to describe what Sherlock feels for him.

He shakes himself from his thoughts to find James staring at him, the phone back in his pocket. He missed the end of the call, it seems. And he still has no idea what to do or say. He clears his throat quietly.

“So… you’re not going to punish me?” James asks after a few seconds.

“No,” Sherlock says. This question, at least, is easy. “If you make a mistake, I’d much rather tell you what it is and why it’s a mistake than have you scared I’ll hurt you if you do it again.” Clearing his throat again, he rolls his eyes a little. “Not that you did anything wrong today. I told you I’m not easy to live with. That was just one reason why.”

James gives a little shrug and drops his gaze. “You’re not hard to live with, considering. I just. Sometimes I forget you’re not like Father. I mean. You are like him in some ways, but in others you’re not, so it’s confusing.”

Part of Sherlock would like to ask in which ways he resembles Moriarty. Another part already suspects and doesn’t care to get confirmation. At least James didn’t compare him to Moran; that would have been less than pleasant.

“Right,” Sherlock says, because ironically, silence doesn’t seem like the best thing anymore. “So. We’ve established that I’m not going to hit you and that it has nothing to do about how much I care about you. Anything else confusing you right now?”

He expects James to ask if Sherlock cares. It’s the logical question at this point. But James merely shakes his head, smiling ever so faintly.

“You didn’t have lunch, did you?” Sherlock asks.

Another shake of head.

“It’s a bit early for dinner but do you want to order take away?”

“Will you eat with me?”

When Sherlock agrees, James smiles a little more and goes to retrieve the menus in the kitchen. Sherlock looks at the phone in his clenched hand and the message that just popped in.

Better?

Better. Thank you.
SH

You’re welcome.
No existential crisis for the next 10 days please.

Sherlock starts to type a reply, but deletes it without sending it. Better if he doesn’t know where John is right now. Less temptation to find a case there and intrude where he’s not wanted.

They end up ordering Chinese. As they wait, Sherlock lies down on the sofa again, aware that James is observing him from where he’s sitting in his chair.

“Is this another quiet time?” he asks, no louder than a murmur.

“No.”

“Oh. All right. How do I tell the difference, then?”

It doesn’t take long for Sherlock to realize he doesn’t know how to answer.

“You can’t,” he admits, now annoyed with himself. “Not unless I tell you.”

Which means Mrs. Hudson was right, after all. He did cause all this, if only inadvertently. Who knew having a child around would be so complicated?

“So… why did you need quiet, then?” James asks.

They spend the next two hours talking about the method of loci, Sherlock’s mind palace, and what he keeps in it. They only stop briefly when the food arrives, but soon start again. Mrs. Hudson checks on them at some point; she doesn’t say anything, but gives Sherlock a slight approving nod from behind James.

Sherlock has tried explaining to people before, and one or two even looked like they understood what he meant, but no one ever looked as intrigued as James does. By the time he runs out of questions, there’s a gleam in his eyes that says it won’t be long before he tries building a palace of his own.

It’s still early, so Sherlock suggests violin practice. James agrees, although his expression sours a little. Compared to the sheer joy he radiated when playing the piano, this is jarring.

“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to continue learning,” Sherlock points out. “It’s supposed to be enjoyable.”

“I do want to learn,” James says stubbornly as he picks up his violin. “I’m just not good at it. I’m not used to struggling to be good at anything. That’s what I don’t like.”

Sherlock isn’t exactly surprised by this pronouncement. He takes out his own violin as he says, “We’re going to try something different. Just try to repeat after me. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound right, just try.”

It’s something Sherlock thought of yesterday, while listening to James play Bach as expertly as any professional pianist. He’s been coaching James through basic exercises, but maybe that’s exactly the problem: they are too basic. James knows music, he knows notes and rhythm. He can feel all of it. Basic drills, even with a new instrument, hold no interesting challenge.

Facing James, Sherlock plays the first succession of notes; not too difficult so far, nor particularly distinctive. When he stops, James does as he was told, trying to repeat the notes, grimacing when they’re in the wrong octave and end on a screech. When he looks up, he’s already cringing as though anticipating what Sherlock will say, but Sherlock says nothing and only plays the next few notes. They go back and forth five more times before James’ eyes widen and his bow stills in the middle of one too rare perfect note.

“That’s Partita Number One,” he says, a little awed.

“Yes.”

That’s all they say. He picks up where he stopped. The next few notes are just a little better, and so are the ones after that. They run though the entire piece bit by bit, then go back to the start. This time, instead of playing four or five notes at a time, Sherlock plays a dozen. And this time, there’s hardly a false note coming from James’ violin.

When James finally puts the violin away for the night, it’s without the abrupt gestures and exasperation of the past dozen days. If Sherlock isn’t mistaken, there’s even a little pride lurking in the half smile at the corner of his mouth.

“Much better,” Sherlock says, and the half smile blooms wider and brighter.

It’s only after James goes to bed that Sherlock realizes he hasn’t thought of John in almost six hours. He’s not sure how he feels about that. He has ten days to figure it out.

Chapter Text

The next case takes them to the Natural History Museum. More than once as he dashes through the exhibits, Sherlock has to glance back and urge James to keep up. Maybe they’ll need to come back on a quiet day with no cases.

The following morning, a text comes in from Lestrade, practically the same as the last one he sent. He could use Sherlock at a crime scene, but James is not invited. Sherlock takes him along anyway.

The street is cordoned off by the time they get there. Lestrade is outside, pacing by an ambulance. He’s smoking. It’s been a while since Sherlock saw him with a cigarette. Absently, he rubs his fingers against his left arm, feeling the patches through layers of fabric; three, today. He’s been trying to wean himself off. It’s more successful for nicotine than for… other things. He’s texted John twice more since his phone call to James. The only replies he got were the numbers of days left to his honeymoon, as if Sherlock can’t count.

As soon as Lestrade spots them, he starts glaring. He strides to them, already shaking his head.

“No.” He gestures with the hand that holds the cigarette, then drops it when he realizes what he’s doing. He stomps on it without taking his eyes off Sherlock. “I said no kid, Sherlock. No way. If that means you won’t work the case, so be it.”

Sherlock glances down at James, expecting the usual protest that he’s not a kid, but James doesn’t seem to be paying attention. He’s looking up and down the street, a small frown on his brow. When Sherlock follows his gaze, he doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

“You need me,” he says, returning his attention to Lestrade. “You wouldn’t have called if you didn’t. As for James, he’s not your responsibility. What he sees or not—”

“It’s a kid in there, Sherlock,” Lestrade hisses, jerking his head to the house behind him. “If you tell me you want him to see a dead kid, then you can go home and I’ll remove your number from my contacts. I’ve tolerated a lot but not that.”

Sherlock is momentarily struck speechless, although he’s not sure if it’s from Lestrade finally telling him no and meaning it or from the thought of an underage victim. It’s not the first time he’s worked a case concerning a dead child, but Lestrade might be right in this one instance: this might not be the best place for James.

“James?”

At his name, James’ head jerks up and he blinks, emerging from his observation of the street.

“I need you to wait outside,” Sherlock says.

James, surprisingly enough, doesn’t protest, and agrees with an absentminded nod to stay by the entrance of the house, a few yards away from where a handful of people – Donovan and Anderson amongst them – are talking in hushed voices.

Donovan, Sherlock notices, has her back to Anderson. She’s not wearing the earrings anymore. She watches Sherlock and Lestrade pass with a completely blank expression. Anderson, on the other hand, demands to know in a rather forceful tone what Sherlock is doing there. There’s something in his eyes, an agitation that seems to run deeper than Sherlock’s presence.

Sherlock merely sneers while Lestrade deals with the idiot; neither of them even slows down.

They walk in together. Before following Lestrade further in, Sherlock glances back, checking on James. He’s leaning against the handrail that lines the front steps, head down as he looks at the phone in his hands.

“This way,” Lestrade says from the entrance to a room in the back.

“Unoccupied house?” Sherlock asks as he joins him.

Lestrade nods. “Owner died, his heirs put the house on the market. It was last shown two days ago. The real estate agent came back today with a prospective buyer. And they found the boy. Unidentified so far.”

He takes a deep breath and walks in, preceding Sherlock. It’s a large room, with a fireplace in the back and empty shelves on either side. A slight discoloration marks the wooden floor, indicating where a rectangular rug used to be. The body lies in the center of that rectangle, curled up in a fetal position, almost entirely covered by a white sheet.

“Was the sheet there?” Sherlock asks, retrieving plastic gloves from his pocket and snapping them on.

“No. My men covered him when they finished processing the scene.”

Sherlock huffs as he removes the sheet. And Anderson has the gall to talk to him about contamination. Although…

“You called me after they were finished,” he says, bending low to examine the underside of battered sneakers. “It’s still early enough that you might figure out who he is, but calling me would indicate you believe you won’t. How many before him?”

Crouching low, he observes the mud splatters at the bottom of a frayed pair of jeans. When Lestrade doesn’t reply right away, Sherlock looks up at him.

“One more,” Lestrade says quietly. “Five weeks ago. Another boy. That one was a bit older. Fourteen or fifteen, the forensics said. Found in an unoccupied house. Shot in the head as well. Still no idea who he was. Nobody reported him missing. Nothing from prints or DNA. This looks too similar to be a coincidence.”

Sherlock nods once before returning to his scrutiny. He pulls out his magnifier to look at neatly trimmed fingernails. A memory rises, unbidden, to the front of his mind: James’ fingers, so light and so precise on the piano keys. He shakes it away and returns to the task in front of him.

“Anything?” Lestrade asks. His voice is tight and gruff. Who does he see, when he looks at this victim?

Sherlock doesn’t reply. Lestrade wants to leave, but that’s no reason to cut this short and miss something of importance – like the almost completely faded bruises on the torso, or the tiny scratches on the left arm and stomach. Thorns. One of them is still embedded in the epidermis. Sherlock removes it ever so gently, observes it under the magnifier, then puts it away for later.

The eyes are closed. If not for the hue of the skin and the gunshot wound precisely in the center of the forehead, it could look like nothing more than sleep. Sherlock goes around to look at the exit wound. The dark hair was rinsed, then combed in place, hiding the large spot where the bullet came out. There isn’t a drop of blood or anything else in the room as far as Sherlock can see.

“I need all you have,” Lestrade says, quite unnecessarily.

Sherlock pulls a small folding knife from his pocket, along with tiny plastic bags. He rattles off what he has so far while taking samples of the mud under the shoes and from the jeans. Lestrade never interrupts him to ask how he knows anything, nor does he tell Sherlock off for doing more than observe. When Sherlock straightens up, pocketing his samples, Lestrade has retreated to the door.

“How old is he?” Sherlock asks. When Lestrade’s frown flickers to the body, he adds, “Not him. Your son.”

Lestrade sucks in a breath, his gaze narrowing as it finds Sherlock’s. “Fourteen,” he says coldly. “How old is James?”

It sounds a bit like a non sequitur, but Sherlock answers anyway. “Twelve.”

“It’s always worse when it’s kids,” Lestrade says, his eyes going back to the body. “I swear, if I never saw another one, it’d still be too soon.”

Sherlock glances back, and his breath catches in his throat. Abruptly it’s not data he sees anymore, but a child. One who couldn’t have been much more than twelve, if even that. A child who might have liked Bach, who might have had nightmares about two dead men, who might have loathed the too small clothes he was made to wear, who might have been brilliant in a way that few people would ever be able to comprehend. Maybe none of it is true, maybe all of it is; Sherlock will never know, because this child is dead.

“Let’s get out of here,” Lestrade says, and Sherlock is startled to hear something that sounds like pity in his voice. Pity directed at him.

But not quite as startled to realize how fast his heart is beating.

“Let me know what you find out from those samples,” Lestrade says as they walk to the front door. “And I mean it, Sherlock. Don’t go hunting that bastard down by yourself.”

If Lestrade started spouting nonsense about procedure, Sherlock would scoff. But that’s not what it’s about, so he only nods.

Stepping out into the fresh air, he realizes he’s been trying not to breathe through his nose for the past few minutes; stupid mistake, he might have missed something in the boy’s smell. He’s annoyed with himself, but not enough to go back.

And then he’s annoyed for an entirely different reason when, with one look, he takes in the scene outside.

James is standing right where Sherlock asked him to wait, but something has happened, that much is clear. He’s ramrod straight, holding his head high, his eyes narrowed and his lips pinched as though he’s looking at something particularly foul.

That something, Sherlock quickly assesses, is Anderson.

The small group that was there earlier has stepped away and they wait on the sidewalk, although some of them glance at Anderson with mild concern.

And Anderson, standing a mere five feet from James, is spouting vitriol. It’s nothing he’s never said to Sherlock – but he’s saying it to James, and that’s entirely different.

“Anderson!” Lestrade says behind Sherlock, his shock piercing through Anderson’s tirade and stilling his tongue. “What the hell?”

Sherlock strides down the steps, coming to stand toe to toe with the idiot. He stares him down, and Anderson holds his ground.

“Call me whatever ridiculous names you want,” Sherlock says in a low voice meant for no one’s ears but this man’s. “I never gave a damn, nor will I ever. But if you ever raise your voice to this child, if you ever call him anything other than his name, which is James in case you were wondering, I promise you I will prove you right and turn into a psychopath just long enough to teach you better.”

He doesn’t wait for an answer. Turning on his heel, he motions for James to come with him. Somehow, his hand finds its way to James’ shoulder, and rests there lightly until they’re back beyond the police tape.

“You didn’t have to do that,” James says then. “I don’t care what he was saying.” And then, more quietly, “Actually, I kind of said something I shouldn’t have so it was my fault if—”

“No,” Sherlock cuts in sharply. “It doesn’t matter what you said to him, he had no business calling you a freak.”

He stops abruptly, using the hand on James’ shoulder to make him turn and look at Sherlock.

“This was not your fault.”

Something tightens on James’ features; something that makes Sherlock drops his hand. After another second or two, James gives a single short nod.

They start walking again, Sherlock looking ahead for a cab even as he asks, calmer now, “Still, what did you say to get that kind of reaction? I’ve known him for years and I don’t think I’ve ever hit a nerve quite that much.”

“He was bad-mouthing you,” James mutters. “So I said trying to bring you down wouldn’t make him look any better, and that it was obvious the detective lady had no interest in him so why was he even trying to get her attention.”

Which explains why Anderson used Donovan’s favorite insult.

“She used to,” he says absently. “Be interested in him, I mean. Although why she was will always be a mystery to me.”

As to why she isn’t anymore… Well, it’s not as though Sherlock actually cares to know.

James doesn’t say anything, not for long seconds. He only speaks after Sherlock has finally waved down a cab; his quiet voice tries hard for aloof but fails spectacularly.

“My old house was just two streets over. I haven’t been there since Father died.”

Sherlock throws him a startled look, but James is staring out through the window and he doesn’t add anything. Sherlock doesn’t know what to say. Even with all the hunting he did, he never found Moriarty’s home.

He thinks for a while, but can’t decide. Pulling his phone out, he sends a text.

Should I take James to his old house? Or would that be traumatic?
SH

They’re just arriving at Bart’s almost fifteen minutes later when the reply comes in.

7 days

Sherlock glares at the screen and slams the cab door a little too enthusiastically.

“Why are we here, then?” James asks as they walk in.

“We’re trying to figure out where our victim has been. I’ll show you how I use the electron microscope for that.”

They’re in the middle of the lesson when Sherlock’s phone beeps again.

Did he ask to go there?

Leaving James to the microscope, Sherlock stands a few feet back and types quickly.

Not as such.
We were apparently close to it and he mentioned it.
SH

He clutches the phone in one hand and keeps a close eye on James as he waits. He doesn’t have to wait long.

How about ASKING him what he wants, genius?

In Sherlock’s mind, John’s voice is caught between fondness and exasperation. Sherlock can’t completely stifle a smile.

I never claimed any skill in understanding children.

And you think *I* know anything about kids?
(And oh! Look! You forgot to sign your text and I still knew it was you! I must be a genius too!)

Or maybe you understand children because you have the mind of one yourself.
SH

If that’s true, what does it say about you?

Meaning?
SH

Meaning I seem to be the only person not consistently baffled by everything you do or say.

I do baffle you. You just get over it faster than most.
SH

That is disturbingly accurate.
Also, 7 DAYS.
Ask him, take him there or not, tell me when I come back.
Now stop txting me. I mean taht

His lips twisting unhappily, Sherlock can’t resist sending one last message.

Enjoy.
SH

Oddly enough, he doubts John will be anywhere as disturbed to know Sherlock deduced he’s about to have sex as Sherlock is to have deduced it.

“So what do we do now?” James asks, and Sherlock, with a twinge of guilt-tinted annoyance, returns his focus to the analysis that should matter more than what John does on his ridiculously long honeymoon.

James is, as expected, a fast learner – although he does get distracted every time Molly pops in to check on them. After a few hours, they have their results. Sherlock texts his findings to Lestrade, and gets in reply an invitation to come check the file on the first victim.

On their way to Scotland Yard, James, hemming and hawing, asks if they can possibly stop somewhere for food – which is when Sherlock realizes it’s almost three in the afternoon.

“You should have said something sooner,” he mutters when they’re seated in a small Vietnamese restaurant where Sherlock and John have had dinner a handful of few times after the successful resolution of cases.

James shrugs and swallows a huge mouthful of food. It’s a miracle he doesn’t choke on it.

“We were busy,” he says. “I forgot I was hungry.”

Sherlock frowns, fingers absently drumming on the table. It’s quite possible he’s being a poor role model in this particular instance. He can afford to skip a meal or two, but that’s not true for James. He’s been good at feeding himself so far, but this is the second time in only a handful of days that he hasn’t had lunch at a typical lunch time. Coming to a quick decision, Sherlock pulls out his phone and programs three alarms, labeled ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Dinner’. Maybe this way there won’t be any more missed meals.

“Were you talking to John earlier?” James asks, glancing at the phone.

Sherlock doesn’t ask how James knows. He’s rather certain his face gave him away, as alarming as the idea is.

“I asked his opinion about taking you to see your old house,” Sherlock says.

James’ fork stops halfway to his mouth. “What did he say?” he asks, his eyes a little too wide, his words a little too rough.

“He very correctly pointed out that his opinion matters less than whether you want to go or not.”

James’ voice drops to a murmur. “I… I’d like to, yes. Could we? When we’re not so busy anymore?”

Sherlock nods, and that’s that.

At Scotland Yard, Sherlock asks James to wait for him outside the conference room. This time, Lestrade doesn’t even need to twist his arm about it. It’s clear James isn’t happy, but he finds a chair, pulls out his phone, and never so much as complains.

“If you need a babysitter,” Lestrade says as he spreads out the contents of a folder on the table, “I can give you a couple names.” After a second, he adds, “Although… shouldn’t he be in school?”

Sherlock ignores all of it, ignores Donovan’s presence and the back and forth she and Lestrade have about the evidence, and focuses on the documents in front of him. If he tries hard, he doesn’t even see James’ face on the pictures instead of the first victim’s.

After some indeterminate amount of time, there’s a light knock on the open door; Lestrade deals with it and Sherlock doesn’t bother looking up, not until new pictures and reports are added to the table, this one about the second victim – not until he hears the voice of the person who delivered the new documents. He can’t make out the words, but the voice is enough to break his focus.

His head snaps up and he’s moving before he knows it, stepping out just as Anderson walks away from James. He glares at the idiot’s back before looking a question at James.

“It’s fine,” James says. “He was saying sorry for yelling at me this morning. I think he even meant it.”

Startled, Sherlock glances again at Anderson, who heard James and looks back. When their eyes meet, it’s the same dislike as always that colors Anderson’s gaze, but, ever so slightly, he inclines his head before looking away again.

Sherlock isn’t quite sure what just happened, but then, it’s Anderson so it doesn’t really matter.

“Sherlock?” James says, demanding his attention back. “You know those samples we analyzed? What if they’re from one place rather than two?”

He’s holding his phone to Sherlock, who takes it and looks at the screen and its map. And here Sherlock was thinking that James was playing games or reading on his phone when in fact he was still working the case…

As insights go, it’s an interesting one. Totally wrong, but interesting. Sherlock hands James his phone back and explains why his theory doesn’t work. James looks a little disappointed, so Sherlock makes a point of telling him it was a smart idea even if it was incorrect. When he returns to the conference room, he finds that Donovan was observing him. He waits for a scathing comment about how this isn’t a child’s place, but she keeps quiet. A few minutes later, she goes get some coffee. She brings back three cups, and while she doesn’t actually offers one to Sherlock, she places it within his reach.

It takes Sherlock the rest of the day, a night spent on the internet at home and a few more hours at Scotland Yard the next day to point Lestrade in the direction of the killers.

During all that time, Donovan never rolls her eyes at Sherlock – or at least not where he can see – and she talks to him with a rather disturbing lack of rudeness. She’s not particularly polite either, but she doesn’t take every opportunity to tell Sherlock he doesn’t belong here. Sherlock can’t tell who is most surprised by this unexpected development, Lestrade or himself.

Lestrade refuses to take Sherlock along when he goes to arrest the suspects, and Sherlock doesn’t fight him too much on it. Truth is, he doesn’t want James anywhere near these people. He doesn’t want to be near them, either. Now would be a bad time to add to the number of lives he has taken.

They have lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant again – this time, within standard lunch hours. James doesn’t ask, but the question is plain on his face so Sherlock answers in between two bites of food.

“Yes. We’re going as soon as we’re done here.”

For once, James finishes his meal before Sherlock does.

Chapter Text

It’s an unremarkable house in the middle of an unremarkable street. Three floors, wedged in between two identical buildings, there’s nothing to distinguish this house from any other, no outward sign that its owner was a criminal mastermind or that he has been dead for three years.

“There’s a bank account just for the house,” James says a little absently when Sherlock comments on it. “Someone uses it to pay for water and electricity and all those things. Father thought bills were boring.”

He stops at the foot of the three steps that lead to the front door, and for the first time Sherlock senses a trace of hesitation in him.

“Do you have a key?” he asks.

James shakes his head and finally climbs up. “No key. People lose keys, or else they get stolen. Or locks get picked.”

He digs into his pocket to retrieve one of his gloves and slips it on his right hand. The air isn’t cold enough to warrant gloves, but Sherlock quickly realizes that’s not why he’s putting it on. On the wall beside the door, a keypad is hidden beneath an inconspicuous panel. James presses the numbers confidently with his gloved finger. He doesn’t bother hiding his hand, so Sherlock makes no pretense and observes the numbers.

00022172

The lock clicks open.

“You’re good at remembering numbers,” Sherlock remarks as James peels the glove off his hand again.

James shrugs. “This one’s easy, even backward.”

He’s looking at Sherlock with the mere hint of a raised eyebrow, like a question. Sherlock replays the sequence in his mind, inverts it, takes a guess.

“Your birth date?”

James’ answer is a thin smile.

He takes a deep breath before setting a hand on the door handle and pushing down. He lets the door swing open completely but doesn’t enter right away, and instead peers down at the floor. Stepping closer, Sherlock follows his gaze and understands. There is a wide, smooth ring of sprinkled white powder spreading a good two yards behind the door. Anyone stepping in would leave marks on the circle, and imprints beyond it, the way James does when he finally enters. Sherlock follows and closes the door. Bending down, he touches the white substance with two fingers, rubbing them together.

“Flour?”

“Sebastian did this,” James says, looking around him, speaking in hushed tones. “If we came back, he wanted to know if someone had been inside.” After a pause, he adds, even more quietly, “I thought he believed Father would come back. Or maybe I wanted to believe it.”

No one has been there, though; that much is clear. On the left, Sherlock guesses a kitchen, a fridge buzzing lightly. Another door beyond it might be a dining room. On the right, a grand piano is enthroned in the center of a large room whose double doors stand wide open. James steps forward and onto the staircase that faces the entrance, flipping light switches as he goes up. Sherlock follows the trail of white footprints he leaves behind.

The staircase and banister seem gray under three years of dust, but beneath that is rich wood. Paintings hang on the walls, each in a different style, and Sherlock recognizes a couple of signatures. It’s an odd insight into Moriarty’s life, one Sherlock never imagined he’d have.

“Who lived here?” he asks as he reaches the second floor and follows James into what turns out to be a bedroom.

James’ bedroom.

“Just Father and I,” James says absentmindedly, looking around as though the room is as new to him as it is to Sherlock. “Oh, and the nanny, too.”

He finally steps to the bookcase on the other side of the bed and runs a finger along the spines.

“You had a nanny?” Sherlock asks, approaching the desk opposite the bookcase. Above it, pictures are pinned to a corkboard, amongst other things.

“I had several nannies,” James says dryly. “Father liked leaving me alone no more than you do.”

At the moment James says ‘Father’, Sherlock’s eyes find Moriarty and he feels a small jolt. He’s never doubted whose son James is, but it’s still a shock to see the two of them in that picture, James sitting astride a horse and grinning widely enough to show a missing front tooth, Moriarty standing next to him with an expression of sheer contentment Sherlock couldn’t have imagined on his face. It looks more like Jim from IT or Richard Brook than Moriarty, but it doesn’t seem to be a mask, either. Dead three years, and still surprising Sherlock.

Next to the picture, a ribbon is pinned, a large ‘1st place’ in the center. There are three more ribbons on the corkboard, and as many pictures, although no more of Moriarty.

“What about Moran?” Sherlock asks, turning back to James.

He has pulled a couple books from the shelves and set them on the bed. He answers without looking back, his finger still running along book spines.

“He stayed sometimes. He’d spent a few days. Once he stayed an entire month, but that was when he was injured. And then Father would get tired of him and send him to do something somewhere, so he’d be gone for a while, and come back again. He always came back. I always hoped he wouldn’t. Father was always worse when Sebastian was here.”

He pulls another book from the shelf, flips through it before setting it on the bed. The Little Prince, in French.

“And then one day,” he continues absently, his back to Sherlock yet again, “Sebastian came and sent the nanny away. He said Father was dead, and we started running. At first I thought he was lying. But if he’d been lying Father would have found us. So I thought maybe Sebastian believed Father was dead because that was what Father wanted. But I couldn’t understand what I’d done for Father to leave me with him.”

There’s an ache in James’ voice that makes him sound a lot younger than twelve. He glances at Sherlock, just long enough for a peek, but the question is there. Always the same.

“He really is dead,” Sherlock says.

James doesn’t reply and keeps sorting through his books, now silent. Sherlock watches him a little longer then steps out. The floor creaks lightly under his feet as he circles the second floor, pushing doors open and peeking in. He finds a bathroom and another bedroom, that one lacking any personal touches. The nanny’s.

As he turns away, something on the floor catches Sherlock’s eye. His footsteps have lifted dust off the wooden floors, and Sherlock can see a stain there, a little darker than the rest of the floor; a little redder, too. Crouching, he examines the stain more closely. It’s as wide as his hand, with smaller stains around it.

“Yes, it’s blood,” James says, looking at Sherlock from just inside his room. “One of the nannies’. I was practicing the piano one night and she said it was time for bed. I had to finish, but she wouldn’t let me. I threw a tantrum so she spanked me. She didn’t even hit very hard. Not anywhere near as hard as when Father used the belt.” He pauses for a second, then starts again in the same flat voice. “The next day he asked if I'd finished my practice and I told him why I hadn’t and he was really mad. He shot her. Right there. And then we went for ice cream. When we came back the body was gone and everything was cleaned up except for that spot.”

Standing slowly, Sherlock tries to come up with something to say, something that would chase the shadows from James’ eyes. All he can think of is, “How old were you?”

“Seven. I told him whenever Sebastian hit me, too, and they had terrible fights but Father didn’t kill him. I guess Sebastian would have been harder to replace than a nanny.”

That familiar little voice inside Sherlock’s mind, the one that sounds so much like John, tells him to say something. Something comforting. Something kind. Something nice. All those things Sherlock is not.

“What’s on the third floor?” he asks.

“Father’s office. And his bedroom. You can go if you want. I’ll be downstairs.”

With that, he hoists a bulging backpack onto his shoulder and starts back down the stairs. Sherlock watches him go, debates following him, but finally goes up to the third floor. As he does, he pulls his phone out and types in a quick text.

I was wrong.
SH

He has no interest in the bedroom, but the office on the other hand…

Three years hunting down every hint of rumor, unraveling every clue, and he never found this house. He can’t help wondering what else he missed. It’s irritating, but not as much as his other failing.

His phone beeps just as he’s about to enter the office. He glances at it and responds before going in.

Okay. I’ll bite. Wrong about what?

Wrong when I thought I could take care of James.
SH

He approaches the desk. A laptop is in the center of it, the screen open. As he walks around, Sherlock sees that something – acid, presumably – was poured on the keyboard. It melted the keys, along with the hard drive. It probably burned the wood underneath, too, but Sherlock doesn’t check.

His phone beeps again. Sherlock sits on the armchair, remembering the dust too late.

What happened?

He’s telling me things and I have no idea what to answer.
You would be much better at this.
When are you coming back?
SH

and by things you mean? About the abuse?

Correct.
I cannot do this.
When are you coming home?
SH

You can count = you know when we’ll be back.
And of course you can do this. Just be there for him.

It wouldn’t have been so difficult if you hadn’t gone all the way to Spain.
And I am here. That is the issue.
*I* am here. You know me. I am useless for these things.

Not gonna ask how you guessed about Spain.
And yes I do know you.
I also know 2 weeks ago James didn’t want to talk.
And now he’s talking
To YOU.
All you have to do is LISTEN.
BE THERE FOR HIM

Sherlock rereads those last few lines twice before he finally types a reply.

There is no need to disregard the rules of capitalization.
And thank you
SH

WELCOME.
Berk.
Stop talking to me and go listen to him.
Do it. Now.

Yes Captain.
6 days
SH

See? Knew you could count.
Good luck

Pocketing his phone, Sherlock looks around the room. Whatever he could learn here, does it really matter at this point?

Halfway down to the second floor, he can hear it. The notes grow louder with each step he takes, until he can recognize it. Tchaikovsky. Not one of Sherlock’s favorite composers, but he can’t deny the melody is played beautifully.

He joins James in the large room downstairs. For a few seconds, he stands by the door, watching him play. James has left his coat and backpack on a sofa near the piano. He sits very straight on the bench, his eyes half closed, his fingers flying over the keys.

“Are we leaving?” he asks, his words barely loud enough to be heard over the notes.

“Take your time.” Sherlock steps forward and goes to sit on the sofa. “I’m here. I’m listening.”

James’ eyes open, and he glances at Sherlock without missing a note. That look is easy enough to interpret. ‘Why are you stating the obvious?’ he isn’t quite asking. Sherlock stifles a snort. Why, indeed.

The backpack is open; one of the books sticks out, preventing the zipper from being drawn. Sherlock peeks in. It’s only books in there as far as he can see.

“Is this all you want here?” he asks.

“No. But the rest is not practical.”

He means the piano, of course. There isn’t much Sherlock can do about that.

“I can’t decide if I want to sell this house or keep it or burn it to the ground,” James says, a small frown now directed at the keys as he plays a more aggressive part of the piece. “What do you think?”

“I’d recommend against burning,” Sherlock says, deadpan. “The authorities tend to frown on that sort of thing.”

James’ expression takes a strange turn, still frowning at the piano but now with a half smile curling his mouth. Sherlock understands the frown when James reaches a particular set of notes and it doesn’t come out as smoothly as it should. The smile drops and he frowns even harder as he stops, and starts again from the previous bar.

“I suppose I don’t have to decide now,” he mutters. The melody still isn’t perfect, but this time he merely winces and keeps playing. “I don’t know why I can’t ever get this part right. It’s not even that difficult. It used to drive Father crazy.”

“He taught you.”

It’s not a question, but James nods anyway.

“He taught me everything. How to read, and write, and do math, and play the piano, and cook, and ride a horse, and knot my tie and my shoelaces, and shoot a gun, and how to tell when someone is lying, and how to hide it when I’m lying to someone, and lots of other things. Sometimes when I think about all the things he taught me I forget what he was like when he was angry.”

