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The Gilded Cage

Chapter Text

John shouldered aside the door to 221B Baker Street, breathing out a sigh of relief as he closed away the outside world. His day seemed to have gone on forever thanks to a conference in central London about reproductive health and surgery. Not that it was of much use to him, but attendance was compulsory to maintain his license. Therefore he had endured it, reminding himself more than once that most of it was relevant to a GP, at least to some extent.

'Have fun?' Sherlock's laconic question greeted him. John glanced over to see him at his laptop, his fingers dancing across the keyboard and his eyes glued to the screen.

'It was a waste of time. Useless.' John muttered, heading for the kitchen and making a noise of surprise when he saw the takeaway on the table. 'How long's this been here?'

Silence followed, but John was used to it. Sometimes it took Sherlock a while to extract himself from his train of thought. He flicked on the kettle, grabbing two mugs without thinking and going through the motions of making some tea. He was just adding milk when Sherlock emerged from whatever he was doing, blinking at John as if he had barely realised he'd come home.

'Chinese?' John prompted, gesturing to the cartons. 'Days old and toxic, or edible?'

'I got it a couple of hours ago. I was hungry.'

'So you've eaten?' John rolled his eyes, realising the question was stupid. None of the packages were open and the chopsticks lay unsplit on the kitchen table. 'No, of course not. I suppose you got distracted.'

Sherlock stretched in his seat, lifting his arms above his head in a gesture that made his body seem to go on forever, all lithe grace and elegant length. Like fine art or a good sunset, it was hard not to appreciate Sherlock's aesthetic, even if his personality sometimes left a lot to be desired. He was dressed, which suggested he had probably been out at least once, though God knew where. Now his jacket shifted on his shoulders and his shirt buttons strained as he hummed a vague affirmative.

'Why useless?' He got to his feet, strolling across the room and wrinkling his nose as John began opening packages and examined the microwave for anything unsavoury. 'It's not like you to disparage the merits of medical knowledge.'

'Too much generic Omega focus.' John shook his head. 'As if anyone in the NHS ever claps eyes on them. Let's face it, if one of them needs a doctor, they'll be seeing the best of the best, and that's not going to be on the government's bill, is it?' He shoved a couple of cartons in the microwave and pressed the buttons, starting it up. 'Even if it was, it's not like they could visit an Alpha GP like me.'

'True.' He passed John some chopsticks, his eyes narrowed in a familiar deductive manner as he no doubt read all the new data John had accumulated about his person since he left that morning. 'It bothers you.'

For someone so intent on the minutiae of everyone's existence, Sherlock treated gender, both primary and secondary, as irrelevant, and John shrugged as he tried to explain. 'There's a whole section of society that the general populace never gets to see. They're segregated before they present, take part in arranged bonds soon after and spend the rest of their lives in the home of whichever Alpha was wealthy or important enough to win them as a prize.' He shook his head, wondering why he expected Sherlock to empathise with this when he could not bring himself to show outward concern for even the most brutally murdered victims. 'I've never seen one, except at Bart's, and even then he was a corpse donated to medical science.'

Sherlock raised an eyebrow at that, probably aware of how unusual John's fleeting glimpse of that rare body had been. 'I suppose few people have an Omega parent these days. Yours were both Betas,' he said a moment later – a statement, not a question. 'They were fortunate to have both you and Harry with only a three year age gap. They must have –'

'Stop!' John shook his head, practically dropping the Lo-Mein into Sherlock's hands. The conception rate of a Beta couple was notoriously low, and he did not need Sherlock commenting on his parents' sexual frequency. He had been trying not to think about that ever since finding out about how sex worked. 'Just – don't finish that sentence.'

Sherlock chuckled as John smiled, quickly altering the course of the conversation. 'I don't see the point of focussing on Omega reproductive health at a general assembly, that's all. The biology is –' He shook his head, knowing he didn't need to explain it to Sherlock. '– frankly miraculous, and it's interesting theory, but ninety-eight percent of the doctors there will never put any of it into practice. They just won't get the chance.'

'There must have been something you can use? Surely as a GP you get sexual queries?'

'Betas needing help to conceive. Young Alphas worried that they'll hurt their definitely-not-Omega lovers... STDs and straightforward Beta pregnancies. That's it.'

'Alpha-specific physiology only responds to an Omega in heat. That's basic biology. Have none of your patients attended school?' Sherlock asked, taking his meal and settling on the back of the couch, his feet on the seat and his elbows propped on his knees as John slumped in his armchair.

'Oh, come on. It doesn't matter what they tell you in a classroom. Every Alpha is going to wonder about it. You can't tell me it never crossed your mind.'

Sherlock shook his head. 'I can honestly say it's never been a personal concern. Unless faced with an Omega, an Alpha's nodal ridge or ciliac rise remains unchanged. There's no knot in the male or penile extrusion in the female. The tissue might as well be an appendix.'

John grunted in agreement, eating in silence as his tired thoughts went around in circles. The truth was, most people forgot Omegas even existed. People knew of them, of course, but they were rare, something valuable and precious to be coveted and hidden. These days it wasn't about fighting to the death; it was about having the money. Alphas of the aristocracy and the elite frequently paid millions to an Omega's family for the right to bond, regardless of what the Omega might want, and it was that which John found nauseating.

An Omega would go to the highest bidder, end of story, and the Alphas who were left? Well, they struggled through like everyone else, looking for love, possibly having a kid or two with a Beta and, for the most part, forgetting all about knots and bonds.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the front door, and he glanced over as Sherlock lifted his head like a dog catching a scent, alert and curious with a hint of enthusiasm in his eyes. Lestrade then; he never looked so keen to see anyone else, even a client. A second later, John's suspicion was confirmed as the DI's gravelly voice drifted upwards, accompanied by his cigarettes-coffee-and-muscovado smell as it permeated Baker Street and over-rode Mrs Hudson's lighter, Beta fragrance of bluebells.

The DI's footsteps were quick on the stairs, and Sherlock was already reaching for his coat when he knocked on the door and pushed his way inside. Greg looked tired, with deep shadows and puffy bags under his eyes. His hair was dishevelled, his tie lay askew, and his smile was strained at its edges as John got to his feet.

'Need your help,' he said by way of greeting. 'We've got something – I – well actually I'm not sure what we've got, but we needed it solved five minutes before we even found it. If the press get wind of this...'

Sherlock cocked his head, no doubt reading everything off of Greg in the space of a heartbeat. 'An Omega victim. You wouldn't look so pale for anything else. Not even a child.' He glanced at John, who had flinched in repulsed surprise at the deduction. 'Perhaps that conference won't be so useless after all, John. Where is it? We'll take a taxi.'

'Hyde Road,' Greg supplied, putting his hands on his hips and ducking his head before looking at John. 'I'd suggest you stay behind, but the whole situation appears sort of – medical. I hope to God it's not what it looks like.'

John nodded, grabbing his jacket as Sherlock trotted down the stairs, calling to Mrs Hudson and stepping out onto the pavement to hail a cab. 'Anything I need to be aware of?' he asked, watching Greg's face as they followed Sherlock out. 'You look –'

'Sick?' The DI nodded, swallowing tightly as if he were still fighting nausea. 'It's the stench. Most of my team aren't bothered; they can't detect anything. They're all Betas except for one tech, who knew what it was before we'd even clapped eyes on it. His retch brought him to his knees half a street away, and I wasn't much better. A dead Omega –'

'I know.' John swallowed. He'd told Sherlock about the body wheeled out for the benefit of his class at Bart's. It was a rare treat for students and staff alike, yet the Alphas, about a quarter of those present, couldn't stand to be in a well-ventilated room with it. The stink had embedded itself in his memory. Sickly sweet rot, for all that the flesh was preserved. It was pestilence and misery, greasy and choking. He had stood in the shower for an hour afterwards, and still the odour had clung to him. 'Thanks for the warning.'

'Cover your nose with your sleeve on the approach. You can have a mask at the scene.'

'John!' Sherlock shifted impatiently by a waiting cab, standing back to let him climb in first as Lestrade went to his own vehicle. A moment later they were on their way, and John fidgeted, trying to ignore the churning concern that bubbled through his stomach.

Not for the first time, he wished he'd been a Beta like his parents and Harry. Normally, he was happy with his lot in life, but there were times when his own biochemistry worked against him. Never had it been more apparent than when that dead Omega's fragrance had caused such a visceral reaction. It wasn't just the repulsion, but the horror that went with it. A deep, putrescent certainty that somehow he had failed to protect something vital. Never mind that he had never met the person, never shared a bond with him and didn't even know his name. It still mattered to John on some illogical level that he was dead.

It made him wonder what it would be like to scent one who was in heat. There were rumours, legends almost. Words like irresistible and maddening were whispered like a pornographic fantasy, but he had never experienced it first-hand. Few people had. Alphas cropped up in the general population at random, but only an Omega could birth an Omega child, and these days that invariably meant they were from posh families: the landed gentry and the like. There were never any cases of accidental or spontaneous presentation in an uncontrolled environment; that kind of thing happened in films, not real life.

About the only thing anyone could agree on was that if an Alpha was in the company of an Omega in heat, they would know it. Their noses were too sensitive to deceive, and John rarely had trouble identifying anyone's secondary gender. He knew Lestrade was an Alpha just from sitting in his car and that the cab driver was a Beta by the sweeter, vanilla fragrance that permeated the atmosphere. There wasn't any need to ask when the truth was written in the airborne chemicals around them.

Of course, Sherlock wouldn't be himself if he weren't the exception to that rule. When John had limped into the lab at Bart's with Mike that first time after Afghanistan, he had to admit he had been too overwhelmed by the man in front of him to notice any scent. Sherlock wasn't classically beautiful, but his presence jolted through John's entire body, stirring up interest in a way he had begun to wonder if he would ever feel again. Then he had been pinned by those diamond eyes, sharp and intelligent, and Sherlock had seen everything.

“Afghanistan or Iraq?”

The question had shocked him, causing him to drag in one deep breath through his nose, and the resulting uncertainty over what he could sense had left him almost incapable of answering. There were lab chemicals and the strange, artificial edge to the air treatment system, Mike's ashy Beta scent half-covered by cologne and then... something.

Not a bad perfume, but more the absence of one. The truth was that, even now, unless Sherlock stood particularly close or they were within their own territory of Baker Street, John could barely smell him at all. His first thought had been Unpresented, but the doctor in him had written that off almost immediately. Sherlock was physically developed, whereas those who didn't mature sexually retained childlike, androgynous physiques. With large hands, stunning, obvious facial structure and his looming height, there was no way Sherlock fit the bill.

His next thought had been a Beta, but then Sherlock had moved and blown that idea out of the water. Too much confidence and swagger, too much presence and certainty. No Beta John had ever met before could prowl like that or command the attention of a room so thoroughly. That left one viable option: Alpha.

More than once, John had considered just asking, but in the end it didn't matter. Sherlock was, beyond everything else, himself – the single most fascinating person John had come across in his life. John never saw him with a lover, and generally, Sherlock seemed as disinterested in sex as he did in gender, though John was fairly sure it wasn't just him who felt the hard, sharp pull of attraction when their eyes met and lingered for a little too long.

The self-deprecating smile slid off John's face, his distracting train of thought stuttering to a halt as something vile curled in his nostrils and the back of his mouth. It was just a hint, but he quickly pressed the backs of his fingers to his nose to try block out the odour as every revolution of the taxi's wheels brought them closer to the crime scene.

By the time Sherlock climbed out of the cab, John had given up and crammed his sleeve so hard against his mouth that he could barely breathe. Every instinct was screaming at him to get out, and he caught sight of the Alpha lab tech Lestrade had mentioned, sitting on the pavement upwind with his head between his knees as he took steadying breaths.

'How can you stand it?' John asked Sherlock, squinting at him in the encroaching dusk. The amber street lights cast his face into strange shadows, but John noticed that his skin seemed bloodless, even if he wasn't desperately trying to block out the fragrance.

A frown pleated Sherlock's brow as Lestrade trotted over. 'Mind over matter,' he said at last, watching Greg give a treated cloth mask, much like that a surgeon would wear, to John before securing one over his own face. It was only when Sherlock held out an imperious hand that Greg seemed to remember he would need one too and relinquished a third, talking all the while.

'Someone working at a nearby warehouse reported it. The place is meant to be derelict, but, well...' Lestrade shrugged, motioning for them to follow. John ducked under the police tape as Sherlock held it up, inspecting the scene. Anderson and his team were standing to one side, looking petulant, but there was an undertone of curiosity to their restlessness. Just because Betas were not attracted to Omegas, it did not make the sight of one, even a dead one, any less fascinating.

Stepping through the door, John felt his blood run cold, leaving him clammy and frigid as he took in the room beyond. It was a makeshift operating theatre, crude and dim. Various bloody tools lay abandoned as if people had simply turned tail and fled, abandoning the body on the bed. Her hospital gown was stained and the incision in her lower abdomen gaped like the split skin of a ripe fruit.

'Please tell me my first impression is wrong?' Greg sounded more than just sick. There was a thick vein of grief under his words. The same thing clenched like a vice around John's heart, and he swallowed, forcing himself to listen as Sherlock spoke.

'Chop shop,' he said succinctly. 'Profitable to the extreme for all involved, most of the time.' With a flick of his fingers, he indicated the surgeon's tools. 'High-grade equipment for the extraction; they were after the supra-ovarian structure, I imagine.'

'What's that?' Greg asked, looking at John, who could at least find some distraction in the facts.

'All Omega women have it. It's the glandular network that sustains the health of their eggs. It's part of the reason Alpha-Omega couples enjoy such a high conception rate,' he explained. 'Rather than a store of ovum that has been in the woman's ovaries since birth, like you get in a Beta, these are constantly constructed and replenished. It means she would be fertile for longer than a Beta counterpart, and she has a greater chance of twins or triplets.' John drew in a breath and coughed, wishing he could retreat further, but his back was already pressed against the wall. 'Omega males have a similar system, but it's harder to extract. An Omega man is unlikely to survive the procedure.'

'It's not like she did so well out of it,' Anderson said from the doorway where he and Donovan were peering over Lestrade's shoulder. 'So what was in it for her?'

'Money,' Sherlock replied, putting on some latex gloves and stepping towards the body, his fingers tentatively parting the incision to reveal the bloody mess inside.

'Why would she need that?' Donovan demanded. 'She might not be that pretty, but she was still an Omega. Her Alpha would have given her everything she wanted.' Sherlock's snort of derision was surprisingly subtle, but it still reached the sergeant's ears. 'Oh, what? You expect me to feel sorry for some girl who's had the world land in her lap just because she can pop out a kid every nine months like clockwork?' Sarcasm dripped from her next words. 'Imagine how awful that must be.'

'Donovan...' Lestrade's voice held a warning, but it was nothing compared to lethal, silken darkness of Sherlock's as he began to speak.

'Yes, how awful to have no choice in the matter. To be seen as merely a means of producing children and sold into a bond she had no desire to form.' He brushed the woman's hair back from her shoulder and turned her head, revealing the circular wound of an Alpha's bite. It was still raw and healing, a week old at most. Only Omegas bore a mark like that. Thanks to the chemicals in an Alpha's spit, it would scar as it healed: a symbol to show she belonged to someone. For as long as her Alpha lived, the rough circle of teeth marks would remain there for the world to see.

'She'll be little more than property, and any beneficial treatment she received was not to ensure her happiness, but to allow her Alpha to prove themselves to their peers. She could not vote or be employed, and her only method of acquiring self-sufficiency would be to sell what society views as her primary asset.' He looked back at the surgical slice in her stomach. 'She thought the risk was worth it, not only that of being caught, but that of losing her life as well. Imagine how desperate she must have been.'

John had forgotten to breathe. Sherlock's words were not impassioned, but they did not need to be. He laid each sentence down as fact, unassailable, and John was reminded that Sherlock was far from middle class. For all he knew, Sherlock had more experience of Omegas than anyone else here. One of his parents could have been one; he certainly sounded like he was speaking from experience, rather than repeating rumours.

'So, she agreed to this?' Greg asked, swearing as Sherlock nodded his head. 'Then what?'

'She would probably have made an effort to leave the country or blend in as a different gender if she could. Her Alpha would be unlikely to pursue her, since her desertion would be considered a poor reflection on them; they would not want to admit it. Better that people thought her dead than realised she had escaped.'

'Who's buying these things?' Anderson asked, his face wrinkled in confusion. 'I mean, if there wasn't any demand for it, then it wouldn't be worth doing, but who's going to want her parts? It's not like it's a matter of life and death: a liver or something.'

John blinked, rubbing the back of his hand across his brow. 'Wassinger syndrome. Sometimes an Omega's supra-ovarian structure atrophies, and they're rendered sterile. Transplant's risky and has a low survival rate, but most Alphas will pursue that option if they find out their Omega is barren.'

'Unless they have the funds to purchase another Omega with whom to bond,' Sherlock added. 'Then the infertile one is just a broken toy to be ignored.' He quirked an eyebrow and looked at Sally. 'Now why would anyone want to escape a life like that?

She didn't respond, pursing her lips and looking away. John was gratified to notice the belligerent shame on her features, even though she couldn't be blamed for her assumptions. They were shared by most of the population, after all. Even John hadn't been aware of most of what Sherlock had said.

'John, look at this.'

Reluctantly, he peeled himself away from the wall and approached Sherlock's side, pressing the mask tight against his face with one hand as he examined the details. The woman was young, eighteen perhaps, small-breasted and long-limbed. Her face was plain and slack, and her brown hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail. Yet all that faded into insignificance when compared to the putrid aroma emanating from her skin. It made his stomach give a threatening roll, and a rough noise caught in his throat.

'I need you to take a look at the surgical site.' Sherlock sounded genuinely apologetic as he removed his latex gloves and passed a fresh pair to John before he continued, 'Your knowledge of anatomy is more intricate than mine, but she appears to be missing more than just the supra-ovarian structure. If I hold the mask tight against your nose, can you manage?'

He tried to speak, but the taste of bile at the back of his throat warned against it. Clearly Sherlock's approach was working. He seemed, if not immune, then at least better off than both John and Greg.

With a nod, John held his breath and dropped his hand, tugging on the gloves as Sherlock kept his promise. He pulled the treated mask as taut as possible over John's face, his fingers warm through the cheap cloth. The next, tentative breath John drew in was better – still greasy and vile – but improved by the proximity of Sherlock's scent. It eased some of the jangling discomfort that ricocheted through John's frame and allowed him to focus on what he was doing.

'She's still warm,' he croaked as he slipped his fingers into the incision. Core body temperature could take hours to cool, but if it wasn't for the lack of pulse, he could almost believe she was still alive: that he was just a surgeon and that she would wake up and smile.

'Omegas produce necrotonin – the scent hormone that's making you nauseous – from within sixty seconds of brain death. An Alpha found her?' That question was directed at Greg, who replied in a cracked voice.

'Yeah. Time of death's estimated at, what, three hours ago now?'

'Two,' Anderson replied primly. 'Should he really be doing that? Isn't that the pathologist's job?'

'If you want to wait days for some kind of answer to this case, then yes.' Sherlock's curt retort was met with silence, which only came to an end when John pulled back.

'They've taken the whole thing. The entire reproductive system. Done in a hurry, too.'

'A spur of the moment decision, probably made when she died on the table.'

'It's hard to tell, but from the blood in the cavity I'd say they went too deep – possibly nicked the mesenteric artery.' John shrugged, peeling off the gloves and leaving them at the side of the body. Sherlock's palm was still over the mask, muffling his words, and John carefully replaced his grasp, letting his thankful smile crinkle his eyes – the only way Sherlock would notice its existence. 'It's an amateurish mistake.'

'Yet the skill required to successfully remove what they wanted intact is not inconsiderable.' Sherlock stepped back from the bedside, and John could see that precise attention growing wider, taking in the room, the tools and the data available. 'Most likely a skilled surgeon had assistance from students: perhaps with the offer of a cut of the pay. Check hospitals, this equipment had to come from somewhere, and whoever took it had to be high enough on the staff that it was not immediately missed.'

'What about her?' Greg asked from where he leant against the threshold. 'What can you tell me?'

Sherlock rolled his shoulders, the information pouring forth. 'Eighteen is late to bond for a female Omega. It suggests delayed presentation; she may have been under the care of a reproductive specialist. The size of her bond-bite demonstrates her Alpha was a woman. It's a week old, still healing, but relatively shallow. The Alpha's considerably senior with a weaker jaw, and this is unlikely to be her first bonding.'

'What happened to the others?' John's question curled like smoke in the air, and he watched something complex shift around Sherlock's eyes, impossible to read with half his face still covered by the mask.

'The bond is young, yet already the Omega has taken this step.' He gestured to the bed. 'I imagine any other Omegas bound to the same Alpha came to the same decision. Though whether they shared her fate or made their escape is another matter.' He cleared his throat, turning his back and heading for the doorway. 'Conjecture, of course, but the assumptions are logical. Look through the bonding registries for the last week. It's likely her Alpha's home is local. Omegas aren't permitted a driving license, and Alphas tend not to provide a cash allowance in the hopes of preventing independent behaviour. The Omega shouldn't be that hard to identify.' He hesitated, glancing over at Greg. 'Call me if you find any more.'

'Where are you going?' Greg demanded, raising his voice as Sherlock led John away.

'To get rid of this smell.' He peeled off the mask and handed it to a disgruntled Donovan, who only glared when John apologised as he did the same thing.

The mild air outside was a relief after the humid closeness of the murder scene, but the fragrance remained, forcing John to take in shallow snatches of evening air through his mouth as he hurried to keep up. 'Aren't we taking a taxi?'

'No.' Sherlock's phone was in his grasp, the glow casting a waxy light over his face as his fingers skimmed the screen. 'The chemicals in car exhaust react with necrotonin, stripping it from skin and clothing. If we walk back to Baker Street, we won't stink up the flat.'

'It feels like it's stuck to the inside of my nose,' John complained, rubbing at his face before shoving his hands in his pockets, grateful that at least it wasn't raining. He matched Sherlock's pace, trying to suppress the buzz of questions that hummed in his mind, like the string section of an orchestra gone mad. Normally, Sherlock picked up on his discomfort and challenged it, but this time he was too intent on whatever he was looking for on his mobile, and when he took an abrupt right turn, John frowned in confusion.

'Short cut?'

'Diversion,' Sherlock replied, turning his phone around to show John the bonding announcement in the Times. 'Teresa Karndine bonded to Annaliese Ducart. Look at the financial value of the transaction.' He passed the device to John, who pursed his lips at the price listed at the bottom of the text. He could work a dozen lifetimes and never see that much.

'That's a lot of money.'

'Teresa Karndine is the owner of Karndine International, one of the leading manufacturers of car components in the world. An exceptionally wealthy woman; she's had two other Omegas that I know of. Both of whom she had stripped from her dynasty when they were proven barren by doctors on her own payroll.'

'So – what happened to them?'

'Chances are they had already fled at that point and undergone surgery, successful or not. Karndine would have protected herself from the stigma of an Omega escaping her possession by lying about their fertility.'

Sherlock's voice was steady and calm, as if he were talking about the weather while John's stomach cramped at the world that was being revealed so brutally before his eyes. 'The Ducart family are prominent jewellers, hence the price on their Omega daughter. Karndine paid for the name. It's possible she owned Ducart for years, but a bond can only be placed once presentation occurs. What do you want to bet that Karndine made Annaliese see one of the best reproductive specialists in the country in the hopes of hurrying along her maturation?'

'Christ,' John murmured as he tried to take it all in. 'Is this really what it's like? Omegas treated like things? How come no one's tried to stop it?'

'Who creates the legislation?' Sherlock shrugged, shaking his head. 'The powerful Alphas have been at the top of society for centuries, first through strength and then through money. Every law they make is done to keep the Omegas out of the main populace and under their control.' He tightened his grip on his phone, looking down at it thoughtfully. 'For the most part, it works. An unbound Omega isn't safe. By arranging a bond to a strong, wealthy Alpha, they're protected. In many cases, Donovan's assessment is correct. They are – should be – treated like treasures: valuable and precious. They are respected and cared for. Sometimes there is even something like love.'

John watched the twist of Sherlock's face, vaguely repulsed and dubious, as if he questioned the existence of such a sentiment. 'However, occasionally the Alphas are cruel or indifferent.' There was a hint of something in his voice, a hairline fracture that John could almost convince himself was a figment of his imagination. 'In that situation, there aren't many options left open to an Omega but to endure, or do something desperate.'

'How do you know?' The question slipped through his lips – a silken strand that he could not pull back. Somehow it felt like taking the first step into forbidden territory, entering the convoluted arena of sex and Sherlock's past that John had never before dared to breach.

'Did you –?' God, he had wondered earlier if one of Sherlock's parents had been one of the rare few, but he had not considered the next obvious step. Had there been an Omega to whom Sherlock had bound? The thought made his stomach lurch, hard and hurting, and he wished he could take his words back. He would rather remain oblivious.

Too late now.

'There were always rumours,' Sherlock said at last. 'My childhood was full of it. Tit-for-tat; who owed whom, who owned whom. My parents' bond was arranged.' His voice became flat: a closure of conversation while the words themselves made John want to reach out and offer comfort. 'Relatively speaking, it was a happy one, but it was still far from ideal.'

'So you and Mycroft don't have – I mean you're not...'

'Are you going to actually finish a sentence?' Sherlock spoke with his usual smug tones, which was just as well. John was certain that if he had implied to any other eligible Alpha that they might have had an Omega and somehow lost them, he'd be carrying his teeth home in his hands. Yet now he looked closer, something darkly amused shadowed Sherlock's gaze, something that made John's spine tense. 'Mycroft's too busy running the country, and I have better things to do with my time. Like finding the doctor responsible for the death of Ms Ducart.'

He gestured to the building in front of them, all shining glass and smooth stone. It looked discreet, private and medical in the evening gloom, and John glanced over at Sherlock. 'You think Annaliese Ducart went here?'

'Almost certainly. Teresa Karndine can afford to throw money at her problems. The Avery Institute is the leading centre of reproductive medicine. I imagine if we find Ducart's doctor, we find the man behind the chop shop, or at least one who could point us to the colleague who is.'

John cocked his head, his gaze sweeping over the dim plate-glass panes. 'It looks like it's shut.'

'Clinic hours will be brief.' Sherlock crooked his finger, leading the way through a small patch of landscaped, urban garden and around the back. The building seemed to go on forever, losing its modern aesthetic as it fell into the tangled twist of hospitals everywhere. There were disposal bins and back doors, narrow windows and the pervasive scent of antiseptic coming from the air treatment vents.

John followed wordlessly, glancing around for CCTV as Sherlock extracted his picks and set to work on a ground floor office door. 'Won't a place like this have some kind of security?'

'Motion sensors,' Sherlock muttered, jerking his head to indicate the hub on the ceiling, visible through the window to the side of the door. 'As well as an access point alarm system, but it's deactivated. Someone's still here.'

'Maybe there's a ward with staff? Do they operate here?'

Sherlock shook his head, licking his lips as the lock clicked open and the door swung outward on oiled hinges. 'This is an administrative building with laboratory facilities. They conduct surgery at the Wellington.'

John sucked in a breath at the mention of one of London's most prestigious private hospitals. 'I guess they're not so keen on Omega organ removal, or whoever did this would have done it in their operating room. Think that's where the surgeon got the equipment?'

'It's possible. Of course, he could have bought some of it himself considering his illegal side-line. No doubt he would have made the money back in a month or two if he made a habit of offering his patients this kind of treatment.' Sherlock slipped his leather gloves on and idly investigated the desk before glancing in John's direction with a frown. 'Besides, the punishment for being caught enabling this kind of surgery is life imprisonment. Even the Wellington's reputation would not save it from closure if it was found that such things were taking place within their walls.'

John shifted his shoulders, hating his own ignorance. 'I've heard rumours, but not for years. Mostly it was while I was doing my training. A few people I knew were approached to conduct...' He shrugged. 'Unspecified surgery. We all pretty much assumed it was black-market organ harvesting.'

'That's precisely what this is in the eyes of the law. It doesn't matter if the Omega volunteered for the procedure. Legally, they're not considered capable of making that choice for themselves.'

John clenched his jaw. That, he had known. Omegas and children alike were considered unable to make medical decisions. For kids, that changed when they were twelve. Omegas would go their whole lives without the final say in their own treatment. 'It's not right.'

'Going to do something about it?' Sherlock's question wasn't accusatory, but the eyebrow he raised was mocking. 'No, I thought not. Neither's anyone else. Some boats aren't worth rocking. Most people are content to leave things as they are.'

'Including you?'

Sherlock did not reply as he led the way out into the corridor, looking along its length before turning left. John followed with a sigh, modulating each footstep so it would not echo. He kept waiting for a shout of alarm or any sign of life, but the whole place seemed eerily quiet.

Finally, Sherlock paused, squinting through the narrow glass panel in a wooden door. Light spilled forth from behind its pane, clerical and harsh, and John could just make out the lab equipment from where he peered over Sherlock's shoulder. It looked almost identical to Bart’s, and it took only a moment for John to realise Sherlock had seen a computer, still turned on, unlike the one in the office.

'Sherlock!' he hissed as the door was eased aside and that pale gaze swept the interior. 'For God's sake; you said yourself there was someone still in the building.'

'Yes, and whoever it is, they're probably our killer.' The grin Sherlock threw in John's direction was pure exhilaration. 'The Omega reproductive structure is fragile. It needs to be treated for transit and transplant, and this lab is the ideal place to do it.' He gestured to the pipettes on the side and bottles of solution left open – used in a hurry. 'It looks like we just missed them.'

He whirled around in front of the computer, his fingers clattering over the keyboard. There was no password protection, the previous user still being logged in, and John watched as Sherlock began to absorb the information on the screen. 'They've not exactly covered their tracks in here. What if they come back to clean up?'

'I'm counting on it.' Sherlock drew in a breath – the sharp, euphoric sound of success catching in his throat. 'Doctor Kirkpatrick was treating Ms Ducart for delayed presentation. He was her surgeon for more than two years prior to her reaching sexual maturity nine days ago.' He made a disgruntled noise. 'Tell me, what kind of diagnostic regimen would require weekly visits to a specialist?'

'Monitoring an emerging cycle, perhaps?' John shrugged.

'For eighteen months?' Sherlock shook his head, rolling his eyes as if something intriguing had resolved itself into the banal. 'Dull. They were lovers. They planned to run away together. His salary and funds from the organ sale would assist with supporting a new life elsewhere.'

'So why wait?' John asked, abandoning his nervous sentry duty to glance at Sherlock. 'Why not leave before that Alpha bound her?'

'This way, her family get to keep the money Karndine paid for her. If the bond never took place, she could get it back. The only person to lose, in theory, would be Karndine herself.'

'Until it went wrong.' He watched Sherlock hit another button, and the thrum and click of the printer filled the room, shocking after the peace of their hushed conversation. Quickly, he snatched free the pages, rolling his eyes at the tiny text as it kept coming. 'Christ, Sherlock. Do you really need all this?'

'It could be –'

Abruptly, Sherlock's head lifted, looking towards another exit from the lab. John did not bother to try and catch whatever Sherlock had heard. Instead, every muscle braced, taut and ready to fight. He gave a brief, longing thought to his gun, still locked away out of Sherlock's reach in Baker Street, but there was no time for regrets now.

The door swung open, and a man froze on the threshold, his face slack as he stared at them. Slender hands clenched fitfully, slipping into his pockets, and John saw his eyes dart to the open bottles on the bench.

'Doctor Kirkpatrick.' Sherlock straightened up, his body language relaxed and confident as Kirkpatrick – middle-aged and balding, his eyes red-rimmed – flinched. 'We're here to talk to you about your patient, Ms Ducart.'

John would have been happy to bet that the name would cause the doctor to either break down or do a runner. Yet tepid brown eyes turned cold, and thin lips pulled back over a snarl as the Beta strode forward, limbs rigid and furious. 'I don't know who you think you are, but if that bitch Karndine sent you I'll...'

'You'll what?' Sherlock cocked his head in enquiry, and John fought not to clench his jaw. No amount of lectures in self-preservation ever seemed to get through to him, and just because this doctor was not obviously armed, it didn't mean he wasn't dangerous. 'I think you've done enough damage for one day, don't you? An unfortunate accident, though I doubt the courts will see it that way. Was Ms Ducart the first Omega you – helped?'

Something ugly twitched across the doctor's face, his weak chin shuddering as he blinked, though whether the threatening tears were sorrow or fury it was impossible to tell. 'Don't. I don't know what you're implying –'

Sherlock flicked his fingers in the direction of the man's hands. 'You conducted illegal removal of an Omega's reproductive system less than three hours ago. Nervous sweat caused caking of the talc from the gloves between your fingers. There's blood by your temple. Unexpected arterial spray. More on the collar of your shirt. No doubt it will be a match for Ms Ducart.'

He drew a breath, and John saw the moment Sherlock decided to lie, falsifying his conclusions in the hopes of having the perpetrator correct him and prove his theories. 'I assume without the organs you've already dispatched to the waiting client, she was worthless to you.'

'No!'

John lunged the moment he saw the break in the doctor's eyes, but he was too slow. The scalpel pulled from his pocket slashed in a brutal, vicious arc, making Sherlock stagger back beneath the onslaught. John did not hesitate as he threw his full weight at the surgeon, bearing him down and holding him there, sobbing and insensate against the linoleum. One burst of rage, and the fight was gone from Kirkpatrick. Every breath sounded like a heave as John pinned him, hearing the wail of sirens as he desperately sought out Sherlock.

'You all right?' A growl trembled in his voice, feral to his ears, and he tried to put a lid on the surge of restless adrenaline that throbbed through his body. For a minute, his mind was suffused with self-blame. He should have been quicker, moved faster, neutralised the threat before Kirkpatrick could lay a finger on Sherlock. Rational thought had little to do with it, and he bit his lip to choke back furious, fretful words of reproof as Sherlock pulled his fingers away, examining the blood staining his gloves.

'Clumsy. He missed anything of importance.' Sherlock frowned down at the Kirkpatrick. John expected nothing more than his usual disdain or puzzlement at what sentiment could bring, but when he looked closer he could see a flicker of something else, shadowed and secretive.

The sound of footsteps in the corridor made them look up, and John took a deep breath as the police barged in, rapidly taking control of the situation. Judging by the lack of surprise on Sherlock's face, he had texted Greg his suspicions about the Avery Institute before beaking in: his one concession. Lestrade knew them too well to ignore the information by now. No doubt he and his men had come running.

'An hour!' the DI shouted, waving a finger in Sherlock's face. 'I leave you on your own for a bloody hour and this is what happens!'

Sherlock shrugged. 'You wanted the case solved quickly, didn't you?'

'There's such a thing as process, Sherlock. So far, all we can charge him with is what –' Greg gestured to his neck. 'Assault?'

'Don't be ridiculous; he's wearing enough evidence for you to acquire any further, relevant data. Assuming Anderson can interpret it correctly, of course. Besides,' he added as Kirkpatrick was pulled away. 'His distress may be adequate to lead to a confession and the identity of his accomplices. Guilty conscience, broken heart, whatever you want to call it.'

Lestrade threw his hands in the air, briefly curving his fingers into claws as if he would like nothing better than to throttle Sherlock. However, he restrained himself, clenching his jaw as his voice emerged in a snarl that suggested he was in no mood to take shit from anyone. His gaze flickered down to Sherlock's neck again, and he half-ripped a first-aid box off the wall and thrust it at John. 'Sort him out and get him to the Yard. If you're not both there in twenty minutes, I'll find you and drag you in myself.' He glared at Sherlock. 'And no sending John in on your behalf. It doesn't work like that!'

Sherlock frowned, pulling free a dressing pad and glaring when John took it from his hands. 'Just patch it. I'll sort it out when we get home.'

John wanted to argue, because the chances were good that Sherlock would forget about it as soon as it was covered, but something about the edge in Sherlock's voice made him bite the words back. He sounded tired, as if the shine of excitement had faded to leave tarnish in its wake, and John did not miss the way Sherlock's shoulders were rounded and slumped.

He cleaned away blood with quick proficiency, checking that Sherlock's evaluation of it was right before taping a dressing in place. He had better supplies at home, but at least the wound was too shallow to require stitches: a lucky escape.

'Come on,' Sherlock ordered, stepping back out of John's reach in one fluid motion and turning away. 'I suppose we had better hurry so that we can hold the Detective Inspector's hand while he struggles to close the case.'

'Sherlock...' John's weak reproach fell on deaf ears, and he held in a sigh as he followed Sherlock's departing figure from the hospital to the Yard. They only spoke for brief, half-arguments about whether helping Lestrade was really necessary, and John got the impression he won because Sherlock didn't trust the force not to let Kirkpatrick get away with it.

They walked together, side-by-side, through the doors of New Scotland Yard, and John knew they wouldn't be leaving any time soon. It was the start of several hours of interminable statements and explanations. Sherlock's patience, never an abundant resource, expired within ten minutes, and John found himself playing mediator between a bored flatmate and a frazzled DI.

'You gave me a crime scene and I handed you a murderer. What more do you require?'

'There are rules!' Greg scrubbed his hand over his face, his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his elbows on his desk, balanced on leaning slumps of paperwork. There were at least four coffee mugs in amidst the mess, and John wondered when the DI last got a good night's sleep. 'A case like this? It's too high profile to chuck away because you couldn't cooperate!'

'Karndine will throw everything she has at a private prosecution. She has to in order to protect her name. Embarrassing enough that her Omega was running, worse that she was chasing after a Beta as well.' Sherlock folded his arms, leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling. The white scrap of the dressing covering the cut stretched in sympathy, and John could see the claret staining its gauze. 'The only thing you'll get from this case is a commendation for solving it so swiftly – it was hardly a challenge after all. Next time you call me in, make sure it's for something interesting.'

'Murder isn't there for your entertainment, Sherlock,' Greg growled, but there was a softness to his voice, and John frowned to see something like regret carve a brief epitaph across his face. Those dark brown eyes were watching them both carefully, and while Lestrade was not as observant as Sherlock, there was clearly something he could see that made him pause before asking, 'You going to be okay?'

Sherlock got to his feet, furling his coat around him as he nodded his head. To John, it looked like they were talking about more than the cut on the pale column of Sherlock’s throat. There was a meaningful edge to Greg’s gaze, one that only intensified when Sherlock met his eyes.

A moment later, the impression fled, leaving the DI drained in his chair while Sherlock stood, distant and indifferent, at the doorway. 'Go on, get out of here,' he ordered, giving John a weary little smile. 'I'll call you if we need anything else.'

'We'll be lucky to get as far as the reception desk,' Sherlock retorted in a mutter, whirling out into the corridor and leaving John and Greg to share a brief, commiserating look before John followed, captured as always in the wide ripples of Sherlock's wake.

A taxi was already waiting by the time John caught up, and he slipped into the back seat, telling the driver where to go as Sherlock kept his attention fixed out of the window, his fingers curled over his mouth and his eyes glazed: lost in thought.

John pursed his lips, reading the silence and deciding to respect its boundaries. He knew Sherlock well enough to realise that, when a case ended, there were a variety of possible reactions: elation and euphoria, if it was a good one and Sherlock could bask in his own success, or pensive aggravation if he thought the police could have solved it themselves. This one seemed to fit more into the latter than the former, but there was something else – something that, on another man, John would have labelled as pity.

Except Sherlock didn't care about the victims, and there was no reason for that to change now. Perhaps the dead Omega had bothered him more than he had let on? The image of her certainly still hovered in John's mind, greying skin and the striking dark contrast of her blood... but it was quickly overwritten by his more immediate concern for Sherlock: the slash of a scalpel and backwards stagger. It could have been so much worse. He itched to peel back the dressing and take a proper look at the wound, and his fingers curled into fists as he restrained himself, waiting until they were back at Baker Street.

As soon as they were through the door to the flat, John allowed the silence to wither, his own voice shattering it apart. 'Get that off,' he ordered, gesturing to Sherlock's scarf where it was wrapped around his neck. 'Let me see how bad the damage is.'

Sherlock pulled a face, waving John away. 'Don't be ridiculous. It's fine.'

'It needs cleaning.' He wandered towards the kettle, flicking it on before grabbing the first aid kit from above the microwave. He grunted in annoyance when it proved empty: its supplies no doubt cannibalised for one of Sherlock's experiments. With a quick glare at his flatmate, John rummaged under the sink for the spare he had hidden there six weeks ago, ignoring bottles of various chemical suspensions and a slew of Petri dishes in his quest.

'I'll have a shower later and deal with it then.' It was an idle promise, one John did not believe for a minute. He tugged his prize free before turning, effectively blocking Sherlock's retreat and trapping him in the corner made by the kitchen counter before reaching up to drag the scarf away himself. 'John, honestly, it's –'

'Stay still.'

'John –' Sherlock tried to step around him, grumbling in annoyance when the pressure of John's hand on his chest blocked him. His next trick was to stretch upwards on tiptoe, trying to put the wound beyond his reach.

'I'm not that short,' John muttered, snatching at the scarf and tugging it free. 'God, you can be such a child sometimes. Come here, you great prat. What are you playing at?'

With a huge, put-upon sigh, Sherlock did as he was told, his arms folded and his lips tilted in a petulant grimace as John peeled free the dressing and peered at the wound. His assessment at the lab had not been wrong, but he still felt a glimmer of relief to see that it was relatively minor, slicing across the ridges of the tendons. However, nothing was severed except the neat slice of skin, deeper than John would have liked, but still superficial.

Reaching for an antiseptic wipe, he gently banished the patina of fresh blood. It was in an awkward place, the flesh constantly disturbed by the movements of Sherlock's neck, and he considered the relative merits of steri-strips versus skin adhesive to aid the healing.

With competent hands, he decided on the former. One of the benefits of being a doctor was having a well-stocked kit on hand. If the strips refused to hold, then he could try the glue. Either way, there was a chance Kirkpatrick would leave them a scar to remember him by, not that Sherlock seemed fussed about that kind of thing.

He twitched as John eased the edges of the cut closer together and bridged them with a strip of tape. Absently, he cupped the nape of Sherlock's neck, holding him steady as he continued to work.

John expected some kind of protest about being manhandled, but Sherlock's response was opposite and instantaneous. He froze, muscles locked solid with tension and his indrawn breath loud in the silence of the kitchen.

He looked up from what he was doing, taking in Sherlock's abrupt pallor. He looked dead-white, cringing and panicked, so unlike his normal confident self that John almost recoiled with the shock of it.

Yet before he could so much as twitch, he registered the sensation beneath the splay of his hand against Sherlock's nape. Not smooth skin, but something gnarled hidden by the soft, overhanging twist of those dark curls.

John stilled, the cut forgotten as he concentrated on the exploration of his right hand. His fingers moved, tracing the shape and picking out the echoes of shallow pits and ridges. It felt like – but, no, that made no sense. It must be something else.

'What's that?'

'John –'

'Lean forward.' It didn't sound like a request, not in that voice: clipped and tight. 'Let me see.'

Initially, he did not comply. His pulse thrummed beneath John's left hand, fast and frightened for reasons John didn't understand. They stood there, neither of them moving as the air coiled tight. Yet this was not the familiar, unobtrusive desire John had experienced a dozen times before, when he looked at Sherlock and saw the potential for something more than friendship. This felt heavier and more dangerous, as if the world were about to change.

At last, with the air of a man resting his head on the executioner's block, Sherlock obeyed, his lips parted around shallow, fretful breaths. He was like a wild animal itching to take flight, but John did not give him the chance as he pulled down the collar of his shirt and swept up the serpentine twist of his hair.

The kitchen light drained what little colour remained in Sherlock's skin, turning it paper-pale, but John barely acknowledged the change. He was too busy staring, shocked, at the ragged ring of scar tissue framed by his tanned fingers.

His breath caught in his throat, choking and tight. He'd seen a similar wound not two hours ago on the neck of the corpse, bloody where this one was silver with age, but he had never, ever imagined seeing such a thing cutting its way into Sherlock's flesh.

An Alpha's bite.

Chapter Text

The kettle clicked off, the water bubbling to the boil ignored as John and Sherlock stood in the kitchen. Time locked around them, their breathing falling still as the knot of scar tissue beneath John's fingers brought the world screeching to a halt.

Even as he soaked in the sight, he could scarcely believe it, inconceivable in its current context on the canvas of creamy skin. He blinked, trying to grasp reality as the implications seeped through his brain.

Slowly, his blind-sided shock faded beneath rational observations. He'd always imagined bites to be clinical: neat and perfunctory. There was nothing so uniform about the brand in Sherlock's flesh. It was deep and decisive: an indisputable claim. Vicious – a wound John could not convince himself was born of love. It must have hurt, bruised, bled...

He rubbed at it, willing the mark to come off. He peered for flaws or inconsistencies, anything to indicate that this was all some kind of fake put in place for Sherlock's own twisted reasons, but there was nothing. The scar lingered, defiant, and John struggled to make sense of what was right in front of him.

'I can explain.'

Sherlock's head remained bent to allow John's merciless inspection, and his strained words were directed at the floor. He did not speak with the confident logic John was used to. There was something frail and pleading there, as if, suddenly, Sherlock saw him as more of a threat than the flatmate who'd shared his life for so long.

John stepped back, snatching his hands away and putting space between them. His body fell into a fighting stance, and he forced himself to drop his shoulders and unclench his fists. The kitchen table was behind him, and he leant against it, aiming for a casual pose but probably missing by a mile.

'You're an Omega.' The accusation hung in the air, coiling its fumes between them. He wished he sounded more indifferent, but this was a bolt from the blue, too unexpected to get his head around. He had considered every other possible option over their time together, examining each permutation of gender, but the truth had never crossed his mind. Why would it? It was just... impossible.

'Yes,' Sherlock admitted, straightening up and tugging his collar to hide the old wound from view, his fingers dragging on the fabric as if he took comfort in its presence.

'And you – you –' John swallowed, because it wasn't so much whatever was going on in Sherlock's pants that was jamming his thoughts as much as the fact he'd been bitten. 'You have a mate.'

Repulsion narrowed pale eyes and wrinkled Sherlock's nose as he twisted his head to the side. 'No. The word “mate” suggests some level of cooperation and mutual respect, but yes. I have an Alpha. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that he has me.'

John fought not to let the stab of betrayal show on his face, valiantly ignoring the ice that settled in his stomach as he crossed his arms over his chest. All this time, and there was someone else in Sherlock's life that he'd never mentioned – someone who could lay claim to him in a way that, in his sharpest fantasies, John barely dared to imagine.

Sherlock dragged a hand over his face. 'Stop glancing around like you think he's going to emerge from one of the kitchen cupboards and bludgeon you to death.'

John huffed. 'Not exactly an unwarranted fear. It's still legal for one Alpha to kill another who challenges their bond.'

'That's an urban myth. Murder is murder, regardless of the cause.' He shut his eyes, his hands on his hips as he breathed in through his nose and let it out as a sigh. 'It's a complicated situation, but suffice it to say he is no longer a concern.'

It was unlike Sherlock to be so vague, and John suspected they were circling the edge of some uncharted sphere of his life, one he was obviously unwilling to share. Yesterday, John would have said without hesitation that there was very little about his flatmate that he didn't at least suspect. Now, all that had changed.

'He's not dead,' he said, more bluntly than he intended. At Sherlock's expression of surprise, he sighed. 'Just because I never treat Omegas doesn't mean I'm oblivious about the medical aspects of what happens to them when their Alpha passes away.'

'And what's that?'

John tried to ignore the suspicion that he was being tested on his knowledge, which he now regretted admitting with such a cavalier attitude. No matter how it was explained, what technical language he used and dispassionate tones he employed, it still sounded appalling.

'Normally, a bound Omega whose Alpha dies undergoes the neuro-chemical symptoms of grief, regardless of whether they actually mourn them or not.'

John gestured, feeling exposed beneath Sherlock's penetrating gaze. He couldn't be telling him anything of which he wasn't already aware, but all those lectures he sat through were abruptly hideous in their relevance. It was no longer some hypothetical Omega forced to undergo biological imperatives beyond their control. It was Sherlock.

His voice softened, and he rubbed his jaw before he continued. 'Even if an Omega hates their Alpha, they'll experience severe depression, loss of appetite, apathy, even suicidal thoughts. It can go on for months.'

'And what about the rare cases? The ones who don't fit the definition of “normal”?'

John's throat tightened and he glanced away, a chill rushing through his veins. 'They die.'

It sounded like an old wives' tale, something born of the romantic notion of a broken heart, but doctors had no other explanation. In about five-percent of bonds, when the Alpha was gone, the Omega simply wasted away.

'None of that explains your certainty that the Alpha who bit me isn't dead.' Sherlock spoke with just enough challenge in his voice to break through the maelstrom of John's emotions, forcing him to consider the facts. Perhaps that was the point. Sherlock was making him rely on his expertise and encouraging him to find comfort in fragments of quantifiable data.

'When an Omega undergoes the grief process, the hormones in their blood change and new chemicals are released. They react with a specific protein in the scar tissue of the bite, breaking it down.' John ducked his head, staring at the floor before meeting Sherlock's gaze again. 'If your Alpha was no longer alive, there'd be nothing on your neck for me to find. His mark would have disappeared.'

Sherlock's mouth twisted, his head moving in a brief nod before he began to speak. 'My gender and my bonded status are irrelevant to our arrangement. It has no bearing on my competence when it comes to the Work, nor my daily activities. You've had a year of observation to see proof of that.'

John stared, realising that, rather than offering any explanation, he seemed intent on acting like it didn't matter. 'It's not your abilities I'm worried about.' He scrubbed his hands over his face and straightened up, sorting through the flood of questions that assailed him. 'How is it all right for you to be away from your Alpha? How the hell do you keep others away when you're in heat?'

Abruptly, his brain caught up with what he was saying, and he frowned. The scent of an Omega in such a state was meant to be irresistible, and the cycle, though variable, should have repeated multiple times since he'd moved in, yet he'd not detected anything.

Sherlock raised his eyebrows as if he could tell where John's thoughts had gone. However, he hardly noticed, because a whole new realm of unease had opened up at his feet.

'What are you taking?' he croaked, 'And where the hell are you getting it from? Sherlock, there is nothing professionally manufactured available to suppress Omega heats.'

'A fact of which I am thoroughly aware,' he growled. 'Alphas have access to condoms and medications for contraception and Omegas have nothing.' He straightened his shoulders, and John wasn't sure if Sherlock was furious at him or society in general. Probably a bit of both, and how could John blame him?

He held up a conciliatory hand, trying to make his position clear. 'I don't care how illegal whatever you're using is; it's not like I'm going to report you. Hell, if I can help you, I will. All I care about is making sure you're not taking your life in your hands every time you dose!' He licked his lips, not bothering to hide his scowl. 'Any drugs cooked up on the black market are vicious, contaminated with everything from rat poison to sawdust.'

Sherlock shook his head, his fading patience visible in the line of his shoulders and the way he bared his teeth. 'Even if there was anything I could take to suppress my biology, I wouldn't use it. It's not necessary. Any bound Omega, separated from their Alpha, experiences a reduction in the intensity of their heat cycle. The symptoms are subtle – private – and the scent that apparently drives all Alphas into a frenzy isn't produced.' He lowered his head, examining John from an angle with a mocking expression on his face. 'What's the matter? Didn't they teach you that at medical school?'

John stammered, because no, they hadn't. He was almost forty, and he'd heard plenty over the years, a lot of it more myth than solid fact, but never once had there been a whisper of anything like this. Omegas were meant to be dependent on their Alpha for protection from sexual predation by others. Until today, he'd thought the whole reason they were locked away was to keep them safe.

Now, between what Sherlock had revealed at the crime scene and what was unfolding between them this very moment, it seemed he couldn't be more wrong.

'You've seen me in heat,' he pointed out, ploughing on as John opened his mouth in denial. 'You've stood right next to me, dressed wounds, wrested a gun from my hands... You and Mrs Hudson tend to say I'm “in one of my moods”.'

Memories of Sherlock sprawled on the sofa, clad in comfortable clothes and wound so tight it was a miracle he didn't snap blazed across John's mind. He'd assumed it was just boredom, Sherlock's intellect racing down a dozen different paths with nothing to occupy it.

'So what, all those times you snipe at me and drape yourself over the couch you're just... sexually frustrated?' Sherlock groaned, like John was being exceptionally thick, and he bristled in annoyance. 'I'm trying to understand, Sherlock! You said you could explain, but so far you've told me nothing, so excuse me for being confused.' He ran his tongue over his teeth before speaking again. 'For God's sake, most people would think this is the kind of thing you tell your flatmate before they move in!'

'Why?' Sherlock snapped, fierce enough to make John twitch. 'How is it relevant? It has no impact on your life whatsoever.'

'It matters to you, you idiot, so it matters to me!' he retorted, stepping forward and watching as Sherlock straightened his spine and stood his ground: full-on aggression.

Except not. John could tell the difference between someone planning to throw a punch and someone just trying to make it seem like a possibility. Sherlock might be angry, but it was defensive, a thick wall built between them as if he hoped he could force John to keep his distance, both physical and emotional.

'You can't expect me not to have questions,' he added, softer and cajoling now.

'And you cannot expect me to remedy your ignorance,' Sherlock snarled, pushing away from the kitchen surface and stalking past him, giving John a wide berth as he headed for his bedroom. 'In the end, it's nothing to do with you.'

The door slammed in his wake, making the wall shudder and leaving John blinking where he stood. Calm fell around him, defined by the ragged sound of his own breathing and the tick of the clock on the mantelpiece.

A clutch of minutes, and his world had turned on its head. Sherlock was an Omega – a bound one – but whichever way John turned the concept in his mind, it didn't slot into place. It was too alien, too abstract, despite the proof of his own eyes, and he was left off-balance, as if he'd had the rug pulled out from under his feet.

It was tempting to bang on the door, to harangue Sherlock until he got some bloody answers, but John recognised a lost cause when he saw it. If he pushed now, Sherlock would only withdraw further, and without understanding the root of his anger, there was nothing John could do to ease it.

With a sigh, he looked down at his shoes, shoving his hands in his pockets before glancing towards his coat. The day had been exhausting, what with the conference, the dead Omega woman, the culprit trying to slit Sherlock's throat and then this. His brain was like a water-logged sponge, saturated with revelations and heavy in the bowl of his skull while his heart hummed and ached in disbelief.

He needed to get out, just for a while.

Briefly, he considered leaving a note for Sherlock, but the bastard could deduce where he had gone. He knew him well enough. Pity the same couldn't be said for John. How had he been here, living under the same roof for so long, and never added things up?

Snatching up his jacket, he swept out the door and thudded down the stairs, scolding himself for making assumptions. Wasn't that what Sherlock was always going on about? Looking but not seeing? He certainly felt blind now, as bewildered by Sherlock's reaction as he was by what he'd discovered. Obviously Sherlock had no intention of describing his situation beyond the meagre scraps he'd cast in John's direction, but that didn't mean there wasn't more to learn.

God, earlier, when Sherlock mentioned Omegas and the life in store for them, John had been alarmed at the thought that one of Sherlock's parents might have suffered the experience. This was a hundred times worse. Sherlock had spoken about who was owned by whom and the kind of existence they could expect, but he hadn't been discussing a member of his family. He was talking about himself.

John tried to imagine him in that situation, tied to someone with no expectations beyond staying quiet and bearing children. In theory, his Alpha would be wealthy enough to purchase anything he wanted, but the components Sherlock believed made life worth living – the chase, the game, an exhilarating puzzle – they were the kind of thing money couldn't buy.

An existence like that, hidden away by an Alpha, even one who adored him, may as well be the death penalty for Sherlock. He would stagnate, the engine of his mind tearing itself apart without cases to keep it engaged, and that thrilling spirit of intelligence would wither and die, superfluous to what his Alpha would consider to be Sherlock's purpose.

Fears crowded John's head, some deep and treacherous, others mere gleams in the sea of his doubt. Yet among the sparkling shoals of his curiosity, something darker coiled. For every “how” he could think of, a “why” accompanied it. Why was Sherlock so unwilling to discuss what had brought him here? Why did he react with vitriol when normally he was quick with an explanation?

It was personal, John got that, but he'd thought they were friends. Did Sherlock trust him so little? Obviously, or he'd have told him when they started living together. Instead, he'd kept John in the dark. At the beginning, that was understandable. John was a stranger, after all, an Alpha – and suddenly his gender had more relevance to John's existence than ever before – but surely after a few months, Sherlock would have been comfortable telling him the basics?

He'd spent more than a year assuming he knew Sherlock's gender and not giving a damn one way or the other, but this... For reasons he couldn't put into words, it changed things. It shouldn't, he wished it didn't, but right now John couldn't see Sherlock in the same light as he had that morning. It was ridiculous. He was the same man John had met at Bart's, but finding out he was an Omega messed with John's assumptions, forcing him to re-examine everything.

His breath left him in a cloud of steam, made visible by the chill, and he grimaced as he waited at the pedestrian crossing, trying to sort out the chaos of his thoughts. A lot of it was shock – too much and too quick to process. How was he even meant to react? Probably not like this. Were there things he should have said, or would it have been better to keep his mouth shut and carry on as normal?

'Fuck,' John hissed, darting across the road before turning left along the pavement, too lost in his considerations to notice his surroundings. It was only the buzz of his phone that broke through the mire, dragging him back to the present.

With a frown, he pulled free the device, squinting at the unfamiliar number flashing on his screen. He'd hoped it was Sherlock calling him home, but that seemed unlikely, and with a heavy dose of suspicion, he picked up the call.

'Hello?'

'Ah, Doctor Watson.' Mycroft's voice uncurled in his ear, professional and emotionless. 'Detective Inspector Lestrade will be at The Volunteer public house. Perhaps he can provide some assistance with your current turmoil.'

John sighed, pinching his thumb and finger over the bridge of his nose as he silently cursed the Holmes brothers in equal measure. 'How did you –? No, never mind. I don't care.' He glanced up at a nearby CCTV camera, wondering how much of tonight had been captured within the view of some lens or another. He should have known better than to hope anything was private. 'Whatever surveillance equipment is in our flat, I want it gone.'

'You underestimate me, Doctor Watson. My brother is not the only man capable of making deductions. I am aware of the nature of the case you attended this evening, and was able to extrapolate – from both your body language and behaviour in the public domain – that something fundamental must have occurred between yourself and Sherlock.' Mycroft sighed, and was it John's imagination, or was there a hint of regret to his next words? 'I can surmise my brother's reaction, and yours is evident in every angle of your frame. Talk to Gregory Lestrade.'

John paused, the phone clamped to his ear so hard it hurt. 'He knows?'

Mycroft's tone changed, and any hint of understanding was eradicated beneath the smug superiority of his reply. 'He knows more than you.'

'Right, because I'm an idiot. Thanks for that,' John ground out, sticking his middle finger up at the nearest camera before disconnecting the call and turning towards the pub. He might not be happy that it was Mycroft who threw him a lifeline, but he couldn't turn down the chance to talk to a friendly face about this. If Greg had some answers, even better.

The Volunteer was a couple of streets away, and it would stay open for a few more hours. He and Greg had been there before, now and then, when either Sherlock or the job got too much and the best kind of solace could be found in a pint and some sympathy. Now, he hurried through the night's revellers and slipped past the throng of smokers at the door. The pre-club rush had been and gone, and it was only the steady press of regulars that remained: a thinner crowd. True enough, Greg was just settling at one of the tables off in one corner, two full pints in front of him as he glared at his phone.

He glanced up as John approached and gestured with his mobile. 'So, do you want to explain why, twenty minutes ago, I got a cryptic phone-call from Mycroft Holmes?' he asked, his tired grin fading as he took in John's expression. 'Bloody hell. Is Sherlock all right?'

John blinked, briefly baffled before he remembered the slice of the scalpel across Sherlock's throat. 'Yeah, he's – he's fine. Are you okay to be here? I mean, you're not busy with the case?'

'Nah. The surgeon's cooling his heels in a cell for a bit, and I delegated the processing. No point in me hovering about. I'll sort it out in the morning.' He picked up his pint, taking a sip before smacking his lips appreciatively. 'So come on, spit it out. Why do you look like –' He waved at John. '– That?'

Slumping in the chair opposite, John opened his mouth to speak before hesitating, examining the crowd. Despite his aggravation at Sherlock keeping him in the dark, he understood that it probably wasn't done out of spite. There was more to it than that. Common sense told him that Sherlock's secondary gender shouldn't be spoken of without due care, and besides, John would rather not have one of Mycroft's minions reporting back the precise details of this conversation.

The DI clearly followed his train of thought, because his brown eyes swept the room before he leaned in, propping his elbows on the table and speaking in a low voice. 'No one within earshot looks dubious. Now what the hell's going on? Please tell me Sherlock's not back on the drugs.'

'What? No!' John huffed, taking a drink before letting out a sigh. 'No, I just found out about the –' He tapped his own nape meaningfully. 'Bite.'

Greg frowned, and for a God-awful minute John thought he'd somehow misunderstood Mycroft and the DI had no clue. A moment later, his fears were eased and some of his annoyance validated when Greg hissed, 'What do you mean you just found out? He didn't tell you when you moved in?'

John breathed out, not realising how much he'd needed someone else to share his feelings on that subject until Greg sat back in disbelief. 'I thought you knew! You've been living with him for a year!'

'I assumed he was an Alpha when I met him. I never asked, and he never said anything.' John sighed. 'Not about a bond, a mate... nothing.'

'Not “mate”.' Greg's correction was instantaneous. 'When I found out – well, was told, Mycroft and Sherlock were there. They made it damn clear that “mate” wasn't the right word. Sherlock looked like he was going to be sick and Mycroft...' He shook his head. 'He gave me that look, the one that makes you feel both completely stupid and utterly disposable.'

John pressed the heel of his hand to his left eye and nodded. 'So they told you, just like that?' He watched Greg's shoulders shuffle, his grip tightening around his glass as he waited for a reply.

'If it was left to Sherlock, I'd be none-the-wiser, but when he started helping us with cases – after he'd sobered up, of course – his brother hauled us both into some abandoned car park somewhere and explained the situation.' The DI grimaced. 'Well I say explained... He told me Sherlock was a bound Omega, that it wouldn't cause any problems with me or my team, but that I should be “made aware”.' He snorted, apparently exasperated at the memory. 'Fucking useless. He wouldn't tell me anything else, and neither would Sherlock. Not that I believed them at first. It was–'

'Impossible?'

Greg nodded, putting his glass down and jamming his fingertips together in an imitation of mismatched cogs. 'I couldn't mesh Sherlock Holmes with the image of an Omega I'd built in my head. It didn't make a damn bit of sense.'

John took another gulp of his beer, relieved that at least he hadn't been alone in his confusion. 'I know that feeling.'

'Yeah, and I get that it's a shit thing to do, stereotyping and all that, but it wasn't until Sherlock showed me the mark on his neck that I realised they weren't pulling my leg. And then...' Greg trailed off with a sigh, giving John a considering stare and sucking in a breath through his teeth. 'Then, I was pretty much in the same place you are now. Stunned and not sure what to do. I went home that night and all I could picture was what he was like when he was high, how unguarded he was, and knowing he was an Omega on top of all that?'

Lestrade had the grace to look embarrassed, and John knew exactly what he was getting at. The same compound of emotion bubbled in his gut: the collision of the awareness that Sherlock was strong and powerfully independent, and the social programming that made him sure, deep in his brain, that Omegas were helpless, naïve, innocent – an Alpha's responsibility to protect.

'It gave me nightmares,' he admitted. 'Worse, all Sherlock had to do was glance at me to see what was going on in my head. Of course, it was probably playing out in my actions as well. I started thinking twice before calling him out on a case, and then when he was there I followed him around like a shadow, petrified he'd hurt himself somehow when I could've stopped it.' He pulled a face and cleared his throat. 'I was being an idiot – treating him like a child – but I couldn't help it.'

'What changed your mind?' John managed a smile when the DI looked up at him. 'You don't act like that around him anymore. At least not that I've noticed.'

Greg laughed, his grin infectious. He fiddled with his glass, nearly empty as it was, before meeting John's eye. 'You know Sherlock. Omega, Alpha, whatever, that doesn't matter. He's your friend. What do you reckon he did?'

A thousand scenarios dashed across his mind, some ridiculous and some chilling, but Greg was right. Discovering a new facet of Sherlock had knocked him for six, but that didn't make everything John had learned about him – from the breath-taking deductions to the appalling habits – suddenly untrue.

'Something dangerous. Ridiculously so, probably, just to prove a point.'

Greg nodded, waiting for John to drain the dregs of his beer before taking it from him and getting up to head for the bar. 'One night, we got a call from him about a den of money launderers: rough, desperate types. By the time I got there, there was blood all down Sherlock's face, he'd broken at least two fingers, and he was the only one in the whole place still standing. Four against one.'

'Jesus.' John laughed, shaking his head. 'I wish I could say I was shocked.'

'Yeah, well it did the trick. Deep down, I already knew he could take care of himself. I just needed the reminder that what he is doesn't change a damn thing about what he can do.' Greg angled the glass towards John, giving it a wiggle. 'Another?'

'Please.'

John ducked his head, allowing his breath to leave him in a steady stream as Greg's words circled his head. It wasn't anything he hadn't already told himself a dozen times since leaving Baker Street, but it was good to discover he wasn't the only one who had reacted to Sherlock's revelation with disorientation, rather than gracious acceptance. Sherlock behaved as if John should've taken it all in his stride; at least Greg made him feel that his reaction wasn't so unacceptable.

The clank of his glass in front of him disturbed his reverie, and he tipped it in salute before taking a healthy swallow.

'So.' The DI sat down again with a grunt, handing John a packet of crisps. 'I guess you were telling the truth. The two of you really aren't sleeping together. There's no way you could have missed that Sherlock was an Omega if you were doing it.'

'I told you,' John said with a sigh, 'we're just friends.'

Greg cast him a sideways look, one that spoke volumes. 'Doesn't mean you wouldn't like to be more,' he murmured, before changing tack. 'Anyway, let me guess how it went down. You found the mark, freaked out, and Sherlock refused to tell you anything about it. I'm still not clear why, exactly, Mycroft pointed you in my direction.'

'He suggested you might be able to fill in a few blanks.' John smiled as Greg snorted in disbelief.

'You're joking, right? You probably know more than me. At least you've got medical stuff to fall back on. All I've got is everything I've ever been told by friends and the telly. Not exactly reliable sources.'

'I doubt the books are much better.' John scratched his eyebrow, remembering what Sherlock had said about his heats. 'I mean, think about it. Who wrote them? Not an Omega, that's for sure.' He shook his head and leant back in his chair. 'I suppose when it comes down to it, my questions aren't that important. It's just...'

Greg tipped his head, waiting patiently, and John pursed his lips. 'Why didn't he tell me? All this time I've been thinking –' He shifted uncomfortably, looking away. 'I dunno. When we first met, he said he was married to his work. Now it turns out that, actually, just “married” would have been more accurate.'

He picked at his thumbnail, wishing he could work out what it all meant. Not just Sherlock's unwillingness to tell him the truth, but the startling vice of his own disappointment.

'Look, John. I haven't got a clue why he didn't tell you sooner, but I don't reckon he considers himself married to anyone. You heard what he said today at the crime scene. Omegas are bought and sold. He didn't choose whoever put that bite there.' The DI took a gulp of his drink, licking his lips before adding, 'He chose you for a flatmate, though. Chose to take you on cases. Doesn't that tell you something?'

John paused, abruptly seeing their cohabitation in a whole new light. Sherlock would have deduced he was an Alpha, yet Greg was right; he'd still invited John to share a home with him. Now, that seemed like an unacceptable level of risk.

'I don't know,' he said at last. 'I can't get my head around any of it. I mean, all that aside, Alphas don't just let their Omegas go. Sherlock said it himself. So where's his?'

Greg rubbed the stubble that shadowed his jaw. 'No idea. When I found out, I tried to track down a bonding announcement. They archive them – something about settling the occasional claim dispute, apparently – and I thought I could at least get a name.'

'And?' John asked. 'What did you find?'

The DI pulled a face: half annoyance, half frustration. 'Some kind of court order that sealed off the information. I couldn't get at it. I suspect it's his brother's doing.'

John squinted, wondering if it was a case of Mycroft's normal paranoia or if there was a more sinister reason behind his actions. 'I suppose the only people with any real answers are Sherlock and Mycroft.'

'And the Alpha involved, of course. Unfortunately none of them are telling.' Greg tipped his glass in commiseration. 'The only thing I got off Mycroft was the impression that he wasn't cluing me in about Sherlock's status for my own good. There was a hint of something else there. He asked me to tell him if anything unusual happened.'

'Unusual?' John echoed. 'Bit hard to tell with Sherlock.'

'That's pretty much what I said. He explained it wasn't Sherlock's behaviour that concerned him, which is a first.' Greg grimaced, chewing noisily before talking with his mouth full. 'Dunno what that tells you, but if I had to guess, I'd say Sherlock wasn't dumped by his Alpha. It was the other way around.'

Peace enclosed their table as John turned that idea over, examining it from every ominous angle. Knowing Sherlock, the way he was and how intolerable he would no doubt find a cloistered, domestic life, it didn't surprise him. Sherlock wouldn't tolerate that kind of existence. Not if he had any choice in the matter.

'Now,' Greg continued. 'I'm hardly an expert, but going on what Sherlock was saying today, an Omega leaving their Alpha is no mean feat. It can't have been easy.'

John nodded, remembering Sherlock's quiet statement about Omegas having neither rights nor means of paying their own way. Admittedly, Sherlock was far from average, but if Greg was right, how had he managed to get away? 'Mycroft would have helped him, wouldn't he? I mean obviously, he's giving Sherlock a hand, or you would have been able to get to the records.'

'That's what I thought.' Greg pointed a crisp at John, bracing his elbow on the table. 'But this is Mycroft. Definitely an Alpha – you can tell that by his smell alone – and about as traditionalist as they come. So, what happened that caused him to go against all that and help his bound Omega brother escape? What made him tell me what Sherlock was, when Sherlock doesn't seem to have any trouble hiding the truth?'

John fiddled with his unopened packet of crisps, crinkling the wrapper without piercing the bag. His breath kept trying to catch beneath his ribs, and where, an hour ago, he'd been desperate to get out of Baker Street, he now longed to be back, if only to keep an eye on the madman inside.

'He wasn't telling you for your sake,' he concluded, looking up at the DI. 'He was telling you to watch Sherlock's back.'

'Yeah, I reckon so, but not from strangers, or he wouldn't have dared risk Sherlock's safety by telling me – an Alpha and a possible threat – in the first place. The way I see it, it's Sherlock's partner in particular he was warning me about.'

'Like he might hunt him down.' John sighed, closing his eyes as Sherlock's behaviour came into painful focus. It wasn't fury, not really. It was fear. Maybe he thought that John being aware of his secondary gender would compromise the secret – another weak link in the chain – but what if there was more to it than that? What if he believed John would actively work against him?

'What're you meant to do, legally I mean?' he asked. Not that he cared about the law at this point, but he had to try and see this from Sherlock's perspective.

'If you find an Omega?' Greg's smile was dark and mirthless. 'Well, they're lost property. You're meant to return them to their Alpha, even if they fight you every step of the way. Sherlock took a risk, telling me what he was.'

'No he didn't.' John scrubbed a hand over his eyes. 'He and Mycroft would have deduced what you'd do. They were sure you wouldn't drag him off again, but me...?'

The idea that Sherlock might consider him capable of that curdled the beer in John's stomach, and he got to his feet, putting a couple of bank notes on the table. 'I need to talk to him. God knows what's going on in that massive brain of his, but he can't believe I'd do that to him. Not if he didn't want to go.'

'Of course he doesn't,' Greg stood, clapping a hand on John's shoulder and giving it a squeeze, 'but he could probably do to hear it all the same.' He gestured towards the door. 'Go on. Get going. I'll give you a call if we need you again.'

'Thanks.' With a quick nod of farewell, John picked his way through the pub and stepped out into the night. A sharp wind swept away the clouds of distraction, leaving him with one clear priority. He wished he'd stayed at the flat and talked to Sherlock, even if that meant shouting through the panel of a closed door, but he'd needed Greg's sympathetic ear and his input. He'd needed someone to share his indignation and bafflement before he could say anything that wasn't spluttering disbelief and inappropriate questions.

It didn't mean they'd gone, the hows and whys, but John could see them for what they were. Irrelevant, just as Sherlock had said. Yes, John was curious, and now with Greg's ideas whispering in his head, worried as well, but at least he could decide what to do next. Maybe one day, Sherlock would answer his queries. In the meantime, John would work on finding out the bare minimum. Not to intrude on Sherlock's privacy, but to prepare himself for whatever came their way.

Crossing the road, he strode back towards the flat, ignoring the occasional passer-by as he headed for home. His key scraped against the lock plate, and he shut the door quietly behind him so as not to disturb Mrs Hudson before making his way up the stairs.

221B was lit by the soft glow of a few lamps and the harsh fluorescence of the kitchen strip-light. The clock on the mantle marked down the minutes to midnight, and John spared it a glance before turning to the man who sat at the table, peering down a microscope.

At first glance, Sherlock was as collected as ever, his silver eyes focussed and his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. Anyone else probably wouldn't notice the latent tension in his forearms or the staunch line of his shoulders: a body braced for an argument. Sherlock's face might be expressionless, but John would have to be blind to miss the cries of his body language.

Shrugging out of his jacket, he sniffed hard and wished that Sherlock's scent was more obvious. With anyone else, there were minuscule tells to be found in their fragrance. Not just the chemicals they put into themselves – coffee, cigarettes, drugs – but their emotional state. John knew when a patient was worried, when Lestrade was stressed and when Mrs Hudson had visited her sister by the faint edge of their personal perfume, but Sherlock exuded that same, comforting near-blankness as always, and it told John nothing of use.

Quietly, he approached the kitchen table, curling his fingers over the back of one of the chairs and leaning his weight on his palms. His shoulders stayed soft and his head bowed, a habit of submissive approachability.

'Been gossiping with Lestrade, have you?' Sherlock's clipped voice hummed with false indifference, and John's lips flickered in a wry smile. Of course he could deduce where he'd been. 'The Volunteer. How pedestrian. Funny, I thought talking about people behind their backs was one of those “not good” things.'

'Perhaps we weren't chatting about you,' John suggested, sighing when Sherlock cut him a disbelieving glare from behind the microscope. 'All right, maybe we were, but you went off in a huff. What do you expect me to do?'

'What action is necessary?' Sherlock demanded, abandoning all pretence of inspecting the slide on the platform. 'What difference does it make?'

'You tell me.' John lifted his chin, catching Sherlock's gaze in unapologetic challenge. 'Something stopped you from telling me before now, and I don't think it's because you decided it didn't matter. Something was holding you back.'

He licked his lips, glancing away with a shake of his head. 'Greg had some interesting theories.' He ignored the answering noise of mockery, pressing on. 'And they're probably not right, but they're all I've got.'

'How wonderful,' Sherlock sneered, his fingers drumming on the focus wheel.

'Look, I just...' John pinched the bridge of his nose, aware that Sherlock would never make this easy. Of the two of them, John was better at talking about what mattered, and that wasn't saying much, but he had to give it a go. 'Can you just answer one thing for me?'

'And what might that be?' Sherlock's voice radiated Arctic disdain, harsh and bitter. He got up from his chair, waving one hand as his nose wrinkled in distaste. 'What puerile curiosity can I possibly appease? Do you want to know what it's like to be reduced to nothing but a sexual imperative? If I writhe; if I beg? If I–'

John lunged, grabbing Sherlock's arms. It was not quite enough to bruise, but firm all the same. Nothing could make him ignore the visible manner in which Sherlock flinched, nor the stubborn defiance in his flatmate's eyes. It was impossible to say what bothered him more, the thought of the most vivid, present man he'd ever come across made a victim of his own biology, or the edge of hurt emotion in Sherlock's words, now silenced by the jolt of John's sudden movement.

'No, you bloody idiot,' he breathed, shaking his head and squeezing, just once, before loosening his grip. He didn't remove his fingers though, couldn't, not when the vulnerable turn of Sherlock's wrists beneath his touch was like an anchor. 'I want to know if you're safe.'

He watched the puzzlement cloud Sherlock's eyes, as if the conversation had taken an unexpected detour. 'I'm used to you being a target for half of London's criminal types, but... Look, I'm not saying you can't take care of yourself. It's not that the danger's changed, or that I suddenly reckon you can't deal with it, but now there's a different kind of risk.'

Sherlock cocked his head, and John saw the moment where he searched beyond the surface, his deductions clear in the quiver of his gaze and the concentration on his features. A second later, it cleared, shallow lines wiped away beneath a quiet “Oh!”. The last trace of bitterness and resentment eased away, and now he was looking at John as if he were once again some unfathomable mystery. 'You want to be prepared. Ever the pragmatic soldier.'

'I like to be aware of the situation,' John confirmed. 'So, are you? Safe, I mean?'

The corners of Sherlock's mouth twitched downwards, and his Adam's apple bobbed above his collar. 'You tell me.'

John winced at the soft implication in Sherlock's voice. It was hard to consider the two of them as anything but a unit, a pair inextricably tied together, but in this, they were opposite sides of a coin, their biology putting them in a different dynamic.

One that Sherlock saw as menacing.

That realisation made his blood run cold, and he tried to breathe around the tangle of denials in his throat. 'No.' John caught his hands back, leaning away as he shook his head. 'I wouldn't. Whatever it is you're worried about, I just wouldn't. You should know that.'

Cotton rustled as Sherlock folded his arms. 'Knowing is not the same as believing.' He sighed, his shoulders dropping. 'People react... unpredictably. Your behaviour once you discovered the truth was not something I could anticipate with any level of accuracy.'

John rubbed his hand over his mouth and nodded. He hated that, even for few hours, Sherlock had seen him as a threat -but he understood. 'You need evidence, and you had nothing to work with. I get it, but you were right, you being an Omega doesn't change much, and it definitely doesn't change the fact that I'm on your side. So is – is there anything I need to be told? Anything else, I mean?'

Sherlock lifted one shoulder, his footsteps measured as he paced towards the window and stared out into the sallow glow of lamp-lit Baker Street. 'It's all relative. I am in no more peril today than I was yesterday.'

With a huff, John leant against the wall on the other side of the glass, allowing the panes to span the breadth between them. 'But if you tell me what we're up against, then there's a chance you could be a bit better off. It's easier to act without hesitation if I don't have to ask what's going on.'

Sherlock looked over at him, calculating, as if he could read every last one of John's intentions. Whatever he found made him turn, his voice low as he spoke. 'You have a more specific query in mind than a nebulous fear for my welfare. Why don't you just ask it?'

John hesitated, biting back his immediate response of “Because you won't want to answer it. This cuts too close to the bone, and there are some things you won't share with anyone. Not even me.” Instead, he squared his shoulders and chose his words with care.

'Is your Alpha going to come looking for you?'

He waited, motionless beneath Sherlock's scrutiny. Everything, from his heart to his fingertips, pulsed with anticipation and the need to solidify some kind of strategy. John had learnt a lot about Sherlock tonight, but this was not just personal. It was about establishing the facts.

'Is that Lestrade's theory?' Sherlock asked. 'He believes I fled?' He raised his eyebrows, apparently impressed. 'Someone should promote him.'

'So he's right?' John shifted his weight, leaning forward. 'You left?'

Sherlock looked back out of the window, his eyes tracking the sparse pedestrians on the pavement below. 'Yes. As for Alexander, he's much like any other Alpha of the elite. Unwilling to admit that he's lost his grip on his most valuable asset, and equally reluctant to draw attention to it. He'll have made up something to explain my absence, and as long as I maintain a low profile here in London, my notoriety will not uncover his lie, whatever that may be.'

'So he's never come after you?'

Sherlock sighed, and John thought he detected a faint tremor in the flow of air. It didn't sound right for impatience, and he frowned as he watched Sherlock chew his lip, deliberating.

'Once,' he admitted. 'About eight years ago. The results were – unpleasant.'

John turned his head, not wanting to see the way the memory pinched his face and paled his cheeks. There were so many scenarios he could picture, and none of them ended well for Sherlock. However, that was one discussion that John could see was too personal. If he dug too deep, Sherlock would shut him down, so he forced himself to focus on the other gem of information provided.

'Eight years?' He swore, berating his own idiocy. Of course, Omegas bonded as soon as possible after presentation, but somehow he'd seen this as a recent development in Sherlock's life – a new and tenuous situation, rather than the status-quo to which Sherlock was accustomed. 'Christ. How old were you when he...' He gestured to the bite on Sherlock's neck.

'What happened to just one question?' Sherlock sighed, turning his gaze back to the window. 'Seventeen. I've been bound to him for half my life.'

John sucked in a breath, trying to absorb that information. He should have suspected as much, but it put a new slant on everything. In comparison, he'd barely known Sherlock for any time at all. It made this – the two of them and Baker Street – seem like a drop in the ocean.

Swallowing tightly, he tried to return to his main point, shoving aside the conflict of his emotions. 'So he found you once. Is he likely to do it again?'

'It's a possibility,' Sherlock admitted after the silence had stretched for a painful time, thick and cloying. 'I owe my current existence partly to my brother's influence, but mostly to the precarious balance of Alexander's pride. As long as saving face remains his top priority, he won't admit there is a problem. It's only when another issue forces his hand that he's driven to action.'

'What kind of issue?'

'Last time, it was because he had purchased an additional Omega – legally dubious in terms of bigamy but frequently overlooked.' He shrugged, his features blank with apathy. 'She died a few months later from a blood infection. He couldn't get his money back, couldn't afford a third Omega, and so came after me. Unfortunately, his behaviour is difficult to predict. It's been years, but he could still turn up at any moment in an attempt to drag me back.'

John tried to picture it, some stranger who held half of Sherlock's life in his hands storming in and robbing them of this – the Work, the game, their friendship. Oh, Sherlock wouldn't go easy; he'd fight, hard and vicious, John had no doubt of that, but judging by what he was saying, his opposition had not been enough before.

'Look, it's none of my business. You can handle it yourself, but if there's anything I can do to help....' John gazed at the floor, wishing he had more to give. 'I'll do my best.'

He expected something dismissive, a laugh or a disbelieving stare, and when none came, he glanced up to see Sherlock watching him with a perplexed slant to his brows. 'Because I'm an Omega?

John snorted. 'No, Sherlock. Because you're – you know –' He cleared his throat, spreading his hands palm up before dropping them back to his sides. 'Because you're my friend, you idiot.'

Gratitude flared in Sherlock's eyes, widened as they were with curiosity and amazement, like John had done something unexpected. It was as if, to this man – this genius – John's actions were a mystery, and he fidgeted beneath the glow of Sherlock's attention.

He still had questions, but slowly, their importance was beginning to fade. Whether he liked it or not, he knew more about Sherlock than he had a few hours ago. However he looked it, that had to be a good thing. Now, he wanted confirmation that what he'd discovered tonight wouldn't damage what they'd built since the day they met at Bart's.

Ducking his head, he shrugged awkwardly, flicking his finger back and forth between them as he asked, 'So... are we good?'

For the first time that evening, Sherlock smiled. Not the false, beaming grin of a man shamming his way into someone's favour, but the crooked, shy curve John cherished. His gaze darted around John's face, no doubt taking in everything. Yet something lingered, a trace of doubt and perhaps the faintest shadow of regret.

'I think that's for you to decide.'

John looked up, reading everything that simple sentence had to offer. On the surface it may not look like much, but he knew what Sherlock was doing. Not an apology, perhaps, but a silent acknowledgement that he was somewhat in the wrong for keeping John in the dark.

It was a hint of an opening, an opportunity to push the issue and hunt down every answer he craved, but John fought down the urge. He was a soldier and a doctor, used to processing information in a handful of seconds and prioritising his actions. He'd said his piece and had the bare bones of the situation. For now that would have to be enough. Sherlock's friendship – his god-damn trust – was more important than soothing John's own curiosity, and he straightened his back as he nodded, slow and sure.

'We're good.'

Chapter Text

The hum of the taxi's wheels passed unnoticed, lost beneath the tidal flow of London's symphony. The metal cage of the cab muted the city's din, but Sherlock picked up on it all the same, taking a moment to relish the input before placing it aside.

There had been a time, years ago now, when this place had almost overwhelmed him: vivid in every aspect. Amazing, how things that he had craved above all else – a life in society's heart, rather than far beyond it – could become mundane given time.

Immediately, his thoughts turned to John: the exception to that rule. He was seated next to Sherlock, a warm outline that pulled softly at his awareness, returning his mind to all the ways this ordinary man had revealed himself to be remarkable. Not just the bullet in the murderous cabbie, John's opening gambit all those months ago, but everything since.

He was kind and conscientious, easy-going and made friends with minimal difficulty – all traits which Sherlock would have dismissed off-hand if not for the glimmer of more. John invested considerable effort in making himself seem harmless and ultimately forgettable, but it had taken only one glance and a single deep breath for Sherlock to see that for what it was. Not a mask, exactly, but a facet where one expected a smooth plane.

Sherlock's initial deductions of John had been intriguing, but not nearly as intricate as that first trace of his scent.

Alpha, obviously, the hormonal signature of his gender impossible to deny, but it was more than the normal bass thud of odour emitted by Lestrade or Mycroft. Theirs was flat, a single note amidst the bouquet of the air. John's was multi-dimensional and complex, not enriched by outward factors such as hygiene products or his diet, though clues to both glittered at the edges of Sherlock's perception.

Automatically, he had tried to identify the component fragrances, but the task was beyond him. His normally erudite analysis failed, reducing him to vague connotations of safe, good, yes. It was the first hint that John Watson was worthy of further investigation.

Sherlock smiled ruefully, returning his gaze to the window. He'd had more than a year, and still he had not unravelled the knot of John's nature. Evocative and seemingly dichotomous traits orbited the foundation of his character, and Sherlock remained happily fascinated. Oh, there were some certainties to be found. He knew John's moral compass was strong, but did not operate within the lines of the law. He had firm views, but was happy to allow the ends to justify his means. The legality of his actions was not so much an issue to him as the principle of their consequences.

A case in point: ten days ago, he had discovered all his assumptions about Sherlock's secondary gender to be incorrect. One unfortunate moment of chance, and the secret Sherlock worked so hard to hide lay bare for John's perusal. His initial reactions – confusion, disbelief, curiosity, anger – were all predictable. Instinctive, even. That part, at least, Sherlock had anticipated.

Yet there the path split, becoming a tangled briar of possible outcomes, some given detail more by fear than logical reasoning, but they were no less forceful for their lack of rational basis. It was easy to forget that John was an Alpha, but there in that kitchen, held down by firm hands on his neck and almost vibrating with the breathless terror of being so exposed, Sherlock had been potently reminded of the fact.

John could have walked out, disgusted or repulsed. He could have tried to track down Alexander and return Sherlock to his control, such as was his legal obligation.

He could have made an effort to claim Sherlock for himself. Unlikely, considering John's strong opposition to any form of interaction lacking in consent, but Sherlock had been raised knowing that Omegas did strange things to Alphas simply by existing. Regardless of whether he was emitting heat pheromones or not, the very knowledge of what he was could strip away every construct of civility John held so dear and reduce him to some vicious state, intent on Sherlock as a sexual conquest and nothing more.

He wasn't sure what was worse: the fact that he had underestimated his flatmate's character so thoroughly or that, just for a moment, there had been a shameful thrill at the thought of being so completely overwhelmed by him.

Illogical. John stripped of everything that defined him was not something to which Sherlock aspired. His glorious contradictions were what he found so compelling; higher thought and reasoning, compassion and regard, that was what had captured his attention. To rob John of those qualities would be a disaster, and yet even knowing him as he did, Sherlock hadn't been able to conclusively rule out sexual attack from the man he considered his best friend.

Of course, John had proved him spectacularly wrong. He had not pushed and pestered, denying Sherlock his right to privacy, nor advanced in a show of brute superiority. Instead, he'd removed himself from the flat and discussed who knew what with the regrettably aware Lestrade. Whatever the course of their conversation, it had permitted John to rationalise events in his own exceptional way. When he'd returned, his bafflement was still plain to see, along with an emotional hurt Sherlock didn't fully understand. He seemed distressed that Sherlock had never confided in him, but rather than meting out punishment, he made his choice.

One which placed him firmly at Sherlock's side, a defender. Not a knight in shining armour for a damsel in distress, but an ally. Someone on whom Sherlock could rely without question. In theory, that was nothing new. John had proven his loyalty that first night, but this was different because John knew. He knew Sherlock was an Omega, yet he did not try and exert any form of influence over him. He treated Sherlock the same as he'd always done.

Not like something precious, nor as a freak, but a human being.

Perhaps, to others, that would seem like a basic level of respect, but Sherlock was uniquely positioned to see its value. Even his brother failed in that regard, coddling Sherlock in vice-like restrictions whenever the opportunity arose. He was permitted to have a life, of a sort, but Mycroft was never far away: an unerring presence. Even Lestrade, when he'd found out, had stumbled in his regular behaviour, becoming almost obsessive in his deference to Sherlock's apparent (and non-existent) frailties.

Only John had made it clear that his offer of protection had nothing to do with Sherlock's gender. He saw Sherlock as nothing more or less than exactly what he was: a consulting detective who put most of the Yard to shame, undoubtedly intelligent and capable of making his own choices. No, John took Sherlock's side because it was the right thing to do, and the vow to support Sherlock's decisions – particularly that of separation from Alexander – was unlikely to be revoked.

It shouldn't make him feel safe, having John's oath. He was more than able to look after himself, should the need arise, but something about John's certainty eased Sherlock's frayed nerves. In everything, from his actions to his assertion that they were “good”, John was putting their arrangement first. He chose to leave his remaining questions – and there were clearly a number of those – unanswered rather than pursuing them. He respected Sherlock's dismissal of an important issue when John himself longed for a more fulfilling explanation of his current circumstances.

If the situation were reversed, Sherlock knew he would not be so cooperative.

The taxi turned the corner sharply, its tyres releasing a faint squeal of protest. The abrupt change in direction sent John lurching into Sherlock's shoulder: a strong impact that made him grunt in surprise even as a frisson shot through him.

Immediately, John stammered an apology and righted himself with unflattering haste. Sherlock held in a sigh. It was the most notable difference in John's behaviour. Before, he would have laughed, lingering in Sherlock's personal sphere as he made a joke about the driver's abilities. Now, he visibly recoiled, flustered and trying to hide it as he stared fixedly out of the window on his side of the vehicle, ignoring Sherlock's huff of irritation.

Once, he would have treasured his personal space, protective of the barrier it provided, but ever since John had arrived in his life, those boundaries had begun to erode. He'd become accustomed to fleeting contact, even coming to anticipate it.

Yet once John discovered Sherlock was an Omega, all the small touches of friendship – ones which so frequently hinted at more – stopped. Previously, John would have handed him a cup of tea, their fingers brushing, or cupped Sherlock's elbow to get his attention. He'd lean in close to inspect an experiment or nudge him gently out of the way in the kitchen.

Now, even accidental touches seemed to cause remorse. It was if John had decided that Sherlock's gender had marked him as off-limits – strange, as most Alphas would surely consider the opposite to be true? John had been confident in his actions, even flirtatious at times when he thought Sherlock was an Alpha, but one small alteration in his fundamental knowledge, and every conversation became glassy and platonic, full of false starts and aborted gestures.

It wasn't that John didn't want to touch him: he'd caught him snatching his hand back before it could land on Sherlock's arm more than once. No, John wasn't allowing himself, because he felt he shouldn't. Alexander's prior claim forefront in his mind, no doubt.

Used goods.

The words hissed in his mind's ear, a memory murmuring its accusations as Sherlock fought to keep his expression blank. His hand moved of its own accord, slipping under his scarf to trace the epitaph of savagery that pitted his skin. Hatred burned in his stomach for all it represented, and he pursed his lips, wishing things were different. That no-one questioned his right to his current life, and nothing made John hold back the affection, friendly or otherwise, that he had given so freely not long ago.

Or failing that, he wished he didn't miss those fleeting moments of connection with such keenness. Like an aching tooth, it nagged at him constantly, stretching his patience as his rational mind caught itself in a web of sentimental fears.

That was why they were currently on their way to Notting Hill at Lestrade's request. The case seemed less than promising, but Sherlock was desperate to occupy his mind with something – anything – that wasn't John and the changed state of affairs in which they now found themselves.

Finally, the taxi pulled up at the end of the street, the driver gawping at the accrued police cars until Sherlock waved the money under his nose to get his attention. Irritation sharpened the cabbie's Beta citrus scent, and Sherlock cast him a disdainful glare as he grudgingly dug out change.

The usual suspects littered the scene, made ghostly by the flicker of blue lights and London's early morning gloom. The familiar faces of Donovan, Anderson and several Forensics regulars were observed and then discarded, the minutiae of their personal lives irrelevant. Sherlock held up the police tape, standing back to allow John through before ducking under and almost walking into Donovan's outstretched hand.

She rolled her eyes, lines bracketing her lips as she pursed them in distaste. 'We don't need you, you know. We could solve this ourselves.'

The stale fragrance of a lie made Sherlock's nose itch, and he offered her a cold stare, taking in her appearance with one sweep of his gaze. Sally's pettiness arose more from defensive antagonism than anything else. She felt threatened by his abilities and frustrated by the ease with which he put them to use. It manifested in weak insults and endless, trite challenges from the Beta sergeant. Tiresome, but far from unexpected.

It was tempting to enumerate all the evidence of her falsehood, from the shadows under her eyes indicating she was far from at her best to the tremor in her hands: distress – a particularly gruesome crime scene involving a child or other, vulnerable individual. However, John was hovering at his side, tense and stiff from the cold. Better to get on with it rather than stand here putting Donovan in her place.

'Then why bother calling for me?' he asked, indifferent.

'Believe me, it wasn't my decision.' She held the radio to her mouth, speaking into it as she nodded to the officers standing sentry at the entrance. 'Bringing them in, Sir.'

Her heels tapped on the pavement as she led them through the front door of number forty-two. Immediately, the ferrous odour of blood rolled over him, and he heard John smother a noise of repulsion at his side. No doubt to Sally it was a mere nuance in the air, but to John it was probably like walking into a wall. An Alpha's sense of smell was powerful, the same as an Omega's, but it was specifically attuned to biological fragrances. Pheromones, tears, sweat and sexual fluids all took precedence to an Alpha's olfactory receptors, often to the detriment of other, more subdued input.

Sherlock, on the other hand, could take in the entire kaleidoscope offered by the atmosphere of the house. The detergent in the carpet, the food on the plates by the sink in the kitchen, the ash in the grate and the scent of the wilting roses all competed for his attention, punctuated by the treble stench of gunpowder.

It was a story written for him in the air, and one he couldn't acknowledge. Not without raising too many questions and exposing his secret to further, less friendly scrutiny. No, he would have to use the data to guide his visual observations: a method which he'd had years to perfect.

A dense carpet muffled his footsteps as he approached the living room, sparing a glance for the paintings on the wall: investment pieces, each unique, though they all followed a distinctly modernist trend. There were no signs of misalignment, and the top of each canvas was swept clean of dust. Interesting.

Lestrade waited for them at the doorway, his expression grim and his gaze weary. He nodded a greeting before gesturing to the scene within, his words quick and to the point. 'A neighbour reported gunfire, and when we got here this is what we found. The Donnellys: husband, wife and daughter.' He gestured to the three bodies where they lay amidst gory haloes. 'Mum and girl killed by a shot to the face, dad by a bullet to the temple. At first glance it looks like he did it.'

Sherlock made a disgusted noise in his throat, biting back his derision as the DI lifted his voice, one hand held out to halt his response. 'We dismissed that idea pretty quick. There's no way he could have fallen like that.'

He gestured to the man, who lay like a Pharaoh in repose, his arms folded across his chest and a gun captured in his loose grip. His suit – tailored to fit, grey wool blend, Savile Row – was immaculate, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes before turning to the other two bodies, ignoring the flash of the cameras as Forensics recorded various details, immortalising the scene in the scope of their lenses.

'The house alarm was on and active when we came in,' Donovan added, 'but it didn't register any disturbance at the time of the murder, so either it was off and someone reset it, or...'

Sherlock took in the words even as he bent to examine the other bodies, checking everything from the clothes they wore to the sprawl of their forms. Dimly, he was aware of Anderson hovering on the threshold, monitoring his every move.

'Maybe it's not what it seems?' John suggested, and Sherlock glanced up to see him gesturing to the sensors in the corners of the ceiling. 'Could it be a decoy – a deterrent, rather than the real thing?'

'No.' Sherlock frowned, gently turning over the girl's hands and inspecting her skin before he continued. 'Original artwork on the walls, unique sculpture, not to mention a dozen or more first editions.' He indicated the cube-shaped shelves that decorated the wall like portholes. 'Assets worth a million in two rooms alone. The alarm's real.'

'So why didn't it go off?' Lestrade's question hovered in the air, but Sherlock ignored it, too intent on the mother to respond until the DI sighed. 'Sherlock?'

Tutting, he cast him a glare before jerking his head towards Donovan. 'The sergeant's right. It was off during the killing, as were the cameras hidden in the cornice.' He pointed towards the plasterwork where the ceiling met the wall, its joins fractionally uneven at key intervals. 'You'll find the monitoring equipment nearby. Possibly in some kind of study. Whoever did this reset the alarm as they departed. Curious behaviour for a murderer.'

'Worth getting out of bed for?' Lestrade asked.

'Presumptuous,' Sherlock murmured, distracted by the cufflinks on the man's shirt sleeves. 'I was already awake.'

'You were still awake,' John corrected, amusement colouring his voice. 'I was the only one who was actually in my bed, and I'm a bit confused about why I'm not still there. What do you need me for?'

Sherlock's hand hesitated at the lapel of the man's suit, a flash of concern making his fingertips twitch as he considered John's words. It was rare that he challenged Sherlock's reasons for bringing him to a scene, which were less about his medical expertise and more about his companionship and general usefulness. Was this another symptom of the changes between them? Had John's departure from his life been a needless fear, or was this the first sign that it was a delayed reality?

He glanced in John's direction, trying to smother the wave of relief when he saw playful curiosity in the creases around his eyes. This was more about being dragged out of bed than any true question of purpose, and Sherlock endeavoured to hide his moment of uncertainty as he sought a distraction.

He hummed, adopting a guise of apparent thought before pointing towards the door set into the far wall. 'Check the kitchen,' he ordered, 'and take Lestrade with you.'

Grumbling, John did as he was told, the DI following a half-step behind. Honestly, they should be grateful to him. As far as he was aware, John and Lestrade had not met again since their evening at The Volunteer, and Lestrade was practically vibrating with questions, which were probably more about Sherlock than the case itself. Concern was never something Lestrade bothered to hide, and John needed the distraction. His distress over the bodies, in particular the child's, was not as well-concealed as he assumed. Sherlock had offered them seclusion, or at least the illusion of it.

Getting to his feet, he drifted away from the corpses, moving carefully to avoid disturbing any evidence as he surveyed the room. Surreptitiously, he stepped closer to the kitchen doorway, noting the titles of the books and the wineglasses on the table as he attempted to listen in.

Lestrade was the one speaking, not with the tones a man in charge of a crime scene, but something softer and more companionable. His words were neither clipped nor authoritative, and Sherlock held his breath as he tried to make out what was being said.

'– you two are doing all right? You know, what with...' The sentence trailed off, and Sherlock wondered if some form of indicative gesture had been made. Regardless, it stood to reason that it was he and John who were the centre of this discussion, Lestrade's worry as evident as his curiosity.

Stiffening his spine, Sherlock resisted the temptation to peer through the door, continuing his slow, thorough investigation of the room as he pictured John searching the scene. When he spoke, there was an echoing quality to his voice: he was looking in the fridge, Sherlock surmised.

'Yeah, I've had a few days to get used to the idea. I'm better than I was in the pub, anyway.' Silence again, more brief this time, interrupted by the soft chime of glass – inspecting bottles perhaps? 'What I mean is, it's fine. We're fine. In the end, he's just... Sherlock, you know?'

'Looks like you caught onto that a lot quicker than I did.' Lestrade's voice sounded strained, and Sherlock rolled his eyes at the understatement. The DI's behaviour had been intolerable for months after Mycroft had informed him of the situation. He had almost given up hope on him, and it had taken a gloriously violent altercation with some money-launderers to prove his point.

With a sigh, Sherlock shifted, expecting the conversation to have come to an end. However, before he left earshot, he heard Lestrade clear his throat, awkward and uncertain.

'What?' John sounded wary, but intrigued. Open enough to the man he considered his friend, but there was a defensive edge to his challenge, as if he were waiting for the DI to say something he'd rather not hear.

'Listen, I'm not going to ask you to betray his confidence, but if there's anything I can help with – anything I should know...' He left the sentence hanging: a deliberate ploy to encourage John to fill in the blanks. Sherlock recognised the technique – used it to get information out of witnesses often enough – and he clenched his teeth as irritation heated his skin. No doubt John was longing to discuss everything he'd discovered.