He falls silent, and doesn’t speak again until the last note quivers in the air. Only then does he ask, “Is it wrong that I forget?”

So much for ‘being there’ and ‘just listening’. Sherlock struggles to find an answer, finally settling on, “There’s no reason to remember things that serve no purpose. Does it help you in any way to remember those things?”

James shrugs, then plays one note. Then another. Before long, a new music piece is taking form under his fingers. Mozart, this time.

“If I remember that,” he says quietly, “then maybe I’ll be prepared next time someone tries to hurt me.”

The resignation in his voice hits Sherlock just as hard as the words themselves. Before he knows it, he’s on his feet and striding to the piano. James stills, his fingers pressing hard enough on the keys that they turn white, his eyes widening gradually.

“Sherlock?” he says, a thread of fear coloring the word.

Scaring him was the exact opposite of what Sherlock meant to do. He’s mad at himself, mad at many other things when he stands there and says, “It won’t happen again. Not if I can help it.”

James looks at him blankly. “What?”

“People hitting you. Anyone hitting you. Or… the other thing. That’s over. I just want you to know that.”

For long seconds, James does nothing more than stare at Sherlock, his gaze unreadable. Finally, he gives a single nod, and turns his attention to the piano again. He starts the Mozart piece from the first note. Sherlock sits at the end of the bench, fingers drumming on his thigh. He wishes he had his violin. Music is easier than words.

Tonight, though… if the pattern holds, tonight will be a bad night. It’ll be Sherlock’s turn to play for James.

Chapter Text

After the visit to his former home, as Sherlock anticipated, James spends the night on the sofa. Sherlock sits in his chair, playing bits and pieces on the violin every time James’ breath catches in his throat. Very deliberately, he never plays anything from the first note to the last. Not all melodies get played to a satisfactory conclusion, after all. It’s an unsettling lesson, but an important one, too.

In the morning, when James wakes for good and mumbles something that sounds like a thank you, Sherlock pretends not to hear. He doesn’t need thanks for this, not when it’s a temporary fix rather than a permanent one. As James drags his blanket and pillow back to his room, Sherlock takes his place on the sofa, wrapped in his dressing gown. The cushions are warm; it feels odd. He closes his eyes and tries to tell his brain to shut down. It works as well as ever – which is to say, not at all.

Five days, now.

Five more days… and then what? John will be back in London, but not back in the flat. He’ll be around, Sherlock will see him, but he’ll still be married. And Sherlock will still feel that toxic mix of irritation, jealousy and longing whenever he thinks of John and Mary together.

Sherlock hates that he can’t push those feelings away. They’re useless. Worse than that, they’re dangerous. They slow his mind. They distract him. And if they came to light now, they could very well end his friendship with John. He never had a chance, though, did he? Even if he’d realized what he’d felt for John before he had to go away, it wouldn’t have changed anything, however much Sherlock tried to tell himself otherwise during those long years on the run. He was never going to have this with John.

Try as he might, though, he can’t figure out how to turn that part of him off. He doesn’t even know what turned it on. Thirty odd years of observing romantic feelings from the outside did not prepare him in any way to deal with what he feels. He once claimed to understand the mechanics of it, and he still does. But it never dawned on him until his epiphany that there was more to it than chemical reactions and basic biology.

Hours pass as Sherlock runs in endless circles through his mind. He’d love a distraction at this point, a summons from Lestrade, some halfway decent client, even a request for help from Mycroft, but his phone remains absolutely quiet. James drifts in and out of the room, sometimes talking to Sherlock, sometimes offering tea or food. Sherlock makes himself answer – just a few words at a time, but it’s at least something. Hopefully, it’s enough. No lessons today, though; that’s beyond Sherlock. His phone beeps at regular intervals but James needs no reminder to eat. Mrs. Hudson comes in, babbles at both of them, but Sherlock barely hears her. Night falls again. James says goodnight and goes up to his room. Sherlock stares at the ceiling, listening, waiting…

When he hears it, he picks up his violin again. At a little past one, James trudges down the steps, dragging his pillow and blanket behind him. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t meet Sherlock’s eyes, just curls up on the sofa, bundled so tightly in his blanket that Sherlock can’t see him except for a bit of hair. He plays, and plays some more, and when he wishes he knew how to get a brain to quiet down, it’s not just his own he’s thinking about.

The next day is a repeat of the last one. Only one thing is different: four days, now.

At three days, a little while after Sherlock has returned to his sofa after picking at the food James put on the table for him, a text message comes in.

Get off that bloody sofa you wanker

Sherlock blinks at the message a few times, as startled by the content as he is by the sender. How does John know…

Of course. James.

He shouldn’t have disturbed you.
SH

Sitting up, Sherlock rakes his fingers through his hair and calls out James’ name. He comes down from his room, looking wary.

“Why did you—” Sherlock starts, waving his phone at him, but is interrupted by a new message.

You’re hilarious.
He’s worried about you.
Get out of the flat. Take him to the park or something.

“Worried?” Sherlock repeats, frowning first at the screen then at James. “Why would you be worried?”

James shrugs a little. “You’ve barely moved for two and a half days. Why wouldn’t I be worried?”

“There’s nothing for you to worry about,” Sherlock says, annoyed with James, with John, but mostly himself. “I’m just…”

He stops before saying bored. It wouldn’t be a lie; he is bored. But that’s not why he’s been camping on the sofa, or at least not entirely.

“Sad?” James suggests quietly.

Sherlock doesn’t reply, but to himself at least if to no one else, he can admit that sad is indeed a good word to describe his state of mind right now.

Sad because John is happy without him. How pathetic. When did this become him?

“Give me ten minutes,” he says as he stands. “Then we’ll go get some fresh air.”

James’ flash of a smile reminds him of John whenever he managed to get Sherlock to eat something while on a case. Sherlock resolutely doesn’t text him back – or at least not until he gets another text, an hour or so later, just as they enter the Natural History Museum.

So?

Can’t text now. @ museum.
SH

And the brevity of the text is not an effect of Sherlock sulking because the two of them are talking about him behind his back. He’s much too old to sulk. Not that he sulked even when he was a child. Ever.

At first, Sherlock trails after James through the exhibits. There’s no new data here. Or rather, there’s no new data here for him. When he realizes one of the signs that caught James’ interest in the Darwin Centre is, if not incorrect, then definitely incomplete, he supplements it with a few key facts. Before long, he’s doing it every time James stops to look at something. It’s still odd to have someone listen to him like this, like they don’t want to punch him or tell him to shut up but actually appreciate what he says. He missed it.

The afternoon passes faster than he expected, and he even hears himself promise that yes, they will return soon.

On the way home, they stop at a restaurant, and James talks absently about how he once went to that same museum with his father. He was so young he barely remembers any of it, except that it was winter and he learned to skate at the museum’s ice rink.

A thought has been echoing at the back of Sherlock’s mind for the past few days, and to hear James talk of his father again only makes it louder. That day on Bart’s roof, Moriarty was ranting about not having anyone to distract him from boredom. Was it an act, a part of the game, was he claiming as much because keeping James’ existence a secret was a way to keep him safe? Or had he grown tired of fatherhood by then?

For some reason, Sherlock hopes it’s the former. It doesn’t change anything for Sherlock, but quite inexplicably the thought of Moriarty tiring of caring for James is unpleasant – although not quite as unpleasant as his idea of discipline. How could anyone tire of a child that bright?

The moment Sherlock asks himself the question, he recognizes it. It's something he has asked himself many times since he was five or six. He still has no answer other than ‘they’re all idiots’. It never was a very satisfactory answer.

“You don’t talk much,” James comments when he’s done recalling his first steps on the ice.

“I talked to you all day,” Sherlock counters.

“No, you weren’t talking to me. You were teaching me. That’s nice too, but it’s not the same as just talking.”

“And what kind of things would I say, then, if I was talking?”

James ponders the question over a few spoonfuls of ice cream before saying, “You could tell me why you’re sad. I can listen too, you know.”

Rather than answering, Sherlock turns to the window, watching cars drive by as night falls.

“He’ll be back in three days,” James offers quietly after a few moments.

Sherlock’s throat feels oddly tight.

“You don’t need me to talk,” he says, still not looking at James. “You already know more than you should.”

It’s a request to drop the subject, but James doesn’t seem to understand that.

“What I don’t know is why you didn’t tell him. You didn’t, did you?”

Sherlock shakes his head despite himself.

“Why not? He should know. It’s important.”

Scoffing, Sherlock glances at James’ dessert – almost finished – then turns to catch the waiter’s attention and ask for the check.

“Sherlock? Why—”

“We’re not talking about this,” he interrupts, his voice calm but suffering no rebuttal. “This… sentiment… It’s only a temporary weakness on my part. I was away from London for a long time. I missed it. I missed my life. He was part of it, so I somehow convinced myself it was more than what it was. More than the desire to go back to a normal life. Now that I’m home things will go back to what they were. The topic is closed.”

It’s not until they’re out in the street and catching a cab that James says, “I told you Father taught me how to tell when someone’s lying. You’re a good liar, but not when you’re lying about John.”

Sherlock doesn’t trust himself to reply.

Neither of them says another word, not until the first French conversation practice of the week and the violin lesson that follows. Even then, there’s still a stiffness to James’ back and an edge to his voice that reproach Sherlock for lying to him.

Later that night, just as Sherlock finishes a bit of internet shopping, the familiar noises signaling nightmares drift down from the upstairs bedroom. Three nights in a row; that’s more often than the average one out of two or three nights. Taking him back to the house where he grew up must not have been such a good idea after all.

Or possibly, seeing Sherlock in a bad mood heightens his stress levels, making nightmares more likely to occur.

Either way, Sherlock's failed him, and he only knows one way to help, if only a little. He picks up his violin. None of the great composers feel appealing, tonight. He slides the bow across the strings, lets his hand summon a note, then two, then a melody. Something he heard somewhere, maybe. He doesn’t try to remember, just lets the music come. By the time he stops, James hasn’t come down. Sherlock listens for a little while, carefully polishing his violin; soon, an hour has passed without another sound. He puts the violin in its case and goes to bed.

When James comes down the next day, Sherlock is already up, dressed in a suit minus the jacket, observing under the microscope a strain of bacteria that escaped Mrs. Hudson’s now obligatory bi-weekly purge of the fridge.

“Are we going somewhere?” James asks, still sounding half asleep.

“Maybe this afternoon. I’m expecting deliveries this morning.”

Because same-day delivery has been invented for people like Sherlock who’d rather pay than wait.

The first one comes in a little after lunch. The deliveryman mutters a little about old houses and tight corners, but the bookcase arrives in James’ room unscathed. It fits perfectly between the window and the wall, like Sherlock suggested a few days earlier. Still, James looks nonplussed.

“You don’t like it?” Sherlock asks, trying not to sound peeved.

“I do,” James says quickly. “It’s just… could we try it on the other side?”

The deliveryman is gone, so Sherlock wrestles the bookcase back to this side of the bed and wedges it next to the closet. The effect is not so pleasant to Sherlock, but James is satisfied, and after all it’s his room. Sherlock bites his tongue, says nothing, and leaves James to the task of arranging his growing collection of books the way he wants it. He doesn’t even suggest grouping by topics rather than something as arbitrary as the alphabet.

The second delivery comes in half an hour later, and Sherlock carries the long box to James’ room himself. He finds James sitting on the floor by the bookcase, half his books on the shelves, the other half around him, and one of them open on his lap. He looks up at Sherlock, but never voices the question rising to his lips. There’s no need. A picture of the assembled keyboard is printed on the box. His eyes go wide.

“It’s not a grand piano,” Sherlock says, setting the box on the bed, “and I feel like I’m committing a crime against music—”

“Thank you,” James blurts out, abandoning his books to come help open the box. “Thank you so very much!”

There’s a definite reverence to his fingers when he holds the keyboard, almost cradling it to his chest despite how unwieldy it is. To think Sherlock feared James would turn up his nose at this poor replacement for a proper instrument…

They set it up in no time where the bookcase briefly resided. Sherlock fetches a chair from the kitchen and immediately James sits in front of what Sherlock can’t call a piano in his own mind. He almost mentions that extensive research led him to believe this particular model has the best sound, but in the end says nothing and watches James play a few tentative notes. Even from where Sherlock is standing to the side, his smile is blinding.

When he starts playing, Sherlock needs a little while to place the piece.

“Chopin?” he finally asks.

James doesn’t reply. Sherlock isn’t sure he heard the question. He looks lost to the world; Sherlock knows the feeling quite well.

As he turns to the bookcase, Sherlock finds Mrs. Hudson by the door. Her expression, for a few seconds, is one of exasperated resignation; she’s made a few comments about ‘concerts in the middle of the night’. As she looks at James, however, and even though she can’t possibly see much of him from where she stands, her face softens. She catches Sherlock’s eye and smiles, then moves forward just long enough to pat him on the arm before leaving. It seems she won’t voice her disapproval, at least no today, although what that little pat meant, Sherlock can’t fathom.

Picking up the books from the floor, Sherlock sets them on the shelves in the most logical order. As he slides the battered copy of The Little Prince in place, something sticks out from between two pages. At first he thinks a page came loose, but he soon realizes it’s a picture. He sees the back first, and an inscription in a child’s neat handwriting.

Daddy and me, 2008

He’s never heard James call Moriarty ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dad’. It’s always been ‘Father’. The name, though, feels adequate, because it’s the same picture Sherlock saw pinned on the wall in James’ room, the one in which Moriarty looks like anyone but himself.

The melody has stopped, Sherlock realizes abruptly. He looks at James, who looks back with a pained expression, his smile gone.

“I’m sorry?” James says quietly.

“What for?”

James gestures at the picture in Sherlock’s hands. “I know he tried to kill you. And your friends. I shouldn’t have brought this in here.”

Shaking his head, Sherlock places the picture back into the book, sets it in place, and picks up the last couple of books from the floor.

“It’s just a picture. You have every right to hang on to it if that’s what you want. And no apologies to give me or anyone.”

James still looks a little puzzled when Sherlock leaves the room, but soon he starts playing again.

Later that night, after James has played for a little while, after he’s presumably gone to bed – no nightmares so far – Sherlock’s phone chirps at him.

Never say again you can’t do this.

Sherlock is caught between excitement at an unsolicited text from John and puzzlement over what it means. He figures it out soon enough.

He told you about the keyboard? Why?
SH

Guess he was excited and wanted to tell someone.
He played a waltz for Mary & me.
He’s very good. She loved it.

Sherlock’s smile fades bit by bit. James didn’t just text John. He did what Sherlock won’t permit himself and called him. Something inside him aches, although he couldn’t say why.

Still partial to the violin myself, John sends after a few seconds.

A tiny bit of the smile comes back.

Enjoy your last day of vacation, Sherlock types, even though what he really wants to say is, ‘I miss you’.

Chapter Text

One day.

One endless day.

James takes one look at Sherlock after his breakfast and retreats to his room. Sherlock feels vaguely guilty about it, but what can he do, really? If he bothered pretending he’s fine, James would still see right through the mask, and he’s made it clear he doesn’t like being lied to.

Soon, piano notes fill the flat with soothing tones that only set Sherlock even more on edge. His mind is pure chaos and the nicotine patches have long since stopped having any sort of effect; what good could music do?

What he needs is a good case. A really, really good case. Maybe a locked room murder. In a pinch, a serial killer would do – a smart one. Or just someone who isn’t boring, someone who can surprise him – someone who’s a bit older than twelve and currently in Spain.

Something else would help, something to dull his mind for a bit, calm his thoughts. Something illegal, but who cares about that? Something that would help for a while, but it’s the aftermath that was always problematic, so Sherlock doesn’t think about that solution. Or at least, he tries not to.

And then, it gets worse. Much, much worse.

Mycroft shows up.

On a good day, a day when Sherlock is in full control of himself, Mycroft can still read too much in the twitch of an eyebrow or an impatient tap of Sherlock’s fingers. This is not a good day.

“Go away,” Sherlock says as soon as he appears. “No time for whatever it is you want. I’m busy.”

Which might be more credible if Sherlock was doing more than sit in his chair and stare at the empty chair opposite him. It doesn’t stay empty long, though; Mycroft sits down, smoothing a crease in the fabric of his trousers.

“If I was under the delusion that three years taught you manners, I’m now reassured it’s not the case.”

“I was about to leave,” Sherlock says, glaring as he stands. “You’ll see yourself out.”

Mycroft doesn’t move except for a raised eyebrow. “Surely your next visit to the museum can wait a few minutes. He sounds busy enough for now.”

“And you,” Sherlock retorts, “are clearly not busy enough if you have nothing better to do than follow my every move.”

The faintest of smiles touches Mycroft’s lips. “Not yours, brother dear. You just happen to spend a lot of time with a subject under heightened surveillance. But that’s not what I’m here to discuss today. Mummy is wondering why you haven’t visited yet.”

“Why would you put James under surveillance?” Sherlock asks, sitting down again. Better to ask about that than address the rest of it. “He’s just a child.”

“Just a child, yes,” Mycroft repeats with a dangerous smile. “A child who plays the piano quite well, we should note. And who is privy to information about one of the most dangerous men of the past decade. Including the location of a house my people never knew about.”

His voice becomes steel on those last words. Sherlock has a feeling the meeting in which that house was discussed must have been quite an interesting one. It’s always fun to see Mycroft realize he’s not omnipotent and all-knowing.

“Found anything interesting in that office?” Sherlock asks, trying to sound uninterested. “The hard drive looked like a total loss.”

“Nothing that matters to you. Your self-imposed task is over, after all. Which, again, causes Mummy to expect a visit. When should I have a car pick you up?”

Upstairs, Schubert’s sonata comes to an end. James doesn’t start another piece. Sherlock drums his fingers on the armrest before he realizes what he’s doing and makes himself stop.

“How long has she known I was alive?” he asks absently.

Mycroft tuts. “I didn’t betray your secret, if that’s what you’re asking. But she did figure it out. When she told me about…” Mycroft looks away, his eyes sweeping the room. “Well. She demanded that I not tell you.”

Sherlock considers Mycroft, wondering if he can believe him when he says he didn’t tell her. Doubtful. After all, Mycroft just admitted their mother demanded that her secret be kept, and still Mycroft told Sherlock. The one time he contacted him first during those three years. One text message, seven words. Sherlock never replied. He didn’t know what to say.

“When are you going?” Mycroft asks again.

“When I have time,” Sherlock says, barely holding on to his calm. “And I can make my way there, I don’t need you to send a car or be concerned about my comings and goings.”

Mycroft huffs, going so far as to roll his eyes. “Yes, you certainly have little time to spare at the moment. Why, you’ve been so busy with that child, you hardly have time for cases. When do you expect to be done and send him to live with proper guardians?”

At the word ‘proper’, Sherlock’s head snaps up. He’s asked himself a few times, other the past weeks, whether he’s doing a good enough job of taking care of James, but to hear Mycroft hint to a negative answer irks him beyond measure.

“Who said I’m not a proper guardian?” he asks icily.

Mycroft’s cold eyes consider him with consternation. “Sherlock. You can’t possibly intend to keep him.”

“Why not?”

“You have no legal right to, for one thing.”

“Well, fix that for me.” Sherlock makes an impatient gesture. “You brought me back to life. I’m sure you can give him a new identity.”

Mycroft snorts, shaking his head. “As what? Your son?

“Again, why not?” Sherlock gives him a hard smile. “Someone will need to inherit the house in Sussex some day. Unless you propose to have an heir?”

A grimace flashes through Mycroft’s face, although it’s hard to tell if it’s the prospect of fathering children that he finds distasteful, or the thought that James might become a Holmes.

“And his… parentage doesn’t trouble you?” he asks in a tight voice.

The latter, then.

Sherlock merely raises an eyebrow and doesn’t bother replying. If he minded whose genetic material James shares, he wouldn’t have agreed to take him home in the first place.

“If it’s a joke—” Mycroft starts, but Sherlock interrupts.

“Hardly. He’s an orphan. I’m never going to have children. Perfect match. I won’t have to deal with nappies and he’s intelligent enough not to bore me.”

“He’s also quite possibly predisposed to mental instability,” Mycroft drawls. “And, you’ve got to admit, terrible at eavesdropping.”

“Definitely something we need to work on. Come in here, James.”

Sure enough, James peeks out from the hallway and approaches. Mycroft turns to watch him approach, and Sherlock couldn’t tell, at that moment, which of them wears the most perfect tie.

“Hello, sir,” James says in his blandest voice. “Should I call you Uncle Mycroft? I can’t quite figure it out. It might be because I’m unstable.”

The jibe, delivered deadpan, shocks a burst of laughter out of Sherlock, while Mycroft turns a very interesting shade of puce.

“Well matched, indeed,” he says, glancing at Sherlock. “Like dealing with one of you wasn’t taxing enough.”

Eyeing James again, he observes him for long seconds, and Sherlock doubts anything about the child goes unnoticed. To his credit, James doesn’t shy away, returning the look without showing signs of discomfort.

“Is this what you want, James?” Mycroft asks in the end.

“You already asked the first time we met,” James points out. “Why would you think the answer had changed?”

“Because you’ve had almost a month to realize what life with Sherlock is like.”

Neither of them is looking at him, but Sherlock manages not to flinch anyway. In his endless war with Mycroft, this topic came up early, and often. Sherlock, in what hindsight shows as a childish argument, reproached his brother for going away to school. Mycroft, not yet quite as unflappable as he is today, retorted that only their mother or idiots would ever care to live with Sherlock. To this day, only one exception has proved Mycroft wrong. Or rather, two, now.

“Are you going to change my name to Holmes?” James asks, completely ignoring Mycroft’s rationale as though it is unworthy of even being acknowledged.

It’s a smile that Sherlock now tries to hide.

Rather than answering James, Mycroft turns back to Sherlock.

“Give me one reason why I should do this for you.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Don’t you owe me favors?”

With a sigh, Mycroft stands and runs a hand down his front, smoothing his tie. “I think I’ve been more than generous in my repayment of past mistakes,” he says calmly. “I’ll send a car tomorrow to take you home. I’ll also arrange childcare.”

Sherlock stands as well, and now they’re toe to toe.

“That won’t be necessary. I’ll take James and introduce him to Mummy.”

Mycroft’s lips thin down to a barely there line. He glances at James, then back at Sherlock.

“That doesn’t strike me as a good idea. She tires easily, for one thing. Also, the news that you’re adopting the child of the man who tried to destroy you might be better delivered by someone more… diplomatic than you are.”

Sherlock pushes back that little voice that demands to know what ‘tiring easily’ means, exactly. He’ll know soon enough.

“Then tell her tonight,” he says, “because apparently we’re going there tomorrow.”

Something in his tone must betray him because Mycroft’s eyes go a little soft at the corners.

“Don’t you want to know—”

“Good day, Mycroft.”

No, Sherlock isn’t going to ask. He’ll know tomorrow, when he sees her. Knowing before that wouldn’t change anything. Worrying wouldn’t change anything either, which is why Sherlock has refused himself that luxury over the past year, since Mycroft’s text message. It’s not as if he ever thought his mother immortal, after all.

Mycroft finally leaves, promising as he does to return to discuss the matter of James’ schooling – because god forbid a Holmes, even one set to acquire the name as a teen, did not attend the proper schools. Sherlock is about to reassure James about that, but something in his expression stops him, a light frown directed not at what Mycroft said but at Sherlock himself.

“Are we really going there tomorrow?” James asks.

“We might as well,” Sherlock says. “Not particularly thrilling, I’ll concede, but…”

But James is shaking his head.

“No, that’s not… I mean, I don’t mind meeting your mother. I just thought. You know. That you’d want to be in London when John comes back.”

Sherlock’s heart feels like it might just stop.

He forgot.

How could he possibly forget?

He was so determined not to give himself away to Mycroft, he blocked it from his mind.

John is coming back tomorrow. And Sherlock won’t even be in town.

Thinking fast, he tries to put up a good front, but he’s not sure James buys it.

“Well, I’m sure he’ll have other things to do than visit,” he hears himself say. “The return from a vacation can be stressful, I hear.”

Except that this wasn’t a vacation, and Sherlock knows it quite well despite his refusal to use the correct word for it. Maybe it’s better if he’s not in town, after all. Better if he tries to put some distance between him and John. Friends don’t meet every day. Do they?

A single chime from his phone thankfully puts an end to this conversation.

“Lunch,” he says automatically. “Do you want to go out?”

Twenty minutes later, they’re at Angelo’s and being served when Sherlock’s phone beeps again. He has a half second to hope – but no. Mycroft. He glances at the screen, then sets the phone on the table and pushes it toward James.

I need his birth date. And middle name if any.
MH

“Did you forget my birthday?” James asks, already typing.

Sherlock answers with a withering look that causes James to grin when he glances up.

“It’s the middle name question I couldn’t answer,” Sherlock says, poking at the pasta on his plate.

James hands him the phone back.

December 27th, 2000
Philip
JH

“You don’t mind having a new name, then?” Sherlock asks, leaning back in his chair and rifling through his past texts.

Twirling spaghetti onto his fork, James shrugs. “Why would I? It’s not like I could ever tell anyone my name. It was more his name than mine, anyway.”

Sherlock looks up while in the middle of typing a text. The same darkness he heard in James’ words is right there on his face, too.

“James—”

“But I can’t help thinking,” James interrupts. “I mean. I know it’s stupid, but…”

“But?” Sherlock prompts. “What are you thinking?”

He can guess already where this is going, but maybe James needs to say it.

“I keep thinking that when he comes back he’ll be really mad that I changed my name.”

When Sherlock sighs softly, James flinches, shrinking in his chair.

“I know,” he mutters, not looking any higher than his plate. “I know it’s stupid. It’s just… you faked your death for three years. I think maybe he was as clever as you are. And he thought he was a lot cleverer than you. So maybe…”

He shrugs again rather than finish.

A gunshot echoes in Sherlock’s memory and he can practically smell the blood. He could tell James how it happened. Maybe he should. If nothing else, it might convince him that there was no way to fake that. But maybe telling him over lunch is not the best possible setting.

“I knew he was aiming for my suicide,” he says quietly. “I had time to prepare, set things in motion. I don’t think it crossed his mind that his life would be at risk, not when he held my friends as collateral. He didn’t get to prepare like I did. He’s dead. If I know one thing to be true, it’s that.”

James nods, goes back to his food, and the topic is set aside for now. Sherlock has a feeling they’ll revisit it, sooner or later.

Glancing back at his phone, he sees the unsent text.

Formally adopting James.
Never thought I’d be a father.

He deletes it and puts the phone away. It’s going to take more than forged documents to make a father out of him.

Chapter Text

Sherlock doesn’t sleep that night, though he’d be hard pressed to say if it’s the prospect of seeing his mother or not seeing John that causes his mind to spin from memory to memory, the events from the past three years of hunting replaying in a jumbled order behind his closed eyelids. All of it is making him slightly nauseous.

When a hint of light sneaking into his bedroom finally announces that dawn has come, he gives up on the pretense and gets ready.

In the sitting room, he glances out the window. A black car is parked in the street. There’s no telling how long it’s been waiting.

Impatience runs through Sherlock like a current. If he was alone, he’d already be in the car, already out of London, maybe. Instead, he finds himself trying to recall what it is that James usually has for breakfast. He’s never really paid much attention to it, but he figures if he has it ready by the time James comes down, they can be out of the flat faster.

Which means they’ll be back sooner.

In the end, he makes tea and toast, because that’s what James is always trying to foist on him. Much like John used to.

The kettle has just boiled when light steps come down the staircase. James stops by the kitchen door, blinking a few times at Sherlock as though not quite believing he’s in there.

“Hurry up,” Sherlock says in guise of greeting. “Breakfast’s just about ready and the car is waiting for us.”

Seventeen minutes later, they climb into the car.

For the next hour and half, he quizzes James to keep his mind busy, throwing words at him in French, and trying very hard not to laugh as the sentences James creates with said words become increasingly sillier. By the time James offers for the word brother, ‘The brother was very elegant when he wore his favorite princess dress to the ball’, Sherlock has to take a minute to compose himself, which James seems rather pleased about.

When the car finally turns into the driveway, the sound of the gravel under the wheels is just as familiar as the sight of the manor ahead of them. Sherlock’s stomach clenches unpleasantly.

It’s been a long time since Sherlock called this place home so he knocks on the door rather than walking in. He expects the maid to come, and is surprised when instead the door swings open to reveal his mother. Her mane of short, perfectly coiffed white hair has long since ceased to be a shock; she’s been bleaching it for almost fifteen years. The dark circles under her eyes, on the other hand, had not been so pronounced since prior to her becoming a widow. As for her suit—

“Honestly, Sherlock,” she says with a sigh. “We could at least say hello before we start deducing each other.”

Leaning closer, Sherlock brushes a kiss to the cheek she offers him.

“My apologies, Mummy. It’s been quite some time.”

“It has, yes,” she says dryly as she pulls back to usher them in. “So long in fact that one of us had time to die, travel the world and return from the dead with a child. But not time enough to visit his mother, apparently. Aren’t you going to introduce me to this young man?”

The last is said as she turns to James, and in response he instantly stands a little straighter, his head high. She notices, of course – his impeccable posture, and a dozen other things.

“I thought observing came after greetings,” Sherlock comments, earning himself an annoyed look. “Mummy, this is James Philip Holmes. James, this is your grandmother Louise Marguerite Holmes.”

“Grandmother,” she repeats musingly. “That’s certainly a word I never expected to hear applied to me.”

She holds her hand out to James, and Sherlock tries not to notice the slight tremor that passes through it.

“I’m pleased to meet you, James.”

James shakes her hand in that stiff way of his. “How do you do, Mrs. Holmes.”

A thin smile stretches her lips. No lipstick. With that tremor, it’d be hard to apply flawlessly.

“If I am to be your grandmother, ‘Mrs. Holmes’ might be a bit formal, don’t you think?”

James seems taken aback, and he throws a quick glance at Sherlock before answering. “I wouldn’t know. What should I call you, then?”

“Grand-mummy?” Sherlock suggests tongue in cheek. “Gran?”

His mother is immediately appalled. “Absolutely not!”

“That is what grandmothers are commonly called.”

She sniffs disdainfully before returning her gaze to James. “You may call me Louise. I will also accept Grand-mère.”

His eyes light up at once. “Oh! Est-ce que vous êtes française? Sherlock ne me l’avait pas dit.”

She’s as surprised as James is. “There are a lot of things Sherlock apparently failed to mention,” she says wryly, also in French. “Would you care for a tour of the house?

That’s not exactly what Sherlock expected, and he tries to excuse himself to the library, but his mother’s sharp look demands that he come along. He tries not to sulk because she wouldn’t hesitate to call him on it, but he doesn’t join in their conversation, letting the French words wash over him.

It feels odd to be back here, going from room to room, looking at them the way James does, as though they’re something new and interesting. It’s even stranger to watch his mother be so attentive to a child, any child, especially one she just met; a child she seems keen on accepting as family even mere moments after meeting him.

The visit stops in Sherlock’s old room. He doesn’t go in; he hasn’t been in there in close to two decades and has no desire to change that. Leaning back against the wall opposite, he looks in and doesn’t really listen to his mother describe an experiment he conducted over the summer holidays when he was ten.

He was high, the last time he was in there. He wrecked the room before running off. He was so high, in fact, that he left his stash behind. By the time he remembered, he was already in London and could do nothing but rage and buy more.

He wonders if whoever cleaned up after him found the drugs.

“Sherlock?” James calls out suddenly. He’s standing across from the bed, eyes going back and forth between the bookcase that covers the entire wall next to him and Sherlock. “May I—”

“Just about everything on those shelves is outdated,” Sherlock cuts in. “I’d rather get you new textbooks than have you learn from those.”

Through the door, he can see his mother observing him with pursed lips and a strange expression he doesn’t know how to interpret.

“What about the fiction books?” James asks, and while he’s not pouting, it’s a near thing.

Sherlock blinks. Fiction? In his room?

“I… guess,” he says, a little confused. Did he delete fiction books he read as a boy?

“Why don’t we leave James to see if he finds anything of interest here,” Mummy says, coming out of the room and touching Sherlock’s arm. “And you and I can chat in the drawing room before lunch.”

Sherlock gives James a questioning look, but James is oblivious, already pulling a book from the shelves. Sherlock’s gaze starts drifting to the bed – to the darkness beneath – but he closes his eyes briefly then follows his mother back down to the first floor.

She takes the armchair that has been hers for as long as Sherlock can remember, and indicates the armchair next to it. Sherlock sits, looking around the room. The décor has changed, but the room feels as stuffy as ever.

“He’s a sweet child,” she says, and he can feel her eyes on him. “Smart. And very polite.”

“None of which I have anything to do with,” Sherlock remarks. “How much did Mycroft tell you about him?”

She makes a small, dismissive gesture. “If I believed a son is bound to be a carbon copy of his father, I’d only need to look at you and your brother to be proved wrong. And Mycroft doesn’t believe it either. He’s just concerned, as usual.”

Sherlock snorts quietly. “Yes, I know all about Mycroft’s concern. And about his meddling. When did he tell you I was alive?”

Her eyes sharpen at that. Propping her elbow on the arm of her chair, she rests her chin on two fingers.

“A few weeks after your funeral. That’s the only funeral of yours I’ll ever attend, by the way. Once was enough.”

The rebuke, if that’s what it is, means little to Sherlock when his doubts are being confirmed.

“I knew it,” he mutters. “He claimed he didn’t tell you but I knew he was lying.”

“Oh, he wasn’t lying. He told me, but not in so many words.” At Sherlock’s light frown, she continues. “The day of your funeral, he looked… well, I’d say distraught but this is Mycroft. Distraught is an unlikely word to apply to him. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have wondered if he’d pushed you off that roof.” She lets that sink in for a moment before going on. “I saw him again a month later, and it was as if nothing had happened. Even for Mycroft, that’s a little short to finish mourning someone.”

Sherlock offers a grudging nod, drumming his fingers absently on his armrest.

“I suppose it was better that you knew,” he concedes. “Although I’m still surprised Mycroft didn’t actually tell you.”

Her eyes sharpen a little at that, her voice ever so slightly colder. “You mean, the way he told you what I’d asked him to keep to himself?”

Another small nod. “Am I allowed to ask how you are?”

Her expression doesn’t change. “Can’t you figure it out for yourself?”

He can, of course. But he’d much rather hear her lie to him and say she’s perfectly fine.

“You look well,” he says. “And I did intend to come visit you soon even if Mycroft hadn’t interfered. I’ve just been a little busy.”

If she hears the lies in his voice, she doesn’t mention it.

“You’ll have to slow down, now,” she says, not bothering to hide that she still doesn’t approve of what he’s elected to do with his set of skills. “Unless you intend to send James to boarding school?”

“We haven’t talked about it, but I don’t think he’ll go, no.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised. You never forgave us for sending you there, did you?”

There is no truthful answer Sherlock cares to give to that question. Thankfully, he is saved by the housekeeper walking in to announce that lunch is ready whenever they are.

Lunch is a quiet affair. It always was. James keeps checking that he’s using the right fork, holding his glass properly, and he’s sitting very straight the entire time. Sherlock wonders why he’s still trying so hard to impress Mummy; can’t he see he's already won that battle?

Half an hour later, watching his mother and James together at the piano, he thinks perhaps that fight was won even earlier, the moment Mycroft mentioned James’ skill at the instrument. Why he’d bother to mention it at all is somewhat baffling. He must have known Mummy would like that. She always despaired that neither of her children ever cared much for the piano; and never understood that the instrument might have been more appealing if she’d cared to teach them herself rather than relying on the best possible tutors she could find.

Seated at the back of the room, Sherlock fiddles with his phone, absently listening to the notes four hands can create together. He tries not to wince whenever one of those notes is slightly off, or out of tempo; tries not to deduce who plays those false notes.

Reading the text messages he exchanged with John from the last all the way back to the first, the ones that never received an answer, he doesn’t know whether to be glad John came around or not. In the end, doesn’t it make everything a little harder to be this close and yet nowhere near close enough?

He can’t resist sending a quick question.

When will you be back in London?
SH

By the time the music stops, no answer has come yet. Maybe John is on a plane right now. Pocketing his phone after another look at the time, Sherlock watches his mother retrieve a folder of sheet music from a cabinet. James tries to hide his excitement, but his smile is blinding when he takes the folder back to the piano and, at Mummy’s urging, chooses a new piece to practice. She leaves him to it and comes to sit on the sofa next to Sherlock.

“He’s even more talented than Mycroft said,” she says, sotto-voce.

“Something else I can take no credit for,” Sherlock replies, just as quietly.

If James can hear them, he doesn’t show it, his entire attention on the sheets in front of him and the melody slowly rising under his fingers.

“Does he know what kind of man his father was?”

So, Mycroft didn’t give her a complete report, after all. The prat.

“He knows, yes.”

“He knows the man tried to kill you. And your friends.”

Sherlock gives her a look. He already answered, didn’t he? And regardless, that’s hardly something he wants to discuss with her while James is just on the other side of the room. Thankfully, she changes the subject.

“Tell me about them,” she asks, her tone suffering no denial. “These friends you died to protect. I remember a time when you were quite convinced you’d never have one friend, let alone several.”

Sherlock feels hyper-exposed, suddenly, as though his mother is looking not just at him but at every choice, every decision he made since he last saw her. He shifts, wishing he had a cup of tea to occupy his hands.

“Friends might be too strong a term,” he says. “One of them is my landlady. She’s a fine person, and I’d have been loath to be responsible for her death, but I don’t know that I’d call her a friend.”

He feels a little disloyal as he says it. He’s not even sure why he says it. Habit. Being back in this house makes him turn back to old patterns. Too strong emotions or interests always needed to be downplayed as he was growing up, lest they be called improper or disparaged.

“Who else?”

“A policeman from Scotland Yard. Again, a colleague more than a friend.”

She nods absently. “And the last one?”

For a few seconds, Sherlock watches James. He’s only ever seen him play pieces he already knew on the piano. His expression now is the same as when he works on the violin: intense concentration, the tip of his tongue peeking from between his lips, his eyes narrowed as he reads the notes. It reminds Sherlock of John, pecking at his laptop keys with two fingers as he wrote about their cases.

“His name is John,” he finally says. “And I suppose friend is not a misnomer in his case.”

He chances a glance at his mother and doesn’t like one bit the narrow-eyed look she’s casting on him.

“Would that be the same John you shared your flat with?” she asks pointedly.

Mycroft. Again. Will he ever stop meddling?

“That would be him, yes.”

That look… oh, how Sherlock used to hate that look. How he used to envy it, too. When he was growing up, nothing ever escaped that look. And it appears to work as well as ever. He feels like she’s reading him like a book, seeing beyond the words right down to the author’s intent.

He couldn’t say why he adds, “I was the best man at his wedding two weeks ago.”

Her reaction startles him. She takes his hand from where it’s fisted on the sofa between them and holds it between both of hers, warmth seeping through. All she says is a quiet, “Oh, Sherlock,” but it’s too much. Too raw. He stands, gently pulling his hand free.

“Do you think your housekeeper would have a box for us to put those books in?” Before she can answer, he’s already moving. “I’ll just ask her. I’ll be back in a moment.”

The woman does have a box he can use. She also has a fondness for cooking sherry that Sherlock will have to mention to Mycroft, as distasteful as the prospect is. How Mummy didn’t notice, he cannot fathom.

He climbs back to his room, where James left almost two dozen books on the bed, much like he did back in his old house. He has to stop for a second on the threshold but finally marches in. Sherlock stashes the books in the box, then takes a deep breath and tries to think of a reason why he shouldn’t check. It’s just checking, nothing more. Curiosity.

He drops down to his knees, reaches under the bed, nudges the floorboard to the side to slip the edge of a nail underneath.

Apparently, no one ever discovered the hiding place where a young child once buried his pirate treasure; where a young man hid something else altogether.

He makes sure to brush the few flakes of dust off his knees before he carries the box downstairs.

Mummy is adamant that they can’t leave quite yet, so they pass into the sitting room and call on the housekeeper to bring them tea and biscuits. Watching his mother’s hand shake a little harder, or seeing her struggle to recall James’ name – she actually calls him ‘Sherlock’ once, and to James’ credit his only response to the slip is a quick frown, gone as soon as it appears – Sherlock remembers what Mycroft said about how she tires quickly. He insists that they have to leave as soon as they’ve had their tea. The goodbye kiss he presses to her cheek lingers a second longer than usual.

The car returns with perfect timing. It’s not until a good ten minutes after they’ve left that James says, “She’s nice. I’d like to see her again sometime. Can we visit again?”

“Why?” Sherlock mutters, addressing the window. “Within a couple years she’ll have no idea who you are.”

You or anyone else.

Long seconds pass before James says softly, “But I’ll know who she is. She’s the only grandparent I’m ever going to have. I’d like to see her more than once.”

In the glass, Sherlock sees James’ reflection, and the way he runs his fingers over the folder of sheet music on his lap that Mummy gave him just as they were leaving.

“Why?” Sherlock asks again, now getting annoyed. “Why would you choose to care when you know you’re going to lose her? What’s the point?”

“So you’re saying I shouldn’t care about anyone?”

Sherlock shrugs. “It’s easier that way.”

“But you do,” James protests. “You care about people. You tracked Sebastian for three years because you were afraid he’d hurt John. Don’t say you don’t care about him. You adopted me so I could stay with you. Are you saying you don’t care about me?”

Closing his eyes, Sherlock presses his forehead to the cool glass. “Caring is not an advantage,” he murmurs. “If you ask Mycroft, that’s practically our family’s motto.”

“I’m not asking Mycroft. I’m asking you.”

There’s something in James’ voice, an unsteady edge that draws Sherlock’s eyes back to him. He’s clutching the folder to his chest, now, his Adam’s apple bobbing, his breathing a little faster than it should be. Upset. Increasingly so. Sherlock hit a nerve, though he’s not quite sure how exactly.

“If I didn’t care,” he says, “I wouldn’t have gone to see her. And you wouldn’t be here. Is that what you want to hear?”

“What about John?” James asks rather than answering. “You said that was just temporary but caring shouldn’t be temporary, should it? And you care about her but you only went because your brother made you and now you don’t even want to go back again and—”

“We’ll go back,” Sherlock cuts in. “All right? In a few weeks. You’ll learn a couple songs from that folder and we’ll go back and you’ll play them for her. How’s that?”

Thankfully, it seems to be enough. Or at least it is for James.

All Sherlock can think of following that discussion is the small plastic bag in his pocket, and what’s inside it. Tonight. Definitely tonight. After James has gone to bed. Just a little. Everything is too hard, too loud – too screwed up.

They’re just entering London when his phone beeps.

Sorry for not answering sooner
Phone was dead
I’ll drop by tomorrow
?

Welcome back
Can’t wait.
SH

Not tonight, then.

Chapter Text

Unsure when John is going to show up, Sherlock gets out of bed early. It’s not like he was sleeping anyway. Before stepping into the bathroom, he transfers the tightly closed little plastic bag from his sock drawer to the compartment at the back of his stereo system, making sure to twist the screws all the way back in and return the stereo exactly as it was, with no trail of dust to betray him.

He’s fairly certain James has never set foot in his bedroom, fairly certain too that he wouldn’t unless he had an extremely compelling reason. Something else is clear in his mind, however: James is smart and his observation skills are top notch. It’s bad enough that he figured out Sherlock’s unfortunate feelings for John. If he somehow deduced the kind of habits Sherlock is entertaining falling into again…

Well, Sherlock would just as well avoid that if he can. Somehow, the thought of what James would think of that is just as unpleasant as the idea of disappointing John. Once or twice, in the couple years they were flatmates, the certainty that John would leave if he caught Sherlock using was the strongest deterrent of all. Maybe even the only one.

By the time James comes down for breakfast, Sherlock is in his best suit – the best one he owns right now, having already disposed of the dinner jacket from the wedding; they’ll need to go to those fittings soon. He’s standing by the window, peering out.

“Are we going somewhere?” James asks.

“Possibly,” Sherlock says, though he despises being vague.

He could ask. A quick text, and he might know when to expect a visit. After all the texts he sent in the past couple of weeks, he’s not sure why he’s suddenly feeling so reticent about sending an innocent text.

Minutes crawl by. Sherlock deduces three affairs, four break-ups, two pairs of friends-but-one-wishes-for-more, and one couple of newlyweds. He scowls at those two as they walk down the street hand in hand, constantly leaning toward each other and probably whispering stupid nonsense that makes them smile like they couldn’t be happier.

“Sherlock?” James says behind him, and from his tone it’s not the first time he said his name.

Trying to smooth out his expression, Sherlock turns to him, one eyebrow raised questioningly.

“Do you want tea?” James asks, but only after a brief pause that suggests this was not his initial question.

“Maybe later,” Sherlock says, keeping for himself, when John is here.

James peers at him for a few seconds, and there’s a question on the tip of his tongue, in his scrunched eyebrows. He doesn’t ask, and instead takes a seat and opens a book. John’s chair. James’, now. It would have been easy to fit another chair in here. Push things around a bit, make room.

The same way John made room for himself in Sherlock’s life without Sherlock realizing just how empty it’d feel without him there anymore.

Sherlock goes back to his observation of the street. It remains depressingly John-free. How pathetic for Sherlock to be waiting like this.

How pathetic if John were to walk in and realize Sherlock has been waiting like this.

Whirling back to the room, he rushes through a mental list of options.

Experiment? No. Either he wouldn’t be able to get into it at all, or worse, he would, and ignore John when he finally walked in.

Telly? He’s not quite that desperate.

Get on the internet? Check his email? Tinker with his website? Utterly unappealing.

Follow James’ example and pick up a book? He’s feeling too restless for that right now.

Which really only leaves one option. He pulls out his violin case, applies rosin to the bow, fiddles with the tuning pegs, aware that James has stopped reading and is watching him.

“You haven’t practiced in a few days,” Sherlock comments. Not since the keyboard came in. “Which is fine,” he hastens to add. “You only started with the violin because of the lack of piano, so if you want to stop…”

“I like the piano best,” James says as he closes his book. “But only because I’m better at it. Maybe when I get better at the violin, I’ll like it just as much.”

And with that pronouncement, he leaves his book on the chair and runs upstairs, presumably to get his instrument. Sherlock lifts his violin, cradles it against his neck and half closes his eyes. He draws out a few quiet notes, not a melody yet, just sounds, filled with sorrow and could-have-been’s.

James’ steps hurrying down the staircase announce his return. Sherlock opens his eyes, straightens up a little, and after watching him apply rosin to his bow, asks him what he wants to try today.

When John comes in half an hour later they’re in the middle of a violin sonata from Bach. Not that it sounds like it so far, not the way they’re doing it, tiny bit after tiny bit, but it’s certainly more pleasant to listen to than the last time John walked in on a lesson.

He nods and smiles in guise of greeting, gesturing for them not to stop on his account. Shrugging out of his jacket, he throws it over the back of his chair before sitting down, picking up the book James left there and smiling faintly as he reads the title and flips the book open somewhere in the middle.

Part of Sherlock is happy for John’s distraction. This way, Sherlock can observe him unnoticed and see a dozen, a hundred little clues that add up to the same thing: contentment. Marriage suits John. No surprise there, but still some degree of disappointment.

Another part of him wants to command John’s attention, get him to be interested in the lesson, in how much progress James has made – in the fact that Sherlock is a reasonably competent teacher, at least for this one less than ordinary student.

But John keeps reading, and turning pages, and Sherlock soon decides that’s enough for now. As they get to the end of the piece, he’d usually go back to the start and run through it again, but instead he lowers his bow and nods at James.

“Good practice. We’ll try this one again next time. You can put your violin away.”

James smiles at the praise, and more brightly still when John tears his gaze from the book and congratulates him on his marked improvement. Once he’s left the room, John grins at Sherlock, enough so to make him self-conscious.

“What?” he asks, verging on defensive.

John shakes his head once. “Nothing. Just… I’d never have imagined you having the patience to do this. And there you are.”

So he was paying attention after all. Sherlock turns away to set the violin in its case and hide his smile.

“It helps when the student already has an ear for music,” he says, but he’s pleased, there’s no denying it.

Behind him, John clears his throat quietly. “By the way…” He’s not grinning anymore when Sherlock turns back to him. “I never said sorry about your bow.”

For the time of a heartbeat, Sherlock is confused. He looks at the violin case, still open on the desk, and the bow nestled within. Then he remembers: Mycroft returning his violin, mentioning the new bow, never explaining what happened.

“You’re the one who broke it?” Sherlock asks, taken aback.

John grimaces. “Afraid so. I meant to go for the violin too but…” He shrugs and looks down at the book on his lap. “Couldn’t do it.”

Sherlock doesn’t ask why, because the answer is pretty obvious, and the last thing he wants to talk about now, after not seeing John for what felt like ages, is how long it took him to work through the stages of grief.

“Good thing too,” he says. “The bow, I can forgive. The violin would have been harder.”

A shadow crosses John’s eyes, and his lips take a turn Sherlock remembers well.

“Not good?” he asks quietly.

“Talking to me about not forgiving?” John says quietly. “No, that’s not too good.”

Silence falls on them, and Sherlock wants to take it back, rewind the conversation until John is smiling again. Days of waiting for him to come back to London, and Sherlock manages to upset him in five minutes flat. He should have kept playing. Words are useless.

James’ return breaks the tense moment. He sits across from John, making Sherlock regret that he didn’t take his seat, and points at the book on John’s lap.

“Do you like it?”

John’s smile returns, or at least half of it. “Oh, yeah. I always liked The Hobbit. It’s your book, I’m guessing?”

As he says that last bit, he holds the book out to James, who takes it with a nod. “It’s mine now but it was Sherlock’s when he was small.”

“Oh?” John raises both eyebrows at him. “You read The Hobbit? You?”

“Why the tone of surprise?” Sherlock mutters, walking over to the sofa and sitting with a huff.

John laughs quietly. “You deleted it, didn’t you?”

Sherlock doesn’t reply. It’s just a book. With a name like ‘Hobbit’, it can’t possibly be a very serious book, at that. Of course he deleted it.

“How was Spain?” he asks instead. “Not completely overrun by tourists, one would hope?”

“I’m guessing there’d have been a lot more of them if we’d gone in the summer instead of fall. It was nice. Really nice.”

John’s eyes crinkle a little and Sherlock wishes he could take a picture of him right this instant; it’s one thing to memorize his expression, but it’d be different to hold it in his hand, if only on a piece of paper.

“I did get a lot more texts than I expected. Not looking forward to receiving that phone bill.”

Sherlock blinks. He didn’t think of that. It never even occurred to him. And now he feels like an idiot. There are few things he dislikes more.

“You could have just turned it off,” he mumbles.

“Yeah, I could have, but I didn’t, did I?”

Silence again. Sherlock never used to mind silence between him and John so much. Silence used to be like breaths within unending conversations. Now, it feels like squandered time.

Like before, it’s James who ends that detestable stillness.

“Did Sherlock tell you I’ve got a new name now?”

Something in James’ voice draws Sherlock’s eyes to him, and it takes him a second to realize what it was. Pride.

Or was it?

“He didn’t, actually,” John says. “What are you called?”

“James Holmes.”

Definitely pride. But why?

“Oh. That’s… good.” John’s attention comes back to Sherlock. “You adopted him, then?”

Sherlock shrugs. “It seemed like the easiest way to keep him with me.”

Although legally, it’s not an adoption. Anyone looking into James’ past would find that he was born of a woman who attended the same university as Sherlock and around the same time; a woman now deceased, with no family left behind. The paperwork names Sherlock as the father. There’s nothing left in official documents that might tie James to Moriarty. Not that there was much to begin with, Mycroft said. He thinks his people found the actual record of James’ birth, but the parents’ names were obvious pseudonyms.

“Well, easiest way or not, congratulations appear to be in order.”

Sherlock acknowledges John’s sincere words with a nod.

John with a wife, Sherlock with a child… whatever he imagined when he thought of his return, this wasn’t it.

And whatever reason he thought John might have to visit him his first day back from vacation, asking if Sherlock wants to work a case with him wasn’t it either.

Sherlock agrees because, at this point, pathetic or not, he’ll take any excuse to spend a few hours with John. In fact the man they meet emailed Sherlock a few days ago regarding his stolen signed, first edition, two-hundred-year-old book, and Sherlock declined the case because it seemed far too simple. The man looks taken aback that John brought along not only Sherlock Holmes but a child, too, but he’s too keen on retrieving his book to make much of a fuss.

The case keeps them busy until nightfall. That’s as long as Sherlock can bear it before blurting out what he’s known since a quick search on the internet after he received the client’s first email.

“You knew all this time, didn’t you?” John says, rolling his eyes. “And you couldn’t have said anything sooner?”

“I wanted to see whether you or James would figure it out first,” Sherlock lies.

John sighs and shakes his head, but James knows; his expression reveals as much, even if he doesn’t say anything.

Sherlock’s plan to celebrate a case solved with a restaurant outing is nixed by John, who suggests they come to his place for dinner with Mary instead. Sherlock declines and they say goodbye. On the way home, he gets a text from John.

Got another case.
You can help but ONLY if you don’t hold back.

Agreed.
Tomorrow?
SH

I’ll be around by 10.

Not tonight, then.

*

In the next fortnight, ‘not tonight’ becomes Sherlock’s internal refrain.

Not tonight, because John is coming in the morning and they’ll spend the day working on a case Sherlock would never have touched of his own accord.

Not tonight, because James’ eyes have that tightness around them that means nightmares are lurking at the back of his mind, ready to spring forward as soon as he tries to sleep.

Not tonight, because Lestrade texted with a case; no crime scenes, but paper cases can be good puzzles.

Not tonight because he’s in the middle of The Hobbit and it is as ridiculous as Sherlock expected but he still wants to finish it, just because John and James both like it.

Not tonight because that cocaine is old and really, Sherlock should at least run some tests before he decides what to do with it.

The next time Sherlock tries that excuse on himself, it doesn’t work anymore. He doesn’t care, not one bit, not when Mary came to pick up John tonight. She came in here, in Sherlock’s flat, filled it with her smile and her laugh and went up to James’ room with John and James played the piano for them. Listening from below, Sherlock couldn’t think of anything beyond the two small screws that would be so, so easy to remove from their casing. It’s a miracle he didn’t do it while they were all upstairs. A miracle he still hasn’t done it now that they’ve been gone for an hour already, now that James is in his room, playing for himself this time. Now that Sherlock is alone. So very, very alone.

It’s still early. If he locked himself in his room, James might not even ask if he wants dinner. He could take only a tiny bit, and stay locked in until morning, and no one would ever know. He could have a few hours of peace. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so, because his phone rings just as he was about to stand from the sofa. He considers not answering, but a look at the number and he changes his mind.

“John?” he says as he picks up, heart beating fast all of a sudden. John never calls him, he knows Sherlock prefers to text, but right now Sherlock doesn’t mind too much.

But it’s not John. It’s St. Thomas’ A&E. Sherlock is on his feet and reaching for his coat before they’ve said more than a sentence.

“There was an accident.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock is almost at the front door when it dawns on him that leaving is a bit more complicated than that, now. He climbs back up, three steps at a time, until he’s barging into James’ bedroom, pushing the door open so hard it bounces against the wall.

James’ keyboard makes the most awful sound. He very nearly falls off his chair, and his eyes are wide when he faces Sherlock.

“I need to go out,” Sherlock says. “You’ll stay downstairs with Mrs. Hudson. Hurry.”

He starts to turn away, but realizes James isn’t moving and looks back at him.

“I said—”

“Where are you going?” James asks, still not moving from his chair. “Why can’t I come with you?”

For a second or two, Sherlock doesn’t want to tell him. If he says the words, then it becomes real. The nurse who called him didn’t say how bad it was, but Sherlock is trying very hard not to imagine the worst. The last time he was so scared, he was standing on a roof and realizing that it wasn’t only his life in the balance.

But being scared never helped anyone, so he forces his voice to remain calm when he says, “There was an accident. John’s in hospital—”

“Is he okay?”

“—and I need to go there. And you—”

“I want to come,” James interrupts again, more loudly now, as he finally stands.

“No, you’re staying here with Mrs. Hudson.”

James shakes his head. “No. I’m not. You said I wouldn’t have to stay with anyone unless I wanted to. You promised.” His voice cracks on the last word.

Sherlock is fairly certain he promised no such thing. “I said I’d try,” he says, his words harsher as he starts to lose his temper. “And Mrs. Hudson is the finest lady I could leave you with.”

“I’m not staying with her,” James says again.

He’s not looking at Sherlock, instead looking down at his fingers as he attempts to re-knot his loosened tie. Sherlock has watched him knot ties before, steady fingers and precise movements. Tonight, James’ hands are shaking and he can’t quite manage to get it right.

“I don’t have time to argue about this,” Sherlock snaps.

“I’m not arguing.” James’ fingers shake harder still, and he gives up on the tie, pulling it loose from his collar and dropping it on the bed. He’s still not looking at Sherlock. “I won’t stay with her. Take me with you. John is my friend too.”

John’s name is like a jolt to Sherlock’s system. He’s here arguing with a child when maybe John—

Turning on his heels, he storms back down the staircase, muttering under his breath, aware that James is behind him. On the landing, he grabs James’ coat and throws it at him before continuing down to the first floor. He’s in the street a handful of seconds before James, already hailing a cab. It’s not soon enough that they’re on their way.

“Do you know how he is?” James asks in a tiny voice.

Looking out through the car window into the darkening street, Sherlock shakes his head. Why is there always so much more traffic when he’s in a hurry to get somewhere?

“How about Mary?” James asks, more quietly still. “Was she in the accident too?”

Sherlock frowns, his eyes refocusing on James’ refection. He seems as worried as he sounds, hands clenched into fists on his thighs. Sherlock never even wondered about Mary since getting the call. He plays it back in his mind.

“John?

“Mr. Holmes?”

”Yes?”

“This is St. Thomas A&E. There was an accident. Mr. Watson and his wife were brought here. We were trying to contact family and your name was labeled as ‘call in case of emergency’.”

“Is John… Is he…”

“I can’t give you information over the phone. Will you be coming in?”

Of course Sherlock is coming in. How could he not, when it’s John? When he labeled Sherlock’s number as his emergency contact? Not his wife’s number, not his sister’s, but Sherlock’s. But how much of an emergency is it? If it was just scrapes, would the nurse have said? If he was dead, would her voice have sounded more compassionate?

“Sherlock?” James says. “Is Mary—”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock mutters. “She’s there too. Why do you even care? When I left you with her for five minutes you had a meltdown.”

“That’s just because I didn’t know her then,” James protests.

Sherlock bites his tongue rather than say he still doesn’t know her now. How could he? He’s met her that one time, and probably didn’t say a word to her. Then the evening they had dinner after that first case, and James listened but he didn’t talk much. Sherlock is sure they didn’t talk at the wedding. And then tonight, when James played the piano for them while Sherlock contemplated getting high…

What if he’d done it? What if the call had come five minutes later, after Sherlock had gone to lock himself into his room? What if he’d been too far gone already to comprehend what was going on? Worse – what if he’d been just high enough to think he could go to the hospital and not have everyone notice his condition? What if he’d been high when someone told him his best friend, the man he cares for more than he’s ever cared for anyone else in his life, is dead, or dying, or gravely hurt?

Sherlock doesn’t do what ifs. He likes facts, and reality, and concrete events rather than vague possibilities. But right now, with the cab going so slowly he’s tempted to jump out and run the rest of the way, he’s caught in a loop he can’t escape.

He was gone all these years to make sure John would live a long, happy life. What if he dies today, and Sherlock never gets the chance to let him know how important he is? Not more than that, he can’t say more than that, he doesn’t have the right to anymore, but it kills him that he’s not sure whether John knows how important he is to him.

If he dies…

“Sherlock? Are you okay?”

No, he won’t die. He can’t.

“Sherlock? I’m sorry I upset you. I didn’t mean to.”

But oh God if he dies…

“Do you want to know why I don’t want to stay with Mrs. Hudson?”

If he’s already dead…

“Sherlock?”

Not like that. Not in a stupid accident. Car accident? Yes, it had to be. John Watson can’t just die in a car accident, that’s just wrong, wrong on so many levels.

“She looks like one of my nannies. That one was nice. But she didn’t like the way Father… taught me things.”

It’s James’ tone of voice rather than his actual words that snaps Sherlock out of his increasingly chaotic thoughts. That’s the same cool, absentminded voice Sherlock has learned to associate with those revelations that always make him realize just how unsuited he is to raising a broken child. Slowly, he forces himself to turn away from the window and look at James.

Not now, he wants to tell him, even beg if he has to. My mind is a wreck, I can’t deal with this now, I won’t know what to say and I’ll just make things worse.

But James is looking at him with dull, dark eyes, and his hair is a mess after they’ve been running around London for most of the day, and without the usual tie around his neck he looks younger. Much too young to be told (again?) that whatever he’s feeling right now is not important because there are other things going on.

“Did he k…” Sherlock clears his throat and glances at the cabbie. “Did he make her go away like the other one? Did you see it?”

James shakes his head. “I didn’t see. But I heard her. She was angry, and she said she was quitting, and that she’d tell the police that he wasn’t taking good care of me. And then there was no noise at all. And a few days later there was a new nanny.”

As he'd expected, Sherlock has no idea how to reply. And he can’t even ask for John’s help this time. He struggles to find something to say, and when he eventually settles on, “If the nanny was nice, why would you be upset about staying with someone who looks like her?” it has to be the worst possible answer judging by James’ increasingly pained expression.

They finally get there. The cab stops before James answers. That’s probably a good thing. Sherlock doesn’t want to know just how badly he messed up this time. He can try to fix it later. When he knows John’s fine, he’ll be able to think more clearly.

He practically throws money at the cabbie before getting out. He’d run into the hospital if not for James’ words rising behind him, no longer as cool and detached as they were moments earlier.

“Because every time I see her I remember it’s my fault the nanny died. I hadn’t thought about her in a long time but now every time I see Mrs. Hudson I do and it… it hurts.”

It takes all of Sherlock’s self-control to stop and turn back to him. John is in there, somewhere in that too bright, too big building, and Sherlock wants nothing more than to assure himself he’s all right – please, God, let him live. But running away from what James just said… Sherlock knows what John would say if he did that. He knows it’s not good. Neither is he, he’s never pretended otherwise, but he’s been trying. And he has to keep trying. James bears his name, now. He knows things about Sherlock no one else does. He’s been confiding things to Sherlock he said he didn’t want to tell anyone. And he can’t keep on like this, carrying a guilt that doesn’t belong to him, hurting every time he so much as sees their landlady because his head is full of ugly memories.

Now if Sherlock could only figure out what to say…

“It is not your fault.”

There. That’s a good enough start.

“Of course it’s my fault.”

Or maybe not that good…

“James it wasn’t—”

“But it was!” There’s a growing note of desperation in James’ voice. The last time Sherlock heard it, James danced from tantrum to something that, in retrospect, might have been a panic attack. His words come out faster, too fast for Sherlock to jump in.

“If I hadn’t let her see the—the bruises she wouldn’t have been mad at Father and threatened him. It was stupid I should have hid them better. And—and the other nanny? If I had started practicing earlier I’d have finished before bedtime and she wouldn’t have died either. See? It was my fault. Both times. And if I stay with Mrs. Hudson maybe something will happen to her too and she’s nice and I don’t want that and—” He gasps, breathless. “And I didn’t mean… I’m sorry I upset you, I didn’t mean…”

Dropping to a crouch so he’s at eye level with James, Sherlock grabs his shoulders as gently as he knows how.