Yet he did not leap in with an immediate response. There was no outpouring of the few details Sherlock had so reluctantly shared. Instead, John sighed, his words carefully placed and pitched low. 'All I can really say is that you were right. Your theory, I mean. To be honest I don't know much more than that. I wish I did, but even if I had all the answers –'

'– You wouldn't be telling me.'

Sherlock frowned, trying to understand why, rather than offended, Lestrade appeared pleased, as if John had passed some kind of test.

'Okay, I can work with that.' The DI sounded strangely relieved. 'I mean, I would have looked out for him anyway, but at least I know I'm not just being paranoid. Now we can both watch his back, right?'

Sherlock sensed John's eyes on him and feigned interest in the window latch: unforced and still in place, rarely opened. If John suspected he could overhear, he showed no sign of it, but there was something emphatic about his reply, as if it were meant to be heard by more than Lestrade.

'Right.'

Slowly, their conversation moved back onto the immediate state of the kitchen, and Sherlock wandered away, pushing aside the strange, tremulous sensation beneath his ribs. He thought of the endless hours he had worried about John finding out what he was and the ceaseless, dire scenarios that had raced through his head. The same risk had been present in telling Lestrade, of course, but there had been no emotional connection to the DI all those years ago. He was merely a tool to allow him access to the cases. His response and the action it may necessitate had been of little concern.

Yet Sherlock had never expected them to react like this. The best scenario, and in a way the preferred outcome, had always been indifference. This – the two of them working together, sharing necessary information without breaching trust, all in the name of Sherlock's welfare, was entirely unexpected. It could have reeked of Alpha dominance, the very thing he had fought so long to escape. Their actions could easily have taken on a patronising edge as they sought to cage him in their own way. Yet, despite his admittedly poor emotional intelligence, Sherlock could see that was not the case. This was not an effort to rob him of his agency. It was simply two men doing what they believed was necessary.

Not because he was an Omega, but because they considered him a friend.

Sherlock drew in a sharp breath through his nose, pushing aside an unaccustomed swirl of confused emotion as they re-entered the room. He half-expected them to smile, united in their (to Sherlock) uncomfortable sentiment, but mercifully neither of them seemed in any way unprofessional, and he greedily latched on to the details of the case as John spoke.

'I don't think the kitchen’s been touched – nothing strange about it at all. No blood, no particulates, no mud by the door... Whoever did it, they didn't come in this way.'

Sherlock pressed his fingers together in front of his lips, whirling back to the triumvirate of bodies and feeling the wings of his coat settle around him. 'They didn't have to,' he murmured, the disparate pieces connecting with flashes of light in his mind's eye as the elements formed a comprehensible whole.

'What have you got for me, then?' Lestrade asked, more eager than indulgent.

Slowly, Sherlock turned in a final circle, looking for anything he'd missed before he considered the corpses: the point of ignition and conclusion for this crime. 'Three dead, all shot with the same gun. The bullets will match the pistol in Mr Donnelly's hand. However, it was not his finger that pulled trigger.' He swayed towards the wife and daughter, indicating the destructive nature of their wounds. 'The murderer was angry with the women, hateful. Shooting someone in the face is personal. This was a punishment, but this –' He turned to the father. 'This was respectful.'

'What, because he's all lain out?' Anderson asked from where he stood, a frown creasing his brow.

'Not just that. Wife and daughter are still in their night clothes. No efforts have been made to protect any illusion of decency, but nor were they stripped, which might indicate a sexual aspect to their deaths.' Sherlock stared, seeing the contrast of the scene as clear as day. 'They're even separate from him, their heads lying away to the right while his is to the left. Additionally, he's been redressed.' He pointed, indicating one garment after another. 'He's wearing his best suit and shoes, even cufflinks. The wound at his head has been cleaned, but there was still enough gore to leave a trace on the inside of his collar where the killer manipulated the body to clothe it.'

He lifted his head, gesturing expansively around the living room. 'The same respect has been shown to the house. It's immaculate. A family as wealthy as this may have a cleaner – no dust on the top of the canvases and no indications of obsessive neatness in the residents suggests someone is paid to keep the place spotless – but the staff's unlikely to attend on a weekend. With that in mind there should at least be rings of water on the table from the glasses.' He indicated the low coffee table, mahogany and luxurious, its surface unblemished by the long-stemmed champagne flutes that rested, coaster-less, on its face.

'So, someone cleaned up?'

'And cleaned them out,' Sherlock added, flicking a smile in John's direction as he stepped over to one of the bookcases, his fingers running along the spines, picking out spaces in the ranks. 'Paintings are big and difficult to carry, but books?'

'How do you know those gaps weren't always there?' Donovan demanded.

'Use your eyes,' he snapped. 'Volumes stacked on top of others, a pile by the sofa and another on the table in the hall. There are more books in this house than there is space for them, so why are there voids present? No, something was taken, something of value – possibly sentimental, but monetary is more likely.' Sherlock's gaze flickered, reading the room. 'The first editions remaining are of moderate worth, but there might have been a few treasures which are now gone. They'll be listed for insurance reasons. Find out what's missing.'

'Anything else?' Anderson demanded, his sarcasm evident.

'You mean I haven't given you enough to be going on with?' Sherlock raised his eyebrows before frowning in annoyance, taking in the equally blank stares all around him. 'For God's Sake, how you manage to survive is beyond me. How can you go through your boring lives and see so little? Look!'

'At what?' Donovan asked, her voice catching on a mirthless laugh as she shook her head. 'So far, you've not exactly told us anything mind-blowing. Definitely nothing to help lead us to the culprit.'

Sherlock sighed, flicking a hand through his hair and wishing he could shake her until she opened her eyes and actually observed. 'You said it yourself. The alarm was on when you came in, so someone reset it. A house like this, its residents wealthy? They wouldn't go to bed and leave the system deactivated, so whoever killed them knew the code. More to the point, they were able to get all three occupants in the same room without using restraints or raising suspicion. They trusted their killer, why?'

'They – knew them?'

'Yes, John!' Sherlock did not bother to subdue his bright grin, his approval impossible to mask. 'But it's more than a mere acquaintance. The murderer had a right to be here, one the victims didn't question. Look around. What else is missing? A family home, but...'

For a moment, no-one answered, but finally Anderson's voice broke the calm, his words tremulous like a student putting himself forward but expecting a reprimand. 'Photographs?'

Sherlock cocked an eyebrow, suspecting that was a lucky guess, but acknowledging it all the same. 'Exactly. There should be something, even if it's just holiday snapshots. The books held a source of value, but why take the photos as well? They were present; there are marks on the mantle where the sun's bleached the wood around the frames, but no pictures.'

'Something to remember them by?' Greg shrugged, looking baffled as Sherlock sighed in irritation.

'No. The only sentiment here was displayed towards the father. Look, it's obvious. Beta family, husband in his mid-to-late fifties, easily, but the wife can't be more than thirty-five. The skin on her neck and hands is still firm and relatively unwrinkled, yet neither of those are prime sites for anti-aging treatments. Younger wife, almost certainly not the first. Daughter the product of the second marriage. Interlopers in the eyes of our killer.'

'That's why they were shot in the face.' John frowned down at the visceral spectacle. 'So, what, you reckon the first wife?'

Sherlock tilted his hand back and forward, screwing up his face as he hummed in doubt. 'It's possible, but less likely. A divorce often results in animosity towards the ex-partner. Perhaps the jilted spouse wouldn't have obliterated his features, but would she have dressed him in his best clothes? No, whoever did this idolised him, but saw his death as necessary to a well-formulated plan. Look for children from the first wife; they're most likely to feel alienated.'

'Enough to kill?' Lestrade asked.

'Apparently. The only inconsistency is the timing. The daughter is what, twelve, thirteen? Assuming she was born after they were married – likely considering the wear on the wedding rings – the separation must have occurred more than a decade ago, so why wait? What changed?'

He tipped his head up to the ceiling and stared blindly at the paintwork as he adjusted the angle of the scenario, exposing all possible options. 'Unless what we see here is secondary motive.' He turned back, his hands wavering like a set of scales finding their balance as he re-weighed the evidence. 'Effect, not cause. Why kill the father at all? Necessity. The driving force here is not hatred; it's simply the most apparent consequence in the data. If the true reason for the killings was loathing for the women, they would have been murdered during the father's absence. He travels for work; look at the tan-lines.'

Sherlock was almost talking to himself now, racing along to the conclusion. 'No, this is all about money. The books are a quick fix. This is about inheritance and who stands to gain, but more importantly, it's about what makes them desperate enough to kill a man they clearly admire. That's the key detail – the only one that elevates this case beyond tedium.'

'All right, Sally, look into the other family and see what you can find out about those books,' Lestrade ordered, flapping a hand at Anderson. 'You, get processing. Sherlock, do you need to look at anything else?'

'The rest of the house. There must be something more to all this.' He was off before the DI could utter anything further, allowing the tide of data to wash over him as John followed at his heels. His feet took him from one room to another, each brimming with information, but the majority of it held little relevance.

He was just heading towards the guest bedroom when John spoke up, his voice faintly amused. 'You know, you're not exactly the world's most subtle person.'

Sherlock glanced at him. 'No. Is there a reason for that gross statement of the obvious?'

'You. Chucking me and Greg into the kitchen for a chat and then listening in.' John shut the door behind him and leaned back against it, watching as Sherlock got to work. 'I didn't notice until you were by the window, but you heard all of it, didn't you?'

Sherlock sighed, only half-listening as he examined the faint, square marks on the wallpaper and blue-tac remnants: posters now long gone. The bookshelves, strewn with a few desultory ornaments, were bowed in the middle, suggesting they'd once held a number of heavy texts, and the room was cluttered with the stray possessions people often left behind when they moved out: a child vacating the home. A busy one, prone to stress, possibly one who had grown into an adult with murder in mind.

Vaguely, he hummed an affirmative to John's question, taking in the wear pattern on the floor: rapid pacing over many years, back and forth. Perhaps while parents argued, or while a new, unwanted sibling invaded their life. Initially, the line of it was fairly straight, the oldest damage easily charting seven or eight years of anxiety, but around the edges were fainter degradations. The pacer had become unsteady later in life, consistently so, blurring the rut of their own anguish.

So, an academic child, probably sent to private school, but not a boarder. They existed in a situation of high-stress while being exposed to the intermediate upper class within their educational environment. Lack of parental supervision plus an abrupt and unaccustomed surfeit of bad influences, all in addition to the volatile hormonal cocktail of adolescence and later, young adulthood.

Really, there was only one conclusion: drugs. Faced with a room like this, where would he hide his supply?

He checked cupboards and bounced up and down on the floorboards – depressingly firm – all the while vaguely aware of an expectant edge to John's silence. What had they been talking about? Oh, yes. Eavesdropping, hardly an unexpected behaviour on his part. 'Problem?'

John sighed, but it was more resigned than disappointed. 'It was a private conversation, Sherlock.'

'One about me,' he pointed out, stopping in the middle of the room and considering his options. There was no-one here to witness him but John, who was more than accustomed to Sherlock's strange behaviour. If he thought there was anything unusual about Sherlock tipping his head up and taking a deep, long breath through his nose, he didn't mention it.

'That's not the point,' John groused, but Sherlock barely paid it any mind. He was too busy sorting through the data the air was giving him. John's presence, sun-bright and tempting, was deliberately placed to one side, acknowledged and ignored as he took in the faint ghosts of fragrances past, almost obliterated now by regular cleaning. Detergents and polish: the cleaner's perfume. Beneath that, ink and paper, a faint smell that Sherlock labelled as “school” and yes, almost gone but still whispering its story to him, a hint of acidic sweetness that strafed across his palate.

Opening his eyes, he cocked his head, considering the bed as he got down on his hands and knees and explored the void beneath. Dust, feathers from the pillows – the cleaner had been cutting corners. Nothing made itself known to him, and he squinted at the narrow slats that supported the mattress before twisting in the confined space. At last, he was lying on his back like a mechanic inspecting a car's underbelly, and he smirked as he found what he was looking for.

Three planks were missing, the sockets where their ends fitted into the bed-frame creating perfect little niches. Not big enough to hide pornography, but large enough for cigarettes or more illicit substances.

'So is this how it's going to be? You listening in on me all the time?' John asked, and now he sounded petulant and disappointed from where he stood by Sherlock's exposed feet, even going so far as to give one shoe a light kick. 'I get that you don't trust people, but this is me. What do you think I'm going to do?'

Sherlock sighed in aggravation, trying to focus on two things at once. John was looking for reassurance, that much was plain to see, but couldn't he wait until Sherlock wasn't attempting to solve a murder?

'I was merely ensuring that any remaining fears I may have were unfounded, and that leaving Baker Street unnoticed would not be necessary. It's challenging to pack quickly at the best of times. With a landlady in residence and a flatmate, it would be almost impossible.' His voice took on a thoughtful edge as his fingertips roved a third empty hiding place in the bed's frame; he was too busy considering the murder to monitor his next words. 'I've already had to adjust several variables in my escape plan. Tiresome.'

He didn't notice John's abrupt silence, and a bolt of pure alarm shot through him as powerful fingers grabbed his calves and hauled him out from under the bed with minimal effort. His coat twisted behind his back, pillowing his head in a swathe of wool, but he was too busy staring at John to protest.

John, who had straddled his legs to drag him out and then dropped to one knee over Sherlock's hips as he shook his head fiercely. 'No,' he ordered, every inch a military man bar a faint waver in his voice. 'Is that what you're thinking? That you can just disappear one day? No!'

Sherlock's scowl was instantaneous, wrinkling his nose and pulling his lips back over his teeth. The part of him that was deeply impressed and somewhat intrigued by John's blatant show of strength was drowned out by hot fury and bitter disappointment at being spoken to in such a manner, by John of all people.

'I was unaware I was yours to command,' he sneered, pushing himself up on his elbows and well into John's personal space, almost nose-to-nose. He might be underneath the powerful wall of John's body and pinned between the staunch parenthesis of his thighs, but he was not about to lie back, submissive and demure, while yet another Alpha told him what he would and would not do.

The moment hung suspended around them, the air caustic with emotion. Sherlock flinched, his muscles tightening in expectation of attack as old memories of other, Johnless times stirred in his mind. He subconsciously steeled himself even as something curled up, hollow and bereft in his stomach, because of course it would come to this. Despite all his logical deductions of John's character, one fact remained irrefutable. John was an Alpha, and Sherlock should have known it was only a matter of time before he started acting like one.

'What?'

Sherlock blinked, thrown by the tone of John's voice. Not feral or furious, but horrified. He was shaking his head in a jagged burst, and Sherlock watched, confused, as he stopped seeing what he expected and began to notice the evidence written across the lines of John's face.

His eyebrows were tilted upwards, creased with worry and unhappiness. The colour had drained from his skin, leaving him diminished, and despite the way he was leaning over Sherlock, there was nothing threatening in the set of his shoulders. Instead they were hunched, tucked up towards his ears as his right hand shook where it rested on the floor, bracing his weight.

'I – I didn't mean it like that,' he whispered, issuing a long stream of profanity under his breath before shifting to scrub a hand over his face. Was he playing his words back in his head and acknowledging how they could be misconstrued? 'I didn't mean you couldn't go if you had to, I just –'

He swallowed, and Sherlock leaned back on his elbows, a recipient to the waves of distress coming from John. 'The thought of you being there one day and just gone the next. No chance to say goodbye. No way of knowing if you'd left of your own free will or been taken...' He clenched his jaw, wrinkling his nose and breathing out a heavy sigh. 'I'd hate it.'

Sherlock was experienced at manipulating others. He knew how to make his voice crack and shake, but there was nothing so deliberate in John's words. He was truly unsettled by the idea of Sherlock disappearing, as if the idea had never occurred to him. And why would it? The closest experience John had to such an uncertain existence was the war in Afghanistan, where life and death strode side-by-side. But then, if the worst happened, his demise would have robbed him of concern for the consequences.

For Sherlock, life went on. It had been easier in the past, to uproot himself and vanish – to become nothing but a half-remembered face to most. These days, it occurred to him that his departure would leave a hole, not just for John, but Mrs Hudson and Lestrade. There were people here who would remember him, who would question his absence.

Inconvenient for the most part, but from John it was oddly touching.

Sherlock took a deep breath, clearing his throat and giving John's knee an awkward pat where it was pressed to the floor by his hip. His fingers tingled with the urge to linger, to rub his apology into the hub of bone sheathed by denim and flesh, but he made himself drop his hand. 'Circumstances change,' he pointed out, sighing as he tried to explain. 'For better, as well as worse. It is less likely to be a necessity now that there are those who consider my wishes relevant.'

John narrowed his eyes, and Sherlock experienced a stab of relief to know that there was someone, at least, who was willing to try and work out his poor explanations of sentiment. 'You mean you won't have to a do a runner because you've got people on your side?'

'You, Lestrade, and I suppose Mycroft, though that wasn't always the case.' Sherlock glanced away, trying not to see all the knowledge that wrote itself across John's face. The pity that such action – leaving his life behind and moving on to build anew – had ever been necessary, as well as the sadness that Sherlock had expected anything less of him than absolute allegiance.

He would have to let that caution go if he didn't want to endlessly sabotage their friendship. In the same way John had put his questions and his curiosity aside, Sherlock would have to neutralise the nagging doubt that no-one truly had his best interests at heart but himself.

That was easier said than done; he'd spent his life questioning the motivation of the people he met. However, John had proved time and again there was nothing sinister behind his actions, and he continued to do so, even when uncertainty made Sherlock jump to conclusions: a course of action he could admit was reprehensible for a man of his intelligence and profession.

'I apologise,' he mumbled at last, the shape of the words unusual on his tongue. It wasn't that he didn't show remorse, it was just that he rarely saw the point. 'Not for the eavesdropping, which is part of my job, but for the belief it was necessary.'

John shook his head, the line of his shoulders easing. 'I'd probably have done the same thing. I didn't mean to – ' He gestured helplessly, indicating the past few minutes with a wave of his hand.

'Order me around?' Sherlock suggested.

'I was going to say panic, actually,' John confessed. He bowed his head, tipping it to one side and looking at Sherlock. Odd, how a man almost sitting on him could still make himself look so harmlessly endearing. Sherlock doubted anyone else of his acquaintance would be so capable. 'It wasn't so much that I won't let you go. More like “Please don't leave me behind”.'

John bowed his head as if embarrassed by the admission, but Sherlock was too busy considering his words to notice. The particular consequence John highlighted as a concern had not even crossed his mind. Fleeing into obscurity had been the logical course of action to him, an emergency exit always left fractionally ajar should he need to make use of it. Previously, he thought of it in terms of his own departure and spared no consideration for who he might discard in his wake.

Perhaps because, before, there was no-one to miss him or be missed by him in turn.

Mycroft was a thorn in his side he couldn't remove if he tried, and everyone else was a transient contact, someone to be used and discarded. All that had changed, and he'd failed to observe it until it was too late. Now a web of acquaintances held him in place. If he left – in a week, a month, a year or more – there were people who would look for him. Even if he asked them not to, he knew that John, at least, would be unable to stop himself. He would not be content to allow their friendship to fade to a memory. He would never be happy to let Sherlock face his troubles alone. The realisation was both restrictive and comforting.

Hesitantly, he reached for John again, wrapping long fingers around his wrist and offering a squeeze of reassurance. Social niceties dictated what should be said: a hollow oath that he'd never leave, but Sherlock could not bring himself to lie. John would rather have the truth, for all that it was worth, than a reassuring falsehood.

'It used to be easy,' Sherlock murmured, meeting John's eye and holding it as if he could emphasise his point through a visual interrogation alone. 'Needless to say, that is no longer the case. It would not be a simple matter for me to walk away from Baker Street.'

He stopped, watching John's slow but diligent extrapolation. He knew Sherlock was not merely speaking of four walls and a roof over his head. He was talking about home, and all the connotations of heart and hearth that came with it. Not a place filled with furniture, but the nexus of everything Sherlock considered important in his life: John and the Work.

A gleam of hope chased across John's gaze and Sherlock felt, like a slack violin string pulled taut, the change in the narrow strip of atmosphere between them. It was as if the air bloomed with the sumptuous scent he had associated with John for so long. It curled in his nose and fogged his head, parching his throat as a delicate shiver arced up his spine, summoned forth by the weight of John over him and the warmth of his touch.

Attraction was not alien to him. He'd experienced it once or twice since his estrangement, but never dared to act on it. There was too much to hide, things that could not be concealed from a lover. The same reasons had been forefront in his mind that night back at Angelo's at the beginning of their friendship, before John knew what he was. Sherlock had dismissed John's tentative questions, closing off the avenue of a sexual relationship with practice and a stab of regret.

Yet still desire persisted, flaring at the strangest of times. More than once Sherlock had considered throwing caution to the wind, but that was a foolish thing to do in the name of scratching an itch. This was not the choiceless ultimatum that his heats foisted upon him when he was unbound or in Alexander's presence. This was something that appeared to have as much to do with heart and mind as his reproductive biology, attuned specifically to the man who currently hovered above him, watching him with half-hypnotised wonder. John's pupils were dilated, his pulse a visible flutter in the hollow of his throat, and his tongue formed a pink dart as he licked his lips, never removing his gaze from Sherlock's face.

After days of John barely touching him, Sherlock felt overwhelmed. His palm was hot where it cupped Sherlock's shoulder, fingers curved around the muscles while their breaths mingled with velveteen whispers. This strange stalemate in which they found themselves, locked in close proximity and pressed into a seam at various points, provided a flood of sensation. Not unique in itself – this was hardly the first time they'd ended up in such a position – but now things were different. John knew his secret, and like this, clasped in a moment brimming with promise, it was difficult to remember what, precisely, remained to hold them back.

The bang of the door on its hinges shattered the moment, and John's body twitched with alarm even as Sherlock's heart crashed against his ribs in shock. It was a painful fracture, and the real world, where everything was far from simple, abruptly interceded.

'Am I interrupting something?' Lestrade sounded torn between amusement and embarrassment, and honestly, it was no surprise John lost at poker when he gave himself away so readily. His flush was bright scarlet, but at least he had the sense to glower in Lestrade's direction as he staggered to his feet.

'Argument,' he said succinctly. 'Just setting some things straight.'

Sherlock huffed a sigh, crushing his disappointment as he grimly returned to the job at hand. He would consider the matter of his relationship with John – whatever that may be – later. For now, there were more pressing matters to which he should attend.

Gripping the underside of the bed, he dragged himself back under to continue his search. 'Drugs,' he called out, hearing Lestrade's footsteps approach at a rapid pace before two voices, his and John's, spoke in unison.

'What?'

'That's your motive. Drugs. Whoever used to inhabit this room was a long-term user. There are faint grooves of wear in the wood where they removed and replaced their stash during the time they were here.' Sherlock sighed, patting the final hollow before wriggling out and climbing stiffly to his feet. Immediately, John stepped closer to his side, a bare hand-span away. It was mute support, and Sherlock glanced in his direction before he continued.

'Nothing's been left behind, but there may be some residue on the bed-frame itself. Have Anderson check, if he's capable. Amphetamines of some description are the most likely substance, speed being the drug of choice for a stressed student. The efficacy reduces over time and the expense of gaining the same high increases exponentially. A sizeable inheritance after Daddy's murder-suicide bid would fill the financial gap nicely.' He took another breath, reading the air and the evidence in the space of a heartbeat. 'You're looking for an Alpha daughter in her early twenties. One who fell in with a bad crowd a long time ago and loved her fix more than even the father she adored.'

Lestrade folded his arms, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at Sherlock's pockets before catching John's gaze. Something meaningful passed between them, and Sherlock spared a thought for his sock index, which would no doubt be in disarray thanks to John's rummaging by the end of the day.

'Don't waste your time.' He glared at them both. 'Find the daughter, and you've found your killer. She's clever, prone to forethought, and already had a buyer lined up for the books she took with her. There are enough funds there to tide her through until she gets her inheritance. Or at least that's what she thinks she'll get out of this. Perhaps a jail sentence will come as a surprise.'

'It'd shock me and all,' Lestrade replied, rocking back on his heels and pursing his lips as Sherlock frowned in puzzlement. 'Amelia Donnelly, Alpha daughter, twenty-three –'

'You found her already?' Sherlock blinked. 'She's not as clever as I thought.'

'– was found dead about three hours ago. She's in the morgue.'

Sherlock stopped, his body motionless as he absorbed the new information, the case abruptly acquiring more angles and shattering the light of his deductions into broken rainbows of possibility. 'Does the time of her demise provide her with the ultimate alibi?' he asked facetiously, watching Lestrade's face.

'You mean “I was dead at the time”? No. She bought it about two hours after her family were killed. Cause is unconfirmed. Molly Hooper's got her waiting for you.'

'Then why are we still here? Come on, John!' He strode out of the room, ignoring Lestrade's agreement to meet them at the morgue as he hurried down the stairs. The open front door was an arch of morning-light, and he stepped out onto the pavement, pulling on his gloves and parting his lips to hurry John along.

Before he could speak, the breeze changed direction, and Sherlock froze where he stood. He stared along the street, inhaling the scent that edged London's ozone. It smelt like brackish water overlaid with something rotten-sweet, and a slick of oily nausea turned his stomach and greased his throat.

It was a suggestion in the wind, but the sickly perfume brought the edifice of his thoughts crashing to the ground. The case fled his mind, forgotten as he examined his surroundings, but there was nothing to greet him in the doorways and shadows of the street. No dim figure with a leering smile.

A second later, the odour was gone.

'You all right?' John's voice made Sherlock turn, and he blinked at the taxi waiting for them at the kerb. John was holding the door open for him, his brow cinched in affectionate concern. It was such a normal sight, commonplace in their existence, and Sherlock drew in a shivering breath as he nodded.

Climbing into the vehicle, he slid all the way along the back seat and jammed himself into the far corner, glaring out of the window at the white, sunlit walls of the nearby buildings. It was tempting to tuck his knees up to his chest, but he resisted the urge, folding his arms around himself instead as he turned to look behind them.

'You sure?' John asked, his voice suggesting he didn't believe Sherlock for a minute. 'You look a bit –' He hesitated, searching for the right word as he followed Sherlock's line of sight, probably seeing nothing but the empty street receding into the distance as the taxi took them away. 'Spooked.'

Sherlock swallowed, licking his dry lips and speaking in a tense voice. 'I thought I –' He trailed off, shaking his head as he forced his shoulders to relax. It was a trick of the mind, that was all. The last couple of weeks had brought old memories to the surface, which in turn made fools of his senses. The smell had been a recollection from times past, not a product of the present. 'Never mind.'

This was his life now: cases and John, murder and the game. Alexander had no place in it.

Of that, Sherlock was certain.

'Never mind.'

Chapter Text

Amelia Donnelly lay on the mortuary slab, her skin as pallid as the sheet that covered her. She looked painfully young, and John shuffled his feet, trying to remind himself that this was the woman Sherlock thought had shot her family. It was difficult to picture her with a gun in her hands. She didn't look capable of that kind of violence, but appearances could be deceiving.

His gaze lifted from the corpse to the man looming over it, taking in everything she had to offer with a tilt of his head. Sherlock's expression was blank, showing nothing of the theories that raced through his skull. However, John still remembered the way he had looked, less than an hour ago, on the floor of the suspect's bedroom: all wide, stunning eyes and parted lips, his original anger softening into something that held John captivated.

He shouldn't have done that – grabbed Sherlock – not even to drag him out from under the bed, but he'd acted on instinct. Sherlock had mentioned, casual and offhand, about his ever-ready plan to leave, and all John's thoughts collapsed into selfishness and panic.

Even now, his fingers itched with the urge to grab Sherlock's shoulders again, to pin him in place and yell “Don't you dare leave me behind!” but he squashed it down, trying to still the tremulous uncertainty that bubbled in his gut. Sherlock had reassured him it was unlikely, his deep voice hypnotic as he explained that John's presence changed the equation of that decision. Perhaps he hadn't been explicit, but John had grown used to refining Sherlock's words, and he'd heard the message hidden between the vague allusions.

He was more to Sherlock than a convenient flatmate. They were best friends, connected by mutual feeling, and that was not something Sherlock could easily put aside. From a man unconcerned with sentiment, his words were practically a declaration, one which left John standing on the shifting frontier of their relationship and wondering what changes tomorrow would bring.

'Pass me some tweezers?'

Sherlock's request jerked him from his thoughts, and he reached out to comply, almost dropping them when Sherlock's fingers brushed against his own. A wave of heat shimmered down his arm, making nests in every joint and flaring through his chest. The guilt that followed was an unwelcome addition, and he glanced away with a mumbled apology, sensing Sherlock cast a glare in his direction.

'And for God's sake, stop apologising,' he snapped. 'If it bothered me, I wouldn't hesitate to tell you so.'

'Sorry,' John said, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. 'I just...' He stumbled to a halt, not sure how to explain, or even if Sherlock was listening to him. He seemed engrossed in whatever he was doing, and John gave up with a sigh. He didn't really want to expose the truth to Sherlock's derision anyway. He was unlikely to be charmed by John's fumbling efforts at respect.

Before, it hadn't been an issue. He'd thought the vivid moments of connection they experienced went both ways. Now, John wasn't so sure. Sherlock might not have told him much, but he got the impression that he had spent years in a world where his wants and desires had been irrelevant, and people ignored his opinion. John didn't want to be the same. He didn't want to touch Sherlock like he had every right when, in fact, the opposite was true. Despite Sherlock's assurances to the contrary, John wasn't convinced he would tell him to back off. So he exercised restraint, missing every idle bit of contact so intensely that it became a physical ache.

John was half-starved for the warmth of Sherlock's tentative, friendly affection. Every brush of their skin was laden with meaning: more intimate than ever before. Really, it was no surprise that their argument in the suspect's room had changed into something else, treading the fine line between anger and passion. It was one thing for it to happen when they were both on their feet, drunk on the rush of a case, but this time there had been no such excuse. All his good intentions vanished like mist, and now he couldn't get the image of Sherlock beneath him out of his head, eyes sultry and his head tilted, exposing his neck in tempting surrender.

What would have happened if Greg hadn't chosen that second to barge through the door? Would he have kissed Sherlock? Would the gesture have been returned? John could almost taste it, the soft press of that mouth and the swipe of Sherlock’s tongue, and he drew in a sharp breath as he licked his lips, pressing them together as if he could chase the fantasy.

A couple of weeks ago the only thing standing in the way had been John's own uncertainties. That and the faint, regretful edges of Sherlock's reluctance, which made sense now he knew the truth. If they'd been lovers, Sherlock could never have hidden what he was. Now, that impediment was gone. Theoretically, John was already aware what he'd find under the sleek lines and layers of fine cloth that covered Sherlock's frame, but there were other obstacles to consider.

Sherlock's Alpha was only the beginning. Wherever he was and whatever he thought of his erstwhile Omega, the man was still a factor in all of this. The elite would have rules about what to do with others who tried to encroach on their bond. Perhaps justifiable murder was an urban legend, but there would be other punishments waiting for him. Technically, John was already on the wrong side of the law for “sheltering” Sherlock, or whatever. If he took Sherlock to bed, matters could only get worse.

His personal safety wasn't his main concern. He could take whatever was dealt his way and accept it as a worthy price for the honour of knowing Sherlock, platonically or otherwise. However, he wasn't the only one involved. In a way, Sherlock was in a more questionable position. John would be charged with a crime, one requiring evidence and prosecution. There'd be no such procedure for Sherlock. If Alexander had suspicions, he would act on them, and John loathed to imagine what Sherlock might face if he ever tracked him down.

“He came after me once, about eight years ago. The results were – unpleasant.”

Leaning back against the lab bench, John stared at nothing, the unreliable memory of Sherlock's words echoing in his ears. It was just a hint, worrying in its obscurity, like a black veil hiding the face of something gruesome, and it made his blood run cold. No, just sharing a flat with Sherlock was dangerous enough. If they were more to each other – and John's heart cramped with brief, helpless longing for what could never be – there was no telling what his Alpha might mete out as revenge. John couldn't bring himself to leave Sherlock's side, to turn his back on his friend in the name of Sherlock's safety, but nor would he make matters worse.

The possibility of a deeper relationship may lie between them, profound and delicate, but it was not something John dared nurture, not if it was Sherlock who would bear the consequences.

The squeak of the doors' rubber seals against the linoleum floor shattered his distraction, making him look up and blink the haze from his eyes. Lestrade ambled in, a paper cup of coffee with its lid in place clutched in his hand as he chatted to Molly. Their happy gossip faded away as they approached, tired, smiling faces falling into weary lines as they took in the young woman on the table.

'He got something for me yet?' Greg asked, glancing over at John.

'He's not said anything, and I haven't had a chance to look at the body.'

'You may as well rectify that,' Sherlock cut in, stepping back and gesturing to the corpse. 'She bathed after killing her family, but there's still gunshot residue embedded in her cuticles. I can't find any signs of a struggle nor trauma that could result in her death. There are no track marks on her arms, and there's no erosion of the nasal cavity. Investigate her stomach contents; you'll probably find evidence of long-term oral administration. Meth, I suspect. She wasn't after the rush; she wanted a lasting high.'

John put on a pair of latex gloves as he approached, running through a depressingly familiar check-list in his head. Murder left its marks, both glaring and inconsequential. The girl hadn't been stabbed or shot. Her flesh remained unbreached by any wounds, so he progressed, searching for petechial haemorrhaging, a broken hyoid or other signs of oxygen deprivation. There were no bruises to indicate force, and no discolouration stained her skin. To all intents and purposes, she appeared to have fallen asleep and never woken up.

'She was found back at her flat, just lying on the bed,' Greg explained. 'No drugs paraphernalia, no sign of thrashing around or a struggle, no indication of an intruder. However, there was a bag full of family photos from the Donnelly's home. She was in every single one.'

'Which was why she removed them in the first place,' Sherlock murmured. 'She thought the police wouldn't draw a strong connection between herself and her victims. Perhaps she planned to claim estrangement.' He handed Molly something in a Petri dish, and she squinted down at it in confusion.

'What's this?'

'Leaf fragments. They were caught deep in her hair,' he explained. 'If they were borne by the wind, they would be somewhere more superficial. At her temple or crown, perhaps. It could be irrelevant, but at this stage it's impossible to tell. I'll try and establish a visual identification in a minute. If you find any other particulates during autopsy –'

'I'll let you know,' Molly promised, a shy flush heating her cheeks.

'There's nothing noticeable on the body that could be cause of death,' John said, smiling faintly in her direction before shrugging his shoulders. 'If I had to guess, I'd say she was poisoned, but it's discreet. Tainted drugs, maybe?'

Sherlock hummed in agreement, and John scolded himself for the comfort the sound spread through his bones.

'An overdose would produce evidence of a seizure, vomit in her throat, that sort of thing.' Sherlock picked up her left arm, exposing the unmarked plane of her skin and the crook of her elbow. 'This girl's been using for years: she had a trusted dealer and she knew her ideal dose. Something else killed her. Something we can't see.'

'Brilliant,' Greg muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. 'So we're pretty sure she did in the Donnellys for the money, both from the books and the inheritance – or so she hoped?'

'Mmmm, it seems she didn't fear the police's crime-solving abilities. She was relatively clever, but hardly ingenious in her execution of the murders.' Sherlock stepped away and shrugged out of his coat, unlooping the scarf from around his neck in a fluid motion before giving the back of his collar a quick tug. John had never given the nervous gesture much thought, putting it down to habit. Now he realised it was Sherlock's way of ensuring his bite stayed hidden from view.

'Tie her to the murder weapon; it's the most reliable way to close the case. DNA evidence will be present, but questionable considering she was a long-term inhabitant of the premises.' He took the particulates back from Molly's grasp, already engrossed in his examination as he headed for the lab, leaving her to queue the woman's body for an imminent autopsy.

'I should have more for you in a few hours,' she promised, looking from Greg to John and back again. 'We're a bit backed up down here, but she's high priority so it shouldn't be too long.'

They both gave their thanks as John stripped off his gloves and pitched them into a nearby bin. He let the lid smack shut with a satisfying clang before he washed his hands and followed Greg out.

Instinctively, he walked fast, too aware of Sherlock's habit of dashing off without him to be comfortable taking it slow. However, before he could go more than a few paces, the DI's hand caught his elbow, and he turned to see Greg watching him, his dark gaze serious. The fingers around his coffee cup were clenched tight, his knuckles prominent as he let John go and reached into the inside pocket of his jacket.

'Look, don't take this the wrong way or anything, but I thought you might find this useful.' He held out a handful of folded photocopies, a tremor visible in his hand.

Haltingly, John took it, flipping open the pages and reading the title. It looked like the chapter of a book, one written in dense legalise. 'What's this? “Omega Ownership Acts”.' He frowned, noticing the string of dates that went back centuries before glaring at Greg. 'Ownership?' he repeated, raising his eyebrows as he waited for an explanation.

The DI pressed his fingers to his temple, his smile apologetic as he squared his shoulders. 'What I walked in on at the crime-scene today –'

'An argument,' John protested, taking a step forward and waving a hand in the direction of the labs. 'You know what Sherlock's like!'

'Yeah, I do, but I can also see what's right in front of me.' Greg held up a pacifying hand, shaking his head. 'I don't care. I don't care what's going on between you. Maybe you've not been shagging each other since the start, but there's always been something there. Don't try and tell me I'm making that up. I'm just –' His shoulders slumped. 'I'm just trying to make sure you know as much as possible. God knows Sherlock's probably not told you shit, but at least I can give you this. It's an overview of the laws regarding Omegas, bound or not, as well as some of the court cases and their outcomes. Not that there have been many of those.'

The paper creased in his clenched hand as he glanced down at the tiny print. 'What, most Omegas do what they're told, is that it?'

'Don't be daft.' Greg took the lid off his coffee, rewarding himself with a healthy gulp before staring down into the dark liquid. 'Pretty much any case involving an Omega is all about the highest circles of society. Most never see a public court. It's handled in settlements or mutual agreement, or pistols at bloody dawn for all I know. We can't investigate crimes that are never reported, and they never seem to tell anyone a damn thing. Sherlock's proof enough of that.'

Frustration echoed in Greg's voice, and John bowed his head. 'So, you've given me this to show me what I might be up against?'

'It seemed like the sensible thing to do. If this all came out, you and me could be in deep shit, and being Alphas makes it worse. The assumption would be... Well, I'm guessing I don't have to draw you a picture? It doesn't matter if you've never touched him, they'll try and prove you guilty of everything they can think of.' He tapped the pages again. 'There aren't many cases where an Alpha of the non-elite's been brought to trial for this kind of thing, but there are a couple. Read them. That way, whatever you do, you know the risks.'

'We're not lovers,' John muttered, feeling it necessary to repeat that fact.

Greg nodded, then shrugged his shoulders. 'I'm not actually trying to warn you off. The elite are a law unto themselves most of the time, and they're corrupt as hell. That and, as far as any court's concerned, what Sherlock has to say is irrelevant. Even if it weren't for the whole bond situation, Omegas can't testify. There's a reason Sherlock's never called as a witness.'

'And never gets the credit,' John added, still stung by the inherent injustice. 'If he was discovered, then every case he helped you with –'

'All the evidence we got from his advice would be inadmissible.' Greg nodded as John swore, scratching at his ear. 'Mycroft may have implied that he'd deal with that should the situation ever arise, which is a pretty terrifying thought, and it's not like we wouldn't be in a mess for letting him onto scenes anyway. He's not an official consultant...' He trailed off, shaking his head like he didn't want to consider how much trouble they'd be in if push came to shove. 'Take a look at that.' He gestured to the rumpled paper in John's grip. 'It might fill in a few gaps for you.'

John took a deep breath, folding the pages and slipping them in his pocket. 'Thanks.' He watched a burst of relief cross Greg's face. 'I appreciate it.'

'Yeah, well. Every little helps, right?' He cleared his throat, looking around for a bin for his empty cup. 'Before I met Sherlock, I wouldn't have cared about Omegas, not really. Now, I probably only know a fraction of the crap they have to put up with. There's nothing I can do to help them, I haven't got that kind of power and I don't think there's anyone on their side who has. Sherlock, on the other hand... I'll do what I can for him, and you, even if it's just getting hold of photocopies and keeping my mouth shut.'

He clapped John on the shoulder as he passed, heading for the door that would lead him out of Bart's labyrinthine depths. 'Take care, John. I'll see you soon.'

'You too.' John watched him go, his fingers trailing over the bulge in his pocket. It felt clandestine, somehow, like secret knowledge: a glimpse into the life Sherlock had once lived. He'd read it later, back at the flat and in the privacy of his room, away from Sherlock's inquisitive gaze and scathing commentary. At least that way he didn't have to worry about modulating his reaction to whatever details were contained in the text.

He turned towards the labs, heading for the doors that led to the right corridor. However, before he got to them, he saw Mike Stamford approaching from the other side, his big face cheerful and his glasses flashing in the harsh fluorescent light.

'Don't tell me he's left already?' John asked as Mike pushed open the door, greeting him as gladly as ever.

'No, he's still there. Eyes glued to a microscope like always. He sent me after you, actually. Something about letting you get a whiff of telikostrone? He told me you'd never been exposed.' Mike's face glowed with fond recollection. 'I explained we were all given the chance in our third year, but then I remembered you were going out with someone back then. Lisa, wasn't it? She was terrible for convincing you class wasn't worth your time!'

John blinked, laughing in disbelief. That was true. She'd been very persuasive that day, plump lips around him, her cheeks hollow and her tongue dancing along his length as the hours slipped away. It was only later he'd found out that the professor had exposed his classmates, in a carefully monitored environment, to the basic chemical that made the scent of an Omega's heat so compelling.

'I never told him that,' he replied, shaking his head.

'Yeah, well. You know Sherlock; he can figure it out just by looking at your right eyebrow.' Mike beckoned him towards a sealed room. 'I thought the army would have shown you what it was like though, in case you came across it on duty?'

'They gave us inhibitors,' John explained. 'Why bother teaching us what to look out for when they can just remove the issue all together? A soldier doesn't need an acute sense of smell, so the side effects weren't a problem, and it protected us from any insurgent Omegas we might come across.'

Mike hummed in understanding, donning a white coat and gesturing to one of the rooms. 'Well, we've got to follow procedure. It takes ages to get through even a small class, and then you're left with a lot of shuffling, embarrassed Alphas and the Betas enjoying a good laugh at their expense.'

'It doesn't affect you?' John asked, trying to sound nonchalant. 'Not at all?'

'It smells like oranges to me, but that's it.' Mike shrugged before he continued, 'The room's completely sealed. Stand on the mark in the middle of the floor; don't approach the fume cupboard area. I'll leave the sample open for three seconds. It's enough to give you a realistic dose of what you would feel like if you passed an Omega in heat. You'll need to stay in there until the air's been purified with a neutraliser and ventilated, which takes about five minutes.'

'Hey, wait.' John managed a weak grin and thought, not for the first time, how lucky he was to have Mike for a friend, because the look he was getting was one of faint amusement and honest understanding. 'What exactly should I expect?'

Mike chortled. 'Nothing too mortifying. A quick blast like this will stimulate arousal, naturally, but the whole point of the exercise is to let students know the first signs, on the very slim chance they come across an Omega in the course of their career. It allows Alpha doctors to protect themselves and their patients.' He frowned, a picture of earnest concern. 'You don't have to do this, you know. Sherlock made it sound like your idea, but...'

'No, it's – it's fine. He's right. I wouldn't know what was happening to me until it was too late, probably.' John might not have been prepared for this, but he suspected Sherlock's motives were more complex than simply improving John's awareness, and he knew better than to try and second-guess him. 'So I just go in here?'

Mike waved his hand towards the door in invitation, moving into the adjoining room as John took his place on the black X taped on the floor. The chamber was entirely bare, clinical and brightly lit. Only the ventilation fans in the ceiling provided any contrast, and John looked up at them as the sound of the lock clicking closed echoed through the air.

'Ready?' Mike asked, his voice made tinny by the speakers, and John nodded as he watched a tiny vial being placed into a glass box on the wall. Mike handled it through gloves set in the side of the Perspex, as if he was dealing with something as volatile as plutonium. Privately, John suspected all this was just being overly-cautious – health and safety gone mad – and he folded his arms, rocking back on his heels as Mike removed the lid.

It was already replaced by the time the chemical diffused to John. One minute, he was wondering what all the fuss was about. The next...

A wave crashed over his head, swamping every sense as his knees tried to buckle. The air turned smoky in his mouth as his vision tunnelled, and his pupils dilated so fast that his eyes seemed to buzz. He was painfully aware of his body becoming hot and swollen with awareness. His hair prickled across his scalp and down his arms, shivering erect as electricity bolted down his spine and ignited in the pit of his stomach.

'Jesus Christ,' he whispered, his voice little more than a husk as his body responded. His senses narrowed down to the synthetic signature in the air, and he could feel his gaze moving, searching the empty room instinctively as his ears strained to pick up any sign that he wasn't alone. Every inch of skin was hypersensitive to the chafe of his clothes, and he grimly tugged his jacket closed around him, thrusting his hands in his pockets to hide the uncomfortable constriction of his jeans between his legs.

Never, in his entire life, had he experienced something to which his body was so viscerally attuned, like an empty vessel that had been waiting for this moment to find its fill. His hairline itched with a fine sheen of sweat, and his leg muscles thrummed as if he'd suffered a massive adrenaline rush. He longed to pace and prowl, but he managed to hold firm to Mike's instructions, staying on the mark on the floor. The amount of concentration required was huge, and he closed his eyes, scowling hard as he tried to force his body back under his control.

It took him a while to notice the hum of the ventilation fans and the hiss of the neutraliser. Already, the telikostrone was fading from the air, and John shivered as a new jolt of desperation shot through him. He wanted to chase down the elusive phantoms of hormone, to pin it down and hold it close. It was a glimpse of the Alpha mating drive, terrifying in its ferocity. He'd only been exposed for a few seconds. What would it be like if he was actually sharing this space with an Omega? Would he have the mental capacity to hold on to rational thought, or would all that vanish beneath the strength of a biological imperative?

As it was, his body was still taut with arousal, shivery and grudging at the deprivation. It wasn't just a case of an awkward erection. His entire frame reacted as if he'd been primed for sex. His spine was tense, his balls felt heavy and there was a faint constriction around the base of his hard cock that he'd not experienced since puberty. Not a full knot, but the start of one.

'Bloody hell.' John thought he heard Mike chuckle from the other room, and he allowed a wry grin to cross his lips as he thought of diagnosing patients and savaged corpses: anything to try and get his desperate desire on a leash. The problem was that it wasn't some mental fantasy that had kicked him off, but a substance in the air. This wasn't a situation of imagination and reaction, but chemical cause and effect.

'Take deep breaths through your nose,' Mike advised through the speaker, gently reminding John of medical facts he had learned years ago. 'Telikostrone binds to receptors in the sinuses and throat. The neutraliser will denature it, but you need to really suck it down.'

Obediently, John did as he was told, embarrassed that all his training had gone out of the window. This was basic stuff, but it was difficult to remember anything logical through the fog of want that curled through him, making him jittery and feral.

His diaphragm swelled with each gulp of air, and after several minutes he felt more like himself. His hands shook in his pockets, his knees were weak and elastic, and a grinding pain dwelt in his temples, but at least he wasn't at risk of passing out from lack of blood to his brain. His flagging erection was uncomfortably sensitive, but he could probably walk without limping. More to the point, he could think in more than needy, monosyllabic concepts of wet, tight, heat, want.

'Will you be all right to come out of there now?' Mike asked, the amusement in his voice fond, rather than mocking. 'I can give you a bit longer if you need it.'

'No, I'm –' John cleared his throat, trying not to croak as he continued, '– I'm fine. I'd quite like to get out of here, actually.' He stumbled across the room, embarrassingly uncoordinated. It was like he was drunk and hungover all at once, and he almost fell out of the door as Mike opened it. If it wasn't for his friend's hand on his elbow, he might have sprawled flat on his face, and he could only mumble his thanks as he was guided to a chair against the corridor wall.

'Steady breaths,' Mike advised. 'You've probably hyper-ventilated. Not unusual. It always takes Alphas a bit funny. Makes me wonder what I’m missing.'

John pressed his hands to his eyes before dragging them down his cheeks. 'Consider yourself lucky. That was –' He paused, trying to find an appropriate word. 'Kind of shocking, actually.'

'What did it smell like?' Mike leaned back against the wall, his arms folded and his expressive face intrigued as he watched John hesitate.

'Nothing.' He frowned at the response, but it was true. Although the hormone had heightened all his senses, there hadn't been a detectable fragrance or taste to it. It was completely odourless, and yet there was no denying what it had done to him. 'Nothing at all.'

Mike smiled at his apparent bafflement, clapping a hand on his shoulder. 'That's normal. It tends to piss off a lot of Alphas, actually. To you lot, the pheromone on its own is undetectable until you start reacting, you know, physically.' He chuckled, probably because John's face felt like it was on fire. 'Of course, naturally, it's not released by itself. There are other substances that act more noticeably on the other senses, but they vary from one Omega to another. You'd smell an Omega in heat thanks to that combination, but telikostrone's the only one that's consistent, and it's the one that triggers rut.'

John grimaced, wishing the terminology didn't make it all sound so animal. Still, there wasn't a different word he could think of that encapsulated what he'd gone through. Sex had been all his body cared about and all his mind could comprehend.

A shudder worked its way down his frame. If an Omega had been in the room, would he have stopped if they'd asked him to? Would they have been able to deny him, even if they wanted to? The issue of Omegas and consent wasn't explicitly stated, at least not among the normal working classes. They never crossed paths, so it wasn't a concern, and somehow he doubted the elite considered it important. They probably thought that if an Omega's body said yes, then what did it matter what protests they actually voiced out loud?

Nausea clamped in John's stomach, and he swallowed it back, letting his hands dangle between his spread knees as he let out a sigh. He thought of himself as a considerate lover. He didn't treat his bed-mates like toys, the way some people did. He respected them, but if the pheromone released by an Omega could make him lose sight of that, then what would it do to someone who felt entitled?

'John, are you all right?' Mike hovered at his shoulder, his concern plain to see. 'You don't look too good.'

'What? No, I'm fine.' He managed an unconvincing grin, easing his way to his feet. Sitting down had done the trick, and the strange mix of thrills and aches had subsided to a background thrum of malaise. 'It just threw me a bit, that's all. I'd better get back to the lab, or Sherlock really will be gone without me. Thanks for – for that.'

'Not a problem. If there’s anything else I can do...' He left the offer trailing, and for a minute John wondered if he knew what Sherlock was hiding. However, there was no sign of guile on his face. It was just Mike being his usual, affable self, and he nodded his thanks as he said goodbye and headed towards the lab at a march, his knees rigid to hide the steady ebb of shivers that prickled over him.

He shoved open the door, his lips parted to demand an explanation, but the words didn't make it. Sherlock was sitting in front of the microscope, but at John's entrance his head snapped up like an animal catching a scent. His slender nostrils flared as his eyebrows curved upwards, and his indrawn breath hissed loudly in the peace of the laboratory. He looked at John as if he'd never seen him before, all opaque uncertainty and unusual innocence, and a dart of awareness rippled through John's body

'You all right?' he asked, glancing around to see if he could find anything that might have caused Sherlock to react in such a way. A glance over his shoulder showed him the doorway was empty. There was no one there, nothing that could make Sherlock look so stunned, but it reminded him of how twitchy he'd been when he left the Donnelly's: on-edge and tense.

Sherlock made a strange, choked noise, and John frowned, watching a tint of pink warm those pale cheeks before he seemed to shake himself awake. His breath left him in an irritated rush as he hastily redirected his gaze down the barrel of the microscope before glancing at the computer screen to his right. 'I'm fine. I see Stamford did as I suggested.'

John risked a glance downwards, checking there was no noticeable evidence of his earlier arousal. 'Yeah,' he acknowledged, wandering over to the lab bench. 'Thanks for that, by the way. Maybe a little warning next time?'

Sherlock's brow creased. 'Why? What good would that do?'

'It'd make me feel better.' He came to a halt at Sherlock's side, noticing the way he fidgeted in his chair. Was it his imagination, or was Sherlock breathing a bit faster than usual? 'Are you going to explain to me why I just spent a fairly humiliating few minutes inhaling telikostrone? Was it another experiment?'

Sherlock shot him a sideways glance, wetting his lips and clearing his throat before he turned to face John. His luminous gaze skimmed down to his shoes and back up again as if trying to decide whether or not an honest answer would be appreciated.

Finally, he spoke. 'You're not convinced that the biochemistry of my scent, faint as it is, leaves you unaffected. It's been preying on your mind, making you question your behaviour from the day we met to this very moment. Your attempts to find support for my statement in medical texts, several of which you've left lying around the flat, have failed.'

John blinked, swallowing tightly at the clinical explanation. 'So, what? You decided that, if I knew what it did to me, I'd stop doubting what you said?'

'Obviously.' Sherlock's shoulders shifted in a shrug. 'If you'd been exposed to telikostrone during your training, you would never have harboured any uncertainty in the first place. Was I wrong?'

John frowned, clenching his hand into a fist at his side before releasing it again. In the privacy of his head, he had wondered if all this – their vast compatibility and intense friendship – had been due to some subconscious response to Sherlock's true gender. He might not be putting out enough of anything to bring on a typical Alpha reaction, but John couldn't help remembering the way he'd fallen, gladly, into Sherlock's crazy way of life. Before, he'd thought it was just because Sherlock was unique, amazing, beyond-belief, but lately, he'd started to wonder if there was more to it: a chemical influence.

This was Sherlock's way of putting John's uncertainties to rest.

'No.' He sighed, folding his arms. 'I suppose if you were producing telikostrone, even a little, it's not something I'd miss.'

'Definitely not,' Sherlock muttered. 'The effects are not exactly subtle. There are other things Omegas produce that promote care-taking and protective instincts in Alphas, but they shouldn't have any undue impact.'

'So they wouldn't encourage me to, I dunno, shoot a cabbie to save you from yourself?' John asked, unable to keep the pointed edge from his tone. 'That's hardly normal behaviour.'

'For the average individual, no. For you?' Sherlock lifted his chin, defiance and approval warring in his features. 'Your actions are entirely the result of your own character, John. Lestrade didn't show any signs of unnecessary vigilance with regards my safety before he was aware of what I was. It was only when informed of my status that he became smothering.' He shrugged. 'You have a need for danger, which I could provide. You required a flat and I had one handy. You were deep in apathetic depression, and I made you see beyond it. Your loyalty has its root in genuine emotion, not a transitory chemical fog. Needless to say, the same applies to me. I do not appreciate your company simply because you are an Alpha. In fact, many would argue that's a point against you.'

John let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding, looking up at the ceiling before glancing at Sherlock. 'You could have just told me,' he muttered.

'First-hand experience was the most efficient way of providing you with the concrete evidence you required.' He shifted the slide out from under the microscope, putting it to one side before glaring at the computer, which was attempting to match the particles from Amelia Donnelly's hair with one from the database. 'I take it that it was illuminating?'

John swallowed, giving a curt nod. 'You could say that.' The memory of his fraying physical restraint and the dulling of his conscious mind was not one that would fade in a hurry. In a restricted environment, it was an education, but the “what if's” plagued him. What if Sherlock had started producing it again, thanks to some kind of glandular illness or glitch of biology? What if John had come home one day to find his flatmate trapped in the ravages of heat? It wasn't beyond the realms of possibility, and the thought of them both – one struggling to ask for consent and the other possibly unable to give it in any meaningful way – raked fear's fingers across his skin.

'How could you be such an idiot?' The question slipped out before he could stop it, and Sherlock's head whipped around, a protest already perched on his lips as his spine snapped straight. Before he could speak, John hurried on, slicing a hand through the air. 'Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about, Sherlock. How could you think sharing a flat with an Alpha was a good idea? What if you'd ended up in heat somehow?'

Sherlock clenched his teeth, his annoyance plain in the angles of his knuckles as he gripped the edge of the lab bench. 'Would you believe it didn't cross my mind?'

'No.' A mirthless laugh bubbled between John's lips. 'No, I wouldn't. You think of everything, Sherlock. I was exposed for less than a minute, and I could barely remember why anything mattered except getting off!'

Sherlock frowned, regarding John carefully. 'It scared you.' A glimmer of apology was written in the line of his mouth. 'Didn't Stamford warn you what to expect?'

'Not enough to prepare me for that!' John cuffed his hands through his hair, gritting his teeth and pushing through to the core of his concern. 'Jesus, Sherlock. I knew it was potent, but I never believed it was anything like that. If you'd gone into heat there's no telling what I could have done to you.'

With a sigh, Sherlock got to his feet, shaking his head as he grabbed a pipette and started doing something with solutions. 'Don't be ridiculous. Even if I went into full-blown, overt oestrus, you would not be driven to react in the way you imagine. Yes, it might be arousing, but it would not elicit the same irresistible urge. Your rational mind would remain intact.'

John made a cracked sound of disbelief. 'I seriously doubt that.'

Sherlock pulled a face, as if further explanation was beneath him. However, after a few seconds of careful silence, he began to speak. 'I keep telling you, I experience heats. Obscure, admittedly, but they're still present. I'm still going through the same cycle. I still experience arousal and attraction for individuals outside my bond, but it's not the same. The reaction you fear, the one where I'm supposedly gagging for it and making you feel the same way is technically called pyresus.'

John shook his head. 'Does it matter what it's called?'

'Yes.' He scowled. 'At least in regards to my experiences. An Omega's separation from their Alpha makes all the difference. You're aware of bond biochemistry? Substances in the Alpha's saliva attach to cellular receptors in the flesh at the nape of an Omega's neck.'

'Yeah.' John frowned, struggling to remember the details he'd learnt at medical school. 'They enter the bloodstream and act to restructure various glands and receptors in the Omega.'

'Exactly.' Sherlock dripped some liquid onto whatever was on the slide, watching it with narrowed eyes before looking up. 'It subtly alters the structure of the scent molecules I produce, making them specific to Alexander. Biologically, we are each other's lock and key. His pheromones act on me, elevating the heats I experience into pyresus. In turn, once that's accomplished, I release high levels of modulated telikostrone which binds perfectly to his receptors and no one else's, leading to his sexual response. '

John blinked, taking in the wash of information. It was nothing new, not really. Hormones and receptors all relied on relative compatibility to regulate their efficiency. He just hadn't realised the same thing occurred in a bond. 'So, right now, only Alexander can bring about a proper full-on heat in you, and only your pheromones can cause his – rut – or whatever.'

'Any Omega bound to him, or one as yet unclaimed would excite the aggressive, sexual response with which you're familiar. One bitten by someone else would smell as I do to you. Interesting in their own right, perhaps, but not irresistible.' Sherlock sighed, fiddling with tools on the surface in front of him. 'It's a biochemical method of effectively excluding those Alphas too weak to claim an Omega from the gene pool.' If it weren't for the grimace twisting his face, John could almost believe he was as indifferent as he sounded. 'Unfortunately, what was a biological pressure in prehistory translated into something different on the birth of civilisation. It wasn't about strength or genetics any more. It was about money.'

He shook his head like a dog casting off water, visibly flinging thoughts aside as he squared his shoulders. 'Besides, even if by some unexpected circumstances you were driven to try and mate with me, I am not defenceless. There are ways of neutralising an Alpha in rut if necessary.'

Something tightened his lips, and those eyes flickered down and away, not meeting John's gaze. There was no false bravado in Sherlock's face, just a grim certainty that indicated he spoke from experience.

John froze where he stood, every muscle locked tight as words failed him. The only way Sherlock could be more explicit was if he admitted that there were times when he had been the victim of unwanted attentions. It was nothing John had not suspected, but still, he'd longed to be wrong. He'd hoped there'd been something like respect in Sherlock's bond, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

'Alexander?' He held his breath, half-expecting Sherlock to ignore his question. As it was, he already looked like he was regretting the admission, and he wrinkled his nose in a display of dismissive irritation.

'It's irrelevant. One of the most common myths is that, for an Omega experiencing their heat, any knot will do. It's a falsehood that's been perpetuated for centuries. Sexual need does not equate to sexual attraction for a specific individual, although most Omegas are educated to think otherwise. To be grateful.'

Sherlock could have spat that final word. God knows John would have done. Instead, he sounded resigned, as if the whole issue exhausted him. John wanted to say something, to offer some comfort, but there was nothing he could do. He only had the faintest of hints about what Sherlock had experienced at his Alpha's hand, and even if he knew it all, he realised his pity would be ignored at best and derided at worst.

'Bastard,' he said at last, unashamed of the way the word growled in his throat. 'Him, not you.'

Sherlock hummed in agreement, casting John a look of dark amusement. 'Many would argue it was not his fault. The scent of my pyresus removed any choice he may have had in the matter.'

John straightened, clenching his teeth as he recalled the precise sensations that had flooded him back in the sealed chamber. Yes, it had been enticing and hypnotic – terrifying as well – but he didn't like to think he could be so removed from all the higher concepts that made him human. 'Did he even try?' He chewed on his lip. 'Did he even ask if it was all right, or did he just take?'

The answer lay in Sherlock's expression, a flat, apathetic mask that hid black secrets, all underscored by the rise and fall of one shoulder: flawed indifference. 'Alexander's behaviour aside, today's exercise proved a point. There's no biological reason for your initial fascination with me or the friendship we've built. You're not being influenced by anything other than my stunning personality.'

John snorted a nervous laugh, unable to help himself as a frail smile curved Sherlock's lips. It was a weak joke, but they'd both take it. Sherlock's past was a grim place, one he clearly was not keen to revisit, and John struggled to put his own feelings – impotent anger and aimless, coiling dread – aside. In the end, none of this was about him. It was about Sherlock, and helping him live the life he wanted.

An obliging beep from the computer made them both turn, and something sparked in John's stomach at Sherlock's breathy 'Oh!' of surprise.

'You found out what it is?' he asked, squinting at the Latin name that meant nothing to him.

'Aristolochia rotunda. Interesting. Why is that interesting?' He frowned at the screen, his eyes carrying its reflection as his lips moved around deductions. 'Not something you'd find in a British hedgerow. It would need a greenhouse to flourish in this country, though it's not hard to cultivate once you've got the temperature right. The question is, why would Amelia Donnelly have traces of it in her hair? If she was an Alpha of the elite it might be understandable, but her family weren't that well-off, and she certainly didn't have the money to buy her way into the top of society.'

'Okay,' John drawled. 'How's that relevant?'

'It would provide a straightforward explanation as to why she's been in close contact with the plant. Not because of the greenhouse requirement, anyone with an allotment can build one of those, but because of what Aristolochia is often used for.'

'Care to explain to those of us who aren't into plants?'

Sherlock rolled his eyes. 'Poison, John. Its other name is birthwort. In medieval times it was used as a labour aid, though its efficacy is questionable. However, any Omega with half a brain and a fraction of independent thought will grow it if they can, along with flora of similar properties. It's an effective abortive agent.'

John drew in a quiet breath, his mind racing. Sherlock had been with his Alpha on and off for seventeen years, and the conception rate in fully fertile Alpha-Omega couples was astronomical. He would be lying if he hadn't pictured Sherlock's children out there somewhere: dark-haired and pale-eyed. Whenever the image bloomed, something fluttered in his chest, fragile and impossible to name.

Of course, he should have realised the first thing Sherlock would do was attempt to take control of any potential pregnancies.

'You've used it?' he asked, his words as level as he could make them. Judgement didn't enter into the matter. Sherlock had every right to take whatever measures he deemed necessary, but his heart panged at the desperation inherent in the action. It seemed like a last resort, one that wouldn't be required if Sherlock was given a choice in how and when he'd reproduce. 'Didn't your Alpha notice?'

'Alexander was not particularly observant, at least not initially. He realised what I was doing in the end. That was the first time I ran.' Sherlock cleared his throat, examining the particulates again before he continued, his voice pitched low and secretive. 'It's old knowledge. Traditionally Omegas are isolated even from those of the same gender. However, these things find their way around, especially from an Omega parent to their corresponding offspring. My mother taught me various methods away from the prying eyes of Mycroft and my father. She did her best to arm me for the future. A seven year age gap between children and only two in a fertile couple isn't natural. She did what she could to reclaim command over her biology.'

'And gave you the same knowledge, aware you'd need it.' He eased closer to Sherlock's side, reading his discomfort in the taut column of his spine. Ghosts of pain haunted the pinch of his eyes and the faint, anxious furrow of his brow, but it was well-hidden.

John knew better than to push for information, but he wasn't so stupid he couldn't see what Sherlock was doing. He didn't have to relate any of the case's findings back to his own life or draw any kind of parallel, but he did. Inch-by-inch, he was allowing John to learn more, not just about generalities of Omegas, but specifics pertaining to Sherlock.

In some ways, it felt like a peace-offering – an apology for not having revealed his secret sooner. It definitely spoke volumes about trust, which John feared had fallen beyond their reach.

'You said it was poisonous?' He leaned in, peering over Sherlock's shoulder at the innocuous fragments.

'Most medicinal plants are, taken in the right quantities. However, it's not analogous with Amelia Donnelly's death. It's an ineffective murder weapon. Consuming high levels, or a low dose over a protracted period results in renal failure. It's also powerfully carcinogenic, but it kills over years, not minutes.'

'And you were using it, what, once a month? For how long?'

Sherlock turned to face him, his head cocked as he took in John's features. 'I added a small amount to a compound mixture of other substances, rather than taking it by itself, but it was used after every consummated pyresus.' He pursed his lips, looking at John as if he wasn't sure how to make him understand. 'The earlier after conception it's used, the more effective it is.'

Sherlock looked down, his half-hidden eyes clouded. 'I did what I could to lessen its detrimental impact. My mother, on the other hand, used it religiously. She passed away when I was twelve, killed by necrotic failure of the kidneys. It was not a good way to die.'

Blinking, he gestured towards the slide, indicating the evidence and the case at hand. 'However, her health declined steadily over a number of months. In comparison, Amelia Donnelly died quickly. The vegetable matter in her hair still has a relatively high moisture content. They can't have been removed from the plant more than a day ago. Then there's where I found it, not on the surface but caught up in the tresses by her scalp. How did it get there?'

Sherlock retreated, his gaze glassy as he lost himself in his deductions. John wished he had the luxury of being distracted by the case, but his sympathies weren't with the victim, or even her slaughtered family. It was challenging to focus on the problems of strangers when Sherlock was steadily revealing more of the measures he'd been forced to take to safeguard his independence.

How could anyone think that Omegas deserved the treatment they received? How could people assume that a life of being coddled could in any way make up for their imprisonment? It sickened him to know that Sherlock risked his health, using untested substances when everyone else had proper drugs to answer their contraceptive needs.

Sherlock had nothing, except for the autonomy he had fought for with such ferocity and single-minded determination. John wondered how many others were like him. People who couldn't topple the system, but did what they could to make it work in their favour. Sherlock's intelligence might be far beyond the ordinary, but John doubted he was the only one to have taken matters into his own hands.

John had never considered himself an activist. Like most of the silent majority, he normally spared a sympathetic thought for the distant plights of others, but this – it struck too close to home. Would he have cared so much if Sherlock were not an Omega? Probably not, and John regretted that blind behaviour. Now, his eyes had been opened, and he wished there was something he could do. Something to make Sherlock's life easier beyond the hollow promise of assistance, should he ever need it.

With a sigh of aggravation, he dragged his hands though his hair again, leaving furrows. The gesture caught Sherlock's attention, and John jumped in surprise as he straightened, his face alight with epiphany.

'John, that's it!' He jumped to his feet, surging forward and trapping John's head between his palms, all personal boundaries forgotten. Long fingers wove through ash blond strands as Sherlock's thumbs rested on his jaw bone, and John's heart leapt as his body surged with excitement. 'That's how the leaf fragments penetrated her hair. They were transferred from someone else. Someone who held Miss Donnelly in a very specific way.'

Gentle pressure had John tilting his head up, lost in the bright wash of Sherlock's gaze and the suggestion of an infectious grin. Sherlock's brow was a flash of warmth against his, and he sucked in a breath of Sherlock's neutral fragrance, outlined as it was by whatever he put in his hair. He was close enough to kiss, his breath a whisper across John's mouth that made a mute whine catch in his throat.

'A lover.' His voice softened, and John thought he heard the faintest hitch in Sherlock's next inhale. 'She had a lover. One who came into contact with processed Aristolochia rotunda. They held her head and kissed her. Two hour later, she was dead.'

Sherlock's hands dropped away, and John stiffened, trying not to sway forward and eradicate the slender distance between them. He had already decided that he wouldn't breach any frontier of intimacy with Sherlock, but his body didn't seem to care about his intentions. It was like the pull of a magnet on his bones, reeling him in whenever he got close enough. He craved the man's presence, and while he silently vowed not to ask for anything more, he couldn't resist returning to the same, casual touches they'd enjoyed not so long ago.

Reaching out, he looped his fingers around Sherlock's wrist to stop him from whirling away. 'You think they could be our killer?' he asked, noticing the unreliable skitter of Sherlock's radial pulse.

'Not enough data.' He gently extricated himself from John's grasp to put on his coat, dragging his phone free from his pocket as he did so. 'The tox screen and stomach contents may cast some light on cause of death, but if I'm right then she met someone, someone with whom she shared a kiss, someone who transferred the leaf matter to her body with their touch. She saw them after the shower she took once she'd killed her family and before her own demise. That's a narrow window of opportunity. She didn't have time to commit murder, bathe, meet both a lover and her dealer and then return home to die.'

'So?' John asked, hurrying to keep up as Sherlock pushed out of the lab, texting furiously.

'So, the chances are her dealer and lover are the same person. If we discover their identity, we may be able to unravel precisely what happened to Amelia Donnelly.' Sherlock pocketed his phone with a flourish, striding through Bart's like a man possessed.

John made a doubtful noise, grabbing the Belstaff's cuff to slow him down. 'Kind of tenuous, isn't it? You're basing all this on a couple of bits of leaf and circumstantial stuff. That's not like you.'

Sherlock sighed, dropping his shoulders dramatically. 'We've chased weaker leads,' he pointed out. 'Lestrade's already questioning Amelia's social circle. I plan to put the word out on the street around where she lived, see if any of the homeless network saw her last night. Perhaps the vegetation in her hair is irrelevant, but it's unusual enough to warrant further investigation.' He stopped, looking over at John. 'Of course if you'd rather go back to the flat, I can do this by myself.'

'Ah, no.' John shook his head, gesturing for him to lead the way. 'Together, Sherlock. Or not at all.'

He lifted his chin as Sherlock glanced at him, something searching and tentative in his gaze. It was as if he bypassed the inconvenience of John's skin and read his mind, weighing each intention before he nodded once in understanding. 'All right.'

Sherlock's words seemed to resonate, and John caught his breath as he realised they were talking about more than just the Work. This was about something deeper between them, as yet unvoiced but potent all the same, and he nodded in silent acknowledgement.

He couldn't promise much, but this? This he could give without hesitation: his unflinching support, no matter what.

He only hoped it would be enough to keep Sherlock safe.

Chapter Text

Sherlock moved through the city as if he owned the place, a king within his realm. Where others hurried to work or dashed around their daily lives, he strode with purpose, the tails of his coat billowing behind him. Perhaps not everyone on the street turned his way, but a good proportion took a moment to appreciate the view, and John found himself struggling not to glare in return.

Not that his assistance was needed. From day one, Sherlock had projected an air of the untouchable about him. People saw it and took note.

Well, most people.

Sherlock's admission in the lab haunted him, and thoughts of Alexander bubbled to the front of John's mind like marsh gas. He itched with anger that anyone could look at Sherlock and think they had a right to take him. He knew the excuses; Sherlock had mentioned the most obvious one, that his Alpha had no control over his instincts. However, it didn't seem like it went both ways. If Sherlock was really as desperate for sex as all the rumours about Omegas suggested, then he wouldn't be inclined to fight off Alexander during pyresus. They'd share the same want, even if it was a product of biology, rather than higher thinking.

Instead, Sherlock had learnt how to escape an Alpha in rut, and John's recent exposure to telikostrone had shown him the violent nature of such urges. It might sicken him, but he could imagine reaching the point where his highest priority was forcing a warm body beneath him, willing or not. The worst part was, people would excuse it. Even in normal society, where rape was acknowledged as a crime, they would jump to offer him a way out, labelling his behaviour as natural in the face of an Omega's biochemistry.

As if that mattered. The whole situation had always made John uneasy. Before, he'd thought that Omegas weren't able to give meaningful consent. Their proper heats put them in the same category as people who'd had too much to drink or were high on drugs. They might be saying "yes", but could they make an informed decision? From what Sherlock had said, that wasn't the case. It was within their power to object. Was it only Alexander who didn't listen, or were all the Alphas of the elite the same?

'This way.' Sherlock tugged him along one of London's alleys. The paving was cracked and rubbish lay thick in the gutters. This was a world of store-yards and forgotten plots of land. Puddles clustered on the ground, and gluts of mud waited to trip the unwary. John picked his way through it all, his jaw working and his fingers clenching into spasmodic fists.

'I shouldn't have told you.' Sherlock's face held a mixture of disappointment and acceptance, as if he had hoped for better but had resigned himself to the most likely reaction. 'Knowing doesn't do you any good. You're distracted by my past; I need you here in the present.'

John stopped, shaking his head. 'Don't. I'm glad you told me. I just hate that you were ever in that situation.' He wasn't so naive that he thought Sherlock had always been able to fend off unwanted advances. Perhaps his mother had taught him something of fighting back as a child, but theory was different than practice. Effective self-defence was a matter of trial and error, and John's traitorous imagination couldn't stop picturing Sherlock, young and skittish, with no choice but to submit to his Alpha's demands. 'It's not right.'

'It's the way it's always been.' He shrugged, the twist of his lips painful. 'Most Omegas obey, and like Donovan said, their lives are easy. They have everything they could wish for in exchange for the children they produce.'

'And those that don't? You can't be only one who's tried to escape.'

Sherlock thrust his hands into his pockets, leading the way through the tangle of London's backstreets. Filth squelched beneath their shoes, and a jagged wind blew empty crisp packets and fallen leaves around in a giddy waltz, almost drowning out his reply.

'I doubt any of them could be considered as fortunate as I am. If they're lucky, they manage to flee into obscurity. If not...' He shrugged. 'The possibilities are numerous. Perhaps, like Ms Ducart, they die on an illegal operating table. Sometimes, they are shut away forever, ignored and left to rot in solitude while their Alpha turns elsewhere. Alternatively, they are discarded. Murdered, possibly, and buried on their Alpha's estate like a guilty secret. If the original kin of an Omega miss them at all, they will rarely report it. Either they don't care, or they hope their child has fled and seek to protect them by staying quiet.'

'Like yours did.' John watched Sherlock's profile, noticing the moue of irritated disgust he wore when his family, and by association his brother, entered the conversation. 'I'm guessing Mycroft's instrumental in all this.' He gestured to indicate the situation, from Sherlock's career to his comparative freedom.

'Unfortunately, yes. Past experience indicates that, without his assistance, it wouldn't be possible.' He looked like he'd bitten into a lemon, his pride stung, but a moment later the harsh lines softened. 'His help was not always something on which I could rely.'

John took a breath to speak, a hot surge of outrage pressing against his ribs. He knew Mycroft too well to believe that he could be unaware of the treatment his brother had suffered, but how could he have known and not tried to help? By his own admission, he existed in a constant state of worry over Sherlock. How could he have turned a blind eye?

Sherlock held up a hand, and John bit back his questions, swallowing hard. 'What happened is far from straightforward.' He squared his shoulders, his voice pained as he continued, 'If you insist upon hearing all of it, I'll tell you, but not now. Not when we have a case.'

Shifting his feet, John folded his arms, dropping his chin to his chest. It was more of an offer than he expected Sherlock to make, and it sounded like it cost him. He felt selfish, but John ached to map the terrain of Sherlock's life before he had come along. He longed to educate himself so he could understand what had tempered Sherlock into the man who now stood before him, strong despite his vulnerabilities.

'All right.' He met Sherlock's eye, seeing both gratitude and hesitance. Had he expected John to push for an immediate explanation? As if that would do them any good. His need to dig in his heels and fight everyone who had sought to bring Sherlock low was a meaningless desire, and it would do nothing to help. Sherlock wanted John here at his side, picking through London's underbelly and answering the call of the Work, not dreaming up ego-centric revenge for the shadowy injustices committed against him in years gone by.

'Thank you.' Sherlock smiled, not the fake one that fit his face like a mask, but something crooked and bashful which lit up his eyes all the same. 'Now, come on. We've got things to do.'

'You seem pretty sure there is a case,' John said, hurrying to keep up. 'One worth your time, I mean. You don't normally bother with anything so straightforward.'

'The body of a murderer is lying in the morgue with no apparent cause of death.' He turned left, and the alley opened out onto the river's edge. One of the bridges spanned the fluid causeway in front of them, its supports a concrete forest along the bank and into the water. 'While it's possible Molly may find something conclusive during autopsy, I have my doubts. It could be more engaging that it seems.'

'And if it wasn't for the birthwort you found in her hair, would you even look at it twice?'

Sherlock grimaced. 'Probably not. That didn't get there by accident, and it's an intriguing addition to the evidence. Someone, somewhere will be able to tell us more.'

He swept into the shadows under the bridge, leaving John to follow, tense and alert. The air was chill, rank from the river and stirred by the breathy wind that whipped through the city. As shelters went, the struts didn't seem the best place to bed down for the night. In fact, a distinct lack of any signs of habitation made John pause, his shoulders rounded as he frowned at the desolate shoreline.

'I thought we were trying to get in touch with your homeless network?' he asked.

'Already done. Well, most of them, anyway. Giving them cheap phones was the best investment I ever made. However, there's someone I need to see in person.' Sherlock jerked his head towards a silhouette propped against one of the pillars. The stranger was shorter than John, bundled in multiple layers and huddled against the cold. At their approach, their gaunt face lifted, muddy brown eyes glaring at John before they switched to Sherlock. Immediately, the expression became one of triumphant approval, and Sherlock flashed a grin of greeting.

'John, this is Elsie. Elsie, this is my friend John.'

'Oh yeah?' John couldn't tell how old she was, but the set of her weather-worn face suggested she wouldn't trust him as far as she could throw him. She reminded John of some of the tougher sergeants in the army, all brash abuse and disdain. 'He stinks.'

'He's an Alpha; he can't help it.' Sherlock appeared to be trying not to laugh as John managed a choked sound. Being criticised by someone who probably hadn't bathed in the past month was a bit much. 'I need your help.'

'Of course you do.' She sighed, straightening up and pulling her hands out of her pockets. They were clad in fingerless gloves, and she spread them palm up. 'Well, what is it? I haven't got all day, even for you.'

'We found traces of Aristolochia rotunda on a corpse – potentially a murder victim. An Alpha, not elite.'

Elsie's cocked her head, her eyes pinched. 'Processed?'

'After a fashion. They were ground particulates. Pure. The Alpha was a long-term meth user, and she was discovered dead in her flat. No obvious signs of foul play. What can you tell me?'

The woman puffed up her cheeks, glancing at John again as if weighing his worth before she exhaled. 'Not much. It's weird, finding it, I’ll give you that, but I've not heard a whisper that could explain why it's on the street. Could she have gone somewhere else and picked it up?'

'No, we think it was transferred from her dealer. Who's working the patch around Kensington Gardens?'

A pale eyebrow lifted, and Elsie shook her head. 'Once, you wouldn't have had to ask me that,' she pointed out. 'You'd have known them by name.'

Sherlock shrugged. 'Times change.'

'Thank God.' She rubbed her hands together, wrinkling her nose as the wind whipped at the tendrils of lank blonde hair escaping her beanie. 'Kensington Gardens have always been a warzone. The turnover rate there's pretty high. They come and go, same as always. Of course, that just means the best float to the top. You probably want Light Chris.'

'“Light Chris?”' John repeated. 'What kind of a name is that?'

'The one he uses.' Elsie shrugged, the gesture obscured by the clothes she was wearing. 'That's all I've got for you. I'll keep my ear to the ground. If I hear anything, I'll leave a message in the usual place.' She chewed on her lip, her teeth tormenting the chapped flesh. 'I'd know if any of the main gangs were padding stuff out with Aristolochia, but if they're not responsible then God knows who is.'

'The presence of the plant matter could be unrelated to either her drug use or her demise, but it was unusual enough to get my attention.' Sherlock frowned. 'I'll see what I can get out of the dealer, and if you catch wind of anything suspicious – any more deaths, any users suffering strange experiences – tell me.'

'Got it. Be careful of Chris, all right? He's not very bright, but he didn't get where he was by cooperating.' She jerked her head towards John. 'Take your Alpha friend with you.'

'I doubt I could leave him behind if I tried.' Sherlock nodded his farewell, and John went to follow him, pausing as Elsie called his name. When he turned, she was giving him a critical stare: assessing

'Take care of him, won't you?' she asked, nodding after Sherlock's receding back. 'He's got the survival instincts of a fucking lemming.'

John laughed at the unguarded honesty of her statement. Sherlock all too often lost sight of his personal safety in pursuit of a case's solution. 'Yeah, I know. I'll do my best,' he promised, giving her a crooked smile before he turned away, his footsteps crunching over the gravel as he caught up to Sherlock's long stride.

'So,' he said after a few moments of silence, digging his hands in to his pocket. 'I stink?'

Sherlock chuckled, a brief, bright sound that John needed to hear after the grim weight of the morning's events. 'Only to an Omega, and it might be stronger today than usual thanks to your reaction to the telikostrone. Besides, “stink” is not the right word.'

'Thanks,' John muttered, surreptitiously sniffing at his jacket as they left the Thames' wind-savaged bank. 'I suppose at least you're the only one who'll notice. It's not like I know any other Omegas.' Abruptly, he realised what he was saying, and he whipped around, staring back over his shoulder in the direction of where Elsie had been standing. 'Wait, so how could she smell it?'

'She picked up on your fragrance for the same reason it's detectable to me,' Sherlock pointed out, watching John's face with apparent interest before rolling his eyes. 'Elsie is what is known as a Rile. Genetically, she's an Omega, but biologically –' He shrugged. 'She never presented, and thanks to an incurable condition, never will. As far as anyone in the elite is concerned, she is worse than useless: a source of shame to her family.'

John stared back at the empty stretch of water and the bridge's industrial reign, thinking of the tough woman who had already departed. No-one who lived destitute had a happy story, but to John hers sounded pointlessly cruel. 'Why didn't they let her out, then? I mean, send her to university or whatever? Just because she can't have kids doesn’t mean she can be thrown away!'

'Not everyone thinks the same way you do. Elsie's family were not kind. They drove her out. Nothing overt, that would be too disgraceful, but they made it so she felt unable to stay. So a young woman, raised as an Omega, educated yes, but not very knowledgeable of how the world worked, came to London with no money and nowhere to call home. You know enough of this city to realise she was nothing but prey.'

'And you saved her?' He started walking again, watching Sherlock shake his head.

'No, John. She saved me. Elsie may have come here ignorant, but she learnt fast. She knew a bit about strategy and politics from her father's dealings, and she put it to use. Over the past decade or more, she has acquired a number of contacts; people whose faith she's earned.' Sherlock squinted up at the pregnant clouds above them, grimacing as the first drops of rain began to fall. 'Come on. Let's get you some lunch. I'll tell you more while you eat.'

Together, they hurried back through the alleys, dodging dribbling gutters before taking shelter in the kind of café that made John's arteries weep as soon as he walked in the door. Within ten minutes, he had a hearty fried breakfast in front of him, a suitable substitute for his meagre meal when Sherlock had dragged him out of bed that morning.

'Go on then,' he urged as he picked up his cutlery and tucked in, angling the plate so Sherlock could steal some of the toast if he wanted it. 'You said she helped you out of trouble?'

Sherlock sipped his coffee, narrowing his eyes against the steam that rose from the black liquid inside and swallowing as he considered his words. 'There was an issue of payment with a dealer, back in my twenties,' he explained, and John stopped cutting up his bacon, listening intently. Sherlock's history with drugs had been hinted at more than once, but by mutual agreement it was not something they discussed. 'He sought to take physical compensation. Elsie made him change his mind.'

'Oh.' John looked at his meal, picking at it as his enthusiasm waned. A lecture sat on the tip of his tongue, one about illegal chemicals, the ruthlessness of the people associated with them, and dire consequences barely avoided. 'I'm guessing they didn't realise what you were.' He surveyed the other patrons before leaning in. 'If they'd found out...'

'My life would have taken a distinct turn for the worse. I'm sure Alexander's company would have been enjoyable by comparison.' Sherlock closed his eyes before opening them again. 'I know, John. More to the point, so did Elsie. She struck a deal, paid off my debt with information and dragged me out of there, hissing abuse all the way. She recognised the lack of a scent I was giving off for what it was, unlike everyone else I came across.'

He picked up a triangle of toast, his body moving on autopilot to sustain itself while his mind was occupied. It was the best John could hope for while a case was on. The only reason Sherlock was eating at all was because they were stuck playing a waiting game. 'You have to understand that Elsie has a finger on every pulse among London's underclass. She has worked hard to maintain herself in a neutral balance, allied with no-one, but useful to all of them. There's very little she doesn't know about what's going on in this city. Most of her network, she built up herself, but I did help her make a few key connections.'

'All that, and she still lives on the streets?'

A smile skittered across Sherlock's lips. 'Elsie may have started out as involuntarily destitute, but now she inhabits a place below the radar. As far as any authority is concerned, she doesn't exist. That's quite hard to achieve in this day and age. She maintains the appearance of homelessness because it helps her stay invisible and allows her to appear non-threatening. She earns nothing as common-place as a wage, but she does have a roof over her head, as well as ways and means of sustaining herself.'

'You like her.' John sat back in his chair, watching Sherlock blink in surprise. 'You, Mr "I don't have friends." You like her.'

Sherlock rolled his eyes, propping his elbows on the table and cupping his palms around his mug. 'I admire her. I challenge anyone not to. She made a despicable situation work, without relying on outside help. For someone of our upbringing, it's more difficult than you might imagine. Omegas are woefully unprepared for dealing with the real world. After all, we're never meant to come into contact with it.'

'You haven't done so bad yourself, you know,' John pointed out, smearing the last of his bacon through his ketchup. 'Were you any better off than she was, when you ran?'

'No.' Sherlock drained the mug and set it aside, his long fingers toying with the packets of sugar as he stared out of the window, though whether he was seeing the street beyond or into another time and place was impossible to judge. 'I didn't have to tell her anything. She knew, and she didn't drown me in sympathy. Quite the opposite. A bit more of a tough love approach, in fact, but it worked. I survived. To some extent, I even began to thrive, for a given value.' He tipped a packet of sweetener back and forth, making the grains within hiss. 'However, Elsie is in her element now. It's probably not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it's not one she'd give up in a hurry, either. She likes the intellectual stimulation.'

John mopped up his fried egg with the remnants of the toast, watching Sherlock out of the corner of his eye. 'So why did you have to meet her in person? Why isn't she part of your network, like everyone else?'

'Because that would be an alliance. She connects herself with no-one, and it works. Besides, she's still willing to help when I ask. If anyone in this city can find out why Amelia Donnelly had birthwort in her hair, it's Elsie.'

'And she can be trusted?' John shrugged, not liking to be the voice of doubt, but unable to ignore the possibility. 'How do you know she won't lie, or tell someone else what you're looking for?'

'I don't.' Sherlock's reply was frank and to the point, and it was clear that he was unimpaired by sentiment. 'Everyone is corruptible, either by an outside influence or their own needs. However, if it's in Elsie's interests to report our movements back to a third party, that alone suggests there's more to this than meets the eye. Are you done?' He gestured to John's empty plate, already pulling out a couple of bank notes to leave on the table. 'Come on. Let's go and find this dealer.'

John licked sauce off his thumb and got to his feet, the bell over the door echoing in his ears as they stepped out into the rain. It was light but persistent, and he did up his zip as he waited for Sherlock to hail a cab. 'I wouldn't think lunch-time was ideal for hunting down criminals. Aren't these kind of people nocturnal?'

'Not when sleep costs them money.' Sherlock stood aside as a taxi pulled up, holding the door open for John before settling at his side. 'Besides, it's Friday. Clubbers will be stocking up for the weekend. If Chris is the dominant dealer in Kensington Gardens, he won't risk some underdog muscling in on peak business, even if it means he has to stay awake all day and night to guard his turf.'

John settled back in his seat, watching the city skim by beyond the windowpane. 'So what's the plan? Do we need to call Lestrade?'

'Not yet. There's no point until we've got something more solid to go on. We'll ask him a couple of questions, that's all.'

'And if he does a runner?'

Sherlock glanced in John's direction, his smile contagious, and John turned away with a grin. It wasn't that they always ended up chasing idiots halfway across London, but today it felt like just what he needed: a way to be useful.

A few minutes later, the cab let them out at Kensington Gardens, the driver departing and leaving them at the Alexandra Gate. John ran his gaze over the wrought iron work, his eyes settling on the small stone lodge as they walked down West Carriage Drive and turned off onto one of the parks. Trees lined the paths that scrawled across the manicured lawns, leading visitors off towards idyllic themed gardens or up to the palace.

'Why here?' he asked, eyeing the tourists braving the weather and the city dwellers grimly determined to take their lunch break outside. 'What makes you think Amelia's dealer is this Chris bloke?'

'Logistics.' Sherlock pointed to the left. 'Her parent's house at Notting Hill is that way and Amelia Donnelly's apartment in Stratham Rd is about a ten minute walk in that direction.' He gestured eastwards. 'She worked in an office to the west of the gardens, making her local geography very confined. Her dealer would operate within that sphere, and the park is made anonymous by the sheer volume of people who frequent it. With an area this large, it's possible that he rotates his location on some kind of schedule, so he's not seen loitering in the same place. That's what I'd do.'

'Great,' John groused. 'So our guy is somewhere in, what, fifty acres of park?'

'Don't be ridiculous, John. Kensington Gardens and the associated grounds are much bigger than that.' Sherlock turned right, pulling his coat tight around him and doing up the buttons as the rain continued to patter down around them. 'While I might not know the dealers by name any more, I doubt their habits have changed. As long as Elsie's information is correct, Chris should not be hard to track down. He'll be near prominent landmarks to make it easier for his clientèle to find him. Even better, CCTV is sparse: another reason it's favoured for illicit activities. He won't be next to the monuments themselves, but he should be close by.'

John sighed, wishing that Sherlock wasn't so intimate with the details of London's drug scene, more so than the Work demanded. His knowledge had its uses, but that didn't mean John was happy with how Sherlock had acquired his expertise. 'All right, then. Lead the way.'

It took them more than half an hour to find the right place. They passed the Albert memorial, the bandstand and a statue of some bloke on a horse. All of them played host to empty benches and bore witness to harried passers-by, but there was no-one hanging around with any purpose. With each passing failure, Sherlock's patience waned, and he muttered a quiet curse before jerking his head back the way they'd come. 'Maybe he's at the Speke monument.'

'We could be here all day,' John complained, shivering as the rain started to seep through his jacket seams and drip down his neck. 'Can't we get Greg to pick him up?'

'Not yet. Involve the Yard before it's necessary and the dealer will shut down. He won't tell us anything; he'll be burdened with a few desultory charges and we won't have the information we need.' Sherlock reached behind him, grabbing John's hand in his gloved one and giving him a tug to hurry him along. 'The sooner we find him, the sooner you can go home.'

'We,' John corrected. 'The sooner we can go home.'

Their feet splashed through gathering puddles as they approached a small obelisk, half-concealed by the far-flung boughs of the nearby oaks. Its white stone had once been polished, but now streaks of grime marred its surface. A knee-high fence surrounded it, and John frowned at the nondescript addition to the park's pantheon of statues. 'See anything?' he asked, taking shelter under the canopy of foliage.

'Look around. What do you observe?'

John hunched his shoulders, too cold for this kind of game. 'Nothing. Trees, grass, bloody rain. No people.'

'No cameras. The statue's an unlikely target for metal thieves or graffiti and it's too big to steal.' Sherlock straightened, shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath. John knew the Omega nose was sensitive, but he hadn't realised quite how potent it could be. He could make out the rain and wet vegetation, but Sherlock's head swivelled as if he'd caught wind of something, and a triumphant smile crossed his lips.

He stepped beneath the bower and ducked his head so he could murmur in John's ear. 'A Beta dealer. Base odour of cloves, but his merchandise reeks. Mostly amphetamines.'

'Upwind?' John asked, smiling as Sherlock nodded. 'Back between the trees, then. Can you smell what we're looking for?'

'No, but that doesn't mean it's not present. It could be hidden beneath another fragrance. However, there's a hint of the same scent that was on Amelia's skin around him. Shower gel of some description.'

'So we're on the right track.' He met Sherlock's eye, doing his best to remain casual. 'Have you got a visual?'

He swayed a fraction to his right before easing back with a nod. 'Yes, he's leaning against a tree about twenty paces away, head down, waiting for his customers to find him. He won't believe we're buyers, though, not if we approach him together.'

Checking over John's shoulder as if to make sure the line of sight was blocked, Sherlock shrugged out of his coat and jacket, dumping the heavy wool in John's arms. His shirt came untucked on one side with a quick pull, and John watched him clutch at the cotton, striking creases across it. Deft fingers tousled his curls into something a bit more wild, and the press of his teeth against his lips gave them a ragged, swollen flush.

'You cut around from behind. If we can pin him, we might stand a better chance of getting our questions answered before he bolts,' Sherlock instructed, grabbing the coat back and reaching in his pocket for his phone, which was transferred to his trousers. Smoothing the Belstaff and jacket into a neat bundle, he wedged them in the fork of the branches at the top of the tree's trunk. 'I'll come back for that later. You'll need your hands free. I don't suppose you brought your gun?'

John frowned, thinking of his Sig where it was hidden, safe from Sherlock's boredom, in Mrs Hudson's kitchen. He'd been tempted to carry it with him everywhere since Sherlock mentioned his estranged Alpha, but there was too much risk involved. The last thing he needed was to be caught in some non-essential situation with an illegal firearm. He wouldn't do Sherlock any good from jail. 'I hoped I wouldn't need it,' he pointed out.

'Never mind.' Sherlock re-examined the dealer, his gaze calculating. 'If he's armed, it'll be with a blade, and despite his reputation reaching for a weapon is not his first course of action in conflict. He's built like a runner, not a fighter.'

John's hand shot out, grabbing Sherlock's elbow and giving a warning squeeze. 'That doesn't mean he's not dangerous.' He watched him roll his eyes. 'Just be careful, all right?'

His only response was a nod from Sherlock, coupled with a flick of his fingers to show John where to go. It was easy enough to do as he was told, his head ducked and his pace brisk, like any other pedestrian caught in the rain. He picked his way back to the path, trying to watch the trees without raising suspicion.

When he thought he was in the right place, he cut across the grass, treading lightly. No dense forest crowded the manicured parkland, but there was a narrow band of mature oaks and other hard-woods. He had to ghost from the lee of one to the next, his skin prickling as he tried to see Sherlock amidst the water-slicked landscape.

The rumble of his voice reached him first, higher and thinner than normal, trembling around the syllables as he spoke. '– a friend said you could help. I need it.'

'What friend?' The dealer's question was heavy with distrust, and John raised his eyebrows as he eased closer, taking up position behind the tree to the right of where Sherlock and Light Chris stood. Clearly you didn't hang on to one territory for so long by accepting every stranger at face value. Anyone could be a cop undercover, although John had to admit Sherlock looked the part of an addict.

Creased clothes and rumpled hair were accessories to the movements of his body. Sharp eyes gleamed like glass, and he was constantly in motion, shuffling and twitching. He raked his fingernails down his forearm, then through his hair before snatching his hand away, tightening his fingers into a fist and dropping it to his side.

'Amelia Donnelly. She said – said you could help.'

A guilty conscience could have driven Chris to take flight, and John's thighs ached as he braced to leap into action. However, the dealer just rocked back on his heels, his arms folded and his slender face thoughtful. 'Amelia, hey? She never said you were comin', but...' He sighed, reaching into his pocket. 'You good for it?'

'How much?' Raw desperation cut through Sherlock's query, and John tried not to shiver. It was too believable, that emotion, and he had to remind himself that it was a sham. Sherlock sounded like there was no price too steep for his next hit, and John fought hard not to let his imagination travel down treacherous avenues to a time where none of this had been an act.

'Depends what you're after.'

'Meth tabs,' Sherlock murmured, rich with longing. 'Just – just enough to see me through.' Money rustled in his hand, pulled from his pocket, grubby and creased. John was too far off to count how much was there, but it seemed to satisfy Chris, who snatched it free and gave Sherlock a tiny plastic bag containing what he'd asked for.

He was too busy putting away his cash to notice the mask fall from Sherlock's face.

It was a flicked switch; the addict was gone. In his place was a man undeniably in command and cold in his intelligence. 'Now that's over with,' Sherlock said, his body tensing as he lifted his chin. 'Maybe you can shed some light on why Amelia Donnelly was found dead this morning?'

The dealer froze, his skinny body locked in genuine surprise. The acne scars on his cheeks stood out as his pallor intensified, and he stared at Sherlock in horror, his lips parted and his face aghast. A choked noise caught in his throat, and John crouched, ready for the moment when he either lashed out or took off across the park.

'Tell me what you know,' Sherlock commanded, prowling closer. There was nothing vulnerable about him now, and Chris looked confused at how swiftly the balance of power had changed, 'and I won't take you in.'

'You're not police.' It was a more a whimper than anything else. Sherlock didn't even bother to answer. He merely lifted one eyebrow, managing to indicate with a tilt of his head that the Met were the least of the dealer's concerns.

One blink, and the decision to run became clear.

Chris lurched, veering around Sherlock and crying out in alarm when John pounced, his arms spread to tackle him. Sodden soil squelched as they went down, grappling with each other. Light Chris might be thin, and John was beginning to see where he got the nickname, but there was strength in the angles of his bones and the harsh ferocity with which he struggled.

There was no clear space to throw a punch, and John swore as he ripped back the hoodie and grabbed greasy black hair, ignoring the answering howl of pain and frustration as he dragged the kid upright, one forearm locked hard across his throat. He scrabbled at John's coat, trying to break loose, but John had the training to keep him in place, not to mention better stability. He was rooted firm while Chris' boots slid on the wet grass.

'Good catch,' Sherlock murmured, his gaze one of admiration, and John fought not to preen under the praise.

'He's not exactly tough,' he replied, bending his knees to counteract the struggles of his quarry. 'Molly could probably do more damage.'

'Let me go!' Chris yelled, exhausting himself with his ongoing efforts to escape.

'Not yet.' Sherlock stepped forward, his hands in his pockets as his eyes skimmed Chris' form, reading everything. 'Amelia Donnelly had a long-term, expensive habit over which she was losing control. She needed cash and decided to kill her family for her inheritance, hoping the police would never tie the crime back to her. She shot them, showered, and then found you.'

'Yeah, yeah, but I didn't know what she done!' He pulled at John's wrist before going limp. It was an old trick – an effort to make John relax – but he'd been around the block a few too many times to fall for it. 'Look, she was a bit behind in payments. Getting worse, you know? We came to an... agreement.'

'Sex.'

Even from this awkward, sideways angle, John saw the grimace cross Chris' face. 'Nah, I'm not like that. She ran into a bit of difficulty and I –' He shuffled his shoulders, glancing around as if he thought there might be eavesdroppers hidden in the undergrowth. 'I liked her, all right? We had some fun, but it was 'cos she wanted to. When she got behind, I said I could wait a few days, that's all. Normally, I don't do credit, but I've known her for going on three years. She gave me the money this morning, plus a bit more in exchange for the usual. I got a quick snog and then she was on her way.' He shifted, leaning his weight against John's arm, but it was more of a slump than a bid for freedom. 'You sure she's dead?'

'Very.' Sherlock circled around, his footsteps steady. Even John was tempted to try and follow him with his eyes, but he held firm, letting Chris fidget enough for both of them. 'We found something on her body. Something we believe came from you. Pieces of Aristolochia rotunda: birthwort.'

'What?' Earnest confusion shook Chris' voice. 'I dunno what that is. Look, whatever she did, it's got nothing to do with me. I don't kill people.'

'No, but maybe your products do.' Sherlock pulled out the meth, holding the clear polythene up to the meek daylight and examining the pills inside. 'Who's your supplier?'

Chris let out a tight laugh. 'More than my life's worth to tell you that. I'd rather go to jail.' He squeaked as John increased the pressure over his throat. 'No – no. It don't work like that! I don't see anyone, do I? It's all done as a drop-off. It's –'

Suddenly, Chris snapped his elbow back, driving it hard into John's diaphragm. His breath left him in a pained wheeze; his back bowed as he gasped for air. Before he could think to tighten his grip, his captive tore himself away, darting across the grass at a full sprint as Sherlock spat a curse.