“You did not upset me,” he says quietly, although inside he’s screaming in frustration and anger at a dead man. “I’m upset because John was in an accident, not because of anything you did. I’m upset because your so-called father—” He has to take in a hissing breath before he can continue. “—not only hurt you but hurt someone who cared more about your well being than he did himself. It’s not your fault he was a psychopath. It’s not your fault he ever did anything. And it’s not your fault anyone died.”

He holds James’ gaze, watches him blink quickly a few times, listens to his breathing slowing down. Eventually, James gulps hard and asks in a whisper, “Are John and Mary going to die?”

Sherlock’s mind stutters. He has no idea anymore if all of this is about Mrs. Hudson, or the nannies, or the accident, or all of it, or something else altogether. He does know he’s just as scared as James is. And as much as he can’t bear the thought of John dying, he doesn’t want John’s wife to die either – doesn’t want John to have to go through that.

“I don’t know,” he whispers, letting go of James’ shoulders and standing up. He turns to the hospital again, and suddenly he doesn’t want to go in anymore. He’s spent his life in pursuit of knowledge, but here’s one thing he’s not sure he wants to know.

Cold fingers curl around his, a shy touch, barely there, and still comforting. It’s been three years since Sherlock held anyone’s hand. He doesn’t look down at James. They walk into the hospital together.

Chapter Text

Sherlock doesn’t like hospitals. He never did.

Some parts he doesn’t mind – labs or mortuaries are all right because they’re quiet. But the rest of it? The unending sounds of machines, of people talking in hushed voices, or crying, or calling out for help… The smells, antiseptic drowning a thousand other things… White walls, gray floors, the dreariness of a world that can’t allow cheery colors but is scared of somber ones… And the atmosphere, of course, misery permeating everything like a fine mist impossible to escape…

It’s suffocating. All of it.

Today, he barely notices any of it. His focus is like a torch beam, casting light only on what he looks at. He approaches the A&E desk. The voice of the nurse who greets him is familiar.

“Sherlock Holmes,” he says, absently noting her perfume and the mark on her neck that was hidden by make-up but is peeking out where she reached behind her to redo her ponytail. “You called me about John Watson?”

No recognition in her eyes; they’re bloodshot. Double shift? No, her clothes are still fresh. Busy day? It doesn’t seem so; according to the chart behind her, half the rooms are empty, though there are no names for him to figure out which one is John’s. Busy night yesterday; affair.

“I am the emergency contact on his phone,” he insists, his voice growing taut with worry and annoyance.

James’ fingers tighten briefly over his before James says, addressing the nurse, “John and his wife were in an accident together.”

Her dull gaze shifts to James, then back to Sherlock, lighting up with understanding. There’s something else in there too, in the way she smiles sadly. Pity. Compassion. Sherlock is feeling sick.

“Yes of course,” she says. “And you are… family, then?”

Lying has never been so easy. “Family,” he repeats, and says the first word that comes to mind. “Brothers. Can you tell me where to find him?”

He can see the question in her narrowing eyes before she asks. Different last names. He needs to start thinking, damn it.

“Half-brothers,” he corrects himself with an apologetic smile that feels like a grimace but that fools her anyway. “Can I see him?”

“In a moment,” she says, and Sherlock’s heart stutters, his ears suddenly buzzing.

In a moment means yes. In a moment means alive. In a moment means not so hurt that he can’t have visitors. Sherlock lets out a shaky breath that could almost be a prayer of thanks.

“The attending doctor would like to talk to you first. Would you mind having a seat while I go find him?”

And so they sit in the waiting room. The plastic chairs are uncomfortable. James has let go of his fingers and Sherlock absolutely doesn’t miss that anchoring touch.

They’ve only been there for a few seconds when his phone beeps. Habit rather than interest has him checking it.

Why are you at St. Thomas?
MH

Glaring at the phone, Sherlock stabs at the letters.

Piss off.
SH

A few seconds more and another beep; James’ phone, this time. He pulls it out and soon shows it to Sherlock, asking, “How does he have my number?”

Why are you at St. Thomas?
Mycroft Holmes

Sherlock snorts and shakes his head. “I’d be more surprised if he didn’t have it. Tell him to mind his own business.”

But judging by the amount of typing James does, and soon another beep from Sherlock’s phone, James’ message is a little more informative than Sherlock’s.

Let me know if I can help.
MH

Even if a doctor hadn’t been approaching them right then, Sherlock wouldn’t have replied. He jumps to his feet, hurriedly shoving the phone in his pocket.

“Are you John Watson’s doctor?” he asks before the man can say a word. “How is he?” After a second, he adds, “How is his wife?”

The doctor casts a slight, concerned frown at James. “Can we talk privately?” he suggests, already raising a hand to suggest they should step away.

“Just tell us,” Sherlock demands, barely managing not to snap. When he adds “Please,” it sounds more like an order than anything else.

After another brief look at James, the doctor speaks in a quiet voice, as though that’ll prevent him from hearing every word.

“Mr. Watson came out of surgery a few moments ago. He broke his left arm in two places and we had to insert pins. He bruised a couple ribs but nothing too bad. He lost consciousness at the scene of the accident but he was alert when he arrived here, and we don’t expect any complications.”

It’s all Sherlock can do to remain upright. Every bone in his body appears to have turned to jelly. A broken arm. After Sherlock imagined the worst, it feels like Christmas. Just a broken arm…

“What about Mary?” James asks, and all the warmth, all the relief flooding Sherlock’s mind simply vanishes as the doctor briefly looks away, his shoulders drooping noticeably.

She’s not dead, Sherlock tells himself before the doctor can say otherwise. She can’t be.

That’s a ridiculous idea. How could she be dead when she was invading Sherlock’s flat not two hours ago, laughing at something John said, clapping upstairs when James finished on the piano?

The doctor’s expression darkens, and his voice takes on comforting tones as he says, “I’m sorry, despite our best efforts Mrs. Watson passed away.”

Not dead, Sherlock thinks again. He hears the doctor talk about head trauma and internal bleeding, but the words don’t mean anything. She can’t be dead. She and John just got married. It was just weeks ago that Sherlock couldn’t bear the way John was practically incandescent with happiness. Just weeks, and Sherlock wanted her out of John’s life with a quiet desperation. But he never wanted her dead. He never wanted John to have to grieve for anyone else.

When small fingers tighten over his, it’s like a jolt of electricity pulling him back to the present. To reality. Away from magical thinking and denial. It doesn’t matter that she can’t be dead, because she is. It doesn’t matter that it’s not fair to John, because it never is.

“Does he know?” someone asks in a weirdly strangled voice, and it takes Sherlock a couple of seconds to realize it was him.

Not yet, the doctor says, and Sherlock understands. He understands why he’s here. They called him to be there and support John when they tell him. But that’s not how it’s going to go. Sherlock can’t let a stranger tell him. Someone who knows John should tell him. Someone who cares about him. Sherlock.

It’s not all that hard to convince the man. He must have delivered that kind of news too often already. He’s happy to leave that burden to someone else, for once. He shows them to the room where John is sleeping. And then there’s nothing to do but wait for John to wake up.

When Sherlock’s phone beeps, he winces and stops the alarm as quickly as he can.

“Dinner,” he says quietly, automatically.

Across the room, sitting very straight in the lone chair, James shakes his head. “Not hungry,” he whispers.

Sherlock doesn’t press the issue. He starts turning back to the window when words rasp behind him.

“Teaching him bad eating habits, too?”

He whirls back to the bed, and for the first time since entering the room makes himself really look at John. There’s a bruise on his cheek; airbag. Small cuts on his face, too; broken glass. His left arm rests at his side, the cast as white as the sheet beneath. The bruised ribs make themselves known when he tries to sit up and gasps in pain.

“Stay down,” Sherlock protests, approaching the bed.

“Yeah, I think that might be…” His voice trails off as he looks around the room. His brow furrows, and soon he closes his eyes and takes a shaky breath. “Where’s Mary?” he asks in a broken murmur.

He already knows, Sherlock realizes. Or at least suspects.

With a finger, Sherlock asks James to come to him and hands him some money. “There’s a machine in the waiting room,” he says quietly. “Go get yourself some hot cocoa or something.”

James, thankfully, takes the cash and goes without a protest.

Sherlock leans back against the wall and tries to figure out how to say it. In the end, he doesn’t have to.

“Did she suffer?” John asks, breathing hard. His eyes are still closed.

“Head trauma,” Sherlock says. “Internal injuries. She never woke up.”

John’s eyes close even more tightly. For long, long seconds, there’s no sound in the room except for John’s ragged breathing. And then…

“I need to see her, Sherlock. Please?”

There is no way Sherlock could say no. He pushes away from the wall with a quiet, “I’ll be right back,” and leaves the room. On his way to the front desk, he finds James standing in the hallway, his back to the wall, his hands wrapped over a steaming cup.

“Should I sit with him?” James asks.

Sherlock shakes his head. The last thing John needs right now is an audience.

Back at the front desk, Sherlock leans in close to say a few quiet words to the nurse. Her eyes widen at the word ‘affair’; she pales at ‘colleague’s husband’; swallows hard at the suggestion that he’ll hold his tongue if she helps him.

Moments later, they’re in John’s room. Sherlock pretends not to notice how red John’s eyes are when they help him out of the bed and into the wheelchair. The nurse mutters the entire time about how much trouble she might get into, and Sherlock ends up dismissing her after she tells him where to go.

He shrugs out of his coat and jacket, sliding the oversized scrubs provided by the nurse over his clothes. He doesn’t ask John if he’s sure or if he’s ready. The answers are obvious; yes and no, respectively.

The corridor seems endless. The left wheel creaks very softly with each revolution. They cross paths with a handful of hospital employees and Sherlock keeps expecting to be stopped, but somehow nobody questions their presence here. They end up in front of a double door. Sherlock pauses then, giving John a minute to change his mind – or maybe giving himself a moment to go through with it. And then they’re inside, and all Sherlock can see is blond hair peeking from under a sheet.

“Help me up,” John requests, his voice perfectly level, perfectly void of emotions.

Sherlock swallows back protests and helps him to his feet. And when John asks, “Give me a moment,” he holds back those protests, too, and steps outside. He resists for a good minute. Or at least half a minute. But eventually he peeks in through the small glass cut-out, and watches John stand with his head bowed, his right hand cradling Mary’s. His shoulders are shaking and Sherlock aches. He remembers with painful acuity the feel of John’s fingers trying to find his pulse, three years ago, and the sound of his voice.

God no.

He turns away again, only to see two scrubs-clad people wheeling a gurney toward him. They look at each other, then at him.

“Are you new?” the woman asks. “Where’s your badge?”

Sliding into a role is a relief. For a few moments, he’s not Sherlock anymore, not here with his mourning best friend and hurting right alongside him, hurting because John hurts. Instead, he’s a slightly dim new hire who lost his badge and caved in to a widower’s plea to be allowed to see his wife for a moment. They berate him about it, but he doesn’t care, not as long as they let John have the time he needs.

When he glances back in a moment later, John is struggling to get back in his chair. Sherlock rushes in to help, covers him with the blanket again, and wheels him out under the silent glares of the two attendants.

Back in his room, they find James sitting on the lone chair, Sherlock’s coat and jacket on his lap.

“The doctor came in,” he says. “He wasn’t happy you were gone.”

Neither of them answers, or at least not until John is back in bed and Sherlock out of the scrubs.

“Go get him,” John says then, his voice cool but level. “So he can tell I’m making a mistake in discharging myself and I can ignore him and do it anyway.”

“Are you sure,” Sherlock starts, but falls silent when John stares at him. There is a lot, in that stare. There are reminders of all the times Sherlock refused to stay in the hospital overnight when a case ended with a few scrapes or a blow to the head, all the times John promised to keep an eye on him and make sure he took his antibiotics or didn’t rip his stitches. There’s also the agony of having to remain in the place where Mary died.

Half an hour later, against medical advice, they’re climbing into a cab. John is wearing scrubs and Sherlock’s coat, one arm in the sleeve, the other cradled close to his chest. He doesn’t make a sound, but his tight features betray the pain of his ribs. There was a moment of panic when he was getting dressed and realized his wedding ring was gone. Retrieved from the bag containing his personal effects, it’s now on his right hand.

When Sherlock tells the cabbie to take them to Baker Street, John starts shaking his head, starts saying something… but finally seems to change his mind. Leaning back against the head rest, he looks through the window until they get home.

Home. Will the flat feel more like home, now that John is there again? It’s what Sherlock wanted when he came back to London, but he never wanted it to be like this.

The three of them are very quiet, going up to the flat. John refuses help to climb up the stairs, and Sherlock is reminded of the first time John limped up to 221B. Can so much really have happened in only five years?

When Sherlock tugs the coat off him, John looks at him. His pain is obvious both in the way he holds himself and in his narrowed eyes.

“You need rest,” Sherlock says, and steers him to his bedroom, only realizing when they walk in that it would be common courtesy to change the sheets. Before he can offer, John sits on the edge of the bed, then carefully lies down, gritting his teeth.

“I’ll get the painkillers,” Sherlock says, desperate to be useful.

In the kitchen, he pours a glass of water before retrieving the bottle of small white pills the doctor prescribed. Shaking the bottle to hear the pills rattle, he can’t help but remember that, not very long ago, he was contemplating getting high. A few of these would do the trick. The mere thought of it makes him gag.

Standing by the table, James watches him without a word.

“Eat something,” Sherlock tells him, more rough than he means to be. “Biscuits, toast, anything.”

“I’m really not hungry,” James says, his voice wavering a little.

“I know. Tea?”

“Will you have some if I make it?”

“I will but only if you have biscuits with it.”

It feels eerie to stand here and bargain about tea and biscuits as though nothing has happened, and Sherlock has to push back a pang of guilt, then a second one, back in the bedroom, when he helps John to a sitting position in order for him to take the pills with a bit of water. John tries to hide the pain, but a stifled grunt betrays him.

“I’ll check on you in a while, like the doctor said.”

John nods, eyes already closed. Sherlock tugs the blanket a little higher on his chest. He wants to say something, but what? ‘I’m sorry’ would be so far from enough, it’s not even worth voicing.

“Call if you need anything,” he offers, but John says nothing.

Leaving the bedroom, he goes to the sitting room where James and a cup of tea are waiting for him. They don’t talk. Half an hour passes, and Sherlock goes to check on John, finding him asleep. Another half hour, and this time when Sherlock returns to the sitting room, James is gone. Water is running in the bathroom.

Sherlock stands at the window and watches the street. It looks exactly the same as it always does. Shouldn’t it be different?

Quiet sounds behind him cause him to glance back. James is on the sofa, bundled in his blanket. Without thinking, Sherlock reaches for his violin and plays, as softly as he can, well into the night. On one of his regular pauses to check on John, he gets two muffled words from him.

“Thank you.”

Sherlock doesn’t reply and goes back to his violin.

Chapter Text

Sherlock wakes up in his chair, clutching his violin and bow to his chest and with a crick in his neck, never having noticed he was falling asleep. Judging by the amount of light filling the room, it’s still early. Very early. What woke him, he soon realizes, was noise in the kitchen.

The sliding door is closed almost all the way. Sherlock throws a quick look at the sofa; James is fast asleep, bundled in his blanket. After returning the violin to its case, Sherlock quietly walks to the kitchen, opening the door and closing it again without a sound.

John stands by the counter, staring at the kettle. He doesn’t seem to have noticed Sherlock coming in, and Sherlock doesn’t know what to say. When the kettle clicks shut, John blinks twice, as though awakening from a daze.

Shouldn’t you be resting? Sherlock very nearly says, but the words remain stuck in his throat. He watches in silence as John prepares two mugs of tea, using his right hand with some difficulty. He sets both mugs on the table, on the few inches painstakingly kept free of experiments. He sits in front of one, and only after touching his lips to the tea does he glance at Sherlock. If it’s not an invitation to join him, Sherlock doesn’t know what is.

He sits opposite John, cradling the mug in his hands but not drinking yet. The bruises on John’s face seem worse than they were yesterday, but that’s to be expected.

“Was it to my benefit?” John asks suddenly. His voice is quiet, but even so it sounds raw, as though he spent half the night shouting. “The violin, I mean.”

Sherlock would like nothing better than to say yes, but lying now would feel wrong. Lying never felt wrong before John.

“Actually, I was trying to play low enough not to disturb you,” he admits. “James had a bad night. I play for him when he does.”

“Bad night?” John repeats tonelessly. “How so?”

Shrugging, Sherlock peers into his tea. “Nightmares. Most of the time he can tell if he’s going to have bad dreams so he comes to sleep on the sofa and I play for him until he sleeps soundly.”

“What about the rest of the time? When he doesn’t know nightmares will come?”

“The walls are thin,” Sherlock says without thinking. “I can usually hear him.”

Only when the last word leaves his tongue does he realize he just admitted he used to hear John. He chances a look up. John frowns lightly but he doesn’t comment on it, and instead, after taking another sip, he asks, “Does he ever tell you about it?”

Sherlock glances at the closed door. He can’t see any movement through the tinted glass, or even hear anything, but he still lowers his voice a little more.

“Not explicitly. Some of it I can figure out from things he's said. Other things… frankly, I’m not sure I want him to tell me. I’d probably answer in the worst possible manner and damage him further.”

John shakes his head at that, though he quickly stops with a grimace of pain. Again, Sherlock wants to suggest he should go back to bed, but holds his tongue.

“You should give yourself more credit,” John says softly. “It’s a complicated situation but you’re doing better than you seem to think.”

For a second, Sherlock wonders if John is only talking about James. He doesn’t ask.

“I try,” he says instead. “I don’t always get it right, but I do try.”

John doesn’t reply, and silence falls between them. It’s not the easy silence they used to share. It’s something jagged, full of hidden blades; better to break it.

“Five years ago,” Sherlock says after finally taking a sip of his cooling tea, “before I met you, I wouldn’t even have tried. It’d never even have occurred to me that I could try, let alone do a good enough job of it.”

And he’s definitely not talking about James only.

With a pained smile, John nods. Silence falls again, and this time it’s John who soon breaks it.

“I need to go to the house,” he says, his gaze a little unfocused. “Get some clothes. Toiletries. Some other things.” A blink, and he looks at Sherlock with unexpected uncertainty. “Unless this was just for one night?”

“As long as you want,” Sherlock assures him at once. He wants to say ‘forever’ but maybe it’s not the best time for that. “And I’ll go get your things. You should rest.”

Follows a short argument, which Sherlock wins, because how could he not? John doesn’t have clothes here, and running across town in scrubs, with a broken arm and bruised ribs is a terrible idea.

“You can just text me if you think of something else you need,” Sherlock says.

The plastic bag of personal effects the hospital gave them is still on the table. Sherlock pulls out John’s phone and sets it on the table. He takes the keys, too. It’s just five keys on a plain ring, but they feel heavy in his hand. John stares at the phone.

“No one knows yet,” he whispers. “No one but us. It’s almost like it didn’t really happen.”

But it did happen. Sherlock only needs to look at John’s bruises to know.

“Do you want me to…”

He doesn’t finish, because he knows how stupid it sounds. He doesn’t like talking on the phone. He’s terrible at basic conversations. And anyway, how does one go about spreading the news that someone is dead? Sherlock has come across many dead bodies, but he never once wondered about that before. He’s never wondered either who told people of his death. Was it John? What did he say, if it was him? What will he say today?

Still staring at the phone, John seems to be asking himself the same thing. Sherlock decides he doesn’t want to know, not any more than he wants to know about James’ nightmares. He doesn’t want to know what John’s voice sounds like when he says the words ‘Mary’ and ‘dead’ in the same sentence.

“I’ll go now,” he says abruptly as he stands. “I won’t be long.”

John nods absently. He stands as well and mutters something about trying to catch a little more sleep. After a full mug of tea, that seems rather unlikely. He takes the phone with him.

Out in the sitting room, Sherlock considers James’ sleeping form. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to wake him; besides, he didn’t have an issue with being left with John before. On the other hand, Sherlock isn’t so much leaving James in John’s hands as leaving the two of them in each other’s care. In the end, he approaches the sofa. James doesn’t wake when Sherlock says his name, so Sherlock shakes his shoulder gently.

It quickly becomes clear it was a mistake. James bolts awake, sitting up and batting Sherlock’s hand away, his eyes wide and darting around as though looking for an escape. Grinding his teeth at his own stupidity, Sherlock takes a step back.

“It’s just me,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry I had to wake you. I wanted you to know I’m leaving the flat for a little while.”

James blinks a few times before his gaze focuses on Sherlock. He doesn’t say anything, though he nods, indicating he heard.

“Are you okay with staying with John? He’s resting.”

Another blink, another nod, and James asks in a whisper, “Should I check on him like you did last night?”

Sherlock glances toward the bedroom before looking at James again.

“No. Try to get some more sleep, it’s still very early.”

James lies down again, he even closes his eyes, but somehow Sherlock doubts he’ll be sleeping any more.

Getting out into street feels vivifying. The biting morning air wakes Sherlock better than a cup of tea did. He walks briskly down the street, giving himself a few moments. When he finally hails a cab and climbs in, his mind feels refreshed, and for the first time since the hospital called him he’s able to think about more than short term.

John is going to live with them. No set amount of time, but at least until his cast comes off. Maybe longer? Sherlock definitely wouldn’t mind longer. There’s the issue of two bedrooms for three people, but Sherlock can catch whatever sleep he needs on the sofa. It’ll be fine. Just fine. And maybe in a little while…

That thought gives him pause. ‘A little while’? It’s going to take more than ‘a little while’ for John to heal. He said he still talked to Sherlock’s tombstone after three years, and they were nothing more than friends. How long will he mourn for his wife?

Right there in this cab, stuck in an early morning traffic jam, it dawns on Sherlock that, even though he has John back in the flat the way he wanted, it’s not going to be the way he imagined it. For all of his contempt and disregard for societal conventions, Sherlock has a feeling that revealing his interest to John now would be the worst possible mistake.

Maybe with enough time…

But how long would be enough?

The question bounces through Sherlock’s mind all the way to John’s house, and he still doesn’t have an answer when he lets himself in.

It’s odd to be here alone. The house seems colder than when he was here last. He turns lights on as he goes. He’s never been to the second floor, but logic dictates that’s where he’ll find the bedroom. The first door he opens does contain a bed, but also a desk and a small amount of clutter. Spotting John’s laptop, Sherlock comes in and takes it with him. Guest bedroom or office, Sherlock assesses. Or maybe a room that might have become a nursery at some point. Would they have had children? Neither of them was all that young, but they were newlyweds.

Sherlock chases that thought away. Regardless of the answer, the point is moot, now. He’s about to leave the room when he spots the music stand in the corner of the room, and the open flute case next to it. He couldn’t say what makes him step to it. He only needs one look at the sheet music to recognize it. It’s his, the gift he gave Mary on her wedding day – the gift of John, even if she didn’t know that’s what it was.

Except… Maybe she did understand, Sherlock is shocked to realize. At the top of the first page, where Sherlock failed to write down a title, one word was written in pencil in a round, feminine handwriting.

John.

Sherlock turns away and leaves the room. His hand shakes a little when he closes the door behind him.

The next bedroom is theirs. Stepping in, Sherlock feels like an intruder. He pushes the ridiculous idea away and goes to the nearest dresser after setting the laptop down on the bed. He pulls the first drawer open, and closes it again right away. He doubts frilly underwear is what John needs right now.

The second dresser on the opposite wall contains John’s things, and it occurs to Sherlock that he needs something to put them in. He only has to open the closet to find what he needs, right at the back: suitcases.

He pulls one out, sets it on the bed and starts piling in John’s clothes, going methodically from one drawer to the next, then to the closet. It takes a bit of work to get the suitcase to close, but Sherlock is satisfied it’s enough clothes that John won’t need to come back for more.

Just as he draws the zipper closed, his phone chimes. He checks the message. It’s from John.

Bathrobe behind bathroom door.

And then, just a second later, Shoes.

A few seconds more. Address book by landline in dining room.

The next text says, I should be there.

Sherlock finally replies.

You should be resting.
I’ll get you what you need, and if you need anything else I can always come back for it.
SH

He pulls a second, smaller suitcase from the closet and opens it next to the first. He finds the robe in the en suite bathroom where John said it’d be. A pale lilac robe is hanging next to it, which Sherlock is careful not to touch. While in there, he grabs John’s toiletries, toothbrush, razor and shaving cream, as well as the boring shampoo Sherlock used to roll his eyes at while secretly enjoying its scent.

Back on the first floor, Sherlock finds the rest of what John asked for. He finds also more than that. Half the dining room table is covered in pictures, with a photo album open in the middle of it. One page is done, the pictures cropped and arranged just so with borders, stub tickets and whatnot, all of it documenting their honeymoon. The opposite page is still blank, still waiting to be worked on. Sherlock can’t imagine John doing this, so it had to be Mary’s project. It’ll never be finished, now. As his eyes fall onto a picture of a beaming John, Sherlock can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever see his friend be so happy again. He’s still staring at the picture when his phone beeps again.

I knew you for 2 years and then you died. I knew her for 2 years and now she’s gone. Is that al I’m alowed t have? Two yaers?

As much as the words themselves, it’s the spelling mistakes that get to Sherlock. He imagines John’s fingers shaking, his vision blurry, and his chest aches just as much as when he came back and understood he’d lost any chance he’d ever had with John.

He doesn’t notice he’s pulled a chair until he’s sitting at the table, clutching his phone in both hands. He wants to reply, wants to say something helpful, comforting, but all that comes up is, I didn’t die.

It feels like forever before John answers.

I still mourned your death. And she helped me through that. I don’t know if I can do it again.

Sherlock frowns at his phone. Unbidden, Lestrade’s words come back to him, about John’s gun, and how Lestrade didn’t trust him with it. Sherlock is suddenly glad John is not alone in the flat right now. He’ll feel even better when he’s there himself. Pushing away from the table, he types with one thumb while locating the address book he came in here to find.

My turn to help.
Done here. I won’t be long.
SH

He leaves the house with two suitcases and a resolution. Coming in, he was wondering how long he should wait before sharing what he feels with John. Now he has an answer. He won’t. He’ll be there for John, he’ll listen to him – just like John advised he ought to do with James. But there won’t be anything more than that. There can’t be. What John needs now is a friend, not more complications or demands. Sherlock can be that friend. He already is.

Chapter Text

A day passes. Then more. Everything seems gray and dull, like London’s sky, like John’s eyes, like the notes James coaxes from his keyboard as he learns his way through a new, somber piece.

What feels like an unending stream of people comes to visit. It's not even a dozen, really, but every time the doorbell rings Sherlock wants to shoot something. Preferably the doorbell itself, but a visitor might do in a pinch.

Some people he knows. Lestrade takes Sherlock aside before he leaves, and tells him to try and not be an asshole. Idiot. Molly hugs John. Then she feels it necessary to hug Sherlock as well. And James. The entire time, she’s trying to hold back her tears.

Other people, he vaguely remembers seeing at the wedding. They invade his sitting room, drink tea from his cups, talk to John in quiet voices that sometimes break when they form her name.

Mary was so young, they say. She was a newlywed. She was so happy to have found John. She was so proud of him. She loved him so much. She talked about him all the time, about what they did together, about his cases, about how they’d met. On and on, those people repeat the same platitudes.

Can’t they see every well-meaning word, every soft smile, every reminder of what John has lost is like one more cut to his heart? Can’t they see that brave smile is a mask, painted porcelain molded to John’s features, and with every new visit more hairline fractures appear until the mask is ready to shatter? Why are they all so cruel? And why is John enduring it all rather than shoving them all out of the flat? He never has a problem telling Sherlock when he is out of line, so why isn’t he telling them?

James sits through half of the first visit before excusing himself; after that, the ring of the bell sends him to his room for hours, reading and rereading every book on his shelves. Sherlock is tempted to follow his example and flee, but he can’t abandon John to those vultures that insist on reopening his wounds, over and over, as though watching him bleed out on the carpet would ease their own grief.

Once, an old lady visits – Mary’s cousin or aunt or who even cares who she is – and insists on narrating random anecdotes from Mary’s childhood. John’s small smile never wavers, but his fists tighten on his lap until his knuckles are bone-white. Sherlock’s hands shake with the urge to grab the woman by the neck and throw her out. It’s a near miracle he doesn’t do just that, but he does intrude on the one-sided conversation, abruptly announcing that it’s time for the visit to end as John needs to take his pain medication.

The woman begins to protest that she doesn’t mind waiting a little while, but Sherlock already has her coat in hand and he manages to send her away without calling her names even once – although as he firmly accompanies her down the steps, he can’t help but remark how lonely she must be now that her husband has left her house to move in with his gay lover. She leaves without another word, and Sherlock is rather certain she will not return to share more painful memories.

Coming back up to the flat, Sherlock braces himself for the predictable reproaches. He was rude, he knows that, even if he doesn’t care in the slightest. But John, still seated in his armchair, now with his eyes closed, doesn’t tell Sherlock off. Instead, he asks in a tired voice, “Tea?”

So Sherlock makes tea, and brings it along with the bottle of painkillers. John considers the while pills for a moment before setting them aside.

“Thank you,” he murmurs. “And not just for the tea.”

Sherlock nods once and settles a little more comfortably into his chair, bringing the mug to his lips and lowering it again in absentminded gestures. The room still seems to echo with Mary’s name.

“You never told me what you did when you were gone,” John says after a few seconds. “Where you went. Anything, really.”

“You never asked,” Sherlock retorts. “I asked if you wanted to know anything, and you didn’t.”

It feels like entire centuries have passed since that conversation. They were having tea, then, too, but John was in Sherlock’s chair, and Sherlock in John’s. Somehow, things are stranger now than they were then.

“Okay,” John says. “I’m asking now. Tell me about it. You were on the pavement. They wheeled you inside to Molly, I assume. Then what?”

So Sherlock tells him. He briefly mentions Mycroft coming to see his corpse with his own eyes, and how it was just as hard to play dead for him as it was to do so for John. He talks about being smuggled out to Molly’s apartment and lying low for a few days. John’s lips twitch and he almost, just almost smiles when Sherlock recalls how absolutely heinous Toby was, climbing into Sherlock’s lap repeatedly and meowing at him for hours on end while Molly was at work.

“Oh, yes, heinous behavior,” John mutters into his mug. “Which is clearly why you remember the name of a cat after three years when you can’t bother to remember most people’s names three minutes after meeting them.”

Sherlock gives him an offended look, and moves on with his story. He skips over seeing John at his grave, because ‘cemetery’ is not a word he wants to use right now. It was painful enough to accompany John to decide on the arrangements, and tomorrow promises to be much worse.

He goes straight to the part of the story about taking care of Mrs. Hudson’s wannabe murderer. John stares at him with a deepening frown, his tea forgotten on the armrest of his chair.

“Wait,” he says, raising a hand, when Sherlock finishes that part of the story and is ready to move on to Lestrade’s killer. “Just… wait. You went after that guy and you didn’t have a gun?”

Sherlock frowns back at him. “Well, I was trying to keep a low profile. Buying a gun on the black market at that point would have been like waving a flag toward Moriarty’s associates. I couldn’t know who had worked for him or not, so I couldn’t take that risk.”

John’s frown doesn’t abate. “I can’t believe you. You went after a killer for hire without a weapon. You’re an idiot.”

“Hardly.” Sherlock sniffs. “Firearms are not the be all, end all of weapons. I was armed. And I had the advantage of surprise. I ended up killing him with his own gun, actually.”

John shakes his head and mutters unintelligibly under his breath. Sherlock is about to ask if he wants to hear the rest or if he’s changed his mind when Mrs. Hudson comes in. She’s brought them supper – again. In the past few days, she’s made it her job to set food on the table twice a day, and to stand there, hovering, until John, James and Sherlock have all taken a few bites.

Why Sherlock is included in that irksome ritual, he has no idea, but he has the vague feeling that fighting her on this would set a bad precedent and allow his two flatmates to play the ‘not hungry’ card as well. So, twice a day, they crowd the kitchen table, which only hosts a very small, very sad number of experiments at the moment, and poke at their plates until Mrs. Hudson is satisfied and leaves them for the night, and later stash whatever food is left in the already too-full fridge. At least Mrs. Hudson has more sense than other visitors and doesn’t try to impose conversation where it’s neither needed nor desired.

Evenings are the time for violin lessons. After improving in leaps and bounds in the prior week, James appears to be stuck. Sherlock doesn’t mention it, but night after night, James grows more frustrated. Tonight, he doesn’t even want to try.

“Keep telling your story,” he says, settling on the sofa with his feet curled under him.

“What story?” Sherlock asks, though he can already guess.

James rolls his eyes. “The story of how you unraveled Father’s web. Did you know he liked you calling it that? He thought it was clever.”

“So… you heard?” John asks. Back in his chair, he looks exhausted – and he’s frowning again.

“More eavesdropping?” Sherlock says. “And getting better at it, it would seem.”

James shakes his head. “I don’t need to get better. I’m very good at it. I’ve always been very good at it. You only catch me when I want to be caught. So I can pretend to go upstairs and then listen in, or I can just stay here where at least it’s warm and comfy.”

Out of nowhere, a laugh bubbles up Sherlock’s throat, and it's all he can do to silence it. He should have known. Why didn’t he realize? Of course a child raised by Jim Moriarty knows how to eavesdrop without being noticed. And of course this particular child would use that skill and choose to be noticed whenever he wants to be included in the conversation. Of course.

And of course Sherlock isn’t going to finish his tale now; he doesn’t need John’s warning look to know that would be Not Good.

“You already know how the story ends,” Sherlock tells James. “I wouldn’t want to bore you.”

Or give you more nightmares.

James pouts. A lot. Which makes John almost-smile again. For a second or two, if Sherlock pretended not to see the cast or fading bruises, he could let himself think this is just a normal night, not the eve of something that promises to break John’s heart just a little bit more.

“Well, I’m right knackered,” John says, pushing himself out of his chair. “Good night, boys.”

Sherlock watches him go. It’s barely eight in the evening. Is he really that tired, or does he just want to be alone?

When water starts running in the bathroom, James asks, sotto voce, “Is he going to live here all the time, now?”

Sherlock looks at him and doesn’t know how to answer. It occurs to him suddenly that he has no idea what James thinks of John living with them. Maybe he’s been careful not to give any hint as to how he feels, or more likely Sherlock has been too preoccupied to notice. Either way, it might be a good thing to know for sure. If he is to be Sherlock’s son – no, there’s no ‘if’ about it, not anymore – his opinion is important. In this particular case it won’t change anything, but it still deserves to be voiced.

“I told him he can stay as long as he wants,” Sherlock finally says. “Are you okay with that?”

James shrugs. “It’s your home. If you’re okay—”

“Not just mine,” Sherlock cuts in. “And I just asked what you think.”

Another, smaller shrug, and James seems suddenly very interested in the state of his fingernails. “There aren’t enough bedrooms. You can’t sleep on the sofa forever.” And then, in the tiniest of whispers, he asks, “Unless you’re going to sleep in the same bed as John when he’s better.”

At that very moment, the water stops running, and Sherlock’s heart does a weird little stutter-then-wild-pounding thing that threatens to leave him gasping. He holds his breath and listens; the click of the lights being shut in his room – in John’s room – allows him to breathe again.

“That is not something I care to discuss,” he whispers, and gives James a look that will hopefully quell any desire to revisit that conversation in the future.

James jerks as though he’d been slapped. “Yes, sir,” he replies instantly. “I think… I think I’ll go to bed, too.”

Three people in a tiny flat, and here they are, not very much longer after eight, having used all the hot water and retreated to their beds – or sofa, in Sherlock’s case – each of them alone but none of them probably ready for sleep, not when morning will bring unpleasantness.

Sherlock closes his eyes and tries not to think of the last funeral he attended. He’s tried to delete that day many times, but it refuses to go anywhere, as infuriatingly stubborn as Sherlock’s father could be at times.

Sometime around midnight, the silence in the flat is not quite so complete anymore, and Sherlock’s throat tightens. He doesn’t know what words, if any, would help, so he does what has become as instinctive as breathing: he gets up, opens his violin case, applies a little rosin to the bow, check that the violin is perfectly tuned, and before a minute has passed from the first muffled sob he’s applying bow to strings.

For a few seconds, he’s aimless, pulling long, shivering notes from his instrument. To ward nightmares, he usually favors slow, gentle melodies. Tonight, his bow takes him to Vivaldi. Winter is not a gentle concerto, at least not in the beginning, but it feels appropriate; life is not gentle, either.

Just to be contrary, when he finishes this piece, he goes on to Autumn, but he soon grows bored with the melody and switches abruptly to a Bach sonata. He’s in the middle of it when a door creaks open, and without stopping he turns to watch John walk into the room. In the dark, Sherlock can’t make out his eyes. It’s better this way.

For a few seconds, John stands still at the edge of the room. Eventually, he comes forward, his robe unbelted as the sleeve doesn’t fit over his cast and he can’t put it on properly. He sits on the sofa for a few minutes, then lies down, much in the same position Sherlock was in earlier.

Sherlock finishes the sonata, ending it with a quivering, fading note before he lowers his bow.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he says, just to say something.

“You didn’t wake me,” John replies mildly.

“Good.”

Sherlock raises the bow again, but before he can decide on what to play next, John asks, his voice a little sharper, “Is it? Is it good that I wasn’t sleeping in the middle of the night?”

Sherlock freezes. “No, of course, I didn’t—”

“You knew I wasn’t sleeping, Sherlock,” John cuts in. “Don’t play games.” He sighs. “Play the violin instead.”

And Sherlock would, but his mind his suddenly blank, and he couldn’t think of a music piece on his own if his life depended on it.

“Any request?”

For long seconds, John says nothing. Eventually, he murmurs, “Will you play our waltz?”

It’s quite possibly the very last thing Sherlock would have played tonight – or even ever again. But that’s what John asked for, so that’s what Sherlock plays, easily falling into the one-two-three tempo. He knows if he closes his eyes he’ll have flashes of the wedding, so he keeps them resolutely open all the way through. When he reaches the end, without thinking he moves on to a different waltz, this one a little more lively.

“Our first dancing lesson,” John says in the middle of it, “this is what was playing. I was so terrible. It was like being a teenager again and not knowing what to do with my hands and feet.”

He doesn’t say Mary’s name, doesn’t even allude to her, but she’s right there in the room with them. For his next piece, Sherlock returns to Bach. Anything but a waltz.

After another half hour or so, John’s eyes are closed, his breathing regular. Sherlock stops playing and watches him for a few seconds before putting down his violin and walking to the bedroom. He comes back with a blanket, and can’t help but feel briefly amused when he crosses paths with James, also carrying a blanket.

“Was I too loud?” Sherlock asks very quietly.

James shakes his head. “I couldn’t sleep.”

While Sherlock drapes the blanket over John, James curls up in John’s armchair, making himself small and wrapping the blanket around him. Sherlock wants to object – the sofa is one thing, but an armchair is no place to catch a good night of sleep – but after the cool ‘yes sir’ from earlier, he doesn’t want to appear to be rejecting James.

“Will you play for me?” James asks from within his cocoon.

“What would you like to hear?”

“Can you play the first one I heard you play?” James asks at once, as though the request was ready to be voiced. “You know, the one you wrote.”

Sherlock glances at John. Still asleep, but there he is, and Sherlock thought he’d never get to do this – never get to play his song where he could hear. His chest aching for no reason whatsoever, Sherlock rests the bow on the strings for a few seconds, breathes in, and starts playing.

Later that night, when silence has fallen again, now undisturbed, and Sherlock sits in his armchair, keeping guard over his sleeping companions, it strikes him how very odd this is.

Three people in a tiny flat, and at this very moment he, Sherlock Holmes, called a freak by some, a psychopath by others, a sociopath by himself and three separate psychiatrists, might just be the least damaged of them all.

Chapter Text

Silence reigns in the flat.

Morning has come, and with it the familiar sounds in the kitchen and bathroom, water running, boiling, chairs scraping on the kitchen floor, silverware on wood and porcelain, footsteps going back and forth, first bare, then in shined shoes.

And still, silence. Not a word rises between the three shadows dancing around each other. No offer of tea or toast; no silly question like ‘are you okay?’ and no lies either.

Standing in front of the fireplace, Sherlock checks his tie in the mirror. He hadn’t worn one of the stupid things in years, and now twice in just weeks. The circumstances couldn’t be more different, and yet. He remembers feeling like he was going to a funeral, last time. Today, he really is.

When Sherlock’s phone rings, the sound almost feels sacrilegious, as though they were already in church. Sherlock picks up the phone from the desk, intending to shut it off, but a glance at the display changes his mind and he answers the call.

It’s Lestrade, and he gives Sherlock the exact kind of news part of him was desperately hoping to hear: murder case. Sherlock hasn’t had a case in days, and a good one in much longer than that. Lestrade doesn’t give details, but if it requires his urgent attention, it might be an interesting one. Lestrade didn’t call to ask for Sherlock’s help, though; he called to apologize for having to miss the funeral.

“Why call me?” Sherlock asks, refraining with great difficulty from asking where the crime is located.

“John’s phone is off, and his inbox is full, won’t take any more messages. Texting would have felt wrong.”

Would it? Sherlock frowns as he says he’ll transmit the message. What’s wrong with texting?

Better to wonder about that than wonder how soon would be acceptable for him to leave once the ceremony starts.

Just as he pockets his phone, John walks into the sitting room. He slit the sleeve of his shirt to be able to wear it with his cast, and the sleeve hangs oddly over his arm. He managed to do the buttons, but the tie hangs around his neck, undone.

“Could you…” He gestures vaguely at his neck. His voice sounds rough. His eyes are red, and Sherlock can’t meet them.

Nodding, he steps closer to John and flips the collar of his shirt up before taking hold of the tie. His fingers feel a little numb but he manages to knot it decently enough, folds the collar back down over it, then tightens it a little. He still can’t look at John, so he looks at the disaster that his sleeve is.

“Thanks,” John says, then follows the path of Sherlock’s gaze. “Yeah, that seemed like a good idea in my mind. Maybe not so much after all. I thought maybe I’d tape it to the cast. Do we even have tape?”

If they do, Sherlock has no idea where it is; no idea either what to say so that John’s words won’t sound so hollow. Turning around, he strides to the desk and riffles through the assorted mess that covers it.

“Lestrade called,” he says, upending a box of odds and ends before moving on to the next. “He can’t come. He says sorry.”

There’s a beat before John answers. “Case?” he asks, sitting down in his chair.

“Murder,” Sherlock confirms, getting annoyed. Where are the damn things? He thought he’d seen them just—

Another box, and this one is the right one. He pulls a handful of safety pins out and approaches John, who’s looking at him with a perfectly blank expression that freezes Sherlock in his tracks.

“John?”

“Go ahead,” John says coolly. “Say it.”

Taken aback, Sherlock stares at him. There is something he wanted to tell John, indeed, but he can’t anymore, and especially not now. It can’t be what John means, though. Can it?

“Say… say what?” he asks.

“Go ahead and tell me Lestrade needs you and you can’t come to the funeral.”

Sherlock blinks and starts forward again, setting the handful of safety pins on the low table. He opens one and starts pinning John’s sleeve together.

“Not going to say it,” he says. “Lestrade did without me for three years, I’m sure he’ll survive one more day.”

John doesn’t reply. He watches Sherlock work, angling his arm to make it easier.

“Why do you even have these things?” he asks when Sherlock finishes, linking the two longest pins together so they’ll fit at the widest point and secure the shirt around John’s wrist.

“Case,” Sherlock says. “Punk club. I needed proper attire.”

“So you… what? Put safety pins in a shirt?”

It’s the most life Sherlock has heard in John’s voice or seen in his face today. It makes him want to tell the whole tale. Later, maybe, when they have more time.

“As I recall,” he says, “there were more pins to that outfit than actual fabric. Do we need to do the same to your jacket?”

“Not sure. Maybe I’ll just let it hang over my shoulder. Let me—”

He starts to push out of the chair. Sherlock rests a light hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll get it.”

When Sherlock enters his bedroom, his gaze goes straight to the stereo system, the way it has every time he’s walked into this room since John moved in. He knows it’s silly of him, knows there is no reason why John would decide to look into a compartment he doesn’t even know is there, but the nagging fear is there and will likely stay there until Sherlock can retrieve what he hid. For now, he only takes the black suit jacket laid out on the bed and returns to the sitting room just in time to witness James redoing John’s tie.

He stops mid-stride, affronted. “What was wrong with it?”

James looks at him with an expression more reminiscent of his father than ever. It doesn’t help that his hair is slicked down and combed ever so precisely, or that his suit, one of the suits they picked up from the tailor a few days ago, fits to perfection.

“It was crooked,” he says coolly, running an absentminded hand over his own tie. “Yours is too. Do you want me to redo it for you?”

John makes a sound that sounds suspiciously like stifled amusement, and Sherlock’s outrage vanishes in a flash. James can go ahead and mock him all he wants if it means John will almost-smile for just a second.

“My tie is not crooked,” he mutters. “Here, John.”

He hands the jacket over. It takes a bit of work, but the sleeve fits over John’s cast, too tightly to be attractive but that’s not really the point of today.

Silence returns, deeper than ever as they take a cab to the church. The closer they get, the more uncomfortable Sherlock’s tie feels, tightening like a noose around his neck. He tries to keep his breathing under control, and is fairly certain John doesn’t notice. James, on the other hand, gives him the strangest of looks when they get out of the cab, and before they enter the church he asks, “Could we… could we stay in the back? Close to the doors? Please?”

John’s brow tightens and he offers James a painful-looking smile. “Of course,” he says in his most gentle voice. “You and Sherlock can do that, yes, if that’s what you prefer. Right, Sherlock?”

Words are beyond Sherlock, so he merely nods. They walk in together, and Sherlock watches John step forward down the aisle toward the coffin that holds his bride. It feels so wrong, so very wrong. Funerals always do.

Sherlock isn’t afraid of death, not his own, not the death of other people – or at least, not many other people – and dead bodies are little more than data to him. Funerals, though… funerals are a place where people show too much emotion, where sentiment bursts in every tear, even when they’re held back. He’d rather be anywhere in the world right now than where he stands, useless, unable to even offer the support John needs, having to watch instead as the priest they met two days ago comes to shake John’s hand and offer what are probably the right words, those words Sherlock can’t find, however hard he’s been trying.

“Sherlock? Do you want to sit down?”

Standing at Sherlock’s side, James is tugging gently on his sleeve to get his attention. He looks worried.

“Sit, yes,” Sherlock murmurs. And after they’ve slid into a pew, he adds, “Thank you. For. You know.”

“You’re welcome,” James says quietly. “You don’t like funerals much, do you?”

Sherlock wouldn’t have answered, but it turns out he doesn’t need to, because Mycroft answers in his stead.

“No, he really doesn’t. Good morning, James. Sherlock.”

Before Sherlock can object, Mycroft sits on Sherlock’s right, hooking his umbrella on the back of the pew in front of them.

“What are you doing here?” Sherlock hisses, glaring at his brother.

“Attending a funeral. Are you doing anything different?”

Trying hard not to fall apart, Sherlock doesn’t say. He doubts it’s needed, doubts Mycroft is here for John or Mary. Doubts Mycroft has forgotten what Sherlock did after the last funeral they attended.

“Did you send your lackeys to make a mess of my sock index?” he asks, injecting as much scorn as he can in the words.

Mycroft adjust his cuffs. “Honestly, Sherlock. We both know you wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall into that again now that you’re a father.” The slightest of pauses is followed by an oblique look. “Would you?”

For an answer, Sherlock gives him a scathing glance before resolutely turning his attention to the front of the church. If there’s one thing he can trust Mycroft on, it’s to force himself where he’s not wanted – and to know where he’s needed, too.

The next hour or so is interminable, and things start to blur a little around the edges, past and present overlapping until Sherlock isn’t sure anymore who’s in that coffin. It doesn’t help that, from where he sits, he can’t see John.

Sherlock doesn’t know how he ends up in the graveyard, but it’s where he’s supposed to be, so he supposes that’s good enough. James is still at his side; Mycroft is gone. John stands a small distance away, shaking hands, thanking people for coming. It has to be almost over, then. Thank god.

“Sherlock?” From the tone of James’ voice, it’s not the first time he’s tried to get his attention. When he sees he has it, he asks, “Do you know… do you know where Father is buried?”

In Sussex, Sherlock wants to say, before he realizes that’s not right. Wrong person. Has James been thinking of his father through this entire ordeal, too?

“I don’t know,” he admits, and finds he needs to clear his throat. “But I can find out.”

Mycroft would know, probably. Or maybe Lestrade. Sherlock slides a hand in his pocket and curls his fingers around his phone. If he texted either of them, would it be to ask about Moriarty, or to say something very different? He could ask Lestrade how his investigation is going; ask him if he needs help – but that would mean disappointing John. He could tell Mycroft about the stereo system, and that would be taken care of and off the table before they set foot in the apartment again – but then Mycroft would know, and that would be almost as bad as John knowing. He draws his hand from his pocket, leaving the phone in there.

“Would you like to visit his grave?” he asks James, trying to distract himself.

“No.”

The answer comes out fast; too fast, maybe. For the first time today, Sherlock gives James a proper look, though his mind is still too muddled to observe much. James shifts under the scrutiny, clearly uncomfortable, and when he speaks next, it’s in a whisper.

“I mean, if I went, I wouldn’t even know if he was really there, would I? Like you had a grave but you weren’t there.”

Sherlock can feel the question hanging over them, a question he’s answered before, but he suspects he’ll need to answer it again and again. John needed to see Mary to believe; Sherlock doesn’t have a body to show James.

Seconds pass, enough time that Sherlock starts to hope James won’t ask – but he finally does.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” It’s a tiny murmur, and if Sherlock didn’t know already what James is asking, he’d need him to repeat. “I know you said… But are you really sure?”

Not for the first time, Sherlock wonders what answer James really wants to hear. Does he even know himself? From his own admissions, life with Moriarty was at times unpleasant to the extreme, and surely he wouldn’t want that back. But there’s a picture hidden somewhere in James’ room that says it wasn’t always bad – that says maybe James cared for his father despite the reasons he had not to. Sherlock, unfortunately, can understand that much.

“I am sure,” he says, resting a tentative hand on James’ shoulder. “I don’t know what you want me to say, James.”

James shakes his head. “Just the truth.”

“All right. The truth is that he’s dead. The truth is that he’s not coming back. Not even if you want him to.”

James’ frown is instantaneous. “Of course I don’t want him to come back. He was a bad man.”

As far as understatements go, this one is rather spectacular.

“He was,” Sherlock agrees. “But he still was your father and you still have a right to miss him.”

“Well I don’t,” James mutters, looking away.

Sherlock doesn’t call him on the lie.

At long, long last, John is done talking to those too many people and they can finally go home. Silence returns, broken only by Sherlock’s phone informing him it’s time for lunch. John requested that no repast follow the funeral, but he and James need to eat, so once they get to the flat Sherlock makes them sit down and reheats whatever he finds in the fridge. Neither eats much, but they do eat something, so that’ll have to be enough. Or at least, that’s what Sherlock tells himself when James asks to be excused only moments after sitting down.

“Is he all right?” John asks once they’re alone.

As he leans back against the counter and considers his friend, Sherlock wishes he knew the answer to that question. He wishes he dared ask if John is all right – but that answer, he knows.

“It was hard for him,” he says quietly. “It made him think of his father. Not exactly the best of topics.”

“No, I guess it’s not,” John murmurs. “But he’ll be okay?”

His eyes meet Sherlock’s, then, and Sherlock isn’t sure anymore whom they’re talking about. He can remember, all of a sudden, the end of the church service, and waiting for John outside the church. He remembers John shaking Mycroft’s hand, and thanking him for coming. He remembers, also, John talking, asking Sherlock something that just didn’t compute, and Mycroft answering for him. He remembers John’s concerned look.

Of all days to fail him… Sherlock was supposed to be there for him, to be concerned for him, and instead he let what is practically ancient history reemerge and take on more importance than it deserves.

And this is why Sherlock can’t ever tell John, he reminds himself. Even if John felt the same way, which is a rather unlikely prospect at this point, it wouldn’t be fair to ask him to care for someone who can’t care back the proper way.

“He’ll be okay,” he says, because John still expects an answer and because Sherlock will do his best to make it true, for both James and John. He only hopes his best will be enough.

Chapter Text

That afternoon, James remains upstairs, playing the same piece over and over – the melody he played back in his father’s home, the one with a passage that gives him trouble. Some iterations of the melody are smoother; on others, he stumbles worse than ever. As a whole, though, little by little, he seems to be conquering his block.

Sherlock keeps an ear on the notes drifting down from upstairs, part of him assessing the music, another part unable to decide if he should talk to James or not. If he tried, what would he say?

So he stays in the sitting room instead, the tea he prepared forgotten on the low table beside John’s chair as Sherlock tells him the rest of his story, picking up with Lestrade’s would-be killer, briefly mentioning how he contacted Mycroft to save Lestrade’s job and how Mycroft instantly offered him any support he could.

“I’d never known my brother could experience guilt until that moment. I may have abused his subsequent good will.”

John snorts quietly at that. “Of course you did. And if you ask me, you should keep doing it. I was so mad when I realized how this mess started with him.”

He’s still mad even now, Sherlock realizes at the heat in those quiet words. Mad on Sherlock’s behalf. The thought shouldn’t be so pleasant, surely. But at least, it’s distracting John from other things he could be feeling right now. Sherlock keeps on with his story.

As he starts to describe his search for Moran, pieces of the puzzle click in his own mind. James mentioned leaving clues behind, and now that he knows the child better, now that he has some distance from the hunt, Sherlock can see which clues were left intentionally, and which ones he found on his own.

In his distraction, it takes him a while to notice that John has grown very quiet. It's not until Sherlock reaches the end of the story and the moment he met James that he realizes John is upset. But upset about which part? The lives Sherlock took? Sherlock alluded to those before, and John didn’t seem too distraught over the idea; he was a soldier, surely he must understand this was a war.

In a blink, the answer comes. Of course. Obvious. That’s the problem, right there.

“This might not have been the best day to share war stories,” he says, apologetic.

John clears his throat. His eyes are dark, unfathomable. “I doubt there’s any good day for that.” He observes Sherlock for a moment before shaking his head. “Three years on the run. Even now I know what you did, what was done to you, I can barely imagine it.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Sherlock says. “I did what was necessary, but it wasn’t always easy.”

Under John’s stare, Sherlock grows a little ill at ease, enough so that he shifts in his chair until he finally has to mutter, “What?”

“Not easy?” John repeats in a low voice. “You tell me about being caught and beaten and…” He takes in a deep breath before he continues. “And what you say is that it wasn’t easy?”

Sherlock stands. He should have skipped those parts. They don’t matter to the story. He tried deleting them, in fact, but his mind palace has been betraying him for a while now, and memories cling there that should be gone. Picking up the tea tray, he takes it to the kitchen and rinses porcelain before it can stain, leaving it all in the sink for later. When he returns to his chair, he’s considerably calmer, and John’s continued staring doesn’t bother him as much.

“When I first met you,” John starts, and stops as though unsure how to continue. He soon picks up again. “That first night. I had people warning me you’re a psychopath.”

Donovan, Sherlock guesses right away. Either her or Anderson, but Anderson wouldn’t have cared to warn anyone.

“Did I just prove Sally right in your eyes?” he asks, trying but probably failing to sound indifferent. He cares little for what Donovan thinks of him, but John’s opinion was always important – from that first night, yes. Long before Sherlock examined his own heart.

“No, Sherlock,” John says forcefully. “No. Psychopaths don’t spend years dismantling criminals organizations, disregarding their own health in the process, all to protect the people they care about. Heroes do.”

It’s Sherlock’s turn to stare. Of all the reactions he had anticipated, this one never even crossed his mind. “That’s not a term that could ever apply to me, John.”

John rolls his eyes a little. “Yeah, well, I went to war and came back a wounded veteran, I think I’m more qualified than you to decide who’s a hero.”

“As a hero yourself, you mean.”

John’s eyes seem a little too shiny before they look away.

“God, listen to us, we’re maudlin,” he says gruffly, the shadow of a smile softening the words. “And sober. I didn’t know we could be maudlin while sober. Where do you hide your good scotch?”

The change of topic surprises Sherlock. He starts to push out of his chair before thinking better of it.

“Really? Is that what you want?”

John closes his eyes and loses his almost-smile. “Yes. No.” he sighs. “I don’t know. It’d help for the next few hours but there’s always a morning after, isn’t there? And people are still dead in the morning.”

‘People’, Sherlock notes. Not ‘Mary’. The leap is easy to make.

“How much did you drink while I was gone?”

The almost-smile makes a return, now with a distinctly bitter tinge. “Enough to give Harry a run for her money for a while. Enough to scare myself out of the bottle.”

Out of the blue, Sherlock thinks of Lestrade and guns.

“Better if we don’t start down that road again, then, isn’t it?” he says. “Easier not to start than to stop.”

John raises an eyebrow at him. “Speaking from experience?”

“Quite possibly,” Sherlock replies guardedly. This is not a topic they’ve ever touched, not directly at least, not since that ridiculous ‘drugs bust’ on that first night they keep getting back to.

“You ever get tempted?” John persists.

Sherlock drums his fingers on the armrest, his gaze flicking up to the ceiling. James is still playing, still going over that difficult patch, although he almost has it mastered. Now would be a wonderful time for him to give up and come downstairs – but of course, he doesn’t, and Sherlock has to answer somehow.

“I don’t think you really want to know.”

“I asked,” John says simply. “If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t have asked.”

“Then maybe I’m the one who doesn’t want you to know.”

“You’ve told me everything else.”

No, I haven’t, Sherlock thinks, looking away again. I kept the most important part to myself. I didn’t tell you about that night in Serbia, when I escaped my captors and all I could think of was you, and how the thought that I could have died without seeing you again made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t tell you that for the next three days while I lay low and rested I thought of you exclusively, and how much of my mind you’ve taken over without even trying. I didn’t tell you how I felt when I realized I didn’t regard you merely as a friend anymore. How scared I was. How I almost came back to London, right then and there, just so I could see you, tell you, get it off my chest and stop being so afraid about your reaction. It’s because I’m a coward that I didn’t come home. How silly was it, really, that I was more afraid of telling you three ridiculous words than I was to confront professional killers?

And he must still be a coward, because he’d rather tell John about the drugs now than about his feelings.

“I have been tempted, yes,” he admits, reigning in his discomfort so that his voice remains cool. “Remember danger nights?”

He’s not supposed to know about that, but for some things Mycroft is appallingly transparent.

A tiny frown mars John’s forehead as he says, “I do, yes. We never found anything.”

“That doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything to find.”

John’s face falls. Disappointment is lurking. Sherlock can’t bear to let it rise.

“But I didn’t,” he adds quickly. “I used to keep… a safety stash, I suppose I could call it. Just in case.”

“In case what?” John’s voice makes it clear he doesn’t understand. How could he?

Sherlock shrugs. “In case my brain got too noisy. In case I got too bored. In case the world became too unbearable.”

The next few seconds are torture, more so than anything that happened in Serbia, or even South America. Sherlock watches John, taking in every minute twitch of eyebrows, every quiver of his lips, waiting to hear what is going on in his mind as he can’t figure it out.

“Did you…” John grimaces, shifts in his chair, and starts again. “While I lived here, did you ever—”

“No. I can very honestly say that in all the time I’ve known you, I haven’t followed that path once.” If he’s said that much, Sherlock figures, he might as well say it all. “And very honestly, if not for you, I probably would have.”

John’s face, always so expressive, is frozen in shock. He runs a hand over his mouth.

“I… I’m glad you didn’t. A mind like yours… Any mind, really. But yours especially. It’s too much of a waste.”

Sherlock’s mind, at this moment, plays a trick on him, and refuses to let him think of anything except for his bedroom, and what’s in there. He makes his decision in an instant, and acts before he can think of reasons why not. It’s probably a terrible idea, but keeping quiet is probably an even worse one. Sherlock doesn’t like being a coward; he can bear the necessity of it where his feelings are concerned, but nothing more.

When he stands, John gives him a questioning look. Sherlock buttons his jacket reflexively to keep his fingers busy and preemptively stop them from shaking.

“Could you help me with something?” he asks, the words sharp as blades.

John seems to pick up on his seriousness at once. He sits up straighter. “Anything.”

Sherlock nods. “Come with me?”

John follows him to the bedroom, and it’s as though they’re walking to battle. Trying not to think about what he’s doing, Sherlock goes to the stereo system, pulls it forward, and opens the compartment in the back. He doesn’t reach in, and steps back instead, retreating until the back of his leg hits the bed. He sits and watches as John steps forward and peers in.

“So.” John’s voice is void of anything resembling emotions. “That’s the spot we never found.”

Sherlock nods. “Would you… would you throw that away for me?”

John doesn’t move. “Has it been here all this time?”

It seems John is intent on stripping every secret from Sherlock – or is it Sherlock who’s ready to expose all of himself? Or rather, almost all of himself.

“No,” he murmurs, looking at John’s feet rather than meet his gaze. “I threw away the previous stash when we came back from Baskerville.”

“Okay. Why?”

“Because I was drugged, there. I lost control of myself. I couldn’t trust my senses, and I really didn’t enjoy it. So I threw my stash away.”

Sherlock chances a glance up. John is nodding as though to himself.

“All right,” he says quietly. “So this.” He gestures at the stereo. “This is recent.”

Sherlock grimaces. “More or less.”

John starts to cross his arms before remembering his cast is in the way. He puts his good hand on his hip instead.

“What does that mean, ‘more or less’?” he asks mildly.

“Would you just throw it away please?”

John’s mouth turns to a thin line. “Tell me first why you bought this. Why now.”

Why did this seem like a good idea just a moment ago? Sherlock chastises himself. He walked into this willfully, and clearly he shouldn’t have. He’ll have to remember this if he ever has the urge to spill the last of his secrets.

“I didn’t buy it,” he says blankly. “I took James to see my mother. This… this was leftover from a long time ago.”

“Why did you take it home with you?”

Because you weren’t answering my text. Because you weren’t in London. Because I hadn’t seen you since giving you away to your wife. Because this isn’t what I came back for.

“I’m not nearly drunk enough for confessions, John.”

“You’re not drunk at all.”

“Exactly.”

John seems to understand this is all the answers he’s going to get today. He gives a short nod before reaching into the small compartment and pulling out its contents. He takes them into the bathroom, and Sherlock listens to water flushing, then running in the sink. When John comes back, his cheeks are pink, the unbuttoned collar of his shirt stained with water droplets; he splashed water on his face.

“I think we both could use a drink,” he says, and while his voice is less cold than it was a moment ago, it’s also a little unsteady. “Just the one.”

Sherlock nods. “Maybe yes.”

When they walk out of the bedroom together, it’s to find James in the sitting room. He watches them with a slight frown, his eyes flicking to the bedroom behind them. For no discernible reason, Sherlock’s cheeks feel warmer all of a sudden.

“Are we having dinner?” James asks.

They never do have that drink.

That night, Sherlock plays the violin preemptively. It must work, because he can’t hear any hint of nightmares, nor does anyone join him. He remains alone in the sitting room, alone with his thoughts, and regrets, and the one secret he can’t and won’t share.

Chapter Text

Sherlock runs.

Something is on his heels. Or someone. He’s not sure. He doesn’t want to look back and check. He doesn’t want to slow down and let whatever, whoever it is catch up with him. If he stops now, he’s not sure he’ll ever manage to start again. He’s so tired of running, so tired of being scared, of being cold and alone, but it feels like running is all he’s ever done – it’s the only thing he knows how to do anymore.

Darkness surrounds him. He can’t tell where he’s going. Sometimes, flashes likes gunshots light up the world, but all they do is cast ephemeral shadows. Sherlock’s feet are bare. The ground feels frozen beneath them. His back hurts, and his side. He thinks his wounds may have reopened. Maybe the thing that pursues him reopened them. Maybe—

Hands. Hands on him. The thing's caught him. He freezes and a whimper dies in his throat. He waits for pain.