'You all right?' he asked, his hand on John's shoulder as the warm splay of Sherlock's palm dove under his coat.

He managed to shake his head, berating himself for being so careless. 'Bruised,' he croaked, 'not bleeding. Go on!'

'Follow us as soon as you can. I'll try and herd him towards the Marlborough Gate. Lestrade's waiting for us there.' He was gone before John could do more than blink, pelting off in full pursuit after the receding figure.

John sucked in one breath after another, probing at the sore flesh below his ribcage as he shook his head. Talk about embarrassing. He'd been too intent on Chris' words and lulled by his apparent submission. 'Little shit,' he muttered, finally feeling able to straighten up and take stock of his surroundings.

God alone knew when Sherlock had contacted Lestrade. He'd seemed dead against it when John had made the suggestion, but then perhaps he'd already been thinking three steps ahead, the same as usual. Now, Sherlock was lost somewhere amidst the gargantuan sprawl of the park, running hell-for-leather after the only potential suspect they had, and John was left behind.

He bit his lip, jogging back towards the path and the signposts at the junction, reading the neat text before hurrying towards the Marlborough Gate . His heart raced as he craned his neck, on the lookout for either Sherlock or Chris, sure that one would lead him to the other. The dealer could fall in the boating lake and drown for all he cared; it was Sherlock that mattered, and the same fretful fear that always plagued him when they were separated took root. It wasn't that he didn't think Sherlock was capable of holding his own, but things could go bad in the blink of an eye, too quick for even Sherlock to foresee.

A dark shape off to his right made him stare, and he broke into as much of a sprint as he could manage, hating the ache of his stomach and the stitch already threatening to form in his side. Chris was weaving through the trees, looking over his shoulder and stumbling in desperation as Sherlock hounded him at every turn.

Quickly, John joined the familiar dance, he and Sherlock partners well-versed in one another's behaviour while Chris remained the third-wheel, off-balance and losing ground. Pounding steps fell into a steady rhythm as John ran parallel to Sherlock and just behind their quarry so they could respond to his erratic efforts at escape.

Wide stretches of grass gave way to the broad approach of the Marlborough Gate. John saw Sherlock put on an extra burst of speed before he pounced. The tackle hit Chris around the hips, and they fell in a sprawl of limbs. The keen tang of blood caught in John's nose. It seemed to be coming from the graze on Chris' face: a sullen, claret flow that went ignored as he hurled abuse. Not that it did him any good as Sherlock straddled his back, pinning him before grabbing his hair and lifting his head to survey the road in front of them, where several police cars were pulling up with their blue lights flashing.

'Last chance,' he panted. 'Your supplier. Give me a name.'

John stood at Sherlock’s side, ready to lash out if necessary, but Chris was too busy trying to breathe around the weight on his back. At last, his answer came, a hoarse rasp up his throat. 'Morris. That's the only contact I've got.'

Sherlock grunted, unimpressed, squinting through the rain at the police officers hurrying towards them. 'All yours, Lestrade!'

Chris struggled, his toes hitting the ground as he tried to kick. Immediately, John grabbed his ankles, holding them firm. 'What the hell? You said you'd let me go!'

'I lied.' Sherlock turned, speaking to John over his shoulder. 'Are you sure you're all right?'

'Just winded,' he promised, trying not to cough at the dull ache that preceded every breath. He jerked his head towards Greg, who looked exasperated, but unsurprised. 'When did you call them?'

'I sent a text message when we arrived telling them to meet us here in an hour for an arrest.' Sherlock glared at Lestrade, raising his voice. 'You're late.'

'Funny,' Greg said, gesturing for Sherlock to get up and let his officers take over, 'because, to me, it looks like we got here just in time.' He examined John's mud-streaked form and Sherlock's general dishevelment before surveying his latest suspect. 'Did he give you a bit of trouble?'

'No more than you might expect. He's Amelia Donnelly's dealer. You can arrest him for the merchandise in his pockets, and question him in relation to her death. Though I'll doubt you'll discover much.'

'Speaking of merchandise,' John said, nudging Sherlock and holding out his hand. 'Give it here.'

'What?'

'The stuff you bought from him. Was that really necessary, by the way?' John wiggled his fingers as Sherlock scowled, pulling the polythene sheath free from his pocket and surrendering it. Immediately, John passed it to Greg, who was already opening an evidence bag.

'Not my substance of choice,' Sherlock pointed out with a hint of reproach. 'I needed him to be off his guard. Approaching him as anything other than a potential client would have given us nothing. As it is, it was hardly worth it.' Turning to Lestrade, he gestured to the pills in his grasp. 'Get Forensics to test everything he's carrying for contaminants. Molly's report should help you pinpoint what might have caused Ms Donnelly's death.'

'Yeah, thanks for that,' Greg said, casting a mocking glare in Sherlock's direction. 'I'd never have thought of following basic procedure all by myself. Speaking of which, what are you two playing at? You should have left this to us.' He jerked his thumb in the direction of one of the cars, where Chris was swearing his head off as the officers pushed him into the back seat.

'Saving you time,' Sherlock answered as John shrugged an apology. 'You'd have wasted days searching for him, and any leads he might have to offer would have gone cold.'

The DI shut his eyes like a man reaching for his patience. 'That's not the point.' He sighed, and John could see the moment he surrendered, abandoning his arguments as a lost cause. 'Look, just – go home. Clean yourselves up, get something for John's face, and call it a day. As soon as I know anything more, I'll be in touch.'

Sherlock threw his head back, his groan of "dull" spoken to the heavens. John, on the other hand, frowned in confusion and reached up to his cheek, trying to figure out what Greg meant.

'What's wrong with my face?' He rubbed at his skin, sensing a faint sting, but other than the mud there was nothing that he could make out.

'Chris scratched you when you took him down. It's superficial.' Sherlock pulled John's fingers away and squinted at him. 'Hardly worth bothering with.'

John looked to Greg for confirmation. He'd seen Sherlock dismiss serious injuries as irrelevant often enough that he no longer trusted his judgement when it came to triage.

The DI rolled his eyes and nodded. 'It could still do with a clean, considering you look like you've been mud-wrestling. Go on, I mean it. I don't want to set eyes on you again today unless I have to, you understand?'

Sherlock stalked away, leaving John to wave a weary farewell in Greg's direction before jogging after him. 'Where are we going?' he asked, slipping his fingers into his pocket and feeling the photocopies the DI had given him earlier. Thankfully they’d not been lost in the mad dash. 'And why aren't we taking a cab?'

'No self-respecting driver will accept you.' He shrugged, his long strides eating up the pavement as he stuck to the meagre shelter of the trees lining the paths. 'We'll have to walk back to Baker Street, and I'd rather undertake that journey with my coat.'

John grunted. 'That's if no-one's run off with it already. You didn't leave your wallet in it, did you?'

The look Sherlock cast in his direction told him he was being an idiot, and he shivered as a stiff wind blew across the city, flicking more water droplets from the branches overhead and sending them smattering to the ground.

'All right, so what are we doing now?' He didn't hesitate to follow as Sherlock struck out across one of the lawns, walking across the exposed space with his head down and his shoulders rounded.

'The Detective Inspector has given us our orders. It would be remiss of us not to obey.'

'Since when do you do what Greg tells you? Normally, you do the opposite, just to piss him off.' Sherlock's hum of acknowledgement made John smile, and he fell in at Sherlock’s side, bumping him with his shoulder. 'If we're going back to Baker Street, it's because you want to, not because he suggested it.'

'You, not me.' Sherlock screwed up his nose as a strong gust of wind blew rain in their faces. 'You want to go back to the flat, clean up and dry off. I can practically hear you thinking of a hot bath and a cup of tea.'

John smiled to himself, pleased that Sherlock had acknowledged his needs, let alone given them structure with his words. 'Yeah, and keeping me happy is right at the top of your list of priorities.' He raised his eyebrows when Sherlock looked offended at his sarcasm. 'If you had any other leads to chase, you'd let me shiver in wet clothes all day while you dragged me around the city.'

'Please,' Sherlock scoffed. 'No-one is capable of making you do anything to which you object. Not even me.' Abruptly, he increased his pace, and John peered ahead to see a tree with a dark bundle of cloth stuck in its fork. God knew how Sherlock found it with such ease. If it had been John, he'd have wandered around for hours. Now, he watched him retrieve his clothes, shucking on his jacket and the Belstaff. He wrapped the thick wool around himself and fastened the buttons before pulling the collar up.

Sherlock was about to walk away when something made him hesitate, and he turned back to look at John intently. A frown bridged his brow as he cupped John's chin, tilting his head up. His fingers created warm points of pressure, and he tried not to sag into the bowl of Sherlock's palm as he bore the scrutiny, frowning at his friend's thoughtful hum.

'What?' He pulled a face as Sherlock removed a white handkerchief from his pocket and then licked it. 'What are you doing? Ugh, Sherlock!'

'Stay still,' he ordered, dragging the damp cloth over John's cheek like a mother wiping jam off their toddler's face. The fabric came away marked with mud and one or two tiny dots of blood. 'I think Lestrade was right. Some antiseptic might be a good idea. It looks a bit inflamed. Chris' filthy fingernails, no doubt.'

'Great.' John grimaced, forcing himself not to rub at it as Sherlock folded the handkerchief like a man preserving a relic, fastidious to a fault.

'Come on. I know a short-cut. We can be home within twenty minutes.' Sherlock led the way out of the gardens and back into London's rain-soaked metropolis, guiding him unerringly back towards Baker Street.

They were about ten minutes away when the sight of a nearby shop intruded on John's thoughts, making him swear under his breath. When Sherlock looked askance in his direction, he growled, 'Is there anything in the fridge but fingers? Milk? Food? Anything?'

'I'm not going in there,' Sherlock said firmly, folding his arms as John turned towards the Tesco Express on the other side of the road. 'Can't it wait?'

'I don't want to have to go out again in weather like this. Once I'm back in Baker Street, I'm not leaving it again.'

'Then I'll meet you back home.'

'Sherlock –'

'I'll light the fire. Buy some TCP while you're in there. I used the last of it in the experiment about ears.'

It was a poor excuse of a compromise, but John was too tired to argue. He'd grab the basics, and he'd get the job done more quickly without Sherlock trailing after him, complaining every step of the way. 'Fine, but there'd better be a cup of tea waiting for me. Give me your bank card.'

Sherlock surrendered his wallet before striding off, leaving John to face the crowds packed within the small supermarket. The schools had just let out, and the aisles were full of parents and their screaming kids. Most of them gave John a wide berth, probably because he looked like he'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. Throw in a glare or two, and people left him well enough alone.

By the time he'd filled the basket with essentials and enough to feed him and Sherlock for a few days, the queues at the self-checkout were immense. He stood in line, trying to contain his impatience as his wet clothes grew clammy against his skin.

The chip and pin machine mercifully gave him no trouble, and a quick peek through the door showed him that the rain had stopped. Not that he could get much more wet if he tried, but he was determined to be grateful for small mercies as he slogged back to 221B, the plastic bags in each hand straining beneath the weight of the groceries.

All his thoughts were focussed on changing into dry clothes and washing the mud off his face, and he almost didn't see Mrs Hudson walking towards him until they met at the front door.

'John, look at the state of you!' She gave him a fond smile as she shook her head. 'You boys. The things you get up to. Let's get you inside before you catch a chill.' She pulled out her keys, saving John the trouble of digging through his pockets.

'Thanks. We, er, we had to chase someone through Kensington Gardens.' He looked down at his grass-stained knees and the clots of mud clinging stubbornly to his boots. 'Could have picked a better day for it.'

'And I'll bet Sherlock didn't get nearly as filthy,' she said with a smile, standing aside to let him in. 'Try not to get mud on my carpet, dear. I've just cleaned.'

'Right, I –' A loud crash ripped through the air, cutting off John's reply and making Mrs Hudson jump at his side. The tinkling crescendo of breaking glass fell silent, and John cocked his head, his heart in his throat.

'What is he doing up there?' she demanded, her hands fluttering to her throat in shock.

'Don't,' he ordered, abandoning the shopping on the floor before grabbing her wrist, halting her ascent to their flat. 'Something's not right.'

He sniffed, his guts cramping as a sweat broke out between his shoulder-blades. The fragrance was faint, almost concealed beneath a false, chemical mask. It was not Sherlock's comforting nothing-scent, but something synthetic that made John's nose itch and sting. Yet it was not the only odour he could detect. A rusty tang coated the back of his throat: blood, laced with the bitterness of fear and the dull, smoky essence of anger, which strengthened with each passing moment.

'Where's my gun?'

To her credit, Mrs Hudson didn't ask questions. She hurried into her flat as fast as her hip would allow, returning with the Sig clasped carefully in her grip. 'I know you told me not to keep it loaded, but...' She trailed off, handing over the weapon with a shrug.

He didn't stop to thank her, checking the clip as he dashed up the stairs, not bothering with stealth as he threw himself at the door to their flat. Now, he could hear growled words, intimate mutterings that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Worse, within the lethal harmony was the steady sibilance of soft, choked gasps: a voice held captive beneath powerful hands.

'Sherlock?' John lunged forward, clearing the living room before turning to the kitchen, taking in everything in less than a second.

Shattered glassware lay like jagged stars across the floor, ground to dust in places. Chairs had been overturned, and the fridge rattled threateningly as Sherlock struggled against it. The fingers of one hand clawed at the grip around his throat as the other dragged at the stranger's suit, pulling the fabric taut.

Sherlock was strong, but the man holding him down appeared indifferent to the forceful kicks scraping down his shins and the bite of nails into his flesh. He was too focussed on making Sherlock suffer to consider his own pain. Even John didn't warrant a second's attention – as if an Alpha with a gun was not worthy of notice – and a leaden thud of anger pulsed through his body, surging through his muscles and turning his nerves molten.

He pressed the Sig to the man's skull. Cool steel kissed the skin behind his ear, applying suitable emphasis, and when John spoke, his voice was as steady as his hands.

'Get off him.'

He was prepared for visceral outrage, but when the man half-turned to look at him, his dark brown eyes remained impassive, travelling down to his shoes and back up again as if he were no more threatening than a painting on the wall. A sneer twitched across thin lips before he looked away, pressing his thumbs into Sherlock's throat.

'So this is what you've been doing,' he said, each word calm as if he were discussing the weather before a razor-wire of spite cut through his next statement. 'You filthy. Little. Whore.'

Every muscle in John's back tensed, his shoulders locked solid as he planted his feet and jabbed the muzzle of the gun forward hard enough to bruise. His finger tightened on the trigger as another wave of distress, more dense than before, flooded the room. Sherlock rarely displayed true terror, and its vile perfume was a paralytic, blanking John's mind as it confirmed his fears. This was no angry client or vengeful criminal, enraged at the detective who'd ruined his plans.

It was Alexander.

Chapter Text

Raindrops fell to the floor as Sherlock traipsed into 221B Baker Street, breathing out a sigh of relief as he closed the door on London's watercolour streets. The Belstaff slid from his shoulders, plucked free to hang on the hook in the front hall before he trotted up the stairs, stepping into the flat and heading for his bedroom.

A faint chemical smell made him wrinkle his nose, and he was reminded of an inadvisable experiment a couple of days ago. Its pervasive fumes had imbued the furnishings and wallpaper. John was no longer affected, but to Sherlock they appeared to be getting worse, and he grimaced as he strode over to his wardrobe and pulled open the doors.

Peeling off his jacket, he began to unbutton his shirt, creased and marred by dirt from the chase across the park. His shoes and trousers weren't much better, and Sherlock contemplated what to wear. While Lestrade and John may feel the case had reached the point of wait-and-see, there were still avenues of exploration open to him. He might need to go out again later. Best dress for the occasion.

Quickly, he reached for one of the evidence bags he kept in his bedside table, sheathing his fingers in it as he groped in his pockets. Contamination was unavoidable, but he did his best to minimise it as he pulled out one of the pills that he had purchased from Donnelly's dealer.

It had been the work of a moment to remove it from the package before handing the rest over to Lestrade. John would not doubt disapprove, but what he didn't know couldn't hurt him. Besides, the police would take far too long with their analysis. Even if John insisted he wait until tomorrow before venturing out again, a couple of hours in the lab would give him the answer he needed long before it was in the DI's power to provide the information.

Placing the tablet to one side, Sherlock stripped down to his underwear, removing his wet socks before he began to redress. A purple shirt covered his pale skin, the sleeves folded back and the collar left undone as dark trousers clad his legs and black cotton hid his pallid toes from view. The chill made it tempting to don a housecoat, but he restrained himself. John liked this outfit, and he did not want to ruin the impact. It was gratifying to watch the pupils flare in those blue eyes, or feel John's sneaking, sideways glances, heavy with appreciation. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, such attentions were chaste, but Sherlock hoarded them all the same.

He padded through to the bathroom, grabbing one of the towels and dabbing the water from his curls, idly running through what John had asked of him. A fire in the grate and a cup of tea. Of course, he probably didn't think Sherlock would keep his promise. Normally, such things were beneath his attention, but John had done admirably today, the careful application of his brute force thrilling to witness. Making the tea to show his approval was, perhaps, a bit excessive, but he supposed he could put on the kettle.

The sound of a door closing made him look up with a frown. Of course, the one day Sherlock took his time, John got home with the groceries quicker than expected. With a sigh, he pitched the towel aside before stepping over the bathroom threshold, his voice raised in greeting. 'Back already? You're not normally...'

He trailed off as he registered the air around him. The atmosphere still carried John's fragrance, but it was an imprint left by his earlier presence, not something fresh and rain-laden. Instead, the synthetic odour Sherlock had assumed were wraiths of his experiment had become acidic and uncomfortable, something designed to block out other, more telling perfumes.

He wasn't alone.

Leaning back, he pulled a bottle of deodorant from the mirrored cabinet above the sink, his finger poised to vent the powdered spray in an attacker's face. Perhaps it was not the most efficient of weapons, John's gun would be more convincing, but he had enlisted Mrs Hudson's help in hiding the Sig, and Sherlock didn't have time to retrieve it.

Cautiously, he inched towards the living room, his mind racing. He hadn't heard the front door open, and he knew he'd shut it behind him when he came in. Mrs Hudson was out, so the back way would be locked, and there were no indications of forced entry. Whoever was here had announced themselves deliberately. They wanted him alert to their presence, or perhaps they believed it was their right to stand in the home he and John shared, bold and unrepentant.

Sherlock closed his eyes as the obvious conclusion came to mind. He had dismissed the scent of rot and stagnant water earlier, ignoring its warning in favour of freedom's fantasy. Now, he could detect a hint of the same dreaded smell, and bile burned the back of his throat as his breath caught beneath his ribs.

Muscles shook with the urge to flee: another life left behind, just as he'd described to John that morning. It surged in his veins and tightened his spine, leaving him shuddering beneath its allure. Desperation made him long to cringe and curl up small – less of a target. His shoulders rounded and his back bowed: an instinctive cower, and the moment Sherlock noticed his body's response, anger flared through his frame.

He had spent years being bent to another man's will, taking the easy way out as the only escape. Now, history was repeating itself, the turn of the wheel bringing him back to a point in time where the same choice lay before him. He could stand his ground and fight for everything – his home with John and the sanctuary of the life he had built for himself – or he could run away and begin the cycle anew.

His breath shivered between his lips as he straightened, bracing his shoulders and clenching his jaw. This time, that was not how it could go. Even if he could throw away everything he'd worked for, there was still the matter of John, oblivious to the threat that awaited him. If Sherlock escaped, bolting to one of his many pre-arranged locations, would he be able to warn John in time, or would he walk blind into a disaster?

Alexander's reactions could be unpredictable at best. Would he leave John alone, deeming him irrelevant? Would he call the authorities? Would he engage John himself, content to fight for some warped notion of justice?

There were many things Sherlock was willing to leave to chance, but John's safety was not one of them. If he could, he'd deal with this himself.

'Don't linger in doorways, Sherlock. It's unbecoming.' That familiar voice was carefully moderated, obscured in layers of false kindness and hateful condescension. Yet on the flip of a coin it hardened, firm consonants hammered home with quiet vehemence. 'I've told you before.'

Sherlock stilled the flinch of his body, forcing his first shuffling step to become a stride as he faced the man in his living room. Behind his back, his sweat-slicked palm slipped on the cool deodorant can, and he shifted to get a better grip as he nodded in benign greeting.

'Alexander.'

It was tempting to ask why he was here, but the query was redundant. Alexander had only one purpose, and Sherlock would resist his efforts with everything he had. He was not about to be dragged back to the other man's dominion. No, silence was the best choice. Any question, no matter how innocent, would be taken as a challenge, and Sherlock could see the turbulent resentment being held below the surface of his pleasant mask.

Steadily, he observed, noting all the changes years of separation had wrought on the Alpha to whom he was bound. Age had begun to sketch lines into his tanned complexion, more on his brow than around his eyes and mouth. There was a faint flush to his cheeks: a scatter of broken capillaries that suggested excessive alcohol consumption, though his body was still honed by hours of exercise for vanity's sake, and his hair and manicure remained immaculate.

However, while the cheaper physical maintenance had been upheld, his charcoal suit was developing a shine at the elbows and knees, and a tattered cuff did not escape Sherlock's attention. The Breitling on his wrist was several years old, not the latest style, and the glass face was scratched. Nicotine stained skin suggested that the occasional cigarette had become an addiction, but it was the other signs of chemical dependence that chilled Sherlock's blood, adding an additional element of instability.

The arches of Alexander's nostrils were reddened, fractionally inflamed and half-hidden by a touch of make-up. Despite his physical strength being apparent at first glance, his flesh looked papery and dry. Sherlock was too cognisant of the signs of substance abuse to dismiss the evidence. Alexander might not be high, nor exhibiting the effects of some kind of crash, but his active habit wrote its story all over him. Perhaps, like Amelia Donnelly, he was intelligent enough to control himself and resist a binge, but that offered little comfort.

'Is that all I get?' He spread his hands, about the same size as Sherlock's but broader, more brutal. 'Not even a hello?'

Sherlock struggled not to shudder where he stood. Alexander's rages were always the same. Bar one notable exception, he did not raise his voice. He spoke in the steady, level tones of a man laying down facts. Screamed abuse was easier to rationalise, but that was not how he operated. Instead, it was like a game of chess, manipulative to a fault. Arguments were twisted to make him look like a victim, and if Sherlock refused to engage, his silence was construed as surrender or agreement.

'I understand. I do.' Alexander smiled then, inviting, but it didn't reach his eyes. 'I know how it must have been for you, but I've been giving it a lot of thought, Sherlock, about what you did. What you've been doing.' He gestured around him, benevolent. 'I know you struggle to admit you've made a mistake, but it's all right.' He stepped forward, narrowing the distance between them. 'I'm willing to overlook your behaviour. Just come home, and all will be forgiven.'

An outraged breath caught in Sherlock's chest: a hard rock of air that he couldn't dislodge as fury and disbelief warred for supremacy. Forgiveness was not in Alexander's vocabulary, not when he could gather ammunition to sway others to his bidding. If Sherlock went back with him, even that paltry effort wouldn't be necessary. The only times he'd ever warranted a hollow attempt at compromise was when he'd slipped through Alexander's grasp. The moment he set foot back in that house, he became nothing but an object to be used at his Alpha's leisure.

He was within his rights to use force – to overpower Sherlock and take him back regardless of his protests – but that was difficult to dismiss as the actions of a wronged party. No, he would rather convince Sherlock to return of his own free will.

As if that would ever happen.

'How gracious of you,' he managed, sucking in a deep breath as he fought back a scathing retort. That would only play into Alexander's hands, offering him the moral high ground of rationality while Sherlock railed against him, 'but I'll have to decline.'

A sigh stirred the air. 'Must you always be so trying?' he asked mildly. 'I'd hoped these past few years would have granted you some maturity, but I see you're much the same as ever.' His lips curved in a leer. 'Although I have to say, physically, the time has been a blessing. You were always beautiful, but now?' The unapologetic lechery in his gaze made Sherlock recoil, and he desperately tried to think around the circling fear that blinkered his mind. 'You're exquisite. I got a good view of that a few minutes ago.'

Realisation stuttered across Sherlock's awareness as nausea turned his stomach. His bedroom window. He always left it open a fraction, preferring a cool room, but it was also a fire escape, accessible by a metal staircase from the alleys behind Baker Street. Alexander must have used it as a way in, probably knocking out the wedge that held it in place. Worse, at Sherlock's request, the immediate area at the back of the flat was left unobserved by CCTV, a pre-agreed black spot for his convenience. No doubt surrounding cameras would have caught a glimpse of Alexander, but would it be enough to alert Mycroft?

'You watched me getting changed.' Flat and hard, the words cut through the air as rivers of repulsion ran down Sherlock's body. As violations went, it was comparatively minor, but that did not make it any less disturbing.

'And why shouldn't I?' Alexander asked, easing forward another step and running a diffident hand through his hair. 'You're my Omega, Sherlock, and it's about time you recognised your place. I've been nothing but tolerant.'

A scoff escaped him, brimming with resentment as recriminations clouded his mind. '“Tolerant” is not the word I'd use. I know where I belong, and it's not with you.'

Dark eyes flashed, and he stiffened as Alexander reached out, running a finger along the ridge of Sherlock's cheekbone. It was a mockery of a caress: a man admiring his possession, and Sherlock snarled as he jerked his head away.

Immediately, Alexander followed, his hand closing like a vice around Sherlock's jaw. 'You don't get to speak to me like that. We are going home.'

'This is home!'

With a mighty wrench, Sherlock tore himself away, his hand whipping up to spray the deodorant in Alexander's eyes. His hoarse cry of pain echoed around them, but he did not raise his hands to his face. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he blinked furiously, and Sherlock dodged sideways, ducking under Alexander's arm in an effort to get away.

A solid backhand stopped him in his tracks, throwing him off balance as he bit his tongue and the taste of iron exploded in his mouth. Before he could blink, Alexander grabbed his collar, the cloth protesting as he slammed Sherlock back against the edge of the kitchen table, making the glassware on its surface rattle in warning.

Hard wood bruised the back of his hips as he arched beneath Alexander's weight, his body flexed and robbed of all leverage. A grip like steel closed around his wrist, and his impromptu weapon fell to the floor as he glared into the face of the man above him, his teeth bared.

'If you drag me back, I'll escape. I've done it before, and I doubt you'd provide any new challenge.' His heart pulsed in his chest as he scraped together a desperate lie and lined the next words up like a firing squad: death to all of Alexander's ambitions. 'Besides, there's no point. I can't give you what you want. Not any more.'

He licked his lips as Alexander froze, his expression wiped blank for one beautiful second of disbelief before a storm of emotion rolled across his features. It was not gentle remorse, but bottomless rage: a lethal font of power as his gaze turned hard. 'What?' He leant back, dragging Sherlock upright and ignoring the stifled, half-punch that slammed into his shoulder.

'After everything I did to make sure I never carried your child, do you think I'd leave it to chance once I got away? You'd have more luck with a Rile.'

The table clattered again as Sherlock was hurled against it, but this time he was ready. His knee jammed, unforgiving, into Alexander's gut, and even in the restrained space he had enough room to curve his fingers into claws, jabbing them into the gaps between his ribs.

The scent of Alpha aggression clogged his nose, overcoming whatever Alexander had used to disguise his fragrance, and Sherlock swore inwardly. It was still half-obscured, but this close, he couldn't miss it. Alexander's system would be flooded with adrenaline, fuelling his outrage and dulling the pain of anything Sherlock threw his way. Any upper hand he may have had was lost as Alexander's humid breath ghosted between them.

'You're lying,' he whispered, wrenching Sherlock's arms above his head and pinning them in place, pulling his body taut. Wetting his lips, he stared at his mouth with calculated hunger. 'You'd never take that risk.'

The bite was abrupt, sending a bolt of pain along Sherlock's nerves as Alexander sank his teeth hard into his bottom lip. He tried to jerk away, but there was nowhere to go. All he could do was twist his wrist, finally yanking it free and slamming the heel of his hand into Alexander's ear. The blow made him rear away, and Sherlock followed, crashing his knuckles into that hated face.

'You don't get to touch me anymore,' he hissed, his hand throbbing as Alexander lifted his fingers to his cheek, touching the broken skin and staring at the blood in disbelief. 'And I'm telling the truth.'

A deadly calm fell, and Sherlock tried to still the tremors taking root in his limbs as Alexander's gaze swept over his frame. There was ferocity in his expression, but more frightening was the steady logic in his eyes. He was not a man lost to his temper. Instead, he was planning his next move, and when he spoke again, it was level and indifferent.

'Then what use are you?'

Sherlock stumbled back as Alexander leapt, his fingers wrapping around his throat. A chair overturned, and the smack of his hip into the corner of the table sent the precarious glassware falling to the floor. It exploded like bombs: a furious, crystalline cacophony. The cool expanse of the fridge hit his back, wobbling as he was pinned against it.

The thrum of his pulse in his ears was a staggering beat, and every sliver of air he snatched was barbed wire in his throat. He tried to fight him off, but his muscles grew weaker with each passing second, his vision tingeing sepia at its edges.

He had hoped his assertion that he was no longer fertile would drive Alexander to turn his back and go, giving him up as a lost cause. He should have known better. Years of absence had softened the harsh corners of Alexander's nature in his memories, muting his recollections. Like a child breaking a toy to spite another, Alexander would rather see him dead than let him go, even if that meant choking him with his bare hands.

It was no half-hearted effort. Strong thumbs dug in below his Adam's apple, cutting off his air for short pulses of time before allowing Sherlock to grab one brief sip of oxygen. Not enough to allow him to escape, but adequate to demonstrate that, even here in Baker Street, power over his life still lay in his Alpha's hands.

Alexander watched him, not with passion but with purpose, as if analysing every moment. His arms softened, no longer rigid but bent at the elbows, allowing him to press his hips and chest close. Instantly, Sherlock could feel how much he was enjoying himself, and he wheezed a protest as that voice murmured in his ear.

'You see, I think you're all talk. I think if I get a knot in you, you'll swell with child soon enough.' Brown eyes dipped down to Sherlock's lips before looking up at him again. 'Why don't we try it and see who's right?'

Sherlock could only manage a wheezed snarl in response, his ears ringing as shadows drew across his brain. Perhaps he was beginning to hear things, because just for a moment, he swore he heard John calling his name.

A metallic click cut through the kitchen, and Alexander's grip loosened just enough for Sherlock to drag in a whisper of air. He blinked ferociously, renewing his efforts to extract himself from the manacles of Alexander's clutching hands, but the blood was thudding, sullen, in his veins, and he could do little more than wriggle fretfully.

'Get off him.'

John's voice could have ended wars. It was an order – a command from on high – a tone Sherlock knew to obey without question.

Alexander's gaze met his, warped with disgust, before he glanced behind him. The cool line of the Sig did not make an impression, and Sherlock watched him examine John from head-to-toe: a slow, careful inspection.

Normally, John looked almost benign: a smiling man in a nondescript jumper. Now, the illusion was shattered. Even without the sick gleam of the gun in his hand, there would be no disguising the cold power in John's gaze. Smears of mud daubed his skin with war paint. His back was ramrod straight, his feet spread and his hands competent on the pistol's grip. None of it was idle threat, and yet Alexander appeared not to register the danger.

Even if he was unimpressed with John's physical presence, the smell was another matter. The addition of John to the scene had changed the bouquet of the atmosphere, over-riding the acidic, chemical stench that lingered around Alexander with a bass musk: one that warned of strength and peril. Alexander's marsh-undertones battled for supremacy with John's richer fragrance. It was a savage cocktail, yet either Alexander was too stupid to register its importance, or what was almost overpowering to Sherlock was failing to have an impact.

He felt the exact moment when Alexander realised that John was an Alpha. Like the roll of a wave, the antagonism thickened. Sharp thumbnails cut crescents into Sherlock's throat as Alexander turned back to him, pressing in once more. 'So this is what you've been doing,' he murmured, his conversational tone at odds with the anger staining his cheeks. 'You filthy. Little. Whore.'

There was no warning as metal smacked hard into Alexander's skull: a powerful collision of the Sig's grip with his occipital bone. The pressure vanished from around Sherlock's neck, leaving him choking on the air that flooded his lungs. With nothing to hold him up, his knees went, too infirm to bear his weight. Tacky linoleum pressed against his palms as he hunkered down, blind to anything but the clamours of his body. Blood rushed in his ears, driven on by the clumsy race of his heart. His stomach hollowed out with each ragged gasp, and his throat burned as he coughed hard enough to gag.

Slowly, the black spots dancing across his vision began to fade, and he blinked them aside, lifting his head to take in the scene. Not that he could see much. John had planted himself in front of Sherlock, shielding him with denim-clad legs. He was smaller than Alexander, shorter and not quite as broad, but one glance and Sherlock knew neither aspect could be mistaken for a weakness, not when John radiated lethal competence from every angle.

The gun didn't falter, levelled at the spot between Alexander's eyes. Despite the ferocity of John's blow, he did not look unduly affected, too high on adrenaline to notice the blood in his hair. Instead, he looked as if he would happily impale himself on the barrel of the Sig if it meant getting his hands on Sherlock again. Blunt fingers clenched into fists at his side, and the wrench of his lips revealed teeth that gleamed like ivory in the kitchen's sallow light.

'So you'll fight me every day of your life, deprive me my right as your Alpha, but you'll lie back and spread your legs willingly for – for this?' He gestured to John, not bothering to address him directly.

Sherlock managed a shake of his head, agonisingly aware of the volatility of this situation. Alexander's control was slipping, filling the flat with fury's fugue, and it wouldn't be long before John responded in kind. He was showing admirable restraint, but Sherlock could see the flare of his nostrils and the coldness in his eyes.

His sluggish mind gained speed, trying to think of a way to avert the disaster unfolding in front of him. John and Alexander were rapidly approaching a flashpoint: one where every instinct, already itching for a fight, exploded into action and the world fell down around their ears.

'It's not like that,' he croaked, his voice a ghost of its former self.

'Why else would anyone tolerate you?' Alexander lunged, his hand stretched and grasping.

John struck, a lightning bolt of movement, grabbing Alexander's wrist and twisting it, spinning them so he could thrust him back across the room and resume his place in front of Sherlock, an unmoving sentry. He was breathing hard, his lips bleached white as he pressed them together, but the bedrock of his restraint remained intact.

'You're in my way,' Alexander hissed, a muscle jumping in his jaw as he surged forward again, his eventual acknowledgement of John's existence grudging at best. 'Move.'

John gave a mirthless laugh. 'No chance.' He leant his weight back a fraction, but Sherlock knew it wasn't any form of retreat. He stood so that his leg was gently pressed against Sherlock's shoulder: a faint comfort. He didn't ask if he was all right or call Sherlock's strength into question. He simply stood there, an impassable barricade of human flesh and bone. 'Leave Sherlock alone, and fuck off out of my flat.'

'You're welcome to this –' Alexander gestured around him. '– place. That, however, is mine.' He jabbed a finger in Sherlock's direction, the movement pressing him into the unmoving presence of John's gun. 'And I'm taking him with me.'

'No you're not. Not if he doesn't want to go.'

Weakly, Sherlock got to his feet, leaning against the fridge for support as Alexander's words slipped through the air like silk, soft and dismissive. 'Why would anyone care what he wants?'

Hatred went nova in John's gaze, his entire stance moving from passive potential to visceral action. The weight of his decision, to fire or not, was plain. Sherlock could actually see John weighing the possible consequences of a prolonged prison sentence – a life forever changed – and finding them acceptable.

A tight sound caught in his throat as he pushed himself forward. He clutched at John's jumper, beseeching, before curling his grip around his arm. A frail shove urged the pistol aside, and his plea cracked in the air, robbed of volume but not intensity by Alexander’s abuse.

'Don’t! You can't kill him.'

He expected to have to wrest the gun from John's grip and scream to make himself heard, but the response was instantaneous. John ripped his gaze away from Alexander, a frown pleating his brow as he stared at Sherlock, obedient, even if he didn't grasp the gravity of what would happen if he pulled the trigger. The Sig, no longer poised to deliver its lethal verdict, pointed at the floor as the air crackled around them, taut and electric.

Alexander leapt, throwing himself against John and wrestling for the weapon. The crack of a shot rang in Sherlock's ears, but there was no time to see where the projectile had gone as the pistol clattered across the floor, dangerous still.

Sherlock stared after it, his mind racing as Alexander and John grappled with each other, one intent on getting to Sherlock, the other determined to keep him at bay. The temptation to snatch up the gun and bring everything to an end burned into his bones like molten steel, but he cast it aside. There was too much room for error: a stray bullet, and the equilibrium of his life would be shaken forever. Either Alexander or John could end up dead as a result. The former would ruin the compromise of Sherlock's current existence, and the latter – a world without John – did not bear thinking about.

No, this battle had always been about control. What mattered now was making Alexander leave. For years, Sherlock had imagined holding a position of power over him, delineating his weaknesses to be used against him. Now, the gleam of a scalpel on the floor caught his eye, and a plan unfurled in his mind.

Perhaps terrorising him with threats would be enough, but if not – if force was what was required to make the wretched man leave him and John in peace – then Sherlock would not be found wanting. He knew how to inflict pain, and Alexander had given him reason enough over the years to deal out punishment without a hint of regret.

Stepping forward, he scooped up the blade from where it had fallen on the floor. It was not a brutal killing machine, but a tool crafted for precision that could be pressed to the deadliest of uses. Perhaps it lacked impact, but every movement would be guided by his hand, not left to the spring and release of a firing mechanism.

He closed his fingers tight around the handle, waiting until a strong right-hook from John sent Alexander stumbling.

Sherlock's foot lashed out, slamming into the back of Alexander's knee as his hand pressed down on one shoulder, driving him to the floor. His nails scraped over Alexander's scalp as he grabbed him by the hair, exposing the column of his throat, the tendons arched like violin strings across their frame.

Cool steel kissed the hot flesh over Alexander's pulse, and all movement stilled. One hand, drawn down to punch upwards, loosened from its fist, splayed in mock surrender, and Alexander tipped his head back further, looking up into Sherlock's face.

For a man on his knees, he failed to appear submissive. His face may have portrayed lines of shocked appeasement, but his eyes held only leashed rage, biding its time. 'Now, Sherlock. Don't do anything you might regret. You need me.'

'Not in one piece,' he rasped as he slid the edge of the scalpel downwards, his shoulders shaking with the effort of holding him in place. The man didn't struggle, but any vulnerability would be exploited. Sherlock had no intention of giving him that opportunity.

Alexander's nose was already bleeding from one of John's blows, and the slice of the knife, shallow but emphatic, added to the stench as Sherlock angled his wrist to stab down and in. 'One push. If you're fortunate, I'd miss most major blood vessels, but I'd hit your spine.' He let out a quivering sigh, ignoring the pain in his throat. 'Not here, maybe. Too high. I need you breathing, after all.'

The blade slit apart cloth as he dragged it down to the level of Alexander's diaphragm. 'Below your waist, though? There's nothing down there I require.'

Alexander made a choked sound, and the sheen of nervous sweat across his top lip was the most gratifying thing Sherlock had experienced since John first breathed “amazing.” For once, there was genuine fear in those dark brown eyes; Alexander watched him as if he were a threat, rather than an ornament to be admired.

'You'd spend the rest of your life in jail,' he hissed, his muscles jumping beneath Sherlock's touch. 'You should be there already for daring to raise a hand against me. For everything you've done!'

'An Omega has no legal agency,' Sherlock husked. 'Any crime they commit is the responsibility of their Alpha. This would be self-harm by proxy. As for the things I did in the past, you know how that would reflect on you: an Alpha unable to control what's his.'

Alexander struck like a snake, too quick for Sherlock to anticipate, grabbing his wrist and grinding the delicate bones together. A vicious yank shot arrows of pain along his arm, and he clenched his fist around the handle of the scalpel, hanging on to his one advantage as Alexander sought to break him all over again.

He barely registered the blur of John's movement. Only in retrospect did he realise he'd been inching towards the gun. In one quick swoop, the Sig was back in John's palm where it belonged, the barrel as black as an eclipse.

'Stop it,' he ordered, pointing the pistol towards the terminus of the thin, crimson trail left in the scalpel's wake. 'Sherlock would have struggled to paralyse you with that, but he'd have been careful about it. Precise. A bullet's not so neat.'

'Shoot me now, and it'll hit him as well,' Alexander snarled. He pulled Sherlock's arm, dragging him forward so his chest was draped over Alexander's shoulders and back, his body bent at an intimate angle despite his struggles.

John shrugged, his eyes darting up to meet Sherlock's gaze. His finger shifted on the trigger, moving to a stronger, more definitive cinch as Sherlock slowly nodded his consent. 'Nothing he wouldn't survive, especially with immediate medical attention.'

'I recommend you do not take Doctor Watson's words lightly.' Mycroft's footsteps tapped across the floor of 221B, measured as if he were out for an afternoon stroll, rather than mediating a bizarre hostage situation. Sherlock hadn't even heard him enter, too absorbed with the threat of strife steadily building within the confines of Baker Street. 'He takes prodigious care over Sherlock's safety. You would not be the first man to fall foul of a bullet in Sherlock's name.'

Reluctantly, Alexander's grip slackened, allowing Sherlock to free his aching right hand. Immediately, he stepped back, not daring to cradle it against his chest. It would only be another sign of weakness to be used against him. Instead, he stood equidistant from Mycroft and John, the third point of a triangle in which Alexander occupied the centre.

For the first time since all this began, he looked beaten. A grudging scowl marred his once attractive face as he stared at Mycroft, his loathing reined in by the respect Sherlock's brother commanded. It was sickening that neither John, being not of the elite, nor Sherlock as an Omega, were granted the same consideration. For all their threats, Alexander deemed himself above them. It was only when faced with Mycroft's power and wealth that he subsided.

'I profess myself disappointed, Mr Cunningham,' Mycroft said, his eyes narrowing over a thin smile. 'I had thought I made myself clear last time we spoke that you were never to seek out Sherlock again.'

Alexander was breathing heavily, and Sherlock watched, his gaze taking in everything from the man on his knees to the two Alphas towering over him. John looked hard and ragged, his face unforgiving as his hand remained tight around the gun. With every second, the air was flooding with pheromones, charging the atmosphere and inciting a mirror response. Yet John, exposed for longer than Mycroft, did not look like a man losing his grip on his rationality. Rather than blinding him, his anger was fuel for his righteousness, held in devastating restraint.

Even Sherlock's brother was influenced, the story writ large in the tightness of his knuckles around the handle of the umbrella. His eyes were chips of ice beneath furrowed brows, his displeasure finding its outlet in his disdain.

'Sherlock is mine,' Alexander gritted out, keeping his palms spread as he got to his feet. He flicked dust from his knees before meeting Mycroft's gaze, his expression an ugly façade of civility. 'Bought and paid for, Mr Holmes. I'm here to reclaim my property.'

'Then you will be disappointed.' Mycroft stepped forward, the lines bracketing his lips deepening as he clenched his jaw in disgust. 'It was at my brother's urging that, last time, I agreed to exercise restraint. Your freedom and reputation lie entirely upon his mercy, not mine. Believe me, much like Doctor Watson I have no need for your ongoing survival. The only person in this room whose interests align even fractionally with yours is Sherlock himself.'

'You have no right to withhold him from me. If I made a claim, or prosecuted that –' He gestured to John, who lifted his chin in response. '– the outcome would be in my favour.'

Mycroft picked some imaginary lint from his sleeve, inspecting his fingernails before he shook his head. 'I think not. Dragging this into the public eye would not offer any benefits, nor reflect well on your family. I doubt your mother would be impressed by the body of evidence I have collected with regards your treatment of Sherlock. Not to mention the Omega woman you briefly called yours in the interim between my brother's first departure and your initial retrieval.'

'You know nothing!'

Alexander's denial echoed around the room, and Sherlock repressed a twitch of alarm, feeling the weight of John's gaze and deliberately avoiding his eye. However, that didn't mean he was blind to the shift of John's body. He drifted closer until they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, John a bare inch away. He did not crowd Sherlock with his shorter frame, nor thrust comfort upon him. He merely made himself available, a presence on which Sherlock could lean, should he wish to do so.

Mycroft noticed it too, and Sherlock thought he saw a shadow of approval in his brother's face before he returned his attention to Alexander, stepping into his personal space and broaching the physical stalemate as he looked down his sharp nose.

'On the contrary, I know everything. Your mother is a traditionalist. Her views on how an Omega should be treated – with respect, regardless of their behaviour – married firmly with those of my own family. It was one of the deciding factors in your bonding. How would she react, knowing the details of your actions over the past seventeen years?' He smiled. 'That's the problem with trials. Public. Messy. I can imagine the consequences.'

A wash of blue light flickered through the living room, giving the scene a ghostly edge as Alexander's eyes widened.

'Of course,' Mycroft murmured, 'if you're so confident, there's no reason we cannot initiate criminal proceedings. I would be fascinated to discover who would come out on top.'

Alexander bowed his head, his gaze crawling across the glass-strewn floor before he shot a venomous glare in Sherlock's direction. He was backed into a corner, and everyone knew it. Mycroft was not bluffing any more than John had been, but his weapon of choice was the threat of exposure, rather than the snap of a bullet.

Someone – Lestrade, Sherlock surmised: a neighbour must have reported the gunshot – hammered on the front door. Alexander shifted, clearly caught between the wall of his wounded pride and the logical need for a retreat. A lesser man would have threatened, spouting vitriol in the face of his defeat. Instead, he managed a respectful nod in Mycroft's direction. 'At a more convenient time, perhaps, Mr Holmes. I'll see myself out. If you'll call off your dog downstairs?'

'Detective Inspector Lestrade doesn't answer to me. If he can be considered under anyone's influence, again, you need only look to my brother.'

'You might want to leave the way you came in,' Sherlock rasped, folding his arms and trying not to wince at the pain in his hand. 'Lestrade knows a criminal when he sees one. He won't hesitate to arrest you.' A lie, of course, but Alexander wasn't to know that. Sherlock's dignity had been shredded enough in the past half hour; he had no intention of letting Alexander leave here with his head held high.

For a second, he thought it would be the Alpha's breaking point. He felt the wire of fury stretch thin and sensed both Mycroft and John ready themselves in response. The air was a dense fug of ferocity, and Sherlock dimly heard Lestrade swear as Mrs Hudson let him in and he caught his first scent of the stormy atmosphere upstairs. 'I'd hurry if I were you.'

Alexander loomed, a tower of violence barely leashed. His teeth flashed in a snarl, and John took a half-step forward, the Sig in his hand the only encouragement any sane man would require to depart. It was enough to tip the scales fractionally once more, and Sherlock's shoulders slumped as Alexander barged around him. He disappeared into the bedroom and ducked out onto the fire escape just as Lestrade's pounding feet reached the top of the stairs.

'What's going on?' the DI demanded, out of breath and wide-eyed. 'Your landlady called me asking for help, then I get reports of shots fired?' He raised his eyebrows at John, who staunchly refused to put down the Sig. It was plain for anyone to see that he was too anxious to stand-down, his body attuned to the path of Alexander's exit as if expecting him to storm back in and whisk Sherlock away.

'An unwelcome visitor,' Mycroft replied, his usually smooth tones frayed as he pressed his phone to his ear and addressed a peon on the other end of the line. 'Target departed from the rear of Baker Street. Notify me when you have made the acquisition.'

'Mycroft.' Sherlock sighed, trying to ignore the traitorous shudders of his body. Every joint felt boneless, and rashes of unease crawled through him to coil in the cradle of his hips. His instinct was to seek out somewhere safe and curl up in the shadows until the danger had passed. Logically, he knew Alexander was gone, but there was no guarantee that he'd stay away.

Besides, as well as the threat of his eventual return, there was still the feedback loop of pheromones all around them. Every Alpha who picked up on the fragrance rife in the air would respond in kind: aggression over logic, and would produce their own compatible odour. Lestrade's arrival only worsened the situation, and while Sherlock knew he was not their target, the animal portion of his brain was not so easily convinced.

'I will merely restate the terms of the agreement, Sherlock. Unless, of course, you've changed your mind?'

Sherlock shook his head as he slumped back against the kitchen surface, clenching his teeth to stop them clattering together as the ebb of adrenaline combined with the vicious chill of shock. He loathed that Alexander could have this effect on him still – could bring about his fear with such ease. For God's sake, he'd faced down gun-toting criminals and never even blinked. All Alexander had to do was speak, and he was left defenceless.

Bowing his head, he fought for some self-control, barely registering the decisive sounds of John making the pistol safe and setting it aside. A moment later, a warm presence made him look up into pale blue eyes.

Where John's expression had been bitter and strained, there was now a softness to his features – not choreographed to manipulate, but evidence of a deliberate shift in priorities. His hands, not exactly clean, but steady and capable, were held between them at shoulder height, palm up and fingers curled in a beckoning gesture.

'You're hurt,' John murmured, a master of the obvious, but Sherlock couldn't bring himself to sneer in the face of such blatant concern. 'Can I take a look?'

The fact that he was asking permission when he would normally foist his medical opinion on Sherlock spoke volumes. He must look awful, and Sherlock huffed a sigh through his nose before he nodded, aware of every way his body ached. Once, violence had not been Alexander's forte, but now, and not for the first time, evidence to the contrary marred Sherlock's frame.

In contrast to such brutality, John's touch was angelic – cautious to the extreme, but not without purpose. He palpated Sherlock's throat, checking his hyoid and his cervical vertebrae, wincing and murmuring apologies every time Sherlock flinched. 'I should have looked you over straight away, not...' He jerked his head grimly towards the gun, his guilt over answering his instinctual urge to see an enemy from his territory apparent.

'And yet you did not,' Mycroft pointed out from where he stood a short distance away, his body locked so solid that he could have been made of marble. At any other time, Sherlock would have been amused by his brother's fallibility: a victim to the chemicals in the air as much as anyone else. Now, though, his thinly-veiled animosity only served to rile John's temper in return. 'More a soldier than a doctor, after all.'

'At least I was here,' John snapped, his touch belying none of his annoyance as he glared over his shoulder. 'Where the fuck were you? You've got the entire country under surveillance and you can't see when your own brother's in trouble?'

'I assumed he was in your safe hands! Clearly I misjudged your abilities.'

John twitched in Mycroft's direction, breathing hard through his nose and obviously struggling against the urge to throw a punch. Mycroft was not much better, a sneer fixed firmly on his face and his expression locked in Arctic arrogance.

Lestrade stepped between them, hands outspread in preparation to push them apart if necessary. 'Enough of that,' he growled, looking back and forth. 'Stop pissing about and tell me what the hell is going on.'

'For what purpose?' Mycroft retorted as John continued to glare, still hovering in Sherlock's orbit but unable to turn his back on the other two Alphas in the room. 'I hardly think a man of your limited abilities could be of assistance.'

'Oi!'

With a sigh, Sherlock gently eased John's hands away, ignoring the protest that bordered on a snarl as he pulled open one of the drawers, rooting through old takeaway menus until he found what he was looking for. The small tube was filled with a viscous pink substance, and he threw it gracelessly into the sink, dismissing the tinkle of smashed glass as he sat in a kitchen chair to wait.

It took only a few seconds for the chemical to have the desired effect, and there was something satisfying about watching three full-grown, posturing Alphas recoil as if slapped in the face. Even Mycroft's demeanour was ripped to shreds, his expression one of overt disgust as if he'd bitten into rotten fruit.

'Ugh,' Lestrade groaned, clamping a hand over his nose and glaring in Sherlock's direction, but it was his normal irritation, not something hormone-driven. 'I was wondering what had happened to that. Should've known you'd nicked it.'

'What is it?' John croaked, trying to inch closer to Sherlock to take a better look at his injuries only to be driven back by the waves of odour emanating from the sink. 'Christ, it's bloody awful.'

'Paresco,' the DI managed, retreating towards a window and opening it as wide as it would go. 'We use it for riot control. If we didn't, any Alphas would get stuck in a loop, working each other up.'

'As we have just effectively demonstrated.' Mycroft turned towards Lestrade, inclining his head regretfully. 'My apologies.'

'Don't bother,' John cut in when Sherlock's brother looked as if he might grudgingly repeat a sentiment of remorse to him. 'You'll only embarrass yourself.'

Mycroft looked suitably perturbed, no doubt disquieted by his lack of restraint. Alphas did not reach high positions amidst the conflict of government without taming the majority of their more base, biological responses. This scenario, however, seemed to have been too much for even him to bear, and he offered up a weak excuse for his behaviour. 'Exceptional circumstances, Sherlock.'

'Emotional investment,' he retorted, but it lacked bite. Baiting his brother was absent its usual appeal, and the reprieve was as close to an expression of gratitude for Mycroft's timely interference as he could manage.

'Not without due cause. You know how I worry.'

Mycroft glanced over at Lestrade, who was giving orders on his mobile. When he hung up, he shrugged, gesturing in Sherlock's direction. 'Calling off the cavalry. I was already on my way when the gunshot was reported, but a response team wasn't far behind. I thought you'd rather not have half the Met turning up at the door.'

'What'll you tell them?' John asked, finally steeling himself and approaching Sherlock, crouching down at his side before reaching for his wrist and inspecting the swelling. He brushed Sherlock's radial pulse gently, mapping the darkening bruises Alexander had left behind before looking up into Sherlock's face, frowning at the scrapes he knew must be marring his skin.

'As long as the bullet didn't leave the flat, I'll just say it was an experiment going critical. Considering Sherlock's hobbies, they won't question it. I'm guessing no one was actually shot?'

'Unfortunately,' John muttered, his palms trembling against Sherlock's arm. 'Though not for want of trying.'

'So I see.' Mycroft pointed at a hole in the wall below the cow's skull, the paper tattered around the rough circle of plaster and the projectile embedded within it. 'Perhaps we should dispose of the evidence?'

Lestrade sighed, moving across the room to dig it out as he continued speaking. 'I suppose it was Sherlock's Alpha who dropped by?' He looked apologetic, but Sherlock knew it was in the Inspector's nature to verify the facts, even when he wasn't present in an official capacity. 'If nothing else, the stink pretty much gives that away.'

'He broke in,' he corrected, shrugging. 'After a fashion, anyway. He came up the fire escape and through the bedroom window.'

'And tried to take you back. Looks like you put up a good fight.' Lestrade placed his hands on his hips, his eyes sympathetic as he took in the epitaph of Alexander's efforts. 'Do we have any idea why he chose to come after you now? I mean, he's left you alone in the past, and I doubt it's a case of him only just tracking you down. Between your business and John's blog, you've not exactly been keeping a low profile.'

John paled, chewing his bottom lip. 'I didn't think about that.' He swept a hand through his hair, shutting his eyes as if he was settling the blame for Alexander's arrival squarely on his own shoulders, and Sherlock's stomach clenched uncomfortably at his distress. 'I'll delete it as soon as I get a minute.'

'Don't.' Sherlock sighed. 'Trite as your prose is, it's good for business. Unlike the first time I ran, concealing myself from Alexander isn't as imperative as it once was. There are... other factors that kept him away.'

'Ones which seem to carry less influence these days,' Mycroft pointed out, lifting his head and squaring his shoulders. 'Clearly they are no longer adequate to dissuade him from approaching you. Until we know the precise details of what's driving him to take action, it would be in your best interests if you left London.'

Rejection slammed through Sherlock's body in a cold rush, and he slashed the air with his uninjured hand. 'No. I refuse to be driven out by him.'

'Sherlock, it is for your own safety.' His brother sighed, brushing his fingers against his brow. 'Please don't make this difficult.'

Anger shimmered in Sherlock's stomach, and he clenched his teeth as he ground out a retort. 'Don't you think enough people have attempted to rob me of a choice for one day? This is my decision, Mycroft, and it's already been made. I'm not going anywhere.'

He rounded his shoulders as his brother glanced first at Lestrade, then John, as if expecting one or the other of them to back him up. The DI's only response was a shrug, while John shook his head, his jaw tight.

'It's no good looking at me,' he murmured, breathing out a sigh. 'It's up to Sherlock.'

'Whose reaction has no base in logic,' Mycroft replied, clearly frustrated. 'What is the point of further endangering yourself by remaining at Baker Street?'

Sherlock licked his lip, tasting the tinny echo of blood as he struggled to conjure an explanation. How could he make anyone who had spent their lives free of restriction understand the perverse necessity of making a choice just because he could? How could he define the bone-deep need to protect his interests in London because they were the only thing in the world he could truly call his own?

In the end, he dismissed the question with a shake of his head. 'It's irrelevant. Alexander's motivations are obvious to anyone who cares to look.' That got Mycroft's attention, and he sensed Lestrade's interest even as John lifted his head to listen. Honestly, did they think anything, even Alexander's presence, could turn off his powers of observation?

Hunching his shoulders, Sherlock took a moment to order his thoughts. 'His accessories are old and his suit was worn. The money is running out, probably because he's been spending it on alcohol and drugs. His use was evident. Even if it weren't for the broken blood vessels around his nostrils, there was the fact he didn't notice John's approach.' He pursed his lips, remembering how ignorant Alexander had been to John's presence and then, later, the threat he represented. It was too all-consuming to be Alpha arrogance. 'Although his attention was on me at the time, he should have detected John by smell alone as soon as he walked through the door, but he didn't react. The implication is that his olfactory sense has been damaged by snorting pharmaceuticals.'

He took a deep breath, reading the information like an actor going through a script. 'Even when I was staying in his home, the family funds were held in trust. His access was to remain strictly limited until he had children for whom to provide.' He shrugged. 'Since there are no offspring, that state of affairs has continued. I imagine he's burning through the allowance his Alpha mother gives him. However, it's still a steady annual income, so something must have happened.'

Swallowing against the soreness in his throat, Sherlock tried to dismiss the way his voice cracked, hurting with every syllable. 'I suspect his mother laid down an ultimatum. Produce children or be written out of any further assets. He can't afford another Omega, not any more, so –'

'So he came after the only one left alive that he already owned.' Mycroft sighed, glancing down at his phone with a frown. 'In that case, the chances of him seeking you out again are higher than I first imagined.' He closed his eyes, looking like he wanted nothing more than to drag Sherlock away. It would not be the first time Mycroft had over-ridden his wishes – rehab sprang to mind. However, he managed to restrain himself as he said, 'Since you will not leave Baker Street, will you at least permit me to install more thorough surveillance?'

'Can't you just keep Alexander locked up somewhere?' John asked, sounding faintly muffled as if he were trying not to breathe through his nose. 'You've got people tracking him down, haven't you?'

'While he can be contained for a short time, I am afraid there are limits, even for me,' Mycroft replied before addressing Sherlock. 'Perhaps if you moved to the sofa, Doctor Watson would be able to examine your injuries without the possibility of permanent sinus damage?'

Stiffly, John sat back on his heels, dragging himself upright before holding out a hand for Sherlock and urging him to his feet. It could have seemed proprietary or clinical, but the pressure John exerted was just enough to offer support. The cup of his palm cradled Sherlock's arm, subtly tender, and he nudged him down into the yielding couch as if Sherlock were made of glass.

'Just let me wash my hands and get the first aid kit.' He looked at his grubby palms with a frown. 'Should have done that first, really.' Shaking his head, he shrugged out of his mud-smeared jacket. His jumper followed, and John draped it over the back of the couch. His normally confident movements had become fretful, the tide of emotions from the past hour making him dither as he tried to prioritise.

'Use the bathroom,' Lestrade said. 'I'll rinse out the kitchen sink. That stench will hang around for weeks, otherwise.' He buried his nose in his sleeve, inching closer and turning on the taps as John marched out of sight, leaving Mycroft hovering nearby, quiet and distracted.

Sherlock leaned back, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. The flat still carried a myriad of smells – Mycroft, Lestrade and Alexander's fading scent – and he longed for the moment he and John were alone again. However, at least with John's jumper next to him, the primary fragrance he could detect was that of his friend, made dense by the day's events. To John it would probably reek, but Sherlock found himself restraining the urge to bury his face in the woollen depths and inhale until his jangling nerves were soothed once more.

The leather by his ear creaked as his brother rested his hand on the back of the couch: solidarity through proximity, about as close to an embrace as Mycroft would get. Sherlock didn't have to open his eyes to detect his ire and concern; it wrote itself in his brother's perfume – boring and bland.

'You need to tell him.'

Sherlock opened his eyes, looking up as his heart lurched awkwardly in his chest. 'What?'

'I am aware that you are not prone to taking anyone – not even family – into your confidence, but Doctor Watson needs to be fully informed of your past.' Mycroft sniffed as Sherlock groaned. 'If not for your own safety, then for his. It cannot have escaped your notice that today could have ended very differently for everyone involved. He risks himself for you and is happy to do so. Don't you think you owe him this much in return?'

Mycroft's phone rang, and he glanced down at the display. 'If needs must, Sherlock, then I will inform him of all I know, sparse as that may be. However, I'm sure he would rather hear it from you.' He turned away, answering the call with clipped words and a hint of smugness. From the sounds of it, his underlings had tracked Alexander down a few streets away and taken him in to Mycroft's secretive custody.

Sherlock knew it was his brother's dearest wish to see Alexander eradicated. No doubt there was some element of guilt on Mycroft's part for not having intervened earlier, not just today, but in years gone by. However, as tempting as it was to remove Alexander in a terminal manner, it was too great a risk.

He remembered the look in John's eyes when Sherlock had told him Alexander was not to be killed, confusion from a man who saw a threat and worked to dispose of it. Equipped as he was with only a skeleton of understanding, John was no doubt baffled by Sherlock's seemingly contradictory actions, protecting Alexander one minute and threatening him with life-altering injury the next.

He hated to admit it, but his brother was right. As reluctant as he was to expose the shadows of his past, even to someone he considered his only friend, Alexander's appearance and Sherlock's own behaviour had forced his hand.

John needed to know it all. The only question was, once the story was told, would he still look at Sherlock with pride and admiration?

Somehow, Sherlock doubted it.

Chapter Text

Hot water splashed over John's hands, making his split knuckles sting as he scrubbed away the mud. Diligently, he soaped from his fingertips to his elbows, concentrating his mind on the simple task in a futile effort to calm his racing thoughts.

It felt like he'd been stretched to breaking point, and there was no way to relieve the tension. Ploughing a bullet between Alexander's eyes would have done the trick, and damn the consequences, but Sherlock had stopped him, his pale gaze imploring above bruised cheeks and a bleeding lip.

'Fuck,' John breathed, his voice a whine as he tried to pull himself together. Sherlock's hints about life with Alexander had not prepared him for the reality. It was one thing to be told that Omegas were treated like idols at best and objects at worst, but to see it happen – to see that git act as if Sherlock had no mind of his own and no opinion worth his time?

John's blood buzzed in his veins as emotion clouded his mind. He swallowed, forcing it back as he struggled to hold on to his rationality.

He didn't know how many blows Sherlock had suffered before he arrived, and at least he'd dealt out some in response, but clearly Alexander had no qualms about using force to get his way. That knowledge crystallised John's nebulous fears, bringing them to the fore. It was not merely a cold and disinterested bond that Sherlock had to tolerate – nothing so passive – and John's stomach writhed with despair.

Yet despite what he would term as a history of domestic abuse, Sherlock had protected his Alpha from John's terminal solution, but why? Had he missed something? Did Sherlock care for the bastard, despite his protests, or was there something else, something John was failing to consider?

His imagination ran wild, thrown into further disarray by the memory of Sherlock's actions. Yes, he had spared Alexander a bullet, but then he'd threatened him with a blade. It was obvious that Sherlock had no personal affection for his Alpha, but was there some other, latent tie that couldn't be ignored? Was Sherlock keeping Alexander alive for himself, or was there a third party? Someone who needed protecting?

John stared at the steaming water running a bare inch from his hands as he turned that theory over in his mind. Sherlock had mentioned using abortive agents and had stated only minutes ago that there were no offspring, but was that true? Perhaps what he meant was that there were no children of whom Alexander was aware. Sherlock had run twice – had been separated from his Alpha for years. If he'd been pregnant when he left, he could have given birth and hidden the kid away somewhere, giving it a loving family and a life he couldn't provide.

Or, of course, Alexander might not be the father. Sherlock had been out of his Alpha's control, and just because he didn't go into pyresus didn't mean he failed to experience sexual attraction or undergo ovulation. It just meant the whole process wasn’t on display for the world to see. Had there been someone else? Someone who loved him?

John shook his head, casting his questions aside. He didn't have time for this – not the roaring adrenaline that refused to fade or the dread in his stomach. He didn't have the luxury of sorting out the cocktail of rage at Alexander's actions and brittle confusion at Sherlock's response. There were higher priorities to answer than the call of his curiosity.

Analyse the wound, stem the bleeding, clean the flesh, bind the breach. It was a simple mantra – medical care pared down to the basics, and John clung to it as he shook the water from his hands.

Grabbing the first-aid kit from under the sink, he opened the door, almost walking into Mycroft and Greg. There was a moment in the narrow hallway when it was hard to remember that they were on his side, rather than intruders in his territory. He wanted to bare his teeth, but that was a daft impulse, one which John managed to stifle with a frown as he glared at the older Holmes.

For once, Mycroft looked suitably cowed. He feigned interest in his phone and refused to meet John's eyes, everything about his posture carved in lines of submission. John wasn't sure if it was deliberate, but it soothed the anger that grumbled beneath his ribs.

'A Beta team will be around in the next few hours to install additional surveillance,' he explained. 'I will hold Alexander for as long as I can, and I'll notify you and Sherlock once his release becomes unavoidable.'

'How long will that give us?' John asked. 'A couple of days? More?'

'A week at most.' He glanced towards the living room, and John cocked his head, hearing Mrs Hudson's voice and the sound of a broom over broken glass. 'While I would rather not leave Sherlock alone at this time, it's apparent that the presence of myself and the Detective Inspector is –' He hesitated, searching for a suitable word. '– unwelcome.'

'I think anyone who doesn't belong in Baker Street is pretty hard to tolerate right now,' Greg added, his expression grim and sympathetic. 'He's not said anything, but us being here isn't making him feel safe. He's too rattled.'

'Hardly unexpected.' Mycroft sighed, pocketing his phone and casting another glance back in his brother’s direction before turning towards the stairs. 'Should there be anything you require, you have my number. I recommend you make use of it, for your own sake, as well as Sherlock's.'

His pristine brogues tapped on the floorboards as John and Greg shared an exasperated look. 'I think what he was trying to say is “We're off out of your hair. Let us know if we can help.”' Greg put his hands in his pockets, looking down at his shoes. 'I can't speak for Mycroft, but I do mean anything. I can be here off the clock and off the record if you two need that kind of help. Not suggesting you and Sherlock can't dispose of evidence by yourselves, but, you know... dead bodies are heavy.'

It was only half-joking, and John managed a dark smile as he nodded his gratitude. 'Thanks, Greg, and thanks for getting here so quick. Explaining this to a response team would've been a nightmare.'

'Tell me about it. Normally, I'd be looking around for something to keep Sherlock busy – take his mind off it, whatever, but...' He shrugged, his expression one of baffled pity. 'I'm not sure that'd help. If I get any more details about the case, I'll text you, rather than him. You're probably a better judge of what he needs right now.'

With a nod at John's repeated gratitude, the DI followed in Mycroft's footsteps, shutting the door behind him so that the Yale lock snicked into place: another barricade against the world. John promised himself that, later, he'd go around and check all points of potential entry. It was not adequate to be told that Mycroft had Alexander hidden away somewhere. He needed to reassure himself that Baker Street was as impregnable as he could make it.

First, though, he had to do whatever he could for Sherlock.

Walking through to the living room, he noticed Mrs Hudson had brought up the shopping bags and retrieved the antiseptic he had purchased. There was no doubt he'd need it. Sherlock was where he'd left him, except now he'd drawn up his knees, his left arm wrapped around his shins and the right cradled close to his chest as he stared out of the window.

He was wearing that shirt that did wonders for his complexion, lending a hint of warmth, but there was no hiding the chill of his pallor. It highlighted the bruises and scabbing scrapes spilt like paint over his skin. John's fingers tightened around the first-aid kit as he glanced at Mrs Hudson, who met his gaze with worry and distress in equal measure.

Even in one of his moods Sherlock wasn't like this: quiet and blank. Failure to engage with the real world wasn't rare, he could spend hours wandering in his mind-palace at times, but this was different. It wasn't that his focus had shifted; it was gone.

John grimaced as he approached, reassuring himself that, given time, that would improve. He'd sort out the injuries to Sherlock's body first, and then see what he could do about the ones that hid beneath his skin.

Dragging the coffee table closer to the sofa, he sat down on the hard surface and pressed his hand to Sherlock's leg. It was the least intrusive way he could think of to get his attention, but he still jerked as if shot, yanking himself back into the cushions and staring at John with wide-eyed confusion.

His heart ached to see Sherlock shy away, and John swallowed back useless platitudes. Telling him he was safe was unlikely to have any impact. The best thing was to show him instead, and John moderated every movement, staying slow and predictable as he struggled to keep his voice steady. 'We need to patch you up,' he explained, gesturing to Sherlock's wrist. 'That's probably sprained, and those cuts should be checked. Okay?'

Sherlock looked down at his hand before lowering his knees, sitting cross-legged with his feet folded up under him as he submitted to John's ministrations. No doubt it stung, but he didn't bat an eyelash as John manipulated each finger, checking range of motion and looking for debris. Considering the broken glass covering the floor, there was the potential for slivers to find their way into the open wounds.

'Are there any cuts on your feet?' he asked, nodding towards Sherlock's sock-clad toes.

A slow shake of his head was the only response Sherlock gave him. After that look of surprise when John had first touched him, he hadn't made any effort to meet John's gaze. Instead he stared down at where John's hands cupped his, easing away the tacky blood that stained Sherlock's flesh and exploring the damage to his arm. The swollen wrist was warm to the touch, but a quick comparison showed his other hand was cool and clammy below the heat of John's palm.

'Are you cold?' he asked as a shiver rippled through Sherlock's muscles.

He licked his lips, and when he spoke his voice was ragged, worse for having rested for a few minutes. 'A bit.'

'Well that's no surprise,' Mrs Hudson chided kindly, her heels tapping over the floor as she approached. 'The window's wide open and you’re just in your shirt-sleeves. Anyone would feel the chill.' She shut the casement, sealing it tight. 'I'm not warm enough even in my cardie, and I expect John's regretting taking off that jumper.'

Behind Sherlock, Mrs Hudson gave a sly wink before she draped the Afghan from John's armchair around Sherlock's shoulders. She didn't cluck or coddle him; even like this Sherlock would cast it aside in the name of his wounded pride. Instead, she was going out of her way to emphasise that the room was inhospitable, rather than suggesting it was a particular weakness of Sherlock's alone.

'I'll put on another one in a minute, Mrs Hudson,' John promised as he picked up a bandage and began to wrap it around Sherlock's wrist. It would support the joint and add the correct level of compression to the injury until the swelling went down. Looping the strip of fabric between the vee of Sherlock's thumb and fingers he added, 'Maybe a cup of tea would warm me up?'

'Just this once, dear,' came the inevitable reply, and John knew she'd equip Sherlock with a drink of his own, as well as a plateful of biscuits. If there was one thing Mrs Hudson appeared to relish, it was providing home comforts, and small familiarities would help Sherlock find an even keel.

A grudging sigh escaped Sherlock's lips, as if he saw the game they were playing and was humouring them. It was a flash of his normal character, and John gave a crooked grin of relief. He'd take petulant indignation over the eerie calm of the past few minutes any day of the week.

Fastening the bandage in place, he put Sherlock's arm back in his lap. 'I'll get some ice for that in a minute, and you can have some ibuprofen in about half an hour. I don't want to thin your blood while you've got injuries that are actively clotting,' he explained. 'Let's get the rest of these cuts sorted.'

Before he could move, Sherlock shifted, placing the soles of his feet on the floor. His knees knocked into John's as he slotted them together, shuffling forward on the sofa so that they were sharing the same space. Each movement was controlled, as if Sherlock were bullying himself into making the effort, but at least he no longer looked as if he'd been sculpted from chalk, falling apart and blurred at the edges.

Left-handed, he reached out, pressing some cotton wool to the rim of the antiseptic bottle before inverting it to dampen the material. 'I'm not the only one who's hurt.' He set the vessel aside, steadying John's jaw with gentle pressure from his little finger as, awkwardly, he began patting the filth away from the scratches on John's cheek.

His heart fluttered in his chest, and he held his breath as if Sherlock were a timid animal likely to flee. Their faces were no more than a hand-span apart; John could see the taut lines of strain carving their unforgiving story around his mouth. It was hard to believe that only a few hours ago they'd wrestled a dealer to the ground in Kensington Gardens, triumphant.

Now, Sherlock looked beaten.

Briefly, he wondered if he should protest. He was capable of cleaning his own scrapes, superficial as they were, but it occurred to him that maybe Sherlock wanted a role in healing the evidence of that afternoon's events. He didn't seem inclined to treat himself, and the possible reasons for that ranged from benign neglect to the belief that he deserved what Alexander had dealt him. John hoped it was the former. Surely Sherlock couldn't think any of this was his fault?

With a shaking hand, John readied some more antiseptic, trying to look at Sherlock's face through a doctor's eyes, as well as a friend's. Maybe he wasn't interested in taking care of himself, but so far he didn't seem to resent John for shouldering the responsibility, and there were plenty of targets to treat. Alexander must have been wearing a ring, because there was a bruise-clouded gash over one cheekbone, and he silently cursed the bastard as he set about his task.

Together, they worked in silence, Sherlock's touch tender over various injuries John didn't remember receiving. The pain had barely penetrated the haze of his defensive anger, and even in the aftermath, the acrid sting of treatment was almost irrelevant.

'Are your teeth all right?' Cautious fingertips pressed against John's jaw, and he grunted in surprise at the thudding discomfort.

'They're all still in the right place,' he said, prodding at his molars. 'I didn't even notice that happen.'

'Adrenaline. An Alpha's rate of production and utility is far higher than the rest of the population. If it wasn't, Alexander would have gone down the moment you smacked him on the head.'

'Pity he didn't,' he replied, not bothering to edit the brutal undertones from his voice. 'It's better than he deserved.'

An expression John couldn't pin down flickered across Sherlock's face, and he bit his tongue, wishing it was as easy to banish the spectre of Alexander's presence from their home. Softly, he blotted Sherlock's lip, wincing in pity at the tattered skin. It didn't look like a punch, and disbelief cracked in John's guts as he recognised dentition marks in the vulnerable flesh.

His hand hovered, trembling, as he struggled to push aside a new surge of fury. The other traces of violence on Sherlock's body were disturbing, but there was an added element of the intimate to this: a kiss made cruel. He was too busy keeping his touch light to control his expression as he dabbed at the ragged injury. He didn't even notice Mrs Hudson set down some cups of tea and leave them in peace, closing them within the four walls of their flat.

'It's not that bad,' Sherlock said at last, pulling back.

'He was choking you to death,' John retorted, crushing the cotton wool in his fist as he got to his feet, tidying up the rubbish and putting away the first-aid supplies. He needed something to keep his hands busy, and there was nothing left to be done for Sherlock. None of the cuts needed stitches, and the bruises, while plentiful, would heal with time. Far easier, he suspected, than the uncertainty Alexander's reappearance had dumped on Sherlock's shoulders. 'I can't see how it could get much worse than that.'

As soon as the words left his mouth, he sensed the change in the air: a sorrowful stillness, as if Sherlock didn't want to tell him how wrong he was. Looking over his shoulder, he met those dull grey eyes. Sherlock looked exhausted by the whole affair, and John longed to ease his burden.

'He was letting me take the occasional breath. It was a display of control, more than anything. Besides, it's my own fault.'

'No!' He cursed himself as Sherlock flinched. Wariness shadowed his gaze, and John clenched his hands tight at his sides as he lowered his voice. 'None of this – none of it – is your fault. You haven't done anything to deserve –' He gestured to the injuries, the flat and the entire situation as a whole, struck mute by the strength of emotion clawing at his chest.

'It's not a case of deserving it,' Sherlock corrected. 'You can't expect to fight against the norms society thrusts upon you without facing consequences.'

'Then society's a fucking mess.' John folded his arms, hunching his shoulders and trying not to feel so bloody useless.

Sherlock sighed, scuffing his uninjured hand through his hair. The gesture was enough to pull John back from the brink of his fugue, his attention focussed again on the damage that had been wrought. In that, at least, there was something he could try and fix.

He collected an icepack from the freezer, giving it to Sherlock before handing him his mug. 'Careful with the tea. It's cooled down, but it might still hurt your lip.'

Sherlock rested the ice on his thigh and his sprained wrist on top of it before taking a sip from the cup Mrs Hudson had left for him. John looked at the clock, noting the time. He knew Sherlock too well to believe he'd tolerate the restricted mobility forced on him by the sprain for long. Better do everything he could to assist the healing while he got the chance.

'I provoked Alexander's attack today.' Sherlock's admission made John snap his head back around, his lips parted and a frown on his brow. 'I was attempting to make him leave. I told him I'd rendered myself infertile – that I was useless to him.' Sherlock shrugged, looking at the milky tea before touching the dark stains banding his throat. 'In retrospect, his response confirmed my hypothesis about an ultimatum from his family. He doesn't just want a child– he needs one. Besides, it made no difference. He didn't believe me and seemed intent on proving otherwise.'

Weakly, John reached behind him, groping for the edge of the kitchen table and propping himself against it. 'What did he do?' he asked, trying to reassure himself with the facts. Sherlock's clothing was all still fastened and the fabric wasn't torn, but that didn't mean anything. He'd thought he was interrupting an attempted murder, but now it seemed that Alexander had something else in mind.

'Threatened.' Sherlock shrugged like it didn't matter. 'He didn't get the chance to act.'

John didn't dare ask what would have happened if he hadn't walked in at that moment. He didn't want the confirmation. Instead he shuffled over to his armchair and sank into it, his hands hanging between his knees as the loudest question in his mind found voice.

'Why didn't you let me kill the bastard?'

Sherlock's bowed his head, his hand twitching around his mug before he set it aside and eased himself to his feet. He grabbed the Afghan in one hand, seemingly oblivious to the fact he also had John's jumper locked in his grasp. The blanket trailed from his shoulders, its lower edge whispering across the floor, and John watched as Sherlock nudged the leather armchair with his hip until it was situated in front of the cold grate, facing John.

He folded himself into the seat, the wool furled around him like brightly coloured wings. It looked defensive, taut and self-contained, but John didn't miss the fact that Sherlock was close enough to reach out and touch. Whatever else he wanted, it wasn't distance, and John watched him as he pressed his lips together as if trying to work out what to say.

'He was nice, once. Tolerable, anyway.' Sherlock stared at his hands in his lap, clutching the knot of fabric – a chimera of the blanket and John's filthy jumper – like a shield. 'Before she died, my mother did everything in her power to arm me for the life I could expect. I wanted to be more than...' He trailed off with a weak wave of his hand. 'She knew that from the start, and together we did what we could.'

'She taught you about the herbs you could use.' John nodded.

'More than that. Omega children are often indistinct from their other-gendered counterparts. Any biological variations aren't shown outwardly. Even in adults, it's subtle. However, Omegas carry a genetic variation that means they can detect a repulsive flavour others can't. It's something to do with our spit.'

Sherlock tapped his nails against his mug as he continued, 'Most offspring with any chance of being an Omega undergo a taste-test when they're five, and those that respond – normally through vomiting – are segregated.' A whisper of a smile curved his lips. 'My mother exposed me to the flavour frequently in infancy, making me resistant. As such, I wasn't flagged as an Omega until the standardised blood-screen at eleven years old.'

John gave a rueful laugh, picturing it with ease. Even as a child, it seemed Sherlock possessed masterful control. That must have made his presentation even more unnerving: to have so much power over oneself and then lose it to a biological urge.

'It was one of the gifts my mother could give me: the chance of a normal childhood. I went to school, had as much social interaction as I desired – not much: people are idiots, even as children – and could go where I wanted without limitation. That was freedom, and I was unwilling to relinquish it.'

Tilting his head, John contemplated the man opposite him. He didn't want to interrupt, because now Sherlock was finally talking, he was afraid the wrong word would bring nothing but silence. However, he itched to do more than just sit here, a recipient for Sherlock's story. He wanted to touch him, to stroke his hands over those tense shoulders and promise him that he could have that life back, one day.

Not that such a vow was in his power to give.

A shiver made Sherlock's teeth rattle, and John looked away, getting to his feet and rubbing his hands together. 'I need to get the fire lit,' he said quietly, 'before I freeze to death. Do you want another cup of tea?'

He hoped that, without the pressure of John's undivided attention, Sherlock would keep talking, and he wasn't disappointed. Sherlock's quiet hum of agreement cracked at its edge, and he cleared his throat, raising his voice so John could hear him over the hiss of the kettle.

'After that, our options were limited. Mummy's health was failing and my father was distraught; he loved her, I think. It was enough that she was able to make a few unorthodox specifications about my bonding.' His voice fell quiet. 'After her death, he could have ignored them. She had no legal say, but he honoured her wishes. She specified the kind of Alpha I should be bonded to, and when the time came, Alexander fit the bill.'

John kept his back turned, pretending to concentrate on the automatic process of making tea as he repeated Mycroft's earlier statement. 'Why, because his family thought Omegas should be respected?'

'Up to a point. They were still possessions. Assets, rather than people, but like many of the elite, they propagated the stigma for an Alpha to exercise their power over an Omega. Rape or abuse of any kind is heavily frowned upon. It's one of the reasons we're isolated, even from our counterparts. It stops such misdemeanours becoming common knowledge.' Sherlock sighed, resting his chin on his knees. 'There are always rumours, but there's never any proof.'

Looking over his shoulder, John allowed his gaze to rest on the wounds blemishing Sherlock's skin. Alexander hadn't even hesitated to use bruising force. Why should he? Out here, there were plenty of people to see the marks he left, but when Sherlock was back in his clutches, he'd be hidden from sight. Shut away to suffer.

The kettle clanged against the surface, and John braced his palms against the kitchen worktop as he took a deep breath, attempting to school his face into something that resembled calm attentiveness. Alexander's cruelty was repulsive, but it was Sherlock's acceptance of it that struck John to the core.

'One of my mother's conditions of the bonding was that, after this –' He gestured to the silvery bite mark on the back of his neck. '– I was to be allowed to attend university. There are three in the entire country that cater for Omegas. Very selective, very expensive, and very secure.'

John put his mug down by his chair before handing Sherlock his, gratified by the way those long fingers brushed against his own, neither timid nor tremulous. He didn't flinch from the contact, and John's spirits lifted at the faint reassurance of Sherlock's skin warm against his own, if only for a few seconds.

'You got out, didn't you?'

The grin that lit Sherlock's face was pure mischief with a generous helping of pride. 'It was easy. They were expecting docile, obedient individuals.'

'And they got you.' John smiled. 'I almost feel sorry for whoever was in charge.' He hunkered down by the hearth, concentrating on matches and kindling, feeding the tiny fire until a golden glow chased off the encroaching dusk. 'Where did you go?'

'Everywhere.' Sherlock straightened where he sat, and in these memories at least, it was as if he found some of his old strength. 'I didn't have the resources to run away, not then. Besides, there wasn't the impetus. The reins of my existence weren't so tight that they choked me. I spent the week at the university halls, and the weekends with Alexander “strengthening our bond.”'

The way he said that last bit made it clear it was a euphemism, and John scowled at the fire, grabbing the poker to give the logs a somewhat vicious jab. 'I thought you said you could fend off an unwanted Alpha's advances?' He tried to keep the question light, but he was pretty sure Sherlock caught the shadows beneath each syllable. The brightness that had suffused his expression faded, and he stared into the flames.

'Like I said, initially, he was tolerable. I didn't want to bond, but I didn't have any option and at seventeen I – I was trying to make the best of my circumstances. Besides, a strong bond worked in my favour. There were about three months between my first heat and when I bound with Alexander. It was...' He looked up into John's eyes, and it was difficult to remember the last time he'd seen Sherlock look so young. 'I thought I was dying. The pyresus itself was bad enough, but after that–'

He didn't finish his sentence, and John tried to keep his traitorous mind from picturing it, ashamed at the guilty desire deep in his belly to see Sherlock so undone, refined to pure Id.

'It got worse?' he asked, clearing his throat and getting back to his feet. He grabbed his drink as he tried to distance himself from the fact that they were, to all intents and purposes, discussing Sherlock's sex life.

'Unsatisfied heats are troublesome but manageable when I'm bound. When I'm not, it's like a disease. Your body wrecks itself. I'd spend three or four days in pyresus, not eating, barely drinking, unable to focus or function.' He shook his head, his teeth clenched in distaste. 'Once that passed, I was drained, lethargic, feverish, wretched. It would take all my strength just to get dressed, and then within a week it would start all over again.'

John blinked as he sat back in his chair, finding himself once again facing the abyss of his medical ignorance. From med-school right through to the modern conferences he attended, details on Omega reproduction were thin on the ground. He knew the basics, but it was another matter to hear Sherlock speak of his experiences.

'I didn't realise the cycle was so short.'

With a nod, Sherlock explained. 'Bonding stretches it out and improves its regularity. With a strong connection, which develops through spending time with your Alpha, it's little more than an inconvenience. That is, if you don't become pregnant straight away.' He traced idle lines across the peak of his knees, but his gaze was elsewhere, focused on the past.

'For three months I was a victim of my own blood-chemistry. Then, once Alexander came along, the fog cleared, and I did everything I could to make the most of it. During the week at university, I'd sneak out and just go.' Some of the lines on his face smoothed away, and John stared, captivated by the transformation. 'At first, I was terrified that someone would catch my scent and figure out what I was. I started off wearing synthetic fragrances to conceal the truth. Then one day, in Edinburgh, I got caught in a downpour. Soaked to the skin. I was convinced a stranger would detect what I was.'

John's heart thumped in his chest, torn between shared triumph at what must have been an epiphany-moment, and horror for what could have been. 'You mean you didn't know that being bound to Alexander subdued your scent? And you went out anyway?'

'Of course I did. The expectation was that as soon as I was finished at university, I'd settle down to the whole tiresome business of starting a family. I had to seize the opportunity.' Sherlock pursed his lips, his brow creased. 'As it was, Alexander wasn't content to wait. The binding contract specified that he was to use contraceptive medication until I was done with my degree.'

John drew in a sharp breath. 'But he didn't?'

'I doubt it. Even then, I didn't trust him. He was attentive and engaging, but it all seemed too – too much to be genuine. Falling pregnant was not a risk I was willing to take.'

John set his mug of untouched tea aside, clasping his hands together in front of him. Sherlock was still curled up, and the memory of glassy determination painted its portrait across his face.

'By the time I finished my degree, he'd run out of patience. His entire attitude became one of a martyr. He constantly reminded me of what he'd sacrificed; the implication was that I owed him.' Sherlock clenched his uninjured hand, his eyes made gold by the fire's dance. 'Perhaps he was right, but I didn't see it that way.'

'No one would,' John replied, quiet but firm. He knew, deep down, that relationships were never that simple. Each came with its own baggage and a constant keeping-score. However, normally the sentiment between two people was enough to over-rule the darker, more selfish thoughts. If not, then the partnership came to an end. For Sherlock, that wasn't an option. 'So he said you owed him a family, and you declined.'

'Then he insisted. Emphatically.' Sherlock shook his head as if dismissing the grasping claws of his memories. 'I became very good at mixing the herbs I needed to control my situation. Over time, I also learned Alexander's pressure points. Things I could say or do that would make him back off or walk away.'

He closed his eyes, leaning his head back in surrender. 'It went on for months, and every time a union failed to produce a child, the situation grew more untenable. In the end, Alexander took me to see a fertility expert, who reported back that I was in perfect reproductive health.' Sherlock met John's eye, and there was a dark gleam there. 'I'd figured out a way to remove the signature of the abortive chemicals from my blood within an hour of taking it. It was undetectable. Instead, the suspicion fell on Alexander's performance.'

In another situation, John might have laughed at the cheap jibe, but there were too many shadows in Sherlock's expression for anything like mirth. 'I bet that didn't help.'

'No. It was a tipping point. After the next consummated pyresus, he locked me in the bedroom. The potency of Aristolochia drops with every hour after possible conception.' He picked at the bandage around his wrist, plucking at the loose weave as if he couldn't bear to keep still. 'I – I panicked. The room was three floors up and the lock on the door was a bolt, so I couldn't pick it, but there was a window. I slipped climbing out. Probably broke a rib or two, but it didn't matter. I ran to the orangery where I grew what I needed and took some I'd made earlier. Alexander stormed in just as I was swallowing the suspension.'

John realised he was holding his breath, his heart in his throat. Air escaped him in an unsteady stream, and he dragged his hands over his face. 'God. What did he do?'

Sherlock huddled in on himself further, impossibly small for such a tall man. 'I didn't give him a chance to act; I just ran. It wasn't a well-planned escape,' he admitted. 'His house is in a rural area; the community is close-knit. I couldn't ask any of the neighbours for help – they'd have returned me to him immediately. Instead I grabbed a change of clothes off a washing line and hid in the woods nearby. I knew he'd believe I'd go straight to the station, so I had to wait.'

'Did you have anything? Money? Food?' He rubbed his temple, too captivated by Sherlock's words to notice the fire dimming to embers in the grate as night fell. He tried to picture being in that kind of situation. Somehow he doubted he'd have handled it with anything like Sherlock's competence. 'How old were you?'

'Twenty-three. I had a few items I could pawn, but I had to get to a city first. I hid the clothes I'd been wearing when I left Alexander's, and once it was dark, I started walking. I kept off the roads and away from open fields, begged enough cash for train-fare in the nearest town and came to London.'

John glanced at the indistinct glow of the street-lit capital beyond the window. 'Why here?' The question escaped him unbidden, just like its predecessors. He longed to keep quiet and let Sherlock explain under his own steam, but it was impossible. He was too invested in the details Sherlock was laying out between them, each one a new facet that added up to the complex man who sat opposite him.

'I knew it better than anywhere else, and it's easy to get lost here – or it was back then, anyway. CCTV was more limited. It was easier to blend in. No one looks twice at the homeless. They're afraid of what they might see.'

He'd known that Sherlock spent time on the streets; he was too intimate with London's shadowed places to leave that in any doubt, but John still wished, impossibly, that he'd been there. That he could have helped, somehow, rather than Sherlock having to struggle with his decision alone. 'What about Mycroft? Why didn't you ask him for help?'

Sherlock gave a moue of distaste at the thought, but it soon melted into indifference as he removed the thawing ice pack from where it rested against his injured wrist and put it aside. 'My brother was not always sympathetic to my situation. He was raised as a traditional Alpha, and while there are many things he questioned, the role of an Omega was never one of them. Once I was bound to Alexander, I was not expected to keep in contact with my family, not even to attend my father's funeral. It was a severance – supposedly to improve the strength of the bond by making me completely dependent on Alexander. In reality, it had the opposite effect.'

'You learnt to cope by yourself.'

Sherlock nodded. 'Other than when I was in heat, Alexander was disinterested in me at best. It gave me time to pursue my own interests, as long as I stayed within the confines of the house.' He wrinkled his nose at the mention of his captivity before pressing on. 'Two and a half years homeless in London filled out my knowledge. Pyresus halted once I was out of Alexander's presence, leaving me with the heats you've witnessed. It was difficult, of course, but despite the hardships it was better than being under his thumb.'

Something in Sherlock's expression faltered, and John watched another shudder rip through his friend's frame. Whether it was a result of genuine chill or emotional strain, John couldn't be sure, but he got to his feet, holding out one hand to Sherlock and gesturing to the grate with the other. 'Come on. Get a bit closer to the hearth. It's not exactly warm tonight.'

Sherlock's uninjured hand was cool in John's palm as he allowed himself to be guided to the floor a dozen inches from the flames. The fire woke itself from embers with a few prods and another log, the crackle of the pine adding a whisper of wood-smoke to the flat as Sherlock huddled in his cocoon.

'There was a downside to my situation. I could cater to most of my needs: food and shelter are easy enough to find if you know where to look, but separation from Alexander was not as easy. Biochemically, our bond was strong, and as a result the instinct to return to him was...'

'Distracting?'

'Overwhelming. Some days were easier than others, but it was impossible to focus. I couldn't think around the buzzing need to seek out a man I loathe.' His voice was like barbed silk, vicious with self-hatred. 'I was free for the first time in years and my own body wanted nothing more than to locate my captor. I needed something to distract me. Something to co-opt the sensation: a different addiction I could feed in its stead.'

John's heart sank as he sat at Sherlock's side, shoulder-to-shoulder and both of them staring into the fire and the sable chimney mouth above it. His blanket-wrapped frame was a ghost of a presence, but a moment later the soothing burden of Sherlock's weight pressed against John's arm.

'The drugs.'

'Yes,' Sherlock confessed. 'An underestimation on my part, I admit. By the time the hormonal withdrawal of being away from Alexander had faded, I'd developed a different habit entirely – one that did not come cheap. I could already pick locks. Petty theft supplied the cash, but more went on cocaine than anything else.' He straightened, meeting John's eyes. 'It was a dangerous way to live, but it was living. It was my choice. Admittedly, it was a bad one, but at least it was me who made it.'

He said it with such vicious feeling, and despite himself, John could understand something of what Sherlock was saying. It was a mistake, but it was one Sherlock had made under his own steam. In that, there was a novelty that few other people got to experience. 'So, you were destitute and lost in a drug habit.'

'You make me sound like a junkie.'

'Weren't you?' It was a challenge, and John knew it. Could Sherlock even admit that much?

'Perhaps, but it wasn't quite as desperate as you might imagine. What I shared with you about how Elsie and I met was an isolated incident. I modulated the dose for maximum impact with minimal drawbacks. In retrospect, it was not ideal, but it worked.'

They could linger here for hours, him denouncing Sherlock's decision as Sherlock defended it. He doubted Sherlock was stupid enough to have leapt to cocaine as his first option, but it was where he had ended up, all the more vulnerable for his chemical dependency.

'And no one came looking for you?'

'I found out later that Mycroft had been searching, somewhat frantically, I believe. I don't know how he discovered I was gone from Alexander's possession. However, my brother did not occupy his current position of power then, and he didn't have the tools to locate me.' Sherlock's smug smile faded. 'I was left in peace until I was twenty-five, when Alexander snatched me off the street. Not personally, he hired some – people – to do it for him. They sedated me, and when I woke up, I was back in that house – that same room. It was almost like I'd never left the fucking place.'

It was rare that Sherlock cursed, and John could hear years' worth of hatred in that single word. The memory of his desperation was like a physical thing in the air around them, and a clutch of empathetic panic snagged in John's stomach. All he'd been told of Sherlock's time with Alexander after he'd come looking was that it had been “unpleasant”. Now, John wondered if “unspeakable” was more apt. Sherlock's jaw was working, his teeth grinding as if he couldn't bring himself to carry on.

'You don't have to tell me this,' John said softly, wrapping his fingers around Sherlock's arm. 'You don't have to say anything you don't want to share, Sherlock, but I'm not going to think any less of you for whatever you did.'

Silver eyes met his, and he did his best to make sure there was nothing but earnest faith in his face. Whether Sherlock believed it or not was another matter. His voice, already weak from the day's events, was hoarse from use as he asked, 'How can you be sure?'

'Because frankly, I don't think there's anything Alexander doesn't deserve. You found being homeless preferable to being with him.'

'He was nice, once,' Sherlock repeated, as if that was evidence of something that John couldn't fathom. 'It was life with me that made him into –'

John twitched, his body shivering with the need for action as he turned where he sat, facing Sherlock fully. 'No. No. That's like saying that you – all your achievements and your mistakes – should be credited to Alexander. Maybe he was an influence, but he didn't make you into the man you are any more than you did him. That was his own fault, not yours.'

A shivering exhale escaped Sherlock's lips, and John wondered how many other lies made up his foundations. It was impossible to suffer such experiences through the formative years of young adulthood and not let it shape your view of both the world and yourself. Logic had nothing to do with it, and John wanted to curse Alexander for having had the chance to poison Sherlock against himself.

'Did he – did he try and tell you it was your fault?'

'There was no “try” involved. He has a way of guiding the conversation to make himself the innocent party.' Sherlock shook his head. 'That's not the point, anyway. I won't bore you with the details of what happened during the nineteen months I was back in Alexander's possession. However, since he had destroyed all the plants I had used to create my tonics, contraception became a key issue. Many alternative methods, such as high vitamin C dosage, have dubious efficacy. There was nothing I could access to reliably counteract my own fertility, or the results of it.'

Sherlock straightened, his expression grim as if he were steeling himself for John's response. 'Instead, I manipulated Alexander's.'

'You drugged him.' John squinted, cocking his head as he tried to understand why Sherlock looked as if he expected nothing but disgust for his actions. He understood the implications; it was one thing to use pharmaceuticals on yourself, but drugging someone else without their consent was another matter. They'd had this discussion before when John was the unknowing test subject, but this was a different situation. 'Am I meant to be shocked?'

Now it was Sherlock's turn to look confused, searching John's face for any sign of anger and finding none. 'In a... tense moment, Mycroft may have implied my behaviour was due cause for Alexander's retaliation. The suggestion was that his view would be shared by the population in general.'

'Mycroft's a git.' John clenched his jaw, bowing his head as he vowed to ask the older Holmes what had happened. He couldn't believe Mycroft would take Alexander's side – he clearly hadn't, or he wouldn't have supported Sherlock in his escape – yet something his brother said had given Sherlock the idea that he was in the wrong. Did Mycroft know, or had it been something given voice in the heat of the moment, driven by sentiment, rather than logic?

'No one in possession of all the bloody facts could claim they'd do anything different if they were in your situation.' John took a deep breath, wishing he could push his words through Sherlock's skin until he would accept them as truth. Instead, Sherlock sat there looking as if he'd been blind-sided, expecting distaste and instead receiving unconditional acceptance.

'What did you give him?' he asked.

'Lorelon.' The brand name rolled of Sherlock's tongue with ease. 'It –'

'– prevents production of the enzyme a sperm needs to breach the ovum wall. I know.'

'More to the point, it's one of the most powerful and heat resistant chemicals available, and its use is undetectable on an anatomical level. An acquaintance of mine from London was able to get hold of it for me. I put it in his coffee. It was meant to be temporary. Something to prevent me conceiving a child at those times when I couldn't deny him what he wanted.' Sherlock's shoulders hunched, his body folding in on itself anew. 'I intended to get away long before he started to suspect, but it didn't work out that way. Alexander was too aware of my intentions. He knew my pressure points as well as I knew his. It was like living in an emotional war-zone.'

John's hand slid down Sherlock's arm, resting over his knuckles. Inwardly, he chastised himself for touching without permission, but no one could look at Sherlock as he was now and not experience the need to offer comfort. Besides, Sherlock's acceptance was made emphatic when he turned his hand, catching John's blindly in his grasp and clinging to it like a lifeline. It was one outward sign of his inner turmoil, and John wished he could call a halt to all this, could pretend he was deaf to Sherlock's words and blind to his distress.

But no, he was the one who had brought Sherlock to this point; the least he could do was have the balls to listen to what he had to say.

'You can't hide Lorelon from a blood screen. Alexander went to have his fertility checked without my knowledge. When he got home...' Sherlock's voice shook, and he swallowed tightly before he forced himself to continue. 'There was a poker, cast iron with a spur for raking out the ashes. I don't – I don't remember most of it. Not clearly. Only that he kept hitting me long after I'd given up any attempt at fighting back. I don't recall him leaving me on the living room floor. Nor do I have any recollection of calling Mycroft for help.'

His haunted gaze became thoughtful as he added, 'I must have sounded awful for him to come running. We'd argued, shortly after I got back to Alexander's. He chastised me for leaving in the first place. He didn't care why I'd run away, only that I'd been, in his eyes, monumentally stupid for risking my safety. I hadn't spoken to him again since, but he still came.'

John realised Sherlock wasn't the only one shaking. He was torn between the futile desire to protect Sherlock as he'd been back then – to stop Alexander landing even one blow, let alone the ones which had followed it – and the need to reassure him now, which seemed equally beyond his reach.

'I woke up in a private hospital to find my brother at my bedside. It's the most emotional I've ever seen him.' Sherlock worried his bottom lip, wincing as a new bloom of blood rose from the wounds there. 'I think, for the first time, Mycroft realised that my protests over the years were not just a case of my usual dramatics. He would have disposed of Alexander there and then if I'd not intervened.'

'I wish he had,' John hissed, unable to modulate his tone any longer. 'Your brother should have butted in years ago. How can he claim to worry about you when he left you at that wanker's mercy?'

'He believed I was in safe hands.' Sherlock shrugged. 'Alexander is good at showing people what they want to see, and Mycroft was following social convention. I wasn't his responsibility anymore. An Omega is their family's obligation until they are bound. After that –' He shook his head, trailing off into silence.

John looked down at where their hands were joined, tracing the blue veins beneath Sherlock's skin with the pad of his thumb. There was so much to understand and absorb: almost two decades of Sherlock's life condensed into a painful conversation, and yet one question still hadn't been answered.

'Why do you need Alexander alive?' He licked his lips, his breathing unsteady as Sherlock looked up at him. 'That's the one thing I don't understand. After everything he did to you – his manipulations and his abuse – no one would think less of you if you just did away with him.' Straightening his shoulders, John pressed on, giving voice to his earlier suspicions. 'Is there – I mean I know you did a lot to prevent a pregnancy but – but were you always successful?'

'Yes.' Sherlock's response was absolute. 'Is that what you think? That I demand Alexander's survival for the sake of a child somewhere?' He sounded incredulous, and John tried not to wince at the faint whisper of ridicule in Sherlock's tone.

'It seemed like the most convincing reason to spare his life.'

Sherlock looked like there were a thousand things he wanted to say, explanations or reassurances, John wasn't sure, but he bit them back as he shook his head. 'No, my reasons for keeping Alexander alive are purely selfish. If he dies, my bond breaks.'

John nodded, guessing that there was something he was failing to grasp. 'I know.'

'I don't think you do.' Gently, Sherlock extricated himself from John's grasp, shuffling where he sat so they were facing one another, their knees pressed together as the fire bathed them in its glow. 'The grieving process would be unfortunate, but it would be the least of my concerns. It can last months, but when it's done I'll be unbound all over again.'

He stared at John, probably looking for signs of comprehension, but whatever he saw wasn't enough as he began to explain. 'Pyresus will be unrestrained, and as debilitating as it was when I was an adolescent. Even if it didn't leave me feeling so unwell that I couldn't function, it wouldn't be safe. I couldn't live in London, and I certainly couldn't answer the call of the Work. For that, I'd need to be bound to another Alpha, and then I would face the same problems all over again. Alexander's world-view is not unique. It's what's expected of me. This – ' He waved a hand around at Baker Street before indicating John. 'This would be over.'

'But –' John frowned, trying to build a picture from shattered fragments when he was missing half of the pieces. 'But you could find a different Alpha. Someone not like Alexander. It doesn't have to be someone of the elite. It could be –' His voice strained in his throat, quiet but intense. 'It could be anyone.'

Pale eyes met his, and he tried not to duck his head under the scrutiny. Sherlock saw everything, and he was not as inept at social implication as many believed, at least not when it came to John. He looked as if he had guessed what he was really suggesting – not just some nameless, faceless Alpha from the masses, but one who'd shared Sherlock's life in all its glory and relished it as much as he did.

He expected to see dismissal, ridicule or confusion. Each seemed plausible, but none of them were fit to name the shadow that haunted Sherlock's eyes. Instead sadness was more apt. In any other circumstance, it would have given John hope, but not this time.

'It doesn't work like that,' he murmured, glancing down and taking a stuttering breath before looking up into John's face again. 'I wish it did, but –'

When he spoke again, it was in the flat, dull tones of someone reciting an inescapable truth. 'I would not be my own to give. When Alexander dies, ownership of me doesn't even revert to Mycroft. It goes to Alexander's next of kin. They would hold all rights to me, and would no doubt sell me on to the highest bidder – one who would share Alexander's expectations.'

Rage rolled through John's veins, hot and fluid, heating his cheeks and making his pulse pound in his temples. 'You're not furniture!' he snapped, his hands clenching into fists as he shook his head. 'You're not a thing!'

'No, but in the eyes of the law I am an eternal dependent, and when it comes down to it, there's not much difference.' Sherlock reached out, his touch skimming over John's hand in a steady metronome of movement. It calmed the harsh edges of his anger, but left it sitting like a molten ball deep in his gut, malleable and strong. 'Do you see now? Do you see why, as detestable as it is, my current situation with Alexander is as good as it's going to get? I am in a unique position of having some power over my Alpha – some means of keeping him away and living the life I want to. If he dies, all that's gone.'

John fought back a litany of protests, his voice straining over unspoken sentiments as he railed against the injustice. Every word Sherlock said brought that into sharper focus, leaving him reeling at the insights into a world that, a month ago, he had given little thought.

Like a fool he'd believed Alexander was the beginning and end of Sherlock's problems: the thorn in his side. Now it was clear that he was entangled in a briar, caged by the dictates of a culture John did not understand adequately to defeat.

'There must be something you can do,' he croaked, his throat ravaged by the ineffective outrage he held down in his chest. For all his strength, Sherlock still looked too fragile, liable to break at a harsh word. Besides, there was too much room for misinterpretation. None of his indignation was aimed at Sherlock, yet he was the only target present, and John was damned if he was going to take any of this out on him.

He stared down at Sherlock's hand where it rested over his, still now, long-boned and shaking. Faint chemical stains marked his skin, and it occurred to John that even that was an act of defiance: a flaw in the perfection an Omega was meant to embody.

'The entire structure is built upon a foundation of fertility as an asset. It's not really about Omegas, it's about what they can produce: a large number of heirs over a short time. In centuries past, that was highly valued to protect the dynastic nature of the aristocratic class. Then it became less about necessity, more about fashion. If you were rich, you got an Omega. You don't still have dozens of children: Alphas control the quantity of dependants for whom they must provide, but the power remains entirely in their hands.'

Sherlock reached up to touch a bruise on his temple before pulling absently at his curls. 'The one way to remove myself from that sphere is to render myself worthless in their eyes and destroy my ability to reproduce.'

'Ligation?' John sucked in a breath, already shaking his head. In Betas, the surgery was straightforward, if not common. However, the Omega system in both primary genders was far more complex and delicate. Besides, it was all theoretical. No technique had ever been practised or perfected. It would be a ground-breaking, not to mention illegal, operation.

'Or sterilisation. There's a possibility that an Alpha could order ligation reversed, despite the risks. Sterilisation would involve stripping out everything. Not much anyone can do about that once it's been done.' Sherlock's smile was grim and cold. 'I considered it. More than once, in fact. The first time I ran from Alexander, selling the parts on the black market would have brought me plenty of funds. Enough to start my own life.'

John thought of Annaliese Ducart, dead on a back-room operating table with her dreams in ruins around her. The idea that it could have been Sherlock plunged a chill across his skin, and he ran light fingers over the bandage around Sherlock's hand. 'But you didn't?'

Sherlock shook his head. 'It was too risky. I would have been completely vulnerable under anaesthetic, had no way of confirming what they'd do to me, and why would my survival be in any surgeon's best interest? He could kill me, take what he needed and more, and not have to split the cash.'

'So what you told Alexander today...?' John held his breath, unsure why Sherlock's answer carried such weight. It was none of his business whether he could still bear children, but at the same time he shouldn't have to sacrifice his ability to have kids for the sake of his own freedom. No one should.

'A lie. Even when I had Mycroft's support and, by extension, his money, the surgical options remain phenomenally dangerous. There are no official statistics on the survival rate of either sterilisation or ligation, but they are very poor. The surgery is untried, but it would have made me useless to any Alpha. I could live without interference from my biology...' His expression was fixed in a haze of longing, and John wondered how often he had been tempted to throw caution to the wind and put himself under the knife. How many times had he been forced to remind himself that it could be the last decision he ever made?

'But I was trying to forge my existence, not bring it to an end.' Sherlock blinked himself back to the present, his shoulders rolling in a shrug. 'So I'm still here, still a functional Omega, and the only thing that makes any of my current existence possible is my bond with Alexander. If it were broken...'

John bowed his head, giving a weak nod of comprehension. He understood, now, why Sherlock had pushed the gun away. It was not about preserving Alexander, but his current way of life. Even if it was tenuous, it was still the best chance Sherlock had.

The details he'd been given rattled around his skull, almost incomprehensible in their volume. Later, there would be time to examine each in isolation, but right now John was overwhelmed by the swirl of emotion running through him. Rage at Alexander's intrusion lingered, but it was a phantom in comparison to the fresh wound of sympathy.

'Stand up?' he asked, getting stiffly to his feet and holding out a hand, watching Sherlock's puzzlement.

'Why?'

'Because it's hard to do this sitting down.' John tightened his grip around Sherlock’s good hand, helping him up so that they stood face-to-face. Part of him wanted to reach out and tug that lithe body into his embrace, but if he had learned nothing else today, it was that Sherlock valued being given a choice, and that was something John intended to respect.

He braced himself for rejection even as he spread his arms in invitation. 'Is this okay?'

Sherlock cocked his head, his gaze skimming John's face as if he were searching for ulterior motive, or perhaps just trying to understand his basic need to help in whatever way he could. Yet there was something else behind the inquisitiveness in his eyes, something confused, as if he couldn't understand why anyone would want to touch him without the expectation of more.

At last, Sherlock took a tentative step forward, allowing John to guide him close. It was tempting to let all the ferocity that blazed beneath his bones bleed out in the desperation of his embrace, but John restrained himself, holding back as Sherlock began to relax.

The light brush of a hand at John's waist made him smile, and a moment later large hands were splayed across his back, light but determined. Inch-by-inch, he could sense Sherlock's spine falling torpid. Hesitancy faded until they were leaning against each other, taking and giving solace in turn.

John tried to telegraph everything he was feeling without words, pushing his sympathy from skin-to-skin and letting his determination to keep Sherlock safe define the shape of his muscles.

They had touched before, but never like this. There had been the occasional, desperate grab for each other after a narrow escape – half clinging, half checking for injuries, but nothing so tender.

It wasn't often that someone made John feel treasured. However, when Sherlock rested his cheek on top of John's head and let out what sounded very much like a sigh of relief, he felt that, to Sherlock at least, he embodied something precious: someone who cared for him, rather than just the body he occupied.

'If things were different,' he asked, looking for one more insight into this man he knew so much and yet so little about. 'If you could pick how to live, what would you want?'

Sherlock's quiet breath stirred the hair on John's crown, and when he spoke it was in a soft, rumbling voice that resonated through John's skin and into his heart.

'This.' He tightened his arms around John's ribs. 'Just this.'

Chapter Text

The dull green digits of John's clock radio threw strange shadows over the walls, cloaking the room in a jealous twilight. The hour had slipped past one in the morning, yet sleep continued to elude him.

His body may be knackered, but his mind buzzed, alive with memories of Alexander's appearance and Sherlock's explanations. Every time he put one thought aside, a dozen more rose in its place, clamouring for his attention. His stomach fluttered, the hurried take-away he'd had for dinner sitting heavy below his ribs, and John sighed as he stared into the darkness, mourning the past and his inability to change the road Sherlock's life had taken.

Alexander's behaviour left scars, emotional, as well as physical, and he doubted Sherlock would ever be free of them. It was a miracle that his defiance had survived, and John suspected that if it weren't for the gift of an independent childhood, he would have been forced to conform, his life wasted in the pursuit of a family. His genius would have gone ignored while his observations were forever silenced. It made John fiercely proud that Sherlock had fought so hard, and he took comfort in the fact that, here in Baker Street, Sherlock was happy.

“This. Just this.”

The ghost of an embrace whispered over John's ribs, a memory of pressure that made him smile. He wasn't sure if Sherlock meant the Work, life in London or the simple pleasure of his relative freedom, but John's part in it was clear. Whether it was as a friend or more didn't matter. It was precious all the same, and bitter-sweet joy caught in his chest at the memory of Sherlock's quiet certainty.

John understood, now, why he protected his Alpha. He couldn't seek Alexander's end, even if he longed to put the bastard down. Instead, his death was a threat: a hazard which had to be considered.

Sherlock would have contingency plans, of that John was sure, but how desperate would they be? Would the dangers inherent in undergoing surgery be outweighed by the desire for self-sufficiency? Would he rip himself apart in pursuit of the autonomy he guarded with such ferocity, or did he have other strategies in mind?

Either way, John wasn't about to turn his back. Whatever Sherlock chose, he would do his best to be there for as long as he was welcome. Whatever he needed, John would try and provide.

With a sigh, he glanced at his clock, watching the numbers change. Tiredness dragged at his joints, but there was no relief. He kept straining to hear alien noises, primed to respond, and as two a.m. came and went, John found himself scowling towards his bedroom door, his jaw clenched and his spine locked.

This was ridiculous. An hour ago, he'd been fit to drop. Now, he twitched at every creak of the settling floorboards and stray city sound that reached his ears. Logically, he realised his response was natural: his home had been invaded and his haven breached. If he was like this, jittery and on-edge, then what hope did Sherlock have of finding any peace?

At last, he flicked on the bedside lamp and tossed back the blankets. He'd just check on him; a quick peek, that was all, to reassure himself that Sherlock was all right. He felt stupid for needing it, but otherwise he'd lie here worrying all night.

The stairs groaned under his weight, and John sighed as he saw the glow of one of the living room lamps spilling a beam of gold beneath the door. Easing it aside, he padded over the threshold, taking in the scene. Sherlock had dragged his bedding through from his room and dumped it on the sofa, ensconcing himself in its feathery depths. He was slumped in the corner, John's muddy jumper bunched beneath his head as a thick book lay open in his hands.

Normally on nights when he failed to rest, it was because he was up to his neck in the Work or chasing down the results of a peculiar experiment. Tonight, Sherlock looked as if he longed for his bed but couldn't bring himself to face it.

Realisation washed through John's mind, and he cursed himself for not having made the connection sooner. Alexander had wormed his way into their flat through Sherlock's bedroom window. To all intents and purposes, it was ground zero: the weakest point in their defences. It didn't matter that Mycroft's team had added surveillance hours ago, or that the casement was locked. Facts made no difference to the irrational subconscious. Expecting Sherlock to sleep in his room tonight was idiotic.

'Did you even try and get some rest?' he asked, nodding in acceptance as Sherlock gave a tiny shake of his head, admitting nothing verbally but confirming John's suspicions all the same.

'I'm not tired.'

Liar, John thought, looking at the marks pressed like thumb-prints under Sherlock's eyes and the weary wilt of his frame. Even if he wasn't mentally exhausted, emotionally he looked done in. Alexander's assault was only the beginning of the day's troubles. Sherlock had spoken about his past with enviable poise, but it was an act. It had cost him to drag all that free and lay it bare to John's understanding.

'Sherlock...'

'You're no better,' he pointed out. 'What did you do? Lie in bed and fret?'

John sighed, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. 'Pretty much.'

They'd spent a miserable evening trying to recover, but Sherlock's discomfort had yet to ease. John knew he hadn't helped. He'd tried to have a shower, but his unwillingness to leave Sherlock's side meant it was perfunctory at best, and he'd spent far too long prowling around, checking doors and windows. It was only when he'd walked within reach of Sherlock's grasp and found warm fingers around his wrist that he'd realised what he must look like: paranoid to the extreme.

He wished he could say the past few hours had brought an improvement, but he'd be fooling himself. 'I was wondering if Mycroft was onto something with the whole “get out of London” idea. It doesn't exactly feel safe here, does it?'

Sherlock stiffened, his lethargy crashing into determined focus as he lifted his head. 'That's ridiculous. Alexander is locked up in a bunker somewhere. I'm not in any danger.'

John took in the defiant tilt of his chin and the doubt in Sherlock's gaze. It was not the first time that Baker Street had been compromised, but this was different. This wasn't someone trying to get at them because of the Work. It was personal. 'Who are you trying to convince of that? Me, or you?'

A weary sigh stirred the air, and Sherlock dropped his head in defeat, pressing his hand to his eyes before dragging his palm down his face. 'Both of us,' he admitted, shutting the book and staring around the living room. 'This is laughable. What have we got to be afraid of?'

Before he could answer, a loud clatter rang out from the alley. Immediately, John surged forward, putting himself between Sherlock and the threat.

'It's probably the cat from three doors down in Mrs Hudson's bins,' Sherlock pointed out, but John didn't miss the fact he'd leant forward, poised to leap to his feet, 'or a fox after scraps.'

'Probably?' he asked, looking over his shoulder before striding to the kitchen table and picking up his gun. 'I'm going to check.'

'Is that necessary?' Sherlock huffed, following on John's heels and hissing arguments all the way. 'You're over-reacting. Mycroft's got this place locked down like the Bank of England, including a surveillance team across the street, which he thought I wouldn't notice. This isn't a master criminal with people at his disposal. It's just Alexander. He doesn't have the money to hire anyone to do his dirty work for him anymore, and he wouldn't admit to any of his so-called friends that he requires help.'

Stepping into Sherlock's room, John noticed that most of what he was saying was more about reassurance than recrimination, but the facts didn't make any difference. It was like being back on the battlefield after combat – not euphoric and victorious, but steeled for another attack.

Dragging back the curtains, he checked the fire escape was clear before leaning closer to the glass and peering down into the alley below. Sure enough, one of the bins had been knocked over. Whatever creature was responsible had already gone, but not before picking over the rubbish spilled across the ground.

'Told you,' Sherlock muttered from behind him, too busy verifying that they were safe to notice his chin was propped on John's shoulder.

'If you were so sure there was nothing there, then why did you come with me?' John asked, huffing a weak laugh as Sherlock's lips tilted in a petulant sulk. 'Look, you know it's normal, right? To feel like this?'

Sherlock's expression at being called normal was genuinely aghast, and John made sure the gun was safe before giving him a nudge towards the living room. 'Ask anyone who's ever had a break-in, and they'll tell you they were the same. It's instinct.'

'It's illogical,' he grumbled, folding his arms, 'although not exactly a new experience. I spent months jumping at shadows after I escaped the first time.'

'Feeling hunted.' John nodded, glancing around before picking up Sherlock's quilt and thrusting it into his flatmate's arms. 'Come on. Upstairs.'

Sherlock glanced towards the ceiling. 'Why?'

'It's high-ground, easy to defend, and only has one way in, assuming no one tries to get through the skylight. It's not up-to-spec for fire regulations, but it makes my room one of the most secure.' He trotted up the steps and pushed aside the door before putting his gun on the bedside table. 'If it comes down to it, one of us can keep watch while the other sleeps.'

Sherlock hovered in the doorway, taking in John's Spartan space. There wasn't much, but he could see Sherlock soaking in the minimal information on offer like a sponge, drawing God knew what conclusions from the state of this narrow sliver of John's territory.

'I'll take the floor, you take the bed,' he said, dragging his blankets and pillow into a heap before sitting on them, his back to the mattress.

'So, when you said one of us could keep watch, you meant you.' Sherlock raised his eyebrows, leaning against the wall and looking like he was gearing up for an argument. 'And they say chivalry is dead.'

'Don't be a prat.' John stretched his legs out in front of him, making sure the Sig was within easy reach as he folded his arms. 'You get the bed and some sleep because you're the one covered in bruises. I keep watch because it's my gun, and I've done sentry duty before.'

'And I haven't?' Sherlock sighed like he didn't have the strength to debate it, and John pursed his lips, watching him crawl onto the mattress and flop down on his front. 'There's a reason my sleeping habits are not what most people would term as acceptable. Between living with Alexander and spending time on the streets, deep sleep left me too vulnerable; I had to adapt. I don't need looking after, John.'

Bowing his head, he stared at his knees, realising how every habit Sherlock possessed came back to the man who had treated him so terribly. From the drugs to the way he used his body, the blame could be placed at Alexander's feet. All Sherlock’s excuses about sharpening his mind were nothing but fronts designed to appease the curious. Had he ever told anyone as much as he'd shared with John? He doubted it. The only person who might be privy to the details was Mycroft, and John struggled to imagine Sherlock confiding in his brother.

'I know.' He lifted his gaze back to the door, 'but there's fuck-all else I can do. Let me – let me have this much, all right?'

Sherlock sighed, and cloth moved in a peaceful susurrus as the mattress springs creaked beneath his weight. A moment later, Sherlock's forehead pressed against John's left shoulder-blade while the bony jut of his knees framed his right. It meant he was huddled in a tight curve, as close as he could get without draping himself over John's body. The cove of Sherlock's chest and stomach enclosed him; if he tipped his head back, it would rest in the dip of Sherlock's waist. There was nothing overtly protective about it, but John felt better than he had all evening, grounded and reinforced by the certainty of Sherlock's presence.

Limpid calm fell around them, the relative quiet of London's night defined by the hush of Sherlock's breathing. Outside, rain splashed on the sloped skylight and trickled into the gutters as the melody of distant traffic added an intermittent hum. John took it all in, opening his senses. He knew about guard duty – how easy it was to get lost in your thoughts and distracted from the environment – and he put old techniques to use. It may not be Afghanistan's haunting terrain that surrounded him, but it was still a landscape to be learned in detail, subtly altered by Sherlock's presence.

A deep breath through his nose helped his anxiety ebb. His room smelled like nothing in particular to him, though to Sherlock it was probably another matter. Now there were delicate notes to the air, a bit like the smell of clean laundry left out to dry in the sun. Not soap, but something fresh and bright. Acrid fear no longer tainted it, and the sting of antiseptic was a fading nuance. This was just Sherlock, and his scent smoothed the jagged edges of John's restlessness.

Time slipped away, the clock measuring the minutes until the sky began to show the first glimmers of dawn. John's eyes burned in earnest now, longing for rest. His backside ached from sitting on the hard floor, and his mind had fallen into the steady focus of his simple task, taking in every variation and watching the shadows desaturate.

The nudge of a finger against his back startled him, and he looked around to see hazy silver eyes watching him over the edge of the quilt. Sherlock had buried himself in it, and John had thought he was dead to the world. Instead he looked groggy and lethargic, but still very much awake.

'Please tell me you slept?'

'I dozed,' he replied, his voice a hoarse rumble as his gaze flickered to the door. 'Enough of that. Get in.' He rolled back, pressing himself against the wall and leaving half the narrow mattress free in blatant invitation. 'If you stay down there much longer, your limp will be in full effect, and you're no good to me dead on your feet.'

'But –'

Sherlock's groan drowned out the rest of John's protest, and he sat up, looking rumpled and sore before reaching down towards John's hip and wrestling the pillow out from under him, almost toppling John sideways in the effort. 'We. Are. Safe.' He enunciated each word before softening his voice. 'With you here, I actually believe it. Besides, Alexander is bad enough to deal with in person. I refuse to let the mere idea of him have a lasting impact. I got away from him so I could live my life, not spend it running away or cowering behind locked doors.'

He collapsed down to the mattress, turning his back in a clear indication that he'd said his piece, and John eyed the space left for him. He had no good excuse to creep into bed next to Sherlock, not when there was an empty one downstairs, not to mention the couch or, failing that, the floor.

He parted his lips to point that out before pressing them shut again. Sherlock had said it himself; it was John's presence that made him believe he was secure. John's company was what kept the circling, irrational fears at bay, and to leave would be depriving Sherlock of that relief.

John was aware it was an excuse, but he was too tired to sort through the arguments. This was a bad idea, intimate to the point of inappropriate, but when did Sherlock care about things like that? He'd never been one to shy away from John's touch. Even recently, when physical contact had been limited, that had been John's doing: his weak efforts at showing Sherlock some respect.

'Stop thinking about it and just get in,' Sherlock huffed.

'Bossy git,' John muttered, but despite his protests, he did as he was told.

Giving in was the most blissful kind of surrender. The last of his stress faded away as he settled down, the sheets beneath him still warm from Sherlock's body and that same scent that had first eased him hours ago filling his nose. The slender expanse of the bed didn't offer much space for two grown men, and John could make out the hidden ridge of Sherlock's spine against his back: a steel-strong line to anchor him.

Sharing a bed with anyone took some getting used to, but John was struck with how natural it seemed, from the dip of the mattress to the press of the soles of Sherlock's cold feet against the back of John's ankles. They were both dressed, back-to-back and chaste, but to John it was more meaningful than any number of naked, alluring lovers, and he relished the contentment that rolled through him in drowsy waves.

With the world already blurring at its edges, he barely felt Sherlock's arm move, reaching behind him until he brushed John's wrist. Tiredly, he registered the meekness of it – a silent request. Maybe Sherlock didn't need comfort, but that didn't mean he didn't want it, and John was unable to deny him anything so simple.

Cool fingers wove through his, awkward at this backward angle, but cherished all the same. Their dry palms pressed together, and John brushed his thumb over one of Sherlock's knuckles, letting the steady contact lull him as, at last, sleep crept out from the wings of his mind and folded him in darkness.

When he next awoke, it was to find rich sunshine pouring in through the south-facing skylight, coating the bed in a warm glow. The bedding was a tangled mess around them and his pillow had fallen on the floor. At some point, he'd turned over, lying on his back and staking his claim on the corner of Sherlock's instead. Not that it mattered, because Sherlock wasn't using it. He'd shuffled down so that his feet stuck off the end of the bed and his head was level with John's chest. He'd rolled over to face him, his left hand cinched around John's wrist while the right twisted in the cotton of his t-shirt, pulling it taut.

Cautiously, he reached out, nudging the quilt down with one finger so he could get a better view of Sherlock's face, serene in sleep. The bruises had ripened, daubing their inky accusations, and he fought down a grimace. True, Sherlock had received worse chasing down suspects, but these weren't trophies earned in a fight.

It made John furious that anyone could look at this man and think he was theirs to control. He didn't give a damn if it was tradition; it was wrong. Yet this was not a vague, formless injustice. It found its outline in the shape of Sherlock's profile and the twist of his curls. To John, it had become personal: an issue brought into frightening focus.

There were some people who would misread him – who would think he was angry at Alexander's possession because he wanted Sherlock for himself – and he'd be lying if there weren't base hints of that buried deep within him. However, Sherlock wasn't a prize to be won. John just wished he was free to choose the life he wanted, rather than live with a compromise.

A faint snuffle caught his attention, and he smoothed out his expression, concentrating on the here-and-now. A frown cut a line across Sherlock’s brow, and he wrinkled his nose at the sun's intrusion, stirring back to wakefulness. John grinned as Sherlock mashed his face into the mattress, chasing the shadows and groaning when he failed to reclaim the trailing edge of sleep.

'Good morning.' John's voice was rough with disuse, husky and quiet, and he raised an eyebrow as Sherlock blinked awake, squinting in his direction.

'Afternoon,' he corrected in a laconic rumble, grabbing the pillow and jamming it over his head. 'It's at least two 'o' clock, judging by the angle of the sun.'

A glance at the clock confirmed Sherlock's statement, and John gave silent thanks that he didn't have work today. Part of him felt guilty at the self-indulgence of lying in bed so late, but he and Sherlock were in desperate need of the rest. Besides, it was warm and luxurious here, as if the world outside was miles away, and he was unwilling to crack apart their peaceful solitude.

With a grunt, he stretched his arms above his head, his muscles shivering awake beneath his skin. Sherlock's grasp on his t-shirt loosened, and John chuckled as he burrowed further under the covers, jamming a knee into John's hip as he attempted to hide from the day that was in full swing beyond the windowpane.

In one quick movement, Sherlock flicked John's corner of the eiderdown over his head, including him in the humid cavern of feathers and fabric. Misty light seeped through the cloth, creating a strange, other-worldly dusk. The upward curve of Sherlock's lips suggested he was being playful, but there were hints of a them-and-us mentality – of hiding from everyone else while revelling in shared solitude – and John was happy to oblige.

He took a breath to speak, but found he didn't know what to say. Everything he could think of allowed the memory of Alexander to intrude on their tiny refuge, and John would do anything to keep him out. Instead, he kept his mouth shut, letting silence fall around them.

They were both curled on their sides, Sherlock's back to the wall and John's to the open edge of the bed. Their knees were half-drawn up, pressed together down the lengths of their shins while their hands occupied the space on the mattress between them.

At first, Sherlock's were tucked against his chest, but within a couple of minutes he'd reached out, exploring John's fingers and the webbing between them with gentle touches, bending knuckles and tracing the lines on his palms as if decoding all John's secrets. There was nothing rushed about it. Sherlock took his time, attentive to detail as always. John found himself watching, made breathless by the drift of Sherlock's fingertips across his skin, mapping calluses and vulnerabilities with placid intensity.

A delicate tremor ran down John's spine, and he squeezed his thighs together, trying to ease the pool of arousal low in his stomach. Hands had never been a hot spot for him, but here in the dark this seemed exquisitely intimate. Every breath tasted of him, and John's head grew thick and fuzzy, drugged by the slow sweep of Sherlock's touch at the very edges of his body.

John turned his wrist, caressing the vulnerable flesh over Sherlock's radial pulse. A sharp hiss of indrawn breath made him look up, and he could just make out the flush staining those cheeks in the surrounding half-light. Grey eyes met his, gleaming, and John's throat clicked as he swallowed and licked his lips.

A gasp whispered in Sherlock's chest, not-quite smothered, and John closed his eyes against the desire that slammed through him. He wasn't sure what was worse: the knowledge that Sherlock felt it too – this slow, steady wanting, quiet but inevitable – or the realisation that so much stood in their way.

There was nothing he could say that would make the problems surrounding them melt away, and he sighed, lifting his hand to cup Sherlock's cheek. Immediately, he turned, pressing into the bowl of his palm as if starved, but it was not the ragged desperation of an Omega in heat. It was Sherlock showing the heart he kept so well-hidden: a single glimpse that made John long to know it better.

A ghost of a kiss drifted over the underside of his wrist, and John's sigh was more like a sob as he sensed the emotion behind the gesture: a wish and an apology all in one.

His pulse stuttered, but despair was swiftly overwhelmed by a renewed flash of determination. He refused to believe that everything was as hopeless as it seemed. Maybe this moment was not the time to take a step forward, but that didn't mean he should retreat. He was not about to let the potential found in Sherlock's soft affection wither to nothing, and he doubted that was Sherlock's intention either. His expression might be one of regret, but even in the dusk that covered them, John could see the spin of Sherlock's mind, always at work.

He parted his lips as if to speak, but whatever Sherlock was about to say was cut off by a muffled, rapid buzz from somewhere in John's room. They both froze, ears straining until John recognised the text alert on his phone. It was tempting to ignore it, but the intrusion had been made, cracking the surface of their isolation. It allowed the concerns of reality to impinge, no longer distant, but cutting and impossible to disregard.

'It'll be Lestrade,' Sherlock said, gripping John's hand and easing it away.

'Do you want me to get it?' he asked, eager to preserve their solitude, even if only for another second. 'Your choice.'

He saw the calculation in Sherlock's gaze, the measuring of possible subjects of conversation from the DI and the realisation that, alongside the usual friendly conventions, there would no doubt be some information about the Donnelly case.

As much as he wanted to pretend the outside world did not exist, this was where he drew the line. Sherlock turning down the call of the Work would be a corruption of his nature, and that was not what John was looking for. He wanted the genuine article, not a facsimile seeking approval.

'See what he wants,' Sherlock replied at last, pushing back the quilt and letting in the light before raising an eyebrow in John's direction. 'Then I'll decide if it's worth getting out of bed.'

John sat up, cuffing a hand through his hair before leaning over and grabbing his jeans from the floor. His phone screen glowed in the depths of one of the pockets, and he dragged it free, skimming over Greg's message. 'Says he hopes we're okay, and that he thought you'd want to know Amelia Donnelly's toxicology report came back negative for any unexpected contaminants. Just the drugs.'

'What?' Sherlock propped himself up on his elbow, leaning around John's arm to read the message for himself. 'Are those Molly's results, or Anderson's?'

'He doesn't say.'

Sherlock plucked his mobile free from his grip and sat up, crossing his legs under him and texting furiously. Concentration pleated his brow, and John took a moment to admire the sight of Sherlock being so unapologetically himself. After the events of yesterday, it came as a relief. Sherlock's back was straight and his shoulders formed a natural, solid line beneath the creased t-shirt he wore. It was a sight John could get used to: mad hair, rumpled clothes, and sleep-softened features finding their focus as Sherlock turned his attention to a case.

It could have been dismissive, how quickly Sherlock could switch from muted intimacy to unemotional professionalism, but John knew it was another sign of that finite control. Sherlock was not a man who lost his way amidst useless sentiment. He did not dwell on a problem, but concentrated on the solution. It was an example John intended to follow. Somewhere, there was an answer to Sherlock's situation, and he was determined to find it.

'I need to get to the labs,' Sherlock said, passing John his phone and allowing his fingers to linger in the bowl of John's palm. 'How soon can you be ready?'

'Half an hour?' It was a hopeful estimate, and John sighed as his friend got to his feet in a fluid motion, his stride purposeful as he headed for the door.

'Twenty minutes,' he called over his shoulder, trotting down the stairs and leaving John alone. 'No more!'

John scrubbed his hands over his face, wincing at the sting of scrapes before he got up and began collecting together his clothes, throwing them on hurriedly. He worked on auto-pilot, buttoning his shirt as his mind lingered between the bedsheets, relishing the memory of Sherlock so soft and quiet.

He wondered what he would have said if John's phone hadn't interrupted: an invitation for more, or an apology? Both? It would be naïve to think there was anything straightforward about exploring what lay between them. It wasn't just Alexander's existence that cast a shadow, nor anything as black and white as infidelity. After all, Sherlock had never made any vows. Like he'd said last night, he wasn't his own to give.

Stubborn anger welled up in John's gut. Sherlock may have accepted that as the best he could hope for out of life: a half-freedom of his own making, but John was damned if he was going to stop there. Not because of what hovered between them, acknowledged only in wordless affection, but because Sherlock deserved more. He'd fought hard and achieved so much under his own power. Now, John intended to take up the cause.

The question was, where to start?

The rush of the shower reached his ears, and he grabbed his shoes, putting them on and scooping up the Sig before hurrying downstairs with the intent of making breakfast. Cereal clattered in the bowl before he bathed it with milk and chewed it standing over the sink, too hurried to sit down. The toaster and the kettle worked simultaneously, and he tried to judge his chances of getting Sherlock to eat anything.

A few minutes later, Sherlock emerged from the bathroom, damp-haired and meticulously dressed. Only one cuff remained undone, loose around his right wrist. Instantly, John saw why, and he pressed his lips together in sympathy. Sherlock had taken the strapping off to shower, and while a lot of the swelling had gone down, bruises from Alexander's grip slashed bold stripes across pale skin.

'Still sore?' he asked, setting aside his plate and grabbing another bandage from a box under the sink. He tore off the cellophane wrapping and reached for Sherlock's arm, examining it with care. 'Can you move it?'

'Yes, but it's still painful. Mostly here.' He indicated the ulnar process, where the skin remained puffy and bruised. 'How much longer is it going to be like this?'

John gave a crooked smile at Sherlock's restlessness. 'A few days at least. I'll give you something for it in a minute. I know it's not easy, but try and rest it, all right?' He spoke more out of hope than experience, aware that Sherlock would push his body to its limits rather than cater to its needs. 'And eat some breakfast. Fuel helps you heal.'

He nudged some toast towards Sherlock, satisfied when he took a grudging bite and then devoured it with something akin to enthusiasm. By the time the new bandage was in place, he was starting on the second slice, and John took a grateful gulp of his tea. The liquid was hot, but he downed it as quick as he could, sensing the ticking clock of Sherlock's waning patience.

The urgency was of Sherlock's own making. The lab and the results would still be there whether they took ten minutes or two hours, but John could see the behaviour for what it was: a distraction. Sherlock was stuck with the helplessness of his situation, so he took control where he could. His command over his life was sorely lacking, but in the shape of the case he found something he could influence.

'Ready to go?' he asked, wiping crumbs from his mouth and dragging on his jacket before watching John tuck the Sig into the back of his jeans. 'Is that necessary?'

'I don't want to be caught without it,' John replied, gesturing for Sherlock to lead the way down the stairs and out of the front door. 'Not now I'm aware what Alexander's like.' He held out a hand, stalling the argument that the Alpha was in Mycroft's custody. 'I know he's locked up somewhere, but the gun's coming with us anyway. Just in case.'

He expected Sherlock to argue, but his nod of comprehension as he flagged down a taxi said plenty. Even now, hours later, neither of them found much comfort in rational explanations.

Sherlock stared out of the window, the passing city reflected in his gaze while John toyed with his phone, fiddling with buttons as his thoughts raced. Despite all that he'd been told, he was still missing the information required to build a strategy. Yes, he knew about Sherlock's life, but he didn't understand the culture that had him so firmly trapped. It seemed alien and archaic, born of another age. He needed to talk to someone intimate with the legalities of the system without being a victim of it.

He thought of the papers Greg had given him yesterday, lying on his bedside table. There hadn't been time to skim through the dense text, and now he regretted not having made it a priority. Maybe it couldn't have told him anything useful, but it was better than nothing.

By the time the cab slowed to a halt, his head was a morass of possibilities. However, he had no idea what might work and what was already dead in the water thanks to the complex world into which Sherlock was born.

With a sigh, he resigned himself to the day ahead, shifting his weight as he moved to vacate the taxi. Yet the clasp of Sherlock's fingers around his wrist made him pause, and he turned to face the man at his side.

'You're thinking of texting Mycroft,' he said, his sterling eyes unreadable. 'You've had your phone in your hand for the past ten minutes. You keep scrolling through your address book and lingering in the “M” section. Don't bother. He'll be at the Diogenes, and he's less likely to be disingenuous if you see him in person.'

John hesitated, too familiar with Sherlock's methods to challenge his deductions. Besides, he was right. Of everyone, Mycroft was the only one in a position of power over Alexander: feared, if not respected. 'Will it do me any good?' he asked, cocking his head. 'Can he tell me anything you can't?'

Sherlock looked away, opening the door on his side of the taxi and climbing out before bending down. He glanced at the driver, lowering his voice for John's ears alone. 'Despite his endeavours to adjust his behaviour, Mycroft's attitude towards Omegas has been hard-coded from childhood. As such, he is unwilling to burden me with the details of his plans. You are another matter, and maybe he can offer some reassurance that I cannot.'

'Wait.' John reached across the seat, grabbing Sherlock's cuff as he made to step back. 'I'm not leaving you here!'

'Well I'm no use at the club! Mycroft won't tell you anything if I'm there. I'll be in the lab.' He gestured to the edifice of Bart's behind him and smothered a sigh when John frowned. 'I appreciate your concern,' he murmured, pressing his bandaged hand to his temple before dropping it to his side, 'but it's unnecessary. I'm safe.' He rolled his eyes as John grimaced, sighing as if he were making a great sacrifice. 'If I need to go anywhere else, I'll send you a text.'

It was a compromise, a curtailment of Sherlock's independence made for John's comfort, and he grudgingly pushed his reservations down as he gave a steady nod. There was a point at which concern became smothering, and while John's stomach shivered at the thought of letting Sherlock out of his sight, he quashed the sensation. As appealing as it was, they couldn't spend the rest of their lives joined at the hip; that would just be a different kind of cage. 'All right. If you don't tell me otherwise, I'll meet you back here in an hour.'

Sherlock nodded, shutting the door and tapping his hand on the roof of the car in farewell. John watched him go, his eyes fixed on that lean, dark figure until the tails of the Belstaff vanished through the door of Bart's.

The taxi pulled away, carrying him through London's chaotic streets before dropping him off outside the austere building of Mycroft's favourite haunt. Inside, civil servants were digesting their late lunches, lounging in silence in their armchairs and hiding behind the broadsheets. John ignored them, following the mute guidance of one of the ushers into the back room, where Mycroft stood by the window, a glass of amber spirit in his hand and a far-off look in his eye.

'Ah, John. I've been expecting you. I trust you slept well?'

John scowled at the pleasantry, sure that Mycroft already knew the answer. How much had he seen of last night? Sherlock's sleeplessness, John's battle-readiness... He was fairly sure there were no cameras in his bedroom, but that didn't mean Mycroft was unaware of where Sherlock had spent the hours of darkness, as well as all morning.

'It took a while to wind down,' he replied at last, 'but yeah, we managed.'

Mycroft swirled the liquid in his glass, his expression unreadable as he took a sip before gesturing to the bottle. 'Drink?'

'I'd better not.' John sat down in one of the wing-back chairs, deciding it was best to keep his wits about him. Mycroft may be indulging, but he wouldn't put it past him to use it as a prop: more about putting John at ease than satisfying his thirst. 'Sherlock told me about – about everything.'

'I doubt that.'

He paused, looking up with a frown. His first thought was that Mycroft was questioning Sherlock's trust, but that belief melted away as he saw the defeat evident in the set of his shoulders.

'Do not misunderstand me, John. I have no doubt Sherlock's revealed more to you than anyone else, myself included, but I know from experience that there are some aspects of his life that he is reluctant to discuss. He tends to gloss over them, to insist he won't “bore you with the details”.' Mycroft raised an eyebrow as John's heart sank, remembering those exact words in Sherlock's low tones. 'Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he's told you almost everything.'

'Are you going to fill in the blanks?' John challenged, watching him narrow his eyes in consideration before he lowered himself into the chair opposite.

'If I feel it necessary.' His smile was thin, and John drew a breath as he realised they were sizing each other up, judging whether the man in their company was an ally or just another obstacle. It could go on forever if he played Mycroft's game – a useless stalemate. Alternatively, he could put his cards on the table and see what the older Holmes did in response.

'Sherlock explained why he wouldn't let me shoot Alexander,' he said, leaning back in the chair and sensing the Sig dig into his spine. 'I get it, I do, but that doesn't mean I don't wish that bastard wasn't in the morgue rather than one of your bunkers.'

Mycroft looked at him over the top of his glass, his gaze murky where Sherlock's was clear. 'A sentiment I share.' It was offered like a truce – an olive branch of sorts – and John relaxed a fraction. 'I assume Sherlock explained his predicament in full, that Alexander's death would worsen his situation dramatically?'

John clenched his left hand, his fingernails digging crescents into his palm. 'I don't accept that. I don't think you'll sit here, with the weight of the bloody government behind you, and watch as Sherlock's inherited by the family of his Alpha. Even if Alexander wasn't an abusive cock, you wouldn't stand for it. Ten years ago, maybe, but not now.' He shook his head. 'Not if you care about Sherlock half as much as you claim.'

The chair creaked as Mycroft leant back. Suddenly, he looked old, rumpled and worn as he met John's eyes. 'My regard for my brother is far deeper than you might imagine.' The quiet statement unfurled between them, and John tipped his head, listening as he elaborated. 'I appreciate that, from your perspective, and perhaps Sherlock's as well, my actions over the past twenty years are a poor reflection of it.'

'You allowed it to happen,' John hissed. 'You supported him being bound!'

'Of course!' Mycroft lifted his head, his eyes narrowing. 'You can have no concept of what it is like. I had a younger brother who idolised and challenged me. We were better than equals, and then...'

He looked away, his body slumped. 'I was aware there was something about Sherlock I couldn't see, even as a boy. I convinced myself not to look too closely, but when he was confirmed as an Omega, I was appalled: the only life he could have was one he would never tolerate.'

Straightening his spine, he met John's gaze. 'I challenged my father, demanding to know why Sherlock had to be bound in the first place. We didn't need the money his price would bring, and Sherlock could have freedom of a sort. He'd be safe on the estate; I could look after him...'

The ring on Mycroft's finger gleamed in the late afternoon light as he touched his lips, seemingly filtering through the flood of words for those that could convey his meaning. 'My father said it was a matter of biology. It wasn't until Sherlock presented that I understood what he meant. I'd always assumed, like many Alphas, that Omega heats were a time of intense sexual need and thought little of it. I had no wish to bond myself and therefore no personal experience. I had not realised –'

A muscle twitched at his jaw, and his Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. 'I watched my brother turn into a wraith of his former self, tormented by his own bio-chemistry. He was fading before our eyes and loathing every moment. It was the first time I feared he might do something – fatal – to escape his situation.'

The suggestion lay thick in the air, and John's breath stuttered. He followed what Mycroft was getting at: the possibility that there were times when he'd wondered if Sherlock would rather die than submit to what lay in store for him. 'But Sherlock's not... He said he wanted to make a life for himself, not end it.'

'Yes, but occasionally the sheer hopelessness of the situation seemed insurmountable. My father begged him to bond, invoking my mother's name, offering promises. I felt it was escaping the frying pan to land in the metaphorical fire. I tried to think of alternatives, but there wasn't time and then...' Mycroft drew in a deep breath. 'Between one day and the next, he was no longer my concern. It was made clear from all sides – my own father, who I respected, and the Cunningham family – that further contact was unnecessary. I wish now that I'd tried harder to reach Sherlock. Instead, I accepted it. It was our way of life, as it had been for centuries. Foolishly, I did not question it.'

John smoothed his palm over the fabric of the chair, trying to work out whether Mycroft was playing him. If he was, he'd missed his calling as an actor. Regret carved lines into his face, and self-loathing painted his expression in shadow, utterly convincing.

'On those rare occasions that I heard from Sherlock, the communications had two dichotomous tones. There would be some calls: quiet and vitriolic about his situation, then others where he expressed contentment. I told myself that the former were outward manifestations of his penchant for the dramatic, and the latter were a reflection of the truth.'

John shook his head in disbelief. He'd bet every last pound in his bank account that, in those phone-calls Sherlock had sounded happy, Alexander had been right there, his presence threat enough. 'You never thought otherwise? You? It's your job to be suspicious, and you never questioned what Sherlock said?'

'Alexander's role was to provide for my brother. To cherish him. It's more than social expectation. It is an obligation!' Mycroft pressed his lips together, stifling what, for him, was an outburst. He shut his eyes, his chest heaving with a sigh. 'I hoped Sherlock had found happiness, and I allowed that hope to blind me. However, you are right. Suspicion is in my nature.'

He waved a hand, indicating the splendour of the club around him and all it symbolised. 'When I achieved a modest post in government and access to a few resources, I turned their focus to Sherlock. In doing so I was breaching a number of unspoken rules about the role an Omega's family plays in their life once they are bound, but there were higher priorities than adhering to tradition.' His lips bleached white beneath the pressure of his teeth, his jaw shifting before he added, 'As it turned out, my fears were founded. I discovered that he'd fled Alexander's house almost nine months prior.'

A ghost of despair flickered over Mycroft's features, hastily smothered. 'Attempts to locate him failed at every turn, and I spent more than a year fearing the worst: that my younger brother had fallen victim to traffickers or suffered unmentionable things without his Alpha to protect him.' A mirthless smile twitched his lips. 'I should have known better than to underestimate him.'

'You didn't know, did you?' John asked. 'What he was doing to control his situation? How successfully he was fighting the system?'

Mycroft shook his head, staring down into the whisky at the bottom of his glass. 'In retrospect, I realise how strategic Sherlock's actions were.' He set the tumbler aside, his hands curling around the arms of the chair in which he sat. 'However, back then, once Alexander retrieved him, I was relieved. Blindly, I thought he was safer in his Alpha's care than elsewhere. I had the occasional concern that something was amiss, but it was months before they became too persistent to ignore.'

'You started digging?'

Mycroft met John's gaze. 'I decided to look beyond the surface of affection Alexander portrayed. As soon as I discovered the lengths he went to in order to conceal information that should be easy for me to obtain, I realised I'd been grossly mistaken. It was enough to encourage me to utilise the resources at my disposal to discover the truth, and then I began formulating strategies to extricate my brother.' Lines bracketed his mouth as he looked away. 'All were flawed, lacking finesse, viability or both. Before I found an adequate solution, Alexander's behaviour came to a head.'

Those eyes grew distant, and John tensed where he sat. Sherlock's description of what Alexander had done to him had been vague, but judging by Mycroft's face, the memory of that day had not been dulled by time. He looked like a man navigating the recollection of an atrocity, and if John had any doubt about whether Mycroft was putting on a show, they faded in that instant. No one could fake the way those blue eyes burned with fresh loathing, and when he spoke again, it was in the voice of a man who keenly understood his own failings, as well as those of the society in which he had been raised.

'One more blow would have killed Sherlock; I'm sure of it. His injuries were catastrophic, and his stay in hospital was prolonged, exacerbated by his already weakened physical state.'

John lifted his head, but he didn't have to voice the question. Mycroft noticed, no doubt seeing the hole in his knowledge as he gave a nod of weary comprehension. 'So that is what Sherlock failed to tell you.'

'He explained how he put Lorelon in Alexander's coffee every morning, and how Alexander found out one day...' John trailed off, trying to work out why Mycroft's face looked so ashen. 'Sherlock was worried how I'd react. Said you'd implied people would frown on him drugging his arsehole of an Alpha.' His voice hardened, and John clenched his jaw as he watched Mycroft's eyebrows lift as if ceding a point. 'Like it wasn't completely justified!'

Mycroft pinched the bridge of his nose before dropping his hand. 'You misunderstand the root of my disapproval, John, and Sherlock has clearly misread my meaning. Understandable. Neither of us were at our best that day.' He rubbed his fingers together, his skin lending dry whispers to the air. 'Sherlock told you how he acquired a drug habit, yes? Did he also tell you how his addiction provided Alexander with more ammunition against him? As soon as he noticed Sherlock's dependency, a new sphere of persuasion became open to him.'

Dread crept up John's back, spreading cold fingers along his spine. It was no stretch of the imagination to picture what Alexander may have done, and he swore quietly.

'He subjected Sherlock to periods of binge and withdrawal. If Sherlock declined the drug, it was administered against his will. Alexander fed his addiction and exercised arbitrary control over Sherlock's supply, and it wasn't just the cocaine he used in that manner.' Mycroft attempted to school his features, but it was a thin veneer over a hard, abyssal anger.

'Alexander always used intimacy as a weapon, of that I have no doubt, but now his methods changed. Sherlock didn't need to treat Alexander with contraceptives for the first eleven months after his return, because Alexander did not touch him.' Distaste emanated from every angle of Mycroft's body, but it was not that of a sibling unwillingly discussing his brother's sex life. It was outrage. 'His proximity meant Sherlock experienced pyresus – the desperate need to mate – and Alexander satisfied himself with other, non-Omega lovers, leaving Sherlock to suffer. Conception of a child had taken second place in Alexander's priorities. As far as I can discern, all he cared about was inflicting punishment.'

Mycroft ran a hand across his knee, smoothing out invisible creases, and John watched him attempt to collect himself. 'To some extent, my brother was accustomed to the denial. He avoided sex with his Alpha whenever possible, but he knew his limits. There were times his biology demanded he consent and consummate, lest he experience the same decline in physical health he endured before he was bound. I believe he was able to push himself to twelve weeks without satisfying pyresus, but this deprivation went on far longer, and he suffered the consequences.'

John realised he was frozen where he sat, his body locked in denial as he stared at Mycroft. 'How did you find out? Did Sherlock...?'

'Sherlock told me nothing. It was Alexander. The first time I – arranged a meeting – to lay out the rules of his separation from my brother, he took great pleasure in gloating over the control he'd managed to achieve, as well as his methods. He was unaware of the fact he was being recorded, or the position of power I occupied.'

His eyes narrowed in cruel satisfaction, but his triumph rapidly faded. 'He made Sherlock too weak to escape.' Mycroft pressed his fingers to his temple as he added, 'Once Sherlock was recovering, I chastised him, not for what he had done to Alexander, but for taking matters into his own hands. He engaged in Alexander's war of control, rather than seeking to extricate himself, and the result was –'

He stopped, clearing his throat and avoiding John's eye. When he began again it was in the tight, indifferent tones of a man struggling to hide too much emotion. 'I am aware I have only myself to blame. Sherlock did not feel able to ask me for assistance. Presumably, he assumed – as my past behaviour suggested – that I would be disinclined to offer aid.'

'Why wait to be asked?' John demanded. 'Couldn't you have stepped in sooner?'

'I needed an excuse, a way of making it about intervention in the eyes of the law, rather than abduction.' He bowed his head before flicking a finger in weak dismissal. 'One which Alexander unwittingly provided when he beat my brother. His actions would have shocked any Alpha of the elite. It's – unthinkable.' Mycroft's voice tightened. 'It was there we found our leverage. I documented everything, amassing an arsenal of evidence, and what I found drove me to consider a more terminal response. I wanted his influence over my brother's life removed in a way only death can ensure.'

Visceral agreement surged in John's chest, his finger twitching and the gun a sullen enticement at the base of his spine. 'But Sherlock stopped you.'

'Logical where I was – not,' Mycroft admitted, picking a piece of lint from his jacket and crossing his legs, visibly reclaiming the persona John knew so well. 'As Sherlock pointed out, any course of action I wished to take, from disposing of Alexander to dragging it through the courts would leave him in the same position. Unbound, and still in need of an Alpha. Either scenario carried great risk and removed the situation from Sherlock's control. That was not the outcome he desired.'

'Better the devil you know,' John murmured. 'So he convinced you to threaten Alexander instead. Keep the bond going, but force his Alpha away from him so he could –?' He gestured towards the window, indicating Sherlock's current life.

'Exactly. For my part, it was simple. There was a state of equilibrium between Alexander's desire for an Omega and an heir, and his need to hide his deplorable abuse. For Sherlock...' Mycroft hesitated, grimacing. 'It was not so straightforward. If I had ever doubted the strength of my brother's will, I ceased to question it then. His body required rehabilitation, from his injuries, his addiction to cocaine, and Alexander. The process was long and far from easy to endure, yet once he'd regained himself –'

For the first time since John had walked into the room, Mycroft smiled, warm and genuine. 'I had not realised I'd lost him for so long until I found him again. He gloried in his freedom and made my life extraordinarily difficult in the process, but it was more than worth it. He travelled under false papers and met the inestimable Mrs Hudson. He worked for Detective Inspector Lestrade. For the most part, he avoided further drug use, though the addiction lingers to this day.'

He raised his chin, doing nothing to hide his obvious pride. 'Sherlock seized control of his existence, and he is averse to anything that might compromise it. When it became necessary to inform Gregory Lestrade of my brother's situation, Sherlock railed against me for weeks. Understandably, though perhaps not logically, he feared the Inspector's response. The same as he feared yours.'

John lowered his eyes, wondering, not for the first time, if Sherlock would have told him the truth if not for his accidental discovery. His silence spoke for him, and Mycroft's next words were matter-of-fact.

'It is challenging to disregard those so-called truths we learn during our upbringing. In the same way I was led to believe all Omegas were honoured and respected, Sherlock was told that all Alphas would treat him as property. For years, he had daily evidence to support that belief. Yet despite that, he chose you – an Alpha – for a flatmate.'

Mycroft's piercing gaze settled on John's frame, and he tried not to fidget under the scrutiny as the conversation switched onto new territory. 'Why are you here, John? I doubt it is to answer some idle curiosity, nor do I believe the desire to confront me over my behaviour drove you to Diogenes.' A grimace twitched his lips. 'At least, not entirely.'

Words squabbled in John's head, cries of outrage and accusations without a target each as useless as the other. As tempting as it was to blame Mycroft for what had befallen Sherlock, it wasn't that simple. Instead, he forced his anger aside, struggling to pare the chaos of his thoughts down to a solitary question.

'If Alexander dies, what can we do for Sherlock?' He didn't insult Mycroft's intelligence by offering clarification. The straightening of his shoulders and the alertness of his gaze suggested it was unnecessary. 'And don't say you don't know. If there's anything that can be done, you'll have thought of it.'

He sounded desperate: a lost man looking for a way to make everything right, but of everyone, Mycroft was ideally placed to plot his way through to a preferable outcome. John refused to believe that the older Holmes, plagued as he was by regrets over past inaction, would have failed to consider the vast potential of Sherlock's future.

'And if there is?' Mycroft asked, steepling his fingers in front of his lips in a way that reminded John strikingly of Sherlock. 'What then? Would you go against Sherlock's wishes and remove Alexander from the equation?'

John shook his head, slowly at first, then more emphatic. 'No, and neither would you. If you thought it could be done that way, he would already be dead.'

Mycroft tilted his head in acknowledgement. 'There are a number of – negotiations – which could be undertaken should misfortune befall Alexander, ones which stand a chance of freeing Sherlock from being passed to his Alpha's family.'

John let out a breath, sensing the hanging threads of Mycroft's statement. 'But?'

'But none are certain, and none will negate the suffering Sherlock would be subject to on the death of his Alpha, nor the struggles awaiting him afterwards.' Now Mycroft's gaze was like that of a hawk, practically pinning John to his chair. 'One thing is fundamental to understand, John. Even if he were not inherited by the Cunninghams, Sherlock cannot have the life he wants unless he is bound. Alexander would have to be replaced.'

'But if it was someone he chose –'

'And if that someone was not you?'

The question was like a blade, cutting him off as he fought the tight cramp of emotion in his stomach. Mycroft did not say it vindictively. There was a surgical precision to his question, one that made John wonder what he knew.

He wanted to protest that he and Sherlock weren't like that – that his motives were innocent – but how could he when the thought of Sherlock finding what he needed with someone else made dark jealousy churn in John's chest?

'It wouldn't – it wouldn't matter,' he stammered, clearing his throat and wishing he didn't sound so strained. 'This isn't about me. It's about him.'

Mycroft's eyes narrowed as if he were searching for any hint of a lie. God alone knew what he found, but it seemed to satisfy him. 'There are already clauses in place within Sherlock's bonding contract which would allow him to pass the grieving process in the company of his family, rather than with the kin of his deceased Alpha. It was a stipulation my mother made, long before Sherlock reached maturity.'

'What difference does that make?' John asked quietly.

'It buys us time,' he explained, 'and ensures Sherlock is given what he needs to recover. Should such an event come to pass, I plan to enter negotiations with Alexander's family. I believe they can be compelled to acquiesce to my demands. If not, I can offer to buy my brother back, though they're well within their rights to decline. Should even that fail, it would be a matter for the courts.' He spread his hands. 'As you can see, the options open to me are not without their pitfalls. Should a judge decide in favour of the Cunninghams, it is probable that they will issue restraints upon me to sever all contact between Sherlock and myself. Even in my current position, such injunctions would not be easy to overcome. Sherlock could lose every ally he has.'

'No.' John shook his head, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands knotted together in front of his face in a useless kind of prayer. 'No, he wouldn't. I don't believe you'd sit around and do nothing, no matter what the court said, and neither would anyone else. Sherlock's not isolated; he's not alone. It's not like we're just going to let them take him away and forget he exists!'

He was aware that he looked brittle and defensive, but he wasn't blind to the flash of approval in Mycroft's eyes. It made him wonder if all this was some kind of elaborate test, a way for Mycroft to work out where John's priorities lay. Hopefully he realised that, first and foremost, this was about Sherlock, not John and whatever he might want.

The buzz of his phone in his pocket disturbed the silence. Mycroft gave a wave of permission, not that John needed it, and he dragged his mobile free so he could read the message from Sherlock, telling him he was heading to Scotland Yard in twenty minutes.

'My brother demanding your presence, I assume?'

'He asks how your diet's going,' John muttered in retort, getting a glimmer of satisfaction at watching Mycroft give a disapproving sniff before he shook his head. 'Look, the reason I came here is because I don't know what to do.' He spread his hands in front of him, palm-up. 'No one should have to suffer what Sherlock's been through, but if there's anyone who can think of a way to get him out of this mess, it's you. I just – I need to know you've got a trick up your sleeve.'

Mycroft got to his feet, tweaking a crease from his suit before tugging at his cuff and giving a sly half-smile. 'More than one, Doctor Watson,' he replied smoothly, all sign of the vulnerable man of a few minutes ago gone without a trace. 'I am sorry I cannot do more at this time to put your mind at rest, but should it become necessary, there are avenues open to us. As for what you can do,' He indicated the door, 'I suggest you continue as you are. I know that Sherlock values your – friendship – greatly.'

It was a clear dismissal, but despite the message from Sherlock calling him back to his side, there was still one question remaining.

'If you have all these plans, things that can help Sherlock get out of his situation, why haven't you put them in motion? You said yourself you wanted Alexander gone.'

Mycroft frowned, wandering over to a nearby desk and leaning back against it, his arms folded. 'The risk entailed is too great, and the reward inadequate. If I had killed Alexander all those years ago, Sherlock would not have his current existence in Baker Street. He would be bound to someone else and, at best, would go to waste in isolation and indifference.' He sighed. 'As much as Sherlock abhors it, it is his biology that has restricted our actions. Even if it was within his power to do so, back then, who could he choose who would grant him the life he desires?'

'And now?' John got to his feet, closing his eyes in a weary blink before dragging them open again.

Mycroft straightened his tie, his gaze assessing, taking in John's short frame in a single sweep.

'Now, Doctor Watson, he has you.'

Chapter Text

Warm, blunt fingers ran down his chest, mapping the edges of trembling muscles. Darkness pressed in on all sides, velveteen and absolute, all his input reduced to the rapturous caress of the weathered palms bracketing his ribs. They charted the plane of his waist and rimmed the humid hollow of his navel, exploring with tortuous intensity.

Parted lips, wet and greedy, pressed to the soft skin of his belly, and a growl choked in his throat as his hips gave a demanding twitch. He was hard, swollen and ready, his thighs dewy as his arousal made itself known. If his lover’s voyage of discovery continued, they’d reach down and back to find Sherlock slick, his readiness on display.

He wanted to guide the man above him, but his arms were leaden. Instead, he lay there, a willing recipient to the building pleasure bestowed upon him. Panting breaths fluted his stomach, and he keened as they pressed their face to the juncture of his thigh and torso, inhaling deep, mouth open as they moaned in appreciation.

‘Oh, God.’

Blasphemy had never sounded so worshipful, and Sherlock shuddered as strong hands slid under him, tilting his hips up and spreading him open to the benediction of lips and tongue until he was a writhing, sobbing supplicant.

‘Please!’ he breathed, his prayers spoken to the distant ceiling as his legs shook and excitement pooled at the base of his spine. He couldn’t understand what he was asking for, this and more, but his partner needed no further urging. They leaned back, fingers skimming lovingly over him, cupping his balls and dragging up his shaft before the mattress dipped.

Sherlock’s body spasmed in anticipation, heat slipping across his skin like silk as his lover knelt between his legs. They dragged him close, predatory and powerful, lifting him so that while his shoulder-blades stayed on the bed, his spine formed a shallow slope and the tops of his lover’s thighs struck scorching lines across his backside. He could feel the head of their cock nudging at him, yet they did not surge forward and lay their claim. Instead, they held back, shaking with restraint.

A callused hand cupped his face, the tenderness at odds with the cresting wave of animal desire that rose all around them, and a familiar voice waivered around a single, whispered word.

‘Yes?’

His body, driven to breaking point by another’s attentions, shifted in restless determination, intent on capturing its prize. A stoic, patient grasp held his hips steady until he finally found strength enough to answer.

‘Yes! Please, yes!’

Sherlock gasped as the dream shattered around him, leaving him panting in his solitary bed. His body was a quivering mess, aroused to breaking point, and he groaned as he rolled onto his front. His cock rubbed against the mattress as he ground his hips against it, plunging his hand down the back of his pyjamas to find himself wet and open.

He pressed two fingers in, too far gone to care about finding the angle. This was not a leisurely exercise in self-gratification; it was the hell-bent pursuit of release, and within minutes his muscles were clutching around his knuckles, heat coalescing along his thighs as his pillow caught his moans. He thrust blindly back against his hand as he came in tight, eager pulses, soaking his pyjamas.

Aftershocks rippled through him, but they were not the lethargic undulations of satisfaction. Each one intensified his sulky longing. Static prickled under his sensitised skin, and he sagged in resignation as the misty details of his fantasy unwound across his consciousness.

There was no question as to the identity of his imaginary lover. He knew those hands well – had seen them clasped around mugs of tea or the grip of the Sig – tanned and capable. Besides, his partner may not have said much, but each word and action was quintessentially John, from the whispered praise to the fact that, even at the point of no-return, he had hesitated, checking they were of the same mind.

Perhaps that was a projection of Sherlock’s desire for control: another illusion. He had no way to extrapolate John’s behaviour in such a situation. Would he remain his thoughtful self, or would Sherlock’s pheromones drive his essential nature to burn through and take over, an Alpha at heart?

He liked to think otherwise, that John would be considerate and attentive, yet none of Sherlock’s past experiences put his enjoyment first. An Omega reaching sexual release during heat was practically a given, and the methods used to achieve satisfaction were more about the Alpha’s pleasure than anything else. He had little reason to believe that John, for all his kindness, would be any different.

Yet he longed to be proved wrong. He wanted to feel his responses to those acts he’d learnt from the media – the interactions lovers shared that went far beyond the realms of penetration. All his fantasies were hazy on the details, fogged by his dearth of knowledge. He’d become experienced, over the years, at delivering himself to ecstasy – after all, Alexander wasn’t going to bother – but there were some things you couldn’t do alone.

Wearily, Sherlock rolled onto his back, wiping his hand on his pyjamas and resigning himself to doing the laundry. He would require a shower, too, and soon, before John got up. He might not be releasing the undeniable odour of pyresus, but John would still smell the sex on him. His nose was too powerful to miss it or to offer the blessing of misinterpretation. Bad enough that Sherlock had to suffer through the inescapable itch of unsated desire; he would rather not advertise his consequential activities to every Alpha he came across.

Before John and Baker Street, but after Alexander, he had spent his heats in bed whenever possible, putting years of knowledge of his own body into practice. It made it more tolerable, but at the same time clouded his mind, leaving him disoriented and frankly thick with lust. Besides, such behaviour was detrimental to productivity. The more time he spent trying to satisfy himself, the more protracted his situation became, waiting for a knot that never arrived.

No, better to resist temptation and let things run their course.

Staring at the ceiling, he found himself grateful that at least this hadn’t coincided with the night he’d shared John’s bed. It was challenging to ignore his scent in normal circumstances, but that day John had experienced a gamut of exposure, first to telikostrone, then to Alexander’s dominance.

The former had been bad enough, and Sherlock blushed to remember his response when John had walked back into the lab. Outwardly he had seemed calm, but his pheromones told their own story of feral arousal. The fragrance had coated Sherlock’s throat and made him fidget in his chair, aware of a growing dampness between his legs and the urge to clutch John close and breathe him in.

Later, when Alexander’s appearance had left him shaken, John’s personal perfume had become dominant and powerful, reassuring in ways Sherlock couldn’t define. He had spent the evening clinging to John’s filthy jumper like a security blanket. After all, he couldn’t bury his nose in John’s neck, so he had to settle for the next best thing.

If he had been in this state that day, the consequences could have been dire. He tried to imagine it: John’s distilled, heightened essence surrounding him. Could he have resisted the temptation to touch when the object of his desire had been a mere few centimetres away?

Wanting John was nothing new. He’d painted Sherlock’s dreams in erotic hues for months, particularly when his hormones were at their fertile apex. However, most of the time it was a quiet longing, acknowledged and placed, regretfully, to one side. Even when like this, all it took was the reminder that John was unaware of Sherlock’s true gender to douse his ardour with a cool shock of fear.

Except, now, the shield of ignorance had been ripped aside. John knew, but there was still nothing like relief. It had not made the situation any easier. If anything, it became more embarrassing, because now they were both aware that it was lust rather than ennui that honed Sherlock’s temper.

Cramp clenched a fist in his stomach, and he curled on his side, groaning at the consequences of his sexual deprivation. Male Omegas didn’t technically menstruate. The rich lining of the womb was broken down and reabsorbed, the toxins filtered through normal excretory systems. However, there was still a spectrum of aches at various stages of the cycle. These were precursors – warnings that ovulation had occurred and that the window of conception was starting to close.

Sherlock resented it, the grudging demands of his transport thanks to a yearning he couldn’t satisfy himself. Sex toys weren’t made for Omegas, since their release was meant to be in the hands of their Alpha. That wasn’t to say they couldn’t provide stimulation, but it was never enough to bring about the combination of blood-chemistry that would appease his heat and give him some respite.

With a sigh, he peeled off his bed covers, staggering to his feet and grimacing at the stickiness of his pyjamas. Early morning light bathed his room, and Sherlock pulled back his curtains, wrinkling his nose at the stuffy atmosphere. It was tempting to open the window and let in some air, but memories of Alexander’s invasion were still fresh in his mind.

A week had passed since Sherlock’s Alpha advanced back into his life, and three days ago Mycroft had been forced to release him from custody. All current reports indicated Alexander had retreated home, but Sherlock wasn’t convinced. Alexander wasn’t stupid, nor was he inclined to give up. He’d only left Sherlock alone for so long because it suited him to do so. Now the balance had changed, and Sherlock doubted anyone could dissuade him from claiming what was his.

John and Mycroft appeared to be of the same mind. His brother had the flat perimeter and Alexander under surveillance, and John’s placid nature had taken on an indestructible determination. He was still careful to give Sherlock space, and he did not fret and flutter. However, he rarely went anywhere without his Sig, and his normal smiles had darkened with worry.

As such, Baker Street remained a fortress, and Sherlock’s window stayed closed. He’d checked his and John’s rooms for cameras, curtailing the breadth of Mycroft’s security after the first few days. His brother had never been a good judge of where monitoring for safety became an invasion of privacy, and he reluctantly obeyed Sherlock’s restrictions. Lenses still caught the stairs and hallway in their confines, but the main flat had returned to its previous state: a haven from prying eyes.

Really, the fewer people who saw him in his current state, the better.

A glance at the clock suggested he might have thirty minutes before John came stumbling downstairs in search of breakfast. Quickly, he shrugged into his blue silk robe, shivering as it brushed across his bare forearms. He rummaged through his drawers, selecting the softest clothes he could find. Not suitable for meeting with clients, but they were fine if he planned to stay in the flat all day. Besides, the thought of tight cut suits and the company of strangers chafed his raw nerves.

Opening his bedroom door, he peered into the flat. All was quiet, and he smothered a sigh of relief as he darted to the nearby bathroom, locking the door and stripping down to bare skin. He didn’t bother waiting for the water to warm as he flicked on the taps, ducking under the spray and stifling a gasp as the chill enshrouded him. Not that it would do him much good. If controlling his heats was simply a case of concealing an inconvenient erection, he would have no cause for complaint.

Instead, this was a burning, chafing, nagging irritation, wrapped up in his bones and flaring along his nerves to ensnare his mind. Distractions helped. A good case would be perfect, but to his disgust there was no such potential on the horizon. Everything pertaining to Amelia Donnelly’s death had turned up negative. Light Chris, her dealer, had nothing more to offer; there was no obvious cause of death amidst the victim’s toxicology screen, and the one name they had – Morris – had so far proved nothing but a dead end.

Slowly, the pressure of other cases caught the Yard’s attention, and the demands of the utility bills divided Sherlock’s focus. He’d solved a couple of banal situations from high-paying customers, but they presented no challenge, and his mind turned back to the Donnelly case, retracing its steps over well-worn paths in search of an answer.

The sullen ache in Sherlock’s stomach intensified, flashing pain down his thighs, and he turned the water temperature up in the hopes the torrid spray would soothe his muscles. He should have expected this. Alexander may have only been in his presence for thirty minutes or so – not long enough to elevate his next heat into pyresus – but even that brief exposure had an effect. His cycle had contracted, bringing on ovulation a week earlier than he expected. While the intensity was still minimal, there were more symptoms of his current condition than usual: discomfort and sensitivity where, before, he was only plagued by irritation and frustration.

Reaching for the soap, he skimmed its lather over every inch of himself. Resolutely, he ignored the thickening of his erection, washing himself clean with single-minded purpose before turning off the shower and blotting his skin dry.

The toothpaste was acrid against his tongue, and the scrape of his razor over his jaw seemed almost intolerable. Still, it was better than coping with the rasp of his stubble all day. He dabbed droplets from his hair but eschewed any product: the fragrance irritated his nose when he was in this state. Everything, from the light entering his eyes to the flavour of his favourite foods was too much, and Sherlock resigned himself to another day of being unable to block out the demands of his body or the input of his environment.

Easing on his clothes, he adjusted himself in his underwear in the hope of making his intermittent arousal less noticeable to the casual observer. Shoving his soiled pyjamas in amidst the dirty laundry, he picked up the basket, ignoring the press of its wicker ridges across his palms as he carried it downstairs to 221C. Mrs Hudson had given up trying to find tenants, and it had become a utility room of sorts. That, at least, made this whole biological farce slightly easier to tolerate.

Sherlock gave the pile a cursory examination, checking there were no wayward, bright garments caught in the clutch of his arms before loading the machine. He added detergent and chose the correct setting, listening to the rush of water and the churn of the drum before he turned to head back upstairs.

Sleep the past few days had been necessary, but sporadic at best, disturbed by vivid dreams and ceaseless longing. Weariness robbed him of his usual grace, and he stubbed his toe twice before stumbling back into 221B.

John was in the kitchen, rumpled and soft. He’d been working at the surgery since Sherlock’s heat began a couple of days ago, so his exposure to the symptoms had been minimal. Still, it was clear he’d figured it out. Now, his every glance held a question.

‘Can you manage a cup of tea?’ he asked, gesturing to a mug of hot water he’d left on the side. ‘Put it together yourself, because I don’t know how you like it at the moment.’ He took a bite of his toast, raising an eyebrow when Sherlock cast him an irritable glare. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I’m not blind. I’ve never seen you turn down Don Po before, but you rejected last night’s take away like you thought it was poisoned.’

Silently, Sherlock did as he was told, scooping the tea bag out after less than a minute and scorning the idea of milk all together. The result was a golden, clear, hot drink. The temperature at least, he could bear, and it eased some of the taut ache in his stomach as he sipped from the rim.

John sat at the table, his tea steaming by his hand as he devoured a comprehensive breakfast, bare toes tucked under his chair and his terry robe forming a deep vee to display the rumpled t-shirt he’d worn to bed. Whatever structure the garment once had was long gone. The fabric dipped to reveal the bold line of John’s clavicles and clung at irregular intervals, hinting at humid skin and musculature.

Sherlock chewed his bottom lip as his imagination filled in the details. He tried to resist indulging in admiration of John’s assets, or at least keep it hidden: stolen glimpses over the top of a book when John thought he was reading – that kind of thing. Now, his gaze felt magnetised, stuck and unable to withdraw as his mouth watered and a shiver trailed down his spine.

‘Have I got jam on my face?’ John sounded confused, but amused, as if he knew very well that nothing above the collar held Sherlock captivated.

Desperately, he tore his eyes away, shaking his head and refusing to meet John’s gaze as he pulled out the chair opposite, settling into it with one leg folded up underneath him. He clung to his drink, feigning interest in its contents as he hunched his shoulders, screwing himself up small.

Before John, his heats had never been like this. Even in Alexander’s presence, when the intensity of pyresus made its demands, his desire had been unfocused. It did not create fascination where none existed. He had tolerated Alexander as a matter of necessity, but never craved him.

Then John moved in and took a starring role in Sherlock’s fantasies. Basic attraction honed itself with every revolution of his reproductive cycle, growing richer and more intricate, extending beyond the outline of the physical as he got to know John’s complexities.

Lifting his gaze, he squinted across the table at the book John was reading before giving a snort of disgust. He should have known. John could be as single-minded in his pursuit of knowledge as Sherlock, and he had a slim medical textbook about Omega reproductive systems open in front of him.

‘Refreshing my memory,’ John said, answering Sherlock’s “why” before he could give it voice, ‘since Omega health’s become kind of relevant.’ He lifted one shoulder, and Sherlock noticed the hint of embarrassed determination in his expression. ‘I thought I’d be more use to you if I knew what the hell was going on. Biologically, I mean.’

Sherlock sighed, closing his eyes in resignation. He appreciated John’s effort and accepted, from the perspective of a scientist, his desire for empirical data, but it was strange to be so exposed to someone else’s comprehension. Sherlock had spent his life hiding what he was. Even as a child, half of his family had remained oblivious. Later, his increasing forays into a world that should be closed to him made secrecy integral. Even those who were aware – intimately – that he was an Omega had never taken the time to fathom him. Alexander hadn’t bothered at all, medical consultants understood the biology but treated him like a specimen, and Alphas like Lestrade and Mycroft comprehended him as a person, but didn’t grasp the marriage of who he was and what his gender dictated he should be.

Yet here was John, making an effort to understand Sherlock’s situation, not to refine a stereotype or excuse deviance, but for the simple reason that he wanted to help.

‘Many medical texts contain fallacies with regards Omega biology – the infamous twenty-eight day cycle being the most notable. Additionally, they do not explain any of it in perspective.’ He drew in a breath, exhaling to blow away the steam that rose from the surface of his tea before he asked, ‘What do you want to know?’

John stared at him, his eyes narrowed in thought before he shut the book and pushed it aside, propping his elbows on the table and leaning forward. He parted his lips, but seemed to reconsider his first question, wrinkling his nose before speaking.

‘This one’s different, isn’t it? Normally you’re –’ He waved towards the sofa, encompassing Sherlock’s “moods” with ease, ‘– but not like this. Food hasn’t bothered you before, and usually you seem more pissed off than anything else.’

Sherlock shifted the mug in his palms before setting it down on the table. ‘It’s not pyresus. I already told you that.’ One of the first things John had asked, less than twenty-four hours after Alexander’s unexpected appearance, was if his brief presence would be enough to bring about a typical Omega reaction. His question had been tremulous, as if he thought it was like flicking a switch and Sherlock would plunge into helpless need right before his eyes. It had taken a terse explanation to set that straight; one he realised it may be necessary to repeat.

‘I would require at least a day’s exposure to his scent for my next heat to reach the level of pyresus. Half-an-hour inhaling his stench made things more intense and contracted the length of my cycle, that’s all. I’m not used to it, hence why it’s more noticeable than usual that something’s amiss.’

John licked his lips, his fingers meshed in front of him and his head tipped to the side as he absorbed the information. ‘What does it feel like?’ When Sherlock hesitated, he shrugged. ‘If you’d rather not tell me that’s fine. It’s private. I get that.’

Sherlock paused, trying to think how to describe the clashing sensation, from the tight restraint of his skin stretched over his bones to the constant, nagging urges of his flesh. ‘I don’t know. Scattered, aroused, irritable, hungry yet nauseous, exhausted but restless.’ He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes, saying the one word that summed it up. ‘Frustrated.’

‘Sounds like you’re not sure whether you’re coming or going.’

‘Coming’s definitely part of it.’ The words escaped him before he had a chance to censor himself, and a rapid flush burned his cheeks as John made a choked sound from across the table.

Bright laugher filled the kitchen, school-boy sniggers dissolving into delighted mirth at Sherlock’s rueful honesty. There had been little to laugh about this past week, and Sherlock grinned to see John so unguarded. His quiet seriousness faded away, leaving him spluttering and red-faced.

‘Sorry,’ he managed, rubbing the back of his neck and giving Sherlock a lopsided grin. ‘I wasn’t expecting you to be so –’

Sherlock shook his head, dismissing John’s apology. Normally, he was hesitant to speak of matters he considered private, but his tolerance of social convention – minimal at the best of times – faded entirely when he was like this. It meant his conversation became more direct, stripping away the last veils of civility most people believed to be essential.

‘So go on then,’ John urged. ‘Tell me what else the books leave out.’

‘Everything,’ Sherlock muttered uncharitably. ‘They always try and make it into a biological echo of a Beta’s menstrual cycle, and in doing so fail to acknowledge the variations, which does no credit to anyone.’

‘I already guessed as much.’ John shrugged when Sherlock glanced his way, tilting his head in question. ‘There are parallels, but Omegas have a greater complexity to their reproductive systems, and you’re more heavily influenced by environmental factors, such as your Alpha’s scent. You have two levels of fertility – heats and pyresus – which Betas don’t. Also, while events alter the length between one ovulation and the next, from what you’ve said that change is stable. It’s not twenty days one month, thirty the next.’

‘No. There’s different… statuses. Someone in my situation, bound but separated, experiences long gaps between their heats. Unbound cycles are the shortest; not even two weeks.’

John frowned. ‘That doesn’t sound very sustainable.’

Sherlock shook his head, tracing patterns across the table’s surface. ‘It’s not. Omegas have evolved to require a bond. Without it, their reproductive urges remain voracious, even if it’s detrimental to the individual. I could survive unbound, for a while, but it would be a wretched way to live.’

John nodded, his gaze calculating and his lips moving as he counted. ‘I’m guessing they got a bit longer when you were with Alexander, and longer still when you separated from him. Before now they were, what, every five weeks or so?’

A jolt of surprise shot through him, and Sherlock blinked. He hadn’t realised John paid such close attention to his behaviour – enough to notice patterns which, at the time, would have been irrelevant. ‘They occur at thirty-seven day intervals. Unfortunately, Alexander’s brief visit was enough to change that.’ He huddled in his chair, drawing his knees up to his chest and watching as John picked up his plate and put it by the sink. He poured a glass of water and reached for a blister pack, putting it down in front of Sherlock.

‘What are these for?’

‘Paracetamol. They might help with some of the aches. Don’t take more than two, all right?’

It was tempting to snap that if basic painkillers offered any assistance, he would already have taken them, but Sherlock bit back the response. At least John was considerate enough to offer aid. It was more than anyone else ever attempted. ‘Yes, doctor.’

He shifted in his seat, hating the dull pain at his hips and the sensitive thrum that pulsed between his legs. Grudgingly, he popped free a couple of pills, swallowing them with the dregs of his tea before climbing to his feet and dragging himself over to the sofa. Lying down wouldn’t bring him much relief, but at least the soft cushions wouldn’t exacerbate the grumbling malaise.

He pulled his robe closed around his chest, tucking up his knees and turning his back to the room, trying to ignore John’s sleep-heavy redolence as it curled through the flat. He didn’t need his eyes open to conclude when John stepped out of the kitchen. Every nerve thrilled with his proximity, sending ghostly butterflies swooping in his stomach. Each footstep resonated across his skin like the beat of a drum, stopping by John’s armchair. He could picture it with ease: dexterous hands braced against the back, eyes intense – worried, perhaps – but attentive.

‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

Sherlock froze, his body stalled as his mind flooded with images. Slowly, he turned, looking over his shoulder to see John standing just as he’d imagined. His knuckles jutted, sharp and white, belying the intensity of his grasp on the back of his chair. Those blue eyes were closed, and his cheeks flushed dark with mortification. Both of them were equally aware of what it sounded like John was offering, and Sherlock wished it was something he could take.

‘I – I didn’t mean –’ John croaked, gratifyingly breathless, and Sherlock turned over to better memorise this: John caught between attraction and compassion, his desire which he worked so hard to conceal written all over his face.

The idea of it, of John’s hands, his lips, his rhythmic thrusts did nothing to help Sherlock’s composure. Part of him longed to demand it – to lie and tell John it was precisely what was required to bring him back into balance – but that seemed both inadvisable and perverse: a twisted form of coercion.

‘It wouldn’t work,’ he pointed out, trying not to let his voice shake as he forced his restless body still. The ripple of half-hidden hurt across John’s features spoke volumes, and Sherlock rolled his eyes. ‘I don’t mean to imply your expertise are inadequate, John. There’s one fundamental aspect that would be missing.’

When blank incomprehension was his only response he sighed, clutching his hair in despair. ‘Must I repeat myself? This is not pyresus, and nor are you my Alpha. Your nodal ridge will not be stimulated to form a knot, and that is what’s necessary. Should we –’ He made a hand-gesture, unable to bring himself to put it into words lest his longing make itself any more evident. ‘Satisfaction would be brief and my symptoms more intense in the aftermath. If all that was required to end this was sexual release, don’t you think I’d have met my own needs by now?’

He turned his back, his voice grating as he folded his arms around himself, trying to steady the tremulous longing that shook him to the bone.

The reprimand he expected for being crass, ungrateful and dismissive never came. Nor did John’s silent, stoic departure. Sympathetic tranquillity fell, and he could hear John’s occasional inward breaths: sentences aborted before they’d begun.

‘Sorry.’ His apology sounded small, not hurt, but defeated, and Sherlock tightened his arms around his own ribs, holding himself in place. ‘I wasn’t trying to make light of this – any of it. I know if there was a way to improve things, you’d already have done it.’ There was a brief, uncertain pause. ‘For the record, I wasn’t suggesting we climb into bed together. I just – I want to help, however I can.’

Sherlock closed his eyes, loathing that it was only Alexander’s odious touch that could ease the jangling discordance of his body. If things were different – if it were John instead…

He cut off that thought before it could progress, screwing up his face as regret cleaved his chest. Part of him didn’t care that he would remain unappeased if it meant he got to touch John. However, there was no such thing as a fling without consequences. He couldn’t promise anything beyond the immediate, and neither of them would be satisfied with so little. Maybe John would take it – just because he hadn’t consciously suggested a quick shag didn’t mean he was unwilling – but it could ruin what they had beyond repair. Besides, the potential repercussions, legal as well as emotional, were too much to bear: yet another unacceptable risk.

‘I’m going to get dressed,’ John said quietly, the silence having dragged on around them for too long, unmarked by Sherlock’s turmoil. His presence receded, taking all the warmth from the room with him as he went. ‘If nothing else, one of us needs to be decent enough to field any clients we might get.’

‘John?’ Sherlock lifted his head, hearing him pause at the threshold, silent and attentive. Words bunched behind Sherlock’s lips, and he shut his eyes, concentrating on what he wanted to convey. An apology would lack sincerity in his current state, and he settled once more, his murmured thanks almost muffled by the couch’s embrace. ‘I appreciate your efforts.’

He winced at the ridiculous formality of his statement, but a subtle change in John's fragrance – a lessening of anxious worry and distress – implied it was at least passingly adequate.

'No problem.' John tapped the palm of his hand against the doorframe before his footsteps padded up the stairs and his bedroom door closed behind him: a despicable barrier.

With an irritable sigh, Sherlock ran his tongue over his teeth. From John's perspective, he could understand how uncharted this entire situation would be. He had no experience of blinding desire, not beyond the romanticised notions people in love so often claimed. While John may know need, he lacked the reference points to empathise with Sherlock's current condition. All he could do was observe from the outside and offer suggestions.

However, at least he tried. Mycroft, on those rare occasions when faced with Sherlock in a similar situation, had a tendency to turn a blind eye. It was only when he first presented, and unchecked pyresus held him in its grasp that Mycroft had been attentive: pitying as Sherlock burned. In comparison, his current experiences were mild, so much so that he derided himself for not being able to ignore them. After all, he was accustomed to depriving his transport; the only difference between this and hunger was the incessancy of it. Night and day, hour after hour it plagued him, and it would continue to do so until his hormonal balance shifted away from its peak.

Grimly, he tried to disassociate himself from his prison of flesh, but the doors of his mind-palace were beyond his reach. He couldn't plunge into the welcoming depths of cerebral pursuits, not when he was firmly rooted in the blood pumping through his veins and the thrill of every tiny glide of friction. Instead, he could only skim the surface, his thoughts darting around like dragonflies, iridescent and fleeting.

This had been easier before, when John remained oblivious. Playing up the guise of boredom had provided a meagre diversion, and his asperity offered the perfect shield to keep John out of reach, distant and untouchable. They had existed in a reluctant balance, John oblivious and Sherlock resigned. The moment John found out about the bite all that changed. New facets of possibility and potential disaster emerged, and Alexander's reappearance had given the whole mess a startling momentum.

The status quo lay in pieces, and the lack of certainty stole Sherlock’s breath away as panic clenched its vice around his ribs. A month ago, he had been confident in his existence, content, if not happy. Now, everywhere he looked there was the idea of change: a threat and promise all at once. John had already told him about his discussion with Mycroft, editing emotion from his account with deliberate care as he conveyed the plans Sherlock had known his brother would construct. Each was much as he imagined: carefully devised, but by no means certain. Like so many other aspects of his life, what became of him in the event of Alexander’s death relied on the decisions of other people, and even if they released him, he would remain a slave to his biology, his desires ignored by society at large and only possible to appease through another bond.

Sherlock may not be the most emotionally aware of men, but he could see how it might go. John would put himself forward, the counterweight to all Sherlock's chaos. In the indistinct world of fantasy, it could be everything he wanted, not just an Alpha, but a mate – one who cared for him as a person, rather than a vessel for their children. Yet every time he tried to picture it, Sherlock's imagination failed him. He had no foundation on which to build the details, no evidence of John's behaviour within a bond to extrapolate. He was a good man now, but so was Alexander, once. What proof did he have that the trials of being bound to him wouldn't shatter the last of John's patience?

He shook his head, scattering his thoughts as his muscles fluttered and his stomach twisted, torn between distress and desire. It was useless. He could rip himself apart trying to rationalise the unknown. So little power lay in his hands, and such a small portion of his life was certain. This current situation was the best he had managed to achieve, and he would not cast it away in the futile hope of better. He and John would stay as they were, Alexander would live, and Sherlock would continue to fight for every scrap of freedom he could call his own.

Firm as it was, his resolution rang hollow, and he buried his face in the sofa cushions, wishing he could hide from his own circling deliberations. Like this, his gender became the focus of his attention: the definition of the self. He forgot that there was more to delineate his worth than obedience and child-bearing.

He didn’t notice John descend the stairs, and the general, domestic sounds of him washing dishes and clearing plates didn’t penetrate his fugue of self-pity. The kettle’s hiss was nothing but static, and if John said anything, Sherlock ignored it.

It was his nose that dragged him from the fogged edges of his mood, a plethora of olfactory receptors diligently cataloguing John’s scent. It was unconscious by this point, Sherlock’s body attuned to reading switches in disposition, health and environmental exposure according to the permutations in John’s fragrance. Of course, correctly interpreting them was another matter, but in the time it had taken John to get dressed, something had changed.

Sherlock glared over his shoulder at his flatmate, seeing nothing out-of-the-ordinary. There was no product in his hair, and this was not the poorly-constructed odour of cheap deodorant or dubious cologne. Yet nor was it just the rich perfume of dark spices that Sherlock had come to associate with John. There was something else. Something similar, but out of place. A discrepancy.

A distraction.

In one swift movement, he was on his feet, his nostrils flaring and his body tense. His first thought was that somehow, in the brief time he’d gone away to get dressed, John had touched the skin of someone else and picked up their pheromones.

Bitter jealousy filled Sherlock’s mouth before rationality interceded. This was too specific a change. It had to be some kind of deliberate aroma, organic, not synthetic, yet nothing floral or herb-based, both of which Sherlock would have identified immediately.

John finished whatever he was doing at the sink, flicking suds from his fingers and drying his hands before turning around, looking more than a bit pleased with himself. He’d dragged Sherlock from his sulk without a word. At any other time, Sherlock would prevaricate and do all he could to imply that he’d left the sofa under his own steam, rather than through any trickery of John’s, but he was too engrossed in trying to discern what his nose was telling him to bother.

Shifting his weight, John leant back against the surface and folded his arms. It was a pleasing sight. His sleeves were still rolled up to keep them out of the way of the dishwater, and warm skin stretched over strong muscles. Sherlock licked his lips as another wave of scent washed towards him, comprehensible in every aspect but the one alien nuance.

‘Almond oil.’ The answer flashed across his brain, the creamy undertone abruptly labelled. ‘Expensive. Organic. Vegan. The kind they use as massage oil bases in top-end spas. Spanish,’ he added as an afterthought, watching John’s already surprised expression change to astonishment. ‘You put some in the crook of your elbow to see if I’d notice. Why?’

John’s lips quirked into the same smile that normally preceded a breathless bout of praise. However, his answer was enough to recapture Sherlock’s faltering interest. ‘Experiment.’ Now he grinned in earnest, delighted by Sherlock’s grudging curiosity. ‘I’m demonstrating that not everything in the books is a lie. They say, and it’s clearly true, that an Omega’s ability to pick apart a fragrance and identify its components improves ten-fold during ovulation, and it’s not like your nose is shoddy to begin with.’

‘Almond oil. Hardly a challenge, John.’

‘Spanish, Sherlock. You didn’t just tell me what it was, but where the bloody almonds came from, to me, this barely smells at all, but you – Jesus, you could probably tell me where in London I bought it.’

He held up a hand, stalling Sherlock’s answer (Tottenham Court Road, obvious.) before gesturing to the flat. ‘I put a bit on the skull and hid it. See if you can track it down with just your nose.’

Sherlock sighed. ‘I’m not a sniffer dog,’ he grouched.

‘No, you’re a bored genius. Go on. It’s that or lie on the couch all day and Billy is never seen again.’ John pushed himself away from the counter, picking up his laptop and making a beeline for the sofa before settling himself at one end. It looked casual, but John was being strategic. He was reducing potential sprawling space. Of course, he could just drape himself over John, treat him like furniture, but – Sherlock swallowed as a renewed bolt of heat sizzled under his skin – perhaps that wasn’t the best idea.

Besides, while this might be bundled up in the guise of a game, John had been clever. He was utilising one of the few benefits of Sherlock’s current condition, allowing the physical to ebb in favour of concentration on the olfactory. He was providing Sherlock with a purpose, and knowing John, he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn a little more in the process.

‘You’ve escalated the test conditions,’ he accused, rolling his eyes when John tried to look innocent. ‘The heat of your skin gave the oil greater molecular energy, allowing diffusion. The skull’s temperature is ambient at best, and therefore spread will be minimal. Not exactly an ideal experiment. No control. A number of unrestricted variables…’

John smiled down at his laptop, neither smug nor crowing in his victory, but apparently pleased by Sherlock’s sluggish willingness to oblige him. The slow peck of his fingers over the keys became a background, stumbling rhythm, and Sherlock quickly became engrossed with what he was doing, focussing his attention on one sense and taking note of its power.

It took him less than half-an-hour, surrounded by the catalogue of odours he could decipher within Baker Street’s air, to locate the skull. John had done his best, enlisting the help of Mrs Hudson, and he found Billy propping up her recipe book as she baked a cake for Mrs Turner. Cunning, in a way, as the aroma of almonds was neither distinct nor out of place amidst the culinary chaos. If Sherlock had been relying on that alone, the task could have taken hours. However, for all its years as an ornament, the calciferous dome had acquired a signature all its own – something that, once he entered 221A, was glaringly apparent. He could have found the thing with his eyes closed.

Sherlock had never thought anything of his sense of smell beyond the basic acknowledgement of its strength. Necessity dictated he hid its role in his work lest it give away his gender, but John’s little game had brought a number of questions to the fore, and Sherlock found his mind happily analysing the new data he had acquired. It was nothing like the relief he craved, but it was better than the alternative.

Perhaps it was time for an experiment of his own.

John flinched when Sherlock thrust Billy between his face and the laptop screen, and he glanced at the clock in surprise before looking at Sherlock. Mock annoyance was a poor mask for the soft glow of his pride. ‘Want me to hide your violin?’

‘No. Tell me what you can detect.’

The bridge of John’s nose wrinkled in distaste, and he pulled a face, steadying his laptop as Sherlock flopped down next to him, the crown of his head pressed against John’s thigh and the sofa cradling his back. His legs hung over the arm of the couch, bent at the knee, and he wriggled his bare toes in the air as he held the skull above him, roughly on level with John’s ear.

‘Why should I sniff the skull?’

‘You’re the one that started this stupid experiment,’ Sherlock pointed out. ‘You concealed it among Mrs Hudson’s baking, thinking that his scent would be disguised. Obviously you think that Billy only smells at all because of the oil you rubbed into the bone. Almonds. Is that all you can pick out? Almonds?’

‘There’s more?’ John sounded baffled, but he reached out for the bone in Sherlock’s grasp, tugging it free and giving the occipital ridge a cautious sniff. Even if Sherlock hadn’t spent so much time in John’s company reading the miniscule changes in his expression, he would have understood the flash of realisation across those features. John’s thoughtful hum made him smile, and he shut his eyes, rubbing his hand over his stomach as John began to speak.

‘Yeah, all right. He’s dusty; you should clean him more often. There’s kind of a dry rock smell, but also –’ John’s palms whispered over the smooth surface of the cranium, and when he continued he sounded a touch appalled. ‘A bit of blood and something sort of – ugh, might be marrow?’

‘Dental pulp, or what’s left of it,’ Sherlock supplied happily, opening one eye to see that John looked repulsed. ‘And there’s a small, very old blood-stain on the interior cranial space, probably from the stroke that killed him. However, you’re picking up sources of biological material approximately seventy years after this decomposed to its current state, and your nose is giving them priority recognition over the preservatives, which you don’t seem to sense at all.’

John cupped the mandible in his hand, staring into its bony face before cocking his head. ‘But I have to stick my nose in his mouth to get that much. What you can pick up from there?’

It was not a huge distance. At most, Billy was a couple of feet away, and Sherlock eyed the gap as he considered the question. ‘Almonds, chalk, polish, degrading formaldehyde or something similar, iron and copper, which could be the blood, the glue used to hold his teeth in the jaw bone, and…’ He trailed off, trying to place the final fragrance. It was a whispering hint, part of what made Billy so different from the other contents of 221B, which had absorbed the perfumes of experiments, cooking, and occupants alike. ‘Old, dry clay and a sort of mustiness, not like books but like fabric. Different, more treble.’ He shut his eyes as he tried not only to identify it, but to give John an adequate description. Finally, the conclusion filtered to the front of his mind. ‘I think it’s the soil from the grave in which he was buried.’

His statement was met with silence, and when he looked at John, he realised he was the subject of an incredulous stare. ‘One he’s not been in for the best part of a century? That’s –’

‘Unlikely,’ Sherlock muttered, taking the skull and examining it, looking for an alternative.

‘Brilliant.’ John put his laptop aside, shifting so that one arm draped along the back of the couch and he could look down into Sherlock’s face. ‘And not so strange, when you think about it. Human decomposition in an English grave is a pretty damp affair, and bone’s porous, to some extent.’

‘He soaked it all up,’ Sherlock poked at one of the molars, ‘but you can’t discern it?’

John shook his head and rolled his shoulders in a shrug. ‘Have you thought about looking at old cases when you’re like this? Ones you’ve not solved? There’s a good chance you could pick up more from the physical evidence, if nothing else.’

Sherlock sighed, setting the skull on the floor by the sofa and flexing his toes. ‘I can’t very well tell the Yard that I sniffed out the perpetrator, can I? Not without giving myself away. Even they’d start to ask questions eventually. I would have to corroborate anything I found by an alternative method, and if that wasn’t possible...’ He didn’t need to explain; John would understand. Adding the annoyance of a case he knew how to solve but for which he couldn’t demonstrate culpability would not do any favours to his current state of mind. ‘That and I doubt a fresh corpse would be so straightforward to decipher. There’d be too many odours to distinguish individual elements.’

He pursed his lips, tipping his head to look up at John. His curls whispered against the denim of John’s jeans, a gentle hiss in Sherlock’s ears. ‘It was a good idea though. A good distraction.’ His smile felt stiff. ‘Thank you.’

‘It’s the least I can do,’ he replied, glancing at his laptop where it was propped on the arm of the couch. ‘Kept you quiet while I tried to write up something about the Donnelly case.’ His fingers dropped to Sherlock’s hair, shifting through the strands. It could have been tormenting or ticklish, but John’s grip was purposeful, and the sensation was a solid tether that brushed away the sharpest edge of Sherlock’s discomfort. ‘So much has happened this past couple of weeks, but we’ve got nothing.’

Sherlock grunted. ‘Not that it was the world’s most fascinating case to begin with,’ he pointed out. ‘Hardly scintillating material. The only reason it feels different is because it’s been surrounded by revelations about me. Things you can’t publish.’

John shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t, even if I could.’ He sighed. ‘It’s just not very satisfying to be left with no real cause of death, especially when you were so convinced there was more to it than met the eye.’

Sherlock hummed in quiet pleasure as John’s fingers stroked from his temple and up over his zygomatic arch: naturally intimate. Yet the second the sound left his lips, he regretted it. The physical contact was snatched away, leaving him bereft.

‘Sorry. I didn’t –’ John looked appalled at himself, and Sherlock scowled at the self-recrimination on his expressive face. ‘I didn’t mean to just –’

‘Do you hear me complaining?’ he demanded, too tense to bother being coy. ‘Put it back. It was helping me think.’ That was not necessarily true, but it had been good all the same. Besides, he hated that John’s instinct was to provide natural affection, and his conscious mind’s decision was to withdraw it. Sherlock understood his motives were respectful, but it wasn’t what he wanted – this polite effigy of distance.

Fondness gleamed in John’s eyes, and hesitantly, he did as Sherlock asked, his movements growing more confident as he melted into John’s touch. It was… different. No one did this for him except John. Oh, there was the occasional hug from Mrs Hudson, but other than that, no one else touched him because they desired to do so, and Sherlock selfishly cherished the sensation as he began to speak.

‘There is more to the Donnelly case than we’ve uncovered, I’m sure of it. If we could find this “Morris”, we’d get somewhere, but there’s nothing.’ He scowled at the ceiling, pushing his head into the curve of John’s palm and banging his heel against the sofa in a jagged rhythm. ‘I was sure something would turn up in the toxicology report – more than just the evidence of her drug habit which, while entrenched, had not yet had a fatal impact. Even the speed I tested came back unremarkable.’

John made a dubious sound of agreement, his annoyance at Sherlock lifting drugs rather than surrendering them into the Yard’s evidence still apparent. ‘Not your best idea. Still, it tells us Light Chris wasn’t selling a contaminated supply.’

‘That’s a false assumption. All we can ascertain is that the tablets he passed to me weren’t tainted. That doesn’t mean what he gave Amelia Donnelly was pure.’ Sherlock steepled his fingers in front of his lips and narrowed his eyes. ‘However, let’s say they were cut with something – something that killed her and then disappeared from her system without a trace – why was she targeted? And by who? You saw her dealer. Not exactly murderer material, and why would he kill off a steady customer?’ With a huff, he rolled onto his side, burying his face in the shadows by John’s hip as he growled, ‘It doesn’t make any sense!’