But no pain comes. Instead… softness. Warmth. And a slow awareness that’s he’s lying on the sofa.

Blanket, his sleepy brain supplies. John.

He keeps his eyes closed, keeps very still, keeps his breathing even, and lets gentle hands tuck a blanket around him, the bottom wrapped around his cold toes, the top brushing against his cheek like fingertips.

Or are those actual fingertips?

The question drifts through his mind the same way he drifts into warmth, half there and half not, half asleep and half not, aware of the sounds, the voices coming from the kitchen but unconcerned by the meaning of words that are like music, like comfort – like two violins playing together.

“Sherlock said you met his mother. What is she like?”

That voice, Sherlock knows well. It’s rough like early mornings and strong coffee. He likes the way that voice says his name. In all those years he was running, Sherlock heard that voice, sometimes, when he was lonely.

He heard it all the time.

The voice that answers is lighter. Too sweet tea and blueberry jam on toast. The clink of silverware on porcelain for highlights. “Haven’t you met her?”

“Not really. I saw her at—”

A splash of bitterness. Sherlock burrows under his blanket until the warmth chases away cold churches and eulogies.

“I saw her once. But I didn’t talk to her. And he never mentions her.”

Sherlock’s hand tightens on the corner of blanket he grasped. Tight, trembling hand.

“She’s nice.” More sugar still until the tea is like syrup. “I like her a lot. She showed me the whole house when we first got there. And later she played the piano with me and gave me sheet music when we left.”

Trembling hands on piano keys, hitting discordant notes in a way they never used to. Even back then, Sherlock preferred the violin. You can’t play the piano while standing. You can’t play the piano while dancing. Sherlock always danced to his own music, but only when no one could see. He didn’t dance at the wedding. He never will. The blanket is tangled around his legs.

“That does sound nice, yes.” The coffee isn’t so strong or bitter anymore. Just warm. Sherlock stops fighting his blanket. “Is she… you know. Like Sherlock?”

Sherlock, the voice says again. Warm, warm like blankets and tea. What is Sherlock like? He doesn’t know but it has to be good if it’s warm.

“I guess so. She knew about my father and she didn’t mind. I was afraid she would. Mycroft does.”

Not so sweet anymore. The jam is tart now. Mycroft prefers apricot jam, sweet enough to rot teeth.

“I think Mycroft’s primary job is to worry. And worry extra hard about what goes on in Sherlock’s life.”

Sherlock Sherlock Sherlock, the voice keeps saying, and Sherlock wraps himself in the sound of his own name, drifting a little more toward that too elusive sleep, letting the voices just pass through him like fingers carding through his hair.

“Did he worry about you?”

“He practically kidnapped me the first night I met Sherlock.”

“Were you scared?”

“Annoyed more than scared. I don’t find Mycroft particularly scary.”

“Father didn’t either.”

Silence booms through the flat, and Sherlock jerks awake. Still wrapped in his blanket, he doesn’t move, but he blinks several times, trying to figure out what happened for that quiet breakfast conversation to come to a screeching halt. He catches on just as James apologizes.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”

“That’s fine,” John says, and even manages to sound like he means it.

Does he mean it? Sherlock can’t tell, not without seeing him. He could see him. He could stand, join them in the kitchen, have breakfast with them. It’d be nice. Domestic. When did Sherlock start to appreciate domestic things? When he was on the run and away from home for three interminable years? When he had no one to fix tea or coffee for him, or tell him to eat something or sleep, no one to tuck in a blanket around him? When it occurred to him he might have let his chance at having all this pass him by?

He lets the chance pass again now, and remains where he is, closing his eyes once more but now fully awake and listening to quiet words about a dead man.

“No it’s not fine. I shouldn’t mention him to you. There’s no reason you should have to hear about someone who wanted you dead.”

“James, it’s fine, I promise.” John sighs quietly, so quietly that Sherlock guesses the sound in the pause of his words rather than really hears it. “I’m not going to pretend I liked your father because I really didn’t, but it doesn’t mean you have to pretend he didn’t exist. Unless that’s what you want to do, and if it is that’s fine too.”

Another pause, and this one is James’. Sherlock pictures him blank-faced, as he so often is when he mentions his father, as though he’s afraid to show anyone what he feels – show anyone that he still misses the abusive bastard who barely knew how to show love to his son other than with blows. Would James still love him if he knew that up on that rooftop, the thought of him, if it even crossed his father’s mind, wasn’t enough to stop him from pulling the trigger?

“I don’t understand,” he says finally, the words tight and unhappy. James only enjoys puzzles he’s able to solve. “You and Sherlock, you didn’t like him, and he tried to kill you both, and still you don’t mind too much when I talk about him. But Sebastian, he actually liked Father. He liked him a lot. But every time I mentioned him he’d get really mad.”

A quiet alarm chimes in Sherlock’s mind. James talking of Moran rarely leads to anything good – but John doesn’t know that. Feeling groggy, Sherlock wrestles the blanket off him until he manages to sit up.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” John says at last – and oh, those are the words Sherlock would have used, too. “I didn’t know that man. I have no idea what was going on in his head. And I’m fairly certain I never want to understand him.” Lower, he adds, “That was the man who hurt you, wasn’t it?”

The alarm doesn’t chime anymore. It screams. Sherlock stands, straightening his dressing gown in what is absolutely not an attempt at delaying anything.

“James,” John starts very gently. Sherlock can see him now across two rooms. He’s as apologetic as his tone suggests. What is he seeing in James’ eyes right now? “I’m so—”

“Did you get mad,” James interrupts a little too loudly, “when people talked about Sherlock when you thought he was dead?”

Sherlock’s breath catches in his throat. He still hasn’t taken a step toward them.

“Not mad,” John sighs. “Just… sad, I suppose.”

James pushes on in the same too loud, too cold voice, and Sherlock cringes long before he is done.

“Do you get sad when people talk about Mary now? All these people visiting, and then the funeral. That must have been horrible. How long do you think you’ll be sad?”

Until this moment, John was sitting a little hunched, both hands wrapped over a mug that is probably empty by now. He sits back in his chair, putting distance between him and James as his face turns to an icy mask. Sherlock knows that mask quite well. It’s the expression John always has when he reproaches Sherlock for not caring enough about people – the one that goes with words like ‘disappointed’ and ‘machine.’ Sherlock doesn’t like that mask, not one bit.

“You’re trying to hurt me,” he says coldly. “I said something about that Sebastian guy that upset you, so now you’re trying to say something that’ll upset me.”

Excellent deduction, Sherlock thinks as he steps forward. But what a time to be deducing anything…

“I don’t care what you think you know about Sebastian,” James says, his chin rising up. “And I’m not upset.”

Don’t lie to John, Sherlock told him, ages ago. Too upset to remember, maybe.

“Well, I am,” John snaps, standing so abruptly that the chair almost falls behind him. “Good job. You really are your father’s son. Except he was a damn better liar than you are.”

Sherlock is too late. There’s nothing he can do other than stand there as John stomps out of the kitchen without so much as a look toward him. It’s mere seconds before the bedroom door slams behind him. Only then does James push away from the table and stands. He’s looking at the floor as he comes out, keeping close to the wall and remaining as far from Sherlock as possible as he starts toward the staircase.

“James,” Sherlock starts, but when James freezes mid-step he doesn’t know what to say next.

“May I go to my room?” James asks in an agonized whisper.

“This isn’t—”

“May I please go to my room?” James insists. His voice breaks. Tears aren’t far.

Sherlock nods and watches him go, feeling vastly out of his depth. He’s still not sure what just happened, how they went from what seemed like a pleasant enough little talk to slamming doors and tears. How is he supposed to fix this? It’s hard enough to fix things when he’s the one messing up; this is beyond him.

He steps into the kitchen to get some breakfast, but loses his appetite when he notices that an empty mug and a plate with a slice of toast had been set for him at the head of the table. They were waiting for him. Would his presence have changed anything? He can usually tell when both of them are becoming agitated. Maybe he’d have been able to stop whatever happened before it got too far. Maybe…

His phone beeps in the other room. He goes to get it and is still reading Lestrade’s text when John comes out of the bedroom, wearing jeans, a jumper that hides his cast, and shoes that tell Sherlock, before John even picks up his jacket, that he’s going out.

“Where—” he starts, alarmed, but John is already answering.

“Out. I’ve been cooped up in here for days, I need some fresh air.”

Sherlock glances at his phone before sliding it in his pocket without answering. “Give me a minute, I’ll—”

“I can be left alone, you know,” John cuts in again, raising his voice. Even from across the room, Sherlock can see how dark his eyes are. “I appreciate what you’ve been doing for me, Sherlock, I really do. But you won’t always be there and I need to—”

“Who said I won’t?”

The question seems to take John by surprise. A whole array of expressions crosses his features and his mouth opens and closes twice, though no word comes out.

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” Sherlock says. In his dressing gown’s pocket, his hand is closed tight around his phone. “If you want me gone, that’s something else. But if you’re expecting me to tire of this…” Sherlock swallows hard. “I won’t.”

With the lightest of frowns, John nods, then looks away. “I need some fresh air,” he says again, more quietly now, and turns to leave, only to come toe to toe with James.

“Will you come back?” James asks in a small voice.

He’s not crying, but his eyes are bloodshot.

“I will come back,” John replies with no inflection whatsoever.

They observe each other for a couple of seconds and finally talk at the same time, using the same words.

“I’m sorry.”

Backing away, Sherlock sits down in his armchair, holding his breath.

“You were right,” James says. “I was upset so I tried to hurt you in return. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No,” John says softly. “You shouldn’t have. But people do stupid things when they’re upset. Like bringing up painful topics. I should know. I did it too. And I really am sorry. You’re nothing like him and it wasn’t fair for me—”

Before John can finish, James all but flings himself at him with such force than John has to take a step back. James’ arms close around John’s waist for the briefest of hugs. John barely has time to pat his shoulder and already James has pulled away, running off and back up to his room.

When John turns a baffled look to Sherlock, it’s all Sherlock can do to smile thinly. Apparently, he doesn’t need to try to fix everything. Things sometimes get better on their own.

Chapter Text

Standing behind the window, Sherlock watches John cross the street and soon disappear. The temptation to follow him is there, but an echo of John’s voice in his mind warns him that it wouldn’t be good. Better not to aggravate John any further. Besides, trailing someone with James in tow sounds like a much worse idea than ‘not good’. The next text from Lestrade decides him.

Did you get my message? Can you come?

Give me an hour.
SH

Sherlock rarely asks for that much time to get to a crime scene, but he has a feeling he’s going to need it. Not to get ready; a quick shower and getting dressed only take minutes. James being upset, on the other hand, will certainly require some damage control, and Sherlock rather dreads that discussion. He stands at the foot of the staircase, adjusting his jacket and weighing his options. He could just call James, tell him they’re going out, and pretend nothing happened. But if the pattern holds, James is going to have a breakdown. Sherlock would rather have it happen here than where the Met could look on.

Steeling himself, he climbs the steps. The door is only halfway closed. Sherlock pushes it open and steps into a room that, at first glance, is empty. His heart has just enough time to jump in worry before he finds James.

From the way the furniture is arranged, the bookcase and night table form a small, almost fully enclosed space in the corner of the room. There’s just enough room for a slim body to shimmy past the night table. Through that opening, Sherlock can see James sitting on the floor with his back to the wall and his toes pressed to the book case. His knees are raised in front of him, his arms around them, his face hidden. Sherlock understands, suddenly, why James insisted on having the bookcase on this side of the room. Has this happened before, with Sherlock downstairs and oblivious? Did James have a hiding spot like this, back in his old house?

Sherlock is still trying to decide what to say when James asks, his words muffled against his knees, “Do you think… do you think I am like him?”

The question is not entirely a surprise. The answer, though, is problematic. A simple ‘no’ wouldn’t be enough, but what is it James needs to hear?

“Tell me about him,” Sherlock says.

He’s about to take a seat at the foot of the bed but thinks better of it. Instead, he walks around it to get the chair in front of the piano, setting it by the window, where he can see James in his hiding corner. The boy has raised his head and frowns at Sherlock.

“What?”

Sherlock tugs at the cuffs of his jacket, adjusting them absently so he won’t have to look at how red James’ eyes are.

“Imagine I’ve never met him,” he says. “How would you describe him to me?”

Long seconds pass before James finally says, “He was… intelligent.”

Sherlock nods. He might not have started with this, but he can’t argue with that assessment. “He was, yes. One of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.”

James unfurls a little more, resting his head against the wall. “He said the same thing about you,” he offers in a murmur.

Sherlock nods again, but doesn’t comment on that. James mentioned it before.

“If we’re looking at him through that lens,” he says instead, “then yes. You are like him. I’ve only known one child to be so smart at such a young age.”

After a slow blink, James asks, “Yourself?”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock mutters with a grimace.

Frowning, James stares at the side of the bookcase rather than at Sherlock. “Oh.”

“Don’t look so disappointed,” Sherlock says dryly. “As much as it pains me to admit it, and I’ll deny it if you ever mention this conversation to him, he is smarter.”

James’ eyes return to him, still narrowed. Questions aren’t far off, but Sherlock has no desire to discuss his and Mycroft’s relative intellects.

“Right,” he says, clapping his hands once. “Moving on. How else would you describe your father?”

Again, James needs another few seconds to decide on an answer.

“He was… volatile.”

It’s still not the first thing Sherlock would have mentioned if asked to describe Jim Moriarty. It tells a lot about how James chooses to see his father – but that’s not what this is about.

“Interesting choice of words,” he says. “Accurate, too. I’ve seen him go from bored to full-on manic in about three seconds.”

James snorts quietly. “I’ve seen it happen faster than that.” His eyes close briefly and he adds in a whisper, “And that’s another way I’m like him.”

“I don’t believe that’s true,” Sherlock says, frowning.

“Yes it is.” James’ voice is louder now, with that edge that always creeps in when he’s getting agitated. “You’ve seen me have tantrums for no reason. Not an hour ago I said something ugly to John just to hurt him.”

Sherlock shifts in his chair, then stands, unable to stop himself from pacing. James’ eyes follow him through the small room.

“Do you think I would tolerate tantrums if they happened without cause?” Sherlock asks mildly. “I’ve told you before and I’m sure you’ve noticed by now. I am not a patient man. If you were irrational, you wouldn’t still be here and you wouldn’t be wearing my name.”

“But—”

Coming to a stop by the bookcase, Sherlock shakes his head and cuts in before James can object any further.

“You lash out when you’re hurt. I know very few people who don’t. I do. So does John. But there’s quite a difference between your father’s volatility and your own defense mechanisms when something or someone upsets you. In this aspect, you are definitely not like him.”

For a few moments, James considers him in silence. In the end, he inclines his head in the tiniest of nods.

“So… In one way I’m like him,” he says quietly, “and in another way I’m not. That still doesn’t answer my question.”

He’s getting the point that this is not a black and white answer – not that Sherlock had expected anything different.

“Then tell me what else he was,” he says.

It takes James even longer than before to come up with an answer, but when he does, there’s no hesitation left in his words, only a dullness that scrapes against Sherlock’s bones like a knife.

“He was a killer.”

And that’s where Sherlock would have started. Not with this exact descriptive, but maybe it’s best to avoid labels right now. Sherlock knows all too well how much these can stick to someone’s mind.

“I’m not sure that’s the best word for what he was,” he says, retrieving the chair and pulling it closer to James before sitting down again. “He didn’t only kill people himself. He had others kill for him, too. He had little regard for human life or for anyone’s suffering. Would you agree?”

There’s a lot more to it, and for a second James looks like he wants to make that point, but in the end he seems to realize it’s best to keep things simple.

“I… yes, I guess so.”

Sherlock hesitates, then. He’s entering treacherous grounds, and with James already upset he’s not sure this is the best of ideas. How else can he give James an answer that will satisfy him, though?

Leaning forward, he rests his forearms on his knees and clasps his hands. “You said you never killed anyone. You said you had the opportunity to kill Moran, but you didn’t. Correct?”

Looking confused as to where Sherlock is going with that, James nods.

“Tell me about it,” Sherlock asks.

James’ confusion only grows deeper, inscribed on his face like words printed in a book. “About what? Not killing him?”

“Yes. How would you have done it?”

Still frowning, James licks his lips. He’s nervous, Sherlock realizes.

“His gun,” James finally says, barely louder than a murmur. “It was just like mine. Like the one Father bought for me, I mean.”

There’s something in his hesitation, but Sherlock urges him on with a nod. “Go on.”

“He… he’d left it on the floor.”

James’ voice grows a little rougher, and he’s staring at the bookcase again, his eyes a little unfocused. As he continues, Sherlock quickly understand why.

“The holster, he’d left the holster on the floor. He barely ever took it off. It was always around his shoulder, with the gun against his side. He could draw the gun in just a second. He practiced all the time. He was really good at it. Normally he put it away when…”

James’ throat clicks when he swallows. He falls quiet for a few seconds. Sherlock says nothing and waits.

“But one time. When he… he left his clothes on the floor. And the holster. And the gun was in the holster. I saw it after he’d fallen asleep. It was just a little too far so I couldn’t grab it without getting out of bed. But I could do that. He didn’t care if I stayed or not after… after he fell asleep. He never woke up when I got out of bed. Anything else, noises, or cars in the street, he’d wake up in a flash, but me, he ignored me.”

There’s so much bitterness in his words that Sherlock can almost taste it.

“So I watched the gun,” he goes on very low, “and I figured it all out. I was going to get out of bed, and get dressed, and pull the gun from the holster, and switch the safety off, and then I’d stand next to the bed and hold the gun very steady with both hands and aim very carefully and say his name until he woke up and then I’d shoot him in the head.”

Through it all, his fingers twitch on his knees. Did he practice in his mind what he’d do? How much time did he spend thinking of all that, preparing himself for something that did not happen?

“But you didn’t,” Sherlock says quietly, surprised at how raw his throat feels.

James doesn’t reply with more than a blank look that spells out, ‘Why are you stating the obvious?’

“Why not?” Sherlock insists.

“Because I’m a coward,” James breathes, and there’s something in the words, in the way he says them, that makes them sound like something he’s reciting after learning it by rote.

“You’re no such thing,” Sherlock snaps, sharply enough that James is startled and looks at him with wide eyes. Sherlock tries to get a grip on himself before he continues. “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again. Tell me what changed your mind.”

James stares at Sherlock for a little while, shifting a little as though to push deeper into the corner and disappear.

“I don’t know,” he mutters. “I got out of bed, and then…” He shrugs. “When Father was teaching me to use guns, I liked shooting at the paper targets. That was fun. But then he made me shoot at pigeons and rabbits. I didn’t like that so much. And I thought about Sebastian’s head all… broken, and bloody and I wanted him gone, I swear, I wanted him gone more than anything in the world.”

His eyes turn pleading, begging Sherlock to believe. His throat too tight for words, Sherlock nods, and James continues.

“But I didn’t… I couldn’t do it.”

That’s, more or less, what Sherlock expected to hear. He nods again.

“Your father would have,” he says coolly. “If someone had hurt him the way Moran hurt you, he wouldn’t have just killed them. He’d have taken his time and made them wish they were dead long before he was ready to kill them.”

James closes his eyes and whispers, “I know. And all this time, I wished Father was still alive, so he’d find us and kill Sebastian. That’s not any better than wanting to do it myself. So I guess I really am like him.”

Sherlock sighs. That’s really not the point he was trying to make.

“No,” he says forcefully. “You’re not like him, James. Not in the ways that matter. The point is that you did not kill Moran, even if he deserved to die. The point is that you chose not to. The day after we met, you said something to me. You said I was supposed to show you how to be good. You don’t need me for that. You’ve got it figured out already.”

James scrutinizes Sherlock as though looking for the truth. Sherlock meets his gaze without hesitating. He means every word he just said. He only hopes James can believe him. And maybe he does, because in the end he says, “Thank you.”

“You have nothing to thank me for,” Sherlock says as he stands.

While he returns the chair to its proper place, James slips out of his hiding place.

“You killed Sebastian for me.”

Looking at those red eyes, Sherlock is tempted to let this pass, but what would be the point? He didn’t even know James existed when he killed Moran, and James knows it, even if he’s choosing to ignore that fact for the moment.

“No,” he says gently, “I killed him for John. But if I could do it again, I’d make him wish he was dead long before I was done with him. And that, I’d do for you.”

“Thank you for that, then,” James says. A tiny, barely there smile tugs at his lips. “But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

“No, it probably isn’t. Luckily I’ve got you here to tell me that.”

The smile widens just a little bit more, and Sherlock breathes a little more easily. It seems he successfully navigated this obstacle course.

“Lestrade texted me,” he says, remembering why he first came upstairs. “Do you want to come to a crime scene with me?”

James’ eyes light up with interest, although he asks, “Will I have to stay outside again?”

“Not if I can help it,” Sherlock says, already starting down the steps. “They removed the bodies already so Lestrade should have no reason to object to your presence.”

When he reaches the landing, James is right on his heels. “If there are no bodies why does he want you there?”

They shrug into their coats on their way down to the first floor.

“Because he’s out of his depth and he knows it.”

“Or he’s trying to be nice to you.”

Sherlock snorts as they step into the street. “Why would he?” he asks, hailing a passing cab.

“You saved his life. He should be thankful. I know I am.”

James’ words give pause to Sherlock as he opens the cab’s door. “I didn’t save—” he starts, but James cuts in with a quiet, “Yes, you did.”

It’s the complete blankness in James’ eyes before he climbs into the cab that clues Sherlock in. The realization is not a pleasant one, especially given the way Moriarty died. That James considered the same ending for himself sits like a lead weight in the pit of Sherlock’s stomach. Surely there’s something he should say right now. Anything at all would be better than silence. But, as is so often the case, Sherlock’s mind is blank. He averted one crisis earlier, but this, maybe because it’s not as dire, he has no clue how to deal with.

When they get there and get out of the cab, Sherlock touches James’ shoulder briefly to get his attention. For once, there’s no flinch or immediate tension, just a questioning look.

“Stay close,” Sherlock says, and James gives him a nod and a thin smile. Maybe it’s enough for now.

Chapter Text

“No. Absolutely not. I told you before, I’m not letting a kid onto my crime scenes.”

For all the force Lestrade puts into his protest, Sherlock would think that there’s an entire squad from the Met observing them, with a few journalists taking notes to boot. But no, they’re alone, which only adds to the absurdity of Lestrade’s disapproval. Unfortunately, as he’s standing in the house’s doorway, arms crossed and legs braced, Sherlock can’t exactly push past him without bowling him over, and that wouldn’t help anything.

“You said the bodies were removed,” Sherlock points out with a roll of his eyes. “So what could possibly be your problem now?”

Lestrade glares that much harder. “My problem is the giant prat who thinks dragging children where people have been murdered is all right. Bodies or not, it’s still a bloody crime scene, Sherlock. And when I say bloody I mean that literally.”

Sherlock is preparing a scathing retort when James pulls the wind right out of his – and Lestrade’s – sails.

“Dad didn’t drag me here,” he says, guileless and wide-eyed. “I wanted to come. You know. So we can do something fun together.” After a beat, he adds, grinning, “And I’m not afraid of blood. You should see what Dad keeps in the fridge.”

Such a small word, but it startles Sherlock. He hadn’t given thought to James calling him that, and if he had, today of all days would have seemed like an unlikely time to start. He’s not sure how he feels about it. The term is accurate, legally speaking, but Sherlock certainly hasn’t done anything to earn the title.

As hard as he’s staring at James, he almost misses the flicker of James’ eyes toward him – and the triumphant gleam that makes them lighter.

James’ gaze returns to Lestrade. Sherlock’s follows. And then he gets it: Lestrade is wordless, and ready to cave in.

“Ah, yes.” Sherlock clears his throat and rests a hand on James’ shoulder. He manages to sound a little choked up when he says, “I didn’t get a chance to tell you. I formally adopted James. So you see? You and your son have football, and James and I have crime scenes.”

Lestrade’s mouth opens, then closes again in a very convincing approximation of a fish. After a few more seconds, he manages two breathless, incredulous words.

“You… adopted…”

The mere thought of it seems to be too much for his brain.

“What?” Sherlock snaps, and his annoyance isn’t completely faked. “Are you implying I can’t possibly be competent as a father?”

“He’s very good at it!” James interjects at once, continuing the charade.

Blinking repeatedly, Lestrade looks from Sherlock to James and back. And finally moves to the side to let them in.

“Second room on the right,” he says, quite unnecessarily. The yellow tape rather gives it away.

Sherlock ducks under the tape. James follows. Lestrade remains in the hallway and asks, “Do you want to know—”

“Nothing right now,” Sherlock cuts in. “Give us a moment, would you?”

Muttering about a phone call, Lestrade steps away and, by the sound of it, out of the house. Sherlock starts taking in the room – living room, two bodies outlined on the floor, one more on the sofa, and Lestrade wasn’t joking about the blood.

“Dad?” he says under his breath, crouching down to observe the splatter pattern near the closest body. There’s a bit of dirt there, too, and he scrapes it into a small plastic container he pulls from his pocket.

James, standing by the sofa, glances back at him before leaning in close to the cushions. “It worked, didn’t it?”

So, as Sherlock thought, this was all for Lestrade’s benefit and to gain access to the room.

Or was it?

Standing up, Sherlock approaches the second outline. Part of his mind is filing away clues – sizes and shapes of the blood drops, the fresh stain of tea on the carpet, tiny shards of porcelain. Another part is still stuck on a ridiculous three-letter word.

“Finding anything?” he asks, annoyed with his own distraction.

“The killer, I think. It smells like gunpowder.”

Sherlock joins him, thinking. Lestrade said triple murder. He didn’t mention anything about a suicide. James might be a bit quick in jumping to conclusions here, especially when they don’t even have bodies to observe. But it is gunpowder, yes. An old weapon, but cared for. Judging from the pictures on the mantelpiece and the framed medals on the wall, some military souvenir. He needs to see the evidence that was gathered here. And the bodies.

“Is it going to happen again?” he asks, as he takes a closer look at the sofa cushions.

“What, murder?” James asks blankly.

Sherlock gives him a look.

James turns away. “Did it bother you?” he mutters, stepping over to the fireplace to examine the pictures there.

“It took me by surprise,” Sherlock says.

“You’re not answering my question.”

“You didn’t answer mine.”

They’re facing each other, now. James’ hands are deep in his pockets, but Sherlock can see they’re closed into fists.

“It won’t happen again,” James says after a few seconds, and again his voice is devoid of anything Sherlock can identify. “It obviously bothers you. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t. Like I said, it was unexpected. But an excellent call on how to manipulate Lestrade.”

James watches him for a few seconds, then gives a small nod before tilting his head at the shapes drawn on the carpet and the bloodstains around them. “What can you tell from those?”

The study of blood splatters is an infinitely easier subject than the one James seems ready to shelve, and Sherlock doesn’t mind talking about impact, caliber and arterial spray. As he does, though, he can’t help but hear that word again, like an echo at the back of his mind.

Not two weeks ago, his mother commented on how she never expected anyone to call her ‘grandmother’. Sherlock certainly never imagined a child calling him ‘dad’. He never cared all that much about it, either. He called his own father ‘sir’ or ‘monsieur’, depending on whether he wanted to annoy him or not. There is a lot in a name, in what people choose to call themselves, or each other. And as he watches James nod again at what he is explaining, Sherlock realizes that there was nothing innocent in the use of that word. James was shamming for Lestrade, no doubt there. But he was also checking Sherlock’s reaction; testing him. And Sherlock is rather certain he failed.

“We’ll have to see what bullets they recovered from the bodies,” Sherlock finishes, “but I’m reasonably sure I’m right. Also I think we need to agree that whatever you decide to call me, it won’t be ‘father’.”

The shift in topics doesn’t seem to faze James; clearly he wasn’t done with that conversation either.

“Definitely not that, no,” he agrees.

“So… are you going to…”

James shrugs. “Not now. Maybe later. I don’t know.”

Lestrade comes back, relieving Sherlock from the need to find an answer. Not just a phone call; a cigarette, too. Sherlock rubs at his arm absently. He still needs at least two patches at a time but the urge is easier to control. Whenever he thinks of lighting up – like now – his mind summons the image of perfectly round scars on pale skin and he feels like gagging.

“So, what do you have for me?” Lestrade asks.

Sherlock tells him on the way to Scotland Yard, and in return Lestrade tells him what forensics found so far.

“Listen,” Lestrade says then, glancing at James in the rearview mirror. “We were alone in that house, but it’s different at the Met. You think this is all interesting, all right, but I’m already stretching the rules letting Sherlock see my files and my evidence, I can’t—”

“I understand,” James says quickly. “It’s okay. Thank you.”

Which is how James ends up again on a chair outside the conference room while Sherlock examines evidence and forensic pictures. He gets so lost in what he's doing that he doesn’t notice how much time has passed, and only when he’s done talking to Lestrade and looks out does he realize James isn’t there anymore.

His stomach does a rather unpleasant little dance and he all but runs out of the room, James’ name already on his lips. It takes him only seconds to find him, seated in front of a computer in the middle of the room, Donovan perched on the desk next to him. Sherlock strides over to them, and as he does the screen comes into view. Sebastian Moran stares straight at him from the features reconstruction program. Sherlock freezes mid-step. It’s not a perfect rendering, these things never are, but to anyone who has ever met the man, there can be no doubt it’s him.

“Yes, we can search right from the program,” Donovan is telling James. “We’ve got pretty extensive databases. It doesn’t always work, because people aren’t usually very good at remembering, but it can…”

She notices Sherlock, then, and her relaxed expression tightens into a frown.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she says, standing up and crossing her arms.

Sherlock glares down at her. Part of him understands she was trying to be nice to James, but that doesn’t negate those few seconds of sheer panic he experienced when James wasn’t where he was supposed to be. “In the future you’ll be so kind as to tell me where you’re taking James before you do.”

She snorts. “Like you were paying attention. Poor kid was bored out of his mind. All I did was give him a distraction, so stop acting like I was molesting him.”

Sherlock’s gaze flies to James. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t react in any way to Donovan’s words except for closing the composite drawing he created, erasing Moran’s image from the computer. Sherlock’s fists close of their own accord, and it’s all he can do to remind himself she doesn’t know. She couldn’t have used worse words, but she didn’t do it to hurt James, she just doesn’t know. And if Sherlock tears into her the way he wants to right now, then she might guess why he’s so upset and that’s unacceptable. He’s told the people he thought needed to know, but Donovan is definitely not on that list.

He inclines his head toward her ever so slightly even as he says, “Come on, James. We’re done here.”

James thanks her before following Sherlock, but the smile he gives her melts away long before they reach the lifts.

“She didn’t—” Sherlock starts, but James doesn’t let him finish.

“Did you find out anything interesting?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says sharply as they climb in, the metal doors closing on them. “But I’m trying to say—”

“I know what you’re trying to say.” James stares straight ahead of him. “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to talk about it. Bad enough that you… that anyone knows. I’m fine. Tell me about the case.”

And Sherlock would – he’d even like that a lot better – but he can’t let this drop so easily.

“If you’re fine—” What a stupid, ridiculous, idiotic word, “why were you reconstructing Moran’s face?”

James throws a blank look up at him. “Because I started with Father’s but that was a bad idea, and I couldn’t think of anyone else. You made me tell you about him at home. I don’t want to talk about him anymore. Can we please talk about the case?”

His voice wavers a bit on the last words. Sherlock aches somewhere deep inside, a place he never even knew existed until a couple years ago. As they get out of the building, in the cab and all the way to Bart’s, he talks about antique guns, bullets, spilled tea, mud, everything he has gathered so far, including the bits that probably mean nothing but that fill up time anyway. James doesn’t say a word and stares out of the window the entire time, and Sherlock knows he messed up, but he has no idea how, let alone how to fix it.

It seems to be an all too common occurrence, lately. Or maybe he just never cared enough before to worry about fixing anything.