A double thump from the front door stole away whatever words of encouragement John had been about to utter, and his hand dropped away as Sherlock lifted his head and frowned towards the entryway in confusion. ‘That’s not a client,’ he muttered.

‘It’s not Greg’s knock either, and your brother doesn’t bother.’ John got to his feet, every angle of his body alert as he reached for the Sig where it lay on the coffee table. ‘Stay there.’

Sherlock snorted, his disobedience automatic. ‘Alexander is unlikely to walk up to Baker Street in full view of the cameras, John.’ His response was a glare, hard like steel and demanding compliance. It shocked him, sometimes, how firm John could be. Glimmers of the army captain made themselves known and Sherlock found himself sinking down to perch on the top step while John trotted downstairs.

He kept the gun tucked behind him, but if it was required, John would have it ready to fire in less time than it took to blink. He did not fling the door wide, nor open it in creeping increments. Instead, he parted it to a width fractionally narrower than his shoulders, blocking the threshold with his body as he identified their visitor.

So much could be read from his stance. Immediately, Sherlock knew that whoever was on the other side was not a confirmed friend, but more an ally than an enemy. John relaxed a fraction, still prepared, but welcoming, and he stepped aside, leaving plenty of space.

Elsie ducked past him, the look she cast in his direction torn between distrust and amusement before she caught sight of Sherlock at the summit of the stairs. Immediately, her nose wrinkled with pity, and she shut the door firmly behind her, blocking out the world in her wake. ‘You reek,’ she said, her words bald of apology. ‘No wonder your friend’s greeting people at the door with a gun.’

‘No one but you can detect my hormonal state right now,’ Sherlock pointed out, dragging his robe around himself and sniffing in annoyance. Of course Elsie would pick up on it. He could remember all too well her bullying him through similar times in the past, prodding and poking while his body sulked and whined its constant litany of complaints.

‘And your Alpha.’ Her expression darkened, and she stomped towards him, her boots thudding on the steps before she stopped halfway up. ‘I heard a couple of rumours that didn’t sound too good. Nothing obvious,’ she added, when Sherlock grimaced. ‘It’s not like the twat’s going to go around advertising the fact he’s lost you, is it? Some dealers mentioned a new Alpha buying from them a little while ago. Vocal. Complaining. Didn’t mention an Omega, but said his “whore” had got away. Posh git down on his luck. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, then I saw the extra security on this place.’ She shrugged. ‘Not a challenge to do the arithmetic.’

‘I thought your brother said he’d left London?’ John demanded, glaring at the shut door like it was a barricade and the enemy waited just beyond its blank face.

‘Alexander was held in custody for almost a week. He’d have wanted to feed his habit while he regrouped. I doubt he’ll be gone for long.’ Sherlock looked at Elsie, taking in the disparities in her appearance. Her clothes were ragged, but clean, and her face was free of grime. She had pulled her hair back in a greasy ponytail, but there was no dirt under her nails. She wore her disguise well, but it was freshly applied. ‘That’s not why you came here, is it?’

‘You’re lucky I came at all. I can’t be seen being too chummy with the likes of you.’ She sighed, easing herself down onto the stairs before reaching into her pocket and handing him a slip of paper. ‘Still, I thought I should check you were all right and give you that. It might help.’

Sherlock’s eyes skimmed the brief missive. “32 Dartan Grove”.

‘Not a good area,’ he murmured, turning the address over in his fingers. ‘What exactly can I expect to find?’

Elsie shifted, stretching her feet out in front of her and waggling her boots. It made her look younger, more like the girl she’d once been as she worried her bottom lip with her teeth. ‘After you came to talk to me, I started asking around, quiet like. I don’t think your dead girl’s the first.’

Sherlock blinked, absorbing every flicker of expression on her face. ‘What have you found out?’

She chewed absently on the side of her thumb and shrugged. ‘People on the streets die all the time. They pick a bad fight, or get ill, overdose or get offed by the bloody weather. Then they’re just – gone. The only funeral they get’s in the gossip. Mostly, there’s nothing suspicious, but there were a couple – drug users, but not habitual. Got hold of some stims, took them, and died. Apparently it was like they just fell asleep.’

Elsie shifted. ‘I’d never have known if I hadn’t asked. It’s the kind of thing no one thinks about. I nearly wrote them off as nothing. The shit some of this stuff is cut with is unbelievable, but when I discovered they were both Alphas, I thought maybe it was relevant.’

‘You didn’t answer my question.’ Sherlock frowned, aware of John watching them both, a soldier at ease, but still ready for the moment when it became necessary to strike. ‘What’s at the address?’

She drummed her fingers on the wood beside her as she hesitantly explained, ‘After I got your note about Morris, I started poking about. Kept coming up with nothing. I decided he gave you the same kind of full-of-shit name dealers give cops to throw them off the trail. I thought you were losing your touch.’

She smiled at Sherlock’s disdainful sound of protest, shaking her head. ‘However, when I got the info about this place, someone told me there was an old nameplate by the door.’ One eyebrow lifted. ‘Morrisey. Seemed like too much of a coincidence to me.’

Reaching into her pocket, she pulled something out and passed it over. Sherlock recognised it instantly, the slender, oval leaves and the ridged stem. One flower, mostly crushed and stripped of petals, made a forlorn crown.

Aristolochia.’ He turned it in different directions, absorbing the details. ‘It’s been cut, harvested. Someone’s squeezed fluid from the capillaries, but whether it’s deliberate or not…’ He trailed off. ‘This was at the house?’

‘It’s not a squat, and there’s nothing as permanent as a meth lab, but someone’s messing with things in there. Or they were, anyway. It’s pretty dusty. I can’t tell if they’ve gone for good if they’re just elsewhere right now. There was other stuff, but–’ She pulled a face and scratched her head. ‘That was the easiest thing to carry.’

‘Any idea who, exactly, occupied the place?’

She got to her feet, absently brushing off her backside. ‘Nope.’ At the expression on Sherlock’s face, she rolled her eyes and spread her hands. ‘Look, I’ve done all I can, all right? I’ve already been getting complaints – people think I’m throwing in my lot with you, and that’s not how I do things. You’re the bloody genius. You can work out the rest.’

With a huff, she turned to descend the stairs, only pausing when John grabbed her sleeve. She bristled, snatching herself free and glaring for all she was worth. However, as soon John spoke, her gaze softened, morphing into firm understanding and faint empathy.

‘Thanks. For letting us know about Sherlock’s Alpha, as well as the case. If you come across him anywhere –‘

‘I’ll tell you.’ She said it with stone-strong assurance. ‘He’s a right wanker, by all accounts. I knew he had to be bad, but…’ She cut a glance back towards Sherlock, her eyes narrowed. ‘Look, I’ll leave the crime-solving to you, but if I hear anything more about your Alpha, anything at all, I’ll come running.’

‘Thank you,’ John said again, grinning when she jerked her head in Sherlock’s direction.

‘He’d do the same for me if I asked. Even if he likes to pretend otherwise.’

She jumped down from the last step, her untied laces clicking as she headed for the door. ‘Watch your backs.’ She glanced meaningfully in John’s direction before looking at Sherlock. ‘Both of you.’ With a nod of farewell, she let herself out, the door closing behind her with a solid clank.

Silently, Sherlock rolled the severed stem between his fingertips, his thoughts racing. He barely noticed John climb the stairs and sit in the spot Elsie had vacated, his elbow propped on the next step. He reached out, pulling the dishevelled flower free from his grasp before looking up into Sherlock’s face.

‘So,’ he asked, raising an eyebrow, ‘are we going to take a look?’

Sherlock met his gaze, a joyful grin blooming across his lips as his mind finally took precedence over the demands of his body, engaged and stimulated in a way he relished. He could see the answering relief in John’s expression, and a cloud of worry he had not thought to notice faded from prominence.

‘Do you really have to ask?’

He bounded to his feet, his robe fluttering behind him as he turned back to the flat. The complaints of his body did not vanish, but nor did they occupy centre stage, and Sherlock bathed in the flash of his theories as he hurried to get dressed. Ignoring his suits, he reached instead for jeans and a shirt before dragging a hoodie down from the top of his wardrobe. Walking into Dartan Grove in designer clothes was asking for trouble. The less attention they garnered in their explorations, the better.

John was waiting for him, his jacket already on, no doubt hiding the bulk of the gun. He raised his eyebrows at Sherlock’s outfit, but said nothing, not even when the familiar weight of the Belstaff remained on its hook.

‘Are you sure you’re all right to do this?’ John asked, looking as if he hated to ask, but couldn’t bring himself to hold his silence. No doubt Elsie’s comment about Sherlock’s scent had awakened his fears anew.

Sherlock reached for his patience, reminding himself that John was still trying to grasp the complex mechanics of bond biochemistry, and friendly concern hampered his logic. ‘There’s unlikely to be another Rile within a fifty-mile radius. Even if there was, Elsie was not picking up on the pheromone that drives Alphas into rut. I’m not producing it. I won’t, not unless Alexander puts in a prolonged appearance, and even then it wouldn’t be instantaneous. No one else will smell anything different on me than they do at any other time of the month.’ He held out his arm, palm up. ‘You don’t, do you?’

John’s hand slid along the back of his, tugging him closer before he inhaled from the delicate skin stretched over the tendons of his wrist. The sensuous slide of air over his flesh made Sherlock’s knees wobble, and he swallowed tightly, trying to control the riotous spin of his imagination. He could so easily picture John pressing his lips to that point, flattening his tongue over the thrum of Sherlock’s pulse to taste him. It had been a mistake to invite John so close – to offer himself up so readily – but despite the exquisite torment, Sherlock could not bring himself to regret it.

‘No,’ John husked at last, his fingers rubbing over the broad maps of veins beneath the veil of Sherlock’s skin. He licked his lips, and Sherlock saw how dark his eyes had become, the pupils dilated and focussed on him to the exclusion of everything else. ‘No, I don’t, but what if Alexander does show up? If he’s not gone like Mycroft says?’

‘Then I have you, and you have a gun. What more do I need?’ He pulled open the front door, throwing a quick wink in John’s direction. Stepping out into the wind-swept morning, his body sang with the relief of a potential puzzle to solve.

For the first time in days, it felt like he could remember who he was – so much more than the sum of his parts.

The game was on.

Chapter Text

Dartan Grove was an area screaming for urban renewal. Old tenements lined the narrow, pot-holed streets, their doors weather-worn. Boarded windows were in plentiful supply, and rubbish clogged the gutters. It was one of London’s forgotten places, lost between the cracks of the bustling city. “Low-rent” didn’t cover it, and John stared at the buildings around them, painfully aware of the weight of the gun at his back.

‘We trust Elsie, yeah?’ he murmured, inching closer to Sherlock’s side. ‘She’s not going to lead us into a trap?’

Sherlock glanced at him, his shoulders rolling in an eloquent shrug. ‘Anything’s possible. I doubt we’ll know until we get there. Come on, and try to look a bit less like a soldier on patrol.’

That was easier said than done. John’s march was instinctive, locked in the vaults of his joints, and everything about this scenario screamed conflict. Perhaps this forgotten street was not war-torn, but there were signs of battle all the same. Dilapidation and disrepair showed that time and the elements were on the winning side, and no one seemed willing to stop the inexorable decline. It was the kind of place that wasn’t safe even in broad daylight, and John gave silent thanks that at least he and Sherlock hadn’t come here after the sun had set. It was hard enough to calm his frantic nerves now, when he could see the approach of any threat; after dark, it would have been impossible.

He wasn’t sure what bothered him more: the nagging fear that Elsie had lured them here, the constant concern that Alexander could be hiding around every corner, or Sherlock.

Perhaps others would write off his behaviour or ignore it all together, but John could barely tear his eyes away from the subtle consequences heat wrought on Sherlock’s body. It wasn’t blatant, at least Sherlock hadn’t lied about that, but now John understood what he was seeing, he wondered how he’d ever managed to tell himself that mere boredom dragged Sherlock into his moods.

All morning, he’d watched him touching himself. Nothing obscene, but the skim of those long fingers over his clothed body – his collarbones, his stomach, his thighs – was achingly erotic. A ghost of colour lingered on the crest of his cheekbones, not the flush of a fever, but a dab of pale pink as if he were running hot. He kept dragging his teeth over his bottom lip, making the skin there red and swollen, and John struggled not to stare.

Even clad in tight jeans and a ratty hoodie, Sherlock looked scandalously sensuous. His walk was more a prowl, and every time he dragged a hand through his hair he’d run his palm down the back of his neck, his lashes fluttering at the contact as if the pressure of his fingertips was all that kept him grounded.

More than once, John had knotted his hands into fists to stop from reaching out. Still, he hadn’t been completely successful. When Sherlock was lying on the couch, an ethereal creature made earthly, his fingers had found their way into those curls, affection bleeding from every pore without conscious thought.

Surprisingly, Sherlock had not just accepted it, he’d demanded John continue when he’d withdrawn.

To John, it seemed like the first step in a bad situation, one where Sherlock stopped being the subject of admiration and became a target for objectification. He wanted to believe that was not a problem – that he’d never see Sherlock as nothing but an implement for his own pleasure – but right now, it was hard to observe anything but sex. He was always attractive, his mind and body both brilliant and unique, but John kept going back over previous “moods” and trying to recall if Sherlock had been like this.

It wasn’t just raw passion. In a way, that would be easier to dismiss as the product of hormones. Right now, the only word that described Sherlock was needy, not just sexually, but emotionally. He was affectionate, in a hesitant, shy way that made John’s heart swell. He wanted attention. In the past, he’d got it by shooting the walls and relishing John’s fury, but then he had revealed his secret and exposed a glimpse of tenderness along with it.

He hadn’t changed in essentials; Sherlock was still rude and thoughtless. Instead, John got the impression that he was getting to see everything that made Sherlock who he was, not just the aloof, clinical mind, but the messy heart that worked away behind the scenes, well-concealed but never quite forgotten.

Sherlock probably didn’t realise what he was doing, or the effect it was having on his flatmate. If John didn’t know better, he would think he was being seduced, his already tempted mind addled with lust. Instead, he kept having to remind himself that Sherlock wasn’t putting on a show. None of this was for his benefit, no matter how much he wished otherwise.

‘There.’ Sherlock’s fingers around his wrist brought him up short, and he cast a dubious eye over number thirty-two. It was an old, brick terrace at the end of a row. A pitted alley ran along its flank, and the tiny garden was a tangle of bracken and stinging nettles. A steel door sat in the threshold, the kind used once a house had been broken into a few times too many, and the padlock was new – incongruous with the state of the rest of the place.

‘Round the back,’ Sherlock urged, tugging John along the narrow, foetid footpath. Overgrown hedges choked the way ahead, and John lost all sense of direction. He was too intent on examining every shadow to notice where they were going.

Sherlock vaulted over a low, cast-iron gate, and John followed him with a bit less grace, wary of the spikes along its peak. The weed-ridden garden brushed against his jeans, soaking the denim with lingering dew. There was a mass of half-bricks and loose earth waiting to turn the ankle of the unwary, and he picked his way forward, placing his feet in the gaps Sherlock used and trying not to pitch himself face-first into the thorny brambles.

‘This place is a wreck,’ he hissed, grabbing the back of Sherlock’s hoodie to stop him racing on ahead. ‘Wait for me.’

‘Hurry up then!’ Sherlock ordered, every angle of his body alert.

A set of narrow stone steps led up to the wooden back door, warped in its frame and several decades old. If anyone owned the place, then they clearly didn’t think the rear was worth protecting. There was a single lock, its metal covered in rust, and John heard Sherlock’s picks chime as he pulled them from his pocket.

Reaching behind him, John grasped his gun, surveying the garden and alleyway and trying not to feel too conspicuous. It was unlikely anyone was around to look out of their windows, and the whole street remained quiet – no barking dogs or kids playing, just London’s steady hum held at bay by the decay.

‘I’m not the first person to pick this lock,’ Sherlock muttered as the tumblers clicked open.

‘Maybe that’s how Elsie got in?’

‘No, well, yes, but look at this.’ He pointed to the corrosion, indicating the damage around the keyhole. ‘It’s happened repeatedly, and the scratches are consistent with a single set of picks. Whoever did it was clumsy and unpractised. Nervous.’

John licked his lips. ‘It could be that whoever’s been using this place isn’t exactly the criminal type. Worried they’ll get caught, perhaps?’

The latch sprung free, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes, wiggling the pick as if testing the tension. ‘The door’s not as old as the building. It locks itself when you close it again, hence the need to break in every time. Judging from the depth of the scratches and the rust starting to collect at the deepest points, I’d say someone’s been coming here about once every four weeks for well over a year. They’re not getting better with practice, which implies they don’t indulge in petty theft in between their visits.’

John held his breath as Sherlock pushed aside the door, cautiously stepping into the kitchen beyond. There was a gaping hole where a fridge had once stood, and corrosion stained the steel sink where the tap had dripped before the utilities company disconnected the water. The flick of the light switch offered no reward, and John squinted, taking in the details illuminated by the meek sunshine seeping in around the planks on the windows.

‘Stick to the path,’ Sherlock muttered, indicating the footprints in the dust. ‘Probably Elsie’s. We can’t hide the fact that someone’s been here, but perhaps we can mislead people as to how many of us there were.’

Together, they slipped through the house, watching where they were putting their feet as oppressive silence crowded in on all sides. Sherlock flicked on his phone, setting the camera flash to continuous so he could use it as a torch. Acid white bathed the room, and John narrowed his eyes as he took in the objects on the scuffed farmhouse table.

‘It’s like an old apothecary,’ he murmured. ‘Not exactly high-tech stuff, is it?’

‘It doesn’t need to be.’ Sherlock gestured to a ring of disturbance in the dust: an orbital trail where someone had wandered back and forth as they worked. He urged John closer until they both stood within its confines. ‘This isn’t about cooking narcotics from scratch.’ Long fingers hovered over the mortar and pestle, and Sherlock bent down to inspect a handful of vials clustered nearby. ‘I was right, I’m sure of it. There’s nothing here for distillation or manufacture. This is about doctoring an existing supply.’

‘But why?’ John shifted his fingers on the Sig, watching Sherlock take a couple of quick photos on his phone. ‘What’s the point? Is it just some kind of hate-crime – some way to knock off addicts?’

Sherlock pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know. This isn’t a massive scale operation. It’s small. Precise, as if the victims are targeted, rather than random, but how? As for motive?’ Sherlock shook his head. ‘Without ascertaining who’s behind all this, it’s only speculation.’

He squatted at John’s feet, examining the floor, and John watched his focus move beyond the superficial. He gestured to some footprints around the edge of the clean track where they stood: dimming phantoms left in dust. ‘These are about a size eleven. Worn tread. Old shoes, almost certainly belonging to a man.’

‘Forensics might be able to get some prints off some of this,’ John suggested, gesturing to the glossy ceramics on the table. ‘It could give us something.’

‘We need more definitive evidence of wrong-doing before calling in Scotland Yard.’ Sherlock straightened, scowling around the room as if he could force it to surrender its secrets through his will alone. ‘So far the connection of this place to Amelia Donnelly’s death is tenuous at best, and the one correlating piece of evidence was removed from the scene by Elsie in order to capture our interest.’

A distant creak had John straightening his spine, his eyes rolling upwards to the ceiling above their heads. There was more than one storey to this place, and every instinct flew outwards to the unexplored rooms, imagining shadowy figures waiting for their moment to strike.

‘Don’t bother clearing the house,’ Sherlock murmured. ‘Look at the dust. No one’s been beyond this point. If we traipse around, we’ll only make our presence more obvious and scare off whoever’s using it as a base.’

‘What if there’s another way in?’ John demanded. ‘This isn’t about finding evidence, Sherlock. It’s about keeping us safe.’

‘Then watch the door,’ he suggested, gesturing towards the threshold between the kitchen and the rest of the house. His gaze darted around, absorbing information that John would never have given a second glance. ‘We’ll hear anyone entering the way we came in because they’ll have to pick the lock. That leaves you free to concentrate your energies on defending the other line of attack.’

Sherlock’s strategy may be simplistic, but it was adequate in their situation. Houses like this creaked for no reason, their old beams settling in response to damp and sunlight. Now there was nothing to rupture the peace except Sherlock’s soft breathing, even and flowing like a tide as he pulled the fragments of the scene together into a cohesive whole.

John kept himself alert, his body strained and his eyes huge in the gloom, waiting for anything to tip him into action. Every silhouette was examined and every noise assessed, but there was nothing. He almost longed for something to shoot at, just to crack the shell of suspense, and when Sherlock hissed his name, John flinched, too high-strung to suppress the jolt of his bones.

‘Come here,’ Sherlock murmured, beckoning him to where he was hunkered down in the corner of the kitchen. Dust had collected there, clots of it encouraged to gather by the passage of feet and the whistle of winter drafts. At first, John saw nothing out of the ordinary, but eventually he noticed two small white tablets, their round edges battered and crumbling.

‘The floor slopes in this direction. Anything dropped from the table would roll this way as long as it was the right shape.’

‘You think this is what our culprit’s been working on?’ he asked.

‘Most likely, though whether it’s the base which he’s contaminating or the finished product is impossible to determine without further analysis.’ Sherlock reached into his pocket, pulling free a clear bag before turning it inside out, sheathing his fingers and collecting one of the pills.

‘Is this a good idea?’ John licked his lips when Sherlock met his gaze, one eyebrow arched in question. ‘I mean, I know this is how we do things. Break into crime scenes and get the answers ourselves before throwing the Yard a bone, but…’ He fidgeted, wishing he could find a way to explain why it felt so different. ‘Maybe we should tell them what we found? There’s something about this – something …’ He blew out a short, abrasive breath before shaking his head. ‘Never mind.’

‘Listening to your gut now, are we?’ Sherlock asked, but the words lacked his usual sharp derision. He never put stock in anything that he couldn’t quantify and treated anyone who did with the utmost disdain. Perhaps that was why his smooth response drew a sharp sound of surprise from John’s throat.

‘There are two tablets here, identical, superficially at least. I’m leaving one in situ for Lestrade and his team should they require it. As soon as I analyse this in the lab and have a firm idea of what we’re dealing with, I’ll direct them here to collect whatever they can.’

John blinked, a frown pinching his face. ‘That’s it? You’re not going to take anything else?’

‘Best to limit our influence on this place as much as possible.’ Sherlock chewed his bottom lip, glancing away before meeting John’s gaze. ‘The potential scope of this operation, whatever it may be, suggests it could be a far-reaching crime with significant consequences. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise the investigation any more than is necessary to help the police solve it.’

That wasn’t like Sherlock. The man could argue all he wanted, but he loved showing off. The more graceful or convoluted the puzzle, the greater his delight in solving it. Sherlock always had to be front and centre, soaking up all the attention in a room, and this change of behaviour sent a prickle of unease quivering along John’s spine.

‘Do you know something?’ he asked, his hand darting out to grab Sherlock’s sleeve, pinching the excess fabric at his elbow. ‘Something you’re not telling me?’

Sherlock folded up the bag with the pearlescent offering at its heart, tucking it into his pocket before wrapping his fingers around John’s hand and easing loose his grip. Warm skin brushed over John’s knuckles as Sherlock shook his head.

‘No. Normally, the crimes we solve are insular. One murder. One killer. Sometimes, they form a linear path: serial events. Maybe this is one of those, but it feels – bigger. Usually I examine a scene and can see the shape of it. I can find its limits and plot its progression. This – this isn’t like that. At first glance, it’s almost random. Nonsensical. I haven’t yet found a pattern, and that in itself is exceptionally rare.’

He let go of John’s hand, getting to his feet and beginning the slow journey back to the door. ‘This crime is different from the usual fare London has to offer. It’s not the kind of thing to which I, or the police, are accustomed. Despite Lestrade’s complaints to the contrary I do understand procedure. I only break it when I’m confident my impact on the case won’t influence the prosecution.’

‘And this time, you’re not sure of that. Or at least not enough to run rough-shod all over this place before the Yard gets a look in.’

‘Precisely. I’ve taken what I need to convince Lestrade this lead is worth following. We’ll have to wait for Anderson and his peons to do the rest.’

Sherlock stopped at the back door, examining the latch before pulling his sleeve over his fingers and twisting it open. ‘Any prints on here will be Elsie’s anyway,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘She won’t have touched anything else if she can help it, and I’ve made an effort not to add yours or mine to the scene. With any luck, all Lestrade and his men will have to rule out is non-specific dust disturbance.’

The air in the garden was blessedly cool after the oppression of the house, but that didn’t stop John from glaring at the undergrowth, sizing up potential hiding places and avenues of approach. It wasn’t until they were at the gate that necessity forced him to put his gun away, and even then he remained on-edge, taunted by the pressure of what he hoped was an imaginary gaze. To him, every window held a witness and every doorway a sniper. His thighs ached with the constant wash of adrenaline, and his shoulders kept tucking up towards his ears.

It wasn’t normally like this. His place was with Sherlock, providing the back-up, and his body fell into the role with ease. He was used to the burden of fight-or-flight, relished in it, even, but this… It was all too nebulous. It wasn’t the standard threat criminals posed to Sherlock’s safety that had him jittery. They at least, could be taken down by a bullet if necessary.

No, it was Sherlock’s whole situation that had John feeling precarious. In reality, little had changed, and at the same time the world had undergone a fundamental shift. Was this how Sherlock lived, day in, day out, teetering on the brink of losing everything he cared about? Before John knew what Sherlock was, he could see their future stretched before them: comfortable, thrilling and full of potential.

Now, he tried to see where they might be in a week or a month, and while he could imagine it, it seemed no more reliable than a dream. It was the wrong kind of risk to push his buttons and feed his thrill-seeking needs. It wasn’t a fight for survival, but a threat to his happiness, and that was one kind of danger against which John had no defence.

It was like waiting for a war that never came – stuck on a blade of nervous anticipation with no relief in sight.

Every step carried them further away, and Dartan Grove slipped by beneath his watchful eye. Within ten minutes, he and Sherlock had ensconced themselves in the back of a cab.

The driver peered at them suspiciously in the rear-view mirror as he took them to Bart’s, and John sighed. On any other day of the week, Sherlock’s appearance commanded respect. A well-dressed man gave the right impression. Like this though, he looked rough in an artful way, his index finger tapping against his full mouth and his hair falling over his forehead. His restlessness, combined with the clothes, made him appear as if he were coming down from a high. Not dangerous, exactly, but there was a sense of the unpredictable surrounding him, and John could appreciate the cabbie’s concerns.

Absently, he reached out, pressing a hand to Sherlock’s jiggling knee to hold him steady. A flick of his eyes towards the man behind the wheel had Sherlock breathing out a sigh, every line of his expression indicating he found the obvious misconceptions tiresome. Still, he steadied himself, his muscles hardening beneath John’s grip as the fidgeting lapsed into rigid stillness.

John expected him to pull his knee away or pluck at John’s wrist to free himself. Instead, the pale splay of Sherlock’s hand covered his, the pads of his fingers touching his knuckles before sweeping down towards John’s nails. When he reached the terminus of each digit, he reversed the motion, repeating it at a hypnotic pace.

Inch-by-inch, John allowed himself to relax, concentrating his mind on the stroke of Sherlock’s fingers over his skin. It was too firm to tease, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a low, electric hum to the gesture, intimate in a way that made the hairs on John’s scalp prickle. He knew that wasn’t the point, but he couldn’t stop drawing parallels between this and the way Sherlock had been touching himself earlier – slow caresses as if he were tracing his own outline.

By the time they reached Bart’s, John’s mind had fallen lax, the rush and garble of his thoughts forming a cohesive line. His breathing, which he hadn’t realised was too fast and staggered, had levelled out, and he relished the undemanding bliss of Sherlock’s attention.

He was used to talking Sherlock down from the ledge of his hyper-active mind, of anticipating his needs and acting as a lens through which he filtered the rest of the world. This – Sherlock soothing him – made an interesting change. Not that he hadn’t done it before, in his own way, but that was about giving John the answers and building up a fortress of facts in which he could take shelter. The touching was a recent development, and John treasured it.

‘Come on,’ Sherlock urged, his voice low in John’s ear. He blinked himself back into the real world to find the cab was idling outside Bart’s and the driver was already counting his payment. Sherlock got out with his usual grace, dramatic even without the twirl of his coat. He left John to scramble out with considerably less poise, slamming the door in his wake and trotting to catch up.

It took a matter of minutes to reach the labs, which stood unchanged: white and gleaming in the sallow, fluorescent lights. Sherlock perched at one of the benches, reaching out for the tools he needed, and John watched him fold himself away from the world, losing himself in a realm of chemical composition and careful experimentation.

He didn't hear Molly slip out of her office and gave a tiny start when she spoke from his elbow, her voice quizzical. 'Is everything okay?'

'Christ!' he huffed, grinning to take the bite out of his curse. 'Yeah, sorry. Sherlock just needs to check on something to do with the Donnelly case.' He watched her profile, seeing her take in Sherlock's clothes with a faint tip of the head. Her lips parted, the delicate pigment on them half-gone after a long morning, and her eyes followed his movements.

Back when they'd first met, she had watched Sherlock with a kind of terrified longing – a mouse charmed by a snake. Now, although Sherlock could still manipulate her with obvious ease, Molly's observations of him were more alert. Of everyone in their strange social circle, she had a tendency to search for Sherlock's vulnerabilities, not to exploit them, but in an honest effort to help.

'Anything I can do?' Her question was loud enough to reach Sherlock's ears, but he either ignored her or was too lost in what he was doing to pay attention.

John was about to decline when Elsie’s words filtered back into his mind, and he turned to face her, rubbing a hand across his nape. 'Actually, yeah. We got a tip that there might be a couple of people who died in a similar way to the victim. Unidentified, probably. They were living on the streets.' He frowned, realising Elsie never said where they'd been when they passed away. They could be in any number of morgues in London. 'Ring any bells?'

Molly puffed up her cheeks and blew out a breath. 'Nothing I've seen come by recently, but I can have a look. There's a database. Any idea when they might have been brought in?'

'The last fortnight, possibly? And all Alphas.' He shrugged, wishing he'd thought to get more details. He'd been too focussed on what Elsie was telling Sherlock to consider delving for more information. 'Could you grab me copies of anything that might be relevant, or show me how to do it myself?'

'I'll do it.' She offered a faint smile, probably appreciating the fact that he wasn't bossing her around. 'Not that you couldn't,' she added in a hurry, 'but you know what it's like with an unfamiliar system. I can get what you need in half the time.'

'Thanks.'

John watched her go before turning back to Sherlock, raising an eyebrow when he realised he was being watched. 'What?'

'Nothing.' Despite his denial, a small smile tilted Sherlock's lips. He looked almost impressed at John's concentration on the case, and he allowed himself a moment to be smug at having surprised the man who seemed to see everything before it happened. 'I wasn't sure you'd remember what Elsie said about the other victims.'

'Well it's not like she gave us much. I dread to think how many people might fit the bill.' He winced, wondering if he'd cursed himself to hours of sorting out autopsy reports.

'Probably fewer than you imagine. However, in the absence of obvious trauma, the demise of a vagrant victim is often attributed to poor living conditions.'

'That's why I didn't ask Molly to limit it to unknown C.O.D. That way, we won't miss them thanks to a coroner who can't be bothered to investigate beyond the basics.' He smiled as Sherlock quirked his eyebrows in acknowledgement: about as close to praise as he was likely to get. 'Anything I can do to help?'

'No, it's straightforward enough. When Molly gets back, take her to lunch.'

Instantly, John's spine stiffened in rejection – not at the thought of a friendly chat with Molly, but at leaving Sherlock behind. 'Why?' he demanded, folding his arms.

There was more force behind his question than he intended, and Sherlock looked up, his gaze narrowing as he catalogued the angles of John's body. His nostrils flared; the motion was subtle, but it was one he normally tried to conceal. Perhaps he couldn’t control it in his current state, or maybe Sherlock didn't feel the need to hide it from John. God alone knew what he dragged from the air, but it seemed to clue him in to the source of John's aggravation.

'It's approaching one in the afternoon, and you experience a sharp decline in efficiency if I don't at least try and keep you fed. There's nothing you can do to help me here, and despite your doubts to the contrary, the lab is relatively secure.' Lines bracketed his mouth before he continued in a hushed voice, laced with a trace of pleading. 'You cannot watch me every hour of every day, John, not without driving us mad. When Alexander got to me at the flat, he caught me unprepared. Needless to say, that won't happen again.'

John watched him, his jaw working as he tried to sort through the knee-jerk reaction of his denial. Sherlock could take care of himself, John didn’t doubt that. He was already starting to chafe against the meek restrictions of everyone’s efforts on his behalf. How long did they have before his patience waned completely?

Besides, he was right. It would drive them both insane. John was living with constant stress. Short-term, that was tolerable, but there was no reason to believe their current state of existence wouldn’t continue for years to come. As long as Alexander was alive, they’d fear for his return. Unless they worked out some better coping strategies, John could very well spend the rest of his days with one hand on his gun.

'You left me alone at the flat when you went to work,' Sherlock pointed out, 'and he can get in there without too much difficulty.'

'Please, don't remind me.' He pursed his lips, ducking his head as he acknowledged Sherlock's point. 'Mycroft tightened security on Baker Street. He could watch out for you when I couldn't. Here, that's not the case.'

'No, I have to look out for myself instead, just as I've been doing for most of my life.'

'With varying levels of success.' John pinched the bridge of his nose as Sherlock scowled, biting back all his arguments. They wouldn't help, and despite the base instincts that told him otherwise, rationally John knew that he couldn't do this. He couldn’t smother Sherlock in the name of his own safety.

‘All right. If you're sure you'll be okay?'

'Positive,' Sherlock replied, sounding far more calm than John felt. Silver eyes swept over him, reading every reservation. 'Thank you. Get me some crisps?'

John tutted in response, forcing his feet to turn in the direction of Molly's office. It was like moving through glue, his every desire desperate to steer him back to Sherlock's side. A large part of his mind was furiously asserting that if Sherlock was an Alpha, he'd still be just as worried, but John had a sinking suspicion that he'd be less quick to put it on display. It seemed more acceptable, now, as if his hind-brain thought Sherlock would find his behaviour charming, which was beyond ridiculous. He was certain nothing could be further from the truth.

Sherlock was making allowances and tolerating his moods, but that wouldn't last. How long did he have before Sherlock took reckless action, just to prove he could? He had to get a grip, for both their sakes.

He pasted a smile on his face, hoping it was convincing as he tapped on the frame of Molly's open office door. 'I'm going to get some lunch. Do you want anything?'

'Oh!' She looked over her shoulder at the clock. 'I thought I was getting hungry. We can get something together. Is Sherlock...?' She sighed when John shook his head. 'Of course not.’

'He did ask for some crisps, though whether they’re for him or an experiment, I’m not sure. If you're not happy leaving him here, we can always drag him with us.' He tried not to sound too hopeful and did his best to hide his disappointment when Molly shot that idea down with a shake of her head.

'No. It's all right. He's unlikely to pinch anything important. Most of the things he'd like are too big to fit in his pockets.'

'Equipment?'

'Cadavers.' She picked up some pages from the printer and passed them to John, hanging up her lab-coat before leading the way to the canteen. 'That's everything I've found. Try not to let anyone else see. People tend to find corpses... upsetting.'

'Got it.' John glanced back, taking one last look at Sherlock before turning the corner. It took every ounce of his resolve not to rush back to the lab. His jaw ached as he clenched his teeth, and he berated himself with silent fury for his ceaseless anxiety.

Molly was the first to break the uncomfortable silence, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear before she pushed her hands into the pockets of her mustard-yellow cardigan. 'Is Sherlock in trouble?'

John let out a breath, trying to think of what to say that wasn’t an outright lie. ‘No more than usual,’ he managed, glancing in her direction. ‘Why do you ask?’ He feared her response would put him in the spotlight, highlighting every twisted expression that crossed his features. Of course, he should have known better. Molly’s eyes, as usual, were on Sherlock.

‘He seems –’ She shrugged, holding open the door of the canteen for him and smiling at his thanks. ‘– He’s just not himself. I thought, what with the clothes, perhaps he was trying to hide from someone.’

‘No, no one specific anyway.’ John pushed aside the thought of Alexander. He couldn’t explain that to Molly in terms she’d accept, not without breaching Sherlock’s trust. ‘We were in a dodgy area of town. I could get away with my usual stuff, but Sherlock in a suit didn’t seem like such a good idea. Not when we didn’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention.’

A worried frown framed her dark eyes as they grabbed a table, but she didn’t argue. Instead, a weak smile made its way onto her lips as she nodded. ‘Okay well, that’s good. I mean you do know that if – if you’re ever in trouble, and I can help…’ She trailed off, lifting one shoulder in a shrug as John smiled.

‘Thanks. I appreciate it, and so does Sherlock, even if he never says as much.’

Together, they bought their lunch, navigating the kind of stilted, awkward conversations that tended to flow between people who considered themselves more acquaintances than friends. Molly told John about her flat and her new neighbours, who seemed a bit unruly. John mentioned a couple of interesting patients from the clinic and then groped for any subject of conversation that didn’t focus on Sherlock.

Perhaps it was that which gave him away, or maybe it was the fact his finger twitched every few minutes with the raw desire to check Sherlock hadn’t sent him a text.

‘You’re really worried, aren’t you?’ Molly asked, wringing her hands as John tried to pin a reassuring smile on his lips. ‘Is it–’ She shuffled her chair forward, leaning awkwardly across the table with a furtive glance around the canteen. ‘Is it about –’ She touched the back of her neck with two shaking fingers, indicating the spot where Sherlock’s bond-bite left its mark. Concentration pinched her face, and she searched John’s expression, probably hoping for signs of comprehension.

‘You knew?’ He stared at her, incredulous.

She pulled back, twisting the cling-film that had covered her sandwich between her fingers. ‘I found out by accident. He fell asleep over the microscope. The label on his shirt was sticking out. I went to tuck it back in and…’ Embarrassment painted her cheeks. ‘Please, please don’t tell him. I don’t think he’d want me to know.’ She fiddled with her cutlery, breathing a wistful sigh. ‘I understand what it means, though. He belongs to someone else. Someone who’s not good enough.’

‘What makes you say that?’ John took the last bite of his lunch, ignoring the way it tasted like ash on his tongue as he tried to navigate the potential minefield of this conversation.

‘If he loved them, he’d be with them. Or, more to the point, they’d be with him, here.’ She waved a hand in the vague direction of the labs. ‘But they’re not.’ She seemed to steel herself, biting her lip before she explained, ‘They’d be in your place, letting him be himself and looking after him while he did it.’

John glanced up at that, seeing nothing but frank honesty in her eyes. Her hands clenched on the table-top, the ratty bit of plastic gleaming in her grip. On anyone else it would seem like they were making efforts to ingratiate themselves, but Molly didn’t work like that. She was clever, but John couldn’t convince himself she’d be cunning.

‘I don’t think it works that way,’ he said quietly, hating to contradict her romantic ideals. ‘At least, not in Sherlock’s case. I can’t tell you much.’ He watched her straighten her shoulders as if she thought whatever he was about to reveal was more important than anything else she’d ever heard. ‘I didn’t find out about Sherlock’s scar until about a month ago. Basically, his Alpha wants him back, and Sherlock doesn’t want to go.’ He shrugged, because that was the crux of the matter.

‘You didn’t like leaving him alone in the labs. Are you worried he might be taken?’

‘I don’t like leaving him anywhere,’ John confessed, draining his coffee and putting it down on the table.

‘No one’s ever come asking for him here.’ She shrugged, placing cups and rubbish back on the tray. ‘I was ready for it, but it never happened.’ Picking up the folded autopsy reports from where John had left them, she passed them over. ‘I don’t know if that helps.’

In some weird way, it did. Realising Alexander had never set foot in Bart’s when not even the walls of Baker Street had deterred him soothed the fractious edges of John’s temper. The worry lingered, but Molly’s gentle words hemmed it in, making it more controlled.

‘Thanks.’ He smiled, raising an eyebrow in query. ‘You seem to have taken it pretty much in your stride.’

She gave him a confused smile, getting to her feet and gripping the tray as she shrugged her shoulders. ‘It’s not like it changes anything. He’s still him, isn’t he? Still going to try and pinch body parts when I’m not looking and make solving mad puzzles seem easy.’

John watched her go and dispose of the plates, turning over her perspective in his mind. So far, he’d thought it was only other Alphas who were aware of Sherlock’s secret. He and Greg had shared the same reaction, confused and questioning, but Molly was raised outside all that. She wasn’t one of the elite, and being a Beta, she had no interest in the rumours surrounding an Omega’s way of life. She could view it all with a distant rationality that John envied. She could see Sherlock as nothing but himself, whereas John, despite his best efforts, still got distracted by the veil of preconceived notions Sherlock’s gender brought with it.

Shaking aside his thoughts, he noticed Molly look up as something caught her eye, making her smile and wave. He followed the line of her gaze to see Greg buying coffee, his haste bordering on desperate. His smile was warm, but his eyes were weary, and John could see the creases in his suit as he stumbled towards them.

‘Late night?’ he asked.

‘And an early morning.’ The DI smiled as Molly handed him a couple of sachets of sugar, putting his paper cup down on a nearby table before dumping the grains into the steaming, black liquid. ‘We were tracking down a thief. Nothing Sherlock would find exciting, but it took us bloody hours. I got a bit of kip at my desk on top of paperwork this morning, and then I get a text from Himself.’ He plucked his phone from his pocket, wiggling it meaningfully. ‘He still plugging away at the Donnelly case? I thought he’d given it up as a bad job.’

‘How often does Sherlock actually give up on cases?’

‘Fair point.’ Greg stepped back a fraction, including Molly in the conversation as he urged her to lead the way through the corridors. ‘Care to shed any light on what’s going on?’

‘It’s probably better if he tells you himself.’ John shouldered aside the lab doors, trying to hide his relief when he saw Sherlock was just where he’d left him, poring over print-outs.

Greg nodded, sipping his scalding drink. There were rules against having consumables in the lab or morgue, but since Sherlock flouted them with alarming regularity, Molly had given up scolding people. It seemed she took the view that if they poisoned themselves or contracted a disease, it was their own fault.

‘Come on then.’ He stopped by Sherlock’s elbow and peered at the paperwork in front of him. ‘What’s so important you had to drag me all the way down here?’

‘Methylphenidate.’ Sherlock looked up, cocking his head and meeting John’s gaze. ‘That’s what we found in Dartan Grove.’

‘Ritalin?’ John stopped at Sherlock’s side, taking in the information spread out along the lab bench.

‘It’s what I expected – well, one of the possibilities. Ritalin is analogous with amphetamines. When taken by an adult, it provides the same effect, generally speaking, as Ms Donnelly’s drug of choice. This hit may have been a bit better, at least before she keeled over. It’s pharmaceutical grade.’ Sherlock removed his phone, showing John the picture. ‘The manufacturer’s stamp is still present on the pill.’

John took the device, staring at the screen as he turned Sherlock’s findings over in his head. ‘So it’s not tainted?’

‘No, it’s the base that our culprit tampered with. There was a press on the table. Archaic in design, but it did the trick. He crushes the tabs, incorporates his additives and then recombines them into a new shape. That would remove all markings, leaving them generic.’

Greg cleared his throat, spreading his hands. ‘All right, someone’s going to have to fill me in. I’m guessing Dartan Grove explains today’s wardrobe choices?’

Sherlock sighed, ignoring the question as he reeled off the details. ‘An anonymous informant indicated that there may be evidence of interest to our case at number thirty-two. John and I went to investigate.’

The DI pursed his lips, his jaw tense, and John could see him holding back a lecture. It was nothing they hadn’t heard already, and he wondered how many grey hairs on Lestrade’s head could be blamed on the man who sat between them. However, the rant never took shape. Either Greg was giving them both up as a lost cause, or he knew when to pick his battles. 'When you say "anonymous informant" you mean one of your homeless network, don't you?'

'Something like that.' Sherlock tapped the heel of his palm against the bench, chewing his lip in thought. 'What we found was a primitive workspace, along with indications of regular and recent use. It was not the kind of setup you would use to create a drug supply from raw materials. This is more amateurish.'

'Someone tampering with stuff.' Lestrade nodded, glancing at John as he spoke.

'But not anything they're likely to have got off the street.’ He waved Sherlock’s phone where the image still glowed on the screen. ‘I can't be certain, but this looks like it's come straight out of a pharmacy.'

'Could still have been nicked and sold to our culprit.' The DI shrugged.

'No, this is a small-time operation. There’s little in the way of money involved, and he’s unlikely to have had the funds to have purchased the quantities he’s working with. It's possible they are his own supply, prescribed for a psychological issue. Either that, or he stole them himself.' Sherlock looked over at Lestrade. 'There's plenty of evidence in that house, any item of which could give us a breakthrough in finding out what killed Amelia Donnelly, but a Forensics Team needs to do the collection, if not the analysis.'

Greg blinked twice in rapid succession, and his expression of doubt fell into serious lines as he looked from Sherlock to John and back again. 'You're asking Anderson and his team to get in on this? You?' He set his coffee aside as he folded his arms. 'Is this your good influence?' he asked John.

'Don't be trying,' Sherlock snapped before John could respond. 'My homeless network are keeping an eye on the place in case our perpetrator returns in the interim, but the sooner you get the scene processed, the better.'

A whisper of a sigh escaped the DI as he stared down at his shoes, shaking his head. 'All you've got to show me is a manky pill you picked up in a squat somewhere. Even if I agree that there’s something going on, the best I can do is pass it onto narcotics. Tie it to Donnelly, and then come talk to me.'

Sherlock made a small, explosive noise of frustration, rubbing one hand along his jaw before resting his fingers against his pulse. He shifted where he sat as his mind raced, the manic edge to his movements back in full-force.

John saw the moment when they became too much for Greg to ignore. His frown took on a fearful slant, his weight shifting forward in preparation for an accusation, and John hastily cut in, giving Lestrade’s shoulder a rough nudge before he turned to Molly.

'Maybe there's more information in her tox-screen?' he asked. 'Proof she used methylphenidate? If Sherlock's right and it was in the drugs that killed her, it wouldn't have had time to degrade. It’s easy to overlook Ritalin or mistake it for something else in the presence of other amphetamines.’

'I'll see what I can find,' she promised with a quick nod. 'If not, we can always run another test. It won’t take long if we know what we’re looking for.'

John glanced at Sherlock, realising he was being watched with a bored, all-seeing gaze. 'I want to talk to Greg anyway. You don't need my help, do you?'

'Not as much as the illustrious DI requires your reassurance,' Sherlock muttered scathingly, flicking his fingers towards the door. 'Leave the crisps you've got in your pocket, though, and those autopsy reports.' A faint smile lifted the corner of his lips as John tugged free the sheaf of documents, along with a packet of quavers, and passed them over.

'Don't contaminate anything.'

Sherlock appeared horrified at the suggestion, but a second later he was engrossed in John's offerings, skimming the details with frightening focus as the crisps lay forgotten at his side.

Catching Lestrade’s eye, he jerked his head towards the door, waiting until he was sure the DI got the message before leading the way into the empty corridor. The clean linoleum squeaked beneath his shoes as he checked they were out of Sherlock’s earshot, watching him through the narrow pane of glass set in the door before turning to take in the man at his side.

Greg leaned back against the wall, scrubbing his hands over his cheeks and speaking from behind his palms in a muffled, flat voice. ‘Is he using again?’

‘Is that what it looks like?’ John challenged, immediately feeling bad for doing so. Lestrade was exhausted, and he was making an assumption based on past evidence. For god’s sake, the only reason John wasn’t worried was because he was aware of what was really going on.

Greg dropped his arms to his side, screwing his eyes up in a blink. ‘A bit. It’s hard to explain. The concentration’s similar. He didn’t – didn’t twitch as much, but people change. That –’

‘That’s not–’ John trailed off, trying to work out what to say. There was too much room for misinterpretation in euphemisms; blunt precision was the best course of action. ‘Sherlock’s in heat.’ He folded his arms, watching Lestrade’s incredulity spread like sunlight over his face.

‘Really!?’ Greg scratched at his ear, shifting where he stood. John knew the feeling: a sort of embarrassed fascination. It was private, and he wished he didn’t need to tell Lestrade what was going on. However, Sherlock wasn’t in the mood to deal with anything he viewed as stupidity, and the last thing anyone needed was the Yard becoming obstructive because they thought Sherlock had returned to bad habits. ‘But – well – he’s not normally like that. I mean he does – he does have regular…’ Lestrade trailed off, making a kind of rolling motion with his hands. ‘Doesn’t he?’

‘Yeah. Alexander turning up made it a bit –’ John swallowed, frowning as he tried to think of a suitable word. ‘– worse. He’s more restless, and not quite as controlled. Most of the time, you don’t notice. A bound Omega’s heats are subtle unless their Alpha is about.’

Greg held up a hand, cutting him off. ‘I know. I’ve already had the world’s most uncomfortable discussion with Mycroft about this when they told me what Sherlock was.’ He flushed as if he were recalling one of his most embarrassing memories, and John stifled a smile. ‘So, Alexander showed up and kicked Sherlock’s heat up a notch?’

‘Yea, hence the twitching.’

‘And the touching.’ He turned away as if he couldn’t quite meet John’s eyes. ‘Right, okay. I’ll, er – I’ll take your word for it. Sorry.’

John sighed, leaning against the wall and tipping back his head. ‘It’s not me you should apologise to,’ he pointed out, looking at Greg when he gave a rueful huff of laughter.

‘Yeah it is. Sherlock doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him, but it matters to you. I’m sorry I had to ask.’

‘I can see why you thought it,’ he admitted. ‘I’d rather everyone suspect he’s on drugs than guess what’s really going on…’ It didn’t matter that Sherlock wasn’t producing an alluring scent. There were some Alphas who, on finding out he was in heat, would take it as an invitation. Better to keep the whole situation under wraps as much as possible. ‘The only reason I’m telling you is because you need to know it’s not what it looks like.’

‘I appreciate it.’ He ran a hand through his hair, meeting John’s eye from an oddly submissive angle. In fact, everything about Lestrade’s stance was similar to a cringe. He was slumped against the wall, his head lower than John’s – challenging, since the DI had a good few inches on him. His shoulders were rounded and his voice soft as he added, ‘I wouldn’t rush to cut Sherlock off the cases if he relapsed, you know. Professionally, I should, but this isn’t just about the work.’

Some of the tension eased from John’s shoulders. Sherlock’s relationship with the DI had always occupied some uncertain border between professional and sentimental; it was good to hear Greg acknowledge the latter – to state that Sherlock was more important than just the powerful brain in his head.

‘Good. Thanks.’

A thin silence fell between them, and when Greg spoke again, it was in the cautious voice of a man with questions he wasn’t sure he wanted to give shape. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask, did you read that stuff I copied for you?’

John swallowed, a rash of anger warming his skin as he nodded his head. He’d spent an evening about a week ago giving the dense legal text his full attention, taking it all in until he shook with outrage. He’d paced around their living room for more than an hour, venting his disbelief at the warped society that had existed for centuries, unflinching and unchanged. Sherlock had looked on, his face a haunting mixture of mournful amusement.

‘Yeah, I read it. There were what, five cases in there about non-elite Alphas and what happened to them when they got involved with an Omega?’

‘Sounds about right.’ The DI sighed, his expression pained.

‘They were all hanged, Greg. One of them only spoke to an Omega who wasn’t hers, and they strung her up for it.’ A mirthless laugh escaped him. ‘When I first found out about Sherlock, he told me that justified murder for interfering with a bond was an urban myth.’

‘It is,’ Greg said, holding up a hand. ‘As far as the law goes, it really is, but…’ He gave a quiet groan and shook his head. ‘The most recent documented case of the sort to go through a public court was almost two-hundred years ago. Times changed. Society changed, but the elite didn’t.’ He straightened, his feet braced and every line of his body defiant. ‘If it happened again now – if Sherlock’s Alpha dragged you in front of a judge – there’s no telling how it would go, and he knows it. There’s no modern precedent. They never gave us the chance to set one. And the worst part? People don’t question it. None of us. It’s just the way it is.’

John thought of Mycroft, blindly believing in the system, ignoring his doubts about his brother’s safety until incontrovertible proof appeared before his eyes: Sherlock beaten to within an inch of his life and left to die by a man who should treasure him.

He considered himself, aware of another circle of society out there, one beyond his reach and, until Sherlock, completely removed from his existence. Could he pretend he was any better? He’d known so little about it and hadn’t thought to find out more. Even now, when it was personally relevant, his futile protests at the injustice of it were worse than useless. The world wasn’t going to change just because he demanded it.

‘When an Omega gets involved, nothing is straightforward. That’s why I gave you that paperwork. You needed to understand the system that the elite are working from. They can’t take you to court and have you hanged, not these days, but that doesn’t mean Alexander would think twice about offing you in a dark alley.’ Greg huffed a sigh. ‘In his head, he’d probably think it was his right. We’d still get him. He couldn’t cover it up, and not just because of Sherlock. ’

‘That’s a pretty weak consolation if I’m dead,’ John muttered.

At his side, Greg shuffled his feet, clearing his throat awkwardly and parting his lips only to press them closed again.

‘What is it?’ he asked, trying to understand the look on Lestrade’s face. If anything, he seemed embarrassed, but there was a hard core of determination in the line of his jaw.

‘I also gave you that stuff so you’d know that it didn’t matter what you’d actually done. An Alpha will react in absolutes. To Alexander, there’s probably no difference between you living with Sherlock and sleeping with him.’ Greg glanced away before looking back at him. ‘The consequences to you wouldn’t be any different, is what I’m saying, should things, you know – change.’

John sighed, trying to ignore the ache that bloomed in his chest – hope and despair in equal measure. He got what Greg was driving at; he’d thought it himself enough times. If he was going to suffer the same punishment for sharing a flat with Sherlock as he would for taking him to bed, then why hold back?

Except when it came down to it, nothing was that black and white.

He rounded his shoulders, clamping his arms tight over his torso. ‘It’s what he’d do to Sherlock that keeps me awake at night. What he’s already done –’ He bit his lip, shaking his head viciously at Greg’s enquiring gaze. ‘That’s not my story to tell, but Alexander would take it out on him, and no one could do a damn thing about it. Maybe he would anyway, regardless of what we did or didn’t do, but I can’t risk making that worse. Sherlock hasn’t got a single right to call his own, and no way to get the law to help him.’

‘It doesn’t mean we won’t bloody try,’ Greg growled, rubbing his fingers over his forehead in exhaustion, ‘The system’s fucked up, but right now, it’s all we’ve got. Sherlock’s Alpha’s been raised with a sense of entitlement a mile-wide. He’ll think he can get away with anything, but he can’t. We won’t let him. Whatever you and Sherlock do, you need to remember that.’

A sigh from the door made John twitch, and he turned to see Sherlock leaning against the threshold. God knew how much he’d heard of all that – his face gave nothing away – but that didn’t stop him and Greg shuffling like guilty schoolboys caught doing something they shouldn’t.

‘If you’re quite done telling John what he already knows,’ Sherlock said, his voice rough in his throat, ‘perhaps you should start actually solving some crimes?’ He flourished the report in his hands, thrusting it in Greg’s direction. ‘As predicted, there’s Ritalin in her toxicology screen. Get to Dartan Grove, and try not to let Anderson make a mess of things.’

Lestrade sighed, reading through the neat text before peering at Sherlock. ‘You’re really saying it was murder?’

‘No.’ Sherlock rolled his eyes, tugging away the top page and leaving the DI holding more than half-a-dozen autopsy reports. ‘Molly and I went back further in the database, expanding the search to cover the past eighteen months. These are only the matches I would term as definite. There are another ten or so that require further investigation, and that’s just amidst the vagrant population. I suspect a search through the unexplained deaths in the Yard’s files will cast light on a few more. Motive is always a grey area, and I’ll admit the connections are tenuous, but I expect by the time you’re done with what you find at Dartan Grove, they’ll gain some strength.’

Sherlock glanced at John, and his normal delight was notably absent. He looked weary, as if he’d opened a Pandora’s box and now wished he could turn his back on whatever he’d found in its confines.

‘I can’t be certain of the details, but one thing is clear. Amelia Donnelly is not the only victim. Whoever is doing this has got away with it for more than a year, and these are only the ones we know about. This is serial murder on a massive scale.’

Greg paled. His dark eyes skimmed the autopsy reports, taking in the details underlined by Sherlock’s hasty pen and reaching the same conclusion. ‘Shit. What do we do?’

‘The same thing we always do when we find a case.’ Sherlock pushed aside the door, already turning to go back into the lab. ‘Solve it.’

John grimaced, absorbing the DI’s shaken expression and the rigid line of Sherlock’s receding back. Uncertainty tainted the air, bitter on John’s tongue, and he sucked in a deep breath as he considered Sherlock’s words.

Somehow, he doubted it would be that easy.

Chapter Text

The drone of London’s traffic echoed in John’s ears, rising to a crescendo as the morning rush-hour got underway. Sherlock would be able to describe each vehicle as it passed, but all John could do was let the sound wash over him as he lay in bed, watching weak sunlight pool around the edges of his curtains.

Sleep had been sporadic at best, which didn’t seem fair. He was fucking exhausted. Sherlock had dragged him around half the city over the past forty-eight hours, chasing every glimmer of a lead with a focus so intense it was startling. He was like a dog after a rabbit: unrelenting.

John suspected it was Sherlock’s way of distracting himself from what his body was doing, and it seemed to have done the trick. After that day at Dartan Grove, Sherlock’s twitchy motions calmed, and the languorous sweep of his fingers over his own skin trailed away, allowing the man’s usual rigid control to reclaim its place.

He wished Sherlock’s behaviour faded as easily from memory as it did from reality. John’s helpless imagination kept conjuring up the images anew, staining his dreams in lurid fantasy and painting his waking moments. It was one thing to know that Sherlock had needs for human affection and intimacy, but to see it on display…

John sucked in a breath, folding his arms and tucking his hands under his armpits. If he didn’t, he’d be too tempted to reach beneath the covers and stroke his half-hard cock. He’d already wanked once this morning, his treacherous brain revelling in the idea of Sherlock sprawled on the couch, dishevelled, needy and reaching for him. He felt guilty enough as it was; he had no intention of a repeat performance.

At least in those few minutes of filthy bliss his thoughts fell still. He could lose himself to the pleasure and pretend he wasn’t pining for what he couldn’t have. Now, scowling at the ceiling and biting his lip, all his concerns flooded back, clouding his head with fretful arguments.

“The consequences to you wouldn’t be any different should things, you know – change.”

With a sigh, John turned on his side, glaring at his clock radio as Greg’s words came back to him. Like a fresh bruise, he couldn’t resist prodding at the idea, his hope at constant war with his logic.

In a perfect world, he wanted Sherlock in his life, his heart and his bed. When he distilled the twisting confusion of his desires, those three foundation-stones emerged. John would happily ignore everything about heats and bonds, Alphas and Omegas. That wasn’t what he craved. He didn’t need to tie Sherlock to him with a bite; he’d rather have him stay because this was where he wanted to be.

Of course, not even a bond could cage Sherlock. Against all convention, he lived apart from Alexander. In the end, Sherlock had already made his choice: London, the Work and John.

In so many ways, that was almost enough. Sometimes, he convinced himself it could be. Sherlock could solve cases and John could follow him, devoted yet platonic. Then, he’d catch a glimpse of the vulnerability Sherlock hid so well, concealed beneath layers of intelligence and arrogance. He’d see a man who leaned into the press of John’s palm, one who couldn’t hide his surprise at the simplest of praise, and John felt the limitations of their current relationship constrict like bands around his throat.

They weren’t just friends, not anymore, but nor could they take the next step, not with so much standing in their way. It was not merely a case of potential punishment. Whether he liked it or not, John couldn’t ignore the facts of Sherlock’s biology. His heats wouldn’t go away just because he’d taken a lover, and there was nothing John could do to appease them. His knot wouldn’t respond as long as Sherlock was bound to someone else, and John wasn’t sure if a relationship would survive that kind of strain. In the end, what was in it for Sherlock?

John grunted, digging his head into his pillow as he stared towards the door. That was his real fear – not bloody Alexander and whatever “justice” he might throw John’s way – but not being enough for Sherlock. If they started a relationship and it failed, then going back would be impossible.

Still, that didn’t mean John didn’t think about it. Not just slick-skin between tousled sheets, but the quiet domesticity that could come with it. He imagined being able to reach out and touch without an excuse on his lips, and pulling Sherlock close rather than holding himself back. So many of the key aspects of a relationship were already there, unacknowledged, and despite his longings to the contrary, that was how they would have to stay.

Kicking back his bed covers, he surged to his feet, scrubbing a hand through his hair before wrinkling his nose in distaste. He needed a shower. The whole experiment with the almond oil had proven the acuity of Sherlock’s sense of smell. No doubt he would detect the results of John’s earlier session of self-gratification, even if he had caught the worst of it in a tissue. Best not to give him the chance.

Grabbing some clothes, he padded downstairs to the bathroom, hearing nothing but silence from the flat around him. It was tempting to assume Sherlock had surrendered to the call of his bed, but John doubted it. The case had him in its grasp. If he slept at all, it was a few brief hours’ rest on the couch.

Shaking his head, John turned on the shower and stepped under the spray. Hot water sluiced away the patina on his skin; if only he could wash his worries down the drain with such ease. Thoughts of him and Sherlock aside, there was still the issue of Alexander. John had heard nothing from Mycroft one way or the other, but the ongoing silence was less than reassuring.

A few days with no surprises had smoothed out the jagged edges of his battle-readiness. Now it sat in his stomach like a rock, sanded smooth but cold all the same. Sherlock, on the other hand, seemed to have put his Alpha from his mind. He hurried all over London, unconcerned. Perhaps that was the only way to survive it. After all, Alexander was a new presence in John's life. Sherlock had been coping with the threat of him for years. At some point, he must have made the choice to live as if nothing could stop him. Fear, after all, was a paralytic, and Sherlock would never allow himself to be so-affected.

Rinsing away the shampoo, John flicked off the taps and stepped out, reaching for his towel. Absently, he dabbed his skin dry before ruffling the water from his hair. The greying gleam of his stubble disappeared beneath his razor, and he got dressed on auto-pilot, muttering a curse when he realised he’d put his jumper on back to front. He needed a solid breakfast and caffeine. Maybe then he’d be able to drag himself free from the mire of his weary thoughts.

Padding out to the kitchen, he sighed as he saw Sherlock standing by the fireplace, his eyes intent on the data in front of him. Information plastered the wall: autopsy reports, potential victims, chemical compositions and forensic findings, and Sherlock held court in its presence, his body still as his mind raced.

He was wearing a different shirt from yesterday, the sleeves folded back to his elbows. His clean-shaven jaw and fluffy hair suggested he’d at least bathed at some point between when John went to bed five hours ago and now. However, the veils of blue under his eyes indicated that sleep was a distant memory, and his body’s motionlessness implied he had dipped into his mind palace. It was unlikely to be a long trip – Sherlock would sit down or lie supine if that were the case – so John held back his “good morning” and set about making breakfast, waiting for him to emerge.

Within a few minutes, Sherlock’s breathing quickened and his hips rocked as he shifted his weight. From this angle, John could just make out his expression, tense and aggravated, rather than exultant. It seemed a breakthrough remained elusive.

‘Morning,’ John called, pouring boiling water into a couple of mugs before reaching for the cereal. ‘Did I miss anything?’

Sherlock’s huff said it all, and John stifled a smile. ‘There’s tea here for you. Maybe a quick break will help?’ His question was a triumph of hope over experience. John expected Sherlock to ignore him until he physically placed the mug in front of him. However, after several dragging seconds of silence, Sherlock sighed in defeat, turning his back on the sprawling paper-trail of the investigation and drifting into the kitchen.

John pursed his lips, tipping cornflakes into a bowl before adding milk. Normally, he couldn’t tempt Sherlock away from the Work if he tried. It was only when that great mind was locked in a stalemate, either starving for information or drowning in it, that Sherlock could be convinced to take a few minutes to answer the calls of his transport.

It was tempting to ask about it, but John bit back his questions, focusing on his meal as a comfortable silence fledged. Sherlock propped one hip on the corner of the kitchen table, his eyes glazed. Rather than sitting down, John mimicked him, leaning against the counter. No doubt Sherlock would still be thinking about the case, but at least he’d stepped back from it, if only for a moment.

He watched the steam from Sherlock’s tea curl upwards, brushing vapour against those pale cheeks as he sipped the scalding liquid. The quiet hum of appreciation that followed was heartfelt, and John hid a smile as he finished his breakfast. He knew the signs of total immersion when he saw it. Perhaps Sherlock hadn’t been lost to the mystery all night, but John would bet it had been hours since he’d so much as moved from standing in front of the fireplace, grappling with the complexities they’d unearthed.

‘No.’

John blinked, his lips parted in confusion as he set the empty dish aside. Before he could speak, Sherlock elaborated, dark lashes fluttering downwards before he dragged his eyes open again. ‘You asked if you’d missed anything. The answer is no.’

Reaching for his tea, John picked up the mug, wandering towards his armchair in the hopes that Sherlock would follow him to the more comfortable realm of the living room. Sure enough, by the time he had adjusted the cushions to his liking, Sherlock was perched on the back of the leather chair, his feet resting on the seat and his elbows propped on his knees.

The sunlight creeping through the windows made the marks of exhaustion stamped across his features more apparent. John frowned, but he knew better than to suggest Sherlock get his head down. At best, his concerns would be ignored, so he turned towards the wall, taking in the mass of pages and hastily scrawled notes that decorated Baker Street.

'Talk me through it?' he asked, gesturing to the mirror, now hidden behind a slew of autopsy reports. 'You must have some ideas.'

Sherlock grimaced, scrubbing a knuckle against his eye before he sighed. 'Nothing concrete. So far, I've been able to confirm nineteen victims, mostly homeless. While time and preservation renders the results of toxicology screens less accurate, there's enough to prove a common element. They all took a Ritalin-based chemical substance prior to their deaths.'

He took another gulp of his tea as if the warm liquid was all that sustained him. 'Even with the relatively fresh samples from Amelia Donnelly, there is nothing evident in her body that could cause her demise.'

'What about the Aristolochia? That's what started us off on all this.' John shifted forward, watching Sherlock bow his head and drag a hand through his hair. John could see the pale silver gleam of the bite on the nape of his neck, and his stomach fluttered. It was rare that Sherlock permitted his body language to reflect his uncertainties. It was only in John's trusted company that he allowed any sign of weakness to show, and in doing so put his secret on display.

Long fingers skimmed down the upper vertebrae of his spine, rubbing at the tension that John could see, even from here. 'No trace. The half-life of a standard dose is thirty-six hours. If it's the toxic element, which I doubt, the amount required would be extreme and the chemicals and hormonal shifts would still be apparent in the victims.'

'You don't think it's what killed them?' John finished his tea, setting the mug aside and taking in the tired reel of Sherlock’s body.

'I can't see how it would. Its actions are almost entirely involved with manipulating various receptors and altering hormone levels. It tricks the Omega’s body into believing that conception has failed so that the cycle, which should halt once an egg is fertilised, continues, resulting in the destruction of the womb lining and the ovum. As for what it does to an Alpha...' Sherlock shrugged. 'I don't know, there's no research on the issue that I can find, but I doubt fatality is a consequence.'

John narrowed his eyes, his mind racing over reproductive hormones and their uses. As an army surgeon and then a GP, his knowledge was limited and applicable mostly to Beta systems. However, although different, the parallels between what he knew and Alpha-Omega biochemistry was adequate for a glimmer of an idea to spark in his mind.

'Aristolochia contains a progesterone analogue, doesn't it?' he asked, watching Sherlock lift his head. 'It must do, if that's the effect. Everything you've said makes it sound like the morning-after pill.'

'It wouldn't work on a Beta,' Sherlock pointed out. 'Wrong chemical structure for the receptors, but yes.'

'So it's not different androgens that distinguish secondary genders, it's a different chemical balance, the same as contrasting ratios of oestrogen and testosterone separate male and female.' He held up his hand when Sherlock grimaced, no doubt offended as both a chemist and a biologist at the simplicity of John’s summary. 'I'm just saying Aristolochia would influence an Alpha in some way; they have the receptors for it. All we need to do is figure out whether it would kill them.'

'It shouldn't do. If anything, it should serve to make them more aggressive, more Alpha. The same as a Beta man taking progesterone would experience an increase in typical "male" characteristics.' Sherlock shook his head. 'Besides, weren't you listening? There's no sign of it in any of the victims.' He cut a hand through the air, his teeth bared in frustration. 'Without a sample of whatever they took, I can't say how they died.'

Sherlock was almost shaking with frustration. If he wasn’t careful, he’d fall off the back of his chair and add wounded pride to his list of complaints.

‘Sit in that thing properly, will you? You’re going to hurt yourself.’

An explosive sound of irritation answered his request, and John arched an eyebrow in surprise when, rather than slipping forward to do as he was told or pitching off backwards out of spite, Sherlock got to his feet. In a flurry of motion, he grabbed cushions from the sofa and stomped back to John’s side, dumping them at his feet before sitting down and leaning back against John’s right knee.

His spine struck a hard line up the crest of John’s shin, and Sherlock tipped his head back, resting his occipital bone on John’s patella as he stared resentfully at the ceiling. ‘This isn’t comfortable,’ he pointed out after a moment.

‘No-one made you sit there,’ John replied, trying to hide his surprised delight at Sherlock choosing to settle so deliberately close. It looked trusting, his head tipped back so he could give John an upside-down glare. The tantalising column of his exposed throat was on display, and John had to tear his eyes away from the fragile beat of Sherlock’s pulse as he struggled to form intelligent sentences. ‘At least now you won’t go arse over tit off the back of your chair. A concussion would be a setback, even for you.’

Sherlock closed his eyes, his lips twitching in a grimace of agreement as he let out a sigh. He would never admit it, but this past month had taken its toll. Not professionally, perhaps, but personally. For all that he hid it well, John knew Sherlock was suffering the same uncertainty and fears over Alexander. More so, since they involved his continuing freedom and welfare. Now the Work, the one thing Sherlock threw himself into with passion and vigour, was fighting back, refusing to offer him an ounce of respite.

‘The Yard haven’t come up with anything new?’ he asked, tracing a finger along the twisting outline of a curl.

Sherlock grunted, nudging his head back towards John’s hand in mute demand and letting out a small breath when John obliged. His fingers charted deep paths as he ran them from Sherlock’s brow to his crown. A few weeks ago, he wouldn’t have dared to do this, but events had swept away many of their previous boundaries, and the urge to offer Sherlock comfort was impossible to deny.

Sherlock’s response was immediate. The rigid core of his muscles uncoiled from their knots and lines of annoyance released their grip on his expression. Tight knuckles slackened, and his breathing steadied, timed to the rhythm of John’s touch: the conductor of Sherlock’s orchestral existence.

For a few minutes, there was only the peace of home. John’s question hovered, unanswered, as the sounds of the world washed around them. The nearby purr of traffic – thinner on Baker Street, dense on Marylebone Road – the wheeze and rattle of the fridge, the creak of the floorboards and laughter of pedestrians. It was as close to tranquillity as they knew, and John noted its details as he skimmed his thumb over the curve of Sherlock’s ear.

‘They found plenty,’ Sherlock said at last, and the gnarled frustration in his voice was gone, replaced by a rumble that dropped into John’s stomach like a match into a pool of petrol. Heat rolled through him, and he drew a steadying breath as he managed an encouraging hum. ‘Not that it did us any good. Whoever’s doing this has had no contact with the law. Their prints don’t turn up any matches, the treads of the shoes are generic, there’s no DNA evidence worth mentioning, and I’m still waiting on the chemical compositions of the residue left on the inside of those vials.’

Sherlock rubbed a finger down the chine of his nose. ‘Now that the scene’s been processed, the perpetrator will know something’s amiss as soon as they re-enter the property. Lestrade hasn’t got the resources to monitor the place, not when we have no idea how long it will be before they return.’

‘Are your homeless network still watching it?’

‘After a fashion, but they can’t provide round-the-clock surveillance.’ Sherlock tapped his heel on the floor, his gaze returning to the paper-covered walls.

‘So what’s the plan?’ John asked. ‘There’s got to be something that can narrow it down?’

‘Profiling.’ Sherlock said the word as if it were crass, his face wrinkled in obvious disgust. ‘Inaccurate and often formed on a foundation of assumption, at least when left in the hands of those at the Yard.’

‘I doubt you’d make the same mistake.’ John smiled at Sherlock’s huff of offense. ‘I know how much you hate it – putting all the details you see in a crime down on paper and trying to build a person from it, rather than wowing us all with your deductions and pointing your finger at the culprit, but you said it yourself, we’ve not got much choice.’

He watched, sensing Sherlock’s mood prevaricate between annoyance and acceptance. At last, it fell in favour of the latter, and he sighed as eased himself free of John’s touch and got to his feet.

Grabbing a pad of paper from the table by his chair, John peered around, preparing to take notes of whatever slivers of truth fell from Sherlock’s mouth. ‘Pass me a pen, would you?’

He snatched the silver gleam from the air with ease, his body moving automatically to intercept Sherlock’s throw. Scribbling on the page to get the ink flowing, he sat forward, resting the pad on his knee as he waited for Sherlock to begin.

‘Physically, we have very little to go on. The imprints on the floor were of a size eleven trainer. The intensity of the dust’s disturbance suggests someone with feet of equivalent dimensions wore them, as opposed to using bigger shoes to cover their tracks. Statistically, that puts our perpetrator as male and above five foot nine.’ He stopped in front of an image of a handprint. ‘Hands smaller than average, but not by much. No indication of work-related characteristics such as calluses – except…’

Sherlock placed his pocket magnifier over the image. ‘Right-handed, and with a divot in the side of the distal phalanges of his middle finger.’

‘What?’ John looked down at his hand, trying to work out what Sherlock meant. ‘What the hell would cause that?’

‘Most commonly, it’s someone who holds their pen in a non-standard manner. A loose grasp, with the pen resting on the knuckle rather than pinched between the fingertips. The physiological wear indicates a high level of handwriting.’ Sherlock shrugged. ‘It’s possible they are entrenched in an academic career, but anyone who has to fill in reports and doesn’t hold their pen properly will show similar indications. Lestrade’s got one just like it.’

‘Well, that’s not exactly going to help us pick him out from a crowd, but it might confirm we’ve got the right bloke. What else?’

‘You saw that place; it was filthy, but there’s no dust interrupting any of the prints. He was fastidious about keeping his hands clean. Breakdown of the oils in some places suggests an alcoholic cleanser, but he didn’t rub down the ceramic once he’d done with it. Probably hand sanitizer. Forensics could confirm.’

Sherlock stepped back, his body shifting as he took in the walls with the path of his gaze, examining the spread of evidence. ‘Consider the logistics. He needs access to both the Ritalin base and whatever he is using as a contaminant, be it Aristolochia or something else. He clearly has some knowledge of applied chemistry, not to mention pharmacology.’

‘Then there’s the dealers who are giving this stuff out. I mean, is it just that one we caught in the park, or are there more? If these people are targeted, they must be in on it,’ John pointed out. ‘They have to know who to give the tainted drugs, or they’d just be offing any poor sod that could pay for what they wanted.’

‘Yes, though the fact that all the victims are Alphas could be due to the pharmaceuticals themselves, rather than specific targeting. It’s possible that whatever is killing them has a different action in Betas. Something non-fatal, maybe even asymptomatic.’

‘So you’re saying Betas could be given the same stuff and not suffer any consequences?’

Sherlock waved a hand before digging his fingers into his hair, shaking his head as if he were in pain. ‘Conjecture,’ he hissed. ‘It’s all conjecture until I know what’s been used. What the bloody hell is taking Anderson so long? I should have done it myself.’ He swept his phone from the desk, the screen flooding his features with a blue glow as he texted a furious hurry-up message to Lestrade.

John set the notepad aside, getting to his feet. He ignored the pacing and muttering of his flatmate as he stood in front of the mantelpiece, taking it all in.

Sherlock’s frustration was understandable. The number of victims alone was boggling. There were homeless and students, professionals, male and female… The only thing that tied them to each other was their secondary gender and cause of death.

Slowly, his eyes drifted away from the array of chemical and pathological facts to the more straightforward, comprehensible data. So far, Sherlock had constructed a rough, linear timeline, but something basic caught John’s eye, and he drew in a breath as he turned it over in his mind.

‘Sherlock, can I move these around a bit?’

‘Why?’ John suspected if he were anyone else, the question would have been issued as a challenge, but Sherlock’s tone was intrigued and respectful. ‘What have you seen?’

‘I’m not sure, but – look at the dates. All right in some cases, particularly with the destitute victims, they’re estimates, but …’ He tapped the report nearest to him as Sherlock stopped at his side.

‘They’re dying in groups.’ Sherlock reached out, tweaking the paper free of the blu-tack holding it in place before doing the same to its neighbours, shuffling and reorganising. With a nudge of his foot, he shoved some books aside, clearing a space on the floor as he laid out the timeline.

‘The first four occur in isolation. All homeless, each about a month apart, but after that…’ Sherlock stacked others in piles, and John saw the pattern begin to emerge. There were one or two that broke the sequence, and sometimes the gaps between victims would stretch for months at a time, but there was definitely significance in the distribution of the fatalities.

Sherlock spun around, his hands pressed together like a man in prayer to his own genius as he paced the room. ‘It starts as a standard escalation. Whoever did this was being careful – trying to stay hidden. They killed people who had already fallen through the cracks.’

‘Then, when they started getting away with it, they moved onto this lot.’ John pointed to the first pile with his toe. ‘Three victims, all young London professionals.’

‘They’re the anchor points of our timeline. The certainties.’ Sherlock indicated the next sequence. ‘More homeless, followed again by a batch of identified victims.’ He hesitated at an empty space. ‘I doubt this is a break in their habits as much as it is people we’ve failed to find.’ He ran his hands through his hair, turning to face John and gesturing to the documents at their feet. ‘What does this look like to you?’

‘Insanity?’ John hazarded, shrugging his shoulders when Sherlock rolled his eyes. ‘Honestly? I don’t know. It’s one of the most bizarre killing sprees I’ve ever seen.’

‘It’s an experiment.’

A shiver darted down John’s spine at the vein of admiration in Sherlock’s voice, and he pursed his lips as he bit back a reproach.

‘Normally, a killer will escalate and continue to do so, revelling in the visceral nature of their crimes until they are stopped,’ Sherlock explained, oblivious to John’s fading frown. ‘With those who kill by physical trauma, there’s a marked increase in the damage to the victim, from a single wound, moving on to torture and mutilation. Poisoners – if they become serial killers at all and aren’t trying to off an inconvenient relative – will instead kill with greater frequency.’

‘Which this one did at the beginning,’ John interrupted, deciding to let Sherlock’s irreverent admiration slide.

‘Once they were sure they could get away with it. The rest of this, it’s formulaic. They’re testing a hypothesis.’ Sherlock’s eyes stared in the direction of the floor, but he was focussed on something else entirely. John had no doubt he was occupying the odd frontier between his mind palace and reality, one where he continued to absorb what was happening while racing through possibilities.

‘But what are they hoping for? A better poison? Why keep trying all this time if they’re getting what they want?’

‘And what’s that?’ Sherlock asked softly.

‘Dead people.’ John gestured around him, trying to understand why Sherlock had that look on his face – the one that meant he’d seen a new angle where all John saw was the blank wall of the obvious. ‘Isn’t it?’

Sherlock didn’t seem to hear him. He was too busy prowling along the line, his gaze scanning every page for one piece of data and moving on once he’d acquired it. It was a controlled search, and when he reached Donnelly’s file, he made a tight, surprised sound: realisation.

‘No. No, it’s not. The trend is less obvious because the information isn’t complete. Many of the times of death are hard to pinpoint with accuracy due to the high number of homeless individuals, some of whom were discovered days or weeks after their demise, but look at these.’ He handed over a number of pages: reliable autopsy and tox-reports from the victims found shortly after their deaths. A long finger hovered over the concentration of unprocessed Ritalin in the bloodstream.

‘It’s going down,’ John realised.

‘They’re living longer after taking the contaminated dose. Once someone dies, organ function ceases, preventing metabolism of the drug that killed them. You know that. The first victims died promptly, within ten minutes. Amelia Donnelly, on the other hand, lived at least an hour. Perhaps ninety minutes.’

Sherlock scooped up the pen and pad John had abandoned, kneeling on the floor and scribbling frantically. Reading over his shoulder, John watched the increments increase from an almost-instantly toxic chemical to a compound that killed with a delay.

He stepped back as Sherlock stood up, a frown on his face as he tried to understand. ‘So they’re, what, using some kind of process of trial and error? Modulating original dose or – or something?’

Sherlock’s inhale was a hiss of amazement, and John sucked in a breath as two warm palms framed his head, spinning him around in a half-turn as Sherlock spoke, exultant. ‘John, you’re brilliant! The victims are as non-variable as possible in such circumstances. It’s the drug that is evolving!’

‘Wh – what?’

‘It’s not intentional murder,’ Sherlock breathed, giving John a gentle shake. ‘It’s a clinical trial. Don’t you see? Whoever is behind this isn’t trying to kill these people. If they were, there are better ways to do it, and they wouldn’t change the drug so that it took longer for them to die after taking it. There’s too much risk involved. They’re testing for something else. Death’s not the desired result; it’s a side-effect!’

John’s breath caught, his mind racing as he tried to keep up. It was hard to string together a logical argument when they were standing this close, his hands still cupping John’s face. Sherlock filled his awareness from one horizon to another, occupying every sense with his presence, and John’s voice cracked as he spoke.

‘Are you – are you sure? That’s a theory and half, even for you.’

Sherlock shook his head, his tiredness melting away beneath the wash of his enthusiasm. ‘But it fits. The homeless are like model organisms – a callous analogy, but relevant – they share the same environment. Many levels of society consider them disposable. They were the first area of testing for each new refinement. Those killed in groups, those with homes and loved ones, they were the target. Alphas who didn’t have the exacerbating factors of homelessness to interfere with the chemical’s intended effects, whatever they may be. It’s a clumsy approach, but functional.’

John blinked, trying to get one breath that was clear of Sherlock’s scent so he could think, but it was impossible. That strange, silken nothingness filled his sinuses, making his body hum in recognition. His parched mouth felt useless as heat swelled in his veins. They were too close, but when he reached up to gently pull Sherlock’s hands away, his fingers circled his wrists instead, clinging, and his balance tipped forward, rather than back.

Their brows pressed together, Sherlock’s forehead warm against John’s skin. His eyes were closed, and his body eased by the euphoria of a potential breakthrough. It seemed so natural for Sherlock to be like this, half-propping himself up on John’s lesser height, and John tried not to shiver beneath the strain of his stark desire.

‘This changes everything.’

Sherlock’s eyes opened, and John’s body jolted with awareness. The connection shook all his chaos into alignment, pulling on his skin like a magnet. The air seemed to crackle, barbed and electric as the hairs on John’s arms shivered upright beneath his jumper.

Like a man leaning over the edge of a precipice, he could feel the dense pull of longing dragging at him. Everything else faded away: the flat, the city beyond the windows and even the pressure of the bloody case. There was only Sherlock, in his element and all the more beguiling for it.

In the blink of an eye, John realised that crystalline focus had shifted, snapping away from the mystery as the sprawling boundaries of his intellect shrank to the confines of Baker Street. No longer was it the murders that occupied Sherlock’s attention; it was John.

Shared, sultry breaths mingled, emphasising their proximity, and he looked as hypnotised as John felt, his pupils pooling like ink across the silver of his iris. The pattern of his breathing changed, hitching yet deep. Sherlock’s teeth bit his own lip, tiny dents of pressure before his tongue darted out to take their place, there one second and gone the next.

John smothered a groan. He could almost taste him, and his mouth watered at the prospect as he tried to remember all the reasons he shouldn’t stretch up and claim a kiss. Yet they were like vapour, irrelevant as the cotton of Sherlock’s shirt whispered promises against John’s jumper.

Time spun out: a golden thread of one, eternal moment. A single step, towards or away, was all that was required to break it. However, neither of them seemed able to make that choice.

At last, Sherlock’s fingers shifted, rasping over John’s jaw before tracing the line of his mouth as if fascinated. It was a beautiful drift of sensation, and John pulled in a deep breath through his nose as he tried not to tremble beneath Sherlock’s mesmerised touch.

‘We shouldn’t.’ The whisper drifted between them, quiet and hopeless, and John gave a rueful smile. Somehow, that knowledge only made it more tempting. A reckless part of him longed to shake up the status quo and see where the pieces fell, but this wasn’t just about him.

‘No,’ he agreed, his voice low and soft, ‘but I want to.’

He watched the shadows flicker in Sherlock’s eyes. They were too close to take in each other’s expressions, but John didn’t need to. He could see a reflection of his own tumultuous emotions in Sherlock’s gaze. There was too much: hope and doubt, fear and desire all coiled together, tangling them in indecision.

At last, it was Sherlock who had the presence of mind to take a step back, his eyes dark and his cheeks flushed. It was only half-a-pace, and John’s body swayed as if in orbit, dizzy with the need to draw him close once more. The temptation to chase what he wanted was a metallic taste in his mouth, and it took all of his strength not to give in and press himself to Sherlock’s body.

'I’m sorry.'

John blinked in surprise at the husked apology. A moment later, he noticed that Sherlock’s tension wasn’t entirely down to arousal. His muscles were braced as if he was prepared to leap out of the way of an attack, and fury twisted in John's stomach at the man who had made Sherlock believe a declination of intimacy would end in punishment.

'You don't need to apologise,' he said, careful not to let his anger at Alexander or his frustration bleed into his voice. 'You're right. It's – now's not a good time to...' He trailed off, flicking a hand back and forth between them.

'I wish it was,' Sherlock admitted, and there was such quiet ferocity in his voice that John couldn't fail to believe him. He made no effort to hide his yearning. In this, like so many other things, Sherlock was brutally honest. 'If things were different...'

'I know.' John ducked his head, rubbing a hand over his face as he struggled to banish the serrated heat that still pressed against his skin from the inside: fierce, demanding and only appeased by Sherlock's company. 'I know.' He ignored the plaintive voice in his head that told him there would never be the perfect moment. He did not want to concede the possibility that Sherlock might linger with him, at his side but always just out of reach.

A hesitant hand on his elbow made him look up, and he cocked his head as he tried to parse Sherlock's expression. His brow was pleated, and his lips twisted in a tight, uncertain line before he forced himself to speak. 'After we solve the case, if – if you still want to...' He trailed off, clearing his throat. 'We can talk about it. We need to talk about it.’ He stared around Baker Street as if he’d never seen it before, lost and vulnerable, before he met John’s eye. ‘We can't carry on like this.'

Hope popped in John's chest, sharp like broken glass, and he bit his lip as he turned Sherlock's words over in his mind. He understood what wasn't being said; whatever their future held, they could not fall into it blindly. Sherlock was too rational to leave his life, or John's, to the vagaries of sentiment. Instead, this was what he put forward: the chance to make the choice together, eyes open and aware.

A shuddering breath escaped John’s lips, and he nodded, feeling the weight of Sherlock’s gaze as he drank in the sight of him. 'Okay. That’s – yeah.' His heart thrilled in his chest, pattering against his ribs as he considered the possibilities. Maybe other people would resent the Work taking priority over something of such personal significance, but all John felt was the electric glide of Sherlock’s promise.

It was more than he’d dared hope for.

By mutual agreement, they shifted apart, not removing themselves from one another’s influence, but providing much-needed distance all the same. It felt surreal, shifting from the enchanting buzz of Sherlock's nearness, so intense that he could barely breathe, to this – the two of them as they had always been, a Consulting Detective and his blogger.

It was not a separation – the isolation of personal and professional – but a blend that allowed them to transition smoothly. Some awkwardness lingered, outlined in the way Sherlock paced, only to change direction as if his thoughts were going too fast for his body to keep up, but for the first time in what felt like weeks there was also a sense of peace: a decision made.

‘So what now?’ he asked, watching Sherlock press his lips together in thought.

'We need to get to the Yard,' he replied, tugging at various documents and collecting them into piles. ‘The sooner Lestrade sees this, the sooner he can focus his search. They’re getting nowhere as they are.’

‘You’ve got to make him believe it, first,’ John pointed out, grabbing his coat and shrugging into it before taking the stack of files from Sherlock and following him down the stairs. ‘It does seem a bit…’

‘Unusual?’

‘I was going to say “fucked up” actually.’ John waited as Sherlock flagged down a taxi. The sable car slowed to a halt, and he climbed into the back, sliding along to make space. Sherlock settled beside him, and the driver set of towards New Scotland Yard.

John put the paperwork in his lap, his hands curling around the front edge of the seat as he watched the scenery pass. Sherlock would not doubt be examining his theories, working out the best method to convince Lestrade of the possibilities. It was the kind of silence John enjoyed, busy and purposeful, but he couldn’t help a spark of sadness that what had passed between them in the living room had already been put aside, consigned to the cellars of the mind palace as the Work took priority.

Except this time, it seemed he’d underestimated Sherlock. A soft nudge against the side of John’s right hand made him look down. With anyone else, he would assume it was an accident, but he knew Sherlock had placed his own hand deliberately close, creating a single seam of contact. He didn’t try to grasp John’s fingers. Instead, it was a subtle co-occupation of space – one that said more than a hundred stumbling sentences.

John unwrapped his grip from the edge of the taxi’s seat, skimming his palm back so that he could slip his little finger below Sherlock’s. It seemed ridiculously innocent after the heat they’d shared less than fifteen minutes ago – a glimmer in comparison to the incandescence of that moment where everything hung in the balance – but John could read its meaning.

Sherlock wasn’t as absorbed in the case as he seemed. There was room, still, in that massive mind of his, for thoughts of John.

They remained as they were, silent but connected, and John allowed himself to relish the fragility of their solitude until the edifice of the Yard came into view. Silver letters gleamed in the late-morning light, and John wrinkled his nose at the smokers loitering outside the door, dragging down cigarette fumes as if their lives depended of it. Greg was among them, gulping coffee and staring longingly at those around him. Clearly it was the kind of day where he regretted his efforts to quit.

His shoulders slumped as Sherlock stepped out of the taxi, and he was already shaking his head as John paid the driver. ‘It’s been less than hour since your text, Sherlock,’ he complained. ‘We’re not going to go any faster with you breathing down our necks.’

‘How about if I tell you what to search for?’ Sherlock raised an eyebrow as Greg looked askance at John before beckoning them inside, leading the way through drab, institutional corridors to one of the incident rooms.

‘You’re already on our backs about whatever’s in those vials. You’re not Anderson’s favourite person right now. Not that you ever were, but –’ The DI shrugged, setting down his cup and collapsing into a nearby chair, folding his arms as he waited for Sherlock to start talking. 'Go on, then. What have you got?'

'I suspect you're looking for someone involved in the medical field, either as primary or auxiliary staff, though the former is more likely. Not only do they have adequate knowledge of how to create pharmaceuticals, but they have ready access to uncut Ritalin, more so than the average person could buy on the street. They'll be stealing it from their place of work.'

'So, someone’s poisoning addicts?' Greg asked, glancing up as John pulled a face and sat down nearby.

'Sherlock doesn't think so.'

'What?'

'Extinction is not the desired outcome of the contaminant,' Sherlock explained, already spreading out the autopsy reports. 'If it was, then we wouldn’t see this widening gap between the victim taking the drug and the cessation of their lives. The culprit’s modulating the dose in an effort to gain some unknown effect.' He waved his hand at the paperwork in front of him: documentary epitaphs. 'These aren't just victims. They're guinea pigs.'

Greg blinked, his lips parted and his face slack as he absorbed what Sherlock was saying. Despite his frequent cooperation, the DI was not a man prone to blind acceptance. 'I, really? It's a bit of a stretch, don't you think?'

'No.' Sherlock lifted his chin, rolling his eyes as he explained, 'If the gap between initial consumption and time of death were more random, it could be ascribed to factors existing within the victim: conflating medical conditions or poor environmental circumstances. There is some evidence of that among the homeless victims, but it's limited.’

He indicated the same neat stacks he’d shown John, his finger creasing the page as he jabbed it in emphasis. ‘The identified Alphas died in pairs or threes, and they demonstrate the same period of time between the initial dose and their demise – one that extends with each new group.’ Silver eyes narrowed, and Sherlock’s voice softened as he followed the trail of his theory. ‘Whoever's doing this is testing different combinations. They have some idea of what's causing the problem, but they can't remove it from their contaminant because it's a key ingredient towards their desired effect.'

As Lestrade continued to look doubtful, Sherlock bowed his head, waving a dismissive hand. 'If you won't believe me, then believe the evidence. Once we know what's in those vials – assuming the substance survives Anderson's ineptitude – the case should begin to unravel.’

‘Anything else?’ the DI asked.

Sherlock’s slender shoulders jerked in a shrug. ‘The person involved is also using some kind of alcohol rub on their hands. It's probably generic, but there could be something more telling in its composition.'

'That’s it?' Greg demanded. 'You can't base an entire case on bloody hand-gel!'

'I've solved others on less,' Sherlock retorted.

'We've got no suspects, no C.O.D., just bodies!' Lestrade bent forward, propping his elbows on his knees and cupping his forehead in his hands. 'Then there's you with some insane theory. Granted, most of the time, you're right, but this one's harder than most to swallow.'

'Then prove me wrong.' Sherlock challenged. 'If I am, it should be obvious as soon as your team process the evidence. It's hardly my fault they're so useless.'

With a glare, Greg pulled out his mobile phone, punching at the screen with his thumb. 'Anderson, get to room 102 will you? I need you to explain to Holmes why you've not got anything from those vials.'

John could hear the vitriol of the response from where he sat – an angry, tinny whine – and he smothered a smile, meeting Sherlock's eye as Lestrade hung up the call.

'What?' Greg demanded when he saw Sherlock’s scowl. 'If I told you, you wouldn't believe me. Normally, you're up to your elbows in the lab work anyway, and to be honest the fact you’re so hands-off on this case is giving me the creeps.'

‘I thought you’d be grateful,’ Sherlock murmured. ‘You’re always going on about procedure.’

‘Well it’s the first time you’ve ever bloody listened!’ Lestrade’s expression fell into lines of exhaustion and disbelief. ‘Pass those here, will you?’ he asked, indicating the reports. ‘Let me see what’s happening for myself.’

By the time Anderson arrived, his hands full of documents and his lips set into a thin line, Lestrade had finished his coffee and was poring over the paperwork. John stood at his elbow, desperately searching for the simplest explanation and coming up empty-handed.

'I've not found "nothing"!' Anderson’s opening gambit was brimming with indignation, and John saw him glare at the DI before turning to Sherlock. ‘Every analysis we’ve run on the solution in those vials has come back the same. Whatever it is, it's not in the database.'

He thrust a report in Sherlock's direction, his shoulders bristling as if waiting for a snide response. When none came he deflated, still wary and distrustful, but apparently appeased by Sherlock’s absorbed silence.

'You tested them all?'

'Of course,' Anderson muttered. 'Concentrations of different chemicals vary, but they all form approximately the same compound,' He shrugged. ‘It’s just that no-one knows what it is.’

'A new drug?' John suggested. 'That's pretty amazing for back-room pharmacology, isn't it?'

'I doubt it was deliberate,' Sherlock mused, propping his hip on the corner of the desk and flicking back and forth between pages as he skimmed the text. 'Anderson, I need a sample of what’s in those vials. I'll take it to Bart's and see if I can't make some sense of it.'

A confused noise pulsed in Anderson's throat, and he folded his arms. 'What makes you think you'll find anything we won't?'

Sherlock raised a single eyebrow in mute, disdainful response. Anderson’s answering sneer brimmed with animosity, but Sherlock waved it aside as he changed the subject. 'The handprints on the equipment have been degraded by alcohol, and the obscuration of the skin texture suggests long term use. Investigate the trace left on the ceramics. We might get something probative.'

Anderson gaped, spreading his hands in disbelief as he turned to Greg. ‘I don’t take orders from him!’

‘You don’t normally take orders at all,’ the DI pointed out, his shoulders slumping. ‘Please? Just get it done. The sooner we put this damn case to bed the better.’

Anderson snarled, snatching the report from Sherlock’s grip as he stomped away, his back tight and his arms swinging in the chaotic march of the irate.

John watched him go, surprised at Sherlock’s restraint. 'You managed to go a whole five minutes without calling him an idiot,' he said, grinning as the corners of Sherlock's mouth twitched. 'Who knew you could resist the temptation?'

'I only insult his intelligence when he fails to put it to use. It's not my fault he wanders through life not using his brain.' Sherlock pressed his fingers together, his eyes unfocussed as he continued to speak. 'Besides, I wouldn't expect Anderson to pick up on the markers of the chemical he was examining, not even with his experience and the tools at his disposal. No-one in the scientific community has seen fit to document the sources.'

'Aristolochia?' John guessed, watching Sherlock tilt his head in a vaguely positive gesture.

'Among other things. If I were to guess, it's some kind of herbal cocktail: hormonal analogues known to Omegas, but overlooked by modern drug manufacturers.’

Greg made a puzzled sound, looking between them as he awaited an explanation. 'Is this about that leaf you found in Donnelly's hair?'

Sherlock sighed, glancing at John before straightening up. 'Many Omegas covertly modulate their fertility through the use of a number of botanical chemicals. Aristolochia is one of them, and was what caught my attention about this case in the first place. I need some time in the lab before I can confirm the components in the solution and their proportions. Then I should be able to gain some idea of any potential toxicity of the combination. '

Greg pressed his lips together, and John could see the shift of his mood from professional interest to personal concern. 'So would any Omega know from looking at that?' he asked, indicating the spectrograph.

'Unlikely,' Sherlock replied, his voice distant. 'Most recipes were discovered by trial and error centuries ago and are handed down within the community, often from parent to child. A little like heirlooms.' There was a dark edge to Sherlock's smile. 'Most won't consider the chemistry behind it.'

'But you did.' Lestrade's expression wasn't pitying, but there was sympathy there, and John knew he was extrapolating the likely source of Sherlock’s knowledge.

'I perfected chemicals for my – personal use,' Sherlock replied, choosing his words with care, 'and I had the tools at my disposal to perform a rudimentary exploration of the relevant ingredients. If I thought Anderson could find the answer, I would allow him to do so, but it requires knowledge which he does not have, and for obvious reasons, I cannot share.'

Greg looked like there were a hundred questions lined up behind his lips, and John would bet they had nothing to do with the case. He watched as, with some effort, the DI choked them back, instead nodding his head. 'Take what you need. I'll give Anderson the hurry-up. If you're right about all this, then –' He gestured to the paperwork strewn around, shaking his head incredulously. 'It’s unbelievable.'

'It won't be quick,' Sherlock pointed out. 'A couple of days at least.'

'Then you'd better get started.'

With a nod, he spun away, leaving John to bid Greg a quick farewell as he hurried to keep up. Anderson surrendered the required sample with a scowl, but to John it didn't seem as deep or ferocious as usual, and his mumbled "good luck” appeared genuine enough.

By the time they got to Bart's, lunch-time had been and gone. The hours stretched out in front of them, and John doubted Sherlock would stop until he had the answers they so desperately sought.

'Anything I can do to help?' he asked, girding himself for the inevitable rejection. It was rare that he assisted Sherlock with a chemical analysis, though he could mix solutions and knew plenty of theory. His role always lay in acting as a boundary between Sherlock and the rest of the world, allowing him to maintain his concentration in all but the direst of circumstances.

It was a burden John didn't regret, but there were times when it was an exercise in frustration. Sherlock's ignorance of his surroundings extended to the cries of his own body, and he was already running on too little sleep. He didn't dare question Sherlock's stamina, but as he shook his head in response, John resolved to keep an eye on him. Just in case.

The hands of the clock swept around its face, travelling beyond sunset and into the depths of the evening as Sherlock worked. Molly started the night shift – a blessing, since John doubted Sherlock would leave for anyone – and she shot John a pitying smile as she handed him some coffee. 'You look like you need it,' she explained. 'More than Sherlock, anyway.'

'Yeah, God knows what keeps him going.' John sipped the brew, aware of Molly's thoughtful expression. 'What?'

'There are a couple of chairs in my office, cushioned, but without any arms. It's not a bad place for a nap.'

John almost declined, but the heavy drag of sleep was drawing cobwebs across his vision, and it wasn't like he was doing Sherlock any favours by staying awake. 'I should just go back to Baker Street.'

'But you won't.' Molly smiled at John's huff of laughter. 'Go on. He won’t even notice you’re gone.' She gestured to the open door of her little sanctuary, and John set his empty mug aside as he surrendered.

‘Wake me up if he needs anything?’ he asked.

‘I will. Sleep well.’