Not caring certainly was easier. Sherlock almost wishes he could go back to that, but it’s too late, isn’t it? There’s no coming back from that. Not without getting as far away from John and James as he can, and he’s run for much too long already.

“So what are we going to do at Bart's?” James asks in a tight voice when they finally get out of the cab. Usually he’s happy to be there – happy for the chance to see Molly – but today, even that prospect doesn’t seem to cheer him up.

“I’m going to have a look at the bodies,” Sherlock says, “and then I have some samples we need to…”

He loses his words when his eyes fall on the figure sitting on the bench by the wall. James follows his gaze and confirms with a word that Sherlock isn’t hallucinating.

“John?”

At his name, John’s head snaps up. He blinks twice before standing and coming to them.

“How did you know I was here?” he asks.

When John looks up and around, Sherlock knows at once what he’s looking for: CCTV cameras.

“We didn’t know,” Sherlock says. “We’re here for a case.”

Just as he finishes, the alarm on his phone chimes. Sherlock gives it a look and grimaces. Now is not a good time, when he has so much to do.

“Will you take me to lunch?” James asks John at once; he long ago realized what the alarm means.

John looks back and forth between the two of them. He seems taken aback. Then again, he has cause. Four hours ago, James practically fled to his room rather than say another word to him, and now he’s asking to go to lunch like their argument over breakfast never even took place. A lot has happened in those four hours. Enough that James doesn’t want to be around Sherlock at the moment. Just like John earlier.

“Huh, sure,” John says finally. “If you want. Sherlock, are you—”

“Not hungry,” Sherlock says, already turning away.

He strides into Bart’s without a backwards look and goes to hunt down the bodies. At least there’s nothing he can do to disappoint those three, or make them feel worse about what happened to them.

Chapter Text

The bodies of the father and two daughters yield few clues, and nothing that points at the murderer. The mud Sherlock retrieved from the crime scene is his best chance at an epiphany – or it would be if he could manage to focus on what he’s doing.

He’s broken two slides so far, and wasted three strips of reaction paper. When Molly, who has been watching him in silence for a while, says his name in a quiet, questioning voice, Sherlock is sure she’s about to ask him what’s wrong with him, so he doesn’t look up or answer. She goes on and asks her question anyway; it’s not anything Sherlock anticipated.

“James isn’t really your cousin, is he?”

Sherlock keeps his eyes to the microscope, though his fingers still for a second.

“Why do you doubt my word?” he asks without looking at her. “Because we don’t look alike? Surely you know that genetics—”

“Because you’ve never had qualms lying to me,” she interrupts, and if her voice is its usual, quiet mouse squeak, there’s strength behind it, too, the same strength she exhibits whenever she refuses to let James into the mortuary. “And because he looks like… like someone else who was also called James. And because until a few days ago he used to sign his texts ‘JM’ like that someone else. And because the first time we met, he said someone told him about me, and I’m not an idiot, I know it wasn’t you.”

Halfway through her enumeration, Sherlock raises his head to finally look at her. She’s holding onto a clipboard with both hands, so tightly that her knuckles are white. Worried, then. About what? Being right?

“No, you are not an idiot,” he murmurs, returning to his work. “Sometimes I forget that.”

He knows better, of course. Has known since the first time he took a look at her credentials. He’s even observed her, unseen, defend her work to another pathologist with an aplomb she never shows in front of him. Pity.

“So is he… his son?” she insists when Sherlock doesn’t confirm anything outright. He has no intention of giving her a straight answer. Plausible deniability is a fine thing.

“He doesn’t sign his texts JM anymore because I adopted him,” he says instead, changing the slide under the microscope as smoothly as he changes the subject.

Molly doesn’t even miss a beat. “So he’s your son now, but whose son was he before?”

So much for changing the subject. He looks at her again, slightly taken aback. Lestrade practically swallowed his tongue at the word adoption, but Molly doesn’t look fazed in the slightest.

“You don’t find it surprising that I adopted a child?” he asks.

She shrugs. “Why would I? I’ve seen you with him.”

With a disgusted look at the microscope, Sherlock gives up on what he’s doing. How is he supposed to focus like this? He could ask her to leave him alone, but he’d just keep thinking about this conversation and accomplishing nothing.

“What do you mean?” he asks, irritated.

“I mean that for someone who’s so good at upsetting people, you make a pretty good father.”

Out of everything she might have said, this is probably the very last thing Sherlock expected. He crosses his arms, and when he feels the edge of the patches under his shirt, wishes for a cigarette he’s not going to smoke. “I… No. I upset him too. Without even trying.”

She actually smiles at that. Smiles. This is maddening.

“Don’t all parents do that?” she says, still smiling.

“Do they?”

The question is more than rhetorical. Sherlock’s experience in that regard is limited to his own parents, and he never, not for one second, believed his family was anything but out of the norm. Besides, it’s not like he ever had the opportunity to watch anyone else’s family up close.

“Mine did,” Molly says with a quiet chuckle. “I loved them to pieces but… you know. At times I wanted to move to the other end of the world to get away from them. I think that’s kinda normal.”

Is that really what ‘normal’ is? Sherlock thinks back on how keen James was to go to lunch with John an hour or so earlier, and dismisses the thought at once.

“James is anything but a normal child,” he mutters, more to himself than to Molly.

“Because he was his son?” she asks, still intent on receiving confirmation.

Sherlock considers her for a moment, wondering why she wants to know that much. Would it change anything if she knew for sure? No, he decides. Not for her. She already believes she’s right, and she must have been adding up those clues for a while. She was kind to James before; that’s not going to change.

Ever so slightly, Sherlock inclines his head in something that might be a nod, then goes back to his work. For long seconds, Molly is silent.

“I can’t imagine him with a child,” she finally says, her voice a little unsteady. “I mean, the Jim I knew, maybe, but that was just an act, wasn’t it? The man at the trial, that was who he really was. And that man, raising a little boy… it just doesn’t make sense. And then for him to kill himself when he had a child to think of…”

Sherlock looks up sharply at that.

“Don’t tell James,” he demands. “He doesn’t know how he died.”

“Oh. Don’t you think he should know?”

Sherlock has been asking himself the same questions for weeks, now.

“Do you think I should tell him his father didn’t think of him before putting a bullet in his own brain?”

Molly bites her lip. “I don’t know. Sometimes the truth is best. But see, I was right about you.”

He frowns at her. “What?”

“You are a good dad. A few years ago, you’d have just told him without even considering whether or not it might hurt him.”

She knows that as a matter of course, he realizes, because he’s done it to her more than once. It doesn’t mean anything about him other than he’s grown to care for the boy, which he already knew.

“I’m not prone to offering apologies, Molly,” he says, leaning once more over his microscope in the hope of finally identifying that last compound. “But if I were, I suppose I would owe you a few.”

And then there are lips on his cheek, brushing barely hard enough for it to be a kiss. The door opens before he can even process the gesture. Molly practically jumps back, and her voice is higher than normal when she says, “Oh, hello!”

James walks in, followed closely by John, and while the latter seems more bemused than anything else as he says hello to Molly and stops to exchange a few words with her, James is frowning deeply when he comes to stand by Sherlock and hisses under his breath, “Why was she kissing you?”

An excellent question; Sherlock was wondering the same thing.

“You do realize she’s almost three times your age, don’t you?” he asks just as quietly, looking up and across the room.

Molly and John are paying no attention to them. From John’s tight smile and Molly's hand on his arm, she just brought up Mary. Why would she do that?

“I’m not jealous if that’s what you’re implying,” James whispers. “But what about John? I thought you liked him, not—”

Sherlock throws him a glare. “Stop.”

James glares right back. “But—”

“James.”

James falls silent, although his expression screams his unhappiness.

“Are you two still arguing?” John asks, coming forward while Molly leaves.

“No we’re not,” Sherlock replies, and is startled to hear James echo his words at the very same time he says them.

“Cute,” John says with a half-smile. “But you don’t fool me for a minute.”

The comment requires no answer, so Sherlock returns for what feels like the hundredth time to the slide currently under the microscope. James seems to want to change the subject too and asks, “What are you doing?”

It’s the diffidence in his voice more than the question itself that irks Sherlock.

“Working,” he says, right on the edge of snapping.

From the corner of his eye, he can see James stand straighter suddenly. “I can see that much.”

“Right,” John says with a sigh as he takes a seat across from them; his cast makes a dull sound when he sets it on the work table. “Not arguing at all. James wouldn’t tell me about what, Sherlock. Should I bother asking you?”

“We’re not arguing about anything,” Sherlock says.

John huffs quietly. “God, you two are hopeless. Like one stubborn, puzzle-obsessed little boy wasn’t enough for me.”

At the taunt, Sherlock’s head snaps up, while James turns to give John what Sherlock imagines is the same irritated look he himself displays. The next second, the flash on John’s phone goes off. His grin shines with self-satisfaction.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock snaps.

John looks at his phone for a second before pocketing it, still grinning. “Documenting your matching scowls. I’d ask you two to smile to take a proper picture but I’ve got a feeling that’s not going to happen.”

In response, Sherlock scowls at him some more before – yet again – looking into the microscope. James apparently takes his cue from him and ignores John, asking instead, “Is that dirt from the crime scene?”

“Yes. It didn’t come from any of the victims.” After a second, he pulls back and offers, “Have a look.”

James shrugs out of his coat and sets it on the counter behind them before approaching.

“Well, at least you’re not arguing anymore,” John comments.

“We weren’t arguing,” Sherlock repeats once more.

“Sulking, then. That’s so much better.”

Before Sherlock can protest that he was doing no such thing, James looks at Sherlock and asks, “How do you know it wasn’t on the carpet long before the murders?”

“Because that room was spotless. Hoovered recently, I’d say two to six hours before the murders. And the mud was on top of the freshly spilled tea.”

“Why do I even bother?” John says, not talking to anyone in particular.

James casts a sideways glance toward him. “Because you’re the only adult out of the three of us?”

When Sherlock glares at him, James shrugs. “What? He called you a little boy, not me.”

“You don’t have to agree with him.”

James is undeterred. “He was right about arguing. And sulking.”

“That was no argument,” Sherlock says, stepping back in front of the microscope. “That was me proving I have no idea what I’m doing and no right to be called… what you called me in front of Lestrade.”

Sherlock has time to change the slide twice before John breaks the heavy silence that has fallen on the room.

“Is either of you going to tell me if I ask?”

Sherlock has no desire to. James answers hesitantly.

“I called him ‘Dad’.”

“Oh. I see.”

The tone of John’s voice makes Sherlock look up and check that – yes, he is smiling.

“No, you don’t see,” Sherlock says. “He did it so Lestrade would let him onto the crime scene.”

“You thought it was clever,” James protests.

Sherlock has a hard time not rolling his eyes. “Of course I thought it was clever. It was very clever.”

“Are you teaching him how to sham?” John isn’t smiling anymore.

“No teaching required,” Sherlock mutters.

“Wait,” James says. “I don’t understand. Why are you upset exactly? Because I was shamming? You don’t even want me to call you that.”

“I never said I don’t want you to. I said I have no right to that name.”

James looks as confused as Sherlock himself feels. The conversation is making less and less sense, and he’s getting nowhere with that stupid bit of mud.

“You adopted me,” James says slowly. “That makes you my father.”

“It’s just a piece of paper,” Sherlock replies, annoyed. Is he the only one who understands the distinction?

When James lets out a quiet, “Oh,” Sherlock notices how crestfallen he seems, though he can’t fathom what caused the look.

“May I go see Molly?” James asks in a small voice.

Only after he has left the room does John take in a hissing breath and lets it out in a dark reprimand.

“Not good, Sherlock.”

Sherlock shakes his head at him. “What did I do now?”

John looks pained. “You just told him the adoption means nothing to you.”

“No, that’s not what I said.” Why does everyone insist on being so slow? “I said a piece of paper didn’t magically transform me into a father. I have no idea how to be that. So when he called me…”

John is looking at him fixedly, and it’s not an expression Sherlock enjoys on his features.

“What?” he snaps. “What did I say?”

“You actually mean that,” John whispers. “You actually think you’re rubbish at this.”

“Of course I’m rubbish at this.” Sherlock gestures at the door. “Didn’t you just see him flee the room?”

“He left because he heard the same thing I did. Because he thinks as far as you’re concerned your relationship is just words on a piece of paper. If you actually told him…” Snorting, John shakes his head. “But of course you haven’t told him. When have you ever told anyone how you felt? Right. Enough with that. Hang on a moment.”

And with that, he steps out of the room, leaving a very irritated, very confused Sherlock behind. He goes back to his observations, but before a handful of minutes have passed, the door opens again, and James steps in. He remains by the door and looks at his feet rather than at Sherlock.

“John said you wanted to talk to me.”

It’s not until James glances up that Sherlock finds his voice, and even then he’s not sure what he’s about to say when he starts with, “I…”

He is saved from having to find the rest of that sentence when the computer chirps a familiar beep. As he reads the results, James comes forward to look at them too.

“Is it telling you where the mud is from?” he asks.

“Yes.” Sherlock points at the screen. “See the markers?”

James nods, and points at another peak on the graph. “And is that pollen?”

“It is. Nicely observed.”

When James offers him a tentative smile, Sherlock answers in kind.

“So what do we do now?” James asks.

“We cross reference the mud and pollen and we’ll know where our murderer picked up that mud. Given their familiarity with the victims—”

“It’ll help us know who they are,” James finishes. “Neat.”

“Neat,” Sherlock repeats, watching him closely. Is it really that easy? He’d like to believe it is, but as he prepares the next slide and gives James the first look, he knows better. This doesn’t solve anything, even if Sherlock wishes it did.

“I have one reservation about the adoption,” he says, trying not to choke on the words. “And one only.”

James looks up at him, and it’s suddenly a lot harder to continue. Sherlock tries anyway.

“I have no frame of reference as to what it takes to be a decent father, let alone a good one. If you started calling me ‘dad’ today, I’d feel like a fraud. That is not a feeling I’m very fond of.”

James blinks twice before answering. “By my frame of reference you’re doing just fine.”

Sherlock grimaces. “Not a very high standard to meet, or even exceed.”

“I never asked you to be perfect,” James says with the slightest smile.

And with that, what remained of the tension between them just fades, like it never even existed.

Clearing his throat, Sherlock gestures at the work table.

“Pass me that slide?”

When John returns a few minutes later, he finds them in front of the computer, discussing their latest findings. Arched eyebrows ask Sherlock a question he’s not sure how to answer. He nods anyway.

Chapter Text

By dinner time, they’re back home with take-out. Sherlock has solved the case. And he is as a result profoundly disgusted with himself. Without all this mess of emotions and misunderstandings, he might have solved it in an hour, maybe two. If he’d needed proof that sentiment is detrimental to his work, this would be it.

And yet.

As annoyed as he is with himself, he can’t imagine going back to the way things were before James entered his life – or even worse, before John did. He has lost some acuity, yes, there’s no denying it. But what he has gained in return…

It’s not quantifiable. It can’t be defined. It didn’t fit anywhere in Sherlock’s mind palace, and it has to be why a new room formed for John, why a new one is emerging for James. Sherlock isn’t trying to suppress them anymore; instead, he’s putting them in order, choosing what to delete from the rest of the palace to ensure there’s enough space for them.

“Sherlock.”

John’s voice – twenty-four percent louder than his normal tone; he’s said Sherlock’s name at least twice already – pierces through his mind and he opens one eye. John is sitting in his chair, a plate of food balanced on his lap. Wasn’t he eating in the kitchen with James?

“You’re eating,” John says decisively, gesturing at James, who is standing next to the sofa and holding two plates.

It’s not a question, Sherlock notes with a twinge of annoyance, and closes his eyes again. “I’m busy.”

“You didn’t have any lunch at all.” This time, it’s James who intrudes on his thoughts. “And you didn’t have breakfast either, did you?”

“I’m not—”

“Parents are supposed to set a good example,” John comments as though Sherlock wasn’t speaking. “Or at least, not to set a bad one.”

And that? That isn’t fair at all. Sherlock throws him an irritated look, ready to say as much… and then he remembers why he thought it was necessary to program an alarm on his phone for meal times.

With a deep sigh, he sits up at one end of the sofa and accepts the plate James hands to him. James sits at the other end of the sofa, legs folded under him exactly like Sherlock. Maybe John is on to something with that ‘example’ comment.

For a few seconds, the light chime of tines hitting the porcelain plates is the only sound, until John turns on the television.

“Anything you want to see?” he asks.

Unsure whom the question is directed to, Sherlock glances at James, who looks back at him clearly wondering the same thing.

“Either of you?” John asks, now sitting in Sherlock’s chair and juggling his plate as well as the remote.

“No,” Sherlock says. He hasn’t turned on the television once since coming back to Baker Street, nor has he missed it.

“I don’t know,” James says slowly, almost cautiously. “I wasn’t allowed to watch television unless it was to learn something.”

John does a very good job of ignoring Moriarty’s specter drifting across the room with James’ words.

“Crap telly it is,” he says with a half grin, and turns the channel to something absolutely inane that probably rots James’ brain by the second.

Sherlock thinks of protesting – what happened to setting a good example? – but suddenly James asks, “Is this what normal families do? Watch strange shows on the television while eating take-out?”

Sherlock’s fork stops halfway to his mouth and he lowers it again before turning a wary look to James. There’s nothing more on his features than genuine curiosity. Not a minefield, then. Good; Sherlock has maneuvered enough of those for one day already.

“You’ve met my mother,” he says dryly. “Can you picture her allowing something like this?”

James grins. “No, I really can’t. How about you, John?”

With a half smile, John shakes his head. “Only when Harry and I were home alone. We’d fight over the remote.”

“Is Harry your brother?” James asks, sounding interested.

John’s eyes find Sherlock’s, and the half smile blooms a little more, John’s voice ringing with memory.

“Harry is short for Harriet,” he says.

“Oh. Sister, then. Is she older or younger?”

“Two years younger. Ever wanted a sibling?”

And there is the minefield. James’ hesitation draws Sherlock’s eyes back to him. His relaxed expression is cracking, though he’s trying hard to cling to it.

“No,” he says evenly. “I can’t say I ever did.”

From his crinkling brow, John seems to realize he’s on dangerous grounds, but rather than pulling back, he says, tongue in cheek, “Well, if you change your mind you could always ask Sherlock for a little brother or sister.”

At which point two things happen simultaneously. James bursts out laughing in a way Sherlock's never heard coming from him, and Sherlock starts choking on a piece of chicken. Coughing violently, he thumps his fist against his own chest and struggles to stand, his eyes watering.

“Hey, you okay?” John asks, giving him a concerned look.

He starts to get up but Sherlock waves him down before retreating to the kitchen. Still coughing, he pours himself a glass of water and drinks. Back in the sitting room, John says, quietly enough that the words must be meant for James only, “I think I touched a nerve. Maybe you shouldn’t ask after all.”

James stopped laughing while Sherlock was choking on his food, but the smile is still loud in his voice when he says, “I think it’d be rather unlikely even if I did ask seeing how…”

He trails off when he notices Sherlock standing in the doorway.

“Seeing how I never intended to have a child at all,” Sherlock finishes in between two coughs. “A second is more than unlikely. And that’s quite enough of that subject, thank you.”

They both look suitably chastised. When he turns away to head to the bathroom, Sherlock isn’t sure whether he’s more annoyed or worried. How would James have finished that sentence if Sherlock hadn’t interrupted? The thought bothers him the entire time he takes a shower.

He’s never liked anyone to know his secrets. Growing up, he jealously defended them from Mycroft even when he trusted his brother blindly for most things. To have James know more than he should is not a pleasant feeling, even if Sherlock doesn’t think James would betray his trust, or at least not on purpose. But he’s a child; just this morning, he had an outburst during which, by his own admission, he said more than he meant to. What if he said more than he meant to now?

Sherlock barely misses falling in his haste to get out of the tub. Still toweling himself, he passes into the bedroom to dress for the night. The bed is made neatly, he notes as he puts on pajamas, the corners crisp, the comforter folded just so. He wonders briefly if the sheets smell like John but that is certainly a Not Good thought and he heads for the door. He’s still shrugging into a dressing gown when he walks out of the bedroom and finds James waiting in the hallway, his night clothes clutched to his chest.

“Done watching telly, then?” Sherlock asks.

“I’m a bit tired. It’s been a long day.”

As he says so, James glances back as though to check they’re alone. When he turns to Sherlock again, he says in a whisper, “I wouldn’t tell him, you know.”

Sherlock can’t manage to reply with more than a blink.

“I think you should tell him,” James continues just as quietly, “but I’m not going to do it. I just… I wanted you to know that.”

A nod, this time, and James nods back before going on to clean up for the night. Feeling rather bemused, Sherlock returns to the sitting room. Earlier today, they had a spectacular communication failure. More than one, even. But now, James correctly predicted the path Sherlock’s thoughts had to be taking, to the point that he could give him the exact reassurance he needed to hear. What’s the difference, he wonders as he lies back down on the sofa, fingers steepling under his chin of their own accord. He reviews it all, going back to previous moments in which James showed himself insightful, and moments in which he wasn’t.

After a while, a pattern emerges: when it comes to deciphering other people’s emotions – and Sherlock’s in particular – James can be very good. But for situations that touch him and his own emotions directly, he sometimes has a blind spot, the severity of which can vary. On that last point, at least, they’re frighteningly similar.

“Sherlock?”

For the second time that night, John’s voice draws him from his thoughts. He blinks and looks at him. He’s back in his own armchair, and the television is off.

“Are you okay?” John asks.

Sherlock can’t help but frown at the question. “Of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be?”

John shrugs one shoulder. “I was just trying to amuse him, earlier. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

Sherlock’s first instinct is to deny he was uncomfortable. He ends up not saying anything.

“I didn’t see myself with a kid either,” John says after a moment. “I mean, when I was young, maybe. I thought about it in that ‘someday’ way I thought about buying a house or… or getting married. But not since I came back from the war. And then I met Mary—”

His voice breaks abruptly. Sherlock can’t even remember the last time he heard John say her name. He doesn’t ask if meeting Mary changed John’s mind; he doubts there’s little John wouldn’t have given her if she’d asked him.

“You went to her grave today,” he says instead, filling the silence.

John nods and doesn’t ask how Sherlock knows – grass clipping on his shoes, pollen on his sleeve. He laid flowers on her grave.

“I used to go to yours, before,” he says absently. “Your grave, then Bart’s. Never Bart’s first then your grave. I’m not sure why. It’d have made more sense in that order. But I guess none of it ever made sense.” He offers Sherlock something that can just barely be called a smile. “Remember how I said I talked to your gravestone? I asked you not to be dead, once. Asked for a miracle. Today I was standing at her grave and it didn’t occur to me to ask. Even when I thought you were dead, I still knew if anyone was stubborn enough to cheat death it was you. But Mary… she wasn’t like… like that.”

He was about to say something else, Sherlock realizes. Not ‘she wasn’t like that’ but ‘she wasn’t like us’. John cheated death, once, too. It brought him to Sherlock. And Sherlock’s own cheating brought him back to John – but too late.

“I heard you,” he says quietly. “When you were at my grave, that time. I was there. I heard you.”

He can see the surprise on John’s face, and it’s too close to pain, so he keeps talking, saying things he probably should have kept to himself.

“When it got too hard over the next three years, I’d remember that. Remember that I owed you a miracle. So I’d manage to go on a little longer.”

“And then you came back,” John says, no louder than a whisper. “And you got my fist in your face for it.”

Sherlock manages a thin smile. “Now you see why it wasn’t the kind of welcome I expected.”

John’s tongue flicks out over his lips and he opens and closes his mouth twice before asking, “What did you expect, really?”

In retrospect, Sherlock should have anticipated the question and deflected the conversation earlier, but, too distracted, he didn’t see this coming. He could answer. He’s not sure he should.

He’s saved from having to answer by the sound of shuffling feet, and both he and John turn to look at James. Standing on the threshold in his pajamas, he’s looking fixedly at a spot on the carpet.

“Off to bed, then?” John says gently. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” James echoes, but he’s still not moving. His gaze flickers up, toward – the two violin cases by the window, Sherlock realizes.

“I was going to play the violin for a little while,” Sherlock says. “That won’t bother you too much, I trust?”

James flashes him a brief smile. “No, of course. Goodnight,” he says again, and goes up to his room.

“Bad night?” John murmurs.

“Probably,” Sherlock replies, just as quietly. “The more his father comes up in conversation, the more likely it is he’ll have a bad night.”

He gets his violin case and pulls the bow out first. As he applies some rosin, he notices John’s pained expression. It’s easy to guess he’s blaming himself for bringing up Moriarty.

“It’s not your fault,” Sherlock says. “You said yourself he needs to talk about it.”

John doesn’t look particularly convinced, and Sherlock is disappointed to see him leave the room. He doesn’t go far, though, and before Sherlock is halfway through his first melody, he returns with two cups of tea. He sets one on the desk next to Sherlock and sits back down in his chair.

And this, right here, is the answer to John’s question. This was what Sherlock expected, what he hoped for when he thought of his return to London. 221B with John, playing the violin for him into the night and drinking tea John made for him.

Or at least, that was part of it.

Sherlock keeps playing, undisturbed by John’s chiming phone. He watches him answer the text message with an amused expression, curiosity drawing a few unnecessary trills from his violin. When he finishes this first concerto and sets down his bow and violin to take a sip of cooling tea, John holds the phone up, screen out toward him. Raising an eyebrow, Sherlock comes closer to read the message.

Could you send me that picture you took at Bart’s?
JH

A strange warmth bursts through Sherlock.

This part was definitely not anything he ever expected. But as he picks up his violin again and starts on a lullaby from Brahms, he can’t imagine things going any differently anymore.

Chapter Text

A few days pass. A week. Three more.

And on one quiet evening, after John has finished typing a blog entry about their latest case, something that’s somewhat easier now that his cast has come off, it all ends.

Sherlock’s mind comes to a screeching halt – or maybe that’s the bow on his violin. He stands there, staring at John, uncomprehending. He rewinds the past few weeks to seek the ‘why’ of an announcement he failed to predict, replays it all in his head, each moment preserved, even the most insignificant ones.

Things have been going pretty well since the day James compared them to a ‘normal’ family. It didn’t strike Sherlock at the moment, but later on, the word seemed to take its full weight. They’re not normal, no; none of them is when considered on his own, from the self-proclaimed sociopath to the child raised and abused by a couple of killers to the ex-doctor addicted to danger and high-stress situations. It seems ludicrous that they’d get along, let alone enjoy each other’s company or even function as something akin to a family.

And yet. There they are. Take-out food, crap telly, the occasional board game, innumerable cups of tea and hours upon hours of violin notes drifting into cold nights.

Those few weeks have been nothing if not full of normalcy – or what passes as normalcy in Sherlock’s life.

They’ve had one case with the Yard. When the three of them showed up at the crime scene together, Donovan asked Lestrade if he was organizing family tours. But where once her words would have been cutting, they didn’t sound like more than a good-natured jibe. As expected, Lestrade refused to let James in, and Donovan actually volunteered to keep him company outside while Sherlock and John examined the body. Sherlock might have outdone himself with his deductions; it’d been a while since he’d had more than the echo of John’s voice at the back of his mind to tell him he was brilliant. It’s not that he needs the praise, but he had missed it.

They’ve also taken two clients, one who contacted Sherlock and a second who contacted John. Corporate mischief in one case, with a disgruntled employee trying to spook his peers. A bona fide treasure hunt in the other when the last will of a matriarch demanded that her heirs divide between themselves the contents of jewelry box… provided that they be able to find it first.

That second case, with a higher profile, brought them some publicity Sherlock could have done without. He doesn’t care what clients think when he and John show up with a child in tow; whether they believe James is training with them to be a detective or not doesn’t affect the resolution of cases. But when journalists first took pictures of the three of them, then started conjecturing about who James might be, and finally went as far as to hunt down his birth certificate, he couldn’t help but miss the long gone days of anonymity. He's never cared for the press, and his last experience with it and the ‘Richard Brook’ debacle left him even more wary. Mycroft’s people, at least, did an impeccable job that held to the closest scrutiny. And if the newspaper picture ended up pinned on James’ wall, Sherlock pretended not to notice.

On case-less days, they’ve fallen into a quiet routine. Sherlock and James have been continuing their lessons, switching between languages and music as the mood struck. John found himself enrolled into teaching as well when James questioned him about doctoring in a hospital setting as opposed to on the front lines, and Sherlock still isn’t quite sure how he ended up as their practice body for a demonstration on how to use a belt to stop blood loss. He’s not quite sure why James wanted to know either, or when he thinks he might use the knowledge, but there are worse things to fill his head with – like the movie John dragged them to on a dreary afternoon.

Sherlock tried very hard not to scoff at every unlikely feat of the supposed ‘spy’ parading on the screen. Still, James seemed to enjoy himself, commenting on how it’d been years since he had gone to the theater, and while the guns and explosions on screen might have given them pause, they didn’t yield anything resembling a bad night.

They’ve had more educational outings, too, going back to the Natural History Museum, although they spent more time out on the newly opened skating rink than looking at exhibits. James, as it turned out, can skate rather well, and Sherlock has vague recollections of skating on a frozen pond as a child. Neither of them managed to convince John to join them, although at the time he still had his cast on so it might have been more prudent for him to observe from the side. Sherlock had thought they’d get a chance to go back before the end of the winter. It hadn’t occurred to him John might leave before that. And yet…

Having reviewed the past weeks, Sherlock is still as confused as when he first heard John’s words.

“What do you mean, go home?” he asks, and the words sound weak coming out of a dry throat. “You are home.”

John smiles thinly. “It feels like it, yes, but it’s not. I’m grateful, Sherlock. I really am. And it seems like poor repayment of your hospitality to make you sleep on the sofa any longer. I’m sure you’ll be glad to get your bed back.”

The bed. Sherlock blinks. Is that it, then? He had a nap in it three days ago while John and James went out shopping. He’d spent the previous night in the armchair after James relocated to the sofa and a couple hours on an actual mattress had felt like too good an opportunity to pass. Was it a mistake? John seemed surprised when he found Sherlock in there at his return, but he didn’t actually protest.

“I shouldn’t have slept in the bed,” he says quickly. Realizing he’s still holding his violin, he tucks it away in its case as he keeps talking. “It won’t happen again. I’m sorry.”

John’s frown is one of pure confusion. “Wait. Are you apologizing for sleeping in your own bed?”

“It clearly bothered you,” Sherlock says, sitting across from him. “I didn’t realize it would. Like I said, it won’t happen again.”

Shaking his head, John rolls his eyes at him. “Sherlock. It didn’t bother me. It’s your bed—”

“Which I offered to you,” Sherlock cuts in. “It’s yours now. You don’t have to leave because of that.”

“I’m not leaving because of the bed.” John snorts. “But I do find it rather disturbing you apologize for that when you never actually said you were sorry for letting me believe you were dead for three years.”

Sherlock winces at that. Didn’t he say sorry? He thought he had. But if he didn’t, that might explain why John gave him such a dark look when the topic came up with a client and the coma lie rose easily to Sherlock’s lips.

“I’m so—”

John doesn’t let him finish. “No, don’t,” he says coolly. “You’re only saying it because I mentioned it and because you think it’ll make me stay.”

“So it wouldn’t make you stay?” Sherlock hates how plaintive he sounds, but he can’t seem to stop. “What would, then?”

With the faintest of smiles on his lips, John sighs. “It’s not like I’m leaving the country or anything,” he says. “I’ll come by, or you two will come visit.”

Which seems like a stupid arrangement to Sherlock, and he’s about to say so, but John’s next words steal the breath right out of him.

“It’s just time for me to stop being a coward, that’s all.”

“A coward?” Sherlock loathes repetition, but right now his mind is stuck on that one word that makes even less sense than John’s announcing he’s leaving. “Coward? Why would you call yourself that? You’re the bravest man I know.”

It’s not meant to be flattery, just a statement of truth, but John, for a brief instant, looks both pleased and surprised, right before he shakes his head.