The two chairs were not the most comfortable of surfaces, short even by John’s standards, but he was too tired to care. His shattered sleep the previous night was catching up with him, and his eyelids felt like sandpaper. He curled up under his coat, ignoring the light seeping through the window in the door as he allowed a doze to claim him.

If Molly crept in to use her office at any point, John remained oblivious. The next thing he knew after closing his eyes was that someone was shaking him awake, shoving a polystyrene cup under his nose and passing him a bundle that smelled of bacon. His grateful noise of surprise got a laugh from Greg, and as John shuffled up, he sank into the seat at his side. ‘Should have known Sherlock would keep you here all night.’

‘Not his fault,’ John said around a mouthful of butty. He probably shouldn’t be eating it only a few paces from a lab containing God knew what, but he was too hungry to care. ‘I didn’t want to leave him here on his own.’

Greg grunted, tapping a file against his palm before gesturing to the clock. ‘Looks like you didn’t sleep badly, though. All that army training, I suppose.’

John blinked at the timepiece, which proclaimed it was encroaching on ten in the morning. He must have been more knackered than he thought, and he struggled to factor in the missing hours. ‘Is Sherlock still at it?’

‘Of course he is. He only stopped for a minute when I came in. Told me to get you that.’ Lestrade gestured to the impromptu meal John was devouring. ‘Didn’t even ask why I was here.’

John made an interested noise, licking ketchup off his finger before pitching the wrapper into the bin and taking a gulp of coffee. It was luke-warm, but it hit the spot. ‘Had a breakthrough?’

‘I wouldn’t quite put it that way,’ Greg muttered. ‘Come on, we’d better share it with his nibs.’

John followed him into the lab, restraining a sigh when he saw Sherlock where he’d left him, surrounded by scribbled notes as the computer whirred at his side. There were sketches of chemical structure and things written in a code that John couldn’t begin to comprehend. It didn’t look like progress, but Sherlock appeared engrossed.

‘What’s that?’ he asked as Greg approached, glancing up to squint at the file. John got a good look at his face and couldn’t suppress his wince. Yesterday’s shadows had darkened dramatically, and the dusk of stubble on Sherlock’s jaw was stark against his skin, which seemed even more pale than usual.

‘You all right?’ he asked, not missing the way Sherlock’s hand trembled around the pen.

‘Adequate,’ he responded dismissively, ignoring the dubious glance John and Greg shared. ‘Well, are you just going to stand there?’

‘Hand sanitizer,’ Lestrade said at last. ‘Took a bit of digging, but it turns out this stuff is a bit special. Made specifically for those with a sensitivity to the normal ingredients. It’s only available through requisition by a medical establishment, and the only two places to get any in the past year are the Wellington and the Avery institute.’

Sherlock paused, narrowing his eyes at Greg as John frowned.

‘Isn’t that where Kirkpatrick worked? The one who killed Annaliese Ducart on his operating table?’

Sherlock hummed in agreement, a gleam igniting his tired eyes. ‘I believe he remains in police custody.’

‘You think he could be behind all this?’ Greg asked, whistling in disbelief. ‘I mean, killing an Omega is bad enough, but if we can add all this to his charges…’

‘I hate to break it to you, Lestrade, but Kirkpatrick wouldn’t be my first suspect. Dubious on motive, if nothing else. He was making money and helping Miss Ducart for personal reasons. Question him; he might confess, but I suspect it’s someone else associated with his chop-shop surgical team. Someone less prominent. A student, perhaps.’

‘What makes you say that?’

Sherlock’s breath escaped him in a sigh. ‘Students move more easily in the underbelly of society and are likely to be able to gather the correct connections to make this scheme work. It’s an educated guess, rather than a deduction, but Kirkpatrick will tell you more, given the correct incentive.’

Lestrade was about to reply when Sergeant Donovan pushed her way through the door. The rubber seals squeaked on the linoleum, and her heels clicked on the floor as she marched towards them. She didn’t wait to reach Greg’s side before speaking up, her strong tones loud in the peace of the lab. ‘We’ve had another body show up, not far from here. I thought you’d want the freak to take a look.’

‘Homeless?’ Sherlock asked, ignoring Sally’s insult.

‘Doesn’t seem like it. Been dead a couple of hours. It looks like he just sat on some steps and fell asleep. No signs of violence, but no wallet either. Someone could have nicked it.’

‘Any ID?’ Greg asked as Sherlock got to his feet, reaching for his coat.

‘None yet. We’re working on it. Are you coming?’ She directed that at Sherlock, who cast a deadened glare in her direction.

‘Obviously. I can spare half-an-hour, then I need to get back to this.’ He gestured to the chaos across the lab bench. ‘Molly, don’t let anyone touch anything.’

‘I’m going home in twenty minutes,’ she replied. ‘I can’t make any promises.’

Sherlock muttered something irritable under his breath before collecting his work together and handing it to Greg. ‘That’s what I’ve got so far. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Whoever’s doing this is using chemicals which influence hormonal levels. It’s a cocktail. I’ve identified two components, but I suspect there are another five or six, and they’re less obvious than those I’ve already found.’

‘Well, it’s more than anyone else has managed.’ He reached out a hand as Sherlock wobbled where he stood, and John stepped forward, ready to offer his support. ‘You need to get some food in you,’ Greg said. ‘You look fit to drop.’

‘Are you sure you’re okay?’

‘I’m fine.’ Sherlock tugged himself away from the DI’s grip, pulling up his collar and folding the Belstaff around himself. ‘Where exactly is the corpse?’

John fell in at Sherlock’s heels, absently noticing the stiffness of his movements. Of course, it could be from hours of sitting at the lab bench, the same as his instability could be down to hunger. Sherlock was the master of deprivation, but he’d gone longer without food and sleep with no ill-effects, and unease trickled down John’s spine. It was no good trying to make Sherlock go home. All John could do was hover on the side-lines and wait for the moment when his intervention became a necessity.

‘Where are we going?’ he asked, realising he hadn’t heard a word of Sally’s response. He smiled apologetically as Greg cast him a knowing look.

‘Brooker Street.’

‘That’s only a couple of minutes’ walk away.’

‘At least it’s convenient for the morgue,’ Sherlock replied as they made their way through the hospital and stepped outside.

The second they emerged, Sherlock’s phone buzzed, receiving a flurry of text messages. No doubt the dodgy reception in Bart’s meant they’d failed to get through. He retrieved the device with a frown, pulling a face which could only mean Mycroft was responsible.

‘Aren’t you going to read them?’ John asked, huddling against the wind that pushed at his back as Sherlock replaced his phone.

‘He’d have called you if it was important.’

‘I’m not your PA,’ John replied disapprovingly. ‘Besides, I turned mine off last night when I was sleeping in Molly’s office.’ He sighed when Sherlock shrugged, digging out his mobile and switching it on. A second later, it started to ring, Mycroft’s name as clear as day on the screen. He ignored Sherlock’s sound of disgust, his stomach swooping uncomfortably as he answered it.

‘Hello?’

‘John.’ Mycroft’s voice was terse, a thin veneer of annoyance running over something that sounded a lot like fear. ‘Is Sherlock with you?’

‘Yeah, yeah he’s here.’ He licked his lips, already suspecting the reason Mycroft seemed rigid with anxiety. ‘I take it Alexander’s back in town?’

‘He arrived late yesterday afternoon. Initially, it was apparent he was here on unrelated business, so I monitored him, but did not intervene. Unfortunately, I cannot keep him out of the city altogether.’ The tone of Mycroft’s voice suggested that was a state of affairs he planned to rectify in the near future. ‘He gave my team the slip three-and-a-half hours ago. I was endeavouring to reach my brother to warn him.’

John’s chest tightened, and his voice gritted between his teeth. ‘And you didn’t think you should come and tell him yourself?’ he demanded. ‘You lost track of him ages ago, and –’

‘And, regrettably, I was not informed of that fact until forty minutes ago,’ Mycroft cut in, sounding quietly furious. ‘I’m already on my way to St Bart’s as it is.’

‘The lab has phones,’ John pointed out. ‘You could have called him on one.’

‘I don’t trust the security of the lines,’ Mycroft replied, his voice edged in such a way that made John wonder if it was paranoia, or informed concern. ‘As long as Sherlock remains in the labs, he’s safe, but I needed to ensure the two of you were together.’

‘We’re with the police, on our way to a crime scene,’ John explained, seeing one of the cameras nearby swivel. ‘What should we do?’ His first instinct was to drag Sherlock back to Baker Street, where at least they had a surveillance perimeter of sorts, but he doubted his efforts would meet with cooperation. ‘We’re in the middle of a case, and I don’t think Sherlock will let it go. Especially not because of – ’

Abruptly, Sherlock lurched to a halt, his expression stricken as a hoarse, choking noise caught in his throat. Immediately, John tensed, adrenaline surging through him as he tried to understand what could have caused such a reaction.

‘Mycroft, I’ll call you back.’ He hung up, reaching Sherlock’s right-hand side in a couple of strides, his hand already stretched out to steady him. Greg was on his left, wide-eyed with concern, and even Sally looked more worried than snide.

‘What’s his problem?’ she demanded, folding her arms as John ignored her. He was too busy concentrating on Sherlock. No longer was he merely white. His skin had faded to the colour of bone: bloodless. A fine sheen of sweat glossed his temples, and his eyes were squeezed shut as he pressed his hand to his nose, his entire body locked in repulsed paralysis.

Belatedly, John realised the wind had changed direction, no longer at their backs, but blowing in from ahead. He couldn’t pick up anything beyond London’s standard miasma on the breeze, but clearly Sherlock smelled something.

‘Just – just go without us,’ Lestrade urged his sergeant, pointing to the end of the street. ‘We’ll catch up.’

She looked like she wanted to argue, torn between annoyance and genuine worry, but after a silent battle of wills with her DI, she did as she was asked. Her footsteps echoed along the quiet street, slowly fading out of earshot, and John checked around for passers-by.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Greg asked. He swore as Sherlock’s knees threatened to give way, grabbing his arm and bracing his weight as John guided them back to someone’s front steps.

The moment he sat down, Sherlock doubled over, curling up with his head on his knees. John hunkered down in front of him, spreading his shoulders as if he could block out the rest of the world. He could hear Sherlock’s breathing: quick, shallow and panicked. He still had his nose pinched shut, and air whistled between his barely-parted lips in the meagre space he’d left for himself.

Un-nameable emotion oozed through John’s frame, and he reached out, curving his fingers around Sherlock’s shoulder. He spoke softly, smoothing the jagged edges of his consonants as he tried to confirm his fears.

‘Is this what I think it is?’

Sherlock made a noise, nothing as complex as words, but a low keening deep in his throat, thrumming with stress and pain. The hand not blocking his nose reached out blindly, clutching the sleeve of John’s jacket, his knuckles knotted and his arms shaking.

He managed to lift his head, and one look was all the confirmation John needed. That acute gaze was blank, blindsided and stunned. “Shocked” didn’t cover it.

John cursed, clinging to Sherlock with one hand while he groped in his pocket for his phone with the other, dialling Mycroft’s number as he answered Greg’s question.

‘I think I know the identity of the corpse.’

The DI may be many things, but he wasn’t stupid. His face paled, and he blew out a shuddering breath as John finally gave voice to his suspicion.

‘It’s Sherlock’s Alpha.’

Chapter Text

If he were in his right mind, Sherlock knew his reaction would repulse him. It was the epitome of weak, riddled with the indignity of nausea’s burn and the shame of an intellect reduced to ashes. The instant the rancid scent of fresh decay reached his nose, rationality and instinct cleaved in two. One stark realisation, and his world broke into pieces at his feet.

Alexander was dead.

Muscles locked in denial, cramping his joints and turning the cradle of his ribs into a cage. He was still breathing – his lungs swelled with each ragged snatch of air – but the kiss of oxygen failed to sustain him. His blood surged, glutinous with panic, and not even the fragrance of his leather glove, crammed as tight to his nose as possible, could block out the stench.

Someone grabbed his elbow, reliable and firm, but he couldn’t comprehend anything around the keening alarm that ricocheted through his head. Dimly, he realised Donovan was watching him. She stood a few paces away, her head cocked and her face contorted in confusion.

Sherlock screwed up his eyes, blocking out the sight of her fear. No doubt she thought he’d lost his mind. Perhaps she was right. Was that what this was? This blank, deranged horror that sank through his skin and pooled in his bones like poison, turning him to stone from the inside out? How was it possible that he could still see, and yet he felt so blind? All his deductions had fled, birds taking flight far beyond his reach, and the foundations of his logic crumbled like wet sand.

His ears rang as his knees gave out. The hand at his elbow tightened, and another rested on his shoulder: an unexpected anchor. Lestrade’s voice brought with it a flicker of focus. It was a lifeline in a stormy sea – a flash of silver in dark water – but Sherlock had neither the sense nor ability to grip it. By the time he was aware of it, the words had fallen silent, carried away on the dim percussion of Donovan’s receding footsteps.

Hands guided him, urging his useless legs to bend as they pressed him down onto something cold but solid. It was a stable point in a reality which had begun to pitch and spin, threatening to slip sideways from beneath his feet and leave him tumbling into an abyss.

Immediately, he hunched over, his body making itself less of a target as he tried to ground himself, shying away from the endless blankness that threatened to flood him to the core.

He had imagined this scenario, but never had such intensity factored in to his extrapolations. Foolishly, he had expected some brief melancholy: unavoidable, chemically-induced regret. He had believed those Omegas who buckled beneath the strain, pining for people they’d once proclaimed to hate, were weak-willed – the products of a society that sought to keep them in their place.

For the first time, a glimmer of understanding was within his reach. This was not the bright agony of heartbreak. It was an insidious chill, as if something were digging out his insides and leaving him with a black hole at his core around which he would collapse. It dragged at him with frigid hands, folding him inwards: a crumpled origami man.

Someone touched his shoulder, their palm cupped with care as if they were afraid to shatter him. The warmth of their skin didn’t penetrate his coat: it was pressure, nothing more, and Sherlock tried to understand how all the heat could have vanished so abruptly from his existence.

‘Is this what I think it is?’

John’s voice. Sherlock would know it anywhere. Usually, it brought with it a host of emotions, but today there was nothing. A few hours ago, he’d stood in the living room, mesmerised by the shape of John’s mouth and the temptation of a kiss between them. Now, the memory seemed like a hallucination – something born of a dream.

He reached out, his fingers twisting in the fabric of John’s sleeve. A noise escaped his throat, rough-edged and deep. Words were beyond him, their precision eroded by the encroaching darkness that enfolded him from every side. All he could do was whine – an inarticulate plea for help – for John to make this stop because Sherlock was losing himself by increments. How long did he have before there was nothing left?

God, this couldn’t be happening. It was a nightmare; it had to be. He refused to believe that this moment was real – that he could be brought so low by so little: a man whom he had grown to loathe. Even Alexander, for all his faults, wouldn’t be so stupid as to die.

Lifting his head, he peeled his eyes open, desperate to find an alternative explanation in John’s face. He was right there, squatting in front of him. He looked solid and irrefutable, undeniably real amidst this ridiculous illusion, and a shiver whipped down Sherlock’s spine. He could focus on so little, his concentration scattered to the four corners and torn to pieces by the ravaging ice that settled in his veins. For John, however, he made the effort, reading the story written in the worried lines of his face.

There was plenty to see: a furrowed brow, pale cheeks, blue eyes turned glaucous with concern. Those thin lips pinched tight, bleached by the pressure of John’s jaw, and it drove home the truth of what was happening. John wouldn’t lie to him. John wouldn’t let him suffer, yet there he was, his suspicions crystallising into certainty with every second he met Sherlock’s gaze.

John’s curse coloured the air, but Sherlock barely heard it as he drew back into himself, pulling away from the input of his transport. He was aware of it, but much like the day Alexander had shown up at Baker Street, it became an irrelevant fact of his existence. He had a body, and it was his, but he could not bring himself to understand its distress. It was his connection to a life in which the events were… impossible.

So he sank into the frost that took root within him, letting it desensitise any semblance of emotion that tried to enslave him. His outline bled away, spread thin until there was no definition. Logically, he knew he was still there, still solid: a construct of blood and bone and flesh, but it was an abstract concept, and one he did his best to ignore.

There were noises, people talking, but they may as well have been speaking a foreign language. It was a garbled mess of sound, and Sherlock ignored it as he drew his legs up to his chest. The Belstaff hung from his shoulders, following the contours of his body like a shroud, and he stared at the black wool, losing himself to the glassy film of denial that thickened across the surface of his mind’s eye.

He stayed as he was, still and small, the better to avoid attention. However, he was aware that to those who mattered it seemed to have the opposite effect. Neither John nor Lestrade left his side, yet nor did they know how to approach him. No one tried to peel back the shell he built around himself. Instead, they stood like sentries, shielding him from the world with the curve of their shoulders. Their bodies swayed, restless, probably driven by the urge to get Sherlock away from the source of his misery but unable to do so: waiting for something.

A number of minutes later, the squeal of tyres interrupted the silence. A black vehicle slid to an inelegant halt at the kerb. Sherlock was too far gone to give any thought to the significance, even when Mycroft surged from the back, his umbrella absent and his jacket creased as if he had flung himself into the car without care for his attire.

Those few observations should mean something, but they slipped through Sherlock’s awareness, and he turned his gaze away. The clean slate of London’s cracked pavement was preferable to the ugly surge of emotion that splashed like paint over Mycroft’s face: pity, sadness and regret.

More words burbled around him, and Sherlock wondered if he should try and discern their importance. However, that would require him to step forward again – to acknowledge what was happening – and a welt of repulsion oozed across his mind at the notion.

‘Sherlock, look at me.’

He obeyed. In retrospect, his acceptance of Mycroft’s command probably underscored the severity of his behaviour to those who witnessed it. He saw Lestrade’s features crumple in concern, and John folded his arms around himself. Both of them looked worn by helplessness, ashen and anxious, but it was nothing in comparison to Mycroft’s expression.

Grief.

It aged him by a decade or more, carving brackets around his lips and curving his spine as he crouched down. Those muddy blue eyes searched Sherlock’s face, and he returned the scrutiny impassively, disengaged. Waiting.

He knew this was not his normal response. He disobeyed Mycroft out of spite, determined to keep his older sibling entangled in their petty war of attrition, but he didn’t have the energy to feed their conflict. He felt small again, young, turning to the person who, once, before he’d known what Sherlock was, would have moved heaven and earth to right any wrong against him.

Mycroft’s mind was hard at work. For all the sentiment staining his face, he could still think. He was not lost amidst a fog of disbelief, unable to make sense of the abrupt turn in the path of Sherlock’s life. Sherlock almost envied him that clarity, but even that emotion hovered beyond his reach.

His brother took a breath, the air halting in his chest as he appeared to search for the right words. ‘Do you need to see the body?’

Lestrade made a rough sound of protest: the automatic response of a normal person to what many might view as an improperly direct query. John, Sherlock realised, didn’t say a word. He understood how Sherlock worked better than the DI and could no doubt comprehend the potential necessity of seeing the truth with his own eyes.

In theory, it was a valid question, but the rank odour in the air (how fortunate they were, that they remained oblivious to it) was all the confirmation Sherlock needed. Perhaps if the sight of Alexander’s body could offer more: a traumatic wound, a bloody sprawl, something undeniably dead, it would solidify the instability of his mind, but that was not what awaited him.

Alexander would be like the others: not sliced or battered, but whole. He would look like he was sleeping, and there was no realisation to be found in that. It would do nothing to pierce the veil of clammy disbelief that enfolded him.

He shook his head: a minimalist movement that took a gargantuan effort. His muscles shuddered as another rash of ice suffused his skin, and he managed one, long exhale amidst the flutter of his breathing.

Mycroft turned to Lestrade. ‘There’s a file on the back seat containing all the pertinent information on Alexander Cunningham. There should be plenty there to allow a positive identification. I have very little reason to believe that my brother’s reaction is anything but a response to his Alpha’s genuine demise, but I still wish to be sure.’

‘You want me to confirm it?’ Lestrade asked, already turning towards the vehicle and liberating the fat dossier. Pale brown. It matched the colour of his hands, Sherlock realised. Was this what he had been reduced to? Meaningless observations and ridiculous comparisons?

‘My assistant will be waiting for you at the crime scene. In different circumstances, I would want to see for myself, but I have more pressing concerns to attend.’ He paused, as if expecting a protest from Sherlock – some stinging reprimand at discussing him like he wasn’t there – but none came. Sherlock held his silence, indifferent to Mycroft’s behaviour. ‘I need to get my brother back to Baker Street.’

‘Is – is that a good idea?’ Lestrade looked like he didn’t want to ask, but he tightened his jaw as he pushed on, the evidence of his determination plain. ‘You always said he was safe as long as he was bound.’ He dropped his voice, soft and apologetic. ‘It’s just that, if it is his Alpha, then he’s not any more, is he?’ He looked from John to Mycroft before the weight of that brown gaze fell upon Sherlock.

‘Maybe he’d be better off out of London?’

The idea blazed through Sherlock’s mind like a hot iron, chasing away his shocked indifference. He could see it all too easily: his banishment back to the isolation of the countryside to await his fate. His life would be left behind, decimated and in ruin, never to be reclaimed.

His protest was a thin cry on his lips, and he dropped his hand from his nose, the better to be heard.

Immediately, the stench slammed into his sinuses. He jerked back, torn between the intrinsic desire to flee and the unresponsiveness of his limbs. Agony shot through his stomach as it cramped, his body convulsing around a retch. His heave was dry and useless, strong enough to make his spine ache, and a fresh wash of sweat pricked his brow. Stars exploded across his vision, and for one reeling second he thought he would pass out before warm hands stroked his temples, easing back his hair.

‘Home.’ John spoke as if he were laying down the law, his fingers shaking against Sherlock’s skin. ‘We can work out what to do next once we’re there, but we have to get him out of here.’

‘As you wish.’ Mycroft’s response was demure and submissive: an easy relinquishment of control to John. Either his brother had more respect for his flatmate than Sherlock had realised, or he was keeping his suspicions to himself, for once. ‘As for your concerns, Detective Inspector: Sherlock is at no more risk from the unwanted advances of Alphas than he has been for the duration of your acquaintance. It will take several weeks, at least, for his unbound nature to re-establish itself, and he will not go into pyresus before then. For now, his emotional welfare takes priority. 221B is where he will feel the most secure.’

‘Can you stand?’ John murmured, his fingers dropping from the side of Sherlock’s face to his shoulder. He squeezed gently, as if trying to instil him with the strength he’d need to move. The sensation was distant, its relevance hard to define, but Sherlock endeavoured to make the effort.

Opening his eyes, he tried to comprehend the scene, but it was like seeing the cogs of a magnificent machine scattered over grassland. What once formed a united whole was now beyond him, and he wrenched his feeble mind towards the task of concentrating on the one stable element he knew he could trust. Sherlock was not a man of faith, but what little he had he placed in John’s hands.

He attempted to stand, clutching at his friend’s arm for support as his hips ached and his knees wobbled. Pain seized him wherever one bone met another, and he tried not to cry out as he limped towards the car. The few paces may as well have been miles, but after what felt like hours, he was finally able to climb into the waiting vehicle

The leather seat cradled his body, and he slid along the back, huddling against the far door and leaning his cheek against the window. The cold glass added to his internal chill, but it was a striking boundary: something solid to which he could cling. The overcast sky had started to birth raindrops, and they dotted the pane, distorting the world in their curvature.

Mycroft settled next to the driver as John slid in at Sherlock’s side, small and dejected in the bulk of his jacket. He looked pale, and Sherlock knew he should do something – say something – but such efforts were beyond him. Besides, any comfort he could offer would be a falsehood, and John would see through it in a heartbeat. No, right now he knew it was better to remain honest in his silence than try and give credence to a lie.

John’s worry flavoured the air, a mere hint in contrast to the greasy patina that painted Sherlock’s tongue with its vile flavour. Even in the car there was no escaping Alexander’s rot. It seemed to follow him, coating the inside of his head and catching in the back of his throat.

London passed, the city’s spin changing with every revolution of the car’s wheels, but Sherlock saw nothing of the metropolis. It was a backdrop to his distress: a vibrant place made lifeless. Once, the hurry of the pedestrians beneath their umbrellas would have captivated him, and the flicker and change of the traffic lights would have held him mesmerised with their bizarre rhythms, but now he couldn’t remember what fascination felt like.

None of it made any sense, and his mind spun, loose and unwieldy in its efforts to comprehend.

Baker Street came into view, but the familiar lines of its frontage brought him no solace. He tried, digging down deep in an effort to conjure the faintest hint of relief to see the building that had become his sanctuary, but it was no use. His body was an empty vessel: a collection of viscera with no function beyond the drag of his breath and the beat of his heart.

There was a flurry of movement as John and Mycroft vacated the vehicle, but Sherlock remained ragdoll limp. Perhaps it was best if he stayed as he was; the car was black, hearse-like. It felt appropriate that he should remain here, motionless and unresponsive. Maybe then he wouldn’t have to face what lay ahead.

He shied away from considerations of the future. This morning there had been hope: the promise of speaking with John once they had finished with the case. There was the notion of exploring, with words if not fingertips, the ways in which their relationship could change. Now all that was gone, and the blade of loss sliced through his apathy, leaving him breathless.

The click of the handle carried an air of finality, and Sherlock steeled his spine as John pulled open the door. There would be no hiding here, a phantom in his brother’s back seat. Inaction would not save him from whatever the next weeks and months held. The broken world moved on, and it would not show him the mercy of leaving him behind.

‘Come on,’ John urged. ‘A few more steps, and you’ll be home.’

Sherlock blinked, lifting his gaze to meet those blue eyes. Concern lay thick in his expression: a rigid mask over the malleable lines of John’s face, and Sherlock couldn’t bear the sight for long. Instead, he ducked his head, staring once more at London’s rimose concrete as he stumbled upright.

At least in John’s tender voice the word “home” gained some substance. It was more than four mere letters, and Sherlock wished he’d repeat himself, just so he could grasp the fleeting ideal of their shared haven. Nothing else could return that to him – not the gleam of the brass knocker or the glimmer of the number in pride of place. Mrs Hudson’s questions, little more than babble to Sherlock’s ears, could provide no peace, and he allowed John to herd him up the stairs: every step as insurmountable as the last.

Shouldering the door aside, John stood back so that Sherlock could shuffle over the threshold. He went slowly, one hand splayed against the wallpaper for balance while the other curled in a fist against his chest. There was no point blocking his nose. The damage had been done; molecules were now bound to receptors, triggering the creeping cascade of reactions that would be his eventual undoing.

He stared around the flat, trying to glue the fragments of his life into an acceptable whole. The result of his efforts was a hideous remnant: a hobbling, crippled spectacle of an existence that had, so abruptly, been shaken to the ground.

Sherlock could hear Mycroft talking to Mrs Hudson, informing her of the situation, perhaps. It wasn’t as if it could remain a secret for long, and he pressed his lips tight as fear clamoured in his hollow head.

It threatened to drown him, and only John’s touch pulled him free as he eased him down into the armchair. It was not the leather one that he normally favoured, but the yielding softness of John’s domain, and he blinked up at the man who hovered at his side.

‘What do you need?’ John asked, his tongue darting out to wet his lips as he shifted his weight, ready to bolt away and do Sherlock’s bidding. ‘Anything. Anything at all, and I’ll get it for you.’

He sounded earnest and desperate, as if he believed there was some miracle cure he could provide. Sherlock did not know how to say that the one thing he wanted was impossible. He wished it to be yesterday again – his life restricted but stable. He wanted to know with absolute certainty that he was the master of his destiny. Instead he was here, not even in command of his own body, let alone the path of his future.

He’d fled Alexander’s captivity and battled to remain unimpeded by his demands for endless, exhausting years. Now, in dying, the bastard had succeeded in caging him once more. In so many ways, he’d been the key to Sherlock’s freedom: the detail which had made it possible. Without him, it all fell apart.

Shaking his head, he failed to provide John with a response. Distantly, he knew there were options open to him – potential avenues of action, some more dire than others – but he couldn’t wrap the power of his intellect around them. Strategy was beyond him, and he could only cower deeper into the Belstaff, huddling mute in John’s chair as his brother entered the room.

He expected Mycroft to turn to John. It was an old habit of his. Once Sherlock had presented, his brother's instinct had been to discuss him with others, rather than ask his opinion. It was a relic of their upbringing, cemented into the bedrock of Mycroft's personality. As such, a fleeting glimmer of surprise sparked in Sherlock’s head when his brother shrugged out of his jacket and dragged the coffee table closer to John's armchair, sitting on it like a king on his throne as he spoke.

'I appreciate that this has come as a shock,' he said quietly, his voice smooth but carrying notes of urgency beneath every syllable. 'If platitudes would bring you relief, I'd give them to you, but we both know they're useless. Alexander's dead, and he's taken with him any security your future once held.'

'Mycroft, is this really necessary now?' John asked, perching on the arm of the chair at Sherlock's side. His presence was neither imposing nor overly threatening, but Sherlock had enough sense to recognise the protective undertones to his proximity. Both Mycroft and John were worried for him, and they addressed the issue in different ways. John sought to ensure his health and emotional well-being: all immediate, conspicuous concern. Mycroft worked in the intangible, manipulating events and smoothing the road ahead.

'Perhaps not,' his brother conceded, 'but it has to be said. There are decisions that Sherlock may be forced to make in the coming days – ones that will not wait.' Those calm eyes, reminiscent of their father's, met Sherlock's gaze, and when he spoke again he did so with more sympathy than Sherlock had heard from him for years.

'I'm aware that Alexander's existence made your happiness here in Baker Street a possibility. It was, perhaps, the sole reason I bowed to your wishes not to have him... removed.’ Mycroft fiddled with his cuff. ‘I've already told John that I will do whatever I can to protect your current way of life. It was written into the bonding contract that, should Alexander pass away, you would revert to being my responsibility until you had mourned fully.'

He stared down at his hands, absorbed in the weave of his fingers as Sherlock looked on, blank but receptive, listening. 'I cannot say for certain how much time that will buy for us to negotiate with the Cunningham family. The death of their son makes any efforts on our part delicate by necessity, but your biology sets an unknown deadline.'

Mycroft pressed his thumb to his lip, tapping it against the thin line of flesh. 'As soon as you're able to do so, you need to consider your options.' He glanced towards John before looking back at Sherlock. 'I will do everything in my power to make your choice a possibility, but I need to know what you decide in order to give you the support you may require.'

Sherlock closed his eyes, dropping his chin to his chest. He had analysed the possibilities – he would have been foolish not to. Accounting for every eventuality was what had kept him out of Alexander’s hands for so long. However, it was one thing to construct a course of action in the abstract. It was a different matter to face a very real decision.

Worse, his situation worked against him, robbing his mind of its usual clarity. His own inability hemmed him in, tight and claustrophobic as a knot of air caught in his chest. He could see how widowed Omegas changed hands so readily. How could they put up a fight in this situation? How could they consider their future when they were trapped in the biochemical fugue of the present - losing themselves to wretched emotion beyond the purview of the conscious mind?

He bit his lip hard, focussing on the pain in an effort to lock himself in the here-and-now. A whisper of blood coated his tongue in copper, but he ignored it. His hands knotted into fists, digging his nails into his palms as he lined up the words in his mind before coaxing his hoarse voice to deliver them.

'Whatever I decide, the Cunninghams will have no place in it,' he managed, struggling to speak around the tightness in his chest. He sounded wretched, but he persevered. 'For now, make sure I don't revert to their possession once my biology makes me eligible to form another bond.'

Mycroft nodded, his shoulders moving as he drew in a deep breath, his mind already working behind the gleam of his eyes. Again, his gaze flickered to John. Some twist of emotion Sherlock didn't understand pinched his features, and he cleared his throat. 'Doctor Watson, would you mind giving me a moment alone with my brother?'

It wasn't a request, no matter how much Mycroft tried to make it sound like one, and Sherlock gave a weary blink. Normally, he'd argue – John expected as much – but his strength had fled. All he wanted was to hide somewhere dark and forget everything about the world that crowded in on him from all sides. The sooner his brother said his piece and left, the better.

'I –' John sounded conflicted, as if letting Sherlock out of his sight was the last thing he wanted to do. 'I, yeah I suppose. I'll be down with Mrs Hudson?' He turned to Sherlock, his expression radiating uncertainty. When no protest was forthcoming he got to his feet, casting a doubtful look at Mycroft before slipping out of the door and trotting down the stairs.

'Thank you,' Mycroft murmured, rubbing his hand over his jaw in an abnormal sign of discomposure. 'I do not wish to offend John, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention my concerns about you recovering here, with him, when you're in such a – precarious – state.'

Sherlock stared, unable to summon so much as a glare as he waited for Mycroft to say what he meant.

'I'm concerned that John may have his own agenda. He may force or otherwise manipulate you into bonding before you are capable of making that decision for yourself with anything akin to a clear head.' Mycroft lifted his chin, looking for all the world like he expected a punch. Yet the normal font of fury at his brother’s interference failed to make an appearance. A pit dwelt where anger’s heat may once have been, and Sherlock let out a frail sigh.

John was many things, but his personality was built upon a solid core of loyalty and integrity. What Mycroft was suggesting came from a knowledge of the Alpha elite. He thought of machinations and plots because the notion of friendship lay beyond his reach. Despite his intelligence, he could not help but see Alpha and Omega when he looked at them, and he allowed his preconceptions to overrule his better judgement.

It was an astronomical effort to speak again, but Sherlock could not allow John's good name to go undefended. 'He is not Alexander,' he said, his voice flat and atonal. 'He is not of the elite. He doesn't think the way we do. No one out here in the real world does.'

'Naive,' Mycroft chided. 'There are people out here who would use you terribly.'

'Perhaps,' Sherlock acknowledged, 'but not John. Not Lestrade either. They're not him.' He stopped, exhausted by the effort. His arms braced his own torso, hanging on tight. Without their restraint, he feared that he would fly apart, and he clung to his own boundaries with all his feeble power.

Even Mycroft could not miss his obvious anguish, and he leaned forward, tapping his fingers against Sherlock's elbow: as close to physical comfort as he would ever offer. 'I apologise.' For once, he looked genuinely contrite. In another time and place, Sherlock might have mocked him for such obvious sentiment. 'I didn't feel I could leave it unsaid, but I trust your judgement.'

Licking his lips, Sherlock closed his eyes in wretched gratitude. The Mycroft he had known throughout his young adulthood would not have accepted any argument from Sherlock. There would have been neither acknowledgement nor compromise. This, he realised, was a man who had seen the failings of the society in which he was raised, and was taking steps to fight against it.

With a voice no stronger than a whisper, he added one last bit of reassurance. 'Even if John were the kind of person to try something so underhanded, do you think I'm too stupid to be on my guard?'

'You trust him,' Mycroft pointed out, the lines in his face deepening when Sherlock managed a frail response.

'Not enough.'

‘But you want to.’ His smile was thin-lipped. ‘I simply wish for you to be careful. You are vulnerable and, even if it’s unintentional, John holds power over you by default. My doubts are, most likely, unfounded, though hardly surprising, considering that the last Alpha whom I entrusted with your care and happiness failed so miserably.’

Baker Street fell calm around them, the city’s melody a dirge to Sherlock’s ears. Mycroft’s unease came off of him in waves, his regret still palpable after all this time. There was nothing Sherlock could do to relieve it, and an exhausted, petty part of himself decided his brother deserved the punishment.

‘I shall do as you have asked of me,’ Mycroft said at length, easing himself to his feet and collecting his suit jacket from where he’d flung it across Sherlock’s leather chair. ‘If there’s anything else you need, then say so. I would stay if I thought I could be of assistance, but I suspect my efforts would be more use elsewhere.’ He pursed his lips, vacillating between Sherlock’s side and the door. His brother rarely showed less than complete confidence, and Sherlock watched him through a veil of indifference, knowing that it was his lack of emotion, rather than a surfeit of it, which made Mycroft so uncomfortable.

In that, he suspected, John would be the same.

‘Take care, Sherlock. Please.’

There was a wealth left unspoken in his parting shot, and Sherlock swallowed. He knew there was worse to come – that he stood before an incoming tsunami of hormone-driven grief. There was no way to predict its severity, nor brace himself for its impact. All he could do was try to weather the storm of its passing and face what awaited him on the other side.

Assuming he survived the process.

Sherlock stared at where his fingers curved like claws around the summit of his knee, stark white lines against his dark trousers. The pink of his nail beds bleached beneath the force of his grip, and he suspected that bruises were forming, but he couldn’t feel their bite.

He had tried to research, once, what he might face if Alexander met a sticky end. During the exploration of more noir possibilities of escape – ones involving hatred and murder – he had considered the consequences to himself. However, the information was sparse and skewed to an Alpha’s perspective.

The descriptions of the mourning process he found in text books were universally vague. The implication was that an Omega’s suffering was an impediment to establishing a new bond. Even if an Alpha wanted to, they could not attempt to stake a claim, not until the mark from their predecessor healed. Generally speaking, it took around five weeks, though sometimes it lasted more than twice as long.

However, none of his research told him what to expect emotionally. There had been no warning of this strange, apathetic paralysis. He was waiting for a disaster – helpless against it, but dreading it all the same. There had been no hint that what was once autonomous thought and action would require conscious deliberation. Simple movements, forming sentences – all of it seemed to require a vast mental and physical effort. The fast-flowing waters of his mind had grown still and stagnant, his clarity clouded with sentiment as his considerations oozed like tar.

He was aware of soft voices downstairs: Mycroft talking to John. It was too distant to make out more than the general tone of what was being said, and Sherlock decided it was gratitude laced with warning. Mycroft knew he would do Sherlock no good by hovering at his side – not when his skills were of more use elsewhere.

Instead it would be John who bore witness to all Sherlock’s misery. Normally, he’d shy away from the idea. John may have the professional care of a doctor on his side, as well as the respect he’d earned as Sherlock’s friend, but there were still some things he’d rather even John did not observe. Now, though, he couldn’t bring himself to care. What did it matter who saw him fall apart? What difference did it make?

He allowed his head to slump sideways, his cheek resting on the back of John’s chair as his body twisted itself into the narrow space of the seat. He huddled in his coat, his face buried in the fabric of the cushion as he inhaled John’s imbued scent. He had no idea what the old piece of furniture had smelled of before John came to live in Baker Street, but now there was a touch of coconut from John’s shampoo, hints of spilt tea, laundry detergent and warm spice.

Sherlock drew it in desperately. Perhaps it couldn’t remove the slick of Alexander’s deathly odour from his awareness, but it lessened the steady roll of nausea in Sherlock’s stomach and blunted the cutting edge of his simmering panic. It could not clear his mind, but it gave him something to cling to – a symphony of details which he could catalogue.

For a little while, the simple input allowed him to forget.

He wasn’t aware that he’d closed his eyes until someone draped a blanket over him, accompanied by the smell of bluebells: Mrs Hudson.

She offered a strained smile when he managed to look at her, worry shadowing her eyes as she perched on the coffee table Mycroft had vacated. She shifted, angling her body as she wrapped her smaller hand over Sherlock’s fingers.

‘John will be right up, dear,’ she promised. ‘He’s just seeing your brother out.’

True enough, he could still hear them talking in muted voices downstairs. Clearly, mere minutes had passed. Strange. It felt like hours.

He looked at Mrs Hudson, her face lined with more than age. The loose skin on her hands was weather-worn, thin over the veins and tendons, but that frailty belied her strength. Her hold on him was tender yet determined, and Sherlock dragged his eyes back up to meet her gaze as he forced himself to speak.

‘You already knew, didn’t you?’ he asked, watching kindness steal across her features as she nodded. ‘So much for keeping it secret.’

‘You hid it from the people who would use it to hurt you,’ she replied. ‘I’ve known since Florida. It’s hard to hide a mark like that, especially in all that heat.’ She pursed her lips, the pink shimmer of her lipstick worn thin over her mouth. ‘In the end, it’s part of why I trusted you. Your situation and mine – well, they weren’t so different back then. Not on the surface at least.’

Sherlock sighed, understanding her meaning. Her ties to her husband may have been legal, rather than biological, but there were parallels there in her helplessness. Except her husband’s death had ensured her freedom, while for Sherlock…

A breath stalled in his chest, sharper than the ones before, and he struggled against it as the fog of apathy began to thin, letting in tendrils of slithering fear. He tried to quash them, but they eluded him, leaving him clammy despite the layers of wool he wore.

Mrs Hudson made a fretful noise, patting his hand again before getting to her feet. ‘A cup of tea,’ she suggested, already bustling to the kitchen. ‘That always helps me when I’m out of sorts.’

Sherlock clenched his jaw, wishing he had her faith in such a mundane cure as he listened to the familiar chime of old crockery and the seethe of the kettle. The general din almost disguised the sound of John ascending the stairs, but Sherlock picked up the faint scuff of his foot – the first hint of the psychosomatic limp putting in an appearance. He doubted anyone else would notice it, but it spoke volumes for the troubled surge of John’s thoughts.

He pushed his way through the front door before easing it closed with the flat of his palm. Sherlock watched him hesitate, probably still picking over whatever he’d discussed with Mycroft. He scrubbed his hands over his features like a man trying to wipe the slate clean, but Sherlock was not so blind that he couldn’t see the tight lines of anxiety and shock defining his frame.

A heartbeat later, John squared his shoulders and turned around, his face clear as his gaze moving unerringly to Sherlock.

He did not know what he expected to see in those blue eyes: sympathy was a given, but other emotions filled the confines of John’s expression, impossible for Sherlock to identify. He could only observe as John crossed the room and hunkered down in front of the armchair, one hand outstretched.

‘Can I touch you?’ He cocked his head, his fingers trembling where they hung in the air. He did not clarify, nor state any kind of medicinal purpose, but he asked for permission where neither Mycroft nor Mrs Hudson had thought to do so.

Sherlock managed a jerky nod, feeling a whisper of disappointment when John pressed two fingertips to his carotid artery, measuring the stutter of Sherlock’s pulse and the stagger of every breath. After a few seconds, his hand flattened, the broad blade of his palm cupping Sherlock’s jaw.

He didn’t offer a diagnosis. Maybe he knew there was no point. Sherlock was aware he was skating the permanent edge of a panic attack, holding it together, but only just.

‘Cold?’ John asked, grimacing as a shiver tore across Sherlock’s shoulders, answering his question. ‘Come on. I think bed might be the best place for you. You were tired before all this began, and now…’ He trailed off, shrugging his shoulders before straightening up. ‘Do you think you can stand?’

Sherlock blinked owlishly at John’s outstretched hand, registering the calloused palm beneath his fingertips as he allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. The room gave an abrupt lurch, and he swayed where he stood, the blanket trailing from one shoulder as he struggled not to collapse.

John held him up without question, giving him the time he needed to re-establish some idea of balance. ‘Mrs Hudson, can you get Sherlock some food? Toast, maybe, with nothing on it? He’s not eaten for God knows how long and it’s probably making things worse.’

‘Of course, dear. Tea’s on the side.’ She gestured towards the cups waiting on the surface before bustling downstairs, no doubt preferring to use her own appliances rather than trusting the toaster of 221B.

John led him gently, his endless patience an inadequate veil for his fears. Sherlock wondered if it was deliberate, the way he held himself, every angle screaming of his need to offer assistance. Normally, some element of dominance found its way into John’s stance – in the line of his shoulders or the jut of his jaw – but it was as if he’d stripped himself of anything that Sherlock may misread as an Alpha overtone.

Was that the result of his brother’s quiet conversation in the front hall? He must have said something to make John look so grim – layers of anger and confusion hidden beneath a nurturing mask. However, Sherlock couldn’t summon his usual indignation at Mycroft’s interfering ways. He could only slump onto the mattress as John eased him down onto its forgiving expanse.

Here, at least, there was seclusion: a semblance of privacy, and Sherlock ached to slip into oblivion. Pain pounded through his head, and his eyes stung with every blink. The trembling of his body had begun in earnest now, and he fought against the clumsiness of his fingers as he finally pulled off his gloves and shrugged out of his coat, ignoring the way the heavy wool dragged over raw skin.

‘Here,’ John murmured, putting Sherlock’s pyjamas down beside him: a ratty old t-shirt so worn with age it was almost transparent and some shapeless cotton trousers. They were his favourites when he was in heat. Light and loose, they barely touched him, and Sherlock clenched his fingers in the material. ‘Get changed, then get into bed. I’ll find you something to eat.’

He hesitated, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement, and Sherlock managed a nod before John slipped out of the door. He didn’t close it all the way, leaving the panel ajar. John was too practical to shut himself off from Sherlock in this situation. He wanted to be able to react to an unpredictable scenario, and Sherlock wondered at the perfect blend of medicinal care and soldierly strategy. John probably didn’t even realise he was doing it.

One stable element in a changing world.

Gracelessly, he divested himself of his shirt and trousers, shoes and socks, his gaze skimming over the red welts that were beginning to lift across his skin. They followed the paths of bigger veins, more apparent where his flesh was at its thinnest. It was the first sign of his system flooding itself with the destructive chemicals which would burn away Alexander’s bond: a biochemical reset switch.

Shrouding himself in the clothes John had left for him, he peeled back the covers, climbing into the pocket of comfort, and cowering in the fluffy cocoon. The cool whisper of cloth warmed to his body heat, and his lashes hushed against the pillowcase with every blink, but he didn’t close his eyes. Answering one demand of his transport meant he’d have to acknowledge the rest, from the ache and cramp of muscles to the unfamiliar, rotten feeling in his chest.

He was still lying there, curled on his side with the quilt pulled up to his chin, when John nudged his way back into the room, a plate of toast balanced in one hand and a cooling mug of tea clasped in the other. He set them on Sherlock’s bedside table, his expectations clear, but like so many other things today, Sherlock couldn’t bring himself to understand food and drink in relation to himself.

‘No thank you.’ His voice was a ragged, monotone vocalisation as he stared at nothing in particular. He didn’t blink as John perched on the edge of the bed, his elbows on his knees and his hands clamped together in front of him. The warmth of his proximity was a distant glow, but even his obvious distress couldn’t crack the walls that surrounded Sherlock’s mind.

More than once, he went to speak, but each indrawn breath was the precursor to another empty silence. John’s expressive face lay slack, and dread drew shadows over his eyes.

Sherlock tried to imagine how he must appear to someone on the outside, but he lacked the acuity to picture it. He knew he had been quiet, and not the deep, thoughtful silences to which John was accustomed. Did he seem as fragile as he felt? Did he look like a man whose world had collapsed, or was his face the same bland pane of glass that seemed to have erected itself around his consciousness, gelid and lifeless?

He did not mourn Alexander’s passing, not really, but all the security he had taken with him. However he looked at it, it was a huge loss, and the air carried a funerary edge as John sat with him in condoling silence.

Eventually, a weathered hand slid over the quilt, brushing at Sherlock's fingers where they clutched the dense eiderdown before catching them in his grasp. John cradled Sherlock's palm, tipping his arm to the light so he could see the slow spread of mild inflammation charting fern patterns across half-hidden bones.

'I didn't –' John licked his lips, pursing them tight before he took a deep breath. 'I didn't realise it would start so soon. Mycroft said it was like an illness, but...' He trailed off, looking to Sherlock for confirmation.

He looked haggard, desperate, and for once in his life, Sherlock felt a burst of untarnished gratitude towards his brother. Of course he had emphasised the physical to John, framing what was happening to him in the structure of a disease: something John had the power to treat. It took the feeling of uselessness pervading this whole situation and gave it some direction, for John at least.

Perhaps he should be honest – should explain that half of it, if not more, was a state of mind rather than a physical ailment – but Sherlock dismissed the idea. John needed something like this: a pattern of decline and recovery to monitor, and Sherlock's body would no doubt oblige and provide him with such.

'Mycroft wasn't being untruthful,' he eventually replied, watching John trace the blemishes across his flesh in analytical fascination. Yet it was not a detached exploration. His care bled out in the lightness of his touch and the intensity of his gaze. 'The physiological effects are not inconsiderable.'

John looked up at him, and Sherlock saw those shoulders regain some of their previous strength. With those few words, he had given John something to work with. The body and its ills were his domain of expertise, and while John may understand very little of the consequences of a bond's annihilation, Sherlock could see this realisation as a starting point. He knew John well: he would throw himself into research, attempting to understand what Sherlock was going through, but tantamount to that would be the same diligent care John had shown him time and again.

He would tend to Sherlock's ailing flesh, and perhaps in doing so he would give him the power to face the emotional devastation he knew would find him soon enough.

A hand rested in his curls, and John's thumb brushed against his temple, following the camber of bone. 'In that case, get some sleep if you can. It sounds like you're going to need your strength.' There was no bracing joviality in those words. John said it like a man preparing for battle, and perhaps he didn't know what lay ahead, but Sherlock suspected John's imagination was attempting to fill in the blanks.

He wished there was something he could do to offer reassurance – ridiculous, that he felt such a thing necessary when he was the one suffering, but he hated to see John so tense – yet there was nothing he could say. He didn't have any answers, and all he could do was hunch tighter in the bower of his bed, shutting his eyes in quiet obedience.

Perhaps sleep would bring him some respite.

Slowly, the sounds around him began to dim. John moved around the flat, giving Sherlock the illusion of privacy while always being nearby to answer his call if necessary. Sherlock could feel his concern like a note out of place in their usual symphony, but there was nothing he could do to appease it. He was too busy trying to soothe the jagged, fractal sharpness of his fears to think of anyone but himself. Horror lingered like a shadow in the wings of his mind palace, dark and impenetrable, but he managed to hold it at bay, turning blind eyes to its desolate gloom as he sought safe harbour in simple sensations.

An hour ago, he had ignored his transport and the vile messages it delivered to his mind. Now he revelled in it, choosing to dissect the rasp of cloth against his skin, the rhapsody of discomfort in his joints and the prickling, tidal chills. Better that than facing what lay within the caverns of his thoughts. The warnings of his body were biochemical and quantifiable – something he could see with his own eyes, given the right equipment. The gory mess of his emotions was not so straightforward.

Sherlock knew one was linked to the other. Hormones drove his mental state, which in turn accelerated the vicious cycle. He knew his desperate distinction between body and mind was a useless effort at reclaiming some control, but he clung to it all the same, immersing himself in the minutiae of the physical until that, too, faded from his awareness.

There was no way to tell when the formless shadows of sleep began to take on definition. At first, it was nothing more than faint outlines in twilight. There was nothing to identify as a threat, just a creeping uncertainty that climbed his bones to burn his muscles with its touch. It clogged his nose and mouth, turning the air to smoke until every breath was a struggle. Fear prickled through him, rendered in nothing as straightforward as sweat on his brow. This was primal emotion, and though part of Sherlock knew it was a nightmare, he couldn't pull himself free.

Humidity bathed his face. The air hung, motionless and expectant, fragranced with rich earth and the faint scent of citrus. His memory needed no further urging to bring the scene into focus. It was the orangery back at Alexander's house, where Sherlock had concocted the substances to master his fertility. The stone floor was rough beneath his bare feet, and the limpid atmosphere, warm even though there was darkness beyond the glass walls, caressed his skin. Trees grew here, fruitful in their benign neglect, and there, on a worktop once available for potting seedlings, lay the tools of his craft.

None of it was obviously scientific. There were no beakers or Erlenmeyer flasks. Sherlock had used whatever mundane containers were to hand, choosing glass vials to store and hide the products of his labours. Moonlight cast a dull gleam on plastic contours, and he stepped forward, looking over the empty, disused array and noticing how every vessel was cracked and broken. Behind them, the plants he'd once tended were nothing but dried husks, their leaves withered and their flowers rotten on their stems.

'They can't help you now.'

He whipped around, his hand tightening on the table's edge as he noticed a silhouette hovering on the other side of the room. Sherlock didn't need to see its face to know who it was, not when Alexander's voice – neither hateful or cruel, but soft and admiring as it had once been – drifted to his ears. His words didn’t sound like an accusation, but Sherlock still held his breath as the man of memory stepped forward.

His heart cramped, tight and hurting. This was the Alexander from the time of their bonding – painfully young, now Sherlock looked back on it. He was in his early twenties, his face handsome and clear of the signs of chemical abuse that had later wrought their damage. His clothes were neat and luxurious, and there was a hint of a genuine smile toying at his lips.

Yet the illusion was far from complete. At that age, Alexander had looked at him with hope and affection, but now Sherlock could see that for the facade it was. Shadows played across his face, and there was something indistinct about his outline as he continued to advance, stopping in the moon's glow like an actor in the spotlight.

Fear raced across Sherlock's scalp and juddered down his spine. He felt frozen, trapped in place as his gaze fell to the object in Alexander's fist: a long, cold bar of iron with a spur at one end – the poker he'd used when he'd finally lost his temper.

Fluid dripped from its tip, and even though the moon’s luminescence painted it silver, Sherlock knew it was blood staining the stone. He stared at the droplets, listening to each one land on the floor like rain on dry earth. His muscles locked, a deer caught in the headlights, yet Alexander merely stood there, his head cocked and expectant as his expression became vile with false remorse.

‘This is all your fault.’ He swung the poker in an idle circle, leaving an arc of spatter in its wake. ‘You turned me into this. You made me hate you. So selfish. Everything you did was about you.’

It was nothing Alexander hadn’t said when he was still alive: a memory regurgitated from the lips of a ghost, but this time Sherlock’s protests stayed imprisoned behind his teeth, as useless as they had ever been. He stared, transfixed, as the Alpha who’d claimed him ran a hand through his hair, his shoulders heaving in a shrug.

‘If only you’d known your place, I could have given you everything you wanted.’

‘No.’ Sherlock’s denial seemed loud to his ears, torn free from his throat. ‘No, you couldn’t. Everything I wanted, I got for myself. It had nothing to do with you.’

‘Didn’t it?’ The response was sharp, a whip-crack that had Sherlock cowering despite himself. Around him, the scenery wavered, the limited coherence of the moonlight fading in and out of view. Sherlock could feel the warmth of a lit fire, even though there was no grate nearby. The darkness beyond the glass of the conservatory took on the pattern of Baker Street’s wallpaper: one life superimposed upon another.

'Without me, you could never have had all of this.' He gestured to John's armchair, which hadn't been there before, his cool gaze sweeping over the book-lined shelves and the files stacked on the table. 'You'd be nothing.' He grinned, but there was no amusement in the flash of his teeth. ‘Without me, everything you've fought for disintegrates.'

He stepped forward, the sole of his shoe resting on the curved dome of the skull. Normally, it lived on the mantelpiece, but now it sat on the floor, exposed and vulnerable. He balanced himself, one foot on the crown, the threat implicit in every angle of his body, but Sherlock couldn't move to stop him. He stared as Alexander shifted his weight, and the bone cracked like eggshell: shards and dust.

'It's all gone, Sherlock. All of it, and you can't pick up the pieces by yourself. Just look at you!' He gestured with the poker, the spur thrust in Sherlock's direction with enough force to make him flinch. 'Omega. Useless.'

He shook his head, and Sherlock grimaced at the disapproval radiating from every pore. 'You destroy everything you touch.' He indicated Baker Street with a wave of his hand. 'What makes you think he'll be any different?'

Here, in this strange juxtaposition of his past and his present, there was no doubt of whom Alexander spoke, and Sherlock's gaze drifted back to John's chair as the world shifted, rippling in constant flux. Broken glass littered the floor while the wallpaper peeled back like split skin. All around him, everything was disintegrating, but Alexander remained, oddly colourless, his bleached lips wrenched in a macabre sneer.

'There's no coming back from this,' he murmured, looking down at the poker as if, for the first time, he was aware of its weight. 'Not for either of us. I'm dead, but you? Your life is over.'

The metal rod slipped from blood-slicked fingers, striking the floor. It rang like a gong, a flat, desolate chime that roared in Sherlock’s ears, over-ruling every other sense until there was nothing but the iron’s resonance clanging in his head.

His eyes flew open, his hands lashing out in alarm as his breath caught hard in his throat. The bed beneath him felt alien as panic flooded his frame. It had circled him like a pack of wolves since he'd first encountered the stench of Alexander’s corpse, but now it became eviscerating in its intensity.

A choked cry caught in his chest as buzzing filled his ears. The dream slipped through his fingers, surreal ribbons of colour and sound that took all his refined intellect with them. Only the feeling of paralysis and dread remained. It squeezed his heart, racing like static across his skin as his eyes burned. Each time he tried to snatch another gasp it became a sob, and the first tears trailed sideways to spill onto the barren cloth of his pillow.

It appalled him to be reduced to this, wrought down to nothing but raw sentiment. So much of his existence had been tied up in the bond he hated. Now it was gone, and so was any semblance of power that he held over his own future. Everything he had once convinced himself was a certainty lay in ruins, and for all the power of his intelligence, he couldn't comprehend how to proceed. How could he make a decision about his life when he couldn't even think?

He was so lost to the filthy, chaotic churn of his fear that he didn't hear the whisper of the door's hinges or John's slow, quiet footsteps. He didn't register him at all as tears bit at his eyes, unstoppable. They pooled at the bridge of his nose before spilling over, dragged sideways by gravity. All attempts to rein in his reactions were futile. It was too big, too overwhelming, and he fought for each strained breath as misery claimed him.

The mattress dipped, and Sherlock turned away, hunching around the hollow pit in his stomach and hiding his face as his shoulders heaved. He didn’t want to be seen like this, not even by John. Grief had its place, but this was a falsehood. It was not loss that made him cry, but the well of helplessness that had opened in his chest.

He clenched his jaw, waiting for John to start shushing him or otherwise trying to bring this wretched outburst to a halt, but it never happened. Instead, a hand splayed tentatively over the ridge of his shoulder-blade, neither stroking nor squeezing. It was a simple presence, and the next sob wrenched itself from Sherlock’s throat.

The quilt rustled as John stretched out behind him, his brow rested against Sherlock’s back. John’s other arm snaked over him, the palm splaying across his ribs and over the chaotic patter of his heart as if he thought he could hold Sherlock together through force of will.

He allowed himself to be held, too desolate to consider pushing John away. Not that he would, even if he were able. Even like this, separated by layers of cloth, John’s weight was a comfort. He offered himself with no expectation of anything in return, his support silent and without judgement as Sherlock shivered in his arms.

Weakly, he reached up, clasping John’s knuckles and clinging tight. His despair was unmistakable, and John responded with natural immediacy, twisting his wrist so he could capture Sherlock’s hand in his and return his grip with equal ferocity. Their fingers wove together, and Sherlock clutched that single point of contact, his head bowed and his body shaking as another muffled sob punched its way free.

John held him, and Sherlock wept.

Chapter Text

God, he was an idiot.

John sat in his armchair, a cup of tea growing cold at his side as he stared at the empty seat opposite him. The past week had been one of the worst in his life, and all he could think of was that, not so long ago, he’d wanted this. He’d itched to see Alexander dead: a suitable punishment for everything Sherlock had suffered at his hand.

Now, he wished he could take it back. Sherlock may be free of the Alpha who had tried so hard to control him, but now it was his biology that held him captive.

After that first day, when he had wept as though his world was ending, John had hoped things would start to improve. Perhaps Sherlock’s mourning would manifest as a short, sharp shock, rather than a long ordeal?

Turned out he couldn’t be more wrong. Mycroft had described Sherlock’s condition in terms of an illness, but John could see that any physical ailments had a biochemical root, and it was only getting worse.

He did what he could to make Sherlock feel better. Antihistamines helped control the severity of the rash that traced its way across his skin like ferns of frost. It was an autoimmune response, according to John’s research, the same as the joint pain, but John was only treating the symptoms. Nothing he could do would target the cause.

His laptop sat by his feet with Mycroft’s response to his desperate email still open on the screen. After days of Sherlock being so unlike himself – a ghost of the man John knew – he’d implored the older Holmes for something he could use. An Omega’s mourning was hardly an unknown occurrence. There had to be something John could give him to help with the dense depression into which Sherlock had fallen.

Mycroft’s reply was emphatic, and John picked up the device, scanning it again in the vain hope that it would say something different the second time around.

“As much as my brother’s deteriorating condition pains me, there is nothing I can offer him that will provide assistance. All mainstream medical research aims to contract the mourning period and assist the prompt placement of a new bond. The few, brief trials of such medications were an unmitigated disaster. Poor understanding of the hormonal mechanisms and the brain-chemistry of Omegas meant it was a process of trial and error, quickly curtailed due to the high incidence of abrupt psychosis and eventual suicide in the test subjects.”

John closed his eyes, pressing his lips together as fresh concern washed through his chest. He could see how someone in Sherlock’s situation may turn to taking their own life. It wasn’t out of any desire to be reunited with the Alpha they had lost; it was escape at its most fundamental level.

It was well-documented that an Omega in mourning needed to be monitored for signs of what, centuries ago, had been termed as “self-alleviation”. The statistics were startling, and John’s instincts had been undeniable. Maybe he had been paranoid when he’d removed everything sharp or potentially lethal from Sherlock’s room, but he’d rather be safe than sorry.

Even now, he suspected that if Sherlock had the will to end his life, he’d manage, despite John’s efforts to protect him. His only feeble comfort was that he seemed too far gone to move, let alone engineer a way to injure himself. Still, that didn’t mean John wasn’t a few short steps away from setting up camp by Sherlock’s bed and keeping him under observation. He probably would have already, if not for Mycroft’s strange admission-cum-warning that he’d reinstalled a camera in Sherlock’s room the day they found Alexander’s body.

He remembered how Mycroft had looked at him as they’d stood in the front hall of Baker Street. The need for answers and the desire to be at Sherlock’s side had torn John in two, but Mycroft seemed calm, his focus devoted to John, rather than his ailing brother.

It was rare that the older Holmes showed any emotion; perhaps that was why John had been so unwillingly fascinated. Either that or it was the unusual mixture of trust and suspicion on that aristocratic face, as if Mycroft wanted to give John his faith, but didn’t quite have the conviction to do so.

John wasn’t an idiot. He knew that Mycroft couldn’t help but see him as a potential risk to his brother’s safety. He’d expected dire threats. Instead, Mycroft had spoken to him in a flat voice, and every word gifted him with information while carrying dark undertones. The camera wasn’t just there to protect Sherlock from himself. It was there to keep an eye on John, as well.

Chewing his tongue, he glared down at his laptop again, heaving a sigh before closing its lid and setting it back on the floor. He couldn’t blame Mycroft, not really. It was easy to forget that he and Sherlock were Alpha and Omega, and whether he liked it or not, that brought its own issues to the equation.

Leaning forward, he buried his face in his hands. Now wasn’t the time to worry about that. Sherlock’s pyresus was far from imminent. He had to concentrate on more immediate problems. Mycroft’s email hadn’t given him anything to work with, although John suspected there were a few things he’d left out. He had mentioned official clinical trials, but Mycroft prepared for every possible scenario; no doubt he’d had his own people explore the possibility of medication for Sherlock.

Clearly, it had been a fruitless endeavour. If not, he would have provided whatever was needed without question.

And where did that leave them? John had been a fine surgeon and was a damn good GP, but this went far beyond his training, and his clumsy efforts to draw Sherlock out of his fugue met with failure. He had seen grief before – the different ways it could affect people and what it could do – but he’d never come across anything like this.

Since that first day, Sherlock had pulled back into himself, the dissociation of shock becoming something more deep-rooted. He still wept, now and then, but in comparison to that first storm of anguish they were quiet, silent tears, as if he were too exhausted to sob. He stayed in bed, only moving himself to use the bathroom, and then he drifted like a ghost, acknowledging neither John nor his surroundings.

Even the Work went ignored. Lestrade had come over the night of Alexander’s death to let John know that it was definitely Sherlock’s Alpha in the morgue. Not that there’d ever been much doubt. He’d stood on the doorstep, freshly showered in the hopes of not bringing anything more of Alexander’s dead scent to Baker Street, and asked quiet questions that John couldn’t answer.

He’d left behind the files from the case, as well as some old investigations, but Sherlock didn’t glance at them, not even when John left some of the more challenging ones on his bedside table.

Back when he’d moved in, Sherlock had warned him he might be silent for days on end. Now, he was living up to that threat, and John didn’t know what to do. Some days the frustration was too much to bear. He wanted to yell at Sherlock to pull himself together, but he knew better than that. If Sherlock had the power to help himself, he would already have done so.

With a sigh, John got to his feet, glancing at the clock to see its hands hovering over eleven at night. He’d been kipping on the sofa since this started, too anxious to leave Sherlock alone downstairs while he retreated to his room. His back hated him, and so did his leg, but he’d suffer the aches if it meant he was within earshot if Sherlock called for him.

He padded towards Sherlock’s door, easing it aside so as not to disturb him if he was asleep. Gloom shrouded the room, but he could make out the gleam of Sherlock’s open eyes in the glow of the living room lights. He was awake, but hadn’t turned on a bedside lamp. None of the books John had stacked nearby had been touched, and neither had the fresh, crusty bread he’d brought in a couple of hours ago.

It was as if he was in the world, but disconnected from it, and John’s stomach twisted with anxiety at the sight of him, pale and motionless beneath the quilt. His hair was greasy and his jaw unshaven, his usually immaculate appearance lost to neglect.

No level of cajoling on John’s part had convinced him to move. It took a ridiculous amount of pleading just to get Sherlock to eat and drink a few morsels each day. He’d already lost weight, though John’s intensive study had revealed there was a typical downshift in an Omega’s metabolism when their bond broke. Sherlock’s body had put itself into starvation mode. It wouldn’t keep him going forever, but at least it was a known symptom.

Flicking on the bedside lamp, John watched Sherlock’s eyes, checking for responsiveness. Sherlock may not be speaking, but he reacted to his environment. Now, he winced at the sudden change in illumination, his gaze darting up to John’s face before drifting away again to focus on some indeterminate point.

The strange, webbed rash that had etched itself over his skin – first his arms, then his torso, before climbing across his face – had started to fade. Its blood-red had become a pink echo, and John hunkered down by the bed, holding his hand out, palm up.

‘Can I see?’

It was habit, asking for permission. It was one of the few ways Sherlock would respond at all, and even then his movements were achingly slow. However, acceptance was implied in the effort, and John gave a weak smile as he cradled Sherlock’s wrist, examining the stain’s progress and seeing that it had already gone from his hands.

John rubbed his thumb over the prominence of those knuckles, wishing he could tell whether he was welcome or if his presence was an intrusion. If the situation were reversed, he’d try and hide from everyone, shutting himself away with his misery until he could face the world with dignity. That said, isolation wouldn’t help him. He’d need people there, even if he railed against their company.

Sherlock had done nothing to indicate his preference one way or the other. He’d not kicked John out, but nor did he grasp and cling, not like that first day. He tolerated John’s assistance, nothing more.

‘I’m going to go to bed,’ John murmured, speaking despite the fact he knew Sherlock wouldn’t answer. ‘Do you need anything? Something to eat? A drink?’ He raised his eyebrows, hopeful despite recent experience, but there was nothing from Sherlock, not even a nod or a shake of his head. He just hunched a little tighter, trying to block John out, along with the rest of the world.

‘Right.’ He nodded, pursing his lips before straightening up, wincing as his knees clicked in protest. ‘Just – just come and get me if you change your mind, or you could text.’ He picked up Sherlock’s mobile, only still charged because John had seen to it, before setting it back down on the bedside table with a click. ‘Goodnight, Sherlock.’

He turned away, his ears pricked for a response, but not even a murmur reached him. Grimly, he straightened his shoulders, telling himself that it wasn’t personal. To think any of what Sherlock was going through had anything to do with him was ridiculous. Sherlock would speak if he felt able, and it was John’s job to help him find the strength he needed to reconnect.

He just wished he had a damn clue what to do.

Trudging up the stairs to his room, he flicked on the light, getting ready for bed on autopilot. It was only when he sat on the mattress to take off his shoes and socks that he realised his breathing was ragged and salt bit at his eyes. Quickly, he pressed his fingers over the bridge of his nose, blinking away the vice of stress and helplessness. He’d fought back his own tears while Sherlock sobbed in his arms, and forced calm into the wobble of his voice when he’d witnessed the silent despair of recent days. He couldn’t succumb now.

Drawing in a steadying lungful of air, he ran his palms down his denim-clad thighs, the coarse material scraping across his skin as he considered the possibilities. Only this morning Mrs Hudson had sat in their living room, her face pale and pinched, asking John why they couldn’t do more to help.

The question was, what options did they have? Taking him to hospital was less than ideal. They’d ask complicated questions and entangle everything in bureaucracy because of Sherlock’s gender, and what could they do for him anyway? There was nothing they could treat. Instead the staff would transfer him to a controlled Omega facility for his own safety, where he would be forced to ride out the process in isolation and alien surroundings. Maybe Mycroft could get him out again, but the whole ordeal would be of no benefit to Sherlock.

Besides, it may draw the attention of the Cunninghams. They would do whatever they could to separate John from Sherlock, more worried about money and bonds than Sherlock’s well-being. No, best not do anything that might rock that particular boat – especially as Mycroft had made so little progress.

Still, John craved a more solid medical opinion. His own was lacking in the relevant experience, and he was unwilling to put his faith in the dry, analytical texts he found, written by Alphas and conducted by multinational drug corporations. It was all too impersonal, and none of them could help with the mental impact of what was happening to Sherlock. No, he needed to talk to someone who cared about him. Someone who knew what they were doing…

A name filtered to the front of his mind: Mike Stamford – beyond reproach and perfectly discreet. More to the point, he seemed to like Sherlock and as a Beta, he had access to a lot of Omega focussed knowledge for teaching his classes. All right, so he wasn’t a specialist, but John would take whatever he could get.

He rubbed a hand across his brow, relishing the light sensation that came with having a glimmer of a plan. The uncertainty that had dogged his every step lifted, and he nodded to himself, decided. Tomorrow morning, he’d talk to Mike. Ideally, he’d like Sherlock’s permission, but he was in no position to give it, and John didn’t have the luxury of time on his side.

Reaching under his pillow, he pulled out the t-shirt and cotton pyjama bottoms he’d been wearing to bed, stripping away the armaments of his trousers, jumper and shirt before slipping them on. Normally, he slept in his underwear, but seeing as how he’d spent the past week on the sofa, that didn’t seem ideal. The terrycloth robe came next, old and familiar, and John cast a regretful glance back at his bed before resigning himself to another uncomfortable night. He’d considered building something temporary on the floor, but it never reached the top of his list of priorities. However, if this went on much longer, he’d have to come up with an alternative. He already felt ten years older, aching and stiff.

Leaving his room, he was about to head downstairs when a sound made him pause. He’d grown used to Baker Street’s funereal tranquillity. Even when Sherlock struggled up to use the loo, he barely made a peep. Now, there were distinct noises – activity – and John’s heart jumped in his throat. It seemed unlikely that Sherlock had managed a startling recovery, and what did that leave? Mrs Hudson would be in bed by now. Had someone snuck in?

Instincts surged, and it took him a fretful second to remember that Alexander – the most obvious danger to Sherlock – was dead. So who was it?

His gun was downstairs, tucked behind the skull on the mantelpiece and hidden in plain sight. Still, it was no good to him there, and John licked his lips, leaning his weight forward and ghosting downwards, every sense pushed wide open.

At first, there was no sign of life. The living room remained as he had left it, cluttered but homey, and there was no one lingering in the kitchen or hiding around the corners. Silence had reclaimed its reign, and John frowned. Automatically, he turned to get the Sig, but before he’d taken a step towards it, something made him pause and look back towards Sherlock’s room.

He’d left the door ajar when he’d departed, separated from its frame by a couple of inches. Now a broad beam of light struck out, painting the twilight in golden shades.

John switched direction, his voice hesitant as he called out. ‘Sherlock?’ The lack of response wasn’t unexpected, but it offered him no comfort as he strode towards Sherlock’s bedroom and shoved his way inside, a repetition of his friend’s name dying on his lips.

Blood. It slammed into his nose at the same time as the colour daubed his vision, dark and ghastly on white sheets. Ferrous-tainted air caught in his throat as panic punched him in the chest. Adrenaline’s firework shot along his veins, his body jolting into action. There was no sign of Sherlock. The window remained closed, and there was no bleeding sprawl on the floor.

‘Sherlock?!’ John spun around, marching back out into the corridor and noticing a thin ribbon of illumination coming from the bathroom. The door was shut, and he slammed the flat of his palm against it, not even bothering to try the handle as terror made him snarl. ‘Let me in. Let me in right now or I break the damn thing down!’

In his head, the second he waited felt like an eternity, and with a curse, John stepped back, slamming his good shoulder and all his body weight into the latch side. Pain shuddered through him, but he ignored it as the panel flew open, pitching him into the room as the handle smacked into the wall. His chest was heaving, his entire being alert for whatever disaster he might find waiting for him. A million scenarios raced through his head, blinding him to what was actually there. A litany of curses and stammered questions escaped him as he lunged forward, grabbing Sherlock’s wrists and turning them so he could see the vulnerable vaults that held his veins in their cradle.

That was where he expected to find the breach. In battle-mode, John assumed the worst, and he stared at the unmarked skin. He was shaking so hard he could hardly see straight, pushed through adrenaline’s preternatural calm and out the other side. He’d faced worse in a war-zone, but this was different. This was Sherlock.

‘Where –?’ he managed. ‘Where?’ His gaze fell on the towel clutched tight in Sherlock’s fingers, its white fabric smeared with red, and he blinked, his addled mind trying to put the pieces together.

‘My neck. It’s the bite.’

For a scatter of seconds, John was almost too surprised by the fact Sherlock had spoken at all to take in his actual words. However, as soon as that voice, coarse from dis-use, permeated his mind, everything snapped back into focus. Practical knowledge swept his fear aside, and John gripped Sherlock’s shoulder, pushing him down to sit on the closed loo seat. Obligingly, Sherlock bent at the waist, his elbows lying on his knees and the towel still dangling from his loose fingers. The motion exposed the nape of his neck, and John hissed in immediate sympathy

It was a gory mess: a proper bite, as if someone had sunk their teeth in and ripped out Sherlock’s flesh. Blood welled up and dripped down his back. The curls that hid it from view were drenched and slick, and the t-shirt Sherlock wore stuck to his skin in places, adhered by the miasmic flow.

‘Christ!’ John breathed, snatching the towel from Sherlock’s hand and pressing it into service, clamping his palm over the wound in an effort to stem the bleeding. ‘Is this normal?’

At first he thought Sherlock wouldn’t answer him. Perhaps only the urgency of John’s voice had driven him to speak, giving him the one answer he needed. However, after the silence dragged on for a few moments, he managed a reply. It sounded exhausted to John’s ears, but he clung to the sound, grateful despite the circumstances.

‘Relatively. The tissue is different: fewer pain receptors and a strong capillary supply. I didn’t –’ He fell quiet, and John heard him swallow. ‘I didn’t notice the blister had formed. I didn’t even feel it burst. The smell of blood woke me.’ He shivered, and John looked around, grabbing another towel and draping it, clumsy and one-handed, over Sherlock’s shoulders. All the while he berated himself. He’d been so intent on Sherlock’s grief that he hadn’t thought to research what would become of the bite.

‘What should I do?’ he asked, not caring that he was putting his ignorance on display. ‘Do you have any idea what’s best for this?’

‘Keep it covered and dry, the same as any other wound.’

‘This is a bit more major than most injuries, Sherlock. God, I think it needs stitches at least.’

‘No!’ His response was shocking in its strength, and John twitched.

‘Why not?’

Sherlock pulled his legs up to his chest, propping his forehead on his knees and breathing steadily. He seemed pale and small in the harsh bathroom lights, and John edged closer, trying to lend him a bit of warmth ‘The healing mechanism is different,’ he explained. ‘Stitching interferes, and makes it prone to abscess. It will heal on its own; it won’t even leave a scar.’

He sounded numb, the limited intonation he had recovered falling flat once more, and John shifted where he stood. Peeling back the towel, he grimaced at the injury. Now he looked closely, it was more shallow than his first impression had implied. The bleeding had slackened, and John could see the edges of the wound were smooth, rather than ragged and torn: more like a burn than anything else.

‘Right.’ He cleared his throat as he took Sherlock’s wrist and placed his hand on the towel. ‘Keep that steady a minute. We’ll get it clean, and then stick a dressing on it.’ He winced at how pathetic that treatment sounded, trying to ignore the chafe of every medical instinct that said such measures wouldn’t be enough. In this case, he would bow to Sherlock’s expertise, but first thing tomorrow, he was texting Mike for a second opinion.

Quickly, he washed his hands, reaching for the first aid kit and the antiseptic wipes inside. He went through several of them, smoothing them over the wound and the surrounding skin, banishing the claret gleam of blood as best he could before fixing a thick dressing in place. He’d need to keep an eye on it and make sure it didn’t seep, but at least the sterile padding protected the raw flesh from foreign material. Lastly, he grabbed a bit of plastic with adhesive edges, covering the absorbent dressing with it. It was a temporary measure, something to keep it dry while he got Sherlock cleaned up.

He shifted around, hunkering down so he could look into Sherlock’s face. ‘You need a shower,’ he explained, shrugging apologetically as, for what felt like the first time in years, Sherlock’s eyes met his for more than a fleeting moment. ‘There’s blood in your hair. At the very least, you need to let me wash it out. You can tip your head over the edge of the bath... Think you’re up to that?’

Sherlock gave a slow blink, and John marvelled that a man who’d spent so long in bed could still look so exhausted. Deep shadows bruised his eyes, and the whites were bloodshot. His tongue wetted his chapped lips before he managed a heavy nod, a wince of pain stuttering across his face as his neck hurt in harmony to the movement.

‘We need to take your t-shirt off,’ John added, pulling at the cotton and guiding the collar over the dressing, sighing as Sherlock merely lifted his arms: too dependent for anything else. For John, it demonstrated the extent of his suffering. Normally, it was a fight to do anything that Sherlock felt impinged upon his dignity. Now, it was as if he didn’t have the strength to care. ‘It’s covered in blood anyway. Probably only good for the bin.’

He flung it aside, watching it fall into the corner of the bathroom before the sight of Sherlock’s back caught his eye. It wasn’t the trails of blood, turning brown as they dried, that made him freeze. Even the curve of his spine, too stark beneath his skin, was not the cause of his shock. He’d not seen Sherlock so exposed before, and now he realised that it wasn’t just the bite at the nape of his neck that he kept hidden beneath beautiful shirts and tailored suits.

John pursed his lips as tight as he could, his hands clenching into fists as he took in the scars that littered Sherlock’s skin. Some were deep and pitted, almost like stab wounds. Others raked long, vicious lines across the canvas of his flesh. They were old now: pale testaments to the violence that brought them into existence, but John knew what he was looking at. Maybe one or two were the results of incidents on cases – Sherlock’s chosen way of life leaving its marks – but it was Alexander who had wrought most of the damage.

A few scattered across his shoulder blades, but most were lower down, harder and deeper over his ribs and lumbar. He understood, now, why Mycroft had looked so wan when he explained finding Sherlock after Alexander’s attack. It took force to leave this kind of scar, and deliberation to place them over the undefended organs. Alexander had found the weakest point and gone after it time and again.

Anger flashed bitter across his tongue, and he drew in a breath. Alexander’s demise had been too good for him, too quiet, when all he deserved was the same pain he’d inflicted upon Sherlock. John’s fingers itched, curving around an invisible trigger. Stupid, how he could feel cheated of a revenge that wasn’t even his to take, but that didn’t lessen the heavy thrum in his veins.

Too late, he realised Sherlock’s head was cocked, watching him out of the corner of his eye. His impotent rage at the man who had caused Sherlock harm had an audience, and he sought to calm the fury that clamoured through him. It was useless, anyway. Alexander was beyond punishment now, and nothing John could do would change that.

‘John…’

‘Don’t,’ he begged. ‘Don’t say it doesn’t matter. Or that it wasn’t as bad is it looks.’

‘I wasn’t going to.’ Sherlock’s shoulders, too sharp now after so little food, jerked in a shrug. ‘I was going to say that it was a long time ago.’ He didn’t add anything further, perhaps too tired to do so, but John heard the underlying message in his tone. There was nothing John could have done to help, not back then, in a time before John Watson and Sherlock Holmes knew each other existed.

Now, it was a different matter, and he needed to focus on the Sherlock in front of him, not a younger version he’d never met.

With a firm nod, he looked around, putting a folded towel on the floor by the bath to protect Sherlock’s knees from the hard lino floor. ‘Tip your head over as far as you can, but don’t hurt your neck,’ he instructed, freeing the shower head from its bracket and flicking on the taps, testing the heat of the water before grabbing another clean towel and handing it to Sherlock. ‘Press that to your face. It’ll stop water getting in your eyes.’

He reached down to grab Sherlock’s hand, guiding the spray over his skin and watching avidly for any sign of displeasure. ‘Is this all right?’

‘Yes.’ Sherlock’s reply was a whisper, but it gave John the reassurance he needed to get to work. Besides, any speech was better than none, and Sherlock had said more to him in the past hour than he had done for days. Was the reaction of the bite a milestone? Surely it was a sign of progress?

Carefully, he doused Sherlock’s curls, watching the water run with rust before turning clear. He was about to reach for Sherlock’s normal shampoo when a thin hand grabbed his wrist, making him twitch in surprise. ‘I won’t let any get in the bite, don’t worry.’

‘That’s not what concerns me.’ Sherlock bit his lip, his face unreadable at this altered angle. ‘Use yours. I can’t stand the smell of mine right now.’

John reached for his bottle of cheap, generic all-in-one shampoo and conditioner. It probably cost a tenth of what Sherlock paid for his, but it would do the job, banishing the lankness from the chestnut strands and taking any lingering blood with it.

He eased the suds away, running his fingers over Sherlock’s scalp and finding another scar hidden there. It was wide, an old split in the fragile skin, and John clenched his jaw as he realised Alexander must have landed at least one blow to Sherlock’s head.

The temptation to linger, as if he could soothe away all signs of abuse with his touch, coiled below his heart, but he pushed it aside, concentrating instead on getting Sherlock’s hair clean. To give in would be an indulgence, more for his benefit than Sherlock’s, and right now that wasn’t what Sherlock needed.

Rinsing away the last of the shampoo, John turned off the flow and eased the towel away from where Sherlock had it pressed against his face. A quick but cautious ruffle got rid of the worst of the water, and he reached out, helping his friend lurch to his feet and holding him steady.

‘All right?’ John asked, giving a weary half smile as Sherlock nodded. ‘Come on then. Let’s sit you down before you fall over.’

It was not a joking concern. Sherlock’s frail strength had deserted him. Every step wobbled as John led him through to the living room. He’d pushed the couch forward from the back wall when he’d started sleeping on it, preferring to be more central to the room, and now he helped Sherlock slump in one corner.

John’s bedding lay folded in a neat pile on the floor, and Sherlock reached out, dragging the quilt over himself and huddling in its depths. It probably didn’t smell great – it had been a while since John had bothered with laundry – but its warmth seemed to soothe Sherlock’s fragile edges.

‘I need to sort out your bed,’ he explained. ‘It looks like someone’s been murdered in there.’ He swallowed hard, remembering his first, instinctive fear that Sherlock had resorted to desperate measures. Now that the rational methods of crisis management were beginning to fade, it left John shaken, pulled too thin and rattled loose by the stress. ‘Will you be all right? I won’t be long.’

Before Sherlock could reply, either with words or the return of his silence, there was a hesitant tap on the open door, followed by a quiet question. ‘Are you boys all right?’ Mrs Hudson asked from where she hovered on the threshold, clutching the lapels of her pink dressing gown. ‘Only I heard a loud bang, and then the water running.’

John winced, realising his frantic attempt to access the bathroom had caused more noise than he’d noticed at the time. ‘It’s okay, Mrs Hudson. Everything’s fine now. Sorry to wake you.’

She shook her head, her smile a little crooked. ‘It’s all right, dear. Do you need a hand with anything?’ She gestured to the towel John still had slung over his shoulder, daubed in blood. ‘Did someone have an accident?’

John thought of the messy bedclothes and all the towels. As reluctant as he was to ask their landlady to put on the laundry, he didn’t want to leave Sherlock alone in the flat, not right now. He looked so out-of-place, hunched rather than sprawled out in repose and lost in his mind palace. All the confidence he had come to associate with Sherlock had faded from sight, and the man left in its wake was horrifying in his vulnerability.

‘The blood’s from Sherlock’s bite,’ John explained, smiling as Mrs Hudson gave a moue of pity. ‘I was going to do some washing in the morning, but...’

‘Best get it done now, dear,’ she said, taking the towel and dropping it on the floor, forming the start of a pile with well-worn practicality. ‘The sooner blood’s cleaned out, the better. I’ll put what I can in for a cold soak and then wash them.’

John followed her as she bustled around, collecting up the used towels before stepping into Sherlock’s room. ‘Oh my goodness!’ She blinked rapidly, and John winced from where he was standing behind her shoulder. He’d begun to convince himself that he’d over-reacted, but seeing the smears of blood again, he had to admit it looked bad. Fluid had a tendency to spread, making even a small amount look dramatic, but this...

‘I’m just going to go and double-check Sherlock’s all right,’ he said, touching Mrs Hudson’s elbow.

‘All right, dear. I’ll strip his bed. Thank goodness I made him put a rubber sheet on it after that experiment ruined the last mattress. I’d hate to replace it again.’

John hid a grin, remembering their landlady’s outrage and Sherlock’s dismissal that the rather worrying chemical stain only covered half of the bed. However, that explained why the blood had gone so far. Unable to absorb downwards, it had travelled sideways instead.

Padding into the living room, he crouched at Sherlock’s side, pushing the bundled fluff of the quilt down so he could see his face. His eyes were half-lidded, but focused, so much better than the glassy disinterest he had displayed all week. ‘I just want to check your pulse.’ John held out two fingers, gesturing towards the crook of Sherlock’s neck. ‘The blood loss is considerable. I need to make sure you’ll be all right.’

Obediently, he tipped his head, permitting John access to the column of his throat. Stubble marked a striking boundary across his jaw, and John felt the rough nap of the hairs as he found the throb of Sherlock’s carotid artery. Slow, steady and strong, that pulse offered a wealth of reassurance, and John let out a breath of relief. His fingers lingered in the humid hollow, and perhaps it was his imagination, but the tight huddle of Sherlock’s body seemed to loosen with his touch, becoming more pliant as his lashes fluttered.

In fact, there was no denying it. Sherlock looked better, at least comparatively speaking. He was still too thin, too pale, and shadowed by the depressive nature of his mood, but he was more present and engaged. Compared to his normal self, he remained withdrawn, but John latched onto the improvement, taking heart when Sherlock glanced at him and gave a tiny grimace.

‘Sorry.’

John gave a puzzled frown. ‘What for?’

The bed covers gave a complicated movement as Sherlock shrugged. ‘Everything. This. Frightening you.’ He took a deep breath, and his next words sounded strained. ‘It’s not precisely what you signed up for when you moved in.’

He didn’t know where to start. The fact that Sherlock could be sitting there, almost drowning under the weight of what the bond’s destruction had done to him, and still be thinking of John was unbelievable. All those times he’d yelled at Sherlock for lacking empathy – had wondered if he was even capable – and now it couldn’t be more obvious that Sherlock was merely cautious about who he allowed to see his sentiments.

‘You’ve got nothing to apologise for. I’d have moved in no matter what.’

‘Because you needed the flat?’ Sherlock’s expression took on a slant of concentration. He looked like he was putting all his energy into focussing on his reply, and John’s breath stuttered as his response surged to the forefront of his mind, shorn of anything but honesty.

‘Because I needed you,’ he whispered, clearing his throat as the words rasped across his lips. He hated speaking about his emotions – found it challenging at the best of times – but he forced himself to make an exception. Sherlock, torn down by what was happening to him, deserved that much. ‘You – It was – ’

He sighed, frustrated at his inability to explain. His life had been so bleak and empty when he returned from Afghanistan: months of monotone. Sherlock had provided him with purpose, and plenty of it. He’d shown John that he was still the same man he had been before a bullet robbed him of his livelihood, not crippled beyond use after all, but powerful and necessary, able to give as much to Sherlock as Sherlock offered him.

‘You needed the Work,’ Sherlock corrected, the glow in his eyes dimming as he shifted on the sofa, propping his head on the arm and lying on his side. He still faced John, but that glimpse of life was already receding as the dense clouds of Sherlock’s distress rolled in again. ‘Adrenaline. Excitement.’ His fingers curled, clutching the quilt to his chest as if it were a shield. ‘I can’t provide that. Not like this.’

John clasped Sherlock’s hand, his grip tight as his denial burned his lips. ‘No.’ He tried to make it an order, as if he could command Sherlock’s understanding, but it came out too strained for that. A fierce shake of his head went ignored, and he moved his other arm, enfolding Sherlock’s fingers in the cocoon of both his palms as if he could physically hold him back from the precipice of depression that yawned at his feet. ‘You’re wrong. If all I wanted was a rush, I could take up fucking sky-diving.’

He closed his eyes, sorting through the clamour of his thoughts as he tried to find the right words. ‘It was you. Always you. You sat in that cab and told me everything about my life. You saw me. Yeah, at first, I was taken in by what you can do. How you can solve cases. How stupid and reckless and brilliant you are, but do you really think that’s enough reason for me to have stuck around through you shooting the bloody walls and leaving body parts in the fridge?’ He clenched his jaw, ignoring the way his voice cracked as he added, ‘You’re a crap flatmate, Sherlock, but I wouldn’t trade you for anyone. It’s got nothing to do with the Work.’

A sympathetic sound caught in his throat when he noticed the crystal glimmer of brine pooling in the corner of Sherlock’s closed eyes. They were clamped shut, as if he thought he could hold back the flood by force, but it didn’t stop the silent tear escaping to trail down to his cheek. Sherlock’s spare hand cuffed furiously at the moisture, trying to banish it as his gruff words emerged as half-whisper, half-snarl.

‘It won’t stop,’ he hissed, and his next breath turned into a wheeze, strained, as if he was trying to fight his heartache and losing ground. ‘I shouldn’t have to cry for him.’

‘You’re not.’ At least this John could say with confidence, and he shifted, sitting more comfortably on the floor and leaning his shoulder against the couch. ‘You’re not crying because he’s gone. You’re crying because of everything he took with him, and because you’re afraid you won’t get it back.’ He squeezed Sherlock’s hand again, pouring conviction into his grip. ‘But you will. I’m sure of it. Whatever it takes.’

Sherlock shook his head, his voice breaking. ‘And if I can’t?’

‘You can. People will help you. I’ll help you.’ He pressed his lips together, fighting against the lump of empathy in his throat as Sherlock buried his face in the quilt by John’s shoulder, concealing his sorrow. Bowing his head, he leaned his brow against Sherlock’s crown, his vow no more than a whisper. ‘I promise.’

A flicker of motion made John turn his gaze towards Sherlock’s bedroom door, where Mrs Hudson stood, her eyes bright and her arms full of washing. She shifted the load and one hand fluttered to her lips, promising her silence as she held back her tears. Sherlock would hate to be seen like this, and she realised that the best comfort for him would be to pretend she had never been there at all. With exaggerated care, she crept by, retrieving the pile of towels and leaving them in peace.

John waited, wishing there was something he could do to pull Sherlock free from grief’s grasp. The urge to stroke and soothe made his muscles burn, but he suspected that if he gave in, Sherlock would feel patronised rather than comforted. Instead he held still, doing all he could to transmit comfort and sympathy through two meagre points of contact: his hands furled around one of Sherlock’s and his forehead pressed to dark, damp curls. It seemed inadequate, but gradually, the vice of Sherlock’s despair eased. Quiet, fitful sobs reduced in frequency, and his ragged breathing began to regain an even flow.

‘Sorry.’ John almost missed the hoarse apology, but he thought he caught a trace of embarrassment in Sherlock’s voice. That was an improvement over indifference, and he looked down into that half-hidden face.

His skin was blotchy and his nose red. Bloodshot eyes blinked at him, a far cry from the elegant poise Sherlock managed to maintain when he was shamming. Right now, he just look wrecked, drained by the strength of his emotions and miserable with it.

‘Stop apologising,’ John urged, letting go of his hand and getting to his feet. It took less than a minute to grab a spare loo roll from the bathroom, and he put it down by Sherlock’s elbow, watching those fingers, so agile once, peel free a couple of sheets so he could blow his nose. ‘It’s not your fault.’

Sherlock made a small, disgusted sound, and John had to admit he couldn’t blame him. It must be awful, feeling so out of control. Under normal circumstances, Sherlock would not have shed a single tear over Alexander’s demise. If Sherlock’s hormonal balance had remained as it would be in his bonded state, he wouldn’t have wept at all. He would have taken action to secure his future without hesitation.

All this, the depression, the apathy... It was all because of Sherlock’s reaction to the broken bond. The chemicals in his blood did this to him, making him blank and sapping every last ounce of his energy. Even now, he looked shattered, as if he could hardly keep his eyes open, and John rested a hand on his head, skimming his thumb back and forth.

‘Get some sleep?’ he suggested. ‘Your bite should be all right for now. I’ll keep an eye on you.’

The sound Sherlock made might have been a protest, but whatever it was the words were lost. John allowed himself to observe, memorising the too-sharp lines of his cheekbones and the gaunt draw of his face as, inch by inch, Sherlock’s features softened.

Oblivion took him swiftly, dragging him under, and with a sigh, John wondered where he should sleep. His room was too far away, and now the sofa was taken.

A quick investigation proved that Sherlock’s bed lacked any pillows, probably too blood-stained to be saved, and only the quilt remained. It wasn’t much, but it would do, and he heaved it into the living room, making himself a clumsy nest on the floor and grabbing the blanket off the back of his chair. It wasn’t great, but he’d slept in worse over the years. Besides, he was tired enough to get some shut-eye anywhere. It dragged at his eyelids, and he curled up awkwardly by the sofa so that Sherlock could reach out for him if necessary.

Respite found him in fits and starts: shallow dozes plagued by nightmares he couldn’t remember when he awoke. Every time he looked at the clock, another hour had passed, and at six in the morning, he gave up on trying to get a good night’s rest. His body ached more than ever, but he bullied his way through it, blaming his age for his creaking joints as he got to his feet.

His eyes felt like someone had poured sand into them overnight, and his mouth was pasty. His arm and shoulder ached, and a quick investigation showed a large bruise where he’d shoved aside the bathroom door. Normally, he would have kicked it in, but he hadn’t been wearing any shoes and the chance of broken toes had been far too high. Not that his force had been necessary. Sherlock hadn’t even locked the bloody thing.

Creeping forward, John looked at the man in question, his face serene in sleep. Unsurprisingly, the dressing on his nape had darkened with a fresh swell of blood, and John grimaced, his resolve to contact Stamford solidifying into a certainty. He trusted Mike far more than any Internet source, and he wanted to know he was doing the right thing. He didn’t trust Sherlock to keep him informed, not now, when all his priorities were lost beneath the sea of his grief.

No, John needed someone outside of it all to reassure him of Sherlock’s physical well-being, even if he couldn’t do anything to alleviate his emotional state.

He grabbed his phone from the kitchen table, sending a vague but determined message. He didn’t want to blurt out Sherlock’s secret over text, where anyone could find it. As soon as Mike got here, he’d explain. If he was lucky, he’d catch him before he went to work. He knew Mike too well to think he’d decline. The man was pathologically helpful. It was one of the many reasons John liked him.

With the message sent, he cajoled his weary body into starting the day, consuming cereal and wincing at the loud rumble of the kettle as he made himself some tea. Sherlock slept on, ignorant to the domestic din that seemed to accompany John’s every move, and a flicker of uncertainty twisted through John’s chest. Sherlock wasn’t normally a heavy sleeper, not unless he’d been drugged or otherwise incapacitated. Was this another symptom of the bond’s destruction, or was there something more ominous at work?

The need to ensure he was all right overwhelmed his desire to let him sleep, and he abandoned the kettle, returning to the living room before cupping a hand around one bony shoulder and giving it a gentle shake.

At first, there was no response, but after a harder shove, Sherlock snuffled and made a deep, grumbling sound of protest. His eyelids trembled, and it took several seconds before John saw a glimmer of hazy silver, foggy and unfocussed, between the dark lines of his lashes.

‘How do you feel?’ John asked, watching in sympathetic fascination as Sherlock appeared to wrest himself away from the tempting shallows of his dreams, screwing his eyes up tight before opening them wide.

‘Tired.’ As replies went, it wasn’t exactly informative, but the huge yawn Sherlock failed to stifle emphasised his point. At least he was conscious and able to answer questions, although he was already settling back into John’s eiderdown and letting out a long, gusty sigh as his eyes slipped shut.

‘Hey, stay awake a minute. Look, I need to tell Mike about this.’ John waved his hand to indicate Sherlock’s supine form, flicking his fingers towards the dressing at the back of his neck. ‘I want a second opinion, and –’

‘He’s the obvious choice. A Beta with access to medical knowledge about Omegas.’

John blinked, the knot in his chest loosening as Sherlock spoke with such familiar confidence. ‘Yeah. I mean, he’s no specialist but –’

‘But he’s impartial.’ Sherlock yawned again, his words slurring. ‘‘s fine.’

The buzz of his phone interrupted before John could reply, and he turned away to read the message: Mike’s assurance that he’d be at Baker Street as soon as possible. The text spurred him into action, and he left Sherlock, already dozing again, as he hurried upstairs to get dressed. He shaved quickly and had just finished brushing his teeth when a timid knock reached his ears.

Trotting down the stairs, John opened the front door, giving Mike a tired smile as he noticed the man not only had a medical kit in one hand, but what looked like a bag of donuts and coffee in the other. ‘Breakfast,’ he said by way of explanation, his round cheeks swelling with an affable smile. ‘Sort of, anyway. It sounded urgent. Is Sherlock all right?’

John stood aside, beckoning him in as he tried to decide how to explain. Now it came to it, he didn’t quite know what to say. The silence grew, and Mike waited patiently as John cleared his throat. ‘He’s, yeah – no. Look, Sherlock’s an Omega.’ He drew in a breath, looking for anything other than surprise and acceptance in Mike’s face. ‘He’s been separated from his Alpha for years, but last week the bastard bloody went and died.’

Mike’s hiss of sympathy was immediate and gratifying. Beneath that jovial exterior, there lay an adaptable and considerable intelligence, and he caught on quickly. ‘A broken bond?’

‘Yeah. It’s all –’ John shrugged. ‘– complicated.’

‘I’ll say,’ Mike agreed, looking thoughtfully at the floor before gesturing upwards. ‘I’m guessing you want me to take a look at him?’

‘If you could. He hated that wanker, but that doesn’t stop the depression.’

‘Dissociative?’ Mike puffed out a tired breath as he got to the top of the stairs, rubbing a hand over his belly.

‘Yeah. He isn’t interested in eating or solving cases. He’s been in bed most of the time. He’d get up to use the loo, but then climb straight back under the covers again.’ For some reason, that news made Mike smile, and John frowned, confused, as he waited for an explanation.

‘That’s a good thing. I bet you’ve been doing your research, so you’re aware of the fading five-percent?’

‘The ones who just... die?’ John pursed his lips, pushing down the fear that fluttered like moths in his chest. ‘Yeah. I’ve been trying to find out how you can tell if an Omega’s heading down that path, but there isn’t much.’

‘Not in the public domain, no. A lot of documentation regarding Omega healthcare is restricted. You have to be vetted and all that. Since it’s part of my job teaching, and I’m not an Alpha, I can get my hands on material you won’t even know exists.’

He stepped through to the living room, standing on tip-toe to get a better look at Sherlock’s sleeping form. When he spoke again, it was in a whisper. ‘The ones that fade are completely unhooked from their lives and their bodies. No one quite knows why it happens, but they cease to make any connection to what’s happening to them. They’ll soil themselves rather than use the bathroom, wither and starve instead of eating even a mouthful. If you move them, they just stay where you put them. Sherlock’s taking care of basic hygiene and returning to a location he’s deemed as safe. It’s a positive sign.’

Something taut unfurled in John’s stomach at Mike’s words. He spoke with the confidence of a man who was sure of his knowledge, and John wondered why he’d not called on him back when all this started.

‘I managed to find out some of what I should I expect,’ he explained, ‘but I never thought it would be quite like this.’

‘People don’t.’ Mike circled around the edge of the sofa, setting his things down on the coffee table before he reached out and nudged Sherlock’s shoulder, watching his face with interest as he slowly stirred.

‘Morning, Sherlock. I need to check on your bite.’ If he was disturbed by the sleepy slowness of that lightning fast mind, he showed no sign of it. ‘It started bleeding last night, yeah?’ John nodded without thinking, but Mike just smiled in his direction, waiting until he got a grumbling, positive noise from Sherlock. ‘That explains the lethargy then. The formation of a proper scab is essential.’

‘Why?’ John asked.