“I’ve been hiding,” he says quietly. “Living here with you and James, running around town on cases… I’m just hiding from my life. And my life is a little townhouse across town with all the things from my dead wife I should start dealing with instead of pretending they don’t exist. And even if I can hide, I can’t outrun the guilt. I might as well face it.”

With every new pronouncement, John is confounding Sherlock yet a little bit more.

“What guilt?” he asks, mystified.

John takes a deep breath and closes his eyes briefly before answering. “Mary… she died because of me.”

“She died because of a car accident,” Sherlock says. They haven’t talked about the accident at all, have barely talked about Mary in the past month, but since John raised the topic himself… “And she was the one driving, not you. How can you think yourself responsible?”

John’s mouth opens and closes twice before he finally finds his voice. His eyes are gleaming wetly, though his words remain steady.

“I distracted her,” he says softly. “We were going home, and talking, and I said something… I can’t even remember what it was. Something silly, I’m sure. And she laughed. God, I loved her laugh. I loved to be the one to make her laugh even more. And she was laughing at whatever I said, and next thing I know there’s a horrible noise, and the car is upside down, and...”

He doesn’t finish. He doesn’t need to. Sherlock would like to say something, anything just as long as it stops the tears filling John’s eyes from falling, but words fail him, and before he can get a grip John stands.

“I’ve been pretending I was back to three years ago,” he says, still as quietly. “Pretending none of it happened. But it did, and I can’t erase it, and it’s my fault and I have to deal with it.”

He starts toward the bedroom, pausing only to look back and add, “I’ll go tomorrow. Now that I’ve decided there’s no point in dragging it out.”

A full hour passes before Sherlock’s mind calms down enough for him to be able to move again. All he does is send a text to Mycroft. The answer takes a few minutes to come in.

And you need this *now*?
You do realize it’s past one in the morning, don’t you?
MH

Do this and I’ll never bring up again the role you played in Moriarty’s game.
SH

He’d intended to hold that knowledge over Mycroft’s head as long as possible, but he’d rather let that bargaining chip go if it might help him hold on to John. It takes another two hours before he receives an email with a single link for all message. He plays the video it points to on his laptop, maximizing the screen, altering the contrast, letting the loop play over and over.

Satisfied that he has his answer, he presses the pause button and lies down on the sofa. He doubts John would appreciate being awakened now, so he’ll wait until morning.

As keyed up as he is, he’s sure he’s not going to fall asleep, but he does, and finds himself back in Serbia, one of the few times during his three years of self-imposed exile when he doubted he’d ever see London again – doubted he’d ever live long enough to tell John about his feelings, to ask him if, maybe, there was a chance he might one day return them.

It’s not a pleasant dream, and even when part of his mind knows it’s a dream, he can’t seem to wake himself up. It’s John’s voice saying his name that finally does the trick, along with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He awakens in a flash, his heart beating too fast and his throat closed tight over cries he refused to let loose despite his captors best efforts.

Above him, John frowns with concern.

“Hey. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Sherlock says, his voice rough from sleep. “And I’ve got something to show you. Here.”

He stumbles to his feet, refusing to let himself notice the suitcases propped against the kitchen door, left there, probably, when John realized Sherlock needed help waking up. With one hand against John’s back, he leads him to the desk, and makes him sit in front of the laptop. His hand lingers on John’s shoulder.

“About what you said last night,” he starts, but doesn’t quite know anymore what he meant to say. He had this whole explanation ready… Never mind that. The video is clear enough. “Just watch this.”

The video is a composite from four CCTV cameras, all showing different angles of the same busy intersection. As Sherlock presses play, the traffic comes to life, heavy but fluid. And comes to a standstill again when a van barrels through a red light and straight into a small black car that flips over before being hit by a second car.

John gasps. He pushes himself away from the desk. The feet of the chair scrape loudly on the floor. The video loops back.

“It had nothing to do with her laughing,” Sherlock says. “Nothing to do with you. Even if she saw the van, there was nothing she could have done to avoid it.”

The video starts to play a third time before John stabs an ineffectual finger at the keyboard before slamming the laptop shut. He sits there, breathing heavily, his shoulder shaking under Sherlock’s hand.

“Now you know it wasn’t your fault,” Sherlock says when a few seconds have passed and John still hasn’t said a word. “You don’t have to leave.”

John stands so abruptly that the chair clatters to the floor behind him. When he whirls on Sherlock, his eyes are dark with anger.

“I don’t have to leave?” he repeats, his voice low and dangerous. “Is that what this is about? You made me watch the accident that killed my wife under every possible angle so you’d still have someone to make you tea and do the shopping for you?”

Startled by John’s reaction, Sherlock takes a step back as though it’ll help him gain some distance and figure out what he did wrong. It doesn’t work.

“That’s not… I didn’t show it to you for that. I don’t want you to stay here for that. You said you felt guilty. I just wanted to help.”

John lets out a bark of bitter laughter. “Of course you did. Of course you wanted to help. Just like when you made me watch you jump off a roof. That was to help me, too, wasn’t it? God, you’ve got the most fucked up definition of ‘helping’ I’ve ever heard off.”

He starts to walk away, but Sherlock grabs his forearm and hold him back.

“What was I supposed to do?” he asks, somewhere between angry and pleading. “Let Moran kill you? Let you blame yourself for her death when it was nothing more than an accident?”

John doesn’t look at him. His fists are closed, the muscles of his arm under Sherlock’s fingers tight and shaking.

“If you don’t let me go right now,” he says very low, “I’m going to put my fist in your face.”

Sherlock holds on a little tighter.

“If it makes you feel better, then do it. I never meant to hurt you. It’s the last thing I ever wanted. I don’t know how else to show you.”

John doesn’t punch him. He still doesn’t look at him. He merely wrenches his arm free, and strides to the door, barely stopping to collect his jacket. The echoes of his feet banging on the steps end with the front door banging even more loudly.

His mind blank, Sherlock stands very still and continues to stare at the landing, hoping beyond hope that John will return. A few moments later, it’s James who appears instead. When he walks into the sitting room, his eyes fly to the suitcases John left behind. His expression darkens at once.

“What did you do?” he asks, his voice almost as dark as John’s was before he left.

Sherlock shakes his head. He hasn’t done anything. He was just himself. He doesn’t know anymore why he ever believed that would be enough for anyone.

Chapter Text

“If John is leaving you must have done something.”

James has never sounded like this, disappointed and reproachful. He sounds, of all people, like Mycroft. Sherlock could have done without ever hearing that tone of voice from him.

“He’s leaving because he has no reason to stay,” he answers as he finally manages to set his mind and body in motion again.

He steps forward, past the suitcases John forgot in his anger. Sherlock has no doubt he’ll be back for them. He walks to his bedroom – his, again; only his – aware that James is on his heels but unable to care right now.

“He was mad at you,” James persists. “He wouldn’t be mad for no reason.”

Sherlock closes the door behind him to shut James and his questions out. His gaze flies to the stereo system, and regret fills him. He thought he wouldn’t need what was hidden there after all, not with John in the flat. It didn’t occur to him John wouldn’t stay. If he hadn’t given it away…

“Sherlock?”

James’ voice comes with a hard knock on the door. Sherlock doesn’t answer and goes to the bed. The sheets and covers have been stripped off and set in a pile at the foot of the mattress, ready to be put in the wash. He climbs onto the bed, grabs a handful of covers and tugs, drawing them over him as he curls up on his side. John’s scent surround him, faint but unmistakable. It’s the scent of his shampoo, for the most part, and toothpaste, and an edge of sweat. How long will it cling to the sheets if Sherlock doesn’t wash them?

“Sherlock I’m coming in now.”

Did he lock the door?

The latch clicks open.

No, he didn’t lock the damn door.

“Leave me alone,” he mutters.

He can’t hear any footsteps. James sounds like he’s still by the threshold.

“Not until you tell me what happened.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“John is my friend too. If he’s leaving I have the right to know why.”

“Then ask him because I’ve got no idea.”

The silence that follows is long enough that Sherlock wonders if James is gone. He turns within his cocoon of blankets, peeks out – and meets James’ frowning gaze full on.

“You’re telling me you have no idea why John is angry after you two argued.”

Frustration flashes through Sherlock, incandescent, bright and blinding.

“We didn’t argue. I told John something he wasn’t ready to hear. He’d decided to leave before that. Now will you please leave me alone?”

But James still isn’t ready to go away.

“Did you tell him how you feel? Is that what—”

“No,” Sherlock cuts in, glaring at him. “That is definitely none of your business and I’ve already told you as much.”

In the past, that tone of voice has sent James into retreat, brought ‘yes, sir’ answers to his lips. Today, he doesn’t even seem to notice.

“You should tell him. You said he doesn’t have a reason to stay but if you tell him maybe—”

“Stop it. Just. Stop.”

Sherlock scrunches his eyes tightly closed, chasing away the thoughts James’ words summoned.

Tell him… How many times did he picture doing exactly that during those endless months he was away? Dozens of times, at least. Maybe more. After that unexpected epiphany, every time he was in a place safe enough to rest he’d left himself drift into sleep with dreams of coming home, scenarios of confessions as improbable for the fact that Sherlock was the one confessing to feelings as they were for the positive reactions he imagined from John.

“You should tell him,” James says again, unabated. “He should know the truth.”

Sherlock scoffs. “The truth? He doesn’t want the truth.”

The whole video debacle proved that. Sherlock offered the truth about Mary’s death. Maybe he was too blunt. Maybe he should have warned John. Maybe he shouldn’t have done it while still half asleep, still reeling from a bad dream. But in the end, regardless of all that, the truth wasn’t what John wanted, even if it was what he needed.

“Everybody wants the truth,” James insists yet a little more.

Sherlock’s mind picks up on that ‘everybody’ and shifts the whole conversation around. He doesn’t want to think about John anymore, not when the mere thought of his name tightens his heart until he feels it’s going to stop.

But if ‘everybody’ wants the truth… if James does… That, Sherlock can do. Maybe it’ll just be another mistake, but he’s past the point of knowing anymore what’s good or not.

“Go get dressed,” he says, extirpating himself from the covers so he can get to his clothes, too. “We’re going out.”

James perks up at that. “Are we going to go look for John?”

“Go get dressed,” Sherlock repeats.

Getting out of their pajamas and into clothes, for both of them, is a matter of minutes. Morning traffic is an entirely different thing, and it takes them much too long for Sherlock’s taste to reach Bart’s.

“How do you know he’s there?” James asks – again – as they get out.

Sherlock still doesn’t answer, and leads the way in, then up, all the way to the roof.

“Sherlock? What are we doing here?”

There’s an edge to James’ voice, a tightness that sounds not quite like fear but definitely like wariness. Sherlock wonders briefly whether James knows where his father died, if not how, but it doesn’t matter anymore. He’ll know both things soon enough.

Without answering James’ question, he looks around, orienting himself, then points at a spot on the cement that nothing distinguishes from the rest of the roof.

“There,” he says, and stepping to that one spot feels like stepping back into the past. He can practically see the blood, the body, smell the gunpowder, feel the acid burning the back of his throat.

“What’s there?” James asks, frowning faintly first at the roof then at Sherlock.

“Your father and I were right here.”

James looks down again. His voice falls to a murmur. “You mean… the day he died?”

“Yes.” Sherlock whirls back, striding toward the edge of the roof, where he stood that day. He glances down into the street before turning back to James. “He wanted me to jump. To kill myself so that my friends would live.”

James looks like he’s holding his breath.

“And then,” Sherlock continues, taking slow steps back toward him, “I realized there was a flaw in his plan. I threatened him. And he did the very last thing I expected.”

When he stops in front of James, the child blinks twice. Sherlock remains silent. James waits a few seconds before asking, his voice wavering, “What… what was that?”

The old doubt resurfaces, compounded by what happened that very morning. Should he tell James? Should he tell him regardless of whether he wants to know at all? James himself said the truth is best, but he wasn’t talking about himself – or was he?

“Do you really want to know?” Sherlock asks. “Do you want to know how he died?”

For long seconds, James peers at the roof around him, almost as though looking for a sign left behind by his father, or maybe even his ghost. He’s worrying his thumbnail with his teeth, that absentminded gesture that always seems to come back when he’s unsettled. He hasn’t done it in a while. He finally drops his hand and gives the tiniest of nods.

“Tell me,” he demands, and if his voice is a whisper, there’s no hesitation left in it.

Sherlock takes in a deep breath, lets it out, and says, “He pulled a gun, he stuck it in his mouth and he fired.”

James stands frozen in place, his eyes wide and unblinking as he stares at Sherlock. Taking a step closer to him, Sherlock folds himself down to his knees so he won’t be looming over him.

“You keep asking if he’s really dead,” he says quietly. “You keep being afraid he’s going to come back. I’m telling you. He won’t. He blew his brains out right where you’re standing.”

When James’ gaze falls to the ground at his feet, Sherlock knows what he’s looking for, but there’s no blood for him to find. His eyes come up again and seek Sherlock’s.

“Why?” he breathes. “Why would he… do that?”

“Because I was about to beat him. Because in that moment winning was more important than anything else, even his own life.”

“Even… even me?” James’ eyes are filling with tears. “He must have known… he had to know Sebastian… Why didn’t he think about me?”

His voice breaks, he blinks, and the first tears roll down his cheeks. Sherlock’s fists tighten against his thighs.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs. “It went very fast. I doubt he had time to think about much.”

James shakes his head. “He had to. He always thought of everything. Always.”

“But he didn’t,” Sherlock says gently. “Not this time. He left a way for me to win.”

“Then he must have thought… of what would happen… if you did win.” James keeps talking through his tears, hiccupping. “Sebastian said… he said Father told him to take care of me if something happened to him. I didn’t believe him but… what if it was true? What if he knew he was going to die and he went anyway and he didn’t care what happened to me?”

James’ desperate gaze is pleading for Sherlock to prove him wrong, to give him one reason to believe his father didn’t give him to Moran only to be abused. But how is Sherlock supposed to know what was going on in Moriarty’s head? He never alluded to having a son, never did anything at all that hinted he had a family or anyone he cared about.

But James… James has told him about a side of Moriarty Sherlock never knew. A side that went beyond corporal punishment and included cinema outings, and horseback riding competitions, and ice skating. And if he pieces it together…

“You said once that you told him Moran hit you and they had an argument about it. Right?”

James nods, wiping at the tears streaking down his cheeks with his sleeve.

“If he didn’t want Moran to hit you, then it makes no sense that he’d be okay with anything else Moran did. He trusted him. He trusted he’d take care of you, not hurt you. And maybe…”

Sherlock’s mind is galloping now, too fast for him to put things into words. He remembers how disappointed Moriarty claimed to be that Sherlock was on ‘the side of the angels’. How delighted when he realized Sherlock could be quite as ruthless as he was when pushed to it. Would it have been obvious to him that his nine-year-old son was not taking after him? A boy wearing his name, a boy to whom he’d taught everything, whom he’d been grooming, presumably, to take over his empire… A boy who was probably even then looking more like an angel than anything else.

“Maybe what?” James prompts, the words rough.

“Maybe he wanted Moran to finish what he started,” Sherlock says slowly. “He was teaching you to be like him. Who better to finish the job than a killer? What he didn’t know was that you’d get away from Moran before he destroyed everything that makes you different from your father.”

The tears have stopped streaming from James’ eyes, but his body still shakes, every now and then, from dry sobs.

“Do you think… Do you think he loved me? Even just a little bit?”

There’s only one possible answer and Sherlock gives it right away. He asked the same thing, once. The answer devastated him. He can't do that to James, regardless of his doubts.

“Yes. I’m sure he did, in whatever way he could love.”

Still, it’s not the whole answer…

“But,” he continues, slower now, “I think he might have loved the idea of you even more. The idea of having someone he could mold whichever way he wanted. And I don’t think he understood you’re an incredible boy who doesn’t need to be molded into anything.”

Next thing he knows, there are two arms wound around his neck, and a face pressed to his shoulder. After a brief hesitation, he hugs James back, loosely at first, then more tightly when James starts crying again.

He couldn’t say how long they stay like this. All that matters is that it’s as long as James needs it to be. He rubs James’ back lightly but doesn’t say anything to comfort him. He wouldn’t know where to start if he tried. Besides, it feels like they’ve talked quite enough for now. Maybe letting the tears out along with all the pain they carry is what James needs.

Little by little, the sobs rocking James’ body quiet down. Even then, he still clings to Sherlock a little longer. Only when he starts to pull away does Sherlock let go and get back to his feet.

“Thank you,” James says then, and if the tears are gone his voice is still raw. “For telling me how… how he died.”

Sherlock nods. His throat is too tight for words.

“I’ll go… to the bathroom. Wash up a bit.”

Another nod, and Sherlock clears his throat with a light cough. “I’ll wait for you in front of the building. We’ll go find you something to eat.”

“All right. But…” James’ blotched cheeks pink up a little more. “Can I go see Molly before that? She said she had a book for me.”

“I’ll join you there, then.”

James gives him a tiny flash of a smile before walking away. Sherlock watches him go. At the light click of the door closing behind him, he turns and goes to sit on the low wall from which he once jumped, his back to the street. He feels drained, like he’s the one who just cried every tear in his body, let out every bit of heartache and pain. If only it were that easy…

The last time he was up here, he realized something he’d never understood before that. Knowing what it was to have friends he’d do just about anything to protect, he understood what it was like to be lonely, and that he never wanted to be alone again. Ironically, he spent the next three years more lonely than he’d ever been.

And now…

He has friends. People he cares about and who care about him in return. He also has James – and that’s even more unexpected than the fact that he has friends.

Is it greedy for him to want even more than that?

When his phone rings, his first thought is to ignore the call, but a look at the screen changes his mind.

It’s John.

He almost drops the phone in his haste to answer, hope and trepidation causing his hands to shake equally.

“John?”

From the other end of the line comes a harsh breath, and then even harsher words.

“What in the bloody hell are you doing on that roof?”

Chapter Text

Sherlock stands at John’s words, turns and looks down to the street. It only takes him a couple of seconds to find John. He’s across the street, near the building opposite Bart’s. His back is to the wall, as though he needs the support to hold himself upright.

An echo from a few weeks ago resurfaces in Sherlock’s mind.

I used to go to yours, before. Your grave, then Bart’s.

He went to Mary’s grave, Sherlock is suddenly sure of it. Sherlock forced her and the guilt he feels to the front of John’s mind, and as a result he went to her grave. But why does he still come to Bart’s, why does he still complete that two-part journey even now that he knows Sherlock is alive?

All that rises to his lips is, again, John’s name, although this time it’s little more than a whisper.

John’s breaths are still coming in too fast, too loud through the phone.

“Sherlock if this is your idea of a joke I swear to God—”

There’s too much pain in John’s voice; Sherlock can’t bear to let him finish.

“No, no, nothing like that. James. I told James about Moriarty’s death. He needed to hear it.”

“And he needed to hear it up there?”

Back to anger. Sherlock isn’t sure which is worse, the anger or the pain. John’s pain resonates in him, tightening his heart, pushing his stomach to his throat, while his anger sends cold shivers down his back.

“It just… felt right to do it here,” he says.

When he decided to tell James, he simply couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else, but he’s suddenly aware that there’s nothing logical about it. Was it his subconscious at play? He never stopped to actually consider where John might have gone, but if he had wanted to, Mary’s grave and then Bart’s wouldn’t have taken him very long to figure out.

“Get off that roof,” John says, biting each word. “And take the bloody stairs!”

Sherlock could swear he can see him shaking even despite the distance between them. His hand rises for a second then falls again. There’s no comfort to be offered from here.

“John, calm down, I would never—”

“But you did!” John shouts. “You did, Sherlock. You jumped. And I don’t care that you were shamming. I watched my best friend throw himself off a building because I couldn’t find it in me to say the right words to talk him off the ledge. I watched him jump not even an hour after I had a row with him and called him names.”

And Sherlock knows, suddenly, why John came to Bart’s for three years. His grave, he could understand before; grief. But Bart’s? The place where, as far as John knew, Sherlock had died? Not so much grief as it was guilt.

The same kind of guilt Sherlock made him confront this morning. Not just survivor’s guilt, but the certainty he had a direct responsibility in the death of someone he cared about.

But what does it mean that John still comes here now?

“There was nothing you could have said—” Sherlock starts, but John interrupts him again, this time with a whisper that sounds like he’s speaking through a mouthful of crushed glass.

“I could have said I loved you.”

Sherlock’s mind goes blank. His head feels too light, and he has to take a step back from the edge of the roof. He must have heard wrong. John can’t have said… that. He cannot possibly have said that.

Except he says it again, a little bit louder.

“I could have said I loved you. If I hadn’t been so bloody scared, I could have said it. Would it have been enough?”

Sherlock’s the one shaking now. After his epiphany, he often thought back to the two years he and John had spent as flatmates, starting from that odd conversation at Angelo’s all the way to John getting himself arrested along with Sherlock. Some days, he could find a dozen, a hundred clues to this very thing John admitted. And some days, he knew, with no possibility for doubt, that he was just fooling himself.

And now…

But no. He said ‘loved’. Past tense. Done. If it was true at one time, it’s not anymore. It can’t be. Not after Sherlock went away for so long, not after he lied to John, not after John found comfort in Mary. Past tense only.

Isn’t it?

“John…”

By the time the name has passed his lips, Sherlock doesn’t know anymore what he was going to say next.

“Just tell me, Sherlock. Could I have saved you? If I’d said I love you. Would you still have jumped?”

Warmth floods Sherlock along with memories. This time, it’s not the past tense anymore. They’re still talking about three years ago, but the feeling is still there. It has to be. John wouldn’t be right here, right now if it had faded, would he? He wouldn’t have forgiven Sherlock so quickly for three years of lies. Wouldn’t have answered every text he received while he was on honeymoon. Wouldn’t have slipped back into Sherlock’s life as though they’d never been apart.

“Yes,” he says quietly, never taking his eyes off John. “I’d still have jumped. I’d still have faked it. I had to. To protect you. Because lying to you was better than being the cause of your death. I’d still do the same today if it meant keeping you safe. Because I—”

Sherlock’s voice breaks. Of all the ways he imagined telling John, this was never one of them.

“I do, too,” he finishes, his pitch suddenly a little higher. “Even if I couldn’t say it either.”

Down in the street, much too far away, John pushes away from the wall for the first time since this call started. Sherlock holds his breath waiting for him to say something. When he speaks, the words are much steadier, though nothing Sherlock expected.

“Technically you still haven’t said it.”

Sherlock’s breath comes out in a quiet burst that could almost be a laugh.

“Do you want the memory of me saying those stupid words while standing on top of this roof?”

“No. No I really don’t. Come down.”

John is crossing the street, taking those steps Sherlock didn’t let him take three years ago. Sherlock watches him a few more seconds then turns around to get to the exit.

“On my way,” he says.

“Don’t hang up.”

“Okay.”

He keeps the phone to his ear, but can’t hear anything anymore over the sound of his feet striking the staircase.

“John? Are you there?”

He slows down to listen more closely. A handful of seconds pass before John’s voice returns, wavering and breathless.

“Yeah, I… I’m trying not to have a meltdown.”

Sherlock grips the handrail with his free hand and slows down a little more. He wants to join John, he really does, but not before John is ready.

“You. A meltdown,” he says, and if the words are teasing, his tone stays gentle. “You went to war, John. I’d have thought it’d take more than three words to cause you to have a meltdown.”

John huffs into the phone. “It’s not the words. You haven’t even said the words. It’s what comes after. What came before. What happened this morning. It’s rushing into God knows what with a complete and utter lunatic when I’ve been a widower for a month.”

As he reaches a second landing in the staircase, Sherlock stops, leaning back against the wall.

“I don’t know what to say to that,” he admits quietly. “Not the lunatic thing. The widower bit.”

In his ear, John takes a shaky breath. Somewhere down the staircase, steps are coming up toward Sherlock.

“She knew,” John all but whispers. “About… about my feelings for you, I mean. Our third date. I kissed her. And then I told her she should ditch me because I was in love with a dead bloke. I’d never admitted it to anyone before that. Not to my therapist. Not to your tombstone. Not even to myself. And I just blurted it out to her before I even knew what I was doing. Do you know what she said?”

Sherlock closes his eyes. On his cheek, he can almost feel the phantom touch of Mary’s lips when she kissed him at the wedding. She knew, and still she was fine with him being there as John’s best man, with John spending so much time with him. That first night, she was the one who let him in, who told him to give John time. He feels a little sorry for being so jealous of her.

“I really have no idea,” he finally answers John’s question.

John’s throat clicks wetly. “She said she understood. Said it was okay to love two people. Better than not to love at all.”

Just because he’s my best friend now doesn’t mean he can’t still be yours, too.

“She was a good woman,” Sherlock whispers.

John replies just as quietly. “She was. And I loved her so much.”

Silence again. The steps are growing louder. In a minute John will be there. There’s one last thing Sherlock needs to say, something that will be easier this way than face to face.

“John? You said I never said sorry but… I am, you know. I’m sorry I had to make you believe I was dead. I had to do this alone, and I never thought it’d take so long, or that you’d be so hurt. And I’m sorry she died. If I could make it so she was still alive for you, even if it meant not having you in my life anymore—”

His phone beeps when the call ends. John’s next words come from just an arm’s length away

“Shut up. Please shut up.”

Sherlock’s eyes open as John’s hands grab the sides of his coat and pull him forward, away from the wall. He just has time to slip his phone in his pocket before John’s arms slide around him. He returns the hug at once, vaguely realizing that John is shaking – and that he is, too.

“This…” John says against Sherlock’s collar. “None of this changes the fact that I just lost my wife.”

“Of course.”

“I’m not going to jump in your bed.”

“You already sleep in my bed.”

John’s body shakes harder, but this time it’s from a quiet laugh. “You know what I mean, you berk.”

Sherlock holds him a little tighter. “Yes. I know. There’s no rush. No rush for anything.”

“Okay. Good. If you ever get on that roof again I swear I’ll kick your sorry arse across London and all the way to your bloody grave.”

“I won’t.”

“Okay.”

After a few more seconds, they pull apart a little without letting go of each other. John’s face shows the same kind of awe Sherlock feels himself. Did this really just happen or is it all just a dream?

“May I kiss you?” he blurts out, needing confirmation quite as much as he needs air. He’s already leaning down though not quite touching John’s lips. “Please say I can kiss you.”

John lets out a breathless chuckle that caresses Sherlock’s mouth. “You just said there was no rush.”

“I did, yes,” Sherlock says, pulling back again. “Sorry.”

John shakes his head and brings a hand up to the back of Sherlock’s neck, tugging gently. He kisses him, a brush of lips against lips, barely a kiss at all, and still more than Sherlock thought he’d ever get. As tentative as it is, it’s still quite enough to cause the world to tilt ever so slightly on its axis. Maybe John feels it too, because rather than pulling back he lets Sherlock press their foreheads together. Seconds pass as they simply watch each other until John finally says, “I’m still mad at you for shoving that video in my face.”

Sherlock winces. He’d almost forgotten about that fiasco.

“I’m sorry. I was trying to help.”

“I know you were. But you should have let me decide whether to watch it or even when.”

“You were in pain. I wanted to make it stop, not make it worse.” Lower still, he adds, “I’ve been trying really hard.”

John’s thumb brushes against the nape of Sherlock’s neck, tangling in a curl of hair and tugging ever so gently.

“I noticed,” he murmurs. “I didn’t understand why, but I noticed.”

Steps are echoing down the staircase, someone coming down toward them. A look passes between them, a question easily answered. They pull away from each other, severing contact although remaining side by side. If Sherlock were a betting man, he’d say John moved back for the same reason he did. Because this is new, and fragile, and precious, and theirs, and he’d rather keep it between them right now than share even a glimpse of it with strangers.

A woman passes by them and continues down. When she has disappeared, John asks, “What now?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock says, and for once he doesn’t mind admitting as much. They can figure it out together. “I’ve never done this. Relationships. Is that the word?”

A half smile curls John’s lips. “If that’s what you want to call it.”

“What would you call it?”

“Unexpected.”

John certainly has a point there.

“So you’ll stay?” Sherlock asks, unable and unwilling to keep the hope from his voice.

John’s half-smile wavers. “I’ve still got a lot of baggage to deal with.”

“I can help.” Sherlock says at once. “I want to help.” And then, he remembers the mess he created the last time he tried to help and has to ask, more diffidently, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

John shrugs. “I don’t know. Some of it I just have to come to grips with on my own.” With a twisted smile, he adds, “Also your kind of help can be rather brutal.”

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says again. Now that he’s said it once, he can’t seem to stop. “I never thought—”

“I know,” John cuts in, laying a hand on Sherlock’s arm. “It’s okay. You don’t have to keep apologizing. I probably didn’t react in the best way either.”

Sherlock could swear he can feel the warmth of John’s hand through his coat, jacket and shirt. He shivers when it falls away again.

“You still haven’t said if you’ll stay.”

Their eyes lock; whatever John sees in Sherlock’s, he gives a small nod. “Yes, I’ll stay. Just… no rush, right?”

“No rush,” Sherlock agrees, a smile bursting to his lips.

They fall silent again, the importance of what is happening sinking in a little more. Nothing might change outwardly if they’re taking things slow, but everything is still going to be different.

Though Sherlock allowed himself to imagine what might happen if something like this ever took place, he’s never dreamed of such a strange scenario, with John grieving his spouse and a child living in their home. It’s like the most bizarre dream he could have come up with, but he still he can’t wait to see where it’ll go.

“What are we going to tell James?” John asks suddenly, and Sherlock wonders what path his thoughts took to make him think of James too.

“About what?”

John snorts. “About us, idiot.”

“Oh. No need to say anything. He’ll figure it out. He already knows half of it. My half.”

“You told him?” John asks, raising an eyebrow.

Sherlock shakes his head. “Not a word. I even tried to deny it, for all the good it did.”

“He’s too smart for all our sakes.”

“Definitely. We should probably go get him. He’ll be wondering where I am.”

“Where is he?”

They start down the staircase together. “With Molly. She promised him a book.”

“Ah, Molly. Of course.”

Judging from John’s small smile, he’s noticed James’ crush, though he doesn’t say anything more. They go to her lab side by side. For a second, Sherlock considers taking John’s hand when it brushes against his own. In the end, he doesn’t. They’ve held hands before, but it’d feel odd to do it now. They don’t need that, don’t need to be touching constantly, do they? They’ve already taken a step closer to each other.

They end up finding James and Molly in the morgue. There are no bodies in sight, but Molly must have relaxed her ‘not appropriate for a child’ stance somewhat as she is showing him a pair of diseased lungs. Whatever she’s explaining to him, he seems captivated enough that Molly notices them coming in before James does.

“Hi Sherlock. Hi John.” Her smile wavers suddenly. “I’m showing James some lungs. Is that okay? I should have asked, shouldn’t I?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “If he’s okay with it, that’s fine.”

“Smoker’s lungs?” John asks as he gets close enough for a proper look. “Not pretty at all.”

The last is said with a pointed look at Sherlock, who huffs in reply.

“I haven’t had a cigarette in months.”

Almost two months,” James corrects with a small smile. His eyes are still a little red, but they’re the only evidence left of what happened on the roof.

When Sherlock huffs again, Molly hides her amusement behind her hand while John chuckles lightly. James’ gaze goes back and forth between Sherlock and John. After a slow blink, he lets out a quiet, “Oh.” Sherlock has no idea how he figured it out, but it’s clear he did.

“Terrifying,” John says, and while Molly missed the byplay and thinks he’s still talking about the lungs, James grins at him with something that just might be pride.

They soon say goodbye, and James thanks Molly profusely for the pathology textbook she’s lending him. When they walk out of Bart’s, the cloud cover has broken, and a bit of sunshine warms the October air. James walks in between the two of them, looking at Sherlock, then at John, a question clearly on his lips.

“Yes?” John prompts him.

It ends with five words.

“Are we going home now?”

Or maybe, that’s how it starts.

 

~~~