‘If it doesn’t heal correctly, the Omega runs a high risk of bacterial infection of the spinal and cerebral fluid.’ Mike’s cheerful expression fell into serious lines, and an icy chill washed down John’s back. ‘The same thing happens if a bite is forced on top of an existing one, or before a scabbed one has properly sealed. It’s practically a certainty, rare in the modern age, but not unheard of.’ Mike tipped his head, observing John. ‘You’d have spotted that the moment it started,’ he reassured softly. ‘You’re too good a doctor to miss something like that. All I’ve done is give you advanced warning of the possibility.’

‘Christ,’ John breathed, cuffing a hand through his hair as he tried not to dwell on what might have happened. ‘Why the hell didn’t Mycroft warn me? He said it might be like a disease, but he never said anything about meningitis.’

‘It’s possible he isn’t aware of the precise nature of the risks. I know this stuff because I read the body of documentation as a whole. I can see patterns that aren’t stated in reports, because I’ve got access to multiple sources.’ Mike shook his head. ‘The healthcare system for Omegas is a disgrace. Any effort at reform falls flat on its face, so we’re stuck trying to do the best we can.’

He reached out and peeled away the dressing, careful not to disturb the freshly scabbed skin, still moist and oozing. ‘This though, this isn’t looking bad. The healing factors stimulate melatonin release, which is why Sherlock’s so out of it. His body’s in a sort of hibernation-mode. It’ll be deep, limited REM. The idea is to keep the Omega still so the scab can form.’ He checked the dressing for any warning signs of infection, passing it to John to take a look at. ‘Best leave it off for now. Let the air get to it a bit.’

Wearily, John perched on the arm of the sofa by Sherlock’s feet. Mike wasn’t giving him any guarantees, but he was still arming him with the facts, checking Sherlock’s pulse and rousing him to ask quiet questions. He nodded at the fractured replies, examining the jut of his ulnar process and checking for dehydration. He also listened to his chest, his head tilted intently to the side as he focused on the sounds the stethoscope delivered to his ears.

At last, Mike packed up the few bits of his kit he’d used and reached for his coffee, taking a gulp before he patted John on the shoulder. ‘As far as these things go, it’s not bad. He’s responsive, his pulse is slow but steady, he’s healing…As alarming as it looks this is a pretty text-book progression of a broken bond.’

‘Is there anything I can do to help? Get him to eat more? Try and make him get out of bed?’

Mike was shaking his head before John had finished, and his lopsided smile was kind. ‘I wish I could help you be more pro-active about it, but the best thing to do is keep an eye on him and let it run its course.’

‘And it’s okay to keep him here?’ That was the decision he’d questioned more than once since bringing Sherlock back to Baker Street, but Mike’s decisive response swept his uncertainty aside.

‘Without a doubt. I’ve read scores of papers on broken bonds, and one thing’s clear: scent plays a key role. They need to be somewhere that smells like home. Sometimes that’s a place, but sometimes it’s more to do with people. Having their kids around helps, if they’ve got any, or family, if they’re close, but I’m guessing for Sherlock, it’s going to be this flat and the man who shares it with him.’ He gestured to John, and there was the faintest twinkle of mischief in his eyes. ‘He’ll probably start gravitating towards things that smell like you, if he hasn’t already.’

John thought about Sherlock’s strange insistence at using John’s shampoo, and the way he had effectively buried himself in John’s bedding, rather than demanding his own. ‘It helps?’ he asked, trying to ignore the shimmer of pleasure at the thought.

Mike gave him a knowing look. ‘It comforts anyone who’s distressed to be in a familiar place with people they care about. It’s just that with Alphas and Omegas, it’s a bit more obvious.’

He cleared his throat, and something like embarrassment stuttered across that round face. Mike was the embodiment of practicality, ploughing on through uncomfortable topics regardless, but now he fidgeted, glancing from John to Sherlock and back again. ‘I suppose him asking me to expose you to telikostrone makes a bit more sense, now. It wasn’t so much about the cases as it was about him.’

John gave a weak laugh and bowed his head. ‘I didn’t find out until recently. He was trying to prove a point. Until a few days before that, I thought he was an Alpha.’

Mike’s expression was thoughtful, but he was a quick bloke, and John could see him working through various permutations before he spoke again. ‘But he’s not. Like you said, it’s complicated?’

John thought of the Cunninghams, the society that could trap Sherlock in another loveless bond and the biology that made such a connection necessary. ‘Very.’

Mike perched on the seat of John’s armchair, his hands pressed around the paper cup of coffee. ‘What about you? Are you okay?’

‘What? Yeah, I’m – I’m fine. Worried, but all right.’ John shrugged, offering what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but it didn’t look like Mike was buying it.

‘What I mean is,’ Mike eased a hand through the air in emphasis. ‘while Sherlock being here with you is good for him, it puts a few new risks on the table. Do you – do you know what to expect?’

‘Well, he’ll go into pyresus eventually, but Mycroft said it would be weeks away.’ He watched Mike’s neutral expression. ‘Won’t it?’

‘Probably, but it’s not like a switch. Sherlock’s moving from a bound state to an unbound one. You’ve never experienced him in the latter. Not his personality or his behaviour. You need to be aware of that.’ He shrugged. ‘I’m not saying he’ll be completely different from the man you know, but he’s likely to be volatile and defensive. His natural scent will re-establish itself, and then there’s the additional alteration of his fragrance during pyresus…’

Mike sighed, spreading his hands. ‘I know you, John. I know that under normal circumstances, you would never force yourself on anyone, but this –’ He gestured to Baker Street, indicating their situation. ‘This is an unknown scenario. If Sherlock goes into pyresus while you’re here, will you react the same way as an Alpha of the elite?’

‘No.’ John shook his head, adamant. ‘I’d – I’d never – I wouldn’t –’

‘You don’t know that,’ Mike said gently. ‘Hormones are powerful things, and we have no way to be sure how much of it is purely biochemical, and how much of it is social. We have no idea if your conscience will stop you.’ He lowered his voice, looking at Sherlock again before meeting John’s gaze. ‘I know you. You’d never forgive yourself.’

John closed his eyes and bowed his head. Mike was right. He could remember all too well back in the labs when he was exposed to telikostrone. It had been an invisible magnetic force, focusing his body on sex while dimming his mind. He had realised that there might be some situations in which his moral compass failed completely, overridden by a blind biological imperative.

‘I’m only saying this to put you on your guard, John, not to drive you out. Sherlock knows what to expect, and I’m sure he’ll look out for his own safety as well as yours when the time comes.’

Mike got to his feet, clearing his throat as he looked at the clock. ‘I have to get to work. I can’t give you access to the reports I have; they’re locked down to the hospital networks, but there are some things I can print off and send your way. The more you know and all that, right?’

‘Right.’ John cleared his throat, lifting his head as he stood up and shook Mike’s hand. ‘Thanks for all this. I wish I’d asked you sooner.’

‘No problem. I’ll drop what I can through the letter box on the way home from work. If you want a second opinion about anything, let me know. Oh, and…’ he looked around, grabbing a piece of paper and a pen before scrawling down a number. ‘That’ll get you through to Doctor Madison. She’s an Omega specialist. Private health, but she’s one of the good ones. If there’s any hint of infection give her a call, tell her I referred you. She won’t ask questions. All she’ll care about is making sure Sherlock’s all right.’

Mike picked up his bag before clapping John on the shoulder, his expression one of sympathy as he sighed. ‘Look, I can see how rough it’s been. I wish I could say it’ll be over soon, but from what you’ve said, it’s not that simple. There is one thing I can say for sure, though: he’ll get better. It might take a while, and it might not be easy for either of you, but he’s too bright not to figure something out, and you’re too good a friend to let him suffer on his own.’ Mike smiled. ‘Give it time, and everything’ll be all right.’

Perhaps it was Mike’s ceaseless smile, or his quiet confidence, but despite everything, John found himself starting to hope. Nothing was certain, and Mike was only guessing at the extent of the obstacles that littered the way ahead, but for the first time in days, the situation looked a little brighter.

He and Sherlock had solved improbable crimes and survived impossible odds in their time as flatmates. They’d been through everything together, and John was damned if he was going to let them be torn apart by something neither of them could control.

Not while he was still around to fight by Sherlock’s side.

Chapter Text

True to his word, Mike dropped off three thick envelopes full of papers on his way home from work. A note stuck to the front of the stack warned about the bias of the reports, but promised that John would find enough in there to help both himself and Sherlock.

He latched onto the information, absorbing everything on offer as evening turned to night. Sometimes he sat there, nauseated at the prejudice that lay thick in the medical research. Some of the articles read more like a guide to emotional and sexual manipulation, and a few he had to put aside, too repulsed by their indifference to the Omegas they discussed. However, most gave him insights into things he hadn’t even considered. He’d been so wrapped up in what Sherlock was going through that he hadn’t included himself as part of the equation.

At least, instinctively, Sherlock seemed to know what he needed. To him, a familiar scent had nothing to do with blood-ties; it was all about John. It made him wonder if he’d stayed with Sherlock through the past week – lain beside him through the days of deep indifference – would he have shown more rapid signs of improvement? Had John made the wrong move in keeping his distance?

With a sigh, he rubbed his eyes and looked around the room. Worrying about that now was useless. He had to think about the present and what he could do, rather than dwelling on the past.

The fire he’d lit in the grate had dwindled to embers, and the clock ticked away on the mantelpiece, its hands angled over midnight. His eyes burned and his stomach growled in furious reprimand. Food was a distant memory, and he realised he’d have to eat something before giving up for the night.

Moving on autopilot, he went to the fridge, examining various leftovers before putting some Thai beef in the microwave. The fluorescent digits ticked down as his thoughts wandered, drifting back to the pages heaped by his armchair.

It was easy to think of a bond as something simple, but the truth was that Sherlock’s body was rewriting itself, switching him into a different way of life. His olfactory sense, already powerful, would strengthen further, the better to detect threats or a potential partner. The balance of his brain chemistry would shift, prioritising physical sensations over logical reasoning, and his reproductive health and efficiency would be given precedence over every other physiological need.

Even the intimate arena of Sherlock’s biology endeavoured to rob him of free will. Worse, it did so at the very moment he needed it most.

Right now, Sherlock was incapable of considering his options, but John assumed that would pass in time. Unbound was not the same as irrational. He was not some dependent who couldn’t be trusted to do what was in his best interests. He had a mind and the intelligence to use it, and the thought of anyone denying him that right…

John swallowed, shaking his head as he acknowledged that a feral, selfish part of himself wanted Sherlock’s judgement to fall in his favour. He wanted Sherlock to decide on him, not because of the Work, but because of what had simmered between them for so long. It pre-dated his discovery that Sherlock was an Omega – that undeniable chemical attraction – and John was sure it had nothing to do with gender. It was about them, nothing else.

If he offered that – the bite Sherlock seemed sure he needed and the relationship that John had always assumed went with it – would Sherlock take it? Would he do it because he wanted John, or because he needed a bond? Would he turn it down, and if he did, where did that leave them?

He shook that last question aside. He’d be here in whatever capacity Sherlock wanted him, for as long as he let him stay. Wasn’t that what Sherlock feared losing the most? What they already had? His grief was for the destruction of the life he’d built here in Baker Street, and John was part of that.

But if Sherlock said yes…

The beep of the microwave interrupted his train of thought, and John smile ruefully at the skitter of his heart. God, he was a sap. It was embarrassing to get to this age, almost forty, and find himself half-giddy again, adolescent in the surge of his emotions. As tempting as it was to blame it on the constant hormonal flux around him, it wasn’t something new. It had been washing over him with increasing frequency since well before Sherlock’s bond broke.

Except now wasn’t the time to bring it up. John wanted to ease his burdens, not add to them. Besides, he wasn’t even sure what he’d be offering. In so many ways, a bond seemed more complicated, more committed, than a wedding vow. Was he capable of being what Sherlock needed?

Retrieving his meal from the microwave, John grabbed a fork and headed back to the living room. A cushion on the floor by the sofa provided some padding and he settled onto it, kicking his legs out in front of him as he picked his way through the leftovers.

Even if John did offer himself, there was no guarantee Sherlock would take him up on it. He’d proven with Alexander that he was not afraid to make the hard decisions, nor fight for what he wanted, but that was in different circumstances. His bond had been in place when he began to combat his fertility, to run away, to become the man he was today… Mike had said it earlier: Sherlock was entering a different state, one he’d not experienced for almost two decades. There was no telling how he’d react once the fog of grief cleared.

A glimmer of pale movement flashed in the corner of his eye, and John twitched as long fingers plucked a bit of meat from his bowl. He looked over his shoulder to see Sherlock pop it in his mouth and chew, licking sauce off his thumb before swallowing the morsel. It was the first time since Alexander turned up dead that he’d voluntarily eaten anything, and John half-turned where he sat, setting the dish within Sherlock’s reach.

‘How’d you sleep?’ He held his breath, waiting for a reply and trying not to smile like an idiot when he got one.

Sherlock tipped his head, one shoulder shifting before he cleared his throat. 'Deeply. What day is it?' He frowned at the clock on the other side of the room. He hadn't cared about the time for far too long, and it was satisfying to see him take an interest.

'It's Wednesday.’ John kept his fork poised over the bowl as Sherlock grabbed another bit of meat.'It's been about a week since... Well.' He shrugged, pressing on quickly. 'Mike was here this morning. Do you remember that?'

Sherlock's eyes narrowed, perplexed creases charting their grooves across his brow. 'That feels like ages ago.' He gave a minute shake of his head then hissed, reaching a hand back. John snatched his wrist before he could touch the bite, keeping his grasp firm as he swallowed his mouthful.

'Don't. We took the dressing off to let it scab. Leave it alone if you can.'

He watched the cogs of Sherlock's mind start to turn, no doubt trying to build up some kind of timeline from his scattered memories. He looked lost, but it was annoyance that tilted the corners of his lips downwards: a sign of intellectual frustration, and John gave silent thanks at the sight. It was easy to forget how quiet Sherlock had been until this – his undeniable presence in the world they shared – put it in perspective. It made John see how bad it had become, and he reminded himself that such things didn't just go away. Sherlock's recovery would be slow, but this was the first step: one he had feared they'd never take.

It was tempting to bombard Sherlock with questions and revel in his answers when before there had been nothing but blank silence, but John bit his tongue, giving him the chance to order his thoughts in peace. Gradually, the bowl emptied, and maybe Sherlock wasn’t eating an adult-sized portion, but it made John feel better to see him consuming anything under his own steam.

‘I was about to make some tea.’ It was a lie, but the caffeine wouldn’t be enough to keep him awake, and Sherlock needed fluids in whatever guise John could provide. ‘Do you want one?’

‘Please.’

Sherlock’s response was immediate. There was no lingering silence as if he were struggling to remember why interaction mattered, and John relished his relief. He’d hoped the change to the bite would be a turning point; it looked like he’d been right. Everything Sherlock did seemed like progress towards recovery, and John was eager to celebrate each tiny victory.

By the time he had brewed two cups of tea, Sherlock had shuffled upright, gathering the quilt around himself and tucking his feet up under his legs. Every movement made him wince, but he was no longer a discarded puppet, limp and disconnected. There was strength in his posture, and he reached for the mug in John’s hands, taking a greedy sip from the rim.

John sat down in the space at Sherlock’s side, trying not to stare. He longed to drink in the sight of him, awake and aware for the first time in ages, but John didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. He had to content himself with sneaking, side-long glances, cataloguing the changes.

The stain of exhaustion had lifted from Sherlock’s skin, and the last of the rash had faded from sight, leaving him colourless in its absence. His hair was a fluffy riot of curls, and the stubble on his jaw emphasised the prominence of his cheekbones.

He was also shaking, and John frowned. It could be low blood sugar, but as the minutes passed, it didn’t seem to get any better, despite the boost the scraps of meat would give him.

‘It’s another symptom,’ Sherlock murmured, and John sighed, scolding himself for thinking he’d been subtle. Even like this, Sherlock was strikingly observant. Of course he’d notice John watching him.

‘Can I see?’

Sherlock set the mug down on the nearby coffee table before holding out his hands, palm down, between them. His compliance was automatic, as if he hadn’t given it conscious thought, and John glanced at him before taking in the tremors in his hands. It was enough that it would interfere with fine motor skills, like threading a needle, and didn’t look dissimilar to what John’s left hand did sometimes. Except the old trauma in his shoulder caused his. Sherlock’s had to have a chemical root.

‘It’ll fade.’ Sherlock tilted his head, observing his body’s betrayal. ‘At least, I think it will.’

‘How much do you know about what’s happening to you?’ John asked, enclosing Sherlock’s palms in his and noticing the shakes lessen. ‘I mean, your mum didn’t go through a bond’s break, and I’m guessing it doesn’t affect an Alpha in the same way, so your dad wouldn’t have shown these symptoms when she passed.’

Sherlock chewed on his bottom lip – an unusual gesture of uncertainty. He looked young, as if his situation had shorn away years of confidence, and John shifted in his seat as he waited for him to speak.

‘I considered killing Alexander.’

The reply coiled through the air like smoke, and in those words was some of the frank ruthlessness John had glimpsed before. ‘When I was stuck with him dragging me to fertility experts, I needed to see what I might face. They left papers lying around on their desks, dumped on shelves… It was simple. They didn’t seem to think I’d be capable of the independent thought required to steal them. It wasn’t the most comprehensive collection of research, but I learned enough.’

He lifted his chin, daring John to question his behaviour. As if he’d find any sort of morality from him on that score.

‘Good.’ John smiled as Sherlock raised one eyebrow. It wasn’t quite his usual, disdainful expression, but it was close enough. He got to his feet, scooping a handful of articles off the short stack by his chair and putting them in Sherlock’s lap. ‘If you feel up to it, you can read these. Mike printed them out from the locked-down teaching network, as well as PubMed and other places. Normally, you or me wouldn’t be able to get our hands on them. Not without the right credentials.’

Sherlock traced a shuddering finger down the edge of the page, his eyes darting over the title. He thrived on knowledge, and maybe John couldn't do much to help with what was happening to him, but he could give him this.

Normally, there'd be no question about it; Sherlock would throw himself into research, arming himself with every fact he may need. He’d treat what was happening as another case he could solve, but where John hoped for enthusiasm, there was instead hesitation.

'Stamford's helping?' he asked, and John chewed on his lip, not missing the edge of surprise in Sherlock's voice. Maybe after fighting on his own for so long, it was hard to understand that other people might want to give him a hand without an ulterior motive.

'Course he is. Everyone's doing what they can. Greg's distracting people from asking questions about why you've not been able to help with the case. Molly's promised to keep some interesting bits for you down at the morgue if you need a distraction, and Mrs Hudson's broken her "not your housekeeper rule" more times this week than she has all year.' Gratitude coloured John’s voice. 'And they've all made it clear they'll do much more than that if you ask.'

Sherlock plucked the page's corner before meeting John's gaze. 'Then there's you. Sleeping on the floor, judging by the stiffness of your back; breaking down the bathroom door because you thought I'd done myself harm. You've lost three pounds from worrying too much and eating too little, and you've barely left my side.' He drew in a shaky breath. 'You've not even been outside the flat.'

'Where would I go?' he demanded. 'Unless it was to retrieve something that would help you, what could make me leave you on your own when you need me?' He swallowed. Blunt as his statement may be, it wasn't a lie. Mike had been adamant about that. It wasn't just anyone who made Sherlock feel better. It was John.

‘Thank you.’ Sherlock met his gaze, and the tiniest glimmer of a smile curved his lips. ‘Knowing you were here made it easier – more bearable. You reminded me there was still a world outside my head.’

'Good. I wasn't sure if you'd rather I left you alone or...' He trailed off with a shrug, scratching the back of his neck before changing tack. 'You seem better. Twenty-four hours ago, you wouldn't even speak. Now...'

Something flickered in Sherlock's gaze, and he reached for his tea, drinking what remained in steady gulps before cradling the empty mug in his hands. He stared into the dregs, enchanted by the thin layer of fluid. 'It feels like I'm high: too fast, too bright, too present. Like I've swung too far the other way.' He ran a shaking hand up his arm and back down again, staring at whatever dwelt inside his own head. 'I don't know how long it will last. I should try and make the most of it.'

He looked around the living room as if he were searching for the threads of his old life. As if, weak as he was, he intended to pick up and carry on, like nothing had happened. 'I was in the middle of solving a case.'

John frowned, listening more to the way Sherlock spoke than what he was saying. Normally, delays in answering the call of the Work were voiced in thick frustration. Sherlock had never sounded like he dreaded it before, but there was no other way to describe the heavy drag of his words through the air.

'Let Greg deal with that,' he urged, not mentioning the DI's futile struggle towards some kind of solution. 'You should concentrate on looking after yourself. Just because you feel better than you have done over the past week, it doesn't mean you've got to rush back into anything.'

Relief eased the harsh lines of Sherlock's face, and John's heart squeezed with concern. This wasn't the way he expected him to behave. John knew how it went when he was recovering from illness or injury. He pushed himself too soon and sneered at anyone who tried to stop him. He was the master of his transport. Seeing him like this – its victim instead – drove home the severity of the situation.

For the first time since John had walked through the front door of Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes was looking for an excuse to put his own well-being before a case.

Deviation from the norm was to be expected, but that didn't make it any easier to witness. Grimly, John told himself that it was a good thing. If Sherlock was happy to stay inside the flat and recover, then that was one less argument they had to go through. Even if Sherlock wanted to, John wasn't about to let him go haring off on an investigation. He was shaking, weak and in serious need of rest. He just wished Sherlock had fought him on that front, even if it was a token protest.

'You should get some rest,' Sherlock said, his grey eyes never leaving John's face. 'Using a proper bed would probably be a good idea.'

'I'm not going upstairs,' John replied, his denial automatic. 'You could still take a turn for the worse, and I don't want to be –' He flicked a hand towards the stairs, almost too weary to lift his arm.

'Then sleep in my bed.'

John's heart slammed against his ribs as he stared in disbelief. The fact Sherlock had noticed John’s well-being was surprising enough, but for him to actively invite John into his personal space? According to what Mike had given him, the first thing a grieving Omega wanted was distance and sanctuary from any Alpha. Being with their kin helped, but the implication was they should be in the same house, not the same room.

Of course, Sherlock had never followed the standard path in anything. John knew that. He had daily proof. Even withdrawn and in the darkness of depression, Sherlock had still taken comfort in John’s proximity. The question was, where exactly was Sherlock going with this?

'I've been unconscious for the best part of twenty-four hours. If I get tired, I can sleep here. There's two perfectly good mattresses in this flat. There's no reason you shouldn't use one of them.'

John’s heart lurched in disappointment, and he chastised himself for it. What had he expected, that Sherlock was inviting him to share?

He wanted to argue. Sherlock was the one undergoing a biological process that tore apart his body and mind. If anyone should have the bed, it was him. However, one look at him, his eyes slowly starting to skim the page of the report with a welcome gleam of interest, and John knew he couldn’t protest, not at the risk of disturbing him from reclaiming some semblance of normality.

‘All right, fine,’ he relented, not missing the tick of Sherlock’s triumphant smile, ‘but for God’s sake, it’s a double. If you get tired, just shove me over and climb in. There’s enough bloody space. No need to sleep on that monstrosity of a sofa for any longer than you already have.’

He didn’t give Sherlock the chance to debate it as he got to his feet, shuffling through to the nearby bedroom and smiling at the sight that awaited him. Never had he been so grateful for Mrs Hudson’s tendency to fuss. She’d found new pillows and fresh linens, which meant all John had to do was strip to his underwear and climb in, too tired to bother brushing his teeth.

Exhaustion had become a physical weight, pressing at the back of his head and crushing his neck. It pinned him to the mattress, thumping in his temples as his eyes slid shut, blocking out the grey gloom of London’s night. The quilt smelled like detergent, robbed of every trace of Sherlock’s static-fragrance, and John sighed at the loss, shutting his eyes and slowing the rush of his thoughts.

The first veils of a shallow doze fell away to the oceanic depths of oblivion, and when he finally surfaced, it was to find rich morning light bathing the room. The numbers on the bedside clock gleamed reproachfully, indicating it was closer to lunchtime than breakfast.

‘Shit,’ John muttered, sitting up and cuffing at his eyes. He’d meant to check on Sherlock during the night, but it seemed his body had other ideas. He’d hoped he wouldn’t wake up alone, but the bed lay empty, the second pillow undented, and he flicked back the sheets, reaching for his clothes before pulling them on.

Smoothing his hands over his hair, he promised himself a hot shower and a shave as soon as he got the chance. However, his first priority had to be Sherlock. This was the longest John had left him unattended, and the same old fears reared their heads, pushing his heart into his throat as he pulled back the bedroom door.

His nose picked up the difference immediately, warning him of another presence. Visceral anger-cum-panic flashed through him, blazing across his muscles and making his ears ring, and it took a moment to see what was in front of him: not a stranger invading their home, but Mycroft.

John took several steadying breaths as he tried to stifle the sting of adrenaline. Any shreds of drowsiness had vanished, and his hand clenched around the door handle hard enough for the metal to bruise his palm.

He didn’t recognise Mycroft’s scent. Normally, the older Holmes smelled of expensive cologne, which John had often suspected he tailored to keep his personal fragrance partially obscured from the Alphas of the populace. Either he'd forgotten to put it on, or it wasn't doing its job, because their flat was laced with an odour he had never had an opportunity to catalogue.

He'd always thought Mycroft would smell like school. In reality, Baker Street carried hints of clean wood-smoke and something rich and umber in John’s mind, like fine whisky.

His gaze fell on the man himself, and John realised his assumption was correct. Mycroft did not look like someone who had seen the comforts of his own bed for several days at least. His clothes were creased and travel-worn, and his rigid posture seemed ragged at its edges. He stood by the window, his back to the room, but he had turned as John emerged to take in his arrival. One eyebrow lifted, but for once it didn't look judgemental – merely curious.

'I trust you slept well, Doctor Watson?'

John cleared his throat, his voice rough as he nodded. 'Bit longer than I intended, but yeah, thanks.' He glanced at Sherlock, noticing the slump of his body. John’s quilt still cocooned him, but last night he'd been sitting up straight, keen and focused. Now he pulled his knees up tight to his chest, his arms wrapped around them and his head resting on their peaks. He managed a grimace of greeting, but the light had waned from his eyes, leaving them lifeless.

'Has something happened?' John asked, frowning as Mycroft abruptly looked away, turning back to the window and staring through the pane. Nerves fluttered in John's stomach, and he stepped closer, perching on the arm of the sofa. Instantly, Sherlock leaned against him, pressing close as if starved for contact.

'I am afraid I am here to report on my lack of progress,' Mycroft admitted. His hands folded around one another behind his back, and John saw the bleached sharpness of each knuckle. 'The death of the Cunninghams' son, especially in such suspicious circumstances, has resulted in a delicate situation. So far, my attempts to meet with them have been ignored, diverted or otherwise waylaid. Alexander's siblings, both Alphas, seem keen that I should not speak to their parents. I doubt it has anything to do with protecting them in their time of grief.'

'They won't give a shit about that,' Sherlock murmured.

'I believe their main concern is the potential loss of an asset.’ He looked at Sherlock meaningfully. ‘As, once you leave my care, you are the Alpha mother’s responsibility, the siblings do not stand to gain or lose directly, but it is clear they do not wish me to meet with her.’

‘But –’ John paused, narrowing his eyes as he licked his lips. ‘But isn’t that a good sign? I mean, if they’re trying to stop it from happening, then doesn’t that mean they think you might succeed?’

Mycroft tilted his head in acknowledgement, his eyes cold as he glanced at John. ‘It at least suggests they may be aware of the foundation of my negotiations: Alexander’s treatment of Sherlock.’

‘Gabrielle knew.’ Sherlock’s words stirred the air. ‘The sister. She and Alexander were close. He will have told her some of it. Enough to put her on her guard. It could be she’s trying to protect him.’

‘Bit beyond that now, isn’t he?’ John demanded, biting his lip too late at the harshness of his words.

‘But their reputation is not,’ Mycroft pointed out. ‘The stigma of domestic abuse can destroy a family for generations amidst the elite. Unfortunately, because few people are ever charged with their crimes, it is all whispers… rumours. Scandalous, perhaps, but easily dismissed with the right social flair.’

He straightened his shoulders as he stared out over Baker Street. ‘That’s why I am here. It’s apparent that a delicate approach will not work, and my subtle efforts at –’

‘Blackmail?’ John asked, lifting his chin as Mycroft glared at him.

‘Encouraging them to appreciate my perspective have not been successful. If I cannot speak to the parents then I will have to coerce the siblings by threatening to reveal the evidence pertaining to Alexander’s crimes in a public forum, such as court or – failing that – the press. While I can guess their reaction would be cooperative, I’m not adequately acquainted with either Gabrielle or Henry Cunningham to be sure.’

‘Lean on Henry.’ Sherlock sighed, rubbing a hand across his eyes before shifting his touch to his temples. ‘He’s built a business empire on the wholesomeness of the family name. He has more to lose. Gabrielle is stubborn; she might be obstructive for the sake of her dead brother’s secret.’

‘So, let’s say you do that. Let’s say you tell them you’ll show the world their brother was an abusive bastard, they fold and you can get through to the mother. What then?’

‘That depends on whether they choose to make a settlement: of which I’ll accept nothing less than their relinquishment of any claim over Sherlock.’ Mycroft closed his eyes, looking pained. ‘Alternatively, I’ll take the whole thing to court. However, that approach is less desirable.’

John scratched his eyebrow, thinking longingly of a cup of tea and a hearty breakfast as he tried to get his head around what Mycroft was saying. ‘But, if it goes through the justice system – our one – won’t that help? They’re not going to try and hush it up or anything.’

Mycroft turned away from the window, slipping his hands in his pockets and giving John a patronising smile. ‘No? How fascinating. Tell me, John, do you know how many judges in Her Majesty’s service are Alphas of the elite?’ He waited, his eyebrows lifting as John’s heart sank. ‘To believe their influence is limited to their own sphere would be naive. If this goes to court, we lose all element of control. Sherlock’s fate will be out of our hands, and not because they place it in his.’

He sighed, sitting in Sherlock’s armchair with an uncharacteristic lack of poise. ‘Even if everything else fell in our favour, there is still the matter of precedent. There isn’t any that remains applicable in the modern age. Such a case could have vast repercussions for society as a whole.’

‘And that wouldn’t be a good thing?’ John demanded.

‘For the nation? Undoubtedly. For Sherlock?’ Mycroft shook his head. ‘It could take years to reach a resolution, and what becomes of him in that time? He cannot remain unbound indefinitely. Not as it stands.’ He closed his eyes, deep lines of stress bracketing his mouth. ‘Forgive me, but I would not choose the well-being of the populace over that of my brother. His situation is not a vehicle for social reform. At least, not at this tenuous juncture.’

‘That shouldn’t be your decision.’

Sherlock’s quiet statement pulled them up short. John had almost forgotten he was there, and he looked down sharply, taking in the line of his profile. Stress and misery turned his face grey, but there was defiance in the crease of his brow and purse of his lips.

‘You would rather that was our strategy?’ Mycroft asked, the confusion that coloured his voice making him sound like a new man.

‘Don’t be absurd.’ Sherlock closed his eyes, shaking his head. ‘The issues are too clouded to allow confidence in the jury. Any case that sets a precedent has to be about a potential crime the non-elite would judge without hesitation: theft, murder… Something black-and-white.’

John stiffened, his teeth clenching. ‘What, there’s nothing straightforward about you being forced to bond to someone who then turned to domestic abuse?’ he demanded, cutting a hard glare in Mycroft’s direction, daring him to try and be the voice of reason.

Instead, it was Sherlock’s fingers clasping his hand that interrupted the angry roll of his thoughts, plucking apart the strings of his temper as they wriggled into the ball of his fist. ‘No, there isn’t. The whole situation is clouded by sentiment, by how you define consent, and by whether you consider my refusal to provide him with children as provocation.’ He raised his voice, drowning out John’s effort to interrupt. ‘There’s too much open to interpretation. Too many ways in which the Cunninghams could spin it to their advantage, leaving a confused jury and a mess of case.’

He shook his head, looking back at his brother. ‘You’re right. It would be stupid to let it go to court, but it still isn’t your choice. Not while I’m capable of making it myself.’

Mycroft inclined his head, closing his eyes in acknowledgement. ‘My apologies. You realise, of course, that in the end we may have no other option, but I will endeavour to avoid legal action unless it is absolutely necessary.’

He drummed a ragged rhythm on the arm of the chair, his eyebrows cinched and his gaze distant, no doubt intent on whatever machinations he had in mind. ‘If we are in agreement, I shall attempt to apply pressure to Henry Cunningham in the hopes of accessing a discussion with his parents. However, it is unlikely to be either quick or straightforward.’

‘I never thought it would be.’ Sherlock shrugged, glancing away.

‘We have to consider the possibility that the Cunninghams, or someone pertaining to them, may try and take drastic action before any negotiations are complete.’

‘What?’ John asked, tightening his hand around Sherlock’s fingers.

Mycroft’s gaze flickered, taking in their entwined grasp before he straightened in his chair. He leant forward, twisting his hands together in front of him. ‘It would not be impossible for an enterprising individual to bond Sherlock against his will, trapping him in a union that aligns more with the Cunninghams' desires. If, for example, one of the family alerts a potential suitor to the situation, they may engineer a scenario in which they can force a bond upon Sherlock: abduction and so forth. It’s not unheard of.’

Leaden heat thudded in John’s stomach: a bass roar of emotion that seared along his veins, making his hands throb and his head pound. The sharp pressure of his teeth against his tongue held back the snarl that bubbled in his throat, and he tried to blink aside the haze that blocked his vision. Just let them fucking try it. He’d see them dead before they even touched Sherlock.

A tweak of movement at his elbow dragged him back from the edge: Sherlock’s grip pinching the wool of John’s jumper. It was the smallest possible tether, but it helped pull him back to the present, where he was left breathless and ashamed at the strength of his response.

‘I thought –’ His voice shook, and he cleared his throat, scratching the bridge of his nose before soldiering on. ‘I thought an unwanted bond could be broken without the death of the Alpha? I’m sure I read something about that.’

Mycroft was watching him, but if he had noticed John’s brief fugue, he did not mention it. ‘I suspect you came across it amidst your extensive research.’ He gestured to the medical reports around them. ‘It is not a preferable course of action.’

Sherlock snorted. ‘That’s an understatement. It’s like the most brutal chemotherapy imaginable. The Omega emerges with serious long-term health problems, if they survive it at all. Most Alphas won’t bother with it, not unless they’re motivated by spite.’ He shrugged. ‘It can affect fertility. Not exactly ideal.’

‘So while it is possible; it’s not viable. It’s certainly not a situation I would ever wish upon my brother.’ There was an edge to Mycroft’s words, something pointed. A warning, maybe, and John lifted a questioning eyebrow, watching Mycroft tip his head towards the stairs: a promise to explain once they were out of Sherlock’s ear-shot.

‘The Cunninghams may feel that underhanded methods, such as forcing Sherlock to bond, are the only way they can maintain their grip on him. They’ll know we are unlikely to break a connection once it’s been placed.’ Mycroft sighed. ‘Additionally, any legal recourse would be limited, as I have no specific rights with regards Sherlock’s next bond. Not unless they relinquish their claim.’

His eyes grew dark, anxiety exposed within his gaze as he turned to Sherlock. ‘You’re more vulnerable now than you have been in years. I would ask you to consider whether Baker Street is still the best place for you.’

It was like watching a harsh frost strip the life from the world. Sherlock pulled inwards, withering before their eyes. His hand eased free from John’s clutches, curling against his chest. His shoulders took on a lopsided, cringing slant: a bird with a broken wing. What little colour there was to his face ebbed from sight, and his lashes fluttered as he looked down and away.

John heard the next breath hitch in Sherlock’s chest, not grief, but panic, and he cast Mycroft a beseeching look. ‘I don’t think there’s any question about that. Can’t we do more to make the flat secure? Cameras? Surveillance?’

‘Neither is fool-proof.’

‘And isolating him off in the countryside means there are fewer people around to notice if something goes wrong,’ John pointed out. ‘Here, everyone’s nearby. Not just you and me, but Mrs Hudson, Lestrade and the others at the Yard. Safety in numbers.’ He shrugged.

‘And any potential threat can obscure itself within the crowd.’ Mycroft’s counter was matter-of-fact, but one glance at Sherlock seemed to sway him. ‘You will have to leave eventually,’ he pointed out. ‘The respite the city can offer will become a threat before much longer.’

‘I’m aware,’ Sherlock muttered, rubbing a trembling hand across his forehead. ‘Do you think I don’t know what could happen if I went into pyresus here? I understand the risks, both now and in future but I just – I can’t leave.’ His voice shook, and John knew it was as much about Sherlock’s unwillingness to relinquish any more control as it was about the familiarity Baker Street could offer.

Mycroft nodded, his breath leaving him in a sigh as he rose from the chair. ‘In that case, I will enhance the security here.’ He straightened his shoulders, looking diminished. ‘John, I realise that I may ask too much, but I would appreciate it if you did not attend any locum work at the surgery for the foreseeable future.’ He flicked his hand towards the window. ‘A stranger in Baker Street, even for Sherlock’s own protection, is unlikely to assist in his recuperation. You, on the other hand….’

‘I don’t need a bodyguard.’ Sherlock lowered his feet to the floor, his bare toes digging into the carpet. ‘I’m not incapable, Mycroft.’

‘No, but you are compromised. Forgive me, brother dear, but you look like you’d snap in a strong breeze. It would not be hard to overpower you in your current state. I’m merely asking for John to provide his assistance until you are well enough to defend yourself.’ Mycroft looked away, his voice softening as he added, ‘Which could be quite some time.’

‘I wasn’t planning on going back to work. Not while Sherlock’s recovering at least.’ John sat down; he hadn’t even thought of the surgery. ‘I’ll give them a call, let them know I’m not available.’

‘Thank you. Should you require anything: groceries and such, please keep me informed. I shall make sure you are in possession of adequate provisions.’

Sherlock gave a strained sigh. ‘Are you quite done putting us under house arrest?’

‘It’s for your own safety.’ Mycroft closed his eyes, speaking through gritted teeth. ‘Against my better judgement I am assisting you in staying here, Sherlock, but there are limits to the risks I will take with your welfare in the name of compromise. I refuse to act against your best interests. I could not stand back, watching disaster befall you and find comfort in knowing it was your choices that brought about calamity.’ He tugged at his jacket, a sharp jerk that strained the fabric before he strode towards the door. ‘I shall appraise you of any developments pertaining to the Cunninghams. John, will you see me out?’

John got to his feet, noticing Sherlock’s lack of a reaction. He’d hoped for at least an eye roll – Mycroft wasn’t being subtle, after all – but Sherlock stared sullenly at the floor, his face hewn in tense lines. With a quiet promise to be back in a minute or two, he slipped out of the door and trotted down the stairs before stopping in front of Mycroft.

‘What is it?’ he demanded, jerking his shoulders in a shrug, more confrontational than he intended, but even like this Mycroft got on his nerves.

‘I trust you took on board what I said about the medical process to dissolve a living bond?’ The wing of one eyebrow lifted. ‘I feel it imperative to emphasise that while I would seek out other methods to free Sherlock from an unwanted connection, the Cunninghams would not be so hesitant.’

John cocked his head, narrowing his eyes and folding his arms as he waited for Mycroft to clarify.

‘Should you bite Sherlock while he is in your care and before I am able to negotiate his release from the Cunninghams' custody, they are likely to subject him to medical treatment.’

Lead encased John’s chest, a restrictive wall of pressure that made his next breath a wheeze. ‘What the fuck are you implying? A minute ago you stood in our living room asking me to protect him. Now you’re acting like you think I’m just going to – what? Force him into something?’

Mycroft’s tattered exhale hissed through the air, and only the shake of his head stopped John before a tirade could begin. ‘Forgive me. I fear I am not making myself clear. I do not believe you would do anything at odds with Sherlock’s wishes. Rather, I suspect he may ask it of you.’

His shoulders dropped, and John had never seen him look so lost. ‘I doubt I will be able to conclude any negotiations promptly, regardless of the methods I use. I merely wish to warn you that, should he ask you to form a bond and you accept, there’s no guarantee it will be permanent.’

Mycroft lifted his chin, his gaze searching. ‘The consequences to Sherlock – and I think, to you – could be devastating.’

John stared, his lips parted but speechless as he tried to take in what Mycroft was saying. What had he seen in his brother to make him so sure? Would Sherlock turn to him out of genuine desire, or was it a decision forced by need and nothing more?

‘I – I don’t –’ He rubbed a hand over his face, pushing his way through a fog of confusion. It was unfair to Sherlock to go behind his back and ask Mycroft for an evaluation of something so personal. Instead, John appealed to his knowledge of the elite which, even after so much research, he still didn’t understand. ‘Why would they choose to break it medically? Killing me would do the job.’

Mycroft tilted his head: a thoughtful, considering gesture. ‘Murder is illegal and often complicated to engineer. They don’t have my resources,’ he pointed out. ‘There is also the matter of time. Sherlock would be ready to bond again in little more than a week undergoing the treatment, although that comes at a high personal cost.’

He shifted where he stood, hiding the tense clench of his hands in his pockets. ‘Without knowing the family, I cannot be certain of their motives. However, in the past, chemical dissolution has been considered a moral lesson – a punishment. Families would risk all that made the Omega valuable to them – their fertility – in the name of ensuring they could not have the Alpha whom they had chosen for themselves.’

John shook his head in disbelief. ‘Cutting off their nose to spite their face.’

‘Precisely. The family potentially loses an asset, but the Omega loses everything. They’d be worthless.’

‘No, they wouldn’t.’ John’s voice shook, every syllable strained. ‘They are people. Their value is in who they are.’ He bit his lip, barely noticing the look that Mycroft gave him was thick with approval.

‘So I am aware.’ He swallowed, a frown cinching his brow as he looked at John, taking him in with a single sweep of his gaze. ‘Before I go, I would urge you again to be careful.’

John blinked. ‘Of?’

‘Sherlock.’ Mycroft cocked his head, watching him. ‘You can hardly claim to be unaffected by his changing situation: you are already exhibiting aggressive impulses which, normally, you would endeavour to conceal.’

There was no denying that. John had always been protective of Sherlock, an ally in any fight and the gun at his back. It was the way they worked: cooperative. This morning had been nothing like that. Twice he’d thought Sherlock in danger: once when he didn’t recognise Mycroft’s scent and the second at the mere mention of a potential threat. His response had been automatic and far from rational. Perhaps he’d not thrown a punch or reached for his Sig, but the power and longing had been there, coiled spring-tight and ready to snap.

He tipped his head, acknowledging Mycroft’s point as he folded his arms. ‘Maybe. I’ve got it under control.’

‘For now, yes. However, it’s only going to get worse. I wonder, have you considered medication?’ Mycroft shrugged. ‘After all, while there’s nothing we can do for Sherlock, there are options to ameliorate an Alpha’s reaction to an Omega entering an unbound and volatile state.’

John straightened up, licking his lips as he nodded. ‘I’ve already talked to Mike Stamford about various options, or there's the inhibitors I used in the army.’

‘Yes. Neither option is ideal.’ Mycroft wrinkled his nose. ‘Long-term use reduced the effectiveness of the generic inhibitors, and additionally renders most contraceptives less than efficient.’ He straightened the cuff of his jacket. ‘Let me see what I can find. If we can remove your potential reaction to Sherlock’s changing state from the equation, I’m sure that would provide everyone with peace of mind. In the mean-time,’ He glanced up the stairs, ‘please be on your guard. Omega biology is unpredictable, and it may even take Sherlock by surprise.’

‘I will. Thanks.’

The older Holmes nodded in farewell, pulling open the front door and stepping out on the pavement before shutting away the outside world.

John bowed his head, his breathing harsh in the quiet hall as he clenched his fists at his sides. He had to hand it to Mycroft, he knew what he was talking about, but his predictions of what the Cunninghams could inflict upon Sherlock were painfully believable. He could picture it easily. Sherlock would never lie back and let it happen, he’d fight, of that John was sure, but he shouldn’t have to. It shouldn’t even be a possibility!

John bit his lip, dragging in a deep breath. Getting angry wouldn’t help. Railing against what was happening to Sherlock – what could still happen if Mycroft failed in his negotiations – wasn’t going to change anything. If he was going to be of any use, then he needed to think. He needed a rational, logical mind, not an ache in his chest and a constant, seething storm in the pit of his stomach.

The creak of the stairs made him look up in surprise, blinking to see Sherlock standing a mere arm's length away. It was strange to see him out of the flat, upright, even if he looked shaky from the effort, and John reached out an automatic hand to steady him, gripping a slender elbow. 'What's wrong?'

'I could ask you the same question. Mycroft left several minutes ago.' Sherlock's gaze darted to the door, his lips twisting and his gaze dim. 'You didn't come back upstairs.'

It could have sounded accusing, but there was a vulnerable tilt to the syllables that made it more of a question to John's ears. He could see the bafflement on Sherlock's face, as if he couldn't comprehend whatever story was written in John's expression. He looked confused, and John drew in a breath, wondering if Sherlock was incapable of deducing the specifics of a conversation which, a week ago, he would have plucked apart within seconds from John's posture alone.

'I was just –' His words died away as he faltered, unable to end that sentence. Sherlock didn't need him bowed to breaking point beneath the weight of his emotions. If ever there was time for a stiff upper-lip and a level head, it was now, but both felt beyond John's reach. Rage and desperation tore him down the middle, because when it came down to it, there was so little he could do. He had promised Sherlock anything but until he asked for John’s help, he was stuck in a no man's land, watching the threat approach from every side but helpless stop it.

A hand against his cheek made him flinch, and he cursed inwardly as Sherlock snatched his fingers away, startled. He hovered, wraith-like, at the bottom of the stairs, the most intelligent man John had ever known reduced to inaction by his uncertainty. Those long arms folded around himself, crossing over his chest as he shifted from one foot to the other, staring at the door with a perplexed frown. 'Whatever Mycroft said...' He trailed off, his nose wrinkling. 'He was probably being needlessly dramatic.'

For a moment, John considered blurting it out. Not the shit about the Cunninghams, which he had no doubt Sherlock already knew, but the bit about the two of them forming a bond. The words fluttered in his chest, thrashing against his ribs and gilding his tongue with their flavour, but one look at Sherlock was enough to bite them back. Fragility wrote its accusations in every angle of his body, and while John had nothing but respect for Sherlock’s strength and mental acuity, he could see that there were limits.

In this, like so many other things, it was up to Sherlock to take the lead. The moment he felt ready to discuss his future, he would do so and John would put all his cards on the table. Right now, he doubted Sherlock could even consider it. He was struggling to hold his pieces together and cope with the demands of his shattered biology. Anyone under the same circumstances would find the most mundane decisions overwhelming. Expecting Sherlock to consider vast, life-altering options when he was in such a state was laughable, but it was no one else’s choice to make.

‘Come on,’ John urged, holding out his hand. ‘Let’s get you back upstairs.’

‘Not until you tell me what’s upset you.’ A glimmer of Sherlock’s stubbornness underscored his reply, and John would have been glad to see it if it didn’t put him on the spot.

His jaw worked as he sorted through his answer, stripping it down to bare bones. ‘I’m worried.’ The admission was stark. ‘About you. About what might happen to you, not just if Mycroft doesn’t manage to make the Cunninghams see things his way, but in the mean-time. I’m scared that every time I look at you, you seem to have acquired another symptom, and I’m pissed off that there is nothing I can do to make it better.’

His voice strained over those last words, strung across the rack of his concern. He cleared his throat, trying to stop the knot that tangled in his throat and the threatening thud of stress that banged against his temples. Pressing shaking palms to his face, he took another breath, forcing himself to be calm and quiet. He refused to take any of this out on Sherlock – the last person in the world who deserved to deal with the sick maze of his unpredictable temper.

A cool touch manacled his wrists, pulling his hands away, but even Sherlock's grip was weak: a ghost of captivity despite the fervent gleam in his gaze.

'Stop it,' he whispered, stepping closer, the long expanse of his body well inside John's sphere of personal space. The gentle heat of him, barely hidden beneath the thin layers of cotton he wore, strafed across John's awareness, and he swayed forwards, drawn in by the promise of Sherlock's proximity. 'How can you say you're not helping? How can you believe that when you're the only one keeping me sane?'

John blinked up at Sherlock's face, watching him chew his lip as if debating the wisdom of his next words. 'You were right to fear what I might do to myself,' he confessed, his voice hushed. 'If you'd never moved into Baker Street - never taken such an interest...' He cleared his throat, his head moving in a tiny, fretful shake as if trying to pitch his thoughts away. 'You help more than you realise just by being here.'

He closed his eyes, letting Sherlock's words sink in. To hear his fundamental influence on Sherlock's survival stated in such unapologetic terms constricted his throat. He shifted his hands, pressing his palms against Sherlock's and entwining their fingers, clutching as tight as he dared as he struggled to hold on to his composure.

'I wish I could do more,' he managed at last. 'I wish you didn't have to deal with any of this, not just what's happening to you, but what other people are trying to do. It's not fair.'

Those last words hissed from between his lips like a curse, futile, but true. The endless revolution of his mind carried him, time and again, back to the inequality of the entire situation, but no amount of protest was going to change the grim reality that they faced.

A quick tug pulled him forward, and lithe arms wrapped around John's ribs and back, holding him close. He returned the embrace without question. He didn't know who was giving comfort and who was taking it, but in the end, it probably wasn't so straightforward. There was a sense of give and take, of holding each other up even as they failed to stand on their own two feet, and John closed his eyes, forcing the frantic splay of his mind to limit itself to the confines of this moment.

He wished he could forget it – all of it, from bonds to family politics – and stay here where there was nothing but the swell of Sherlock’s chest against his and the warmth of his body, but it was impossible. The truth was there in the tremor of Sherlock’s hands and the thinned layer of flesh across his bones. It made itself known in the slump of that tall frame and the shadows in his eyes, and John’s fears were stuck on tortuous repeat.

‘You’re worrying yourself sick,’ Sherlock whispered, his hand shifting to skim along the line of John’s jaw before he stepped back, leaving him bereft. ‘There’s nothing you can do. Not while I’m like this.’ One shoulder lifted in a shrug, and his mouth contorted in a painful approximation of self-disgust.

John sucked in a breath, silently berating himself for wallowing in emotion. Sherlock was wrong; there was plenty he could do. Looking after someone when they were unwell, physically or mentally, could be challenging, but at the same time it could be as simple as pouring everything you had into their happiness. So much of Sherlock’s life was about his value as an Omega. Even Mycroft, who was doing his best to fight for his brother’s freedom, was caught in the labyrinthine knots of elite society. How often did anyone but John take the time to show Sherlock that it was who he was as a person that held worth?

In all his fretting, it was easy to lose sight of that, and John clutched at the frail framework of a plan, squaring his shoulders and holding out his hand again: an invitation for Sherlock to take it if he wished. So much of this mess was beyond his control, but if there was any part of it that deserved his full attention – it was Sherlock. He had let that slip, too lost in the biology and gathering knowledge to focus on the man who suffered the results.

He didn’t need a bond to show his devotion, and he’d do everything in his power to make sure Sherlock knew it.

Chapter Text

Soft light crept around the curtains, lifting the night’s darkness as it spilt across the bed. White cotton glowed while shadows lingered in the fabric’s valley, but Sherlock ignored the encroaching tide, too intent on the man curled up beside him to acknowledge daybreak.

Morning sun picked out the gold in John’s hair, setting it ablaze amidst coarse greys and browns. It pooled across his profile, emphasising the topography of his features. Sandy lashes fluttered, but did not part, and Sherlock smiled as John turned his face into the pillow in an effort to escape the call of wakefulness.

He’d urged John to share the bed more than once over the past few days, but he had declined. Normally, it was the one point where John would retreat from his place as Sherlock’s constant companion, returning to the couch and the patchy sleep that awaited him there, but not this time. Not after yesterday.

It had been a step back in his recovery – a return to the dank, all-encompassing misery he had hoped he’d left behind. He’d awoken, choking on his panic, already submerged beneath the oil-slick of his mood. Perhaps Sherlock had made some kind of noise, or maybe John had attuned himself to the rhythms of sleep and wakefulness and detected a discrepancy, but in a handful of seconds, he was there, roused from his nest on the sofa to rush through Sherlock’s open bedroom door.

He’d stayed. As darkness bled to morning and daylight faded back into night, John set up camp at Sherlock’s side, digging in like a soldier on the frontier. He read books, or talked, unperturbed if Sherlock’s only answer was silence. Sometimes he slept, his body lax but chaste above the covers. Others they lay quiet, John’s grip wrapped around Sherlock’s fingers as if he were clinging on for dear life.

Even now, one hand remained on Sherlock’s wrist, not pinning him in place, but maintaining a connection. The four pads of his fingers and the broad blade of his thumb painted somnolent heat across Sherlock’s skin, and he licked his lips, seeing in Technicolor where before there had been mere whispers of hue.

John was wearing a t-shirt and pyjama bottoms: loose, unflattering garments that never-the-less managed to cling in surprising places. The band of the short sleeves emphasised the strength in his arms, and thin cotton rode up, revealing the soft line of his stomach and the firm, faint concave of his waist.

Yesterday, Sherlock hadn’t noticed any of that. John had been a presence – an entity with voice and fragrance but without form. In contrast, this man next to him was shockingly real, rendered down to an irrefutable outline. Powerful, even asleep, and some odd hybrid of uncertainty and longing fizzed through Sherlock’s blood.

Dangerous.

The word could apply to both this situation and John himself. Pyresus was still a distant threat – an abstract concept, rather than a physical reality – but Sherlock knew he was a step closer if one look at John could make his heart trip in its beat. It was a sign of recovery, a blessing, if he didn’t know what awaited him once the bond was gone.

Right now, there was a risk. Not the obvious ones linked to heat and rut, but something far more personal. How easy it would be to rebuild himself on the incorrect foundation – to make John the basis on which he constructed his life, rather than his own desires. It would be so simple to pass all the exhausting problems into John’s hands and live in the placid existence that remained. He ached for that – to just let the future happen, whatever it may be.

To give up.

‘No.’ Quiet but fierce, he tasted the denial on his lips, giving it structure and cladding it in iron. It was tempting to take the easy road, but that way lay disaster. It would be so simple, in his malleable, unbound state, to remould himself into a pleasing facsimile and, in the process, lose track of the man he’d become.

John would loathe it. Of that, Sherlock was certain. He was no Alpha of the elite, looking for an obedient little mate. He took pride in Sherlock’s strength and admired the actions he chose for himself, recklessness and genius included. Yet Sherlock’s instincts whispered of opposites, of fitting in and meeting expectations. Why else would John ever want him?

‘Hey.’

He lifted his gaze at the quiet greeting, blinking across the expanse of the pillow at those sleepy blue eyes. They looked warm and deep, lost in the moment on waking where everything was right with the world.

It lasted less than a heartbeat. A second later, John propped himself up on one elbow, scrubbing a hand over his face and staring around the bedroom before looking down at Sherlock.

‘How are you feeling?’

Words pushed at his throat, fighting for freedom, but they felt raw, all broken, bloody edges, and Sherlock swallowed them back, taking a breath before managing a reply. ‘Achy. Stiff. Like I need to get out of this bed.’

John’s smile could have lit half of London, as if the small victory of Sherlock choosing to leave his sanctuary was worth monumental celebration. In some ways, he supposed it was, but Sherlock hated applauding such minor triumphs. They emphasised the fact that anything more substantial was beyond his reach.

‘Come on then.’ John sat up, stretching his arms above his head and groaning as his joints popped, ignorant of the admiring skim of Sherlock’s gaze. ‘I’ll cook you some breakfast. Bacon sandwich?’

Sherlock wrinkled his nose at the idea of claggy bread sitting in the pit of his stomach. ‘Just the meat. Maybe an egg. Nothing else.’

John gave him a half-hearted glare before getting out of bed, but at least he didn’t complain about his requested meal. Sherlock had Stamford to thank for that. The Beta doctor had been an invaluable resource when it came to maintaining John’s peace of mind, answering vague texts over the week since his first visit and dropping by every couple of days to see how Sherlock was coming along.

Sometimes, he barely noticed him: another ghost on the periphery of depression’s fog. Others, he was aware, locked into a world where Mike smiled at him and kept his hands to himself, his medical knowledge on display and demanding respect. Sherlock was used to doctors manhandling him as if he had no mind of his own, but Stamford was careful and diligent, following John’s lead and always asking permission before taking any readings.

More often than not, any queries were tentative evaluations of his emotional well-being. Both Stamford and John could see how he was doing physically, but the wobbling equilibrium of his mental health was less simple to discern. Stamford maintained that it would pass, given time and patience, but neither John nor Sherlock were willing to wait. Every dark day increased John’s worry, and to Sherlock, every blank hour felt like a self-indulgent weakness once it had passed.

‘Can’t you manage one slice of toast?’ John asked as he put on his robe.

‘Stamford said that changes in dietary tolerance were expected,’ he pointed out, pushing back the quilt and getting to his feet, grimacing as his knees shook. ‘Bread makes me feel sick.’

‘And greasy bacon doesn’t?’ It was a feeble protest from John, who still seemed grateful that Sherlock was eating at all. ‘All right. Give me ten minutes, and it’ll be on the table.’

Sherlock watched him go, debating whether he had the energy to shower. Personal hygiene had been sporadic at best, and a stale patina of grime and sickness hung around him. He wrinkled his nose in revulsion, peeling his t-shirt away from his skin and trying to remember the last time he’d changed his pyjamas. The answer made his skin crawl, and he grabbed fresh clothes before heading for the bathroom.

The cascade of the shower was music to his ears, and he shrugged out of his garments, kicking them into the corner before stepping under the spray. Warm water doused his curls and swept down his neck: a transparent veil of liquid falling over the curves of his shoulders. It was blissful, and Sherlock drenched every inch of himself before considering the question of soap.

John’s shampoo was tolerable in tiny quantities, but everything else stank of corrosives, too sharp to even consider putting on his skin. Eventually, he settled for working a thin veneer of suds into his flesh before rinsing every remnant down the drain. A handful of days ago, the scent of John’s familiar brands had been soothing. Now they scraped through his sinuses: a contaminant to John’s natural fragrance.

Part of him found his fascination with his flatmate’s odour humiliating. It was animal and base – a pheremonal thirst. John acted like Sherlock’s desire to cling to his worn clothes or bed-linens was unremarkable. Sherlock was not so forgiving. He tried to stop, but as soon as his conscious mind ceased focussing on restraint, he gravitated back towards the comforting smell, be it from a discarded jumper, John’s quilt or the man himself.

Everyone knew Alphas were the victims of an Omega’s scent, but few bothered to consider the reverse. Alexander’s stench had done nothing for Sherlock, not even in the throes of pyresus, but it didn’t take much imagination to conclude that John would be a different matter. What was reassuring now would be arousing once the bond was gone. If he couldn’t start controlling his impulses…

With a sigh, he leant against the tiles, letting the water sluice down his chest and between his legs, where a faint wisp of heat coiled. Desire had been beyond him, something so alien he couldn’t begin to grasp it, but things changed. He changed. Every passing hour was one of transition, and Sherlock licked his lips, trying to pull together his scattered thoughts.

Normally, his mind was the lens through which the world swam into focus, but like this, his body took precedent. Every sense filled with information. Colours seemed bright and shadows saturated. The sheer array of noise was overwhelming and every inch of his skin tingled at the slightest touch. Flavours turned cloying across his tongue, and the city’s miasma thickened into a redolent fug.

Along with such sensitivity came precision. He could target particular sounds and smells, and it was child’s play to catalogue the input. It reminded him of being in heat, but there was no cramping in his stomach nor itching desire for release. Instead, he grew alert – predatory. The first time this had happened, his body blooming into sexual maturity, it overwhelmed him, and he’d fought it at every opportunity. Now it was easier to accept the changes, taking an academic interest even as he dreaded where they would culminate.

Besides, his heightened awareness was not without sacrifice. Rationality was a struggle, and problem-solving seemed to be slipping beyond his grasp. He hadn’t dared try the Sudoku cube for fear of the inevitable frustration. Nor did he pick up his violin; he wasn’t convinced the music would appeal. Even Lestrade’s cases languished on the bedside table, untouched, and therein lay his greatest fear.

Were all his deductions the product of his unreachable mind palace, or were they also rooted in instinct? Could he see a clear way forward through a crime in his current state? Perhaps it was cowardly, but he would rather live with the hope that his intellect hadn’t failed him than receive confirmation that his brilliance had waned.

With a sigh, he stepped out of the shower, silencing the water’s rush before blotting his skin dry. He hitched a pair of clean, cotton trousers around his hips before easing a t-shirt over his head, his fingers tracing the hard cap of the scab as he did so. It had solidified days ago, coalescing into a protective layer. It itched, but John promised it was fine – healing just as it should. Even the water had done nothing to soften it, and Sherlock dragged a fingernail along one edge, wishing he could scratch until it was gone.

Meeting his reflection’s gaze in the mirror, he scowled at his stubble, which had reached the right length to show as ginger rather than dark. Ridiculous, not to mention irritating. Five agonising minutes with a razor, wincing at ever rasp of metal over skin, banished it from his jaw. He breathed a sigh of relief at the touch of cool air, ignoring the way his hands shook from the effort of his precision.

Already he felt exhausted, and by the time he’d brushed his teeth and padded out into the kitchen, he was desperate to sit down. John reached back from the stove, tugging out a chair. Sherlock slumped into it with a grunt of thanks, pulling his feet up and running a hand through his damp curls.

‘Feel better for that?’ John asked, flipping bacon. From the looks of it, he’d delayed cooking until Sherlock was ready. Instead, there was a cup of tea steaming on the table. The fact John had added neither milk nor sugar, leaving both there for Sherlock to add in desired measure, suggested he had perceived an increased sensitivity to flavour, if nothing else.

‘Not really.’ He glared at the folded newspaper that lay nearby. He couldn’t be bothered to grab it, nor to decipher the upside-down text. There was no point anyway. It didn’t matter what crimes held London in their grasp, it wasn’t like he could help solve them. ‘I’ve just got up and I’m already tired.’

John put a plateful of bacon and eggs in front of him before opening a nearby drawer and passing over a knife and fork. ‘It’s been, what, fifteen days since this started? What you’re going through would knacker anyone. If you need more sleep, then go back to bed. It’s not a crime to look after yourself, Sherlock.’

He hummed in reply, picking his way through his breakfast and feeding the low-level groan of hunger in his stomach. He eschewed ketchup, salt and pepper – the food was flavoursome enough without it – and didn’t comment when John sat down opposite him, his own plate almost overflowing.

For a short while, there was only the scrape of cutlery across ceramic and the rustle of John flicking through the paper. He didn’t read out interesting stories, for which Sherlock was grateful, but his expressive face gave away every nuance of intrigue and ridicule at various articles.

‘I shouldn’t have to,’ he muttered at last, aware of John looking at him in confusion, trying to remember the last thing they’d been talking about. ‘I shouldn’t have to coddle myself like this. It’s ridiculous!’

‘It’s necessary.’ John sighed, looking back at the dense-packed font in front of him. ‘Your body’s diverting all its resources to wiping out any trace of the bond. It’s a demanding process. It won’t last forever.’

Sherlock closed his eyes. ‘And what then?’

That got John’s complete attention. Sherlock felt it like a physical weight. The air dragged taut across his skin, and some unknown tension snapped into focus. He opened his eyes to see John staring at him. The paper lay forgotten, and so did half of John’s breakfast, which he pushed aside so he could prop his elbows on the table.

He licked his lips, dragging in a breath and letting it out in an unsteady rush before shrugging his shoulders. ‘That’s your choice to make.’

Sherlock dragged the tines of his fork through the bacon grease on his plate, leaving brief channels in the gossamer slick. ‘I know, and I won’t let anyone rob me of that, but–’ He swallowed, panic washing across his mind. ‘Until I know whether Mycroft is successful, there’s no point in deciding anything, and it’s not as if he’s making much progress.’ In fact, they’d heard little more from his brother at all, and Sherlock wished he could find the silence encouraging.

John tapped his finger on the table before reaching for his mug, taking a quick sip and putting it down with a clank. He fidgeted, restless, and Sherlock knew that expression. It was the same one he got when Sherlock was three steps ahead on a case and couldn’t be bothered to stop and explain. The one where he felt he was being left out of the loop. Except this was more diffuse, less hard-edged annoyance and more understanding.

‘But you have ideas?’

Sherlock looked away, feeling the answer burn its way into his mind. Did John think he’d not considered how it might go? Ignorance was a cruel sort of bliss, but he knew the risk of being unprepared.

‘Whatever happens to me has nothing to do with Alexander’s family. It’s about my biology.’ He cleared his throat. ‘One way or another, it needs to be neutralised, either with a bond or surgical intervention.’ He gestured to the back of his neck before meeting John’s eye. ‘Until this has finished healing, neither is possible, and even if it was…’

He cut himself off, pursing his lips as he bit back the tangle of fear that threatened to clog his throat. Words made it sound so simple, like tossing a coin, but either decision was rife with pitfalls. Surgery was difficult, unproven, illegal and laden with risk. Even if he found a doctor willing to remove his reproductive system and thus the source of all his worth, there was no way to be sure he’d survive the process, or what impact it would have on his health.

The alternative, to forge a bond and hope for the best, had the potential for disaster. If he allowed history to repeat itself, tied himself to an Alpha of the Cunninghams’ choosing and then fled, there was no certainty of success. Another Alpha may be more persistent in reclaiming him and less concerned with the derision of society, and there would be no specifications in his bonding contract that delayed their efforts at conception, as there had been with Alexander. He’d have to act fast, and he wasn’t sure he had the capabilities or the resources. Even if he did, he’d be back where he started, always looking over his shoulder and waiting for the moment his hard-won freedom came to an end.

Or, he could choose an Alpha for himself.

He glanced up at John, who was watching him over the rim of his tea, his eyes kind, his hair ruffled and his face weathered. There was no question of who he would ask, but that was the only certainty available to him. Everything else was a mass of the unknown, from John’s potential agreement to whether it was something they could sustain.

Sherlock wasn’t even sure if the ideal – he and John bound but in Baker Street, solving crimes and living as they had always done – was possible. If John was his Alpha and always in his company, then pyresus would be a regular event. Predictable, yes, but still an obstacle. Would a stable bond rein in his biology, making it a facet of his life rather than an overwhelming impulse, or would it rob him of everything?

Was it even what John would want? The physical attraction between them was undeniable, but alone that would never be enough. John needed affection, affirmation and all the trappings of a relationship. Could Sherlock give him that if he asked for it?

There was so much that could go wrong, from the Cunninghams medically break any bond of which they disapproved to Sherlock’s invariable behaviour eroding John’s respect and admiration until there was nothing left. No matter which way he looked, there was no guarantee, and that lack of knowledge was a paralytic.

He shook his head and closed his eyes. ‘I can’t do this now.’

The scrape of the chair across the floor rattled in his ears, and a warm hand rested on his shoulder, bracing and firm. ‘You don’t have to. Concentrate on getting better. That’s the main thing. One day, you’ll feel able to figure out the way forward.’

‘What if it comes too late?’ Sherlock stared at the grain of the battered table, unseeing. ‘What if people force my hand?’

‘Hey, look at me?’ John raised his eyebrows, his jaw solid and his gaze determined as Sherlock glanced up. ‘I won’t let them. I just –’ He shook his head. ‘I just won’t. That’s all there is to it.’

It was tempting to pretend John’s words were gospel. Sherlock ached not to care anymore, but he clenched his teeth, knowing he couldn’t pass off responsibility for his future to someone else. He had to make the choice himself, even if the very notion exhausted him.

His concerns were an endless, droning buzz, ill-defined but threatening. Normally, he’d reach for the violin when he got like this, allowing the music to drown it out, but something held him back. Instead, he rose from the chair, squeezing John’s hand in mute thanks before shuffling towards the bookshelves. He needed to distract himself, just for a little while.

Vaguely, he heard John say something about getting dressed, and he hummed in acknowledgement as he pulled free one tome from the many. The covers were old and water-stained, abused beyond belief, and the paper was yellow and dry. However, the gold lettering on the spine still carried some gleam, and Sherlock smiled. Fiction was not his preferred reading material, but this was different. Bittersweet. It reminded him of hiding away in a sunny spot in his family home, losing himself amidst Caribbean seas and the creak of sails as they filled with wind.

Treasure Island had been his mother’s favourite, and her father’s before her. This copy had been theirs, and well-loved, an heirloom in sentiment rather than value. Perhaps, just for a little while, he could find respite between its pages.

Nestling in John’s armchair, he forced his mind to stillness, shutting the door on his concerns and leaving a blank slate in their place. He could still feel them – all those fears – scratching at his consciousness, but they remained distant, at least for now.

He was aware of John, the quiet sounds of his existence soothing in Baker Street’s tranquillity as the morning sun aged. He didn’t try and interrupt or capture Sherlock’s attention. It was a peaceful slice of domestic life, and he let himself believe that this was how they would always be: happy and untroubled.

At some point the words began to blur, and each blink grew slow. A doze suffused him in tropical waves, muffling the living world, and the blades of Sherlock’s concerns dulled to irrelevance as he succumbed.

The thud of the book on the floor woke him with a start, and he blinked at the sky beyond the window, made bloody by the sunset. He could hear the chatter of pedestrians, and the hum of traffic that made up London’s incessant melody. The only sound in the flat was the gentle clatter of John’s laptop keys, and a quick glance showed him wrinkling his nose in annoyance: composing an email to Harry, then.

Sherlock stretched his arms above his head, grunting as his muscles shivered off their lethargy before he scooped down to retrieve the book, checking he hadn’t cracked the already weak spine. Satisfied that it would survive a little longer, he put it on the coffee table, noticing a mug of tea, full but stone-cold.

‘I wouldn’t drink that,’ John said, not lifting his eyes from the screen. ‘I made it hours ago in case you woke up. You’ll need a fresh one.’

Sherlock shuffled through to the kitchen, going through the motions of boiling water and pouring out the unsavoury dregs. His fingers fumbled around the handle of the kettle, and he rubbed his eyes, trying to shake off the cobwebs of sleep.

Turning around to get teabags, he jerked in surprise, blinking at where John stood in his way. He hadn’t even heard him get up, but the laptop sat at an angle as if it had been shoved aside, and the chair was twisted away from the table: forgotten.

One glance, and Sherlock knew something had changed. John’s arms were folded, and his stance was braced. The dark pools of his pupils were huge, and his head was tipped to one side, focussed on Sherlock to the exclusion of everything else. The pink dart of his tongue swiped across his bottom lip as he shifted his weight forward, his nostrils flaring.

‘Is that you?’

The breathless question hovered between them, and Sherlock took a step back, horror flashing through him as for one, irrational moment, he wondered if pyresus had come upon him without his knowledge. But no, that was impossible. He knew the symptoms with painful accuracy, both bound and not; he knew how it made him feel, and that thrumming, burning, merciless desire was absent. He was not oblivious, lost in the throes of hormonal lust. Instead he felt shockingly present, aware of everything from the floor beneath his feet to the flutter of John’s unsteady breathing.

Hot exhilaration coiled in his stomach, and he scraped his teeth across his bottom lip, taking a step back and jumping in surprise when the corner of the kitchen surface caught his body in its vee. ‘What?’ he asked, trying to think what might make John react with such intensity.

John moved forward, encroaching on Sherlock’s space until he was a wall of heat in front of him. Excitement shot along Sherlock’s veins, incandescent. His muscles slackened as his knees parted, and he tilted his head, exposing his throat as he watched John through narrowed eyes.

A strong hand cupped his jaw, each movement slow but firm: half-hypnotised. It wasn’t forceful; if he so desired, he could break free with nothing but a jerk of his head.

He didn’t.

Sherlock trembled as John leaned in, his lips almost brushing the fragile skin over Sherlock’s pulse as he inhaled. Immediately, he knew what John had picked up on – nothing created by some dire hormonal peak of fertility. Instead, it was his normal scent re-establishing itself. Not the static nothingness to which John was no doubt accustomed, but Sherlock’s base-line pheromones becoming obvious once more as the bond lost its hold. Alexander had always been able to smell them, but any other Alpha would have been oblivious.

Until now.

This, all of it, from the darkness of John’s eyes to the simmer of want in Sherlock’s veins had nothing to do with heat or rut. It was just them, more attuned to each other than ever and responding to the attraction that had evolved over the course of their acquaintance.

A heavy, hungry sound caught in John’s throat, rumbling through Sherlock’s body and resonating in his bones. He tightened his grip on the counter. If he didn’t, he would reach out, and he didn’t have the strength to see where that might take them. Instead, he allowed himself to slump further, accepting and open to John’s fascination.

A soft whine whispered past his lips, followed by a gasp of shock as John tore himself away. Cold air slammed into Sherlock’s body, and he shivered in surprise, locking his knees as every muscle burned to close the yawning gap. Prickles of sensation raced down his thighs, and he shifted his position, trying to hide the swell of his arousal and ignore the damp skin between his legs.

Not that John would notice. He wasn’t even looking at him, too lost in his own shame to pay attention. Mortification darkened his cheeks, and his face twisted with dismay. Gone was his lean, wolfish stance. Instead John huddled, cringing where he stood, looking for all the world like he wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole.

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, the hand over his mouth almost blocking out his apology. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t – I don’t know –’ He shook his head, taking a step back before spinning away. ‘I need to get some air.’

The haste with which he fled the room was far from gratifying, and Sherlock shivered where he stood. Everything he could say, from logical reassurances to weak protests didn’t make it out fast enough, and calling John’s name met with no response.

Cuffing a hand through his hair, he cursed, glaring around the flat in search of inspiration. His eyes fell on his Belstaff where it hung by the door, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes. He could smell that the fabric had been dry-cleaned: John's considerate nature coming to the fore, no doubt he'd wanted to remove every trace of Alexander's death-odour from its seams. The chemicals were unpleasantly astringent, but they should be enough to block out whatever John had picked up on his skin, at least for long enough for him to prove his point.

John’s fears may be valid, but this time, he was wrong.

Shrugging into the thick coat, Sherlock hurried down the stairs, already reaching for the front door when Mrs Hudson tweaked at his sleeve, jerking her head towards her flat. 'He's out the back, Sherlock, dear.’ For once, she didn’t question what had happened, her age-worn face wrinkling in a kind smile as she put a mug of tea in his hands. ‘Take him that. It might help steady his nerves.’

She patted his shoulder, and he did as he was told, trying not to slop scalding liquid as he slipped through the bead curtain, wincing at its clatter. His bare toes curled against the cold stone of the threshold, and he leant against the doorframe, watching John pace the length of Mrs Hudson’s tiny back yard like a creature in its cage.

‘You shouldn’t be outside.’

Sherlock tucked the Belstaff around his body and sat on the doorstep. The cool concrete had not warmed much in the afternoon sun, and the evening air carried a chill. It crept through the gaps in his clothes, running cold fingers across his skin. 'I see no reason why not. I hate to disappoint you, but it's not as if the Alpha population of London is going to break down the door to get to me. You won't be called upon to defend my honour.' He sighed, setting the tea down with a scrape of ceramic. 'This isn't pyresus, or heat, or anything like it. It's just me.'

John made a tight, disbelieving noise. 'Come off it. That's not how you normally smell.'

'Yes, it is.’ He waved a hand, sweeping John’s arguments away. ‘The bond neutralises it for anyone but my Alpha. I've explained this before. All the chemicals my body releases are changed to fit receptors in my Alpha's olfactory senses – no one else's. Some of it's less complete – if I was bound and somehow went into pyresus in the presence of an Alpha who wasn't mine, they might notice a change, but it wouldn't drive them to distraction.'

He dragged his fingers through his hair, staring at the wall that cut them off from the city beyond. 'My pheromones are becoming more generalised as they re-establish themselves, so you’re able to detect them.’ He shrugged, searching for a way to make John understand. ‘Additionally, you’re an Alpha in a high-stress situation. You’ve spent weeks on alert for danger, and anything new is suspicious. Your brain prioritised identifying a new fragrance over social niceties. Nothing more.’

John’s hands clenched into fists as he continued to pace, every stride tight: a soldier's angry march. 'And that makes it all right for me to pin you against the kitchen surface and practically lick your neck, does it?' he demanded. 'You think it's acceptable for me to behave like some kind of animal? Don’t you see what you’re doing? Making excuses? Just like you did for Alexander while he –'

The rest of John's sentence strangled away to nothing, caught between his teeth as he thought better of it.

‘Alexander didn’t ask for excuses, or forgiveness.' Sherlock looked down at the cup of tea at his side before picking it up and taking a sip, hiding his unease behind the simple motion. 'You seem to think you need both, even though you’ve done nothing wrong.'

He cradled the hot mug in his hands, examining the cracks between the paving stones as he waited for the thrum of John's emotions to find their balance. They tainted the air with a hint of burnt rubber and treble adrenaline, but he saw the moment when John smoothed away the gnarled knots of unpredictability. His movements became more measured, and he drew each breath with purpose.

At last, those fretful strides fell still as he leant against the wall opposite Sherlock. He didn't try and approach or sit next to him, and Sherlock mourned the loss of their closeness as a fresh breeze made the bin-bags rustle.

‘I’m sorry,’ John murmured. ‘For – for what I said about him, and for whatever the hell happened in the flat.’

Sherlock rolled his eyes and blew out a breath, wondering if he needed to hammer his point home into John’s thick skull. ‘Do you think I couldn’t have put you in your place if I wanted to?’ he asked, frowning when John gave his weakened body a pointed look. ‘It’s not about strength; it’s about determination. I could have stopped you, but I chose not to.’

John huffed: disbelief scrawled across his face. ‘That’s easy to say now.’

Sherlock clenched his teeth, tempted to argue, but he could see John digging in his heels, stubborn. Considering all his emphatic statements to the contrary, he wasn’t being difficult because he thought Sherlock was weak or lacked the sense to impose his will on a situation. Rather, it was the way John looked at himself that came into play. He had been an Alpha all his life, but only in the last few months had it developed relevance. Now, John saw himself as the unpredictable one – the threat to Sherlock’s well-being. Arguing would get them nowhere, but perhaps there was something else he could do.

‘What did it smell like?’

John looked up at him, his frown smoothing away as he realised Sherlock was serious. 'What?'

'I can't detect it.' He shrugged. 'You clearly can or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. What’s it like?'

He waited, watching the moment John's mind changed gear, stepping away from the mire of his guilt and turning instead to the freshness of a memory. A faint flush stained his cheeks, but the rest of his face wrinkled in concentration, just as Sherlock had hoped.

'Different. Hot and a bit sweet. Like barley left in the sun, or that smell you get in the parks sometimes, where the long grass has gone dry, but there's something else. Something clear and...' John shook his head, closing his eyes. Sherlock could see him reaching for the recollection, losing himself in everything he'd picked up in that moment when his entire being had been focussed on the new fragrance.

He stood, careful not to let rustle of his coat give him away as he approached, folding back one cuff to expose his wrist. Any scent there would be weak: a perfect way to the test the waters. John's eyes were still shut, his bottom lip caught between his teeth, and Sherlock held his arm closer to John's nose, smiling as his voice became more confident and precise. 'Rain in the desert. Sort of arid earth but not, and a little bit of lightning. The smell you get before a storm.'

John opened his eyes, snatching a breath as he realised how close Sherlock was standing, but he didn't lunge for him or make any effort to hold him in place. Instead he remained where he was, the tense line of his shoulders easing as he got the message. Hints of desire still etched their way across his face, skating the ring of pupils too large for the ambient light and whispering on the flutter of air between his lips, but it was something normal and controlled, unembellished by the primitive response of John's Alpha senses.

'Do you see?' Sherlock asked, cocking his head and watching John's face. ‘You had to pick apart the fragrance and identify the components, that’s all. You didn’t do any more than necessary to meet that need.’ He licked his lips, his voice quieter as he added, ‘Even if perhaps you wanted to.’

John made an abortive gesture, hands moving towards Sherlock before he snatched them back and looked away. A fitful shrug jerked his shoulders and he folded his arms. ‘It didn’t even cross my mind to stop, and it should have done.’

Slowly, Sherlock pulled his arm back towards his chest, pretending to concentrate on rolling down his cuff as he noticed John’s gaze dart to the pulse in his neck. ‘You’re not accustomed to it – the way you behave in this situation. You seem to forget that I am.’

John recoiled as if he’d been slapped, his teeth bared in a grimace. ‘No. No, you’re used to Alexander’s reactions. We are not using him as a measure for acceptable Alpha behaviour.’

‘I wasn’t suggesting we did. I know the warning signs of an Alpha who is beyond every ounce of restraint. Alexander never even considered holding back. With you, it’s always on your mind. You’re afraid of what might happen if you lose control.’ Sherlock pressed a hand to his head, wincing at the droning ache that was gathering inside his skull, stress and frustration manifesting in physical pain. ‘I’m not helpless. I won’t put you in that position.’

John sighed, shaking his head as he reached out, herding Sherlock back towards the door without actually touching him. 'I know you wouldn't, not on purpose, but what if it takes you by surprise? You've never been through a broken bond. It's all very well reading about the progression, but everyone's different. I can't take that risk. That's why I called your brother a few minutes ago and asked him for some inhibitors. Anthea will drop them off as soon as possible.'

He bent down, picking up the half-empty mug of tea and parting the bead curtain before slipping back into Mrs Hudson's flat. 'I held off for a while because you're right, we’ve been in danger. In the army, I had back-up, people watching out for me, so I could make do without a good sense of smell. Here –'

'You're on your own.' Sherlock raised an eyebrow. 'Do I not have a part in this particular equation?'

'You've been distracted.' John shrugged. 'I know you’re getting better, but that’s part of the problem. Every moment your health improves, the risk grows. We've reached the point where I'm more of a threat to you than anything out there.’ He gestured towards the window. ‘You won’t leave Baker Street, and I'm not going anywhere without you. This way, we both get what we want.' He put the mug down by the sink, popping his head around the living room door and thanking Mrs Hudson before leading the way back upstairs. 'If I can't smell you, then I won't respond – you know – physically.'

'Inhibitors are more complicated than that. If my brother believed they were worth putting to use, he'd have supplied you with some before now. Why did he wait for you to ask?' Sherlock narrowed his eyes, following John into the flat and slumping into the depths of his chair, his coat still hanging around his shoulders as he propped his feet on the coffee table. 'Unless he doesn't think they'll help?'

'They tend to be less effective after you've used them for a couple of years,' John admitted as he shuffled into the kitchen. 'Mycroft was going to see if he could find anything else, but I'd rather he didn't waste his time worrying about me when he should be concentrating on negotiating with the Cunninghams.'

‘So you’re going to take them and hope for the best?’ Sherlock twisted around, looking over his shoulder at where John was by the fridge, sorting through food they could eat for dinner. ‘And what if they don’t work?’

‘I don’t know.’ John’s shaky sigh crept through the air, so quiet Sherlock almost missed it. It was a lost sound, one riddled with the rot of despair, and he bit back his arguments. Despite his fears about intruders and external threats, John was deliberately handicapping himself to neutralise the potential danger he posed, putting Sherlock’s safety before his own need to protect.

In motive, if not method, that was worthy of admiration.

Anthea delivered the medication within the hour, and Sherlock watched the sleek capsule disappear between John’s lips. A flash of envy, cool with age, darted through him: how fortunate that John, at least, had access to pharmaceuticals to control his biology. Sherlock had nothing.

‘What now?’ John asked, pulling a face as he reached for a glass of water to chase away the pill. His throat worked as he gulped it down, and Sherlock tore his eyes away from the bob of his Adam’s apple, focussing out of the window and the city that lay so near, yet remained beyond his reach.

‘The same thing we’ve been doing since Alexander found me again.’ He closed his eyes, his lips twisting as he surrendered to the inevitable. ‘We wait.’

Patience had never been a strength, and the days passed slowly, no longer dark and cloying, but lacking all sense of purpose. His health improved in the most marginal of increments, marked by mundane activities like cladding himself in a suit for the first time in ages or staying awake for more than a few hours at a time. Yet none of it felt like progress. Hours slipped by without true definition, and as Sherlock grew stronger, his restlessness increased.

'Please, will you just look at the file?' John begged, sitting at the kitchen table with an ice-pack pressed to his right temple. His eyes were shut, creased with pain at their corners, and his skin carried a green tinge. Five days ago, he’d taken the first inhibitor; anyone could see they weren't working. He had not reacted to Sherlock’s scent again, but his nostrils flared whenever Sherlock walked by, registering the new fragrance. Any necessary control was down to John’s willpower, not the drug in his system. 'You’ll drive us both mad if you keep this up.'

Sherlock reached out, plucking at the box of pills John had left by the sink and shoving them in his pocket. 'If anyone's insane, it's you with your stubborn insistence on taking this rubbish.'

John grimaced, reaching out for his cup of tea with a shaking hand and taking a sip. 'I thought they'd just take a while to kick in,' he muttered, tilting his head and groaning in misery. 'They worked fine in the army.'

'Where you took them every day for at least three tours of duty, if not more. You're a man of habit, so you won't have stopped dosing when you were on leave. You ceased once you were discharged, and now you're resistant to their effects and suffering as a result. Stop using them; you'll feel better within a couple of hours.'

'You can deduce all that about me, but you won't look at the case, or faff about with a microscope, or...' John trailed off, rubbing a hand across his mouth and shifting the ice-pack. 'You must be bored. There's only so much crap telly anyone can stand.'

Sherlock pursed his lips, holding in his undeniable agreement. It was not his normal kind of boredom – a wicked blade that cut him to ribbons. Instead he felt locked in a vague listlessness, too apathetic to turn his mind to things he had once enjoyed. 'Maybe later,' he replied, repeating the same answer he'd given for the past two days. 'It's not like Lestrade's hammering down the door demanding our input.'

'Your input,’ John corrected him, pulling a face as water ran down his wrist. ‘Perhaps he thinks he should leave you in peace?'

'It's more likely that other investigations have taken priority. If they'd had a break-through, he'd have told you.'

A grunt of agreement was his only response, and Sherlock looked up from where he was skimming through the newspaper. John's expression was one of absent-minded concern, and he held in a sigh. He wasn't worried about Sherlock’s continuing refusal to look at the case – no more than usual. He was content to let Sherlock set the pace of reclaiming his interests. This was about the damn inhibitors. Sherlock could happily throttle Mycroft for responding to John's request and providing them in the first place.

'There must be alternatives. I mean, if Alpha soldiers become resistant to them out in the field, they'd have to medicate them with something different.'

'Undoubtedly, though if they were as stable or effective, they'd be the primary choice, rather than a back-up plan.' Sherlock put the paper aside and met John's eye. 'You can't keep stuffing tablets down your throat. At the very least, you need to take a week's break and let your body purge whatever's left of the last batch.'

'I know. I'm a doctor, remember?' John placed the ice-pack down on the table, getting to his feet before stumbling to the sofa and lying down, one arm draped over his eyes to block out the light. 'God, this is horrible. My head feels like it’s splitting open.'

Sherlock made an unsympathetic noise, mentally composing a scathing text to his brother for enabling John with his foolishness. 'I did tell you they were unnecessary.'

'Yes, thanks for that. We’ve already been through this. I think they were necessary. I still do. As soon as I can, I’ll get something else. Something that works.’ John shifted, trying to get comfortable. ‘Not because I don’t think you won’t warn me if things get worse, but because it’s not just your responsibility; it’s mine as well.’

Sherlock shook his head, padding over to the windows and drawing the curtains to ease the strain on John’s eyes. A small chink of illumination fell through, painting a stripe over Sherlock's leather chair. He'd found little respite in its modern lines recently, preferring the nest of John's, but now it was the only spot blessed with an adequate amount of light to read.

He reached out, his hand hovering over the dog-eared cover of an uninspiring paperback as John’s urgings to look at the case echoed in his head. His gaze flickered to the bedroom door, his mind straying to the folder that still sat on his bedside table. It was tempting to let it languish there, ignored, yet every time he overlooked it in favour of something trite and entertaining, it felt like another battle lost.

Steeling himself, Sherlock drew in a breath. John was right; enough was enough. He’d ignored the Work for weeks. If nothing else, he had to see if he could still answer its demands.

Creeping into his room, he plucked the folder free and returned to his seat, smirking at John's soft snore. He already looked a better colour, and perhaps sleep would help ease the headache that had plagued him for more than twenty-four hours. Besides, it meant Sherlock's efforts went unwitnessed. If the normal deductive powers of his mind were inaccessible to him, at least his disappointment wouldn't have an audience.

He perched on the back of his chair, his muscles tensing with natural poise as he flicked open the pages, reacquainting himself with details that had become dream-like. At first, it was like looking through a window into another life, alien and unfamiliar, even though Sherlock knew he'd lived it. Gradually, the sense of separation began to fade and the machine of his mind, rusty with disuse, creaked into action, gaining speed as he absorbed all that was on offer.

There was nothing pertaining to Alexander’s death, though whether that was an effort at sensitivity on Lestrade’s part or the information hadn't been available when he’d dropped off the documents, Sherlock wasn't sure. Hasty copies of his own notes from that day at the lab lay at the back, and he stared at his sketches, as well as the print-outs from the spectrometry analysis, seeing the point at which events had ended his train of thought.

He feared it would be like the slice of a guillotine – terminal – his brain unable to pick up the threads of his previous hypotheses, but after less than a minute, tentative ideas began to bloom.

Reaching for a pencil, he jotted down notes, his handwriting scrawling across the page. Yet as he worked, he couldn’t deny that it was different. Normally, he found the supporting evidence and made the deduction, in that order. Now, so much of it felt instinctual, coming from his heart and gut rather than his mind. He kept seeing potential solutions before consciously noticing the data that led him there.

His mind spun, unrestrained, down avenues of potential, skating along a web of intricate connections as the world slid out of focus, becoming nothing more than a thin film of reality over the chaos of his considerations. It seemed as if he was no more in control of his mind than he was of his body. All he could do was allow it to happen, the lens of his intelligence taking disparate facts and shattering them into possible conclusions, rather than focusing on a single, clear solution.

Swallowing, he put down the pencil, pressing shaking fingers to his temples as he forced himself to slow the torrent. He stared at his own dense handwriting; it was raw, delivered from where the conscious and subconscious met. Half of it was instinct given shape, nothing more, and Sherlock clenched his jaw.

He had feared being unable to make connections or comprehend the twists of logic that underpinned most cases Lestrade pushed his way. He’d not expected this: it was deduction wrought down to its purest form, nothing the Yard were likely to accept …but perhaps it was a foundation on which he could build.

He spent the next hour skimming through books and dredging his memory, attempting to distil something concrete from his initial attempts. It felt clumsy and stilted, a far cry from his usual methods. However, at least his abilities – a defining factor of his existence – remained, regardless of the state of his bond.

‘Found anything?’ John’s rough voice sent prickles down Sherlock’s spine, and he looked up, blinking the world back into focus. John lay on his side, his body relaxed but his eyes alert. He looked as if he’d been awake for several minutes, and Sherlock wondered how long he’d been watching him.

‘I’ve managed to isolate a number of potential ingredients for the compound that was being used to taint the drugs.’ He pursed his lips before continuing, ‘The two I was able to confirm back in the lab were Aristolochia Rotunda and Angelica archangelica. Both emmenagogues, among other things.’

John sat up, rubbing his eyes as he frowned. ‘Substances that stimulate blood flow to the uterine organs. I didn’t think there was much proof of that.’

‘Perhaps not, but they’re common ingredients in any cocktail an Omega uses to modulate fertility, and they’re the most stable. They’re less likely to react with other components and create something unexpected. It’s why they were easy to identify; they’re still intact.’ Sherlock tapped the pencil against his knee, watching John’s hands move to his nape, rubbing at taut muscles. ‘How’s your head?’

‘Better. Tolerable, anyway.’ He shuffled forward where he sat, craning his neck to get a better look at Sherlock’s scrawl. ‘What about the rest of it?’

He sighed, pulling out one of the spectrometry analyses and pointing to a couple of peaks. ‘They’re similar ingredients, but there’s a plethora of possibilities, and several appear to have undergone a reaction, making new compounds. I can narrow it down to those that can be cultivated in the UK, that’s it. If Lestrade manages to identify a suspect and can seize relevant plants, there’s a chance we could match them, but we have neither time nor the data to gain anything more concrete from this. No potential toxins, no real cause of death…’ He shook his head, dropping his pencil on the floor. ‘Nothing.’

The buzz of John’s phone interrupted before he could speak, and Sherlock turned his head, watching him frown down at the screen. ‘What is it?’

‘Greg. Looks like he’s been texting from the Yard while I was asleep. He’s waiting at the end of Baker Street. Wants to know if it’s all right to drop by. Says it’s important.’ John’s eyes narrowed, his knuckles bleaching as his grip went tight around the device. ‘Donovan’s with him.’

Sherlock grunted, unsurprised. ‘I’m amazed he kept her away for so long. She’s not a stupid woman. After witnessing my reaction to Alexander’s death, she’ll have figured out the connection.’

John got to his feet. ‘Why does it matter to her? She's a Beta.’

Sherlock drew in a breath, standing up and teasing John’s mobile out of his hand. He swiped a quick reply on the unfamiliar touchscreen before setting it on the coffee table and taking in John’s stance. With his arms crossed and his shoulders hunched, there was plenty to see. Donovan usually earned politeness from John, if nothing else. Now, he was acting as if she were a threat.

‘Think,’ Sherlock urged, touching the tips of his fingers to John’s elbow. ‘My connection to Alexander raises some serious questions. She’d be stupid not to consider us as suspects. Donovan may be lacking many things, but she is passably good at her job, and determined enough that she wouldn’t let it go just because Lestrade told her to do so.’

‘It’s fucking ridiculous,’ John muttered, glaring at the floor.

Sherlock dropped his hand, cocking his head as a quiet knock pattered on the panel of the front door downstairs. ‘It’s better that she found out now, rather than back when Alexander was alive. I wouldn’t have put it past her to return me to his care out of spite. After all, it would be her legal obligation. Now, she’s got nothing.’

‘And if she arrests you?’

‘I’m an Omega, remember? Instant immunity. Any crime I commit is my Alpha’s responsibility. At the moment, that means she’d have to put Mycroft in custody, and frankly I’d like to see her try.’

His words had the desired effect. John’s lips twitched in the faintest of smiles, and some of the tension melted from his spine as he turned towards the door, walking down the steps to let in the DI and his sergeant.

Sherlock watched him go, breathing out a sigh as he turned back to the notes scattered across their living room floor. While he may be immune to whatever the Yard could throw at him, John was not. With the right spin, it would be easy to paint him as the villain: a jealous Alpha seeking to eliminate his competition, perhaps. There may not be any evidence, but Donovan could be tenacious with a theory. She was here for answers, and Sherlock doubted he would have any choice but to tell her what she wanted to know.

He smelled the sergeant long before he saw her, the thick, hot embers and sun-warmed teak perfume that surrounded her reaching his nose almost six seconds before she stepped over the threshold. A moment later, the vivid kaleidoscope of Lestrade and John’s scents drowned her out, and Sherlock stifled a wince. It wasn’t that they smelt bad, quite the opposite, but the combination of two dominant Alpha fragrances was distracting in his current state.

Parting his lips, he tried to breathe through his mouth, cursing himself for not thinking of meeting them downstairs, where at least he could have left the door open. Instead, he forced himself to ignore the input from his nose and the unfocussed, prickling heat that rolled out through his veins as he turned to face the new arrivals.

Sally had stopped just inside the door, standing aside to let John and Lestrade enter as she stared at Sherlock, a slim file clutched to her chest. Lines struck across her brow, and her jaw was held high, daring him to challenge her presence. However, he didn’t miss the flicker of doubt in her gaze, as if one glance had her questioning her suspicions.

‘You look awful.’ After everyone else’s pity, her blunt lack of sympathy was oddly refreshing.

‘What did you expect?’ he asked.

‘I –’ She shrugged and tucked her hair behind her ear. ‘Not this.’ She flicked a hand at him. ‘When did you last eat?’

‘He had breakfast. Believe me, he’s better than he was,’ John replied, clearing his throat and making a visible effort to be sociable. However, the smile he gave was sharp, hinting at a snarl, and it got worse when his gaze flickered to Lestrade. ‘Why are you here?’

Sherlock watched, fascinated, as Lestrade cringed. Originally, it had been the idea of Donovan’s presence to which John objected. She wasn’t an ally, unlike Lestrade. However, in reality, it was the DI who was setting him on edge. It was doubtful that John realised he was doing it; he’d be horrified if anyone pointed out his behaviour, but there was no hiding the fact that, right now, he saw Lestrade as an unwelcome invader in his territory.

With people he considered friends, and Sherlock knew Lestrade fell into that category, John would have provided tea and amiable conversation. Instead there was an aggressive wall of defiance, and a dangerous, intent sort of focus that even Donovan couldn’t miss.

‘It was my idea,’ she said, stepping forward, her hand held palm out in a futile attempt at pacification. ‘Greg told me to stay out of it, but –’

‘But you didn’t listen,’ Sherlock interceded, taking some small pleasure in watching Donovan scowl.

‘I couldn’t tell her what she needs to hear.’ Lestrade shrugged, giving Sherlock an apologetic look. He twitched towards John’s armchair, but immediately thought better of it, switching direction and sitting at the table instead: as close to neutral territory as he could get in the confines of the flat. Was it instinct that had him slouching low and submissive, not meeting John’s gaze, or was it a conscious decision?

‘Wouldn’t.’ Sally frowned at him before turning back to Sherlock, her dark eyes narrowed and her lips twisting before she began to speak. ‘Listen, he swears blind you had nothing to do with Cunningham’s death,’ She jabbed the paperwork in Lestrade’s direction, ‘but I’d be shit at my job if I took his word for it. You separated from Cunningham for a reason, and since it turns out you’re an Omega, I bet it wasn’t because he kicked you out. You left him, and he came after you.’ She straightened up, lifting her head. ‘Sounds like motive to me.’

Sherlock wondered if John heard the same faint upward tilt to her words that caught his ear. It sounded desperate, but he couldn’t deduce if she was trying to prove herself right, or hoping she was wrong.

‘And what about means?’ Sherlock asked.

‘You know more about what’s been killing these people than anyone else, and you’ve probably got the right contacts in that homeless network of yours.’ She licked her lips, her gaze darting to John, who glared back at her. ‘They gave him the drug that killed him, piggy-backing the serial-killer’s M.O. Then he’s just one victim among many.’

Sherlock closed his eyes, grudgingly seeing her logic even as he plucked apart the flaws. ‘Is there something different in his autopsy report?’

The question seemed to take her by surprise, and he shifted, never taking his eyes off her as he approached. ‘Something that’s making you single his death out as a separate murder?’

‘What makes you say that?’ she asked, her arms tightening around the dossier in her grasp.

‘Well, either I made whatever killed Alexander, in which case there would be differences in the chemical – something to set him apart from the other victims – or there are no variations, and you think I know the precise formula for whatever chemical finished off the rest of them.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘Which implies you believe I’m not just a copy-cat. I’m the perpetrator.’

Greg huffed, and it took Sherlock a moment to realise it was a mirthless laugh. ‘He’s got you there.’ he muttered, scratching at the back of his neck. ‘Come off it. If I didn’t know him better, I’d consider it, but he’s not been on some bizarre poisoning rampage through half of London. What’d be the point?’

Donovan pursed her lips, her eyebrows raised in disbelief. ‘Maybe it was a cover-up?’ she suggested. ‘Perhaps he did it for kicks, I don’t know. All I’m saying is it’s a bit convenient for his Alpha to be one of the victims, don’t you think?’

‘There’s no evidence,’ Lestrade pointed out, ‘and everything you’ve got is circumstantial at best. Let it go, Sally.’

Sherlock sighed, his gaze fixed on the paperwork in her grasp. ‘Alexander was more use to me alive than dead. Without the bond he provided, I won’t be able to stay in London much longer. Nor will I be free to assist you in solving cases.’ He watched her expression, seeing the grudging realisation bloom. ‘My current way of life relied on his survival. Doing away with him is illogical.’

Silence stretched around them, and he saw the balance of Donovan’s disbelief tilt, its shaken equilibrium written all over her face. At last, she bowed her head. Perhaps she wouldn’t let it slide completely, but she was too professional to ignore the facts in favour of a more personal vendetta.

‘I’d offer my condolences,’ she murmured, ‘but you don’t look like you’d give a shit.’

John made a quiet, exasperated sound, but Sherlock ignored it, instead holding out an imperious hand for the file in her grasp. ‘You’d be right. Let me take a look at that.’

Donovan shot a hard glare at Lestrade. ‘It’s a conflict of interest. You really shouldn’t.’

‘But you need me to, because you’re not getting anywhere with this case. You wouldn’t have brought it otherwise.’

‘Doctor Kirkpatrick’s refusing to cooperate,’ Lestrade explained, standing up but keeping Donovan judiciously between himself and Sherlock. ‘The bastard’s not giving us any names. We’ve been around the Avery Institute gathering fingerprints, but apparently they’ve got volunteers and students on rotation. Whoever’s prints are on the glassware don’t match any of the ones we’ve collected. We’re still working on it, but…’

Rubbing a hand across his forehead, he sighed. The case was wearing him down, neither vanishing into obscurity nor reaching its solution. ‘The Super’s not willing to give this case precedent, either, not until a fresh body bumps it back to the top of the pile.’

He nudged Donovan with his elbow, jerking his head to indicate she should give up the file. Reluctantly, she did as she was asked, her warning about autopsy photos falling on deaf ears as Sherlock flicked open the pages.

He expected to feel something: triumph perhaps, at Alexander’s death reduced to hard facts, but he remained untouched. Indifferent. He may as well have been just another victim for all Sherlock cared. Dimly, he was aware of the stilted, awkward conversation around him: Lestrade’s quiet questions about their welfare and John’s stiff responses, but he ignored their details in favour of the case.

Molly had done the autopsy, and her findings were much the same as those in the other victims. There were signs of organ degradation from long-term drug use, a minor loss of brain mass, but no obvious cause of Alexander’s unexpected death. The blood panel showed that most of the amphetamines had begun to fade from his circulation, suggesting he died at least two hours after he dosed, but otherwise, there was nothing.

‘I need to keep this. The next body that comes in, and there will be another, get a full analysis of hormone levels.’

‘Isn’t that included in the tox screen?’ Lestrade asked.

‘Not normally. The contaminant should be having a hormonal effect, but due to the undocumented nature of the chemicals used, it’s impossible to tell what it is, or how it might be causing the death of the victims.’ He looked up at them, seeing the grim, hopeless expressions on their faces. ‘Without that information, there’s nothing more I can give you.’

Next to him, John pressed closer, his arm forming a seam down Sherlock’s in mute support. Perhaps to Donovan and Lestrade it was less obvious, but the admission of failure was galling, and John knew it.

‘And what about you?’ Lestrade asked, folding his arms and looking down at his shoes before meeting Sherlock’s eye. He wasn't asking about the case, that much was obvious, and Sherlock sucked in a breath, aware of being the abrupt focus of everyone in the room.

There was no straightforward answer he could give – anything definite still lay beyond his reach – and he shrugged, shaking his head. 'We're working on it,' he said at last, deliberately vague. 'However, it's best to assume that I won't be able to attend any crime scenes for the foreseeable future.'

Donovan made a pointed noise in her throat, cutting Lestrade a meaningful glare that had the DI sighing before giving a weary nod of his head. 'Go on then. Say it.'

‘What if it was deliberate?' the sergeant began, licking her lips and holding up a hand to cut of John before he could interrupt. 'Could someone have targeted Cunningham, hoping to remove Holmes from the picture? I mean, you said it yourself, he made all that possible. Is there anyone who knew that?' She shrugged. 'It might be the only lead we're going to get.'

At his side, John made an uncertain sound. No doubt the same idea that had oozed to the front of Sherlock’s mind had blossomed in his. His lips parted, but he didn’t give up the name as he glanced in Sherlock’s direction.

‘She doesn’t know who my Alpha is,’ Sherlock pointed out, unconsciously using the present tense.

'But she knows what you are - and she knows plenty about what it would mean if your Alpha turned up dead,' John said, rocking back on his heels and worrying his lip between his teeth. ‘You said it yourself, she’s got the connections. How hard would it be for her to find out who to target?’

Sherlock pressed a finger to his lips, turning the possibility over in his mind. Elsie was an intelligent woman; she had no difficulty manipulating people should she choose to do so, but could she have a hand in this?

'She's been giving us information, directing us towards potential crime scenes,' he replied. 'That’s a dangerous game to play if she’s behind it. Besides, what’s in it for her?’

John shrugged. ‘Revenge? Getting back at the Alphas who had no time for her because she’s a Rile?’

‘What’s a Rile?’ Lestrade asked.

‘An Omega who was born infertile.’ Sherlock turned to John. ‘You’re thinking of this in terms of murder and vengeance, as if death’s the goal, but we’ve already found indications that suggest otherwise.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s someone testing their creation, and they’re not getting the effect they want. If she was concocting this which, with her level of education would be frankly miraculous, then why test on Alphas? It’s not going to be of any benefit to her. It doesn’t make sense.’

‘Who are you talking about?’ Donovan asked, frowning as Sherlock took out his phone and sent a message. He didn’t have a direct line to Elsie, but the missive would get to her, given an hour or two.

'Elsie Jacobs. I doubt she’s involved in this. It’s simply not worth her while. However, she might have some information you can use.'

Donovan let out an irritated sound of disbelief. 'That's it?' she demanded. 'That's all you're giving us?'

Sherlock tucked his phone back in his pocket, raising a meaningful eyebrow. 'It’s all I’ve got. Why don't you go and have a drink?' he suggested, turning to Lestrade. 'The Volunteer is a good spot. Lose the tie and the jacket, and don't pull out your badge. Give it a couple of hours, and if you’re lucky, she’ll come to you. And Lestrade? Don't arrest her unless it’s absolutely necessary. She's one of my best contacts.'

With a nod, the DI jerked his head towards the door. 'I'll be right behind you, Sally, all right?' he said, ignoring her sigh as she threw one last look in Sherlock's direction, her expression an odd cocktail of doubt and reluctant sympathy before she strode out of the room.

The moment she was out of earshot, Lestrade breathed a sigh of relief, pressing the heel of one hand over his eye. 'I'm sorry. I would have left you well alone if I could.' He looked at John then Sherlock, before shaking his head. 'She just...'

'She needed to see that my reaction was genuine,' Sherlock cut in. 'It would have been better if you'd brought her by a couple of weeks ago.'

'No.' John said softly. 'It wouldn't. She'd barely have recognised you.'

'Are you two going to be okay?' Lestrade asked. He kept his head ducked, not quite daring to meet John's eyes. 'You know if there's anything I can do –'

'We know,' John cut in before pressing his lips together. He managed a faint, apologetic smile, and when he spoke again, he sounded a bit more like his old self. 'Thanks. Hadn't you better get going?'

'Yeah. Look, stay in touch, all right? Both of you. Please?’

‘If you can’t get hold of either myself or John, you have my brother’s number,’ Sherlock suggested, watching relief ease the lines on Lestrade’s face. ‘Use it.’

‘Will do.’ He nodded, offering a quiet farewell as he turned to go. John followed, the two of them moving down the stairs. Before, they would have chatted about football or something equally trite, but this time there was no small-talk, only a meek goodbye at the door before the knocker thudded against the wood, reverberating as John closed it firmly in its frame before returning to the flat.

He went to the window without a word, his arms folded across his chest and his spine ramrod straight as he craned his neck, watching the DI go. That blue gaze didn’t stray from his departing back, not until he turned the corner and vanished out of sight. Then, and only then, did John relax, letting out a sigh and dropping his hands to his side.

He turned, a frown collecting on his brow as he read whatever twisted expression painted Sherlock’s features. ‘What?’

‘You don’t even know you’re doing it, do you?’

John pulled a face, looking puzzled. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Nothing.’ He managed a faint smile, hoping it masked the way his heart dropped in his chest. He’d watched John stand in their flat and treat a friend like an enemy; something he would never have done while Sherlock was bound. He’d seen Lestrade not as a threat, but a competitor. John’s instincts were steadily coming to the fore. Worse, it was so deeply rooted that he had no conscious idea of his actions. The conclusion was obvious.

They were running out of time.

Chapter Text

Streetlights picked out the cracks in the plaster above John’s head with their sodium glare. The firm wall of the mattress pressed against his back as the sheets shrouded his body, but comfortable as he was, he couldn’t sleep. After so long at Sherlock’s side, always within reach to offer support, his own room was a place of exile. It felt like he was being held at arm’s length. The small, physical intimacies they shared faded to nothing, and his chest ached at their absence.

Sherlock was working, he knew that. Solving the case came first, and he had thrown himself at the challenge, adapting to his shifting methods of deduction. Nicotine patches and endless nights: John knew them well, but there was an edge of desperation to Sherlock’s actions now.

It had been two days since Lestrade’s visit, and he prowled the flat, collating a flow of information from the homeless network: his eyes and ears when he himself couldn’t walk the streets. Slips of paper pushed through the letter box, texts on his mobile phone: it all added up, but to what, John wasn’t sure.

Not an answer. Not if Sherlock’s continuing frustration was anything to go by.

More than once, he’d considered whether the abrupt change in behaviour was to do with the bond. Had it reached some kind of chemical tipping point, one that pulled Sherlock away from his vulnerable state and back towards his normal self? That was good. That was recovery, but it didn’t stop the complicated knot of emotion twisting in John’s guts: fear for what would happen once Alexander’s claim was eradicated, and loss for the softer, more affectionate nature that, once again, Sherlock hid from view.

There would still be moments when he would stop, pale and tired, closing his eyes like a man attempting to maintain a grip on his emotions. He didn’t touch his violin or consider any bizarre experiments. He focused on the Work, like he didn’t think he had time for anything else.

Maybe he didn’t.

Unease flickered through John’s chest, and he shut his eyes, trying to ignore it. One deep breath filled his nose with the balm of Baker Street: hints of take-away from downstairs, vestiges of preserving fluid, warm wood and cool stone walls, washing powder and Mrs Hudson’s baking. It smelt like home.

Even Sherlock’s fragrance – so different than it had been a week ago – had become something stable: a foundation of the bouquet John associated with sanctuary. It was still there, everything he had catalogued that day when he’d barged into Sherlock’s personal space and inhaled like a drowning man sucking in air, but it didn’t elicit the same, uncontrollable reaction.

Oh, he was still tempted. Sherlock would walk past him and John’s body would throb with the desire to push him against the nearest wall and lick a stripe up his neck, but that was as much about the man himself as the scent of his skin. It was longing, not a blind imperative – something he could over-rule.

Turning over, John smacked the flat of his palm into his pillow, slumping into it as yawn stretched his jaw. He wished it wasn’t so complicated – that he and Sherlock could act on the attraction between them, never directly acknowledged but there all the same. At the time, he’d been too intent on Sherlock’s smell to notice the man himself, but in retrospect, he recalled the spread of Sherlock’s legs and the tilt of his head: his invitation plain. He’d done nothing to push John away. It was John’s own shock that had done that.

Would he have let him touch, if he’d tried? Would those lips have parted beneath his if he’d stretched up for a kiss? John was fairly certain the answer was yes, and he wasn’t sure if that made their current situation better or worse. This wasn’t the way he was used to going about these things. He went on dates; the very nature of which were angled towards romance and seduction. There was a possibility of sex: a shared aim unobstructed by ridiculous gender politics.

For him and Sherlock, it was different. So much already lay between them, an entire life built together that they could be putting at risk. They both wanted more, of that he was almost sure, but neither of them could ask. John couldn’t put Sherlock in that much danger, and Sherlock wasn’t his own to give.

Except that didn’t seem right. John had watched him ignore the rules time and again over the course of their acquaintance. If Sherlock wanted to be with him, then wouldn’t he damn the consequences? It made him think there was something else – another uncertainty Sherlock hadn’t put into words. Until John found the courage to ask, they’d stay as they were. Not just friends, but not lovers either. Stuck.

Mumbling a curse, he closed his eyes, blocking out the glow of the alarm clock and trying to empty his mind. It was too easy to dwell on possibilities and questions – to dither over the unknown and never get anywhere. More than anything, they needed to sit down and talk, not about the present, but about the uncertain future.

With a sigh, he pulled the sheet up over his shoulder, calming his breathing in an effort to tempt sleep near. Dimly, he could hear the quiet rhythm of Sherlock moving around downstairs. It sounded like he was pacing, each step measured out like a drum beat, more an amble than a stride. No doubt he was lost within his train of thought, and John allowed the steady resonance to comfort him as he slipped away.

Dreams stained his slumber, fragmentary snatches of colour and sound that slowly resolved into expectant heat and humid breaths. Beyond the window, London had vanished. In the place of skyscrapers, cedars grew, their wide boughs casting shade over the dusty ground. A breeze drifted through the open casement, trailing across John’s skin. Agile fingers followed the zephyr’s path from his navel up and out across his chest, skimming over sensitive nipples, and he gave a throaty hum, shifting his hips against the brackets of strong thighs.

Lithe muscles flexed beneath pale skin: Sherlock’s body moving with him, always out of reach. The analytical gleam of those tempestuous eyes had dimmed. Instead Sherlock’s gaze smouldered, scorching John with a single sweep. He looked secretive, silhouetted by the sun behind him: a phantom of promise.

It wasn’t real, and hazy regret filled John’s mind as he reached out, stroking from the bony jut of Sherlock’s knees to his hips, coaxing him back down until he was sitting over him again, bare and breathless. Gentle tremors fluttered against his fingertips, and he watched those delicate eyelids sink to half-mast, leaving a glimmer of silver between dark lashes.

He grabbed the back of John’s hands, and for a minute he thought that, even in his dreams, Sherlock was pulling away.

‘Please?’ John begged, trying to breathe around the warm, tidal desire surging through him. His chest heaved as Sherlock smiled, his fingers resting over John’s knuckles as he guided his touch. The bold curve of his thighs slid beneath calloused palms before he slipped down into the shadowed, secretive vee between Sherlock’s legs.

They moaned in unison, twin sounds of longing, and John closed his eyes as the brand of Sherlock’s erection stuck a line across his hand. Coarse hair tickled his knuckles as he stroked once along its length, his own arousal straining against his stomach as he lost himself to the shiver of Sherlock’s need.

Outside, rain started to fall, cool water striking arid earth and turning the world into a jungle, bursting with life. John ignored it, too busy sinking his teeth into his lip so he wouldn’t cry out as Sherlock’s fingers mirrored his grasp, cradling John’s girth.

Yet there was more to Sherlock’s desire than his erection. John could feel it, a dewy humidity, and he swiped his fingers down the underside of Sherlock’s shaft and back. Thunder rumbled outside, but all he heard were Sherlock’s moans: quiet, powerful things, caught somewhere between a sob and a whine as he touched pliant, slick heat.

The jump of the muscles in Sherlock’s stomach, his sudden gasp – it seemed so real that John could almost taste it. Electricity buzzed through his veins and rolled clouds across his mind, obscuring everything but the overwhelming desire to press in to Sherlock’s waiting body. He couldn’t breathe – couldn’t think of anything but the ache of his erection and Sherlock’s tight sounds of pleasure.

He bucked, desperate to flip them and get that endless body under the weight of his, but the moment his hips jerked, the illusion dissolved. His cock ached where it lay caught between his stomach and the mattress, and he had already tucked one hand down the front of his pyjamas, which were damp with pre-come. Passion was a storm of static at the base of his spine, and he clenched his teeth, rutting into the curl of his fist with a groan.

His voice ripped from his throat in a hoarse cry of surprise. Ecstasy shot through him, and before he could draw breath he was coming hard, lost in the intense whiteout of his abrupt climax.

It left stars popping across his vision and his pulse thumping in his ears. Each breath wheezed in his parched throat, and he wet his lips, tasting musk and desire as he tried to figure out what had happened.

His fingers twitched around his cock, and another bolt of heat smashed along his spine, leaving him twisted on his side as it surfed the crest of a wave where release spilt over into pain.

‘Christ,’ he whined, trying not to think about the mess he’d made. His pyjamas stuck to his skin, and he shifted his hand, frowning as he noticed something was different. He was still hard, his cock burning to the touch and his balls pulled up tight, but there was an additional pressure, and he brushed his fingers over the unfamiliar curve of flesh.

A moan filled the air as he cupped the weight of his knot. It was unmistakable, not the half-hearted swelling that most Alphas experienced a few times when they first hit puberty: a system check and little more. This was fully-formed, the engorged tissue pushing nerves up towards the surface to maximise pleasure in the moment he cinched with an Omega.

An Omega like Sherlock.

It was like touching a live wire. One lungful of air, and he was on his feet, his chest tight as he lifted his head, flaring his nostrils. It had been a dream, he knew that. There was no jungle and no Sherlock, but one thing remained, and his body sang as it filled his sinuses.

A whisper of perfume – just a hint – but that was all he needed. It coiled in the back of his throat and drove up his heart rate. Spit pooled in his mouth, forcing him to swallow as his eyes flickered shut, the better to relish it. No longer did the air of Baker Street carry the nuance of an approaching storm. This spoke of a land after the rains, lush and wet, ripe and fertile.

John ripped open his bedroom door, ignoring his stained pyjamas and his persistent arousal. The stairs passed beneath his feet unnoticed, hard wood and rough carpet meaningless as his eyes scanned the milky dawn light that flowed through the living room windows.

Empty. No lounging figure, hands pressed together in false piety. No silhouette before the mirror, staring at the documents stuck to its smooth pane. The room was void of human life, as was the kitchen, and John raked them both with his gaze before striding towards Sherlock’s bedroom, his heart pulsing thick blood through his veins and his head humming as he shoved the door aside.

In here, the scent was stronger. The stark altar of the bed waited for him, but there was no Sherlock cradled in its depths. Its pillows lay askew, and the quilt was a bundle of feathers and cotton, laced with the fragrance John had followed to its source. God, he wanted to bury himself in it, to drag it down into his lungs and never let it go.

He wobbled where he stood, and a ghost of movement caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. A bolt of pain shot down his neck as he whipped his head around. His weight leaned forward, braced to pounce, but it wasn’t Sherlock. It took him an embarrassingly long time to realise he was bristling at his reflection in the mirror on the inside of the cupboard door: posturing at his own image.

Shock hit him like a splash of cold water to the face, and John stepped back, colliding with the bedroom wall. The paintwork was a smooth boundary against his spine, and he clamped a hand over his nose as he struggled to wrest his rational mind from the hormone-drenched mire of lust. What the hell was he doing?

He groaned, pursing his lips and holding his breath. Horror crept through him, bringing with it insidious whispers of repulsion. The expression of his reflection was not one of a concerned friend or a caring lover. It was that of a hunter: merciless and indifferent to reason. All he’d cared about was finding Sherlock, not to check on his safety, but to snatch him close and fuck into him. Claim him. His jaw ached with the desire to bite, and his cock throbbed, petulant.

With a starving gasp, John opened his mouth, trying not to inhale any more of the intoxicating atmosphere than necessary. He almost went to the window, considering throwing it open and letting in fresh air so that he could think, but as his hand touched the glass, he questioned his actions. How quickly would Sherlock’s pheromones disperse? What if it attracted other Alphas?

His chest trembled around a growl, and he swallowed the jagged noise down, burying his face in his hands as he fought to rip himself free from the lank, possessive fugue. Seething emotions rolled through him, burning him up from within, and he clenched his jaw as he tried to override the demands of his body with the reasoning of his mind.

After several minutes, the storm in his blood abated, leaving him cleaved to the wall, limp and wretched. Swallowing, he continued to breathe through his mouth, peeling his eyelids apart to take in the room and, for the first time, seeing the evidence he’d missed.

The wardrobe was open, and a cluster of hangers lay bare, twisted on the rail as if the clothes had been torn from them in a rush. Drawers gaped, their contents in disarray, and one of the pictures lay at an angle where someone had brushed past it. John dropped to his knees, peering under the bed and noticing the bag Sherlock used when they had cases outside of London was missing.

Scrambling to his feet, he darted back out into the living room, checking the hooks by the door. His jacket hung alone, and there was no sign of the Belstaff.

Sherlock was gone.

A fist of panic crushed his chest, and John choked back a whimper. He looked around for a note, a clue, anything… It didn’t look like Sherlock had been taken by force – abductors didn’t stop to pack – but that didn’t mean he had left here under his own steam. Even if he had, he was either in pyresus or rapidly approaching it. Was he out there, somewhere in London, alone and vulnerable to God knew how many other Alphas?

‘Jesus.’ He scraped his hands through his hair, seeing nothing that could help. There was no slip of paper – no words of reassurance in a neat cursive hand – just an empty flat.

A flash of inspiration had him lunging up the stairs to his room, his hands fumbling around his phone as he dialled. Not Sherlock’s number, since the mad bastard didn’t pick up on a good day, but his brother. Mycroft had eyes everywhere, and John didn’t give a damn if the whole of MI6 had seen him stalking around Baker Street like a man possessed, pyjamas stuck to his crotch in damning evidence. All that mattered was Sherlock.

‘Tell me he’s safe.’ The words burst from him as the line connected, not giving Mycroft a chance to greet him. ‘Please, just tell me he’s safe.’

For a moment, there was silence, and John’s heart thrashed in his chest as he prayed that Mycroft wasn’t about to ask what he was talking about. A second later, he sagged in relief as the response curled in his ear.

‘He’s safe, John.’

He sank down to the edge of the mattress, weak at the knees. ‘Thank God. I thought…’ He trailed off, shaking his head. Maybe Mycroft could see it through some camera or other, maybe he couldn’t, but it didn’t matter. The torrent of his fears eased, no longer drowning him in their flow, and he concentrated on breathing as he tried to calm the shaking in his hands.

‘I sent a car the moment he called. Beta driver, female, one of my most trusted. He knew he couldn’t stay in London any longer.’

John’s heart stuttered, Sherlock’s absence already an icy ache in his chest. He stared at the carpet, wondering if Sherlock had walked out of that door knowing there was a chance he may never come back. He must have done, but John couldn’t get his head around it. He tried to imagine Baker Street without him, but the picture fell apart, collapsing like wet sand.

‘What now?’ he murmured.

‘I suspect that’s very much up to you.’ Mycroft’s voice was confident, with a trace of hardness at its core. ‘Meet me at the Diogenes in an hour. I have something I wish to discuss with you.’

The line went dead before he could reply, and he pulled the phone away from his ear, blinking at its screen. He half-expected Mycroft to say his role in Sherlock’s life was over: a convenience that had outlived its purpose. Thank God he was wrong. Mycroft had a plan, and if John could have any part in it, then he’d jump at the chance.

Getting to his feet, John set his phone aside as he dashed to the bathroom, flicking on the shower and stripping before he ducked under the cold cascade. His stubborn erection had fled, the knot receding back to its usual form, leaving the skin reddened and sensitive. His whole body felt like a copper wire, ready for the current that would make it glow red-hot. More than once, he took an absent breath through his nose, and though the scent of Sherlock was weak in the humidity, it was still enough to make him sway.

He wished he could say it hadn’t affected him the way he’d feared – that he’d been above his primal instincts – but it would be an outright lie. God, he hadn’t even tried to control himself. If Sherlock had been in the flat…

John shut his eyes as a jumbled mass of lurid fantasies poured through his mind: a pornographic flow that had him bracing his hand against the tiles to steady himself.

Would Sherlock have stopped him? Would he have pushed John away, or pulled him close, too lost in the ravages of his body’s demands?

John swore, shaking his head as he turned off the taps. It was a moot point, anyway. Sherlock had done the sensible thing. Mycroft had said that he was getting away from London, but John heard the unspoken truth. Sherlock’s departure had very little to do with the city’s populace. It was about keeping his promise.

He’d vowed he wouldn’t put John in the position of having to battle his sexual instincts, and he’d kept his word. Now, it was up to John to keep his. He’d said he’d help in whatever way he could, and he’d meant it. He just hoped that Mycroft had some idea what to do for the best.

Towelling himself off, he scrubbed his teeth and shaved, nicking his jaw in his haste. He dressed in the first clothes to hand before bundling his pyjamas up with some other washing and clattering downstairs to put it in the machine. Soapy water washed away the evidence of his earlier state as he picked up his phone, wallet and keys and shrugged on his jacket.

Yanking open the front door, he slammed it behind him and turned a sharp left, grunting in surprise when he smacked into someone. There was a brief, confused stumble before a steadying hand grabbed his shoulder, and he blinked up at Lestrade.

‘Sorry,’ the DI said, snatching his palm away as if he’d be burned. ‘I was just about to –’ He waved towards the flat, taking a step back as John advanced, planting himself squarely between Greg and 221B. ‘You all right?’

‘You can’t go up there.’ He craned his neck, looking over the DI’s shoulder for a black car at the kerb before remembering Mycroft hadn’t said he’d send one. His gaze flicked to the flow of morning traffic, hunting for a taxi. ‘There’s no point anyway. Sherlock’s gone. I need to get to the Diogenes club. His brother’s waiting.’

‘Gone?’ Lestrade snagged John’s elbow. ‘Gone where? Was he taken?’

‘No he’s, he’s all right. He just… he left.’ John swallowed, shaking his head and swearing as a cab sailed past. ‘I don’t know when he’ll be back. The case –’

‘Bugger the case,’ Greg replied, smacking John’s arm with the back of his hand and jerking his head along the street. ‘Come on. I’m parked just around the corner. I’ll give you a lift. You can fill me in on the way.’

He reached into his pocket, digging out his keys as he walked, staying quiet until they’d slipped into his car and shut the doors behind them. The transformation was immediate. John would have to be blind not to see it. Here, in a space that was very much his, Greg’s shoulders straightened and his chin went up, far more dominant than John had seen him over the past few days.

‘Did he go into heat?’ he asked as he started the engine, his hands tight on the wheel.

‘Pyresus,’ John corrected, bowing his head and staring down at his hands. ‘At least I think so. Maybe it’d only just begun. I dunno. I woke up this morning and…’

‘What did you do?’

He clipped those four words out between clenched teeth, and John was abruptly aware of being stuck in a moving car with another Alpha, one who was by no means weak. Greg’s expression had turned hard and unforgiving, and he flinched, holding up his hands in an effort at pacification.

‘Nothing, Greg. Nothing. Sherlock had already left. If not…’ He shrugged, his voice rough and low. ‘I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I just need to be sure he’s all right.’

Greg’s shaky exhale whispered in the air, and he shifted in his seat, taking one hand off the wheel to scratch behind his ear. ‘Sorry, I – I had to check,’ he explained. ‘I didn’t mean to imply, well I did, but…’ He huffed. ‘Forget it. If you’d done something to make Sherlock bolt, you’d be trying to hide from Mycroft, not meeting him for a chat. It’s just, what with the way you’ve been acting, I thought maybe Sherlock was getting to you. More than usual, I mean.’

John frowned at the scuffed dashboard, licking his lip. 'What do you mean, “the way I've been acting”?'

'Come off it!' Greg muttered, taking a right turn. 'The other day, you spent the whole time I was talking to Sherlock looking like you wanted to break my nose for breathing the same air.' He ignored John's weak sound of protest, pressing on. 'No brew, no chat, and any smile was all teeth. You didn't want me there. Even Sally noticed.'

'It was Donovan I wanted out. Not surprising, considering she pretty much accused Sherlock of murder!'

'You didn't give a damn about her, not once she'd said her piece,’ the DI corrected. ‘It was me who was getting on your last nerve, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out why.'

John parted his lips, speechless as he ran over his memories. Now that he mentioned it, the DI had been oddly quiet, taking up less space than normal and keeping his distance. It had been satisfying, which, in retrospect, John realised wasn't right. It shouldn't make him smug to see his friend cowed and submissive - not because of him. At the time, he'd barely noticed; now he remembered Sherlock's question after Greg left.

"You don't even know you're doing it, do you?"

He'd pressed for an explanation more than once, but Sherlock held his silence. This must have been what he meant. God, what else had he been doing? Had his behaviour changed with every passing day of Sherlock's recovery? Was that why Sherlock had pulled back, not because of the case, but because he could see what was happening to John?

'You really didn't notice?'

He shook his head, watching the surrounding traffic. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’

Greg laughed in disbelief. ‘I like my face how it is, thanks. I knew the moment I walked in that something had changed. The smell gave that away, but since you had let us in I assumed it was normal. If I’d known it was going to make you uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have set foot inside the place.’

John rubbed a hand over his forehead, pressing his tongue to the back of his teeth before he spoke. ‘It was Sherlock’s basic scent coming back as the bond fades. There was no reason for me to be all –’ He flicked his fingers before pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’

‘Don’t you?’ The DI drummed his thumb against the steering wheel, looking like he was debating whether it was safe to speak his mind. ‘Look, no harm’s been done. I should have known better than to show up on your doorstep,’ he muttered at last. ‘I had my doubts anyway, but Donovan’s pretty persuasive when she puts her mind to it.’

He shifted, his seatbelt creaking against his chest as they slipped into the quieter, tree-lined streets near the Diogenes. ‘As for you: Sherlock’s your friend, your flatmate and God knows what else, but the thing is, he’s yours.’ A strained sound of protest escaped John’s throat, but the DI ploughed on, relentless. ‘Has been since you met him, or pretty soon after. Same way you’re his.’

‘We’re not –’ John cut himself off at the aggravated look Greg cast in his direction.

‘Doesn’t matter what you are. What I’m trying to say is that it’s no surprise all this shit with bonds is affecting you – making you aggressive to other Alphas and more protective of Sherlock. If you were a Beta, do you think your behaviour would have been much different when I walked into the flat? I’m an Alpha so I’m a threat. Sherlock’s unbound, so he’s at risk. You’d have reacted just the same. End of story.’

John pressed the heel of his palm to his eye, seeing Greg’s point, but at least if he was a Beta his reactions would be rational, untouched by the shimmering haze of feral possessiveness that had taken up permanent residence in the pit of his stomach. He would be able to see and analyse his behaviour, rather than overlooking it, oblivious as always.

‘What if I’m the threat?’ he asked, the noxious question rolling up his throat. ‘What then? I was worried that, when Sherlock went into pyresus, it’d be a struggle for self-control, but I didn’t even try. It took a good five minutes of prowling an empty flat this morning before I realised what I was doing. How does that make me any different from -?’ He cut himself off, barely able to speak Alexander’s name without the rough growl at the back of his throat becoming a snarl. ‘From that bastard?’

‘From what I’ve heard, it would never have crossed Cunningham’s mind to stop at all.’ He turned the final corner, pulling up at the grandiose frontage of the club. The engine faded out with a smooth purr, and he scrubbed a hand across his eyes before giving John a sympathetic look. ‘I don’t envy you a bit, the situation you’re in, but you can’t keep beating yourself up about this.’ His mouth twisted in a crooked smile. ‘It’s part of your nature, and I know – I know that’s no excuse for what some Alphas will do to Omegas. More to the point, so do you. That’s the big difference.’

He rubbed a finger down the blade of his nose before he added, ‘Besides, isn’t control something you learn? Seems like you’re doing a better job of it than most.’

John let out a sigh, closing his eyes as he wished, not for the first time, that things weren’t so complicated. At least the DI made a good point. All this, his self-indulgent wallowing in his own failings, was doing fuck all to help Sherlock.

‘Thanks.’ He opened his eyes, looking at Greg with a faint frown. ‘I just – I don’t understand. You said you could smell the change on Sherlock as soon as you entered the flat the other day?’

‘Yeah.’ Greg dragged the word out, watching John warily.

‘You didn’t react to it, at least, not like I did. You didn’t barge into Sherlock’s personal space or anything like that.’ John narrowed his eyes. ‘Why not?’

The DI cleared his throat, reaching for a packet of nicotine patches and scowling when he realised the carton was empty. ‘You would have knocked my head off if I’d tried to get any closer,’ he pointed out. ‘That, or Sherlock would have beaten you to it.’

He took a deep breath, hastening to explain himself. ‘Other than that, I dunno. I mean, I like Sherlock, just not like you do. Sure, he smelt strange and it made me want to get near him, if only to identify it, but I still felt like I had a choice in the matter, and the common sense not to risk it. Maybe it’s different for you, because you’re closer to him.’ Greg raised an eyebrow, reading God knew what from John’s face. ‘All right?’

‘Yeah.’ His lips twitched in a weak smile as he considered Greg’s words, wishing he had some concrete facts to put his mind at rest.

After a few seconds, he shook his head, pitching his confusion aside. There’d be time to worry about that later. For now, Sherlock had to be his highest priority, and he wasn’t doing any good sitting in the DI’s car. He was about to reach for the door handle when Greg’s hand on his elbow stopped him, just a tap, but it was enough to make him turn back.

‘Before you head off, do me a favour? See if Mycroft can get a message to Sherlock?’ He shrugged. ‘I already sent him a text, but the odds are he didn’t read it. I thought he’d want to know that Elsie Jacobs seems to check out. Actually, she said if she had to put money on someone offing Cunningham, then it would be you.’

John grunted. ‘I wouldn’t have fucked about with tainted drugs. I’d have just shot him.’

‘Funny, that’s exactly what Sally said. Made this Jacobs girl laugh. There’s nothing definitive to rule her out or pin the blame on her, no alibi but no motive. Gotta say though, she spent more time asking questions than answering them.’ Greg rubbed a palm over the back of his neck. ‘She did promise she’d ask around, see if she could find anything else for us before the next corpse turns up. We’ll keep tabs on her if we can, not that that’ll be easy.’

‘I’ll try and let Sherlock know. Thanks, Greg, for the lift and everything.’

‘Sure. Text me all right? Keep me informed?’ Genuine concern lay thick on the DI’s features, and John nodded his promise, sliding out and shutting the door behind him. He lifted his hand in farewell as the silver car pulled away, easing down the road and out of sight.

Two ushers waited for him in the portico, pristine and silent. They didn’t utter a word as they led him through the club, still empty in the weak light of early morning. It wasn’t even nine a.m. yet, though John knew better than to believe anyone who frequented the Diogenes kept regular working hours.

A pair of mahogany doors opened to the book-lined opulence of Mycroft’s favoured retreat. A single desk-lamp lit the gloom, and John stopped in surprise, staring at the man in the chair as the hinges whispered shut behind him.

Mycroft seemed oblivious to his arrival. He sat at the desk, his elbows on its surface and his fingers tunnelled into his hair as he gave the document in front of him his undivided attention. There was no suit jacket, his waistcoat lay unbuttoned and he had rolled up his shirt-sleeves. Shadows painted bruises under his eyes, and he’d missed a bit when shaving. He also looked thinner than the last time John had seen him: more gaunt around the jaw.

He cleared his throat, raising his eyebrows when Mycroft lifted his head in shock, blinking at him. At last, realisation smoothed out his features, and he sat back, resting a hand over his eyes before gesturing to a nearby armchair.

‘My apologies, Doctor Watson. Won’t you sit down?’

The leather creaked under his weight as he watched Mycroft get to his feet, picking up a glass of scotch and draining the last inch from its depths. Lines bracketed his mouth and creased his brow, and his skin looked grey from lack of sleep.

‘Matters of State?’ he asked, gesturing to the papers.

‘Unfortunately, no.’ He set the tumbler down with a soft click, walking around the front of his desk and leaning his weight against the woodwork. ‘All of this pertains to Sherlock’s current situation. I have made continuing attempts to negotiate his freedom from the Cunningham family, meeting with the Alpha mother on several occasions over the past ten days.’

‘And?’ John shifted forward, his heart thrumming at the base of his throat as he gripped his knees.

Mycroft bowed his head, drawing in a deep breath through his nose. ‘Sentiment,’ he muttered, his lips twisting in disgust. ‘Regardless of the evidence placed before her, Patricia Cunningham is unable to acknowledge her son’s actions. Her grief appears genuine enough, and I fear it is clouding her otherwise sound judgement. Her actions are…’ He shook his head, ‘lacking in rationality. Yesterday, the family took out an injunction.’

John narrowed his eyes. ‘What does that mean?’

‘In this case, it means I am blocked from communicating with them directly. Everything must be done through legal representation, making it easier for them to drag this out for as they long as they so desire. I suspect they hoped to stall the situation until, contractually, Sherlock can be removed from my care.’ Broad shoulders slumped, and Mycroft’s fingers curled, white-knuckled, around the edge of his desk.

‘You –’ John pursed his lips, shaking his head. ‘You run half the bloody country from behind the scenes. Are you honestly saying that helping Sherlock is beyond you?’

Icy disdain sharpened those blue eyes. ‘I implied no such thing.’ Mycroft reached out, ringing a small silver bell and giving the usher who appeared an empty smile before requesting a pot of tea. Once he’d departed, he continued.

‘The injunction is a setback, nothing more. We may even be able to use it to our advantage. My position has allowed me to construct a network of individuals who are sympathetic to the Omega situation. A retaliatory document was issued by a judge of my acquaintance, barring the family from removing Sherlock from my care for the next three months.’ A ghost of a smile whispered over Mycroft’s lips. ‘I was required to state the grounds on which the rebuttal was based.’

John frowned, following Mycroft’s words carefully. He knew he often worked in the shadows, all smoke and mirrors, and he tried to think how this could work in their favour.

‘I made sure that my accusations of domestic abuse were the foundation.’ Mycroft smirked, and there was a vicious satisfaction in his gaze. ‘Should the Cunninghams wish to challenge it, they will have to answer the claims that have been made, which would force them to respond to the evidence. As it’s occurring through a private legal channel, it also keeps the issue out of the public eye.’

‘So it’s a compromise?’ John sat back in his chair. ‘You’re not exposing the scandal, which would blow the whole thing wide open and potentially make matters worse for Sherlock, but you’re showing it to a third party. This judge.’

‘And his trusted legal councillors. It won’t move beyond those circles, not unless I give explicit instructions to the contrary, but it stalemates the Cunninghams. They can’t have Sherlock. Not without addressing the charges I’ve raised, which they are unwilling to acknowledge.’

John ducked his head, biting his lip. ‘Do we have time to be playing this kind of game? Sherlock’s already gone into pyresus.’

Mycroft hummed in agreement, offering a bland smile to the usher delivering the tea tray and watching the silent man depart. He poured the steaming liquid into a dainty china cup before doling out one for himself, stirring in the milk with thoughtful swirls of the spoon. ‘Indeed, at least two weeks earlier than anticipated.’ His eyes darted up to John’s face. ‘Any theories to explain that, Doctor Watson?’

He hadn’t considered it beyond a fleeting moment of panic, and he stared into the milky tea before shaking his head. ‘Does it matter?’

‘Perhaps you’ll have to ask him yourself.’

‘And when will that be?’ John demanded, his cup rattling as he set it down on the table in front of him. ‘A week, a month? Longer? I can’t be anywhere near him when he’s like –’ His words died on his lips as Mycroft picked up a polythene packet from his desk. It was vacuum sealed, and inside was a non-descript blister-pack, branded with a name John didn’t recognise. ‘What’s that?’

‘Pentrapenzone. It’s the inhibitor we give our agents. Powerful and easily modulated, it offers Alphas a secure level of control over their potential response to an Omega.’ He held it out to John, watching him study the packaging. ‘There are three different dosages. The highest will render your Alpha drives null. Those are the ones you’ll need; they are green. There’s a leaflet inside listing the side-effects.’

John stared, hope beating hard in his chest. ‘And why would I need these?’ he asked, his voice strained.

‘Because Sherlock needs this.’ He held up a small vial of fluid, tilting it to the light coming from the lamp on the desk. ‘I have bought him time, but he needs to be able to use it. His future is his choice. He must decide on a course of action, and soon, so we can set the wheels in motion to make it possible.’

‘He didn’t feel able to consider the options before he went into pyresus. You really think he’s going to be any more capable now?’ John asked in disbelief.

‘No. Left at the mercy of his unbound biology, my brother will find himself locked in an accelerating cycle of intense sexual need and deep malaise, unable to claim a sound mind in either state. This will break it, allowing him to return to normality, at least for a short while. He’ll have, perhaps, seventy-two hours in which he can truly think.’

John sucked in a breath, not sure where to start. Questions pounded in his head, and he made a couple of false starts before managing to speak. ‘I don’t understand. Why do you need me to give it to him? Couldn’t you have brought it to Baker Street? Does he even know about it?’

Mycroft tilted his head in acknowledgement. ‘The very basic pharmaceutical hypothesis was devised by Sherlock himself about fifteen years ago. However, there’s a distinct difference between mixing a few herbs and medication like this. It’s only just been developed and officially, it does not exist.’ He held it out, relinquishing it to John with ease. ‘The substance is untested. While, in theory, we know what it should do, in practice –’

‘It’s dangerous.’ John swallowed, shaking his head. ‘If Sherlock’s going to take this, he should be under medical supervision.’ His brain caught up with what his mouth was saying, and he closed his eyes in disbelief. ‘Someone qualified in Omega healthcare, Mycroft. Not me!’

The man across from him raised an eyebrow before looking down at his brogue-clad feet. ‘You’re the only one I trust. The mainstream pharmaceutical community cannot know about this substance. Should we invite in anyone without an intimate interest in Sherlock’s welfare, I fear the drug’s existence would become public knowledge. Even your friend, Mike Stamford, is not above reproach.’

‘And I am?’

Mycroft looked at him as if he were an idiot, his thin lips pursed. ‘When you called this morning, I was braced to deflect demands to know Sherlock’s location. Yet in a moment of intense physical and psychological stress, your only concern was for my brother’s welfare. You proved yourself with that, John. If Sherlock takes this drug, and he will, he needs a doctor on hand. Besides,’ Mycroft paused, clearing his throat and tapping his fingers on the desk. ‘I would feel better if you were with him – as, I think, would you.’

There was no denying that. John couldn’t guess Sherlock’s reactions to pyresus, and he wasn’t convinced he wouldn’t do something rash in a fit of desperation. He kept remembering the studies he’d done on depression during his training, and how the suicide rate increased once recovery had begun. The deeply affected were often too apathetic or listless to consider doing themselves physical harm, but once their brain chemistry began to stabilise, they felt able to take action.

He did not want to think that Sherlock might turn to that, but it dogged the corners of his mind, and one glance at Mycroft suggested he wasn’t alone in his concerns.

‘Is he on his own?’

‘There’s a security contingent on the perimeter. All Betas of course, but he is isolated within the house. Should he fall ill or decide to harm himself, there’s no guarantee that they would be able to render aid in a prompt manner.’

It wasn’t a choice. John had made up his mind the minute Mycroft handed over the tablets. They were his safety net, the one thing that could neutralise every unsavoury aspect of his reactions. They were what he needed to be there for Sherlock, not as an Alpha, but as a friend.

His fingers twitched around the glass vial before he slipped it into his pocket to keep it safe. The foil packet of the inhibitors crackled in his grip, and he popped one free, swallowing it dry before even thinking to read the leaflet.

‘Shouldn’t you have done that first?’ Mycroft asked as he scanned the side-effects, sounding more amused than alarmed.

John grunted as he washed the pasty taste from his mouth with the dregs of his tea. ‘I don’t care, as long as it does its job. Now you,’ He jabbed a finger in Mycroft’s direction, ‘sit down and tell me what this drug’s meant to do to Sherlock. And don’t leave anything out.’

Obligingly, Mycroft did as he asked, his polished tones secretive as he outlined everything he knew. It was a chimera of knowledge dredged from the secret labs, the kind even the Prime Minister didn’t know about, and John listened, rapt. He didn’t notice the passage of time until a soft knock on the door made them both look up. A young man entered at Mycroft’s bidding, John’s battered duffel bag in one hand and a file in the other.

‘Ah, Joshua, thank you.’ Mycroft accepted the dossier, reading through it with an approving expression before looking up at John. ‘I took the liberty of having someone pack your things. The air in the flat has also been neutralised to remove any indication of Sherlock’s physical state.’ His eyebrow quirked, and John craned his neck, trying to see. ‘Though from this analysis, the telikostrone levels were low, relatively speaking. Sherlock must have been expecting it and left at the first signs of pyresus.’

‘Is that a good thing?’ John asked, trying not to think what it might have been like if the scent had been any stronger.

Mycroft made a non-committal sound, looking at the clock before meeting John’s gaze. ‘How are you feeling? Any noticeable side-effects?’

‘I can’t smell much.’ He wrinkled his nose. It was stifling, but more than worth it if it meant he could be of help to Sherlock. ‘Same as with the inhibitors back in the army.’

‘Good. Take this.’ He held out part of the file. ‘It’s the documentation on the drug. I imagine Sherlock will ask to see it. Depending how far gone he is, he might question the substance and your motives. Try not to take it personally. Oh, and –’ He grabbed John’s wrist, sticking his finger with a needle.

‘What the fuck, Mycroft?’

He dabbed a reagent strip onto the blood that welled from the cut, raising an eyebrow as it began to change. ‘Forgive me, but I’d rather have empirical proof that your body is reacting as it should.’

John sucked at the breach, iron tainting his tongue as he waited for the verdict. ‘And?’

‘It seems to be doing the trick.’ Mycroft grimaced before disposing of the strip, its dyed squares bright with chemical signatures. ‘A car is waiting for you outside. The driver will take you to Sherlock. By the time you reach the house, the Pentrapenzone should be in full effect. You will be tested again at the perimeter before you are permitted to enter. If there is any doubt about the efficacy, you’ll be asked to return to London. The security are authorised to use whatever force is required to ensure you comply; do I make myself clear?’

‘Perfectly.’ He glared at Mycroft’s impassive face before getting to his feet, scrubbing a hand through his hair and picking up the bag Joshua had left on the floor. ‘Is that it then, the full extent of your plan? There’s nothing else we can do?’

‘What do you suggest?’ he asked. ‘I’ve tried every strategy at my disposal to bring about the Cunninghams' compliance. Everything, including offers of financial compensation have been declined, though considering some of the bids they’ve already received, that’s perhaps not surprising.’ He reached behind him, picking up a sheaf of papers and holding them out for John to see. ‘As Sherlock’s current guardian, suitors have also been petitioning me for the right to bond: illegal, of course, but that doesn’t stop them. Many have said they’ll double their offer if I can prove his fertility.’

John stared, trying to breathe around the simultaneous shock at the amounts in front of him and disgust at people callously putting a price on a human life. ‘These are all at least seven figures,’ he managed, his fingers numb on the strap of his duffel.

‘There are some who will pay ridiculous sums to add even modest prestige to their bloodline. Most of these are nouveau riche looking to validate their dynasties with ties to the old aristocracy. The Holmes family has been around for quite some time. Plus there is some rarity in Sherlock’s status.’ Mycroft cleared his throat. ‘For an Omega to be fertile and reach their mid-thirties without having conceived or carried a child is rare, and therefore desirable.’

At any other time, John would have been amused to see Mycroft’s cool demeanour so ruffled, but there was nothing to laugh about in any of this. ‘So the Cunninghams won’t take your money when they think they can get more?’

‘They have refused it because it would be seen as a surrender by elite society: a sign of weakness. I was considering the merits of an anonymous bid by proxy, but the injunction rendered it irrelevant.’ Mycroft shook his head, gesturing towards the door. ‘I will continue my efforts, via the legal team, to force the situation into motion. Until I know what Sherlock wants, that’s all I can do.’

John handed back the reports, ignoring the way the paper rattled in his shaking hand. ‘And it’s down to me to make sure he’s got the strength to make a decision. What if he has a bad reaction to the drug? What then?'

'There's an alarm button in your bag; if you press it, my private medical team will arrive by helicopter within minutes. It's the best solution I can offer, though I appreciate it is not ideal.’ Mycroft offered a weak smile. ‘I doubt Sherlock will suffer any consequences with which you cannot cope. I have the utmost faith in your abilities, Doctor Watson.'

‘Well, that makes one of us.’ John sighed, looking around the room as he tried to get his head around what was happening.

‘You’ll tell Mrs Hudson that we’ll be back as soon as we can?’

‘Naturally,’ Mycroft replied. ‘I will also ensure the flat is left in a safe state to remain unoccupied – remove any of my brother’s specimens and such. There’s a phone in the bag as well, a private line direct to me. I hope you will keep me informed of the situation.’

It was an order disguised as a request, and John narrowed his eyes. ‘If there’s anything Sherlock thinks you need to know, I’ll make sure he tells you himself.’

The look Mycroft gave him was one of weary annoyance, and he flicked his fingers towards the door. ‘Then I suggest you depart, Doctor Watson. The sooner you leave, the sooner we can both be assured of my brother’s well-being.’

John gave a curt nod, more military than medical as he turned and marched away, not bothering to smother his footsteps as he strode through the hallways of the Diogenes. True to his word, Mycroft had a car waiting for him, and a blank-faced driver ushered him into the back seat, taking his bag and stowing it in the boot before slipping behind the wheel. There was no greeting or friendly small-talk; Mycroft clearly didn't pay his staff to chat, and John drew in a breath, left alone with his own thoughts.

He should have known Mycroft would have everything planned down to the last detail. Sherlock had called for help, and he had risen to the challenge, providing safe transport and refuge. Yet it was more than that. Perhaps the inhibitors hadn't been too difficult to get hold of in the end, but the suspension for Sherlock was as new as Mycroft claimed. Even in the documentation, it wasn’t named: enigmatically referred to as "O.D.X."

The older Holmes had been emphatic when he explained that it was the only dose available. Synthesising anything in large amounts would be too challenging to conceal – too dangerous to dozens of careers within secret laboratories – and almost all of what had been produced was in John’s possession.

He just hoped it worked.

The car sped on, leaving behind London's crowded streets and heading into the countryside to the north of the city. John read the file containing the information about O.D.X from cover to cover, checking the facts against what Mycroft had told him and finding no disparities.

At any other time, he'd be fascinated. It was a clever analogue, one that temporarily blocked signals from unbound receptors and reset the Omega's body to a neutral state. However, its untested nature was a huge cause for concern. They'd used a couple of basic model organisms to check it wasn't immediately toxic, rats and so forth, as well as in vitro testing to document its chemical efficacy, but none of that was an adequate mirror for the complexity of a human Omega's potential reactions.

Nothing about it, from its action to the duration of its effects, was certain, and John scraped his teeth over his lip. More than once, Sherlock had implied that many of the rumours about an Omega's state of mind during pyresus were a lie. Was Mycroft over-reacting, basing his assumptions on speculation rather than fact? Perhaps Sherlock would be able to consider his future without the serum in John's pocket?

He considered not telling him about the drug, at least not until he’d assessed the situation, but even before the thought had fully formed John dismissed it. He couldn’t do that. Sherlock wasn't a child. He was an informed adult trapped in an unfortunate biological situation. He deserved to be informed of his options. If he asked for O.D.X, John would give it to him, and he'd make sure he was there to pick up the pieces if anything went wrong.

More than two hours after leaving London, the sleek vehicle turned into narrow country lanes, and John eyed the green fields stretched out on either side. Pastoral and beautiful, he could only grimace, knowing how much Sherlock would hate it. Gone was the city’s frantic surge. Out here, everything seemed peaceful, as if the world could pass by unnoticed. They went through a small hamlet, little more than a crossroads with a church on one side and a pond on the other: a fleeting glimpse of rural tranquillity.

Ten minutes later, the car began to slow, and John raised his eyebrows as it swung off onto a long, sweeping road. It wasn't a public highway, but the tarmac was in good condition, neither pitted nor worn, so someone had to maintain it. Established oak trees were dotted about, and for the first time John wondered exactly where he was going.

Mycroft had said nothing about where Sherlock had secreted himself away, and John hadn't thought to ask. All he'd cared about was getting there. Now, he realised just how far off the beaten track they were – miles from the nearest town. The solitude was for Sherlock's safety, but John couldn't help remembering him describe Alexander’s house, out in the middle of nowhere. This, for all the beauty of the place, couldn't be reassuring. It must feel like he had ended up back where he started, trapped in isolation and cut off from everything for which he’d fought.

A set of metal gates soon blocked their way, and a man in a suit stepped out from the lodge to one side. He looked slender, but strong, and John could make out the shape of a gun tucked into his jacket as he pulled open the car door and motioned for him to step out.

'One moment please, sir.' Something flashed in John's eye, and he blinked in surprise, squinting as the man tilted a device in his palm to see the screen. An iris map painted its way across the glass, confirming his identity: Mycroft's security in full swing. 'Thank you, Doctor Watson. If I can have your hand?'

He was ready for it, but the scratch of the sharp was still a bright line of pain. This time, a minuscule syringe drew up a tiny bead before the man added it to a solution. It made what Mycroft had been doing look rudimentary, and John watched as the man swirled the mixture, observing it change from faint pink to deep violet. 'Very good, sir. One more thing, and then we'll allow you to proceed. If you could just follow me?'

The building itself looked ancient, half-timbered and worn, but inside high-tech surveillance equipment gleamed on every wall. The man, who introduced himself as Tony, led the way, ushering him towards a sealed room.

John gave the threshold a doubtful look. 'I'm not going in there until you tell me what it’s for.' he said, folding his arms and lifting his chin, watching the man tilt his head in grudging acknowledgement.

'We just need to make sure the inhibitors are doing their job, sir. The chemicals are present in the correct amount in your bloodstream, but we must be certain they're having the desired effect. We had the vault converted into a fume cupboard of sorts a few years ago at the instruction of Mr. Holmes – I mean, Mr. Mycroft Holmes.'

'Seems an odd thing to do,' John murmured.

'This is his private residence, sir,' Tony replied. 'Mostly, it's for the decontamination and inspection of packages of unknown origin, but it'll work just as well for this. If you don't mind?'

With a deep breath, John did as he was asked, keeping his eyes fixed straight ahead as the door shut behind him. Uncertainty trickled down his spine, but he squared his shoulders, telling himself he was being paranoid. He was here on Mycroft's instruction. All this was just a case of the security team being impressively thorough.

A small hatch opened in the wall, and he eyed the tiny bottle. Gloved fingertips removed the stopper and turned the vial so John could see the label. Of course Mycroft would expose him to telikostrone before letting him anywhere near Sherlock. Trust only went so far, and he was too sensible to take risks with his brother's welfare.

'Anything?' Tony asked, his voice distorted by a speaker in the wall, sounding pleased when John shook his head. 'Okay, your vital signs all indicate no response, so it looks like you're fully protected. We'll just vent the room, and then get you on your way, sir.'

He listened to the air hiss through the conditioning system, folding his arms and shifting where he stood. By the time Tony opened the door, John was already hovering on the other side, and he marched past, sparing a brief nod of reluctant thanks as he headed back towards the car. To his irritation, the driver looked at Tony, waiting for confirmation before indicating that John should get in.

'Can't I walk?' he asked, gesturing to the gates as Tony flashed a grin.

'You could, sir, but it's another mile and a half to the house. The car would be quicker. We'll buzz the inner-perimeter and let them know you're safe to proceed. No one else will stand in your way. We have security cameras set up around the grounds, but at the insistence of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, there's no surveillance in the building itself.' The disapproval on Tony's face suggested that such a big blind-spot hadn't been negotiated, and John smothered a smile at the idea of Sherlock going through his sanctuary and ripping out the cameras. 'If you require any assistance, there's an alarm panel in every room. Just hit the red button and someone will be there within minutes.'

'Thanks.'

'Good luck.' The tilt to Tony's words suggested he thought John would need it, and he blew out a sigh as he climbed back into the car, not bothering with his seatbelt as they set off up the long drive. Another checkpoint came and went, the gates parting to let them in, and the smooth hum of tarmac changed to the crunch of gravel as they approached the house.

John ducked his head, staring out of the windscreen. He'd expected an elegant sprawl of pillars and brickwork, something austere and intimidating that screamed of wealth. Instead, the sun shone weakly off of white plaster and dark timbers. Ivy and wisteria grew up the walls, and the leaded window-panes gleamed, some coloured in stained glass and others clear. The eaves clustered in a chaotic jumble that suggested more than one sympathetic renovation. It looked like the kind of place that had been here forever: well-loved.

The door popped open beneath his touch, and he climbed out, accepting his bag from the driver and blinking when he offered a key. 'I doubt you'll be admitted voluntarily,' the man said by way of explanation, touching the peak of his cap in farewell before he departed, leaving John to shuffle his feet as he considered the best course of action. Now he was here, he wasn't sure how to proceed. Sherlock had left Baker Street for a reason, and John had followed him uninvited. He was the intruder here, and he doubted Sherlock would welcome him with open arms.

Approaching the front door, he debated knocking, but without knowing Sherlock's current state, there was no way to be sure he was capable of answering, even if he wanted to. No, better to get inside, investigate the situation, and work from there.

The key slipped into the lock, the tumblers clicking as John eased forward, peering through the gloom. The lights were off and the curtains drawn, and he got nothing but the impression of large rooms off to both sides as he set his bag down on the floor.

He inhaled out of habit, pulling a face as his nose failed to register anything beyond clean carpets and furniture polish. The wooden floor echoed beneath his feet, and he clenched his left hand in a quick fist, releasing it as he hissed Sherlock’s name. The whole place was mausoleum quiet, and a thrill of unease shuddered down John’s back.

Turning right, he pressed his palm to the side of the arch, peering into the rooms beyond and trying to make out any human shapes amidst the furniture. He could call out, but some latent instinct warned him to hold his tongue. If he raised his voice, he would give away the element of surprise, and until he knew more about the situation, he was unwilling to let go of any potential advantage.

Abruptly, something cold jabbed against the nape of his neck, and John stiffened as fear chilled him to the bone. He recognised the press of a gun against his skin – had experienced it more times than he cared to count – and he raised his hands in surrender. He licked his lips, tasting the salt of nervous sweat. It must be one of Mycroft’s security people, one who’d not been informed of his arrival. Perhaps he’d set off an alarm and they’d come ghosting in to neutralise the problem.

‘My name is Doctor John Watson.’ He struggled to keep his voice steady as he stared at the wall in front of him. ‘I’m authorised to be here. Check with your man at the gate.’

‘I know who you are.’

That deep voice sent a different kind of shiver down John’s spine, and he turned without thinking, flinching to find the baleful eye of a muzzle a few inches from his face. He didn’t dare move, nor speak, not when those cool, grey eyes were watching him like a specimen under a microscope, hideously indifferent.

Instead, he stared along the barrel of his own damn gun at the man who held it in his grasp: poised and deadly. Sherlock’s face contained no trace of mercy. His brow pinched into a vee above his nose, and a muscle ticked in his jaw: a thousand miles from the calm composure he usually wore like a crown.

John swallowed, choking on a dozen useless reassurances. He’d been worried that, as the Alpha, he would be the dangerous one.

He’d never thought it might be the other way around.

Chapter Text

Charged silence surrounded them, pressing down on John’s shoulders as he waited for the balance of the moment to tip over into action. Prickles marched along his spine, but he didn’t dare retreat. He’d been a soldier too long to willingly show any sign of weakness to an aggressor, even if they were his best friend.

The gun kept drawing his eye, a brutal shape in Sherlock’s grasp. He’d assumed it was still in the flat – hadn’t even thought to look for it – and Mycroft hadn’t mentioned its absence. Sherlock must have grabbed it when he left.

John expected his hand to shake around the grip, but every muscle lay steady and confident, his finger tense on the trigger. He was not using the Sig as a bluff. He would fire if necessary. Of that, John had no doubt.

‘Why are you here?’

Was it his imagination, or was there a hint of a tremor in those words? John tore his eyes from the outline of the pistol, forcing himself to look beyond the mask of Sherlock’s expression and see the details that gave away his state of mind.

He wore the same clothes he’d been in last night, dark trousers and a white shirt, strikingly monochrome. The top three buttons lay undone, leaving a vee of naked flesh. His forearms were bare, but he hadn’t tucked his sleeves into their usual, fastidious rolls. They were shoved out of the way, threatening to fall back to Sherlock’s wrists. A light flush stained his sharp cheekbones and darkened the ridges of his clavicles, and his lips lay parted around each snatch of air.

Yet it was his eyes that held John captive, pinned where he stood. Sherlock did not look at him as if he were an endless puzzle or a murder to solve. His stare was ravenous and intent. He didn’t blink or fidget. This was nothing like the soft affection and sporadic moodiness of Sherlock’s heats. They had seemed transient, a normal ebb and flow. This was wild and vicious, and Sherlock’s restraint carved its message into his rigid knuckles and the straight line of his spine.

He looked hungry, lethal, beautiful and dangerous, and maybe John couldn’t smell him, but he still had eyes. He could still see everything he wanted standing in front of him, powerful and stunning, and his body responded. An erection at gunpoint was beyond inappropriate, and he shifted his weight, praying Sherlock wouldn’t notice as he struggled to remember the question. ‘What?’

‘Why. Are. You. Here?’

‘I’m here to help.’

A snarl twitched Sherlock’s lips, and he strode forward. John’s breath left him in a “whuff” of surprise as he retreated, his back colliding with the wall. ‘Help?’ he demanded. ‘And how exactly do you intend to do that? Or is it the chance you’ve been waiting for? Did you come here expecting to find me writhing in bed, begging for a knot? Is that how you plan to “help”?’

John shook his head, the bricks bruising his shoulder-blades as he flattened himself against them, but there was nowhere to go. The gun was pointing at the floor, Sherlock’s right arm lax at his side as his left hand clenched into a fist. He loomed over John, teeth bared, their noses almost touching as he filled John’s world from one edge to the other.

‘No,’ he croaked, licking his lips and trying again. ‘No, God no. I’ve taken inhibitors. Even if I wanted to knot you, I couldn’t. Can’t –’ He paused, drawing in a shuddering breath. ‘Can’t you smell it?’

He hoped to appeal to Sherlock’s rational mind, to point out that there was information he was failing to parse and neutralise the turbulent passion of his anger. It worked, to some extent, but not in the way he had intended.

Cool fingers gripped John’s jaw, pushing his chin up and to the side to expose his throat. The tip of that sharp nose dug into vulnerable flesh, and John choked as Sherlock inhaled: a long drag of air across his skin.

Sherlock’s response was immediate. That taut body melted against him, thrumming muscles falling slack, and John stifled a moan as the hard line of Sherlock’s erection pressed against his hip. His own had to be equally obvious, and Sherlock rubbed against him like a cat, his spine forming a sinuous, rolling arch.

‘Christ,’ John whispered, jerking at the hot flash of Sherlock’s tongue against his pulse. He should do something, push him away or at the very least wrest the gun from his loose grip. Just because John wasn’t under the influence of any abnormal hormones – was turned on by Sherlock himself, rather than any product of his gender – that didn’t mean Sherlock was free of the same issues.

Part of his mind whispered that Sherlock was not as irrational as he had imagined. He was not the begging, desperate creature John had guiltily envisaged in his fantasies, but that still didn’t make this informed consent, no matter how much he wished otherwise.

Before he could do anything, Sherlock growled, pressing the palm of his left hand to the wall above John’s head and shoving himself away. ‘My brother is a fucking idiot,’ he hissed as he dragged shaking fingers across his forehead, his body swaying near again before he yanked himself back. ‘Pentrapenzone. As if the only possible threat in this scenario is you.’

Slowly, John started to relax. A second later, he jolted in surprise when Sherlock’s head snapped up, the Sig rising to lock him in its sights. ‘Keep your hands where I can see them.’

‘What do you think I’m going to do?’ he asked, hurt resonating in his voice. Sherlock had little reason to trust any Alpha, but he knew John was neutralised. Was he unable to make the connection between Pentrapenzone and what it would do, or was there another angle John couldn’t see?

‘It’s not you I’m worried about,’ Sherlock muttered, a sneer twisting his features. ‘Your nature is inhibited; mine is not, and you still smell like you.’ His voice rumbled over that last word, and John licked his lips as Sherlock continued, ‘You protected yourself from being drawn under by my scent, but did either you or Mycroft do me the same courtesy? Did you really believe it couldn’t go both ways?’

John swallowed, ducking his head. They had focussed their efforts on freeing Sherlock from the grip of sexual need, but John had expected to find someone ailing beneath the strength of their desire, weak and lost to it. He had not imagined walking into the house and finding Sherlock like this: ragged but functional, feral but more predator than prey.

‘I’m sorry,’ he managed, clearing his throat. ‘I took a shower this morning. I didn’t realise I’d still carry any kind of scent that would make things worse for you.’

‘You rarely think.’ He stepped forward again, the Sig a terrifying chaperone, its aim wavering. ‘Your pulse and respiration are elevated, your pupils dilated, your skin flushed… None of that’s fear, John.’ For a moment, that tight mask fractured, revealing a glimpse of the desperate need beneath. ‘It should be. In the right circumstances, an Omega is just as dangerous as an Alpha – just as lacking in control. At least if you keep your hands raised, there’s no illusion of consent. I cannot pretend you’re anything other than at my mercy.’

John’s heart fluttered as heat bubbled in the pit of his stomach. If pushed, he could make an educated guess about what Sherlock meant by “the right circumstances”. Mutual attraction. Almost from the beginning it had been there, an ember waiting for its moment to burst into flame and burn them both. Did that make all the difference? Was Sherlock’s behaviour that of an Omega who not only acknowledged the Alpha in front of him, but actively desired them?

If he dropped his hands, would he find out?

Before hope had a chance to unfurl, his train of thought crashed to a halt, caught up on the one word that made everything so complicated. Omega. It didn’t matter if they were both standing here, wanting each other so much it hurt. Sherlock’s biology still clouded his judgement, and John had no way to know how much of the passion in his eyes was because of his pyresus. Would Sherlock still look at him like that once it had passed, or would it be cold indifference and disgust that filled his gaze?

No, it wasn’t just John’s hormones they had to remove from the equation. He saw that now. Mycroft had given him the O.D.X so that Sherlock could make decisions with a clear head, and for the first time John wondered if he had been talking about more than the Cunninghams. Had he also envisaged this as a potential scenario? Had he known how important it may be to both Sherlock and John to be free of their instincts, if only for a short while? After all, there was no way anyone could believe a decision made for Sherlock wouldn’t affect John as well, not when their lives had become so undeniably entwined.

‘You wanted to know how I could help?’ he said, wetting his lips and watching Sherlock’s eyes narrow. ‘Your brother gave me something that could give you back your control.’ He slipped his left hand down to his pocket, pulling the vial free and holding it up to the meek light.

Sherlock frowned at the offering, his head tilted and his gaze intent. The gun hung from his hand, and John reached out, easing it from his unresisting grip. He thought he’d snap back out of reach, the Sig raised once more, but he let it go easily, and it took only a second for John to realise why.

‘This isn’t loaded.’ He stared at the void where a clip should be, disbelieving.

‘No. One of Mycroft’s ridiculous minions confiscated the ammunition in case I decided to use it on myself,’ Sherlock murmured, taking the serum and tipping the glass tube. He watched the liquid flow, analysing its viscosity as if he could guess the contents from sight alone. ‘Probably just as well. I might have shot you by accident.’

‘And if I’d gone for you?’ John asked. ‘What then?’

‘It makes a serviceable club, if necessary.’ Sherlock shook his head, dismissing John’s query as he prowled back into his personal space, the O.D.X held between his thumb and forefinger as if he thought it might explode. ‘What is this?’

‘Hard to get hold of; be careful.’ John tucked the Sig into the band of his jeans out of habit before stepping back towards his bag, aware of the prickle of Sherlock’s gaze raking across his body. Giving him the glass tube had offered him something else on which to focus, but John wasn’t fooled. The potential for danger in Sherlock had very little to do with the gun he’d retrieved. It was coiled in his muscles and hot in his bones. The tangent of the drug tamed it for now, but there was still a sense of an approaching flashpoint, untouched, but still world-changing.

Retrieving the documentation, he held it out, watching Sherlock stare at the papers as if they were a snake about to strike. ‘I don’t want to decode my brother’s drivel. Can’t you explain it? You wouldn’t give it to me if you didn’t know what it did.’

With a sigh, John scooped up his bag, erring on the side of caution and giving Sherlock a wide berth as he headed off to the left into what turned out to be a living room. The heavy drapes were closed and the plump sofas formed hulking silhouettes in the gloom. He dropped his duffel and the folder in one of the armchairs and made his way to the windows, letting in the daylight before taking in the man who hovered in the doorway.

Sherlock leant against the wall, too busy staring at the small bottle in his grasp to notice John’s scrutiny. Now, in better light, it was easier to see the strain leaving its marks across Sherlock’s body. Even like this, he remained tense: prepared to pounce or bolt, though John wasn’t sure which. His eyes were lined and his brow drawn down into a frown of concentration, but his fingers shook as they swept the glass as if looking for clues etched in its surface.

‘It’s called O.D.X. It temporarily resets your cycle to a neutral state. It should restore your physical and mental balance to how it was before the bond broke.’

‘Should?’ Sherlock repeated, raising an eyebrow and meeting John’s gaze.

He sighed, pursing his lips before he admitted, ‘It’s untested on humans. There’s no way to tell how effective it will be in an Omega system.’ With a shake of his head, he picked up the file again and thrust it in Sherlock’s direction. ‘Look, Mycroft said it was based on a hypothesis you developed ages ago. Most of this will mean more to you than it did to me. Just read it.’ He wiggled the dossier expectantly, watching as Sherlock glared at him from where he stood.

Eventually, he strode forward, tugging it from John’s grasp only to dart back to the edge of the room, his nose buried in the pages. The vial remained curled in the cradle of his palm like a gem, and after a few minutes, he slid down the wall against which he leant, seating himself on the floor as the report devoured his attention.

John perched in one of the armchairs, analysing symptoms even as he admired the sight of Sherlock so focussed. His behaviour was similar to when he had been in heat – unsurprising, since pyresus was the same hormonal event elevated to the next level. Pale fingers skimmed across Sherlock's skin, touching his jaw and the vee of exposed flesh at his collar. He fidgeted where he sat, his bare toes, incongruous in comparison to the trousers and shirt he wore, flexing against the wood floor.

Yet despite that nervous energy, he looked graceful, a creature of fluid movement and sensuality. Sherlock licked his lips, and John had to tear his eyes away, swallowing back the urge to close the distance. It didn't matter if Sherlock was wary of the threat John posed or remained concerned about the shattered remnants of his own self-control. He'd chosen to hover on the periphery of the room, and John wouldn't try and encroach. Not without an invitation.

Steady minutes passed before Sherlock set the folder aside, his hand resting on its covers. 'How do I know this isn't something different?' he asked, cocking his head in John's direction. 'I only have your word for it, and unless you tested it before you came here, you only have my brother's.'

John hesitated, frowning as he realised he hadn't questioned Mycroft's information. 'Why would he lie?' He rubbed his hands down his thighs before getting to his feet and folding his arms. 'What else could it be?'

'A sedative, something to neutralise me while I'm moved elsewhere. Poison. Something to make me compliant. A placebo. Anything is possible.' He shrugged, the movement an aggressive jerk of defiance. 'Perhaps my brother has ulterior motives. He's certainly taking his time dealing with the Cunninghams, and it's not like he has the best track record when it comes to my welfare.'

John put his fingers to his lips, struggling to find the angle that would throw light on Sherlock's fear. It almost sounded like paranoia, but he would hesitate to say Sherlock's concerns were unjustified. Not that Mycroft would do any of it. His guilt over leaving Sherlock in Alexander's care and the desire to make amends was genuine, but Sherlock was evaluating potential threats based upon years of poor treatment. Mycroft may not abuse him in such a manner, but John had no doubt Alexander would have, given the chance.

'Then why would he send me?' he asked, stepping around the armchair and crouching down so that they were on eye-level, still a good six paces apart. 'Unless you think I'm in on it? This scheme of his?'

He could see Sherlock turning over the possibility, and for one heart-stopping moment, John wondered if this was where it would all end. All those months of friendship and conviction they'd built in each other reduced to nothing in Sherlock's estimation.

'No.' He said it slowly, as if the taste of the word surprised him. 'No, you wouldn't do that to me, but Mycroft knows I trust you. He could use that. Trick you. It wouldn't be hard.'

A glimmer of pleasure bloomed in John's chest, pride at being the one in whom Sherlock put his faith. Even like this, jumping at shadows and seeing danger everywhere, he knew John was on his side. Unfortunately, Sherlock didn’t think Mycroft was as deserving, and there was nothing John could do to ease his mind. All he had was his gut instinct and the knowledge of Mycroft's tired desperation.

'If you can't depend on your brother, can you at least believe in my judgement of him?' he asked. 'You didn't see him this morning, Sherlock. He's throwing everything he's got at the Cunninghams, even when they block him with injunctions. He's doing what he can, including handing over the serum. He knows you, and he knows that whatever decision you make, it needs to be unimpeded by your biochemistry.'

He shifted his weight, sitting on the floor to ease the ache in his knees. 'He didn't send me because he thought I'd convince you. I'm here in a medical capacity. If he could have you in hospital while giving you this, he would, but he can't risk exposing the existence of O.D.X. Apparently, I'm the next best thing.'

'Emotionally invested,' Sherlock murmured, his voice so quiet it was almost as if he were speaking to himself. He ran his fingers along the tight seams of the polished floorboards, his gaze unfocused and his lips parted before he snapped back into himself, looking at John from beneath his lashes. 'Both of you. He should be ashamed of himself.' There was a hint of shadowed humour in those words, and John smiled weakly. 'The side-effects...'

'Are unknown. They've done basic toxicity testing, but we have no idea what the drug might do to you.' John licked his lips and shook his head. This felt more like a shot in the dark than a pharmaceutical treatment, as likely to do Sherlock harm as anything else. 'You don't have to take it.'

Sherlock raised his eyebrows, the look he cast in John's direction soft and hopeless. 'Yes, I do. Mycroft's right. Should I come to regret whatever I decide, I would blame what was happening to me at the time for the eventual outcome. He knows that's why I've stalled for so long; I haven't been sure of my mind since Alexander's death.' He unfurled his hand, looking at the slim vessel caught in the curve of flesh before holding it out to John. 'I'm assuming you know the dosage?'

Slowly, he reached across the distance, his fingertips brushing Sherlock's palm as he reclaimed the O.D.X., eyeing it doubtfully before getting to his feet and moving back towards his bag. 'This is it. One intramuscular injection. In theory it will last about three days.'

'And the pyresus following it will be more intense.' Sherlock sighed, his head hitting the wall behind him with a soft thud. 'Wonderful.'

John dug out the green first-aid bag he'd seen in his duffel, exploring syringes and a small, expensive-looking device that would monitor Sherlock's vital signs. There was also a stethoscope, thermometer and other basics, as well as the alarm button that Mycroft had said would bring his medical team running. John turned the sleek, flat disk over in his hands before setting it aside, praying it wouldn't be necessary.

'Is it bad?' he asked, looking up at Sherlock as he tried to establish a baseline observation of his well-being. He needed to know what he should consider a normal symptom for Sherlock's pyresus, rather than a potential side-effect.

Sherlock huffed as John approached, holding out his hand so the clip of the pulse monitor could go over his thumb. 'It's not in full swing, yet.' He licked his lips, watching John's fingers against his wrist as if he couldn't tear his eyes away. His jaw moved, chewing over his words. When he spoke again, he sounded weary. 'This is just the start of it, and it's already fucking hateful.'

John looked up from the readings on the monitor in his palm, making a mental note of the elevated heart rate. It was rare that Sherlock's frustration reached a point where he fell back on cursing, but if ever there was a time for it, it was now.

He itched to soothe him, to stroke hands through dark curls and across pale skin, but he didn't dare. The line between the platonic and sexual had vanished. If he started touching Sherlock now with anything more than a clinical mind, John wasn't convinced he could stop. It highlighted how lost he'd be if he hadn't taken the inhibitors. At least now he could think, and with any luck, in the next hour or so, that same rationality would be back within Sherlock's reach once more.

'I'm going to need you to take off your shirt.' He shrugged when Sherlock looked askance in his direction. 'Look, it's that or your trousers. As it is, if you don't have enough mass on your deltoid, it'll have to go into your glute.'

'Why not do it intravenously?' Sherlock demanded. 'It'll act in a matter of seconds.'

'And the side-effects will hit just as quickly. It's a compromise. If I inject it into a muscle, it will start to take effect in roughly thirty minutes, and we should get time to react to any serious issues that the drug might cause.' John readied the syringe, keeping his back turned and listening to the whisper of Sherlock’s feet padding across the floor. When he turned around, it was to find him sat on the arm of one of the chairs, bare-chested. His shirt was a crumpled twist of cotton in one hand, and he gripped the pulse monitor in the other.

The numbers increased by the tiniest of increments: anxiety, probably, and John ignored them as he reached out, hesitating an inch or so from Sherlock's skin. 'May I?'

Sherlock's nod was quick and determined, and the flesh beneath John's fingertips felt hot to the touch as he located the injection site. The procedure required little thought, and within a few seconds it was done. He withdrew the empty syringe and disposed of it in the sharp box Mycroft had provided, keeping one eye on Sherlock at all times. 'If you start to feel anything strange: trouble breathing, problems with your heart, anything like that, for God's sake tell me.'

'An extreme reaction is unlikely,' Sherlock pointed out, his eyes fixed on the fluorescent digits of his pulse as they twitched up and down: normal variations in his cardiac rate. 'The carrier fluid is benign, reducing the chance of anaphylaxis or allergic response, and the chemicals are hormonal analogues. The most likely detriment would come from long-term use, not a single dose.'

'Yeah, well, I don’t want to take any chances.'

He grabbed his stethoscope, warming it on his palm before pressing it over Sherlock's heart, checking for any irregularities in rhythm or constriction of his airways. His chest remained clear and his heartbeat firm, fast but strong, and John reached for a torch, shining a narrow beam in one eye, then the other, watching Sherlock's pupils constrict and his eyelids crease against the urge to blink or look away.

'Satisfied?' he asked, raising an eyebrow as John grimaced.

'That you're not about to drop dead? Sort of. Ask me again in half an hour. Just because you've not had an immediate response doesn't mean you're out of the woods.' He set his equipment aside. 'Can you bend forward for me? I need to check your bite. God knows what flooding your system with this drug will do to it.'

'That shouldn't be an issue.' Sherlock shrugged, his hand drifting up to the back of his neck and pressing at the skin, hidden beneath the twist of his curls. 'It's gone.'

John paused, his head cocked. 'Gone?' he repeated stupidly. 'You mean the scab's fallen off? I still need to check it, Sherlock. It's a healing wound.'

Sherlock’s lips parted as he blew out a stream of air, his gaze flicking towards the door as if he were considering making a run for it. Yet he didn’t leap to his feet and dart away. Instead he watched John as if weighing his worth. His expression was completely unreadable: a morass of conflicting information John couldn’t pick apart, from a deepening flush on his cheekbones to the flutter of his pulse.

After what felt like hours, Sherlock’s shoulders relaxed, his inhale swelling his chest as he drew a shuddering breath. Inch by inch, he bowed his head, one hand reaching back to sweep aside the curls so that John could see the skin that lay beneath.

He stared at the blank canvas that Sherlock revealed. There were no pits or divots, no raw redness or shiny scarring. It was as if teeth had never sunk into his nape, marking him as the property of another.

Unable to believe his eyes, John stopped at Sherlock's side, running his fingers over the unmarked plane as he tried to find any hint of Alexander's savagery. Yet Sherlock’s neck was silk smooth, warm and yielding to the touch.

Sherlock shivered, leaning his weight against him, his shoulder pressed to John's chest. Of their own accord, John’s fingers curved around the strong column of his spine, and his mouth watered as Sherlock arched his back, pushing his neck into the bowl of John’s palm.

One bite, and Sherlock would be his.

The thought speared through his mind, and John gasped, snatching his hands away and taking a deliberate step back. He wanted to. It didn't matter that the inhibitors were doing their job, he was still tempted to press his lips to hot skin and follow with a sharp flash of teeth.

It would work; he'd read enough about bonds to know that. They formed more quickly if the bite happened during pyresus and rut, when hormones were in full flow. It was also more likely to occur at the most intimate moments, when inhibitions were at their lowest, but it wasn't essential. He could look after Sherlock, be everything he needed – keep him satisfied, whole and, above all else, happy.

His heart squeezed, and he turned his back, staring out of the window with a hand over his mouth like a muzzle. Christ, this was harder than he’d thought. Foolishly, he'd assumed the Pentrapenzone would remove every sexual drive, but it only influenced those specific to the Alpha's rut, limiting Sherlock's pheromonal influence and John's responses. It didn't stop him thinking about what he could do, or put a lid on the basic, human desire he'd known all his life. It gave him the clarity he needed to exercise restraint, but it didn't make it easy.

'You amaze me.' Sherlock's voice was closer than he expected, and John turned to find him a little less than an arm's length away. He'd put his shirt back on, but the buttons remained undone, white cotton framing a narrow band of pale chest and a flat stomach. 'Inhibitors don't restrain the mind, and bites aren't just about instinct. Any Alpha of the elite, in rut or not, would have tried to stake their claim.'

'You're not property,' John croaked, dropping his hand to his side. Guiltily, he recalled his own desires only a minute before, speaking as much for his own benefit as Sherlock's. 'You can't claim people.' He ducked his head, speaking to the floor. ‘And you’re in no state to give yourself to anyone.’

‘Not yet.’

The reply was so quiet John wondered if he’d imagined it. He made an aborted noise in his throat, butterflies shimmering in his stomach as Sherlock met his gaze, but what could he say? Sherlock would never give him a straight explanation. Even now, scattered apart by his body’s cycle, he spoke in riddles and vague allusions.

A moment later, Sherlock turned away, settling back on the chair arm and watching the pulse monitor, leaving John to fidget where he stood. He prowled over lush rugs and bare floorboards, his mind skipping back over the last few minutes and getting caught in tangle of confusion.

‘You thought I might bite you, didn’t you?’ he demanded. ‘You said it yourself. Any Alpha of the elite would have tried. So why did you show it to me rather than explain why you couldn’t? Why take that risk?’

That’s what it came back to, not just now, but over the entire course of their acquaintance. John had seen Sherlock as a flatmate and friend long before he’d known he was an Omega, but Sherlock had been under no such illusions.

‘Because I hoped it wouldn’t be a risk at all.’ Sherlock stared at the screen in his grasp, one shoulder lifting in a shrug. ‘I wanted to believe you’d retreat.’

‘Are you –?’ John licked his lips, folding his arms. ‘Are you testing me? Trying to work out how far you can push me before I break?’

That got Sherlock’s attention. He looked up, his gaze skimming to the side as he considered John’s question. ‘Not intentionally.’ He pressed his fingers to his forehead, his eyes darting back and forth as if he were reading lines from a book. ‘I want to trust you, but every instinct tells me to do so would be a disaster.’ His voice thinned, becoming hazy at its edges, sharp consonants starting to slur. ‘They’re wrong. The instincts. You wouldn’t hurt me?’

He probably didn’t intend that last part as a question, but it came out like one, hesitant rather than sure. John swallowed hard, his chest hollowed out and hurting at the knowledge of why Sherlock would ever need to ask. ‘No,’ he whispered. ‘Of course not.’

An owlish blink was his only answer before Sherlock lifted his other hand to join the first, pressing at his temples. In one pace, John was at his side, cradling his jaw as he watched Sherlock’s eyes flutter closed before he opened them wide.

‘What’s wrong?’ he demanded, his veins tight with adrenaline. ‘Sherlock?’

‘Nothing. Just – just tired.’

John acted quickly, checking for any signs that could indicate a serious issue. It was not a rapid loss of consciousness, nor was he having any difficulty in his vital signs. Instead, it looked similar to when the bite had first bled: a deep, inexorable lethargy. 'The O.D.X might be making you drowsy. We should get you lying down. Bedroom?'

Sherlock made a vague, upward motion, and it was up to John to steer him towards the stairs, his bag in one hand and his arm around Sherlock’s waist to steady his wobbling steps. They stumbled together along the corridor, John checking various doors until he found the room where Sherlock had abandoned his few possessions.

It was a large, airy space nestled up under the eaves. The ceiling sloped in several directions, wooden beams holding up the roof above a truly palatial four-poster bed. It was the kind of thing hotels would charge a month's wages just to sleep in for one night, but if Sherlock noticed John casting dubious glances at the furniture then he didn't say a word as he slumped onto the mattress.

'Hey, don't doze off yet,' John said, nudging Sherlock's shoulder. 'Do you feel anything other than tired? Feverish? Sick?'

'No. 'm fine.' Sherlock waved the pulse monitor in John's direction, and he took the box, checking the digits and finding some reassurance in Sherlock's rock-steady heart rate. Surely if the drowsiness were anything ominous, there would be some sign of it?

He clenched his teeth, hating that it was up to him – a doctor with little experience in Omega healthcare and no background awareness of the drug's potency – to make these decisions. As far as he could tell, it was a normal and benign side-effect, but how could he be sure? Maybe he should retrieve the file from where Sherlock had left it downstairs, just to double check.

'Where are you going?' Sherlock managed to open his eyes halfway, splaying one hand out beside him as if to push himself upright. 'Stay?'

If he'd made it an order, demanding as usual, John would have shrugged it off with promises of a prompt return, but Sherlock sounded hopeful, his voice deep and soft as he blinked at John from where he lay on top of the sheets. In any other situation, his rumpled appearance could have been tempting, but the fog in his gaze was enough to dampen John’s appreciation, tempering it with affection.

‘Come on.’ He tugged at the quilt, pulling it out from under Sherlock’s body. ‘You might as well get in properly. Lie on your side. That way we can keep the pulse monitor attached without too much trouble.’

He waited for Sherlock to settle, his hair sinuous against the bright white of the pillows and his lashes drifting shut once more as John pulled the sheets up over his sharp shoulders, tucking him in. Sherlock’s quiet hum was almost a purr, and John smiled to himself, raising an eyebrow when Sherlock spoke again.

‘It wouldn’t be so bad.’

‘What wouldn’t?’ he asked, waiting as the silence dragged on. He nearly believed Sherlock had fallen asleep, but at last there was a reply, heavy with exhaustion and right on the edge of slumber, where the logical mind held no sway.

‘Breaking.’

John blinked, his tongue clumsy around unspoken words as he tried to work out what to say. Not that his answer mattered. Sherlock wasn't awake to hear it.

He rested one hand on Sherlock’s shoulder, stroking down the length of his arm before beating a strategic retreat, his mind racing. What had he been getting at? Was it John he wanted to break, to give into his instincts, or Sherlock himself? Did he mean both of them, lost in need?

It was possible. Like this, teetering on the brink of pyresus, he wanted John. Sherlock said he was testing himself, but John doubted that was the end of it. Maybe some small part of him hoped John would react and bite him regardless of consent. At least that was something Sherlock understood, known territory and behaviour.

Except that was not what John wanted: himself in Alexander's role. He did not want to overrule Sherlock’s agency for his own gain, even by accident. Alexander had acted based on social expectation and biology. If challenged, he would say he had done nothing wrong. John, on the other hand...

He let out a sigh, bracing his hands on his hips and shaking his head. He knew better, and he had no pale shadow of an excuse. His Alpha instincts were neutralised by the inhibitors. Whatever remained was him alone, his fundamental hopes and desires, and if he couldn't control those, then what good was he?

No, they needed to talk about this. Not ragged half-promises made in times of stress or quiet murmurs underscored by the heat of need. If they were going to do anything to move their relationship beyond its current position in the strange border between friends and lovers, then it had to be by mutual decision.

There was no way to be entirely free of the pressures their respective genders brought to the damned situation, but here, in a sanctuary of Mycroft's making, they could at least figure out what to do. It was a rare opportunity, with no case or crisis to interrupt. There was just the two of them and a choice to be made. All he had to do was wait for Sherlock to wake up.

Assuming he did so.

Biting his lip, John took in his profile, utterly relaxed. Sherlock's body was a boneless sprawl, and he took advantage of the moment. Turning to the pulse monitor, he pressed a couple of buttons so it would release a shrill alarm if anything took a dramatic change before heading towards the door.

Trotting downstairs, John grabbed the file, rifling through its pages as he hurried back to Sherlock’s side. After less than a minute, he found the sparse information that highlighted possible side-effects. Drowsiness was included, with the drug’s creators theorising that it would wear off in a few hours, leaving the recipient alert and rational.

They’d targeted the issue as an area for improvement, should O.D.X ever become publically available, and John frowned in consideration. He’d not given it much thought on his first read-through, too intent on what it might mean for Sherlock, rather than the populace as a whole, but now he looked closely, he could see hints throughout the report that this was more than a preliminary phase. It didn’t just look like Mycroft doing all he could to consider Sherlock’s welfare. There were shadows of something more.

John didn’t know why he was surprised; Mycroft had fingers in all sorts of pies. God, maybe it wasn’t just secluded labs that would suffer if O.D.X came to light. Mycroft was careful, of that John was sure, but how much did he stand to lose if the serum currently spreading through Sherlock’s body were discovered? His job? His rank? His power?

Where would that leave Sherlock?

Licking his lips, John shut the file, sitting heavily in an armchair near the bedside. He tucked the dossier out of harm’s way, hiding it in the shadows. Now more than ever, he could appreciate Mycroft’s desire for secrecy. They were all taking risks of one sort or another.

Closing his eyes, John let out a shuddering breath. The mere hours that had passed since he’d awoken this morning, panting and desperate, felt like days. Anxiety sat in his stomach, a cold stone, and not even the welcome balm of a cup of tea held any appeal. Not if it meant leaving Sherlock’s side to get it. Hunger was absent, despite his lack of food, and the small, petty needs of his body had fallen silent beneath the weight of his concern.

Time slipped by, lost to the glutinous flow of John's thoughts. More than once he got to his feet, ignoring the protests of aching muscles as he checked Sherlock was all right, but as two hours turned into three, his eyes grew heavy. He caught himself nodding in the chair more than once, his head lolling forward only to snap upright as he jerked himself awake.

Eventually, even the discomfort was not enough to pull him back from oblivion, and the next thing John knew, late afternoon sunlight was splashing across his face, warming his skin and guiding his return to the waking world.

His neck and back protested, but the pain went ignored as he stared in horror at the empty bed. A dent marred the pillow where Sherlock had rested his head, and the pulse monitor sat on the bedside table, its digits dimmed. God, had he gone again, haring off somewhere unknown while John dozed? What if he got ill? What if the drugs didn't work? Why the bloody hell had John let himself fall asleep?

Staggering to his feet, he barely noticed the rush of the blanket that had been placed over him fall to the floor. The abrupt change in position made him dizzy, but a wavering second was all he allowed himself before he strode across the room, preparing to search the rest of the house or, failing that, raise the alarm with Mycroft's men.

He had already gripped the handle when a soft breeze washed over him, making him pause. Looking over his shoulder, he saw white curtains billow around the balcony doors. He hadn't noticed them when he came in – too focused on Sherlock to observe – but now the open doorway was an obvious invitation, and John brushed the fabric aside to take in the sight beyond its veils.

It was a small outdoor space of worn stone, overlooking the front of the house and the view of the land beyond, but John paid no mind to that. Instead it was Sherlock who caught his attention. He sat in one of two cushioned chairs, one leg pulled up to his chest while the other hung down, his bare toes pressed to the floor of the balcony as the wind ruffled his hair.

The moment he stepped through the doorway, Sherlock turned towards him, and John snatched in a quiet breath. It was like flipping a coin. One flash of dazzling silver, and the man whom John had met that day at Bart’s was back, razor-sharp and present, his scattered focus drawn down to a rapier point that sliced John to the core, seeing everything.

A faint smile lit Sherlock’s face, and he gestured to a nearby table and the tray that crowned its peak. ‘Eat. There’s plenty to spare. The fridge is full; Mycroft rarely skimps on food.'

John had no trouble believing that. There was enough fruit and fresh bread rolls on the plates to feed a family, and he grabbed an apple. The first bite awakened his hunger, and in a few minutes only the core remained. He looked over everything else with a practiced eye, seeing it for what it was. Nutritious food that required little in the way of preparation. It was the kind of meal you gave invalids on the road to recovery – morsels that were easy to eat in bed – loaded with sugars and carbohydrates without being junk.

Picking up a bread roll, he broke it in half, pushing a piece into Sherlock's hand. 'Eat,' he urged, leaning back on the stone railing around the balcony's edge, 'and tell me how you're feeling. Still tired?'

Sherlock shook his head, consuming the snack with a moderate amount of enthusiasm. He certainly looked better. No longer was he a man walking the high-wire of some invisible conflict. The shimmering tension in his body had vanished, leaving stable strength. Previously, there had been a growing air of the unpredictable about him. Now, he looked determined, and John couldn't help but hope that the O.D.X had done just as Mycroft promised.

Still, hormonal therapies were tricky, their potential effects far reaching. They could destabilise mood and curtail appetite, reduce or enhance sexual drive and aggression and disrupt the even-keel of a body's natural rhythm, and that was just in a Beta. Omegas, with their infinitely more complex and undocumented physiology, might rely more on the balance of various blood chemicals for numerous functions. Just because Sherlock looked well didn’t mean he was all right.

'I woke up shaking, but it subsided within a few minutes. Other than that, I feel much like I did before Alexander's death.' Sherlock raised an eyebrow. 'Perhaps Mycroft's peons have done something right, for once.'

John hummed, finishing the bread before brushing crumbs from his fingers. 'Can I check you over? Just to make sure?'

'As long as you can do it here, then yes.' At John's questioning look, he shrugged. 'I'd rather stay outside for a while longer.'

Something about the way Sherlock said it made it sound like there was more of a story to the simple request, but he didn’t explain. He just watched John with a faint frown, waiting for a response. 'Fair enough. I'll go get my kit.' He shivered as the cool air wormed its way through his jumper, yet Sherlock, still in his shirt with the buttons now fastened, seemed unaffected. ‘Just don’t get cold, all right?’

Slipping inside, he collected together the equipment from his bag before heading back to the balcony and going through the basics. 'How do you feel in yourself, compared to when I arrived? Does it seem to be working?'

'Has pyresus stopped, you mean?' Sherlock nodded, closing his eyes in a brief flash of relief. 'Apparently so. The world's no longer overwhelming. I can think.' That last part was said like a blessing, hushed and grateful. 'Before, it was difficult to be rational. To remember why any of it mattered. The effort was immense, and my mental process was abrupt. Linear. Fragmented.'

'And now? I want to check you're all right, but also –'

'I'm the first test subject for the drug,' Sherlock interrupted, a small smile curving his lips. 'A guinea pig.'

'Only you could be happy about that.' John slipped the thermometer into Sherlock's ear, reading the output a few seconds later with a nod of satisfaction before replacing the clip on Sherlock’s thumb and waiting for the monitor to give its verdict. ‘It’d be useful to record any readings or anecdotal evidence, just in case it can be of use. So, can you tell me how it’s working?’

'It's not perfect,' he replied. 'I've got abdominal cramps, one or two hot flashes, and emotionally...' He trailed off, pursing his lips in familiar distaste at the discussion of sentiment. 'That could be influenced by my current situation as opposed to anything else, so I'm unsure of the relevance.'

'Tell me anyway? Just in case.' John looked at Sherlock. 'You seem fine, but the number of female Beta patients I've had come to me with emotional side-effects from using the contraceptive pill is ridiculous. Something similar could be happening to you.'

Sherlock sighed, looking away and speaking to the horizon. 'It's just anxiety.'

'Anything else?' John feigned interest in double-checking his measurements. His vital signs were strong and well within normal range, but perhaps Sherlock would find it easier to speak if John could convince him his concern was purely medical.

He waited, his fingers resting over Sherlock’s radial pulse. He didn’t need it, not with the electronics still reading out the metrics of Sherlock’s existence, but it was a chaste fraction of contact: one which John craved and Sherlock did not reject.

'Dreading. Doubtful.' His shoulders hunched; he couldn't have looked more uncomfortable if he tried. 'Not just of my situation but of myself.'

John turned, putting away his kit. Sherlock’s body was still too thin and too pale, but that was unlikely to improve until his existence recovered some stability. It was possible the O.D.X. exacerbated an already troubled mental state, honing the emotions Sherlock had described. However, it was impossible to tell in such an uncontrolled environment. There were too many external factors to draw a definitive conclusion.

In the end, he was less concerned about the drug than he was about Sherlock’s welfare. There was nothing physically wrong that a few square meals and less stress wouldn’t fix. Instead, it was his emotional well-being that required attention, and John squared his shoulders, sitting in the chair at Sherlock’s side as he began to speak.

'All the documentation says the effects should last roughly three days. As far as the Cunninghams are concerned, your brother's bought you plenty of time, if we're lucky. Something to do with injunctions and counter legal documents…’ John spread his hands. ‘It means that whatever you choose to do, we've got time to set it in motion – to get things done before they can even try and take you away.'

Sherlock reached out, picking up a white card from where it rested by the tray of food. He stared at it, turning it over in his grasp, and John craned his neck in an attempt to see what he was considering with such serious concentration.

A blue curve of ink stained its face, and he recognised Mike Stamford's scrawl. Memory jostled, and he drew in a breath as he noticed the name on the front: Doctor Madison.

'I've been doing some research,' Sherlock began, chewing on his lip before slumping back in his chair. 'Stamford recommended her to you when my bite bled because he knew she wouldn't question my presence with an Alpha of the non-elite. Her concern would have been for my health, nothing else.’

He wrinkled his nose, staring at the faintly smudged ink. ‘She's not a recognised expert in her field, but I suspect that's because she has a reputation for respecting an Omega’s wishes, rather than bowing to the demands of Alphas. About a decade ago she was also conducting some pioneering studies into Omega contraceptives, but a court order shut down her experimentation. I'd be surprised if she's not one of the doctors behind O.D.X.'

John leant forward, propping his elbows on his knees as he slid the card from Sherlock's unresisting grasp. 'You're considering asking her for help – for surgery...' He trailed off, unable to continue.

'If I'm right, she's proven herself to be morally motivated. One of the few I could trust to enter into the operation with my best interests, rather than financial gain, at heart. You're the only other doctor I know who would fit that bill.'

There was a slant to Sherlock's words, a question curled up at the core of his statement, and John swallowed thickly as he realised what he was asking.

'No.' He held out a hand as he hastened to explain. 'I can’t. Even if I was trained in Omega medicine, I still wouldn’t be capable of that kind of surgery.' God, he could picture it all too easily, Sherlock quiet and still, his skin split apart as blood clouded the white of latex gloves: his life placed by choice in John's weathered palms. One wrong move and it would all be over, with no one to blame but himself.

His stomach rolled, and he cleared his throat, shaking his head. ‘I was an army doctor. Everything I've had to treat on an operating table has been a major trauma. Gun shots, amputations, that kind of thing.' It had been an age since he'd felt his own failure so keenly, and John ignored a twinge in his thigh as he shook his head. ‘Even if there was a tested procedure – something I could study and learn for your benefit – they discharged me for a reason. Surgeons need steady hands.’ His shoulders sagged. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know. I just…’ Sherlock’s voice trailed off to nothing as a frail silence fell. John clenched his left fist on his knee, wishing his answer was different. He’d said he’d do anything to help, but that.... It would be a death sentence.

He looked at the number again, taking in the slant of the digits. He hadn’t even noticed that Sherlock had picked up the doctor’s details, but clearly it was something he’d given thought, and not just since waking up this afternoon. Had there been other moments, unseen by John, where Sherlock had walked the paths of his possibilities and decided this was the best way forward?

'Do you think she'll do it?' he asked, looking up to see Sherlock shrug.

'There's no way to be certain without contacting her directly, and in doing so, I'd put myself at risk of exposure. If the Cunninghams knew I was even considering it, I've no doubt they'd do whatever they could to ensure it wasn't possible.' He sighed, tipping his head back and looking up at the pale blue sky. 'There's no point in asking. Not until I'm sure. Finding a surgeon doesn't magically make every other risk disappear. It's still dangerous.'

John shifted, turning the chair so he was facing Sherlock. 'Tell me. I know you've probably said it all before, but I need you to explain it again.'

It was a lie. He knew most of what Sherlock feared and could imagine the rest. This was for Sherlock's benefit: laying out the facts. Either they’d be able to find a way around every problem, or they'd write off surgery as an option – another door closed. 'Let's say for now Doctor Madison will do it. She's got the skills, more so than me and Mike, anyway, and she's not after the money.'

'Equipment and an operating theatre wouldn’t be a challenge – as long as my brother is willing to cooperate. He has access to both. Assisting staff would also be possible to arrange. The main risk comes from the untested surgical procedure. Then there's the potential for long-term damage to my health.'

'Is that likely?' John asked, narrowing his eyes as he considered the possibility. Removal of the uterine structures in Betas had consequences, but most were easy to avoid with supplements or drugs. 'Do you know something I don't?'

Sherlock dipped his fingers into his pocket before pulling free his phone, sliding his touch over the screen and handing it to John. 'Stamford has access to a broad range of reports. I asked him to do some digging. None of it's certain, but...' He shrugged, gesturing for him to read.

Squinting, John skimmed through Mike’s message. It was suitably vague, but there was no way to deny the strength of his warning.

"There are a few studies from unbiased researchers that theorise serious, chronic consequences. It's unproven, but it makes sense, especially as the full function of the Omega reproductive system isn’t known. Best option is to find someone who's survived it: living witness and all that. - Mike"

'I couldn't locate any,' Sherlock muttered.

'Witnesses?'

'Survivors.'

John looked up sharply, feeling as pale as Sherlock looked. 'What?'

'I enlisted Anthea's assistance a few days ago and gained a list of Omegas who were known to be absent from their Alphas. I didn't explain why I wanted the information, and I doubt she cared to extrapolate a reason.' He dragged a hand through his hair. 'Most of the few that she discovered were impossible to confirm. There's no official record of the surgery, and without an investigation, there's no way to be sure what became of them.'

'But?' John asked, Sherlock's phone still cradled in his loose grasp. 'You must have found something.'

'There were four whom I recognised. Omegas I'd known by name, though not sight, who had both the determination and potential resources to go through wi